Tie Break by Bonnie

Tie Break
by Bonnie

Prologue
January 2002

“Have you told her yet?”

“Have I told who what?”

“Have you told her that you love her?”

“Mother, I …”

“Yes?”

“I don’t …”

“You are not going to tell me again you don’t love her, Anne! You are just too chicken to tell her!”

“Mom!”

“What?”

“You know she’s my best friend. Why should I scare her away? I don’t want to lose her and what we’ve got. I need a good friend.”

“Chicken,” Irene Patakis mumbled under her breath, making clucking noises just loud enough for her daughter to hear.

“I’m not!” Anne protested.

“Anne,” her mother said with a sigh, “you have been in love with Shana for almost fifteen years now. Fifteen! Don’t you think she deserves to know that about her best friend?”

Anne Patakis and her mother had been having this conversation quite regularly ever since the blue-eyed young woman had come home from a tennis camp in Florida almost fifteen years ago, unable to talk about anything but the new friend she had made there. 1987, that’s so long ago it’s almost unreal. But then, Anne had seemed happy. At least when she was talking about Shana. For that alone, Irene Patakis loved the blonde girl from Texas like a second daughter.

It didn’t take Irene too long to figure out that Anne was beginning to feel more than friendship for the blonde girl. She had hoped that Shana had the same feelings. She had also noticed that both girls were too insecure and shy to find out what they wanted or needed to complete them, so they both settled for a close friendship.

After several years, though, Anne had again withdrawn into herself when she was not with Shana. And even with Shana around she was much more reserved. It had worried Irene to no end – and it still did – that she was never able to pry the reason for Anne’s silence from her daughter. It was then that Irene swore she would do anything to make ‘her girls’ happy. And to her that meant getting them together, which proved to be harder than she thought. She had been working on that for years now, dropping hints, throwing clues and outright ordering Anne to tell Shana about her feelings, but to no avail.

At least, Irene thought, Anne has stopped denying that she’s in love with Shana. Now, how can I get things rolling? Ah…

“Anyway,” Irene interrupted the silence, “the little one’s coming tomorrow.”

“Shana’s coming here? Why didn’t she tell me?” an irritated Anne asked.

“She said she couldn’t reach you with all your running around for that charity tournament,” Irene explained. “She said she had something important to tell you.” And I hope it is what I think it is. Shana sounded so excited on the phone! And one of them has to come to her senses …

With that, Irene Patakis left the kitchen and her exasperated daughter, effectively ending the conversation.

Chapter 1
January 2002

Anne sat down heavily at the kitchen table thinking about the conversation with her mother. You’re right, Mom, I love her. How can I not? She’s the warmest and most gentle person I’ve ever met. And she’s so beautiful.

In the privacy of her own thoughts she could admit to things she would never say in front of her mother. I probably should have told Shana ages ago how I feel about her. But then again, I wanted to … once. When did it get too late to really do it? She looked out of the window into the slowly falling snow and, unable to answer that question, lost herself in her memories.

It was just another sunny day at the Florida tennis camp that she had been going to every summer since she was 12 years old. She was now 17 and on the verge of starting a career as a professional tennis player. Her coach had wanted her to play professionally for three years now, but Anne’s mother had insisted on a high school diploma.

Anne possessed a very agile mind and – a fact her coach had always loved about her – a strong sense for tactics and strategy. She loved using her formidable intelligence to outwit her opponents on the court almost as much as she loved to outwit her coach and teachers off the court. Now, finally, she was ready to conquer the world.

Anne was by far the best amateur player the camp coach had ever seen. At 6’2” she was taller than most of the other kids and she had a lean, muscular body due to her constant running around on the tennis court and a variety of other workouts. She was strong, she felt invincible, and she loved it.

On the first day of the second week, the coach asked her to meet a new girl that had just arrived at the camp. He introduced her to the most beautiful girl she had ever seen. She had never had the time to think about boys or girls, but this one definitely caught her eye. She was four or five inches shorter than Anne and had short blonde hair and green eyes.

“I’m Shana.” She smiled and offered Anne her hand in greeting, only to pull it right back after the first touch and the electrical charge that accompanied it.

“Sorry,” Anne said with a smile, “that happens a lot here. Welcome!”

Fifteen minutes later they found themselves on opposite sides of the tennis court under the watchful eyes of their coach. During their warm-up routine everything went well. Anne actually found herself enjoying the thought of being at least challenged by the skills she soon detected in her opponent. She never doubted she would win that match. The only question was how long it would take her.

“Do you want some games as a lead?” she asked Shana over the net. “I don’t want to humiliate you.”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” the blonde replied. “I’m sure I can manage, thank you.” She hesitated for a second. “Any famous last words?”

“How about ‘Hasta la vista’?” Anne said, waggling her eyebrows. “This is gonna be so much fun,” she added quietly with a grin.

It was the last grin Anne enjoyed that afternoon. Just before Anne served for the first time, Shana gave her a bright smile across the net that made her legs turn to jelly. The small blonde won the first set 6-1, while Anne concentrated on walking.

“Hey, Anne!” Shana called over the net after the first set. “Do you want some games as a lead? I don’t want to go on humiliating you.”

Anne growled. “Shut up and play. This isn’t over yet!”

“Okay,” came the reply with another brilliant smile.

This time Anne thought she was better prepared. She tried not to look at Shana and concentrated solely on the ball instead.

After a while she started talking to herself. “Come on, Patakis, what’s wrong with you? She’s only a slip of a girl that sticks to the ground line most of the time. Get going!” Soon, her mumbling began to take effect and she turned the match around. Anne won the next two sets 7-6 6-4.

Anne shook her head with a smile as she returned to the present. She stared out the window, her eyes chasing snowflakes across the yard. “Some things never change,” she said quietly to a stand of tall trees in the distance. “I’m the best tennis player in the world, and still I lose the first four games of every match against her.” She grinned slightly, thinking about what she called the ‘Shana factor’. “As long as I win most of the time, I guess that’s OK.”

The truth was that over the fifteen years of their rivalry on the tennis court they were evenly matched, with Anne having a small lead that she had gained during the middle years of her career. “The ‘killer years’, you used to call them,” she said aloud to an absent Shana. “You never mention them anymore. Well, some things are better left buried, I guess.” That was not a good time in my life.

*******************

The blonde head moved in time with the loud music that blared through the house from the stereo. Shana Wilson danced to the rhythm, totally ignoring the fact that she turned on the radio just to help her pack. Once the music had changed to an upbeat Latin number she couldn’t resist the urges her feet sent her. Packing meant thinking anyway, and Shana found herself thoroughly sick of thinking. How convenient, a small part of her mind nagged. Packing would lead to leaving, leaving would lead to Anne, and seeing Anne would lead to …

“Finding a way to tell her. Unnh.” She breathed out loud before the small attempt at logic was drowned again by the music coming from the other room.

Just then the station changed to a song that reminded her of her task again. It was a song she and Anne had played loudly and relentlessly for hours at the tennis camp that summer so many years ago. 1987. We were so young. Her mind drifted back to the past while her feet kept moving to the music.

After that first memorable match, she and Anne had become very good friends, much to the surprise of their coach. He later told Shana that the dark-haired girl was known as a loner, leaving her room only to play tennis or do some form of workout. Most of the other girls at camp avoided her. The coach had told her in all seriousness that before Shana arrived, he had never seen Anne smile, except for the occasional sneer when she won yet another match against yet another girl who wasn’t able to keep up with her.

Somehow he had expected the tall girl to sulk at being almost beaten by a newcomer to the camp. Instead, she seemed to really enjoy the blonde girl’s company. He decided to make them sparring partners for the duration of the camp, hoping they would both benefit from the other’s skills and their difference in playing styles. While Anne was merciless and impatient, rushing to the net at the first opportunity after her big serve, Shana preferred to play patiently from the ground line, making incredibly accurate passing shots along the lines. So different, and yet so well matched, the coach had later said with a bemused shake of his head. He had hoped that their strengths would rub off on each other, thereby diminishing their weaknesses.

Shana brought Anne out of her hermit-like existence with her lust for life and her tendency to come up with crazy ideas, often in the middle of the night. On one such night the blonde walked into Anne’s room at 3 a.m., dressed in her tennis clothes with her racket and some balls in her hands. She went over to the bed to wake Anne. Just as she reached out to shake the long body a sliver of moonlight fell through a gap in the curtain, bathing Anne’s face in a gentle, silvery light. Shana was mesmerized. For the first time she realized how beautiful her sparring partner was. The moonlight perfectly highlighted the high cheekbones and the strong jaw. With its symmetrical features and aquiline nose, Anne’s face looked like one of the statues of Roman goddesses Shana had seen at a museum in Europe some years ago.

She looked at the moon, trying to remember where the museum was and which goddess her friend reminded her of, but she couldn’t come up with an answer. When she looked at Anne again, she was met by a pair of blue eyes that looked almost silver in the moonlight.

Neither of them said anything, but their eyes held their connection unwaveringly. Shana fought the sudden need to touch the beautiful face before her, and she was completely confused as to why that seemed so important right now. She shook her head, trying to remember why she was there sitting on Anne’s bed in the first place. That broke the spell, and Shana noticed that her right hand was softly touching Anne’s shoulder, making slow circles with her fingertips. She suddenly was embarrassed, even though they had touched each other casually before. But not like this, her mind helpfully added. And certainly not when one of you was naked.

Anne’s body trembled slightly, and Shana realized that her tall friend’s hand was lying on her bare thigh, just above the knee. She heard Anne swallow audibly and felt her remove her hand. Shana couldn’t look at her friend and struggled to come up with an explanation for her presence and her behavior.

“Uhhmm.” She cleared her throat before she tried to speak. “I was wondering if you wanted to have a little night match?” Suddenly the idea sounded stupid even to her own ears.

Anne’s eyes widened a little. “What kind of match did you have in mind at …” she paused to check the alarm on her bedside table, “3.17 in the morning?” She gave Shana a confused look. Then she grinned slightly and added, “In my bed?”

The smaller girl blushed furiously and stuttered. “I didn’t … I mean I did … aargh.” She took a deep calming breath and tried again. “I felt like playing a set or two in the dark … but if you’re not up to it …” She left the rest of the sentence hanging, daring her competitive friend.

“One of your crazy little ideas, hmm? No problem, I’m up to it. Just let me get dressed.”

Shana blushed again. She practically jumped off the bed and ran towards the door. “I’ll be in my room,” she said before she left.

After closing her door, Shana leaned back against the wall and tried to calm her heart, which had been conjuring up interesting, but confusing images during the last couple of minutes. I didn’t know she slept naked. God, she’s beautiful. Is she that beautiful everywhere? Her skin is so soft. She didn’t know what she thought and felt, or why she thought it, and that confused her. She remembered her concentration routine and took some deep breaths, trying to empty her mind of all troubling thoughts.

She succeeded after a minute and was relatively calm by the time Anne knocked on her door.

“Are you coming or what?” came the low voice through the door.

And that voice when she’s just woken up, Shana’s mind peeped up a last time before she walked out for their match.

“That night should have told me something,” Shana mumbled, coming back to the present. She realized she had stopped dancing and was sitting on the bed, playing with a tennis ball that she kept on her bedside table. “But I didn’t have a clue,” she said to the ball.

She had found the ball in her room the day after that night match. She had noticed it because it was of a slightly different color than the rest of her balls. When she had picked it up to take a closer look, she found the contours of a small heart painted on its surface. “I just know that Anne put you in my room. Why didn’t I know it then?” The ball kept quiet, neither confirming nor denying its provenance.

Shana put the ball back to its resting place and resigned herself to do some packing.

*******************

Irene walked by the open kitchen door and saw her daughter watching snowflakes twirling in the afternoon sun. She watched Anne for a few moments, unnoticed, then walked on towards the laundry room at the end of the hall.

She was happy that her daughter was obviously feeling at home. She also enjoyed the fact that her daughter was actually talking to her about her life. At least sometimes, Irene chuckled, happy with the way things were.

That children had a close relationship to their parents was rare enough, but with their history … it was practically a miracle. If Irene had practiced the Catholic faith she was brought up in, she’d thank the Lord every day for her daughter and her apparent sanity. But she had given up on God and organized religion a long time ago.

Irene took a look around the laundry room, checking on the progress of the washing machines that were lined up neatly against one wall. It’s odd what people can be grateful for, Irene thought with a grin. She had always wanted to have a nice inn in the country, with guests she could care for. That had never been a possibility as long as Anne’s father was alive.

He was a fanatical tennis parent. His kids and the game were what was important to him. Nothing more, nothing less. He didn’t care that the rest of his family only went along for the ride. Anne was the only one who liked playing tennis every day of her life. It gave her an outlet for her frustrations, Irene now understood. What a shame that she didn’t count for you, George. The only thing you ever wanted was the next big Grand Slam winner. You wanted a champion, a new Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe, only better and with more success! And now? You’re dead, Peter is dead, and Anne is dead inside. Are you happy now, you bastard?

Chapter 2
January 2002

Anne sat down on the large sofa in front of the fireplace in the inn’s library. It wasn’t actually a library, but with its warm wooden walls and mahogany furniture the room had always given anyone who entered the feeling they should be surrounded by books. They weren’t. There were actually only very few books in this room, but among them were some of Anne’s most prized possessions. One was a signed first edition of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and the other was The Times Atlas 1900, a huge book that rested on a small table to the side of the leather sofa Anne was now making herself comfortable on.

The tall woman had always loved books, but these two held a very special place in her heart. She had gotten the atlas from her mother after winning her first Wimbledon championship. Orlando had been a present from Shana.

They had taken a trip to Canterbury on a bright and warm May afternoon, playing hooky from the tennis court. They were preparing for the upcoming tournament at Wimbledon and had rented a house together. Anne had shown Shana the Cathedral and Shana had delighted in all the small shops she had found. She had bought a truckload of stuff for friends and family at home, while Anne had walked along, teasing the younger woman about her buying habit.

“Shana, you have almost as much money as God,” Anne commented. “Why do you insist on haggling all the time?”

Shana just chuckled and shrugged. “It’s a habit, I guess.” She paused, thinking for a second. “On the other hand … no, I think it’s more a principle. It doesn’t matter how much money I have, I simply refuse to pay more for things than they’re worth.” She grinned at Anne, hoping that the older woman would understand that. Anne just smiled at her and nodded.

Around the next corner they came upon a small bookstore that obviously sold rare books. The tall woman stopped in front of the window and hesitated for a second. “Shana, would you mind if had a look at that shop?”

Shana just wondered what that was all about. She smiled inwardly. Well, well, Ms I-only-shop-when-I-have-to wants to check out a store. Outwardly she just grinned and replied, “Sure, why don’t you twist my arm some more?”

They both browsed for a while under the friendly eyes of the elderly shop owner, who had greeted them warmly. Suddenly Anne gasped, looking at an obviously well-loved book. Shana went over to her to take a closer look at what had caught her usually stoic friend’s attention. When Anne didn’t even look up from the book, Shana tried to sneak a peek at the title.

“Orlando,” she mumbled, having never heard of the book before.

“Yeah,” Anne agreed absent-mindedly without taking her eyes of the well-used volume. “My favorite.”

Seeing that she wouldn’t get another response from her tall friend, Shana ambled over to the shop owner. “Can you tell me something about that book … Orlando?”

The white-haired woman leaned closer so as not to disturb Anne. “I won’t tell you what it’s about, because you should read it for yourself. What I can tell you, though, is that this novel is one of the greatest declarations of love ever written. Virginia Woolf,” and here she paused to see if the blonde woman would recognize the name. Satisfied that Shana knew who she was talking about she continued. “Virginia Woolf wrote that book for her friend and probable lover Vita Sackville-West. It’s the story of Orlando, whose life touches many people and centuries, from the Elizabethan time to the 20th century.”

She smiled and lightly touched Shana’s arm. “Your girlfriend really loves the book. I can see it in the way she touches the pages so reverently.”

The Texan looked over to her friend. A slight pang of jealousy made itself known in her heart for just a split second. What …? This can’t be what it feels like. It’s just a book, girl. Get a grip! Shana shook her head, but her mind kept on dreaming. I just wonder what it would feel like to be touched by her like that. Stop! Don’t even go there! She’s your best friend, and that’s all, Shana admonished herself, but couldn’t fend off a slight bout of sadness that settled onto her mind at that thought.

Another touch on her arm stopped her thought process. The shop owner leaned into her and whispered. “Do you want to make your girlfriend a special present? One she’ll never forget?”

The blonde just looked at her and smiled. The old lady vanished somewhere into the heart of the little shop, returning shortly with a loosely wrapped packet. Without a word, she opened the book inside and turned the first page over for Shana to see. There, under the author’s name and the title Orlando was a small, but easily readable signature.

Shana breathed softly. “Is this what I think this is?” she asked quietly.

“A signed first edition of Orlando,” the older woman whispered. “A very rare book.”

“I’ll take it!” Shana said without the slightest hesitation.

“Good choice, ” the old woman beamed, “your girlfriend will love it. This book truly is a gift of love.”

The blonde nodded absently. Girlfriend, she keeps calling Anne my girlfriend. And now that. A gift of love? Is this what other people think when they see us together? Nah, I would have seen some evil comment in the tabloids if people thought we were … lovers. Shana pushed away her thoughts, albeit reluctantly. Something nibbled at the back of her mind, trying to find a way back up. She ignored it and paid for the book.

“Now the only problem I have,” she said to the shopkeeper, “is to get her out of here without that book she’s so fond of.”

“Leave that to me.”

The old lady walked over to the tall tennis star and cleared her throat. Several times. When Anne looked at her after a few seconds, she said, “It’s a wonderful book, isn’t it?”

Anne nodded, her fingers lightly caressing its spine and cover. “Yes,” she finally said. “I’d like to buy it.”

“Unfortunately, this book is already reserved for another customer of mine,” she lied. “I’m so sorry. Should I keep my eyes open for another one of those for you?”

Anne’s disappointed gaze went from the book to its present owner and back. “No,” she finally replied, “I’ll just have to come upon another one by chance again. Thank you.” She turned and walked to the door of the shop, where Shana was already waiting for her.

“I’m sorry.” Shana said.

“It’s OK,” the tall woman lied, “can we go home now?”

Later that night, Anne had found the signed first edition of her favorite book on her pillow. A card was put between the pages. It read:

I had to get you this book, you seemed to love it so.
I hope it brings you as much joy as I had buying it for you.

Love, Shana

Anne picked up the book from its place and had another look at the first page. She sighed. She’s such a beautiful soul and such a good friend. Why can’t that be enough for me? I want so much more from her than just friendship. Oh, Shana, why can’t you love me?

*******************

Shana picked up the telephone and dialed the number from memory. She settled herself among her still not completely packed bags and waited for someone to answer.

“Hello,” the deep melodic voice finally came through the receiver.

“Hi, Mom.” Shana smiled into the phone. “How are you?”

“Sweetie.” Irene Patakis beamed on the other end, her broad smile easily audible in her voice. “I didn’t expect your call. Should I get Anne for you?”

“No, no,” Shana hastily answered. “It’s nothing important really. No need to disturb her.” Tomorrow is soon enough. I can’t talk to her right now. I’d tell her everything, and I can’t do that on the phone. “I just wanted to know what the weather is like in your neck of the woods. We’ve got another snow warning for tomorrow and I just wanted to make sure I can make it in one piece.” So that Anne, or you for that matter, can kill me later …

“The weather’s fine here, sweetie, as long as you’re planning on using your SUV. We’ve got several feet of snow, but the roads are usually cleared by mid-morning even if it should snow some more tonight,” Irene reassured her.

“That’s good to hear. I was planning on taking the Jeep anyway in this weather. I just wanted to make sure I wouldn’t have to plough through knee-high snow to get to your place.”

“When can I expect you then?” Irene asked.

“I’m not sure. I’ll try to be there sometime in the afternoon.”

There was a pause in the conversation. Shana was unsure if she should warn Anne’s mother about what she had to tell Anne. Irene noticed even over the distance of a phone call that something was bothering the blond woman. She finally decided to just ask. “Is everything all right, dear?”

Shana could hear the concern in Irene’s voice. What can I tell you? Yes, everything is all right, I’m just going to hurt your daughter pretty badly tomorrow? No, nothing is all right, because I might just ruin everything? But she had the feeling she should prepare the older woman somewhat for the coming events.

“Mom,” she began hesitatingly, “I’ve got something to tell Anne when I see her tomorrow, and I don’t have any idea how she’s going to take it. I might need your help.” She took a deep breath, waiting for the older woman’s reaction.

“And I guess you can’t tell me now before you tell her?” Irene asked with little hope and a lot of curiosity. “Just so that I can be prepared …”

“No, Mom,” Shana chuckled at the almost predictable reaction. “I can’t really tell you over the phone. But … I need you to trust me … trust that I only want what’s best for Anne, although it might not look like it.” She stopped speaking, fearing she had already said too much.

But the innkeeper seemed to accept her answer. “You know I love you like I love my own daughter, sweetie. And I do trust you. But whatever you’re planning, please don’t hurt her. She couldn’t take it.”

“I know.” I know, I know, I know. But I have to. It might be the only way. I just hope I know what I’m doing. “Thanks, Mom. I’ll see you tomorrow then. Bye.”

*******************

Irene looked at the phone for a long time before she realized that Anne was staring at her. She put it down on the kitchen counter and smiled at her daughter.

“Who was that, Mom?”

“That was Shana. She just asked about the weather conditions here. She said she’d try to be here by late afternoon tomorrow.”

“Oh,” was all the tall woman said to that. She obviously didn’t want to talk to you or mother would have called for you. She probably has her reasons. Busy packing, that’s got to be it. Anne tried to reason away her feeling of disappointment. But there was a small child in her that couldn’t let it go. “She didn’t want to talk to me, did she?” she asked.

Irene put a hand on her daughter’s forearm. “She was busy packing. She said you’d have all the time in the world to talk when she gets here.” If I only knew what the little one wants to talk about. She was more than a little unsettled by the conversation with Shana.

She looked into her daughter’s blue eyes and saw the veil of disappointment slowly lift a little. Anne had been in a grouchy mood all day, hiding in the library most of the time.

“What are you doing here anyway?” Irene asked her daughter. “Shouldn’t you be doing indescribably hard things to your body to keep in shape? Or punishing some innocent tennis balls?”

Her attempt at lifting Anne’s mood didn’t generate the expected chuckle or grin. Instead, Anne didn’t say anything for a very long time, staring unseeingly out into the snow. Finally she whispered to no one in particular, “I don’t even know if I want to do that anymore. I think I might just as well stop.” Then she gently extricated herself from her mother’s grasp and left the room before Irene could say anything. Which she did anyway.

“What do you mean, stop?” the innkeeper said after she had put her jaw back in place. She stood in her kitchen, totally bewildered. “What the hell is going on here?”

*******************

Anne went back to the library and plopped gracelessly onto the love seat that faced the French door leading out to the garden. In the distance, behind some trees and her mother’s rose garden, she could see her own, much smaller house.

She picked up the phone and began to dial a very familiar number. Before her finger could press the last number she hesitated, then interrupted the call altogether. After a few moments of silent contemplation she started dialing again. Another number, but one just as familiar to her.

“Hello,” came a resonant male voice from the receiver.

“Hi, Kev.”

“Anne!” Kevin Delaney exclaimed. “How are you, killer?”

“You know how much I hate that name, Kev, so stop it,” Anne growled.

“That’s just your punishment,” Kevin told her.

“Punishment? For what?”

“For not calling me in a whole week, Anne. I almost forgot what your voice sounds like.”

Anne smiled at the phone. This was exactly what she needed to get out of her bad mood. Kevin. Her best friend. The only person in the world who knew every single thing about her. Who knew her inside and out. From everyone, she had kept bits and pieces of her past – or her present. Not from Kevin. He knew about the ‘killer years’, he knew about her family, and he knew about her feelings for Shana. He knew her like no one else did. He was also her coach. “It’s good to hear your voice, Kev.”

“What’s wrong?” he asked, instantly suspicious at the tone of Anne’s voice. He loved Anne Patakis like a brother and was quite protective of her. He also wasn’t afraid to tell her if she fucked up, and he had done so a number of times and in no uncertain terms.

“Does there have to be anything wrong for me to call you?” the tall woman asked. Knowing silence was the only answer. Anne slowly exhaled the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Then, “Shana’s coming down here tomorrow.”

“And?”

“And I don’t know what to do anymore. I can’t keep going on like that, it’s driving me crazy.” No further explanation. None was necessary.

Kevin knew what Anne was talking about. They had been friends for years before he even became her coach. “So … what are you going to do about it? Tell her? Get over her? Finally find someone else?”

“I don’t know!” came the irritated reply, harsher than she had intended. “But I can’t get over her. And you know as well as I do that I’ve tried. Hard.”

“Anne, I wouldn’t call fucking everything that has two legs and the ability to walk on them ‘getting over her’,” Kevin said sarcastically. “And it definitely has got nothing to do with finding someone else. No one ever really had a chance with you.”

“No one was ever like her, Kev,” Anne said quietly. “I can’t help it.”

“I know, darling,” the coach answered. “Remember? I know what it feels like to love someone and to not know what to do.” And he did. He had been a professional tennis player himself, and a quite successful one at that. Before the tabloids found out he was gay. Before all his sponsorship contracts got cancelled. Before he was gay-bashed during a tournament and had to spent two weeks in a hospital with a severely injured knee and a face that was beaten almost beyond recognition.

Anne had been a good friend through all the trouble he and his lover Mike had to go through. But as normal as lesbian tennis players seemed to be, gay players were something else altogether. Kevin had kept his relationship with Mike quiet for years, which had been difficult for both of them. The only thing that had kept them together was the fact that Mike could accompany Kevin to all his tournaments as his physical therapist. Still, they both had been tired of hiding. When Kevin was outed by a British tabloid, they had actually been quite relieved. But then Kevin was beat up and he and Mike decided that it just wasn’t worth it anymore. Anne had made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. She hired Kevin as her coach and Mike as her physical therapist, and both men had been adopted into the Patakis clan by Anne’s mother. Oh yes, he knew.

“What am I supposed to do, Kev?” came Anne’s voice through the receiver.

“Tell her, Anne! It’s the only thing you can do, really. She loves you, I’m sure of …”

“Kevin, she’s straight! She even slept with that dickhead Carlos, dammit!” Anne interrupted him.

“Yeah,” Kevin mumbled. “Carlos. But you don’t know that for sure …” He paused, pushing images of Carlos and Shana out of his mind. “I still think she loves you. I mean, that was, what … years ago? Has there been any man in her life since then?”

“Don’t know,” Anne murmured, “we’re not talking about our love lives.” And I for one don’t even have one.

“Maybe you should.”

“Maybe we should.” Anne conceded. Maybe I should really tell her. What’s the worst that can happen? She could tell me to go to hell. But she wouldn’t do that. Would she?

“Anne,” Kevin’s smooth voice drifted to her ear. “She’s not going to send you to hell for telling her that you love her. She’s not that kind of person and you know that!”

“Do you always know what I’m thinking, coach?” Anne asked with a hint of a smile in her voice. She hesitated and then made a decision. “Kev, I’m going to tell her. Tomorrow.” And she felt the weight of depression being lifted off her shoulders with that decision. Yes!

“Great idea, champ!” Kevin exclaimed with an audible grin. “God, I love happy endings.”

“How can you be so sure, Kevin?”

“It’s just a feeling, but I think everything will be all right. I gotta go now, Mike’s waiting for me. Keep me posted, will ya. Bye, and I wish you all the luck in the world tomorrow.” Though you won’t really need it, friend. I’ve seen the way Shana looks at you way too many times to doubt her feelings for you. You just had to come to this point yourself.

Anne put away the phone and smiled. For the first time in days she felt relaxed – until she realized she hadn’t told Kevin about her plans to quit.

*******************

Shana put down the receiver and rolled herself into a little ball on the bed, thinking about Anne. When did I realize that I love you? When did that feeling of friendship go deeper and deeper? Before that night? After that night? Before you turned into the ‘killer’ the tabloids so brutally named you? Well, that actually goes hand in hand, doesn’t it?

“Oh, Anne,” Shana sighed, lost in a tidal wave of self-pity. Then she tried to pull herself together and out of the wallow pit. She sat up and decided to continue packing. But before she had gotten completely off the bed, her anger caught up with her. Cursing at herself, she began to throw her clothes into her bags. “It’s all your own fault anyway, you idiot!” she finally shouted at herself, not caring that there was no one close enough to deny that accusation.

The blond woman threw herself onto the bed. Lying on her back, she thought back to the time when she had realized that there was more to her feelings for Anne than mere friendship. And her own part in forming Anne ‘The Killer’ Patakis.

Chapter 3
March 15, 1994

Anne was nervous. She was at her parents’ house, getting ready to celebrate her little brother’s 21st birthday, and Shana was expected to arrive any second now for the party. Anne checked herself over. She felt not ready for her and yet, she was more than ready for this moment. Tonight, she would tell her friend that she loved her and wanted to spend the rest of her life with her.

Her eyes fell on a small box on the bedside table, the dark blue velvet reaching out to her, asking her to open it once again. Anne didn’t resist and took another long look at the ring inside. You must be totally out of your mind, Anne. You don’t even know if she loves you. God, but the vibrations between us are so strong, I can’t believe there’s nothing there. The brightly sparkling diamond set inside a band of platinum seemed to agree as it reflected the afternoon sun in vivid clarity.

From the moment they had met she had known that Shana was special. Anne had always been quiet and withdrawn, a loner, driven by a father who wanted to turn her into the best female tennis player the world had ever seen. Her father’s goal had been the driving force in her life. There had been nothing else – except Peter. Little Pete, her brother, with his blonde locks and hazel eyes. Pete was three years younger than Anne and almost as talented as his older sister. Almost. For her father, that had never been enough. From the day Pete had gotten his first tennis racket his father had pushed him hard, egging him on constantly, trying to get him to beat the older and more naturally talented Anne.

What should have driven a wedge between the siblings only brought them closer. Anne very early began to develop a fierce protective streak where Peter was concerned, and more often than not got into loud arguments with her father about the way he treated his son. She loved her brother dearly, enjoyed his honest naivete. Their father often accused Pete of being stupid and the truth was that the younger sibling often seemed a bit retarded. But George Patakis had never allowed his wife to have her son checked out as long as he hadn’t been visibly different from everyone else. Anne hated the abuse their father heaped on Pete and tried to help him wherever she could.

The tennis camps they spent their summers at were a respite from the pressure at home, where Pete always tried to be the number one for his father, but couldn’t. The only problem was that George Patakis sent his kids to different camps in an attempt to break their bond. Irene had tried without success to get him to send the two to the same camp every year.

When Shana entered Anne’s life she had been like the sun that warms the earth after a heavy winter. Anne had thawed under the blonde’s attention and had opened herself fully to her new friend.

At seventeen she had no frame of reference for the feelings Shana’s presence evoked in her, – the tingling in her belly, the rubbery feeling in her legs, the whole ‘Shana factor’. She was just a friend. Right? Right.

Over the years the feelings had gotten stronger and stronger until Anne finally, one day, opened up to her mother in the desperate need to give voice to her emotions to someone. Her mother had listened attentively and had asked her daughter afterwards what she thought about gay people.

“Ah …what?” Anne had asked, quite confused. “What does that have to do with what’s going on with me… around… Shana …” Anne had become increasingly hesitant in her question when the answer presented itself to her.

“You think that I… you mean we … Mom, um … I mean …” she had stuttered before Irene had taken pity on her.

“I don’t know what you, or Shana for that matter, are or feel, Anne. Only you can know that. But the feelings you described sound a lot like the feelings I once experienced. And that, my dear, is called love.”

Anne had noticed the wistfulness in her mother’s voice and the sadness in her eyes. She was 22 and, now that she thought about it, couldn’t remember a single loving gesture between her parents. Somehow, that thought not only made her very sad, but also afraid.

“Mom,” she had looked at her mother, “do you love Dad?”

Irene had only looked at her, but the answer was clearly readable in her eyes. Before she turned to leave the room, Anne noticed the small tear that escaped her mother’s eyes.

The talk with her mother had given Anne a lot to think about. Now she looked at herself and Shana with a different perspective and soon realized that her mother was probably very right about her feelings for her blonde friend. Anne, you’ve been so blind, haven’t you?All those times when she had lost herself in her friend’s green eyes with no desire to ever come back up again. All those touches she hadn’t been able to stop. Hadn’t wanted to stop. The involuntary smile she always felt on her face whenever Shana was near, and the very, very bad feelings she always got when one of the other players was overly friendly to the young blonde. I guess that’s jealousy, then, Anne contemplated rationally. God, I’m in love with my best friend …

But it had taken Anne another two years of anxiously waiting for a sign that Shana might feel the same way for her before she had realized that she had to tell her friend what was going on with her. If only to explain why I had to keep a little distance. After Anne had recognized her feelings for the younger woman for what they were, the situation had only gotten worse. She had hardly been able to concentrate on her game, let alone anything else. Shana was always on her mind. The blonde, unknowingly, had looked for their previous closeness with touches and smiles, which had always worked with the tall woman before. Now, those innocent touches had driven Anne crazy with desire.

So, today was the day. The big one. I hope I know what I’m doing … But the signs had all been there. She had often seen her blonde friend watch her with what looked like a sad smile. For Anne, the sexual tension had risen to an almost unbearable degree. Although, Anne grinned at the thought of the last two years, it has been good for my tennis. All that pent-up energy had to go somewhere …

Anne put down the ring box and took another look in the mirror. She was dressed comfortably and casually. It had taken her three hours to get to that point, but now she was satisfied with the way she looked. Dress to impress and try not to look like it … The snugly fitting blue jeans perfectly displayed her long legs, while the white button-down shirt allowed just a glimpse of what was hidden beneath. Around her neck she wore a delicate bone carving in the form of a fishhook that Shana had bought for her during a tournament in Auckland years ago. Her shoulder-length black hair fell freely around her face, and her eyes glowed with equal parts nervousness and confidence, turning them a darker shade of blue than usual.

The tall woman sat down on the bed and put on her favorite pair of boots, pulling the jeans back down over them. At last, she put the jewelry box in her jeans pocket, grabbed a black leather blazer, and left her bedroom to await her best friend’s arrival downstairs.

*******************

Anne was standing at the kitchen counter, cradling the coffee cup in both hands. She knew exactly what Shana would say if she could see her right now. “You drink way too much coffee, Anne”, she said quietly to herself, imitating her small friend.

“You are so right,” came a very familiar voice from the doorway. The tall woman barely had time to put down her coffee and brace herself before the impact of a blonde ball of energy jumped at her and pressed her against the counter.

“Unnh,” was all Anne could manage in response. She twirled them around the kitchen a couple of times, expressing an exuberant joy that Shana had hardly ever seen before. At long last, they ended up back at the counter, and Anne gently sat down the small blonde on the wooden surface.

She looked up and found herself suddenly eye to eye, nose to nose with the woman she loved. Shana still had her arms around Anne’s shoulders and didn’t make a move to take them away. For long moments time stood still while they just looked into each other’s eyes.

Anne swallowed. Hard.

I’m drowning here, she thought. I can’t stop looking at her. I could just move in a bit and … I need to talk to her first … Oh, Jesus, if we don’t move, I’m gonna kiss her. I need to kiss her! I’m helpless against her. Shana, please you have to move away from me … this is too soon. Not yet, please! Oh, hell! That was the last halfway coherent thought before she felt herself moving forward, unable to stop the pull of Shana’s brilliant green eyes. She wasn’t sure if she pushed towards Shana or if the blonde pulled her in.

She never remembered what happened then; the next thing she knew was that she was looking into a pair of very warm and gentle green eyes that contrasted nicely with a blush that had turned the blonde’s tanned face even darker. Slowly she realized other little things, like her hands had somehow cupped her friend’s backside and pulled her as close as was humanly possible. And that Shana’s legs were wound around her waist, her feet hooked together behind the small of her back. And that the blonde’s hands were tangled in her hair at her neck. And their foreheads touching. And her little brother standing next to them with a grin that threatened to split his face.

They disentangled their bodies, looking everywhere except at each other. The blonde jumped off the kitchen counter and walked over to Peter to greet him warmly with a hug. “Hello, birthday boy!” she said with a smile, although to Anne’s eye the greeting seemed to lack in the enthusiasm Shana usually displayed at seeing Pete.

While her brother and her best friend caught up with each other’s lives, Anne leaned on the counter, desperately trying to steady her nerves and legs. Her thoughts turned inward. Whatever happened just here? I can’t remember anything. She panicked. Did I kiss her? Did she kiss me back? What did I do? This wasn’t what I had planned … Oh, God, I’ve got to talk to her.

“Now!” She realized she had said that out loud when two sets of eyes turned her way.

Embarrassed, she cleared her throat. “Unnh.” Goodie, you’re a smooth one today, aren’t you?

“What’s wrong, Sis?” Peter asked with a grin, obviously not very concerned.

“Nothing,” Anne smiled. “I’m fine, just thinking.” She shrugged, pushing away her embarrassment.

She turned to Shana. “D’you wanna take your bags upstairs?” Please, I need to talk to you.

Shana looked at her for what seemed like hours, then replied. “Yeah, we should go somewhere quiet.” She paused. “We need to talk.”

“Yeah,” was Anne’s short reply, before she turned to walk out the door. “Where are your bags?”

It was time for Shana to swallow and clear her throat. “I don’t have any bags, Anne. I’m not staying here tonight,” she finally said through clenched teeth.

“What?” both siblings shouted at the same time.

“What do you mean you’re not staying? It’s my birthday party, Shea!” He used his favorite nickname for his sister’s best friend, whom he loved like a sister himself. “You promised you’d be here.” His face threatened to turn into a full-out pout. For an adult he looked and sounded astoundingly childlike when he pouted, and he was very proud of that. It almost always got him what he wanted, especially from his sister and Shana.

“Don’t worry, Petey. I’ll stay for your party, just as I promised. I just won’t sleep here tonight.”

“But you always stay with us when you’re in town,” Anne quietly stated. “What happened?” Did I go too far before? Whatever I’ve done, I didn’t mean to. It … just happened. The tall woman now noticed that her friend looked distressed, more so with every passing minute. She was getting worried about her friend now. Okay, I need to get her upstairs, we need to talk.

Anne gave her brother a sign that made him turn around and leave the room. Then she turned to Shana. “Let’s talk, hmm?”

The smaller woman simply nodded and followed her up the stairs.

*******************

Anne opened the door to her bedroom and let Shana walk past her into the room, shivering when Shana’s hand casually touched her at the hip. She took a deep breath and followed her smaller friend inside. She closed the door and leaned against it, closing her eyes for a minute and steeling herself for the talk that was to come. Whatever bothered Shana, she was sure, would bother her as well. She could feel it in every single bone. Dread crept up her spine and settled in her temples. She leaned her head back, touching the door, and took another breath before she turned to look at Shana.

Shana had walked over to the window and was staring out into the evening twilight. She flinched when Anne turned on the light. Anne walked over to her friend and looked at her. She could clearly read the anguish in eyes that had turned a muddy green. The taller woman raised both arms to hug the blonde, but then had second thoughts about it. Instead she touched Shana’s shoulders lightly.

“What’s going on, Shea?” she asked finally in a very quiet voice. “Did something happen?” Downstairs, for instance. Or before.

Silence.

“You’re scaring me, little one,” Anne said, bending her head to look into Shana’s downcast eyes. “You can always talk to me, you know that. I’ll always be here for you.”

Another long silence filled the room, stretching on until Anne believed Shana had stopped talking to her altogether. Then, “It’s complicated, Anne.”

“What is complicated?”

In the silence that followed Anne led Shana over to the bed and settled down next to her. The blonde’s nearness invaded Anne’s senses at once. Maybe that wasn’t such a brilliant idea. We should have stayed at the window. Well, too late now. And if I know her as well as I think I do, she’ll need a hug very soon, anyway. So … She tried to stabilize her racing heart, trying to concentrate only on what Shana wanted to tell her.

The smaller woman looked at the wall closest to them. “Have you read the paper this morning?” she finally asked.

“Yeah, I have.” Anne was slightly confused by the question. “Anything special I should have seen?” She couldn’t remember anything that seemed important enough to get such a reaction.

“I’m talking about the tabloids, Anne,” Shana said quietly.

“You know we don’t read that garbage, Shea. There’s way too much dirt in it. Mother would have a cow if we brought that stuff here.” She tried to make light of the situation. She really had never looked at the tabloids again after quite a lot of stupid and spiteful comments from reporters she had refused to talk to.

“Well,” Shana said, looking directly at Anne for the first time, “unfortunately my parents are not that wise.”

Her parents, Anne thought. Talk about a minefield. Shana’s parents were … difficult. Especially where Anne was concerned. While Shana had practically been adopted by Anne’s family, the blonde woman’s parents had hated Anne from the beginning. Neither of the women had ever found out why. Shana’s parents were strict and conservative and always expected their daughter to be on her best behavior. And the blonde woman was almost always with her parents since her mother was her coach and her father was her manager. Being friends with Anne had helped to develop the already present wild streak Shana had. That’s probably why they hate me so much. But what do the tabloids and her parents have to do with her staying here? That’s when it came to her.

“There was something about me in the papers that your parents didn’t like.” Again, Shana added silently. “What was it this time?”

“It wasn’t something about you,” Shana said.

“But?” This is like fishing with my bare hands here. Come on, Shea. I’m bad enough at this as it is.

“It was about us.”

“Us?” Anne asked. “As in you and me?”

“Yes, you and me. Together. With a picture of the party last month.” Shana had pulled herself together and was speaking with more energy and intonation now. “My parents totally freaked when they saw the picture. Of course they had to read ‘the real story behind it’ as the Enquirer put it so nicely.”

Anne was still trying to remember what had happened at the party that could end up as fodder for the tabloids. Oh no. Nonononono. It couldn’t be. There weren’t any photographers there, when … Oh shit. She remembered the evening now. Everything.

The championship ball after the US Open had turned into quite the party when the officials had left and a handful of players, both male and female, had decided to take the party to a nightclub close by. She and Shana had been among the ones who wanted to keep on partying. They had both been in the final, with Anne beating Shana only after a very long and hard fight. It had been a good match and they were both happy. They were also slightly intoxicated from all the champagne that had been flowing at the ball. Then Kevin had challenged her, dared her that she would not get up and get Shana to dance with her. And she, being the competitive person that she was, had of course bowed before her best friend and had asked her to dance, never even thinking that the blonde might actually say yes. Which she did.

They had walked to the dance floor just when a slow song was starting to play. Anne hadn’t known how to survive the nearness of her friend in her short, tight-fitting black dress. They had danced, and she had never felt like that before. It hadn’t taken long for Shana to more or less mold her body to that of her tall friend and to put her head on Anne’s shoulder. Both her hands were tightly fit around Anne’s waist while the taller woman at first had tried to keep a little distance. Then she had looked down and had seen the happy little grin on Shana’s face. The blonde had just looked at her and Anne had lost herself in the green eyes again. The sounds around them faded. There was no one there except the two of them. Anne’s hand had slowly wandered downward on Shana’s back until she was almost, almost, touching the shapely rear of her friend. They had barely noticed when the music had stopped and grinned at each other, wondering why their friends looked at them like … that.

“So,” Anne said, “I guess it’s a picture of us dancing.” And I want one of those.

“Yep. A picture of you and me, dancing. With your hand on my butt and my hand,” she smiled, “my hand on the hem of your very tight, very short dress.”

Oh, yes. I remember that feeling. The memory of the dance had fueled her fantasies several times. I remember that all right. Too well, maybe. Down, girl. This is not the time!

Anne cleared her throat. “And the story that goes with it?”

“As if you couldn’t imagine.” Shana grinned. She knew Anne knew the tabloids’ way of thinking just as well as she did. “The hottest couple in the tennis world, blah blah blah. You and me, lovers, happy ever after, you get the drift.”

And what is so wrong with that picture? That’s exactly what I want. Anne decided that now was definitely the right moment. The moment she had been waiting for. Tell her, you fool. Now! Before you have the time to chicken out. She turned to face her friend and took Shana’s hands into her own, and spoke. Or at least tried to, but she couldn’t get past the lump in her throat. Just when she was about to try again, Shana continued to talk.

“And of course Mom and Dad totally freaked out. Their precious daughter, and all the world thinks she’s a lesbian! You know what I really, really hate about all this? The dance was totally innocent. Just two good friends in a good mood who were having fun with each other. Nothing happened. I mean, our hands wandered a bit, and you’re really nice to touch but … we’re always touching each other all the time anyway and …”

“Shea,” Anne interrupted her gently, “you’re babbling.” Of course your parents hated that story. Their daughter being a lesbian would destroy that wonderful image. Shana was the ultimate girl next door. Everybody loved her. She was all smiles on the tennis court, and she was the one the audience cheered for when the two of them faced each other in a match. The favorite daughter. The favorite daughter-in-law. As if I couldn’t understand that …

Then Anne’s mind began to process the rest of what Shana had said. It was just a dance between good friends. Nothing happened. Totally innocent. We touch all the time … And while these thoughts filtered through her mind into her body and soul, she felt her heart breaking a little more with each syllable. Of course she doesn’t love me. I’m a woman. I’m her best friend. Just a friend. I must have read everything totally wrong. I’m a fool.

Anne felt absolutely lost. She didn’t know what to do. She felt the presence of the ring in her pocket like a source of heat, reminding her of the mistake she’d almost made. She got up from the bed and silently walked over to the window, missing the confused look on Shana’s face. She gazed out the window unseeingly, trying to come to a decision. I can’t tell her … not now. And I can’t not tell her. But when I tell her how I feel she’s going to leave. I’ll ruin our friendship, I’ll lose her forever. I can’t let that happen. I need her in my life. I need her. She took a good long breath and asked herself the most important question. But can you live next to her? As just her friend? Another breath and a decision made in the time it took her heart to skip a beat at the thought of the alternative. Yes, I can. I have to. I have to at least try.

With that decision made, she nodded to herself and turned around to once again face Shana, who stood right behind her, so close that they now touched along their whole body length. So close that Anne felt the trembling in her legs and the shivers that chased each other along her body wherever it came into contact with what it craved. Uh oh. I’ve got to get away from her.

“Anne, what’s wrong?” Shana then asked. “I mean, I know I was babbling, but you know that happens with me when I’m
nervous …”

“Tell me,” the taller woman said, “why were you nervous?”

Shana looked towards the window. “I didn’t know how you would react to the rumor about us. About that picture of us in the tabloids.” She paused. “What do you think?”

“Shea, I really,” she paused to look into her friend’s eyes, trying to convey honesty, but not her deep feelings. “I really enjoyed that dance. Very much.” Then she added in a light tone, “and I really want that picture. For my bedroom.” Hiding the absolute truth of that statement behind laughter and smiles. It will be all I have.

And then she made the mistake of looking directly at her friend, letting all her feelings show in her eyes before she could stop herself. And saw a spark of recognition in the green eyes looking back at her. Confusion. And … something else. Heard the small gasp that escaped Shana’s lungs. She looked at their hands, which were now holding on to each other. How did that happen? I have absolutely no control over my body when she’s near me. Anne didn’t know whether to be delighted or disgusted.

She found herself mesmerized by a green-eyed stare that melted her insides. There was a smoldering fire in Shana’s eyes that pulled Anne in, just like it had when they had danced. Or downstairs in the kitchen.

If you don’t move away from me, Shea, I don’t know what I’ll do. Anne’s hormones were running rampant in her system, telling her to ignore … everything.

Shana didn’t move away. She just stood there, sharing space with Anne, driving her tall friend wild. Does she know what she’s doing to me? Anne tried to close her eyes. Then she felt a hand grab her hip, and opened her eyes just in time to see Shana close hers.

And then there was only feeling. Shana’s lips on hers, first softly than more demanding. Anne felt herself lose control, shooting downward on a spiral of desire she knew she would never get out of again. The kiss was more than she had ever dreamed it could be, evoking desire, fear, arousal, and giving her a sense of calm that nothing else ever had. Then she opened her mouth to Shana’s inquisitive tongue and found out that she hadn’t felt anything yet. She responded vigorously and put all her feelings into that kiss. She couldn’t stop herself from doing it anyway. She heard and felt a groan and didn’t know who it came from. It didn’t matter.

Suddenly she was being pushed away, the kiss ending just as surprisingly as it had started. She opened her eyes and looked into her blonde friend’s very confused eyes.

“I can’t,” came Shana’s husky whisper. Then she turned around and swiftly walked to the door.

“Shana, wait!” Anne called out on a ragged breath. “Please.”

Shana opened the door, and stopped without turning around. “I can’t,” she said over her shoulder. “I’m sorry.” Then she was gone.

Anne walked over to the bed and collapsed on its surface, trying to work out what had just happened. Her mind went on overload and she simply curled herself into a ball and cried. This is going to be one hell of a birthday party, was her last thought before racking sobs drowned out everything else.

Chapter 4
January 2002

Shana drove carefully along the empty country road, trying to avoid icy patches and little snowdrifts. She didn’t go very fast because to do so would have meant turning some of her concentration away from her thoughts and to her driving. She was neither willing nor able to do that, so she crept along at a leisurely pace that ensured both her safe arrival and the longest possible delay of the inevitable.

“At least the road is empty,” she muttered to herself. “All I need right now are some reckless idiots on the road.” But half her heart wished for something, anything really, to lengthen the trip.

When she spotted the small sign to her right she knew what that something was. “Ah,” she sighed, “how could I forget?”

She slowed down and turned onto the tiny dirt road that was hardly visible under the muddy snow that covered it. She turned off the engine and fished for her coat, shawl and gloves in the back seat. “Don’t wanna get cold now, do I?” she asked her right glove before she pulled it on and left the car.

Outside it was a beautiful winter day. Freezing cold, with a clear blue sky and the absolute absence of sound that only snow can bring. Unless, of course, she concentrated and listened for the crackling of tiny branches under the weight of icicles, the sound of snow being carried from field to field, and the sounds little animals made when they broke the thin sheet of ice that covered the new snow. Shana listened closely, trying to find all the little noises Anne had pointed out to her in her first winter here so many years ago.

A native Texan, actually experiencing snow had been a new concept when she had visited Anne and her mother for the opening of Irene’s Country Inn seven years ago. After the deaths of both her son and her husband, Anne’s mother had finally allowed Anne to buy her an enormous mansion to turn into her dream hotel. The selling points for the place had been the sheer size of the piece of land that came with the house, the library it housed, and the small cemetery that lay right next to the land.

It was the cemetery Shana now entered through a small wooden gate to pay her respects to Peter Patakis, as she had done on every single visit since his ashes had been interred here. How could I have almost forgotten this, she asked herself while she meandered around the snowy graves, most of which were so covered in snow that only the headstones were visible.

The small blonde stopped in front of the grave she knew as well as the graves of her family back home in Texas. If not better. She cleared the stone of its snowy cap before she smiled in greeting at the inscription.

Peter Georgeos Patakis
1973-1994

A spirit freed
from bodily confines
soars higher
than an eagle in the skies.

You always wanted to be a poet, didn’t you? Shana removed the snow from the bench behind her and sat down. Her eyes fell on an irregularity in the snow covering the grave. Curious, she walked the three steps to the side of the grave and bent down to have a closer look. That looks like …

With her fingertips she carefully shoved away some of the snow, exposing a dark red, frozen rose to the cold winter air. She picked up the flower and smoothed the snow before putting the rose down again, in perfect alignment with the center of the headstone, just as it had lain before she uncovered it. The contrast between the snow and the rose turned the color of the petals so dark it almost resembled black. Anne. You always gave him roses because he loved them. The darker, the better. You always tried to make him happy. I’m so sorry it didn’t work. And I’m so, so sorry I made it worse than it already was. I didn’t want to take away his protector.

“I didn’t want to take her away, Pete,” she said aloud. “I’m so sorry.” She felt a tear slowly making its way down her cheek.

“Did you ever know why she left? Did anyone ever tell you it was my fault?” she asked the headstone. “How could they? No one but me and Anne knew …” She leaned back against the bench and thought back to the birthday party almost 8 years ago.

“You know, Petey,” Shana continued speaking as if in a conversation with the grave in front of her. “Your 21st birthday was one of the most terrible days of my life. I mean, you know it wasn’t a great party, although you held such high hopes for it.” The blonde woman sighed. “I really would have loved for you to have a different day, believe me.” And for me. But hindsight is, as they say, 20/20.

March 15, 1994

The morning of Pete Patakis’ 21st birthday saw Janet and Bob Wilson having a fit about an article in the papers. Her mother was nothing short of hysterical when she saw the picture of her daughter and Anne Patakis, and her father absolutely lost it when he read the accompanying article.

Throughout all the screaming and crying, Shana was only able to grasp a few words of her parents’ concern. Money. Image. Contracts. The people. Damage control. The young blonde just sat there, clutching one of the tabloids to her, remembering the evening the photo was taken. It had been a great evening, and she had been floating on a cloud of bliss even though she had lost to Anne in the final. Or maybe because. She had never been able to resist the brilliant smile her tall friend always sent her over the net when she had won a match.

And she had remembered, with a tingling feeling in her body, the whispered “I’m looking forward to the party tomorrow” that Anne had sent her way while they shared their usual after-match embrace for the photographers. It had somehow sounded more like an invitation than anything else ever had.

The party had been nice but nothing spectacular, apart from the fact that she had almost swallowed her tongue when she had seen Anne for the first time that night. All of her 6’2” muscular frame fitted into one short, tightly fitting dark red dress that clung to all of her curves, highlighting all of her many assets. She still blushed when she thought of Kevin, who had come up behind her to poke her in the ribs and whisper a very silent, but commanding “Breathe” into her ear.

Good old Kevin. Who had even been drunk enough that night to dare Anne to dance with Shana without ever realizing that the actual idea had been provided by Shana herself. And that dance had been … fantastic, gorgeous, mind-blowing. Not that she could remember any details about it. All she could remember was the closeness of Anne’s blue eyes and the feel of the dark-haired woman’s body against her own.

She had never seen any photographers around them and she had felt absolutely safe and protected in the arms of her best friend and in the company of their friends and fellow players. It was a little embarrassing when she hadn’t noticed that the music had stopped, but Anne had seemed oblivious as well. What had really gotten her to think was the fact that all their friends had looked at them a little differently when they had left the dance floor, Now that the picture was all over the papers she could see why they had looked at them that way. She and Anne had practically been all over each other during the dance.

Well, it was clear that her parents hated everything about that picture and the accusations that went with it. Their lovely daughter, one of those … lesbians? No way. Her parents had, of course, accused Anne of corrupting her, of being a bad influence on their oh-so-perfect little daughter. Just like they always had, from the first day on.

Her parents, with the tabloids in hand, demanded that she stopped seeing Anne, at least socially, since she couldn’t very well avoid meeting Anne on the tennis courts of the world. Shana refused, outraged and simply not understanding what was so wrong about Anne or their friendship.

“You will end this friendship once and for all, Shana!” her mother had simply demanded.

“But why, Mom? I don’t understand it.”

“Because she’s bad for you. You can’t be friends and rivals on the court.” Her mother’s voice took on a hard edge. “You will never be able to beat her if you keep going on like this. You didn’t even seem to mind that you lost to her again! How do you think you’re ever going to be the best if your strongest opponent is also your friend?”

The young blonde was lost in thought. I can’t very well tell her that Anne’s more important to me than being number one, can I? She paused. Since when has it been like this anyway? I always wanted to be the best! Why is it suddenly not important anymore? She shied away from the answer her heart knew, but there was a nagging voice in the back of her head that she couldn’t shake. It’s always been like this. She’ll always be more important. Always. Always.

Janet Wilson kept on talking, completely ignoring her daughter’s lack of response. When she noticed that Shana didn’t even seem to listen to her ramblings, she called her husband over, wanting his help and his more businesslike approach. “Bob, could you please tell our ungrateful child that that Greek is bad for her?”

That finally got a reaction from Shana. “Anne is not Greek, her grandfather was. And don’t make it sound like an insult. We can’t all be from grand old Southern stock like you.” She managed to make her mother’s provenance sound conspicuously like an insult herself.

Janet Wilson pretended to be from a very old Southern family, rich and distinguished beyond belief. She had fabricated some sort of family history for herself, with a multitude of deceased governors and presidents adorning her family tree. The truth was that Janet Wilson was born and raised in a trailer park in the middle of nowhere, and only her mediocre talent for tennis had helped get her out of there. She had been somewhat successful on the challenge tour for a couple of years, but had never made it in the big tournaments.

Her real success had begun when she had started to turn her daughter into the brilliant player that she became by tying a small tennis racket to her hand when Shana was no more than 18 months old. Her daughter’s outstanding natural talent hadn’t hurt as well. She had pushed her daughter into a tennis career from the crib on, intent on achieving all her dreams through Shana.

“I’m not going to let you ruin your career!” Janet screamed at the top of her lungs.

“Janet,” Bob Wilson interrupted her calmly. “Let me handle this.”

But his wife was already more than halfway into an explosion. “You ungrateful brat,” she spat, “you would be nothing if it weren’t for us. I taught you everything you know. I gave up my career for you. I could have been the greatest player the world had ever seen.” She knew perfectly well that sending Shana on a guilt trip was the best way of getting what she wanted.

“Janet,” Shana’s father said forcefully, “why don’t you let me talk to Shana for a second.” It was not a question. His wife looked at him for a moment, then nodded and left the room, loudly slamming the door as she did so.

Bob turned towards his daughter and touched her shoulders in a gentle, fatherly way. “You know, Shana-girl, we only have your own best interest at heart. You do know that, don’t you?” Shana nodded slightly. “We only want what’s best for you, and your infatuation with that … woman … is not in your best interest. You have to stop this … friendship … as soon as possible before your career and your image gets even more damaged than it already is.” Shana twisted out of his grasp while he continued to talk.

“I’ve already had a couple of calls today concerning your alleged affair with …” he hesitated, unwilling to pronounce the name.

“Anne.” Shana quietly said. “Her name is Anne, Dad.”

“Yes, yes,” he said. “Anyway, several of your advertising contracts are just being renegotiated and they threatened not to go through with them, if this story was true.”

“So what?”

“You don’t seem to understand.” He was getting impatient by now. “Without those contracts you’ll lose a big part of your income.” Not getting a response from his daughter, he hastily continued, “But that’s not the worst. I’ve also had calls from the papers who said that the people out there, your loyal fans, were very disappointed. Shana, this is hurting your career and your image, can you see that? If you go on with this friendship, the rumors will go on. You will lose the support of your fans and your business partners, and very soon you’ll be reduced to nothing. How are you going to survive out there on the tennis court without the support you’re used to? You know you can’t!”

His voice had taken on an almost hypnotic rhythm by now, confusing Shana. There were still huge doubts in her mind at what he was telling her, but she loved her fans dearly and thrived on the positive reactions she received from the crowds. What gave her life meaning was playing tennis and making people happy when she was doing it. And Anne.

She shook her head, trying to clear the conflicting voices inside, the ones that told her that her parents were right and this was hurting her career, and the ones that claimed that Anne was the only solution to all her problems and that she should tell her parents to go to hell. At that moment, though, Shana found it unbelievably difficult to decide which voice to trust. Feebly, she tried to come up with something to say to her father.

“But, Dad, when I started out I didn’t have any contracts and the people were just getting to know me. Maybe I can gain their trust again.” And then she felt she could end the whole argument with one little sentence. “There is nothing between me and Anne, Dad, it’s just a rumor. We were both slightly tipsy when that picture was taken, and that was all there is to it.”

“It’s not important if there’s something going on between the two of you,” her father said, his voice suddenly taking on a cold, hard edge. “You are going to stop this because we want you to. You owe this to us!” he bellowed.

“But Anne is my best friend.” Shana scrambled for words that would convince her father. “I can’t do that. She wouldn’t know what’s going on.”

“I don’t particularly care about that, girl.” He grinned. “You’re going to stop seeing her or I’ll call every single one of those papers and tell them that you’re an innocent victim in all of this, and that your so-called best friend took you home after that party.” Shana somehow missed the threat in this, but her father went on. “I’ll also tell them how your best friend took advantage of the fact that you were drunk and raped you,” he said in a mocking tone.

“But that’s not true, and you know it!” Shana exclaimed. “You can’t do that! Why would you want to do that?”

“Why?” he asked. “That’s easy. Because it would destroy her.” He smiled at her. “And you wouldn’t want that, would you?”

Shana only shook her head, tears streaming down her face. She knew she had to find a way out of this, but she couldn’t think of anything. If I keep on seeing her, it will destroy her career … and most probably her life. If I stop seeing her, it will destroy my soul. And Anne’s as well, the still nagging part of her mind added. She came to a decision.

“All right, Dad,” she said without looking up at him, “I will end my friendship with Anne.” At least for a while. She felt her heart breaking at uttering those words. Not for long, Anne, not for long. “But I’m invited there tonight for her brother’s birthday party. I can’t not go there. Please let me tell her good-bye. I’ll come back here tomorrow and everything will be over by then.”

Her father thought for what seemed like hours to Shana. “OK, you can go there tonight and tell her that you have to end this … friendship. But,” he forced his daughter’s chin up so she had to meet his eyes, “you will come back here before midnight or the papers will have one hell of a headline in the morning. Understood?”

Shana jerked her head from his hand and nodded slightly. She kept a shaky lid of control on her emotions until her father had left the room. Then she collapsed on the floor and cried for a breaking heart and shattering soul.

Chapter 5

Shana raised her eyes from the rose on Peter’s grave and looked around the cemetery. It was small with no more than a hundred graves or so, she estimated. She got up and stretched, then hopped a bit on the spot to get the blood circulating in her very cold legs. She decided to take a short walk around the silent cemetery to warm herself a bit. She could have gotten into her car to warm up, but she wasn’t ready to leave the comfort of the stillness around her and her quiet conversation with Peter yet.

“You know,” she kept on talking while walking along the hardly visible path between two rows of graves, “just once I’d love to know what it feels like to have that internal heat thing that you and Anne have.” But then again, if Anne was here I could just wrap myself up in her arms and be warm. She hugged herself in an effort to generate more body heat. Anne could probably walk around in a shirt and not be cold. “I don’t know how you do it,” she said as much to Anne as to Peter.

“When I arrived at your place that afternoon for your birthday party I was so totally confused,” she told Peter whose grave now lay a good 100 feet behind her. “Today I know I just should have talked to Anne about everything, but then I was … God, I was so stupid then, wasn’t I?”

She turned around to the grave she was talking to. “Anne would have known a way out. But I couldn’t think straight at that time, and I just couldn’t let her risk her career for our friendship.” And that would have been exactly what she would have done … I know it. I even knew it then. She buried her head in her hands in a vain attempt to block out the voice in the back of her head that was letting her know in no uncertain words which mistakes she made in the past. It wasn’t easy, though. Her career was never as important to her as you were. If you had known her as well as you thought you did, you would have realized that then.

“It’s true, you know,” she continued as if her silent listener was privy to the thoughts in her head, “after you … died … we all realized that what had made her career so important to her was the fact that her success helped at least a little to keep your father off your back. She always wanted for you to be happy. She loved you so much, Petey, did you know that? She’ll never forgive herself for not being there for you …” And I don’t know if she ever forgave me for being the reason for that.

Shana took a ragged breath and wiped away the tears that had started running down her cheeks without her really noticing. She didn’t remember everything about the birthday party as her mind was on a complete overload that night, but what she remembered was painful and wonderful, and blue. Blue eyes that turned to steel because of her.

March 15, 1994

She arrived at the Patakis’ house in the late afternoon without having a clue how she got there. She was confused, emotionally exhausted, and had the strange feeling of standing beside herself, watching some bad movie.

She took a deep breath, trying to concentrate on her surroundings and why she was there in the first place, and doing everything she could not to fall apart on the doorstep. She raised her hand to knock, but before her knuckles even touched the wooden door, it was opened from the inside by a broadly smiling Irene Patakis.

“Hello, sweetie,” she greeted her daughter’s best friend, “it’s so good to see you. Petey’s been looking forward to this day for weeks! He’ll be so happy you could come.” She wrapped the younger woman into a fierce hug.

Shana felt the need to resist that embrace. It reminded her too much of what was lacking in her relationship with her own parents. Love. Safety. Words that sprang into her mind while her body decided that it needed the comfortable feeling of arms around it, and relaxed into the body of the older woman.

Shana’s hesitation might have lasted only the fraction of a second, but it was long enough for Irene to notice that something was wrong with the woman she considered a second daughter. She released her from the hug but kept her loosely in the circle of her arms. She bent her head to look into the green eyes she knew almost as well as Anne’s and Peter’s.

Shana avoided the eye contact for as long as possible, but couldn’t withstand the gentle pressure of the look. When she finally met the older woman’s eyes she saw worry and concern clearly written all over the gray eyes. Shana looked away again, fearing Irene’s ability to search her soul with just a look.

“What’s wrong, little one?” Irene asked in that quiet tone of hers that Shana knew to be reserved for emergency situations. “Has something happened to you? Are your parents alright?” Irene didn’t like Shana’s parents one bit, but she knew that the strict couple was very important to Shana, and that she depended on her family a lot.

Shana’s body stiffened slightly at the last question and Irene decided to push a little more. “Did you fight with them? Did they upset you somehow? Did they say something about Anne?” Irene knew these last questions were too much too soon when the younger woman withdrew completely from the half hug they were still in.

Shana was determined not to let Irene see the turmoil and misery she was in, but considering the older woman’s questions right now, was failing miserably. She decided she needed to get out of there. She pulled back from Anne’s mother and looked up at her as calmly as she could manage.

“I’m fine, Mom,” she said in what she hoped was a reassuring voice. “It’s nothing. My parents were just a little grumpy today and they insisted that I return to the hotel tonight.” She shrugged, feigning indifference to her parents erratic behavior. “You know how that is,” she continued with a lightness she didn’t feel, “I’ll just have to go back a little earlier tonight to clear the air with them.” And I might never come back here. No, I can’t do that. No no no. It’s just for a little while until everyone has calmed down. I need to see Anne now.

She pulled herself together and managed a grin for Irene who still looked at her with a very concerned expression on her face. I didn’t fool her one bit. Why can’t my parents be like her just once in a while. She put a way her wistful thoughts for the moment, and said grinningly, “You know how much I love talking to you, Mom, but …” She trailed off, knowing Anne’s mother could finish the sentence for her.

“I think I saw Anne heading towards the kitchen a couple of minutes ago. I bet she’s still in there.” Irene chuckled. “Go after her, go! I know when I’m not wanted,” she pretended a pout, deciding to let the subject of what was bothering Shana go for now. She would just ask her again later.

“Oh, Mom!” Shana exclaimed, “You know I love you!” She kissed her second mother on the cheek and turned to search for the balm her soul needed right now. Knowing full well that this meeting promised more hurt than happiness for either of them.

The hallway to the kitchen was much too short for Shana’s taste. She fervently wished it would stretch on for at least another couple of hundred feet or more. She walked as slowly as she could without actually taking three steps backwards for every step forward.

The closer she got to the kitchen door the more her insides twisted and knotted themselves in intricate little designs that did little to make her feel better. And all the while she could practically feel the curious and concerned eyes of Irene on her back, but when she turned around halfway down the hall, Anne’s mother had already left the hall. Why am I so nervous? This is just Anne. Get a grip, Shay, and get your butt moving into that kitchen!

With this new sense of determination, Shana took the final steps to the kitchen and opened the door. And felt every single ounce of oxygen leave her body. God, she’s gorgeous! I never thought she’d dress up like that for her brother. I wonder if she knows how beautiful she is …

Anne hadn’t noticed her yet, so Shana used this unexpected opportunity to take a good, long look at her friend. The dark haired woman was standing at the kitchen counter with her back to the door. Her blue jeans neatly outlined her long muscular legs, while the white shirt accentuated the strong lines of her back. The black hair fell gently just to the shoulder, and was almost glowing, reflecting the late afternoon light that fell into the kitchen through the large windows.

The sound of the coffee pot banging against a huge mug finally brought the blonde woman back to reality. How long was I standing here just watching her? Why does it seem too short a time? I could just look at her forever. Jesus, what am I doing here? I can’t say goodbye to her, I just can’t.

Anne slowly lifted the coffee mug to her mouth with both hands, still unaware of Shana’s presence. Shortly before she took her first sip of what Shana knew was life’s elixir to her tall friend, Anne stopped her movement, a small delighted smile gracing her features. “You drink way too much coffee, Anne”, Shana heard her friend say in a perfect imitation of what she herself had told Anne a thousand times.”

The blonde knew that this was her cue. With a grin she said, “You are so right,” and then took off from the door at full speed, trusting her Anne to catch her. The taller woman barely had time to put down the cup and brace herself before Shana jumped into her arms. This feels so good, the blonde woman thought when she wrapped her arms around the dark haired woman’s neck. So good.

Anne produced an incoherent sound, and started to twirl the two of them around in the kitchen, finally stopping at the counter where she put down her precious cargo. Then all that Shana could do was look into the bluest eyes she had ever seen and lose herself in them. I know I’ll never see eyes like hers again. They’re truly a window to her soul. And right now, the windows were wide open for her to see what she had never dared to see before. There’s so much feeling in those eyes, and I think it’s for me.

She watched as the bright blue of her friend’s eyes turned darker with each passing second, taking on a look Shana had never seen in her friend’s gaze. She didn’t recognize the desire in Anne’s eyes, and never knew that her own eyes reflected the same feelings from deep within her.

Then thinking became too hard and feeling took over. Afterwards she was never able to say who moved first, but suddenly her lips were touching the softest lips she had ever tasted. The contact lasted only the fraction of a second, but it was enough for Shana to realize that this was where she wanted to be, and that Anne was who she wanted to be with. Her arms tightened around Anne’s neck and one hand started to tangle itself in the black hair. Her legs wound themselves around Anne’s waist, pulling the longer body against her.

She dove back in for another kiss, this time deepening the touch, pressing their lips together with an intensity she didn’t understand herself. She felt Anne’s tongue caressing her lips, gently probing, asking to be allowed inside. With a groan, Shana opened her lips, accepting the offer, tongues softly playing with each other, exploring and conquering a new world.

Shana heard a low growl, not knowing whether it came from her or her tall friend. She responded in kind, just in case. When the need to breathe became too much, she slowly pulled away, reluctantly releasing first a tongue, then the upper lip, and then, at last, the lower lip after giving it a playful tug.

She opened her eyes to look at blue pools of confusion from a very close distance. Their foreheads touched, and Shana realized several things at once. Anne seemed to be in shock or at least completely confused. She doesn’t look like she felt the same things I did just now, Shana thought with a sinking feeling in her stomach. She looks like she doesn’t even know where she is. Indeed, the taller woman gave a neat impression of a woman who was completely disoriented. She blinked her eyes, then gave a small shake of the head as if to clear her mind or remember something. Uh oh. I think I might have made a huge mistake.

Then Shana noticed the position they were in. She also realized Peter was standing right next to them with a very smug look on his face. Thoroughly embarrassed, she uncrossed her feet, untangled her fingers from the dark hair, and let go of Anne. Then she jumped off the kitchen counter to greet Anne’s brother.

January 2002

The sound of a car in the distance brought the blonde woman back to the present. She shook her head a bit, then grinned at the grave she had been talking to.

“You really enjoyed that little scene in the kitchen,” she said, making it a statement, not a question. “I know, I know. If you were still with us, you’d probably tell me now that you always knew your sister and I should be together. You would just tell me to stop all that crap and just tell her how I feel, huh?” She stopped and listened to the car that was slowly driving along the road. Probably more guests for Irene.

“Back then I was very confused, Petey,” she continued then. “I knew that Anne was my best friend and that I really, really liked her, but until that moment in the kitchen I had never considered the possibility that I loved her. Like that. That I wanted to be with her, as her lover, not just as her friend. But when I saw her, my mind went blank and I couldn’t help myself. I had to taste her and feel her. I stopped thinking for a precious few moments, and even though it was confusing as hell, it was also very nice.
It felt right. And I got scared.” Oh man, is that an understatement. She remembered the embarrassment at being caught by Peter, and the feeling of dread that had crept up her spine at the thought that her parents’ concern was probably not too far off the mark. With that feeling the thoughts of her father’s threat had surfaced again, and she knew she couldn’t ruin Anne’s life. Not now. Especially not now after she realized that she loved her tall friend.

“You see, Petey, it would have ruined her career, her life. I couldn’t tell her I loved her, couldn’t tell her about father’s threat, because she would have insisted on staying right by my side. Now, I will never know what she felt that day in your kitchen. Do you know that we never talked about that kiss? Ever? And knowing her like I do, I’d bet she didn’t talk to anyone about it, not even you.” Shana’s thoughts went back to her memories of the kiss. I knew she was feeling something. I could see it in her eyes, even before our lips met. But I don’t know what she felt. She looked so dazed.

“And then, Pete, I made the worst mistake of my life,” she said, thinking back to the scene in Anne’s bedroom. “When we went upstairs to talk, I was determined to explain the situation and tell Anne I couldn’t see her for a while until my parents were over the whole thing with the tabloids and the rumors. You have to realize that I didn’t know what she’d think about the whole thing. So I told her about the picture, and her reaction was so strange. I got more nervous by the second, and I just babbled on. I told her that the dance had meant nothing, that we were just good friends, that everything was completely innocent.” And after all these years I’m still babbling when I think about that day.

What a stupid idea that was, she mused. Instead of explaining what was going on I ramble on about friendship and innocent dances, and then we end up kissing again. Shana sighed, even after eight years still disgusted with herself.

“You’re right, Pete, I should have told her then that I love her, but I had to kiss her and then leave her without a word of explanation. Aarrgh! How stupid was that?” Very, a voice inside her head told her, now you’ll never know what could have been. You destroyed whatever feelings there were between the two of you when you came on to her and then ran away.

Shana took a last long look at Peter’s grave and silently said goodbye. She felt better now, having explained things to Peter, who had probably never understood why he had never seen his friend again after his birthday party. “I’m sorry, Petey,” she said before she turned around to leave, “I didn’t know I’d never see you again. I love you, little Petey.”

On her way to the exit she thought about the rest of the birthday party. She couldn’t remember much, since she was busy fighting her own confusion at the time, but what she could remember was very, very ugly.

She had barely made it out of Anne’s room before she had slid down the wall in the hall, crying and sobbing as silently as she could, trying not to draw the attention of either Anne or Irene to her state of mind.

Knowing she couldn’t stay there forever, she had pulled herself together as much as she could and had gone down to meet the rest of the family and the guests that had already arrived. She had put on a cheerful mask for Peter’s sake, while falling apart inside.

Anne had made her entrance a while later, after all of the other guests had arrived. They had avoided each other most of the evening, both concentrating on the guest of honor instead. Only once had their eyes met, and Shana had never before seen her friend’s eyes so cold, and so totally closed to her. The window to Anne’s soul had been closed and locked from the inside, leaving only a steely blue gaze that hurt Shana to the core.

For Shana, the evening had held nothing but pain. She had to witness Anne’s coldness and indifference to her while she herself had been unable to let go of her feelings. She had grieved for the friend she had lost, and had been scared by the stranger who had taken her place.

The party had ended even worse than it had begun. Pete had been confused by the vibes coming from the two women he had caught heatedly kissing each other in the kitchen only a short while ago. He had asked Shana what had happened, but she had shrugged him off, telling him that nothing was wrong. Apparently, he had asked his sister the same question and had been told to mind his own business by the tall, dark haired stranger that had somehow replaced his adored sister.

George Patakis had picked up on the tension in the room and had connected the bad feelings to his son. He had gotten more irritated and more drunk as the evening went on, and had finally taken his bad mood out on Peter by telling him that he had always been a nobody and that he would never be anybody.

He had finished of his drunken tirade by questioning Peter’s parentage, loudly comparing his own dark looks with his son’s light hair and fair skin. Anne had tried to talk to her father, but had been unable to calm him down. She and Pete had finally dragged George off to another room in an unsuccessful attempt to salvage the party. Most of the guests had decided to leave as soon as George started insulting his son.

Only Shana, Kevin and Mike had still been there to witness the ugliest scene of all when Pete had run out of the room, followed by George and Anne, and George had began beating Pete, shouting insults at him at the top of his lung. Irene had sat in her chair, obviously shocked into an apathetic silence by her husband’s behavior, unable to help her children.

In a combined effort, Anne, Kevin, and Mike had gotten George away from his son. George had turned around and left the house. Shana had gone over to Anne and lightly touched her arm to see how she was doing, only to find herself being shrugged off like a nasty pest. Anne had looked at her with an unreadable expression in her eyes and had followed her father out the door without looking back.

After calming down Irene and Pete, Shana had left as well, not knowing that she would never see Pete or George Patakis again.

With that thought, Shana got into her car, never seeing the tall figure who was watching her from the stand of trees that was the border between the cemetery and Irene Patakis’ land.

Chapter 6
January 2002

Anne had woken up with a monstrous headache sometime in the late morning and her condition hadn’t improved. Her mood had taken a steady nosedive since she had gotten out of bed. It had almost hit rock bottom by lunchtime.

When she had opened her eyes, the remnants of her nightmare still clouded her mind and her ability to formulate thoughts that went beyond darkness, anger, and shame. Damn, she had thought, that hasn’t happened in quite a while. Wonder what brought that up. She never knew when the nightmares would hit her, and she never really remembered anything concrete about them. All that lingered in her conscious mind were distorted images of faceless figures who accused her and haunted her, but she could never hear exactly what they said.

A part of her was glad about that small blessing, of the fact that her waking memories could not conjure up the same images and sounds that seemed to torture her mind while she was sleeping. Another part of her, however, was disturbed by her inability to form a clear picture of those images or to hear the choir of accusations. That part wanted to find out what they were and be able to do something about them.

Anne had a practical mind. She knew that there were a lot of things in her life that could have given her these bad dreams. Hell, she could name a handful of reasons right now, and guilt and shame definitely went hand in hand with all of them.

She hadn’t been there for Pete when he had needed her the most. She still hated herself for that. He had been lost, alone, and he had suffered under their father. That bastard. And she had run away and had done nothing about it. Urrgh. I need to do something about this headache. This is killing me.

She had been rude and distant to Shana, treating her best friend like she wasn’t even there. God, I really treated her like shit for a while, Anne groaned involuntarily. She had ignored her completely, had not even spoken to her for a long time after that damn party. That day sure cost me a big part of my life. I’ve never felt so emotionally amputated before. My heart had been ripped out, and I still felt the phantom pain in the hole it left in my body. I never thought I would get over that particular blow.

She had let Shana feel every single ounce of her pain, had knowingly made her feel bad. I wanted her to hurt like I was hurting. I was such an asshole then. We should have talked. I should have talked to her, should have seen that she was confused. But I was blind, and we both paid for it.

Carlos had been … Carlos. Anne felt the bile rising in her throat at the mere thought of the man. No sense in spending any thoughts on him. That’s only going to make me feel even worse. And I refuse to believe he has the power to enter my dreams for even a fraction of a second. But she knew deep down inside that her belief was founded on hopes and wishes and had nothing to do with the truth. He had entered her nightmares more than once over the last twenty years.

All those women she had taken – used and discarded like so much garbage would be more correct – well, they had gotten what they had craved. A night with the notorious bad girl of tennis. She had felt no remorse then, had relished their attention, their fights over her, but it was different now. Now she knew that not all of them had been just after her body and some pleasurable hours of empty sex that made them forget the miserable place life could become.

She knew that at least some of them had offered her their friendship and given freely of their feelings in addition to their bodies. Those were the women she had treated the worst. She had used the bodies and had deliberately and sometimes cruelly hurt the feelings. She herself had felt nothing. She flinched at the thought, a rush of shame making her head throb even worse than before. She couldn’t remember many of the names, let alone the faces, of the women. Maybe it’s their faceless figures that are trying to get revenge in my sleep. In the end, she had simply used those women to forget Shana.

Forget the woman she had loved. The woman who had broken her heart. The woman she still loved.

It had never worked, and so she had finally given up trying. Trying to forget the love of her life, trying to find someone else. Although Kevin was probably right. What I did to those women would probably not count as trying to find someone else after all. At some point she had resigned herself to the fact that she could never love anyone else.

Only Shana.

Then there was the man she had killed. Another large shadow that loomed over her conscience, pressing her down with its weight, sometimes smothering all the light that surrounded her. It had been an accident, a fact she had grudgingly, reluctantly come to accept through years of talking to Kevin, Shana, and her mother. But the guilt and the feeling of being responsible for the death of an innocent man were still eating at her. In the end, she had never stopped believing it was her fault. Maybe it’s him in my dreams. I would deserve that, wouldn’t I?

Anne went into her small kitchen in the hope that a strong cup of coffee would help to alleviate her headache. Maybe I should drink a pot, or better yet a bucket of the stuff. She was always careful around pain medication, usually trusting her very fit body to cope with whatever was ailing her, but today she fervently wished for some magic pill that would make her feel better. A pill that would make her forget about her nightmares and the reasons that might have caused them. A pill that made her forget that Shana was coming later in the day. Forget that she had promised herself that today would be the day she told Shana about her feelings.

Anne groaned and concentrated on fixing her coffee. I need caffeine. Now. Where’s that intravenous caffeine link when you need it the most? Finally, the coffee maker made the gargling sound that alerted Anne to the fact that her wait was over. She quickly poured herself a mug of the strong brew and lifted it to her nose, inhaling the aroma that to her meant heaven at this moment.

She finished the first mug in no time and was halfway through her second when she realized that the coffee wasn’t really helping her head. And it certainly wasn’t the magic pill she had wanted. Just the opposite, in fact. She walked over to the kitchen table and slumped down heavily into one of the chairs.

The tall woman buried her forehead in her hands and leaned her elbows on the kitchen table, trying to find a comfortable position in which her head didn’t hurt so much. It was just too difficult to balance her head on her neck today, and she needed the support of her arms to carry the weight of her brain which was being attacked by memories of worse days, of days past, and yet weighing her down in the present. Unwillingly, she let her mind wander back to the day she had finally felt she deserved the nickname the tabloids had given her for her relentless game. Anne ‘Killer’ Patakis.

October 1995

The day would have been beautiful if she hadn’t felt so damn bad. It was another warm and sunny fall day in the south of Germany, but all Anne wanted to do was curl herself into a ball under the covers and go back to sleep. She chanced a peek at the bedside clock in her nondescript hotel room.

9.30 in the fucking morning. Too damn early.

Anne groaned and turned around, hoping to get another hour of sleep in before getting out of bed was unavoidable. She faintly remembered that there was something she was supposed to do today, somewhere where she was supposed to be, but right now it was simply too complicated to think of that.

Her movement was halted by something warm and unmoving on the other side of her bed. What the hell …?

She carefully opened one blue eye to examine the unexpected obstacle. Long blonde hair tumbled over a pillow that was held in a death grip by what looked like pretty muscular arms. Most of the body was covered by the blanket they shared. OK, come on, Anne, think. Who was it this time? The problem was she couldn’t remember any details about the night.

All she knew from the fact that she wasn’t alone was that she must have been either very tired or very drunk. She hated sharing her bed and she hated waking up with someone even more. Disgustedly, she moved away from the other woman, suddenly very aware of their nakedness and the heady scent of sex in the air. Can’t have been too exciting. I can’t remember a thing. The sex was probably lousy. Well, time to find out who got lucky last night … She was sure that even dead drunk the other woman would consider herself lucky. Anne knew she was that good. Nobody had ever complained, no matter how drunk she was.

Anne rolled out of bed and put on the robe that lay on the floor next to the bed. She slowly walked over to the table in front of the window and poured herself a glass of water. She emptied the glass in one long gulp and poured herself another one, continuing this way until the bottle was empty.

Definitely dehydrated. What the hell did I drink last night? A nagging feeling in the back of her head told her that she should be worried about her lack of memory and obvious blackout, but she pushed the thought away. Nothing to worry about. A long, hot shower and I’ll be as good as new. She walked over to the bathroom. After two steps she stopped and turned around to the bed.

Gotta find out who that is first. Gotta throw her out.

She took the three steps to the blonde’s side of the bed and roughly yanked at the blanket that covered her. Hmm, nice body. She pushed the blonde hair from the woman’s face and was finally able to see the features that were half buried in the pillows. She was still dead to the world, not even noticing the rough handling.

Well, well, well. Karen Lundqvist. Anne’s brain had no problem providing her with the name that went with the woman in her bed. Even in her state of mind, it was hardly possible for her to forget one of her biggest rivals on the tennis court. So I fucked Karen.

With that realization came the memory of where she had to be later in the day and what she was supposed to do. Another groan escaped her at the information her mind offered her. Today was the day of the semifinals of this nice little tournament she was playing right now. Oh, God, I need to wake up.

She walked purposefully into the bathroom, forgetting about throwing Karen out. She shed the robe and took a long look at her reflection in the mirror. Her usually bronze skin had taken on a grayish patina and her eyes were bloodshot and dull; almost all color had vanished from their vibrant blue. She looked into the eyes of a stranger, almost not recognizing the haggard face of the ghost that looked back at her.

When did that happen to me? That’s not me anymore. Shocked, she touched the mirror with the fingertips of her right hand in an attempt to ground herself and to make the reflection look like her again. It didn’t work.

I need that shower now, she decided and entered the shower stall. She turned the water on and stepped into the hot spray. The hot water had a very relaxing effect on her and after several minutes of just standing there she felt the tension of the morning follow the water down the drain. With the relaxation came some of her memories from the night before.

She had met Karen in the player’s lounge after her quarterfinal, and the blonde had offered to buy her dinner at the club that hosted the tournament. Karen had never before shown any interest in spending time with Anne, so the offer intrigued the dark-haired woman and she agreed. She had nothing better to do anyway.

They had enjoyed their dinner and had decided to take a drink at the bar afterwards. Karen had, of course, refused to drink anything alcoholic since she knew she had to play the next day. Anne had no such scruples. She had long before given up on being a model athlete.

Obviously, she still had been charming enough to get the blonde into her bed, alcohol or no alcohol. Anne had a magnetic personality, something she had come to realize in the space of the last eighteen months. When she turned on her charm, other people, men as well as women, found it very hard to resist her. She had very deliberately seduced Karen and had used her considerable expertise in the realm of sex to keep the Swede up most of the night.

It wasn’t the first time she had done that to and with another player. Apart from her massive amount of natural ability and talent, one of the reasons she could live the life that she did and still win tennis tournaments and be a world class player was that she often seduced her opponents and then intimidated them by treating them like dirt. Most of the time it worked perfectly.

So. Karen Lundqvist was the strongest candidate for the final, playing against a rather inexperienced German player in the second semifinal. Which is actually before my match. Bingo.

By the time Anne had finished her shower she was grinning evilly, looking forward to the final almost as much as she was to throwing out the blonde Swede. She dressed quickly in sweats and a loose T-shirt and prepared herself for the task of rousing Karen.

That’s when she realized who she’d have to beat to get to the final. Shana. All her energy left her at once and she felt like a deflated balloon. With the Shana factor and the way I feel today, I’ll never have a chance against her. She’s going to wipe the floor with me.

Now Anne was even more determined to throw Karen out, knowing she would need some time to prepare for her match against Shana. She walked over to the bed and shook the blonde’s shoulder. Slowly, the blonde’s blue eyes opened and zeroed in on Anne. The tall woman could clearly see the confusion in those eyes, which was followed closely by a smile that made the Swede’s face light up.

She’s beautiful, Anne thought for a second. But she’s nowhere near as beautiful as Shana. She’s not Shana. Jesus, where did that come from? She shook her head. I don’t need this now.

“Good morning, gorgeous,” Karen said with a smile in her voice.

“Get up and get out,” Anne replied harshly.

“Huh?” The blonde looked confused. “What do you mean?”

“Don’t they teach you English where you come from? I said get out!” The dark-haired woman turned around and walked to the window, ignoring her guest. She could hear Karen sniffle from the bed, but no sound of her getting up and dressing.

“Are you still there?” Anne asked coldly without turning around. “I thought I made myself clear.”

She looked over her shoulder at a very confused and humiliated blonde. “I’ll be generous. I’m going to give you two minutes to get dressed and get out of this room. After that time I’m going to throw you out myself.” She paused for effect, knowing exactly what she was doing to the other woman. “Just the way you are.”

Karen dressed quietly while Anne looked at her with a smile that never reached her eyes. She knew she was behaving deplorably, but also knew it was the only way for her to handle these situations. Better they hate me than like me. Makes life much easier. None of them could love me anyway, they better realize that from the start. And I couldn’t love them. I will never love again. Never. I don’t need anyone.

Anne heard the door open and Karen’s cold whisper. “I hate you, Anne Patakis!” How often have I heard this? I don’t care. Maybe ‘Killer’ is the best word to describe me after all.

The tall woman concentrated on the street below her window and wondered why there were tears in her eyes.

She was still unsettled when she walked onto the court in the afternoon. She strolled over to her chair as casually as she could. Her eyes wandered to the other side of the net, to Shana. They hadn’t met yet because the club offered them the luxury of separate dressing rooms. When Shana arrived, Anne looked up at the sound of her feet and realized with a start that she had long since lost the ability to look her former best friend in the eyes, and in the single moment of clarity that thought offered her she realized that she wanted to change her life and go back to the way she was before. If she knew half of what I was doing nowadays, she would hate me. I don’t want her to hate me. God, what have I done?

The match went exactly the way most of their matches went. Shana won the first four games before Anne got her body to function properly in the blonde’s vicinity. Still, today was different. The taller player noticed that she wasn’t able to keep her emotions under control. She was frustrated by her unforced errors and by Shana’s brilliant passing shots. The linesmen were obviously blind, and so was the umpire. Anne lost the first set in a stunning twenty minutes, winning only one game.

The second set didn’t go any better and Anne got angrier by the minute. She kept kicking the floor, the balls, her chair, everything she could get before her feet. She cursed and shouted at herself, the linesmen and the umpire. After two games in the second set she found herself fined for her behavior, which made her even angrier. She was totally out of control.

Then it happened. Another nice serve from Shana, which she was barely able to reach. She stretched herself as far as she could, bringing the head of her racket just behind the ball. The ball bounced off the racket’s frame with incredible speed and shot like a cannon in the direction of the umpire at the net, hitting him at the temple.

There was a deathly quiet in the stadium for a second. Then a collective gasp escaped a multitude of lungs when the man slumped to the side and fell off his chair with an audible thud.

Anne didn’t notice what was going on. She was too intent on her own mistakes and her inability to play she was used to. She was already positioning herself for Shana’s next serve when she noticed that the blonde player was running to the side of the court to a form lying there. At that moment Anne realized that something had happened. Shana was kneeling next to what was obviously a fallen man and the chair umpire was on her way over there as well. Anne decided to take a closer look at what was going on.

She walked over to the commotion with slow, unsure steps. Something in her was telling her that she didn’t want to be there anymore. The umpire was talking to some official while Shana was touching the man’s shoulders. When the blonde noticed the taller woman coming their way she got up and intercepted Anne.

“Anne,” she said quietly. “It was an accident.”

Anne was confused. What had happened? “What was an accident?” she asked, still moving towards the still form on the ground. “What’s going on?”

For the first time in months the two friends looked directly into each other’s eyes. Anne noticed that the green eyes she knew so well were filled with tears.

“Anne, your return hit the net umpire in the head.”

“Return … umpire … head … how?” The tall woman was utterly confused. “I didn’t notice anything.”

“No, the way you behaved today I’m sure you didn’t notice a thing,” Shana said with a slightly bitter undertone. She had been getting really pissed at Anne’s behavior over the past months. Today had just topped it off. She pulled herself together. “He’s unconscious and we’ve already called the tour doc–”

The doctor arrived at that second and both women made their way over to the man. Anne looked down reluctantly. He was in his late forties or early fifties, she assumed. He had reddish-blonde hair and a large, strong body. The doctor checked him over and then looked at them with a serious expression.

“I’m afraid we have to get him to a hospital as soon as possible. This is serious.”

“How serious?” Anne heard a voice asking and discovered it was her own.

“Very,” came the short reply. “There’s a swelling at his temple that doesn’t look good, and he’s totally unresponsive.” He turned to direct the approaching paramedics to the victim. It only took them a minute to secure him on a stretcher and transport him off the court and to the nearest hospital.

Anne felt lost and more alone than she had felt in a very long time. She tried to put on a mask of indifference to cover up her reaction. She felt utterly responsible for the man’s condition. It was her racket that had sent the ball his way. Her uncontrolled behavior that had made her inattentive. Her behavior from last night and her irresponsible ways that made her too slow to properly hit the ball.

Then Shana was there, stroking the small of her back in slow, small circles, whispering soothing words, and Anne felt the last remnants of control leave her body. She felt herself taking a shuddering breath and then she started to cry and couldn’t stop it. She cried for the man she had hurt, and for her brother, and for her relationship to the woman who stood right beside her now, comforting her.

Anne withdrew from the match, letting the umpire know she was unable to continue. She and Shana left the court together. They quickly showered and dressed and headed off to check on the injured man. Together.

At the hospital they were told that he had died in the ambulance.

The next day Shana called her for the first time since her brother’s birthday party 18 months before. Well, the truth was that Shana had called her several times, but she had never answered the phone when she had seen Shana’s number on her cell phone display or on her Caller ID. That day she wanted to answer.

“Hello, Shana.” She knew she sounded weary, but she couldn’t change that if she tried.

“How are you?” was Shana’s first question. After eighteen months she still cares.

“I’m fine,” Anne lied, not knowing what else to say.

“You’re lying.”

“What if I am?”

“Would you like to talk about it?”

“I … don’t know … what to say. What is there to say?” Anne took a shaky breath. “How can you even offer that after all that I’ve done?”

There was a small pause on the other end of the line. “There’s a lot to talk about, but we could start by talking about yesterday.” Another small pause. “And I’m offering because I lo– think you need it, and so do I.”

“I don’t want to talk over the phone,” Anne replied. I wonder what she really wanted to say just now.

“I could be over at your hotel in about fifteen minutes.”

“No!” Anne said quickly. Not after that night with Karen here. I don’t want her here. She would know, somehow. “Can I come and see you instead?”

“No!” came Shana’s answer just as quickly. “I mean … my parents are here and we wouldn’t have any privacy. You know how they are.” A laugh that sounded forced to Anne’s ears came over the line. “Listen, why don’t we meet in the lobby of your hotel and then find some quiet place together?”

“Sounds good to me.” Anne listened to Shana’s breathing for a while, then decided to leap over the shadow of her broken heart. “I’m sorry for everything, little one. So sorry.”

She could hear Shana’s surprised gasp at the other end, and half expected her not to say anything. Then she could hear a very quiet “So am I.”

Anne decided to end the call so that Shana could come over. Suddenly she was impatient to see her friend in person. Friend? Yes, we might be able to be friends again. Hopefully. Anne felt a part of her burden become lighter at the thought. “Thank you for having the courage to call, Shea,” she simply said.

“You’re welcome. See you soon.”

Both women ended the phone call a little reluctantly, finding it hard to sever that newfound connection. Then, both women broke into a flurry of activity to make themselves presentable for the other one.

January 2002

Anne once again lifted her coffee mug to take another sip of the now cold beverage. That day was probably the worst day of my life. She ignored her tear-streaked face and running nose. She was a mess, and she knew it. But …

But the day also brought back Shana and the beginning of the long journey to being friends again, and with that a lot of possibilities.

Anne took a deep breath and decided to pay her brother a visit before Shana arrived. Hopefully, the long walk to the cemetery would clear her head.

Chapter 7

Anne dressed comfortably and warmly for the march to the cemetery. Although her mother’s property lay directly next to the cemetery with only a small stand of trees that served as protection against the wind whipping across the countryside, it was still a brisk twenty minute walk, even for someone with legs as long as Anne’s.

Dressed in her thickest pair of jeans, a very warm leather jacket, and her favorite hiking boots, she set off at a pace that would get her to the cemetery quickly for some much needed quiet conversation with her dead brother.

She got as far as the main house.

As she passed the back door to the kitchen, the tall woman suddenly felt the urge to see her mother. I should bring Petey another rose anyway, she thought, and promptly altered her course. For as long as Anne could remember there had always been roses in her mother’s house.

At first, it had been Pete who had always found a reason to bring a bouquet of roses, often surprising their mother with the flowers. No one knew where Pete’s fascination with that particular plant stemmed from, but Anne had asked her little brother and he had said that it was the smell he couldn’t resist, and the way the petals slowly unfolded when the rose began to bloom. He said he also admired the sturdiness of rose bushes, their ability to withstand all kinds of weather.

“If I ever had the choice to be reborn as whatever I wanted,” he had once told her, “I want to be a rose. Beautiful, but not without its thorns. Resistant, but irresistible. And that smell …” he had finished dreamily. Then, of course, there was the fact that their father hated his son’s love for flowers.

Anne had never really shared Peter’s passion for roses or any other flower. In her opinion flowers should grow somewhere in the wilderness, only to be stumbled upon occasionally and by accident. She had always been averse to any kind of holiday that required the giving of flowers as if it was decreed by the heavens above.

Mother’s Day. Pete always had the most beautiful flower arrangements for their mother, even as a child. I always gave her something I had made myself, Anne mused. She probably preferred the flowers.

Valentine’s Day. Definitely no favorite of mine. I never had anyone to give flowers to anyway.

But since her brother had died, Anne had discovered her own love for roses. They reminded her so much of Pete that she couldn’t have resisted their allure had she wanted to. She and her mother kept roses at the house at most times of the year, and the fall after Pete’s death they had planted their first rose bush together. That was the beginning of a tradition; now, the planting of a new rose bush was an integral part of remembering Pete’s birthday.

Anne entered the kitchen and automatically looked around for her mother.

At this time of the year, the hotel didn’t have too many guests, usually just a small number of elderly couples, so her mother had some time for herself. Being a cook with every fiber of her heart, she loved spending that time in the kitchen. At the moment, however, she was sitting quietly at the huge kitchen table, obviously enjoying a cup of her favorite tea.

“Hello, honey,” she greeted Anne. “Looking for me?”

“Hi, Mom.” Anne turned to face her mother. “I was just on my way over to visit Pete, and I thought I could take him another rose.” She grinned sheepishly.

“Oh, that’s nice, dear. He’s just going to love that.” Irene watched her daughter for a second and decided that something was definitely wrong. Hmm, I wonder …

She gestured to the chair next to her. “Why don’t you sit down for a little while and keep your mother company?”

“Ah,” Anne stalled, “no, it’s all right. I just wanted to get a rose for Petey.”

“Anne,” the smaller woman said, a little more insistent this time, “is anything wrong?” Irene decided that the direct approach would work best with her daughter. “You look like death warmed over,” she added for good measure before she ostentatiously pointed to the chair again. When Anne still didn’t move, she finally commanded, “Sit!”

Anne moved to the indicated chair and sat down.

“Now,” Irene continued conversationally, “tell me what’s bothering you.”

Resistance is futile, Anne cited one of her favorite TV shows. She grinned slightly, strangely comforted by the predictable behavior of a caring parent. Wonder if the Borg got that from our mothers …

Anne knew that it would be indeed futile to try and tell her mother that she was all right when she herself had flinched when she had checked her appearance in the mirror that morning. She decided to tell her mother the truth … or at least a version of it the older woman could live with.

“I didn’t sleep too well last night.”

“Hmm,” came Irene’s noncommittal sound. She watched her daughter from the corner of her eyes. She looks like a caged animal. Seeing the weary look of the blue eyes she knew so well, she suddenly had a pretty good idea what was disturbing Anne’s sleep.

“Nightmares again?” Irene asked quietly.

“You know?” Anne was surprised. As far as she could remember she had never really told anyone about the terror that visited her some nights. “But … how … what …?” she stuttered, a bit confused.

“I’m your mother.” As if that would explain it all.

“So?”

“Anne, I’ve known you for 32 years now, and I know you well.” Maybe better than you would wish for. Irene’s mouth curled slightly in a private little smile. “I could tell you that all it takes was one look into your eyes to know everything that’s going on behind those baby blues,” she paused for effect, “but that would be a lie.”

“OK, I’m curious now. How did you know?” Anne was still intrigued by her mother’s behavior sometimes, even after 32 years.

“Do you remember when you came home from that horrible tournament in Germany?”

Anne nodded. How could she forget that? She had been thinking about it the whole morning.

“You were staying here because your house hadn’t been finished yet. You used the room next to mine, and in the night there was some noise coming from your room. Normally I wouldn’t investigate noises coming from my grown daughter’s room, but I was worried, considering what had just happened to you.”

Anne nodded again, letting her mother know that she understood perfectly.

“When I approached your bed, you were screaming and thrashing around. Your blankets and pillows were all over the place.” Irene noticed the look in her daughter’s eyes. “What?”

Anne looked at her mother, her teeth biting at her lower lip in a sure sign of her thinking process. “You said I was screaming,” she said. “Do you remember what I was screaming?” Maybe, maybe she can help me figure it out. Why did I never think of asking her in the first place?

Irene thought for a moment. Then she shook her head. “No, darling. Unfortunately, you weren’t saying anything that I could understand. You were just rambling.”

Anne looked deflated, the glimmer of hope that had been there for a second gone from her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Irene said, gently laying a hand on Anne’s forearm. “So, you have nightmares, but you cannot remember anything about them. Right?”

“Right.” Anne snorted, thoroughly disgusted with her inability to overcome what she considered one of her biggest weaknesses.

“Have you ever thought about talking to someone about those nightmares?”

“No, not really.”

Irene wasn’t a bit surprised by this answer from her stoic daughter. “Maybe you should. I’m sure it would help. I’m certain that these dreams are connected to that horrible accident …” An idea formed in Irene’s mind and took the shape of a certain blonde tennis player.

“Why don’t you talk to Shana about it? She’ll be here anytime now, and she was right there with you when it happened.” Irene was happy with her idea. “I bet talking to her would really help you. I mean, she was there for you when it happened, so why don’t you try at least try it while she’s here?”

“I’ll think about it,” Anne said quietly, her head bothering her again. Won’t be of any help if my nightmares are because of what I did to Shana … or the other women.

“I mean, not that you don’t have enough to talk about,” her mother kept on rambling, not really thinking that Anne would go for it. “Maybe she has nightmares, too, and you can help each other. She …” Slowly, realization of Anne’s reply sank in. “You’re going to think about it?”

Anne nodded wearily.

Irene beamed. “That’s all anyone can ask, honey.”

Anne got up from the chair and looked around the large kitchen. I need to take a walk before Shana arrives. I need to think.

“Are you looking for something, Anne?” her mother asked.

“Roses.” Anne breathed. “I need to bring Pete a new rose.”

“I’ll get you one,” Irene said and left the kitchen. She knew Anne needed time for herself. If that meant that she would feel better afterwards or that she would consider talking to Shana about her nightmares, Irene was all for it.

*******************

Anne finally left for the cemetery bundled up in her warm clothes, one gloved hand clutching a deep red rose. When her mother handed her the flower she had known at once that the older woman had found the darkest rose she had, just like Pete had always liked them.

She walked as fast as she could in the snow to keep herself warm, and she reached the trees at the edge of her mother’s land in record time. Once there, she slowed her walk a bit, letting herself feel the joy of being outside.

She took a deep breath and let the mixture of scents trickle down into her soul. The resinous smell of the old pines and the earthy scent of the dark soil that wasn’t hidden under a thick layer of snow under trees. She stood still for a moment, just listening. A slow smile crept across her face when she realized that except for the sounds the wind made when it traveled through the thick branches of the trees, it was absolutely quiet. Except for the pounding in her skull, which she swore must have been audible even outside her head.

She concentrated on relaxing, letting the scents of the earth and the trees and the sounds of the wind soothe her. She closed her eyes and consciously tightened and then relaxed every muscle in her tall body. She had done that a thousand times before, most often before matches, and she hoped that her ability to pinpoint the exact location of her pains would help her now. She really needed to get rid of the headache before Shana arrived. I’m gonna be a total grump otherwise.

One thing she definitely didn’t want to feel when she met Shana was cranky. She was nervous enough without being thrown off balance by her nightmares.

When her head finally began to clear a little, she resumed walking and quickly made her way to the border of the small cemetery. She soon had an unimpeded view of the cemetery, including a small blonde figure that was walking around, obviously deep in conversation with someone.

Even from this distance, Anne had no trouble identifying her best friend. So, you’re visiting Pete, too. She settled under the trees, deciding not to disturb her friend. She didn’t feel ready to meet her yet, needing the comforting quietude of a visit to her brother’s grave.

Instinctively she knew that Shana was there for the same reason, and she felt that her presence would not be entirely welcome right now. But I’d sure like to know what you’re talking about to him. What are you telling him?

She looked closely at the woman she loved and noticed that her body language was one of indecisiveness and maybe nervousness. She had known the blonde too long not to realize that something was bothering her friend. She had spent hours on and off the tennis court watching Shana, often with a guilty conscience that told her she was just checking her friend out. But there was usually the very valid excuse of having to find out as much as she could about one of her greatest rivals.

Right? Right! Anne chuckled, knowing she knew more about Shana’s body … and its language … than about any other player’s body language.

Anne came out of her musings and saw that Shana seemed to be leaving the cemetery. The blonde headed for her car and got in as fast as possible. You’re always so cold. How long have you been here talking to Pete? After what seemed like hours, Shana finally started the engine and drove along the road, straight towards Irene Patakis’ hotel. Say hello to Mom for me, will ya. I’ll be there soon …

The tall woman made her way over to her brother’s grave. She patted the headstone and smiled at her brother’s name, then crouched down to place the rose on his grave. She noticed the rose that should have been buried by at least an inch of snow, the one she had brought him two days earlier. Thank you, Shana.

She put the fresh rose next to the frozen rose, placing them in perfectly parallel lines before straightening her whole body and taking another look around. You sure have been marching around here for some time, little one. There were tracks all around the grave and along the small path that led in several directions away from it. Seems you were either deep in thought or very, very cold. Or both.

She sat down on the bench Shana had so nicely cleared of snow, and just looked at the two roses. Suddenly she didn’t feel like saying anything much, so she just tried to silently communicate her love for her brother. The dead can hear our thoughts anyway, she thought. Too bad we can’t hear theirs.

She focused on her brother, trying not to let the guilt she so often felt cloud over her feelings of love for him. But damn! I should have been there for you! God, why didn’t you tell me what was going on?

She knew he couldn’t have told her even if he had wanted to because she wasn’t there and no one knew where she was. The day of Pete’s birthday party she had just vanished. And she would never forgive herself for that. Her little brother’s 21st birthday was the last time she had seen him alive. It was the last time she had seen him, period.

Just thinking about that hurt like hell. But, just as always, being close to her brother’s grave forced the memory of that day to the surface of her mind. Anne closed her eyes in pain and let the inevitability of her memories take over.

After Shana had left her room, Anne had felt empty and dead, and all she had been able to do was cry for a very long time. She hadn’t known how long she had been rolled up in a fetal position on the bed, but at one point she had realized that she’d had to get up and join the party downstairs.

She had begun to roll onto her back, mentally preparing herself to get up. The motion had made her realize the uncomfortable presence of a square object in her pocket poking her hips. Once fully on her back, she had pulled the offending object out to look at it.

The ring, still in its box. And not on Shana’s finger.

Her fingers had clenched around the box so hard that the material gave a small squeaking sound. For a second, she had felt the urge to just crunch the box and the ring inside to dust, and unconsciously she had tightened her hand even more. Then, just as suddenly, she had opened her hand and let the box simply fall onto her stomach, where it had bounced once and then settled on her navel.

Ignoring it, Anne had rolled herself out of bed and had gone to the bathroom to take a quick shower and prepare herself for the party. Had she taken a closer look at her eyes in the mirror, she would have been terrified by the emptiness that haunted her. As it was, she hadn’t looked at her eyes. She just hadn’t cared enough.

In order to survive, Anne had pushed her emotion somewhere down into the deepest recesses of her heart and mind, hoping to never find them again.

The ring had fallen to the floor, unnoticed.

“You know what the crazy thing is, little brother?” Anne asked the silent grave. “Shutting off my emotions had always worked before that, you know that … and it still does when I need it to … but …” A sigh escaped her lips that was both wistful and exasperated.

“But it never worked with her. I could never get her out of my system.” Especially not after those kisses. Before that, maybe. After that day … never. I just didn’t realize that until it was almost too late for me.

Her brother’s party had been an exercise in coolness for her. After taking a scalding hot shower, she had dressed in the toughest clothes she could find in her closet. She had pulled out a pair of black leather trousers that she had bought a while ago for one of Kevin’s parties that she hadn’t gone to in the end. A black satin shirt and her black leather blazer had completed the outfit.

“How fitting,” she had quietly commented to her own dark image in the mirror. Dark, distant, and meaningless. With a last clenching of her fist, she had turned and left the room.

Downstairs, she had behaved as normally as possible towards her family and most of their friends, but had ignored Shana almost completely. At least as much as she could, among a group of people who they were best friends. Used to be best friends.

Peter had been totally confused. He had asked her several times throughout the evening what had happened between her and Shana. She had shrugged him off. At one point he had asked her, “What’s going on? First you’re making out like crazy in the kitchen, and then you’re not even looking at each other. So, what went wrong? Did you … you know … do more than … you know what I mean?” He had been uncomfortable at that point.

“What do you think happened? Do you really think I touched precious Shana? Do you think she said no and I did it anyway? What … do … you … think?” she had growled, deep in her throat, coldness streaming out of her eyes like a glacial river.

Pete had been scared of her, she had seen that, and it had ripped another hole into her already wounded heart. “Sorry, Petey!” she had muttered. “I’m just in a bad mood. I don’t want to ruin your birthday. Come on, have fun, just … leave me alone, will ya?”

He had simply nodded and had gone back towards their friends. Anne had looked up and had gazed right into a pair of green eyes that seemed to be confused and hurt. For a second, she had been able to see confusion and … hope in those eyes, but then the tall woman had made a conscious effort to put on her coolest facade, and had turned away from Shana.

Anne looked up into the blue sky and watched the clouds chasing each other. The snow had stopped in the early hours of the morning, her mother had told her before she had left for the cemetery. It had been snowing continuously for several days until then, and the countryside was covered by an even white blanket.

Looking at the almost blinding whiteness surrounding her, the dark-haired woman realized she should have brought her sunglasses. She began searching in her coat, but merely confirmed that she had indeed forgotten them at home. “Stupid,” she muttered.

She focused her gaze on the dark red roses on her brother’s grave to relax her eyes, but then decided to just close them. Probably better for my head anyway. Her thoughts drifted back to the last time she had seen her brother.

The party had ended on a very low note, even for her father, when George Patakis had decided to vent his drunken rage. Anne and Pete had been able to drag their father off to another room in an attempt to save the party. Once in the study, George had started shouting at his son, who had been helpless against the wave of mindless rage coming from his father.

“You’re not my son! Never!” The big man had shouted, standing not two feet away from his son. Anne had hung on his arms, trying to hold him back, but years of work as a tennis coach and his drunken rage made her father extremely strong. She had tried to soothe him with words, but he had ignored her completely while shouting insults at Pete.

“You’re … you’re a sissy, a fag, a fucking homo! Always bringing flowers into the house! Writing poetry! That’s not normal.” His voice had become higher and higher. “And look at you, blondie! You don’t even look like me.”

He had noticed Anne hanging off of him then. “Look at your sister, protecting you! You’re not half the man she is, you little girl. She could wipe the court with you even if she was sleeping!” At that, Anne’s arms had noticeably tightened around his biceps.

“Stop it, Dad!” Anne had said, right into his ear. She had been raging inside, but had been sure that shouting at George would only make the situation worse.

He had simply pushed her off. “Don’t protect that bastard, Anne! He’s not worth it! You can’t really love him, can you?”

His voice had sounded unbelievably cruel to her ears at that moment. Anne had searched for Pete’s eyes to reassure him, to let him know that his father’s words were not true, that she loved him with all her heart.

Pete had not looked at her, and with painful clarity the dark haired woman had realized that her little brother was scared his father was right. She had remembered the scene at the party where she had sent him away, because he had been concerned about her and Shana.

And she had realized her father had won. He had worked so hard to divide the siblings, driving wedges between them whenever he could, and now he had managed to reduce Pete’s self-esteem to nothing. He had managed to make Pete believe that no one could love him, not even the sister he had adored all his life.

She had let go of her father and had walked over to where Pete sat, huddled into a corner like a small child. Her father had never stopped ranting, but she had pushed his voice into the background, concentrating on her brother instead.

She had touched his chin to lift his head. She had wanted, no, needed to look him in the eyes and tell him she loved him, but Pete had just tried to make himself smaller. Bending her head, she had tried again, this time bringing her brother’s eyes up to look at her own. What she had seen had scared her. The warm hazel eyes she had known were gone and had been replaced by a hollow emptiness that she had never before seen.

She had gotten Pete up from the floor, pulling at his arms until he was standing. She had realized that her father must have done that to her brother many, many times to get that sort of reaction from Pete. She had known that he had not gotten on with their father; neither had she, but George had never abused her the way he had just abused his son. Pete had never told her, and that had hurt Anne more than she had thought possible because it had meant that he hadn’t trusted her enough. Trusted her to help him.

She had gently pushed Pete out the door and had turned around, intent on stopping her father once and for all. Stopping him from hurting Pete, hurting her, and for making all their lives miserable. George, however, had pushed her aside with brute force and had followed his son as fast as his inebriated state allowed him. When he had caught up to his son, he had started beating him, being long past the ability to speak.

Anne had followed him, and with the help of Kevin and Mike, had then finally been able to subdue her father, who by then was completely out of his mind. By then, her father had not been the only one seething with rage. Anne was mad at her father, herself, and her mother, who was just sitting there, watching the whole scene. She had been able to feel the tension of it in every single cell in her body.

George had then left the house, leaving six miserable people inside. Anne had stood to one side of the room, eyes unseeing, just trying to control herself. Then she had felt Shana’s presence close to her, and she had known in that one moment that she had only two choices.

Break down and cry like a baby in Shana’s arms, hoping to be loved and forgiven, or … run.

Shana had touched her arm then and Anne had looked into those green eyes, still undecided. She had seen Shana’s eyes widen and had recognized the feeling reflected in them as fear. Right then, she had decided to run. To run and stay as far away from Shana as possible. It’s the only way, little one, she had thought. I don’t want to hurt you.

She had pushed away Shana’s hand and had simply left, not looking back.

“And I’ve never made a worse mistake in my life, Pete,” Anne said, unconsciously looking up at the sky again. I wonder where you are, sometimes. Are you up there? Is there a heaven? If there is, you deserve to be there, doing all the things that bastard never let you do. Aloud she said, “I’m so sorry I let you down, Pete. I should never have run.”

Anne looked at her watch, surprised to see that only a few minutes had passed since Shana had left the cemetery. You sure can remember a lot of bad stuff in such short time. She decided to head back to the hotel to greet her friend. She should be there in a couple of minutes. Anne felt a light tingling at the base of her neck, as if the tiny hairs there were standing on end. My body seems to be already preparing to meet her. She grinned, and for the first time since waking up that morning she felt good.

She thought about the ring she had wanted to give Shana so many years ago. She had returned deep in the night after the party and had walked into her room to grab a couple of things. When her eyes had fallen on the ring on the floor, she had tried to ignore it. She had moved about the room for ten minutes or so, touching this, looking at that.

In the end, the ring was all she had taken with her when she had left the house that night.

The ring had kept her company in all those years. For a long time she had used it as a reminder of the dangers of love. One day she had looked at the ring and had seen Shana in her mind’s eye. With that, the ring had again become a symbol of her love for the blonde woman, and the ring was still waiting for Shana wherever Anne went.

Anne made her way to the wooden gate, deciding on a whim to take the slightly longer walk along the road to her mother’s place. She gently closed the latch on the gate and made her way towards the road, following in Shana’s footsteps as much as she could, smiling in anticipation.

Then the sickening groan of tortured metal reached her ears and her heart stopped beating.

Total stillness followed, in which Anne could hear her heart resume a frantic pace, and she set off at a run in the direction of the sound. She thought she heard a car in the distance, but pushed the thought away, focusing only on one thing. She just knew it.

Shana.

Chapter 8

Anne felt her feet moving before she gave the conscious command to set her muscles in motion. She was running to her mother’s hotel as fast as her legs would carry her on the still frozen road.

Faced with the choice between icy patches on the road and knee-high snow on the roadside she opted for the ice in the hope that she would not break her legs before getting to where she was needed.

She knew, deep down, what she would find at the place where the ominous sounds had come from. She couldn’t explain it–didn’t even feel the need to explain it–she just knew. With absolute certainty.

She cursed her slow progress, the condition of the road forcing her to go much slower than she wanted to. Then again, even if the road had been clear, she was sure that she could never get there fast enough in her eyes.

Please be all right, Shea.

Another slip, and this time she went down, hitting the ground hard. She tried to stop her fall with one outstretched arm, realizing that that was probably not the brightest idea when she felt the bones in her wrist give way to the weight. Oh, shit. I so don’t need this now.

She got up, cradling her left wrist with her right hand, pushing away the pain into some deep corner of her mind. Time for that later.

She was running again, as fast as she could while still cradling her injured hand, trying to ward off most of the pain that shot up her arm with every step she took. She looked up, hoping to see the site of the accident, although she knew that it would be impossible.

The road wasn’t straight between the cemetery and the entrance to her mother’s driveway. It meandered, following a little stream, which in the spring would once again murmur away right next to the road. Now it was frozen over, and for a second Anne wished she had skates under her feet.

She came to another bend in the road, one that was covered with snow-capped trees, making it impossible to see beyond it. She pushed herself a little more, wishing, wanting to see what had happened after that bend in the road. She was breathing heavily by now, although it wasn’t from exertion.

She was scared. Plain and simple. Please be all right, Shea. She repeated her new mantra over and over again in her head, hoping that focusing on her love would get her there a little faster.

By now, her feet had gotten used to the road conditions and her hiking boots found a better grip on the snow and ice. Trusting her legs, she put even more effort into her forward movement. She knew that beyond the next bend, the road would straighten and she would have a clear view. She passed the sign that announced the upcoming hotel driveway without giving it a second glance.

And then she saw it.

Anne skidded to a halt on the ice and felt her heart drop to parts unnknown. Shana’s car stood at an angle to the road while the front had attached itself to a tree, climbing it halfway. The jeep, the tree and the ground almost formed a perfect triangle. Anne could hear the groan of the metal and the creaking sound of the tree.

The dark-haired woman slowly walked up to the wreck, not at all sure that the tree would withstand the pressure of the large SUV much longer. She walked around the car to the driver’s side and looked inside.

Shana was pressed back into her seat, cushioned between the airbag and the headrest, her head slightly angled to the window. She was unconscious and Anne tried to assess her condition before pulling her out of the car. The last thing she wanted to do was hurt Shana more by trying to help her.

As far as Anne could see, Shana had at least suffered a cut because she could see a streak of blood running down the side of her face. The blonde hair on that side of the head was also clotted with slowly drying blood, and Anne hoped with all her might that it was just a cut and not something more severe.

She took a step back and pondered her options, realizing very quickly that she didn’t have that many. She had left her cell phone at home, not wanting to be disturbed on her walk. That left two options – run to her mother’s house, call an ambulance and wait for it to arrive, or get Shana out herself and carry her over to the house.

Anne looked at her left hand for a second and winced, but she knew that she didn’t have much choice. It was very cold outside and she didn’t want to risk leaving Shana in the car to get help. There was no way of telling how long it would take an ambulance to get there with these road conditions. She would feel better doing it herself anyway, injured hand or not.

The tall woman grabbed the door handle, pleasantly surprised at how easily the door opened. Shana’s unconscious body slumped a bit further to the side when the restraint of the door was gone, and Anne quickly positioned herself under her friend to stop unnecessary movements.

She pushed back the air bag, glad that the car didn’t have one in the door as well. She unfastened Shana’s seatbelt and silently thanked her friend for always buckling up, even for the shortest drives.

When Anne had gotten the restraints out of the way, she tried to find out the safest and easiest way to get her friend out of the car. She realized she had to by instinct since she knew absolutely nothing about freeing injured people from car wrecks.

She took in their position and decided that because the of relative height of the driver’s seat due to the car being pushed up against the tree, she would just try to hold on to Shana and get her out of there. Nice plan, she admonished herself, but couldn’t come up with anything else.

She pushed her right arm behind Shana’s back while slowly lifting Shana’s knees with her left. Every motion of her hand hurt like hell, but she ignored the pain and concentrated on her friend instead. Anne carefully lifted Shana several inches from the car seat until she was sure she would be able to get her out without too much jostling.

It was slow and painful work, but after a couple of minutes Anne was holding Shana in her arms. The blonde woman was still unconscious, although Anne had thought once or twice that she had felt tiny flutters coming from Shana’s body.

Anne took a deep breath and took the first step on her way to her mother’s house and the safe haven it provided.

After several steps she felt Shana stirring in her arms, and for a short moment the green eyes fluttered open, but before they had the opportunity to focus they were closed again. The blonde woman groaned, and Anne doubled her efforts in the knowledge that Shana was in pain.

“Oh …” the half-conscious woman murmured when her eyes fluttered open a second time. “Mmm … baby.” The darkness claimed Shana once again.

The endearment gave Anne another burst of strength and despite the situation she couldn’t help feeling a tiny wave of happiness.

*******************

Irene was standing in her kitchen, putting all of her concentration into following a new recipe she was trying out. She was surrounded by an assortment of cooking utensils, pots and pans and crockery, all spread out in a random pattern all over the enormous kitchen table.

This had always been her way of cooking, messing up the kitchen until it was almost unrecognizable as a room in her normally clean and pristine house. She needed that, called it creative cooking – and she was right. Most of the time her cooking was creative, and sometimes even innovative. She had always been able to create dishes that none of her family or her guests had ever tasted before.

Mixing teriyaki chicken with couscous and steamed vegetables. Throwing common garden flowers into a salad. Surprising everyone when her ideas not only proved to be edible, but also quite tasty.

She felt at home with unusual combinations and used those challenges to her family’s taste buds as a method of calming herself when she felt the need to. Calm down, get away from what was bothering her. Or her family.

Right now she was worried about Anne. She cut an eggplant in thin slices and covered them liberally with salt.

And Shana. She hacked an onion to little pieces that didn’t even sting her eyes anymore.

And those nightmares. She mixed a new combination of spices without really looking at them.

She put down her knife and stared out into the snow, wondering if she wasn’t responsible for a part of those nightmares that troubled her daughter.

She had always known–no, felt–that Peter was a little different, and not only in the way he looked. Both her husband and her daughter had bright blue eyes and straight coal-black hair, and both shared the same edgy features. Peter had hazel eyes and blonde hair that fell around his face in small locks.

The biggest difference, however, was that while Anne was frightfully intelligent, her little brother was not.

Irene had suspected that Pete might even have been a bit retarded, but George had always rejected that idea, had shrugged it off. As long as his son was able to hold a tennis racket and find his way around a tennis court, he had once told his wife, he could be a blabbering idiot in all other aspects of life for all he cared.

The problem was, Peter hadn’t been George’s son. And it had been only a matter of time until her husband discovered that little fact.

Peter must have been eleven or twelve years old when Irene realized that the day she had feared since his birth had finally arrived. She had come out to the backyard and had caught her husband watching their children, glancing back and forth from Pete’s fair looks to Anne’s darkness that so much resembled his own.

Irene had fervently hoped that George would attribute Pete’s lighter looks to her side of the family. But when she had felt George’s eyes turn to her and look at her with a sudden intensity, she had known that miracle wasn’t about to happen to her family. He had gotten up from his chair and taken a long drink from the bottle of beer he was holding. Then he had turned and walked towards her to the back door.

“No one else in this family has his eye color,” was all he had said to her when he passed her and walked inside. Just remembering the tone in his voice made her shiver.

After that she hadn’t noticed any difference in his behavior towards Pete, but her son had become more withdrawn, moody and sometimes downright jumpy. He had also gotten clumsier, and she had noticed that Anne had taken to spending most of her spare time in very close proximity to her younger brother.

She had asked both siblings what was wrong, but they hadn’t said anything. Then one day, Pete had come home from practice, sporting large bruises on his face and both arms. He was alone, and he thrown himself into his mother’s arms, crying and sniffling. Irene’s heart had broken at seeing her teenage son sobbing in her embrace. But still he hadn’t said anything to her.

Half an hour later, Anne had stormed in, obviously very angry. She had stood before Irene and had pointed to Pete.

“Are you going to do something about him?” she had asked.

It all had come crashing down on Irene then. All the signs she should have seen, all the hints both children had given, probably without wanting to. It all became brilliantly clear to her in that single moment in time.

Her husband was beating Peter.

She had never felt so helpless.

Anne hadn’t waited for an answer and had run upstairs to her room, but not without throwing her mother a look that had held equal amounts of pain, contempt and a cry for help.

She had tried to help as much as she could, but in the end, she had failed. Had failed Pete, had failed Anne. Had failed herself.

Irene came back to the present with a start when she felt the nails of her hand biting into her palm, leaving a sticky fluid she recognized as blood. Absentmindedly she grabbed a paper towel and dabbed at the red spots.

When she looked out the window again, she saw the unmistakable form of her daughter in the distance, obviously carrying something heavy. Anne’s run was a little unsteady and Irene had the niggling feeling that she had to be in pain. When the tall form came nearer, Irene recognized Shana in her daughter’s arms.

She gasped in surprise and was halfway out the door before she realized that she wasn’t wearing shoes.

*******************

Shana wasn’t feeling too well. She didn’t know where she was, nor could she remember how she got there. Her head hurt and there were other parts of her body that were also sore. But her head was the worst. It felt like someone had split open her skull to take a look inside, and in her almost unconscious state she imagined herself as a giant melon on a gargantuan buffet, just being split by … something.

Somewhere, deep down inside, she felt the presence of another person, but she wasn’t afraid. She was absolutely helpless, and normally that would have scared her more than the feeling she got from her head, but something in her told her that she was safe.

The presence began to move her, and then everything went deliciously black again. She didn’t know how long she had been unconscious, but when the blackness faded, she tried to open her eyes to see what had happened to her.

Opening her eyes hurt like hell, the slivers of bright light penetrating her pupils and searing their way through her brain to the back of her head. In reflex, she closed her eyes. Not good. She tried again, a little slower, and this time it was bearable. She focused her eyes and saw Anne, who was obviously holding her for some reason. Why, she had no idea.

Seeing Anne triggered something in her mind and she tried to remember what it was. She wanted to tell Anne something, her fuzzy brain told her. Ah. It was something important and it couldn’t wait. All she knew was that she had to tell Anne something. Important, important, important. What was so important? Her brain was playing with her, letting her glimpse at what she wanted to say, then withdrawing the information again.

Shana tried to speak. Maybe speaking without thinking would work. She opened her mouth, anxiously waiting what would come out, if anything did at all.

“Mmm … baby,” was what her mind had to offer, and she felt the rightness of it.

Then Anne began to move and Shana got sick to her stomach before the darkness claimed her again.

*******************

Anne was relieved when she saw that her mother’s house wasn’t far anymore. She was strong, but carrying an unconscious Shana for a mile through the snow and over icy patches was more difficult than she had expected. She was thanking every being there was that the cold made her limbs so numb that she didn’t feel her wrist anymore. Of course, the numbness didn’t make walking and carrying her friend any easier.

Just a few feet more. Anne had found out that the steady repetition of that sentence made her forget the burning in her thighs and shoulders and helped her focus on her goal.

Just a few feet more. She wasn’t even looking where she was walking by now, just followed her instincts and her knowledge of the road she was walking on.

Just a few feet more. She stumbled over a root that stuck out of the snow, just barely catching herself from tumbling to the icy ground with her precious cargo. She stopped for a moment to straighten her back and shoulders, settling Shana’s weight into a safe and comfortable position again.

She resumed walking. Just a few feet more.

And then she was met by a frantic Irene, whose presence she didn’t acknowledge, so focused was the tall woman on just reaching the warmth of the house. She passed by her mother without so much as a nod, afraid that if she stopped now, she wouldn’t be able to make the last few feet.

Chapter 9

Anne carried her injured friend into the kitchen and stopped dead in her tracks. Irene, who had been following her daughter as fast as she could in her socks in the snow, could barely stop her forward motion before she hit the taller woman’s back.

“What is it, Anne?” she asked, concern and worry coloring her voice.

Anne turned around to face her mother. “I don’t know what to do?” More question than statement, asked by a child rather than an adult.

That’s all Irene needed to hear to take charge of the situation. “Take Shea to the spare bedroom–”

Anne was out of the room before her mother could finish the sentence.

Irene shook her head, realizing that right now her tall daughter needed things to do, needed to act to help Shana, to be able to cope with the stress she felt. Irene, on the other hand, felt the need to take care of both of them.

She assessed the information she had: one, Shana was hurt; two, Anne was in shock or emotional overload; three, it was probably a car accident, which meant the injuries could be severe and they had to get a doctor as soon as possible. The problem was that the nearest hospital was a half-hour drive away in good weather. Now it could take forever. She hoped her GP in town was available. Otherwise …

Irene looked up the number and dialed. After several rings she heard the ever-cheerful voice of Mrs. Nussbaum, the doctor’s assistant. “Hello, Doctor Simpson’s practice. How may I help you?”

“Hello, Mrs. Nussbaum. This is Irene Patakis from Patakis’s Country Inn. There’s been an accident and I need the doctor here at the hotel as soon as possible.”

“Oh, Mrs. Patakis. I haven’t seen you in quite a while. Is everything all right with you?”

Irene groaned inwardly. “No, it isn’t.” And I’ve already told you that. “Could you get me the doctor on the phone, please?” I better talk to him; maybe he’s got his brains together today. The problem with the only GP in town was that Doctor Simpson was older than most of his patients, and his assistant, Mrs. Nussbaum, wasn’t that much younger.

“Well, Mrs. Patakis, I’d really love to, but you see, the doctor is not here right now,” came the unconcerned voice of Mrs. Nussbaum through the receiver.

“Where is he, then, and when will he be back?” Irene forced herself to speak slowly and enunciated every single syllable carefully. If I could get my hands on you right now …

“You see, he’s making a house call.”

Ookaaay. Take deep breaths, Irene. “When. Will. He. Be. Back?”

“I don’t know, dearie. Mrs. Miller’s having another one of those little ones again and I think the birth just started. You know how that goes. Have you heard–”

Irene hung up, effectively cutting off Mrs. Nussbaum’s ramblings. There was no chance that the doctor would be available today, or tomorrow. Mrs. Miller was notorious for her stamina where childbirth was concerned. She definitely held the town record for the longest birth. This was her fourth child, and every single birth had taken longer than the one before instead being quicker, which was usually the case. The last one had lasted 46 hours, and Irene knew there were bets going in town whether this one would last more or less than 50 hours.

In Irene’s opinion, Mrs. Miller did it on purpose because it was the only time she could read her favorite books relatively undisturbed. “Relatively” being the operative word here. Irene grinned evilly at her own thoughts. She must really love it.

Then she returned to the problem at hand. Great. What now?

Plan B.

*******************

Anne was frustrated. She felt angry and stupid that she had lost it in the kitchen in front of her mother. She had felt like a little kid who had brought home a hurt kitten. She had felt helpless, and she hated it.

As soon as her mother sent her to the spare bedroom, which was situated right next to the library, Anne had felt the need to move, to take action, to regain control over her feelings if not the situation as such. That she knew, would take a while.

She knew that her mother loved Shana like a second daughter and that she could count on Irene to get help for Shana as soon as possible. Part of her mind chastised her for shaking off this responsibility, but another, much larger part was glad that she could concentrate fully on her friend and her well-being.

She opened the door to the bedroom with her foot, glad it was an old-fashioned brass door handle and not a knob. She had run off without thinking that the door to the room would be closed. She sent a little prayer of thanks for her mother’s love for antiques and walked through the door, which thankfully was wide enough for her and the body in her arms.

Anne loved this large room with its French doors to the garden, its fireplace and its connecting door to the library. The room usually went unused, but sometimes Anne sneaked in at night after a long evening spent in the library, feeling like a kid as she lay in the enormous old four-poster bed that dominated the room.

She had always thought that her mother hadn’t known about her nighttime visits to the room, but after one such visit she had seen her mother changing the sheets. Anne had given her mother an innocent look, but Irene had just smiled back at her with a lot of understanding showing in her eyes.

“I do it too, sometimes,” she had said to Anne before leaving the room.

The tall woman knew why Irene had chosen this room for her friend now. Apart from the fact that it was the only bedroom on the ground floor, this room had a magic for her and her mother that was hard to explain. Anne didn’t think that Shana had ever been inside this room, but she just knew that the blonde would love it here just as much as she did.

She lay her friend down, noticing that her body seemed even smaller than usual. Shana was only four or five inches shorter than Anne, but she looked absolutely lost in the big bed. Anne didn’t want to move the blonde any more than necessary, but she couldn’t resist trying to remove the thick jacket Shea was wearing. The searing pain in her right wrist reminded her of her inability to do so. Stubbornly, the dark-haired woman tugged at the uncooperative zipper with her left hand, cursing the clumsiness of her movements in several languages.

“Come on, Shea, help me here,” Anne repeated over and over. “I can’t get this off of you alone. Wake up!”

Shana moaned, but remained unconscious. The zipper suddenly gave in to the constant tugging and Anne opened the jacket.

“Good girl! I knew if you helped it would be so much easier.” Anne continued to talk, willing her friend to react.

Anne realized that actually removing the jacket would be impossible without the use of both her hands, and the signals her right wrist constantly sent her now told her that was out of the question. She concentrated on Shana’s shoes instead, glad beyond measure that her friend shared her preference for hiking boots. She untied the laces with her left hand and pulled off the boots, discarding them next to the bed.

“Well, they seem to be all right,” she commented, running her fingertips over her friend’s socked feet. She didn’t know much about medicine, but as a tennis player she definitely knew feet. And as a person, she felt she could write a doctoral dissertation about Shana’s feet – and her legs.

She checked Shana’s body as much as she could and dared to. She ran her fingers up and down Shana’s legs, delighting in the feel despite the situation. She took Shana’s hand into her own much larger one and gently started stroking the back of the hand with her thumb.

“Oh, baby,” she said quietly to the still form, “please wake up. Tell me what’s wrong, tell me what happened.” She felt the tears waiting at the back of her eyes. She let them come, not wanting or needing to hold back her emotions.

“I need you.” Her voice broke a little as the tears started rolling down her face. “I love you.”

The small hand gripped hers harder as if in answer.

“Shana?” Anne looked into her friend’s face, which was tightening in what Anne knew to be pain, having seen the expression on Shana’s face before when she had been injured on the tennis court.

“Shana, can you do that again?”

No reaction.

“Please, baby, wake up. Tell me where you’re hurt … please.” Anne got down on her knees beside of the bed, unconsciously adopting a begging position. “Come on, Shea, do it for me, please.” She paused, then quietly said “I love you” again.

The hand tightened again. Reflexively, Anne pressed the hand in hers, then raised it up to her face and kissed it lightly.

“Love … you,” came an almost inaudible whisper from the bed.

Anne looked up at Shana’s face again, but the blonde had already gone back to the darkness, leaving the older woman to wonder if it was her imagination and her dreams she had heard. She raised a trembling hand to Shana’s face and gently smoothed the blonde hair from her forehead. The head wound had stopped bleeding, and Anne knew at that moment that everything would be all right.

She sat back on her feet and continued to talk to her friend in quiet tones, describing the room they were in, still holding her friend’s small hand, caressing it with her thumb.

*******************

Irene went upstairs to the Hinkels’ room, hoping they had decided to stay in for the day. She knocked quietly, then a little louder.

Mrs. Hinkel opened the door. “Yes?”

“I’m really sorry I’m disturbing your afternoon, but I need your help. Is your husband here as well?” She asked her guests for favors only reluctantly, not wanting to interrupt their vacation.

“Yes, he is. Has something happened?” Mrs. Hinkel asked while gesturing to the person in the room behind her. Her voice carried a light German accent.

“There’s been an accident,” Irene replied, greeting Mr. Hinkel with a nod of her head. “I think it was a car accident.”

Mr. Hinkel went back into the room while Irene continued to explain the situation. “You know we were expecting Anne’s friend today and … well, Anne brought her in a minute ago, and she’s hurt. She brought her to a bedroom downstairs. Please, could you have a look at her, the doctor in town is unavailable.” Mrs. Hinkel laid a hand on Irene’s arm in sympathy.

Her husband returned to the door, a black bag in hand. He smiled. “Good thing I never go anywhere without my bag, isn’t it?” His accent was a little more pronounced, but could still not be called heavy. It was obvious that both Hinkels spent a lot of their time in an English-speaking environment.

He motioned for Irene to lead. “Show me where the patient is and tell me what you know on the way.” He turned back to his wife to look if she was following him.

Irene led them down the stairs, glad that the elderly German couple always stayed at the hotel at this time of the year. She was also extremely happy that Mr. Hinkel had been a doctor before he retired. A doctor who had married a nurse.

*******************

Shana had the feeling of being wrapped in thick black wool. Everything was fuzzy. The darkness around her beckoned her to just fall back into it, to just sleep, to experience no pain. No pain… that sounded good.

She struggled and pleaded, and the darkness granted her a look at the brighter side, with all the pain that it had to offer. Shana could feel her head explode in thousands of little shards of pain, each coming to haunt her in other places as well.

She let herself fall back into the darkness, feeling welcomed there, cherished and free from pain.

But …

But there was this incredibly warm voice again, pulling her up, talking to her in gentle tones, wanting her to do something. What, she had no idea.

Something about clothes, and feet, and a room.

And love. Need and love. The words tugged at her heartstrings, made her want to do something. What, she still had no idea. She had no concept of clothes, feet, rooms, and love. Need, she understood. She needed the darkness, needed to be free from pain.

But the voice needed something else, and her heart recognized the voice and answered.

Then she fell back into the darkness, helpless to do anything else, but feeling infinitely better now.

Everything would be all right.

The voice had said so, and deep down she knew the voice couldn’t lie.

Chapter 10

Irene and the Hinkels entered the room to find Shana lying in the large bed with Anne kneeling at her side. The dark-haired woman was gently stroking Shana’s face with her right hand while her left hand lay uselessly next to the blonde’s thigh. Her head leaned forward and her forehead touched Shana’s arm. She was still wearing her thick leather jacket and wet boots, but had removed her gloves.

When she heard her mother enter, Anne raised her head and turned to look at her.

Irene stopped at the door when she saw the picture before her, saw the strain in her daughter’s face, so clearly visible in the lines that ran across her usually smooth forehead and the dried tears she could still see. Anne also had a look in her eyes that Irene could remember only seeing once before, at Peter’s funeral eight years before.

She had never forgotten the haunted look in those blue eyes.

Right now, her daughter’s eyes showed confusion as well, directed at a point behind her shoulder. Irene quickly stepped to the side to make room for Dr. Hinkel and his wife.

“Anne, these are Mr. Hinkel and his wife,” she said.

“Hello,” Anne said, still kneeling by her friend’s side. Recognition dawned on her when she took a closer look at the elderly couple by her mother’s side. “I do know you, don’t I?”

“Mr. and Mrs. Hinkel have been guests here since the very first year, so you would have seen them around the house or the grounds, I guess,” the older Patakis said.

Seeing that the younger woman was still slightly confused as to why they were there, Mrs. Hinkel stepped up. “Hello, Ms. Patakis.” Anne nodded. “We’re here because my husband is a doctor and I was a nurse.”

“Yes,” Irene took over again, finally recognizing the protective stance Anne took over her injured friend. “Dr. Simpson couldn’t come, and Dr. Hinkel was nice enough to offer his help.”

Dr. Hinkel moved to the bed now. “Would you mind if I took a look at the patient, Ms. Patakis?”

Anne looked up at the elderly man with his nice brown eyes and decided that Shana would probably be in good hands with him. She reluctantly relinquished her place at Shana’s side so as not to be in the way, but she didn’t go far.

“Can you tell me what happened, Ms. Patakis?” the doctor asked while he put his bag down on a chair next to the bed and removed a stethoscope.

Anne nodded and swallowed audibly, then spoke, trying to be as calm as possible. “It was a car accident, but I don’t know how that happened.”

“Just tell me everything, how you found her and what you’ve done since then,” Dr. Hinkel prompted while he and his wife slowly and carefully got Shana out of her jacket.

Anne followed every movement of the elderly couple with hawk’s eyes. Her mother touched her arm and quietly said, “Maybe we should give the doctor some room to examine Shana. Don’t you think so?”

Anne didn’t move and didn’t take her eyes off her friend.

“Anne,” her mother implored, “you have to get out of these clothes. You must be overheating in that thick jacket. And get your boots off as well.”

When Anne still didn’t move, her mother turned her around and looked her straight in the eyes, or at least as much as she could with her daughter trying to look at Shana. Anne finally looked down at her mother’s face and Irene only added one more sentence.

“Please, let them do their job, Anne … you want Shana to be all right, don’t you?”

Anne relented and let herself be dragged over to a large comfortable chair in a corner with a clear view of the bed. Irene kneeled down before her daughter and began to undo her shoelaces, for a second remembering what it had been like when Anne was still too young to do that herself.

“Mom, please, I can do that,” Anne said, her voice sounding strained.

“That’s what you said when you were two as well,” her mother replied. She smiled at Anne, but stopped working on the laces.

Anne leaned down and started to work on her left boot, trying one-handedly to undo the double knot she tied her boots with.

“What’s wrong with your hand, Anne?” Irene asked, concerned.

“Nothing,” came the murmured reply.

“Why don’t you use it then?”

“Hurts.” The murmur was even less audible.

God, just like when she was a kid, Irene groaned. “How did you hurt it?”

“I fell on it.” Anne was irritated by now, wishing she were on the bed with Shana. Her eyes never left the blonde, but the doctor seemed to know his job and was carefully examining her friend’s head. “Mom, it’s nothing. I slipped and fell, that’s it. Nothing to worry about …”

“Nothing to worry about, huh?” Irene was unconvinced. To prove her point she touched her daughter’s hand with her fingertips and moved it slightly.

*******************

The dark cocoon that surrounded her was lifting a bit, almost, almost triggering a moan of protest from her depths. She wanted the darkness, its protection and its simplicity.

The darkness seemed unimpressed and moved further away.

She felt hands on her body, hands she didn’t know, and a voice was talking to her. Hands and voice were gentle. Unknown, but gentle. She gave into the feeling they gave her, deep down remembering that the nice, soothing voice had said that there would be help.

She was sure hoping this was it.

There were also other voices in the vicinity. They were slowly filtering through the receding darkness. If she concentrated hard enough she could hear that deep soothing voice among them. Ah, there it was, but it wasn’t soothing right now. It didn’t matter. The voice wasn’t talking to her anyway.

The voice sounded strained and she wanted to help. She forgot about the comfort of the darkness and welcomed the approaching light and the pain it brought. She struggled to find her way towards consciousness and the ability to get to the voice that needed her.

She knew that the voice needed her and she was willing to fight to be able to help.

She realized that she was almost there when the hands that were moving over her head, gently stroking her hair, moving her head carefully this way and that, became much more real than before. They weren’t whispers anymore, breezing along her skin. Now they were screams urging her to react in some way.

And then she heard the sound that made the darkness follow the way of the dodo.

“Ouch!” A pause. “What the –?” Another pause. “What did you do that for?” Pause again. “That fucking hurt!”

Uh oh. Time to say … something. “Anne?” God, her voice was croaky. Again. “Anne? Are you all right?”

*******************

Anne was glaring at her mother while the Hinkels stared at her with unreadable expressions on their faces.

Great! Now I’m scaring mother’s guests … Shana’s doctor. She growled at her mother, who simply raised an eyebrow as if she wanted to say “Nothing, huh?” Sometimes, just sometimes, hating one’s own mother was a very good feeling, Anne mused.

She tried to cradle her injured hand in a way that would make it stop throbbing painfully with every breath. The adrenaline that had enabled her to carry Shana home through snow and over ice was rapidly leaving her body, leaving behind a screaming pain that was telling her at least one thing loud and clear.

The hand wouldn’t be all right in the morning.

And she would have to get to the hospital to have it X-rayed. Probably broken. God knows what I did to my tendons there. Great, we can both go in together.

There was a sound. Anne’s eyes instantly tracked to the body on the bed, hoping to see Shana wide awake and feeling better, but her friend’s eyes were still closed. She noticed that both Hinkels were concentrating on the bed as well. They did hear it too. Then it came again.

“Anne? Are you alright?”

Anne barely managed to bite back the sob that threatened to escape her body at the relief she felt. She pushed down the pain in her wrist and jumped to her feet. In two strides she was by Shana’s side, rushing past Mrs. Hinkel in a none-too-gentle manner in her haste to get close to her friend.

She sat down on the bed and took the blonde’s hand into her right, feeling an almost unreal sense of happiness at the sight of the green eyes that struggled to stay open.

“It’s all right, Shea,” she soothed, stroking the back of the smaller hand with her thumb. “Everything’s going to be all right.”

“What happened?” Shana’s speech was surprisingly clear, although she seemed to pronounce every syllable extra carefully.

“You were in an accident. I found your car against a tree,” Anne explained in as few words as possible. She noticed that Doctor Hinkel seemed eager to get on with examining his patient. “Rest now, Shea, and let the doctor make everything all right.” She let go of Shana’s hand to make room for the doctor.

“Anne, the car,” Shana said, her voice becoming more slurred now.

“I’ll take care of your car.”

“No,” the blonde interrupted with a note of urgency, “other car. There was another ” Shana’s eyes closed again as she fell into sleep or unconsciousness again.

Anne walked away from the bed, a dark feeling nibbling at the edges of her memory. The sound of a car shortly before she had heard the crash. Yes, I’m sure I heard a car, and it wasn’t Shana’s. Now that she had time to think about it, there was something about the car wreck that hadn’t seemed right as well. I’ve got to get back there. I need to check the site.

She walked towards the door with purposeful strides.

“Where do you think you’re going?” came her mother’s voice from the corner.

“Mom, I need to get back to the car wreck. There’s something not right about it. There was another car, Shana’s said so right now.”

“Well, then let me call the sheriff. She’ll be able to sort it all out,” Irene interrupted her daughter. “It’s her job.”

“Mom …” Anne looked for words to express her need to go out there again to see for herself. “I know that the sheriff knows her job and I’m sure we’ll have to call her anyway, but … I … I mean, I …”

Irene recognized the look on her daughter’s face for what it was. A caged animal needing to get out to sniff and hunt for itself. She nodded, deciding that there wasn’t a way to stop Anne from doing what she felt she needed to do.

“I know, Anne,” she finally said. The sheer look of relief on Anne’s face brought her almost to tears. You love her so much, my child. I hope everything works out okay for you two. “Be careful.”

She barely finished her gentle reminder before Anne was practically running out of the room. Good thing I didn’t get you out of your jacket and boots and you couldn’t do it yourself with that hand. Your hand! Irene cursed silently. You stubborn …

“Anne!” she yelled after her departing daughter. “What about your hand?”

There was no response.

She hadn’t expected one.

Chapter 11

Anne ran out of her mother’s house, her long legs carrying her quickly to the door. Once outside, she started to jog along the driveway, only to almost fall down after a couple of steps. The thin layer of snow barely covered the ice beneath it and she had to fight to stay on her feet. Only her excellent sense of balance kept her upright.

Whirling her arms wildly she maintained her balance, but realized at the same time that she might have just made a big mistake because her hand was protesting loudly against the abuse. She had to use every ounce of her concentration to push down the pain that shot up her arm. Damn, damn, damn. This doesn’t feel too good. She knew that was an understatement.

But …

Going back now would feel even worse. If Anne hated one thing it was giving in, crawling back, looking weak. She could feel her face turn into a disgusted grimace. I can do this, she told herself. And she did. Just like always. She put on her poker face and walked on.

Thank God it’s not snowing anymore. She looked up at the sky with a grim smile.

At that moment, the first snowflake hit her squarely in her left eyeball.

“Thank you,” she murmured to any weather gods that might be listening. “Too kind of you. I was really looking for a challenge today.” She walked a little faster. “Fuck you! You won’t stop me!”

She growled deep in her throat and redoubled her efforts.

*******************

Irene shook her head at her stubborn daughter. Nothing I can do about it now. She moved over to the bed and sat down beside Shana’s limp body.

“Can you tell me what’s wrong with her?” she asked the elderly man who was just examining a set of matching bruises on the blonde’s shoulders. “Is she going to be all right?”

Mr. Hinkel looked at his patient for another long moment before he raised his eyes to meet Irene’s. He nodded. “She’s going to be all right. She was extremely lucky. I’d love to get her to a hospital to have her X-rayed, but from what I can tell without that, I’d say she has a concussion and some very deep bruises at both her shoulders.” He shook his head.

“What is it, Mr. Hinkel?” Irene asked.

“Please, Mrs. Patakis, I think you should call me Fritz. Isn’t that customary here in the States?”

Irene nodded. “But only if you call me Irene.”

Fritz Hinkel smiled at her. “My wife is called Hilde.” He looked over to his wife, who smiled at him with a love born of a lifetime together. “Now, where was I? Oh, yes. You wanted to know what I found strange, I presume?”

Irene nodded again, unwilling to interrupt the older man.

“Well, I was a little surprised to see those bruises on her shoulders because I’ve only ever seen them on drivers of sports cars at home.”

“What do you mean?”

“The bruises indicate that the patient,” he smiled at Shana, “used a 4-point-harness instead of the normal 3-pointer, and I didn’t know that they were used over here as well. They are much safer.”

He continued, this time pointing to Shana’s upper body. “4-pointers have two shoulder straps instead of one that crosses the chest.”

“Ah,” Irene said, at that moment remembering a talk with Anne a long time ago. “I see. Well, Shana won a Porsche at the tennis tournament in Filderstadt.” She smiled at Fritz, hoping she had pronounced the name of the small German town correctly. He nodded, well familiar with the tournament. “The car had those harnesses, and she was told that they were much safer, especially in sports cars, and she had them installed in all her cars ever since. So did Anne after Shana gave her a lecture on safety.”

“Oh,” the white-haired doctor nodded, “that explains it. A very wise decision. This way her stomach was unharmed and she received much less trauma to her upper body. Her shoulders and the bruised area on her hips will heal quickly, especially since she has very strong muscles there.”

Irene’s eyes tracked to Shana’s shoulders, following the rather pronounced shoulder muscles all the way down to her relaxed and still very obvious biceps. Her shoulders were discolored, sporting matching bruises that were turning an ugly shade of purple right before Irene’s eyes.

She gently caressed the skin over the bruises, willing them to heal as fast as possible. “Rest now and heal, sweetie. We’ll be here when you wake up. Everything is going to be all right.” She looked up at the doctor to have her statement verified by his old gentle eyes.

“Yes,” he said, recognizing the need for reassurance, “everything is going to be all right.”

*******************

When Anne arrived at the crash site, the snowflakes were twirling around her like a demented ballet troup. She stumbled towards the car, hoping that what had triggered her mind was still there – and still visible in all that snow.

She walked around and around the car, making a smaller circle with each turn at the tree the SUV was leaning against. She searched her memory for what she knew had bothered her the first time she saw the car wreck. She stopped and contemplated the car from the driver’s side.

And then it hit her.

There were scratch marks all along the side of the car that shouldn’t be there with that kind of accident.

“Ooookay,” Anne murmured to an absent Shana, “you either scratched your car along a very small but robust tree before you chose to crash headlong into that larger model there, or-”

Or someone had pushed her friend’s car off the road. On purpose.

Which meant that someone was trying to hurt Shana. Was maybe trying to do more than just harm her. Was maybe trying to kill her.

But why? And who?

Anne walked back to the house, her mind filled with more questions than answers from her disturbing foray into the wintry twilight. She needed to talk to Shana, and soon. Maybe she knew what was going on here.

She trudged home through the increasing snowfall, her mind filled with questions and a very distinct feeling of dread.

Chapter 12

Anne made it back to the house just before the weather turned into a full-blown snow storm. She entered through the front door and simply stood in the large entrance hall for a moment, then shook herself vigorously like a wet dog. Snow flakes and drops of melted snow flew from her head, but she didn’t care.

She peeled herself out of her thick, wet jacket, grateful for the zipper that opened easily and the fact that cold outside had reduced the pain in her wrist to a dull throbbing.

When she had gotten herself out of her jacket she sat down on one of the chairs in the hall that also doubled as the hotel’s reception area, knowing that the task of removing her boots would be a real challenge. She didn’t know why and didn’t think too hard about it, but she was unwilling to have her mother help her.

Unfortunately, the cold had made her hands not only unresponsive to pain but also to the commands her brain sent them, so she had to wait for a bit before she bent her head and concentrated on her task. One-handedly she tugged at the laces that were tied in her usual double knot, realizing quickly that opening them by herself would be impossible, especially since the laces were wet and clung together like overcooked spaghetti.

Anne sighed deeply. Her head was hurting again and she felt completely exhausted now that the adrenaline was wearing off. She took a deep breath and went to find her mother, who she knew would still be with Shana.

She entered what was now Shana’s room and saw her mother sitting in a wide, very comfortable armchair beside the bed. Mr. Hinkel stood in front of the large window, obviously in a quiet conversation with her mother, while Mrs. Hinkel straightened the blanket that covered Shana up to her shoulders.

“Oh, Shana,” Anne gasped, seeing Shana’s bruises for the first time. Besides the deeply bruised area on her shoulders and collarbones there was also a slight discoloration along the temple where Shana had obviously hit either her seat or something else. It was the side of the head that had been bleeding before, but since her friend didn’t wear a bandage around her head, Anne assumed that the wound had not been too deep or too serious. Oh, baby, you must hurt so much.

Okay, time to find out what’s wrong with her. And with me, her hand added, reminding her with a jolt that she still had to take care of herself. But first things first.

*******************

Irene heard the quiet gasp from the door and knew without looking that Anne had returned and that she had seen Shana. She excused herself and turned away from Fritz to watch her daughter. When Anne closed her eyes and took a deep breath, Irene got up from her armchair and slowly walked over to her daughter.

Anne was watching Shana with a very odd look on her face, one that Irene had never seen before and couldn’t read. All she knew was that Anne was definitely not thinking good thoughts at that moment.

She reached out and gently touched her daughter’s arm, just letting her know she was there. She didn’t expect any reaction from Anne, who seemed to be deep in thought and miles away, but the dark head turned and blue eyes looked straight into her own. Irene knew her daughter, knew that she could lock away all emotions, hiding them until they went away never to return from the dark pit they were banished to.

Today, one look into those blue eyes told her more than any words ever could. Her daughter’s eyes showed deep pain, helplessness, and confusion. All Irene wanted to do was take Anne into her arms and comfort her. She pulled her child close and enfolded her in a comforting embrace. When her legs came into contact with Anne’s legs, she noticed that the jeans Anne were wet and that she was still wearing her boots. Of course, she can’t get out of them alone. Okay, I just have to get her to let me remove them. Probably won’t be easy …

“Mom?” came a hoarse whisper. “Can you please help me get out of my boots?”

Irene looked at her daughter, totally dumbstruck. Oh my God, did my child just ask for help?

“Please?”

“Of course, honey.” She took her daughter’s arm and led her over to the armchair. “We’re going to get you out of your boots and wet jeans, and then the good doctor here is going to take a look at your hand.”

Anne let herself be guided to the armchair, offering neither resistance nor even the slightest hesitation. Irene’s forehead was furrowed in an extreme frown. I’ve never seen her so compliant; her hand must really hurt. She looks so tired.

As soon as Anne sat down Irene started working on her boot laces. For a moment she considered simply cutting them to shorten the procedure, but then her fingernails found the right point and she untied the knots as fast as the wet laces allowed. Once the boots were off she reached up to get her daughter out of her jeans. Their eyes met and for a second Irene could see a self-conscious grin at the situation forming in Anne’s eyes. She raised a dark eyebrow at her mother as if she wanted to dare her to proceed, which Irene promptly did.

Soon the jeans were pooled at Anne’s ankles and she just stepped out of them, giving the wet fabric a disgusted kick as she did so. Anne’s legs were a bright red from the cold and Irene was sorely tempted to give them a brisk rub to get them warm. She resigned herself to getting a warm blanket from a drawer in the corner and putting it over the cold legs instead.

A grateful grin was Anne’s only comment, but that was more than enough for Irene.

*******************

Fritz Hinkel watched the interaction between Anne and Irene with a bittersweet smile. He looked up at his wife and saw that she was watching the pair as well. Their eyes locked and for a moment both faces reflected a quiet sadness that was quickly followed by wistful smiles and the comfort of a shared hope.

Irene noticed the look the elderly couple shared and decided that she wanted to find out what that was about. Later.

Fritz concentrated on Anne then, certain that the woman’s hand would not get better by being ignoring. He just hoped she would let him have a look at it. From what he had seen so far the tall woman didn’t look like she dealt well with being cared for. He was quite certain that she would not be an easy patient, so he decided on a direct, businesslike approach.

“It’s time I take a look at your hand, Ms. Patakis,” he said in a tone that brooked no argument.

Anne just looked up at him with an unreadable expression on her face, not moving a muscle, not acknowledging that she might have heard him.

“Hilde, hilf mir bitte. ” He asked for his wife’s help. “Sie macht’s mir wirklich nicht einfach.”

He heard his patient chuckle.

“No, I might not make it easy,” the tall woman muttered just barely audibly.

Fritz stared at her, not sure he had really heard her translating what he had said.

“Oh, Keine Sorge, Doc,” his patient continued. Don’t worry. She switched to English again for her mother, who looked like she didn’t enjoy being left out of the conversation. “I’ll try to be as compliant as possible.”

“I didn’t know you spoke German, Ms. Patakis,” he said with something close to wonder in his voice. There was just a hint of an American accent when she spoke German. He grinned at her and shrugged. “That’s good. Just in case I can’t express myself clearly enough in English.”

“You’re doing just fine, Doc,” Anne reassured him. “But please call me Anne.”

“Okay, Anne. I’m Fritz. Now, give me your hand.”

Anne raised her right hand just high enough for him to take a look.

“The one that is injured, Anne,” her mother admonished her. “Come on, you know you need to have it checked out.”

Anne opened her mouth to say something, but before she could utter a sound, her mother continued, obviously feeling what her daughter needed to hear. “Shana is quite all right, honey. She has a concussion and some scratches and bruises, but she’s going to be just fine. Except for a monstrous headache when she wakes up.”

Anne smiled gratefully at her mother and raised her injured hand from its position in her lap. She winced as the pain of moving her hand shot up her arm.

The doctor pulled over a nearby footstool and lowered himself to his patient’s level. He gently took the hand and noticed the pain that flittered across Anne’s face when he moved the wrist. He positioned the strong hand on his left palm and forearm so that the injured wrist just touched his fingertips.

He examined the joint with the fingertips of his right hand, trying to assess the damage to it without causing any more pain than necessary. He fervently wished for an X-ray machine right now, knowing that it would be the easiest, fastest and least painful way to come to a diagnosis. But he had been a doctor for so long that he knew he could diagnose the injury by touch alone if he needed to.

He prodded the wrist with his fingertips searching for bones that were out of place. His touch bordered on tenderness and he moved the hand and wrist with ultimate care. He held a great deal of respect for the woman whose hand he held, having followed her professional career for years. He also knew that although the left was not the tennis player’s dominant hand, it was still probably worth millions of dollars.

He breathed a sigh of relief when his touch discovered that all the bones were in the right places.

“Okay, it’s not broken,” he told Anne. The tall woman simply nodded, telling him with the small gesture that she had already been sure of that.

“You knew.”

“Didn’t feel like it,” came the mumbled reply. “It feels more like it’s sprained, and I’m a little worried about the ligaments and tendons. I’ve been having trouble with the ligaments anyway.”

Fritz Hinkel realized that as a professional player Anne had to know her body very well and he confirmed her fears with a slight nod of his gray head. He also knew that if a ligament in the wrist was torn completely she could very well lose the full range of motion of that hand. “Yes, the wrist is badly sprained and I’m afraid it will take a while before it’ll be back to normal. And you know as well as I do what could happen.”

A nod from his patient confirmed his assumption. “But … I’ve never seen a wrist like yours on a woman, so strong and full of muscles. I’m very confident that the ligaments were as protected as they could be and that everything’s going to be all right.”

He gave her a smile. “You’ll have to keep it rested as much as possible, and you should take something for the pain if it becomes too much.”

Anne shook her head. “No, it’s okay. Just some good old R.I.C.E. …”

“Rice?”

“Oh, sorry. That’s what my physical therapist always says when I sprain something. Rest, ice, compression, elevation.”

The doctor nodded. “Yes, that sounds like something I would say, too.”

“I’ll just put a bandage and a cold gel pack on it. That should relieve some of the pain. Anything else?” Her voice sounded weary and the doctor realized he should end his examination so that she could get some rest. He looked at her closely and saw for the first time the hollow look to her eyes and the dark circles that made her appear much older than she was.

Irene left the room in search of a cold gel pack. It was a good thing she always kept several in the fridge, a habit born from raising two very active children.

“I’m going to check this hand out some more. I’ll put a bandage on it and then I want you to get some rest,” he said before continuing with his gentle prodding of the wrist.

“There’s too much to do,” Anne said, although her voice sounded as if sleep was the only thing she would be able to do.

“Whatever there is,” came her mother’s voice from the door, “I can do it. What do you need me to do, honey?” She walked over and handed the gel pack to Mrs. Hinkel, who stood behind her husband’s shoulder.

“You need to call the sheriff, Mom. Shana’s wasn’t the only car involved in the crash.” Anne seemed to have a hard time concentrating. She focused her eyes on a corner of the room before she went on. “Someone needs to get Shana’s stuff from the car when the sheriff has seen the crash site. And we have to make sure that Shana is as comfortable as possible …”

Her voice trailed off.

“I’ll do all that, sweetness. You’ll just get some rest.”

Mr. Hinkel finished his examination of Anne’s hand and with a nod of his head reassured Anne about the extent of her injuries.

The tall woman sighed. “Well, nothing I haven’t had before,” she said, recalling other injuries to various joints. The doctor wrapped her hand and forearm with an elastic bandage. He put the gel pack on the outside of the wrist, holding it in place with the rest of the bandage. He started to open his mouth, but before he could say anything, his patient interrupted him.

“I know, I know. Keep it rested. As little movement as possible, yadda yadda yadda,” the tall woman said as if to herself. “Remember R.I.C.E.?”

The doctor smiled and nodded. Anne looked up at him and, pushing away her tiredness, smiled at him sincerely. “Thank you very much, Doc. I don’t know what we would have done without you today. I’ll never forget that.”

Looking into her eyes he saw the sincerity and knew that she was speaking from the heart. He smiled and patted her shoulder. “Go get some rest now, Anne. You need it. We’ll go back to our room. If you need anything, just call.” With that he smiled at his wife and the two of them turned to leave the room.

“Wait, please,” Irene called after them. She turned to Anne. “And you get in that bed. Now. Keep Shea company. She’s going to need you when she wakes up. You’ll have a lot to explain.”

“Mom,” Anne squeaked while throwing a wistful glance at the sleeping form on the bed. “I can’t just get into that bed with Shea. I’ll stay right here. This armchair’s pretty comfy and -”

“Nonsense. Do you really want Shana to wake up in a strange bed alone? She won’t even know where she is. You can’t do that to her. Now get in that bed before I have to knock you out and carry you there.”

Anne had to grin at the visual image of her smaller mother carrying her to the bed. Why am I fighting this? All I want is to crawl in there with her and be close to her. I need to be close to her now! I’m so tired …

The tall woman got up and walked over to the bed, dropping the blanket that had covered her legs. She climbed onto the high king-size bed and slipped under the covers, realizing only then that her blonde friend was naked except for a pair of boxer shorts. For a moment she contemplated getting up again, but she saw the stern yet gentle look on her mother’s face and decided she liked where she was. She rolled onto her side and positioned her injured hand on the covers so that it didn’t get jarred while she was sleeping. As soon as her head hit the pillow she was fast asleep.

Irene shook her head with a relieved smile that showed all the love she felt for the two injured women. She quietly closed the door and followed the Hinkels, wanting to give them a proper thank you.

And then she would call the sheriff.

Chapter 13

Irene asked the Hinkels to follow her into the kitchen, one of the coziest places in the house for a nice chat. She could have chosen the library, but she didn’t want to disturb the two women sleeping in the room next to it. The elderly couple shared a small look and readily agreed to have a cup of tea with their host.

Once in the kitchen Irene directed her guests to the large table in a corner that was partially brightened by the snowy twilight coming in through two large windows. This was Irene’s favorite place in the house, the light from the windows giving it a certain airiness and offering a wide view of the grounds. In the distance she could see the small wood that formed the border between her own land and the small cemetery. She loved sitting at this table with a cup of tea, looking over to the cemetery, enjoying the sense of connection with her son those quiet moments gave her.

She brought over the heavy teapot and three mugs of different sizes and colors before joining her guests at the table. She saw the amused glance Mrs. Hinkel directed at the assorted mugs, but poured tea for everyone before she gave the older woman an explanation.

“Interesting collection of mugs, isn’t it?” she asked with a smile.

“Yes, it is indeed,” Mrs. Hinkel replied.

“You know, Anne has this … hobby. Wherever she goes, she buys two mugs that are either alike or fit together really well. Most of the mugs end up in my kitchen because she’s rarely at home. They remind her of all the places she’s been to, and she always remembers where she got each mug.”

She pointed to the mugs in their hands. “Fritz, yours is from Berlin. Hilde, yours is from New York City.” She smiled when the elderly couple examined the mugs a little closer now, trying not to spill the tea.

“What about yours?” Dr. Hinkel asked after a while and a good long sip from his bright yellow mug.

“This one,” Irene pointed at her enormous mug painted in a garish red-pink-orange, “this one was made by my son, Peter, for my thirtieth birthday. He always said the colors represented my most favorite roses, but he admitted that he had never seen them in that combination before. I love this mug, but I don’t use it too often.” She smiled, her face a mixture of pride and wistfulness, amusement and sadness.

“Why not?”

Irene grinned. “Because I want to keep it whole for a long time to come and … I’m afraid looking at it too long or too often will make me blind.” She laughed at her own comment and soon her guests joined her.

“God, I needed a good laugh right now,” Irene said moments later. “That’s why I got out this mug today … it always makes me feel good.”

“So, where’s your son?” Dr. Hinkel asked.

“Peter … died … almost eight years ago,” Irene replied quietly. She heard the strangled gasp that came from Mrs. Hinkel and looked up just in time to see the look that passed between the German couple. So, there really is something there. And it has something to do with a child, I bet. Okay, I’ll go with the most direct approach. That always works with Anne, maybe it will work with them, too.

“We are so sorry, Irene.” Mrs. Hinkel said with feeling. “That must have been so terrible. Losing a child is …” She let her sentence trail off.

Looking right into the older woman’s eyes Irene could see that Mrs. Hinkel really felt with her and for her. She put her hand on the older woman’s arm and patted it lightly, her sympathy.

“Thank you, Hilde,” she said simply and then waited a beat before continuing. “Would you like to talk about what’s bothering you two?” She slightly emphasized the ‘you’.

The older woman withdrew her arm and looked at her husband in alarm.

“What do you mean? Talk about what?” Dr. Hinkel asked after several moments, obviously surprised or confused or both.

But, Irene decided after a moment, he didn’t seem angry. That’s a good sign, I think …

She thought for a few minutes, trying to come up with a way to explain her question. Stay direct. Just tell them it’s a gut feeling you have. She cleared her throat and looked at the not-so-patiently waiting couple.

“You’ve been coming here for seven years now, ever since I opened this hotel. You come back every year and stay for three weeks. And you always look like you’ve lost something that you’re desperately trying to find again.”

She saw the shock on their faces and quickly reassured them. “No, it’s not that you’re so obvious about it. In fact it took me quite a few years to figure it out, but last year a friend of mine lost her beloved dog and for she missed it terribly – still does, as a matter of fact – and I realized that you looked a lot like she did the first couple of weeks.”

She paused, wondering whether the couple thought she was a rambling fool by now, but their eyes reflected quiet acceptance more than anything.

“So I figured that you might have lost something or someone and that you missed them a lot. I was, of course, curious,” she laughed a little at what she called her only vice, “but I thought that if you wanted me to know about it you’d have told me.”

She stopped and waited for the inevitable question. Why now, then? She was surprised when both Hinkels just nodded. Dr. Hinkel made a gesture for her to continue.

“Today, when you were taking care of Shana and Anne, you were sharing a look that made me think that who you’re missing so much could be a child, and with the way you reacted to hearing about Pete’s death, I was pretty sure. I guess that’s why I’m bringing this up now.” Her voice got a little unsure, as if questioning her intent. “What I’d like you to know is that I’m very grateful for all the help you offered today, and that I’ll be here if you want to talk about it or if you need any help finding what you’re looking for.”

She got up to leave the elderly couple some space, but stopped after three steps when she heard Mrs. Hinkel’s quiet voice.

“Thank you, Irene. I think I’d like to tell you about our history.” She looked at her husband. “We would like to tell you what we’re looking for.” The elderly man just nodded and took his wife’s hands in his own. “But right now I think you should call the sheriff. There’s time for this later – it’s a long story.”

Irene gave her a smile, understanding that she indeed needed to make the call, but that the elderly couple needed some time to regroup as well.

“Maybe we’ll find some time after dinner for your tale. I’d really like to hear it. Maybe I’ll be able to reciprocate your kindness.” She left the kitchen to use the telephone in the lobby, leaving the elderly couple nursing their tea in silence.

After a while Dr. Hinkel smiled at his wife. “Sie ist nett, oder?” She’s nice, isn’t she?

His wife nodded. “Vielleicht ist es Zeit … vielleicht hat sie eine Idee …” Yes, maybe it’s time to talk about it. She might have an idea what else to do …

*******************

Shana came out of her deep sleep realizing several things at once. One, it was much too warm where she was – much warmer than it should be in a car on an icy road. Two, she wasn’t in a car anymore, nor was she on an icy road. Her senses told her she was in a bed or at least in a place where she could relax in a horizontal position. That thought made her realize that her whole body hurt. Everywhere. She was one big ache. She swallowed and decided to add sight to her somewhat jumbled sensual experiences.

She knew that was a mistake the second her eyes had opened to a tiny slit. Daggers were poking at her eyes and laser beams were shooting through her skull. Just the mere thought of opening her eyes wider made her sick to her stomach. She closed her eyes tightly, hoping for the best, but the nauseous feeling didn’t go away.

She knew she had to get up before she made a mess of whatever it was she had been sleeping in. When she tried she noticed that she was trapped, held in place by something that was lying across her stomach. Something heavy and unmoving.

It was impossible to get up. Shana bit down on her lower lip, fighting to keep down the bile that threatened to make an appearance any time now. Making a decision based on nothing but a good dose of hope, she opened one eye again and checked out what was holding her in place.

An arm. In a bandage. With a blue gel pack. Tucked into the bandage.

The color did it.

Before she could turn around to see whose arm was holding her so intimately, she knew she would throw up. There was no way she could get up in time, even though she tried as hard as her aching body would allow her. Which wasn’t much.

She raised her upper body a few inches, the cramping in her guts forcing her head higher than she thought was possible the way her body felt. She tried to sneak a glance at the body next to her. She wanted to at least know whom she was going to throw up on, but that movement broke the last barrier she had put in place. As fast as she could she turned away, still unaware of who the person next to her was.

Too late, she thought with disgust and just let go, hoping she wouldn’t hit the other person too badly.

“What’s going on?” came a sleepy, confused voice from the body next to her just as she fell weakly back onto her pillow. She knew that voice. Recognition hit her with a vengeance. Anne. Oh my God. I just threw up all over Anne. Please God, let me die.

Then she was out again.

Anne sat up, still feeling a little disoriented from the shortness of her nap and the brutal awakening. What she saw and smelled turned her guts and made her stomach twist around itself. She clamped down hard on the feeling, unwilling to contribute to the mess.

She realized that Shana was out again. “Out like a light, huh? Leave me with the mess, huh?” she mumbled, trying to wake up fully. “You’re so lucky I love you like I do …”

She didn’t even realize that it was the first time she’d said those words to Shana aloud.

Reluctantly she took a closer look and noticed that Shana had turned her head so that neither she nor Anne had been hit. She thanked her friend for this small kindness. Cleaning a naked and hurt Shana was not on her priority list right now.

Cleaning up this mess, however, was.

She got up and pulled most of the blanket with her, revealing Shana’s almost naked body. She tried not to stare at the woman on the bed, but her eyes wandered over the bruised body nonetheless. You’re still the most beautiful woman on earth, Shea. I’m so glad you’re going to be okay. Let me just clean this mess and I’ll be by your side again.

Using her good right hand with a little help from her bandaged left, she folded the blanket in on itself, hiding the mess somewhere in the middle of the packet. That was the easy part. What now?

She checked the bed over with her eyes, but then grinned at her own behavior, recognizing evasive tactics when she saw them. She knew she had to get closer to Shana to check the sheets for any mess, but she also knew she was reluctant to do so. Slowly she made her way along the length of the bed, her eyes never leaving the sheets. She was relieved when she saw that she wouldn’t have to do anything about them right now. I couldn’t do it anyway, even if I had to. Mother’s gonna have to help with them later.

She walked over to the closet and got another blanket, which she spread over Shana to keep her warm. Then she took the messy blanket and walked over to the French doors that led to the garden. She opened the door and was about to throw the blanket into the snow when she heard her mother’s unmistakable footsteps walking the hall outside their door. The steps stopped long enough for Anne to know that her mother was debating with herself whether to sneak a peek at her two patients

She walked quickly over to the door. The door opened a bit just as she reached it. I knew you couldn’t pass this door without looking in, Mom.

Irene was clearly surprised to see her up, but when she saw Anne’s face and smelled the blanket in her hand, she quickly came to the right conclusion. “Shea was sick, huh?”

“Oh, yeah,” Anne said. “I’m glad I didn’t join in.”

“You didn’t?” Irene knew just too well that this was the easiest way to get her sturdy daughter sick.

“I couldn’t, Mom. I had to take care of this mess first.”

“I’m very proud of you, Anne.” And she was, knowing from experience what the last minutes must have cost her daughter.

“Yeah, it’s okay,” her daughter waved her off. But it’s sure nice to hear that. “Can you take care of this for me, please? I don’t know how long I’ll be able to -”

“No problem, honey.” Irene took the blankets and turned to leave. After half a step she stopped. “Did you clean up the little one, too?”

Anne shook her head. Damn, didn’t think of that. “Is that bad? Could she have hurt herself? Should I get the doctor?” Panic was starting to rise in her voice, both because of her inability to handle the situation alone and out of fear for Shana’s health.

“No, it’s not bad, honey. Let me just check her over and then you can get some rest again.” She dropped the blankets and walked over to Shana’s side of the bed, with Anne following her like a lost puppy. “Honey, why don’t you close the door to the garden before we all freeze to death and then sit down in that nice chair over there?”

Anne retreated instantly, her behavior again almost childlike.

This whole thing must have shaken her up pretty badly, Irene thought. She’s never like this.

Irene cleaned Shana’s mouth and upper body with a small towel, more to refresh her than because it was absolutely necessary. She’s going to hate herself if I let her sleep like this. Irene thought for a moment, then came to a decision.

“Anne, could you get me some mouthwash from my bathroom, please? I’d like to make her a little more comfortable.” Her bathroom was on the far end of the large house and she hoped it would take her daughter a while to get there and return. Especially since the mouthwash won’t be easy to find …

Anne left the room as soon as Irene had finished her sentence.

When she returned, her mother had started to remove the sheets with Mrs. Hinkel’s help. Irene had been delighted to find the elderly couple still in the kitchen when she took the soiled blanket to the laundry room. She had asked for help again and had given a quick description of what had happened.

When the two older women had changed the sheets and had put new blankets on the bed, Dr. Hinkel checked the still sleeping Shana over and declared that everything was all right and that the nausea wasn’t unexpected with the mild concussion she had suffered. He was rather happy that she had woken up, and asked Irene and Anne to wake her up again in a couple of hours. Then the Hinkels left for their room, leaving Anne and Irene alone with Shana.

“Get into bed again, honey. You’re an ice block.”

Without comment Anne crawled back under the sheets, keeping her distance from Shana so as not to shock her with her icy limbs. “Oh, Mom, have you -”

“Yes, I’ve called the sheriff, dear, She’s going to be here as soon as she can, but they had a huge accident in town as well and with the weather conditions the way they are it might take a while.” She walked over to the door and opened it. “I’m going to get you when she arrives. Sleep now.” With that, she left the room.

Anne lay back down and closed her eyes. Damn … that was not how I wanted our meeting to be.

She grinned self-critically. And I sure as hell never had that reaction from a woman in bed before.

“Sleep tight, love,” she said and made herself comfortable under the covers.

As soon as she was asleep, her body snuggled up to the object of its desire.

Chapter 14

The next time Shana woke up she felt much better. The nausea had subsided and her head wasn’t pounding that much anymore. She just lay there for a minute, trying to get a sense of her surroundings and the situation she was in. Things were a little fuzzy and she tried to concentrate on her body before she tortured her mind to recall what had happened to her.

She collected what little information she could while her eyes were still closed. I’m still lying in a bed. There is someone next to me. Very close. Feels familiar. There’s something on my stomach. Also familiar. So … it wasn’t a dream that I threw up … Oh shit!

Her eyes flew open. To her surprise, that didn’t make her feel worse. Maybe that was because by now it was almost completely dark outside and the light didn’t shoot daggers at her brain anymore. Or maybe she was just feeling better.

She turned her head to her left side where a warm body was cuddled up to her. The sight that greeted her brought a smile to her face and made her forget everything else.

Anne lay on her right side, her face pressed against Shana’s left biceps. Her black hair was fanned out over her pillow, dark bangs hiding part of her face. Unable to resist, Shana raised her right hand, stifling a moan at the sudden pain the movement caused in her strained shoulders. Uh oh, this is so not good. She bit back another moan when she moved her arm over to where Anne’s head lay. With infinite tenderness she brushed the bangs out of Anne’s eyes.

I wish it could always be like this, Anne. I love you and I want to wake up with you every single day of our lives. I just never thought it was possible after all that’s happened to us.

Mindful of Anne’s obviously injured hand, Shana put her arm down carefully alongside Anne’s. She tried not to touch the bandaged arm, but her fingertips remained connected to her friend. I have to ask her about that when she wakes up …

While her fingertips unconsciously caressed her friend’s shoulder, Shana stared at the ceiling and let her mind wander back to the past.

After the incident on Pete’s birthday, Shana had believed that she had lost any chance to be ever loved by her friend. And after Anne had treated her like she didn’t even exist for several months, she even thought it was a good thing. Her parents had been very happy because the only place where she and Anne now met was the tennis court.

The one thing that had worried her parents was that Shana seemingly had lost her touch when it came to beating Anne. For eighteen months Shana had been unable to win a single match against her strongest opponent. It hadn’t much mattered that she had beaten every other player on a regular basis. All her parents had cared about was her beating “that Greek,” as her mother so venomously put it at every opportunity. Janet Wilson had also still used every chance to make Shana feel guilty for almost anything – for her feelings and sometimes for existing at all.

It also hadn’t mattered to her parents that Shana was hurting; they hadn’t even noticed. If they had, they never mentioned it and never tried to do anything about it.

The Anne-less time, as Shana called it privately, had had its good side for Shana as well. She had started to see her parents for what they were – self-centered, arrogant, delusional, controlling – and had begun to drift away from them.

Her mother had tried every manipulative trick in the book to bind her daughter to her in an endless spiral of guilt and bad conscience. But although Janet Wilson turned guilt trips into an art form, Shana still drifted from her grasp. The blonde woman blamed her parents for the loss of her best friend and the love of her life and she had never found it in her heart to forgive them.

Then, after Anne had accidentally killed the umpire, she and Anne had become closer again. The process of getting reacquainted with the woman she had once known like her own heart had been slow and careful, but step by step they had moved back to where they had been before Pete’s birthday.

They never mentioned that day or what happened in the months after. What Shana knew about her friend’s actions in the months since that day, she knew from other players or the papers.

Shana blinked away a tear and sighed. We still haven’t really talked about that time … I guess we might have one day if it hadn’t been for Carlos. She looked at Anne. I still don’t understand why you hate him so much. Well, except for this one thing …

She had met Carlos Vila at a Christmas party two months after getting back into contact with Anne. She hadn’t really wanted to go because Anne had invited her to accompany her to Irene’s for the weekend, but her main sponsor had thrown the party specifically for her and in honor of their new advertising campaign. Her attendance had really been unavoidable.

“It was a great party,” Shana whispered to her sleeping friend. “But I still should have come here with you.” We could have talked about everything then … and just maybe we would have been able to bridge the gap that was still between us. Well, I guess there is no use in crying over spilt milk … or lost opportunities.

December 1995

The huge room was decorated with posters for the new campaign, which was based on the devastatingly simple concept that she and the company shared the same name. Shana groaned when she saw that her face was smiling down at her from every wall. I can’t believe they did that. This is a Christmas party, for Christ’s sake. Who am I … Santa Claus?

She had arrived alone, against the wishes of her parents, who had wanted to accompany her. She had told them that they would be free to attend the party, but that she was going by herself. The truth was that she had no desire whatsoever to be at this so-called party and she wanted to use her own car to be able to get away if she wanted to. Secretly, she was still hoping she could join Irene and Anne for the weekend. She had a packed duffel bag in the trunk of her car and a first-class ticket for the last flight out.

The evening was as boring as she had feared it would be. There were a couple of speeches by company executives and the representative of the advertising agency who had come up with the campaign. Listening to them, Shana had the feeling they all behaved as if they should receive at least a Nobel Prize for their witty slogan, which consisted of one word: Wilson.

As soon as the speeches were over Shana decided to leave. She was on her way to the door when her parents arrived. With them was one of the most handsome men Shana had ever seen.

He had jet-black hair that was styled in a very trendy haircut. He was tall and even under the impeccable suit he wore, the blonde woman could sense his muscular figure. He wore a neatly trimmed goatee that gave his face the look of an adventurer. He could just as well have just stepped off a pirate ship to claim the virgin daughter of the island merchant with nothing but his smile. When she looked into his eyes, she saw that they were a very clear blue.

In two words, he was extremely handsome. And he could have been Anne’s twin brother.

He was older than Anne, though, but it was hard to tell the age lines from the ones that the sun had carved into his face. His good looks and boyish grin made him look fairly young, but Shana guessed that he was about forty.

Her father introduced him as Carlos Vila, business partner and friend, which surprised Shana because she had never heard her father mention his name before. She had, however, heard his name from other sources and knew that he managed several players, both male and female.

Before she could say anything, her parents left her standing there with Carlos and walked over to the rapidly filling dance floor just as the band got into their first set of the night.

“Would you like to dance?” Carlos asked with a friendly. He shook his head, indicating that he was perplexed at her parents’ behavior.

Shana really appreciated the gesture since she herself was more than puzzled. They never dance … But she felt comfortable in this dark man’s presence and decided that as long as her father had left him in her care anyway, she might just as well enjoy it. “Why not?” she replied with a smile and put her hand on his gallantly presented forearm. If he dances as great as he looks, it could be an agreeable waste of time until I can finally leave.

The handsome man led her to the dance floor with sure, confident steps. They were a striking couple and Shana noticed that a lot of the people around them were watching them from the corner of their eyes.

He really is a fantastic dancer. Shana enjoyed herself thoroughly, much more than she had ever thought was possible at an event like this. Her companion guided her around the floor expertly and with ease, making small talk with a charming smile on his face. They shared stories about his home country, Argentina, and talked about mutual acquaintances in the world of tennis.

God, it is as if he’s known me forever, Shana thought after a while. Indeed, it felt as if her dance partner was completely attuned to her. He was interested in her ideas about tennis management, something her father had never encouraged, and he seemed to have an innate understanding of her feelings and her person in general. It was as if he knew what she thought about certain thing as soon as she thought it, and he always reacted smoothly to every turn in the conversation. As if he knew what she wanted to hear before she knew it herself. In short, he treated her like no other man had ever treated her before.

After another round of dances, they sat down at a table and continued their animated conversation over a glass of wine. Somewhere in the back of her mind Shana registered that her parents had obviously already left the party and she was surprised yet again by their strange behavior.

“Carlos, did you see my parents leave?”

“No, I didn’t,” he replied in his slightly accented voice, “but I wouldn’t have noticed them anyway. Since I first saw you, I’ve only had eyes for you.”

Shana blushed, even though she found his answer quite a bit over the top. Yeah, Mister Charming. Still, it felt good.

“I just think it’s strange because you arrived with them. I thought that you maybe had business to discuss with my father.” This was, after all, predominantly a business function. “By the way, what is this project that the two of you are working on, anyway?”

“Ah … it’s just normal business, the things we do every day. Nothing important.”

Shana decided to let his rather evasive answer go for the moment. He clearly wasn’t in the mood to talk real business with her and he confirmed her impression with his next words.

“Let’s not talk about such dreary matters anymore on this wonderful night. I’d much prefer to dance with the most beautiful woman in the world.” He got up and offered her his hand.

The blonde let herself be guided to the dance floor again. The most beautiful woman in the world, huh? I wonder if he’s ever seen Anne …

The next set was a medley of Latin dances and he twirled her around the floor as if he had never done anything else in his life. Shana felt wonderful in his arms; light and sexy, beautiful and desired. There was something about him that made her forget where she was or who she was with. Something that spoke to her on a deeper level. She thought about that for a while until it finally came to her. The smell … it’s Anne’s. They must use the same cologne …

All in all, he made her feel wonderful. He was a very talented man.

“You’re a great dancer,” he said after several rounds on the crowded dance floor. Shana could only nod, her mind a jumble of lightness and the memories that had crept upon her during their last dance, which had been a very slow rumba. It had reminded her a lot of the dance she had shared with Anne nearly two years ago. The one that had led to the very disturbing scene at Pete’s birthday party.

God, that was a great dance. With that thought, the noise of the crowded room dimmed and Shana was back in Anne’s arms feeling light and safe and very erotic. Very soon she was lost in her fantasy. It was Anne who held her close now, gently guiding her around the floor. Anne’s muscular shoulders she held onto and her body that shielded her from other couples that threatened to invade their dancing space. Anne’s hand that was placed safely on her lower back, much lower than necessary or usual.

Shana opened her eyes and fell into pools of blue. Closing her eyes again, she put her face on her dance partner’s shoulder, forgetting who was who and just enjoying her memories and the decidedly erotic haze she was falling into.

Carlos very obviously enjoyed her closeness. He pulled her even closer, his right hand straying perilously close to her butt. The woman in his arms didn’t seem to mind, but then again she looked as if she wasn’t even there with him. He didn’t care. He was on a mission and he was going to accomplish it. Hopefully, that night.

When the song ended, Shana looked up, her longing and desire for Anne clearly written all over her face.

Encouraged by this, her dance partner slowly raised his hand and stroked Shana’s face. Then he tried to pull closer, his mind already going in for the kill.

Shana resisted, finally figuring out that there were certain differences between her vision of Anne and the very male body that held her so closely.

Much closer than she felt was necessary now that she realized who she had been dancing with – much closer than she what she considered appropriate or comfortable.

Carlos wasn’t easily discouraged. He took a good hold on Shana’s waist and on the pretense of dancing pulled her closer to his body again. There was a predatory gleam in his eyes that the blonde had not seen before, but that reminded her vaguely of Anne. Carlos pulled her closer still and dipped his head, clearly intending to reach his goal this time.

He didn’t say anything, but his smile said it all anyway. I’m going to get you, little girl. You’re mine.

All sound receded. The only thing Shana could hear at that moment was the sound of a glass shattering on the floor very close by, which made Carlos suddenly stop his pulling motion. Relieved at the interruption, the blonde woman turned around in the suddenly loosened hold and looked to where the noise had come from.

Right into Anne’s eyes, which were as cold as a hailstorm in November.

Chapter 15
December 1995

Anne couldn’t believe her own eyes. Seeing her best friend in the arms of the man she hated more than anybody was too much for her to comprehend. What is he doing here?

She was speechless, both from anger and confusion. It’s not as if she has to tell you that she’s seeing someone. But that … that slime bag … that lying, murderous son of a bitch? I can’t let her do that. She’ll get hurt, just like …

She tried to control her anger before she opened her mouth to greet Shana. She didn’t want to say something she’d regret later on. She swallowed hard.

“Hello, Shana.” Her voice sounded hollow in her ears.

“Anne!” The blonde eagerly walked the few steps to her friend’s side. “It’s so good to see you. What are you doing here? I thought you were at Irene’s.”

Anne gave her an incredulous look, her glance swiping over Carlos as if he were a stinking pile of rubbish in a corner. “You seemed to have managed just fine without me,” she uttered sarcastically before she could stop the words. Stop it, this is not what this is about. You have no right to be jealous. Not now, not ever. Look at her, she’s totally confused. She’s done nothing wrong …

Shana did indeed look more than slightly puzzled at that unusual comment from her friend. What is this? She tells me she’s going away over the weekend while I have to attend this stupid function and then she comes here criticizing me for having fun? I don’t believe it. There’s something here that I’m not getting.

She decided to stay on the obvious level for the moment and to just answer Anne’s implied question. “Yes, I did have a good time. I thought I could just as well make the most of it as long as I couldn’t get out of being here.”

She looked up into Anne’s eyes as her tall friend shot Carlos another venomous look. What’s with that, anyway? She doesn’t even know Carlos, yet she obviously dislikes him.

Shana decided to bring a little movement to the tableau. “I’d like you to meet someone,” she said, trying to steer Anne over to where Carlos was standing.

Anne didn’t move an inch.

“Okay,” Shana said, her voice showing the exasperation she felt at her friend’s appalling behavior. “We’ll do it from here. Anne, this is Carlos; Carlos, meet Anne.”

Carlos had watched the interaction with a smile, reading the two women’s body language with practiced ease. He knew Anne was almost beside herself with anger and hate, because she was always this way around him. He loved it that way. He basked in the feeling of power he had over the tall woman’s emotions.

Shana, he happily noted, seemed nervous and distressed. Poor kid, he thought evilly, she doesn’t have a clue at what’s going here. Maybe I’ll be able to finish this mission sooner as I thought. Anne must not have mentioned me …

“Oh, I’ve had the … pleasure, my little one,” Carlos said, throwing in the endearment to get to Anne even more than he knew he already had. “I’ve … known … Anne for almost twenty years now.” He smiled, but it never reached his eyes.

The tall woman didn’t say anything. She was too occupied fighting the bile that was rising in her throat. Don’t lose it in front of him, she repeated in her head. Not in front of him. Don’t give him this satisfaction. It took all of her considerable control to not throw up right there and then. Thinking of him truly made her sick. Seeing him face to face was even worse. She swallowed again.

Shana was really confused now. “You know each other?” She turned to Anne. “You never told me —”

She stopped mid-sentence at the look on Anne’s face. A variety of emotions chased each other across the beautiful face before her. Her friend might have looked uninterested and almost bored to anyone else, but Shana’s trained eye could easily see pain, anger, hatred, and confusion.

Most of all, however, she could see that Anne was going to be sick. The tall woman was practically green under her dark tan.

“Carlos, excuse us,” Shana said to her dance partner, “I have to talk to my friend here.” She left the dark man standing and grabbed Anne’s arm to lead her off to a hallway where she hoped to find the restrooms. To her surprise and relief, the tall woman followed her without resistance, their steps crunching the pieces of broken glass on the floor.

Carlos watched them leave, a smile of genuine satisfaction on his handsome face.

*******************

Glad her hunch was right on target, Shana dragged Anne towards the ladies’ room she could see at the far end of the hallway. The din of the party fell away from them as soon as the door clicked shut and the blonde woman found herself absurdly glad of a little peace and quiet.

She looked at her tall friend and saw that the green color had mostly left her face. She was now white as a sheet, and Shana could almost see the clamminess of her skin. Tiny beads of perspiration stood out on the stark paleness of her friend’s forehead.

“Will you be okay for a second?” Anne looked at her with a blank expression. “I want to make sure we’re alone in here,” Shana explained. By now she was more concerned than angry with her friend. She had never seen someone react quite the way Anne had reacted just now, and she assumed she was being witness to some sort of panic attack.

And she was sure that her stoic friend would prefer to fall apart in private rather than in front of a group of tennis- and advertising socialites.

A quick check in all the stalls assured her that only one was occupied and she went back to Anne to let her know that they would be alone soon — as long as there weren’t any new people coming in. Her friend hardly reacted to her.

Suddenly, the strangeness of the whole situation hit Shana and she could hardly hold back the giggles that threatened to erupt from deep within her. Look at us … standing next to each other in the foyer of a ladies’ room waiting for a stranger to finish her business and leave. The sounds coming from the far stall didn’t make things any better. No wonder they were constantly playing Muzak in those restrooms in Tokyo …

Only the presence of the shivering woman next to her helped her keep a straight face. She knew that most of the silliness she was experiencing came from pure helplessness, from not knowing what to do or even say to Anne. They were just re-establishing a friendship that she thought had been irrevocably lost and she was utterly unprepared for the emotional meltdown she was seeing before her eyes.

She also knew that laughing now would destroy the fragile bond they had been able to build over the past two months. This thought sobered her up quickly. A fit of giggles is not worth losing a friend …

After what seemed like hours to Shana, but was probably just a few minutes, the woman finally emerged from the stall. She paused when she walked up to the washbasins, giving the two women there a strange look. Anne ignored her completely, being in a zone anyway, and Shana gave her a smile and a nod, pretending she was always standing around in restrooms doing nothing but fidget. The matronly woman quickly washed her hands and fled the room. She probably thought we want to make out in here. Shana paused. Now where did that come from?

With a little effort Shana managed to push the heavy metal wastepaper bin in front of the door, effectively blocking it, while Anne leaned against the wall staring into space, her hands balled into tight fists, muscles tensed to what Shana figured must be a hurtful degree. She walked over to stand right before Anne and lifted her friend’s face with one hand.

“Hey,” Shana addressed her friend in a calm tone, “Anne, look at me.”

Her touch seemed to calm Anne down, her breathing becoming more regular now. Shana raised her other hand and held Anne’s face in both hands, gently lifting the head up to look into her friend’s eyes.

Anne’s brilliant blue eyes had taken on an almost silvery hue that reminded Shana of a terrible evening almost two years ago. This time, however, Anne’s eyes did not project a coldness, but a world of pain and confusion. And there was something else in those eyes that Shana did not recognize. It reminded her of a frightened child, but she pushed that thought away because she could not imagine her strong friend in that role.

Anne looked at her friend. Shana’s hands on her face grounded her and brought her back from her hate-induced stupor. The more she returned to normal, the more she realized that what she was experiencing was a panic attack. That was not her usual reaction to Carlos’s presence. Oh, God. Wrong thought. Anne felt the nausea return at the thought of the man who had very nearly managed to destroy her life.

She pushed Shana away and moved quickly into the first stall, making it just in time to lose what little she had had to eat that day. Instantly Shana was by her side, keeping back her hair, reassuringly touching the back of her neck. It felt so good to have her there.

In that moment Anne realized two things with absolute certainty.

One, she still loved Shana with all of her heart and soul.

Two, she had to keep Shana away from Carlos. I can’t lose her, too. Not now when I finally found myself – and her — again.

*******************

Anne got up on shaky legs and made her way to the washbasins to rinse out her mouth and refresh herself. She was disgusted at herself for losing control the way she had never had in front of somebody else before. What I wouldn’t give for a toothbrush right now …

Shana saw the miserable look Anne shot her pale reflection in the mirror. She opened her small purse and checked its contents. Aha, gotcha!

“Would you like to use this?” she asked softly, holding up the travel toothbrush and small tube of toothpaste.

“What … how …?” Anne took a breath and reached out to take them. She smiled for the first time since she had entered the ballroom earlier in the evening.

“Do you always go out with a toothbrush in your purse? Why would you do that? Unless …” … you want to be always prepared, Anne finished the sentence silently, a sinking feeling in her stomach. She knew she should stop thinking like that if she wanted to get her equilibrium back, but her hatred for Carlos and her worry about Shana made thinking clearly virtually impossible. Her mind simply rambled on, following the downward spiral to depression quicker than she could stop it. Was she meeting Carlos here? Are they … together? Does she … love him? Have I lost her to him? It can’t be. It can’t! I won’t let it. Shaking her head, Anne tried to concentrate on brushing her teeth.

Unless what? Shana looked at her friend. What’s going on behind those gorgeous eyes? The implication dawned on her and she didn’t know whether to be more angry or hurt by it. Oh no, you’re not thinking what I think you’re thinking. I am not the one who’s sleeping with every groupie, player or official who catches my eyes. Her hurt at Anne’s behavior over the past months won the upper hand, but she swallowed it and concentrated on the problems at hand.

“No, I don’t usually walk around with a toothbrush in my purse,” she said, for the moment ignoring all the implications. “But I was planning on flying out to meet you and Irene for the weekend.” She checked her watch. “Actually, I should be at the airport right about now.” And I guess I can forget about the weekend with you.

As fast as the depressing thoughts had settled in Anne’s head they were gone when the blonde woman’s words registered in her overactive brain. She quickly spat out the last remnants of toothpaste and rinsed her mouth. “You … were? You were coming to spend the weekend with us?”

“Yes, I was, dummy.” Shana swallowed at the hope that shone brightly from Anne’s eyes. “I told you before that I didn’t want to go to this stupid shindig, but I had to.” She shook her head. “I mean, have you seen the walls out there?”

The blank look in Anne’s eyes told her she hadn’t. “Jesus, Anne, you can’t miss the posters. My face is practically everywhere! Where did you have your eyes in there? What –”

“On you,” came the quiet answer. Always on you.

Shana stopped her agitated rambling. “What?” Did I hear you just say that? Please tell me I heard that right …

Anne was kept from answering by an insistent pushing at the door. Both women instinctively held their breath, but when the person left after a couple of tries against the unmoving metal barrier, they released it. At least they would stay alone for this discussion.

The dark-haired woman turned to face her friend and cleared her throat in a vain attempt to make talking easier. Shana looked up to her with an open, questioning expression on her face that made Anne’s heart clench painfully in her chest. Please believe me, Shea. I can’t explain much, but please, just trust me …

Just as Anne was opening her mouth to speak, Shana beat her to it. “What’s going on here, Anne?” She looked right into her taller friend’s guarded eyes. “What is this all about? I’ve never seen you like this.”

Okay, Patakis, it’s now or never. “Shana, listen to me.” Then she fell silent again.

After several moments Shana gently touched Anne’s arm. “I am listening, Anne. What is it?”

“There’s no way to put this nicely, Shana, so I’ll just say it like it is. You have to stay away from Carlos. You absolutely have to! He’s dangerous … he’s bad … he’ll hurt you terribly. Please, promise you’ll stay away from him.” With the last words Anne looked pleadingly into Shana’s eyes.

Eyes that had become darker with every syllable Anne had uttered. “Why should I do that, Anne? He has been nothing but nice to me.” Well, that is glossing over the events on the dance floor, but most of that was my own fault anyway. How could he know I was dreaming about you?

“I can’t say anything more … please, just believe me.” Anne’s voice was pleading now. She took a deep breath and thought about what else she could say for a moment. Memories criss-crossed her mind of a day more than ten years ago … a letter … a promise she gave and could not break. I won’t break my promise to you, Pete. I won’t.

She took Shana’s hands into her own and looked straight into the eyes of the woman she still loved. “I can’t explain it, Shana.”

When Shana tried to turn away at the words, she gripped the smaller hands even stronger. “Please, Shea. This is not just a feeling, I’m speaking out of experience here. I know that man and I’ve known him for a very long time. He has done … very bad things … but I gave a promise that I won’t break … not even to you.” She raised her hands and cupped Shana’s face. “Please, can’t you just trust me?”

Shana shook herself free and turned away. “Trust you? Trust you?” She faced Anne again. “Why should I do that?” Give me a reason, Anne. Just give me one reason to stay away from him. I won’t be told what to do or who to see without a good valid reason. Not by my father, my mother or you.

Anne remained silent, not able to add anything to her plea. She looked down at her shoes.

“Give me one reason, Anne. Just one.”

Silence.

“You’re jealous, aren’t you?” Anne looked up sharply at the question. “That’s it! You’re just jealous of him. You hate him because he makes me feel good and because I like him.” Shana did realize somewhere in her angry mind that she didn’t really like Carlos that much and that he had only made her feel good when she was thinking about Anne in his arms, but these particular pieces of information were lost on their way to her tongue. As was the fact that what she thought was jealousy on Anne’s part was what made her really feel good.

“Shea … little one, please listen,” Anne tried again. “This is not about jealousy.” Although I am jealous as hell, but I can’t let you know that right now. “This is about you not getting hurt.”

She paused to think. “I don’t know what he’s up to, but the timing’s too perfect. We’ve just found each other again, Shea … and I bet he’s here to get between us.” She fell silent again, lost in her thoughts and still trying to come up with a way to keep Shana away from Carlos without breaking a promise.

Shana just got angrier at her friend. I hate it when someone tells me what to do. You should know that. If you want what’s good for me, you’ll give me a reason. She made up her mind.

“I will not be told what to do. Not by you. Not by anybody else. Give me a reason or leave me alone.” Shana’s voice was deceptively soft and very controlled, each syllable enunciated clearly and almost forcefully.

Anne turned away and leaned against the wall. She felt very tired all of a sudden. She knew she was between a rock and hard place, knowing indeed that Shana hated to be told what to do. She had experienced her reactions too many times to doubt that.

She was still thinking of another way to persuade Shana when she heard the metal container in front of the door being moved. She looked up in time to see Shana open the door. Shit!

“Shana, please wait.” I have to make her stop … ” I … I … I’m not lying to you, Shea, and this is not a matter of jealousy. I don’t want to see you hurt, please believe me. There is a reason for all of this, but —”

“Give me a reason, Anne,” Shana said over her shoulder, one hand on the closed door. “Just one reason.”

“I can’t.”

“So, if some old promise to … someone … is more important than giving me a reason, it can’t be all that bad now, can it?” Shana’s voice was still very controlled, but Anne had no trouble picking up the undercurrent of anger and hurt. “You want to keep me away from someone I just met just because you say so? Sorry, Anne, that’s just not enough.”

With that she opened the door and left without another look, missing the completely defeated look on Anne’s face.

“I can’t, Shea,” Anne whispered to the empty room. “I can’t.”

January 2002

Shana looked at her friend’s face, still half hidden beneath her black hair. I should have believed you, although I didn’t know that for some years. Now I know. I just never understood why you didn’t tell me what happened.

She brushed a stray hair from Anne’s eyes. “We have a lot to talk about, my friend,” she whispered. And this time I want some answers.

Just then, Anne stirred and cuddled even closer to Shana’s body, mumbling softly in her sleep. To Shana she looked absolutely adorable.

“I love you, Anne.” Now I just have to tell you some things …

Chapter 16

Irene opened the door the girls’ room as quietly as she could. Dr. Hinkel had advised her to let them rest as much as possible, but he had also told her it wouldn’t hurt to check on them once in a while, knowing full well that she couldn’t keep away from her daughter and their blonde guest. She had made that perfectly clear before the Hinkels had retreated to their room in the late afternoon.

The sight that greeted her warmed her to the core. Anne and Shana lay in the middle of the huge bed with not a hair’s breadth of space between them. The covers were pulled up to both women’s shoulders; only their faces and the wildly tangled dark and blonde hair were visible above it.

Shana was lying on her back, her face turned to where Anne was pressed up against her. Anne’s head lay against the smaller woman’s shoulder and their faces were almost touching in their sleep.

“I knew it,” Irene murmured with a very happy grin on her face. “Just get them together in a bed and everything should be okay.”

She knew that things were not that simple, especially not with her stoic daughter and the stubborn blonde she loved like a second daughter, but seeing them like this gave her the feeling that everything could work out just the way she had wanted it to for the last decade. They belong together. I hope they can see it when they wake up.

The sound of the telephone ringing brought Irene out of her silent contemplation. She sighed and quickly closed the door. She hurried to the reception area and greeted the caller with a bellowed “Hello.”

“Ah … hello. Mrs. Patakis?” The female voice on the other hand sounded slightly irritated.

“Yes, this is Irene Patakis. Can I help you?”

“I think so. This is Deputy Langston. Sheriff Miller asked me to call you. She wanted to let you know that we won’t make it out to the crash site today. There’s just too much going on around here and she thought it was better to start out fresh tomorrow morning when we can actually see something.”

“Oh.” Irene didn’t like the idea at all. If Shana was in danger she wanted to know about it and she wanted to know it fast. “Is there no way you can check the site today?”

“Unfortunately not, ma’am,” the deputy replied apologetically. “There have been two major accidents on the highway and with this weather going on we’re having our hands full with getting the road cleared. We just don’t have enough people to cover everything. I’m sorry.”

“Listen,” Irene scolded the other woman. “Someone hit Shana Wilson’s car this afternoon and we believe it was done on purpose. I think you should get over here as soon as possible to check the crash site for evidence. What if someone really wanted to kill Ms. Wilson? Do you want to be responsible if they try it again tonight and you haven’t done anything to prevent it?”

“I apologize, Mrs. Patakis,” came the exasperated voice through the line. “But there’s no way we can make it out there tonight.”

“Can I talk to Sheriff Miller, please?” I want to give her a piece of my mind.

“No, ma’am. She’s at one of the crash sites right now. I’m just telling you what she would tell you herself.”

“You’re just following orders, huh?” Irene resigned herself to the facts of small-town life once again. “Is there anything I can do at my end here?”

“No, ma’am. It’s best to leave the crash site as it is. The weather forecast says there won’t be any more snow until later tomorrow so the site should be okay over night. We’ll be there first thing in the morning to have a look at it, ma’am.”

“Oh, okay. See you then.”

Irene hung up and stared into the darkness outside. This sucks. She mused about the situation. This was not what she had expected from the sheriff. She had heard good things about the woman and although she had never met her, she had come to respect her work just from the things she had heard about her. Well, she just lost a lot of that respect in my eyes. I can’t wait to meet her tomorrow …

She shrugged, putting away the gloomy thoughts for another day. Time to make some dinner. Maybe I can get the Hinkels to join me. That might take my mind off all this trouble. I want to hear their story anyway.

Decision made, she turned and walked swiftly towards the kitchen.

*******************

The next time Shana opened her eyes it was to the sight of a pair of blue eyes at a very short distance. Am I dreaming? This is what I’ve been dreaming of for years now. I don’t want it to be a dream anymore.

She closed her eyes and quickly opened them again. The eyes were still there, caressing her face with a quiet contemplative look and a smile that illuminated the blue even in the darkness.

“Hello, little one.” Anne’s voice was husky and decidedly sexy to Shana’s ears.

God, I love that I-just-woke-up voice of hers. Shana felt her legs turn to Jell-O just at the thought of what else Anne could say to her with a voice like that.

“He … hello.” The blonde woman realized that her own voice was raspy and it was hard to press out a sound through her dry throat and lips.

“You sound like you could use some water,” Anne whispered, not knowing why she felt the need to keep the sound of her voice to a minimum. It just enhanced the intimacy she felt at the moment.

She didn’t want it to end.

Shana nodded. She didn’t know whether she was dreaming or hallucinating, but she felt wonderful. Her body ached all over and she had a headache, but it felt so wonderful just lying this close to the woman of her dreams that she didn’t want to change a thing.

She tried to remember how she had ended up in this situation. The last thing she could really remember was that she had visited Pete’s grave on her way to Anne and Irene. Then she was driving along the road … and there was another car … then nothing.

Jumbled scenes filtered through. Bits and pieces of what she assumed happened between then and now. Someone pulling her out of her car. Anne. Anne carrying her thorough the snow. Lying in a bed. Throwing up. Anne. The baby. Oh God.

Shana groaned inwardly. The thought of what she had done at some point brought her dry throat back into focus and now she could taste the remnants of some sort of mouthwash someone had cleaned her with.

She swallowed. I need to get up. Other parts of her body reminded her of their existence and with the growing awareness of her body came the realization that she was practically plastered to her best friend all along their length. Or more precisely, her best friend was snuggled up to her.

And Anne didn’t seem to mind at all. She looked absolutely content.

If I read this right, it might just make my plan null and void. Shit! I need to talk to her. But first things first.

“Anne,” Shana whispered, “where are we?”

“We’re at Mom’s place, Shea. Don’t you remember anything?” Anne’s voice took on a worried note.

“No … yes … I don’t know.” Shana blinked and looked straight into Anne’s eyes again. “I remember the crash and I seem to remember that you brought me here, but I don’t know this room –”

“It’s the room next to the library,” Anne interrupted hastily, noticing the rasp in her friend’s voice. “I’m going to get you something to drink now. Stay put.”

Anne started to slowly move away from Shana’s warm body. Shana felt the lack of contact instantly, as if a cold wind had suddenly blown under the covers. She quickly grabbed Anne’s nearest arm. Oh, that feels good. She shook her head.

“No, wait.” Anne stopped her movement and looked at her questioningly. “I have to use the bathroom anyway. I can get us something to drink on the way. Is it okay to use the bathroom at the end of the hall?”

Anne nodded. “But, Shea … I don’t know if you’re able to get up. You were hurt in the accident and you have a concussion –”

“I know,” the smaller woman conceded with a painful grin. “I threw up on you, didn’t I?”

“Nah, not on me,” Anne gave her a lopsided grin, “just next to me.” She turned to switch on the bedside lamp and then looked at Shana. “Seriously though, how are you feeling? You had me worried there for a minute.”

“I’m all right, I guess.” Shana internally checked her body. “I pretty much hurt all over and I feel like I was run over by a truck …” Which I most probably was. “But the most pressing matter now is going to the bathroom.”

“Okay. I’ll help you.”

“Anne, I’ve been going to the bathroom on my own for several years now.” But you’re really worried about me, aren’t you? You’re cute when you do that.

“I know that,” Anne sighed. “I just want you to know I’ll be here for you if you need me.”

“I know.” Shana gently touched Anne’s face and cupped her cheek. “I know, but I need to try this as soon as I can. You would, too.”

Anne simply nodded, knowing that Shana had a valid point. She would have tried to get out of bed as soon as she had opened her eyes. Still, that didn’t keep her from wanting to help and protect Shana.

The dark-haired woman closed her eyes and took Shana’s hand in her own to hold it close to her cheek. Then she kissed the palm of Shana’s hand tenderly and looked up through dark bangs to meet startled green eyes.

At that moment both realized that something elementary between them had changed with the events of the past day.

As if on cue, Anne released Shana’s hand and Shana pulled it back. Both cleared their throats, but it was the taller woman who broke the silence first.

“You wanna try it now?”

Shana exhaled slowly. “Yup. But if I end up on my butt, I expect you to be there and carry me to the bathroom.”

“I will, milady, I will.”

They chuckled, glad that the intensity of the moment had been lightened a bit. They both realized that now was not the time for a serious talk. The connection that had made itself known between them would be enough for now. With a groan Shana sat up on the side of the bed and put her feet on the ground.

That’s when she realized she was practically naked. “Anne?”

“Yes?”

“I’m naked.”

“I know.”

“Oh.” A pause. “I need something to wear if I want to go out there.” She didn’t turn to look at Anne.

Anne looked around the room and tried to remember where she had put Shana’s clothes. Oh yeah, mom took them … Hmm, need something else. She thought for a second. Ah.

With her one good hand, she pulled off the shirt she was wearing.

“Here,” she said, holding the shirt with her outstretched arm. “Take this.”

Shana turned and took in the vision before her. Any response she could have made got stuck in her throat and she blushed furiously as she took in the sight of Anne clad only in her sports bra. She quickly turned around again and pulled the shirt over her head, groaning as the movement aggravated her strained shoulders.

“Thanks,” she croaked and then walked towards the door as fast as her injured body would allow her.

Leaving behind a tall, dark-haired woman with a smile that lit up the room.

Chapter 17

As soon as Shana had closed the door behind her she held onto the wall for support. Walking was definitely more difficult than it should be and the rapid exit from the room hadn’t helped at all. Okay, slowly and carefully it is then.

Keeping one hand on the wall, Shana made her way to the bathroom at the end of the hallway, glad for the warm feeling of the hardwood floor against her feet. Her body felt like it was one large bruise and she was slightly dizzy, but nothing like the feeling she remembered from earlier in the day. It was today, wasn’t it?

She was relieved when she reached the bathroom and could sit down on the toilet. Afterwards she stood in front of the mirror surveying the damage her body had suffered in the accident. I assume it was an accident …

A small bandage covered the side of her head, pinpointing the location that hurt the worst. Okay, now I know where the throbbing comes from. She also realized that she probably had a mild concussion. She pulled off her shirt … no, Anne’s shirt … to take a look at her upper body. She groaned when the movement reminded her poignantly that there was something wrong with her shoulders.

During the course of her career she had suffered what she thought of as the usual amount of injuries and she was able to look at her own body as if it belonged to someone else, checking out the bruises and calculating how long it would take them to heal. There were large areas of discoloration on her shoulders, along her collarbones and down to the top of her breasts. A second set of bruises along both hips complemented them. She laid a hand on her lower abdomen and stroked it gently, glad there weren’t any bruises or injuries there. She knew her baby was okay. She didn’t know how she knew, she just did. Hello, little one. I hope you didn’t get scared too badly.

She splashed some cold water on her face and brushed her teeth with one of the new toothbrushes she found in the medicine cabinet. I love it that Irene is always prepared for surprise visitors. She felt much better afterwards. It even hurt less when she put the shirt back on, but she realized that was probably just her imagination.

She was very pleased that she had made the trip to the bathroom by herself. She hated the idea of needing Irene’s or, even worse, Anne’s assistance, even though she knew that both women would give their help gladly and without the slightest hesitation. It was just … she didn’t want to appear helpless to the woman she loved.

And she loved her. No doubts about it, not anymore.
If she thought about it, there never was anyone else for her. She had always been drawn to her tall, dark-haired friend, even when they were teenagers. But as long as she thought her feelings were so much deeper than Anne’s feelings for her, there had been this tiny kernel of doubt. She had loved Anne and Anne had slept with any woman who offered her affections. Could she love someone who didn’t love her back? Couldn’t she find someone to love who loved her as well?

Shana shook her head and looked into the eyes staring back at her from the mirror. No, there never was anyone else. The quiet look of love that Anne had watched her with just minutes ago made it all so clear. There was love there, all hers for the taking if she wanted it.

And, boy, do I want it.

In a way, knowing that Anne loved her made things more difficult. She had come here with a plan to get Anne to confess her love, to finally force an admission from her tall friend’s lips. Now that plan could very well come back and bite her in the butt and could drive her friend away forever. I’m going to need Irene’s help, that’s for sure.

And then there was the baby. How am I ever going to explain this one?

Anne is going to freak.

******************

Anne lay back on the bed, still sporting her thousand-watt smile, and thought about the last couple of minutes. She put her good arm behind her head and looked up at the ceiling even though her gaze went inward.

How could things change so profoundly so fast?

She had woken up a few minutes before Shana and had just watched the blonde face that lay so close to her own. A wave of tenderness had rushed through her at the sight and a feeling she hadn’t felt in a very long time: protectiveness. All she wanted at that moment was to hold Shea and make all the hurt go away. Make her feel safe and good. Warm and loved.

She hadn’t been able to restrain herself, didn’t even know if she wanted to. She had pressed her lips to Shana’s forehead with all the tenderness that threatened her composure and her ability to keep away from her friend without some sort of reassurance that the blonde loved her as well.

It didn’t matter. For the first time since she had fallen in love with Shea, it didn’t matter whether the small blonde loved her as well. She loved her and needed to express that love.

I’m in love with this woman and I will be forever.

And then Shana had opened her eyes and had looked at her with a completely open expression. The love that had shone out of those green eyes had taken her breath away.

She loves me too.

Anne felt like her heart would explode from the joy she felt inside. Her life had changed in the second it took Shana to open her eyes and Anne to realize the depth of feeling in those eyes. She had experienced all kinds of feelings towards Shana in the fifteen years they had known each other: friendship, affection, trust, desire, remorse, hurt, pain, love, lust, frustration, and almost every other emotion she was capable of feeling.

But she had never felt this tenderness and depth of love that she felt now.

This was new.

And scary.

And wonderful.

She swallowed. After she had tried to tell Shana about her feelings at her brother’s birthday eight years before, she had never let anyone close to her again. She had had countless affairs, mostly one-night stands that served a certain purpose, but she had never allowed herself a shred of feeling for any of her conquests. She had conquered them or accepted their offers, had fucked them and thrown them away afterwards, detesting them for being such easy prey and herself for using them. Animated sex toys, she had called them behind their backs. Batteries not necessary. She had used the conquests between the sheets to her advantage on the tennis court, taunting her opponents with their affair before and after matches. It had made her career that much more successful. She had never lost to one of her conquests.

And she had hated herself for it.

All that had stopped after she had gotten closer to Shea again. The more their friendship grew to what it had been, the less she needed the physical release she had sought from other people. When the desire for Shana ran too high, too unbearable, she would work out or run until she was close to exhaustion. If that didn’t help she would release herself, thinking about Shana.

I’m certainly no innocent. She snorted and shook her head at herself. Then why do I feel so damn virginal right now?

Because this feeling of purity is new. Because this tenderness brings a whole new quality to this love you’re feeling. Because you’ve never been so deeply in love before and you’re falling deeper with every passing second.

Or maybe because you haven’t had sex with anyone but yourself in years.

And never with anyone you loved.

Anne closed her eyes and let her feelings run their course through her body. Telling Shana about her feelings didn’t seem so difficult all of a sudden and her mind offered her visions of a life lived happily ever after. I’m going to tell her as soon as possible. I want to start the rest of my life. No delays. No obstacles.

A vision of Shana appeared behind her closed eyes and reminded her of a line in a song. My shirt looks good on you.

It sure does.

With a smirk Anne relaxed into the pillows to wait for Shana.

*******************

Shana grabbed a robe from a hook in the corner of the bathroom and put it on with an economy of movement that showed that her body still felt very sore. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door and stepped out into the hallway, deciding to start with the easier of the two Patakis women.

“I’m going to talk to your grandma now, little one,” she whispered to her belly. “You know, she’s not your real granny, but it feels that way.” I hope she feels that way too … should I ever find the courage to tell her about you.

Slowly, the blonde woman made her way towards the kitchen. She could her music floating through the open doorway and the deep resonant voice as Irene sang along. Amidst it all she could her the clutter of pans and other cooking utensils. Ah, relaxation time.

Shana nodded to herself. She had known the older woman long enough to know that cooking and music always meant that she was upset and trying to get over it. Let’s hope I don’t upset her any more than she already is. I wonder what happened …

She reached the kitchen and just glanced into the room, watching her surrogate mother with an affectionate gaze. Why couldn’t my mother ever be like that? I wish Irene was my mom…scratch that…I so do not want to be Anne’s sister…no way, no how… She had to grin at the thoughts running through her mind and shook her head to concentrate on the mission at hand.

“What are you doing up, little one?” came the wonderfully familiar voice. Shana hadn’t even noticed that Irene had stopped singing and had turned to gaze at her.

She looked up. “Hello, Mom. It’s so good to see you.” She made her way over to the kitchen counter to hug the older woman who enfolded her gently in her arms.

“It’s good to see you up, sweetness.” Irene guided Shana over to the table. “But please sit down, I don’t want you to exhaust yourself. You should probably still be in bed. Is Anne still sleeping?”

She’s really upset. She hasn’t rambled like that since Pete … Shana laid a hand on Irene’s arm. “Mom,” she spoke calmly, “I’m okay, really.”

She watched as Irene took a deep breath and sat down on the chair next to her. “And Anne is awake. I told her I needed to go to the bathroom to freshen up. So, what happened?” She gestured at the clutter of pans and dishes on the counter.

“You’re asking me? You’re the one who’s all banged up. I mean, look at you –” Her voice broke and she raised her hand and gently pushed the blonde bangs from Shana’s forehead.

“Oh, Mom, don’t cry.” Shana took Irene’s hand in both of hers. “I’m going to be okay, honest.”

It was obvious that Irene cared deeply for the blonde woman across from her. The tears in her eyes were as much a sign of the stress of the day as of the relief she felt at the moment with Shana safe and almost sound in her kitchen.

“I know, honey, I know,” she said and added her hand to the pile of hands on the table. “Do you remember what happened?”

Shana closed her eyes and let her mind drift back to the last clear memory. “I visited Peter and talked to him for quite a while on my way here. Then I drove over from the cemetery. It gets a bit fuzzy from there, but I do remember that there was another car on the road, a black truck. I thought it was one of your guests because the car was following me and I was going very slowly.”

She blushed a bit, remembering all her attempts to delay her arrival as much as possible. Maybe I should have just driven here. I wouldn’t be hurt right now.

“Well, it was definitely no guest because the only ones here right now are the Hinkels, an elderly couple who have been of great help with you today. I’m not expecting any more guests before the weekend.”

“Anyway, the car was behind me and then …” She paused and tried to concentrate, but couldn’t come up with anything much. She shrugged her shoulders in a gesture that was almost apologetic. “The next thing I know I woke up here, in bed next to Anne, almost naked.”

“That’s all?”

“No, there are glimpses of things, here and there. I seem to remember that Anne carried me, but I’m not sure it’s an actual memory.” Or a dream. “And I remember …” Her voice trailed off into a gagging sound.

“You did throw up, but that was to be expected since you have a concussion,” Irene confirmed that particular memory in her own blunt way. “And yes, Anne carried you here from the crash site.”

While Irene told Shana everything she knew, the blonde woman just sat there and couldn’t believe her ears. Anne carried me all the way even though she fell and injured her wrist? The thought made Shana feel all warm and very loved. You’re my hero, Anne, aren’t you? And you would never have told me that. You didn’t even mention your hand.

Now that she thought about it, she could vaguely remember seeing a bandage on Anne’s hand. a viciously blue gel pack, and the impact it had had on her stomach. When Irene was finished she asked the question that seemed most important to her. “Will Anne be all right? Did the doctor say anything about it?”

Irene chuckled. “You know Anne, sweetness. She hardly let the doctor within two feet of her hand, but he managed to check it out and he said it was sprained. A diagnosis our own Doctor Patakis confirmed, by the way.”

“Yeah, Anne always knows best,” Shana added. She shared an affectionate grin with her friend’s mother. “It’s a good thing we love her so much, isn’t it?”

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Do you love her?”

Shana sobered up and the fond grin vanished from her face. It was replaced with a serious look and she gazed straight into the older woman’s eyes. “Yes, I do. Mom, I love her with all my heart.” She felt like she was asking for Anne’s hand.

“That is good,” Irene replied, equally serious. “She needs you in her life, little one.” She paused. “I had hoped that you came here today to tell her that and that you two would finally, finally get together. You’ve been killing me.”

Shana smiled at the obvious relief and acceptance in Irene’s voice and eyes. Then she remembered that that was not all that she had wanted to tell Anne. She needed to tell Irene about her stupid plan. And about the baby, although she had decided that Anne should be the first to know about that.

“Listen, Irene, I need to tell you something, but I don’t know how…”

“What is it, little one? You look so serious,” Irene was concerned at the hesitancy that was obvious in Shana’s face and voice. “Come on, you know you can tell me anything.”

I sure hope so. Shana swallowed and decided to jump right into it. “You know I’m very happy that I’m in love with Anne. I wasn’t always because it almost broke my heart, but now that I know she loves me too, I’m deliriously happy.”

“That’s good to hear, honey, but what is the problem?” Irene sounded confused.

“The problem is that I didn’t think it would be as easy as it seems to be now.” She hesitated before continuing. “I thought I had to force Anne to confess her feelings for me … and I think I wanted to be secure in her love for me before I told her about my feelings.”

“I can understand, Shea. You were afraid that Anne didn’t love you the way you love her. I could have told you that she does, but I know you need to hear it from her.” Irene’s voice took on a concerned tone. “What I still don’t understand is what the problem is now. You know she loves you, so why don’t you just tell her?”

The doorbell interrupted Irene. “Huh, I wonder who that is? I don’t expect any guests today. Let me go take a look, honey.” She stood and walked over to the door. “I’m sorry, you’ll have to tell me later. I’ll be back shortly.” Then she left the room.

Shana felt as if all air had left her body. Frustrated, she leaned on the table like a deflated balloon. The trip to the bathroom and kitchen had taken up a lot of her strength and the interrupted attempt to confess the extent of her cowardice and stupidity to Anne’s mother had drained her. She knew that she had to get back into the room to lie down if she didn’t want to fall down in the middle of the kitchen.

It was then that she heard Irene’s excited voice greeting her guests. “Kevin! Mike! Oh, boys, I haven’t seen you in so long! What are you doing here?”

Shana put her head down on the table and closed her eyes. She knew what they were doing here. Kevin and Mike had the uncanny ability to be there whenever Anne needed them and she knew that Anne must have said something to one of them that drove them out here in this weather. Anne’s troops just arrived. Which means I won’t get to tell Irene tonight. Which means I get to crawl back into bed now and sleep. She didn’t want to see anyone right now. All she wanted was sleep.

Tomorrow all hell is going to break loose.

And now there’ll be four people who will want to kill me.

She got up and dragged herself back to the room.

*******************

Inside the bedroom, Anne was slowly getting worried. Shana had been gone for a while now and she hoped that she was okay. She knew that her friend had probably stopped by the kitchen to greet Irene, but still she hoped that one of them would be sensible enough to send Shana back to bed as soon as possible. She should be in bed. She should be near me. I want her near me.

I need her near me.

She heard the doorbell, but decided to ignore it. Just as she was about to get up and check on Shana’s whereabouts, the door opened and her friend returned.

“Hey, Shea,” Anne said, her voice huskier than she ever remembered it being. “I was getting worried.”

Without a word, Shana dropped the robe and got back into bed in only the shirt and boxers she had been wearing before. She crawled under the covers and looked at Anne with tired eyes, barely noticing that Anne had removed her sports bra and was now naked from the waist up. “I talked with Mom a bit, but I’m totally exhausted now. I guess I’m not as fit as I’d like to be.”

Anne looked at her with all the love she could muster, trying to tell Shana with just her eyes what she was feeling. She lay on her side, supported by one elbow, and tenderly stroked Shana’s face with the fingertips of her other hand.

Shana closed her eyes and simply enjoyed the feeling. Anne closed her eyes as well and kept on moving her fingertips all over Shana’s face, touching her ears, trailing her finger down her nose, following the line of the blonde eyebrows. She enjoyed the freedom of being able to touch the woman she loved without having to be afraid of the consequences, and she caressed the beautiful face much longer than she had originally intended to. She mapped out the face with her touch, committing every curve and dip, every pore, every line to memory.

At long last, she stilled her fingers and opened her eyes. “I love you, Shana,” she said, her voice deep and husky, emotions constricting her throat. “With all that I am, I love you.”

Deep, even breaths alerted her to the fact that Shana had fallen asleep. The sight brought a tender smile to her face. It doesn’t matter. I told you now and I’m going to keep on telling you for the rest of my life.

“Sleep tight, love. I’ll be here for you when you wake up.”

And then we’re going to continue this conversation.

With a sigh she snuggled up to Shana and soon succumbed to her tiredness as well.

Chapter 18

Irene greeted Kevin and Mike exuberantly, enjoying the feeling of having her complete “family” under her roof. And it’s not even Christmas. She hadn’t expected to see the two men anytime soon, but she wasn’t really surprised to see them either. She knew from experience that Kevin tended to show up whenever Anne was in trouble and needed him, and where Kevin went, Mike invariably would go too.

Irene had loved Kevin from the moment she had met him and had adopted the gentle giant in her home and her heart as another addition to the family. When he had been gay-bashed she had taken turns with Anne and Mike sitting at his bed, keeping him company and showing him that he was loved.

He reminded her a lot of Pete. Like Pete, Kevin had blonde hair, hazel eyes, and a very kind soul, but he was taller and more muscular than her son had been. His overall appearance was that of a California beach bum, but inside he was serious, intelligent and fiercely loyal to his friends. He also dressed better.

Mike, on the other hand, always looked as if he had just stumbled out of bed. At 6 feet he was smaller than his lover by almost half a foot and seemed much more compact. His hair was a dark blonde and his eyes were a brilliant green. He could have been Shana’s brother, especially since he and Shana shared the same impish grin and crazy ideas.

She led them into the kitchen, told them to sit down at the table and handed them each a cold beer from the fridge, grabbing one for herself as well. She checked the assortment of pots on the stove and finally joined her guests.

She wasn’t really surprised to find that Shana had left the kitchen. The younger woman had looked exhausted and although Irene knew that something was bothering Shana she thought it could very well wait until the next day. Nothing is ever that important, she thought and decided to enjoy her talk with Kevin and Mike. Maybe we can have dinner with the Hinkels after I tell the boys what happened.

“So,” she asked after taking a long swallow of beer, “what brings you two here?”

Mike and Kevin simultaneously said, “Well …”, then looked at each other and shrugged before Kevin continued to speak. “We heard that Shana would be here and I had a feeling it would be good to be here too, that’s all.”

“Ah,” was Irene’s simple response. “And you expect me to believe that?” She grinned. It was always the same. Kevin would always say he had had a feeling and she would never believe him, even though she knew that he had rarely been wrong. That was, after all, what made him such a great coach and good friend for Anne.

Kevin was unsure of how much Irene knew about Anne’s plans to talk to Shana and decided to change the subject. “Where are the girls anyway?”

“The girls,” the older woman replied with a raised eyebrow, “are in bed.”

“In bed?” Kevin asked incredulously.

“Together?” Mike added.

“In bed. Together.”

“Thank you, Lord,” Mike said dramatically, raising his hands as if in prayer.

“You’re an atheist, darling,” Irene commented in a dry voice, “and your thanks may be a bit premature.”

“How so? We’ve been waiting for this for years now.”

“I know, I know … but the reason they’re in bed now is that Shana was hurt in a car accident this afternoon and Anne injured her hand trying to help her. They’re both totally exhausted and simply need their rest.”

“What?” both men shouted. “What exactly happened? How did Anne injure her hand? Which one? What’s wrong with it? What about Shana? Is she all right?”

“Hold it, boys,” Irene made the time-out signal. “I’m going to tell you everything over dinner and you can ask their doctor what’s wrong with them. We had one of my guests here examine them because the doctor in town couldn’t get here.” She saw the concern in their faces. “But they’re both pretty much okay as far as I can tell.”

“Can I see them?” Kevin asked.

“I don’t know, Kev. They’re probably both asleep and I want them to get all the rest they can.”

“Just a peek, Mom,” the huge man whined like a small boy. “I’ll be very quiet, I promise. I just have to see that they’re okay for myself.”

“We’ll be very quiet, Irene,” Mike promised as well.

“Oh, okay,” Irene conceded, unable to withstand the gentle pressure and the pleading eyes. “They’re in the room next to the library. Please, let them sleep, will you.”

Both men stood and leaned down to kiss the older woman on each cheek before leaving the room.

“I’ll just check on dinner while you’re gone,” Irene murmured to an empty room. “Or I could just go and ask the Hinkels to join us.”

That said, she finished her beer and went to talk to the German couple.

*******************

Kevin and Mike made their way to Anne and Shana’s room on tiptoes, trying to be extra quiet. Inevitably, they touched all the squeaky bits of floorboard, flinching and wincing every time.

Kevin opened the door as quietly as he could and squeezed his head through the opening. The light from the hall made the interior of the room barely visible, but it was enough to see the two figures sharing the bed.

Aww, that’s so cute.

Kevin turned around and gave his lover a big goofy smile, pointing at the bed. “You have to see this, Mikey,” he whispered and made room at the door for the smaller man.

Mike blinked and focused on the bed, smiling involuntarily as well.

Shana lay on her side with the taller form of Anne curled up behind her. Anne’s arm rested in a protective embrace around the smaller woman’s waist and there was not a millimeter of space between the two bodies. Good thing I’m gay or I’d be in trouble now, he thought when he realized that at least Anne appeared to be naked under the covers, which ended in the middle of her back.

He was just about to close the door and rejoin his lover when he heard a faint sound from the direction of the bed. Looking back he saw Shana move slightly, turning to lie more fully on her stomach, only to be grabbed and pulled even closer by an obviously deeply asleep Anne. Then he watched as the taller woman sighed in her sleep and nuzzled the light hair of the smaller woman in her arms.

He decided to close the door and leave them alone.

Back in the kitchen Mike and Kevin looked at each other and grinned broadly. With a step they were in each other’s arms sharing a deep kiss that was prompted by the loving display they had just witnessed.

“You know,” Kevin said after a while, “we can never tell them that we saw them like that.”

Mike nodded. “Anne would kill us.”

“And Shana would wipe the floor with our sad remains,” Kevin laughed.

The smaller man grinned mischievously. “But it’s great teasing material for later days, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yeah … I can’t wait for their wedding day.”

“Hmm, I can see it now, the wedding of the century: cuddly Anne and snuggly Shana.”

“They would kill you, boys,” came Irene’s voice from the doorway. “No doubt about it … and I would gladly help them bury your carcasses.”

Kevin and Mike swallowed audibly.

And Irene laughed heartily.

*******************

The Hinkels did indeed join them for dinner in the kitchen since the hotel’s restaurant was closed for the winter and the elderly couple saw no way of getting into the tiny town to get something else to eat. The snow had stopped, but driving on these roads in the darkness was still not without its dangers.

They all gathered around the huge table, Kevin and Mike on the one side and the Hinkels on the other with Irene sitting at the head of the table. They all filled their plates with the hearty Irish stew that Irene had concocted as a remedy for being upset. It was a potent dish since Irene had been very generous in the amount of stout she had added.

She loved cooking with alcohol.

It made for very interesting reactions sometimes.

They each had a bottle of stout before them and soon all five of them were enjoying the excellent stew and the strong and very dark beer.

Over dinner Kevin and Mike were told what had happened to Shana and Anne in the afternoon and to their relief, Fritz explained that their injuries weren’t that problematic. After listening to the description of the injuries, Mike agreed and was already planning ways of strengthening the injured body parts of both women. It was his job as Anne’s physical therapist and a pleasure for him as Anne’s and Shana’s friend.

After dinner Irene wanted to get the conversation away from her daughters. She was still curious about the history of the elderly German couple and after a few minutes of talking around the subject she decided to just ask.

“Hilde,” she addressed Mrs. Hinkel, “you’ve been coming here now for years and I don’t really know much about you.” That got her a startled look from the older woman. Great start, Irene! It’s not as if they owe you any information. “What I mean was that you always seem to be searching for something … and this afternoon you seemed to think it might be a good idea to talk to someone about it.” She smiled encouragingly. “We’re all friends here …”

The Hinkels shared a look and then both looked over to Kevin and Mike. They had gotten used to Irene and they liked her, but they really didn’t know the two men very well.

Irene saw the look and smiled at the couple. “You can trust the boys, believe me. They’re like my own sons.”

Both men shot Irene brilliant smiles at that and then tried to look at the couple across from them with a trustworthy and encouraging grin, holding hands under the table.

The Hinkels looked at each other and nodded. Then Dr. Hinkel began to talk.

“As you may know, we’re from Berlin –”

“Ooh, Berlin! What a great city,” Mike interrupted him, which earned him a dirty look from Irene. He ignored it. “The Ku’damm, the Grunewald, the –”

“Mike,” came the almost subvocal admonition from his lover. Mike closed his mouth mid-sentence and leaned back in his chair.

“Yes, Berlin is a great city,” Dr. Hinkel continued, “but that is not our Berlin. We’re from what was know as Berlin, capital of the German Democratic Republic. East Berlin.” He paused for a moment.

“We had a good life, more or less. I was a doctor and Hilde a nurse at the Charité, a large hospital in East Berlin. And we had a daughter, Daniela, a lovely little girl. We got her rather late, we were both already in our forties and we loved her very much, maybe because we knew she would always stay our only child.”

His grip around his wife’s hand tightened and he inhaled and exhaled deeply before continuing.

“Unfortunately I never joined the party … the SED –”

“Unfortunately?” he was interrupted again, this time by Kevin. “Isn’t that a good thing? I mean they did all the bad stuff, didn’t they?”

Dr. Hinkel nodded. “Yes, it was a good thing for my conscience. For our conscience. But it is not a good thing when you have a daughter who wants nothing more than to become a world-class tennis player. She had the talent for it, but she wasn’t allowed to join a sports school to work on her talent because her parents refused to join the party.” The last part was uttered with a bitter note in his voice.

“All talented young people were usually gathered in sports schools where their talents were brought to perfection. You couldn’t go anywhere in your chosen sport if you didn’t go to one of those schools. It was considered too risky to let her play her sport because it would eventually take her to tournaments in other countries and there was always the danger of defection. See, we weren’t party members so the government thought we had no ties to the country. So I wasn’t allowed to go to conferences in the West, my wife wasn’t allowed to visit her family in West Germany, and our daughter was not allowed to play tennis for her country.”

Irene put a hand on the older man’s forearm and patted it in a comforting gesture. “What happened to your daughter? Where is she now?” she asked quietly.

“She did what everyone expected her to do, she fled,” came the equally quiet answer from Mrs. Hinkel. “The irony was that six months after she left the country the Wall came down. We haven’t seen her since then.”

“She is who we are looking for all the time,” Dr. Hinkel added. “We don’t know where she is.”

“But what happened?” Kevin asked. “Why didn’t she come back to see you?”

A single tear crept down the old man’s cheek. “She didn’t come back because we didn’t part on good terms. You see, her inability to play tennis wasn’t the only complication in her life. The week before she left she also told us that she was gay. I reacted badly. I told her that she didn’t know what she was talking about. She was sixteen years old, for Christ’s sake. I was so unprepared for that talk. I shouted at her and told her that she couldn’t be like that, that I wouldn’t let her be like that. And she,” his voice broke, “she was crying and telling me that she was confused as well, but that she liked who she was. I told her to snap out of it and come back to her senses. That were the last words I ever spoke to her.”

Irene patted his arm again, full of sympathy and a little confusion. He didn’t seem to have a problem with Anne and Shana or with Mike and Kevin, and all four of them were gay. So, something has changed …

“But you don’t seem to have a problem with us,” Kevin asked, confusion also evident in his voice.

“I don’t,” Dr. Hinkel replied. “I’ve learnt a lot in the last thirteen years since our daughter left. Having lost my daughter because of that made me look at gay people with other eyes. Today I don’t even know why I reacted the way I did. If she were here now, I’d take her into my arms and be happy, and if she had a partner I would love her, too. I just want to see her again.”

“What brings you here, then?” Mike asked. “Why do you think you’ll find your daughter here somewhere?”

Mrs. Hinkel took over from her obviously very distressed husband. “After the Wall came down we tried to find her. She must have had help from outside the country. You didn’t just get up and leave the GDR. If they caught you, you were shot and if they didn’t kill you, you went to prison for a long, long time. But there were groups of people who helped those willing to get out. Not all of them, however, were trustworthy. We don’t know for sure how Daniela got out and it was difficult to pick up the trail. None of her friends could help us much, but one of her closest friends told us that Daniela had started to talk of a great change in her life and that she would become a famous tennis player soon. This friend said that Daniela mentioned a man who was going to be her manager and who would make her a star.”

“We assume that this was the man who managed to get her out of the country,” Dr. Hinkel took over again. “Unfortunately, Daniela’s friend could only remember a part of the man’s name and that it was not a German name. She also said that according to Daniela the man had been a tennis player and was now a manager of several young players.”

“We took the information to a private investigator and he tried to find out as much as he could. But there were so many former tennis players who turned into managers that it took him a long time to come up with a list of possible names … but after a couple of years we had a short list of names that we could take to Daniela’s friend to see if she recognized one of them. She did. The name was Carlos Vila, and we later found out that he worked together with a man called –”

“George Patakis,” Irene, Kevin and Mike said at the same time. They all looked stunned.

“But George has been dead for years now and Carlos Vila is not welcome in this house,” Irene stated. “What do you expect to find here?”

“After we had found out the name we had him investigated further and what we found, we did not like. It seems that Vila had a habit of approaching young players from eastern countries and took them with him, presumably to the U.S. But this is always where the trail stops. We know he takes the girls somewhere and they just disappear off the face of the earth and none of them ever becomes a tennis player. We thought that maybe here we could find other clues, but we didn’t really expect it. It was just that a feeling keeps drawing us here. And so we come every year. We feel closer to her here somehow …”

Kevin exhaled loudly. “So Carlos gets himself young girls from all over the world and nobody knows what becomes of them …” That sounds suspiciously like a modern-day slaver. Naahhh, that’s impossible today. Isn’t it?

The thought kept nibbling at the back of his mind, however, especially since he knew a lot more about Carlos than everyone else in this room, including his lover and Irene. But there was no way he could betray Anne’s confidence. He needed to talk to her soon.

He could do something else, though. “Would you like me to listen around on the tennis circuit for you? I know a lot of people and I have good contacts. I could call a few people and see if they’ve ever heard anything about this.”

Mrs. Hinkel nodded. “That would be very generous of you, Mr. Delaney.”

“No problem. And call me Kevin, please.” He smiled at the couple across from him. “Maybe we’ll find your daughter and I bet she’ll be very happy to see you.”

Everyone was quiet after that and the evening ended on a very subdued note, each person at the table thinking about their own demons. Funny how those demons wore the name and the face of Carlos Vila for most of them.

Chapter 19

In the very early hours of the morning, Anne’s body alerted her to the fact that she wasn’t alone in bed long before her mind caught up to the idea. Her body told her that it was by no means an unpleasant feeling to be curled up against another body.

Especially this body that her own seemed to find exceptionally attractive.

A fact that her mind wasn’t too happy with right now.

While her mind was still trying to figure out who was sharing the bed with her and why she hadn’t thrown out that other body by now, some long-neglected hormones in her body were happily preparing for action with a serious warm-up.

Anne’s mind searched for answers in its sleep-befuddled depths. Where am I? This doesn’t feel like a hotel bed, so I’m not at some tournament. It doesn’t feel like the bed at home either. Oh, yes, Mom’s place. Hmm, I never bring any women here … Well, except for Shea. Her body confirmed that thought with a grin. Oh, yeah, Shana.

Now that her body and mind were on the same page, the dark-haired woman smiled and tightened her hold on the smaller woman with a contented sigh.

A group of disappointed hormones sat down in a corner and pouted.

*******************

It’s warm.

Shana tried to roll over to find out why she had woken up because it was too warm when being cold was the only reason she ever woke up in the middle of the night. Well, I’m obviously not cold tonight.

Her movement was stopped by a weight across her stomach and a very warm body that pressed against her back.

Shana’s eyes traveled up the arm that held her into place in the pre-dawn darkness. She couldn’t see much, but she realized that the arm was bandaged. With that little piece of information she nodded to herself and closed her eyes with a smile on her face.

Anne.

All was right with her world.

I am where I’m supposed to be, was her last thought before she fell back to sleep, unconsciously burrowing closer into Anne’s protective embrace.

*******************

The next time Shana awoke it was to a very pleasant tingling in her belly that stemmed from the fact that Anne’s fingertips were drawing tiny circles around her navel. Somehow, the long fingers had found a way between two buttons of Shana’s shirt and were now busy chasing goose bumps across the smaller woman’s abdominal muscles.

For a second Shana wondered if Anne even knew what she was doing or if her friend’s hand was just following some dream image, but when she listened to the body behind her she realized that Anne had to be awake.

Shana was in a quandary. She enjoyed Anne’s caresses immensely and her body told her to just let go and immerse herself in the feeling. Her mind, however, insisted on being fair, which meant she would have to talk to Anne before she could let things go further between them.

Anne chose that moment to trace a vertical line from Shana’s breastbone downward as far as the restriction of the shirt would let her. The blunt fingernails left a trail of fire in their wake.

Shana stifled a groan. Her body was on a fast-track route to winning over her mind. Does she even realize what this is doing to me?

The fingers began their way back, slowly traveling across her belly towards her breastbone. The blonde woman sucked in a surprised breath when a finger dipped into her navel for just a second. There was no way for her to keep the languid moan inside this time.

Anne stopped the movement of her hand and laid it flat on her stomach, obviously waiting for Shana’s reaction.

The small woman’s body and mind were fighting an all-out duel by now. Turn around, tell her you’re awake. Talk to her. She needs to know everything. When you keep doing this, you’ll ruin your chances of a future with her. Her mind was throwing around its best arguments.

Talk, talk, talk, her body mocked. Talking is entirely overrated if you ask me. Once you made love to her she won’t care about anything you have to tell her anyway. She loves you, she wants to touch you. Let her, you fool.

When there was no reaction from Shana, Anne began to retract her hand slowly from its position under Shana’s shirt.

Which promptly got her the reaction she had been waiting for.

Shana put her own hand carefully on top of Anne’s larger one and effectively stopped all movement.

“What are you doing?” she asked without turning around to face the dark-haired woman. She purposefully left the question as open as she could to see how Anne would react to it.

Anne raised herself on one elbow and looked over Shana’s shoulder to gaze into her friend’s face in the dim morning light. She had enjoyed waking up and just lying there, tenderly touching Shana’s skin, needing an outlet for the love that threatened to overflow her heart.

Somewhere in the back of her mind she had realized that touching Shana while she was sleeping perhaps wasn’t a bright idea, but she couldn’t help herself. Just a tiny touch was all she had wanted at first, but then it became almost impossible to stop the movement of her hand.

She had tried, at first, had touched just on the outside of the shirt and only moved her fingers for a moment and then stilled her hand. Then, after a couple of minutes she had moved her fingers again. Soon, she had given up pretending she could stop and had just lost herself in the feel of Shana’s skin on her fingertips.

She couldn’t stop even when she knew that her friend had woken up. By then, she had moved past any remorse she might have felt in the beginning and was simply interested in Shana’s reaction to her touches.

And now Shana only wants to know what I was doing? Doing what? Touching her or stopping? Well, …

Anne knew that her answer would probably decide whether the touches were allowed to continue or not. And she was willing to do a lot to have them continue and hopefully be reciprocated. Touching Shana had ignited a fire in her belly that she knew would explode should Shana touch her.

Oh, yes. She would do anything for that. Anything, except … apologize. She grinned and decided on sticking to the mere truth.

“Touching you,” she drawled in a voice thick with sleep and something more, making sure to speak very low and very close to Shana’s ear. Then she blew a breath on her earlobe and watched her friend shiver.

Shana opened her eyes and turned her head so that she could look directly into Anne’s eyes from a very short distance. So, you want to play, huh? The brunette’s answer and the hot breath that had touched her ear had almost tuned out all rational thought. God, but she loved that voice. She decided to see how far things would go.

“I noticed that,” she smiled. “But why did you stop?”

“I didn’t stop,” Anne whispered, “and unless you want me to, I won’t.”

The dark-haired woman leaned even closer until only a fraction of an inch separated their lips. She hovered in that position until she began to feel that Shana had become impatient and was straining to close the gap between them. Anne moved back a bit and waited some more. It wasn’t about power this time, she realized, even though her behavior did remind her of things she had done to other women before. This time it was about anticipation. She wanted to lock this moment inside of her forever.

Shana growled. “If you don’t kiss me right now, Anne, I’ll –”

And Anne kissed her.

The first touch of their lips was soft, almost hesitant and chaste. Anne tried to put all her feelings into that one single kiss without overpowering Shana. Nonetheless, her lips burned as if touched by a flame and for a second she wondered if she would survive anything else. Already, her feelings for Shana were consuming her, leaving her breathless, helpless.

She broke the kiss and looked into green eyes that mirrored her feelings. She could see love shining in them and uncertainty, passion and hesitation.

The blonde woman turned fully towards her and they wordlessly hugged, holding each other close, just relishing the moment. Then their lips met again.

And this time all restraint was forgotten.

Within seconds the kiss deepened, grew passionate, ravenous, devouring. Both women groaned when their tongues touched and retreated and touched again, exploring each other over and over until breathing became too important an urge to ignore. When their lips didn’t touch and feel, their hands did, roaming over curves and dips, igniting and soothing, arousing and exploring.

Anne moved to the other side of the smaller woman, mindful of both their injuries. She leaned on her left elbow and used her good right hand to unbutton Shana’s shirt. She growled and tugged impatiently at the buttons when opening them with one hand proved to be too difficult. She grabbed the opening of the shirt, intent on simply ripping it apart, but a smaller hand stopped her.

“Don’t,” Shana pleaded with a husky voice. “I kinda like the shirt.” And then she helped with the buttons.

Soon Anne had unrestricted access to the area she had been exploring only by the touch of her fingertips before. “God, Shea, you’re so beautiful.” Anne swallowed. She didn’t see the bruises on her love’s body, didn’t see any injuries. All she could see was the perfection that was the woman she loved.

“You’ve seen me naked before,” Shana reminded her, although she thought the same thing about Anne. You are the one who is truly beautiful.

“That is not the same,” Anne whispered reverently, her eyes never leaving her friend’s body. “May I touch you, love?” she whispered, afraid that speaking too loud would break the spell they were in.

“God, yes!” the blonde growled from somewhere deep in her throat.

The growl soon turned into a groan when Anne’s fingers started to draw a line from one nipple to the other and back again. With her index finger Anne followed the outer line of the right areola, moving in concentric circles that got closer and closer to the hardening nipple. When she finally got to it, she gave the nipple a light scratch with a blunt nail, eliciting a moan from her blonde lover.

Then she covered the nipple with her mouth, licking it, nipping at it and simply devouring it with loving attention while her fingers moved over to the other breast. Shana tangled her hands in Anne’s long dark hair trying at once to pull her closer to one breast and goad her over to the other breast, unable to decide what would feel better. Reason and language had already fled Shana’s mind; desire and instinct were now firmly in control of her actions.

Anne let go of Shana’s breast and moved up to kiss her again and again, never getting enough of the sweet feeling the touch of their lips brought. Her touch turned to soothing caresses when she noticed that Shana was already close to the breaking point. Anne didn’t want to hurry their first time and she decided to calm her lover down a bit before continuing on her journey of Shana’s body.

Shana had other ideas, though. She was almost beside herself with desire, not caring about anything else anymore. She wanted Anne, and she wanted her now. Wanted to be taken by her and wanted to take her in return. She growled when Anne slowed her touches, then raised one leg between Anne’s longer legs. Her breath caught in her throat when she felt Anne’s wetness through the fabric of her boxers.

Anne simply groaned and pressed herself deeper onto the muscular thigh. Oh God, I can’t believe I’m gonna come just from touching her. It can’t be …

“These have to come off,” Shana rasped and tugged at the boxers that still separated them. “I need to feel you.”

Anne sat up and let Shana pull down the shorts as far as she could and then Anne pulled them off completely while Shana pulled off her own panties.

Anne lay down against Shana again and both women groaned when their bodies touched unhindered by any clothing for the very first time. Neither woman moved for what seemed like hours, just enjoying the feeling. They looked into each other’s eyes and smiled.

“I love you,” both said simultaneously before moving in for another kiss.

“Please, Anne,” Shana breathed when they broke the kiss, “make love to me.”

“With pleasure,” came the serious reply. Then Anne began another journey of discovery down her lover’s body, starting at the pulse point on her throat.

“Yes, Anne, please –”

There was a knock on the door.

Anne groaned. It can’t be. We’ll ignore it. It’s not important.

Another knock.

“Maybe it’s important,” Shana whispered before she could stop herself. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why couldn’t you just ignore it?

Anne was completely still for a moment before another knock sounded from the door, this time louder and with what sounded a lot like impatience.

Anne groaned again. No. No. No. No!

“Yes!” she shouted, frustration making her voice deep and raw. Then she pulled up the blankets to cover Shana and herself.

Irene’s head came through the door. She didn’t look too happy.

“What is it, Mom?” Anne asked in a voice that was none too friendly and without much interest.

“Shana has a visitor,” Irene answered and then directed her next words at Shana. “There’s a young man outside for you. He says he’s your fiancé. I put him into the kitchen.” Her curt tone made it perfectly clear what she thought of the situation. Then she left them alone again.

“What?” Anne’s incredulous shout rang loudly in Shana’s ear. The dark-haired woman turned towards her almost-lover. “Please, tell me this is a mistake. A misunderstanding.”

Shana hid her face behind her heads. The best laid plans of mice and men …

“Shana?”

The blonde had never heard that tone in Anne’s voice before. It was a mixture of hurt and regret, of anger and hope and a good dose of pure insecurity. “Shana, talk to me … please.”

Shana couldn’t talk, couldn’t think right now. If I ignore it, everything will go away. All I want is to make love to the woman I love right now.

When Shana didn’t say anything, Anne got up without a word and donned the robe that Shana had worn the night before. It was way too short for her, but at least it covered her body. Her movements were abrupt and edgy, and Shana recognized them as signs of Anne’s anger and disappointment.

“Anne,” she began with a small voice.

Anne just looked at her, her emotions hidden behind impenetrable barriers. The eyes only showed something close to the coldness Shana could remember from earlier days. “What?”

“I’m sorry,” was all that Shana could come up with. I’m so sorry. I love you. She needed to say it out loud, needed to let Anne know that she made a terrible mistake and that everything would be all right if they could just talk about it. But when she opened her mouth to speak the words that meant the world to her, Anne had already left the room.

Oh, shit. What am I gonna do now?

She swallowed and listlessly moved her body out of the bed. If losing Anne’s love isn’t going to kill me, I’m sure Irene will.

Chapter 20

Anne wanted to run, needed to run. The urge to put as much distance as possible between herself and the woman on the other side of the door she was leaning against was amongst the strongest feelings she had ever experienced. And yet she stood there in the hallway, feet rooted to the spot, not moving a muscle.

I wonder who I pissed off to rate such a fucked-up life. I can’t believe this is happening again. When will I ever learn not to put my heart on the line? She snorted at her question and shook her head dejectedly. When it comes to Shana, the answer is probably never.

Anne’s head touched the wooden door behind her and she heard the faint noises Shana made inside. She knew she should get away from the door if she wanted to avoid her friend, but she realized with something close to horror that her body wasn’t obeying her commands. Something inside her wanted nothing more than to ignore everything and be back inside that room with Shana.

God, I’m pathetic. How can I still want her after that?

The noise behind the door came closer to the door and Anne’s heart rate increased. Go now, go now! Go! Finally her body followed her orders and moved away from the door. She made it to the corner just in time to hear the door open behind her and she fervently hoped that Shana would walk the other way.

She did.

Anne breathed a sigh of relief. She looked around the lobby and then at herself, realizing for the first time that she was wearing nothing but a short thin robe that did nothing to keep the cold at bay. I can’t go out like that.

Now that she was away from temptation, her body was calming down a bit and the need to be in her own home resurfaced. For a moment, she contemplated running over to her own place dressed as she was and she was halfway across the lobby to where she could see her boots when the stupidity of that idea hit her. She turned around and walked towards the staircase, intent on just going up to her room on the top floor to find herself something warmer to wear.

Like all members of the extended family, Anne had a room on the third floor of the house. Her room was nothing more than a large closet, but it housed a twin bed and some clothes for the days when going over to her own house just wasn’t a good idea.

She climbed up the stairs and walked along the dark hallway. Her mother’s bedroom was up here, as was the room Kevin and Mike used. Even Shana had a small room up here that she could use now that moving around on her own two feet didn’t seem to be a problem. Carrying her friend up here when she was unconscious just hadn’t been an option.

She’s probably going to share the room with that … fiancé of hers. The thought hit her like a punch to the stomach and she stopped walking until the feeling subsided. It was a good thing that she had decided to come up here and not join her mother in the kitchen. She was certain that Irene, good hostess that she was, had taken their guest into the kitchen, and Anne knew that if she saw him right now she would blow a fuse and do something stupid like hitting him.

She clenched her fist. Maybe hitting something wasn’t too bad an idea …

*******************

When Shana entered the kitchen she was met by three pairs of angry eyes and one rather intimidated young man. Irene, Kevin and Mike sat around the large table and just looked at her. Oh shit, welcome to the Spanish Inquisition!

She decided that getting the young man out of the room was the first thing she had to do and she waved him over to her with one hand. He was next to her instantly, a fact that brought an almost imperceptible smile to the three stern faces that were watching the couple.

“Are you okay, Mishka?” she asked quietly and looked into his face. He was handsome, in a boyish way, with curly blonde locks and gray eyes. He also looked hardly old enough to shave. She liked this quiet young man a lot and she hoped that her friends hadn’t scared him too much. But she still needed to find out what he was doing here.

He nodded. “Yes, I’m okay.” Even this short answer betrayed his heavy Eastern European accent.

Shana turned towards the others. “I’ll be right back.” Then she led Mishka out of the room and towards the library. Inside, she sat him down on the sofa and told him to wait there for her. She knew she ought to talk to him, find out how he knew where she was, but talking to Irene and the boys was even more important right now.

She closed the door of the library behind her and took a deep breath before she walked back to the kitchen. When she passed the door to the room she and Anne had been sleeping in, she gave it a wistful look before she continued down the hallway.

*******************

Once inside her room, Anne dressed quickly in an old pair of jeans and a worn, but warm sweater. Then she sat down on the bed, at war with herself. Go away, forget her. She doesn’t love you. She finally found some nice young man she can be happy with and she’ll forget about you soon enough. She was just playing with you.

She tried to put the pain she felt into a place in her heart and mind where she could stow it away until she felt strong enough to cope with it. As if that’s ever going to be the case. That storage area in your mind is so large that you’re going to need a cargo plane to empty it. If you ever gather the courage to try it, that is.

The longer she sat there in her room thinking about everything, the more her rational side took over. You know Shana. She’s not like that. She remembered the touches, the looks, the desire and passion in Shana’s voice when they had touched and kissed earlier. She can’t be that good a liar. What would be the use? She doesn’t gain anything from playing with me.

Her body happily chimed in with its own take of the situation. Remembering Shana’s touches and their heated kisses increased her heartbeat and her temperature and she could almost feel and smell Shana again.

Anne groaned.

I need to talk to her. There must be an explanation. She realized that she wanted there to be an easy explanation. She wanted an excuse for Shana’s behavior. But what if she’s telling you lies? a part of her asked and was silenced quickly by another part of her. She won’t. Shana can’t lie. Not to me. Not about this.

God, I’m so pathetic.

She stood and straightened her shoulders. I’m going to find her now and we’re going to talk about everything.

Everything is going to be okay, because I love her and she loves me. Right?

And with that thought she realized that she would believe almost anything Shana told her, because she wanted to believe.

She opened the door and went to find Shana.

*******************

When Shana returned to the kitchen, Irene, Kevin and Mike hadn’t moved and were still staring at her. Something doesn’t smell right here, the blonde woman thought. She had the feeling that for some reason her friends were putting on a show more than anything, but she wasn’t sure why or why she felt that way. Well, I guess I’m going to find out soon enough …

Irene was the first to break the silence that threatened to settle over the little group. “So, that was your brilliant plan to win over my daughter?” She got up and walked over to Shana. “To come here with a guy in tow?”

Shana swallowed. “Well, in a nutshell —”

Irene interrupted her. “I only have one question for you. Are you totally out of your mind? How could you do this to Anne? Hurting her like this?” Her voice had become increasingly lower the longer she spoke and that only served to make Shana feel worse.

“Well,” Irene prompted when Shana didn’t say anything, “I’m waiting. We’re all waiting. What was that glorious plan of yours?” She returned to her seat at the table.

Shana stared at the floor for a long time, trying to come up with the words to explain her plan. It sure sounded like a good idea when I came up with it, she thought defiantly, but refrained from speaking the words aloud.

She looked up to meet Irene’s gaze and was surprised at what she saw on the older woman’s face. Instead of the anger she had expected to see there was only mild curiosity and a hint of something else that she would have called amusement if it hadn’t been for the severity of the situation. What the hell is going on here?

She looked at Kevin and Mike and found the same look on their faces. Oh God, of course, Mishka is a tennis player and that’s a very small world. She mentally smacked her forehead. They probably know about him. They must have told Irene.

The thought relaxed her considerably as she walked over to the table and sat down across from the others. “Yes, that was my plan,” she said and held up a hand before anyone could interrupt her. “I know it was probably a crazy idea, but here is what I thought.”

She poured herself a cup of tea before she started to speak, certain now that the situation wasn’t as bad as it had seemed only minutes before. “You know that I love Anne. I’ve been in love with her for years and I finally figured I’d probably have to be the one to do something about it.”

“What a nice way you have of showing her your love,” Kevin grumbled under his breath.

“I know this whole thing might look heartless to you, but I swear this was not how it was supposed to be. I wanted to come here and ask Anne to stand up for me at my wedding, to shock her into revealing her feelings for me. I thought that if she was faced with the prospect of losing me to someone else she would get over her pride and tell me she loved me too. Then I would have explained everything and we could have been happy ever after.” The last bit was said in a rush when what she was saying penetrated Shana’s brain. After I had told her about another tiny thing.

She looked up sheepishly. “Not a good plan, huh?”

Kevin just looked at her with an incredulous expression. “How did you ever come up with such a hare-brained idea? You know Anne, you know she would never have stood between you and the man you were going to marry if she thought he would make you happy. She would have given you her blessing and then she would have crawled into a dark corner to lick her wounds.”

Mike nodded. “You have seen too many romantic movies, Shana. Life doesn’t work that way.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that plan of yours when I asked you about it before you came here? I could have helped you. I specifically asked you not to hurt her because she can’t take much more pain in her life, Shana. Didn’t that mean anything to you?”

“I couldn’t, M … Irene,” Shana replied, deciding that being called Mom would probably not be appreciated by Irene right now.
“I was so stuck on the idea that I just couldn’t.”

“Then what happened?” Kevin asked. “Why didn’t you tell her as soon as you had the opportunity?”

“Because as soon as I woke up and saw Anne beside me I knew that she loved me and that she didn’t really need that kick in the pants. My whole plan had backfired, you see. Now I didn’t need the threat of a wedding, but I still had to tell her about it. And I really wanted to this morning, but …” She let the sentence trail off.

“But what?” Three voices asked as one.

“But things got out of hand and we were way past the talking stage,” Shana replied flatly.

“Oooh, bad timing, huh?” Mike winced in sympathy.

“Or good timing,” Irene countered dryly. “Depends on how you see it.”

“So, what’s with the boy?” Kevin wanted to know.

“Mishka? Well, he wasn’t supposed to show up here, at least not before I called him and told him to come. He didn’t even know where I was, or so I thought. I need to find out how he got here …” She took a sip of tea.

“Anyway,” she paused to look at Kevin and Mike, “you know about Mishka, don’t you?”

A nod confirmed her suspicion.

“You’re very lucky the boys know that young man, little one,” Irene added. “Otherwise I would have thrown him and you out a long time ago. But Kev and Mike told me a bit about him and I think I have an idea about what you’re trying to do.”

“You really are going to marry Mishka, aren’t you?” Mike asked.

“Yes, I am. It’s just a farce really, but it would offer him protection and the right to stay here indefinitely. I can’t let him go back to Russia with that prison sentence looming over his head.”

“Prison sentence?” Irene looked shocked. “You didn’t mention a prison sentence, boys. What has he done?”

“His only crime is that he’s gay,” Shana explained, “and that he had the misfortune of being caught in the act with another player. And for that he could go to prison in his home country.”

“So you’re going to marry him to save him. Then what? You have Anne as a lover on the side?”

“I was hoping she’d understand. I’d almost never see Mishka anyway since he would be all over the world playing tournaments and I’m …” She caught herself before revealing too much. “And I would stay by Anne’s side since I intend to end my career.”

Irene looked at her with a curious expression, but said nothing.

“The problem is,” Shana continued, “what am I going to do now?”

“You will go to Anne and will explain everything to her,” Irene answered. “And I mean everything. No more surprises, no more idiotic plans, just the truth, and all of it.” She raised an eyebrow.

Oh God, she knows. Shana nodded and swallowed hard. Might as well tell her.

“Mom, I’m … I’m —”

“I know, sweetie,” Irene interrupted not unkindly. “But you should tell Anne that, not me.”

“Tell me what?” came Anne’s sarcastic voice from the door. “Even more lovely surprises?” Then she turned and walked away before anyone could react to her words.

“Oh shit,” was Shana’s only comment. My life is turning into a soap opera before my eyes. I want out!

“What now?” The blonde woman turned to the others for help.

Kevin looked out the window. “She’s heading over to her place and knowing her, she won’t stay there too long. Go, get your boots and jacket. I’m going to walk you over there and then you two are going to talk.”

Shana turned on her heels and walked out, not pausing to wonder why Kevin would need to walk her over to Anne’s house.

Kevin looked at the others with a grim smile. “And if I have to I’m going to lock them inside Anne’s bedroom until they have talked about everything.”

Irene and Mike simply sent a prayer to unknown forces to help the two women resolve their problems.

It would be hard enough. They needed all the help they could get.

Chapter 21

It took Shana only a short time to take a shower and find some clothes to wear. Thankfully, Kevin and Mike had gotten her bags from the crashed Jeep the night before.

Nonetheless, Kevin was getting twitchy by the time Shana returned to the kitchen. He wanted to get to Anne’s house as soon as possible since he had a very good idea what his friend was doing at that moment and he wanted to prevent her from hurting herself any more than she already was.

The tall man pulled his jacket from the closet in the lobby and impatiently motioned for Shana to get going. Just as they were about to leave, Shana remembered that Mishka was still in the library by himself.

Before Kevin could stop her, she was on her way to the library. He growled in frustration, but didn’t follow her.

When Shana entered the room, she had to bite back a smile at the sight that greeted her. Mishka was sitting on the sofa in front of the fireplace, a huge, garishly colored mug in one hand, a plate of cookies in the other, and a very motherly looking Irene hovering over him.

Mishka looked like a frightened eight-year-old in the presence of the fairy godmother. He probably doesn’t understand just what’s happening to him, Shana thought. Irene really could be an experience, especially since she probably hadn’t been too nice to him at first and was now showering him with almost motherly affection.

Another stray for her collection. Shana cleared her throat loud enough for Irene and Mishka to look up at her.

“What are you still doing here?” Irene asked dryly. “You should be over at Anne’s by now.”

“I just wanted to let Mishka know what’s going on here and I want to –”

“I’ll do that. Now go!” The older woman stood and walked over to where Shana leaned against the door frame. “Please, little one. Just go and explain everything to her. Make her feel better.”

“I don’t know how to tell her …” the younger woman whispered. “She’ll probably hate me when I tell her.”

“Shea,” Irene looked at her with concern, “you have to realize that she probably won’t be too happy about that baby at first, but sooner or later she will come to accept it. And knowing her, she will love it like her own once it’s born.”

She hesitated for a moment and then spoke in a low voice close to Shana’s ear. “I just don’t understand how you could … I mean, he’s not much more than a boy … I mean …” She stopped and looked over to Mishka.

A clue hit Shana squarely between the eyes and she winced. I so don’t need this right now. “No, Irene, no.” She shook her head. “Mishka is not the father. No, I’d feel like I had been robbing the cradle if I had slept with him. He’s only 21.”

Irene nodded, but didn’t ask any more questions. Shana assumed that the older woman realized that the father of the child was probably one of the bigger problems facing her two girls now and that Shana would tell her if she wanted her to know.

“Go. Talk to Anne,” Irene said and turned to walk over to Mishka again. She was stopped by a hand on her arm.

“Could you please ask him how he knew I was here?” Shana pleaded. “Because I didn’t tell him and I’d really like to know …” She had her suspicions, but she wanted to hear what Mishka had to say. There were only so many people who knew where she was going.

The older woman nodded and then practically shoved Shana out the door. The door closed behind the blonde woman with a click.

Kevin breathed a sigh of relief when Shana returned to the lobby. She hadn’t been gone long, but he knew that time was quite important right now. He opened the door with a flourish and the two walked out just in time to see the sheriff’s car crawling up the driveway.

“Let’s go, Kev. I really don’t want to spend my time talking to the sheriff about a wrecked car right now.”

Kevin hesitated only for a second. When he and Mike had gotten Shana’s bags from the car they had clearly seen the scratch marks along the side of the SUV, highlighted eerily in the beam of their flashlights. He knew that Shana really had to talk to the sheriff, but when he pondered the importance of the talks that his blonde friend should be having now, he quickly came to a decision that led them around the house and out of the sight of the driveway as fast as possible.

*******************

Anne was fuming.

The whole way from her bedroom on the top floor down to the kitchen she had talked to herself, convincing herself that there was some explanation for her friend’s behavior. She was determined to listen to that explanation and to be gracious about it. They would talk, they would listen, and then they would go back to what they were doing before they had been interrupted.

In the end she even contemplated apologizing for running out on Shana.

And now …

Now she was furious. Red-hot rage was burning a path from her head to her heart and back and made itself known in the clenching and unclenching of her hands.

She hadn’t heard much of what was talked about in the kitchen, but she had arrived in time to realize that Shana was probably hiding even more secrets. She growled.

She didn’t want any more secrets. She wanted peace and quiet and the love of her life by her side. No fiancés, no past, no nothing. Just them, hidden somewhere, far away from the eyes and ears of the world.

She had bolted from the kitchen, following her urge to run. She had jumped into her boots, but hadn’t taken the time to properly tie the shoelaces. It had taken her no time at all to arrive at her own house, which was situated only a couple of hundred yards from the main house. Now she was pacing her small entrance hall, three steps to one side, then three steps to the other, fighting the need to hit something, her hands curled into tense fists.

And then she stopped and a wicked smile flicked over her face. Why shouldn’t she just follow this urge to hit, to inflict damage?

With a new purpose, a new aim for her pent-up rage, she quickly made her way to the back of the house.

*******************

Kevin opened the door with his key and let Shana precede him into the hall. The volume of the music that greeted them was overwhelming. A fast rhythm pulsed through the house, with bass beats reverberating from the hardwood floors and rattling the pictures on the walls. Shana didn’t recognize the music and could only tell that it was fast, hard and loud. She assumed she would find it loud even if played at a normal volume.

Kevin’s groan next to her was barely audible over the music. “Shit, this is worse than I thought,” he shouted. Seeing Shana’s questioning look he pointed vaguely in the direction he thought the music came from. “She’s listening to her heavy metal stuff. She only does that when she’s in a bad mood. And I mean very very bad. And then she usually … Oh shit … she won’t do that … not today … not with …”

And then he ran off into the depths of the house, leaving a puzzled Shana who tried to figure out what had him so spooked. When it came to her she groaned as well. You hard-headed, big, dumb, irritating … “Mike’s going to kill you!” she grumbled as she followed close on Kevin’s heels. And probably me too, for making you so mad.

Seconds later they rounded the corner to Anne’s workout room and stopped dead in their tracks.

The room was a later addition to the house and was made up of glass from floor to ceiling on three sides. The ceiling and floor were made of the same wood that covered the floors in the rest of the house, but had taken on a considerably darker hue due to the sunlight it was exposed to most of the time.

The room was large, about 20 feet wide and 30 feet long. Right now, the morning sunlight streamed through the room, highlighting the equipment that would put a professional gym to shame. Machines of all sizes and for all muscle groups were scattered along the walls, leaving a large space in the middle of the room free. In one corner, there was a state-of-the-art hi-fi system and loudspeakers were strategically placed around the room, currently producing a surround sound that threatened to deafen anyone who came too close.

What made Shana and Kevin stop at the door, however, was the figure standing in the middle of the room next to an enormous red punching bag.

“Oh, Anne,” was all Kevin said when his worst fear was confirmed.

Shana didn’t say anything at all.

Anne looked wilder than Shana had ever seen her. She still wore her untied boots and the blonde woman could see that boots and socks were soggy from the snow outside. Her leather jacket had been carelessly flung over one of the machines, which left Anne in her jeans and a worn sweatshirt that was completely soaked through. Her hair flew wetly behind her, scattering drops with every movement and bearing testament to the exertion the tall woman was putting herself through.

She was hitting the punching bag with her bare hands in time with the fast beat of the music. Left, right, left, right, over and over again, sometimes so fast the movement was barely visible to the naked eye. The bandage around her injured wrist had started to work itself loose from the constant pounding motion and hung halfway down the tanned forearm.

Anne didn’t notice or chose to ignore it.

From the look of her scraped and slightly swollen knuckles, Anne had been at it for a while, and Shana felt guilty for talking to Irene before coming right over. She swallowed hard and was suddenly very unsure of what to do.

At that moment the dark-haired woman raised her head and Shana could see her friend’s face. It scared her.

Tears streamed down the beautiful features and the blue eyes had a very haunted look to them. Shana didn’t know whether the tears were from emotional pain or from the pain of Anne’s abused hand, but the intensity of the emotion she could sense coming from the woman in front of her shocked her for a moment. Do I really want that?

And then Anne gave Shana a long look that was almost unreadable to the blonde woman. She watched mesmerized as the eyes changed color in the milliseconds that followed, going from icy silver to a brighter shade of blue. To Shana, the look was tantamount to Anne falling on her knees, pleading with her to do something, and the smaller woman nodded, more to herself than anything else.

Kevin walked over to the stereo system and turned off the music. The sudden silence in the room was even more deafening than the music had been.

Anne stopped punching the bag and wiped the tears from her face with an almost defiant gesture.

And for that the punching bag paid her back with a swing that threw her off her feet with its power and unexpectedness. She tried to stop the fall with her outstretched arms and cried out in pain when her injured hand was unable to support her body weight and she landed on her butt.

Shana’s heart spoke so loudly that she feared it could be heard throughout the county. Oh yes, I want that.

In an instant she was kneeling by Anne’s side. She tried to gather the fallen woman in her arms, but Anne avoided her touch by pushing herself up with her right hand. When she was standing she looked down at the still kneeling Shana.

“What do you want?” she asked, her eyes showing none of the emotion they had done before.

Shana was too busy wondering if she had imagined the pleading look of moments before to answer the question.

Kevin jumped in, for a moment forgetting why he was there. His coach personality pushed to the forefront. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Anne?” He pointed at her hands. “Are you trying to ruin your hands on purpose?”

“What do you care?” came the almost uninterested reply. Anne’s eyes never left the blonde woman on the floor. “What do you care?” she repeated in a whisper.

“I care,” whispered Shana, while Kevin almost shouted the words at the same time. He was hurt by his friend’s accusation, but the tall woman ignored his answer completely. She was concentrating solely on Shana. It was as if she had only heard the whisper and not the shout.

“You do, huh?” The sarcasm in Anne’s whisper was unmistakable. “Nice way of showing that. Do you think you could give me lessons?”

She turned to leave the room. At the door she stopped and spoke without turning around. “I would really appreciate it if you left my house as soon as possible.”

The formality of the request hurt Shana more than she thought was possible. She got up from the floor, her body rising just as quickly as her anger. She knew Anne had every reason to be hurt, but she was hurt just as much as her friend.

But she also realized that anger would get her nowhere right now. She took a deep breath to calm herself. Her mind was working furiously on something to say, but she felt tongue-tied and still a little overwhelmed by the intensity of the whole situation.

Anne was still standing in the doorway with her back to them, waiting for a reaction from Shana. When none came, her shoulders slumped slightly in disappointment. She didn’t know what she had expected, but she had hoped that her friend would at least try to do something to explain. This, she decided, hurt more than her hand ever could.

And her hand was hurting pretty badly at the moment.

She waited another few heartbeats and the pushed herself off the door frame to walk away. After a step she turned around and faced Kevin for the first time.

“And, Kevin,” she said as calmly as she could, “leave the keys when you go.” She couldn’t bring herself to ask Shana for her set of keys.

And then she walked down the hall towards the staircase, praying all the time that her legs would carry her shaking body all the way without hurting her pride even more by giving out in front of them. She was crying again and knew she couldn’t do anything to stop it.

She just didn’t want Shana to see the tears.

*******************

Anne’s departure brought Kevin and Shana out of their shock.

“You can’t let her go like this, Shea,” Kevin said. He took her by the shoulders and looked deeply into her eyes. “If you let her go now, she will be gone forever. Don’t do this to yourself and don’t do this to her. Shit, don’t do this to us!”

“I won’t,” Shana vowed. “I just don’t know what to say to her. She seems to have lost all her trust in me …” She hesitated. “I don’t know how to make this right, Kev.” I don’t know if she can still love me.

“Tell her the truth, Shea, all of it,” the tall man almost pleaded. “If you love her, tell her that and explain why you want to marry Mishka. If you don’t love her, let her down gently, but let her go. Don’t lead her on.”

He paused, contemplating how much to say. “If you’re really pregnant, as I believe you are, she needs to know.” He raised his hand to stop her from interrupting. “Tell her who the father is only if it’s important for your relationship.” Please don’t tell her if it has the potential to hurt her even more, was the silent plea behind his words.

Shana’s head slumped forward, her forehead touching his wide chest. “I can’t not tell her,” Shana whispered. And I can’t tell her. She raised her head and looked into his eyes again. “How did you know?”

“I’m a man, Shea, not stupid.” He had to grin, despite feeling miserable. “Besides, Irene was leaving hints that an idiot could have followed. Although I wonder if Mike has got it yet,” he added, trying to lighten their mood a bit.

Shana chuckled. “Thank you, Kevin. I’ll go talk to her now. Are you going back to the main house?”

“Nah, I’m going to stay down here, just in case. I might hit the punching bag myself for a while.” But only after I’ve locked the bedroom door from the outside. “I’ll turn the music on,” he said with a wink, “but not as loud.” I don’t really want to be able to listen to whatever happens when you find yourselves locked up together. I think I need to avoid Anne for a while after that …

Shana nodded and turned to follow Anne. Kevin stopped her with a hand on her arm. He enfolded her in a hug and then kissed her gently on the forehead. “Good luck, little one. For both of you.” He tightened his hold before he let her go. “I know you belong together. You will work it out, it might just take a while, but we’ll all be here to help you.” He really hoped he was right.

Shana swallowed and wiped away the tear that ran down her cheek. The support offered her by Anne’s family and friends astounded her, especially since she was the one at fault. “Thank you,” she repeated with a raw voice.

Kevin simply turned her around and pushed her lightly towards the door. “Go now.”

And Shana went.

As soon as she had reached the top of the stairs Kevin followed her and watched Shana enter Anne’s bedroom. He breathed a sigh of relief at Anne’s failure to lock her door. He crept up the door and listened, but he couldn’t hear anything. Not a single sound emanated from the room. Worried, he silently opened the door and peeked inside. Shana stood in front of the closed bathroom door, obviously still deciding whether to go in or not. Seeing that everything was okay, he looked down and spotted the key that was sticking out of its hole on the inside of the door. Anne and her love for actual keys always surprised him. He slipped the key out of the lock and closed the door, still without making a sound.

Then he turned the key – twice – and walked back downstairs.

He couldn’t quite stop himself from whistling in pretend innocence.

Chapter 22

Shana stood in front of the door to Anne’s bathroom, hesitation written all over her body. She could hear the muffled sounds of Anne moving about. She didn’t know whether she had been relieved or disappointed when she had found that Anne hadn’t been in the bedroom.

She felt as if she was on complete overload. So much had happened in the course of the last two days. God, has it only been two days? To Shana it felt like so much more. Here she’d been on her way to visit her friend with a firm plan to go and get the woman she loved. The next thing she knew she had been in an accident, Anne had showed her her love without any plan or trick, they had kissed passionately and were on the brink of falling into a vortex of desire, and then Mishka had shown up, unplanned and unexpected. And definitely unwanted.

And now here she was, trying to come up with an explanation for it all. She felt deep down inside that now was probably her only chance to ever explain everything to Anne, to make her understand. About Mishka. About the baby.

She knew that the baby would be the hardest to take for Anne, even though it wasn’t really her fault. But how did you explain that to someone you just professed to love? ‘Honey, I love you, but I’m pregnant. I don’t know who did it, but it’s there …’ Arrgh! Definitely not.

She didn’t see Mishka as a big problem. Anne was a compassionate woman, working with a lot of charitable causes. She had, in fact, just returned home from organizing one of her own small, but famous charity tournaments. No, Mishka wouldn’t be a problem. Anne would either understand or they would have to come up with another solution together. Her heart was breaking for Mishka, but she wouldn’t risk her relationship with Anne to help him. If she had to choose there would be no competition. At all.

Explaining why she hadn’t said a word about the whole thing before she almost slept with Anne was the real problem. One she had no answer to. I’ll just have to wing it …

Her hand reached out for the doorknob.

*******************

Anne sat down heavily on the edge of her large tub with a weary sigh. She hurt everywhere, inside and out. Now that the adrenaline rush of her anger had left her, she felt deflated and tired. She decided a shower would be a good idea and she slowly undressed, wincing with every movement.

Both her hands hurt like hell, but one was even worse than the other.

She knew that hitting the punching bag with her bare hands was just plain stupid. She would usually never do that, not even with two uninjured hands, but doing it with one hand that was already sprained was very high on the list of the dumbest things she’d ever done.

Only topped off – maybe – by believing that Shana could love her.

The shower felt good. The warm water ran down her body, washing away the sweat and tension, but instead of re-energizing her it made her even more drowsy. I need sleep. Anne shut off the warm water and stood under the remaining cold spray in a vain attempt to wake up. The cold water helped a bit, and after several seconds she felt invigorated enough to actually leave the shower.

She dried herself off with a large towel and ran a comb through her wet hair. Then she threw the wet towel to the floor and opened the door.

*******************

Shana’s hand had not yet reached the doorknob when the door was opened from the inside and Anne was standing before her. Shana swallowed. Hard.

Anne was naked.

Completely and utterly naked, and slightly damp from the recent shower.

Oh, Jesus. Shana’s ability to think flew right out the window. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the woman before her. She looks like a goddess. Shana felt overdressed in her jeans and sweatshirt. Her eyes swept over Anne’s body again.

Anne just stood there, not moving an inch, her expression unreadable. Finally, Shana’s gaze fell upon Anne’s hands, which were placed loosely on the tall woman’s thighs.

“Oh, god, Anne!” Shana was shocked by what she saw. Both hands were red and slightly swollen, and abrasions graced the knuckles. The left hand, however, was swollen to almost twice its usual size and had taken on a bluish tint. From the fingertips to the middle of the forearm the hand looked like one large bruise. Which it was.

Shana reached out to those hands, the awkwardness of the situation forgotten for the moment. “Come on, let me take a look at those,” she said and gently touched Anne’s upper arm to guide her to the bed.

Anne didn’t budge.

“Anne?” The smaller woman looked up from her friend’s hands.

The dark-haired woman looked at her until Shana felt like an insect under the scrutiny of a dedicated biologist. The blonde woman didn’t move, didn’t say anything. She wanted to give Anne the time and the opportunity to figure out what was puzzling her. Because that was what Anne looked like – like someone who was trying to solve a puzzle just by looking at the various pieces.

At last, Anne’s gaze wandered to Shana’s hand that was still very lightly touching her arm. When she spoke, her voice was infinitely weary. “What do you want, Shana?”

Shana knew that her answer to this question could very well determine the course of the coming talk and what she hoped to be the beginning of the rest of their lives. She also realized that the question did not necessarily refer only to her hand on Anne’s arm. Her answer came to her unbidden, from deep within her, and she let it out without thinking about it.

“You.” Simple. Concise. All-encompassing. The truth. And all that mattered in the end.

Anne snorted. Her face had taken on a lopsided grin that was anything but friendly or nice. She looked like a jungle cat ready to pounce on its prey, and Shana took an involuntary step backwards. The blonde wasn’t afraid, even though Anne looked more dangerous naked than anyone she had ever seen, but there was an energy pouring off of the tall woman that told Shana to try and get out of its range.

Anne didn’t let her. She followed Shana’s steps and forced the smaller woman back up against the door by her sheer presence and her will.

Every step Anne made was accentuated by a single word.

“What. Do. You. Want. From. Me.” With every word her voice had taken on a rawer edge, until it sounded like unchecked emotion straight from the gut.

With the last word, Shana found herself with her back to the door and Anne directly before her. The two women almost touched, and the smaller woman wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed that they didn’t touch.

She also didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t even sure what the question was anymore. Anne seemed to sense that and repeated it.

“What do you want from me?” Her voice was still husky and raw, but it also had a weary undertone that made Shana realize again just how difficult the whole situation had to be on her tall friend.

What do I want from you? Everything. Shana’s mind processed the answer with the speed of lightning but before she could open her mouth, Anne was upon her.

The brunette pressed her naked body into that of her friend, pinning her to the door. The look she gave her friend was one of openly sexual appraisal. “Is this what you want, little one?” came the harsh, taunting whisper. “Is this about sex? Do you want some of the notorious ‘Killer’? You only have to ask, baby.”

And then she kissed Shana, hard and possessively.

The kiss had no resemblance to the kisses they had shared earlier in the morning and Shana was too perplexed to react in any way. It was both frightening and extremely arousing in its intensity. A part of her wanted to stop Anne, wanted to talk to her. Another part of her enjoyed the kiss, the forcefulness and the emotional vulnerability that Shana could still sense behind it all. It was this part of her that won out and she kissed Anne back.

That’s when Anne stopped the kiss as suddenly as she had started it. Both women were slightly out of breath as they looked into each other’s eyes.

*******************

Anne expected to find disgust in those green eyes that she loved so much. She knew she had behaved abominably, but she couldn’t help herself. Seeing Shana standing before her in her bedroom had short-circuited her brain and she had let loose a side of her that she thought she had buried years ago. Sex is a weapon, a means to an end.

But what she found in those green eyes was a look of trust and love and understanding that she didn’t and couldn’t understand. Nor did she dare to believe in it.

Suddenly she felt herself talking again. “Is this really all there is to it? Sex?” She couldn’t quite keep the hurt out of her voice at these questions. “Do I mean so little to you?”

The answer was prompt and emphatic. “No! Anne, that’s not it at all.” The dark-haired woman felt Shana’s hand on her cheek and she leaned into the touch against her own will. She cursed her own body for betraying her, but when she looked into the green eyes, which were now brimming with tears, she knew her body was probably right.

“What do you want, Shea?” she asked again, eyes closed against the words Shana’s face spoke so clearly. “From me, from us, with me?” I need to hear you say it. Whatever it is, tell me.

“Everything, Anne. I want everything. You and me, together forever. Good, bad and everything in between.”

Anne felt Shana’s movement and then the soft kisses on her still closed eyelids. A rush of tenderness washed through her body, closely followed by a wave of helplessness. She was weak and she hated herself for it, but she knew there was no way that she could resist the smaller woman.

No way.

She believed in Shana a way she had never believed in herself.

But there were things she needed to know, and now was a very good time to talk about them. She looked up and found expectant green eyes She was dumbstruck. How did the power in this encounter change so much, so fast?

She opened her mouth to ask all the questions that needed answers, but found two fingers on her lips that held them closed. She questioned with her eyes instead.

“Anne,” Shana spoke quietly, “I do want you, all of you and for all time, but there are a lot of things that I have to explain, that we have to talk about.” She paused. “You might not want me when you know it all, but I don’t want any more secrets between us.”

Anne nodded, still unable to speak around the fingers on her lips. She kissed the fingertips and nodded again.

Shana withdrew her fingers and looked down at Anne’s hands. “But first we’ll have to take care of your hands, they look terrible.”

“I know,” Anne mumbled and took a step away from Shana.

“Wait,” Shana whispered.

Anne stopped and waited.

“Kiss me again … but this time like you mean it.”

Wordlessly, Anne pressed her body into Shana’s again and kissed her, trying to pour as much of her feelings as she could into that one kiss.

When they broke apart, Shana moaned. “God, I love your kisses.”

“I noticed,” Anne grinned devilishly.

“How … I mean… what?” Shana was flustered. Was I that obvious?

“I have … just … noticed,” the dark-haired woman smiled and looked up and down Shana’s slightly flushed body before stepping away.

Shana blushed furiously. Damn! “Go, get dressed!” she growled.

Anne kept on grinning and sauntered over to her closet. Her face broke into a full-out smile when she heard Shana’s barely stifled groan at the sight.

Chapter 23

After the teasing banter had relieved the tension somewhat, Anne buried herself in her closet on the pretense of finding some clothes. She took much longer than normal, using the opportunity to regain some control over both her runaway heart and her raging libido. Shana hadn’t been the only one affected by the heated kisses and the rawness of emotion behind them.

The tall woman finally settled on a pair of khakis and a blue shirt that brought out the color of her eyes. It also had a zipper instead of buttons, which made getting it closed a lot easier. Dressing was still difficult, however, and she was inordinately proud of herself for managing to do it without Shana’s help. Somehow, it seemed very important to do it on her own. Of course, her injured left hand throbbed even more after she had finally gotten her khakis closed.

When she returned from the depths of her walk-in closet she realized that Shana hadn’t even noticed her play for time since the smaller woman herself was conspicuously absent from the bedroom.

Anne walked over to the bathroom and peered through the open door to see Shana sitting on the edge of the tub in the exact same spot she herself had been sitting not so long ago. In her hands the small blonde held the small first aid kit that no bathroom in the Patakis households lacked. It wasn’t that Anne had ever been accident-prone, but Irene had learned very early on that raising two very active children made having some knowledge in first aid and the constant availability of a medical kit a necessity. That wisdom had made its way even through the thick head of her daughter, who by now also had several kits stashed around her houses and travel gear.

Anne retreated from the bathroom door and sat down on the bed. She was sure that her friend hadn’t had a problem finding the kit and so it seemed that the blonde had needed some time to herself as well. It was only a couple of minutes later that Shana emerged from the bathroom and began the task of lovingly caring for Anne’s hands.

It was quiet in the bedroom, but not uncomfortably so. The women sat next to each other on Anne’s king-size bed, with the morning sun dancing over the sea-green quilt that covered it. Shana had already taken care of the less damaged right hand and was gently applying antiseptic lotion to the swollen and sprained left hand.

“You need to see a doctor, Anne.” It was clear to Shana that the hand had taken a lot of damage in the past 24 hours and that it needed far more treatment than she could offer it. “I’m not sure what’s wrong with it –”

“It was sprained when I fell yesterday,” Anne interrupted quietly.

“Yes, but that was yesterday, and look at that hand.” The blonde woman nodded towards the appendage in question. “This is not just sprained. Now, I don’t think it’s broken, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you had torn a ligament while beating the stuffing out of the punching bag.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Anne mumbled. She hated talking about injuries, but she was intelligent enough to know that her friend had a point. Like most professional athletes, she and Shana had at least a basic knowledge about their bodies and knew when something was wrong. Or in this case, very wrong. “I’m going to talk to Fritz later, okay?”

“How could you do that?” Shana asked around the frog that had squatted in her throat. She felt guilty about making Anne so mad that she had deliberately risked her hand.

“How could I do what?” Anne decided to play innocent.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about … Hurt yourself like that.” The blonde’s voice was tinged with exasperation. Her eyes were fixed on Anne’s hand.

“Shea …” Anne’s voice was imploring. “I’m sorry. I knew what you meant. It was just … I was so angry … hurt … that I had this urge to hit something … someone.” She lifted her hand and caressed Shana’s cheek with swollen knuckles. “Would you rather I had beaten up your–” She couldn’t bring herself to say the word.

Shana leaned into the touch. “Oh God, Anne, I’m so sorry, too. No, of course I wouldn’t want that. But I don’t want you hurt either.” She turned her head slightly and placed a small kiss on the hand that still touched her face. “I hurt when you hurt.” She swallowed and fell quiet, not knowing how to start explaining about Mishka.

After several seconds of silence, Anne finally decided to pierce the bubble of harmony she felt they had placed themselves in. “So, tell me about your …” she asked in a tone that could almost be described as conversational. She still couldn’t say the word and she had a feeling she would never be able to.

“Who is he?” And why do you want to marry him? You should marry me, not him. Jesus, where did that come from? Anne blinked. But she knew that this was indeed what she wanted, had wanted for years. I want to let everyone know how much you mean to me. I can’t let you marry someone else. I wouldn’t survive seeing that.

And with startling clarity she realized that she would indeed die … at least inside. Her hand fell down to her lap and she hardly noticed the pain.

Shana looked up into blue eyes that were watching her with barely disguised emotions. When did it become so easy to read you? Why couldn’t I see these things before? The bright blue before her clearly showed anxiety, fear, and most of all, insecurity. Oh, Anne. What have I done to you?

She lowered her eyes. Unconsciously, she straightened her shoulders and took a deep breath before answering. Okay, here we go.

“Have you heard about Mishka … Mikhail Rostov?” Shana decided that starting with a question might be a good idea. That way it was easier to find out where to begin.

“What does he have to do with this? Of course I heard what happened to him.” Everyone had, at least every other gay player on the tour. And even though the young Russian was by no means a successful player yet, the older gay players, both male and female, had watched him in the past year since his debut as a pro. They had looked out for Mishka because he was a nice guy and because he was incredibly naive. When he had taken a trip home after a tournament in Moscow nobody had been around to warn him that making out in a public park was not a good idea in a country where homosexuality was a crime. Only his ability to outrun the police had helped him get away.

He had left the country the next morning, but a few days later the story had hit not only the Russian but also the international media, and Mishka had realized he was in trouble. He didn’t have a home anymore. He also didn’t have much money since he hadn’t really won anything yet and he could barely make ends meet with the constant traveling.

The problem was that homosexuality didn’t really qualify as a reason for political asylum.

“He has everything to do with this, Anne.” Shana raised a hand and lifted Anne’s face with two fingers. “He’s my fiancé. He needs my help.” She stopped, leaving the taller woman time to work the facts over in her mind.

Anne closed her eyes, relishing in the feelings that were coursing through her. It’s all right. Everything is all right. She doesn’t love him. Does she? Nah, he’s gay, he’s in trouble, he needs help, that’s all. Hell, I could have come up with the idea myself … had I thought about it. That’s okay then. I bet Kevin and Mike are laughing their heads off right now …

She felt a smile growing on her face. Wait! Her mind screamed at her. She can’t marry him! She can’t. What about us? No. No, can’t have that.Uh uh. Need to find another solution. I hope she doesn’t love him …

Anne opened her eyes and found Shana quietly watching her. The green eyes were bright and the brunette realized that her friend was waiting for a reaction, hoping for absolution.

Above all, she could see love.

Anne felt her equilibrium return. “You don’t love him, do you?” she asked with a smile, already sure of the answer.

“No, I don’t,” the blonde whispered, her throat constricted by emotion. She knew that this particular confession had been the easy one. One step at a time. She cleared her throat. “Anne,” she said, looking directly into unguarded blue eyes, “I can give it to you in writing if you want, so you can look it up should you forget it.”

The blue eyes looked at her with confusion. “Look up what? Give me what in writing?”

“Just the following,” the blonde smiled, and then she kissed Anne with a tenderness and depth that were born from years of longing and hidden feelings. The kiss was soft and gentle, their lips whispering against each other, touching and retreating, and touching again.

Shana couldn’t remember a kiss so sweet and she realized that having let go of one of her burdens made this experience even more enjoyable than the ones before. One part of her wondered if she would survive the sweetness of the kisses when all her secrets had been revealed and hopefully forgiven.

Anne forgot herself in the feeling of Shana’s lips on her own, growling when the contact was too brief or too light. She longed to fully lose herself in this woman’s touch, wanted to climb under her skin, ached to be devoured by her love.

The tall woman raised her hand behind Shana’s head and then let herself fall back onto the bed, pulling the blonde woman above her. The contact between their lips increased and Anne started to nibble on Shana’s lips, tenderly and carefully. Her tongue peeked out and followed the contours of the mouth above it, playfully licking the sensitive middle of the upper lip.

Anne groaned in surprise when her tongue was suddenly joined by its counterpart and was soon engaged in a playful duel for dominance, which Anne surrendered easily and with pleasure. She could feel her desire rising to the surface again, could feel her hormones doing a happy dance and shaking the cobwebs away. The residual arousal from their encounter at her bedroom door was too close to the surface to be suppressed now, and the dark-haired woman saw no reason to stop.

“Ouch!” Anne tore her mouth from Shana’s, whimpering at the pain in her hand that had just become trapped between their legs. She took a deep, shaky breath, trying to control the pain and her breathing. Shit, that hurt!

Okay, that might be a reason.

Shana looked down at her with a contrite expression, breathing heavily from the fiery kisses. She rolled away from Anne and sat up. “God, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you!” They looked at each other as both realized that Shana was referring to more than a squished hand.

“I know, darling, I know,” the brunette reassured her lover, sitting up as well. “But I think it would be a very good idea to wrap that hand now.” She raised her hand, which was turning a nice shade of purple. “Look,” she said in an attempt at levity, “we’ve got matching sets now.” She pointed at the bruises that were visible under the blonde’s slightly askew sweatshirt.

Shana grimaced. “I would really prefer your hands to be safe and sound.” Her expression became frustrated. “We can easily work around my bruises, but there’s nothing we can do about your hands right now.”

“We’re going to continue that conversation soon, baby, I promise.” Anne felt Shana stiffen at the term of endearment. Ooookay, there’s obviously something else going on here. “What’s wrong, Shea?” Maybe she just has a problem with pet names. Not that I’ve noticed anything before, though.

The smaller woman looked away and stared out the window. It’s now or never, Shea. Come on, tell her. How bad could it be? The worst she can do is throw you out and never talk to you again. God, I should never ever have to motivate anyone.

She got up from the bed under Anne’s watchful gaze and walked over to the window. She needed the distance between them if she wanted to tell Anne about the baby. She knew she should be glad that Anne’s hand had prevented them from going any further, because nothing else would have stopped them. And that, she knew, would have been an almost irreparable mistake.

Anne grew more worried with each passing second. What could be wrong? Why doesn’t she say anything? “Shea,” she began hesitantly, “did I do something wrong? Say something wrong?” She got up from the bed as well. “Please, talk to me, Shea,” she pleaded, “you’re killing me here.”

“Oh, Anne,” Shana turned to face Anne, “you’ve done nothing wrong.” The older woman could see the tears streaming down Shana’s face.

“Baby, what is it?” Again Shana flinched. Shit, it must be something about that term. But she called me that when I got her out of the car. So that can’t be it.

And then the clue hit Anne in the gut with such force that she had to sit down on the bed again. “You’re pregnant.” Not a question. It was as clear as day now. Another lie, another secret. Anne hugged herself in an effort to stop the cramping in her belly.

Shana rushed over to the bed to hug her, to lightly touch her back, to make the hurt go away. The hurt she had caused. Anne didn’t pull away. Instead she looked up at Shana with such a childlike expression of bone-deep hurt that Shana broke out in sobs at the sight.

“Are you?” Anne whispered around the bile in her throat. “Pregnant?”

Shana nodded. “I didn’t know how to tell you, but I came here to tell you. You needed to know before we–”

“Before we what?” What can we be now? “Tell me, who do you think ‘we’ is, Shana? You, me and Mishka? A nice little ménage à trois?” Anne shook her head to get the image out of her mind. “How could you, Shea? He’s just a kid.”

Shana kneeled down in front of Anne and reached out to touch her friend’s biceps. “Anne, please listen to me.”

The taller woman looked away and shook off the hands. She got up and paced over to the window. She needed to get out of here. Just out. Just away. Running would be good now. Her hands were out of commission, so running would really help. Maybe I can hit a few balls. Anne quickly walked over to the door and yanked it open.

Or at least that’s what she tried, but the door didn’t move an inch.

“That stupid idiot. I’m going to kill him!” Her shout became a roar. Kevin. That was the last of your brilliant ideas.

Shana sent a silent ‘thank you’ to the tall man for having the foresight to lock them in. She knew she just had this one opportunity. She moved towards Anne and in a reversal of their earlier positions pressed the still swearing woman against the door. In a show of pure strength, she pulled down the dark head and silenced Anne with a hard kiss.

The tall woman sagged against the door with closed eyes when they parted. “Anne, listen to me. Mishka is not the father. He’s a kid, he’s gay, but what’s more important is that I am gay.” She carefully enunciated each syllable. “And I am in love with you. Nobody else. And I never have been.”

She looked at Anne to see a wary expression on the tan face. “How can I believe you, Shana?” She shrugged her shoulders in a gesture of defeat. “The moment I turn around, another lie, another secret raises its ugly head. How am I supposed to believe you?” Her voice broke at the last bit.

“I know things don’t look good right now, but believe me, there’s an explanation. I love you, Anne, and I want to be with you for the rest of my life. With you and this baby. I want to tell you everything, I will tell you everything. Please, let me explain.” Shana’s hand wandered to Anne’s face again. She couldn’t exist without the contact any longer.

Anne let the touch happen while she was at war with herself. She was hurt, more so than she could ever remember being. She felt betrayed. No wonder I was having nightmares. Probably just premonitions. She tried to push her sarcastic side back down. There was something in Shana’s eyes that still told her that she should maybe listen to what the smaller woman had to say. And thanks to Kevin she had nowhere else to go at the moment anyway. “Okay,” was all she said.

Shana breathed a sigh of relief. That was the important first step. Now she just had to explain … everything. Which was not going to be easy.

“So … who’s the lucky guy?” Anne’s wry question pulled Shana from her thoughts.

Well, why not start with something difficult. “That’s one of the problems.” She paused and walked a couple of steps away from her tall friend.

“I’m not sure.”

Chapter 24

“You’re not sure?”

Anne was clearly baffled and for one second she contemplated laughing out loud at the ridiculousness of it all. Shana of all people would always know who she slept with. As far as she knew, and she had always kept up to date on her friend’s doings, she had been practically celibate. Not at all like your lousy self, huh?

The thought stung and before she realized it, she verbally lashed out. “So, what happened? You finally found the joys of anonymous sex? You slept around so much you lost count? What?” She whirled around to look at Shana and suddenly wished that the venom she had just spouted could be sucked back.

The blonde huddled on the bed hugging herself tightly against the onslaught of Anne’s words. Her face was contorted in a mask of pain and Anne realized that she had brought that look on with her taunting. God, why is love so fucking complicated? She felt she had every right to be angry deep down in her core. She had wanted to hurt Shana just as much as she herself was hurting right now, but one look at the smaller woman told her that that came with a harsh price.

Instead of feeling better now, she felt worse.

She turned away again, angry at herself for feeling that way. I’ve got the right to be mad. I have every right to make her feel bad because she made me feel bad.

Yes, but did you have to make her cry?

It was Irene’s stern voice she heard and she hung her head in shame at the painfully obvious answer. No. But what am I to do? She looked at the small form on the bed for guidance and received it in the form of a look that was both painful and scared, dejected and full of hope.

It was the hope in the green eyes that made Anne’s legs move.

In the blink of an eye she found herself on the bed next to Shana with 150 pounds of quivering blonde in her arms. It was, Anne mused, as if she was watching herself from the outside, and she wasn’t entirely sure she liked what she was seeing.

She knew she would never act this way, would she? Being hurt, betrayed, lied to and then comforting the one who had done the hurting, betraying, and lying? That was not her style. She should be out of here, not wrapping herself around as much of the woman as she could without being a contortionist. Not having two small hands clinging to her shirt, crumpling the fabric in tight fists in an attempt to crawl inside. That wasn’t like her. Was it?

And yet, that was exactly what was happening and when she looked even closer at herself she realized that she was trembling, almost as much as the small body in her arms. They were both crying, salty drops mingling on the bright blue shirt. I am disgustingly pathetic. She’s killing me and I’m holding her tightly while she’s wielding the knife.

Anne mentally raised and dropped her hands in a gesture of defeat and just let go. If I ever have to die I want it to be at the hands of this beautiful woman in my arms.

The two women clung together for a while, just holding on, giving and receiving comfort, until they found the strength to talk again. It was Anne who moved first, disentangling herself from the body in her arms and scooting up in the bed to lean against the headboard. Her good hand still held onto her friend and pulled her up as well.

“Can we start over, please?” Anne asked after what seemed like hours, but was only a few minutes.

Shana looked at her, residual tears still lining her eyes. She nodded. “Okay.” She cleared her throat and said the words she should have said so much earlier. “Anne, I need to tell you something before we proceed. I’m pregnant and I’m not sure who the father is.”

She held up a hand to stop Anne from interrupting her. “But I do have a fairly good idea.”

“Who?” Anne’s arms tightened around Shana’s body.

Shana closed her eyes, not really ready to see Anne’s reaction to her next words.

“I think it’s Carlos.”

“Carlos.” Anne’s voice was completely toneless. She let go of Shana and moved as far away from her as possible. “How, Shea, why? ” She stopped and let the wave of nausea that had been rising at the pure mention of Carlos’ name roll over her. She forced herself not to give in to her baser instincts, not to run over to the bathroom to throw up, not to just tear down the bedroom door. You promised her to listen, didn’t you? Now, deal with it, Patakis!

“Why aren’t you sure if he’s the…?” Instead of finishing her question Anne just pointed to Shana’s belly. Acting on pure reflex, the blonde folded her hands over her belly before she looked up at her tall friend.

“It’s not what you probably think, Anne,” the small woman said quietly. Now that the worst part of it all was out in the open she felt considerably calmer. “He wasn’t one among many. It’s not that I slept with everything that breathed.”

“Unlike me, you mean?”

Shana looked up sharply at the hurt tone in Anne’s voice, but her voice was deceptively calm. “Did you ever realize how much that hurt me, Anne? How much I was bleeding inside? Seeing the woman I loved with all my heart sleeping with everyone but me?”

Anne’s defenses jumped up at the questions. “It’s not like you ever did something about it. You were the one who didn’t want me, remember? I was prepared to give you my heart, forever, and you pushed me away.” Her voice had grown louder with every word, but when she continued it was in a very small voice. “You never gave me a reason, Shea, never. Why didn’t you want me? Why do you want me now?”

“God, there’s so much we need to talk about.” Shana realized that now that the dams were open they had to clear a lot of things between them. “Can we stay on one thing at a time, please?”

The brunette looked up, still hurt, and Shana realized that her words must have sounded callous. She touched Anne’s arm tenderly and whispered. “I always wanted you, Anne, even back then. I loved you then and I love you now, but there was a reason that kept me from you that night.”

Her fingers trailed up Anne’s arm, across her shoulder and up to her chin. She lifted the chin so that Anne was forced to look into her eyes. “I nearly died that night, Anne, because all I wanted was to make love to you and curl up in your arms for the rest of my life. I will explain later what happened, but now I would just like to talk about why I’m pregnant. That’s hard enough.” Her voice broke at the last words and she let go of Anne’s face.

The tall woman pulled herself together at the raw tone in Shana’s voice. Okay, first things first. “What happened, Shea?”

When Shana didn’t answer right away, worry took over. An idea hit Anne and she swallowed. “Did he… did he rape you?” She knew without a doubt that he was capable of it. The hairs at the base of her neck raised as if a cold wind blew over them. Memories started twirling in her mind and she clenched her fists, hissing at the pain that brought. She shook her head to concentrate on Shana, trying hard not to erupt into a million questions.

“I can’t remember what happened,” Shana began quietly, “but I’m going to tell you what I know.” She got up from the bed and started pacing, unconsciously emulating Anne’s way of calming down. “About two months ago, my parents asked me to attend a charity dinner with them. It was supposed to be a small affair, and mother said she wanted to see me anyway. She said I might like it because all the other players would be there as well since it was for charity. She led me to believe you would be there, since the charity she named was the one you do so much for.”

Anne couldn’t remember an invitation for a charity dinner in the past three months and she was just about to say so, when Shana continued. “Of course you weren’t there and neither was any other player I knew. It was indeed a very small affair since the only people who were there were my parents, me É and Carlos.”

The pacing got faster, edgier, until finally Anne walked up behind the smaller woman and wrapped her in her long arms. Shana leaned back gratefully and closed her eyes. “I was pretty angry at my mother for the deception, but she just calmly stated that it was obviously the only way to see me and so she had used it to get me there. She also knew that I wasn’t going to make a scene in the middle of a crowded restaurant. We sat down to have a drink before dinner arrived and I told them that I would leave afterwards because I was in no mood to talk to either of them. Things get a little fuzzy from there. Or should I say, a lot fuzzy.”

Shana stopped and Anne reflexively tightened her hold on the smaller woman. Finally, the taller woman couldn’t stand the silence any longer. “That sounds like you were drunk, but É you don’t drink usually. I’ve only seen you slightly tipsy once and that was -”

“The night we danced after the US Open. Eight years ago. I’ll never forget that dance. I wanted you so much that night.”

“God, and I wanted you, so much. I was so in love with you.” Anne smiled, lost in happy memories for a second. “Remind me to show you something later,” she added with a devastatingly sexy grin that was audible as well as visible.

“Oh, I will,” Shana grinned in reply, but sobered up quickly. “Anyway, I still don’t drink, but that night everyone insisted on a glass of champagne and I didn’t refuse. Shortly after the drinks arrived, my parents said a toast to my wonderful future and then excused themselves. I was extremely irritated, but I don’t remember what happened then.”

She turned around in Anne’s embrace and looked up into the stormy blue eyes that watched her with concern. “I woke up the next morning in my own apartment, alone and naked, and with no idea what I had been doing the last 12 hours or so. Then, I just assumed I had gone home at one point and just gone to bed.” She laughed bitterly. “That changed when I realized I was pregnant.” She shivered and Anne held her tighter. “I felt so violated because I didn’t even know what was going on during the night.”

Anne’s eyes had changed from a stormy gray to almost silver with rage. The muscles that held Shana were tense and the smaller woman had the feeling of being surrounded by live wire. Anne was boiling inside. She had a pretty good idea what had happened to Shana and how Carlos had achieved his goal. What made the whole thing worse was that it was clear to her that Shana’s parents had been involved at some point. How could they do that to their daughter? How can they think that being raped by a slimy asshole is better than being loved by me? The worst thing of all was, however, that she could do nothing about her rage. She couldn’t let it out on Shana, not anymore, because she was a victim of betrayal too. God, all the things I said to her, but how could I know?

“Anne?” The worried voice of the small form in her arms pulled Anne out of her turmoil.

“Yes, baby?” The endearment slipped out without her consent, but this time Shea didn’t seem to mind.

“Can you forgive me? I just didn’t know how to tell you. It was so difficult, because you hate Carlos so much.” Tears started to fall again. “And I felt like I had betrayed you, even if I didn’t know what had happened. I always wanted it to be you.”

The last bit was whispered so quietly that Anne almost missed it. Oh my God, did she just say what I think she said? “Oh, Shea, I’m so sorry.” She kissed the blonde head, not knowing what to do or say. I’ve always wanted it to be you, too. “There’s nothing to forgive, baby, it wasn’t your fault at all.” She needed to tell her smaller friend all about things like Rohypnol and what it could do and they still needed to talk about the baby, but forgiveness had never come so easy as right now.

While Shana cried in her arms, Anne let her thoughts wander. She came up with hundreds of ways to torture, maim, and kill Carlos and the older Wilsons in a couple of seconds. I’m going to hunt you down, Carlos, and you’re going to pay. Then her thoughts turned to more immediate problems. What about the baby? Did Shana want to keep it? Everything about her behavior screamed yes, and Anne didn’t really want to ask her yet. She didn’t want to appear insensitive.

That brought on another question. Could she accept the child if she and Shana lived together? She tried to imagine what the baby would look like and she found herself smiling at the picture of a blonde, green-eyed toddler.

She found herself smiling and while her mind shouted ‘no’, her heart yelled ‘yes’.

The worst-case scenario was, she mused, that with the close physical resemblance between her and Carlos, the kid would like her.

*******************

They lay in each other’s arms for a while after that, both lost in their own thoughts, trying to work things through. There wasn’t really much to say, not right now anyway, when the important thing was to hold onto each other and get through this.

Anne’s thoughts turned to the past, the knowledge that she should have prevented what happened to Shana wearing heavily on her mind. She remembered a night seven years ago where she tried to warn Shana of the danger that was Carlos and the pure evil he represented. Why didn’t you listen to me, little one? I told you to stay away from him!

Shana’s suddenly tense muscles and her startled face told her that she had spoken her thoughts out loud. Oh, shit. I didn’t mean to.

Anne tightened her arms around the smaller woman and pressed a kiss on the blonde head. “I’m sorry, Shea. I didn’t mean to say that aloud, but I think that’s something I’d really like to know.” She tried to look into the green eyes that kept avoiding her. “I’m not angry at you Shana, I’d just like to know.”

That got her a direct look of blazing green. “How noble of you not to be angry at me. Tell me, Anne, what makes you think you have the right to be angry with me.”

She tried to move away from Anne’s embrace, but the older woman held on tight. “No, Shea, please don’t go. I know we have to talk about this, but I need to feel you close to me.” She waited until she felt Shana slowly sinking back into her arms. “Thank you.” She smiled. Then her thoughts wandered back to the past and she swallowed reflexively at the pain that memory brought.

After Shana had stormed out of that bathroom, she had stayed behind for a couple of minutes, beating herself up for her inability to make Shana see that Carlos meant danger. When she had left, she had taken another look around the ballroom, but she hadn’t been able to spot the smaller woman. She had, however, seen Carlos, and the dark man had given her a smile that had haunted her for months. She’s mine, that smile said, I’ll always take away what you love.

Shana’s voice brought her back to the present. “I know you tried to warn me back then, and now I know I should have just believed you, but you never gave me a reason, Anne. I just couldn’t let you tell me who to see and speak to; I needed a reason and I begged you to give me one, but you said you couldn’t.”

She had wanted a reason, because Carlos had been a bit creepy even back then, but Anne’s refusal to give her one had turned his transgressions on the dance floor into a mild annoyance. The more Anne pleaded with her to stay away from Carlos, the more she was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“Why couldn’t you just give me a reason, Anne?” Shana’s voice was small and tear-stained. “Just one tiny reason. I wanted to believe you, but you sounded so much like my father back then that I couldn’t accept your word for the truth.” She raised her hand to Anne’s face, capturing a single tear that was trailing down the tan face. “Can you tell me now?” she whispered.

Anne sent a thought to her dead brother. Forgive me, Pete, but I need to break my promise. I made this mistake once before, I can’t make it again. Then she nodded. “It’s a long story and I need to tell you from the beginning. I promised Peter that I would never tell anybody this, but I need to tell you, I know that now. Forgive for not telling you back then.” She closed her eyes. “I don’t even think he would have minded if it had meant you would stay away from Carlos, but it was too soon after his death É I couldn’t break my promise then. It was his last wish É” Her voice broke.

“Sweetheart,” Shana whispered, “you don’t need to tell me if it’s too hard for you. I don’t need you to break your promise to Pete. Now I know what kind of man Carlos is -”

“No, Shea, no,” the brunette insisted, “I need to tell you. There’s so much you don’t know.” She paused and looked at Shana pleadingly.

The blonde woman read the insecurity in the blue eyes. “What?” Then she had an inkling of what Anne wanted. “Would you like me to hold you?”

Anne nodded and released her hold on the smaller woman. Shana scooted to the far side of the bed and leaned back against the headboard. She pulled the dark head into her lap and laid one arm across Anne’s chest. With the other she softly stroked the silky black hair, realizing that what she was about to hear was very hard for her friend.

The tall woman had never looked more like a child to her. I hope this child looks like her. The thought startled Shana for an instant before she realized the truth of it. I’ve never thought of the child as Carlos’. This is our child É if Anne accepts it as such. She was extremely happy she didn’t remember anything about that night and she hoped it would stay like that forever.

The soft hand that glided through her calmed Anne down. She took a couple of minutes to order her thoughts and just feel the love that came from Shana. When she started to talk, her voice was almost casual and devoid of any emotion.

“Carlos came into our life when I was twelve. He was 22 or 23, I never knew exactly. He started out as my father’s protégé. I think my father wanted to coach ‘a real man’. I certainly didn’t qualify for that and Pete was still too young. He had just turned eight. My parents more or less adopted him into the family. He was alone in a strange land and so Mom naturally came to care for him. He was always polite to Mom and did most of what my father told him. The problem was, he was never a really good player. His talents lay elsewhere. He was a born manipulator and he loved playing other people to achieve his goals.”

She looked up when she heard Shana snort and murmur, “Yeah, I know.” Anne laid her good arm over Shana’s and interlaced their fingers. The smaller digits squeezed hers instantly and reassuringly.

Anne cleared her throat. “After about two years, Carlos gave up his tennis career and got into managing, which suited him much better. He became my father’s business partner and my manager. He also started chasing after me.” Anne swallowed and closed her eyes. She felt Shana’s breath on her face and then the touch of soft lips on her forehead.

“One day he showed up when I was alone. Mom and Pete were out somewhere and my father was conspicuously absent as well, even though we were supposed to work out together that afternoon. As soon as he was inside he pressed me against a wall and tried to kiss me. I fought him, but I wasn’t as strong then as I am now. It was so hard trying to keep him away from me. He pushed up my t-shirt and grabbed my breast. God, it hurt so much. He was brutal. He had both my arms pinned to the wall above my head and was rubbing himself against me. Then he started to push up my tennis skirt and put his hands É there. I tried so hard to keep my legs together, to keep him away, but he was so strong and I was so scared.

He let go of me for a second to fumble with his pants and I thought that was the only chance I had. I raised my knee and kicked him in his balls and he let go of me completely. Then I ran, but I really had nowhere to go. I couldn’t get out of the house because he was blocking the door, so I ran into the backyard. He followed me and chased me down, tackling me on the grass. And then he started talking to me, explaining what he was going to do to me and why. You know what he told me? He said my father had asked him to do this, to initiate me into the ways of the world.” Anne’s voice was harsh and icy and Shana curled her upper body to protect Anne as much as possible from the outside world.

“My own father. I think the worst thing was that I believed Carlos. I knew that my father could be a hard man and I had started to realize shortly before that my father was hurting little Pete because he was a bit slow and Father called him a sissy. Pete didn’t even know what that was. I got so angry and I started fighting harder and harder and then I just grabbed his thing and squeezed as hard as I could. He stopped after that. The last thing he said to me was that he would tell my father how uncooperative I had been and that he would try someone else.” She paused and exhaled slowly. “I never ever thought he could mean Pete.”

“Oh, God,” the sound coming from Shana was as raw as Anne’s voice had become. The blonde woman was crying now and slowly rocking back and forth, trying to calm Anne as much as she could.

Anne reached up to wipe away Shana’s tears. “Don’t cry, little one, please don’t cry.” She lightly kissed the soft lips above her. Shana only cried harder for the little girl her lover had once been and an innocent little boy.

Anne settled herself again for the rest of the story. She knew she had to get this out now before she was unable to talk anymore. She felt the hurt in every cell of her body and she wanted nothing more than to curl herself up in Shana’s arms to wait out the end of the world.

“For a long while nothing happened after that. Carlos kept away from me. I never knew why, but maybe he realized that I was too strong for him. Or he just found an easier victim. My father got progressively colder to me and to Pete as well. He started to taunt Pete in front of me and we got in a lot of fights about that. Over the years, living with my father became hell for Pete and me. I never understood why Mom didn’t do anything about it, but later I realized that she didn’t know what was going on. Father was on his best behavior when she was there and Pete and I never told her what was going on. And Carlos wasn’t around so much anymore.

“Pete withdrew into himself more and more, as did I. My life changed when I met you. You brought the light back and life didn’t look so miserable any longer. I fell in love with you the minute I saw you, but of course I didn’t realize it until years later when Mom asked me some questions about you and how I felt for you. All I knew back then was that you made me feel good and whole. And Pete loved you, that was a big bonus.” She smiled. “He knew before me that I loved you. He just saw right through me. He wanted so much to see us together, and he was so unhappy the day of his party.

“As I said, I was happy when I was around you, but back home things only got worse. Father got more and more abusive of Pete, and Carlos showed up more again. I noticed that Pete was scared of Carlos and did behave strangely when that bastard was near, but he never said anything to me.

“I always thought he would tell me anything,” Anne suddenly sobbed, “but he didn’t. I could have helped him. If he had only told me. Oh, God, Pete, forgive me. I didn’t know.” Anne started crying hard in big convulsing sobs, clinging to Shana with everything she had.

Shana held onto her as if her life depended on it, determined to make the taller woman feel all her love and compassion. “I’m here, Anne, you’re safe in my arms,” she repeated over and over again. Anne calmed down after a few minutes and drew back a bit, showing Shana she needed to go on.

“You know what happened at that birthday party. It was one of the worst evenings we had had in a while, and with all the shit that had happened to us before the party I wasn’t really there to help Pete. Oh sure, I got him out of Father’s clutches, but then I just disappeared.” She took another deep breath, expelling the air forcefully.

“I never saw Pete again and I’ll never forgive myself for that. I wasn’t there when he needed me. I just vanished from his life as if he didn’t mean anything to me. I vanished into thin air and nobody knew where to find me. I wanted it that way. And then I read the headline in the paper one morning. ‘Brother of tennis star kills himself’. I was nursing a major hangover and thought I was hallucinating, but later the headline was still there. I felt like dying. I knew I had to get back home.

“After the funeral, I wanted to run again. I couldn’t stand seeing you there, it still hurt too much, and looking my father in the eye was plain torture. I knew he had a big part in Pete’s death, but I couldn’t do anything about it that time. Before I left, Mom gave me a letter that had been found next to Pete. He had addressed it to ‘My big sister Anne’. I took it and walked away without saying goodbye. I didn’t read the letter until a few weeks later, after Father’s funeral. And what I read shocked me to the core and if Father hadn’t been already dead, I would have killed him. Now, I only had Carlos to hate and I did that with a vengeance. I still do.”

Anne stopped there and just looked into blank space. The empty look in the blue eyes scared Shana and she turned Anne’s head so that the haunted eyes had to focus on her face instead. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart,” she whispered and kissed a black brow. “I just should have believed you back then. I’m so sorry you had to go through this, so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, Shea,” Anne whispered, “you couldn’t know any of this. This family has always been able to keep its secrets.” It didn’t sound like she thought it was a good thing. “I should have told you all of this, but I couldn’t -”

“I understand, sweetheart, I understand. We don’t have to talk about this anymore.” Shana’s wish was not entirely motivated by her fear for Anne’s well-being. She simply didn’t know if she could take any more. If hearing all this makes me want to kill Carlos and upchuck my guts over his dead body, what must Anne go through right now? She kissed Anne lightly and gathered the tall body in her arms again.

“No, baby,” Anne pleaded as if sensing that Shana was close to her limit, “I need to let go of all of it now. I might never be able to again and talking about this helps.” She kissed Shana in an attempt to fortify her for the next bit. “You are the first person I ever told all this, and you will be the last. So, please, let me finish.”

“Okay,” Shana agreed, ignoring the churning in her guts and the anguish in the blue eyes that looked up at her. “I’m here for you, sweetheart. I’ll always be here for you.”

Anne nodded and then moved away from Shana, preparing to get up.

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t want to tell you the next bit,” Anne answered. “I want you to read Pete’s letter. He would have wanted it that way.” She got up and walked over to a drawer. On top of it was a box that contained only a few things that were very important to the tall woman. Pete’s letter, a photograph, and a velvet box with a ring inside. She took out the letter and closed the box again, caressing its lid before turning around to walk to the bed. She sat down across from Shana and handed her the letter. The blonde accepted it with a trembling hand, expecting the worst from the words on the page.

Before she started to read she mirrored Anne’s position on the bed, needing the contact. Their knees touched and Shana put her free hand on Anne’s thigh. Instantly, her hand was covered by a warm, larger hand that squeezed hers. Shana gave Anne a shaky smile and began to read. Anne followed Shana’s eye movement across the page, knowing the letter by heart.

Annie,
I can’t do this any longer. I’m so alone. Mommy is not here and Daddy is so mean to me. Carlos is here all the time now. I hate him. He hurt me and he always says bad things about you. He always says that Daddy doesn’t love me. I know that. But he also says that you don’t love me. That is not true. You do love, don’t you? He says that he came to me because you did not want him and told him to come to me instead. I did not believe him, but you are my big sister and maybe he was right and you thought it would be good for me.

But I was so small and he was so mean. He made me do all those things with him and I hate him. It hurt so much when he put his thing in me. He says I should be happy that he does that, because that way he will not do it to you. He says that if I tell you he will come to you and he will not be so nice to you. After the first time I said I would tell Daddy and Mommy, but he said that they knew and that they wanted him to do it. I could not tell anyone, but I was okay if he left you alone. I did not believe you sent him to me, but now you left me all alone with them and I don’t know what to do.

Last night, they both came to me. Carlos was right, Daddy knew about this. I tried to run away, but they caught me and said all those bad things again like I’m stupid and a sissy. I looked up sissy and I know now that a sissy is someone who is with men, so they must be right. Daddy beat me, but that wasn’t so bad, I’m used to that. Then he said I’m worthless and that nobody loves me anyway, not even you. They said that if you loved me you wouldn’t have gone away and you would have helped me.

They said you knew what they were doing with me, but I don’t believe them. Then they said I’m just a burden to everyone because I can’t play tennis like you do. I guess they are right and that’s why I’m saying goodbye now. Please don’t cry, Annie, it’s better where I’m going. Shana told me a story of heaven and all the angels and if I’m going there I’ll be happy. I miss you, Annie, and I wish you could help me now. I just hope it doesn’t hurt.

Promise me you never tell anyone about all this. Carlos said he’d do the same to Mommy and you and Shana and I don’t want that.

I love you
Pete

Shana put the letter down, trembling too much to hold it. She was crying hard, shedding tears for the young man she had come to love like her own brother and who had been so terribly abused both mentally and physically. She couldn’t say anything, because there was nothing to say. Her mind drew a total blank at the brutality that became so clear in Pete’s simple words. He must have been so alone. And Anne must have felt so guilty all those years.

She looked up at Anne’s face and was shocked to see the beautiful face contorted by pain that bordered on agony. She touched the face before her and cupped it between her hands. Anne’s eyes slowly opened to reveal a dark blue gaze that cried out ‘hold me’. Shana moved forward and pushed Anne onto her back, enveloping her in her arms. Long arms gripped her tightly until she had trouble breathing, but she didn’t care.

“Do you hate me now?” Anne searched the green eyes above her for an answer.

“There’s no reason to hate you, sweetheart.” Shana kissed her lover. “What Carlos did to Pete wasn’t your fault. You didn’t know he would go after him. Oh, Anne, you are an incredibly strong human being, surviving all that without going mad or turning into a ruthless killer. I’m so sorry I wasn’t by your side all the time, but now that I am you’ll never have to face this alone. I love you with all that I am.” She looked into Anne’s eyes until she saw the first glimmer of understanding dawning in them. The dark blue lightened, and the anguish was replaced by acceptance, if not of past mistakes than of the love she shared with the woman in her arms. She would let nothing come between them, and she knew from the look in the deep green eyes that Shana wanted the same.

“I love you, Shana,” the dark-haired woman whispered, her throat constricted by emotion. She felt totally exhausted, as if all energy had been sucked out of her along with the story of her family’s sordid past. Only Shana could give her power and sustenance now, and she needed the smaller woman like she had never needed anyone before. She needed to feel her love to feel alive. She needed her touch to forget the images in her mind. She needed Shana to soothe her soul. “I love you,” she repeated, “and I want to feel you. I need to feel you.”

Shana heard the urgency in Anne’s voice, heard the rawness of the need and knew what Anne wanted, needed from her. She leaned down and kissed Anne hard, deepening the kiss passionately when Anne responded with all the energy her burnt-out body could muster. There was no battle of control in this kiss, just an exchange of energy and love that both women needed more than air at the moment.

They broke away breathlessly when the need to breathe couldn’t be ignored any longer. “I want you,” Anne growled into Shana’s ear before she bit gently into the earlobe. Shana gasped with pleasure and arousal and reciprocated with a little nibble on Anne’s sensitive neck. The taller woman groaned deep in her throat and thrust her body upward against Shana’s. “I need you now, baby.”

“I want you too,” the blonde woman gasped in between licks and nibbles, “but we can’t, Anne.” She moaned when Anne cupped her behind and squeezed. Then a groan of another kind worked itself from Anne’s throat, followed by a string of curses.

Both women stopped their movement and looked at each other. Their faces were flushed and Anne knew that if they were to continue they would probably come hard and fast without getting out of their clothes. It would be powerful, but did she really want their first time to be a frantic coupling that was prompted by grief?

She lightly kissed Shana and smiled up at her. “You’re right, we have to stop.” Even if I’m going to implode sooner or later with all this pent-up sexual energy running through my body. “I don’t want our first time to be like this.” She grimaced when Shana rolled to her side and hit her damaged hand while doing so. “I also don’t want to stop in the middle because I can’t stand the pain in my hand any longer.” She held up the bandaged appendage. “I’ll get some pain medication from Fritz and a brace from Mike and then we’re going to make the first time special.”

Shana smiled at her. “I want our first time to be in our room.”

“Our room?”

“Next to the library, the one with the wonderful four-poster bed?”

“Oh, the one where you threw up on me? Okay, our room it is.”

Shana became serious again. “Are you okay, sweetheart?”

“I don’t know, Shea,” Anne replied honestly. “It’ll probably be never completely okay, but I’ve lived with it for eight years now, and now with you by my side, it should only get easier. Pete would love to see us together. I bet he’s merrily skipping along one of those clouds right now.”

“We should go visit him and tell him the good news.” Shana grinned at the image of a happy Pete with angel wings.

“Yes, we should. Let’s do it this afternoon. After I kill Kevin for locking us up in here.”

Shana laughed. “God, he must be so scared by now. But É I think you should let him live. He was right, you know É you would have run before we had a chance to talk.”

“Yes, I would,” the brunette conceded, “but I still want to torture him a bit.” She grinned evilly.

“I can live with that,” Shana joined in her grinning, “but first we have to get out of here.”

“Is it okay É I mean if we get out of here now? Are we going to be okay out there?” Anne suddenly felt insecure.

“Yes, it’s going to be okay.” Shana got up from the bed. “I know we still have a lot to talk about, but we can do that anywhere now, can we? Without having to be locked up.”

“We can talk about anything you like, baby.” Anne got up as well. “Although you might have to tie me down sometimes.” Anne’s eyebrows wiggled suggestively.

Shana’s eyes went wide when the implication of what Anne just said hit her. Oh yeah, I can live with that arrangement. Images of a naked, tied and blindfolded Anne writhing on that big bed in their room came to her mind. She swallowed hard. Oh yeah.

When Shana moved over to the door to start calling for Kevin, Anne went over to her box on the drawer and got out the ring. She put it in the pocket of her khakis and smiled.

Chapter 25

Kevin was getting nervous. At first there had been some noise coming from the room upstairs that indicated that his two friends were at least alive. But now it was eerily quiet and he hadn’t heard a single sound in what felt like hours. He tried hitting the punching ball, but he stopped after he realized that he was interrupting his routine every other minute to listen for any sounds from above.

He sat down in a corner on one of the workout machines. That only made him think. He started picturing what Anne would do to him when things between the two women didn’t go the way everyone assumed they would. She’s going to kill me. Yup. She’s going to beat me up like she did that poor sand bag earlier.

He decided to call Mike to hear what was going on over at the main house was. He walked over to Anne’s living room and had just started dialing when his cell phone chirped. He put down the receiver and opened his phone. Ah, great minds think alike.

“Hi,” he greeted his lover.

“Hi, gorgeous. How are things over there?” Mike’s voice sounded calm and only a little concerned.

“Well,” Kevin managed to draw the word into at least three syllables, “I’m getting a bit worried, to be honest.”

“Why? Are they shouting at each other? Are they fighting? Throwing valuables? I bet that Wimbledon silver plate would make a mean discus if thrown right.”

Kevin tsked. “No, just the opposite. It’s much too quiet. I can’t hear anything from their room.” He nibbled on his lower lip. Maybe they haven’t realized that I locked them in. Maybe they’ve just fallen asleep …

“What do you mean by ’their room‘? Aren’t they with you?” Mike sounded puzzled.

“Ah, no, not exactly. You see, I really did lock them up in Anne’s bedroom.” They had only discussed the possibility shortly before Kevin left with Anne and Shana, and Kevin hadn’t really been sure he wanted to do it.

“You did?” Mike spluttered. “Oh man, lover, you better unlock that door before Anne notices and then get back here.”

Kevin could hear the smile in his lover’s voice. “Why? Are you going to protect me?”

“Nah, I’m smaller than Anne and she’s meaner. I figured we’d escape through the back door and change our names. I’ve heard Canada is beautiful this time of the year, and it’s not too far.” Mike was laughing by now. “We could be there by tonight.”

Kevin grumbled for a second before he decided to join his partner in his amusement. “Yeah, yeah, keep on laughing. You’ll be sorry when Anne kicks my ass and you’re not getting any because I hurt too much,” he finally said with an evil grin.

Mike sobered up quickly at the other end.

Kevin became serious as well. “So, what’s going on over there, buddy? Has the sheriff grilled you already?”

“You know, I’ve been getting some very strange vibes from that woman. She seems mostly interested in Anne and her whereabouts, and for a moment I thought she was disappointed that Shana wasn’t hurt more in the crash.” Mike’s voice showed that he didn’t like the sheriff much.

“Can you be a little more specific, please?”

“Well, she came in just after the three of you left, and the first thing she asked Irene was where Anne was. She didn’t ask for Shea, she didn’t even seem to think of her. You can imagine how well that went over with Irene.”

“Oh, yeah,” Mike nodded.

“Irene asked her if she had been to the crash site already and when the sheriff said that she had seen it when she was driving by it on her way out here and that she left her deputy there to check it out, you should have seen Irene. I thought she would rip her head off. She was livid! Someone tried to kill her little Shea and the sheriff doesn’t even seem to care.” Mike chuckled at the memory of a very angry Irene.

“Then what happened?”

“That seemed to have helped because Sheriff Miller actually began asking questions that made sense. Unfortunately, we weren’t of much help because none of us had seen anything. She also – finally – wanted to talk to Shana before heading out to the crash site herself for a closer look. Oh, and she still insisted on seeing Anne, of course. I wonder what’s going on there …”

So do I, buddy. “So do I.” Oh, Anne, if this is another of your stupid one-night stands, I’ll … He interrupted his thoughts, having no idea whatsoever what he would do to Anne if his assumption was correct. “Did Irene calm down some?”

“Yeah, some. Once she realized that the sheriff was able to ask good questions, she calmed down. She still managed to make it quite clear, I think, that she was rather disappointed in the sheriff and that she had expected much more of a woman of her reputation. I’ve never seen a woman in uniform that looked more like a spanked puppy at that moment, but unfortunately that look didn’t last.”

Mike paused before completing his assessment. “I think she’s pretty arrogant. She has a great reputation in this town as far as Irene has heard. She’s also very beautiful … and she knows it.”

“So, is she gone now?”

“No, she’s still here. As soon as she heard that Mishka was here and that he was Shana’s fiancé …” Kevin could hear the quotation marks around that last word and grinned. ” …she stormed into the library to interrogate him. She’s still in there with him. They’ve been talking for half an hour now, God knows about what.”

“Hmmm, it’s not as if Mishka has a lot to say,” Kevin agreed. “Maybe he’s her prime suspect. Or maybe they just can’t understand each other. You know how bad Mishka’s English is. Is Irene with them at least?”

“Yup, she insisted. She’s going to protect our new family addition.” Both men grinned at Irene’s ability to love and open her heart. “He’s going to be all right.”

“Sure,” Kevin said a bit distractedly, concentrating on the noise he heard from upstairs. “Listen, Mike, I think the girls have realized that they’re locked up. I better go check on them. Just in case I won’t see you again … it’s been great knowing you, buddy.” He closed his phone, not waiting for an answer.

“See you soon,” Mike laughed and hung up.

*******************

Anne joined Shana at the door just as the blonde raised her arm to pound on it. “Wait,” she hissed, effectively stopping her friend’s movement.

Shana turned to face her tall friend with a curious expression. “Why? Don’t you want to get out of here?”

Anne looked into the green eyes before her and inched closer until she was only a breath away from Shana’s face. “Yes, I want to get out of here.” She caressed Shana’s cheek with the back of her hand. “But not before I do this.”

She closed the distance between them and tenderly brushed her lips against the cheek she was caressing. Then she kissed her way across closed eyelids to the other cheek and ended with the lightest of kisses on soft lips. She pulled away slightly and smiled when she saw that Shana’s eyes remained closed.

The blonde slowly opened her eyes when she realized that the lips that made her feel so good weren’t coming back. With a growl that came from deep within her throat, she pulled the dark head down again and covered Anne’s lips with a searing kiss that left them both gasping for air when it stopped.

“Was this what you wanted to do?” Shana panted.

“Not … exactly,” Anne stammered hoarsely, “but remind me to let you do that to me again.”

“Don’t play with fire, my love,” Shana smiled up at her, “if you can’t stand the heat.” She ended the statement with a brief kiss and an innocent smile.

Anne just shook her head and grinned. “I’ll remember that. If not, you’ll just have to remind me again.” Then she turned and pounded her fist against the door, wincing in pain as soon as she made contact with the wood.

Shana touched her arm. “Honey, you better let me do that if you want those hands to heal anytime soon.” With that she started banging at the door with abandon.

Soon, they heard a rather timid Kevin from the other side of the door. “Yes?”

“Kevin, let us out,” Anne bellowed.

“Please,” Shana added in a gentler tone.

“Are you going to kill me?” Kevin asked.

Stupid question, Kev. “Would you believe me if I said no?” Anne asked sweetly. The question earned her a poke in the ribs.

“Anne,” Shana whispered, “it’s not going to help if he has a heart attack. Please, behave.” Turning to the door again she continued in a louder voice. “Kev, let us out. We’re okay, but we really would like to get out now.”

They heard the key in the lock as it was being turned slowly. As soon as the lock clicked, Shana yanked the door open, only to have Kevin almost fall over in surprise. She smiled sweetly at him and then said in a stage whisper. “Thanks for letting us out. Just for that I’ll make sure your death is going to be quick and painless.” Then she patted his cheek and walked past him and down the stairs, sending one last smile up at Anne.

Kevin looked up at Anne and tried an innocent grin. The brunette tried to scowl at him, but couldn’t keep up the façade for long. She pulled the taller man into a hug. “Thank you, Kev,” she whispered.

Kevin blushed and returned the hug, incredibly relieved and very proud of himself.

*******************

Kevin, Anne, and Shana walked over to the main house in silence, all three lost in their own thoughts. Kevin was curious as to what had happened between the two women in the bedroom, he just didn’t have a clue where to start with his questions. He also knew that he still had to talk to Anne, but he didn’t want to do so in front of Shana without knowing what Anne had told her about her history with Carlos.

Anne and Shana were both thinking of what they had shared while they were locked up. Unknowingly, their thoughts mirrored each other’s. They both were relieved that they had made it through the morning in one piece, but they were also both wary of what was still to come. So many things were still left unsaid between them. Did Shana want the baby? Could Anne accept the baby? And what in hell had taken them so long to realize the depth of their feelings for each other?

The last question was burning its way through Anne’s body, taking a slow trip from the ring in her pocket to the tip of her tongue where she could still feel Shana’s kiss. She kissed me like thatbefore–well, almost like that, anyway–and then she ran away. I need to know why. Will she run away again? How can I be sure?

Anne’s insecurity shouted a big hello at her and took over. This time, however, she decided to do something about it. She reached out to Shana, who was next to her, and took her hand, then stopped walking.

Kevin noticed the stop and turned around. “What’s up?”

“Kev, could you go ahead, please? I need to ask Shana something.” Anne spoke without taking her eyes off her hand, which was linked with Shana’s.

“Sure,” the tall man agreed and quickly walked away from the two women.

“What is it, honey?” Shana asked quietly as soon as Kevin was out of earshot.

“I’m sorry, Shea,” Anne started, not really sure how to broach the subject. “I guess I’m just feeling insecure right now.” Truth. The truth is always good, isn’t it. “I was remembering our first kiss and how you ran away from me that evening …”

“And you were wondering if I would run away again.” Shana finished the thought quietly.

Anne nodded with downcast eyes, not wanting to see the reaction on her friend’s face. “Will you?” she finally asked. “I mean, run away again?” I couldn’t take it.

“Anne, darling,” Shana whispered, “please look at me.” When the dark head didn’t move, Shana cupped Anne’s face between her hands and raised it, forcing the tall woman to look into her eyes. She held contact with the blue eyes she loved so much, trying to show Anne what she was feeling inside.

“I love you, Anne, and I’m not going to run away again. There was a reason for my behavior back then, but that reason is gone now.” She paused for a moment. “And today, that reason wouldn’t stop me. Nothing is going to keep me away from you.”

“Why?” Anne rasped. “I always wondered why you left me that night. I lay awake at night, torturing myself, asking myself what I had done that you couldn’t love me. What was so wrong with me that you had to run away when all I wanted was to love you? I need to know why you ran away.”

Shana hesitated. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to tell Anne … it was just that she didn’t want to do it now. She realized, however, that she didn’t have much choice if she wanted to reassure her lover. My lover. That’s what you are. Or at least what you will be soon. My lover. She realized that she saw Anne as her lover even though they had not yet consummated their relationship. That was only a matter of time and opportunity.

Her voice was quiet and controlled when she finally answered Anne’s question. “The reason I left you that evening was that my parents were blackmailing me with the picture of us dancing. My father said that if I didn’t stay away from you and concentrate on my career, he would destroy you, telling the papers that you got me drunk at the party and then took advantage of my ’vulnerable state.’ He told me that my sponsors were already thinking about withdrawing their contracts. Later I found out that all of that was a lie,” she ended bitterly.

“He wanted to tell the papers that I raped you?” Anne asked incredulously. “Why didn’t you tell me? We would have found a way. I would have given up tennis –”

“Exactly,” Shana interrupted. “That is the reason why I didn’t tell you. I couldn’t let you give up your career. Anne, you’re so talented, such a brilliant player, and tennis is your life.” She shrugged. “I couldn’t take that away from you.”

“No,” Anne said with a painful smile, understanding Shana’s logic, “but you could take away my soul.” Shana looked up sharply at the words.

“Shea, tennis is my job,” Anne continued, “but it never meant half as much to me as you did. As you do. If ending my career meant I could love you, I’d have given it up gladly.” She opened her arms, inviting the smaller woman into a hug.

“I’m sorry,” the blonde said as she walked into the arms that closed around her at once. “We were both so young, and I was still so confused back then. I believed him; he was my father. I believed he had the power to destroy your life.” She looked up at blue eyes that were watching her with love and compassion. “And that was exactly what he did, wasn’t it? With my help.”

With those bitter words Shana began to extract herself from Anne’s embrace, but the taller woman held on tightly. “Shea, love,” she pleaded, “it’s all right. We’re together now. And who knows, maybe we needed the years to grow up and find out how deep our feelings really are.” Although I could have lived without those years. But I’m not so sure about you … “Anyway,” she continued, “we should make the best of the rest of our lives now and for me that means sharing it with you.”

“Thank you, Anne.”

“What for?”

“For accepting me,” Shana simply said. With all my past mistakes.

“Thank you for the same thing, love.” I’m the one who should be grateful. You were a victim. I made all my mistakes with open eyes and hate in my heart. She kissed the blonde head under her chin, then let go of the body in her arms. “Why don’t we go over to the house before Kevin worries everyone to death, wondering where we are?”

With a nod, Shana reclaimed Anne’s hand and they walked on, while a pair of chocolate-colored eyes watched their interaction with interest.

Chapter 26

Back at the main house, Anne and Shana reluctantly parted ways. After one last brief kiss, the taller woman went in search of Mike to get a brace for her injured hand, while the blonde wanted to check on Mishka.

She opened the door to the library just to find the room empty. “Well, I guess Irene took care of him,” she murmured under her breath.

She entered the room fully and walked over to the fireplace, enjoying the crackling of the burning wood and the orange glow of the flames. She loved open fires, but had only really learned to appreciate them up here in the north, where winters tended to get rather cold. Back home in Central Texas, a fireplace wasn’t really a necessity.

Shana sat down on the low sofa in front of the fireplace and stared into the flames. She closed her eyes, breathing in the scent of the wood and listening to the noise the flames made while eating away at the small logs. To her, the combination of the sounds, scents, and warmth coming from the fire created the ultimate ambience, romantic and sensual, smoldering and exciting. Without conscious thought, her mind turned to Anne and the things she could do to and with her lover in front of this fireplace.

Images of two naked bodies flickered through her mind, moving together on the rug in front of the flames. In her mind’s eye she could see Anne beneath her, pushing up against her, straining for maximum contact between their bodies, her face made even more beautiful by the ecstasy visible on it. She could see her own hand as it touched the muscular shoulders, slid over breasts, teased a hip and rested on the inside of a thigh. They kissed, passionately, hungrily, and moved together with an ever-growing intensity. Anne’s hands were roaming her body freely, fleetingly, never stopping long enough in one place to satisfy Shana’s needs, but increasing her arousal immensely. Anne’s leg had slipped between her own thighs, making contact with her wetness without putting pressure where Shana wanted it the most. All that could be heard in the room was the fire and the passionate sounds of the two women. Then finally Anne …

There was a noise outside the door and Shana opened her eyes with a start. Her heart beat furiously and she felt very warm. She realized that she was incredibly aroused by her fantasy, feeling the wetness between her tightly closed legs and knowing that her face was flushed. She took solace in the fact that anyone entering the room would probably think that the blush and the warmth came from the fire in front of her instead of the one burning inside her.

Please, don’t let it be Anne, was the last thought she had when the door opened. I couldn’t keep my hands off of her right now.

Mike put his head through the door and spotted Shana. He missed the sigh of relief and disappointment that escaped her, however, since he was concentrating on his own lover at the moment.

“Hey, Shea,” he greeted her, “have you seen Kev?”

Shana cleared her throat. “No, sorry. He came in before us … we wanted to … we had to …” She stopped talking, embarrassed that she seemed unable to form a coherent sentence and not wanting to talk about the development between her and Anne just yet. Not without Anne by her side.

“Oh,” Mike looked at her curiously. “Are you okay?” He walked over to her.

“Uh-huh.”

“You know, you seem to be a little hot …”

A little? Boy, are you wrong. Shana tried to compose herself before she looked at her friend. She put on her match face and looked into his face. “I’m okay, Mikey. It must be the fire, I guess,” she ended lamely and pointed into the flames.

“Uh-huh,” Mikes replied, unconvinced. With a knowing grin he patted her on the shoulders and got up again. “I’ll leave you to your thoughts then … and your fire.” He left the room and closed the door behind himself.

“Great,” Shana mumbled. “I wonder what he thought …” Probably exactly the right thing, her mind answered her. I must have looked warmer than I thought.

She decided to follow Mike when she realized that Anne had wanted to find him as well. Guess they missed each other. She shrugged, noticing that her shoulders had lost a lot of the soreness over the day. Then she went in search of her lover.

*******************

Leaving Shana was harder for Anne than she could ever have imagined. What’s wrong with me? She felt as if she was permanently attached to the woman she loved, and not being close to her felt a lot like what she assumed phantom pain had to be like. Get a grip, willya! You’ve been apart before and that wasn’t a problem. You’ll see her again in a couple of minutes anyway. She knew this was true, but still wished she could have gathered the blonde in her arms this very second. Anne, you’re pathetic.

She shook her hand and walked down the hallway with only a short wistful look in the direction of the library. In front of the kitchen she ran into Kevin.

“Hey, big guy,” she smiled, “have you seen Mike?”

“No, I haven’t. I’m looking for him myself. Why, do you need anything?” The last was asked with concern.

“Yeah,” Anne admitted with a sheepish grin, “I need a brace for my hand. I guess my rendezvous with the sand sack wasn’t too good for it.” She raised the bandaged hand to let him a have a closer look.

Kevin winced when he saw the bruises and abrasions on the swollen hand. “You know, Anne,” he said sternly, “as your coach, I should be very angry at you for doing that to yourself. You need that hand.” He paused. “But as your friend, I have to tell you … I can understand it. I just hope everything’s going to work out fine.”

“So do I.” Anne glanced at her friend, thinking about what he had just said. “Ah, Kev, about that coach business and my hand …” She let the sentence trail off.

Kevin looked at her curiously. “Yeah, what about it?”

“I’m thinking of giving up my career,” Anne said quietly.

“Are you serious?”

“Yes, I’m serious.” She studied him. “Why do I get the feeling that you’re not surprised?”

“Maybe because I’m not.” He took her elbow and started to walk into the kitchen, pulling her with him. “Look, Anne, I know you a bit and I have to tell you that you haven’t been yourself lately.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re still the best player around, don’t get me wrong … but I think that you’ve lost your focus. Your mind isn’t on the game anymore. Just look at the last couple of months.” Kevin leaned against the kitchen counter, gathering his thoughts. He didn’t want Anne to think she had been slacking.

“What about them, Kev?” Anne was pacing in front of her friend. It was one thing to decide to stop playing professionally, but it bugged her that Kevin thought that it was probably a good idea.

“Well, you didn’t play your favorite tournaments, for one thing, and it wasn’t because you were injured.” He spread his hands as if that fact alone said it all. He received a blank stare for his efforts. “Look, I can’t remember a year when you haven’t played Auckland or the Australian Open, yet this year you didn’t give those tournaments a second thought. You never told me why.” That had been a point of major contention between them since Kevin hadn’t understood why Anne was reluctant to go to Melbourne to defend her title.

Anne turned away from Kevin, deep in thought. She knew he was right, she had always tried to play those two tournaments. Melbourne because it was one of the Grand Slam tournaments, and Auckland … well, Auckland was a very small, not very important tournament, but she had some very fond memories of Shana that were connected to the place. Unconsciously, she fingered her fishhook pendant. Yep, they had some great times there when they were younger. She remembered her first time in Auckland, 15 years ago.

It was the first major tournament she and Shana entered together, six months after they had first met at tennis camp. They both had played other tournaments, winning most of them, but they had somehow never managed to be in the same tournament together.

Anne was positively giddy at the thought of spending a week with Shana in New Zealand. They had been writing and calling each other regularly, but they had only met once in the six months that had passed since the camp in Florida. Anne missed her friend furiously, even though she was still confused about her feelings. She knew that she had this wonderfully strange feeling in her stomach whenever the blonde girl was near and she also realized that everything felt terribly empty when the blonde was far away. She had yet to realize fully that what she was feeling was love. Or sexual attraction. But awareness had already begun to set in.

They met up in their hotel in Auckland, running into each other’s arms and holding on tightly. Shana had been accompanied by her parents as usual, while Anne traveled alone, as her father had an important business deal to complete with his partner Carlos. Anne was more than happy to be left alone on the trip, knowing she could spend more time with her friend that way.

Both she and Shana had single rooms, with Shana’s parents sleeping in the room next to Shana’s. They never noticed that the girls spent most nights together, just playing catch-up, talking deep into the night or just enjoying each other’s company. Anne feared that she would smother her younger friend with her constant company, but Shana didn’t seem to mind at all. Often, Anne found herself watching the small blonde and she noticed that most of the time Shana was watching her, too.

The day after the final – which Shana had won while Anne was preoccupied with watching her friend – they took off for a trip to Coromandel Peninsula, not too far from Auckland. They had managed to keep Shana’s parents from coming along and they enjoyed their freedom. They stayed at a cozy motel in Whitianga, a small town on the east coast of the peninsula.

That night, they shared a room and a bed for the first time. Annefelt awkward when she climbed into the queen-sized bed, somehow knowing that the night wouldn’t be easy. When Shana turned off the lights and joined her in the bed, Anne lay quietly on her back, taking deep even breaths to calm herself. She found it strange that she had to put her hands under her back to keep them from reaching out to the smaller body next to her. She wasn’t sure why she wanted to touch Shana all the time.

“Anne,” Shana’s whisper penetrated the silence, “are you asleep?”

For a long minute Anne didn’t say anything, really thinking about ignoring the question and

pretending to sleep, but she couldn’t bring herself to lie to Shana. “No, I’m awake,” she finally answered with a slightly shaky voice.

“Are you okay?”

The quiet voice that seemed to come from somewhere very close to her ear was laced with concern. Anne felt Shana move and looked over to her friend who was now lying on her side, head propped up on an elbow, watching her quietly.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Anne wondered if her answer sounded as unconvincing to Shana as it did to her.

“Somehow I don’t believe you.” Apparently it did. “What’s wrong, Anne?”

Anne lay very still, pondering her options. She could keep on pretending that everything was okay. Or she could tell Shana what was bothering her. Both were probably bad ideas. Shana hated being lied to, but Anne was also sure that Shana wouldn’t be too happy to hear that she couldn’t keep her hands off her smaller friend.

Shana was waiting patiently for her answer, but scooted closer as if to offer comfort for whatever was bothering Anne.

Anne grew increasingly hot under the covers. The t-shirt and shorts she wore felt too tight all of a sudden and she knew that if the lights were on, Shana would be able to see her shiver. In a moment of clarity, she decided to tell Shana the truth, consequences be damned.

She moved to mirror the blonde’s position on the bed. They lay inches apart, facing each other, Anne’s free hand almost touching the small body in front of her. When the tall girl looked into Shana’s moonlit face she could see a smile that made her breath catch in her throat. She swallowed hard before she tried to speak.

“I’m okay, really,” she began hesitatingly, “it’s just that I’m … I … I can’t seem to be able to keep away from you.” The last part was rushed out.

Shana gazed at her, her expression unreadable to the dark-haired girl. “That’s good. I love spending time with you as well.”

Anne wasn’t sure if her friend had misunderstood her on purpose, but by now she wanted–no, needed–to make it clear. “That’s not what I meant, Shea,” she said quietly and then waited for a reaction.

“I know.”

And then Shana reached out with her free hand and traced a line from Anne’s dark head down to her leg as far as she could reach.

“I know,” she repeated. Her voice sounded deeper now and the taller girl shivered again. Anne had goose bumps wherever Shana’s fingers had touched her. She felt the need to speak, to break the spell.

“Don’t you think it’s a bit strange?” Her words sounded like molasses to her own ears.

Shana seemed to think about her question and stopped her hand. “No, not really,” she replied after a while. “We’ve always touched a lot and we’re best friends.” She nodded as if having made a decision. “It feels great, but it’s not like it’s important … I mean, we’re both girls and it’s not as if …”

“As if … what?”

“Nothing,” the blonde said quickly.

Anne decided to ignore the obvious lie. “Shea?”

“Hm?”

“Can I touch you?”

Shana just nodded, and then they spent most of the night touching each other, tracing each other’s faces, stroking each other’s hair, but never undressing and never touching bare skin that wasn’t face, neck or leg.

The next day they visited a bone carver’s studio and made their own carving. Shana made a fishhook, which she later gave to Anne as a present. The taller girl reciprocated with a Koru, a spiral that looked like the rolled-up frond of a fern tree. It was a wonderful day for both of them.

The only thing that bothered Anne was that Shana thought that their feelings weren’t important.

Anne became aware of a large hand waving in front of her face, bringing her back to the present. “Huh?”

“Hey, you totally spaced out on me there for a minute,” Kevin gave her a concerned half-smile. “What’s up?”

“I was thinking about Auckland and the tournaments.” Anne shook her head to dispel the last images. “The reason why I didn’t play Auckland this time was that there was nothing there for me.” Shana had been slightly injured and had decided to stay home. She had also missed the Australian Open.

“Ah, I get it,” Kevin said in sudden understanding. “Shana wasn’t there, so you didn’t need to be there.” He put his big hands on his friend’s shoulders. “You see, that’s exactly what I mean. Your focus is on Shana, not on your career, and you can’t play successfully that way. That’s why I’m not surprised you want to stop. I think your priorities have changed, girlfriend.”

Anne looked up at him through dark bangs. “And … what do you think about that?”

Kevin kissed her forehead and hugged her. “I think it’s a very good idea, Anne. You need Shana more than you need your career. Hell, you’re richer than God anyway.” He swallowed. “I’m going to miss you, though.”

“We’ll stay friends, you know that,” Anne murmured into his chest. “Besides, you could move here and we could all be together. Mom would love that.”

“We’ll see about that,” Kevin grinned. “Now, what do you say we find Mike and take care of your hand?”

At that moment Mike walked into the kitchen, followed closely by Shana. Both stopped at the sight of their lovers in a tight embrace.

“Are we interrupting something?” both asked in unison with a grin.

“Nah, not really,” Anne said before she turned around and blinded Shana with a dazzling smile. She walked over to the blonde and whispered into her ear. “I’ve missed you, baby.”

Shana rewarded her with a blush and a chaste peck on the cheek before sending her lover out with Mike to finally take care of her hand.

Before the two left the room, Kevin stopped them. “Anne, I need to talk to you. It’s about … you know who?”

“You need to talk about Voldemort?” Anne asked, her mood too good to take anything seriously right now, although she very well understood who Kevin was talking about. She wiped the grin off her face.

“You’re right. We need to talk about him and a lot of other things. Why don’t we all meet back here in 15 minutes? We should also get Mom. That way we don’t have to repeat ourselves and we can all share what we know.” Anne saw that Kevin doubted that the idea was any good. “Kev, Shana knows … everything.”

Kevin relaxed perceptibly and nodded. “Okay then, you go do something about your hands while I get everybody else together. I think the Hinkels should be here as well.” Seeing Anne’s questioning look he added, “You’ll hear that story when we meet back here. Now get out of here.”

Anne walked to the door, but turned to Shana before she left the room. “Come with me?”

“Sure,” the blonde said with a bright smile. “Who knows what happens if I leave you alone.”

Anne waited until Shana was close to her to answer that. “I’m thinking of you all the time, that’s what happens.”

Then she took Shana’s hand and led her blushing friend to the waiting Mike.

Chapter 27

Irene was pissed off.

First, the sheriff had decided not to come out to the site of the crash at once, and then had the gall to ignore the reason she was called and began to ask for Anne almost immediately after arriving at the house.

“She’s not here right now,” had been Irene’s very curt response to Sheriff Miller’s question. “She and Shana Wilson, who by the way is the victim here,” she had put a lot of emphasis on that part, “are both injured and resting at the moment.” She had ended her admonition with suggesting that the sheriff visit the crash site first before talking to the people in the house.

Unfortunately, Mishka had chosen exactly that moment to peek out of the library and, after hearing that he was Shana’s fiancé, the sheriff had decided to just send her deputy to the crash site while she talked to Mishka.

The tone in which she addressed the young man made Irene even angrier and she had declared that Mishka’s English was too bad to be questioned alone and that she would sit in on the interview. Reluctantly, the sheriff had agreed, but not without shooting murderous glances at the protective Irene.

The interrogation had been a farce because Mishka didn’t have a clue what was going on and the sheriff kept on insinuating that he was a prime suspect nonetheless. That had scared Mishka to no end, not only because he had indeed no idea what the sheriff was talking about, but also because he really liked Shana and was shocked that someone had wanted to hurt her.

Well, Irene thought, I’m glad that’s over. She had taken Mishka to a guest bedroom so that he could rest a while since he had been driving for most of the night to arrive so early in the morning. Then she had remembered something. Damn, Shana wanted me to ask him how he knew she was here. I guess that’s going to have to wait, then.

Now she was standing outside watching the sheriff talk to her deputy, who had just returned from the crash site with his report. I bet he’s more competent than you. The older woman knew she was probably being unfair, but the sheriff’s behavior had challenged her very large protective streak and now she watched the blonde officer with hawk-like eyes. I don’t trust you and I don’t like you.

Irene used this opportunity to study the woman. The sheriff was tall, almost as tall as Anne, and very thin. Her long blonde hair was tied into a braid that hung down to her shoulder blades. She had a nice face with high cheekbones and large brown eyes, and a mouth that could probably break into a wonderful smile. If she ever smiles.

All in all, Irene mused, Sheriff Miller was a beautiful woman, and even the gray-and-green uniform couldn’t detract from the impact she made on the people around her. The one thing that weakened her beauty in Irene’s eyes was the fact that the sheriff clearly knew about it and was probably used to using it to her advantage. Her deputy was definitely smitten with her, judging from the puppy-dog eyes he gave his boss.

Somehow, seeing this made Irene want to gag. She looked down at her feet, studying the dirty snow between her boots. Oops, I have to be careful around her.

When she looked up again, she saw that the sheriff was coming towards her with a grim expression.

“So,” Irene asked when the woman was within earshot, “what did your deputy find?”

“Well,” the tall blonde took off her hat, “it looks like another car was involved in the accident.”

So? I told you that. Irene tried to remain calm. “And?”

“And I would like to discuss the rest of the findings with Shana Wilson, if you don’t mind.” A small smile graced her features and for the first time since her arrival, Irene noticed an aura of competence and authority around the sheriff. So. You can be professional if you want to. I wonder what made you so preoccupied with my daughter.

Being her direct self, she decided to just ask, but just as she opened her mouth, Kevin came around the corner of the house and called out to her.

“Hi, Mom,” he greeted her, sending a small nod to the sheriff at the same time. Then he addressed both women. “Are you finished here?”

Irene looked at Sheriff Miller and received a firm nod in response. “All I need right now is to finally find Ms. Wilson and talk to her … and to your daughter.”

“What did you want, Kevin?” Irene asked. As an afterthought she added, “By the way, Sheriff Miller … Kevin Delaney, Anne’s coach.” Kevin and the sheriff shook hands.

“We’ve got everybody at the house again, and we thought we could get together and compare notes. There’s a lot to talk about.” He looked at Irene to find out whether she understood what he was talking about. The glint in her eyes told him all he needed to know.

“Compare notes on what, Mr. Delaney?” The interest in the sheriff’s voice was clear and unmistakable.

He opened his mouth to tell her that what they wanted to talk about had nothing to do with the accident, but he stopped before the first word got out. What if Carlos had something to do with the crash? Could they really exclude that possibility? He knew the man, and as far as he was concerned, Carlos was capable of just about anything, especially after what the Hinkels had told them.

Irene read the doubt in Kevin’s eyes. She was sure she knew what he was thinking, and reluctantly agreed with him. She knew more about Carlos Vila and his evil ways than most other people, and she hated him for what he had made her do. Did she really want the sheriff near when they talked about all that had happened?

A definite no.

All that could bring her was trouble.

On the other hand, the sheriff could also help them bring justice. Or find the Hinkels’ daughter.

Irene sighed. Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad if the sheriff heard all they had to say about Carlos. In her eyes he was the prime suspect, even if only because he had always tried so very hard to destroy her family. Why not kill Shana to hurt her and Anne? She cleared her throat and shot one last long look at Kevin, who nodded almost imperceptibly. “Why don’t you join us, Sheriff? It might be … enlightening?”

Sheriff Miller inclined her head in agreement and the three of them went towards the house.

*******************

Anne, Shana, and Mike entered the kitchen from the hall at the same time that Irene, Kevin, and the sheriff walked through the back door. At the sound of other people in the room, Anne stopped tweaking her new wrist brace and looked up, expecting to see her mother or Kevin.

Shana almost slammed into her side when Anne suddenly stopped before her, eyes fixed on a beautiful blonde woman in a sheriff’s uniform. Shana couldn’t see her lover’s eyes, but the expression on the dark-haired woman’s face made her swallow reflexively. Tentatively, she reached out to her.

Anne couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the sheriff enter behind her mother, and an irrational anger surged through her. Why didn’t Mom tell me who the fucking sheriff is? Because she didn’t know, stupid …

She closed her eyes for a fraction of a second, enough time for a few old and not so pleasant memories to flicker behind them. Then she felt a small hand in the small of her back, just a fleeting touch really, but she leaned into it instinctively, letting the love she felt for the small woman next to her calm her down. She knew that Shana had no idea as to what was going on, and she wished fervently she could keep it that way.

The tall woman who slowly walked towards them guaranteed that this wish would never become reality.

We so don’t need this right now.

Sheriff Miller stopped in the middle of the kitchen, not more than five feet from Anne and Shana. She looked amused, wearing a half-smile that didn’t reach her eyes. She let her brown eyes wander over the two women she had watched only from afar before, reacquainting herself with Anne’s beautiful face and graceful body. She frowned when she saw the brace and bandages on the tennis player’s arm. She didn’t like it.

Her frown deepened when she saw the arm that had a hold on Anne. A hold she never would have gotten away with. Anne had never let her touch her that way, had always been distant and remote, except when they …

Her thought made her smile again and she swept her eyes over the smaller woman, concluding that this had to be Shana Wilson, the victim of the accident. Her smile widened just a fraction of an inch. She realized the effect that had on her face when the blonde woman inched closer to Anne and the taller woman scowled at her. Ooh, she’s protecting her little woman.

Carol Miller knew, deep down, that she should behave professionally, that her job was to find out who had driven Shana off the road, who had wanted to hurt her. The problem was that at the moment, hurting the blonde woman sounded really good to her. Her smile became predatory.

“So,” she drawled in a casual tone, “you must be the one who can’t drive.” She took a step closer to Shana, trying to intimidate her.

“Carol, behave,” came a low, quiet voice that she felt in every cell of her body.

Shana looked from one woman to the other. Even without the sheriff’s comment, the two words from Anne and the tone in which she said them made it all clear to her. The sheriff’s a former lover.

She withdrew her hand from Anne’s back in an involuntary reaction to the revelation, suddenly insecure. How am I supposed to react now? She knew they’d meet some of Anne’s former lovers sooner or later, but she would have preferred to meet them later. Much, much later.

Then her hand was captured by a warm, lightly bandaged hand, giving her stability and the strength to lift her chin and look straight into the sheriff’s eyes.

Her answer came out as a surprise even to her. “I can drive just fine, thank you.” Her voice was calm and polite. “I’m not so sure about the guy who drove the other car, though.”

She smiled at the sheriff, hiding her insecurity behind a wall of Southern politeness and the love that poured from the woman next to her. Anne’s fingers gripped hers a little tighter now, and her thumb made little circles on the back of her hand.

No … not circles, Shana realized after a moment of curious concentration.

Hearts. Anne was painting hearts on her hand with her thumb, letting her know she loved her without words. Oh God, Anne. Do you have any idea how much I want to hug you right now? She looked at the tall woman next to her and saw only love in those blue eyes. No doubt. No feelings for the beautiful blonde who was standing before them, challenging them with her proximity.

And just as suddenly as the wave of insecurity had hit her, another feeling swept it away. Compassion. She looked up into chocolate-colored eyes, letting her feelings show.

There was a slight shift in the sheriff’s expression. Shana could see how the wariness crept up behind those eyes, dimming the predatory grin and softening the features. Then the eyes looked away.

When they returned to Shana’s eyes, she could only see professional detachment in them. I’m sorry for you, Shana thought. She sensed that the taller blonde had some real feelings for Anne. Despite the first impression, she was willing to give the sheriff the benefit of the doubt and try to work with her, hoping the sheriff would do so as well.

Anne watched the exchange between her former lover and the woman she loved with a mixture of pride and anguish. She would have loved to just kick Carol out of the house, but she knew that she couldn’t do that without having to face relatively harsh consequences. She had felt the loss of Shea’s hand in her back and had reacted promptly, needing to show the small blonde that she was the only woman in her heart. That was the problem with Carol, she thought. Shana has always been the only one in my heart. There just wasn’t room for the young, idealistic woman Carol had been back then. Even if she tried her best. Maybe we can work through this now. I used to really like her until she freaked out on me …

Anne watched the shift in Carol’s expression carefully and decided quickly that any further ugliness had been averted by something Shana had done with just her eyes. I have to ask her about that later. That seems like a good trick.

She was surprised when she heard Carol’s quiet “I’m sorry.”

But she was even more surprised when she heard herself answer. “I understand.” I understand? Where did that come from? A tightening around her fingers, however, told her that it must have been the right thing to say. Okay.

“Do you want to start this conversation over again?” she addressed both women.

Without another word, Shana held out her hand. “Hello, I’m Shana Wilson.”

Carol’s handshake was short, but firm. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Wilson. I’m Sheriff Miller, but please call me Carol.”

“Okay, Carol. I’m Shana.” She tried a small smile. “And I understand you have some questions for me.”

“Yes, indeed,” came the professional reply, “but I’ve heard that you were supposed to have a little conference here and it might be easier if I just sat down with you to discuss things. Unless you’d rather talk in private,” she added when she saw the looks that passed between Anne and Shana.

Anne noticed Shana’s hesitancy at the request. She herself wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but she could see where it would make things easier. She looked at Shana, then at Carol. “Would you excuse us for a second, Carol? I need to talk to Shana for a moment.”

Carol nodded. “Sure. I’ll be right here.”

Irene saw her opportunity and moved closer to the trio to address the sheriff. “Why don’t we all sit down over at the table and have something to drink? We’re still waiting for two more people anyway before we can start. Kevin, Mike, would you go and get the Hinkels, please? They’re in 217.”

Kevin and Mike, who had been standing awkwardly in a corner together, looked up at Irene’s words and nodded, relief clearly readable on both their faces. They moved around the women and left the kitchen, while Carol and Irene walked over to the table to sit down.

Anne turned towards the blonde woman next to her. Shana studied the floor intently, but was forced to look up by a gentle hand cupping her cheek. “Come on, little one,” Anne whispered, “I think we need to talk.”

*******************

Anne led Shana into the laundry at the end of the hallway, closing the door behind her. She leaned against the wall, sliding down a bit and pulling the shorter blonde between her spread legs so that they were eye to eye.

Shana seemed to be deep in thought, looking around, interested in everything but meeting Anne’s concerned gaze. The brunette gently cupped her friend’s face with bandaged hands and turned it upwards until the blonde was forced to either meet her eyes or keep her own closed. Slowly, the green eyes blinked and then fell guardedly upon tender blue ones.

“How ya doin’?” Anne asked in a low voice, her thumbs caressing the face between her hands. “Are you okay?”

Shana thought about the question. Am I okay? With what? That the sheriff in the kitchen is an ex-lover of yours? Or that she looks at me like she’d like to get rid of me? Or that she looks at you like you were lunch? Am I okay with telling everybody what Carlos did to me? That I’m pregnant?

“I don’t think so, no.” No, I’m not okay. All I want right now is go somewhere far away, be alone with you, be held by you. Please, take me in your arms and make it all go away.

As if hearing the silent plea, Anne engulfed her in long, strong arms, holding her and holding onto her as if their lives depended on it. “I’m here for you, baby,” she whispered directly into Shana’s ear. “I’ll always be there for you.” Anne’s hands began a comforting stroking over much of the shorter woman’s back, calming both her friend and herself with the gentle touch.

“We don’t need to tell the others everything.” The tall woman paused. “I don’t want to tell them anything either.”

Shana looked at her, her head cocked slightly to one side. “Pete?” was the only word that was needed to convey her understanding.

“Yeah.” Anne briefly closed her eyes. “I only broke my promise to him twice, and that is one time too many in my eyes. You needed to know, but there’s no one else …”

“Close enough to know?” Anne nodded and Shana tightened her hold on the tall woman a bit more. “Anne?”

“Hmmh?”

“Does … does Mom know about Pete … and Carlos … and your father?”

“I th …” Anne stopped. I think so, but do I know it for sure? “I … don’t know, really. This is one thing we never really talked about.”

“Why? I always thought you two talked about everything,” Shana mused, more to herself than to Anne. It was one of the things she had always admired about her friend’s relationship with her mother. “I knew you had your troubles, too … but you seemed so close after …” Her voice trailed off.

“After I came around, you mean.” The brunette finished the sentence for her. “Yes, we are close and yes, we do talk about almost everything.” Almost everything. It’s true, she even knew about you long before anyone else did … long before you and me anyway. A small half grin showed briefly on her face at the memory of a very young adult who was told by her mother that she was probably in love with her best friend.

She shook her head, as much at her younger self as to clear her thoughts. “Anyway, I tried to talk to her about Pete and his death many times, but whenever we came across that particular issue she seemed to close down, as if there was something she didn’t want to talk about.” Or something she didn’t want me to know. “I don’t know, maybe it just hurts her too much to talk about it.”

“Maybe.” Shana sounded unconvinced. “Well, maybe I’ll have to talk to her some day.” She had a feeling that there was more to Irene’s reticent behavior than Anne realized. She looked at her tall friend’s thoughtful face. Or wants to realize.

“So.” Shana drew out the word. “What are we telling the others?”

“I thought we could leave out Pete’s story completely since it has nothing to do with what happened to you. And I thought we could maybe … if it was okay with you, I mean … tell them that …”

“That he drugged me and raped me, and that I remember bits and pieces of the evening.” Shana interrupted Anne’s hesitant rambling.

“Do you?” Alert blue eyes watched her closely. “Remember … things from that night?” Please don’t let her remember that. It would be so much easier if she didn’t.

Shana saw the distress that was clearly written all over Anne’s face. She carefully judged what she remembered against what she thought Anne needed right now. Disconnected images of hands groping at her, of clothes being pulled off of her, had indeed started to come back to her, flashing up behind closed eyelids or just jumping at her from the dark recesses of her brain.

She now knew without a doubt that it had been Carlos who had taken advantage of her that night, but since they had been very sure of that already, she didn’t feel the need to worry Anne with those images. There’s enough time for that later. She shook her head. “No, I don’t, not really. But I thought it would sound better and more convincing.”

“You’re right.” Anne couldn’t quite hide the relief she felt. “I think that will work. No need to worry Mom and the boys unnecessarily.” She brushed her lips against Shana’s forehead. “Ready to head back?”

She felt the nod against her lips and had to smile at the sensation. Damn it all to hell. I just want to cuddle up with you somewhere. “Shea?”

“Yeah.”

“Would you … after this is all over … would you like to hole up somewhere with me … where we could be alone, just the two of us? I’d like some time alone with you, just for a while.” Like forever.

“I’d like that, darling.” Shana smiled and saw an answering smile on her friend’s face. “I want to explore you … ah … our relationship unhindered by anything or anyone.”

“Sounds like a deal to me then.” Anne pushed herself off the wall and moved over to the door. A tug at her shirt stopped her. She looked over to the blonde in question.

“There’s more to your history with Carol than just you two being ex-lovers, is there?” That had been nagging at Shana since seeing the sheriff for the first time.

The direct question hit Anne like a kick. She swallowed down the memories and looked directly into beloved green eyes. “Yes, there’s more.” Her voice was hoarse. “I’m going to tell you all about it, baby.” Her eyes pleaded with her lover. “But I don’t think right now’s the time.” Never sounds like the just the right time to me.

“Okay.” The blonde granted Anne her reprieve. “But I’ll remind you of it.” Soon.

“I know.” Anne sighed and opened the door. I know.

Chapter 28

Ten minutes later they were all sitting around Irene’s large kitchen table, an assortment of mugs filled with steaming hot coffee or tea in front of them. When Anne and Shana had entered the kitchen a few minutes earlier, all the chairs had already been filled, leaving them only two chairs on opposite sides of the table, one next to Mike, the other next to the sheriff. One look from Anne that had wandered pointedly from Mike to the empty seat next to Carol, however, had changed the situation.

Now, Anne sniffed at her coffee with a relieved sigh, enjoying the aroma of the fresh brew. She had cradled the huge mug between both hands, effectively hiding the Klingon warrior who graced the mug with his image. One thumb was hooked through the handle and Anne’s nose was almost touching the rim of the cup. Her eyes were closed and she savored the short silence that blanketed the table while everyone was getting settled and mentally prepared for what was to come.

A touch against her leg startled Anne and she opened her eyes to see Carol look at her with an unreadable expression before she averted her eyes. The touch on her leg, however, remained just where it was. Anne glanced to her right, where Shana was enjoying her mug of tea with an innocent air about her. The brunette resisted the urge to look under the table, unsure whether she really wanted to confirm her suspicions about who was touching her. Instead, she moved her chair a little closer to Shana’s and unobtrusively moved her leg as far away from the opposite side of the table as possible.

Carol merely raised her left eyebrow and gave her a deceptively sweet smile.

Anne shot her a look that clearly stated ‘Hands off!’ and was rewarded with a shrug of one slender shoulder and two raised hands. She doesn’t care at all that the woman I love is sitting right next to me. God, will she ever learn?

Another quick look towards her right revealed that Shana was watching the sheriff intently, and Anne had the distinct feeling that her lover knew exactly what was going on. Her assumption was confirmed when she felt Shana’s hand on her thigh, grounding her with a gentle touch.

Then she felt another touch, much lower on her leg, that didn’t come from her lover.

Anne groaned inwardly. Oh man, this is gonna be a long day …

Just then, Shana leaned over to whisper in her ear. “Don’t worry, love. You’re mine, and I intend to keep you.” She finished her sentence with a small nip on Anne’s earlobe, sending a very clear message across the table.

Which Carol acknowledged with a tiny nod and a grin.

Uh oh. My little one is getting possessive. Anne didn’t know if she should be proud or peeved at Shana’s possessiveness, but finally decided on accepting it for what it was: Shana’s right. I am hers, and Carol should be happy that it’s Shana and not me she’s going up against. I wouldn’t be nearly as subtle. She only hoped that Carol didn’t take it as a challenge.

Anne looked around the table to see if anyone had witnessed the subtle exchange between Shana and Carol. Irene, who sat to her left at the head of the table, was giving Carol a look that probably curdled the milk in the sheriff’s coffee. Okay, so Mom noticed, and she hates it. Gotta love my mom.

To Irene’s left, sharing the head of the table, was Kevin, who was too busy smiling at his lover to notice anything. Carol sat to his left, directly across from Anne, and Mike was next to her, across from Shana. At the other end of the table were the Hinkels, huddled together and almost sharing a chair. Wonder what’s up with that …

Anne took a long sip of her wonderfully hot and fragrant coffee. Realizing that no one else had made a move to start the conversation, she sighed and decided to get the ball rolling.

“Okay,” she started in her deep voice, “let’s get down to business, shall we?” She looked around the table, receiving small nods and an encouraging smile from her mother and Kevin. “We’re here to tell the sheriff what we know about Shana’s accident and to share as much background information as we can.” She couldn’t resist the small look at Shana, who nodded almost imperceptibly.

Kevin cleared his throat, interrupting her. “We’re also here to share what we know about Carlos, since it seems that almost everyone here has had dealings with the guy … and we …,” he pointed at Irene, Mike, and himself, “thought it might be a good idea to compare our stories and experiences.”

The blonde man paused as if to decide whether to add anything else. He finished by saying, “I think he might well have something to do with Shana’s accident.” He raised both his hands to make air quotes around the last word.

Anne looked around the table in startled surprise, noticing that she wasn’t the only one. Shana and the Hinkels seemed to be just as astounded as she was at the idea that Carlos might be behind the attack. Suddenly, this whole get-together-around-a-table-and-talk thing made much more sense to Anne. She opened her mouth, then closed it again without saying anything. Finally, she just leaned back in her chair and motioned for Kevin to continue.

Just as Kevin was about to speak again, a head poked shyly around the kitchen door and a quiet clearing of a throat could be heard. Anne looked up to see Mishka inching into the room, seemingly unsure of whether he should be there at all.

Ah. My lover’s fiancé. The ridiculousness of their situation almost made her laugh, but at the same time she had to fight the urge to break into a full fit of jealousy. She berated herself for feeling like that. You know why she offered to marry him, silly, so calm down. He’s gay, she’s gay, and what’s more, she loves you.

Shana’s hand made soothing patterns on her thigh and the tall woman dug deep inside herself for a lopsided grin that she threw Mishka’s way. That earned her a loving pat on her thigh and a brilliant smile that lit up green eyes.

Shana got up to meet Mishka halfway, realizing that he was probably insecure with everyone staring at him. She greeted him with a warm hug, which he returned with affection. He then held her at arms’ length and looked her over.

“Are you okay?” Mishka’s question was laced with a heavy accent.

Shana patted him on the arm reassuringly. “Yes, I’m fine.” She looked at Anne and met the taller woman’s eyes. “More than fine, actually.” Anne smiled.

Shana introduced Mishka to everyone around the table while Kevin fetched a chair that he placed between Shana and Mrs. Hinkel. Irene waited until Mishka and Shana had sat down again before she got up to get him another fine specimen from Anne’s mug collection. She grinned when she found the right one for him. Oh yeah. This’ll do nicely. She filled it with coffee and put it down in front of Mishka, the tacky image of the world’s most famous rodent facing him.

He smiled up at her warmly, and Irene found out that she was beginning to really like the young man. She patted his shoulder affectionately.

Anne hardly noticed what was going on around her. She was lost in her own world, still thinking about what Kevin had said about Carlos and Shana’s accident. She knew what he was capable of, had experienced it herself, but she wasn’t sure it was him. Why would he hurt Shana like this? What’s the point? He hurt her enough already. Unless … She stopped at the grim thought. Unless he thinks she’s too dangerous when she finds out she remembers the night he raped her. But what could she do to him? Go to the police? Good idea. She can’t remember anything and it would be her word against his, at least until the baby was born …

Oh, God, the baby. Even though the baby was Carlos’s, she suddenly felt very protective of it. Probably just because it would hurt Shea if something happened to it, right? Right. But this reaction told her more about herself and her commitment to the small blonde and her baby than anything else ever could.

She leaned over to Shana and whispered directly into her ear. “Does anyone else know about the baby?”

The blonde looked at her in puzzlement, but thought about the question. She shook her head. “No one but you and me and Irene. Maybe the boys have figured it out, but other than that …” She stopped suddenly.

“What?”

“I don’t know for sure, but I took a pregnancy test at home before I went to my gynecologist. I bought several of those test thingies just to make sure. My mother came to visit me later that day … I don’t know if she saw the tests in the bathroom.” She closed her eyes as a sense of frustration coursed through her. It would be so like her mother to snoop around in her bathroom. So, no, she couldn’t be sure who knew.

“Fuck!”

The shocked looks around the table told Anne that she had uttered the expletive louder than she had planned. She leaned close to Shana again. “We’ll get through this together, baby.” She stroked the smaller woman’s arm tenderly. “But if Carlos found out that you’re pregnant …” She left the end of the sentence open. After what Shana had told her about the evening of the rape, she didn’t doubt that Janet Wilson would probably tell Carlos whatever she found out. And if he had found out, he had every reason to kill Shana as the baby’s DNA would prove his fatherhood.

“If he found out I was pregnant, he might have a reason to see the baby hurt … and me. But … but my mother wouldn’t just go and tell him … would she?” Shana choked on the last bit of the sentence. She looked up into concerned silver-blue eyes and then noticeably pulled herself together. “Let’s hear what the others have to say, okay?” She was pleading for more time to let the very real possibility of someone who was out to hurt her sink in. She wished she could remember more about the crash and the other car that had been there with her, but those things were still nothing more than a blur to her.

Anne gave Shana another long look, trying to see through the green eyes into her lover’s soul, needing the long contact to alleviate her concern. Satisfied that the smaller woman would be all right for now, she nodded and let her hand fall down to Shana’s thigh. Reluctantly, she pulled herself from her lover’s gaze and looked at Kevin.

Kevin and Mike were the first to talk of their experience with Carlos, telling the others about the things they had witnessed over several years on the tennis circuit. There was nothing really that would hold up in court, but it all added to the very bad feeling the name “Carlos” gave all of them. They talked about manipulations, young players who came and went, verbal abuse. All in all, nothing other coaches and managers didn’t do as well, although to a lesser extent.

Mike and especially Kevin had tried to see behind the facade, and what they had seen had made them suspicious. But only when the Hinkels had told them their story the night before had they thought about the depths of evil that might be hidden behind that business facade.

And then there was their personal experience.

“Again,” Mike said with feeling, “there’s nothing there that can be proved, but somehow he’s always been around when something bad happened to either one of us. I’ve always wondered just who was behind the attack on Kevin that night, but of course the police never found out.”

He gave his lover a small smile that managed to give away the past hurt they had shared. He continued quietly. “I asked around myself, but no one really wanted to say anything. I chalked it up to disinterest in what happened to a ‘damn faggot’, but one day I met Carlos and what he told me stayed with me for a long time.”

“What did he say?” Irene asked, concern showing in her eyes. Her voice was thicker than usual, from the anger she tried to keep down. With every word that was being said about Carlos, she hated him more. And she already hated him a lot. I should have killed you …

He looked at his lover before answering. “He asked me specifically how Kev was coping with his shattered knee and broken arms.” He swallowed, remembering the taunting voice.

They hadn’t made the extent of Kevin’s injuries known publicly. Even the tabloids only knew that he had been beaten up badly, but not how and what exactly was done to him. They had not found out that Kevin had been beaten up by a gang of what seemed to be skinheads, armed with baseball bats and chains. It hadn’t been mentioned that they went for his knees and arms and upper body.

“Only someone who had been there or who had instigated the attack would have known,” he finished tonelessly. Shana reached across the table and gently laid her own smaller hand on top of his, giving quiet comfort.

Mike shook his head while Kevin looked like he was miles away. “And it wasn’t just what he said,” Mike went on, “it was more the way he said it. He wanted me to know that he was behind it, wanted to let me know that it was his work and we couldn’t prove anything.”

“What did you do?” Shana asked.

Surprisingly, it was Carol who answered the question. “He went to the police, but nothing much came of it, I bet.” Everyone stared at her, but the blonde ignored them, focusing instead on Mike. “Didn’t you?”

The physical therapist nodded. “Yes, I did. They told me they would ’follow the lead,’ but nothing ever happened.” He looked over at the sheriff. “How did you know?”

Carol took a deep breath and glanced around the table at the others. There was mild curiosity in everyone’s eyes. She stopped to look into Anne’s eyes for a long moment, seeing more than curious interest there. The blue eyes that stared back at her held a wary question that Carol knew she had to answer sooner or later. “It sounds like the sensible thing to do,” she finally answered Mike’s question evasively.

“Is that so?” Anne asked quietly.

“Yeah, that’s so,” Carol replied curtly. When the blue eyes didn’t leave her face, she shifted a bit in her seat. “You know, I wasn’t always just a small-town sheriff …” she added after a long minute, the meaning behind the sentence cryptic to almost anyone but Anne.

“When?” The question came from the brunette, unsurprisingly. The other had lost the thread of the conversation by now.

“Several years ago.” Carol decide to be as evasive as possible without much hope that Anne would let her get away with it.

“When?”

I knew it. Carol sighed. “When we met.” Which was exactly at the time when Kevin was beaten up by Carlos and his thugs.

Anne raised her eyebrows in surprise and opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, Carol interrupted her. “Please, Anne, this is not important now. I’ll explain later.”

The brunette translated the sentence in her head. Not now, in front of everyone, and not in front of Shana. “Okay,” she agreed. “But I do have some questions.” Like why you never told me you were a cop. Like why you never did anything about Kevin’s case if you were a cop. Like why you trashed my room and … vanished. And I’m sure it’s quite important.

Anne turned her head to look at Shana. The blonde seemed a bit puzzled and was clearly about to say something, so the brunette leaned over and said in a very low voice. “Trust me, baby. You don’t want to hear that just now.” She felt more than saw Shana’s small nod of agreement, and kissed the blonde head gratefully. There are stories better left as private as possible, was her final thought before she concentrated on their meeting again.

After Mike had finished his story, Irene recounted some of the things she knew about Carlos. Shana had already heard most of it from Anne, but she was surprised that Irene talked more about general stuff than special events. She talked about her feelings, about the manipulations Carlos seemed so good at, but she didn’t talk about abuse or Pete’s death.

The blonde studied her lover’s mother closely. Either she doesn’t know what’s in Peter’s letter or she doesn’t want anyone else to know. Something in Irene’s eyes, however, told her that the older woman knew pretty much what had been going on, at least after the fact. Shana couldn’t even imagine that Irene knew of the abuse of her son without doing something about it.

Irene’s eyes were half-closed during most of the account. Her body language was, on the other hand, was impressive. It just wasn’t Irene. Normally, the older woman talked much as Shana did, using hands and arms, and her facial muscles to good effect. Now, she hardly moved a muscle, neither in her face nor in her body. She’s so guarded, like she’s trying to keep something from us … or the sheriff. I wonder what that is. It’s a good thing the others don’t know her as well as her family does.

*******************

When Irene had finished telling the others about Carlos and his influence on her family’s life, there was a lull in the conversation. Everyone seemed leery to continue, although it was clear that some very important people in the room had not talked about their experiences.

Gently, Irene coaxed the Hinkels into repeating their story, since most of the people present hadn’t heard it yet. With halting voice and frequent pauses, Fritz Hinkel managed to once again tell the story of his young daughter who had disappeared. His voice took on a sharp edge when he recounted the role Carlos Vila had obviously played in her escape from the GDR and her ensuing disappearance. Encouraged by his wife’s gentle touches, he talked about his fears that his beautiful daughter had been charmed by Carlos and then taken away … and apparently not to make her a great tennis player.

When his voice broke, Kevin took over, letting the others in on the rumors he had heard over the years. Rumors about young players from Eastern European countries who had suddenly vanished and were never heard from again. Young women who all shared beauty, some talent in tennis, and a tall, dark stranger who promised them the world. He also repeated his fears that the girls were either sold or made to work as prostitutes somewhere.

“Unfortunately,” he finished in his gentle voice, “nothing could ever be proven. They never found any of the girls, so they never had anyone who would be able to tell what exactly was going on. All we really have are the rumors that have been spreading for years now …” His voice tapered off.

“And they could still be just that,” Anne murmured. “Rumors.” Her tone, however, made clear what she thought about that. She just knew it was true. From all her previous experiences with Carlos, she knew he was perfectly capable of finding young, naive girls with huge dreams and selling them to the highest bidder.

She felt sorry for the Hinkels, not only because of their missing daughter, but also because she feared that their quest for her would remain forever unsuccessful. She’s probably in some harem somewhere, serving a sheik. Or worse, forced to prostitute herself for some pimp, kept willing by drugs or abuse. But she also knew that it was impossible to tell the elderly couple that. They needed hope like they needed air to breathe. Taking away their hope would be like killing them. She swallowed and closed her eyes in quiet sympathy.

She had wondered, at the beginning of the old man’s tale, why they had looked for their daughter here, at her mother’s hotel, but when Carlos’s name cropped up, she had to admit that it had to seem like a sound idea. The Hinkels couldn’t have known that Carlos Vila was persona non grata in their house and that he would just as soon be killed as welcomed, should he ever possess the guts or stupidity to set foot on her mother’s land. And when they had found out that Irene would never lead them to their daughter, they had just clung to something they knew, something that gave them a vague sense of purpose, of doing something, to find their daughter.

Who knows, Anne mused silently. With everything that’s going on around here, maybe their tenacity will lead them to Carlos in the end.

She wondered for a moment if Carlos had any idea how much hate for him was gathered around a large kitchen table somewhere deep in rural Vermont. Or whether he would even care. Probably not.

But her gut told her that they hadn’t heard the last of Carlos Vila. Not by a long shot. She couldn’t shake the feeling that he was not too far away, watching and waiting. The feeling left her prickly and uncomfortable, and she wanted nothing more than to end this meeting as quickly as possible. The tall woman just wanted to gather her lover in her arms and bury the two of them under the covers of the big four-poster bed for the next 50 years. We’ll forget about everything and let the storms blow over us.

Reluctantly, she opened her eyes to reality and saw concerned looks all around the table directed at her. No, her mind supplied, not at me. At the small blonde sitting very close to her. Anne turned to regard her friend, wondering what was going on.

Shana had fallen very quiet during the accounts of Fritz Hinkel and Kevin, losing more color with every minute that went by. Now, the color of her face almost matched the whiteness of the cup she held in her hands with a white-knuckled grip. Her eyes were focused on a point somewhere beyond the wall of the room they were in, and she appeared to be miles away.

Anne tightened her grip on the blonde’s thigh and started a slow movement of her fingers. When that didn’t get her any response, she raised her other hand in concern and moved it quickly before Shana’s face a couple of times, finally pulling her out of her trance-like state and back to the present.

Anne concentrated on her friend, blocking out the presence of the other people gathered around the table. She lightly touched Shana’s chin and turned her friend’s face towards her.

“What’s wrong?” she asked in a gentle tone.

When the blonde woman remained mute, she softly rephrased the question. “What happened, sweetheart?” Not caring that she had just told everyone around them just how well they had gotten over their differences; all that mattered to her was getting through to the obviously very shaken woman by her side.

She hated being helpless, and that was exactly how she felt that moment, and the need to run out and do something was warring heavily with her concern for the woman she loved. This is not about you, so stay put and take care of Shea. She took a deep breath and was just about to repeat her question when her lover’s green eyes lifted and looked straight into her own eyes.

The look inside those eyes made the tall woman shiver slightly. It was full of pain, but there was more, a new depth to that particular feeling. There was a knowledge in those eyes, a certainty, and Anne knew she would hate whatever came out of Shana’s mouth next. Reflexively, her grip on a muscular thigh tightened again, and she put her other hand over the two smaller hands that were still hanging onto the coffee cup for dear life.

Shana relinquished the cup and wrapped her fingers around Anne’s bandaged hand instead, needing the support and the feeling of being grounded the touch gave her. She sniffed back a tear that threatened to escape at the truth she had just come to acknowledge.

The blonde saw that Anne was getting more worried by the second, and she wondered how her lover would take what she had to tell her. She had known that her accident had probably not been an accident at all, especially since she remembered that there had been another car close by. But being hit between the eyes with a feeling of absolute certainty that someone wanted to hurt or kill her had shocked her deeply.

And knowing that she would possibly have to keep Anne from running out and doing something stupid didn’t make things any easier. The brunette by her side was fidgeting more by the second, and Shana realized that she had to say something before the tall bundle of coiled muscle and worry bolted. Just then, the tall woman opened her mouth to speak, and Shana quickly raised a hand to interrupt her.

“I’m okay, darling.” Her voice sounded anything but, and she knew it. She traced the worried frown that appeared to have settled permanently between dark eyebrows. The blue eyes closed in reflex, but opened again quickly.

“Shea, can you tell me what’s wrong?” The hoarse voice was laced with worry and the effort not to shake the small woman before her into spilling what had spooked her so.

The blonde head nodded and with a last long look into blue eyes, turned to face the rest of their little group again. “I’m sorry I went out on you for a second,” she apologized. “But when Doctor Hinkel told us about his daughter and Kevin talked about those rumors, I remembered something.”

She cleared her throat to steady her voice. “About four months ago I was at my parents’ house for a visit. Mum had asked me to come over to talk about a family Christmas –”

She was interrupted by a snort that escaped her lover’s mouth at the mention of her family, but she chose to ignore it, knowing what the dark-haired woman was thinking.

“She obviously had forgotten to tell my father since he seemed otherwise occupied with one of his partners. As you probably all guess by now, it was Carlos Vila.” She paused to look around the table and saw nothing but mild curiosity on the others’ faces. “That in itself is nothing unusual, even though my father had told me that business relation with Carlos had stopped years ago – at least where I was concerned.”

That had indeed been the case, resulting in a lot of friction between her and her parents, but Shana had insisted on taking more interest in her affairs. She would have preferred to exclude her parents completely, but her mother had guilt-tripped her into keeping them as her managers. The compromise was that Carlos had to go, since Shana had never really trusted him after the warning Anne had given her at the Christmas party.

“My father and Carlos were in my father’s office, but there was a briefcase that didn’t belong to my father standing next to the coffee table in the family room. When my mother went into the kitchen for a second, I got curious and opened it, but it was empty except for a manila envelope. I took the envelope to check its contents, but my mother returned and I quickly closed the briefcase before I could put the envelope back in. I just slipped it into my backpack to put it back later.

“After a couple of minutes I grew uncomfortable, knowing that I had the envelope in my backpack. I was afraid Carlos would come for his briefcase and I would be found out.” Needless to say, I didn’t want to see Carlos in the first place. “So I asked my mother to fetch me something to drink from the kitchen, and as soon as she was out of the room, I put the envelope back.”

Shana took a long sip of tea. “I left soon after that, certain that everything was okay.” Another pause, another sip.

“And?” Irene’s voice made clear that she wanted the blonde to continue.

“And when I got home, I noticed that I must have slipped the envelope into my backpack upside down, because there were several sheets of paper in my backpack that definitely didn’t belong to me.”

At that, everyone around the table sat up a little straighter in their chair. The sheriff leaned forward a bit, placing her elbows on the table. “What did those papers say?” Carol’s voice reflected the interest everyone had in the answer to that question.

“It wasn’t so much what they said, but what they showed,” came Shana’s cryptic reply.

“Shea,” Anne sounded mildly exasperated, “what did they show?”

“They were printouts of color photographs, each one showing a young woman. Some were head shots, but most were full body shots. The women were wearing bikinis, and in some cases, nothing at all. Below the pictures were some comments about the women, I presume. I didn’t read them too closely. I just thought I had stumbled upon one of Carlos’s hobbies, you know … collecting pictures of half-naked or naked young women.” She shrugged. “Some of the comments were hand-written, as if notes had been taken in the margin, but I couldn’t read it.”

“But Carlos’s handwriting isn’t that illegible,” Anne murmured.

“No, but the language was. I couldn’t even tell you what it was, only that it wasn’t Carlos’s handwriting.”

“Can you remember any details?” Carol was definitely interested now. “The comments about the women, what did they say?”

Shana thought about that for a long moment. “I’m sorry now that I didn’t look more closely, but I didn’t think it was that important.” Apologetically, she glanced at Kevin and the sheriff. “I had never heard those rumors.”

Anne softly stroked her thigh in a calming motion. “Don’t worry, love. Just try to remember as much as you can.”

Irene butted in. “Why did you remember that just now, little one? What triggered that?”

Shana closed her eyes and thought some more, probing her memory. She opened her eyes again suddenly. “The comments contained information on the women in the pictures. But it wasn’t what I expected. Sure, there was the first name –” She broke off and smacked her hand against her forehead. “The names, that’s what it was. All the names were quite obviously Russian or Polish or something like that.” She shot a look at Mishka. “Sorry I can’t keep that apart.”

“Can you remember any of the names?”

Shana looked at the sheriff. “Only some. As I said, I didn’t look too closely. I wasn’t really too interested in what Carlos carried around for his … amusement.”

“Eewww.” The thought apparently disgusted Mike.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” the small blonde agreed. “The names I can remember were all emphasized by a marker pen, that’s why they probably stuck in my memory. One was called Djamila, one Ekaterina, one Galina,” she stopped and closed her eyes, “and one was called Nadezhda. I remember that one because I liked the name and because the girl seemed rather young in the picture.”

That seemed to pique Carol’s interest. “How young? What about the others?”

“I’d say Nadezhda was about fourteen when the picture was taken, and none of the others was older than sixteen, I’d say.”

Anne was getting increasingly restless. When the implication of what Shana had discovered by chance became clear to her, her first urge had been to run out, find Carlos and beat him to a bloody pulp. It was obvious that the rumors about Carlos were true. It was also obvious that he would have noticed the missing pictures. But …

“But how did Carlos know you had the pictures when you didn’t see him at all that day?” Anne’s alto voice interrupted the sheriff before she could question Shana further.

The dark-haired woman wasn’t interested in details anymore. She knew what they amounted to, and all she cared about was finding out how Carlos had known about Shana. A thought planted itself in her head. What if the rape had been only a way to keep Shana quiet? No, that would only work if she remembered, which she didn’t. But did Carlos know that? Possible. And then when he had heard about Shana’s pregnancy, he had had just one more reason to get rid of her. Killing her probably seemed easier than dealing with her then.

Shana watched as her lover’s expression got more grim by the second, and she tried to figure out what the taller woman was thinking. Who could have told Carlos that she had been alone with his briefcase? There was only one person really. And with that realization came a coldness that started in her heart and traveled through her body. Mother.

Her mother must have told Carlos. That could only mean that her parents and Carlos were working together. Otherwise he wouldn’t have asked about the envelope or the missing pictures. That would also explain how her parents could have been so callous as to set her up for the rape.

The blonde wondered how anyone could feel so cold and be boiling with fury at the same time. She knew that Anne had come to the same conclusion when their eyes met and she could read the cold rage in the eyes that had lost almost all color. I’ve only seen that color once, Shana thought, on the day I met Carlos.

Then she answered Anne’s question. “My mother must have told him.”

The shocked silence around the table was nearly palpable before Irene’s sob broke it. Nobody knew what to say. The implications were clear, and everyone only had one question.

What now?

Kevin stared out into the heavy snowfall that had started sometime during their meeting. He was tired and in need of a hug after all the ugliness that had come out in the open that afternoon. He checked his watch. It was already past dinnertime, but then he wasn’t hungry and he doubted anyone else was either. He looked around at the faces of his friends and family.

Mike looked as shocked as he felt. Irene was crying, hiding her face in both hands. The Hinkels both looked as if they were still processing what they had heard. Mishka was visibly concerned about Shana. The sheriff was mostly frustrated, he could see. She’d probably like to probe us all further. Just then the slender blonde looked outside and drew a resigned breath. Okay, she knows that nothing much is going to happen now. And that she’s stuck here for the time being. The snow was getting worse, even as he was watching.

Then he looked at Anne and Shana. The blonde was huddled in the long arms of her lover, face buried in the taller woman’s shoulder. Anne was making small circles on her back with her bandaged hands, continuously murmuring something and placing kisses on the fair head.

The dark head rose suddenly and her eyes met his. Anne’s eyes were a silvery blue, full of darkness and fury. He had seen the look before and it frightened him to see it again.

The last time he had seen it Anne had drunk for three days straight, and it had taken a considerable effort to calm her down. The hotel room in which she had finally passed out would never be the same again after that night. Nor would their relationship.

He just hoped that Anne’s love for the woman in her arms would prevent her from doing something irreversibly stupid.

Like storming out and killing Carlos.

He regarded the falling snow again and said a quick, silent prayer.

Please, send more snow.

Chapter 29

As Kevin had predicted to himself, Shana’s revelation and the subsequent realization that her mother had perhaps put her in harm’s way was pretty much a conversation stopper.

Anne still hoped that there would be an explanation for Janet Wilson’s behavior. Knowing that your own mother didn’t care for you was hard enough, but finding out that she might have actively participated in getting you hurt was a little hard to stomach, and she didn’t wish that for her lover. However, at the moment she couldn’t find anything that redeemed Janet Wilson in her eyes.

The brunette looked around the table. It seemed everyone was as weary as she felt, especially the small blonde in her arms. She was aching, but didn’t know whether it came from her injured hands or an overall feeling of dread, hurt, and exhaustion. It wasn’t so much that she was physically tired, but her mind felt like it would shut down any second now. She knew that if she didn’t get herself and Shana into bed, they would probably all still be sitting around the kitchen table the next morning, as nobody seemed inclined to move too much.

She straightened her body and that of the blonde woman in her arms as well, effectively putting Shana on to her own chair. She received a whimper of protest from the blonde, and gently caressed her back in compensation. Sorry, darling, but I think we need to get everyone to bed, she thought with a smile on her lips.

“Okay, folks,” she said a little more loudly than necessary, just to get everyone’s attention. Succeeding, she continued. “I think it’s obvious that none of us is up to anything more today, so I would suggest that we stop talking for the night and get some sleep instead.” She shot Carol a glance. “We can always talk more tomorrow.”

The sheriff looked outside again, watching the snow that was twirling eerily in the glow of the outside light. She sighed and resigned herself to her fate. No going anywhere tonight. She perked up at the thought that she would spend the night under the same roof as Anne. Suddenly, the prospect didn’t seem as bad as it had only seconds before. Maybe I can pay her a little visit later … to talk. Another thought occurred to her. She probably won’t sleep alone. Then she shrugged mentally. Obstacles like that were only challenges in her eyes, not reasons to stop. It’s worth a try.

Anne was watching Carol’s face and saw the predatory grin appear on the definitely striking features. Oh no, you’re not. She knew exactly what was going through her ex-lover’s mind, and she decided to put a very ostentatious stop to that particular idea. Hope Shana doesn’t mind, but this is for her as much as for me.

She turned to the blonde and caught the guarded look in the green eyes that were fixed on the sheriff. Oh yes, she’s going to like this. She took Shana’s hand and squeezed it reassuringly. Her lover smiled at her and Anne shot her a lopsided grin before she faced the others again.

“By the way,” she began, pushing her chair back and getting up from the table, “to end this evening on a high note, I … we have an announcement to make.” She looked at Shana, who was standing now as well, her smaller hand still in the brunette’s larger one. Her lover smiled and nodded when she realized where this was leading to.

“As some of you already know I’ve been in love with this beautiful woman by my side since forever, but I never deemed myself worthy of her and I never believed she could love me. However,” she paused and her face erupted in a brilliant grin, “she does. And now that I know Shea loves me too, I’ll never let her go again.” Oops, that was a little more than I planned on saying. Wonder what Shana’s going to make of that?

The blonde in question put her arms around the taller woman’s waist and molded her body to her lover’s muscular form. “I love you with all my heart,” she simply stated. Before Anne could say anything else, Shana drew her head down and pressed their lips together in a firm and gentle kiss. If Carol doesn’t get it now, she never will, was the last thought that went through Anne’s mind before she lost herself in the tender touch.

Kevin and Mike’s whistles broke their kiss just in time to hear Irene’s heartfelt, “Amen. Thank God!” Anne glanced at the sheriff, but the look in the brown eyes was unreadable. Well, we couldn’t make it any clearer than that!

Then her mother’s comment filtered through and she laughed. “Mom, you don’t even believe in God!” The rest of the family – Kevin, Mike, Shana, and Irene – joined in her laughter.

“No,” Irene finally said, “but for you to finally get together I’d join the cult in a heartbeat!” She sobered up and spoke more sincerely now, with words coming from the heart. “Honestly, I’m so happy for you.” Then mischief brightened her eyes again. “When can I start planning your wedding?” She grinned heartily at the shocked expression on her daughter’s face.

Shit! I knew that she would never let that little slip rest. She shrugged it off. I intended on asking her anyway, so I just have to do it sooner rather than later. With an evil grin she walked over to her mother’s side and whispered something in her ear.

Irene smiled happily and nodded once. The rest of the family exploded in “No fair!” and “Tell us!” calls, but Anne simply beckoned Shana to come over, and together they left the room.

At the door Anne stopped and looked back over her shoulder. “We’re going to bed now,” she said and grinned. Let them come to their own conclusions … I’m not alluding to anything here. Un huh.

As soon as the door had closed behind the two women, Kevin and Mike bombarded Irene with questions, hoping to get Anne’s whispered comment out of her. But to the frustration of the two men, she remained steadfast.

The Hinkels soon excused themselves and went to their room. At that, Irene mentally smacked her forehead, went into hostess mode and offered the sheriff a room for the night. She led the slender blonde from the room, intent on giving her the room farthest away from Anne and Shana’s room. She had seen the looks passing between her daughter and the sheriff and understood the couple’s display for what it was: a warning just as much as a declaration of love and commitment. She would do her part in keeping the sheriff from hurting her girls. She grinned, leading Carol Miller upstairs to a very small single room under the roof.

Down in the kitchen, a bewildered Mishka looked at Mike and Kevin. He wasn’t sure what exactly had just gone on, but he understood that Anne and Shana were obviously in love. And that Anne’s mother had asked something about a wedding.

“Kevin,” he began haltingly, “how can Shana marry Anne when she marries me?” The thought that Shana might not go through with their deal made his future look rather bleak.

Kevin and Mike just looked at each other, stunned by the logical question. “Damn, I totally forgot about that,” Mike said with a sigh.

“Yeah, me too,” Kevin agreed. He looked at the young Russian. “We don’t know that Shana is going to marry Anne, Mishka.” He thought it couldn’t hurt to reassure the young man, although he strongly believed that he would not be the one to get married to the beautiful blonde. But then again, that wouldn’t be completely fair now, would it? He continued. “And if she does, we’ll just find another solution to your problem.”

“Don’t worry, Mishka, everything’s going to be all right.” Mike’s comment revealed more enthusiasm than conviction.

Mishka simply nodded and decided to get some sleep as well.

When they were alone, the two remaining men blew out a very long breath before Mike tugged on Kevin’s sweater. “Come on, big guy. There’s a bed calling our name.”

*******************

The tall brunette lost her evil grin as soon as she was alone with the smaller blonde in the hallway. The closer the two women got to their room, the more pensive Anne got. It hadn’t been her plan to be quite that demonstrative back in the kitchen when she announced to her family that she and Shana had finally found their way together. It hadn’t been her plan to say that forever thing in front of the others. It definitely hadn’t been her plan to be kissed like that by Shana.

But she had made her plans without asking Shana, and she had obviously underestimated her friend. And somehow, it all had felt so good and so right.

So?

So what? Anne bristled at the voice that mocked her. I wanted to ask her to marry me anyway! Now, I just have to do it sooner. She swallowed at the thought. After the display in the kitchen she couldn’t possibly say no, could she?

How soon? Another thought interrupted her downward spiral with more practical things.

Very soon. In fact, I might do it right now. But …

But what? Found an excuse, chicken?

No! I just wanted to do it somewhere else … over at the cemetery, in front of Peter. He would have loved that.

Bawk, bawk, bawk …

Anne snorted at the thoughts running rampant in her mind, and shook her head to clear it of them. She glanced over at her equally silent companion, but Shana seemed oblivious to what was going on inside of Anne.

Shana was busy with her own thoughts. There were so many things going on all at once that she felt like she was caught in a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. Her heart was filled to bursting with love for the tall woman beside her, especially after that possessive show in the kitchen. She hadn’t been able to help herself then, she just had to show that damn sheriff who would get to kiss Anne for the rest of her life.

At that thought the first of her problems reared its very ugly head. Would she be with Anne for the rest of their lives? She hoped so, but would happen with Mishka, who was counting on her? She was also pretty sure that Anne had said more in the kitchen than she had wanted to, since the brunette had looked a little shell-shocked at her own words. Does she really want me after everything I’ve done to her today? God, has it only been one day? It felt like a month to the blonde.

Then there were Carlos and her parents and whatever they had to do with the disappearance of those girls. Her heart had gone out to the Hinkels when they had told their story, and it had almost broken when she remembered the damn pictures she had inadvertently taken from Carlos’s briefcase.

How could parents do that to their own child? Set her up with someone they knew would probably hurt her? Was she mistaken and they didn’t have anything to do with it? Was it only Carlos behind everything, and her parents were innocent and had just fallen into a fine trap set by that bastard? She didn’t have an answer for the questions that plagued her the most. All she knew was that her mind refused to accept the idea that her parents were out to hurt her, and she pushed all the evidence pointing in that direction from her mind. Knowing that in the past they had hurt her more than once. Knowing, deep down, that her parents were capable of it. She just refused to believe it.

She was so tired. So absolutely exhausted, like she’d never felt before, not even after that record-breaking best-of-five match against Anne several years ago. They had played for hours, evenly matched, until at long last Shana had made a crucial slip in judgment, trying to lob a ball over the impossibly tall brunette on the other side when a passing shot along the line would have been the right thing to do. Man, had Anne slammed that ball right back, unreachable for her, especially with her double-handed backhand. From that point on, Anne had made all the important points.

Shana breathed deeply, getting herself back to the present. She felt Anne’s eyes on her, watching her with that quiet contemplative look that meant her tall friend was working her way through something in her head. Maybe she’s trying to come up with a way of letting you down gently. How could she still want you after all of that? And with all those complications?

Just then a long-fingered hand reached out and touched her gently in the small of her back, guiding her through the door of their room. She looked into blue eyes that smiled just for her, and Shana relaxed immediately. I wonder if she knows what she can do to me with just one look, with just one little smile.

Inside, Anne turned fully towards Shana and put her hands lightly on the smaller woman’s shoulders. “Are you all right?” What a stupid question.

“Yeah,” the blonde breathed more than said. “I think my mind has decided to just refuse to think for the next twenty years or so.” Her words were muffled by the tall body she practically tried to crawl into. “Just hold me, please.”

“Of course,” Anne replied with a tender kiss to the blonde head. She wrapped her arms fully around the woman before her and tightened her hold, smiling slightly as her brain registered that her hands didn’t hurt nearly as much as they had only hours before. Too much else going on, probably.

Anne gave herself completely into the embrace, trying to shield her lover from all the bad stuff they had gone through and that was still surrounding them. Trying to shield her with her love, surrounding her with her larger body.

Shana relished the feeling of complete and utter safety she felt in Anne’s arms. A soft sigh escaped her when she realized that Anne was wrapping herself completely around her, even while they were standing, seemingly knowing exactly what Shana needed.

They stood like that for a couple of minutes, just soaking up each other’s close presence, reveling in the smell and feel, the sounds of breaths and pounding hearts. It felt good and right and like home.

Simultaneously, they loosened their hold on each other, and Shana raised her head to look into her lover’s face. The blue eyes exuded nothing but love and understanding for her, but the longer their eyes were locked onto each other, the darker Anne’s eyes became. In a matter of seconds, those eyes turned a deep shade of blue when desire made itself known.

Anne knew that her feelings were showing in her eyes, but she didn’t care. What had started out as a comforting hug had rapidly evolved into the desire she always felt when Shana was near. She had been aroused so often that day by the small woman in her arms without being able to do anything about it that she feared she would not be able to control herself any longer. She wanted Shana like she had never wanted anyone else.

Looking into forest green eyes, she realized that they mirrored her own feelings, and before she could even finish wondering about the wonder of it all, determined hands pulled her head down into a searing and possessive kiss that left her momentarily breathless as well as brainless.

They came up for air breathing heavily, and looked at each other with open-mouthed hungry stares. “I thought you were tired,” Anne rasped when she had caught her breath enough to speak.

“I changed my mind,” Shana replied before pulling Anne’s head back down.

“Wait!” Anne stopped her forward motion an inch away from the lips she craved so much.

“What?” Shana was clearly not concentrating on talking right now. When the brunette remained quiet and closed her eyes with a deep breath and a sigh, Shana became worried. “What is it, honey?”

“Shea, darling, I … we …”

Shana cupped Anne’s face with both her hands and slowly led her lover to the bed until the backs of her knees hit the mattress. Without losing contact, the blonde sat down and pulled the taller woman down next to her. “What is it, baby?” Something was clearly bothering Anne.

“If we … I … we …God, Shea,” she groaned, “if you continue kissing me like that, I don’t know if I can stop.” She looked intently at her feet.

“I don’t want you to stop, Anne,” her lover stated quietly. “I want to make love to you. I want you to make love to me. I want you to dispel the darkness of everything that surrounds us and make me feel loved.” She stopped talking, suddenly unsure if that was what her lover wanted as well. “Don’t you want that, too?” she finished in a whisper.

“I want you so very much it hurts,” came the harshly whispered reply. Anne’s voice was raw with desire and barely exercised control. God, do I ever want this woman. But she knew that she would lose all semblance of control the first time Shana touched anything but her hands or face.

It had been so long.

She had waited so long, and now that it was before her, she didn’t know how to proceed. She wanted to be tender and gentle, to make Shana’s first time with a woman special, but knowing herself the way she did, she knew it could end up being fast and furious just because she wouldn’t be able to wait.

In all honesty, Anne “the killer” Patakis was afraid she would come like a schoolboy at Shana’s first touch. Especially since the hot kiss they had just shared had almost been enough. God, give me strength. I want her so much. Just let me make her happy first. Please.

She looked at the apprehensive green eyes that were quietly watching her. “I want you so much,” she repeated, trying to show all her feelings with her eyes. “But I also want our first time to be special. I want it to be perfect for you … and you’re hurt, and there’s so much I wanted to say to you before –”

Two fingertips on her lips stopped her rambling. “Anne, it’s going to be perfect just because it’s you who’s going to make love to me. It will be heaven because I want you and you want me and because we love each other. How could it be anything but perfect?”

Anne opened her mouth to reply, but the fingertips held firm and stopped her. Gently, Shana trailed her fingertips all over Anne’s sensitized lips, memorizing the feel and shape of them by touch. “If I didn’t know any better I’d say you’re nervous,” she murmured.

Anne blushed and swallowed under the green gaze. “I … yeah, I guess I am,” she admitted.

“Why, honey?” Shana was puzzled. “It should be me who’s nervous. You’re the one with all the experience.”

Anne’s blush turned a darker shade at those words. “Shea, baby, I might have a lot more experience, but I’ve never made love with you before.” She paused. “I’ve never made love at all … I don’t even know what that’s like. Or what it is.” The dark head turned away.

Shana gently forced the blue eyes on her own again. “We’ll find out together, love.” She kissed the dark-haired woman with all the love and want she felt at that moment, worshipping the soft lips, trailing them with her tongue, nipping at them.

There was nothing Anne could think of that would stop them from doing exactly that, right there and then. Except … Except she knew, somewhere in the back of her head, that there was something she wanted to do first. If she could only remember what it was … She shrugged mentally, all capability of thinking already gone, and pulled Shana closer, intensifying their kisses.

Finally, Shana thought, letting out a languid moan as the kiss deepened. She wanted to, needed to feel Anne anywhere and everywhere, and everywhere at once. For a millisecond she wondered why she wasn’t nervous, but then she forgot about it as Anne’s tongue began exploring her lips, teeth, and tongue in earnest.

They shared hot, open-mouthed, passionate kisses, lips and tongues moving constantly with each other, around each other, teasing, retracting, giving, taking, exploring, arousing, licking, nipping, and biting.

Soon their mouths were not enough and their hands began roaming freely as far as they could reach. Anne growled somewhere deep in her throat when the bandages around her hands proved to be more of an impediment than she could handle. Breathlessly, she tore herself away from Shana’s lips and roving hands to free her hands – or at least the less damaged hand – from the confining wrappings.

“Shea, stop, please,” Anne cried desperately when Shea failed to stop exploring her body. “I need to get rid of these, baby, please, help me.” The blonde relented and helped her lover to unwrap the bandage from her left hand.

“Will it be okay?” the smaller woman asked, suddenly concerned. “What about the brace on the other hand?”

“It’s gonna be okay, baby.” Anne continued pulling at her bandages. “I’m just happy I’m left-handed.” She grinned rakishly as soon as her left hand was freed. She shook it and clenched it to a fist, testing its mobility, and was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t hurt much. She looked over at Shana, who watched her with an intensity that left the tall woman in a boneless heap from the desire that pooled in the lower regions of her stomach.

“I need to feel you,” she growled before pushing Shana on her back and resuming their passion-filled exchange.

“God, yes, Anne,” Shana moaned when Anne’s lips, tongue and teeth traced a path from her lips to her jaw, and along the jawline towards Shea’s earlobe. Anne bit down gently and sucked the small bit of flesh into her mouth, licking and sucking in turns.

“Can you imagine what I wanna do to you in other places?” the hoarse question was whispered directly into Shana’s ear.

The blonde could only groan and arch her body into Anne’s taller form, wanting as much contact as possible. “Can’t get enough of you,” she got out between rapid breaths, “need to feel more of you. Ahhh.” The last sound followed on the heels of a nip on her pulse point which, she discovered, was very sensitive to Anne’s experienced touch.

“Wanna get you naked, baby,” the brunette growled as she began to lift herself off Shea’s body. “Can’t open your buttons with one hand,” she practically whimpered. “Need your help.” The control she had regained at least a little during their earlier verbal exchange was rapidly slipping again.

They both agreed that getting undressed as quickly as possible would be a good thing, and that doing it together would probably only hinder their efforts. With supreme speed they got up, shed their clothes – Anne a lot clumsier than Shea, who helped her with the last shirt buttons – and finally stood before each other naked.

All movement stopped as they regarded each other in the soft light from the floor lamp in the corner that illuminated them, bathing them in an orange light that turned their bodies to copper and bronze. Reverently, Shana trailed a fingertip from the dark eyebrows, down the aquiline nose, over soft lips, the slightly square chin, along a pulse point, down the breastbone and over the small hills and valleys of Anne’s abdominal muscles. She stopped her touch a fraction of an inch before she got to where Anne really wanted her, needed her.

When Shana came to the end of her slow and sensual exploration, Anne was hardly able to stand, let alone move. All vital resources had pooled in her core and were waiting for the final touch, the touch that would drive her over the brink and into a long-awaited ecstasy. “God, baby, I want you so much.” Her voice was more breath than words, but Shana understood her completely.

And then Shana’s tongue started a surprise attack on Anne’s breasts, licking from one nipple to the other in one long, uninterrupted journey that ended with the blonde’s lips closed around a dark nipple, sucking gently, then more forcefully. Anne threw her head back and moaned loudly, showing her lover just how brilliant a move that was.

She was so close, so close, too close. No, no, no. “No!” howled Anne as her climax crawled up from behind, not quite surprising, but not yet wanted. All strength left her legs under the powerful feelings surging through her body, and she fell to her knees. “Oh, God,” she cried. “Baby, you don’t … know what … you’re doing … to me.”

Never, absolutely never in all her fantasies and dreams of this day, had she thought that she would come first, and like that. She felt like crying, but her body was way too happy to produce any tears of frustration.

Shana knelt down next to her and cradled her in her arms. “You are so beautiful, Anne,” she cooed softly, more than a little surprised at Anne’s reaction to her touch. “I’ve never seen anything quite so beautiful before.” Please, honey, it’s time for you to say something. Did I do something wrong? Why did you say no? But Anne wasn’t up to any comments, as she was still trying to catch her breath.

“Anne, are you okay?” Was that okay? Was I okay? Shana became more insecure by the second.

The small, concerned voice got through to Anne. She looked lovingly into green eyes. “I’m sorry, Shea,” she said, almost as an apology, “but when you kissed me like that I couldn’t … it was too much … I couldn’t stop it.” What a great lover I am, yeah. ‘The killer’ is shooting before the duel has even started.

Shana looked at the woman in her arms, trying to understand the enigma that was her lover. Anne was obviously not very happy about the way things had gone. I wonder why? She thought about what kind of woman Anne was and what she had heard about her sexual history. Ooh, I get it. It was too soon. She’s afraid I’m going to think badly of her now because she couldn’t control herself. Doesn’t she know it’s the biggest compliment she’s ever made me? And what do you say when someone compliments you?

“Thank you, Anne.” Shana projected all her love through these three simple words.

“What for?” The tall woman was clearly puzzled.

“For making me feel so good. For letting me know so well that I turn you on, that my touch makes you crazy. For letting go so completely for me. For trusting me with your body and soul, for letting me love you. For coming for me in a vision of beauty that could never be compared to anything else.” The whole time, Shana’s hands touched Anne’s body, a lingering touch on a thigh here, a gentle stroke over a still hard nipple there, and the more she touched, the more she felt Anne’s body reacting to her.

Anne was touched deeply by the words of her lover. My lover. She sucked in a breath when the blonde’s hand returned to her breast. With a very pleasant surprise she realized that the gentle touch aroused her greatly, but now her desire had a completely different quality to it. Instead of the rushing of the first time, this was a burning that needed to be fed gently and with many touches, and that would burn long into the night.

This desire could only be quenched together, with Shana loving her as she was loving Shana. Maybe, just maybe, there was an advantage to that first, fast climax. She smiled and turned to face green eyes. “Thank you, Shea, for letting me feel so very loved. And now, I am going to make you feel as good as you just made me feel.”

She accentuated her words by running the fingertips of her hand up the inside of Shana’s thigh, gliding over a hip and resting on her stomach. Then her lips made their way over nipples that went hard at even the thought of the faintest touch, but she refrained from touching them, blowing hot breath over them instead. Her mouth traveled south, tongue touching skin, tracing ribs, dipping into a delicious-looking navel. Traveling further south still until her chin touched slightly coarser blonde hair. There she stopped and returned the way she came, hovering over Shana’s body, her own weight resting mostly on her knees and elbows. She watched and waited.

Shana closed her eyes in reflex to hearing the sultry voice that snaked its way into her ear and from there directly to her groin. When Anne started her tender touches she almost, almost lost it, but the touches were never firm enough or long enough. Frustration warred with ever-increasing arousal. As Anne reached her nipples the second time, she hoped now would be the first real touch. Now, now, please, baby, I need you, now! But nothing happened except for more gentle breaths that were driving her wild with desire, with hunger for more.

She groaned in anticipation before she opened her eyes to look into indigo gems that seemed to wait for permission. “Oh, yes,” were the two syllables the blonde’s overtaxed mind could come up with. “Oh, yes!”

And Anne made good on her promise.

She was rewarded in kind.

Chapter 30

Waking up had never felt so good.

Okay, so she wasn’t really ready to wake up yet, but she felt better than she had in a long time. Every single cell in her body was relaxed and rested with a feeling of satisfaction. With a sigh of utter contentment she burrowed deeper into her pillow, absorbing its wonderful scent with every pore.

She smacked her lips in appreciation and in doing so realized there was something between them. Opening her eyes slowly, one at a time, in the pale light of the early morning, she was mildly surprised when she saw that she had a firm hold on a breast with her hands, and that a nipple was captured between her lips.

Realization dawned on her. God, I fell asleep on her last night. She let go of the tasty bud and blinked her eyes a couple of times to rid them of the sleep that still clung to them. I must have tortured her like hell. How could I fall asleep like that? On the other hand, what a way to sleep. She grinned.

“Why are you grinning like that?” came a husky voice from above her head somewhere.

Shana looked up to see blue eyes watching her contentedly. “Um … did I torture you last night?” she asked as she raised her head. She looked down at Anne’s breast and back to the tanned face. “I mean with falling asleep while I was …” She blushed, and stopped speaking.

“While you were making love to me?” the brunette asked lovingly.

Shana only nodded, rubbing her chin along Anne’s breastbone while doing so. The dark-haired woman let out a sigh at the feelings that stirred in her. “No, you didn’t torture me. To be honest, I’m not even sure who fell asleep first.”

The truth was that the events and exhaustion of the day had crept up on them so fast after they had made love that she couldn’t even remember closing her eyes or succumbing to the tiredness in her body. All she could remember was that she had made love to the woman she loved with all her heart and that it had been the best sex ever. Well, except for that first time. The embarrassment of coming like that still mortified her.

“About last night …” she began hesitatingly, but stopped when she saw the sudden fear in Shana’s eyes.

Shana swallowed. Okay, now she’s going to tell me that I’m not what she expected, that I totally sucked …

“What is it, Shea?” Anne’s question interrupted the blonde’s thoughts.

Shana disentangled herself from Anne’s long limbs with some difficulty. God, how could we sleep like that? I don’t even know which parts are hers and which are mine. She shook her head sadly at the thought that she might never have that again. Rolling over, she sat up in bed, her back to Anne, but when she tried to leave the bed, long arms sneaked around her waist and held her back.

“Please talk to me, little one,” Anne said quietly. “Did I do something wrong?” Damn, it was too much, too soon. Maybe she didn’t like it. I knew I’d ruin everything. “Don’t … don’t you want … me anymore … now?” She had to know, better now than later.

She just didn’t have a clue what she’d do if Shana said yes.

The pain in Anne’s voice startled Shana out of the doubt she was wallowing in. She turned and looked into her lover’s sad eyes. “No, no, you didn’t do anything wrong. I just thought …”

“What did you think?” Anne asked when Shana failed to complete her sentence.

No more secrets, Shana thought. There are already too many between us. She sighed. “When you started about last night in that tone, I thought I probably sucked and that you were trying to tell me that I wasn’t what you expected from me and –”

The lips that covered hers gently stopped her in mid-sentence. The kiss was undemanding, tender, and a confirmation of the feelings between them. When they parted, Shana saw that Anne’s eyes were misty with unshed tears.

“Don’t ever scare me like that again, Shea.” Anne’s voice was raw with emotion. “I love you. I need you.” Each word was accentuated by a butterfly kiss on her eyes, nose or mouth. “And what we shared last night was the best experience of my life. I wouldn’t want it any other way.” Well, except for maybe that shooting off like a teenage boy on his first date.

Shana breathed a sigh of relief. She leaned down to kiss the lips that beckoned to her to explore them, not having it in her to deny that pull. Then she remembered that Anne had tried to tell her something. “What did you want to say about last night, honey?”

Anne wasn’t sure anymore whether to bother her lover with her own doubts, but decided that it would probably be a good idea. She was sure that Shana’s revelation must have been hard and now she needed to reveal her own fears. She cleared her throat. “Well, I … um … I wanted to apologize. For last night. For not being able to hold out longer. I’m so sorry that I couldn’t make it the experience you deserved.” She dropped her eyes and watched the creases in the bedspread intently.

Oh, sweetheart. You don’t understand at all, don’t you? Shana reached out and cupped her lover’s head, lifting it so she could look into a pair of eyes that tried to avoid her. “You know, Anne, for someone so intelligent, you sure can be stupid sometimes.”

At that, blue eyes finally looked up. “Yes, you,” Shana continued. She brushed the back of her hand across Anne’s right cheek. “Don’t you know that last night you paid me the biggest compliment with the way you responded to my touch? I loved the way you reacted to me, loved how I could make you feel. I love you, Anne.”

She kissed Anne lightly. “I didn’t know what to do, what to expect last night, but when I was able to –”

“To reduce me to a puddle of need?” Anne asked with a self-depreciating shrug.

“To make you lose control, to give me power over your body, over your needs, I felt so strong. What you gave me last night, honey, was love, and the power to love you.” A tear escaped her eyes, but she didn’t really know why.

“You have all the power, Shana,” Anne replied with feeling. She wiped away the tears on her lover’s face with a fingertip. “You are the only one for me. Nobody ever came close to what I feel for you. Nobody ever could do to me what you can do to me with just one look, or word, or touch.”

She took Shana’s hands in her own heavily bruised ones, holding them gently. “I am yours,” she said after a pause, and kissed the hands she held. Her heart was filled to overflowing with love for the smaller woman before her, and when she looked into green eyes, she held her breath at the love and desire that shone from them.

Their lips met, first gently, tenderly, then with ever-growing abandon. Anne’s tongue traced an upper lip and was welcomed between parting lips, then sucked into the warmth of Shana’s mouth. The kiss deepened, tongues exploring, dancing, playing with each other. A groan escaped Anne’s throat at the need that pooled in her lower belly at the intensity of their kiss.

Anne’s hands wandered up and down Shana’s naked body, tracing lines from her shoulders to her hips and back, ignoring the pain that shot through her sprained hand when she moved it too much. She marveled at the change in Shea’s breathing at the tender touches, how it hitched, then continued, faster and even more uneven than before.

Their lips parted and Anne moved her mouth to Shana’s neck, nibbling, licking, whispering over skin that erupted in goose bumps wherever she went. The surge of power that went through Anne was unbelievable, the knowledge that she alone would ever make her lover feel that way making her lightheaded. She gasped loudly when Shana’s hands cupped her breasts, and thumbs played over rapidly hardening nipples. The moan that came from her mouth was low and sensual, and Shana moaned simply in sympathy at the sound.

Two sets of hands explored, teased, touched until neither women could stand the air between their bodies any longer. Anne leaned back, pulling Shana with her, and both women groaned when their naked bodies came into full contact. “Oh, Shea, I want you so much,” Anne breathed into her lover’s ear, sucking the lobe into her mouth for good measure.

“Oh, Anne,” the blonde groaned when she felt the discovered that her earlobe had a direct connection to her core. “I want you,” she growled. All she knew was that she wanted to feel Anne inside her, hard and fast. Their lovemaking the night before had been slow and gentle, and Anne had never entered her, but something told Shana that that was not what she wanted now. “Take me, Anne,” she breathed, “make me yours, please.”

Anne looked into her lover’s eyes and saw a need in them that matched her own. She opened her mouth, but before she could say anything Shana interrupted her. “Don’t ask me if I’m sure, love,” she said firmly, and pushed her wet curls into Anne’s mound to show her how ready she was.

The brunette growled and in one fluid motion rolled them over so that Shana lay on her back with Anne between her legs. “Yes,” the blonde breathed when Anne’s lips closed around her nipple, sucking and biting. “Oh, yes!” Her hips began moving of their own accord, pushing up into Anne, showing her lover that she wouldn’t hold out long this morning. Anne moved from one nipple to the other, leaving behind a wet trail.

Shana feared she would come just from the way Anne was making love to her breasts, but that wasn’t what she wanted. She entangled her hands in Anne’s black mane and tried to push her lover to points further south. “Anne, please … please,” was all she could moan when the relentless attack on her breasts didn’t lessen.

“Please what?” Anne asked before she could stop herself. She hadn’t wanted to play the power game with her lover, but the question came so easily. So easily.

She was surprised when Shana answered with complete trust and without reservation. “I need you inside me,” Shana ground out, “please … inside … me.”

Anne couldn’t stop the tears that streamed down her face. How did I ever deserve this woman? She vowed there and then that she would do whatever Shana wanted from her, now and forever, protecting her, loving her, and, right now, giving her release. She let go of the wonderful breasts she was feasting upon and began a slow trek down Shana’s body, alternating licks and gentle bites all over her lover’s stomach. When she dipped her tongue into Shea’s navel, the blonde groaned loudly, giving Anne a preview of sounds to come. Almost too soon she reached the blond curls that covered her lover’s mound, and she placed a kiss just above them.

Shana’s whole body was burning, fire pulsing through her veins and little sticks of dynamite exploding wherever Anne’s lips touched her body. She arched her body into her lover’s touch, pressing as much of herself as possible into the woman she loved, needed, wanted. Her hands were wrapped in silky black hair, clenching and unclenching. When Anne let loose with a groan that sounded more like pain than pleasure, Shana loosened her grip and grabbed the headboard instead, needing its solidity to ground her.

Anne trailed her fingertips through Shana’s damp curls. “God, you’re so wet for me, baby,” she breathed in excitement. Shana’s body lifted almost completely off the bed when Anne’s finger grazed her swollen clit. “Oh, Anne, yes… yes!” was all she could think of or say.

The brunette delighted in her lover’s reactions and for a second regretted that it would be over soon. But she wanted to give Shana what she wanted, so she traced her fingers along her lover’s outer lips with gentle determination.

Shana felt as if her body was completely out of control. It writhed in passion and need, overwhelming her with feeling. She couldn’t think, only feel, and she realized somewhere in between sensations that she had never felt that good. It was even better than the night before, and she had never thought that possible. When she felt Anne’s long fingers pausing against her entrance, she pushed her hip up in an attempt to draw her lover inside her.

Anne slowly, carefully entered her lover for the first time with one finger, restraining herself, not wanting to push too hard when all her instincts told her to fill Shana as deeply as possible. She moaned at the feeling of hot silkiness surrounding her finger, and she had to put conscious effort into not coming herself at the sensation. She pushed her aching clit against the mattress, trying to alleviate the pressure that was building up inside her.

Shana wanted more, needed more. The pressure was becoming more and more difficult to bear, but still she needed more. “More, please,” she pleaded with her lover who reacted almost as soon as the words were out of her mouth. Anne’s finger eased completely into her, as far as it would go, but still it wasn’t enough. “More, baby, please.” Shana’s voice sounded almost as if she was in pain.

Anne almost followed her instincts and Shana’s pleas and pushed more fingers into her lover, but she stopped herself at the last second. Would that hurt the baby? She had never slept with a pregnant woman before and was suddenly insecure.

“Anne, please,” came another demand.

“What about the baby?” Anne got out between breaths. “Will it be okay?”

“Oh, yes, it’s … going to … be okay,” Shana panted, and cried out when Anne’s fingers filled her completely. Anne pushed two fingers deep inside her lover, and began stroking her in a rhythm that matched the movement of Shana’s hips against her. When her lover’s movements got more frantic, Anne pulled out and added another finger, stretching Shana’s inner walls, which clenched around the fingers almost immediately.

Shana saw colors exploding behind her closed eyelids and her heart stopped beating as she felt Anne pull out and enter her again, filling her even more. “Oh, God, yes!” she cried as everything seemed to crash inside her and all around her, the world tilting for one glorious moment. She came, hard, yelling Anne’s name, letting go of the headboard and digging her fingers into Anne’s shoulders as her body gave in to the ultimate pleasure.

Anne knew she was close to coming herself when she felt her lover’s orgasm begin. Shana’s muscles clenched around her fingers, holding them in place, tightening as wave after wave of pleasure pulsed through her lover’s body. When Shana cried her name and gripped her shoulders, Anne pushed deeply once more. In reaction, Shana raised her leg, bringing her knee up against Anne’s painfully swollen clit, pushing her over the edge as well with a sharp cry. “Oh, Shea!”

Anne didn’t know how long she had been lying there, her fingers still buried deep inside Shana, when she felt her lover pawing weakly at her back. She looked up and met tear-filled green eyes. “Please, hold me,” Shana whispered.

Anne withdrew her fingers from Shana’s body, and watched the aftershocks ripple through her body. She placed kisses on her lover’s stomach and nipples as she crawled up her body. Then she gathered the blonde into her arms and kissed her head. “I love you, Shea,” she whispered hoarsely. “You are so beautiful.”

Shana tightened her hold on the woman she loved, telling her with her complete body that she returned the feeling. The intensity of her feelings made her cry, but she didn’t want to stop the tears from falling.

“Are you okay, darling?” Anne asked when the first tear hit her breast.

“Yes,” Shana nodded, splashing another tear on her lover’s body. “Intense.” She couldn’t really say anymore, but she also knew that she didn’t have to.

“I know,” whispered Anne as she closed her eyes, “I know.”

She lay on her back with the love of her life in her arms, listening to Shana’s even breathing and watching the sun crawl across the sky outside of their little haven. She knew that beyond the door of their room problems awaited them, but all she could think of was the peace she felt in her body, her heart, and her mind when she held her lover in her arms.

I gotta ask her to marry me, soon.

And with that thought she followed Shana into the land of dreams once more.

*******************

Anne opened her eyes some time later, still feeling wonderful. She looked at the woman who lay in her arms, one arms across her waist, one leg thrown possessively over Anne’s thighs. She had never been able to sleep that close to another body before, except for Shana, and now … Wouldn’t want it any other way.

She thought of her sexual encounters in the past. Most of them were based on sex as a tool of power, and she had dominated the women who had come to her bed. Some she had even humiliated if it suited her needs or if she felt like it. Some encounters she couldn’t even remember since she was too drunk at the time. Some she had forgotten because they had simply been forgettable. One, she hoped, she would never have to talk about to Shana. That one still filled her with shame. And then there was Carol.

She let her mind wander back to that time, several years ago. They had met in New York, the week Kevin was gay-bashed. Carol had suddenly appeared in the bowels of the tennis stadium and had told her she was a new security officer. She hadn’t left Anne’s side. Anne had been cool and aloof, being her irritating and cruel younger self. The self she had been since her brother’s death and the incident with Shana.

But Carol had been relentless in her pursuit, and one day Anne had agreed to go on a date, more to get rid of her than anything else. She had never liked to be hunted–she was the hunter, ‘the killer’–and she had decided to teach that young blonde a lesson.

And what a lesson it had been. They had met in the bar of Anne’s hotel and had very soon gone up to Anne’s room, where they had spent the night. Anne had pulled out every demeaning trick in the book, knowing it would turn her on and humiliate the blonde. She had tied Carol to the bed and had brought her to the brink of orgasm several times, but had always left her hanging. She had fucked her, repeatedly, without ever allowing her the release she craved.

The blonde had begged, but Anne had not relented. In the early hours of the morning, Carol had practically crawled on her knees before her, and Anne had finally given her release, more out of pity than anything else. Carol had passed out in her room, while Anne had gone out to find a bar where she proceeded to drink until she didn’t feel anything anymore. When she had returned to the hotel hours later, Carol was gone.

Throughout the whole night, she had never even taken off her clothes, let alone allowed Carol to touch her. She felt like shit about the encounter. She had taken the handcuffs, leather straps, whips and dildos she had used that night, stuffed them in a bag, and thrown them away. She had left the hotel, checking into another as soon as she had been sober enough to do so, just hoping that Carol had had enough and would stay out of her way.

Unfortunately, she hadn’t. The blonde had wanted more, something Anne still couldn’t understand. But the blonde kept asking her for repeat performances, swearing that she was in love with Anne. And with every passing day, Anne hated her more, hated what she herself had become. But she never touched the blonde again.

Then, the day before the final, Anne had returned from a run to a completely destroyed hotel room. Nothing was missing, but everything was strewn about the room. She had not been able to prove anything, but she had known it was Carol. Her gut had told her so. The one hint that had confirmed her suspicion was that in the center of the bed her most valuable possession had lain. A photo of Shana. Shredded beyond repair.

After that day, Carol had been gone from her life.

Now she was back, and Anne didn’t have a clue if it was coincidence.

Shana stirred in her arms and brought Anne back to the nice things in life. She tightened her hold on her lover and gently kissed her to wakefulness, lips exploring a sleep-warmed mouth until it opened and responded.

“Good morning,” Anne said after their lips had parted.

“Good morning,” Shana beamed. “Can I wake up like that every morning?”

“As long as you want to, baby,” Anne replied, “as long as you want to.”

Now that they were both awake, Anne was determined to ask Shana to marry her, but she needed a few minutes by herself for that. She didn’t want to root around in her haphazardly discarded clothes from the night before in search of the ring that was still in the pocket of her khakis. Before she could come up with a way to get the blonde out of the room for a couple of minutes, her lover squirmed in her arms and mumbled, “Bathroom,” before she moved out of Anne’s arms and the bed.

Great timing, Anne thought and let go of her lover with a huge smile.

Shana pulled on the robe she had worn the day before. With a last kiss and a smile she turned and left the room.

As soon as her lover was gone, Anne jumped up and headed for the last known location of her clothes.

*******************

Shana floated down the hall on a cloud of happiness. If she had felt good waking up, she now was totally elated. This must be love, she thought with an ironic smile, knowing full well that it was. Why the hell did I wait so long? Why did Anne wait so long?

She shook her head ruefully, thinking that it was probably just as well. She tried to remember the girl she had been when she had met Anne fifteen years earlier, a girl who had forged an instant friendship with the most beautiful girl in the world. A friendship based on …

Based on what, Shea? The blonde closed the bathroom door behind her as she contemplated that thought. She had never thought about the basis of their early friendship; it had just come as easily as breathing to her. Now, with the accumulated knowledge and sometimes frustrating feelings of fifteen years, she could see that there had always been an attraction between them.

She thought about several nights and days that should have told her that what she felt for Anne was way more than mere friendship, that she had been in love with her best friend for years even before the incident at Pete’s birthday party.

The night they had gone out to play tennis in the dark, when she had realized for the first time how beautiful her tall friend really was, and how sexy her voice sounded when she roused from a sound sleep.

The night in Auckland they had spent touching each other, without really doing anything. With a smile, she acknowledged that she had totally denied the feelings that ran through her that night, had refused to think about the consequences, shoving it all away into some dark corner of her mind where she didn’t have to look at it or give it a name. The next morning, she now realized, she had blown off Anne who had reached out for her and her heart. And had still given her a beautiful bone carving.

She still wears mine, she thought with a happy smile while she freshened up a bit, eager to return to the woman she loved, willing to make up for the lost years.

How could I ever live without the love she gives me?

And then she realized that she hadn’t had to for a long time. It had been years since they had found their way back to each other, years since the tournament when Anne had killed that man in a freak accident, years since they had been a part of each other’s lives again. No, the love had been there. She just hadn’t recognized it.

Suddenly she needed to get back to her lover as soon as possible, needed kisses to make her fly and touches to ground her. Wanting to make up for all the hurt with all the love in her heart, willing to make Anne forget that they had missed out on a large chunk of their life together already.

Never again, she thought as she left the bathroom and walked quietly back to the room she shared with the tall woman. When she reached the door she heard a dull thud coming from within the library. She opened the door and silently stepped inside to investigate.

*******************

Carol wanted to see Anne. The need to see the dark-haired woman was getting stronger every second now that she was close to her again. She had never forgotten the night with Anne, or what Anne had done to her, and now she knew they would have another chance.

She loved the dark side of Anne Patakis, the woman who could torture for hours on end, so pleasurably, so knowingly, so wonderfully relentlessly, only to give pleasure at the ultimate moment, just when she thought she couldn’t possibly take any more.

Carol had been devastated when she woke up alone in Anne’s hotel room after that one night. She had stayed for hours, waiting for the dark woman’s return, but then duty had called and she had been forced to leave. Knowing there would always be another day–another night–she had left to go to work.

But there never had been another day or another night. The next time she had met the tennis player, the blue eyes had been icy cold and filled with something close to disgust. In the beginning, Carol had thought it was part of the game, another way to torture her, to make her beg for more pleasure.

So she waited. Waited for days for a sign from her dark lover.

And when no sign was coming, she had indeed begged, but still Anne hadn’t relented. Carol had thought that Anne must be planning something really good for her, the way she was treating her, but she had never found out what that was.

Then, the day before the US Open final, she had watched Anne without the taller woman noticing it. Anne was on the court, simply playing a few balls, just to keep in touch with her game for the upcoming final against Shana Wilson. There were a handful of spectators around, making the atmosphere almost private.

One spectator had stuck out in the sparse crowd. A blonde woman dressed in white shorts and a tank top had been watching Anne’s every move. Shana Wilson. Carol had tasted the name, knowing the face from her ten days of working security for the tournament. She had also heard that Anne and Shana had a history, but nobody had known any specifics. Carol had settled in for a long watch.

When Anne had finished on the court, Carol had expected her to leave immediately, but the smaller blonde had taken over the court for her session and the dark-haired woman had sat down across the court from Carol and watched the blonde, just as the blonde had watched her before.

Shana Wilson had stayed on the court for maybe 30 minutes, but in that time Carol had learned to hate her. That was all it took once she noticed the looks Anne gave her former friend. Anne had felt unnoticed and had let her guard down, and her face had shown such longing, such pure desire and love that just seeing that look had made Carol sick.

She had left, going straight to Anne’s new hotel room, talking her way into the room. Then she had methodically ripped everything she could lay her hands on to shreds. In one of Anne’s books, she had found a picture of a younger, happy-looking Shana Wilson, and she had torn the picture apart in a surge of jealousy.

Afterwards, she had placed the parts of the picture in the center of the bed lovingly, displaying them as a flawed puzzle as a gentle reminder that she was the one Anne was supposed to be with. She had known that Anne would understand and would one day come to her. And now she had.

The sheriff had made her way silently to the room next to the library late the previous evening. But what she had heard there, through the door, had been enough to drive her back to her room and a restless night. She had heard the passionate moans Anne and the blonde had made all night long.

Now, it was early morning and Carol was on her way to see Anne again, hoping the irritating blonde was long gone. After slipping into the library, she moved as quietly as possible to the door that connected the library to Anne’s room.

All was quiet at first, but then she could hear low voices and increasingly louder, more passionate sounds, leaving no doubt as to what was going on behind that door.

Carol was livid. Will there ever be a chance to talk to Anne again? Without that blonde? She decided to settle on the loveseat in front of the fire to wait, but soon got restless. She wandered around the room, picking up this and that, looking out the window and at the pictures on the wall.

She heard the door of the room next door open and close again, and decided to wait a few more minutes to make sure the pesky blonde wouldn’t return. She was sure that it was Shana who had left the room. Carol took another look around, her eyes falling on a rather old book.

She picked up the volume and checked out the title. “Orlando,” she murmured before opening the book. “Never heard of it.” Absent-mindedly, she leafed through the pages of the old book, not really registering anything she saw there. Until her eyes met the inscription under the book’s title which ended with Love, Shana.

Aaargh! Shana, Shana, Shana! Enraged, the sheriff threw the book against the far wall, watching the impact with something close to satisfaction. Then the door opened slowly, and she stood face to face with Shana.

*******************

Shana slowly peeked her head through the door and, seeing Carol standing in the middle of the room, walked in confidently.

“Good morning, Carol,” she said. “What are you doing up at this time of the morning?”

The sheriff took a good long look at the woman before her, taking in the short robe, which gave way to tanned muscular legs, and the disheveled hair. She ignored Shana’s question, opting instead for an arrogant smirk.

“So,” she said after a while with a grin that under no circumstances could be described as friendly, “had some fun last night, eh?” Her voice was condescending, making it very clear what she thought about Shana’s ability to have fun.

Shana was taken aback by the coldness and the unprofessional behavior of the woman in uniform before her. “Sheriff Miller, I think you’re way out of line here.” She valiantly fought the urge to explain herself, but couldn’t win, so she added, “and what I do at night is none of your business.”

Again, Carol completely ignored what Shana said. Slowly, like a predator about to have fun with its prey, she walked towards the smaller woman. “I wonder what she sees in you,” she said conversationally, almost as if speaking to herself. Shana was sure she wasn’t really supposed to answer the question, and in a way she was glad since she didn’t have a clue what to say anyway.

“You can never be what she needs,” the sheriff continued in the same fashion. “You could never take it.” She stood directly in front of Shana now, towering over the tennis player by a good four inches.

Shana fought the urge to step back and look up. She was catching on to what was happening now, realizing that there was more between her lover and Caro than she had assumed. She had known, deep down, that Anne had a history with this woman, but now she knew that for Carol that history was far from over. At that realization, Shana’s possessive streak broke out in full force, but before she could say anything, the sheriff continued.

“She must be holding back with you,” the tall blonde murmured. “God, she must be so disappointed that she can’t be who she is with you.” She mustered Shana from head to toe, clearly dismissing her as insignificant. Then she asked in the same conversational tone, “Did you know she’s into domination? Hmm? Did you know she likes to torture women until they beg her to take them? Not giving them what they want unless they tell her exactly what they want? Did you know that she likes to inflict pain? No?”

Shana remained quiet. No, she hadn’t known, but she had heard rumors. As much as she had wished she were, she wasn’t deaf; she had heard stories about Anne’s sexual exploits, had heard about ‘games,’ but interestingly enough, never from the women Anne had slept with.

She also knew that Anne was the most gentle person she knew. What if she fought the pain inside that way?

Anne’s question earlier came to mind. “What do you want?” the tall woman had asked, but Shana had not considered it a question of power, only of a need to connect, of wanting to know what she, Shana, wanted. And so she had answered freely, without a second thought. Was that what Carol was talking about? Probably not.

Shana decided not to play Carol’s game and to be as friendly as possible. “Yes, I know all that,” she half-lied. “Is that important?”

Carol stopped in her tracks. What kind of question is that? Doesn’t that woman understand anything? She should know that a woman like Anne would never change, could never change.

“Of course it’s important!” Carol’s voice got louder now, and neither woman noticed that the connecting door was opened a crack. “She can’t live without power, without control. And she needs someone who can take that kind of power, who loves that control!”

“Someone like you?” Shea asked, deceptively friendly, asking herself all the time if the sheriff realized how much of herself she was baring.

“Yes, someone like me,” Carol answered smugly. “I can give her what she wants. I love the way she handles power, how she wields her power like a whip.” Her face was contorted in a mixture of pleasure and pain, and she looked almost as if she was in a trance.

Shana looked over Carol’s shoulder as she spotted movement from the corner of her eye. A tight smile and a reassuring nod from Anne told her to go on talking to Carol. Shana turned her eyes to the dark brown eyes in front of her. “So you begged her?”

“Yes.”

“And you would beg her again.” A statement more than a question. Behind Carol, Anne quietly walked further into the room.

“Yes,” came the sheriff’s response, albeit a little slower than the previous answers. She felt that the conversation wasn’t going the way she had planned. By now, the young blonde should have been running for the hills instead of talking to her about submission and dominance. She mentally shrugged her shoulders. Who knows what’s going on in that head.

“And it could never be the other way around?”

“No!” Carol almost yelled the syllable. No. In her mind the thought that Anne would beg anyone was inconceivable. She wouldn’t be the same woman. It all wouldn’t be the same. She, Carol, wouldn’t want that.

Behind Carol, Anne gave her lover a smile and nodded. Good one, Shana! And before Shana or Carol could say anything else, she took a loud step, coming within arm’s reach of the sheriff.

Carol turned on her heels at the sound of someone approaching, knowing who it would be. She smiled winningly, sure the dark-haired woman would take her by the hand now, leaving the small blonde behind.

Anne gave Carol a cold smile, then turned towards Shana. “Are you all right, love?” she asked, then moved to stand behind her lover. She wrapped Shana in an embrace, holding her with loving tenderness. At Shana’s nod, she asked innocently, “What were you two talking about?”

“About love,” Shana replied before Carol could open her mouth. “About love, and about sex. Seems the sheriff was curious as to what we do to have some fun.”

“Oh, we have a lot of fun, Carol,” the dark-haired woman purred sensually, shooting little fires up and down her lover’s spine. The dark head bent down and placed a kiss on Shana’s neck.

“Anne, you can’t … not with this … you need –” Carol sputtered.

“You don’t know anything about what I need,” Anne said, her voice reflecting a cold rage now. “So stop pretending you do.”

But Carol was not to be deterred. “You need someone like me, who understands you, who loves who and what you are –”

Anne stopped her with a look of blue fire. She thought about what to say for a second before settling on the one thing she could think of that might make Carol stop haunting her. She smiled sweetly at Shana before turning towards the sheriff again. Then she spoke in a very quiet, very serious tone.

“Carol.” She waited until she had the blonde’s full attention. “Shana doesn’t need to beg. I don’t want her to beg. I love her.” She paused, hesitating for only a second before continuing. “With her, Carol, I’m the one who’s begging. I would crawl over broken glass to kneel down before her, begging for a kiss.”

The sheriff blanched, and Shana could practically see how her world order was tumbling into chaos. She turned and walked towards the door.

“Carol.” Anne’s voice stopped the sheriff, but didn’t make her turn around. “I’m sorry.”

The tall blonde left the room without acknowledging the sentiment.

Shana turned in Anne’s arms and hugged her lover tightly. “I’m sorry you had to get into this. I could have done it by myself, you know.”

“Yeah, I know,” Anne conceded, “but I feel better like this, okay?”

“Okay.” Shana’s green eyes grew very serious. “You need to talk to her, Anne. Whatever happened between the two of you needs to get out in the open. She won’t let go if you don’t talk to her.”

“Yeah, I know,” Anne said again. “I’ll do that later.” She smiled down at her lover, her joy of the morning slightly tempered now. “But now, I want to do something else,” she said as she guided them over to their room.

“And what is that?”

“I want to be alone with you.”

Chapter 31

Anne took a deep breath as soon as the door closed behind her and Shana. For a second she had thought Shana would tell her that she wanted to see her beg, just as she had told Carol. And for that split second she had wished she hadn’t thrown out all her toys after that fateful episode with Carol. She didn’t mean it like that anyway, she mentally shrugged. But the thought kept coming back.

I wonder if she’d like anything in that bag … There was a low tingle in her stomach at the thought of trying some of the more pleasure-oriented toys with her lover. She had no intention of causing Shana pain, not even for the sake of pleasure. Somehow, that thought didn’t appeal to her any longer. Well, we hopefully have years to find out what we both like.

That thought brought her back to the present and her plans. She looked around the room until her eyes settled on Shana, who stood in front of the bed looking a bit lost. Anne’s eyes wandered along her lover’s body, which was just barely covered by the robe she put on to go to the bathroom. She’s so beautiful. I really want to spend the rest of my life with her.

Anne walked over to Shana and gently sat her lover down on the bed.

“What –?” Shana’s question was interrupted by two long fingers on her lips.

Blue eyes looked at her with all the love they could muster. “Please, let me do the talking for now, Shea,” Anne whispered. She felt like a ton of bricks had settled on her shoulders and she kneeled down in front of Shana, unsure of whether her legs would hold her weight if she continued to stand.

She reached under the bed for the ring box that she had put there before going out to rescue her lover from the sheriff. She panicked slightly when her fingers didn’t encounter the velvet box, but after a second of fumbling, her fingertips touched the material.

Shana had taken the opportunity to tangle her hands in Anne’s dark hair, since the tall woman had to lean over a bit in her attempt to reach the box. This had placed her head in Shana’s lap, and the blonde lost herself in the feel of the silky strands between her fingers.

Letting out a sigh that was as much contentment as relief, Anne relaxed a bit and lay her head on Shana’s tanned thigh, not resisting the urge to place tiny kisses on the muscles she found there. In pure reflex, the blonde opened her legs wider, wanting more of the touch.

Anne raised her head and looked into green eyes that were filled with desire. She knew Shana wanted her as much as she wanted the blonde and she had to fight the need to just take her lover right this very second, but she wanted to make this right. Her hand closed tightly around the velvet box, and she sat up on her knees and stared deeply into her lover’s green eyes.

“Shea,” she began, but had to stop to clear her throat when small determined hands traced a path down her torso. She tried to stop the blonde’s hands with her free hand while trying to keep the other out of sight. When she blew out a slightly frustrated breath, Shana stopped her movements and looked at her questioningly, still not saying anything per Anne’s request.

The brunette tried again. “Shea, I love you.” Well, that was good as a beginning, wasn’t it?

“I love you, too,” the blonde replied, unsure of where this was leading, but willing to go along with whatever Anne had in mind.

“That’s good to hear,” Anne grinned, relaxing a bit. “Makes saying what I want to say a little easier.” Then she stopped again, her throat too tight to continue.

Shana was getting a bit worried at the look in her lover’s eyes. “Anne, what is it?” she managed to get out before Anne stopped her again.

“You’re so beautiful, Shea,” Anne continued, “I can’t stop looking at you.” Her eyes focused on the green eyes before her and she spoke what was on her mind and in her heart. “I can’t look at you without wanting to touch you. I can’t touch you without wanting you. I can’t want you without having you. And I can’t have you without not letting you go. I don’t ever want to let you go, Shana.”

Anne brought up the hand that was holding the ring box so that Shana could see it. “I love you, Shana Marie Wilson, and I will love you until the day I die.” She opened the ring box. “Will you marry me?”

The room was utterly silent after the question. Not even breathing could be heard. Anne was holding her breath in anticipation and fear of rejection, while Shana was simply stunned out of any ability to react.

Anne’s audible swallow after a lengthy silence broke Shana out of her shock and she released the breath she had been holding. The air she expelled forcefully felt like a caress on Anne’s face and the brunette closed her eyes in reflex, hoping that her lover would just say yes.

Shana was trying to understand what was happening. Did she just ask what I thought she asked? She decided she had to make sure. “Did … did you just … propose to me?” she asked, her voice a quiet mixture of hope and insecurity.

Anne opened her eyes and gently cupped Shana’s face with her free hand, the other still clinging to the ring box as if it were a lifeline. “Yes,” she said simply, trying to put all her feelings into one syllable. Please say yes, say yes, say yes. “I can’t live without you.”

The fact that Shana hugged her for all she was worth told Anne that she had probably said the last bit louder than she had planned. Well, it’s true, isn’t it? She held her lover as tightly as she could, whispering words of love into the ear that was right beneath her lips.

After a moment, the blonde let go and sat up straighter. Shana smiled at Anne, the tension thick between them.

“Do I get an answer?” Anne asked, hope shining through in her voice.

“Do I get to see the ring?”

Anne grinned at the playfulness in Shana’s voice and brought the open ring box up again for her lover’s inspection. It was a rather simple ring, made for an active hand. It was a broad titanium band, into which three very small stones were set: a diamond, flanked by a sapphire and a lapis lazuli.

“It’s meant to last forever,” Anne said quietly as she picked up the ring.

Shana nodded, somehow knowing that Anne wasn’t just referring the material the ring was made of. She held out her hand, ring finger stretched out, and said the only answer that wanted to come out. “Yes.”

Anne slid the ring onto the finger and was surprised that it fit so perfectly. She had taken a ring of Shana’s to get her ring size, but that had been years ago. It’s a good thing that some things don’t change, she thought as she gathered her lover into her arms. “I love you,” she sighed before she kissed the blonde’s lips.

“Thank you for that,” Shana replied after they came up for air. “I love you, too.” She kissed Anne again just as a thought hit her. She broke away from the kiss breathlessly. “Um, Anne,” she began timidly, “what about Mishka?”

“What about him?” Anne didn’t want to get out of her perfect little world where only she and Shana existed.

“You know I promised to marry him,” Shana gently reminded her, knowing full well that Anne had not forgotten that particular little detail. “He needs me, he –”

Her words were stopped by a pair of very insistent lips that stole her breath and all her distracting thoughts. “I know,” Anne murmured after a while, “but we’ll find another solution.” Then she kissed her lover again before the blonde could form a coherent answer.

“But –” Shana tried again after a while.

“But nothing,” Anne reassured her. “I promise you, we’ll find a way.” She looked deeply into Shana’s green eyes, seeing only love and trust. “I promise,” she repeated. “I just couldn’t bear to see you married to someone else.” She swallowed and looked away. “Can you understand that?”

Shana touched Anne’s face tenderly and brought it back to face hers. “Yes, I understand. I couldn’t bear if you married anyone else either, so I do understand. But we need to help Mishka, I promised him. Do you understand that?”

Anne nodded, understanding completely. Before she could marry Shana, she had to find a solution for Mishka’s problem and probably for everyone else’s as well.

As if reading her thoughts, Shana continued. “You also need to speak to Carol.”

Anne nodded again, suddenly not too happy anymore. Why couldn’t everyone just go away and leave her and Shana alone?

Shana saw the melancholy in Anne’s blue eyes and engulfed her in a hug. “I know it’s not what you want right now, sweetheart,” she whispered, “but remember, at the end of this day you’ll be here in this bed with me, and I’ll hold you and make everything better.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

They sealed the promise with a long, deep kiss before they were strong enough to let reality back into their lives.

“Meet you in the kitchen for breakfast?” Anne asked after a long while.

“I’ll be there.”

*******************

Anne first went to the reception are to find out which room her mother had assigned to the sheriff. It was easy, considering that she knew exactly which rooms Mike and Kevin, Mishka, and the Hinkels were in. When realized which key was missing, she grinned with evil delight. She couldn’t even remember the last time a guest had seen that room, much less slept in it.

Climbing up the stairs, she mumbled to herself, “Boy, Mom, you really don’t like Carol much, do you?” She wasn’t sure if she should be filled with glee or pity at the sheriff’s fate. The truth was, she really liked and appreciated the protective streak her mother had where Shana was concerned, and she knew that Carol’s behavior towards her lover was had determined her present accommodation. You could have had one of the many very nice rooms in this house with a nice soft bed, she mentally told the sheriff, but you had to drag our past into this.

Irene had given Carol a room that was as far removed from Anne and Shana’s as possible while still in the same building. It was the only room on the uppermost floor, directly under the roof and next to a large storage area, and once upon a time it had served as a huge closet more than a room. Nowadays, it only housed a small twin bed, a table and chair, and a small closet

The room also tended to get hot as hell in the summer and as cold as the snow that surrounded it in winter. Usually, Irene didn’t rent out that room at all. It was a spare bedroom that served as a spare when all other spares had already been filled. She only used it if she just couldn’t put a late traveler anywhere else and couldn’t turn him away, usually charging hardly anything for the room in those instances.

If Carol was a paying guest, Mom would probably charge her $100 per night for the room, just to annoy her. And that would be getting away cheap, she chuckled.

Anne stopped on the last stair, pondering what she’d say to her ex-lover. She knew she had to bring some closure to her past dealings with the tall blonde, but she didn’t have a clue what to tell Carol so that she would maybe forgive her and move on.

She also realized that she needed Carol’s cooperation and perhaps even one or two favors if she was to find solutions to the various problems surrounding them. The sheriff was the one who needed to find out who drove Shana off the road, and she would also be their best bet to find out more about the Hinkel’s long-lost daughter and Carlos’ supposed slave ring.

Anne released a long sigh. You better make this good, Patakis. Just imagine it’s the U.S. Open final and get on with it! Having talked herself into battle mode, she walked straight towards Carol’s door and knocked before her doubts could assail her again. Her knuckles had barely left the door when she heard Carol’s sultry “Come in”. She tried the handle and was not very surprised to find that the door wasn’t locked.

What did surprise her, however, was a very naked sheriff, who threw her a smoky come-hither look from her position on the bed. Anne swallowed and slowly entered the room, her eyes trying to avoid the body that was so blatantly presented to her. She managed to stifle the exasperated groan that threatened to come out full force at the display, but she had to clear her throat before she was able to speak.

Carol beat her to it. “I knew you’d come to me, Anne.” As she spoke, she leaned up on her elbows, emphasizing her breasts even more.

Anne was feeling rather sick at the behavior she found extremely degrading for a small-town sheriff. “God, Carol, can’t you put some clothes on? I came here to talk, not look at your … body.” Her voice faltered a bit when Carol started to touch her breasts while Anne spoke. The brunette quickly turned around to face the open door, giving the blonde time to get dressed or at least covered up. She closed her eyes when Carol moaned loudly.

Carol grinned when she saw Anne’s shoulders slump at her exaggerated groan. She knew she was getting to the other woman; that was the whole reason for her actions. When she had returned to her room, she had realized that sooner or later Anne would feel the need to come and talk to her after that scene in the library, and she had hoped that Shana would force Anne to come sooner rather than later.

She also realized after the confrontation with Shana and Anne that her obsession with the tall brunette was not what it used to be. That was new. She had found their behavior disgusting–all that sweetness, that love. And when Anne had proudly declared that she would beg Shana to love her, to give her what she desired, it had made her totally sick.

It couldn’t be that this was the same strong woman she had been so wonderfully dominated by so many years ago. It just couldn’t be that Anne had changed so completely. But she could not deny that what she had seen between them looked very much like love, and trust, and happiness.

She had decided to test Anne’s resolve, to try and get her to betray Shana and return to what Carol thought was her real self, but now that she was lying naked in her lousy room staring at Anne’s back she wondered if it was really worth it. Did she really want to hurt Anne just for the fun of it? What did she want?

Carol Miller had never seen herself as a heartless or relentless person, but her current behavior made her wonder. She knew she had her dark sides, and she respected them and allowed them as much freedom as she could, but she also respected people who were different. Usually.

So why couldn’t she accept that Anne would never belong to her, even if Shana didn’t exist? Because she used me. Because I gave her my soul and she handed it back to me torn and made whole at the same time.

Carol quit the movements of her hands, feeling nothing anyway. She had wanted to shock Anne, had wanted her to come into the room, find her, and snap out of that mushy love thing she had going with Shana. But the contempt and the pity she had seen in Anne’s eyes the short moment the blue eyes had met her own had made the futility of that perfectly clear.

She stared at the other woman’s back, wondering what Anne wanted. “Why did you come here, Anne?” she asked as she sat up and grabbed her uniform shirt. She quickly got dressed as she waited for an answer. In the silence that was interrupted only by the rustling of her clothes, she realized that Anne was waiting for her to make herself presentable before answering.

“I’m covered. You can turn around now,” she said, letting only a small amount of sarcasm show.

Anne threw a look over her shoulder to verify that statement before she turned fully around to face the blonde.

“So, again, why are you here?”

There was a slight pause before Anne answered. “I came here to apologize, to tell you how sorry I am.”

It was the last thing Anne expected to say, and the sincerity with which she had said it surprised even her. With a start she realized that she was indeed sorry for all that she had done to the woman standing before her. Her heart clenched at the thought of the person she had once been, but she knew that back then it was the only thing she could do. Carol had definitely met her at a very bad time in her life and had to suffer the consequences.

It was also the last thing Carol expected to hear and she was struck dumb for what seemed like minutes, but were probably only seconds. Then she finally found her voice. “What for?”

Anne eased her body onto the only chair in the room and looked up at the blonde woman now towering over her. She was tired of power games. “Why don’t you sit down, Carol?” she asked almost gently. When Carol sat down across from her at the edge of the bed, Anne looked her right in the eyes, deciding right then that she would be as honest as possible.

“I’m sorry for what I did to you … back then. I wasn’t a really nice person when you met me, and I let it out on you. I didn’t want to, but in the end I felt as if you didn’t leave me a choice anymore. You seemed to want me so much and I hurt you … because of that, because you weren’t who or what I wanted. For that, I’m sorry.” She blew out a long, unsteady breath. “For all it’s worth now, I think I hated myself more than anything back then. I was a brutal bitch, playing around with anything and anyone … trying to hurt myself, trying to hurt —” She stopped.

“Trying to hurt her?” Carol finished the sentence for her, not unkindly.

Anne nodded.

“And how is that supposed to make me feel better?” The sheriff knew that what had happened between them wasn’t entirely Anne’s fault, but having her in this position felt good. She also felt that the brunette was telling her the untarnished truth, and she wanted to get as much of that as possible.

“It’s not supposed to make you feel better,” Anne muttered. “I’m just trying to apologize here and tell you what happened back then.”

“Telling me that you’re not that person really and that you want me to leave you and the love of your life alone.”

Anne looked up sharply at the astute observation.

“I’m not stupid, Anne,” Carol continued. “I know you never loved me, could never love me. I always knew that you belonged entirely to her. Remember, I was there, watching you. I watched you watching her, and I knew.”

“Why did –?”

“Why did I want you anyway?” Carol lay down across the bed and stared at the ceiling. “You were breathtaking in your fury, Anne. I’d never seen so much raw power in a human being before.” She sat back up and looked into blue eyes. “I thought I had found a kindred spirit … but I was wrong. And I almost lost everything because of it.”

Carol’s face spoke of her anguish at the memories, and Anne could see the pain she had brought to Carol. But she also got the feeling that there was more to it than the hurt of a rejected lover. Suddenly, she remembered a question she had asked herself at that time. Where had Carol come from? She had seemed so much more than just a security officer working at Arthur Ashe Stadium, especially since Anne never saw her speaking to the other security personnel that worked the catacombs.

“Who were you, Carol?” she asked, almost as if speaking to herself.

Carol closed her eyes, apparently thinking about whether or not to answer the question. She shook her head and opened her brown eyes which focused on the small window, looking out into the still early morning.

The decision was so hard and so easy at the same time, Carol thought. Sitting here, listening to the woman she had once believed she loved — definitely past tense, she realized — she contemplated how she wanted to live her life from now on. Being haunted by past demons? Or trying to build a life, forgetting about them?

The strange thing was that being around Anne again after all those years showed her that she, too, had moved on, and she was honest enough to acknowledge that she had only wanted to hurt Anne and Shana out of spite and jealousy.

She also admitted to herself that she actually liked Anne, the real Anne, the person her former lover was now. Telling Anne that, however, was something else entirely, and so she opted for talking about herself and the person she had once been.

“I think I need to tell you a little story,” Carol began hesitatingly, but with more warmth in her voice than Anne had ever heard.

The tall blonde looked at Anne and shot her a wistful smile. “You know,” she began, “I think I actually was a very nice person until I met you.” Her gaze moved over to the window, not exactly knowing why she had just said that. Starting with a conversation stopper usually is not the brightest idea if you have to say something.

Her eyes lingered on the snow-laden trees in front of the house, and her mind drifted for a second. Seems like the weather is letting up. Maybe I should just drive home. It’s my day off anyway … She shook herself out of her wayward thoughts and tried to concentrate on her story instead. God, I’d love a good cup of coffee right about now.

As if on cue, Anne spoke. “Um … what do you say if we continue this downstairs? I’d really love some coffee, and I thought maybe you’d like something too.” The brunette actually sounded a bit embarrassed that she didn’t seem to know whether Carol drank coffee, tea, or anything else in the morning.

“Sure, coffee would be great,” the sheriff sighed in relief, and the two women made their way down the stairs and towards the library. After checking if it was empty, Anne left Carol there and went on a mission to find some coffee. She found her mother and a full coffee pot in the kitchen.

“Morning, Mom,” she greeted the older woman.

“Good morning, honey. Did you sleep well?”

“Yup,” Anne answered, trying to keep the conversation to a minimum. She felt she should get back to Carol fairly soon.

“Ah,” Irene looked at her daughter and smiled. “No coffee, no conversation, eh?”

“Hmm,” the brunette grunted, although she would have loved to talk to her mother for a while. Curiosity, however, was pulling her strongly towards the library.

“So, you’re not talking to me at all this morning,” Irene said more to herself than Anne. “Did I do something to deserve that treatment?” she teased, but Anne stopped dead in her tracks, instantly feeling guilty.

“Oh, Mom, I’m sorry.” She walked over to where Irene was standing and hugged her, kissing her on both cheeks for good measure. “It’s just that …I’m talking to Carol right now, trying to make peace with her …” She stopped, unsure of what else to say.

“What would you do that for?” Irene went into full mother mode, in voice as well as posture. “She tried to get between you and Shea, she’s rude, and she doesn’t care a bit about Shea’s accident. She’s —”

“Mom …Mom!” Anne interrupted her mother’s tirade, knowing that Irene was right, but that she herself had played a large part in Carol’s behavior. “I need to talk to her. You know, it’s not all Carol’s fault.” She hesitated. “I haven’t acted very nice to her in the past. In fact, I treated her —”

“Like dirt, probably,” her mother cut her off, disclosing to her daughter how much she really knew about what had been going on in her daughter’s life while she was separated from her family. Anne nodded, stunned and just a little hurt to hear the statement from her mother’s mouth. She knew it was undeniably true, but she hadn’t expected that. She dropped her gaze to the floor, unexpected tears stinging at the back of her eyes.

“What does Shea have to say about all of this?” Irene asked after what seemed like minutes, her voice gentle and laced with concern now. She knew she had hurt her daughter, but she was wise enough to know that Anne hurt more because of what she had done in the past than her mother’s remark.

Anne looked up to see a warm smile on her mother’s face. She would never in all of her life completely understand this woman, but she loved her for being her mother, and she never would have wanted another in her place. A half-smile appeared unbidden at the thought of her lover. “She’s the one who told me to go and talk to her,” she admitted with a sheepish expression.

“Then I better not stop you,” Irene mocked her. “You should always do what this woman tells you to do.” She became serious for a second. “She’s good for you, you know.”

“I know, Mom, I know,” Anne replied, equally serious. Then she grabbed two mugs and the coffee pot and walked out. At the door she stopped and turned around. “Oh, and Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Just in case Carol has to stay longer because of the weather … could you please give her another room?”

Chagrined, her mother sighed deeply, but nodded in agreement.

“Thank you,” Anne said with a smile and left to find Carol. On her way to the library she had to restrain herself from checking in on Shana when she passed the door to what now seemed to be their room. The closer she came to the door, the stronger the urge to see her lover became. To just peek in, maybe touch her fleetingly or blow her a short sweet kiss … or even just smell the scent of her and their lovemaking in the room.

Feeling proud of herself and lousy at the same time, she walked past the room and entered the library next door. Carol had started a fire, which was by now flickering merrily, giving the room a warm glow and heating it up as well. The blonde was sitting on the floor, her back to the love seat, her legs stretched out before her, feet almost touching the stone fireplace. Her gaze was turned inward, and she looked as if she was miles away.

Seeing her like this, Anne suddenly got a feel for the woman that might lay beneath all that tough exterior, and she found that she was really looking forward to hearing Carol’s story, to getting to know her better. Strange, that, she thought as she plopped down next to Carol after putting down the mugs and the coffee pot. Maybe Shea is rubbing off on me. Her lover had a reputation of being nice, of seeing the good in people. As long as they didn’t hurt anyone she loved or cared about, Anne thought and grinned, knowing only too well that she was right on top of the list of people protected by her lover’s fierce protective streak.

“Hey,” she said quietly, handing the blonde a freshly poured cup of coffee.

Carol shook her head as if she was coming back up from a long stay underwater and took the mug with a small smile. “Thanks.” The exchange was short, but both women felt that something between them had changed. The road ahead felt a little smoother right now, and the two women inhaled deeply, savoring the rich aroma of the coffee.

They spent a few minutes in companionable silence sipping coffee and staring into the flames before Carol began to speak again. “When we met, I wasn’t really working for stadium security,” she spoke into the fire. “That wasn’t my style then. I was young, I was ambitious, and I had just made it into the FBI as an agent.”

Anne nearly dropped her mug in surprise, so quickly did she turn around to face the blonde by her side. “You were with the FBI?” she asked incredulously. “What were you doing at the stadium all the time? Who were you after?”

Carol chuckled, enjoying the surprise on Anne’s beautiful face. She took another long sip of her coffee before answering. She turned her head to look right into the deep blue eyes of the woman who had unwittingly played such a big role in her life, her career.

“You,” she said, reaching out to steady Anne’s hand that was threatening to drop the mug for certain right about now.

Chapter 32

“Me?” Anne spluttered. She was glad that she was sitting down already because she wasn’t too sure her legs would hold her up.

“Relax, Anne,” Carol said quietly, reassuring the tall brunette, albeit it with an amused smile on her face.

Anne had a bewildered look on her face as she tried to think of what she could have done to get the FBI interested in her. Wherever she looked, in even the darkest recesses of her mind, she drew blanks. Unless they were watching my sexual behavior, which undoubtedly is illegal in any number of states. But, boy, would they have to be bored to care about that …

Finally, she took a deep breath and, turning to Carol, she exhaled a long, quiet “Okay,” letting the sheriff know that she wanted to hear all of it.

For a second, Carol contemplated letting Anne wait and wonder, just to see her squirm, but then a newfound feeling of maturity and the need to tell her story won out. “Relax,” she said quietly, “I only was after you by proxy.”

“By proxy?” Anne asked, confusion evident in her voice. Her mind felt as if was being shaken around in her head, first one way, then the other. “What … who?” she stammered, thinking furiously. Who did she know that connected her to a crime? Of course … “You were after Carlos, weren’t you?” Confusion turned to anger. “The FBI had him in their sight the whole time and they did nothing to stop him?” Her voice got harder with every word she spoke.

The sheriff held up her hands to stop Anne’s indignant words. When the brunette finally reacted to the silent plea for quiet, Carol began to explain. “No, we weren’t after Carlos, not at first anyway. If you let me tell my story from the beginning, you’ll see what I’m talking about.”

Still fuming, Anne made an impatient gesture, letting Carol know she was willing to listen for the moment.

“When I first started out as an agent I was young and very eager. I was fresh out of Quantico and I was desperate to prove myself to my superiors. The first case I was put on was kinda interesting, but not what I had expected it to be. I had wanted murder cases, serial killings or rapes or something like that so I could make a name for myself as fast as possible. This case was about some missing young women whose only connection seemed to be that they weren’t from the U.S., but their trail always led here for some reason. And before you ask,” she added quickly, seeing the question in Anne’s eyes, “yes, they were all Eastern European girls, except for one who was Chinese.”

She stopped, letting the information sink in, waiting for a reaction. She wasn’t disappointed. “Why did you suspect Carlos?”

“We didn’t, as I said.” She paused for dramatic effort, although she knew it wasn’t really necessary. Then she continued in a very calm voice. “We suspected your father.”

“What?” Anne exploded in a breath. “I mean, I know that my … father … was an asshole, but trading in young girls or even abducting them? I don’t think so. I mean when would he … how … and why?” The questions tumbled out of her as quickly as her mind could produce them. And why in hell am I trying to defend … him. She still had trouble thinking about the man who had once been her father.

“Anne, all the evidence–what little we could find, that is–led to him. His name always came up in those countries close to the dates when the girls and young women disappeared. There was always a man who was described as tall, dark, and handsome, with very blue eyes.”

Anne knew that this perfectly described her father, but it could also be … “Carlos.” Not a question.

“Carlos.” Carol agreed. “I know that now, but back then, we didn’t know. Carlos was very good at keeping his name out of any transactions, even the things that concerned your business matters.”

“But my father was already dead when we met.” Anne stated the fact as if it made everything perfectly clear, and in a way it did.

“That’s the point,” Carol admitted. “I think the FBI always assumed your father had a partner, albeit a very silent one, since it would be very difficult to pull off something like that completely alone. When your father died, we took a much, much closer look into all his business dealings, which means into your business dealings as well, and voila, wheels are turning in a couple of agents’ heads. Wouldn’t the easiest way be to partner with a family member who could get to all those girls under the pretense of looking for training partners?”

“But I was never in … China, and hardly ever in Eastern Europe,” Anne said.

“Yes, but we thought he was, and you wouldn’t need to be. We thought your father went in there, promised the girls a career, starting out as your training partner, and then got them out of their countries.” She hesitated, then added, “We still don’t know how the girls were smuggled out, by the way, and I’d really, really like to know.”

“So,” Anne interrupted her thoughts, “you came up with the brilliant idea to get to those girls through me, thinking I’d know where they are?”

“Yes, initially, but … my partner and I also had a different idea.” She looked up to find interested and wary blue eyes watching her, waiting for an explanation. “You see, there was a whole team assigned to the case, not just my partner and me. One of the kids that disappeared was the niece of some Romanian diplomat, and the government pressured us to get results. The thing was, at that time you had a really nasty reputation–”

“And you all thought I was capable of kidnapping some girls to do who knows what with them,” Anne said in a disbelieving voice.

“Most of them did, yes,” the sheriff agreed, “but my partner had found Carlos’s name in one or two of your father’s papers and he started digging into his past. He couldn’t come up with much, which was suspicious in itself, but what he found, he didn’t like. In short, the few things we found out about him made him look like a slimeball.”

“Which he is.”

“Which he is.” Carol took a sip of her cooling coffee before topping it off. “We knew he was active in the tennis world, and my partner and I had the theory that he was behind it all. We just couldn’t sell the idea to the others and our boss, mostly because of your reputation. It just looked too good … on paper anyway … and there were a couple of suits who’d have loved to get you and your degenerate ways into a really bad light.”

“And then?”

“Then the U.S. Open came up and I knew that was my chance. I went in as a security officer, trying to get to know you. I wanted to find out the truth. Then I met you, and everything changed.”

“Why?” Anne asked, her eyes understanding.

“Because I fell in love with you, or at least I thought I did. Now I think it was mostly lust, but that can be a very strong feeling as well.” Carol closed her eyes, remembering the first few days of being completely dazed by the young tennis player. “You didn’t want me, and that hurt. And then …”

“And? Then what?” Anne was getting impatient.

“And then I met Carlos. Live and in the flesh.” She shuddered at the mere thought. “I ran into him – literally – by chance in the catacombs. I guess he was on his way to one of his players when he and I bumped into each other, stumbling into one of the walls. Instead of asking whether I was okay, he felt me up, and in that second I knew my partner and I were right about him. I called him to tell him that he should dig even deeper, and he did.

“The problem was that you weren’t out of the picture yet, even though Dave, my partner, managed to slowly get more and more agents to see things our way.”

“That still doesn’t explain why you did what you did … with me, I mean.” Anne sounded hesitant.

“Oh, that. That, my dear, was pure lust and fun, and later hurt feelings.” For a second, the sheriff sounded exactly like the woman that had come to the house a day before, brash and brazen and ill behaved.

“I’m sorry I treated you the way I did, “Anne offered again.

Carol waved the sentiment away with a sweeping gesture of her arm. “Don’t worry anymore, Anne. I know you couldn’t help it, but neither could I. Sometimes I wish things could have worked out differently.” She sighed.

“Anyway,” the blonde continued, “Carlos must have realized very soon that I was interested in you and he pushed all my buttons to perfection.” She stopped and barked out a laugh when she saw where Anne was looking at that moment. “Not those buttons, honey, although not for lack of trying, believe me. No, he made it his business to bump into me as often as possible, talking about you and how great you were in bed.”

Anne snorted. “As if he knew.”

“I didn’t know that then, but I guess I should have wondered,” the blonde conceded. “Then he started telling me that you were only interested in Shana, saying that you would never love anyone else in your life.”

“Who’d have thought he’d tell the truth for once in his life,” Anne wondered aloud.

“Yeah. Anyway, he got me all riled up with stories of your sexual exploits and your frustration because you couldn’t get Ms. Straight-and-proper Wilson. He told me that he knew of your preference for rough sex. He must have seen something in me even I hadn’t seen until then, and he said that I would be perfect for you. The rest, as they say, is history.” Her voice sounded empty all of a sudden. “You fucked me and left me, and I fucked up my career.”

“I always wondered what happened after you trashed my room,” Anne said, putting a gentle hand on Carol’s arm.

“I’m not too sure what happened myself. What I know is that I trashed your room, fully prepared to leave your life after leaving you that last little gift. The next thing I know there are cops waiting in the hall, taking me away.” She stopped, shaking at the moment that had ended her career as an FBI agent.

“They took me away, back to Washington, D.C., and I was given a choice. Retire from the FBI or be charged with breaking and entering and whatnot. You can imagine which one I chose,” she said with a small, self-deprecating smile.

“How did they know it was you?”

“They didn’t, that’s why they offered me the deal,” Carol replied. “They couldn’t prove I trashed your room, even though everyone knew I did it. What I didn’t understand for the longest time was how they knew where to be at the exact right time.”

“Did you find out?” Anne asked, her interest piqued.

“I think so. A couple of months after that I got a call from Dave, my ex-partner. He was pissed at me for ruining my career and threatening his, but one thing he said stuck with me. He mentioned that just a couple of days before the incident he had found some more interesting stuff about Carlos and that he had tried to dig even deeper from that point on. My take is that Carlos knew we were after him, that Dave wasn’t careful enough, and that I was too obvious as an agent to fool Carlos –”

“You sure fooled me.”

“– and that he watched me,” Carol continued, ignoring the interruption, “and called the cops to get rid of me and maybe even my partner. God only knows how he knew we were working together.”

“Hmm,” Anne murmured, lost in quite another thought. “Do you know what threw them off my trail?” she asked.

“Pure luck,” Carol answered. “I know that the case was never closed, but that the team was more or less dissolved when that Romanian girl turned up somewhere in the woods, totally incoherent. She lost her memory as well, but the family was happy to have her back. Then another girl disappeared, but you had an alibi. For once, Carlos had bad luck or bad timing. Soon after that, the team members were put on other, more important cases. Dave, however, has been following the trails of those girls since then, but there was never any evidence against Carlos that would hold up in court,” she finished dejectedly.

Anne nibbled on her lower lip, digesting all she had heard in the last fifteen minutes. She came to a decision. “Would you do me a favor?” she asked hesitantly, knowing that their relationship probably was not in that arena yet.

Carol looked at her for a moment as if trying to guess the favor. Then she nodded, apparently sure she had figured it out. “You want me to call Dave,” she stated.

“Yes,” Anne nodded, “I’d like to try and find Daniela Hinkel, one of the girls.”

Chapter 33

Irene was whirling around the kitchen cleaning and re-cleaning everything she could lay her hands on. When she caught herself wiping down the beautiful oak surface of her beloved kitchen table for the nth time, she finally stopped in mid-sweep and plopped onto the nearest chair. What’s wrong with me?

She was irritated and angry, but couldn’t tell whether at herself or at her daughter. The talk with Anne earlier had left her uneasy, and feeling bad. She knew that she had given Carol the worst room in the house because she was angry at the sheriff’s behavior. She knew that it was petty and definitely not nice. Being reminded of that by her daughter, however, didn’t make it any better. Although, Irene mused, Anne found a rather nice way to bring it up.

Irene threw the cleaning rag in the general direction of the kitchen sink, not even looking where it landed, and let her head fall into her hands. She snorted at her own behavior and tried to get her jumbled thoughts into order. The simple truth was that being admonished by Anne about Carol’s room wasn’t the only reason for her irritability.

Irene didn’t believe in lying to herself. She didn’t mind a little white lie now and then, but she preferred to lie to people other than herself, finding it easier and much more effective in the long run.

Leaning back in the chair, she stared at the ceiling. She thought about the kitchen table talk they had all had the day before, and the secrets and stories that had come out then. She had already known some of the things, had maybe even suspected some of the others, but in the end, the evilness that had come out had shocked her.

On the other hand, she had been relieved because the various stories had clearly deflected the attention from her own story and the clear detachment with which she felt she had told it. God, I really didn’t tell them a thing, but it was so difficult anyway. She had noticed Anne’s strange looks while she was talking, and she was sad that she had left her daughter with the impression that she hadn’t known about Peter’s letter and his reasons for killing himself. Irene knew that Anne couldn’t say for certain how much her mother knew, but it was hard to pretend to know nothing at all.

It would have given away too much.

What she had told the others only touched some bones of a long-buried skeleton that she wanted left alone, for her own peace of mind as well as her daughter’s. She closed her eyes and thought back to the weeks that had changed her life forever.

The night of Pete’s birthday party ended with George Patakis leaving the house. Anne had followed suit, and while Irene was overjoyed at the first development, she was deeply saddened by the latter. She just knew that Peter would miss his sister terribly and that their life would only get worse without her daughter around.

Irene had never told her daughter how much she had come to rely on her quiet strength, and she had never acknowledged that she depended on Anne’s abilities to deflect her husband’s anger. Anne also had no idea that Irene was beginning to see just how abysmally George treated his son, especially after he began to suspect that Peter wasn’t his own flesh and blood.

After the violent confrontation at the party, Irene feared for Peter more than ever … but George didn’t come home. He just dropped off the face of the earth without another word.

Irene lay awake every single night fearing his return, listening to every sound in the dark house, sitting up at the slightest creaking of the floorboards and the moaning of the wind against her bedroom window. She was scared, but tried to hold everything together for herself and Pete despite her fear.

It took a while to get used to being alone in the house, and she and Pete tried to adjust to the newfound freedom as much as possible, but they did need a couple of weeks until they finally believed that George Patakis would not return home. Neither of them ever asked themselves where he might have gone or what had happened to him – they tried to go on with their lives, not really caring about him. They never really talked about the situation either, and Irene just assumed that they both were happy George was gone.

When they were finally used to the new situation, disaster struck. George returned … and he brought a friend. Irene was out when they came, leaving George and Carlos more than enough time to terrorize a frightened Pete.

Irene never knew what happened in the few hours she was out shopping, since Pete didn’t talk about it in detail in his letter to her, but she assumed they had taunted her son and beaten him.

When she had returned home that night, she had found Pete in the attic, hanging from one of the wooden beams, a chair lying on its side under his body. There had also been two letters, one addressed to her, one to Anne.

She called the police, doing everything in her power to keep Pete’s suicide out of the press for the sake of her daughter. She even called Kevin and Mike for help and to get Anne’s whereabouts, and while they gladly helped her, they didn’t disclose Anne’s hiding place. They simply didn’t know it.

It was days later before she read her son’s letter, and it almost killed her. She had never really known what had been going on in her house, with her husband’s consent and by his doing. Grief and rage had kept her locked up, crying in Pete’s room for the better part of a night and day, until she found the strength to get up from his bed and leave the room, trying to face the world.

A ragged sob disturbed the silence of the kitchen and Irene looked around her before she realized that the sound came from her own constricted throat. Damn, it still hurts so much, even after all these years. Somehow she knew the pain would never really go away. She just wasn’t sure if she was sad or relieved at that thought.

She buried her face in her arms and cried for a few minutes, shedding tears for her precious son who had died alone and for herself, for all the mistakes she had made so many years before. When the tears finally stopped running down her cheeks, she took a deep breath and looked out into the snow-filled trees. Pete, you would have loved it here.

The thought of how she came to be here, however, brought a scowl to her face as memories of her husband, and of what had happened after Pete’s death, rushed through her head. You can be so happy you’re dead, you bastard. If I saw you now, I’d kill you.

Again.

Irene sat up straight and took a ragged breath, trying to calm down and to alleviate the pain in her chest that always seemed to accompany her memories of that day. In pure reflex, she put her left arm across her breast, putting pressure on her heart. Heartache, she mused, in the very real sense of the word. She took another open-mouthed breath and tried to relax her muscles, having learned long ago how to cope with the pain. After just a few seconds the ache receded, leaving only a dull throbbing behind.

She turned her gaze towards the snow again. Hmm, the weather is getting better. No new snow. I hope it stays that way. She didn’t mind winter, loved it in fact, but being cooped up for a longer time with a load of problems to work through was not really her idea of a good time. And she knew that her daughter would get antsy sooner rather than later as well. She chuckled. Ah, well, maybe Shana can keep her occupied.

Anne had always been restless, even as a child, and Irene had been very happy that playing tennis provided her daughter with an outlet for her infinite energy. Peter, however, had been as content to stay inside with her as to run around outside with his adored older sister. Oh, Pete … Irene absentmindedly stroked the smooth surface of the table while her mind wandered back to the past.

She still remembered every single step she took on the staircase when she finally emerged from Pete’s room to take a look around the family room. She could recall every creak in the floorboards, every single dip in every single step. She would never forget the irregularity of the carpet color, still the dark red it had been when they had bought it, but a lighter, grayer red where the sun hit it relentlessly day after day, year after year. The banister reminded her of every single time she had to ask Pete or Anne not to slide down it, and every single time she hid behind the kitchen door to watch their childish delight when they did it anyway.

She had tried to calm herself down before she left Pete’s room, knowing that she had to prepare for the final goodbye. Mike and Kevin had helped her with the funeral preparations, taking over when she couldn’t face it anymore and providing strong shoulders to lean on. All that remained for her now was to face the demons of an empty house, and she inched down the stairs.

She was completely unprepared for the sight of her husband sitting comfortably in his recliner with a drink in his hands. Almost as unprepared as for the hot ball of fury that settled in her gut at the sight, robbing her of her senses and making her sick for a moment.

And then he had the nerve to ask her for another drink in his most condescending tone, steadfast in his belief that she would never refuse him. He was totally secure in his knowledge that they were alone and she was in his hands. Irene was by no means a small or frail woman, but George Patakis towered over her by at least five inches, and he outweighed her by a good sixty pounds. She would never stand a chance against him, even if she tried.

She had never tried before.

“Bring me another drink!” he ordered without looking up or otherwise acknowledging her presence. He never even made a token gesture to show his sorrow at having lost his son.

Irene didn’t expect him to, and still it hurt her deeply.

She went into the kitchen to fetch him another drink, never acknowledging his presence or his demand. In the kitchen, her eyes fell upon the small medicine cabinet; she had one in almost every room of the house, knowing only too well her childrens’ penchant for hurting themselves when playing rough. The seed of a plan was planted in her mind.

She turned around and brought George his drink.

By the third drink it the plan was more than a seedd. It had taken over her thinking. Her eyes kept wandering back to the medicine cabinet, staying longer with each visit to the kitchen. On her fourth trip, she straightened her shoulders and opened the door to the cabinet to retrieve the penicillin she knew she’d find inside.

She calmly took out several pills before preparing another drink for her husband. Then she opened the capsules and dropped their contents into his drink, methodically emptying four before she was satisfied that it would be enough. Sometimes, she mused, knowing the weaknesses of your partner really came in handy.

George Patakis was extremely allergic to penicillin, as they had found out early after he had almost died from the penicillin he received for a relatively light infection of a wound. The doctor had said that he would have died if he hadn’t been at a hospital already.

Well, there was no doctor around … and four pills would probably work even better than one.

She took the drink into the family room and handed it to her husband with the slightest of smiles. He gazed at her with a puzzled look on his face, but took the drink without question. Irene sat down opposite his recliner and watched him taking the first tentative sip of his drink. Something in her behavior had made him suspicious, obviously, and Irene was getting nervous. Unconsciously, her hands began to twitch, and she started to twiddle her thumbs to control their movements.

“Nervous?” George asked, his voice only slightly slurred from his previous drinks.

“N … no,” Irene replied, trembling inside. “Just sad,” she added, wanting to know how her husband would react to any allusion to their dead son.

“Why?”

Irene could hardly believe the callous question, and words failed her. When she didn’t answer, George used the silence to down his drink in one gulp, smacking his lips appreciatively.

Irene had given him a large shot of the best bourbon they had for his last drink.

She smiled at him, sweetly, but said nothing. She didn’t move, not even when his face turned a deeper shade of pink as his body gave itself over to the anaphylactic shock. His blood pressure dropped dramatically and his throat constricted in reaction to the drug. He looked at his wife with bulging eyes, desperately trying to pull air into his starving lungs.

“What did you do to me?” he gasped with effort before sinking back into his recliner.

Irene stood next to him and looked him in the eyes. “The question is, what have you done to our son, George?” She waited until she saw the understanding dawning in his eyes, then she turned on her heels and left the room. She knew she was killing him, but she couldn’t witness his struggle.

She just hoped it would be fast.

After about ten minutes she returned. The recliner was empty, and for a second she panicked, thinking her husband had overcome the drug and would come after her now. When she got closer, however, she could see his body lying on the floor, in front of the recliner. He didn’t move, but Irene decided to near the body cautiously, just in case, not trusting the deathly quiet appearance.

He looked like he was sleeping, but when she touched him he was unresponsive. His color was still a nice pink, and he really looked more like he was sleeping off a drunken stupor than a dead man.

After she had made sure that he was dead she was faced with the problem of getting rid of the body, but she decided that she just had to use the easiest way possible. She dragged the body into the garage, straining under the dead weight, and managed to get him into the back seat of his car. The whole trip took her more than half an hour and when she finally had him in the car, she was drenched with sweat.

She went back into the house to grab his car keys, but decided to take a detour to the kitchen for a stiff drink, feeling rather faint from the effort and the mental stress. Then she returned to the car and slowly began to take George on his last journey.

She drove out of town, but not too far, and stopped the car on a parking lot that was a favorite with young lovers on quiet, starry nights. This night, however, was cold and unforgiving, and the parking lot was empty. She stopped the car, got out, and left without another look.

It took her two hours to walk back home, but she needed the time to get a semblance of emotional control back. Back home, she went straight to bed, never even looking at the family room. All she knew was that she had to get up early because Kevin and Mike would be there in the morning to take her to the funeral service.

She didn’t sleep a wink that night.

A hand on her shoulder pulled Irene back to the present. She crossed her hands over her racing heart and looked up straight into Shana’s concerned face.

“Are you okay, Mom?” came the quiet question.

“Yes, I’m quite all right,” Irene answered, glad for the presence of her second daughter. She took a deep breath to settle her nerves and her thoughts before she got up from her seat at the table.

Sensing that something was amiss, Shana pulled the older woman into a firm hug. “You know, Mom,” she whispered, “I love you.” Telling her that she would be there to listen to any troubles.

“I know.” Irene sank into the hug, understanding Shana’s meaning, and accepting it gladly. “Another time, sweetie,” she whispered back, “another time.”

And I hope it doesn’t come too soon, Irene thought before she turned towards the kitchen counter to make some tea for Shana.

Chapter 34

“Okay,” Carol said as she closed her cell phone and turned to face Anne.

“What did he say?”

“Dave said he’d check his files. He’s going to call me back when he comes up with something.” Carol stopped and nibbled on her lower lip.

“So,” Anne asked, “what else did he say that’s making you nervous?”

Carol shook her head as if to ask for more time to think and stared into the fireplace. Then she looked at Anne. “It wasn’t anything specific. He only mentioned that he hadn’t heard much about Carlos in the past few weeks, and, believe me, he does keep his eyes and ears open.”

“What does that mean?”

“That means that he either has stopped doing whatever he’s usually doing, or that he’s gone into hiding.”

“But?” Anne asked when Carol’s tone alluded to something more.

“But …” Carol thought for another second. “But Dave also said that one of his informants mentioned that he had seen Carlos around these parts. If that is true, he might be much closer than we thought.” The sheriff took a deep breath. “It might also mean that I have to apologize to Shana for my behavior yesterday because it might very well be that Carlos is behind the accident.”

“Apologize? Oh, because you accused her of being too stupid to drive instead of believing her?” she asked with barely veiled sarcasm. “Don’t worry, Carol. Shea took it for what it was … jealousy.”

“That might be, but I need to talk to her anyway. And I need to call my deputy, although I doubt that the lab results have come back yet.”

Suddenly, Anne thought of something. “If Carlos is in the area, and if he was behind the accident, wouldn’t that mean that Shana is in danger?” She began to pace between the fireplace and the loveseat.

“I don’t know, Anne,” the sheriff replied, “but with the weather the way it is and with you and me here, she should be pretty safe.” And then she added something she would have never thought possible. “I won’t let anything happen to her. Please, believe me.”

Anne looked at her, surprised at the sincerity in the blonde woman’s voice. “I believe you,” she said before she could stop herself. And she did, somehow.

Hmm, I might get the hang of this friendship thing after all, Carol thought and gave Anne a reassuring smile. She glanced at the still-pacing brunette before her and sensed that she definitely needed a distraction. Carol searched her mind for something to talk about when the obvious solution came to her. Ahh …

“So,” she began in her most conversational tone as she let herself fall backwards onto the loveseat, “what’s the story about you and Blondie anyway?”

Just as planned, Anne whirled around and shot Carol a dirty look. “Her name is Shana …”

“… not Blondie, I know,” Carol interrupted her with a grin. “God, Anne, you’re so easy to tease.” Maybe this being friends isn’t as difficult as I thought. Her smile got broader. “Why don’t you sit down and tell me about the two of you.”

Anne plopped down gracelessly next to her and stretched out her legs. “Didn’t Carlos tell you everything about me and Shea?”

“No.” Carol shook her head, “I only know the bare bones, and knowing Carlos, only a quarter of what he told me is true.”

“More like a tenth,” Anne corrected. She closed her eyes and thought of Shana, thought about what to say. There was so much to tell, and yet there was only one thing of importance. I love her and she loves me. Carol knew she had gotten her dark-haired friend to where she wanted her when a wistful smile crept up on the tanned face.

“I love her, Carol,” Anne finally said very quietly. “I’ve loved her for as long as I can remember.”

“Really?” the sheriff teased, putting a hand on Anne’s arm when she felt the brunette tense at the comment. “Relax, Anne. I know that you love each other.” She waited until blue eyes met her own before she continued. “I think that’s the main reason why I behaved like such a lowlife yesterday. I saw you two and the love that just surrounds you.” A sad smile appeared on her face. “I’ve always wanted you to look at me the way you look at Shana.” She sighed.

“Carol, I’m …”

“Shh, Anne, I know.” Carol held up her hand to stop Anne from speaking. “There’s nothing you or I can do about it, but I’d love to try and be your friend, if you think that is possible. And Shana’s, of course.”

Anne looked at her, doubt clearly readable in her eyes. “As much as I want to trust you, Carol, I still wonder why you’re so eager to be our friend now.” She held up her hand to stop Carol from interrupting. “Yesterday, you were ready to push Shana aside without so much as a thought out of some unresolved feelings for me. Today, you want to be our friend. Excuse me if I find that not so easy to believe.”

Carol waited until she was sure that Anne was truly finished. Then she began with a remorseful smile. “I know that you must find it difficult to trust me and to believe that I want to be your friend.” She looked up into Anne’s expectant face. “Last night I thought a lot about you and me and about our history together. I’ve always blamed you for everything bad that happened to me, but last night after seeing you with Shana and as the person that you are around her, I realized that I really only tried to make things easier for me.”

“What do you mean?” Anne asked with a wary expression.

“I mean that I ran away from my own life by holding onto the past, by not letting this infatuation I felt for you all those years ago go. I was never free to be the real me, and now that I’m faced with reality, I’m really sick of the person I became whenever I was around you.” The sheriff took a deep breath. “I’m not like that, Anne, not really. If you ask around, you’ll hear that I’m actually quite a nice person.” She gave the brunette a half-grin. “I only want a chance to prove that to you. I can’t be true to myself and to my job if I keep acting the way that I did yesterday.”

Anne mulled the words over in her head, weighing her knowledge of the tempestuous blonde she had known years ago against the sincerity she could hear in her voice. She knew she really had no reason to believe in the blonde, but something inside told her that she should give her a chance.

“Please, Anne,” Carol repeated, “I’d like to try and be your friend.”

Anne came to a decision, hoping she was doing the right thing. “I’d like that,” she replied, “and I bet Shana would, too.” She felt a small knot in her throat at the hurt that she had caused the blonde woman next to her, and she vowed that if Carol proved to be true to her word she’d try to be her friend in the future.

“However,” Carol said in an attempt to break the intensity, “you wanted to tell me everything about you and Shana … and I do mean everything.”

Anne laughed. “How much time do you have?” And then she started to talk.

Mission accomplished, was all her new friend thought with a private grin.

*******************

Mike woke up in his favorite place, in the arms of his lover, his head cushioned on a broad shoulder. He listened to the rhythm of Kevin’s breathing for a few moments before determining that his very comfortable pillow was awake as well. Moving his head slowly, he looked up into open blue eyes, and, almost involuntarily, a smile blossomed on his face.

“G’morning, big guy,” he mumbled with a small pat on Kevin’s chest.

“Well, hello there, buddy,” Kevin answered good-naturedly. “Nice to see you’ve finally joined the land of the living. I thought you’d slipped into a coma during the night.”

He chuckled at the contrite look on his lover’s face. Mike firmly believed in sleeping as late as possible, and was often grumpy when he had to get up early. Kevin usually was up a couple of hours before him, but this morning he was content just holding the smaller man in his arms while thinking about life in general and their situation in particular.

He had been completely shocked by the idea that Shana’s parents could be working with Carlos, could in fact be trying to hurt their daughter, actively and with purpose. He had only met the Wilsons a couple of times at social functions, but they had never struck him as monsters. Heartless, soulless businesspeople with no regard for their daughter’s feelings maybe, but not ruthless criminals who would work with Carlos to get their daughter hurt. The problem was, deep down in his gut, he knew that Carlos was behind Shana’s accident. He was absolutely certain. He was also just as convinced that Shana’s parents had at least known about Carlos’ “slavery ring”. But that, he thought, is not something I want to ever confirm to Shana’s face.

“Hey, Kev,” Mike asked with concern, “where did you disappear to?”

Kevin kissed the top of his lover’s head, glad that at least for them life was mostly normal and good. “Sorry ’bout that. I was just thinking …” He trailed off, his mind already occupying itself with another problem. We need to find a solution for Mishka, too.

“About?” Mike asked.

“Huh?”

“You said you were thinking … what about?” Mike studied the faraway look in Kevin’s eyes. “Hey, are you okay?” Come on, big guy, talk to me.

Kevin realized that his partner was getting worried and tried to concentrate on alleviating Mike’s concerns for his mental well-being. “Ah, I was just thinking about all the problems here, our situation and all that.” He shrugged, unsure of what else to say.

“So, what’s your take on things?”

“I think that we should try to find a solution for the Mishka situation first. It seems the most resolvable of all.” The blond man spoke haltingly and in a manner that told his lover that he was thinking about a solution as he was speaking.

“Oh yeah?” Mike was always interested when his lover’s mind was at work. “Did you come up with something yet?”

Kevin grinned affectionately at the smaller man who lay so comfortably sprawled over his right side and the bed. “Do you really think I can just come up with an easy solution to any problem?” His question was teasing, but there was also a lot of truth behind it. Mike had absolute trust in the capabilities of his lover, and he often relied on Kevin to come up with something.

Mike simply smiled up at his tall friend’s face. “Yes,” was all he had to say about what he figured was essentially a rhetoric question.

Kevin relented and grinned broadly at the trust in Mike’s voice. “You’re right, of course,” he said with a smile in his voice. He often grumbled about the fact that he was usually left to figure things out and take care of almost everything in their day-to-day life, but he also was honest enough to acknowledge that he loved the absolute trust Mike’s behavior showed. Still, he thought, most of it is probably plain laziness. But I love you anyway, buddy.

“So? What are we going to do?”

At least you’re always following where I’m going. “I thought we could start by calling some people and see what their experience with asking for political asylum and all that stuff is. Do we have our little black book with us?”

“We sure do.” They never left the house without it, in fact. They both cherished the old-fashioned book although it was close to falling apart from years of continuous usage.

“Want me to get it?” he asked, already moving to disentangle himself from his lover and the covers.

“I’d really appreciate that,” Kevin replied formally in answer to the totally redundant question.

Mike shot him a look, but said nothing as he walked across the room to where they had stored their bags. Kevin followed the compact body with his eyes, loving the well-proportioned muscles that covered the physiotherapist’s body, which was only clad in boxers. Hmm, nice …

Kevin tried to wipe his grin off his face before Mike made his way back over to him, but judging by the knowing look in the shorter man’s eyes, he wasn’t successful. “Okay, okay, I admit I like looking at you,” he growled playfully. “Now give me the book.” He made a grab for the item in question and landed squarely on Mike’s body, effectively pinning him to the bed.

“Oof,” Mike let go of an explosive breath. “Get off me, Cyclops.” And then he bit down on a conveniently placed earlobe.

“Yeow!”

Kevin’s body shot up, more out of surprise than pain, which allowed Mike to take a deep breath. He held out the little black book, which Kevin took with one hand while the other covered his bright red ear. “Jesus,” he muttered, but it was followed by a loving grin. I love playing like that ../. He raised an eyebrow. Very early on in their relationship Mike, who loved Greek mythology, had called him “Cyclops” once when they were playing a little rougher than usual. Kevin had been clueless as to what that meant, but hadn’t asked. Later, he had done some research and the next time that happened, he had called his lover “Apollo”, the one who brought the Cyclops down. He still smiled every single time he thought about the reward his diligence got him. The names had become pet names and, more often than not, a signal that one of them wanted their sex to be a little rougher. What a pity we don’t really have the time now …

Kevin shook his head to try and concentrate on the problem at hand. He opened the address book and scanned the names inside. With a broad fingertip under one name, he held it up under Mike’s nose. “Any idea what the time is over there?”

Mike did some mental calculations. “I think it’s an okay time to call,” he mumbled, not knowing exactly what time it was.

“If you say so.” Kevin started dialing the long number.

On the fourth ring, a woman answered. “Hello?”

“Hello. Hana, is that you? This is Kevin Delaney.”

“Hi, Kevin,” the woman answered. “It’s Jana. Hana is outside playing tennis. Do you want me to call her or can I help you?” The longer she spoke, the easier it was to detect her Eastern European accent.

“Hi, Jana. Good to hear your voice,” Kevin greeted the former tennis player enthusiastically. “There’s no need to call Hana, I think. I have a problem that you might help me with just as well as she could, probably.”

“What is it?” Friendly interest came through the line.

“Have you heard what happened to Mikhail Rostov?”

“Mishka? Sure I heard about him …” Jana sounded puzzled. “What do you have to do with it?”

Kevin launched into the story, explaining everything that was important, especially that Mishka couldn’t marry Shana any longer to stay in the States. He tried not to out Shana, but Jana figured out that part of the story with two astute questions about Shana and Anne.

He ended his report with a question. “So, do you have any idea how to help Mishka without Shana having to marry him?”

“Hmm,” Jana stalled, “I think there are at least several possibilities you could think about. You could always try to find another woman for him to marry, which would be the easiest way, I guess. Or you could talk to the police or the immigration people and see whether they could help you to get him into the country legally. Maybe he should come up with another reason for seeking asylum.”

She heard Kevin’s intake of breath at the other end of the line and continued quickly. “I know, I know, that was easier when we still had the iron curtain.” She laughed. “One other thing that I know from other countries is that you could give a guarantee for him, and get him inside that way.”

“Thanks, Jana,” Kevin said, not yet sure whether the call had really helped them.

“You know, Kevin,” Jana said, “it shouldn’t really be such a big problem as long as he can prove he has enough money to sustain himself. It’s not like he’s taking away any jobs or needs help from the state. Maybe you should see it from that angle.” She paused. “Anyway, I’ll talk to Hana about it and ask some friends. Maybe we can come up with some more ideas. Where can we reach you?”

Kevin gave her their numbers and thanked her before hanging up.

“Well, that didn’t sound so bad,” Mike said with a smile. “Maybe we didn’t see the forest for the trees there.” He had a feeling they hadn’t thought about the problem enough.

“Yeah,” his lover replied with a frown, “but it’s not … it’s not …”

“It’s not the easy way out you wanted to have,” Mike finished for him. He gave the tall man a pat on his chest and a tweak to one nipple, forcing a reluctant grin to the handsome face. “Isn’t there anybody else we could call?”

Kevin smiled. “Actually, there is.” He smacked his forehead. “I should have called her first.” He skimmed through the address book until he found the number and dialed quickly.

“Hello, Martina. This is Kevin Delaney … Fine, thanks. And you? … Well, I’ve got a problem. Have you heard what happened to Mikhail Rostov?”

*******************

Irene looked over to where Shana sat at the table, absent-mindedly stirring sugar in her tea. She could see that the younger woman was bothered by something, and in a way she was glad since it offered her an opportunity to not think about her own past any longer. Worrying about her second daughter wasn’t much better, but at least she might have a chance to help with whatever the problem right now was.

“Honey,” she said mildly as she walked over to the blonde woman, “if you want some more tea to wet the heap of sugar in your cup, just let me know.” She put a hand on Shana’s shoulder and jumped back when the younger woman almost shot out of her chair.

“Hey,” Irene whispered soothingly, “what’s got you so spooked, sweetling?” She pushed the tennis player back down on the chair and pulled out the chair right next to it. Not taking her hand off Shana’s shoulder, she sat down and moved over to take the other woman into her arms.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” Shana mumbled around several deep breaths, “I was just thinking …”

“About?” The gray-haired woman took the cup and spoon from the blonde’s hands, only hesitating for a second. I should just let her drop it, she thought with a glance at the Empire State Building and King Kong in neon colors that graced the mug. She shuddered, an instinctive reaction she always had to that particularly ugly design. How did Shana manage to grab that … thing? She must have really been miles away.

Shana stared out of the window, not really seeing past the thoughts that were twirling behind her eyes. Just when Irene believed she wouldn’t get an answer, the blonde shook her head and turned to look at her lover’s mother. “I think my mind is just now starting to work through everything, Mom. I feel like we’re all on a tennis court, and I’m the ball. You know what I mean?”

Irene gave her the gentlest smile she could produce and nodded. “I know exactly what you mean.” She closed her eyes for a moment, remembering how she had felt after killing George. “Sometimes life just gives us a lot to think about, but I’m sure it’s never too much. You’ll get through this. We’ll all get through this just fine. I’m sure of that.”

She stroked Shana’s arm, letting her know by touch that she would never be alone through all of it. “Maybe you should talk about all this. Have you told Anne how you feel?”

The younger woman shook her head and swallowed.

Ah, I see. “She’s one of the things that have you thinking,” she stated. Wonder what that is about …

Shana nodded, unable to press words out of her constricted throat. Suddenly, her eyes were filling with tears as everything that had happened to her in the last two days came crashing down on her. Wordlessly, she slumped into the older woman’s arms and sobbed.

Irene gathered the small woman into a warm hug, wishing her daughter were there to do it for her. Not that she minded hugging and comforting the woman she considered her daughter, but she was sure that she wasn’t exactly the right person to do it. Nonetheless, she tightened her hold on Shana and made comforting sounds. She had a feeling her daughter was behind the sudden tears. What in the hell has Anne done now? I can’t believe those two. Just when I thought I finally had them together …

After a while Shana calmed down and straightened in her chair. “Sorry ’bout that,” she mumbled, looking slightly embarrassed.

“There’s nothing to be sorry for, honey,” Irene quietly reassured her. “That’s what moms are there for.” She received a grateful look from wet green eyes, and a nod. “Now, how about you tell me what Anne did to you to make you cry.”

Shana looked a little startled. “Anne? She did nothing …” Then a small smile started pulling up the corners of her mouth when she reconsidered the question and realized that that was a lie. Should I? I bet Anne will forgive me …

“That’s not exactly true,” she continued. “She asked me to marry her.”

“Whoohoo!” A sound of pure joy erupted from the older woman before she pulled her future daughter-in-law into the biggest hug she could manage in their respective positions. After a prolonged hug, she remembered that Shana was sad and bothered about something, and she sobered quickly. “And that’s a problem?” she asked, audibly puzzled.

“No! Not at all!” Shana hastily reassured the older woman. Damn, gave her the wrong impression there. No wonder she looks so worried. “Irene, I love Anne more than I can say, and the thought of being committed to her forever makes me totally giddy with happiness.” She fell quiet, not sure how to continue.

Irene had the feeling there was more to it. She could practically hear the doubt in Shana’s voice. “But?” she asked gently.

Shana remained quiet for a while, debating with herself. Is Irene really the person I should talk to? Shouldn’t I talk to Anne first? I should talk to Anne … but maybe Irene will have an idea of how to go about that. She nodded to herself when her decision was made, and turned her eyes to the patiently waiting older woman.

“But,” she began hesitatingly, “but … you do realize that I’m pregnant, don’t you?” That needed to be cleared first.

Irene nodded, but said nothing, feeling that the younger woman had never really doubted that.

“I don’t know how Anne will be able to cope with the baby.” She snorted. “Hell, I don’t even know how to cope with the baby and …” She fell quiet, realizing that Irene didn’t know how the baby had been conceived. “Anyway, everything is so new with us now, and I don’t know if the baby isn’t too much too soon for Anne and for our relationship.”

Irene let her pragmatic streak come to the surface. “Did you tell Anne about the baby?”

“Yes,” the blonde nodded.

“And? What did she say?”

“She was pretty shocked as you can imagine … but we really didn’t talk about it that much.” Shana felt a tear of confusion run down her cheek. “I don’t know how she feels … what she really thinks.” Then she remembered the way Anne had made love to her so very gently in the morning, so absolutely careful about the baby. The usually self-assured woman had been nervous and afraid of hurting the unborn child. She can’t hate it if she’s so mindful of it, can she?

“Perhaps it’s just my own damn insecurity, Mom.” An image of Anne’s bruised hand flickered across her mind as it tenderly stroked her stomach in the afterglow of their lovemaking. She had felt so good then, so light. Why am I getting all confused and insecure now? Anne’s shown me how she feels.

Irene smiled to herself despite the situation. She knew that everything would be all right in the end, but she also realized that Shana needed to be reassured. Just not by her. “I still think you should talk to Anne about your fears, honey.” She patted Shana’s hand. “She’s the only one who can tell you how she feels about the baby.” Your mind is on her anyway, and whatever I’m telling you now won’t have much impact … if it reaches you at all.

Still, she wondered what the story behind the baby was, and for a moment she thought about asking the blonde woman. Then she looked at the tear-streaked face and decided that whatever it was, was probably not easy to stomach, for Shana or for Anne, but would have to wait. She felt that now was not the right time for probing questions.

Except for one. Okay, time for a change of topic here …

Irene raised her hands and stroked away Shana’s tears with her thumbs, cupping the blonde’s face tenderly. “You do realize,” she said quietly, “that you can’t marry Mishka now, do you?”

Shana’s eyes met her with a look that was equal parts insecurity, confusion, and indecision, but she didn’t reply instantly.

Bingo. Irene mentally patted herself on the head for hitting another sore point. I knew she was working that through as well. She needs to learn how to talk about things with the right people. I bet Anne just asked her to marry her, but totally forgot about Mishka. Understandable, but …

She hugged the younger woman to her and continued. “Look, I know things are a bit difficult right now, but we’re going to find another solution for Mishka.” She gave Shana a reassuring smile. “It can’t be that hard to find a way for such a nice young man to stay here. It’s not like he can’t feed himself now, can he?” She grinned, and even Shana smiled a little bit at that. “Hell, if push comes to shove I’ll just adopt him. That ought to do it!”

Shana’s smile grew even wider at that thought, and Irene knew without a doubt that she would make good on that offer if it turned out to be the only solution for her two daughters to be happy. Hey, he’s a nice boy, and some motherly love couldn’t hurt him. And what’s one more patch in this quilt of a family anyway? Irene was really warming up to the idea. After breakfast I’m going to grab that little boy and have a nice long talk with him …

The older woman squeezed Shana’s shoulders once again, glad that the tears were gone and that a small smile had edged its way on the younger woman’s face. “We’ll find a way for him, sweetling,” Irene repeated, more seriously now. “It’s just that …” She hesitated, unsure of whether it was the right thing to say at this point. She decided just to get on with it. “It’s just that I think Anne couldn’t live with that, you know? All she ever wanted was to be happy with you. She couldn’t share you, even if it was just on paper. You know she’s not as tough as she tries to be.”

Shana looked at her and Irene could see the determination in the green eyes. “Irene, I know that. That’s why everything is so confusing right now. I feel like I’ve been using Mishka just to get Anne to finally say something. And now that I’ve got what I always wanted, I’m pushing him away, robbing him of his chance to be safe here.” She took a deep breath. “I know Anne would never say anything if I married Mishka, but … but she would probably –”

“Die inside, at least a bit,” a very familiar voice continued from the door.

Shana’s head flew around, meeting the understanding gaze of her lover. “Anne, we just …”

Anne slowly walked over. “You just needed to talk, I know.” She smiled at her mother. “And that old lady there is very good for that.” She shot her mother a loving grin that was returned with a shake of a gray head.

When Anne reached the table she simply pulled Shana up from the chair and, with one fluid motion, right into her arms for a heartfelt hug that both women seemed to need. Irene silently got up and moved over to the kitchen counter, deciding that she didn’t need to be that close to the young lovers at the moment. They look as if they need to be alone right now.

Irene’s thought was indeed mirrored by both women, and when voices in the hall indicated that more people were on their way to the kitchen for breakfast, Anne whispered into Shana’s ear. “I need to talk to you in private. Wanna come with me?”

After the meaning of the words had fought its way through the shivers and had registered on her brain, the blonde woman simply nodded, not trusting her voice. That whisper needs to be filed as a lethal weapon. Thank God she didn’t do anything else but whisper. At that moment she felt a fleeting kiss and short nip on her earlobe, and her knees threatened to give out. Oh boy.

Anne stepped back from their close embrace and tugged on Shana’s hand, pulling her towards the door. Just as they were about to leave the kitchen, they met Kevin, Mike and Carol.

“Morning,” Anne and Shana mumbled as one before they walked past them and down the hall, leaving Kevin and Mike to stare after them.

“Close your mouths, boys,” Irene cheerfully commented. “Those two have something to talk about.”

“Talk?” both men asked. “Is that what they call it now?”

Carol simply grinned and watched as Anne and Shana rounded the corner that led to their room, only barely avoiding a collision with the Hinkels and Mishka, who were talking animatedly in what seemed to be Russian.

Irene shook her head and murmured, “Just another morning at the Patakis residence.” Then she started to make breakfast for all of them.

Chapter 35

Anne pulled her lover towards their room, anxious to be alone with her. Ever since the talk with Carol and the looming threat of a nearby Carlos, she had only wanted to be close to Shana to make sure she was okay. The need had become so great during her talk with Carol that she had more or less just stormed out in search of her lover, with only a vaguely apologizing shrug of her shoulders.

When she hadn’t found Shana in their room she had gone to the kitchen, instinctively certain that that would be where she would find both her lover and her mother. She knew that a lot of things were bothering her lover, just had to be bothering her, and that in all probability the blonde had gone in search of a friendly ear and a motherly shoulder to cry on.

She didn’t know if she was feeling relieved or saddened by the fact that her mother was the one her lover went to with her doubts and problems. Not knowing what went on inside of Shana’s head and heart worried her, but she also was mature enough to realize that she wasn’t the easiest person to talk to. Especially right now when her instincts were driving her to ignore all their problems and just be close to Shana. The thing is that Shea isn’t like you, she admonished herself, so suck it up and let her talk to whomever she needs to feel better. You know she has to talk about things.

If only …

If only there wasn’t this tiny voice inside her head that persisted that she should be the one her lover confided in. But what if Shea has doubts about you? What if she can’t talk to you because you’re the problem?

Anne had entered the kitchen totally torn, her need to protect Shana pulling her into the room, while her need to shield herself from heartache was urging her to run in the other direction.

The truth was, she was just plain sick of being in the middle of problems.

Then she had heard parts of the conversation, heard Shana say that she had been in love with her just as long as she had been in love with the blonde. God, how blind were we really? The feeling of gentle happiness that spread out from her heart made her miss most of what her mother was telling Shana, but in the end she caught enough to realize that she and Shana would always be able to count on Irene.

When she couldn’t resist the pull of her heart any longer, she interrupted the two women, needing to be alone with her lover.

Now.

They entered their room in silence and as soon as the door closed behind them, Anne burned Shana’s lips with a kiss that was equal parts passion and love, giving and taking.

It took Shana a fraction of a second to get over her surprise, but after that she responded with ardor. She tangled her hands in the thick black hair in the need for an anchor that grounded her in reality, because the kiss was definitely making her feel as if she could fly.

When they finally needed to end the kiss, Shana held Anne’s face between her hands and looked into the very wild eyes of her lover. Never had she seen them burning with that kind of intensity, not on any tennis court in the world nor during their love-making up to now. Not that I could have seen her eyes then since mine were closed most of the time, she chided herself for her lack of observational skills during the height of passion.

The blue fire that was blazing a constant trail between her eyes and her lips made her feel extremely self-conscious. In a deep-seated need to break the palpable tension in the room she cleared her throat, gently at first, then a bit louder. When that didn’t change anything, she tenderly rubbed her thumbs across the taller woman’s cheeks. “Anne,” she panted quietly, “hey, what is it, honey?”

Good question, Anne thought. I’m scared. I’m totally scared shitless of the fact that something or someone could take you away from me, now that I’ve finally got you. The dark-haired woman decided in a split-second that this was something she would not tell her lover. But the thought alone made her cling tighter to the smaller frame in her arms, holding onto her for dear life. And then there’s also the hunger I feel for you, her mind wryly added.

“Anne,” the blonde squeaked out, “honey, I can’t breathe.”

“Oh, sorry,” were the first words that came out of the brunette’s mouth since leaving the kitchen. She loosened her hold at once and restrained herself to circling her lover’s waist with her arms.

“I didn’t mean … didn’t … want to …” Damn, she probably still hurts from the accident and I squeeze her to death. She gave her lover a sheepish grin as substitute for an apology.

Shana was getting worried now. Anne’s behavior in the kitchen, the hallway and for the first few minutes in their room had led her to believe that her lover needed to be alone with her, wanted to kiss her, wanted to make love to her. Looking at the tall woman now, however, made it very clear to her that there was much more going on behind the vivid blue eyes.

Before she could say anything, however, Anne continued. “It’s just that … I need to feel you close to me … need to know you’re there … and safe,” she murmured, her eyes tracing the not so intricate texture of the hardwood floor as if it would reveal the secrets of life and love any time now.

The room was quiet for a few seconds then, with Anne slightly embarrassed at her expression of need and Shana unsure of what to answer to the love and need she had heard in her lover’s voice. Then, a pair of sighs broke the silence and the tension as both women looked at each other and broke into startled laughter at the long-suffering sounds that came out of each other’s mouths.

Shana gave her lover a frank grin and pulled the dark head down to place a fleeting kiss on the tip of Anne’s nose. “I love you,” she simply said, “I need you … and it’s very nice to know you need me, too.”

“Oh, God, I do!” Anne blurted and pulled the smaller woman into another hug, although she was careful not to crush her this time. They pulled back at the same time and looked into each other’s eyes, seeing love and devotion and understanding. With another sigh, this time a happier sound, Anne kissed her lover’s forehead.

“Now,” Shana mumbled into Anne’s shirt in an attempt to change the subject, “why don’t you tell me how the talk with Carol went.”

*******************

Irene looked at the kitchen clock and sighed. Only 9.30. How is it possible for the day to still be so young when I feel as if so much has already happened? She watched as the last drops of coffee dripped through the filter into the industrial-sized coffee pot. I guess getting up at 4.30 will do that to you, she thought wryly and chuckled slightly.

The talk with Shana had brought back much of her equilibrium and she was feeling a lot less depressed and morose than she had only an hour before. Now, she had something else and someone else beside herself to concentrate on, something she sorely needed.

She turned around and watched the motley crowd that inhabited her kitchen now, most of them still standing around the huge table, quietly talking. Only the sheriff was standing close to the back door, eyes focused on something probably only she could see. What a strange woman, Irene mused.

She still had mixed feelings about the sheriff, and the longer she watched the woman, the more certain she was that the jury was still out on her character. She trusted her daughter’s judgment, at least most of the time, and she knew from Shana that Anne and Carol had talked about their past, but still … there was something in the brown eyes that she just didn’t like. Maybe it was just the way she looked at Anne all the time when her daughter was near.

Then again, maybe not.

There was something about the way she kept to herself and kept watching the grounds that made Irene nervous, and that was a feeling she really didn’t care for.

Behind her the percolator coughed up the last drops of coffee. She grabbed the enormous pot and carried it over to the table, where an array of multi-colored mugs was already waiting to be filled. Instead of handing them out to each of her guests, however, Irene played her favorite little game.

She had placed several mugs – more mugs than people – and watched who grabbed which. She had privately made her own predictions and chosen some of the mugs on the table accordingly. She was convinced a person’s choice of coffee mug revealed a lot about their character. Of course, the way they went about it was often telling as well.

The Hinkels, for instance, were waiting patiently in the background, softly talking to Mishka in a language she didn’t understand and assumed, just from the sound of it, to be Russian rather than German.

In complete contrast, Kevin and Mike dove for the mugs with gusto, both choosing friendly colors and motifs. Kevin went for the green and purple Wimbledon mug, smiling at it in pleasant memories. Good choice, Irene thought, as she had put the mug there for him specifically. Mike chose a happy looking mug that Anne had bought at the Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao. It was painted in small squares in blue, orange, yellow, and red, and was, in Irene’s eyes, the perfect choice for a dark winter day. It also fit Mike’s usually friendly personality.

When the Hinkels and Mike realized that they had to take a mug themselves, they inched towards the table, carefully surveying the mugs that were left. As she had predicted, both Hinkels took more sedate colors, one going more for a forest-green design, the other heading straight for the mug that sported large royal blue polka dots.

Mishka went for another comic design, lifting the Garfield mug with a frank grin and a sparkle in his eyes. He really does remind me of Pete in some ways, Irene mused with a surprising sense of pleasure at the thought.

She decided to have a nice long talk with the young man after breakfast. The more she thought about her idea of solving the problem, the better she liked it. What this boy needed was another mother, not a wife, especially not her daughter’s future wife. Somehow she knew that a marriage between Shana and Mishka would impact a lot of lives, including her own, and probably not in a positive way.

That left the sheriff to choose a mug since Anne and Shana hadn’t yet returned from their little talk. Irene glanced over to the tall blonde just in time to catch the speculative look in her eyes. When their eyes met, a smile crept over the sheriff’s face.

A smile that could only be called challenging.

Not breaking their eye contact, Carol pushed herself away from the back door and sauntered over to the table with a little swagger to her walk. She circled the table so that she could look Irene into the eyes without having to turn her head, and let her right hand wander over the rest of the mugs on the table.

Irene realized that the woman was playing with her. Irene’s eyes fell on the table to survey the mugs still there. And just as the slender hand stopped over a particularly bright and garish mug, the older woman realized she had made a mistake.

Her favorite mug, the one that Pete had made for her, was still among the mugs on the table.

She hadn’t thought about putting it there since everyone in her family knew not to take it, and she seldom had other people in her kitchen for breakfast. This was definitely an exception to her rule to keep her private life, and private rooms, from her guests. Surely, the sheriff didn’t know what the coffee mug meant to her, did she?

The sheriff’s hand slowly moved down towards the mug, and Irene caught the brown eyes again. She knew her eyes expressed her thoughts, knew that the sheriff knew exactly what she was doing, but she couldn’t help herself.

Carol gave her another smile and cocked her head as if pondering her choice. In reflex, Irene closed her eyes.

When she opened them again a moment later, Carol was pouring coffee into the Roman Coliseum with a huge grin and a twinkle in her chocolate-colored eyes.

*******************

Shana cuddled back into Anne’s arms with a satisfied grunt. Her dark lover had promised her to tell her all about her talk with the sheriff, but only on the condition that they get comfortable while talking.

Shana was feeling really comfortable now. Anne had her back against the headboard, and Shana was lying between her long legs, her shoulders pressed tightly against Anne’s breasts. The blonde had a lot of fun in this position, every once in a while leaning deeper into the embrace and rubbing her back against the sensitive nipples, receiving a hard swallow or barely stifled gasp every single time.

Anne had talked about her conversation with Carol, even mentioning her fears that Carlos might be very near, although that had taken some prodding and pushing on Shana’s part. The blonde woman had realized that Anne was trying not to say something, but her tense body had betrayed that.

Another advantage to this position, Shana thought with a smile. By all rights she should be extremely worried, thinking about Carlos and their situation much more than about the warm body snuggled up with her in the middle of the huge and comfortable bed.

But somehow … somehow, Carlos and everything lost a lot of their importance here in their haven, and all she wanted was to stay here forever, talking, kissing and cuddling with the woman she loved.

She turned her head to look up into the blue eyes she knew so well, and received a gentle brushing of lips as a reward. The kiss deepened after only a few moments, and Shana was again pleasantly convinced that Anne had to be the best kisser in the whole wide world. Well, no wonder with all her experience, a small voice inside her piped up just as their lips parted.

“Anne?” her mouth said, almost against her will. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” a deep voice burred right into her very sensitive ear.

Shana sat up slightly, not wanting to be distracted now that she had unwillingly started that conversation. She received a puzzled look from her lover, the slight hurt in Anne’s eyes not hidden carefully enough. “Hey, it’s nothing bad,” she reassured her lover.

“Then why are you moving away?” came the reasonable question.

Shana didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t used to Anne expressing her feelings as unguardedly as that, and she realized that she was instead very used to the older woman keeping a lot inside. She sat up completely and turned around so that she knelt between her lover’s legs now. She cupped Anne’s face, and moved forward to press a light kiss on the pouting lips. I hope a touch says more than words.

Anne accepted the kiss, but was still puzzled. She didn’t have a clue as to what Shana wanted to know from her or why she had to move away from her to ask her question. She kicked herself mentally. Just wait and see. She wouldn’t kiss you if it were bad.

“Okay,” she said as casually as possible, “what do you want to know?”

“Uh … okay,” Shana stalled, then took a deep breath. “Have you really slept with all those women? I mean, how many women are we talking about here?” She pressed the words out as fast as possible before she could stop herself again. Then she looked at the bedspread in apparent interest.

Missing the wide-eyed look Anne gave her before the chuckling from the tall woman’s chest made her look up.

“What’s so funny?” She was a little angry at the reaction, although she couldn’t have said why.

“That’s what you want to know?” Anne asked between chuckles. “God, I was so worried.” She shook her head with a grin. “You’re entitled to wonder, darling. I might not name all the names, but you’re always allowed to ask.” She paused. “Besides, I think you know most of them anyway. Remember? You never let any woman I slept with beat you ever again.” She laughed and leaned over to give her lover a tender kiss on her cheek.

“That’s true,” Shana replied. And it was. Whenever she had heard a rumor about Anne and one of their fellow players on tour she made it her mission not to let them beat her on the court. It was bad enough that they had been allowed to touch Anne, she wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of beating her in tennis as well.

In hindsight, she’d probably have to say that Anne’s philandering ways had been very good for her career, giving her an added incentive to always win. She said so, making Anne laugh out loud.

“Why did that happen anyway?” Anne asked when her laughter had died down. “What was going on inside your head then?”

She had always hoped that Shana was so determined out of her unresolved feelings for Anne, but she had never been sure. Maybe she had just been pissed off by Anne’s behavior. Who knew?

Shana blushed and looked away. “I … was so … I don’t really know. I guess, I was angry at them for being able to touch something I couldn’t.” She looked at Anne. “Knowing they could have you and I couldn’t really, really hurt.” A tear trailed down her cheek just from a faint memory of the feelings. “I think I just wanted to turn that into something positive.”

She pressed her cheek into the large hand that was suddenly cupping her face with the gentlest of touches. “I always thought that they were laughing about me behind my back because … because I thought that everyone could see through me, could see how I felt about you.”

“Oh, Shea, I’m so sorry for putting you through that,” Anne said, feeling very helpless. “Had I known …” She let her words trail off, not knowing what she would have done had she known that the blonde woman loved her as much as she did.

“What would you have done, Anne?” Shana asked, her voice a strange mixture of sarcasm and compassion. “You didn’t know what I was feeling for you, and, frankly, I think in that phase of your life I don’t know whether I’d have been any good for you.”

Anne was flustered. “Why do you say that? If I had known that you loved me then, I’d never have touched another woman.”

“Are you sure?” The blonde’s voice turned gentle. “Honey, try to remember the black hole you were in then. I had just left you, making you believe your advances were unwelcome. Your brother had killed himself and you blamed yourself for leaving him in the clutches of your father.” She stroked the dark head with her fingertips. “Do you really believe things could have worked out between us then?”

Anne let herself fall back into her memories, reliving the pain of being abandoned by the woman she loved and abandoning everyone she loved in return. She had stopped caring and had started drinking herself into forgetfulness, stopped loving and started taking what was offered just to make herself forget what she needed. Nameless and not so nameless faces flickered through her mind, used and discarded, often humiliated and taunted, even long after the usually very short-lived affairs had ended. Once or twice, she remembered, she had even taunted her conquests by outright telling them that they were not woman enough to be worthy of her. Nor were they strong enough to ever beat Shana Wilson again. With a self-deprecating grin she realized that none of them had understood what she meant until they had faced the blonde woman with the cold green eyes over a net.

“No,” she mumbled finally, “it probably wouldn’t have been a good idea.” She swallowed hard, debating with herself over the next thought. “I was as close to hating you as I could ever get. I felt so alone when you left me there in my room after the kiss we had shared. Do you know that the ring you’re wearing now was in my pocket that night?”

Shana gave her a shocked look. “What?”

“Yes, I wanted to propose to you that night, wanted to ask you to spend the rest of your life with me, your family be damned. I knew then as much as I know now that I could never really live without you in my life, and the years we spent apart, not talking, not touching …” Her voice turned more raspy with every syllable and broke on the last word. Clearing her throat, she continued. “I was not living then. I was barely existing.”

“Oh my God, Anne, I’m so sorry,” Shana cried and flung herself at her dark-haired lover. “We lost so many years. So many years.”

Anne tightened her grip, then pulled out of the embrace to look into Shana’s eyes. “Don’t be sorry, Shea, please. We have to shed the past. Didn’t you tell me that we have to bury the past to be able to go on freely? Let’s do that. We finally found each other and I don’t ever want to lose you. And especially not to the past.”

Then she leaned forward and touched her lips to her lover’s mouth, gently exploring. Her touch intensified and soon they were sharing hungry kisses that expressed every emotion that floated between them, mingling past, present and future. When they finally broke apart, they were kneeling in front of each other on the bed, two pairs of hands exploring naked skin under shirts and over bras.

“Whoa,” Shana finally breathed, and promptly lost herself in her lover’s blue gaze again.

“Hmm,” Anne dreamily agreed. “What were we talking about?”

“Can’t remember.” All Shana could think of were Anne’s lips on hers. “We talked about kisses, I think. Your kisses. You’re the best kisser in the world.”

“My kisses?” Anne sounded unconvinced.

“Yeah, kisses, past lovers, history, the whole megillah, you know.” She kissed Anne again, trying to drive all conscious thought away for good. There’ll be another time to talk about that, was the last insistent thought that clung to the brain cells slowly draining out her ears.

Anne didn’t mind at all, glad that Shana’s questions about past lovers hadn’t been too insistent. Good thing she talked about women all the time. I don’t really want to explain that other time to her. Some things are best buried in the past.

Then she gave herself over to the passion her lover so easily created in her and forgot all about it.

Chapter 36

Breakfast was a quiet affair. The small group of people sat around the large table, clinging to their coffee mugs or picking listlessly at the food. Irene sat at the head of the table, holding onto her brightly colored mug and watching everyone around her.

Mike and Mishka were the only ones who were eating with something close to enthusiasm, digging into their eggs and bacon like there was no tomorrow. The Hinkels both shuffled the eggs around their plate as if the movement alone would reduce the amount. Kevin seemed to be deep in thought, staring at the contents of his mug as if he expected the meaning of life to suddenly jump out at him.

Carol was in constant motion, checking her watch, sipping from her coffee, looking outside, eating, and back to checking her watch. I wonder what she’s waiting for. Or who. Maybe the deputy. He should have some results from the lab by now.

Just then, Mishka looked up at her and met her eyes. “This food is very good, Mrs. Patakis,” he said between bites. Everyone around the table nodded.

Irene smiled warmly at him. I knew I liked him. “Thank you, Mishka. But there’s no Mrs. Patakis here. You can call me Irene.” She paused, then added, “Or Mom, just like those two,” pointing a finger at Kevin and Mike, who were grinning at her.

“Oh, okay,” the young man mumbled. “I’ll try to remember that,” he added politely.

“Do that,” Irene said with a grin as she reached over to him and patted his forearm. She cleared her throat. “I’d like to talk to you after breakfast, if you don’t mind.”

“Yeah, so would we,” Kevin chimed in, pointing to himself and Mike.

Mishka looked from them to Irene and back. “Okay,” he answered amiably, “sure.” However, the expression on his face clearly said that he was still trying to figure out what they wanted to talk about with him. Suddenly, his expression cleared, then fell as he realized that they surely wanted to tell him that Shana wouldn’t marry him now, couldn’t marry him now. With a heavy heart, he grabbed his mug like a lifeline and took another sip.

Irene watched the young man and realized that he was probably expecting the worst. She patted his arm again, trying to reassure him, but when his expression didn’t change and he refused to meet her eyes, she said, “Don’t worry, Mishka. Everything’s going to be okay. I’ve just got an idea that I’d like to discuss with you.” She looked to Kevin and Mike and was rewarded with a double nod.

“If you don’t mind,” came Dr. Hinkel’s voice from the other side of the table, “we would like to be there when you talk to Mishka here.” He smiled at the young man. “We talked a lot with him and maybe he’ll be more comfortable with us around.”

Mishka nodded silently.

“And if this is about what I think it’s about, we’d like to say something, too,” Mrs. Hinkel said with a smile in Mishka’s direction.

As everyone nodded their assent, Irene mentally shook her head. Boy, is this going to be one intimate talk after breakfast. The sheriff will probably stay as well …

Just then, Carol took another look at her watch before her gaze wandered outside again. To Irene’s watchful eyes she had a decidedly nervous air about her. She thought for a second, then chose to just ask her about it. “Are we keeping you from something, Sheriff?”

Carol looked slightly startled for just one moment, before she answered calmly, “No, you don’t, Mrs. Patakis.” She looked outside again. “I’ve just got the feeling I should be out there, checking the grounds. Something is making me nervous.” She got up from her chair. “I think I’m just going to follow my instincts. Thank you for a wonderful breakfast. I’ll see you all later.”

She stopped behind Irene’s chair and leaned down. “Listen, I know you don’t like me or trust me and I can even understand that, but I’m really only trying to help here. There’s something or someone out there, and I have to go and find out what it is. Please, try to trust me.”

With a pat to Irene’s shoulder, she moved away from her. At the door she turned around and faced the older woman again, wondering what her blank expression meant. She mentally shrugged her shoulders. Can’t do much else here, I guess.

With another smile she walked out of the kitchen, leaving behind a bemused Irene. For a moment there, the sheriff had sounded almost sincere in her concern, and Irene’s dislike started to waver.

****

Anne was feeling mellower than she thought she should under the circumstances. On the other hand, she mused, I’m lying here covered by the woman I love, feeling very well loved, circumstances be damned. Right now, she just couldn’t bring herself to allow any serious thoughts into their bed.

She felt so damn good, it couldn’t get any better.

Could it?

The toned body above her stretched languidly, sliding along all her most sensitive places, and a quiet voice tickled her ear with its raspy sweetness. “God, I love you.”

So, hell yeah, it could. Anne smiled, surprised that she could feel tears welling up in her eyes.

Shana noticed the emotional state her lover was in by the very quiet sniffle she almost, almost didn’t even hear. She pushed herself up on her hands and looked Anne in the eyes. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” A bruised hand reached up and touched her face. “Just happy.” A shrug. “So happy I actually feel almost bad about it.”

“Why do you feel bad because you’re happy?” Shana’s voice made it clear that she felt like she was talking to one very strange woman.

“Because there’s so much going around us and I’m lying here with you in a cocoon of happiness, thinking that the world could come to an end and I wouldn’t even notice as long as I could still feel you in my arms.”

Judging by the very wide-eyed look she received from Shana, Anne figured she had said something right. She grinned up at her lover with mock innocence. “What? Didn’t know I could talk?”

And then it was her turn to be rendered speechless by the gentlest kiss she had ever experienced. Wow. “Okay, you win,” she mumbled around still-tingling lips when Shana drew away.

“I didn’t know we were competing,” Shana said with a smug, if slightly dazed air. “But since I seem to have won,” she leaned down and kissed Anne’s breastbone, “what is my prize?”

“I don’t know,” the dark-haired woman chuckled, happy that her lover was so relaxed. “Choose something. Anything.”

The blonde woman stopped what she was doing. “Anything?” She scrunched her nose up in thought. “Hmm.”

Uh oh. Now that was an invitation for trouble, Patakis. Anne swallowed and waited nervously for whatever Shana could come up with.

“I think I’m just going to ask you a few questions and expect you to answer me truthfully.” Shana’s voice was gentle and playful, but the nervous twitch of Anne’s mouth alerted her to the fact that there were indeed things that her lover probably wanted to keep quiet. Then she remembered the line of questioning that had been interrupted by their love-making, and she decided to follow along her former path.

She was so engrossed in her thoughts of possible questions that she almost missed the hoarsely whispered “yes” from the dark-haired woman beneath her.

Shana looked down into the blue eyes that were watching her unwaveringly, and she almost decided not to ask her anything. But … There were a couple of things she needed to be reassured about, things that were probably fueled mainly by her own insecurity, and she thought that now might be a good moment to clear things up.

She cleared her throat and put her body in full contact with Anne’s again. The tall body beneath hers shifted and then they were lying side by side and eye to eye. Emboldened by the almost visible connection between them, Shana plunged headlong into her first question. “Anne, is what Carol said true?” Interpreting Anne’s clueless expression as lack of understanding, she amended her question. “She said that I could never be enough for you because you needed … other things.”

“Things like power and control and a partner who could be easily dominated?”

Shana nodded and averted her eyes, suddenly not so sure she wanted to hear the answer. Anne put two fingers under her chin and gently forced eye contact again.

“The woman Carol knew back then needed all that, maybe, but that wasn’t me. I have everything I’ll ever need right here, lying next to me. And she is beautiful.” She kissed Shana’s forehead. “I admit, I always liked being in control with other people, and I even enjoyed inflicting pain if I thought it would enhance my pleasure and that of my partner, but I seem to be another person with you, with different needs and wants. Somehow, I’m more myself when I’m with you.”

She grinned at her silent lover. “However, should you ever want to try some … things, just let me know. I might still know a trick or two.”

Shana loved every single word that Anne said. She always knows how to make me feel better. And, yes, there were some things that she’d probably like to try … as soon as she found out what they were. She smiled at her lover, who waited patiently for the next question.

Okay. “Did you ever sleep with a man? I mean, I know what Carlos tried with you, but–” she stopped when she saw the pained look on Anne’s face. Oh shit, she did. And judging by the look on her face, it must be a doozy. Probably someone we both know.

Anne’s gut felt like a horse had kicked her. She couldn’t believe the accuracy with which Shana found her weak spots, the things she wanted to remain hidden. She watched her lover’s face closely and could practically see the thoughts behind the green eyes. Okay, now she’s realized I slept with a man. Yup, it’s a big one, Shana. This is where she pictures every man we both know. Oops, and now she thinks she’s found him.

Shana mentally went through a list of man she thought would appeal to Anne or had any other connection with her. She was certain that it was someone they both knew and not just some passing fling. When she came to their closest acquaintances, the realization hit her like ten tons of bricks. It could only be … “Kevin,” she breathed out.

“Yeah,” Anne pressed through a suddenly dry throat, “Kevin.”

Shana sat up. “But he’s … I mean … how? When? And for God’s sake, why?” She stammered her questions out while her mind was running a mile a minute, trying to determine what that would mean for them.

“Shana, honey, please calm down first,” Anne said quietly. “It was a long time ago, and we both tried to forget it. It didn’t mean anything back then and it sure doesn’t mean anything today.”

Anne’s quiet attitude relaxed Shana somewhat. “What happened?” she asked in a much calmer voice.

It was Anne’s turn to sit up. “As I said, it was a long time ago.” She closed her eyes for a moment before she focused her gaze on the green eyes in front of her. “When you left me that night, I just packed my stuff and left everything behind.” There was no question which night Anne was talking about. “Leaving wasn’t very hard with all the money I had, and I just moved from hotel to hotel, never staying too long in one place. You might remember that I missed out on a couple of tournaments that year as I spent most of the time drinking my sorrow down in some bar or my hotel room.”

“Oh, Anne, I’m so sorry,” Shana whispered and took Anne’s hand in a comforting gesture that was still tinged with guilt.

“Yeah. Anyway, after several weeks of traveling around aimlessly, I landed at my favorite hotel in New York City. I went into my room and turned on the TV just in time to hear the news about Pete’s death.” She swallowed down her tears. “I swear something snapped in me that night. I ran out and got myself a couple of bottles of bourbon and then proceeded to very methodically empty them.” She took a deep breath.

“What I didn’t know was that Kevin had started to call all my favorite hotels to try to find me and that the guy at the reception was an old friend of his. So, the guy called Kevin, and Kevin took the next flight from Chicago. When he barged into my room, I was well into the second bottle. I was totally drunk. I don’t think I’ve ever been so drunk before or since. I guess I really was trying to drink myself to death since there was nothing there for me to live for.”

Shana couldn’t bear the distance between them one second longer. She snuggled up to her lover and ended up lying across her lap with one arm on Anne’s shoulder and her head pressed against a breast over a fast-beating heart.

She missed the gentle look on Anne’s face as the older woman ran a bruised hand through her short blond hair. She cleared her throat and continued. “Kevin just took over from there. He made me upchuck all the alcohol, made me eat something, and I think he tried to drown me with all the water he made me drink. Today, I thank him for what he did, but back then, I hated him and wanted to hurt him. I came onto him, really strongly, kissed him and touched him, but he just didn’t react. When I realized that I broke down, and I can’t remember much after that. Kevin told me a lot of what happened then, but I don’t know if it’s all correct. He’s such a gentle man.” She smiled for her old friend. “He said I got so very vulnerable when I broke down that he just couldn’t bear the sight. We cuddled for a long while, and when I was feeling a bit better, I started kissing him again, but in a much nicer way, apparently, since he didn’t turn me down. He said I appeared to be totally lucid by that time, only very, very small and vulnerable and full of self-hatred. When I woke up we were both in bed, naked and very embarrassed. I couldn’t believe what I had put him through, and he couldn’t believe what he’d done.”

“He’d better,” Shana exploded against her chest. “He took advantage of you when you were drunk!”

“Baby, hey,” Anne quieted her. “That’s not Kevin’s style and you know that. You don’t know what was going on with him at the time, and I didn’t know either back then, but we talked about it quite a lot later on. He had just been dumped by Mike over a spat they had, and he felt very unloved and vulnerable himself.” She kissed her lover’s head. “All it was, was two friends making each other feel better for a moment. And feeling bad about it forever after.”

Something in her lover’s tone made Shana look into her tear-filled blue eyes. “What else happened, Anne?”

“I got pregnant.” She took a deep breath. “I had an abortion.”

“Oh my God,” Shana breathed. “What you must have gone through. Why–”

“Oh, please, Shana,” Anne interrupted her, weary of the topic all of a sudden. “What would I do with a kid, in my situation? By the time I realized I was pregnant, the kid was probably already an alcoholic, or dead. It was really never a question, was it?”

“What did Kevin have to say about it?” Shana knew Anne had a point; still, the thought of her friend going through all of that pained her. And it’s all my fault, basically.

“He doesn’t know,” Anne said casually, “and I really prefer it that way.” She suddenly felt the need for a hug and tightened her hold on the woman in her lap. Shana pulled her into her and just held on to her in silent comfort. When they pulled apart a while later, there were tear tracks on Anne’s cheeks, but she smiled at her lover nonetheless. “You see, this kid will be both our firstborn.” God, why on Earth did I say something stupid like that? Makes me sound like I regret it. It really wasn’t that big a thing.

Shana smiled brilliantly. “You don’t know what it means to me to hear you talk about this baby like that.” She kissed Anne soundly. “I love you, you know.”

So, that’s probably why I said something like that. Anne kissed Shana back and tried to forget the past. “Oh, one thing,” she said hastily, “I don’t think Mike knows any of this. I think it would be best for all of us if it remained that way.”

“Okay,” Shana mumbled while she kissed Anne’s nose. “I’ll try to remember that.”

The dark-haired woman smiled at her, but the smile was only half-hearted. Shana saw the emotions twirling around the sky blue eyes and decided to change the topic and lighten the mood. “So, tell me, lover … would you really crawl over broken glass to beg me to love you?”

“You bet I would,” Anne said with a smile that showed her happiness at the turn in the conversation.

She gently pushed Shana from her lap and scooted down to lie flat on her back in the middle of the bed. Shana watched mesmerized, following with her eyes the lines of the gloriously naked body in front of her. Anne stretched out completely and put her hands under the headboard in a silent invitation.

Oh my. Shana just swallowed.

****

How am I going to put this? Irene wondered. Nice and smooth, so as not to scare him? Or do I tell him bluntly that he won’t ever get to marry my daughter-in-law, even if his life depended on it. She shook her head, knowing that if worst came to absolute worst, she’d let him marry Shana. Or I’d marry him myself. She chuckled at the thought of the very young man standing next to her before a justice of the peace. Okay, here we go …

“Listen,” she began, but stopped when she heard Kevin utter the same word. She threw the blond man a questioning look, which he answered with a nod, inviting her to speak first.

Irene cleared her throat and began again. “Mishka,” she said, looking at the young Russian with a warm smile, “I’ve thought about your situation a lot and–”

“So did we, and–”

A sharp glance to the side stopped Mike’s interruption before it really got under way.

“As I said before I was interrupted,” Irene started for the third time, shooting Mike a pointed look, “I think I’ve got an idea how to solve … your problem.”

Mishka’s face showed that he very well knew where Irene was going with her introductory words. He looked crestfallen. “You mean, I will not marry Shana to stay in this country, because Shana will stay with Anne now.” The way he said it made it sound like a punishment, not just a statement of fact.

Irene nodded compassionately. “Yes, but–”

“But she promised,” Mishka blurted out.

“Yes, I know, Mishka,” Irene said quietly as she put her hand on his forearm to calm him down. “But I’ve got another solution for you.”

“Mikhail,” came Dr. Hinkel’s voice from across the table for the first time, “stop worrying. Everything will be all right.”

The fatherly tones seemed to reassure the young man and he nodded. Dr. Hinkel continued, but addressed Irene now. “I’d like to make a suggestion, if I may?”

Irene nodded, curious to find out what was going on behind the old man’s eyes. The elderly couple exchanged glances and Mrs. Hinkel put her hands over her husband’s hand on the table.

Mike bent over to Kevin and whispered in his ear. “You know, lover boy, the way I’m reading this, we could have cuddled instead of making calls all around the world this morning.”

Kevin grinned and nodded, letting his lover know that he thought the same thing. I wonder, however, where they’re taking this. He thought he knew what Irene might have been up to, but he thought that the elderly couple had only stayed to support Mishka. He was very curious now.

His thoughts were interrupted when Dr. Hinkel started speaking again. “Mrs. Patakis, we … my wife and I … thought a lot about all this last night and this morning. About the situation. We realize that Mikhail here cannot really marry Ms. Wilson since she so obviously will be much happier marrying your lovely daughter.” He took a sip of his coffee, taking his time and pausing to appreciate the aroma as if it were the first cup of coffee he’d enjoyed after a month on the moon.

Get on with it, five people thought in three different languages while squirming in their seats. There was a collective sigh when the old man put down his mug and took a breath.

“We also thought that … maybe … our daughter …” He stopped, his voice having taken on a rather hoarse note. “That our Daniela might not come back to us,” he finished after another sip of coffee, which no one begrudged him. “We’re not fools, you know. It’s been such a long time. Even if Daniela is still alive … and I do want to believe that with all that I am … she might not want to come back to Germany with us. We might never see her again, no matter what.” He looked at his wife, tears trailing down both their faces.

“That’s why we thought,” his wife took continued, “that it would be a great idea if Mishka came with us when we go back to Germany in two weeks.”

Kevin, Mike and Irene all took a breath to say something, but Mrs. Hinkel’s somber voice kept them quiet. “We thought about it a lot, as Fritz already said. It would be so much better for Mishka in Europe, with us. We speak Russian, there are a lot of Russian-speaking people in Berlin … he would feel more at home there.” She looked into the faces around the table. “And he would be able to play tennis. And since he’s a very promising player, or so I’ve heard,” she smiled, casting a sidelong glance at Mishka that told everyone present who had told her that, “he will have no trouble staying in the country.”

“No trouble?” Several voices asked at the same time.

Both Hinkels nodded. “With the state German tennis is in, they’ll be happy to get a bit of new talent as soon as possible. The German government is funny that way,” Mr. Hinkel said with a derisive snort. “Normal people can wait forever to be allowed to work or get permanent residency in our country. But when you’re a sports star and they want you to play for Germany, it takes no time at all. With Mikhail being Russian, we’d probably be able to find a German grandmother of his somewhere in his pedigree, and then it’s no problem at all.” He leaned back in his chair, satisfied that he’d said all there was to say in the matter.

There was complete silence while everyone digested the information. “Wow,” was Mike’s comment after a while. “You know, we were thinking in the same direction, but we thought–”

“You thought I would the one to adopt Mishka,” Irene said with a smile. “So did I, by the way.” She smiled at the Hinkels. I really like this idea. I think they could be good for each other. She looked at Mishka, who hadn’t said a word.

The young man seemed to be deep in thought. He was studying the back of his hands while his fingertips traced errant patterns on the table. At long last, he raised his eyes and looked at Irene, and then at the Hinkels. “No trouble at all?” he asked again, very quietly.

Mrs. Hinkel leaned over to him and put her left hand on his hands on the tabletop. In reflex, he turned his hands and held her much smaller hand between his. “No trouble, I promise,” she answered with a bright smile that made her eyes glow in a warm color. “I promise,” she repeated for good measure.

Mishka thought again. America or Germany, Berlin or … this place with Shana and Anne and Irene? He looked around the table, looked at the faces that surrounded them. He loved America, the freedom of everything here, the people. But he also was a very European man, and loved Russia and his Slavic soul. He also liked the Hinkels. They had been awfully nice to him, and they had spent long hours talking the previous night and that morning. Talking about Russia — in Russian — and Germany. They had told him about their house in Pankow, a nice part of the old East Berlin, where all the embassies used to be before the reunification.

The longer he thought about it, the more he liked the idea. He had known from the first moment he had seen Shana and Anne together that this was where Shana’s heart was, and that marrying her would be no good to either of them. But he didn’t want to go back to Russia. He raised his eyes to meet the gray eyes of Fritz Hinkel and his wife, and uttered a single syllable. “Da.” Yes.

Mrs. Hinkel hugged him to her chest, tears falling freely again. But they didn’t look like tears of unhappiness, and she smiled among them. Her husband wore a quiet smile as well, sitting back in his chair, one hand still clasped in his wife’s right hand.

The way they’re sitting there, they look like a real family, Irene thought when she saw the picture before her. Mrs. Hinkel, sitting between her husband and Mishka, each man holding one of her hands. A feeling stirred inside her that felt a lot like jealousy, but she brushed it away and decided to be happy that finding a solution had been easier than imagined. Now all we have to do is tell Anne and Shana, and one part of our problems is solved.

Although …, she sighed unhappily, it’s only the smallest part. There’s a much bigger one running around somewhere. Her thoughts involuntarily strayed to Carlos and the threat he posed to her family.

Then suddenly she remembered something Shana had said to her. She looked at Mishka. “Mishka, I’ve got a question for you.” The young man turned his eyes away from the Hinkels and looked at her with an open expression she hadn’t yet seen on him.

“Yes?” he asked, sounding like he was eager to please.

“How did you know where Shana was?” She saw the confused expression on his face. “She told me that nobody knew where she was going, so we were wondering how you knew to come here.”

“Oh,” was his first reply. “Ah … I got a call from a man who told me that Shana was coming here, and that I had to come here if I still wanted to marry her. He gave me a very exact description, told me how to get here, and I drove all night to come here.”

“Carlos,” Irene breathed. “It must have been Carlos.”

“That bastard has his hands in just about everything,” Kevin growled. “He probably wanted to drive another wedge between Anne and Shana. Only God knows why.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Mike added, “if he had something to do with Mishka’s problems at home, too. By now, I’d believe just about anything anyone told me about him.”

Irene cocked her head and listened for a moment, thinking she had heard a noise outside. When it wasn’t repeated, she shrugged it off and concentrated on the conversation again. Probably Carol, making her rounds, checking the perimeter.

“You know what really pisses me off?” Mike asked. “The fact that Shana’s parents must have told Carlos where to find her. I’d bet everything I have that Carlos is behind the car accident, and that his tennis managing business is only a clever cover-up for his other … business.”

A colorful string of expletives trickled out of Kevin’s mouth at the thought of Carlos and Shana’s family in cahoots with each other. “If I ever get my hands on him, I’ll kill him. I rip him apart with my bare hands!”

“Well, well,” came a cold, but cultured voice from the door, “isn’t it nice to be so fondly remembered.”

Everyone turned around to watch as a well-dressed man, handsome in a cruel kind of way, entered the kitchen. He wore an impeccable coat and black leather boots and gloves. His right hand held a gun, pointing it at the table rather casually.

“I know his voice,” Mishka mumbled, confirming the suspicions that it had indeed been Carlos who had sent him here. “Is this Carlos?” he whispered in Mrs. Hinkel’s ear.

A nod was his only answer before a hardly human scream broke the impasse, and Dr. Hinkel catapulted out of his chair in the direction of the much younger man.

“You bastard. You stole my daughter,” the old man rasped out. “Where is she? Where is she?” He was on the surprised Carlos now, pummeling his chest, trying to bring him down on the floor with all his power. But his bones were much older than the rage in him, and the younger and well-trained man kept him easily at bay.

“Who is that old man?” he asked mockingly. “What is he mumbling about?”

With another bout of energy, Fritz Hinkel jumped at Carlos again, almost managing to take him down this time. Kevin, Mike, and Mishka were already on their feet, on their way to help the old man who had petrified them with his attack.

Just as they were about to tackle the grappling adversaries, a shot rang out, making them all stop short.

Chapter 37

Shana had, the brunette decided, a distinct deer in the headlights look on her face. The blonde just sat there, looking at her hands, not moving a muscle. Then her green eyes fluttered shut and closed out Anne’s inquisitive gaze. She heard and felt the deep intake of breath that came from the smaller woman kneeling next to her.

Shit! That was too much, too soon, Anne thought and closed her own eyes.

For both of us.

Closing her eyes, she realized instantly, was a big mistake. The loss of control she felt was almost palpable and her eyes flew open.

No!

Her heart was racing, her muscles were twitching, and the more she thought about her fear of losing control, the more she felt the loss. Intellectually, she knew that nothing would happen to her, that she was safe in Shana’s hands, but she had never felt so vulnerable, had never felt more naked than she did at that moment. Her instincts told her to get the hell out of that bed and run.

A fleeting image crossed her mind. She could practically see herself running through the snow towards her own house, lurching inside, racing upstairs into her bedroom, locking herself in, and hiding under her own covers in her own bed.

No, this was not for her, and the sooner she stopped it, the better. What a relief it was to see that Shana didn’t seem to like it, either. She’s probably scared.

It was the only thought between her and the door.

She looked at Shana again and watched as the green eyes opened and gazed along her body. She felt the roving eyes physically, was completely aware of the flames licking at her skin at the tips of Shana’s green rays of fire. She knew it was impossible. But if she closed her eyes, she would still be able to pinpoint exactly which part of her body Shana was looking at. Of that she was certain.

She had to put a stop to this. Right now!

She cleared her throat. “We don’t have to do this, you know,” she said as casually as she could. “Maybe, um … maybe this isn’t the right time to try this.”

Shana seemed to consider that as her eyes moved to meet Anne’s. Her gaze was open and not at all what Anne expected to see. It was neither nervous nor frightened. If anything, it seemed interested and questioning, and suddenly the tall woman was confused. Now she looks totally comfortable. Why was she just looking at me like that when everything is okay? What’s going on here?

“Your muscles are twitching, honey,” Shana murmured as if to herself, interrupting Anne’s thoughts with a quiet voice that still revealed the question behind that observation. She put a hand on Anne’s right thigh and was surprised at how tense and tight the muscles felt. It was like touching a live wire, all raw power and tension. Like a Japanese bow that was drawn to the extreme and would snap at any second.

She met her lover’s eyes, seeing uncertainty there and something else. Something she had never seen before, and all of a sudden she understood the hidden meaning behind Anne’s remark. “You’re scared,” she gently remarked with a hint of surprise. She softly trailed her hand up and down Anne’s tense thighs. “What is there to be afraid of?”

When Anne didn’t respond, she amended her question. “Why are you nervous, sweetheart?” she asked, hoping that the use of the endearment would reassure her lover.

The tall woman, trying very hard not to jump out of the bed and run, gripped the headboard hard with her bruised hands. She gave herself a mental pep talk, knowing she was probably confusing or scaring Shana with her reaction. Come on, you’ve got to say something to her. Tell her what’s going on with you, that this is not for you. Everything will be all right and you can try it again later. Much, much later.

Shana’s hand continued to gently caress her thighs, moving up one and then down the other, and slowly, the tenderness of the touch and the always reassuring connection with the blonde made it through to Anne’s addled brain. See, it’s okay. Nothing to worry about. Explain it to her.

The pressure of Shana’s hands increased, as if the blonde sensed that Anne needed to be grounded right now. The constant stroking was really getting to the brunette and wherever the smaller woman touched her, Anne’s skin tingled and burned, leaving goose bumps and tiny raised hairs wherever it traveled.

Shana watched her lover closely, silently processing what she saw. She realized how difficult this had to be for her lover when she heard the headboard groan under her lover’s death grip and the resulting deep moan that escaped the dark-haired woman’s chest. But she also noticed that Anne was beginning to react to her touch, both by getting less tense and, seemingly, a little aroused. Shana began to wonder whether the moan she had heard had really been caused by pain. Wonder if she even notices her body’s reaction.

The blonde was certain that Anne’s nervousness had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with the way Anne had handled things … sex … before them. She decided that talking about it couldn’t hurt. It might help Anne get over her nervousness and might help Shana to understand that side of her lover much better.

Besides, she was really beginning to like the idea of having Anne lying before her, so vulnerable and yet so powerful. It was proving to be an immense turn-on, and just as she realized that, she knew she had gained another insight into the problem at hand.

“You’ve never done that before, have you?” she asked quietly, never ceasing in her gentle caresses. She didn’t know how to proceed with her skittish lover, but she was willing to just wing it and speak and act from her heart.

“Never done what?” Anne growled, a sound that made Shana all too aware of her lover’s state of mind. Shit, she’s going to bolt any second now.

The blonde woman knew she had to soothe her lover or they’d never have a chance to explore this new facet in their relationship, and she really, really wanted to do that. Without thinking twice about it, she lay down, covering as much of Anne’s longer body as possible. When her lover twitched violently for a second, she realized that, as much as she trusted Anne with her safety, that move could send her flying across the room in no time.

After just seconds, however, long arms released their hold on the headboard and wrapped around her in pure reflex. Shana sighed in relief, slowly letting out the breath she had been holding since laying her body over Anne’s.

Anne chuckled, almost against her will, when she felt Shana’s relief as a small gush of air that caressed her neck. She had been shocked at first when she was covered by the compact form of her lover, but then just as soon she had felt strangely quieted and grounded by it.

She also felt infinitely better since she wasn’t lying naked before her lover’s burning gaze any longer. She relaxed considerably and nuzzled her lover’s hair, just because she could and because it made her feel better.

Just as she was about to release a sigh of relief and contentment, she remembered Shana’s question. You’ve never done this before, have you? She knew her lover well enough to know that sooner or later Shana would get back to that question. She was also certain that it would be much sooner than she would have liked. She gave the question some thought, trying to come up with an answer.

Before she could formulate one single thought, however, she felt Shana’s deep intake of breath that heralded clearly that a talk was about to happen.

“Anne?” came the slightly muffled voice from somewhere between her shoulder and her neck.

“Hmm?”

“You know I love you more than anything, don’t you?”

The voice was still soft, and Anne wasn’t sure if the tinge of insecurity she heard in it was real or imagined. God, what can I say? In this situation? Anne knew why Shana was asking, and the tears that in her eyes out of nowhere told her that she had been a total ass.

“Yes, baby, I know,” she rasped, shame and love coloring her voice. “I love you, too. I love you and I trust you with my heart,” she added. When there was no response from the blonde woman, she continued. “You know that, don’t you?”

She rolled them both over, hating the fact that she couldn’t see into her lover’s eyes in their position. Now, lying on her side, she propped her head on her elbow and lifted Shana’s face with her free hand. “Baby?”

Shana looked at her, with her face buried in a pillow. Anne thought she looked absolutely adorable, but she was too worried by her lover’s lack of reaction to act on her instinct to kiss her lover. “So,” Shana suddenly spoke, “you trust me with your heart, but not with your body. Is that it?”

Anne felt that question like a slap and pulled her head back in a sudden motion. “No, that’s—-”

“Anne,” the blonde woman interrupted her. “I’m sorry, that didn’t come out the way I wanted it to.”

“No, Shea, I think it’s exactly what you wanted to say.” Anne swallowed. “And I can understand it, but it’s not true. It’s not true.” She leaned over and kissed her lover’s head and when she wasn’t pushed away, did it again. “Let’s talk about this. Please?”

Shana nodded and moved closer to Anne, needing to feel the connection between them. She knew deep down that Anne was right and that it wasn’t a matter of trust, but for a second she’d had doubts. I think I really want this, and I need to know if she’ll be able to let go of her need to be in charge.

Somehow Anne knew she had to start this time. “You’re right,” she began hesitantly, “I’ve never done that before. I thought I could do it with you, but I sort of panicked and …”

“Why did you panic?” Shana seemed calm and collected now. She brushed disheveled bangs from Anne’s eyes. “Were you afraid that I would hurt you?”

“No, no, not at all,” Anne replied as she took Shana’s hand into her own and kissed it. “It’s just that … that …” Jesus, how do I explain it to her without sounding like a complete asshole? “I’ve always been the dominant partner in bed.” She shook her head. “You probably couldn’t even call me a partner because most of the time I didn’t even think about the other person’s feelings. Everything was only about me, about my …” She hesitated.

“Power?”

A nod. “My power, my release, my will, my control.” She looked straight into Shana’s eyes. “And it was never done lovingly because I never loved any of the people I was with.” She paused. “I hurt people, Shea,” she murmured, “because I needed to be in control.”

“I’m asking you again. Did you really think I’d hurt you?” Shana ducked her head to be able to look into Anne’s now downcast eyes. She didn’t believe that Anne was afraid of being physically hurt, and she wanted her lover to see it, too.

Anne shook her head. “N-no, I really wasn’t. I know it’s hard to understand, but that’s not it.” She trailed off, not knowing what else to say.

“I know it’s not easy to explain, sweetheart, but I really want to know. Please, try.”

“When I was lying there, naked, I … I felt so weak.” A shiver went through Anne’s body. Then she mumbled something that Shana didn’t understand.

“What was that, honey?”

Anne looked up at her, feeling almost silly for having to repeat herself. Her mind had been working a mile a minute during their conversation and it occurred to her that there was really only one reason why she had panicked before. “I said I didn’t know what to do.”

“You didn’t know what to do,” Shana repeated. About what?

“Yes. That’s why I reacted the way I did. I didn’t know what to do.” Anne sounded almost happy now that she had voiced what she had discovered. “You didn’t do anything and I didn’t know how you feel and …”

Shana could have slapped herself over the head when she realized what her lover was saying. She wrapped her arms around Anne and snuggled as close as she could. “Honey, I was admiring your beauty. I thought about where to start. How to touch your body. You’re so beautiful and I wanted to touch you everywhere at once. All I wanted you to do was react to my touch.”

The blonde woman looked into her lover’s face and pulled it down for a searing kiss that left them both breathless after it ended. She went back for another kiss, trying to put all her love and desire into it. Her hands roamed over Anne’s strong back, tracing and gripping well-defined muscles and scratching lightly with blunt nails.

Anne let out a strangled groan from deep in her chest when the wave of desire hit her. She kissed Shana back, deeply, possessively and passionately. Her hands began to wander and she began to turn their bodies so she was lying on top of Shana.

At least she tried to.

She was met by a gentle, but strong resistance that she hadn’t expected. Remembering what they had been talking about before the fire had erupted in her veins, she acquiesced and let herself be pushed onto her back. Shana was extremely gentle in her movement, all the time kissing Anne deeply while slowly pressing her down onto the mattress and crawling on top of her.

Once she had Anne on her back Shana began to run her hands up and down her lover’s sides, starting at the thighs and ending at the shoulders. Anne relaxed into the touch and let her arms fall to the side. With every upward stroke, Shana pushed Anne’s arms further up until her hands were level with the headboard again.

Anne was getting almost dizzy from the intensity of the kisses and the lack of oxygen, but it was way too nice to stop. When her hands finally touched the wood of the headboard she caught on to what her lover was doing. By then, she was so aroused that she didn’t want to stop. I want her so much, she thought and gripped the headboard.

Shana lifted her body away from Anne’s, slowly pulling out of the searing kiss they were sharing. Several nips at her lover’s lips later she moved far enough to be able to look into Anne’s eyes, which opened when the tall woman noticed her withdrawal. The blonde woman could clearly read the question in the blue eyes. “I love you, Anne,” she whispered. “Please, let me make love to you.”

Anne could only nod. She’d do anything to feel those lips on hers again, to feel her lover’s touch. Shana once more got on her knees, but instead of sitting next to Anne, she straddled her thighs to let the dark-haired woman know that she was very close by. She swallowed hard when she saw the trust displayed in the blue eyes that gazed at her. Trust and desire.

Shana ran her hands up and down Anne’s body again, never staying too long in one place and never touching where her lover wanted her the most. Her fingertips lazily drew concentric circles around two very attentive nipples, getting closer and closer which each turn, but never touching. When the blonde sensed that Anne was about to collapse from sheer anticipation, she took both nipples between her thumbs and index fingers and tugged on them.

Anne let out a low growl that was quickly followed by a moan that she couldn’t have stopped had she wanted to. She was almost past being aroused at the moment. She was incredibly wet and knew that if Shana touched her, really touched her, she would explode into a million little pieces.

It surprised her to no end how excited she was getting from her lover’s touch. Not being in control, giving herself over to the woman she loved with all her heart, made her feel strong instead of weak all of a sudden. Now that she knew that her lover expected her only to enjoy their lovemaking, she had the freedom to do exactly that.

A rather sharp tug on her nipples brought her back from her thoughts and made her groan. Shana leaned down to swallow any more groans with her mouth as she covered Anne’s lips in another fiery kiss. Then she moved lower, first nibbling on a long neck before descending on the two hardened peaks that almost looked like frozen raspberries by now, deeply red and very hard. The blonde grinned and took the right one into her mouth, sucking very gently before biting down and giving the straining nipple a sharp nip. Then she moved over to its twin to grant it the same treatment.

Anne tried to stay as motionless as she could, even though Shana hadn’t told her to. She just had the feeling that it would enhance her lover’s pleasure, and so she tried to calm her body’s natural movement down. But when Shana began sucking and nipping on her nipples, her hips began to move in a rhythm with Shana’s mouth. And there was nothing she could do about it.

Shana moved even lower, licking a hot trail across Anne’s toned stomach, following every movement the heaving muscles made. Anne was panting by now, trying to draw in deep breaths, but it felt like it was never enough. The dark-haired woman felt butterfly kisses on her stomach and then Shana’s tongue dipped into her navel, nearly making her jump off the bed as her desire rose yet another notch. God, I’m going to come soon if she isn’t careful.

Shana enjoyed the almost constant moans and groans coming from her lover, but she knew that she had to release her soon if she didn’t want to tease her too long. She also felt the desire that was burning in her belly and she too wanted to find release. Soon.

She scooted backwards on her lover’s legs, and by the groan that escaped Anne, the tall woman could feel Shana’s wetness on her thighs.

“Oh, God, baby, please,” Anne panted in a very deep voice that spoke of heat and desire. “Please … touch me, I can’t stand it … no more.”

Shana ran her hands up her lover’s thighs, trailing her thumbs very close to Anne’s sex. She didn’t want to torture Anne too much this first time, especially since she knew that she would definitely want to do this again. She also wanted to be in Anne’s position and offer her lover her vulnerability.

She dipped her fingers into Anne’s slick folds, drawing another groan from the tall woman. This one sounded almost relieved. Shana moved one of her legs between Anne’s thighs to give herself more room, and Anne eagerly spread her legs. The blonde woman leaned down and took a deep breath of her lover’s intoxicating aroma, wanting nothing more than to bury herself in it forever. She leaned in and reverently kissed the dark hair just above her hands and nuzzled her nose into the short coarse hair. Her tongue darted out to taste her lover.

A shot rang out clearly from somewhere close in the house, scaring the hell out of both women.

Anne’s eyes flew open and her heart threatened to beat out of her chest. Shana jumped almost a foot off the bed, looking very confused and cursing like a Greek sailor on a mission to hell.

“What … what the hell was that?” Anne snarled as she let go of the headboard and came into a sitting position. Her body didn’t think for a second that this was funny. All she wanted to do was get down on her back again and be loved.

She also knew that something not good had happened. Her mother didn’t have any guns in the house, and the only person she knew who had one was Carol. Maybe there’s an intruder somewhere on the grounds. Oh God, Mom.

She scrambled out of bed and noted with surprise that her legs weren’t really holding her up. She sat down on the side of the bed and took a deep breath, trying to calm her still-raging arousal to a manageable level. A level where I don’t spontaneously combust when I leave this bed. She turned around to her lover, who hadn’t moved. The blonde only groaned.

“Come on, baby,” Anne said, “we need to go see what happened.”

Shana only stared at her. “Oh God, please let’s ignore it.” She moved towards her lover, trying to pull her back onto the bed.

Anne gently disentangled herself. “Shea, come on. Someone might be hurt.”

Shana gingerly moved off the bed, trying to stay on her own two feet. “Oh, believe me,” she growled, “for that someone will get hurt.” And then she started to throw on some clothes.

Despite the situation, Anne had to chuckle at her lover’s behavior. She felt just the same way about their predicament and was constantly telling her body to calm down and not jump on the blonde, but she was also drawn to where the shot had come from.

They got dressed without saying another word and moved over to the door. Before they left the room, Anne felt a hand on her arm. She opened the door and turned.

“Anne,” Shana whispered, suddenly very serious, “whatever happened here is probably not good. Please promise me you’ll be careful. I love you.”

The dark head nodded once and they walked down the hall towards the kitchen.

Chapter 38
It was quiet in the kitchen. Only the sound of tiny bits of plaster raining down from the ceiling disturbed the mostly shocked silence. On the dark hardwood floor an Australia-shaped piece of the ceiling lay peacefully, surrounded by little white islands of plaster, which continued to fall from above.

Disgustedly, Carlos watched as his black leather shoes were covered by fine white dust, and his eyes sought out the person he felt was responsible.

Fritz Hinkel was lying in a heap on the floor, about two feet from the door. His wife was kneeling next to him, watching his closed eyes with trepidation. Then the gray eyes opened with a tiny flutter and the old man let out a small groan.

“What the hell did you think you were doing, old man?” Carlos’s voice was a rough bark, made loud by the total absence of other sound in the room. There was a glint in his eyes that Irene didn’t like one bit.

The handsome man motioned for everyone in the kitchen to go back to where the big table was. Reluctantly, Kevin and Mike got their muscles to move them away from the dark-haired man, pulling and lifting Dr. Hinkel with them. Mrs. Hinkel followed silently, her gaze never leaving her husband’s face.

When they reached the table, they sat the old man down on one of the chairs, and his wife squatted down next to him. With a shaking hand, she gently moved the thin gray hair from his forehead, then rested her palm on his cheek.

“Mir geht’s gut, Liebes.” I’m fine, love, he whispered in German to his wife, who nodded and swallowed.

Then she nailed Carlos with a look that Irene never would have thought possible from such an elderly and petite woman. Well, well … there sure is steel there. Almost as good as Anne’s, she chuckled silently.

Then all mirth fled her mind as she stared at Carlos, standing her ground and still refusing to move. She was about four feet away from him, trying to appear as calm as possible, although her heart was still hammering from the excitement of the scuffle before. Her eyes moved back to Carlos’ face and watched as his eyes moved over her for a long moment. A malicious gleam entered the blue eyes and Irene swallowed. She and Carlos had never been … friends. And now … Irene watched his eyes a moment longer. Now he’s as crazy as a Greek goatherd after three bottles of ouzo. Just you wait, you’ll be in a lot of trouble, old girl …

A lazy grin worked its way slowly across Carlos’s features. It wasn’t friendly, and he knew it. He knew everything about the effect of his smile. He saw the pulse pick up in his prey’s pulse point and felt himself react with almost visceral joy. He loved this, loved instilling fear in others. Then he watched as Irene straightened her shoulders, raised her chin, and gave him a smile of her own.

The grin slipped from his face for a split second as he felt the challenge. Well, she has guts, he admitted to himself. He remembered the gun he was still holding in his hand. Right now it was pointing to the floor since he had pulled his arm down after the shot had rung out. His malicious smile returned as he slowly raised his arm until the gun in his hand pointed right between Irene’s eyes.

“Move,” he whispered.

Irene just stood there. Even if she wanted to move – and by now her head had almost won the fight over her stubborn heart – she felt she couldn’t. Her feet were frozen to the floor. God, I can’t believe I’m scared. Why should I be? I’ve got nothing to lose. Nothing! Get your act together here! Still, her feet wouldn’t move.

“Okay,” Carlos said in his cultured voice, “then don’t move.” He raised the gun another fraction of an inch. “It will be my pleasure to see you move … right down to the floor.” He gave her a wide smile. “You deserve it anyway.”

His finger tightened on the trigger. Ooh, this was too good to be true. The mere thought of killing Irene sent a fuzzy feeling of delight up and down his spine. She had always been so … nice to him, he thought disgustedly. And yet, he had always been sure that she had never really liked him.

When he had been living with the Patakis family, he had always known that he never stood a chance against the affection Irene had for her own children, and especially not against Pete. Lovable, stupid as a rock, Pete. Thinking about the blond, gentle boy with the silly grin still made him want to throw up. He’d have loved to have killed that one, but who knew the little bugger had it in him to do the charitable deed himself…

He almost, almost laughed out loud at that thought. Well, too late for that, he mentally shrugged. But there was still Irene and the more he thought about it, the more her stubbornness delighted him. He fixed his gaze on her eyes, letting his intent show clearly and unmistakably, and felt a rush of exultation when he saw the older woman’s eyes widen in the knowledge that her time was just about coming to an end.

He was surprised, however, that her eyes remained open and kept on staring right into his. He got angry at the feeling of grudging respect her behavior evoked in him, and tightened his hold on the gun, moving the barrel a fraction of an inch until the gun pointed exactly to one of Irene’s eyes. That’ll teach her to look at me like that.

His finger tensed on the trigger, and he saw how those haunting eyes finally, finally slipped shut. Surprised, he almost relaxed his hold on the gun, but shook the feeling off. Get it done already.

Suddenly, there was a noise from outside, which distracted him. Remembering why he had come to this godforsaken house in the first place, he lowered the gun until it pointed at Irene’s chest. “Go to the others, Irene.” His voice sounded almost weary.

Irene’s eyes opened slowly, a light of stunned surprise showing clearly in them.

“I’ll kill you later if I still want to. You’re not who I’m here for,” Carlos continued, ears straining for further sounds from outside. “Not really,” he added softly.

Irene found the strength in her legs to walk over to the table. Once there, she sank onto a chair and laid her head down on her folded hands on the table. What had seemed to her like hours, she realized, went by in seconds, probably barely noticed by the others.

Kevin leaned over to her and touched her shoulder. “Are you okay?” he whispered. “What happened?”

I should be dead by now. I could see it clearly. He wanted to kill me. Whatever did I do to him to deserve that look of hatred in his eyes?

“I’m –”

Irene’s answer was prevented by the sound of the door, which opened at that moment to reveal a smiling sheriff. Carol entered the kitchen from outside, apparently without a care in the world. Her service gun was held almost casually in her right hand, which rested on her thigh as she walked more fully into the room. She swiped the room with her eyes without moving her head much, then she faced Carlos and stopped moving near the table, putting herself between Carlos and most everyone else.

“Hello, Carlos.” The blonde woman’s greeting was very friendly. “Long time no see.” Then she chuckled, almost feeling the shock on the faces behind her. She waved her arm, pointing with her gun behind her without taking her eyes from Carlos’ face.

The dark-haired man seemed confused for a second, but obviously wasn’t worried by the sheriff’s sudden appearance. He gave her a short nod in greeting, then smiled at her. “Good to see you, Carol. How are you doing?”

“Oh, I’m fine,” came the casual reply. “And I’ll be even better when this is all over.”

Irene’s whole body tensed at the display before her. I don’t believe it. She’s working with … him. Her disgusted mind refused to even think his name. And I was just about beginning to respect her. She put her hands flat on the table top, ready to push herself into a standing position and throw herself at the traitor.

Kevin noticed the older woman’s movement and put his hands on her shoulders in a calming gesture. Please, stay calm. He tried to communicate through touch, not knowing if it was safe to speak at that moment. Wait, this is not over yet. He just hoped that Irene was receptive to his thoughts.

Mike inched closer to his lover and put one of his hands onto his lover’s hand on Irene’s left shoulder, adding more solid weight in an attempt to ground Irene. His other hand found its way around the blond man’s waist in a silent show of support. They both knew the woman’s temper and realized that she would only endanger herself if they allowed her to get up. Kevin shot his lover a grateful half-smile.

Irene felt the weight on her shoulders and recognized the gesture for what it was. Her mind struggled for a moment, but her body won out and she let herself relax into the solid presence behind her chair. Thanks, boys. She looked up at Kevin and Mike’s faces and gave them a nod. They patted her shoulder in return and reduced the pressure of their hands a bit.

Irene focused her attention on Carlos again, but her eyes constantly strayed to where the sheriff was standing slightly in her line of sight. The blonde woman still held her gun in a casual position against her right leg. Then she noticed the rigid posture of the back before her, and she got a closer look at the seemingly relaxed sheriff.

Huh … Her eyes flickered from the rigid back to the sheriff’s hand as inconspicuously as possible and a tiny kernel of … something … took hold in her mind. Well, well, well …

Just then, Carlos turned to their little group again. He had studied the sheriff for a few moments and had managed to get his emotions under some semblance of control again. “Okay,” his silky voice cut into the quiet of the room, “let’s stop playing silly games. You know who I’m here for.” He paused. “Where is she?”

****

Anne felt Shana very close behind her as they moved along the hall as fast as possible while still trying to be quiet. Anne had a churning feeling in her guts, which got stronger the closer they got to the kitchen. Her hands were clammy, and having her lover’s equally sweaty hand bunching up her shirt in the small of her back didn’t exactly make that any better.

They could hear a voice coming from the kitchen now, a very low murmur, but everything seemed to be rather quiet otherwise. After the shot that had scared them out of their little haven the quiet now almost seemed surreal to Anne. There was the voice again, this time a little easier to understand. Easy enough for Anne to know who was talking.

Oh, God. She felt sick to her stomach all of a sudden and almost curled herself into a ball right where she was standing. Not him. Her mind reeled with the knowledge that Carlos was in the kitchen with her mother and probably all of her friends, and that he had probably been the one who had been shooting before. No, no, no. She tried to keep calm, but the nausea she always felt when he was near threatened to overwhelm her.

She felt an arm go around her waist from behind, steadying her and keeping her grounded in the here and now. There was a comforting hand on her back and a touch between her shoulder blades that felt curiously like a kiss. Anne took a deep breath and felt herself connect to the calm her lover brought her, and she realized with a feeling of almost primal pleasure that the nausea and the anxiety loosened their hold on her under her lover’s touch.

The brunette patted the arm that had her body in a very firm hold and felt the muscles under her hand relax slightly. She half turned and gave her lover a grave look.

“Carlos.” Shana’s very quiet, mumbled comment was not a question. To Anne’s ears it sounded almost like a curse. She nodded and leaned to whisper directly into Shana’s ear. “How did you know?”

“I’ll tell you after this is all over,” came the whispered reply. “It wasn’t too hard to figure out.”

Anne nodded again and looked at the kitchen door that was about 10 or 12 feet down the hall. Her fingers clenched and her muscles tensed up as she concentrated on the noise coming from that room again. She heard the outer door to the kitchen open and close, and heard Carlos and Carol’s friendly, if somewhat hesitant, greeting.

“Damn.” It came out without her being aware of it. She mentally kicked herself in the butt. I shouldn’t have trusted her, I should have known better. If she hurts my family, I’m going to kill her. A growl left her chest and it was rewarded by a questioning look from her blonde lover. “Carol,” was her simple response to the curiosity in the green eyes.

After a nod from Shana, she straightened her shoulders and mentally prepared herself for the confrontation. Maybe … A thought suddenly occurred to her and she turned to face Shana again. “I think it would be better if you went over to my house, baby.” Seeing the blonde open her mouth she continued before Shana could object. “I need to know you’re safe while I go see what that slime wants.”

Shana shook her head vigorously. “No way.”

“Please?”

“No,” the blonde hissed. “Anne, I can’t let you go in there alone. Look how you reacted just a minute ago. You need me in there.”

Anne took a deep breath, trying to come up with something that would convince her lover to leave. The truth was she knew that there was really nothing she could say that would make Shana leave, and secretly she loved that. She was also very worried. Carlos had tried to kill her lover, after all. Maybe I should remind her of that.

She opened her mouth, but a clear voice from the kitchen prevented anything from coming out. “Okay, let’s stop playing silly games,” Carlos’s voice came sneaking around the corner. “You know who I’m here for. Where is she?”

Anne and Shana looked at each other. “You just ran out of arguments, honey,” the blonde whispered and patted her tall lover’s back comfortingly. Deep down she knew why Anne wanted her out of there, but she also knew that her lover would need her.

There had never been a question of neither of them going in to face Carlos. What good would it have done anyway? With the sheriff being in there, and in cahoots with Carlos, calling the sheriff’s department was out of the question. So, we’re both going in and maybe I can stop her from doing something crazy … She heard another, almost animalistic sound from her normally peaceful lover’s chest. Then again, maybe not. She sighed. She had never seen Anne like this, and it scared her a bit, but she put that feeling away and gave Anne a shaky smile.

“Let’s go, sweetheart,” she whispered.

“I love you, Shana,” came Anne’s very serious reply. “Please, be careful in there.”

She waited for the expected nod before she took the blonde’s hand. She ignored the clammy feeling of both their palms as they walked steadily towards the kitchen door.

What the hell are we doing here? was Anne’s last thought before they reached the kitchen and stopped just in front of the open door.

Chapter 39

Anne knew she probably only had a couple of heartbeats before Carlos noticed their presence. If that long. She decided to make them count.

The truth was that her reaction when she had realized that it was indeed Carlos in the kitchen had scared her. She had thought that having those kinds of anxiety attacks was far behind her. That the attack she had during that Christmas party years ago was the last time her body would ever subject her to that particularly unpleasant ordeal. Obviously, she was wrong. Just the sound of his voice had been enough to almost make her sick, and only Shana’s close presence had prevented her breaking down into a shivering mess right there.

She hated that.

She hated Carlos for the power he held over her emotions and she hated herself for giving him control over her body’s reactions like that.

And in that one single moment, when she had felt her lover’s clammy hand bunched up in her shirt at the small of her back, she’d let that feeling wash right through her. For just one gut-clenching moment, she opened herself to the feelings of panic with a completeness that she had never before consciously allowed. She was close to throwing up, but she willingly conjured up an image of Carlos in her mind that focused her feelings on the rage she felt.

It was better to hate him than be controlled by him. Much better.

Having the image in her mind of Carlos holding Shana close was really helping her along the way.

Much to her surprise, it worked. She shook off the panicky feeling and decided that from now on, she would gain control. Act, not react, she told herself, just like you do on the court.

And so, as if walking onto a center court for an important match, she tried to take in everything she needed to know about the atmosphere in the kitchen with one look around. Her eyes scanned the layout of the room, resting only for fractions of a second on the things she noted in her head, in the space that was reserved for match strategies.

This ability to take it all in during her first steps on the court, and to absorb the new situation early enough to be able to act, not react, had saved a lot of close matches for her during her long career.

Act, not react.

Carlos was standing several feet in front of her and to her right, in the center and with his back to the huge L-shaped kitchen counter. He was holding a gun and seemed to be agitated. Hmm. Anne stored that away in her mind’s game plan zone. He’s nervous. The dark-haired man was facing her mother’s enormous table and right now, that table was surrounded by her friends and her mother.

The Hinkels and Mishka were huddled to one end of the table, as far away from Carlos as they could get and still be in the room. It seemed as if Fritz Hinkel was a bit shaken up and his wife was obviously trying to take care of him. The old woman was apparently quite worried about her husband. I wonder if that has anything to do with the shot we heard. I hope he’s not wounded.

Her mother was sitting at the table, defiantly facing Carlos. Boy, is she mad. Anne knew that expression. She saw that Mike and Kevin both had a hand on her mother’s shoulder, either to give her some silent support or to hold her back. Anne gave a soundless sigh. Probably the latter.

Between Carlos and the group at the table was the sheriff. Carol, Anne’s mind growled.

Carlos didn’t seem to be worried about her presence, even though she saw that the blonde woman was armed. That hardened her belief that Carol had betrayed her – again – and was working with Carlos. The thought was hard to swallow for her since she had really started to like the woman. She was certain they could have ended up being friends after all. Too damn bad.

Then again, her mother didn’t seem to be worried either, at least not by the woman standing in front of her. Irene’s anger was definitely focused on Carlos. Directly in front of her? Anne’s mind turned that thought over in her head. It could also mean that the sheriff was shielding her mother, protecting her from Carlos. She stored the sheriff away as an unknown factor. Knowing she was running out of time, Anne decided to make her presence known.

Act, not react.

Okay, first serve. “Hello, Carlos,” she said casually. He almost, almost whirled around to face her. “What do you want?” Admittedly, not the most brilliant of serves. Definitely no ace. But it got the ball on his side of the net. Let’s see what he does with it.

****

Shana did her own bit of watching and thinking when they reached the door to the kitchen. She was still reeling from the realization that it was very obviously Carlos in that room, and she was still stunned by the reason she’d known that without a doubt. If her own guts hadn’t hinted in his direction, Anne’s anxiety attack sure served as a really big hint.

Shana had only ever seen her lover like that once, years ago at that damn Christmas party. Back then it had been a reaction to Anne’s seeing Carlos dancing with her. It had also come totally out of left field for Shana since she hadn’t had a clue of the history Anne and Carlos shared and was completely unprepared for Anne’s reaction to what she assumed was a normal meeting. She could only imagine what her lover felt like now. Now she knew better. Much better.

What was interesting, though, was the fact that Anne had visibly, and through the connection of their touch tangibly, pulled herself together just now. She even had produced a small nod as if she had made a decision about something, which had changed her behavior in the span of a few seconds.

Shana could also remember the cold sweat she could feel gathered in the small of her lover’s back from those few seconds.

Now … now they were facing the enemy. To the blonde, Carlos was just that. Nothing more, nothing less. He is not important, she told herself, a little surprised at the thought. She felt the truth of it nonetheless. Anne is and our baby is, but Carlos is just a nuisance. She also realized, however, that her thoughts were probably more wishful thinking than anything else.

Unconsciously, her hand covered her abdomen, her mind able to conjure up images of what could happen faster than she could push them away. There was truth in those images as well, she knew.

Carlos would not be easy to get rid of and they’d all be lucky just to survive the day.

She let her eyes sweep over the kitchen as best she could from her position behind Anne, registering everyone’s positions much as she would unconsciously register the layout of a court and the presence of the crowd.

Her eyes hit the tall form of Kevin Delaney and her blood began to boil.

She was still extremely angry on Anne’s behalf, even though her lover had told her that everything had been cleared between her and Kevin. How can everything be cleared when he doesn’t even know what he made you do? Oh, Kevin, just you wait until this is over. If we all survive this, I’m going to kill you myself. But I’ll be nice and won’t tell Mike why, she thought, remembering her promise to Anne.

She also figured that storming into the room and hitting Kevin would probably not be a good idea at the moment. Still, she couldn’t shake this feeling of … impatience … of wanting all of this to be over so she could hit Kevin over the head and grab Anne to be alone with her for the next nine months or so.

Nothing like getting your priorities straight, eh? Somewhere deep down inside of her, Shana realized that she was losing it a bit, but she really didn’t have a clue as to what to do about that.

She looked at her lover and saw the twitch at her eye that told her from years of experience that something was about to happen. Hmm, that’s exactly how you look when you’re about to serve for the match.

****

Everyone’s head turned in the direction of the door when Anne addressed Carlos. Everyone’s except Carol’s and Irene’s. The sheriff never took her eyes off Carlos and Irene never took her eyes off the sheriff.

Anne’s mother could see by the even more rigid back before her that this was not a development that Carol had foreseen or wanted. Her belief in the blonde sheriff strengthened a bit when she considered what the stronger grip on her gun might mean.

Carol groaned soundlessly. Anne, what the hell do you think you’re doing? Why can’t you leave this to the professionals? Her eyes shifted to Shana, who was still standing half-hidden by Anne’s taller body. And you had to drag the main target into this, too?

She realized her job just gotten a lot more difficult.

****

Carlos gave Anne a bright smile. “Anne,” he said with a voice that oozed fake pleasure, “so nice of you to join us.”

He gave her a very obvious once-over, as if taking in every curve, every strength, every weakness with that one long look. Then his eyes met that of the small blonde behind Anne. “I see you brought your bitch, too.” He nodded, seemingly confirming something in his own mind. “Why don’t you come in and join us?”

****

Anne bristled at Carlos’s comment about her lover and tensed all her muscles in an instinctual reaction and took a step forward. That return, she realized, had been aimed directly at her body, and there was no way for her to return the ball without leaving her even more open for attack. Still, her body wanted to move towards Carlos, and only the hand that took a firm grip on the back of her jeans held her back.

Shana took a deep breath, willing Anne to do the same over her connection to her lover’s back. As if the taller woman had heard her wish, the blonde woman felt the body close to hers breathe in deeply and exhale slowly, relaxing tensely coiled muscles while doing so.

Anne took another, deliberate step into the room, bringing both her and Shana closer to the center of activity. She was now standing not more than four or five feet in front of Carlos, who watched her every movement with cold blue eyes. Consciously, Anne stood as tall as she could, bringing her own height almost level with that of the man before her. She looked deeply into the eyes that were so similar to her own, lowering her voice to a deep growl when she repeated her question. “What do you want, Carlos?”

To her surprise, the tall man chuckled. “Oh, Anne,” he said with a smile that got nowhere close to his eyes, “I’ve missed you. You’re the only one I know who can make my name sound like a curse.”

“I doubt that,” came Shana’s voice from halfway behind her lover.

His smile vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. “I’ve come to get what’s mine, Anne.” His eyes traveled to Shana and he continued without taking his eyes off the green ones before him. “And you already knew that, didn’t you?”

Something in his voice made the tall woman nod, even though she really didn’t know. His voice, however, was persuasive and she felt compelled to agree with what he said.

He was there to get what he perceived as his.

Shana.

She pulled her eyes from his and looked over to her mother, trying to gauge her reaction to Carlos’s words. Irene looked mostly confused, as if she didn’t really know what he was talking about. The older woman shrugged almost invisibly as she met her daughter’s eyes, before she turned her gaze back to the man with the gun.

Shana was more than confused. She didn’t understand what Carlos was hinting at. She had never been his, he had rarely hinted at wanting her – except for the rape, which she put down to other reasons than his undying love for her – and only ever when Anne was somewhere in the vicinity. She went over his words again, saw him looking at her again in her mind’s eye, and suddenly knew just what exactly he was talking about. She gasped, her hand clenching the waistband of her lover’s jeans even tighter.

Anne turned to her lover when she heard the gasp and felt the grip in the small of her back. The question in her eyes turned to concern when she saw the strange look in the green eyes, but before she could ask Shana what was wrong, the blonde woman shook her head and went back to watching Carlos.

Looking at Shana brought Anne’s brain back on track and she realized that Carlos wasn’t making sense.

****

Carlos saw the confusion dawning in Anne’s eyes, saw uncertainty taking over. He had enjoyed every second of his visit and so far only Carol’s presence had surprised him. He wondered what she was doing there in the middle of nowhere, but assumed that she was there for the same reasons he was. To take revenge and to have some fun.

He motioned for Anne and Shana to walk over to where the rest of the group was huddled and he rejoiced in the reluctance with which the two moved. Keeping everyone on one side of the room made keeping them under control that much easier. Not that he had any doubt he could control them, no matter the circumstances. He knew he was good and he had every incentive to end things right there. His future depended on it.

Besides, it is just so much … fun, he thought with a small smile.

He noticed that Anne and Shana had walked up to where Carol was standing and had stopped to stand to her left, effectively putting themselves between his gun and the rest of the people in the room. Nice try, Anne, but so very unnecessary. I don’t care about any of them and I’ll just kill them when you’re out of the way.

He chuckled and raised his gun.

****

If there was one feeling in the world that Anne hated, it was not being in control. Closely followed by not knowing what was going on. Right now, she was experiencing both feelings and she felt herself nearing the edge of reason because of it.

Ever since Shana’s accident, or forced accident, she had been so certain that Carlos was after her lover, that he had some sinister plan that involved Shana. But his behavior now didn’t match that and neither did his words. She had seen in Shana’s eyes that the blonde had realized that as well. She also had the feeling that her lover was one step ahead of her in this game.

So … if it’s not about Shana, what is it about? She tried to concentrate on that question while she slowly and against better knowledge made her way over to the table. She knew she was playing into Carlos’s hand as they would all be on the same side of the room, and instead of diverting his focus her only chance now was to put herself between the gun and her family.

She knew she would do it in a heartbeat, knew she would do whatever it took to save her lover. But she also knew that she didn’t want to have to do it. She didn’t want to die just yet, not now when the strands of her tattered life were finally coming together to form a nice picture. No way.

She focused on the strong hand in the small of her back that was making tiny constant circles against the fabric of her shirt and suddenly she knew what this was all about. The clue hit her where it really hurt. It was about her, had probably always been about her. With that realization came the earth-shattering conviction that she was indeed very much responsible for the death of her brother and all the pain that Shana had to go through at Carlos’s hands.

Her head whirled around and she looked straight into eyes that were the exact shade of blue hers were. She could see the amusement in them, could see that her nemesis was having fun at their expense. She was determined to make that stop.

Somehow.

When Carlos grinned at her, Anne turned her face and looked at Carol instead. Her hard gaze was met with an unflinching look from brown eyes and a grim expression on the sheriff’s face. Again, something was off with this picture and Anne’s eyes strayed over to her mother’s for a clue. Irene gave her a half-smile and an almost unnoticeable nod.

Just then, the sheriff spoke up. “Come on, my friend, do what he says. Trust me, it’s for your own good.”

The choice of words made Anne look at the sheriff again and this time she imagined she could see an almost pleading look in the tall woman’s eyes. That look brought Anne face to face with her number one problem again. Can I hand control over to her? Can I trust her with my life, Shana’s life?

Do I have a choice?

Chapter 40

Shana watched Anne’s almost visible indecision with trepidation. She willed her lover to do Carlos’s bidding, if only to gain some time to think. She tried to keep one eye on Carlos while not letting Anne out of her eyes. That proved to be difficult since Carlos was more or less at her back now and the more she thought about that fact, the more she felt the urge to turn fully around and look at him. The space between her shoulder blades was itching, a sure sign to her that something was about to happen.

The blonde woman decided to ignore her own body and concentrated on her lover’s body language again. Relieved, she realized that Anne was moving a bit closer to the table and Carol, and she wasn’t surprised when she found herself shoved gently behind her tall lover. If the situation hadn’t been so dire, she would have smiled at Anne’s protective gesture. Unfortunately, she was certain that she probably wasn’t the one needing the protection at the moment.

Anne was frantically trying to come up with a way to resolve the situation that would ensure all of them got out alive. Okay, so she wouldn’t mind if Carlos didn’t make it out safe and sound. Apart from him, though, she felt it was her responsibility to get everyone out.

She realized with dismay that she had absolutely no idea how to do that. If you had read more mysteries instead of old classics, you might have a clue how to behave in a situation like this. But no, you never liked them.

She had, however, seen quite a few movies during long, lonely hours in hotel rooms and she tried to remember them. Okay, this is normally where we get the bad guy to confess everything and lead us to the missing girl. Something tells me that won’t work with Carlos. She mentally shook her head at their situation.

Still, now she could at least understand why the people on the dangerous end of firearms in those movies always talked to their assailants. They were probably just as curious as she was right now. All she wanted to know at the moment was why Carlos was doing was he was doing and why he had been trying to ruin her life for as long as she could remember.

“Why are you doing this, Carlos?” The question was out before she could stop it, and for a second Anne had the feeling that it stopped all movement, all thought, and all sound right with it. Even Carlos looked stunned, so she decided to simply go with it. “Why have you always tried to make my life miserable? What did I ever do to you?”

Carlos seemed to really think about those questions for a few heartbeats, absently running the fingers of his free hand along his chin. Then he looked Anne right in the eye, showing a cold glint in his eyes and a cruel smile.

“Why do you think this is about you, Anne?” he asked very calmly. “Why should this be about you?”

Before Anne could answer he began to pace back and forth, two steps to the right, two steps to the left, between the kitchen counter and the back door. Then he continued, still in a thoughtful, quiet voice. “Not everything is about you, Anne. This,” he spread his arms wide, “isn’t about you.”

Shana gave a short snort at that, but remained quiet otherwise. Carol, however, had stiffened noticeably as soon as Carlos lifted his gun to make his open arms gesture, and Anne imagined she could almost hear the sheriff’s grip on her gun tighten. That made two things very clear to her: one, the sheriff was most probably on their side. Two, she needed to get Carlos attention away from the table and their little group. Maybe talking does work.

“Okay,” Anne replied, “what is it about, then?” She started a little pacing of her own, just two tiny baby steps in the direction of the back door, and one baby step back. Her idea was to get as close to the door as she could, so Carlos would have to divide his attention between her and the others who would be standing to the side then. Her eyes never left Carlos’s face; she was always ready to stop moving if he seemed to mind. Surprisingly, he didn’t even seem to notice. “Tell me what it is about, Carlos, because you sure made me think it was about me all those years.”

The tall man seemed to notice Anne’s movements for the first time and for a second Anne feared he’d make her stop or just shoot her. But then he just gave her an intense look and obviously came to a decision. His gun slowly moved until it was pointed straight at her chest, and it kept moving in time with her steps.

“Do you know that you stole my life, Anne?” The question sounded almost contemplative, like a philosophical proposition. “Look at me and tell me you really think this is about you.” He stared intently at the tennis player, who was more or less just rolling back and forth on the balls of her feet. He waited for an answer that didn’t come.

To say that Anne was confused would have been an understatement. Why would she have stolen his life? What the hell is he talking about? She repressed the urge to turn her head and look at her mother and Shana for an answer, but it was hard.

“What are you talking about?” came Shana’s voice right then, mirroring Anne’s thoughts almost exactly. When Carlos looked at the blonde woman, she continued. “To me it looks a lot like this is about Anne and … maybe even about me.”

Her voice was getting louder and harsher with each word, and Anne could feel the rage building in her lover. She knew that if she didn’t do something soon, Shana might get herself in some real trouble. She looked at Carlos and saw a crazy gleam in his eyes that made her shiver. It also gave her an idea.

She turned toward her lover and made a calming gesture with her hands. “No, Shea, he’s right. It is all about him, don’t you see.” With a steady look into her lover’s eyes she tried to tell her that Shana needed to trust her and let her handle things right now. An almost imperceptible nod told her to go ahead. For a second Anne wondered if she had imagined it, but she plunged right on anyway.

She turned a bit to fully concentrate on Carlos, who was watching the whole scene with a mixture of bemusement and amusement, or so it seemed. The hand that was holding the gun also twitched in what Anne assumed was impatience. She knew she needed to act fast before someone got hurt.

“It’s all about you, Carlos. Isn’t it?” She looked straight into his cool blue eyes and made a baby step forward. “It was you who tried to rape me when I was fourteen. You who tortured my little brother. You who killed him. It was you who kidnapped those girls to do who knows what with them. You who took Daniela from her loving parents to lead her to a fate unknown. You raped Shana, and you tried to kill her by driving her off the road!”

Every “you” was emphasized by another baby step toward him and a little to the left so that she was standing closer to him and away from the group. Carlos had to concentrate on her or on the others, and he couldn’t aim the gun at both at the same time.

Anne had moved so close to him, she could grab for the gun with her outstretched arm, but she didn’t dare do that. She also didn’t dare take her eyes off Carlos, even though her lover’s gasp at the last bit nearly stopped her in the middle of her sentence. She knew she was gambling with the part about the accident, but she had known Carlos almost all her adult life and she was certain that the accident was his work. And by the look in his eyes, she was right.

Carlos’s eyes were getting colder by the second. They also took on another hue, one that she recognized as him losing control. She knew that she had surprised him with her move and that he was probably contemplating options now. She wasn’t sure that was a good thing.

She was also out of options now, she realized. She had made him mad, she could see that, but she had managed to get his focus away from her family. That, however, made her the only real target and she didn’t have a clue as to what she was supposed to be doing to keep Carlos off balance and herself and the others alive.

What scared her the most, though, was that Carlos was beginning to smile.

“You’re right, Anne,” Carlos said after only a couple of seconds, “this is about me, but not in the way you think it is.” His smile developed into a smirk, which made him look like he was laughing at a joke only he heard.

Which was probably exactly what was happening here, Anne mused.

“You don’t have the slightest idea what this is all about,” Carlos continued, still in the conversational tone he had managed to keep up the entire time. “And you’re just dying to know, aren’t you?” The way he drawled out the word “dying” made Anne shiver, but she stood her ground.

Carlos seemed disappointed by her lack of reaction, but he continued nonetheless. “Yes, I did some of the things you said I did, but darling, they happened so much differently than what you made them sound.” He chuckled and then looked over at Shana.

“Did you tell Anne I raped you, honey? I’m wounded.” He put his free hand on his heart in a mock show of hurt. Then, completely serious, he looked at Anne again. “Now why would I need to do that, Anne? Want me to tell you what really happened? Yes? Good.”

The last thing Anne wanted to hear was how Carlos viewed whatever had happened that night, but she threw Shana a completely unconscious glance. She knew her lover hadn’t lied to her, didn’t she? The question must have showed in her eyes because Shana’s eyes met hers and held the gaze unflinchingly, openly, and completely filled with a trust that Anne knew she had to return. She smiled a bit, letting Shana know the message was received.

“No, Carlos, I don’t want to hear whatever story you cooked up in your little demented mind,” she growled as she turned her eyes back to Carlos. “What I really want to know is why you did all those things. Why are you trying to ruin my life? What did I ever do to you? Why have you always tried everything you could to hurt me?”

“What do you mean? Trying to ruin your life?” Carlos’s question sounded almost sincere. “You don’t have a life, Anne! Your life is mine!” He shouted the last bit, but calmed down at once, obviously trying hard not to lose control. “Did she tell you how much she liked it when I fucked her, Anne? How she begged me to take her? How she wanted me not to stop? She belongs to me, Anne, just like everything you have belongs to me.”

He slowly raised the gun and pointed it at Shana’s belly. “And now that I’ve had her, I don’t need her anymore, just like you won’t need her anymore after tonight.” His finger tightened as he slowly pulled the trigger.

Shana closed her eyes, never having felt so helpless before. She didn’t want to see Anne’s pain when she was shot, but her eyes refused to stay shut in the face of death. Defiantly she focused on Carlos and the gun, while trying to keep one eye on her lover, who looked like she was rooted to the spot. I’m sorry, Anne. The time was too short. We should have done this so many years ago.

The sound of the gun going off was louder than anything Shana had ever heard and she was very surprised that she didn’t feel any pain. She did, however, feel the jostle when Carol shoved her toward a fast-moving Anne, who made it to where her lover was standing in one large leap.

Anne was frozen to the spot for all of a second before she realized that she had managed to bring her lover into a very dangerous situation. All she knew was that she had to get between Shana and the gun before Carlos pulled the trigger. The room around her disappeared until only she and her lover existed. The muscles in her thigh tensed and with a roar she leapt into the space between Carlos and the blonde woman who held her future.

~**~

It doesn’t really hurt that much, Anne thought. At least not as much as she expected it to. At least not for the first couple of seconds.

Then the burning began and Anne felt a groan erupt in her stomach that threatened to evolve into a scream on the way to her mouth and there was nothing she could do about it. Her right arm felt as if someone were slowly burning a hole through it with a hot poker.

Then a hand touched her hair and a voice reached her ear, sweet and soothing as a long shot of bourbon on a very cold night. Shana. She’s okay, I made it. That was everything that mattered, but then she remembered that there was someone responsible for the pain in her upper arm, and that they were probably still in grave danger.

She slowly opened her eyes and looked straight up into Shana’s face, which was wet with tears. “I’m okay,” she croaked with a half-grin, “doesn’t really hurt.” She tried to move from her position in Shana’s lap to see if someone else had been hit by the bullet that had gone right through her arm, and bit back a groan when the movement reached her injured arm.

She couldn’t see anyone else down, so she relaxed slightly and tried not to think about that any more than she had to. She turned her head to look for Carlos and saw him standing where he had been standing all the time, the gun still pointed at her and the woman she was almost lying on top of. He didn’t move, and Anne wondered why the grin had slipped off his face until she followed the line of his gaze and came to a gun that was being held somewhere above her face.

Carol. With a sigh Anne closed her eyes again and concentrated on the small hand that was continuously stroking her hair. The pain was slowly lessening and she opened her eyes again to take a look at the wound. The bullet had hit her upper arm, about four inches from the elbow. The hole didn’t look too big to her, but she didn’t have any experience whatsoever with gunshot wounds and could have done without this one as well.

What worried her was the copious amount of blood that was running from it.

~**~

It was becoming increasingly difficult for Mike and Kevin to hold Irene back. When Carlos had fired the shot at Shana the older woman had tensed, but when the shot actually hit her daughter she was halfway across the table in a very surprising lunge before the two men could grab her shoulders.

They pressed her down into her chair with all the power they could muster and could hardly keep her down. When Anne groaned in pain, Irene struggled even more. In the end, Kevin bent down and whispered in her ear, telling her that she couldn’t put herself into danger, too.

“Why didn’t she kill him?” the older woman hissed back. Kevin didn’t need to ask who she was referring to. He had wondered himself why the sheriff had been relatively passive.

“I was beginning to trust her and now she just lets that … that bastard … shoot my daughter!”

“Mom,” Kevin’s voice was soothing, although he wasn’t sure about the sheriff any longer, “she must have her reasons. She probably wants him to give her some information before she arrests him.” He was tenderly rubbing her shoulders, touching his lover’s hand at the same time and noticing the tremor in it. He quickly shot his lover a smile that was meant to be reassuring, but Mike’s frown told him that he hadn’t succeeded. He squeezed Mike’s hand and was rewarded with a short and strained smile.

He looked over to where Shana was pulling Anne into her lap and heard his best friend’s tortured groan. He closed his eyes in sympathy, feeling a little nauseous just at the thought of the pain she had to be enduring.

~**~

Irene was furious.

Not only with Carlos … no, she was also mad as hell at her daughter for jumping between the gun and her lover, though she knew that she didn’t have a choice. And she was really, really mad at Carol for not shooting Carlos when she had the chance.

However, now that it was too late, all she wanted was to check on her daughter. She smiled at Kevin and nodded, hoping he’d let her go. She understood why the boys had held her down, but she hadn’t liked it one bit. Kevin smiled back at her, seemingly understanding her wish, and took his hand from her shoulder. Seeing that, Mike followed his example and suddenly she was free to move.

Checking Carlos’s position and behavior from the corner of her eyes, she slowly inched towards the edge of the table to get closer to Anne. She realized that Dr. Hinkel was also there, lurking on the corner of the table, worriedly looking down at one of his patients. He looked alert, but not overly worried, which calmed Irene down. To her, the amount of blood seeping from her daughter’s arm looked too much, too dangerous.

Both of them ended up hovering at the edge of the scene, watching over Anne and Shana, waiting for a chance to get closer.

~**~

With a grimace, Fritz Hinkel watched the events playing out in the kitchen. His body hurt and he cursed himself for rushing Carlos as if he were twenty years younger. His rage had startled him into action–a rage he hadn’t thought possible for the pacifist he usually was. But faced with the man he knew had kidnapped and sold his daughter into what he assumed was a modern kind of slavery made him forget everything. Neither his age nor the fact that he and his wife abhorred violence mattered, and before he could think about what he was doing he had attacked the dark-haired man.

It’s a wonder I’m still alive, he thought. Instinctively, he looked around to his wife, expecting her to be angry at his foolishness. Instead, he found a warm, encouraging look and an expression in her eyes that he had never seen before and couldn’t read. His wife’s eyes travelled to where Anne Patakis lay on the ground in her lover’s arms and he could see the question in them.

The young woman was a big worry for him at the moment. He couldn’t get near enough to really take a look at the wound, but from what he could see he knew that the tennis player should be on her way to a hospital, not lying on a kitchen floor in the middle of nowhere.

He had done all he could, handing Shana his own sleeve to stop the bleeding. Now, the flow had slowed to a trickle, something he was infinitely grateful for. The wound had bled profusely in the beginning and he had been afraid that the bullet might have hit the brachial artery, although the blood didn’t get pumped out in spurts with every heartbeat.

Still, the bullet had gone through the arm, certainly doing all kinds of damage to the bone and dense muscle mass. But without taking a closer look he could only watch and wait.

~**~

Anne became faintly aware of her mother and Dr. Hinkel hovering in the background, watching her anxiously, and she tried to give them a sign that she was more or less okay. The older man whispered something to Shana and handed her something that turned out to be a sleeve of his shirt. She tied it around Anne’s arm and the tall woman bit back a scream when Shana tightened the knot and closed her wound tightly. She could do nothing to hold back the tears of pain, however, and her only comfort was the gentle touch of Shana’s fingers in her hair. Anne tried to get a grip on her pain and the nausea that followed it, and she tried not to give in to the overwhelming wish to just scream or slip into unconsciousness.

She closed her eyes just for a minute, letting herself fall into the darkness that hovered on the fringes of her mind. Her body slipped into relaxation and she missed the absolute terror on her lover’s and her mother’s faces when her own face relaxed as her body was released from the stress, if only for a minute or two. She also missed Dr. Hinkel’s caring hand on her mother’s shoulder and his whispered words, and the encouraging smile Irene gave Shana because of it.

Somehow, however, she did not miss the love that surrounded her, and the gentle touch of her lover’s fingers in her hair, and her mind clung to that instead of completely letting itself go into oblivion.

The moment of relative peace was broken rudely by a loud voice that even made it through the shield of her mind and pulled her back into the here and now.

“Enough of that!” Carlos’s voice boomed as if they had been given the time by his grace. He addressed the sheriff next. “Carol, put away that gun and stop fooling around. We both know you’re not going to hurt me. Hell, you hate her just as much as I do! Let’s just get on with this.”

Carol was holding her gun steadily at Carlos, not moving a muscle, not showing any reaction. Her first instinct had been to just shoot Carlos, but she needed him for the information he could provide on the slave ring he had built. She wanted him alive and able to talk, she wanted to bring him in and maybe – with this big catch in tow – get back with the FBI.

But if she had to, she would kill him. It couldn’t be that hard, could it?

She didn’t react to his command, but his next words chilled her to the bone, making her realize that she would probably have to make a decision soon. Until then, she wished she knew how to keep him talking, because the way his eyes were turning slightly weird she realized that whatever he might say now could probably be used against him. She was also curious because, frankly, she didn’t have a clue why he hated Anne so much.

“I need to get going,” was what Carlos uttered in a voice that was entirely too calm. “It’s time to finish this.”

Chapter 41

He was getting impatient. He knew that he had to leave soon in order to stay ahead of everything. He was confident that he was always one step ahead, but there was no reason to get cocky. Too bad things weren’t going the way they were supposed to. Well, he hadn’t really planned it … more fantasized about it. His big moment, when he would finally did what he should have done years, decades ago.

Too bad this didn’t feel nearly as exhilarating as he had imagined.

He allowed himself a moment of self-pity. Lately, everything had started to go wrong, and the easy and comfortable life he knew was threatened. First, he had heard that Shana had gotten pregnant, and then some of his papers had vanished from his briefcase when he was at the Wilsons’ place. He just knew that Shana had them and he knew she had to die.

Even if she didn’t know what the papers meant, he couldn’t let her bring the child into this world. Not when the kid could be his. He could tell that night that she had wanted it, and he had merely taken her up on the offer, although she was never really someone he wanted. No, he had just taken her because she was there, and was willing, and belonged to someone he owned.

Someone who owed him everything: life, money, success. And everything else in between.

He was there to make sure she paid her debts. He always figured that her life was just enough of a payment to get even. He wanted her dead and should her blonde friend die right beside her … well, that would just make things easier.

Why did it have to get so complicated, though? All he had wanted was to go in, kill Anne, and get out again. He shook his head and almost allowed a chuckle to bubble up when he realized he was kidding himself. He always did enjoy having an audience, and he was eagerly awaiting the kick it would give him to see Anne die in front of her lover and her mother.

Before he killed them, too.

“Carlos.” Irene’s pleading voice interrupted his pleasurable thoughts. “Why don’t you let us take Anne to the hospital? She needs a doctor … you know it will hurt worse the longer we wait.” She looked him straight in the eyes. “Please?”

A big grin crept over Carlos’s face. Now that he liked, the old woman pleading and begging for her precious daughter. Too bad she’d never cared about him the same way. “No doctor, no hospital,” he replied, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice. “No nothing.”

“But -”

“Shut up, Irene!” He pointed the gun down to where Anne lay in Shana’s arms. “And you … get up.” He made a gesture with his arm to hurry Anne up. “It’s time for you to die,” he said with a smile.

~**~

Irene knew she had to do something and she knew she only had one chance. Maybe he doesn’t know and that might stop him. She took a deep breath, while watching Anne struggle to get up from Shana’s lap. The blonde tried to hold her back but her daughter was determined to see this through, Irene could see that.

He’s going to hurt her anyway, and you don’t really want Anne to know, do you? a small voice inside her head asked. No, she didn’t, but if that what it took for Anne to survive this, then by God she would do it.

Anne was standing now and, following Carlos’s gestures, was moving away from the others in the direction of the back door, close to where she had been standing before she had jumped in front of Shana. When Carlos was satisfied with her position, he indicated he wanted her to stop, and raised his gun until it pointed squarely towards her eyes.

It’s now or never. Go! “Carlos!” Irene shouted desperately. “Don’t kill her, please!”

The dark-haired man looked over at her as if asking why he shouldn’t before tightening his finger on the trigger ever so slightly. Irene didn’t know how she saw it, but she did, so she barged right on.

“You can’t kill her, Carlos, please,” she begged. “You can’t kill your own sister.”

~**~

“He’s her brother?” For a second there was something close to mayhem in the kitchen with everyone shouting at the same time. Only Anne stood completely still with a baffled look on her face. Then she took a look at the man before her and wondered how she had never thought about that. She didn’t doubt her mother’s words for a second.

What puzzled her, though, was the fact that all she could think about was that Shana’s baby might really end up looking like they both had contributed to it. If they survived, that is.

“So you knew,” Carlos said as soon as the noise had died down. He seemed calmer now, as if having everyone know his secret was a good thing, and when Irene nodded he relaxed the pressure on the trigger.

To Carol he looked entirely too calm, and she wondered if they had run out of time with Irene’s revelation. She didn’t believe for a second that Carlos would suddenly start having feelings of brotherly love towards Anne, especially since it was pretty clear to her that he had already known he was her brother. Which, she felt, explained a lot of things she had witnessed in Carlos’s behavior towards Anne. No, he had gone to the inn with a specific purpose, and killing his sister was probably very high on the list of things to do.

“Well, it doesn’t really matter, now does it?” Carlos asked in a silky voice that sent shivers up Carol’s spine. “I’m going to kill her anyway. That is, after all, what I came here for. She stole my life, and now I’m taking hers.” He grinned and turned to look at Anne. “It’s just going to be a bit more dramatic than what you did to me.”

Anne took a deep breath to speak, but before even the first word made it out of her mouth, there was a blur of movement to her right and Shana suddenly stood next to her with a gun in her hand. Anne looked around to find Carol standing there with a confused look on her face and an empty hand. The sheriff hadn’t even seen the smaller blonde come up to her and take the gun out of her hands with a sure grip.

“You are not going to kill anyone, Carlos,” Shana said calmly, “not the baby, not me, and definitely not Anne.” She raised Carol’s gun and pointed it at the man who threatened to take everything she loved. “I know what you did to her all those years ago, and I know what you’ve done to all the other girls. Selling young girls like slaves! How could you do something like that? All you’ve ever done is try and destroy Anne’s life, and now you’re trying to finish it off? I’ll kill you before I let you kill her. After all, you deserve it far more than anyone here.”

The look she gave Carlos was a mixture of hatred and confusion, and he didn’t know what to do with it. All he knew was that he sure wouldn’t be stopped by the woman standing between him and what he wanted to destroy. He smiled at her, and the gun aimed at Anne never wavered.

“You can’t kill me, Shana,” he said in a voice that might just as well have inquired about the price of rice in China, “because if you do, the police will only have the evidence they’re going to find at my place for my oh-so-many crimes.” He shrugged. “And they’re going to find some carefully hidden evidence that leads to my little darling sister over there as the main culprit.”

“So what?” Irene asked before Shana could do it. “We’ll kill you now and go to your house and destroy the evidence you left there.”

“Nice idea, Irene, but unfortunately, the police will already be there by now, now that one of my … associates … unfortunately developed a conscience all of a sudden.” There was pure venom in Carlos’s voice. “Your mother never could keep a secret, Shana, could she?” he laughed.

“My mother? What the hell are you talking about?” Shana sounded utterly confused.

“Anyway,” Carlos continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “killing me will get you nowhere, unless you really want to see Anne behind bars for the rest of her life.”

Shana turned around to Anne and touched her lover’s back, needing the connection. She lowered the gun and tears started falling from her eyes. “My mom? I don’t understand …”

Anne tried to keep Carlos in her line of sight while still giving in to what her heart demanded of her. She raised her injured arm as much as she could so she could wipe away the tears rolling down Shana’s cheeks. “Darling, don’t believe a word he says. He’s just trying to confuse us to get the advan–”

Her words were interrupted by Carlos, who looked at them in disgust. “You know what? You are really getting on my nerves. It’s really time for you to–”

There was a metallic thump and then Carlos crumpled to the ground in a heap at Anne’s and Shana’s feet, leaving complete silence and a clear view of what had struck him down.

Standing there was Mrs. Hinkel, holding the 12-inch iron skillet in both hands. And amidst the silence her hands lost her grip on the handle and the skillet clattered to the floor.

Chapter 42

Just like that it was over. There was a deathly silence in the air, only broken by Mrs. Hinkel’s raspy breathing. Then, just as suddenly, there was a flurry of activity as Carol tucked away her gun and practically jumped to where Carlos lay on the floor. Dr. Hinkel walked over to his wife and led her to the table, where Mishka was half sitting, half standing, caught in the middle of not knowing what to do.

Irene was at Anne’s side in an instant, kneeling beside her daughter and Shana. Kevin and Mike were there, too, kneeling on Anne’s other side. Anne was struggling to get up, feeling too helpless lying on the ground. She growled when she felt her mother’s hands on her body, holding her down. The growl got louder when Kevin and Mike also put their hands on her.

“Let me get up,” she enunciated carefully, trying not to snap at them. “I’m okay.” She winced when she pulled her good arm from her mother’s grasp and that movement also moved her injured arm.

“Honey, you’re not okay,” Irene said soothingly. “You’ve been shot, and you should be lying down.”

“Mom, I was shot in the arm, not anywhere lethal,” Anne said. “It’s not even bleeding anymore.” She knew that was just from the makeshift tourniquet, but it was as good an argument as anything. Anne looked up at her lover, who had been strangely quiet, and sent her a pleading look. Shana’s eyes were dazed, as if she was in some sort of trance, but they soon warmed up to the look in Anne’s eyes.

Shana could see that Anne was at the end of her patience and she knew that if she wanted to get up, she would, even if she had to fight all of them to do so. She had seen it often enough during practice and on the court. She also realized that letting her get up now would probably hurt Anne less than fighting her.

“Okay, honey,” she murmured, “let’s get you upright.” She put her hands under Anne’s shoulders and carefully, but as unobtrusively as possible, pushed, while Anne flexed her abdominal muscles and pulled herself into a sitting position. Shana ignored Irene’s outraged squawk and helped Anne to her knees, and finally to a standing position. Anne was a little pale and slightly green when she was finally standing, so Shana moved closer and gave her a long hug that served to soothe her and give Anne some support in case she needed it.

“Thank you, sweetheart,” came the lowly burred reward straight into her ear. Shana just shivered in reflex and started to turn Anne towards the table. “Come on, honey, let’s get you over there so Dr. Hinkel can take a look at you.”

The old man, who was just checking his wife, looked up and sent Shana a relieved smile when he saw the couple walking over. “Please call me Fritz,” he said, pulling out a chair for Anne.

He turned to talk quietly to Mishka for a second. Mishka nodded and put his arm around Mrs. Hinkel’s shoulder and talked to her in a quiet voice. Mrs. Hinkel looked at him, then at her husband, and gave him an encouraging nod. Dr. Hinkel gently laid his hand against his wife’s cheek before he turned to Irene. “Where is your first aid kit?” he asked, all business now.

~**~

Carol was looking at Carlos with an unreadable expression in her eyes. Shana looked at her and wondered if the sheriff was contemplating kicking the prone man just for the fun of it. Next to her, her lover’s arms were on the table, one hand covering Shana’s, while Irene and Dr. Hinkel were taking a close look at Irene’s first aid supplies.

“Is he … dead?” Mrs. Hinkel’s voice sounded faint. “I didn’t mean to kill him,” she whispered in a rush. “I really didn’t. I just wanted him to stop.” She leaned heavily against the back of her chair and the support Mishka offered her.

“It is good if he is dead,” Mishka offered in a compassionate tone. He was clearly worried about the older woman, who looked exhausted. “Don’t worry.”

“Yes, but … what about … what he said about the evidence he has hidden? Won’t Ms. Patakis … Anne … get in trouble?” Mrs. Hinkel cast a worried look towards where Carol was still leaning over Carlos.

“Maybe,” Mike threw in from where he was standing, “but we all know that he was lying, and we all know that Anne has nothing to do with it.” He shot her a reassuring smile. “Everything’s going to be okay.”

“Yes,” Carol spoke up for the first time, “especially since Carlos is still alive.” She didn’t sound particularly happy about it. She touched the back of his head and felt a crack there where blood was seeping out to slowly pool beneath his head. Better not mention this one right now. The old lady is worried enough as it is. She decided to just tell the doctor when she had the chance. She turned, putting herself between the body and Mrs. Hinkel, and sent the older woman a reassuring smile. “He’ll have one hell of a headache, though, once he wakes up.”

When she saw that Mishka was talking to Mrs. Hinkel in low tones and pulling her head down on his shoulder, she got up quickly and grabbed some towels from the kitchen counter to put under Carlos’s head. She hoped that they would help put some pressure on he wound and also help hide the blood.

When she turned towards the table she saw Irene watching her with a knowing look in her eyes, and she gave her a half-shrug to tell her that there wasn’t much she could do about the situation at the moment. She knew she needed to get Carlos and Anne to the hospital, but she wasn’t sure that they’d both fit into her car or that it was a good idea to transport them together. Especially since she had no idea how long it would take her to get them to the hospital in this kind of weather.

She got up and kneeled down next to Mrs. Hinkel, continuing to reassure her. “Besides, I’m convinced that he was lying, and that should count for something. I am a sheriff, after all,” she said with a self-deprecating grin.

~**~

Kevin decided he needed to do something and walked back over to Shana and Anne. Shana looked up as he came closer. She could see the worry and the deep love for her lover etched deep into his face, and she was mildly surprised. Why are you surprised? You know he’s her best friend, and you know he loves her? Just because … She shook her head to dispel the image of Kevin and Anne together, and tenderly stroked her lover’s hand in reflex.

She was still angry with Kevin on behalf of her lover, on behalf of the pain Anne wouldn’t probably even admit to feeling, and for a second she was close to saying something that she might regret later. Her control was hanging by a tenuous thread as it was, and she swallowed to push the anger away. It wouldn’t do any good anyhow, she knew, and Anne would just be hurt if she attacked the man who had essentially saved her from herself.

With a deep breath she took another look at him and let it go.

For now.

“Shea?” Kevin looked at the blonde woman with a look of concern and worry. He wondered what he had done to deserve the contempt he had seen blazing through her eyes for a second. Maybe I’m imagining things. Or … He pushed that thought away when he saw that Shana was concentrating on her lover again. “Shea?” he asked again. “We need to get her to the hospital. That wound needs to be looked at.”

“Hey,” Anne growled, “I’m sitting right here, you know.”

Shana looked first at her lover and then back up at Kevin. “We know that, Kevin.” Okay, she was still slightly irritated by his presence, she admitted to herself. “I just don’t know if that’s going to be possible with all this snow. Can you check outside and see what the situation is? I don’t even know if Anne has her SUV here,” she said with a look at her lover.

Anne simply nodded. “It’s in my garage.”

Kevin touched Shana’s shoulder and was only a little hurt when she flinched. “Shea, we definitely have Carol’s car, and that should be sturdy enough to get us through this weather. But I’ll go check outside and check on the other cars. Maybe there’s nothing to worry about.”

He stood and turned, giving Mike a look that spoke of his worry about both women. With a short movement of his head he let the smaller man know that he was going outside. Mike nodded, knowing that Kevin wanted him to take care of things here.

~**~

It was white.

Kevin wrapped his thick black down jacket closer around him and turned in a small circle. There was no other way to describe it. Off-white house. White trees, white road, white cars.

Damn, how did it get so bad so fast? Kevin looked at the cars again, noticing for the first time that the sheriff’s car wasn’t among them. Hoping that it was somewhere even a bit sheltered, he turned to go back inside. Just as he was about to enter the house again, Anne’s comment about her car came back to him. Letting out a sigh in a long cloud of air, he passed the house and went over to the path that led to Anne’s garage.

~**~

Dr. Hinkel sat down next to Anne and Shana, groaning a bit at the aches and niggling pains in his body. Some days he felt his age more than others, and with everything that had happened today, he felt very old all of a sudden.

His eyes were gentle as he looked at the young women before him. He had been so blind when his daughter had come to him, telling him she was unsure about where her life was leading her. And now he had missed most of her life, and would probably never see her again. In truth, he had resigned himself to the fact that he would never see his only daughter again long ago, when the detectives hadn’t been able to find any trace of her. And now that he had actually met the man who had taken their daughter away from them, and had heard what he was capable of, he had given up completely. All he could hope for was that Daniela hadn’t had to suffer too much.

Or that she had managed somehow to escape and make a life for herself. Even then, he assumed, they would never see her again. Their daughter had always been proud, and after having something like that happen to her he very much doubted she’d be coming home to them. And if she had been able to come home, or wanted to, she would have done so by now.

Of course he would never mentioned anything like that to his wife. He couldn’t do that to her, although he wondered how she managed to cling to hope after all these years. It made him look at his own feelings, and deep down he doubted that he was a good father. Still, even his wife had seemed to resign herself to reality lately, and this trip to the United States seemed more like a long goodbye to his daughter and the last place her trace had led. Maybe that was why they had decided to ask Mishka to come to Germany with them. Offering the young man some hope for his future was opening a world of hope for them as well.

He sighed and looked at Anne. “How are you doing?” he asked quietly, unobtrusively checking Anne’s pulse with a hand on her wrist. It was not as strong as he had hoped, and her hand and forearm were colder than expected. He knew Shana had pulled the bandage too tight to stay on for long but he would never hurt the young woman by mentioning that.

“Okay, Ms. Patakis. I’m going to take off this bandage now to take a look at the wound.” He saw Shana flinch and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “I’m sure we’ll be able to take you to a hospital soon,” he continued, knowing that what he was saying was even more important to the woman sitting on the other side of the wounded tennis player. “I just need to assess the damage.”

~**~

Kevin made his way through the snow to Anne’s house. The garage was to the right of it, and he knew from long hours of watching Anne play around with her cars and bikes that there was a door around the corner. He walked at an angle to the corner of the low building and stopped when he saw tracks on the ground leading to and from the door. The tracks were already lightly covered with snow again but they were clearly visible.

With a very bad feeling Kevin walked the last few steps to the door and opened it. Inside it was warm, as he knew it would be, and everything looked normal as far as he could tell. He switched on the light and let out a sigh of relief when the room actually became bright. Looking over the cars, he couldn’t see anything wrong until he came to the last car in the row.

The hood was slightly open and Kevin knew the second he started walking over to the car that someone had tampered with the cars. He doubted that only this one car had been worked on, especially since it was a sports car and of no use to them in this weather anyway. He opened the hood and checked the motor. He took note of the rather large handprint on the motor block, thinking that the sheriff would be happy to see it. He took a closer look and found what he was looking for after a minute of rummaging around: several cables had been cut. He checked all the other cars as well and noticed the same thing in all of them. Too bad I haven’t got a clue what those cables are for. He scratched his chin. “Damn, have to ask Anne when I get back,” he said aloud. She was the one always doing something with her cars, claiming that it relaxed her.

He shook off the feeling of dread at the thought of not having a good enough car to take Anne to the hospital and turned to go back to Irene’s house. Once outside, he remembered Carol’s car and fervently hoped that she had parked the car so out of sight that Carlos hadn’t damaged it. He thought back to the moment Carol had entered the kitchen, and the surprise on Carlos’s face, and suddenly he felt pretty sure that they would at least have one good car. With a smile he kept walking.

~**~

Carefully Dr. Hinkel removed the tourniquet from Anne’s arm. He kept one eye on the work he was doing and one eye on his patient’s face, prepared to stop at the slightest sign of too much discomfort. All he could see was a relaxed expression, which he assumed to be all bravado for Shana and for Anne’s own peace of mind. He marveled at the tennis player’s ability to hide the pain he knew she had to be feeling, and he wondered how many years of pains and injuries and probably even mental anguish had gone into its perfection.

There was a short hiss of pain when the final layer of the bandage was lifted and the blood began to circulate and find its way out of the wound again. But by the time his eyes had traveled to Anne’s eyes she was back in control. He saw that Anne’s other hand was balled into a tight fist, though, and he sighed, knowing that she used the pain of even getting that banged-up hand into a fist to distract from the wound in her arm. He wondered if the tender touch Shana provided this curled-up fist was helping or distracting the dark-haired woman.

Dr. Hinkel checked the wound as carefully and as thoroughly as he could under the circumstances. He lifted the arm slightly to see the entry wound and the exit wound, but couldn’t see much because of all the blood that had clotted them. He caught movement with the corner of his eye and knew without looking that his wife was standing next to him. He looked at her, and without even thinking about it, took the gauze from her hand. It was drenched in something he assumed to be a cleanser of some sort that Irene Patakis had around, and he began cleaning the wounds. When he was finished with the exit wound he looked at Anne, letting her know that they would have to turn the arm so he could have a better angle.

Anne nodded and moved her arm. As soon as her body noticed the movement, she almost tossed up everything she had eaten in the past three days at the sudden nausea that threatened to take over her body. She clamped down hard on the bile and concentrated on the loving feeling of Shana’s hand stroking her own. The nausea abated slowly and Anne took a deep breath.

She wasn’t really worried anymore, she realized. Carlos was down, everyone here knew she was innocent, and the wound in her arm could be repaired. Yes, she had lost some blood and playing tennis wouldn’t happen in the near future, but she had planned on maybe giving up anyway. Fuck, she sighed. It does make a damn difference if I decide to quit or if Carlos and this fucking bullet decide that for me! In just that second she knew she would be back on a court as soon as possible, even if it was just for one tournament.

And she already knew which tournament it would have to be.

Chapter 43

Feeling rather queasy, Shana watched Dr. Hinkel as he checked Anne’s wound. She had never seen a gunshot wound up close before, and the thought that a bullet had ripped through her lover’s arm only intensified the nauseous feeling. To her, the entry wound looked like a gaping crater, dark red and black, torn skin and muscle. Shana tried to distance herself from the fact that she was looking at Anne’s arm, but it wasn’t working. The bile was slowly rising and she knew she had to look away. Or better yet, get out of the room.

Anne felt her lover tense and turned her face to look at her. She saw the lines on Shana’s face, saw the fierce concentration in her eyes that were glued to the wound and the lips that were pressed together so tightly they were almost white. She’s going to keel over soon if I don’t distract her. Anne cleared her throat to get her lover’s attention, then again a bit louder when it didn’t work the first time. Slowly, Shana’s exes tracked to hers, and after a second of clearly readable effort, the look in the green eyes softened.

“Hey.” Shana tried to smile.

“Hey, yourself.” Anne tightened her fingers around Shana’s for an instant.

“Need anything?” A shaking hand softly pushed back a dark lock from Anne’s forehead before falling gently back down on the shoulder.

“Apart from you? Nothing.” Anne sighed. “But I’d really appreciate it if you could check on Mom for me.” She nodded in the direction of Irene, who was looking a little lost standing in the middle of the room. “I’d like to know how she’s holding up.”

“But –”

“But nothing, baby,” Anne said quietly. “I’m really okay here, and there’s nothing you can do for me at the moment. You can do something for Mom, though.” She saw the hurt gliding across Shana’s features and the insecurity that settled down in her expressive eyes. Geez, could I have done that any more stupid than that? “I love you, Shea, but I really need you to take care of this for me. And then I need you to be back as soon as possible.” She extracted her hand from under Shana’s and reached up to cup her lover’s face. “I miss you when you’re not close, you know?”

That at least got her a half-smile and a nod. Shana’s eyes closed for a long second before they opened again, now a lot clearer than before. She leaned in to give Anne a gentle kiss on the cheek. “I think I know what you’re doing, darling, but it’s okay,” she whispered in Anne’s ear, “I’ll go over and talk to Mom. I love you.” With a final kiss she got up and walked over to Irene.

Anne turned towards the keenly watching doctor. “I guess you have about two minutes before she’s back, and I want that arm bandaged by then. Okay?”

“No problem,” the doctor agreed with a smile. It was so fascinating to watch the women interact. “There’s nothing much I can do here anyway. I cleaned the wound as well as I can here, and it doesn’t look as bad as it could have, but I honestly don’t have much experience with gunshot wounds.” Since this is the first I’ve ever seen … “I’ll put a bandage around it, but everything else has to be done at the hospital.”

Anne nodded and watched as he put gauze pads on both wounds and, with his wife’s help, started wrapping her arm. The bandage was tight, but not too tight, and she felt a little better with it. At least you can’t see that ugly hole now.

“How does it feel?” Dr. Hinkel asked as he finished putting on the bandage.

Anne tried to lift her arm and was relieved that it hurt, but wasn’t pure agony any longer. “It’s okay, I guess.” She tried to curl her hand to a fist and nearly blacked out from the pain. She hissed loudly and took a deep breath. “If I don’t do stupid things like this, that is.” She shook her head at herself, smiling ruefully, knowing she’d probably have Shana by her side any second now.

Her smile grew wider when she felt a gentle pat on her shoulder and a tender kiss on the top of her head.

~**~

Mike was feeling pretty useless standing there in the middle of the room. His lover was outside, taking his time checking the cars and the weather. Mrs. Hinkel was in Mishka’s obviously capable hands, while Dr. Hinkel was taking care of Anne. Shana had talked to Irene and was now standing behind Anne, Irene directly behind her. And he really, really didn’t want to go over to Carol and Carlos and have to deal with them. With a deep sigh he resigned himself to go after Kevin, out into the cold, when the door opened and Kevin returned. Mike couldn’t help the smile that bloomed on his face at the sight of his lover.

“So, what’s it look like outside?” he asked casually.

“Hrmhp,” Kevin grunted as he struggled with his coat. “Depends on what you’re asking about, buddy.” He put his coat over the back of the nearest chair. “It’s not snowing any longer, but everything’s completely white outside. I haven’t got a clue what the roads look like.”

He shrugged, then shook his head. “Carlos took care of the cars anyway,” he mumbled with another shrug. “I checked Anne’s garage and all her cars have been tampered with. I’m not sure what he did–”

“Yes, but I bet Anne would know,” Mike interrupted hopefully.

“Yeah, right,” Kevin snorted, “and we really want her to crawl under the hood of some car with a gunshot wound in her arm.” He ruffled his partner’s hair, half affectionately, half exasperated. “Great idea, buddy, but get real.”

Mike blushed and gave him an apologetic smile. “You’re right, big man. I’m just so used to her doing anything and everything. She always seems so invincible.” He pointed towards Anne. “I mean look at her.”

Kevin did, and what he saw made him smile. Anne was sitting at the table, apparently testing what her arm was capable of. Right now she was holding her arm in a slightly bent position, moving it from left to right, as he had seen her doing millions of times during warm-up before. Then he saw her sneaking a glance at her lover, who was talking to Irene, before stretching out the arm low over the table and slowly curling her hand into a fist. He almost laughed out loud when he caught Shana watching Anne with a slight smile. That woman knows you, my friend. He couldn’t stop his laughter when Shana’s hand came down on Anne’s good shoulder a second before Anne’s fist closed and Anne looked up at her lover with a mixture of pride and remorse. I wonder if I can use her influence in Anne’s practice sessions …

His thoughts were interrupted by Carol. “Hey,” she greeted the two men as if unsure what else to say. “How’s it looking outside?”

“It’s white, but I think it’s not as bad as it could be,” Kevin replied with a shrug. “What is bad, however, is that Carlos seems to have tampered with the cars.” He looked at Carol’s face, which sported a nice frown. “At least he did with all the cars I could check, which are Anne’s and the ones parked in front …” He let his words trail off, waiting for the sheriff to say something.

“So you didn’t see my car?”

“No, I couldn’t see it anywhere around.” He shrugged again. “I was wondering where it might be. I do remember seeing it outside before, though …” He gave Carol a pointed look.

“Yeah,” Carol sighed, “I had a bad feeling when I was out earlier and I took it to a spot I know.” She looked into Kevin’s patient gray eyes. “It’s not far from the road, but it’s still pretty secluded, and I hope he didn’t find it.” Or if he did, that I’ll be able to fix it.

Mike’s eyebrows kept inching up his forehead while Carol was talking, and he thought about what she was saying and not saying. “So, you know Irene’s place well enough to know a nice secluded spot for your car?” he blurted out, watching the blush slowly creep over Carol’s pale features. “One that can’t be seen from either house?”

“That’s interesting,” Kevin added, always willing to follow his smaller lover on one of his mental side trips. “Care to explain?”

Carol looked at the floor and sighed. “Yes, I will explain, but not now,” she said quietly. “Now, I think we should get out of here and to a hospital as soon as possible.” She looked over her shoulder to Carlos’s body. Kevin followed her gaze and could see that the towel under his head was slowly getting darker. “And as fast as possible.”

“All right,” murmured Kevin and Mike nodded. “What do we do?”

“I need to go get my car up to the house, and you should get Anne ready. I think I’d also take the doc—”

“You mean you think Shana would stay here while we take Anne to the hospital?” Mike interrupted incredulously. “Lady, you’re not living in their world if you think that’s going to happen.”

“Listen, there isn’t that much space in my truck, and it’s going to be hellish enough with Carlos, Anne, and the doc in there,” the sheriff muttered under her breath, just loud enough for the two men to hear.

Kevin shrugged. “We’ll have to think of something, then, because you either take the two of them or I’ll bet you everything I own that Anne will refuse to go.” He saw the frustrated look on Carol’s face. “Go get the car, we’ll think of something.”

Carol turned around and walked away, but Kevin and Mike could just barely hear her saying, “You know, Carol, the next time the county asks you to choose a car, take a Hummer. Or a minivan. Or better yet …”

Then the door closed behind her, leaving Kevin and Mike to stare at each other.

“You have a plan, oh big one?” Mike asked.

“No. You?”

“Uh-uh.”

“Well, we’ll better start planning then, my friend, or this is gonna get complicated,” Kevin said as he put an arm around his lover’s shoulders.

The smaller man grinned up at him. “Like it wasn’t before, right?”

“Right.”

Chapter 44

In the end, getting everyone organized and into the car had been easier than expected, Carol thought as she steered her truck carefully along the icy road. It probably helps to have a woman like Irene take over, she mused with a grin.

When she had returned with her truck, the older Patakis had taken over from Kevin and Mike. She had sent them outside to look for Carlos’s car, and both men were eager to go out and do something. They were still gone when Carol returned.

Then Irene had told Shana to get her and Anne’s coats, and to get ready for the ride to the hospital. Mishka was ordered to stay with Mrs. Hinkel while Mr. Hinkel had to accompany Anne and Carlos to the hospital. She herself would stay as well to “try and clean up this mess” as she put it just as Carol returned to the kitchen.

Carol had just looked at Irene in awe. “You don’t happen to need a new job, do you? I really could use someone like you at the department.” Her grin had been both heartfelt and relieved, although she knew her offer would be declined.

Carol sighed. Too bad, I really could use someone like her. Nice, old, chatty Mrs. Kennedy wasn’t nearly as good at getting things done and organized.

The sheriff slowly curved around a snowdrift, glad that the department had at least this one sturdy, reliable truck. She looked into the rearview mirror to see how her passengers in the back were doing, where things were a little more crowded than they were in the front. Now that had taken some maneuvering, and in the end it had been Shana who had decided where everyone would sit.

Everyone had acquiesced, although it was creeping Carol out that Carlos was sitting right behind her. Just to be on the safe side she had insisted on cuffing his hands together behind his back, and she hadn’t gotten any protests, not even from the doctor who was sitting next to him. Anne was in the passenger seat, the back reclined so far it was touching Shana’s knees. The blonde had her arms around her lover’s shoulders, keeping her calm and as immobile as possible. Carol figured that was a good idea, since any rock under the snow would probably result in a lot of pain.

She wasn’t worried at all about Carlos, though, and grimaced at the thought of his head wound bleeding all over her car. She would have put a plastic bag over his head if that had been at all thinkable, but she was pretty certain that would have been considered inhuman by someone somewhere. And the bleeding had slowed down a lot anyway.

There was a gust of wind when they left the shelter of the trees lining the street. Carol proceeded extremely carefully, peering into the gray-white dullness all around, where sky and landscape melted into each other. Her hands were beginning to cramp from the death grip she had on the steering wheel, and she wiggled her fingers, hoping to get some life back into them. Her shoulders were aching and she yearned for a cup of coffee and a long, hot bath. For now, she would take standing in front of the hospital. Sighing, she returned her gaze to the road, checking for any dangers and registering landmarks along the way. “We’re almost there,” she said when she spotted the sign that announced that Halverston was three miles away.

Nobody answered her.

Fifteen minutes of careful driving later, Carol parked in front of Halverston’s hospital. Or what their small town called the hospital. Outside it was barely more than an old building with a brightly lit sign saying ‘Medical Center’.

Doctor Hinkel looked at the old building dubiously. “This is your hospital?”

“Yup,” Carol said as she opened her door, “this is it.” She watched as Shana got out of the car and helped Anne out, then waited for the doctor to join her before she tried to get Carlos out of the backseat. “For anything really serious we’d have to go down to Burlington, which is a drive I don’t want to have to do in this kind of weather.” With that she opened the door and pulled Carlos out of the backseat none too gently. She noted happily that he wasn’t bleeding anymore.

Carlos groaned when they put him on his feet outside the car, and began to struggle weakly against the handcuffs and the grips on his arms.

“Ah, you’re awake,” Carol said with a grin. “Good. Then I won’t have to drag you inside.” Her hand squeezed his arm until she knew she had his attention. “Can you walk?”

Carlos nodded and shot her a murderous look, which Carol ignored.

Inside the medical center it was even darker than outside. A single desk lamp lit the reception desk, but all other lights were off and there was no one in sight. At the end of a hallway to the right there was an open door that allowed light to spill into the hall, and voices could be heard from that direction.

They’re probably playing cards back there, Carol thought, grunting under the weight of her prisoner, who was leaning heavily on her. She looked around for a place to deposit her burden. “Hello?” she called out, “we could use some help here.”

Shana had led Anne over to one of the chairs in the open waiting area and gotten her to sit down. Anne was cradling her injured arm but looked around as if she couldn’t be less interested in what was going on. Carol remembered a time when she would admire that cool, calm fa?ade on the tennis court. Still, putting Carlos in the seat next to her would probably be asking for trouble.

Anne watched as Carol looked around, obviously getting tired of hanging on to Carlos. She stood, pretending to be suddenly interested in a picture on the wall. She didn’t know why she didn’t want Carol to know she was getting out of the way, and she didn’t think about it too much. It was difficult enough not to give in to the feeling of dizziness that getting upright had caused. She wasn’t at all surprised to feel Shana’s steadying hand on her back not a second later.

Carol walked over to the seats and unceremoniously dumped Carlos in the first chair. Then she grabbed his shoulders and leaned his upper body sideways so that he was half lying, half sitting on two chairs.

Straightening and turning around, she found herself face to face with a short, attractive woman. “Well, if it isn’t Sheriff Miller gracing us with her presence on this gloomy day,” the caramel-skinned woman said in greeting. “So, what happened? Accident?”

“Hi, Andy,” Carol replied as the doctor kneeled on the floor to check out Carlos’s head. She touched Andy’s shoulder to get her attention and then pointed in Anne’s direction. “Leave him for a minute. Over there is the important case.”

With a doubtful look between the two patients, Andy rose and with a nod decided to let Carol handle the situation for the moment. Together they walked the few feet over to Anne and Shana.

“Let me introduce you,” Carol said. “This here is o?N”

“No need to say anything, Carol,” the doctor grinned, “I’m perfectly able to recognize the reason why everyone here has cable TV.” She started to offer Anne her hand but withdrew when Anne’s coat slipped from her shoulder and she could see the blood on her arm. “I’m Dr. Andrea McLaughlin, Andy for short.”

“Pleased to meet you, Andy,” Anne said. “I wish it could have been under different circumstances.”

“I can believe that,” the doctor replied as she gently removed the coat and took a first cursory glance at Anne’s arm.

“Andy, this is o?N”

“Shana Wilson, of course,” Andy cut Anne off. “I apologize for my rudeness.” She shook Shana’s hand.

“That’s okay, Andy,” Shana said with her easy, public relations-trained smile, “Anne’s much more important right now. She’s the one who got shot.”

“And the guy over there did it, right?”

“Right,” Carol and Shana answered as one.

“I can see why you want me to take care of this arm first,” Andy said to Carol, “but I do have to take a look at him to see what’s wrong. His head looked pretty bashed in.” She held up her hand to stop Carol’s protest. “I know you don’t want to hear it, but a head wound is a bit more important than this.”

“Not when the arm is worth millions, it isn’t,” Carol replied stoically. “Besides, he didn’t get half of what he deserved!”

“Carol, it’s okay,” Anne said calmly, “I’ll just have Doc Hinkel take care of me. He’s done a fine job so far.” She nodded her head in the direction of the elderly doctor who had been standing close to Carlos the whole time. “Andy, this is Dr. Fritz Hinkel from Berlin. Dr. Hinkel, this is Dr. McLaughlin.” Both doctors nodded in greeting. “Doc Hinkel has been taking care of me and Shana these past few days, and I’m afraid we’ve done more than enough to ruin his vacation.”

Andy looked between Anne and Carlos and the quiet old man. “Do you have experience with gunshot wounds?”

“No.” He shook his head.

“Then you better take care of the head wound while I take care of this,” Andy said and turned to lead Anne down the hall. She stopped when the tall woman didn’t move. “What is it?”

“I think it would be better if you took care of Carlos and Dr. Hinkel took care of me. We all had our real bad experiences with him, and I really can’t do that to the doc.”

Fritz Hinkel smiled. “Anne, it’s okay,” he said, using her first name for the first time. “The doctor is right, you know. It is much better I take care of him than of you.” He motioned for her to follow the doctor and nodded at Shana, who gave him a tiny smile. Reluctantly, Anne walked down the hall until Shana took her hand and squeezed it.

“I’m proud of you for being so thoughtful, my love,” Shana whispered and was rewarded with a smile.

With a sigh, Fritz Hinkel turned and walked over to Carlos, who stared at him with cold blue eyes.

******************************

The first thing Shana saw when she entered the room was a nurse. A very tall, broad-shouldered, male nurse. She grinned at his back as she realized with relief that there was someone to help Dr. Hinkel take care of Carlos.

“Hello,” she said in greeting as he turned around to greet the newcomers.

“Hello,” he replied in a surprisingly high-pitched voice.

“Anne, Shana, meet Little John,” Andrea murmured absent-mindedly as she looked around for a pair of scissors.

Little John?” Shana asked.

“Yeah,” the giant said with a smile. “Andy’s idea of humor.” He grinned and turned to Andrea. “Hey, Doc, what do you need me to do?”

Before Andrea could say anything, Shana spoke. “I think he should be helping Dr. Hinkel with Carlos, don’t you agree? I’d feel much better knowing there’s someone there to keep him in check.” She held up her hand as Anne started to say something. “I know Carol is out there, but she doesn’t have medical knowledge and –”

Anne smiled. “You’re rambling, Shay, but I agree,” She sighed. “Although I wouldn’t mind if he died a very slow and painful death sometime soon.” She growled the last part.

Andrea nodded and watched as John left the room, closing the door behind him. She turned to Anne. “I take it there’s a story there, right?”

“Right,” both Anne and Shana replied wearily.

“Ah, nothing you want to talk about, I take it?” Andrea started unbuttoning Anne’s shirt.

“Not particularly,” Shana agreed. She was watching the doctor closely, not liking the look in Andy’s eyes as she uncovered Anne’s bra-less breasts. “Err, can I help?” she stammered. “I could remove the shirt while you get everything ready.” She blushed as she saw Anne’s understanding smile.

“Nah, that’s perfectly okay.” The doctor blithely ignored the request. “No trouble at all.” She was down to the last two buttons when Anne’s good hand stopped her.

“Could you give us a second, doc?” Anne asked with a smile in Shana’s direction, before pinning the doctor with her eyes.

A clue jumped at the doctor and hit her in the face. “Ah, okay, no problem.” She stepped away from the two women. “I’ll go prepare the X-ray room, then. I’ll get you in a sec.” With that she left the room.

“Jealous?” Anne reached up with her hand and turned her lover’s face until she could see right into her eyes. “There’s no need, baby. I just want to get my arm looked at, and then I want to go home.”

“I’m sorry,” Shana sighed, “She looked at you like you were a snack. I had to live with looks like that all those years, and I had the urge do something about it.” She picked at the buttons of Anne’s shirt, opening the final two. “Does your arm hurt?”

“Like a bitch, but don’t tell anyone,” Anne hissed as Shana slipped the shirt from her good shoulder. “And I’m sure the doc is only doing her job. Okay?”

“Okay,” Shana said as she kissed Anne’s forehead. “I’ll have to cut the rest off, I think.” Dr. Hinkel had cut off the sleeve, but the shoulder was still intact, making the shirt impossible to remove.

“Do it.”

Shana took the scissors and made a quick cut along the seam, and then carefully peeled the shirt off Anne’s body. “Want me to remove the bandage?”

Anne swallowed. “Honey, I think you should leave that to the doc.” She didn’t want Shana to see the probably very ugly wound. “You’ll have to let her look at me sooner or later,” she tried to joke.

“And it’s nothing I haven’t seen before, trust me,” Andrea said as she joined them again. Then she got serious. “Alright, I’m going to X-ray this now to see what the bullet has done, and then I’ll repair whatever damage there is. It also looks like you have some more damaged parts.” She looked at Anne’s hands. “Ready?” The tennis player nodded. “Let’s go, then.” Andy went towards a drawer in a corner and came back with something green in her hand. She took the scissors, took a look at the material, and cut something off.

“I know we’re not busy here today, but you might want to put this on nonetheless,” she said as she helped Anne into a hospital gown that covered her front that was missing parts of one shoulder.

“Shay, why don’t you go and see if you can find me some coffee around here?” Anne asked suddenly.

Her lover gaped at her. “How can you even think of coffee now?” she spluttered after a second. “I’m going with you, got that?”

“Honey,” Anne whispered, leaning close to her, “I don’t want you anywhere near the X-ray machine.” She drew her forefinger lightly across Shana’s midsection. “Got that?”

Shana sighed, but nodded, and was rewarded by a kiss that left her tingling despite its brevity. Then Anne and the doctor were gone. “I got it,” the blonde sighed, “but I don’t have to like it.” She looked around. “Well, guess I’m going to try and find … something.”

******************************

John walked out to the reception area to help the foreign doctor take care of a patient. He didn’t know what to expect, but it sure wasn’t a frail-looking, elderly man kneeling next to a younger man who was lying across some of the chairs in the waiting room. And he definitely didn’t expect to see the sheriff there with her gun in her hand.

“Hello,” he greeted the doctor, “my name’s John.”

“Hello, John,” the old man replied. “Are you a doctor?”

“No, I’m a nurse. I’m here to assist you. We’re understaffed at the moment because of the storm. Most of the doctors and nurses are either making house calls or are at home unable to come in.” John automatically started to check the patient’s pulse.

“Ah, sorry,” Doctor Hinkel replied. “Well, we need an X-ray or CT scan of the head to see what’s going on.”

“No problem,” John said, even as he was pulling over a wheelchair from next to the reception desk. “What happened to him?”

“He had an argument with a frying pan,” Carol said coolly. “He lost.” She paused to think. “I need to make a phone call. Is there anywhere I can talk privately?”

“I’m sure Andy won’t mind you using her office. You know where it is, right?” John lifted Carlos’s body into the wheelchair and started to push him down the hall. “We’ll be in room two.”

******************************

Shana walked around the medical center trying to find a kitchen or an office. She was angry that she couldn’t stay with Anne, but she also knew that her lover was right. Nothing I can do about it, I guess. She turned a corner and found herself in a small kitchen. Ah. She headed to the fridge and found a jug of milk. Just the right thing. She opened a cabinet in search of a glass and poured herself a generous amount of milk.

“So what am I supposed to do now?” she wondered aloud. Leaning her thighs against the counter she took a long sip. She knew she could go and find something to do, or she could just sit down in the waiting area. “Nope.” She shook her head, knowing she’d go crazy in about five minutes. She sighed. All she wanted was to be with Anne.

She finished her milk and put the glass in the sink.

******************************

“Want to tell me what happened to your hands, or should I just assume that you were tired of tennis and stuck them in the meat grinder in your mom’s famous kitchen?” Andy asked conversationally as she moved the X-ray machine into position.

“Famous kitchen?”

“Didn’t you know that your mom’s cooking is pretty well known around here? I try to eat at the inn at least once a week when the restaurant’s open.”

“She never mentioned you … and I’ve never seen you there,” Anne replied, trying to get comfortable.

“Why would she mention a short, round woman who likes to eat out?” The doctor pulled the machine away, having finished the exam. “And how often were you up here in the past twelve months? Three weeks, four?”

Anne didn’t even try to look contrite as she got up and followed the doctor. “I think I was here a total of five weeks this past year, but that was mostly because I had some injuries and took a break.” They walked back to the other exam room. “I’m not usually around that much up here. I try to spend more time down south, where it’s warm and sunny. Ouch.” She shot Andy a murderous look and then looked at her arm where the wound lay now open. “You could have warned me.”

“That wouldn’t have made it any better,” Andy replied, unperturbed, and tossed the bloody bandages in a bin. “I like my patients distracted.” She grinned. “Makes them less tense.”

“Well, I prefer knowing what’s going on,” Anne growled.

“Okay,” the doctor drawled. “Right now I’m going to clean the wound, then I’ll check the X-rays to see what’s going on. And then I’ll take care of your arm and hands.”

“Any idea what I did to my hands?” Anne asked with a sheepish smile. “I know I did a number on them.”

“That you did,” the doctor agreed. “Whatever made you decide to ruin your hands like this?” Anne shrugged. “Yeah, I know. Long story, right?”

“Yup.”

“Well, it’ll take a while for them to get back to normal, but so far I’d say you’ve got a serious sprain in your wrist and lots of abrasions and bruising all over both hands. All I can do, really, is to clean them and wait for the swelling to go down. Even without the bullet through your arm you wouldn’t be playing for a while.”

Anne sighed. “Yeah, I know.” Who cares? As long as Shay is okay. She thought of something she had wanted to do since they arrived at the hospital. “Oh, Doc, can you check out Shana as well when you’re finished with me?”
“Sure, but why?”

“She was in a car accident a couple of days ago, and-”

“A car accident?” Andy gasped. “Why didn’t you say so before?”

“Hey, Doc Hinkel checked her out quite thoroughly, and she seems to be okay. She only has some bruises on her shoulders and chest, but that’s it.”

“Then why do you want me to take a look at her?” the doctor asked.

“She’s pregnant, and I want to make sure everything’s all right,” Anne mumbled.

“She’s what?”

“You heard me.”

“That I did,” Andy said, shaking her head. Interesting.

Chapter 45

Andy looked at the X-ray pictures and shook her head. Phew. This isn’t nearly as bad as I thought. She took the pictures and walked over to the exam room.

Anne looked up as she walked in. “So, what’s the verdict, Doc?”

“Well, you were very lucky,” Andy smiled reassuringly. “The bullet didn’t hit the bone, just muscle. And it’s a good thing you’ve got quite a bit of that there.”

“So, what now? You put a bandage on it and we wait?”

“Er… not quite.” The doctor gestured for Anne to lie down. “It does require some surgery.”

“Surgery?” Anne asked. “So, you’re going in there and stitch it back together?”

“Basically? Yes.” Andy was busy setting up her instruments. “I’m going to work my way from the inside out, cleansing the wound, repairing any damage to the tendons, putting in some sutures. After that, it’ll indeed be watching and waiting.”

“You mean you’re going to do it here?”

“Do you have another pressing appointment?”

“No, but-”

” I’m more than qualified, if that’s what you’re worried about. Look, the longer we wait, the greater the chance of an infection. And I’d rather you keep that arm.” The doctor grimaced. “I’m only using a local anesthetic, so you’ll be fully alert the whole time.”

Ironically, this did make Anne feel better. Somewhat in control. Oh yeah, and what are you going to do. Get up and run?

“Any more questions?” Andy asked patiently.

“Not right now, no.” Anne swallowed. You mean I could really lose my arm?

“Okay, then let’s get started. It’s going to be okay.”

Yeah.

******************************

Carol saw Shana coming down the hall. She looks so lost. I wonder why she’s not with Anne. “Hey,” she called out before she could stop herself. “Looking for company?”

Shana looked up and met the sheriff’s eyes. “Sort of. Where are you headed?”

“I was going to call my former partner,” Carol replied as they both continued down the hall. “I need to tell him about what we heard from Carlos. About the evidence at his place, and that it’s pointing in the wrong direction. And I sort of promised Anne I’d ask Dave to search his files for a hint on the Hinkels’ missing daughter. Maybe make some inquiries.”

“Oh, that’s a great idea.” Shana gave the sheriff one of her full, radiant smiles. “Is there any chance of finding her?”

Carol smiled back in pure reflex. Wow. She mentally shook her head. “Honestly?” she replied earnestly. “I don’t think so. She disappeared thirteen years ago, and I think Carlos and his business partners…” She stopped, suddenly remembering that Shana’s parents might be Carlos’s accomplices.

“Go on, say it,” the tennis player sighed. “My parents, Anne’s father … they could all have been in this … business.”

“Yeah,” Carol nodded. “Do you mind if we talk about this some more? Maybe you have more information we could use. Dave will probably want to talk to you as well.”

“Sure, but I think I already told you everything I know.” Shana was certain she couldn’t come up with anything else. “Why don’t you make your call first, and then we’ll talk? I need to go check on Anne first.”

“Okay,” Carol said amiably. “I’ll be here in Andy’s office.”

“So, what’s the story about you two anyway?” Shana grinned as she saw the sheriff blush and hastily disappear into the doctor’s office.

******************************

Shana carefully opened the door and poked her head in. “Hey, how’s it going?”

Anne turned her head as much as she could without jostling her arm, which was stretched out at an angle from her body and fastened to a padded armrest. “Hey yourself. Andy says it’s not so bad.”

Andy grunted. She was wearing a surgical cap and mask and was completely focused on her work. “Close the door, please.” She looked up for a second and added apologetically, “preferably from the outside, so I can work in peace.”

Shana gasped, but Anne quickly reassured her. “I’m okay here, honey, really.” She turned her head to look at the doctor. “How long, Doc?”

Andy sighed. She had just began working on the sutures after thoroughly cleaning the wound with a saline solution for quite some time. “Give me an hour, maybe two, just to be on the safe side.” She looked at Shana again. “If we’re finished sooner, I’ll let you know.”

Anne blew Shana a kiss and a mouthed ‘I love you’ when she saw that her lover didn’t appreciate being sent away again. Shana gave her a small smile and returned the gesture before closing the door.

Outside she let go of a long sigh. This is going to be the longest day of my life.

******************************

John heaved Carlos onto the examination table, trying not to look into the half-open eyes. He wasn’t even sure the patient was awake, the eyes just creeped him out. He decided to get down to business. “Do you want me to shave his head, Doc?”

Dr. Hinkel nodded absent-mindedly as he looked at the X-ray results. “Hmm. Just a small fissure there. Not too bad.” He turned to John. “Can you start an IV?”

“No problem.”

Dr. Hinkel turned to start scrubbing his hands when he caught something shiny on his patient’s chest. He reached over and pulled out a necklace with a small pendant, immediately recognizing it for what it was. He opened the pendant and took out a small, rolled-up piece of paper. “Oh, my,” he sighed, “I didn’t need this much temptation.”

The paper listed about ten substances Carlos was allergic to. It would be so easy just to give him one of those and pretend he hadn’t discovered the medical pendant until it was too late. He sighed.

“He’s a walking allergy,” he told John as he handed over the piece of paper to the nurse. “Just make sure we’re not giving him any of this.”

******************************

Carol hung up the phone just as the door to Andy’s office opened and Shana entered. “So, how’s Anne doing?”

“Andy is working on her arm, but she didn’t look worried. Just focused.” Shana sat down on the couch across from the desk where the sheriff sat. “She sent me away so she could work in peace.”

Carol nodded. “Yeah, Andy likes to focus on her work, and she’ll probably be busy enough keeping Anne still.”

“Yeah, yeah … not to mention me and my worry, right?”

“Right.”

“Did you reach your partner?”

“Ex-partner, and yes.” Carol sat upright in the chair, then stretched languidly. “He’s on his way here as we speak. They searched Carlos’s house last night and found some evidence.” She looked at the woman across from her. “Some of it did indeed point in Anne’s direction, but I managed to clear that.” She grinned. “It’s probably a good thing in the end that Carlos tried to run you off the road, and I was there.”

“He did run me off the road, he just didn’t manage to kill me.” Or my baby.

Carol sobered. “Yes, I know.” She yawned. “What we need now, really, is a confession, and the names of his business contacts.” The venom lacing the last two words was almost palpable.

“And ideally a hint on where the girls are now.”

“Ideally, yes,” the sheriff sighed, “but I’m not sure how much of a paper trail he’s left for us to find any of them.”

The conversation came to an uncomfortable pause. The women looked around the small office, both deep in thought, unsure of where to go next.

“So …,” they both began as if on cue. Carol made a gesture for Shana to go first.

“Sooo,” the tennis player said, “how did an FBI agent end up as a small-town sheriff in the middle of nowhere?”

Carol smiled. “Curious, eh? Well, I’m pretty sure Anne told you how we came to meet each other.” When Shana nodded, the sheriff continued. “Okay, after I quit the FBI I decided to get out of New York City. I sold most of my stuff or gave it to Dave, packed my car and made my way westward. I just drove across the country, stopping here and there to work a bit, and then drive on.

“It took me about two years before I made it to L.A. where I decided to stay for a while. I found a job as a bodyguard and had a pretty good life there. You know, the beach, sun, beautiful women.”

“Then why did you leave?”

“Believe it or not, I missed the snow, the seasons, our Indian summer.” Carol sighed. “You can’t beat the colors of a New England Indian summer.”

“If you say so.” Shana grinned.

“Ah, yeah, I forget … you’re from Texas, aren’t you?”

“Born and bred,” Shana replied. “But I have to admit that I also like the snow and the colors up here. I’ve learned to appreciate them over the years.”

“Well,” Carol leaned back in her chair, “I was born up here, a small town in New Hampshire, in fact. So this isn’t so different for me. Actually, I really like the way life flows in this community.”

“So you came home,” Shana mused aloud. “But how did you become sheriff?”

“Long story quickly told. I was passing through Halverston on my way to find a place for dinner when I saw this house for sale.” She shrugged. “It spoke to me. Fate, maybe. I bought it and opened a martial arts school. I used the school gym for it, and after a while more and more people attended. It was fun, and since there’s no need for bodyguards up here, it was a way to keep up my skills. More or less, that is.” She threw up her hands in apparent disgust.

“One day, Mrs. Kennedy came to me and told me that the sheriff had had a stroke, and that they needed a replacement. I told her to just promote the deputy, but she just looked at me and told me that she and her cronies had discussed it and decided to ask me to run for the position.”

Shana smiled. “Yeah, I’ve heard about Mrs. Kennedy. Doesn’t she work in your office?”

Carol groaned. “Oh, yeah, that’s her. Anyway, I thought about it and agreed. I was really surprised when I got the job, though, but it’s nice work, people here respect me, and I have a pretty good –”

The sheriff stopped as the door opened and a carrot redhead peeked around the corner. “Dave!” Carol jumped up and hugged the newcomer. “It’s so good to see you!”

“Hey, Carol,” the small, wiry man greeted her, “good to see you, too. Man, how long has it been?” He hugged her again.

“Too long, buddy,” Carol replied, “too long.” She disentangled herself from his arms and pointed to Shana. “Dave, this is Shana Wilson. Shana, meet my former partner, Dave O’Dowd.”

“Pleased to meet you,” both mumbled as they appraised each other.

“Okay,” Carol said pointing, to the doorway, “want to get down to business?

******************************

Shana left Carol to bring the FBI agent up to date and decided to look in on Anne and the doctor again. She had only been kicked out of the room around an hour ago, but she couldn’t stay away any longer.

She was surprised to see three more agents in the hall, one in front of Andy’s office, one in front of the room she knew Carlos was in, and one at the door to the room in which Andy was working on Anne.

She passed the female office with a nod and was allowed to enter the room without problems. “Hey, again,” she whispered in greeting.

“Hey,” Andy replied, looking up from putting a gauze pad on Anne’s arm. “Why are you whispering?”

“I don’t know. The FBI arrived, and there’s an agent in front of this door,” Shana said in her normal voice. She nodded towards her lover. “What’s wrong with Anne?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Andy grinned, “I think I bored her into falling asleep.”

“I’m not sleeping,” Anne mumbled sleepily. “Hey, baby.”

“Hi there,” Shana walked over and tenderly kissed Anne’s forehead. “How do you feel?”

“Great,” Anne yawned, “I can’t feel anything right now.” She turned to look at the doctor, who had started cleaning Anne’s hands. “How should I feel, Doc?”

“I’m glad you’re feeling okay, although I’m afraid there will be some pain later.” Andy patted Anne’s shoulder. “I’ve repaired the damage done by the bullet, which thankfully was a clean through-and-through, and from what I can see it was a small caliber as well. No damage to the bone or the artery. You were extremely lucky there.”

“Thanks for taking care of her, Andy,” Shana said with a smile.

“My pleasure.” Andy smiled back. “And as soon as I’ve finished cleaning these hands, you’re next.”

Chapter 46

“That’s about it.” Dave finished his report and looked at his old partner.

“Not much, really,” Carol sighed. “We need to get Carlos to tell us what he did with the girls.”

“And how many girls there were,” Dave added. “From what I could gather at his house, there have to be quite a few. He’s been doing it for a long time now.”

“I’d also like to get his partners,” the sheriff rumbled low in her chest.

Dave looked at her through his red bangs. “Still trying to clear Anne Patakis’s name? Right now your word and hers are what’s between her and jail, you know.”

“I know.” Carol nodded. “But we both also know that she has nothing to do with this.”

He gave her a boyish grin. “Yeah, yeah. Although I’d really like to know what she did to make him hate her so much.”

Carol simply nodded. She didn’t think it was her place to tell Dave that Carlos was Anne’s brother. Half-brother, she corrected herself. She turned towards the door. “Let’s go talk to him.”

Dave stopped her with a hand on his arm. “There’s one more thing.” He pulled an envelope from the inner pocket of his jacket and handed it to Carol.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a letter I found among Carlos’s papers but it doesn’t make much sense to me. And since I have the feeling you still know more about him than I do, I thought you might understand what it’s all about.”

Carol opened the envelope while Dave watched her.

“Strangely sentimental for a guy like him to write a letter to his deceased dad, don’t you think?” he asked while Carol read the letter. “We’ll have to find out who his father was to see if there’s anything to this letter. Maybe it’s a code.”

“Yeah,” the sheriff replied absent-mindedly. Oh, I don’t like this at all. One particular sentence caught her eye and she read it again: “I know she killed you, and she’s going to pay for it one day.” Something there doesn’t add up, she thought. Although this sure would explain why Carlos hates Anne.

She looked up. “You know what, Dave? I have to talk to Anne Patakis for a minute. Why don’t you grab a coffee before we start interrogating Carlos?”

She opened the door and left, missing the frown on her ex-partner’s forehead.

*******************

The wand moved slowly over Shana’s belly while three pairs of eyes watched the small screen to the left.

“Look, there it is,” Andy said with a big smile. “Can you see the heartbeat?”

“That’s the baby?” Shana said with wonder in her voice. Andy nodded while focusing on getting a closer look.

“Is … it … everything okay?” Anne asked quietly, rolling her shoulder to settle the unfamiliar sling that kept her wounded arm close to her body. She winced at the pain the slight movement caused. Guess the drugs are wearing off.

Shana’s tightened her fingers around her lover’s other hand, which was also bandaged. There was a shadow in Anne’s eyes that worried her.

“Everything is fine.” Andy started to wipe off Shana’s belly with a paper towel. “Was this your first ultrasound?” Shana nodded. “Shana, I haven’t looked at one of those pictures in a long time but I’d say you’re about 12 weeks along.”

“About ten, actually,” Shana said after a swift calculation in her head.

“So, is this the reason you aren’t in Melbourne hitting balls right now?” Andy asked, unable to stop her curiosity.

Shana simply nodded. More or less.

“You too, eh?” Andy addressed Anne.

Anne shook her head. “Nah, I picked up some bug in Sydney and just didn’t feel like I should be playing a long tournament.” Especially not without Shana there. There was no point, really.

Her curiosity both satisfied and peaked for more, Andy smiled. “Okay, the due date should be in late August or early September. Who gets the picture?” She smiled, holding the small ultrasound printout.

Shana was about to answer when there was a knock on the door and Carol stuck her head in. She smiled at Andy and Shana but focused on Anne almost immediately. “Can I talk to you?”

Anne looked at Shana and then back to the sheriff, seemingly deeply involved in her own thoughts and unwilling to move. Her jaw muscles jumped visibly before she finally replied. “Um, sure, but …” She fell quiet.

Shana turned to Carol. “Give us a second here? She’ll meet you outside in a moment.”

Carol nodded but seemed unwilling to leave the room. Andy felt the sudden tension in the room and decided this was a good time to talk to the reticent sheriff and get some information. “I’ll join you outside, Carol,” she said as she walked over to the door. “You can tell me what’s going on here.”

The door closed behind them, leaving Shana to quietly contemplate her lover. I wonder what’s going on all of a sudden. Anne absent-mindedly stroked Shana’s belly as she stared at the door. Shana gently pushed a lock of dark hair behind Anne’s ear and then cupped her chin. “What’s wrong, honey?”

Anne swallowed, unable to meet her lover’s eyes. “Nothing.” She paused. “Really.”

“Hmm.” Shana cupped Anne’s face with both hands now, tenderly forcing Anne to look at her. “Talk to me, Anne. Tell me what’s wrong.” She smiled. “Please?”

Anne closed her eyes. “I … I’m not sure …” She swallowed again. “I don’t know if I can do this, Shana.”

“Do what, honey?”

“It’s so real … now, you know. And I …” Anne shrugged and stopped, not knowing what to say.

“The baby?” Shana asked quietly. Oh, God, please don’t make me choose between you and the baby, love. For a second, the urge to cry was almost overwhelming but she pushed it down. She looked at Anne and focused on her lover’s fingers still stroking her belly. Hmm.

Anne simply nodded. “It’s not … because … you know. It’s more …” She shrugged again and the insecure look in her eyes almost made Shana smile. Anne laid down her head on Shana’s belly and sighed. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Shana ran her hands through Anne’s hair. “I think it’s not the who or how, it’s the what, isn’t it?”

“Huh?” Anne looked, thoroughly puzzled by Shana’s cryptic question.

Now Shana couldn’t stop the smile. “Honey, I think I understand what you’re trying to say.”

“You do? ‘Cause I don’t.”

“I think it’s not so much the way I got pregnant, although I’m sure we both agree that I’d have preferred just about any other possibility.” She stroked Anne’s hair. “It’s probably more that you don’t know if you’re ready for a baby, now that we just got together. Right?”

“Right,” Anne slowly replied.

“I feel the same way,” Shana said with a sigh. “I’m actually looking forward to having a baby no matter how it got there, but I also want to enjoy us … just us … for a while first.” She leaned forward to kiss Anne. “There’s so much I want to explore with you.” She nearly growled before she deepened the kiss and let that speak for itself.

“Um, yeah,” Anne mumbled. “Exploring is good.” She still seemed a bit incoherent but Shana was relieved to see the shadows lifted from Anne’s eyes. She leaned in to kiss her again.

“And we’ll have another six or seven months or so to do that before the baby comes. Do you think that’ll be enough time?” Shana bit down on Anne’s earlobe and chuckled as Anne’s breathing hitched.

Anne took Shana’s face in both hands and stared directly into her lover’s soul. “There never will be enough time, Shay. We have to make up for fifteen years.” She kissed her lightly on the lips, feeling a bit better now. “But it’s a start.”

“I love you,” Shana whispered, suddenly serious again. “We will get through this.”

“Yes, we will,” Anne murmured, unable to tear her eyes away from Shana’s. “But I think I better go and see what Carol wants.”

“Yep. Give me two seconds and I’ll be right behind you.”

“Two seconds? Nah.” Anne grinned. “You’ll need longer than that.” She stood and bent to kiss Shana again. “Take your time.”

At the door she stopped and turned to look at Shana, who was busy getting up. “Love you.” Then she was gone.

*******************

Carol was pacing as she waited for Anne. She had given Andy a very short version of what was going on, telling her as little as she could get away with while looking into the curious brown eyes. She sighed. There was something magical in those eyes, and it was hard trying not to get lost in them. And Andy wasn’t really her type anyway. Was she?

She cocked her head she heard voices at the end of the hall. “Oh, great,” she muttered as she easily identified Irene, Kevin, and Mike before she could see them. “The gang’s all here.”

Irene’s voice brought her thoughts back to the letter. She frowned and took it out again to read it again as Andy went to greet the newcomers. I wonder when …

A throat being cleared nearby interrupted her. “You needed to talk to me?” Anne asked.

Carol folded the letter and put it in her back pocket. “Yeah.” She bit her lip, unsure of how to proceed. “When did your father die, Anne?”

“In ’94 … why?” Anne answered after a several surprised moments.

“I need the exact date, Anne.”

“The end of May,” Anne said slowly. “I think it was the 25th or 26th.” She shrugged. “I wasn’t there, and I didn’t even attend the funeral …”

“Where were you?”

“I don’t remember. Paris, probably. It wasn’t a great time for me.” Anne sighed. “Listen, Carol, what does that have to do with the price of rice in China? My father’s been dead a long time.” Her voice got a sharper edge.

Wordlessly, Carol took out the letter and handed it to Anne. She watched as the brunette read the letter, then looked on as the blue eyes widened in shock and went over the words once again. Nope, you didn’t do it. “The FBI found this letter in Carlos’s home,” she said quietly.

“And?” Anne challenged. “You don’t think I killed my father, do you? He died of a damned heart attack.” She shook her head. “God knows I hated him, but I didn’t kill him.”

Carol stared into the blazing eyes for a second and sighed. “No, I don’t think you killed him.” She held out her hand and Anne returned the letter. “But Carlos obviously does, which explains why he hates you.”

“I stopped expecting an explanation for that years ago.” Her voice sounded weary.

“I think I can convince Dave to forget this letter,” Carol said as she spotted Shana coming closer. “It’s pretty obvious that Carlos was imagining things.” I hope, she added quietly.

“Hey, what’s going on?” Shana asked as she slipped an arm around Anne’s waist.

“Nothing,” Anne and Carol replied simultaneously.

“Right,” Shana drawled. “You’re going to tell me later, right?” she demanded, looking straight into her lover’s eyes. Anne nodded, glad that Shana wasn’t insisting. She was still thinking about the letter. There was a thought taunting her somewhere deep down, and she wanted to give it time to either go away or manifest itself.

“So,” Shana turned to Carol, “what now?”

“Now you go join your family, and Dave and I’ll go talk to Carlos,” the sheriff said, not wanting to miss too much of Dave’s initial interrogation.

“I’ll go with you,” Anne stated firmly. “He wanted to kill us, and I want to hear him tell me why.” She felt her lover’s nod against her shoulder.

“Maybe our presence will make him mad enough to talk,” Shana threw in, her emphasis heavy on the “our.”

The sheriff groaned, although she was quietly thinking that Shana might have a point. “You do know that this is police business and you have no part in that, right?” she plaintively asked.

She saw two nods, and two determined faces, and sighed. “Okay, I’ll talk to Dave. If he says it’s okay, you can stay.”

Suddenly, the voices from the lobby became louder, and one was very impatient. “I want to see my daughters!R