Warriors Of The Heart by BadSquirrel

This is an original work and the characters bear no resemblance to anyone I actually know.

The Mormon church plays a small role in this story. I tried to be as accurate and fair as I could. If my portrayal bothers you, maybe you shouldn’t be reading this type of story to begin with.

I am not going to give you disclaimers about what you can expect to find in my story. I went through menopause recently and find I don’t much care about anyone’s sensibilities anymore. I am called BadSquirrel for a reason.

Considering how incredibly rude and grouchy I have become, I expect all of you to be extremely grateful to the QMBG (Queen Mother Bitch Goddess for those of you who haven’t kept up) for all of the good warm fuzzy bits of my story. If you like it, it’s because she went through it and took out all the really disturbing parts and made me behave.

For those who have been waiting years, this is the lap dance story.

Better late than never.

WARRIORS OF THE HEART

by BadSquirrel

 

 

Chapter One

“I told you when you hired me that I wouldn’t do lap dances.”

“What you said was that you wouldn’t lap dance for drunk, sweaty men. That is not a drunk, sweaty man. It’s her twenty-first birthday and her buddies bought her a dance. They bought you. Either do your job or get the fuck out of my club.”

She stared at the club’s owner/manager in horrified disbelief. His hard, cruel face smirked at her in triumph as he waited for her decision. She wasn’t sure what to do.

Rachel Quinn was a police officer working undercover as an exotic dancer in a ‘Gentlemen’s Club’, though she had yet to meet any gentle men there. The club was a hub in the local meth trade, but investigators were having no luck determining who was actually running the drugs out of the seedy dive or where they were getting the powerful drug. A Vice detective named Tom Dean had been working the club the last four months as a bouncer, but all he knew was that some of the dancers were being used as runners for deliveries. After four months with no solid leads, it was decided that they needed someone undercover as a dancer.

It was unusual for a patrol officer to be chosen for such an assignment. Rachel knew it wasn’t because of her investigative skills. She had only been on the police force for two years and still had a lot to learn. No, she got this assignment because of how she looked.

Standing just over five-eight in her bare feet, Rachel was blessed with a slender, yet voluptuous body. At 26, Rachel had just the right amount of curve to her hips, a near perfect ass, and D-cup breasts that were still firm and shapely. She had the flawless olive skin tone and wildly curly black hair of her predominantly Italian ancestors, but her vivid green eyes were a gift from her Irish grandfather. While she knew it wasn’t important in the grand scheme of things, Rachel knew she was attractive.

Rachel had been working at the club for a week and still started each shift bent over a toilet as she vomited up her pride and dignity. To go from traffic control and securing crime scenes to stripping for money was not an easy transition. Both were potentially dangerous, but in her real job, she was well trained and wore protective clothing and weapons. As an exotic dancer, she had taken a private two-day class on pole dancing and wore nothing more than a G-string and spiked heels.

To be part of an important investigation at this stage of her career was something of a coup. It had not been an easy decision and there was always a chance that she would be ‘made’ as a cop. Granted, the way she looked in her uniform with her hair pulled back in a tight braid was markedly different from walking around mostly naked with her long hair down, but it could happen.

Then there was the isolation she felt. The department had set her up in a studio apartment that had never seen better days and she had to stay away from her friends. Most of whom were cops. It was like she was suddenly living a completely different life.

The hardest part was the actual undercover work. Rachel liked her body, but exposing herself like this made her feel depressed and dirty. She could see how some would find it liberating, but the damage to her self-respect wasn’t worth it. Maybe it would be different if she was dancing exclusively for women, but she wasn’t too sure about that.

Now the owner wanted her to give a lap dance to a young woman. The department would not penalize her in any way for refusing and being fired. It was one of the promises made to her when she accepted the assignment. She could quit and go home at any time, but if she did that, they would never forget and she would always wonder if she had made the right choice. Her superiors knew she was a lesbian and Rachel felt that this was her chance to prove that her ‘lifestyle’ was not a hindrance to the job. A straight woman in her position would not be expected to violate her principles, but the Powers That Be would never really understand why a lesbian would consider dancing for another woman a violation of integrity.

Rachel felt trapped. She glanced at her backup, Tom. He looked grim, but his eyes were screaming ‘yes’. The club owner, Gary Spears, looked smug. Her belly churning with fear and revulsion, Rachel turned to look at the table she was supposed to entertain. Specifically, the young, inebriated woman with a blush to rival a perfect pink rose. Rachel sighed internally.

            At least she’s cute. And she probably knows less about lap dancing than I do. I’ve seen it done and I had a bit of instruction. I just never expected to have to do it. She’ll never know if I look like an idiot. Under different circumstances, I’d probably enjoy dancing for her. She’s got just the right amount of butch femininity to get me…

Rachel stopped her internal monologue short. A decision had to be made. When it came right down to it, she knew she wasn’t ready to walk out the door; which meant that she was going to do it. She glared at Gary with righteous indignation. “You know I need this job and you’re deliberately manipulating our agreement.”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.”

“You have no idea how much I hate you right now.”

“That’s what all the girls say,” he laughed snidely.

All of the dancers were rude and nasty to the man. Rachel knew it was the only protection they had while they were parading around nearly naked. It was in character for her to act the same way. “You’re an asshole, Gary.”

“Tell me something I don’t know. Now get to work.”

“Fuck you. I’ve never done this before. I need a few minutes to figure out what the hell I’m doing.” Gary’s abrupt grasp of her arm was painful, but Rachel kept that to herself. “Let go of me.”

“Five minutes from now,” he warned menacingly, “you’ll be bumping and grinding on that little dyke or you’ll be looking for another place to sling your tits. Got it?”

Knowing that she would have bruises later, Rachel yanked her arm from his grasp and turned away. She needed help and she needed it now. Moira was her first choice. They were not friendly, but she was always helpful with advice; usually for a price. Moira was delivering some drinks to several businessmen. Rachel caught her eye and indicated that she needed to talk. They met at the bar.

“I have to do a lap dance,” she said without preamble.

“To who?”

“The girl at the table over there,” she said with a nod of her head.

Moira turned to look. “She looks harmless enough and I’ve seen some of those guys at the table in here before. They know the rules.”

“I don’t have any idea how to even start. Any advice?”

Moira looked over at the girl again. “Well, she was drooling like a puppy during your set. There’s no question that she finds you attractive. You shouldn’t have any trouble.”

Rachel almost growled in frustration. “Come on, Moira. I’ve only got a couple of minutes. Help me out here.”

“Give me half?”

“You can have it all,” Rachel said of the money she would make on the dance. “Just tell me what to do.”

“Deal.” Moira moved closer. “First of all…”

>>>

Stevie Marks was on overload. Not only was she surrounded by practically naked women, she was drunk. She had no idea what kind of alcohol was in a Pink Pussy, but it sure tasted good. It was hard to say how many of the fruity drinks she’d had. Each of the four guys at her table had bought at least one round, but she wasn’t sure where they were in the second round. That made it somewhere between four and eight drinks. As this was the very first time Stevie had tried alcohol, she thought she was keeping up pretty well. Her body felt very strange and her mind was fuzzy, but it felt kind of good.

It was funny though, that the more she drank, the thirstier she got. Lifting her drink, she tried to get the skinny straw in her mouth, but it kept moving. Watching a dancer on the stage mere feet away, she searched for the straw with her tongue. Stevie could tell that the blond was bored. Her dancing was lackadaisical and her expression dull.

But she was naked. There was that thin strip of material covering her hoohoo, of course, but it hardly made any difference. Stevie couldn’t look away, though she wished the one with the long, dark, curly hair would come back out. She was hot.

“How ya doin, sport?”

Stevie dragged her eyes from the dancer to grin at her friend, Greg.

“Havin’ trouble with your drink?”

Shaking her head no, Stevie continued to search with her tongue and still couldn’t find the elusive straw. Pulling back to focus, she saw it was gone. “Hey,” she frowned in confusion. “Where’d it go?”

All four of her friends were laughing at her. It didn’t matter. Her straw was lost. She looked around and found it sticking to her shirt. It took two tries, but she managed to get it back where it belonged. Taking another drink, she smiled. “I like Pink Pussy’s.”

They laughed even harder and Stevie realized what she had said. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Sure you didn’t,” Bobby howled.

Stevie laughed with her friends. This was the last place she ever expected to be on her twenty-first birthday, but she was having fun now that she had stopped being freaked out. Having been raised in a strict Mormon household, her family would have a stroke if they knew, but Stevie didn’t care. Since she had been excommunicated from the church for being a lesbian, Stevie was finding that there was a whole new world out there she’d known nothing about.

Of course, she had no intention of telling her family about this little adventure. They were barely speaking to her as it was. Telling them about getting drunk and watching strippers would be more than they could take. Stevie went to her parents house on Sunday afternoons for lunch as often as she could, but it was always tense. If not for the secret acceptance of her little brother, Rory, Stevie would have stopped hoping for their tolerance. Still, she supposed that the fact they had not asked her to stop coming was a hopeful sign. Maybe someday they would accept her.

Stevie’s whole life had been atypical. Gifted with a quicksilver intelligence, Stevie had graduated high school at fourteen. At seventeen, she graduated from college with a Master’s degree in Information Technology. Using the money her grandparents had saved for her eighteenth birthday, she started her own company installing and servicing computer systems. She had two employees and while they weren’t getting rich, they were doing well enough. At some point, Stevie intended to put some serious effort into making her company grow. For now, it was exactly what she wanted.

Stevie’s real love was racing dirt bikes. Her family had always been avid about all-terrain vehicles. She had grown up riding quads, dirt bikes and go-carts. As she got older, she learned how to fix them and then started racing them. Her preference was motocross. She raced casually as a teenager, unable to devote as much time as she would have liked to it due to the demands of her schooling, but at nineteen she had begun racing professionally.

She was good. Being one of the few women in the sport and the best of those, Stevie had been approached by sponsors. As her racing improved, the sponsors began to compete for her favor. Stevie was not rich, but she owned her own home and had enough money to have a custom toy hauler and the best bikes. She wasn’t doing too badly for being only twenty-one.

When Stevie had first started racing professionally, she did it alone. She had just recently been kicked out of the church so her friends and family were stepping back, leaving her alone to fend for herself. She had been taking her racing bike to the tracks in the back of her pickup and if something broke, she was out of the race unless she had the tools and parts to fix it herself. She had almost given up on racing when Dusty and Greg had silently stepped in to fix her fuel line during a local race.

Stevie won that race and the two men had been with her ever since. They were older by a couple of years and they were good friends. Stevie paid for all of their travel expenses and whatever supplies they needed, but they worked for the joy of it, not for money. Neither of them was married and they spent a lot of time with Stevie. They teased her mercilessly about being a lesbian, but they were the first to defend her when it became an issue. Stevie wasn’t sure what she would do without them.

The other two men keeping company with them tonight were Bobby and Aaron. Both were fellow racers and among the very few who had no problem racing against a woman who routinely kicked their butts. They were in it to have a little fun, make a little money and impress the ladies.

The five of them were a close group and they had good times riding in the hills and ‘cruising chicks’. Taking her out on her birthday had been Dusty’s idea, but Aaron had been the one to choose the venue. When she realized where they were, Stevie had freaked. The four guys had dragged her into the dark club and virtually poured the first two drinks down her throat before she had begun to relax.

And then, she had come out on stage. It was hard to tell how tall the leggy brunette was, elevated by the stage as she had been, but Stevie had never seen a more beautiful woman. Her eyes had been riveted on the exotic dancer. She looked strong and delicate all at once. Everything about her had drawn Stevie, but the hair was her undoing. Black and tightly curled, it hung to the middle of the dancer’s back. Stevie lusted after that hair. She wanted to run her fingers through it, breathe in the scent of it, and feel it caressing her skin.

She was pretty sure she hadn’t breathed during the dance. When it was over and the dancer left the stage, Stevie was dizzy and confused. It took several minutes to clear her head enough to speak.

“I think she’s drunk,” Dusty grinned.

“Toasted,” Bobby agreed.

“Yes,” Stevie said with as much dignity as she could manage, “I am drunk. Maybe I’ll go to hell, but I figure all of you will be there, too, so it can’t be too bad.”

Aaron laughed. “She’s got a point.”

“I’m a genius, you know.” Stevie smiled and felt her eyes cross. Blinking to set them straight, she was only marginally aware of the hands on her shoulders, but she heard every word that was whispered into her ear.

“Happy birthday, baby.”

Stevie turned her head to see who was talking to her and nearly lost an eye on a pebbled nipple. Mortified, she looked up into the greenest eyes she’d ever seen in the face she was hungering to see. It’s her! Oh my gosh! Say something, you dork! “Uh…”

The dark haired dancer winked. “I need you to sit on your hands, honey.”

Stevie blinked again. “Huh?”

The dancer gently took Stevie’s drink and set it on the small table. Stevie’s eyes nearly bugged out of her head as incredible breasts brushed by her face. She could smell the dancer; sweat, smoke and a musky vanilla scent. It was intoxicating.

“Have you ever had a lap dance?”

It took a moment for Stevie to wrap her mind around the soft question. She licked her lips. She couldn’t understand how her mouth could be so dry and her palms so damp. Stevie was wishing desperately that she wasn’t so drunk. “I don’t…know what that is.”

The dancer smiled tenderly as she leaned close to whisper. “I’ll tell you a secret. I’ve never done one before. Just relax, baby. I won’t hurt you.”

Stevie’s heart was racing. Just having the sexy dancer close was making her skin burn.

“What’s your name, honey?”

Stevie swallowed hard. “Um…Stevie.”

“Sit on your hands, Stevie.”

The guys were hooting, laughing and whistling as Stevie slipped her hands under her thighs. She didn’t understand what was happening, but she would do anything this woman asked of her.

Stevie whimpered helplessly when the beautiful dancer straddled her lap and faced her. All of that naked skin was making her brain swell dangerously and her skin tingle. It was all she could do to keep her eyes on the woman’s face. Perfect breasts were inches from her mouth and she wanted to taste them. Warm hands were caressing her face and neck, long fingers combing through her hair. It felt absolutely incredible.

The dancer’s body began to move against her and Stevie closed her eyes, embarrassed at the fire raging out of control in her belly. “Help me,” she moaned.

“It’s okay, baby. Open your eyes. Open your eyes, Stevie.”

Stevie looked into the green eyes and was lost. She shuddered as powerful sensations swept through her. Stevie gasped for air as her body shook. “What are you doing to me?”

“Making you feel good.” The dancer ran her hands over Stevie’s shoulders and up to cup her face. “Does this feel good?”

“Oh God…please…I feel…”

The dancer smiled with more confidence. “Just relax, baby. I’ll take care of you.”

Stevie cried out as one hand tangled in her hair and pulled her head back. The dancer’s breasts were on her throat, the hard peaks teasing her pulse and the dance became more aggressive. The pressure inside of Stevie was growing and she strained with tension trying to contain it.

Uncertain what was happening to her, Stevie struggled for air and clarity, but neither was forthcoming. “Oh God,” she groaned as she felt herself beginning to unravel. Her face was pulled forward into luscious breasts. Surrounded by that intriguing scent, feeling the beautiful body writhing against her, Stevie imploded.

>>>

The last thing Rachel expected to feel was arousal. Revulsion and degradation, yes; but not this sparkling desire. Her feelings only intensified as she watched Stevie approach orgasm. The young woman had the telltale pre-come blush, the gasping for air and the strong, healthy body trembling with tension. No one had ever responded to her so quickly or intensely.

It was beautiful and made her feel like the most powerful woman alive. Rachel intensified her motions as she watched the sweet face with fascination. She could see fear and surprise in the brown eyes as Stevie neared climax and Rachel suddenly wanted to protect her and keep her safe.

“Oh God,” Stevie groaned.

Rachel pulled the young woman to her breast and held her close as she came. She wrapped her arms around the birthday girl as she shuddered and whimpered in bliss.

“Thank you, baby,” Rachel crooned to the suddenly limp body. “You were lovely.”

Rachel sat on the girl’s lap and just held her for a few moments. She was aware of the laughing and joking around them and wanted to keep Stevie from it for a few moments. Besides, it felt so right to hold her.

When Stevie’s breath began to calm, Rachel pulled back and looked into the stunned face. She couldn’t think of a thing to say. Placing a hand on the young woman’s face, Rachel looked deep into her eyes. She felt like she was searching for something, but she wasn’t sure what. The brown eyes were addictive. She could feel them pulling at her soul and Rachel pulled back a little more. This was not the time or place.

Reluctantly, she stood up, feeling more naked than before. She needed to get away. Holding her chin up by pure willpower, she headed straight for the bathroom. Gary was leering at her and holding money out. “Give it to Moira,” she said as she passed by.

The restroom was cold and the prickling of her skin only accentuated the lingering arousal she felt. Rachel leaned back against the door and took deep breaths. She had to get it under control. The easiest thing to do was to get herself off, but it would leave her feeling too vulnerable and she still had an hour to go before she could leave.

Moving to the sink, she splashed cold water on her face. Straightening up, she looked at herself in the cracked mirror. Why had it felt so good? She had been so nervous until she’d looked into Stevie’s eyes. Then it had all felt too right. Rachel closed her eyes. Stevie. It fit her. The face of a model, the body of an athlete and the innocent eyes of an angel. She was a little young, but under other circumstances, Rachel would have been interested in getting to know her better.

As things stood, it was impossible. Rachel could hardly afford to pursue anyone with her life on hold as it was. Besides, she’d just given the young woman a lap dance. That’s what Stevie would always see her as. A stripper. Someone not worth getting involved with.

Rachel felt like she had just lost something. Maybe it was her innocence, what was left of it. She wanted to hit something. Bracing her hands on the edge of the sink, she dropped her head and focused on letting it go. She had a job to do and if she wasn’t clear on that, bad things could happen. She’d done what she had to do to keep her cover. It was probably normal to get aroused giving a lap dance. It was a very sexual thing to do, after all. Her arousal should only be a concern if she had not felt anything.

When she left the restroom, she glanced over at Stevie’s table. The four guys were still drinking and laughing, but Stevie was gone. Rachel wondered if she would coming back, but she never did.

>>>

The cab reeked of perfume, sickly and sweet. Stevie tried pinching her nose shut and breathing through her mouth, but tasting that smell was even worse. Her gorge began to rise. “Pull over. Let me out.”

The cabbie took one look in the rear view mirror and swerved to the side of the street.

Stevie staggered out of the cab, aimed herself at a battered trash receptacle, and threw up. She had felt really good not that long ago, but now she felt terrible. Stevie retched until her stomach was empty and then she retched some more. She couldn’t remember ever feeling so bad in her whole life and she cried for herself.

Finally, it seemed to be over. Stevie leaned her hip against the trash can for balance and pulled the hem of her t-shirt up to wipe her mouth. She felt empty and cold. Blinking her eyes into focus, she realized the cab was gone. It didn’t make sense at first and she looked up and down the street for it. A wave of despair almost unhinged her knees and Stevie sobbed into her hand.

The church told her she was going to hell when they excommunicated her, but Stevie had never quite believed it. God would never send someone to hell for loving. She might not go to the same heaven as her family, but she wasn’t going to be damned for time and all eternity because she was a lesbian. God just couldn’t be that cruel.

But now, standing on a deserted street in the dark of night, Stevie wasn’t so sure where she would end up. She had gotten drunk in a strip club and let a naked woman rub up against her, then ended up sick and stranded. It was hard to imagine ever finding herself in a lower place. Maybe she deserved to go to hell.

Stevie stumbled to the curb for lack of a better place to sit and dropped down to curl around her knees. The part that scared her most was the lap dance. It wasn’t like Stevie had never had sex before, but she had never felt anything quite like that. It had been wonderful in a terrifying sort of way. What were the chances that she would ever feel like that again? Was she a bad person for so thoroughly enjoying what the dancer had done to her?

Stevie cried. The most amazing night of her life was the worst night of her life. Everything was all wrong.

>>>

It was club policy that the dancers be escorted to their cars after the club closed. Rachel doubted it was out of real concern for their safety. She suspected it was to avoid lawsuits if one of them was attacked. Whatever the reason, it was a good policy. Twice in the week she had been working at the club, Rachel had seen men waiting out back for the dancers to emerge.

Her back-up, Tom Dean, walked with Rachel to her car as the other dancers drove away. “You okay?” he asked gruffly.

“Yes. Are you going to put the lap dance in your report?”

“I have to.”

Rachel gritted her teeth. Having HQ know was going to make things tough when dealing with them. The teasing would be brutal. “Do you report every time a dancer feels you up or you jerk off in the bathroom?”

“That’s different.”

Rachel turned to look up at the taller man. “It’s not different. We do what we have to do to keep our covers intact. That’s all it is.”

“It’s not the same,” Tom said with a frown.

“Right. Keep telling yourself that.”

“Look, don’t for one minute think that you know what you’re doing,” he hissed. “So you’ve managed not to get yourself killed for a week. Whoop-dee-fucking-doo. You’re still no closer to getting us information we can use. I don’t know why they think you can do what I couldn’t do in four months. It’s ridiculous.”

“Thanks for the support,” Rachel spat.

“Just get us something we can use,” Tom growled. “Stop fucking around trying to be friendly and do your job.”

“And how, exactly, do you suggest I do that? You’re the expert here, Tom. Tell me what I’m supposed to say or do to make them trust me.”

Tom’s mouth was a grim line.

“I’ve told them a dozen times that I need money,” Rachel said quietly. Voices carried at night and they were making an effort to avoid being overheard. “They tell me to do more lap dances. That isn’t going to happen. My career as a lap dancer is over. My other choice is to smoke ice with them and I really don’t want to do that. The last thing I need is to get hooked on meth. That leaves becoming friends with them as a way in. If you have a better idea, bring it on. If not, quit busting my chops.”

Tom stomped back towards the club and Rachel took a shaky breath. She didn’t trust Tom to look out for her. He resented her involvement and pushed her to be reckless to achieve results he hadn’t been able to obtain himself. Rachel knew it would do no good to complain. Tom had many more years on the force and it would be next to impossible to place another undercover officer into Tom’s position within the club. She was stuck with him.

The car the department provided her (an older Crown Victoria) looked like crap, but it ran like a dream. Normally, Rachel listened to music while driving, but after a night in the club with its loud music and pulsing lights she had come to appreciate the quiet. Traffic at 2:30 in the morning was light and Rachel let her mind wander as she drove. The thought of stripping for four months or more was untenable. She needed to find a way to make the other dancers trust her sooner rather than later.

Running through the dancers in her mind, she thought Candy might be the key. Not only did the older woman seem to be the leader, she made Rachel’s hackles rise. There was just something about her that screamed criminal intent. Candy was in her mid to late thirties and built like a cartoon character. She had an abnormally tiny waist, generous hips and tits out to Canada. No one did more lap dances than Candy. She was, by far, the most popular dancer of the patrons.

She was also rude, snide and sarcastic. When she wasn’t lap dancing, she could usually be found hanging off Gary’s arm, or propping up the bar. Candy never had to dance on the stage. She was definitely a person of interest in the investigation, but aside from some old prostitution convictions, she appeared to be clean. Rachel thought if she could ingratiate herself into Candy’s good graces, she might be able to pick up some information.

Glancing out the passenger window, Rachel saw a figure sitting on the curb. A few seconds later, she realized who she’d seen. It was Stevie. She kept right on going, but a few blocks later, her cop instincts kicked in. This was not a good neighborhood. Especially for a young, drunken woman. Honor and duty compelled her to turn around and see what was going on.

Pulling up to the curb about twenty feet from the huddled form, Rachel left her headlights on as she got out to check on Stevie. It was standard procedure while out on patrol to illuminate the scene.

Stevie was crying. Rachel hesitated as her heart ached in sympathy. Moving to Stevie’s side, she sat down and tentatively put a hand on her back.

“Leave me alone.”

Rachel sighed. “I can’t do that, Stevie. What are you doing here? Where are your friends?”

Stevie rubbed her face on her arms and turned away. “The cab left.”

Rachel searched the street. “What do you mean?”

“Just go away.”

It was tempting, but Rachel just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t right to leave Stevie here. “Can I call you another cab?”

Stevie lifted her head and wiped at her face with both hands, then looked directly at Rachel. Her face went slack in surprise. “It’s you.”

Rachel tried to smile. “Yeah. It’s me. You can’t stay here, Stevie. It’s not safe.”

Stevie’s eyes filled with fresh tears. “Did it mean anything?”

“What?”

“What you did. Did it mean anything?”

Rachel felt like a cad. She had been so concerned with what the lap dance meant to her that she had never considered how Stevie would feel about it. What should she say? Would it be best to be callous? Could she do that to someone while she was looking them in the eye?

Stevie looked away. “Never mind. I’m just drunk.”

Rachel took a deep breath. “I’ve never done a lap dance before. I don’t think I’ll ever do another one. But…I’m glad it was with you.”

Stevie searched Rachel’s face. “Why?”

She had no answer for that. “Why don’t you let me take you home? Where do you live?”

“Nathan Lane.”

“The actor?” Rachel asked with a grin. She knew the street, but the joke was too easy to pass up.

“Off of Warren.”

Apparently Stevie was too drunk for jokes. “I know where it is. Come on. Let’s get you home.”

Stevie was none too steady on her feet and Rachel put an arm around the slender waist to keep her upright. The younger woman was a few inches taller, but she wasn’t all that heavy. Rachel guided her to the passenger side of the Crown Vic and leaned her against the car. This wasn’t what she had wanted to do after work, but it had to be done.

“Are you going to be sick?”

Stevie ran her hands through her hair on the second try. “Already was. And then the cab left me.”

“You threw up in the cab?”

Stevie shook her head. “Got out to be sick and it left. Greg is gonna be mad. He paid the guy extra.”

“It’ll be okay, Stevie.”

She got Stevie into the car and buckled up, then got in the car herself and started it up. “Tell me if you need to be sick again, Stevie. I won’t leave you on the side of the road, but if you throw up in my car, I’ll kick your ass.”

Stevie’s head lolled about as she giggled. Rachel grinned at her passenger as she put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb.

Nathan Lane was part of a modest neighborhood. The homes were reasonably well maintained and Rachel knew that crime was lower than normal in this section of town. Most of what went down was petty stuff, but there were occasional incidences of domestic violence. All in all, it was pretty quiet. Rachel paused at the stop sign, unsure which way to go.

“Stevie? Which way?”

Looking around blearily, Stevie pointed to the left.

“Which house?”

Stevie closed her eyes with a sigh. “The black truck. Pink stripe.”

Rachel turned left. A few blocks down, she found a small house with a huge black pick-up in the driveway, a broad, pink stripe down the side of it. “Is this it? Stevie?”

There was no response, but beyond the truck was an enclosed trailer that was painted with the name, “Stevie Rae Marks”. This had to be the right place. Rachel pulled up to the curb and shut off the engine. She reached over to shake her passenger.

“Don’t you fall asleep, Stevie. I’m not carrying you inside. Wake up.”

Stevie nodded and reached for the door handle. Rachel released Stevie’s seatbelt and then her own. By the time she walked around to the passenger side of the vehicle, Stevie had her feet on the ground, but was still sitting in the car. “You’re almost home. Think you can make it?”

Shaking her head no, Stevie suddenly lurched from the car and leaned over her split rail fence. Rachel winced in sympathy at Stevie’s dry heaves. She’d had her own share of evenings like that and they were no fun. From the look of it, Stevie was in for a bitter morning.

Rachel folded her arms as she waited, her eyes scanning the quiet neighborhood. It was a natural instinct to do so given her true profession, but it was clear there were no threats. There was a stillness to the street that made the air seem cleaner and more crisp. With no threats in sight, her eyes wandered to the painted trailer in Stevie’s driveway and widened in surprise as she understood what she was looking at.

In addition to the name, there was a nicely detailed painting of a motocross rider in a mid-air flair. Visually compensating for the color distortion caused by the yellow streetlights, she could see pink highlights on the black bike and the riders’ gear. Stevie raced Motocross? In pink?

Rachel grinned. She was willing to bet that pink did not go over well with the other racers. Not to mention the titanium ovaries Stevie had to possess to pull it off.

Still amused, she turned to look at the young woman just in time to see her stand up…and fall over like a mischievous God had reached out and pushed her. It was the last thing Rachel expected to see and it made her laugh.

“Darn it,” Stevie grumbled from the sidewalk.

She knew she shouldn’t be laughing, but Rachel couldn’t help it. Her hand trying to hold back her merriment, she watched Stevie struggle to her hands and knees and then slide sideways to sit on her butt.

“Are you alright?”

Stevie blinked a few times, her whole body swaying like a mesmerized cobra. “I fell down.”

“Yes, you did.” Rachel reached out a hand. “Come on, kiddo. We’ve got to get you inside.”

While getting Stevie vertical, Rachel discovered blood on one of Stevie’s elbows. It was on Rachel’s hand and she had a moment of mindless fear. Blood was a hazardous material. That fact had been drummed into her from the beginning of her academy training. Taking a deep breath, she carefully wiped her hand on Stevie’s shirt. There was nothing she could do about it until she got inside. She would just have to hope for the best.

In spite of the wobbling, Stevie was easy to lead. Rachel guided her onto the porch and took a set of keys from uncoordinated hands. Opening the front door, she felt around for a light switch. Finding it, she flipped it on and took an assessing look at the room it revealed.

The house was neat and clean, but it was clear that Feng Shui was not spoken here. Nothing matched, but it looked comfortable enough. Kicking the door closed behind them, Rachel identified a short hallway and took a gamble that it was where they needed to go. “Is the bathroom this way?”

“On the left.”

“Okay. Let’s get that arm cleaned up.”

“What arm?”

Rachel maneuvered Stevie to the bathroom counter with the bleeding limb over the sink. Turning the water as hot as she could bear it, she scrubbed her hands thoroughly. That handled, she turned her attention to Stevie’s injury. The young woman was missing a little more than an inch of skin and Rachel grimaced. “I’ll bet that hurts.”

Stevie twisted her arm to see it and shrugged. “It’s nothing. Can’t even feel it.”

“You say that now. Do you have a first aid kit?”

Stevie kicked at the cabinet door beneath her and then lifted both feet straight out to give Rachel room to reach it.

It was a nice kit. Rachel was pretty sure minor surgery could be done with it in a pinch. With some relief, she found a pair of latex gloves and pulled them on. Having the protection gave her confidence. She started with a thorough rinsing of the injury.

“I don’t think I like being drunk,” Stevie sighed as she watched.

Rachel paused. “Do you need to throw up again?”

“Nah. Felt good at first, but now…I don’t like it very much.”

Rachel went back to work making sure there was no dirt or grit left in the open sore. “Is this the first time you’ve gotten drunk?”

“Yep.”

“Seriously?”

“What’s your name?”

It actually sounded more like Wuz yer naym, but she understood it. “Rachel.”

“Hmmm, pretty. I like that name.”

There was one last bit of dark in the midst of torn flesh that was being stubborn and it held most of Rachel’s attention. “Thanks.”

“My name is Stevie.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Stevie.”

When the last bit of whatever it was came out, Rachel used gauze to dry the area. Slathering an antibiotic ointment over it, she covered Stevie’s elbow with another gauze pad and taped it securely.

“There you go. All done.”

“You have the prettiest eyes I’ve ever seen.”

Rachel peeled off the latex gloves and dropped them in the trash. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”

Stevie frowned, her head bobbing in negation. “I stay away from them. They just want the glory. Not me.”

Rachel had no idea what Stevie was talking about. She suspected that even Stevie didn’t know what she was saying.

“I think it’s time for you to go to bed.”

“I can do it.”

Rachel stood back and watched as Stevie cautiously made her way. It took both hands and every surface, but Stevie made it into the bedroom without falling or breaking anything. Rachel had to shake her head over the room. There were Motocross posters on the walls, trophies on shelves, and one corner of the room was devoted to a computer. It was like being in the bedroom of a fourteen year old boy.

Stevie fell across the bed with a groan. Rachel sighed with impatience. This was taking longer and longer. Stevie was a nice enough kid, but Rachel just wanted to go home and take a shower. True, she could leave right now. Stevie was home safe and in relatively good health, but Rachel couldn’t leave the responsibility half finished.

“Sit up, Stevie. Come on. There’s blood on your shirt. You don’t want to sleep in it all night, do you?”

Stevie was becoming increasingly dopey by the moment. Rachel took off Stevie’s shoes and socks and then helped untangle her long arms from her t-shirt. Pulling back the covers on the bed, she pushed Stevie back onto the sheets. The jeans were a bit harder to remove, but she managed it and left them in a pile on the floor.

Stevie had a nice, fit body. There were a few small scars and a fairly large one on her side, but they did not detract from the overall picture. The granny panties and utilitarian bra, however, killed whatever enjoyment Rachel might have taken in the viewing. Covering Stevie up, Rachel brushed brown hair out of Stevie’s blinking eyes. “Go to sleep. Next time, don’t drink so much.”

“Okay.”

Rachel turned off the bedroom light as she left and nearly jumped out of her skin when she bumped into a man. She fell into a defensive posture on reflex.

The man’s eyes opened wide. “You? What are you doing here?”

Rachel forced herself to relax as she recognized him as one of Stevie’s guy friends from the club. She knew it looked bad that she was in Stevie’s house. He deserved an explanation and it seemed likely that Rachel wasn’t going anywhere until he got one. “I found her sitting on the curb on Market Street about a mile from the club and brought her home.”

His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “She took a cab. I put her in it myself and paid the driver.”

“You should get your money back,” Rachel said as she folded her arms. “I think she had him stop so she could throw up and he ditched her. You must be Greg.”

“Yeah.”

“She said you would be upset about it.” Rachel glanced over her shoulder into the darkened room. “She took a tumble outside and banged up her elbow. I cleaned it up and put a bandage on it, but I can’t promise it won’t get infected.”

“Why were you helping her?”

“She seems like a nice kid. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to her.”

Rachel could see the distrust in his eyes and realized that he might see her as acting out of character for a stripper. It aggravated her and it came out in her voice. “Look, I didn’t steal anything. I picked her up, brought her home, bandaged her elbow and tucked her in bed. That’s all. Her keys are on the table by the front door. I didn’t have to do any of it, but I did. All I really want to do is go home and take a shower. Is that okay with you or do you plan on calling the cops on me for helping your friend?”

Greg considered it for a moment and stepped aside to let her pass. Rachel only got a few steps before he spoke.

“Hey.”

Rachel turned to look at him. “What?”

“Thanks.”

He looked sincere and Rachel’s mood lightened. “You’re welcome.”

“You gonna be okay getting home?”

Maybe he was a good guy. Most wouldn’t have asked her that. “Yes.”

Rachel left the house and got in her car. She quickly made note of the address and Stevie’s vehicle plates. She added the plate number from what had to be Greg’s vehicle. Moira said that he looked familiar. One never knew where a lead could come from. Every bit of information was valuable, even if only to eliminate possibilities. Stevie didn’t seem like the type to get involved with running drugs, but better safe than sorry.

Chapter Two

The sun on her face woke Stevie the next morning. The taste in her mouth was the most god awful thing ever and her whole body was sore. Forcing herself to sit up, she looked down in confusion. She never wore her underwear to bed. Where were her pajamas?

A tug at her elbow as she bent her arm caught her attention. Seeing the bandage, it all came back to her: the club, the lap dance, being sick, hurting her arm…Rachel. Her belly twisted into a warm puddle at the memory. Completely unaware of the silly grin on her face, Stevie closed her eyes and remembered.

What a night! She could have done without getting so sick, but…wow! And to have it all topped off with Rachel taking care of her…

Stevie’s eyes flew open. Rachel had been in her house. Was she still there? Stevie threw on her robe as she left the bedroom. A quick check of the house ended in dashed hope when all she found was Greg snoring on the sofa. She knew it was naive to have expected a virtual stranger to stay the night when it was not necessary, but Stevie was disappointed.

Sadly, there was nothing she could do about it. Odds were very high that she would never see Rachel again. Their lives did not intersect and a woman like Rachel would not be looking for someone like Stevie to have a relationship with. She would want someone older and more worldly. Besides which, Stevie had been nothing more than a job to the dancer. The fact that Rachel had seen her home and fixed her arm only meant that Rachel was a good person. Not to mention she was probably straight. Most women were.

Stevie shuffled to the bathroom. Being a grown-up was pretty cool most of the time, but every once in a while it sucked road apples.

After taking a shower and scouring the inside of her mouth until the bad taste was gone, Stevie took a closer look at her elbow. It was a nice little patch of road rash, but not terribly deep. At least, there wasn’t any bone showing. She put some more ointment on it, but decided to leave it exposed to the air. She tended to heal rather fast.

Dressing in jeans and a t-shirt, Stevie straightened up the bathroom, made her bed and picked up the previous nights clothing. Emptying the pockets onto her dresser, Stevie dropped the laundry off on top of the washer on her way to the kitchen. She was very hungry. Fixing a large bowl of cornflakes with sliced banana and a handful of butterscotch chips, she grabbed a bottle of orange juice and went out to sit on the front steps. This was her favorite place to eat breakfast. Not only did it feel like a decadent morning thing, it made her feel rather proud to be a homeowner. It was kind of like staking her claim in front of the whole neighborhood.

The lawn was looking a bit scruffy. Another week and she’d have to get it mowed. Looking two yards to her left, she saw that Mrs. Hennessy’s lawn was looking pretty scruffy, too. Taking care of the yard had been Mr. Hennessy’s bailiwick. With his recent passing, Stevie wondered how Mrs. Hennessy planned to handle it. She was far too old and frail to do it herself.

Stevie decided to take care of it herself. It wouldn’t take much longer to do two yards and she had the time. She had not known the Hennessy’s much beyond a friendly hello or two, but she felt for Mrs. Hennessy’s loss. What must it be like to love for nearly fifty years and then suddenly be alone? It made her chest ache just thinking about it. Mowing the woman’s lawn would not assuage the woman’s grief, but if it would ease some of the burden of going on alone, Stevie would count it as time well spent.

Greg was still passed out and snoring when she went back inside. The way one of his arms was hanging off the sofa gave her an idea. Stevie considered it. Her older brother, Sam, had done it to her once, but she had been just a child at the time. She didn’t know if it would work on an adult. Greg would kill her, but it was just too tempting to pass up.

It did not occur to her until darkness was spreading across the front of Greg’s jeans that she was making him pee on her sofa. Stevie pulled the bowl of water away just as Greg jerked awake and staggered to his feet.

“Shit!”

Stevie was frozen in place. She watched Greg’s brain put it together.

“Ah, damn it!” he exclaimed. “Why’d you have to go and do that?”

“Uh…”

Greg put both hands to his head with a groan. “And on a fuckin’ hangover, too. Shit.”

Stevie frowned. “You’ve got a hangover? But your car is out front. Did you drive drunk?”

Greg sighed and headed towards the bathroom. “Don’t start with me, Stevie.”

Anger made her confrontational. “Are you kidding? You drive drunk and I’m not supposed to give you heck over it? You know what? I’m not sorry I played that stupid trick on you. You deserved it. Where are you going?”

“To take a shower. I’m gonna need something to wear.”

Stevie put the bowl down and stood up. “I don’t think so, buddy. Take it on home.”

Greg turned to look at her. “What?”

“You heard me. I said take it home. You’re not showering here and I’m not giving you clothes. You know better than to drive drunk. You’re lucky you aren’t in jail or dead. If you think I’m going to make the morning after easier on you, you can just forget it. Drive home in your pee jeans.”

“What crawled up your ass and died?”

“Your brain,” Stevie shot back. “I’m really mad at you, Greg. You need to leave.”

He stood there for a minute, his jaw clenching, and then he stomped out the front door.

Stevie wanted to kick something. Greg had assured her that the ride situation for her birthday was under control. She had taken him at his word and he had lied to her, risking himself and every other driver on the road. A couple of years before they met Greg had been arrested for driving drunk. He knew how stupid it was. The fact that he used her birthday to do something so dumb really ticked her off.

Maybe mowing lawns would allow her to work off some of her frustration.

>>>

Rachel dropped her laundry basket in front of the machines. She was a little early and her weekly contact was not yet here. Not that she expected much in the way of new intelligence. She had sent in the information she had on Stevie and Greg, but she was pretty sure nothing would come of it. The only positive benefit so far to these weekly meetings was that she got her laundry done.

She sorted her clothes and started the machines. Rachel chose a Sprite from the vending machine and took a seat along the back wall. She was tired. Her sleep was becoming increasingly restless the longer she was undercover. Rachel would never admit it to anyone else, but it was the constant fear that was her undoing.

There was the fear that she was in over her head and would end up dead; or that a mistake would cause someone else to end up dead. There was also the fear that she would fail in her mission and look like an idiot to her superiors. Combined with the emotional stress of stripping, it was starting to get to her.

The truth was, Rachel didn’t know what to do to further the case. She was hoping that something would happen; that the next step would somehow present itself and she could react in a way that would lead to more information. Making it happen seemed to be beyond her capabilities. Her mind just didn’t work that way and the advice she got from headquarters was so vague it was useless.

Rachel put her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. This would be so much easier to handle if she got a day off once in a while. Having to be Rachel the stripper all the time only intensified her fears and inadequacies. A day off to be her true self would be a beautiful thing.

A bell tinkled as the door opened. Rachel opened one eye and saw her contact. Rhonda McIntyre was a property clerk for the department. She was chosen specifically for the fact that she was an unknown on the street. It helped that she looked like a bored soccer mom. Rachel sent a weak smile towards Rhonda and waited for her to get her laundry started.

“Hey,” Rhonda said as she sat down.

“Hey.”

“Are you doing okay?”

Rachel shrugged lightly. “Yep.”

There was no one else in the laundromat so Rhonda made no effort to hide the envelope she carried. “They got a hit on someone.”

Rachel’s eyes widened. “Stevie? I don’t believe it.”

“Not her. Read the report.”

Rachel tore open the envelope hastily and unfolded the papers it contained. First was information about Stevie. Apparently, Stevie was some sort of genius. She had graduated from college at seventeen with a degree in computers and now owned a computer repair and system installation business. Rachel knew of it, but had never frequented the establishment. The report also stated that she raced Motocross professionally and owned her own home. The analysis at the bottom of the page rated Stevie’s involvement in running drugs as very slight. It was true that she traveled for racing, which would be convenient, but she appeared to be clean.

Greg Tolman was more interesting, but only because his past was a bit more colorful. Twice he had been arrested for possession of a controlled substance, but that had been as a very young adult. No drug involvement was indicated since those incidences. Except for a DUI three years earlier, he was clean as well. He worked in a warehouse as a forklift driver. The analysis listed him as an unlikely, yet still potential person of interest.

The next page was dedicated to one Dustin Farraday. Rachel recognized his picture as one of the men with Stevie the previous evening. While Mr. Farraday’s own record was innocuous, he had an uncle and two cousins serving time in state prison for trafficking meth. This made him very interesting indeed.

The last page was a recommendation that she attempt to establish a friendship with Stevie and her friends for the purpose of gathering information on their viability as suspects. Reference was made to the lap dance as a way to justify contact and Rachel winced. Tom must have reported the dance at the first opportunity.

Rachel bit off a curse. Rhonda was a nice woman, but she would report everything Rachel said and did. Any displayed displeasure over her orders would be reported. Nothing good could come of it.

“I didn’t expect anything this quickly.”

“Apparently the girl is a big deal,” Rhonda said with rolled eyes. “Most of the men knew who she was right away. She’s been written up in racing magazines and everything. Her friends are her mechanics, so their names are common knowledge.”

“I see.”

Rachel read the papers again and then handed them back to Rhonda. It was safer if she didn’t have such information anywhere near her. In the movies, things like that tended to get found at the worst possible moment.

Rhonda was grinning. “Heard about the lap dance.”

Rachel folded her arms and looked steadily at her contact. “You think it’s amusing?”

“I just wish I had been there to see it.”

Tears of rage came to Rachel’s eyes. “How dare you. I expect to be treated like a piece of meat at the club. What I did not expect was to be treated like that by my co-workers. Do you think it was easy? Do you think that I am unaffected by what I had to do? How dare you come here and mock…”

The ability to speak was drowned out by the urge to scream and cry. It took all of Rachel’s willpower to limit her response to tears.

“I’m sorry,” Rhonda said softly. “You’re right.”

“Fuck you,” Rachel choked. “Fuck all of you.”

Locking herself in the bathroom, Rachel sat down on the toilet and cried. She had never in her life felt so alone. She faced the risk of assault, injury, and even death at the club and her fellow officers thought it was funny. Did no one understand how hard this was for her? Was there no one she could turn to?

Her clothes were in the dryer when she came out. Rachel sat down beside Rhonda without looking at her.

“I’m sorry.”

“I know,” she said shortly.

“I couldn’t do it,” Rhonda said after several minutes of silence. “What you’re doing…I could not do it. I’m so insulated from this sort of thing. Doing laundry like this is as close as I’ve ever gotten to field work. I never stopped to think about what it is you’re actually having to do.”

Rachel was even more tired than before. Resting her head against the wall, she closed her eyes and wished she could sleep.

“Listen, Rachel. If you need anything, let me know. I’m not sure how much help I can be, but I’ll try.”

“Thanks,” Rachel whispered.

“You look tired.”

“You have no idea.”

“Sleep if you can. I’ll finish your laundry and wake you when it’s done.”

Rachel opened her eyes to look at her contact. She found genuine remorse in the woman’s face and nodded. “I appreciate that.”

Rhonda smiled tremulously. “I really am sorry.”

“It’s okay, Rhonda. I understand.”

It was a short nap, but refreshing. Rachel did what she could to ease the tension between them before loading her clothes into her car. Her first stop was at a Starbuck’s for coffee. While she waited, she decided that the sooner she tried to establish contact with Stevie the better. If she went now, she could still pass it off as concern for Stevie’s well-being. It might be more difficult to explain why she was dropping by later on.

The truck was gone when Rachel pulled up to Stevie’s house. She was pretty sure that meant Stevie wasn’t home, but she went up to knock on the door anyway. She’d come this far and was unwilling to just give up. As she expected, there was no answer. Rachel considered her options. Maybe she could leave a note. At the very least it would leave the door open for future contact.

Intending to return to the car in search of a scrap of paper, Rachel hesitated as an old woman turned up the walk. She was carrying a plate covered by a dish towel.

“Hello.”

Rachel smiled out of reflex. “Hi.” She felt funny being caught on Stevie’s porch. “It doesn’t look like Stevie is home.”

“I know,” the old woman said. “I’m just dropping this off.”

“Oh. Okay.”

The dishtowel was lifted enough to show a pie with a lattice crust. “Peach pie,” the old woman said bashfully. “Picked the peaches myself from my tree. It’s still warm from the oven.”

Rachel obediently leaned over to smell it and promptly moaned in pleasure. “Wow. That smells wonderful.”

Smiling, the old woman carefully set the pie on the welcome mat and straightened the towel. “Are you one of Stevie’s friends?”

“No. Well, maybe a little. I hope so.” She was unprepared for the question and felt foolish for stumbling over the answer.

“Me, too,” the woman grinned.

Rachel relaxed. “We just met last night. I’m Rachel, by the way. I came by to say hi and find out how she’s doing today. She turned twenty-one yesterday and tied one on last night.”

“Ahh. To be young again. Not that I would do it over, mind you. Just about the time you really get comfortable with yourself, you figure out that you’re old.” She looked up at Rachel with a twinkle in her eye. “My name is Leona Hennessy and I have another peach pie cooling on the kitchen counter. May I offer you a slice?”

“Thank you, but…”

“Please. I’ve been ordered by my doctors not to eat round pieces of pie. They’re afraid I’ll go into a coma. If you have a slice it won’t be round anymore.”

Rachel pictured Leona eating a whole pie by herself and had to chuckle. Pie would taste really good right now and maybe she could learn a little about Stevie in the process. “Well, I’d hate to be responsible for you going into a coma.”

“Excellent!”

Rachel followed Leona to a home two doors down. It didn’t look that much different from any of the other homes in the neighborhood. Leona stopped in the middle of the walk.

“I went out this morning to see my daughter and when I came home, the yard had been trimmed.” Tears filled Leona’s eyes, but she kept talking. “My husband took care of the yard. I’m afraid I’ve let it go since he…passed.”

Rachel felt a brief pain in her chest. “I’m sorry.”

Leona took a deep breath and stood up straighter. “No matter. I thought for a minute that it was him, but I knew better. I had to ask the neighbors who did it. The least I could do was make her a pie.”

Rachel wasn’t quite clear on what she was being told. “Stevie cut your grass?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Wasn’t that sweet?”

“It is,” Rachel said absently. If she weren’t mistaken, Stevie had voluntarily cut the grass for no reason. If not for no reason, then for reasons of her own. What they could be Rachel had no idea. “How well do you know Stevie?”

“Hardly at all. Come on inside while the pie is still warm.”

It was, bar none, the best pie Rachel had ever eaten. It all but melted in her mouth and she savored every moment of that first bite. “Oh, Leona. This is the best pie I’ve ever had.”

Pride shone in the old woman’s eyes. “Thank you. The more you eat the happier my doctors will be.”

The second bite was even better than the first. Rachel discovered a hunger inside that she hadn’t felt in weeks. “Oh my God,” she murmured between bites. “Why aren’t you famous?”

Leona laughed softly. “It’s the peaches. When you pick them ripe from the source it’s hard to make a bad pie. I make a mean apple, too.”

Rachel focused on Leona hopefully. “Is that an invitation?”

Leona was quite beautiful when she smiled like that. “It can be.”

Rachel did a victory dance on her chair and dove back into her pie. She was more than happy to take a second slice when it was offered. Her belly was pleasantly stuffed by the time she finished. Sitting back in her chair with a satisfied sigh, she grinned at Leona. “My tummy thanks you.”

“Good. If you don’t mind me saying so, you’re a little thin. You need to eat more.”

“I know. It’s just that I started a new job not long ago and it’s taking a lot out of me. I’m down about fifteen pounds.”

“That’s a lot of weight to lose in a short time. No job is worth sacrificing your health. What is it that you do?”

“I’m a cocktail waitress at a club downtown.” It wasn’t a complete lie. “It’s harder than I thought it would be.”

Leona nodded. “I worked as a waitress for a number of years. Of course, that was a long time ago, but it is hard work. Unless you’ve done it, you just can’t know how hard. I know it’s none of my business, but you have to take care of yourself or it will only get harder.”

Rachel rubbed her full belly with a grin. “That pie was a good start.”

Leona pointed at her with mock severity. “You can’t live on pie.”

“Are you sure? Not even your pie?”

“Don’t make me spank you.”

Rachel laughed openly. “Yes, ma’am.”

“That’s better. Would you like some tea?”

“I would, yes.”

Leona reached over to squeeze Rachel’s arm before getting up from the table. Rachel understood instantly that Leona was lonely. It struck her as sad that such a charming and friendly woman would be lonely. Of course, her husband had died, presumably recently. He had probably been a large part of her daily life and now he was gone. How did one fill up that kind of emptiness?

Rachel’s heart ached for Leona’s loss. She didn’t have to know anything about what kind of man the husband had been. The loss was clear now that she recognized it. In that moment she understood Stevie’s reasons for cutting the grass. Stevie lived in the neighborhood. She had likely seen Mr. Hennessy taking care of the yard. She had recognized the loss, too, and had tried to do something to alleviate it. Something that might be hard for Leona to handle on her own.

Stevie was definitely not part of the ice trade. Rachel was certain of it. She was equally certain that Stevie would not knowingly associate with people who were. Rachel would do as ordered, but she knew this was a dead end. Stevie was a good person.

“So,” Rachel said to fill the silence, “what do you know about Stevie?”

“Well, knowing her name is easy considering that trailer,” Leona smiled, “but we’ve never really spoken beyond saying hello when she moved into the neighborhood.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Hmm…maybe a year? Paul…that’s my husband…was sure that her house would turn into party central, but it never did. She’s awfully young, you know. It was a reasonable expectation.”

“I can see that.”

“She keeps her yard neat and I’ve seen her being helpful from time to time with others. I just never expected to be on the receiving end of it.”

“Helpful how?”

“Fixing cars mostly. If someone has a hood up she always seems to end up involved. I know she helped the Wilsons with their computer one time and she helped Mrs. Zamora put her fence back up after some kids drove over it. She just kind of shows up with a grin and ends up helping. You just don’t expect that from young people anymore. Not to imply that you…”

Rachel waved it off. “I know what you mean. I’m not that much older than Stevie, but I understand. I was pretty self-involved and oblivious at her age. I hope I’m better now, but it sounds like Stevie is something special.”

Leona laughed out loud. “She can be a devil, too. Don’t be thinking she’s a saint.”

“I sense a story,” Rachel grinned.

“Well, I don’t know the whole tale, but I can tell you it was quite shocking to see her being chased down the street by a man with a knife sticking out of his chest.”

“What!”

Leona kept chuckling as she poured hot water in two cups. “As I understand it, she glued a knife hilt to his chest while he slept. I can only imagine how he must have felt to wake up and see that.”

Rachel giggled helplessly at the image. What a brutal joke to play! She found herself wishing she’d been there to see it.

“There have been a couple of windows broken when she gets the neighbor kids to play ball in the street, but she always pays to fix them so I’m not sure if that can be called devilish. More of an inconvenience, I suppose.”

Leona brought the tea to the table. “Sugar?”

“No, thanks. This is perfect.” It was too hot to drink and it was still steeping, but it had a nice fruity scent. “What kind is it? It smells really good.”

“Red Zinger. It’s one of my favorites.”

“I’ve seen it in the store, but I’ve never tried it before.”

“It’s good cold, too. I keep a pitcher in the fridge in the summer. The nice thing about it is that it really doesn’t need sugar. It has a natural sweetness to it. From the rose hips, I think.”

Rachel cautiously licked her spoon and got a small taste. “Mmm. That is good.”

“Are you always this easy?”

Rachel folded her arms and leaned back, a smile on her lips. “No. Are you always this nice?”

“No.” Leona mimicked Rachel’s pose, minus the smile. “Am I ever going to see you again?”

The bluntness of the question took Rachel by surprise. Her first thought was no, but then she considered it. Was there any reason not to see her again? Did her friends have to conform to an age category? She really liked Leona. She felt comfortable in her presence. It would be silly to pass up a friend, right? Age should not be a consideration. There were plenty of things they could do together.

Rachel leaned forward to rest her arms on the table. “I would like to see you again. What kind of things do you like to do for fun?”

“How do you feel about going to yard sales?”

A wide smile broke out on Rachel’s face. “I love yard sales.”

>>>

Relaxed and dirty from riding in the hills with her little brother, Rory, Stevie sang along to the radio as she drove home. She’d needed the adrenaline rush after fighting with Greg that morning. She was still upset with his decision to drive drunk, but she knew that they would make up later. After she chewed on him some more about it, of course. She wasn’t about to tolerate such reckless behavior by her crew.

Stevie didn’t think anything of the Crown Vic in front of her house. People parked where they could. As long as they didn’t block her driveway it made no difference to her. Muscling both dirt bikes out of the back of her truck, Stevie put them in the garage to clean later. Usually Rory would have stayed to help, but he had a date later and needed time to get ready.

When she found the pie she knew immediately who it was from. She had not expected it, but it only made sense. She lifted it to her nose and smiled. Stevie knew what she was having for dinner. Dropping the pie off in the kitchen, she turned on the TV to a repeat broadcast of a Supercross race. She watched for a few minutes and then headed for the shower.

After getting cleaned up, Stevie put on a pair of board shorts and a muscle tee. Slipping her feet into ragged sneakers, she grabbed her keys and left the house. She would go get her mail from the box down the street and then stop by Mrs. Hennessy’s place to say thanks for the pie. Maybe she could get a feel for anything else Mrs. Hennessy needed help with while she was there. She had some free time on Sunday morning.

Stevie had quite a bit of mail. Most of it was junk mail, but it was better than getting no mail at all. She briefly sorted through the stack and found a bill for her cell phone. She also had the latest issue of Computer Edge Magazine and under that, a key. Stevie used the key to open one of the larger mail boxes. Inside was a large green and white envelope. Checking the address, she confirmed that it was from her agent’s office. She got one of these envelopes about once a month. Inside would be fan mail.

Stevie liked the fan mail. Now that her agent had the hateful letters sorted out and kept on file, Stevie got to enjoy all the good ones. Answering them was time consuming, but it was kind of fun to read good things about yourself from people you’d never met.

Tucking her mail up under her arm, Stevie crossed back over the street and headed for the Hennessy place. She waved to a few faces she saw in windows and got smiles and waves in return. For the most part, she had really nice neighbors. Stevie felt pretty lucky to live in such a good neighborhood. People were always helping each other and stopping to talk. There were a couple of people who kept to themselves, but that was okay, too.

Stevie knocked on Mrs. Hennessy’s door and took a step back. At five foot ten, she was taller than most people and had noticed that sometimes they acted uncomfortable when she stood too close. Mrs. Hennessy was on the small side so Stevie took another half step back for good measure.

The front door opened and a big smile bloomed on Mrs. Hennessy’s face. “Stevie!”

Grinning at her reception she said, “Hello, Mrs. Hennessy. Would I be wrong in assuming that you left a pie on my front porch?”

“Nope. That would be me.”

“Well, I have to say that it smells really good. Thank you very much.”

“You more than earned it, Stevie. Thank you for taking care of the lawn.”

“It was no trouble. I didn’t feel comfortable inviting myself into your backyard, but if it needs cutting too, I’ve got some time tomorrow morning.”

“Aren’t you just the sweetest thing?”

Stevie blushed and looked down at her shoes.

“Come on in, Stevie. I’ve got a friend of yours stashed in the kitchen.”

Stevie was confused. “A friend of mine?”

“That’s what she says.”

She had no idea who it could be. Especially if it was a woman. Curious, Stevie followed obediently. She was switching her mail from one arm to the other when she saw Rachel and it all went flying. Stevie tried to catch the letters, but her efforts only made it worse. Rachel’s laughter brought a blush to Stevie’s face. “I’m not usually so clumsy,” she mumbled as she bent to collect the mess.

“Sorry,” Rachel said as she bent to assist. “I couldn’t help myself. It just looked so funny.”

“That’s okay.”

All of the mail found its way to the kitchen table before Stevie looked at Rachel. “I didn’t expect to see you again,” she said softly.

“Did you want to?”

“Oh yeah. It’s just…the context is all off.”

There was hope and uncertainty in Rachel’s eyes. “Maybe we could make a new context?”

Mrs. Hennessy interrupted before Stevie could respond. “Would you like a cup of tea, Stevie?”

“Oh, no thank you,” Stevie declined as she stood up. “I’m not fond of the taste of hot water.”

The two women looked at Stevie as though she had lost her mind. “Honey,” Mrs. Hennessy said slowly, “water is water.”

“Bread is bread, but it sure tastes different when you toast it.”

Rachel and Mrs. Hennessy looked at each other. “Let’s test that theory,” Rachel suggested.

Stevie found herself shuttled into a chair at the oak dining table while the teakettle was brought back to a boil. A tall glass of some kind of fruit punch over ice was set in front of her. Stevie tasted it, surprised at how good it was without being too sweet. “What is this?”

“Red Zinger tea,” Rachel provided. “Do you like it?”

“A lot,” Stevie said with enthusiasm. “It’s really good. Does it have caffeine?”

“No. It’s an herbal tea.”

Stevie relaxed. Caffeine affected her strongly and she tried to stay away from it. She would have drunk the tea regardless just to be polite, but knowing it was caffeine-free enabled her to enjoy it.

Watching the two women perform the water tasting was hilarious. Stevie managed not to laugh, but she couldn’t prevent her smile. They were so serious about it. They went back and forth from hot to cold, concentrating on each sip.

“Well,” Mrs. Hennessy finally said, “I think she’s right. It’s subtle, but there is a difference.”

“In texture, too,” Rachel added. “Maybe it’s just the way hot and cold act on the lining of the throat, but they feel different.”

“I agree, but I like how the hot water feels more than the cold.”

“It depends on my mood, I suppose. And the temperature, of course. Nothing beats ice cold water on a hot day or a warm drink on a cold one.”

“True.”

Rachel stared thoughtfully at Stevie. “Does this mean that you don’t drink coffee?”

“Nope.”

“Iced coffee?”

Stevie shook her head. “I don’t really like coffee. It’s too bitter.”

“Hot chocolate?”

Stevie shrugged helplessly. “Sorry.”

Rachel put a hand to her chest in apparent shock. “No hot chocolate?”

“I like chocolate milk,” Stevie offered. “Does that count?”

“Philistine!”

“What about soup?” Mrs. Hennessy asked.

Stevie considered it. “Sometimes, I guess, but I prefer cream soups. Chowders are good and I love split pea soup.”

“With hamhocks?”

“Is there a better way?”

Rachel mimed sticking a finger down her throat.

Stevie laughed. “I take it you don’t like split pea soup?”

“Well, to be honest, I’ve never had it, but it looks like something you’d find in a sick baby’s diaper.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“Yes, it does.”

Stevie rolled her eyes. “Whatever you say.”

“Baby shit,” Rachel said firmly.

“Language, dear,” Mrs. Hennessy said primly.

“Sorry.” Rachel leaned over to whisper loudly to Stevie. “Gotta watch the language. She’s old and has delicate sensibilities.”

Mrs. Hennessy reached over to lightly smack Rachel on the back of the head. “Smartass.”

Stevie had to laugh at the look of chagrin on Rachel’s face. Was this the same woman from last night? She’d been nice the night before, but nothing like this. Stevie was enchanted.

“I can’t even hit her back,” Rachel grumbled, “because that’s elder abuse.”

“Go ahead,” Mrs. Hennessy laughed. “Stevie will protect me, won’t you dear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Thank you, honey.”

“You’re welcome.”

Rachel scowled, but her eyes were twinkling. “Now I know where your priorities lie.”

“It’s all about self-preservation,” Stevie admitted. “My mama would have my hide if I did otherwise.”

“Do you always do what your mother tells you?”

Stevie’s smile faltered. “That’s not always possible.”

An awkward silence circled the table. Mrs. Hennessy broke it by reaching for Stevie’s computer magazine. “Do you know much about computers? I’ve been thinking about getting one, but I can barely operate the television remote.”

Grateful for the subject change, Stevie said, “Computers are easier than remote controls if they’re set up properly. I can help you with that. In fact, I’ve got a basic model you can borrow while you learn. Once you get the hang of it and decide what you need from a computer, I can hook you up. I’ll even give you a nice discount.”

Mrs. Hennessy looked confused and uncertain what to ask to make things clear.

“I own a little repair shop in the strip mall on Arrowhead Drive,” Stevie explained. “It won’t be any problem at all.”

“I think I’ve seen it,” Rachel interjected. “Isn’t it called…Optimal Computing Diagnostics? Or something like that?”

Stevie was pleased that Rachel knew of her business. “That’s right.”

“You named your business OCD?”

Stevie laughed. “It wasn’t intentional, I assure you.”

“Goodness,” Mrs. Hennessy breathed. “So young and a business owner.”

“I’ve been very lucky,” Stevie explained. “If not for my paternal grandparents, I’d probably be working for the Geek Squad. My grandparents started savings accounts for us when we were born and we get them when we turn eighteen. My younger brother will get his next spring. I used mine to set up the shop. My older brother kind of wasted his.”

“On what?” Mrs. Hennessy asked. “If I may be so bold as to ask.”

“Some of it on his mission and the rest on a Porsche.” Stevie shook her head ruefully. “I thought my dad was going to have an aneurism when he found out.”

It was Rachel’s turn to look confused. “What was his mission?”

Stevie realized that they wouldn’t know. “He went on a two year mission to Germany for the Mormon Church.”

Rachel’s eyes widened. “You’re a Mormon?”

“I’m not,” Stevie said evenly, “but the rest of my family is.”

“You know,” Mrs. Hennessy interrupted. “I’ve got something in the shed you might be able to use for parts or something.”

Grateful for yet another change of topic, Stevie followed the old woman into the backyard. It definitely needed trimming, but it was a really nice yard. The fruit trees gave it a lot of shade and there were flower beds along the fence. Back in one corner was an aluminum shed and Stevie trailed behind Mrs. Hennessy in that direction. One of the doors seemed to be sticking, so Stevie reached out to do it for her neighbor.

A shiny red lawnmower sat in the middle of the floor. There were two gas cans and a variety of fertilizers, weed killers and gardening tools in one corner. The rest of the shed was filled with cardboard boxes.

“You’re welcome to use this mower,” Mrs. Hennessy said as she began looking at the shelves. “My husband kept it in tip top shape.”

It would be a lot easier than dragging her own second-hand mower down the street and into the backyard. “Thanks, I will. I’ll take good care of it. Although…I don’t know anything about all these fertilizers and stuff. I hope I don’t kill your grass.”

“Don’t worry about that stuff,” Mrs. Hennessy said absently, her eyes searching for a specific box. “I never thought the lawn needed it. It was his hobby so I kept my mouth shut, but for as hard as he worked on it, it doesn’t look any better than anyone else’s yard.” Her hands wandered over several boxes in the far corner, then stopped on one. “I think this is it. I’m afraid you’ll have to get it out for me. I’m just not as strong as I used to be.”

It required moving three other boxes before Stevie could pull it out. It was a large box and awkward to handle, but not so heavy as to be unmanageable. Setting it to the side, she put the other boxes back in place. Lifting the box again, Stevie carried it outside and set it down.

“Open it,” Mrs. Hennessy encouraged.

Stevie kind of shrugged at a curious Rachel before tearing off the old tape and lifting the flaps. It took her a moment to process what she was seeing. “Oh, wow.”

It was an Atari 2600 with games. A lot of games. The deck was in the original box and the neatly arranged games were all in their original packaging. Some of them appeared to still be in the original shrink wrap.

Wow,” she repeated. “Does it work?”

“It did when we stored it away, but that was a long time ago. I know it’s pretty simple compared to computers now, but I thought there might be parts in it you could use for…”

“Mrs. Hennessy,” Stevie interrupted with urgency. “If this works, it’s worth some money. Even if it doesn’t, the games alone are worth money. Besides, I can fix the deck if I have to. I don’t know how much this is worth…I’d have to look into it…”

Stevie looked up at her neighbor. “I don’t think you should just give this away. I’ll bet you could make some money from this.”

“Really?”

“Definitely.”

“How about a trade? That box for a computer? Is it worth that much?”

Stevie considered it. She wanted the game system in the worst way. A trade sounded ideal. Her concern was that the system and games were worth more than the kind of computer Mrs. Hennessy would be comfortable using. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll trade you, but I’m going to find out how much this is worth first. If it’s worth more than the computer I give you, we’ll work something out. I won’t cheat you.”

Mrs. Hennessy smiled. “Well then, I think we have a deal.”

Sweet.” Stevie looked at Rachel in her excitement. “It’s an Atari.”

Rachel was smiling. “That’s great.”

Stevie could see that Rachel didn’t get it. “This is classic. They made these way before I was even born. It’s really the first generation of video games for home use. It’s got all the great arcade games from back then. I mean…Look at this! Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Asteroids, Mouse Trap, Wizard of Wor…this is awesome!”

On impulse, Stevie stood up and hugged Mrs. Hennessy. “Thanks, Mrs. Hennessey. I’ll do right by you, I swear.”

Mrs. Hennessy patted Stevie’s back. “I just hope it works. I’d hate to have you get all excited and then be disappointed.”

“I’ll make it work,” Stevie promised. “Besides, the deck is the easy part. It’s the games I’m so excited about. If they’re still good, we’re in business.”

“Yes, well, I imagine you’ll want to take it home so you can tinker with it. Take Rachel with you. She came to see you, after all. Not me.”

“I had a great time,” Rachel said as she moved in for her own hug. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning at seven.”

“I’ll have coffee ready.”

They stopped in the kitchen where Stevie added her mail to the contents of the box. In a few minutes, Stevie was walking down the street, Rachel at her side and her tongue tied in knots. It had been much easier to know what to say with Mrs. Hennessy around. Now she couldn’t think of a thing to talk about. She narrowly avoided jumping out of her skin at a warm touch on her injured elbow.

“This looks dirty again.”

There was no way Stevie could look for herself. “I went riding today. I thought I cleaned it in the shower.”

“I can clean it if you want.”

Stevie opened her mouth to decline and then changed her mind. “That would be great. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I mean for last night, too. Bringing me home and taking care of me. You didn’t have to do that.”

“I would have felt bad if something had happened to you because I ignored you. I’m just not that kind of person.”

“Lucky for me,” Stevie grinned. She nodded at her front door. “It’s not locked.”

Following Rachel inside, Stevie put the box down on the coffee table and turned off the television. There was plenty of time to deal with the Atari later.

That looks different,” Rachel said of the sofa. “What happened?”

The center cushion was missing. The cover had been laundered and was lying over the back of the sofa, but the actual foam cushion was gone. “Uh…I tried an experiment.”

“Didn’t work, huh?”

“Oh, it worked just fine,” Stevie admitted. “I neglected to consider the consequences. I’m going to replace the cushion as soon as I figure out where to find one.”

“Try an upholstery store. Better yet, try a fabric store. A lot of them sell foam and it might be cheaper.”

“Good idea,” Stevie nodded as she filed the information away.

Rachel lifted her eyebrows. “Your elbow?”

“Oh, right!”

Stevie put the first aid kit on the bathroom counter before taking her seat of the night before. She seriously doubted that her elbow was a problem. If it was going to get infected, it would already be infected. But she was afraid that Rachel would leave if she didn’t let her play nurse.

Stevie tried not to be obvious about staring as Rachel began to clean the injury, but Rachel was just so darn pretty. It made Stevie wonder. “Why are you here?”

“I came by to make sure that you were okay. You were pretty wasted last night.”

“True.”

It was silent for a minute and Rachel glanced up. “What?”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“I could hear you thinking.”

Stevie had to smile. That was something her mother said frequently. “Well, I’m assuming that this isn’t something you do for all your drunk customers. Why me?”

Rachel shrugged. “You’re not like most of the customers. Any of them, actually. I just wanted to be sure.”

It just didn’t seem like the whole story to Stevie. “And…?” she prompted.

Rachel shot her a look, sighed, and went back to cleaning. “You weren’t home. I met Leona when she…”

“Who?”

“Leona? Mrs. Hennessy?”

“Oh, right. Go on.”

“Anyway, she invited me in for pie…it’s delicious, by the way…and we got carried away talking. Then you showed up.”

Stevie used her other hand to gesture that Rachel should continue.

“Fine,” Rachel grumbled. “You’re kind of cute and you seem interesting. You race motorcycles. You own a business. You might look like a kid, but you’re not. I’m curious, okay?”

Stevie was trying not to smile and failing miserably. “You think I’m cute?”

“For a dork, sure.”

“Geek,” Stevie corrected. “I’m a geek.”

“And a jock.”

A warm bubble of happiness was threatening to make Stevie whoop and holler. “It’s the knees, right?”

“Huh?”

“That’s what I thought,” Stevie said seriously. “My knees drive girls crazy.”

Rachel took a good look at the knees in question. “I don’t know if they’re all that, but they are a sight cuter than your underwear.”

The heat from Stevie’s blush made her sweat. “Um…”

It was Rachel’s turn to laugh. “Easy, girl. I totally behaved myself.”

“Well, I guess it’s fair. I mean, I saw…and you…um…”

Rachel squeezed Stevie’s hand with an understanding smile. “I know. It’s kind of awkward.” Her smile dimmed. “I guess I was hoping…”

“What?” Stevie asked gently.

Rachel bit at her lip before answering. “I hang out a little with the other women at the club. We have coffee and, sometimes, we’ll go eat after work, but they just seem so…desperate. Suspicious. Angry. I don’t want to get like that. I thought, maybe, if we could be friends…You’re just so normal and sweet.”

“Me? Normal?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I do. But if you ever want to put in a good word with my parents, I’d appreciate it.”

Rachel’s hands stilled. “I would think they are very proud of you.”

“Hardly.” Stevie took a deep breath. “They’re disappointed in me because I’m a lesbian.”

“Seriously?”

The disbelief on Rachel’s face made Stevie dizzy with relief. She’d been terrified that Rachel would pull back once she knew. Just because she’d done a lap dance for Stevie didn’t mean she was gay, too. “Yeah. Their disappointment kind of overshadows anything else I do.”

There was surprise in Rachel’s eyes. “So, you’ve gotten to where you are on your own. Even more impressive.”

“I’ve been very lucky.”

“So you claim. I think it’s more than that.”

Stevie didn’t know what to say to that. She watched silently as Rachel used antiseptic and re-bandaged her arm. “Thanks.”

Rachel took off the glove she’d worn and dropped it in the trash. She turned on the water in the sink and washed her hands. “How long did it take for you to accept your sexuality? You know, from the moment you began to wonder until you decided it was a good thing?”

Stevie thought about it. “Four or five years, I guess.”

“Maybe you ought to give your folks the same amount of time to accept it. It’s only fair if you think about it.”

Stevie’s thoughts on the matter shifted. “You’re right. I never thought about it like that.”

“My parent’s had a rough time with it, too, but they came around.”

Stevie’s eyes felt like they were going to pop out. “You’re a lesbian, too?”

“You didn’t know?”

Stevie shook her head. “I don’t have gaydar yet.”

“Such a newbie,” Rachel teased.

“Gotta start somewhere,” Stevie responded.

“Lift your legs.”

Stevie held her legs up as Rachel put the kit away. “Do you like it?”

“What?”

“Your job.”

“Not really, but sometimes you’ve got to do things you don’t like.”

“I thought that applied more to cleaning the toilet than to exotic dancing.”

“For most people I think that’s true.” Rachel folded her arms and leaned back against the wall. “I’m not going to do it much longer, but for right now, I’m doing what I need to do.”

Stevie didn’t understand. Not at all. But she didn’t think she would get away with pushing Rachel on it. For now, it was just something she had to accept. Rachel seemed reasonably intelligent and there had to be better options out there for her. If she was stripping for money, there had to be a good reason. “Well, I know it’s really none of my business, but if you ever need help, all you have to do is ask.”

Rachel cocked her head pensively. “There is one thing.”

“Name it.”

“Don’t come to the club anymore.”

Stevie started to ask why, but then she thought she understood. “You don’t want me to watch you work.”

“That’s part of it,” Rachel said slowly.

“There’s more?”

Rachel’s perfect teeth bit at her bottom lip. “Have you ever heard the saying- ‘When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you’?”

“Nietzsche. I get it. You don’t want me to be changed by what goes on there.”

“Yes.”

Stevie thought it over. “I don’t like being told that I can’t do things, but if it would make you uncomfortable to have me there that’s reason enough for me to stay away. I won’t go to the club unless you invite me.”

Rachel relaxed and her face looked lighter. “Thanks, Stevie. I appreciate it.”

“No problem.” Stevie pushed herself off the counter. “Can I offer you something to drink? I’ve got juice, sodas and beer.”

“A beer sounds pretty good.”

“I have a rule though. If you drink one beer, you have to stay for an hour after you finish drinking it. Two beers, two hours. Three and you’re spending the night.”

Rachel raised an eyebrow. “Do you catch many women with that rule?”

“No…I didn’t mean…I wouldn’t…”

“I’m just teasing you,” Rachel laughed. “It’s a good rule. I have to work tonight so I’ll have just one beer.”

“Okay.” Stevie headed for the kitchen. “Glass or bottle?”

“Bottle. Thanks.”

There were two beers left in the fridge. Stevie grabbed one and twisted the cap off. Tossing the cap, she took it into the living room. “Here you go. Sit wherever you like.”

Rachel took the rocking chair and Stevie sat down on the couch. Kicking off her sneakers, she put her feet up on the coffee table. “So, you just met Mrs. Hennessey today?”

“Yep. She’s pretty cool. Did you know that she was Miss Rhubarb when she was young?”

“No,” Stevie said with mock surprise.

“It’s true. She has four children. Her oldest son is a colonel in the Army and is stationed in Afghanistan.”

“Really? I had no idea.”

“It gets more interesting.” Rachel kicked off her own shoes and pink-toed socks joined Stevie’s bare feet on the low table. “Her next oldest son died of AIDS in the late eighties.”

Stevie’s heart ached. “That’s so sad. He was gay?”

“She thinks so, but he never told them one way or the other. Her husband was pretty rigid about that sort of thing. She regrets that he never felt safe in telling them and that he died without them near.”

“That’s got to be tough.”

“Her daughter lives here in town,” Rachel continued on. “She’s on the recovery end of having breast cancer. They had to do a double mastectomy and then chemo. She’s doing pretty well, but it’s a long road. Leona goes over most mornings and cleans house for her. Now, according to Leona, her youngest son is gallivanting around the world.”

“Gallivanting,” Stevie repeated just to feel the unusual word on her tongue.

“He’s a deck hand for hire in the South Pacific. Sailing ships mostly.”

“That sounds pretty cool to me.”

“She thinks he’s shiftless and lazy because he doesn’t have a reliable income, but he’s happy and that’s what she really cares about. We’re going to yard sales in the morning. Would you like to come?”

The unexpected shift in the conversation made Stevie hesitate. “Uh…no thanks. I’ve got a lawn to mow and then lunch at my folks’ place. I go every Sunday that I can.”

“Let me guess. You don’t like yard sales.”

“Not so much,” Stevie admitted.

“Too bad.”

“It’s just that they’re watching you while you dig around in their junk. It always makes me feel like a jerk if I don’t buy anything.”

“Ah.” Rachel glanced around the room. “I was sure that was where you got your furniture. It’s in good shape, but I didn’t think you bought it new.”

“I didn’t. I got almost everything on CraigsList. It’s like an online yard sale, but there’s no pressure. You can find everything there. I paid fifty bucks for the couch, but the coffee table and your chair were free. The only thing I bought new was my bed. And kitchen stuff, but I got most of that at the dollar store.”

Rachel was smiling. “You really are cute.”

“Nah, I’m not cute,” Stevie objected.

“Yeah, you are. Get used to it.” Rachel took a long drink of her beer. “You’re not drinking?”

“Nope. I’m not going there again.” Stevie laced her fingers behind her head and snuggled deeper into the couch. “I have plenty of fun without it. It was a good experience, but I didn’t much like how it made me feel so out of control. Not to mention being sick. That was not a good time.”

“You really aren’t going to drink anymore?”

“Probably not.”

“Is it a Mormon thing?”

“I’m not a Mormon.”

“But your family is.”

Stevie knew she would have to explain sooner or later. Better now than later. “I was a Mormon. I was raised in the church, but they kicked me out when I was eighteen.”

“Why?”

Stevie couldn’t help grinning. It was such a cliche. “They caught me kissing the Bishop’s daughter.”

Rachel started to smile. “For real?”

“Oh yeah, but she started it. I was just finishing it up.”

“And they kicked you both out for that?”

“Only me. Becky told them I tempted her into it. All the crying and histrionics pretty much convinced them. I was surprised, but I decided right then that I wasn’t going to lie to them. They counseled me for weeks, but I just kept telling them that I was gay. It felt good to stand up for myself in the face of all that opposition. Of course, being excommunicated was no picnic. That was really hard. Especially on my family.”

“I can’t even imagine,” Rachel said softly. “What happened to Becky?”

“They married her off a few months later. She’s got a couple of kids now. Right after I moved in here, she dropped by to say hello. She wanted to secretly pick up where we left off.”

“What a bitch.”

Stevie shrugged. “I was never in love with her. I think she betrayed herself more than she betrayed me. I feel sorry for her. She’s not happy. Getting kicked out of the church was hard, but not as hard as it would be to live her life. I made the right choice.”

“How old are you again?”

Taking it as a compliment, Stevie laughed.

“So, how did you get into computers?”

“I love computers. Always have. So when I got into college, that’s what I majored in. After I graduated, I started my business and here I am.”

Rachel had a furrow between her eyebrows. “You must have graduated early. Your business has been there a couple of years.”

Stevie was a little embarrassed to talk about it because it felt like bragging, but Rachel would find out soon enough if she hung around. It was better to tell her the details now than wait for her to find out on her own. “I got my Masters when I was seventeen.”

The furrow disappeared as Rachel’s eyes widened. “Seventeen?”

“My folks took me out of public school when I was seven. I picked things up so fast that I was bored in class and was causing problems. I thought it was because I was a problem child until I got older. My Mom home-schooled me. I graduated high school at fourteen. I got my AA from the community college when I was fifteen. Then I went to the University and got my degree in Information Technology. I started putting my business plan together when I got kicked out of the church and started my company when I was nineteen.”

“Yikes.”

“I’ve been lucky.”

“You keep saying that.”

“Because it’s true. What about you?”

Rachel shook her head with a sigh and set her chair to rocking. “Catholic school.”

“What was that like?”

“Just like public school with side orders of guilt and eternal damnation.”

Rachel’s dry delivery made Stevie laugh.

“After that,” Rachel continued, “I got a job and started supporting myself. I worked in a bookstore for a while and did some time at Starbuck’s. If you ever change your mind about coffee, I can make you whatever you want. I would have liked going to college, but that didn’t work out.”

Stevie was burning with questions. It was hard to dole them out one at a time. “What did you want to be?”

“A lawyer, maybe. Or a paralegal.” Rachel took another drink of her beer. “Sometimes things don’t work out quite like you expect.”

“Do you have any brothers and sisters?”

Rachel made a face. “I have an older sister. She was fourteen when I was born. By the time I was really starting to be aware of what was going on around me, she was married. She’s kind of a snob. We’ve never really gotten along, but I’ve got a younger brother who’s pretty sweet.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-six.”

“Have you ever ridden a dirt bike?”

“Uh…no.”

“Wanna learn?”

Rachel laughed. “Not right this minute, but…maybe.”

“Cool,” Stevie grinned. “By the way, where’s Rhubarb? I’ve never heard of it.”

Rachel was in the middle of taking a drink and she snorted, her hands trying to keep from making a mess. Stevie jumped up and went to the kitchen for paper towels. She knew she’d made a mistake of some sort, but she didn’t know how. Rachel was laughing softly when she came back and Stevie set the towels down on the coffee table.

“Sorry about that,” Rachel apologized. She was still chuckling to herself as she wiped up the spilled beer.

“That’s okay.”

“It’s just…rhubarb is a vegetable.”

Stevie was still drawing a blank. “A vegetable.”

“Not that I know much about it myself,” Rachel continued. “I think I’ve seen it though. Looked kind of like a reddish celery. I know that you can mix it with strawberries and make a pie.”

“Well, now I feel like an idiot.”

Rachel’s eyes were warm and bright. “Don’t feel bad. On the upside, you made me spew beer. How embarrassing is that?”

Stevie relaxed. “Good point.”

Rachel sat back in her chair, her eyes studying Stevie. “Do you get a lot of fan mail?”

“I’m not sure what a lot is,” Stevie said, grateful they were on a subject she knew something about. “I get a package like that about once a month. Sometimes more during the season.”

“Could I read one? I’ve never met anyone before who gets fan mail.”

Most of her fan mail was from guys who had questions about her bikes or racing strategies. Stevie thought they would be pretty boring to Rachel, but sometimes she got ones that made her laugh. She reached for the thick envelope, hoping there was something in there this month that would make Rachel laugh again. It was a wonderful sound and make Stevie’s skin tingle.

Chapter Three

“We saw Ricky Davidson today.”

Stevie looked up from her plate to see that everyone was very carefully not looking at her. It gave her a very nervous feeling. She and Ricky had been friends as teenagers and she knew that many had assumed they would eventually marry. As things turned out, Ricky had gone off to college for a year and then straight into a two year mission to Canada. Stevie had been kicked out of the church while he’d been gone. Swallowing a mouthful of tuna casserole, she addressed her mother. “He’s back?”

“Yes. He looks good. He’s changed.”

There was still no eye contact. Since it was expected of her and she didn’t know what else to do, she took the bait. “Changed how?”

“He seems quieter. More mature. More sure of himself.”

Letting her eyes check each person at the table, Stevie’s hackles began to rise. Mom and Dad; her older brother, Sam, and his girlfriend, Gillian; her younger brother, Rory; they were all studying their plates as though they had lost something precious there. Something was up and her whole family knew she wouldn’t like it. Yet, they were doing it anyway. It had become so typical of the way they treated her. “And…?”

“He asked about you.”

Trying to stay calm until she knew what to be upset about, Stevie took a drink of milk before responding. “What did you tell him?”

“Not much, but I did give him your phone number. I hope that was all right. You used to be friends.”

Stevie bit the inside of her cheek while she considered things. She didn’t want to start a huge family fight, but she also didn’t want to get blind-sided by whatever they were up to. Self-preservation won out. “That’s okay. I’d kind of like to catch up with him anyway. I’m just curious why all of you look so guilty.”

They all stole little glances at each other and then Rory sighed. He was usually the first one to break. “He’s going to ask you out.”

Stevie looked at him in astonishment. “Ask me out? Like…a date?”

Rory nodded reluctantly.

“No way.”

“You and Ricky used to be so close,” her mother said. “Just give him a chance.”

Stevie couldn’t believe it. She felt as though she’d been betrayed. Did they just not understand what being gay meant? It seemed pretty obvious that they still thought she was in a phase and that they’d asked Ricky to ask her out. Too stunned to really get angry just yet, she just gaped at the hopeful look on her mother’s face.

“You might surprise yourself,” her father finally chimed in. “You never know when love will come to you. Or what kind of person it will be.”

Rachel’s beautiful face flickered in her mind’s eye. Of course, it was just too soon for her to announce that she had already found someone to love. They were barely friends yet. Stevie opened her mouth to rant and shut it again as she remembered something Rachel had said.

            “How long did it take for you to come to terms with your sexuality? Maybe you ought to give your folks the same amount of time to accept it.”

A feeling of calm settled over Stevie. She looked at the situation with that thought in mind. At least they were trying. Trying the wrong thing, perhaps, but trying nonetheless. Would it hurt to go out with Ricky? Sure, he was probably going to try to get her to see the error of her ways, but she wanted to see him anyway and she didn’t have to do anything that made her uncomfortable. “All right,” she said out loud.

“What?”

Stevie almost laughed at the group exclamation. “I said okay. I’ll go out with him. But, I’m not going to wear a dress or make-up, and I’m not going to pretend to be someone I’m not.”

Rory snorted. “Then what’s the point?”

Stevie playfully back-handed Rory’s arm. “Shut up, wiener.”

He pushed her back. “It’s supposed to be a date. Not a freak show.”

Stevie flicked his ear and made him yelp. “Not like your last date, huh?”

He grabbed for her ear to retaliate and their father’s voice barked, “Not at the table.”

Stevie kicked Rory’s leg under the table and mouthed, “Later, worm boy.”

“Bring it on,” he whispered.

“Stephanie?”

Cringing inwardly at the hated name, Stevie met her mother’s eyes. “Yes?”

“Thank you.”

It felt like she was being thanked for more than agreeing to their plan. Maybe it was that she’d handled it without her usual impatience. “You’re welcome.”

The rest of lunch was relaxed and cheerful. Much better, in fact, than any lunch in the last two years. Even her father smiled a few times. It felt pretty darn good.

After lunch, her dad went to his study, Sam took Gillian on a drive and Rory went out back to play with his dog. As usual, being the only girl meant helping with the dishes. It wasn’t something she thought much about anymore. It’s just the way things had always been done. She and her mother worked together smoothly from long practice, but the silence was awkward.

“Are you going out with Ricky just to make me happy?”

Stevie almost jumped in surprise at the abrupt question. She nearly lied to make her mother feel better and then changed her mind. “Mostly. I mean, I’d like to see him again, just to catch up, but the date part of it is for you.”

“Then you’re only pretending to try.”

For a few seconds, Stevie battled the urge to grab her mother and try to shake some sense into her. She ran her hands through her hair in an attempt to calm herself. “It’s not like I haven’t spent years trying already, mom. I’ve been out with a lot of guys. You know that. I did the whole dressing up thing and trying to be feminine. I let them talk about themselves and hold my hand. I even let a few of them kiss me, but I never felt anything. Nothing good anyway. But if you need me to try one more time, I’ll do it.”

Her mother looked utterly dejected. “Why bother?”

The look on her mother’s face hurt her to the bone, but rather than get defensive and angry, Stevie opened up. “Because I want you to love me, mom. I want you to be proud of me. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

Tears filled Helen Marks’ eyes. “Stephanie…”

“Please, mom. Call me Stevie?”

A single tear flowed down Helen’s cheek. She put a hand out and laid it on her daughter’s arm. “I do love you, Stevie. I’ve always loved you and I am proud of you.”

“Of what I do for a living, maybe, but not who I am.” It felt dangerous and scary to stand up to her mother like this, but it felt good, too.

“I’m trying, honey, but…I just don’t understand you.”

Taking a deep breath, Stevie folded her arms and leaned back against the counter. “If you made Rory wear a dress and go out with a guy, would you understand when he told you that it just felt wrong to him?”

“Of course,” she said with a shake of her head.

“Then listen to me, mom.” Stevie stepped forward to put her hands on her mother’s shoulders. She focused everything she had into her eyes and her words, hoping that her mother would finally hear her. “It feels wrong to me. I like guys. I really do. As friends. More than that is just wrong. I can’t even begin to tell you how terribly wrong it is for me. I feel it in my soul. Have you ever felt that? Like everything you are on every level knows that something isn’t right?”

Compassion began to show in her mom’s eyes. “Yes, but…”

“There is no but, mom,” she said with gentle force. “It just is, and you have to trust that I’m grown enough to know how I feel. Now, if Ricky follows through and calls me, I will go out with him. If I feel even a flicker of something beyond basic friendship for him, I’ll pursue it. I promise you that. But, if I don’t, I really need you to start working on accepting me the way I am. I need you and I don’t want to lose you.”

Her mother’s unexpected embrace brought tears to her eyes. She could feel that her mother was crying, too, and she couldn’t help wanting to fix it. “I didn’t want to be gay,” she cried past the ache in her chest. “I tried so hard not to be. I tried pretending that I felt something for boys, but the feelings never came. I felt so empty and miserable inside, but I just couldn’t make it happen. I’m so sorry. Please don’t hate me.”

“I don’t hate you, honey.”

Their embrace lasted for several minutes, each trying to comfort and accept the other. When it ended, tears were surreptitiously wiped away. Wanting things to be easier between them, Stevie offered an olive branch. “A friend of mine told me something the other day. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”

“What’s that, dear?”

“Well, she asked me how long it took me to come to terms with my sexuality. I told her four or five years altogether, and she suggested that I give you and Dad the same amount of time.”

Her mother cocked her head thoughtfully.

Stevie shrugged. “It’s only fair. Besides, I’m really lucky compared to some. Some of the people I’ve met were shut out by their families completely. You guys never did that. I guess I should have said before now how grateful I am that you’re still talking to me at all.”

Helen reached up to caress her daughter’s cheek. “Oh, honey. I would never deny you. Not ever. I’ve never stopped loving you and I never will. No matter what, you’ll always be my baby girl.”

It was obvious that her mother was sincere. Stevie wasn’t sure how they had gotten to the point that they could talk like this, but she hoped it never stopped. Fighting back fresh tears, she put an arm around her mother’s shoulders. “I need to find me a girl just like you, mom.” She watched the flush of embarrassment climb her mother’s throat and then yelped at the savage pinch she received. Rubbing her butt, she backed away cautiously.

“Brat.”

Feigning disbelief, Stevie reached for an old joke between them. “Me? But, you said I was your favorite flower.”

Helen laughed briefly, some of the pain leaving her eyes. “That’s right. You’re my Blooming Idiot. Go on now and pick on someone your own size.”

Stevie’s smile was ear to ear. “Love ya’, mom.”

>>>

Wiping off the counter one more time, Helen shook her head as Stevie raced outside. She did love her daughter. She loved her sons as well, but the love she had for her daughter was leaps and bounds stronger. From the moment the tiny girl had been placed in her arms, she had known that the two of them shared something unique. Today had been the best talk they’d had in years. Helen knew it was because Stevie had made an extra effort. Ricky Davidson was not the only one who was calmer and more mature. Stevie had really surprised her today with her attitude and willingness to express her feelings.

Helen looked out the kitchen window into the back yard and had to smile. Stevie had just tackled Rory to the ground and rubbed his face in the dirt. Within moments, Rory was chasing his older sister through the yard. Her little girl had always been the rough and tumble sort. Memories of her baby played like a slide show in her head: mud baths, climbing trees, arm wrestling, skinned knees, playing football, catching every bug and snake in the neighborhood for examination, taking to the bikes and motorcycles like she’d been born to them; her nature was there in every memory.

Like little Stephanie’s fourth Christmas. Money had been so tight that year because of the hospital bills for Rory’s birth. Helen had collected aluminum cans for weeks in order to buy her daughter the latest and greatest doll. Poor Stephanie had cried for three days straight over that purchase. Helen had finally given in and tearfully exchanged the doll for the biggest Tonka truck she could afford. Her daughter had been beside herself with joy.

Like the year she was picked to be Mary in the Christmas pageant and Stephanie had thrown an Academy Award winning fit until she was allowed to be a shepherd. Again.

Like the time she had hunted down the four boys that had been teasing Rory about the patch he’d had to wear to correct his lazy eye and beat them bloody. She had come home from that little adventure with a broken finger and two black eyes and adamantly refused to accept that her behavior had been unacceptable. Helen had been secretly proud of her daughter’s actions that day.

It was all there in everything Stephanie–Stevie–had ever done.

She remembered now how much Stevie had always hated the dresses and Sunday shoes. And the make-up! What a giant struggle that had been. Stevie had always been the first to point out the inequities of how girls were treated as opposed to how the boys were treated. She had never really accepted any of it and a temperamental sullenness had been the result of her compliance, but she had done it.

Helen suddenly saw quite clearly how hard Stevie had tried to be a normal girl. And she understood for the first time that it had always been wrong for Stevie. Helen grasped the counter for balance as she understood that Stevie wasn’t the one with the problem. She was. They all were.

“I’ve been so blind,” Helen murmured. She could see now that Stevie had always been the way she was. She’d been born that way. Helen could hardly imagine the torment Stevie’s childhood had been with everyone trying to make her be what was so obviously wrong for her.

Yet, after all that, no matter what they said or how they treated her, she kept coming home, week after week, suffering their disapproval and disappointment in the hope that her family would someday welcome her again. The only one to show even the slightest affection had been Rory. She knew that they sometimes got together away from the house and she realized that Rory had never really cared what his sister was. He did and said what he had to with the family around in order to keep the peace. It shamed Helen to the bone.

“My Lord,” she breathed. “The courage it must have taken to tell us.”

“Tell us what?”

Helen turned to see her husband at the kitchen counter. “Stevie. Can you imagine how much courage it must have taken for her to tell us that she was gay? Then being excommunicated and keeping her dignity intact? Not only that, but to keep coming back week after week for nearly two years, hoping that we would come to accept her? Where did she get that kind of strength?”

“Youthful rebellion,” he said dismissively. “Now that young Ricky is back, she’ll come around.”

“I don’t think she will.”

“I know she will,” he said firmly. “This all started when Ricky left for school. She was missing him and being gay was her way of acting out. It might take a couple of months for her to come to her senses, but she will.”

Helen shook her head. “It’s not going to happen, Jacob. Our daughter is a lesbian.”

“Don’t say that word,” he said tightly. “She’s not that. It’s just a phase. A year from now she’ll be married and pregnant.”

“And if she’s not?”

“She will be.”

An hour earlier and she had believed the same thing. Now it just sounded so foolish. “Stevie is not the one in denial. You are.”

“Enough!”

His bellow made the windows rattle. For a moment, Helen was too taken aback to respond. Then her anger came forth. “No. It’s not enough.”

“My daughter is not gay!”

“Well, mine is! And you know what? I think God made her that way on purpose.”

“That’s blasphemy,” he hissed.

“Only if I’m wrong.”

Jacob slammed both hands down on the counter. “Two hours ago you were scheming with her old boyfriend and now you’re giving up? What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing is wrong with me, Jacob. I’m finally coming to my senses.”

“Losing them is more like it.”

It was rare for her husband to be so incensed, so it was with some trepidation that she stepped closer to him and put a hand on his arm. “I love her, Jacob. I love her desperately and I always have.”

“I love her, too,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Even if she’s a lesbian?”

“No! Yes!” Angry confusion was evident on his face. “You’re twisting my words!”

Knowing he was too angry to listen to anything in that moment, Helen backed off and waited for him to get himself under control. She knew that her husband was a very stubborn, black-and-white kind of man. It was, at times, very comforting, in that it made him decisive and focused. Problems didn’t stay problems long around him. But, this time, he was going to have to bend. He would not be able to force a change in his daughter’s orientation merely by the strength of his will. Especially since Stevie had inherited a fair measure of that stubbornness herself. If Jacob kept pushing, Stevie would eventually go away. Helen did not intend to allow that. Just how she was going to prevent it was not quite clear to her yet, but she suspected she would have to lead the way for the rest of her family.

Helen searched her mind for the name of the support group Stevie had tried to tell them about last year. The literature had ended up in the fireplace where Jacob had thrown it. All this time she’s been begging us to listen and understand. It’s a miracle she hasn’t given up on us.

“Stephanie is going to go out with Ricky and everything will be fine again. She’ll put all of this nonsense behind her and do the right thing. Of course, she’ll have to stand before the congregation and ask for forgiveness, but we’ll stand with her in support and she’ll eventually be re-baptized.”

Unsure where this new strength was coming from, Helen lifted her chin. “First of all, she prefers to be called Stevie.”

“She’s my daughter. Her name is Stephanie and that’s what I’ll call her.”

“Fine, Jake.” She watched the nickname score. He hated being called that. “Second of all, this nonsense may very well be exactly the right thing for her. You’re not the one who gets to decide that.”

“I am her father. She’s my responsibility.”

“Not anymore. Last time I checked, she was taking responsibility for herself. She owns her own home free and clear, Jacob. She owns her own business. She’s making a ridiculous amount of money racing in a man’s sport–and winning. She pays her own bills, lives an independent life and she’s done it without any help from us. We no longer have the right to make decisions for her.”

“When she’s in this house…”

“Oh, give it a rest,” Helen exclaimed crisply.

“Don’t you dare talk to me like that. You show me respect.”

“I’m trying,” she all but yelled. “But you’re not being respectable!” Her carefully ordered arguments went out the window. “You’re being hateful and cruel!”

“Shut up!”

Helen stiffened as her arms were taken in rough hands. She had never been handled in anger before and she was a little surprised at the strange composure that came over her. “Take your hands off me,” she said calmly. “Right now.”

Jacob’s face instantly registered that he had crossed a forbidden line. He let go of his wife and backed up. “I didn’t mean to grab you like that,” he stammered. “You just made me so angry. I don’t understand why you’re defending the girl. Homosexuality is a sin, Helen. You know that. Why are you suddenly on her side?”

“Because I love her and she needs me. I love her so much that I’m starting to not care what she is. Stevie needs me to love her because of what she is. I don’t know yet how I’m going to make that happen, but I’ll find a way.” Helen stepped up to Jacob and put a finger firmly in the middle of his chest. “Know this, husband; the persecution of Stevie for having the courage to define her own life is over. My daughter is a lesbian and neither you, nor God, have the power or the right to change that.”

Helen poked her finger into his muscled chest one more time for good measure and then went out onto the porch. Her two youngest children were tossing a baseball back and forth. Rory’s dog bounced between them as he tried to catch it. “Stevie?”

Stevie fielded the ball and then shaded her eyes to look towards the house. “Yeah?”

“Ricky did ask about you, but I suggested that he ask you out and talk to you about coming back to church.” It felt good to get the truth out. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay,” Stevie called back. “I figured as much.”

“I’ll call him and tell him to forget it,” Helen added.

“Nah, that’s alright. I’ll take care of it.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. I’ll handle it, but…thanks.”

            She’s so forgiving. Where did she get that from? “Stevie?”

“Yeah?”

Helen took a deep breath. “What was the name of that support group you tried to tell us about last year?” She heard her husband’s hiss of anger and ignored it.

Stevie looked confused for a moment. “P-FLAG?” Her arms fell to her sides and she took two steps forward. “Do you want me to get the number?”

“No thanks, honey. I’ll take it from here.”

“Uh…okay.”

As she stepped back into the house, she heard Stevie’s yodel of joy and it made her smile. Anything that made her daughter that happy had to be a step in the right direction. She would find this P-FLAG organization and go every day if that’s what it took to make things right with her little girl.

Jacob was waiting for her with a scowl on his face. “I forbid you to talk about our family with strangers. You will not do this.”

Helen could not recall ever being so angry. She had no idea how she managed to sound so calm. “Let me tell you a couple of things, mister. If you ever touch me in anger again, do not fall asleep where I can reach you because you will most assuredly wake up in the hospital. You forbid me? I think not, and if you can actually say that to me with a straight face, we are in serious trouble as a couple. I don’t like the way things have been going around here and I’m not going to put up with it anymore. You can either get with the program or get the hell out.”

Maybe it was the fact that she had put her foot down. Maybe it was that she’d actually used the word ‘hell’ as a curse word. Maybe it was because she had just threatened to leave her husband of nearly thirty years. Whatever it was, it left her husband staring after her with a look of complete and utter shock.

>>>

“That can’t be good for you.”

Rachel wiped at her mouth with toilet paper and flushed the toilet. She went to the sink and started washing her mouth out. “It doesn’t feel so good, that’s true.”

Tawny was trying to glue her eyelashes on straight. “Maybe you shouldn’t be doing this kind of work. I mean, if it’s stressing you out this much…”

Rachel opened her cosmetics bag and took out a toothbrush and paste. “It is stressful, but I’m adjusting. I just can’t make this kind of money doing anything else.” Rachel made a face. “Not that it’s enough. I might have to get another job doing waitressing or something.” She put the brush in her mouth and started scrubbing.

“You’d make more doing the lap dances. How come you don’t want to do them?”

Rachel tipped her chin up so she wouldn’t drool toothpaste. “Too personal. Don’t want to touch them.”

Tawny clearly didn’t understand that. “I saw the one you did yesterday. You’ve got a knack. You could make a lot of money really fast.”

“And lose my integrity,” Rachel said.

“Whatever.”

Rachel finished brushing her teeth and rinsed out her mouth. “I guess I’m an old fashioned girl. I can dance, but the touching feels really creepy to me. I just can’t do it.”

Tawny stomped a foot and stared at her fingers. “Damn it. I just can’t get this fucker to work today. I’ve glued it to my finger three times in a row.”

Rachel put her hand out. “Want me to help?”

“Please?”

She smiled at Tawny and tipped the girl’s chin up. Her own lashes were gloriously thick so she didn’t have to do this for herself, but she knew how.

“You’re too nice for this job,” Tawny said. “I’ve seen you rip Gary a couple of times, but it’s like you don’t really know how to be mean.”

Tessa made a face. “I think he likes it when we curse him out. Like he thinks it’s foreplay or something.”

“You need to figure out how to make him think he’s won. He won’t quit until you cry. I’m not supposed to tell you, but he’s rigging the crowd with women tonight. He’s gonna make you lap dance them all.”

Rachel’s hands stilled for a moment and then resumed. “I guess I’m quitting then.”

Tawny looked as shocked as she could without moving her face. “You would rather quit than lap dance some women?”

“The women part doesn’t bother me,” Tessa clarified. “If I allow Gary to force me to do something I don’t want for his personal amusement, it’s no different than rape. I’m not in the mood to be raped tonight.”

Tawny waited until her eyelashes were on to respond. “Are you really gonna quit?”

“If I have to.”

Tawny peered into the mirror to double check Rachel’s work. “You’re kind of a prude, Rachel. Maybe that’s why Gary is picking on you.”

Rachel lifted an eyebrow. “Not wanting to do a lap dance for a stranger isn’t what makes one a prude, Tawny. It’s being too ashamed of your own sexuality to do it for your lover that makes you a prude. Trust me. I don’t have problems in that area.”

“I didn’t know you had a lover.”

“I don’t at the moment. There aren’t many good women who will tolerate me doing this kind of work. Plus, I’d like to get my finances under control before I move in with someone. Right now, if I can’t pay my rent, I’m the only one who suffers for it.”

“You keep talking about being in debt. How’d you get in debt in the first place?”

Rachel sighed. “My dad left me with debt. I’m stuck paying off his bills.”

“He’s dead?”

“Cirrhosis of the liver. He drank himself to death.”

“Bummer. What about your mom?”

Rachel put up an emotional wall. “I don’t want to talk about her.” It was all acting, of course. Her parents were alive and well, though not still married to each other. Rachel had good relationships with them and their new spouses, but that wouldn’t do for her undercover character.

“Sorry.”

“It’s alright. I don’t mind you asking, I just don’t want to get into it.”

“Okay.”

Rachel looked at herself in the mirror. This might be the last time she had to get ready to do this job. Knowing that made it feel not so sickening, but she still had to go out there and let it develop. She couldn’t storm out and pick a fight about seeding the club with women because she wasn’t supposed to know. Rachel pinched her nipples to make them stand up more and flipped her hair back over her shoulders. “Alright. Time to face the music.”

>>>

Rachel smiled all the way back to her crappy apartment. Sure enough, there had been eight or ten women in the club and Gary had been laughing when he’d told her they all wanted a lap dance. He’d stopped laughing pretty damn quick when Rachel quit. He didn’t believe it at first, but the absolute best part of his reaction had been when he screamed at her in the parking lot that he was going to punish her by not letting her work until Friday. Rachel’s first impulse was to laugh at him, but if she could get back in, that would be a good thing. She had turned and screamed in disbelief, “Friday? How am I supposed to eat and pay rent?”

“You should have thought of that before acting like such a bitch!”

It left Gary feeling like he’d won and Rachel like she’d dodged a bullet.

Now she had most of the week off. She would have to let her contacts know what was going on, but she looked forward to getting some sleep and maybe putting on a few pounds. Rachel thought about Leona and wondered if she had any more pie.

>>>

Helen couldn’t remember ever being more nervous in her life. Finding a phone number for P-FLAG and calling for meeting times had been tough enough. Walking into the basement meeting room of a local Baptist church was taking every smidge of courage she had. It occurred to her that the only churches she had ever entered had been LDS ones. She knew next to nothing about Baptists.

The only reason she knew she was in the right place was the P-FLAG flyer on the door. At first she thought she was alone, but there was a woman her own age at a table stapling papers together.

“Am I in the right place?” she asked tremulously.

The woman looked up with a smile. “Let me guess…one of your kids?”

Helen felt like a stiff breeze would make her shatter. “My daughter.”

“Well, if you’re here, it means you truly love her.”

Helen started to cry. She was mortified at her loss of self-control. Arms came around her almost immediately and she gratefully accepted them.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said. “I always forget that the first time is the hardest. My name is Pat and I know exactly how you feel. Let’s sit down. Would you like some coffee or herbal tea?”

Five minutes later, Helen had herself under control and tea was steeping in a plastic cup. “I’m sorry. I don’t usually fall apart like that.”

“I can tell that about you.”

Helen cocked her head. “How?”

“You seem pretty classy. I’m willing to bet that breaking down is very unusual for you.”

“Thank you?”

Pat laughed. “Don’t mind me. I’m not much better than trailer trash. All kinds of things fall out of my mouth and I don’t seem to have much control over it.”

Oddly enough, Helen was starting to relax. “Too much control can be just as awkward, I suppose.”

Pat smiled. “I’m going to start over. Hi! I’m Pat and welcome to P-FLAG. This isn’t really a meeting time. It’s just coffee and tea for anyone who wants to drop in. I usually sit here all by myself for an hour, but I think it’s important to offer a completely unorganized time for people to drop by. Are you the woman that called yesterday?”

“Yes. I’m Helen.”

“Excellent.” Pat sipped at her coffee and relaxed in her folding chair. “Your daughter is the reason you’re here,” she prompted.

Helen squeezed her teabag against the side of her cup with a plastic spoon. “Yes. She’s been trying to get through to us for quite some time.”

“She’s been out for a while then?”

“She’s been…out…for about two years. We haven’t been very…accepting.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

She did. Helen was a little shocked about all of the information that came pouring out of her, but it felt so good to actually say it. It was cathartic and liberating to finally talk about how she felt and what was happening. Pat listened with Olympic skill to the outpouring.

When it was over, Helen felt twenty pounds lighter.

Pat was smiling at her.

“I guess I needed to talk,” Helen said with a little embarrassment.

“I guess you did,” Pat chuckled. “Your daughter sounds amazing.”

“She is,” Helen said with burgeoning pride.

Pat sat forward. “People fight for what they believe in. We see it every day. The really beautiful thing about our children is that they’re fighting for love. That’s what they believe in. They’re warriors of the heart and all they want is for us to love them. If we can find it within ourselves to love and accept them as they are, our relationships with them become so rich and fulfilling. My son never ceases to amaze me with the vitality of his heart and mind. I had no idea that I was participating in the creation of a person with so much empathy and integrity. The journey you are on with your daughter is just beginning.”

Warriors of the heart. It was so easy to see that in Stevie. Helen’s resolve to work through her issues doubled. “I don’t think it’s enough to accept her sexuality. I think she needs me to approve. How do I do that?”

Chapter Four

It was late Wednesday afternoon. Rascal Flatts was playing on the boom box and Stevie had her practice stunt bike in pieces in the garage floor. The seal on the front forks needed replacing and it was due for a detailed inspection and tune-up. With the garage door open and the sun shining in, it was almost like being on vacation. Stevie loved working on her bikes. Sometimes she thought about chucking her straight job and opening a dirt bike shop, but she thought it might get old and boring if she had to do it for other people. She suspected it was more fun doing it just as a hobby.

Later on, Dusty and Greg would drop by to help her finish the job. By the time they got there, she would have a good idea if there were any other problems that needed attention and they would work together to fix them. Life was good.

“Hello, Steph.”

His voice startled her and she barely kept from squealing like a little girl. Stevie looked up at an older, better groomed version of an old friend. “Hey, Ricky. How’s it going? I heard you were back.”

“Good,” he nodded as he stuck his hands deep in the pockets of his slacks. “I go by Rick now.”

“Okay. I go by Stevie. How was Canada?”

“Not much different than here, but the winters were tougher.”

Silence bloomed like a fart in an elevator. Stevie realized in that moment that their brief conversation was about as much as she wanted to know about the guy she’d known. They really didn’t have anything in common anymore. Still, the manners her parents had drummed into her needed satisfaction. She pointed to the love seat along the back wall with her screwdriver. “Have a seat, Rick. There are sodas in that icebox. Help yourself.”

“Thanks.”

Stevie saw him hesitate with the fridge door open and remembered that she had beer in there for her crew. She opened her mouth to explain and changed her mind. It wasn’t his business and what he thought shouldn’t matter.

Rick sat down with a root beer and looked around. “This is your place?”

“Yep.”

“Nice.”

“Thanks.” The silence came back and she said the only thing she could think of. “Thought you were going to call.”

“Your dad suggested I just come on by. I got the feeling you were expecting me.”

“Ah.” Stevie leaned back on her hands. “You saw him today?”

“Yeah. I went to see him about a job. Look, I can come back another time if you’d rather.”

“No. Now is a good time. Did he give you a job?”

“Yes, he did.”

“Let me guess. Night security guard.”

Rick grinned. “That’s right. Take a ten minute walk once an hour and spend the rest of the time studying in the guard booth. Just what I need.”

Stevie felt sorry for him. He’d finished a year of college before the church had sent him off to win converts in the Canadian wilderness. Now, he was twenty-one and still had to finish his schooling. He’d be working low-wage non-demanding jobs for the next several years while he caught up. Being the night security guard at a used car lot wasn’t the worst job he could have ended up with. “You staying with your folks?”

“Yes.”

“Bet they’re glad to have you home.”

“They are. It’s kind of hard though. I’ve been living pretty much on my own for the last two years and now they want me to respect a curfew. Mom checks to make sure I make my bed every morning.”

Stevie chuckled. “Sucks to be you.”

He smiled back at her. “I think my father forgot my name. He calls me Son all the time. Cool at first, but getting old fast.”

“I’ll bet.”

“You still racing?”

            Okay, I can do this. “Weekends mostly. I do a lot of traveling for it.”

“Any money in it?”

“Not from the racing so much, but my sponsors paid for this house.”

His face showed his surprise. “No kidding? Are you that good?”

“I currently rank second in the Regionals,” she said with quiet pride. “I’m pretty good.”

“I had no idea.”

“I’m getting some pressure to go National, but I’m not sure I want to put the time and effort into being that good. I like my day job and I like being home more often than not. If I went National, I’d have to live and breathe SuperCross. It’s a hard life and the higher you go, the more dangerous it gets. Besides, it would mean a huge legal fight. They don’t like to play with girls.”

“As long as you’re happy with what you’re doing now, why push it? It seems like you’re doing really well.”

“Well, I know that I get more sponsor attention because I’m a girl. It can be pretty embarrassing.”

“Sucks to be you.”

Stevie had to laugh. She had that one coming.

Rick gestured at the bike parts. “Is this one of your racing bikes?”

“Stunt bike, actually.”

His eyes widened. “The aerial stunts?”

Stevie looked around at the parts. “Yeah. It’s good to strip them down on a regular basis and make sure there are no problems. It has to work just right or you’re in trouble.”

“The flying through the air, back-flip kind of stunts? You do that?”

“You have to throw in something flashy once in a while. I’m not good enough for the X-Games or anything.”

“Wow. Isn’t it kind of dangerous?”

“Oh yeah.” Leaning a little to her right, Stevie pulled her left shoulder forward until the ball slipped out of the socket. “I did that about a year and a half ago.”

“Yikes. Doesn’t it hurt?”

“Nah. Happens all the time.” Sitting up straight, she did a little twist and flip with her arm and the joint reassembled itself with an audible pop. “Good as new.”

Rick was looking at her like she’d grown another head. “I understand the racing. I did a little when I was a kid and it was fun, but the aerial stuff…why do something so dangerous?”

“Because it’s one of the three most amazing feelings in the world. There’s just you and the bike up in the air. Any one of a million things can go wrong at any moment and the ground hurts. Odds are that you’re gonna bite it bad. But when you’re in the zone and you know it’s going to work, everything’s beyond perfect. It’s like flying to heaven.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” he said with a shake of his head. “But just for the sake of curiosity, what else is on your top three list? Base jumping? Getting shot out of a cannon?”

Stevie smiled, unaware of how beautiful she looked in that moment. “Love and brand new underwear.”

Rick laughed and relaxed into the love seat for the first time. “I can totally relate to the underwear thing. I learned a lot the last two years, but how to do laundry was one of the biggest. About two weeks after I got up there, I washed the whites with red socks.”

“Oh no.”

“Oh, yeah. I wore pink underwear for most of a year. It’s hard to be proud when all your shorts are princess pink.”

Stevie had to laugh in relief. She’d been expecting the inquisition. “Bet no one asked to borrow them.”

“You got that right.”

“It’s good to see you, Rick. I’m glad you’re back.”

“Me, too. You know, I’m pretty sure your dad expects me to marry you.”

“What?”

“Your mom wants me to talk you into coming back to church, but your dad seems to think I can straighten you out.”

The humor of it was beyond Stevie’s reach. “Don’t worry about my mom. I think she’s having a change of heart. But, my dad…”

“He told me that you think you’re gay.”

Stevie stared right into her old friend’s eyes. “I am.”

“Good.”

Now she was shocked. “Excuse me?”

“Come on, Stevie. It’s about time you figured it out. I always knew.”

“You did?”

“Sure.”

“And you don’t have a problem with it?”

“Should I?”

“Considering that you just got back from two years of preaching the word of God, yeah. I thought you’d come in here and start off with what a sin it is for me to be gay.”

Rick was grinning ear to ear. “Maybe next time.”

“You know that I’ve been excommunicated by the church? I don’t think you’re supposed to even be talking to me”

“If they ask, I’ll just say something profound about lost sheep.”

Stevie snorted in amusement. “You would, too.”

Rick leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees. “My faith is in God, Stevie. Not the church. Now, the church works for me and I’ll probably spend my whole life as a member, but I’m still capable of making up my own mind about things. In fact, I believe that God expects it of us. After all, he did give us free will. Why would he do that if he didn’t want us to use it? A critical part of free will is thinking for ourselves. I’ve studied the Bible, Stevie. All of it. I’ve read Leviticus. Have you?”

“Not really,” she admitted. “Just the parts that people have thrown at me.”

“Understandable,” he conceded. “Well, I’ve read it. Half of it is devoted to describing when, how and what to sacrifice to get into favor with the Lord. Animal sacrifices. It’s barbaric.”

“I didn’t know that.”

He sat back and took a long drink of his soda. “There’s a lot of stuff in Leviticus that deals with who you can’t have sex with. The punishment is usually death. I don’t see us out there killing child molesters or rapists…not that I don’t think we should. My point is that out of the entire book of Leviticus, Christian society has taken one rule and is using it to justify the persecution of an entire class of people. The rest of the book is tossed aside, but they’re going to keep that one thing. It’s not right. It’s not Christian and I won’t be a part of it.”

Stevie could hardly believe that this was the guy she’d known from years ago. He was the same, only smarter and more tolerant. Two years on a mission usually turned out folks who were so black and white that shadows gave them hives. It was pretty clear to her that the brainwashing hadn’t taken on this one. “Well gosh, Rick. You’ve changed a lot. I guess I’ll have to marry you after all.”

Root beer sprayed out of Rick’s mouth and set them both to laughing. “No offense, Stevie, but I don’t want to marry you.”

“Why not?”

“Cause you can kick my butt.”

Stevie reached over her shoulder to pat herself on the back. “I’ve still got it.”

“Only cause no one else wants it.”

“Hey!”

“Unless…do you have a girlfriend?”

Stevie picked at a seam on her Levi’s. “No.”

“Aah, I can sense that you are holding something back. Tell Elder Davidson all about it. You know you want to.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “You’re such a putz.” Rising to her feet, she went to the wash basin and began scrubbing her hands. “There’s nothing to tell.”

“That explains why your ears are blushing.”

She flicked water at him just for knowing her that well. “I’ve met someone.”

“And?”

“We’re just starting to be friends, but I’m hoping it turns into more.”

“What’s she like?”

Stevie finished her hands and turned around while she dried them. Just being able to talk about Rachel made her heart beat faster. “She’s gorgeous.”

“Of course. That goes without saying.”

“No. I mean, she’s gorgeous. She has this wild dark hair and the greenest eyes in the whole world. And she’s just so nice. She’s older than me, but not so much that it’s a problem. I think at first she thought I was just a kid, but that’s starting to change. I mean, I know I’m young, but I do own my own home and business. I’m reliable and responsible. I think, in time, she’ll stop seeing my age.”

“What does she doing for a living?”

Stevie stood still, her teeth biting her lip. She just knew he was going to have a problem with it. What should she say? Did she dare tell the truth?

“Stevie?”

Her eyes tracked back to him and she tried not to panic. “Hmm?”

“What does this dream girl of yours do?”

Stevie took a deep breath. He’d been more than okay about the gay thing. Maybe she should give him the benefit of the doubt. “She’s an…exotic dancer.”

Rick’s mouth fell open. “You got a stripper?”

Stevie rolled her eyes. “I don’t got anything, Rick. Like I said, we’re just starting to be friends. We’re a long way from anything more.”

“Wow. I’m guessing your dad doesn’t know.”

“No.” She headed for the fridge to get a soda.

“Wow,” Rick repeated. “You know, when he does find out, his head’s going to split wide open and a three headed peacock is going to prance out and poop on everyone’s shoes.”

That image sent Stevie to her knees and she laughed so hard she was snorting. Repeatedly. That’s when Dusty and Greg showed up.

An hour later, Stevie was done wheezing and all four of them were sitting on the garage floor around her bike. Rick still didn’t know the difference between a cotter pin and a bobby pin, but he could clean something if you showed him what you needed done. The three guys were getting along well, though Dusty was having a very hard time understanding why someone would go off on a mission that you had to pay for yourself.

“But, if you get more people to join up and they pay tithing every month, why shouldn’t you get a commission?”

“It’s not a job,” Rick answered easily. “It’s a calling.”

“A calling?”

“Yes. God called me to go on a mission.”

“He called you?”

“On my soul phone.”

It took a moment for Dusty to get the joke and they all laughed. “That’s pretty pathetic,” Stevie teased.

“It was big in Canada,” Rick grinned.

“Probably ‘cause there wasn’t a moose in it,” Greg laughed.

“How many people did you convert?” Dusty was like a dog with a chew toy when he didn’t understand something. Which was often.

“Four families and two individuals.”

Dusty considered that for a moment. “Is that a lot?”

“It’s not a competition,” Rick explained. “It’s about finding people who are unhappy with their lives and giving them something that fills in the empty spaces. The Mormon Church isn’t for everyone, but for those of us it fits, it’s like coming home to a family you didn’t know you were missing.”

“I’ve heard that the Mormons are like a cult.”

Stevie worried that Dusty had gone too far, but Rick fielded it with ease.

“Do you know what the difference between a cult and a religion is?”

Dusty shook his head.

“Well, if you look them up in a dictionary, they’re exactly the same except that a cult is considered unorthodox. Both of them are basically a belief system. Do you know how a religion is determined to be unorthodox?” He waited for Dusty to shake his head again before continuing. “Two things. First, how many followers does it have? If it’s three hundred, it’s a cult. If it’s three million, it’s a religion. The other determining factor is how the media feels about it. If they don’t like or understand it, it’s a cult. It’s one of those words that riles people up and sells papers. They do the same thing with the word regime as opposed to government. My point is that it’s all a matter of perspective. Is the Catholic church a cult?”

“Uh…no?”

“That’s right. A great many people find solace and comfort through the teachings of the Catholic Church, but the church is also responsible for some truly horrific things. Take the Inquisition. Did you know that somewhere in the neighborhood of nine million women were brutally tortured and murdered over a three hundred year period because they were thought to be witches?”

Dusty’s eyes were wide and the carburetor in his hands was forgotten. “Nine million?”

“Do you really think that even one of those women actually rode a broom or had sex with Satan? I think not.”

Dusty was shaking his head thoughtfully.

Rick sighed and went back to cleaning the bike’s frame. “The Mormon church has committed massacres too, though nowhere near as devastating in the number of lives lost. As terrible and unforgivable as those events were, Mormons are not a cult. People are free to join or leave as they wish. Sure, there’s peer pressure, but Mormons don’t imprison or torture those that wish to find another life path. Mormons are not going to suddenly drink cyanide punch for some obscure reason. We aren’t perfect, but we aren’t monsters either.”

“Oh.” Dusty only hesitated a moment before asking his next question. “How many wives are you allowed to have?”

“Jeez,” Greg sighed. “Do you think before you speak?”

Stevie shared a wink with Greg. She’d talked to him about the drunk driving thing when he’d arrived and everything was copasetic again. She didn’t like when they fought, but better fighting than going to a funeral.

Rick was still totally at ease. “Well, there’s not really an upper limit, but generally speaking, seven is a good number. One for every day of the week.”

Even Stevie was speechless. Rick broke the stalemate by busting up laughing. “You shoulda seen your faces!”

Mormons were always so defensive on that subject. Rick had taken Stevie completely by surprise. The fact that he got her so good made her laugh hysterically.

>>>

It was nearly ten before the bike was back together and running like a top. Stevie made her specialty for dinner (box macaroni and cheese with cut up hotdogs in it) and the guys scarfed it down like it was steak and lobster. Her crew left first and Stevie put a hand on Rick’s shoulder before he could escape. “I’m really glad you came by today.”

“Me, too. Maybe I could come by again sometime?”

“My door is open, Rick. You’re always welcome.” She walked beside him out to his parent’s car. “You’re really good with people. You know how to explain things and make them think. Did you learn that on your mission?”

“Let’s say that I refined it in Canada.”

Stevie nodded. “Are you still planning on taking business courses in college?”

Rick opened the car door and leaned on it. “Actually, I’m thinking about being a teacher. High school preferably.”

“Perfect,” she nodded in approval.

“Thanks for a great evening, Stevie.”

“You bet. Next time, wear jeans.”

“I will.” He started to get in the car and stopped. “What’s her name?”

“Huh?”

“Your friend. What’s her name?”

Stevie couldn’t help grinning. “Rachel.”

“Beautiful. I hope I get to meet her someday.”

“I hope so, too.”

“Bye.”

Stevie watched him drive away before going into the house. The entire evening had been fun and very interesting, but now her house looked like it had hosted a frat party. “Time to get this mess cleaned up and get some sleep.”

>>>

Optimal Computer Diagnostics was situated in a modest strip mall between a UPS store and Van-Allen’s Dry Cleaners. It wasn’t a very big store compared to what most consumers were used to, but it was plenty big enough for what it did. The front half of the store was as much a lobby as a display area for the products they sold. The back half of the store was a work shop where they repaired and optimized computers.

Stevie had two employees. The Bobs were cousins, both named after a beloved grandfather. They did not look anything alike. In fact, Stevie was pretty sure that Tall Bob was not entirely human. As near as she could tell, he had no body hair. Not that she wanted to know for sure. Tall Bob was her Code Master. His ability to communicate with other people was severely limited since he seemed to think in computer code. What took a normal tech an hour to figure out, Tall Bob found in mere minutes. The longest Stevie had ever seen him work on a code problem was five hours and twenty seven minutes. The guy was brilliant until you asked him how his day was. He wasn’t always capable of answering such a question.

Short Bob was the hardware guy and he helped out at the front counter as needed. He was as brilliant in his own way as his cousin, but Short Bob seemed to think he lived inside World of Warcraft. According to Short Bob, the time he spent working was actually just a dream he had while he slept.

Stevie was pretty sure he meant it. No one knew what his avatar’s name was in WOW. It was how he kept the real world and the dream world separate. He became very suspicious if people asked him about WOW. He thought they were trying to spy on his real life from within his dreams.

He also behaved inappropriately if you left him alone in the shop for more than a few minutes. Twice Stevie had walked in on him naked, stoned and singing Barry Manilow at the top of his lungs. She still had nightmares about it.

Stevie opened her shop at nine in the morning. The Bobs came in around ten. The shop would close anytime between six and seven in the evening. It depended on the customers. Stevie was seriously thinking about hiring another employee. She needed someone more dependable on the front desk and they had a ton of old parts that needed to be recycled. None of them had time to do it, but they all agreed it was the responsible thing to do. One day soon, Stevie was going to have to break down and start doing interviews.

She was a few minutes early on Thursday morning. Unlocking the front door, she flipped over the open sign as she entered. Stevie put the Atari box on the counter and went to turn on lights. She’d gotten the Atari deck working and decided that it would be awesome in the lobby.

Stevie had done some research on the games Mrs. Hennessey had given her. There were eleven that were worth some serious cash. Three of them were still in the original shrink wrap. Mrs. Hennessey had no idea the treasure trove she’d handed over so trustingly. One of the games would almost certainly go for over ten grand. Stevie was going to keep them in the safe under her desk. No one else had access and they would be safe there. She would sell them when she could and give the money to Mrs. Hennessey. It was the right thing to do.

The lobby floor needed to be mopped and there were fingerprints on some of the display cases. The Bobs would never do that sort of work. It was all up to Stevie. It was just one more reason she should look for another employee.

By the time the Bobs showed up Stevie had the Atari set up, the pricey games locked in the safe and the lobby was shiny and clean. She was looking at the manifest of work and was pleased. Nothing was being neglected or shunted to the side. The Bobs were doing a good job. Maybe it was time to buy them lunch or something.

Tall Bob was first through the door. He looked at Stevie with blank eyes. She nodded at him and he seemed to relax. He went straight to his work station and settled in. Short Bob came in seconds later and scowled at her.

“Morning, Bob.”

“Did you make coffee?”

Stevie was used to his gruffness. The trick was to stay calm and not take anything personally. “Do I ever?”

“No. Why is that?”

“You know I don’t drink coffee.”

“Fucking un-American.”

“Watch your mouth. And just so you know, most coffee comes from South America. It starts out as un-American.”

Bob stared at her for a few seconds. “I don’t believe you.”

“Look it up.”

“If I cared, I would.” His eyes squinted at the new Atari system. “What the hell is that?”

“Behave yourself today and I’ll let you play with it.” Stevie watched him as he went to get a closer look. He stood there for a couple of minutes without moving and then moved quickly to his desk. Stevie smiled. It had to be killing him that he couldn’t play with it right away.

Stevie called a few customers to tell them their computers were ready and dealt with a couple of walk-ins. She sold a custom gaming laptop to a guy getting ready to go off to college. It was way more processing power than he needed for school, but it was what he wanted.

She spent her spare time designing a desktop for Mrs. Hennessey. All it really needed to do was access the internet and play solitaire, but she wanted it to be a dependable, flexible unit. The less it needed upgrading as the internet expanded, the better it would be for Mrs. Hennessey. Simple, yet sophisticated, was the key.

Stevie looked up as the bell over the front door opened and her heart stopped. She stood up and her chair fell over.

“Hi, Stevie.”

“Rachel.” Stevie spun around and picked her chair up. It took two tries to get it set correctly. Straightening, she brushed her shirt to make sure it was clean and smiled. “Hi.”

Rachel leaned on the counter and winked. “I thought I’d drop by and see where you work. I hope that’s okay.”

There wasn’t a sexier woman on the planet. Stevie was sure of it. “Oh, yeah.”

“So…this is where you work?”

Stevie realized she’d been standing there staring like a doofus. “Sorry. Every time I look at you I get stupid. Yes, this is my business. We sell some parts and a bit of software out here. That loveseat and television are the lobby if you’re waiting for something. I just got the Atari hooked up today. It’s pretty sweet.”

Stevie followed Rachel awkwardly around the lobby and answered questions. It didn’t take long. Stevie hesitated at the shop door. “Um…I’ll show you the shop, but I should warn you about the Bobs first.”

“The Bobs?”

“Tall Bob and Short Bob. They work for me. They’re really good at their jobs but both of them are somewhat…challenged. Tall Bob thinks in code so he doesn’t really communicate very well with humans and Short Bob…well…I’m just praying he isn’t naked back there.”

Rachel started laughing and then kind of choked to a stop. “Do you mean that literally?”

“Unfortunately,” Stevie said with embarrassment. “I can pretty much guarantee he’ll ask you if you’ve ever faked an…um…it.” She knew she was blushing, but there was nothing she could do about it.

“An orgasm?”

Stevie nodded. “He asks all the women that. I wanted to have the shop be open for customers to see into, but that turned out to be a bad idea. If he wasn’t so good at his job, I’d have fired him a long time ago. They’re both geniuses. The only reason they work here is that they can’t get work anywhere else. No one else will put up with their social disabilities.”

“So you keep them in the back where no one can see them.”

“As much as I can.” Stevie pointed to a racing schedule in the front window. “I’ve got my races posted so people can see when I’ll be here. I’ve been thinking that I need to hire someone who can work the desk and keep things clean. I just don’t like doing the interviews. It’s so hard to know who will work hard and be honest.”

“True. Are you going to introduce me to the Bobs?”

Stevie almost said no, but if they were ever going to be friends, Rachel would have to meet the Bobs at some point. It was inevitable. Steeling her courage, Stevie opened the door.

Tall Bob looked up and froze. Stevie spoke evenly. “This is Rachel.”

He continued to stare.

Rachel lifted a hand and gave him a Vulcan salute.

Tall Bob smiled and went back to work. Stevie was amazed. He hardly ever smiled. She gave a thumbs up to Rachel and led her deeper into the shop.

Short Bob was semi hidden behind a rack of shelves and he was listening to music. It took Stevie a moment to place the voice: Englebert Humperdink. The music wasn’t bad, but it was horribly out of character.

Stevie rapped her knuckles on the shelf. “Hey, Bob. This is Rachel.”

He turned and looked at her like he was having trouble focusing. “You hired someone? Does she know anything about computers?”

“She’s a friend, Bob. She just came by to see how…”

Bob pointed at Stevie and his eyebrows shot up. “It’s okay for you to bring people in here, but I can’t do it? How is that fair?”

“Ease up,” Stevie ordered with a side of frustration. “When you own your own shop, you can bring in all the people you want.” Bob snorted at her and looked Rachel over. Stevie could see it coming. “Don’t do it, Bob. I’m warning you.”

Rachel leaned up against the shelves with a wicked grin. “I’ve never faked it. Have you?”

Stevie clapped a hand over her eyes.

“Once.”

“Why?”

Stevie moved her hands to her ears and hummed. She really didn’t want to know the answer to that question. She watched Rachel and Short Bob exchange a few words and then they both laughed. Stevie kept humming until Rachel moved in front of her and gently pushed her back a step. She lifted her hands cautiously and asked, “Is it safe?”

“It’s safe,” Rachel teased.

“Hey!” Bob called out. “Are you two having sex?”

Stevie’s tongue tied itself in a knot and crawled down her throat.

Rachel lifted an eyebrow as she looked Stevie in the eye. “We’re thinking about it, but it’s none of your business.”

Stevie couldn’t get out of the shop fast enough. Rachel was laughing and Stevie closed the shop door. “Uh…”

Rachel put her hand on Stevie’s belly. “We are thinking about it, right?”

Stevie took a deep breath and mustered her courage. “I do think about it, but…I want to get to know you better first.”

Rachel cocked her head with a grin. “I’d like that, too. Is the offer to teach me to ride a dirt bike still open?”

“Really? You want to?”

“It sounds like fun.”

Stevie ran her fingers through her hair as she thought about her schedule. “I’m going out riding with the guys on Saturday morning. I don’t know if you want to hang out wi…”

“I don’t mind,” Rachel said quickly. “I’d like to meet your friends. Outside of the club, that is.”

Everything stilled inside of Stevie. “Have they been back to see you?”

“No,” Rachel said in a rush. “I just meant I haven’t seen them since your birthday. That’s the only time I’ve seen them, but the other girls say they’ve been there before.”

Stevie’s guts were churning.

“Are you getting jealous?”

Stevie shook her head in denial, but her tongue wouldn’t behave. “I know it’s none of my business. I know that. If it’s guys I don’t know, it’s not so hard, but I don’t want my friends ogling you. It makes me feel…angry.”

“This is my job, Stevie. You can’t make choices for me about that. If your friends show up, I’ll be friendly to them, but I don’t do lap dances anymore. Not for anyone. My boss tried to force me this week, but I quit. He’s punishing me by making me stay off work until Friday. My point is, they won’t see anything they haven’t seen before and they won’t get to touch at all. I can protect myself.”

Stevie considered it. “Maybe that’s what my problem is. I haven’t figured out how to protect myself from what they might say. I guess that’s my problem, not yours.”

“Are you having problems already?”

Stevie shrugged. “A little teasing. I can handle it.”

Rachel stepped closer. “I’ll tell you what. If they show up at the club, I’ll call and let you know. That way you’ll be prepared. Teasing is usually harder if you don’t know when it’s coming.”

Stevie felt like she’d been overreacting. “Okay. Do you still want to ride with us on Saturday?”

“I would.”

“Cool. Let’s start with Quads. My house at nine? Is that too early?”

“I’ll be there.”

Stevie couldn’t help watching the wiggle in Rachel’s walk as she left. How did girls get that? Why was it so darn sexy? “She’s thinking about it,” Stevie said aloud. She did a little dance step and laughed. “She’s thinking about it. Woohoo!”

>>>

Going back to work Friday night wasn’t as bad as Rachel thought it would be. For one thing, it was the first time that didn’t include being sick as part of her preparation. Rachel didn’t feel like she was trapped anymore. Quitting seemed to empower her.

Gary was apparently too stupid to know that he’d been the loser in their little power play. He walked around all night with a smug look on his face. The other girls said he’d been a bear all week, but he was almost courteous on Friday night. Rachel wondered if he was up to something. Courtesy was not a part of Gary’s genetic make-up.

Rachel felt good and it showed in her dancing. At least, that’s what she told herself. She made almost five hundred in tips from the overflowing crowd.

After the club was closed and she helped with some of the cleaning, Rachel went to her locker to change clothes. She found a package under her clothes. It was a padded Manila envelope. It was taped closed and had a little note on it. Rachel palmed the note and went to the bathroom. Once she had the privacy of a stall, she opened the note.

            This is your one chance to make some extra money. Deliver this package to the address on the label within the hour. You’ll be paid when you get there. If you don’t want to make extra money, leave the package in your locker and keep your mouth shut.

Rachel almost fainted from relief and anxiety. She’d been praying for something to happen and now it was. There wasn’t time for her to run the package through forensics. She would have only the note and the delivery point to pass up the chain of command. Now that she knew how it would go down, maybe they’d be able to intercept it the next time.

Rachel calmed herself and went back to her locker. Putting her clothes on, she transferred the package to her tote bag. It was heavy; a couple of pounds at least. If it was meth, it was worth a lot of money. She crossed her fingers that she would be safe at the other end of the transaction.

The address on the package sent her to a rundown apartment building across town. There were a dozen different buildings sprawled out on a minimally landscaped section of land. It was considered a less than desirable place to live and they received a lot of calls through 911.

Rachel assumed she was being watched, so she parked in the wrong place and went to several buildings before finding the one she needed. Even knowing she would not be imprisoned for carrying drugs, she was extremely nervous. It felt like breaking the law. How people lived like this on a daily basis was beyond her. The stress was so intense.

Rachel found the right apartment with about ten minutes to spare. She knocked quietly on the door. She waited a full minute. Checking the address to make sure she was in the right place, she knocked again. Before she finished, the door swung open. Someone grabbed the front of her blouse and yanked her inside. Rachel was completely off balance as she was shoved up against a wall and a scruffy guy with bad breath got up in her face.

“Who the fuck are you?”

Rachel’s heart was racing. “I brought a package. Is this the right address?”

His eyes narrowed menacingly. “I asked who the fuck you are.”

Rachel suddenly needed to pee. “My name is Rachel. I dance at the club.”

Mr. Halitosis looked her up and down with a crooked smile. “Nice. Maybe you and I can do a little horizontal dancing before you go. Where’s my package?”

Rachel was only too happy to give him the envelope. If he tried to push a sexual encounter, she was going to fight with everything she had to prevent it. She had no one to back her up if this meet went bad. Getting raped was not on her list of things to do.

He took the package from her and opened it. Glancing inside, he stared hard at her as he dumped it out on a chair. Three bags of white rice plopped onto the cushion and Rachel’s skin went cold. “I swear to you…I didn’t open it. I didn’t…that’s not…”

“Shut up. It was a test.”

“A test?” Rachel gaped stupidly. She was shoved down on an old sofa and she straightened herself up as Scruffy sat down on the coffee table in front of her.

He rested his elbows on his knees and peered at her intently. “Do you want to make extra money?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Here’s the deal. Every now and then, you’ll find a package in your locker after work. You’ll deliver that package and you’ll keep your mouth shut about it. You won’t peek inside or ask any of us what’s in it. Make no mistake…if you talk about this to anyone, you’ll be killed. Do you understand that?”

Rachel considered what to say. “Yes…but what happens if I get busted for something while I have it and the cops find it?”

“If that happens, you’re on your own. We might be inclined to help you out in lockdown if you keep your mouth shut and take the fall, but if you talk, you will be killed. So far, no one’s been nicked. Just drive normally and you should be okay. If something doesn’t look right when you attempt to make a delivery, put the package in your trunk and go home. Someone will be in touch.”

“You know where I live?”

“Of course, we do. We know everything about you. From now on, your delivery point will be on a sticky note attached to the envelope. Memorize it and dispose of it. Do not carry the address on you.”

Rachel played scared and not too bright for another twenty minutes as he grilled her on the rules. She couldn’t quite tell how much of his spiel was real and how much was intended to scare the life out of her. If everything he said was true, the upper management was highly organized and ruthless. On the other hand, it was clear that they did not know everything about her. They could still be organized and ruthless, but they were not indestructible.

After he threatened her for the umpteenth time, he gave her a twenty dollar bill. Rachel raised her eyebrows. “Twenty dollars?”

He raised one of his own. “You delivered rice. What the hell am I going to do with rice?”

Rachel bit at her lip thoughtfully. “How much are they going to pay me for…the…uh…”

He was grinning. “Depending on how reliable you are it could be about five large.”

“Five hundred?”

“Yep.”

“You should have said that up front,” Rachel smiled.

“Just remember that you only get one chance. If you screw it up…maybe they’ll let me fuck you to death instead of just putting a cap in the back of your head.”

There really wasn’t anything to say to that. Rachel shut her mouth and let him shuttle her out the door.

She locked all her doors and windows when she got home. She even stuffed a chair under the front door knob. She crawled into bed with her laptop and typed a complete report of the evening and emailed it up the chain of command. It was very late when she got to sleep and her dreams were restless.

Chapter Five

Stevie had her trailer hooked up to the truck and the quads secured to the trailer by 8:30 on Saturday morning. She also had a picnic lunch packed and extra sweats in case someone needed a change of clothes. Greg and Dusty had their own rig for hauling quads and were going to meet her at the National Park around ten. A whole section of the National Park had been opened up for quads and dirt bikes. There were old logging trails that made the Park a great place to spend the day.

While it was permitted to go off road, most riders stayed on the rough dirt roads. Underbrush made it too hazardous to leave the logging trails. Stevie liked that the area was open for motor sports and yet it would stay largely pristine. Of course, there were plenty of people who protested against motor sports in the National Park, but Stevie felt that a small portion of the National Park being open for motor sports would discourage yahoos from trespassing on the rest of the park. They were going to ride no matter what, so it seemed like a good idea to give them a place to do it.

Stevie put extra water in the truck as the temperature was supposed to reach almost ninety. As nine o’clock got closer, she fidgeted more and more. She kept thinking of things that might be needed: an extra blanket; binoculars; her first aid kit; sunscreen…Stevie made herself stop when she started thinking pillows would be a good idea.

Rory pulled up to the curb at five to nine and jumped off his bicycle. “Hey! Am I late?”

“No, you’re right on time.”

He looked around. “Is she here?”

“Not yet.” Stevie had called him the night before and warned him to make a good impression. He was inordinately excited to meet Rachel. “Listen, Rory. This is important to me.  Please don’t…”

“I’ll be good,” Rory interrupted. “I promise. I just can’t believe I get to meet her before anyone else.”

“Well, Dusty and Greg got to meet her. On my birthday.”

“I meant family.”

“Oh.” Stevie checked the street again, but she still didn’t see Rachel. “Don’t believe anything they tell you, okay?”

“Like what?”

Stevie was worried that Dusty or Greg would tell Rory that Rachel was a stripper. He would find out sooner or later, but she didn’t want his reaction to hurt Rachel’s feelings. She also didn’t want him to think of her that way. Stevie thought if he got to know her first, he wouldn’t make a big deal about her job. Plus, it wasn’t fair to ask him to keep that kind of secret from mom and dad. “Just don’t listen to them, okay? You know how they are.”

“Okay.”

Rachel pulled up at five after nine and Stevie started grinning with relief. She pretended to be checking the tie-downs as Rachel got out of her car.

“That’s her?” Rory said in a cracked voice.

Stevie looked at her little brother. “Be cool.”

“She’s a fox,” he hissed. “You didn’t tell me she was a fox.”

“Oops.”

“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Rachel said as she walked up with a Starbucks mug in her hand. “I know I’m a little late. Sorry about that.”

“No problem,” Stevie smiled. “Rory just got here a couple of minutes ago. Your timing is perfect.” Stevie pointed to her brother. “This is my younger brother, Rory. Rory, this is my friend, Rachel.”

Rachel stuck her hand out with an open smile. “Hi, Rory. It’s great to meet you.”

Rory stood there and stared.

“Be patient.” Stevie reached out and popped him in the back of the head. “He’s the idiot child.”

“No, I’m not,” Rory protested. He straightened up and took Rachel’s hand. “My sister didn’t tell me you were so beautiful. I apologize for staring like that.”

Rachel laughed softly. “She didn’t tell me you were such a charmer either.”

“She’s not real bright,” Rory said seriously. “You are aware that she’s a lesbian?”

“Oh, I’m counting on it,” Rachel smirked.

Stevie blushed and Rory swallowed audibly. “Maybe we should get going,” she suggested.

Rachel sat in the middle to Stevie’s great delight. Having her pressed up next to her was very distracting. Fortunately, Rory was in storyteller mode. He kept Rachel entertained with funny stories about Stevie during the drive.

Just before they left the highway, Stevie offered to make a coffee stop and Rachel took her up on it. She insisted on buying it herself, so Stevie and Rory waited in the truck.

“I like her,” Rory said.

“Of course, you do. She laughs at your jokes.”

Rory punched her in the shoulder. “But I do like her. She’s really pretty, but she’s good inside, too. You can sense it.”

It was a remarkably intuitive thing to say and it touched her deeply. It was easy to forget that her brother had a wise soul behind that goober face. “She is good. Like you.”

“You heard her. I’m a charmer. A girl charmer.”

“You wish,” she laughed.

“How did you meet her?”

“We…met at a bar on my birthday.”

“You went to a bar?”

If Rory’s eyes got any bigger they would fall out of his head. “I’m twenty-one now. Dusty and Greg set it up with Bobby and Aaron.”

“Did you get drunk?”

Stevie laughed at the memory. “Yeah, but I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. It was kind of fun at first, but then I got so sick. I’m pretty sure I threw up my toenails.”

“Yuck.”

Relieved that he was focusing on the alcohol and not Rachel, she elaborated. “Remember that time you went off the side of the jump ramp and knocked yourself silly?”

“Sort of.”

“Remember how it felt when you said you couldn’t quite control your body?”

Rory paled at the memory. “Yeah.”

“That’s what it’s like to be drunk.”

“Seriously?”

“I wasn’t in your body to feel what that was like, but it sounds pretty close. I could feel my body from a distance, but it wasn’t cooperating. We’re fifth generation Mormon. Maybe we don’t have the genetic tolerance for alcohol anymore. I just know I’m not going to drink again. I didn’t feel quite right for two days. I can’t afford to lose control of my body and I don’t want to get used to that feeling. I really like feeling strong and in control.”

“Here she comes.”

Stevie jumped out of the truck to let Rachel back in. She didn’t realize that she was staring at Rachel’s butt until Rachel turned to wink at Stevie. Blushing furiously, she shrugged her shoulders. “I can’t help it,” she said softly.

“I know,” Rachel said back in a whisper.

By the look in her eyes, Stevie knew that Rachel liked the looks. Knowing that gave her confidence. Stevie swung up into the truck and got them back on the road. When Rachel put a hand on her knee and left it there, she figured she’d died and gone to heaven.

>>>

“Why am I having such a hard time turning?”

Rachel was having a blast on the quads, but she was still trying to figure it out. Every time she tried to turn, the quad didn’t respond like she thought it should. She had to slow way down to make the machine turn.

“The center of balance is real high,” Stevie explained. “In a car, the wheels are spread way out and the weight of the car rests between them. You can still flip the car if you’re going too fast when you turn, but the wide wheel base prevents a lot of that. The quad’s tires are bunched up close to each other and the weight of the bike is high. Your body raises the center of balance even more. When you get more comfortable, you’ll throw your body to the inside of the curve to keep your speed up and prevent flipping over. For now, slow down a little and move your butt over the foot on the inside of the turn. Use your body weight to turn.”

Rachel pictured it in her mind and it started to make sense. Stevie was quite good at explaining how things worked. She was making it easy to learn this new thing.

“Are you having fun?”

“I’m having a great time,” Rachel admitted. “I can’t believe how much fun this is.”

“Good. Maybe next time we can do dirt bikes. You won’t have the turning issue with them.”

“I’ve never been on a motorcycle before,” Rachel warned.

“Can you ride a bike?”

“Yes.”

“That’s all you need to know. I’ll teach you the rest. It’s not that hard.”

Rachel reached for her bottle of water and took a good, long drink. The sun was hot. It wasn’t too bad when they were moving because of the breeze, but when they stopped it got hot very fast.

The guys were long gone. The whole point of the day for them was to go fast and push the limits. Rachel almost felt bad that she was holding Stevie back, but as soon as the guys had zoomed off, Stevie had smiled and said, “Now we can have some fun.”

They’d been riding for about an hour and Rachel’s butt was starting to buzz from the engine’s vibration. She just hoped she wasn’t going to be stiffen up when the day was over.

“When you’re ready,” Stevie said, “there’s a spot about fifteen minutes from here where I thought we could stop and have a picnic. You’ll want to stretch your legs for a while and there’s some good shade.”

“That sounds great.” Rachel had figured there was a picnic coming at some point because of the cooler and duffel bag strapped to Stevie’s quad.

Stevie took the lead at a comfortable pace and Rachel followed about a hundred feet behind to avoid riding in Stevie’s dust. There was old evidence of logging alongside the trails, but it must have been a long time ago. New growth was filling in the blanks and it was really quite beautiful. The smell of trees and rich loamy soil was just what Rachel’s soul needed.

Shifting her entire body on the turns really made a difference. It also made riding more of a work out. It was no wonder Stevie was so fit if this was what she did for fun.

Stevie turned down a smaller trail and slowed down. The road was bumpier and Rachel slowed down as well. The trail began a downward slope and the trail was broken by rocks and rivulet scars. Rachel slowed down even further to ease her nervousness.

At the bottom of the trail, there was a small clearing. Stevie was turning her quad around so she wouldn’t have to do it later. Rachel carefully followed suit and turned off the machine. Stevie was grinning at her. “What?”

“You did good coming down that trail. I wasn’t sure if you’d follow me or not. Listen.”

Rachel’s ears slowly adjusted. She could hear the birds singing, then the wind in the trees, and then she could hear water. “Is there a creek around here?”

“Yes. I thought we’d have lunch there.”

“Excellent.”

Rachel volunteered to carry the duffle bag while Stevie tossed the cooler up on one shoulder. She followed Stevie down a foot path and suddenly found herself on a bridge. Rachel looked over the side. “Wow.”

“Isn’t it beautiful?”

The old wooden foot bridge arched over a ravine. It was probably fifty or sixty feet to the creek below and it was more than beautiful. Big mossy rocks defined the creeks path; trees and flowering brush grew prolifically; and sunlight dappled it all. It was stunning. “This is amazing,” she breathed.

“Come on. It gets better.”

Crossing the bridge, Stevie took a left turn and led her upstream a ways. It was a path, though a difficult one. It ended close to the small creek on a flat, grassy spot. It even had a view of the bridge. Rachel dropped the duffel bag and went to stand beside the water. “Is it alright if I soak my feet?”

“Sure. Go ahead. I’ll join you in a second.”

Rachel looked over her shoulder at her companion. “There’s no leeches or anything gross, right?”

Stevie grinned. “I don’t think so.”

Rachel took off her hiking boots and socks, then pulled up her jeans and carefully sat down on a rock. Her feet slipped into the cold water and she groaned in relief. “Oh my God. This feels so good.”

A few minutes later, Stevie picked a rock a few feet downstream and sat down to soak her own feet. “Yep. Life is good.”

Rachel snickered at the sentiment. “I’m amazed at this place. I had no idea there was such a gorgeous spot around here. I wish I had a camera.”

“I brought a digital, just in case. You’re welcome to use it.”

“Perfect.”

Rachel put her head back and closed her eyes, concentrating on the sounds around her. She felt like nature was sifting through her negative feelings. Stress, anger, confusion, fear…it was all being filtered out of her. Even just a few moments made her feel cleaner and lighter. “I haven’t felt this at peace in months.”

Stevie leaned back on her hands. “When I got kicked out of the church, I was kind of lost for a while. Everything was turned upside down and I didn’t know what to do. I came out here one day and realized that this is my church. This is where I feel at one with the divine. The peace you feel is how I worship God.”

“That’s a beautiful way of thinking. It’s amazing to me that you still believe in God.”

“God didn’t deny me; the Mormon Church did. I think that God challenges some of us harder than others. My test is to accept myself the way God made me and to be true to my heart. It doesn’t matter if the church accepts me or not. They have their own challenges. What matters is that I honor the gifts God gave me.”

Rachel lifted her feet out of the water and wiggled her toes. Every time she turned around, Stevie surprised her. Her attraction was deepening all the time, but she knew it couldn’t be. Maybe after the undercover gig was over if Stevie didn’t hate her for lying about who she was. If Rachel survived the case.

“Do you believe in God?” Stevie asked.

Rachel climbed out of her doubts. “I suppose I do. I don’t really have a relationship with God, but I believe something is out there.”

“Greg is agnostic. He’s pretty tolerant about religion, but he doesn’t believe the proof is there to justify the existence of a god. He believes that good and evil exist within each of us and that we are ultimately responsible for our actions. I like that theory. It doesn’t preclude the existence of God for me, but it does lend credence to the idea of free will.”

“I agree with that. It used to be that people would say ‘the devil made me do it’. Now they like to blame their actions on genetics or abuse. I think a little of that might be true, but at some point you have to grow up and be responsible.”

Stevie put her head back and closed her eyes. Rachel watched her profile for a few minutes. “Penny for your thoughts?”

Stevie smiled. “You can have them for free.” She took a deep breath and opened her eyes. “I’m just really glad to be here with you. It feels pretty amazing.”

Rachel held the bottoms of her feet right at the surface of the water. It was almost like a cool, feathery massage. “I’m having a really good time with you, Stevie. You’re interesting and fun. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone quite like you before.”

“I’ve never met anyone like you before either.”

Considering her Mormon upbringing, that was probably very true and it made Rachel smile. “That doesn’t surprise me.”

Stevie chuckled. “I was rather sheltered.”

“And yet, you were pushed out into the world early because of how smart you are. I bet you missed out on a lot of things the rest of us took for granted. Did you go to the prom?”

“No, but I think most people have less than stellar prom experiences, so I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. Did you?”

“Hmm, mine was less than stellar, as you so delicately put it. I didn’t realize I was a lesbian yet, so I was trying to be straight. I don’t recommend it.”

“The Mormon church has a lot of activities for young people. We had dances and stuff all the time. I understand what you mean about pretending to be straight. Of course, I was just trying to fit in and do what I thought I was supposed to. I wasn’t actually pretending to be straight. Well, maybe a little at the end there.”

Rachel realized she wasn’t in the mood for serious discussions. “What was your very first memory?”

“I was about two and a half and I was playing outside. I got thirsty and I went to a water spigot on the side of the house. There was a bee on the handle. I remember how fuzzy it looked and I wanted to pet it.” Stevie laughed. “I think when it stung me, I jerked my hand back and the bee fell off, cause when I looked at my hand, all I saw was a swollen part. I thought the bee went inside my hand. In my mind’s eye, I watched that bee decompose as the swelling went down. Little bee bones and everything.”

Rachel’s face screwed up. “Decomposing bee? That’s your first memory?”

Stevie shrugged. “I like it. I think it’s pretty creative for a two year old.”

“Well, that’s true.”

“What was your first memory?”

“I was in first grade. We were on top of some sort of playground equipment. Bruce Carpenter pulled my hair, looked up my skirt and told me I smelled funny. I pushed him off and he broke his arm.”

Stevie started to laugh.

“At the time, I didn’t really understand that he could get hurt, but I still think he deserved it. It was years before I understood why I got in so much trouble.”

Stevie was grinning madly. “Your first memory is sticking up for yourself. Fighting back. That’s awesome.”

Rachel had never looked at it quite like that before. “I guess so.” It occurred to her that she wasn’t here to have a good time. She was supposed to be working. “Tell me about Greg and Dusty. How long have you been friends?”

>>>

Rachel was curled up on her side sleeping and Stevie couldn’t take her eyes off of her. It was like watching an angel. Rachel’s skin was so perfect and she had eyelashes to die for. The shape of her mouth made Stevie’s skin feel hot. She wanted to curl around Rachel and wake her with kisses so she could look into those green eyes some more.

They’d talked for over an hour and then sat on the blanket to eat lunch. Stevie had packed fried chicken, but mostly she brought bite size pieces of fruit: watermelon, cantaloupe, green and purple grapes, mango, apple, banana, pineapple, strawberries, oranges and pears. Just for fun, she had brought tiny shrimp forks to eat with. They were perfect for eating fruit and different enough to be amusing.

They’d eaten and talked until Rachel dropped off to sleep. Stevie cleaned up their lunch, put two bottles of water in the creek and took the cooler back up to the quads. When she got back, she lay down beside Rachel and watched her sleep.

It was strange to think that she’d only known Rachel for a week. It felt like a longer friendship than that. At first, she worried that her attraction for Rachel was purely physical, but that was changing. Talking with Rachel was like being plugged into a wall socket. She wanted to listen as much as she wanted to talk, and their conversations evolved as fast as they could think. Being with her was exhilarating on multiple levels.

Stevie wanted to ask her out on a dinner date, but she couldn’t decide where to take her. They hadn’t talked about food preferences yet. Maybe she should talk to Mrs. Hennessey. She and Rachel got together frequently. Mrs. Hennessey might know what Rachel considered fine dining.

Rachel was beautiful. Her skin was smooth and seemed to be lit from within. Her lashes were long and thick, her lips full and shapely. Some might think her nose was a touch too long, but it somehow accentuated the perfection of the rest of her face. But Rachel’s hair was her crowning glory. It was so dark and thick. The tight curls were clearly natural and Stevie wanted to run her hands through them. She’d never actually seen hair like it before and it fascinated her.

Stevie quietly took a few pictures of Rachel. By putting the camera right on the ground, she could get the distant bridge behind Rachel, but she wasn’t sure it would be in focus. She knew the camera had manual capabilities, so she played with it for a while. When she finally got the depth of field worked out, she realized that Rachel’s eyes were open in the picture. She looked at Rachel and saw she was awake.

“I was just taking your picture,” she explained.

“I know. I’ve been watching you.”

Stevie propped her head up on her hand. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“As long as they’re private…no. If I see them posted on a website, I’ll kick your butt.”

Stevie smiled. “You think you can take me?”

“I know I can,” Rachel said calmly. “But I don’t intend on proving it today.”

Stevie almost melted into a warm puddle as Rachel rolled to her back and stretched. Rachel’s t-shirt rode up and Stevie longed to kiss the taut belly it revealed. And then Stevie’s eyes bugged out. “You have a navel ring? How did I not notice that?”

Rachel relaxed and a languid hand moved down to lightly tug at the stud. “You should get one. You have the belly for it and it’s sexy as hell.”

Stevie put a hand over her bellybutton by reflex. “Doesn’t it hurt?”

Rachel raised an eyebrow. “I saw your body. You have scars. Didn’t those hurt?”

“Well, sure, but those were accidents. I didn’t know in advance that they were going to happen.” Stevie swallowed nervously. “My scars are ugly.”

“No, they aren’t. They’re just part of you. You don’t have issues about how you look, do you?”

Stevie picked at a loose thread on the blanket. “I know I’m more of a tomboy than anything else, but I do want to be pretty. To my girlfriend, at least.”

“Trust me,” Rachel said gently. “You don’t ever need to worry about being beautiful to your girlfriends. Every one of them will feel like the luckiest woman in the world when they look at you. Scars are not inherently ugly. In fact, I don’t think you think they’re ugly. I think you’re afraid your lovers will find them unattractive, but they don’t bother you. I am curious, though, about the one on your left side.”

It took Stevie a moment to take in all the things Rachel had said in so few words. Her hand moved to the scar below her ribs on her left side. It was a thick one and she could feel it through her shirt. “You think I’m…pretty?”

“Oh, yeah. You’re very sexy and you’ll only get better looking as you age. I believe you’re what lesbians so lovingly call a stud.”

Stevie tried to pretend she wasn’t blushing. ‘I’m not gorgeous like you. You’re the one all the girls will want.”

“But I may not want them.” Rachel turned on her side and propped her head up on a hand. “So, how did you get that scar?”

“I was thirteen.” Stevie lay back and pulled her shirt up to expose the ropy scar. “I was doing jumps on a bicycle and wrecked it. It didn’t have grips and the handlebar punctured my side.”

“Oh, my God, Stevie.”

“What?”

“A handlebar from a bicycle punctured your side?”

“Yeah. But it doesn’t hurt anymore.”

“I should hope not.” Rachel reached out and then paused. “Can I touch it?”

Stevie’s mouth went dry. “Uh…okay.” She watched Rachel’s fingers gently trace the old scar and her body shivered at the delicate touch. She knew that Rachel had seen her response and waited breathlessly for her reaction.

Rachel smiled. “I bet you say yes to all the girls.”

The feelings were too intense to joke about. “No, I don’t. They don’t make me feel like this.”

Rachel bit at her lip for a moment and then laid her hand flat on Stevie’s belly. “This is already showing signs of getting serious.”

Rachel’s hand felt like heaven, but her words made Stevie worry. “Would it be bad if it got serious?”

Rachel sat up and crossed her legs: taking one of Stevie’s hands between her own. “It wouldn’t be bad, but it could be complicated.”

The fact that Rachel was holding on to her made Stevie feel less apprehensive. “How is it complicated?”

Rachel took a long time to answer and she couldn’t look Stevie in the eye. “I can’t explain it to you right now. Soon, but not right now. And I need you not to tell anyone that I’m keeping a secret. Can I trust you with that?”

“It depends on what the secret is,” Stevie said slowly. “Is it going to hurt me? Or maybe someone else?”

“I don’t think so,” Rachel frowned. “I mean, some people might be upset, but they shouldn’t be.”

Stevie wasn’t sure what to say or ask. She considered it for a moment. “I guess I have a couple of questions you’d have to answer truthfully if you want me to keep secrets for you.”

“I don’t think I can answer them.”

“If you can’t, you can’t, but I want to ask.”

Rachel sighed. “Alright. You can ask, but I can’t promise to answer.”

Stevie focused on Rachel’s face. She might find the only answers Rachel had to give there. “Are you married or in a relationship?”

“No,” Rachel said firmly. “I am completely single.”

“Well, that’s a huge relief,” Stevie grinned. “Let’s try another one.”

“Round two,” Rachel teased.

“Are you…a fugitive from justice?”

Rachel actually smiled. “Nope. Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve never been arrested, been suspected of a crime, or had a moving violation.”

“Why wouldn’t you want anyone to know that?”

Rachel cocked her head thoughtfully. “I can’t tell you that one right now.”

“Fair enough.” Stevie tried to think of anything else she had to know to protect herself, but any further questions were pretty much covered by the knowledge that Rachel was not a criminal. Then she thought of one. “If we were to…uh…become intimate…are you…I mean…”

“I’m clean,” Rachel smiled. “I was tested less than two months ago and I haven’t swapped fluids with anyone since then. Except for when you were drunk and I got your blood on my hands. What about you? Do you have anything I should worry about?”

Stevie was shaking her head. “It’s been almost a year since I got tested and I was alright then, but I can go get tested if it makes you feel better.”

Rachel put a hand on the ground on Stevie’s other side and relaxed over her. “The smart thing would be for both of us to get tested again. It would force us to get to know each other better and not get carried away with this pesky attraction. Who knows…by the time the results come back, we might not feel this way anymore.”

Stevie wanted to deny that possibility, but she wasn’t that naïve. “I hope that’s not the case, but if it is, I’d really like it if we could still be friends.”

“I’d like that.”

Stevie swallowed a groan as Rachel caressed her belly. It was lighting her nervous system up like a Christmas tree, but she didn’t want her to stop.

“We’ve only known each other a week,” Rachel said softly.

“I know,” Stevie croaked.

“Is this hard for you?” Rachel asked.

“No.” Stevie swallowed hard. “Yes.”

Rachel pulled Stevie’s shirt down and patted her. “It’s getting hard for me, too.”

Stevie took a deep breath and forced herself to relax. “I’ll call and make appointments on Monday morning.”

“For what?”

“STD testing.”

“Ah. Afternoons are better for me.”

“I’m not picky,” Stevie said with a smirk. “I like it all the time.”

Rachel laughed and started to get up. “Come on, Studly. If we don’t get a move on, I’m not going to be responsible for my actions. You’re entirely too tempting.”

Stevie stood up with a grin and started collecting the last of her things. Tossing the duffel bag over her shoulder, she gave into her craving. Slipping an arm around Rachel’s waist, she pulled her close and hesitated for exactly one second within kissing distance. Rachel made no move to pull away so Stevie kissed her.

It was even better than she hoped. Rachel’s lips were so soft and willing it was almost heartbreaking. Stevie closed her eyes and concentrated on the explosion of sensation racing through her. When she couldn’t go without air any longer, she pulled back and opened her eyes.

“Oh my,” Rachel whispered.

Stevie couldn’t take her eyes off Rachel’s lips. It could take weeks to kiss those lips properly. She ached to begin immediately. Stevie’s eyes closed automatically when Rachel’s hand cupped her face and drew her near.

Their lips fit smoothly and Stevie moaned at the sweetness of it. Rachel’s fingertips teased the short hairs at the back of her neck and it gave her goose bumps. She held Rachel closer and deepened the kiss. The first taste of Rachel’s sweet mouth on her tongue overwhelmed her. It was all Stevie could do to keep from devouring Rachel whole.

Stevie ended the kiss with several lighter kisses and then brushed a hand along the perfect curve of Rachel’s cheek. “Would you go out to dinner with me?”

Rachel smiled. “I’d like that.”

“Thank you.”

“You are too sweet,” Rachel teased. “Come on. I’ll race you back to the truck.”

Stevie took Rachel’s hand and chuckled. “Do you remember the way?”

“No. I figure I’ll just follow you until we get close and then zoom right by and take the lead.”

“Just like that?”

“Do you think I can’t?”

Stevie was flat out enamored. “I think you can do anything you set your mind to.”

Rachel just smiled.

>>>

Rachel had gone home to get ready for work and Stevie had finished unloading and cleaning up after the day of riding. It had been a lot of fun and she had a lot to think about, but first, she needed dinner. The guys had devoured her chicken at the park, so she was looking for something to make from scratch.

She was looking at a pound of hamburger with no idea what to do with it when there was a knock at her front door. Hoping it was Rachel, she was quick to open it. Her mother was standing there. “Mom?”

“Hi, Stevie. I was hoping we could talk.”

“Sure.” It occurred to her that her mother had never been in her house. “Come on in. Make yourself at home.”

Helen Marks walked inside with curious eyes.

“It’s not much,” Stevie said nervously, “but it’s home.”

“Actually,” her mother said carefully, “it looks very comfortable. And clean.”

Stevie was speechless for a moment and then she brushed imaginary sweat from her forehead. “Shew!”

Her mother laughed.

Stevie laughed with her. “Have you eaten?”

“Not yet.”

“I’m trying to figure out what to do with a pound of hamburger. If you help, I’ll share.”

Her mother took off her coat and left it in a chair. “Let’s see what you have.”

It was like old times only way, way better. They made meatballs to go with green beans and an Alfredo pasta type dish. Stevie had enough sorbet for an after dinner treat and they cleaned up the kitchen together. When they were all done, Stevie hugged her mother close. “Thanks, mom.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t do it sooner.”

“No regrets, okay? Let’s just go on from here.”

“Alright, sweetheart. Show me the rest of your house?”

“Sure.”

When they got to her bedroom, Stevie’s mother stood in the doorway for several minutes. “Honey?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re never going to impress a girl if this is what you offer as an intimate retreat.”

Stevie was flabbergasted. She was embarrassed that her mother had used the word ‘intimate’, but her mother was giving her advice about girls, too. Everything in the world had just gone wonky.

“I don’t mean to criticize, honey, but this looks like Rory’s bedroom. You’ve got a motocross bedspread. Sheets, too?”

Stevie blushed. “Buzz Lightyear.”

“You can’t be serious.”

Her blush deepened as her mother pulled back the bedspread to expose the sheets. “They were on sale.”

Her mom sat down on the bed and beckoned Stevie to join her. She waited until Stevie sat down. “I know that these are the things that you love: motocross, animated films, computers, and comics.”

“Graphic novels.”

“Right. You should be able to keep the things you like, but in a room you intend to share…to make love in…you need to be more…neutral. It doesn’t have to be frilly and feminine, but it does have to feel comfortable. If you were interested in men, this room would be a dream come true for them, but I doubt you’re going to find a woman who thinks this is…romantic.”

Stevie stared at her mother in shock. “Who are you?”

“I don’t understand your attraction to women, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and I no longer think it’s a phase. I think it’s the way your heart works and that you don’t have a choice. No more than I do, at any rate. All I have ever dreamed for you is to be happy. If a woman is what you need, then I hope you find her.”

Tears filled Stevie’s eyes. “It means a lot to me that you would say that, mom.”

“All this time I’ve been manipulative and dismissive and you kept coming back and giving me another chance. Most people would have given up, but not you. I can’t tell you how blessed that makes me feel. I may not be totally at ease yet, but I want you to know that I won’t sacrifice you to my faith anymore.”

Stevie lost it. She’d been waiting so long to feel loved and wanted. To have it given so freely and after such a great evening…she put her head on her mother’s shoulder and cried. When she lifted her head, she saw tears on her mother’s face. Stevie went to the bathroom and came back with toilet paper. “Look at us. We’re a mess.”

“True.” Helen wiped her face and looked around the room again. “Will you let me help you redecorate this room?”

Stevie was all for it, but she had to set some ground rules right off the bat. “No frillies, no flowers, and no pink girlie stuff.”

Her mother laughed. “I think we can come up with something you like.”

>>>

It was very busy at the club on Saturday night, but Rachel watched the staff as best she could. No one was dropping visual clues that they knew what she’d done the night before. Except for Tom, that is. He would have been briefed on her report and he watched her darkly all night. Rachel would have thought he’d be thrilled that she’d been approached so quickly, but he looked like he wanted to throttle her. Tom never had anything good to say about how she was handling things.

Rachel was relieved when there was nothing unusual in her locker after work. Even with naps, she was exhausted from trying to accommodate the morning people in her life. She had an early date with Leona to go treasure. If she went home and straight to bed, she might fit in five hours of sleep. A nap would definitely be in order after spending the morning with Leona.

Maybe she would even be able to say hello to Stevie at some point. The thought of a few sweet kisses was delicious. Irresponsible, but delicious nonetheless.

She was walking to her car when Tom intercepted her. His grip on her arm was painful and she tried to pull away. “You’re going to leave bruises,” she hissed. “I work naked, in case you forgot.”

Tom shoved her up against her car and let go. “You didn’t signal me last night. You walked into a dangerous situation without back-up. I didn’t think you were that stupid.”

Several excuses came to mind, but they were just excuses. Rachel shoved him back a step and glanced around the empty parking lot. “You want the truth, Detective? I don’t trust you. You’ve made it clear that the case is more important to you than my well-being. You’ll never say it out loud, but if closing this case means sacrificing me, you won’t lose any sleep over it.”

Tom looked confused and angry. “That’s not true.”

“Bullshit. You can tell yourself that you’ve got my back, but you’ve done nothing to demonstrate it. You treat me like an enemy and I don’t expect any aid from you if the shit hits the fan. You’ll be too busy busting the bad guys to worry about me. I’m on my own, Tom, so stop giving me shit when I don’t do things the way you want me to. And by the way, the next time you grab me like that I’ll turn your nuts into a necklace.”

Rachel left him standing there and drove away. She was certain he would report their conversation. It might come to pass in the next day or so that she would be taken off the case. If that happened, so be it. If they called her in to talk about it, she would tell them the truth as she saw it and let the chips fall where they would.

A lot had changed in a week.

>>>

Stevie couldn’t figure out where to put her computer. The racing trophies and posters were now in the garage. Her old bedding had been washed and was now in a bag waiting to go to Rory. Her graphic novels were in a box and she thought she might take them to work. She wasn’t sure what she would do with them there, but they couldn’t stay in her bedroom. All she had to figure out now was what to do with her computer and programming books. It wasn’t like she had a second bedroom she could turn into an office. She had originally put it in the bedroom to keep the living room looking nice.

Stevie walked around her small house trying to imagine a different configuration that would look good. She liked how the living room and dining room were set up and didn’t really want to change it.

The ideal solution would be to have another room. It might be possible to get a permit to add onto the back of the house. Some sort of sun room would be nice. She could put the computer on one end and a couple of chairs for relaxing on the other. She would have to look into that and find out what it would cost. It wasn’t, however, going to solve her immediate problem.

Stevie absently answered a knock on the door and broke into a smile. “Rachel!”

Rachel stepped inside, kicked the door shut with her foot and pulled Stevie into a kiss.

Stevie was utterly overwhelmed. The surprise of seeing Rachel and having that gorgeous body pressed up against her two seconds later was like being hit by lightning. Stevie kissed Rachel back with complete abandon.

Both of them were breathless when the kiss ended. Stevie rested her forehead against Rachel’s with a smile. “Hi there.”

“I’ve been thinking about that since last night,” Rachel sighed.

Stevie put her arms around Rachel and held her. Their bodies fit like peanut butter and jelly. “You’ve been thinking about me since last night?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve been thinking about you, too.”

“You have?”

“Yep. Mom came over last night and offered to help me redecorate my bedroom. She thinks I’ll never have a girlfriend if I don’t have a nice room.”

Rachel pulled her head back and looked at her with wide eyes. “Your mom wants you to have a girlfriend?”

“We’ve been making progress,” Stevie said. “I think it’s because of what you said about giving them equal time. I told my mom that last Sunday and she’s been going to P-FLAG meetings since. She says she still doesn’t understand me, but she’s really trying to be cool about it. Last night was the first time she’d ever been to my house.”

“That’s awesome, Stevie. I’m happy for you.”

“Dad hasn’t come around yet,” Stevie added, “but I think Mom will work on him. It’s only a matter of time.”

“So,” Rachel said with a grin, “where did I fit into that?”

“The redecorating, of course. I’m re-feathering my nest in the hope of attracting a beautiful mate. It’s only natural I thought of you.”

Rachel laughed. “I see.”

“Mom also helped me buy new un…” Stevie froze. She couldn’t believe she was just going to blurt it out like that.

“New what?”

“Uh…bedding.”

Rachel raised an eyebrow. “You aren’t very good at lying.”

Stevie was mortified. “Well, I don’t do it a lot. It’s just…I had second thoughts about what I was going to say.”

Rachel had a teasing grin. “I think I can guess what you were going to say.”

Stevie’s face burned as Rachel tried to peek at her bra. “I gotta learn to keep my mouth shut.”

“I hope you don’t.” Rachel was still smiling, but she stopped pulling at Stevie’s clothes. “If you can’t lie, it makes me trust you more. And I really like the way you blush. I know it’s probably embarrassing for you, but it makes me feel all…lovey.”

Stevie found that curious. “Lovey?”

“Yeah.” Rachel stepped back, but hung onto Stevie’s hand. “Show me your bedroom?”

“It’s still a mess,” Stevie protested.

“Just so you know…when you’re kissing me, I’m blind as a bat.”

Stevie laughed. “Alright. Maybe you can help me figure out what to do with my computer.” Stevie re-evaluated that possibility when she looked into Rachel’s avid green eyes. “Or not.”

>>>

Mrs. Hennessy was thrilled with the new computer Stevie set up for her, but she clearly knew nothing about how to operate it. Fortunately, Stevie had prepared for that. She had instructional discs and handmade flip charts to teach Mrs. Hennessey how to operate the computer and several programs. She also put labels on all the parts. If you didn’t know what the basic parts were called, you weren’t going to get anywhere.

Stevie left work early on Tuesday and spent several hours getting Mrs. Hennessey online and teaching her the basics. Stevie was pleasantly surprised by Mrs. Hennessey’s quick grasp of the details. After the first hour, Stevie concentrated on teaching her how to protect herself online.

She waited until Mrs. Hennessey turned off the computer to bring up the Atari system. Stevie showed her a list of what had been in the box. “The deck and these games are what I propose as a trade for this computer system.”

Mrs. Hennessey pointed to the short list at the bottom. “But not these?”

“These particular games are worth a lot of money, Mrs. Hennessey. What I’d like to do is put them up for auction and sell them…if that’s alright with you, of course.”

Mrs. Hennessey looked surprised. “How much are they worth?”

Stevie pointed to a specific title. “I can sell that one today for ten grand. With a little work, I think I might be able to get fifteen. It’s brand new and still in the original shrink wrap. I doubt there’s another one like it on the planet. All of these games together could bring as much as forty or fifty thousand.”

“That can’t be right,” Mrs. Hennessy protested.

“I assure you that it is possible. Now, I might only get thirty, but I think we can do better. As far as I’m concerned, they belong to you, so if you’d rather have someone else handle selling them, I’m totally okay with that. If you want to think about it for a couple of days, that’s good too. The games are in my safe at work and I can go get them for you whenever you want.”

Mrs. Hennessy looked a little frail at the news and Stevie was a bit worried. “Can I get you something to drink? Do you need to lie down?”

Mrs. Hennessy started to laugh and she held her stomach as she rocked back and forth. She tried to talk a couple of times, but she was laughing too hard.

Stevie couldn’t help smiling at Mrs. Hennessey’s laughter. It was contagious. “It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?”

“I never thought…it’s too good to be true!”

It was very satisfying to be able to assure her of the truth. “It’s true, Mrs. Hennessey. On my honor, it’s all true.”

Mrs. Hennessy reached out and grabbed Stevie’s arm in a strong grip. “We should split it. Fifty, fifty.”

It was awfully tempting, but Stevie said no.

Mrs. Hennessy was shaking her head. “It wasn’t worth anything sitting in my shed. You’re the one who realized what it was worth. A lesser person would have said thanks and I never would have known what I’d given away. At least take twenty-five percent. Please?”

It wasn’t that Stevie didn’t want the money. She just couldn’t get it out of her head that Mrs. Hennessey was on a fixed income. This windfall might be the last one Mrs. Hennessey would ever get. It could make a world of difference for her. Stevie had lots of options to make money, so it just didn’t feel right to take a bunch of Mrs. Hennessey’s money. “Sorry. If you want to find someone who will take your money, go for it. I’m sure you’ll have no problem.”

Mrs. Hennessy patted Stevie’s leg. “They just don’t make people like you anymore. You’re a treasure, Stevie.”

“So are you, Mrs. Hennessey.” Stevie gave her a one armed hug and then added, “This is going to take a month or two. I’ll keep you up to date and if you change your mind about anything, you tell me right away. I’d be happy to have a lawyer draw up papers about this if you like.”

“No. I trust you.” Mrs. Hennessy stood up. “Would you like some iced tea?”

“The red stuff?” Stevie asked eagerly.

“Coming right up,” Mrs. Hennessy laughed.

“Oh, hey. I wanted to ask you something.” Stevie followed Mrs. Hennessey into the kitchen. “I have a date with Rachel tomorrow night and I was wondering if you knew what her favorite kind of food was. I want it to be perfect, but I don’t know what she likes to eat.”

“A date?”

Stevie paused. She’d forgotten that Mrs. Hennessey might not know she was gay. Rachel had said that there had been a gay son, but that didn’t mean Mrs. Hennessey would be cool with helping to plan a lesbian date.

A big smile broke out on Mrs. Hennessy’s face. “Of course! You two would look so good together. You’re not going to wear those jeans, are you?”

She sounded so much like her mother that it cracked Stevie up.

>>>

There was a different address on the package this time and it didn’t feel like rice. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood up and Rachel had to concentrate on acting normally.

“What’s wrong?”

Rachel turned her head to look at Tawny. “Nothing. Just trying to decide what to do.”

“Put your clothes on and go home. It’s not complicated.”

“I’m trying to decide if I should go shopping for breakfast tonight or tomorrow morning.”

“Oh.” Tawny pulled a slip on dress over her head and stepped into her shoes. “Well, I’m out of here. See you tomorrow?”

“I’ve got tomorrow off.”

“I’m off Thursday, so I’ll see you on Friday.”

“Okay. Bye, Tawny.”

Rachel took her time and was the last one to leave. Tom opened the back door for her and Rachel smiled at him. “Thanks for pulling that guy off me earlier.”

“Just doing my job,” he said gruffly.

When they were far enough away from the building that she could whisper and not be heard, Rachel repeated the address from the sticky note to him. She might as well give him a chance to back her up.

Tom nodded at her and spoke loudly. “Be careful driving tonight.”

“Thanks, I will.”

This time, the address led her to a motel not far from the high school. Part of her was furious that these drug dealers were set up so close to the school that kids could drop by at lunch. Pretending to check her face in the vanity mirror, Rachel bought a few minutes for what (if anything) Tom planned on doing, and then got out of the car.

It was late (or early, depending on your mindset), so Rachel knocked quietly on the door. A few seconds later it opened a crack and a suspicious eye peered at her. “I’m Rachel. From the club,” she whispered.

The door opened and she stepped inside. And then she wished she hadn’t. Rachel dropped her bag and raised her hands. There were three guns pointed at her: one from behind the door, one from behind a bed and the other from the bathroom. Rachel closed her eyes. “Please don’t kill me. I followed the rules. Please…I don’t want to die.”

“Where’s the stuff?”

Rachel pointed blindly at the floor. “In my bag. I swear I didn’t open it. I did exactly like that guy told me to do. No one followed me and I didn’t talk to…”

“Jeez…shut up.”

“Sorry. I’m scared.” Since they hadn’t already shot her, she really wasn’t scared, but if they thought she was it might make them relax.

“Get over there and sit on the bed.”

“I really should be getting home.”

Rachel had never had a gun pressed to her forehead before. It gave her a new understanding for how difficult it was to be a good witness. She found her spot and sat down. Her bag was thrust at her and she wrapped her arms around it. Rachel put her head down and concentrated. She listened to every word and worked up descriptions for each guy. They didn’t talk much, but she did get first names for each of them.

After a half hour, they abruptly handed her a wad of twenties and pushed her out the door. Rachel got in her car and drove towards home. There was a car following her, but it eventually pulled up next to her and she saw it was Tom. She gave him a thumbs-up and he nodded before peeling off.

It took almost two hours to write up her report. Rachel was exhausted when she finally lay down to sleep.

>>>

“I think I ate too much.”

Stevie smiled as she looked over at Rachel in the passenger seat. The dancer was rubbing her tummy with both hands. It had been very satisfying to watch Rachel eat. Mrs. Hennessey had told her that Rachel liked seafood, but ‘liked’ turned out to be a very subjective term. Stevie had never seen anyone eat so much seafood. Rachel had ordered a sample platter for an appetizer and then an enormous piece of salmon cooked on a cedar plank for an entree. Stevie had gone with a tangy shrimp and lobster dish covered with tropical fruit. It had been yummy, but what she couldn’t finish was now in the backseat in the shape of an aluminum swan. Rachel had eaten everything placed in front of her.

“I liked watching you eat.” Rachel screwed up her face and made pig noises. Stevie laughed at the display. “Not true. It felt good to see you be so enthusiastic.”

Rachel framed her belly with her hands. “Look at that. I’m not going to be able to eat for days.”

“You probably won’t be hungry for days,” Stevie teased.

“You are evil to make fun of me when I am so stuffed. I don’t think I can walk. You’ll have to roll me around.”

“I think I saw something like that on a game show once. It looked like fun to me.”

“Go ahead. Mock my suffering—which, I might add, is your fault to begin with.”

“My fault? How do you figure that?”

“You went behind my back and asked Leona what my favorite kind of food was. Then you brought me to a seafood restaurant and said, ‘The sky’s the limit’. What did you think would happen?”

Stevie laughed so hard she was wiping tears from her eyes.

“Aaaaaaaaaaargh,” Rachel moaned. “I’m dying.”

“I assume you don’t want to go dancing then.”

“Bite your tongue.”

“I’d rather bite yours,” Stevie said softly.

“Kinky,” Rachel teased.

Stevie turned off the freeway that would lead to her house. “I did think about dancing at first, but then I figured you do it at work. It might not be as fun for you now.”

“I would like to dance with you, but you’re right. Not tonight.”

“Then I thought about walking through Old Town and maybe hanging out at the Gazebo, but it’s kind of weird after dark because of the drug dealers.”

“How do you know about that?”

“When I graduated from college, my folks to me to a congratulatory dinner one night. We walked by there. It was a little scary.”

“No doubt. So what did you decide we should do after dinner?”

Stevie wasn’t sure how her idea was going to go over. “I thought we could play Scrabble or sit on the front porch and talk, and then go see what kind of pie Mrs. Hennessey has. She said we could come over if we wanted to. I don’t think she really expects us, but it might be fun to surprise her. I think she gets lonely.”

It was quiet in the passenger seat. Stevie glanced over to see Rachel smiling. “What?”

Rachel shook her head. “You are a very rare kind of person, Stevie Marks.”

Stevie liked the praise, but she wasn’t sure what she was being complimented for. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s alright. I think I’d like sitting on the porch to talk tonight. I have a feeling you’ll obliterate me in Scrabble.”

Stevie blew on her knuckles and rubbed them on her shirt. “I’m so good I don’t even have to play anymore. Boo-yah.” She smiled at Rachel’s laughter and secretly thrilled at the hand caressing her arm. “It’s really amazing to me that we met. I just want you to know that.”

Rachel lifted an eyebrow. “Drive faster. I need to kiss you.”

Chapter Six

Rachel looked under the bathroom sink and found a heating pad. She was finding that Stevie was generally well prepared for whatever came up. It was a nice trait to find in a potential lover provided it wasn’t openly neurotic. Stevie pulled it off well.

It was Friday afternoon and they’d just finished getting tested for STD’s at Planned Parenthood. Stevie decided on the deluxe examination so that there would be no doubts about her status and was now suffering from cramps. She’d tried toughing it out, but when she got so pale her veins were showing through her skin, Rachel had taken over driving. Now she was trying to make Stevie more comfortable.

Rachel plugged the heating pad in beside the night stand and crawled onto the bed behind Stevie. “Here, honey. Put this on your belly.”

Stevie unfolded long enough to obey and pulled her knees back up. “Thanks.”

Rachel curled around Stevie and put an arm around her waist. “Do you want some sort of aspirin?”

“No. By the time it starts working it probably won’t hurt anymore.”

“Good point.” Rachel indulged in the scent coming from the back of Stevie’s neck. “Did you know you were going to get cramps?”

“It didn’t hurt last time. This time it felt like they were carving out my cervix with an ice cream scoop. Last time it was nothing.”

“I wonder what the difference was? How old were you last time?”

“Seventeen.” Stevie scootched back a little and covered Rachel’s arm with her own. “It had to be the speculum. Last time it was pretty small. This one was elephant sized. Is there some reason they have to be so darn big? They’re just sticking a Q-tip up there. How much room do they need?”

“You could have asked for a smaller one.”

“Next time I will.” She was quiet for a minute and then she sighed. “This is really nice. Lying here with you.”

Rachel smiled into Stevie’s short hair. “Very nice.” Rachel tucked one foot between the mattress and the foot board and started rocking them both. She felt a longing and guilt at the same time. “I really shouldn’t be here. In fact, I shouldn’t have done the testing today. There’s a chance we can never be. It’s not right for me to allow you to hope there can be.”

“Because of your secret?”

“Yes.”

“I’m accepting the risk. The fact you told me you had a secret you can’t share counts for a lot. If you ever let me in, I’ll listen to everything you have to say before I make any decisions.” Stevie turned her face towards the ceiling. “If you have to lie about your life for a while, I can handle that. Just don’t lie to me about how you feel.”

Rachel stopped rocking and rose up on an elbow. She looked down at Stevie and saw so much trust shining up at her. “I’m not supposed to have feelings for you, but I do. I’m out of my element on every level, but how I feel about you might be the only thing I really believe in. I hope you’re what you appear to be or I’ll never believe in anything again.”

“What do I appear to be?”

Rachel put a hand to Stevie’s face and traced the youthful contours. “Good.”

Stevie turned her face into the caress, but her eyes were amused. “You think I’m good?”

“Aren’t you? Have you ever broken the law? Have you ever broken a heart without caring? Have you ever started a fight?”

“Well…I speed sometimes and once I stole a candy bar, but I paid for that.”

“It’s not really stealing if you pay for it.”

“Not that kind of paying.” Stevie laughed a little. “My dad warmed my butt pretty good and then I had to take the wrapper back to the store and confess to the manager. It was brutal. I never stole anything again.”

Rachel traced Stevie’s eyebrows and down the bridge of her nose. “I was right. You are good.”

“I think you’re good, too,” Stevie said in a whisper.

Rachel stared into Stevie’s eyes. The sense of rightness she felt just being around Stevie was remarkable. The depth of her feelings was growing exponentially. “Amy Sussman.”

“Who?”

“Amy Sussman. She was my girlfriend for a long time. I was with her for over five years. We broke up last year. It’s been two weeks and I feel closer to you than I ever did to her.”

“Why did you break up?”

“It’s not about why we broke up, Stevie.” Rachel sat up and brushed her hair back. “How can I feel closer to you after only two weeks?”

“It’s kind of scary in a totally gotta-have-it sort of way, huh?”

“Yeah,” she said slowly. “I just don’t know how I could have thought I loved Amy when I feel like this about you.”

“Are you saying you love me?”

“I don’t know.” Rachel turned to face Stevie. “Have you ever had a girlfriend?”

“Wendi wasn’t really my girlfriend. We met in college and…we slept together a couple of times. It was never a love relationship. We were good friends and it just sort of developed. She’s a teacher in Namibia now and I get cards once in a while. She’s a good person and I don’t regret it.”

Stevie was still pale and she was rubbing the heating pad. “You’re still hurting pretty bad.  I want you to take something.”

Stevie rolled back on her side. “Okay.”

Rachel found ibuprofen in the bathroom and gave it to Stevie. She watched the young woman swallow the pills and rubbed her back. “You shouldn’t be hurting this bad. Are you bleeding?”

“I don’t think so.” Stevie put her head down and closed her eyes. “Maybe I was too tense.”

“Roll over on your stomach. Maybe a massage will help.”

When Stevie was settled, Rachel sat on her thighs and pushed her shirt up. Tugging her jeans down a couple of inches, she put her hands on Stevie’s lower back and started caressing.

Stevie’s body relaxed in stages. “Wow,” she moaned. “That feels amazing.”

Rachel put the heels of her hands along Stevie’s spine and began a deeper stroke. She smiled at the groan Stevie let out. “Is that helping your cramps?”

“Uh huh.”

Rachel massaged Stevie until she was sure the young woman was asleep. She rearranged her clothes and pulled the blue comforter over her. The room looked nice since being redecorated. It was done primarily in blue, but all of the racing trophies were gone and the pictures were of mountains instead of Motocross. The computer was still in the corner, but there was a bookshelf there now to hold all of the books. It looked much neater than before. The bedroom still looked like Stevie, but an older, more mature Stevie.

Rachel eased off the bed and went in search of a blank piece of paper. She wrote a note about having to go to work and then offered to buy her lunch the next day if she could meet her at the park downtown. Rachel added how cute Stevie was when she slept and left a lipstick kiss on the bottom. Laying the note on the pillow beside Stevie, she lost nearly twenty minutes just watching her sleep. Leaving left her hollow.

>>>

It was simply gorgeous on Saturday. There were a few fluffy clouds in the rich blue sky, but the sun shone brightly and there was only a slight breeze. Stevie dressed in a yellow muscle tee and dark green cargo shorts. She slipped on a pair of Sketchers and opted to ride her bicycle to the park.

She found Rachel near the water-play fountain. Rachel was watching kids play in the randomly shooting streams of water with a smile on her face. Stevie stopped to watch her. It was more than how she looked that drew her. There was an essence about Rachel that pulled at her. At times like this, Stevie could feel that tug as if it were as solid as a steel cable. She’d never felt anything like it before. It scared her, but she couldn’t stay away.

Locking her bike to a rack, Stevie took off her sunglasses and climbed over Rachel’s bench. She sat down beside Rachel and smiled. “Fancy meeting you here.”

Rachel’s eyes were hidden behind her sunglasses, but her face turned toward Stevie and her smile widened. “Hi, baby.”

Stevie’s entire body melted at the endearment.

“Love the shorts.”

It took a moment to get her mouth working. “I told you…it’s the knees. They drive girls crazy.”

“It’s not the knees, baby.”

“It’s not?”

“It’s your smile.”

Stevie made a face and hoped her blush wasn’t visible. “I don’t know. I still think it’s the knees.”

“Trust me…it’s your smile. It’s irresistible.”

Stevie put her arms along the back of the bench. “I’m glad you think so. Yours is pretty irresistible, too.”

“I’m finding everything irresistible about you, Stevie. I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.”

Stevie wasn’t sure what to say, so she fell back on her purpose for being there. “I thought you were going to feed me. I think that’s a good place to start.”

“Fair enough. What are you hungry for?”

Stevie considered the restaurants within close proximity. “I can go for BBQ. How about you?”

“Excellent choice.”

Stevie had a great time. They ate barbeque and somehow managed to walk out looking clean. They walked the park and played on the swings and talked. She’d never had a connection like this before. It was hard to imagine that she would ever get bored talking to Rachel.

They were eating ice cream cones on a shaded bench when Rachel stiffened. “What is it?” Stevie asked.

“We’ve got company,” Rachel said. “Follow my lead?”

Stevie nodded once. “I’m right behind you.”

“Well, well, well…if it isn’t our very own Rachel.”

Stevie’s eyes almost popped out of her head. She remembered seeing this woman at the club on her birthday, but she hadn’t been paying much attention to her at the time. She had giant platinum blond hair, an exaggerated hourglass figure and the most enormous boobs she’d ever seen. They had to be like G’s or H’s and they were way too perky to be real.

“Hello, Candy,” Rachel said evenly. “I’m surprised to see you here.”

Candy fluttered a hand with a grimace. “It’s a birthday party for a snot-nosed nephew. I couldn’t get out of it.” Her eyes shifted to Stevie and she smiled in a predatory fashion. “Who is this? She looks familiar…”

Neither of them was fast enough to answer that.

“Oh, yes,” Candy said with oily delight. “You’re Rachel’s lap dance. I wonder what Gary will say when he finds out you know each other.”

“I wonder what Gary will say when I tell him you’ve been taking Doxycycline.”

All amusement left Candy’s face. “You wouldn’t dare.”

“You really should tell him,” Rachel urged. “You’re just going to get re-infected.”

“That’s none of your business.” Candy nodded at Stevie. “Was she a plant?”

“No,” Rachel said with a smile. “We’d never met before. I was on my way home after work and found her on a curb. She’d been abandoned by a cabdriver and I just couldn’t leave her there. She was too drunk to take care of herself. I took her home and we’ve had lunch a couple of times. She makes me feel normal, Candy. I need that as a coping mechanism. Do what you need to do, but this is innocent.”

“Have you slept with her?”

“No.”

Stevie could hardly take her eyes off the interaction. She only understood half of what was going on. Rachel and Candy were taking each other’s measure and Stevie wondered who was going to crack first.

Candy finally sighed. “If I find out you’re lying, I’m telling Gary.”

“I’m not lying, so Gary will never need to know. About anything.”

“Fine.” Candy turned abruptly and walked away.

Stevie watched her and wondered how much of that ridiculous wiggle was real and how much was practiced. Women’s bodies didn’t move like that naturally. Candy stepped off the concrete path and her stiletto heels sank into the earth. Stevie grinned as she watched Candy struggle not to fall. “What kind of person wears heels like that to a park?”

“I don’t think Candy does nature.”

Rachel looked subdued. Stevie smiled at her. “Your ice cream is dripping down your hand.”

Rachel grinned. “So is yours.”

Laughing, both of them caught up with their melting cones and wiped their hands clean. Stevie waited for Rachel to relax before saying anything. “I have two questions. First, what’s Doxycycline for?”

“Clamydia.”

Stevie took a swirling lick of her ice cream. “So, she has an STD and she probably got it, or shared it, with Gary. Is that your boss?”

Rachel was taking short licks of her cone. “Yes. There’s no point in taking the meds if you’re just going to have continued sexual contact with the source of infection. She should tell him—and all the rest of her boy toys—so they can get treated and not pass it on. I don’t know why she isn’t telling anyone.”

“Maybe she wants them to have it.”

Rachel made a face. “That’s pretty cold.”

“Some people are like that. It’s like they don’t know how or why they should care about other people.”

“I don’t think they do. What was your other question?”

Stevie held a hand about twelve inches out from her chest. “Were those things for real? They’ve probably got their own time zone.”

Rachel started to laugh. “God, no.”

Stevie shook her head. “I’m going to have nightmares. I just know it.”

>>>

It was nearly three in the morning and Stevie couldn’t sleep. Rachel’s secret was driving her crazy. She wanted to respect Rachel’s right to privacy, but her gut was screaming that she should look into things. Something was going on and it probably wasn’t a good thing. The problem was that she didn’t even know Rachel’s last name.

She did, however, know where she worked. Maybe she could find out a few things without actually invading Rachel’s privacy.

Stevie slipped out of bed and sat down at her computer. She planned her attack while it booted up. She would take a careful look around and see if anything looked unusual. If she found something, she might ask Tall Bob if he would help her do some deeper snooping.

Stevie had a feeling that Rachel’s secret had to do with the club she worked at—or with someone who worked there. She had no idea what that secret might be, but people kept secrets when they were afraid of something. Stevie was going to see if she could find out what Rachel was afraid of. Maybe she could do something to eliminate Rachel’s fears and there would be no more reason to keep secrets.

>>>

Helen was disappointed and a little worried when Stevie didn’t come to lunch on Sunday. Stevie always made a point of letting them know when she wouldn’t be there. It was usually because of her racing, but Helen knew there were no races today.

When lunch was over and everyone went their separate ways, Helen cleaned the kitchen and made a doggie bag for Stevie out of the leftovers. Collecting her purse, she picked up the food dish and turned around. Jacob was standing in her way.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m taking lunch to Stevie. She didn’t call and I’m a tad worried.”

“Don’t go.”

This was the longest conversation they’d had in a week. They still slept in the same bed, of course, but it was fast becoming a cold and lonely place. Helen considered his request. “What would you rather I do?”

“I’d like us to pray together and study the word of God. There’s a way through this. We need only find it. We can’t go on this way. We’re like strangers. I miss my wife.”

He sounded so sincere. It brought tears to Helen’s eyes. “I miss my husband, too.”

“Then stay.”

Helen considered it. “I can’t.” His face collapsed in on itself and then became stone. “It is not a question of loving you, Jacob. I love you and I would marry you again today, but our daughter needs me. She needs you, too, but you can’t see past your faith to see how…”

“My faith is all I have left.”

Helen stifled the urge to hit him in the head with a brick. “How dare you stand there and tell me that your faith is all you have left. This entire family loves you no matter what. You are the one who is choosing your faith over your family. You don’t get to be the victim here, Jacob. When did your faith become a barricade for your heart? Where is the man whose love was so big he couldn’t contain it? Where is the man who laughed and sang to express his joy in being alive and beloved of God? Where is that man, Jacob?”

“Where is the woman who vowed before God that she would be my helpmate? Where is the woman who promised to love, honor and obey me for time and all eternity?”

Helen paused. She had made that promise. When had she stopped believing it was her duty to obey her husband? Of course, it seemed ridiculous now, but it was the promise she made and she meant it at the time. What did it mean to her marriage that she no longer wanted to be blindly obedient?

“Stay home with me,” Jacob pleaded earnestly. “Pray with me. I’m afraid for you…and for us. This phase of Stephanie’s is dividing us at a time when we should be standing strong.”

Helen sighed. He’d almost convinced her that it really was about their marriage. “When you want to talk about us, I’ll be there, but I won’t sit down and let you lecture me from the Bible about what a bad wife I am and how Satan is leading our daughter into darkness. Using the Bible to make people do what you want, and think the way you think, is bullying. It’s manipulative and it’s beneath you. I’ll be back in a couple of hours and we can talk then if you are so inclined, but we will talk about our feelings and needs…not conduct a Bible study on the supposed sin of homosexuality or my deficiencies as a wife.”

Jacob’s face was calm, but he was bright red. “She’s corrupted you. That’s the danger of tolerance. Evil has the face of an angel.”

“So does virtue. Judging from the anger on your face, I don’t think you’re qualified to tell the difference. We’ll talk when I get home.”

Jacob spun on his heel and slammed the den door behind him. Helen felt like crying her heart out. She knew she was changing, but she didn’t believe it was a bad thing. She hoped Jacob would be able to grow with her, but if he couldn’t, she wasn’t going to lobotomize herself to make him happy.

“Mom?”

Her heart fell as she realized that her youngest child had probably heard most of that. She looked up at him where he stood on the stairs. “I’m sorry you had to hear that, Rory.”

“Are you going to leave Dad?”

“I hope not. I love him very much.”

“Can I come with you?”

“Yes.” Rory barreled down the stairs and Helen captured him in a hug. “Have faith in us, son. We may be fighting, but we love you and we love each other.”

“I know, Mom. It’s cool.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yep.”

They were halfway to Stevie’s when Rory spoke again. “If you and Dad get a divorce, is it real?”

“Real?”

“You got married in the temple.”

“Oh.” Helen knew what he was asking now. “The temple marriage can never be undone, but the earthly part of our marriage can be ended. I really don’t think it will come to that.”

“Me either. I was just wondering.”

“I wish you hadn’t heard that. Your father and I do fight from time to time. We’ve always worked it out before. There’s no reason for you to think we won’t work it out this time.”

“If you do break up, I want to live with you.”

Helen glanced at her son in shock.

“I know you won’t,” Rory continued, “but if you do, I want to live with you. I love Dad, but I hardly see him and he’d never let me hang out with Stevie.”

“Okay.” Kids could be remarkably straight to the point. “May I ask you something?”

“Sure, Mom.”

“How do you maintain your faith and accept your sister for what she is?”

Rory didn’t miss a beat. “The Bible says we should stone Stevie to death, but God is love. He wants us to be happy. He wouldn’t make Stevie gay and then punish her for falling in love. I believe in God, not the Bible.”

“Is it that simple?” she mused aloud.

“It is if you love Stevie.”

It was something she would need to think about more, but Helen smiled proudly at her youngest child. “I do love her. I love you, too.”

“Hey, Mom?”

“Yes?”

“I don’t think I want to go on a mission.”

Jacob was going to have a stroke, but her choices were becoming easier. “If you still feel that way when the time comes, I’ll square it with your dad.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

>>>

Stevie looked terrible when she answered the door. She was still in her pajamas and it looked like she hadn’t slept.

“Mom? Rory?”

Helen was instantly worried. “You didn’t show up for lunch. We came to make sure you’re alright.”

“What time is it?”

“Almost two.”

Stevie rubbed at her face with both hands and then scratched her head. “Come on in. I lost track of time.”

“Have you slept?”

“Not on purpose.”

Helen wasn’t sure what that meant, but Stevie disappeared into her bedroom before she could ask for clarification. She wasn’t sure what to do until Rory took the food from her and told her to get comfortable. He went into the kitchen and Helen sat down in the rocking chair. It wasn’t as nice looking as the one she had at home, but it was much more comfortable. She smiled about that.

“Do you want a soda?” Rory asked. “Or maybe some fruit juice? I’m not sure what it is. Smells okay.”

“Maybe we should wait for your sister to come out.”

Stevie!” he yelled.

Helen shook her head ruefully.

“What?” Stevie called from the bedroom.

“What’s this red drink in the fridge?”

The bedroom door opened and Stevie’s head poked out. “It’s herbal tea. No caffeine and it doesn’t need sugar. It’s really good.”

“You want some, Mom?” Rory asked.

Stevie nodded at her. “Try it, Mom. It’s good stuff.”

Helen loved her children all the time, but there were moments when her love for them swelled beyond bearing. This was one of those moments. She swallowed against the pressure in her chest. “Okay.”

“Put it over ice, Rory.”

“Okay.”

Stevie disappeared back in her room and a few minutes later, Rory handed her a tall glass of iced tea. Helen sipped it and recognized the Red Zinger tea. She hadn’t tasted it in decades and it brought back fond memories.

Rory turned the television on to the X Games and plopped down on the sofa with an orange soda. Stevie crossed from her bedroom to the bathroom with the promise it would only be ten minutes. A few seconds later the shower turned on. Helen put her head back and rocked contentedly and she wondered if she had ever been in a home that felt so comfortable. It was pretty amazing to her that her daughter was the one to create it.

Helen had her eyes closed and she was probably only minutes away from snoozing when there was a knock on the door. Rory was quick to jump up so Helen just opened her eyes to see who it was.

“Hey, Rachel,” Rory said in a welcoming tone. “Come on in. Stevie’s in the shower.”

“Thanks, Rory. I just stopped by to say hello.”

Helen stopped rocking when she saw Rachel. She was a knock-out. How did Rory know her? What was she to Stevie? How did they meet? Did Stevie have a girlfriend? Was this beautiful young woman her…future daughter-in-law? Helen’s mouth went dry and she had no idea what to say or how to act.

“This is my mom, Rachel. Mom, this is Rachel. She’s Stevie’s…friend.”

Rachel’s entire being looked as nervous as Helen felt and it eased her concerns considerably. Helen stood up and put a hand out. “Hi, Rachel. You can call me Helen.”

“I think I’d rather call you Mrs. Marks,” Rachel said as she nervously reached out to shake hands. “Um…I just came by to say hello. It looks like you guys have plans…”

“No, we don’t.” Helen was feeling stronger and more curious by the moment. She held onto Rachel’s hand. “We just came by to drop off lunch for Stevie. I brought plenty. I’m sure there’s enough for you, too.”

“I couldn’t.”

Rory patted Rachel’s shoulder. “Relax, Rachel. Mom is cool. Can I get you something to drink?”

“I could use a beer.”

At the suddenly frozen look on Rachel’s face, Helen surmised that she’d just realized the potential faux pas. It made her laugh. “Does Stevie have beer?”

“She might,” Rory offered cautiously.

“Get one for Rachel, please.”

Rory didn’t move. “I’m not allowed to touch the beer. Stevie’s rule.”

“I see.” Helen let go of Rachel’s hand and started for the kitchen. “I’ll get it then.”

“In the garage, Mom.”

She took a right turn and went to the garage. She found cold beer (only five) in the refrigerator and carried one back in for Rachel. She hadn’t had this much fun in a long time. Rory had his back to the front door, talking quietly to Rachel. Helen handed her the beer and took her arm. “Please stay, Rachel. I’ll try not to ask any awkward questions. We weren’t planning on staying very long anyway. Stevie will be out of the shower in a few minutes and I’m sure she’ll be happy to see you.”

“I don’t want to interrupt.”

“You’re not. Come sit down.”

The three of them took seats and an awkward silence fell. Helen felt obligated to smooth things over. “So…what kind of work do you do, Rachel?”

The tension in the room rose.

“I’m a waitress at a night club,” Rachel said uneasily.

“I’ll bet that’s hard work.”

“It is, but it’s not what I want to do forever.”

“What kind of work would you prefer?”

Rachel looked…unclear. “I was thinking criminal justice…or maybe a paralegal. I’m going to go back to school as soon as I can.”

Helen wasn’t sure Rachel would ever go back to school. Being a waitress might be as far as she would ever go. She didn’t think that was a bad thing, but she’d hoped for more for her daughter. Stevie was so smart. She deserved a mate who could keep up. But Helen knew she couldn’t say anything like that or she would run the risk of driving Stevie straight into Rachel’s arms.

Not to mention, the least likely people could surprise you at any time. Maybe Rachel was a waitress only because she hadn’t had a chance to go to college. The job one chose was not necessarily a good indicator of intelligence. Maybe Rachel was more than she appeared to be. Regardless, if Stevie cared about her, Helen would be supportive. She wasn’t going to do anything that might jeopardize their healing relationship.

“Sometimes things don’t happen the way you plan. I hope your dream finds you.”

“Thanks. What do you do?”

“Well, I’m a housewife, but I do a lot of volunteer work at our church. I’ve just recently started going to P-FLAG meetings and I might eventually volunteer with them, too. I stay pretty busy.”

“Volunteers are unsung heroes,” Rachel said with approval. “If everyone gave just five hours a week to something they cared about, we could change the world.”

“Do you ever volunteer?”

“Not in the last couple of months, no. But I used to work with the Literacy Project when I was in high school. Last summer I volunteered two afternoons a week at the Boys and Girls Club as a basketball coach for the girls.”

The water in the shower shut off. Helen knew she only had another minute or two with Rachel. Rory was watching them carefully and Rachel was looking more confident. Helen wanted to be sophisticated and charming, but the whole situation was outside her comfort zone. She had no control when she opened her mouth and said, “Stevie has a heart as open as the sky. I hope you won’t plant any bombs in it.”

Rachel’s face softened. “I’m not perfect, Mrs. Marks, but I’m doing my best. Stevie’s an archetype for everything good in people. I don’t want to do anything to change that. If I fail, it won’t be on purpose.”

The statement was comforting. “Thank you.”

Stevie stepped out of the bathroom in shorts and a t-shirt, her hands combing through her wet hair. She saw the three of them sitting together and froze. Helen watched everyone’s eyes darting and realized they were anxiously waiting for her reaction. It reminded her all over again how young they were. Helen started laughing. “Everyone relax. It’s all good today.”

Stevie was still speechless, but Rachel smiled. “I was with Leona and just came by to say hello. Meeting your mom was just a happy accident.”

Her daughter looked terrified. Helen got up and hugged Stevie. “I like her,” she whispered. It wasn’t a total lie. “And she’s lovely.”

Stevie hugged her tightly. “Thanks, Mom.”

Helen drew back and patted her daughter’s face. “I just brought you lunch. There should be enough food for both of you.”

“What is it?”

“Tuna casserole and fruit salad.”

“Excellent.”

“Rory and I won’t stay. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“You can stay, Mom.”

Helen shook her head. She knew when to step back and let her children go. “Maybe I’ll take Rory to a movie. Oh, by the way, next Thursday night is a potluck at P-FLAG. We’re encouraged to show off our gay kids. Will you come with me?”

Stevie’s face lit up. “That would be great, Mom.”

“Perfect. I’ll call you at work this week to remind you. Bring Rachel if you want to.” Helen didn’t expect the bone-crushing hug she got, but it made her feel like a million dollars.

“I love you, Mom.”

“I love you, too, sweetheart.”

As soon as the front door closed, Rachel dropped down on the couch. “Oh my God. I asked your mom for a beer.”

Stevie looked surprised. “You did?”

“She went and got me one!” Rachel put her bottle down on the end table and covered her eyes. “She hates me.”

“She likes you.”

“No, she doesn’t. She’s going to tolerate me because she loves you. I can’t believe this.”

Stevie sat down beside Rachel on the couch. “I think she wants to like you. She invited me to go to a P-FLAG potluck on Thursday. It sounds like a show-and-tell type thing. She told me I could invite you. Would she do that if she hated you?”

“If it meant keeping you in her life, yes.” Rachel dropped her hands and looked at Stevie. “She asked me not to hurt you.”

Stevie shrugged. “It’s a Mom thing. Now, if it were my Dad we were talking about…he’s going to hate you.”

“Thanks a lot. I feel so much better.”

Stevie grinned. “You’re welcome. But for the record, my Dad pretty much hates everything about me right now. It wouldn’t be you he was hating.”

Rachel considered it. “Nope. Not helping.”

“Maybe you should come over here and let me kiss you till you forget the whole thing.”

Rachel opened her mouth to continue fussing and then reconsidered. Kissing Stevie was not something to pass up. “Funny, that’s exactly what I came here for.”

Stevie scooted closer. “Don’t worry about my Mom. She’s coming around to accepting me. She’ll come around for you, too.”

Rachel’s heart was beating faster and her lips were tingling with anticipation. She leaned closer. “Why are you still talking about your mom? It’s kind of a buzz kill.”

“I’ll make a note of that.”

Their lips met and Rachel felt a rush of arousal under her skin. It only took seconds for her to need more contact. Rachel wrapped her arms around Stevie and molded herself to the long body. When she was lowered to her back, Rachel shifted her legs so she could wrap them around Stevie’s hips. The weight of Stevie pressing her down was delicious.

Rachel opened her mouth and invited Stevie in with a flick of her tongue. She could feel Stevie’s rising passion in her kiss and in her touch. The barely restrained urgency of Stevie’s ardor was incredibly exciting. Rachel pulled at the back of Stevie’s t-shirt and slipped her hands underneath. She ran her hands clear up to Stevie’s shoulders and pulled their bodies tightly together.

Stevie lifted her head with a gasp. “Sweet Lord,” she breathed.

Rachel arched up into Stevie and raked her nails down the muscular back. Her whole body thrilled at the groan that came from within Stevie. “You are so sexy.”

Stevie looked down at her with heavy eyes. “It’s you. You’re the one. So beautiful and exciting…”

Rachel lifted her head and nipped at Stevie’s chin. “Kiss me, lover. Take my breath away.”

The limits of the flesh melted away as Stevie proceeded to do just that.

Rhonda was sorting laundry when Rachel arrived at their meeting point. “Hi,” she said with a smile.

Rhonda smiled back. “Wow, you’re looking better.”

“I’m feeling better, too. I actually put on three pounds this week.”

Rhonda grimaced. “I’m struggling to take ten off.”

“Maybe when this is over we can work out together. Dancing is a much better fitness routine than it gets credit for.”

“That would be fun. Maybe we can set up a regular thing.”

“I’d like that.”

The two of them got their laundry going and then sat down to talk. Rhonda had a few clarification questions about Rachel’s electronic report from the past week. A man came in to switch his laundry to a dryer and they pretended to read magazines until he left. When they were alone again, she went into the bathroom to give a verbal report of the drug drop into a small recording device. It took a while to do it right, so Rhonda took care of their laundry. A verbal report was a much easier way to report the nuances and those could be so important.

Afterwards, Rhonda told her that Stevie and her friends had been cleared. Rachel already knew they were innocent, but it felt good to hear it anyway. She told Rhonda about Candy’s STD. It probably didn’t have anything to do with the case, but the fact that Candy wasn’t being honorable might mean something at some point. It was hard to tell in advance what was vital information and what wasn’t. In any case, word would get back to Tom and he could protect himself from her.

As they finished folding their laundry, Rachel asked for a favor. “Could you get someone to call my folks and tell them I’m okay?”

“I’ll do it,” Rhonda offered.

“Tell them I’m really doing okay and that I miss them?”

“They live in the area, right?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll go see them if you like. It’ll be easier for them to see the truth than hear it.”

“That would be awesome, Rhonda. I’d really appreciate it.”

She gave her parent’s address to Rhonda and thanked her again.

>>>

Stevie waited for a quiet moment at the shop to send Short Bob out for lunch. She sat down beside Tall Bob and said, “I need your help.”

His pale blue eyes looked at her with no expression at all.

“It might not be entirely legal.”

Bob never changed his bland expression. “Okay.”

“Remember Rachel? I introduced her last week?”

Bob nodded.

Stevie laid out what she knew and what she’d already done in the way of snooping. She gave him a disc with what she’d found and waited while he did a quick scan of it.

“Okay,” he finally said.

“This is just between you and me,” Stevie added. “I’ll pay you for your time, but we can’t do it here.”

Bob shook his head and spoke haltingly. “If I get arrested, you bail me out and pay for my lawyer.”

It would be a lot cheaper to insist on paying him, but it was more than fair considering the risk he’d be taking for her. “Bail, a lawyer, and I keep paying your wages until you can come back to work. You have a deal.”

They shook solemn hands and went back to work before Short Bob came back with tacos and burritos.

>>>

Stevie felt like a shiny bauble, but her mother was having so much fun introducing her that she couldn’t object. She’d been praying for this kind of support all along so it was worth a little embarrassment to finally get it. About half of the parents had their gay kids with them. Slightly more were men and most were older by about ten years, but it was kind of fun to meet all of them.

Her mother was making a point of telling everyone that it had taken a long time for her to come to the point of accepting her daughter. Stevie just smiled and told everyone that her mother was worth the wait.

She wished Rachel had been able to come, but she had to work. Maybe if Rachel had been there, parents wouldn’t be scoping her out for their own daughters. It was flattering, but it was also embarrassing. Stevie refused to give out her number, but she suspected that a number of curious women were going to be dropping by the shop over the next few days. Her mother was only too happy to brag about her being a business owner. Everyone knew how to find her.

Stevie hugged her mom long and hard when the evening ended. It really was a blessing that her mother was learning to accept her to such a degree.

When she got home, Tall Bob was sitting on her porch.

>>>

There was another package in her locker. Rachel sighed. She really didn’t see how this was advancing the case. If only she could put an electronic eye in her locker and see who was leaving the packages for her. They couldn’t dust the package for prints before delivery because it would be obvious, so what was the point of making her the newest delivery girl? Rachel memorized the address and tossed the package into her bag.

It felt good to get dressed. It had been a bit cold all evening and her chilled skin was grateful for the warmth. She said goodbye to Moira and Tawny and signaled Tom on her way out. He followed her out to her car and she discretely gave him the address.

“Be careful,” he said before she could close her door.

He sounded like he meant it. Rachel nodded. “I need to pick up a few groceries. It might slow me down by about ten minutes.”

“I’ll be watching out for you.”

“Thanks.”

It took almost fifteen minutes to pick up some eggs, bread and oranges. The all-night grocery wasn’t terribly busy, but there was only one checker. Rachel assumed she was being watched. She was carrying a significant investment. It only made sense for her to be under surveillance. It amused her to make them follow her to a store.

There was no sign of Tom when she found the house she’d been directed to. Of course, there wasn’t supposed to be any sign of him. Rachel stamped down her nerves and got out of the car. She had no idea what she was walking into, but she had to pretend it was all about collecting another five hundred dollars.

It sounded like a party was going on in the house. There were quite a few cars on the street so it wasn’t unlikely. She had to knock on the door twice before it opened.

“Yowza!” a frat boy type said as he opened the door. “Hello, baby. Come on in. My name’s Caleb and I’ve been waiting for you all my life.”

“The search isn’t over,” Rachel said with a pat to his broad chest. “I’m not here to party. Someone is waiting for me.”

“That would be me.”

It was Mr. Halitosis from the first drop. He grabbed Rachel’s arm and took her deeper into the house. There were probably twenty guys around the house. Most were drinking beer. Some were smoking meth, weed and cigarettes. Hate rock was blaring throughout the messy house. Rachel hoped she was safe with all these men. Hopefully, she would be in and out before they saw the possibilities.

Stench Boy took her into a bedroom and let go of her arm. “Where is it?”

Rachel took the package out of her bag and he snatched it away. She sat down on the bed and waited for him to verify that she hadn’t messed with the contents.

“What took you so long?”

“I needed to buy some food. It was on the way.”

He looked at her with genuine malice. “You left this in your car so you could go shopping?”

“No. I carried it with me.”

“Into a grocery store? Are you fucking stupid?”

“Who would suspect me if I stopped at the store first?”

Rachel never saw it coming and it took her a moment to figure out why she was on the floor. In the next moment, she could taste blood inside her mouth. Rachel put a hand to her face and then stood up. She was as mad as she had ever felt in her whole life. “You hit me!”

“You ever do anything that stupid again and I’ll do more than hit you,” he warned.

“Make sure you kill me,” she hissed at him. “Just make damn sure you kill me or I’ll find a way to rip your heart out. No one hits me twice and lives. Now, give me my money so I can get out of this pit.”

“Who do you think you’re messing with?” he asked with a snort.

“An asswipe with bad breath and no future.”

His fist snapped out at her, but she was ready this time. Deflecting his arm, she drove the heel of her hand into his nose with a loud crunch. He fell to the carpet like he’d been tasered. It might not have been the wisest thing she’d ever done, but she was not going to let him hit her again.

“Fuck,” he moaned as he carefully covered his bloody face.

It was time to leave. “Where’s my money?”

“Fuck you, bitch.”

“Pay me or I’ll kick your teeth out, Stink Face.”

She had to pull her foot back before he pulled some bills out of his pocket and threw them at her. Rachel counted it to make sure it was the right amount and dropped it in her bag. “Nice doing business with you…not.”

“This was your last drop,” he groaned. “Someone’s gonna find your body in a ditch. Gonna have to use your teeth to ID you.”

“You’re really going to tell your boss that a girl broke your nose? Really?” Rachel laughed through her fear. “I guess you’ve got bigger balls than I thought. Good luck with that.”

She left the house as quickly as she could without running. She was shaking from the inside out. Rachel knew how to fight, but it wasn’t something she enjoyed outside a gym.

Rachel could still taste blood in her mouth. She checked for the source with her tongue and found an open cut inside her bottom lip. It wasn’t too bad right now, but it was going to be painful in the morning. Hopefully, it wouldn’t show.

She spotted Tom following her a few blocks away from the drop. Rachel was half tempted to make him stop and show him her lip, but there was nothing he could do about it. Besides, she’d put it in her report. Tom would read about it soon enough. She rolled down her window and gave him a wave to let him know she was okay. He flashed his lights and fell back, but he followed her all the way home.

Rachel thought he wanted to talk, but he left as soon as she was inside her apartment. She went into the bathroom and looked at her lip. It was definitely a puncture from one of her teeth. She also had some discoloration on her cheek.

Rachel went into the kitchen and made an ice pack. Holding it to her face, she sat down at her tiny dining table and closed her eyes. In the whole time she’d been working undercover, she’d never felt so alone. On the top of her short list of people she really wanted to see right then was Stevie. A hug and some TLC would go a long way towards making her feel safe again.

Chapter Seven

There was a homemade dirt bike track (of sorts) on the edge of town. It was a fairly large piece of land owned by the city and zoned for commercial property. It was next to a large grocery store and a couple of fast food restaurants. Stevie figured no one was buying it because of the economy. The rough terrain made it perfect as a free place to practice.

It was Saturday morning and the sky was overcast. It wasn’t raining and it wasn’t hot which made for good riding weather in Stevie’s opinion. She needed to think about the information Tall Bob had found for her and blazing over trails and jumps sometimes helped her think.

She hadn’t asked Bob to check Rachel out. All she’d wanted was information on the club, but when he ran simple searches on the employees, he came up with a number of hinky responses. It was his nature to chase that sort of thing down. He didn’t explain what it was about Rachel Waine’s electronic identity that made him question it, but what he found after considerable digging had shocked her to the core.

Rachel was a cop!

One of the bouncers was a cop, too.

Stevie figured the bouncer was back-up for Rachel. What she didn’t know yet was why they were working in the club, but she thought it might have something to do with the dead DEA agent working behind the bar. Of course, it just wasn’t likely that the bartender was really a DEA agent. The real one had died in an explosion so devastating it had taken almost a week to determine what kind of car it had been. Stevie wondered if the bartender knew that his credentials belonged to law enforcement of the Federal variety. Tall Bob had not been able to figure out who he really was.

There were quite a few people lining the sides of the biggest jump on the informal course. Stevie took the jump big. Hooking her feet behind the hand grips, she lay back on the bike for a full second and then quickly got back in position for the landing. She could hear them cheering as she raced on and it made her smile.

Were the police investigating the bartender? Did they know who he was? Bob had offered to hack the Police Department to find out what they knew, but Stevie had said no. She had no idea how sophisticated the Tech Division was in the local Police Department. If it was any good at all, there was no sense asking the tiger to bite you.

Bob had argued that he’d already hacked the DEA and the risk with the local PD was low, but Stevie still said no. It scared her pretty good that he’d hacked a Federal Agency. Since they weren’t already in prison, she didn’t think it was a good idea to push their luck.

One of the other dancers was still an enigma. Bob was working on her, but so far she didn’t appear to have a past. The fact that her Social Security card belonged to a four year old boy was pretty conclusive that it was stolen.

What Stevie wondered now was what to do with all of the information. What she wanted to do was show Rachel everything, but she was afraid that Rachel would be angry with her. Stevie had agreed to let Rachel have her secrets until she was ready to give them up. How would Rachel react when she found out that Stevie had uncovered those secrets? Would she still trust Stevie?

On the other hand, it wasn’t a secret Stevie could keep forever and still feel good about her integrity. When Rachel came clean, Stevie would have to do the same. Her choice seemed to be a sooner or later kind of thing. Sooner might be better in the long run, but if not, later offered more time with Rachel. It was an agonizing choice.

On the next big jump, Stevie let her instincts guide her through the maneuver. She let her body fall back behind the bike. She grabbed the tail fin before the bike got out of reach, her entire body stretched out perpendicular to the ground. She held it just a moment too long and really had to hustle to get the bike back under her. When she hit the ground, her chest slammed into the handlebars, but she managed to keep her balance and continue. Fortunately, her chest protector took the brunt of the hit and she felt very little of it.

It wouldn’t be too difficult to send all of her information to the Police without exposing herself or Bob. If she did that, she’d know for sure they had all of the information Bob had gathered. Maybe there were a few pieces they didn’t have that would help them. She could also send the information about the bartender directly to the DEA. They would probably love to know one of their fallen was being used for potentially nefarious purposes.

But Stevie worried that the DEA’s priorities might not include Rachel’s safety to the degree that Stevie needed. She didn’t know if she could afford to take that risk.

Still, the underlying problem was what to do about Rachel. Should she tell her or not? And if she had to tell her at some point, should it be now or later?

Stevie whipped the heavy bike sideways off the jump and drew her legs together on the up side of the bike. It was a flashy move, but one of the simpler ones for her. When she landed, Stevie left the track and headed for her truck. She rode straight up the ramp into the bed and cut the motor.

Stevie pulled off her gloves and then her helmet. Dropping them in the milk crate she had bolted to the bed of the truck, she relaxed and began removing the rest of her gear.

When it came right down to it, the most important thing to Stevie about the whole thing was her relationship with Rachel. If they were going to have a chance at being together, they had to be able to trust each other. Rachel had demonstrated her desire for trust by telling Stevie she had a secret she couldn’t share…yet. Knowing what she knew now, Stevie was fully aware that Rachel had taken an unnecessary risk. That meant Rachel already trusted Stevie.

She had to tell Rachel what she knew. It was the only way to avoid betraying the trust Rachel had given her. It was a risk, yes, but no less than the risk Rachel had taken. Stevie had to live up to that trust or she would never deserve it.

She also had to be very careful about how she did it. Stevie had no idea what kind of surveillance Rachel was under.

>>>

Rachel bolted up out of bed at the knock on her door. The only people who should know where she lived were her superiors and her targets. Her superiors were very unlikely to approach her apartment for fear of exposing her. After the events of the previous evening, it was most likely to be retaliation for Manure Mouth’s broken nose.

Rachel quickly grabbed her snub-nose 38 from between the mattress and box spring and went to the door. She moved quietly on bare feet and peeked briefly through the peep hole.

It was Stevie. Rachel took a step back to think it over. Stevie didn’t know where she lived. Rachel had never shared that information. She’d also never given Stevie her last name or her phone number. Stevie might have followed her home one night, but Rachel would be very surprised if she’d done that. Stevie was such an honorable sort.

While Rachel was trying to figure out what she was going to do about Stevie being outside her door, a paper was pushed under the door. Rachel stepped forward to look out the peep hole and saw Stevie walking away. She picked up the paper and set her gun on top of the console television.

Rachel sat down and considered the folded paper for a moment and then opened it.

I’ve done something that might anger you and I need to talk to you about it, but I don’t know how best to do it without endangering you. I am going to hang out at the Starbuck’s down the street for an hour or so. May I buy you a coffee? Please, don’t be mad. It was kind of an accident. Love, Stevie.

Rachel’s heart was racing and her skin was prickling with cold. What had Stevie done? If she knew about the apartment, she might know everything. Rachel’s cover was blown.

But how blown was it if Stevie was the one who figured it out? Rachel read the note again. If Stevie was worried about endangering her, maybe it wasn’t that bad. The only way to assess the damage was to meet with Stevie and find out what she thought she knew and if anyone else knew.

Rachel studied her face in the mirror and couldn’t see the blow she’d taken the night before. That was a relief. She took a quick shower and got dressed. Rachel walked down to Starbuck’s. She spotted Stevie right away, but the young woman had her back to the door and didn’t see Rachel enter. Rachel ordered a tall latte and walked over to the back corner booth.

She had every reason to be nervous, but she wasn’t afraid. Rachel reached out and ran her hand through Stevie’s hair. The young woman looked up at her with worried brown eyes. Rachel smiled at her. “Hi, baby.”

Stevie’s smile was sickly. “Hi. Is it safe to talk here?”

Rachel sat down across from Stevie and brushed her own hair back with her fingers. “Just talk softly and we should be okay. What’s going on?”

Stevie twisted her fingers together and then twisted her neck until it popped. “Okay. I wasn’t going to invade your privacy. I just wanted to know more about the club where you work. I kind of figured your secret was there and people keep secrets when they’re afraid. I thought if I could figure out what you were afraid of, you wouldn’t need to keep the secret with me anymore.” Stevie sighed heavily. “I was missing you and I couldn’t sleep.”

Rachel still didn’t know what Stevie knew, but she was certain that Stevie meant her no harm. “What did you find out?”

Stevie looked around cautiously and then leaned forward to whisper, “You’re a police officer. The club has your name as Rachel Wayne, but your real name is Rachel Joy Quinn. Did you know your name has all of the vowels, including Y, but only once?”

Rachel was shocked and charmed simultaneously. It left her speechless.

“Tall Bob had to help me,” Stevie admitted softly, “but he won’t say a word. He’s afraid he’ll end up in prison for hacking the DEA. Nobody keeps a secret like Tall Bob.”

Everything had just turned upside down. “Whoa!” she said in an urgent whisper. “The DEA?”

Stevie let out a breath and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I don’t know what you know, so I’m not sure what’s important.” She lifted a laptop case onto the table. “I’ve got a flash drive with everything on it if you want to check it out. I disabled the wireless so this unit won’t automatically hook up to any routers in the area. It’s secure.”

The import of what she was hearing suddenly fell on Rachel like a ton of bricks. The fact that Stevie appeared to have dropped into the middle of her case was scaring the crap out of her and it made her a little angry. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done? Are you completely out of your mind? People die over things like this, Stevie. This isn’t a game or a reality show on television. You had no business interfering.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t really expect to find anything and now I don’t know what to do. That’s why I came to you.”

Stevie looked like someone had just stomped on her kitten. Rachel felt like a complete asshole. She reached out and grabbed Stevie’s arm to explain. “I’m scared, baby. What am I going to do if something bad happens to you?”

Some of the guilt left Stevie’s eyes. “I’m scared, too. I don’t want to do something stupid and put you in danger. I don’t think I could handle that. I’ll do anything you tell me to, Rachel.”

Rachel kept a hold of Stevie’s arm while she thought things over. She could see Stevie’s truck parked across the street. “I want you to get in your truck and drive away. I’m going to sit here and finish my coffee. Take the laptop with you and meet me in the alley behind this building in ten minutes. Assume someone is sitting out front watching the coffee shop. Can you do that?”

“Sure.”

“Go then.”

Stevie stood up and tossed the laptop case over her shoulder. “I’ll be there. Be careful.”

Rachel winked at her and watched her leave. She waited until Stevie drove away and then went outside to buy a newspaper. She glanced at her watch and sat back down in the booth. Rachel pretended to read the paper, but she was checking the street. Someone pulled up to the smoke shop across the street and the passenger ran inside. There was a man waiting behind the wheel of the car and Rachel saw her chance.

She left the newspaper on the table and headed for the employee exit.

“Hey! You can’t go out that way.”

Rachel stepped into the young man’s personal space and put a quaver in her voice. “See that grey Chevy across the street?” His eyes shifted to the street and scanned the cars. It was clear when he found it. “The dark haired guy in it is my ex. I have a restraining order out on him, but I don’t want to call the police again. He’ll just say he didn’t know I was in here and the cops will let him go. Please, just let me sneak out the back and spare you cop cars hanging around till it’s sorted out. Please?”

He caved like a beer can on a frat boy’s forehead. Rachel patted his cheek as he let her out and he grinned like a five year old wearing a Superman cape. Twenty seconds after the door closed behind him, Stevie drove into the alley. Rachel made quick work of climbing inside. “Take a left out of the alley.”

“Where are we going?”

“I’m not sure yet. I’m still a little stunned.”

“My shop is closed today and I can park in back,” Stevie offered.

“Okay. Let’s do that.”

As soon as they entered the back of Stevie’s shop, Rachel wound her arms around Stevie’s neck and kissed her like it was the last time. The kiss was hungry and deep, almost painful in its intensity.

Stevie abruptly pulled back and put a finger to Rachel’s lip. “What’s this?”

Rachel shook her head. “It’s nothing.”

Stevie frowned. “Please, don’t lie to me. Let me see.”

Rachel reluctantly let Stevie pull her lip down and look at the small injury. Her touch was so gentle it was almost heartbreaking. Stevie inspected her carefully and there were thunderclouds in her eyes when she was done.

“Someone hit you.”

Rachel nodded. “Yes, but I hit him back. It’s over. Let’s deal with one thing at a time, okay?”

Tears filled Stevie’s eyes and her bottom lip quivered. “I would never hit you. I’d rather die first.”

“I know, baby.” Rachel hugged Stevie close. This girl was a treasure and Rachel hoped she’d never have to let her go. “I’m okay. Let it go, Stevie. Let it go.”

It took a few minutes for Stevie to relax, but when she did, she was in control of herself. “You should look at the flash drive. Maybe I’ve got information that will end this case and you can stop hanging out with scum bags. Come on.”

The secure laptop was set up in Stevie’s office and she accessed the information on the flash drive. “Do you want to know how we found everything or just the end results?” Stevie asked.

“Just the results,” Rachel said as her eyes began to scan.

It took Stevie a half hour to present the results. It was staggering. “How long did all this take?”

“About three days minus work and sleep. Bob did most of it, but I don’t want him to get in trouble. I’ll take credit for everything.”

“Let’s worry about credit later. You don’t have anything on Tawny.”

Stevie pulled up a page. “She’s working under the name of Elisa May Hawthorne, but her Driver’s License and Social Security card are fakes. Didn’t your department check those kinds of things?”

“Yes. Everyone came up clean. Well…not clean, but valid.”

“Then they messed up. What about fingerprints?”

Rachel shook her head in the negative. “Tawny was considered a low probability. She didn’t show up on anyone’s radar.”

“Bob is still working on figuring out who she is, but she’s buried really deep. Can I ask what you’re investigating?”

Rachel thought about it. “I’m sorry, baby. What you’ve learned on your own is one thing. I can’t give you any more information without jeopardizing everything.”

“Okay.” Stevie closed out the program and detached the flash drive. “What do you want to do with this? Can you turn it in? Will it help your case?”

Rachel stared at Stevie while her mind worked things out. “I had a secret, but you figured it out. Are you okay with it?”

“With you being a cop?”

Rachel nodded.

“It depends. After this case is all over, can I still tell people that you were a stripper when we met?”

Rachel had to chuckle. “Maybe. I’ll think about it.”

“I’m totally okay with it. The secret is a non-issue for me. You didn’t have to warn me, but you did. I know that was risky for you. I won’t say a word unless you say it’s okay and Tall Bob will never talk about it. I know you don’t have any reason to trust him, but I do.”

“Okay.” Rachel’s mind was still sorting all the new information and it made her a little slow. Part of what was making her slow was her worry for Stevie. She wanted to protect her. “I think you and Bob should take this to the police. I can tell you who to go see.”

Stevie made a doubting face. “What we did wasn’t entirely legal. We could get in big trouble.”

“Take a lawyer with you and ask for immunity before you turn over the drive. You’ll have to admit to everything you did in order to have it covered by the deal, but I’ll send a note with you telling them to take you seriously.”

Stevie was shaking her head. “Bob will never go in. He’s a good guy, but he doesn’t trust cops. Actually, he doesn’t trust anyone. Not just cops.”

“Talk to a lawyer about it. Maybe Bob doesn’t have to go in, but he should at least be covered. Cops really hate being lied to. If you took credit and then they found out later Bob was involved, they’d never leave you alone. Do you want the name of a lawyer?”

“That might be a good idea.”

Rachel sat forward and brushed Stevie’s hair around one ear. Cupping her face in one hand, she searched Stevie’s eyes. “I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”

“Nothing’s going to happen to me.”

“Stay away from the club and all the people who work there. As much as I would like to have you there, stay away from my apartment. Hopefully, this won’t go on much longer. I’d still like to come see you tomorrow after I go shopping with Leona, and maybe we can do something on Tuesday. I don’t have to work that day.”

“Maybe I can cook you dinner?”

“You know how to cook?”

Stevie rolled her eyes. “I was a girl raised in the Mormon Church. I can cook, sew, change a baby’s diaper, and clean a house like nobody’s business. Yes, I can cook.”

“Make me your specialty then.”

Stevie laughed. “The guys love my mac ‘n’ cheese with hotdogs. I can do better than that.”

“I should hope so.”

Stevie leaned over and gave her a sweet kiss.

“Are we okay?” Stevie asked.

“Yes, baby.”

“I was scared to death. I thought you were going to be so mad at me.”

Rachel caressed Stevie’s face. “Not mad. Just scared for you. This is the first time I’ve worked undercover and I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing. Taking care of myself is hard enough. I freaked out a little because I didn’t think I could take care of you, too.”

Stevie nodded. “I’ll do my very best to stay out of the way. Just take care of yourself and everything will be okay.”

Rachel shifted herself into Stevie’s lap and wrapped her arms around the strong shoulders. Stevie’s head fit right under her chin and Rachel buried her nose in the dark hair. Stevie held her tight and rocked the chair slightly.

“When this is over,” Rachel said quietly, “I want to spend a whole weekend in your arms.”

“I’d like that,” Stevie sighed.

“Then I want you to meet my parents.”

“Oh, boy.”

Rachel smiled.

>>>

Stevie didn’t waste any time calling the lawyer Rachel had recommended. The woman had suggested she make an appointment on Monday morning, but Stevie explained about Rachel recommending her. Melanie Nichols had gone very quiet and then asked, “When did you see Rachel?”

“Less than an hour ago,” Stevie answered. “I know she’s undercover. This is about that case. I have information for the police, but there’s reason to think they might arrest me when I give it to them. I can explain all this much better in person.”

Ms. Nichols gave her an address and told her to be there in a half hour. Stevie stopped at Dairy Queen and got herself a chocolate milkshake before going there. She stood by the door to the office building and waited. She had no idea what the lawyer was going to look like.

After a few minutes, a heavy set red-headed woman in her fifties marched up to her. “Are you Stevie?”

She was a little afraid she was going to get bit. “Yes, ma’am.”

Eyes raked her up and down. “You don’t look like a criminal.”

Stevie nearly choked on her milkshake. “I’m not! I swear!”

The woman snorted at her. “Come on.”

Stevie followed Ms. Nichols inside and up two flights of stairs. The woman’s name was on the door they finally entered. Stevie sat down when she was ordered and waited for Ms. Nichols to get settled.

“How do you intend to pay me?”

Stevie blinked. She hadn’t even thought about that. “Will you take a check?”

“Is it any good?”

Stevie was feeling a little put out by this woman’s manner. “Are you?”

The woman didn’t even crack a smile. “Let’s get something straight. I don’t work on weekends and I find it hard to believe you know anything important. I think this is a big waste of my time. Say something good fast or I’m going back home to see what NetFlix sent me.”

Stevie didn’t like Melanie Nichols, but Rachel said she was the best. “There’s a guy pretending to be a dead DEA agent pouring drinks at a night club downtown. Rachel’s working a case there, but the police don’t know about him.”

“So, tell them. What’s this got to do with me?”

“My partner and I weren’t completely legal about how we got information. We don’t want to get arrested.”

Melanie Nichols stared at her for a full minute. “Write me a check for one hundred dollars. Can you afford that?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Stevie pulled out her checkbook and opened it. “There’s a lot more information…”

“Don’t tell me. I don’t need to know. Where’s your partner?”

Stevie looked up from her check. “I’ll reveal his name when I’m sure he has immunity, but he can’t be questioned.”

“Why not?”

“He’s socially autistic. He can barely convey his thoughts when he wants to. Having the police up in his face is going to make him mute. I have every move he made on a flash drive and I’ll willingly walk the police through it, but he only did it because I asked him to and I promised to keep him safe.”

“You might not be able to keep him out of this.”

Stevie stopped writing and stood up. “Maybe I’d better go find someone else. You’re not the only lawyer in town.”

Melanie Nichols finally smiled. “Alright, alright. Sit down.”

“You’ll help me protect him?”

“Yes.”

Stevie sat back down and finished the check. Ms. Nichols gave her a receipt and made notes in a book. When she was done, she folded her hands over her belly and looked over her glasses at Stevie.

“For good or ill, I’m your attorney on this matter. You will not say one word to the police without my okay. Not even ten years from now. If you do, it will take hours and tons of paperwork to get your statements thrown out. Don’t make me work that hard or I’ll kick your ass. Understood?”

“What about Rachel?”

“Not even her.”

Stevie felt sick to her stomach. “I don’t think I can make that promise.”

One eyebrow rose to alarming heights. “She is a police officer. You may not discuss the acquisition of your information with her. She will be legally bound to report it.”

“Just the details of how we got the information?”

“For now.”

“Rachel is my friend. I won’t make a promise that means I can’t talk to her at all. But if I just have to promise not to talk about hacking for information, I can do that.”

“Is this hacking on-going?”

Stevie considered it. “Maybe.”

Stop it.”

“There’s one person we couldn’t figure out. My partner might be working on it now. I’m not sure where he’s checking.”

“Call him right now and stop it.”

“The information could be crucial to Rachel’s safety.”

“Then offer to investigate further after you come clean to the authorities. Do it with their blessing. I can’t negotiate immunity for actions you haven’t taken yet.”

“Alright.”

Stevie called Tall Bob and filled him in. All he wanted to know was whether or not the police were coming to his apartment. Stevie told him truthfully that it wasn’t likely, but it might be a good idea to prepare just in case. When she hung up, Ms. Nichols was constructing a document on the computer. Stevie sat quietly while she worked, but she couldn’t help judging the woman’s computer system.

“What are you doing?”

Stevie had been determining the make and model of the tower. She sat up with a shrug. “Just checking out your system.”

“And?”

“I could hack it with my iPhone right now.”

“I’ve got firewalls set up.”

“Uh huh.”

The lawyer’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “I have critically sensitive information on my computer. I pay eight hundred dollars a month for IT support and security. If you can hack my computer from your phone, I’ll give you your money back.”

Stevie was interested. “Eight hundred? I’ll make you a deal. If I can hack you from my phone, you’ll hire my company for your IT for five hundred a month, provided you buy the system I tell you to buy for your entire office. It’ll cost you, but you’ll be able to sleep at night.”

“Your company?”

“I own and operate Optimal Computer Diagnostics. We’re small, but we’re the best.”

Ms. Nichols sat back in her chair with a curious look on her face. “I’ve got four desktops and three laptops on my network. What would something like that cost me?”

Stevie did some math in her head and made a mental note to hire a new person soon. “Bare minimum…twelve grand. But I’d recommend closer to fifteen. That includes a server, networking equipment, installation, personalization, peripherals and complete file transfer. Not to mention that we’ll be here within the hour every time you have a problem or question…if we can’t just resolve the problem remotely. I’ll even throw in any required re-training of your staff and quarterly security evaluations.”

“Provided you don’t get scooped up by the Feds and buried in a deep, dark hole for hacking the DEA, I’m willing to negotiate a new contract with your company. First you have to prove you can break through my firewalls.”

Stevie pulled out her phone with a grin and went to work.

>>>

They were sitting in the lobby of the local Police Department and Stevie was feeling pretty good. She broken into the law firm’s computer system in seven and a half minutes. Of course, she was only deep enough to see the files on the server. She did not have permissions to view or change those files, but it was enough to horrify Ms. Nichols. When she had demanded that Stevie do something immediately to secure her system, she’d disconnected all of the computers in the office from the internet. It took a few minutes to convince her that was all she had to do.

“Hey,” Stevie said abruptly. “I thought of another possible component of our contract…if we make one.”

Melanie Nichols was still pale. “Seven and a half minutes.”

That’s all the woman had said for the last half hour. Stevie ignored it. “If you let me set you up with an optimal system, I’ll do your IT for even less if you’ll be my on call lawyer. Not that I think I’ll need one very often, but you never know. I already have a financial advisor slash attorney on retainer, so I wouldn’t be asking you to read contracts for me. It would just be in case I get into trouble when I least expect it.”

“Seven and a half minutes.”

Stevie leaned over to make eye contact with her lawyer. “Do you want to time me on how fast I can hack into the system here?”

“No!” Ms. Nichols hissed.

Stevie grinned. “I could do it. They might notice, but I could do it.”

“Don’t even joke about it.”

“Alright.” Stevie rubbed her hands together. “Do you know why we’ve been waiting for an hour? Is something wrong?”

“Good question. Don’t go anywhere. And don’t hack anything.”

Stevie had Ms. Nichols’ measure now. She folded her arms in a pout. “You don’t let me have any fun.” She got a glare in response and then Ms. Nichols went back up to the counter. Stevie smiled to herself. Coming alone would have been terrifying. She would have to thank Rachel later for suggesting Melanie Nichols.

>>>

Work was busy Saturday night, but it was boring. Rachel was hyper sensitive to the nuances around her, but there weren’t many to pick up on. Candy was more cordial than usual, but that might have been because of the encounter in the park. Rachel returned the courtesy and felt the unspoken competition between the two of them ease. Everyone else was acting perfectly normal.

The only tough moment was when Tom cornered her to ask if she was okay. Rachel assured him that she was.

“You waved me off,” he accused with a hurt tone. “How can I be your back-up if you won’t tell me when you’ve been attacked?”

“I just got slapped in the face, Tom. It wasn’t a deliberate snub. I just didn’t think there was anything you could do about it at that point.”

“If I had known, I would have had your apartment guarded more aggressively. Sometimes these people act like rabid wolves. Fighting back and busting noses can trigger all kinds of ugliness. You shouldn’t have been alone last night.”

“I’m sorry,” Rachel admitted. “I honestly wasn’t trying to snub you.”

“I get that. Look, I know we didn’t get off to a good start, but I want to do the right thing by you. I need to know what’s going on as soon as possible in order to do that.”

Moira was watching them curiously from the bar. It was making Rachel nervous. Leaning her shoulders back against the wall, she pulled Tom a little closer and wrapped a leg around his with a seductive smile. “Actually, there’s a lot of new information you need to know about, but I don’t think this is a good place to pass it on. I’m pretty sure it’s being explained to the brass as we speak. Maybe we could meet up after work and I can fill you in.”

Tom smiled back at her, but his eyes glittered. “Give me the cliff notes.”

Rachel traced the line of his jaw with a fingertip and tried not to laugh at herself. “Dennis has the ID of a dead DEA agent. Tawny doesn’t exist. Moira is Gary’s niece and she secretly owns a quarter of the club. Candy is taking meds for Clamydia. How’s that?”

Tom blinked twice. “Would you be comfortable with me coming by your apartment tonight?”

Rachel reached around to squeeze his ass and slipped under his arm. “Catch you later.”

The rest of the evening went smoothly. Rachel was glad when it ended. There was no package in her locker—to her great relief—and she dressed quickly. Rachel was usually one of the last to leave, but she was the first tonight. She was exhausted and she still had to fill Tom in on the new information.

There was another handwritten note on her floor when she got home.

Mission accomplished. MN is a hoot. Can’t wait to see you. Love you, Stevie.

Rachel smiled. It was unlikely there was another person on the planet who would call Melanie Nichols a hoot. The woman was a Rottweiler/Cobra hybrid. She was the toughest, most devious lawyer Rachel knew. She was the only lawyer she could trust with Stevie’s protection.

She was checking the refrigerator for food when Tom arrived. She opened the door and waved him in. “Make yourself comfortable, Tom. Are you hungry? I’m thinking about making pancakes. Want some?”

“Sure.” He sat down cautiously at the little dining table and slowly relaxed. “So how did you get your information?”

Rachel talked while she mixed the batter. “Remember Stevie Marks?”

“The girl…”

“My lap dance, yes. I was ordered to look more closely at her and her friends.”

“I remember.”

“You know that saying about looking into the abyss? Well, she looked back.”

“What does that mean?”

Rachel poured pancake mix into the pan before answering. “She got curious about me and started digging. She’s a computer whiz. She came by my apartment today, but I never told her where I lived. She knew about me and you being cops.”

Tom stood up.

“Sit down,” she ordered with the spatula. Rachel waited for him to obey. “She realized she was in over her head and she came to me to ask what she should do. I told her to turn herself in and tell them everything.”

“Did she?”

“Yes.”

“Are we blown?”

“I don’t think so, but I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough.” Rachel flipped the first cake. “I’m not worried about Stevie. She’s a truly good person. I mean, of all the things she could have done after finding all that out, she came to me and showed me everything. I know you don’t know her, but if someone had to find out about us, I’m glad it was her.”

They talked easily about what the new information could mean and how to use it to their advantage while Rachel made a platter of golden pancakes. She warmed up the syrup and set butter out on the table. Rachel poured both of them a tall glass of cold milk and then sat down with Tom to eat. It was the first time she’d had company in the apartment and it wasn’t bad.

Tom stayed for over an hour and when he left, Rachel felt like she had a partner for the first time.

>>>

Lunch with her family was strange. Stevie could tell that something was wrong. Her dad and her brother, Sam, hardly said a word beyond polite requests for food dishes. Her mother and Rory were very relaxed and talkative. Stevie was almost afraid to ask what was going on, so she waited until after lunch was over and she was helping her mother clean up.

“Why are Dad and Sam so quiet?”

“It’s nothing to worry about, dear.”

“And now I’m really worried,” Stevie said with a touch of sarcasm.

Rory got up from the table and joined them in the kitchen. “Mom and Dad are fighting.”

“We’re not fighting,” her mother denied calmly. “I’m merely waiting for him to grow up and join the human race.”

Stevie stared at her mother in disbelief. “Is this about me?”

“You might think so,” her mother admitted, “but I think it’s more about your father and me. Like I said, it’s really nothing for you to worry about. I’ve got it under control.”

Rory was standing behind his mom, strangling himself silently. Stevie took that to mean her parents were really going at it. Clearly, Sam was taking Dad’s side and Rory was taking Mom’s. Stevie didn’t want there to be sides at all. “I don’t want my life choices to come between you and Dad.”

Her mother rinsed her hands off and faced Stevie. “A very small part of this is related to you. Most of the problem has nothing to do with you. Your father and I have had difficult times before and we made it through. We’ll make it through this as well. I understand that all of you have a stake in what happens, but this is between your father and me. As such, it’s not your business to poke into the details…unless you want us poking into your relationships?”

Stevie and Rory both shook their heads.

“That’s what I thought. You’ll just have to trust us to work it out. Go on with the both of you. I’ll finish this up.”

Her mom had that tone…the one that suggested shutting up was a wise choice. Stevie risked a brief hug and then went outside with her little brother. “How bad is it?”

Rory shrugged. “I’ve heard them a couple of times. I think I understand what a power struggle is now.”

“A power struggle?”

“Yeah. Dad thinks he has all the power and mom has to do what he says. She gets all stubborn and logical and it’s making him nuts.”

Stevie looked back over her life. “Well, she used to do what he wanted.”

“Mom says that’s only because she wanted to do it in the first place. Now she doesn’t.”

“What is it she doesn’t want to do?”

“Stop loving you.”

Stevie stopped walking and struggled not to cry.

“If he can make her stop loving you, he can make her stop loving me, too. I’m rooting for mom.”

Stevie brushed at a tear and looked at Rory. “Dad won’t stop loving you.”

“He might.” Rory kicked at a stone in the dirt. “I’m not going on a mission.”

Stevie was blindsided. “Why not?”

“I don’t want to. And I don’t want to go to BYU either. I want to go to school in California and take marine biology.”

This was the first she’d heard about any of this. “Marine biology? How long have you been thinking about this?”

“A couple of years. I want to learn how to dive and I want to know what I’m looking at. The ocean is so cool. It takes up seventy percent of the earth and we know more about the moon. I want to take engineering, too. The coral reefs are in trouble and I want to help rebuild them. If I can.”

Stevie was impressed. She knew that his inheritance from their grandparents would cover any school he wanted to go to. “If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know. I think it would be cool to have a marine engineer for a little brother.”

Rory grinned at her. “Now that you mention it, I could use a really smashin’ computer for school.”

Stevie raised an eyebrow. “Alright. I’ll build a laptop for you that blows everyone away.”

“Promise?”

Stevie stuck her little finger out and smiled when he curled his own around it. She pulled him into a hug. “If things get too uncomfortable here, you can come sleep on my couch. But not today or Tuesday.”

“Why not?”

Stevie wiggled her eyebrows at him. “None of your business.”

Rory’s eyes widened. “Rachel?”

Stevie just smiled at him.

Half an hour later, she pulled up to her house. Rachel’s car was parked halfway between her house and the Hennessey house. There was a new papasan chair on her porch and Rachel was curled up in it, sound asleep. Stevie smiled down at her. She figured the chair had been picked up at a yard sale, but she didn’t know if Rachel was going to take it home or leave it on her porch. Either one was good with Stevie.

She opened the front door and gently scooped Rachel up into her arms. At least…she tried to. The angle was awkward and Rachel was asleep. It was like trying to pick up a bag of sand. Rachel just kept pouring out of her arms.

“What are you doing?”

Stevie gave up and put her hands on her hips. “I was going to carry you to the bed, but you’re too heavy.”

One green eye opened. “Are you saying I’m fat?”

“Muscle is heavier than fat,” Stevie complained. “Maybe if you’d pork up a bit I could have been romantic. Now I just look weak.”

“I bet you could pick me up easy if you didn’t have to try not to wake me.”

“Pfft. I’m not in the mood anymore.” Stevie sat down on the top step and put her chin in her hands.

“What’s wrong, baby?”

“Nothing.” Rachel sat down beside her on the step. Stevie waited, but Rachel didn’t say anything. She finally glanced over to find Rachel staring patiently at her. “What?”

“I’m just going to be your little shadow until you tell me. Take your time.”

There was nothing Stevie could do to stop her tears. She tried, but they were unstoppable.

“Oh, baby. Tell me what’s wrong? Was there a problem with the police last night?”

Stevie shook her head and struggled to speak. “It’s my parents. Rory says they’re fighting all the time and it’s sort of about me. I don’t want them to split up over me.”

Rachel’s arm came over her shoulders and Stevie turned into her embrace. It was embarrassing, but if she was going to cry, she couldn’t think of anyone she’d rather be with. Her tears were like a summer storm: intense and swift to pass. Rachel was rocking her as Stevie wiped away her tears. “Sorry about that.”

“Don’t apologize. The next time I have a meltdown, I’m coming to you for support.”

“Okay.”

“Are your parents splitting up or just fighting?”

“Mom says they’re just fighting, but Rory says it’s pretty serious.”

Rachel nodded thoughtfully. “I’m going to bet on your Mom. I like Rory, but he’s pretty young. Your mom has a lot more experience with relationships and she’s known your dad longer than any of you. I think if anyone can pull it out of the fire, she can.”

Stevie stared at Rachel for a minute. “You’re really smart about people. I like that about you.”

“Thanks.” Rachel brushed her wild hair back behind an ear. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone calling Melanie a hoot before. You two hit it off?”

Stevie had to grin at the memory. “We hated each other until I hacked into her computer network with my iPhone.”

Rachel’s eyes got impossibly large. “What did you say?”

“I hacked her system. We’re going to talk about a new IT contract and equipment next week. I think she’s going to sue her old security provider.”

Rachel had a hand over her mouth. “Oh my God. I can’t believe you did that.”

Stevie shrugged. “I was bored.”

Rachel started laughing. “You hacked the most dangerous criminal attorney in a hundred miles because you were bored?”

“She kind of dared me,” Stevie explained. “She didn’t believe I could do it and I suggested a wager. I won.”

“Honey…I don’t think Melanie has ever lost at anything. Enjoy the moment.”

Stevie wiped the last traces of her tears away with a skinny smile. “She was great last night, but it took forever. I didn’t get home until after two this morning. The tech department sucks. They’re doing the best they can, but the newest computer they have is five years old. Some of their computers won’t even read a flash drive. A lot of them are providing their own laptops and there’s no hope of hooking them into a network that old. There’s no way they can keep up with that kind of handicap.”

“Maybe you should report that to the city council. Maybe they’ll listen to you. God knows they aren’t listening to us.”

“I’m just a kid. They aren’t going to listen to me.”

Rachel shrugged. “An informed, outraged citizen and business owner has a lot more power than you know. If you explained how bad it is and asked them to take bids on repairing the problem, they might take it into consideration.”

Stevie wasn’t so sure. “Maybe.”

“So, you got immunity last night?”

“Bob and me, both. They never stood a chance against Ms. Nichols. They couldn’t exactly offer us immunity for the DEA hack, but they said one way or the other they won’t give us up without a deal. It just took so long to explain everything. Bob’s thought processes are never easy to follow, but they had a really hard time.”

“Thanks for doing that, Stevie.”

“Thanks for not being mad and dumping me.”

“There was no chance of that happening, baby.”

Stevie smiled at Rachel. Being with her always felt so good. “Would you like to go inside with me?”

Rachel batted her eyelashes. “Will you carry me?”

Stevie sighed.

“Trust me, baby. I’m not as heavy when I’m awake.”

Stevie wasn’t sure that was true, but she was willing to try again. Slipping an arm under Rachel’s knees as arms wound around her neck, Stevie found it unexpectedly easy to stand up.

“See?”

“Wow. I feel so butch.”

Rachel laughed against her shoulder as Stevie carried her inside and kicked the front door shut behind her. She had to twist carefully to get into the bedroom, but she managed not to hurt either of them. Stevie laid Rachel down on the bed and crawled over to lie beside her.

“My hero,” Rachel teased.

“You’re the hero,” Stevie corrected. “I can’t imagine doing what you do for any job. Don’t you usually wear a uniform and drive around in a patrol car?”

“Yes.”

“Could I be a civilian observer sometime?”

“I might be able to set that up.”

“Excellent.” Stevie moved closer and ran a hand over Rachel’s arm. “How long can you stay?”

“That depends on what you want to do.”

Stevie moved even closer and rose over Rachel. “I want to kiss you,” she said in an unintentional whisper. “I want to fall into you and never come out.” Rachel smiled and Stevie suddenly found herself on her back with Rachel sitting on her.

Rachel pinned Stevie’s hands to the bed and leaned down to nibble at her lips. “I want to kiss you, too.”

Stevie shivered at the delicious sensations.

“I want to kiss you until our clothes fall off and then I want to make love to you until you scream my name.”

Stevie nipped at Rachel’s chin. “I want to taste you…all of you.”

“I want to taste you, too.”

Rachel’s kiss was more than a kiss. Her whole body moved into Stevie and caressed her with intent and purpose. Stevie had never felt passion like this before. It seduced her with insistent tenacity. She opened herself to it and was taken.

Stevie pulled at Rachel’s shirt even as her own was removed. The first touch of skin on skin was like the first plunge of a rollercoaster. She knew it was coming, but it defied gravity and made her cry out.

“Are you okay?” Rachel asked as she reached for Stevie’s bra.

“Don’t stop,” Stevie gasped. Her hands slid down inside the back of Rachel’s jeans and cupped her ass. It was so sexy. Stevie arched up into Rachel and pushed one leg up against Rachel’s groin.

“Oh my God,” Rachel sighed. Placing her hands on Stevie’s shoulders, she began to surge on the strong thigh. “That feels so good.”

Stevie was entranced. Rachel was moving on her in a slow, sinuous dance. “You are so beautiful,” she moaned.

Rachel let her eyes close for a moment and then she leaned down for a languid kiss. Her eyes dropped to Stevie’s chest. “I like your new bra. Very sexy.”

It was a beige one her mother had helped her pick out. She was still getting used to how it felt. “I’m glad you like it, but I wish you’d take it off of me.”

Rachel smiled and slid one hand beneath Stevie’s back. A few seconds later, it loosened. Stevie kneaded Rachel’s ass as she undulated, but she watched as her breasts were slowly revealed. Her nipples were already hard, but they stiffened even further as Rachel gently kissed each one.

“Beautiful,” Rachel murmured.

It was so exciting to watch Rachel kissing her breasts. Stevie wanted to give Rachel the same feeling. She made quick work of Rachel’s bra and closed her hands over the generous mounds. She could feel the dark nipples in the center of her palms and it made her mouth go dry.

Stevie sat up and it changed their positions. She wasted no time and took one of Rachel’s nipples into her mouth. The act shook her to her foundation. She clutched at Rachel and tried not to come.

When she had control of herself, Stevie began making love to Rachel’s breasts with soft kisses and deep suckling. Her hands caressed everything she could reach. The feel of Rachel’s skin was enthralling. Stevie was fully aware of Rachel’s hands exploring her. It felt like nothing she’d ever experienced and part of her wanted to surrender to Rachel’s touch, but she couldn’t stop.

Rachel’s breathing was fast and deep, her body moving rhythmically. Stevie tugged at Rachel’s button-flies and the denim opened with an eager growl. Sitting up straighter, Stevie slipped her hand inside and stopped breathing. Rachel was shaved and so incredibly warm and wet. It was almost more than Stevie could bear.

Her head fell back and her eyes closed. Stevie could feel Rachel’s check on hers and she could hear the panting of need in her ear.

“Hold still,” Rachel pleaded in a whisper. “Just hold still for a second.”

The emotion of what she felt exceeded her capacity to hide and tears rolled from Stevie’s eyes. “So beautiful,” she choked.

Rachel began to move on Stevie’s fingers. “Feel me,” she whispered.

“I feel you,” Stevie answered. Rachel’s labia spread open over her fingers and in a few moments, she could feel everything. “I feel your clitoris,” she said in reverent awe.

“It’s hard for you,” Rachel moaned.

Stevie shifted her fingers slightly and let Rachel’s clit slide between her fingers. She squeezed just a little and thrilled at the breathless whimper that Rachel let out. “You like that?”

“Do it again.”

Within a few seconds they had a rhythm in place and Rachel’s movements intensified. Stevie opened her eyes and watched the pleasure on her lover’s face evolve. Her free hand moved to a breast and began to play with the nipple. Rachel responded with urgency. Watching her…making her excited…it was just so miraculous.

“I want to be inside you,” Stevie implored.

When Rachel nodded, Stevie turned and lowered Rachel to the mattress. Her fingertips found the entrance to Rachel’s body and she slowly pushed within her.

Rachel stopped breathing and lifted her hips.

Stevie was starting to lose the feeling in her hand because of Rachel’s tight jeans, but she didn’t want to stop. The sensation of being inside of Rachel was so intense. Stevie lowered her head to Rachel’s shoulder and concentrated on the hot, slick muscles surrounding her fingers.

“Oh, God,” Rachel finally groaned. “Is that two fingers?”

Stevie nodded.

“One more, baby.”

Stevie wasn’t sure she could. “Your jeans are too tight.”

“Take them off.”

Stevie shook her head. “I don’t want to come out. I just got here.”

Rachel laughed softly. “I’ll let you right back in, sweetie.”

“Promise?”

“Cross my heart.”

Stevie really didn’t want to, but she slipped her fingers out gently. They were so wet. She lifted her fingers to her nose and let the scent of Rachel’s most private place curl up inside of her. Stevie shivered at the intense feelings she was experiencing. It wasn’t enough.

Reaching for Rachel’s ankles, she grabbed the hems and smoothly pulled off Rachel’s jeans. Since she was up, she finished taking her own clothes off and lay down in the arms that were reaching for her. Feeling the long length of Rachel’s naked skin on her own was secondary to her need to be inside of her lover. Stevie covered Rachel’s warm sex with her hand and kissed her mouth. As their tongues met in an ancient dance, her fingers found their way home.

Rachel arched up into Stevie. “One more.”

“I know.” Stevie lifted her head and watched Rachel’s green eyes as she added a finger to her penetration. “Do you feel me?”

Rachel released a long moan. “Oooh…I feel you, Stevie. I feel you.”

Tears came to Stevie’s eyes and she let them fall. It was alright to cry when you were in touch with the Divine. Moving slowly and deliberately, she drew her fingers out to the tips and then pushed in as far as she could go. Rachel’s pleasure was naked on her face and Stevie drank it all in.

Stevie held her pace for long minutes. Rachel was so smooth on the inside and it wasn’t just a matter of texture. The powerful muscles were opening to her with a welcoming softness; almost an eagerness to fully experience the gentle stroke of her fingers.

Rachel’s hand came to Stevie’s face and wiped at her tears. “Don’t stop,” Rachel whispered breathlessly. “Don’t stop.”

“I won’t,” Stevie promised. Shifting downward to get a better angle with her hand and arm, Stevie lowered her lips to Rachel’s breasts.

Time had very little relevance as Stevie made love to Rachel. Conscious thought fled and she existed solely within the perception of Rachel’s passion. The transition from rising passion to orgasm was seamless and left Stevie feeling spent. Rachel’s internal muscles were clenched around her fingers now and Stevie made no attempt to remove them. Every few seconds there was a powerful contraction that was almost painful, but so incredibly erotic.

Stevie laid her head on Rachel’s chest and listened to the racing heartbeat and laboring lungs gradually slow. Her whole body relaxed at Rachel’s side and Stevie closed her eyes.

Rachel had a hand over Stevie’s, holding her within. “Stay inside, baby.”

Stevie just smiled. Rachel’s other hand was stroking Stevie’s hair and it felt amazing.

It was quiet in the house, but there were a few birds singing outside. Stevie could hear a breeze in the trees and the occasional passing of a car. Somewhere down the street, a couple of kids could be faintly heard as they played. It felt like the whole world was taking a little rest with them.

A gentle tug at her hand let Stevie know that Rachel was ready for her to move. It was with great reluctance that Stevie complied. Her fingers slid out of Rachel’s body slowly and they both sighed. Stevie placed her hand over the shaven skin and refused to move any further.

“That was truly breathtaking,” Rachel admitted with a smile in her voice. “It wasn’t what I thought would happen today, but what a fabulous surprise.”

Stevie only smiled wider.

“Are you okay?”

“Better than okay,” Stevie breathed.

“Come up here, baby.”

Moving was not easy, but a few minutes later Stevie was lying on her side facing Rachel. All she could do was smile. She just didn’t have any strength for more. Soft hands caressed her face and coaxed her eyes open.

Rachel’s face expressed a curious confusion. “Did you come?”

Stevie shook her head no and she thought about it for a moment. “Well, not physically. It’s almost like my heart did.”

“It was emotional?”

“Yeah.” Stevie licked at her lips, gathered her courage and flung herself out into space. “I think I’m falling in love with you.”

Rachel’s eyes were troubled. “Cops are hard to love.”

“I’m finding it pretty easy,” Stevie said. “Should I stop?”

“Can you?”

“No,” Stevie conceded, “but I don’t have to tell you about it.”

Rachel considered it and then leaned in for a kiss. “I don’t want you to stop and I always want to know what you’re thinking and feeling. I can’t make any promises yet, but I think I could fall in love with you, too.”

“I hope so, because we didn’t wait for the doctor’s results. I wanted to be good, but I just couldn’t stop.”

“I have faith in us.”

Stevie barely had time to smile before she was pressed back into the bed. Rachel’s kiss melted her from the inside out. Stevie spread her legs and wrapped them around Rachel. Her body hungered to be consumed by Rachel’s passion.

Rachel rose up on her arms and rocked her hips into Stevie. “I want to make you come with my mouth. Do you like that?”

“I think so,” Stevie moaned. Rachel’s hips were making it hard to breathe. “I only felt that once, but it was nice.”

“Nice?” Rachel’s smile was one of predatory amusement. “Baby, I’m going to eat you alive.”

Goosebumps broke out over Stevie’s entire body. It was almost scary to feel so aroused and out of control, but she trusted Rachel and she wanted to feel what Rachel was offering.

It was sublime. Rachel used only her mouth, but she left nothing untouched. Her long hair added to the onslaught of sensations like a million tiny fingers. Stevie couldn’t catch her breath. Even the simplest kiss left her gasping.

When Rachel settled between her legs, Stevie stopped breathing. From the first touch of Rachel’s tongue, it was more than Stevie thought she could feel and still live.

“You okay, baby?”

Stevie nodded desperately. She was beyond articulating anything. The next perfect pass of Rachel’s tongue tore a cry from her throat. It all felt good, but when the tip of Rachel’s tongue passed over her clit, it put her right on the edge of coming. Over and over, Stevie was taken to that edge and then pulled back.

“You taste so sweet.”

Even the breath of Rachel’s speech was arousing. Stevie put a hand in Rachel’s hair, but she didn’t try to control her. She wanted to feel like this forever.

Stevie groaned at the feel of Rachel’s tongue entering her. It was hard to say if it was the actual sensation or knowing what was happening that made it feel so intense. She looked down her body to see Rachel’s green eyes watching her. Stevie licked her dry lips and quipped, “Stevie likes it.”

Rachel’s eyes smiled back.

Stevie reached for her knees and opened herself further. She needed to feel everything Rachel was doing as completely as possible.

When Rachel finally drew her clit into her mouth, Stevie was undone. She came immediately and for a very long time. It was the most exquisite thing she’d ever felt. When Rachel moved up to kiss her, Stevie wrapped her arms around Rachel and concentrated on the slowly receding bliss.

“Thank you, baby,” Rachel crooned. “That was beautiful.”

“I should be thanking you,” Stevie corrected.

“No,” Rachel said gently. “Don’t ever thank me for that. It’s a privilege to be allowed to kiss your pussy.”

Stevie couldn’t help but flinch at that word.

Rachel saw it. “You don’t like the word pussy?”

Stevie shook her head. “Not really.”

“What do you call it?”

Stevie blushed.

“Come on,” Rachel teased. “Tell me.”

“It’s embarrassing.”

“Tell me anyway,” Rachel grinned.

Stevie resisted until Rachel started tickling her. “Hoo-hoo!”

Rachel stopped and made a face. “Excuse me?”

Stevie was still blushing. “I call it hoo-hoo.”

Rachel’s eyebrows rose. “What are you…six?”

Stevie folded her arms stubbornly. “I don’t like the p-word. It sounds nasty to me. At least hoo-hoo sounds like fun.”

“It sounds like baby talk.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

Rachel settled down on an elbow beside Stevie and tossed her hair back over one shoulder. “Sorry, baby. Hoo-hoo isn’t going to cut it. Grown women don’t call it a hoo-hoo.”

“Well, I’m not going to call it the p-word. It’s icky.”

“Do you have a better name?”

Stevie slipped an arm under Rachel so she could play with all that gorgeous hair. “Maybe…kootch?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?” Stevie argued. “Why is the p-word better than kootch? Doesn’t it sound like the word a teenage boy would use while he whacks off to a nudie magazine?”

“And you think hoo-hoo and kootch would be better alternatives?”

“Better than calling it Little Stevie.”

Rachel laughed. “We’ll have to work on a better name. I can’t call it a hoo-hoo with a straight face.”

“And I can’t call it the p-word without getting a bad taste in my mouth.”

“I don’t taste bad,” Rachel teased.

Stevie pushed Rachel back and kissed her briefly. The desire to make love to Rachel was back with a vengeance. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

>>>

Howard Daly’s mood was improving by the minute. He’d gotten home from work and his wife had nailed him to the wall with credit card receipts. He worked his ass off selling insurance, but she seemed to think he didn’t have the right to spend any of the money. All he’d done was buy a single ticket to a minor league baseball game and she was acting like he’d snatched food out of the kid’s mouths. Maybe things wouldn’t be to tight financially if she didn’t need manicures every other week. Pointing that out had sent her right over the moon.

Howard had left the house only seconds before a cast iron pan had hit the door.

Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to spend the evening in a strip club with ten dollar drinks, but if the wife was going to be mad at him anyway, he might as well earn it.

Aside from employees, Howard was one of only three people in the club. Mondays were probably a slow night. The girl on stage wasn’t bad. In fact, she was pretty damn sexy with those cute little titties, but she looked bored. Maybe if she’d act a little more enthusiastic he’d be tempted to tuck a few bucks in the string they tried to pass off as panties.

Showing his empty glass to the bartender (who acknowledged his request with a nod), Howard shook a cigarette out of his pack and lit up. He drew the smoke deeply into his lungs and blew a smoke ring. His whiskey sour arrived a few moments later and Howard relaxed a little more.

The music changed and so did the dancers. Howard smiled as his dick took notice. The new girl was fine. She had a smokin’ hot ass, big juicy tits and her hair would feel so fucking good on his groin.

Howard took another drag on his cigarette. Something about her was ringing an old bell. He felt like he’d seen her before. It wasn’t like a lot of beautiful women walked into Howard Daly’s life. Remembering one shouldn’t be too difficult, but the memory was hiding on the edge of his thoughts.

He finished his cigarette and still couldn’t remember. Knocking a fist on the bar, he beckoned the bartender to come closer.

“What can I get you?”

Howard nodded at the dancer. “What’s her name?”

“She doesn’t do lap dances,” the bartender said in a bored tone.

“I just want to know her name. She looks familiar.”

“Rachel.”

“What’s her last name?”

“Sorry, pal. First names only. You want another drink?”

Howard knew how things worked. “How much for her last name?”

The barkeep shook his head. “No can do. Unless you can afford to pay my rent till I get another job, I can’t sell her name.”

Howard opened his mouth to argue and it came to him. “I remember,” he said in shock. “That bitch arrested me for a DUI last year.”

The bartender looked at him intently.

“I was only point-oh-six, but she arrested me anyway. Said I was driving recklessly. What the hell is she doing dancing in a strip club?”

“Are you sure it was her? Maybe it was a sister or a cousin?”

“She had her hair pulled back in a braid, but I’m pretty sure it was her. Green eyes, right?”

“What was her name?”

Howard stared into his drink until it came to him. “Quinn. Officer Quinn. I wasn’t even drunk and she made my life hell for months. I hope they fired that bitch.”

The bartender watched the dancer for a minute and then turned a smile on Howard. “I think that little tidbit is worth free drinks. If you’ll give me your keys and your address, I’ll make sure you get home in one piece.”

“Seriously?”

The bartender extended his hand over the bar. “My name is Dennis and drinks are on me.”

Howard hadn’t been offered such a sweet deal in forever. He reached out and shook the man’s hand with a sloppy grin. “Keep ‘em comin’, Dennis.”

An hour later, Howard was unconscious because of a drug-laced drink. He slept in the backseat of his car for several hours, but he never knew it. In fact, he never knew anything ever again.

Shortly after the club closed for the night, the Police and Fire Departments were called to the scene of a burning vehicle across town. Identifying the vehicle and owner took less than an hour. It would take nearly a month to conclusively verify Howard Daly’s remains by extracting DNA from his teeth. It was clearly murder, but the case would probably never be solved.

Chapter Eight

Stevie fussed over dinner on Tuesday night. She wanted it to be classy and romantic, but her best glasses had Toy Story 2 characters on them, so she had to buy everything new. She accomplished this during her lunch hours on Monday and Tuesday. She was a little shocked at how elegant it looked when she put it all together. Stevie had never considered decorating to be one of her talents.

For dinner, she made a Cajun style pasta primavera with shrimp. It was spicy without being hot and contained enough different food groups that she didn’t need side dishes. For dessert, she had a fruit torte. Everything was pretty and smelled really good.

Rachel arrived right on time and seemed impressed by the whole thing. Stevie had even gone so far as to purchase a light, fruity wine to go with the meal. Rachel loved it. Of course, Stevie didn’t know the first thing about wine, but she went to an artsy little wine store and asked for help. The woman had acted like a snob, but her advice had been very good.

Dinner was perfect. It was less about the food and more about the company, but the food didn’t hurt. After dessert, they talked for a while with a new age guitar CD in the background and then quite naturally ended up in the bedroom.

Stevie was in heaven. It was the best date she’d ever had and making love was the icing on the cake. It was almost midnight when they fell asleep in each other’s arms.

In the morning, Stevie woke up with the sun. Rachel was sprawled behind her. She rolled over and watched her sleep for a few minutes, but it was a work day and she decided to get ready before waking Rachel up. She took a shower, got dressed, and then made herself a bowl of cereal.

It occurred to her that if Rachel was going to spend the night once in a while, it might be a nice gesture to buy a coffeemaker. She would have to ask if Rachel had a preference in machines.

Stevie took her cereal into the bedroom and sat down on the bed to eat. Her mind naturally returned to the prior evening and their love-making. Rachel was an extraordinary lover. Stevie hoped that Rachel was happy with her skills. She didn’t have much experience and didn’t have a lot of confidence yet, but Rachel was having orgasms, so maybe it was okay.

Rachel’s hair was spread out all over the pillows. Stevie was half tempted to get naked and roll around on it. She loved the feel of Rachel’s hair on her skin. She wasn’t sure if it was a fetish or not, but she was definitely addicted to it.

When she finished eating and put her bowl in the kitchen sink, she checked the time. She had twenty minutes to kill before she had to leave. Returning to the bedroom, she lay down with Rachel and gently woke her.

Rachel blinked and rubbed at her eyes. “You’re dressed.”

Stevie brushed Rachel’s hair back and ran her hand down the smooth skin to the small of Rachel’s back. “I have to go to work soon. I didn’t want to go without saying good-bye, but you can stay here as long as you want. Sleep in, take a shower, eat…my house is your house.”

Rachel smiled and leaned in for a kiss. “Mmm…you taste like bananas.”

“I had one in my cereal, but feel free to eat anything you want.”

“Is there time for me to eat you?”

Stevie blushed, but she was grinning. “I wish.”

“Last night was perfect, baby. Dinner was awesome. You’re an excellent cook. And the after dinner entertainment was exquisite.”

“Really?”

“You’re very, very good, baby. The best kept secret in town. If the ladies knew how good you are, you’d never have time to do anything else.”

Stevie wasn’t sure how seriously to take that claim, but she wasn’t going to argue about it. “I don’t want anyone else. Only you.”

Rachel drew Stevie closer. “You take sweetness to a whole new level.”

They kissed until Stevie had to go and then they kissed a little more. Stevie was almost ten minutes late to work, but it was hard to care.

It was a good day. The Bobs behaved themselves and Stevie put an ad in the paper for a new employee. She did some work on marketing Mrs. Hennessey’s games and was happy with the interest buyers were showing. She would keep putting the word out there, but she wasn’t going to commit to anything for another month. Taking the first offer would be frustrating if the next day she had a higher one. She also wanted to talk to her accountant about how she could give the money to Mrs. Hennessey without her getting clobbered by taxes.

Since she wasn’t going to see Rachel that evening, Stevie stayed late at the shop to do a number of simple jobs. She knew it was frustrating to customers when they had to wait a week to get a cleaning done. It was fair to do things in the order they came in, but sometimes you had to cheat a little in order to make the customers happy.

When she was done, Stevie locked up and went out the back door. As she stopped to set the deadbolt, she heard a step behind her. Before she could turn to look, an arm slipped around her throat and squeezed.

Stevie didn’t have time to fight back. She could feel the pressure on her carotid artery and was shocked at how quickly her brain started shutting her extremities down. Her legs went first. When she sagged, it brought more pressure to bear and her arms went numb. The pressure inside her brain made her eyes and ears feel like they were going to pop. Stevie’s vision began to tunnel and her soul cried in helpless fear.

As she felt herself descending into oblivion, her last thoughts were of her family and her lover. She grieved that she would not be able to say goodbye and then she passed out.

>>>

Rory ate dinner without tasting a single bite. His Mom was still talking to him, but his Dad hadn’t said a word in his hearing since church on Sunday. So far as he knew, his parents hadn’t spoken to each other in days. It was becoming unbearable.

When he finished eating, he took his plate into the kitchen and rinsed it off. Placing it in the dishwasher, he went back to the dining room. His parents were still sitting quietly at the table and the idea of spending the rest of the evening in his room sucked. Tucking his hands in his pockets, Rory took the plunge.

“I’m going to spend the night at Stevie’s place. She said I could sleep on the couch whenever I wanted to.” His father was scowling at him. “I can’t handle your fighting anymore. I need a break.”

He steeled himself against the tears in his mother’s eyes and ignored the fiery threat in his father’s. “I’ll see you at dinner tomorrow.”

Rory ran upstairs and put an extra set of clothes in his backpack along with his schoolbooks. He expected to be stopped when he went downstairs, but the way was clear.  He got on his bike and rode away with a huge sense of relief. In truth, Rory was pretty nervous about what was going to happen. He loved both of his parents and he didn’t want them to split up. He wanted to believe that his mother had a handle on it, but he just wasn’t sure anymore.

Ever since Stevie had been excommunicated, the whole family had been thrown off balance. Nothing was like it used to be. The easy thing would be to blame it on his sister, but Rory couldn’t do it. Love just couldn’t be a sin. It wasn’t fair to punish her for something she couldn’t help and that didn’t hurt anyone. Besides, it was pretty cool to have a sister who was so brave that she could stand up to God and family while still loving both. Rory hoped he would be as stalwart and true if he were ever tested so severely.

Stevie wasn’t home from work when Rory got to her house. He waited for a while in case she had stopped at the store first, but after a half hour, he gave up. Jumping the fence to her backyard, he crawled under the deck and found her spare key. Rory let himself in. The silence was a bit creepy, but he fixed that by turning on the television.

Curious about where she was, he called her shop and left a message on the machine that he was looking for her. Calling her cell phone didn’t work either. Maybe she was with Rachel, but Rory didn’t have that number. He did, however, have Greg’s number, but Greg hadn’t seen her either. Rory thought about calling Dusty, but decided there was no sense in worrying about her. Stevie was a grown woman and could take care of herself. Rory channel-surfed until he found a movie he wanted to watch and settled in to wait.

The phone rang at a quarter to nine and Rory quickly answered it.

“Hello?”

“Uh…is this Stevie’s house?”

Rory recognized his sister’s girlfriend. “Hi, Rachel. It’s Rory.”

“Hi! How are you?”

“I’m good. Is Stevie with you?”

There was a slight hesitation on the line. “No. I haven’t seen her since early this morning. I’m getting ready for work and I thought I’d call her to say hello. Can you tell her I called?”

Rory debated on whether or not to express his growing worry, but he didn’t want to sound like a little kid. “Sure, I’ll tell her.”

“Thanks, Rory. Hopefully I’ll get to see you soon.”

“I’ll talk to Stevie about it. Catch you later.”

He sat with the phone in his hand for several minutes. Rory admitted to himself that he was worried. Home, work and cell were the phones you could always reach Stevie on. He couldn’t think of even once where he’d had to wait more than ten minutes to get a call-back. Rory had been waiting almost three hours. That just wasn’t like his sister.

Rory started with her shop. His call went to the answering machine and he left another message. Next he called her cell. She always had it with her, but it went to voice mail. Greg still hadn’t heard from her. Rory told him he was worried and Greg said he would make some calls.

Waiting was hard.

Half an hour later, Greg called back. “Her truck is at the shop,” Greg said right off. “I’m looking in the windows, but the lights are off and it doesn’t look like she’s here.”

“She’s not with anyone,” Rory said. “What should we do?”

Greg was quiet for a minute. “The cops won’t do anything for at least a day unless there’s evidence of a crime. It looks suspicious to me, but it won’t for the cops. We can call them, but I doubt they’ll be helpful. What about the Bobs? Did you call them?”

Rory felt a moment of bright hope. “I forgot about them.”

“Okay. Call them and then call me back.”

Rory found their number on the refrigerator and called.

“What?”

“Hi.  Um…this is Stevie’s little brother, Rory. I’m looking for Stevie. Have you seen her?”

“Not since work.”

“What time was that?”

“About five. She was gonna stay for a while and work on some of the easy stuff. She was in her office when we left. What’s up?”

Rory was starting to feel sick to his stomach. “We can’t find her. Her truck is still at the shop, but she’s nowhere to be found. She’s not answering her cell and I’ve been at her house all evening. Stevie doesn’t disappear like that.”

“She had a date yesterday. Maybe she had another one today.”

“Rachel doesn’t know where she is.”

“Okay. Give me a minute and let me see if I can track her cell.”

“Cool.” It was a great idea. Rory didn’t know which Bob he was talking to, but Stevie said they were both great at that sort of thing.

He peeked out the front window and checked the street. If her truck was still at the shop, maybe there was something wrong with it and she was on foot. It wasn’t likely because the shop was only about an hour walk from her house, but it was still possible.

Rory could hear the click of keys over the phone and kept his fingers crossed that her location could be triangulated.

“Looks like her cell isn’t on.”

“So there’s no way to track her?”

“Nope, but I’ll keep an eye on it. If she turns it on, I’ll see it. Should I call her or you if I get a fix?”

“Both. Thanks, Bob.”

“No problem, kid.”

Rory called Greg, but there was no new information. He heard Dusty arrive and the racing crew promised to look around and call him back.

It only took him a minute to decide to call his parents. Maybe that’s where Stevie was, but if not, it was two more people to help find her.

His father answered the phone. “Hello?”

“Dad.” Just hearing his voice made Rory feel like crying. It was embarrassing and it took him a moment to collect himself.

“Rory?”

“Dad, something’s wrong. Stevie’s missing.”

His father’s voice was harsh. “She’s probably hanging out with her new friends. Maybe you should come on home, son.”

Rory took a deep breath to steady his nerves. “All of her friends are looking for her, Dad. We found her truck, but she’s not answering her cell. She’s not anywhere. I’m worried about her.”

“I seriously doubt she’s in trouble, Rory. She’s just lost track of time and she’ll be home soon. Now, I think it would be best if you came home where you belong.”

Rory didn’t believe it for a second. “Can I talk to Mom, please?”

Enough. I expect you home in fifteen minutes.”

His father didn’t even give him time to respond. There was a click and then a dial tone. Rory put the phone down in disbelief. He thought about calling right back, but his dad would answer the phone again.

Rory called his brother, Sam, but he got about the same response from his brother as he had from his dad. He tried to think of someone else he could call. Rory checked the phone numbers on Stevie’s refrigerator and found one for Rick Davidson. He was getting desperate, so he called it.

“Hello.”

“Brother Davidson…it’s Rory Marks.”

“Hi, Rory. How are you?”

He’d never been particularly close to Rick, but he felt an odd sense of relief at hearing his voice. “I think Stevie is missing. I don’t know what to do. Will you help me?”

“Where are you?”

“At Stevie’s house.”

“I’ll be there in ten minutes, Rory. Hang tough.”

“Thanks, Brother Davidson.”

There was nothing new to report by the time Rick Davidson arrived. Before Rory could say anything, Stevie’s friend came bounding up the steps and gave him a guy hug.

“Call me Rick. What’s going on?”

Rory told him everything he knew and it made him feel much better. Having a grownup to help made a big difference.

“Alright,” Rick said when he was done. “I think we should leave a note here in case Stevie comes home and go talk to your parents.”

“Dad doesn’t care.”

“Let’s give him another chance. If you or I go to the police, they probably won’t listen as hard as if your folks make the report. We need them on our side.”

It made sense. Rory wrote a note to tell Stevie she was being looked for and tacked it securely to the front door. He left his bike in the backyard and rode with Rick.

>>>

“Who was that?”

“Rory. Stevie’s not there, so I told him to come home.”

Helen watched her husband from the doorway for a minute. He was at his desk and appeared to be balancing the checkbook. She’d given him a chance to talk when Rory had left, but he had avoided her. Maybe it was time to try again.

She sat down at the chair in front of his desk and crossed her legs. “Are we going to talk?”

“Are you going to listen?”

There was a glass paperweight on the edge of his desk. Helen considered throwing it at him. “Define listen.”

Jacob took off his reading glasses and sat back in his chair. “Why should I bother talking to you if you aren’t going to listen to me? It seems like every time I open my mouth, you kick me in the teeth.”

Helen knew that was probably true…from his perspective. The problem was that he just kept repeating the same things over and over. He didn’t have anything new to add, so he just kept repeating himself as if she would eventually come to see things his way. “Alright. I’ll listen. Make your case.”

Jacob started with the duties and responsibilities of a wife and then segued into the rights and privileges of a husband. After that, he railed on the monstrous sin of homosexuality. He’d apparently been planning his dissertation for some time because it was absolutely littered with biblical references.

Helen was a little surprised it had only taken him thirty minutes to disseminate such a thorough opinion. On the other hand, she didn’t hear anything she hadn’t heard a thousand times before. She herself had been spouting that bile just weeks before.

It took another few minutes for Jacob to wrap it up. He ended with, “These are God’s feelings on the matter. Not mine. It is not for us to question God. That way lies damnation.”

Helen knew he was done, but she waited for him to officially end it.

“Do you have any questions?”

“No.”

“Do you have anything to say about what I’ve explained to you?”

She had plenty to say, but before she could begin, the front door opened. Expecting Rory, she turned in her chair and called out, “We’re in your father’s office.”

Rory opened the door seconds later. His eyes moved over both of them and settled on his dad. “Did you tell her?”

Helen looked at the frown of frustration on Jacob’s face and then looked back at her son. “Tell me what?”

“Stevie’s missing.”

Helen’s guts twisted with fear. “What?”

“She’s probably out carousing with her heathen friends,” Jacob groused.

She is not!” Rory screamed at his father. He turned pleading eyes on Helen. “All of her friends are looking for her. Her cell phone is off so we can’t track her with GPS. Her truck is still at her shop. Something’s wrong, Mom. I can feel it. We’ve tried everyone we can think of and we think it’s time to call the cops, but we don’t think they’ll listen to us.”

Jacob slammed his hand on his desk and stood up. “Go to your room, Rory. Now. Sit down, Helen. We aren’t done yet.”

Helen held a hand out to Rory to stop him from talking. “Close the door, son. I’ll be right out.” She waited for him to comply and rounded on her husband. “Is this what it’s come to?” she hissed. “Our son tells you that our daughter is missing and you don’t care? That’s what he called about earlier, isn’t it? And you didn’t bother to tell me?”

Helen was so angry she was shaking. “If something has happened to Stevie while you sat on that information, I will never forgive you.” She took a deep breath, but it didn’t calm her at all. “Maybe while I’m gone searching for our daughter, you can look up the Bible verses that order you to stop loving your child when they don’t do what you want. I want you to show me where it says you have the right to play God with your affections.”

Young Rick Davidson was standing with her son when she opened the office door. He bowed his head to her and said, “I’m here to help.”

“Thank you, Rick. Where haven’t we looked?”

Neither of them was quick to respond. Helen assumed they had looked in every reasonable place they could think of. If there were places Stevie would go that they didn’t know about, they needed to talk to someone who would know. The only person Helen could think of was Pat.

Digging her cell out of her purse, Helen found Pat’s home number and dialed. She was very relieved when Pat answered. “Hi, Pat. It’s Helen Marks. I know it’s late, but we have a bit of an emergency here.”

“What’s wrong, Helen?”

“Stevie appears to be missing. Now, it might turn out to be nothing, but I’d rather make a fool out of myself than do nothing if she’s in trouble. Is there a place in town where lesbians might hang out on a weeknight?”

“Let me think…there are a couple of places the guys hang out, but the girls tend to do events as opposed to living in bars and coffee houses. Still, if I were looking for lesbians tonight, I think I’d go to Amelia’s. It’s a little bar down on Franklin.”

“Thanks, Pat.”

“Let me know if I can help with anything else. I’ll be waiting for your call.”

Helen grabbed her purse and coat. “Let’s go, boys.”

“Where are we going?” Rory asked.

“A lesbian bar.”

“Cool.”

Helen smiled when she saw Rick smack her son in the back of the head. “You aren’t going in, Rory. Rick and I will do it.”

“Figures.”

>>>

It was hard to be dynamic about dancing when no one was watching. Sure, there were the three businessmen (of dubious legitimacy) drinking together in the corner and two separate droolers were sitting next to the stage, but the ambiance of the club was tired and bored. Enthusiasm would be wasted on this bunch.

Rachel was still disappointed that she hadn’t reached Stevie before work. It was way too late to call her now. There was only an hour left before the club shut down for the night and Rachel was trying to decide if it was appropriate or wise to go spend the rest of the night with Stevie. She really wanted to, but it hadn’t been planned in advance. Plus, as an undercover operative, she really shouldn’t be spending the night with her girlfriend. She wasn’t supposed to be falling in love and having a good time.

Rachel had another ten minutes or so on her set. She adjusted for the rhythm of the new song just as Stevie’s crew came in. Rachel faltered as they scanned the room and headed straight for her. She’d been hoping this wouldn’t happen.

Strangely enough, Dusty wouldn’t even look at her and Greg’s eyes never went below her chin. Rachel checked the room, but Gary wasn’t on the floor. Neither was Tom, but Dennis was watching. That made her nervous, but there wasn’t much she could do about it.

“Have you seen Stevie?”

Rachel continued dancing in a haphazard fashion and shook her head.

“You’re sure?”

That didn’t sound right. Rachel folded her arms over her breasts and leaned down so she could hear him better. “I haven’t seen her since early this morning. What’s going on?”

“We can’t find her. She’s not answering her cell and she left her truck at work. Do you know if she was planning on going anywhere this evening?”

Rachel had a sick feeling in her stomach. “I expected her to be at home.”

Greg shook his head. “No one’s seen her or talked to her since five o’clock. Everyone she knows has been contacted. We called the police and they put out an APB, but they don’t seem to be serious about investigating so we’re rechecking everywhere and driving the most likely streets for her to be on. One of the Bobs is watching her GPS if she turns on her cellphone. If you want to help us when you get off work…”

“Absolutely,” Rachel interrupted. “I’ll contact…who should I call?”

“Hey!” one of the droolers called out. “I ain’t paying eight bucks a drink for the beer.”

Rachel held one finger up to him. “Sixty seconds. I’ll make it up to you.”

Greg shook his head. “Asshole. Stevie’s mom is at her house. You can call her. She’s organizing the search.”

“Okay.” Rachel was thinking furiously. “What about Mrs. Hennessy?”

“Who?”

Dusty elbowed Greg. “The grass lady.”

“Oh yeah. We’ll check her, too.”

“I wish I could leave work, but I can’t. It’s not that I give a damn about this job, but I just can’t leave until the end of shift.”

“It’s cool, Rachel. We’re all doing what we can, when we can. I’ll let Mrs. Marks know that you’re going to call.”

“Thanks, Greg. You too, Dusty.”

They left the club without looking back.

“Come on, girl. Dance.”

She wanted to scream, but she couldn’t. Unlike those who were looking for Stevie, Rachel was all but certain something terrible had happened.

And where was Tom? She’d seen him earlier, but not for an hour or so.

Rachel danced, but she felt the icy fingers of dread on her naked skin.

As soon as Tawny came out to take the stage, Rachel went straight to Gary’s office. He had his feet up on the desk and was watching television. Rachel stepped inside his office with trepidation. “A friend of mine is in trouble. I’d like to leave early tonight.”

Gary looked at the wall clock and then back to the television. “No.”

“Why not? There’s only five guys out there. You can’t be making money. Wouldn’t it make sense to let me go early and save a few bucks?”

“No. Get back to work.”

“Why do you have to be a bastard? Why can’t you be compassionate even one time? What’s wrong with you?”

Gary didn’t seem the least bit upset with her. He was just as bored as the rest of the club. “I’ll make you a deal. Blow me and you can go.”

Rachel couldn’t help the look of distaste that came over her face. “Forget it. I wouldn’t blow you to save my own life.”

“Whatever. Get back to work.”

Rachel left his office in disgust and decided she had to go. She wasn’t going to learn anything new at the club and Stevie wasn’t worth sacrificing for the case. She raced to the dressing room and pulled on her clothes. Grabbing her bag, she ran out to the club floor. Tom still wasn’t there. Rachel went up to the bar.

“Dennis. Where’s Tom?”

Dennis was wiping some glasses with a bar rag and he jerked his head to the left. “Downstairs.”

As far as she knew, there was nothing in the basement worth spending more than ten minutes on. “What’s he doing down there?”

“Beats the hell out of me. It’s a slow night. Maybe he’s napping.”

Rachel put her hand out. “I need to talk to him. Can I borrow your key?”

Dennis put the glass and rag down on the bar with a sigh. “I can’t give up the key, but I’ll let you in.”

Rachel had serious doubts about Dennis, but she couldn’t leave without seeing Tom. He needed to know what was going on.

Dennis opened the basement door and stepped back. “Just make sure the door is locked when you leave.”

“I will.”

Rachel stepped onto the landing and peered down into the basement storage area. “Tom?”

“Run, Rachel!”

It was Stevie’s voice. Before she could really wrap her mind around it, a foot slammed into the middle of her back and Rachel was falling over the flimsy railing. It happened so fast. Rachel couldn’t breathe for a moment. One arm and one knee were screaming in agony.

“Rachel! Are you alright? Look at me, honey. Let me see your eyes. Don’t you touch her!”

Rachel screamed when she was jerked up. Something was really wrong with her arm and leg. The pain was blinding. “Stopstopstopstop…”

“She’s hurt! Can’t you see that? Leave her alone, you rotten pig!”

Rachel was shoved into a chair and her wrists handcuffed to a pipe above her head. She could tell that her left wrist was broken by the grating of bone on bone. As soon as Dennis finished cuffing her, he moved to where Stevie was standing with her hands cuffed to an overhead pipe and punched her in the belly.

Stevie gasped for air. She was trying to curl in on herself, but she couldn’t.

“I told you to shut the fuck up,” Dennis warned. “One more word and I’ll hurt your precious girlfriend. You got me?”

Stevie nodded as she struggled to pull air into her lungs.

Dennis grabbed Rachel by the hair and glared at her. “Fucking cop.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Rachel Quinn,” he spat. “I know who you are.” He twisted her head. “That’s what happens to cops in this business.”

Tom Dean was slumped over against a wall. There was a thick streak of blood on the wall behind him. “No,” Rachel cried softly.

“If you want to live, you’ll be quiet down here until I get back. Cause trouble and I’ll rape your little sex toy there.”

“If you touch her,” Rachel growled at him, “I’ll rip your throat out.”

Dennis laughed. “No, you won’t.”

Rachel watched Dennis as he went back upstairs and locked the door. Her eyes went to Stevie. “Are you alright? Stevie?”

The young woman stood up straight and leaned as far forward as she could. “I’m okay. Are you hurt?”

Rachel was so grateful to see her. “I’m fine, baby.”

Stevie shook her head. “If we’re going to get out of here, I need to know how bad you’re hurt. Your wrist is turning black. Is it broken?”

Rachel stared up at it. Her wrist really was turning black. It was also swelling. “It’s broken alright. I think my right knee is broken, too. Maybe not, but it’s hurting like crazy. Did he hurt you?”

“No. I love you, Rachel. I’ll do my best to get us out of here.”

Rachel tried to smile. “I just saw Greg and Dusty a few minutes ago. I guess half the town is looking for you.”

Stevie was looking at the length of pipe she was handcuffed to. “I’m not going to wait for them. He shot Tom like he was nothing. I’ve never seen anyone die before and I don’t aim to see it again. I’m getting us out of here if it’s the last thing I do.”

Rachel thought it might actually be the last thing Stevie attempted to do, but she wasn’t going to say it. She closed her eyes for a moment and tried to get a handle on the pain. Her wrist was probably going to swell even more, so she tried to move the cuff as far above the break as she could. There didn’t seem to be a position for her knee that would alleviate the pain, so she tried to ignore it. “This is my fault.”

“How so?”

Rachel rested her head on an arm. “I should have stayed away from you. I’m the reason you’re here.”

Stevie was quiet for a moment. “That may be true, but if you’re here, this is where I want to be. I do wonder, though, what you were investigating here.”

Rachel saw no more reason to hold back. “Methamphetamines. Someone is dealing quantity through the club. They’re using the dancers to make drops around town and it’s adding up to some serious product. We’ve got the drop sites and some of the smaller players identified, but we don’t know where it’s coming from. The information you brought us was critical. Looks like we didn’t put it together fast enough. Damn, this hurts.”

“Hang in there, honey. I’m working on it.”

Rachel opened her eyes as Stevie swung her legs up to the ceiling. Hooking her legs over a beam, she worked a hand up to one of the pipe supports and began working at the bolts. “I was leaving work and someone ambushed me,” she explained. “I’m pretty sure it was Dennis. He choked me unconscious and I woke up here. I had a blazing headache at first, but it’s gone now. If I can get a couple of these bolts to come off, I might be able to get myself off this pipe.”

Rachel felt like she was still catching up after the fall. It seemed like everything was happening so fast. She couldn’t believe Tom was dead. She’d been dancing while he died and she hadn’t even known it. Her partner was dead. She’d barely gotten a chance to know him and he was dead.

Now her ineptitude was going to get Stevie killed as well. Killing Tom made it a pretty sure bet they weren’t going to get out of the basement alive.

“Come on, come on, come on…yes!”

Rachel blinked through her tears. Stevie appeared to have a nut loosened. One wasn’t going to be a lot of help and it didn’t seem likely there would be another one that was only finger tight, but at least she was doing something.

It was hard to think past the pain in her knee and wrist. Rachel looked around the room. There had to be something she could do to help their situation. The store room was stacked with boxes of booze, new glassware, old chairs and past years of tax receipts and employee information. Nothing of any use was within reach of her good leg. Even if there were something, Rachel probably wouldn’t be able to use it.

Stevie dropped down from the ceiling and rested for a moment. “Are you doing okay?”

Rachel shook her head slowly. “Not really.”

“I’m going to get us out of here,” Stevie promised. “All I need is one more bolt and then I think I can get free. When I do, what the best way out of here?”

“Up the stairs is the only way out.”

“No, I meant…I don’t know where we are in the building. Once we get upstairs, how do we get out?”

Rachel wiped away tears on her arm and pictured it. “The fastest way out would be left to the corner, then left around the bar to the front door, but he’ll see us for sure.”

“We have to assume he won’t mind shooting us. Is there another way?”

“Right and right into the dressing room. Straight through and past Gary’s office. There’s an exit to the alley after the women’s rest room. That’s the way we leave at night because we park behind the building. If we can get past Gary, we might be alright.”

“I’ll have to carry you, but it’s doable.”

Rachel bit at the inside of her mouth to keep from crying. “I’m not much good to you, am I?”

“Don’t be a goof. If I were the one with broken bones, you’d be the one to get me out of here. You can be the hero next time.”

“Next time?”

“Well, let’s hope there won’t be a next time, but if there is…I’m going to sit back and let you do the saving. Deal?”

Rachel didn’t find that amusing, but bitching about it wasn’t going to help them. She looked around again and saw her purse sitting half off the landing. “You know, if you can get loose, my cell phone is in my bag. We could call for help and let the police come get us. That way we wouldn’t have to worry about getting shot.”

Stevie was working on the second half of the pipe support. It was made out of two long screws coming down from the wood beam on either side of the pipe. A cross piece went under the pipe and two nuts held it on. Loosening the first one took the pressure off the second. Stevie seemed to be loosening both nuts to the last thread and making it look like the support was still intact. “My phone is in my back pocket. If I can get my hands down, I can call on my phone, too.”

Rachel thought of something. “Greg said they tried tracking your phone, but they didn’t get anything.”

Stevie stopped working and looked at her. “I was charging it at work. I didn’t turn it on when I put it in my pocket because I was going to be driving. If I can turn it on, Bob will see it and be able to tell everyone where we are.”

“You don’t have to make a call?”

“No.” Stevie twisted to see her back pocket and shook her hips. She bounced a few times and then sighed. “My jeans are too tight.” She looked up at the ceiling and then down at the floor. “Maybe I could shake it out if I hung upside down, but then it might break on the floor.” Stevie looked around again as if studying her options. “Getting loose is still our best option.”

Rachel watched her back up to the next support and swing her legs up. She struggled with the nuts for a while and then abruptly stopped. “I wish I had a Leatherman’s tool.”

“I wish I had one to give you,” Rachel said helplessly. “I wish I could do just about anything to be of help.”

“You’re my inspiration,” Stevie said calmly. “Don’t underestimate how important that is.”

Rachel moved without thinking in an effort to make herself more comfortable and the bones in her wrist ground together. It was all she could do to keep from screaming. Freezing in position, she closed her eyes and panted in an effort to breathe through the pain.

“Are you alright?”

Rachel nodded slightly, but it was a lie. She was pretty sure she was starting to exhibit symptoms of shock. She felt dizzy and sick. Her skin was clammy and cold, but she was sweating. She was holding on, but it wasn’t going to fix itself. She had to get help before too long or she’d be in real trouble.

“I hate that song,” Stevie said.

The music from upstairs was just a pounding sound, but Rachel listened to it for a moment and recognized it as Roxanne by the Police. It wasn’t one of her favorite songs either.

“What time will the music stop?”

“Two.”

“Alright. I’ve got about twenty-five minutes to get this done before he’s likely to come down here. Can you listen for the door and warn me if he comes back early?”

“Sure, baby.” Rachel opened her eyes as Stevie turned sideways to the pipe and lifted herself. Her long legs came up and over the wood beam and Stevie wiggled into a balanced position. Her hands were more restricted as a result, but they were in the right place.  “Look at you go,” Rachel said softly.

Stevie grinned at her. “My mom gets the credit for that one. She made me take gymnastics one year.”

“I’ll make sure to hug her when we get out.”

Rachel watched Stevie struggle with the support while she listened to the door. Every new song from upstairs meant less time for escape. She tried to hold onto hope, but pain was dragging her down to despair. Dennis was going to come back down soon and kill them both. Just like poor Tom…

Rachel frowned. “Why aren’t we dead? Why are you here?”

Stevie paused in her efforts. “Maybe I’m leverage.”

“For what purpose?”

“Maybe he wants to know what we know and who we told.”

“Maybe.”

“If he asks, I’m telling him,” Stevie said simply. “I’d rather just die than get tortured to death and if he starts torturing you, I won’t be able to keep a secret anyway.”

Stevie had a point. Rachel’s first instinct was to withhold information, but what was the point of that? What did she know that she shouldn’t tell him? He’d already killed Tom so he was going to run anyway. Holding out wasn’t going to change anything. Besides, if he started torturing Stevie to make her talk she wouldn’t be able to stand it. She’d tell him anything to make him stop.

“Alright. If he asks, we tell him everything.”

“Um…if this turns into a torture session, how long before the cops wonder where you are?”

Rachel considered it. She was starting to have trouble focusing. She just wanted to lie down and sleep. “I email a report every night after work, but I don’t think anyone is sitting there waiting for it.”

“What about Tom?”

A tiny flare of hope gave her some much needed energy. “If neither of us sends in a report, it might be an hour or two before they start to worry, but I don’t know how long until they react.”

“Is this happening because of the information I found? Doesn’t the timing strike you as too coincidental?”

Rachel wanted to deny it. “I don’t know, baby.”

“Oh well, it’s not like it matters now. We’ll figure it out later.”

Stevie eventually found a way to use the chain of her cuffs to reduce tension on one side of the support. She rushed to get the nuts loosened, but the music shut off before she could finish. “Is he coming?”

“I don’t know,” Rachel admitted. “It takes a while to do the final clean up. I don’t know if he’ll wait or not.”

Stevie shifted off the beam and lowered herself to the floor. Her fingers continued to twist the nuts to the last thread. “If we got out right now, someone would see us.”

“I think so.”

Stevie grabbed the pipe and tested it. “I can take off the nuts in just a few seconds and then maybe I can bust a joint or something. It’s our only chance, but do I have enough time to do it now or should I wait? What if he just comes down here and shoots us?”

Rachel tried to think it through. “I don’t think he’ll shoot us right away.”

“After one minute or sixty minutes, dead is dead.”

“True.” Rachel just didn’t know the answer. “I think I’m going into shock, Stevie. I’m not thinking clearly. Do what you think is best.”

Stevie closed her eyes for a few heartbeats and then opened them with a look of determination. “Waiting isn’t really my style.”

The four nuts were removed with a quick twist and the flat bars were dropped to the ground. Stevie wrenched the overhead pipe in a couple of different directions. For reasons Rachel didn’t see, Stevie picked one direction over the others. Grabbing the pipe with both hands, she inverted herself and put the bottoms of her feet on the beam.

“Wish me luck, honey.”

Rachel smiled a little. “Good luck, baby.”

The door at the top of the stairs opened.

Stevie dropped her feet to the floor and Rachel looked to see who it was.

“Tawny!”

For a few seconds, Rachel felt overcome with relief, but Tawny stopped at the bottom of the stairs and put her hands on her hips.

“What the hell is going on down here?”

“Back for round two?” Stevie asked with a snarl.

In that moment she understood that Tawny was in on it, Rachel felt oddly betrayed. “Round two?”

Stevie sighed. “She seems to think that feeling me up will devastate me emotionally.”

“Fucking dyke.” Tawny was looking at the over head pipe. “Looks like you’ve been a busy little beaver. Beaver. Get it?”

Rachel ignored the pathetic joke and searched Stevie’s eyes. “She touched you?”

Stevie’s face was stoic and non-responsive.

Rachel stared at Tawny until their eyes met. “You touched her?”

Tawny giggled. “Yeah. What are you gonna do about it, pig?” She strutted between them with an angry smile. “A pig and a beaver walked into a bar. Neither of them walked out. The end.”

“Make sure you kill me,” Rachel warned, “because I’m going to hunt you down if it takes the rest of my life.”

“Better get cracking,” Tawny spat. “You don’t have a lot of time left.”

Stevie struck like a snake. When she stopped moving, she was still hanging from the pipe, but Tawny was trapped between her legs. Tawny’s head and one arm were trapped in front and Stevie was baring her teeth with the strain she was exerting. Rachel was surprised that Tawny was so quickly showing signs of passing out. She couldn’t keep her eyes open and there was drool coming out of her open mouth.

“I don’t want to kill her,” Stevie strained. “Tell me when she’s out.”

Rachel felt something hard on the back of her head.

“Let her go,” Dennis said intently, “or I’ll kill Rachel. I don’t need both of you.”

Stevie made a sound of disgust and dropped Tawny to the ground. The dancer coughed a few times and rolled away before pushing herself up on her feet. She spit in Stevie’s direction and then pointed at her. “She tried to kill me.”

Dennis took the gun from Rachel’s head and finished walking down the stairs. “What did you expect, you dumb bitch?”

“I wasn’t trying to kill her,” Stevie said.

“Shut up.” Dennis noticed the hardware on the floor and looked up at the pipe. “How’d you get those off?”

Stevie showed him her fingertips. They looked raw even from a distance. “Elbow grease.”

Dennis grabbed the pipe and tried to move it. It didn’t move very much, but he’d grabbed it next to a support and not in the center of the loose section. He seemed to think it was still secure, but Rachel could see that his assessment was faulty. She didn’t know if Stevie could disconnect it somehow, but she didn’t think it was beyond the realm of possibility.

He turned back to Rachel, but she was watching Stevie. Tawny was holding her throat and she walked a little too close. Stevie casually kicked her in the groin so hard it lifted her right off the ground. Tawny dropped like a sack of potatoes and a thin whine came out of her throat.

Dennis looked down at Tawny and then pointed his gun at Stevie. “What did you do?”

Stevie shrugged as best as she could. “I’m not stupid. I know I’m going to die down here. I just thought it was fair for me to give her something to remember me by.”

Tawny was having trouble breathing, but one hand was in the air in the shape of a gun and it kept waving at Stevie.

“One more problem from you and I will kill you.”

“Okay.”

Rachel could hardly believe how Stevie was acting. She’d never seen such bravery before. She was feeling a little fuzzy around the edges now, but she tried to look and act unaffected when Dennis focused on her.

“I want you to tell me everything you think you know about me, about Tawny and about the club. If you refuse, I will rape your girlfriend. If you still refuse, I will put a bullet between her eyes and then I’ll start on you. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Start talking.”

Rachel gave it all up. Everything she could remember about the case up till that point and everything they suspected. When she got to the information Stevie had collected, Stevie stepped in and told him all of it. She did not, however, say anything about the Bobs.

It took a while, but by the time they were done, Tawny was sitting on the bottom step and Dennis had his arms folded where he was leaning against the wall. He stood there thinking for a few minutes and Stevie ventured a question.

“How did you figure out that Rachel was undercover? Was it something I did?”

He smirked at Rachel. “A customer recognized you from a traffic stop. They really shouldn’t have put you undercover in the same city. Fucking amateurs.”

Rachel was shaking now and it was hard to feel which way up was. She knew she was in deep trouble. If she didn’t get medical attention soon, she was probably going to die of shock. “Now what?”

Tawny stood up gingerly. She might be functional, but it was clear she was still hurting. “I want to kill the tall one. Give me the gun.”

When Dennis held out the snub-nosed revolver, Rachel shook her head in denial. “Please. Don’t kill her. Please.

Stevie was standing tall and proud. There was grief in her face, but she gave Rachel a genuine smile. “I love you, Rachel. I’ll wait for you on the other side.”

“Gag me,” Tawny drawled. “You two are so pathetic.” She walked over in front of Stevie, but not too close, and pointed the gun at her. “Say goodnight.”

Rachel screamed, “Noooooo!” just as Tawny swung the gun towards Dennis and pulled the trigger.

Dennis staggered back against the wall. He looked stupidly at his chest and then at Tawny.  “Why?”

The dancer dropped her arm to her side. “Sorry, stud, but you’ve been made. It won’t be long before they figure out who you really are. Having you around is too much of a risk.”

Rachel watched Dennis slide down the wall, leaving a blood stain much like Tom’s. She couldn’t help feeling like he’d deserved it.

Tawny sighed dramatically and turned around. “He really was good in bed. Too bad he had to die. Too bad for you, too.” She smiled at Rachel. “I liked working with you once you quit that constant puking thing. Good God, that was disgusting. And you,” she said to Stevie, “killing you is gonna make me feel a whole lot better.”

“You like the killing part, don’t you?”

“It’s like getting high. Way better than drugs.”

Stevie let her disgust show. “You’re defective. Something is wrong with the way your brain works.”

Tawny laughed. “Smart don’t mean shit when someone else has the gun.”

“At least someone loves me. You’ll never know what that’s like.”

Tawny pointed the gun at Stevie and Rachel held her breath. She wanted to tell Stevie to shut up and stop baiting the psycho bitch, but it looked like it was too late. All she could hope for was that Tawny made the shots in quick succession. If she had to watch Stevie die, she wanted to be only a second behind her.

Tawny abruptly dropped her arm and started up the stairs. “I think I’ll enjoy this a lot more if the both of you suffer. Just thinking about you two spending your last moments gazing into each other’s eyes as the air gets hot and smoky makes me feel like having an orgasm. Will you die from the smoke or the building falling on you? Gosh, I might even have multiples. Toodles, girls.”

The instant the door at the top of the stairs closed, Stevie’s feet practically jumped to the beam over her head. Her whole body strained at the pipe. It shifted with creaking groans, but it was slow. Stevie never let up the pressure. After several minutes, Stevie was at a ninety degree angle to the floor. Her feet were still on the beam and her head was at the lower end of the angle.

Rachel could only watch with awe. She’d never seen anything like it.

The next support in line suddenly gave with a twang and Stevie fell to the floor. Without Stevie’s weight to hold the pipe down, it snapped back toward the ceiling, dragging her back up by her wrists. Stevie jumped to her feet and moved towards the newly broken support. It was further from the stairs, but it looked to Rachel like it went from the ceiling to the floor without any brackets. It might be more likely to break at that point.

“Hang on, honey,” Stevie said as she shoved a few boxes with her feet. “We’ll be out of here soon.”

Rachel believed her. She rested her head against her good arm and closed her eyes. She’d never felt so sick and disoriented in her whole life. It was hard to pinpoint where she hurt anymore because her entire body was throbbing. It was more than just the broken wrist and injured knee. Rachel had never really taken shock seriously before. If she lived through this, she was going to make sure her fellow officers took it seriously in the future.

The fire alarm went off upstairs.

“Drat,” Stevie cursed. “Stop lollygagging and get the job done, Marks.”

Rachel didn’t open her eyes until she heard Stevie growling with the effort and metal started tearing. The pipe snapped suddenly and boxes fell on Stevie. Seconds later, Stevie was up and diving towards the end of the pipe. There was a bit of struggle and then Stevie flew backwards onto the floor. She rolled over onto her knees and almost dove at Rachel.

The young woman didn’t touch Rachel, but she was darting here and there while she checked out what she was up against.

“I love you, Stevie,” Rachel said weakly. “Wanted you to know.”

Stevie came close and looked her in the eyes. “You don’t look like you feel so good.”

“Pretty bad,” Rachel admitted. “You’re so beautiful.”

“If you think you’re going to die, you better rethink that. I’m not done with you by a long shot.” Stevie looked at Rachel’s hands and her eyes made a decision. “We don’t have much time. Smoke is coming in around the door. We have to leave now. I’m really sorry, honey, but this is going to hurt.”

Rachel looked up at her hands as Stevie gently wrapped both hands around Rachel’s left hand above the break.

“Forgive me,” Stevie whispered.

Rachel screamed when she felt the bones in her hand snap. She screamed again when Stevie forced her hand through the handcuff.

Rachel was not entirely conscious as Stevie put her cuffed hands around Rachel and hefted her over her shoulder. Every step Stevie took drove Rachel further from awareness. She heard Stevie coughing at several points and she was pretty sure she heard shattering glass, but then she got very cold and her memories went dark.

>>>

Helen got to the hospital before the ambulance did. She was not the only one. Stevie’s friends and employees were right behind her. She held Rory’s hand as the first emergency vehicle pulled up. Helen recognized Rachel on the gurney. Her skin was a pasty grey color and she looked waxy. It made her fearful for her daughter.

As Rachel was wheeled inside, another ambulance pulled up. Helen recognized her daughter’s sneakers when the doors opened and she put a hand to her mouth to hold back a sob. There was an oxygen mask on Stevie’s face and she was coughing violently. Seeing her daughter in pain was agony. Helen followed Stevie inside, but she was careful not to interfere. This was not the first time she’d had to wait for news about her daughter’s condition. It was never easy.

What had happened to them?

Over the next ten minutes, eleven police cars showed up and the officers met in a waiting room. She heard one asking at the desk about the condition of Officer Rachel Quinn. She clearly remembered Rachel telling her that she worked at a night club.

Helen turned to the people Stevie called friends. “Somebody better tell me what’s going on.”

Chapter Nine

Helen was exhausted, but she still had one more duty to perform. Between Stevie’s friends and the police, she had a pretty good idea what had happened, though the final events were somewhat of a mystery. Everything was still under investigation. She looked back through the glass one more time at her daughter.

Stevie had pulmonary edema from smoke inhalation and she was in a coma. Her fingertips looked like raw hamburger, but her lungs were the real danger. Stevie was drowning in her own fluids. The doctors wouldn’t even try to guess what the odds were.

A man and woman were standing at the next window. The man had his arm around the woman and it made Helen sad for her own relationship. The woman had a salt and pepper version of Rachel’s hair and Helen decided to take the risk.

“Excuse me. Are you Rachel’s family?”

They turned to her and it was the man who answered. “Yes, we are. I’m Darius Quinn and this is Rachel’s mother, Selene Wright. Are you with the Department?”

“No. I’m…uh…My name is Helen Marks. My daughter…” Helen pointed back at Stevie’s room. “I think our daughters are…friends.”

The two of them looked at each other and Selene Wright reached out to take her hand. “They told us Rachel was saved by someone. Was that your daughter?”

“I think so, but I don’t know exactly what happened. I met Rachel once. Is she alright?”

Selene answered. “She needs surgery on her left hand, but she’s in shock. They can’t fix her hand until she stabilizes. How is your daughter?”

Helen looked through the window at Rachel and sent up a prayer for her. “Stevie’s in a coma. She was conscious when she got here, but now…she has pulmonary edema.”

“Are they just friends?” Selena asked.

Helen wasn’t sure how to answer that. Did they know about their daughter? It seemed they might. “I’m not sure, but I’ve got the sense they’re…dating.”

Rachel’s parents smiled. “Maybe we should get to know each other then,” Darius said. “Perhaps we could have lunch?”

“I’d like that,” Helen said with some relief. “I’ll look for you later. I need to make a phone call.”

Selene patted her arm. “We’ll keep an eye on your daughter, too.”

It was irrational to think they could do anything, but it felt better to know someone would be watching over Stevie. “Thank you.”

Cell phones wouldn’t work in the hospital so Helen had to go out to the parking lot. The sun was up, but it was a rather colorless day. Not far from her car was a bench and Helen chose it rather than sitting in the car. She dialed her house and listened to it ring.

“Hello.”

The sound of her husband’s voice brought so many memories; most good; a few not so good. “Good morning, Jacob.”

He breathed in and spoke softly. “You didn’t come home.”

Tears rolled down her face and she fought to keep her voice calm. “I’m at the hospital. Stevie’s in Intensive Care. She’s in a coma.”

Jacob cleared his throat. “What happened?”

“I don’t have the whole story, but she saved the life of an undercover police officer last night. She inhaled too much smoke in the process and now her lungs are filling up with fluid.” Helen paused for a moment to swallow tears. “I think we’ve had a pretty fair marriage, Jacob. You were the breadwinner and I was the housewife. I hope you think I did a decent job of raising our children and taking care of your needs over the years. When times were hard I did everything in my power to save money and scrape pennies together.”

“I never felt like you weren’t working just as hard as I was, Helen. In fact, I think you worked harder than I did if you add it all up.”

It was good to hear that. “I’ve asked you for a few things over the years, Jacob, and you always came through. Not always with exactly what I wanted, but with what our family needed. I’ve never asked you for anything really big. Not ever. I’m asking today, Jacob. Stevie needs you. In your capacity as a representative of God’s will, and as her earthly father, I am begging you to give her a blessing. Speak to God and ask him to spare her. She’s good, Jacob, on levels I am just now beginning to understand. Please, don’t let my baby die.”

Agony was clear in Jacob’s voice. “Do you think I don’t love my own child? Do you think I want my little girl to die? I can’t help her, Helen. I can’t. She’s chosen a path I can’t condone. She’s forsaken and nothing I do can…”

“If you refuse to help her, I want a divorce.”

It felt like the shrubs and flowers around her drew back in horror and a chill wind passed over her. The idea of leaving her husband was appalling to her, but if he didn’t try to help their child, she would never be able to look at him with love in her heart again.

“Helen…”

“Maybe a father’s love for his children is different than a mother’s love,” Helen said with primal sadness. “She still loves you, Jacob. Even if you can’t show it to her anymore, she still loves you.”

Helen disconnected without waiting for a reply. She covered her face with her hands and tried not to cry. She felt someone sit down beside her and wrap an arm around her shoulders.

“Have faith, Sister Marks.”

Helen turned her face into Rick Davidson’s shoulder and wept.

>>>

There were moments since coming home when Rick felt considerably older than twenty-one. He found himself behaving like a much older and more experienced man. What really surprised him was that no one else found it odd. This, however, might be pushing his mojo too far.

Rick walked across the showroom floor like he owned the place. Technically, he worked here so no one questioned him. He smiled at the receptionist and walked right past her into Jacob Marks’ office. The oldest Marks boy, Sam, was sitting across from his father. “Good morning,” Rick said in a stern tone. “I’m glad to find both of you here.”

Jacob Marks looked ten years older than the last time Rick had seen him. “Hello, Rick. Is there a problem?”

“Yes, sir.” Rick squared his shoulders. “I’ve come to offer my counsel before you lose your entire family to hatred and intolerance.”

Jacob came up out of his chair like a freight train on steroids. “How dare you!”

“Looks like I got here just in time,” Rick said over the force of his rage. “That kind of hate and anger doesn’t come from God. It comes from twisting the word of God to do the devil’s work.”

“You are so fired,” Jacob Marks spat across his desk.

Rick dropped to his knees. “Pray with me, Brother Marks. Pray with me for guidance from God to save your family.”

Sam stood up from his chair. “I think you should leave, Rick.”

Rick kept his eyes locked on Jacob Marks. “How long has it been since you spoke to God, Brother Marks?”

The older man froze.

Rick nodded at him. “It’s time, sir.”

Anger faded from Jacob’s face and his head bowed.

>>>

Rachel blinked her eyes open. It was bright and she knew right away that she was in the hospital. There were a few dull aches and her mouth felt like a forgotten desert, but she didn’t think it would be appropriate to complain. In truth, she was surprised that she was alive.

A worried face was suddenly looking down at her and Rachel smiled. “Hi, Mom.”

Her mom was trying not to cry. “How do you feel, sweetheart?”

“Thirsty.” Rachel cautiously looked around. “Where’s Stevie?”

“She’s being treated for smoke inhalation. Let’s get a doctor to come take a look at you, alright?”

Rachel knew her mother and she could tell that something was terribly wrong. “Mom?”

“One thing at a time, sweetheart.”

Ice chips were placed in her mouth and Rachel sucked on them gratefully. A nurse came in and took her vital signs, followed by a doctor who listened to her chest for a long time with his eyes closed. He seemed satisfied with what he heard and explained her condition.

The big shock was that it was Saturday afternoon. She’d been unconscious for two and a half days while her body struggled with shock and surgery on her hand. The look in her mother’s eyes told her that her recovery had been uncertain for a good part of that time. Her brush with death had not ended when Stevie saved her.

Rachel’s kneecap had been dislocated in the fall. It would be sore for a while and she would need to do specific exercises with it to facilitate its full recovery, but it was considered a minor injury.

Even the broken bones in her hand and wrist were not terrible. An orthopedic surgeon had put in a few pins here and there, but in six to eight weeks she would be out of the cast. Rehab would take a while, but she was expected to make a full recovery.

A brace was put on her knee and Rachel was encouraged to get out of bed. She felt dizzy and weak, but she could walk. Rachel sat down on the edge of the bed and gloried in being alive. The doctor left and Rachel put her good arm out for a hug from her mom.

“I really missed you and Dad,” Rachel said as her mother tried not to cry. “I have so much to tell you, but I need a favor.”

Selene Quinn stepped back and wiped at the tears on her face. “Anything, sweetheart.”

“Two favors, actually. I’m guessing there’s a detective here somewhere waiting to talk to me.”

Selene nodded. “Two of them. Plus a half dozen cops. They’ve been very supportive.”

“I need to talk to them in private.”

“Alright.”

“But first…I need to know how Stevie is. I need to see her if I can.”

“Are we wrong in assuming Stevie’s your girlfriend?”

Rachel smiled at her mother. “I never could hide anything from you, could I?”

Selene smiled back. “Your father and I have gotten to know her mother quite well. In fact, your father is with her right now. We’ve jointly informed the hospital that you two are in a relationship. You can’t make medical decisions for each other without legal documentation, but you don’t need my help to see her.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

>>>

The detectives came first. It was a difficult conversation because of Tom Dean’s death, but Rachel told them everything she knew; even when it made her look less than competent. They listened without judging and took notes; both of them expressing amazement that she was still alive. The truly in-depth interviews would come later when she felt stronger.

Things got noisy when her co-workers came in to see her. Rachel wasn’t particularly close to any of them, but there was an inherent camaraderie between police officers. They understood each other and it made for an instant bond. They grieved with her for Tom’s death and celebrated the fact that she lived. Rachel was getting tired, but she told them of Stevie’s extraordinary efforts to escape, knowing that they would take Stevie into their hearts for her heroic actions.

Her mother returned when her co-workers left and helped her get settled in bed. Rachel ate some Jell-o and had a good long drink of cold water before she fell asleep.

Her father was sitting beside her when she woke. The lights were low and it was dark outside. He was reading a book and Rachel studied his face before he knew she was awake. Her father was a handsome man, but it was the smile lines around his eyes that really made him stand out. She had so many wonderful memories of him growing up. Every child should be so lucky as to have a father like him.

“I love you, Daddy.”

His eyes came up and a smile followed. “I love you, too, Rachel. I can’t tell you how happy I am you’re alright.”

“That makes two of us.”

With his help, Rachel got out of bed and made a trip to the bathroom. It was quite the feat given the IVs and monitors attached to her. When she came out, she sat down in her father’s lap and let him hold her. It was the second safest place in the world.

“Dad? Tell me how Stevie is doing?”

He took a deep breath and held her more securely. “She’s alive, Rachel, but she’s in critical condition.”

Rachel struggled to hold back her fear.

“She had some minor bruising and her hands were a mess, but her lungs are the real issue. At some point, she took a breath of super heated air. It burned the inside of her throat and lungs. They wouldn’t admit it in so many words, but I don’t think the doctors thought she would make it through the first day. Stevie’s been a real fighter. Yesterday they started hyperbaric oxygenation. She’s shown some real improvement since the first treatment, but they’re still suctioning fluid from her lungs on a regular basis so she doesn’t drown.”

Her father always gave it to her straight, no matter how difficult it was to hear. And then he was there to put the pieces back together. Rachel cried on his shoulder for a short time and then pulled it all back.

“I need to see her, Dad.”

“Okay,” he nodded. “Hop up and I’ll get you a wheelchair. I can’t be having my little girl walking the halls with her bottom hanging out.”

“Dad? You know I was working as a stripper while I was undercover?”

“And I’m sure it was purely artistic and tasteful. This is different.”

Rachel had to laugh at his desire to be oblivious.

Stevie was down two floors in a basement wing. The hyperbaric chamber was set to one side in a large room and there were two nurses keeping an eye on her. Stevie’s mother was sitting in a chair next to the chamber. She appeared to be asleep.

Rachel’s father moved her close to the head of the chamber and she leaned forward to see Stevie. Her heart didn’t know whether to break or not. Stevie looked like she was sleeping and her color was good, but there was a large breathing tube coming out of her mouth and a collection of IVs taped to her neck. Gauze pads taped over her eyes.

Rachel put a hand to the glass and wished she could just touch Stevie. If she could feel her skin, she would know she was real.

“Rachel.”

Mrs. Marks was awake and reaching for her. Rachel reached back and they shared a clumsy hug. “How is she?” Rachel asked.

“Holding her own. How are you?”

“Surprisingly good,” Rachel admitted. “The fact that I’m breathing at all is because of Stevie. She saved both of us.”

“Can you tell me what happened?”

Rachel told the story again in greater detail. A mother should know when her child has achieved the impossible. The nurses listened in, too. It would be so easy to see Stevie as nothing more than a body that might heal or might not. If telling everyone the kind of hero Stevie was would get her better care, Rachel would tell every person in the hospital. Twice.

She got her chance to touch Stevie when she was taken out of the chamber. Stevie was spending two hours in the chamber and two hours out. A doctor came and listened carefully to her chest and then suggested she be given a bronchoscopy the next time she came out. When Rachel asked what that was, they explained the process of suctioning excess fluid out of Stevie’s lungs.

It really made Rachel see how dire things were for Stevie.

Stevie’s IV’s were checked and adjusted; drops were put in her eyes to treat the slight damage from so much smoke; the bandages on her hands were checked; and lip balm was put on her mouth.

Rachel spent the next hour and a half whispering her love and encouragement into Stevie’s ear before she went back into the chamber. She had secretly hoped that her presence and voice would bring Stevie back to awareness, but there was no response at all. When the hyperbaric chamber began its cycle, Rachel couldn’t help crying.

Stevie’s mom patted Rachel on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, honey. That monitor right there is her brain function. She’s still in there.”

Being able to see that Stevie’s mind was still vital made all the difference in the world.

>>>

Rachel was released from the hospital on Sunday afternoon. She would have to go home eventually, but she needed to be with Stevie more than she needed anything she would find at home.

Mrs. Marks was still there and Stevie was outside the chamber. Rachel went to Stevie first and kissed her forehead. “I’m here, baby. Your mom is here, too. I miss you and I’m so proud of you. You saved us, baby. Don’t waste all that effort by sleeping forever. Remember, the hero always gets the girl. Come and get me, baby.”

There was still no acknowledgement, but the brain monitor was going strong. Rachel sat down in a chair next to Mrs. Marks. “They just released me from the hospital, so we need to work out a schedule. You look exhausted. One way or the other, you need to sleep. Of course, I’ll be just as difficult to send home as you, so we’ll have to be strong for each other.”

Mrs. Marks laughed. “You’ve got it all worked out, have you?”

“I’m hanging on by my fingernails,” Rachel admitted. “Just like you, I expect.”

Mrs. Marks’ smile was sad. “This isn’t the first time I’ve had to sit vigil over my daughter. Most of the time it’s for small things, but this isn’t the first time she’s been in critical condition. It is, however, the most critical she’s ever been.”

Rachel could hardly imagine how frightening this must be for Stevie’s mother. She’d only known Stevie for a few weeks and it was driving her down to her emotional knees. She put an arm around the older woman’s shoulders in the only comfort she had to offer.

The nurses were preparing Stevie for her next session in the chamber when the door to the room opened. Rachel looked back over her shoulder and saw five men in dark suits enter the room. She recognized Rory, but none of the others.

Mrs. Marks stood up and the men stopped in front of her. For a long moment, nothing happened. When she put a hand on the arm of the man in front and he covered it with his own hand, Rachel realized that it must be Stevie’s father. A man her own age looked like the Marks family and she assumed it was the older brother, Sam. The other two men were strangers to her, but the young one smiled and gave her a respectful nod.

Mr. Marks stepped forward and looked down at his daughter. He looked at her for several minutes and then spoke to the nurses. “If we could have a few moments?”

“Just a few.”

He nodded and then gestured for the other men to take places around Stevie’s head. Rory stood behind his father and put a hand on his back.

“What’s going on?” Rachel asked.

Mrs. Marks pulled her back with a smile. “Do you believe in miracles, Rachel?”

Rachel wasn’t sure what to think. “I believe in Stevie.”

“Have faith, dear.”

Stevie’s dad stood at her head and he dripped what looked like oil from a tiny bottle at her hair line. Rubbing it in, he covered the oil with his hand. With the exception of Rory, the other men completed the circle with a hand on the man next to him and one hand on Mr. Marks’ hand. Their heads bowed in unison and there was a moment of silence.

Rachel found the whole thing a little creepy. Goosebumps stood up on her arms.

“Stevie Rae Marks,” her father began in a soft, yet powerful voice, “in the name of Jesus Christ and by the authority of the holy Melchizedek Priesthood…and the love I bear you as your  earthly father…we seal and confirm upon you this anointing with which you have been anointed so that you may fulfill the purpose God has chosen for you. This purpose has not been revealed to us, but we stand ready to accept his will.”

There was a stillness in the room that made Rachel feel like lightning was forming. The men did not move, but Rachel didn’t think it was over.

“Where is the line between following one’s faith and following your heart as a father?” he finally continued with a look of anguish. “The church tells me that using my authority for the purpose of healing one who has been cast out will damn my soul, but if I stand by and do nothing while my daughter suffers needlessly I will be damned anyway. I pray you regain your health and strength in full measure. I pray you share an open and generous heart with the world for all of your days. I pray you not suffer for the sins and failures of others. I pray for this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

“Amen,” the other men said in unison.

The air settled. All of them smiled except for Stevie’s father. He stepped back and the others took turns kissing Stevie’s forehead and whispering into her ear. When they were done, he stepped forward again and gently cupped her head. He talked to her for several minutes while Mrs. Marks hugged her sons and the other two men.

Rachel was still trying to figure out what had happened when Mrs. Marks hugged her.

“I need to go home with my husband. Will you be alright here?”

“Of course.”

“I’ll be back tonight so you can go home and sleep.”

“Okay.”

She dug in her purse and came up with a scrap of paper. “These are our phone numbers. Call us if anything changes. Do you have a cellphone? What about something to eat for dinner?”

Rachel took the paper and then her hand. “I’ve got it covered. Go home. I’ll see you later.”

Stevie’s parents looked at each other for a long moment and then they linked hands and left. Others followed. The unknown young man and Rory stayed behind. Rachel cocked her head at Rory. “I’m not real sure what just happened here.”

His smile was happy and sincere. “Stevie will get better now. You’ll see.”

“Hi,” the other man grinned. “I’m Rick. Are you Rachel?”

“Yes.”

“Stevie told me about you. She was right.”

“About what?”

“You are gorgeous.”

>>>

It was a difficult week. Officially, she was off work, but she spent a good deal of time writing reports, being interviewed and seeing the department psychiatrist. Most cops hated seeing the ‘shrink’, but Rachel didn’t mind. It was hard, of course, but it was like exercising the body. She always felt just a little bit stronger afterwards.

Her own family and friends demanded time as well. Rachel didn’t find that a hardship. She’d missed them all. Her friends were dying to know all about being a stripper. Rachel told them the truth, but there was no way they could understand. She also found that she felt…wiser. Her perspective was different. She’d done some growing up and it would take some time to mesh all the pieces of her life back together.

Of course, the biggest change in her life were her feelings for Stevie. It just didn’t feel right to step back into her real life without Stevie by her side. There was a persistent ache in her heart and mind where Stevie was supposed to be. Rachel’s life centered around the hospital. She spent a minimum of eight hours a day at Stevie’s side.

Early Tuesday morning, Stevie’s lungs stopped producing so much fluid. The doctors were very pleased. They gave her one more session in the chamber and then moved her into a private room. That afternoon, they determined that Stevie’s eyes hadn’t been damaged by the super heated air she’d run through. The gauze pads were removed and Stevie looked a little less helpless.

There was steady improvement in her vital signs every day, but she slept on. Rachel talked to her constantly. She told Stevie everything that was going on. When she ran out of things to tell her about, she told her stories of her childhood and dreams for the future.

The FBI came to town on Friday morning. Rachel only heard about it afterwards. Tawny’s prints had finally been matched to a juvenile record. Rachel never did find out what Tawny’s real name was, but she was apparently a child raised by a suspicious militia group. The group was financing their private war against America by making and selling drugs. Since the stated goals of the militia group were a threat to the government and the American people, the FBI was taking over the case.

Most of the officers in the department were angry to lose the case to a higher authority, but Rachel was glad. They’d already lost one good man. Rachel thought they were in over their heads and was glad there was someone higher up with the specialized training to deal with the case.

Rachel went to the hospital early on Friday night. Sometimes it was just too hard to wait her turn. She was inside Stevie’s room before she realized Mr. Marks was there. He looked up from his Bible.

“Hello.”

Rachel felt uncomfortable with him. They’d never really talked and his position on Stevie’s lifestyle was still unclear. “I’m early. I’ll go get coffee and come back.”

“Stay.”

Rachel hesitated.

“Please.”

Rachel moved to the bed and took Stevie’s hand. She wanted to kiss her, but she just didn’t know how he would take it. “How is she?”

“She’s doing well. They’re talking about removing the breathing tube in the next day or so.”

“That’s…that’s great news.”

He closed the Bible and looked at her. “You’re a police officer.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why did you choose law enforcement as a career?”

Rachel held Stevie’s hand to her belly. It helped ground her. “I studied law in college. My initial goal was to be a lawyer, but I changed my mind when I finally understood that the law is not about truth and justice. It’s not even about right and wrong. I decided that I wanted to take a clearer path towards making the world a better place.”

“My daughter met you while you were working undercover?”

Rachel suspected he wouldn’t be comfortable saying it himself, but she wanted it out in the open. “I was working as a stripper in a club, yes.”

His eyes were judgmental.

Rachel felt her defenses go up. “You don’t know how hard it was for me to do that. It’s going to take a long time for me to reconcile what I did with who I am, but I did it to protect people from a terrible drug. My motives were good and true. I’m a very good person, Mr. Marks.”

He lowered his eyes and nodded. “You’re right. I have no call to judge you. You were doing an honorable job under deplorable conditions. I apologize.”

Rachel hadn’t expected such a quick concession. “Thank you.”

“It’s hard for me. I’m in the midst of a crisis of faith. My perceptions have become unreliable and my tongue harsh.”

“She loves you. She also knows that even if you can’t accept her sexuality, you love her, too. She’s the most pure soul I’ve ever met, sir. Maybe she doesn’t play by all the rules of your church, but she personifies all the things you believe God wants us to be. If you take her sexuality out of the equation, is there anything about her that isn’t absolutely perfect? Have you ever met another person who was as good and true as she is? How can you not be bursting with pride?”

His eyes became somber. “A lifetime of faith won’t let me turn a blind eye. I do see the goodness in her and I do feel pride, but I cannot un-see the taint of her choices.”

It was hard for Rachel to relate to his confusion. Her own upbringing had been largely non-religious. She was exposed to a number of different faiths, but her parents had not forced anything on her or her siblings. Her older sister was a devout Methodist, but her younger brother was a Buddhist.

Rachel’s sexuality had never been an issue in her family. Well, except for Great Aunt Jill. She was horrified with the whole thing. She always wanted to talk about it every time the family got together. Rachel thought Aunt Jill was secretly fascinated by the ‘lesbo thing’. Shocking her was the best fun.

“I don’t have any answers for you. All I know is that Stevie is easy to love.” Rachel smoothed Stevie’s hair back and felt the warmth of her skin. “I’ve never met anyone so honorable and kind. She never lies and she never jumps to conclusions. She is mindful of how her words and actions affect other people. Stevie is the first one to volunteer when she sees a problem and the last one to leave when something needs doing. She changes lives for the better the way most people change their shoes. She’s an extraordinary person.”

“You…love her.”

“I do.” Rachel sighed. “We haven’t known each other long enough to know if we are truly matched as a couple, but I do love her and I think she loves me, too. I’ve never felt anything so…clean.”

“If you are, indeed, becoming a part of her life, perhaps we will have another opportunity to speak in more comfortable surroundings.”

Rachel smiled at him. “That will make Stevie very happy. I look forward to it.”

He took his things and left. Rachel let out a big sigh as soon as the door closed and she leaned over Stevie. “You owe me so big. Leaving me alone to talk with your father? Back rubs for a week. Minimum.”

>>>

Stevie opened her eyes at dawn the next morning. Rachel was sitting at the foot of the bed rubbing Stevie’s feet when it happened. She was talking about elbow macaroni versus spaghetti noodles and various types of cheese for making the best noodles and cheese when Stevie’s brown eyes opened on the ceiling and then looked for her.

Rachel’s mouth fell right open. “Are you awake?”

Stevie’s feet wiggled. Then her hands wiggled. Rachel lunged for the call button and fell right off the bed. The cast on her left arm still threw her for a loop at the oddest times.

Rachel jumped up and pressed the button about ten times. Then she leaned over Stevie and looked into her eyes. “You’re okay. We’re both okay. Oh my God, I missed you so much. I love you, Stevie. I love you.” There was a touch of panic in Stevie’s eyes. Rachel carefully put her hand to Stevie’s face. “Hang on, baby. They’re going to take all this stuff off of you real soon so you can talk.”

A nurse came in and Rachel moved out of her way, but she stayed close enough for Stevie to see her. Then she thought of Stevie’s family and reached for the hospital phone. Setting it on the bed, she dialed the Marks home. Helen answered.

“She’s awake! She’s awake!” Rachel was shaking with relief and excitement. “She just opened her eyes a couple of minutes ago!”

“We’re on the way!”

“Calm down,” the nurse warned. “Let’s keep things slow and easy here.”

Rachel grabbed Stevie’s hand and held it tight. “For the record, when I wake up in a hospital, I want people to celebrate.”

Stevie’s eyes smiled weakly.

Rachel’s heart relaxed. “We’re going to be okay, baby. We’re going to be okay.”

Chapter Ten

“I must say, I’m very pleased with your progress. Your lungs sound clear and strong. The respiratory therapist says you’re doing remarkably well. Your only real problems now are frigid air and dust, but you say a dust mask works well for riding. You might try wearing a scarf to prevent coughing fits when it’s cold.”

Stevie wasn’t hearing anything she didn’t already know. Dr. Nixon specialized in the treatment of burns, both internal and external. Stevie had been seeing him for almost four months. “How much longer is all this going to take?”

“All this?”

“Healing.”

Dr. Nixon set her chart aside and shifted his glasses to the top of his head. “There’s a slight chance you might improve in time, but I think this is it.”

Stevie’s hopes plummeted.

“You’re lucky to be alive, Stevie.”

“I know.”

“I don’t think you do.” Dr. Nixon said. He sat down on a stool and folded his hands on his lap. “You had third degree burns to the inside of your mouth, your trachea, and parts of your lungs. People don’t usually survive that, Stevie. No one expected you to live. You’re as close as I’ve ever seen to a miracle. You can’t expect to survive something like that without scars of one sort or another. Even if you can’t race anymore, you can still ride.”

Stevie struggled with the urge to cry. “I know that, but listen to me. I can accept not being able to race, but I can barely talk. I can’t sing anymore: not even a little bit. I don’t sound right and when I get tired, half of what I say doesn’t make it past my throat. I don’t recognize my voice anymore. Do you have any idea how confusing that is?”

Dr. Nixon nodded with sympathy in his eyes. “I don’t understand it personally, but this is something I’ve heard before. Usually it’s with people who have facial burns. Looking in the mirror is hard for them because they don’t recognize the face they see.”

“Now I feel like a jerk for complaining,” Stevie said.

“You aren’t a jerk. What you feel is valid. Your burn scars may not be visible, but the instant you say ‘Hello’, people will see them just the same.”

“It’s not that really.” Stevie struggled to find the words. “I don’t care what other people will think about my voice. I care about…I feel like…”

“I think I understand,” Dr. Nixon said. “You don’t recognize yourself and it cuts your self-confidence off at the knees. Who are you if something as fundamental as your voice is beyond your control?”

Part of his comment resonated with Stevie. “Beyond my control is exactly right. I can’t control it anymore. I might be okay if it just sounded different, but I can’t control it.”

“Maybe we should look into a speech therapist. There might be vocal exercises you can do that would help. I’ll look into finding someone with experience in burns and see if we can set you up. Your recovery isn’t over until you’re satisfied, Stevie. You surpassed what I thought you could do when you stopped needing oxygen 24/7. Honestly, I think if you keep at it, you might be able to race again in a year or two. Given time, lungs have incredible regenerative abilities. Don’t give up.”

Stevie left Dr. Nixon’s office with another appointment in two months and a heavy heart. She’d been hoping for more improvement in her voice and now she knew it would never get better. She sounded like a lifelong smoker and she was reluctant to talk to people anymore. Stevie knew the people who loved her didn’t care, but she hated the way she sounded now. She knew she was lucky to be alive, but she couldn’t help feeling unhappy about losing her voice. It had never occurred to her before the fire how important the sound of your own voice could be to your self-image.

It was early afternoon and it would be hours before Rachel was off work. Rachel had been cleared for duty two weeks earlier so Stevie could always call and meet up with her somewhere in the city if she wasn’t on a call, but Stevie didn’t want to be whiny when she saw her.

For lack of anything better to do, Stevie went back to work.

While Stevie had been in the hospital, her mother had taken it upon herself to help out at the store. As a direct result of her assistance, there were some pretty big changes. The most shocking was that Short Bob smelled good and his language with customers was improving. No one would explain what happened, but when her mother came to the shop now, Short Bob stood up and offered her a chair. Stevie wasn’t sure what to think of it, but Tall Bob was smiling more. She figured it was all good and left it alone.

The other big change was that she had a new employee. Her mother had gone through job applications and interviewed the best ones. When she settled on the one she liked, she brought the woman to the hospital for Stevie’s approval.

Bobbi was a single mom in her forties. She’d been out of work and struggling for over a year, but she had the right skill set and the patience to deal with the Bobs. Stevie’s mom insisted the name was a coincidence, but Stevie thought it was perfect.

Bobbi had a fifteen year old boy named Cory. When she was hired, Bobbi tentatively asked if Cory could hang around the shop after school. Apparently, the boy had behavioral problems and tended to get into trouble on his own. Stevie hadn’t been at all sure, but her mother insisted it wouldn’t be a problem. She’d been right. Cory came to the shop after school, did his homework, and then played the Atari until his mom got off work.

When Stevie was finally well enough to go back to work, she met Cory and liked him. He acted a little prickly at times, but that trait was slowly fading. Stevie suspected it was what he did when he was lonely and afraid. When she offered him ten dollars a day to keep the lobby clean, he tried very hard not to look like he’d won the lottery. A few weeks later, he asked if he could work more and Stevie made him a deal. If he kept up with his homework and grades, he could work with Short Bob on Saturdays. Cory was like a brand new boy and Short Bob said the kid had good hands for the work.

Bobbi was so overwhelmed with her welcome to the shop and the assistance with her son that she had twice cried on Stevie’s shoulder in gratitude. Stevie felt like they were doing very little in the grand scheme of things and she had to wonder how many other people were struggling when all they needed was a pat on the shoulder. It was a sad thing when basic friendliness was accepted as a miracle.

Stevie was able to do more work on actual computers now that Bobbi was handling the front desk and it was making her happy. Taking on a challenge and figuring it out was good for one’s self-esteem. At the end of every day there was something she could point to and say, “I did that.”

Melanie Nichols had followed through and Stevie’s company installed a new system for her law firm. Stevie did the data transfer herself under Melanie’s watchful eyes and then taught everyone the new security protocols. It took time for Melanie to trust the new system, but she was Stevie’s biggest supporter now. As a result, several small companies had come to her at Melanie’s recommendation and it looked like most would be making the upgrades Stevie suggested. Now that Stevie was doing more of the walk-in work, Tall Bob was looking forward to doing more of the system maintenance he enjoyed.

Things were going so well, Stevie was considering hiring people to do Web design on consignment. If things kept looking up, she might consider buying server banks and setting up her own Internet service.

Bobbi was writing a ticket for a walk-in when Stevie got to the shop. Stevie offered her a smile she didn’t really feel and got a wink in return. She walked into her office and sat down in her chair. Stevie put her head back and tried to empty her mind. She could hear music in the back room, but it wasn’t too loud. From the sound of it, Tall Bob was in charge of music at the moment. Short Bob had the weirdest taste in music. There was no telling what you’d get if you let Short Bob work the radio. What she could hear was actually pretty good so it had to be Tall Bob’s day.

The gentleman at the counter was worried about how long it would take to get his computer back and Bobbi was assuring him that it wouldn’t be any longer than necessary. Stevie smiled to herself. It sounded like the poor guy wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he didn’t have a computer. There were a lot of people like that. They spent so much time on the computer that they forgot how to go outside or visit with friends face to face. Stevie could sympathize, but she didn’t really feel sorry for them.

There was a slight squeak in the base of Stevie’s chair and she could hear warm air flowing through the heating ducts. Stevie closed her eyes and concentrated on her throat. Before the fire, she could only feel it when she was sick. Now she could always feel it. It felt like she needed to clear her throat, but the feeling never went away. The doctors told her it was the scar tissue. Clearing her throat didn’t change anything and would actually start hurting if she kept trying.

Stevie tried to hum, but nothing came out. She tried to tighten her throat and force air through her voice box faster, but neither made any difference. She could talk, but she couldn’t sing or hum. The ability of her voice box to vibrate was almost completely gone. She could say, ‘Hey’, but she couldn’t say, ‘Heeeey’.

“Are you alright?”

Stevie jumped in surprise at Bobbi’s voice. “Yeah. Sure.”

Bobbi folded her arms and raised an eyebrow. “How did the doctor visit go?”

“I think this is the new one hundred percent.”

“You look fine to me, but you don’t sound happy. What’s wrong with the new hundred percent?”

Stevie looked away. “My hummer is broke.”

“Your what?”

“My hummer. I can’t hum. Or sing. This is as good as my voice is ever going to get.”

“Well, I never heard you talk before so maybe I’m not the best person for you to talk to. You’d sound funny to me if your voice was different. The humming thing…well, that might be hard. Can you whisper?”

Stevie wasn’t sure, so she tried it. “Let me see.” Her eyes widened. “Looks like the answer to that question is yes.”

“I know it’s not the same, but I bet your whisper sounds exactly the same as before. At least you’ve still got that.”

It was true and made Stevie feel a wee bit better. She smiled at Bobbi. “Thanks.”

“It ain’t singing,” Bobbi said, “but it’s something. My dad fought in Vietnam and lost a leg there. He used to get terrible phantom itching until someone told him to just scratch it.”

Stevie waited for the rest of the story, but Bobbi just stood there looking at one of her fingernails. “I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” Stevie prompted. “How do you scratch something that isn’t there?”

“How does something that ain’t there itch?” Bobbi gave up on her nail and folded her arms. “It’s not the itch that matters. Dad would pretend to lift his foot onto his lap and he’d pretend to scratch. He would imagine how good it would feel and the itch would go away. Scratching isn’t done just at the itch. Other parts of your body get involved. If you let those other parts do their job, part of the message gets passed along and it’s usually enough to get the message through.”

“That’s really interesting, but what does it have to do with me?”

“Sing anyway. Turn up the radio in your truck and sing anyway. It’s not how you sound that’s important. Even if nothing comes out, the physical act of singing needs to be expressed. Maybe it will be enough.”

“But I sound terrible.”

“Then the radio isn’t loud enough. I’m a terrible singer, too, but I love to sing. It feels good. I know how bad I sound, but I can’t give up singing. Cory plugs his ears when I sing in the car, but he does it ‘cause the radio is so loud. Poor kid.”

Stevie was smiling at the image in her head. “I’ll give it a try.”

“Just not where I can hear you, okay?”

Stevie’s laughter was silent and she suddenly understood what Bobbi was saying. She couldn’t laugh out loud anymore, but that wasn’t causing her grief. If she could take pleasure in laughing silently, maybe she could take pleasure in singing silently. “Thanks, Bobbi.”

“You’re welcome. Rachel called while you were gone and wants you to call her cell. I think she wants to know how the appointment went. She sure is a sweetheart.”

Stevie was smiling while Bobbi walked back to the counter.

>>>

Helen came home from buying groceries to find her husband sitting on the porch swing. Things were better between them since the blessing in the hospital, but nothing was resolved. It was unusual for him to be home this early in the afternoon. “Hi, honey.”

“Hello.”

There was almost no expression at all on his face as he looked at her and Helen began to worry. “What’s wrong?”

When he reached out his hand to her, Helen put her groceries down and took it. She let him tuck her into his side and begin swinging.

“The Bishop came by the lot today.”

Helen had been wondering when the church would begin to assert itself. She hadn’t been sure who they would approach first, but it looked like Jacob had been chosen. “What did he say?”

“Officially, they want to counsel us before services on Sunday morning, but if we don’t renounce Stevie we’ll be disfellowshipped. If that doesn’t do the trick, I think they intend to excommunicate us.”

Helen sagged into her husband. “What about Rory and Sam?”

“Sam was there. He’s already made his decision.” Jacob sighed. “He gave me two-weeks notice in writing. He’s choosing Gillian and the church. He’s taking it to the next level and looking for a job where he doesn’t have to work with someone whose faith is suspect.”

Helen would worry about Sam later. He could quit talking to them, but he couldn’t stop being her son. Right now she was more worried about her husband. “And you? What will you decide?”

Jacob looked down at her. “You’ve already decided. You decided months ago. How did you do it?”

Helen felt a cautious hope. If he was asking the question, he was halfway there. “I hope you don’t think it was easy for me to accept my choice. I believe in God, Jacob. I love him and I know he loves me, too, but my Heavenly Father knows what it means to be a parent. He might have cast Lucifer out of Heaven, but he didn’t stop loving him. No matter what I do in my life, he will always love me. He expects no less of me when it comes to my children. I may not always approve of what my children do or the choices they make, but I will always love them. If the church demands I sacrifice my daughter in order to be worthy of worshipping God with them, then the church will lose. I can worship God anywhere and everywhere. I can’t give up my child. I just can’t. Once I understood that, the choices became much easier.”

Jacob’s eyes were still confused.

“Do you need the church to facilitate your relationship with God?” Helen asked. “Is one dependent on the other?”

“I guess I thought so. It’s not just my faith. You know how much time I’ve spent counseling members of the church.”

“How many hours have you spent teaching and organizing? How many homes have you entered doing the Lord’s work? How many hours waiting with folks at the hospital? How many blessings given? I know how hard you worked for the church, Jacob. I have always been so proud of your generosity of spirit.”

“It’s part of my life now. The thought of giving all that up…”

“Do you think church members are the only ones who need you? Do you think giving to a different community won’t be just as central to your faith as the church was?” Helen sat up and put a hand over Jacob’s heart. “The idea of being without the church is a scary one. Knowing I might be excommunicated is terrifying. But I have faith in two things: first, I cannot believe that when my time comes, God will punish me for loving my daughter. If she were a killer and I were enabling that, I would expect terrible punishment, but she’s not a killer. The only bad thing she does is love. Love, Jacob. With a consenting, capable, delightful adult. If God wants to punish me for supporting my daughter’s desire to love and be loved, I’ll endure it. Seeing her happy makes the potential consequences worth it.”

Jacob was nodding thoughtfully. “What’s the second thing?”

“Stevie.” Hazel smiled. “Look at her, Jacob. She was excommunicated and lost none of her goodness. I’ve had time to study the person she’s become and I pray nightly that I grow up to have the same purity of spirit she does. She never walks by someone who needs a helping hand. When people come up a little short in the grocery store, she pays what they lack. She never drives by a car stopped on the side of the road. She keeps two gallons of gas in the back of her truck for that purpose and never lets them pay her back. She may not be paying tithing to the church, but I’ll bet she gives away at least ten percent of her income to people who need it. Being excommunicated from the church did not make Stevie evil. She is still good and she gives everywhere she can. I can be like that. I don’t have to give just to the church to feel good about myself. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

Jacob looked away for a few moments and then looked back at her with a lop-sided grin. “We did good with her, didn’t we?”

“We did good with all our children,” Hazel conceded. “Even Sam. This might be the right choice for him, but he was there when Stevie needed him. I think if we’re supportive of his choice and practice patience, we’ll be okay.”

“You mean…just show up every Sunday for lunch until he comes around?”

“Something like that.”

Jacob smiled. The tension around his eyes wasn’t gone, but he seemed more at ease.

“The Davidsons participated in Stevie’s blessing, too,” Helen reminded him. “What’s happening with them?”

Jacob laughed softly. “I guess they asked young Ricky about it. He told them he was working it out with God and it was none of their business.”

Helen gasped. One just didn’t speak to the Elders of the church like that.

“Richard told them it was months ago and God had forgiven him. Of course, he also said he didn’t approve of Stevie’s lifestyle—he never has—but that was between Stevie and God. Beyond that, he just refused to talk about it.”

“Well, I’m glad they aren’t going to be censured over it, but it does kind of feel like they’re coming after us, doesn’t it?”

Jacob frowned. “I don’t think it’s personal, but it does feel like that.”

“Can I make a suggestion?”

Jacob waited for her to speak.

“The only person I know who’s been excommunicated is Stevie. She’s had to work all this out for herself. She’s smart enough to debate intelligently. Maybe you should talk to her about it. I know it’s helped me.”

Jacob considered it. “Going to my child for spiritual advice is a dynamic I’m not sure I can be comfortable with.”

“Just think about it, honey. If the moment ever presents itself for such a discussion, go with it.”

“What do you think Rory is going to say about all this?”

Helen played with a button on Jacob’s shirt. “I know that he doesn’t want to go on a mission.” Jacob showed no reaction to the statement. Helen continued on. “He loves Stevie more than the church, but I know he still believes. I think he’ll leave the church before he betrays his family. If this actually happens, he’s going to need structure and a role model. I think you’d be a good one for him. You could work together to find a new outlet for your faith.”

“You don’t think Stevie would be a better choice?”

Helen pretended to be horrified. “She might turn him into a lesbian!”

For a heartbeat, Jacob did nothing and then he burst out laughing. “My son, the lesbian!”

“What will the neighbors think?” Helen giggled.

“He does like girls, right?”

“If the way he drools over Rachel is any indication, yes.”

“Rachel is very pretty,” Jacob said with a grin.

“Not you, too?”

Jacob was still laughing as he leaned over for a kiss. “Not to worry, sweetheart. There’s only one woman for me and she’s mine for time and all eternity.”

Helen caressed her husband’s face. “They can’t take that away from us, honey.”

“No, they can’t.”

>>>

The house was empty when Stevie got home. Technically, Stevie and Rachel weren’t living together, but they alternated homes weekly. Next week, Stevie would go to Rachel’s downtown apartment at night. It wasn’t a bad arrangement, but it could be inconvenient at times. Stevie had stopped for the mail on the way home and she glanced through it quickly before leaving it on the coffee table.

The light on the answering machine was blinking and Stevie started the playback on her way to the kitchen. Her agent was the first caller. Stevie opened a bottle of chocolate milk as he asked if she intended to race the upcoming season. He then asked her to call regardless because he liked her if she raced or not. Stevie made a mental note to call him before the weekend.

Next was a call from Rachel. She would be there as soon as she finished booking a drunk driver. Stevie smiled. There were moments where she felt fear about Rachel’s chosen profession, but by and large, she loved knowing that her girlfriend was out there every day trying to make the world a safer place. It made Stevie feel so proud of Rachel’s choices.

The last call was from her mother. Stevie glanced at the clock when her mom said she and Rory would be there in an hour with a surprise. She’d only missed the call by a few minutes so there was plenty of time for a shower. Stevie figured they’d be hungry since they were coming at dinner time. She checked the freezer and found one last casserole. After coming home from the hospital, she’d been swamped with ready-to-cook meals. This one was BBQ pork and wild rice from Rachel’s step-mother.

Rachel’s family was great. Her parents were divorced and remarried to other people, but they got along better than most married couples. The new step-parents were excellent people, too. Stevie wasn’t very drawn to Rachel’s older sister, but her brother was really interesting. She liked that her own mother was now socializing with the Quinns and she thought her dad might like them, too…if he ever got over her sexuality.

Stevie put the pan in the oven and set the temperature. She tossed her empty milk bottle in the recycling and headed for the shower. After she cleaned up she would throw a salad together and consider it done.

Stevie heard the bathroom door open halfway through her shower and she smiled. “Is that you?”

“I guess that depends on how many girlfriends you have,” Rachel responded.

“What day is this?”

“Tuesday.”

“Ah, Charlene. I’ve missed you so.”

“You’re an asshole.”

Stevie peeked around the shower curtain with a smile. “I love you, baby.”

Rachel was still in uniform and she was leaning back against the wall with a beer in her hand. “If you loved me, you would have called me back.”

Stevie suddenly remembered the message. “Oh darn. Bobbi told me and I totally forgot. I’m sorry.”

Rachel gestured with the beer bottle. “Move the curtain and I’ll forgive you.”

Stevie blushed. “Mom’s coming over with Rory pretty soon. We don’t have time.”

“Just give me a little show, baby. I’ll ravish you later.”

Stevie was trying not to be so modest, but sometimes it was really hard. “I’ll let you watch me dry off, okay?”

Rachel smiled and her eyes were approving. “I can wait.” When Stevie finally got out of the shower, Rachel sighed. “Thank you, God, for making my girlfriend so sexy.”

Stevie tried not to rush drying herself. “You’re the sexy one, Rachel.”

“Looking at myself in the mirror doesn’t make me feel like looking at you does. Trust me…you’re unbelievably sexy.”

Stevie smiled. “Thanks.”

Rachel took a drink of beer and then looked Stevie in the eye. “Your mom and Rory are coming?”

“I didn’t invite them. Mom left a message that they had a surprise for me. They should be here in about half an hour. I put your step-mom’s BBQ pork in the oven.”

“Yum.”

“We’ve got stuff for a salad. I’ll throw it together while you change clothes.”

“I’m going to shower first.”

“Okay.” Stevie tossed her towel on the hamper and then stepped in close to Rachel. “Hi, baby. Welcome home.” Before Rachel could respond, Stevie captured her lover’s lips in a kiss. Rachel surged into her and Stevie tried to ignore all the pokey bits of Rachel’s uniform. One of Rachel’s kisses was worth every discomfort imaginable.

The kiss ended on a moan and neither of them drew back. “I’m sorry about not calling you back,” Stevie said as she released Rachel’s hair from its pins.

“It wasn’t important,” Rachel said as she ran her fingers up and down Stevie’s back. “I just wanted to hear your voice. I was missing you pretty hard today.”

The teasing of Rachel’s fingers was firing Stevie up. She rolled her hips against Rachel and smiled at Rachel’s hiss of pleasure. “I missed you, too. It was kind of rough today.”

Rachel became serious. “What did the doctor say?”

“It’s funny that you wanted to hear my voice today.”

“Why?”

Stevie shrugged. “He thinks this might be as good as it gets.”

“But…I thought you were doing really well. What’s wrong?”

“My voice. It’s not going to get better.”

“That’s it? You scared the crap out of me, Stevie.”

Tears sprang to Stevie’s eyes and the lump in her throat made it harder to talk. “Why doesn’t anyone understand this? What if you woke up tomorrow morning sounding like Miss Piggy and you found out you’d never sound like you again? Did you know I can’t hum?”

“I love your new voice.”

“Well, I don’t. I hate it.” Stevie tried to step back, but Rachel held her tight. “And it’s not a new voice, Rachel. It’s the wreckage of my old voice. I can feel it, you know.”

“Feel what?”

There were tears in Rachel’s eyes now and it was breaking Stevie’s heart. She shook her head and hugged Rachel close. “I’m sorry. You just got home from work and I’m dumping on you.”

“You’re not dumping,” Rachel protested. “You’re sharing and I really want to know. Talk to me, Stevie. What can you feel?”

“The inside of my throat. I can feel it all the time.”

“You’ve mentioned this before, but I didn’t know you still felt it. Did you tell Dr. Nixon?”

“He thinks my awareness of it may fade in time.” Stevie stepped back again and Rachel let her go. She picked her clean underwear up from the counter and stepped into them. “He’s looking into a speech therapist, too, but I don’t think it will help.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t know your voice was bothering you so much.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Isn’t it?”

Rachel was still struggling with her own guilt over events at the club. As a cop she felt she should have been more in control of the situation. By her thinking, Stevie’s injuries were a direct result of Rachel’s failures. No amount of argument on Stevie’s part could change Rachel’s mind on that point.

Stevie could see the guilt in Rachel’s stance and she had an epiphany. Both of them were still struggling with their guilt, fears, and insecurities and talking it out wasn’t working for them anymore. They’d reached an impasse.

“I think we need therapy.”

“Excuse me?”

“I think we’re both still broken inside and, sooner or later, our broken edges are going to start causing hurt between us. I don’t want that to happen. I’m in love with you and I’m pretty sure you’re the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with. I feel lost to my sense of self physically and I still have nightmares about kicking Tawny. You’re still beating yourself up because I got hurt. I’m afraid if we don’t get help, we won’t make it.”

Rachel was staring at her with wide eyes “Was there a proposal in there?”

Stevie had to smile. It just figured Rachel would hear that above all else. “Not yet, but someday. I just want to make sure we’re okay first.”

“I just got done with therapy.”

Stevie nodded. Rachel had been forced into therapy as a condition of her return to work. She hadn’t minded it much as far as Stevie could tell, but she’d been glad when it was over. “That was different because it was about your competence as a professional. This kind of therapy would be about loving. You’re good at that. I think it would be much easier.”

“You do, huh?”

Stevie nodded. “Will you think it over and we can talk about it this weekend?”

“The idea of having someone digging around in your feelings doesn’t scare you?”

“Losing you scares me more.”

“Damn, baby. You don’t fight fair.”

“We’re not fighting. We’re preventing. You should shower and change. We’re running out of time.”

They shared a quick kiss and then separated. Stevie threw some clothes on and started working on a salad. There was nothing in the cupboards for dessert, but she figured Rory might be induced to go out for ice cream if anyone wanted it He was always looking for an excuse to drive now that he had his license. Just the other day he’d talked Mrs. Hennessey into letting him drive when she went grocery shopping. She was perfectly capable of driving herself, but she later said it amused her to let Rory practice being gallant.

Mrs. Hennessey’s daughter had finally been told she was cancer-free only a week before. Mrs. Hennessey celebrated by using the Atari game money to pay off the medical bills. Stevie had been able to get almost fifteen percent more for the games than she’d hoped for. Mrs. Hennessey still had some money set aside for an emergency and it made Stevie feel good that she’d had a hand in giving her that security. Mrs. Hennessey gave her a freshly made pie every Sunday afternoon so Stevie felt well rewarded for her efforts.

Rachel was out of the shower and dressing in the bedroom when a knock sounded at the door. Stevie detoured to close the bedroom door on her half naked lover before answering the front door. Her mother and Rory were standing on her porch with big smiles, but Stevie’s gaze was locked on the man standing behind them. “Dad?”

“Miracles do happen,” her mother said as she entered the house.

“Something smells good,” Rory said as he went looking for the source.

“Hello, Stevie.”

She had never thought it would happen.

“I’ll understand if you don’t want me in your house.”

“Not want you in my house? Are you kidding?” Stevie reached out to drag her father inside and ended up in his arms. It had been years since her father had hugged her and Stevie struggled not to break down under the onslaught of emotion.

“I’m sorry, Stevie. I haven’t been a good father to you. You have no reason to forgive me, but if you can find it in your heart…”

“Of course I forgive you. I love you, Dad. My choices were never meant to cause you so much heartache. I’m sorry I couldn’t be the kind of daughter you deserve.”

“I don’t believe that’s the case,” her father said in a solemn tone. “I’m starting to believe that God gave me the kind of daughter every father should hope for. I’ve just been too blind to see it.”

Stevie hugged her dad with all of her strength. The scent of Old Spice surrounded her with the familiar security of her childhood. She had no idea what had happened to make this possible. Only a few days before her father had been as stoic and disapproving as ever. Stevie looked up at him and noticed that his face was more relaxed than it had been in years. She also noticed that they were still on the front porch. “Come inside, Dad. Dinner will be ready soon. I’d really like it if you’d eat with us.”

“I don’t want to put you out.”

“You aren’t. I threw a frozen casserole in the oven when I got mom’s message. There’s plenty of food to share. Come on.”

Stevie was almost giddy that both of her parents were in her house. It felt better than she had hoped it would. When Rachel joined them, her father was a perfect gentleman with her. Rachel looked a bit befuddled, but Stevie had no answers for her. They quickly set the table and got everyone settled.

“We have Rachel’s step-mom to thank for this meal,” Stevie explained as she began serving. “She makes an excellent Shepherd’s Pie, so this should be really good.”

“It smells wonderful,” Stevie’s mom said.

In minutes, the verdict was in. The pork was tender and succulent. Everyone agreed it was delicious. Stevie was so happy she didn’t care if it was good or not. There was only one person missing. “Where’s Sam? Is he working?”

Her parents stilled. Rory made a disgusted noise. “Sam’s a coward.”

“Don’t judge,” Stevie’s mom corrected. “You can’t know what Sam feels in his heart.”

“Coward,” Rory muttered under his breath.

“Sam is what we’ve made of him,” Stevie father said. He looked guilty and sad. “The pressures on an oldest child are far different than on the younger siblings. You are not qualified to judge his courage or lack thereof.”

“I think Stevie has taught us a valuable lesson in not giving up on the people we love. We won’t give up on Sam no matter what.”

Stevie was confused. “What’s going on? Is Sam alright?”

“Sam is following his conscience,” her mother said.

“He’s wrong,” her father added, “but he has that right. We’ll keep the faith that he’ll come around someday. If I can do it, so can he.”

“What are you talking about?”

Her father put down his fork and sat up straighter. “The church has requested our presence on Sunday morning for a counseling session. The Bishop implied that we have a choice to make: you or the church. We’ve decided our choice is you. Sam is choosing the church. He’s even quit his job with me.”

Pain lanced through Stevie’s heart. For a moment she could hardly breathe. Then the anger came. Stevie stood up and walked through the back door. She stopped in the middle of her yard and concentrated on releasing her rage silently.

Stevie understood her brother’s actions. Choosing the church didn’t mean he didn’t love her. Sam needed the structure of the church for his own peace of mind. Plus, he was genuinely in love with Gillian and she didn’t have the strength of character to leave the church. If Sam wanted to make a life with Gillian, he had to stay with the church. Stevie would not fault him for that choice.

No, she was angry with the church itself. She knew about the blessing she’d been given in the hospital. Her mother believed it had a part in her recovery. Rachel didn’t know what to think, but it had been something of a paranormal moment for her. It had left an impression on her that she still hadn’t come to terms with.

For Stevie, the blessing had less to do with her recovery and was more of an affirmation that she was loved. It had been a miracle in and of itself that so many were willing to step outside church doctrine on her behalf.

Her anger was that the church waited so long to do anything about the breach of protocol. If they were going to punish the action, it should have been done immediately. Not almost five months later. Maybe it was an uncharitable thought, but Stevie wondered how much the church had collected in tithes while they delayed. Her father made a lot of money selling cars and the church collected ten percent off the top.

“Stevie?”

She turned to face her father. “I’m sorry this is happening to you.”

“I’m sorry it took this to make me realize how important you are to me.” He stepped forward and put his hands on her shoulders. “None of this is your fault.”

“How can it not be? If I weren’t gay, this wouldn’t be happening.”

“Can you choose not to be gay?”

“I could choose not to accept it.”

“Would you be happy?”

Stevie hung her head. “No.”

“Well, all of a sudden, that’s become very important to me.”

Stevie lifted her eyes.

“I want you to be happy, princess.”

Stevie made a face. “I’m not really princess material, Dad.”

“Not even a fairy princess?”

“The whole world just went crazy. My dad is making gay jokes.”

Jacob Marks put his head back and laughed. His eyes twinkled with mirth as he looked at Stevie. “It’s the strangest thing. The last couple of years I’ve been so angry and miserable. This afternoon when your mother and I were talking about this, all those feelings went away. I feel happy. If choosing you is wrong, how come I feel so good? I can’t help but think that this feeling is a gift from God for finally coming to my senses. I hope Sam feels this someday.”

“I’m not upset about Sam. His choice has nothing to do with me and everything to do with Gillian. I’ll find a way to stay in touch with him.”

“We all will.” He searched her eyes carefully. “Are you alright?”

“I’m mad about the church,” she admitted. “Why did they wait so long?”

“Does it matter?”

Stevie dug a toe into the grass. “I can’t help thinking that they delayed for financial reasons. You pay a lot of tithing.”

Her father started to say something and then looked off into the distance. “I’d hate to think that of them. I believe that they are good men at heart, but it occurs to me now that I should do something about my tithing. It’s on direct deposit.”

Her father’s finances were none of her business, but Stevie knew a little about this. “I still tithe.” She smiled at the look on his face. “Just not to the church.”

He looked relieved. “Who then?”

“To the community. I give to the food bank for Thanksgiving and to Toys for Tots at Christmas. I sent money to Haiti after the earthquake and in the spring, I donate money to sports for little kids. Sometimes it comes out to more than ten percent, but it’s worth it. Just think what a difference you could make if you invested in the community. If it’s something you might be interested in, I’d be happy to help you navigate the programs out there. Some of them are less than stellar. I can show you the ones who make a real difference.”

“We’ll talk about that soon,” he said. “I invested a lot of money and time in the church. I’m afraid I’ll be at loose ends without that focus.”

“Time and energy are important to the community, too. I try to find something to work at every week. In fact, you should come over on Sunday morning and help me clean rain gutters. There are elderly people in my neighborhood who shouldn’t be up on ladders. There are single-parent moms, too. I like to help out where I can. If you and Rory come to help me, we can do even more. Maybe we could go riding in the afternoon. We haven’t done that in a long time.”

“You surprise me.”

“In a good way, I hope.”

Her father smiled. “I would be proud to help you on Sunday. We can make it a family endeavor.”

“Awesome.” Stevie’s anger was fading fast. “Don’t go for counseling,” she blurted out. “You know what’s going to happen. You’ve already made your decision. Making them say it to your face will only hurt you. If I had it to do over again, I would have walked away. Making them go through the whole rigmarole of excommunicating me was a waste of time. I felt obligated to see it through, but I really wasn’t. Whether you believe you’re being consigned to hell or not, it’s a painful process. Don’t subject yourself to that if you don’t have to.”

He considered her words before saying anything. “Your words make sense, but maybe I need the closure. Still, I can spare your mother and brother.”

“Make them do it quietly for Sam’s sake. Maybe things wouldn’t have been so hard between us if I’d let them send me away quietly.”

“Your mother is right,” he said softly. “You are good.”

Stevie was embarrassed. She’d been getting a lot of praise in recent months and it made her uncomfortable. “Come on. Lunch is getting cold.”

“If Rory hasn’t eaten all of it.”

Stevie laughed.

>>>

Rachel took a break on Leona’s porch. The Red Zinger tea was the least of her reasons for doing so. “Can you believe this?”

Leona was rocking serenely in the warm spring sun. “It is pretty amazing.”

The Marks family had shown up at nine on Stevie’s porch in work clothes. What had started out as cleaning a few rain gutters had turned into a neighborhood event. People were out working on their homes and yards on both sides of the street. As near as Rachel could tell, no one was working without help from a neighbor. The Marks family had eventually split up on different projects. Helen was weeding a flower bed. Rory was helping a small boy patch the tires on his bicycle. Stevie was learning how to clean a chimney. Jacob Marks had broken a rain gutter in the process of cleaning it and was replacing the broken section with parts he’d paid for himself.

Rachel had just finished washing Leona’s windows and she wanted to take a moment to enjoy what was happening. As a police officer, she usually saw people at their worst. To see a neighborhood spontaneously band together to help one another was nothing short of a miracle. It gave her hope for the future.

On the other hand, she knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was all because of Stevie. Stevie was one of those rare people who gave of themselves in a way that drew hope and generosity out of other people. She was an inspiration for humanity. Rachel could see that a future with Stevie would be filled with these small miracles and Rachel wanted to be part of them.

A police car turned onto Stevie’s street and slowly cruised by. Rachel recognized one of her fellow officers and waved to him. He smiled back and slowed as a passel of small children chased each other across the street. A parent called after them to watch out for cars and then shrugged apologetically at the passing police car.

A couple of older children were playing Frisbee with a dog. A man with an infant strapped to his chest was watering his lawn. Two women with smiles talked over a fence. A dad was patiently teaching his son to change the oil in the family car. A teenage girl was lying on the grass with a toddler as they pointed at clouds. Roofing tiles were being passed up a ladder to repair a roof. People were laughing, talking, and working without rancor or unpleasantness.

“Is this how it was?”

“Excuse me?”

Rachel looked at Leona. “We have this image that this was how it used to be: that the world used to be a friendlier place. Is this how it was?”

“Not that I recall.” Leona continued to rock. “It might have seemed like a friendlier place in retrospect, but I suspect things are no worse now than they ever were. History will back me up. We have a Leave it to Beaver image of the Fifties, but we also had Joe McCarthy, the Cold War, and nuclear proliferation. I think I know what you’re asking though. The only thing that’s missing is Norman Rockwell.”

Rachel snickered. “That’s exactly what I meant. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“The scope is new,” Leona said, “but this is what I was saying about Stevie the first time we met. Do you remember?”

“Yes.”

“It looks like Stevie’s capacity to give is growing in direct proportion to the number of people who love her.”

Rachel looked at Leona in surprise.

“You’re part of it now,” Leona added. “So am I. I can’t wait to see what comes of it.”

Rachel looked down to the house Stevie was working on. Stevie was listening intently to instruction. She looked like she’d rubbed soot into her face on purpose. Rachel smiled. In some ways, Stevie embodied the unrestrained glee of a child, but she also exhibited the wisdom and insight of an empathically evolved adult. She was remarkably quick to laugh, but she also forgave with the speed of light. She accepted the flaws and failings of others with compassion and sympathy; even defending them if the situation called for it. Stevie always judged herself before judging others.

There were fleeting moments when Rachel wished Stevie would show a little more self-interest, but it was less about what Stevie was doing and more about what Rachel had previously accepted as normal behavior. Rachel was learning that the more one gave to others, the more they received in turn. Stevie never did anything based on what she would get out of it, but she benefitted in some way from everything she did.

Rachel’s experience was that the more you gave, the more people would ask of you, but Stevie never ran into that problem. It took a long time for Rachel to see that Stevie didn’t let people use her. If someone asked for help (such as money or favors), Stevie went to the heart of the problem and looked for a way to give lasting assistance.

A few weeks before, Rachel and Stevie had been walking down the street and a homeless man had asked for money. Stevie had offered to help him find a job. He had spit at their feet and stomped away. Stevie had not lost a moment of thought over it. She accepted that some people wanted handouts more than help and chose not to enable them. She still defended their choices though. It had gone a long way towards helping Rachel understand Stevie’s motivations.

Rachel suddenly needed to be with Stevie. She excused herself from Leona’s porch and lightly ran across the street. She climbed the ladder and stopped before stepping onto the roof. “May I join you?”

Stevie reached for her with a smile. “Come on up. We’re almost done here. Have you met John?”

“No, I haven’t.” Rachel smiled through the introduction and shook the man’s hand. She wanted to jump on Stevie with kisses, but she settled for putting an arm around her waist.

John took his tools and left the roof. Stevie looked down at the street with a laugh. “I don’t know what happened, but isn’t it cool?”

Rachel rubbed Stevie’s belly and looked further afield. There were homes as far as the eye could see. Maybe the day would come when Stevie’s generous nature would affect the entire city. It was definitely something to look forward to.

“I talked to Bobbi the other day,” Rachel said. “She’s been trying to get her landlord to paint their apartment and there’s a problem with the kitchen plumbing. Maybe we could do something about that next Sunday.”

“Why didn’t she tell me?”

“She wasn’t asking for help, honey. We were just chatting. It would never occur to her to ask you to fix her private life. I’m the one who’s asking. I’ll even spring for the paint. Do you think your family would help?”

“I’ll ask them.”

Rachel stood within the circle of Stevie’s arm and watched the industry below. “Stevie?”

“Yes?”

“Just so you know…when you’re ready to ask me to marry you, I’m going to say yes.”

Stevie just smiled.

 

 

 

The End

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