With Faltering Steps by Tonya Muir

With Faltering steps

Artwork by Ciegra

With Faltering Steps
by Tonya Muir

Summary: This powerful story is set in the horseworld and the fringes of the law, Lacy Montgomery is assigned by the Boss to keep and eye on his prized stables. Little does the tough-guy know that Rachel Wilson, one of the trainers, will change her life as much as she changes hers….allowing both to find what neither had ever hoped for.

 

 

Chapter 1: Meeting

 

Lacey Montgomery downshifted the RX-7 with casual skill as she took exit 19 and followed the signs for Aqueduct Racetrack. Horse racing … of all the jobs she’d done for her boss, this one had to be the most peculiar.

The black-haired, blue eyed woman recalled the conversation with her superior the afternoon before, shaking her head silently as she waited for the light to change in front of her.

“Lacey, get in here,” Vincenzo Russo called in his Italian accented baritone, bidding his right hand into his office in the several million dollar mansion he liked to call a home. She entered quietly, as was her style, and observed him and the surroundings with negligent ease, having been in this office countless times before.

He was a large man, just over six foot five with dark hair and dark eyes. His temples greyed slightly as an indication of his forty or so years of existence but he often cited his employees and his family as the real cause. He pinned her with those dark eyes, surrounded by tanned skin and handsome features.

“I need you to go to Aqueduct tomorrow to watch morning workouts. The horses aren’t doing as well as they should. I need you to find out why.”

Without a word, Lacey nodded and left as the man dismissed her. Great. She’d done everything from drug runs to illegal arms deals for Vinnie; it seemed odd that she had to go play with horses for a day … or more. The Briargate Breeding Farm was one of Vinnie’s more legal ventures. The horses themselves, for the most part, being a legitimate business though it also provided a nice cover for drugs and other illicit ventures from time to time. In truth, he had a soft spot for the horses and racing.

And as a woman who’d tortured and killed many times in the normal duties of her job, it was almost insulting to be sent on a lesser mission. But Vinnie knew that, and would have only sent her if he thought her skills were required for this task and the horses were important enough to him that he wanted her to handle them personally. So she pulled the RX-7 into the trainer’s parking lot, already having received the required passes from the farm itself, and parked as near the entrance as she could.

No amount of warm holiday cheer could have worked its magic past Christmas and into the bitter month following. January had brought with it icy rain and biting winds. This morning’s only bright point was the rain hadn’t started to fall yet. Still the air was unpleasantly cold as the dark woman unfolded her six foot frame from the small sports car and wrapped her leather trench coat more closely around her. She observed her Ray Bans inside the car on the passenger seat, deciding the early grey dawn as not requiring such protection, so she left them where they lay and checked to make sure her Glock was in its shoulder holster. Then, with a deep sigh of icy frosted breath, she made her way through the guarded gate and towards the track, knowing the Briargate horses should be warming up.

She wasn’t disappointed as she came to the rail and recognized a short balding man who was thicker through the middle than he probably should have been. He turned grey eyes towards her as she approached and she watched the recognition and alarm flash through his eyes before he held a hand out to her.

“Lacey,” he nodded once, gripping her hand firmly. He easily recognized her from business meetings and dinners. No one forgot Vinnie’s right hand man if not for her striking eyes and contrasting hair, then for her six feet of intimidating muscular build and often feral look. The stories he’d heard about her inhuman coldness were enough to chill him to the bone despite the heavy barn jacket he wore.

“Bob,” she said casually, running cool eyes over his stocky frame, allowing her stoic visage to do its work for her. “Vinnie wants to know how the horses are running.”

The trainer shrugged one shoulder and turned back to the track with relief when one of the exercise boys called to him.

“Sunnyside is up at the pole, do you want me to join ‘im?” the kid asked, standing upright in stirrup irons as he fought a young chestnut colt for his head.

Bob glanced to the horse in question, 5 furlongs out, dancing at a marker but held in check easily. “That girl never listens,” Bob muttered, then, more loudly. “Yeah, take Laddie up there and move back a furlong. I want you to breeze ’em the first and then drive ’em for the five. Stay off the rail, that colt’s a hugger. Got it?”

“Yeah, boss,” the boy turned his mount and cantered him up to the bay across the track where the two riders chatted for a moment before pushing back another furlong.

Then chestnut and bay stood shuffling at the marker, each decked out in the barn’s colors of blue and red, the bay wearing a hood with blinkers to prevent him from shying. The chestnut wearing a shadow roll on his nose band to similarly prevent spooking at shadows in front of him across the track.

The riders glanced at each other and then, simultaneously, urged the horses forward down the dirt track. When they passed the first furlong marker, Bob started his stop watch.

The riders were balanced precariously on the tiny saddles, their bodies raised above the horses’ shoulders and necks. Manes whipped at helmets and goggles with the wind. As they came closer, the chestnut edged ahead, long strides eating up the ground easily to pull ahead by a few inches, then half a length.

“Go to the whip, dammit,” Bob yelled, his face getting red with his frustration but neither rider did and the bay came behind by a length as they passed the finish line. Bob stopped his watch and glanced over at another man holding a watch.

“Got one oh five on Sunnyside,” the other man offered.

“One oh three and four fifths on Laddie,” Bob responded with a growl.

Lacey watched all this with mild interest, easily perfecting her air of nonchalance with hands in pockets and dark hair fanned across leather clad shoulders, and personally not caring if the horses had broken a land speed record. Actually, not really caring about anything except what was wrong and why Vinnie hadn’t given her more information on this problem she was supposed to be discovering. It was her job to know all about his drug trades and arm deals but she’d never ventured into his horses outside of their less legal uses.

Ice blue eyes followed Bob casually as he stormed onto the track and grabbed at the bay’s bridle, literally pulling the rider to the ground as the horse still circled around them, breathing heavily. The rider landed lightly on her feet and ripped her arm angrily out of the short man’s grasp.

He yanked the rider’s helmet off and threw it to the ground, revealing blond hair that fell free to the woman’s mid back. In turn, she pulled off her goggles and retrieved the bay’s reins from Bob’s hand.

“What are you doing out there? We’re not here for a Sunday ride, missy. I said all out and he was loping!” Bob shouted angrily as the rider passed the reins to another helper and watched the horse walk away.

Lacey noticed the smaller woman bristle at the man before her and clench her jaw, but she raised easily to his challenge. “He’s not right, Bob. There’s something wrong with that colt and he needs to be evaluated before he gets hurt.”

“That’s my job, not yours. You get on their backs and you don’t use your pretty little head for anything except running ‘im!” He poked at her shoulder furiously with enough force to actually push the woman back slightly.

“Well if one of us doesn’t think, this horse is gonna fall apart before he hits the races. Is that your job? Pull your head outta your ass, Bob, and look at him! He’s not right! He’s the best bred horse in this whole god damned barn and he won’t run past a one oh four. Whipping an off horse isn’t gonna make him better.” The heat fairly emanated from the young woman as she raised her voice in anger, using all of her roughly five foot four frame and standing on her toes as well as she poked a finger into the trainer’s shoulder in turn.

Bob was fuming, his face beet red and the sweat on his brow evident.

Lacey observed all this with a small smirk and an interested eye. This girl was full of attitude, and might just have some answers to her questions. Regardless, she found herself liking her instantly if only because she’d never much cared for the slimy trainer and enjoyed watching him get his due.

“Get back to the barn, girl, and cool out that colt. If you can’t ride ‘im, you won’t. Is that clear?” The stocky man growled in response, the spittle flying from his lips causing Lacey and the small rider to each wrinkle their noses in reaction.

“Crystal,” the young blonde responded coldly and retrieved her helmet and goggles before turning on her booted heel and stomping away to take back the colt from the young boy who’d been walking him.

But Lacey noticed that as soon as her hands touched the reins, her shoulders relaxed and she reached up to pat the bay gently on the face. He ducked his head into her and pushed her chest with evident fondness.

Lacey observed Bob carefully as he came back around to the rail side, maintaining her passive look without effort. “Bring ’em all back, that’s it for this morning,” the trainer yelled then tossed a glance to the tall dark-haired woman waiting for him. “C’mon to the barn.” But the invitation certainly wasn’t extended eagerly and Lacey kept her responding grin to herself. She fed off of the fear of Vinnie’s little worker bees.

She walked quietly behind him, running a cold hand through wind tossed black hair before returning it to the warmth of her pocket. Then she extended her stride.

“Who is that girl?” she asked him casually as she caught up to him and they followed the string of colts and fillies towards the Briargate section of the long training barns.

“Only the most annoying rider I have.”

“Why keep her?”

Grey eyes met hers briefly but learned nothing from the stoic face beside him. Of all the things he’d heard about Lacey Montgomery, none of them were good. She was a ruthless killer with a quick temper and no tolerance for bad jobs or stupidity and Bob had lost one of his best jockeys to her cruel hands less than a year ago. Vinnie must be worried about something to send her out. “She’s good. She knows the horses. She’s not a full time rider, she’s out here with Sunnyside. She normally works at the farm itself.”

Lacey nodded silently and made a mental note to definitely speak with this young woman. She was familiar with the track and the farm which could only be helpful.

Once at the barn, she deviated from Bob’s side and walked down the large cement aisle to find the rider in question. She was at the far side of the barn, stripping the cross tied colt with expert hands and placing the tack in the nearby tack room.

As Lacey approached she heard the woman’s voice, soft now and not filled with anger, murmuring to the bay whose ears flipped back casually from time to time. “It’s okay, boy,” her gentle voice floated through the quiet barn easily. “We’ll figure it out, I promise.”

“Figure what out?” Lacey asked from her position, leaning against a stall door not fifteen feet away from the blonde, left ankle neatly crossing the right, hands stuffed casually in coat pockets. The young blonde nearly jumped out of her skin.

“Saw you with Bob, you one of the Big Man’s cronies?” she recovered and looked to the other woman briefly, but long enough for Lacey to see bright green eyes that twinkled slightly with amusement.

“Depends on which Big Man you’re referring to,” Lacey responded in her typical husky voice but she found herself liking the gutsiness of the young woman before her. She pushed herself away from the door with her elbow and took a step closer to colt and girl.

“Vinnie what’s-his-name,” she responded waving a hand with a careless gesture then ducking under the colt’s neck to sponge off his other side.

“Ah,” Lacy nodded with a smirk and a raised eyebrow which was lost on the busy young rider. “Then, yes, I am a crony.”

The woman laughed lightly at Lacey’s agreement to that title. “Do you have a name? Or do they just call you crony number six or something like that?”

The dark woman acquiesced, nodding her head slightly. “Lacey Montgomery.”

“Rachel Wilson,” the blonde ducked back under the horse’s neck to offer a soapy wet hand. And Lacey knew this was a test of sorts so she accepted the hand easily, ignoring the wet mess dripping from their joined grasp, and noticed that the smaller woman’s grip was firm and well muscled. And that her green eyes were open and honest if not a bit challenging.

“Can I help you with something?” Rachel asked hesitating maybe a bit too long with grasped hands and connected eyes before going back to her task by throwing the soapy sponge into a bucket and using a sponge pulled from a bucket without soap. Once he was rinsed, she grabbed a sweat scraper out of the tack box. She moved the grooming tool quickly over the bay’s muscular body and sheets of moisture splattered on the cement floor to steam there in the cold winter air.

Lacey watched her work, impressed by her efficiency and casual nature, moved inexplicably by their brief moment of contact. This was a confident, self assured woman before her, who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. Rachel glanced to her again as she switched to the colt’s other side when the dark woman didn’t answer her question.

“Ah, the strong silent type,” the blonde nodded knowingly. “That’s all right, I’m not,” Rachel grinned wryly. “So I can talk enough for both of us. Let me guess.” She paused in her work to tap the sweat blade against her chin and crinkle her brow in thought. “Vinnie whoever thinks his horses aren’t running well and sent you to check it out. Now, the question is, how worried is he … which would presumably be answered by your number in the line of cronies.”

“Call me crony number two in charge of business affairs,” the dark woman smirked at this young rider before her, giving her more leeway than she’d ever done in such an interview. In fact, at this point her subjects were often bloody and begging. This was not lost on Rachel who read the other woman’s stance and eyes carefully, knowing her to be capable of great violence.

“Ah,” the blonde nodded. “Business affairs. So the horses are losing money?”

“Don’t think so. Why don’t you let me ask the questions?” Lacey asked with flashing blue eyes and it made Rachel smile, not at all responding to the threat in that glare which surprised and impressed the darker woman.

“Ask away. I’m all ears … well, not all ears. Sunny has bigger ears than I do but I think, in the end, I’m a better listener. Huh, big boy?” She patted the colt affectionately as she pulled a woolen cooler over him and attached it to the back strap of his halter. Then she moved to settle it over his haunches and clip it around his tail.

Lacey was doing her best to not outright smile at this woman, enjoying her company and easy nature more than she probably should. “You said the colt wasn’t running right. What do you mean? Is he lame?”

“Nah,” Rachel slipped into the tack room where she exchanged tall leather riding boots for ratty tennis shoes and pulled a canvas barn jacket over her navy turtle neck. “He comes up sound for all the checks. Vet’s been to see him several times. But he’s not himself. He used to love to run, but now it’s like pulling teeth to get him into stride. And he doesn’t fight to win. He’s listless, depressed maybe.”

“Bloodwork?”

“Nothing unusual, high white counts. See how he’s standing?” the rider asked, indicating the colt with a wave of her hand.

The dark woman shrugged, he looked okay to her.

“His feet are spread kinda wide, like he’s trying to keep his balance. When he moves he stumbles more than I think he should. We tried a bunch of different shoes on him but it’s the same.”

“Off his feed?”

Rachel cocked her head the other woman’s direction, surprised at her exhibited knowledge of horses. “Yeah. A little. He’s lost some weight. His coat’s not in as good condition as it should be for his feed and level of exercise.”

“Is he the only one?”

The blonde unhooked Sunny’s cross ties and attached a lead shank to his stud chain, then jostled it slightly to let him know it was there. “C’mon, son,” she said softly to him and started leading him down the barn aisle. Lacey fell into step beside the smaller woman, hands in pockets, head tilted slightly to look at her.

“No. Not really. The barn’s been kinda off lately in general. There’s a filly we sent back last week, she was here in training and started acting the same. Took her home and she fell down on a morning exercise, it took three people to get her standing and then she kind of acted drunk. She ran great last year.”

They left the barn and started out towards a large barren area where others were leading horses decked out just like Sunnyside. “There’s a Slew colt who’s just being broken and he managed to get hung up in the starting gate at the farm. He stumbled on the way out and ripped the hell out of his saddle and now they’re retraining him to the gate. He’s behind anyway, shoulda been starting in the Spring this year but he can’t even look at the gate without falling apart so they’ll probably have to sell him. Plus, he has the other symptoms, too. Off his feed, listless, clumsy,” she continued easily, only occasionally glancing to her silent companion.

“Slew colt? What does that mean?”

Rachel cast her companion a somewhat humorous look. Apparently cronies didn’t need to know much about this part of the business. “Seattle Slew. Won the Triple Crown in ’77. His lines go back to Bold Ruler?” she watched the woman for any hint of recognition. “Bold Ruler was Secretariat’s sire.”

“Ah,” the dark head nodded. There was a name she knew.

Rachel smiled, everyone knew Secretariat the ’73 Triple Crown winner, first in twenty five years. He’d run the Derby in under two minutes and won the Preakness by thirty one lengths. The young rider had a framed poster of that victory on her apartment wall.

“Not worth the money and effort to retrain him if he misses this year?” the dark woman asked.

“Well,” Rachel inclined her head slightly. “Seattle Slew is a broodmare sire.”

“What does that mean?”

“His daughters make great broodmares but his sons aren’t normally spectacular. Cigar is out of one of his daughters.”

“So, this colt may not have had much promise anyway,” Lacey nodded her understanding.

“Ah ha!” Rachel beamed. “Good to know you’re not all beauty and no brains.” Oh my God, did I just flirt with this woman?

Lacey did her best to ignore the comment and the somewhat shocked expression on the younger woman’s face. “So what happens?”

Rachel glanced at her briefly, recovering from her moment of insanity and searching the other woman’s well planed features and concentrated look. “Nothing. We sell him as a prospect, hope they look at his bloodlines and his flat run and not ask to see him in the gate. It’s poor business for future deals, but …” she shrugged, letting her voice trail off.

The blue eyes flashed her direction but Rachel had already redirected her own gaze to watch the horse ahead of her who was giving his walker a little trouble. “Is that legal?”

Rachel delivered her own raised eyebrow smirk at this question. “Legal? What do you care about legalities, crony number two? How do you make your money, miss black-leather-trench coat?” But the harshness of her words was lightened by the sparkle in her eyes. I think either I am flirting with her or I’ve lost my mind because there’s no doubt she’s a murderer.

And Lacey found herself smiling back even though she’d punched people for less than that. “You always speak so frankly?”

Rachel glanced at her companion again and her expression softened slightly. “Sorry. I’m not normally quite so abrasive.” She admitted with a self deprecating grin. “Don’t know what got into me.” For the first time since they’d met, Lacey saw something close to doubt pass over the fair woman’s features. “It’s been a rough morning, a rough couple of days. And I guess I knew they’d be sending someone like you to get rid of me. So I thought I’d go out with a bang.” The smile she offered this time was apologetic.

“Get rid of you?” Lacey asked slowly, quirking an eyebrow. “I’m not here to off you, lady. I’m just asking questions.”

To which Rachel responded appropriately and laughed again. “No, no. I meant there’s a lot of stuff going down and I’m about the most verbal person they have at the barn or here. Figured if they needed a scapegoat … I’d be the best they could find. Easy to fire … not kill.” Moments of silence. “I hope,” she deadpanned.

Lacey considered this as they walked along in silence for a few more strides. “So, being verbally abrasive with me helps you how, exactly?”

Rachel flashed a full fledged smile to the taller woman. “Well, you know, brave and smart aren’t the same things. I figured I’d go down with a fight. I like to live on the edge.” Though this fire I’m playing with now may be too hot for me.

Lacey smiled, the simple move making her dark features light up and her eyes shine brighter. “Okay, let’s try this again.” She stopped and Rachel pulled Sunnyside to a halt as well. “I’m Lacey Montgomery. Here to do a little research for my boss and find out why his horses aren’t doing as well as they were.” She removed her warm hand from her pocket and extended it to the smaller woman.

The rider switched Sunny’s lead line to her left hand so she could shake with her right, smiling as she did so. “So who’d ya piss off to get that crappy assignment?” But she laughed when she got a raised eyebrow from the other woman. “Right, new beginning. Sorry. Rachel Wilson, rider and barn rat, pleased to meet you.”

“Now … what’s the deal with Bob? You two don’t seem to be fans of each other.”

Rachel resumed walking and shrugged her shoulders. “Bob’s an asshole. He knows a lot about horses and how to condition them and train them, but he doesn’t like them. Good money, good social ladder. But he’ll run a horse to death for the quick win and not care about its future. I don’t agree with that.”

“So why do you work for him?”

“Tricky question on two different levels. Truth is I work for the farm manager, though I’m equally unimpressed with him, and on loan to Bob. Sunny’s their up and coming star but he does better for me than the exercise boys. So I come out and work him here, then go back to the farm and do what I was hired to do … care for the broodmares and foals.”

“And what’s the second level?” Lacey asked, blue eyes leaving her companion’s profile to travel their surroundings: populated with horses and people glowing orange as sun broke through grey clouds. They’d walked in silence for several minutes before Lacey realized her question hadn’t been answered. “Rachel?”

Green eyes glanced her way and something inexplicable flashed across them as she considered her answer, then she turned away and absently ran a hand under the colt’s cooler along his neck. “Well, I guess the more accurate question would be ‘why am I working for Briargate when it’s run by criminals and I disagree with everything they do for the horses.'”

More silence. Lacey couldn’t explain her interest in this young woman whose depth and charisma were intriguing her to no end. She felt an urge to know her better and a twinge of regret at the look that crossed her companion’s features. “Well?”

A shrug of shoulders and a tilt of her head. “I’m … uh … not comfortable answering that question.”

Lacey nodded and dropped the subject, knowing already that she’d be headed to Vinnie’s offices and rummaging through his personnel files as soon as she left here.

“I gotta put him up and get back to Briargate,” Rachel said to fill the void. She offered the woman beside her a slight smile. “Sorry about earlier.”

Lacey shrugged her shoulders. “No need to apologize, right? Maybe I’ll see you around.”

“Yeah, later.” And she turned the colt to walk him back to the barn, but glanced over her shoulder twice to see the dark woman’s retreating back. And she hoped she would see her again, liking the woman’s husky voice and striking eyes.
Chapter 2: Discovery
Lacey glanced at the clock on the mantle. It was just past 11:00 p.m. and she’d been up since well before dawn to go to Aqueduct. Now she sat on the large leather couch in her own home, reading from the detailed personnel files she’d gotten at Vinnie’s. Being a paranoid man, Vinnie had thorough checks done on everyone who worked for him.

She’d also questioned Vinnie more thoroughly about his motives and realized the man was genuinely concerned about the horses. Sunnyside was one of his favorites and he had big plans for the stunning colt including campaigning overseas and then returning to stud. The lame filly Rachel mentioned was nice but nothing spectacular, same with the other colt. So now she concentrated on the personnel files she’d pulled.

And Lacey found quickly what the rider had been hiding.

Young Rachel Wilson grew up in rural New York, just outside of Rochester, until her father died when she was in high school. A few short months later, Rachel and her sister became dependents of an aunt and uncle, apparently the mother’s brother, when the mother committed suicide. The bare bones factual account had no details on the death or the suicide.

The girls were apparently living in a questionable household at that point. This was evidenced by repeated calls to social services by teachers to investigate bruises on their bodies and markedly withdrawn personalities. And when Rachel turned seventeen, she dropped out of school and ran away from home, dragging her younger sister with her to live in New York City. Her employment history for this time showed minimum wage work in restaurants and hotels. There was no address so the girls must have been living in shelters or on the street.

Rachel also had a criminal record. This part of the file had come from the DA’s office, immediately alerting the dark-haired reader to Rachel’s association with them. At twenty-one, she’d been convicted of robbery, having turned states evidence against her associates to reduce her sentence from manslaughter.

There was a signed affidavit that outlined the events, from Rachel’s point of view, of that fateful night. Her actual offense had been driving the getaway car at a convenience store burglary. And when she’d gone into the store, after her comrades had been inside too long, she’d seen what they had done and the bloody bodies that were left. The DA’s report identified the victims as a cashier and two customers. The young woman had talked her partners in crime into surrendering when the police came, receiving a gunshot wound to her stomach for her troubles. The written account indicated it had been transcribed from a recording of a live interview. It was complete with pauses, hesitations, and stuttering words. The discussion had not been an easy one for the young woman. During this interview in the hospital, Rachel was told that Leslie Ann Wilson was killed at the scene when stray bullets from the store shot her as she waited in the car.

According to the accompanying DA’s report, Rachel had never had a weapon and her true crime had been in aiding and abetting what was supposed to be armed robbery. So the dealing had been quick and easy, the sentence reduced to seven years in addition to time served, eligible for parole at three. Parole had been granted and the young blonde had been tossed back on the street. She’d been out of prison for two years now and working at Briargate for just under that.

The only family on record for Rachel Wilson was the aunt and uncle, and an eight year old daughter who lived with someone in Rochester. Interesting.

Lacey considered this information carefully, setting aside the factual accounting of Rachel’s life as she again pictured the young blonde woman in her mind. She worked for a criminal because she had a criminal record herself, which really didn’t make her shine as hirable on the open job market. Vinnie had a way of overlooking those kinds of things.

The other woman’s history of violence paled in comparison with her own. It was only her ties to Vinnie and their discreet
cover-ups which prevented the dark woman from spending her life in prison and she already knew she’d be spending eternity in hell. But the value of human life was not one of the things she pondered late at night. Nor did she think about her own inclination towards violence and bloodshed. It was just her … no thinking involved. But she couldn’t picture the small-statured woman as a criminal. And she certainly couldn’t picture her serving time.

Something about those green eyes and that brash smile had captured Lacey’s interest and it was this curiosity that had her in her car at just before midnight and headed towards Briargate nearly an hour away. She now knew the factual recital of the young rider’s life but she wondered at the emotions behind the printed words. She wanted to know how Rachel Wilson ticked and what she thought. Surely she hadn’t misinterpreted the banter and the easy nature, surely the young blonde was equally captivated. And, of course, she wanted to know more about the horses and their poor running. Didn’t she?

By the time she arrived, the farm was dark except for the broodmare barn. And she knew from her research and her questioning of the farm manager that this is where she’d find Rachel Wilson. She walked down the wide cement aisle towards the center office and opened the door slowly to see Rachel leaping to her feet and blinking at her sleepily. When the dark woman glanced down, she was greeted by a red masked face and ice blue eyes.

“Woo woooo,” the four legged beast offered her happily, doing a full bodied wag with ears flattened against skull and neck. She wasn’t a large dog, maybe forty pounds, with red and white fur patterned typically across her back and shoulders. Lacey recognized her to be Siberian Husky and from what little she knew about them, realized they were normally outgoing and friendly and very rarely made any kind of guard dog. If the image before her was any indication, her memory was correct.

“Hey,” Rachel said sleepily, running a tired hand through bedraggled blonde hair. “C’mon in and close the door. Cuz if she gets out we’ll be chasing her for hours and that’s just not on my list of things to do this morning.”

“She a runner?” Lacey asked as she came in and pulled the door shut behind her.

“Almost all huskies are. She’s no exception.”

The dark woman nodded and reached down to stroke the dog’s soft fur, laughing when she twisted her body around the woman’s legs like a cat and continued her verbal serenade. “So shy and reserved,” Lacey commented.

“Yeah, that’s her. A regular wall flower.” She watched the woman pet her dog for awhile longer before raising her eyes. “To what do I owe this late night visit?” Not that I mind, really.

And Lacey hesitated because that was indeed the question and here she was without a good answer. So instead, she responded, “Frank said you were on mare watch at nights. Said I could probably find you in the office if I needed to speak with you again.”

Rachel nodded, recognizing the name of the farm manager. “Here I am, loading up on caffeine and watching monitors.” The younger woman picked up her mug of coffee again and took a sip, gesturing to Lacey. “Want a cup? It’s only fair that you catch up since I’m on my second pot.” She grinned ruefully and Lacey found herself returning the grin for no better reason than she liked this woman.

“Sure. Count me in. Is that the dog’s excuse, too?”

“Her? Goodness no,” Rachel snorted as she pulled a new mug out from the cupboard over the sink. “That’s a natural high. Though I’d pay good money for that kind of love of life.”

The dog in question danced behind Lacey gleefully, following her all the way across the office to retrieve her cup. The tall woman poured in some sugar and cream before moving to the small couch and letting her eyes slide along the half dozen monitors set up on the coffee table. The dog jumped up next to her to settle a masked head in her lap and look up at her adoringly. “What’s her name?”

“Karma,” Rachel responded and the dog rolled eyes towards her owner in response before turning her gaze back to the woman she was using as a pillow. Then more loudly. “Karma, get down you idiot,” for which she just got a huge dog sigh.

Lacey laughed and shrugged. “I don’t mind.” And rested a hand on the dog’s shoulder to show that she really didn’t mind. Karma flashed her eyes in Rachel’s direction as if to brag about her success. “How many mares are due?” Lacey motioned to the monitors in front of her.

“The barn’s full of ’em. About twenty. But we’re watching five mares and one injury tonight.”

“Why the injury? Do you always watch lame horses?”

“No. This filly’s a bit sensitive. Whenever we change her routine or feed she gets colicky on us. She hurt herself this morning so they moved her from the training barn over here so I can keep an eye on her. I mean, I’m up all night anyway.” Rachel moved to sit beside the darker woman on the couch, realizing fully that her question concerning the late night trip hadn’t been answered.

She let her eyes roam casually over her visitor, noticing she still wore the black leather trench coat. When their eyes met slowly, she had to look away because of the flush warming her skin. Though having come to terms with her attraction to women years ago, Rachel normally wasn’t quite as flustered as she was now in Lacey’s presence.

Lacey smiled at the blush and turned away as well, her fingers playing idly in the soft red fur beneath her hand, because she felt it too. That was the real reason she’d come, she knew. She’d felt it this morning when they’d first met and wanted to see if it was real. At the very least it was mutual. Great, I’m attracted to Pippi Longstockings, where does that leave me?

They each sipped their coffee quietly until Lacey finally broke the silence. “I know why you work for us.”

Rachel glanced at her briefly, not missing that this woman easily included herself with the organized crime who signed her paycheck, before rising to her feet again and pacing across the room. “I knew you could find out. Did Frank tell you?”

“No, he didn’t say a word. Vinnie keeps personnel records and I read yours.”

The blonde head nodded slightly and met Lacey’s eyes again. “How much do you know?”

“Not much,” the dark woman allowed carefully, watching the rider closely to determine when she’d gone too far. “Just the facts. Death of your parents, living with relatives, conviction, time served.”

“That’s more than anyone else knows,” the blonde turned away again to fiddle with the coffee makings. She organized the small containers subconsciously, lining them up behind the sink. “I’m not proud of it.”

“I see that,” the older woman acknowledged, able to read the regret in her companion’s shoulder-slumped posture. “Is there more to the story? Something else you’d like to tell me?”

Rachel considered these words for a very long moment and realized, much to her own shock, that she did want to talk to this person. She glanced back across the room, observing the lanky woman, dressed casually in jeans and a denim button shirt, Nike high tops completing the aloof look. Her dark hair was pulled back into a loose braid that fell behind her and blended into the black leather coat. Rachel sighed deeply, turned her attention back to the sink where she now opened the overhead cabinets and started rearranging the contents. “I didn’t know they were going to kill anyone. I didn’t even know they were really armed. Bunch of punks, ya know? Met ’em on the streets and they had these grandiose ideas of getting what life owed us. Whatever. Life owed us nothing, we were street rats. We left the world that had threatened us because we weren’t brave enough to stand up to it. We thought it would be easier to be on our own.”

She paused for a long moment but the dark woman said nothing to fill the silence.

“So they had this silly plan to heist some quick cash at a convenience store,” she continued at last. “I thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard. I mean, stores like that are so used to punks that the doors are marked like yardsticks and cameras are mounted everywhere. Their money is kept in safes and minimal cash is in the drawers. I knew these things. I argued them. But Leslie was sleeping with one of the guys and she begged me to help. They just needed a driver. She said if I didn’t go with them, she could drive. And when I knew she was going with or without me, the decision was easy enough. I’d taken care of her for nearly three years by that point, she was my responsibility.”

“So you went along,” Lacey urged gently.

“Left my daughter with some waitress at the hotel where I was working at the time and away we went. I didn’t see Molly again until we were in court and the foster parents brought her and stood in the hall with her when they escorted me by. It was nice of them, I needed to see her.”

“What about Leslie?” the dark woman knew she was on thin ice here. But for some reason she didn’t understand, she wanted to hear everything. She wanted to help shoulder the burden the young woman had been carrying for years.

“You know what happened,” the green eyes flashed away from their mundane task of organizing sugar packets. They reflected annoyance and fear.

“How did you find out?” Lacey pushed a little harder, sensing that the young rider did want to tell the whole story.

Rachel turned back to her task, fingers now numbly pushing around coffee filters. “After surgery. I was in recovery. They’d pronounced Leslie in the car so she didn’t come to the hospital when I did. The nurses and doctors hadn’t been thrilled to treat me when they found out how I’d been shot: in a robbery mishap. I could hear them complaining and making derogatory comments. I was angry because I needed them to fix me so I could find Leslie and take care of her. And for my daughter. When I found out the truth, there was never a question as to what I would do. I felt no loyalty towards those assholes. They’d killed three people plus my sister. And shot me. They deserved the life sentences they got.”

The small office nearly rang with the ensuing silence.

“It took a lot of courage to do that,” Lacey said at last, her dark voice gentle.

The smaller woman barked a laugh, closed the cupboard doors. “First time in my life I showed any. I ran away from everything else or evaded it … or found the short cut. And that night, instead of driving away with Leslie in the car, safe and alive, I walked in there and faced the devil himself. I’ve had better ideas in my life.”

“You brought them to justice,” her companion pointed out, slightly amazed that she gave a damn about justice given her personal employment.

“Coulda done that a bunch of different ways. I should have gotten my sister to safety first.” Finally the evasive emerald eyes now watched the woman across the room. “I’ll never make a mistake like that again.”

“Leslie asked you to go in there, didn’t she?” Lacey realized, already able to tell that the young woman before her was strongly influenced by her younger sibling’s desires.

She shrugged, “So what? I didn’t have to listen.”

“But you did. Because you loved her and she was worried. You were going to round up the other guys and get them out of there, get Leslie’s boyfriend back.”

“That was the plan. Not a good one in retrospect.”

“Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, Rachel,” the dark-haired woman allowed softly. “You can’t kick yourself for decisions you made then. You were working off of limited information, you made the best decision you could.”

The silence strung out between them and when Rachel met the ice blue eyes she would have found cold just the day before, she saw a gentleness she could hardly believe. She tilted her head, acknowledging the other woman’s offered compassion. Then she rolled her shoulders slightly, realizing they did feel a little lighter.

“Why didn’t you tell me? Surely you know I’ve done worse?”

Rachel half smiled, turned away again. She’d of course known that anyone who admitted to being Vinnie Russo’s crony number two was well accustomed to violence and killing. “Why would I? I don’t even know you. Just because you enjoy a life of crime does not mean it’s my cup of tea. You’re some random dark woman who wants to know all the barn’s secrets. Why would I have spilled mine as well? In fact, I can’t believe I told you now.”

“Good point,” Lacey murmured, on all counts. “So tell me all of the barn’s secrets,” she made a valiant effort to lighten the mood and change the subject.

It appeared her young companion was more than ready to take the diversion. “You tell me. You know some of them, I’m sure. Why did that filly fall down on the track last week?”

Lacey considered this for a very long moment before deciding to answer the question. “I really don’t know. Vinnie’s worried about the horses … apparently he has a soft spot for them. He thinks something shadey’s going on.”

Rachel took in this information silently.

“Do you know a barn hand by the name of Oz?”

Worried eyes flashed her direction and caught Lacey by surprise. “Yeah?”

“Why does that name worry you, Rachel?”

She laughed softly, setting her mug back down on the counter to twist her hands together nervously. “Sometimes he comes here at night and … bothers me. I thought maybe you were him when the door first opened.”

“Bothers you?” Lacey felt a fury rise in her belly. “How?”

She shrugged it off. “He hasn’t been back since I started bringing Karma to spend the nights with me. He’s afraid of her.”

Lacey glanced down at the sleeping dog and then raised a questioning eyebrow to the blonde across the room.

“Hey, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, I say. Why do you ask if I know him?”

“Spoke to him today. He seemed kind of evasive.”

Rachel raised her head to meet ice blue eyes across the room, “That lame filly I told you about this morning?” she waited for the dark head to nod. “She was his … like Sunny’s mine. We all have certain horses we handle.” She was silent for a moment, putting two and two together rather quickly. “He had a colt last year that suddenly started acting differently.”

“Like Sunny and the others are now?”

“Yeah. They sold him to some German guy and shipped him there to be put at stud. We never found out what was wrong but he apparently did fine once he got there.”

Lacey nodded slowly.

“Where were the drugs?” Rachel blurted, suddenly worried. “Did they put them in him? Did they kill him when he got there?”

“No, no drugs.” Lacey promised softly. “Honestly, there are a lot cheaper and more efficient ways to ship drugs than using horses.”

“That’s good … I guess,” the blonde managed a confused smile. “What do you use them for then? What happens to the horses?”

Lacey met the searching emerald eyes and tried her best to put forth a reassuring smile. “There really is nothing, Rachel. The horses are legitimate. Occasionally, Vinnie uses them to close a business deal or to meet someone promising but, for the most part, the horses are just … horses. A hobby. ”

Several long moments of silence hung between them until Lacey broke it, “Did you know that Wheatridge wants to buy Sunny?”

“No,” Rachel’s voice was tired.

“I think he’s been made to run poorly so that he’ll be for sale.”

Rachel nodded but was silent for many long moments as she absorbed the last few minutes of conversation and her unprecedented confession. Then, with a sigh, “Wow, I feel enlightened. What great news. Did you come here just to cheer me up, crony number two? Cuz it ain’t working.”

“No, sorry,” Lacey smiled gently. “I didn’t intend to tell you all this. Who would be working for Wheatridge?”

“You haven’t told me anything,” Rachel pointed out quietly, shaking her head. “Hell if I know. I didn’t even know there was anything going on here, really. Just a string of bad luck, I thought. So I sure as hell don’t know who would be giving away secrets. You really think Wheatridge did something to Sunny?”

“Maybe,” the dark woman shrugged.

“Why am I so blind?” she groaned and was vaguely surprised at the gentle laugh across from her.

“Because I get the feeling you like to be optimistic.”

“Shit load of good it does me.” Then she seemed to consider something carefully before lifting her chin. “If you’re looking for leaks, I’d start with Oz. And he has a friend he hangs out with named Benny, but Benny works the stallions.”

“Any stallion trouble?”

“I’m not over there much so I don’t know.”

Lacey nodded and stared thoughtfully at the fur under her hand before she glanced back up at the emerald eyes watching her from the desk. “Can I have another cup of coffee?” she requested, not quite ready to leave.

Rachel sat for a long time, part of her wanting to send this darkness away and the rest of her intrigued by it. “Come with me to check the mares and then we’ll have another cup,” the blonde suggested as she gained her feet and started towards the door.

“I thought that’s what the monitors were for,” Lacey said but she pushed the dog gently to the ground and stood anyway.

“Still have to look at them. A camera doesn’t show everything.” She opened the door for her companion while pointing a finger at the dog that followed on the dark woman’s heels. “You, wait,” she commanded.

Karma gave her owner a startled look before launching into another round of vocal assaults. “Rooooo. Arrrrrrrr.”

“I’m not kidding, girl,” Rachel said in her sternest voice and was answered by more noise and a swinging of the dog’s head from side to side as blue eyes rolled.

“What’s she doing?” Lacey asked quietly from her position in the barn aisle, peeking around Rachel to watch the dog’s antics.

“She’s telling me off.”

“That’s pretty funny,” the dark woman chuckled.

Rachel pushed the door closed and made sure it latched before turning her attention to her companion. “Oh sure, you laugh but you don’t live with her,” but the young woman was smiling fondly as she spoke.

They walked side by side down the barn aisle, Lacey staying outside when the blonde entered certain stalls and spoke to the inhabitants in a soothing voice. Before too long they were back in the office and pouring more coffee.

“So you do this every day? Are up for morning workouts and then stay awake all night?”

“Mmmm,” Rachel agreed, sitting on the couch again and patting its surface for Karma to join her. It didn’t take much prompting. “I usually try to sleep a little in the afternoon but I didn’t get a chance to today. It’s only for a couple of months, really, and then the mares are re-bred and I get to be up more normal hours to concentrate on working the foals that don’t go back to their own farms.”

Lacey sat on the other side of the dog who greeted her eagerly, thumping a fluffy tail on the couch’s cheap upholstery. Ice blue eyes met gentle emerald for very long moments, warming each woman immediately as they read the clear emotions. Finally, Lacey smiled and stood. “I gotta go.” Chicken, she admonished herself.

“Some place to be at two in the morning?” Rachel teased and was rewarded with a smirk and one wryly raised eyebrow. But the eyes that had revealed so much moments before were now shuttered and showed none of the emotions the young woman had seen. Instead they were cold and lifeless.

Rachel tilted her head slightly at this transformation and saw a look of sadness cross Lacey’s features.

“Sorry … I just …” but she faltered, not willing to reveal too much to the probing gaze before her. She’d spent years closing herself off from others and living in her world of darkness and death. Rachel was the first person in a long time to chink at that well placed armor. And she wasn’t even trying. She felt bad that the young woman had poured her heart out tonight and she, in turn, was merely taking that and running without any sort of recompense. “I’ll see you around, Rachel. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Chapter 3: Sunnyside Up
Two mornings later, Rachel stood in the barn aisle at Aqueduct, wrapping Sunny’s legs in heavy cotton bandages. The bay shook his head, tossing the stud chain up and catching it easily in his teeth, seemingly unconcerned at this turn of events.

In contrast to the colt, the young blonde occasionally wiped at wet eyes with her sleeve. The colt’s performance had continued to decline and a new rider had been put up for this morning’s workout. The exercise boy had been willing to go to his whip as Bob had instructed and Rachel could still see the welts on the bright bay hide. He was being sent home.

She was furious at Bob, the exercise boy, and Lacey. Where did that come from? she wondered idly but it was true. She’d felt a fierce attraction for the woman, had known it was returned, but hadn’t heard from her or seen her since that night in the broodmare barn when she’d revealed so much of herself. Probably running scared, she mused. A woman like her doesn’t need my emotional baggage.

“C’mon, son,” Rachel whispered to the colt as she fit a head protector over his ears and then fastened on a bright blue stable sheet with the farm’s red lettering on the side.

Bob watched silently as the young rider led the colt outside the barn and to a waiting horse trailer. She tossed the lead line over his withers and gave him a pat on the rump and the colt loaded easily, stepping up into the three horse slant without hesitation. She followed him to attach the trailer tie and take his lead shank off, then she pushed the slant wall into place and secured it before hopping out and closing the back trailer door.

“Rachel,” Bob called from the doorway to the barn but just got an evil glare of glittering green eyes.

“Shove it up your ass, Bob,” she muttered, not projecting her voice but hoping he heard it anyway.

Then she was driving the Ford diesel out of the race track grounds and towards the highway that would take them back to Briargate farms.

She unloaded the colt nearly forty five minutes later and led him silently into his waiting stall in the training barn. There she unwrapped his legs and removed the halter and head protector but left his sheet on him. She was latching his stall when Oz walked by.

“Hey, baby,” he said in his creepy southern drawl. “Looks like your baby boy has come back to me.”

“Not to you, Oz. Shari’s gonna get him,” Rachel turned to face the young man.

“No, I got ‘im,” Oz sneered. “Frank wants some sense knocked into this boy and the job is mine. Unless you want to give me some more favors and I’ll spare him.”

That was about all that Rachel could take and she snapped. She threw down the items in her arms and launched her compact body at the lanky man in front of her, landing a solid punch before he recovered from the initial shock and returned the punch in kind. Then Rachel jumped on him, forcing him to the ground, straddling his hips and wrapping her fists in his shirt front.

His only response was taunting laughter. “Oooh, this is just right, baby. Like it was the first time … move your hips a little to the left, baby.”

The young blonde started pummeling him in the jaw and face, oblivious to his words and her own surroundings at this point, growling fiercely to him throughout her assault. She was shocked to suddenly feel an arm wrapped securely around her waist and more than shocked when she was lifted bodily from the man below her. She squirmed against this hold until she heard a dark husky voice.

“Easy, Raich, easy,” Lacey breathed into the younger woman’s ear as she placed her feet securely on the ground.

“Lesbian slut,” Oz sneered as he gained his feet and Rachel lunged again but was held securely in place by the taller woman.

“Get the fuck outta here, you shit,” Lacey growled, the anger evident in her look and her stance. “Or I’ll rip you limb from limb. Ya think I can’t do it?”

But Oz knew she could do it. He knew who this woman was and what she was capable of. So he scrambled to his feet and fled the barn, leaving the two women standing in the empty aisle.

Slowly, Lacey released her hold on the young woman and watched her closely as she trembled all over with anger and frustration.

“God dammit,” she screamed at last, spinning away from the dark woman and kicking a nearby tack trunk with all her might. “Fuck him and his fucking attitude.” There were tears in her eyes. “Damn it.” Rachel remained quiet for several long moments before turning to Lacey. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Lacey quirked her lips into a half smirk as the assault turned in her direction. “Can I ask what started this?” she gestured with one hand toward Oz’s departure route.

Rachel took a deep breath, expelled it slowly, then ran a tired hand through blonde hair. Then she pointed silently to the stall in front of them.

Lacey glanced at the young woman before advancing a step and peeking over the half door. “Sunnyside Up,” she read from the embroidered blanket. “Aw, Rachel, what happened?” she asked with sincere regret.

“Bob put up someone else this morning and he whipped the shit out of him. Of course he didn’t run any better. Bob pulled him from the string and sent him back here for Oz to fix.”

“Why not you? He’s yours.”

“He’s mine only in a pinch. I usually only deal with the foals and weanlings. And I’m an extra rider when they need it.”

Slowly, the tall woman tried to assess the slight form in front of her, wondering if she should broach the subject on the tip of her tongue. Lacey decided to go for broke. “I heard Oz say some things, Rachel. About you being on him like the first time …” her voice trailed off as she watched the blonde tense up. “Wanna talk about it?”

“Go back to your drugs and guns, crony number two,” she muttered softly, trying to hurt the dark woman, intent on forcing her away. She didn’t want the pain her already deep feelings for this mysterious woman would inevitably bring. She’d given up her darkest secret only nights before and had gotten nothing for her heartbreak. “I got enough problems without your on again, off again compassion. You come in here like some damned knight in shining armor and you want to know my whole life. You already know most of it. Who the hell are you anyway?” She started to stomp away, moving away from Lacey, attraction be damned.

“Rachel,” the dark woman called, causing her companion to stop in her tracks but not turn around. “I guess I’m more used to investigating than revealing. I want to know you better … for me, not for Vinnie or for Briargate. I’ve read the records but it’s all paper and facts … I wanna know who Rachel Wilson really is.”

“Why?” still without turning.

Lacey took a deep breath, ran nimble fingers through her dark bangs. And decided, once again, to spill it, “Cuz there’s something about you that just pulls me … and I want to know what that is. Because I swear to God I’ve never felt it before. You feel it too, I know you do.” Look at me, Rachel. I’m pouring my heart out to you like I’ve never done in my life. “What do you want to know, Raich. Anything.” God, am I pleading to her?

The blonde turned slowly, wiping at tear streaked cheeks with an already soaked sleeve. She tilted her head in consideration before smiling meekly. “Just how tall are you anyway?”

Lacey laughed with relief. “Six feet even.” More silence as they watched each other from several yards apart. “C’mon. Let’s go have some coffee. My treat.”

Rachel nodded solemnly and waited for Lacey to come even with her before turning and walking beside the dark-haired woman out of the barn.
Chapter 4: Java the Hut
“Sprite,” Rachel nodded to the woman behind the counter.

Lacey cast her companion an odd look. “I thought you were loading up on caffeine these days?”

“Unh unh,” the blonde shook her head. “It’s too early yet, I still have to take a nap this afternoon.”

They sat quietly at a corner table, each fiddling silently with her cup until Rachel, unable to stay silent any longer, began to talk about the horses. She told the dark woman which mares had foaled since she’d been gone and what they’d had. Told her about the lame filly and Sunnyside.

“What were you doing yesterday?” the blonde ventured after nearly an hour of idle chatter. “Can you tell me?”

Sapphire eyes met emerald as the dark-haired woman shook her head slowly. “Better if I don’t.”

“How … look,” the young rider sighed softly. “I … I like you. You know that right? And I’m thinking that you … probably … play on my team as well,” she used the euphemism with a wry grin.

“Good team,” Lacey nodded, raising her eyebrows. “Wouldn’t play for another.” She didn’t know how she still managed to be surprised at the young woman’s candor.

“Okay … but how can … we,” said with pale hands motioning between the two of them, “go any further if one of us, meaning you, crony number two, can’t tell the other one of us, me, anything?”

“Ah,” Lacey nodded, meeting bright green eyes before glancing away to study something infinitely less interesting like the wallpaper across the room. “That would be a problem. Because, see, I kinda like you and I’m afraid that if you know what I know … you’d be in danger.”

“Are you in danger?”

Her eyes flashed back into the inquisitive gaze for just a moment. “Yeah. But it’s my choice.”

“Can I choose? Or are you going to do that for me?”

Lacey’s lips twitched very slightly. “Well, we’re here aren’t we?” This is a big step for me, Rachel.

As if the young blonde could read her companion’s mind, she leaned away from the table slightly. “You need me to back off a little? Are you uncomfortable?”

The nod was barely noticeable.

“But you are willing to try?”

Another very slight nod.

“That’s good, Lacey. I can live with that,” Rachel grinned, all tenseness from the morning seeming to disappear when faced with the remote chance of knowing this dark woman better. “Now, can I talk you into driving me to Aqueduct so I can pick up my Jeep?”

“That I can do.”
Chapter 5: Searching of Souls
Lacey watched the young blonde climb into her white Jeep Wrangler and pull out of the lot before leaving as well and heading back into the city proper to speak with Vinnie.

She used the hour or more of driving to consider her feelings for this woman. And she wanted, on some level, to walk away and never come back because the small woman couldn’t know what she was getting into. Rachel Wilson had an open mind and a love of life, though she denied it. She was honest and good, loving animals and people with abandon. Her smile welcomed Lacey from the darkness she’d known her whole life into the light the other woman held against all odds.

The last relationship Lacey had been in was nearly four years ago. It had ended badly, her lover of nearly six months having decided that she wanted in on the organized crime action. She’d gotten in too deep, too fast, and quite frankly wasn’t cut out for it anyway.

She mentally shrugged off the haunting recollection, not willing to think about the dark past when her present contemplations were so centered on the fair young rider. It hadn’t been love, she’d known that then and she knew it now. It was convenience and good sex and loneliness needing an out. But it was an eye opening experience.

She’d had her occasional flings since then but mostly one night stands or nameless faces whom she’d forgotten by morning. Rachel was different. She pounded closed fists on the black leather steering wheel, growling to the dashboard. How could she make sure that this time was different? Aside from not starting anything at all … because her heart simply wasn’t into considering that option.

XXXXX

Rachel, on another level, was questioning her own sanity when she returned to her apartment and took Karma for a quick walk. How in the hell had she fallen for this woman who was so unlike her, so dark and dangerous?

But she’d had occasional glimpses into a heart that was good. Into a soul that had some love left to give. In the way Lacey had listened to her story in the office, had touched her arm as they walked, had pulled her off of Oz and then held her steady. God, it had felt good.

And no one had called her Raich since Leslie. No one. But then again, no one had stood up for her since Leslie either, she grinned ruefully to herself, sitting on the couch and hugging Karma to her.

What now? I don’t know her world, but I have an idea and I don’t care. Which is more frightening than anything because I should.

“Everyone has a soul mate,” her mother had said mere hours before committing suicide. “And that half of their soul is why they live and breathe, Rachel. It’s everything in the world. Everything. It lasts for eternity.”

I hope to God you were right, Mama. Because you sure chose to test that theory to its fullest extent. You taught me to see the good in people. You taught me to put my heart on the line. I think it’s time I tested your theory myself.
Chapter 6: Looking for Reason
The scrawny man was tied securely to the chair, his eyes wide and frightened but he’d finally stopped whining. Thank God, Lacey thought.

“What do you know about Wheatridge, Oz?” she asked again, obviously growing tired of this escapade. When she was answered by more blinking silence, she backhanded his already swollen face then grabbed his shirt collar and pressed her nose within an inch of his.

“Look, ya little shit. I don’t much like you anyway and we certainly don’t need you to continue this investigation. So you can talk or die, I really don’t give a damn which you do.”

Blink.

With a fierce growl, Lacey shoved him and the chair back before spinning to the other man in the small room who had, until this point, been standing in the corner watching silently. “Kill him,” pointing to Oz with one long finger. “And clean it up.”

“Wait!” Lacey’s hand was already twisting the cold metal door knob. She stopped but didn’t face him.

“There’s a guy at Wheatridge who’s trying to get some of our horses. Don’t know what he wants ’em for. But I get a cut … if we help.”

“Why does he want certain horses?” Lacey turned on him, letting her glittering blue eyes convey her seriousness.

“I told you, I don’t know. They tell me which ones and then … then I … give ’em something. I make ’em sellable,” his nasally voice was pleading.

Lacey stood watching him for a very long time. “Who’s the guy at Wheatridge?”

“I don’t know! I swear to God.” Smack. And then for good measure, Lacey grasped his middle finger and twisted it until the bones crunched inside her fist. He screamed at the pain. “He leaves an envelope and money at my apartment. I’ve never seen him!”

“Are you working with anyone at Briargate?”

“No, no,” he said quickly, fear in his eyes. “Just me.”

The dark woman, with bone chilling calmness, withdrew several paces to survey the sniveling mess before her. Instead of pursuing the issue with the horses and Wheatridge, she could only think of one more question. She glanced at her companion, knew he was listening, before turning her gaze back to Oz. “What did you do to Rachel Wilson?”

The words shocked everyone in the room, even herself, actually, because though she’d been thinking it, she really shouldn’t have asked it. She silently cursed herself for her lack of professionalism.

“What?” Oz stared at her, crinkling a sweat glazed brow.

In for a penny, in for a pound, she sighed. “You heard me asshole. Rachel Wilson.”

“She attacked me!” he yelled indignantly. “You saw it, you were there! You had to pull that bitch offa me!”

Lacey lunged forward, grabbed his other middle finger and gave him the fiercest look he’d ever seen.

“No!” he screamed. “No, okay … okay,” her grip relaxed slightly. “I … uh … made a deal with her. About that dumb colt she loves so much. I was gonna hurt him for Wheatridge because they wanted him to be put up for sale …” his voice trailed off and she tightened her grip again, twisting his finger slightly. “But I told her I’d spare him … if she … she had sex with me.”

Lacey felt her stomach drop and tasted the bitterness of hatred in her mouth.

“But she chickened out … in the end … and I wouldn’t let her back out.”

“You raped her?” Lacey growled, the sound of it being so feral that Oz just blinked at her for several seconds.

“No … uh … it was a deal. That’s all. That I wouldn’t hurt him. A deal’s a deal.”

“But, the colt, he’s still not right? Wheatridge still wants to buy him?”

The sleazy face before her widened into a grin. “I didn’t say I would keep my part of the deal.” He sounded so damn smug.

“What did you do to him?”

Silence.

With two quick punches, Lacey broke his nose and two ribs. “What did you do?”

He blinked at her stupidly even as he choked on the blood trickling down his throat. She gave him a few more well placed blows and asked him again. It was evident after she shattered his cheek bone that he wouldn’t be talking.

Lacey kicked the chair over backwards to send his howling body to a painful impact on the cement floor. She turned to her companion. “I’m done with him. Kill him.” Then she turned to the sobbing man and gave him one more withering glance before looking away. She left the room with all the grace of a prowling panther.

Lacey looked at the clock on her dashboard, not yet noon. So she pulled out her cell phone and Rachel’s personnel file, dialing quickly.

“Hello?”

“Rachel? It’s Lacey,” the dark woman expertly steered the sports car one handed along the New York City streets.

“Hey,” the voice on the other end softened and it caused Lacey to smile slightly.

“Hey, yourself,” said gently, then, more abruptly: “Do you think someone could have given Sunnyside an injection of some kind?”

“I’m great, Lacey. So good to hear from you. How are you doing?” Rachel spoke sarcastically.

“Rachel,” there was a hint of warning in the darker woman’s voice but the smile that edged it took away any bite that may have been there.

“Not likely. Blood work’s been done on him several times and most drugs would have been picked up. He’s getting progressively worse so an injection would have been evident.”

“How else could someone have given him something? Feed?”

She was answered by thoughtful silence. “Maybe. But he’s not eating well, he’s losing weight.”

The husky voice on the end of the phone line seemed to breathe deeply. “Raich, if you were going to feed a horse something to poison him, how would you do it? Is there an easy way?”

“Poison him!” Rachel squeaked.

“Yeah.”

“Is the poison tasteless, odorless?” the blond asked after overcoming her initial shock.

“Let’s say yes.”

“Did you talk to Oz? Is that how you know this?” her voice sounded a little bewildered.

“We questioned him, yes.”

“Did he tell you how?”

“Would I be asking you?” the husky voice teased gently.

“Good point,” Rachel acceded. “If it’s not in his grain, we’ll assume it would be too hard to put on hay,” she paused for a long moment, considering. Grain would be too tricky anyway because he’d have to either personally feed the horse or slip in afterwards and put it in. “Mineral blocks!”

“What?”

“Mineral blocks. Each horse has its own … in the stall. Sunny’s been chewing on his like it’s damn candy.”

“Can you get to Briargate and switch out Sunnyside’s salt? Plus the others: the fillies and the colt who got hung up in the starting gate.”

“Yeah, of course.”

“I’m going to confirm that and then I’ll meet you there. You may want to call a vet out.”

“Lacey?” Rachel’s voice became soft. “Is he gonna die?”

“I don’t know, Raich. We’ll do what we can. I’ll see you there in a bit,” she ended the call with a quick jab of her finger.

XXXXX

Rachel stared at the phone in her hand for nearly thirty seconds before hanging it up. Her association with this dark-haired blue eyed woman was getting weirder and weirder by the moment. Oh, by the way, kid, that guy you hate so much is poisoning your favorite horse. Cool.

“Karma,” she called, already grabbing the dog’s leash off of the doorknob. Her call was answered by the sound of paws hitting the ground and tags jingling as the dog came out of Rachel’s bedroom.

“Wooo.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Can you not argue with me just this once? I don’t know how long I’ll be at the farm.”

With Karma belted into the front passenger seat, Rachel took every short cut she could and went twenty miles an hour over the speed limit to arrive at Briargate in record time.

“Wait here,” she said calmly to Karma while unzipping the passenger window in the Jeep’s soft top and checking to make sure the dog was attached securely to the seatbelt by her harness. “Good girl.” And she turned and ran from the lot, ignoring Karma’s expressed complaints.

Rachel ran to the training barn first and slid to a stop in front of Sunny’s stall. The colt casually pushed his head over the stall door and whickered eagerly at her.

“Hey buddy. Hi, my boy,” the young blonde whispered, slipping into his stall with him and hugging him soundly around the neck. “Oh, thank God. Then she released him to push his curious nose away from her and run hands along his body, under the blanket, down his legs. Of course he looked the same, she chastised herself. He’s been this way for weeks now, standing in his odd
spread-legged way. He stomped one foot impatiently as she paid him no further attention and instead grabbed his half-eaten mineral block and left his stall.

Then she retrieved the others Lacey had suggested, carrying all four brick sized blocks with her to the broodmare barn office and called the vet. Rachel went back to her Jeep to disengage Karma and lead her back to the office where she tied her to the couch, and propped the door open to wait.

Moments later, Lacey came into the room and Rachel realized that the woman’s presence immediately calmed her. She smiled tightly by way of greeting and pointed to the small stack of red mineral blocks, while talking on the phone to the barn manager and explaining the tainted blocks of four horses.

“There may be horses,” Lacey interjected as she went over to try and quiet Karma. “Hi, baby,” she said softly to the dog, sitting on the couch and allowing herself to be mugged and kissed.

“Maybe more. We’ll have to check it out when you get here.” A pause as she raised eyebrows at the dark woman across the room and received a nod. “Vet’s on his way. See you soon.”

She hung up and walked over to the couch, bending down to her knees to scratch Karma behind the ears. Rachel looked up and met an ice blue gaze.

“You okay?” Lacey asked gently, reaching out to rest a hand on the younger woman’s shoulder which was now just above the couch’s seat. “You’re trembling.”

“I’m worried for him,” she whispered as the intensity of the sapphire gaze became too much and she had to look away. She shrugged one shoulder, laughed self deprecatingly. “Silly, I know. He’s a horse.”

“Not silly, Raich. Don’t think that,” the woman said gently. A moment hung between them as the young blonde felt the heat of Lacey’s hand on her shoulder but absorbed it with head bent and closed eyes, still stroking Karma’s soft ears. “C’mon,” Lacey said at last. “Let’s go check on the other horses.”

“Right,” the young woman bounced fully upright so quickly it startled both Lacey and Karma. Two sets of blue eyes studied her closely and she smiled at them. “Let’s start in the training barn.”

The rest of the afternoon was spent pulling blood on horses and having the vet evaluate them. They’d isolated three other horses based on their behavior and the mostly devoured mineral blocks. Lacey left just before dark when the vet said they’d know nothing more for several days at least.

The dark-haired woman had taken a big step upon her departure. She smiled gently at her young blonde friend before stepping forward to hug her and place a warm kiss on the wind cooled cheek. Then she mumbled something about calling Rachel tomorrow and abruptly climbed into her little sports car and sped away.
Chapter 7: Back to Work
Lacey Montgomery left her house later that same evening, dressed in black jeans, a black turtleneck, and her customary black leather trench coat. Her weapons consisted of a Glock, a Sig Sauer, and two knives and were all concealed by the length of her coat. She left the sports car snugly in its space in the garage and chose instead a black Jeep Grand Cherokee parked in the farthest spot of the garage.

She ran a tired trembling hand through her bangs as she made her way first to Vinnie’s then, later, she would collect her helpers and go to her previously scheduled meeting. She drummed her fingers impatiently on the steering wheel, the nervous tension completely new to her. Just a month ago her hands wouldn’t have trembled, she wouldn’t have felt nervous, and she had no clue how to deal with this new facet of herself.

Her mind wasn’t on tonight’s drug pickup and she blamed the strange mess with Oz and the horses. But, the truth of it was, she was occupied with a certain blonde-haired green eyed young rider. Her mind kept spinning back to the warmth and smell of the young woman. Simply thinking of Rachel caused a flipping feeling in Lacey’s stomach that she couldn’t shake.

“What the hell have I gotten myself into,” she murmured to the surrounding darkness, revving the V-8 to merge with highway traffic.

XXXXX

In addition to the broodmares, Rachel’s rounds included the horses who’d had the tainted blocks removed that day and found no change in their appearance. Then the young rider decided to pull all of the mineral blocks, just in case, and piled them in a wheelbarrow as she walked through the barns. She returned her confiscated bounty to the broodmare barn office where Karma still waited for her.

Rachel was glad she didn’t run into Oz and, in fact, realized she hadn’t seen the gangly man since Lacey’d said she’d questioned him about the horses. She hoped he was gone for good.

Feeling like she’d done the best she could for now, she pulled a sandwich and salad out of the small dorm-style refrigerator and prepared a fresh pot of coffee.

“You know, I may have lost my mind,” she said softly to the eager blue eyes that watched her every move as she emptied a plastic condiment packet of salad dressing. “I can’t stop thinking about her.”

“Arrr,” Karma answered and began running through every trick she knew in weak attempts for food tidbits.

“You like her, doncha?”

Karma was in the middle of rollover.

“I know you do. How can she be … who she is? And still … still be so caring? When she touches me, or those eyes. Ugh,” the young blonde tossed her head back in frustration, completely ignorant to Karma’s playing dead. “What am I gonna do? We’re okay by ourselves … we don’t need someone else …”

The red Siberian leapt to her feet, tired of waiting to be noticed, and sat primly on the linoleum, waving a paw at her owner.

“But I think I do need her, Karma. It kinda scares me,” she licked her fingers clean of dressing and picked up the sandwich before leaving the small kitchen area to sit on the couch in front of the myriad of monitors. “You’re shameless,” she intoned to those hopeful blue eyes on the way by.

XXXX

“Not right,” Lacey muttered. Then more loudly. “Rico. This isn’t right. Get over here.”

They stood several hundred feet from a dark underpass. She’d been accompanied by three other men and a second black sedan. One young man ran to her now. He pushed unruly blond bangs out of blue eyes before he smiled at her weakly.

“Wipe the mug, Rico. This isn’t good.”

He cleared his throat. “What’s wrong. His car is up there,” he started to point but his arm was smacked down by a powerful swipe of Lacey’s hand.

“Amateurs,” she growled. “Who sent the kid??” her voice was exasperated as she questioned the two men standing on her other side but they simply grinned at her. She knew Rico’d been sent specifically with her because she could handle the rookies. She didn’t like them but she could keep them alive and show them a lot. Which is exactly why she had called him over from his hindmost position in the group.

“That car is a grey Ford Taurus,” she explained impatiently. “Al doesn’t drive a Ford Taurus. He drives a black BMW. And he always has a follow car.”

“Oh.”

“Whaddya think, Bernard?” this question was directed to one of the other men.

“Sent someone else, Lace?” a heavy set man ventured, having learned from years of working with this woman that you should be more afraid to mistakenly consider her questions rhetorical than answer them.

“Not Kalzar. He only works with certain people.”

“Think Al got busted?”

“I think he got jumped.”

“Couldn’t he have just bought a new car? And not wanted company?” Rico offered. Lacey glanced from the teenager to the large man who’d been speaking and lifted an eyebrow. Rico got a firm swat in the back of his head for his comment and Lacey grinned her thanks to the other man who simply shrugged.

Suddenly, the Taurus began moving, gaining speed as it came under the bridge. All four of Vinnie’s men scrambled over the nearest sedan and drew weapons as the driver of the Taurus swerved towards them. A dark tinted window rolled down to reveal the muzzle of an AK 47 peeking sleekly into the poorly lit night.

“Here we go, boys,” Lacey yelled in her own version of fire at will and her team discharged their weapons willingly. The Taurus lost two windows and had several pocks in the body panels. They may have even lost a passenger before the limping grey vehicle passed them and drove easily into the darkness beyond as if reclaiming a lair where it could curl up and lick its wounds. “Everyone?!” Lacey shouted, standing slowly and leveling her weapon at the retreating vehicle.

“All good, Lace,” one of the men responded after hauling Rico to his trembling legs.

“Fuck!” the dark woman growled, slamming her fists into hood of the car. “Bernard, call Tony and get a team over to Al’s baker. Fuck it all, we’re going to check out Kalzar.”

Both men stood away from her and eyed her carefully. Rico tried to touch her back but he caught the dark waves of anger rolling off the woman next to him and he backed away.

XXXXX

After a thankfully uneventful night, Rachel and Karma stumbled into the apartment. The young blonde hit the blinking button on the answering machine on the stand by the door.

“Hey, beautiful. It’s Lacey.”

The young woman smiled, both at the compliment and at the thought that a woman with a voice like that would have to identify herself.

“I wanted to take you to dinner tomorrow before your shift but I have to take care of some business. Don’t know how long, but I’ll call you as soon as I can. Later.”

Rachel crawled into bed feeling decidedly warmer despite the early morning chill.

XXXXX

Lacey broke into the old building with negligent ease. Rico was hot on her heels which annoyed the hell out of her but she was too interested in being quiet to snap at the kid … again. She could see the shadows of her other two partners coming in through the back door before it registered that she shouldn’t be able to see them.

She’d been in this old deli before and there should be a wall between the front room and the back. Only now there was a nice jagged hole and the glass deli counters were shattered and laying around on the linoleum floor. Surprisingly, there was no stench of spoiled meats and cheeses. No scent of bodies. And the front door hadn’t appeared to be damaged in any way.

Quietly the small group prowled the ground level floor and then climbed to the living quarters which seemed untouched. Then they made their way downstairs again. Treading their way carefully back through the kitchen the team walked into the large refrigerator at their dark leader’s bidding. There they pried away shelves, bloodying their fingers and giving Lacey funny looks.

Until their effort revealed a half door.

“How’d ya know?” Rico asked, his whispered voice full of awe.

“I’m psychic,” Lacey grinned. “One of my many super talents. Stick around, kid, and it may rub off.”

“No, really,” the young man said, not even buying her reasoning for a split second which made Lacey smile wider.

“Where I woulda put it,” she shrugged. They made quick work of the door and were immediately assaulted with gut wrenching smells. Rico gagged behind her but everyone else just kept moving down the darkened stairs.

“Lace?” Bernard said softly when they reached the floor. The other team member, a tall and lanky black man in his forties, moved around his larger companion to squint into the darkness around them.

“They shoved the bodies down here,” Lacey responded quietly, hoping her voice would have a calming effect on her team. “Turn on the lights and count ’em up. We should have Kalzar, his wife, his brother, three kids. Look for the drugs or the money … but I’m sure it’s gone.”
Chapter 8: Recovering
Lacey took Karma for a walk around the apartment complex while Rachel showered. The dog’s normal exuberance did little to lighten her mood as she recalled the previous hours of heartbreak and torture. Images of her young friend sitting in the straw of the stall, hugging a bloody and lifeless body to her.

Lacey had showed up in the middle of the afternoon, her mind still haunted with the visions of last night’s slaughter, to find out the progress on the tainted mineral blocks. She’d also hoped to see Rachel and talk to her about dinner. What she’d found instead was a strangely calm and confident young woman calling vets. The primary veterinarian had been called and said he was already working an emergency but would be there as soon as possible. Not believing him, back up vets had been called instead. In the end, all were too late.

The two women had done everything to save mare and foal but both had been lost in the wee hours of the morning after nearly a twelve hour battle. The foal’s nose had been locked below the mare’s pelvic bone, one knee bent there as well, and Rachel had reached inside to right mother nature’s wrong. Slender arms protected with long plastic gloves had pushed at the foal, suffering through contractions, until she pulled one foot out, followed by another, then a small nose. But the foal had slipped back and Rachel had to fight again, both she and the mare exhausted. The second time the foal came, one small struggling hoof ruptured the mare’s canal, causing blood to pour everywhere, covering the young attendant.

She fought for the foal, but the mare had stopped pushing from exhaustion and pain, and though the foal’s head and neck were exposed, big round eyes blinking at all who watched, its chest was constricted in the canal, the umbilical cord apparently pinched. Lacey had helped the best she could, never having done anything like this. The two women had pulled steadily on the foal’s front legs to try and extricate it from its smothering prison. But they were too slow in pulling him out; he died right in front of them.

Rachel had tried CPR once the colt was lying bloody and wet on the ground but it was unsuccessful. So, she’d been forced to turn her attention to the dying mare.

The first vet arrived just in time to see what Lacey would always remember: the mare, dead and bloody lying on the floor of the stall, the foal limp and lifeless lying near her hind feet. Rachel had been wrapped around the foal’s body and was pleading its forgiveness. She blamed herself for her lack of skill and ability to prevent the tragedy.

It wasn’t until the vet’s arrival and the barn manager’s assumption of control that Lacey had been able to lead the weary woman away from the barn and pack her gently into the waiting sports car. Rachel had objected to the ride, insisting she could take the Jeep home, not wanting to get blood on Lacey’s leather seats, but the dark woman had been tenacious and, in the end, Rachel had complied, quietly giving directions to her apartment.

Lacey had gently shoved Rachel to the shower, ushering her quickly past the accident Karma had had on the kitchen floor. The blonde apologized to her pet, insisting that Lacey not be mad with the dog as she’d been left unattended for far too long to be able to help it. The dark woman cleaned up the mess wordlessly and clipped a leash to the dog’s collar.

Now, as she let herself back into the apartment using Rachel’s key, she heard the shower had stopped running. She unhooked the leash and released a bouncing Karma who flew down the hallway in search of her mistress. Lacey followed and they found Rachel seated silently on the bed, dressed comfortably in T-shirt and flannel boxer shorts, her hair still wet and tangled, framing her tired face.

Lacey smiled softly, leaned against the doorjamb to watch this woman she’d started to know as a friend and who she wanted to know as something more. It had been several days since they’d talked in the early morning hours about Rachel’s past and she’d felt them growing steadily closer every time they met again.

“Get some sleep,” the tall woman suggested now, her dark husky voice carrying easily across the room. “Do you mind if I shower, too?”

Rachel was already moving off the bed. “Course not, let me get you some-”

She stopped mid sentence when Lacey moved forward and pushed her gently to the mattress. “I can find towels, you lay down,” the dark woman insisted.

Green eyes watched her intently before she nodded and settled down. Karma immediately curled up on the bed, pressed solidly against Rachel’s legs.

Lacey emerged from the shower to find that Rachel had left out a T-shirt and shorts for her as well and she smirked lightly at the thought that anything that would fit the smaller woman couldn’t possibly be suitable for her larger frame. But she found the young woman’s tastes went for extra large everything and she was able to slip into them easily. She took the offering of comfortable clothes as an invitation to stay, which she wanted desperately. She peeked in on her young friend’s sleeping form before padding to the couch.

She lay a towel over the decorative pillow to protect it somewhat from her still wet tresses, then pulled a folded blanket from a nearby chair and settled comfortably into cushioned softness. Sleep quickly found her though the dreams were filled with images of blood and frustration and, for the first time in a long time, she mourned the passing of a life. Ironic that it should be an animal she’d tried to welcome into the world and not the many humans she’d assisted out of it.

Some time later, how much later or what time of day was unclear to the dark woman, she felt her cover pulled away from her body. She blinked lightly into the dim room to see Rachel crawling under the blanket with her, laying her length against the dark woman. Green eyes met her ice blue ones in a question, asking permission to lay here with her, to touch her and feel her.

Without a word, Lacey pressed herself farther into the back of the couch and opened her arms in invitation. A shy smile rewarded her as the young blonde crawled into her arms and snuggled her face into the dark woman’s neck, breathing in the smell of her own shampoo and soap. Her arms at first timidly tucked between them as Lacey settled the blanket around them, then, slowly, uncurling one to wrap it around the woman in front of her, draped comfortably over ribs to rest between broad back and couch cushions.

Then Lacey touched her lips to the temple by her cheek, rubbed the young woman’s back tenderly, and settled back to sleep, lulled there by deep breaths and a warm body.

Lacey opened her eyes to see sunlight sliding through closed blinds and igniting dust motes in its path to the carpet. She blinked at the image several times before moving her attention elsewhere and realizing that sometime during their sleep, both women had moved.

Now she lay on her back with the small blonde covering her very intimately, legs entwined easily with her own. Rachel’s head rested on her shoulder and one arm had ducked under the dark woman’s shirt and lay along bared ribs to circle her shoulder. Lacey’s own arms were wrapped tightly around her companion, keeping the smaller woman snug against her. And Karma lay quietly at their feet on the long couch, gazing at them with tired blue eyes before closing them again and tucking her nose under her tail.

Lacey smiled, moved one arm from her tight hold to run gentle fingers through her companion’s tangled hair. With her other arm, she felt the deep intake of breath associated with waking before green eyes opened briefly and closed again. She watched as the fair skin began to redden as Rachel blushed when realizing their intimate positions.

“‘Morning, sleepy,” Lacey murmured softly, tilting her head forward to brush a kiss on the other woman’s forehead. Rachel squirmed slightly until the tall woman tightened her grip. “Relax, Raich. It’s okay. Are you comfortable?”

“Yeah,” came the whispered response.

“Good. Then stay right where you are because I’m comfortable, too.”

The young blonde sighed, then relaxed her body against the other woman’s. Until she realized her hand was under her companion’s shirt and she began to withdraw it.

“Stay put,” Lacey mock growled. “Better,” when the movement stopped. She continued to silently use her fingers to untangle the long blonde hair and felt the warmth in her body grow as she came to fully realize how much she enjoyed feeling this small body resting on hers.

Rachel must have felt it, too, because after many long minutes of her companion’s gentle caresses, she pushed herself away slightly to turn her head and meet blue eyes. Silently, they watched each other as if each were waiting for the other to do something.

Never being one to like silences, it was Rachel who broke the spell. “Thank you … for taking care of me. And Karma.”

Her words were greeted with a smile and sparkling blue eyes. “My pleasure.” No kidding, her body screamed.

Then the blonde head tilted forward very slowly to touch her lips to the woman beneath her, tentatively at first. Lacey held back, letting this smaller woman set the pace, her senses reeling as a hesitant tongue reached out to trace her lips, parting gently to reach in and touch her tongue before withdrawing. The dark-haired woman felt the passion rising in her and fought every urge to devour the tender mouth above her. She opened her eyes to meet the green before her and knew Rachel must have easily read her dilated-pupil look of desire.

Instead of frightening her, though, it gave her courage. She pressed her lips more firmly to Lacey’s. Her tongue sought entrance with more abandon this time and her hand moved from under Lacey’s shoulder to slide tantalizingly along ribs.

Soon they were kissing deeply, mouths hungrily searching, tongues exploring new depths and tastes until their hands joined in the search by exploring the other’s body. Rachel slid her hand up to very hesitantly stroke the outside of her companion’s breast, fingertips gentle and probing. Lacey’s hands responded by reaching under the young woman’s shirt to splay large hands across muscular back.

Then they were gasping for air and pushing against each other’s hips, mouths barely breaking apart to breathe. For several long minutes they used hands and tongues to touch the other, Rachel still lying firmly atop her companion. Lacey nudged her knee between Rachel’s, bringing her thigh firmly to the other woman’s center, pressing against the flannel shorts and feeling the young blonde’s wetness through the thin fabric. She moved her hands from Rachel’s back to her bottom where she cupped the cheeks in large callused hands and held her steady while grinding her thigh rhythmically against Rachel.

The young blonde broke their kiss to arch her head back and slide hands from under her companion’s shirt to frame the tan face before her. “Ungh ..” she protested vaguely. “No, Lacey …”

The dark woman slowed her sensual assault, relaxing her hold slightly. “Do you want me to stop, Raich,” she whispered, her own voice strained with passion.

Green eyes flicked open briefly and any further protests were nullified both by the intensity of emotions in the jade depths and the continued pressing of hips against thigh. “No … I … ungh,” eyes closed again. “So much …” she whispered.

“Let it go,” Lacey murmured in her companion’s ear, tightening her hold again and renewing her efforts to bring the young woman to release. “I’ve got you, Raich.” She leaned forward to nip Rachel’s earlobe before moving away to seek the other woman’s lips again.

The overwhelming sensations left Rachel speechless as she practically devoured the mouth before her, seeking, plunging, moaning. Then she moved her own leg up to match her partner’s and felt the jolt of contact rush through the body she held.

Their grinding was almost frantic as they came closer and closer to the edge until Rachel disengaged from the mouth before her to groan out her release. Her body jerked with the orgasm, sending Lacey over right behind her. The dark woman leaned forward to moan into the young blonde’s shoulder, her own body thrusting against the other for several more beats before resting back on the couch where it twitched occasionally as she relived the moments before.

Without warning, Rachel shoved against the body below her, struggling out of strong arms as she covered her face with her hands and stumbled her way to the bathroom. Lacey lay on her back, completely dazed, her body still throbbing from their shared passion, before she leapt to her feet and followed the smaller woman.

“Raich, honey?” she asked softly, her forehead pressed against the closed door. “What is it?”

She heard the distinct sound of retching and blinked back tears. “Rachel? I’m sorry … I didn’t mean to take advantage of you. Oh God, Raich?”

“I’m okay. I need to be alone,” the blonde replied softly, voice only slightly muffled by the cheap door.

“No,” Lacey slid down to the floor, kneeling now with head and hand on the cool white painted wood. “I won’t leave you like this. Tell me what’s wrong. I thought … God, I’m sorry.” There were tears on her cheeks and she wiped at them angrily, surprising herself with the previously never felt emotions warring through her body. The last thing she’d wanted to do was scare this young woman. She’d taken too much too soon.

“No, no. It’s not you … it’s me. I … thought I was ready and my body was … but my mind …” she trailed off. “It’s me. Not you, Lacey. Never you …” her words were broken by a sob.

“I’m coming in,” Lacey announced, not giving her partner a chance to argue as she opened the door and slid the few feet to wrap the trembling woman in her arms. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart,” the dark woman cooed, pulling Rachel into her lap and rocking her there. “I knew about Oz. I knew what had happened. I just didn’t think about how you needed me to be … us to be.”

Rachel slowly leaned up and wrapped her arms around the other woman’s neck. “You knew about Oz?” she asked after several long minutes of just absorbing the nearness of the other woman. “How?”

“I asked him,” Lacey said simply. “I knew there was something between the two of you.”

“When you asked him about the horses?”

“Yeah,” quiet agreement. She turned the woman slightly so she was cradled in her lap, arms no longer wrapped around the neck but now moving to embrace Lacey’s middle.

“It was my fault. I made the stupid deal with him. But he was so repulsive to me that I went back on the deal … when he already had me naked beneath him.”

“Not your fault, Raich. No means no, I don’t care who or when. He took you against your will and that’s rape.”

“No!” the small body jerked upright. “No. It wasn’t like that. It wasn’t. He didn’t rape me. It was a deal … and I changed my mind.”

“And he had sex with you anyway. That’s rape.”

“No,” she whimpered softly. “I wanted him to. I thought it would protect Sunny. I asked him to.”

Lacey leaned her head affectionately against the other woman’s, knowing this argument was getting her absolutely nowhere. Karma’s tags jingled softly as she came in to find the two women sitting on the floor. She stood quietly in the doorway, tilting her head, flashing expressive blue eyes to both women before edging forward and placing a paw on Rachel’s exposed leg.

“C’mere,” Lacey said softly, reaching out to pull the dog into her companion’s lap. Rachel hugged Karma close and pressed her face into the warm fur.

“Raich, you’re wrong about you and Oz. I don’t know how to convince you. But I am sorry that I let my body take control. It shouldn’t have been like that. It should have been gentle and romantic the first time with us. I should have respected your history. I knew how vulnerable you were after last night, how drained. I should have taken that into account. Because it’s not just your body I’m falling for. I want to know all of you. I want you to trust me and … and taking advantage of you was not the way to do that.”

“You didn’t take advantage,” the young blonde’s voice was muffled. “You didn’t. My body reacted, too. I wanted you
too … but …”

“But what, honey,” Lacey whispered, caressing the smaller woman’s back with one hand, petting the resting dog with the other.

“But … sex … has never been right for me. It’s always been someone else’s idea or with someone I didn’t care about. And I didn’t want it to be that way with you. I wanted to know you before that … but I crawled under the covers with you. And I kissed
you … I started it. But things just happened so fast and I realized, when it was over, that I’d done it on purpose. I wanted
you … I wanted you to wipe away the feelings and the anger … and Oz. And I took advantage of the fact that you were kind and you cared.” She took a deep breath. “I was so ashamed because the one person in my life … the one chance I had of doing it
right … and I blew it.”

Lacey just sat for several long seconds, completely shocked by the murmured words. “Well,” she said at last, clearing her throat. “Let’s start with the basics. You did not take advantage of me, Rachel. And … and … no one in my entire life has ever cared if they did or not. I wanted you to kiss me, I wanted to make love with you. It could have been more romantic, I would have liked to make it more … special. I do care for you, Raich. Very much. My being with you has not been about getting you in bed. Don’t be ashamed. But making love with me is not going to change what’s happened to you before. We need to deal with that, too.”

The blonde head nodded glumly.

“I rushed you. Forgive me for that,” Lacey whispered into her companion’s ear. “Please.”

Rachel nodded again. “Forgive me for running out on you? And for being sick?”

“Why were you sick? Did it remind you somehow-”

“No,” the young woman finally looked up to meet her partner’s sapphire eyes. “No, I just … I was embarrassed and nervous … and I get sick to my stomach when I’m nervous. It was nothing you did.” She grinned sheepishly, glanced away briefly to concentrate on Karma’s soft fur. “I liked what you did. I’ve never … felt that kind of … of passion before.” She looked up again. “I knew that I liked women better, I’ve known that for a long time. But it’s still never been like that.”

Lacey smiled and squeezed the woman to her tightly. “I promise, not again until you’re ready. Okay?”

Rachel nodded slowly, relaxing into the warmth surrounding her. “I don’t deserve you,” she whispered softly.

Lacey closed her eyes, feeling the tears well up immediately. “You deserve so much more. I’m the one who doesn’t deserve someone like you.”

“How can you …” the gentle voice trailed off.

“What?” Lacey asked guardedly, her muscles tensing at what she imagined the question to be.

The young blonde took a deep breath and, despite her best judgment, asked the question. “How can someone like you … kill other people? I know you must. I know you hurt Oz.” The body beneath hers was suddenly rigid. “You’re the kindest, warmest, gentlest person I know,” she continued.

Lacey took a deep breath. “I’m only that way with you, Rachel. You bring out the best in me. I don’t want you ever to know the other person that I am.”

“I can’t even believe you are that other person.”

“Believe it,” Lacey growled softly. “Believe everything you hear about me because it’s true. I think once you learn who I really am … you won’t want to be anywhere near me.”

Rachel shook her head. “Nothing you could tell me would change my mind,” she said with conviction.

“I’m not so sure about that,” Lacey whispered, her own heart breaking. All the things she’d done, all the harm she caused, she never thought about it past that moment. And now she would do anything to take it back if it would assure her future with this woman.

“I am,” green eyes met hers and her hands left Karma to frame the dark woman’s face and brush at wayward tears. “I am,” she repeated.

“You want to know who I am?”

“I do.”

“Fine,” the tall woman pushed Karma off of them and stood quickly. She pulled the blonde with her and righted her on her feet, her motions suddenly quick and angry. “Fine,” better to end this charade now. “Get dressed. I’ll show you who I am.” Rachel blinked at her for a moment, startled by her actions but not afraid. She shrugged and headed out of the bathroom toward her bedroom.
Chapter 9: Freeing of Skeletons
Twenty minutes later they were flying down the freeway, Karma tucked comfortably into the hatch back, panting through the glass at all the cars she could see. Lacey hadn’t said a word since telling her young companion to get dressed. Her features had turned dark as she prepared herself for this rejection.

You want to know who Lacey Montgomery is? I can show you some stuff that will make you sick all over again. And then I’ll bring you back to your safe apartment with your safe dog and your job of bringing life into this not so safe world.

But the eyes that glanced at her profile weren’t particularly worried, the young blonde even reached out to rest her hand on Lacey’s arm for a moment.

More than anything, the dark woman was angry with herself for allowing their frantic session just an hour before. This young woman had the right to know what she was getting into before they’d been intimate. She deserved the entire picture. She was sure that once Rachel knew the truth, she’d be telling her next lover about yet another poor sexual experience.

It was nearly forty five minutes later before Lacey was maneuvering the sports car into a three car garage and killing the ignition. She hit the garage door button before opening the car doors to eliminate any chance of Karma escaping. Rachel noticed this thoughtful move and smiled at her friend but got no response from the dark woman.

Moments later they were entering the house through the connecting door to the kitchen, Karma jumping around excitedly on the end of her leash.

“Let her go,” Lacey said quietly. “She’ll be fine here.”

“Do you have any pets?” Rachel asked, concerned for the safety of any other animals, especially small potential prey animals.

“No.”

“Must be lonely,” the blonde muttered as she unhooked the leash and watched Karma take off through the kitchen, tail wagging and nose busily sniffing anything and everything.

Lacey smirked slightly at the woman’s comment before shaking her head. “C’mon.”

“Do I get a tour?”

Lacey stopped and turned so quickly that Rachel ran into her before backing off a few steps. “Look, Rachel. I think it’s best that you just hear about me … about the bad me, about my job. Because there’s no sense in you getting any more attached before you decide to leave.”

Rachel stood quietly for several long seconds, head tilted slightly and brow wrinkled. “Would you knock off the tough broad act, Lacey? I want to know all of you. The good and the bad,” her voice was slightly demanding and got her a double raised eyebrows look from her companion. “Attached? What does that mean anyway? Like you’re some stray I may want to keep?”

“You asked for it. Just remember that.” She turned quickly and led the young woman through an expensively decorated dining room, arriving at a spiral staircase.

“Karma,” Rachel called, eyeing the valuable furniture warily, as she mounted the stairs behind the dark woman. She wished she’d kept the dog on a leash.

“Leave her be,” Lacey instructed. “She’s fine.”

“Lacey, that couch costs more than everything I own put together. A lot more,” she stopped halfway up the spiral staircase and pointed through the arched doorway into what appeared to be a living room.

“She can shit on that couch for all I care. C’mon.”

“Well,” Rachel raised her eyebrows and grinned. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Her host led her down along a hallway which had rooms on one side but overlooked the lower level on the other before wrapping around to have windows on one wall. Rachel looked out of the large tinted glass panes to see fields and forest in the setting sun. “It’s beautiful, Lace,” she said softly.

The dark woman stopped to turn to her companion and then look out into the woods she knew so well. She nodded mutely. That was the only reason she bought this house: the fact that it was surrounded by fields and forests and not other houses. That had been very important to her. “In here,” she said after a moment, leading her young friend into her office and showing her to the large desk.

Rachel sat quietly in the chair that had been pulled out for her. It was deep burgundy leather and faced a large oak desk. On one end of the desk was a personal computer, the rest was clean except for some scribbled notes and closed folders. Lacey tossed a green file folder in front of her.

“Read this.”

“What is it?” Rachel asked as she started to open it but a large tan hand held it closed.

“Please wait until I’m gone,” blue eyes turned to her. “It’s my copy of my personnel folder. What Vinnie keeps on me.”

“You have a copy?”

“I can get a copy of everyone’s,” she shrugged.

“Where are you going?”

“For a run. Wait for me and I’ll take you home. Or if you need to go, you can call a cab, there’s some cash over there,” she pointed to a filing cabinet across the room.

“I’ll be here. Take Karma, she loves to run,” Rachel suggested. “Just keep her on her leash.”

“Raich, look. I know you think this is no big deal. You think this information won’t change your mind. But the truth is you’ll probably want to leave before I get back. And that’ll be hard without Karma.”

The young blonde shrugged, clearly not bothered by anything this dark woman told her. “Look at it this way. The cab won’t like Karma anyway. So if I’m gone before you come back, you know where I live.”

Silence.

“She’s good company, Lacey. And I really think you need company right now.”

Lacey raised both eyebrows and wondered at how easily this young woman read her. Finally, she nodded her assent before turning and walking to her bedroom where she changed into sweats and running shoes. Then she located the leash where Rachel had left in on the kitchen counter and called for Karma who came eagerly and wooed at the prospect of a walk.

The dog ran excitedly beside her as she left the front of the house to go around to a foot path she often used for running. The young Siberian took three or four leaps to every one of Lacey’s in an attempt to rid herself of excess energy, singing and hopping and dancing the entire time. Lacey couldn’t help but smile at the red dog’s antics.

****

Back in the office, Rachel finally opened the folder as she heard the front door close. Lacey Ann Montgomery, she read on the first page, finding out her age and place of birth. Then she moved into the more detailed information about her family. The second of three children, her mother had killed her father in a drunken rage when Lacey and her two brothers were still under ten. But the mother had claimed self defense and was acquitted. After an extended trial and time spent in public care she was able to get her children back and raise them.

Several years later, Lacey and her younger brother were picked up for running drugs. The kids were tried as juveniles, spent some time in a home, and were returned to their mother. During this time, their older brother had been shot and killed while breaking and entering.

The years advanced, showing gang affiliation for both children, several trips to juvenile detention for offenses such as robberies, possession of drugs and firearms, and auto theft. But when Lacey turned eighteen, the official records stopped and Rachel set aside those sheets of information to begin reading about the woman Lacy Montgomery had become.

****

Lacey took a hill at full force, feet pounding, chest aching with the cold February chill. Karma had calmed down considerably during the run, somewhat shocked that they were still going and losing her enthusiasm for the adventure, but not her inborn drive to continue. Now she ran in long loping strides, head and tail parallel to the ground, tongue lolling out to the side. Occasionally she glanced at her companion with questioning blue eyes.

“Good girl, Karma,” Lacey commented in her now familiar dark voice and the simple words seemed to add more spring to the Siberian’s stride.

****

The rest of Lacey’s file read almost like a resume, starting with her early work for Vinnie’s father which was mostly as a runner for information. Or a tool to distract opponents with the young woman’s body. Then, later, as she learned more about the operation and organized crime, she became his personal protector and hit man.

There were some detailed examples of her handiwork, of her ability to cold-heartedly torture men and women. Some pictures of her jobs. There was a thorough accounting of the jobs she’d been asked to do in her decade for Vinnie’s family, complete with avenging her boss’s death and then working for his son.

The material went on and on in sickening detail, gave dates and places and times. And she knew not only was she holding the life of the woman she was coming to love but she was also holding Vinnie’s insurance against her loyalty. And Lacey had handed all of this to her, even though she could have taken this evidence to the police with sure results. Some of the pictures were of her actually working people over, some were of her killing.

She didn’t read the entire file, didn’t really need to, she closed the folder quietly and pushed it away from her, absolutely sickened by what she had seen. But not surprised. She’d known the dark person Lacey must be to do her job. Knew the countless lives she must have taken. But she was still inexplicably attracted to this woman. The raven-haired friend who guarded her and held her. Who talked softly and understood Rachel’s fears and compassion. Having the proof of what she already knew didn’t change that.

So the young blonde rose to unsteady feet and found her way to a bathroom where she was sick for the second time that day. Then she glanced at her watch to realize that Lacey had been gone for almost two hours and it was now completely dark outside. She caught herself worrying before she remembered whom this woman was and realized she was completely capable of taking care of herself.

Rachel made her way down the spiral staircase and started a fire in the hearth in the living room, using wood and starter logs that were already piled nearby. Then she wound her way back through the immaculate house to the kitchen where she started rummaging through cupboards and realized suddenly how very hungry she was.

She was adding fresh cut vegetables to boiling pasta when she heard the front door open, followed immediately by clicking nails on hardwood floor as Karma came sliding into the kitchen to stand panting in front of her mistress. Rachel smiled slightly as she bent over to peek in the oven at the baking chicken breasts.

Lacey followed the dog slowly, stood quietly in the entranceway, somewhat shocked at the young woman’s presence, more so that she was casually cooking their dinner. She didn’t say a word as she watched Rachel pull a bowl out of the cupboard and show it to the dark-haired woman.

“Can I give her water in this?”

Lacey nodded dumbly.

She filled the bowl and set it on the floor on a dish towel, watching Karma fondly as she eagerly lapped at the water. Then the young blonde moved to pull bottled water from the fridge and place it into Lacey’s trembling hand. It was now that she looked at her companion for the first time and noticed that her hair was absolutely wet with sweat and her clothes were soaked. Blue eyes flashed back at her fearfully and Rachel wondered that such a woman could be afraid of her or her reactions.

“Goodness, how far did you run?”

The dark woman shrugged one shoulder, uncapping the bottle with nervous hands and taking several swallows before wiping at her mouth with an already wet sleeve.

“Well, you have enough time for a shower. Then we’ll have some dinner.”

“And then I’ll take you home,” Lacey said softly.

Green eyes met blue for a very long moment, interrupted only by the sound of Karma pushing around a now empty bowl. “Only if you want me to leave. I called off of work tonight. I … couldn’t go in after last night.”

The dark woman worked her jaw uneasily. “Didn’t you read it?” she asked at last. “That’s why I brought you here.”

Rachel nodded. “I read it. Or parts of it … got kinda repetitious after awhile.” She shrugged her shoulders casually. “I knew what you were before, Lacey. I could guess at what you did to become crony number two. But I see more of you than that stupid file. There’s nothing in there about your warmth and compassion.”

“That’s because no one else has ever seen that in me,” her companion whispered, breaking eye contact to refill Karma’s bowl and return it to the floor.

“Go shower,” Rachel ordered gently, making a show of wrinkling her nose. “Go on.”

The dark woman started to walk away towards another set of stairs leading upwards before turning around and meeting green eyes. “Will you really still be here when I get out?” she asked with uncustomary awkwardness and a bit of hope.

“Of course I will be. I promise. Go ahead.”

****

The table was set when Lacey returned, her wet hair slicked back from her face to fall in a mass between her shoulder blades. Ice blue eyes surveyed the kitchen table curiously before she walked around it to step through the threshold into the screened in patio. There she found Rachel sitting in a well cushioned chair, casually flipping through a magazine. Karma was sprawled out on the floor, still panting, but raised her head and thumped her tail against the Astroturf floor covering upon seeing her dark-haired running partner.

Rachel turned, smiled at her. Lacey couldn’t help but smile back.

“You hungry?” the young blonde asked as she stood and set the magazine down.

The dark head bobbed in agreement. The taller woman backed out the doorway to give her companion room to step through but Karma decided to stay where she was in the cool night air.

Lacey closed the door to just a crack in case Karma wanted to come join them later.They ate quietly, relaxed and comfortable. Though Rachel noticed Lacey’s continued glances in her direction.

“What happened to your brother and mother?” Rachel asked suddenly, catching her dark-haired companion completely off guard. She stopped mid chew, glancing around as if looking for a way out, before finishing and swallowing.

“Umm,” she started slowly, blue eyes looking a bit bewildered.

“You don’t have to tell me, Lacey,” her companion offered, reaching a hand across the table to lay it on the other woman’s forearm.

“No … it’s okay. I actually don’t know. When I left to work for the Russo family, I tried to bring Jeremy with me. But he wouldn’t come. He had some mother worship thing going on … didn’t see her for what she was. But I had to leave. So I did.”

“You’ve never gone back?”

Dark hair swung slightly when Lacey shook her head, stabbing at a broccoli stalk. “No. I kind of try not to live in the past. You know … just do something and go. Don’t pay attention to what the impact will be. Don’t plan for the future, don’t get caught up in history.”

“Do you wonder?”

There was silence except for the clank of fork tines chasing around a slice of carrot. Then sapphire eyes flashed up. She shrugged. “Sure. Sometimes. I loved the little guy. I raised him, pretty much. But she was a charming woman and she had him fooled.”

Rachel nodded slowly, offered her friend a small smile before turning her attention back to her meal. “Was she mean?
I mean … did she hurt you?”

“A couple of times. Mostly we were runners for her, though. Small time drug dealer. We were kids, couldn’t be tried as adults and could get into the school yard without trouble.”

“How about your father?” Rachel asked gently, perfectly aware she was prodding where she shouldn’t be. But the dark woman had done the same to her previously so she felt a certain amount of freedom.

She shrugged half-heartedly. “He was kinda heavy handed. Drunk a lot, on drugs a lot. They were poor dealers, really: using the materials. No profit in that. We were there when she killed him. Social services never knew that we had seen it. She had us all lie so that we could go back to her.”

“Was it really self defense?”

“No. He was … abusive, but our lives weren’t in danger.” Lacey said flatly, taking a quick few bites that finished her meal. “I’m done,” she announced as she stood and made her way across the kitchen. And Rachel knew she was referring to the conversation as well as dinner.

“Me too,” the young blonde agreed, also rising. She tried to elbow her friend away from the sink but Lacey chuckled.

“No. I’ll do dishes. You cooked. It’s only fair.” The two women wrestled for sink space a little longer before Rachel gave in and stepped away.

“Go sit by the fire. I’ll only be a minute.”

She was dozing on the deep pile rug in front of the fireplace when Lacey came out and sat next to her. The dark woman tentatively reached a hand out and began to stroke the red blonde hair. Rachel’s eyes opened.

“Mmmm. Sorry. What time is it?”

Lacey glanced to her watch. “A little after nine.”

“The night is young,” Rachel murmured sleepily and Lacey laughed softly.

“Yeah. I can take you home, Raich … if you’d rather?” The young blonde rolled from her side to her back to gaze at her companion, trying to read behind the shadows in those sapphire eyes but not having much luck at all.

“Do you want me to go, Lacey?” Cuz you’re going to have to tell me to leave. I like it here.

“What about Karma? She hasn’t eaten yet today, has she?”

“No,” the young woman wiped at her tired eyes with partially curled fists. “But I can just chop up some chicken for her, and some vegetables. It’s what she normally eats.”

“No dog food?”

“Do you know what they put in dog food?” Rachel wrinkled her nose.

“Horses?” Lacey grinned evilly and the younger woman poked out just the tip of her tongue.

“Among other things. It’s the stuff that’s too bad to go into bologna and hot dogs. I wouldn’t eat it, can’t expect her to.”

Lacey smiled, smoothed the other woman’s brow with long gentle fingers. “She’s spoiled.”

Rachel returned the smile and shrugged her shoulders. “She’s an only child.”

Silence hung between them for several long moments before Lacey decided to broach the subject. “You have a daughter.”

Rachel nodded. “Molly. She lives in Rochester with one of my high school teachers. She quit teaching, has some foster kids. I want her back once I’m more financially secure. But I was convicted when she was two, she needed a home. I get to visit her all the time.”

“How often do you see her?” Lacey murmured softly, still continuing to smooth the young woman’s brow.

“A few weeks in the summer. Usually a weekend a month depending on her school. Spring break”

“She’s eight?”

“Yeah,” green eyes grew slightly misty. “She’s beautiful. Blonde hair, blue eyes. She’s very special, Helen’s done right by her. We get along well, Helen has always been honest with her and never denied me seeing her.”

“Who’s the father?” Lacey asked hesitantly, wondering how the young woman would tell her if she’d pushed too far.

“A guy I met here not too long after I’d run away from home. Just some guy. Like I said, sex never meant much. I
dunno … condom broke. But I love her.”

“I can tell,” the dark-haired woman grinned gently. “I’d like to meet her.”

“I’d like that, too,” Rachel whispered softly, returning her partner’s smile.

“How about this,” Lacey stood and offered her hands to her companion who took them willingly and was pulled quickly to her feet. “We take care of Karma. Then we go upstairs and watch a movie?”

“You want me to stay?” Rachel asked pointedly, wanting to hear the other woman’s decision.

“Yeah,” Lacey said softly. “I’d like that a lot.”

The young blonde smiled gently as she reached out and stroked her companion’s forearm. Then she led the way into the kitchen, sporting the world’s goofiest grin.

****

In the end, Lacey watched the last hour of the movie on her own because Rachel had long since let her blinking eyes finally stay closed. The dark woman glanced from the ending credits to the sleeping woman in her arms. They lay sprawled on her king size bed, supported by pillows, resting on the down comforter. The young blonde was on her side, facing the television across the room. Her head rested on Lacey’s shoulder and one arm was casually draped across her abdomen. Sometime after the small woman had fallen asleep, she’d also possessively moved her leg across her companion’s thighs.

Lacey watched her now, smoothing the golden hair away from her sleeping features with the utmost of care. “You are beautiful,” she whispered tenderly, kissing the woman’s forehead. “And I don’t know why you stayed … but thank you.”

The pale face smiled gently and green eyes fluttered open. “Ya big softy,” she murmured and Lacey blushed slightly but smiled at her anyway, moving her knuckles along the other woman’s fair cheek.

“Shhh,” the dark-haired woman whispered. “Don’t tell anyone.”

Rachel grinned, reaching up to capture the large tan hand and place a kiss on the knuckles. “Secret’s safe with me.”

“You ready for bed?” her companion’s voice was husky and traveled right down Rachel’s spine in gentle vibration.

“Aren’t we there already?” she answered, her mouth suddenly dry.

“Why are you answering my questions with questions?” Lacey teased and was rewarded with a soft laugh.

“How was the movie?” green eyes sparkled with humor.

The dark woman shrugged negligently, “The company was better.”

“Let me take Karma out again,” Rachel said, pushing lazily away from the other woman’s warmth. The movement caused the Siberian Husky to hop down from her comfortable position at the foot of the bed.

“Maybe I need a doggy door,” Lacey said absently as she also rose from the bed, brushing her black hair away from her face.

“Nah, cuz then you’d need a fence, too.”

“What kind of fence?” Lacey asked as she followed woman and dog out of the room and down the hallway to the spiral staircase.

“You in the market?” Rachel teased. “Privacy fence is best. Some day I want a house with a big yard for her. Nice tall fence.”

“Do they jump?”

“Huskies are escape artists, too. Some can climb a fence, dig under it, jump over it. Even open gates. They’re a little too smart for their own good.”

They arrived in the kitchen and Rachel picked up Karma’s leash from the countertop. “So, they escape, run away, and are full of energy?”

Rachel nodded, grinning at her friend.

“Why own one?” Lacey asked but she was smiling, she’d already been taken by this dog’s charm.

Rachel turned back to Karma and held up the leash which launched the Siberian’s vocal assault of howls and woos. “Look at that face, Lacey,” the young blonde cooed which only encouraged Karma’s efforts.

“Put a leash on that dog and get this over with, woman,” Lacey growled playfully.

They walked quietly along the footpath Lacey had run earlier in the evening, following the circle of light from the flashlight in the dark woman’s hand.

“It’s so quiet here,” Rachel whispered, her warm breath fogging in the cold night air. She tucked herself farther into the down jacket Lacey had lent her. It practically swallowed her whole. “Are we still in New York?” She asked jokingly.

“Pretty sure,” Lacey nodded with the barest hint of a wry smirk.

The young blonde leaned her head back to stare at the stars which shone brighter here than where she lived. “Nice.”

“Mmmm,” the dark woman agreed, following her companion’s gaze and thought the stars were more beautiful when she saw them as Rachel did. “Are ya done, pooch? It’s getting cold out here.”

Lacey showed her young friend into an upstairs guest room. She turned back the bed and made sure there were clean towels in the attached bathroom. The dark woman handed her companion a T-shirt and cotton shorts before turning to leave the room.

Rachel grabbed her arm as she turned, causing her to stop in her motion. Then she stood on her tip toes and placed a very gentle kiss on Lacey’s lips. “G’night,” she whispered.

“Night,” the tall woman replied, reaching a hand up to push back golden hair. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Do you have to work tomorrow?”

Lacey raised an eyebrow and focused away for just a moment before nodding. “Yeah,” meeting emerald green eyes. “In the evening. But we can have breakfast somewhere then I’ll take you to the barn so you can get your Jeep. I want to see if we can find anything out about the blood work or salt blocks. Shoulda heard something by now.”

“Sounds good. Sleep well, Lace.”

“You too,” Lacey kissed the younger woman again, lingering there a moment, before leaving the room.

XXXXX

Lacey awoke with a start, immediately reaching over to the nightstand and picking up her Glock, releasing the safety and cocking it. She heard a loud gasp in the darkness and recognized the timbre of it.

“Shhh, shh, Raich,” Lacey whispered, sliding the safety on and putting the gun back down quickly. “It’s okay. I didn’t know it was you.”

The young blonde stood quietly in the doorway, holding one hand out in front of her awkwardly while the other rested over her pounding heart. Never sneak up on a hitman. Really, how hard is that to figure out?

“C’mere,” the dark woman said softly, pulling back the covers and patting the bed next to her. Karma flew into the room and hopped on the bed. “Not you, pooch,” Lacey laughed, pushing the dog to the foot of the bed to make room for Rachel as she lay down. Then she took the young blonde in her arms, hugging her tenderly, and feeling her heart still hammering,

“I’m sorry, Raich. I didn’t mean to scare you,” the dark woman whispered huskily, rubbing her companion’s back firmly.

“M’okay,” Rachel murmured, her face tucked into the other woman’s neck. “Just wanted to be with you.”

Lacey smiled and continued to rub the small woman’s back until she felt the heartbeat slow. Then she heard her breathing even out as she reclaimed sleep.

But sleep was a long way off for the dark-haired woman as her eyes traveled from the young woman in her arms to the curled up dog at the end of the bed. Then, slowly, ice blue eyes looked at the moonlight glinting off the barrel of her Glock. It could have been bad. That was careless.
Chapter 10: The Day After
Lacey watched red-orange light crawl across the hardwood floor in her bedroom. Then chase across the white comforter cover to finally play over the pale features of the woman in her arms. She moved her hand slightly to cup around her companion’s face and protect the still closed eyes from the growing sunlight. Rachel moved slightly in her sleep, squeezing the other woman tightly for a brief moment and then releasing her.

Karma blinked up at Lacey from her position at the foot of the bed, then opened her mouth in a doggy grin and began crawling up the mattress to poke the dark-haired woman with a very cold wet nose.

“No, no, Karma,” Lacey laughed softly and pushed at the dog but it didn’t work as the red furred beast suddenly jumped up to all four feet and smacked the awake woman with a paw. Then lunged forward and swiped at her face with a long tongue. “Agh,” Lacey growled which only incited the dog further and, before long, Karma was play bowing and wooing while bouncing around the bed. Then Rachel was awake, blinking into the sunlight.

“Your stupid dog,” Lacey groaned, sliding out from under her companion to dive across the bed and scoop up the hapless dog in her arms. Karma struggled until her freedom was granted and then she was off the bed in a flash. Her nails echoed on hard wood floor as the dog flew out of the room and down the hallway, Lacey hot on her trail.

Rachel lay in bed for a few more moments, somewhat dazed by her rude awakening and the game of chase currently being acted out on the upper level of the house. Karma was making consistent growling and wooing noises while her pursuer was muttering under her breath.

Then, next she knew, both ran back into the bedroom, over the bed, and into the large attached bathroom. Rachel crawled to the end of the bed to lean over and watch them in the bathroom.

“Now you’re cornered, ya little beast,” Lacey growled, slowly closing in on Karma who stood near the end of the room by the large bathtub. Her entire body was tense, tail up, nose twitching as blue eyes regarded her attacker. And just as Lacey was ready to swoop down and grab the dog, Karma leapt straight into the air and used Lacey’s bent over back as a platform, jumping off of her and out of the bathroom door to leap on the bed. Then she sat casually, tail thumping on the messed up covers, tongue lolling in a pant.

Rachel lay on her back now, laughing so hard she could barely breathe and Lacey returned to the room and watched her young companion fondly.

“Oh my God,” the young blonde cried, wiping at teary eyes. “Are you okay?” this directed to the dark-haired woman standing over her.

She got a wry grin and two raised eyebrows for her question. “You sound so concerned.”

“I am, I’m sorry,” more laughing. “I’ve never seen her use a person as a jungle gym before.”

“I’m flattered, Raich,” the dark woman teased before bending over her companion and tickling her ribs.

“Agh! No,” the young blonde squirmed, laughing all the harder. Then strong arms picked her up and flipped her over so she lay across Lacey’s left shoulder, facing the woman’s lower back. “Hey, hey,” she squirmed some more and wrapped her arms around Lacey’s waist. “Put me down you big bully!”

Lacey carried her down the stairs and to the formal living room, Karma bouncing and cheering her every step of the way. Then she knelt and lay the woman on her back on the carpet in front of the cold fireplace. Green eyes sparkled up at her but before the young blonde had a chance to speak, Lacey closed her mouth over soft lips.

She kissed her deeply, tongue pushing between lips to play in the soft moistness she found there. Rachel stopped squirming instantly to reach her arms around the neck above her and pull the woman closer. Karma lost interest rather quickly in this new game and trotted away.

They spent several long minutes of being lost in sensations as they explored each other with mouths and gentle fingers. Lacey pulled the young woman to a sitting position and then into her lap where fair legs wrapped solidly around the dark woman’s waist. Lacey tilted the blonde’s face back to kiss the neck she exposed. Rachel groaned, moving her hands down Lacey’s front, trailing tantalizingly over breasts before sliding bravely under the waistband of the loose shorts she wore to find crisp curls. Then lower to feel for moisture.

Lacey jumped at the contact, nipped at the other woman’s neck and moaned, pressing herself into the probing fingers.

“Unh unh,” the dark woman said at last, when she regained her composure. She reached down and pulled Rachel’s hands away. “Easy,” she whispered as much to herself as the woman straddling her lap. Then she touched her forehead to Rachel’s, taking deep breaths to calm herself and blinking blue eyes into her companion’s green.

“Yes,” the blonde whispered, pressing her hips forward and fighting for her hands. “Lace,” a quiet moan.

Lacey leaned forward to press the young woman back to the hearth rug, kissing her again but still holding her hands. When Rachel relaxed her leg hold around Lacey’s waist, the dark-haired woman took the opportunity to pull away and out from between fair legs.

Rachel moaned in protest but the moans were drowned out by the mouth covering hers. “Lace,” she said again, breathing the word into the other woman’s lips.

“Lay still,” the dark woman whispered, pushing herself up and away from her young friend but keeping her hands pinned just next to the blonde hair fanning across the rug. “Don’t move,” Lacey met emerald depths filled with staggering amounts of desire. She smiled gently. Trust me.

Rachel’s pale eyelashes flicked against her cheek as she blinked then relaxed, no longer straining against the hands that held her. Lacey released her hold, smoothing large palms down her arms to her shoulder, over breasts to stomach.

“Okay,” the tall woman said softly, taking a deep breath, flashing her friend another grin. “You be very still … and quiet. Can you do that?”

Rachel nodded, smiling back at the woman above her. She was rewarded by another deep kiss. Then Lacey very slowly began to run her hands along the other woman’s body over her clothing. Her fingers traveled delicately along the insides of her companion’s legs, running over her pubic area tenderly, up her stomach, in between breasts. All the while she continued her assault on lips and face.

After several more minutes of gentle caresses, Rachel was moaning again, her body arching into the fleeting touches but denied any further pressure. “You’re not supposed to move, Raich,” Lacey teased gently, letting her fingers continue to dance along the other woman’s skin.

“I’m trying,” was the groaned response from the woman beneath her.

The dark-haired woman grinned, kissed the young blonde. “Or talk.”

“Slave driver.”

“You love it.”

Green eyes flashed open and met blue for a very long moment, suddenly serious. “I do.”

Lacey swallowed and nodded, ran a lone index finger along the other woman’s cheek. Then she smiled and moved her hands lower to push up Rachel’s shirt, exposing a pale stomach. She stopped, tilted her dark head silently as blue eyes studied the scars she found there.

A small sound escaped Rachel’s lips and her verdant eyes reflected shame and panic. She tried to scoot away but Lacey moved tan hands to hold her around the waist, thumbs nearly meeting in the middle of the small woman’s abdomen.

There was a large incision mark just above Rachel’s navel, several inches long and jagged. Surrounding it were several small scars in a scattering formation that ended just below the young woman’s breasts. She struggled again and Lacey glanced up to meet those eyes.

“What are you afraid of?” the husky voice asked gently.

Rachel dropped her eyes, moved her hands to cover her companion’s. All sense of arousal had left her body. “Bad
memories … they’re ugly.”

“You’re beautiful, sweetheart,” Lacey murmured, leaning forward to kiss the scars, noticing the abdominal muscles tighten under her ministrations.

Rachel shook her head, tried to shrink away but was unsuccessful as the tall woman practically covered her entire body. There were tears in her emerald depths.

“Raich?” Lacey whispered, laying her body along her friend’s, gathering the small woman in her arms and holding her gently. “Honey, you are beautiful. All of you. Your heart, your mind, your body. And some day we’ll wake up naked in each other’s
arms … after making love all night long.” She grinned. “Of course we’ll have to shut Karma out of the bedroom.” She felt her companion relax against her.

“Oz made fun of my scars,” she whispered after long moments of being lost in the embrace.

“You don’t have to worry about him anymore,” Lacey growled.

Rachel pushed away, blinked at her companion with an open mouth. “Did you kill him, Lacey?”

The dark woman loosened her embrace and evaded those searching jade orbs. “I didn’t,” she choked out at last. “But he’s dead.”

The blonde absorbed this information with a sickening turn of her stomach. The worst part was, deep down, she was grateful for it. She was relieved that she would never see his weaselly face again or feel his brutal hands. Suddenly, she realized what her stillness must be implying to her partner and she shook herself back. Rachel framed the dark woman’s face in her hands, small fingers tangling with raven locks.

“I accept you for what you are, and what you’ve done … but I don’t want you to do those … those things for me.”

Lacey’s expression reflected mild hurt as she gazed at her companion but then she nodded, she knew the young blonde was right. Until now she hadn’t really thought about the life she lived but suddenly she despised it. “It wasn’t for you,” she murmured softly. “It was for Vinnie. For the horses. We questioned him and killed him. Couldn’t really turn him loose again.” The words were cold and distant. Lacey wondered how true they were. She wondered if she did have him killed because of Rachel. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

She got a slight smile in response as Rachel leaned forward and hugged her tightly, choosing to dismiss the topic and change the subject. “How ’bout some breakfast, crony number two? Cuz I sure am hungry.”

****

It was almost noon when they pulled up to the barn and Lacey parked her small red sports car next to Rachel’s Jeep. She got out with the younger woman and watched her as she pulled a harness from the floorboard of the passenger side of her own vehicle and secured it around Karma. Then she put the dog up in the seat and ran the seatbelt through the harness with nimble fingers.

When she turned back around, Lacey was giving her a slight smirk.

“Don’t make fun of me,” the young blonde warned.

Her companion shook her head, met her eyes with gentle blue. “Never. I like it. You’re so … tender.”

They watched each other for a moment as a slight blush climbed up Rachel’s face to settle in her features. The cold air whipped both of their hair and each tilted her head into the wind so it would blow the stray strands out of her face.

“So,” Rachel said softly.

Two raised eyebrows, a gentle grin. “So … you headed home?”

“Nah. I may stay for a bit, see if they’re going to exercise the afternoon string. Sometimes I get to ride … I could use it.”

“What about her?” the dark woman sent a thumb the dog’s direction.

“If they are, I’ll come back and move her to the office. No time to take her home.”

“I’ll take her back to your apartment. It’s on my way.”

Rachel was silent for a moment, rocked back on her heels. “No it’s not.”

Lacey shrugged, smiled. “Not really. But I’d like to help you out. I can take her home and then you won’t have to worry about her.”

The young blonde felt warm inside at these simple words, blushed again, but she was grinning. “Okay. It’s a deal … but I only have the one key.”

Her dark companion graced the young woman with white even teeth formed into a grin.

Rachel laughed. “You don’t need keys?”

Lacey shook her head.

“Promise not to break down my door?”

The dark woman nodded. “Promise.”

Rachel handed over the dog’s leash and unhooked Karma from her seat and harness. “Go, ya ungrateful mutt.”

Now they were back to standing awkwardly. Until Lacey leaned forward and kissed Rachel tentatively, then tilted back and met her eyes with a questioning gaze.

Luckily, the young blonde was smiling. “Are you going out of town?”

“Shouldn’t be.”

“When will I see you again?”

Lacey looked away, ice eyes traveling across the pastures and paddocks surrounding them. “Soon.”

“Be careful?” Rachel whispered and the tone in her voice brought back the dark woman’s attention.

She got a half grin in response as her companion battled with the inanely warming feeling inside of her. She couldn’t remember ever hearing a request for her own safety though she’d received plenty for the successful completion of a job. “Thanks.”

Rachel smiled back, reached a hand out to smooth it down the forearm of the black leather coat in front of her. Then, after leaning forward to quickly press lips against ice cold cheek, she turned and trotted into the barn complex.
Chapter 11: Business as Usual
“Rico,” Lacey sighed, running long nimble fingers through her tangled black hair. “Sit your god damned ass down. Bernard, what did Tony find at the deli?”

“Nothing,” the burly man said succinctly as he watched the young teen stop pacing and throw himself on a plastic chair. Lacey, however, continued to pace.

Until she stopped to glare icy daggers in Bernard’s direction.

“Oh. No sign of forced entry, just like we thought. No prints, no weapons, no money or drugs. Nothing.”

“Except bodies,” George, the lanky black man, helpfully supplied.

She started walking again, long legs eating up the space in the small office at one of the Russo restaurants on the edge of Brooklyn. The others could see the fury emanate from her and were frankly quite confused by it. Sure, it was dangerous that a drug runner for their main source had missed a meet, and that he’d been found dead with his family. They hadn’t gotten their drugs but it’s not like they’d never had a problem like this before. But the dark woman had never before been like this.

Finally, Bernard decided to jump in feet first. “What’s wrong, Lace?” he blinked at her with dark brown eyes framed in a slightly beefy face and brown curly hair. Rico could barely conceal a gasp at such forwardness.

Lacey stopped pacing again to look at him with bright sapphire eyes which started hard but slowly softened. She sighed, looked to Rico and George, before returning her eyes to Bernard. “I’m sorry,” there was still a tinge of edginess in her voice. “I really didn’t want to be doing this tonight.”

“You thrive at this, sugar,” Bernard said gently.

The lovely mouth quirked into half a grin. “Not anymore.” And that’s not all I don’t like about this job anymore. Oh, Raich. What do I do?

XXXXX

Rachel came into her apartment after her mid-afternoon ride and tossed her keys onto the phone table. No messages.

Her lock and door had seemed untouched, for which she was grateful. Though she had to admit it made her just a touch nervous to know these were barriers that meant nothing to her new friend. Karma met her happily at the door and, after a quick walk, she started making dinner. The omelets they’d shared this morning, sitting at the snug table in Lacey’s kitchen, had long since left her system and the young woman’s stomach felt hollow with that absence.

After finishing her meal and cleaning her meager dishes, Rachel finally made her way to the bedroom to lay down for an hour or so. There she found on her pillow a single red rose resting on a white note card.

“Miss you already. See you soon.
Hope Karma didn’t eat this … L.”

She held tightly to the card for several long moments, studying the strong dark scrawl of the words, before going back to the kitchen to find a bud vase for her rose.

XXXXX

Later, Lacey sat in a fine French restaurant on the south side of New York City. She’d brought Rico with her but left Bernard and George at the other restaurant they’d been prowling earlier. Their host was a jovial Cuban man with hair and eyes equally dark.

“You like the duck?” he motioned a wiry hand to Lacey’s plate. The tall dark-haired woman nodded, raised a thin eyebrow at him.

“Great food, Raoul. What say you tell me what happened to our shipment.”

The man’s beady eyes sank away and then back, slightly intimidated by the ice blue before him. The young kid with this woman, however, practically shook in his shoes.

“We’re still looking into that,” he admitted. Not wanting to reveal too much to this raven-haired woman.

She grinned, though it wasn’t pleasant. “We’re not gonna take the fall for your shitty security, Raoul. We need a new shipment. Kalzar was your man, not ours.”

“We’re working it. I assure you, Senorita. Please, enjoy the meal,” the hand swept to indicate the veritable feast before them.

Lacey glanced to thin faced Rico, regretting a young kid being in this business but knew he must have impressed Vinnie to be her latest tag along. Hold on, kid. Gonna be a bumpy ride. She jumped up from her chair and lunged across the table to grab Raoul’s tie. Somehow, surprising the man’s body guards, a thin knife had appeared in her hand.

Raoul’s men pulled their weapons and aside from the noise from the main part of the restaurant, this group was bathed in silence. Lacey glanced at Raoul, pressing the sharp blade into giving skin. He got the hint and held up a hand to the men around him.

“Don’t fuck with me Raoul. Your losses are not my problem but you damn well better fix em. Cuz we’ve got bills to fill and you’re making us late. I don’t want your fucking food or your lame ass excuses. I want results.” She drew the knife slowly down the side of his neck, allowing a bead of blood to follow her path.

“Lacey, look,” he gasped, trying in vain to pull away from the iron grip and maniacal eyes.

“No you look, shit head. One day. One day or I’m gonna come back and rip this place up. And you and your fuckin’ worthless cronies. Ya got me?” she yanked him again to make her point clear.

He nodded, swallowed loud enough for the whole room to hear.

The dark-haired woman shoved him back in his chair and mysteriously returned the knife to wherever it had been. The power exuding from her was absolutely unmistakable as she turned delicately in her black strapless dress and let her eyes rest on Rico. She held out her arm. “Shall we, Rico?”

The kid about wet himself as he gained his feet and offered his elbow. One of the bodyguards lunged at Lacey then, completely missing the look of terror from his boss at such a move. She stopped him with an open palm to his nose, sending blood spurting down the front of his tailored shirt. His partner, however, managed to get a solid punch into Lacey’s stomach and a follow-up gun whip to her face before she disabled him and had him lying on the floor in agony. The glare she tossed to Raoul was easily interpreted and the whole room seemed to take two large steps back from her.

Rico then escorted Lacey out of the private room, through the dining room, and into the chilly New York night.
Chapter 12: Looking for Answers
Rachel and Karma came into the apartment just after dawn and Rachel tossed her keys on the phone table, disappointed that there wasn’t a message. Karma bounced down the hall and into the bedroom, already anticipating the forthcoming nap.

Rachel stopped in the bathroom to brush her teeth, wash her face, and pull on T-shirt and shorts. Then she stepped into her bedroom to find her mattress already occupied. Sapphire eyes gazed at her quietly as the dark-haired woman held Karma in a loose hug.

“Hi,” was all the young blonde could think to say but the shy smile she was wearing lit up her face.

“Hi, yourself,” Lacey whispered back, her voice husky and dark. Her hair was unkempt and she had pillow lines on one cheek. Those blue eyes looked barely awake.

“How long have you been here?”

“Hmm,” sleepy eyes glanced around for a clock, found it, tilted her head in concentration. “Coupla hours. Is this okay? I wanted to see you.” She actually looked a little worried when she turned back to meet a light green gaze. She’d come here somewhat on a whim, realizing what a big step it was. But she also realized how much she’d wanted to see this young woman.

“Of course it’s okay,” the blonde breathed. Better than okay. God, it’s great to see you in my bed.

“Are you gonna stand there or are you gonna get in here and keep me warm?” Lacey released her hold on the dog and pulled back the covers invitingly.

The bed bounced as Rachel leapt on it eagerly, sliding fair legs beneath the blankets to mingle with dark ones.

Lacey wrapped the young woman in her arms immediately and she swore she felt her heartbeat slow and the weight on her shoulders lessen. Rachel sank into the embrace naturally and pressed her face into long dark hair. “I missed you,” the young blonde whispered.

Lacey’s only response was a sullen nod. Rachel pushed away slightly to better look at her companion and found that her cheek was bruised and her lip was freshly split. She tilted her head and met blue eyes that were now slightly watery.

“What happened, Lace?” the light voice probed. Rachel moved her hands to touch the bruise with gentle fingertips. “Are you okay, honey?”

Lacey gave her companion a half smirk. “I am,” a deep breath, a shrug. “We ran into a little trouble. Not much.”

“Did anyone get hurt? Besides you?” the green eyes implored gently.

Blue eyes slanted away. “None of us. For them, a broken nose, a few ribs. Nothing big.”

“Does it hurt?”

Lacey shook her head, reaching up to grab her companion’s arm and pull it back over her shoulder to hold the woman close again.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” Rachel whispered, tickling the dark woman’s ear with warm breath.

“C’mere,” Lacey rolled slightly onto her back to drape the smaller woman over her. Then she reached down and pulled up the blankets to tuck them around their connected bodies. “Let’s get some sleep. And then we’ll go do something fun today.”

“Mmmm,” the young blonde agreed. “Sounds great.”

Sleep was easy to claim for both of them.

XXXXX

Hours later the late morning sun cut through sheer drapes to form patterns across the floor and walls. Lacey blinked at them with lazy blue eyes and held the woman in her arms even tighter.

“Ugh,” a sleepy voice responded. “I’m not gonna go anywhere.”

“Sorry,” Lacey whispered, loosening her hold.

“S’okay. What time is it?”

“Not yet noon. Are you ready to get up?”

“Oh, sure. Four hours of sleep, I’m such a lazy bum,” her voice was muffled where her face rested against the dark woman’s neck. “I’m s’posed to ride this afternoon.”

“What time?” the dark-haired woman asked gently, running slender hands along Rachel’s head and back.

“Three prob’ly.”

“So if we get up now, we can go have lunch and spend some time together figuring out the horse mess. Right?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” the blonde’s voice was still garbled. Then she seemed to remember something and her body shifted so her face was revealed. “The filly that fell down on the training track last week, after being brought back from Aqueduct?”

“Yeah?” Lacey acknowledged.

“She died yesterday morning some time.”

“How?! Why didn’t you tell me?”

Rachel managed an impish grin. “Ya see, there was this beautiful woman in my bed when I got home and I kinda forgot the rest of my day. They said she went down in her stall, had muscle tremors but didn’t appear to be seizing or anything like that. They couldn’t get her back up and she died. I guess it was dreadful. The body was already gone by the time I got there.”

“They send her for an necropsy?”

“Yeah,” Rachel nodded, snuggling herself back into the covers and the long body at her side.

Lacey was silent for a moment as she reviewed this new information. “You working tonight?”

“Yeah. Just one mare left. Had a baby last night. Filly.”

“That’s great, Raich,” Lacey said softly, planting a kiss in the blonde hair at her lips. “Good for you.”

“Was easy,” the young woman tried to shrug though it didn’t go too well in her current position of being wrapped around her companion’s torso.

“Do you like your job?” the husky voice asked and Rachel realized with some resentment that she really was awake for the day now.

“Yeah. It’s all right.”

“What would you do if you could do anything?”

“Anything?” Rachel queried and the dark head nodded though her companion couldn’t see it. The young blonde pushed away to roll onto her back and stare silently at the white ceiling for several long minutes. “Hmmm. That’s a tough one.”

“You want to do this for the rest of your life?” Lacey moved now so she rested her head in the palm of one hand and looked down at her young friend.

“No.” Bright emerald eyes met a dark sleepy indigo. “I wanted to be a vet for awhile. And then a teacher, I like kids a lot.”

“What about now?”

“I’d love to be an author or write articles for an Equine magazine,” the young woman admitted sheepishly, letting her gaze slide from the intent eyes above her.

Lacey moved one hand to rub it along her young friend’s stomach. Her touch was sure and soothing. “Like an equine journalist?” she inquired and the blond nodded. “So why don’t you?”

Rachel shrugged. “I don’t even have a high school diploma,” she whispered. “I barely make enough money to feed Karma and me and pay for this crappy place. And the Jeep. Let alone my daughter.” She shook her head hopelessly.

“Get your GED, Raich. Take college classes and then do some freelance writing. You can do it,” Lacey urged gently, slowly pushing under the young woman’s shirt to trail fingers along the scars she felt there. Neither flinched at this new move.

“Why do you care?” Rachel snorted softly.

“I want you to be happy, Raich. If you don’t want to work for Briargate, then do something you want. I know you can do it. You’re intelligent and motivated.”

Green eyes met blue again to stare for a very long time. Then they started to water slightly.

“What’d I say?” Lacey asked, regretting any pain she may have caused. She leaned down to press a gentle kiss to her companion’s forehead. She was shocked when arms wrapped around her neck and pulled her close, holding her in a tight embrace and forcing her to remove her hand from the other woman’s abdomen.

“No one has had faith in me since Leslie died,” Rachel whispered, choking on tears.

Lacey held the small woman fiercely. “I tell ya what, sweetheart. I’ll make you a deal. You work on getting your GED and taking some classes and maybe writing a few articles. And I’ll work on getting away from Vinnie.”

Silence. Then Rachel pushed away to blink at the dark face before her. “You’re serious?”

“Yeah, Raich. I am. Is it a deal?”

“You want to stop working for Vinnie?”

Lacey swallowed, framed the small face before her. Then she voiced the one thing she’d been thinking since the day she met this young woman, “I want out. I swear to God, I do. I can’t do it anymore.”

They stared at each other for very long minutes.

“Then do it,” Rachel whispered at last. “We can do this.”

“So, is it a deal, Raich?” the dark woman asked again, her hands still firm on pale cheeks, her eyes still searching for something: acceptance, agreement, understanding.

“Yeah,” was the quiet response. “It’s a deal, Lacey. You and I … we’ll change our lives.”

She got a slight smirk and watery eyes for her comments and was pulled back into an embrace. “Let’s get outta here,” the dark woman growled.

****

They had lunch at a nearby deli, where Rachel updated Lacey on the tests that had been run. She’d received a call the day before from the vet tech saying that the bloodwork had been inconclusive, only indicating raised white counts which was to be expected. The mineral blocks themselves had disappeared prior to testing, which actually surprised neither woman.

“I kept one block, though. It’s at my apartment,” Rachel cheerfully told her dining companion with a gentle shrug of her shoulders.

Lacey responded with a wry smirk and raised eyebrow. “Good thinking, Raich. I have a guy who I think can do something with it.”

“The vet suggested biopsies from the horses. They were supposed to do that this morning and send the results to the lab,” the blonde said, finishing her potato chips.

“Same lab?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Lacey scoffed. “That’ll work,” she shook her dark head. “Should we go visit the vet and see what we can find out? And then we’ll go do something a little more exciting,” she promised lightly.

The receptionist at the vet’s office was evasive at best. The biopsies had already been sent to the lab. The horses appeared to be healthy.

“They’re not, though,” Rachel said softly as her tall friend escorted her from the treatment facility. In fact, they appeared to be getting worse and the filly’s death the day before was a poor omen for the other horses’ fates.

Lacey nodded her agreement, silently pondering the next step. “Who is Wheatridge’s vet? Do you know?”

Rachel tilted her head in thought and then narrowed wide green eyes to slits. “These guys.”

The tall dark woman stopped mid stride to turn and look at her companion. “You’re kidding?”

The blonde shook her head.

“Shit, Rachel. You coulda said something before. They’re probably being bought as well,” Lacey had already turned around and was storming back into the vet’s office.

“Sorry,” Rachel murmured to her retreating back before deciding to follow her companion.

Within minutes, Lacey and Rachel were headed across town to the lab where the samples had been sent. And mere minutes after that they were headed out of the lab with a cooler full of samples. Rachel had been impressed with Lacey’s professional manner and her ability to refrain from knocking a few heads around. Though she had used her intimidating ice blue stare to the best of its advantage. They also swung back by her apartment to get the final mineral block which Lacey broke into two pieces first, leaving one and taking the other.

Minutes later, Lacey left Rachel in the car outside a planned parenthood clinic while she jogged in with the samples.

“Planned parenthood?” Rachel question when her friend had returned and eased the small car into traffic.

“Friend works there. He can run the standard drug tests.”

“For horses?”

“He’ll find out. He’s good. Now let’s get on with the fun part of our day,” she flashed a bright smile and sparkling sapphire eyes at her passenger.

They found an arcade that wasn’t too overrun by teenagers playing hooky. There they spent nearly an hour playing air hockey and pinball before Rachel glanced at her watch reluctantly.

“Time to go?” her dark-haired companion asked gently.

Rachel nodded. “I have to go walk Karma and then get to the barn and tack up. Will …” she paused, suddenly feeling awkward as they walked out of the arcade together and to Lacey’s waiting sports car. “Will you watch me ride? And then we could get some dinner before I have to work tonight?” Silence. “Would that be okay?”

Lacey smiled, opened the door for her friend and let her hand trail along the young woman’s thigh before responding. “I’d like that a lot.”

“You have to work today?”

“Tonight. But it’ll wait till after dinner,” she closed the door and made her way around the vehicle.

XXXXX

Lacey stood quietly on the side of the track, warmly wrapped in her black leather trench coat. Her arms were crossed casually across her chest and she leaned against a light post, dark hair billowing around her face and shoulders. Ice blue eyes watched the young blonde intently.

The object of her gaze was nimbly perched atop a bright bay filly. The stirrups were dropped a little farther than normal jockey mount in order to give her more balance during this precarious part of the training. They were breaking from starting gates.

According to Rachel’s earlier explanation, the filly had been walked through them on previous days. She’d heard the bells ringing, had been inside her own gate and closed in while other horses danced around her. But now she was being led forward for her first release.

There was a grey colt as well as another bay filly. Both had already been trained to the gate and were there for moral support, more or less. The filly bounced on the way in, rearing slightly on back legs before planting front feet to the ground again. Rachel rode the rear easily and used hands and voice to bring the horse down. The two young men on the ground pushed rider and horse into the gate and closed the back doors. From Lacey’s vantage point of about 100 feet away, she could hear the chatter of the riders though she couldn’t make it all out. But she could hear the trainer’s voice over the speaker on the five stall starting gate.

“Rachel? Talk to me,” he called.

“We’re good. We’re good,” Lacey heard her friend’s clear response above the horses’ snorting and shuffling feet. Then there was a loud commotion and yelling. Again Rachel’s voice “No go!”

Lacey squinted ice blue eyes to see the young blonde hanging from the side of the gate and not on the filly. The horse reared and slammed into the walls a few times until the two helpers had her calmed down and standing. It made the dark woman nervous to watch this. Rachel could be killed in an instant with one wrong move.

Back in the saddle, Rachel found her stirrups and raised herself again to balance over the young bay’s neck. She was still dancing nervously and sweating but at least was staying mostly parallel to the ground.

“Ready,” the loudspeaker questioned again.

“We’re good!” Rachel called back, leaning close for balance and safety, using her knees and hands to keep the filly’s nose straight in front of her. Then the bell clanged and the doors flew open. The filly hesitated just a moment, on the verge of panicking, until she saw her companions already several lengths down the track. And then she was off.

They ran not even a furlong before pulling the horses up and circling them back to the gate. The other riders were cheering at Rachel and the young woman was laughing back.

“Do it again!” the loudspeaker roared.

Four more times they pushed the filly in and broke her from the gate. Only once more was there a hassle forcing Rachel to abandon her mount and hang from the metal walls. Then the trainer was sending them all back to the barn.

Lacey walked next to the bay filly’s shoulder, wanting to reach up and touch her young friend but refraining from doing so in front of her peers. Instead, she merely offered her a slight smile and twinkling blue eyes.

The young blonde returned the smile as best she could but her hands were full with the dancing mount. It wasn’t until then that Lacey noticed the other two horses had people at their heads as well as on their backs and the trainer followed several yards behind Lacey as if he wanted to replace her next to the horse.

“Grab her bridle,” Rachel said softly, green eyes meeting blue for just an instant before the filly reared and came down.

“You’re kidding,” Lacey responded, instinctively stepping away when the filly’s front feet left the ground.

“No, I’m not. Please grab her bridle. She’ll calm down,” the smaller woman’s green eyes were slightly teasing this time as she sought out her companion’s gaze. “Or aren’t you up to the challenge?”

Lacey laughed in spite of herself and reached out to take the filly’s bridle just above the large snaffle bit. She applied a little pressure to the filly’s nose through her grip on the leather and, true to Rachel’s words, the young horse stopped dancing and began walking more calmly.

“Works,” the dark-haired woman murmured.

“It’s what they’re used to,” Rachel responded with a shrug. “Thank you, she was wearing me out.”

Lacey noticed that the trainer had stopped shadowing her and instead jogged ahead to speak with one of the other riders. “Is that all it takes to wear you out, Raich?” she grinned mischievously and was rewarded with a gentle laugh and a blush.

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” the blonde teased right back.

Lacey decided that pointing out how much she did want to know might be inappropriate right now and a tad forceful. So she chose to not respond at all. If you can’t say something nice …

She watched the young woman strip the filly down and sponge her off. Then Lacey fell into step beside her friend while they paced long lazy circles outside to cool the young horse. It reminded Lacey of her first meeting with the blonde over a week ago.

How long does it take to fall in love? She found herself wondering, slanting blue eyes to her companion who was peaceful and smiling.

“What’s up with you?” the dark woman asked softly.

Rachel turned to her and grinned sheepishly, playing with the lead rope in both hands now. “Just … just you and me, I guess.”

Lacey nodded her agreement. “Yeah, me too,” she responded tenderly, reaching out tentative fingers to run along Rachel’s arm gently then stuffed the hand back in her pocket.

“Why me?” the blonde blurted, looking away at the increasing greyness of dusk.

“Pardon?” the husky voice sounded confused.

Slender shoulders shrugged silently. “Why me? I’m a nobody. You’re … so amazing. Surely you’ve had better offers.”

“I’ve never in my life had a better offer, Raich,” the dark-haired woman said seriously, reaching that hand out again to capture her friend’s arm. “You are a wonderful woman: compassionate, funny, sweet, beautiful. You’re not a nobody. Don’t think that about yourself.”

Green eyes glanced at her and then away, but Lacey easily read in them the uncertainty and self doubt.

“I think we need to work a little on your self esteem, hon,” the dark woman said softly. “I’m having a lot of fun these last few days, getting to know you.”

Rachel smiled softly. “I think you maybe need some self esteem work yourself, crony number two,” the young blonde bantered recalling the timid look she’d received when discovering a dark-haired beauty in her bed. “I’ve had fun, too, Lace. I really have. I just … is it only fun?”

Lacey tried to seek out her friend’s gaze but she refused to meet the ice blue eyes and instead concentrated on fidgeting with the bay filly’s mane. “Hey,” she said softly, trying to get her companion’s attention, wanting very much to see her expression. “Raich, honey,” the dark voice soothed until Rachel did turn and meet her eyes. “No. It’s not just fun. I want more. I’ve never wanted out from under Vinnie before. Kinda figured it was my lot in life. But suddenly, since knowing you, I want more from this life. You know? I want happiness and normalcy.”

Rachel’s look was carefully guarded and not easily interpreted. She tilted her head slowly. “I know that you’re not one to give your heart easily. I see that in everything about you. But, maybe, you don’t know that I feel the same. I’ve had … a lot of disappointments in life. And I’d kind of assumed that I would just grow old alone and live in an apartment and work on a horse farm. That everything I could be is right here, right now. But, with you, I …” she paused, looked sheepish but the sapphire eyes that met her urged her to continue. “I want a future that’s better. That’s full of love and family and happiness; one that includes you and Molly. I didn’t think it was something I could have.”

They stood for several long moments just staring at each other. The filly waited patiently, eyes blinking into the early evening dusk. Then Lacey glanced around them, found that they were alone and the other walkers had gone elsewhere. So she stepped forward and wrapped the small woman in her arms, held her snugly, buried her face in fragrant blonde hair.

“God knows I don’t deserve to be happy. But I do want it. And I want it with you,” the dark woman said slowly, her voice catching slightly.

“What are you gonna do after Vinnie?” Rachel asked softly after returning the embrace for several quiet moments.

“Don’t know,” Lacey pushed away, wiped at her wet cheeks. “You want to help me find out?” an inviting grin accompanied the words.

Rachel smiled. “I’d like that.”

“You ride tomorrow?”

“Probably, then mare watch again.”

“One mare left?” They resumed walking now that the conversation was more casual.

“Yeah.”

“What happens when she goes?”

“Then I go back to working days and I get to sleep at night.”

“Show me this mare. I need to give her a stern talking to,” Lacey grinned at her young companion, tossing an arm casually over her shoulders.
Chapter 13: Free Nights
It was several more days before they got the chance to see each other again. Rachel paged Lacey with a succinct message that scrolled across the dark woman’s alphanumeric pager: colt born this morning. Free tonight, can we see each other?

A grin passed easily along the tanned face though she smothered it fairly quickly and returned her attention to Vinnie and the present discussion of a drug bust. Though it wasn’t on one of their routes, it was still something that concerned everyone in the business. As soon as she was able to bid her goodbyes, she did and drove her RX-7 home to get things ready.

XXXXX

Rachel came into her apartment after her afternoon ride and tossed the Jeep keys casually on the counter. As she was putting a leash on Karma, she rewound the answering machine message.

“Pick you up at 6:30 sharp. Make sure you’re hungry and pack to stay.”

The blonde grinned. It was Friday, so did she pack for the weekend since she didn’t work tomorrow or pack just for tonight? Best to play it safe, she decided.

She was sitting on the steps to her apartment watching the parking lot when she saw the Grand Cherokee pull into the lot. Rising to her feet and swinging her bag over one shoulder, she gave Karma a gentle tug to urge her forward.

Lacey jumped out of the driver’s side dressed casually in jeans and the ever present black leather trench coat. Her dark hair was pulled back into a pony tail, leaving just her bangs to tangle haphazardly over her eyebrows.

“Hey, gorgeous,” she said by way of greeting and watched the young blonde blush furiously. Lacey opened the back to let Karma leap inside and then settled Rachel’s bag as well. She turned and hugged the smaller woman quickly, placing a kiss just in front of her ear. “Has it only been three days? Seems like longer.”

“It does,” Rachel agreed, feeling a little awkward in these first moments together again. She knew it would go away soon.

“C’mon,” Lacey said as she tugged her smaller friend to the passenger side and opened the door for her. Her excitement was poorly veiled and it made her blonde companion laugh softly.

“What do you have up your sleeve, Lace?” her lilting voice teased gently.

“Surprise. You’re gonna love it,” then she walked around and was in the driver’s seat in moments. “I can hardly wait.”

“Then tell me,” Rachel begged, grinning. “I’m so bad at surprises.”

“My lips are sealed, hon. You’ll just have to wait.”

“Tell me about the biopsies, then.” Rachel conceded though she was still curious.

“Just heard from him today. He said there’s nothing in the samples. He’d like to come out and draw some blood himself from one of the horses and maybe do another biopsy to make sure those samples weren’t tainted at the other lab. Think we can get in tomorrow and do that?”

“Covert or not covert?”

“Probably covert so no one’s suspicious and speeds things up.”

“I think we can handle that. Probably best to do it about midmorning and avoid the feeding and exercise rushes. I can get Sunny out pretty easily.”

“Good. It’s a plan, then.”

“What about the mineral blocks?

Lacey sighed and knitted dark eyebrows. “He said there’s sugar in it? Is that right?”

“Should be salt and some basic minerals. No sugar, though that would explain why the horses were eating it so readily. What else?” Rachel tilted her head in concentration.

“He said there appeared to be some foreign substances. He’s trying to isolate the minerals so her can figure out what’s different. He had to send some samples to different labs for that work. He also needs the manufacturer so he can get exact ingredients.”

“Well,” Rachel said thoughtfully. “I can give him the manufacturer we normally use but my guess is that those were made by someone else.”

Lacey nodded. “Yeah, but it may give him a baseline to work off of. We’ll talk to him tomorrow about it.”

They settled into a companionable silence while considering this new information.

When they entered the house, Karma went bounding ahead as she had on her previous visit but made her reconnaissance mission in much less time. Old hat now. Then the light framed dog made for the screened in porch where Lacey was standing by the door. The dark woman casually opened the door and Karma slipped through the opening into the dark night beyond.

“No!” Rachel yelled, confused at her friend’s actions, and was running immediately. Visions of chasing her beloved pet caused her to panic. Lacey flipped on some external flood lights and grabbed the young blonde’s arm so they stepped into the night together.

Rachel located Karma immediately and tried to shrug off her companion’s grip but Lacey held tight. Finally, the young woman glanced around the yard and saw that it was now completely fenced in with six foot tall privacy fence. Nearly an acre of the land was fenced and Karma ran through the night with abandon.

Rachel glanced up at her friend, absolutely speechless.

“It’s safe, I promise. I talked to a couple Siberian Husky breeders and trainers and they gave me some advice. There’s cement under the gates so she can’t dig out. And electric wire running along the bottom of the fence.”

Rachel merely blinked at the dark-haired woman, unable to find a response. She hadn’t realized how much this woman understood her until this moment.

“Is this my surprise?” she asked softly.

“Yeah,” sapphire eyes sparkled with the knowledge she’d hit the nail on the head.

“How did you? In February … can they dig post holes?”

“They can if you’re persuasive enough … and the equipment’s big enough,” Lacey grinned. “C’mon, walk with me.”

They walked the perimeter side by side, watching the stars. Karma raced around them and ran full tilt through the enclosure. She got hit by the electric wire once, yelped and ran, then gave the fence the respect it deserved.

About halfway through their stroll, Lacey felt the warm softness of a smaller hand curl into hers and their fingers entwined gently. The dark woman glanced to her companion, confident blue meeting shy green and she grinned, bringing their hands up to press against warm lips.

“I’m glad you came tonight, Raich.” Lacey whispered against the knuckles still at her mouth. “I’ve been thinking about you since the other night.”

The blonde head nodded in agreement and she turned a more confident smile to her companion. “This was … really thoughtful, Lace. But so expensive, you really didn’t have –”

“I wanted to,” the dark-haired woman interrupted. “Doesn’t hurt the value of the house, either. So it’s okay. And there’s a doggie door, so once she figures that out we won’t have to get up with her,” her eyes sparkled. “See, some of the motivation was selfish.”

“Hmmm,” Rachel agreed, though she was skeptical about the woman’s easy dismissal of a kind deed.

“There’s more,” they were at the door now and Lacey pushed it open, holding it for her smaller friend to walk through.

“More, hmm?” Rachel looked over her shoulder to glance at Karma one more time before going into the kitchen.

“Have a seat.”

She took the offered chair and watched her friend with bright eyes.

“Okay,” Lacey took a deep breath, slightly worried about Rachel’s reaction to this next part of the plan. “Dinner’s on its way, I ordered pizza.” The blonde responded with a grin. “And … yesterday I stopped at one of the New York Education Offices,” the dark-haired woman pulled some papers from a drawer and slid them across the small table to lay in front of her companion.

“What are these?” Rachel raised a thin eyebrow before turning green eyes to the stack in front of her. She realized within moments that it was an application to take the GED. She glanced up at the tall woman who stood awkwardly across from the table. “What do I do?”

“You fill out the application and submit it back to the office, select a couple dates from the schedule and they’ll let you know which one’s available. The schedule’s in there, too. There’s one in a few weeks.” She grew silent and watched the blonde intently. Am I meddling too much? Did I go too far?

But she was rewarded with a small smile. “Thank you, Lace. I’ll fill it out tonight, after dinner. And we can put it into the mail tomorrow.”

“So, it’s okay?”

“Yeah,” Rachel agreed softly. “It’s great. Thank you for thinking about me.”

“A deal’s a deal, right?” Lacey raised a dark questioning eyebrow and smiled when Rachel nodded her agreement. “We’ll apply for your test, then get a course catalog for the Community College.”

“And what about you?”

The dark woman took a deep breath and let her blue gaze sweep away. “I have a couple big things coming up for Vinnie and I’m gonna do them. But when you go take your test, I’m gonna tell him.”

“Why do them?”

“I have to, Raich. Regardless of what Vinnie is or what he’s done, his family has saved me. I probably wouldn’t be alive today if they hadn’t taken me in.”

“Hey,” Rachel said softly, still sitting and still playing with the papers in front of her. She tried to meet sapphire eyes but was denied them. “Are you sure you want out? Cuz you don’t need to do this for me. I already know who you are and what you do.”

“Yes,” eyes flashed up to meet green. “Yes. There is no doubt in my mind.”

“Will he let you go?”

She was silent for awhile, came around the table to kneel next to the young blonde. “I don’t know. But I think so.”

“What if he doesn’t?”

That really was the question of the hour but Lacey didn’t want to dwell on it. So, instead, she raised two dark eyebrows and grinned at her young companion. “You ever wanted to live in Tanzania?”

Rachel let her get away with the evasion and returned the smile. “Might be nice.”

Later that night they gave up all pretenses of sleeping in separate rooms. Lacey pulled up the covers and tucked them gently around the smaller woman, pulling her tightly against her own body. “All right?” she whispered.

“Mmmm,” Rachel affirmed, snuggling closer still to the long dark body. “I like this.”

“Me too,” the dark woman whispered back and planted a warm kiss to Rachel’s temple.

Rachel responded by sliding her body up slightly, placing a light kiss on a well tanned neck, moving up the jaw line to Lacey’s ear.

Gentle touches and kisses grew more heated as they progressed with their exploration. Soon Rachel was sprawled across her companion’s body and they were lost in deep kisses of discovering tongues and lips.

Rachel moaned, pressing herself into the muscular body beneath her. Then she spread her legs to capture strong hips between her thighs.

“Raich, Raich,” Lacey breathed heavily, her own hands reaching down to slide under the fair woman’s shirt so she could trace shoulders well defined from hours of riding. “Are you sure?”

She didn’t get an answer as the young blonde found her way beneath Lacey’s shirt and pulled it over her head, tossing it casually across the room. Her lips trailed to the now bare skin to lay burning kisses on exposed breasts. Then those busy hands traveled back down to tug at shorts until Lacey complied and sat up to pull them off. The dark woman now lay completely naked to her young companion.

“C’mon, gorgeous,” Lacey growled. “Turn about’s fair play.” She freed Rachel of her shorts first, then reached up to slide off her shirt.

The young blonde froze and grabbed her companion’s wrists. She shook her head, her eyes slightly fearful. “Please?” Embarrassed by her scars, she wanted to leave her shirt in place.

“They don’t bother me, Raich,” her companion promised as they studied each other’s features merely inches away in the darkness.

“They bother me,” she whispered back.

“Okay, love,” Lacey agreed huskily and smoothed the shirt back down. Then she leaned forward again to catch elusive lips with her own and restarted her exploration.

After many long minutes of touching and caressing, kissing and holding, Rachel relaxed again. Swept away with the intensity of sensations, she forgot her fears and ran warm hands down the long body under her, stopping to stroke a firm breast and feel the hardened nipple push into her palm. She growled and replaced her hand with mouth, sucking and licking eagerly.

Lacey arched her back into the sensations, feeling the wetness grow between her legs and on her lower thighs where Rachel rested. She fought briefly with herself to take control of this situation, never one to be acted on and preferring, always, to be the aggressor. She started to shift her weight, preparing to flip them both over.

The young blonde sat up, placing both hands on the dark aching breasts beneath her. She met smoldering sapphire with dilated jade. “Let me,” she commanded huskily. She read the trepidation in those blue depths, she understood this woman’s need for power and control but she asked for it anyway. After a moment’s consideration, Lacey nodded just once and arched back into the hands on her.

Given this permission, Rachel lowered herself again, reinitiating her attack on those firm breasts. She moved down slowly to her lover’s apex where she found moist dark curls and musky heat. With nimble fingers and probing tongue she brought the dark woman to the edge and held her there, whispering words of affirmation and humming softly into moistness.

Teetered on the edge, Lacey gripped the sheets, Rachel’s shoulders, Rachel’s hair. Soft whimpered moans escaped those lips, her head thrown back, her eyes closed in passion. “Raich,” she whispered hoarsely and it was a plea the young woman was ready to answer.

With a final twitch of fingers and a lingering suck of coral lips and tongue, Rachel let her go. She moved one arm to hold onto the rocking hips, leaving the other fingers embedded in silky heat to feel the internal pulsing and pull every last sensation out of the long body. The blonde rested her cheek on Lacey’s sweaty abdomen and reeled in the satisfaction of pleasing this woman.

She was so lost in this concentration of emotions and movement that she was surprised when Lacey growled and flipped her over, separating their connection between probing fingers and pulsing canal. Green eyes blinked in surprise at the dark woman but there was nothing more there: no fear or apprehension.

Eager to return the pleasure, Lacey slid her long body down her partner’s. She stopped to suck on aching nipples through the thin cotton material, leaving wet marks in her wake that chilled in the night air and caused the woman to squirm. The dark woman nipped her way slowly down the T-shirted abdomen until Rachel was writhing in anticipation, rocking her hips forward, pleading for contact.

Small hands captured raven locks and tugged plaintively and Lacey grinned at the gentle urging. As if she didn’t know what the younger woman wanted. She rested her cheek on crisp honey blonde curls just to further the torment, blowing enticingly at the warmth below, holding on for the ride as hips rocked more.

“Please?” Rachel whispered softly, resorting to words since body language was getting her nowhere.

“Please what?” Lacey asked, smirking, her hot breath that formed the question nearly the young woman’s undoing.

“Aagh!” Rachel moaned, trying to prepare some kind of response but didn’t need to. Without moving her head, Lacey inserted long fingers inside the blonde, seeking, probing.

Lacey set up a gentle rhythm that was readily answered by yearning hips, then slid her mouth down to join in the pleasuring. The minutes stretched out endlessly as Rachel writhed beneath the dark woman’s control, breathing heavily, whimpering softly, murmuring her lover’s name over and over.

The stream of sounds heightened Lacey’s senses again and she felt her hips rocking against the sheets between her lover’s legs in reaction. She moaned into Rachel’s center, the vibration causing another shot of pleasure to rattle the lithe body. Feeling the reaction, she did it again, accenting the vocal with tongue and teeth and pushed the young blonde into oblivion. Leaving one hand in place inside her lover, she lowered the other to her own dark curls, rocking against that friction, and finding another release as well. It hadn’t been that far off with her lover’s sounds of pleasure, the pulsing on her digits, and the musky scent she breathed.

Slowly, carefully, Lacey withdrew from the young woman and slid up her body to wrap the smaller woman in long strong arms. She turned them gently so that she was on the bottom and Rachel’s limp sweat slicked body shrouded her. The young blonde breathed heavily into the bare shoulder beneath her head, trying to regain some equilibrium. Lacey’s breathing was equally labored and stirred the fair hair just beneath her chin.

“Okay?” Lacey whispered at last, long silent moments having passed as they each soaked in warmth.

“Great,” Rachel leaned up and kissed the dark woman, sharing their flavor for a lingering moment before moving up to wrap strong arms around the other woman’s neck. “Great. Thank you,” she was quiet for a beat. “I love you, Lace.”

The dark-haired woman closed her eyes for a long moment. A gentle tear escaped her eyelashes and fell quietly down her cheek. “Say it again, hon,” she whispered softly. Not realizing until this very moment the healing power of those simple words. How her whole world suddenly seemed right and a void was filled that she hadn’t even realized was wanting.

“I love you.”

Lacey pushed away slightly to rain the face above her with tender kisses. “I love you, too, Raich.”
Chapter 14: And Busy Days
Lacey crawled out from under her bed partner just after dawn, smoothing away her mumbled complaints with a kiss. She dressed in workout clothes and went to find Karma. Then they sneaked out the front and took a long run through the nearby woods.

“She loves me, Karma,” she whispered conspiratorially to her four footed jogging partner. She felt the giddiness rising through her body as she heard the soft words echo through her again.

Karma apparently didn’t care one way or the other and merely continued her stretched out, tongue lolling lope.

XXXXX

Rachel blinked open lazy emerald eyes and examined her surroundings with slight interest. Rather she was recalling the evening she and Lacey had just spent together, remembering the dark woman’s smooth skin and whispered words.

When she finally brought herself to consider the room and the surroundings, she realized that both her lover and her dog were missing. Deciding they must be together, she rolled to her side and studied the growing sunlight as it poured through a large double paned window. She was watching the dust mites float in the sunshine when she heard a sound behind her. Then Karma hopped nonchalantly on the bed.

Rachel rolled over slowly, taking in the dark woman before her as she snuggled her mostly naked form deeper into the warm comforter. “‘Morning,” she smiled at the other woman, hungrily noticing her sweat slicked body.

Lacey quickly shucked her clothes, leaving them in a haphazard pile on the bedroom carpet. “‘Morning yourself, sleepy head.”

The young blonde flashed her companion a gentle smile though she found herself a bit shy in the morning light. “Hey. Have a good run?”

“Yeah,” the dark head bobbed agreement even as she made her way to the bathroom. She turned back slowly, tilting her head in contemplation. “Want to join me in the shower?”

Rachel smiled and put surprisingly little thought into her response. “Yeah.”

She hopped out of bed and was halfway to pulling off her shirt, revealing the rest of her body to the naked woman in front of her before remembering the scars and her shame.

Lacey smiled, her ice blue eyes dancing with fondness, and it caused the young blonde to reconsider her hesitation. Then, slowly, she pulled the shirt over her head, slightly surprised when she tossed it aside and found herself immediately in strong tan arms. “Love you,” the dark husky voice assured and Rachel easily slipped into the conviction of that familiar timbre.

“Too,” was all that Rachel said but Lacey grinned at her. This dark woman easily understood word economy. It was something she lived by.

The shower head spewed hot water over the both of them and they showed remarkable restraint and actually managed to keep their hands to themselves until legs and underarms were shaved and hair was shampooed. Then they soaped each other with lingering fingers.

The young blonde winced visibly when her partner’s hands ran across her scarred abdomen.

“Why does that bother you so much, Rachel?” Lacey murmured while studying her companion with hooded eyes.

The smaller woman shrugged slightly. “It’s a reminder of that time. I’m not proud of it. Or myself. Or the fact that I managed to get my sister killed,” the last words were barely audible as they were whispered through imperceptibly open lips.

“Not true, Raich,” Lacey shook her partner slightly, not paying attention to the spraying water in her eyes and mouth. “You would never have done anything to harm her.”

Silence.

“Would you have?”

A reluctant nod of agreement. What she wouldn’t give to change that night.

“I love you,” Lacey said again and somehow the tone of her voice made the young blonde realize what an admission that was.

She smiled, teeth gleaming in the bathroom’s overhead lights. “I love you too, Lacey. I never thought I could feel that again… but I do.”

XXXXX

Rachel led Sunny through the training barn into the stocks near the wash stall where she settled him with expert hands and waited. The farm was busy this morning, being a Saturday in the breeding season. Owners were delivering or picking up mares, checking out stallions, and inspecting progeny. She hoped they could do this quickly and avoid questions.

It was only a few minutes before she heard footsteps coming up the concrete aisle and then saw Lacey and a tall bearded man rounding the corner.

“David, meet Rachel … and Sunny,” Lacey introduced as they came closer. The bearded man shook Rachel’s hand and then eyed the young colt skeptically.

“Did you bring a sedative?”

“No,” David shook his head. “I was hoping you had something more … horse-like.”

The blonde grinned. “Yeah, hold on. I’ll get something out of the office. Watch him,” she passed the lead line to her tall dark partner.

“Raich, I don’t think-” blue eyes observed her warily before flashing to the bay.

“He’ll be fine. Gentle as a lamb,” Rachel called over her shoulder even as she was jogging back down the barn aisle.

They drew blood before administering the sedative and then gave it several minutes to sink in before inserting the large hollow needles for biopsies. David needed a lot of assistance from Rachel on where to insert and what to take samples of.

“I’ve never worked on a horse before,” he explained meekly, meeting green eyes with gentle brown.

Rachel smiled. “I’ve never worked on a human. Cool, huh? Wanna let me try?”

Lacey laughed at David’s worried expression before he realized the young blonde was kidding.

“This is the name and number of the mineral block manufacturer,” Rachel handed the bearded man a piece of paper after he’d finished his work.

David nodded and pocketed it. “How’s he doing otherwise?”

Rachel shrugged and pointed to him. “He’s still doing that awkward standing thing. And now I sometimes see him shiver all over. Still stumbles a lot.”

The man watched Sunny carefully, noting slight occasional tremors. The stance looked uncomfortable at best, splayed legs and slightly hunched back. He shook his head slowly before promising to run the samples as quickly as possible and walking away from the women and the colt, deep in thought.

Rachel and Lacey left soon afterwards and headed back to the house to enjoy the rest of their weekend.
Chapter 15: Let Your Fingers Do the Walking
Lacey knocked gently at the door jamb to her own office, peering in the opening to the young blonde at her desk. She appeared lost in thought, fingers occasionally dancing across the keyboard, head tilted in concentration as the monitor’s glow bounced off achingly familiar features. She hadn’t heard the knock.

“Hey,” the dark woman called gently, causing Rachel to look up.

A grin spread across her face as she leaned back and massaged her neck. Then she glanced over her lover’s shoulder to the large window beyond. “It’s dark. I didn’t realize I was at it so long.”

“Yeah, you hungry?” Lacey asked gently, stepping into the room and laying her hands on the desktop and leaning her weight on them.

“I am. I didn’t realize it,” Rachel grinned fondly, reaching a hand across the desk to cover Lacey’s.

“I have dinner ready if you want to come down and take a break.”

“Yeah,” the blonde glanced back to the screen. “I found some stuff. Can I print it out and bring it downstairs?”

“Sure,” Lacey moved easily across the plush carpet and turned on the laser printer in the corner. “Give it just a minute. I’ll be downstairs.”

Several minutes later, Rachel was slicing into a grilled steak. Lacey was doing the same across from her at the smaller kitchen table.

“What did you find?” Lacey asked.

“I did a search on horses and poison and then I narrowed the list by symptoms. There are a couple of plants that may be culprits,” the blonde pushed the papers she’d printed out across to her lover.

Lacey read them silently as she continued to eat. She finished off her baked potato in relative silence before she glanced up to see seeking emerald eyes. “Good job, Raich,” the husky voice praised. “I think you’re onto something.” The pages outlined three potential poisonous plants with make-up and symptoms of each: ragwort, bracken fern, and astragalus.

Rachel beamed with pride at the gentle words. She’d been combing the Internet most of the afternoon, unable to relax when Sunny’s life seemed in danger. “Can we get that information to David?” the young blonde asked, resuming the consumption of her meal.

“Yeah, I’ll fax it to him right now,” Lacey rose from her seat and leaned over to kiss her lover’s cheek gently before leaving the room.

XXXXX

By late Sunday afternoon, Rachel and Lacey were standing back in the broodmare barn with David and Sunny.

“I think it’s the Bracken Fern,” David was explaining as he drew an amber liquid into a syringe. “The toxin in the fern is thiaminase, an enzyme that destroys thiamine which is vitamin B1,” David explained softly while inserting the needle gently into Sunny’s muscular neck. “The horse suffers from a vitamin deficiency of thiamine, which causes a loss of the fatty insulation layer to nerves that primarily control muscles. Symptoms are weight loss, weakness, gait abnormalities, abnormal heart rate and/or rhythm, inability to rise, sometimes death.”

Rachel remembered all of this from her reading the day before but she listened intently just the same, needing the information to be confirmed by a professional.

“He was probably being poisoned for a couple of months before the onset of symptoms. It can be deadly if left untreated.”

“What are you giving him?” Lacey asked, peering over the blonde’s shoulder to watch the needle withdraw.

“Thiamine … vitamin B1,” he clarified in case the dark woman didn’t remember what the word was. “He needs a daily injection for two weeks.”

“And he’ll be better?” Rachel asked softly

“Well,” David smiled gently. “According to my research, yes. And I called around and asked some vets. But this is all new to me. Let’s go give some injections to the other horses.”
Chapter 16: Meeting the Friends
Wednesday evening Rachel pulled up to the curb outside of Lacey’s grand home, realizing how stupid this move was. It’s not like the self-appointed crony wouldn’t notice a white Jeep parked in front of her own house. The closest neighbor was maybe a half mile away.

The young woman had come here on impulse after her work at Briargate was done for the day. She and Lacey had spent a wonderful weekend together and had spoken on the phone once since then to discuss the health of the horses as well as the vet’s apparent involvement.

David didn’t think that such a prognosis could have been overlooked by knowledgeable large animal veterinarians. Lacey passed this on to Vinnie so the barn vet had been immediately changed and the prior vet questioned for involvement. But still the trail ended there and they couldn’t tie anyone else at Briargate or a name at Wheatridge to the poisoning of the horses. Meanwhile, all of the remaining six horses were receiving their daily vitamin shots and appeared to be improving.

For now it looked as if Lacey’s job at Briargate was done. Rachel had feared her association with the dark woman ended with the job but Lacey reassured her that it wasn’t the case and they’d see each other soon.

So now, Rachel was outside the mafia crony’s home. This was her first uninvited trip here. Her first time actually driving herself, in fact, and that newness had been illustrated in her inability to find the place on the first try.

She sat silently with the Jeep turned off and her wrists resting lightly at the top of the steering wheel. Karma whined plaintively in the passenger seat, pulling slightly against her restraints.

“Hush, would you?” her owner reprimanded softly. “I’m gaining courage.” She watched the house curiously, noting that the porch light was on, freeing the front walk from early evening darkness. There were also a few lights on behind closed curtains: in the living room, front hallway, probably kitchen.

She was still considering all this when her door was yanked open and she was pulled bodily from the vehicle, immediately grateful that she’d taken off her seatbelt already and spared herself a strangling. The hand that held her was large and beefy and wrapped in her jacket and sweater. Her back was pressed firmly against the Jeep’s canvas top and Karma screamed like a banshee from her side of the vehicle.

He was a large man, well over six feet tall, with a solid if not pudgy build. His almost black hair was cut short and his brown eyes were nearly as dark as his hair. He eyed her suspiciously, the cold look on his face chilling the young woman more than the night air. Slowly, his eyes left her to track to the squirming and yelping dog. He raised a silenced gun in the hand he wasn’t using to hold Rachel against the vehicle and pointed it at Karma.

“No!” Rachel screamed and bucked hard against the Jeep, forcing her knee solidly into the large man’s groin. He dropped his grip on her but managed to backhand her with the weapon before doubling over in agony. The young blonde slid to the ground, pain shooting through her face like hot fire. She tasted the metallic tang of blood. She jumped to her feet as quickly as she could and tried to duck around the Jeep, hoping to free Karma and make a run for it. But her assailant grabbed her hair and growled at her.

“You fucking bitch,” he pulled her hard back towards him and she used that momentum to spin around and hit him in the face with her elbow.

God, his face was hard as rock, she winced at the jolt of pain through her arm.

But when he pressed the silencer solidly to her temple, she knew the fight was over and stopped struggling.

“Not so dumb after all, eh bitch?” the dark voice grumbled. Karma, thankfully, had quieted down during the struggle and now just watched them with blinking blue eyes.

“Don’t hurt her,” Rachel mumbled through painfully split lips, her head spinning, her stomach churning. Damn me and my weak stomach.

Silently, the man tugged on her hair and dragged her to Lacey’s house.

XXXXX

Lacey stood in the kitchen watching George and Rico at the small table. They both were reading separate parts of the paper: George had the sports section and Rico read the comics. How fitting, the dark woman snorted and turned back to the soup she was heating.

“Where’d Bernard go?” Lacey asked, glancing back at her companions. George merely shrugged his shoulders but Rico looked up from his reading.

“Dunno. The john?”

“He touches one thing in my house and I’m gonna rip his fucking tongue out,” she spoke loudly. “Ya hear that, Bernard?”

As if on cue, Bernard entered the kitchen from the front hallway and stood on the ceramic tiled floor. Only he wasn’t alone and he watched in shock as his boss’s look turned from good-natured teasing to one of passionate anger. “Found her sneakin’
around -”

“For Christ’s sake, Bernard! What the fuck did you do to her?” Lacey dropped her spoon and took a step towards the two, examining the bruises that marked the young blonde’s features and the split lip. She had blood smeared across her face and her green eyes were frantic and darting. She didn’t notice that Bernard’s face sported its own set of bruises though she did see that he jammed the gun he held harder into the young woman’s temple.

“What did I do to her?!” His eyes widened incredulously. “She’s spying on your house. She’s got some stupid ass dog out there screaming its fuckin’ head off and when I went to shut it up … this bitch lost her fuckin’ mind!”

Lacey reached a hand out to her young friend, telling her as best she could with eyes alone that everything was all right. “You shot the dog?!”

“No, no,” Bernard was beyond confused. George and Rico stood now as well, weapons drawn though there was no clear enemy. Bernard still held his own gun firmly to his young captive’s head, trying to sort out why Lacey was angry at him and not the little peeping Tom.

“Let her go, Bernard,” Lacey said softly, raising her other hand out to her side, indicating that George and Rico better hold their ground.

“Lace! She’s watching your house. She could be with the assholes that killed Al!” The beefy man was nearly whining. “George, get me your cuffs. We’ll question her.”

“Let her go,” Lacey repeated in a menacing growl, quickly losing her patience for this ludicrous game where the only loser was the young blonde before her.

The gun wavered and dark brown eyes met ice blue.

“Put down the fucking gun, Bernard, and LET HER GO!” Lacey shouted.

He dropped it as if it had bitten him and released his hold on long blonde hair.

The two woman took a step each and it was enough to find them in each other’s arms. Lacey wrapped herself around the blonde, rocking her slightly, burying her face in soft hair.

“I’m so sorry, so sorry,” Rachel was whispering over and over. “I shouldn’t have come. I wanted to see you.”

“Shhh, shhh,” Lacey responded, rubbing the other woman’s back. “It’s okay,” she cast a dark look to Bernard who simply stood still and looked dumb, having no other recourse at this moment in time.

Then the dark-haired woman pushed her companion away gently and cradled her face. “Let’s get some ice on that jaw, huh sweetheart?” She wiped at errant tears on the pale face before her, smiled gently. “It’s okay, love. C’mere, sit down.”

George and Bernard exchanged bewildered looks.

“Sweetheart?” mouthed Bernard soundlessly.

George shrugged, “Love?” in the same silent manner.

But Rico had the foresight to push his recently vacated chair towards the two women. Lacey couldn’t suppress a grin: the kid was catching on pretty fast.

Rachel eyed everyone silently while Lacey pulled out a dish towel and filled it with crushed ice from the freezer door dispenser. The only sound in the room was the gentle mechanical churning of the ice machine at work.

Finally, the young blonde kid ventured forward, sincerity in his blue eyes. He thrust out a hand awkwardly. “Hi, I’m Rico.”

Rachel glanced at him, guessed him to be in his late teens at the oldest, and slowly returned his handshake. “Rachel.” He beamed, looked to George and Bernard before casting a worried glance to Lacey.

The dark woman smiled at him as she came back and knelt before Rachel, tenderly pressing the ice pack to her face. The young blonde flinched away and Lacey steadied her by cupping her free hand behind fair hair. She pursed her lips, met emerald eyes.
“I know, it’s gonna hurt like a bitch.”

“Already does,” her young companion affirmed.

“Uh … Lace?” Bernard spoke at last, figured he was already in trouble for hurting this young woman so he may as well take the hit for all of them by asking the stupid question. “Who is she?”

Sapphire eyes twinkled for Rachel alone before she turned her attention to the beefy man still standing near the main entrance to the room. “This is my lover, Rachel. Rachel, this is Bernard, George … and you met Rico.”

Bernard’s chin hit the floor and George let out a huge whoop.

“Oh, buddy!” the black man crooned. “You’re gonna get promoted right into the graveyard! Holy shit! You tried to take out her lover?! You are so fucking dead!” But George really seemed delighted at the other man’s misfortune.

“Oh my God,” were the first words Bernard was able to mutter. He glanced angrily at George. “Shut up!” he growled, then looked back to Lacey with a mixture of guilt and downright fear. “Lace, I … I didn’t know. I was walking through the front room and I saw her pull up … I didn’t think …” but his explanation faded out when the dark face watching him creased into a toothy grin.

“You’re lucky she didn’t kill you, Bernie,” Lacey smiled at him, winked at Rachel. George was still chortling. “Give us some space, guys. Rico, there’s a dog in her car. Go get her, don’t hurt her.”

The kid almost snapped a salute before flying out of the kitchen and down the front hall. The two large men followed him but detoured into the living room.

“Hey, honey,” Lacey whispered, dropping her grin and turning a concerned gaze towards her young companion. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry he did that. We’re all kinda on edge right now.” She smoothed one hand over blonde hair, still holding the ice pack with the other.

“It’s my fault,” Rachel responded, pushing the cold sensation gently away. “I shouldn’t have come. I thought, you know, that since this weekend and I missed you … I thought … it was stupid.” She dropped her eyes.

“No, no it’s not, Rachel. You’re welcome to come here any time you want. I just wasn’t expecting you. I’d have warned the guys. I’m glad you came.” And she really was. It meant a lot to her that her young companion sought her out. Now she was sure Rachel felt the same connection as she did. “Always welcome here.”

Their eyes met again for a very long moment and Rachel saw the conviction in blue depths. She ventured a small grin even though it tugged painfully at her lips.

“C’mere,” Lacey gently pulled her friend to her feet and guided her over to the counter. She was helping the blonde sit on top of the Formica when the sound of nails came clattering down the hall and into the kitchen. Karma was absolutely frantic as she tried unsuccessfully to jump up to see her owner. So Lacey picked her up and held her as she reached out an exploring tongue to Rachel’s face.

“Hey, easy, Karma,” her owner whispered quietly, stroking soft fur. “I’m okay, see?”

When the dog seemed suitably subdued, Lacey placed her back on the floor and watched her shoot off into the front of the house. “Will she hurt Bernard?” the dark woman asked, not sure whether to encourage or discourage such action.

“I don’t think so.”

Lacey shrugged and turned her attention back to Rachel’s face which was now at eye level. She winced. “That’s gonna be painful for awhile.” She pressed the ice back. “Hold that there, it’ll help.” Then she examined the cut on the other woman’s left cheek, also produced by the weapon’s impact.

“This one needs stitches,” Lacey murmured, using a moistened paper towel to dab at the blood.

“Your soup’s boiling over.”

“Hmm?” The dark-haired woman raised her eyes slowly to meet her companion’s. Then caught what she was saying. “Ah,” she turned around and clicked off the burner.

“Stitches?” a slight look of fear flickered across her friend’s features when Lacey faced her again.

“Or it’ll scar pretty badly.”

“Can you take me?” she whispered.

Blue eyes ducked away for a minute, then back. Her lips were almost smirking. “I could do them.”

“You can give me stitches?”

Her companion nodded, shrugged one broad shoulder. “You kinda learn how to do some of these things when you’re avoiding police reports.”

“I see,” the young blonde grinned slightly at her companion’s self-deprecating manner.

“She’s good,” a voice came from the hall entrance and both faces turned toward George. The man offered a gentle grin. “She’s stitched me up a couple of times. No pain, no scars.”

Lacey offered George a grateful smile before turning back to her patient. “Whaddya think? Trust me?”

“Yeah,” Rachel nodded without hesitation.

“Let’s go upstairs,” she tugged on her friend’s arm and led her towards the other opening in the kitchen that led through the dining room to the spiral staircase. “George,” she turned back. “Send Bernard out for Chinese.”

She was answered with a toothy grin. “Can do, Boss.”

XXXXX

Rachel sat silently on the toilet lid, holding the ice to her face even though the towel was getting soggy. She watched Lacey work with slight trepidation. The darker woman rummaged through drawers and laid out needles, gauze, surgical thread, small scissors, and forceps. Then she went into the bedroom closet and came back with a small syringe.

Green eyes widened.

“Local, that’s all,” Lacey assured her gently.

“I’m bad at this,” Rachel whispered nervously.

Her companion smiled reassuringly. “I’m good at this. Don’t worry. Just a little prick …” Rachel felt the poke but had the good sense to sit still. “And another one. Good, now we wait for a minute.”

Lacey took the opportunity to examine her partner’s face more closely. She pulled away the ice pack and set it in the sink, then held Rachel’s chin and tilted her head gently. “He got you pretty good.”

“I got him, too,” the blonde grinned slightly, causing the other woman to laugh.

“Yeah, you did.”

But then Rachel grimaced a little. “I kneed him in the groin. I hope he’s okay.”

“He deserved it.”

“He was trying to protect you, Lace,” Rachel said softly, defending the large man’s loyalty.

“Yeah, well, Bernard’s been with me long enough to know I can protect myself,” the dark woman shook her head. “Ready?”

“I guess.”

Long tan fingers tapped the skin surrounding the wound. “Feel that?” The blonde shook her head. “Here we go.”

Rachel sat tall and still under the ministrations of large gentle hands, her own hands clutching nervously to her partner’s shirt front. Lacey whispered to her occasionally, smiling with encouragement, her eyes flashing from worried green to the cut she stitched. Rachel could feel the tug of needle and sutures but not any pain so she was able to relax after several long minutes.

Finally, Lacey snipped the thread with small scissors and patted her friend on the knee. “All done.”

“How many?”

“Four. But they’re teeny. I don’t think it’ll scar.”

“You’re amazing,” the blonde grinned.

Lacey returned it. “Spread that rumor. Let’s get you some more ice. I’ll put it in a bag this time.”

Rachel followed the tall woman through the bedroom but tugged at the tail of her button shirt before they entered the hallway. “Lace?”

“Yeah?” she turned around, raven hair flying briefly before settling on shoulders again.

“Why are they here? Should I go?”

Lacey wrinkled her brow in thought, pursed her lips and evaded her partner’s gaze for a few moments. “We’re waiting for a call. S’posed to work tonight. Sometimes it’s easier if we’re all in one place, sometimes we stay here instead of Vinnie’s.”

“What are you supposed to do tonight?”

A slightly amused look was her only response.

“Can’t say?”

“No.”

“I should go, then. If you’re going to get called away,” Rachel decided reluctantly, wanting to stay right where she was.

Lacey shook her head slowly. “How ’bout we have some dinner and if the boys and I get called away, you wait here for me?”

The young blonde switched her weight nervously from foot to foot, studying the features in front of her. She found that she was slowly learning to read the stoic face and guarded eyes. Lacey wanted her here as much as she wanted to be here. The dark woman was disappointed that she had to work. “What if you don’t come back tonight? What if you have to leave again?” Rachel whispered at last.

Lacey considered the questions, knew them to be realistic. She hoped tonight’s meeting would go well, had no reason to think it wouldn’t. “I’ll do my best to come home. If I can’t, I’ll call here and you can pick it up if you hear me on the answering machine. Okay?”

Rachel nodded, gave her companion a small smile.

“Good. Settled. C’mon,” the dark woman wrapped her large hand around a small one and led her companion back downstairs to the kitchen.
Chapter 17: Living Nightmares
Much later in the evening, Rachel was slightly tipsy from the wine Lacey had been handing her. The dark-haired woman had reasoned that the alcohol would help numb the pain in her face, which it did. So the young woman didn’t complain.

She played cards with Rico and Bernard, grinning from ear to ear and taking them for all they were worth. Lacey peeked over her shoulder chewing on an egg roll and occasionally reaching out to run tender fingers through blonde tresses. The touches were warm and comforting and it pleased the young woman to no end that Lacey was confident to show affection in front of her companions.

“Unh unh,” Lacey warned softly, tugging at a blonde lock when Rachel went to discard something.

“No?” she turned questioning green eyes to her friend.

“This one … and this one,” the dark-haired woman leaned forward to tap two cards, kissing Rachel on the temple before sitting back up.

“No fair,” Bernard joked, feeling more at ease as the evening wore on. “You can’t help her.”

“George is helping you,” Rachel bantered back.

“George is worthless. Lacey is THE card shark.”

“Hey,” George lightly backhanded his friend. “A little respect.”

“Not likely,” Rico snorted.

Rachel laughed.

Lacey’s cell phone rang and the two women’s eyes met before Rachel glanced to the kitchen clock. It was nearly midnight.

“Yeah. Great.” The dark woman turned her attention to her team. “Let’s go.”

Rachel stood with them and began cleaning up their glasses and plates. She rinsed them in the sink, her back to the group as they prepared. She heard muttered comments about ammunition and pieces. The men had the good grace to leave first.

She felt warm hands on her shoulders, gentle lips at the top of her head. “C’mere,” Lacey turned the small woman around, hugged her close. “Be safe. Stay inside, Karma can use the doggy door. I’ll set the alarm on the way out, if you have to leave I reset the code to your birthday for tonight … day then month.”

Rachel nodded against the familiar leather trench coat.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“Be careful,” the blonde whispered. “I want to be with you for a long time to come.”

Lacey chuckled, Rachel felt it bubble through the tall woman’s body. “Me too. I love you,” she bent forward to capture the blonde’s lips, careful to not hurt her further. But she wasn’t satisfied with one kiss so she did it again.

“Love you, too.”

They didn’t say good bye as they disentangled and stepped away.

Rachel decided it was going to be a long night as she heard the tell-tale beeping of the alarm being set and then the front door closing.

XXXXX

Lacey stepped quietly into the front hall and disengaged the alarm quickly. Karma trotted through the darkness to greet her.

“No,” Lacey whispered, waving the dog away. But Karma had already stopped several yards away, smelling the unfamiliar scent of blood and tissue. She sneezed, backed a few steps. “I know, girl,” Lacey agreed wearily. She’d been gone almost six hours and had returned covered in blood.

She walked quietly to the downstairs bathroom, disappointed to find that there wasn’t a bath towel there. She kicked off her shoes on the hard wood floor and shrugged off her coat before crossing to the stairs and going upstairs to the linen closet. Every muscle in her body ached.

Rachel heard her. “Lace?” she called quietly from the bedroom.

“Yeah, honey. It’s okay. I need to take a shower.” Please stay where you are, please. I don’t want you to see this.

Of course her silent pleas fell on deaf ears and she immediately saw the young blonde silhouetted by moonlight in the doorway.

“I’ll shower downstairs, Raich. Go back to bed,” Lacey was already retreating with a towel, hoping to make it to the stairway before her partner’s eyes adjusted to the darkened hallway.

“Don’t be silly,” Rachel yawned and stepped into the corridor, extending a hand. “I’m awake, haven’t slept yet.”

“Don’t touch me,” Lacey barked, jumping away from the fingers reaching for her.

They were close enough now that Lacey could see the doubt and confusion on her young friend’s face.

Fuck. “I don’t want you to get dirty. Go ahead, I’ll shower up here.”

Rachel turned on the bedroom light on the way back in and turned around while speaking. “Are you hurt?” But her voice died in her throat when she fully faced the tall woman.

Lacey stood before her covered in blood. She was somewhat clean where she’d worn the trench coat but apparently hadn’t buttoned it because her front was red. Her hair was sticky with blood and tissue fragments. Her ice blue eyes watched Rachel intently, preparing herself for hatred or rejection. Rachel saw the walls building up again.

The young blonde pressed the back of her hand to her mouth, trying to fight off nausea. She swallowed a few times, took a deep breath. “It’s okay, Lace. Is any of it yours? Are you okay?”

“None of it’s mine,” the dark woman confirmed softly. “Are you going to be sick?”

“I hope not,” her partner grinned shyly but still looked a bit green around the edges.

“If you want to go … I’d understand,” Lacey whispered.

“Enough of that, love,” Rachel assured her gently. “I knew. Remember?” Though she had to admit that the knowing and the seeing were two very different things. “Shower.”

Rachel sat silently on the closed toilet lid while her partner showered, relieved that the initial nausea had passed without incident. Then she stood to help Lacey dry off once she stepped out onto the tile. She was glad to find that that there weren’t any marks on the smooth dark body.

“Let me see your face,” Lacey whispered, tilting the blonde’s face upward. “How does it feel?”

“Bad.”

“Looks better. Did you keep ice on it?”

The blonde head bobbed in agreement.

Lacey pulled on a sleeping shirt and went into the other room to crawl into bed. Rachel was right behind her. They snuggled silently for several long minutes and Rachel could feel the tension coiled in the strong body beside her.

“Can I ask what happened, Lacey? Did something happen to the guys?”

The dark-haired woman was quiet for so long that Rachel decided her question was going to go unanswered.

Finally, she cleared her throat and the dark husky voice rumbled forward. “Things are going down with the business. Some of our contacts have been picked up … some of the traffickers have disappeared altogether or have been killed. Everyone’s on edge. The other team was no exception. They were high strung and young, made Rico high strung. We were there for hours, arguing things that shouldn’t have needed arguing. Everything was settled before hand, they were getting jumpy. One of them pulled a gun on
us … he was just stupid, I don’t think he would have done anything. We were still talking cost and quality.” She took a deep breath, Rachel feared for the outcome. “Rico pulled his gun, too, and I told him to put it away.” Yelled at him, actually. “Took a step forward to stop him. The other kid was no more than a yard or two away, tracked me with his gun. I heard it cock and I went to put myself between him and Rico. I was a foot from the other kid when Rico pulled the trigger. One shot to the head, the kid was dead.”

Silence. Then, hesitantly, “that was his … uh … on you?”

“Yeah. Rico panicked. It was all we could do to keep the other guys from opening fire,” she sighed deeply, held her lover closer. “Finish the deal. Calm Rico down. His first kill.”

“He thought the other kid was going to kill you.”

“He may have.”

“Rico’s a good kid.”

“I need out,” she whispered hoarsely, tears on her cheeks.

“You will be,” the blonde reassured her, scooting up her partner’s body to wrap arms around dark head and shoulders. She rocked her and comforted her, could find no words to express her depth of feeling.

It could have been hours or minutes that they lay together like that, Rachel’s small body curled around the other woman. She was surprised at her own strength. She really was sickened by what she’d seen and heard but was able to push it aside in Lacey’s moment of need.

Their long moments of silence were interrupted when the alarm clock on the night stand nearby started beeping. Rachel groaned, reached over to slap it off.

“What for?” Lacey asked huskily, her throat raw from crying.

“I have to go to work.” And I haven’t slept a wink. And she needs me to stay.

“Can you call in sick?” the quiet voice requested.

“Lace, I can’t, love,” she responded with regret. I need the money … I can’t miss a day this paycheck and still pay bills.

“Please?”

Her heart broke. A woman who could very likely conquer the world if she set her mind to it, was asking for her. Nothing more, just her presence and her companionship. “Okay.”

The large frame relaxed visibly in response.

Rachel disentangled herself long enough to get a glass of water for her friend and call the stable. Lacey listened quietly to this end of the conversation while she sipped cool water into a parched throat.

“I know I did. I know … can’t be helped … no shape to do any good for the horses. Bye.”

She snuggled back under the comforter.

“What is it?” Lacey asked softly, leaning over her companion, brushing blonde bangs back.

“Nothing. I just asked for extra work this paycheck and he reminded me that I’d asked.”

“Why?”

Rachel shrugged, met sapphire eyes in the growing dawn. “Bills. My daughter’s coming to stay with me for her Spring break next week. Ya know … things.”

“Can I help?”

“Nah,” Rachel brushed it off, even though her mind was already spinning with which bill could be put off or which meals she could go without. “It’ll be okay. I’d rather be here with you.”

White teeth flashed in a grin. “Thank you.”

The grin was contagious. “No problem. Let’s get some sleep.”
Chapter 18: Meeting the Family
Lacey had to shout to be heard over the road noise as the Jeep Wrangler flew down the highway.

“How much longer?”

“You’re worse than a kid,” Rachel smiled her response. “Maybe another twenty minutes is all.”

It was closer to thirty, though, when they pulled to a stop in front of a suburban Rochester home and Rachel killed the ignition. She glanced back at Karma who stood expectantly on the rear seat, full tail waving gently back and forth.

“Are you nervous?” Lacey asked when she noticed her partner’s hesitation.

“A little, yeah,” the young blonde admitted, studying the manicured lawn and the well kept home.

“Does she know … about you and me?”

Rachel nodded. “I told her on the phone. She really is looking forward to meeting you. She and I talked about my lifestyle and preferences awhile ago.”

Well that’s good, anyway, the dark woman thought. “Why are you nervous?”

Rachel flashed white teeth in a gentle grin, shrugged one shoulder. “She’s my family. I want her to like you. I haven’t seen her in almost two months, too, because of extra duty at the barn.”

“Well, let’s go,” Lacey said, reaching back to grab Karma’s leash and then opening her door and hopping out. Within moments, Rachel was at her side and they were making their way up the sidewalk to the front step.

The door opened before they’d come within fifteen feet of it and a small blonde-haired, blue eyed missile flew out the opening and into Rachel’s arms.

“Mama!”

“Hey, baby,” Rachel murmured, wrapping the girl in an embrace. “I missed you!”

Lacey was better able to observe the youngster when she stepped away from her mother. She came up to Rachel’s elbows and wore a black T-shirt which, in X Files eerie green, encouraged people to trust no one. Her cotton pants were the same eerie color of green and her tennis shoes were black and ratty. Her hair was thin and about shoulder length, held away from her face by a braided leather head band. And her blue eyes absolutely sparkled with her glee.

“Missed you too! Can we go to the zoo? Are there babies at the farm I can see? What happened to your cheek?” the girl launched into animated banter, backing away to hold her mother’s hand in both of hers while bouncing up and down.

“Just a cut .. an accident,” Rachel said about the stitches, meeting Lacey’s blue gaze. “We can talk about what you want to do when we’re on the road. I want you to meet someone, Molly.” Rachel turned her attention to her partner and extended her free hand to draw the dark woman closer. “This is Lacey. Lacey, this is Molly.”

The girl offered her hand in a grown up shake while she beamed from ear to ear. “You sure are pretty,” then aside to Rachel, “You were right, Mama. Her eyes are just like the sky.”

Rachel blushed, Lacey offered a slight smirk. Then Molly turned her attention to Karma who was dancing on the end of her leash, waiting for her turn at greetings.

“Can I take her?” Molly asked, reaching to take the leash from Lacey’s hand. It was relinquished readily.

“Molly, let me go say hello to Aunt Helen and then we’ll go. Are you all packed? It’s not even March, where’s your jacket young lady?”

“Yeah, it’s by the door with my stuff,” she rolled expressive eyes, looking to the dark-haired woman for support. “Lacey and I can put it in the Jeep? Is that okay?”

“Sounds great,” Lacey agreed, nodding encouragingly to her partner who went ahead into the house.

“Can I call you Lacey? Or should I call you something else?” Molly asked awkwardly, shifting her slight weight from foot to foot.

“Lacey’s fine, kiddo. Let’s get your stuff loaded up, huh? And what say you put on your jacket?”

The child offered the older woman a full toothed grin as she jogged with Karma into the house.

In the end, Rachel shouldn’t have been worried. Her tall dark partner lightened visibly in the presence of the child and they got along famously from the very first moment. In fact, Rachel experienced mild pangs of jealousy throughout the day as she’d never had to share Lacey or Molly before. But they passed with some gentle reminders to herself and she found herself enjoying the day immensely.

The three snuggled down together in Lacey’s bed late that night after a full day of going to the zoo, seeing the new foals at Briargate, and dinner at a loud Peter Piper Pizza. Now they watched a movie and tried to wind down the young girl who was still chattering aimlessly.

She held the dark woman’s hand between her own, tracing the lines and fingers absently while she mused about school and Aunt Helen and the other two children who lived with her.

“Aren’t you going to watch the movie at all?” Lacey asked in her husky voice. “You picked it out.” Lord knows George of the Jungle was not my first choice.

“I’ve seen it before,” she piped up.

Lacey glanced to Rachel who sat quietly on the other side of Molly and cast her a funny look as if to say why are we watching this crap then?

Rachel laughed. “C’mon, honey. Let me take you to your bed and settle you in. It’s late.”

The child groaned her protests but followed her mother to the door willingly enough before stopping in the threshold of the room. Then she turned around abruptly to look at Lacey again. The dark woman rested comfortably on top of the covers, dressed in sweats and a T-shirt. Molly glanced briefly to her mother, “can I say goodnight to Lacey, Mama?”

Rachel grinned, smoothed her daughter’s mussed up blonde hair. “Of course, Molly. Go ahead.”

For the first time that day, the young girl was shy as she moved back across the room to crawl on top of her mother’s lover. She hugged her tightly around the neck and Lacey returned the embrace easily.

“Sleep well, squirt,” Lacey whispered. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“G’night, Lacey. I love you.”

“Love you too,” Lacey grinned, looking over the small shoulder to meet her partner’s emerald eyes. “Go on to bed,” with a final squeeze she disentangled and sent the young girl on her way.

XXXXX

Lacey had dozed off when she felt the covers tugged from beneath her. She blinked sleepily and met shining green eyes.

“Hey, sleepy. Move over and let me in,” Rachel’s soft voice teased.

The dark woman lifted her hips then rolled onto her side to let her partner pull the covers down. Then she tucked her feet under them.

“Unh unh, crony. A little less clothes, please. At least ditch the sweats, you’ll get hot,” the blonde admonished as she stripped to T-shirt and underwear herself, expertly unhooking her bra and sliding it out one sleeve. All went unnoticed by her bleary eyed partner who pulled off the sweats and then settled back into the pillows, opening her arms to invite her lover.

Rachel silently took the invitation and pulled the covers up over them both.

“I’m tired,” Lacey murmured, placing a gentle kiss to the other woman’s temple. “Little tike wore me out.”

The young blonde laughed. “You didn’t have to keep picking her up to show her things. It was a ploy.”

“I know,” Lacey agreed, snuggling closer to her partner. “She’s wonderful, Raich.” She could feel the excitement thrumming through the young woman she held. “You’re not gonna let me sleep, are you?” she opened one wary blue eye to peer out.

“You can sleep, I’m sorry. I’m so excited, Lace,” she clutched the arm holding her. “I’ve never been happier in my whole life. The two of you with me …”

“Pretty spectacular, huh?”

She nodded eager agreement.

Lacey grinned at her young friend’s happiness. “We have a week with her, Raich. You better get some sleep sometime.”

“Yeah, I know. I love you. So much,” she emphasized the statement with gentle kisses to the other woman’s neck. Kisses which slowly became more arousing as they traveled across the dark woman’s collarbone, then up to her earlobe.

“Rachel,” her dark-haired lover growled softly, even as she found herself responding. Suddenly she wasn’t as sleepy as she thought when the arousal traveled from the flesh the young woman touched, straight to her groin.

“Hmm?” the blonde responded innocently, trailing her fingertips under the other woman’s T-shirt and up well defined abs.

Lacey gave up and flipped her lover over, straddling her hips, meeting her emerald eyes with icy blue desire. “You win,” she whispered huskily, taking the lips below her and dueling with an eager tongue.

The younger woman responded with a throaty chuckle. “You have no will power, crony.”

“Not when it comes to you, gorgeous,” Lacey agreed readily, peeling the remainder of both of their clothes away to allow skin to entice skin. The friction was deliciously erotic and both women were lost in the sensations of touches, kisses, and whispered words.

XXXXX

It was a good thing they’d had the foresight to pull clothing back on after their lovemaking. Because bright and early, Molly came bouncing into the room and did a cannonball rendition in the middle of the large bed. Karma wasn’t far behind.

Lacey found herself reaching for her night stand drawer at the rude awakening but her fingers were gently caught in her young lover’s grasp. Their eyes met briefly and Rachel easily read the dark woman’s self disgust. The action had been pure instinct since Lacey had removed any weapons from easy grasp and locked them away before the young girl came into the house.

“S’okay, love,” she whispered sleepily. “Old habits are hard to break.” She kissed Lacey’s cheek gently while squeezing the hand she still held.

“Yuck!” Molly announced loudly upon seeing the display of affection. “Do that on your own time,” she stuck her own tongue out and shook her head as if having a chill.

Lacey laughed. “You’ll understand some day. You’ll meet some cute boy-”

“Boys are not cute,” the child said with obvious disdain.

“Girls then?” her mother teased.

“Kissing is gross!” Molly argued. “I don’t care who it is.”

“Oh yeah?” Lacey growled, crawling out from under the covers to sneak up on the little girl. “So then we shouldn’t kiss you?” With that she tackled the squealing child and proceeded to rain kisses all over her face.

“Aaagh! Mama! Help me!!”

Rachel grinned and made as if to come to her daughter’s rescue but only ended up tickling her ribs while her dark companion held the girl still.

“No fair! No fair, Mama,” Molly screamed though the words were barely intelligible through her gurgling laughter and Karma’s excited howling.

After another minute of torture, both women backed away and watched the girl as she moaned and giggled and tried to catch her breath.

“‘Mornin’ kiddo,” Lacey smirked.

“‘Mornin’,” Molly responded weakly.

When everything had calmed down, Karma gave up on the excitement and made a bee-line to the door and down the stairs. The rest of the house’s occupants followed shortly afterwards.

After realizing how long it might take, Lacey left her lover and Molly to make decisions on breakfast while she went into the office and checked up on business. She had an appointment this afternoon and a meeting in the evening with her team but otherwise, everything seemed under control. When she came back downstairs after nearly an hour of phone calls and email, she found Rachel and Molly working easily together, chatting softly.

“So,” Lacey announced her presence from the doorway. “What are we having?”

“Waffles,” Molly said proudly, seated on the counter in her long nightgown, stirring a huge bowl in her lap.

“Great. What can I do?”

“Do you have any juice or anything?” Rachel asked from the center island where she was slicing sausage patties off of a large roll.

“Hmmm,” Lacey pondered a moment, raising slim dark eyebrows to mingle with her bangs. “Maybe. I’ll go check the garage freezer.”

Later, they all sat around the kitchen table. “These are good, Molly,” Lacey complimented. “You did an excellent job, squirt.”

“Mama helped,” the child admitted but blushed from the kind words.

Lacey reached out a gentle hand and rubbed her partner’s arm. “Your mom’s a good cook.”

Molly nodded. “What are we going to do today?”

“Well,” Rachel said, wiping her mouth of syrupy remnants with her paper napkin. “I thought maybe the museum this morning while we’re all together. And then just you and I get to spend some time together this afternoon. Maybe a movie?”

“Where’s Lacey going?” the youngster asked, reluctant to give up the camaraderie of this instant family.

“I have to work this afternoon,” Lacey said softly.

“Really? Do you ride horses like my mom?”

“No, honey,” Rachel intercepted, not sure what the dark woman would say. “Lacey is kind of a business consultant. She handles merchandise purchasing for her boss.” She got a raised eyebrow and a barely perceptible nod for her explanation.

“Sounds boring,” Molly grumbled as she took her dishes to the sink and ran water over them.

“Oh yeah?” Lacey challenged, following the child. “What do you want to do when you grow up?”

“Well,” the little girl scrubbed her dish absently. “When I was younger, I wanted to be a cat when I grew up.”

Lacey turned around to cast her lover a raised eyebrow and a smirk. Rachel merely shrugged her shoulders.

“But I think maybe I want to be a teacher. Or a doctor. Or a veterinarian.”

“Those are good goals, squirt,” Lacey said softly, rubbing the child’s shoulders with a gentle hand. “You’ve got a good heart.”

She turned her head to the side to grin at the woman and it made Lacey’s heart catch in her throat. She truly was beautiful. She was young and innocent, pure. She had her mother’s features and ideals and the dark woman found herself, much to her own amazement, loving this little girl. She placed a kiss on the small forehead before moving to the sink and rinsing her own dishes, turning her back on the other occupants.

Rachel noticed the change in her partner’s demeanor. “Hey, Molly, baby. Can you go upstairs and pick out some clothes for today? Once we finish cleaning up in here, we’ll change and head out. All right?”

“Okay, Mama,” the girl agreed readily, giving the dark woman next to her a quick hug before skipping to her mother for a hug as well. Then she spun around and ran out the doorway and into the dining room towards the spiral stairs beyond.

“Hey, love,” Rachel whispered as she moved up with the rest of the dishes. “You okay, hon?”

She nodded and turned deep blue eyes to her young friend. She knew they were slightly moist. “I’m okay,” she quirked a smile.

“You sure? If this is too much for you, we can go back to my apartment. I know it must be hard with all of us here.”

“No,” Lacey placed sudsy hands on either side of the young blonde’s face. “It’s hard in a good way. There’s so much …” she paused, searching for a word, ” … hope in this house now. So much life. It’s hard for me to know that I do what I do and look in her face.”

Rachel nodded her understanding.

“I love her. Isn’t that funny? Two months ago I didn’t love anyone. I did my job and that was it. And then you wheedled your way into my heart,” the dark woman grinned gently to take away any sting that may have accompanied her words. “And now your little girl. My heart is so full … I’m afraid it might burst. I’m not used to this feeling.”

“I’ll hold it together,” her lover promised solemnly. “And don’t be afraid to tell me you need space, Lace. I know how overbearing I can be. And I just kinda moved in here for the weekend with my dog and my kid.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way, love.”

“But still. You tell me, okay?”

Lacey nodded her agreement before leaning forward to place a kiss on the slim coral lips in front of her. “You too.”

Rachel grinned. “Deal. Go on and get ready, I’ll finish up here.”

The dark woman agreed and turned over the task, wiping her hands quickly on a dish towel. She stopped in the doorway to turn and watch her young partner’s back. She observed her silently for several long moments. “I love you, Rachel.”

Rachel glanced over her shoulder, obviously surprised at the dark woman’s displayed emotions in both her words and her looks this morning. “I love you, too, Lace. Go on …” she tilted her head towards the door. Lacey turned and disappeared.
Chapter 19: Sneak Attack
By the middle of the week, an easy arrangement had been made. Rachel and Molly would go to Briargate in the morning where Molly amused herself for an hour or two until Lacey came by. The dark woman would take the little girl for some entertainment and lunch then come back in the middle of the afternoon to watch Rachel ride. Usually, they stayed until Rachel was finished for the day and they’d all go have dinner together.

Lacey and Molly were making their way through the training barn to the track beyond where they knew they’d find the young blonde rider when Molly suddenly grabbed the dark woman’s hand. “Oh yeah! Mama told me this morning to tell you something and I forgot.”

“What was that, squirt?” Lacey inquired, squeezing the little hand she now held in hers.

“She said something like she saw some guy named Benny … said he was watching us … something like that.”

The dark woman stopped cold in her tracks. “Are you sure that’s what she said? That Benny was watching you two?” She’d considered and dismissed the burly kid as a player but if he was still around, and watching Rachel, maybe he was.

“Yeah. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t see him.” She shrugged her slim shoulders absently and began to swing their grasped hands, tugging the woman forward.

“Did she seem worried or afraid?”

The small blonde head cocked slightly, so much like her mother. “Maybe a little. But not a lot. Kinda surprised when she saw him. Told me not to go near him. She said he’s not a very nice man.”

“No, he’s not, Molly. Stay away from him.”

“Gosh,” she rolled pale eyes. “I will. Having two mothers is a lot of work.”

Lacey grinned slightly at her murmured words even though her insides were in turmoil.

When they approached the track railing, the dark woman took more care to look around at everyone. She didn’t see the stumpy Benny anywhere.

Rachel was on a grey filly, milling around with a group of riders when she saw her partner and daughter. She excused herself and trotted over.

“You saw him, Raich?” were the first words out of the tall woman’s mouth.

“Yeah. Hey, Molly. How was your day?” the blonde said, trying to keep the mood light.

“Good, Mama. We went to the mall and walked around for awhile.”

“Lacey? At a mall?” Rachel teased, meeting her partner’s worried blue gaze. “Woulda liked to have seen that!”

“What’s he doing watching you?”

“Lace, I don’t know. As far as I know, he still works here. He just gave me the creeps, that’s all. Can we talk about this later?” Rachel pointedly glanced at her daughter.

“We need to find out what he’s up to,” the dark woman responded immediately. She couldn’t believe she’d left Rachel alone all day when there was potential danger.

“I know, love. We will,” she glanced over her shoulder. “I gotta get back. See you two in a bit.”

A few minutes later the barn trainer walked up to them, nodding to the dark woman who was becoming familiar and grinning to Molly. “Spectators!” he said cheerfully.

“Hi, Ray,” Molly’s response was equally cheerful.

“You wanna come in here and watch? We can walk over to the infield, the view’s better,” he offered, extending his hand to the young girl.

She glanced to the woman at her side first, then accepted the hand when the dark head nodded approval. They walked in front of the small starting gate while the horses were still dancing behind it and loading into stalls and ducked under the white pipe rail on the far side.

“Your mom’s gonna come out of gate three. See her there now, that little grey filly?”

“Yeah,” the child nodded eagerly. “Is that Smoke?”

“Good eye,” he said approvingly. “Yes it is.”

The little blonde beamed with pride and Lacey cast her a fond smirk.

“She’s gonna bring her on the rail. Smoke’s a front runner but shies from the rail. So the other horses are gonna push her that direction while your mom holds her at their pace. Teach her to run straight between a horse and the rail. She likes to bump the horse on her side.”

Molly sucked up the information, nodding.

With a loud clang the horses surged from the gate not twenty feet in front of the small group watching. Lacey saw her partner gently guide her filly from the outside to the rail and then steady her surging with expert hands. Another horse slid next to her and they rode side by side. As they pulled away and the spectators leaned over the rail for a better view, Lacey saw what Ray had meant. The filly pulled to the right, bumping her running partner on nearly every stride.

“She’s a stubborn little filly,” the trainer muttered, realizing he’d have to use more drastic measures if she wasn’t going to respond to a firm hand. “She’ll get disqualified before the first turn in any race.”

They were still watching the horses as they came around the bend and were completely unprepared for the mishap. Something popped, a loud capgun sound, and white billows blew up right at the turn. Smoke freaked out, her partial blinders not protecting her from the commotion, and slammed hard into the horse at her side. He broke stride, got angry, and half kicked the young filly.

Smoke turned sharply in response, finding herself right in front of the rail she so hated and in poor position for evasion. Too close to jump but not able to turn, she raised herself up on two legs, hitting her lower chest into the pipe and having enough forward motion to flip herself over the rail, throwing Rachel hard to the ground. Then the filly was on the ground, too, rolling to gain her feet, squealing in fear and dismay. Amazingly, Smoke was able to avoid her rider in her struggles and was back on her feet galloping across the turf.

The whole mess had taken less than three seconds.

“Mama!”

Lacey heard the blood curdling scream at her side even as she was stretching long legs and running to her partner. She slowed down long enough to scoop up the girl and hold her. As she was situating the child so her blue eyes peered over the dark woman’s shoulder, away from her prone mother, Lacey caught motion out of the corner of her eye.

It was Benny, his lumbering form running towards the barn. She was torn for only a second before she resumed her path to the fallen rider.

Rachel wasn’t moving when they got there. One of the other riders had already run to call an ambulance and Ray knelt over the prone woman’s body.

“Rachel?” he said loudly. “Rachel? Wake up!” He glanced worried caramel eyes to the tall woman at his side.

“Here,” she said abruptly, handing him the screaming child in her arms. He took her willingly and pressed her head against his shoulder, whispering into her ear. The freedom enabled Lacey to kneel down beside her lover.

Rachel looked like she was just sleeping peacefully. Her arms and legs were arranged neatly at her side, indicating that she hadn’t broken or twisted a limb. But when Lacey put a hand on the blonde woman’s chest, she wasn’t breathing.

“Oh, God,” she murmured. “Raich, honey?”

Green eyes blinked open suddenly and Lacey saw in them panic and fear. The blonde started gasping for air.

“Easy, easy,” the dark woman soothed. “Wind knocked outta you, baby.”

Finally, she took a deep painful breath, then coughed it back out before breathing shallowly. Groaning, she tried to move.

“Don’t move, Raich,” Lacey whispered as she began to run warm hands up and down the blonde woman’s extremities. “Does anything hurt?” She unclasped the riding helmet and tugged it gently away, tossing it aside.

“Chest,” she muttered.

“Anything else? Back, neck?”

“No … don’t think so. Head … yeah, head.” She began testing movements slowly, pleased to find that nothing appeared broken. “Just sore. Holy shit,” she groaned. “D’ya get the license plate? Jesus Christ.”

“Mama?”

It wasn’t until that moment that both women realized they’d been hearing quiet crying and sniffling all along. Lacey turned up and nodded to Ray who let the girl go. She ran over to them but the dark woman grabbed her before she was able to throw herself on her mother.

“Easy, Molly,” Lacey soothed, sitting down and pulling the girl into her lap.

“Give me a minute, baby,” the blonde woman whispered, still coughing. “I’ll be okay.”

“Smoke tried to jump .. thought she landed on you … oh Mama,” the girl whimpered incoherently.

“S’okay, squirt,” Lacey murmured, holding the small girl tightly and rocking her back and forth. “Your mama’s gonna be okay. We just need to let the doctors look at her.”

Rachel glanced to her partner, ready to argue that she really just needed a minute to catch her breath, when she noticed the steely gaze. Maybe a doctor wasn’t such a bad idea. “What happened? I didn’t see.”

Lacey glanced down the rail to where several riders were milling about an awkward contraption. “Don’t touch it!” she warned. “I want to look at that.” They all backed away. “Something on the rail spooked her,” the dark woman said when she turned back to her partner.

“You know what?” emerald eyes met hers questioningly.

The dark-haired woman nodded but her expression begged the other woman to drop it. She agreed easily enough since she was pretty miserable and wasn’t sure she wanted a lengthy conversation anyway.

When the girl had been reasonably calmed, Lacey was able to scoot closer and smooth her lover’s bangs back. Molly held her mother’s hand. Before too long, they heard the wail of a siren and then watched the van’s progress through the large gates at the end of the track and across the well turned dirt.

The paramedics hopped out and ducked under the rail, elbowing away the dark woman and her cargo. Soon they had the blonde rider loaded up on a stretcher and were moving her towards the van. “Lacey?” she called weakly.

Lacey moved to her side, glaring at the paramedic who tried to discourage her. “I’ll bring Molly,” Lacey said, wanting to get a look at the contraption on the rail and also thinking the ambulance ride may be too much for the young girl. “I’ll call Bernie and George and have them go to the hospital. All right?”

Rachel nodded mutely.

“What hospital?” the dark woman directed her question to the nearest orange suited person.

“Memorial.”

“Okay,” she looked back to Rachel. “It’s okay. We’ll be right there.” She kissed her gently on the forehead, Molly did the same.
“I love you.”

“You too,” she whispered. “Stay with Lacey, baby,” she looked to the young girl who nodded meekly.

Then she was loaded up and rolling away.

It seemed as if the little girl’s legs couldn’t hold her as she stumbled behind the tall woman. Lacey noticed and picked her up, feeling scrawny legs wrap around her midsection and arms tighten about her neck.

With her awkward bundle she examined the odd contraption attached to the rail. It wasn’t any bigger than a soda can and looked like a modified firecracker with wiring for remote detonation. She tilted her head in silent scrutiny, before juggling the child in her arms and withdrawing the cell phone from her pocket.

“Bernie,” she said without introduction. “Get to Memorial. An ambulance just took Rachel there. I need you and George to keep an eye on her. And send Rico out to Briargate with someone on the tech side … Tony maybe. Get him here fast so I can go see Rachel.”

“Sure thing, boss,” he hung up without saying goodbye.

“Now we wait a little bit, squirt,” Lacey murmured as she sat in the grass near the incendiary, not wanting to give Benny a chance to come back and clean up his mess.

XXXXX

The hospital corridors were starkly white and silent as the woman and child made their way through them hand in hand. They’d apparently entered from the wrong door and had been forced through a maze of hallways before reaching the Emergency Room and the receptionist there.

“Rachel Wilson was brought in by ambulance probably an hour or so ago?” her words were casual enough but her look was intense. The receptionist’s hazel eyes studied the dark-haired woman for just a moment before looking to her records.

“Are you family?”

“This is her daughter,” Lacey indicated the child next to her.

“And you’re her-” Molly looked up quizzically when Lacey squeezed her shoulder and interrupted her.

“Friend. We’d like to see her.”

“She’s been checked in for observation on the third floor. Just go down that hall there and take the elevators up.”

“Thank you,” Lacey gave the effort of a smile before taking Molly’s hand and steering her away.

“Why didn’t you tell her what you really are?” Molly asked softly. “Mama told me to be honest.”

Lacey took a deep breath, curious as to how much water her explanation would really hold. “Sometimes people aren’t very understanding of people like your mother and me. Women who love each other like we do. And sometimes it’s easier to just … kinda gloss over our relationship rather than get in an awkward situation or deal with people’s criticism.”

She wrinkled her small brow. “But Mama and Aunt Helen said it was okay to love someone … anyone. That it’s your heart that decides. Not other people.”

The dark woman grinned, ushering the small girl in as the elevator doors slid open and emptied its cargo. “Well, your mom’s pretty smart. It is okay. It’s just a lot of people are ignorant or prejudiced. Do you know how sometimes people don’t like other people whose skin is a different color?”

She nodded, her finger hovering over the three, pushing it when Lacey nodded.

“Well, it’s kinda like that. Some people don’t look beyond the color of someone’s skin to see the human inside. And some people won’t look past how your mother and I love each other to see the people we are.” She silently cursed the slow moving elevator. She’d never explained her sexuality to anyone, especially not a child.

“But people can’t hide the color of their skin. They have to live with it and how people look at them. You and Mama shouldn’t hide how you really feel.”

“You, squirt, are too smart for your own good,” Lacey teased gently.

The child grinned but then turned thoughtful. “Does it bother you that people know you love my Mama?”

“No, baby,” Lacey said solemnly, kneeling in front of the girl even as the doors slid open. “Your Mama is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I love her with all of my heart. I’ll work harder at making sure people know that, okay?”

The small girl nodded and threw her arms around Lacey’s neck. So the dark woman stood, holding her in a tight embrace and carrying her out of the elevator.

A huge bulky form was beside her in seconds. “Lace!”

“Hey, Bernard. George,” she nodded to the tall black man who moved up as well. They’d apparently been in a nearby waiting area. “Molly, honey, I want you to meet some other guys Rico and I work with. This is Bernard and George. Guys, this is Molly, she’s Rachel’s daughter.”

They hid their surprise well as Lacey shifted the girl so she could see the two men. The young child extended a tentative hand which each man shook readily.

“Molly, why don’t you come with me and help me pick out a candy bar? I just can’t decide,” George said gently, wanting to give his boss and Bernard some privacy.

“Can I?” she turned questioning blue eyes to the dark woman.

“Sure, squirt,” Lacey set the girl on her feet and then fished in her pocket until she presented a dollar bill to the child. “Go ahead. I’ll be right here.”

Then, when man and child ambled away, the dark woman turned her attention to her companion. “Spill it.”

Bernard could read the worry in his boss’s eyes. “S’okay, Lace. She’s okay. She has a concussion and will probably be really sore and stiff. They just wanted to keep her overnight to watch her head injury. No broken bones, nothing permanent.”

The dark woman’s sigh of relief was audible. “Can we see her? Are they allowing visitors?”

“I think we need to talk to the head nurse about the tike. I didn’t know or I woulda buttered her up.”

“You can’t butter toast, Bernie,” the tall woman scoffed. “But thanks for the offer.”

“Yeah, like you’re Miss Land O Lakes yourself, Boss,” but he grinned at the return of her gentle banter. “So what happened, Lace?”

“That little shit Oz had a partner after all, I guess. Kid named Benny tried to take her out. I thought it was over. Stupid.”

“Oz? That guy we killed? He wasn’t working alone?”

“Evidently not,” she growled softly. “I shoulda been paying more attention.”

“We’ll find him, Lace.”

She nodded her dark head, brushing black tendrils back with long fingers. “You bet your ass we will, Bernard. No one touches Rachel or the girl. Got me?”

“My life, Lace,” the bulky man swore and Lacey met his dark eyes briefly. She wondered how such a cold hearted bitch had inspired this kind of loyalty. “Go see her. George and I will work the nurse.”

She pushed the door open slowly, trying to make no sound but not succeeding as the door hinges were apparently older than Hippocrates himself and squealed in protest. The blonde in the bed tilted her head slowly in the direction of the noise. A full fledged grin lit up her weary features.

“Hey, you,” her voice was slightly hoarse from lack of use.

“Hey yourself, gorgeous,” Lacey whispered, her own words thick with emotion. “Ya scared me out there.”

“M’sorry.”

“Nah,” she pulled up a chair, the metal legs grating along linoleum. “Don’t apologize. Just get better,” but she grinned with the gentle order. “How do you feel?”

“I really am okay. I think I could use a good massage come tomorrow, though.”

“I think I can manage that,” the dark woman raised her eyebrows suggestively but her blue eyes shined with only concern and love. “They took out your stitches,” she observed after a quiet moment.

“Yeah,” the blonde grinned gently. “Said it was the best job they’d seen.”

“You lie,” Lacey growled playfully. “Looks okay, though. Shouldn’t scar.”

“That’s what the doc said, too,” her young companion agreed. “I told them I walked into a stall door at the barn.”

The dark woman shrugged her shoulders and nodded. It was as good an explanation as any. Plus it was much better than the truth.

“How’s Molly?” Rachel yawned then reached out a hand towards her companion who took it readily and scooted closer.

“She’s okay. A bit spooked. Wasn’t a pretty sight, love,” Lacey whispered gently, smoothing fine blonde hair with her free hand. “She did find time in her busy schedule to lecture me, though.”

“Hmm? About what?”

The dark woman grinned and told her about the receptionist downstairs and the ensuing elevator conversation.

“I tried to hammer tolerance into her. Helen helped,” the blonde explained, smiling.

“Yeah, I guess so. I just … do you understand?” the tall woman faltered, surprising her partner.

“I do, Lace. I really do. There’s a time and place for every battle. I’ll work on Molly’s subtlety,” she grinned tenderly.

“I meant what I told her, Raich. I love you with all my heart. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Lacey’s ice blue eyes had deepened in color with her gravity.

“I feel the same, Lacey. I knew how you felt that night in your house when you introduced me to the guys as your lover. I’ve never felt so honored before. I’ve done some pretty dumb things and made some pretty big mistakes … but somewhere down the line the fates must have smiled at me because they led you to the track that morning.”

“That was Vinnie. A little known Fate,” the dark woman grinned impishly, the feelings overwhelming her. “I’ll be sure to thank him.”

There was a quiet knock on the door before it squeaked open. Rachel groaned in protest at the offending sound.

“Don’t they have any WD40 around here?” she muttered.

Bernard poked his head in. “You up for another guest, Rachel honey?”

Lacey raised her eyebrows to the young blonde at the gentle term of endearment but she simply shrugged. “I’ve charmed them.”

Dark eyebrows quirked even higher as the tall woman smirked.

“Send ’em in, Bernie,” Rachel requested, ignoring her partner’s teasing look.

Molly tiptoed in slowly, her movements hindered by nerves. Lacey pulled the youngster into her lap. “Hey, squirt. C’mere. See, mom’s okay.”

“Oh, Mama,” the little girl’s words were watery.

“Shh, baby,” Rachel whispered, reaching a hand out to smooth her daughter’s fears by tenderly stroking her hair and face. “Everything’s okay.”

The girl held her arms out towards her mother, needing so badly to be comforted. Lacey glanced to her partner who nodded.

“Okay, here we go,” the dark woman lifted the child up and settled her on the hospital bed at Rachel’s side. Then the little girl wrapped her arms around her mother and snuggled into her neck, crying large messy tears.

Rachel let her cry, murmuring words of love and stroking her back with strong fingers. There was a lot of healing in tears and the blonde woman knew her daughter needed this. It took several minutes before the sobs quieted into gentle hiccups.

“Let me see your face, sweetie,” Rachel crooned softly, placing hands on the girl’s cheeks. Immediately she found tissues held in her direction and she took them gratefully, cleaning up her daughter’s face. “Feel better?”

The girl nodded mutely.

“It was pretty scary, I know, baby. But Smoke didn’t land on me at all. I just fell off of her and knocked the wind out of me. And I kinda hurt my head so they want me to stay here tonight. Everything’s okay.”

“Where will I stay?” she questioned plaintively.

“With me, silly,” Lacey interrupted, running a strong hand up and down the little girl’s back. “You know that. We can keep each other company.”

“Can I sleep with you?” the little girl turned waterlogged blue eyes to this mafia big wig and left her weak in the knees.

“Yeah,” Lacey agreed easily. “I think that would be good.”

“So it’s settled then,” Rachel whispered, placing a kiss on the girl’s forehead. “You go on with Lacey, now, baby. I think they’re about ready to kick the two of you out.”

Molly leaned forward to hug her mother fiercely once more before she allowed herself to be lifted down. Lacey showed her to the door and opened it, pointing down the hall. “Go sit with Bernie just a minute, okay? I need to tell your mom one more thing.” The child left willingly enough with one last glance at her mother.

“What’s up?” Rachel asked when the door was closed.

Lacey resumed her seat. “It wasn’t an accident,” she said bluntly. “It was Benny, you were right. I saw him running from the track. He knew Smoke was shy on the rail so he set up something to spook her. I think he was hoping for more than a concussion.”

“Why?” Rachel had trouble believing she’d be significant enough to him for this kind of action.

“I don’t know. Maybe cuz he lost money from Wheatridge? Or maybe to get back at me for Oz. We’ll find out but Bernard and George are staying here tonight to watch you. Rico’s going to come back to the house and be with Molly and me. I just want you to know what’s going on.”

The blonde head nodded solemnly.

“You look sleepy, love. I’m going to go,” she leaned forward for a lingering kiss on responsive lips. “I promise you Molly will be fine.”

“I know,” her lover assured her. “Sleep well.”

“You too, Raich,” and with a few lingering touches and words, the dark woman was on her way.
Chapter 20: Midnight Confessions
“My Mama was in jail for awhile,” the child’s soft voice, though it was quiet and plaintive, pierced the room’s darkness. Her little blonde head was snuggled up against Lacey’s shoulder in much the same way her mother slept.

“I know,” she told the little girl, glancing first to the bedside clock, which showed a ridiculous hour, and then to the moonlit window. Karma shifted in her position at the end of the bed, stretching against Lacey’s long legs.

“She’s not a bad person, though. Aunt Helen said she helped the police and saved some people’s lives.”

“That’s true,” the dark woman agreed, realizing the cathartic nature of this discussion for the little girl. “She made some mistakes, some bad decisions. But in the end she did what was right.”

“She got shot in the belly. She can’t have any more babies.”

That was something Lacey hadn’t known. It somewhat explained her closeness to Molly and her aching desire to take her child back and live as mother and daughter. After all, she had been in prison nearly four years, separated from her daughter another two years in addition to that. She hadn’t been a hands-on mother to Molly for more than half of the young girl’s life. “Your mama loves you very much,” Lacey whispered softly.

The girl nodded, shifted her weight slightly. “I want to come stay with her for good. Would that be fun? Would you visit us?”

“All the time, squirt,” the dark-haired woman promised softly. “What about Aunt Helen?”

“I love her but she’s not my mom, you know? I want my for real mom who helps me with homework and talks to me about school.”

“Have you told your mom what you want?” Lacey asked, wondering if Rachel knew they all yearned for the same thing.

“Yeah and Aunt Helen. Mama said that they still need to work out some issues with her history. Said she’d made a promise to Aunt Helen and she had to keep it first, then we would be together.”

The dark woman would have to remember to ask Rachel about this later. “That’ll be a good day.”

“Yeah,” the child agreed wistfully , finally seeming to be relaxed enough for sleep. Moments later her breathing evened in slumber.

Lacey watched the moonlight through the window and thought of Rico who was sleeping downstairs on the sofa. He’d been parked outside when they got home. He’d had the foresight to stop at Rachel’s apartment to get items for Molly as well as retrieving Karma and bringing her to the house. Lacey was quietly impressed with how quickly the gawky kid was catching on to things even as she cursed herself for turning him into a criminal..

The prints on the incendiary had matched Benny’s but that wasn’t much help unless they chose to pursue this legally. Which wasn’t an option at this point. Lacey and Rico had easily convinced the barn manager to not take this to the police by reminding him who owned the barn. There were too many more difficult questions to answer about poisoned horses and beaten-out confessions.

The smoking contraption itself was a clever little device that was apparently homemade. This worried the dark woman to no end because while she hadn’t been worried about Oz who beat just a hair above stupid, Benny may prove to be more clever. She didn’t like having to deal with the unknown.

It was barely an hour before dawn when ice blue eyes finally fluttered closed and fell into sleep.
Chapter 21: Casualties
Lacey had been up long enough to have a cup of coffee and shove Molly towards the shower when the phone rang. The caller id showed it to be Briargate. She answered the phone and the barn manager announced himself.

“What is it?”

“Something happened last night. Coupla horses were killed.”

“What?!” the dark woman shouted, Rico was next to her in seconds but she shook her head and pushed him away gently.

“Shot. Night watch didn’t hear anything but I guess they could have used silencers.”

“Yeah,” Lacey agreed. “Which horses?” She already knew the answer.

“The poisoned ones. All of ’em.”

“Sunny?”

“Yeah.”

Lacey groaned, this would be hard on Rachel. “Are they still there?”

“Yeah. Just found ’em about an hour ago. There’s a bunch of stuff we have to do about the vet and insurance paperwork before the bodies can be removed.”

“Thanks for telling me. Keep in touch about the vet.”

“Will do. And Benny’s gone.”

“No shock there,” Lacey muttered, disappointing the other man by her lack of surprise. “He was the one who set up the little device, I’m pretty sure. Keep an eye out for him.”

“Yeah,” he agreed.

She sighed in thought. “Okay. Let me know about the horses and Benny. We’ll come by later today.”

Lacey hung up without saying goodbye, concentrating for several long moments before feeling Rico’s inquisitive stare. “Horses at Briargate were killed last night.”

“Should we send someone out there?”

“Yeah. Do that, Rico. And we have a wild card. Benny Brown. Check out his personnel records in my office. We need to find him. I’m gonna go get ready and then we’ll head for the hospital.”

XXXXX

Rachel was awake and arguing to be released by the time the trio got off the elevator and walked down the hall. They could hear her soft convincing voice easily. Bernard and George hovered outside the open door, looking as tired as she felt.

“Trying your charm again?” Lacey announced her entrance into the room with a gentle tease. Molly bounced in and up onto the hospital bed.

“Hush, crony, you’re not helping,” the bed ridden woman teased back. “Hi, sweetie,” she hugged and kissed Molly.

“As soon as Dr. Evans can come up and check on you, we’ll be ready to sign release papers. Nothing overnight suggested we need to keep you longer,” the nurse promised. “I’ll let you visit and I’ll bring the doctor in as soon as he’s here.”

“Thank you,” Rachel smiled sweetly and the nurse retreated from the room as Bernard and George came in. Rachel turned to Lacey, held out a hand, “C’mere tall, dark, and trouble.”

The dark woman grinned and took the offered hand, then leaned over and kissed her soundly. They both ignored the “yuck” coming from the foot of the bed.

“You look good,” Lacey said softly, smoothing back blonde hair.

“Feel better. Let’s get out of here.”

“We will,” she pulled the chair up and took a seat. “Molly, can you go outside with the guys for a little bit?”

She hopped down from the bed willingly and took the hand Bernard held out to her. “Are you gonna smooch some more?”

“Maybe,” Rachel grinned. “Skedaddle, kiddo.”

Lacey met her partner’s moss green eyes with her own blue ones for several long seconds, formulating the words in her mind.

“Bad news,” Rachel guessed easily.

“The horses that were poisoned … were killed last night,” subtlety had never been the dark woman’s strong suit.

The young blonde’s eyes grew wide. “All of them?” she whispered.

“Yeah. Sunny, too,” Lacey said gently, trying to soften the blow with eyes and voice.

“How?” she choked, tears in her eyes.

“Gunshot. I want the guys to take Molly home and you and I go to the barn. Can you handle that?”

“Are the bodies still there?”

“Yeah.”

Rachel considered for only a moment before she nodded. “I can do it. I want to see him.”

“I thought you might. As soon as we spring you, we’ll go.”

XXXXXX

To say Rachel was a little stiff would have been the understatement of the century. She moved very slowly at Lacey’s side once the taller woman had helped her down from the Grand Cherokee.

“Didja take that muscle relaxer?” the dark-haired woman questioned as they made their way tediously from the parking area towards the main training barn.

“Not yet,” the young rider muttered, ready for her partner’s quick response.

“What? Why not? You can barely move!”

“It’ll make me sleepy. I want to be a little closer to a bed first,” Rachel replied, reaching a hand out to catch Lacey’s and twine their fingers together.

Lacey nodded, squeezing the fingers wrapped in her own. She knew that Rachel was really struggling to stay calm between what happened yesterday and the overnight deaths. “All right, you win.”

“And where’s my damn tape recorder when I need it?” the younger woman joked gently. They stood now at the entrance to the large barn. Looking down the cement aisle they could see many people milling around towards the middle of the structure.

“Ready?” Lacey’s husky voice whispered.

“I guess,” she murmured.

“Rachel!” a stocky man in his mid fifties turned and started jogging towards the two women.

“Hey, Frank,” she greeted the barn manager with a stiff smile and an extended hand, releasing Lacey’s fingers.

“Didn’t expect to see you today. How do you feel?” He fell into step beside them, slowing his gait to match the young rider’s. He’d known that Lacey would come in but hadn’t counted on his young employee.

“Sore. But okay. I wanted to see the horses. They still here?”

“Yeah, we’re finishing up with the vet. They all need to be autopsied for insurance claims. They’re sending some trucks to take them to the lab.”

“What lab?” Lacey spoke up and Frank flinched at the dark woman’s voice. He’d spent many years fearing this woman’s wrath.

“Whichever lab the vet uses. I don’t know the name.”

“Which vet?” this question was asked with the young blonde’s soft voice.

“New barn vet, Rachel. Michaels,” the manager answered impatiently. What other vet would they use?

Rachel glanced quickly to her dark companion and shrugged her shoulders.

“Frank, those horses aren’t going anywhere yet. I’m gonna make some phone calls and we’ll send the bodies to a different lab.” She wasn’t taking any chances this time. Let the new vet prove himself on something a little less important.

“But, Lacey,” the short man started to complain but stopped mid sentence. “Sounds good. I’ll go call ’em off.” He trotted away, leaving Lacey and Rachel by themselves as they neared Sunny’s stall.

The entire front panel had been removed to allow access to the stiff body when it was time. The surrounding stalls had been emptied of their occupants.

Rachel stepped forward slowly, kneeling in the thick bedding of wood shavings. Taking a deep breath, she pulled the blanket away and looked at the large still form beneath. She watched him quietly for several long moments with watery eyes before suddenly tilting her head. Then she started moving frantically, pushing the rest of the blanket off and crawling around the huge form.

“What is it, Raich?” Lacey asked softly, kneeling down as well.

“Not him,” she murmured, moving stiffly to the horse’s withers and running her index finger up under the mane resting there. “It isn’t him.” Mist green eyes looked up quickly to meet ice blue.

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah. Sunny has a scar here, at the top of his withers. When he was a yearling he tried to run under the top half of a stall door. He was following me out.”

“How could that be? Otherwise does it look like him?”

She nodded quickly. “But it would be easy to duplicate him. He’s got no real distinguishing white marks. Solid bay, tall for his age but not outrageously so. The teeth would check with a horse the right age.”

“Tattoo?” Lacey asked.

Rachel moved over next to her partner to peel back cold stiff lips. “It’s right. But so what? That wouldn’t be hard either.”

“But why?” the dark-haired woman murmured, rocking back on her heels.

“They stole him. Wheatridge?”

“Maybe. Let’s go check out the others,” Lacey got to her feet and helped her partner up, steadying her on painful muscles.

“I don’t know the others as well.”

“Well then, let’s find someone who does,” the taller woman insisted as Rachel pulled the blanket back over the unfortunate beast’s body.

It was several hours later before the other six horses had been checked out with the help of a couple other barn hands and groomers. Lacey had also called around until she found an appropriate vet and lab to take over the autopsies and the two women waited silently in the main office with the rest of the barn staff until the trucks arrived and the bodies were removed.

By the time Lacey loaded her young lover back into the Grand Cherokee, the blonde could barely move and the pain was evident in her eyes and face.

“Take that pill now, love,” Lacey whispered as she started up the vehicle. “We’ll be home soon.”

“We need to go to Wheatridge,” Rachel protested.

“Honey, there’s no way we’re going there now. You can barely move. First thing in the morning, okay?”

The blonde shook her head slowly. “If he’s there, we don’t have much time.”

“That’s not true,” Lacey argued. “They took him for a reason. We didn’t tell anyone that wasn’t Sunny so there’s no way that information could leak back to Wheatridge. Whatever their original plan was, they’re still following it.”

“I hate logic,” her blonde companion muttered, opening the glove compartment to extract the prescription bottle she’d shoved there earlier.

XXXXX

Lacey had to gently wake the young woman and help her walk into the house. Rico and George sat at the kitchen table and watched the two women as they entered.

“Hey,” Rachel muttered and half waved.

“Hey, darlin’,” George said softly. “Ya look like hell.”

“So do you, George, only you don’t have an excuse,” the young blonde responded sleepily.

Rico laughed.

“How’s Molly?” Lacey asked quietly.

“Fine. Bernard’s upstairs with her. They’re watching a movie,” George turned his attention to the tall dark woman.

“In my room?”

“Yeah.”

“Thanks. C’mon, love,” she tugged the young blonde’s hand gently.

Bernard stood up from the large bed when he saw the two women entering the room. He helped Molly pull the covers back and watched as his boss settled her lover’s light frame into the sheets. Rachel grinned and waved her thanks at Bernie who nodded his had and backed out of the room.

The young blonde was asleep before Bernard was even out of the room. Molly stayed and sat cross legged on the bed while Lacey gently undressed the small woman and put a T-shirt and loose flannel pants on her.

“She okay?” Molly raised questioning blue eyes to her mother’s caretaker.

“Yeah. Just tired. The doctors gave her some medicine to take to help her not be so sore and it makes her sleepy. That’s all.”

“I can hear her belly rumble,” the small girl mused and Lacey stopped her ministrations to tilt her head and listen. Sure enough, she could hear the gentle rolling sounds.

“Should we wake her up and feed her?” the dark woman asked Molly.

The young girl nodded.

“Well, go have the guys make some soup and maybe a grilled cheese sandwich? Sound good?”

Molly nodded again and hopped off the bed to run downstairs and deliver the order.

Lacey settled next to her young lover and pulled the woman comfortably against her. She pulled up the covers and tucked them in gently. And then she glanced up and saw what the two previous residents had been watching: George of the Jungle … again. She groaned.

George was just making himself unwanted at a large dinner party when Molly came back upstairs with Rico in tow. Rico held a lap tray with a mug of soup, a sandwich, and a glass of milk.

“Hey, love,” Lacey whispered softly, jostling the young woman resting against her.

“No,” Rachel moaned softly.

“C’mon. Wake up, sleepy. Let’s put something in that pit you call a belly.”

Weary green eyes blinked open and the young woman righted herself, leaning back against the head board. She drank her soup wordlessly and ate about half the sandwich before pushing it away. Lacey finished it while the blonde drank her milk.

“Done?” Lacey asked around a mouthful of crust and was answered by a mute nod. “My thanks to the chefs,” Lacey grinned at Molly and Rico as she settled Rachel back into the bed. Then she turned her attention to Molly. “Honey, can you turn off the TV? I’m gonna lay with your mom for a bit.”

The little girl did as requested and watched the two women silently for a moment, wanting to crawl into bed with them as well. Rico realized his boss needed some private time and reached out for the child’s hand. “Why don’t you show me how to play that card game, Molly? The one we picked up at the apartment?”

“Uno,” Molly supplied easily, waving slightly to Lacey as she turned and followed Rico out.

When the door had closed and left the two women alone, Lacey let out a huge sigh of relief. Then she wrapped her long body around her partner’s smaller one and held her fiercely. “I’ve wanted to do this since I saw you hit the ground yesterday,” she whispered. “You scared the shit out of me. I won’t lose you now that I’ve just found you.”

“Love you, Lace,” the sleepy woman murmured, snuggling into the warm embrace.

“You too,” Lacey responded and just absorbed her companion’s presence while looking out the window into the late afternoon sunshine.
Chapter 22: Merging Lives
Lacey sat at her dining room table and observed the occupants with quiet interest. They’d been forced to abandon the smaller kitchen table as they needed six place settings.

George and Bernard shoveled the omelets into their mouths without a word or glance to anyone else. Rico spoke gently to young Molly, teasing her and poking at her as an older doting brother would. She giggled in response, her fair hair pulled back into a ponytail and her blue eyes dancing with amusement. She showed no after effects from the last two days of adventure.

The sixth place setting was empty, waiting for Rachel to come downstairs. She was awake and in the shower when Lacey had last visited the bedroom.

“Lacey?” Molly’s soft voice brought the dark woman out of her thoughts.

“Hmm, baby?”

“Are we gonna go see the baby horses today?”

The dark-haired woman cast her eyes slowly to the men, realizing no one had told the small girl of the deaths at the farm the previous day. She wasn’t sure there was much of a point in sharing that news now. “I don’t think so,” she said instead. “I think maybe we just need to take it easy today. What do you think we should do?”

“We could go to Central Park and feed the ducks,” Rico piped up.

“In March? Are there ducks?” George asked skeptically.

“They stay year round cuz people feed them,” the blonde man responded easily. “I go there all the time.”

Bernard was busy choking on his omelet and the dark woman could tell that he was itching to come back with a biting retort. She pointed at the heavy set man. “You, hush.” Then she turned to Rico. “You are so not cut out for this business.”

He grinned sheepishly, shrugged his shoulders, and was thankfully saved from any further ribbing by a gentle voice calling from upstairs.

“Lace?”

The dark-haired woman pushed back her chair and stood, still shaking her head and grinning as she bounded up the spiral staircase and down the hall into her bedroom.

Rachel stood there, still mostly wet, wrapped in a towel.

“What can I do for you, gorgeous?” Lacey smiled, embracing the other woman warmly.

“I need a little help,” she said quietly. The young blonde motioned to her hair. She’d been trying to dry it but was too sore and weary to hold her arms up and complete the task.

“C’mere,” Lacey led the other woman to the bed and pushed her down gently before returning to the bathroom to retrieve a dry towel. She rubbed the towel over blonde tresses for several minutes before satisfied that they were about as dry as she could get them without a hair dryer. Then she ran a comb through the tangles and plaited the resulting smooth hair into a braid.

“Better?” she asked softly, observing her handiwork.

“Yes, thank you,” the blonde smiled.

“Good. Now let’s get you dressed.”

When the two women walked down the stairs, the group at the table was discussing the conspiracy on the X Files. It was evident that Molly was the driving force behind the conversation.

“You guys don’t have anything better to talk about?” Lacey jibed as she pulled out a chair for the blonde woman.

“This is important,” Molly argued before continuing the discussion. The precocious little girl sure didn’t sound eight years old when she talked about aliens and FBI cover-ups.

After listening for a moment, Rachel jumped in. Lacey rolled her eyes but was smiling gently. She never thought, as crony number two, she’d be sharing breakfast with friends and family and listening to debates about a television show. It was
so … domestic.

The dark woman went into the kitchen to retrieve Rachel’s omelet from the warm oven, switching it off and grabbing a glass before making her way back.

“Here ya go, love,” she set down the plate in front of the young woman. “Orange juice or apple juice?”

“Apple, please,” the blonde grinned her thanks at her companion before turning back to her conversation about the cigarette smoking man.

“You all are hopeless,” the dark woman muttered as she regained her seat. She caught George’s eyes when he looked over to her and knew he saw through her posturing. He saw the peace in her.

He smiled, the expression meeting and encompassing his caramel eyes. And he winked at her.

She shook her head and went back to finishing breakfast. So much for her reputation, she mused.

In the end, George and Bernard went to see if they could track down Benny while Rico, the women, and Molly stayed at the house. They’d decided that Rachel wasn’t quite up to going to Wheatridge and that they may have a better chance of finding the colt, anyway, if they let yesterday’s tragedy blow over. The young blonde rider had eventually conceded to this argument.

Now, Lacey and Rachel sat quietly in the winterized screened-in porch, watching the little girl and the teen aged boy romp around the backyard in the early afternoon chill. The dog ran with them and between the noise all three were making, it was a wonder they weren’t waking the dead.

“Can I ask you some questions?” Lacey ventured after they watched the action outside for the better part of an hour. She sounded hesitant.

Rachel turned her eyes from the children at play to her lover. Lacey leaned back in her chair, the front two feet off the ground the back two teetering as she balanced with her fingertip on the glass patio table. She was dressed in faded blue jeans and a thick forest green sweater. Her hair was loose around her shoulders and her light blue eyes were nervously darting around.

“Of course,” the blonde woman said softly, reaching a hand out to brush against dark locks. “What’s bothering you?”

“Did you know that Molly wants to stay with you for good?”

She was a little surprised by the question, thinking the inquiries would have to do with the farm or the horses. “She tell you that?” she asked carefully.

“Yeah. When you were in the hospital. She was pretty worked up. She talked my ear off all night long,” the dark woman chuckled softly at the memory.

“What else did she say?”

Lacey took a breath, released it. “Rachel, I’d assumed that Molly was with Helen on court order. That you’d lost custody. But that’s not the case, is it?”

“No,” the blonde sighed. “I granted guardianship while I was in prison. We were worried that if I left the decision up to social services, my aunt and uncle would step in and she’d have to go to them. We couldn’t let that happen. Helen understood so once I gave up parental rights, Helen proved that Molly had a stable environment. The … arrangements were made by us at that point. Helen would keep Molly while I got on my feet and I could visit her whenever I wanted to.”

“Molly said that you made a promise to Helen that you have to keep before Molly can come back to you,” the dark-haired woman continued the prompting.

Rachel laughed softly. “Well, it’s not quite that simple. There’s a lot involved. I have to be able to support myself and a child. Right now I’m not really there and as long as I stay at Briargate, I won’t be. The criminal record isn’t helping me out much, unfortunately. I have to get my GED,” she turned gentle green eyes to her partner, gratitude showing in them. “Which you’re helping me with. And Helen wants me to resolve the issues with my aunt and uncle. She’s worried that if I take Molly in, they’ll petition for custody and try to prove they have a more stable environment.”

“You think they will?”

The blonde shrugged, turning weary eyes back to the games outside. Rico was spinning Molly in the air by an arm and a leg. “They might. I haven’t spoken to them since I got out of prison. I think that’s the real barrier. If I went and spoke with them, I could probably find out what’s going on and maybe there really isn’t even an issue. I just … I don’t want to go back there.”

They sat in silence for a little while, interrupted only by the squeaking of Lacey’s chair as she rocked it back and forth on two legs. “Not even for Molly?”

“Don’t say that,” Rachel whispered angrily, tears in her eyes. “You don’t understand.”

“I understand that you have a little girl who loves you very much and wants to be with you. I understand you have a crony who loves you just as much and would do anything for you, including but not limited to, facing past demons.”

“Lacey,” the blonde said gently, reaching a hand out to capture her lover’s. “You have to know that this doesn’t help, right? What court would ever grant me custody with a criminal record, working odd hours at a horse barn, having sexual relations with a woman who also happens to be Vinnie Russo’s right hand?”

“It doesn’t sound so good when you put it that way,” the dark woman grinned ruefully, squeezing the fingers in hers. “But you don’t even know if your aunt and uncle will step in. You have no reason to believe they will. Do you? Did they even come looking for you and Leslie when you left?”

“They knew where we were. The police returned us once and we ran away again.”

“If they didn’t want you, why would they want your daughter?” the taller woman asked reasonably.

“I can’t risk it, Lace,” Rachel whispered. “I won’t let them touch her. I won’t let them near her.”

“Okay, Raich, honey,” Lacey slid from her chair to kneel next to Rachel’s, clasping the young woman’s smaller hands in her own large tanned ones. “Give up your apartment and the job. Move in with me and get your GED. I can support you and Molly while you do that and start some college classes. Even after I leave Vinnie, I have enough in savings to last us awhile. That takes care of the first two requirements.”

“I can’t ask you to do that, Lace,” Rachel leaned forward and pressed her forehead into her partner’s. “We aren’t your responsibility.”

Lacey met the other woman’s liquid green eyes. “I … love … you. Okay? I want to be with you. You’ve changed the way I look at life and I don’t want to go back to who I was. You are my responsibility because I choose for it to be that way. I want to help you.”

She nodded her agreement, her pale eyes reflecting confusion but acceptance.

“As for your aunt and uncle, we’ll go visit them when we take Molly back and see what their real story is. Then we’ll know what to do next. I think we should wait for the school year to be over before we change Molly’s life, anyway, right?”

“Yeah,” Rachel agreed, still looking a little shell shocked. “You promise not to pound on them?” she teased weakly.

The dark woman saw the nervous tension for what it was so she couldn’t possibly take offense at the statement. She grinned gently. “Only if they give me reason to.”

“That’s fair,” Rachel acquiesced, leaning forward to kiss the other woman’s nose. “Couldn’t ask for more.” She reached up her hands to frame the face before her and met the searching blue eyes with grateful emerald. “Thank you,” she whispered.

The emotions were palpable between them as they clung to each other knowing, regardless, that they’d found a home. The moment was interrupted when Molly and Karma came flying into the small room, bringing the cold from outside in with them.

Even the child could feel the emotions in the air and slid to a silent halt to watch the two women before her. Karma bounded forward and kissed both women before flying into the main house. Molly stood awkwardly, watching them, feeling left out, until Lacey snaked out an arm and pulled her to them.

The girl squealed and hugged the dark-haired woman, laughing. Rachel embraced them both, pressing warm lips to the child’s cool face. Then the moment was over and Molly bounced away, following Karma into the house just as Rico came in from the outside. He glanced to the two women and grinned before moving along.

“You okay?” Lacey whispered, helping the younger woman to stand, smoothing back the errant hair that had fallen loose from the braid.

“I’m great. I love you.”

“You better,” the dark woman grinned, tugging Rachel’s hand and leading her back into the house where they were cajoled into playing Uno.
Chapter 23: Facing Demons
Taking Molly home was a sad affair all the way around. The little girl cried most of the drive and both women had to assure her that everything would be all right. They’d decided not to tell her any of their plans until things were more certain, not wanting to give her false hopes.

The three had been inseparable the last few days, temporarily putting the farm and horses on hold until Molly left. The most work Lacey had done was a late night meeting for Vinnie and some phone calls the previous morning in reference to the horse autopsies. Only one had been completed and the bracken fern poisoning had been confirmed by the evidence of myelin degeneration.

George, Bernard, and Rico had been in and about the house consistently but no further attempts on Rachel had been made and their searches for Benny had come up empty handed.

Now Rachel, Lacey, and Molly stood on the front step to the suburban home where Molly lived. Rachel held her daughter closely, whispering words of assurance and love.

“Mama,” she whimpered. “I want to stay with you.”

“I know, baby,” the young blonde responded, tears on her cheeks. “I love you, you know that. And some day we’ll work everything out.”

Lacey swung the child up in her arms and hugged her fiercely. “You be good, kiddo. Okay? We’ll come get you for the weekend before you know it.”

She nodded, small arms wrapped around the tall woman’s neck, hands tangled in her long hair.

“Here,” the dark woman set the little girl back on the step and pulled out a business card. “This is my home number, pager number, and cell phone number. If you ever need anything at all, you call okay? Any time.”

Molly nodded, hugged the dark woman again. “I love you.”

“You too, Molly.”

“Take care of my mama,” she grinned, blue eyes watery.

“I promise,” she parted from the child gently and Helen took Molly’s hand, pulling her slightly toward the house.

The retired teacher nodded to the two women and smiled at them. They knew the little girl would be okay. They waved one last time before turning and going back to Lacey’s Grand Cherokee.

“Let’s go grab a bite to eat first,” Lacey said softly once they were pulling out of the subdivision. She knew the young blonde had to regroup before they could go meet with the aunt and uncle she’d been dreading seeing.

Rachel nodded her agreement.

They shared a medium supreme pizza, talking casually over the meal. The two women made plans for moving Rachel into the house during the upcoming week and her ensuing GED exam on the weekend.

Lacey watched her young lover push around a pizza crust for the better part of ten minutes before she pointed out the obvious. “It’s time to go, Raich.”

The young blonde sighed deeply and met her partner’s blue gaze. “Do you think Molly’s in any danger from Benny?” she asked, trying to put off the inevitable even though they’d already discussed this very topic.

“Nah. I think he’s more focused on the barn and on me. I think Molly will be fine. ‘Sides, I have someone watching her.”

“Really?” Rachel raised her eyebrows. That was something that hadn’t come up before.

“Mmm,” the dark woman nodded slowly. “It’s time.”

Rachel just watched her quietly.

Lacey read apprehension in those green eyes she’d grown to know so well. “I won’t let them hurt you, love. I promise you that,” she said softly, reaching across the table to hold a small trembling hand.

Rachel smiled weakly. “I know. Just so many memories. I never wanted to see them again. What if they don’t live in the same house?”

“They do,” Lacey assured her. “I checked it out. C’mon.” She tugged on the hand until her partner was standing and then guided her to the cashier to pay before leaving.

Minutes later they were on the doorstep Rachel had hoped never to stand on again. She was fidgeting nervously, fighting butterflies. “I’m gonna be sick,” she moaned.

“No, you’re not,” Lacey chided gently. “C’mon. Confidence, stand tall. Remember the first day you met me? Remember how forward and brash you were?”

Rachel grinned at the memory, knowing that even then there had been something between the two of them.

“That’s the Rachel we need right now,” she rang the doorbell before her young companion could say anything else.

It seemed like forever before the front door was pulled open, revealing a slight woman in her fifties. Her grey eyes blinked for several moments before recognition hit.

“Rachel?” she whispered softly.

Rachel simply nodded and made no attempt to offer any kind of familial greeting.

The older woman leaned back into the house. “Harold, come out here and look who’s ringing our doorbell.” There was no tenderness in the wrinkled features when she turned back to the two women.

They stared at each other silently until Harold came up and stood next to his wife. He looked at the two women and practically sneered. “What do you want?”

Well, that was the question. She didn’t want to tip her hand, didn’t want them to know that it would kill her if they pursued custody of her daughter. So she stuck to the plan that Lacey had outlined. “I … I was in town and I thought, maybe, I could stop by and say hello.”

The two people blinked at her.

“This is my friend, Lacey,” Rachel trudged on. “Lace, this is my Aunt Jean and Uncle Harold. They kinda raised me.”

“We don’t take credit for you, child,” Harold said slowly. “You spent two miserable years here and it was two years too many. Ungrateful for our love and care. You drove your mother, my only sister, to her death-”

“I didn’t,” Rachel argued shakily. “You know I didn’t. She wanted to be with Dad. She loved him so much.”

“Shut up, child,” the greying man snapped. “Some things never change.”

“I’m trying to change things,” Rachel said softly, drawing strength from the dark woman who stepped nearer. Easily able to feel the anger and hatred rolling off of her lover, she forged ahead to their reason for being here. “I was in town to visit my daughter.”

“That bastard child? If you think we’re cleaning up any more of your mistakes, you’re wrong. We don’t want anything to do with you or that child. You’re not welcome here and you’re no relative of ours. Murderer,” he spat angrily, his face turning red with his fury. “Your mother would be ashamed, thank God she’s not here to see what you’ve become!” He pulled his wife away from the door and slammed it on the two women.

Lacey stood stunned, her hands clenching and unclenching as she’d had to fight to control herself. Finally, she shook her head in amazement and heard the sniffling beside her.

“Okay, baby,” the dark woman whispered. “Okay. Come on, let’s get out of here,” she encouraged gently, taking the elbow nearest her and ushering the young woman back down the sidewalk and into her vehicle. She belted Rachel in and wiped at her tears. “Shh, honey. I know it hurts.”

Lacey jumped in the driver’s side and left the neighborhood quickly. She pulled over as soon as she could and unbuckled her silent passenger’s seatbelt. Then she crawled into the back seat and tugged Rachel with her, pulling her onto her lap.

“Okay, it’s okay,” she crooned and, finally, Rachel let it go. She clung to the dark woman and cried heavily into her shoulder. “That’s it, Raich,” Lacey encouraged, rocking the small body. “It’s over. You never have to see them again and Molly can come home. They won’t bother you again,” she assured the young woman though she did wonder, on the edge of her mind, if the couple was malicious enough to come after Molly despite their hateful words.

“My mom wouldn’t be ashamed of me,” the young woman whispered hoarsely, choking on her own sobs.

“No, she wouldn’t, love. She’d be proud of what you’ve become.”

“They were so mean to us. They said Mama killed herself because Leslie and I were so bad. We were just kids, that wasn’t fair.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Lacey agreed, rubbing the smaller woman’s back firmly. “They were wrong, you know that.”

“But it still hurts,” she cried.

“I know it does, baby.”

“He used to beat us and she’d just stand by and let him do it,” the young blonde was on a roll now and it all came pouring out, accompanied by hiccups and whimpers. “He was so hateful. He loved Mama so much and he was so mad that she was gone. He never liked Dad…” the rest of Rachel’s words were mumbled and incoherent, but it didn’t matter. Lacey knew she was lightening her load and simply soothed her young lover with hands and voice.

It was much later that she was finally silent, breathing raggedly into the dark woman’s neck. The Grand Cherokee had become humid and stuffy with her tears and the windows steamed faintly.

“Let’s get home,” Lacey said at last, holding the smaller woman away from her and wiping her face clean. “It’s all over, Raich. You don’t need them.”

“But I never wanted them to hate me,” she whispered.

“I know.”

“They were all I had left of my Mama … and of Leslie.”

“No, honey. They’re nothing. Leslie and your mom are in your heart. They really loved you. Not those old fogies. They never cared, okay? They’re not worth it.” She nodded encouragingly, pulling the smaller woman to her for another fierce hug. Then she pushed her forward gently. “Climb up there. We need to go.”

The young woman fell asleep on the drive home, clutching desperately to her lover’s hand.
Chapter 24: Getting to the Bottom of Things
“I feel like an idiot,” the dark-haired woman muttered under her breath as she and her partner crossed Wheatridge’s visitor parking lot. She glanced at Rachel ,who was dressed in baggy clothes with her hair tucked under a baseball cap. Her dark sunglasses completed the outfit. Lacey’s own outfit was incredibly out of character with white linen pants, a yellow sweater, and black hair braided into two thick ropes that fell across her shoulders.

“Hush, crony,” Rachel whispered back, admitting to herself that the Mary Sunshine approach just didn’t work for her tall lover.

“You shoulda stayed with Bernie and George,” Lacey evidently wasn’t listening to the young blonde at her side. She ran nimble fingers through raven bangs, then flipped one braid back over the saffron knit.

“And you can identify Sunny?”

Whatever response may have come from Lacey’s lips was so unintelligible that Rachel didn’t understand it. She just shrugged slim shoulders and pushed her hands back into the pockets of her barn coat, deciding she probably hadn’t wanted to hear the biting words anyway.

The weather had turned icy overnight and the early morning fog had yet to dissipate. The young blonde watched her breath frost in the air with interest, then caught her partner’s blue eyes watching her.

“Hmm?”

Lacey replied with a gentle shake of her head, unable to voice the emotions she felt for this slight woman at her side. The night had been silent and solemn, spent holding and talking. But, upon waking, Rachel had apparently decided to let bygones be bygones and not mentioned the previous day’s encounter with her hateful aunt and uncle.

Instead she’d formulated a plan to come to Wheatridge and act as mare owners in search of a suitable stud. Lacey had argued, of course, that it was too dangerous but the deciding factor had been that the tall dark woman couldn’t tell bay from chestnut from buckskin. And then George had worried that the stable employees might recognize Lacey since she wasn’t exactly low profile in their dark world. But Lacey refused to let Rachel go with anyone but her. So this ridiculous outfit had been developed. They’d also tried to hide Rachel’s features as some of the barn hands might recognize her from her work at Aqueduct.

So here they were, on enemy territory, rounding the corner towards the stallion barn. They’d called ahead so had been able to get through the farm’s large front gate though now they were prepared to be accosted at any time.

Rachel was peering into the last stallion stall when they were discovered.

“Can I help you?” the dark voice was borderline curious and hostile.

The two women turned simultaneously to take in the man at the end of the aisle. He was about Rachel’s size with light brown hair pulled away from his face in a tight ponytail. His searching eyes were grey.

“Yes,” Lacey stepped forward first, placing herself between this man and her lover. She extended her hand. “I’m Laura Cranberry. We called about looking at your stallions for our mare?”

“Ah,” he nodded his head slowly. “That’s right. You spoke with me. I’m Wheatridge’s barn manager. Name’s Chris. And who is this,” he tilted his head towards the woman leaning against the stall door.

“That’s my trainer, Rita,” Lacey grinned, her white teeth contrasting with tan skin and accenting blue eyes. Chris was immediately disarmed and barely noticed the young blonde standing several yards away.

Rachel had to smother a laugh at the look on his face. “Ms. Cranberry wants a bay stud for her Abigail.”

“Surely, Ms. Cranberry, you understand that color is not really a serious consideration when looking for good matches. We need to consider stamina, spirit, build. Color is merely the wrapping.”

“I want bay,” Lacey said slowly and dangerously. It caught Chris slightly off guard. “Little or no white. White markings are so unseemly, don’t you think?”

Chris knit his brows in confusion and finally chanced a look at the smaller woman whose expression was nearly impossible to read under those large sunglasses. “Uhh … well. Only one of our studs is bay. And he has four high whites.” He thought he heard the tall woman gag. “That’s all we have. I can show you his pedigree and his race records. He’s an outstanding stallion and his offspring have already started proving themselves on the track.”

“But he has four white socks?”

Chris ran his tongue over his teeth, glanced from one woman to the next. “Yeah. But-”

Rachel stepped forward and took the man’s elbow, pulling him a few steps a way. “Ah, Chris? Right, Chris?”

“Yeah?”

She glanced over her shoulder, met amused blue eyes. “I’ve worked for Ms. Cranberry for several years now and, well, let’s just say she’s a touch eccentric. I brought her here because I heard you had a no markings bay .. a colt who maybe wasn’t in the breeding program this year. If we could see him, maybe get on his bookings for next season or the following … I could probably talk her into Music Man,” she referred by name to a stunning chestnut stallion at the end of the aisle. “He’s my first choice for Abigail, he accents her well.”

“We don’t have such a horse as this bay you’re talking about,” Chris insisted. Rachel watched his features and body language. He appeared nervous but whether it was because he thought they might be onto something or because he was surrounded by insane women was unclear.

“You’re sure? One of Abigail’s exercise boys said he saw such a colt on the track. He was under your colors.”

“No,” he shook his head, ran a large hand over his face to rest on his chin. “No solid bay colt. I wish I could help you.”

Rachel considered this, pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Okay,” she nodded. “Do you mind if I walk her through your training barn, show her some of you offspring to let her see what kind of talent your stallions throw?”

“No, not at all,” he said almost cheerfully, seemingly glad to have an excuse to abandon these two women. “You two go ahead. I have some other things to get back to. If you need anything else, let me know.” With one final awkward wave to Lacey, he quickly turned and walked back down the aisle.

“Well?” the dark woman questioned as she came up beside Rachel.

“He said he doesn’t have a horse like that here.”

“Could they have put white markings on Sunny?” Lacey questioned under her breath, her face close to her young lover’s.

“No. It’s hard to put markings on a horse, easy to cover them up.”

“Did he seem nervous?”

“He thought you were insane,” Rachel grinned with twinkling eyes. “But I couldn’t tell if he was worried we might discover something or that we might sprout horns and start spewing things from our mouths.”

“Nice picture, Raich. Thanks,” the dark-haired woman muttered sarcastically. “I’m thinking he wouldn’t have abandoned us to check out the training barn if he were hiding something there.”

“I agree,” Rachel nodded, removing her sunglasses and chewing on the stem absently. “But I gotta look.” Mist green eyes looked up expectantly and Lacey sighed.

“I know, love. Let’s go,” she placed her hand at the small of the other woman’s back and escorted her gently from the barn.

As suspected, the training barn had shown nothing out of the ordinary. There was no trace of a solid bay gangly colt. With obvious disappointment, Rachel climbed into Lacey’s third car: a seven series BMW. She sunk into the soft leather seats with a deep sigh.

“Let’s get back to the house and see what the boys found,” Lacey said gently as she drove down the long treed driveway towards the front gate. Once she turned on the highway several minutes later, she started steering with her knee and undoing the tight braids in her hair.

Rachel grinned and reached over to hold the wheel.

“I feel like I belong on a commercial, waving around dish washing fluid,” the dark woman grumbled, indicating her bright clothing before taking back control of the sleek grey car.

“Or floor cleaning supplies,” Rachel supplied helpfully.

“You be quiet,” Lacey growled but she was grinning.

“I like the dark look better, Lace,” the young blonde conceded. “But you look beautiful in anything.”

The dark-haired woman glanced to her partner and smiled tenderly. “You sucking up, love?” she reached out to capture a blonde lock.

“Nah. Only the truth.”

Lacey turned her attention back to the road and pulled out her cell phone, hitting a memory button to speed dial Bernard.

“Hey, Boss,” the voice on the other end sounded cheerful.

“What’s up?”

“Well, we got those overview maps you wanted. I think you’ll like what we found. Rico went to the track and wandered through Wheatridge’s barn there but he didn’t see anything that could remotely match Sunny’s description.”

“Aah, it was a long shot anyway,” Lacey shrugged. “Chances are they wouldn’t steal him and then put him in broad daylight. What do the maps show?”

“There are a couple decent places on the Wheatridge property that are away from the main barns. We can check them out tonight.”

“Great,” Lacey nodded her approval, winked to her passenger. “We’ll be to the house within an hour and we can talk about our next step.” After hanging up, she reached over to hold Rachel’s hand and squeeze it tenderly. “We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

XXXXX

Their evening plans set and still most of the afternoon to kill, Lacey had talked her team into moving stuff out of Rachel’s apartment. She’d had to pay a penalty to the leasing office for breaking Rachel’s contract, but she wasn’t really worried about it.

George and Rico did most of the work loading the bright yellow Ryder truck in the lot. Bernard was a decent foreman but his bulk made it difficult for him to move boxes and furniture down the narrow outdoor stairs. Rachel and Lacey tossed things into boxes.

“Ya know, you really don’t have much,” Lacey observed, looking at the few boxes they’d packed and glancing around at the mostly bare wall.

The young blonde shrugged. “Don’t need much.” And she couldn’t really afford much so she wasn’t into gadgets or miscellaneous. Most of what they’d packed was shelves of books and a few memorable trinkets. The rest were clothes and kitchen items.

“Thank goodness you’re not a packrat,” Lacey teased gently, sensing the mood change and wanting to lighten. “Cuz you and your stuff would be out on your ear.”

Rachel snorted her amusement and went back to wrapping dishes in newspaper. “What are we gonna do with the kitchen stuff? You don’t need it.”

“I dunno,” Lacey paused in thought and then yelled to the group that had just come in the kitchen. “Hey, Rico. You need some dishes and things?”

The teen stopped and tilted his head. “I guess I could.”

“Where do you live, anyway?” Rachel asked, watching this young man she’d come to like a lot in the last few days.

“Closer to Vinnie’s.”

“Room mate?” the blonde woman kept pushing. Rico blushed. “Ah ha! Do tell, Rico!”

George laughed. “Rachel, honey, you’re embarrassing the kid.”

“You don’t belong here, Rico,” Rachel said more solemnly, inclining her head slightly to observe the lanky form in front of her.

“Where would you rather I be?” he grinned playfully, trying to divert the conversation.

“No. I mean it, Rico. Or George, you have a family. And Bernard, you’re just a big teddy bear.”

“Not so, hon,” Bernie said gently.

“Rachel,” Lacey warned softly but her young lover was on a roll.

“Maybe you should all leave when Lacey does. Maybe that would work. Do you think so, Lace?” Rachel turned to regard her partner and saw a distant look in her eyes. She realized, suddenly, that Lacey hadn’t revealed her plans to her team.

“What? Leave?” Bernard was the first to speak.

“Aw, shit, Lace,” Rachel whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

The dark woman smiled tightly. “S’okay, love.” The three men looked at her with bewildered expressions and she heaved her shoulders in a sigh. “Close the door. Let’s all sit down.”

The only place to sit was the floor in the living room. They pushed away newspaper and flat boxes to clear room. Rachel sat close to her lover, crossing her legs and resting her hands on her knees. She felt like an idiot for spilling the beans.

“So,” Lacey began slowly, looking to the small group around her. She’d known Bernard for nearly a decade and George just under that. She’d watched George’s kids grow up, she’d been to Bernard’s wedding. Despite their violent jobs, she knew the hearts in these men and she knew this would be the hardest part of leaving Vinnie. Because as much as she liked to portray her hard hearted exterior, these men were the only family she’d known in a very long time.

“Does Vinnie know?” George asked softly.

Lacey shook her head, gave him half a grin for trying to make things easier for her. “I haven’t talked to him yet. I promised myself I’d finish out this mess with Kalzar and Raoul before I left. I don’t even know if he’ll let me go.”

“You’re the best, Lace,” Bernard said gently. “There’s been no one to replace you for years. Operations have never run smoother.”

Lacey grinned at the compliment and let a little of her feralness show in her eyes. “They’re afraid of me.”

“But it works,” George grinned back then he turned serious. “Vinnie will be reluctant.”

“I know.”

“Umm,” Rachel spoke for the first time since letting the cat out of the bag. “Are you in danger? Will he hurt you?”

Lacey looked to her lover before glancing at her team members. “Maybe.”

The young blond tried to jump to her feet but her wrist was caught in a cast iron grip. She was pulled back to the floor with an audible thump.

“Maybe he will. But I don’t think so. I’ve been loyal to him for a long time. He knows he can trust me not to change sides or to go after him.”

The men in the room nodded their agreement.

“I want to finish this up for him, then I’m going to ask to be let go. Free and clear.”

“What about us,” Rico asked slowly. He hadn’t been in the business long but he readily recognized how lucky he was to have been assigned to Lacey’s team.

“I can’t make those decisions for you, Rico. But if you want to go when I do, I’ll do everything in my power to keep you safe,” the dark woman swore. “All of you.”

“What are you gonna do?” George asked.

Lacey shrugged, moved her grip from Rachel’s wrist to slide down and tangle their fingers. “You have any ideas?” she grinned slowly.

Bernard smiled. “Let’s see … professional hit man?”

Lacey cleared her throat and glanced to her young lover.

“Okay, maybe not.. How about …. Private Investigator?” George had to add his input.

“No, no, no,” Rico spoke up, getting entirely too excited with the direction of the conversation. “How about a security consultant … kinda like that movie Sneakers!”

“Great,” Lacey rolled ice blue eyes. “Look. The point of all this was to tell you that yes, I am planning to leave the business. I’ve had enough. I want a more sane life with less drugs and death and more Rachel and Molly,” she looked down at their entwined hands. “It’s time.”

They were silent for a moment, realizing their boss was embarrassed by the confession. “Well, for what it’s worth, Lace,” Bernard spoke up at last, meeting her eyes earnestly. “I’ve never seen you happier. And I’ve known you a very long time. You’re not the woman I worked for last year.”

George nodded his agreement.

“I will do my best to keep you guys safe, if you leave or stay. You’ve … stuck with me through a lot. And though maybe I never showed my appreciation for you, it’s there.”

“We knew,” George smiled gently. “You’ve always had a good heart.”

The dark woman snorted, growing entirely too uncomfortable with the emotional conversation, and jumped to her feet. She pulled Rachel up next to her. “Let’s get back to work. We need to have Rachel packed before dark so we can go do a little prowling at Wheatridge.”
Chapter 25: Wheatridge
The darkness was all encompassing, even the stars seemed to be hiding from sight tonight. Rachel tilted back on her heels, stretched her neck back to stare at the sky above.

“Stop fidgeting,” Lacey whispered in front of her and tugged at the young blonde’s jacket yet again to bring her attention back.

“Sorry,” the rider responded, rocking forward again to stand flat footed. She tilted her head down to watch what her lover was doing.

“Raich, honey. I can’t see,” the dark woman whispered, trying her best not to sound impatient or frustrated. She turned blue eyes to Bernard who stood silently at her side. He winked.

“Sorry,” Rachel said softly again. She stopped watching the nimble hands at her front and instead redirected her attention to the dark head in front of her.

“Thanks,” Lacey said softly.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m putting a tracker on you in case we get separated,” with those words, Rachel felt the long fingers slide up under her shirt into her bra. They were cold as ice and caused her to jump. “Chilly?”

“Mmm,” Rachel agreed softly.

“Okay,” she made a few more adjustments then pulled her hands out. “Go ahead and tuck your shirt in.”

Rachel obliged.

“Now,” the dark woman was pulling items out of a bag. “Carrots into your inside pocket,” Lacey described her actions as she tucked the vegetables neatly inside the leather jacket Rachel wore. “This,” she held up a gun for Rachel, “Is a small frame nine millimeter. It’ll fit your hand better.”

“Lace, I don’t think-”

“Hush,” the dark woman said quickly. “Listen,” she ejected the cartridge. “It’s loaded.” She slammed the clip back in after showing Rachel the bullets. “The safety’s on. Right here. When you hold it in your hand, you can flip the safety off with your thumb. See?” She demonstrated and waited for Rachel’s reluctant nod. “Flip the safety, aim, fire. You don’t have to cock the gun. The first trigger pull will be hardest because it also chambers a round. You may have to give it a good tug. After that, each round will chamber so the pulls will be easier. It’s a nine round clip.”

Rachel met her lover’s eyes with hesitant green. “I don’t want to fire that,” she whispered.

“And I don’t want you to unless you’re in danger, okay? It’s just a precaution. Leave the safety on,” she flipped it back in place and put the gun into Rachel’s other inside pocket.

“I don’t like it,” Rachel felt herself getting nauseous.

“Are you going to be sick?” Lacey asked warily, watching her friend’s face change to different shades of green. She’d become pretty used to Rachel’s sensitive stomach over the last weeks. The young blonde had spent most of the night hanging over the toilet after her confrontation with her aunt and uncle.

“Maybe.”

“It’s making you nervous?”

“Yeah,” the blonde said softly.

Lacey pursed her lips in thought, glanced from the young woman’s face to her team. George shook his head, Bernard shrugged, Rico was busy scratching some of his dinner off his coat. “All right,” she said at last, pulling it out and handing it over to George.

Rachel heaved a sigh of relief and her color slowly came back.

George slapped something else in his boss’s extended hand and she glanced at it briefly and then grinned to the dark man.

“Good idea. Here, this is better,” Lacey held up a canister for Rachel to see, illuminated by the Maglite Bernard held. “Pepper spray.”

“Why do you have pepper spray, crony?” some of Rachel’s confidence was returning.

“Dogs, mostly. But you use it for anything, okay? Aim for the eyes.”

The blonde nodded as Lacey shoved the spray into her pocket. Then Lacey zipped up her lover’s jacket and kissed her on the nose.

“Stay with me,” the dark woman repeated for the umpteenth time. “Or with the guys. Once we find the horse, you know what to do?”

Rachel nodded and patted the backpack she held in one hand.

“Good, let’s go.”

George acted on the order and moved forward with bolt cutters. He easily snipped through the chain on the gate in front of him, using Bernie’s light for guidance. The chain fell to the ground and George pulled the gate open.

Then the whole group jumped into Lacey’s black Grand Cherokee. George drove while the other men filled in the seats. Lacey and Rachel sat in the back compartment with the doors open and their feet dangling towards the darkened ground.

“Are you okay?” Rachel whispered after a moment, noting her friend’s increasing distance. She reached over and latched onto Lacey’s forearm.

“Yeah,” she confirmed quietly, even though it was a lie.

Rachel recognized it easily and reached her other hand over to tug at a long black braid. “Talk to me. Is it just a work mode thing or is it something else?”

Lacey sighed, turning ice blue eyes quickly to her young lover before looking away again. “Just memories. Another job.”

“Tell me,” the blonde urged softly.

“It’s about a past lover,” Lacey whispered, warning her friend.

Rachel shrugged. “I can take it.”

Lacey sighed again and looked thoughtfully at her long fingers before continuing. The rocking of the four wheel drive along the barely traveled dirt road was almost soothing.

Rachel considered further prompting but decided instead to wait the dark woman out. Her patience was rewarded before too long.

“It was a gun deal. George, Bernard, Susan, and I. She was more of a sidekick than anything. Shouldn’t have been on our team, shoulda been in a less active group. She didn’t have natural instincts like Rico does. She wasn’t a quick learner. She was only there because we were sleeping together and I let her talk me into bringing her along. She thought it was her opportunity to prove herself. She was Vinnie’s niece, new in the business, wanted to be like me. So I let myself be convinced.” The husky voice stopped as Lacey looked up to the sky, seeing just a few stars peeking from behind the clouds. She felt increased warmth on her hands as Rachel reached over and covered them with her own.

With this support, she continued. “So, we met ahead of time only Susan wasn’t there. We waited, I paged her, tried her cell phone, her house. No good. So we gave up on her and decided to go just the three of us. We entered the warehouse.” She sighed, easily recalling what she’d seen. “There should have been a small group of Miami gun runners with a shipment. But instead there was … I saw Susan. She was hanging by her neck, head tilted at a grotesque angle, and eyes open and staring. Obviously dead. There was a note pinned to her shirt explaining she’d tried to make the buy on her own and failed. Her body was marked up enough to indicate that she’d been beaten, her death had been slow. I don’t know how early she got there.”

Lacey felt a gentle squeeze from her lover. Then Rachel leaned into her shoulder in a show of comfort. She wasn’t sure she really wanted to subject her young companion to the rest.

“Go ahead,” the blonde whispered softly. “I’m listening.”

The dark woman quirked a grin at the softly spoken words. “There was movement from behind some abandoned cargo crates across the main floor so we were all drawn and ready. On edge. Angry. The gun runners swaggered out, their own weapons drawn casually, looking smug. The first guy … he said,” she took a breath, closing her eyes and hearing the voice in her memory. “He said ‘Your little friend screamed like a baby before she died.'” the words echoed in Lacey’s dark head today as they had echoed in the warehouse so many years ago.

“I lost it. I wanted to finish the deal, kill them all, take her body and get out of there. But I knew I couldn’t do all of those things and still complete the job. So I stepped forward and grabbed the nearest guy’s shirt front, pushed him to his knees, and placed my Glock right on his forehead.” Lacey tapped her own forehead in the exact spot with a long index finger. “I looked right in his eyes when I pulled the trigger. I saw him know he was going to die. I saw his fear and his panic and I reveled in it because I knew he’d seen the same in Susan’s eyes. Then I shoved the lifeless body to the floor and walked back to George and Bernard. The other guys were stunned. My own had expected it from me. But no one retaliated because they knew they were wrong. We finished the deal and we walked away.”

“Did you take her with you?” Rachel asked softly, fighting nausea for the second time in less than an hour.

Lacey must have sensed this in her companion because she reached over and gently rubbed Rachel’s stomach through her layers of clothing.

“Yeah. I did. We sent her home to be buried. Vinnie chewed us up one side and down the other. But he believed us … believed that she had done it herself.” They were both silent for a very long time, listening to the rumble of the vehicle and the quiet mutters of the men closer to the front.

“Thank you for telling me,” Rachel whispered at last. “I know it was hard for you.”

“I didn’t love her,” Lacey said softly in response, surprised at the blonde’s chuckle.

“You don’t have to say that for me, Lace. I know we each have pasts.”

“I’m not,” the ice blue eyes that met mist green were honest. “I didn’t love her. It was more physical. I … I didn’t really love anyone. Not even myself. She was attracted to me and I needed a release. I guess I led her on. That was four years ago … I hadn’t been with anyone else until you.”

“Really?” Rachel asked, interested.

“I … I didn’t want just release anymore. I didn’t want anything because it didn’t get me anywhere and just got someone else hurt.”

“So you had no one?”

“No.”

“How did you survive?” the blonde tilted her head gently. “You need someone to love you. You crave it.”

Lacey surprised her partner with a soft chortle. Rachel had eased that deep aching part of herself that needed love and commitment. “Yeah. But I just closed off from it. Until you.”

“What was so different about me?”

“I love you,” the dark-haired woman said simply, shrugging leather clad shoulders.

“From that first moment?” Rachel asked skeptically.

“I think so. But it wasn’t until later that I realized it. Must be fate,” she flashed teeth to her partner in a grin, their white almost blinding in the darkness.

“Must be,” Rachel returned the smile with a beam of her own and then leaned forward to claim wind chilled lips. “I love you,” she muttered, barely pulling away so their lips touched with the movement.

“I sure hope so,” Lacey responded easily. “Cuz this would be too much trouble for someone who hated me.”

“Hey, ladies,” George called back, completely clueless to the thick emotions in the end of the Grand Cherokee. “We’re almost to the first place.”

They’d outlined four different areas to look for the colt. One was a network of caves, one was a run down shed, and the other two were heavily forested sections that would be hidden from the road and the air.

It was well past midnight and they were in the second section of woods when Lacey called to her group. “It looks like traffic has been going through here,” she indicated a narrow path between trees, looking down to see a tire track.

“Wheelbarrow, probably,” Rachel said as she came up to her partner’s elbow.

“Yeah,” the dark head nodded agreement, guiding the beam of her flashlight up the narrow trail and into the trees. “Let’s go.”

They’d only traveled twenty yards into the dense underbrush when they heard frantic nickering and stomping of feet. Lacey didn’t need her flashlight with the light from Rachel’s ear to ear grin.

The young woman ran the rest of the distance, tripping a few times on exposed roots, then climbed a green paneled steel fence and threw herself at the waiting colt.

Sunny stood for the overflow of emotions, pushing affectionately on Rachel’s shoulder and back. He whuffled her hair and nickered over and over.

“Am I intruding on a moment?” Lacey asked wryly and got a smile for her question.

“God, he’s beautiful,” Rachel whispered, running her hands under his blanket and over his body. Then she did the same with his legs. She pushed gently on his shoulder until he shifted his weight and she picked up the hoof to examine it. “They kept his shoes on.” She quickly checked his other feet in the same manner, nodding her approval. “Good, that’ll be better. I wonder if they kept up with the vitamin shots.” She stepped back to watch him stand and he did look better, the hunched back, leg-splayed stance gone.

Meanwhile, her dark lover leaned casually against the gate Rachel had scampered over and watched the surrounding forest. After a moment she raised her weapon and pointed it at the small trail they followed in until she recognized Rico’s blonde head.

“Good,” she dropped her gun back to her side. “Call the guys back in. I’ll meet you at the truck in a minute.”

He nodded curtly and turned around to trot away.

“I need a hand,” Rachel called from inside the enclosure so Lacey obliged and tucked her gun in her waistband before climbing the gate. “Hold his head.” Rachel had already pulled a snaffle bridle out of her backpack and slipped it over the colt’s ears.

Now she adjusted the bit and fastened the cheek strap. “When I was a kid … twelve, I think,” Rachel began speaking softly and Lacey listened intently. Rachel didn’t talk about her past much outside her daughter and her crime. Plus the whimpered words the night after facing her aunt and uncle. “I had a horse show at the barn where I took lessons. I was riding a little Arabian gelding named Tyler. After our first class I put him back in his stall to rest and my Dad wanted to help me. He didn’t know a thing about horses but he was eager to be with Leslie and me. So I asked him to take off Tyler’s bridle for me.”

The young blonde finished with the bit and settled the brow band. “When I went to get Tyler to warm up for my next class, I found the bridle sitting on a chair outside his stall. Every single buckle and strap had been unfastened. It was a pile of leather and a loose bit,” she laughed softly at the memory. “I thanked him for his help and took the jumble into the stall to sort it all out. I was almost late to my class.” Rachel finished her story with a wistful smile and pushed the reins into Lacey’s hands.

“How did you do in the class?” Lacey asked tenderly, reaching out her free hand to run it down her companion’s arm as she turned to the backpack.

The colt danced excitedly as Rachel pulled out a tiny racing saddle she’d borrowed from Briargate. She cocked her head slightly in thought. “Second, I think. I don’t remember.” The young rider pulled off Sunny’s blanket, letting it drop to the leaf littered ground, then tossed the saddle over tall withers.

“Did you show a lot?”

“Almost every weekend during the show season. But always on borrowed horses or lesson horses. I’ve never had a horse of my own,” Rachel responded, cinching up the saddle with expert hands.

“Never?” Lacey asked, surprised.

“Nope.” The blonde was busy adjusting the stirrups from racing height to a more comfortable riding seat.

“We may need to do something about that,” Lacey said softly, giving her companion a warm smile which was returned readily.

“I just might hold you to that.”

“I hope you do,” the tall woman responded sincerely.

“We’re set,” Rachel told her dark-haired companion who gladly handed over the reins and opened the gate. Rachel led Sunny through the opening while he snorted and spun. “Shit, buddy. They had you in there since last week?” she chided the excited colt gently. “Spit and fire,” Rachel muttered, secretly happy that he appeared to be doing so well despite his ordeal with the bracken fern.

“Pardon?” Lacey asked, falling into step behind the colt and woman as they headed back down the trail. She did her best to shine her flashlight in front of Rachel.

“He’s gonna be a handful, I’m afraid.”

“Can you ride him?” Lacey asked, suddenly concerned. She hadn’t been worried about this part of the plan, but her lover was a little sore still and hadn’t been on a horse since her bad fall. She cursed herself for not considering Rachel’s part in the horse napping.

The young blonde snorted as if she’d never heard anything so silly. “Can I ride him?” she repeated cockily.

Lacey laughed softly, dismissing her worries.

They emerged from the trees and the underbrush to stand about fifty yards from where the Grand Cherokee was parked. Lacey glanced over and could see the men milling around the area of the vehicle and nodded her approval.

“I need a leg,” Rachel called, pulling Lacey’s attention back to the horse and woman.

“You have two,” Lacey responded teasingly, not at all understanding the request but misinterpreting it on purpose.

“A leg up, crony,” Rachel growled.

“Show me how,” the dark woman stepped forward and looked to Rachel’s hands. The young rider had intertwined her fingers and held her two hands cupped together.

“I put my knee in there and you give me a little toss up into the saddle. Little. Don’t you dare throw me over him to the ground on the other side,” Rachel warned.

Lacey nodded and put her flashlight on the grass, holding her hands as she’d been instructed. Rachel gathered the reins and a handful of hair at Sunny’s withers and then placed her knee into her partner’s grip. She was impressed when Lacey executed the move perfectly and Rachel was able to toss her leg over and land neatly in the saddle. She found her stirrups quickly and stood in them for a moment to test their length.

“Okay?” the dark-haired woman asked, picking her flashlight back up.

“One more thing,” Rachel murmured and she leaned over to run the fingers of one hand under the girth to test its tightness again. In order to loosen the restricting girth, some horses let out deep breaths once they have a rider up. Sunny was no exception so Rachel had to control the colt with one hand while dropping her stirrup and placing that foot up on the saddle’s pommel. This contortion allowed her to reach under the saddle flap and pull up a billet, tightening the girth another notch or two.

Lacey observed these acrobatics warily. “Is that safe.”

“You handle the guns and attire, hon. Leave the horse stuff up to me,” she grinned at her dark lover as she settled her foot back into its proper place.

“Deal,” Lacey responded, returning the look with a smirk of her own.

Suddenly, some shouting from the direction of the Grand Cherokee caught her attention and both women glanced over at the vehicle to see the men jumping in. Then Lacey tracked her eyes further across the field to see headlights bouncing their way from the barns.

“Shit,” Lacey groaned. “Go, Raich. Meet us at the trailer.”

The colt spun with excitement but his rider glanced from the woman at their side, to the waiting Grand Cherokee, to the headlights. “You won’t make it, Lace,” she said frantically.

“Go,” the woman shouted, shoving at the broad shoulder next to her. Sunny was more than ready to listen to her pleas.

“Lace! They’re pulling away.” Sure enough, George had waited as long as he felt comfortable but had begun to move the vehicle. She had always taught them how to split up and regroup and he easily followed those ingrained instructions.

“I’ll be fine,” Lacey argued, her voice raised angrily, eyes flashing back to the headlights which were gaining quickly. They must have seen their vehicle. “I’ll go into the woods. You get out of here.”

Rachel reached down and gripped her lover’s shoulder with an iron hand, strengthened from years of handling reins. “Come with me,” her emerald eyes sought Lacey’s blue and found them. Their gazes locked for a long moment.

Slowly, reluctantly, Lacey nodded. Because she wouldn’t have survived if she had to ride out and leave Rachel here. How could she expect anything less of her lover.

Rachel was greatly relieved as she maneuvered the colt back into the edge of the woods until she found a downed tree. “Hop up here.”

“Oh, Raich,” Lacey groaned, doing as she was bade. “I’ve only ever ridden once and it was a pony on one of those little go around things.”

“S’okay, hon,” Rachel reassured her. “Get on behind me.” Rachel was going to tell her to hold on once she did but Sunny lurched forward as soon as he felt the unfamiliar extra weight and the dark woman reached out reflexively, wrapping long fingers into the leather coat in front of her.

“Raich?” the dark husky voice sounded a little worried and Rachel took just a moment to reflect in the irony that this woman could face down gun fights but was afraid of this act.

“Put your arms around me,” Rachel commanded, looking at the headlights that lit the path they’d left and caught them in the peripheral. “Hold onto his mane instead of me, more secure,” the blonde grasped her partner’s hands and shoved them into the colt’s wiry black mane, nodding approval as long tan fingers wound into the coarse hair.

“Will it hurt him?”

“No. Horses don’t have nerve endings in their hair like we do. Hold on as tight as you can. And grip with your legs.””

Rachel glanced over her shoulder to check out the dark woman and saw that Lacey looked more secure. Now or never, she mused. “Here we go!” she yelled and it took very little encouragement for Sunny to go from a dancing stand to a dead run. Rachel leaned over his neck; Lacey leaned over Rachel.

“Smooth,” Lacey commented after her initial yelp of surprise.

“Yeah, well hold on anyway,” Rachel called back, the mane whipping her face, the wind catching her words and dulling them before they reached her partner’s ears.

Rachel turned the colt with expert hands until he was flying down the rutted dirt road. She prayed he wouldn’t take a hard stumble as she wasn’t sure Lacey could stay on with that kind of jolt at this speed. With that thought in mind, she guided him away from the road and onto the less traveled grass at its side.

Lacey was warm against her back and she felt the tautness of the dark woman’s muscles as she held on for everything she was worth.

“What do you see?” Rachel asked after a moment of running full tilt towards the fence line near the gate they’d broken.

She felt Lacey move as she glanced over her shoulder and around to each side. “George is almost to the gate. The truck is right on his heels.

“Do they see us?”

“I don’t think so. But we won’t make the gate.”

Rachel calculated quickly, remembering where they’d parked the rented truck and trailer. She hoped George would go out the gate and turn right, leading their pursuers the opposite direction.

“George’ll remember,” Lacey reassured the blonde as if reading her mind. “Shit, there’s another truck, Raich. He must have called for backup.”

Suddenly their whole world lit up as the second truck swung around and shone bright headlights directly onto them.

“Fuck,” Rachel growled. Sunny flicked back black tipped ears at her exclamation. Without a moment’s hesitation, Rachel swung the colt to the left and headed at an angle towards the fence line to where she guessed the trailer to be.

“What are you doing?” Lacey asked, releasing her death grip on the black mane to reach for her gun as the truck gained on them.

“We’re gonna go over.”

“What?!”

“Don’t get your gun. I need you to hold on.”

Lacey was a moment away from arguing until she realized how correct her young lover was. She snaked her hand back around and gripped the mane again. The fence loomed before them, the moon had finally broken the clouds and silver shards of light reflected off the white in front of them.

“They’ll drive through it,” Lacey argued.

“No. It’s metal poles, look at it. They’ll crash right into it,” Rachel tilted her head back so Lacey could hear her.

The dark woman peered over the blonde’s shoulder to examine the fence more closely as they approached. She was right. It was five horizontal poles, connected every ten feet to a sunken metal pole. “If he hits his feet on that, we’ll all die.”

Rachel nodded her agreement, the adrenaline pumping through her and refusing to let her feel that fear. “He better not then, huh?” she murmured, knowing her lover couldn’t hear her.

Thirty feet. Pounding hoofs. They could hear his labored breaths, smell the sweat that poured off of him. Twenty feet and they felt him tense as he watched the moonlit fence before him.

“Oh God, son,” Rachel yelled. “Please don’t balk. You can do this, buddy.” She knew if he refused the fence at this speed, she and Lacey would fly right into it. It was more than likely the colt would slide into it as well and tangle his long limbs with metal.

“Trust in me, son,” she called to those hesitant flicking ears. She gave him every cue she could think of to take the jump. She leaned forward, taking Lacey with her. She raised in her stirrups so her weight was on his shoulders and she slid her hands up his neck to give him a half release. This would allow him his head for the jump but gave her contact to keep him straight. She pressed her legs harder into his sweating sides.

Fifteen feet. Rachel tensed. One more stride and he should be leaving the ground. She held her breath, felt Lacey do the same.

Then he did it. He shifted his tall frame to his haunches, had faith in the small woman on his back who welcomed him into the world and raised him and trained him. He made adjustments for the extra weight of the dark woman who smelled funny to him but had enough of his rider’s scent on her to make him feel it was okay. Pushing off with powerful hind legs, he stretched his neck, tucked his knees tight against his body so that his shoes actually touched his elbows. His alert ears flew forward, already paying attention to the ground on the other side. And then his front feet were connecting with the earth, denied any longer flight without the wings of Pegasus.

The first jolt tossed the women forward and Rachel steadied them both, dropping one hand from the reins to reach back and hold her lover’s thigh. The second jolt as back feet hit balanced them and gave Rachel a chance to grab the reins with both hands. Rachel heard the joyous whoop of her partner even as she herself remembered to finally breathe.

She let him run full out until they hit the tree line and then she pulled him down into a controlled canter. Just as they passed into the first trees, they heard the horrifying crash behind them. The sound of metal wrenching into metal nearly caused Sunny to jump out from under them in his panic. Rachel used calm hands to steady him even as she heard the steam rising and popping sounds of a mutilated engine. She trembled at the thought of the dreadful scene behind them.

“It’s okay, Raich.” Lacey murmured, squeezing her partner. She was much more comfortable now as Rachel pulled the panting colt down to a hurried walk and broke from the trees out onto the road.

“Trailer?” Rachel asked, breathing hard herself.

“Up there,” Lacey pointed, her eyes focusing on the truck and trailer about a quarter mile up the road.

“Hold on,” Rachel nudged the tired colt back into a canter and ran along the berm of the road until they were across from the rig. Then she pulled him to a stop. “Train stops here, love,” she said softly.

Lacey slid off to rubbery legs and caught her partner as the young woman did the same. Together they led the colt across the black top road, Rachel gave the reins over to the dark-haired woman and jogged ahead to unhook the large back door and swing it open. It was a standard stock trailer without any barriers.

Sunny stepped in easily behind Lacey.

“Go out and push the door mostly closed. I’m gonna untack him really quick so he doesn’t hurt himself.”

Lacey nodded at the instructions and stepped back into the cold night. Moments later, Rachel was elbowing her way through the small opening. She watched Lacey close and latch the door before they jogged to the truck and each hopped in. Rachel tossed the tack to the floor at her feet while her dark companion started the truck and eased it back onto the road.

They rode in silence for a few moments before Lacey heaved a huge sigh of relief.

Rachel laughed out loud.

“That was something,” Lacey shook her head in amazement. “Kinda fun,” she threw a slightly feral grin to her passenger. “When can we ride like that again?”

“Okay, we are never ever … ever riding like that again,” Rachel chuckled. “Holy shit. We really got him.”

“We sure did. There’s a phone in the glove compartment, love. Get it out so I can call George.”

Moments later, Lacey was holding the phone up to her ear. It was actually Bernard who answered the ringing. “Bernie!” she shouted.

“Oh my God, Boss. Where the fuck are you?”

“We’re all right,” Lacey said instead, not willing to give out such information over the cell line. “How are you guys?”

“All in one piece. We’re following the plan, still. Is Rachel okay?”

“Yeah,” Lacey chuckled. “She’s right here. We’ll see you soon.” She handed the phone over to her passenger who hit the end button and stowed it back in the glove compartment.
Chapter 26: Tying Up Loose Ends
Bernard and George sat in the cold night, watching their breath frost into the air in front of them. They exchanged few words in these hours just before dawn and instead focused on the horse and women across the yard.

Rachel was walking out Sunny carefully. She’d sponged him off, put liniment on his legs and wrapped them. Then she’d covered his body with a warm wool liner and an outer shell. She fully expected him to be lame in the morning. His lithe legs weren’t meant for that kind of weight and that kind of full fledged run across open land.

Lacey walked beside her, entwining their fingers, whispering words every now and then.

Rico was in the house with Karma, going from room to room and ensuring the security systems were all functioning properly.

By the time the early morning sun was forcing crimson rays through foggy mist, Rachel had at last turned the colt loose. Now the two women stood in the enclosed porch and watched him eagerly graze on the sparse grass in the huge backyard.

“Get some sleep,” George suggested quietly from the doorway. “We have everything covered.”

It didn’t take too much convincing for the dark woman to drag her lover up the stairs where they took a quick hot shower together before piling into the king sized bed. The morning sun cast orange streaks across the floor and the bedding as they each found sleep.

XXXXX

Rachel nearly skipped out of the building and into the parking lot. Her jade eyes scanned the vehicles until she found a familiar one. It was the black Grand Cherokee from their illicit horse napping nearly a week a before.

She jogged over and jumped into the front seat, casting a quick hello to the three men crammed into the backseat before leaning over to kiss Lacey’s cheek. The dark woman grinned easily as she put the vehicle into drive.

“How’d it go?” Lacey asked gently, as if she couldn’t tell from the sheer joy pouring off the woman next to her.

“Great. Thank you for your help.”

“Any time,” the dark-haired woman smiled.

“Are you ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Am I staying in the car?” the blonde grinned mischievously. “I promise not to play with the windshield wipers. The radio I can’t guarantee, though.”

Lacey grinned as well. “Actually, you even get to come in. It’s a security risk to have people sitting in the car. Kind of a get away set up,” she regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth and she must have winced visibly because the young blonde’s haunted look faded slightly.

“S’okay,” she assured her friend, laying a warm hand on a sweater ensconced arm.

Everyone in the vehicle remained silent for the rest of the trip to Vinnie’s sprawling mansion.

Rachel waited silently in the passenger seat of the Grand Cherokee while her dark companion made her way around the vehicle. Then she opened the door and hopped out to stand next to the woman. The men piled out beside them and the five stood there looking at the front double doors for long moments before Lacey took a step forward. Everyone else followed.

They walked in quietly, the two women not touching but no more than an inch or two apart.

“Lace,” a tall olive skinned man opened the door for them, glancing easily over Lacey’s lithe form to take in the small beauty beside her. He moved his gaze along the others with easy familiarity.

“‘Berto,” Lacey mumbled by way of greeting as they stepped into the foyer. “This is Rachel.”

He nodded his greeting and Rachel glanced at him briefly and smiled before moving her attention to take in the room. It was huge and well lit. A large open entry way went farther into the house and a grand winding staircase found its way upstairs. The floors were a light oak as were the rails to the stairway and the trim on all the doorways. Light poured in from the solitary skylight and bathed the floor with glistening highlights.

They were led down the hallway into a large anteroom with sofas and an assortment of coffee and end tables. There was a silver tray set out with coffee and tea for guests.

Much to Rachel’s surprise, ‘Berto moved up behind her and lifted her arms to start frisking her. She yelped and squirmed away.

Lacey cast the offender a dark glare and stepped closer to her young friend.

“Policy, Lace. You know that.”

“Yeah, but don’t sneak up on her for Christ’s sake,” the dark-haired woman growled. She turned to Rachel, offered her half a shrug. “It’s okay.”

The young blonde nodded, raised her arms again to allow ‘Berto access. He frisked her quickly and a touch too intimately for Rachel’s tastes but Lacey was watching closely and made no comment so it must not have been out of the ordinary.

Apparently, crony number two had reached the status of not being frisked because ‘Berto simply nodded to her before frisking her team with quick expert hands. He walked across the lush burgundy carpet to the only door in the room.

Vinnie himself emerged after a brief knock, though Rachel wouldn’t have known it except he introduced himself.

“Rachel Wilson,” she responded quietly, shaking his hand and meeting his dark eyes. She found them warm and friendly and this confused her. She glanced to Lacey who offered no smile in the presence of this man but her sapphire gaze told the blonde that everything was okay.

Vinnie’s brow wrinkled slightly as he tried to recall the name and its connection to him.

“Briargate,” Lacey supplied when it was obvious her superior wasn’t going to come up with it quickly.

“Ah,” he nodded, remembering now. “If you’ll please excuse us, Ms. Wilson,” he inclined his head slightly in her direction and then stepped back towards the room from which he’d emerged, knowing that Lacey and the others would be right behind him.

When the dark woman looked to her companion, she saw the beginning of worry in the emerald depths. Rachel glanced from her friend to the tall dark man still standing in the anteroom, waiting. The rest of the team had already gone inside.

Lacey stepped forward, touched the young woman’s arm gently. “Just wait here for me, you’re safe. I’ll be right back.” Her eyes turned from ice blue to gentle violet and Rachel nodded dumbly.

It seemed like hours she waited there, sipping coffee, flipping through inane magazines and watching ‘Berto watch her. Finally, her tall dark companion emerged from the office with Vinnie on her heels. The rest of the men were right behind and though none of them were outright smiling, neither did they look like they feared for their lives.

XXXXX

They were silent until all five of them piled back into the Grand Cherokee and Lacey maneuvered the vehicle away.

“Well?” Rachel asked at last, unable to hold her questions any longer.

“Our threats to Wheatridge apparently worked and they have no interest in pursuing Sunny further,” Lacey began, referring to the conflicts that had happened since the horse napping. Wheatridge had known the culprits but since their ventures had been less than legal as well, they had little to stand on. Lacey responded with some harsh words and well placed threats. “And Vinnie’s agreed that we can keep Sunny on our property as long as we don’t geld him and Briargate maintains breeding rights,” she continued, knowing, though welcome information, this wasn’t the question her young lover wanted answered.

Rachel grinned at this news, even though the dark woman had counted on it and a barn was already being built behind the backyard’s fence. Luckily, Lacey’s property was zoned for horses.

“They found Benny,” Lacey continued, noticing Rachel’s grin fade.

“And?”

The backseat seemed to grumble as the men muttered to each other. Lacey hesitated. “You don’t really want to know, love.”

“Who did it? Your side or theirs?”

“Ours,” Lacey answered honestly. The husky man had been found hiding just outside of Chicago and had been disposed of after questioning. What Lacey didn’t admit was that she somewhat regretted it hadn’t been at her hands. Benny had revealed Oz as his accomplice in poisoning the Briargate horses for profit. He’d even described how he’d pureed the bracken fern and made the mineral blocks with sugar so the horses would eat more of it.

“What about the rest, Lacey?” Rachel glanced into the backseat to see three wide grins and she knew it was good news.

“We’re all free to walk. He asked that we wait until Kalzar is finished and that we stagger our departures so we can train incoming before we go. I’ll be the last. Rico’s the first.”

Rachel nearly screeched her joy and the whole vehicle cringed with the ear shattering sound. The young blonde lunged across the front and hugged her partner awkwardly.

Lacey laughed. “You’re gonna make me have an accident, Raich. We can do this in a minute.”

Rachel disengaged her hold and reached back to squeeze each of the men’s hands in turn. Then she settled back in her seat and belted herself in. “How about lunch?” she asked excitedly.

Lacey nodded her agreement as she cast her glance sideways to the other woman’s fair profile. Her green eyes blazed with pleasure. God willing, they’d live long happy lives raising Rachel’s daughter.

 

 

The End

Continue in Making Strides

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s