With Faltering Steps (continued, part 2 of 5)

by Tonya Muir


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 of 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.


"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."


"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 actually, after an extended trial and time spent in public care, 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, before taking a seat at the table.

They ate quietly, relaxed and comfortable. Though Rachel noticed Lacey's continued glances 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 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 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.


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?


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 ...


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.


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.


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.


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.


"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.



Continued in Part 3

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