With Faltering Steps (continued, part 3 of 5)

by Tonya Muir


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.


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.


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."


"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."


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.


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.


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."


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?"


"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.


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 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?"


"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.


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."


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.


"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.


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.


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.


Continued in Part 4

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