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Legal Disclaimers: If these characters were named Xena and Gabrielle, and if this story were set in ancient Greece... then some lawyers might be unhappy with me. As it is, I think I'm safe... but just to be sure-- I'm not making any money off this. Please don't sue. All I have is a small brown dog and a computer. You can have the dog. Cheap.

Love/Sex Disclaimer: This is a story involving the sometimes intensely-depicted sexual relationship between two members of the same sex. It is not recommend for anyone under the emotional or chronological age of 21. If this is an issue for you, please don't go here.

Violence Disclaimer: This Uber tale is set in the modern day world of drug dealers and law enforcement. There is violence, blood and a little gore. Not exactly Tarantino country, however. More like Scorsese.

Language Disclaimer: Lunacy mentioned this in her initial review, so I'll tack a little note up as well. In keeping with its setting, the language is sometimes harsh. You don't really expect a drug dealer to say "Oh phooey" do you?

Last Words, I Promise Disclaimer: "Lucifer Rising" first appeared on the web in a serialized fashion. However, when it was all said and done, there were a few things that didn't exactly thrill me about it. So, I took it down and tinkered with it. Some scenes have been expanded, others streamlined, still others moved. All-in-all, however, the reading experience shouldn't be that much different. Just smoother, I hope. (No I didn't change the ending, but I thought about it. *g*) Thank everyone for being patient with me. I know there were quite a few of you who were in the middle of reading it when I took it down. Ooops... Well, here it is... finally. I'd recommend starting over, just so we're all on the same page. Thanks again.

As always, questions, comments and other things are welcome at:

So, without further ado... 

Lucifer Rising
by SL Bowers
Thus says the Lord God: "You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and
perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God... You were the anointed
cherub who covers; I established you; you were on the holy mountain of God; you
walked back and forth in the midst of fiery stones. You were perfect in your ways
from the day you were created till iniquity was found in you... You became filled
with violence within, and you sinned; therefore I cast you as a profane thing out of
the mountain of God; and I destroyed you..."
Ezekiel, 28:12
  Chapter 1

There was one advantage to wearing the black hat in the government's modern dress version of cowboys and Indians, Jude Lucien thought as she down-shifted her new Porsche Boxster and slid easily out of the congested Miami traffic. You get all the cool toys. The car was right off the lot, paid for with the hard-earned dollars of some Colombian drug dealers that she had shanghaied a few weeks ago. They were amateurs anyway, a group of yahoos just off the plane, trying to hustle their way into the business with a few kilos of blow and some Glock 9mms. Obviously they didn't understand the organized part of organized crime. Jude snorted in memory of the men who first thought they could bluster their way through a meeting with her, then-- when that didn't work-- bully her into making a deal with them by waving their guns around. One man choked to death after she crushed his larynx with a well-placed jab, and the other man had fallen to his knees in appeal when he saw his friend's fate. A swift bullet to the head had ended his pleas for mercy. Fortunately for him, the Colombians' supplier was a man of greater vision who had smoothly transferred his allegiance-- and his product-- to Jude's operation.

It's some bizarre Darwinian mutation, she mused as she hit the long stretch of ocean highway on her way home. Survival of the most ruthless... Worthiness no longer has a place... it all comes down to ability to do what has to be done. And those bastards weren't able to. Her roiling thoughts were at odds with the panoramic vista to her right-- long stretches of exotic houses bordering an impossibly blue ocean-- and more in line with the bloody demise of the sun on her left. Jagged red-gold tendrils streaked the twilight sky, giving way on the evening's stage to the unnatural vibrancy of the Neon City. Her Miami only really came alive once the night had ascended, when people seemed mistakenly to believe that their transgressions were, if not invalid, then at least invisible. In a way, Jude was like the gatekeeper of their debauchery. Certainly whenever she entered a room, her presence conjured thoughts of the seven deadly sins-- lust and envy in particular-- in those who watched her.

Jude Lucien was barely past her thirtieth birthday, but there was a timeless sense of assurance in the way she moved. She was tall and sleek-- with a polished veneer of civility that still couldn't conceal the truculent energy that was her essence. Most people generally forgot what they were doing once they took a look at the hard planes of her cheekbones, the inky fullness of her black hair, and the seductive indigo of her eyes. The smart ones, however, never forgot about the cunning mind that whirred incessantly behind those baby blues.

"Presentation is everything..." Jude vaguely remembered her mother once saying. Although time had rendered both her mother and most of her pronouncements meaningless, whenever Jude smelled Shalimar perfume, she was inevitably reminded of the faint wisps of the scent that always trailed her mother. Shalimar, incense and the relentless sound of her mother's voice raised in anger or prayer were pretty much all Jude had left. They were the very things that she left far behind when she had last walked out of the ramshackle slum her mother called a boardinghouse. Fifteen years later, the lectures on manners breeding and appearance that her mother believed had fallen on deaf ears served the dark woman well. Now Jude could sit a table with royal elegance, discuss fine art and literature knowledgeably, and wear couture gowns so well it would make a model weep with jealousy-- and it was all in the service of a bloody and dark business that would have chilled her mother's unknowing soul.

To call Jude just a drug dealer would be about as accurate and all encompassing as calling da Vinci just a painter. Her long fingers reached all over the world, and they were dipped not just in the honey pots of the drug trade, but also in gun running and gambling as well as assorted other legitimate businesses. For reasons baffling to her competitors, Jude drew the line at peddling human flesh. "I don't begrudge anyone his or her pleasures," she said on the subject. "But quite frankly the idea of my people providing a girl to some fat, sixty year old man so he can shove his dick up her ass does not appeal to me."

Once the dark golden prodigy of the Drug Enforcement Agency, Jude was now biting with a vengeance the hand that used to feed her. They had plucked her from the streets, where she was a wild child rapidly making a name for herself in murky corridors, and submerged her in a world of liquid decadence and powdered highs. They changed her name and gave her a badge that was meaningless in the circles where she traveled. However, the unique skills that Jude brought to her new life could not be taught in any academy. Something in her had always answered the maleficent call of those who were supposed to be the "bad guys," and it made her the perfect undercover agent. She had thrived in that world-- where one misstep meant an instant and irreversible retribution-- snaring increasingly larger prizes and turning them obediently over to her DEA masters. But something went completely, horrifically wrong.

"The Seraph of Death?" Jack Lucas looked incredulously at the small golden-haired woman who stood before him. "What the fuck is a seraph?" He ran a hand through his ill-cut shaggy, gray hair. "Is that some new AIDS strain?"

The woman tapped her foot impatiently at his tirade and waited for her editor to calm down. "A seraph is an angel, Lucas. That's all."

"Then why the fuck don't you say 'The Angel of Death?' This is the Miami Herald, Liz, half your readership doesn't speak English too well, let alone know what a fucking seraph is.'

Liz Gardener winced every time Lucas said fuck-- which was a lot. So much so that she was convinced the Newsroom Editor thought she had some sort of tic. "I can't call her the Angel of Death because that makes her sound like a half-baked sidekick to Jack Kevorkian. Seraph is more menacing, don't you think?" Clear green eyes gleamed in excitement over her subject. Liz had been on the beat only a year or so, and she hadn't yet lost her enthusiasm. She also had a real gift for the language that made someone like Lucas-- who had been very much a plain who, what, when, where reporter-- ache with both pride and envy.

Lucas flung himself dramatically back in his chair and appraised his star pupil. "Menacing? Yeah, babe, it's menacing. But read the fucking article. Alleged this-- alleged that-- rehashing the trial-- which was over a year ago. And she was fucking acquitted! All you got is menacing. Where're your sources? I know you got 'em, cause you ain't been running around this last month making shit up."

Liz squirmed uncomfortably in her chair. She knew the article was weak, but her hands had been tied. "My sources won't talk on the record and the DEA files are sealed. Security issues-- they say." She snorted. "We'd have to go to court in order to get them opened, and that would blow my plan right out of the water anyway."

"Whoa-- wait right there!" Lucas held out a hand. "One: you want me to run a story like this without at least two credible, named sources? You know better than that. Two: what do you mean 'your plan?'"

Liz grinned brilliantly at her boss. The story had been a lure to get the editor interested. She knew there was way more to this than just a simple article, and she fully intended to get the whole thing. "Lucas, you know as well as I do-- there's something big here. It's got everything-- drugs, murder, and corrupt law enforcement. And a beautiful woman at the center of it all."

"The story was last year, Liz." He folded his arms, but Liz could tell by the way his eyes never left hers that he was hooked. Usually when Lucas had made up his mind, he dismissed his petitioner by returning to the insurmountable piles on his desk. Liz ascribed to the theory that there were two major forms of organization-- files and piles. Lucas-- God bless his irascible, tiny heart-- was a piler. She glanced around the mountains of paper surrounding her and bit back a sigh. The electronic age had yet to touch her boss.   "The trial yeah, sure. But--"

"Stop right there."


Lucas made a grunting noise and held out a meaty hand. He grabbed his coffee cup, refilled it from a pot that Liz knew had to be six hours old, and sat back down. "Now-- start from the beginning. Sell it to me, Liz-- and maybe we can work something out."

Liz grinned again and ran small hands through her own honey-blond hair. She was closer to thirty than twenty but still got carded at dance clubs and liquor stores. Her lithe body was kept trim with regular workouts, and she had become quite a proficient kickboxer. In her line of work, it had come in handy a couple of times. Her ready smile and piercing green eyes seemed to work their way into a person's soul and make them want to tell her their story. That was also something that came in handy in her line of work.

She had been at the Herald for about a year, having come there from a small paper in Arlington, Virginia. The daughter of a diplomat, she had shunned the advantages of her family's name and worked her own way through college, penning romance novels to pay her tuition to George Washington University. She had readily admitted that it was an unusual way to work through school, but she had been telling stories since before she could remember. Her mother had always smiled at her "scribbling"-- as her father had derisively referred to them-- and merely said that writing ran in the family.

She had studied political science and international relations, thinking that perhaps she had a future as a congressional aide or lobbyist. Liz was good with people and-- from a youth spent observing dinner parties and cocktail hours at the embassies she had called home-- she knew that often the most powerful people in a room were the ones who worked behind the scenes. She had no desire to wield that power, but she was fascinated by those who did. That was how she ended up in journalism. It wasn't the what that intrigued her, but rather the who and-- most importantly-- the why. That, in a nutshell, was the reason she had been mesmerized by the story of Jude Lucien's high fall from grace.

She had just arrived at the Herald when the ex-DEA agent had been brought to trial on charges of murder, conspiracy to murder, and assorted other drug-related wrongdoings. Liz had been a desk jockey in the Newsroom and could only follow the trial from a distance, but she was hypnotized by the face of the woman who silently stared back into the cameras that had invaded her life. Even the grainy newspaper photos that were splashed across the front page of the Herald couldn't hide the surreal beauty of the defendant or her preternatural calm.

Liz couldn't explain it, but Jude Lucien's reckless disregard of moral and legal boundaries fascinated her. More than anything, she found herself almost needing to know this woman-- to get behind the enigmatic half-smile and the penetrating eyes-- so she could understand the darkness that seemed to emanate even from her very image.

She watched from the sidelines as piece by piece, the state's case began to crumble around the reddened ears of State’s Attorney Mark Brugetti. Witnesses mysteriously recanted their statements, files disappeared, and to top it all off-- the DEA became totally non-cooperative, declaring that to open their files to the state would jeopardize other on-going operations. The state's case now stood on the testimony of one convicted felon who was at the scene-- dubious ground to say the least. But what had delivered the coup de grace to the case against Jude, was the ex-agent's testimony itself. It had cost Liz a week of dinners with the insufferable bore of a man who had the courthouse beat-- not to mention the nightly struggle with him at the door afterwards-- but she had managed to snag a Herald press pass for the days of Lucien's testimony.   There was an atmosphere of controlled chaos at the courthouse. Lucien’s attorneys had stated repeatedly throughout the proceedings that Jude fully intended to defend her name on the stand, but common wisdom dismissed that as courthouse steps posturing. No lawyer in their right mind would allow their defendant on the stand with so many accusations against her. As the foundations of the state's case had been slowly whittled away, it had seemed suicide to let Lucien testify, because it would open her up to questions that no one else had come forward to answer.

She had taken the stand nonetheless, coolly regal in a sleek black suit that Liz immediately pegged as an Armani-- no designer knock-offs for Lucien-- and the reporter marveled at the smoldering aura that surrounded the ex-agent. The dark woman calmly swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help her, God. Her lead attorney, a photogenic young woman who nevertheless paled in comparison to her client, began a series of routine questions that in no way, shape, or form surprised anyone.

The prosecutor had been impatiently waiting for his turn throughout the defense's questioning, and as soon as Lucien's attorney said "Your witness," Brugetti jumped to his feet and stalked over to where Lucien silently regarded him from the stand.

It was also the moment everyone else in the courthouse had been anticipating, and all around her, Liz could hear breaths-- including her own-- quickened with expectation.

Brugetti dispensed with formalities and stared at the defendant with unconcealed hostility. "You had quite a long career with the DEA, Ms. Lucien. Longer than most agents," he began innocuously. He paused for a moment-- and Liz could see that he was waiting to see if the dark woman would take the bait. Clearly, however, Lucien wasn't about to answer anything other than a direct question. Finally he prompted, "Didn't you?"

"I believe you have the paperwork in front of you, Mr. Brugetti. But yes, I did have a fairly long career with the agency."

"You were an undercover agent, correct?"

Lucien shifted slightly in her seat and re-crossed her long legs, leaning back in her chair. The conservative, well-cut ensemble did nothing to hide the ripple of muscles in her body as she moved, and Liz saw the slight smile that played upon the ex-agent's lips as she observed the others watching her. Lucien looked for all the world like some lazy jungle cat sunning itself on a tree, and certainly not like a woman on trial for her life. "Yes," she answered the attorney absently.

"Which means you consorted repeatedly and for long periods of time with drug dealers and their associates and were quite successful in convincing those people you were 'one of them.' Correct?"

"That would seem to be the definition of 'undercover.'"

"Tell me, Ms. Lucien, how did you manage to be so convincing? For instance, did you ever take drugs with these men?"

Liz groaned mentally. This guy was just too stupid for words. He was drawing attention to all the things Lucien had done on behalf of the government, at their instructions, rather than what the agent had done once she left the organization.

"If you're asking me if I inhaled, Mr. Brugetti, the answer is yes." A rakish smile lit her features, letting others in the courtroom in on the joke. "But it was when I was sixteen and hiding out in the backyard of Eddie Fazini's house. His parents were away for the weekend, and he raided his brother Tommy's stash. Unfortunately Tommy caught and beat the tar out of us. So I feel I've paid my debt to society on that particular count." A brief ripple of laughter coursed its way through the crowd, including-- Liz noted-- the jurors. "These days alcohol is my drug of choice," she finished.

"So you're saying you've never done drugs either in your capacity as a DEA agent or as a private citizen?" He looked skeptically at her.

"Alcohol is a drug," she corrected him. "But when you're in a room full of paranoid cokehead dealers, having a glass of bourbon in your hand is a whole lot better than a snort of blow up your nose. Call it the lesser of two evils." The harsh cut of her words drew everyone's attention to the danger that Lucien had placed herself in repeatedly at the government's behest. Liz looked at Brugetti and almost felt sorry for the ungainly man. He was baring his own jugular for the kill, and she knew Jude Lucien would not let the chance go unpassed.

Brugetti, however, continued gamely on. "Jack Taylor testified that he saw you snort cocaine with the members of what was then-called the Massala Cartel and later that he saw men-- at your instructions-- ambush and murder these people. And that you personally murdered Enrico Massala, even though he was working for the DEA at the time."

"I'm aware of the allegations Mr. Brugetti. I was in the courtroom at the time."

"And how would you address these accusations, Ms. Lucien? That you were responsible for so much carnage?" He asked smugly.

The brief flash of annoyance was clearly visible as it darted across the dark woman's features. Lucien arched a questioning eyebrow at Brugetti and stated, "I'm considering the source. Let me be frank. I served the DEA for more years than I care to remember. And during that time, I participated in over 200 arrests that resulted in over 150 convictions and the removal from circulation of hundreds of kilos of cocaine and other substances with an estimated street value in the millions. My job every day was to take drugs off the street and put bad guys in jail. What you or Mr. Taylor failed to bring up during his 'eye-witness' testimony, was that he was one of those bad guys. So you better call him back up here and ask him if he remembered witnessing this 'carnage' before or after I hauled his sorry carcass off to prison. Do you get me?"

The press gallery had erupted-- along with the rest of the courtroom. And although Brugetti had sputtered on through the rest of his cross-examination, the fight had effectively been stripped from him. The trial continued, but the conclusion was forgone in most people's minds. Jude Lucien would be acquitted.

What Liz always remembered the most, however, was that the accused had never denied any of the charges from the stand.

Steam fogged the oval mirror as Jude stepped through the shower door. Swiping the condensation away with a thick towel and then using it to briskly absorb the water running down her lean body, she was confronted with a slightly hazy reflection. The face that stared back at her in the mirror was smooth and unlined by the tensions of her profession. Never one to contemplate the favors granted to her by the genetic lottery, Jude bent over and grabbed a professional-grade blow dryer and applied it to thick hanks of black hair. Half an hour later, she efficiently brushed the dark strands out of her face and then daubed the tiniest bit of mascara on her lashes. Sliding her lithe body into a soft black leather skirt, she tucked in a burgundy silk camisole and zipped up the side. Glancing in the mirror one last time as she stepped into her shoes, she bit back a long sigh. "Show time," she whispered to the reflection.

I am not looking forward to this. The evening was to be fairly routine-- if anything in Jude's tumultuous life could be called that. A simple preliminary meeting between herself and the new head of the Massala Cartel. Dinner and drinks between two business associates. Yeah, right... Then why don't normal Fortune 500 companies have pat-downs before the CEOs shake hands? It had taken years since the death of Enrico Massala for the family to regroup after Jude's devastating raid. Ultimately, the man who emerged as the new leader-- a distant cousin named Romair-- was a more progressive thinker who said he had no desire to further antagonize the woman who was personally responsible for taking half his family's business.

Jude, being a pragmatist, accepted the invitation to sit down. The months immediately following the Massala Massacre-- as the papers called it-- had not been pleasant ones for her. She had been forced to leave the country for a while, and still outraged members of the Cartel had come after her. She had taken down more than one gun-for-hire that they had purchased. None had come seriously close to harming her, but it irritated Jude to have to carry a piece everywhere she went. Makes going to the gym damn hard.

The Cartel had been less outraged and more inclined to deal when they learned their precious Rico had been working the Feds for a deal for himself, at the expense of everyone else. Eventually a détente had been called so everyone could get back to the business of making money. Then that idiot Brugetti almost ruined everything. He should have just taken the Agency’s advice and dropped the damn case. Jude didn't think much about the trial these days. In fact, no one did. Not with the OJ circus that took place right after, and the Oklahoma bombers' trials. Nope... I'm old news. And that was just the way she liked it. Plenty of people still stared at Jude-- they couldn't help it-- but very few of them knew who she was. Or what she was capable of.

The sleek little car edged its way down the curving driveway of Jude's oceanfront home. Night had taken the bite off the summer's heat, and the briny scent of seawater filled Jude's lungs. Breaking at the road's edge, she breathed deeply, enjoying the peaceful silence and half-wishing she was sitting on her deck-- guitar and bourbon within easy reach and nothing more on her mind than whether or not to make the short trek to the water's edge. But there were deals to be made this night, and she had business to conduct. Throwing the car into gear, she shoved away her idle musings and hurled herself into the darkness' comforting arms.

Across the city another woman was getting ready for a night on the town. But unlike Jude, Liz Gardener was most anxious to get her evening underway. One of her contacts-- a fringe player in the vast network of Jude's employees named Stuart-- had finally come through and told the reporter that Jude was having dinner at Monde, one of the nicer restaurants in town.

As the months went by and the furor over the trial died down, Liz was nevertheless still intrigued by the dark woman's mysterious presence. With her drive and determination, Liz didn't stay on the desk for long and was soon working her way through the crime beat. It was the most hectic of all the beats, having to be on call for reports that came out of the station house, and she had learned to sleep to the soothing lullaby of the police scanner. But it gave the honey-haired woman the perfect opportunity to develop contacts who would be a link to Lucien. She kept her ears open for any other murmurs about her activities but until recently had come up with nothing.

Then, about a month ago, she finally found someone who confirmed that not only had Lucien never left the business but that something big involving the ex-agent was about to go down. That was when Liz started putting together her plan. Granted, a lot of the details hadn't been worked out, but Liz could no longer fight the almost overwhelming urge to do something about her growing obsession with the stranger.

"If she's eating at the restaurant that means she's not seriously working-- at most she's entertaining associates. And that means she'll probably end up at the Club later," Stuart earnestly explained. "Show up there around midnight and tell the guy at the door that Eddie recommended the place. That'll get you through the front door and away from the mobs out front."

Now Liz studied her wardrobe dubiously. While she enjoyed dancing, even though she wasn't very good at it, places like the Club were not frequent stops on her social circuit. She knew it by reputation as one of the city's most exclusive nightspots with well-tailored patrons, great music, and a waiting line a mile long. The question facing Liz now was an eternal one. What on earth do I wear?

She didn't have the faintest idea of how to go about garnering Jude Lucien's attention; and if by some miracle she did, what she would do once that happened. Lucas had been skeptical of her plan but told her he had enough faith in his protégé to give her free rein in this venture. More likely he thinks I'll never get close to her in a million years, so it will be a moot issue. He’s probably right. But at least I can say I tried. Maybe then I can finally let all this go. Liz's fair brows knit together as she burrowed in the depths of her closet, finally emerging triumphantly with the delicate Vera Wang dress her mother had given her. It had been a bribe to attend one of the countless inaugural balls her parents had been obliged to appear at now that her father had retired from the diplomatic corps. Liz had managed to duck all of them except one, and fortunately, she still had the dress.

"Gotta hand it to Mom," she said to herself as the dress slithered over her body and melded to her supple curves. "The old lady's got great taste." She pirouetted smoothly, examining the dress from all sides. It was a rich emerald green, with a daring scoop that ran the length of her back, and a teasing slit up the side. It was a bit risqué for an inaugural ball-- her father had taken one look at her in it and almost had an apoplectic fit-- but it was perfect for an evening at a place like the Club. The dress would manage to make her fit in, while simultaneously setting her apart from the rest of the crowd. She had wondered what her mother had in mind when she had picked out the dress for her only daughter. More likely than not, she thought Liz was running out of time to make a "suitable" match. Right, Liz snickered at the idea. We all know that's not going to happen. Liz's "life choices," as her brother called them, were not a popular subject for discussion in the Gardener household-- particularly in an election year. So it was with a sigh of relief for both Liz and her family that she took the job with the Herald.

She sighed and shook the cobweb of memories from her thoughts. Running her hands along the length of her trim body and looking at herself in the mirror, Liz felt an unfamiliar burn in her stomach. She didn't know if it was a flare of anticipation for the chase or for just the chance of finally meeting the woman who had occupied most of her waking moments-- and not a few of her sleeping ones-- for quite a long time.  

"Gentlemen," Jude nodded graciously at Romair Massala and the two bodyguards Jude always thought of as “Suits.” When the first Suit made a move as if to pat her down, Jude merely arched a severe brow and fixed him with an arctic winter stare. The Suit backed down and flicked a questioning glance at his boss who waved him away. Jude clearly was not carrying. The slim leather skirt and silk top left no room for concealment. She had deliberately foregone a jacket for that simple reason-- to show that she was wasn't afraid of them.

The maitre d' swept over and seated Jude and Massala. He then promptly led the Suits to a comfortable table that was nearby, but not near enough so they could overhear the conversation. They were clearly irritated by this latest development, and Jude hid her amusement behind a careful perusal of her menu. They had been seated at her usual table, a cozy corner arrangement where she could see the entire restaurant. Jude settled into her chair, observing Romair as he surreptitiously glanced around at his surroundings. "You're traveling alone this evening?" he inquired solicitously. "Surely a woman as beautiful as yourself wouldn't be wandering about... unescorted?"

He wants to know where my Suits are. "Why shouldn't I? I don't much enjoy traveling with an entourage," she replied placidly. "But perhaps you know something I don't. Do you think I have reason to be concerned?" Jude examined her opponent across the table. Without a doubt, Romair Massala was a handsome man. With shrewd brown eyes and a thick, unruly mass of black hair, he exuded a boyish vitality as well as a cunning awareness. He had arrived from the outer ranks of the Cartel's lieutenants-- a distant cousin toiling away in obscurity until Jude's raid had created a vacuum of power within the family that Romair had stepped in to fill.

"Ms. Lucien-- may I call you Jude?" He continued on when Jude nodded her acquiescence. "Jude, I'm a direct man. And I think you respect directness. I must admit I am a little concerned. There has been a lot of bad blood between the Massalas and your organizations. In fact, there are some who still think we owe you a blood debt-- despite our recent understandings. I'm sure you've heard the mutterings. I'd think that would be very... disturbing... for you."

Jude sighed heavily and shook her head. Damn... Why do they always try this? "You're right, Romair, I do respect directness. So I'll try and be equally direct with you. You're very young and very ambitious-- I can appreciate that-- but you haven't done your homework." She paused and took a healthy sip of her wine before continuing. "If you had, you'd know that I own this restaurant and that those men--" She indicated two waiters standing promptly at attention not six feet away, "Are not waiters, but employees of mine." Jude bestowed a brilliant smile that lit up the pale blue in her eyes and was an ironic contrast to the threatening growl in her voice. "I heard you were very bright, Romair. Please don't disappoint me this early in our relationship." The smile left her eyes and was replaced with a caliginous stare that seemed more suited to some medieval torture room than a well-lit, expensive French restaurant. "So don't try to intimidate me, Romair. Your goons and your guns don't frighten me. And whatever damage you think you can inflict, I can return tenfold. Do we understand each other?" She leaned back in her chair and relaxed in feral contemplation of her prey.

There was an enormous pause during which Romair Massala could have done a thousand things-- nine hundred and ninety nine of which would have gotten him killed, if not this night, then another. But Romair was indeed a smart man. He inclined his head to his dinner partner, tacitly acknowledging that his bluff had been called. "Of course, Jude. I was merely speaking hypothetically."

"As was I, Romair." She granted him another smile, this one not laced with minacious promise. "Now, can I recommend something from the menu? Or would you prefer to hear the specials?"

Apparently Eddie's recommendation didn't carry as much weight as Stuart thought it did. Liz thought disgustedly a few hours later. A solid half an hour of flirting and I barely make it into the bloody bar. Why the hell didn't Stuart tell me there was a furking VIP Room? If she's anywhere, that's where she is, not down here in the meat-market with the trolls.

The small reporter had been talked up, felt up, and now she was fed up with the calculated chaos of the Club. Music pulsed from every possible point in the place, beating against the rhythm of her own heart. The air was thick with the smell of designer colognes, cigars, and cigarettes of shaky legal standing-- and Liz fought not to gag on the particularly pungent wave of Calvin Klein’s latest aromatic effort that swept by her. She turned back to the bartender, with whom she had developed a strong rapport over the last two hours, and furrowed her brows. Paying attention to people-- bartenders, waiters, doormen-- that others walked right by without noticing had more than once given her the information she needed to break a story. "Hit me again, Barnes," she said, sliding her glass across the slickly polished black mica bar.

Barnes grinned cheerfully at the honey-haired woman. "Excuse me for asking, but this doesn't really seem like your kind of place, if you know what I mean."

Liz cocked her head and regarded the bartender archly. "Is that the current way of asking 'What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?'"

"Nothing wrong with being a nice girl," Barnes shrugged, pushing long mahogany hair out of her face. "I used to be one myself, before I started working here," she finished with another winning grin.

"Even nice girls get restless sometimes," Liz muttered, more to herself than anything, but the bartender's keen ears picked up the statement.

"I know what you mean," Barnes nodded. "Lotta people looking for a lotta things here." She glanced around at the bar as she expertly mingled gin and tonic into a perfect blend. Twisting a lime rind into a tiny curl, she presented the drink to Liz with a flourish. "There you go."

"Thanks," Liz replied, handing over a bill. "We all are searching for something, aren't we?'

"That's the truth," the bartender answered easily. "And I see those pretty green eyes of yours wandering all over this place. So, what is it you're looking for?" A slightly suggestive pause rested between them-- nothing too intimidating, but there for both women to enjoy. "Just a little trouble?"

Liz smiled and started to offer a teasing reply when a graceful form flickered in her peripheral vision. Jerking her head around abruptly, she caught a long flash of tanned legs as they mounted the winding staircase. Her eyes trailed up their length-- over the supple leather skirt, up the narrow waist, across the breadth of silk-clad shoulders, through the dusky length of inky black hair, until they landed hard against two sapphire chips that glittered darkly back at her.

The reporter felt her breath catch and her heart lurch, and she let out a tiny gasp of recognition. Barnes quickly followed her line of sight and shook her head warily. "Oh no, lady. Believe me, you don't want that much trouble."

Jude wasn't sure just what it was that made her turn and look over the roiling crowd below her. Normally she just made her way straight up to the VIP Room and discounted the seething mass of bodies on the main dance floor. But for some reason, tonight her eyes were drawn to a sliver of warm light trailing down on a honey-haired woman at the corner of the main bar.

There she met eyes that gazed into her own without hesitation. Even at a distance, their shimmering jade hue was unmistakable, and Jude fancied she could see golden flecks in them. For an endless moment, they submitted quietly to each other's survey, ignoring the flowing bodies around them, until Romair tapped at the dark woman's shoulder, breaking her budding connection with the other woman.

She snapped her head around to the Argentinean, not bothering to conceal the irritation from her tone. "Why don't you gentlemen go ahead without me? I need to check on a few things downstairs. Just tell Sasha that you're my guests and she'll take care of you."

The Suits stared at her suspiciously, but Romair nodded agreeably. "Sure, Jude. We'll see you upstairs." He smiled at her conspiratorially. "I don't blame you. She's quite a beauty." He gestured slightly in the direction where the slim woman had been standing.

Jude dismissed him with a brief nod and swiftly returned her eyes to the corner of the bar. "Damn..." she muttered when she saw the space had been filled by a group of boisterous young Turks waving martini glasses wildly in the air. Suppressing a slightly disappointed sigh, she began scanning the room for a trace of the stranger when another tap at her shoulder drew her attention once again from the dance floor.

Irrationally infuriated by her new business partner's repeated distractions, Jude whirled around... and fell right back into the malachite swirls of the stranger's eyes. Up close, she could see that golden flecks were indeed sprinkled across her irises, and there was a disarming openness in the woman's glance that made Jude feel oddly like she was being entrusted with something precious.

She let her eyes roam over the rest of the slender figure before her, taking in the fiery highlights of the honey hair, the defined shoulders, and the devastating curves underneath that dress which-- had Jude still been a practicing Catholic-- would have sent her scurrying for the nearest confessional.

Slowly the blue gaze made its way back to the woman's face and the wide smile that was waiting for her there. "Hi," the stranger said softly. "Have you heard all those stories about how seeing someone across a crowded room could change your life?"

A lazy smirk curled around the edges of Jude's mouth as she nodded. "Do you really think any of those stories are true?"

"Well," the small woman replied, "I have a sneaking suspicion that if you go ahead and introduce yourself, we'll find out soon enough."  

Chapter 2

I can't believe I just said that. Liz mentally slapped herself upside the head, but Jude merely smiled in answer-- the dark highlights of her eyes dancing-- and guided her up the winding staircase, ushering her into the VIP Room.

Immediately Liz was struck by the difference between this room and the main floor downstairs. It was like they were in two entirely different worlds. The music-- instead of boring a hole into her consciousness with its relentless pounding-- was a mournfully seductive purr that seeped slowly into her bloodstream. The frenetic light show that had illuminated the best poses of the spastic dancers downstairs was gone, replaced by a warm bronze glow that cast a heroic glamour over everyone in the room-- especially the woman in front of her. Liz glanced quickly around, although all she really wanted to do was wallow in the decadent vision that was Jude Lucien herself. "So... this is where the big girls go," she muttered to herself. Jude's answering snicker tickled the edges of her hearing, and she turned back to her hostess. "You haven’t introduced yourself," she smiled. "Or is it you'd rather I just go on thinking of you as some tall, dark, and stunning stranger?"

There was a part of Liz that was the eternal voyeur-- that watched everyone, even herself as they went through life. It was part of why she was such a great reporter. That part stood back now in stunned disbelief at the words that fell effortlessly from her lips. It's gotta be the dress talking, Liz silently considered, wondering where on earth all this witty repartee was coming from.

Whatever... it seemed to be working, for Jude's attention was riveted firmly on their play, and she seemed oblivious to the inquisitive looks flashed at them. Together, the women were a striking pair, dark and light linked together in quiet conversation and unaware of the way their bodies visually complemented each other.

"I don't know," Jude teased in reply. "When a beautiful woman walks up to me and says she's going to change my life... it's a big decision. What do you think I should do?"

Liz pretended to consider the question for a moment then smiled brilliantly at her new companion. "I think you should go for it."

"Worth the risk, huh?" An elegantly curved brow arched reflectively, as if appraising what Liz had to offer.

"I think so," she bantered easily. Oh yeah... gotta be the dress. Liz was suddenly aware of just how much of her skin was being offered up to Jude's sauntering gaze. Noting the appreciative glimmer in the flickering blue, she fervently hoped the dim lighting camouflaged the warm blush she felt rising in her cheeks. "But I guess it all depends on how much of a risk you're willing to take," she finished.

An intrigued flare arced in Lucien's eyes as she grinned wolfishly at the smaller woman, and Liz felt a tiny shiver of anticipation at what was happening between them. "Never let it be said that I'm not a gambling woman. So allow me to properly introduce myself. My name is Jude Lucien," She held out a graceful hand to Liz.

Score one for the home team, Liz thought exultantly as she took Jude's hand, surprised at its unexpected warmth. But then again, Liz considered, everything she had learned about this woman involved heat-- from the danger and violence that cloaked the dark woman in their unmistakable colors to the smoldering glow that lit her restless eyes. It's a wonder her touch doesn't burn, she mused and was surprised to feel her thoughts slipping recklessly of their own accord to other circumstances that might involve this woman’s touch. She knew the game was well underway, but she willfully ignored her growing suspicion that the rules had somehow dramatically changed.

Jude's growling voice jerked her abruptly back to reality. "I'm not working tonight, Sasha," she was saying to a slim woman dressed totally in white. The severe cut of the suit threw the high planes of the woman's face into sharp relief, its color emphasizing the warm caramel glow of her skin.

The stranger continued on as if Jude hadn't spoken. "There's a problem--"

"That's why I pay you so much, Sash," Jude replied with a grin, absently flicking a stray ringlet of the woman's curly dark hair across her slender shoulders. "So you can handle the problems. Now go earn your salary."

"Ookkaayy," Sasha drew out the word in a singing breath. "I see you've got your hands full." She sent a knowing glance over to Liz, who quietly bristled at the implication. "Aren't you even going to ask about Massala?" the woman inquired softly.

Liz's ears perked up at the mention of the Cartel's name, but kept on her face a slightly attentive, yet ultimately bored, expression. Years of being a diplomat's daughter had taught her when it was best to look like one of the wall decorations. Beneath the placid exterior however, her mind raced. Massala... that's got to be the major move Stuart was talking about.

Jude tossed a lazy glance at a corner booth where the trio of men sat lowering a round of empty glasses onto a table already crowded with them. "Looks like you've got them comfortably settled. Just make sure they have a good time--"

"And keep them out of your hair," Sasha finished. "I know the drill." There was a familiar air between the two women, but Liz detected a faint hint of resentment in the slim woman's voice. Almost as if she's jealous. Liz had no doubt that Jude's romantic history was as turbulent as the rest of her life seemed to be, and-- judging from her behavior-- this woman had very likely been a part of it. Sasha nodded to another booth, discreetly tucked away in a dim corner. "Your table's ready."

"Thanks, querida." Jude dismissed the woman with a casual pat on her shoulder and returned her attention to Liz. "I'm sorry for the interruption. You were saying...?" Her voice conveniently trailed off, deftly allowing the other woman the option of continuing their play or retreating to safer ground.

"I was saying, I'm pleased to meet you, Jude. My name is Elizabeth Peterson," Liz replied, having decided earlier to use her full first and middle names, rather than her last name. If Lucien got a wild hair and decided to check her out, the last thing Liz wanted was the drug dealer discovering that she was a reporter. Because the name was also the pseudonym she had used during her romance novelist days, it would bear up reasonably well under scrutiny.

"Well, Elizabeth... if I may...?" she arched a quiet brow asking for permission as she gestured to her table. "Why don't you have a seat and I'll get us something to drink?"

"Absolutely." Liz allowed herself to be seated at the corner booth and enjoyed the view of her companion's long legs as she strode away. The dark richness of the leather skirt clung deliciously to the curve of Jude's hips, and Liz found herself again contemplating Jude in a decidedly unprofessional light. Something in the back of her mind muttered a low warning about the dangers of getting entangled with this particular woman-- but it was lost in the rich echo of the dark woman's vibrant contralto ringing in her ears.

Elizabeth Peterson, huh? Jude snickered to herself as she reached the bar. She's got to be the first woman I've met in a year who actually has a last name. She shook her head in amusement. "Hey Parker," she called the bartender over. "Hand me the downstairs phone." Two seconds later she had Elizabeth's drink order from a rather stunned Barnes. "Gin and tonic and a bourbon on the rocks," she told Parker, who rushed to fill the order.

It wasn't often Jude showed up at the Club, and her employees were a little in awe of the dark woman they called El Diablo behind her back. Jude spent far less time here in the evenings than she used to in the bad old days when she cut an erotic swath through the female population of the Club. There had been a seemingly endless supply of beautiful bodies offered to her, and she had ravenously fed on their passion, discarding each of them when they mistakenly believed that their presence in her bed gave them purchase on her life.

The bodies were still offered these days, but unfailingly, Jude graciously declined with a charming smile or a teasing remark. In fact, she realized with a start, it had been more than a year since anyone had moved her enough to pursue them. Maybe that's why I'm so attracted to this woman... Hormones, she considered but found herself almost wishing to discover some other reason. Elizabeth Peterson was undeniably beautiful-- the lissome body outlined by that damned dress left no doubt about that-- but there was a spark in her jade eyes that called to Jude. We'll see, she promised herself, returning to the honey-haired woman at her table.

"Here you go." Jude slid easily into the intimate booth beside Elizabeth. "Gin and tonic."

Her companion looked confused. "How did-- I didn't tell--"

"I have my sources," Jude laughed as narrowed green eyes were focused on her. "Actually I just called downstairs and asked. Seems you made quite an impression on Barnes," she teased.

"Who?" Elizabeth cocked her head. "Oh, the bartender. She was really nice."

The dark woman arched a contemplative brow at the woman beside her. "You know, she has quite a reputation as a charmer around here. She'll break your heart if you give her a chance."

"Oh? Are you saying you won't?" Elizabeth shot back at her with a gleam in her eye. "You look like the type who would have quite a fierce reputation herself."

Ooh... she wants to play. "I've found it's best not to believe everything you see. Sometimes circumstances have a way of... changing what the truth is," she replied. "Besides, you said you were going to change my life. So I believe it should be my place to ask your intentions."

"I know, I know... what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" Elizabeth shook her head. "Barnes asked me that. Why does everyone ask me that?"

"Maybe you look like a nice girl," Jude offered.

"But I thought you don't believe everything you see," the smaller woman taunted.

"I never said I believed you were a nice girl. Merely that you looked like one."

"Oh." A beautiful flush warmed Elizabeth's features as she played with the lime perched on the edge of her glass.

Jude smiled in delight at their banter. "Besides, I've never see you here before, and I own the place. So I know most of the regulars. What brings you out this evening?"

The honey-haired woman shrugged her shoulders softly, drawing Jude's attention to the quiet ripple of muscles in her arms and neck. "I'm not sure really. I was just kind of restless. Like if I stayed where I was for one more second I'd go crazy."

"I know what you mean," Jude said, swallowing the last of her drink and enjoying the sting of the liquor as it seared its way down her throat. A passing waitress picked up her glass and returned silently with another. Jude nodded at the girl briefly before beginning her story. "There was this crazy old lady who lived down the street from me when I was growing up. Everybody called her Aunt Betty. She was always shouting at the kids, telling us she could read our fortunes and tell us our futures. Most of the adults told us to stay away from her. But... funny thing was... the older I got, the more sense Aunt Betty began to make. The adults just didn't want us to hear the things she had to say. One of the things I remember the most was something she called 'The Night Crawl.'"

"The Night Crawl?" Elizabeth echoed, sipping her own gin and tonic somewhat more sedately.

Jude nodded. "Betty always said that it was the thing that makes you sweat when it isn't hot. It makes your dogs twitchy and your girlfriends mean, and it sends you out into the night looking for something you don't have. She would say that it's what sends nice girls like you to places like this."

"So..." Elizabeth asked with a small smile. "You think I'm suffering from the Night Crawl?"

Glittering sapphires arrogantly roamed Elizabeth's svelte form once more. "Oh yeah," Jude drawled.

In the ensuing silence, both women became vividly aware of the mutual seduction that was taking place. There was a kinetic attraction between their bodies and minds, and a flint of arousal kindled a slow flame in Jude's belly.

"What do you suggest I do about it?" Elizabeth murmured, her voice dropping slightly.

I can think of one or two things to start with, Jude's unruly thoughts offered. Aloud, she said nothing and took a long sip of her drink. The intimate tone of the smaller woman's words sent a fire rocketing deep between Jude's legs. The dark woman was totally unprepared for her body's instant reaction to this stranger, and she needed just a second to collect herself. Her impulse was to continue their sensual banter and indulge in the pleasures that were implicit in their conversation, but something that wanted to know more about the clever woman sitting across the table held her back.

Elizabeth must have sensed the conflict flickering behind Jude's eyes, for her expression immediately softened, and she placed a gentle hand on the older woman's arm. "I'm sorry-- I was just teasing-- I don't know what's gotten into me--"

Jude covered the slim fingers with her own. "Don't be sorry," she interrupted. "It's just... been a long time," she said, surprising herself with her candor. "I don't want it all to go too fast," she finished, smiling brilliantly.

An answering smile lit up Elizabeth's face. "Me either. I guess we did skip some of the preliminaries--"

"That's an understatement," the dark woman commented wryly. The shared laughter that followed effectively dissipated the thick sexual tension that had built between them. Now that the attraction had been acknowledged, an easy air settled over the table, allowing Jude relax into the more leisurely pace of their exploration of each other. "You already know that I own the Club, but what about you? How do you occupy your days?"

"I'm a writer."

It wasn't a surprising revelation to Jude by any means, if only because during their short acquaintance Elizabeth had more than proven herself verbally adroit. "What sort of writer?"

"A romance novelist, actually," she replied, a sheepish grin on her face.

Jude's eyebrow leapt skyward. Now that's a surprise. Her brows furrowed. She didn't know why but she was ...disappointed... somehow. "Really?"

Elizabeth shrugged. "It’s paid the bills pretty well, but now I'm getting out of it. I finally have a chance to write something that I really care about. Something important." Excitement shone in her clear green eyes, and Jude couldn't help but smile.

"Can I ask what your new book is about?" Seeing her companion frown at the question, Jude quickly retreated. "It's okay. You don't have to tell me about it if you don't want to."

"No... it's okay." Elizabeth squeezed Jude's hand softly, causing them both to realize that their fingers were still intertwined. Neither woman made a move to untangle them now. "I'm just superstitious, that's all."

"Afraid you'll jinx the muse?" she teased. Jude had known a lot of agents back in her DEA days who had rituals they followed before a big busts, talismans they carried when they were under-- different things to protect them from the unknown dangers lurking in the shadows. She guessed writers must have similar habits. For her part, Jude had no such superstitions, firmly believing that she made her own luck and that no charm could protect her quite as well as her instincts and the Sig Sauer P220 that accompanied her most everywhere she went.

"I guess," Elizabeth shrugged, clearly embarrassed.

Jude leaned down next to the small woman's ear and whispered, "You blush beautifully, you know." Smiling at the deepening flush that suffused her companion's pale features, she continued, "I think I could watch you all night."

The honey-haired woman cocked her head questioningly. "I thought we were slowing down."

"Slowing down, yes. Stopping, no." Jude grinned rakishly. "There's a difference."

"I see," she nodded, a playful light creeping into her gaze. "In that case--"

Her words were abruptly halted by a looming shadow over their table. Jude scowled before looking up to see Romair Massala's handsome face beaming down at her. Quickly masking her irritation, she smiled back at him and gracefully excused herself to Elizabeth with a muttered apology.

"I hate to interrupt your conversation, Jude," the tall man purred. "But I'm afraid I have to be going."

"But it's early," Jude demurred, although she could have really cared less. All she wanted to do was get back to the alluring woman waiting for her at the table. After a brief struggle, however; her business instincts won out. "And your men looked like they were having such a good time."

He laughed quietly. "Indeed we all were. I do, however, have a wife waiting anxiously back home."

"Anxiously?" Jude quirked an eyebrow. She vaguely remembered something in the dossier on Massala that mentioned a wife in Buenos Aires, but she was surprised that he had brought her to the States.

"Ah, my sweet Paola worries still, even though we have been together for 10 years now. I am a very lucky man."

"Congratulations," the dark woman complimented him, storing the information away for future reference and grimly promising herself to have a word with whomever prepared her dossier. A man devoted to his wife was a different man from one who kept his spouse tucked far, far away. He could either be a more vulnerable or more dangerous adversary depending on the circumstances, and Jude needed to know which it would be. "We should all be so lucky," she finished.

"Ah, but my dear Jude, why do I think you would miss the hunt more than you would relish the joy?" His eyes glimmered darkly as he nodded to the table where Elizabeth sat. "There's a wildness in you that refuses to be tamed, and I do not envy the task before the one who tries to do so."

A shiver darted through Jude's long frame at the Argentinean's words, feeding into the banked arousal that Elizabeth had inspired and flushing her whole body with its warmth. "That's pretty mystical for a man who envisions himself leading his Family into the new millennium."

"I come from an old line of gypsies. We can't help what we see. Perhaps one day I'll be able to tell you what I see when I look at you." Taking her hand in his own, he graciously brought her knuckles to his lips and placed a delicate kiss there. The gesture-- which would have seemed awkward or pretentious in another man-- was instead imbued with a courtly air of respect that surprised the dark woman. She expected many things of Romair Massala, but this wasn't one of them. For the first time, she began to wonder if she had underestimated her new business partner.

"I'm not sure I want to know, Romair." The words were meant to be teasing, but somehow, they came out gently serious.

"I think you already do know," came the equally serious reply. "You just won't let yourself see."

She laughed quietly to relieve the tension in her gut. "There you go again, getting mystical." This time the teasing note was firmly in place as she reined in the extraordinary sensations caroming around her body.

He smiled in response, willing to let the conversation go. "Forgive me, it's my heritage. I have enjoyed meeting you, Jude Lucien. And I look forward to speaking with you again. I feel like the bad blood will soon be washed away with the new understanding between us. I hope you feel the same."

The small smile that played along Jude's lips was genuine as she inclined her head slightly in agreement. "It has been an experience, Romair. Thank you." Aware of the Suits hovering just in the edges of her peripheral vision, she guided him to the door and handed him off safely to her assistant's capable hands. "Sasha will see to your car, gentlemen. Perhaps we'll be seeing you again soon?" Although she stood with the men and made small talk while Sasha handled the details of their departure, Jude's mind raced with thoughts of the honey-haired woman waiting for her patiently in the corner.

So that's Massala, Liz ruminated over this new player, watching Jude speaking intently with the olive-skinned man. They said the Cartel would never recover from the Massacre. Looks like they were wrong. I wonder if the DEA knows about this. While one part of her mind mulled over the possible reasons for Romair Massala and Jude Lucien to be meeting, the other part was distinctly aware of the havoc the dark woman was wreaking on her senses.

Ever since she had laid eyes on Jude, her brain and her libido had been warring with each other over her true intentions. I had to get her attention, she justified the wisp of a dress she was wearing and the tantalizing display of flesh it offered the other woman. I just didn't know it would work quite so well... And of course she's going to think that I'm... I mean... Why else do people come alone to bars? A searing heat scorched through her veins, warming places that were already far too warm for her safety. Oh god... I'm in trouble here... Big, big trouble, she admitted to herself, knowing where they were headed. Where they had been headed since the first exchange between them.

Her plans were rapidly spinning out of control, and Liz didn't know which was worse-- the fact that they were out of control, or the realization that she just didn't care. I can do this... I can do this, she chanted silently, watching the sleek form of the woman across the room even as she realized she was on the verge of breaching every ethic she had ever had.  I can do this...  she chanted one more time before giving it up. Yeah... right... that's why I'm sitting here wearing a couture gown that shows more than it hides and freaking out that I'm about to go to bed with the most beautiful woman I've ever seen... who just happens to be the subject of the article I'm working on... but I can't stop it from happening because quite frankly I don't want to.

Liz wasn't a stranger to impulsive passions, but the times-- being what they were-- weren't exactly safe for acting out one's raw desires. So she found herself living mostly in her head, contemplating long-legged beauties and sweet-smelling coeds from afar and-- with her storyteller's talent-- rendering them complicit in her pleasure. Over the last few months, the photographic image of Jude Lucien had become as familiar as her own reflection, and her dreamscape had played host to more than one fantasy involving the dark woman...

...touching, tasting, feeling... those hands, so graceful... that she had never really been able to consider before. She could easily imagine those hands reaching for her, drawing her in tightly... and those long arms surrounding her... quietly powerful... she could almost feel her legs wrapping around the tall woman's waist... And that laughter, wonderfully rich and textured with a thousand innuendoes... That deep voice calling to her, calling out her name... Elizabeth... Elizabeth...


Liz jerked out of her reverie to confront a very live flesh-and-blood Jude standing before her. Yet another rush of heat bloomed across her face, this time not stopping there, but descending to points well south. "Sorry," she mumbled, gratefully accepting the cold glass her companion held out to her.

"You were really out of it there." The dark woman smiled. "What were you thinking about?"

Liz's eyes widened, and for just a moment she considered giving everything up-- the story, the masquerade, all of it-- to have an honest shot with this woman and see if the extraordinary sensations coursing through her were caused by the thrill of the hunt or the magnificent woman beside her. That's really what I'm talking about here... Dammit... I like her... I didn't expect that. The last vestige of professional responsibility kept her from throwing off the charade's cloak. It was the same part of her that prompted the next question. "I was just wondering who that man was. He's awfully handsome." She put a taunting edge into the last statement that implied equal parts curiosity and pique that her new admirer would leave her so terribly alone.

The lazy flicker of Jude's eyes told Liz that her mission had been accomplished. "He's just a business associate." She dismissed Massala with a wave of an elegant hand.

"That's all?"

"Well... If you're that interested, I could give you his number," she drawled, leaning back in her seat with negligent ease. "But his wife might object. Tell me, do all tall, dark strangers inspire your curiosity?" she questioned with a puckish smile. "Am I merely one of a dozen strangers that have caught your fancy?" Her voice dropped an octave, becoming a tantalizing growl that instantly redefined the meaning of erotic for Liz for all time. "You walk in here with your golden hair and your greencat’s eyes... wearing a body that's a sin in any religion you care to name... with a smile that's pure honey and so sweet that I can almost taste it from here... What chance do I stand?" Jude leaned in a little closer and closed her eyes, inhaling softly, as if to steal some of the smaller woman's precious essence. It was a line meant to seduce... and it worked marvelously on Liz as a sudden wetness slicked her thighs, and her heart pumped the furious blood to flood her face. She knew her response was clearly visible to the dark woman, and that knowledge sent a tingling awareness to her breasts and a tiny shiver darting through her muscles.

Liz swallowed hard, her throat distinctly dry. "That's quite an image you conjured up," she managed to inject a light tease into her voice. "You make me sound like a hell of a seductress."

"Are you?" Jude asked, the cobalt shards of her eyes glittering.

"No more so than you are," she replied evenly, responding to the challenge in the dark woman's words. Thinking to herself, Okay... two can play this particular game... And I'd bet you a million dollars, Ms. Lucien, that I'm better at it than you are. Words were, after all, her stock in trade. "But if I were, this would be the part where I tell you that you smell like leather and the night, and your eyes promise things forbidden to ordinary people. And if you were a character in one of my books, you'd arrive in a storm full of thunder and lightening, and I'd dress you in black. Then later, at my pleasure, I'd undress you... so slowly... spending long passages on the shape of your mouth, the stretch of your legs, the breadth of your shoulders." She paused for a moment for dramatic effect, then asked quietly. "Is that what you imagine I'd say?" A hypnotic tension enveloped the women, and the rest of the room receded even further from their consciousness. Liz knew her plans were demolished beyond any recall; but she didn't care, couldn't care right now about anything but the game that was playing out between them.

Amazingly, Jude folded first, acceding with a slow nod of her head and a rueful half-smile. Liz released the breath she didn't know she'd been holding and smiled in response. "Now," the smaller woman continued in a more normal tone. "Can we drop the games and get real?"

A genuine laugh rumbled from the dark woman's throat, and Liz noted with shock that the hand Jude ran through her onyx hair was slightly trembling. Unfolding her length from their booth, Jude stood and offered Liz a now rock-steady hand. "Come on," she commanded softly.

Unhesitatingly the smaller woman curled her fingers in Jude's and asked, "Where are we going?"

"Someplace where we can be real."

The brushed metal of the Boxster glimmered platinum in the moonlight, and the neon flashed off its surface. The night was free of the humid dampness that crowded the air during the daylight hours, and people seemed to move easier and freer under the moon's benevolent gaze. Their exit from the Club was interminably delayed by all those who stopped the pair with a greeting for Jude. Everyone, it seemed to Liz, wanted the dark woman's acknowledgment, as if it were a benediction on their night's revelries. Indeed Jude was hailed by some of the patrons with the reverence befitting a high priest. She was their brooding savior who brought them release from a mundane existence with her nightclub, her drugs, and her own mercurial presence.

"Do you actually know all those people?" Liz asked when they were finally tucked into the car and safely speeding away from the thronging crowd.

"More or less," Jude answered cryptically.

Holding her own hair back with a hand and angling her body so that she was facing the driver more than the windshield, Liz studied the smooth profile of the woman beside her. While the planes of Jude's face were undeniably classic, the ironic contrast between the woman's full lips and the strong cut of her jaw refused to let her features settle into a complacent beauty. Rather, Jude's face was a challenging one-- much like the woman herself. The reporter’s glance was drawn down the bronze length of a strong arm to watch the play of lithe muscles in Jude's forearm as she shifted gears. Graceful fingers were wrapped around the gearshift, stroking the leather absently as she drove. Another kiss of arousal fired Liz's body, forcing her to shift in the seat's easy embrace.

The movement drew Jude's eyes from the road to her passenger, and Liz realized she had been caught staring. "You okay?" Jude asked.

"Just wondering where we're going. We seem to be headed out of the city."

"I have a house on the beach. I thought it might be a little easier to talk there. But if there's somewhere else you'd rather go..."

"No," Liz assured her. "Not at all." She turned away from her companion and inhaled deeply, relishing the salty air that invaded her lungs. Okay... I've picked a hell of a time to get awkward and shy on her, haven't I? But Jude seemed to not mind her silence, in fact she seemed comforted by it, smiling quietly to herself as she piloted the car deftly through the darkness.

A right turn down what looked like a deserted road took them up a winding drive, and the breath rushed from the reporter's body at her first glance of what Jude called her "beach house."

"Oh wow..." she whispered, taking in the smooth, elegant lines of the house that looked for all the world like it had been birthed right there on the peak's edge. It was all clean shapes and glass-- with just the right combination of sharp angles and gentle curves-- and the whitewashed walls seemed to pulse with a silver sheen in the moonlight.

"You like it?" Jude murmured in her ear, standing directly behind her.

"It's magnificent... But it's familiar... somehow..." The lines of the house teased her memory, and Liz closed her eyes briefly to concentrate before popping them back open to feast upon the house.

The dark woman snickered at the comment. "I'll give you a hint. I read The Fountainhead way too many times."

"Frank Lloyd Wright!" Liz snapped her fingers. "Did he design this?" she asked in amazement.

"I wish," Jude chuckled. "No... but the architect who did was guided in part by Wright's principles, not to mention my own fascination with the Ennis House in California. Wright did design that one. Would you like a tour?"

"Actually..." Liz realized that as beautiful as the house was, it didn't begin to compare to the woman standing beside her. "I'd love a walk on the beach. Maybe the tour after?"

"We can do that." Jude smiled widely and gestured to her right. "There's a pathway here that leads down to the beach. But you might want to take off your shoes. Dolce & Gabbana pumps don't really mix well with sand," she teased, slipping off her own shoes and tossing them on the deck as they passed. Liz swiftly followed suit, relishing the soft feel of the grains between her toes.

"God, I haven't done this in so long," she muttered. "It feels too good." The roar of the ocean was a soothing contrast to the noise of the Club, and for the second time that night, Liz was struck by just how comfortable Jude seemed to be in silence. She glanced once more at the marvelous place that was Jude's home. "That's an awfully big house for one person. Do you live alone?"

They strolled along for a few more moments, until Liz thought Jude was just going to let the question rest unanswered. At last, Jude nodded towards her house and smiled. "The first time I saw the Ennis House was about five years ago. I was in L.A. on business and the owner was having some party or something. I remember driving up this long, steep slope, and plants and flowers were everywhere. You couldn't see the house until you were right on it... and that first sight..." She shook her head. "I had never seen a more beautiful house. The word house doesn't even do it justice. It didn't matter that the guy who owned it... some big Hollywood mogul... was using this magnificent place just to impress people with his money... He had filled it with terrible art and worse furniture... but none of that mattered. I walked in those rooms, and they were open and graceful. I could breathe there. Windows were everywhere... even in the ceilings. I could just look up and see all the constellations... It must have been like living in the sky." She smirked at her own exuberance and shrugged. "This place is my pitiful attempt to recreate that feeling."

She can't stand the idea of being closed in. The idea rocketed across Liz's tumultuous thoughts. Continuing their walk up the beach, the waves tickled at their bare feet, and an easy calm settled over the two women. "So, I guess that means you do live alone," Liz ventured.

"Actually I share the place with someone," Jude admitted. "Three someones as a matter of fact."

Pale brows shot up to dangerous heights as Liz fought to control her surprise. Then what the hell was she doing to me in the Club? Nothing she had found linked Jude to anyone, so the small reporter was at a loss.

Jude's shrill whistle pierced the quiet air and soon two loping four-legged creatures emerged from the dimness. "Liz, meet Agamemnon and Clytemnestra." The tall woman knelt at the edge of the surf to greet the white dogs as they bounded joyfully to their mistress. "Come here, guys. Say hello to our guest." Obediently the dogs trotted over to Liz, one snuffling at her suspiciously. "Clytemnestra--" Jude warned.

The dog cast a baleful glance at her mistress, then, matching her mate, sat down and promptly offered a paw to a delighted Liz. "Thank you." The smaller woman took the paw, shaking it gravely. She copied the movement with Agamemnon, who was much more amenable to the whole process, even sticking his nose out for Liz to scratch. For her part, Clytemnestra snorted and trotted back to Jude.

"This one’s a bit of a snob," Jude explained, ruffling the dog's coat affectionately. "But once you win her over, she's yours for life. Aggie, though... he loves everybody."

Agamemnon had apparently decided that he liked the way this small human scratched, because now he was enthusiastically thrusting his head into Liz's lap for more petting. "These are Akitas, right?" Liz asked, rubbing Aggie's ears.

"Right," Jude grinned. "Be careful he doesn't bowl you over. Sometimes he's kinda klutzy."

"Okay... I'm gonna ask. You said you shared the place with three someones. Here are two of your someones. Do I want to know where number three is? Or should I just rephrase my question and ask if you live with any other people?"

The dark woman chuckled. "You mean people... Oh," she dismissed the idea with a wave. "Nah, just me and the dogs. There's one more... Pete... but he stays mostly in the house."

"Pete?" Liz asked. "You have two Akitas with classical Greek names and a third dog named Pete?"

"Wait until you see him." She laughed and shook her head, "I don't think poor Pete could carry around a heavy name like Clytemnestra here."

Deciding that her sibling had had enough fun with the strange person, Clytemnestra nudged Aggie away from the small woman and bounded down the beach, Aggie fast on her heels. In the distance, the two women could hear the dogs faintly barking over the sound of the surf. Jude smiled at Liz as they resumed their stroll, this time back towards the house.

"So, you live with three dogs in a magical house, drive fast cars and own trendy nightclubs. You sound just like the kind of woman my mother warned me about," Liz bantered.

"Your mother warned you about women?" Jude inquired archly. “How progressive.”

"I was doing a little creative transference. I am a writer you know."

"Ah... I see. Would this be the part in your novel where you say 'Thanks for the drinks, but I have a really early meeting in the morning. Could you please call me a cab?'" She stopped and turned to Liz, her dark hair halloed by the lights shimmering from the house above.

Only the stark outlines of Jude's face were visible in the moonlight, but Liz felt as though every feature was already burned into her memory. Hesitantly she brushed the backs of her fingers across the graceful plane of the dark woman's cheek. "No, this is the part where I ask you to kiss me before I lose my nerve."

She felt the muscles of Jude's cheek flex into a smile as the taller woman murmured, "I thought we were slowing down."

Liz grinned in reply. "Slowing down, yes. Stopping, no," she replied, echoing Jude playfully.

"Well then, I think that can be arranged." Jude leaned down slowly, bringing her lips close to Liz. Their faces hovered a fraction of an inch apart-- each woman taking in the delicious scent of the other-- and Liz knew that no matter what ultimately happened between them, the serenade of the waves and the cool mist of the sea spray against her skin would forever evoke this single perfect moment. Instinctively Liz's lips parted to receive the kiss, but instead of the gentle softness of the dark woman's full lips, she heard a sharp crack! like thunder, and a white-hot pain blossomed in her left side. Jude hurled her to the ground, flinging herself alongside. "What the--"

"Stay down!" She could hear Jude hissing in her ear through the fuzzy whiteness that was descending upon her. "I'm not sure where they're shooting from, but they should have a harder time seeing us now." Jude's voice was a hollow echo ringing from within her head, but the words weren't making a whole lot of sense to the honey-haired woman.

"Uh... Jude?" It came out as a wheezing whisper.

The faintness of her voice must have clued Jude into what was happening, because her eyes raked over the smaller woman, stopping abruptly when she saw a black stain spreading across the thin material. "Oh shit-- Elizabeth, you’ve been shot."

The last thing Liz thought before her consciousness mercifully released her from the pain was... She didn't kiss me.