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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:

Chapter 6

Her second evening there, Liz insisted on moving into one of the guest- rooms, over Jude's grumbling protestations. "You like this room better," Jude pointed out flatly. "You told me."

"I'm not kicking you out of your own bed," Liz replied firmly. Now if you want to share, she offered mentally, but despite their earlier teasing, Jude had not pursued any further physical intimacy with the reporter. After a few more minutes of spirited debate, Jude finally gave in, moving the small woman's few things-- including the laptop computer she had purchased for Liz-- into the bedroom on the other side of the library.

The gift of the slender little Powerbook had been unexpected to say the least. "NO! Jude, I can't accept this," she protested when the dark woman slid the gift into her lap.

Dark brows furrowed. "Why not?"

"I-- I--" Liz stuttered, trying to kick-start her brain into gear. "I thought we finished with you saying you're sorry about me getting shot."

"Well, I am sorry, but that's not what this is about," Jude smirked. "You're a writer, yes?"

"Yyeesss..." Liz drew out the word.

"So how are you going to write without something to write on? You don't strike me as the legal pad type. And this way you can sit out in the sun while you work."

"You don't have a computer?" Liz inquired innocently. Interestingly enough, Jude's tour had not included the study which, architecturally speaking, was the most stunning room in the house.

"Yes, I have a computer, but this way you have your own access," Jude answered smoothly, not dropping a beat. "And you won't have to worry about me stumbling into your files."

Or me stumbling into yours, Liz thought wryly. "This is way too expensive, I mean--"

"Liz..." Jude held out a hand to forestall any further argument. "Look around you. What I spent for the laptop is nothing to me." It was an offhand comment, meant to convey nonchalance and totally disguising the effort Jude had expended. The dark woman had prowled just about every computer store in the city, terrorizing store clerks and looking for the laptop that would suit the writer the best. "Besides," she shrugged sheepishly, muttering almost inaudibly, "I kind of liked buying something for you."

There it is again, Liz marveled. The faint blush was almost undetectable beneath Jude's tanned skin. Its appearance-- the only indication Liz had discovered of a vulnerable side to the agent-- reaffirmed the budding friendship that had been in doubt since Jude's surprising revelation the previous day.

Things settled into an odd, but comfortable rhythm in Jude's household. Liz learned that Carmina only came a few times a week and did mostly light cleaning, preparing meals only if Jude was home-- which was not nearly as much as Liz would have liked. She honestly didn't know when the tall woman slept. Liz, however, used the time alone to her advantage, calling Lucas the first chance she got.

"ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND?!?!?!?!?!?" Lucas bellowed after the reporter filled him in on the events that had brought her to Jude's. Liz winced, holding the phone away from her ear, thankful Carmina was nowhere to be found.

"No, Lucas, I'm not," she answered patiently.

Recognizing the resolute tone in Liz's voice, he exhaled heavily into the receiver, signaling his reconciliation to her obstinacy. "Well, have you at least gotten something interesting then?"

Liz hesitated. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell Lucas everything she had learned-- that Jude was still working for the DEA and she suspected the dark woman was attempting to bring down the remnants of the Massala Cartel-- but she remained silent. "Only bits and pieces, nothing concrete," she hedged, knowing that if she gave Lucas even a bare tidbit, that he would hound her until she worked the story to its fullest. Quite frankly, she didn't know if she wanted to do that anymore, although her curiosity had sent her scurrying into the study at the first opportunity. She had stayed away from the journal and concentrated on the "Communication" folder, piecing together what she could. There were still a lot of blanks; Jude obviously didn't believe in committing much information to paper-- even if it was only on the electronic variety. "Look, I don't know when I'm going to get a chance to talk to you again, so I need you to do something for me."

She could hear Lucas scrabbling around on his desk for a piece of paper. "Okay, what can I get you?" he asked, sounding for all the world like some worker at a drive-through window.

Liz bit back a laugh. "First of all, you need to get on-line. That way I can update you via e-mail. The Herald has an e-mail address for you..." Liz was referring to the office-wide system of assigning addresses by last name, but she doubted that Lucas even knew he had one. "I'll send you periodic messages so you'll know I'm okay. Get someone to show you how to use the system, all right?"

Lucas grumbled under his breath about technology and going to hell, but he agreed. "Anything else?"

Liz paused a moment, thinking about her apartment. What were the odds that Jude would want to go there? She had bought herself a week with the boyfriend story, and she honestly didn't know where things were headed with the volatile agent, so she crossed her mental fingers and hoped for the best. "Not right now. I'll let you know if I need something else. Okay?"

"Got it. And Liz--" Lucas' gruff voice dropped an octave as he added, "Be careful."

She had e-mailed Lucas only once during the last week, just to let him know things were still fine. Her time with Jude was fast drawing to a close, and Liz was at a loss for how to propel things further between them. The intense attraction was still there, and the reporter watched with growing frustration as Jude sidestepped even the mere hint of intimacy, despite their palpable connection. The dark woman didn't avoid Liz-- far to the contrary-- she sought the reporter out whenever she was home, listening to Liz's vivid stories of her misadventures in school and growing up. The honey-haired woman truly felt like they had become friends, but she tossed and turned restlessly in her bed at night, filled with a gnawing hunger and too-aware of what she wanted to assuage it.

Jude pounded down the beach in a steady, loping rhythm that ate up the ground below her. Aggie and Clytemnestra flanked her sides, tongues lolling as they kept pace with their long-legged mistress. She splashed through the surf as she ran, letting the salt water cool her heated body, enjoying the different textures brushing her skin. The scorching glare of the day had finally passed, as even the sun began to weary of its own intensity and sought relief by falling over the edge of the horizon. Jude was very content with her lot in life at this moment. The sand was gritty beneath her bare feet; the water's spray was refreshing; and her eyes were dazzled by the pastels of the sun's passing. Aggie, bless his clumsy soul, occasionally brushed against her as he gamboled down the beach with her, his fur tickling at her legs.

The sensory input inundated Jude's system, and she consciously let all the tension and stresses of the day ooze from her body. Sasha had been in a mood all week. Sulking no doubt because I haven't been paying enough attention to her... and that had put most everyone else in her close professional circle on edge. As a result, the cooks were throwing tantrums, the waitstaff was dropping things, and the food and liquor shipments were off.

Jude's relationship with Sasha had always been a complicated one. Lovers, enemies, or allies depending on the day of the week-- Sasha had been a more or less permanent fixture in Jude's life since she turned from the Agency. Jude trusted the caramel woman just about as far as she trusted anyone in her life. Together they had a truculent, sensual chemistry that often left both of them breathless.

The last time she had touched Sasha had been just after the Cartel Massacre, before she had grimly decided to try and set things right as best she could. Jude had offered no explanation for the shift in their relationship, nor had Sasha sought one. The dark woman occasionally felt the burning intensity still between them, knew by looking at the smoky saffron of Sasha's eyes that she was aware of it as well. For Jude, however, a return to Sasha's bed meant a return to the darkness that she was at last working so hard to be rid of.

Still, Sasha was an important person in the day-to-day functioning of all Jude's businesses-- both legitimate and otherwise-- and the only thing Jude kept from the tawny woman was the knowledge of her re-involvement with the Agency. She's got her nose out of joint about something, Jude thought darkly as she continued to pound down the shoreline. And that makes life suck for everyone else... Well... she added with a mental grin... Everyone but me. Whatever Sasha's problem, Jude was exempt from her wrath, treated instead with an icy calm.

At last she rounded the beachhead that brought her house into view. Come on, Angel... one more mile... Jason's old chant echoed in her head and brought an unexpected smile to her face. More and more these days, Jason was close to her thoughts. Much to her surprise, the memories that surged forth were the quiet ones-- full of laughter and kindness-- that she hadn't allowed herself to dwell on since her partner's death. It hadn’t escaped her notice that the memories had returned in force about the same time that Elizabeth had entered her life. She vacillated between thinking that the memories were reminding her of the joy of letting someone in or were warning her of the consequences of such a rash act.

Trying to tell me something, Partner? she asked, talking to him in her musings the way she used to in the old days, when she was under and he was far, far away. I think you really would have liked her... She's funny, smart as hell, beautiful... God is she beautiful. The golden outline of the woman slowly coming into focus in the distance brought another wide smile to Jude's face, in spite of the ten miles she had just run. And she's kind, Jase.... like you... I can see it in everything she does... Her eyes just seem to hold me when she's talking and not let me go... I know I've gotta be nuts to keep her here. But at that moment, Jude decided she really didn't give a damn. Didn't care about all the reasons these feelings were wrong and dangerous, and just concentrated on why they were right. She had spent practically every second possible in Elizabeth's company and found herself thinking about the slender woman at the oddest times. Most of all, however, her dreams for the first time in years were filled with the happy times she and Jason had spent together instead of the horror that had ultimately befallen them. Letting go of her caution this night was the single most irresponsible act she had committed in ten years. And damn if it doesn't feel good. A sudden burst of energy sent her sprinting the remaining 100 yards to the deck, and she vaulted over the railing, landing softly on the other side. Show off, a tiny mental voice chortled. "Hey there," she greeted a slightly startled Liz.

Liz pushed her sunglasses up to better survey the woman in front of her. Skin glistening with the sheen of exertion and muscles quivering slightly from the effort of the last ten miles, Jude radiated an animal exuberance that crackled in the air around her. "Hi," she said. "Nice run?" Jude's habits were becoming increasingly familiar to the reporter, although she had only been part of the household for a week. The ten-mile torture session was only one part of Jude's exercise routine that made Liz shudder. The small woman was in fabulous shape herself and took great pride in working fairly hard to maintain her fitness, but the agent's workouts exhausted her just by watching them.

"Great," Jude grinned, stepping behind the wet bar on the deck and retrieving a bottle of cold water. "I feel like I could do it all over again."

The reporter shivered at the thought, watching Jude as she downed half the bottle in a single gulp. "You're kidding right?" She saved the file on her computer and shut the system down. Much to her surprise, over the last seven days Liz found herself writing fiction for the first time since college. It wasn't anything like Love's Fevered Embrace, her last novel, and she was rather pleased with her efforts.

Jude cocked her head as if considering the possibility. "Yeah, I am kidding," she said at last, grinning. "How are you doing?" she asked, throwing herself down in the chaise across from Liz. She stretched luxuriously against the comfortable pillows and fanned herself with the edge of her T-shirt, exposing a length of muscled abdomen to Liz's appreciative eyes. There was something ...different... about Jude this evening, she immediately noticed, and the dark woman's rambunctious energy was contagious. "The doc get your stitches out okay?"

"What? Oh, right, he did," she affirmed, remembering the painfully thin man who had arrived this morning. He had cool hands and an air that was slightly hazy around the edges, but she had liked him anyway. As was her habit, she had managed to pull Stephen Ryan's entire story out of him, including Jude's own role in it.

"When you think about it," Stephen said dreamily. "She's become something of a guardian angel for me." Then he laughed softly. "I guess that's sort of appropriate though."

"What makes you say that?" Liz asked, intrigued by the light that he cast on the shadowy life Jude lived.

He seemed to focus on her for the first time since they began talking about Jude. "You are an innocent, aren't you?" Soft brown eyes appraised her, and a hesitant smile came to his face. "At first I thought you were just another of her whores-- she has quite a reputation in certain circles, you know, but not lately--" he rambled. Part of Liz wanted to shake the frail man to try and jar some sense from him, but she held back, aware that she would ultimately learn far more by letting him rattle on. "But she was genuinely concerned about you... I could see it in her eyes... And I never thought I'd see that from the Archangel..."


"That's what they used to call her on the streets... Back when she was with the DEA... They don't call her that anymore," he whispered, then shuddered.

Liz could plainly see that the doctor had gone to a place that was terrifying for the man. She thought about the description of Jude standing in his doorway-- bloodied and enraged-- and had a pretty good idea where the doctor had gone. "Stephen?" she gingerly called him back. "What do they call her now?"

He blinked rapidly, as if afraid to speak the name. But the unwavering gentleness of those verdant eyes coaxed the words from him. "El Diablo..." The name was delivered on a breath of air, and he quickly looked around to see if anyone but Liz had heard him.

"The devil..." Liz absorbed this fact for a moment longer, along with the man's increasingly distraught state, then tried one more question. "Why is she an appropriate guardian angel for you?"

A moment of lucidity briefly passed over him, clearing his eyes. "Because she's the one who damned me. And she came back to make sure I have a comfortable ride to Hell..."


"Whoops! Sorry, I was just thinking about your doctor friend."

"He's not exactly a friend."

"That's sort of what he said. He was kinda fuzzy around the edges, though. He on something?" she asked idly.

Jude groaned and collapsed back onto the chaise. "Fuck..." she muttered almost inaudibly, then she sat back up. "I'm sorry. Yeah, he's a junkie, that's why they revoked his license, but I thought he'd pretty much cleaned up."

"Well, he was mostly." Liz hesitated about relating her conversation, unsure what effect it would have on Jude's euphoric mood. "He just kinda faded out there near the end. He came in, took my stitches out, and we chatted for a little while. That's all."

"You sure?" Jude's eyes narrowed in concern. "If he was high when he got here, he might have left a stitch in there." She stood and took a tentative step towards Liz. "Would you mind if I took a look? Just to be sure?"

Liz was quite certain that Stephen had gotten the stitches out, even though he had seemed slightly spacey and had gotten downright spooky when he started talking about Jude. Liz however, welcomed the opportunity to feel the dark woman's hands on her again. "Sure," she agreed. "No sense in worrying over it." She slid the computer off her lap and onto the deck.

Jude knelt by her side and gently lifted the edge of Liz's green polo shirt, eyes flickering briefly to the reporter's face. "Sorry if I smell a little less than fresh," she teased, a playful light flashing in her eyes.

"Since you're ministering to me, I'll let it slide for now." Actually, Liz was enjoying the musky scent that came to her faintly on the breeze, hinting at the parts of Jude that still remained forbidden to the reporter. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the delicate feel of Jude's fingers dancing over the nearly healed wound.

"Looks great. You shouldn't scar," Jude approved, glancing at Liz's shuttered gaze. Smiling softly, she let her hands linger for a moment on the lissome muscles, absorbing the warmth of the slender woman's skin. "How does it feel?" she asked. "You still sore?"

Green eyes popped back open at the question and smiled reassuringly. "Not really. You've been taking good care of me," she bantered.

"My pleasure, ma'am," Jude replied quietly. She gently brushed the rumpled tail of Liz's shirt down over the khaki shorts and straightened it. A thoughtful silence balanced precariously between them as green and blue gazes mingled hesitantly. "Um... Elizabeth..." Jude rubbed a hand absently across her still-sweaty brow. "If you're feeling up to it... um... would you like to go out tonight? We could get out of the house for a little while," she offered tentatively. "But only if you want," she added. "I mean, I don't want you to think that you have to..."

Liz fought to keep at bay the stupid grin that threatened to run loose across her features. Jude sounded for all the world like a shy kid asking out her first date, and it was an unexpectedly endearing side to a woman who seemed to specialize in consummate control. "That sounds pretty good," she replied, managing to keep her voice casual. "Did you have anything in mind?"

"Nothing too complicated," Jude assured her. "I was just thinking-- you told me you used to shoot pool in college. You up for a game or two?"

Although Liz would have agreed to anything from mud wrestling to cockfighting just to spend time with Jude, the dark woman's suggestion was truly appealing. Around the Herald she had something of a reputation as a little hustler and usually won enough matches to keep her in free drinks whenever they played. "I think I could manage that," she said nonchalantly, a gleam in her eye.

Jude studied her for a moment then smiled, the expression reaching into the depths of her eyes and scattering a shining blue over Liz, whose heart lurched painfully at the vision. "Great, it's a date," Jude said lightly.

"Is it?" Liz teased.

A lazy smirk curled across Jude's lips, control firmly back in place. "You bet," she answered. "I've got a couple of errands to run first, but they shouldn't take long," she continued. "When I get back we can grab something to eat and then go play. Does that sound good?"

"I'll go you one better," Liz suggested. "Why don't I make something for dinner here while you're out and about? I'm a pretty good cook, if I do say so myself." She bounced to her feet and padded into the kitchen-- Jude and the menagerie trailing behind. Carmina had the day off, so Liz plundered unharassed through the housekeeper's kitchen, her face growing more clouded the deeper she went. "Of course... having some food here is usually a prerequisite for cooking."

"What do you mean?" Jude objected. "The market didn't deliver this morning? I could have sworn I saw them here."

"Well... Jude... yes... they did..." Liz spoke, opening random cabinets as she went and glancing at the rather mundane array of pasta, bread and vegetables. "But.. you don't exactly have a lot of... variety here..." A search of the refrigerator yielded similarly drab results.

Jude looked around sheepishly. "I eat in restaurants a lot."

"But what about when you want to eat at home?"

"Take out?" she offered hopefully.

The honey-haired woman clucked disapprovingly. "Drastic measures are called for here. I should have known better. Anyone who can 'phone in' her grocery order definitely would not understand."

"What does that mean?"

"Never you mind." Liz turned the tall woman around, pushing her out of the kitchen and towards the stairs.

"Hey wait..." Jude spluttered at being woman-handled in her own house.

"You just run your errands," Liz commanded. "Leave dinner to me," she admonished as Jude dutifully climbed the stairs towards the shower. "How long do you think you'll be?"

Jude ran though a mental list of the things she had to do and the things she could weasel out of. "Couple hours?"

"Perfect," Liz agreed. "Hey!" she called just before Jude disappeared into her bedroom. "Is it still okay if I borrow one of the cars in the garage?" Earlier in the week, Jude-- not wanting Liz to feel trapped-- had placed at the reporter's disposal both her other cars, a Ford Explorer and a Jaguar XJS.

"Sure," Jude shrugged. "The keys are on the control panel by the kitchen door. Help yourself."

"You're late." Kent drummed his fingers impatiently on the table's cheap Formica top as Jude slid into the seat opposite him.

"So sue me," Jude retorted, signaling the waitress. "Bourbon, neat," she ordered before turning back to Kent. "Have you got anything on the hit yet?"

"I'm fine, thank you Jude. Yourself?" he mocked. "I swear Lucien, your manners get worse every time I see you."

Jude sat back against the vinyl booth, an appraising cast in her eyes. "Something got your knickers in a twist, Kent?"

He waited until Jude's drink was settled in front of her then shrugged. "I'm getting a lot of heat to wind this operation up," he stated grimly.

Jude snorted derisively. "Since when? This op isn't on the books, and I'm not even supposed to exist in the eyes of the Agency. What gives?"

"The fact of the matter is, you do exist," he snapped. "To a lot of people. Did you really think the Archangel's return to the Agency would go unnoticed?"

"I'm not returning to the Agency," she replied coldly. "Got it? I get Massala and I'm gone. How many times do I have to tell you that?"

"Fine. Whatever. But they want you to do it now."

"Too fucking bad," she retorted. "I'm nowhere near ready to bring Massala in. Good God, Kent, we just sat down last week. You above everyone else should know that it's not going to happen overnight."

"Have you spoken with Massala since your meet?"


"Why not?"

"Enough!" she growled, the light in her eyes turning suddenly harsh as she leaned menacingly forward. "I am not some cherry that you can browbeat into submission. This is my game. My show. Without me, you'd have about as much chance of bringing Massala in as you'd have of getting the Pope to fuck Madonna on the altar at the Vatican. Now don't piss me off." She sat back again and smiled pleasantly. "Or I just might have to get nasty."

Kent ground his jaw together tightly, aware that everything she said was true. "There's just some.. concern... with the latest hit attempt."

"Speaking of which, have you found anything?" she asked again, downing her drink in a swallow.

"Nothing. And that's got me worried. Usually we hear just about anything that's going down."

Jude considered this for a moment, silently thinking that the Agency wasn't nearly as up on everything as they thought they were. "Okay, I'll put my people on it. I don't like doing it because if they get caught, this guy's gonna know I'm coming after him. Looks like I don't have a choice this time." She beat a quiet tattoo on the table top, mind racing. "We done here?"

Kent's face softened. "Hey, don't run off. I'm sorry I snapped at you. It's just the pressure I'm getting..." he trailed off.

"It's not a problem," she assured him. "I worked the pressure for a lotta years, remember?"

"Yeah," he grinned. "But it never seemed to get to you."

"Oh it got to me, all right. You just didn't see it," she answered, her thoughts wandering to her lost partner, who had seen what the pressure had done to the dark agent, and how it had terrified him.

He snorted cynically, a ...yeah, right... expression on his face. "I guess I'll have to take your word for it." He shifted in his seat. "Look, Tony and I are going over to Barrido del Mar, see Maria and have some calamari. Why don't you come with? I know Ria'd love to see you."

An oddly happy grin worked itself over her features at the thought of her plans with Elizabeth. "I'd love to, but I've got a date," she demurred.

Kent's brows shot up in surprise.

"Yup," she nodded. "An honest-to-goodness, no-business-I'm-just-going-out-with-her-because-I-like-her date."

"Wow..." he smiled. "Can I tell Maria? She'll be thrilled."

"Sure," she replied easily. "Why not? Tell her I said 'hi' and that I'll come see her next week. Okay?"

"She'll hold you to that."

"I know. I'll be there." Jude and Maria had made their peace over a year ago, forgiven each other for all the madness that had ensued after Jason's death-- finally letting go of the rage and the pain that had consumed them both, leaving only an aching guilt on Jude's part for the tragedy. For some reason though, tonight the thought of seeing Maria wasn't edged with the wracking sense of things lost that it usually was, and she wondered if the honey-haired woman had anything to do with that as well. Elegantly sliding from the booth, she touched Kent's arm briefly. "Thanks, I'll see you soon." Then she was gone, slipping back into the night.

  Jude returned to a house filled with seductive R&B rhythms pulsing softly through the stereo system and the tantalizing smells of sizzling chicken, spices, and tangy sauce. She nodded appreciatively at the music and followed the drifting tentacles of scent into the kitchen.

"Whoa..." she whispered to herself as she pushed open the galley doors.

Clearly, most of the preparation had already been done-- as the pile of pots, pans and cutting utensils in the sink testified. A glass of wine sat on the cook's island in the center of the room, along with a platter of nachos and a spicy-smelling dip that looked liberally laced with peppers. A matched set of plates, bowls, and eating implements sat neatly in the island's corner, waiting to be set. What held Jude captivated, however, was the auric vision dancing by the stove, oblivious to any scrutiny.

Elizabeth's hair was loose, tumbling wildly about her shoulders with each enticing sway. A burgundy long-sleeved shirt with a couple of buttons casually undone hinted at the full breasts hidden underneath the silk's softness, and it was tucked into a pair of faded blue jeans that seemed to wrap possessively around the length of the small woman's legs. Jude drank in the sight as one who had just emerged from the desert's heart might survey Shangri-La. With a simple touch, Elizabeth had turned this place-- Jude's fortress-- into a home thrumming with life, with heart, with desire.

Swamped by the recondite sensations, Jude opened her mouth to speak, only to discover her voice was nowhere to be found. Before she had a chance to try again, Elizabeth caught sight of her, emitting a startled yelp at the tall woman framed in the doorway.

"I didn't mean to scare you," Jude apologized softly, grateful her throat had decided to open.

"S'Okay," Elizabeth blushed. "I was just--"

"Dancing," Jude finished for her. "I enjoyed watching you."

Another violent blush seized the small woman's features, and her eyes burned unusually bright. "I-- um-- thanks."

"You went shopping," Jude observed, sliding into the kitchen and letting the door fall shut behind her.

"Yeah... You just can't play pool in khakis, you know?"

Jude glanced at her own tailored slacks, suddenly inspired by Elizabeth's example. "How long do I have before dinner?"

"Stuff's gotta bake for about 45 more minutes. I made us something to snack on in the meantime, though." She gestured to the tray on the island.

Snagging a chip and dousing it liberally in the dip, Jude moaned in delight as she swallowed. "Mmm... Those are great, Liz. How about I get changed and then make a pitcher of margaritas to go with this? I may not cook, but I'm a helluva bartender," she grinned.

"Deal," the small woman agreed, sending Jude off to change.

Once upstairs, a quick shower freshened her from the sticky drive home, and she dried her hair in record time, letting it fall just as freely as Liz's did. She then pulled a favorite pair of button-fly jeans from the closet. "Can't go wrong with 501s," she muttered to herself, relishing the feel of the worn fabric across her body. Her skin sang with awareness this evening, sensitive even to the fluttering breeze generated by the ceiling fans in her bedroom. Tapping her foot on the thickly padded carpet as she stood at the door of her closet, she perused the rows of shirts and the stack of T-shirts that Carmina had neatly organized by color until her eyes lit with sensual glee. "Perfect." Smiling to herself, she pulled the leather vest off its padded hanger and slipped it over her shoulders, buttoning it rapidly. Scuffed black boots and a matching leather belt completed her look. "Not bad," she commented, peering one last time in the mirror and running long fingers through her hair, settling a few recalcitrant strands into place. "Hope you like it, Elizabeth," she whispered.

Liz had moved to the living room while dinner finished baking and was investigating Jude's extensive CD collection when she heard the dark woman clattering down the stairs. "You have the most amazing sound system," she called over her shoulder, not turning around. "I've never heard anything like it."

"Thanks," came the quiet reply. "I had the same people who wired the Club install it."

"Is that where you get all your CDs?" Liz stood, gesturing to the neatly shelved rows of discs. "I can't imagine that you have time to shop for all these." She spun around, her gaze finally landing on her date for the evening. "Oh my..." The words dropped unexpectedly from her lips, her eyes traveling up the length of Jude's long body and back down again. From booted foot to leather-clad shoulders, Jude was every bad girl fantasy Liz had ever had come to vivid, dazzling life. "This is... nice..." she breathed, stepping closer and letting her fingers brush across the black leather of Jude's vest.

"You like?" Jude murmured, eyes half-closing at the bare touch of Liz's fingers. They drifted over the leather and down her shoulder, tracing the curve of a bicep and finally coming to rest on her forearm.

"I like."

The women spent a soundless moment just absorbing the closeness between them. The resolute bands of control that kept Jude's soul shuttered wrenched violently-- corroded by the washing of memories of her bond with Jason and by the quiet days of conversation that she and Elizabeth had already shared-- and Jude realized with a gut-churning clarity that her desire for this woman was rapidly surpassing want and coming precariously close to need. Despite Jude's resolve to the contrary, Elizabeth was sinking into her-- skin and bone, muscle and blood.

The words made flesh, Jude thought dizzily as she realized her arms were around the honey-haired woman, and Elizabeth was nuzzling her throat, teeth nipping tenderly at the flaring pulse point. How did this happen? Her head instinctively fell back, opening itself to the invader's assault. Slim hands roamed the breadth of her shoulders, circling delicately as the lips found purchase on bronze skin. Her own fingers tangled in the blond hair shimmering with the devil's highlights and guided the questing mouth to her own.

Yes... her mind breathed in a sibilant whisper. Elizabeth's full lips parted to meet hers, and there was a subtle pause before Jude began falling into the exquisite softness of the welcoming mouth.

Their first hesitant kiss gave way to increasingly confident ones, and a moan rippled from Jude's throat as the small woman's tongue made its way into her mouth, searching, coaxing and teasing Jude with its sweetness. A hunger that had nothing to do with the spicy smells emanating from the kitchen roared up in Jude's body with bewildering force, jolting the dark woman into awareness of her surroundings.

She drew her mouth away gently, loathe to leave the lush warmth of Elizabeth's lips. The small woman groaned in protest and opened eyes opaque with arousal to gaze at her questioningly. Jude spoke with an unsteady voice. "Slowing down, yes. Stopping, no," she teased.

"Okay, okay," Elizabeth breathed. "I get it. I don't have to like it, but I get it," she grumbled good-naturedly. "I've wanted to do that since I laid eyes on you," she confessed, resting her head on Jude's chest and smiling at the frantic cadence of the heart underneath her ear.

"Me too," Jude admitted softly. "I just didn't think..." It would feel like this... so terrifyingly good and right. She glanced down the length of their bodies, arms and legs entwined so tightly that not even the tiniest molecule could pass between them.

"Didn't think what?" Elizabeth prompted.

"That it would be such a good idea for you to get involved with me," Jude covered smoothly. Just having these feelings was unsettling enough to the dark woman, but speaking of them to Elizabeth at this point was unthinkable.

"Because of your... exotic profession."

"Yeah," Jude chuckled, a low, vibrant sound that rumbled into Elizabeth's hearing. "Something like that."

"Jude?" Elizabeth looked up, the warm depths of her mossy eyes finding Jude's gaze and holding it. "Don't try and make my decisions for me." The words were soft, but there was no mistaking the obdurate tone behind them. "I won't tolerate it," she continued, gaining momentum from her indignation. "The only reason for you not to get involved with me is because you don't want me. I realize that the path you've traveled has been wildly different from mine. But that doesn't make me stupid. Or naive." She leveled an intense stare at the woman in her arms. "Or ignorant of exactly what you are." Jude watched the honey-haired woman with amazement. She had expected strength from Elizabeth, but certainly not this powerful will that-- she was beginning to suspect-- rivaled her own. "Do you understand me?"

The final question yanked Jude from her surprise and back into the small woman's eyes. "I understand you, Elizabeth, but I can't help but... worry." Her hand ran down Elizabeth's side and pressed softly against the wound hidden beneath the jeans. "You got shot just for knowing me. Imagine what might happen if you became..." she hesitated, "Something more." Time to fess up, Angel, Jason's voice crooned in her ear. She's already something more... or else you wouldn't be feeling like this... What's it like...? his voice asked soft and low in her ear, To finally feel yourself falling in love...? Jude swallowed hard at the words clamoring for release that were lodged in her throat .

Liz, seeing the conflict roiling in the azure pools of Jude's eyes, sought to ease the intensity that was part raw desire and part animal fear. "Well, at least I won't have to worry about getting bored with you around," she grinned winningly. "Now that you've shown me the downside of dating you," she patted the hand that covered her wounded side. "Why don't you show me the perks? I believe you owe me at least a night on the town, Ms. Lucien."

It was an invitation to put down whatever burdens the tall woman might be shouldering and come out to play. The combination of Elizabeth's radiant smile and the warm feel of the lithe body in her arms made Jude helpless to resist. She bent down and tangled her lips sensually with Liz's for a moment. "Show me the way, lady," she whispered, breaking the kiss. "Show me the way."

"You are trying to sabotage me," Jude groaned two hours later as they climbed into the Boxster.

"Whatever do you mean?" Liz batted her eyelashes innocently.

"That dinner," Jude grinned, buckling her seat belt and cranking the engine to purring life. “I can't remember the last time I ate so much. When we get to the hall, I'm going to bend down to take a shot and fall over. I'm stuffed."

"Then I take it you liked my Fire-Breathing Dragon Enchiladas?"

"Loved them. Don't tell Carmina. She'll be insanely jealous. She says I don't eat enough."

Liz frowned and poked Jude in the stomach and ribs. "She's right. You're nothing but muscle and bones."

"I thought it was skin and bones," Jude objected.

"Not in your case."

The Boxster carried them to the edge of the drive, where Jude paused momentarily before launching them into the night. The sun had taken the worst of the heat with its departure, but the earth still glowed warmly from its ministrations, and Jude was grateful for her bare arms as the wind whipped past.

"You mind if I pick out some tunes?" Liz asked, holding up the slim CD case that normally rested in the Boxster's passenger seat.

"Not at all."

Liz flipped thoughtfully through the case, taking note of the selections-- which leaned heavily towards blues and jazz, with a couple of classic rock artists thrown in for good measure-- but one disc brought her up short. "No way!" she laughed.

Jude shot a questioning brow in her direction.

"The Bee Gees?" she asked incredulously. "You gotta be kidding me?!"   The dark woman laughed ruefully. "It's a long story."

"Spill it," Liz commanded.

"Okay... about five years ago, I was stuck in this tiny Mexican village waiting on a contact who was late. Way late." Way dead, you mean... but I think that would pretty much kill the mood we've got going here.  "So there I was... waiting on him with nothing but a paperback copy of Wuthering Heights and this little transistor radio that only picked up one station. KRZY-- Where it's all disco, all the time!" she intoned in a faux announcer's voice. "For two weeks all I did was read Bronte and listen to 'Staying Alive' and 'Night Fever.' By the end of the first week I had memorized the book, and by the end of the second I was singing along with the radio. Enthusiastically. I've had a weakness for the stuff ever since." Of course it was either stay in my room and sing with the radio or start trying to make time with the putas who were the only people who would talk to me.

"Did you say sing along?" A sly grin creased Liz's face as she slid the disc into the player and punched the select button. "I've gotta hear this."

It only took a few seconds for Jude to recognize the song before she joined in, a perfect falsetto blending with that of the Brothers Gibb. Liz laughed in delight at the revelation of this whimsical side of her companion and insisted the impromptu concert continue all the way to the pool hall.

The Boxster took them to a seedy-looking set of streets, far away from the neon and glitter that Liz associated with Jude, to a nondescript row of bars with no names on them. Liz looked around them doubtfully, glancing at her escort with a question in her eyes.

Jude laughed easily as she slid out of the car and stepped around to open Liz's door. "Don't worry. You're safe with me," she murmured close to the smaller woman's ear.

A pleasant shiver darted across her skin at the intimate promise in Jude's tone. "I'm not worried about me," she assured the dark woman. "But your car-- that's another matter." Her eyes couldn't help but wander to the predatory glances of the men standing in the shadowy corners. Parked proprietarily in front of a tow zone, the Boxster was a taunting symbol of a prosperity that didn't reach these streets.

Jude waved away her concern with an elegant hand. "Nah... they know me." Then she added, "I grew up here." She grinned, seeing the astonished look on Liz's face. "This one," she pointed to an unmarked green door, opening it for her companion to pass through.

Mick Jagger pleaded for sympathy for the devil as they entered the hall. Used to the thronging crowds of her own local yuppie pub, Liz expected the place to be teeming with boisterous people relieved that the weekend had finally arrived. What she found instead was a fairly full establishment, where the conversation was muted by the rapid click of balls rebounding off each other. They weren't the only women in the bar, but close enough so that Liz felt the wandering gaze of the bar's patrons. Jude, however, seemed oblivious to them all as she guided Liz confidently through the maze of tables to the bar.

A wizened old man whose age the reporter would have put at anywhere from 70 to ageless caught sight of them as they approached. Of course six feet of somebody like Jude Lucien is almost impossible to miss, Liz thought appreciatively, glancing once more at the sculpted profile of the woman beside her. The faint smell of leather and the woman's own spicy scent curled at the edge of Liz's senses, and she fought the urge to find someplace-- anyplace-- to rest her hands on Jude's body.

"Girlie!" the old man cackled gleefully. "Didn't think you was ever goin to come back round."

"Nickie, how you doing?" Jude's voice had shifted cadences, dropping an octave, and was now tinged with a throaty growl.

"Acrk-- you know these boys-- punks tryin to take what don't belong to them--" He waved his hands in a dismissive and vaguely obscene gesture. "But I'm still here!" he chortled.

"Somebody trying to hustle you, Nickie?" Jude asked, a mirthful light dancing in her eyes.

"Ain't nobody able to hustle me," Nickie objected vociferously, then he laughed knowingly. "Cept you... and you weren't nothing but a punk back then yerself. That pretty face of yours tricked me, sat's all." The pair shared a laugh, and then Nickie's eyes left Jude's imposing form to focus intently on the woman tucked neatly at her side. "Where's yer manners, girlie?" To Liz's astonishment, the old man reached out an imperious hand and smacked Jude smartly on her arm.

The dealer just looked amused. "You know, a lot of people are asking me that today," she said cryptically. "Pardon me. Nickie, this is Elizabeth Peterson."

"Hi," Liz smiled.

Nickie's eyes narrowed to slits as he appraised her, nodding to himself. "Yer a pretty one too," he nodded. "You gotta handle on this one here?" He jerked a thumb in Jude's direction.

"Hey!" Jude protested.

"I'm trying," Liz laughed at Jude's scowl. "But it's hard." She smiled at Jude, feeling a quiet jolt as their eyes met over the old man's head.

Nickie shook his head knowingly. "She's a slippery one. You watch her," he solemnly warned.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah-- everybody's a critic." Jude rolled her eyes and slung a long arm comfortably around Liz's shoulders. "I don't need you giving her any pointers on how to handle me, old man. Now, you gotta table for us or do I have to move one of the punks myself?"

"I'll get you a table. I don't need you tossin’ anybody else through my front windows," Nickie proclaimed, bustling from behind the counter and heading towards the rows of tables.

"Hey Nickie!" A man dressed in stained and faded work coveralls shouted. "We need another round down here!"

The old man muttered something unrecognizable and jerked his head at Jude. "Get them for me, girlie. Everything's still in the same place."

"Do I look like the help around here?" Jude retorted as the old man shuffled away.

"Close enough, apparently." Liz reached up and squeezed the hand that dangled off her shoulders.

"Uh... sorry," Jude murmured. "I wasn't thinking when I..."

"And I wasn't complaining." Green eyes caressed the smooth lines of Jude's face, absorbing its tiny details-- the dark speckles in the pale blue eyes, the thickness of the lashes blinking at her-- things that, until now, she had not been allowed the luxury of experiencing up close.

Jude opened her mouth to speak, but the clamoring calls of "somebody, dammit, get us another round" interrupted anything she had been about to say. Liz gritted her teeth, annoyed enough to go over and smack the owner of the offending voice, but Jude merely smiled as if to say time... and stepped behind the bar with quiet ease.

"Hey, get me a tequila shooter while you're back there!" Liz grinned impishly at her date.

Jude shook her head, drawing three beers off the tap and expertly sliding them down the length of the bar.

"That's more like it," the men grunted appreciatively, taking in Jude's sleek figure.

"You Nickie's new help?" the boldest one asked her.

Jude arched a sardonic brow, listening to their patter.

"Yeah, ‘bout time he classed up the joint."

"I love a woman in leather."

"Ain't seen the likes of you around here."

A crowd was beginning to gather, drawn by the increasingly raucous group at the center of the bar. Aware of the emerald gaze upon her from the far end of the bar, Jude moved with elegant precision, racking her memory for the drinks' ingredients as more and more exotic calls came to the dark woman.

"Come on, baby, give me a tall cool one."

"Sex on the beach, honey, can you make it?"

"A buttery nipple sounds good right about now."

Another quick glance down the bar... Elizabeth was smiling openly at her now, and warm light pulsing in those green eyes.  A fierce grin broke across her face. Instead of groaning at the atrocious puns tossed at her, she began delivering the drinks with cheeky replies of her own, teasing the other customers unmercifully. Nickie's tip jar began to fill rapidly.

"Hey, bartender..." A sweet voice from the honey-haired vision watching the show caught her attention. "Can I get some service down here?"

Jude sauntered the length of the bar, a smirk meandering across her face. Propping a long arm on the edge of the counter, she crossed her legs at the ankle, providing an inspiring six-foot vision for the boys at the bar. "What can I get you, darlin'?" she drawled.

"I thought I ordered a tequila shooter," Liz replied archly, crossing her arms. Jude's bare arms glimmered in the dim bar light, the strong muscles finely delineated. She had a sudden flash of those hands, those arms moving against her, over her... pushing her... Whoa right there... Lizzy. Too many margaritas at dinner? Forcing her mind back on track, she slowly licked her lips. "So what do I have to do around here to get a decent drink?"

Jude smiled recklessly and placed her hands on her hips. "One tequila shooter... coming up." She held up a bottle. "You want Cuervo Gold? Or the house brand?"

"I only want the best," Liz shot back saucily.

An eyebrow curled upwards in amusement as Jude replied, "Then you came to the right place, querida." She long-poured the shot into a glass and reached into the cooler for a lime which she neatly sliced into quarters and placed the items in front of her customer.

"You forgot the salt."

Jude glanced down at the glass' barren ri and then back up at green eyes dancing with amusement. "No I didn't..." Thinking rapidly, she held up two fingers in front of Liz. "Open up," she softly commanded.

The honey-haired woman obeyed silently, feeling her heart pounding rapidly in its cage. Jude slipped her fingers past Liz's lips, not quite able to swallow the groan that surged forth as their lengths were enveloped by the heat of her companion's mouth. Liz took full advantage of the invasion, brushing her tongue along the sensitive flesh and only reluctantly releasing her hold as Jude tugged them free. Jude swiftly ran the digits through the margarita salt and offered them once more to the smaller woman. "Ready?" she asked hoarsely.

Liz could only nod as she picked up the drink. Her lips parted, welcoming Jude's offering. The sting of the salt overwhelmed the sweet taste of skin as Jude's fingers abandoned her once more. She quickly downed the tequila, sitting the glass on the counter with a thump. Her eyes watered at the alcohol's bite, and her senses-- already in exquisite torment-- flared even more.

"You forgot the lime," Jude teased softly.

Liz's eyes flickered to the wedge resting on the bar's surface and shrugged.

"You'll remember it next time?" Jude offered.

Their eyes met for a brief, sensual moment, and Liz grinned shakily. "I don't know if I could survive a next time," she admitted.

"What's goin on here?" Nickie came blustering back behind the bar, interrupting their rapport. "I turn my back for one second and yer puttin on a naughty show?" Nickie shook his head reproachfully, but his eyes were grinning. "Git out from behind my bar," he shooed Jude from her perch.

"But look, Nick, I made you some money," Jude gestured to the now overflowing tip jars.

"You cost me a lotta money," Nickie snorted. "Now git. Yer at table 6 in the corner. Cues on the wall. Git."

Jude reached around Nickie's diminutive form and grabbed the Cuervo, two glasses and a jug of orange juice from the cooler. "That way you don't have to worry about us," she assured him.

"Yer takin’ my best stuff," he mock protested, hands on hips.

"Like any of these guys are gonna notice?" Jude logically pointed out. "Give 'em a beer and tell 'em to talk to me if they have a problem." Joining Liz on the other side of the bar, she nodded towards the back. "Come on, its back here."

"And I don't wanna see anymore of that kinky stuff in my bar!" he called as they sauntered over to the table.

Jude sat their stash on a convenient table as Liz strolled to the wall and weighed a number of cues in her hand before settling on one. Jude watched with ill-concealed surprise as her companion went to the table and expertly racked the balls, looking at the dark woman with an expectant gaze. "You wanna break?" she asked in a velvet voice.

Jude swallowed hard at both the sight and the sound of the honey-haired woman, wondering for the first time what the hell she had gotten herself into. "You go ahead," she managed before walking to the wall and selecting a cue for herself. A sharp smack of balls slamming together took her attention from the shapely form bent over the table to the green itself where the balls ricocheted off each other.

"You're stripes," Liz commented, before angling herself for another shot. The cue ball snicked against the red two ball, sending it neatly into the side pocket. "Oh, I forgot to ask, do you want to call our shots?" she asked innocently.

Jude's brows launched themselves skyward as she regarded her companion anew. Another player, who had been watching the pair with calculating eyes, chuckled softly. "Looks like you're about to get yourself hustled," he commented over Jude's shoulder.

Jude pursed her lips. "Seems that way, doesn't it?"

  "Where on earth did you learn to play pool like that?" Liz asked hours later as they sprawled lazily on the deck outside Jude's home.

The pair had discovered during the course of their evening that they were almost evenly matched on the pool table. Whenever Liz would have a spectacular run and think she had Jude on the ropes, her companion would come back with a skillful run of her own and balance the score. Eventually they had lost count of how many games they had played and just relished the competition. Their combined skill had attracted the attention of several of the better players in the hall, but all inquires for matches were politely declined. Neither woman was tired when Nickie eventually ran them out in the early hours of the morning, so when they arrived back at the house, Jude led them to the deck where they could watch the waves washing up on shore.

"I was going to ask you the same thing," the dark woman replied.

Liz shrugged and laughed softly. "My parents had a table in the downstairs den."

"Ah..." Jude's voice echoed in the darkness. The tall woman was swathed in shadows, sitting in the chair farthest away from the swimming pool's edge. Liz had taken off her shoes, rolled up her pant legs, and was dangling her feet in the water. Moonlight glanced off the golden light of her hair, creating a halo that-- in her current condition-- Jude wasn't totally convinced was illusory.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Liz arched back to peer into the shadows, only able to see the barest glint of Jude's pale eyes in the darkness.

A contralto laugh wove through the night, mixing seductively with quiet murmur of the surf. "Don't get mad. It's just a million miles away from where I learned, that's all."

"You talk like we're from different planets."

"We might as well be," Jude sighed. There was a wistful tone in the voice from the darkness that made Liz's awareness prickle. The whole night had been so sweet, and the honey-haired woman was damned if she was going to let it slip away in the agent's unspoken doubts.

"Oh no you don't," Liz warned, standing with a rolling motion and stalking into the heart of the shadows. The dark woman had stretched her long legs out, and Liz strode right up to the edge of Jude's seat, her thighs brushing the edges of the chair. She could feel the pressure of Jude's legs between her own, and the dizzying sensation momentarily distracted her from her anger. A brutally fierce urge to know the power of those sleek muscles wrapping around her waist almost threatened to overwhelm her purpose, but she pulled herself back from the brink of the sensual purgatory. "No you don't," she repeated forcefully, feeling the hands that rose to encircle her stop abruptly at the determination in her voice.

"Don't what?" Jude asked hoarsely.

"Pull that 'I'm not good for you bullshit' out again," Liz sighed. "We've known each other seven days and you've done that three times. Twice today. And if you don't stop it, I'm going to--" Her voice ebbed in frustration. Her mind was filled everything she had learned about the woman below her, making her aware that there were still so many things that she didn't know-- couldn't know really-- unless Jude decided to tell her. That meant letting her in. And, she realized with a burst of painful clarity, she really wanted in, wanted to know Jude Lucien-- newspaper article or book deal be damned. The laughing, teasing woman she had glimpsed tonight only made her hunger for more, just as the tantalizing caress of the dark woman's lips and hands made her crave their full embrace. But the craving had to be mutual, or else it would never work. There was just too much to overcome for both of them for it to happen any other way. "Or I'll just have to give up," she finished softly, sadly.

Liz backed away a step before graceful hands came up to stop her. "Don't," Jude whispered. Long fingers curled tightly in the rough fabric of Liz's jeans for an endless moment before a dark head was pressed against her stomach. “Don’t give up.”

It wasn't a calculated tease or an overture. It was a plea-- plain and simple-- for Liz to have faith in something she couldn't see. So, the honey-haired woman did the only thing she could do-- the only thing her heart would tolerate-- she responded to that call. "I won't."  

Chapter 7

For the second time in as many weeks, Jude overlooked the sun as it swaggered into the day in favor of standing in a doorway, watching Elizabeth's sleeping form. She studied the supple lines of the woman sprawled across the width of the bed, wondering what on earth it was about her that had such a devastating effect on the dark woman's defenses.

Jason had always been fond of saying that an avalanche started with just a single stone; and-- Jude thought ruefully-- it looked like in this case, he was right. Last night, that single, choked plea had been all that she had been able to force out through lungs suddenly constricted from lack of breath.  But it had been enough to set Jude's emotions into a free-fall that she seemed helpless to stop. Time had ground to a halt when felt those small fingers running through her hair and over her back in gentling circles. Jude didn't know how long their embrace had lasted; but somehow she eventually found herself standing at her own bedroom door, Elizabeth's hands clasped in her own. "We'll talk tomorrow," the honey-haired woman had promised before depositing a sweetly chaste kiss on her lips and moving down the hall.

Although exhausted, sleep had deserted Jude at that point, and even Anna Karenina couldn't distract her. A hot shower had proven equally useless. Finally in exasperation, she had thrown on a pair of sweats and a T-shirt and left the room, intent on prowling the kitchen and rescuing some leftovers. Her steps, however, had led in the opposite direction, to the open door where her guest slept, along with the canine portion of the household.

The sun flashed roseate warning lights to herald its impending arrival, but the flicker of muscles in Elizabeth's outflung arm had captured Jude's intent gaze instead. She must be dreaming. The movement dislodged Pete who rose unsteadily, his legs still heavy with sleep. The small dog lost his balance on the uneven tangle of blankets and fell against Elizabeth with a muffled thump. "Wha--?" A golden head rose from its comfortable nest and surveyed the immediate surroundings. "Hi," she said softly, spying Jude's tall frame. The honey-haired woman scratched Pete's ears absently, and the dog curled up next to her again with a contented sigh.

An exultant kernel of happiness exploded in Jude's belly, bathing her in light that-- had it been visible-- would have rivaled anything the sun could have dared to offer. "You seem to have bewitched my dogs," she observed. Clytemnestra lifted a dreamy head, brown eyes flickering guiltily as she saw her mistress.

"Oops..." Elizabeth apologized, not looking repentant in the least.

"Well," Jude drawled, "I can't fault their taste, that's for sure."

That earned her a sleepy smile, as the small woman ran a hand through her tousled hair and narrowed her eyes at Jude. "Have you slept at all?"

The dark woman shrugged. "Some," she fibbed.

"What time is it?"

"A little before dawn."

Elizabeth chewed her lip for a moment. "Come here."

Jude hesitated, then covered the distance in three long strides, stopping at the edge of the bed.

"No, I said come here," Elizabeth commanded in a quiet voice that brooked no resistance. Pulling the covers back and sliding over, she dislodged a grumpy Pete who stumbled to the edge of the bed, flopping back down next to Aggie who had yet to stir in all the commotion.

The dark woman remained still, staring dumbly at her. Green eyes sought hers, coaxing the reluctance from her body, soothing Jude with the verdant lushness of her gaze. Surrendering to the sweet promise held out to her, she shucked the sweats from her long legs and slipped into the warmth of Elizabeth's bed.

"There," the small woman murmured when Jude was settled quite snugly in her arms. "Isn't that better?"

But the dark woman was already asleep, her breathing steady and even, all awareness lost to dreams of a fair-haired man and a green-eyed woman laughing with her in the sun.

Time waits for no woman, even one as exhausted as Jude, and the next time the dark woman returned to the land of the waking, the sun was industriously dousing the world in a painfully brilliant light. "Arrgghh..." she growled, narrowing her eyes to bare slits in a vain attempt to ward off the day's luminescence. Failing that, she dropped her head back to its resting-place, nestled in the dim softness between Elizabeth's shoulder and neck, burrowing close to the pliant skin.

A gentle laugh tickled her hearing, accompanied by the slight ripple of muscles underneath her hand. "You awake?" Elizabeth asked.

"Barely," Jude grunted.

Another laugh, and this time Jude raised her head far enough to see amused green eyes sparkling back at her. "Go back to sleep," the smaller woman urged. "I don't have anywhere to be."

A quick downward glance revealed that in her sleep, Jude had staked unwitting claim to the lissome body beneath her. The graceful fingers of one hand had pushed up the edge of Elizabeth's T-shirt and were now splayed lazily across an expanse of bare abdomen, while a powerful thigh draped across the smaller woman's hips, tucking them neatly against her own. "That's probably a good thing," Jude noted wryly. "Because I doubt you could move even if you wanted to."

"Do you hear me complaining?" Elizabeth snickered, her fingers playing idly in Jude's hair.

Jude knew alarm bells should be shrieking in her psyche, that she should disentangle herself from this embrace in more ways than one. But her body quite simply refused to obey, and she remained incongruously cradled by this small woman's strong arms. "What time is it, anyway?" she yawned.

Elizabeth craned her head around Jude to peek at the digital numbers on the clock. "A little past noon."

"Oh, Christ," Jude swore quietly. "Half the day's gone."


Jude looked crossly at her bunkmate. "I have things I need to do," she replied, confused by the vaguely petulant tone in her own voice.

The honey-haired woman chuckled. "I know, I know. Bank heists to plan, jewelry stores to knock off," she teased, blithely ignoring Jude's skyrocketing brows. "Come on, Jude, its Sunday. I thought one of the advantages of not playing by the rules was getting to make your own. And that, my bandit friend, means taking a day off when you want to."

Green eyes danced in merriment at Jude's poleaxed countenance. "I do not knock off jewelry stores," she muttered darkly. "You really do believe in living on the edge, don't you?"   "Hey, my motto is-- See a bear in the woods, walk up and poke it with a stick," Elizabeth agreed cheerfully.

"What happens if you piss the bear off?"

Elizabeth half sat-up and braced on one muscular arm, twisting her torso so that she could regard Jude from above. "I run like hell." She studied the play of expressions over the dark woman's face. "Do I need to get my track shoes on?"

Cool blue silently took the measure of the woman still tangled around her-- absorbing the deceptive strength of the body pressed against her, the quiet wisdom of the emerald gaze, and what both things were coming to mean to her. Her face relaxed into a disbelieving grin. "Nah... not unless you plan on joining me for a run on my 'day off,'" she replied lightly. Another iron band of will crumbled under the tender assault of emotion, and Jude absently wondered why it seemed so easy to just follow out this path-- wherever it might lead. "So what exactly did you have in mind for today?"

Elizabeth looked thoughtful. "Oh, I don't know. It's supposed to be awfully hot today. I thought maybe we'd go to the movies and find some three hour epic to while away the worst of the afternoon's heat. Then we could find some nice cool place with a couple of nice cool drinks and hole up. What do you think?"

"I think it sounds like a plan. But I do have one question." On cue, a loud complaint rumbled from Jude's stomach. "What's for breakfast?"

"Huevos Rancheros."

Liz's hands were a blur as she sliced, diced, and shredded her way though what looked like most of the fresh vegetables in the Sunshine state. Huge piles of tomatoes, onions, and lettuce littered the cook's island, and pairs of eggs gently fried sunny-side up in the large nonstick pan on the oven.

"So..." Jude nibbled on the hunk of cheddar cheese that Liz had thrust into her mouth when she returned to the kitchen after a shower. "Where did you learn to cook Mexican?" She surveyed the reporter's blond hair and green eyes and laughed. "Since you have got to be one of the whitest girls in America."

The honey-haired woman chuckled in agreement with the description. "Truthfully? My father was in the Diplomatic Corps. And that meant that my brother and I were mostly raised by a succession of nannies and housekeepers-- which changed, of course, every time he got a new assignment. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my keepers. We were stationed in several Latin American countries, I guess I just picked it up." Liz shrugged lightly, not sure how Jude would take the news of her privileged upbringing. From the little information available about the ex-agent's past, she knew Jude hadn't had much of a home, if any, growing up; and last night's muttered comment about being from two different worlds nagged at her. When talking about her youth, Liz had so far skirted around the circumstances of her upbringing, preferring to discuss instead her friends and life apart from the cold confines of the Gardener family. She glanced up to see thoughtful eyes studying her.

"Diplomatic Corps, huh?" Jude flicked her gaze back to the cook's island where she industriously rubbed at a non-existent stain on the wood. "Guess you got to see a lot of the world growing up." There was nothing mocking in the dark woman's words, just an inexplicably wistful tone that the reporter didn't understand.

"Guess I did," Liz agreed. Blue eyes returned to reveal a disarmingly open expression that Liz had never seen before. She fought to keep her breathing steady and even, recognizing that she was learning something about Jude Lucien that no computer file or newspaper article would ever know.

"What was that like?" Jude asked softly. The question seemed to slip out before the dark woman even noticed, but the sound of the words falling through the air sent an embarrassed flush spreading across the bronze features. "I mean," she shifted uneasily, as if caught admitting something shameful. "I never really left the state of Florida until I was twenty. Wait... that's not true," she corrected herself. "I did go to Georgia once with my sixth grade class to see Stone Mountain."

There was nothing that Jude could have said that could have possibly made her more vulnerable to Liz at that moment. With a terrifying clarity, the reporter realized that Jude was awkwardly trying to strip off the lacquered mystique that had-- until now-- carefully protected the brooding agent. Unsure of what she could say to acknowledge such a precious gesture, Liz brought her fingers to Jude's face and gently stroked the curve of an elegant cheek. "And here I thought you'd seen everything," she teased.

A quiet smile played over the elegant lines of Jude’s mouth. "You don't need to leave Florida to do that," Jude assured the reporter. She nodded to the frying pan. "Those eggs about done?"

"Eggs?" Liz shook her head swiftly to clear it. "Oh... right... eggs... Yep, hand me those plates, will you?"

The slight tension ebbed away while they piled their plates high with Liz's breakfast concoction and settled themselves comfortably at the round oak table. Although she wanted desperately to continue down the path they had begun, the reporter instinctively knew that if she pushed Jude too hard those delicate layers that were peeling away would seal back up, and the smooth varnish of Jude's persona would conceal any evidence that they had ever existed.

Much to the honey-haired woman's surprise, the agent showed no reticence in returning to their conversation. "I pretty much grew up on the streets," Jude commented between mouthfuls of huevos rancheros. "As if you couldn't tell," she chuckled.

"You can't," Liz replied half-truthfully. Although camouflaged by indisputably impeccable manners, the blacksteel core of Jude’s time on the street remained visible in every supple movement of the dark woman’s form.

If Jude was aware of her friend’s fib, she let it slide. "My mother would be thrilled," the agent deadpanned. "She was always after me to act like a lady. Don't know why, really. It's not as if we had two dimes to rub together, and the neighbors already considered her a whore." There was a faded bitterness in Jude's voice, as if she had just grown too tired to carry the indignation any longer.

"What about your father?"

"Never had the pleasure of meeting the man, myself." She shrugged in elaborate nonchalance, rising and pouring herself another cup of coffee. Holding the pot up in an unspoken question, she refilled the reporter's cup as well at Liz’s nod. "I never knew anything about him. How they met. Nothing.” A pale blue eyes seemed suddenly very far away. “I saw a picture of them, once though. Standing together on the beach. He was tall-- a lot taller than her, and she wasn't a small woman-- and broad shouldered, with hair black as anything I ever saw, and ginger colored skin that seemed to glow in the sun." She shook her head. "He was a beautiful man." Her gaze found Liz's, and the dark woman smiled ruefully. The reporter wondered if her friend realized she might have been describing herself. "I got my mother's eyes, though," Jude considered absently. "When I found the picture, I couldn't believe that my mother had kept it all those years. I mean I was a walking reminder of her wrong as it was."

"Maybe she loved him," Liz tentatively offered.

Jude snorted derisively. "I never knew her to love anything except God.” Then her face twisted, softening in spite of itself. “She never really had a chance, I guess. She was sixteen when she got pregnant, and her family tossed her out.  Thanks to her brother the priest, she ended up at some home for unwed mothers.” Her eyes hardened in memory. “From that day on, the fucking Catholic Church owned her. Convinced her that the only way she would ever atone for her grievous wrong was to prostrate herself daily at the Lord's feet-- priest's feet is more like it."

"She could have given you up, but she didn't, " Liz pointed out.

Jude ran a hand through the glossy sheaf of her hair and sighed as if tired of the discussion. "You're right. And I guess she did love me, on some level. But I was also her cross to bear on the path of atonement.” She intoned mockingly, “The burden that once picked up can never be put down. The priest never let her forget that I was the issue of sin-- and as I got older, I did everything in my power to live up to that title."

"A wild child, huh?" Liz teased, trying to scatter the foreboding clouds that had dotted the clear blue of Jude's eyes.

"Oh yeah," Jude sighed again with a wry smile and glanced at her watch. "Come on. I'll tell you all about it after the movie. We need to go if we're going to make it to the theater on time."

If Jude had stopped to think about it, she would have realized that it was probably the most peaceful day she had spent in the last five years. Elizabeth had chosen a light-hearted, but literate, romantic comedy as their oasis from the racking July heat, and sitting in the theater, Jude fought off the desperately silly urge to put her arm around the honey-haired woman in the darkness. Throughout the movie she almost succumbed to several such ridiculous gestures, until finally as they were leaving the theater, she conceded the mental battle and clasped Elizabeth's slim hand in her own, guiding her through the large Sunday afternoon crowd.

"Where to now, o mighty planner of my day off?" Jude bantered, firing up the Boxster's engines.

"Someplace cool and dark," Elizabeth replied, falling into the game and gesturing regally with her hand. "With a view of the ocean," she added as an afterthought.

The dark woman touched a hand to the imaginary brim of a hat. "As you wish, ma'am."   As they drove in a relaxed silence, Jude allowed her mind to run free with the exuberant sensations of the last two days. The ease with which she had fallen asleep in Elizabeth's arms told her more than any amount of internal debate ever could about what she wanted from the slender woman. She wanted Elizabeth's body, her heart, her words, her kindness-- anything and everything that the other woman was willing to give her.

The trouble was, she didn't know what she had to offer in return.

Well... that's the problem, isn't it, Angel? You don't think you have anything left... any heart, any light within you. And maybe you don't... But don't you think you should at least find out?

"Hell of a time to take my soul out for a test spin," Jude muttered under her breath.

"Pardon?" Elizabeth asked.

"I said, we're here," Jude smiled blithely back at her companion. "You said cool and dark with a view of the ocean. Viola!" She pulled the Boxster into a ramshackle bungalow-type structure, complete with faux thatch roof.

They entered through old-fashioned swinging saloon doors, and their eyes were immediately soothed by a welcoming dimness. "Boy, you weren't kidding when you promised dark, huh?"

A rumbling laugh rolled from deep in Jude's throat. Adjusting her eyes after the brilliance of the day outside, she glanced around and motioned the bartender over with a wave of her hand. A swarthy man of indeterminate years ambled over, a frayed Hawaiian shirt bunched around the waist of his faded baggy trousers. His black hair was just turning gray and was a little long, barely brushing the tops of his shoulders, and the corners of his eyes bore a fine web work of lines. The entire effect was that of a sailor who's had one too many adventures and has finally come home from the sea. He surveyed them with a genuinely pleased expression, as if there could possibly be no greater luxury than looking at the two women in front of him.

Before leaving for the theater, Jude had changed into a long-tailed white cotton shirt that hung loose over a light pair of white linen trousers that were now fashionably rumpled. A smooth length of tanned flesh was visible at the shirt's open collar and her neck and ears were bare of any jewelry. Shaking her hair loose from the binding that kept it neat in the convertible, Jude cut a picture of elegant Southern decadence for the sailor's weary eyes. Immediately at her side, Liz was a golden child of redemption in a scoop-necked ochre blouse and a short, russet skirt that left her legs bare except for thin sandals. Smiling broadly at his two customers, he asked, "And how can I help you ladies this afternoon?"

Jude cocked a thoughtful brow, glancing at her watch. Hmm... surely it's cocktail hour somewhere in the world, she thought with an amused curl of her lip. "Give us something to fight off the day's heat," she said with a mischievous grin at her companion.

Jude's high spirits were infectious, and the sailor bantered back, "Sounds like you're wantin my secret house brew, then."

"That depends," Liz interjected. "Just how good is this secret house brew?"

"Aye, lady, there's nothin finer. It's as smooth as the ocean breeze caressing your hair, and it cradles you like the gentle rockin of your ship."

"Yeah I bet, right up until the time you try to stand up," Jude commented wryly. "And then it knocks your ass back down." Her eyes were bright with a sparkle that belied her ironic comment.

"Well," the sailor allowed, "It has been known to set a lad or two back a couple of steps."

"Great!" Liz slapped her hand down on the teak bar. "We'll take a pitcher, two large glasses and a couple of those little umbrellas if you have them." She pointed to a shady table on the outside deck. "We'll be at that table over there." She strolled away, oblivious to the fact that Jude and the sailor stood in rather bewildered surprise. Halfway through the bar, she spun on her heel and called back to the sailor, "Hey, can we get a couple of menus too? I have a feeling we're going to be staying for dinner." Not waiting for a reply before she made her way to their table.

Jude and the sailor regarded each other with bemusement. "She's a right handful, isn't she?"

The dark woman rubbed her eyes as she studied the relaxed length of her companion, now sprawled comfortably in one of the deck chairs, feet propped on the teak table. "That she is."

"God, he was right, this stuff is smooth going down." Liz sat back, a satisfied smile playing over her features. They had made short work of the first pitcher and were debating the wisdom of ordering another one before dinner. Jude had filled the intervening hour with stories about growing up in Miami, how she had met Nickie and become a runner for his bar when she was twelve, and the mystery of where she learned to shoot pool with the ability of Fast Eddie Felson. Long unused to talking about herself, at first Jude’s words were halting. The honey-haired woman, however, had been a patient and most-willing audience, encouraging her sometimes stumbling narrative. Most people acted as if they assumed she were the amaranthine spawn of some less-than-benevolent-deity who had come to visit His wrath upon them. Not many people stopped to realize that Jude Lucien was as much flesh and blood as they were.

It was safer, ironically, for Jude that way. The wide berth both friend and foe alike gave her made it difficult for them to perceive any weaknesses that might enable them to bring her down. Jude realized now, however, as she sat in the bewilderingly easy comfort of her new friendship with Elizabeth, it also distanced her from herself. Without the warmth of human connection, it was simple for her to start believing the same things strangers did. That she didn't feel. That she was merciless. That she was less than human.

Lost in her thoughts, Jude missed the punch line of a very long and elaborate joke that Liz had been telling. "Huh?" she asked. "I don't get it."

"That's because you weren't listening," Liz complained good-naturedly.

Jude gazed solemnly at Elizabeth, her mind noting that the slender woman's golden hair shone brightly in the sunlight, turning it into some kind of beacon for Jude's aching soul. Uh-oh... definitely better wait until dinner for that next pitcher, Jude cautioned herself. When I start waxing poetic, it's definitely time for some coffee. I don't want them to have to carry me out of here.

Jude’s sometimes distant smile during their conversation hadn't gone unnoticed by the reporter, who really, really wanted to know what was going on in the dark woman's head. As far as Liz was concerned, the day couldn't possibly be going any better. Whatever had shaken loose last night seemed to have freed the agent from the worst of her reservations, and Liz had glimpsed an entirely different person from the one she had thought she was hunting down. This Jude was a laughing, gentle woman-- one who had the ability to take Liz's breath away with a single, searing smile that enveloped those impossibly blue eyes. "Take off your glasses, Jude, I want to see your eyes."

Obligingly, Jude reached for the offending eyewear and tugged them off her face.

Ocean blue vistas opened to Liz at that moment, and without even pausing to check the water's temperature, the slender woman dived right in. "God, you are the most beautiful woman I've ever seen," she murmured, bringing a hand up to sketch the bold outlines of the agent's features.

Tender fingers passed over lips that stretched themselves into a self-deprecating smile. An eyebrow half-lifted and Liz expected another breezily dry comment to be tossed her way. Instead Jude only replied, "Thank you." Then she sighed softly. "I like the way you look at me, the picture of me you seem to hold in your head," she continued, as if she knew that Liz's words weren't solely about the physical package. "Even though I don't think it's terribly accurate."

"Tell me what you think I need to know to balance out the picture."

A brilliant smile broke over Jude’s features, opening them far wider to Liz’s disbelieving eyes than the reporter ever imagined possible. She felt her breath catch as Jude gently captured the hand that still stroked her cheek and pressed a tender kiss into the palm. "I will," she promised. "But not today. Today's not the day for it."

"Then what is today for?" Liz asked, a dawning sparkle in her eyes responding to the one in Jude's own.

"You," the dark woman replied simply.  

  "Jude, you have got to try this. It's fabulous!" Liz moaned in delight, taking another bite of what the sailor had called his "From the Sea Salad." It was a mixture of pasta, some vegetables and mussels with a lemon dressing liberally sprinkled over the whole concoction. Liz held a forkful out in a vain attempt to coax Jude into trying it.

The dark woman curled a suspicious lip at the offering. "I hate to break it to you, but I'm not putting anything in my mouth that has that..." She trailed off in search of an accurate description.

"This what?" Liz examined the morsel in confusion. Looked like mussels to her.

"Consistency..." Jude finished triumphantly. "It just looks... so odd..."

"But it tastes great," the gourmand protested.

"Don't care. Can't eat it. Same reason I can't eat Rice Krispies," Jude shrugged.

"You have got to be kidding me."

"No. Have you ever really felt Rice Krispies as you've chewed them?" Jude shivered. "It's disgusting."

Liz scrunched up her face in confusion, but decided to let the comment pass. It was obviously an attempt to divert her attention from the task at hand, which was getting Jude to try her salad. If forced to answer that useless question why she had such a desire, the reporter would have been hard pressed to come up with a better explanation than-- for some reason-- at this moment in time she found the idea of feeding the dark woman incredibly erotic. "Are you sure you won't try it? I mean, you ordered grilled fish-- at a seafood restaurant-- how original." She pouted.

Jude chuckled at the small woman's dejected expression, merely arching a wry eyebrow. "It looked like the safest thing on the menu.” She nodded at the second pitcher of home brew that had gone the way of the first. “Sailor boy there can make a mean drink, but he doesn't exactly look like Wolfgang Puck. Know what I mean?"

The reporter laughed in amiable surrender and shook her head. "Okay, okay. You win. Now, I've been meaning to ask you. What did Nickie mean last night when he said that you were the only one able to hustle him?"

"Ahh... back to my Fast Eddie days, are we?"

"It was an odd comment," Liz allowed.

"Okay... well, you know that I was a runner for Nickie when I was a kid. He had a lot of lucrative 'back door' businesses, the most profitable of which was a small gambling ring. I mean we're not talking the Mafia here or anything."

"Nickie was a bookie?"

"Among other things. Anyway... there was this guy, I think his name was Angelo Something... I don't remember. But he had lost to Nickie big, and it was money that he didn't have."

"Don't tell me Nickie had you break his kneecaps?" Liz asked dubiously.

"Not quite. He took Angelo's prized, mint-condition 1968 TR25W Triumph motorcycle." Jude's eyes glazed over at the memory of the machine. "It was a beauty. Completely restored, all the original equipment, the works. The sucker purred when you kick-started it. I took one look at it and I was gone. I wanted it, boy did I want it. But of course, even if Nickie had wanted to sell it-- which he didn't-- I didn't have two dollars in my pocket at any given time."

"Let me guess, this is where the hustle comes in."

"More or less." Jude grinned rakishly. "I was sixteen and a bit of a hellion. Nickie was always teasing me that someday someone was going to tame me, teach me some proper manners. Same stuff my mother did, only I knew he didn't really mean it. He liked me just the way I was-- behind the bar I was eye candy for the customers, gave 'em something to look at."

"Kind of the equivalent to a pin-up girl."

"Only I got to keep all my clothes on and all the tips. And if I couldn’t handle the guys who got out of line, Nickie's big brother Tommy was there to back me up."

"That's how you ended up throwing someone through his front window?"

"Happened more than once," Jude commented dryly. "I didn't really like being pawed. My temper back then was even worse than it is now, and if I was in a bad mood--"


"Right, but I digress. Anyway... I told Nickie I wanted the Triumph... Told him I'd work nights, weekends, whatever, but I wanted that bike... He just laughed at me and told me pretty girls like me didn't need things like that between their legs."

"Ooh-- bet that pissed you off."

"That's putting it mildly. So I suggested a small wager to determine what ended up between my legs-- the bike or his cock.” Liz's eyes flew wide at the statement, and Jude chuckled deep in her throat.  "The expression on Nickie's face was about like yours. I could tell by the deer-in-headlights look I was getting meant I had him. I had been running for Nickie for four years and had... changed... a lot in that time."

"Puberty does that to a girl."

Jude chuckled ruefully. "It did it to me in a big way. Instead of this gawky, flat-chested, clumsy girl... by the time I was sixteen, I had-- as my mother so delicately put it-- filled out." She spread her arms and gestured to herself in demonstration. “Into something close to this.”

"No wonder he took the bet," Liz murmured.

The comment didn't go unnoticed by its subject who paused in mid-story to give Liz a warm, full-bodied smile.

"So that was my bet," she grinned wickedly. "One match of pool. Winner take all."

"If you won, you got the Triumph. If he won, he got you." Jude nodded.  "High stakes," Liz commented.

"Not really. Nickie-- to put it bluntly-- sucked at pool. I half-expected him to laugh at the offer. Anyone with any sense would have," Jude snickered.

"If I had been him, I would have taken it."

"If I'd been playing you, I'm not so sure I would have offered. You cleaned my clock a couple of times last night. But Nickie knew he didn't stand a chance."

"Maybe he thought Fortune would smile on him this once."

"Well, it was close there for a while. He broke and went on this run, nearly cleaned the table. I'd never seen him play like that. But on his last ball he had ended up with a lousy set-up. He was going to have this really difficult bank off the eight ball... Fortunately for me, he missed."

"And then you wiped up the felt with him."

Jude shrugged. "Pretty much. But I'll never forget the feeling I had when he bent over to take that shot. I just kept thinking, 'Holy fuck, what have I gotten myself into...'" She laughed. "It was to become a common refrain in my life."

"So you won the bike."

"By the skin of my teeth. But, boy, was it worth it," Jude sighed wistfully. "Once I had that bike... I was free... You know? As long as I had a couple of bucks in my pocket for gas, nothing else mattered. She couldn't get to me anymore-- I wasn't hostage to her piousness. Her God. My sin. Just by being born I was wrong... but on the Triumph I just was. Does that make any sense?"

It made perfect sense to the woman who-- as a teenager-- had escaped into the nonjudgmental worlds of her own creation. Her writing had taken her far away from the chilly glares of her family. As she grew older and began to realize just what a wide gulf there was between who her family thought she should be and who she really was-- that refuge had become all-important to her. It had allowed her to form an identity separate from the rest of the Gardener clan and freed her from that a stifling life of diplomacy and discreet intrigue. The identity she created for herself was something that had saved her life in more ways than one. "It makes perfect sense," she said softly, a hazy look clouding her verdant eyes. Absently she took one of Jude's hands and twined their fingers.

Sailor took their quiet moment to poke his head out of the door and ask with a questioning glance if they wanted another pitcher. Thinking ...what the hell... Liz nodded her assent and simply enjoyed the tactile sensations of Jude’s fingers measuring the length of her own.

"So... it didn't scare you?" Liz asked after the sailor had deposited another pitcher on the table and noted their clasped hands with a conspiratorial wink.


"The thought of sleeping with Nickie."

"Are you asking if I was a stranger to the act?" Jude teased.

"Sort of," she mumbled.

Jude arched a brow in contemplation. "I don't guess I was. I mean, I knew he wouldn't hurt me, if that's what you're asking."

"Did someone?" The question tumbled out before Liz could stop it. "Hurt you, I mean."

"Why would you ask that?" Dark brows furrowed. "Because of my 'broken' and 'underprivileged' childhood?" she mocked. "Or because of my criminal past?"

"No!" Liz nearly shouted. "Because--" she hesitated, stumbling over the truth that was about to pour forth. "Because I can't stand the idea of someone hurting you," she finished, unable to stop herself.

"Oh," Jude breathed. Their eyes met and held in a long moment of understanding that they were taking without hesitation the next step on the winding path that they were headed down. "Wow..." the dark woman laughed in an uneven tone. "I... thank you..."

"For what?"

"For worrying about the girl that I was. That's... nice... Elizabeth. No one's ever... done that."

As she looked deep into those impossible blue eyes, Liz wondered why no one had ever ventured far enough into Jude's soul to excavate the fragile remains of the dark woman’s girlhood. "Can't help it," she replied simply. Then, realizing that they were about to get far to serious for such a beautiful summer’s day, she teased, "You seem to have gotten under my skin, Ms. Lucien."

They toasted the statement in silence, enjoying the falling sun, the slight breeze on their arms, the nearness of each other. It was one of those rare, utterly tranquil moments when there wasn't a single thing that could have made it more perfect.

A muffled giggle broke the hush, and Jude leaned a curving brow in the direction of her companion. "Yes?"

"So... I was just thinking... If, at sixteen 'the act' wasn't unfamiliar to you..." Green eyes danced in merriment. "Then when was it that-- oh, how did my brother put it-- you started ‘batting for the other team?’"

Jude chuckled at the delicate euphemism. "Ah..." She paused for a moment, thinking. "I guess I've always 'batted for the other team.' I mean, there were a few men here and there, but honestly... nothing ever really compared."

"Compared to what?" Liz asked, slowly becoming hypnotized by the darkening blue of Jude's eyes. Their normally pale color seemed to take on new vibrancy, pulsing with a sensuous life all their own.

"To the feel of a woman in my arms," Jude answered without hesitation. "I love everything about making love to a woman, Elizabeth," she murmured, a husky tone edging into her voice. "The suppleness of their skin. The warmth of their bodies. The sounds they make when I touch them. There's nothing like it in the world."

"I know," Liz swallowed hard. The subject had been roiling about in the back of her mind since Jude's mouth had first tasted hers yesterday afternoon. She had no doubt that Jude Lucien was going to be a magnificent lover, and she wanted to touch the dark woman so badly it made her muscles want to cry out from the pressure.

"Do you, Elizabeth?" If anything, Jude's eyes burned hotter at that moment, her desire for the reporter leaping to the front of her gaze.

"Oh, yeah..." Liz agreed. "What do you think I've been thinking about all day?"

"Tell me," the dark woman urged softly. The delicate trail of learning that the pair had embarked upon now neared its end as their minds at last acknowledged without equivocation what their bodies had been saying to them for over a week. "Tell me what you've been thinking about."

"You," the small woman managed hoarsely. "The way you feel in my arms, the way I fit in yours. I held you this morning as you slept-- and I had to fight to let you go when you woke up." She nudged her chair closer to Jude's, so their knees softly brushed against each other. "I want to see you stretched out underneath me," she confided, her eyes taking on their own shimmering desire. "I want you open and wanting me as badly as I want you right now. I want to take you with my hands, my mouth, my tongue-- any way you want, any way you've ever imagined. I want you helpless to do anything but respond to me-- to the press of my breasts against yours, the sound of my voice in your ears. And I want to do it all knowing that as soon as you come, you're going to turn around and demand the same thing of me." The rational part of the reporter’s brain that remained wondered once again where all these words were coming from. Seductions, declarations like this... they weren’t something she had even done before-- but something about this dark woman and her sensual menace, just... inspired... her.

If there had been any doubts that this woman made her living with words, they were shattered by the rapid phrases that fell from the full lips just inches away from Jude’s. A shuddering pulse visibly worked its way through the dark woman’s body, and her hands twitched in a slight movement wasn't lost on Elizabeth, who laughed throatily in response. "I suggest we get out of here first though," she added.

All Jude could do was nod wordlessly, tossing a stack of bills on the table to cover their check.

The Boxster made it back to the house in record time, but even so, the sun had made its final appearance over the horizon, leaving the city to its twilight amusements. Jude opened the side door with trembling hands and punched the alarm off as if in a dream. Then Elizabeth's arms were curled around her neck, that sinfully lithe body twining about hers. Oh god... Jude thought incoherently. They backed their way through the house, nimble fingers that didn't belong to her trying to tug the length of her white shirt from her shoulders.

"Why'd you have to pick a shirt that had so many damn buttons?" Liz muttered inaudibly as she maneuvered Jude toward the stairs. Eventually surrendering the fight, she grasped the shirt at its open edges and ripped the joined material apart. Jude yelped in protest as buttons went flying, but Liz silenced her with a throaty growl. "I want to see you... now..."

Jude wasn't about to protest as roaming hands traced the finely delineated muscles in her abdomen. She wanted to feel Liz's own skin pressed against hers, but to do so she would have to separate from the delightful mouth that was skillfully invading her own. They managed to make it up the gently curving staircase without breaking either contact or their necks on the ascent. Jude kicked open the bedroom door with the back of her foot, sending animals flying in all directions as they entered the room. "Wait..." Jude gasped, as Elizabeth was about to free the dark woman's breasts from their surprisingly lacy confines.

Golden brows furrowed in confusion, but the hands ceased their relentless quest for skin. "Why?" she asked softly. "Are you having second thoughts?"

"God no!" Jude breathed. "I just... uh... I just... Oh hell... I just want to take it slow. I don't want us to get overwhelmed."

Liz grinned in agreement. "Okay, that I can work with."

"And... I wanted to ask you..." Jude fixed her gaze on the small hands that rested against her skin. "If.. you were... I mean... we had a fair amount to drink... I don't..."

"You don't want to do anything I might regret later, right?" Liz caught Jude under the chin and focused blue eyes on her green ones.

"Something like that."

A knowing chuckle emitted from the depths of the reporter's throat. The only thing I would regret is not making love with you right now." Then she sobered and added, "Unless you don't want this too."

"Oh, I do," Jude promised fervently.

"Then I don't think we have anything to worry about."

Mouths met again, this time in a slow, sweetly tender greeting. Jude discovered that the frantic aggressiveness had fled Liz’s body, replaced by a sensual haze that enveloped both of them. Jude's tongue traced teasing paths over Elizabeth's lips and down her neck, sending sparks of delight shuddering through the small woman's body. Elegant fingers tugged the silk blouse free from the russet skirt and slipped under the material to explore the defined muscles of Liz's torso. "Oh yes..." Jude murmured, making contact with the supple skin. "You feel so good." Just holding her feels right, Jude thought in wonder. And better than I had ever imagined it could be.

They began a leisurely exploration that would have taken hours except for one simple thing: the phone rang.

"Let the machine get it," Liz muttered.

And Jude would have, but it was the shrill beeping of her private line. The line that didn't have a machine. The line that no one had the number to except Sasha. The line that meant nothing but trouble.

Groaning, she buried her face in her companion's sweet-smelling hair. "I have to get it." With a strength she desperately wished she didn't possess, she broke their embrace and grabbed the handset from its recessed position in the night stand. Liz's eyes grew wide as she saw that the white phone on the same table remained untouched.

"Lucien," Jude growled into the phone.

"Trouble." Sasha's clipped tones informed her. "Meet me at the office." Click.

Fuck... fuck... fuck... fuck...

Jude wearily replaced the handset and sat on the bed, resting her head in her hands.

"Let me guess, there's a problem?"

There was a frighteningly dead silence, and then slowly Jude lifted her head. The eyes that moments ago had been a vivid, pulsing violet were now a pale, colorless wasteland that seemed to freeze everything in its gaze. Instinctively Liz stepped back from the harshness of the stare, and Jude's head dropped again in ragged sadness. "Yeah..." she said, not meeting Liz's eyes. "I... have to go."

A glimmer of fear rose in Elizabeth’s eyes, and Jude wondered if this would be the thing that finally frightened this exquisite woman away. Much to the dark woman’s shock, instead of walking away, Liz placed tentative hands on Jude's. "Okay," Liz agreed calmly. "I'll be here when you get back."

"Elizabeth..." The eyes returned to the golden woman in front of her, and this time they were ringed by a faint, but unmistakable, warmth. "That might not be... such a good idea."

"My choice, remember? Unless you don't want me here."

Such gentle courage threatened to tear the breath from Jude’s lungs. Her instincts told her to argue, to send Elizabeth away before she got hurt more than she already had been. But she lacked enough courage of her own to argue with this woman she so desperately wanted to make her lover. Let her see what happens, she thought numbly. "All right," she agreed. She glanced down at her half-dressed state and ached for things almost within reach and now lost. "I've got to get moving," she said, rising in a fluid motion as her brain finally kicked into gear. Pushing the ache to a far corner of her soul-- to the place where Jason still lived-- she methodically began pulling clothes from her closet and tossing them on the bed.

Liz watched in confusion as a pair of leather pants and a black silk shirt landed on the comforter, followed by a pair of boots and a sinister-looking black belt.

Jude hesitated a moment, knowing Liz was still watching, then she gave a mental shrug and pulled the Sig Sauer out of its place in the closet safe along with a spare clip. Those, too, landed on the bed.

The linen trousers fell in a heap at her feet, and she stepped out of them and began sliding the leather over her legs. She shrugged the silk across her shoulders, buttoning it with rapid precision and tucking in the tails neatly. Boots were next, followed by the belt. She saved the gun for last, sliding the clip into place with habitual precision. This last item of apparel she tucked into the back of the waistband of her pants, its weight an uncomfortable reminder of what she was.

Glancing up, she saw that Liz remained rooted to the spot Jude had left her in, a helplessly bewildered look on her face. Covering the room in long strides, she reached out a hand as if to touch the reporter, but her fingers fell short of the small woman, and she didn't try again. "I'm sorry," she whispered, then was gone, a chimera chasing down other dwellers of her adumbral realm.

A sickeningly familiar feeling blossomed in Jude's belly as she returned to the Boxster, and she shook her head savagely for thinking that ultimately things could turn out any differently. The day might have been reserved for the light, for Elizabeth, and the joy she carried within her. But Jude had made the grave error of forgetting that the day always passes, and when night falls once more, it brings the darkness with it.