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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 8

Sasha stared at the phone she’d hung up just a few moments ago, and a slight shudder ran through her body. She’s on her way... It had been a long time since they had touched, and sometimes it seemed that her skin had ached every second since. Waiting, wanting more...

"I swear to God, Jude, you're worse than a tom cat." The figure in the black silk robe glared at her from the doorway. Sleep left the curly dark hair tousled, and she absently rubbed at her eyes, standing on the iron landing of her loft apartment.

In the leather pants, white silk shirt half-unbuttoned, arms braced casually behind her... Jude could have been the erotic fantasy of a million men and women. A rakish grin ignited the flame of her eyes; and with a supple motion, she left the railing and prowled closer to her quarry. "Come on, querida. Don't be difficult."

Sasha held out a hand to stop the intruder's progress, but instead found her fingers brushing across the silk and slipping underneath the fabric to the corded muscles below. Jude closed the remaining gap between them, and Sasha's arms rose of their own accord to twine about Jude's neck. "Why are you here?" she murmured before her lips were trapped by the hunter's voracious mouth.

Jude's coriander scent assaulted Sasha's rapidly awakening senses. The predator tasted of salt and sweat and heat-- and the faint traces of a sex that was not her own. "God damn you..." Sasha thought to her herself, breaking free and turning back inside. Aware that Jude was following her, she used the moment's despite to settle her normally imperturbable calm firmly back in place. "Who'd you just finish fucking?" she asked lightly, watching Jude shut and lock the door behind her and noting with amusement that the dark woman obviously had no intention of leaving anytime soon.

Jude shrugged, a faint ripple of muscles across her shoulders showing in the movement. "Some blond. I lost interest pretty quick though."

"And why was that?" She was walking away from Jude, keeping several paces between them as she headed for the kitchen. She made it as far as the dining room table before Jude caught her, wrapping long arms around her slender waist.

"Because she didn't give me what you do," Jude whispered in her ear, tracing a flickering line of kisses down Sasha's neck.

Sasha gasped involuntarily at the contact and braced her hands on the table's glass surface, letting its cool thickness steady her against the pulsing heat of Jude's body. She arched into the deft fingers that concentrated on loosening the belt holding her robe together. At last, the garment fell free, opening the warm length of her flesh to the hunter's restless search. Large hands quickly began roaming across the newly exposed territory, and Sasha mentally calculated the pros and cons of saying no or letting Jude do what they both wanted. Her refusals were rare and usually designed to make a point to the dark woman about the nature of power in their relationship. A ragged moan forced its way through her throat, and she quickly decided on a compromise.

Turning swiftly, she captured the questing hands and bent them behind Jude's back with surprising strength. "You come in here reeking of some blond and I'm supposed to let you finish off?" she mocked. "I don't think so."

A sardonic brow lifted, and Jude commented dryly. "If I had thought you were interested in joining us, I would have extended a formal invitation," she murmured, nibbling on Sasha's full lower lip. "Besides, I'm not finishing off... I'm just getting started." A startling swift movement freed her arms from their confines, and she lifted the slight woman onto the glass dining room table, settling herself comfortably between spread legs, which willingly circled Jude's narrow waist.

Jude grasped her prey's hips, drawing them tightly together, and the friction of the leather rubbing against an already swollen sex elicited a rasping groan from the woman in Jude's arms. "A little anxious, aren't we, querida?" Jude teased.

Sasha's mouth found hers with devouring urgency, silencing any further taunts that might have fallen from the dark woman's lips. She thrust herself against the muscular strength of Jude's body, craving contact on her aching skin. Sasha broke free only long enough to strip the silk from both their bodies, reveling in the contrast between the smooth suppleness of Jude's broad shoulders and the textured roughness of the leather between her legs.

In the tangle of their mouths, tongues and teeth warred for dominance-- searching and hot, nipping, tasting, and testing. The growl rising from deep in Jude's throat sent a shiver skittering down Sasha's spine, and the dealer's skilled hands joined in the fray, finding the thick wetness already flowing from her prey's center. "So wet... God... Sasha..." Smaller hands guided Jude downwards as she obeyed, unresistingly. She kissed an incendiary path over Sasha's tawny skin, pausing over tautly puckered nipples, painting them swiftly with the brush of her tongue, then moving still lower at Sasha's ragged insistence.

Lithe thighs draped over her shoulders when Jude sank low enough to rest on her knees. The scent of their arousal was overwhelming now, and Sasha was painfully aware of her own sex throbbing tightly, anxious for the dark touch. "Is this where you want me?" her tormentor murmured, interspersing her words with slow kisses up the length of Sasha's spread legs. She parted the slender woman's glistening nether lips, slipping her fingers across the sensitive heat of Sasha's center.

The tawny woman was more than ready for Jude's touch. As the long fingers danced teasingly into her desire, she moaned on a gasping breath, "Oh Christ..."

"No..." Jude muttered, blue eyes running up the length of the shuddering woman above her. "Es el diablo," she whispered before falling easily inside the welcoming inferno...

“Not long now, Jude,” she murmured softly in the darkness.

The commercial district was deserted on this late Sunday evening when Jude slung her car into its spot in the underground lot. Glass and chrome rose up in industrial supplication to the deities of technology as the lift took her to the 27th floor offices of JLE Limited. She stepped into the unnatural hush of an abandoned shrine and padded noiselessly along the plush black carpeting. Her visits here were more regular than those she made to the Club, for the offices were the financial center of her legitimate operations. Accordingly a large corner office bore her name on a silver plaque. The door was open, and she cautiously stepped inside.

Like her home, this office was a testament to its occupant's aversion to closed-in spaces. The two outside walls were floor-to-ceiling windows, the blinds opened now to allow neon-tinted moonlight to slink in and eerily splash the room's contents with a fractured glow. Immediately she knew she wasn't alone. A lithe shadow sat comfortably perched on the corner of her immense marble-topped desk and idly played with a small Tiffany globe paperweight.

"Where's the fire?" Jude asked, fighting to keep her tone from betraying the warring impulses in her heart and in her blood. The sweet taste of Elizabeth's mouth was still on her lips, and the flaring desire that the honey-haired woman had inspired had only been intensified by Sasha's call. Her body never failed to respond to the swift and oftentimes violent measures that her life required, and though the coiled energy of action was gradually replacing the delicate sensations of arousal, there was an unmistakably sensual edge to the words that rumbled from her throat.

Saffron eyes flickered over the dark figure illuminated in the doorway. Jude felt their appraisal and the brief start of surprise in them as they surveyed her. Sasha's tone, however, was pure business as she addressed Jude. "Diego Arrgua has decided to switch teams," she said matter-of-factly.

"Diego?" Jude mentally scrolled through the myriad faces of the people who made her illicit businesses so vastly successful. "The Colombian?"   "That's the one. Seems like he didn't really like the way you had two of his culeros wasted about six months ago."

"Then they shouldn't have fucked up so badly," Jude shrugged. "He trying to inform?" she asked dubiously. One mention of her name to Dade County or the DEA and Arrgua would have been sent to Kent. If that were the case, the Colombian should be cooling his heels in a holding cell until Kent could talk to her.

"No, he decided to see what Romair Massala would have to offer."

Jude couldn't control the surprised flight of her brows. "Impossible," she stated flatly.

"Apparently not," Sasha retorted. Although the slender woman had been one of those who benefited by it the most, the rather loose rein Jude kept on her employees was an old bone of contention between them. Sasha was Jude's undisputed second-in-command and had become so because she had demonstrated the ability not just to execute Jude's instructions but also to think ahead, anticipating problems and taking care of them before they got messy.

Jude ran an agitated hand through her hair. "How did you find out?"

Sasha laughed, an oddly hollow sound in her voice. "Believe it or not, Romair came to me and told me."

Alarms reverberated throughout Jude's body, the hair on the back of her neck prickling. "Romair came to you?" she asked, a deadly calm filling her voice.

Sasha seemed unperturbed by the menacing glimmer that sparked in her employer's eyes. "You haven't exactly been reachable, Jude. He and I have been trying to get you since yesterday afternoon. I've been calling the private line every thirty minutes for the last six hours."

Jude didn't like the explanation, but there was nothing out of place about it on the surface that she could put her finger on. She had blown off her second meeting with Sasha yesterday afternoon in favor of spending time with Elizabeth. The last two days had been filled with nothing but the honey-haired woman-- and she found herself desperately wishing that it were still the case right now. "So what was his story?" she inquired brusquely, putting her doubts on hold for the moment.

"Diego called one of Romair's lieutenants, a guy by the name of Santiago, asking for a meet. Said he had some valuable information for the Massala family about your organization."

"What was he offering?"

"Supply routes, couriers, time tables."

"But he only has access to his own, and that's minimal," Jude objected.

"His minimal routes total over $10 million dollars, Jude."

"Still," Jude waved a hand. "That's nothing in the larger scheme."

"Not when you're a Cartel who's lost half its business," Sasha countered. "Besides, the Massalas don't know that all your suppliers are individualized. They probably think he has access to all the information. And there is the added little benefit of putting it to the woman who took a lot of those supply routes from them in the first place."

"True," Jude muttered thoughtfully. "So why is Romair giving that up?"

"I asked him. He said that you and he had a new understanding and he wasn't going to betray that." Sasha studied Jude's dark form. "I guess you made more of an impression on him than you thought."

"Maybe not." Jude chewed her lip absently while strolling the length of the office. "Has Romair met with Diego yet?"

"No. That's why he's been so frantic to get in touch with you." She glanced at her watch. "The meet's in an hour. He wants you there."

"Let me guess-- he wants me there so he can turn Diego over to me personally."

"That's exactly what he said."

"I bet," Jude snorted. "Doesn't this seem a little too convenient for you? I mean, here's a Cartel we've been at odds with since day one, and two weeks after we reach a 'new understanding' someone from my organization wants to defect? Something that hasn't happened-- ever?"

"What are you thinking?" Sasha asked hesitantly.

"I'm thinking this whole thing reeks of a set-up, Sasha. I'm walking into an ambush." Grimly, she turned on her heel and left the office.

"If it is an ambush I'm not letting you walk into it blind," Sasha argued vehemently as Jude strode down the darkened hallway. "Or unarmed."

"I'm not walking in blind. And I have this--" She hefted the weight of the Sig in her hand.

"Yeah, a fat lot of good that's going to do you against a dozen armed men."

"I don't have to kill them all, querida. I just have to kill enough of them to get away."

"Why do it at all if you're just going to run?"

"Because I can't believe that Romair would think that I wouldn't see through this. He's testing me to see if I have the cojones to walk through the door. And there is the odd chance that Diego really is defecting and Romair just decided to take advantage of the opportunity. He knows there's no way in hell that I'll take the chance of letting Diego give away my supply routes."

"Just how does he know that?"

"Because he wouldn't take that chance either."

The elevator doors smoothly closed behind them, lowering them to the ground with efficient ease. Sasha tapped a furious staccato with the heel of her pump and glared at her boss. "Okay, if you won't take any of the boys, I'm coming with you. You need somebody to cover that smart ass of yours."

Jude glanced at her employee with muted irritation, but couldn't suppress a quiet smile at Sasha's loyalty. "No," she said softly.

"Why not?"

"If anything does happen to me, you're going to have to take over. You know that," Jude replied, although it was only a half-truth. She had been slowly easing Sasha out of the more underground work and handing more and more of the legitimate businesses over to the tawny woman's consummate expertise. Because she was surrendering the gambling, gunrunning and drug operations to the DEA after she took Massala down, she wanted Sasha free and clear when that happened. That meant keeping her out of situations like this  one.

Sasha sighed heavily in defeat, following the taller woman out to her car. "I just don't like this."

A crooked smile played over Jude's face as she regarded the smaller woman. "I've been in tougher situations. And besides, we don't necessarily know it's a set-up." There was a tiny, nagging voice in the back of Jude's head that said Romair was indeed an honorable adversary and luring someone into an ambush was unworthy of him.

Maybe I totally read him wrong, but I just don't think he'd do what it looks like he's doing... Of course that was the night I met Elizabeth, so my brain could have been completely scrambled... And after all, he could call ambushing me poetic justice... it's what I did to Enrico.

The brush of a hand on her arm shook her out of the black memories. Sasha's touch was cool through the black silk and felt good against Jude's hot skin. Briefly the dark woman was thrown back to those long, sweating nights when she had relentlessly probed the tawny woman's secrets with her hands and mouth, searching for a way to shatter that implacable calm. Oddly, the accompanying erotic surge that usually washed over her at times like this was gone, replaced only by a tantalizing echo of Elizabeth's fingers tracing flaming paths over her skin. "I'm sorry, querida, what did you say?"

"I said, I don't want to be taking anything over. So be careful. Got it?"

She clasped Sasha's hand reassuringly before sliding into the Boxster's familiar embrace. "Don't worry, okay?" Giving her employee a cocky grin, she backed the car out of its spot and roared out of the lot.

The meet was to be at the Marina, in the boathouse of slip #114, and Jude cautiously parked about a quarter of a mile away, confident that no one would detect the Boxster in its shadowy niche. She took a meandering path to the designated place, checking for signs of recent occupation, but the night was devoid of the usual scuffling sounds that accompanied clusters of men with time on their hands. About fifteen minutes before the meet was scheduled to go down, she slid into the boathouse, unobserved by the three men who were standing in a small pool of light cast by the streetlight outside.

Gee... does this mean I'm Goldilocks... cause damned if that doesn't look just like the Three Bears, Jude thought. Indeed the men were of three distinct sizes and she recognized the center man as Romair Massala. The other two must be Suits... Don't see Diego, but I am a wee bit early. She listened to their muttered talk about Argentina's chances this year in the World Cup for a few moments before their chat was silenced by the hesitant approach of a fourth man. Bingo... Jude's mind sang as the familiar form of the Colombian scurried into view. Okay... Let's see what happens next. She watched Romair glance discreetly around for another presence, but the other two Suits seemed oblivious to their employer's actions, training their eyes on Diego and the shadows where he emerged.

"I hear you have something I might be interested in," Romair began by way of introduction.

"I might," Diego acknowledged.

"About Jude Lucien's organizations?"

"Could be."

Oh, come on boys... This is the most boring round of "You show me yours..." I've ever seen, Jude groaned silently. Time to make things a little more interesting.

Soundlessly she slipped from the darkness and emerged behind Romair and the Suits, appearing before Diego like some maleficent demon sweeping down to render judgment. "Is somebody taking my name in vain again?" she drawled pleasantly, a wicked smile on her face.

All the color drained from the Colombian's normally ruddy features, making him uncannily resemble the corpse he was about to become. "Ju-- Ju-- Jude..." he finally stammered.

The Suits whirled around at her words, guns drawn, but Romair merely cast an amused glance behind him, folding his arms casually. "Ah, Jude... So nice you could join us. I was afraid for a moment that you had not received my message."

The Colombian recognized those words as the last nails in his coffin and, belatedly, tried to scramble free of the trap. He sprang towards the door, but Jude caught him by the collar and flung him the length of the boathouse, sending the smaller man crashing into a pair of sawhorses. "Oh no you don't," she reprimanded the now-prone man. Stalking over to her quarry with a predator's grace, she regarded the supplier coolly. "You know, I expected more of you, Diego."

He scrabbled backwards, trying to meld himself into the junk that littered the boathouse and never taking his eyes off the vengeful Fury looming over him. Stuttered incoherencies dropped from his lips faster and faster as Jude bent down and calmly lifted him by the front of his shirt. He waved his arms ineffectually in the air, afraid to touch the simmering woman who held him so carelessly.

Jude casually backhanded the whimpering man with her free arm, keeping him steady with a firm grip on his shirt. A mewling cry spewed from his lips, along with blood drawn from the blow. "Do you have anything to say for yourself?" she asked, slamming another blow into his face. There was the unnatural crunch of bones shattering in Diego's nose, and a light spray of slime and blood speckled Jude's silk shirt.

From her peripheral vision, Jude could see the Suits wincing at the force of her assault, but Romair remained placid, standing easily with his hands in his pockets, as if he were waiting for an associate to finish a phone call. She knew that this was another test of sorts, to see how she handled treachery. The Massalas prided themselves on their ruthlessness-- always had-- until, of course, Jude beat them at their own game.

"Haven't you been keeping up on current events?" she inquired silkily. "Romair and I are teammates now..." SMACK! "Which means, you miserable shit..." SMACK! "That what's bad for me..." SMACK! "Is bad for him..." SMACK! "Get it?" A swift knee to the Colombian's midsection doubled him over and would have returned him to the floor but for Jude's restraining hands. A familiar, ravening pleasure rushed through her blood as she studied the Colombian's bruised features. She hadn't done a tenth of the damage that she had planned, and he was already weeping piteously for mercy.

"P-p-pl-please stop..." he stuttered, holding his hands up weakly.

Jude cocked her head in contemplation. "And why should I do that?" she asked reasonably, tossing him limply to the ground. "You're here to sell me out... trade my supply routes, my time tables, my courier codes..." A sickening crack accompanied the muted thud of Jude's boot connecting with Diego's ribs. "And now you want me to spare your wretched hide?"

"M-m-my fa-fam-family..." he gasped.

"Yes, your family." Jude stood upright and crossed her arms like a displeased school teacher. "Let's talk about your family."

"Don't hu-hurt them."

A snarl of rage gripped Jude's chiseled features. "I'm not going to touch your family, Diego. That's not my style. You know the drill-- you wronged me, you pay the price. But let's talk about what happens to them after I cut out your thieving little heart."

"Nnnooo..." he pleaded.

The very absurdity of this surreal tableau hit Jude hard, and she paused involuntarily. Diego drew himself to his knees, his battered body staggering with the pain of the effort. The Suits looked at her with undisguised admiration for her brutal technique; and Romair stood behind her, watching her as if she were some ancient gladiator battling solely for his amusement. For the first time in her life, the pernicious clamor in her system for the blood of others seemed to flee; leaving nothing in its wake but a silent, yearning sadness. Is this how you were going to set things right? an all-too-familiar voice echoed in her thoughts. You may think you've changed, Jude... but deep down... you know that turning Massala over to the DEA is simple... it's still business as usual... To really set things right... to stop this horror that is your life... you have to face some very nasty things about yourself... And you've never had reason to until now.

"Elizabeth..." she whispered almost inaudibly.

The gossamer pull of emotions that this woman invoked in Jude was deceptively strong, almost strong enough to make her lower the burnished steel Sig Sauer that was pointed at Diego's sobbing head. Despite her feelings, she was only half-convinced that Elizabeth wasn't just a divine apparition sent from the Heavens to torment her with visions of a grace that she could never possess. Loving Elizabeth meant truly letting go of the rage that possessed her and beginning the inevitably painful road of healing. But conditioning and ten years of a life lived in the twilight overpowered this birthing sentiment, and a red veil dropped over the pale of her eyes. "I'll start healing tomorrow," she murmured savagely.

On impact, the bullet shattered Diego's head into minuscule fragments, spattering any hopes and dreams the Colombian might have had across the back of the boathouse.

To Jude it was the signal for what seemed like Armageddon. The shriek of shattering glass and the roar of automatic fire surrounded the dark woman on all sides. Instinctively she dove to the concrete floor, landing hard on one elbow, her thoughts focused solely on staying alive long enough to kill whoever was behind this. Holding up Diego's body as a shield, she inched her way into a protected position behind some haphazardly-stacked crates. Looking up, she spied a window large enough to provide an escape, but it meant exposing her back to get through it. Not to mention diving through all that glass. God this is going to hurt. She bounced up to answer the fire that was peppering her. Why don't they just rush me...? she wondered. Then she spied both Romair and the Suits firing on four of the black-suited invaders. What the hell...? The sound of splintering wood on her right focused all of Jude's attention on warding off the impending assault, and she calmly pumped two bullets into her attacker's body. Spinning at the impact, he crashed to the ground at her feet and she scooped up his discarded weapon. Not an Uzi...that's odd, her mind noted absently. Okay... let's even up the odds a little bit. Fueled by pure adrenaline, she nimbly dodged the hail of bullets and falling glass, ducking and rolling over to Romair's side.

"You sure know how to throw a hell of a party," she drawled, spraying their assailants with gunfire and dropping several of them.

"I assure you, they are strictly uninvited," Romair replied grimly, picking off an approaching gunman.

"That so?" she grunted, grabbing him by the arm and hauling him behind the flimsy cover of the crates. The Suits were clearly outgunned, and Jude winced as both fell under the 9mm assault. "Well, looks like it's just you and me." She flicked a glance at Romair. His suit was disheveled and his tie was askew, but he showed none of the frothing fear of a man unaccustomed to the violent side effects of his life. "Do you trust me?" she growled.

"Why do I think I don’t have a choice here?"

Jude shrugged, inching them further back in the shadows and closer to her window. "Sure you have a choice. Live or die."

The assault team had slowed their gunfire and were now surveying the area, looking for the pair.

Romair snorted. "Obviously I choose to live."

Jude patted him on the shoulder. "Good man. Okay... I'm going to cover you... on the count of three make a break for the far corner. See that window up there?" She waited until he nodded his assent, before continuing, "While I'm holding them off, make a jump for it. It probably won't be the most graceful thing you've ever done, but the fall won't kill you."

"What about you?"

"Hopefully they'll be too concerned with shooting at you and I can circle behind them and edge out through that side window over there."

"What then?"

"We run like hell. Ready?" Jude positioned herself and swiftly cast a prayer to whatever had kept her safe this long. "One-- two-- three-- GO!" With astonishing speed, she rolled into the line of fire, drawing the attention of the searching men and managing to reduce the number of their attackers by two with a cluster of controlled bursts of gunfire. Romair sprang forward in the opposite direction, his body leaping upwards and crashing clumsily-- but successfully-- through the window. Automatically, the black-suits switched their fire to the fleeing man, and Jude made a break for the side window. Of course, the one window that still isn’t broken. Oh shit, this is gonna hurt, her mind groaned as she began the leap that would take her to freedom. Flipping through the air to land feet first against the glass, the raucous shattering brought the gunfire back at her, and all she could do was pray that nothing hit her unprotected back. Bullets gouged the wooden window-frame, and one streaked by Jude's arm, grazing the flesh with a piercing sting.

Tumbling through the air, Jude knew that now her biggest adversaries were the jagged shards of glass that littered the ground. Her silk shirt was already shredded, but thankfully the leather proved a bit more durable. I should have worn the vest, she thought sardonically, landing with a neat tuck and roll that would have made Jackie Chan proud. Who knew I was going to be playing stunt man? Finding her feet, she sprinted for the protective covering of the darkness. A few dismal shots followed her, but she sensed that the men had left off any pursuit. With all their flak gear, they weren't exactly dressed for urban pursuit. Jude blessed this bit of luck as she ran a convoluted path through alleyways and squat tenement buildings. Running high on adrenaline and rage, Jude was a wrathful shade deftly traveling through the night. Finally reaching the safety of the Boxster, she slipped into its leathered embrace, breathing heavily.

The precariousness of her situation wiped any lucid thoughts from her mind. She was operating solely on instinct-- an animal trying desperately to preserve itself-- and all of Jude's formidable skills now bent themselves to this task. She piloted the Boxster for several blocks without lights to put just a little more space between herself and the site of the ambush. The police would be all over the scene in minutes. In fact, she could already hear the wailing approach of sirens. Deliberately taking a more circuitous route to keep her out of the emergency vehicles' pathway, she flipped the lights on and began the long drive back to safety.

  Chapter 9

There was only a small hour left until daybreak by the time Jude finally made it back to the house. Ever-cognizant of the potential for further treachery, she had spent most of the night driving deserted back roads, only stopping once to gas up the Boxster at a 24-hour Mart. The pimply-faced attendant had taken one look at her ripped and blood-spattered clothing and had wisely not said a word, only accepting Jude's cash with shaking fingers. The long hours in the car had cooled the molten pulse within her, and the time had added a viscous layer of wrenching sadness that convulsed her stomach with grief.

She entered silently through the kitchen and padded through the living room, stopping at the foot of the stairs. She knew Elizabeth was waiting up there, had probably fallen asleep in her bed, and the thought of facing the beautiful young woman sent another wracking pain through her body. Wearily she sighed and slid open the doors to the deck, breathing in the sea air's clean scent. Stopping at the wet-bar in the corner, she grabbed a mostly-full bottle of bourbon and a glass before dropping heavily into one of the deck chairs.

Images of this night merged with dozens of others just like it, all of them ending in the same way... blood, damage, death... most of it inflicted by her hands. Violence had always been a simple thing for her, her body's mindless response when thwarted or under threat. She had never questioned the coarsely erotic pleasure she took in wielding such power until she had met Jason. Throughout her life, she had been unconditionally accepted only by the denizens of life's underbelly. Her capacity for brutality and violence had marked her as one of their own and set her apart from the brightly-lit streets where people like Jason-- like Elizabeth-- lived. The innocents, as Jude thought of them, had always watched her with the glance of one who is not completely sure that a wild animal has been tamed. The Agency had seen a glimpse of what lurked deep inside Jude's soul and had sought to bend her malevolence to their will. Under the combined assault of the Agency's corruption and her own dark nature, the innocent in Jude Lucien never stood a chance.

Her bond with Jason's guileless soul had been the only taste of untainted acceptance she had ever known. That dizzying feeling had been the cudgel that had cracked the solid carapace that protected Jude from herself. And it had led to this... to the consuming rage and sorrow... for being who she was... for being what she was... for not having the courage to stop.

Running a blood-stained hand through her hair and wincing at the sting of the slight movements, Jude sighed deeply, wanting nothing more than to render herself oblivious to the now-eternal war waged in her soul. The sting of bourbon washing down her throat promised to dull the multitude of pains suffusing her body, and she drank fully of her own private Lethe, praying only that it would take effect soon.

Liz woke with a start into complete darkness. She's back. Hearing a muffled boot on the first stair, she sat up in Jude's bed and waited for the inevitable ensuing footsteps.


The sibilant hiss of rollers on metal told Liz that Jude had gone out on the deck rather than ascend the stairs to the looming darkness of her bedroom. Absently the honey-haired woman wondered how much of it had to do with her own presence there.

The stark look on Jude's face when she departed had told the reporter volumes about what that particular phone call meant. Pacing up and down the hallway hadn't made the time go any faster and had only served to aggravate the dogs. TV was insipidly annoying and not a single book in Jude's voluminous library had held her attention for more than a paragraph. Finally she had drifted off into an agitated sleep, waking at the slightest sound-- real or imagined. Now she slid from the warm sheets and scrambled around for something to throw on her bare skin. Her fingers found Jude's white shirt, and she slipped the soft material over her shoulders, thankful that enough buttons remained intact after the ravaging it received for her to fasten it closed.

Rolling the floppy cuffs up her forearms, she padded down the stairs in the darkness, pausing at the open door and unknowingly striking an ethereal pose before Jude's hooded eyes. The white shirt glowed otherworldly in the faint moonlight, outlining the lissome body underneath the thin cloth. Her fair hair, tangled from sleep, fell loosely around her shoulders. "Jude?" she called hesitantly, unable to see the brooding silhouette in the corner.

"Go away."

The words gave Liz direction, and now she made out the figure on the deck chair. In the brief time Liz had known the dark woman, there had always been a supple elegance in all Jude's actions, and immediately the reporter noted the graceless sprawl of Jude's legs and the exhausted slump of her shoulders. She took a tentative step forward before Jude's voice stopped her again.

"Leave." Harsher this time, the timbre of her voice dropping dangerously.

"No." Liz's calm reply belied the sudden hammering of her heart. She moved slowly and steadily towards the dark shadow, as one might approach a trapped animal, holding her arms out loosely beside her. The glint of moonlight on expensive crystal caught Liz's eye. Time for a different approach. "Can I join you for a drink?" she asked, her voice as casual as if they were at a Country Club social.

A quiet sigh. "Sure. Glasses are over at the bar."

Fetching a tumbler and returning to the shadow in the chair, Liz couldn't bite back the gasp that rose in her throat at seeing Jude's shredded clothing. "Oh... Jude..." she said helplessly.

A casual hand waved her concern away. "It's nothing. Scratches mostly."

"You should have somebody look at them."

"I said they were nothing."

The harsh edge of her voice returned, and Liz backed off, busying herself with pouring a drink. Wordlessly she refilled Jude's glass, concealing her shudder when Jude downed the amber liquid in one smooth swallow.

"Do you... uh... want to talk about what happened?" Liz ventured.

"No." Jude retrieved the bottle from the smaller woman's hand to pour herself another drink. Liz's skin was warm in the cool hour before dawn, and the dark woman lingered a moment, tracing the delicate joints of Liz's fingers before pulling away.

In that fleeting gentleness, Liz saw her chance. Leaning forward, she softly captured Jude's strong chin in a trembling hand, silently urging Jude to let her in just a tiny bit. Haltingly those blue eyes flickered up, meeting the open, verdant gaze, and then skittered away. "Hey..." Liz breathed. "Come back," she crooned.

But for some inconceivably cruel reason, the moment passed, and Jude jerked her head from Liz's tender grasp. When the blue eyes returned to the smaller woman, pale glaciers loomed at the center of her glance. Liz froze, knowing that the earth had just radically shifted under her and not certain of  how dangerous her situation might be. Hoping for a heretofore undiscovered bluffing ability, she fought not to betray her unease.

The encroaching dawn cast a hesitant light on several small gashes that peppered the dark woman's elegant features. The wounds-- instead of making Jude seem more vulnerable-- lent her a lawless, sinister air as she surveyed the slender woman beside her. "Why are you still here?"

Because this is where I want to be more than anyplace in the world. The unexpected reply leapt easily to her lips, but instinctively she knew Jude was in no condition to hear it-- in fact, she was stunned that she was so ready to say it. Nonetheless, the words hovered there, impeding anything else she might have said. Speared by the hypnotic core of that blue gaze, Liz could only stare back and hope not to be completely eviscerated.

Restlessly Jude pushed away from Liz and rose. Whatever lethargy the reporter had sensed in the tall woman's frame seemed to evaporate as she prowled the length of the deck. "Are you having fun yet?" Jude inquired mockingly.

Nonplused by the question, Liz stood to face Jude and replied bluntly. "Not at the moment, no."

"And why not?" A silken menace wove through her contralto tone. "You must know you signed on for the Cook's Tour of Hell when you hooked up with me." She held her arms out wide, a beckoning penumbral figure.

"This is scaring me, Jude." It tumbled out before Liz could stop it, and inwardly she cursed herself for showing this deadly creature her weakness.

"I damn well ought to." The reply was soft and, surprisingly, laced with regret.

Liz covered the distance between them in a few steps, gambling that the woman she had come to know over the last two weeks was buried somewhere underneath all this rage and sadness. "I didn't say you scared me." She positioned herself unblinkingly in front of the other woman. "I said this scared me." Hesitantly she fingered the ruined fabric of Jude's shirt. "Seeing you in pain, not knowing what happened, or how I can help you. That scares me. Not you."

The dangerously severe coldness in Jude's eyes warmed, darkening the austere blue to a more human shade. Jude cocked her head, as if assessing the honesty of Liz's words. "The cuts don't hurt that bad," she said softly.

Liz's heart lurched violently at the quietly bewildered tone in Jude's voice. "I'm not talking about that kind of pain, Jude." An aching smile twisted itself over Liz's face. "I'm talking about this kind of pain. Here." She tapped trembling fingers against the dark woman's temple. "And here." Lowering her fingers to brush gently against Jude's thundering heart, asking for custody of a pain she had no way of fathoming.

This simple touch, so complicated in its intentions, must have pierced through the last bulwark of self-control that had kept Jude from surrendering to the small woman until now. A mournful howl that escaped unbidden from her lips as she slowly began crumbling. "Oh god..." she breathed.

Instinctively, Liz wrapped her arms around the larger woman and lowered them to the softness of the nearest chaise. Liz muttered shussing nonsense phrases to her, expecting tears or sobs or something other than the dry-eyed, quiet animal keening coming from Jude's shuddering form. "That's it... let it go.. come on... let it go Jude... you're safe... I promise..."

"Oh Jesus, I'm so sorry..." Jude whispered. "I'm so goddamned sorry..." Twining her fingers in the thin fabric of Liz's shirt, she held tightly to the woman's slender form, breathing in the warm sleepy scent of Liz's skin, burying herself in the sheltering embrace. "I never meant for it to happen like this..."

Knowing that Jude's mind was somewhere far removed from the place where her body rested, Liz ran soothing hands over the dark head. "Tell me, Jude. Tell me what happened."

Bringing down the Massala Cartel was thought to be impossible. Not a single DEA agent had managed to infiltrate their organization at any level.

Until Jude.

"It's going to be nasty and ugly," Kent warned her at the briefing. "And we don't care how you get in or what you have to do once you're there. Just get what we need to get rid of these bastards once and for all-- no questions asked. Understand?"

The government had been getting their federal asses kicked in the war on drugs. Out-gunned, out-planned, and outmaneuvered, the DEA was desperate for a way to break the stranglehold the Massala Cartel had over a billion dollar drug trade through the country. With the help of the Colombian government, they had forced the Medellin Cartel out of business, but the Massalas had proven impervious to their assaults. Jude had been one of the few agents who had consistently spectacular results on her operations, and she had proven in the past that she wasn't the least bit squeamish about some of the more... unfortunate... aspects of her undercover life.

For Jude it had been the kind of assignment she had been born for... complete and unfettered freedom so long as the agency's goals were met... and she relished the challenge. Her street sources, more thorough and reliable than any dossier the Agency could have dreamed of putting together, had told her all she needed to know about how to win the attention-- and a position-- within the Cartel.

A poker game... a reckless wager... a round of Russian roulette that mysteriously left one of the Cartel's network experts dead and Jude conveniently there to fill his shoes. Enrico Massala was a bullish man, thickset with blunt features and a distinct lack of any earthly grace. He had been obviously fascinated with the preternatural elegance of his new assassin and the arrogant insouciance with which she approached life and her work with Cartel. Jude made sure he knew she was something far different from his other employees-- unimpressed with the vast illicit empire he controlled and uninterested in currying favor.

"You aren't afraid to die?" he asked her casually one night as she stood to leave his office after receiving a set of instructions.

Jude turned to face him and was confronted with the open end of a Smith & Wesson .45 revolver. Arms hanging comfortably at her sides, she merely arched a contemptuous eyebrow at her employer. "Rico, when I die it certainly won't be at the hands of someone like you." Faster than his eyes could follow, she kicked the gun out of his hand, and Enrico found himself flat on his back, an irritated killer crushing the breath from his lungs. "You don't have the stomach for it," she snarled. "Or the hands." With a fluid motion she rose and extended her own lethal one to help him rise. "That's why you have people like me around." A fleeting smirk crossed her face, and then she was all business once more. "Don't ever do something like that again." She didn't say anything else, but the threat hung in the air as clearly as if she had spoken the words.

Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and slowly the months became a year that she had passed in this life. The Agency positioned Jason as her contact source, and he floated in and out of her presence, their bond an increasingly distant memory as her star ascended within the Cartel. He tried talking to her once, trying to jar a look of recognition from those dispassionate blue eyes, but only succeeded in further alienating them.

"Look at yourself, Jude. Look at what you're becoming."

"I'm getting results, aren't I?" she asked coolly. Indeed through her efforts, the Agency was slowly weaving a net around the behemoth that it would be unable to escape.

"At what cost?" He pleaded, "I don't want to lose you."

"Lose me? Jason, you never had me. Don't you get it? This is what I am.... And you don't want any part of that."

"You want me to believe-- what? That you're a cold-blooded killer? I won't."

"Then you're a fool," she replied simply and walked away.

After that it was easier to let go of her cravings for the daylight world. She met a young woman named Sasha LeMontaine who proved most... distracting... when the restlessness seized her and her body ached with unnamed longings. And six more months slipped away.

Cursing the shrill ringing of the phone, Jude reluctantly tried to untangle the lithe form wrapped around her. "Come on, querida... I gotta get this..."

In reply, Sasha's mouth sought and found a full breast, teasing the immediately aroused nipple between her small teeth as Jude picked up the receiver.

"Oh Christ..." Jude groaned, throwing back her head and hoping whoever was on the other end wouldn't hear.

A deep chuckle through the line dashed that faint hope. "Where do you get all that energy?"

"Rico." Jude said by way of greeting as Sasha busied herself with finding more sensitive places on the dark woman's skin. Clamping down firmly on the moan that threatened to rise from her throat, Jude tangled her free hand in Sasha's sleek tresses and drew the voracious mouth slightly away from her body. "It's gotta be one in the morning." Massala was notorious for going to bed early, even though the majority of his businesses flourished in the aphonic hours before dawn, and she was more than a little surprised to hear his voice.

"Ah... yes... well I seem to have a... situation... that is in need of your expertise."

Jude shifted to a sitting position, pushing Sasha firmly away. Never in the year and half she had been with the Cartel had there been a "situation" that couldn't wait. "It has to be handled right now?" she asked, more to try and gauge Rico's mood than anything. If her employer was panicked, then it just might be the break she was needed. The one last piece that would bring the Cartel to a shattering end around his ears.

"Yes," he replied curtly. "And I want you to do it. Personally."

Because of his admiration for her ruthless efficiency, Rico had pretty much allowed Jude to roam where she wished in his organization, and she had taken on more responsibilities than just those of a hired gun. In fact, it had been months since she had executed a contract, busy instead with overseeing the arrival of most of his powdered product into the country. But now Rico's voice held the unmistakable tone of a master commanding his prize dog to attack, and Jude couldn't refuse the order. "Where?" she asked.

"The warehouse. Be there in an hour."

Sasha had known better than to protest when she saw the look on Jude's face. She simply rose with the dark woman and left for her own apartment. In the six months since they had taken to each other's bed, neither woman had broached the subject of staying over. The tenderness of waking up in someone's arms was inconceivable to the dark woman.

The scene that greeted Jude upon her arrival at the warehouse was a scene right out of her own personal Inferno.

Jason was kneeling in the center of a ring of the Cartel's goons, stripped to the waist, his arms bound behind his back.

A snarl rose in Jude's throat at the sight of her helpless partner, and only the fact that his skin was unmarred kept her from losing what rapidly fragmenting composure she had left. "This is unusual," she managed nonchalantly, sauntering into the room. Rico stood in front of Jason's prostrate form, glowering at the young agent. "Rico, you know I don't share your appetites," she drawled, referring to Massala's notorious predilection for beautiful blond boys.

A tight smile from Rico told her that her joke wasn't appreciated. "Unfortunately, my dear Jude, this is strictly business." Another tight smile. "Although you might derive some pleasure from it. Sasha's mentioned how... forceful... you can be... given the right circumstances."

"Well, I do enjoy a challenge," Jude smirked in reply to the innuendo, using the banter to buy herself time. They had Jason... which could mean a million things... but most likely someone had blown his cover. For all his apparent naïveté, Jason wasn't a fool, and he didn't make stupid mistakes. What Jude had to figure out first of all was how much Massala knew, and secondly how the hell they were going to get out of this one. She sighed theatrically. "So? Are you going to tell me what you're doing with Malibu Beach Ken here?"

"I have it on good authority that this delightfully pretty young man is a federal agent, working with someone in my organization to... how do they put it on the TV shows? Take me down."

Jason was doing a beautiful job of not giving away their connection, and she gave a silent thanks to his strength. She just prayed that it would be enough to get them through whatever came next. Now she arched a dubious brow in the direction of their captive. "That?" She jerked her head sardonically at him. "You're telling me that's supposed to be a Fed?" She threw her head back and laughed, a wonderfully throaty chuckle that worked its way through everyone in the room. "You've gotta be kidding me."

Massala shifted his bulk irritably. "I have no reason to doubt my source."

"Yeah? Just who is your source?" She doubted the ploy would work, but it was worth a shot.

Rico merely smiled tolerantly at his employee. "I do keep some counsel private, my pet."

"Well, I'm counseling you to get rid of whatever dumbfuck it was that told you this guy is a Fed."

"And why is that?"

"Cause I know this guy." She tossed the statement out casually, hoping that the bluff would work and not get them killed. Quite frankly, she couldn't think of anything else at this point that might work.  "Isn't that right, Angel?" she strolled up to Jason's kneeling form and slapped him sharply across the face. His eyes gleamed murderously at her for just a moment, then the cornflower blue softened in acceptance as she used the name he had given her. It was her promise that she would get them out alive-- or die trying. In that minute gesture he told her he accepted, and that he trusted-- wherever they were going.

Massala's eyebrows were dancing in surprise. "Would you care to elaborate?"

"I don't really remember when I met him... He likes the dust... and I did him a little favor once when he was short. Ever since then he's been hanging around like a tick on a dog. I can't get rid of him." Jude shrugged lightly, then her smile turned savage. "I guess he likes what I do for him.”

Rico's eyes narrowed suspiciously, but he didn't question her statement. There were a million and one rumors circulating about his tamed killer, each one more unusual than the next. "So?"

"So, I'm telling you that I could pound on this guy all day long, he'd probably enjoy it, and he's not gonna tell you what you want to know-- because he doesn't know anything." Holding her breath, Jude knew she was close to either complete escape or something far worse.

He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "I see your point. However, if I take your word, that would mean that my source is lying to me."

"They could simply be misinformed," Jude offered. She could see where this was heading and didn't like it one bit.

"No, no... they were quite... emphatic... about this young man's guilt. If they were trying to lead me astray, it could only be to further their own ends, and that cannot go unpunished. That also means I would lose someone who's proven to be very valuable to me, and that's not something to be taken lightly." He laced his fingers together in contemplation. "No, I cannot just take your word for it."

"You were going to just take their word," Jude stated, aware that she was treading a dangerous line. She couldn't seem to be pleading for Jason's life, but she couldn't stop herself. Even though she had gone someplace he was too afraid to follow, Jason was still too important to her soul to surrender him without a fight.

"Yes, and you've shown me the error of that. So now I'm giving you the opportunity to convince me otherwise."

"How's that?" she asked skeptically.

"Simple really... just-- how did you say it?-- pound him. We'll see what comes out." An oily smile spread over his jowls. "And it will give me a chance to watch an... expert... at work."

Fury washed over Jude's features, nearly whiting out the arctic blue of her eyes, but she clamped down on it, knowing that disobedience was not an option. It would only get them both killed. As it was, there was still a chance-- bare though it was-- that Jason might escape with his life.

Walking in measured steps around her kneeling partner, she felt the fragile remnants of her humanity being sliced from her soul and laid on the altar of Massala's demand. "I'm sorry," she murmured inaudibly. Methodically she began a series of blows that quickly sent Jason to the floor writhing in pain. At her instructions, two men pulled him up by the arms. "I take it I have your attention," she commanded him icily. "Now... I promise you that this encounter won't be as... pleasant... as our usual ones are," she purred. "I also recommend that if there is any truth to what my employer is suggesting that you tell him, quickly, what it is you know."

"Don't know anything," Jason mumbled, head drooping.

Pulling him up by his thick, blond hair she backhanded him sharply across the face. Another blow opened a nasty gash on his cheek, the blood streaming evilly from the wound.

"Again... what do you know?"

"Don't know..."

Blows rained down on his fair skin, each one wrenching Jude further and further from herself until she seemed to watch the whole episode from a far corner of the warehouse. After fifteen minutes, the systematic abuse had swollen Jason's eyes shut, broken his nose, his collarbones and most of the ribs on his right side. His increasingly incoherent denials degenerated into a single word-- "Don't..." that reproached Jude every time she touched him. The stultifying atmosphere and the vicious activity had created a thin film of perspiration that trickled down Jude's face. Wiping absently at the sweat, Jude turned the ferocious blue on her employer.

"Happy now?" she snarled. The rage was etched into her features, and her muscles quivered-- not from exertion-- but from the suppressed desire to turn her violence upon Rico Massala himself. "He's pulverized and not a goddamned thing."

"You do seem to have proven your point." Massala nodded appreciatively. "But there's one little thing that concerns me. You seem to have quite an affection for this young lad... well, as much as you're capable of... and that's disturbing to me."

"The boy means nothing to me," Jude snorted. "I just hate having my time wasted... not to mention my plans for the evening destroyed," she added icily, reining herself in. It was almost over.

"Ah... do send my apologies to Sasha. I know she's going to be in a foul temper in the morning."

Jude managed a pleasant smile, even though she ached to throttle Massala. She was breathing a little easier now that the end was in sight. "Your own fault, Rico. You said it couldn't wait. You know how she hates to be left... hanging."

The men in the circle chuckled easily, knowing the effect that the dark woman had on their icy little executive. Jude had been the only one who had succeeded with the caramel woman; and they wished her the best, even though the combination of the two women had proven to be more than slightly... volatile... given the right circumstances.

"So can we dump the Cabana Boy here back on the beach and call it a night?" Jude moved smoothly in for the close.

"Sure," Massala waved in agreement. "But indulge me one last thing, please?"

"That would be?" Jude affected a bored tone.

"You're a gambling woman, aren't you? I believe that's how you won your place in my organization."


"Regrettably I missed your performance that night. I'd like to see it now." Shrewd eyes focused on her, and with a sickening feeling Jude knew that her beating of Jason hadn't convinced him of a thing.

Still, she persevered, feigning amused indignation. "What the fuck are you talking about, Rico? You want me to play Russian Roulette right now? I didn't know you were that anxious to get rid of me."

"Oh no, not at all. Not you. Him." Drawing the same stainless steel Smith & Wesson that he had pulled on her over a year ago, he offered it to her, grip first. "Only one bullet and five chances to go free."

Her heart sank, and she knew she had no choice but to accept. Refusal would mean both their deaths. Jude hefted the gun experimentally. She hated .45s, with their longer barrels and flashy finishes, preferring the lighter grip of her Sig, with its more delicate lines and subdued brushed metal. "You're beginning to irritate me, Rico," she growled.

He grinned impishly. A most unattractive look for him,  her mind noted idly. Glancing down at her barely conscious partner, she ran through her options and-- for the first time in her life-- came up empty. She certainly couldn't shoot her way out-- not without leaving him behind-- and that was the point, wasn't it? Sighing, she emptied the cylinder of all its bullets except one and spun it swiftly, leveling the weapon at her partner's head.

Jude had never been one for prayer... never believed in the vengeful God her mother had prostrated herself before all of Jude's life. She could still hear the priest screaming at her, "Born in sin, wretch... and so you shall die..." and had never really questioned her accursed state. But Jason... he was someone else... she reasoned now, casting a faint prayer to whatever in the Heavens would hear her. Certainly if there were... something... up there... they wouldn't make him pay for her wrongs. In that instant, she would have gladly welcomed the worst fires of Hell if it would deliver Jason from what she was about it do. A last murmured plea... and she pulled the trigger...

"Oh god... Jason... I'm so sorry... So sorry..." Jude murmured into the warm skin where her head rested softly, and Liz knew with horrifying certainty what had happened once Jude pulled that trigger.

The sun burned brightly in the morning sky. Jude had been talking for hours in that same position, cradled by the reporter's protective arms, and Liz had listened to the whole story of Jude's life with Jason unfold with a breaking heart. She mourned for all the pain Jude had endured, all the pain the dark woman had inflicted; but she also raged-- at hazy figures in the DEA who kept Jude in their thrall and at Jason for not having more courage in the face of Jude's darkness.

"That's not going to happen again," she promised the now-silent woman. The tensed muscles relaxed in an exhausted slumber beneath her soothing hands. "I won't let it," she vowed, closing her eyes and letting the weariness wash over her as well, carrying her into sleep.

Several hours later, a burrowing movement from Jude startled her awake, and she glanced up to see Carmina's worried head peering out from the doorway. Gently she eased herself from the tangle of Jude's arms, lowering her to the soft cushions. Her limbs creaked in protest as she rose and covered the length of the deck in a few quiet strides.

"Another noche del demonio?"

Demon night... that's one way to put it. "How often does she have these, Carmina?"

The housekeeper searched Liz's face carefully, then nodded at the genuine concern evident in the smaller woman's expression. "Come to the kitchen, senorita. We talk."

Liz padded after the rotund woman, slightly self-conscious that she wore nothing but Jude's white shirt; but Carmina seemed oblivious to her attire and bustled about the kitchen stacking dishes.

"You like the Senora, yes?" the housekeeper asked abruptly. "You-- care for-- her."

The reporter couldn't stop the slight smile that leapt to her face. "Yes, Carmina, I do. Very much."

The housekeeper smiled broadly back at her. "I told her. The first time I see her with you. The way she acts with you, like nobody else."

"Really?" The question bounded out, and unaccountably Liz felt her heart beat a happy tattoo at Carmina's simple sentences. Then she thought about the woman sleeping out on the deck, haunted by the noche del demonio. "Tell me about the demon nights, Carmina."

The housekeeper shook her head gravely. "Sometimes, she go out and then she comes back like that. Bleeding, hurt, evil in her eyes-- like El Diablo himself," the older woman shuddered and crossed herself. "I fear for her like this. She sits, sometimes days, out there... just looking at the ocean like she wants to jump right in and not come back. Won't eat nothing... just drinks... one after another... One time I try to get her to eat, she throws the bottle at me...  After that, I just stay back until it passes... She didn't hurt you, senorita?"

"No," Liz assured her. "Not at all. We-- she-- talked."

Carmina nodded wisely. "That one carries a lot of hurt inside. Sometimes I don't know how she stands up under it."

"I don't know either, Carmina," Liz agreed sadly. "Look, I want her to keep sleeping, but it's hot as hell out there. She’s got to be burning up. And I want to look at some cuts she has. I'm going to try and wake her up and get her into a bath. Do you think you can make her some juice or something?" Then she added with a smile, "And if I promise to bring it to her, will you make her something to eat? Something she really likes?"

The housekeeper nodded briskly. "Course I can. Specially since somebody got some food in here." She winked conspiratorially at the reporter. "I don't know how you did it, senorita. I try and try to get her to let me do the shopping. She say, 'no no no no... let them bring it...' Glad you got her to see sense."

"Not sense, Carmina, I just took the keys to the truck and went shopping," she grinned.

"Good for you! Now go... run the Senora a bath. I make her favorite quesadilla."

"Hey, Sleeping Beauty..." Liz gently brushed a matted tangle of hair from Jude's sweating brow. She hadn't been kidding when she told Carmina it was hot, and Jude's skin fairly steamed in the humid day. "Wake up," she crooned softly.

Blue eyes flickered reluctantly open, focusing woozily on the sun-ringed blond hair that slowly resolved itself in to Liz's tender features. "Wha--"

"Come on," she offered a hand to the larger woman. "You're roasting out here. I've run you a cool bath."

Jude's mind fought to free itself from the cottony haze that shrouded it. The night's events-- culminating in her wracking confession in Liz's arms-- came into sharp relief, and she regarded the gently outstretched hand with stunned disbelief. "You're still here?"

A teasing laugh rolled from the slight woman. "You keep asking me that. We've covered this. Yes, I'm still here. And no, I'm not going anywhere."

"But... but..." Jude stuttered, trying vainly to wrap her mind around the statement. "Why?"

"Because there's nowhere else I'd rather be," she said simply, bending down and brushing her lips over Jude's startled mouth in a tender greeting.

"Oh..." Jude breathed softly, not realizing how long those words had hovered on Liz’s tongue.

"Now come on... You've got a bath waiting. And I hate to break it to you," she sniffed delicately. "But, boy do you need it."

Jude chuckled and allowed herself to be carefully hauled out of the chaise and guided up the stairs to the bathroom.

Once there, Liz gingerly removed the destroyed shirt and tossed it over her shoulder into the wastebasket. "You know," she muttered conversationally, "If you're going to keep wearing stuff like this, you might want to find a different line of work. One that's not quite so hard on your wardrobe." She deliberately injected a light tone into her voice, not wanting to push Jude too far, too fast.

Jude snickered as she sat down. "I can do that," she objected as Liz knelt to pull her boots off. The smaller woman pushed her hands away and resumed the task. "Right about now a new line of work doesn't sound so bad," Jude surprised herself by saying. Shocked green flew up to meet her glance and she managed a wry smile. "I... I... Oh hell," she swore gently. "I don't want to feel like this anymore."

"I don't want you to either," Liz agreed quietly. The two women exchanged wondering glances, neither quite believing what was really happening. Breaking the moment, Liz patted Jude's calf. "Stand up for me," she requested, rising fluidly. "Off," she commanded, looking pointedly at the leather pants.

Jude arched a droll eyebrow, but did as she was bade, stripping the garb efficiently from her body and kicking it to the side.

"In." Liz pointed to the water, her eyes wandering of their own volition down the magnificent length of Jude's tanned body. Angry red gashes marred the smooth perfection of her torso, but most of the wounds were shallow scrapes. A couple of them looked a bit nastier, but none seemed to require stitches. She caught a fleeting glimpse of a dark design on Jude's right hip before the tall woman sank into the cool water, sighing thankfully and scooping a handful of water up and pouring it across the breadth of her shoulders. "I'm going to run get some antiseptic cream and check on your lunch," Liz said, a violent flush suffusing her features that they were both quite aware of.

"I get lunch?" Jude cocked her head.

"You get lunch," Liz affirmed. "I'll be back."

Jude smiled at Liz's departing form. The small woman's appreciation of her stripped down figure hadn't escaped Jude's notice, and she happily filed that information away for some not-too-distant-future reference. She felt curiously clear-headed and emotionally-cleansed, as if all the Stygian edifices that had held her soul immobile all these years had finally been shattered. Now all she had to do was clear away the debris and begin building her life anew. A frighteningly powerful wave of giddiness washed over her, and she dunked her head under the water, lest it fight its way out through her throat in a boisterous shout. Emerging sleekly from the water's surface, she busied herself washing her hair and rinsing its long length until Elizabeth returned to the room, bearing a wooden tray.

"Quesadillas?" Jude sniffed appreciatively. "Carmina's here?"

"Yup, and she made these especially for you. You can eat while I put some stuff on these cuts."


"Humor me, okay Jude?"

The dark woman shrugged her acceptance and obligingly leaned forward so the smaller woman could reach the cuts on her back. She noticed that Liz had put on some baggy shorts in the intervening time, but she still wore Jude's white shirt from yesterday afternoon. There were small dark stains where Jude had bled on her in the night, but the honey-haired woman didn't seem to mind. "How did you convince Carmina to stay?" she asked between huge bites of lunch. "Oh, this is good. Remind me to give her a raise."

"I didn't have to convince her to do anything. She was worried about you."

"Yeah... but... I'm not the... easiest person to deal with sometimes."

"You mean during your demon nights?" Liz asked softly.

"That what she calls it? El noche del demonio?"


"It's pretty accurate. I think I heaved a bottle at her once."

"She told me."

"She tell you that it took ten stitches to sew it up?"

Liz couldn't control the flinch that passed through her body. "No, she didn't."

"So you see why I was a little surprised to see you this morning."

"You never raised a hand to me, Jude."

Jude's eyes turned to study her thoughtfully, the pale blue now the inviting color of a warm spring day. "I wonder if I'm capable of it," she mused aloud. "I look at you... and something just... settles right down inside me, Elizabeth." She reached a tentative hand out to stroke the fair woman's cheek. "I don't know how or why... but you just seem to fit..." She ran her fingers down the length of Liz's neck, over the increasing pulse and stopped at the center of her chest. "Here. You fit here... inside me." In her thirty-plus years on the planet, it was as close as Jude Lucien had ever come to a declaration of love, and she felt the breath flee her body with the effort of it.

In reply, Liz leaned into the caress, closing her eyes in an undeniable gesture of trust and welcome. Sensation after sensation began cascading over Jude’s skin, warming places so deep inside she didn't know they were frozen.

And then Jude was standing, the water sheeting off her muscular frame, as she stepped out of the tub on unsteady legs. Her hands gently cupped the smooth curves of Liz's face, thumbs outlining the shape of brows, eyelids,  nose... waiting patiently until those verdant irises returned to her.

Liz lingered in the luxuriously warm eddies swirling in her blood, loathe to leave its comfort. At last, she opened her eyes to a luminous blue, vibrant with emotion, and she found a wonderfully different kind of heat. "Jude.." she murmured before deliciously full lips found her own in a kiss brimming with tenderness, joy and passion. Beyond anything Liz had ever known, this felt unmistakably right... but a nagging doubt colored the desire that was gathering in her core. "Jude..." she repeated, regretfully drawing back a pace. "Wait..."

Jude withdrew suddenly trembling hands with a quiet, self-accusing curse. More loudly, she said, "I-- I'm sorry, Elizabeth. I thought--"

"Wait..." Liz held out her hands. "You thought right," she assured the dark woman. Just as Jude had needed to last night, now it was Liz's turn to reassure herself that this was what Jude really wanted, and not some blind reaction. "It's just that... you've  been through an emotional wringer. When was the last time you let your guard down like you did last night? I don't want you do anything right now that later-- after the emotions settle-- you might regret."

"Like making love to you?"

Liz blushed furiously. "Yeah,  like... that."

Jude chewed her lip for a moment, watching the beautiful woman standing before her. Drawing their gazes even, she reminded Elizabeth softly, "I was ready to make love to you last night. Before I got that damned phone call. Remember?" She guided them out of the bathroom, into the less-confining space of her bedroom. A ceiling fan whirled lazily overhead, sending soft puffs of air against Jude's damp skin. Hesitantly, she stroked Elizabeth's glossy hair, fiery highlights in the smaller woman’s hair dancing under her hands. "Making love to you is something I could never regret," she said. "And I'd like... that is... if you want... me..." She blew out a frustrated breath and lowered her head. "I don't know how to do this," she muttered.

"You're doing just fine." Liz smiled gently, knowing that words weren’t the easiest way for the dark woman to communicate. Even now, she could feel Jude’s body trembling with suppressed desire. "I only want you to be sure of what you want. Who you want."

"I am sure," Jude replied without equivocation. "I want to make love to you, Elizabeth. Here... in the daylight. I need to see your face as I touch you, see your skin, your body when you move against me. I want the sunlight on us... together. Do you understand?"

"With me," Liz replied softly, lifting her arms to twine about the taller woman's neck, feeling the pleasant shudders course through her body at the sensation of Jude's length pressed against her.

"Wha-- what?" Jude asked, her hands automatically coming to rest on Liz's hips.

"Tell me you want to make love with me, not to me," she murmured sensually, green eyes darkening a shade in desire.

"I... I want to make love with you, Elizabeth..." Jude corrected, the beginnings of a smile creeping over her lips.  "With you and to you and for you."

Opening her mouth to receive the tender gift of Jude’s lips, Liz fell into the sweetly pleasant taste of the taller woman. The kiss deepened and leisurely, achingly, their tongues made their way across barriers of lips and teeth, mingling in the welcoming embrace of their mouths. This wasn't the frantic desire that consumed Liz last night, but rather long-banked embers flaring into life and beginning a slow burn that promised not to end.

Jude's warm hands slipped under the tails of Liz's shirt, playing over the smooth expanse of the smaller woman's ribs, smiling when she felt the catch in her breath. "I'm surprised you were able to button this thing closed after the damage you did to it yesterday," she teased.

A rich chuckle bubbled up in Liz's throat. "Me too," she agreed, arching into the cautious exploration.

"Poor shirt," Jude murmured. "Perhaps we should retire it. Send it to a better place."

"Oh no," Liz demurred. "This is now my favorite shirt. It's staying with me."

"Does it have to stay with you right now?"

Spying the amused arc of Jude's brow, Liz finally caught the clue lobbed at her. "Oh..." she blushed, then dissolved into gentle laughter. "Uh... no, I think... maybe... I could do... without it... for a little while. Now that you mention it."

Graceful fingers unfastened the remaining buttons on the shirt and slowly parted the folds. "You are absolutely beautiful," Jude whispered, pushing the fabric from Liz's shoulders and allowing her gaze to drift over strong shoulders, curving breasts, and a finely muscled abdomen. She slipped the khaki shorts over the gentle slope of Liz's hips, her heart pounding wildly at the beauty revealed to her.

"Funny, I was just going to say the same thing about you," Liz laughed on uneven breath, her eyes encompassing the supple length of Jude's body as she finally allowed herself to take it all in. The dark woman's breasts were fuller than she had imagined; and her hips flared teasingly at the narrow taper of her waist, giving the muscular body an unexpectedly lush appearance. Her hands trailed up the length of Jude's arms, testing the sinewy strength of the resting muscles, over the broad shoulders, dipping the hollows of her collarbones, at last coming to rest on the swells of Jude's breasts. The dark woman groaned softly and closed her eyes at the touch, surrendering the lead of this first dance to Elizabeth.

Cupping their weight tenderly, Liz's fingers coaxed the nipples into blushing awareness, reveling in the contrast of her fair hands against the sun-bronzed skin. "Do you like this, Jude?" Liz teased, watching Jude's eyes flutter open with effort.

"Whatever would give you that idea?" she managed to drawl lazily, as the small fingers continued their meandering explorations. "But now that you mention it... mmm... yeah, I do like it."

The reporter's eyes sparkled at the puckish banter, relishing the connection of their minds and bodies. "Good... wouldn't want you to get bored or anything," she replied, changing the direction of her caresses just slightly, minutely increasing the intensity of her touch, smiling as Jude's breathing rose accordingly.

"I'll.. uh... be sure to let you... ah... know," Jude's words fractured themselves as Liz's mouth joined the fray, pressing fleeting kisses against the raging pulse in Jude's neck and along the elegant line of her shoulders.

"You know," Liz said thoughtfully. "This might go a lot easier if we weren't standing up. You wouldn't happen to know of any large, horizontal surfaces nearby would you?" she inquired innocently.

Jude cracked one blue eye and regarded Liz severely. "You. Are. A. Tease."

"So? You gonna do something about it?" Liz asked archly.

"That does it!" Jude scooped the smaller woman up in one fluid motion, covered the short distance to the bed, and flung them both down on its welcoming surface.

"This is more like it." Liz nodded approvingly, laughing. The pair tussled on the bed for a few moments, allowing the horseplay to slowly evolve into more sensual caresses and lingering kisses. Feeling her own desire reach the next level, Liz rolled the larger woman onto her back, her tongue stroking deep inside Jude's mouth-- testing, probing to see if Jude's want matched her own.

Jude moaned under the voluptuous assault, arching her back and pressing her breasts against Liz's own. The aroused tips caressed each other, and both women cried out softly at the sensation. "Yes," Jude murmured, as Liz slid away from her mouth to pursue points further south. Her questing tongue carved a heated trail over Jude's neck, working exquisitely delicate patterns over the bronze skin. Long fingers tangled in Liz's hair, not guiding or directing, just maintaining their tactile connection. Liz kissed her way down the swell of Jude's left breast, the hammering of the dark woman's heart clearly audible beneath the skin.

"You taste so good," she whispered, glancing briefly back at Jude's ardent face. Blue shaded to violet in passion and met her gaze with one of such open desire that it burned right through to Liz’s increasingly liquid core. Her mouth found Jude's aching nipple and covered it with sweet possessiveness. Jude arched again into the contact, moaning deep in her throat. Liz lingered over Jude's breasts, feasting on their fullness with her lips, her teeth, her tongue... allowing the purring sounds coming from the dark woman to guide her. She glanced up once more to see Jude's head thrown back in abandon, offering her body up to Liz's ministrations. A blaze of falling sunlight splashed itself over their intertwined forms, and she paused just a moment, to absorb the heat from the sun, from their skin, from their desire. "Jude," she murmured, drawing the blue back open. "Look," she gestured with her eyes towards the open windows. "We're making love in the sunlight. Is this what you wanted?"

A guttural moan of passion twisted itself free from Jude's throat as she bent to tangle her lips with Liz's. "God, yes... it feels good. You feel so good, Liz..."

"I'm glad," she whispered, drawing away and sliding down the length of Jude's torso. "I want you to tell me, Jude, what feels good and," she grinned wickedly, "What feels better than good."

Involuntarily, Jude's hips bucked in supplication as Liz nestled comfortably between Jude's long legs. The dark woman closed her eyes, her fingers still in Liz's hair.

"Tell me what you like," Liz crooned sensually.

"Just..." A ragged breath rasped from her lips. "Please..." she implored.

Since they had met, Liz had burned to know this woman, to know the secrets of her life, her mind and her body. Now layer by layer, Jude Lucien fell open to her, revealing a tender heart and a frightened soul... and Liz reverently committed everything to the task before her.

Trembling fingers worked their way over the smooth flesh of one powerful thigh, feeling the answering tremors in Jude's body, and she traveled with her parted lips across the same skin. No intoxicant in the world could have done more to dizzy Liz's senses than the clean, musky scent of Jude's center that she caught a faint wisp of as she brushed dangerously close to her lover's need.

She traced the strong lines of Jude's waist with her fingers, grasping her hips and snugging her body more tightly in its cove. Tentatively she pressed a soft kiss at the apex of those tantalizing legs and felt the answering arch of Jude's back in reply. Recognizing that Jude's desire was at a fevered pitch, Liz slipped two fingers between the dark woman’s folds and gasped at the heated wetness that awaited her there. "Oh god..." Never imaging that she could feel so much from just the tips of her fingers, the reporter wanted to devour Jude, to wander inside her and claim the woman's need for her own. Still, Liz held back, gently working deeper and deeper-- waiting for Jude to show her the rhythm, to freely offer that need to Liz. Tenderly, inevitably, hips and fingers matched in the intricate flower of consummation, and as Jude spiraled up higher, Liz added another finger to the dance and dipped her mouth at last to the honey.

The taste of the dark woman was wildflower sweet, and she couldn't stop the moan that rumbled through her as the first wave passed her lips. An answering growl echoed in Jude's throat as she thrust herself into the caresses, implicitly trusting the small woman to lead the way. Liz reached deeper inside her lover, coaxing the need from Jude's body in molten form, wanting nothing more than to touch this woman with her hands, her mouth, her heart, her soul.

"Oh god... Liz..." Jude groaned as Liz's tongue brushed the center of her need, painting it with its own desire. A wracking shudder seized Jude's body, freezing it at the peak of its arch, and Liz felt the beginning tremors circling around her fingers. When the crest of the delivering wave came, she rode it with Jude, slowing her movements, easing her home. At last they lay still, Jude's center still pulsing gently around her hands. She proffered another tender kiss to her lover's core, smiling at the tremor that raced through Jude's quivering body, and gently slid herself up the lean form, replacing her fingers with a sleek thigh.

"Hey there..." She braced on both elbows over her new lover, a cocky self-satisfied smile running loose over her face.

An exhausted chuckle fell from Jude's lips. "Hey there yourself."

"Fancy meeting you here."

"It is a small world," Jude acknowledged with a wry smile. "Wow..." she breathed.

A delighted sparkle lit Liz's green eyes. "I guess I did okay, huh?"

"More than okay," Jude corrected, capturing Liz's head gently in her hands and drawing her down for a kiss. "Perfect," she said after long moments where their lips reacquainted themselves, flavored by Jude's wild essence.

Liz slid a little further down Jude's body to rest on her chest, the slight movement bringing Jude's thigh tightly against her own aching center and unconsciously she bore down on the solid pressure. The action didn't escape Jude's notice, and a rakish smile curved on her lips. Deftly, she flipped the pair over, so that Liz was resting underneath her long frame. "I get the feeling there's something... I can do for you... Elizabeth," she purred sensually, the silky words sending tremors down the lithe body. "Hmm?" she arched a questioning brow.

The heat that had been kept in check by concentrating on Jude's body erupted violently, rushing through Liz's blood, suffusing her with need. "Yyess..." she murmured.

Jude was all feline grace as her hands began a prowling exploration of Liz's body, mapping out muscles, joints and nerves, marveling at the auric beauty stretched out before her. Liz was far-beyond ready for her lover's touch; and with a frightening need, she craved Jude's mouth and hands against her center. Small fingers curled in the dark hair, directing her downward, not allowing Jude time to linger over sensitized breasts, bucking hips or flexing legs. "I want you, Jude," she gasped on ragged breath, moaning softly when she felt Jude's fingertips brush over the tight bundle of nerves. "Please..."

"Shh..." Jude crooned. "Shh... Anything for you... Elizabeth... anything... I'll take care of you... Trust me...." she promised, before bending her head to taste her lover's heat. Slipping a lithe thigh over each broad shoulder, Jude's tongue traced the slick path to Liz's center, while her hands stretched up to cup the tantalizing breasts that she had been earlier denied. Liz purred out her gratitude as her hips thrust powerfully against Jude's mouth, the adroit tongue and lips urging Liz to still another higher plane, as the women found a sinuous cadence of give and take, both moaning in delight at their discoveries.

"Yyess... Jude.. oh... yyess..." Losing all sense of time and space, only conscious of the dark woman gliding deeper and deeper within her, Liz cried out her pleasure as each brush of Jude's tongue sending another shuddering wave through her trembling body. Reaching a peak from which there was no higher place to go, feeling as if Jude were an extension of her own body, she began the long fall into release, calling her lover's name in hoarse desire.

As the devastating tremors consumed her, she felt Jude's tongue and hands fall away, moving to gather her shivering form in the strong arms, wrapping a reassuring length around her in a sensual web. Jude kissed her forehead tenderly, brushing damp tendrils off Liz's forehead, a gloriously complete smile on her face.

They lazed in each other's eyes for a few moments longer, words utterly pointless after what their bodies had just shared. The sun was just drifting its evening's slumber, and it painted golden shadows across the sleek length of their entwined bodies.

"Perfect," Liz murmured drowsily, nuzzling into the warm space of Jude's neck and gentling a tiny kiss on the slowing heartbeat.

"Perfect," Jude echoed, an answering kiss brushing the top of Liz's hair.

Together, they joined the sun in its retirement, content to let the night continue on without them.