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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 10

Sighing contentedly in the middle of a sweet dream, Liz burrowed herself further into Jude's soft, yielding, fur-covered chest...


Green eyes reluctantly popped open, and the reporter found herself comfortably snuggled up to Aggie's obliging back. Somehow, during her sleep, Jude's smoothly muscular form had been exchanged for the furry length of the Akita stretched out against the slumbering reporter. Brows furrowing at this unfortunate turn of events, Liz sat up, rubbing a hand through her sleep-tousled hair. She surveyed the bed's rumpled landscape, looking for any sign of her new lover, slightly piqued that Jude had departed from their haven so soon. Then she spied a hastily scrawled note in a now-familiar bold hand resting on the opposite pillow.

Don't move a muscle... I'll be right back. --J.

"That's more like it," Liz muttered happily.

As Liz was sinking back into an inviting sleepy warmth, Jude sat in her worn leather desk chair tapping her fingers impatiently on the keyboard. A seedling thought had woken her from her contented slumber and nagged her until she slipped away from her lover's soothing embrace. Upon hearing the muted movements of Carmina downstairs in the kitchen, Jude tugged a long, dark blue T-shirt over her head, its hem barely covering anything that might embarrass her older housekeeper's notions of propriety. She padded barefoot downstairs and hesitantly ducked her head through the galley doors. "Thought I heard you, Carmina."

"Senora!" The rotund housekeeper jumped a little at Jude's unexpected appearance, pressing a hand to her ample bosom. "You feeling better?"

Jude smiled at her way of asking if el noche del demonio had passed. "Much better, Carmina. Thank you." A broad smile ran across her face that reached up and caressed a breath-takingly deep blue into her irises, softening the austere planes of her face.

The housekeeper beamed back at her. "That little senorita... she's a special one, no?"

"That she is," Jude agreed readily.

Carmina nodded to herself, then frowned. "You not gonna hurt her, are you Senora?"

Jude's face sobered, and she shook her head gravely. "I'm going to try my best not to, Carmina."

The two women regarded each other a long moment, both knowing what Jude was capable of. The silence passed as Carmina rubbed her hands briskly together and nodded her acceptance of Jude’s words. "Okay. Now what you doin down here, half naked in my kitchen?"

"I gotta get something out of my car, Carmina." Jude grinned rakishly and dashed outside to where she had parked the Boxster. Something about the attack was bothering her, and it had finally nagged her into leaving Elizabeth's side. She leaned over the passenger door of the car and grabbed the submachine gun that she had scooped up from her dead assailant. Hefting its weight in her hand, she carried it into the house.

Carmina's eyes grew wide at the sight of the sinister-looking weapon resting casually in Jude's hand. Unconsciously the housekeeper made the sign of the cross, muttering under her breath in Spanish. "Why you bringing that trash in here?" she asked, anger at her employer overriding the common sense that told her you don't anger a killer with a gun in her hand. "You said you were better."

Jude could see the worry in her employee's eyes and bit back the sharp retort that sprang to her tongue. Two weeks ago, she never would have asked something like that, Jude thought to herself. Looks like Elizabeth is rubbing off on someone other than me. A tiny, wry smile teased the corners of her mouth. And I don't think that's a bad thing... Nope, not at all. She gentled her tone deliberately. "I am, Carmina. Some men... tried to hurt me the other day... This was one of their weapons. Maybe I can find out something about them from it. Okay?" She waited until the worried expression lightened a little in Carmina's deep brown eyes. "I'm not going to use it on anyone."


"I promise." She looked somberly at the housekeeper, who anxiously rolled a tortilla flat. With one last brief smile, she padded back up the stairs, Pete trailing at her heels. "Go see Liz, boy." She directed the small beast into the bedroom and grinned as he obediently leapt up on the bed and curled up at Liz's feet. Watching her lover sleep for a moment more and resisting the urge to go join her, Jude turned in the opposite direction and entered her study.

Logging onto the terminal, she checked her e-mail messages. She read the one from Sasha confirming that she was sending a couple of boys over to the scene of the ambush to try and pick up any information about the police investigation and then logged off. She had called her assistant from the road shortly after the assault, letting her know that she was fine and that Diego no longer posed a threat. Slouching down in her chair and propping long legs on her desk, she examined the gun more closely.

In the darkness and the haze of the attack, she hadn't registered its make, but now looking closely at it, she saw that it was a H-KMP5-- and that knowledge made her blood run cold. H-Ks were exclusively military and law enforcement issue, getting them on the street was almost impossible. Even if that weren't the case, most street punks preferred the flashier Tech 9s, while the Cartels and more organized groups used the reliable and ever-plentiful Uzi 9mms. There was no need to go to the expense and risk of obtaining Hunter-Kesslers.

Law enforcement... Metro Dade? Nah... she dismissed the idea almost as soon as she had it. There's no way in hell they would have organized something like that. She mused with black humor, Of course they shot like they were county sheriffs. That left ...the Agency. Jude shifted uneasily in her seat as recent conversations with Kent played over in her head.

"Did you think the Archangel's return to the Agency would go unnoticed?"

"They want you to bring him in now."

"Our sources haven't heard anything about a new contract out on you."

"Motherfuck," Jude whispered to the empty room as a sinking feeling enveloped her. It was the same nauseous rage that had gripped her when she realized that Jason's cover could only have been blown by somebody in the Agency.

A number of scenarios ran themselves through her head in rapid succession.

One... cut and dried... they stumbled upon the meet independently of anyone else, didn't know of my involvement, and went for the bust. That's the best case scenario. Even though she knew it was the least likely.

Two... Sasha sold me out. That thought left her almost as cold as the idea that the Agency was gunning for her. She turned the idea over and over in her mind, observing it from all angles, trying it on for mental size. She's had years to do that... why now? What would be the point? Working with Romair? Nah... she hated the Massalas even when Rico was in charge... And the Cartel would never put a woman at the helm. Although her instincts told her that Sasha wouldn't betray her this way, she kept the idea alive in her mind, realizing from past experience that betrayal most often came from the closest sources.

Three... Romair is working with the Agency... Wouldn't be too out of character for the family... But again, what's the point? The Cartel is crippled as it is, he has no leverage. Why fight your way to power only to give it away?

Four... Diego did go to the DEA to make a deal... That makes more sense than him going to Romair anyway... and the Agency used the information to set me up... It would explain why Romair looked just as spooked as I did when those guys showed up... That works.

Wearily she ran a hand through her disheveled hair, and sat up. Okay, genius.. you've figured it out... now the question is, what do you do about it? She glanced at the computer's digital clock, surprised to realize she had been away from Liz for over an hour. That's an hour too long, as far as I'm concerned. She shook her head as that particular thought sank in. Oh boy, I'm in trouble here. She could still hear Carmina bustling about in the kitchen and decided a little preemptive strike was in order.

Soundlessly she slipped back down the stairs and stuck her head through the galley doors. "Uh... Carmina?"

"Yes Senora?"

"Look... Elizabeth and I are gonna be... taking it easy today." A devilish grin curled her lips when she saw Carmina blush at the implication. "When you get done with what you're doing, why don't you take the day off? What do you say? You can spend the day with your grandkids or go shopping. On me."

A huge smile lit up Carmina's face. "Okay, Senora, but I make you two some lunch first."

"Great. Just make sure you can stick it in the refrigerator. I'm not sure when we'll make it back down here." She launched a pair of suggestive eyebrows skyward as the housekeeper tossed a dishrag at her rapidly retreating head.

"Santa Madre!"

But all Carmina heard was a throaty chuckle from her employer as she returned to her new love.  

  Liz had returned to her pleasant dreams without missing a step, and the next time a figure nudged her from sleep it was distinctly female... distinctly human... distinctly her new lover.

"Hey there," she murmured drowsily as Jude slipped behind her, arms encircling the slender woman. Tender kisses traced lines across her shoulders, and Liz couldn't help but arch into the solid feel of the woman holding her. "Why aren't you naked?" she complained, feeling the soft cotton of a T-shirt instead of Jude's delicious skin.

"Cause it upsets Carmina when I walk around the house like that," Jude whispered, nibbling at the corner of Liz's ear.

The reporter cracked an eyelid. "Don't see her anywhere nearby."

Jude chuckled and nudged Aggie off the bed with a lazy hand, scattering the dogs who had slowly crept back after the women had fallen asleep in each other's arms. The evening had been filled with explorations of each other's bodies-- sometimes gently, sometimes fiercely, always passionately and filled with a reverent air. Liz had been silently dismayed to discover a number of scars, both new and old, on Jude's bronze skin. Not because it marred the body's beautiful perfection, but rather because each mark was evidence of still more pain that the dark woman had suffered. By unspoken agreement, they had not talked of either the source of those scars or the current position Jude was in. It was a subject both knew they would have to broach soon if the marvelous discovery they had made was to last more than one night, but neither wanted to disturb the brilliant joy that consumed them.

"So?" Liz prodded.

"So what?"

"So... I don't see your housekeeper anywhere in the room." Deftly she twisted in Jude's embrace to face the dark woman who looked at her with dancing eyes. "Off." She tugged at the offending garment, indicating her desire.

"You are always trying to get me out of my clothes," Jude teased. "First yesterday afternoon and now..." She conveniently trailed off.

"Wonder why?" Liz retorted with a smug grin. "After last night, you'll be lucky if I ever let you put them back on again."

"Ooh... I could get to like that. Hey... That could be my new career-- love slave. After all, a romance novelist has to get her material from somewhere, doesn't she?"

"I don't think you're exactly what Avon Books had in mind, sweetheart."

An indignant eyebrow launched itself forth. "And why not?" she demanded, full of mock-affront. "I'm not tall, dark and mysterious enough?"

"Oh, you are all of that, and more," Liz fervently assured her. "But I think they miiiight have a little problem with certain... other... aspects."

"My haunted past?" Jude offered helpfully.

"Ah... no..."

"My unsavory associates?"

"Uh... not quite..."

"My brooding disposition?"

"Um... not exactly..."

"Then I don't get it," Jude stated quizzically. She leaned over the side of the bed and retrieved a paperback  book from the bottom shelf of the night stand. Holding up a copy of Love's Fevered Embrace, she displayed it before a suddenly blushing Liz. "I read this and the jewel-thief hero from the wrong side of the tracks had all of those characteristics. It's what drew Elana to him at first and made her want to help him redeem his thieving ways."

Liz buried her face in the cool material of Jude's blue T-shirt and tried to hide there. "I can't believe you read one of them," she moaned, feeling Jude's chest underneath her rumble in laughter. "Where on earth did you find that?" Green eyes peeked hesitantly up at her lover, who was thumbing through the book with an amused gleam in her eyes.

"Believe me, it wasn't hard," Jude assured her. "But I thought the clerk's eyes at the bookstore were going to fall out."

"Why?" Liz frowned. "The book isn't that bad."

Jude snickered. "No, it's not... But let's just say I've been going there for almost five years and this is a little... far afield... of my usual reading habits. He was slightly surprised when I bought four romance novels."

"You got them all?" Liz asked, incredulous.

"Sure did," Jude smiled smugly. "I've only had time to read this one, though. But there's something I don't get." Her smiled faded slightly. "The latest publication date is a little over five years ago. Why haven't you published anything since? The guy in the bookstore said that these still sold well, even after all this time."

Liz's heart began a cacophonous hammering inside her rib cage that she desperately hoped wasn't audible to the dark woman. She shifted away from Jude's embrace, but her lover's long arms gently imprisoned her.

"Hey..." Jude could easily see the panicked look in the green eyes and the sudden paleness that washed over Liz's beautiful features. "Whatever it is... it can't be that bad."

"You have no idea," Liz murmured, well aware that the truth would, at best, exile her from Jude's life forever. Willingly walking out of this woman's life was just no longer an option for her. She would have to think of something else.

"Look... Elizabeth... look at me," Jude insisted, an elegant finger catching her under the chin and holding her there. "I know what you told me when I asked you to stay here... but I also know... there's something else. I mean... I'm not stupid. I've noticed that you haven't been in any hurry to get home."

Liz hadn't thought her heart could pound any faster, but at Jude's words, it did-- so much so that she thought the muscle would burst.

"I guess I just figured you were... sort of running away from home or... I don't know," Jude continued, brushing a tentative hand over Liz's cheeks. "A husband... boyfriend... something you wanted to get away from." She shrugged lightly. "Maybe just a life that didn't fit you anymore. And somebody like me... well, I'm a good place to hide out for a little while."

Those blue eyes were gazing at her with an impossibly tender expression, and Liz wanted to cry out at the openness in that glance and the lies with which she was answering it. Her tongue, however, remained firmly lodged at the back of her painfully dry throat, unable to say a word. If there were any time to tell Jude the truth it was now... but Liz couldn't bear to add one more betrayal and loss to the agonizing list that Jude had already suffered.

She realized with a start that Jude wasn't too far from the truth. This whole escapade had stopped being about a story almost from the first moment she had met Jude Lucien. It had become instead this amazing voyage where she learned not just about the extraordinary woman lying beside her, but most surprisingly, about herself.

In a manner of speaking, she was running away from a life that didn't fit-- one that never had and never would. Although she had moved from Arlington to Miami ostensibly so that she could live her own life, Liz never truly had done that. In the almost two years she had been down here, she hadn't taken a lover, hadn't really dated anyone, and only occasionally socialized with her office companions on the softball field or at the local pub. She had no close friends who would ask uncomfortable questions that she didn't want to answer, and she had become adept at organizing her life within the narrow boundaries of what would appear acceptable. As a result, her life had come down to her career-- first, last, and only. No wonder she had become so obsessed with Jude-- someone who had made a life out of not stopping at any boundary.

"I-- I--" Much to her consternation, tears began to fill her eyes. She angrily tried to blink them away before Jude could see them but was too late, as a long finger caught the single drop that slipped from her eyes.

"Shh..." Jude comforted. "We don't have to talk about it now. God knows I have enough secrets myself. I just... I wanted you to know... that it was okay. I mean..." Pulling the smaller woman tightly to her and brushing a kiss across the pale hair, she released a heavy sigh, fighting for words. "I want you to know that... if you want... you can stick around as long as you need to... as long as you like." Another agonizingly long pause, and Liz could hear the rapid hammering of Jude's heart. "I'd... I'd like that."

For an eternal moment, Liz allowed herself to relax fully into the strength of that embrace, into the hesitantly loving words that rolled into her ears and sank into her heart. Jude's arms were warm and supple around her, and her hands stroked gentle caresses up and down the length of Liz's bare back, pleasantly raising tiny goose bumps in their wake. Kissing the cloth-covered surface over Jude's heart, she nuzzled a moment more and then brought her eyes back to Jude's, a clouded expression marring their green luminance. "What do you mean 'somebody like you is a good place to hide out?'" she demanded softly.

A familiar, faint telltale flush warmed Jude's bronze features. "I just meant--" She glanced at their embrace and the room that surrounded them, "I suspect that this is about as far from your regular life as you can get."

"I admit that getting shot isn't on my list of daily activities," Liz conceded wryly.

A tiny smile quirked at the corners of Jude's mouth. "I hope not. But--"

Suddenly understanding what her lover was struggling to say, Liz placed slim fingers over Jude's lips. "But nothing. I'm not here to gain perspective about my life. I didn't make love with you to explore my options." A wave of fear and anger washed through Liz's veins, and she ached to release all of her secrets to this woman. Looking into the astonished blue of Jude's eyes, she grimly determined that if she couldn't tell Jude the complete truth about the reason why she came into the mercurial woman's life, then by God she could at least be honest about her reasons for wanting to stay there. "Jude..." Loving the hard edge of the woman's name rolling off her tongue. "Jude..." she repeated, helpless to convey the force of desire, fascination and tenderness that combined to form the tinder for the unmistakable kindling of love in her soul.

Blindly, her mouth sought Jude's, lips and tongue tracing the emotions that for once her words were inadequate to express. A moan rose deep in her throat, and she tangled her hands in Jude's raven locks, drawing her still closer, as if to pull the dark woman into her heart and show her its contents. Jude struggled briefly against the force of Liz's desire, but only long enough to slip her shirt off and offer the honey-haired woman unimpeded access to her skin. "Oh yes..." Liz murmured, dipping her tongue in the graceful hollow of her lover's throat. Jude still tasted of their sweat and the first mingling of their sex, of desires long forbidden and passions unexplored, and Liz felt a ravenous need seize her muscles-- a burning to know this woman inside and out and to end her own self-imposed exile from wanting things they had told her she couldn't have.

Jude saw the feverish glint in those malachite eyes, and an answering need rose inside her. Deftly, she flipped the pair over, so Liz's supple length was stretched out beneath hers. Liz groaned in protest, but Jude soothed her with expert hands roving over her glistening skin. "Please..." Jude whispered hoarsely, her own ache almost overwhelming her. She had been able to subdue the growing need in her mind and body for this slender woman by convincing herself that she could only be a transitory lover for Liz. She was convinced the small woman would never trust someone like her-- someone so consumed by violence-- completely. Liz's words, however, and the undeniable emotion splashed across her green eyes told Jude that she wasn't alone in these unfamiliar depths. Each surrender that Jude had made these last two weeks-- each inroad into her own troubled heart that she had been helpless to prevent-- had been leading her to this place where Liz laid down her own fears and surrendered fully into the dark woman's embrace. "Please...." she repeated, her own voice sounding unfamiliar to her ears. "Let me take you..."

It was more than a request to lay her hands on the small woman's body. That she had already done a dozen times in the single day they had been lovers. This was a plea to lay claim to Elizabeth's soul with her own; an admission of need, of want, of birthing love. It was humming through her body, visible in her eyes and the quiet trembling of her hands.

A single word, a searing look that left no doubts that they were both stepping off this precipice together.


Jude slowly pulled herself back from their embrace, drawing herself up on her knees and gazing at Liz's glorious body, a look of reverent awe flooding the blue plains of her eyes. Then she knelt joyously to her task-- at once the lover and the beloved, the supplicant and the goddess in the intimate joining about to take place.

Could it be possible that the world does move for two people when they make love? Logic dictates the impossibility of such a tilting of the earth's axis no matter what the cause. But as Jude's mouth moved over Liz's skin in burning consummation of things as yet unsaid, the dark woman felt her existence turn itself inside out-- discarding the life she had been subsisting on to make room for one in which she really lived.

Liz’s legs wrapped themselves around Jude's waist, grinding her aroused center against the hard length of the dark woman's torso. "Jude..." she groaned.

Hearing the desperate plea in her lover's voice, Jude slipped her hands under the small of Liz's back and pulled her into a fierce embrace, whispering quiet reassurances in her ear. "I got you, Liz. I got you. Shh..."

Liz's arms slid around Jude's neck, her lips seeking and finding a gentle assurance in an embrace of their own. "I know," the small woman affirmed quietly.

Jude lowered their bodies once more to the soft mattress, reveling in the feel of their limbs intertwining. Long, slow moments slipped away as their mouths explored each other's skin, nipping and tasting. Jude kissed a line down Liz's neck and shoulders, lingering in the beautiful smoothness of her lover's skin. She cupped Liz's breasts in tender hands, running her thumbs along the aroused tips. Liz moaned softly in pleasure, arching her back, offering more skin for Jude's knowing touch.

Jude's hands, fingers, tongue, mouth, body were all at the service of reaching inside and making a gift of everything she felt for this remarkable woman. She guided Liz's desire through an ever-intensifying spiral until the honey-haired woman came shuddering against her, calling out Jude's name in a raw voice.

And the sun stretched out long tentacles of light towards them, placing its dappled benediction on their glimmering forms as they lay in each other's arms.

"Your right ear is double-pierced," Liz accused, peering at the offending lobe.

A lazy eye opened, regarding the woman sprawled across her chest. "Yeah? So?"

"I never noticed that." Pale brows furrowed. She shifted her position on Jude's stomach, ostentatiously ignoring the dramatic "...Oof..." from her partner as she moved, and inspected Jude's left ear. "This one's not."

"Very observant," Jude teased. "OW!" She flinched as Liz dug an elbow into her side.

"You deserved it," Liz admonished, resettling herself comfortably on her lover.

"Hhrmphf..." Jude snorted. "I noticed right away that both your ears were double-pierced," she pronounced smugly.

"Gee Colombo, what gave me away?" Liz mocked. "Could it have been the fact that I had earrings on at the time?"

"Well... uh... Okay, you nailed me," Jude admitted sheepishly, a grin on her face. "I like those little diamond studs on you. They're kinda sexy."

"You think?"

A wolfish smile answered her. "Oh yeah." She leaned forward and nipped an earlobe in question, then lingered a little while longer in quiet examination of the soft skin of Liz's neck.

Morning had long ago given away to afternoon, and Jude knew that she was only postponing the inevitable conversation they would have to have about what had happened to Jude at the boathouse, and where they would go-- if indeed they could go anywhere-- from this warm place that now sheltered them.

"So why don't you wear one?" Liz managed to ask as Jude's tongue sent delicious skitters coursing down her spine.

"One what?" Jude murmured, having lost complete track of the conversation.

In reply, Liz captured Jude's face in her hands and affixed the dark woman with a stern look.

"Oh, that." Jude fingered her earlobe absently. "I got it pierced when I was sixteen. Kind of a gang thing. It was stupid. I was stupid."

"Gang?" Liz shook her head and laughed ruefully. "Just how rowdy were you growing up?”

The dark woman arched a sardonic brow. "You really wanna know?"

They laughed softly together for a moment, just relishing the closeness of their bodies and the pleasant lethargy invading their limbs.

"So..." A mischievous look danced in Liz's green eyes. "Was that when you got this too?" She stroked the delicate lines of the tattoo on Jude's right hip.

Jude's pulse quickened as the gentle touch threatened to rouse her somnolent desire once more. She glanced at the mark that had become such a part of her body she no longer noticed it any more. "No... that was something that happened... much later." Seeing the question in Liz's eyes, she demurred. "It's a long story. I'll tell you that one another time. Okay?"

"Deal," Liz agreed, acquiescing to the shadows flickering in Jude's pale eyes.

The pair exchanged tranquil kisses with now-familiar lips, content just to maintain contact with one another.

"You know," Jude murmured, "We are going to have to get out of bed eventually."

Liz groaned and buried her face in Jude's neck in response.

"Come on," Jude coaxed. "You going to tell me that you aren't hungry?"

"Only for this...." she nuzzled Jude's collarbone and ran a teasing hand over one of the dark woman's breasts, the nipple tightening immediately under her palm.

Jude sucked in a sharp breath at the fleeting touch. "Tease..." she grumbled. "Why do I have a feeling that if I'm going to keep up with this insatiable beast, I'm gonna have to eat?" She took another look at the sparkling eyes of her lover and added, "Lots."

Despite Liz's evasive tactics-- which included pinning the tall woman flat on her back and tormenting her unmercifully with her fingers and hands-- the pair finally made it downstairs to the kitchen where they discovered Carmina had created and left a veritable banquet in the refrigerator for the new couple.

"I gave her the day off," was Jude's comment when she saw Liz looking around for the rotund housekeeper.

"That was nice."

"Nice hell," Jude growled. "I just didn't want her to hear us," she laughed. "Besides, I can only imagine her response if you hadn't let me put some clothes on." She rolled her eyes, glancing down the length of her tanned body. "Not that this really counts."

At her lover's request, Jude was wearing the white top of her bikini and a silk wrap that Liz had tied like a sarong low on the dark woman's hips, leaving a wide expanse of smooth torso exposed for her own personal viewing pleasure. Liz was wearing a green two piece that Jude had picked out on her initial shopping foray for the small woman, with yet another of Jude's shirt's over it. The dark woman grinned at the graceful shape of Liz's pale form moving proprietarily around the kitchen. "What are you doing?" she asked, poking her head over her lover's shoulder.

"Fixing us a tray for the deck. You go on out, I'll follow you in a minute." She slapped Jude's roving hands away from her ticklish ribs. "I thought you were hungry."

"I am," Jude grinned, "For this..." She gently lobbed Liz's own words back at her and slid her hands over the curve of the small woman's hips.

"OUT!" Liz commanded, whirling around in Jude's arms, a wide smile on her face. "Or we'll end up doing something on the kitchen table that will really embarrass Carmina." She kissed the tall woman soundly and shooed her out of the kitchen doors.

Moments later she heard the relaxed sound of Cassandra Wilson's voice flowing through the stereo speakers. The whir of the blender coming from the open deck doors told her that Jude had taken bar patrol, and she grinned in anticipation of the smooth daiquiris that awaited her. "Oh, this is turning out so well," she murmured gleefully. The click of toenails on tile alerted her to a canine presence, and she glanced down to see Pete's baleful eyes peering back at her. "What's up, buddy? You feeling left out?" The diminutive beast fanned his tail at her, and Liz tossed him a piece of steak from the fajitas she was making. "Now don't tell anyone I did that," she warned while the dog wolfed down the morsel. He wagged his tail again, but Liz shook her head at him gravely. "Don't push it," she said, shaking a finger at him. Pete sneezed in reply and trotted back out to the deck where his mistress was waiting.

"Sure," Liz grumbled. "Complain to the management." Expertly she slid the re-heated food out of the oven and arranged it on the tray Jude had obligingly retrieved from an impossibly high shelf.  "Coming through..." she sang out loud, carrying the tray through the main room and out onto the deck.

A loud splash drew her attention to the pool as she sat the tray on the high bar, away from the prowling teeth of the menagerie. Jude had shed her sarong and top and was cutting a smooth line through the length of the pool. She emerged at the end of the pool closest to Liz, wringing the excess water from her inky hair. "God that feels good..." she groaned, smiling brilliantly at the small woman by the bar.

Liz had been paralyzed by the magnificent vision of her lover moving effortlessly through the water, and the rivulets of moisture running off Jude's tanned skin made her throat drier than she ever thought possible. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out, and she just looked helplessly at Jude's powerful form, wishing something... anything would be adequate to describe what the mere sight of this woman did to her.

"Elizabeth?" Jude's brows furrowed when she saw the expression on the honey-haired woman's face. "Liz?" She strode quickly over to her lover, cupping the pale face gently in her hands. "Are you all right?"

The sensation of Jude's water-cooled palms on her heated skin brought Liz's scattered senses back to her. "Yeah," she said, blushing furiously. "I just..." she smiled warmly. "You just... looked so... beautiful. Sometimes, when I look at you...” she confessed softly,  “I can't breathe." She leaned up on tiptoe and captured Jude's lips with her own, rendering a sweet kiss in exchange for the exquisite gift of Jude's beauty.

Now it was Jude's turn to blush, the bronze features darkening only slightly. "Oh... I... Umm... Thank you," she finally finished, laughing with Liz at their own bashfulness. "We are a pair, aren't we?" she asked, picking up the sarong and positioning it around her hips. A quirked brow mutely asked the question, and Liz skillfully retied the knot. When Jude bent to retrieve her top, Liz put a restraining hand over the graceful fingers.

"Leave it," she requested softly. "Please?"

Jude inclined her head in acknowledgment, a sensual smile curving her features. In exchanged, she slipped the shirt from Liz's shoulders and tossed it across the back of the chaise. "You ready for lunch?" she asked, peering around the small woman's shoulders to the tray behind her.


They ate as new lovers often do, curled around each other in one of the sinfully comfortable chaises, sharing tidbits and morsels. Although it seemed that they consumed more kisses than food, eventually the tray was emptied and the blender was dangerously low. Jude unfurled her length from its position and carried the tray back to its resting spot on the bar. She raised the empty dacquiri pitcher and grinned at Liz's enthusiastic nod.

"You are a hell of a bartender, Jude. I'll give you that."

"Why thank you, ma'am." Jude tipped an imaginary hat. "It'll be nice to have a trade to fall back on when I give up my murderous ways."

Although the words were teasing and light, a glimmer in Jude's pale eyes made Liz sit up and study her companion more closely. "You're not kidding are you?" she asked after a long moment of contemplation.

Jude stared at the softly whirring blender before turning her gaze to Liz's. "It's something... I've been working on for a while now," she admitted. Pouring their drinks and returning to Liz's side, she grinned, nudging Liz's bent knee. "And besides, a murderous Drug Lord isn't exactly the kind of girl you take home to meet Mom and Dad, now is she?" she added lightly, not wanting to go into the details of her plans for Massala. The truth had simply fallen out of her mouth just now, and what she wanted was suddenly so crystal clear it was painful. And that meant ending this nightmare existence and beginning a  life lived in the light, not the shadows. Jude had no way of knowing if she stood even the slightest chance of succeeding, but after yesterday and this morning, she knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that she wanted to try. "What do you think?" she inquired, sitting their drinks on the table beside the chaise and looking down at the silent form on the chaise.

"I think if I had a family that was worthy of meeting you, I'd take you there right now," Liz replied softly, a brilliant radiance seeming to pour from the golden flecks in her green eyes. Jude hesitated before the unfamiliar glint in her lover’s eyes, but the honey-haired woman drew her closer. Her hands ran along the powerful length of Jude's thighs, slipping easily under the smooth silk. She slid a knee between Jude's legs, gently nudging them a little further apart. "There, that's it..." she murmured, as her fingers continued to wreak havoc along the defined muscles.

"Wha--" Jude cleared her throat, suddenly wondering where her voice had gone. "What are you doing?"

"I'm showing you how I feel." Smoky jade eyes glinted back at her. "I'm generally a talker." They exchanged grins. "You know that." Sitting up, she trailed the tip of her tongue along the edge of the low-slung sarong, relishing the ripple of stomach muscles under her touch. "But... You're changing your life... a part of the reason is to show me how you feel..." A wet kiss tormented the sensitive flesh just above Jude's hipbone, and involuntarily, the dark woman sucked in her breath at the sensation. "And I'd like to return the favor. Is that okay?" She grinned wickedly.

"Oh yyesss...." Jude hissed as Liz's fingers briefly teased the apex of the dark woman's desire to punctuate her question.

"Good," she murmured. "Lift your leg, sweetheart. That's it..." Guiding Jude's leg so that it balanced comfortably on the chaise's soft cushion, she smiled at the enticing portrait her lover made. The silk of the sarong fell open to display just a hint of the tantalizing secrets of Jude's arousal, and its white color contrasted erotically with the even bronze of Jude's tan. "You are so beautiful," she whispered, littering the inside of Jude's upraised thigh with dozens of kisses, each one slightly more intense than the last. When her teeth nipped the juncture that connected Jude's leg and abdomen, and the dark woman couldn’t stop the groan slipping free from her throat. She could smell the beginnings of her own arousal, and although she longed to simply give way to the desire she felt-- Jude held back, knowing her smaller lover wanted to take her on this journey.

Small hands slipped outside the silk again as Liz’s mouth teased at the curly hairs protecting her lover's core. Jude felt Liz’s fingers flicker over the knot of her sarong. Expecting the cloth to fall away, she looked down at her lover in surprise when it remained in place. “I like the way it feels,” Liz murmured softly, with a teasing shrug. The wandering hands strayed still upwards, her fingers finding already taut nipples waiting for her attention. Another throaty growl and Jude's hips were starting a slow grind towards Liz's mouth, a wordless plea to continue.

Gliding her hands back down the length of Jude's body, she slipped them beneath the silk's surface and gently parted the glimmering folds of her lover's nether lips. A strangled groan rumbled low in Jude's throat, and she threaded trembling fingers in Liz's fiery hair. A long stroke of Liz's tongue dipped directly into the core of her desire, tasting the roiling wetness there. Jude threw her head back, closing her eyes against the sun's rays, uncertain of which heat was greater-- the one beating down on her or the one rising from deep inside. She groaned again as her lover's tongue delved far within her center, seeking and finding an intense, unrelenting rhythm.

Liz's hands moved to steady the dark woman's shuddering body, clasping Jude's hips, and a lengthy moan simmered in the small woman's throat, evidence of how deeply she was enjoying her task. The sound of Liz taking her pleasure from this intimate act drove Jude to the edge, and when she felt Liz's fingers join her tongue in their leisurely exploration, she plummeted over, free falling in a whorl of sensations that emanated out from her convulsing core.

"OH... Sweet... Jesus... yyeessss...." Her hands gripped Liz's shoulders now, her nails unknowingly digging into the flesh as she leaned forward, bracing her weight against the rock-steady feel of her lover. Soothing arms encircled her waist, drawing her down until she straddled an unrepentantly grinning Liz. "Oh god..." Jude breathed again, burying her face in Liz's neck and letting the pulsing in her loins overwhelm her.

"Where did that come from?" she asked, missing her lover's smug gaze and the puckish light shinning in her eyes.

"Call it an overwhelming urge." Her hands never stopped roaming down Jude's back, over her shoulders, circling around to tease Jude's breasts.

"Works for me," Jude muttered, her back arching involuntarily into the caresses.

They rested in a sensual daze for a short while, before Jude reluctantly lifted herself. "I must be crushing you."

"Nope," Liz wrapped her arms around the larger woman to keep her from moving. "I like you here."

"How about a compromise?" Jude offered. "We take the cushions from those these two chaises, toss them in that shady corner there, and settle in with our drinks." She glanced at the sun, then at her lover's pale skin. "I'm afraid you'll get cooked otherwise."

Liz pursed her lips as if in deep thought. "Okay, works for me."

She gathered their supplies while Jude made a comfortable nest of the pillows, grinning when Jude sprawled lazily across them, a teasing smile on her face.

"Wish I had a camera," Liz bantered. It was an honest wish to freeze this moment and capture how completely full she felt at this instant in her life. Jude had literally added a new dimension to her existence... one where joy was possible.

"You do?" A doubtful brow was arched in her direction. "You want a picture of me? Like this?" Now the other brow joined its partner in dubiousness.

Liz paused for an instant, thinking that this impulse-- to freeze, to document, to record-- had been her very essence for far too long. And it had kept her from living in those moments that she so diligently reported. Everything about Jude was about the moment... she held nothing back, reserved nothing for a mythological rainy day. Trying to capture this woman's wild essence would be the same as trying to kill her. "Nah..." Liz waved her wish away with a careless hand. "I like real-time better." She sat the drinks and leftover nachos carefully out of the line of any potentially out-flung limb, and settled herself comfortably against her lover's body. "Ooh... this is nice," she grinned.

"Thought you might like it."

The view offered from their position was of the ocean rushing along the shore. An unbelievably blue sky-- almost as blue as her eyes... Liz thought silently-- stretched out across the horizon, and seagulls dotted the air and broke the silence with their calls. Aggie and Clytemnestra bounded along the sand, chasing each other with abandon, while Pete gamboled valiantly behind, trying to keep up with the bigger dogs. It could have been a scene from a movie or one of her books, but-- Liz mused with awed wonder-- this is real... this is my life. It certainly didn't erase the million and one problems that readily leapt to mind when she contemplated a relationship with the complicated woman holding her ...but, it does make me realize what we could have... If... Her thoughts trailed into the darkness that surrounded her lover, and she knew it was time to ask more questions.

She twisted her body around so they were face to face. Jude looked into the serious green gazing back out at her and asked, "You're going to get serious now, aren't you?"

Liz flushed a little and nodded ruefully. "I was thinking... wondering, really... Jude..." She fidgeted with a lock of dark hair, took a deep breath and exhaled heavily. "What happened after Jason's death?"

Jude was silent for a long while... long enough so that Liz thought she would just refuse to answer. But, finally, she pressed a gentle kiss on Liz's head and sighed. "It hurt so bad, Elizabeth... I thought... I wished... I wanted to just lie down there beside him and die too. Rico said he'd have his Suits take care of the body, but I knew they'd dump it someplace and we'd never find him. I... I couldn't do that to Maria." She pressed a spot on the bridge of her nose and rubbed her eyes wearily. "So, I took him... I gathered him up in my arms... He was so light, Elizabeth... Like a little kid... and I tried not to jostle him too much... I had to... put him in my trunk... because Rico and the others were watching.... He was so bruised... I couldn't look at his face... His beautiful face... Oh god... It was gone..." Tears that she had never shed for her lost soulmate now flooded her eyes, and she let them fall, unashamed at the ragged tear in her voice, at the agony visible in her face.

Liz's heart twisted at the pain her lover was feeling, and instinctively, she wrapped her arms tighter around Jude, sitting up slightly, so that their bodies cradled each other's as they talked. "You don't--"

"No... this is okay... it's... good, I think..." Jude took a steadying breath and smiled shakily as Liz wiped the tears from her face. “I’ve never--”

“You never cried for him,” Liz guessed.

“I’ve never really... talked about him,” Jude admitted. “Maria used to try and get me too... but...”

“I’m sorry, Jude.” Liz wanted to kick herself. Of course Jude had never cried for him. “I should have pushed--”

“You didn’t.” Jude ran a lingering hand down her lover’s face. “I don’t know why it all just... came out...” She shrugged softly. “I guess it was just time.” They locked eyes for a moment, then Jude-- much to the reporter’s astonishment-- dropped her gaze, blushing. “That’s... that’s not true,” she confessed. “I do know why.”

“Tell me.”

Jude smiled unsteadily. “You,” she replied. “Some part of me... just... feels safe with you. That it’s okay to tell you. You’ll understand.”

Liz was floored by the quiet admission and gave silent thanks that she was already sitting on the floor. Otherwise, she was certain, she would have fallen down. “And... you’re okay with this?”

Jude nodded, "Yeah," she answered unhesitatingly. “I am. For the first time in longer than I can remember, I really am.” The statement rested quietly between them for a moment before Jude continued. "Anyway... where was I?" She ran a shaking hand through her hair. "I called Kent from my car and told him... that there was a man down. I knew I couldn't take Jason to Maria like he was... and I couldn't bear to let him go... to some hospital... that would mean..."

"I know," Liz soothed.

"As I drove all I could think about was how this had happened... How had they gotten Jason? And then when the Agency swept the investigation under the rug, I knew that somebody had to have been on the inside."

"Someone from the Agency sold him out?" Liz asked, incredulous.

"It happens," Jude shrugged. "More often than you might think. You wouldn't believe the amount of money that goes through that place. I mean, three or four years with the Agency and you're lucky to be making 50K a year. To players in this world, Special Ops are driving Ferrari's, 'living' in penthouses, sailing around on boats... and in reality, we don't even own the clothes on our backs. It's hard not to give into that." She glanced around at her beautiful surroundings. "I did."

"Did you give in before or after Jason's death?" Liz asked, an eerie light burning intensely in her eyes.

"Does it matter?"   "It matters."

Jude sighed, shifting her weight against the smaller woman. "After," she quietly replied.

Liz nodded slightly. "I thought so."

"The Agency betrayed Jason, Rico made me kill him... I wanted them both to pay."

"So you turned. Sticking it to the Agency and the Massalas by taking the Cartel over and making it your own." It all made perfect sense to Liz now... the agent-turned-rogue for reasons no one in the press could understand. It wasn't avarice; it wasn't ambition... it was rage, fear, and pain. So many things that seemed incongruous about the dark woman... the flashes of tenderness, the skewed sense of honor-- betrayal to such a woman would be the ultimate sin. A tiny shudder ran through Liz at that thought, making her uneasily aware of her own untruths.

"You okay?" The tension in Liz’s body was too evident to ignore. “I mean... I know this is a lot to take in. Maybe it’s too much. I’ve done some horrible things, and I wouldn’t blame you...” She tried to release herself from the strong embrace, but Liz only tightened her hold. “It’s probably best if we don’t...”

"Whoa! Waitaminute. Where did that come from?" Liz demanded, catching Jude by the cheek and realigning their gazes. "We've covered this-- I decide what's worth my time and my worry. And you, lover, definitely are. And let me tell you something else, Jude Lucien, that you don't want to hear. I think you're an amazing, extraordinary, powerful woman. And yes, I know you've got so many kinks in you that it would tie Sigmund Freud up in knots for decades... but you know what? I don't give a damn. I'm willing to work through each and every one of them with you-- no matter how long it takes, no matter what it takes. Got that? You want to meet my family... well, guess what, darlin? I want to meet yours." Jude opened her mouth to speak, but Liz clamped a hand down firmly over it. "Stop-- let me finish," she warned. "I don't know how this whole thing got started between us or why, and quite frankly I don't care. Because it is without a doubt, the best thing that's ever happened to me in my life. Getting shot and all." Liz ran out of breath and wound down, too shocked at her own audacity to note the warmly astonished eyes of her lover. "Now there's only one thing I want to know-- and I think I already know the answer-- but I want to hear the words." She brushed gentle fingers down the dark woman's cheek. "Do you feel this too?"

This time Jude's eyes didn't turn away, didn't search for something else to look at, didn't flinch at the intensity of Liz's stare. A lazy grin spread over her face. "You want to meet my family, huh?" she asked by way of  an answer.

Liz didn't hesitate at the non sequitur, certain that it was ultimately taking her where she wanted to go. "Absolutely," she replied, her grin matching Jude's.

"Then come on, let's go."  

Chapter 11

Jude had been unfailingly tight-lipped about where they were going, saying only, "You asked for it." She had been equally resolute in her refusal to share the shower with her lover. Now, as the cool water sluiced over her still-aroused body,  Liz privately conceded that showering separately was probably the only chance they would have to make it out of the house this evening. Merely contemplating the combination of pulsing water, soap, and Jude's knowing hands sent another rush of heat pounding through her veins. "Whoa... Nellie..." Liz muttered to herself, twisting the "Cold" dial even higher. Bracing herself under the now-freezing spray, she shook her head furiously to dislodge most of the decadent ideas from her thoughts. "Later, Lizzy... We'll do all that later..." she promised herself as she stepped out of the shower and began toweling off.

Briskly blowing her hair dry, she slipped on the jeans that Carmina had neatly laundered and folded and pulled a T-shirt from the stack in the dresser. She had tugged it over her head when a better idea occurred to her. Tossing the shirt onto the bed, she wandered into Jude's bedroom, a playful grin on her face.

Jude was still in the bathroom-- she could hear the whine of the hair dryer and, more faintly, the dark woman's pleasant contralto singing something unidentifiable. The sound brought another smile to Liz's face as she realized that she wasn't the only one affected by the warmth curling in her belly. Spying the half-open closet door, she crossed the room and began rummaging through the rows of hanging shirts.

"Looking for something?" A voice behind her inquired dryly.

The reporter's heart lurched violently at the sound, slamming into her chest and constricting her lungs with fear. Although she had only been caught in the most mundane of activities, she realized that the potential for much worse still existed. "Geeze... knock next time, will you?" she grinned, turning around and hoping that her voice didn't crack.

"You're in my closet," Jude pointed out, a slight edge to her tone. Its harshness sent a chill spreading through her body.

"Well... yeah," Liz glanced around her. "Heh heh... It sure is. I was looking for something to wear." She gestured at her bare torso.

Jude's eyes lazily perused the figure in front of her, a finger reaching out to delicately trace the lacy material that sensually protected the swell of Liz's full breasts. Sucking in her breath sharply at the caress, Liz made a mental note to ask Jude later how she had managed to "guess" so accurately about that particular size. "I dunno," Jude drawled. "I kinda like what you've got on now." Hooking the same finger through the center of Victoria's Secret, she drew Liz out of the closet.

The safe, Liz realized as a dull gunmetal gray caught the corner of her vision. She's getting me away from the safe. Then her mind was silenced by the heated feeling of Jude's palms covering her breasts and the hungry taste of Jude's mouth descending on her own. Jude kissed her languidly, thoroughly, stroking the sweet fire that the shower had dampened back in Liz's body. The reporter moaned low in her throat, using her own hands to crush Jude's palms harder against her now fully-aroused breasts. "I thought you didn't want us to be late..." Liz managed to gasp when Jude's mouth began to slip southward across her neck.

"Then you shouldn't be torturing me like this," Jude growled, her tongue flickering over the wildly flaring pulse in her lover's neck.

"Ah... oh!..." Liz's arms twined about Jude's neck, absently noting that the dark woman had braided her hair. "Uh... I think... that... OH!... I'm the one... oh god, yes... being tortured here..." She groaned as Jude's teeth teased her painfully-aware nipples through the thin fabric of her brassiere. Jude's hands gripped the thick material of Liz's jeans and tugged the smaller woman closer.

The questing teeth and lips stopped, as Jude buried her head in the softness of the honey-haired woman's breasts. "You have no idea of what just looking at you does to me," she said quietly, bringing her eyes up to meet Liz's.

"If it's anything like what looking at you does to me, then I think I've got a pretty good idea," Liz answered wryly.

"You've got a point there," Jude admitted, smirking. "Okay..." she exhaled deeply, running her hands one last time over the strong muscles in Liz's stomach. "Let's get you dressed." She stepped back a pace, folding her arms and appraising her lover. "A shirt, huh?"


"You out of new ones already?"


Dark brows furrowed in an unspoken question.

"I like yours better. They smell like... well... you."

That got her a soft blush from the tall woman who dropped her arms in surrender and motioned Liz to the closet. "Help yourself." She smiled.

Liz padded back over to the closet, noting that Jude made no move to follow her. She tugged a black shirt out and held it in front of her. She glanced questioningly at Jude who shook her head at its darkness against Liz's pale skin. Several other shirts were rejected in this silent exchange until she found a worn, white Oxford that had green stripes running through it. Seeing Jude grin when she held it up, Liz laughed and proclaimed teasingly, "We have a winner, folks!" It was a little smaller than some of the other shirts she had tried on, and tucked easily into her jeans. She left it buttoned low, freeing the length of her honeyed hair from the collar. "What do you think?"

"Fabulous," Jude replied with a grin. "I feel like I should change." She looked at her own attire dubiously.

Liz surveyed her lover's dark form leisurely. Jude was wearing a white cotton tank top and faded jeans that clung familiarly to the shape of her powerful legs. Several frayed seams at the pockets and a small tear in the knee told Liz these jeans were old favorites. The reporter most definitely liked this latest incarnation of the dark woman that she was seeing. "You look absolutely beautiful."

Jude snorted derisively. "Not."

"Oh yeah..." Liz disagreed, closing the distance between them. "You look like a perfect little street hooligan-- all tight jeans and surly attitude." In her mind's eye she could easily see a younger, even more defiant Jude strutting through Nickie's bar or roaring off on the Triumph, free of her mother's strangling grasp.

A dark brow arched its skepticism. "Nah... real hooligans would wear boots, not Topsiders," she bantered. “I’m not even wearing socks.”

She stood only a hairsbreadth away from her lover and could feel deep in her stomach the shimmering connection of arousal that linked her to Jude. Its strength nearly left her breathless, and she marveled at how this woman affected her like nothing she had ever known. "Well, I was going to say that your outfit was missing something... but it's not the boots."

A lazy smirk spread over Jude's face. "Then what is it?"

"This--" Liz reached up and removed the diamond stud from her left ear, deftly slipping it into the empty piercing in Jude's right lobe. "Perfect," she grinned, stepping back to admire her handiwork. "Wait... one more thing." She leaned around her tall lover and freed Jude's dark mane from its confines. "Much better," she muttered, running her fingers through its inky thickness.

Jude patiently allowed herself to be tended, an inscrutable look in her eyes. "Finished?" she asked as her lover's ministrations tapered off and became slow caresses instead.

"Never," Liz whispered back, kissing her favorite line down Jude's collarbone.

"You're not making this easy," Jude breathed unevenly, her body responding to the sensual attention.

The kisses abruptly stopped, visibly jerking Jude back from the threshold of a delightfully warm place. She blinked her eyes open to focus on her lover who was chewing her lip thoughtfully, a bare hint of playfulness in her smile. "You're absolutely right." Liz nodded decisively. "What are you waiting for? Come on."

Much to the reporter's surprise, when they reached the kitchen, Jude whistled for the dogs and told Pete to stay. The small beast yipped pleadingly to be included, casting baleful brown eyes at his mistress.

"Oh come on Jude. You can't just leave him here."

Jude cocked an eyebrow at the mutt, who fanned his tail eagerly. "Pete," she warned. "You know they'll just push you around. Remember the last time we went to see Cassandra?"

Clytemnestra woofed approvingly, and Pete's head drooped just a little.

"Uh-huh," Jude nodded. "I don't want them using you as a chew toy again," she said seriously, bending down to scratch a pair of floppy ears. Liz watched the exchange with barely concealed amusement at the earnestness in the dark woman's tone. "Now, if I promise to bring you back a big doggy bag, will you stay?" Pete yipped his agreement. "Good boy." One final scratch and Jude was standing again, rolling her eyes at the snort of laughter that escaped from Liz. "He gets upset if we leave him alone," Jude offered by way of explanation as she opened the Explorer's tailgate to let in the Akitas.

Truthfully, Liz preferred the Explorer to the powerful Porsche that Jude usually drove. The Explorer was comfortably messy, with faint remnants of dog hairs on the carpet, and some camping gear and beach towels jockeying for space in the roomy interior. The Boxster-- and even the Jaguar that sat silently in the garage-- were too much a part of the mystique that Jude created for people like Romair Massala. Though she knew that both the brooding drug dealer and her laughing, blue-eyed lover were merely different aspects of the woman Liz was falling deeply in love with, the reporter couldn't help but wish that Jude could disperse all the shadows that still shrouded her life.

The thirty-minute drive passed quickly, and they were soon pulling down a sandy lane that led to a ramshackle-looking restaurant directly on the beach. The sounds of laughter and music carried easily to her from the deck, and she was surprised at the number of cars parked haphazardly in the sand around the building. The dogs pranced excitedly as Jude let them out of the Explorer but remained obediently at their mistress' side. "Okay guys," Jude ruffled Aggie's fur. "Go find Cassandra."

The dogs woofed in approval and darted around the width of the building and out of sight. An answering bark told them the dogs had located their quarry. Moments later, Liz saw three white forms racing along the surf.

"Litter mates," Jude supplied.

"Of course-- Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Cassandra. But wait a minute, didn't they end up killing each other?"

"Actually according to Greek myth, Clytemnestra killed the other two, and then her son killed her," Jude corrected, clasping Liz's smaller hand in her own.

"And you named your dogs after them?" Even as Liz shook her head in disbelief, a delighted smile crept over her face at the unspoken intimacy of Jude's gesture.

"It was Jason's idea," Jude shrugged, remembering the gleam in her partner's eyes as they lit upon the Akita pups squirming around in the wicker basket. He'd decided to get Maria a dog for her birthday because, growing up, she'd never had one. "All families need dogs, Angel... I told you I was going to have it all-- wife, kids, a house-- gotta have the dog too." Dragging a hungover Jude to the  breeder's house, he had talked excitedly about the finer points of the Akita, how loyal they were, how dependable, and how they made great guard dogs. Only listening with half an ear while he and the breeder haggled over the pick of the litter, Jude had sprawled her aching body out next to the basket with three pups. Their antics even brought a hint of a smile to her face as the boldest of the lot wiggled free from her brother and sister and tumbled into the dark woman's lap. Jude hesitantly scratched the pup's ears as the Akita pounced fiercely on Jude's free hand. She had sheepishly looked up to see her partner's amused glance fixed firmly upon her.

"So you got one too, huh?" Liz teased.

"I got two," Jude answered. "I got pounced by Clytemnestra. She was actually the pick of the litter, except Aggie sort of came with her. The breeder said they were inseparable. The couple of times he had tried to wean them away from each other, they both had kicked up such a fuss that it had even scared off some people who wanted to buy Clytemnestra. He didn't want to separate them, but it looked like he wasn't going to have any choice. Jason couldn't take both pups, so that's how he ended up with Cassandra."

"You took the pair so they could be together?"

Jude shrugged nonchalantly but couldn't control the beautiful flush that rose from her throat. "Well... yeah... Aggie just looked so sad sitting in the basket as I played with Clytemnestra. I figured... what the hell, they could keep each other company whenever I was gone."

"That's so sweet." Seeing Jude's scowl, Liz burst into laughter. "Oh come on, Lucien. You are soooo cold busted here... Not that this is telling me anything I didn't already know."

"And what is that?" Jude asked with a barely concealed smirk, drawing them to a halt in front of a worn driftwood sign that read Barrido del Mar.

There were a thousand things she could have said to keep the banter going, but instead Liz opted for a blunt truth that she doubted Jude had ever allowed herself to hear. "That in spite of everything, you've got a good heart. You just keep it so bricked up inside that icy demeanor of yours no one -- including you-- ever gets to see it."

At the tender words, Jude went absolutely still, amazed at how this woman could see through her so easily. It seemed that Elizabeth could see exactly what Jude had been capable of and then unearth the tenderness Jude thought she had buried away deep inside. "C'mere you," the tall woman said, tugging Liz into a fierce embrace. Settling into each other's arms, a tranquil warmth surrounded the pair, rendering them oblivious to the inquiring looks of the departing patrons that tumbled out of the restaurant's doors.

A deep sigh ran through Jude's body as she whispered softly, "There's no way I could ever deserve the look that's in your eyes right now, so I'm just gonna thank whatever's up there that you're here with me."

Liz smiled and painted a gentle kiss across her lover's cheek. "You're wrong..." She drew Jude's head back so their eyes met. "You do deserve this. And so much more."

Their lips tangled again, a tender exchange that was a promise for this night and more to come. A low gurgle from Liz's stomach startled them apart. "Talk about a mood killer." Jude rolled her eyes.

"Hey!" The smaller woman backhanded Jude's own flat abdomen playfully. "Can I help it if you made me work up an appetite?"

"Oh, all this is my fault, huh?"

"Abso-freakin-lutely!" Liz declared. "That's my story and I'm sticking to it."

Jude laughed at the sheer joy of being in the aurulent presence of the smaller woman. Without even realizing it, Liz lulled the demons who held the dark woman's soul in their grasp-- showing Jude a fleeting glimpse of what her life might have been without the Agency, without all the memories of blood and carnage that scarred her sleep. The glorious sight filled the ex-agent with a burning need to feel more, and she knew without a doubt that Elizabeth Peterson was a drug more addictive than any she had ever sold. The mere idea of trying to wean herself from the small time of grace that Liz brought to her was abhorrent, and a shudder ran through her body at the concept.

"You okay?" The movement hadn't escaped the woman still resting in her arms.

"Abso-freakin-lutely," Jude echoed teasingly. "I seem to have quite an appetite myself."

Liz turned in the circle of their embrace so that now one of Jude's arms was draped casually across her shoulders. As far as the reporter was concerned, it was going to stay there all night-- appearances be damned. She was in the company of the most beautiful, fascinating, erotic woman she had ever known; and quite frankly, Liz didn't give a good goddamn who knew it. Mother would have a fit... Father would go into cardiac arrest. The vision of her parents' dismayed faces brought a fiendish grin to her face, and she allowed herself a tiny chuckle at their expense.

The pair began making their way up to the wooden stairs to the main entrance when the driftwood sign caught her eye. "Barrido del mar? Swept from the sea?" she asked.

"Yep," Jude nodded. "The story goes that hundreds of years ago there was a pirate ship that wrecked here, and the loot is still buried somewhere under the dunes. The sign is supposed to be from the original ship itself."

Liz looked at the wood dubiously. "So what do they serve here?"

"Stale bread and grog," Jude answered easily, walking them up the stairs.

Liz's stomach rumbled ominously. "You better hope not," she muttered.

Ignoring her lover's frowning countenance, Jude stopped at the maitre d’ stand and addressed a handsome young man clad in a gray T-shirt and comfortable-looking jeans. "Marco," she nodded with a smile. "Como estas?"

Okay, we've obviously been here before, Liz thought silently.

The youth looked delighted to see Jude, grinning broadly. "Estoy muy bien, Senora Lucien. Gracias." He flicked a look between the two women. "Table for two tonight?"

Jude nodded. "Si. Is Maria around?"

The boy opened his mouth to reply, but a voice behind the women interrupted. "Of course I'm around tonight. Aren't I around every night? Of course if you showed your face around here more than once in a blue moon, you'd probably know that." Liz turned around to see the speaker was a petite Latina with laughing eyes and a dark cascade of hair falling around her shoulders. She was dressed casually in dusky blue slacks and a cream-colored short-sleeved blouse that set off the tawny highlights of her skin. Jude was already moving towards the tiny woman, lifting her in a huge embrace and spinning her around lightly in the foyer. "Put me down!" Maria protested half-heartedly.

Jude deposited her softly on her feet, delighted to see her friend. "I'm sorry I've been neglectful... but things..."

"Have been busy. Yeah yeah yeah..." Maria waved her excuses away. "Same story, different day. Kent mentioned you might show up this week, but I wasn't holding my breath," she said wryly. Liz noted that the banter seemed familiar to the women, as if it were an old story and the reproaches were more a matter of teasing routine than genuine hurt. At any rate, they looked positively ecstatic to see each other again, and vaguely the reporter wondered if she should feel jealous at their obvious closeness.

"When you least expect me, there I am," Jude shrugged sheepishly.

"Yes, here you are. And your manners are just as atrocious as ever." She poked Jude firmly in the arm and stepped around Jude's tall form, looking pointedly at Liz. "Are you going to introduce us?" She glanced back at Jude and studied her appraisingly. "How many years have I known you-- six, seven?-- and you've never brought anyone here to meet me. Now that you finally do-- you forget to introduce us."

Jude opened her mouth-- perhaps to argue that Maria hadn't exactly given her a chance-- but she was interrupted again.

"How do you do?" She held out a hand to an astonished Liz who was rapidly putting the pieces together. "I'm Maria."

Jason's Maria... oh Jesus...

She shook the proffered hand numbly, her thoughts a tumultuous snarl as she glanced at the wide smile on her lover's face. The disarming openness in Jude's gaze-- so shockingly different from the dark woman's usually unreadable expression-- reached into Liz's heart and wrenched it violently in a bolt of pain-pleasure that made the smaller woman want to cry out for mercy. "Hi, I'm Liz." Aware that Maria's speculative gaze hadn't missed the stunned expression on her face, Liz quickly recovered her composure. " When Jude said she was taking me to meet her family, I thought she was kidding. I'm glad to have the chance to meet you," she said, relieved that the surprise had now visibly shifted to the woman in front of her.

Maria turned to look at Jude who remained where she was, an amused glimmer in her eyes. "Kent said something about you having a date the other night." She grinned at the dark woman. "I should have known there was more to it than that."

Jude grinned and stood between the two women, encircling each with an arm. "You should know that there's always more to it with me."

"That's the understatement of the century," Liz muttered teasingly.

Maria chuckled at Jude's indignant eyebrow, "This one seems to have your number."

Jude conceded with a graceful lift of her shoulders. She glanced down to find warm green eyes looking back at her and winked.  "I think you're right, 'Ria."

As the trio strolled through the restaurant, Liz noted the relaxed faces of the patrons and enjoyed the delicious smells from the various dishes. The dining room was a little more subdued than the raucous terrace where the band, dance floor and serious bar were located. The crowd out here was younger, but just as casually upscale as those in the main room. Several couples danced to a band that seemed to be playing mostly recognizable covers. "They're pretty good." Liz nodded at the quartet of musicians.

"They've been the house band here for about a year and half," Maria replied. Then, looking mischievously at Jude, she added, "Maybe if you ask Jude really nicely, she'll sit in with them tonight." Seeing Jude's eyes narrow and her brows furrow menacingly, she slipped out from under the tall woman's arm. "Oh look, there's Kent and Tony. Why don't you join them and I'll come over in a little while?" Throwing one last puckish glance at her friend, she scurried back to the kitchen.

Jude growled something incomprehensible and turned to look at her companion, who was regarding her appraisingly. "Oh no... no no no no..." She shook her head emphatically. "Not tonight..." Seeing that Liz's expression hadn't changed, her shoulders dropped slightly. "Maybe later, okay?" she hedged. Liz remained studying her, unblinking. "Oh Jesus, can I have a drink first?" Admitting at last that she was beaten.

"Sure," Liz agreed cheerfully now that the matter was settled. "You can even have two or three."

"Gee, thanks," Jude muttered, steering her companion over to the corner table where Kent and his partner, Tony, sat. "Hey, you boys waiting for someone in particular, or can just anybody sit here?" She grinned down at the shocked faces of the two men.

"Jude!" Tony called heartily. "It's been too long, lady."

"Who're you calling lady?" Jude growled.

"You're too good-looking to be a man, so I must be talking to you," he shot back.

Smiling slightly the dark woman only shook her head and pulled out a chair for Liz. Collapsing into the one beside her lover, she grinned. "I guess you're right. You're not too bad yourself, T. For a man, that is."

"Thank you, I think." During the short exchange, Liz had been studying the two men intently. Kent, she realized from her unauthorized snooping, was Jude's DEA contact, a former partner from what she was coming to think of as Jude's Bad Old Days. She had no idea who the other man was and took in his features with a nonchalant expression. He was a compact, well-muscled man, with dark chocolate eyes, close-cropped black curly hair, and deep bronze skin that was set off by the pale pink of his Polo shirt. "And who do we have here?" Liz realized with a flush that three pairs of eyes were on her, waiting for a response.

Jude picked up the conversational ball smoothly. "This is Elizabeth Peterson... Elizabeth, this is Tony Pinichero and Kent Laird. Be careful, Tony's Italian and thinks this makes him some kind of Great Lover by default. And Kent... he's as straight an arrow as they come. Took me three years just to get a beer down his throat."

"And look at me now," he remarked wryly, gesturing with the glass in his hand.

"You just needed somebody to knock you out of that Puritan work ethic thing you had going," Jude teased.

"Didn't work," Tony replied. "He still nags me about dotting every i and crossing every t."

"Do you two work together?" Liz asked, an innocent tone in her voice. She was curious about how Jude would explain them.

"They're partners at the Agency," Jude answered easily, noting with a smirk Kent and Tony's stunned expressions. "When I was carrying a badge, I didn't want anyone else at my back."

It was a simple declaration, Liz mused, but one that carried such importance-- because by laying bare her connection to the men, Jude told her friends that she was someone they could trust. The reporter was astonished by the admittance that Jude was granting her into this dark part of her life, and it resolved her to start clearing out the serpent's nest of lies that still rested between them. Liz gently clasped Jude's hand as it rested on the arm of her chair, entwining their fingers. She smiled back at Tony, who was grinning foolishly at them. Kent's face was shuttered, but the reporter thought she detected the faint hint of a scowl quickly concealed. Any further contemplation of the man opposite her was interrupted by Tony's rich baritone.

"So how did a nice girl like you hook up with a sullen wench like Jude?"

Jude and Liz exchanged glances, bursting into laughter simultaneously.

"What? What'd I do?" Tony asked, bewildered by their merriment.

"I'm sorry," Liz apologized between gasping breaths. "It's just that everyone seems to ask me some variation on that question. What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"

"It's because she looks like such a nice girl," Jude explained, smirking. "Looks being the operative word."

"Hey you!" Much to the surprise of the men opposite them, Liz smacked Jude proprietarily across the arm. "Watch it," she warned playfully.

"Oh, I'm worried," Jude scoffed.

"You should be. I'm a trained kickboxer. Tick me off and I will lay you out."

"I don't know about you Jude, but I'm worried for you," Tony offered sincerely.

Jude only rolled her eyes and shook her head mournfully. "Why did I set myself up for this? I gotta be out of my mind."

"It must be luuuuuvvvvvvvv," Tony crooned.

"Shut up," Jude growled ferociously, but the faint blush that lit her features was visible to everyone.

"Man oh man," Tony chortled. "I can't believe this." He held up his glass in a toast. "Ladies and gentlemen... the most eligible woman in the world is now off the market. Cheers!"

Liz glanced over at her lover, a bemused smile on her face. Several curious pairs of eyes had focused on the boisterous table, and the woman who regularly faced hostile gunfire with negligent ease now squirmed uncomfortably at the scrutiny and tried to slink further down in her chair. The reporter gave Jude's hand a gentle squeeze, and the dark woman bestowed a rare, full-bodied smile upon her partner.

"You're just glad I'm off the market because you couldn't stand the competition," Jude retorted, not disputing his statement-- a move that wasn't lost on the woman beside her.

"I'm not arguing with you there," Tony agreed cheerfully.

Shaking her head ruefully, Jude released Liz's hand and stood. "Well, if you're going to toast us, I suppose I'd better get us something to drink. Can I get you boys a refill?"

Both Kent and Tony nodded. "Affirmative. Draft, please," the Italian agent supplied their order.

"Got it. I'll be back."

"Aren't you going to ask me what I want?" Liz asked, a faux innocent look on her face.

Jude paused a moment, then smiled sensually, determined that if she was going to go down, then it would be fighting. "I know what you want," she purred. Turning on her heel as a violent flush suffused her lover's face, she threaded a graceful path through the tables, never once looking back.

An amused silence settled over the table as Liz watched Jude's progress across the restaurant. "She is something, I'll grant you that," Tony said quietly.

"Do I have this incredibly dumb look on my face?"

He grinned back. "Let's just say that there's no doubt about the object of your affections.” He leaned forward, a conspiratorial expression on his face. “If it's any consolation, she had the same expression when she was looking at you."

"She sure does," Kent drawled slowly, breaking his silence. "You know, I'm kind of surprised." He glanced at his partner. "I always thought that if the Archangel ever settled down it would be with Maria."

Incredulous, Tony's eyes widened in disbelief. "Nah..." he attempted to wave the statement away. "You know that's not the way it is between them."

Kent merely shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. But with Jason gone..." He leveled an intense gaze at Liz. "Did she tell you about him?"

"Her partner?" Liz replied smoothly. "Yes, she did. Everything," she stated flatly.

Reading the clear annoyance in Liz's voice, Kent apologized half-heartedly, "I'm sorry. It's just that... Jude's never really been the... domestic type."

"Kent...." Tony warned.

"Oh come on, T... You know the stories as well as I do. Why should this girl get hurt because the Archangel thinks she can change?" He shook his head. "It's just not possible."

"Stop calling her that," Liz interjected softly.

"Huh?" Both men stared at her, taking in the fiercely serious look on the small woman's face.

"Her name is Jude. Not the Archangel. Not El Diablo." Now I've got your attention. Liz smiled grimly at their surprise. "Yeah, I know all about that one too. And let me tell you something... I know exactly who she is and what she’s done. I'm not some wide-eyed little girl who's going to get hurt." Tony nodded approvingly at her, while Kent continued to stare in slack-jawed amazement at the reporter's suddenly steely demeanor. "You're right, Kent... she's not changing. She's unearthing a part of herself that people like Enrico Massala and the ones at the Agency helped bury. She's not the devil, Kent. But people like you made her think she was."

"Amen," Tony murmured as a silence fell across the trio.

Kent studied the small woman a moment longer, nodding almost imperceptibly. "I hope you're right, Elizabeth. I really do. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I need some air." He excused himself in spite of the fact that they were sitting outside with the crisp ocean breeze tousling their hair.

Liz watched him go, a thoughtful expression on her face. "I think I pissed him off," she said dryly.

"Fuggetaboutit," Tony waved her away. "Kent's..." He searched for a way to describe his partner and the uneasy relationship he had always had with the dark woman. "He's funny about the Arch... about Jude." He corrected himself with a quirky grin. "Like Jude said, he's a straight company man. The Agency above everything-- even God and country, though those are next on the list."

"Sounds like Oliver North," Liz muttered.

If he heard the remark, Tony let it slide. "Jude was always a rule-breaker. But she was a rule-breaker with results, so the Agency turned a blind eye to some of her.. exploits." He blew out a frustrated breath and ran a hand through his curly hair. "You gotta understand what she was like back then--"

"I've seen that too," Liz said softly, remembering that night and the pale malevolence that had gleamed in her lover's eyes. But it must have just been a fraction of what she was, Liz suddenly realized, shuddering at the thought.

"It scared Kent. Hell, it scared all of us... but he was her partner. For a little while anyway. Then he screwed up and nearly got them both killed. She saved his ass and covered him with the brass, but everybody knew what had gone down. I don't know what he saw that night-- whatever it was, it really got to him.  But after that it was like she could do no wrong. Man, and then when she turn... it fucked him up bad. He never... got... what Jason meant to her cause the Agency's always been everything to him."

"He couldn't accept that Jason was more important to her than any bust, no matter how big," Liz finished for him.

Surprise flickered over the agent's face. "Damn. She did tell you everything, didn't she?"

Liz just looked at him wordlessly.

"Yeah.. I guess." Tony shrugged wearily. "I don't understand any of it. There was something... special... about Jude's tie to Jason. But even he was afraid of her." He studied the honey-haired woman closely. "You aren't though." Shaking his head, he finished off his beer. "I guess that's why you mean so much to her, huh?"

"Hey you." Jude stuck her head tentatively though the kitchen's galley doors, narrowly missing a waiter barreling past her with a heavily-laden tray.

"Get in here before someone gets knocked senseless," Maria scolded, her eyes dancing with amusement.

Jude scooted through the doors, following Maria to her office, which was just off the corner of the large industrial kitchen where a chef and two assistants were kept busy. Normally, Maria supervised operations in the kitchen, making occasional forays onto the restaurant's floor to greet friends and make sure things were running smoothly at the bar. Sometimes, however, she just liked to putter about the kitchen, creating new dishes to try on her friends, who served as willing guinea pigs for her culinary explorations.

Barrido del Mar had been in business for almost ten years, and Maria had been its principle owner for three of them. She had been a chef's assistant when she first met the bright-eyed boy who became her husband and the brooding woman whom she recognized as his soul's mirror. Eventually she had taken over the kitchen, and then-- with Jude's financial assistance-- bought the place outright from the dubious figures who had owned it previously. Now the restaurant turned a healthy profit, and though Maria had offered to pay Jude back, the dark woman had recognized a good investment when she saw one and kept her silent partnership intact. The arrangement suited both women, cementing the tie between them, even though their relationship was sometimes strained at best.

"Where's Jessie?" Jude asked, looking around the office for her six-year old goddaughter. "I was hoping I'd get to see her tonight."

"She's gonna be sorry she missed her Aunt Jude," Maria commented. "It's been way too long since you came to see her."

"Mea culpa," Jude acknowledged. "Things... have been crazy." She held up her hands at Maria's exasperated glare. "I know I say that all the time, but honestly... lately, it's been for the best that I haven't been around much." Code for it hasn't been safe to be around me.   "I don't want to hear about that shit," Maria replied sharply, turning her back on Jude and rummaging through some papers.

Hesitantly Jude's hands came to rest on the hunched set of Maria's slim shoulders, soothing out the anger visible there. "It's over, Maria," she whispered softly. "I've... got something worked out. If I bring in this one guy... I'm free and clear."

It was something Jude had never said aloud before, especially not to Maria-- because her word to Jason's wife was a bond. Deep down, Jude had never before believed that she could really walk away-- no matter how much a part of her might want it. Things are different now, she finally acknowledged to herself, knowing that without Elizabeth's unwavering acceptance of her, such a thing never would have been imaginable to her, much less possible.

Beneath Jude's hands, Maria took a shuddering breath and turned to confront the ocean blue of her husband's soulmate. The unflinching earnestness in Jude's gaze brought the dark woman's message home in a way that her simple words never could have. "Santa Madre... it really is," she breathed, throwing her arms around the tall figure that dwarfed her.

Jude buried her face in the fragrant tumble of Maria's hair, her heart clenching and unclenching in time to the silent sobs she could hear coming from her partner's wife. "Shh...." she crooned softly.

"What changed?" Maria asked, raising watery eyes to Jude's and studying the warm blue flame that flickered there. "Is it her?" Referring to the honey-haired woman sitting outside.

Jude couldn't keep the gentle smile from her face at the mention of Elizabeth. "Partly," she acknowledged. "It's something I've been trying to do for a long time, but..." Another brilliant smile from the brooding agent washed over Maria. "It's like she's given me my life back... and made me believe that I can walk away. I... never really thought I could before. " She thought back to all the long nights she shared with Jason when he had tried valiantly-- and vainly-- to convince her of that very thing. Jude didn't know why Elizabeth had been able to reach so easily inside her and hand the dark woman her soul back... but it had worked. "I don't know, Ria. What can I say? She's given me back the sunlight."

Maria laughed softly, hugging Jude tightly to her again. "I never thought I'd see this look in your eyes."

"Neither did I, Ria," Jude whispered. "Neither did I."

"Why do I always end up being one of the help?" Jude grumbled, sitting the tray down at the table and rejoining her friends. Kent had returned to the table shortly before Jude and apologized for his behavior. Though her instincts crackled, Liz accepted the agent's apology gracefully, not wanting to cast a pall over the evening.

"You just have that-- look-- about you," Liz teased.

"And what look might that be?" Jude inquired dryly, handing out drinks. "Draft, draft, bourbon for me... and something with an umbrella in it for you." She handed Liz an outrageously pink concoction with fruit tumbling out of the top and a little pink folding umbrella stuck through a maraschino cherry.

"Uh... do I want to know what this is?" Liz asked dubiously.



"Why do you think I look like the help?"

"Because you look so... helpful. Like a Girl Scout." Liz blinked innocently, pausing with a razor-sharp sense of timing. "Almost," she added after a beat.

Beer shot out through Tony's nose as he took a gasping breath, hacking and wheezing as Kent pounded him furiously on the back while trying to keep the grin from his own face.

"You okay, T?" Jude asked wryly, sprawling comfortably in the chair beside her lover. "You--" She arched a menacing brow at Liz, shaking her head. "Are. Truly. Disturbed."

"No, I'm just a visionary," Liz disagreed. "I see things that..."

"Aren't there," Jude finished with a grin. "That, by definition, classifies you as disturbed," she said pointedly.

Liz knew when to cut and run, so she merely smiled regally, taking a small sip of her drink. "You never did tell me what this was."

"Does it matter? Just tell me if you like it."

"I've heard that before," Liz muttered under her breath. The comment escaped the men opposite her, but not Jude who cast a brow archly in her direction. The reporter took a tentative sip of her drink, then a more enthusiastic one. "Mmm... it's great. Tastes like Kool-Aid with a kick."

Jude smiled wickedly. "I'm glad you're enjoying it. Ria said dinner would be out shortly.

"Dinner? I haven't even seen a menu yet." The muted chuckles around her told the honey-haired woman she was missing something. "Clue me in here, gang."

"Weeellll... let's see. Being one of Ria's friends has its ups and downs. On the up side, you never have to pay for a meal..."

"And the downside?"

"You never get to pick what you have for dinner."

"Beg pardon?"

"Ria sort of likes to... experiment on us. We get sneak previews of new dishes she's working on."

"Cool!" Liz exclaimed. "What could be the problem with that?" She considered her lover thoughtfully. "Although since you're the kind of woman who orders the blandest thing on the menu, I can see where you might have a problem with this."

"Hey!" Jude objected. "Why are you giving me such a hard time?"

"Cause I can," Liz replied blithely, much to the ill-concealed delight of Tony and Kent.

Jude growled low in her throat in reply. "Actually, after I ended up in the emergency room from one of her concoctions, we sort of came to an agreement that she'd always warn me in advance."

"Who knew you were allergic to shellfish?" Maria, who had arrived during the conversation, asked. In a motion that caused Liz's brow to furrow slightly, she slipped her arms around Jude and gave the dark woman another quick hug to communicate her happiness. She directed the waiter as he set plate after plate of exotic-looking dishes in front of the quartet.

"What is this?" Tony asked, looking down at the steaming bowl and inhaling the delicious aroma. "Smells fabulous."

"I'm trying out a new Paella. It's got shrimp, mussels, chicken, clams and lots of spices. I'm thinking about making it the special one day next week, so you and Kent are my lab rats. Let me know if I need to tweak it any."

"No problem," the men enthusiastically agreed.

"You--" she indicated Jude's plate, "Get the swordfish I promised you. It's seasoned with dill, red onions, black olives and some other stuff. Gives it a salsa type flavor."

"Cucumbers?" Jude cast a baleful glance at her friend, examining the contents of her plate. "I hate cucumbers."

"Honestly, Jude," Maria sighed. "I have less trouble getting Jessie to eat her vegetables." It was an old argument between the pair, and they fell into it with easy familiarity.

"Okay, okay..." Jude surrendered good-naturedly. "It looks great, Ria. You know I'll love it."

"You better," Maria warned playfully. "And you, Elizabeth, you get my classic Gumbo Lafayette."

"Hey!" Jude frowned. "Why doesn't she get to be a lab rat too?"

"Because anyone brave enough to get involved with you, Angel, is already living on the edge. I don't want to send her over."

Everyone at the table froze as Jason's affectionate nickname for his partner tumbled effortlessly from Maria's lips. It had been an unthinking slip, borne out of the sheer joy at realizing Jude was finally breaking free from the smothering darkness. Only Jason and his family had been close enough to her to dare use the ironic designation, and Jude hadn't heard it since the day of her partner's death. Maria had hurled the name at her then like an epithet, damning her for taking his life. The dark woman closed her eyes briefly, letting the sound wash over her, waiting for the familiar sting of salt in wounds that still hadn't healed. The lashing pain, however, was gone, replaced instead by a kind warmth curling in her belly.

Maria's eyes were carefully fixed on her, her posture braced as if for a blow. Jude clasped her friend's small hand and squeezed it softly, silently reclaiming the name that had been hers all those years ago. Kent and Tony released breaths they didn't know they had been holding, not quite believing their eyes.

"Don't worry about it, Maria," Liz said cheerfully, wanting to dispel the silence that threatened to fall. "I like living on the edge."

"See a bear in the woods, walk up to it and poke it with a stick," Jude muttered.

"That's my motto, all right." The reporter flicked a glance at the four other people at the table. "Can we eat now? I'm starving."  

Jude insisted that Ria join them for dinner, and soon the little group was stuffed to overflowing with good food and lively conversation despite the quiet tension that existed between the Agency men and the drug dealer. While Kent and Tony still seemed to give the dark woman a respectfully wide berth, Maria showed no such restraint. It was obvious that the two women shared a strong bond, forged by their common link to Maria's dead husband. Much to Liz’s surprise, however; as the night wore on, Jude began trading agency tales with Kent and Tony, talking about some of the less hair-raising cases she and her partner had solved. Of course, this led to Ria relating her domestic misadventures with Jason-- including one where they conned an unwilling Jude into painting their house.

Jude lost herself in Ria's pleasant alto, not needing to hear the details of an escapade she had lived. Dinner was long over, and the band had taken a short break before beginning their next set. The deck had grown less crowded as the evening progressed, leaving only a handful of tables still occupied with patrons lingering over their dessert. The night rested comfortably around them, ocean sounds rushing to and fro in their ears. The Akitas were faint outlines in the distance, still bounding energetically across the sand. Jude watched them bemusedly, enjoying their play. An unfamiliar peace settled across her shoulders, its point of origin the honey-haired woman beside her. As much as she had protested earlier, she knew that bringing Elizabeth here had been a good thing. She had charmed Ria and the boys effortlessly, and her presence had given Jude the courage to take the last step in healing the last wounds in her relationship with Ria. She knew Jason's wife would never completely forgive her as long as she adhered to this destructive path. Ria held firmly to the belief that Jason would never have wanted Jude to do the things that she'd done. Deep down, Jude knew she was right, and the issue remained uneasily resting between them. Now, however, she could offer Ria her friendship-- free and clear-- and hopefully, regain her place in the unlikely family she and Jason had formed.

Jason had been on her mind constantly this evening, and it was almost as if she could feel him near, smiling delightedly at her and saying, "I told you so." Her mind wandered further from the conversation, drifting in the gentle thoughts of the sweet boy she had known. I wish you were here, partner... God, I still miss you so much... So many times I've wished I could take your place... Let you have your family, your life back... They say the dead can hear the thoughts of the living... and maybe you're listening now... I hope so... I love you, Jase... I'm sorry I couldn't keep you safe, like I promised Ria I would... Forgive me for walking away from them when we were all hurting so much, missing you... You're a part of my soul... I know that now... and I'll always carry you with me. She bid her partner a silent good-bye-- a piercing ache she had never before been able to put to rest-- and returned her attention to the conversation at hand.

And found four pairs of eyes fixed firmly upon her.

"It's all her fault," Maria was saying, a teasing glint in her eye.

Jude blinked. "My fault? I'm sure you're right, but what exactly am I taking the blame for this time?"

"I was asking Ria how she and Jason met," Liz explained.

"Ah..." Jude nodded. "That was not my fault. I didn't tell you to go out with him."

"How could I not after the scene he made?"

"Explain, please?" Liz requested.

"Yeah," Tony chorused. "I haven't heard this one."

Jude started to speak, but Ria overrode her. "I was an assistant chef then-- really a waitress with very large ambitions." She grinned. "Jude and Jason used to come in here all the time. They would always sit at that corner table over there." Ria indicated a smallish table for two, far away from the band and the main lines of traffic. "They'd come in and stay for hours, usually close the place down, just talking. Somehow I'd always end up waiting on them. At first I thought they were a couple-- because I never saw them with anyone else-- until one night I heard Jude giving him a hard time about finding a nice to girl to settle down with. And he said, 'I'll find one if you will.' That sort of clued me in to a couple of things. After that I paid more attention to Jason. He was a charmer."

"He kept trying to work up the courage to ask her out," Jude interjected. "But at the last minute he would always lose his nerve. This from the man who could sell ice cream to Eskimos. That's how I knew it was true love. I thought I'd go nuts watching those two try to flirt with each other." Jude shook her head sorrowfully. "It was truly painful to watch."

"So they come in one night," Ria picked up the thread of the story. "In this crazy mood..."

"A bust that we had worked on for six months finally went down," Jude supplied.

"And then proceeded to get drunk as lords..."

"We were celebrating..."

"And he asked me out," Ria finished.

"That's not exactly how it went, Ria. You left out a few pertinent details," Jude commented.

"Such as?" Liz prompted.

"Well, she got the facts right. We were celebrating, and we had imbibed a few..."


"Drinks. Jason was determined to get Ria's attention in a way that would make it impossible for her not to go out with him."

"This is why it's all your fault."

"He wanted to make an impression." Jude shrugged. "So I suggested he serenade her."

Tony, Kent, and Liz all stared at her, disbelief written clearly across their faces.

"The only problem was..." Jude continued.

"Jason couldn't carry a tune in a bucket..."

"And in his inebriated condition, the only song he could remember all the lyrics to was..."

Maria saw the demonic gleam in Jude's eye and began shaking her head rapidly. "Don't you dare, Jude Lucien."

Jude tipped her chair back slightly, leaning away from the table and closing her eyes. Then, with the bare hint of a grin playing at the corner of her mouth, she began to sing softly, "I really do appreciate..."

"Jude..." Ria warned.

"The fact you're sitting here..." Her husky contralto carried the tune easily across the room.

"Stop right this instant."

"Your voice sounds so wonderful..." Her eyes opened to reveal the dancing blue flames of her irises.

"Don't..." Maria tried one last time, knowing it was a losing battle.

"But your face don't look too clear..."

Other patrons had turned at the sound of Jude's resonant voice, and the band slowly returned to its position on the stage, clearly recognizing the song.

"So barmaid, bring a pitcher..."

A guitar began weaving the melody lightly around the room.

"Another round of brew.."

"You are so dead, Angel. Do you know that?" Maria declared as Jude stood, sweeping the smaller woman to her feet.

"Honey, why don't we get drunk... and screw..." The band joined in on the chorus while Jude waltzed Maria across the floor with an easy grace, laughing all the while. Although her friend protested vehemently and blushed a furious shade of crimson, she allowed the dance to continue, until all the patrons were singing along.

"They say you are a snow queen, "Honey I don't think that's true... "So why don't we get drunk... "And screw."

As the last chorus died away, Jude spun Maria a final time, giving her a jaunty salutation and bowing deeply to the applauding crowd.

"See? How could she resist?" Jude asked, flinging herself alongside Liz and grinning rakishly.

"I certainly don't think I would have been able to," Liz agreed, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes at the sight of Jude so uncharacteristically playful.

"Okay..." Maria shook her head at the dark woman. "On that note, I've got to go check on the kitchen. Now that you've made an absolute spectacle of me."

"Wouldn't be the first time," Jude cheerfully announced. She watched Maria make her way through the remaining patrons, giving and taking some good-natured ribbing for their little impromptu show. A rambunctious wave of happiness washed through Jude, leaving her light-hearted and just a little light-headed. She flicked a glance over at her lover, who was regarding her with a bemused smile. "What?"

"Nothing," Liz said. "Just looking."

"Why?" A brow arched quizzically in her direction.

"Because I want to," the honey-haired woman replied with a smile. "Gotta problem with that?"

"No ma'am," Jude assured her, leaning close. "But it is getting late. Can I interest you in looking at me someplace a little more private?"

"Absolutely," Liz grinned.

"Come on, walk with me on the beach while I round up the dogs." Jude vaulted over the low railing to the sand below and helped Liz, steadying the smaller woman as she landed unevenly on the sand. Slinging a long arm around her lover, they strolled down the beach toward the dim shapes of the Akitas playing in the distance.

"Serenade her, huh?" Liz teased. "Why didn't you do that for me?"

"I thought you would prefer a... classier... method of seduction than, Why don't we get drunk and screw?" Jude placidly replied.

"Yeah, getting me shot is really suave..." Liz bantered, wanting to rid Jude of her remaining guilt over the incident.

To her relief, Jude snickered low in her throat. "Not one of my smoother moves, I admit. But I think everything's turning out okay."

"Really?" Liz studied her lover's dark length, mesmerized by the way the light was absorbed by the ebony sheen of her hair and reflected back in a silvery glow. Jude moved easily here among the shadows, her sure steps unerringly finding their way in the darkness. "You're really happy with the way things are going?"

Jude paused a long moment, stilling their walk. "Yeah," she said at last, turning to face her lover. The beginnings of a smile were evident in the elegant planes of her features. "I am." Jude ducked her head to capture Liz's lips in silent affirmation of her words.

The kiss was tender and lingering, hinting at the banked passion that lurked just beneath the surface. Jude's tongue led a gentle invasion of her lover's mouth, teasing a low moan from Liz's throat with its caress. The smaller woman tugged Jude still closer, wrapping strong arms around Jude's tapering waist and tracing the outline of the sleek muscles in her back. "Oh wow," the reporter breathed when Jude released her lips.

"Uh-huh," Jude nodded with a wry smile.

"How do you do that?" Liz sighed happily, tucking her head snugly beneath Jude's chin.

"I don't do it alone. That's for sure," Jude commented, enjoying the comfortable feel of the woman in her arms.

"Yeah, I guess it is kind of a joint effort, isn't it?"

"You could say that," the dark woman agreed, hugging her lover gently. "Come on, let's get the dogs and get out of here."

Aggie and Clytemnestra were reluctant to leave their playmate, but at Jude's stern command they obediently scampered up the embankment towards the Explorer, the humans meandering along behind them. An explosion of enraged barking sent Jude running uphill, huge chunks of ground speeding under her.

As she crested the rise, she saw Clytemnestra launch herself at a dark figure who had the driver's door of the Explorer open. The figure fended the Akita off with a ferocious backhand, flinging the dog backwards with a yelp. Jude didn't hesitate, taking off after the fleeing figure. She could hear Liz faintly shouting at her in the distance but paid her no heed, intent on catching her quarry. The figure was agile, hurtling over the dunes with ease. His pace, however, was no match for Jude's long stride. A final twisting leap, and Jude's hands were clenched in the fabric of his jacket, dragging them both to the ground.

He swung at her blindly, landing a sharp jab to the side of Jude's face. Snarling, she grabbed his out-flung arm, dislocating it violently with a savage pop! He screamed in pain as Jude slammed him on his stomach, pinning him down with a knee at the center of his back. The dark woman's expert hands found the Sig revolver tucked into the waistband of his pants. Grinning savagely, she pressed the gun's barrel to the base of his neck.

Liz arrived in time to hear the quiet snick of the gun's hammer falling back, chambering a round. "NO!" she shouted, racing to Jude's side.

"I'm not gonna kill him, Liz," Jude growled. "At least not yet," she added with a feral smile at her prey. The man squirmed underneath her-- agony clearly written on his face-- yet he remained silent. She bore down on his back a little harder. "Hold still now, or I just might lose my grip on this trigger."

"Jude..." Liz pleaded with the dark woman, more terrified of the mask of rage that had descended over her lover's face than the gun she held in her hand. This was the creature who terrified Kent and Tony. The one they called the Archangel. "We don't know what he was doing."

"At the very least he was breaking in to my car. But I can tell you what else he was up to. A little quick surgery on our brake lines most likely." She held up the switchblade she had fished out of his back pocket. "You know," she addressed her prisoner. "I'm getting a little sick of this cat-and-mouse game."

"Fuck you," he managed.

"That's original," Jude replied dryly. She flipped the blade open and ran it lightly down the side of his face, leaving a thin red trail in its wake. "Let's try this again. You're carrying a Sig 226... which means you're law enforcement or you've got access to someone who is. Which is it?"

"Fuck you."

The butt of the gun smashed into the side of his face, fracturing his cheekbone. Liz winced at the impact, horrified by the force of this unleashed fury. "Jude..." she tried again.

"You're beginning to piss me off, asshole," she growled at the prone man, ignoring the strong pull of her lover's voice calling to her.

"Like I give a shit." He spat out a mouthful of blood.

The dark woman raised the gun once more, but her movement was blocked by a deceptively strong hand wrapping around her arm. "Jude, stop!" Liz shouted. "Don't do this." The voice was lower now, gaining strength as she saw Jude involuntarily responding. "You don't have to."

Bleak, pale eyes turned to stare hard at her, a renewed coldness burning through her. Resolutely, Liz refused to look away, willing her muscles not to tremble. The green warmth of her gaze searched Jude's face, searching for the buried remains of the tender lover she had come to know.

"Stay out of this," Jude barked.

"No! Like it or not, I am a part of this." She tightened her hold on Jude's arm, both of them knowing that at any second her grasp could easily be ripped away by the dark woman. Jude felt her close, and was involuntarily reminded of their connection. It allowed her to hear the quiet words falling from her lover’s lips. "I'm not going to lose you to the demon night again."

The arctic glare snapped abruptly, and Jude drew a shuddering breath at the raw entreaty in Liz's voice. A single sentence, a simple claim on Jude's bloody soul that couldn't be denied. She glanced down at her victim who bore the expression of someone who knows he's going to die-- painfully. Jude recognized the look as one she had worn more than once and minutely eased the pressure on his back.

Unwilling to surrender her tenuous connection to Jude, Liz shifted her stance, loosening her death grip on Jude's arm to a gentler clasp and peering over her lover's shoulder at the disabled man. "Who is he?"

"We were just covering that," Jude commented shortly. "You heard her." She prodded the man. "Who are you?"

"Go ahead and kill me, I'm not telling you anything."

Jude sighed heavily and stood up. "I'm not going to kill you." She gestured to Liz. "You have her to thank for it."

Warily the man crawled to his knees, cradling his useless arm awkwardly. "What's the catch?"

"No catch," Jude replied, unsure of who deserved her disgust more-- herself or the man at her feet. "Just tell your bosses that I'm coming after them soon. Now get out of here before I change my mind."

He didn't need to be told twice, setting off at an uneven pace down the beach to where Jude was sure his support team waited. Had she been alone and in the mood for a blood bath, she would have pursued him and confirmed the answers that were to take on a shadowy outline of their own. As it was, all she wanted was to bury herself in her lover's arms and wash all the rage away.

She watched him disappear into the dimness, then turned to Liz who was standing patiently beside her. Green eyes regarded her sadly. "We're in real trouble here, aren't we Jude?"