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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 12

Jude had been unwilling to trust the Explorer, uncertain of what their saboteur might have done before he was interrupted. She had discreetly borrowed Ria's pickup, explaining to her friend that they were having car trouble and that her mechanics would be out in the morning. Seeing easily behind Jude's placid exterior to the ill-concealed rage in her eyes, Maria had agreed wordlessly, silently despairing of this new darkness her friend was facing.

"Okay, I know why you didn't want to give Ria all the gory details, but why didn't you want her to say anything to Kent?" Liz asked as they herded the dogs through the kitchen door. Clytemnestra favored her left foreleg slightly, but a quick check of the dog had revealed only several small cuts. Aggie hovered close by, anxiety over his hurt littermate evident in his prancing gait. "Couldn't he help you?"

Jude sighed as she trudged wearily up the stairs, the small woman tucked securely under a sheltering arm. "No, if anything he'd probably hurt me."

"Because he still thinks you're one of the bad guys?"

"Kent knows I'm one of the good guys, all right. But I think someone is using him to get information about me."

"To do you in."

Jude chuckled dryly at the description. "That about sums it up."


"Why not? I mean for the last four years or so, I haven't exactly been a friend of law and order. It could be anyone in the Agency... from the people who took Jason down to a misguided white knight hoping to bring me in for my past crimes. In spite of what I'm trying to do to balance the scales."

"You said earlier that you were working on something?" Liz prodded. Reaching the bedroom, she guided her lover over to the bed, sitting her down on its welcoming surface.

Jude kicked off her topsiders and flopped backwards, exhausted by the convoluted logic she was trying to unravel. The damn thing didn't make any sense. None of it did. "I made a deal with Kent to bring in somebody the Agency wants really badly. If I do, and if I turn over all my 'off the books' operations, I can walk away free and clear. But there are a lot of people who would like to see that not happen. Who think I deserve whatever the Justice Department can throw at me. I guess they're right. Only thing is..." She laughed mirthlessly. "They don't have a damn thing on me." She had ruthlessly instilled a code of silence in her employees, making absolutely sure they knew that extermination would be the price of betrayal. She had known the DEA's methods inside and out and had easily weeded out all their ops, even sending a few back to the Agency in pieces. The Massacre had been as close as they had gotten to making any sort of case on her, and that was only because she'd had no intention of walking out of that warehouse alive. For once, however, she had underestimated her own abilities, and afterwards she was left to figure out what came next-- after the acrid, empty taste of revenge had made her gag.

Liz hauled Jude upright, industriously tugging the tank top free from her waistband. "Up," she commanded. With a silent smirk, Jude obligingly lifted her arms, and Liz stripped the cotton from Jude's lean body. The smaller woman pushed her lover back down, unfastening the buttons on the worn jeans with nimble fingers. She scrambled down the length of the dark woman's long frame, tugging the fabric as she went. Jude didn't know why, but Liz seemed to have an almost frantic urge to reach her skin at this very moment. Perhaps she needed to reconnect with the flesh-and-blood warmth of her lover after her earlier encounter with the arctic plains of a killer’s eyes as much as Jude did. The remaining lacy barriers between them quickly fell by the wayside, allowing Liz to triumphantly run her hands over bronze skin. A soft kiss to the pulse of her lover's throat and a quiet sigh ended the reconnaissance.

Jude quirked a brow in unspoken question as the honey-haired woman snuggled close.

"I just needed..." Liz searched for a way to explain. "To feel you close," she finished lamely.

Jude nodded in understanding and gently pulled at Liz's shirt. "Then take this stuff off and c'mere."

"Help me."

The two women rose as one, Jude finding it hard to work the buttons free with her suddenly trembling fingers. Abandoning her task in frustration, Jude rested her head on her lover's strong shoulder, drawing a shuddering breath.

Staring at the dark head in alarm, Liz tangled her hands comfortingly in the onyx tresses. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"I'm so sorry," Jude breathed. "What happened tonight... What you saw..."

"Shh..." Liz crooned. "I'm not sorry I saw it."

"I would have killed him..."

"But you didn't."

Jude raised her head to fix on Liz's eyes. "Because of you," she murmured, unable to believe the quiet strength she saw residing in the swirling green depths.

"No, Liz corrected. "Because of you. You just needed to be reminded that there's another way." She studied the planes and angles of Jude's face, gently stroking the supple skin beneath her fingertips.

"I never... believed... that I could be any other way," Jude said haltingly.

"Believe it now," Liz whispered, capturing full lips in her own.

It was a kiss that was equal parts claiming, surrender, and accedence. Liz coaxed Jude's mouth deeper into her own with teasing caresses of her tongue. A languid dance of tenderness began in the sweet exchange, drawing a moan from deep in the dark woman's throat. The reporter tugged her lover closer, reveling in the warmth that Jude's long arms yielded.

Somehow, buttons miraculously worked loose, cloth tumbled off fair shoulders, and jeans slipped from slender hips until skin pressed against gloriously bare skin in a sensually intimate entanglement. "Need you..." Jude mumbled, her mouth working slowly over her lover, absorbing the texture of lissome muscles moving against her lips and tasting the salty heat rising from Liz's body.

The sure touch of Jude's fingers and the low growls of desire from her throat muted the clamoring in the reporter's mind for details and information about the danger that lurked outside their sanctuary. Knowing that there would be time afterwards for the talk they needed to have, Liz willingly surrendered to Jude's searching hands. Moments, hours, days could have passed as Jude slipped inside her, mouth drinking in her lover's wet essence, etching her claim into Liz's soul with the tender flame of desire.

"You ever going to tell me where you got this?"

Liz was kneeling comfortably between Jude's legs, idly tracing a line down the powerful muscles that loosely held her in their grip. One leg sprawled gracefully across Liz's thighs, while the other curled softly around the smaller woman's waist. The position left Jude's sex completely exposed to her lover's hands and eyes, and she was overwhelmed by the seeming ease with which Jude opened to her touch. Liz's past loves had been fraught with hesitation and fear-- and a tactile inarticulateness that left the reporter fumbling for the right caresses. In stark contrast, her response to Jude had been complete and unmistakable... she had to know this woman's body in order to know her soul. So much of Jude was hidden in quiet motions-- a discreetly quirking brow, a rhythmic clenching of her jaw-- at times Liz felt as if she were learning to communicate solely through taste, touch, and smell. Jude's language was one of pure sensory explosion that Liz would gladly spend the next hundred years exploring and deciphering.

Liz's fingers danced over the small tattoo on Jude's hip, reaching over to brush the still-damp curls that protected the dark woman's center. Smiling as Jude's hips bucked gently of their own accord at the soft teasing, Liz tossed an expectant glance at her lover. "Well?"

The mark was small, but distinctive-- a dark line snaked off-center through a tiny circle surrounded by shapes that looked at times like flames or the sensuous curves of a woman's body. It was a unique design, something Liz had never seen before. It clearly meant something to the dark woman-- and the reporter wanted to know what that something was.

Stretching her arms lazily over her head and arching subtly against Liz's fingers, Jude nodded. "I guess we do need to talk."

Liz frowned. "Why do I think this isn't just about your tattoo?"

"It is." Seeing Liz's dubious expression, she added, "Sort of."

"Let me get comfortable," Liz said, suspecting that this was going to be a long story. Jude piled two pillows behind her head and settled back on the bed, while Liz arranged herself across her lover's stomach, her chin resting on neatly folded hands. Each pair of legs twined smoothly around the other, maintaining a much-needed contact through the length of their bodies. Jude drew a ragged breath as one of Liz's full breasts pressed against her center, sending a delicious ripple of aftershocks through her body.

"Lift up a bit," she groaned, sliding Liz a little further up her body. "There, that's better." She flashed a wolfish smile at the smaller woman. "Can't have me getting distracted, now can we?"   "Absolutely not."

"Okay..." Jude ran a hand through her disordered hair. "After Jason..." she hesitated briefly. "After Jason's death... it was like the world had just turned itself inside out. Ria was in pieces... Jessie-- that's their daughter-- was too young to understand..."

"And what about you?"

"What about me?" Jude asked bleakly.

"Well, I can't imagine you were in much better shape than Maria was," Liz pointed out.

"I killed him..." Jude replied incredulously. "I didn't have a right to feel anything," she added, more softly.

"I'd argue with you over that, but I don't think it would do any good." Liz flashed an irate glare at her lover.

"Do you want to hear this or not?"

"I'm sorry... go on."

"I had a lot of time to think in the aftermath of the shooting. Because of the way they just shut everybody up, and kept me away from anyone who might have some answers. And the more time I spent by myself, the more I realized that somebody sold Jase out. I mean Rico's intelligence sources just weren't that smart. And even if they were, they would have found me a helluva long time before they found Jason. I was out there by myself to keep something like this from happening." Jude sighed heavily. "But it happened anyway."

"Could someone have been using Jason to try and force you to blow your own cover? To make you sacrifice the operation?" Liz asked, her mind whirring.

Jude looked at her lover, clearly startled by Liz's incisive thinking. "I thought about that," she said slowly. "It's possible that Rico had someone on the inside... but it wouldn't make any sense for them to wait a year and a half before acting." She shrugged. "Then again, none of this ever made any damned sense."

"What if somebody wanted not to get rid of Jason? Maybe he had stumbled onto something." Liz's thoughts were racing. She was thinking aloud now, mulling over the possibilities the same way she did when considering all the angles of a story. There were several obvious questions that popped to mind-- the first of which was what would someone have to gain if Jason was killed? Maybe whoever was behind this was trying to get rid of both agents. It certainly made sense if they were working for Rico.

"For a romance novelist, you sure know what questions to ask," Jude commented, studying her lover's face intently as if she were reading the reporter's tumultuous thoughts.

Liz shifted uncomfortably, aware that the shaky ground she trod was fast crumbling away beneath her feet. "Too many episodes of Miami Vice, I guess."

"Uh-huh..." Jude pursed her lips, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Anyway... I asked myself all the same questions. Trouble was, I could never find any answers. The Agency yanked me out of there and sent me on 'a psychological leave of indeterminate length.' There wasn't even a review board on the shooting. It was like they just wanted to bundle everything up and get it out of the way as quickly as possible. We were this close to bringing Rico in." She held her thumb and forefinger pressed tightly together to demonstrate. "And they just let him walk."

"That's when you started seriously suspecting someone on the inside?"

"More or less."

"So what happened?"

"I never came back from that leave," Jude answered grimly.

She spent the next hours chronicling her final immersion in the darkness, talking about her painstaking efforts to build an illicit empire to rival the Massalas and thwart at every turn the Agency that had betrayed her.

The reporter listened in bewildered amazement-- here were all the shattered fragments of the woman Liz was beginning to love, laid resolutely out for her inspection. Although Jude's tone was flat and even, Liz could clearly see the anguish residing behind the shuttered blue gaze. She ached to crawl inside her lover and try to heal from the inside out the wounds and scars on Jude's trembling soul. She inched further up Jude's body, bracing her elbows on the firm mattress, and cradled the dark head in her hands. "I'm so sorry," she murmured, pressing her lips against Jude's forehead.

A strangled cry caught in Jude's throat. Such tenderness was almost unbearable, and the animal that still remained deep within struggled to get free. She pushed blindly at the golden form lying on top of her. "Why are you sorry?" she asked harshly. "Sorry that you crawled in bed with a monster?"

"Stop that," Liz grasped Jude's head tightly. "You're not a monster."   "I've acted like one for too many years to think any differently."

"Is that why you did all this?" Liz demanded. "Because it's easier to believe what everyone has told you-- from your mother and the fucking priests to the people like Kent who are supposedly your friends?" She paused and took a deep breath as Jude regarded her silently with a shocked expression. The small woman tapped the side of her lover's skull. "I wish I could get behind those baby blues and see what's fucked you up so badly. Why it's easier for you to kill than to love." She shrugged, dropping her gaze to rest on the crisp white sheet bunched at her side. "But I can't. Jason couldn't. Nobody can make you think your life is worth living right except you."

The words were soft, almost inaudibe when Jude answered. "I’m trying. But Elizabeth, it’s so hard. It’s like everything inside me fights against it.” She stumbled over her words, her eyes refusing to meet the reporter’s. “I’ve tried to change...”

“Why?” Liz asked quietly. Jude looked at her in surprise, almost as if she had forgotten the other woman was there. “Why did you decide you had to change?”

Jude paused and took a deep breath, trying to focus on what Liz wanted to know. Finally, she began hesitantly. "Killing Rico Massala was supposed to finish everything. I had taken away most of his businesses... sticking it to the Agency in the meantime... and Rico was in no position to bargain. When he wanted a meeting, I agreed to it. Of course I expected him to try an ambush-- so I set one of my own up." She shut her eyes in remembrance. "As soon as I put the bullet through his head, I expected his men to come crawling out of the woodwork. They did... but it was with their guns raised in surrender. My guys blew them all away before anybody really knew what was going on."

"You expected them to kill you," Liz stated flatly.

"Basically yeah... and when that didn't happen... I was lost." Jude looked at the small woman helplessly. "Killing him was supposed to make me feel better, goddamn it," she snarled quietly, almost to herself.

"Did fucking over the Agency make you feel better?" Liz asked.

Jude shrugged. "Not really."

"Then why did you think killing Massala would?"

Jude laughed humorlessly. "Something had to."

"But killing Massala wasn't it."

"As I discovered. And for once in my life I didn't have a backup plan."

"So what did you do?"

"Well... things were a little... hot... for me in Miami. What with the Cartel sending professionals after me every ten minutes and Metro Dade crawling all over the crime scene. The Agency wasn't stupid-- they knew I was responsible, but they weren't about to send anyone else after me until they thought they might have a chance in hell of it working. Sasha and I thought it best that I take a little... vacation... until everything sort of cooled off a little."

"Sasha was with you back then?"

Jude smiled wolfishly. "She was one of the first things I took away from Rico."

Liz only nodded, not sure what unsettled her more-- the continuing presence of the shadowy assistant with her undefined duties, or Jude's casual reference to her ex-lover as a 'thing' to be taken as a spoil of war. She tucked these uncomfortable thoughts away to ask her next question. "Where did you go?"

"Most of the Cartels operated out of Colombia because the government there was more... amenable... to operations like Rico's. Like mine."

Liz nodded, "That's where the Medellin Cartel was-- until the Colombian government took them out."

"Right... with more than a little pressure from the Agency. Of course, the Cali just took its place."

"Do I need to ask how you fit into all this?"

"I was the new kid on the block." She shrugged. "So I went down to introduce myself... pay my respects." Blue eyes turned distant as her thoughts drifted back over years past. "That's how I ended up in Cartagena."

  Colombia seemed to have two types of weather: hot and hotter than hell. Even Jude's legendary cool had been shot to pieces by the lethal combination of the climate and the locals she’d had to deal with upon her arrival. Over the last few weeks she had bounced from Bogota to Cali to Buena Ventura to Medellin... and quite frankly, she'd had more than enough of the heaping doses of machismo dished up at every meeting. Totally unused to being dismissed, Jude had been at her wits' end.  As a last resort, she had seduced the mistress of one of the Cali Cartel's top lieutenants. She figured it would either earn her a seat at the table or a bullet in the head. In her state of mind, she really didn't care which it was.  Either way they couldn't ignore her any longer.

Oddly, it had earned her a grudging respect from the other men. They were no longer able to categorize her as either a Madonna or a whore... and though she didn't particularly care to know what they called her when her back was turned... it allowed her a bit of maneuvering room.

She arrived in Cartagena worn out and pissed off, eager to return to the States, but unable to because of the continuing investigation into the Massacre. Sasha had told her to sit tight for at least another week and had given her a couple of contacts in Cartagena. The old city was the most "touristy" of her destinations in Colombia-- indeed if anything in this godforsaken country could be called hospitable-- and she fervently hoped that meant she could at least walk the streets without some pickpocket nipping at her heels. Of course, with her luck running the way it was, it probably meant that the problem was worse here than anywhere else.

She checked into the Hotel Santa Clara, listening absently to the bellhop's litany about the hotel's history as a convent. "That's appropriate," she snorted to herself cynically, thinking that the chances of her enjoying any... female... company for the rest of her stay was unlikely. Seducing Miriana had been business, not pleasure-- and it had been far too long since she had enjoyed Sasha's unique talents. Random images of her assistant's naked form writhing underneath her flashed through her mind during the interminable lecture about Santa Clara de Asis. Her patience at an end, she interrupted the enthusiastic clerk. "I... Don't... Give... A ... Fuck..." she said slowly and distinctly, giving his fractured comprehension of English time to decipher her meaning. "Now go away," she added, pressing an American $20 dollar bill into his hand.

The boy amiably scrambled off, leaving Jude alone again with her musings.

The room was decorated in what Jude was coming to think of as "obligatory Amazon Basin designer chic." Which meant white walls, whirring ceiling fans that barely stirred the still air, and mosquito netting draped from the four corners of the bedposts. "At least this place has clean running water," she noted, turning the shower on and stripping off her dusty travel clothes.

A long, cool shower later, Jude was feeling a bit more human as she buttoned her shirt and tucked it neatly into a pair of loose khaki shorts. "What the fuck," she muttered, braiding her long hair tightly. "I'm a tourist right? I should look like one."

She descended the winding staircase to the bar downstairs, sorely in need of a drink. Out of habit, her eyes scanned the room restlessly-- noting the room's arrangement, the exits, and potential troublemakers. Early on she had learned that most men in this hellhole of a country thought a woman sitting alone at a bar had to be at the very least a woman of easy virtue, if not an outright whore. She had been called a puta more times in the last three weeks than she had in her entire life-- and that was saying something. Her suitors usually only desisted after she creatively indicated her desire to be left alone. There was a string of men in each city she had visited who carried a stunning array of broken and fractured bones as evidence of her irritation.

That's why the woman in the corner caught Jude's eye immediately.

It wasn't just that she was sitting alone, unmolested. This woman seemed to bleed sunlight through every pore of her tanned skin and white-blond hair. She was wearing a white tank dress that clung lovingly to every leanly muscled curve of her body and exposed a length of sleek thigh where her legs crossed. A glass of something colorless sat in front of her, and she appeared entranced by the view of the gardens outside with their riot of blooms that offered  the only color on the grounds.

Before she had really even thought about it, Jude found herself sliding into the booth opposite the stranger, absently signaling the bartender to come take her order.

"A lot of men have tried that seat," the stranger murmured softly. She had a perfect British public school accent, and the crisp English fell on Jude's hungry ears like manna from the heavens.

Jude's brows furrowed quizzically. "Isn’t that a line from a movie?" she asked lightly.

That earned her a hint of a porcelain smile as the stranger regarded her coolly. Up close, Jude could see that she had pale, almost colorless eyes that seemed to absorb the dying sunlight around her and beam it back out at Jude, who fought from flinching at the brightness.

The bartender ambled over, looking at Jude expectantly.

"Bourbon," she told him, hoping that they'd actually have it. Tequila seemed to be the only thing they served in most places. To her surprise, the bartender nodded and glanced briefly at the blond. "You want anything?" she asked.

"A martini, please..." the stranger replied, holding up her glass.

Their order taken, the two women were left alone again.

Jude arched a glance at the thoughtful expression on the stranger's face. "What?" she asked.

"You know... I do believe you're right. That is a line from a movie. But I can't for the life of me remember which one. I do remember, however, that the man that our heroine let sit down was up to no good."

"Maybe I'm just glad to be talking to someone who doesn't speak that fractured Banana Republic-eese the locals seem to think passes for English."

"No," the stranger disagreed. "You look like many things, but an innocent is not one of them," she stated flatly.

"Oh?" Jude was intrigued. "Just what do I look like?"

"A pirate."

Jude chuckled at the apt description. "So what are you supposed to be? A damsel in distress?" she smirked.

"Oh heavens no," the blond waved a dismissive hand and finished off her drink. "Think of me as... a renegade heiress on a suicide mission of debauchery."

Jude studied the sleek form opposite her. This could be fun. "That's a helluva mouthful. You got something shorter I can call you?" she drawled.

A throaty laugh rewarded her, its tendrils stroking the fine hair on the back of Jude's neck. "You may call me Keir." She bestowed the name regally. "Short for Keirnan."

"Keir..." Jude murmured, enjoying the feel of the name on her tongue.

"And what about you, my pirate? What sort of alias are you using to escape the notice of our fine local authorities?"

"I don't make a good first impression, do I?" Jude bantered easily. "You're already accusing me of wrongdoing."

"I know a predator when I see one."

The dark woman inclined her head in silent acknowledgement. "My name is Jude," she said.

"Short for...?"

"Just Jude."

Keir chuckled darkly. "Is there a reason you were named for the Patron Saint of Desperate Causes? Or is it just delicious irony for my situation?" Seeing Jude's furrowed brow, she hastened to explain. "Here I am, sitting in a bar alone... faced with the dreadful reality that I will spend this evening being endlessly propositioned. By the locals or by the tourists. With no relief in sight."

"You could always go home," Jude commented dryly.

"What fun would that be?" Keir dismissed the suggestion with a roll of her eyes. "At least here there is the possibility that something interesting will happen." Keir snapped her fingers. "And viola! Here you are. No more boring propositions."

"How do you know I'm not going to proposition you?"

"Oh, I most certainly hope you will. That would be a nice change of pace from all these sweaty men." Keir flashed a wicked grin in her direction. "And at least you'll let a decent interval of time pass."

"I see."

"Do you?" Keir cocked her head to one side, regarding her new companion seriously. "Do you want to get out of here? There's a little time before sunset... I could show you the sights. Such as they are."

"Lead the way."

The sun was dipping below the horizon, holding on till the last with long tentacles of light that reached out towards the two women strolling along the city's walls. Cartagena was a city that bore its scars proudly, named La Heroica by its people during Colombia's struggle to free itself from Spain's stranglehold. Tourists still wandered through the streets freely this evening, the light granting them passage to move about in a way that would not be permitted once darkness fell. Of all the cities Jude had recently passed through, Cartagena had made the most stable peace between its daylight and nocturnal worlds. Maybe the vermin stayed relatively hidden during the light because the cruise ships made the city a port of call; or maybe the ocean vista soothed away the most violent of their impulses. Whatever the reason, Jude was grateful. She wanted to enjoy the company of this recklessly elegant creature beside her. Still, her senses were painfully aware of the predatory glances she felt raking over her body as she walked.

"A string of bastions ran along the oceanfront anchored by two larger forts-- one called San Fernando and the other San Jose. Cartagena had a slight pirate problem back then." Keir flashed a grin at her dark companion. "So in the 1580s the king of Spain ordered a military engineer named Antonelli to fortify the city.” She indicated a ruined tower rising above the city's streets and overlooking the ocean. “That huge tower there was the main point of defense. It's called San Felipe de Barajas. It was destroyed four times... and each time they rebuilt it. They say ghosts of dead soldiers haunt the ruins, still watching over the city. I wonder what they make of Cartagena now?"

Jude had spent the last few hours just listening to the musical wash of Keir's voice and taking in the entrancing lines of the other woman's body. She wasn't particularly paying attention to the history of the city whose streets she now walked. The blond was almost as tall as Jude herself, but with a much leaner frame. She reminded Jude of the sleek racing hounds she had seen in Miami with their noble profiles and breathtaking speed and grace. Though her mind was occupied by musings of what the woman beside her would taste like, she answered absently, "They probably wonder what the hell happened."

Keir shook her head thoughtfully. "Somehow I doubt it... I mean, do you think human nature has really changed that much in the last four centuries? Soldiers are still soldiers...." She nodded at the military-looking uniform on the local policia standing nearby. "And pirates are still pirates," she finished, looking pointedly at Jude. There was an awareness in that cool glance as it swept over the length of the dark woman's powerful body, and Jude suddenly realized that she wasn't the only one uninterested in the light banter passing back and forth between them.

Perversely wanting the blond to make the first overture, she ignored the look and commented instead, "You seem to know a lot about the city."

Arching a smirking brow that was an eerily pale mirror of Jude's dark one, Keir pursed her lips slightly and picked up her narrative. "I've been here a few weeks, enjoying the scenery. I've picked up some things from a couple of tour groups I ended up following around out of sheer boredom," she admitted. "I've found that the tours are much more enjoyable when you've downed a martini or six beforehand."

"Colombia's not exactly high on the list of hospitable vacation spots," Jude pointed out.

"I'm a free soul... looking for adventure," Keir proclaimed with a dramatic sweep of her arms. She walked with the casual assurance of one who has yet to confront a situation where either her charm or her money had failed to remove any unpleasantness she faced.

Jude allowed herself a small smile, enjoying the charismatic presence of the woman beside her. "They usually tell you to join the army in that case. You know... 'It's not just a job, it's an adventure.'"

"Oh god, no... I doubt the military would have someone like me." She laughed, a merry look in her eye. "Actually, I'm an escapee from a cruise ship. Hopped off here when we made the port of call. I've been hanging about, absorbing the local color. Some friends have a place over on one of the Islas del Rosario, and they've let me commandeer their sloop to come and go as I please during my stay. It's a little 32-footer down there in the harbor." Their eyes locked again-- the glance longer, more intense-- and Jude felt a spark of anticipation fire in her veins. There was no mistaking the intent here. "Why don't you come back to the island with me?" the blond murmured sensually. "It won’t take long. If we leave right now, we can be on the island before the sun is completely down."

A lazy smile crept over Jude's features. "I'd have to go back to my room first. Otherwise I wouldn't have anything to wear."

"Trust me, darling... you won't need anything."

Jude couldn't remember how it started... she had helped Keir cast off and raise the mainsail... then she had walked to the vessel's small bow, enjoying the ocean breeze on her face. There were a fair number of other ships out on the water, pleasure crafts like this one, ferrying their wealthy owners to and from the coast and away from the dangers of Cartagena's nocturnal denizens and towards the safety of their island playground.

Somehow... Keir was there... behind her, lean arms encircling her and demanding that the shirt come off Jude's shoulders. Khaki shorts dropped from her hips and deck shoes were kicked to the side. It occurred briefly to Jude to protest their relative proximity to other vessels, but then she was twisted around in the blonde's arms, and red lips were finding hers with unerring accuracy.

The white dress fell away unneeded as they slithered to the cool smoothness of the teak deck, a slight spray misting their bared skin. Her scent was exotic to Jude... like some jungle wildflower whose name she would never know. Jude buried herself deep inside Keir, pulling out the other woman's desire in wrenching groans of passion, loving the feel of those long legs falling over her shoulders. Again and again Jude moved into her... hard fast slow aching... until at last they broke apart, lying on their backs and staring up at the newly fallen sky.

"Oh... my..." Keir breathed, rolling her head sideways to glance at her new lover. "That was extraordinary." She ran a hand trembling from exertion over Jude's finely muscled body. The smell of sweat, sex, and heat was on their skin... and Jude resembled nothing so much as a predatory cat, sated and full from the hunt. "Damn..." Keir laughed unsteadily. "I should have tried this sooner." Her eyes drifted appreciatively over her partner.

A blue eye appeared from under its shuttered lid. "What do you mean sooner?" The other iris joined its twin. "We just met a few hours ago," she smirked.

"I don't mean us, darling. I mean this whole woman thing... Although I daresay it wouldn't have been as much fun with someone else."

A dark brow furrowed. "You mean you'd never had sex with a woman before?"

"Well... there were all the usual adolescent slumber party fumbling, but honestly... By the time I got old enough to seriously contemplate the possibility, all the women of a similar bent were just too much of a cliche. Captains of the field hockey team-- all of them. You know what I mean?" She chuckled lightly. "So I put the idea out of my mind..."

"And meeting me put the idea back into your mind?" Jude pulled herself up, leaning on one elbow to get a better look at the woman whose body she had just mastered.

"I do confess that I was feeling a bit randy this afternoon beforehand, but the minute I saw you--" An erotic smile drifted over the patrician features. "--I decided I simply had to have you."

"That's rather... imperial... of you," Jude murmured, bending her lips to graze the soft flesh on Keir's neck.

"Do you feel colonized, darling?" Keir laughed delightedly. The warm rich sound reached out and curled firmly between Jude's legs. "Believe me, I don't want to change one bit of your gloriously pagan tendencies."

"I don't think we have to worry about that," she answered flippantly. Jude's senses were flush with the smell of the woman on her hands, the taste of their sex in her mouth, and the dying echoes of Keir’s ragged cries still ringing in her ears. She trailed her fingers across the elegant line of Keir's hip. "Come here..." she ordered, her fingers digging into the skin she found there and drawing the woman to her.

And so the stars spiraled up higher to flee the outflung hands that-- reaching out in their desire-- threatened to jar Heaven's lights loose from their niches in the night sky.

"What brought you to Colombia?" The question was asked over a breakfast of tart grapefruit and sweet skin.

"Business," Jude answered, preferring the latter of her two dining options. Forsaking the grapefruit entirely, her mouth covered a puckered nipple greedily. A low growl of satisfaction rumbled from her throat as she tested its tautness against her tongue.

"Colombia... doesn't... have... any... industry..." Keir groaned. "Except farming... and..." Her hands tangled in Jude's hair, separating the dark woman from her self-appointed task and forcing her to look into pale eyes, colored gray by the rising sun. A rueful smile twisted on the blonde's face. "So you really are a pirate."

Jude shifted away from Keir's alluring skin. "Do you really care?" she taunted.

"Not really," Keir answered easily, regarding the woman anew. "But it does answer some... feelings I had about you."

"Such as?"

"You looked too... beautifully menacing... to be someone ordinary."

"You have a vivid imagination."

"I do," Keir agreed. "But that's not the point. The way you carry yourself... You fairly reek of violence..." A soft caress trailed down the side of Jude's face. "And sex... and, now that I think about it... just about any sin I could name, you would seem to inspire in me. You are a poster child for transgression," she murmured.

The words held too much of an echo of the condemnations she had received as a child. "According to the priests, even the fact that I breathed was a sin," Jude growled, still unable to quite suppress her rage at the black-cassocked men who damned her soul before she was even born.

"Do we have a problem with the Church?" Keir didn’t miss a step in the odd turn the conversation had taken.

Jude's eyes paled coldly in remembrance. "Just don't have much use for it, that's all," she replied tightly.

"That's rather odd... considering what you're wearing around your neck." Long fingers dipped down to capture the cold medallion hanging between Jude's bared breasts. "Christopher.. guardian of travelers and defrocked saint." She pursed her lips. "Or is that why you carry him around? Comrades in exile?"

Jason had given her the medallion at their last meeting-- before the nightmare had began, claiming her existence for its own. Fearing for the blackened remnants of her soul, he had begged her to walk away from the operation. When she refused, he pulled the chain from around his neck and pressed it into her hand, curling her fingers around it tightly. "Keep this, then... Since I can't go where you're going... I know it may not mean anything to you, Jude, but it does to me. Please..." She had accepted the gift, never intending to put it on... but late that night, when darkness surrounded her and the dawn was so far away that she could easily imagine it would never reach into her adumbral realm, she slipped it over her head and let the cool metal rest against the skin covering her heart. In the ensuing chaos following Jason's death, she had yet to take it off.

"Didn't work, did it?"

The question jarred her rudely back into Keir's colorless glance. She arched a questioning brow.

"Whatever this was supposed to protect you from, whatever journey you took... it didn't work, did it?"

Jude swallowed hard, surprised at the sudden insight this stranger seemed to have. "No, it didn't."

A tender hand stroked her face. "I'm sorry."

A sharp jerk of her head shrugged off the gesture. "Doesn't matter." She went to turn away and was stopped abruptly, suddenly finding her shoulders gripped by strong hands.

Colorless irises met Jude's pale blue ones in an unwavering gaze. "Something's cleaving you right down the middle, isn't it?" she asked, her perception unnerving to the dark woman in her arms.

"Leave it," Jude warned, the cold look in her eyes at odds with the placid tone of her voice.

Keir sat back, studying the sensuously lethal woman sprawled at her side. "Darkness falls, eh? All right then..." In a smooth movement, she flipped Jude onto her back, straddling the tall woman's tapering waist and pressing into the hard length of muscle there. "In that case... spend the day with me. There's an island where we can go..."

"I'm not interested in tailgating with tour groups," Jude groaned, her hips arching into the slick smoothness between Keir's legs.

"Trust me, darling. What I have in mind is definitely not a group activity..."

They piloted the sloop to a tiny island, further away from the main body of the Islas de Rosario, landing in a small inlet and dropping anchor. "We'll have to swim in," Keir told her matter-of-factly, tossing her a small waterproof bag. "Put your clothes in there-- they'll keep dry." Jude cocked a dubious eyebrow at her companion, who was stripping easily out of her own shorts. "Don't worry, we'll be quite alone. Not even the tour groups have found this place. One other thing..." She held out a hand that contained what looked like two small, black berries. "Take this."

The dark woman's eyes narrowed, recognizing the peyote. "I don't..."

"Don't take your own medicine, do you?" Keir mocked. "I want you relaxed this afternoon. I promise, this stuff is totally natural-- and a thousand times less lethal than that crap you put out on the streets." Jude's eyes paled dangerously at the comment, but Keir didn't back away. "Am I wrong?" When Jude didn't answer, she smiled triumphantly. "I didn't think so." She brought the button to Jude's mouth. "Open."

Silently, Jude complied, allowing Keir's long fingers to slip past her lips and teeth, depositing their cargo. The dark woman could still faintly taste the traces of their last round of lovemaking, and she ran her tongue down the length of the retreating digits.

"Chew," the blond commanded, smirking as she watched Jude wince at the cactus’ bitterness. "I could never get used to the taste either," she remarked, disposing of her own button in a similar fashion. "Shall we?" With a graceful leap, Keir dove into the azure water, emerging moments later, water sleekly falling from her face. "Come on!" She waved an arm. "It's lovely."

Shrugging mentally, Jude tucked her own shorts and a couple of Keir's T-shirts into the bag and slipped it over her shoulder. Encumbered by the lightweight on her arm, her dive was less elegant than her companion's, but equally effective. Gasping at the water's warmth, she stroked with one arm towards the woman waiting for her near the water's edge. "That was nice," she admitted, grinning at the blond.

"Wasn't it though?" Keir smiled, running a lazy hand down Jude's wet torso. "We'll come back for a proper swim later."

The sun quickly dried the remnants of the moisture from their bodies, and soon they were clothed in shorts and light T-shirts. "So, where are we going?" Jude asked, squeezing the excess water out of her hair and hoping that it wouldn't snarl too badly.

Keir gestured to a gently winding path through the surprisingly thick foliage. "We take that trail there. It's uphill a little ways... but nothing too bad."

"Lead the way."

Walking easily along the path, Jude examined her surroundings carefully. They were indeed quite alone, and Jude found herself smiling at the lushness of the land around her. The wild cries of birds circling overhead warned other creatures of the two-woman invasion, and the rush of the ocean in the distance added rhythm to their steps.

"I can't for the life of me figure out why the tours don't come here," Keir was saying as they strolled. "I suppose it's because this island is one of the furthest out, and it's tiny. There's literally nothing to look at here but ruins. No room for postcard stops or soda stands."

They emerged from the dimness into a patch of brilliant sunlight. Much to her surprise, Jude realized they were standing on a small rise at the top tier of what looked like an amphitheater. Cracked and broken stones were all that remained of the curving benches that descended down the gentle incline until they were flush with the hard-packed earthen floor a few levels beneath them. Two stone pillars stood even with the top of Jude's head on either side of the center aisle.

"The Chibcha who lived here originally were mostly craftspeople. They were weavers, stonemasons and goldsmiths. Not warriors at all..." Keir glanced over at Jude, watching the dark woman run the palm of a hand lightly over the rough textured surface of the stones. "They really didn't stand a chance when the Spaniards came. The Europeans took the gold, destroyed the cities, and enslaved the people-- all in the name of God, king and country." Keir shook her head slowly, lost in thoughts of civilizations long past.

"What is this place?"

"As near as I can tell, it was a place of worship."

Beneath Jude's hand, the stone seemed to fairly hum with energy-- a vibrant, pulsing heat that she could  feel beginning to coil in her belly. She slid her palm away from the stone, flexing her hand to dispel the tingling that remained. "This is a church, huh?"

"Oh no," Keir smiled. "They didn't worship things they couldn't see. Their gods were the earth and the sky, the land around them." Watching Jude's fingers trace the faded carvings on the pillar next to her, she added, "It's said that the stones spoke to them."

Jude arched a smirking brow. "Well, if they were flying on the same shit you just gave me, I can believe that."

"They didn't use hallucinogens. Just their eyes and ears and hands," Keir replied. "Come on..."

As Keir led her down the small slope and across the earthen floor, Jude's senses exploded in a burst of awareness. Her skin absorbed the light pouring down on her, sending waves of heat soaking into her muscles. The blossoms drooped their exotic scents from nearby bushes, reminding her of the sweet essence of the woman beside her. Keir's hair shone translucent in the brilliance that surrounded them. Jude's eyes warmed, darkened, pulsed with the energy that danced to flickering life inside her.

It was a flame now... curling up from her belly, encircling the jagged remnants of a soul she believed dead. It wrapped around the muscle of her heart, squeezing painfully until each breath reminded her of her mortality. She could hear it popping and snarling in the caverns behind her eyes.

So hot... so unbearably hot... the sweat dripped down her face... and then they were in a stone enclosure, the lucent sunlight shut out by the walls, but still shining brightly in Keir's eyes. Flames surrounded them both now, curling familiarly along the length of the blond woman's hip, reaching out with its tendrils to stroke Jude's glistening skin. And then flesh on flesh... the stone surprisingly cool beneath her back as the flame spread through her body... an open-cunt ache gripping her with its raw demand. A mouth, a hand, a flame.... pressing against her... quench the fire... but it only burned higher... "More..." a voice, hers, ragged with need.. hoarse with its cries... Had she been screaming? The flame... the woman... twins now... thrusting inside her, nourishing the fire until it poured out between her legs... shuddering to climax with a gut-wrenching cry... moisture, sweat.... tears?... streaming from her eyes. Then...


Had the men not stopped to watch the show, had they not taken the women's pleasure as their own, their mission would have succeeded quite easily. Two bullets. Two bodies. A handsome reward from the remaining members of the Cartel. The best laid plans...

The first bullet struck home, silencing Keir's murmured sighs of delight and shattering her skull against Jude's torso. A strangled cry tore loose from Jude's throat as her body recognized the threat, even as her mind struggled to piece together the reality. She was up and moving, flinging Keir's body in the direction of her attackers. Intended to be a kill shot, the bullet streaked by Jude's neck as she rolled away, blood and fire pouring out of the flesh wound. The men separated and began chasing her through the maze of the stone enclosure. She ducked into a blackened niche as one of her assailants edged past. She was on him before he realized it; a savage crack! Echoing through the hall as she snapped his neck. She took his gun.

The tables had turned.

"Luis?" The other man. He had obviously heard the sound of a neck snapping and was moving in her direction. "You get her?"

Flame now consumed her... rage, hate, anger... for what? Another dead at her hands, another innocent spoiled by her touch. Keir's eyes hadn't even registered what was happening. A lifetime destroyed in a moment's pleasure. The bile rose in Jude's throat, strangling her. She stood in the shadows, choking on the madness that had consumed her for these last years.

And the flame burned on... leaving in its wake the scorched ruins of Jude's soul...

The gun fit so perfectly in her hand, its metal cold to her touch... reassuring in the liquid inferno that surrounded her. Her assailant moved forward, his outline clearly visible-- backlit by the flame. She slipped further into the shadows... deliberately kicking a rock to draw him out.

"Luis?" The man's pitch was higher, more uncertain as a silence that promised nothing good loomed ever larger.

He was completely outlined to Jude's burning eyes. The gun came up... he must have heard the quiet click of the hammer... but too late. The bullet slammed home, destroying his frontal lobe. His last vision  was of a bloody apparition looming over him, a devil lately arrived to escort him to Hell. 

"Did you love her?"

Jude gazed into the green eyes of the woman who now held her soul and smiled softly. "No," she replied. "She was just someone... to pass the time with... Someone looking for trouble, and thought she found it in me. She was right." Jude shook her head. "But she didn't deserve what happened to her either."

"That's what this is, isn't it?" Liz gently rubbed the small tattoo on her lover's hip. The mark seemed to warm to her touch, as if it contained a life of her own. "The vision you had when you were... making love to her. You wanted to be reminded... of her."

Jude didn't miss the hesitation in the small woman's voice. Or the slightly troubled look in her expression. Wrapping her arms tightly around the Liz's shoulders, she lifted her lover across her body until they were eye to eye. "I wanted a reminder... yes... of the last innocent to die because of my hands. I had to leave her there, you know, in the temple... or whatever it was. I dumped the men's bodies in the ocean, got some clothes from Keir's sloop, and took their boat back to shore. I couldn't even go back to my hotel room. I got in touch with some people Sasha knew, and they got me papers to get out of the country." Her eyes clouded with memory. "And all the time I just kept thinking about all the people who had died because of me-- at my hands, because of my drugs or my guns. I was so goddamned tired of it all." She sighed and ran an unsteady hand through her hair. "I just wanted it to be... over. Killing Massala was supposed to do that. I got my vengeance... And I choked on it."

"That's when you came back to the States."

"Yeah... and I learned that Brugetti had found his witness, if you can even call him that. The reason Sasha wanted me out of the country a little longer was because she was arranging a hit on the guy. The DEA had thrown their lot in with the Florida State’s Attorney. So with their help, Brugetti had enough to charge me."

"So you made a deal with them?" Liz asked, surprise in her voice. "The whole trial was a sham?"

"No, not at all," Jude replied. "Somehow, turning myself in just didn't seem like it was... enough. I knew that I could never make everything that I had done right, but I could try. So I went to Kent and he came up with this deal-- I bring in the rest of the Massala Cartel, turn over all my ops to the Agency, and I get to ride off into the sunset. Brugetti was screwed when the Agency stopped helping him. He lost three-fourths of his case. Plus it created the perfect cover. Who's gonna believe that I'm working with the Agency after that?" Noticing her lover's thoughtful silence, Jude prodded her. "You don't seem too surprised by any of this."

"Truthfully? I'm not." Liz shrugged and sat up, sliding out of Jude's arms. "You expect me to be surprised that you keep changing the color of your hat in this never ending game of cowboys and Indians?" A harsh tone colored her words, and Jude arched an eyebrow in surprise. "Different costume, Jude... but the same character. You still kill, you still enjoy killing. Don't you?"

They locked gazes for an endless moment until Jude surrendered, looking down at her hands. "I did," she whispered. Marshalling her scattered courage, she found Liz's eyes once again. "Until tonight... when you showed me I could be something different. That I didn't have to pull the trigger." She brought a tentative hand up to stroke the length of her lover's cheek. "I never believed before..."

Liz leaned into the caress, her body naturally responding to Jude's touch. "Do you now?" she asked quietly.

"I'm trying," Jude answered honestly. "Don't..." The words lodged in the dark woman's chest, unable to free themselves from her soul's terrified grasp. "I mean... I understand if you want to walk away... I couldn't blame you... if..."

Understanding what her lover couldn't say, Liz wrapped her arms tightly around the taller woman, drawing her near. "I'm not going anywhere, Jude. I promise." Her fingers curled in the dark hair, and her eyes found Jude's own. "But I need you to promise me something too."

"Anything..." Jude whispered hoarsely, quite unaware of what she was saying, but unable to deny that hypnotic emerald gaze.

"It ends here. No more killing. We'll figure out a way to bring Massala in that doesn't involve you and a gun. Will you do that?" Will-- not can... there was no doubt in Liz's voice. She believed  in her lover's ability to walk in the sun.

Liz's eyes brooked no compromise, no bargaining. If Jude wanted the honey-haired woman's love it would have to be here, in a light that threatened to commit her soul to the flames once more. A peaceful smile lit the dark woman's features, and there was no hesitation in her answer. "Yes," she replied simply. "I will."

Chapter 13

I've heard of morning breath... but this is ridiculous, Liz's slowly waking mind complained. The quiet rhythmic panting seemed to be centered directly over her face, and the reporter cracked an eyelid to confront the source of her torment. Pete's soft brown eyes stared back at her unblinking, his mouth open in a silly canine grin. Two paws balanced on Liz's chest as he patiently waited for the small human to open both eyes. This is not what I had in mind for the morning after, she thought crossly. "Off-- Pete," she groaned, removing the mutt from her tender breasts. She stretched luxuriously, her body gloriously sore from the lovemaking she and Jude had shared.

Jude had completed the opening of her soul by consuming Liz again and again with her searching hands and mouth, evoking a response from the honey-haired woman that Liz had honestly thought only happened in the fevered imaginations of romance novelists like her. Jude had been at turns fierce, demanding, tender and reverent-- as if she considered their joining to be a consecration of this strange new life she was embarking upon. It also brought home to the reporter that her own truth had yet to be told. Though she feared what would happen when she told Jude the circumstances of their initial meeting, she knew it was something she couldn’t put off any longer.

"This is not something I'm looking forward to," she told Pete. The small beast stood at the foot of the bed-- head cocked, regarding her solemnly. "But I've got to, buddy," Liz continued. "She's let me in-- can you believe it? She may not believe in herself, but she believes in me." Studying the black dog, the meaning of her last words finally struck home. Oh god... she believes in me... and it's all built on a lie. Liz closed her eyes at the thought of what might happen, the very real possibility that Jude would order her out of her life. Or worse.

"No," she said aloud, as if speaking would make the words reality. "She'll at least hear me out... and I'll make her understand..." She gave the thought voice. "I have to." Being without Jude wasn't a possibility anymore. As much as she had made the dark woman believe that she had a soul worth saving, Jude had made Liz believe she had a life that was worth living and wasn’t to be spent merely recording the lives of others. It was a dazzling gift to the honey-haired woman... and one that Jude was completely unaware of bestowing upon her lover.

She didn't realize the shower had been running in the bathroom until the noise stopped. Moments later, Jude emerged-- a towel wrapped low on her hips-- rubbing vigorously at her long hair with another. "I swear to God I'm gonna cut this stuff off one day," she grumbled, flipping the unruly mass over one shoulder.

"Over my dead body," Liz grinned, her eyes wandering appreciatively over her lover's still-damp form.

"Ah... the princess awakens." A brilliant smile broke over Jude's face upon spying the honey-haired woman tucked neatly in the covers. "I thought you were going to sleep all day."

"All day?" Liz protested, craning her head to look at the clock. "It's barely 7:00am. What are you doing up so early."

"As much as I'd love to laze about with you," Jude teased, toweling still more water from her hair. "I've got places to go and people to see. Including a nine o'clock meeting for which I have stacks of reports that I've put off reading. If I don't get to the office soon, I'm not going to know what I'm talking about."

Liz glanced thoughtfully at her lover. "That sounds suspiciously like what bankers do," she said. "Besides, I would think your hours would be a bit more... irregular... than this."

The dark woman chuckled low in her throat. "You mean you thought all I did was make midnight deals in dirty alleys? It's true, there was a time when I would just be getting to bed at this hour, but somewhere along the way, I've ended up legitimately owning what seems like half of Miami." She shook her head. "Sorting through all that mess takes more time than..."

"The other part of your business?" Liz supplied, stretching languidly again, vividly aware of her lover's gaze upon her.

Blue eyes locked on the radiant length unfurling before her, Jude swallowed convulsively-- an act not lost on the woman sitting upright in her bed. "That's one way to put it," she replied hoarsely, unconsciously moving towards the intoxicating vision.

Delighted with Jude's reaction, Liz smiled smugly. "Then at least come here and give me a proper good morning kiss," she purred. Willingly, Jude closed the remaining distance between them, sitting gingerly on the edge of the mattress. "That's not here," Liz reproached the taller woman, taking her by the arm and sprawling Jude across her lap. "This is here." Pete yelped at the sudden movement and scampered out of the room.

"But I'm all wet," Jude cautioned, trying not to drip on the sheets.

A playful leer crept over Liz's face. "I should hope so," she teased, loving the faint flush that lit her lover's features. Her hand began to leisurely reconnoiter across Jude's shoulders, trailing slowly after stray water droplets as they trickled over her collarbone and down the swell of her breasts.

Whimpering lightly at the touch, Jude's lips met her lover's in a sweet morning exchange. "Good morning," she breathed, the pulse in her throat visibly elevating as a small hand cupped her left breast, the thumb running over a rapidly awaking nipple. "Oh..."

"Does that feel good?" Liz murmured, her lips caressing the sensitive lobe of Jude's ear. Her free hand sought out Jude's other breast and was busily coaxing it into the same tingling awareness as its mate.

Jude groaned as the tautness began coiling in her belly. Bracing her weight fully on her extended right arm, her left hand tangled itself in Liz's hair. She ran hungry kisses down the length of Liz's exposed neck. "What do you think?" she rasped.

"I asked you the question--" Liz punctuated her statement by sinking her teeth into the tender pulse in Jude's neck. The dark woman yelped softly at the contact, but her body arched into the roughness-- silently asking for more. "Or should I take that as my answer?" the reporter snickered. Her hands continued to roam over the muscular expanse of Jude's torso, reveling in the shape of the woman beneath her fingertips. "Lie back, lover," she whispered.

"I... can't..." Jude sighed, burying her head in the hollow of Liz's shoulder. "I have... oh god..." she moaned as the smaller woman's hands returned to her breasts. "I've got to go..."

Liz interrupted her mouth's perusal of the warm skin on Jude's neck to regard her lover with a stern look. "You don't have to be anywhere until nine..." One hand slipped further south, caressing the smooth curve of Jude's hip with delicate strokes.

"I know... but..." The feather-light touch of Liz's fingers fractured Jude's words. With an expert flick of her hand, Liz removed the towel from her lover's waist, laying the rest of this magnificent body gloriously bare to her eyes. Each brush brought them closer to the tangle of hair that protected the tight bundle of nerves at her center. Involuntarily, her legs parted slightly, hoping to lure the maddening touch nearer.

"But nothing," Liz silenced her objections. The bright emerald sparkle of her eyes was veiled now by a smoldering arousal. The small woman needed her lover to feel the truth told by her hands, her mouth, and her body. She needed to speak in a language that Jude would understand without any doubts-- no matter what happened later. "You're not leaving here until I have your smell on my fingers and your taste in my mouth," she murmured, her voice dropping to a sensual growl. "Do you understand me?"

Jude drew a breath to reply but found her lips covered by a voracious mouth intent on devouring her. Liz swept the arm that supported Jude from its braced position. The movement efficiently stretched the dark woman across her lap, hips poised at the edge of the mattress. "Wait--" It was more a moan than a protest, and Liz smiled at the rattled confusion in her lover's face. "I-- You--"

"Yes, Jude. I. Want. You. Like this." She surrendered to the temptation of those full lips once more, leaning down and kissing Jude thoroughly, teasing a low growl from her lover's throat. "Let me have you," she whispered. "Please."

Blue eyes softened at the tender plea, then blazed bright with unreleased desire. "Yes," she answered thickly, bringing one foot up to rest flat on the mattress-- an invitation for her lover to come deep inside.

Liz's heart tore painfully at the gesture, swelling in the confines of its mortal cage at the sight of this exquisite woman opening to her touch. Drawing an unsteady breath, she tucked a pillow under Jude's head with a trembling hand, letting the other tease caresses once more across her lover's breasts.

Jude's own breathing was ragged, and the cool water from the shower now mingled with the faintest traces of perspiration to form a glistening sheen on her bronze skin. To her storyteller's gaze, the dark woman glimmered sleekly in the morning sun, a golden idol the likes of which the world had yet to see. "You are so magnificent," she murmured, leaving soft kisses as offerings of her devotion across the sharp lines of Jude's face. Their mouths met, and she sucked gently on her partner's tongue, eliciting a quiet whimper from the woman spread over her. She slipped her left arm around Jude's shoulders, cradling her lover, as her other hand continued its worship of the full curves of the dark woman's breasts.

Their kiss deepened as the seedling arousal burst into blossom through Liz's body. "Oh God..." the reporter moaned, lost in the power of the sensations that just touching this woman created inside her. Breaking away vainly to try and catch the breath that had been snatched away by the heady desire pulsing through her, she brought her hand up to caress Jude's face. "So beautiful," she murmured.

"In your eyes," Jude replied quietly, kissing her lover's palm. Her long fingers entwined with Liz's small ones, drawing their clasped hands down the length of her body. "Touch me," the dark woman breathed as she pressed their fingers into the core of her need.

Both women gasped in the same instant, caught in the liquid fire they discovered together. So wet... Liz thought dizzily, tracing the swollen outline of Jude's sex, very aware of the elegant fingers still tangled in hers. She gasped softly at the sight of Jude's hand deep in her own wetness, glimmering with the ample desire there. "What do you feel?" she murmured.

"Sweet... Jesus..." Jude moaned. "Like touching... myself... but... not..." she ground out.

"Show me," Liz whispered intently, burning to know what story Jude's body would tell about itself. "Show me how you've touched yourself."

Jude growled incoherently, tossing her head and arching her back with need. "Please..."

"I'm here, lover... Guide me..."

Hesitantly, Jude flexed their hands against her sex, fingers instinctively searching for the spots they knew best. Another secret about the dark woman unfolded itself before Liz's awed gaze. Jude's hips bucked at the familiar yet unfamiliar touch. "Please..." she whispered again.

Lost into the immediacy of her lover's desire, Liz allowed their hands to follow the slow tempo set by Jude's body. Together, they outlined each curve and swirl of the dark woman's center, brushing lightly over her core and lingering only briefly at the tiny bud nestled there. Together, they dipped into Jude's body, the passage made easy for their entwined fingers by the flooding essence there. Together, they reached deep inside the slick walls, Jude's muscles beginning to quiver and contract around them.

"Oh... my... god...." Jude panted. "You... feel... sooo... gooooddd..."

"We..." Liz corrected with a gentle smile that Jude couldn't see. "We... feel good."

Blue eyes were shuttered to Liz, but the small woman could see the yearning need in the portrait of elegant tension painted on her lover's body. Her own muscles were taut with erotic sympathy, and a white-hot pulse beat between her own legs. Infinitesimally, she increased the rhythm of their hands, seeking to satisfy the cravings of both their bodies. "Yyyeesssss...." Jude hissed, arching further into her lover's embrace. "Don't.... stop..."

"I won't," Liz reassured her. "Not until you do..."

Moving steadily into the pattern of their thrusts, almost up the last incline before she began the freefall into release, Jude opened her eyes... to find her lover's ardent gaze focused on her. With a savage growl she took the last step, bucking fiercely into the delicious pressure; and Liz watched as the last vestiges of Jude's restraint ripped free as she surrendered to the pleasure of their combined touch. A single cry, "Elizabeth...." escaped from Jude's lips as she threw her head back, lost in that final, glorious plummet.

Jude's hand fell away, the muscles in her arm trembling from exertion and climax. Her heart pounded frantically in her chest, as if it were trying to join the rest of her body in release. Liz's fingers began to slip free as well, but Jude quickly covered the small hand with her own. "Please..." she murmured, her throat hoarse from her labored breathing. "Stay... inside me."

Liz smiled gently down at her lover. "You want me to..." She began to move tenderly over Jude's pulsing center once more.

"No," Jude answered unsteadily. "I just want... to feel you inside me." Blue eyes flickered down the length of her body to their joined hands and then returned to her lover's gaze almost shyly. "Is that okay?"

It took a moment for Liz to realize that this was the first time Jude had ever given voice to a specific desire. Her body always easily communicated what she wanted, wordlessly guiding Liz to their respective releases, but not once had Jude ever said, This is what I want from you... "Absolutely," Liz beamed, an incandescent ray of happiness suffusing her body with warmth. She leaned down and brushed a soft kiss on Jude's forehead.

She could feel the ripples still coursing lightly through Jude's body, and every once in a while a tiny tremor would work its way through the muscles in her stomach. They floated gently in each other's eyes for a moment, until Liz quietly whispered, "Thank you."

Jude chuckled, her breath still not quite even. "I think I should be thanking you. That's a hell of a way to say good morning." She shifted easily in her lover's embrace, and Liz realized that the tall woman was still sprawled across her lap, half-on and half-off the bed. Reluctantly, her right hand left its warm haven and came to rest over Jude's heart.

"You probably aren't comfortable," she grimaced.

"I probably wouldn't be," Jude conceded with a wry grin, "If my muscles had an ounce of tension in them. Honestly, I feel like a boneless heap right now."

"Well..." Liz carefully perused her relaxed lover, a puckish light in her eyes. "You kinda look like one right now."

"Your fault," Jude accused good-naturedly.

"You helped," Liz smirked. Deftly, she tucked her right arm under Jude's legs and twisted her torso, neatly sliding the larger woman off her lap and laying Jude's length alongside her on the bed.

"Hey!" Jude yelped, startled at finding herself... positioned... so efficiently. "You're stronger than you look," she remarked.

"Piece of cake," Liz teased, making a great show of dusting her hands off. She stretched against Jude's supple form, loving the way their bodies naturally intertwined. "Now... where were we..." she murmured, kissing the perfect juncture at the base of Jude's throat where her collarbones met.

"We..." Jude groaned, "Were talking about how I need to get ready for my meeting." She captured the reporter's head in her hands and fixed a stern look at her unrepentant lover. "I'm already going to be late as it is."

"So?" The honey-haired woman blinked innocently at her. "You're the boss right?"

"You're incorrigible." She ducked her head for a quick kiss. "But I have to go." Resolutely she sat up, her body clearly communicating her reluctance.

"You don't really want to."

"Nope," Jude cheerfully admitted. "But I gotta." With a graceful rolling movement, she was up and off the bed, strategically moving out of her love's tempting grasp.

"I know," Liz agreed with a tiny grin. "But I’ve got to make a fuss, or you’ll think I don’t care.”

Jude only shook her head, laughing quietly, and disappeared into the depths of her closet. "You know..." she said, emerging a few minutes later with a cream-colored linen suit and hanging it on the clothes rack. "If there's anything..." she hesitated, "You need to do today..."

The reporter immediately caught the drift of Jude's meaning. "Yeah," she said quietly, looking steadily at her lover. "As a matter of fact, there is."

The dark woman dropped her eyes and nodded in agreement. "Okay. Well... feel free to use the Explorer or whatever..." Her voice trailed off uncertainly, and she turned away.

With her gaze fixed on anything but her lover, she didn't see Liz rise from the bed and cross the room. "There is something I need to do," the reporter acknowledged, catching her lover's chin and focusing those incredible blue eyes on her. "But I..." Now it was her turn to feel hesitant. "I want to come back tonight and tell you about it."   Jude released a breath Liz didn't know her friend had been holding. "I'd like that," she admitted, the tension ebbing from her face as her arms slipped around the smaller woman and pulled her close.

"Me too," Liz whispered, her body aching with the awareness that this might very well be the last time Jude ever looked at her with that expression. It contained so many things that the reporter never thought she would see from Jude Lucien. No... from the woman I thought was Jude Lucien, Liz corrected herself. She is so much more than I thought... so much more than anyone else thinks... especially herself.

They clung together in a perfect space, where the world consisted only of each other and the air that they breathed. Newspaper articles, business deals and drug lords were a universe away from the gossamer existence they led at this moment.

The world, however, has a way of making itself known, and Liz reluctantly allowed it to seep through and break their embrace. A tender kiss passed lightly between their lips. "I'll tell Carmina to make something special for dinner," Jude murmured

Liz sighed contentedly, her equilibrium miraculously restored by Jude's nearness. They would survive the truth, she assured herself. Just look at what we've survived so far... We... Huh... funny, I never thought... Stopping her rambling musings, she glanced at her lover with a tiny grin. "Do me a favor-- Let her go to the grocery store first. It'll give the lady a thrill."

Jude chuckled, shaking her head. "I don't get it. Why would anybody want to go to the grocery store?"

"Don't even try to understand, Jude. Just deal," she bantered.

"Okay, okay... "Jude held her hands up in surrender. "I'll cancel the order and let her do the shopping."

"Great." She patted her lover's shoulder briskly. "You won't regret it. Now..." she looked regretfully at the suit hanging nearby. "I guess you've got to get a move on."

Chewing her lip, Jude glanced at the clock. "I'm late already," she nodded, her brow furrowing slightly. "So..." A devilish gleam crept in her eye, and she scooped the smaller woman up in her arms. "I guess a few more minutes won't matter." With a wicked laugh, she bounded to the bed and flung them both down on it. "Now... I believe there were a few conditions you had to fulfill before I could leave. By my accounting ma'am... you've only met half the requirements...."

"Where the hell have you been?"

Jude cocked an inquiring brow at the indignant figure of her assistant framed in the doorway. The dark woman leaned back in her leather desk chair and propped her feet up on the desk, revealing a long length of tanned leg. The short black skirt wasn't what she had originally picked out for the morning, but Liz had seen it hanging in the closet and asked her to put it on instead of the cream suit. Jude hadn't missed the sensual glimmer in her lover's eyes and readily agreed. Besides, Jude thought smugly to herself, Never hurts to flash a little leg now and again.

Of course, Sasha didn't seem too appreciative at the moment. "So?" She stalked through the door and leaned over the desk, glaring at Jude. "Where the hell have you been?"

Jude pursed her lips thoughtfully. "I suggest you get yourself a new line, querida," she replied archly. "Because that one sounds a wee bit... marital... for our circumstances."

Years of knowing the woman standing before her gave Jude a singular understanding of Sasha's body language. Judging from her posture, her assistant was absolutely livid and maintaining a precarious hold on her calm. Over the course of their relationship, Jude had made a game of driving her one-time lover to distraction. Rico's associates had called Sasha "Lady Ice" because-- although once provoked she had a scorching temper-- it was rare that she ever showed anything other than an implacably cool facade. It pleased the burly, dark-suited men, whom Sasha considered thugs and beneath her contempt, no end when she ran up against the force of nature that was Jude Lucien.

From the very start, Jude had managed to get under the executive's skin with a skill that bordered on the preternatural. She taunted and teased the smaller woman with her wit, her body, and her own unshakable exterior... until the other woman had no choice but to retaliate. Things escalated from there. As lovers, their passion had been incendiary; as business associates, they had been of a single mind in building an illicit empire. A volatile energy existed between them-- no matter what the "status" of their relationship-- that Jude had recognized early on in their acquaintance. Things frequently ended up broken when one of them was in a temper over the other, and they had both borne not a few bruises as a result of their intense connection. But it had served them well over the years and solidified a unique bond that mystified most.

Sasha's already irritable countenance darkened upon hearing Jude's flippant remark. She folded her arms across an impeccably creased blouse and regarded the dark woman coldly. "I'm very cognizant of our circumstances. But I am your business partner, and when you don't show up for a meeting, it tends to make us look bad."

Her morning with Liz had left Jude in high spirits, and she couldn't resist tweaking her associate just a little. "Did I miss something?" she inquired innocently. "The last time I checked you were my employee, Sasha. When did you get promoted to partner?"

She shoots... she scores!! Jude smirked silently, watching Sasha's saffron eyes narrow and a vein begin to throb faintly in her temple. "I have to maintain the appearance of at least someone being in charge," her assistant replied curtly. "Since you've been so... preoccupied... the last few weeks, that task has fallen to me."

Jude's recent unavailability was a first in their relationship. Even when Jude was toying with other lovers, she had always been accessible to her assistant. In no uncertain terms, the business had always come first. In the past, Sasha had shown no hesitation about pulling her out of bed with other women to deal with an emergency-- and Jude was well aware that sometimes her assistant had done it just to piss her employer off. It was simply a part of the eternal power struggle between them. Over the last year, however; Jude's erotic landscape had been barren, and Sasha's 4:00 am phone calls hadn't disturbed anything other than a restless slumber. If her assistant had noticed the change, she never said anything; and Jude wasn't about to volunteer any information. Seeing me with Elizabeth at the Club must have really thrown her, Jude mused silently, remembering that night and Sasha's disturbed expression. In fact, it looked much like the one her assistant wore right now. "Sash..." Jude sighed heavily, moving her feet off the desk and regarding her assistant squarely. "Does Miami really need one more shopping center?"

"What?" the other woman asked, nonplused by the question.

Jude smiled briefly. She knew Sasha had expected her to go off on a tangent about how her availability or lack thereof was none of her assistant's business. It was an old routine between them, and Jude decided it was time to throw a wrench into the works. "We were supposed to meet with some suits to see about selling our land to their developers so they could put more retail stores somewhere in Miami. Right?"

Sasha rolled her eyes at the gross simplification. "More or less."

"So... what difference does it really make? It's just shopping centers. Not taking this meeting isn't the end of the world. If they want the land, they'll deal. If they don't, they won't. Either way it's not going to matter in the long run to JLE one bit. It's not life or death to us." The pronoun was her peace offering to the other woman. Sasha was her employee in name only, and they both knew it.

Sasha continued to glare steadily at her boss for a long moment, then she blew out an exasperated breath and dropped elegantly into the comfortable chair across from Jude's desk. "You're right," she replied, a wry smile softening her caramel features. "The shopping center isn't life or death. But there are things going on right now that are." She looked at Jude meaningfully. "It's not like you to skip an appointment without calling. Did it ever occur to you that I might be the least bit worried about what could be keeping you? With those developers on my hands, I couldn’t exactly get away to make sure you were just amusing yourself and not in real trouble."

Jude's eyes widened slightly with realization. "Oh," she breathed. "Sash--" She ran an agitated hand through her hair. She was used to a lot of things from her associate, but genuine concern wasn't one of them. It just wasn't in their repertoire of accepted emotions. "I'm sorry," she said finally. "I didn't even think about it."

"Don't apologize, Jude," she replied lightly. "It's just been a while since somebody's tried to blow you away. I've forgotten how to act. This is what? Twice in three weeks?"

"Yeah," Jude agreed ruefully, not mentioning the encounter at Ria's. "Just like the bad old days, huh?" Actually, Jude thought to herself, It's worse than the bad old days, because the people I'm trying to help are the ones trying to kill me. But you don't know that, querida. And it's safer for you if you don't.

Sasha nodded. "It feels like I'm having a bad case of deja vu."

"Don't worry about me," Jude shrugged. "I've got more lives than that damned Siamese cat of yours."

"Her name is Eyria," Sasha corrected, the banter moving them to more familiar turf.

"Whatever. Damned thing never liked me."

"Maybe if you didn't call her that 'damned thing' all the time, she'd like you more." The slight woman shifted comfortably in her chair, crossing her legs. "She misses you, you know."

Jude arched a skeptical brow. "That's a surprise. She never did anything but try to claw my eyes out every time she saw me."

"You were invading her domain. She was just trying to establish dominance," Sasha purred.

"She pick that up from her owner?" Jude teased, falling easily into the repartee.

"What can I say?" Sasha replied diffidently. "So, if you weren't running from some more nasty hired assassins, what were you doing? Or do I even need to ask?" she smirked.

Jude hesitated before answering. Her randy proclivities were an old joke, and sometimes in the past the dark woman had used tales of her conquest to stroke her ex-lover's passions. Things were different now... Elizabeth was different... and she didn't want any of the shining passion she shared with the honey-haired woman to be shaded with the ugly games she and Sasha played. To declare the subject off-limits, however, would be the worst thing she could do. An answer of some sort was required. "You know, the usual." She shrugged the question off, hoping that Sasha would let it go.

Unfortunately, this wasn't to be the case. Sasha knew that few things could divert Jude's attention from the business of making money. "Anyone I know?"

"That blond from the Club," she answered nonchalantly. In years past this could have meant any one of a dozen women that Jude might have encountered on her prowls. However, she had abandoned her hunting grounds in recent times-- a fact that hadn't escaped her assistant's keen eye.

"You mean the one from three weeks ago?"

Hearing the note of incredulity in Sasha's voice, Jude realized her serious tactical error immediately. "Yeah," she said indifferently. "That one."

Sasha let out a low whistle, a mocking gleam in her eye. "That's amazing. >From you that almost qualifies as a lifetime commitment. What's the matter, Diablo, slowing down in your old age?"

Jude's eyes hardened at the old nickname, and the air between them thickened. The dark woman could see the tension rising until Sasha resembled a taut wire vibrating with suppressed motion. Jude's jaw clenched briefly in response before a lazy smile settled over her face. "Not slowing down, querida, just enjoying myself thoroughly," she taunted, knowing that Sasha's mind was now scrolling through erotic imaginings of Jude and the strange blond woman she had seen with her employer. "Besides," Jude finished, going in for the close, "My plate has been kind of full lately, what with someone trying to kill me and all."

She let her assistant mull the idea while she walked down the hall to the commons area and poured two tall glasses of iced tea. Sasha looked like she needed some cooling off. Returning to her office, she saw that Sasha was looking slightly less querulous, if a bit more flushed than when she had left. "Speaking of which..." She reseated herself and handed Sasha one of the glasses. "You come up with anything on that fiasco in the warehouse?"

"Not a thing," Sasha muttered darkly. "Massala's people cleaned up after themselves really well. The boys couldn't find anything to go on at the scene and our people in Metro Dade were pretty clueless. I'm going to put some feelers out on the street and--"

"Don't," Jude commanded sharply. The last thing she needed was Sasha stumbling into the middle of whatever scam the Agency was trying to pull. Jude had deliberately led Sasha to believe that Romair was indeed behind the assault to protect her. As she continued to edge her assistant out of the darker ends of her operations, the last thing she wanted was Sasha caught in the crossfire of the inevitable showdown. Of course, her assistant wasn't a fool, she had noticed the shift in her responsibilities and was obviously not pleased with the situation at all.

"Beg pardon?" Sasha blinked at her employer in surprise.

"I'll take care of it myself." Drop it, Sash... drop it, she urged silently.

"Jude-- I--"

"I said I'll take care of it." Blue eyes cooled as their gaze fixed squarely on her assistant's saffron eyes. "And that's it."

"I heard what you said," Sasha replied, just as icily. "I just don't understand."

"I'm not paying you to understand," Jude stated curtly. "Just stay out of it. Don't ask anybody anything. You get me?"

"Perfectly." Sasha stood up, rage evident in her walk as she strode across the room to the door. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'll go take care of the eight million other things you're too busy to take notice of."

"Fine," Jude dismissed her. "You do that."

Jude spent the next few hours sorting through the mountain of paper that had accumulated during her impromptu hiatus from the office, but her mind was on something vastly different. Something petite and blond, with the greenest eyes imaginable. Jude chuckled to herself. I am losing it. She shook her head ruefully, thinking about the morning.

As Jude had walked out the door, Elizabeth had clasped her hand and gently slid it between her slim legs, coating Jude's fingers in the ocean of honey that still flowed there. Now the scent of her lover lurked intoxicatingly near, but the woman to whom it belonged was entirely too far away for Jude's tastes. Shaking her head at the absurdity of what was happening to her, Jude swiveled her chair to face the magnificent Miami skyline spread across her windows.

She had spent most of her life in this city-- a part of its haphazard potpourri existence. The powers-that- be had come dangerously close to dissolving the city altogether, carving it into little cultural fiefdoms; but honestly, she preferred Miami as it was now. She shared its mongrel heritage, had come from one of its little enclaves of the dispossessed. It always seemed to her as if people came to Miami when they somehow didn't fit the places of their origin. The only trouble was, she had been born here at the southern tip of this continent. The only place left to go was the ocean.

She had told Elizabeth she had seen it all.. but really, she hadn't seen much of anything. Violence, death, cruelty-- yes, and a lot of it caused by her own hand. She had seen the cities in Mexico and Colombia where the only law was strength and everyone sold their services to the blue-eyed devils who scattered their American dollars like rain across the wastelands. She had seen the darkest heart of every place she had been, and this city of her birth was no different. For most people, Miami was a fantasyland of clear skies, warm ocean waters, and brilliant sunlight. They never saw that the neon brightness could be just a cloak of mendacity giving people like Jude safe passage through its streets. The hidden sphere of alleys and back streets, of tenements and bars whose patrons had no names-- this was the mother that had suckled Jude at her breast.

The dark woman held no illusions about what she was or from where she came. She was a thief and a murderer whose sense of honor was dubious at best. She had come from the twilight and traveled its realms her whole life. It was why she had never been to Paris or Rome-- not because she believed she didn't deserve to see the marvels that those cities held-- but because she knew that the cities she would find there would never be the places depicted in the photographic atlases she had collected for years.

Her mind wandered again to the woman she had left in her bed a few hours ago. She's been to those places, Jude thought to herself, smiling as she imagined Elizabeth sitting at a sidewalk cafe or walking along some scenic panorama. And I bet they were beautiful. She wondered what it would be like to see through her lover's emerald gaze, to be able to see the shimmering possibilities that existed along with the bleaker realities. She's certainly seen both in me, Jude mused. And I can't imagine why, but she seems... okay... with that. Jude knew that there was more to her new lover than she had been allowed to see, and her thoughts turned to what things Elizabeth might be taking care of right now.

She knew that the "boyfriend" Elizabeth had alluded to once and then conveniently forgot was a ruse, but surely there was a lover somewhere in the picture. A real one... someone who had rights to the honey-haired woman, who could claim this extraordinary person for their own. Maybe she's married, Jude considered. She could want out. Maybe she's playing a game with him... making him pay for something he did. Her heart constricted violently at the thought of being used by her lover. Her logic dismissed the idea-- nothing she had seen had ever indicated that Elizabeth would be so coldly calculating and manipulative. But the fact remained that her lover had a secret... and that knowledge terrified Jude. Get over yourself, she mocked silently. Others have done the same to you and worse. If she is using you, why should this time matter any more than those?

The answer was so ridiculously simple that she didn't want to consider it, but her thoughts wouldn't let it rest.

You love her...

Jude stood up and walked to the window, gazing down at the vast space that separated her from the pedestrians below.

"Of course I love her..." she whispered, resting her head against the cool glass and thinking about the woman who now consumed her days and nights. What choice do I have?

"I'm leaving, Sash..." Jude warned her rapidly approaching assistant. For hours, she had been fighting the overwhelming urge to go home and sweep Elizabeth into her arms, loving away any doubts that the honey-haired woman might have. As petrifying as the realization that she was in love with Elizabeth was, the fear didn't stand a chance against the blazing light that had warmed her soul once she had admitted it. All that remained was to tell her lover and convince that they could overcome whatever still stood between them.

If she had stopped to think about it, she would have laughed at the absurdity of finding herself in this position. A month ago it would have been unthinkable that she would allow a single person to have any influence over her-- let alone this much. She only hoped she meant half as much to Elizabeth.

"Jude..." Sasha's voice intruded, unwelcome. "We have things we--"

"I don't care." The dark woman waved the handful of papers away, an uncontrollable smile on her face. "I've got to go."

"Will I be able to reach you in case of emergency?"

"No," Jude replied curtly, stepping into the elevator and pressing the "Lobby" button. As the doors closed silently behind her, she missed the cold fury that descended over her assistant's face.

The ground floor of the building that housed JLE Limited was devoted to a cache of exclusive shops, including a store called Lumac Jewels that Jude used to frequent when the population of her romantic life resembled that of a small town. Walking by the marbled glass cases holding several display items; a pair of diamond and emerald earrings caught her eye. Thinking they would look absolutely beautiful on her lover, Jude grinned to herself and absently fingered the diamond stud that still graced her right ear.

Walking into the store, a reedy man with thinning gray hair greeted her with a genuine smile. "May I show you something, Ms. Lucien?"

"Michel? Right?" Jude asked, vaguely recognizing the man.

The smile broadened as he nodded. "I'm pleased you remember me, Ms. Lucien. We haven't seen you in some time."

"It's hard to forget such great service," she replied. "Those earrings--" She gestured to the ones in the case.

"Exquisite, aren't they?" Michel quickly moved to offer the items to his customer's discerning inspection. Swiftly he laid out a black velvet cloth over the glass case and brought out the earrings in question. Ordinarily he would be well into his sales patter, but the dark woman had never been moved by such persuasion. She had an unerring eye for beauty and quality, and price was never an issue.

Jude quietly examined the jewels, pleased with their rich color and the smoothly carved facets of their pear shape. "Two carets?" she asked.

He nodded briskly. "Correct."

"Okay," she grinned. "Can you wrap them up for me?"

"Of course, madam. Would you like us to put it on your account?"

"I still have one?" Jude asked. "I know it's been a while."

"You'll always have an account with us, Ms. Lucien," he assured her.

"Good to know," she replied wryly.

"Where would you like us to have this delivered?" he asked. "And would you like the usual card put with it?" His lean fingers deftly cleaned the earrings before placing them in a small black box.

"Usual card?" Jude frowned.

Michel smiled eagerly. "I know it's been a while, but we still have the card on file. You've always had us include it in the past."

"The same card?" she asked, arching a brow.

"Yes madam," he replied, his smile dimming somewhat at the furrow forming on her brow.

"Tell me, Michel-- do you keep a record of your customers' purchases?"

He seemed at a loss. "Well, Ms. Lucien... not ordinarily. But for our customers who have house accounts-- like you-- there's a record because everything has gone on the account."

"I see." Jude nodded. "Can I see my account?" she asked, an ugly realization beginning to surface.

"I assure you, Ms. Lucien, everything's in order."

"I'm sure it is," Jude dismissed his concern with a smile. "I'm not displeased with you or the store in any way. I'm just... curious... about my buying habits. May I see it?"

"Of course. Just a moment." He scurried away, emerging moments later with a computer printout several pages thick. "As you can see, it’s been quite some time since you've come in, but here are all your purchases over the last several years."

"And the card?"

He handed it over silently.

I was just thinking about you... J.

Jude flipped through the pages, noting Sasha's address a number of times, but that was the only one repeated. She swore softly under her breath at the list of women whom she had used, discarded... paid off... with the gifts she had bought. What made it even worse-- she realized with a lurch in her stomach-- was that she could call up in her mind's eye the earrings and bracelets she had purchased far easier than the faces of the women to whom she had given them.

Feeling sick, Jude handed the printout back to Michel. "Will that be all, Ms. Lucien?" he asked softly.

"Yes," she nodded, swallowing hard. "I've changed my mind about the earrings. I won't be needing them."

Years of professional experience kept the thin man's face from falling in disappointment. He inclined his head in acknowledgment. "Very well, madam."

"Thank you." She turned to go, then stopped-- her hand on the door. "And Michel? Cancel my account."

One single question had consumed Liz since Jude had left her that morning.

How am I going to tell her?

Jude had indeed fulfilled all of the honey-haired woman's demands that morning, leaving the reporter with her wild essence painted on Liz's lips and her scent clinging to her hands and body. They had made love until the small woman was breathless with climax and trembling with release. Still, Liz wanted more.

It was that simple. She wanted Jude. Wanted everything the dark woman had been, everything she was, and -- most importantly-- everything she could be. The reporter would do anything to preserve at least the possibility of a future with her lover. To that end, she considered what she had learned about Jude's attempt at atonement and the men who were trying to stop it.

That's it, she said to herself, mentally smacking herself for not recognizing it earlier. Make it impossible for them to kill her.

Liz picked up the phone, rapidly punching in an all-too-familiar number. "Lucas? It's me."

"Where the fuck have you been?" the roaring voice of the city desk editor demanded.

"I've been here, Lucas. And boy, do I have a story for you."

The time flew by as she sketched out for her boss only the briefest outline of the things she had learned. She wanted Jude's approval before they moved any further, but she at least needed to begin to lay the groundwork with her boss.

"Waitaminute..." he bellowed. "You're telling me that she's still working for the DEA?"


"How did you find this out?"

"Quit asking me questions, Lucas, and let me tell you what I can. We'll have all the documentation we need when the time comes." Well, they would if Jude agreed to her plan.

"Let me make sure I got this straight," he growled. "Lucien's still an op, but they sent her out into deep cover without backup, and now some turncoat's trying to kill her."

"More or less," Liz hedged. It was the truth. Kind of. And would become gospel once it went into print. The DEA couldn't deny the vast majority of the allegations, and the gaps in Liz's story-- like the years where Jude really was working for the other side-- would be eclipsed by the before and after parts of Jude's tale. In the public's eye, Jude would become a lone wolf hero, struggling against sinister dark forces that surrounded her on all sides. More importantly, there would be way too much light on Jude for them to risk "removing" her from circulation.

"Why does it worry me when you say things like that, Gardener?"

"Don't worry, Lucas. Jesus, you're more nervous than an old lady."

"If you had any sense, you'd be nervous too. We're talking about the fucking government here, not to mention a woman who's cheerfully blown away dozens of people."

"She didn't do it cheerfully," Liz snapped. "She didn't have any choice."

Lucas couldn't have missed the fury in her voice. "Whoa... Liz... calm down." He paused, and Liz could almost hear the gears in his brain grinding. "Just how well have you gotten to know your subject?" he asked carefully.

The reporter took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, calming her temper. "Well enough to know that she's not a cold-blooded killer, Lucas. Well enough to know how much they've torn her up with their games." She sighed heavily. "Well enough to wonder how she's survived this long and to worry how much longer she can."

A tense silence crackled along the phone line connecting them. She knew Lucas was fighting to ask the question, and at last he did. "What's this woman come mean to you, Liz?"

She didn't hesitate. "Everything, Lucas," she replied softly. "Everything."

They hung up shortly afterwards, Liz promising to call him later and arrange a meeting. She hoped to convince Jude to go with her idea and meet Lucas. She didn't blame her boss for worrying about her. From the outside it looked insane, but she knew in her position Lucas would have done the same thing.

What to do now? She rubbed a weary hand across her forehead, thinking about what material she would need to write the story. Carmina had merrily gone off to do the shopping an hour earlier, so she was alone with the dogs in the house. Walking by Jude's study on her way to the bedroom, she paused in the open doorway.

I'll just scan the files and refresh my memory, she thought to herself, moving towards the computer. She gently nudged Pete out of his spot on the desk chair and seated herself in his place. A tendril of Jude's leather-scented musk wound its way to her nostrils, and she closed her eyes at the essence, smiling to herself.

Rapidly booting the computer and typing in the password, she unlocked the secrets of Jude's DEA life and began working through the files.

Her attention focused on her task; she was oblivious to everything until she felt the cold barrel of a gun pressing against her neck and the enraged presence of her lover standing over her.

"Give me one good reason why I don't kill you right now."