For Disclaimers see Ch. 1

Author's Note: I made a promise to myself to try and post a bit more regularly. I even gave myself a deadline after I posted the last chapter which worked to a large extent. But it seems getting back my writing chops when the characters really can't seem to agree on what they're doing is more difficult than I thought it would be. Still, they are still speaking to me, so that's something at any rate.

And don't let me forget to thank everyone for emailing me about the next chapter. That helped too, lol!

As always, please read, enjoy and review!

Feedback welcome at


A Chance Encounter Ch. 17


Bobbie Halchishak


* * *

Luce and her mother left the parcel of land both feeling peaceful and at ease. For Luce that sensation lasted only as long as it took them to make it onto a major road and head back into town. And just like that, she could feel the anxiety build up all over again. It was like flicking a switch back on. One minute she was as calm as a cucumber, the next she could feel herself almost starting to sweat over it.

And it strangely enough had little or nothing to do with coming clean with Kylie.

She knew it would be a bit before she heard from the realtor about whether her offer was accepted or not, the owner would have at least 48 hours to respond either way. But after that, she knew things would move quickly. After all, buying land wasn't quite the same as buying a house. And she could find herself with everything tied up in just a couple of weeks.

After wading through a mountain of paperwork the likes of which even she had never seen, of course.

But once all that was taken care, once the last signature had been signed and the last check handed over, she would be the proud owner of 360 acres of land and an almost terrifying amount of work. It was one thing to have a dream of building a ranch and take the first steps towards realizing that dream. It was quite another to find yourself facing the fulfillment of that dream as you tried to make it a reality.

The magnitude of it all almost, almost made her change her mind. She could almost feel the nervous tic starting in her face over it as she began ticking things off an imaginary list in her mind.

She had to get power out the parcel, dig a well, build a septic field, find an architect, decide on a layout for the ranch, hire the hands and a foreman, start finding breeding stock. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. There were so many legalities to this all, some of which she had no idea how to go about taking care of.

Another tick, this one bold faced and underlined as she realized she needed to hire a lawyer as well.

She took a deep breath, setting the mental list aside for the moment, realizing for the first time that telling Kylie would be a cake walk compared to the rest of it.

Her mother, sensing her offspring's tension, looked over at her, giving her a searching look. “Are you alright, lighteyes?”

She nodded, giving her mother a wan grin. “Just thinking about all the things I have to do in the next few months. Telling Kylie about this doesn't seem so hard now.” She chuckled a bit at that.

Her mother nodded, chuckling as well.”I am sure it is a sizable list. But then you do have time. You are on no deadline with this.”

She nodded, realizing that was indeed true. “And I'm going to need help with it. Someone damn good at his job that I can trust to let me do mine.” She paused a moment, her mind seizing on a sudden thought. “You know, if I'm half as smart as I claim to be, the first thing I should do is call Little Jack.”

The mention of Adam's oldest and closest friend brought a smile to Grace's face. It had been a few years since she had last seen him; Luce's college graduation as a matter of fact. She found herself saddened that such a treasured friend had drifted so far away.

She gave her daughter a hopeful look. “It would be nice to see your father's oldest friend again. I have missed his wit. I am assuming you have kept in contact with him these past years.”

Luce nodded. “He sends me pretty regular emails and the occasional post card. Last time I heard from him he was out in Wyoming trying to help a friend of his get a place off the ground. Not sure how well that worked for him.”

“Would he be willing to come?”

Luce shrugged. “He always told me if I ever changed my mind about being a corporate shark and wanted to jump into Tunkaschila's shoes to call him. I think he'd jump at the chance to be a part of this.”

Her mother nodded. That sounded like the man she'd known. “Yes, he would certainly enjoy the challenge of this project.”

Luce snorted. “Not to mention it'd get him away from the idiot friend he's currently helping. I got the impression last time I spoke with him that he was about to start pulling his hair out over it all. And that was over a month ago. If that was the case, I'd be surprised if he hadn't decided to walk out already. Friend or no friend.”

Her mother chuckled. Adam, bless his loving heart, had been one of the most tolerant and laid back people she'd ever met. Nothing ever seemed to faze the man, or really rile him for that matter. And when she'd first met Jack, known as Little Jack to his friends, she wondered how the two of them could possibly be friends.

The two of them had been like night and day.

Where Adam was calm and cool, Little Jack was hyper and a thrill seeker. And he had quite a temper on him at times. In his younger days, there didn't seem to be a beer he didn't like or a man he wouldn't fight.

But he'd also been staunchly loyal and a true friend. He'd never missed a chance to laugh and never missed a Sunday dinner with their family. There'd been such carefree joy in his soul it was a hard thing to miss or ignore.

But all of that changed over night. That night they all lost Adam.

When he found out about Adam's death, something seemed to wither in him. He was never quite the same after that. But then, Adam had been the light and joy for so many of them. And once he was gone, it was like a shadow fell over all of them. He'd taken so much of that light with him. It was amazing they'd survived it.

Looking back, she wasn't quite sure that Little Jack really had. He was so quiet after Adam's death, so terribly withdrawn. Then, when they'd been forced to sell the ranch just a few short years later, it just seemed to be the final straw. And he'd just left; walked away from everyone and everything around him and become somewhat of a nomad. He never married, never had children, never managed to find a place to settle down and call home. Because to him, he'd already lost the only family that ever really mattered to him.

To her it seemed like such a waste of a fine, caring man.

“I must admit I was very sad when he left. There was nothing I could say to change his mind. But maybe it was for the best.”

“What makes you say that?” Luce gave her mother a quick look wondering for the first time if her mother knew the real reason he'd walked away. Something she herself had only managed to piece together in recent years. Something she would never admit to knowing, not even to her own mother.

Her mother shrugged. “Your father was the only family he had for so long. Most of his own family turned their backs on him many years before your father and I met. When your father died, he honored the memory of that friendship by trying to take care of us. And he was a gift from the heavens; I'm not sure we would have made it without his help.

“But, when your Tunkaschila died, I think it was too much to handle. He had lost a brother, a boss he looked to as his father and a job that he thought of as his home and part of his very soul. And his only choice was to let it all drift away. He said it hurt too much to care anymore.

Grace sighed. “He loved the ranch. Nearly as much as Tunkaschila did. I am surprised he never tried to buy it himself. I know Ina would have gladly sold it to him. If for no other reason than it would have gone to someone she knew truly loved it and would take care of it.”

Glad for the change of subject, Luce relaxed a bit and shrugged. “He tried.”

Her mother looked at her in surprise; nothing had ever been said about that.

Luce sighed. “But he couldn't come up with even a token offer. Not to mention that he told me without Tunkaschila there, the place felt wrong, almost as if it had died with him. He wasn't really sure he would have been able to run it with that kind of shadow hanging over it.”

Her mother made a thoughtful sound. That was a truth they could both understood. Without Tunkaschila's strong presence there, the place had just seemed, off. And no one in the immediate family had really felt comfortable there afterward. It made sense that someone who had loved the place as much as they did would feel the same way.

“Is that truly the reason why he left?”

Luce kind of waggled her hand and made a noncommittal sound. “One of them, anyway.” She tensed a bit, hoping her mother would simply leave it at that. She really did not want to end up having a truly awkward conversation with her mother at the moment. Especially not one about how her late husband's oldest friend had run away because he'd been too in love with the widow to be able to stay around her. No, that was definitely a subject she did not want to come out into the open anywhere around her.

Her mother, thankfully seemed not to notice Luce's discomfort. Or if she did, she didn't mention it. Either way, Luce heaved a huge mental sigh when her mother gave a slight shrug as if to change the subject.

Grace, sighed to herself softly, a small part of her trying to follow the dark line of thoughts surrounding Little Jack and his leaving. But she firmly pushed those maudlin thoughts aside. This was not a day for dark thoughts or sad memories. After all, it was not every day one witnessed the fulfillment of a life's dream. Today was a time for joy and celebration, not dwelling over a past that nothing could change.

She regarded her daughter thoughtfully, a small smile on her face. “Do you think he was serious about his offer?”

Luce smile broadened. “As a heart attack.”

Luce's joy was infectious and Grace found herself beaming as well. “Then you should call him. It will be nice to have someone who knows this business that you trust to help you start out.”

Her mother was right. She would need help to get things going. And who better than the man who'd been her father's best friend and her grandfather's right hand man on the ranch? He would be someone she could totally rely on to protect the interests of the ranch as well as her own. And if the two sides clashed, he'd be the one to remind her which one was more important. He'd done it often enough with her grandfather. She hoped he'd be willing to do the same for her as well.

She pulled out her phone before she had the chance to talk herself out of it and dialed his number.

Listening to it ring she had to resist the urge to fidget. For some reason, the idea of asking Little Jack to come work for her made her feel as if she were a young girl again, begging him to teach her to do something she knew her mother would likely disapprove of.

She pushed the feeling aside as the line clicked and he was on the other end. “Yeah.”

She smiled at the blunt greeting. “Hey, it's me.”

Jack chuckled a bit at hearing her voice. “Well, little-bit, it sure is nice hearing your voice.”

Luce chuckled at the nickname that hadn't fit since she was 15 and ended up sprouting almost a foot in a single summer. “Are you busy?”

There was a loud sigh from his end. “Not anymore.”

Luce winced at that. “I take it things didn't end well on your last project.”

This time Jack chuckled wryly. “They ended just fine for me; not sure if Ritch will be ever speak to me again though. Then again, he's always been a bit of an ass so that it wouldn't be much of a loss if he didn't”

Luce laughed at that. “Well it's a good thing I called then. I've got a project in mind for you.”

He perked up at that. “Really?”

She nodded. “Brand new start up; ranch hasn't even been built yet.”

He paused. “That is brand new. Who's money is behind this?”

She paused, smiling. “Mine.”

“Are you for real, little bit?” The hope in his tone was unmistakeable.

She snorted at that. “Have you ever known me to joke about the big stuff?”

“No, you never liked jerking people around much.”

She shrugged. “Never really saw the point in doing that. They end up with hurt feelings, you end up looking like an ass.”

He gave a non-committal sound. “That's true enough. But most people don't realize that; or plain just don't give a damn.” He took a deep breath, sighing. “But we weren't talking about other people, we were talking about your ranch.”

She smiled. “I want to do this, Jack. I want to make it work. And that means I need your help.”

“Well, that just shows you have as much brains as balls, little-bit.”

That made Luce laugh out loud. “First time I've ever heard it phrased quite like that.”

He laughed with her. “Tell me about this place.”

So she did, finding herself describing the layout of the parcel of land in great detail. Lingering over the little details about the view and the fields. It warmed her heart to be able to discuss this with him, someone who understood both what she said and what she didn't say about the place she hoped to build a new life on. By the end of the conversation, she had him hooked on the idea. And more than halfway convinced to let her pay for his moving expenses to get back to the state.

She figured by the end of the week, when he saw the land and her plans for it, he'd be so floored by it all she'd be able to just roll right over his objections. Satisfied with that plan, she gave him the address, told him to call her with his flight details and ended the call with a smirk on her face.

She gave her mother a triumphant grin. “He's in! He'll be here at the end of the week.”

Her mother gave a soft smile. “How much would you like to wager he buys a tent once he sees the place you picked out?”

Luce snorted. “Buys? I'm willing to bet he brings one with him!”

That made them both start laughing.

* * *

Luce drove back to town, dropping her mother off before heading to Kylie's house. The whole way there she wracked her brains for a way to tell Kylie about all of this. One that wouldn't send Kylie running for the hills because it was all too much, too soon.

In the twenty minutes it took her to go from her mother's house to Kylie's, she thought and discarded over a dozen different scenarios. Each one more elaborate and unrealistic than the last. By the time she pulled up in front of the house, she was gnashing her teeth and practically wringing her hands over it all.

Luckily, Kylie spotted her the minute she parked in the driveway and took the decision right out of her hands.

She got out of the car, trying to keep the guilty expression off her face. Squashing those feelings solidly as she shut the door and headed up the walk towards the door.

She never made it past the car.

Nearly the instant she shut the car door, the door to the house opened and Kylie practically lept through it, sprinted down the short walk and, without a thought or hesitation, launched herself at the taller woman.

For a brief instant, Luce hesitated, her eyes nearly bugging out of her head at the sight of the shorter woman hanging in midair. Then her mind kicked her sharply and she braced herself before reaching up to firmly catch the smaller woman.

Despite that, Kylie's momentum pushed her back slightly, pressing her back against her car. She stared incredulously at the smiling, cheerful woman in her arms.

Kylie gave a soft giggle, the impish light in her eyes unmistakeable. “Did you miss me?”

Luce snorted. “If I had, you'd be a pancake right now.” The dry comment did not go unnoticed.

“Damn good thing you caught me then; I'm out of syrup.” She quipped.

Luce couldn't hold it in any longer. The absurdity of it all caught up with her and she leaned back against the car, laughing like a loon, tears in her eyes.

It was contagious and Kylie dissolved into deep giggles herself, leaning into the taller woman.

Their laughter died a few moments later and Kylie gave her a soft kiss. “How was your day?”

Luce chuckled, something about the shared laughter soothing her nerves in a way she'd never expected. And she was no longer afraid to tell her lover her big surprise. In fact, she was kind of looking forward to taking the dramatic leap as it were.

She shifted slightly, winding her long arms around Kylie firmly. “You know, I was wracking my brains on the way over here, trying to think of a way to break this news to you gently. But after that frantic leap, I think you deserve me returning the favor.” She took a deep breath. “I'm quitting my job and starting a horse ranch.”

Kylie stilled, her eyes searching Luce's face for any indication that this was a joke. “Wait, what?”

Luce sighed. “I want to do something else.” She paused.

Kylie, expecting something more, waited for several heartbeats. When Luce remained silent, she shrugged her shoulders and gave a rather flippant reply. “And?” She held her hands up in confusion.

Luce flinched at the glib tone, the small fading from her face.

Kylie, giving herself a sharp mental kick in the ass, shook her head and grabbed the other woman's hand, hoping to ease the hurt she'd put into those sapphire eyes. “Wait, I'm sorry, that came out wrong. Please, I'm listening, tell me.”

Luce looked down at their entwined hands for a moment before telling her the truth. “I'm not happy there; I haven't been for a while now. But I kept on because it was familiar and I didn't know what else to do; and because until I met you, I never really knew what it was like to be deliriously happy. It took meeting you and having you turn my whole world upside down to show me that I could be more, that I could have more out of that side of my life. And now, I want that more.

“I want a legacy, something I can point to when I'm 80 and be proud of; something I built with my own hands and muscle; something besides a history of browbeating people to tell me the truth and a lifelong ulcer prescription.” She stopped suddenly aware she was rambling; she was unsure again and unable to meet Kylie's eyes, uncertain of what she might find there.

Kylie reached out, gently cupping Luce's beautiful, angular face in her hands. She forced that face up until cerulean eyes met jade. She gazed piercingly into those loving eyes, giving Luce no chance to falter or look away.

“No matter what you want, no matter what you decide to do with the rest of your life, I will always support you. Even if you decided to chuck everything and become a beach bum selling sea shells on the side of the road, I'd be there with flip flops and sunscreen.”

Luce felt tears sting her eyes, laughing a bit at the image of her in torn shorts and a tank top. Sitting behind a home made road side stand, hawking her gathered wares.

Kylie reached up to brush the tears that escaped Luce's eyes, smiling at the taller woman lovingly. "I just want you to be happy. If doing this makes you happy, I'm all for it!"

Touched beyond words, Luce pulled her closer, reaching up to capture Kylie's lips in a tender, soft kiss so full of love and understanding, she felt it tingle all the way down to her toes. After several moments, they separated.

Luce took a deep breath, ready to drop the second shoe. “That's good to hear. Because I was kind of hoping you'd want to do it all with me.”

Kylie stilled. "Build the ranch? Luce, I don't know the first thing about horses."

"No, not just the ranch." Luce met her gaze steadily, gently arching a brow at the shorter woman.

Kylie's widened in shock as she realized just what Luce was saying. "Luce, are you asking me to move in with you?"

Luce, suddenly as shy as a teenager on her first date, blushed slightly and nodded. “I went to look at a place this morning; it's why I ran out of here like a bat out of hell. It's beautiful, perfect. All it needs is a home, one we build together.”

A lot about it made sense; they rarely spent a night apart anymore. Whether it was her house or Luce's condo, nearly every evening found them together. It'd been that way almost since the first night she'd stayed over. After the first time they'd made love.

But this would be something more, something entirely different. It wouldn't be either her place or Luce's, this would be their place. Something they built together, a place where they decided on everything together; something that tied them even closer than mere words of love.

The idea of that touched her and she found herself beaming back at Luce. “I want that.”

Luce smiled back, hugging the smaller woman close, amazed at the gift she'd been given in finding Kylie. “Do you want to go look?”

Kylie's face lit up. “Can we?”

She nodded. “You'll need to change clothes. Maybe some hiking boots if you have them. The place is huge and gorgeous. I think you're going to love it.”

Kylie stood, reaching out to help the other woman up, pulling her up and into her arms. “I already do because it comes with you.”

Floored by those soft spoken but heartfelt words, Luce let herself be led inside.

* * *

Kylie changed in record time, shucking her shorts and light shoes from jeans and heavier boots. She even grabbed a hat to keep the sun off her lighter skin. Unlike her taller companion, she only ever managed a mild tan and she didn't want to risk getting burned today.

They piled into Luce's sports car, shoving snacks and bottles of water into the small space behind the seats and took off.

“You know, I have a better idea for exploring our new patch of paradise.” Luce adjusted her sunglasses against the sun's glare, eying her companion out of the corner of her eye. “You game?”

Kylie's brow shot up over her own shades. “Does it involve a saddle?”

Both eyebrows shot up at that. “What?”

Kylie shrugged. “You want to build a horse ranch there; I assumed you'd want to take a ride around the place on horse back.”

Luce chuckled. “Maybe next time. I get the impression you're not entirely comfortable with horses.”

Again there was a shrug. “Horses have never really seemed to like me.”

Luce eyed her closely. “Got bit, didn't you?” This time there was a distinctly dirty look sent across the car. It made Luce laugh. “Where were you bit?”

Kylie paused a moment. “Let's not talk about this right now; suffice it to say it was not in a very comfortable place.” She shifted slightly in her seat.

A thoughtful look crossed her face. “So that's where that scar came from. Damn, should have recognized it.” She mused.

Kylie glared at her. The dark look made Luce laugh harder. Kylie mumbled to herself, sticking her tongue out at the other woman.

Luce studiously ignored her and resisted the urge to reach out and grab that tongue. “So do you want to hear my idea or not?”

Kylie nodded. “Of course I do, but someone keeps distracting me.”

She ignored the pointed look. “Let's rent a Jeep or something. Driving my car around that property is just asking for trouble.”

Kylie's eyes lit up. “Can I drive?”

She laughed at the eager tone in the smaller woman's voice. “Could I stop you?”

Kylie snorted. “Not if you wanted to keep having sex with me you wouldn't.” Her sweet smile taking some of the sting out of the threat.

She gave her a smoldering, knowing smile. “Honey, we both know all I have to do is crook my finger and you start shedding clothes.”

That made Kylie blush. “Damn, now that just makes me sound like a whore.”

She gave her a wry look. “Whores get paid, have I ever paid you?”

Kylie pondered that for a moment. “Does breakfast count?”

She snorted, giving a swift shake of her head. “Hardly; besides we had to eat. Someone managed to run us both ragged.”

Again Kylie blushed. “Am I ever going to live that down?”

Luce dropped her voice to a husky, deep register, her eyes smoldering as she looked at the other woman. “To what exactly are you referring to? That you find me so attractive that it takes only the suggestion that I want to have sex and you're game, or the fact that you manage to jump me on a regular basis and wear us both out with your lascivious appetites?” Luce reached out to run her finger down Kylie's neck and over her chest, just brushing the top of her breasts. She smiled when Kylie's nostrils widened as she took a deep breath.

Ignoring the jump in her pulse, Kylie leaned back shooting the other woman an incredulous look. “My appetites, Miss Can't Even Hold Off Till I'm Naked To Jump Me? Or need I remind you of what you did to me in my own office before Marie opened the door?”

That made Luce pause. She made a thoughtful sound. “When you put it that way, you make us both sound like whores.”

Kylie laughed, reaching out to pat Luce's leg. “Don't worry, sweetie, I'm only easy for you.”

She laughed.“Good to know and ditto for me. Speaking of sex, ever done it in the back of a Jeep outside?” She gave her lover a sultry look.

* * *


There were times, Luce decided, when having great deal of money was very helpful. Normally it wasn't something she thought about consciously. At least not day to day. The most that ever seemed to stick in her mind was that she had more than enough to pay her bills and do the things she wanted to do. Oh sure she knew how much she was worth, but in many ways it was still a bit of an abstract concept; not something that easily and readily attached to HER in her mind.

But on days like today, it was a great deal of fun to walk into a place, slap her platinum card down on the counter, tell them she'd take anything in the lot so long as it was four wheel drive and be completely serious when she told them that price was not a problem. The four wheel drive was really just a precaution on her part; she didn't really expect to need it. But better to have it and all that.

Most people who claimed that money was no object, very rarely ever meant it, at least when it came right down to it. And it was worth the slight chuckle from the direction of her lover to see the clerk's eyes bug out of his head when he caught sight of the card sitting on his counter. She gave him a wry smile, telling him that there was a twenty dollar tip for him if he managed to get her out the door in under 15 minutes.

He hesitated for just a split second, part of him obviously seeing the time limit as something of a challenge. And another part of him wondering if she was really serious and then he started filling out paperwork at lightening speed. He even managed to go over the whole spiel with her while he was typing and writing. Collecting a copy of her driver's license and insurance and even managing to radio for the vehicle all while his fingers danced over the keyboard like a prima ballerina on stage.

The only time he hesitated was when he asked her if she had a color preference. She simply smiled and shook her head. Then with a final flurry of tapping keys, a quick staple and fold and he handed everything over to her with a wink and smile. Just as the vehicle was brought up from the back lot and the driver hopped out to get the door.

They both smiled at the very well choreographed gestures. Luce even gave a sharp laugh, digging out the promised twenty for the clerk. He gave a nod to them both and wished them a good day. Then on a whim, she dug out a second bill and handed it to the man at the door. He accepted it with a smile and ushered them out the door.

Minutes later, they were zipping along the highway in a practically show room new Jeep Wrangler. Kylie already beginning to explore the vehicle, oohing and ahhing over several features.

“Are you done playing tourist?” Luce's tone was dry but there was an obvious gleam of affection in her eyes for the other woman's undisguised curiosity.

She shrugged, sitting back and playing with the controls on her side of the SUV.

Luce chuckled. “Is it going to be worse the first time I take you somewhere in a limo?”

Kylie looked up at that. “You want to take me somewhere in a limo?”

Luce nodded. “I was thinking on our anniversary.”

She smiled fondly. “The day we met or when we started dating?”

Luce shook her head. “Neither, more like our first wedding anniversary.” And just like that, it was out there between them. Done so simply and easily, Luce was a bit surprised herself at the words. It seemed today was whole new day of firsts for them.

Of course, she was also completely realistic. She knew they weren't quite ready for that and she didn't want to rush either of them into it. But she wanted to be sure that Kylie knew it was something she was open to and ready to discuss; when they were both ready.

The quiet statement floored the other woman for a moment and she sat there completely speechless. Not a common occurrence.

Luce laughed at the expression on her face. “I should take a picture. Keith is never going to believe that I managed to render you speechless with a single sentence.”

Kylie reached and poked the taller woman. “Don't be snotty!” Her tone was snippy, but the look in her eyes told the true story. She'd been thinking about it too.

The finger digging lightly into her side made Luce laugh harder. So did the tongue that peeked out from between the other woman's lips.

Kylie snorted. “Keep it up,Tiger, and we may never christian any vehicle we own so long as we live!”

That had the opposite effect she intended, sending the dark haired woman off into a fit of giggles that had her practically blind from tears.

Kylie crossed her arms, muttering to herself. “Looks to me like someone never wants to have sex again.”

Luce stopped for a light, wiping the tears from her eyes. She reached out and grabbed Kylie's shirt collar, giving it a gentle tug. Kylie went willingly enough, a slight smile on her lips as Luce closed the distance between them, a smile on her own lips as well.

They pulled apart after the soft fleeting contact, both of them still smiling.

Luce's eyes twinkled impishly. “Am I forgiven?”

She sighed dramatically. “I suppose.” But the mischievous light in her own eyes took the sting out of the flippant words. “Now, let's go look at where we're going to build our house.”

Luce paused a moment, feeling those words squeeze her heart. Our house . It felt so full of possibilities and she was suddenly very humbled at the gift she'd been so obviously given in finding Kylie. She vowed silently to herself that she would never, ever take this woman or her love for granted. And that she would spend the rest of her life making her happy. No matter what it took.

Then the light changed, the moment was gone and Luce smiled and said, “Yes, let's.”

* * *

Kylie leaned back against the Jeep and took in the breathtaking view in wonder. It was everything Luce had promised and more. And she couldn't seem to tear her eyes off it. It'd been like that since the first moment they drove onto the property over two hours before.

And all that time spent exploring the property hadn't dimmed that initial reaction in the slightest. If anything, every minute spent there, finding new and often little wonders to behold only made her fall in love with the place even more.

Standing on the slight hill that the driveway ended at, Kylie could see it all so clearly; the house, the ranch, the horses, people scurrying to and fro as they trained and cared for the gentle beasts. And she knew, somewhere in the thick of it all, would be Luce. She could see that nearly as clearly as she was standing there. Because Luce was even then, standing apart from her, looking around herself with a critical, weighing eye. And the taller woman couldn't stop smiling.

The sight of the smiling woman brought a wave of joy rushing over Kylie. It was such a rare thing to see, Luce nearly giddy with ideas and possibilities. And her joy was infectious.

She looked up, feeling Kylie's gaze on her, stepping closer to the rental vehicle. “I can almost picture all of it in my head. I can't wait to get someone out here to start the designs. Of course, I might have to wait for Little Jack to get here.”

Kylie raised a light brow slightly in puzzlement. “Little Jack?”

She nodded. “He was my father's oldest friend and Tunkaschila's right hand man. If anyone can keep me from falling flat on my face with this, it's him.”

Kylie chuckled wryly. “You know, just by recognizing you need the help, you're already world's away from most first time business owners.” Her voice spoke of vast experience and hard won success.

She leaned into Kylie, putting her arms on either side of the woman. “Bit of a rocky start for you?”

Kylie nodded. “That's one way of saying it. Another is to say that without my family helping me run the first one when I couldn't afford to pay for a staff, I might even now be living over Mollie's garage eating Easy Mac and trying to launch another pyramid scheme on the neighborhood.”

The taller woman laughed, wrapping her long, strong arms around Kylie. Pulling them both away from the vehicle so they could look at the spectacular view around them. Kylie sighed at the contact, burrowed closer and closed her eyes, content. She felt Luce rest her head on hers and she smiled.

Around them, the air was sweet and clean, lacking the common smells of the city that lurked in the background. And it was quiet, so very, very quiet. Kylie was almost sure she could hear the grass grow if she tried. Though at the moment, the strong beat of Luce's heart in her ear and the answering rush of her own drowned nearly everything out.

She opened her eyes and looked around them again, that small, pleased smile still on her face. “You know, you were right. It's gorgeous here. And I love it.”

Luce chuckled. “I thought you might. So, do you want to build a house here?”

Kylie nodded, smiling widely. “I do, I really do.” The smile faded as a daunting thought occurred to her.“Are we going to design it?”

The taller woman shifted slightly, shrugging. “If you want we can. But I was thinking we could hire an architect to design one. I have a pretty good idea of what I want, but I'd rather someone else put it down on paper.”

Kylie felt a huge surge of relief at that idea. She'd done well enough with her stores in the past, but even there she'd realized that as intelligent a person as she was, some things were just beyond her. And when it came to designing a space beyond just a simple artistic display, she laid her trust in the hands of the masters. Because she was utterly clueless about it herself.

She nodded at Luce's suggestion. “That's probably a good idea. Here's hoping we don't have conflicting tastes.”

That brought a soft snort Luce. “From what I've seen, I think our styles will complement each other pretty well.”

Kylie pondered that a moment, realizing really at that moment just how lucky they really were that and so many other things had never been issue. With as fast as everything had moved between them, there were so many things that should have gone wrong, or should have started to go wrong that hadn't Was that fate? Divine intervention? Something more? Or was she just standing there waiting for the other shoe to drop even now?

She tightened her arms around Luce, deciding for this moment to just let the thought go. Time enough later to analyze it all. “That's a bit surprising, don't you think?”

She felt Luce shrug. “Sometimes, but I like it too much to complain.”

This time she chuckled. “Good point. I do have one request though.” She pulled back a bit, enough to look up to the other woman's face. Luce looked at her expectantly. “I've always wanted a house with a wrap around porch and great big swing on it. There's just something I've always loved about the idea of having one. But they're kind of hard to find that in the city.”

Kylie's shy tone made the taller woman smile. She leaned down and kissed Kylie's forehead gently. “I'll make sure we get one in there then.”

The shorter woman sighed, settling back into Luce's embrace. “So now you've brought me out here, you've shown me around. What's next on your to do list today, oh love of my life?”

Luce gave a rakish grin. “I thought that maybe I could introduce you to the joys of outdoor sex.” She ran her hands up and down Kylie's arms, fingertips dancing lightly on her skin, feeling the other woman shiver slightly at the suddenly sensuous contact.

Kylie pulled away slightly to arch a delicate brow in the her direction. “Oh really? You think it's going to be just that simple to seduce me?”

Luce shrugged, an impish light in her eyes. “Well, you did admit in the car that you were easy. And I have a thing for easy redheads; especially when I'm hopelessly, madly in love with them.” Her hands never stopped their gently caress against Kylie's skin.

Her eyes slid shut slowly, the smile on her face unmistakeable. “Saved yourself at the last second there, Tiger.” She leaned into Luce, her own hands beginning to wander.

“I have great self preservation skills.” Luce drew in a sharp breath when those small, clever hands slid up under her shirt and began sliding against her own suddenly heated skin.

Kylie gave her a wicked grin, pulling the shirt up and out of her way. “Do you think they can save you from this?” She leaned forward, placing her mouth against Luce's skin while her hands slid down into Luce's pants, gripping and squeezing her backside firmly.

Luce groaned, suddenly glad they were still near the car. She was afraid of what might happen if her knees gave out. She swallowed loudly. “I'm not sure. Maybe we should keep testing them out.” She followed the other woman's lead as Kylie nudged them both towards the car just behind them. She blindly reached for the door getting it open just as Kylie's hands slid between her legs. She fell inside as her legs collapsed, falling onto the back seat in a warm, expectant heap.

Kylie gave her a heated grin as she climbed into the backseat. “Good thing there's a lot of room. I think we're going to need it.” She closed the door behind them just in time.

* * *

“You know, I could get used to this. I think we should buy something like this, for the ranch of course.” Despite the fact that they were both laying down and had been for the past several minutes, Kylie was still a bit breathless.

Luce chuckled, giving her lover a wry look as she took the site of them both in. Somehow, they had managed to stay mostly clothed, but they were disheveled and a bit sweaty from the afternoon play.

She arched a dark brow. “For the ranch, huh?”

Kylie smiled at the dry tone. “Of course. But we might want to think about tinting the windows in the back. Might be a bit awkward if any of your employees see you doing that last maneuver.”

Luce stilled a moment, willing her face not to blush. There was slight tingle in her cheeks that told her she wasn't completely successful. But thankfully, her darker coloring managed to hide it.

She held up a finger in warning. “I didn't hear you complaining. I couldn't hear anything at all over the screams. We might want to invest in a muzzle or some sound proofing too at the very least.

She watched as her lighter skinned companion colored nicely, chuckling at the sight The silence was shattered by the harsh shrill of Luce's phone ringing and she fumbled it out of her pocket to answer it, her blue eyes never leaving Kylie's pink tinted face. “Donovan.”

“Ms. Donovan, it's Agent Jenkins.” The crisp no nonsense tone of the federal agent filtered easily through the speaker.

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She did, after all, somewhat like the man. If it had been Agent Smith, however, there might have been some trouble.

She sat up a bit more, straightening her clothes as she did so. “To what do I owe the pleasure, Agent Jenkins.”

There was a deep inhale and exhale on his end and then his voice was back, firm and brisk. “I called to let you know I sent someone to speak with Don Harvall, the CEO of your company this morning. He was found dead in his home.”

Luce went completely numb, the smile simply dead on her lips. She felt all the blood drain from her face as she clamped her hand around her cell phone like a vice. She tried to speak and had to clear her throat twice before she found the words.

“What happened?” Her voice was harsh and guttural, as if she'd been screaming at a rock concert for hours. Distantly, she felt Kylie reach out and touch her arm in concern.

Agent Jenkins hesitated. “It looks like a suicide. I'll let our guys go over everything before we completely rule out foul play. But it looks like the real thing this time.”

She swallowed convulsively, trying to push past the lump in her throat as she fought against the wave of emotions that were threatening to swamp her. She felt Kylie reach down and take her hand, squeezing it firmly, letting her know she was there. The sensation broke through a bit, giving her an anchor. Luce squeezed back almost desperately, her mind latching onto the contact like she was drowning.

She closed her eyes for a second and with sheer willpower, pushed everything back enough to give her some breathing room. She needed to end this call. And the sooner the better.

She cleared her throat once more and this time when she spoke, she sounded a bit more normal. “I appreciate the call, Agent Jenkins. Could you please call me when you know more?”

The agent gave a small sound. “As soon as I know something, I'll pass it on. But I had another reason for calling. I was hoping you'd stop by and we could talk.”

She could feel tears welling up in her eyes and pushed them back firmly. There was another squeeze and it bolstered her walls.

She nodded. “I can do that. I'll be free in a couple of hours.”

This time his tone was gentle and full of understanding. “Any time you're free, I'll be here.” Then he was gone.

Luce sat there for several moments, the phone still pressed to her ear, held in the vise grip of her hands. Her eyes haunted and blank although the color was slowly returning to her face. Slowly, she let the phone drop to her lap.

Kylie reached up to touch her face. “Luce, what happened?”

She took a sharp breath, letting it out in a rush. “Don's dead. He killed himself.” The sentence almost didn't come out, her throat tried to close on the words. Some childish impulse that if she didn't say them out loud, they could never be true. She swallowed again and the lump went away.

Kylie started. “The CEO? The one you said was responsible for this whole mess?” Luce nodded numbly. “Well shit.” The words were emphatic and strained.

And like a catalyst, they broke something in Luce. With a savage snap, the walls she was using to hold everything back cracked. And suddenly she was so damned angry. At him, at the feds, at the whole damn business that had cost her a friend. She opened the door with a jerk, needing out. of the suddenly oppressive space of the Jeep. The sides of it suddenly pressing down on her like a coffin.

She surged to her feet feeling the first hint of tears pricking at her eyes as she started swearing and she gave the tire of the vehicle a savage kick. “That son of a bitch! That bastard! That god damn coward!” Each statement was punctuated by another forceful kick until she vaguely wondered how she hadn't managed to break a toe yet.

And then, just like that, her rage was simply gone. Washed away by shock and grief, leaving her boneless and shivering in the heat of the day.

She stood there, panting, trying to calm herself down, feeling like someone had just carved a massive hole in her chest. This was her fault; she'd done this. She'd gone in guns blazing, pushing and pushing, trying to help and she'd pushed him right over a cliff.

She'd expected him to do the right thing, she'd needed him to do the right thing, to admit to what he'd done and face the music. But he hadn't. And she'd never for a moment expected he might consider another more extreme way out of the mess he'd made

No, she knew him well, knew the kind of man he was and she'd held him to the same firm line she held herself to. Never thinking he would fall, never thinking that he just wasn't strong enough. Never once expecting that maybe he wasn't really the man she'd always thought he was. And now, she found a small part of herself hating him for that.

She balked at that feeling, trying to push it back into the dark corner it'd come from. But it was insidious. And like Pandora's box, once opened it could never really be forgotten.

She shivered again, feeling some of the earlier chill she'd felt return with a vengeance. This time it covered her like a blanket, enveloping her until she wondered how she could be standing there in the sunlight feeling like she was freezing to death.

She felt Kylie come up beside her, felt her smaller hand firmly holding her own, the woman's warm glowing presence pushing the cold and darkness back enough for her to be able to think again. She felt herself blink stupidly for several seconds, realizing that she'd been staring almost directly into the sun for the past several minutes.

She felt Kylie squeeze her hand again. “Luce?”

Her voice shattered the last of the chill and it left her, slowly receding, taking the rage and darkness with it. Luce blinked again, looking at Kylie's very concerned face.

She smiled softly, then her mouth firmed a bit. “I need to get back.” With a will, she shoved everything back down even further, wrapping it in chains and locking it down until she could get somewhere where she could deal with it all.

Kylie reached out, touching her arm gently. “I know. Let's get your car; come on, I'll drive.”

Luce nodded mutely.

* * *

To be continued...

Return to the Academy

Author's Page