See disclaimers in Chapter One
Chapter 9, Part 1
For the fourth time in nearly as many minutes, Deven's eyes swept to the clock above the bar and not once did she actually register the location of the hands on its face. The hour didn't interest her as much as the whole idea of time. More specifically, how the quantifying of passing moments had meant different things throughout her life.
As a small child, the determination of time had been a simple matter. It had been the number of minutes until school began or until recess or until the school day ended or until bedtime. It was how long she'd have to wait for the next martial arts class and for when she would see her best friend again. It was the number of days between visits from her father or how long Patricia would remain mad at something she'd done or failed to do. It was the seconds it took for Patricia's hand to reach back and then connect with her skin and how long the physical and emotional sting would last. Deven blinked away those memories, disappointed that they could still hurt on some level.
Within the world of her training, time had been the number of months until the next requirements test and the years between black belt exams. But much more pervasive was that for almost all of her martial arts career, time had been measured in two minute increments that could seem interminably long or absurdly quick. Two-minute rounds of sparring, one right after the other turning into hours of practice or competition that ultimately stretched into years. Two minutes that later became three as she'd changed her fighting style, training for the Olympics.
The fulcrum of time changed completely at age eighteen, when it became hers to gauge. No one timed the bouts; those lethal battles that ended when her opponent was unable to fight anymore. The contest length was hers to determine. The harder she fought the less time it took to subjugate her opponent. For two years, it had all been hers ˆ the prestige, the women, and most certainly the power. But then it had come to an unexpected end. And where her sordid fighting career ceased, the term of confinement began. A term length determined by someone else and where she had no say in the when or how long of anything.
Her release ten months later brought with it new ways to mark time's passage. On bad days, it was how long it would take to get drunk or how long until the sun rose after a night of those horrific dreams. But most days, it was how long it took to select and seduce her quarry for a night of bed sports, and once the game turned from seduction to sex, how long she would amuse herself with them.
Looking at her reflection in the mirror behind the assortment of liquor bottles, Deven smirked at what were now silly inconsequential fractions of her life. Because on a far grander scale, time was the measure of those moments that had altered her life forever - the rape, her father's betrayal, the motorcycle accident, the stabbing, Tiernan's conception and subsequent birth, and the moment Rhian walked into her life.
Turning back around on the stool, the martial artist casually surveyed the crowded bar. Nearly two weeks had come and gone since the picnic and though she remained as driven in her training, Deven had begun to question her reasoning for it. Nothing more had happened since the arrival of the photographs, and she was forced to take a hard look at her uncharacteristic paranoia.
Fear had never been an option for her, because she'd lived by the tenet that it only occurred when one either wasn't prepared for a situation or because one had something worth losing. Neither had been an issue for her in the past, and for the first time in her life, Deven knew what it was like to really be afraid. And she didn't like the feeling at all.
So much had changed in her life and within herself that she had a difficult time remembering that person she'd been. A small smirk twitched her lips as she conceded to herself that it wasn't necessarily a bad thing. She was happier than she could ever remember being. At no time in her prior life would she have been a proponent of the romantic or the overall notion of love, but having now had the opportunity to savor the love of someone was far beyond anything she'd ever imagined. And that opened her up to knowing the trepidation of losing.
If she'd been asked to explain it, she'd have been truly hard put to find the words. She'd heard the prose about love throughout the years and dismissed it all as sentimental dribble. She could appreciate the effort and artistry in stringing words together to create poetry, after all she'd attempted it herself, but she couldn't accept the subject matter. It tended to make her want to grit her teeth. And yet, when she looked into her lover's eyes, she felt so much that it seemed impossible to decipher it all, and snippets of verse tended to drift in and out of her consciousness in an effort to explain the depth of emotion Rhian could elicit.
That she loved the young landscaper was indisputable. That she loved her so much that it was often painful in its intensity was irrefutable. That she was terrified of anything ever happening to Rhian drove her now when her resources were severely diminished. That she was for the first time in her life afraid to die angered her even as she understood it wasn't the dying as much as the leaving behind of her family. And in opening herself up to feel all these things, she believed she'd lost a valuable edge. She now thought too much about the consequences of her actions and that caused her to question her ability to act effectively.
As she now sat contemplatively in the bar, she wondered at her interpretation of events. Were her fears rational? Did she dare put her concerns aside and listen to the voice of reason in her head, or should she follow her gut instinct? Worse case, she'd look the fool. She didn't want to consider the ramifications if her concerns became reality.
And that was why she was here not. Her eyes flicked to the man sitting beside her. As much as she'd managed to avoid Jay's inquisitions, she knew she couldn't steer clear of him indefinitely. There were so few people she trusted and none of them explicitly. Rhian certainly, but talking to her about certain things was an impossibility. That left Jay. And even though he'd damaged her trust, she still believed that in a situation such as this, he would watch her back.
For the past thirty minutes, they'd just sat without speaking at the bar, watching the other patrons. Deven didn't know how to begin this conversation, and so she bided her time, politely declining the advances thrown her way. She observed the women, mentally categorizing them as she'd done for years, evaluating them as potential sex partners. Oh, Masterson, would you go back? She thought about the woman who waited for her at home, and the answer came easily. No.
"Okay, enough already," Jay, finally tired of the silence, broke her musings. "You didn't invite me here to just sit and watch women. What's going on with you?"
Reluctantly, she drew her attention away from the rest of the room and focused on her friend. "Nothing's going on with me." As expected, he clinched his jaw, a sure sign that he wasn't happy with her and under normal circumstances she would have found pleasure in it. Bite the bullet, Deven. He's all you've got. "Look, I'm not sure how to explain this because I'm not exactly sure what's happening. To be honest, I'm not certain that anything is happening. Could just be a string of coincidences."
"Like what?" he asked, the edge in his voice telling her to stop being evasive.
She set her beer down on the bar and turned towards him. "Do you remember a couple months back when we had a visitor in the woods?" He nodded. "I had a bad feeling about that but nothing else happened so I just let it go. But then, the day that Tiernan fell, something Alex said bothered me, and it took me a little while to figure it out. He told me that a unit had already been dispatched. The only way that would have happened is if someone had called before we did. But who? We were all in the backyard."
"Except Carl and Mac went to get the ladder," he offered.
"I know. And I asked them if they'd called and both of them said no."
"Maybe it was a neighbor."
"The only neighbors who could have seen any part of that tree from their property were Lydia and Alex. And they were both with us."
He thought back over that day and the sequence of events. Everything had happened so fast, he didn't really remember what Alex had said. "You think it was the same person from the time before?"
She shrugged. "I don't know, but I sure as hell don't like the implications." Picking up the beer, she took a small sip. It was more a stall tactic before she told him the next part. "Someone sent a bunch of photographs to Rhian."
The other things could have been coincidences, but this was something deliberate and he perked up slightly. "What kind of photos?"
"They showed." The words disappeared before she could finish the sentence. She'd struggled for years with whether or not to tell this man of her crimes and every time the internal debate arose, she'd managed to suppress the idea, rationalizing that the burden was hers, not his to bear. "They were pictures of a woman I knew a long time ago."
"So? It's not like Rhian doesn't know there were other women."
"It was more than that." An unusual discomfort showed on her features, and she avoided his speculative gaze. "It had to do with something I did to the woman."
"What did you do?"
"I can't tell you."
Slamming his own bottle of beer down on the bar, Jay glared at her. "You know, you really piss me off! All these years you've shut me out and treated me like I'm just some stranger looking for some juicy gossip or something. I've always stood by you regardless of what asinine stunts you've pulled and the disregard you've shown for people. And all you've done is treat me like your patsy. Well, screw you!"
"I know," Deven said softly. There was a time when she hadn't cared what he thought or felt. Or at least that's what she'd convinced herself. She'd just always assumed he'd be there, but as she'd grown in her relationship with Rhian, she'd come to view all her other associations differently. That this man could get completely fed up with her and turn his back one day was a possibility she never would have even entertained before. "I just∑I don't like to talk about it, Bro." She looked at her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. "It was unforgivable."
"Is that what your father bailed you out of?"
"And you've told Rhian?"
"Well, apparently it isn't so much that you don't want to talk about it, you're just very selective who you talk about it to!"
"It isn't like that, Jay. I told Rhian because she needed to know what she was potentially getting into with me." A very rare uncomfortable silence fell between them. "That woman?" Deven swallowed around the revulsion. "I messed her up. Bad. I put her in the hospital."
He looked at her incredulously. "Why?
"She pissed me off?" she answered lamely.
He looked off across the room while trying to imagine Deven doing such a thing. A few months ago he couldn't have, but after that one night in the garage when she'd gone off on him, it wasn't so far fetched anymore. This was a side of his friend that he'd glimpsed from time to time but never on an innocent. She'd beaten up a few people like Mace, so had he for that matter, but never anyone who was defenseless.
Deven felt the weight of his thoughts and realized it hurt quite a bit. Remaining quiet, she let him work through it, wondering if this was the final straw between them.
"So, what was with the pictures?" he asked.
She cleared her throat but couldn't bring herself to look him as she spoke. "Someone sent them to Rhian at the Garden Center. I've thought about it a lot, and I have no idea who sent them. There are several possibilities but I have no way of knowing for sure. If whoever it was released them, I'd be out of business within twenty-four hours. But worse, I never wanted Rhian to see that. And I don't know if they were a warning or a threat."
"What did Rhian do with them?"
"Burned them," she answered reflectively.
"Huh." Jay carefully considered the potential implications. "Okay, so someone seems to be watching you."
"And Rhian. How else did they know where she worked?" She licked her dry lips. "And maybe the kids."
"Do you think they're in danger?"
"Not really. My gut tells me that someone was trying to warn her off. I think I ∑ I don't know what to think." Before she let her mind convince her otherwise, Deven turned towards him again. "I want to ask you something."
"I should just say no because you're such a pain."
"But you won't." She put aside her pride and looked him in the eyes. "I don't know what's going on. Probably nothing. Probably I'm getting idiotic in my old age, but Jay," she paused uncertainly.
"What?" he asked as he sat up straighter on the stool.
"If anything should happen to me, please make sure that Rhian and the kids are okay."
The big man felt like he'd been kicked in the gut, and he exhaled in a single gust. "What are you talking about?"
"Just promise me. I've already taken care of everything financially. I just want to be sure that they won't be alone. That you'll be there for them."
"Damn it, what are you talking about?"
"Just covering all the bases. I need you to keep your eyes open whenever they're around. If it isn't anything, it'll blow over and I'll just look like a complete fool. There isn't any point in getting Rhian upset about something I'm not even certain of." He studied her closely but didn't respond. "Can I count on you?" she asked.
"Of course, but I don't like this, Deven."
"Look at this way, you'll be able to laugh your ass off at me and I'll even let you tell Rhian. You can hold this over my head for the rest of our lives, but until then, you keep you mouth shut. No talking to Rhian or Nicole about any of this. I'm serious Jay. This has got to stay between us for now."
He didn't know what to say. A thousand thoughts and memories flitted through his mind as he studied her face, and he realized they'd become so complacent in their relationship throughout the years that in many respects she was a complete stranger to him. "Do you think you're really in any danger? No bullshit. Truth."
"I don't know. My head tells me I'm behaving like a paranoid ass, but my gut tells me someone is watching me closely. For what reason, I just don't know. There are too many possibilities to be certain of any one thing. I mean, Bro, over the years you and I have had our fair share of trouble here and there. We've fought our share of fights and ticked off a few people. I just don't know." Taking a sip of her beer to ease the dryness in her mouth, she allowed a small smile to play across her lips. "But it all seems far too histrionic, you know? My life is not some melodrama."
He snorted. "Since when?"
A huge emotional weight lifted off her shoulders, and she chuckled. Turning back around she faced the large room again and decided it was time to get off the hot seat and steer the conversation in another direction. "So, what has your underwear all in a wad these days? Besides me."
He glanced at her. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"I know you better than that, Bro. You're glum, which is so not you."
He shook his head and turned to face the crowd. "This whole relationship thing. I never would have guessed that you'd get it and I wouldn't."
"Who said I get it?"
"You and Rhian click. Nicole and I." He shrugged. "Sometimes we do. Sometimes we don't."
Deven seriously considered his comment. She and Rhian did agree on most things but certainly not everything. "We have our problems, Jay. There are definitely some areas that we just don't see eye to eye on and probably never will."
"So, what do you do?" he asked curiously.
"Me?" She laughed easily. "I usually get my ass kicked by the little lady."
He laughed as well. "Yeah. She does have a way with you."
"I don't know, Bro. There's so much to all of this that I just don't get. But Rhian? She has a very forgiving nature. So, as long as she continues to forgive me, I figure I'm doing all right."
"I wish Nicole was more forgiving."
"She needs to lighten up." She leaned towards him and smiled wickedly. "I could loosen her up for you."
Understanding her meaning, he glared at her, unable to take the comment lightly. "Not funny."
And she did what she always did when they teased each other, she laughed at him. "You need to lighten up. She's turning you into some tight assed."
"Shut! Up!" he said, enunciating each word.
"Okay," she replied as she stood up and drank down the last of her beer. "I've got to get home anyway. I've got two kids to kiss goodnight and a warm body to snuggle up to." Looking at his taut features, she didn't know what to do for him. There was an underlying tension between her friend and Nicole lately that was impossible to miss.
"Listen, Bro. You know that I'm the last person in the world who should give any advice on relationships, but I've learned a lot in the past few months on the subject. Mostly I've learned that I don't know what the hell I'm doing." She felt better as he suppressed a smile. "Look, it can't be all that bad. I mean, Nicole can be a bitch, but she's Rhian's best friend so there has to be something there. But if things are that bad, maybe you should think about cutting your losses." Without another word, she patted him on the shoulder and walked away.
He watched her go before turning back to his drink. She was right to some extent. His problems with Nicole were making him a tad morose at times, but he didn't think that things were bad enough to consider severing the relationship. They needed to work through some things, and he believed they could in time. But now he had a new problem to worry about. Could someone really be out to hurt Deven? I mean that is pretty sensational. But it isn't like her to make this stuff up. And it certainly isn't like her to ask for help of any kind. His problems with Nicole were temporarily pushed to the side by the worry he now carried for his friend.
Tiernan struggled to keep a grasp on his mother's hands. "Mommy, stop! Don't tickle me!"
"Oh, all right." She smiled up at him from her position on the sofa. Lying on her back, the boy was perched on her lower abdomen using her bent legs as a backrest. "How's school?" she asked.
"Are you learning a lot?"
He just bobbed his head, and Deven mentally shook hers. The child could be garrulous when he chose to be, but like her he tended to internalize a lot. He was a thinker and often turned his thoughts inward instead of sharing them. "How about your teacher? Do you like her?"
"She's nice. I like her."
"Tiernan, are you happy?" She wasn't certain where the question had come from, but she suspected it had something to do with her conversation earlier that evening with Jay.
"Now?" he asked.
"Sure, now." She watched as he gained a sudden fascination for the buttons on her sport watch and just nodded his head again. "Are you happy at Laura's?" He remained silent but gave her a noncommittal shrug. Removing her hand from his, she reached out and lifted his chin with her fingertips. "Tell me," she coaxed.
He met her steady gaze, and she felt the sadness that rolled off him. "I want to live with you," he answered.
Taking a deep breath, Deven released it slowly before responding. This was a conversation they hadn't had in a long time, and though she knew it would happen at some point, she wasn't as prepared for it as she'd thought. "I know," she replied gently. "And we'll see how it goes. Besides, you've just started the school year. You don't want to change schools now, do you?"
"Seana lives here," he answered bluntly.
"Yes, but that's because she's with Rhian."
"You love her more," he accused her.
"Seana." His lower lip trembled slightly. "You love her more than me."
She was achingly aware of how he tried to emulate her. His attempts at stoicism had no place on a child his age. "That's not true, T. I know this is really hard for you to understand. It's hard to explain, son. Right now, you just have to believe me. I don't love Seana more, and I'm not saying you can't ever live here. Just not right now. But you'll still spend the weekends and holidays with me, and we'll talk on the phone everyday." She studied his unhappy expression. "Hey, speaking of holidays, you have a birthday next month. You know, I can't believe you're turning five already. I can still picture you as little tiny baby." She tickled him enough to make him giggle. "What do you want for your birthday?"
He grabbed her hands, believing he might actually be able to stop the tickles. "A bike."
"You don't have a bike?"
"Sort of. It was Ashley's. Mommy, it's a girl's bike, and it still has the training wheels on because Aunt Laura says I'll fall."
"Do you know how to ride it?" she asked, smiling slightly at his mild vexation.
"Not very well," he conceded. "But you could teach me. Please, Mommy?"
Deven smiled at him. "Sure."
Lying down against her, he hugged her as hard as he could. "I love you."
"I love you, too," she responded easily.
"Okay, Master T," Rhian said from the bottom of the stairs. "It's time for you to go to bed."
Tiernan groaned and then asked his mother, "Do I have to?"
"Rhian says so."
"But she's not the boss. You are. Please∑please...please∑can I stay up longer?"
Uh oh. Deven looked past his shoulder and exchanged a brief look with Rhian. "Tiernan, you know I'm gay, right?" He sat back up and gazed at her as he tried to figure out what being gay had to do with him staying up. "Do you know what that means?" she asked.
"You like girls."
"An oversimplification but true. And you know that I love Rhian."
"I do, too," he replied in barely more than a whisper.
His expression was wistful, and Deven paused. Does he have a crush on her? She studied him for a few seconds, touched by his sweet innocence. "You realize that Rhian and I are a couple." His brow furrowed slightly as he considered that. "Like Jay and Nicole. Or Lydia and Alex," she added.
"She's your girlfriend."
"True, but she's much more than that. And when it comes to deciding what you kids should or shouldn't do, we're a team. So, if Rhian says you should do something, you should do it whether I'm around or not." He appeared disappointed by that answer. "She loves you, Tiernan. And I expect you to mind her. Understand?"
"Good, now let's get you to bed." She sat up and then stood, taking him with her. As she neared Rhian, Deven noted the smile on the woman's face, and brushed her lips with a soft kiss. "Pleased?"
"Oh yeah. You done real good there, Champ."
"Good," Deven drawled. "You can show me just how pleased you are later."
Rhian laughed as she followed her lover up the stairs, enjoying the gentle roll of the martial artist's hips as she climbed the stairs. "Nice view."
Deven smirked over her shoulder. "Tiernan, can you say cheeky?"
"Cheeky," he said.
"Good. Now say, Rhian is cheeky."
"Rhian is cheeky," he repeated through giggles.
"Very good." Her smile faded rapidly as the landscaper pinched the flesh on her backside. "Ouch!"
"Tiernan, can you say Mommy's in big trouble?"
He laughed as he did as Rhian had requested.
"All right for you, you little traitor," Deven teased as she carried her son into his room, set him down on the bed, and then faced her lover. "Kiss it," she commanded.
"Later. Let's get the boy to bed first, and then you have to tell Seana goodnight," Rhian answered easily.
"Paybacks," Deven muttered as she tucked her son in.
"I sure hope so," the younger woman snickered.
Leaning back in the chair and tipping it up on two legs, Deven surveyed the Pit with her usual air of indifference. But indifferent was not at all what she felt because for the most part, she was in good spirits. The children were safely at the Mackenzie's for the night, and the martial artist was looking forward to a few minutes of relaxation followed by a healthy dose of hedonistic indulgence with a certain blonde landscaper.
At the moment, the only hitch in her plans was the sullen man sitting across the table from her. Deven glanced towards Rhian and Nicole out on the dance floor and then back at her friend. "What's up?" she asked.
"What makes you think something's up?" he inquired curtly.
"Because you've barely said two words all night, and all you do is glare at people," she answered. "You're acting remarkably like me, Bro."
"Whatever," he retorted.
His feigned disinterest was only adding to her annoyance. "Look, I'm here to have a good time tonight, and you're between me and that goal. So, what's going on with you?"
"It's always about you, isn't it?" Jay shot back.
"Mostly," Deven quipped and then frowned at his stony expression. "Oh, come on. Lighten up already."
"Lighten up? You want me to lighten up? I'd love to, but you make my life so damn complicated!"
His aggressive attitude baffled her. "What did I do?" she asked.
"Because of you, Nicole is barely speaking to me."
"Give me a freaken break. It's not my fault if you're having girlfriend troubles." She cocked her head slightly, and her tone took on a teasing quality. "Besides, she's talking to me. You not getting it done, Bro? Not rising to the occasion?"
"Screw you," he snapped at her.
They fell silent once again, and Deven found it distressing because unlike their usual camaraderie, this had an underlying hostility to it that she couldn't explain. "Okay, so why is it my fault?"
He glowered at her. "She knows I'm keeping something from her, but of course, I can't tell her what it is!"
Setting the chair back down on all four legs, Deven leaned towards him and lowered her voice. "What did you tell her?"
"Nothing really. Just that I couldn't talk to her about it yet, which just made her mad. This is really becoming a problem, Deven. Why don't you talk to Rhian already?"
"Damn it, Jay! I knew I shouldn't have confided in you. You're such a waste of space!"
"Don't you dare turn this around on me, Deven! You're the one with the fucking past! You're the one that has been acting all freaky lately. How am I not supposed to be concerned that something might happen to you or Rhian or the kids?"
"What is wrong with you?" she asked in exasperation. "Nothing is going to happen."
"You told me you didn't know what was going on. That you weren't sure if there was any real danger or not. Are you saying that was a lie?"
"No! I just. Damn it, Jay!"
"And tell me, since you're such the expert on relationships now, how is Nicole not supposed to notice that there's something going on? And what the hell am I supposed to tell her when she asks?"
"Why can't you just act normal?"
"Act normal?" He knew his emotions were getting the better of him but didn't seem able to stop. His friend's constant wariness had filtered to him, and he spent a lot of his time keeping a silent vigil. Of what or against whom he didn't know, and it was frustrating to the man. He felt like he was attempting to spar with his eyes blindfolded and one arm tied behind his back. "What in the hell is normal when it comes to you? And what do you know anyway? You've never had a relationship of any kind until Rhian and that's only because she puts up with you. And what does she get out of it? The sex must be extraordinary because the rest of the time you're just one big pain in the ass! They say everyone needs a charity, Deven. I guess Rhian found hers."
"Fuck you, Jay!" Rising from the table, she sulked away because the urge to punch him in the mouth was growing too strong.
They spent the rest of the evening avoiding each other but the tension between them was escalating anyway. Still, Deven refused to have her night ruined. She managed to suppress her anger at the man's attitude by shutting him out, reasoning that they'd had bad days in their lives and always moved past them. Instead, she concentrated her energy and attention on the ladies. The flirtatious banter that had begun on Labor Day had continued on, and Deven and Nicole had managed to find a middle ground much to Rhian's delight.
Eager to put some physical distance between her and Jay once more, the martial artist stood up from the table and extended a hand to Nicole. "Come on. Let's you and me hit the dance floor since grumpy here wants to pout all evening," she said indicating Jay with a slight nod of her head. The comment earned her a glare from the man to which she just smiled, knowing it would bother him far more than if she'd met his glower with one of her own.
"Sure," Nicole eagerly agreed.
While Deven led the woman to the dance floor, Rhian observed the brooding man. "Hey, Jay? Is everything all right?"
"Great. Just great." His eyes never left the dance floor. "Doesn't that bother you?"
"That!" he said as he pointed towards Deven.
"No," she answered cautiously. "They're just having fun. And it's about time they got along, wouldn't you say?"
"Fun my ass," he said as he rose from the table, leaving a bewildered Rhian staring at his retreating back. Walking over to the bar he ordered a double shot of bourbon. "Put it on Deven's tab," he told the bartender. Jay lifted the shot glass and swallowed the amber liquor in one gulp before turning back to watch the dancers. He felt the burn in his belly and welcomed it. When the bartender came back by, Jay indicated the empty glass and as soon as it was full, he shot it down as well.
His mood continued to plummet. His life had always seemed so placid and totally unremarkable compared to Deven's. He'd never known his real father but his relationship with his mother had always been close. He remembered as a child wishing that they could adopt Deven to get her away from Patricia. He'd even had a strong bond with Deven's father until that horrific night in their teens. And for whatever reason, he'd developed a protective streak for his friend very early on in their lives, a characteristic that he couldn't sever no matter how hard he tried.
Unexpectedly, he felt like things were starting to unravel, and he resented Deven's role in that. He liked the direction his life was going. He was involved with an intelligent, caring woman. His friend was settling down into family life. But then everything started to fall apart because Deven's copious secrets continued to rise up, bringing with them some level of destruction. And he still didn't even know what they were. But they continued to insinuate themselves in his life, and he truly hated it.
Beyond all of that, he was afraid of what she wasn't telling him. He knew that there was more to the whole scenario and didn't know how that would impact them. He couldn't remember ever feeling so uncertain about something he couldn't even articulate. Not knowing what to do with all the emotions, they turned to anger - anger at the situation, anger at Deven, and ultimately anger at himself for not being able to control it.
Deven grew bored with his foul mood and made it a point to spend as much time away from the table as possible. Now as she swayed slowly with her lover, their bodies lightly brushing together, she decided she wanted very much to be alone with this woman. Pulling Rhian even closer, she leaned down and whispered, "Let's go home."
"All right," Rhian answered easily before placing a soft kiss at the base of the martial artist's throat.
Pulling back just enough to look into Rhian's face, Deven almost forgot to breathe. There were moments, such as this one, when this woman would look at her in such a way that she felt on top of the world, stronger than ever in her life and capable of doing anything. There was such a depth of unwavering surety in Rhian's love that she felt at those times as if she might actually be able to become the person that this woman believed she was. The person she wanted to be. Reaching up with both hands, she cupped the landscaper's face and then kissed her passionately.
"Wow," the younger woman whispered as Deven pulled back.
"I love you madly," Deven replied. "Let's go."
Flanked by Nicole and Rhian, Deven strolled across the parking lot a few minutes later, an arm draped around each woman. "Ladies, I thank you for a lovely evening. Now, I must take my woman home and make passionate love to her."
"Oh, God," Rhian groaned as she covered her face with her hand. "Deven!"
"What?" she answered innocently. "I was talking about Nicole." Turning her head, she whispered something in Nicole's ear that caused the woman to blush and then laughed at the reaction. But her laughter was cut off abruptly as she was shoved hard from behind. Stumbling slightly, she turned to face her attacker. "What the hell is your problem?"
"You!" Jay shouted at her.
Rhian and Nicole exchanged similar looks of confusion and quickly stepped between the two fighters. "Okay, that's enough," Rhian said as she faced her lover. "Let's go."
"No!" Deven shouted over the woman's head. "You got something to say? Say it!" she challenged the man.
"I got nothing to say to you."
"Then screw you! Don't start something if you're not man enough to finish it," she mocked.
"Me start it? You started it years ago, and now it's finally catching up and biting you in the ass!" Jay charged forward but Nicole and Rhian both stood in his path. "Stop it!" Nicole shouted as she pushed back against his chest.
Rhian grabbed a fistful of Deven's shirt in each hand and yanked hard, drawing the woman's attention away from the confrontation. "Please, Deven, I want to go home now. Please."
Staring into the woman's eyes, the martial artist allowed the love she saw there to calm her. "All right." She entwined her fingers with Rhian's and walked away. It wasn't until they were almost home that either woman spoke again. "I don't get it," Deven finally broke the silence. "What's wrong him?"
Rhian sighed. "Nicole told me that Jay's keeping something from her."
"Like what?" Deven asked, curious as to what Nicole might actually know.
"She doesn't know," Rhian answered. "But he's gotten real evasive about some things, and as you saw tonight, he's just acting strange. He's temperamental and withdrawn. He's not sleeping well, and he's not very affectionate these days, if you get my drift." She glanced at Deven out of the corner of her eye to gauge her reaction to her next comment. "She thinks he's seeing someone else."
The martial artist almost laughed with relief. "No way."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Come on, Rhian. This is Jay we're talking about. If he was seeing anyone, I'd know about it."
"Than what's wrong with him?"
"I don't know for sure." Okay, that's not a complete lie. I don't know because he hasn't actually told me. "Maybe he's having a hard time dealing with the whole relationship thing." True. "Maybe, Nicole is being oversensitive."
"Maybe," Rhian agreed. "She really cares about him, and I think he feels the same way about her."
"I think you're right. But what does all of that have to do with his tantrum tonight?" Deven asked, more to herself than to her companion.
The landscaper laughed. "Oh, honey, you are so damn cute when you're so utterly clueless."
"Okay, Miss Know It All, are you going to clue me in?" Deven questioned with a definite touch of huffiness.
Rhian waited until they were both out of the truck and walking towards the door. "Sweetheart, you and Jay have always been competitive, including vying for the affections of the ladies, and old feelings are hard to forget sometimes. I think in Jay's eyes you were coming on to Nicole and she was responding."
"Oh, come on," Deven snorted as she followed Rhian into the kitchen. "I was just having fun. Damn it, you guys are always saying I need to get along with her. So, we start getting along and this is what happens."
"Deven, if you and I were having problems and Jay started coming on to me, what would do?"
"Laugh because I know he doesn't have a chance in hell."
"True but just try to see the situation through his eyes."
"I didn't do anything wrong," she muttered.
Rhian stepped up and wrapped her arms around her lover's waist. "I know that, Deven. Otherwise, I would have been all over you like white on rice." Stepping back, she tugged the martial artist's shirt out of her jeans and ran her fingertips across the soft skin, tracing lightly over muscle ridges. Rhian was amazed at, and definitely turned on by, how much more taut Deven's stomach had become in the past few weeks. "Do you want to call him?"
"Hell, no. He was being a jerk, not me." Deven inhaled raggedly as Rhian's fingers moved over her ribs and caressed the underside of her breasts. "Besides they're supposed to come over tomorrow night to watch the game, and if he doesn't get over it by then, I'll." Her mind went blank as the younger woman's fingers squeezed her nipples.
Deft fingers unbuttoned the martial artist's shirt, and Rhian placed kisses along Deven's collarbone and down the center of her chest. A sensual growl rose up from the brunette, causing the landscaper to smile knowingly. "Didn't you say something about making passionate love to your woman?" she whispered against smooth flesh.
"Oh yeah," Deven sighed. "But Nicole's not here."
Rhian blazed a trail of wet kisses and nips down Deven's stomach to the top of her jeans and than unbuttoned the fly. Standing back up, she slipped a hand inside the denim, slowly working her way down between the woman's legs. She parted her lover's folds, humming contentedly at the dampness she found. "Hmm, too bad. Because I was so looking forward to making love with you, but I understand." Extracting her hand, Rhian looked up into lust filled eyes. "Well, goodnight," she said as she turned and walked towards the stairs.
"Huh?" Deven shook her head to clear the haze. "Oh, no you don't!"
With a shriek, Rhian ran up the stairs barely beating the martial artist to the top, but before she could get around the corner to the hallway, she felt herself grabbed from behind, spun around and then lifted.
Throwing her over a shoulder, Deven laughed triumphantly as she carried her captive towards the bedroom, but as Rhian continued to fidget, she almost lost her grasp and stumbled slightly. Quickly pressing her free hand against the wall, she regained her balance and then brought her hand down solidly on the woman's backside.
"Ow!" the landscaper protested.
"Stop it or I'll drop you." The squirming ceased immediately, but a devilish smirk crossed Deven's face and she delivered another solid spank.
"Deven!" Rhian's attempt at sounding stern was completely lost in a fit of giggles.
"That's payback for the pinch the other day." Crossing the room to the bed, she deposited Rhian unceremoniously onto her back, and then leaning over, she placed a hand on either side of the supine woman's shoulders. "Now," she said, lowering the pitch of her voice seductively. "I'm going to make passionate love to my woman. And I'm not going to stop until she begs me to."
"Oh yeah," Rhian murmured as she wrapped her legs around Deven's thighs, trying to pull the woman closer to her need. Opening her arms in invitation, she trembled as the martial artist's weight settled more firmly on top of her body. "I love you," she said softly but with deep conviction.
"And I you," Deven answered against her lover's lips. She didn't even try to suppress the ardor, and true to her word, she didn't stop bringing the woman to climax after climax until Rhian begged her to cease. Then pulling the landscaper into her arms, Deven held her tight against her own sated body and released a sigh of contentment at knowing that she truly loved and was well loved in return. And as long as she had that, there was nothing in this world she couldn't face.
To Be Continued in Chapter Ten
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