Disclaimers, or lack of them: See Part 1
My thanks as always to my beta reader, Barbara Davies. Her work can be found on her page, Barbara Davies.
Jo watched the fuzzy figure approach. She tried and failed to focus on the person, and the voice when it came was not the one she wanted to hear.
"Here, drink this tea, dear. You need something warm in you." Joss watched carefully as the younger woman took the mug from her in shaking hands. "Can you manage?"
"Yes, thanks." Jo took a sip of the warm sweet tea, then looked around through bleary eyes. "Where's Rocky?"
"She went back to the car." Joss sat in a large, plump chair next to the stove, picking her mug of tea up from the hearth where she'd put it moments before.
"She what?!" The mug fell to the floor as Jo lurched to her feet.
For a woman who has seen the top of the hill and is on the way down the other side, as she often put it, Joss managed to move quickly. "Now you sit back down, girl. Your marbles haven't settled yet."
Jo found herself back in the chair. "It's freezing out there." She cast her blurred vision across the floor, looking for her shoes.
"Well, she'd seen someone out there, so whoever it was is probably helping her." Joss turned away from Jo and started picking the remains of the mug up from the cold, hard, stone floor.
"Someone out there?" Jo put the heel of her hand to her forehead, trying to lessen the thumping headache she'd had ever since entering the warm kitchen.
"Yes, dear," Joss said from the floor. "Said he was coming for her, and something about you. Didn't make much sense." She walked across to a small bin and threw the shards of china into it. "Shall I make you another?" she asked.
"Joss." Jo struggled to her feet, steadying herself against the table when the floor beneath her apparently shifted. "We need to go out and find her; I think she may be in trouble."
"We're not going anywhere, dear. We'll wait for her to come back." She tried to push back against the dark-haired woman, but found herself pinned by blue but slightly out of focus eyes.
"If the man is who I think it is, he raped her when she was fifteen, two weeks after her parents had been killed. Do you really want to wait here while he takes her back with him?" Jo gripped the older woman's shoulders, steadying herself as fear and her injury threatened to take her to the floor.
"Good grief," said Joss, paling. "She said she didn't know what he'd do to you."
Jo closed her eyes. "I think he threatened me. He thinks I'd come between them."
"And you love her very much?"
Jo's throat tightened, and she could only nod her answer.
"I'll get you some wellies," said Joss, matter-of-factly.
She brought Jo a thick pair of socks and a pair of wellington boots. Then she found her a coat and a woollen hat. "Probably not what you're used to, dear, but it'll keep the cold out." She opened a cupboard and pulled out a double-barrelled shotgun. Reaching into a drawer she took a couple of shells from a box. "Haven't used this in a while, but it's been kept clean." She looked up at Jo, who appeared to be shaking her head slightly, trying to clear her vision. "You ever used one?"
Jo nodded, recognising the sound of a shotgun being loaded. "My parents have pheasant shoots on their estate."
Joss's head snapped up. "Estate?"
"Not now, Joss," she said, shrugging into the coat.
The woman, her curiosity now seriously piqued, called for the small dog, which had been curled up in a basket beside the Aga. "Come on, Jasper," she said, bending and attaching the leash to his collar.
The animal pulled her towards the door, not caring that the conditions probably would not be comfortable for a midnight walk.
The door opened, and they were both pleased to find that the wind hadn't picked up and the night was still and calm, the blanket of snow thick and even.
Jo took a hold of the other woman's coat and followed her out into the darkness.
Joss didn't make for the field that they had crossed to get to the farmhouse, instead she made her way towards the barn. "Damned if I'm going to be trekking through the bloody snow. We'll get Bessie out."
Jo was too tired and in too much pain to argue, so she followed where the woman dragged her. The moonlight was enough to see by, and she hauled open the door of the barn.
Inside, about half a dozen cows regarded them then went back to munching on the feed that was in a long trough along one wall. In the corner a large lump was covered with a tarpaulin. Joss pulled back the tarp to reveal an ancient piece of machinery.
"This is Bessie," said Joss with a certain amount of pride in her voice. "She'll go through anything."
Bessie was a twenty-year old Land Rover. She sat for most of the year in the barn, but Joss went out every couple of weeks just to turn the engine over. And a young man came up from the village every six months to check it over.
"The hunt goes across my land in the summer, and I like to go out and take a look. Haven't been able to participate for a few years now - bloody hip gave out in 1998."
She loaded Jo into the passenger seat, and Jasper jumped up onto the younger woman's lap.
Joss started the engine, and switched on the lights, startling some of the cows. "Good girl," said Joss, tapping the steering wheel. Then she drove out of the barn and across the snow-covered courtyard.
Jo peered out, relieved that her vision appeared to be clearing. "Where do we start?" asked Jo.
"Well, it's a good clear night, we'll try to find their tracks." She slowed to a halt and leaned across and opened the door beside Jo. "Go on Jasper," she said, and the small dog leaped out of the car, almost disappearing in the deep snow.
"Is that a good idea?" asked Jo, watching as the dog disappeared and then reappeared a few feet away.
"He loves the snow. If there's anything out there out of the ordinary, he'll find it."
They watched the dog for a moment, easily making out his dark form in the moonlight. He found the tracks that they'd made earlier, and then veered off, following another set of tracks.
"He's off!" she said, and spun the steering wheel to follow the dog. The wheels of the old vehicle spun in the snow for a moment but then caught, and Jo had to hang on as the Land Rover bounced across the rutted field.
Even over the top of the ancient engine, they could hear the excited barking of Jasper. "He's found something. Looks like it's in the copse - we won't get Bessie through there."
Jo was out of the Land Rover before it had stopped and was following the sound of excited barking. She heard the Land Rover move away, but ignored it and made her way through the small stand of trees.
"Rocky!" she called, stopping for a moment to listen, but she heard only the excited barking of the dog. "Where are you, you bloody beast?"
The dog was suddenly in front of her, barking maniacally. "What?" she asked it, feeling ridiculous. She saw the lights of the Land Rover through the trees, and followed as Jasper took off again, darting between the tree trunks.
She cleared the trees and saw nothing. To her right, Joss was getting out of the Land Rover and walking towards her, torch in hand.
"Find anything?" she asked, coming to stand next to the tall woman.
Jo shook her head, and looked down towards where Jasper was excitedly dancing around what looked to be a tree branch half way down the slope. That was all she could see, a dark outline on the snow.
"What is it, boy?" Joss trained her torch on the dog, and both women were frozen by the sight that greeted them. The dark shape they could see was Rocky's jeans, her white tee-shirt and pale arms blending into the whiteness on which she lay.
"Oh my God," was all Jo managed and she slid down the slope, coming to rest beside her still lover and the dog, who was licking Rocky's unresponsive face. "Rocky," she breathed, and turned the blonde over. Damp hair fell across the blonde's face, her head lolling limply towards Jo. The dark-haired woman brushed the hair away, her fingers trembling as they encountered cold, marble-like skin. She cupped the pale face in her hands, the moonlight making her lover look even paler, her eyes and cheeks almost sunken, giving her the appearance of a corpse.
Jo gathered the small body into her arms. "Oh Jesus, Rocky," she sobbed, rocking the limp body, praying she would feel just the tiniest response from the woman. "Come on now, wake up," she breathed, looking down into the face of the blonde. "Don't you do this to me. What were you thinking?" She crushed her to her own body once more.
She looked up towards Joss, who was picking her way cautiously towards them. "She's frozen. I don't know if she's breathing." The moonlight reflected off the tears that streaked her face, and she tore her coat off. She gathered the limp form into her arms and tried her best to cover the frighteningly cold body with the heavy coat. "We need to get her inside," said Jo, and she tried to pick her up. But the limp body merely slipped through her hands and back onto the snow again. "I can't..." Jo said, trying again, her frustration getting the better of her. She sobbed at her own helplessness.
Joss gently pushed her aside. "Jo, calm down." She looked down at the girl, who looked small and frail. "Hold this." She handed Jo the coat and reached down for Rocky's arms. "It's all in the technique," she said as she pulled on the blonde's arms and then bent her shoulder into Rocky's stomach so that she fell across Joss's back. "There, " she said, straightening, and looking at Jo, who was staring open-mouthed at her. "Well, come on, girl, we don't have all night." She turned, and Jo followed, her eyes never leaving the sight of her lover's limp body across the shoulder of her new and very dear friend.
"Get in," said Joss as they reached the Land Rover.
Jo silently did as she was told, and Rocky's freezing body was deposited in her lap. Then the coat was thrown over them both.
Joss ran around the front of the vehicle and gunned the engine, taking a moment to negotiate the slope, not wanting them to end up in the lake.
"I can't believe you did that," said Jo, pulling Rocky close and burying her face in damp, blonde hair.
"What, dear?" Joss was peering out into the night, being careful not to run over her excitable pet who was feeling very pleased with himself.
"You just picked her up, like she was a baby." She tipped Rocky's head back so she could see into her face. It was slack and very pale, and her tears began again as her fear for her lover grew.
"I've worked this farm for the past twenty years, five of them on my own. That little slip of a things weighs a lot less than a hay bale." Joss chuckled to herself as she pulled into the courtyard.
She didn't take Bessie back into the barn, instead parking right outside the kitchen door. By the time she had got round to open the passenger side, Jo had opened it herself and was standing with Rocky in her arms, so she just opened the door and let the younger woman carry her lover into the warm room.
Jo collapsed to her knees in front of the Aga, and lowered Rocky to the floor. "What now?" she asked.
Joss was pulling off her coat. She knelt next to Jo and felt for a pulse at the blonde's throat.
"Oh God, she's dead," said Jo, bending forward and burying her face in her hands.
"Nonsense, girl." Joss straightened. "Get her out of those wet clothes, then get yourself out of yours."
"What?" said Jo, but she started to unlace Rocky's ankle boots.
"Body heat, dear. She doesn't have much of that at this moment, you do." She filled the kettle at the sink and then placed it on the hot plate on the Aga. "We need to warm her up slowly."
"Why don't we just put her in the bath?" asked Jo as she pulled off sodden socks and threw them across the room.
Joss watched the socks sail across the floor. "Too much, too quickly. It would be too much of a shock for her. I've seen this before; my husband used to like to climb a bit. Did Everest with him one year."
Jo was pulling at Rocky's damp and freezing jeans, but they resisted her efforts. She felt a hand on her shoulder, and looked up to see Joss. "Slow down; she needs you now."
Jo turned back to her task. "I'm scared, Joss." She managed to pull the jeans off, the cold skin of Rocky's legs feeling unfamiliar under her hands. She pulled Rocky to a sitting position and pulled off her tee-shirt, then cradled the small woman against her chest.
Joss squeezed her shoulder, and then left the room, returning quickly with a few blankets. She placed them on top of the Aga, and then turned to Jo. "Skin on skin is the best thing for someone with mild hypothermia," she saw Jo open her mouth to speak. "That's all it is, Jo. She's not going to die today."
Jo nodded and stood shakily, pulling her sweatshirt over her head and adding it to the damp pile of Rocky's clothing. Then she quickly kicked off the wellingtons and stripped out of her jeans.
"Sit on that chair," said Joss, pointing to the plump armchair beside the Aga.
Jo did so, and Joss got her hands under Rocky's arms and lifted her into Jo's lap.
Jo gasped as her lover's cold skin made contact with hers, but then Joss was covering her with the now-warm blankets, tucking them around the two women.
"You hold tight; she's going to start shivering soon, as her body starts to warm."
Jo wrapped her arms around the small body, kissing the top of the blonde head. "Always," she said quietly.
Jo thought she must have dozed for a while, for she was woken with a start when the blanket was pulled back slightly.
Joss had a hot water bottle, wrapped in a towel. "Here, hold this against her stomach."
Jo did as she was asked, and watched as Joss knelt at their feet and slipped a pair of soft, warm socks onto Rocky's feet. Then she repeated the process with Jo.
"I'm never going to be able to thank you enough for this," said Jo as the older woman stood, stretching her back as she did so.
"Nonsense, dear. It's been a jolly good piece of excitement for me." She pulled up one of the wooden kitchen chairs and sat near the Aga, pouring hot water into a teapot. "Since Hugh died, it's been a little quiet around here. I keep the farm going, but only have a few head of cattle." She put the lid on the pot and sat back in the chair. "You mentioned an estate?"
Jo smiled. "Collingford," she said quietly.
"Good grief, you're Joanna Holbrook-Sutherland."
"Yeah," said Jo warily - her reputation amongst England's upper class was not good.
"You caused quite a stir a year or so ago." She leaned forward and patted Jo's knee. "Good for you, girl. Those damn pale, skeletal young things down in London need shaking up. Saw that article in the Times; you were making headlines for a while there."
"Yes, I was," said Jo, ducking her head, and pulling the still limp girl closer to her chest.
Jo suddenly remembered why Rocky was now unconscious in her arms. "Joss, the man...."
Joss was pouring tea. "There was a hole in the ice on the lake."
"You think he went through?"
"I could see no sign of him."
Jo looked down at the woman on her lap, who was just beginning to move slightly. "Oh, baby, what happened out there?"
Joss stood. "Right then, Jo. We're going to try to get this tea in her. It's only just warm, not too hot. But it'll help warm her from the inside."
Jo gave the mug in Joss's hand a concerned look. "Won't she choke?"
"Probably, a little. But you'd be surprised what the body does out of instinct." Joss smiled suddenly. "Unless of course you'd like to try another way of getting it into her."
Jo frowned, obviously not completely understanding.
Joss grinned. "From the other end."
"Oh my God," said Jo, smiling for the first time in a while. "She'd kill me."
"That's more like it, girl." She took a couple of steps towards the two women in their cocoon of blankets. "Now, open her mouth."
Joss placed a towel beneath Rocky's chin, and waited while Jo gently prised open her lover's mouth. She poured a small amount of tea into the blonde's mouth, then rubbed her throat, which in turn caused Rocky to swallow.
The second attempt wasn't as successful, however, and Joss found lukewarm tea dripping from her face when it was coughed up forcefully by the unconscious woman.
Jo winced, but the older woman just returned to her task, and after a while the whole mug of tea was inside Rocky, and the weak shivering was becoming more insistent.
"Now you drink yours, dear," she said, handing Jo a mug. "She's going to be shivering so hard soon, you'll have a job holding on."
Jo took the mug, draining it quickly, then handing it back to Joss.
"I'll never be able to thank you enough for this," said Jo, pulling Rocky closer to her body when her shivering threatened to make her slide to the floor.
Joss stood and pushed the hair back from the blonde's forehead, pleased at the slight warmth she now felt. "I should be thanking you two. I was just sitting here in front of the stove, trying to sleep. It's the only warm room in the house. Haven't had this much excitement for years."
Suddenly Jo's head snapped up from its place resting against the blonde head. "Did you see anyone else out there? My God, I forgot...."
"Jo, sshhh. I saw a hole in the ice. Rocky's legs were drenched if you remember. I've lost livestock in that lake in the winter before now, I know the signs. Something went through the ice. I told you that," she said gently.
Jo looked down at Rocky; the realisation of how close she'd come to losing her, to the ice and to hypothermia, suddenly crushed down on her. But the feel of the small woman shivering against her gave her the knowledge that she was alive, and for now, that was all she needed.
Rocky suddenly gasped, her teeth chattering as her body finally started to do its work. Her arms drew in about her own body, her fists clenching painfully.
Jo held on, smiling down at her lover as the green eyes opened and looked dazedly around the room.
"It's okay," Jo whispered into a nearby ear.
"Sssso cccold." She was almost incoherent, and threatened to slip out of Jo's grasp.
"I know, baby. But you're warming up, that's why you're shivering so much."
Rocky tried to talk again, but it was just too difficult - she didn't seem to have any control over the spasms that rocked her body or the chattering that echoed through her head.
"We just have to wait it out, Sweetheart. You'll feel better soon." Jo jumped when she felt a small, shaking hand brush against her breast beneath the blankets. "You're feeling better already, eh?" She smiled down at her lover, who returned the smile somewhat shakily.
Rocky eased her head against Jo's chest, relaxing into the feeling of warmth and security she found there. She would tell her lover what had happened at the lake later. She remembered everything. From the feeling of the cold water that encased her legs, sucking the feeling and strength from them. To the look on her uncle's face as he tried to pull himself out of the freezing depths.
The shaking continued and she felt Jo's hold around her tighten. The tears came then, not just for herself, but for her family. Now she suspected she was the only one left. She had no family left. She had lost so much, yet she had found so much more. She had found her heart, and a reason to live.
She looked up. Jo had her eyes closed, and looked exhausted. "Jo?" she managed.
Blue eyes opened. "Yeah, Sweetheart?"
"Dddon't leave mme."
A look of shock and then anguish crossed the angular face. "Never, Rocky. Never." She pulled the damp blonde head against her chest again. "Try to sleep," she said, looking across at Joss, whose tears mirrored her own.
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