DISCLAIMERS: No specific disclaimers are required because the characters are original. Physically, however, they may remind you of... know. The story takes place in and around the Twin Cities and Northern Minnesota. Some of the locations are real and some are not (that's why it's called fiction, folks). "Crimson Snow" is intended for an opened minded, mature audience. If you're not both of those things, exit now. I'm a lawyer, not a writer. You have been warned. This work is protected by COPYRIGHT 1999 Advocate, all rights reserved.

Violence/Profanity: (R-rated) This story contains graphic violence and some profanity.

Sexual Content: (R-rated) This is alternative fiction. It contains women in love and the physical expression of that love. Okay... there's sex. If for any reason you shouldn't be reading this... please don't.

Hurt/Comfort: Yep. Big time alert on this one. If this disturbs you, run don't walk.

Sequel Alert: This story is the sequel to "Connections". It is not, however, necessary to read that story in order to enjoy this one.

Beta Readers and other Help: Without the assistance of my fabulous beta readers: kd bard, Barbara Davies, and Ellie, this story would be illegible. As God is my witness, these women actually know how to use a semicolon. You guys are the best. Kudos to Iliana for supplying the cool title. Also, I'd like to acknowledge the excellent assistance I received from several experts via Lunacy's Expert Directory.

Special Thanks: With all my heart I'd like to thank my husband, Bob. His love, companionship, and patience, teaches me everyday that a soulmate isn't someone who completes you... it's someone who gives you the tools to complete yourself. I said this in my last disclaimer, but it's worth repeating.


Amanda took a deep breath, reveling in the comfort and warmth of her current position. She shifted slightly, but not so much as to wake the woman who had fallen asleep literally on top of her. Carefully, she lifted her hand and began stroking the long midnight black hair splayed across her abdomen. God, I love her hair. It's so soft and always smells so good.

Green eyes fluttered shut in quiet contentment as the form sprawled over her mumbled something unintelligible and brushed a light kiss on Amanda's belly, all without waking. The bedroom was still dark and Amanda found herself with the rare opportunity to hold her partner and just think. Both woman had been exceptionally busy lately, and in Amanda's mind, these peaceful moments were all too infrequent. But still, she was torn. Most of her was selfishly enjoying these silent stolen moments. A small part of her, however, wished her lover would wake up so they could languidly trade kisses and quiet conversation before starting their day.

It was customary for both women to wake up before the alarm and spend long moments snuggling and talking. Claire seemed so open at these times, even talkative, a word Amanda was sure was never associated with the normally reticent attorney. That fact alone made Amanda cherish the time. But in the aftermath of hectic days and correspondingly shortened nights, this special time fell victim. Amanda found herself a little surprised at how her heart ached for it.

Having gone to bed early the night before, she felt well-rested and refreshed even at the ungodly hour of... her eyes drifted to the clock...4:00 a.m. It wouldn't be light for nearly another 3 hours. The days are so short this time of year.

Heavy wet snow from the night's storm had plastered itself on the window, making the room even darker. But the howling wind had died down and the large home seemed to be insulated by a blanket of quiet darkness.

Amanda pulled up the soft navy comforter and settled it around Claire. Not that you'd ever be cold, sweetheart. Heaven forbid. But still... why take chances?

The differences in their sleeping habits had been an unexpected source of frustration for both women. Amanda liked lots of blankets, the warmer the better. Claire, on the other hand, was warm-blooded by nature, and even during the brutal Minnesota winters she rarely used anything more than a sheet. As with all things, a compromise was quickly reached. Amanda simply laid a spare blanket next to her side of the bed so when the inevitable happened, and Claire kicked off their coverings in a mid-night fit of heat frustration, she had a spare handy.

The blonde grinned, considering Claire's hot nature. Heh. At least that means she sleeps naked. Privately, Amanda considered that more than made up for any small concessions she had made.

Never one to let an opportunity pass her by, the young psychologist resolved herself to staying awake in her current state of decadent bliss, and allowed her mind drift any place it wanted to go. Predictably, her mental wanderings stayed close to home and the people she loved. Home. Our home.

Amanda mentally calculated the number of months since the azure-eyed attorney's investigation led her to the Cornerstone Clinic. Has it only been 8 months since we met? And 3 months since Missy and I moved in here? That's sounds like such a short period of time. The heated breath on her belly warmed her heart as much as her skin. This doesn't feel like eight months, she marveled as she lightly traced the soft skin between Claire's shoulder blades. It feels like forever. No, I take that back, forever isn't long enough.

Claire frowned in her sleep and Amanda could feel the lawyer's face tense against her skin. She continued her rhythmic stroking until she felt the tension leave the taller woman's body. "That's it," she softly cooed. "Relax, love."

Amanda spared a moment of worry over the long hours Claire had been keeping lately. Ah, Gumby, you're just plain worn out. The blonde smiled gently at the nickname her partner claimed to despise. But she knew Claire took it for what it was, a term of dear affection, albeit an unusual one.

Who'd have thought a hard-as-nails lawyer would be such a sucker for toys? The therapist's smile broadened as she pictured Claire removing the bendable green figure from her glove box and attaching it to her steering wheel each and every time she drove.

"Why are you awake?" a deep voice mumbled, tickling Amanda's bare stomach.

The smaller woman jumped slightly. "I thought you were asleep." Her hand moved up and traced a warm cheek.

"Was. Why are you awake so early?" Claire repeated, her voice slightly slurred.

"I'm just thinking. But the more important question is why are you awake? And don't try to tell me you're not still exhausted."

A dark head lifted and Claire opened her mouth to argue. Abruptly, the mouth closed. She's right. I'm wiped. "You're right. I need more sleep." The brunette yawned and kicked off the comforter as she tightened her grip on Amanda and laid her head back down. "I've got a lot to take care of today if we wanna leave next week." Claire lightly patted the belly below her ear. "Am I okay like this?"

"Very okay," Amanda said affectionately. "Go back to sleep. We don't need to get up for a couple of hours yet."

"Night, Mandy," Claire murmured.

"Goodnight, honey."

Several moments passed but Amanda was still wide-awake. I could still get two more hours of sleep before I have to get up and face the day. Amanda pushed down a feeling of dread. What is wrong with me? I can't let this bother me so much. It's not like it hasn't happened before. But somehow this doesn't feel the same. What started out as a small nagging sensation in the back of her mind had turned into full blown, stomach churning worry. Okay. I need to stop being such a worrywart. Things will be all right. I just need to take control of the situation. And if that doesn't work, I'll talk to Jody. There's no need to worry Claire. She'll just get upset. Yeah. That's what I'll do.


Claire yawned and stretched a little, but stubbornly kept her eyes closed. I don't wanna get up! And nobody can make me, she added petulantly.

The tall attorney could hear the shower running and knew her lover was already preparing for work. A fleeting thought of joining Amanda in the shower was easily bowled over by a wave of lethargy. Just ten more minutes. Then I'll get up.

Several moments later, Claire felt the bed move and fuzzily noted the shower had stopped. Mandy must be finished. She slowly pried open her eyes to find two sea-green orbs only millimeters from hers. Confused and startled, Claire nearly flew out of the bed. Holy Shit! "What in the...?" she screamed.

Her feet landed on the floor with a resounding thud, and the figure in the bed began giggling helplessly. Claire tried to calm her furiously beating heart. Why does she love doing that so much? You little rat! Wait until you're old enough for me to tell you the story of the insane asylum patient who escaped in our neighborhood! Then we'll see who has a heart attack.

Amanda emerged from the bathroom towel drying her newly shorn red-gold tresses. Her black slip clung to the patches of skin that were still damp. She turned to Claire, who was standing in the middle of the floor in a defensive posture and breathing heavily. "She did it again, huh?" She smiled sympathetically at her disheveled lover. Twisting sharply, she raised her hands to hips and spoke sternly to her nearly hysterical daughter. "Missy, are you scaring Claire again?"

"Yeah, Mama," the two-year-old giggled and buried her fair head deep into a pillow.

Amanda tried not to laugh. Why does she love doing that so much? "I thought I told you not to do that. It's not nice to scare Claire."

Missy lifted her head from the pillow and turned round, innocent eyes on Claire. "Sorry, Cwwair."

Claire smiled at the toddler, now that her brain seemed to be warming up. "You little stinker!" She approached the little girl in a mock-threatening manner. "I'm gonna have to make you pay for that!" A buck-naked Claire pounced back on the bed and began mercilessly tickling an equally naked Missy.

Amanda's eyes roamed appreciatively over her partner's lean muscular form until it fully registered that Missy was naked in their bed. "Did you go potty, Missy?" Amanda questioned.

Claire eyes widened and she pulled her hands off Missy as though she'd been burned. Amanda couldn't help but chuckle. Her lover's inexperience with children, although greatly reduced over the past eight months, occasionally poked through. Potty training had been... interesting. And now getting the little girl to keep her clothes on was proving to be an equally difficult challenge. Looking at Claire, she wondered if that was a challenge she was destined to fail.

"Missy..." Amanda warned in her best maternal voice. She pointed out the bedroom door and the little girl pushed herself off the bed until two tiny feet dangled over the edge. With a final grunt, she dropped onto the floor and ran out of the room toward the other bathroom.

Claire shook her head and smiled as the prancing child turned the corner. Next came a loud thump. She and Amanda both cringed when they correctly guessed that Missy had gotten tangled in her own feet and fallen.

Lucky we've got extra thick carpet, Claire mused as Amanda followed after her daughter. The older woman heard a muffled conversation from the hallway way that ended with an affectionate smack on a chubby bottom and the command "scoot".

Running her hands through damp hair, Amanda reentered the bedroom. Claire was sprawled out on the bed, intently focused on the bedroom door.

The therapist's eyes traveled the length of long, toned legs; over the curve of slim hips; around the swell of firm breasts; finally landing in a sparkling pool of blue. My God, she's fantastic! Amanda felt her pulse quicken at the sight and slowly crossed the thick gray carpet until she reached the bed.

"Claire, have I told you how magnificent you are?" Amanda purred in a voice an octave below normal. "And how much I love you?"

Claire swallowed convulsively as Amanda leaned over and placed light kisses in the smooth valley between her breasts. Amanda's lips were warm and soft and the lawyer's body responded immediately. When Claire didn't answer, Amanda peppered a light trail of kisses across her collarbone and lifted her head. She arched a thin, pale eyebrow.

Claire realized some sort of response was required. "Umm...well...I mean," the taller woman babbled. The light musky scent of her companion's skin and the sweet aroma of her shampoo were driving Claire to distraction. ""

"Well..." A light kiss on the cheek " are." Another kiss. "And I do." Amanda grinned evilly, stood up, and marched back into the bathroom, knowing full well the state she'd left her partner in. It wasn't often that Claire was on the butt end of this type of teasing and she was determined to enjoy her small victory.

Claire sat motionless wondering what had just happened. She didn't want to give Amanda the pleasure of hearing her groan so she clutched her pillow to her face. After taking a moment to compose herself, she called into the bathroom. "Oh, I get it. You're both trying to kill me. Tag teaming is not nice, Mandy." Mandy's slip alone is enough to make me pass out. She heard the smaller woman's laughter over the sounds of the blow dryer. "I don't know who's more satanic, you or your daughter."

Amanda emerged from the bathroom wearing a fitted black skirt and a silver silk blouse, which still was mostly unbuttoned. She crossed the room and bent deeply at the waist, opening the bottom drawer of her dresser and fishing out a scarf. This time Claire did groan out loud, causing an unseen smile to crease Amanda's face.

"You!" Claire blurted out in undisguised anguish. "You are definitely the more evil of the two," she moaned.

Amanda turned and laughed at her friend. Crossing the room once again, she perched on the bed alongside Claire. "I'm sorry for the teasing, Gumby," she apologized sincerely. Looking at her watch, she sighed. "I still have to get Missy fed, dressed, and dropped off at Mrs. Fisher's, all in the next hour."

Claire pouted and leaned closer to Amanda. She began trailing her hands down the soft silk of Amanda's sleeves.

"Claire..." Amanda warned. "I have my first appointment today at 9:00 a.m. and I really need to catch up on some paperwork before then." God, I love it when she touches me.

"Uh Huh," Claire grunted as her hands slid across Amanda's shoulders and found their way underneath the top of her blouse. In an excruciatingly erotic movement, Claire slowly pushed the blouse off Amanda's shoulders, trailing her fingers down with the blouse.

The younger woman shivered as warm fingertips caressed cool silk and then bare skin. Claire leaned heavily against Amanda and the therapist's resolve began to weaken. Then it simply broke. Screw my paperwork! The blonde moaned softly as Claire's lips replaced her fingertips.


"Yes," she answered breathlessly.

The lawyer pulled back and looked at her partner. Amanda's skin was flushed, and her breath was coming in short pants. She's the one who's magnificent. Blue eyes twinkled. "I'll go get Missy dressed." With that, Claire stood up and proudly marched out of the bedroom.

Amanda stared at the empty doorway with wide, unbelieving eyes. When it registered that Claire wasn't coming back, she flopped back gracelessly on the king sized bed. Ugh! Well... Mandy. What did your mother always tell you? If you play with fire, you get burned. With an audible groan she sat up, her senses still ringing from her partners touch and voice and smell...Ugh! She couldn't help but laugh at her own misery. Oh, Mama... I'll bet you never imagined fire like her. Amanda smiled wryly and moved back into the bathroom.


Amanda walked up the sidewalk of the Cornerstone Clinic with fifteen minutes to spare before her first appointment. The Cornerstone was a renovated brownstone home, located on Grand Avenue in the heart of St. Paul. The neighborhood was a combination of trendy eateries, antique shops, old churches and college hangouts. It suited Amanda and her longtime friend and business partner, Jody Penbrook, perfectly.

Amanda pushed open the clinic door and found Jody restocking the brochure rack by the front desk. "Brr... It's freezing out there. Hey! You're cleaning the waiting room?" Amanda asked surprised. Her eyes drifted to a pile of cleaning supplies at Jody's feet.

The stout psychologist frowned. "My 9:00 a.m. cancelled. So I figured I... And just what's so shocking about that?" she interrupted herself indignantly.

"Oh, I don't know." Amanda tapped her foot. "Could it be the fact that I've actually seen your apartment?" she intoned sarcastically. "You're the only person I know who makes Claire look neat. Hey, maybe we could start a support group for the hopelessly messy. We could call it Slobs Anonymous. And you could be the reigning president."

"Wake up on the wrong side of your broomstick this morning, Amanda?" The taller brunette reached down and picked up another stack of pamphlets refusing to turn brown eyes in the direction of her rude friend.

"Ouch! Sorry," she apologized sheepishly. I can't take out my frustrations on Jody. It's not her fault.

Both women chuckled as Amanda tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. The motion didn't go unnoticed by the other psychologist. "Still not used to the new 'do', huh? Did Claire like it?" Jody simply crumpled up the remaining brochure that wouldn't fit into the rack.

"What should that matter? It's my hair!" Amanda snapped back more sharply than she'd intended.

Uh Oh. Claire... You better not have done anything other than offer glowing praise, you big dumb lawyer.

"Sorry again, Jody." Amanda sighed and willed her hands away from her head. "I'm just a little edgy this morning." Try a lot edgy. But I can't think about that right now. Besides, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm just overreacting. The younger woman looked at her business partner regretfully. "I've gotta go hide my broomstick before my first appointment arrives, it tends to freak 'em out."

Jody winced and tried to think of something nice to say. It was clear that something was bothering her friend. Amanda was nearly to her office door before the short-haired brunette's mind engaged and she piped up. "You look pretty today. Why so dressed up?"

By unspoken decree, the atmosphere of the clinic was resolutely casual. It wasn't uncommon for either woman to show up to work in jeans. Jody had commented many times that this fact alone was enough incentive to own your own business.

Amanda shrugged. "I'm meeting my dad for lunch today on campus." Now probably wouldn't be a good time to confess that all my casual clothes are in the dirty clothes hamper, she admitted wryly.

Before Amanda could escape into her office. A large woman pushed her way through the clinic door and sat down heavily on the couch. She was tightly clutching an enormous black handbag and smacking her gum loudly. Trailing behind her was an extremely thin, pissed-off looking man. He sat as far away from the woman as humanly possible. Jody raised her eyebrows and flashed Amanda a smile that said, "Sucks to be you this morning."

Green eyes narrowed at Jody but smiled brightly at Mr. and Mrs. Johannson as she waved the couple into her office ahead of her. She hesitated for only a second before taking a deep breath, moving forward, closing the office door behind her.


"You're not serious?" Claire slammed down the file she was holding, causing an echo to ring out in her small office.

"I am serious, and you'll do it." Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Mark Gustafson refused to back down, even to his best friend and associate. Although he didn't agree with them, he had his orders. The tall blonde's normally pale skin began to flush with anger. A tiny bead of sweat rolled down the side of his thick neck. "We're on the same team here, Claire," he reminded, his frustration leaking into his voice.

In the six months that Claire had been a prosecutor she'd never clashed with her friend over a case. She sighed inwardly. There's a first time for everything. "I don't care what the boss says." Claire leaned forward, her knuckles bearing down on the desk. "I won't do it. If he wants it done, he'll have to do it himself!"

Mark leaned over the other side of Claire's desk, forcing the two friends to stand nearly nose-to-nose. "It's not his job to do it. It's yours."

Claire looked up into sincere hazel eyes and allowed her own expression to soften. "It was rape, Mark. I won't call it something else." I should have done more.

The big man straightened and sighed. His meaty hand reached up and loosened the red paisley tie circling his neck. "Shit, Claire. You think I don't know that?" He threw his hands up in frustration as he sat back into the chair waiting behind him, his large frame causing the chair to moan and creak in protest.

Claire stood for several seconds before she exhaled loudly and sat back in her own chair. Both prosecutors were silent. Finally, Claire spoke. "We could still take it to trial." She leaned forward and threaded long fingers together. "We've got the statements from the school psychologist; that might be enough."

"What part of 'offer him a plea' don't you understand, Claire?"


"No goddamn buts!" Mark slammed his fist down onto the stack of files that swamped Claire's desk. "The girls have all recanted everything. Even his stupid wife is sticking by him. We have no evidence other than the shrink's reports. We have nothing!"

Fuck! I know he's right... but... fuck! "Marko, I know you're right but... well... God... they're his own stepdaughters. It started before they were even teenagers. They were practically babies! How can I offer him simple assault? He won't serve more than a year in the local county jail."

Claire had wholeheartedly thrown herself into this assignment. She'd worked late nearly every night for the past three weeks hoping she could save her rapidly disintegrating case. One of the Hanson girls had told her high school counselor about her father's 'late night' visits to her and her sister's bedrooms. When the counselor spoke to each girl separately, they independently admitted to similar experiences that took place over a six-year time period. But one by one each girl recanted, saying they were just mad at their stepfather, that they had lied, and were trying to get back at him for not allowing them to stay up late one night and watch a movie.

Mark couldn't ignore the dejected look on his friend's face. "Do you have anything else?" he asked hopefully. "Anything at all we can take to the boss to bolster the case?" If it was out there, I know you'd find it.

Claire's face twisted into a frown and she nervously picked at her brown twill slacks. "No." She shifted uncomfortably, feeling the full weight of her failure. "I've been working my ass off but I've still got nothing. I've spent hours on research, and interviews and re-interviews and more research, and I'm still where I was a few weeks ago. Without the girls' testimony, or the mom's testimony, or a confession, I don't have squat."

Claire's face went icy. "The mother knew, Mark. I could see it in her eyes when I interviewed her." Her stomach roiled as she remembered the experience.

Cold dark eyes had told her to mind her own business. That this was "family" and it wasn't her place to interfere. Mrs. Hanson had said she'd stick by her husband through anything, so Claire might as well give up. After all, she wasn't pretty like Claire, and she was lucky to find such a good provider. It took all of Claire's considerable will power to keep from striking the woman then and there. How could she do that? How can she sleep at night... with him? How can she even look at those girls? Claire wondered. Her thoughts naturally turned to Missy. A surge of protectiveness washed over her. I'd kill anyone that laid a finger on her like that.

Mark could almost feel the eerie change in Claire's demeanor as her eyes took on a steely quality and her jaw clenched. He squirmed under the weight of her stare, it didn't matter that he could see she was looking right through him.

After a few more dark thoughts Claire refocused on the other prosecutor. Great. Now he probably thinks I'm nuts. "Sorry, Mark, I zoned out there for a second." She quirked an eyebrow. "You know how I hate to lose."

The big man relaxed when Claire's face went from deadly to merely furious. "I was right," the man's deep voice finally declared. "Prosecuting suits you in a way corporate law never did." She's already one of the best prosecutors in the Twin Cities. With her fire and brains, if I don't watch out, she'll be my boss in a few years. Humph...I guess that wouldn't be so bad. Oh yeah, with Claire running the show the bad guys would run for the county line! "This is the battlefield you were meant to fight on. This is where you're gonna change people's lives and make a real difference."

Bright blue eyes rolled at her friend's overly dramatic language and Claire smirked. "Been reading those Harlequin romance novels again, Marko?" she teased, but privately acknowledged he was right. He and Mandy... they can both read me like a book. What is it about you idealistic blondes that I find so irresistible?

Mark smiled and ignored the jibe. Then his rugged features turned serious. "Listen, my friend." He reached out and grabbed Claire's hand. "Part of this job is knowing when to say when. You're gonna burn out if you keep up like this. You can't take these cases so personally. You need to pick your battles. Let this one go, Claire."

Claire nodded, although her heart didn't agree. But those girls are still in the house with him! How does Mandy deal with cases like this all the time? They make me physically ill. Claire blew out a grumpy breath. "It's just that the guy's such a pig. And he's basically gonna get away with it," she whined.

"I wouldn't call a year in jail getting away with it."

Claire flashed him an evil glare.

Mark immediately held up his palms to forestall her next comment. "Okay, okay," he conceded. "At least not totally getting away with it. But regardless, you need to offer him the deal."

Aww. Shit. "Fine," she said grumpily. "I'll make the offer this afternoon." Maybe the asshole will be too stupid to take it. It doesn't hurt to hope, she reassured herself.

"Great!" Mark stood up and brushed his slacks. I hate fighting with you. "You think you can finish everything..." he stared pointedly at the messy piles on her desk "...before we're supposed to leave for the cabins next week?"

"Hell, yes! I've been killing myself! There is no way I'm gonna let this paperwork drag me under." Claire eyed the files in challenge. Where's a match when you really need one.

The only way the relatively new employee could schedule a week's vacation right before Christmas was to beg, borrow and steal. Claire now owed favors to nearly every attorney in the building, and she was doing her best to pay them all back before leaving on their trip.

Mark looked at the stacks again and shook his head. "Whatever you say." He turned and began walking out of the office. "I'll talk to you later." With a short wave, he was gone.

Claire nodded her goodbye and picked up the file on the top of the tallest pile. Lucky for you Mandy, you're totally worth this.

Months ago, Claire and Amanda had discussed taking a trip up to the Boundary Waters. But Claire's new job had put a stop to any short-term vacation plans. When Amanda's former professor and mentor, Iris Park, offered her the use of her two cabins for the week before Christmas, she couldn't resist.

Missy's regular childcare provider, Mrs. Fisher, had agreed to keep Missy for the week in exchange for use of Amanda's condo over the holidays. It's a shame that Amanda keeps paying maintenance fees for a condo she never uses anymore. I wonder why she doesn't just sell it? Maybe she wants to keep it in case things don't work out between us? A pesky voice answered. It's not like you've really discussed a long-term future with her, it continued. I know, I know. But it would be wrong to pressure her.

Besides I've been so damn moody lately I couldn't blame her if she wanted to leave. So you'd understand if she wanted to leave? You'd just let her go? The voice taunted. No! She screamed mentally. I just want her to be happy.

Claire rubbed her temples. I'm not being fair. Mandy's been great these last few weeks, even when I've been a total bitch. I can trust her. She wouldn't just leave without saying something. But she won't put up with this shit forever. I'll make it her up to her on this vacation. With that, Claire pushed the troublesome thoughts aside and opened the top file. It was going to be another long day.


"Crap!" Amanda's breath filled the car with a white fog. She furiously slapped the steering wheel of her Audi. "Nooo. I can't be late today." She tried the key again. GRR...GRR...GRRRRRRR. Silence. I hate winter. It's fifteen degrees below zero. No wonder my freakin' car won't start! GRR...GRR...GRRRRRRR. "C'mon!" Still nothing. "Fine!" Amanda angrily withdrew her keys and hurriedly made her way back into the clinic, her movement slightly impaired by her atypical business dress and her bulky winter coat.

Jody's office door was open, so the rushing blonde didn't so much as slow down before running into her best friend's office. Jody had her back to the smaller woman, and was standing in the corner considering a new arrangement for several out of what Amanda estimated to be hundreds of knickknacks. She didn't bother turning around when she addressed the younger counselor. It had to be her, Jody reasoned, no one else could make that much noise entering a room. "I thought you were meeting your dad for lunch." She picked up a tarantula encased in a solid glass ball and considered whether her Malibu Barbie would mind the unusual company.

"I am. But my car won't start. Can I borrow your truck?"

"No problem. The keys are next to the ant farm on my desk." Golden- brown eyes focused on the swaying hips of the wall-mounted Elvis clock. "You'd better hurry, the metro traffic is in full swing by now."

Amanda grabbed the keys from a tiny flower-shaped crystal dish next to the ant farm and laughed to herself. Jody, you are so weird. "Thanks, Jody. I'll be back at least 2 minutes before my next appointment," she joked.

"Oh, Amanda?"

Amanda stopped, her body half inside and half outside of the office. "Yeah?"

"Save a little time for me tonight. I'd like to talk to you about something."

Amanda frowned. Jody didn't usually set up a time to talk. They just did. She took a couple of steps back into the office noticing that her heels were already starting to blister in the uncomfortable shoes. "Is something the matter?"

Jody shrugged and continued to sort through her flea market treasures. "Nah... It'll keep. Go have lunch with your dad. I'll talk to you later."

Amanda raised pale eyebrows in question. "Are you sure? Because I could..."

"I'm sure. Now go, will ya? I've got a kleptomaniac coming in at noon and I've still gotta hide all my good stuff."

Amanda's face crinkled into a smile. "Very funny," she laughed.

The wavy-haired brunette cocked her head toward the King's blue suede shoes. "I know you're not still here, Amanda"

Amanda grimaced at Elvis. I'm never gonna make it on time and Daddy only has an hour between classes. "Okay, I'll stop in before I go home tonight," she called on her way out.

Amanda tightened her scarf and opened the clinic door as a blast of frigid December air caused her to shiver. Even though it promised warmth, she approached Jody's truck with evident distaste. The massive vehicle was a shocking shade of purple, which Amanda was certain would only be tolerated in the Twin Cities where the Minnesota Vikings were worshipped openly.

She stepped up into the high cab and shut the door behind her. This truck was definitely not built with someone 5'4" in mind. She adjusted the massive seat and turned the key. The engine obediently roared to life. Humph. That's what I get for buying a foreign car. Now... she pulled out onto the street it even possible to make it to Hamilton University in five minutes? Amanda shook her head and sighed. Nope. Well, at least it's only Daddy I'm meeting. Mother has a fit when I'm late. Of course, in order to have a fit she'd have to be speaking to me.

The blonde's estrangement from her mother was taking its toll. While Amanda had never been especially close to her mother, she still considered their relationship to be normal, if a little formal. It had been nearly 8 months since she'd spoken to her, their last encounter marred by a vicious argument from which neither woman would back down.

Initially, her mother had supported Amanda's adoption of Missy from her older sibling. After all, Monica showed no serious interest in keeping the child herself. But more than a year and a half after Missy was born, Monica returned and demanded Amanda give Missy back. Amanda was shocked when Violet Greer stubbornly sided with her oldest daughter. Violet reasoned that although Monica clearly had a drug problem... that was something that could be cured. Amanda's 'life-choices', as she called them, were here to stay.

The psychologist considered her mother's words and actions nothing short of a betrayal. And now, all these months later, the young counselor found herself fondly remembering the days when her relationship with her mother was merely strained rather than nonexistent.

"Yesss," Amanda hissed in victory. She thanked the "gods of good parking" when a spot directly across from the English department opened up. In tribute, she stuffed eight quarters into the hungry meter. The cold air burned deep in her chest as carefully navigated the icy steps leading into the building.

Tucked neatly away amidst the storage rooms and a few private offices on the corner of the fourth floor, was Professor Harold Greer's office. Amanda smiled a little. It had been several years since she'd come to school to see her father but familiar smell of old dusty books was very much home.

Harold was a rather short, heavyset man, who was by any standards, old enough to be Amanda's grandfather. And at nearly seventy years old, his teaching days were rapidly coming to a close.

The professor's gentle demeanor and accepting heart wouldn't permit him to join in his wife's castigation of his youngest child. He loved her, plain and simple. Who Amanda chose to love couldn't change that. But today, he found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to tell Amanda that Violet expected to see Missy at Christmas... only Missy.

"Why do I let you talk me into these things, Violet?" he muttered around a bite of chicken salad sandwich. Although his wife was nearly 20 years his junior, there was no denying that she ran their household. He simply found it easier do as Violet asked rather than deal with her wrath. Poor Amanda. I do believe that fearsome temper is the only quality she inherited from her mother. Harold set down the remaining half of his sandwich and looked at his watch. Where is that child? She'll be late to her own funeral!

"Daddy." A familiar voice rang out in the empty hallway. I hope he waited.

The white haired man stood up from his desk and opened his door. "In here, Pumpkin," he answered.

Smiling green eyes met their twins. "I'm sorry I'm late. My car wouldn't start." Amanda sat in a chair next to her father and began peeling off her heavy black wool coat. Whew! I should have remembered it's like an oven up here.

"That's okay, Sweetie." He took a good look at his daughter and removed his bifocals. "You've done something to your hair, haven't you?" The old man chewed the tip of his gold metal frames as he appraised his daughter. "I think it's quite becoming," he finally stated. "I see lots of the young girls wearing short hair these days."

Amanda let out a breath she didn't know she was holding. The therapist fussed with her bangs self-consciously but grinned at the compliment. She still appreciated her father's approval though it was something she'd never really had to work for. "Thanks, Daddy."

Harold leaned over and kissed her on the cheek and she was magically transported back in time. She giggled as she always did, when his beard and mustache tickled her skin. "I'm glad you came." His eyes suddenly turned regretful. "I've missed you."

"I've missed you too," she said seriously. "I never thought mother would take things this far."

The white head shook in agreement. "I know. She's decided to be difficult about this. I've discussed it with her but..."

"I know, Daddy. It's all right." Amanda dearly loved her father. His constant affection and support had given her a solid emotional foundation for which she was eternally grateful. But when it came to his wife, he could only be described as weak. Amanda had never once seen him stand up to her mother. And if it hasn't happened by now, it's not going to happen. "What is it you wanted to see me about?" she asked, stealing a bite of what was left of his sandwich.

Harold smiled knowingly and pulled out another large sandwich from the thermal lunch bag in his desk. "Here." He thrust it forward. "Take this before I don't have any of my own lunch left!"

Amanda cheerfully unwrapped the sandwich and immediately dug in, humming her approval with every bite. I wish I could make good chicken salad. Claire would love this too. I hope she remembered to take that Tupperware of soup I left in the refrigerator for her. She's been skipping too many meals lately.


"Hmm?" Amanda refocused on her father.

"You mother has certain expectations for the holidays," he started uncomfortably.

The psychologist stopped mid-chew. "And?" She hastily swallowed the remainder of the bite.

"And she'd like for you to bring Missy over for Christmas," he said, his eyes not meeting hers.

"Really?" Her surprise was clear. "That's great. I didn't think..."

"She wants you to drop her off. You can pick her up the next day."

Pale brows lifted but Amanda said nothing. Finally, she grabbed her coat and stood. "I see. She expects me to deposit my daughter for the holiday and simply pick her up when she's finished."

Harold nodded.

"MISSY IS NOT MY DRYCLEANING!" she ground out in a booming voice.

The old man winced when he saw a flash of the hurt hiding behind her anger. "Amanda..."

"Don't you dare defend her, Daddy. I've made numerous attempts to call her, even after she sided with a drug addict over me, and she won't even come to the phone! How can she even think I'd leave Missy in her care after what happened the last time?"

Amanda felt her temperature rise as she remembered the last visit between Missy and her mother. Violet had called Amanda and asked that Missy be allowed to spend the night at their home. Reluctantly, Amanda agreed, only to find out later that it had all been a ruse so that Monica, who had checked herself out of yet another drug treatment center, could see Missy without Amanda being present. That evening, Monica and her deadbeat husband had simply showed up at the Greer home while Harold was still at school and 'taken' Missy. Thank God, they weren't so strung out that they couldn't find their way back. Amanda shuddered at the thought of how lucky she was that Missy had been returned to her parents' home safely.

"You know she didn't want that to happen," her father said reasonably.

"And how do I know it won't happen again? Mother has made it perfectly clear that she thinks Missy would be better off with Monica than me. Never mind the fact that I adopted Missy and I've been the only parent she's known since she was born. My 'lifestyle' has been deemed unsuitable for my own daughter." Amanda wrapped her scarf around her neck. She'd had enough of this conversation.

Harold tossed the remainder of his lunch in the wastebasket alongside his desk. His appetite had flown out the window along with Amanda's smile. "We haven't heard from Monica in months. There's no reason to believe..."

"And just how many times has she disappeared, only to pop up out of the blue when it suits her?"

Monica had finally successfully completed an entire treatment program. Amanda had last visited her older sibling at the secure treatment facility late in August. Her sister's appearance was so vastly improved that tears came to Amanda's eyes when she first saw her. Monica had gained a sorely needed 20 pounds. The dark circles under her eyes had faded and her hair and clothes were neat and clean. It was like looking at the treasured girl she grew up with and loved.

Amanda had expected to pick up Monica after her 'graduation'. Instead, on the day of Monica's release, the facility director told Amanda that Monica had left several hours earlier and hadn't given any forwarding information. Since her bill was paid in full and her treatment was complete, they didn't inquire any further. No one had heard from Monica since.

Harold looked down at his shoes, trying not to project the shame he felt over his oldest daughter's actions. "You know as well as I do that she's done it several times."

Amanda pulled on her gloves. "Tell mother, when she wants to be part of my family, which includes me, to let me know. I don't trust her with Missy and until she does something to change that, I can't risk leaving Missy in her care." Or yours, Daddy. I'm sorry. "Goodbye, Dad."

Amanda turned and walked out of the office. Harold listened quietly to the loud clacking of her heels as they echoed down the long dim hallway. "Merry Christmas, baby," he said to the retreating form.


Amanda added a few more notations to a file and locked the folder in a metal cabinet along the wall of her office. Unlike Jody, who appeared to be having a love affair with her laptop, Amanda preferred to take longhand notes. The act of long handwriting seemed to help her focus. For some reason, she just couldn't duplicate the mental process on a computer. Besides, you can't chew on a computer, she thought as she removed the key.

A pencil can on her desk stuffed with half-gnarled pencils was a testament to her oral fixation. Amanda dug through the can and threw away of few of the worse casualties. Lucky for me I never started smoking. I'm sure I would have killed myself by now.

The blonde looked at the clock and allowed herself to feel a moment of relief. Maybe he won't show up.

Before she could even finish the thought there was a light knock on her office door. Amanda felt a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. Guess not. Okay, suck it up, Mandy. It's nothing you can't handle. Her steps were slower than normal when she crossed her office and opened the door.

"Hello, Dr. Greer." The man smiled. "Dr. Penbrook told me to go right to your office since you were waiting."

Thanks, Jody. "That's fine, Cory. Come in and have a seat." She motioned toward a small tan couch that was flanked by two lamp tables. In front of the couch sat a glass coffee table and a comfortable recliner.

Amanda sat down in the recliner and waited for Cory to find his way to the sofa. I won't make that mistake again. During their last session Amanda made the mistake of sitting on the two-seat sofa. Cory immediately sat next to her leaving the recliner conspicuously empty. Normally, Amanda wouldn't have given this admittedly unusual action a second thought. But with each visit Cory's actions were becoming more and more 'familiar'. His comments had taken on a suggestive quality that worried Amanda. Okay, so maybe he has a little crush. I'll nip it in the bud and we can move on.

"You're thinking about where I sat last time, aren't you?" His voice was cold. The slender man sat down on and propped his heavy, dripping work boots on the coffee table.

"No. Not at all," she lied. Shit.

"You're lying," he challenged flatly.

That's a switch. He's becoming more bold. "Cory, are you comfortable where you're sitting?"

The man slowly shook his head.

"Good. I'm comfortable too. Can we start?"

"No. You're mad at me. You don't like me anymore." Just like all the others. Women are such teasing bitches. First they flaunt their bodies, then they expect no reaction.

Uh Oh. "I'm not mad, Cory. I promise." Amanda could see he didn't believe her. From their other sessions the therapist had already gleaned that he had trust issues that went bone deep. "I've never given you any reason to doubt me, have I?" He needs to trust me if I'm ever going to be able to help him.

He shrugged off the heavy-weight denim coat, exposing a gray T-shirt that showed off a myriad of tattoos. "I guess not." God made all women temptresses. To lie is in their nature. All things are bound by their natures.

Amanda's eyes were irresistibly drawn to the artwork on Cory's arms. In the two months he'd been coming to the Cornerstone Clinic he'd never worn a short-sleeved shirt before. Some of the designs were truly amazing. The detail was unlike any Amanda had ever seen.

"Do you like them?" he asked proudly. They call to you, don't they? Just like I call to you. God made you for me. I know you can feel that.

"They're very interesting," Amanda answered noncommittally. The therapist drew her eyes up from the strange markings with an expression that was all business. "How did the exercises go that we discussed during your last visit?"

The young man didn't answer, he just continued to stare at Amanda. You can hear me talking to you, can't you? I don't even need to use my voice.

"Cory?" Amanda questioned. "Did you finish the exercises?"

"No," he finally answered. "I didn't have time for them this week." Dark eyes swept over Amanda. "You look pretty today. I like your hair."

Figures. "Thank you." One step further, Cory, and I'm gonna have to listen to my gut. "Let's use our time today to work on them then." Amanda was glad for the excuse to get up and get a piece of paper and pencil from her desk.

"You're not married, right, Dr. Greer?"

Amanda frowned. Not this again. "No, Cory. I've told you that before. I'm not married. But I am seeing someone." That's it, you're crossing the line.

A real man would marry you. I will. "A beautiful woman should be married." God made you beautiful so that I would notice you.

Oh... Boy. Amanda set down the paper and pencil on the coffee table and moved back to the recliner. "Cory, we need to talk about these questions." Amanda smiled reassuringly but kept her tone firm. "It's okay for you and I to have a friendly therapist/patient relationship. You know that, right?" She didn't wait for a response. "But we can only ever be therapist/patient. I'm your therapist, period. Anything else would not only be unethical, it would be wrong. I..."

"And if you weren't my therapist?" he asked reasonably.

"Then there would still never be anything between us. As I said before, I'm already in a relationship and I'm very happy."

Cory abruptly stood up and scrubbed the top of his flat-top hair. "How can you be in a happy relationship if he won't even marry you?" God made you for me, Amanda, no one else. Why can't you see that? He picked up a small silver-framed photograph of a blonde child wearing a pink swimsuit and playing in a wading pool. "Is this your daughter?"

The therapist's blood went cold over the simple question. "Cory, my personal relationships are none of your business." Amanda stood up and cocked her head slightly to the side. He's not getting the message. "Maybe I didn't make myself clear before." She approached Cory who had stopped poking around her desk and was listening intently. "There will never be any relationship between us, other than the one we share now. Even if I wasn't already seeing someone, and you weren't my patient, I would never become involved with a former patient."

The man stood silently. He was staring again. His dark eyes were beginning to frighten Amanda. She was prepared for acceptance or anger but not this... this... nothing. "Do you understand?" Her eyebrows lifted in question.

"Yes, I understand," he answered smoothly. In nature the strongest male mates with the female of his choosing. The weak are eliminated and the strong continue. It is God's will. We have no choice.

Amanda looked on doubtfully. "You understand that we can only have a professional relationship?" What's behind those dark eyes? I can see I'm not getting through to you.

"I understand the truth." Without warning he stepped forward and tightly grabbed Amanda's arms. "Do you?"

Amanda immediately pulled free from his icy grasp. "What do you think you're doing?" she asked angrily. He had never touched her before. Whoa, I really misjudged this one. There's no way I can continue to treat him now, no matter what he says. Maybe, I can give him a referral to a male colleague who's a specialist? He needs help, just not from me. "I think you should leave." Amanda stood her ground.

Cory nodded. You're already mine. You just don't know it. "I'll see you next week," he said as he grabbed his jacket off the sofa.

"No. I don't think that's a good idea. I'm not the right person to help you. I know that's why you're here and I'd like to make sure that you continue with therapy. I'd like to refer you to..."

Cory walked out of the room without a backward glance. The door slammed loudly behind him.

Amanda dropped her chin to her chest. "That went well," she muttered sarcastically. I can't believe he grabbed me. She looked down at her arms wondering if they'd bruise.

It's time to talk to Jody and go home. When her car wouldn't start with a jump, Amanda called and had it towed to her mechanic. Maybe if Jody is almost finished for the day she can give me a ride so I won't have to call a cab. Crap! I forgot to take Missy's car seat out the Audi.

A dark head poked its way into Amanda's office. "Are you okay?" Jody looked around to see if Cory was still there. "I'm surprised you still have anything on your walls. I haven't heard a door slammed that loudly since my divorce."

"I know." Amanda looked at the now crooked watercolors that hung on her wall. "He was pissed."

Jody came in and shut the door behind her. She motioned for Amanda to join her on the sofa. "Treatment not going well?" she asked.

Amanda unceremoniously plopped down next to her best friend and laid her head on Jody's shoulder. "I guess you could say that. I'm no longer treating him."

"Really?" Jody couldn't hide her surprise. Amanda usually stuck with even the most difficult patients. "Do you want me to take a whack at him?"

The pale head shook. "Absolutely not. I'm not sure it would be safe."

"Safe? What in the hell are you talking about? Are you saying farm boy is dangerous?

"He grabbed me."

"What?" Jody immediately stood up and looked down at her friend. "Shit! Why didn't you say something? Are you okay?"

"Calm down, Jody." Amanda patted the spot on the sofa next to her and Jody reluctantly reclaimed her seat. "I'm fine." The blonde settled back into the couch with a sigh of relief. "The last couple of visits Cory's been showing all the signs of a crush."

"Go on." Jody stretched out the words. The darker woman didn't find this surprising at all. It was a common occurrence, especially with Amanda. Her warm personality and caring demeanor gave her an instant rapport with patients that sometimes left these troubled people wanting more. And the fact that you're so damn cute doesn't help things either. But the smaller woman usually dealt with these situations extremely well.

Amanda laughed at her friend's gentle prodding. She knew Jody was dying to shake her until she got to the point. "And... I set him straight and he didn't take it very well. I told him I wouldn't see him anymore, but he stormed out before I could discuss him seeing a specialist."

"So you're okay?"


"And it's over?"

"Yep." At least I hope so. Amanda felt a momentary pang of guilt over losing the patient but was honest enough with herself to admit that she was relieved. Cory had been giving her the creeps and she already felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

"Enough about this." The blonde nudged her friend. "What is it you wanted to talk to me about?"

Jody shifted uncomfortably. "Um..." Not today. She's already dealt with enough today. "I um...I was just wondering if you'd need a ride home tonight?" Yuck! Way to think on your feet, dumbass.

"That's what you wanted to talk about?" Speculative green eyes studied Jody. "Yeah, right," she snorted. "Spill it."

"So how did you like riding in the purple people eater?" Jody asked lightly, hoping Amanda would let the subject drop.

Amanda rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Fine, don't tell me then. And I felt ridiculous like I always do."

Jody smiled, not caring at all that Amanda didn't share her taste in vehicles. "So do you want a ride home or not?"

The younger woman mock-grimaced at the thought of riding in the truck. Ah... but beggars can't be choosers. "That would be great. Are you finished for the day?"

"You betcha. My last patient cleared out 30 minutes ago. Just let me get my coat."

Amanda got up and moved over to her desk where she grabbed a manila folder to take home. "I'm right behind you." The two women walked out of the office and over to the coat closet. "I gotta tell you, Jody. I'm already dreaming of taking a steaming hot bath."

"Alone?" Jody teased.

"I said dreaming not fantasizing." Then a wicked smile crinkled Amanda's nose. "But now that you mention it..."

Jody chuckled. She looks about 10 years older when she gets that look on her face. "Ever notice how I never call you 'spinster' anymore."

The blonde's smile went from wicked to satisfied. "Oh yeah."


"See you tomorrow."

"Goodnight." Amanda stepped down out of the tall cab. Only 30 more seconds and these shoes can be history.

She waved at Jody as the truck disappeared behind the curves of the long secluded driveway. For the millionth time Amanda considered how beautiful this property was and how truly happy she and Missy were here. She cheerfully inhaled the cold scent of wet snow and pine.

It always amazed Amanda how isolated she felt even in the heart of this Twin Cities suburb. The property was very large and lined with a deep layer of trees, giving it a feeling of privacy her condo sorely lacked. Only a few yards up the driveway and sounds of the city disappeared. A heavy blanket of snow added to the profound silence.

Amanda opened the front door and was greeted with the rich sound of classical music pouring out of the living room. She's home early tonight, she thought delightedly. Stowing her coat in the closet, the therapist shed her shoes and softly padded toward the melodic notes. I wonder if Claire knows she's like to Pied-Piper when it comes to me?

Turning the corner, she wasn't surprised to find her lover seated in front of the glistening black baby grand piano dressed in sweat pants and a red Indiana University sweatshirt. Missy was perched on her lap, buck-naked, and was giggling furiously. From the doorway Amanda watched as Claire performed the intricate piece flawlessly, as though she didn't have an exuberant 2-year-old on her lap squirming ever second. At the very end, the tall attorney pointed to a key, which Missy excitedly pushed. Then both pianists cheered. Amanda shook her head and savored the sweet moment. The simple sight pushed away all thoughts of the day gone by and refocused her heart on the two people that lit up her world.

Loath to break the moment, she nevertheless pushed forward into the room. The smile on her face was as involuntary as the flutter of her heart when she saw Claire pick up her reflection in the far window.

Claire turned to face her and answered with her a heartfelt smile of her own. No more late nights for a while, Mandy. I've missed this too much.

"Mama!" the little girl screamed and scrambled off Claire's lap.

"Hi, sweetheart." Amanda bent down and hugged the toddler tightly. Straightening, she placed her fingertip on the little girl's nose. "Why are you naked, young lady?" The toddler's clothes were strewn throughout the room.

"It was almost bath time. But we got distracted," Claire sheepishly offered in explanation.

Amanda stepped forward and kissed her partner soundly. A pale eyebrow arched in question. "Then why aren't you naked too?"

Claire grinned broadly then began peeling off her sweatshirt.

"Yaaahhhh!" Missy squealed with delight. In unison she and Claire shouted, "It's bath time!"

The half-naked lawyer grabbed the little girl by her ankles and lifted her high in the air as she made her way up the stairs. Half way up the steps, she looked back at Amanda who was still standing at the bottom. The tall woman paused. "Coming?"

Amanda inspected her beautiful lover's athletic but feminine physique. I hope to be, soon! is what she thought, what she said was, "I'll be up in a minute."

Claire wriggled her eyebrows, promising things to come after the little one's bedtime, then disappeared at the top of the stairs. With a feeling of undiluted bliss Amanda began shedding her own blouse. Soon, three very different sized sets of clothing littered the floor of the contented home.

Outside, dark eyes watched as the second floor lights went on and living room turned black.



Not long after moving in, Amanda had been shocked to find out that Claire hadn't taken an actual bath since she was a child. It was a situation the shorter woman quickly remedied. Amanda easily considered the gigantic tub one of their finest acquisitions as a couple. Though she had to admit, she had done most of the comparison-shopping. To her amusement, shopping with Claire consisted of the taller woman entering a store, scanning the merchandise, and grunting in the direction of what she wanted.

Amanda smiled warmly at the memory of 'initiating' her lover into the joys of a nice roomy tub. Now, just 6 weeks later, she had as much trouble getting Claire out of the tub as she did Missy. Which was okay, she supposed, considering she felt the same way. After the long communal bath and a quick dinner, Missy was exhausted and went to sleep without the usual fuss that accompanied bedtime. And both Amanda and Claire were looking forward to time alone together.

The young therapist donned a pair of soft flannel, tartan pajamas and deposited herself on the low padded stool that sat in front of a mahogany dressing table. The lighting in the bedroom was muted, casting a soft, golden glow around the room. Mossy green eyes scanned the tabletop.

"Sweetheart, have you...?"

A large soft bristled brush suddenly appeared in front of Amanda. The blonde looked up into the large mirror to see Claire standing behind her with a grin twitching at her lips.

"Thanks." She took the offering. "What's so funny?" Strong fingers began kneading Amanda's shoulders. "Ugh." The pale head tipped forward. "That... feels... awesome."

"Aren't you gonna ask where I found it?"

"What?" Amanda was finding it hard to concentrate on anything other than the loving attention her tired shoulder muscles were receiving.

Claire smirked. "The brush. Aren't you gonna ask where I found the brush?" Deft fingers moved up into the fine blonde hairs at the base of Amanda's skull.

"Hmm...Yeah, right there," Amanda groaned as her head dropped lower. "Ah, I wasn't. But you can tell me anyway."

"The crisper."

Amanda looked at the mirror in confusion and Claire laughed lightly, deciding further elaboration was clearly in order. "It was in the crisper with the peaches."

The psychologist's eyebrows shot skyward and she brought the brush to her nose for a sniff. "Mmm. I wondered what that smell was." Shaking her head, she let out a small laugh. "Missy was using it this morning so I'm not surprised. She's really getting into everything. Hey, you don't have any guns do you?" Amanda teased.

"Nope." The taller woman slid her hands down to rest on rounded shoulders. She knelt behind the shorter woman, unable to keep herself from leaning closer to her companion. "No guns," she chuckled, enjoying the sweet scent of Amanda's freshly shampooed hair.

Snaking her arm around Amanda, Claire held her hand out for the brush, which she received with a smile. The lawyer began gently brushing her lover's unruly tresses. I guess this job won't take as long as it used to. Experimentally, she ran her long fingers through the shaggy short locks. Hmm. I've been dying to this for days. Why did I wait so long?

Amanda sighed, loving the feeling of Claire's strong hands caressing her scalp. "Are you mad at me for cutting it?" Amanda suddenly whispered.

"What?" Confusion colored the deep voice. "Why would I be mad?"

Amanda shifted her position until she was facing Claire. She studied her partner with a serious expression. "Well, you hardly spoke to me that evening or the next day for that matter."

"But... it... I didn't..." The lawyer stopped her confused babbling. Shit! Blue eyes conveyed regret. "No. That wasn't it at all." She reached up and lightly stroked the soft skin of Amanda's cheek. "Your hair looks beautiful," she said earnestly. You're beautiful. "I should have told you that before." Stupid! Stupid!

"Then you're not mad?" Amanda questioned, still a little insecure over her partner's initial reaction.

In response, Claire leaned forward and gently brushed her lips against her mate's. She fought the urge to deepen the kiss when the soft lips against hers parted naturally. Claire pulled back and brought up her palms, cupping the smaller woman's cheeks. "I was never mad, just insensitive." And self-centered, and obsessed with work. "Forgive me?" There was a hint of pleading in the voice that drew a worried frown from the younger woman.

"Of course I forgive you." She smiled reassuringly and tangled her hands in dark thick hair, pulling Claire closer. "What's wrong, Gumby?" she asked gently. "And don't you dare tell me nothing. You've been saying that for weeks and we both know it's not true," she added firmly.

"Tonight was fun, huh?"

The warm palms dropped from Amanda's face, and she fought her own irritation at the apparent change in subjects. "It was great," she answered cautiously, not understanding the direction of the conversation. "We haven't spent time together like that in a while. But..."

We do need to talk. "Let's talk in bed, okay?" Claire stood up and grasped Amanda's forearms to help her up.

"Ouch!" Amanda grimaced and quickly pulled her arms back, causing her to plop back down onto the stool.

"I'm sorry, Mandy," Claire said in a rush. "I didn't mean to hurt you. I..." Dark brows knit in confusion. "I didn't grab you that hard. What's the matter with your arms?" Without waiting for an answer, Claire pushed back a loose fitting flannel sleeve exposing bruises that were clearly in the shape of fingers. The darker woman felt her hackles rise and she instantly took hold of the other arm, silently repeating the process. Where did these come from and why didn't I see these in the tub? Did the bubbles hide these? They weren't there yesterday.

"Ow... I forgot about these." Amanda briskly rubbed her arms and pushed down her sleeves. "I was hoping they wouldn't bruise," she went on, oblivious to her companion's building rage.

Claire's worry for her lover was warring against her hurt and anger. Why didn't she tell me about these?! Anger won. "Did you get these when you went to visit your father today?" Claire's voice was low and controlled, giving no hint of her internal struggle for control.

"Of course not! My father would never hurt me!" Amanda was clearly shocked by question.

A dark eyebrow arched. "And I'm sure you would have said the same thing about your mother. But if I recall, you were sporting a bruise on your face after your last visit with her," she intoned sarcastically. "And you didn't tell me about that either, I had to hear it from Jody."

"That was a one time thing under extreme circumstances and you know it." The smaller woman's temper flared at her partner's implied lack of trust. "Are you accusing me of lying?" Amanda asked angrily as she stood up and faced Claire.

"Are you?" The attorney slammed her fist down on Amanda's dressing table causing a loud crack to ring out in the room. Why is everyone protecting people that hurt them! Claire couldn't help but draw the parallel between Amanda and the case she'd grudgingly pleaded down earlier that day.

"I can't believe you're even asking me that," she spat, her anger rushing out in full force. "What the hell is wrong with you? Of course I'm not lying! How dare you even say that?"

Amanda began to storm out of the room, but before she got to the door she changed her mind and spun around to face Claire once again. Her hands were on her hips and green eyes were flashing as she approached her partner. "Well? I'm still waiting for some answers! WHAT... IS... WRONG?" she shouted furiously, her voice rising in volume with each punctuated word.

"Mama? Cwairr?" A small voice sounded from outside the bedroom door.

Both woman immediately went silent, realizing that Missy probably had awoken because of their argument. Amanda shot Claire a look, letting her know that their discussion wasn't over, before opening the bedroom door.

Poor kid. Isn't this the stuff that's supposed to give kids nightmares? I know it does me. Claire stepped forward alongside Amanda and looked down at a bottom lip that was quivering and cheeks that were glistening with tears.

The older woman knelt in front the child and pushed back a lock of blonde hair that was sticking up wildly in all directions. Just like her mama. "What's wrong, Kiddo?" she questioned softly, still trying to stem the tide of adrenaline coursing through her.

The toddler wiped her eyes and sniffed pathetically. "Nothin'."

"If there's nothing wrong then why are you up?" Amanda asked kindly as she wiped the tears from Missy's face. "Do you want me to tuck you in?"

The pale head nodded, and Claire stepped back allowing Amanda to pick up Missy and exit the room.

GODDAMMIT! Claire clenched and unclenched her fists as she stalked around the empty room, not knowing how to handle her anger. She was furious with Amanda for not telling her what happened, livid at whoever had hurt her, and just plain disgusted with her own inappropriate reaction. No wonder I've lived alone all these years. I'm too pathetic to handle anything more. The attorney stood in the center of her bedroom, helplessly ill-equipped when it came to what to do next. She quickly disregarded the choices that immediately came to mind. Somehow, getting drunk or confronting everyone who came in contact with Amanda today didn't strike her as particularly comforting. Although, she had to admit, both ideas were appealing in their own way.

The tall woman lay back on the bed and closed her eyes, allowing her insecurities free rein. This is why she's keeping the condo. She's probably planning a way to sneak out on the crazy woman at this very moment. I wouldn't blame her, she thought miserably. Maybe she's seeing someone else? They could have put those marks on her arms. Maybe she was afraid to tell me, afraid I wouldn't understand?

That would explain why she didn't tell me. Claire's stomach twisted at the thought. No, she wouldn't do that. Things have been strained lately but not that bad. Tonight was great... Well, at least until I started interrogating her.

Blue eyes traveled to the clock and noted the early hour. It was only 9:30 p.m. and Claire knew she wouldn't be able to sleep for several more hours. After a few more moments of lying alone and stewing, her confusion and hurt finally gave way to indignation. Claire abruptly stood up and walked out of the bedroom. She could hear muffled sounds of Amanda's melodic voice from the room across the hall, and guessed she was telling Missy a bedtime story. She fought the urge to go into the child's room and beg Amanda's forgiveness. She's the one keeping secrets! Why should I apologize? If she trusted me she would have told me.

Claire padded down the stairs in a rush to be anywhere but in her own home. Part of her knew that it was childish to run from an argument. But a larger part was eager to embrace the quiet solitude of her Pathfinder and the easy companionship of Gumby, who, she irrationally reasoned, never kept secrets and would always love her. No matter how much I fuck-up. At the moment, she was seriously having doubts about Amanda.


Amanda pulled the covers up around Missy's chin and placed a light kiss on the toddler's cheek before quietly ducking out of the room. She pulled the door closed behind her with a light 'click.' She had heard her lover's hasty retreat down the hall and the loud slamming of the door leading to the garage.

Sometime between the fairy godmother's first appearance and the stroke of midnight, Amanda's anger had begun to cool, only to re-ignite at the sound of the slamming door and the realization that Claire was running away.

Many times when Claire was worried or upset, Amanda would hear the darker woman taking out her frustrations with furious but precise piano keystrokes. She had even learned to gauge the extent her partner's distress by the composer and piece she selected. But tonight the living room was hauntingly silent. This was the first time Claire had simply walked away.

Amanda sighed heavily. Claire's sour mood and excessive workload had pushed Amanda's patience to the edge. She knew a confrontation was inevitable but that didn't ease the sting of Claire's words. Her mind flashed to angry, azure eyes that had gone watery before Missy's interruption. God, I hate fighting with her. But not as much as she hates fighting with me, her heart reminded. I know. I know.

The young psychologist went back to their room and glanced ruefully at the large empty bed. Passing over the bed completely, she walked to the window and pulled back the light curtains. It was a hazy, moonless night. But if she looked carefully, she could barely make out the large, heavy flakes that were slowly drifting by the window. I shouldn't worry. I won't worry. She's fine. She's just angry and needs some time alone to cool down. But despite her words, Amanda knew her heart was driving around somewhere in the cold snow.

I should have told her what happened with Cory. Now she thinks I was intentionally keeping it from her. I wasn't, dammit! I was having such a nice time tonight, I didn't even think about it. Amanda reached into the closet and began rooting around on the floor. Finally. She sat down in the doorway of the closet and slipped on a pair of warm fuzzy slippers.

Not wanting to go to bed until she'd a chance to speak with Claire, she decided to go downstairs and spend some time on her latest watercolor. While it wasn't as dramatic as Claire's pounding, the soft brush strokes and gentle mixing of colors were relaxing.

The psychologist clicked off the light and headed toward the beautiful studio Claire had lovingly set up in a spare bedroom. As she moved from the second to first floor she noticed the drop in temperature and wrapped her arms around herself, idly wishing she'd remembered to grab a robe. She entered the studio without turning on the light and stood quietly in front of the partially completed picture. Amanda reached out and absently grabbed a brush from a small metal tray and began chewing on the gnarled wooden tip. I have the horrible feeling I'm going to have a long time to work on this.



Amanda jumped at the sound of someone furiously pounding on the front door causing her to accidentally brush a bright red streak across the ocher paper. "Crap," she muttered. Laying down her brush, she removed her paint smock and checked her watch as she hurried to the front door. 1:00 a.m.? I didn't realize it was so late. She must have forgotten her house keys.

On pure reflex, she looked through the peephole before opening the door. Mark?

A stab of worry lanced through her as she opened the heavy wooden door for him. Why would he come here so late? When the psychologist opened the door she was greeted with a nearly painful blast of frigid night air, a sheepish looking Mark, and a very drunk Claire.

Mark stood on the porch intently studying his boots with an apologetic look on his face. His thick arm was tightly wrapped tightly around Claire, who was obviously having trouble standing.

Amanda scowled and grabbed both her friends by the front of their coats. With a sharp tug she pulled them into the house. "Get in here. It's freezing!"

"Owwff. Geeze, Amanda, we're coming," Mark choked. Uh Oh.

"Well, not fast enough," the blonde groused. She pointed an angry finger at Claire. "You're damn lucky you're okay, Gumby. I'd have kicked your butt otherwise." The threat was spoken firmly but the crack in her voice belied the emotion underneath. Determined not to show Claire how worried she'd actually been, she turned to Mark. "What happened?" As if it wasn't obvious.

Claire was leaning heavily against her friend, who was doing his level best to make it look like she wasn't. "She... um... came over to my house... and um... she was really upset... and..."

"Don't tell me you've been drinking too!" Amanda grabbed the tall man's collar and roughly jerked his face down to hers.

Normally strong self-assured features twisted into a fair imitation of a deer caught in headlights. "No... No!" he sputtered and swallowed hard. "I was driving because she was too drunk!" Mark abruptly pointed to Claire, effectively abandoning his best friend to save himself.

Amanda sniffed loudly as if checking his breath for alcohol. When she was satisfied he was telling the truth, her eyes softened and she released her grip. The big man straightened and breathed an obvious sigh of relief.

Claire snickered at the other attorney's evident discomfort.

Mark's eyebrows disappeared behind fair bangs. "Ingrate!" With a jerk, he released Claire from his iron grip and she unceremoniously flopped onto the carpet.

A single contemptuous blue eye rolled up and glared at the beefy man. "You shithead," she slurred before she tried unsuccessfully to pull herself up onto the sofa.

"Mark!" Amanda chastised, but didn't move to help her partner. Now that she was sure Claire was safe, her temper was beginning to reassert itself.

"She deserves a lot worse than that," he complained. "You should see the inside of my car!"

"Eww." Amanda made a face. "I'd rather not." The shorter woman glanced down at Claire who was now face down on the carpet with a light snoring sound buzzing from her head. She reached down and brushed back dark bangs. You're gonna feel this in the morning. Well, at least it's Saturday. No more running away from me this weekend, Claire. With a soundless sigh, she stepped over her lover's body and sat down on the couch. A small hand patted the spot next to her and Mark eagerly moved to join her.

"Thanks for bringing her home safely, Mark," she said gratefully, squeezing a muscular shoulder.

He shrugged and unzipped his heavy parka. "Well, of course. You know I'd eat broken glass for either one of you." He smiled wryly. "And spending the evening with Claire when she's angry and depressed and drunk makes ground glass look like an appetizing alternative. Man, and I thought she was upset this afternoon."

"What happened this afternoon?"

"You mean she didn't tell you?" He was obviously surprised. "What's with you guys suddenly keeping secrets from each other?" Mark reached out and gently touched Amanda's forearms. "Claire told me about the bruises." His eyes went deadly serious. "If you're seeing some guy behind Claire's back and he did this and you're afraid..."

"WHAT???" Amanda jumped up and then stumbled as she tripped over Claire's sleeping form. Her mind reeled as she tried to process what Mark had just said. "What do you mean 'seeing' some guy?" she whispered, hoping she'd misunderstood.

"Claire told me that she's been nearly impossible to live with lately and that you didn't tell her about the bruises and..." Mark suddenly stopped and took a good hard look at Amanda's face. She was in shock and it was clear she had no idea what he was talking about. Oh no. Thanks a lot, Buddy. I'm in so deep there isn't a shovel big enough... "There's no guy, is there?" Mark queried in a defeated but relieved tone.

"She thinks I'm having an affair?" Amanda finally asked tonelessly. I think I'm gonna be sick.


"Is that what she thinks, or not?" she questioned angrily, her hands involuntarily wringing a soft, pale comforter that lay on the arm of the couch.

"I think you need to talk to Claire about this." But the green eyes that bore into his wouldn't be denied. His will was no match for Amanda's, and he knew it. Not when it came to something that meant this much, that meant everything. "She thinks it's a possibility. She's really upset about the bruises and... well... some other things too." Speaking of which, now that I can think of something other than you breaking my best friend's heart... "Are you okay?"

Amanda's mind was a jumble of past conversations. How could she think I'd do that? She knows how much I love her, doesn't she? I've never even looked at another woman twice! And certainly not a man. Mark was waiting patiently. "Hmm? Oh, sorry, Mark. What did you say?"

"I asked if you were okay. These must hurt." With a gentleness that was at odds with his large hands, he gently pushed back one of Amanda's sleeves, exposing an angry bruise that was obvious even in the dimly lit room.

Amanda shooed his hands away dismissively. "These are nothing. They mean nothing. I have a patient, or I guess I should say former patient, who has a crush on me. When I made it clear that I was off-limits, he got frustrated and grabbed my arms. End of story. The only reason I didn't mention it to Claire was that it slipped my mind. I'm sure I'll never even see the kid again."

"Did you call the police?"

Amanda rolled her eyes. "Of course not. Mark, he's just a confused kid who thinks there might be something between us."

"Define kid."

"God, you're as bad as Claire. Fine. He's twenty years old. A little young for me in any case." Amanda's eyes traveled down to Claire. On the other hand, you my dear are perfect for me. The therapist shook her head in amazement. Even with you passed out drunk and furious with me, all I can think about is how much I ache to wrap my arms around you and love you until your insecurities and doubts evaporate.

"Oh right, and you're sooo old. Twenty-nine right? Believe me, Amanda, when I was twenty if I'd of thought I had a chance at fabulous woman like you I would have had majorly pathetic crush. But under no circumstances would I have ever grabbed you. A twenty-year-old is a man, not a kid. I want to check this guy out downtown."

"You're overreacting, Mark. Besides, I don't care anything about that now. It's over. The situation with Claire isn't." Amanda suddenly remembered Mark's earlier statement.

"What happened earlier today to upset her?"

Mark blew out a heavy breath and rubbed his temples as though the very subject matter gave him a headache. "Claire was ordered to offer a plea bargain to Mr. Hanson. Are you familiar with the case?" It was clear that the couple hadn't been talking much lately, and even though the case was extremely important to Claire, Mark wasn't sure she'd even mentioned it to Amanda.

Amanda's head bobbed up and down. "She's been working day and night on it."

Good. "He accepted the plea. No rape charges, the girls stay in the house, and he does less than a year in jail. It's a conviction, but I don't think that's making Claire feel any better. The first time she met the youngest Hanson girl, the kid starting crying and Claire promised she'd help her. I think she feels like she let everybody down, especially the kid."

"But what happened wasn't her fault!" But of course you wouldn't believe that, would you, Gumby.

"I know. And I think Claire does too. It's just that her heart is having trouble agreeing with her head."

Amanda sighed. The tall man knew Claire inside and out. "Don't worry, Mark. I'll talk to her tomorrow and we'll work all this out. I should never have let things get this far out of hand. I don't know why she always so insecure about..." About us.

"Probably because of what happened with Sarah," he answered absently.


Hazel eyes widened. She never told you about Sarah? SHIT... FUCK... SHIT... She's gonna kill me! Dead man walking! SHIT. "Um...ah," he hedged.

"That was a girl she knew in college right? She mentioned her when we first starting going out but didn't hasn't said anything about her since. What would she have to do with this?"

Amanda's curiosity was piqued. Although, her normally reticent partner had opened up about a lot of things, Claire was still an intensely private person. And the subject of old lovers, while not exactly taboo, was an area she was extremely reluctant to discuss. Amanda likened it to pulling teeth... from a porcupine... a wiggling, agitated porcupine.

"Yeah, she knew her in college. Listen Amanda, I..."

Amanda forced down her own inquisitiveness out of respect for both her Claire and Mark. "Relax. I'd never ask you to betray Claire's trust. She'll tell me when she's ready."

Thick pale eyebrows shot upward and Mark's lips formed a small circle. "Wow," he finally uttered. "I can't believe you're gonna let me off the hook." His smile turned wry. "Claire wouldn't have, you know." He laughed a little, relieved he may actually live to see Christmas. "She makes Curious George look dull."

The two blondes both chuckled at the truth of Mark's words. Claire's curiosity, drive, and dedication made her a terrific advocate. She left no stone unturned, and because of that, was rarely beaten. Unfortunately, behind the competent, stern exterior, was a woman who tended to take things personally. And Amanda understood that, for Claire, the adjustment from corporate law to criminal law was a difficult one. The tall woman cared little about money. But she did care about people, and in her new arena, the victims were disturbingly real and their suffering hauntingly vivid.

"So you guys are gonna be okay, right?" he asked hopefully. "You know that you're my role model for a happy relationship. Sometimes watching you guys is downright sickening."

"Of course we'll be okay. We just haven't taken the time to sit down and really talk to each other lately. But that's gonna change this weekend." Even if I have to tie her down. "Speaking of relationships, how are things going with you and Jody?" Amanda grinned and wriggled her eyebrows.

A huge smile caused deep creases to form in Mark's cheeks. No wonder Jody's so crazy about you, Mark. You are truly gorgeous. Amanda pushed down a brief flash of jealously. Although Mark was clearly happy with Jody, his feelings for his best friend were impossible to miss. He simply worshipped Claire and vice versa. When the two were together, their looks and sheer presence would put any Hollywood couple to shame. They didn't just turn heads, jaws dropped.

"Great!" The smile suddenly dropped from his face. "Although, she's been awfully quiet for the last few weeks. I kind of get the idea she doesn't much like the holidays."

Amanda frowned in answer. "That's not something I've ever noticed before, but I guess it's possible." Then again, I usually spend the holidays with my family so how would I know. Not this year, she thought sadly. But as real as that heartache was, it was substantially eased by the simple fact that she had Missy and Claire. Although she loved her parents, her feelings for them weren't even in the same realm with what she felt for her lover and daughter. Amanda found herself looking forward to this Christmas in a way she hadn't since she was a child.

"Do you think Jody ever thinks about spending her life with someone?" Mark asked out of the blue. His eyes betrayed a deep need to know that his voice didn't.

Amanda tried not to sound shocked by the question. "Are you talking about a long-term commitment like marriage?"

He looked away. "Maybe." That's exactly what he was talking about and he knew it.

Now it was Amanda's turn to be uncomfortable. "Well, honestly I was surprised when she got married the first time. Jody's always been kind of a free spirit. And after what happened with Chester, I'm really not sure she'd consider it again," Amanda finished honestly, hoping she hadn't hurt the big man's feelings.

"Her ex-husband really did a number on her, didn't he?" It was a statement more than a question.

The reddish-gold head nodded. "He was, and is, a despicable excuse for a human being," she hissed, her voice tinged with venom. "He deserves coal in his Christmas stocking for the next thousand years. Not everyone stays friends like you and your ex," she added whistfully.

"We needed to stay friendly because of the boys." He shrugged. "And she's an excellent mother, that's what's important now. We actually have a better relationship now than we ever did while we were married."

"That's not the case with Jody and Chester."

"I know. Jody told me about finding Chester in bed with another woman. I can only imagine how she must have felt."

Amanda cringed at the painful memory. "I don't have to imagine it. I was there. We'd just returned from the out-of-town wedding of one our buddies from our old National Guard unit. We walked in on them..." Amanda gestured wildly " know." She dropped her hands. "Jody was beside herself."

Mark's face darkened and he shifted deeper into the couch, obviously distressed. "I'd like to beat the shit out of that guy."

To his surprise, Amanda laughed. "You don't have to worry about that. Jody already took care it. She broke his nose and three ribs; if I hadn't finally stepped between them, I'm not sure he'd be walking around today."

"And the woman?"

Amanda snorted. "You mean the girl? She was his seventeen-year-old summer intern. I ushered her out the door with a kick in the ass before Jody could get to her." She quirked her lips. "Two murders would have been a little excessive, don't ya think?"

Mark smiled weakly, though he was convinced that at least one would have been justified. "Yeah, I suppose so."

The therapist laid a gentle hand on Mark's knee. "Be patient with her, Mark. She's had a rough time. On top of the humiliation of his affair, she got taken to the cleaners in the divorce and she is still very bitter."

"I'm in love with her," he said as though it were a revelation.

Green eyes twinkled gently and Amanda fought the urge to say 'duh.' Mark wore his feelings on his sleeve for the entire world to see. "I know." She smiled reassuringly.

"I should go."

"You should stay," came the warm response. "It's really late and the guest room is sitting empty."

"Nah, the boys are gonna be at my place early for our Christmas shopping trip." His eyes traveled to his passed out friend and back to Amanda. "Are we still on for tomorrow?"

"You bet! She's not getting out of shopping because of a little hangover. We'll be there," she added confidently. Assuming we don't kill each other first. "Besides, Missy's been talking about seeing Keith and Bobby for days. I don't want to disappoint her."

Mark slapped his hands down on his thighs and leaned forward. "Okay then, let's get her to bed." Despite the innocent meaning behind the statement, he blushed.

"You are so cute!" Amanda laughed and leaned over to give him a soft peck on the cheek.

"Yeah... well..." The blush deepened.

Having pity, Amanda stood up and carefully moved around Claire. She held a hand out to Mark. "C'mon, I'll lead the way."


"Oh my God!" Claire groaned. "I'm dead and this is hell."

A light chuckle sounded in the background and Claire heard the rustling of the curtains. Suddenly, a painfully bright light blinded her.

"Time to get up, oh suffering one."

"Ugh... Kill me... I'm begging you!" The lawyer buried her throbbing head into her pillow and tried to block out any trace of irritating light. Then Claire remembered the fight she and Amanda had the night before. With a unpleasant grunt, the dark head lifted and Claire pried open her eyes to spy on her partner.

Amanda was standing in front of the window, backlit by the streaming rays of morning sun and looking adorably disheveled. She had a serious case of 'bed head'. Her oversized pajamas were wrinkled and hanging slightly to the side, and her face was still creased from the pillow case seam. To Claire's eyes she was the most exquisite creature in all the universe.

"Are you still talking to me?" Claire's voice cracked. Her tongue felt twice its normal size and like it was lined with a fine grained sandpaper.

"It would appear so. Would you like some water?"

Claire nodded pathetically and accepted the cool glass from Amanda. "Thank you." She gingerly took a sip, hoping her stomach wouldn't decide to rebel. Pleased with the outcome, she closed her eyes and drank a little more. "Oh, that is so good." She opened her eyes again when she felt several tablets being pushed into her palm. Without a word, she downed the pain relievers. Another long swallow and she finished the water, placing the glass back in Amanda's outstretched hand.

The younger woman sat the glass on the nightstand and perched on the bed alongside Claire. Affectionately, she pulled aside an errant wisp of dark hair that had worked its way across Claire's cheek. Her lips replaced her fingers with a feather-soft kiss.

Bloodshot blue eyes immediately filled with tears. "Mandy, why are you being so nice to me?" she whispered.

Amanda cocked her head to the side and smiled gently down at her friend. "Because I can tell you're hurting and even though you did it to yourself, I can't stand to see you in pain." Smooth fingertips traced Claire's eyebrows causing her eyes to flutter shut at the sweet contact. "When you hurt, I hurt too," continued the sincere response. "But mostly because I love you."

When Claire's eyes opened again, the tears that had been steadily pooling, spilled out. She ran a frustrated hand across her cheeks. "I'm sorry, I don't know why I'm crying," she sniffed.

"You shouldn't drink, Gumby," Amanda softly chided. "It always makes you feel worse." The psychologist grabbed a Kleenex from the nightstand and carefully wiped Claire's face. "Can we talk about yesterday?" she asked hesitantly, not wanting to rush Claire, but not wanting to wait either.

The brunette moaned and Amanda jumped to her feet. "Are you going to be sick?" she said in a rush.

It was a full minute before Claire knew how to answer Amanda's question. "No, I don't think so, and yes, we should talk about last night." With great effort, the larger woman scooted over in the bed and motioned for Amanda to slide in next to her. The blonde did so without hesitation and Claire shifted onto her back, pulling Amanda closer. Just having her next to me makes me feel better.

Amanda noticed Claire's sigh of relief. "Feeling better?" she asked in a voice so full of concern that Claire nearly melted on the spot.

"Much. Thank you. And by the way, I love you too." Her own face broke out into a smile when she felt Amanda's lips curl against the skin on her chest. Okay, it's now or never. "Will you tell me what happened to your arms?"

Amanda pulled back a little and propped herself on one elbow. "Of course I'll tell you." She reached out and grabbed the edge of the blanket, pulling tightly around them both. "Things got out of hand with a patient. He was hoping our relationship could be more than therapist/patient. He got frustrated when I assured him it couldn't, and he grabbed my arms. Then he let me go and stormed out of the office." The short version but still...

Claire pulled Amanda into a tight hug, adjusting her across her chest. "You're not seeing him again." She felt Amanda's head shake no. "He didn't do anything else, did he?" The lawyer's worry leaked through into her voice.

"No. I'm fine. I'm sorry I didn't mention it earlier." VERY sorry. "I was enjoying myself so much last night it didn't even cross my mind. I wasn't trying to keep it from you."

Amanda lifted her head and looked directly into Claire's eyes. "I promise." Her tone left no room for doubt.

Thank God. Claire felt a profound rush of relief. It wasn't Jody or one of her parents or...Uh Oh. Oh shit, let me have kept my mouth shut while I was drinking... just this once. Mark is worse than a gossipy fishwife.

Amanda snuggled back down onto Claire, happy that at least that much of their misunderstanding appeared to be settled.

"It was nice of Mark to bring me home," Claire tentatively began.

"Very nice," Amanda agreed.

"Did he stay long after he dropped me off?" Say no, say no, say no.

"Actually, yes. He stayed a while and we had a really nice talk."

Shit. Of course you did. Marko undoubtedly spilled his guts.

"Oh really?" Claire was going for total nonchalance. "Talk about anything interesting?"

"Umm...Hmm. Several very interesting things."

Must my every insecurity be paraded in front of Mandy? "He told you didn't he?" Claire asked defeatedly.

"I guess that would depend on exactly what you're referring to. But it really doesn't matter. Suppose you tell me how you could... I mean why..." She choked on the bitter taste of the words. "Why you think that I might be seeing 'some guy'." How, when I'm lying here in your arms in our bed, could you even think something Amanda tried to keep the anger and hurt out of her voice. The last thing she wanted was for this to escalate into another argument.

Claire closed her eyes again. How could I think that? Did I really think that? Christ, I don't know. "Mandy, it's... well it's hard to explain." Long arms wrapped tighter around her partner, hoping to convey a physical reassurance her words didn't.

That's not good enough, Claire. Amanda schooled herself in patience. "Try."

"Do we have time for this?" Claire asked, hoping for a reprieve. "Isn't Missy going to come charging in here at any moment?"

"Yes and no. Missy woke up early and is already asleep again. It's later than you think. Talk." Talk to me before I beat it out of you. Talk!

Claire took a deep breath, then exhaled in a long tortured groan. Amanda could feel the nervous tension roiling through her partner. After a few moments of silence, when she was sure Claire wasn't going to answer, she carefully prompted the other woman again.

"Please, Claire. Please talk to me."

There. That was all it took. Claire knew she couldn't deny Amanda anything when she attached that word to it. Another exhale. "Mandy, I never really believed you were seeing someone else. I was just feeling lousy and decided to wallow in something I knew would make me even more miserable." Man, was I ever right. "And that was the worst thing I could think of," Claire confessed in a wistfully painful voice that made Amanda's heart hurt.

At last. Getting Claire to talk about what's bothering her was always the hardest part. "Why would you want make yourself miserable?" Amanda felt a rush of protectiveness surge through her and found it odd that sometimes the person she most wanted to protect Claire from was herself.

"Because I've been feeling exceptionally stupid lately," she offered lamely. "All kinds of crazy thoughts have been rattling around in my head."

Amanda propped herself up again to look at her lover, confident that once Claire started, she wouldn't stop. "I'm sorry about the Hanson case. I know it didn't end the way you wanted it to."

How did she...? Oh yeah. Mark. "You're right, it didn't." I need to make this good. "Mandy, I am so sorry I accused you of lying. Seeing the bruises hit a nerve. Those girls are all being hurt and they can't or won't move to stop it. I couldn't bear the thought that you might be protecting someone who had hurt you." Claire's hand traced Amanda's arm as she spoke.

"How do you do it?" Claire wondered aloud. With strong arms, she pulled the smaller woman on top her and lowered her voice. "How do you deal with these types of issues all the time without going crazy?" she asked in frustration. "I... I can't stop thinking about how it was my job to help those girls, even when they wouldn't help themselves... and I just couldn't."

Whoa. I should have known this case was really bothering her. I still ask myself that from time to time. "A lot of it is practice, I guess. I mean, you can't become so emotionally involved that it makes the job impossible. But unlike you, I have the luxury of not intentionally dealing with certain kinds of cases. Have you ever heard me talk about counseling kids, not teenagers, but children?"

Claire shook her head. "Are you bad at it?" she questioned, finding it hard to believe that Amanda wouldn't be especially great with kids.

The blonde paused for a moment and allowed herself to truthfully consider the question. "No," she finally answered. "I think I do a good job with that particular patient. But it's too consuming. I can't distance myself the way I should, and my personal life suffers because of it. I very rarely take those cases anymore. And even when I do, I work closely with Jody and try to be extremely careful."

Amanda gave in to her body's craving and placed a light kiss on the lips below hers. "You can't save everyone, Claire. No matter how much you want to." And just how long did it take me to accept that?

"I know that."

Amanda lifted a challenging eyebrow.

Ugh. That's what I get for falling in love with a shrink. "Okay, I sort of know that."

"What else?"

"Why does there have to be anything else? I've been working like a dog on this case, I let the girls down, and that pervert is probably with one of them as we speak! Isn't that enough?"

"Enough for you to think I might be seeing someone else? I don't think so," Amanda persisted.

God... I do not want to talk about this. Not now. Not ever.

"I know you don't want to talk about it. But it's important."

Claire's eyes widened. Jesus! Do you read minds now too?

"Yep. But only yours," Amanda answered. Despite the serious nature of their conversation, she couldn't help but smile at the bug-eyed look on Claire's face. "C'mon, Claire. You're so nervous you're practically making me sick. It wasn't hard to figure out." The smaller woman placed a reassuring kiss on Claire's cheek and then moved her lips next to Claire's ear. "Have I done something that makes you think that?" she said softly.

The attorney screwed up her courage and decided to just ask. It's better to know, right? NO! I don't wanna know. If she goes, Missy'll leave too and I don't want to be without them... ever.

Amanda pulled back when the heartbeat below her fingertips started pounding furiously. She was met with teary, fearful eyes, whose intensity nearly caused her to shudder. The waves of anxiety that were pouring off Claire were palpable and the darker woman suddenly looked pale.

Her lover's distress was unnerving and Amanda found herself unable to curb her answering panic. "You're scaring the crap out me, Claire!" Hot tears rolled down her cheeks. "For the love of God, just say it!"

Claire swallowed hard and willed her voice not to shake. "How long are you and Missy going to stay here? With me, that is."

A profound silence.

What? The younger woman's chest constricted painfully and she awkwardly pushed off the bed in disbelief. Claire reached out to stop Amanda's flight but she was already on her feet. "You... you..." She stopped and ran a shaky hand through her hair. Her bewildered voice dropped to a barely audible whisper. "You want us to leave?"

The stark pain that echoed through the words was unmistakable, and Claire realized immediately that Amanda had misunderstood. "NO! NEVER! I don't want either one of you to leave!"

Amanda shook her head in amazement as she sat down on the floor at the foot of the bed. "This is why you've been so moody and upset lately? You've been trying to end things between us?" she mumbled to herself, Claire's last words not registering.

"No, that's NOT what I want." Claire scrambled to the floor, practically falling off the bed in an attempt to get between Amanda and the door. She pulled the smaller woman's hands into hers and swallowed the solid lump that had formed in her throat. "NO! Don't you see? I... I..." Shit! "We've never really talked about how long and... you've never gotten rid of your condo... I... um...assumed you didn't think of this as permanent."

Amanda tried not to fall into the vulnerable, glassy blue eyes staring so earnestly into hers. She thinks I kept the condo so I'll have a place to go back to when I leave her? Oh, Claire, is that what is this is all about? "You've been waiting for Missy and I to get tired of you and leave? Is that it?"

Mid-nod, Amanda hurled herself into Claire knocking them both down in the process. With a loud 'humph', Claire fell onto the carpet with Amanda plastered on top of her. In a quick move, the psychologist was straddling the older woman. "You..." She kissed the startled brunette lightly. "Are..." she muttered against Claire's lips as deft hands moved into the dark mane of hair and held Claire's head firmly in place. "Never, ever, ever, getting rid me or Missy. Is that completely clear, Gumby?"

Claire opened her mouth to speak but Amanda slapped her palm over the gaping hole before Claire could utter a sound.

"Wait. I was wrong. I'm not finished. This..." Amanda waved her free hand indicating their situation. "...will never happen again because you're never going to wonder how I'm feeling or what I'm thinking without just asking me, right?" she commanded vehemently.

God, I love her!

With her hand still over Claire's mouth, Amanda moved her palm up and down, forcing Claire's head to bob with her words. "Good," the blonde said smugly. "I knew we would agree on this." She felt the warm lips on the sensitive skin of her hand curl into a smile.

"Next..." Her voice lost its teasing edge, and Claire found herself riveted to her partner's face. When she gets serious something behind her eyes melts. They get so clear.

"In my heart..." Amanda grasped Claire's hand and laid it across her chest. She opened her mouth several times but couldn't find the words. The psychologist was uncharacteristically flustered.

How do I make her understand that my heart beats for her? How can I explain what just 'is'. As she usually did, Amanda decided on a simple truth. "In my heart we're a family. And it's... well... it's been like that..."

"Forever," Claire mumbled through Amanda's fingers.

The pale head nodded. And youthful features broke out in a brilliant smile that crinkled her nose and extended to the farthest corners of her face. That's exactly it, Gumby. "Forever."

Claire felt ten years younger and 100 pounds lighter as her world righted itself. On sure footing once again, she felt comfortable asking about Amanda's townhouse. "So if you don't intend moving back there, why keep the condo? It's been sitting nearly empty for months." The lawyer's hands found a natural resting spot on Amanda's waist.

"My realtor told me I'd get a better price in the spring."

Blue eyes rolled back dramatically and Claire groaned. "You mean my ass has been twisting around in the wind for months because you were waiting for the housing market to improve?"

"Umm. Yes?" Amanda answered with a sympathetic cringe, knowing that although Claire's question was a teasing one, her suffering had been all too real. I'm sorry, baby. No more wondering how I feel. Whether you ask or not, I'll be sure to tell you.

Amanda admitted to herself that she'd made a conscious effort not to push Claire forward in their relationship. Although the taller woman made it perfectly clear that she adored her and Missy, the therapist was still a little concerned that gaining a live-in-lover and two-year-old all in one flail swoop might send Claire into overload. Now, she realized that her caution had been mistaken for indifference. That won't happen again, she vowed.

"Well, is it time for makeup sex yet?"

"What?" Amanda laughed and feigned innocence. "I'm not sure we should," she hedged, knowing she would give in without the slightest provocation.

"No fair! I've earned it! I humbly apologized for my idiocy and the throbbing in my head has receded to a dull roar. What other requirements could there be?"

Amanda moved off her partner with a groan. Standing, she sat back on her side of the bed and glared at the clock as though it were evil incarnate. This sucks! "I predict Missy will sleep for another thirty minutes max., and Mark should be calling within the hour. He's going to pick us up in your car."

"Why is he driving my car?" Claire whined, thinking of all the dings in his truck and how much she wanted to jump Amanda's bones.

"It seems you left a small 'remembrance' of your drinking escapade in his truck last night, so I gave him the keys to the Pathfinder. His car is waiting for you and a big bucket of soapy water. He said he'd call before he stopped over to pick us up."

Claire took three long steps forward and bent down until she was nose-to-nose with Amanda. The lawyer spoke in her most breathy voice. "Oooh, Mandy, you make me so hot when you talk about puke and buckets and Mark."

A flashing white smile greeted Claire's words. It's about time. Welcome back, Gumby. The blonde burst out laughing but played along. "Did I forget to mention that I've been moonlighting as a phone sex operator? When you think you're ready, I'll tell you about diapers and lard."

The attorney put on her best game face but when Amanda wriggled her eyebrows suggestively, she dissolved into a helpless fit of laughter that ended in near sobs.

Amanda simply opened her arms and folded Claire in a tight hug. "I know, honey, it's alright," she soothed, allowing the attorney the full opportunity to ride herself of the pent up frustration and worry that had plagued her for weeks. When the tears had finally stopped, Claire pulled back and smiled sheepishly at her companion. "Sorry about that," she murmured. "I don't mean to be such a big baby."

Amanda handed Claire another tissue. "It's really okay, you know. I haven't seen you cry since Zane's and your Uncle Luther's deaths eight months ago. I think you were due." Taking back the soggy tissue, she dropped it into a wastebasket at the side of the bed. "Although, I don't know how you made it through 'Old Yeller' last month. I was practically a wreck," she teased with a wry smile.

The familiar banter caused Claire's own smile to reappear. "Join me in the shower," she offered innocently. "We still have time for a nice shower."

"Just a shower," Amanda asked doubtfully. "Mark should be calling anytime."

"Well, maybe not JUST a shower? I was sorta thinkin' we could..."

Claire leaned in and whispered in her lover's ear. She pulled back with a smirk when even the tips of Amanda's ears turned brick red.

Without another word, the lawyer walked out of the bedroom and into the bathroom.

As if drawn to the sirens' call, Amanda moved to follow Claire, shedding her pajamas with each step. When she reached the telephone on the nightstand, she simply yanked the cord out of the wall and continued on her way.



"A 'planning' party? You're making that up!"

"No, I'm not. It's vital."

"For what?"

"The success of our vacation of course!" Green eyes rolled dramatically giving Claire the distinct impression that Amanda wanted to add 'you idiot' to the end of her answer.

The lawyer clicked off the 10:30 p.m. news leaving the bedroom lit by only the soft glow of the moon. With a grumble, she adjusted the pillow between her back and the headboard. Deciding she should get even more comfortable, Claire turned sideways and stretched long legs the width of the bed, propping her feet on Amanda's thighs in an unspoken request for a massage. To her delight, Amanda absently reached down and began rubbing tired feet.

"Ugh..." the attorney grunted in relief managing to maintain the thread of the conversation. She stretched for her Pepsi on the nightstand and with exaggerated care took a long refreshing swallow. "Jody and Mark will have an entire cabin to themselves. What do we care what they pack?"

"I give up." Amanda reached down and goosed Claire's bottom, drawing a muffled giggle from the taller woman. "If you want to wallow in a state of disorganization for your entire life... be my guest." Strong fingers shifted to Claire's toes and the brunette let out another groan of satisfaction that Amanda found half-humorous and half-arousing. The blonde smiled, knowing she'd been itching to get her hands on her lover all day. "But I'd love to get Mark over here at dinner time," she continued, paying special attention to a sensitive instep.

"Why? You've seen him. He's huge! He eats almost as much as you do!"

"Claire..." the blonde intoned as if speaking to a dullard. "...if we invite Mark and Jody over for dinner..." She let the sentence trail off.

"He'll refuse to eat anything we fix and offer to BBQ for us?" Claire finished, finally catching on.

Amanda nodded, a devilish grin twitching at her lips.

"Ahh... trickery and deceit... and just which law school did you attend, my little BBQ whore? Huh? Hey!" Claire squealed as Amanda mercilessly tickled the feet resting in her lap. "WOW!! Shit! That's cold!"

Amanda's fingers stopped and she looked up at Claire who was now wearing half the contents of her glass.

"Oops." The younger woman smiled sheepishly. She didn't manage to look very sorry, especially when her eyes were drawn to Claire's nipples, which even in the moonlight, were clearly visible through the wet shirt. Amanda unconsciously licked her lips wishing she were that shirt.

"You know, Claire..." she began, her tone completely serious. "I would never whore myself out for BBQ." A thoughtful pause. "But for homemade apple pie you'd never see me again," she deadpanned.

The bed shook with Claire's silent laughter. "For homemade pie... I wouldn't care," Claire shot back.

"Ouch!" Amanda laughed. "You could always learn to cook," she suggested hopefully.

"So are cooking skills all it will take to make me irresistible?"

"Too late, baby." Amanda slid out from under Claire's legs and curled up next to her. "I already find you irresistible." She bent down and placed a light kiss on the wet material covering Claire's breast, causing the attorney to gasp. "And you know it."

Slender insistent fingers found their way underneath the cool, damp cloth gently tracing the contours of Claire's ribs. "Aren't you going to take this off?" she asked innocently, giving the fabric a gentle tug. She knew her partner preferred to sleep sans clothing.

Nodding vigorously, Claire reached for the top button, but before she could undo it, her hands were firmly held.

"Don't," the psychologist gently commanded. "I'll do it." Amanda replaced Claire's hands with her own. "You don't mind, do you?" she asked knowingly.

"Mind? Umm... I think not." The words were teasing, but delivered in a voice so husky its timbre alone garnered a physical reaction from Amanda. The smaller woman literally shivered and was forced to jump-start her hands, which had stilled under the onslaught of the rumbling, sensual notes.

A playful eyebrow arched as Claire rolled from her back to her side until she was completely facing Amanda. Leaning forward, she rested her forehead against her partner's. "Are you sure you don't want me to do that, Mandy?" The lawyer was eager to remove any barrier that lay between her and the silky skin she was already craving. God, I love her hands on me. Claire's heart began to pound.

With a sly smile Amanda shook her head and managed to open the top button before she paused again. This time, she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, allowing her senses to be flooded with the gentle fragrance her mind would forever associate with her lover. The light scent of roses that clung to Claire's clothing mixed with the faint but unique aroma of the lawyer's skin formed a heady combination that frankly mesmerized the younger woman.

Her mind flashed to a conversation they'd had several months ago where she'd asked Claire what she remembered most from their first meeting at the Courthouse. Without hesitation, the brunette had answered 'your scent', and Amanda felt a clenching deep in her guts as her body responded to the erotic undertones of the words before her mind consciously processed them.

A second button popped open and Amanda peeled back the fabric to taste the tempting flesh beneath. "Hmm," she purred, her hot tongue snaking out, sliding along skin so soft it nearly melted in her mouth. "You taste sweet." I could do this forever.

Another soft 'click' and the inquisitive lips methodically worked lower, drawing another gasp. "''s the Pepsi," Claire panted.

As each button was freed, the younger woman delicately opened the fabric, exposing more and more skin. Hungry jade eyes greedily devoured each dip and curve, lingering wantonly over every newly exposed valley and ridge.

Claire was finding it hard to speak. Each fleeting kiss and caress was delivered with such gentleness and reverence that they scrambled the lawyer's senses, sending her reeling into a sensory overload. "Christ, Mandy!" She ground out when the smaller woman circled a painfully erect nipple with the tip of her tongue before taking only the very peak into her mouth and sucking gently.

Of its own accord, Claire's body arched toward the roaming lips in a quest for more solid contact. But she was firmly pushed back while her partner worked free the last several buttons of her blouse.

Claire lifted her upper body from the bed, allowing Amanda to strip off the soaked material. Soon, dark jeans met the same fate as Claire's shirt and were discarded in the aftermath of seeking teeth and lips and tongue.

When Claire lay clad in only a pair of black cotton panties, her hands refused to be still. In record time, Amanda's pajama top found its way onto the growing heap on the carpet. Wanting no more distance between them, Claire pulled Amanda on top of her for a deep, sensuous kiss.

Both women moaned their approval as breasts touched breasts and hot tongues collided. Panties were worked free, the women touching all along the length of their bodies, nothing between them but a light coat of perspiration. Long legs tangled with shorter fair ones and bare skin slid across bare skin. Jesus, Claire. I want to taste every inch of your body. The psychologist's mind was awhirl. Claire grasped her hips and pulled her closer, causing an explosion of sensation that drew a long guttural moan from the younger woman.

A small hand snaked down between the panting bodies and deliberately slid through a field of liquid fire. "God, you're drenched," Amanda's whisper quivered, her arousal obvious. The therapist closed her eyes in a quiet bid for concentration and control, the hot musky liquid surrounding her fingertips nearly undoing her resolve. Easy... slowly, she admonished herself.

Part of the blonde simply wanted to take the gorgeous creature beneath her, but an equal part wanted to prolong the pleasure of their coupling for as long as humanly possible. As far as she was concerned, it was a win-win situation.

Amanda tore her lips from her lover's and ducked her head to kiss along the delicate line of prominent collarbones, stopping in the salty hollow of Claire's throat. "Do you have any idea how fantastic loving you is, Gumby?" she uttered softly as the body below hers writhed under her gentle ministrations. On the second pass over swollen lips Claire gasped and bucked forward, taking in the full length of nimble fingers, effectively relieving Amanda of any pretense of control or restraint.

Sapphire eyes rolled back in rapture as every last drop of available blood pooled southward toward the spiraling ache in her groin. The lawyer's hands tangled in shaggy red-gold hair, pulling the younger woman up into another searing kiss. In a negligent demonstration of strength, Claire sat up without using her hands, taking Amanda's full body weight with her. The movement caused the smaller woman to straddle Claire's thighs without severing the connection between them.

Large hands tilted the pale head back, and Claire feasted on the luscious skin of her lover's jaw and throat until Amanda's strokes turned purposeful and Claire buried her face in her partner's shoulder.

Sensing the older woman was teetering on the edge of release, the psychologist stilled the hand between Claire's legs and drew her partner's face off her shoulder. Passion-soaked cerulean orbs blazed into hers, ratcheting her desire higher still. Amanda opened her mouth to speak but stopped when her eyes were inexplicably drawn to a single glistening bead of perspiration trailing its way from Claire's bang soaked temple to her jaw line. The drop hung suspended in time, shimmering in the moonlight, until Amanda moved forward and caught the salty moisture on the tip of her tongue, then trailed the scorching organ back up the path the bead had taken.

"Yes!" Claire hissed loudly when Amanda's tongue languidly slid up the side of her face and talented fingers invaded her once again. A delicious warmth flooded her belly and groin and her body began to tremble. Then the hand stilled again, seeming to disappear. "Nooo," she whimpered at the loss of contact. Amanda had coaxed her to the edge of the abyss and the lawyer desperately wanted to fall over.

A stream of heated breath tickled Claire's cheek. Amanda shifted her lips so close to Claire's ear that their tickling movement caused the fine hairs at the nape of her neck to stand at attention, and a flurry Goosebumps to break out over her limbs. "Do you want me to make you come, Claire?" she whispered hotly.

She is so good! Amanda's words and the firestorm of sensation they created were nearly more than Claire could withstand. Hypersensitive skin tingled in the wake of near electric stimulation. Claire swallowed hard, her scattered wits fighting to find her voice. I love you so much. "Yes... Yes... More than anything... Please," she finally managed.

The lips alongside her ear curled into a smile. God, I love you too. "Then come," came the tender command as white teeth gently bit into the sinewy muscle running the length of Claire's throat and determined fingers delved deeper than before. Amanda's thumb slid over the previously ignored throbbing bundle of nerves at Claire's center and the lawyer immediately threw her head back and arched into the exquisite touch. A strangled cry was rent from her chest and her body shuddered violently as the blinding force of her climax enveloped her and she simply...


The blonde wrapped her free arm around her lover's back, hissing at the sizzling wet skin that slid flawlessly against hers. She held Claire tightly, grounding her as she rode out the crashing waves of release in total security and love. Amanda's spirit soared as her lover's body plummeted.

After several moments of tremors and whispered endearments, Amanda eased Claire onto her back. The psychologist withdrew her fingers causing Claire to twitch and groan in protest. Amanda smirked and kissed her lover on the cheek. "Sorry, baby," she murmured against the damp skin.

Claire circled Amanda with her arms and hugged the smaller woman fiercely, her body slowly coming back to life. "You should be," the lawyer teased. "That..." meaning the entire sexual experience "...was just awful." You are amazing.

"Oh, I could tell," Amanda chuckled. "I'm surprised Missy isn't in here already. You screamed loud enough to wake the dead." She paused. "That was different."

Claire cupped Amanda's cheeks, suddenly insecure about her uncharacteristic loss of control. "Did you mind?"

"Mind? Umm... I think not," the younger woman mimicked. Unexpectedly, Amanda grabbed Claire's hand and thrust it to her sopping center, trembling at the touch.

Claire arched a dark eyebrow, her genuine smile lighting up the room. "That was okay, then? I'm not usually so... loud."

"You're kidding right?" Amanda's finger traced soft crimson lips, her wry smile answering Claire's full one. "Gumby, I'm so excited right now I'm about ready to die. You've got ten seconds to do something about it or I'm starting without you."

A second dark eyebrow joined its twin, and Claire allowed herself a few heartbeats to consider just how much fun that would be. Tucking away the thought for later, bright azure eyes twinkled as she expertly flipped Amanda on her back and began peppering her throat with soft kisses. After a moment, small insistent fingers wove their way into thick dark locks, urging Claire downward. Claire's climax had pushed Amanda to the brink herself, and now even the lightest touch from her partner caused her center to flutter and pulse wildly. "Pleeease..., Claire," she begged shamelessly.

Before yielding to her lover's need, Claire stopped and placed a commanding but loving kiss on Amanda's lips, willing her partner to know and understand everything she was feeling inside. And Amanda did, her own heart constricting in response.

Lips finally separated, and Claire gazed at Amanda with a look of such undisguised desire that the smaller woman felt a hot trickle of moisture trail down her inner thighs. She moaned. Hands and mouths were everywhere at once and they celebrated in wild abandon.

Suddenly, Claire's movements gentled and she slowed the frantic pace to worship luscious breasts with unsurpassed tenderness and grace.

Amanda was awash in a sea of vivid sensation, her pulse pounded furiously, and she swore she could hear the rushing of her own blood roaring in her ears. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she was vaguely aware that the deep keening sound reverberating throughout the room was coming from her, she just didn't care. Small shaking hands urged Claire downward again, and when the addictive scent of Amanda's arousal wafted between them, filling Claire's senses completely, the lawyer let out a gloriously primal growl and made her way to its source.

Love, lust, compassion, humor, need, vulnerability, and strength, were only a few of the things that flowed like water between these women. One drew from the other in a perfect symbiotic rhythm of give and take. It was simple and complicated and utterly right, and both Amanda and Claire spent long hours appreciating what they had, and what they intended to keep.


Claire laid her head on her partner's chest, listening as the pounding heart beneath her ear slowly resumed its normal beat. "We should do this more often."

Claire felt the body below hers giggle. "Sweetheart, we do this pretty often as is it." The woman's insatiable. Lucky me!


"So any more often and we'll have to take the show on the road. We have to work sometime, you know."

"Hey!" Claire exclaimed in mock indignation. "I thought I was working pretty damned hard!"

"And you deserve a promotion! Head body slave then?"

"You mean I was second banana before?''

"Weeell..." Amanda hedged.

"I wasn't even second banana?!"

"That's all in the past." Amanda waived a hand dismissively. "Consider yourself promoted."

Both women laughed, enjoying the easy banter and camaraderie that they'd established almost immediately in their relationship. Each had long since stopped wondering why she would occasionally be assaulted with a curious sense of what Amanda called subliminal recognition and Claire referred to as Deja Vu. After all, it didn't seem so strange now that they were making their own memories.

"Did you have fun at the Mall of America yesterday?" Claire asked after a few moments of comfortable silence.

"Umm...hmm. And I noticed it didn't kill you to join us," came the sleepy answer. "Too bad Jody decided not to go. Mark seemed really disappointed."

"I know, " Claire agreed. "Do you think they're fighting? They've both been acting really weird lately."

Amanda furrowed her brow trying to recall any specific instances. "I don't think so. But you're right about something being up." She trailed her hand up the soft skin of Claire's back. "I hope it's nothing serious. They're really good for each other. I've never seen Jody happier than she's been these past eight months."

Claire turned her head to kiss the smooth skin below Mandy's cheek, enjoying its salty tang. "I know," she murmured. Marko seems really happy too. I'm glad. He deserves it."

Claire laid her head alongside Amanda's on the pillow, pale hair mixing with midnight black. "You don't think Jody's just using him, do you?"

"What?" Amanda's protective instincts flared. "What do you mean using him?"

"Well... I mean..." You're on thin ice here, Claire. "I don't think Mark considers their relationship casual. He hasn't dated anyone but Jody since they met." The lawyer's fingertip traced Amanda's ear, her attention torn between their conversation and the miles of soft skin only a hairsbreadth away.

"Oh." And what could she really say to that? It was something that she had wondered about herself. Not that she thought her friend was intentionally leading Mark on. She didn't. But more than anyone, Amanda understood Jody's need for autonomy. Her long time pal wouldn't even get a goldfish because she didn't want the responsibility, and Amanda was pretty sure those feelings extended to all areas of her personal life as well. Mark, on the other hand, didn't appear to exist under such a handicap.

A finger poked into the well of the therapist's ear, prompting her to answer. "Uck. Quit it!" She playfully jerked away. "If you're asking me whether or not Jody is serious about Mark, then the answer is 'I don't know'. But I do know she cares about him." Amanda grabbed the offending hand and placed a soft kiss on the tip of the probing digit. "I don't want to see either one of them get hurt." Unable to resist, Amanda slid the finger into the hot recess of her mouth and watched in amazement as Claire's eyes, already an ethereal shade of violet in the moonlight, visibly darkened.

"Claire, at this very second are you resisting the impulse to kiss me?" she whispered seductively, her voice taking on an almost feline quality.

In a blur of movement the taller woman shot forward and placed a toe-curling kiss on her partner's lips. After a moment she pulled back and smiled broadly. "No."


The young man shifted nervously, his fingers aching from the icy cold. His rants were a mixture of verbal and nonverbal ramblings that echoed in the frigid night air. She's been lead astray by tall good looks. I can fix that. She needs help to see that she was chosen for me and I for her. When I make things right, she'll hear His voice as clearly as I do. I'll guide you, Amanda, don't worry.

Black eyes scanned the house for any signs of movement. He had been watching for days... even before the last counseling session... but no one knew. He was sure of that. The lights had clicked off right at 11:00 p.m. After watching the news no doubt. But that was hours ago and he'd seen no trace of movement since then. It was time. The voice had grown too persistent to ignore.

In nature there is no hesitation. The strong survive and procreate. The weak perish and their seed is obliterated. My seed SHALL NOT DIE. Amanda will be the carrier. Cory stomped his feet in a bid to keep them warm.

Her child will not be allowed to corrupt mine. She is impure, born of fornication and outside holy marriage. But the cleansing fire of blood will set her free. I'll see to that. I would do that for you, my love. But I am patient. Patience is a virtue. I am virtuous. I am righteous.

Cory didn't stop to consider that Amanda's beloved was a respected County Attorney, from a good family, and that Amanda had a loving home and was clearly happy. No one else was good enough for her. Only him. There is only black and white and I am His messenger. Shades of gray are merely an illusion created by the wicked to excuse the damned. In the Lord's eyes their relationship is wrong. It had to be. She was meant for him and no other. Cory understood that the casual, platonic displays of public affection were nothing more than a ruse. I am not stupid. I cannot be deceived.

His thoughts turned to what the lovers did behind closed doors. He closed his eyes and tried to push the evil pictures from his mind, but despite himself, he felt a swelling ache in his groin. His stomach churned. Soon those hands will be my hands. Only mine.

Except for the light crunching of his boots in the snow, Cory's movements were silent. I am a hunter. You are the hunted. As always, he had parked several miles away. There was no car for nosey neighbors to see. He examined the house with care.

Not the front door, that will be locked. But don't think that will keep me out. Cory slid a dark ski mask over his short burr haircut and settled it on his face. Approaching the garage, he pulled a short metal pipe from his bulky winter coat and peered into an eye level window. He looked into total darkness. Next he pulled a towel from his jacket, feeling the chill as the additional warmth left his body.

Car lights shone in the distance and Cory ducked around the side of the garage and leaned up against its wall and waited. His heart was pounding and each shallow breath sent a stream of white fog into the night air. The sweat around his eyes and mouth was beginning to turn to ice. He swept a shaking hand over the mask to remove the forming crystals. When the lights faded into the distance, Cory wrapped the end of the pipe with the towel, doubling the material over several times until the padding was several inches thick.

When he was certain it was safe he returned to the window. With a firm but delicate 'rap' he struck the glass which cracked under the pressure, but didn't break. The towel muffled the sound and bolstered the young man's confidence. Another 'rap' and the glass cracked all the way through, sending a tiny piece clattering onto the garage floor. Warm air poured through the small hole and swirled upward in a billow of steam.

SHIT! Cory hissed. That was not supposed to happen. He stood deathly still, not even breathing, waiting, praying. A hundred heartbeats passed and the only sounds were the wind and trees. Cory let out a shaky breath and began removing the shards of shattered glass from the window frame piece by piece, never letting a single bit fall back onto the garage floor.

When the job was finally finished, he unwrapped the pipe and laid the towel over the edge of the window frame. It would be a tight fit. He'd never been this close before and he didn't realize how small the window was. Making a quick decision he slid off his coat, leaving him clad only in a flannel shirt but greatly reducing his size. I am His messenger. I gladly do His bidding were Cory's last thoughts as he pushed his coat through the window and, with the pipe in hand, slid into the garage.

Gloved hands broke his fall as the slim man slithered down the inner wall of the garage. Even with the glass out of the window, he could feel the increase in temperature and idly admired the heated garage. Bracing himself on a hard metal bumper, he stood and removed his mask and gloves. Turning, he pulled the towel from the window.

What do you ask? Death? The young man began pacing in the garage, not seeming to be in a hurry to enter the house. He cocked his ear toward the sky as if listening but after a few moments his face twisted in rage. Why aren't you answering me! As suddenly as the rage hit, it disappeared, replaced by an eerie calm. Of course, this is a test to see if I've been listening. I have. You won't be disappointed.

Donning his mask and gloves, Cory made his way to the door leading into the house. His gloved hand tightly gripped the knob and he turned it ever so slowly. A light click and a hollow creak sounded through the garage as the door popped open.

Cory stepped into a narrow hallway, his boots softly clicking on the linoleum. The house was darker, the curtained windows blocking out the moonlight. The hallway made an abrupt turn to the right where swinging doors led to a kitchen. Another step and Cory's heavy boot landed on a child's toy. The toy squeaked loudly under his weight and he nearly fell as he stumbled away from it.

"Who's there?" A voice called out from the kitchen.

A little late for a midnight snack isn't it? No matter. Any place is fine. With purposeful strides Cory moved through the hall and pushed open the swinging doors.

"What in the hel..."

WHACK! The steel pipe came down with vicious force, crashing into the lawyer's skull, sending a spray of rich black blood across the white tile. The force of the blow sent the limp body sprawling across the cool tiles and into the kitchen chairs.

"SHE IS MINE!" WHACK! The sickening sound of snapping bones resounded through the kitchen as the pipe struck an arm that lay propped up against a table leg.

Cory's breath was coming in short pants, the adrenaline coursing through his veins. For the first time he noticed that the limp form was completely nude. His eyes roamed over the smooth muscular legs, and his mind flashed back to Amanda and these arms and legs wrapped tightly around her, someone else kissing her, tasting her. Her cries of passion rang out in his mind and he placed his hands over his ears as if to block them out. NO! NO! NO! She was meant for me! She could never enjoy being with you! She is mine!

Cory pulled his mask up uncovering his eyes and looked closely at the blood pooling around the lawyer's head. With a trembling hand he slid off one glove and traced the smooth skin that covered a muscular thigh. He could feel his own excitement growing. He reached down and undid his belt, dropping his pants to his knees. He pulled the limp body toward him, grunting under the strain of dead weight. Matted bloody hair dragged along the kitchen floor leaving a dark liquid trail in its wake. Suddenly, Cory stopped. No. This is part of the test. I won't succumb. I am worthy. I cannot be deceived.

Standing, the young man spat on the still form below and laughed to himself. Too easy. "The strong survive, the weak perish." Cory slipped out of the kitchen and into the living room to finish his task.





An arm snaked out and grabbed the ringing telephone. "Hello," slurred the tired voice.

"Is this Claire Easton?"

Claire rolled off of Amanda and looked at the clock in annoyance. Who calls someone at 6:00 a.m.? "Look, whatever you're selling, you can take it and shove..."

"I'm sorry. I should have identified myself right away. I'm Officer Ryan Pederson from the Minneapolis police department. Am I speaking with Ms. Easton?"

Shit, why do you guys always have to do this crap at the most ungodly hours? It wasn't unusual for the police to call one of the County Attorneys at home when they needed a search warrant right away.

"That's me. Wadda ya need?"

"Do you know a Mark Gustafson?"

Claire rubbed her eyes. "Of course I know Mark. What's the matter, can't he do his own paperwork anymore? Put him on the phone."

Amanda sat up wearily and looked at the clock. Claire held her arm out in invitation and the younger woman immediately wrapped herself around the warm body and closed her eyes again.

"Umm... No ma'am. I'm calling from the United Hospital emergency room in St. Paul. Mr. Gustafson has you listed in his wallet as his next of kin."

"Next of kin!" Claire shouted all traces of sleep having vanished. "What do you mean next of kin?" Her throat went dry. "Are... are you saying Mark's dead?"

Amanda tightly gripped Claire's hand, her own heart in her throat as she waited for her partner to fill her in on the other side of the conversation. Oh God, please let Mark be okay. But the words 'dead' and 'next of kin' were not encouraging.

"No ma'am, I'm not saying that at all. He was wheeled in here about twenty minutes ago, and as far as I know he was alive when they brought him in. I was just told to call his next of kin and according to a card in his wallet you're his emergency contact."

Claire jumped out of bed and began rummaging for something to wear. "What happened?" The lawyer wanted details and she wanted them now.

Amanda thrust a sweatshirt and jeans into Claire's arms and the older woman nodded her thanks.

"Well, I really can't say. I..."

Claire stopped moving and stood to her full height. "Listen Officer Pederson, you GODDAMNED idiot! You'd better start talking! WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED?!"

Amanda cringed knowing her partner was only seconds from an all out fury. She quickly pulled on a pair of sweat pants and grabbed the nearest sweatshirt, not caring whether it was hers or Claire's.

"There was a break-in last night. Some old lady neighbor of Mr. Gustafson's saw a broken window when she got up to take her 'Tums' a nd called the police."

Ahh... Mrs. Harris, you nosey old hag. "AND?" She shouted impatiently. Amanda reappeared from the closet and clicked on the bedroom light as she handed Claire a pair of short hiking boots.

"And he was found on the kitchen floor unconscious. The ambulance crew thinks he was hit in the head with a baseball bat or club or something. That's all I know, honest." Damn, who is this woman?

"Fine. I'll be there in fifteen minutes." Claire didn't wait to hear 'goodbye' before she sat down on the foot of the bed and hung up the phone. She bent over and began tying her shoes with trembling hands as she explained to Amanda what little she knew. With a curse she redid the first knot.

"Here. Let me." Amanda bent down and finished the job.

"Mandy, I need to..."

"I know. I'll get Missy and then collect Jody. We'll meet you at the hospital." Amanda stood and grasped her partner's chin with a gentle hand, tilting her face until they made direct eye contact. "Drive carefully, Gumby. I don't want to be visiting you in the hospital."

Claire nodded and pulled the blonde in for a tight hug. "I'll see you there then," she said against the soft fabric of Amanda's sweatshirt. With a quick kiss Claire disappeared out the bedroom door.


Claire merged slowly onto the dark highway trying to remember the fastest route to the downtown hospital. Leaning over she popped open her glove box and dug around for her faithful-driving companion, Gumby. A frown creased her face when she didn't feel him immediately. She impatiently flung out a small box of tissues that Amanda had insisted were necessary, two road maps, and several frozen catsup packets, before her hands felt the familiar bendable form... and something else. What?

She flipped on the dome light to get a better look at her loyal friend. "Marko, Mandy, you shit heads!" she laughed, happy for the reprieve from the tension that was giving her a pounding headache. Gumby was dressed in a tiny Minnesota Vikings Football jersey, with an odd shaped purple helmet covering his head. It was a gentle jibe from her friends who considered her preference for the Green Bay Packers akin to worshipping Satan.

The lawyer expertly twisted the long green arms around the top of her steering wheel. Her dark head shook. Where did you ever find a jersey and helmet so small? Then Claire remembered their trip to the Mall of America just two days before. Her heart hurt when she thought of her partner and best friend, pale heads tilted together in conspiracy.

"He's gotta be okay, Gumby." Claire felt the bottom of her stomach drop. "Shit, the boys." She mentally calculated which Monday this was, and correctly figured that Keith and Bobby would be with their mother. "That dumb-ass cop would have mentioned them if they'd been at the house or hospital." Okay, okay, they're all right. Relax.

Claire changed lanes decreasing her speed. The closer to downtown she got, the worse the traffic, even at this early hour. "What do ya think, Gumby? Residential or highway? Yeah, you're right." She spoke as if her little green friend had answered. "If I go residential I'll get stuck behind a damned snowplow."

After another ten minutes, she pulled onto the tall brick-parking ramp for the hospital. She stopped at the front gate and rolled her window down to yank a paper ticket from the metal dispenser. Finding a space near the second floor elevators she quickly pulled in and shut off the ignition. Then she sat there, her feet seemingly glued to the floor. Jesus, Claire, get a grip. The cop said he was alive. He'll be okay. Even Marko's not stupid enough to croak a week before a vacation and two weeks before Christmas.

She slowly unbuckled her seatbelt. "Who did this to you, Buddy?" Claire waited for Gumby's answer but none came. She felt a dark sinister anger brewing and did nothing to quell it. It was easier to focus on that rather than the stark pain that accompanied the possibility of losing her oldest friend.

Claire grabbed Gumby and reached over to open the glove box. Her hand hesitated on the knob and then she changed her mind completely, shoving him in the front pocket of her brown leather jacket as she exited the Pathfinder.

The coat had been a gift for her thirty-second birthday from Amanda. She'd never really cared much for leather, but the blonde had seen it while window-shopping and simply had to buy it. Claire smiled at the happy memory as she strode down the enclosed walkway that led into the hospital itself. How could she complain? For some inexplicable reason, the psychologist couldn't seem to keep her hands off her when she wore it. Mental note: buy more leather.

Claire made her way through a large round turnstile and was immediately assaulted by the universal antiseptic 'hospital smell'. Now she couldn't avoid the unhappy thoughts even with visions of Amanda. Emergency room, where are you? Determined blue eyes scanned the seemingly endless array of arrows and signs until she found the one she was looking for. Subconsciously, she increased her pace with every passing step until she was nearly running down the long winding tunnel to the emergency room. Hang on, Buddy. Please.


"C'mon, Sweetie. Missy, help me out here." The child had fallen asleep on the short drive to Jody's apartment and her mother was struggling to extricate the sleeping body from the car seat. Goddamned car seats from hell!

With a loud groan Amanda hefted Missy up and settled her face down on her shoulder. She tightened the toddler's furry, pink hood with her free hand. "There you go, baby. C'mon."

Amanda tried not to stumble as she waded through the knee-deep snow in the apartment parking lot. Looks like the plows haven't come by yet. No wonder Jody drives that hideous purple beast! Amanda reached for the doorway to the apartment building and hissed when her bare hand nearly stuck to the frozen metal. "Ouch!" I can't believe I forgot my gloves.

The blonde tugged the handle but the door didn't move. She jerked it harder but with the same results. Locked.

Shifting her daughter higher on her shoulder Amanda strained her eyes until she located the buzzer marked 'Jody Penbrook'.

BZZZZ. Nothing.

BZZZZ. Still nothing.

"UGH! Jody you'd better not be in the shower." Amanda held her wrist to the glowing yellow light sconce just outside the doorway. 6:35 a.m. You should be getting up about now.

BZZZZ. Ugh!! Answer and BUZZ ME UP!

"Hello," a faint voice crackled.

Amanda was lightly bouncing on the balls of her feet to stay warm. "It's Amanda and Missy, can you buzz us up?"

"What are...BUZZ...this...CRACKLE...morning?"

"Just let us up! We're freezing." Missy's warm rosy cheek was tucked snugly against Amanda's and the toddler was snoring. Okay so I'm freezing.

CLANK. The door automatically released and Amanda quickly stepped into the dimly lit hallway. No wonder she hates Chester for getting the condo in the divorce. This place sucks.

Halfway down the hallway Amanda stopped. As she raised her hand to knock on the black apartment door, it opened before her hand struck the wood. Jody was standing in the entryway, wearing only a dark green towel.

The shabby exterior gave no hint to the beautiful apartment that lay within. Like her office at the Cornerstone Clinic, her home was filled with treasures and decorations of all shapes and sizes. The baubles and furnishings ranged from the downright odd to resolutely classical.

"What are you guys doing here so early?" Jody moved out of the doorway, allowing the two blondes to enter.

"Whoa. It's really warm in here. How do you stand it?" Amanda commented nervously as she laid Missy on the couch. I do not want to tell her this.

Jody bent down and tugged away the corner of Missy's hood to give her a quick kiss on the cheek. "Hiya, Kiddo," she greeted softly.

The short-haired brunette straightened and turned serious caramel eyes on her friend. When Amanda was anxious or upset it was always painfully obvious. "What's wrong?"

The younger woman shifted uncomfortably and unzipped her jacket. "Jody there's been accident... sort of."

"Is it Claire?"

"No." Thank God. Amanda felt a flash of guilt over her relief that it was Mark, not Claire, lying in the hospital. "It's Mark. Someone broke into his house last night and somehow he got hurt. The police found him unconscious this morning and called us from the emergency room at United Hospital."

"Is he...?" Jody wasn't able to finish the words before her face went ashen.

Amanda stepped closer to her business partner. "No... at least I don't think so. He was alive when they brought him in."

The taller woman stood deathly still, her short dark hair dripping into her eyes.

This was not the reaction Amanda was expecting from her sometimes-explosive friend. "Jody?"

The stocky counselor's pallor shifted from gray to doughy white.

Crap! She's gonna pass out. "Sit down," Amanda insisted, immediately easing her friend onto the couch. "Are you okay?"

"No... I don't feel so good. I think I'm gonna..." Amanda's face was beginning to turn fuzzy and a creeping darkness started to invade Jody's peripheral vision.

"No. You're not." Amanda laid her palms on her friend's and forced her to focus. "Take deep breaths and relax. Put your head between your knees. That's right," she soothed.

Amanda knelt in front of Jody, never removing the supportive contact. Jody concentrated on the heat from the warm palms and took several calming breaths. The blonde smiled reassuringly when her friend's color began to improve and her breathing evened out.

"I'm sorry. I don't know what happened I..." Jody started to babble uncharacteristically.

Amanda got off her knees and squashed herself into the small space between Jody and the end of the sofa. "It's okay. But we need to go, Jody. I don't know how serious this is."

Jody nodded and moved into the bedroom to get dressed. Less than thirty seconds later, she confidently strode out of the room wearing jeans, cowboy boots, and a heavy cotton shirt. Her dark wavy hair was combed neatly in place and she was shoving her car keys in her front pocket. She shot Amanda an irritated look. "What are we waiting for?" Jody bent down, scooped up Missy, and headed for the door.

The younger woman didn't hide her startled reaction to the transformation. Just like Claire, she thought. She's all lion on the outside, all pussycat on the inside. I just hope, for all our sakes, Mark is all right.


Claire sat at the edge of Mark's bed and smiled down at her best friend. Marks left arm was in a cast that stretched from his shoulder to his wrist. His head was wrapped in so many layers of gauze that she wondered why they'd bothered stopping the mummification process at all.

"You look like shit, Marko!"

Hazel eyes rolled toward blue. "Thanks a lot pal, I love you too," the bass voice rumbled a little softer than usual.

No more needed to be said. They loved each other and they both knew it.

"'Bout time you woke up."

"Hmm. How could I sleep with all that yelling going on outside my door. You, I take it?"

"Hell, yes it was me. The doctors and then the police weren't being as... forthcoming with information as they should have been. They just needed a little motivation, that's all."

Mark shifted his cast to his stomach, trying to get comfortable. When that didn't work, he muttered a few curse words and laid it back in the exact same spot as before. "So you kicked ass and took names?"

The brunette smiled sheepishly. "Basically."

"Hey, you brought Gumby." The big attorney pointed at the green rubber man whose head was sticking out of Claire's pocket. "He's a Viking now!" he asserted proudly.

"You... Keep your big dumb paws off of Gumby or I'll break your other arm." Claire gave Mark the look that made hostile witnesses pee their pants and he brushed it off without a second thought.

"But you let Amanda play with him," he whined. "I've seen her!"

Claire smirked, her eyebrow arching to its highest level. "Amanda gets to play with all my toys. You don't."

"Tell me about it," the blonde mumbled.

Claire's smirk shifted to a worried smile. With her fingertips she gently traced his bandage. "How ya doin'?"

"Great," he answered with a little too much zeal.

"Are you nuts? Why are you so happy? You could have been..." For the first time Claire took a good look into dazed hazel eyes. Ahh. Feeling no pain. "Good drugs, huh?"

"Umm...Hmm." He flashed her a toothy grin and surprised her by pulling her down with his good hand and kissing her full on the lips. At that very moment Amanda, Jody and Missy walked in the room.

"Ahhheeem," Jody cleared her throat loudly. "I see you're not dead," she said sarcastically.

Mark's faced creased into a boyish smile. Jody, my sweet. Come here so I can kiss you too!

Thank God you're okay you stupid... giant... giant... gorgeous... ahhh! The muscular psychologist stepped up to the foot of the bed to examine her friend. Mark was lying under a thin Pepto-Bismol pink blanket. His large bare feet hung over the edge of the too short hospital bed and an angry purple bruise crept its way out from under his stark white bandage. His eyes were glassy and red and strands of his nearly shoulder length dishwater hair were poking out from underneath his bandage in odd directions. "You look like shit, Marko!"

The tall man's smile broadened even further, showing off deep dimples. That's my girl.

"That's what I said!" Claire exclaimed as she Mark and Jody burst out laughing. Mark immediately reached for his head and moaned through his chuckles.

They're all mad! Amanda thought. But she found herself smiling along with the rest of them nonetheless. She knew Jody and Claire had just been through the wringer and was glad that their natural humor was already reasserting itself. Amanda watched as Claire covertly laid a reassuring hand over Jody's before quickly moving it away. What is it about those brooding brunettes that I can't resist? she wondered. Amanda smiled her hello to Mark.

"Cwairrr," Missy squealed and scrambled out of Amanda's arms to see the lawyer.

Claire bent down and nuzzled the child's neck, tickling her with kisses. "How are you this morning, Pumpkin?"

Amanda's ears perked up at the endearment her father used, and she felt a fierce rush of affection at seeing her child and lover together. The woman who could make juries weep with her elegant speeches and criminals confess rather than face her in court, plainly worshipped the ground her child walked on. It was a paradox she found intriguing and endlessly appealing.

When Claire straightened, Missy threw her arms up in a bid to be held. Her mother moved forward to take the toddler but the taller woman shook her off with a grin and scooped up the delighted child.

If it weren't for the fact that you look like night and day, no one would suspect you weren't her mother, Amanda happily mused.

Once secure in Claire's arms, Missy could see who was lying in the bed. "Marko!" she screamed.

Mark cringed at the shrill sound.

Amanda shot Jody and Claire an evil look and shook a motherly finger at them both. "She'd better not repeat the rest of what you said."

The injured attorney decided to jump in and rescue his friends, who were now staring guilty at their shoes. "Hi, Missy," he rumbled.

At the sound of her favorite "uncle's" voice, Missy began to squirm in Claire's arms in an effort to get closer to the bed. "No, Missy," Claire admonished gently. "Uncle Mark is hurt so you need to stay with me and be very quiet. Okay?"

The little girl's mossy green eyes turned round and watery and her bottom lip poked out and began to quiver. Nononononono! She looks just like, Mandy when she does that. Please don't cry. I can't stand it when you cry. Claire looked over to Amanda in desperation but the blonde just rolled her eyes.

"She has you so pegged, Gumby." Amanda faced Missy and spoke sternly. "Claire said no and she meant it." The tears stopped immediately.

Claire's eyebrows shot into her hairline and her jaw dropped to her chest in an expression so comical both Jody and Mark diverted their eyes and turned their heads so Claire wouldn't see their sniggers.

I... I can't believe it! "She does that to me on purpose?" And I fell for it? You little sneak! Claire took a deep breath, ready to accuse Amanda of teaching Missy such treachery, but before she could speak the door opened and a petite, extremely attractive doctor strolled in.

"My name is Dr. Musa." Her voice was colored by a rich African accent and she approached Mark with a blindingly white smile. "How are you feeling, Mr. Gustafson?"

"My head is starting to hurt," Mark replied bluntly.

Dr. Musa picked up the chart from the foot of the bed and gave it a quick once over. "Of course it does. You have a severe concussion," she replied equally bluntly. Reaching into the pocket of her crisply starched lab coat, she pulled out a small penlight and shone itinto Mark's eyes. "You are quite lucky that the blow was only glancing." She clicked off the light. "Your skull is not fractured."

For the first time since she arrived, the doctor directed her attention someplace other than Mark. Chocolate eyes quickly flittered over Jody and Amanda but lingered over Claire in open appraisal.

Amanda frowned and wrapped her arm tightly around Claire's waist in an act of possession that clearly stated, "MINE." The black orbs drew back to Amanda's where they held for a timeless second and a silent message was conveyed. Then, with an almost imperceptible nod, the doctor's eyes dropped to floor as she moved toward the head of the bed.

Shifting Missy, Claire leaned down and whispered into her mate's ear. "Why don't you just piss on me, Mandy? It might be more effective."

"Watch it, smartass." Amanda whispered back, adding a pinch to Claire's butt for good measure. "Considering where your lips were when I walked in, I'll be marking my territory anyway I choose, thank you very much. Poor Mark," she snorted. "He probably won't even remember it tomorrow." The frown came back. "Did you talk to the police?"

Claire nodded and fished Gumby out of her pocket for Missy to play with. "Yeah, but I still have a few more questions. I'll fill you in at home." Claire looked over at Jody. "Is Jody gonna be okay?" The darker therapist was sitting in a recliner several feet from Mark's bed with a worried expression on her face.

"I think this scared the crap out of her. But yeah, she'll be fine."

Claire thought for a moment about how she'd feel if it were Mandy in that bed, bandaged and hurt. I'd be going out of my mind. "I love you," she said suddenly.

Amanda's arms circled both Claire and Missy in a warm hug, understanding the spoken and unspoken words of the declaration. "I love you too."

"You should be resting," the doctor smoothly informed her patient as she laid a cold stethoscope on his chest.

"I'm not tired," Mark protested, even as his eyes were closing.

Satisfied with the results of her cursory examination Dr. Musa replaced Mark's chart on the hook at the foot of the bed and addressed the woman who had sent the emergency room into a tizzy when they weren't quick enough in answering her questions. "He'll need to stay here for at least the next 24-48 hours, assuming the results of his CAT scan show no hemorrhaging. Could I speak with you ladies outside in the hallway?" She looked pointedly at Claire and Amanda, apparently unconcerned with Jody who was sitting so quietly. "He needs to rest now, and I'd like to give you some instructions for his future care."

The doctor made a motion toward the door then marched out of the crowded room, clearly expecting the women to follow her. Claire and Amanda exchanged 'a look' and followed on the heels of the small woman, intent on giving Jody and Mark a few moments alone together.

When the door shut behind them Jody walked over to the big man and laid a sloppy kiss on his cheek. His lips twitched at the contact. "You're coming back, aren't you?" came the nearly inaudible request.

Jody felt a lump forming in her throat and coughed awkwardly, trying not to cry. "Course I am, ya idiot. I'm just gonna go see what the doctor has to say, then I'll be right back."

Mark grasped her hand tightly but didn't open his eyes. "Promise."

Oh... boy. This is gonna be worse than I thought. "Yeah, I promise." She sighed. I need to have that talk with Amanda... soon.



"Do you really think he’s well enough to come with us?" Amanda spoke with her back to Claire as she reached into a kitchen drawer and sifted through the neat compartments that held knives, spoons, and forks. She pulled out four of each and a smaller, soft-edged spoon that had an easy-grip handle for Missy.

"I dunno." Claire shrugged and began rooting through the cabinets. "He seems to be feeling better. He showed up at work today raring to go, as always. Besides, we don't leave for another few days." She paused, as if truly considering her next words. "That should be enough time for him to get back on his feet." Why don't the delivery people bring napkins with your order? "At least we won't have to go on one of Mark's cross country skiing marathons." Friggin' Scandinavians! "Doctor Musa told him no heavy-duty exercise for a couple of weeks." Losing all patience, Claire began pulling out every single can and laying them on the countertop.

Amanda turned around to the sound of metal hitting metal. Green eyes widened at the sight of the messy, growing can pyramid forming on the countertop. Pale brows knit in confusion. "What are you doing?"

Claire blew out an exasperated breath. "Did you buy any napkins?"

Ah... ha. "No."


The psychologist arched a challenging eyebrow. "You and Missy went to the store yesterday while I stayed home and did the laundry. Did you buy any napkins?"

Oh yeah... Shit. Claire scowled, and Amanda chuckled triumphantly, debating whether or not to rub it in.

'Bout time it wasn't me. When I forgot your damn Pop Tarts I heard about it for a week! Amanda gloated silently, allowing her smirk to speak for itself.

A sheepish smile tugged at Claire's lips. "I'll pick them up tomorrow," she offered apologetically.

Amanda sighed dramatically, as though it would be such a hardship to wait until then. With a twinkle in her eye, the blonde sashayed over to her mate. Stepping close, she laid her palms flat on Claire's chest, enjoying the feeling of soft, warm cotton under her fingertips.

"I suppose I'll forgive you... this once," she added for good measure, raising a saucy eyebrow.

Claire narrowed her eyes at her partner. "You are such a brat."

"Am not," Amanda protested weakly, knowing it to be true, but enjoying herself nonetheless.

"Are too."



Saved by the bell. Amanda pushed off the tall smiling body, and made her way to the swinging kitchen door just as Missy came barreling in from the den. The toddler was wearing pair of bright green overalls that matched her eyes.

The little girl came to a screeching halt in front of her mother, her own momentum nearly propelling her past her target. "Can I have a dwink peease?" she panted.

Amanda smiled and nodded, pointing a finger toward the refrigerator as she left the room.


Claire bent down to Missy's level and opened the fridge. Two heads, one dark and one fair peered inside. Both, simultaneously, hummed indecisively. "Hmmmmmmm???"

"Wadda you think, Kiddo? Milk or juice?"


"SSSHHHHHH!" Claire immediately clamped her hand over Missy's mouth. "Do you want your Mama to kill me?" she whispered. Claire looked toward the wooden doors, which were still slightly swinging, to see if Amanda had heard. She was nowhere in sight. A warm wet sensation drew her attention back to Missy. "Hey… Yuck!" The lawyer wiped a healthy dose of toddler slobber off her hand. The child did not appreciate being silenced. Just like her mother, Claire mused.

"You know you're not supposed to have soda," she said for the benefit of prying ears as she reached for the 2-liter bottle. "It's not good for you." Claire rolled her eyes and ducked into the refrigerator. She gave the bottle a firm twist and it dutifully hissed. Feeling a little like the Pink Panther, she hid behind the large steel door, blue eyes peeking around the shiny barrier every so often to make certain the coast was clear. It was.

Claire quickly moved to the cabinet and retrieved a small yellow sipper cup. "Okay, just a little," the attorney said in a hushed voice. Louder she said, "Enjoy your juice."

Amanda searched wildly for the phone. Where is it? Why is the phone always off its cradle? The ringing sound was fairly strong so Amanda quickly disregarded the thought of digging in the couch cushions. Coffee table? No. End table? No.


Recliner? Yes! Amanda grabbed the phone so fast she bobbled it in her hands before holding it securely enough to press the 'on' button. "Hello."

There was a long silence. "Hello," Amanda repeated.

"Oh, excuse me, I’m afraid I may have dialed the wrong number." The low female voice sounded faintly confused and oddly familiar. "Is this the Easton residence?"

"Yes." Amanda’s curiosity was piqued. "Would you like to speak with Claire?"

Obviously. "Please."

Amanda couldn’t resist. "May I asked who's calling?"

"Oh… I’m sorry, of course. I’m Claire’s mother, Anne Easton."

Silence... Amanda stared dumbly at the phone. Wow. No one from Claire’s family has ever called.

The silence was broken by Missy’s happy laughter as she bolted out of the kitchen, toward the den and her video, sipper cup in hand.

Anne listened carefully to the sounds in the background. A child? I know I haven’t talked to Claire in a while but I think even ‘Miss tight lips’ would have bothered to mention a child. "Dear, are you still there?"

"Yes… um… I’m… I mean… I’ll get Claire."

"May I ask to whom I’m speaking," the voice requested in a firm but polite tone.

"This is Amanda. I’ll go get Claire. Just a moment please," she answered quickly, biting her tongue to keep from tacking "Ma’am" onto the end of her sentence.

Amanda pushed open the wooden swinging door to find Claire sitting on the kitchen countertop, happily munching on a handful of nacho chips. When their eyes met, Amanda was surprised by the immediate guilty smile that twitched at her friend’s lips. What'd you do now, you fink?

The blonde pressed the 'mute' button and moved to join Claire, standing between the lawyer's dangling legs. She held up the phone. "It's for you." Claire hastily swallowed the bite she was chewing and reached out. "It's your mother."

Amanda waited for a reaction from her partner. She didn't get one. While the grin did slide from Claire's face, it was replaced by a look of bored indifference. Eyes, eyebrows, facial muscles, none of them betrayed a single emotion.

The taller woman pushed herself off the cabinet, the impact of her feet causing a flat thudding sound on the tile floor. Amanda handed the lawyer the phone and turned to leave, intent on allowing Claire some private time to speak with her mother. She had barely moved an inch when Claire surprised her once again, by wrapped an arm around the smaller woman's waist and pulling her close, preventing her from leaving. Amanda raised a questioning eyebrow and pointed to her feet, silently asking if she should stay.

Please stay. Claire smiled beseeching as she nodded and pressed 'mute'.

Amanda sank into the embrace. Like I'd ever be able to resist that face. Like I'd want to.

"Hi, Mom."

"Hello, Claire. I'm glad I caught you at home. It's been a while since you've called. I was starting to wonder if you'd lost our telephone number."

Amanda winced. Ouch! Sarcasm. Claire leaned back against the cabinet, her head resting snugly atop Amanda's. Both Judge Easton and her daughter had clear commanding voices, allowing Amanda to hear every word of both sides of the conversation from her current position. You're gonna get it now, Gumby.

Claire sighed. "I'm sorry, Mom. You're right, I know it's been a long time. But the phone lines do run both ways."

There was a slight pause and then the echo of Claire's sigh. "I know, they do, dear. Your father and I just assumed you were busy with your new position."

A dark eyebrow arched to its highest position as Claire shook with Amanda's silent giggles. Heh. That's closer to correct than you realize, Mom. But what's more likely is that one morning you looked at the calendar and realized you hadn't spoken to your daughter, who lives all of fifteen miles away, in the past six months. "I have been working very hard lately." Claire rolled her eyes when Amanda nodded in confirmation.

"Your father was surprised when we didn't see you at some of the more important social events this season."

That's because I've got better things to do with my time than schmooze, network, and generally kiss ass. Claire tilted her head down and kissed the soft hair of one of the 'better things'. "I just didn't feel the need..." She paused. Why not just tell her the truth? "...Nor did I have the slightest desire to attend." Claire almost thought she heard a faint chuckling sound on the other end of the phone.

"That's fine, dear. It's not as though the County Attorney's Office runs on referrals now, is it? I'm certain that if the public knew the repulsive amount of brown-nosing required at those events, they would find the customary thirty-three percent attorney contingency fee quite reasonable."

Did my mother actually try to make a joke?

Amanda pulled away from Claire with a surprised but delighted look on her face. "Did she just say brown-nosing?" she mouthed silently. I don't even think my mom would know what that is, she thought as she snuggled back into the tall, warm body.

Claire nodded and couldn't help the small grin that threatened to break out. She knew her mother had a razor sharp wit and wry sense of humor. Unfortunately, years would literally pass between the instances when Anne Easton would share that part of herself with her daughter.

"You're right about that, Mom, " Claire laughed lightly.

Then an awkward silence crackled across the phone lines, both women wanting the other to begin a normal conversation. Amanda could feel the tension beginning to build in her partner. It was, however, Claire's mother who capitulated first.

Okay, Annie. Buck up. This is why you called, after all. "I've been thinking about you lately, wondering what's happening with you, what's going on in your life."

Claire's jaw dropped to her chest. Amanda smiled and used her index finger to shut her partner's mouth with an audible 'click'. "You... You have?" the brunette sputtered.

At that moment Missy reappeared in the kitchen with her empty cup. She marched across the room and stood in front of her mother and Claire. "Can I have some more Pepsi, Cwaire? Peeeassssee," the toddler begged.

Green eyes turned to Claire and narrowed dangerously. She let her partner stew for all 3 seconds before relenting with a smile and placing a soft kiss on her lips. Then she looked down at the pathetic begging child. Amanda's hands went to rest on her hips. "No more pop for you. That only works with Claire." She waggled her finger. "How about some juice instead?" Missy nodded happily and grasped onto her mother's hand, pulling her toward the refrigerator. "In order for that 'look' to be successful it's very important not to overuse it..." Amanda whispered instructively.

Claire gazed at the two blondes affectionately, jumping when the voice in her ear began talking again.

"That sounded like a child's voice."

No use in beating around the bush now. "That's because it is a child's voice. Her name is Missy."

"I'm sorry, I didn't realize you had guests visiting. I can call back another time."

"Missy isn't a guest. This is her home, along with her mother's," Claire answered smoothly. Although she hadn't directly addressed the issue of her preferences with her parents, she never did anything to hide it either. If her parents were aware of her lifestyle or with whom she choose to spend her free time, they didn't acknowledge it.

Amanda finished tightening the cap on Missy's cup and gave her lover a ghost of a wink.

"I see. And was that Missy's mother who answered the phone?" So the Gustafsons were right. Mark's mother is such a gossip.

Claire's eyebrows disappeared behind dark bangs. "Yes, that was Amanda." I just told her they're living here and she's not even surprised?

"Well, I guess I'll need to amend my invitation to include them as well then."

Oh God, please don't let it be to some horrible society function! "Invitation?" Claire tried to keep her voice polite and hopeful, but the laughing in her ear told her she had failed miserably.

"Relax, dear. It's nothing that will require your 'game face'. I was simply hoping we could get together for lunch."

"Why?" Claire asked flatly. She knew it was blunt to the point of being rude, but Claire hated playing games. She always had. "I can't even remember the last time we did that," she lied. She remembered their last lunch together in vivid detail.

Her mother had taken her out to celebrate passing the Bar exam. It had been just the two of them at a small outdoor cafe overlooking the Mississippi River. If Claire closed her eyes she could still smell the fragrant summer breeze, the cool dark water, and see the honest look of pride shining in her mother's eyes. That afternoon, they had laughed and talked in a way they never had before. Although well into her twenties at the time, Claire marked it as the only occasion she had ever had her mother's undivided attention. It was a sweet memory, in an almost nonexistent relationship. But that was almost six years ago, and since then, their relationship had consisted of little more than a kiss on the cheek at formal parties and the occasional quick phone call.

Amanda shooed Missy out of the kitchen with a kiss and stepped back into the attorney's warm embrace, frowning at the melancholy look that stole across the lawyer's face. Small hands softly stroked Claire's back, and she felt her partner's tension ease almost immediately.

Anne shifted uncomfortably hoping this conversation wouldn't turn into an argument. "Blunt as always, Claire..." she said curtly. But then her commanding tone relaxed, and the older Easton allowed her voice to soften and take on added warmth. "Lucky for you, I find that obnoxious characteristic one of your more endearing qualities."

Claire snorted at the surprising jibe and immediately slapped her hand over her offending mouth. Amanda wasn't so fortunate. Her laugh escaped full force, spraying Claire's neck with saliva.

Eeww. Gross. Green eyes looked up sheepishly and Amanda mouthed a silent "I'm sorry" as she wrinkled her nose in disgust. Claire gave a good-natured shrug and wiped her neck.

"Unless you've developed another set of lungs, dear, I can only assume that's Amanda's breathing I hear."

Amanda buried her head in Claire's shirt, wishing she could crawl up into a little ball and disappear. Claire gave her blushing lover a hard smack on the rump causing a tiny 'yelp' to escape against the fabric of her shirt. "Yep, that's Amanda. It seems she has trouble keeping quiet sometimes." Claire wiggled her eyebrows suggestively.

"Claire!" Amanda whispered fiercely.

"Well, put this Amanda person on the phone so I can speak with her myself."

The pale head against Claire's chest began vigorously shaking 'no.' Claire smirked. "Suuure," she drawled. "Here she is." The lawyer extended the phone to Amanda who narrowed her eyes and stuck out her tongue, but took the phone.

Amanda straightened her posture and got serious. "Hello, Mrs. Easton. This is Amanda. You wanted to speak with me?"

"It seems I've already been speaking to you."

Amanda's eyes widened. She said Claire was blunt? "I... um... I..."

"I'm glad. I'd like to meet Claire's housemates. At least now I can be sure that you received your invitation to join me for lunch next week. Feel free to bring along your daughter and if you could possibly drag my daughter with you, I'd greatly appreciate it."

Amanda smiled and grabbed the bull by the horns. At least one of us should be on speaking terms with her mother. "That sounds great. We could... Oops. I'm sorry, actually we'll be out of town next week. How about the following Sunday? You could come over here around noon. Missy's a little young for the restaurant scene."

Good. "I'll be there."

"Okay... we'll see you then," Amanda finished.

"Goodbye, Claire." The wry note in Judge Easton's voice was clear.

It was Claire's turn to blush at being caught eavesdropping. Are all mothers psychic? The attorney cleared her throat nervously. "Goodbye, Mom."

Amanda pressed the 'off' button and twirled the phone in her hands. "You're mom seems really nice. I'm already looking forward to meeting her in person." The psychologist turned and began picking up the silverware she'd selected earlier.

Claire ambled across the kitchen and pulled open a drawer under the microwave stand. She grabbed a thick phone book, opening it to a section that Amanda had ingeniously marked with red tabs. "Italian?" she queried.

Amanda shook her head.


The blonde tightly scrunched up her face. "We had that yesterday."

"Chinese?" This one's the winner. The grin that split Amanda's face let Claire know she was right. "Okay, I'll order an assortment."

"Don't forget..."

"I know, extra sauce and fortune cookies."

Amanda cocked her head to the side and regarded her partner. She sighed happily. "I love you."

The older woman walked back over to Amanda and leaned down to rest her forehead against Amanda's. "I love you too, Mandy." Tilting her chin forward, she sealed the declaration with a sweet kiss, which Amanda eagerly returned.

When the kiss ended they remained in a casual embrace, each woman's arms wrapped loosely around the other's waist. Amanda blinked twice, trying not to drown in the mirthful blue ocean. "Honey, I didn't even know your mother knew we were a couple."

"She doesn't. Or, at least, I don't think she does."

"What?!!" Amanda's good mood evaporated.

Claire laced her fingers behind Amanda's back. She understood why the younger woman was upset. But her mother's disapproval wouldn't mean the same thing that Amanda's mother's did. Claire had long since outgrown the need, and very nearly the want, of her parents' approval -- not that she didn't appreciate it when she got it. She did. It's just that the nature of their relationship had always been formal and distant, and Claire couldn't picture either of her parents' feelings on the subject making much of a difference in her life, one way or the other.

"She'll love you," Claire reassured. Not that you'll get a whole lot out of it. My mother is many things, but stupid is not one of them. You make me happy like no one ever has or will. And if that isn't good enough... to hell with her."

"But... But..."

"But what, Mandy?" Claire interrupted. "She'll stop talking to me?" The attorney's voice was teasing, and had she been speaking to anyone else they would have completely missed the tinge of bitterness, but mostly sadness, that colored her words.

"But I don't wanna cause of a rift between you and your mother."

"You wouldn't be the cause. Am I the reason you're estranged from your mother?"

"Of course not!" Amanda answered quickly, realizing she'd just made Claire's point for her. "But it hurts... and... I don't want that for you." The anguished words pierced Claire heart like a knife.

"I know you don't, Mandy." She pulled the therapist close and nuzzled soft fair hair. "I'm so sorry," she whispered. Your sorry excuse for a mother better never show her face around here.

Amanda squeezed her eyes tightly shut. I will not cry! This has nothing to do with my mother. We're talking about Claire's mother. But the tears came anyway, and Amanda sank into the strong arms, gladly absorbing all the comfort they offered. "We'll never do that to Missy," she said after a moment.

Claire exhaled loudly blowing strands of red-gold hair away from her mouth. "Never," she swore as the churning in her guts began to fade and Amanda pulled away to wipe her eyes.

The psychologist smiled a crooked smile. "I thought we were talking about your mother. How did things get turned around?"

Before Claire could answer, Missy reappeared in the kitchen, buck-naked, swinging her empty cup around. I hope that at least some of that juice made it into Missy. "Are you ready to see Jody and Mark?" she asked the squirming child.

Missy shook her head enthusiastically.

Claire bent down and poked the bare tummy. "Aren't you gonna wear clothes?"

Missy shook her head again, enjoying Claire's questioning.

"Okay, fine with me," Claire shrugged.

Amanda pinched her partner. "Well, it's not fine with me. Let's go upstairs and find you something to wear. Would you like to wear a pretty dress?"

"No. Tights SUCK," the toddler declared stubbornly.

Both women's eyes widened and Amanda went into full mom mode.

"Missy! 'SUCK' is not a nice word for little girls to say!"

Claire cringed at Amanda's tone, wondering how long she had until the scolding turned to her.

"Claire," the blonde growled.

Not long. The attorney snatched up the child and immediately headed out of the kitchen door. "You just relax, Mandy. I'll get Missy dressed."

"You're still busted, Gumby!" Amanda called after the retreating forms, trying not to laugh until they were both out of sight. Tights do suck!


IMPOSSIBLE! She wouldn't do that! She's not one of them. Cory covered his ears to drown out the blaring voice that was growing louder and louder. STOP!! STOP!! ENOUGH! He fell to his knees weeping piteously. "I WILL!" he finally cried, causing the incessant voice to stop cold.

Thank you, thank you. Cory lay in the middle of his apartment floor, curled in the fetal position, rocking back and forth. His body was slick with sweat and his hands were shaking, although one was still tightly gripping the tire iron he'd used to destroy everything within his reach. Thank you for stopping, thank you. Yes, I will. I will.

The apartment had been demolished. His television was strewn across the carpet in hundreds of jagged pieces. The stuffing had been torn out of the dingy brown couch, which was turned on its side. Not a single picture remained on the wall or book in the small metal bookshelf. His two hundred-gallon fish tank sat hollow and shattered, tiny iridescent rocks covering surfaces all the way across the room. The fish had long since stopped their helpless flopping, and now lay lifeless and stinking.

An enormous bright orange goldfish lay several inches from Cory's face. It's dead glassy eyes drilled into him relentlessly. The voice that had been hounding him and pushing him to the point of desperation was coming from the fish! Wide-eyed and trembling, Cory scrambled to his feet.

"NONONONONNONO! I WILL. I WILL," he cried as snot and saliva ran down his chin. "But I can't think until you stop talking!"

In confusion, he began beating the already dead carcass with his tire iron. With every hit he reaffirmed his devotion to Him and only Him, even as he tried to extinguish His words.

"The major Christian denominations are a perversion of The True Faith. I cannot be deceived," he yelled as the tire iron missed the hapless fish. "I am righteous." This time, he hit the fish square in the belly, staining his pants with fish guts and blood. "I serve You and You alone!" Another hit and another, not stopping until the fish was nothing more than a mushy, smelly stain.

"Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them in like manner, give themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire." He chanted silently, over and over.

Finally, when he couldn't lift his arm for another strike he dropped the tire iron. His forearms burned and he had to use his free hand to pry the metal from his grip. All of them should die. I know she led you astray, but you're too far gone now. You're not fit for my seed! Bitch! he seethed. Godless Bitch! I loved you. You were meant for me, not some perversion!

Cory’s fury seemed to drain from his mind as he truly considered harming Amanda. I don't want to kill you but He commands it! I must obey!

"But no more mistakes," he muttered. It had taken all of the considerable will power He had bestowed upon him to keep from killing every last one of them at the hospital. He'd gone to comfort Amanda over the death of her boyfriend, only to see her in the arms of a tall brunette woman. Now I see it clearly. They are both deviants, an affront to Him. They must be obliterated along with their progeny.

Ignoring the devastation of his apartment, Cory headed into the kitchen to fix dinner. Some woman should be doing this for me! Maybe Jody Penbrook will do… she has my coloring. I am His Chosen. He has a special mate in mind for me. Amanda must have been a test! I cannot be deceived! Yes, maybe Jody. Cory opened the freezer. I wonder if I have any fish sticks?


"Man, these garlic wings and that fried shrimp…" he pointed to a nearly empty white box, "are awesome," Mark commented around a large bit of food.

Amanda's eyes rolled back in her head with a look that could only be described as orgasmic. "I know, I know," she agreed as she swallowed her last bite and leaned back heavily into the sofa. Their plan to wrangle Mark into cooking had been discarded after his injury and Amanda was inordinately pleased that Mark was enjoying his dinner. She still felt a little guilty over her idea to trick the big man.

Jody and Claire watched in amusement as the blondes consumed easily two to three times what they themselves had just eaten. Jody stood and picked up her plate. "If you two are finished making pigs of yourself..."

"Oink...Oink...Oink," Claire chimed in, causing Amanda and Mark to chuckle.

"...I'll clear away some of this stuff," the older psychologist finished. "Then I'll go upstairs to make sure Missy is covered up; it's a little chilly tonight."

Amanda smiled her thanks.

Claire got up and starting picking up the empty paper containers that littered the coffee table. "I'll help, Jody. I don't think either of these two can move."

Mark patted his full belly and leaned back, with a smile. "Amanda, I see you've finally trained Claire."

"It wasn't easy, Mark," Amanda played along. "I'm afraid I've had to resort to some rather corporal forms of punishment." She flicked her wrist at Claire as though she was cracking a whip.

Mark crossed his beefy arms across his chest and smirked at the other attorney, whose face had turned a lovely shade of crimson and whose eyes were staring daggers at Amanda.

"You two are sick," Jody announced as she gathered up the remaining cartons, and marched into the kitchen with Claire hot on her heels.

As soon as they left the room, Mark and Amanda 'high-fived' each other and propped their feet up on the coffee table.

"Really, Amanda, the place looks great." Mark made a broad sweeping gesture with his good arm. "With you and Missy here I would have thought the place would be twice as difficult to keep clean. What's your secret?"

Amanda looked a little guilty and she scratched her jaw. She looked toward the kitchen and, seeing no sign of Claire, she leaned in toward Mark and lowered her voice. "I hired a cleaning service to come in twice a week."

The tall attorney started scratching his wrist where his cast stopped.

"And she doesn't know about it?"

"Sure she knows. She just doesn't want you guys to know. She thinks it's pretentious."

"Why? God knows she can afford it. Her 'modest' trust and her few years in corporate law made her more money than she'll make in the next fifteen years at the County Attorney's Office."

"It's not just the money. You..."

"No wonder my ears were burning," Claire said as she reemerged from the kitchen with Jody. "Telling tales out of school again, Marko?"

Mark brought his fingers to his lips and made a twisting motion. With a flick of his wrist he threw away the imaginary key.

"Fat chance of that happening," Claire teased as she sat down on the other side of Amanda. Jody took a seat across from her friends on the couch and changed the subject.

"So, are we all set for Monday?"

Amanda nodded. "Yep. Everything is ready at the cabins. You guys are gonna love them. I haven't been up there in years, but I'm sure they'll be just the same."

"Do we need to bring any space heaters. I know it's sometimes hard to keep those places warm this time of year."

Amanda chewed the inside of her lip. She was hoping the subject wouldn't come up until they were on their way. "Well... I don't think we'll need heaters... I mean they both have really nice fireplaces..."

Claire arched an inquiring eyebrow. "And what aren't you telling us?"

"What do you mean?" Amanda tried to play innocent.

"She means you’d better spill your guts, Amanda. You are the worst liar in the history of the world." Jody, Mark and Claire all leaned in toward Amanda. "Well?" Jody insisted.

"It's really nothing. There's plenty of wood already chopped and a nice wood burning stove for our meals."

"Holy shit!" Claire exclaimed. "There's no electricity, is there?"

Uh Oh. Amanda winced. "Not technically."

"What the hell does 'not technically' mean...?"

Amanda sighed and bit the bullet. "It means there's no electricity and that it's heated completely by wood. But there's a working gas generator for a detachable heater in case of emergencies. And our cell phones will work 'cause of the new tower they put up in Twin Harbors," she added quickly.

"Just great."



"C'mon guys," the blonde woman encouraged. "It'll be an adventure. We're supposed to be getting away from our everyday stresses."

"I never considered not freezing to death an..." Jody curled her fingers in the shape of quotation marks, "added stress".

Claire affectionately rubbed Amanda's knee. "I suppose I'll be able to stay warm enough." She smiled at grateful green eyes. "If not, we can always drive into town and stay at a lodge or something, right?"

"Absolutely!" Thanks, Claire. Amanda covered Claire's hand with her own.

"We'll be fine, Jody. I've got some extra blankets we can bring," Mark added helpfully.

Jody pointed an impudent finger at Amanda. "You've got some splainin' to do, as to why you decided to keep this little tidbit a secret, but Mark's right. We'll be fine."

"So you guys will pick us up in the Pathfinder at about 6:00 a.m.?" Mark asked Claire, knowing the brunette hated getting up early.

"Yeeesss," she groused. "We'll be there." All the other details had been ironed out over dinner.

"Good." Amanda clapped her hands together. "Now that the planning portion of the evening is over, I've got a game for us to play." Everyone's ears perked up. Amanda just happened to be friends with the three most competitive people on the planet. The last time they had tried to play Trivial Pursuit it had turned into an all out war with large sums of money being wagered, and horrible, humiliating tasks awaiting the losers. Thank goodness I won, she thought smugly.

"What type of game is that?" Mark pointed to the large pink box that Amanda pulled out from under the couch.

"I'm not sure exactly. One of my patients insisted that I try it. She said she and her boyfriend learned fascinating things about each other and it opened up their lines of communication." Amanda examined the box. "It's called 'Secrets Revealed'."

Everyone groaned.

"C'mon guys, it'll be fun." The blonde woman pulled out the directions and began reading.

How well do you know your friends and loved ones?

The object of the game is to be the first person whose

token crosses the finish line. Each player

moves their token one square for each correct answer.

Select a player to go first. That player picks a card

and reads the question aloud, while the other players

write down what they think the answer will be.

Good luck and may many interesting secrets

be revealed!

"Oh no!" Claire moaned. "This is one of those embarrassing sex games! It doesn't even make any sense. If you're really revealing secrets then how can anyone know the right answer?" she whined.

"What's the matter?" Mark taunted. "Still bitter about losing to Amanda in Trivial Pursuit? Afraid she'll make you..."

"I remember what she made me do," she ground out. "But thanks for reminding me. Fine. Let's get on with the game."

"Tsk...Tsk..." Amanda clucked at Claire. "You are such a grouch. It's supposed to be fun." The blonde rolled her eyes and passed out pencils and pads of paper. "No one will force you to answer the questions, 'Miss I'm So Secretive'."

"I am not secretive!"

"You are so," everyone responded in unison.

Claire narrowed her eyes at the lot. "You go first, Jody." The attorney thrust a card at Jody.

Jody scanned the card. Her face turned pink as she cleared her throat and began reading. "What is the most unusual location you've ever had sex?"

"What kind of stupid question is that?" Mark sputtered. "How many places can you have sex? In your ear, your eye?"

Jody looked at Mark as if he was an idiot, but Claire was the one who spoke.

"God, Mark, you are so damn dense! They mean geographical 'locations' not locations on the human body," Claire stated exasperatedly.

"Oh," Mark answered and then began writing furiously.

After a few seconds everyone laid down their pencils.

Jody looked to Amanda. "You answer first, Amanda."

"I put..." Amanda smiled, sure she'd gain a point, "in the cockpit of a moving plane."

Mark and Claire both raised their eyebrows at Jody who turned a brighter shade of red and simply shrugged. "Sorry, Amanda, that was a good guess." Damn, how could I have forgotten about that one? "But that's not the correct answer." Next Jody looked at Claire as she answered.

"On Amanda's desk at the Cornerstone Clinic."

"What?" Amanda shouted. "Jody, you better not have..."

"I never, I swear..." Jody sputtered. Jody shifted to Claire. "Why the hell would you say that?"

"Well, it may not be the most unusual place you've had sex, but it's the most unusual place I've had sex." Claire wriggled her eyebrows suggestively and watched with great amusement as Amanda's cheeks turned flushed scarlet. "Besides, how am I supposed to know where you've had sex? I don't even want to know that!"

Amanda was starting to think this was not such a great idea. "Maybe you were right, Claire. This game is really childish, we could just..."

"No!" everyone shouted in together.

"Tough luck, Amanda," Jody informed. "This was your brilliant idea. It's your turn, Mark."

Mark looked down at his piece of paper and smiled. "Utah," he proudly answered.

The women just stared at him.

"What? She's from Utah! It's a good answer!"

Jody just shook her head and didn't bother saying he was wrong. "The correct answer is... standing up... while in a canoe."

Amanda scrunched up her face. "Is that even possible?" she asked.

Jody smiled and nodded. Amanda and Claire looked at Mark.

"Don't look at me. I can't swim!" the muscular man reminded them.

"For Christ Sakes, Mark. We were in the canoe. Nobody got wet."

Claire opened her mouth to speak but Amanda clamped her hand over it before she could say a word. After a scolding look, Amanda removed her hand. "Spoil-sport." Claire stuck out her lip in a pout that was a fair imitation of Missy's and drew the next the card.

Claire cleared her voice and read from the card. "What is the single weirdest thing you have ever seen?" This is an easy one, Claire figured as everyone dropped their pencils in record time. She turned to Amanda. "Okay, what did you put."

"A mummified cat," she said as if it was the most obvious answer in the world.

"Me too!" Mark exclaimed, giving Amanda another high-five. They both knew they were correct even before Claire could confirm it.

"Right." Claire put down her card.

"How'd you guys know that?" Jody complained.

"She saw them at the British Museum when she was a child," Amanda answered.

"They gave her nightmares for weeks," Mark added absently as he took a sip of his luke-warm beer. "What did you guess?"

Jody grinned evilly. "Amanda's hair in the morning."

Mark sprayed a fine mist of his beer as he burst out laughing. Claire tried to keep her chuckles silent, but to no avail. Soon, everyone but Amanda was laughing hysterically.

"It's not that funny," the blonde grumbled, her hand unconsciously rising and smoothing out shaggy red-gold locks.

"Of course it's not, sweetheart," Claire placated with a smirk.

Amanda would have none it as she cocked her head and stuck her tongue out at her mate.

It was Mark's turn next. He silently read his card and then placed it back on the deck. "I'll pass."

"You can't pass, Marko," Claire objected. "We're the ones who get the points if we answer the question correctly."

"I'd really rather..."

"Just read the question!"

Mark gritted his teeth. "Fine. What is the name of person you lost your virginity to?" The big man set the card down and tried not to glance at Claire, whose faced had paled.

Claire licked her lips nervously, fiercely wishing she hadn’t objected to Mark passing on the question. It’s okay. We’ll just play it cool. No one will notice.

Jody looked from Mark to Claire and then back again. As realization dawned, she leapt to her feet. "OH...MY...GOD!" she yelled, her face turning an angry shade of purple. Mark was looking down at his shoes and neither he nor Claire would meet her eyes. "It was her, wasn't it?" Jody pointed an accusing finger at Claire.

"What?" Amanda jumped to her feet as well. Green eyes blazed as they focused solely on Claire. "You told me it was a boy you knew in High School!" she reminded angrily.

Claire opened her mouth and then closed it. Her jaw clenched and unclenched as her mind furiously raced for something… anything she could say that would fix this. Damn. She hadn’t outright lied to Amanda but she had knowingly been vague enough to give her partner the wrong idea. That’s just as bad as lying. I need to fix this, and fast. She opened her mouth again. "Mandy…"

"Shut up!" Jody spat. "I wanna hear this from Mark. True or false, Mark. Am I the only person in this room that hasn’t slept with Claire?" she asked acidly.

Mark stuffed his good hand into the pocket of his Dockers. "Come on, Jody. What does it matter? It was a really long time ago."

"Answer the question." Jody was teetering on the edge of a full-blown tantrum.

All eyes were on Mark. Damn, stupid, rotten, damn game! "Jody…" he appealed but stopped when he could see there was no point. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Rising to his feet, he looked down at Jody. "Yes. You are the only person in this room who hasn’t slept with Claire."

SMACK!! Jody slapped Mark with such vicious force that he nearly tumbled back onto the sofa. He immediately brought his hand up to his stinging cheek. God, she’s strong!

"Are you crazy, Jody? He’s only just out of the hospital with a head injury!" Amanda scolded as she moved between Jody and Mark, hoping to stop this from escalating further.

With an angry growl, Jody threw her hands in the air and stalked out of the room. Her muttered curse words were the only sounds in the otherwise silent room.

Mark watched her leave and turned helpless hazel eyes on Amanda. "Should I go in there and…?"

For a second she thought about not answering. It would serve you right, too, if I let you sit here and stew for a while. But as usual, Amanda’s more empathic side shone through and she answered despite her own resentment. "I wouldn’t, if I were you." Listen to this advice Mark. "I’ll go talk to her."

Turning toward Claire, who had been uncharacteristically quiet during the entire exchange, Amanda let her face express the mixture of anger and profound hurt she was feeling. Claire visibly shrank back from the look. "We’ll talk later," she quietly supplied, before leaving to find Jody.

Claire simply nodded, glad Amanda hadn’t said something that required a verbal answer. She didn’t think she could speak past the lump in her throat. How am I gonna fix this one?

Mark took the last swallow of his beer. "I’m leaving." His voice was flat and harsh.

"Jody didn’t take that very well, did she?"

Mark poked his tongue against the inside of his lip, tasting the faint coppery tang of blood. He smiled ruefully, wincing at the sharp stab of pain the movement caused. His head was still ringing. "You could say that."

"Are you okay, Marko? She clocked you pretty good."

"Yeah. I’m fine." The big man found something extremely interesting about his belt buckle. "I should have told her before. It just never seemed like a very good time to bring up the subject."

"You and me both, buddy. I’m so far in the dog house I don’t know when I’ll next see the light of day."

"Nah," Mark reassured. "Amanda loves you. She’s mad, but she’ll forgive you."

"Jody…" Claire stopped there. She wasn’t sure exactly how Jody felt. Most of the time the moody psychologist seemed to adore Mark. But at other times, it looked as though she was pushing him away with both hands. "She… she… really cares about you."

"I guess we’ll see how much. Won’t we?"

"Are you in love with her?"

"Yes." The response came without doubt or hesitation.

"Does she know that?"

His first reaction was to say 'yes', but Mark's first reaction was usually wrong. "I... I guess. I'm not sure."

Claire rubbed her ear speculatively, knowing she was way out of her element. "Then maybe you shouldn’t leave. Amanda and I can go upstairs and you can both stay in here and work things out. If you really love her, Marko, don’t just take off. Stay and try to work things out."

The tall man looked around the room in confusion. He wanted to leave, he wanted to stay, he wanted to tell Jody 'go to hell', and he wanted to profess his undying love, he wanted to shake her and make her listen, and he wanted to kiss her from head to toe. When did everything get so complicated?

Claire studied her dear friend. More than anything Mark looked as if he needed a big hug. He had gambled on not telling Jody about him and Claire, and based on Jody's reaction, he may have just lost. Unable to stand the forlorn look on the muscular attorney's face for another second, Claire stood up and offered him a friendly bear hug. He returned the embrace with a solid one-armed grip.

"Marko, if you really love her, don't let this mess things up for you. Make her understand that what happened with us was the past, and that she's your future," Claire said softly.

Mark swallowed hard. "I'll try." He looked away, embarrassed that his eyes had filled with tears. Sensing his discomfort, Claire had the good manners to bend down and start putting the contents of the game back into its box, keeping her eyes firmly trained on the board and game pieces.

"Good." She slipped the lid on and looked toward the hall where Jody and Amanda had disappeared. Amanda is not going to understand why I didn’t say something sooner.

The handsome man's eyes followed Claire's. "How long do you think they'll be?"

"How mad was Jody?"

Mark plopped down on the sofa with a loud thump. "It's going to be a long night."


A lone figure moved through the quiet, suburban home. A slender hand traced the cool, polished furniture as the hand's owner silently walked in the shadows. Each step she took caused a faint clicking on the solid wood floors. There was no need to turn on a light. Every nook and cranny had long since been committed to memory.

They must be at the faculty Christmas party. She mentally calculated what date it was. Yeah... that has to be it. Her eyes scanned the familiar furniture as she inhaled the clean smell of wood polish and the faint smell of cinnamon.

Still the same, she mused. Immaculate in every way. Monica ambled up the long winding staircase thinking of all the times she and Amanda had raced up these same steps toward their rooms.

Although she was nearly a year older than Amanda, the sisters were either treated like twins, which most people assumed they were because of their strikingly similar features, or Amanda was put in charge. Very early on, the Greers learned which of their daughters was the responsible one. It wasn't Monica.

Her hand felt warm against the cool, dark wood of the ornately carved banister and Monica laughed a little, remembering how she tricked Amanda into believing it was possible to fly if she jumped from the top step and held her breath at the same time. That lesson in physics had cost a four-year-old Amanda six stitches and Monica her freedom for an entire summer. She was always so gullible.

At the top of the stairs, Monica turned right and headed to the small room at the end of the hall. Pausing for only a second outside the entrance, the blonde pushed open the door and stepped back into her childhood.

With a smooth stride, she moved to her old bed and sat down, enjoying the feeling of the familiar soft down comforter beneath her. On the far side of the room, opposite the bed, was a doorway leading to a nearly identical room. It had been Amanda's. For some reason, her parents had chosen to turn Amanda's old bedroom into a guestroom. It was a seemingly normal thing to do... except for the fact that the Greers hadn't had a guest stay overnight in more than twenty years.

Monica stared at the door between the rooms for several long minutes. During all the years of her childhood, the door had remained open. She could still remember the very first time she'd shut it in anger. How ridiculous she had felt. The simple act was intended to give her some peace and privacy from her sister's nagging, but her pride and stubbornness refused to let her open it again.

Monica shook her head. If only I would have known that I would spend nearly fifteen years wishing I could take back that one silly act that had blossomed into something that meant so much more.

Then, as it usually did, the jealously and resentment returned. My perfect sister. Monica rolled her eyes. Nobody's perfect, not even you.

Monica decided that she had closed too many doors over the years and that it was time to reconnect with her sister, at least long enough to get back her daughter. She rose from the bed and reached for the doorknob, surprised to find her hand shaking slightly. Part of her suspected it would be locked... that Amanda had bolted the door closed from her side. That wasn't the case. The door opened easily and the small room suddenly seemed larger and her sister not so impossibly far away.

Tonight, Monica wouldn't be slinking out of the house as she'd done so many times in the past. She'd go down stairs and make a cup of coffee and wait for her parents to come home. And she'd do her best to answer their questions. This time, she was coming home healthy and strong, and drug-free. She'd been to hell and back, but she was determined to get at least a small measure of her life back. No, I don't want my 'old' life back. I want to start a new one. Tonight she'd deal with her parents. But more importantly, very soon, she'd deal with her sister and her daughter.

Time to collect my daughter. And I'll do whatever it takes. I may be clean... but I'm still me. A half-predatory, half-mischievous smile lit up the darkened room. I'm baaaack.



Jody stood in the room that Claire had converted into a fairly decent art studio. The psychologist smiled when she saw Claire's 'invention' for drying Amanda's watercolors propped up against the far wall. The attorney had purchased a piece of sheet metal that Wednesday morning, roughly the size of a double bed, and had covered it with a soft, thin cloth. Fastened to the 'board', as Amanda called it, by magnets, were several paintings in various stages of completion. The board allowed her to work on one picture, while an oscillating fan was drying the others. The pull of the magnets was just enough to keep the paper smooth and wrinkle free. It was a simple gesture by Claire but Jody knew just how much little things like that meant to her business partner.

Jody stepped closer to admire the half-finished works of art. Her eyes drifted to the upper right hand corner of the board where a painting done by Claire and Missy was on permanent exhibit. Jody squinted. She couldn't tell who had painted what. Either Claire's an idiot or Missy's a genius. Jody liked both options.

The wavy-haired brunette let out a long-suffering sigh as she clenched a fist. Then she unclenched it and shook it out. I shouldn't have hit Mark so hard. Shit. I shouldn't have hit him at all. Just like Papa, get mad and hit.

The therapist's temper was like a comet -- explosive and scorching -- but it burned itself out quickly, leaving her plenty of time to regret whatever stupid course of action she'd chosen in the heat of the moment. Now was one of those times. She was still angry, to be sure, but she'd stopped seeing red the moment she walked out of the room. Jody sat down heavily on a loveseat in the corner that had been covered with an old pale blue, paint-stained sheet.

Mark, you should have told me, dammit. What kind of future could we have together if you don't trust me?

"Hi." A blonde head poked into the studio. "Can I come in?"

Jody shrugged one shoulder and Amanda immediately entered the room, plopping down next to her friend. They both remained silent for several moments, enjoying the easy camaraderie and the momentary lull in conversation.

The larger woman turned to face her business partner. "Amanda, I don't think we should recommend that game to our patients," she offered wryly.

Jody's comment caused a giggle that the younger woman was unable to censure. Reluctantly, she let the grin that was itching to show itself appear. "No, we probably shouldn't."

Amanda shifted and with her fingernail began scraping at a rough stain on the sheet that she suspected was dried brownie. "That was a surprise, huh?" It wasn't really a question. Both women could tell by the other's reaction that they had been caught off guard.

"Yeeahh," Jody drawled exaggeratedly. "You could say that."

"Are you ever gonna speak to Mark again?"

"I'm still thinking about it. How about you?"

"Yeah, I'll probably speak to Mark again."

"Smartass!" Honey colored eyes rolled and Jody groaned. "I meant Claire."

Am I? Amanda swung her head back and forth as if deciding. Ahh. Gumby, you make me so crazy. "I guess... I mean... I suppose since I'm crazy in love with her, and since I'm not willing to give her up over something that happened fifteen years ago, I'll have to forgive her. But I intend to make her suffer for a while first."

Jody's expression turned serious. "The sex happened fifteen years ago. The lie happened every time they should have said something but didn't, and that wasn't fifteen years ago. But I do agree about the suffering part."

The blonde hung her head and let out a long, controlled breath. God, I hate it when she's right. Amanda was more hurt than angry and she suspected that no matter how Jody behaved, she felt the same way. "You're right. They should have said something. I'm not making any excuses for them."

"Do you think it happened just that once?"

Amanda's eyes widened. She hadn't even considered that they might have had an ongoing affair. "Shit! Why'd you have to say that?" The smaller woman felt the tendril of jealously that had been licking around the edges of her heart, take a firm grasp. She felt sick.

"PUHLEEZZ! Don't tell me you've never wondered about those two?"

"I mean... sure but not... Why would I wonder about them? They're just friends like we are. We've never slept together," she offered lamely, already anticipating Jody's counterstrike.

"But I'm not gay."

"But Claire is."

"That didn't stop them the first time."


"And that doesn't change how Mark feels about her."

For a long second, that remark shut Amanda up. Mark's crush on his best friend was obvious. The fact that Claire had expressed a clear preference for women bolstered Amanda's security in their relationship, but putting herself in Jody's shoes, Amanda was forced to admit that Jody had it much worse.

"Jody, we both know they love each other." But I know in my heart, Claire loves me the way I love her.

The brunette grunted her acknowledgment and tilted her head toward the ceiling as she closed her eyes. I know he loves her.

"But loving someone and being 'in' love with someone are two totally different things, and it's not Claire that Mark is 'in' love with." I hope this is the right thing to do 'cause she needs to hear this now, not later. "He's in love with you."

Jody whipped her head around and stared at her friend. "How can you be sure?" she whispered, looking more upset than she had since storming out of the living room. The doubt in her voice broke Amanda's heart.

I should have let her kill that son-of-a-bitch Chester for planting all these ridiculous insecurities in her head. She covered Jody's hand with her own. "His eyes light up when he talks about you. It's obvious to anyone who bothers to look."

Jody's shoulders slumped forward and she looked away. "Oh."



Sorry, Mark... "He told me that he loves you."

"Really?" Years dropped off Jody's face, making her look like a wide-eyed child who wanted desperately to believe in Santa but knew it was a lie.

Why hasn't he told her? "Yes, really," Amanda affirmed in a tone that broached no disagreement. "Jody, I know you're mad about that whole game thing, but that can't be everything that's upsetting you. What is it?" Amanda coaxed, knowing something had been on her friend's mind for a while now.

Jody tilted her head back and closed her eyes again. She wanted to talk, but the vice-grip on her chest was making it impossible to speak. After several moments where neither woman made a sound Amanda tried again.

"It can't be that bad," the blonde encouraged.

"I'm pregnant."

Amanda's jaw dropped, and then a surprised smile lit up her face. "What?! Jody, that's... Why that's..."

"And I'm thinking about not having the baby and I don't want to tell Mark about it."

Amanda's initial joy at her friend's news deflated like a balloon full of buckshot. Whoaaaa... "I see." Amanda hoped her voice projected a neutrality she didn't feel. She sat there for a moment... stunned. Screw being neutral! "Jody, that's the stupidest idea you've had in a long time."

Jody reached up and rubbed her temples in an attempt to forestall the killer headache that was on its way. "I know," she answered flatly.

"You don't look so good." Even with the light off in the studio, it was clear that Jody's face was pale. Amanda removed her hand from her friend's grasp and pushed aside a tuft of wavy bangs to lay her palm on Jody's forehead. The skin that should have been warm, especially considering Jody's emotional state, was cool and clammy. "Are you sick?" she asked worriedly.

"I've felt a lot better," Jody moaned and covered her eyes with her hands. Even the movement of the shadows was beginning to make her queasy.

Amanda stood up and reached out for her friend's hand. "C'mon, we're going upstairs so that you can lay down."

Jody opened her mouth to protest.

"Shut up and don't argue with me. And don't tell me you feel 'fine' because I'm not in the mood for anymore half-truths!" Amanda winced as soon as the words left her mouth. Shit. Why don't I just kick her while she's down? The hurt look reflected in sad brown eyes made the blonde feel even worse. "I'm sorry. I'm not mad at you. I promise. It's just..."

"Everything?" Jody supplied.

"Yeah, everything," Amanda sighed. "Things didn't exactly go as I had planned tonight... except for me pigging out on Chinese food. I always plan to do that."

Jody smiled weakly and stood alongside her friend. "Is your guestroom ready for a guest?"

Amanda returned her friend's smile, relieved that her harsh words had been forgiven. "You bet. C'mon." The shorter woman grabbed Jody's hand and began tugging her out of the room.

When they reached the top of the stairs, Amanda stopped in front of her bedroom. "Just a sec." She ran inside and opened one of Claire's drawers, pulling out a practically unused, soft cotton nightshirt. She stifled the urge to bring the fabric to her nose, knowing it would smell like roses. God, I'm pathetic. Even when I'm furious at her I'm attracted to her. What's wrong with me?

Next, Amanda moved into the bathroom where she pulled a new toothbrush from the medicine cabinet and began rummaging through a large assortment of pain relievers. Can pregnant woman have aspirin? Does it even matter if she's not going to...?

"Tylenol... I can have Tylenol." Amanda jumped a little at the voice that appeared out of nowhere.

The younger woman nodded. "Can you have something to settle your stomach? You look a little green around the gills."

"I think I'll be fine once I lie down."

Amanda raised a questioning eyebrow but Jody nodded indicating she was sure. "Okay, lets get you into bed."

Amanda clicked off the light and led Jody to the room across from Missy's. Before entering the guestroom, she pushed open the little girl's door to check on her daughter. As she suspected, Missy was curled up in a ball, sound asleep on the floor. The toddler had graduated from a crib to a bed a couple of months before, and somehow she always seemed to end up on the floor by morning. Well, at least she's not naked.

Jody watched fondly as Amanda picked up the sleeping child and deposited her on the bed. Amanda pulled up the Rug Rats sheet and comforter, settling them tightly under the little girl's chin before laying Missy's Elmo doll on the pillow beside the messy blonde head. The therapist placed a gentle kiss on her daughter's cheek and moved across the hall to join Jody.

"Here." Amanda tossed over the nightshirt. "Put this on and get into bed. I'll get some water so you can take the Tylenol."

I guess I'm staying. Jody knew better than to argue with Amanda tonight. She could tell her friend was on her last nerve and she didn't want to be the straw that breaks her back. Jody knew her own temper was bad, but her business partner tended to let things build until she exploded in a sustained fury that made everyone around duck for cover.

When she finished undressing, Jody slipped on the nightshirt and crawled into bed, pulling up the soft warm quilt with a quiet sense of relief. Before she could get comfortable Amanda reappeared wearing her own flannel jammies and carrying a glass of water.

Jody gratefully accepted 3 tablets and large gulp of water. She wasn't surprised when Amanda crawled into bed next to her.

Jody turned to face her friend. "Are we having a slumber party?"

"Why not?" I'm not in the mood for the company downstairs. They can just wait. "It's been a while since I've had a sleep over of the platonic variety." Amanda rolled onto her stomach and propped her chin up on her forearm. "Spill it. And I mean all of it. I've got all night."

Jody scowled. "There's not much to tell. I assume you're familiar with the birds and the bees."

Amanda narrowed her eyes. "Jesus, could you be more difficult? That's not what I meant and you know it. I take it this was unplanned?"

"No, Amanda, I've always dreamed of getting pregnant, keeping it from the father and then not having the child," Jody said sarcastically. "I listed it as a goal in my high school yearbook."

Amanda silently counted to ten. Just like Claire. Why do I do this to myself? "Okay. It was a stupid question. Suppose I start off with something a little easier? How long have you known?"

Jody's voice suddenly sounded tired. All traces of her earlier sarcasm had vanished. "I went to the doctor about two weeks ago, but I suspected for another week or two before that."

Amanda's eyes bugged out. "Why didn't you say anything sooner?"

"I... I... shit. I don't know. I needed some time to think about what I wanted to do."

"And this was the great solution you came up with?"

"I shouldn't be anyone's mother."

"Since when? And why not?" Amanda asked reasonably. "You're wonderful with Mark's sons Bobby and Keith, and with Missy. You'll make a fantastic mom."

That can't be true. "That's not true. Chester always used to say..."

"What does that asshole have to do with this?" The words were still hanging in the air when Amanda felt a horrible weight settle on her shoulders. "Please tell me this baby is Mark's and not Chester's." PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!

Jody looked at the other woman as if she'd grown a horn out of her forehead. "Are you insane? I wouldn't let that pig touch me with a ten foot pole."

Whew! Thank you. "You had me freaked out there for a minute." Amanda rolled to her side and let out a shuddering breath. "Who cares about anything that idiot ever said. I know for a fact you'll make a good mother." What else aren't you telling me? "If anything happens to Claire and me, you're the person I want to take care of Missy. You know that, right?" She lightly slapped Jody's arm. "You agreed to that even before her adoption was even final. Why is this so different?"

"It just is."


"Man, you're annoying!"

"Lucky for you! No one normal would put up with you! Now spill it."

Damn! "Okay, for starters, I'm not sure that I even want kids or that I'm capable of raising them without totally screwing them up. My first reaction when things go badly is anger and violence." Brown eyes brimming with tears met Amanda's. "You saw what happened tonight. What if I do that to a child? I couldn't live with myself if I..."

Amanda held up her hand. "Whoa, just a minute. Have you slapped Mark before?"

Jody shook her head 'no'.

"And what about Chester?" Amanda drew out his name like it was a curse.

The brunette shot Amanda a knowing look.

"Okay... Except for when we caught him with 'Ms. Teen Queen' and, I shouldn't say this, but he totally deserved that." A faint grin tugged at the blonde's lips. "When I finally pulled you off him and convinced you to go outside..." Should I tell her? What the hell. "I kicked him in the... well... let's just say his eyes are probably still watering," she admitted sheepishly.

Jody laughed a little, despite the serious nature of the conversation. "I know all about that." She sniffed. "He threatened to have you arrested for assault during the divorce."

"What?" That bastard! "You never told me that."

Jody rubbed her hand along the familiar quilt, knowing it was one Amanda had brought with her from her condo. "He was just bluffing, I didn't think it really mattered. And no, other than that one time, I never hit Chester." Though God knows I wanted to.

Amanda sobered. "So what makes you think you'd hit a child? You've never hit Missy, have you?" She asked the question fully knowing what the answer would be.

"Of course not! I'd never hurt my buddy. I love her."

"But you'd hurt your own child?"

"Maybe." Now the tears began in earnest but Amanda remained silent letting Jody speak at her own pace. "I'm not sure," she finally whispered in anguish.

Amanda swallowed hard, holding back her own tears. She needs me to listen and not start bawling, the younger woman admonished herself.

"Have you ever met Mark's parents?" Jody asked in what appeared to be a manic change in subject.

Pale brows knitted together as Amanda tried to figure out where Jody was leading. "No." Why are we talking about Mark's parents? "But Claire says they're really great."

Jody nodded, her warm tears tracking down the sides of her face. "They are. It's like he's part of a damned Norman Rockwell family. They all get along and have family picnics and parties and they all get together at Christmas. They really love each other."

Jody used her index finger to impatiently wipe away a teardrop from her chin. "After you guys left the hospital last week I called his parents and they were at the hospital within fifteen minutes. They sat with him the entire day and by that night, I'd met three of his brothers and two of his sisters."

"Mark's really lucky," Amanda admitted, hoping she could give Missy a small piece of that. "How many brothers and sisters does he have?"

"I'm not sure. I think his parents stopped counting after six or seven kids."

Jody cleared her throat, not really wanting to continue but knowing it was for the best. "My parents really loved me too. But they were so strict." Her voice had dropped to a barely audible whisper. "'Spare the rod and spoil the child'. If I heard that once I heard it a thousand times. I was literally 'afraid' to disobey them or to have an opinion that was different from theirs."

With sickening clarity, Jody's reluctance toward parenting was starting to make sense. "They beat you?" Amanda asked astonished, feeling the body next to hers stiffen immediately.

Jody's parents had been killed in a car crash several years before the women met. Jody spoke fondly of her younger brother and sister but that was as much information as she'd ever provided about her family.

"No... Yes..." How can I explain this? "We were disciplined with a belt, but it was never done without a reason. The actual whipping wasn't the bad part. The real problem is that it was done as much to humiliate and put us in our places as to punish us for misbehaving. They were oppressive without meaning to be."

There's never a reason good enough to do something like that. "I'm so sorry." Amanda scooted over and gave her friend a hug, which Jody eagerly returned. "You're afraid you'll do the same things your parents did?" she hazarded after giving Jody a few moments to compose herself.

"Partly. Even though my parents were too strict, I know they loved me. They did the best they knew how." Jody wiped her eyes again, wishing she had some tissues. She tilted her head to the side and looked hard into deep green eyes. "Amanda, I can't be perfect like Mark's family... I don't even know how to be like that. I don't know how to make cookies and I don't want to quit my job to stay home and... I... I would end up disappointing Mark, and myself, and if things don't work out with Mark... I... I don't want to raise a child alone."

"Stop right there." Amanda pressed two fingers against Jody's mouth. "No matter what happens with Mark you would never be alone," she reminded, a little insulted that Jody would think she would offer anything less than her full support. "I will always be here for you, just like you've always been here for me." And so would Claire although you're not ready to hear that yet. If I thought you really weren't going to keep this baby, I'd offer to take it myself.

"You're a great friend, Amanda. I'm surprised you haven't offered to take this baby yourself." Damn, if you were a man I'd have snatched you up years ago. Her headache was starting to subside and some of the horrendous stress she'd been feeling was beginning to fade. Things never seemed so impossible after she talked them through with Amanda.

Busted. "Would you say 'yes' if I offered? You know, I'd love to have another baby and I'd love it like my own."

"I know. But that would never work."

Amanda bit her lip, knowing her friend was right. "What about Mark? You can't honestly believe that he expects perfection. He's been dating you all these months and unless I'm mistaken, you've been less than perfect up to now." Aww... C'mon, Jody. "Look at the wonderful job he does with Keith and Bobby. I've never seen a better father. His kids are normal, great, peanut butter in their hair, skinned knees, sometimes-obnoxious little kids. They're anything but perfect."

Jody groaned and brought her hands to her head. "You won't believe the mess I've made of everything. I'm surprised he can even look at me. A few months ago when I could tell he was getting really serious about our relationship, I panicked and I told him, in no uncertain terms, to back off. And every time he tries to edge his way back, I push him away. I think he's about ready to give up. I know I'm throwing away happiness and I can't seem to stop."

Amanda felt the darker woman's forehead again, relieved at the warm healthy feel of the skin. "Why are you telling me this? You should be talking to Mark. Give the man a chance. He's a sweet guy who doesn't seem anywhere close to giving up." Amanda could see still wasn't getting through to Jody. Stubborn!

"Jody, he's not Chester. It's not fair to make him pay for another man's mistakes."

"That's not what I'm doing," she replied defensively.

"Yes, it is."

"No it's..." Am I? Jody shook her head as if she couldn't believe it herself. "Is it?"

Amanda shrugged. "You tell me."

And she did. For the next two hours the two friends laughed, cried, and discussed the fears and joys of parenting and being in a committed relationship. They were surprised and comforted to find that their concerns largely mirrored each other.

Jody's shared some details about her childhood, some bad but mostly good. And Amanda confided that she wanted to discuss having another child with Claire and her own insecurities regarding what her lover's reaction might be. The talk left them both feeling better and especially gave Jody some much-needed perspective.

The brunette sat up and stretched her shoulders. "I can't believe I'm really pregnant. It even sounds weird just to hear the words."

More confident that her friend was on emotional sure-footing, Amanda let a little of her excitement and natural optimism show through. "I know it doesn't seem that way now, but it really is wonderful news. She smiled brightly, crinkling her nose and the corners of her eyes. "It's about time Missy had a playmate. I can't wait. You know..." Amanda sat up and clicked on the light next to the bed. "...This is an excellent opportunity for you. Mark is gorgeous and intelligent and you're not getting any younger..."

"You just had to throw that last bit in, didn't you? I'm only a few years older than you are," she whined at the much-used tease. Jody tilted her head toward the door. "Do you think they're still here? I haven't heard them for the last couple of hours."

"I'll go check. Do you want me to tell Mark to go home?" Amanda had her fingers crossed.

"Nah. Could you send him up? Now that I've spilled the beans, I might as well go all the way."

Yes! "Great, I'll tell him you're waiting."

"Oh, and Amanda..." the smaller woman paused in the doorway, "...don't be too hard on Claire. I've been thinking... and if it were me, I wouldn't have said anything either." Jody shrugged. "It's a strong silent thing."

Amanda thought about that for a moment. Mark's a fool if he lets you go. Green eyes twinkled. "Just remember you're own advice, mom."

Amanda expertly ducked a pillow that sailed over her head and into the hallway. She stood up, intent on gloating mercilessly, only to be nailed in the face and knocked back on her butt by a second, better aimed pillow.

"YES!" Jody exclaimed in triumph. "You've had that one coming for months! Not bad for a tired old pregnant lady."

"Humph." Amanda smoothed down her bangs, which were now standing straight up. With her other hand she rubbed her sore bottom. She approached Jody menacingly, but then simply deposited the pillows back on the bed. "I'll be getting my revenge in about..." she paused, " months." With that, she retreated downstairs.


Downstairs was dark and quiet. Maybe they did take off. But when Amanda turned the corner to the living room she heard a sound as familiar as her own voice. Claire's snoring.

The psychologist perched on the coffee table in front of the two sleeping lawyers and studied them in detail. They were sitting on opposite ends of the couch, facing each other, with their legs tangled together and bent. A woolen throw covered their feet. Mark had his good arm thrown over his eyes and was breathing long slow breaths.

Even now, Amanda found it difficult to hold a grudge against the big man. He was always there when Claire needed him and that alone was enough to garner Amanda's respect and affection. But above and beyond that, she appreciated Mark in his own right. As handsome as Claire was beautiful, he remained largely oblivious to his boyish good looks where most men would have grown conceited. He was a consummate professional, both kind and funny, and Amanda couldn't fault him for his crush on her mate. She wondered if Claire were straight, whether she'd be bold enough to give him a run for his money.

Claire didn't look nearly as comfortable as Mark, who was taking up far more than his half of the couch. Her neck was resting in an awkward twisted position and her mouth was hanging wide open, a thin line of drool trailing down her cheek. One arm was dragging on the floor, while the other was wedged between her body and the back of the couch. She's going to have such a neck ache in the morning.

Amanda leaned forward and whispered. "Claire, you need to wake up." No response. This time she spoke a little louder. "Time to get up." Mark stirred but Claire remained dead to the world. Amanda reached out and gently shook her partner. "Claire."

Sleepy, somewhat startled blue eyes opened. "Hi, Mandy." She's talking to me! Claire noticed the soft flannel pajamas Amanda was wearing and that she looked far more relaxed than when she left to seek out Jody.

"Hi yourself. Jody wants to talk to Mark and you need to move so he can get up."

"Sure, no problem." Claire removed the throw from their legs and untangled herself. "Ouch." She grabbed her neck. My neck is killing me. "Get up, Marko. Time to go get what's coming to ya."

"Claire," Amanda scolded, trying not to smile.

Mark yawned, looking at Amanda. "We kind of ran out of things to say and got tired of waiting for you guys."

"It's okay," Amanda reassured. "It's getting late and you're still recovering. I know you must be tired."

"Where's Jody?" the tall man asked nervously, looking around Amanda as if Jody might pop out at any moment.

Amanda picked the throw up off the floor and folded it into a neat square. "She's upstairs in the guestroom. Why don't you go up and talk to her? She's waiting for you."

Mark nodded. "Right." He gave Claire a quick look as he moved out of the room, receiving the encouraging expression he was hoping for.

When Mark disappeared, Claire focused her attention on Amanda, who was still sitting on the coffee table. She patted the seat next to her and breathed an inward sigh of relief when Amanda joined her without hesitation. Time to face the music. "Am I sleeping on the couch?" she finally asked.

Amanda cocked her head and regarded her partner. "Do you want to?"

"No. I'd rather sleep with you." Always.

I'd rather be sleeping with you too. "Is there anything going on between you and Mark other than friendship?" she asked bluntly, wanting this to be over.

"You mean romantically?" Claire shook her head and tried not to laugh. "Absolutely not. There never really was. " She entwined her fingers with her partner's. "I'm already where I was meant to be. I don't need to look anywhere else."

Amanda looked at their joined hands and greedily absorbed Claire's words. In her heart she already knew it was true, but it still felt good to hear it. "Good. Then let's go to bed."

Claire considered her lover's offer skeptically. "Aren't you going to make me beg and grovel?" She ran her fingers through the soft blonde hair, stroking the tender scalp beneath.

Umm. Amanda leaned into the touch, trying not to purr out loud. What did she say? Oh, groveling...right. "I was planning on it, but I've decided that I'm too tired, so I'm skipping over that step and going right to the forgiving you part." Amanda groaned, thoroughly enjoying the massage. "Don't get used to it."

The lawyer grinned. "I won't," she swore solemnly, crossing her heart.

If I don't get up now I'm never moving from this spot. And why is that bad again? "C'mon, Gumby," Amanda encouraged. "Lets get go to bed and you can tell me all about this 'first time' with Mark."

Dark eyebrows shot up and Amanda held up her hand. "But please spare me the torrid details. I'm opened-minded, but not that open-minded. The Cliff Notes version will work for me." I don't think I'd survive hearing the juicy details.

Claire wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and nuzzled her neck as she whispered heartfelt apologies, which Amanda graciously accepted. It didn't take long for the nuzzling to turn into kissing, which quickly threatened to lead to something more. Claire pulled away breathless, tingling from the overwhelming rush of longing and affection she always felt with Amanda.

Although it wasn't fair to her past lovers, the lawyer couldn't help but compare the few kisses she'd just shared with her partner against anything else she'd ever experienced... with anyone. To say they were pale imitations of what she felt now was being kind. They weren't even in the same ballpark. She felt more than a connection with her partner-- each glance and every touch was a reconnecting of sorts. Deep down there was an elemental part of Claire that only Amanda could touch.

Claire chuckled as she guided Amanda around the coffee table and toward the stairs. "Mandy, we were both seventeen and had too much spiked punch at a high school dance. We had no idea what we were doing. Trust me when I say it was far more embarrassing than erotic. 'Torrid' is not how I would describe it."

Amanda smiled broadly, her white teeth visible even in the darkness. She wasn't sure why something so trivial could make her feel better. But it did. Her heart was still pounding from her lover's touch and the idea of anyone else making Claire feel that same way irrationally bothered her.

She knew they had both been in love before, or at the very least, in lust. But what she felt with Claire was undeniably different. Love and a raw unyielding want merged in a way that left her weak-kneed, and exposed, yet feeling undeniably safe. It was a gift beyond price, borne of a connection beyond her understanding. And try as she may, Amanda couldn't help keep the jealous corner of her heart from rearing its ugly head. "You're just saying that to make me feel better."

"Did it work?" Claire laid a palm against Amanda's back as they blindly navigated the steps.

"Is it true?"

"Absolutely. Sad but true."

"Then it worked."

Before they could turn into their room, a loud thump sounded from the guestroom. "Uh Oh." Claire muttered as she bolted down the hall. She opened the door to find Mark laid out on the carpet... unconscious.

Amanda pushed by Claire and stood in front of Jody who was looking at the man in utter confusion. "You knocked him out?" the younger woman asked, hoping for another explanation.

"I didn't touch him! Well, I touched him. But I didn't hit him. I swear! He just... just... fainted!"

Claire stared at Jody for a long second then began laughing as she knelt down to wake her friend.

"What's so funny about that?" Jody asked, frustration and fear leaking into her voice.

A dark eyebrow lifted but Claire eyes didn't stray from Mark as she examined the big man's head. "You're pregnant, aren't you?"

Narrowed brown eyes turned to Amanda who threw her hands in the air, shook her head, and did her best to look innocent.

Claire slapped Mark's stubbley-cheeks. "The last time he passed out was when he found out his ex-wife was pregnant with Bobby. He did it again with Keith," Claire smirked. "That time he fell face first into a Tampax display at Cub Foods."

Amanda and Jody laughed as Claire continued to try to rouse the tall man. The lawyer rubbed her jaw speculatively. "It must short-circuit his brain or something." Mark moaned and slowly opened his eyes, his face immediately shaping into a big goofy grin.

Claire felt Amanda's warm hands on her shoulders and she turned her head to kiss the fingers. Then she offered Jody a heartfelt smile that lit up her entire face, deeply creasing her cheeks. She clasped the chuckling woman's arm. "Congratulations, Jody. That's awesome news."


"Move your ass, Verna!" the young man called out as he quickly unlocked the door and made his way inside. Lazy bitch, after Christmas her ass is fired.

An overweight, middle-aged woman struggled to get her large frame out of the cramped back of the utility van. "I'm coming, Jimmy," she yelled, careful not to dislodge the cigarette nestled between her lips. "Stupid, pig-headed dickweed," she mumbled. Verna looked around nervously, pulling her sock hat lower over her ears. Where are you? I said 10:30 a.m. sharp.

Jimmy had already gone inside the Easton home and was undoubtedly working on the upstairs bathroom. He followed the same ritual in all the houses they cleaned... upstairs and bathrooms first, then the kitchen, and vacuuming last.

Verna tossed her cigarette on the ground. Her eyes darted back to the house. Screw you and your stupid rules, Jimmy. A little trash won't hurt these rich people. With the toe of her boot she kicked a small pile of snow over the smoldering butt. Tired of waiting in the cold, she picked up her bucket of cleaning supplies and began waddling up the driveway.

"Where you goin', Verna?" a voice called out from behind her.

The rotund woman turned around with a smile that revealed tobacco and coffee stained teeth. "'Bout time you show'd up? I told you exactly 10:30, as soon as Jimmy was outta sight. It's 10:35. You tryin' to get my ass fired from this crappy job?" she hissed. Impatient and cold, she got right to the point. "Did ya bring it all?"

The man nodded and handed over an envelope containing ten twenty-dollar bills.

Verna smiled. Real Marlboros tonight! She reached into her pocket and handed over a key. "No extra charge for me makin' the copy. I tossed that in for free."

Stupid bitch. I ought to kill you right now just to improve the gene pool. "What time will you be finished?" His eyes traveled to the window he knew to be Amanda's bedroom.

"One hour... exactly one hour. I gotta go."

Cory pushed the key inside his glove, enjoying the cool metal against his warm palm. "Good." Without a glance back, he disappeared into the thick layer of trees that surrounded the property.

Verna shivered as he slinked out of sight. Ugh. That fucker gives me the creeps. She stuffed the envelope into her coat pocket and shifted the bucket to her right hand. Oooo baby... Mystic Lake Casino here I come...


Cory sat on Amanda and Claire's bed. He had saved the best for last although he still hadn't found what he was looking for. Where are you going, Amanda? Earlier in the month the therapist had rescheduled his counseling appointment that would have taken place next week. You thought you were so clever. But I heard you talking to Jody. I cannot be deceived. You're going on vacation. You thought you could just leave me... that I'd stand for that?

Cory kept getting distracted from his mission. His eyes greedily took in every detail of the room. He pictured himself here with Amanda, living as a happy family. I could make you forget all about Claire and see the error of your ways. In his fantasy, Amanda was properly repentant, serving Him and properly obeying her husband. That's how it was supposed to be! Why did you do this? Why would anyone deny His plan? You were meant for me. But that bitch lawyer ruined it.

Cory had stayed up for hours the night before talking to Him. He'd pleaded that Amanda be spared. Surely, that perverted attorney had enticed her. Amanda can't really be one of them. But He commanded her death. His will must be done. It doesn't matter what I want. I serve Him. And he has commanded it be done before the new millennium. I don't have much time.

The slender man moved into the walk-in closet and clicked on the light. It didn't matter that he would kill Amanda soon; Cory wanted this time alone with her personal possessions. He pulled a pale blue, soft silk blouse from its padded hanger and fingered the cool fabric. It was the blouse Amanda wore during their first session together. That's when he first spoke to her with his mind. He didn't need to use words. He was the Chosen One and had been given skills above all others.

Cory looked at the clothes with great interest. Half the closet was reasonably neat with the clothes organized by color and type. The other side was a series of unorganized piles and rumpled dry cleaning bags. The dress clothes appeared to be hanging tidily while the casual items were strewn about in total disregard. He looked on with distaste. She doesn't serve you well, does she, Claire? That's because she is not yours. She would serve me. Seeming to ignore that he lived in a pigsty himself, he was appalled by Claire's messy side of the closet. This is unacceptable! He abruptly kicked over one of the piles as he exited the closet and forced his scattered brain back on track. Cory moved over to the computer table in the corner of the room. The table was clean. Dammit. They have a Xerox machine at home? No. A fax machine? YES!

In the paper tray were a map and a message from Iris Parks.

I know it's been a few years since you've made it up
to the cabins, so I though you might appreciate a map.
For some reason it looks different in the winter!
I stopped by the clinic today but you were in with a patient.
I didn't think I'd get a chance to see you before you left on
Monday (yes, semi-retirement is great!) so I put the keys in the
top drawer of the reception desk. Don't forget to get gas
for the generators! Have fun and I'll see you after the


Cory grabbed the sheet of paper and started to walk out of the room, pleased with his cunning and investigatory prowess. He stopped dead in his tracks. Wait. They might notice this is gone. No more mistakes. Cory sat back down at the desk and slipped the map back into the tray. Then he opened the desk drawer and pulled out a blank scrap of paper and pen. He spent the next several moments meticulously copying the map. When he was finished, he crammed his map into the front pocket of his Levis and headed downstairs to make a sandwich, idly wondering if all hunters worked up such an appetite. An odd smile twisted his face. I wonder what I should pack? I've never been on vacation before.


"I miss her already."

"We haven't even left yet."

"I know. But Missy has," she replied a little embarrassed, a hangdog expression on her face.

"It's okay, you know. I miss her too. It already seems so quiet in here." She glanced around the bathroom. "But I didn't want to drop her off at Mrs. Fisher's so early tomorrow. The poor woman should at least be allowed to sleep past sunrise. Besides, God help her, she'll need all the strength she can muster to watch Missy on a twenty-four hour basis."

Claire's chuckles sent tiny ripples through the hot bubbly water.

Amanda spared an affectionate smile for the lawyer's softer, sentimental side. "Don't worry, Gumby. She loves being with Mrs. Fisher." Green eyes twinkled gently. "I won't tell anyone how hopelessly she has you wrapped around her tiny little finger." Nobody would believe it anyway.

Claire scowled, knowing it to be completely true, but feeling the urge to deny it nonetheless. "She does not."

Pale eyebrows shot skyward and Amanda reached around Claire and grabbed a bottle of shampoo. "Riiiight," the shorter woman drew out the word. "Like I believe that." The psychologist squeezed out a healthy dollop of the cool liquid into her palms and rubbed them together. She sighed, enjoying the hot bubble-filled water and the private time with her partner. "Turn around." Amanda twirled her fingers in a circular motion. "I'll get your hair."

Claire complied easily, stretching her long legs out in front of her.

"This tub was such a good idea," she groaned as her partner's fingers wove their way through her hair and began their gentle scrubbing. Claire scooted back farther until she could feel the increase in water temperature from her lover's body.

Strong hands moved down and soaped Claire's neck and shoulders, digging into the flesh with firm but gentle pressure. "Are you all packed?" Amanda asked, wondering how much longer Claire would allow her hands to roam freely, before losing control and turning around.

"Umm... I am, I think. I'm just bringing jeans and sweatshirts...stuff like that. I even packed some pajamas in case I get cold."

Ten bucks says they never make it out of her suitcase, Amanda wagered herself. Reaching over to a small shelf alongside the tub, she picked up one of Missy buckets and began rinsing off the silky dark tresses with fresh water from the tap. "Same here." The blonde emptied several more buckets before Claire unexpectedly moved away and settled at the opposite end of the tub facing Amanda. Where in the heck are you going? The therapist didn't hide her look of disappointment.

Claire grabbed a bottle of liquid soap. Smiling, she crooked her finger. Amanda grinned wildly and bounded over to Claire like a puppy sloshing through the surf. The blonde placed a light kiss on Claire's lips before turning around, squaring her shoulders, and closing her eyes. This is gonna be soooo good. She absolutely loved it when her partner washed her hair-- probably because Claire was never content to stop with her hair. Every inch of her body was scrubbed and rinsed with loving detail, either leaving her so relaxed she was near sleep or... Amanda smirked. This is better than foreplay. She gasped as warm hands grazed the sides of her breasts on the way to her abdomen. Emerald eyes popped wide open as every nerve in her body stood up and saluted. Amanda moaned inwardly. This is foreplay.

Claire's hands moved to her partner's hips. With a slight tug she pulled Amanda back to rest against her chest, squeezing out nearly every last drop of water between them both. Both women sighed at the familiar but sweet sensation of skin on skin. Claire brought her arms up underneath Amanda's breasts and wrapped her in a warm hug. She rested her chin on the therapist's muscled shoulder. "You're really happy for Mark and Jody about that baby, huh?"

The blonde laid her arms over her mate's and nuzzled the attorney's cheek. Claire's legs were on the outside of hers and Amanda wiggled her toes, noticing they only came to mid-calf on Claire. "You bet I'm happy. Once the shock wears off Jody's going to be fine." She didn't say anything for a few moments. Then she added, "A baby should always be a thought of as a blessing." Amanda felt Claire swallow and nod behind her.

"You should have seen Marko, this week at work. He was walking around like the cat that ate the canary."

"Jealous?" Amanda teased, expecting a laugh from her partner. She didn't get one.

Claire tightened her grip on Amanda and didn't answer for a long moment. Finally, she sighed. Yes. "A little, I guess."

Amanda cocked her head to the side and turned, trying to see Claire's face. "Why?" she asked, curious.

Ask her. What's the worst thing she can say? "Mandy, have you ever..."


The lawyer groaned loudly. "Let the machine get it." Claire locked her arms around Amanda's mid-riff to prevent her from leaving.

"Claire..." Amanda squirmed, prying her way out of Claire's grasp. "It could be about Missy or one of my patients," she said sternly, slapping the wet forearms.

The attorney released her instantly, opening her arms allowing her partner to exit the tub. Shit, I didn't even think about that... stupid.

Amanda managed to make it to the phone by the sixth ring. She stood shivering and dripping in the hallway for a few seconds, until she felt the warm slightly rough fabric of her bathrobe being draped over her shoulders and an even warmer body behind it press up against her. "Just a moment, Mrs. Clifford." She put her hand over the receiver and turned apologetic eyes on Claire. "It's a patient," she whispered. "I'll be a little while." Amanda brought her hand up to Claire's cheek. "I'm sorry I snapped, Gumby. We'll talk later, okay?"

Claire nodded and quickly disappeared back into the bathroom. Amanda fought the urge to follow after her, not missing Claire's masked but clearly crestfallen expression. "Damn," she muttered.

"What was that, Dr. Greer?" the voice asked.

Amanda frowned, hating the vague unsettling feeling that an opportunity had just escaped her. "It's nothing, Diane." Amanda did her best to tie the robe around herself one-handed and took a deep breath. "What's the emergency?" she inquired calmly.


It had taken Amanda nearly two hours to calm her patient, and Claire had long since given up on salvaging the evening. Grumpy and bored, the attorney allowed herself to revel in a little self-pity. She had plans for that bath, and while she wasn't exactly angry with Amanda, she was honest enough to admit she was annoyed.

Amanda lifted the comforter and slid into bed alongside her lover. "Claire?" she whispered, wishing the attorney wasn't facing away from her.


Amanda sighed and spooned herself against her partner, absently stroking Claire's fresh-smelling hair. She inhaled deeply. Mmmmm. Amanda wasn't at all tired, and enjoyed a moment of peaceful reflection before deciding to call Claire's bluff.

"I know you're awake," she informed flatly. Ooooo, I hate it when you do this and you know it! Passive...aggressive...


"What? So now you're not talking to me?" Amanda asked incredulously, her frustration mounting. "I wasn't gone that long." While the silent treatment never worked on Claire, it was extremely effective against the younger woman.

The attorney grinned in the darkness. "How do you know I'm not sleeping?"

Amanda could hear the smile in Claire's words and despite herself she smiled in return. "Other than the fact that you just answered my question?" She paused and wisely decided that using the phrase 'incessant snoring' wasn't such a good idea. "Your breathing is different."

The younger woman snuggled closer, fitting her thighs tightly behind her partner's. She felt Claire's surprised jerk at the intimate flesh on flesh contact. Amanda usually wore pajamas.

When Amanda spoke, Claire could feel her warm breath against the nape of her neck. "Sweetheart, I'm sorry that took so long," she apologized sincerely. "It couldn't be helped."

How can I be mad at you for something that I've done myself a million times? "I'll live," Claire replied succinctly. She winced, hoping her words didn't sound as cold to Amanda as they had to her own ears.

You think I wanted to leave that nice warm bath? "You're pouting," Amanda said, slightly amused. "Poor, baby." The words were teasing but threaded with sarcasm.

With effort, Claire bit back the acidic reply that was on the tip of her tongue, and chuckled instead. She's right. "So what if I am?" she challenged without rancor and turned to face her lover with a flashing white smile.

"Ohhh, it's okay if you want to pout occasionally, Gumby." A single finger traced Claire's bottom lip. "You look kinda cute..." the finger gently pulled the lip down, "...when you do that," Amanda finished sweetly.

Claire narrowed her eyes, which only served to make Amanda giggle. "I'm glad you find me amusing, Mandy. I feel the same way about you."

Claire drew her palm along Amanda's ribs causing a hitch in the shorter woman's breathing. "Are you sleeping like this?" Meaning nude.

Amanda nodded. "Do you mind?" she asked innocently, leaning forward until her bare breasts were pressing against Claire's.

An involuntary sigh escaped Claire's lips as Amanda's legs tangled with hers and the blonde moved completely on top of her. Not tonight, Mandy... Claire rolled them both over and tucked Amanda securely beneath her. With a single tug she threw off the comforter, fully exposing them both to the chilly night air.

Dark green eyes widened in surprise. Wow. Then the blonde's low moans were swallowed as full soft lips ravaged her mouth while a solid, reassuring weight pinned her firmly to the bed.

After a moment, Claire pulled back and stared at Amanda. "What? Why did you stop?" Amanda complained, panting. The smaller woman's body was already throbbing with need, a delicious ache settling between her legs.

Claire cocked her head curiously. "I'm deciding," she finally stated quietly. The older women shifted her thigh between Amanda's legs and pressed it snugly against Amanda's center. "Give me a minute."

The blonde groaned as if in pain, the leg between hers only intensifying her need. "Whatever it is can wait. Decide later!" she growled.

Claire shook her head, trying not to smile, and gave her partner her most serious expression. "It can't wait."

Amanda rolled her eyes. "Honey, why don't you let me help you decide whatever it is you're deciding so we can get back to..." she let her voice trail off.

The lawyer remained pensive, then barely adjusted her thigh, sending another wave of sensation tearing through Amanda. Ugh. She's trying to torture me! "Please Claire, I'm really good at deciding things." Especially when I'm this motivated.

Claire leaned in and placed her lips alongside Amanda's ear. "All right," came the smooth reply. When the taller woman began whispering, the warm air sent shivers down Amanda's spine and green eyes fluttered shut.

"I'm trying to decide what I'm going to do to you," Claire purred, pleased when she felt the sharp intake of breath in the body beneath hers.

The brunette swallowed hard and focused on Amanda, trying not to get caught up in her own game. Licking her lips she continued, "I've decided to take you, Mandy." The words were spoken in a way that made Amanda believe World War Three couldn't stop her lover. "But what I can't decide... is exactly what I want do to your luscious body."

"Anything... Anyhow... Anyway..." Amanda whispered breathlessly. She had never been more sincere in her life. Wherever Claire wanted to go, she knew she would willingly follow.

Claire shifted and poured her heart into an achingly tender kiss, temporarily abandoning her plan. She trailed a path of light kisses back to her partner's ear. "I know that, love," she murmured softly.

The older woman bite back a groan when Amanda trailed her hands along the muscles of her lower back in unspoken encouragement for her to continue. God, you know I can't think when you do that! Damn, you play dirty.

Determined hands slid lower and cupped Claire's bottom. With a strong pull, Amanda flattened the leg between hers and wantonly began grinding Claire's hips against her own.

Claire could literally feel her partner's arousal and this time she couldn't quiet her body's innate response as a faint hiss escaped her own lips.

Unseen by Claire, Amanda's mouth shaped a small triumphant smile. Claire's muffled hiss hadn't gone unnoticed. If I'm to be tortured, Gumby, I'm taking you with me.

Claire tried to still her hips but Amanda would have none of it. Finally, when she sensed she was completely losing control, she grabbed her partner's hands and pinned them to the bed. The attorney did her best to ignore the pitiful whimper this action drew from her partner. "Stop trying to distract me, Mandy," she growled. "You always want to talk... well, now I'm talking."

"Smartass," the younger woman mumbled causing Claire to chuckle quietly. Amanda was turned on and frustrated. This woman did not like to wait and Claire knew it.

Claire's next words were carefully chosen and spoken in a deep commanding voice that rumbled its way through Amanda's blood, scattering any designs she may have had of turning the tables on her lover. "One more move like that, Mandy, and I will stop. Completely stop. Understand?" The tall woman let go of Amanda's hands.

Amanda nodded, barely hearing Claire's words over her own pounding heartbeat.

"Good. Now I've narrowed things down to two different paths. Would you like to hear about them?" the voice rumbled in a sensual purr that nearly made Amanda swoon.

Amanda nodded again and silently reminded her disobedient hands to remain motionless. She was still finding it inconceivable that her hot-blooded lover, who could let hours pass with nary a grunt between them, had become chatty... NOW! But she knew Claire was serious and that was all the convincing it took.

Claire lifted her head and smirked at her partner. "I knew you'd see it my way." Leaning close she placed an almost chaste kiss on her lover's lips before returning to her former position alongside Amanda's ear.

"I'm torn really..." she began. "Part of me wants to take you, control you..." Claire snaked her hand between them and firmly grabbed Amanda's breast causing the younger woman's entire body to jerk in response. The move was commanding and powerful and this time Amanda did swoon.

"...feel you squirming..." Claire's thigh made its presence known again between Amanda's legs when she slid it to where Amanda was all fire and liquid, eliciting a loud moan.

"...and writhing..." Claire's other hand found its way between Amanda's legs and purposefully drove forward. Amanda gasped then arched into the touch, her body involuntarily moving in tandem with Claire's erotic words.

"Sweet Jesus, Claire!" she cried out as Claire's hand continued to thrust forward, never stopping the barely audible barrage of 'wishes' that were more like commands in her ear. Amanda knew the words alone were enough to send her over the edge, but in combination with the relentless, masterful touch of her lover, she feared things would be over way too soon. Forever is way too soon.

Unexpectedly, Claire's motion stilled and the lips next to Amanda's ear drew so close that Amanda was certain the words were coming from inside her own head. The tip of Claire's tongue traced the pink ear and she inhaled deeply, relishing the smell of clean sweat, Amanda's shampoo, and her lover's skin- ascent she was sure shewould recognize not only in this lifetime but any to come.

"...and begging...," she whispered hotly.

Amanda opened her mouth. Her immediate instinct was to indeed beg. But a tiny kernel of stubborn pride refused to give in and her mouth defiantly snapped shut. She felt the lips next to her ear curl into a broad smile. Oh God. Wrong move, Mandy! The psychologist's heart pounded in anticipation of Claire's next move, and Amanda was already fiercely regretting her foolish decision against instant surrender.

Claire removed her hands from Amanda's breast and between her legs. The profound feeling of loss jolted the younger woman. I knew it! Shit!

"...and pleading...," Claire continued as she suddenly thrust her fingers forward, and cruelly stopped, allowing Amanda a small sample of what her rebelliousness was costing her.

Amanda's inner war raged. She was teetering on the brink of the climax that she craved. Things had escalated beyond mere want... this was about need.

"...for me to taste you."

Amanda's eyes rolled back in her head as she imagined Claire's hot mouth on her and her composure unraveled like a ball of yarn rolling down hill. She gave the hands she had been fighting to still free reign and they grasped Claire's face, forcing direct eye contact. Blazing emerald met intense azure and Amanda swore she could see an arch of sparks fly between them. "I don't care what the 'other' part of you wants. Choose this and choose it now," she demanded with an incendiary kiss.

Then Amanda gave her lover exactly what they both wanted...her complete and unconditional surrender.



The Pathfinder's powerful heater warmed the car to a cozy temperature causing Amanda to shed her heavy coat and gloves and lay them beside her on the supple leather seat. The SUV sped through the lightly falling snow as it crossed the nearly empty ice-covered bridge that traversed the mighty Missipp'. Five minutes more and they'd arrive at Mark's small home in St. Paul.

"Claire, why don't you let me drive?"

Blue eyes rolled under thick lashes. "I fine. I'm awake." But an untimely yawn seriously weakened her credibility. I knew I'd regret being too lazy to get up and make the coffee. God, how do people get up this early?

Claire shifted in her seat feeling vaguely unsettled, knowing the reason she looked longing at the conspicuously unadorned steering wheel. Driving is just not the same without you!

"You can take him out, you know."

"What do you mean? Take who out?" She tried for nonchalance. Shit!

Amanda raised her eyebrows causing Claire to scowl. "I already told you I don't think you're insane... at least most of the time," Amanda deadpanned.

"But they'll laugh at me," Claire whined in an uncharacteristically adolescent voice.

"I'll make them stop," Amanda reassured in the same tone she used with Missy.

"Ha!" Blue eyes narrowed. "You'll be laughing the loudest."

"C'mon, ya know ya wanna," the blonde cajoled, enjoying herself immensely.

"Temptress!" Claire shouted and Amanda burst out laughing.

"I've never been called that before," the therapist said as she squared her shoulders, "but I think I love it!"

Claire was indeed tempted. It seemed that every time she got in the car lately someone was with her, preventing her from keeping company with her favorite toy. "Well, maybe just until we get to Mark's place," she relented. The attorney reached into the glove box and began fishing around for her constant driving companion, Gumby. When she felt a cool bendable leg she began pulling him out of the glove box.

"God Dammit, Mandy!" Gumby was wearing a tiny red kimono and a black geisha wig. Thick red lips had been fashioned out of construction paper and taped to his face and white grease pencil covered Gumby's normally emerald cheeks. "I'm gonna kick her ass!" Claire bellowed, knowing only Jody would go to the extra effort of adding big lips in a bid to torture her. Bitch! She knows how I feel about Madam Butterfly!

The month before, Amanda talked Claire and Jody into attending the long, and, to Claire and Jody, extremely boring opera. But Claire had stealthy escaped under the pretense of using the bathroom and had happily spent nearly an hour hiding at the snack bar, talking to its teenage employees. Amanda was livid, and Jody downright jealous.

Amanda slapped her hand over her mouth in an attempt not to laugh. This one is priceless! But a few giggles managed to escape when Claire began tearing off the miniature clothes and cursing over the well-taped lips. Amanda grabbed a Kleenex from the glove box and handed it to Claire, who practically tore it out of her hand and began cleaning Gumby's face.

In less than a minute Gumby was appropriately naked and clean and wrapped around the top of the steering wheel. Another mile or two and Claire's scowl began to fade. Amanda's eyes widened when the older woman's face broke into a radiant smile. She suddenly felt very sorry for her business partner. Uh Oh, look out Jody.

Claire's yawn and deep sigh interrupted her silent quest for suitable retribution. The attorney was exhausted.

Amanda grasped her partner's hand and brought it to her lips, tasting the soft warm skin. "I really don't mind driving. I'd rather make it to the cabin in one piece," she teased, depositing another delicate kiss on Claire's knuckles.

Who are you trying to kid? You're every bit as tired as I am. But I love you for offering. Mirthful eyes pinned Amanda. "Remind me again why we're driving around in the middle of the night." The grumpy tone contrasted sharply with the brunette's relaxed demeanor.

The prosecutor was more than ready for a vacation. Amanda had been astonished to find out it had been nearly six years since Claire had taken enough vacation time to make it out of the Cities for more than a day or two. The younger woman had firmly stated that legal conventions and business trips were just work in disguise and didn't count.

"5:30 a.m. is not's morning."

"Not according to Mother Nature." Claire raised the hand Amanda was still holding and motioned out to the expansive darkness. Then she brought the joined hands to her own mouth and returned the kiss.

The barest hint of a grin told Amanda the lawyer wasn't really angry about the hour. The blonde smiled impishly and let heavy eyelids slide shut. "You just stayed up too late last night."

"Me?" Claire unzipped her coat and stuffed her mittens in the deep pockets, completely removing her foot from the accelerator as the car passed under an icy overpass. "What about you? I wasn't up half the night by myself."

"But I'm not complaining." Amanda's face lit up into a delighted grin, as she considered the previous night.

"Wait until your stomach figures out how many hours it is until lunch,"

Claire drawled, only partially teasing.

The blonde snorted, then laughed outright, affectionately smacking her partner's thigh. "Don't worry, baby." She let her hand linger on faded denim, tracing the firm muscle below. "I never travel without treats." She reached down to her feet and jiggled a large paper sack. "It's a mom thing."

Ebony eyebrows edged up as Claire peered into the dark floorboards, her fingers following her gaze.

Pulling the bag out of reach, Amanda slapped away the offending digits, drawing a playful growl from her lover. "No touching."

"That's not what you said last night." Claire smirked, enjoying her partner's endearingly predictable rising blush. The lawyer's hand darted toward the bag once more but Amanda pulled it away just as her fingertips grazed the paper. "Awww... Mandy. I just wanna see what's inside," the tall woman persisted with a pout.

The therapist looked at her playmate adoringly. You are so fun, she thought with a surprised laugh, loving Claire's silly side. "Later... it's just junk food. We can get some drive-thru food on the way out of town."

"And that's not junk food?" Yes! Coffee and Egg McMuffins!

"Are you complaining again?" The blonde shot her lover a mock glare, knowing she loved McDonald's breakfasts and couldn't care less about the nutritional value of the food.

"Nope," Claire responded cheerfully, her mood brightening further with the prospect of hot food and even hotter coffee. Huh, I never used to eat breakfast at all. Oh, well... She figured it wasn't really hurting her and she loved the time around the kitchen table with her lover and Missy. Claire rolled her shoulders forward and was rewarded with an audible pop. She'd never felt better, and a little extra time on the Stair Master, and a little (okay, a lot) less sleep, were small prices to pay for a family. My family. She shook her head in amazement as a happy warmth spread through her.

Claire pulled the Pathfinder up the slight incline of Mark's driveway and slid it into 'park'. Gumby was placed back into the glove box without a comment from Amanda, who knew better than to continue to tease Claire about her little green buddy. The two women sat in the car for several moments, talking quietly and waiting for their friend.

"Should we knock?" Amanda eventually asked, glancing at Claire then back toward the darkened structure. A small glowing porch light was the only indication anyone was home.

"I guess." Claire's scrunched her eyebrows together. "I was sure he'd see the headlights. Usually Marko is ready and waiting. He's never late."

"Well then Jody must be making him nuts." A wry smile split the blonde's face. "She's about as punctual as I am."

Claire returned her lover's infectious grin, silently agreeing on both counts. "What is it with you two...? I..." The attorney stopped mid-sentence when the porch light flickered off and Mark stepped out of the house. The women watched as the big man awkwardly hefted up a medium sized duffel bag and large suitcase with his uninjured arm. Amanda and Claire moved to help, but Mark warned them off with a glare as he headed around to the trunk.

A frigid blast of air poured into the car when the hatchback opened and Mark began adjusting the bags. "I hate winter! Brr!" Claire shook her head, the cold morning air jolting her body awake.

When the second bag settled into the trunk, the back of the Pathfinder lowered under the weight. "Do you think you packed enough, buddy?" We're only gonna be gone for five days, for Christ's sake!"

"Don't start," he snapped. "Dammit." Mark struggled to align the duffel and suitcase, his useless arm adding to his frustration.

Claire squeezed Amanda's hand indicating that the younger woman should stay put while she moved to help her friend. "I can get this." She quickly adjusted the bags until they were lying flat. "Don't worry about it."

Mark nearly barked out a grumpy retort before thinking better of it. It's not her fault my arm is hurt... "Thanks, Claire."

The brunette flashed her childhood pal a sympathetic smile and gave his shoulder a gentle pat, her hand sinking deeply into the soft down coat draped over his shoulders. "It's okay. I know how frustrating it can be. Remember when I broke my wrist in high school?" She shuddered at the unpleasant thought.

Mark pitifully stared at his arm. "!" he whined miserably.

"Hurry it up, guys," Amanda called from the front seat. "I'm freezing!" The therapist looked at her watch. "We're gonna be late picking up Jody."

"No you're not," came the contrary statement.

Amanda nearly jumped out of her skin when her business partner's face appeared in the window next to her...seemingly out of nowhere. "Shit!"

Jody's eyes widened. "Whoa... a little jumpy?"

"God, Jody." Amanda let out a deep breath. "Are you trying to make me wet myself?"

Wheat-colored eyes twinkled. "Considering I'm going to spend the next four hours in a small enclosed place with you... you should know the answer to that question."

Jody glanced back at the two County Attorneys who were speaking in hushed tones near the back of the car. An eyebrow quirked and she brushed some of the accumulating snow out of her bangs. I wonder what's up with them?

Jody clicked opened the back door only to be stopped by a strong hand on her back. "Let's ride up front, Jody." Mark gripped the door. "I'm too tall to be squished into the back seat and I want to sit with you."

The fair-haired attorney flashed his girlfriend a boyishly charming smile, and Jody suddenly hoped that the baby would look just like its father. Mentally frowning at the disgustingly sentimental thought, the therapist stepped forward and wrapped her arms around the Mark's thick waist, winding her fingers in his belt loops. "Fine with me, but you shouldn't drive for too long." With her elbow she gently tapped his cast.

"Keys are in the ignition," Claire said as she slipped by Jody and into the back seat. The slamming of the car door swallowed the words, "Scratch it and die." By the time the muscular woman turned to focus on Claire, Amanda was already throwing her coat to the lawyer and climbing over the front seats.

Claire shook off the last traces of snow from her hair and face. Already anticipating some good snuggle time with her lover she removed her parka as Amanda settled in next to her. The blonde snuggled closer with a contented sigh, loving the soothing heat pouring off her partner. "Mmm... Gumby, you're so nice and toasty," she murmured sleepily.

Claire sank into the embrace and pressed her lips into the soft pale head resting on her shoulder. "Let's take a nap," she suggested, as much for herself as her companion.

"Umm. Okay, you convinced me." Amanda snuggled closer still, molding herself to the taller woman as she tightened her grip on Claire's heavy sweatshirt and closed her eyes. The steady motion of the car, and the relaxed, rhythmic breathing of her lover, lulled her into a contented doze.

Blue eyes fluttered closed, all thoughts of coffee and breakfast trailing away. Claire's last conscious thoughts were swirling remembrances of the scent of leather seats, new car, and rain; the sound of pounding hearts, thunder and pleasure; and the taste of salty skin and sweet lips. She grinned a little, allowing the intoxicating sensation of new love to flood through her, until the lure of sleep was simply too much to resist. "I love you, Mandy," she muttered quietly as her mind finally let go.

"I love you too," her partner answered softly from the depths her own slumber.


Through the scope of a long-range hunting rifle, Cory watched Amanda, Claire, Jody, and Mark exit the bright red Pathfinder. He was perched high in a tree nearly three hundred yards away... waiting. He knew he could easily make the shots. Just like deer, he silently mused. The nose of the rifle dipped as he trained the crosshairs on Claire's head, the car blocking the rest of her body. Perverted, bitch! He imagined a bullet exploding through her chest and piercing her heart, her life force draining away into a hot crimson puddle in the snow. Oh yeah. Cory licked his lips. He was getting excited just thinking about it. She would be first... definitely.

Claire moved around the car to speak with Amanda, allowing the slender hunter an even better shot. Amanda. Cory lowered the scope to the smaller target. Warm tears stung his eyes. No hesitation! It's out of my hands now. He commands it!

Cory's attention shifted as Jody and Mark emerged from the front of the cab. Dark eyes twitched as Mark leaned down and gave Jody a quick kiss before moving to the trunk of the vehicle. A white-hot rage enveloped Cory and his nearly numb fingers began to tremble. He shook his head. NO! NOT NOW! But the voice came anyway... taunting... teasing. A pressure began to build behind his eyes, and his pulse pounded. "She was not for you either, Cory," the voice cruelly pointed out. "No one is! No one ever will be!"

Without thinking, Cory brought his hands to his ears and shifted on the dry branch, sending a flurry of snow and bits of bark to the ground below. The rifle began to fall and the distraught man grabbed wildly at the gun, trying to keep it from taking a forty-foot plunge into the snow. In a flailing attempt, Cory managed to hook the rifle sling on his foot.

He closed his eyes -- a trail of sweat dripped down his nose. The voice stopped. Thank you. Thank you. Unsteady hands grabbed the rifle by its butt and began to readjust it on his shoulder. When his eyes moved back to his targets they were gone. Motherfuck!! It's okay, it's okay, it's okay, he silently chanted. I have time. They don't.

Cory began the long treacherous descent down the tree. So, Jody's with the lawyer. She's probably sleeping with him. Unbidden images of Mark's naked, bloodied body assaulted him. He ignored them. Slut! FINE THEN! YOU CAN ALL DIE! Visions of blood and carnage filled his mind's eye as he jumped from the bottom branch, his boots crushing several dead branches buried deep beneath the snow. Cory adjusted his sock hat and zipped his camouflaged jacket to the top. Fumbling cold fingers adjusted the heavy bindings of his snowshoes and he silently disappeared back into the forest. I have time. They don't.


Jody kicked the snow off her boots and stepped into the cabin, surprised that it was nearly the same temperature as the outside air. She looked around and her eyebrows disappeared behind wavy dark brown bangs. "Wow."

The interior was decorated in bright yellow, green and white, giving the cabin, which consisted of nothing more than one very large room, a Spring-like atmosphere -- even in the heart of Winter. Floral designs were paired with lace, and whitewashed furniture dotted the maple colored hardwood floors.

In the corner sat an extremely tall, king-sized bed. The rays of the mid-morning sun streaming through a nearby window caused the shiny gold bed frame to sparkle brightly. Intricate patterns of pale green vines climbed across the white, goose-feather comforter, and solid-yellow pillows of all shapes and sizes decorated the massive structure.

Next to the bed stood a four-drawer wooden dresser that was dwarfed by its bold, gigantic companion. Above the dresser, in an octagonal frame, hung a print of a brass vase, circled by a bright green ribbon, and overflowing with colorful wildflowers.

In the rear of the cabin a discrete door led to a cherished new addition-- a bathroom. The bathroom contained an old-fashioned claw-footed bathtub, fed by clean but cold well water, and a flush toilet made possible by clever engineering and the underground pressure provided by the hilly landscape. The kitchen consisted of nothing more than a small round table with two chairs, a shiny pump-handled sink, and an icebox.

Amanda stepped in past her friend with Mark and Claire on either side of her. The blonde nodded, noticing the shiny floors and lack of dust. "Iris must have hired someone to clean..." her eyes traveled to the bed, "...and put on fresh linens. I know she hasn't been here since last summer."

Mark dropped his and Jody's bags by the door. "I take it we're staying in this one," he asked Amanda, making it clear that was his preference.

"Sure," Amanda answered, thinking she was more in the mood for the other cabin, which was set a little deeper into the woods. I think Claire will like it too.

Jody laughed and looked toward the obvious focal point of the room. "Iris, you old dog! I've never seen a room with a bigger or more eye-catching bed."

Mark wriggled pale eyebrows. "I like Iris."

"The place isn't as primitive as it seems," Amanda reassured, remembering everyone's initial reluctance at the lack of electricity. "The oil lamps and candles will provide plenty of light, and Iris assures me this..." she pointed to wood burning stove, " really well." It had better or I'm dead meat.

Jody sat down on the small loveseat that faced the hollow wood stove. "I guess we'd better fill the wood box and start heating this place up." God, why do I feel so tired? I haven't done anything but sit in the car all morning.

Walking over to the stove Mark noticed the nearly hidden cables that ran out the back. Must be for the generator. The stove can be run with wood or gas... excellent.

Claire nodded, thinking to herself that maybe Jody could use a rest. Stubborn... Gumby altering... no good.... "Good idea. Why don't Amanda and I go get settled in the other cabin and we'll meet you guys back here in a couple of hours for lunch?" Claire's suggestion was met with murmurs of approval. Jody headed to the kitchen to unload their food and Mark began moving the bags over to the bed.

Amanda extended her hand. "C'mon, honey. The other cabin is about 100 yards up the hill." I can't wait to show you.

Claire fumbled with the stack of logs in her arms as Amanda opened the door in front of her. The tall woman's face split into a flattering smile as she entered the smaller of the two cabins. She spun around taking in the decor. "Holy..."

"You like?" Amanda beamed inwardly.

"Amanda, this is beautiful. I mean the other cabin was beautiful too, but this is... well... it..."

"It suits you better?" The younger woman asked, already knowing it to be true.

It was as if different people owned the cabins, or at the very least, that they were the product of a split personality. And in a way they were. Iris had chosen the furnishings for the larger cabin. But Amanda's mentor had given her young protégé free rein to decorate this one, trusting her judgment and good taste implicitly.

Whereas Jody and Mark's cabin was light, airy and fresh, this cabin was warm and comforting, filled with plaids, heavy fabrics and muted, rich colors. The cabin was sectioned off into a living area, bedroom and kitchen.

The bedroom wasn't really a separate room. Rather, a wall about four-foot high separated a tiny area and afforded the room's occupants some small measure of privacy.

A narrow double bed was encased in a dark walnut frame that was shaped like a sleigh, and a wooden trunk sat at its foot. Its coverings were dark green, blue, and maroon tartans with two simple pillows that were tucked neatly under the plaids. While it was beautifully inviting, it wasn't the focus of the room.

In the living area, in front of a massive stone fireplace, sat a large, overstuffed couch covered in a heavy wine colored fabric, accented by several throws in colors matching the bedding. At the foot of the couch lay a thick oval-shaped sheepskin rug that extended nearly to the fireplace and was flanked by a set of low black walnut end tables. The tables were topped with unique pieces of sculptures made from pine cones, twigs, feathers, leather, and other local fauna.

"Mandy, it's great!" Claire smiled at the faint aroma of hardwood and cinnamon.

The walls were decorated with several Terry Redlin prints celebrating nature and wildlife, and over the fireplace hung a dark, shiny oil painting of a mountain man, Indian maiden, and child. Claire found herself irresistibly drawn toward the intriguing work of art, immediately recognizing its strong expressive lines.

The Indian woman faced the child, leaving her face a mystery, and two long braids were painted in such fine detail Claire could make out each strand of midnight hair as it blew in the summer breeze. The woman was washing a small red-haired child in what appeared to be a large barrel that had been split in half. The child's hair was a mountain of bubbles and his happy toothless grin lit up the picture.

The mountain man, dressed only in buckskin britches and boots, held an axe. He was as fair and freckled as the woman was dark and exotic, and was scratching his chin through a short, curly red beard. The man's sea-green eyes were focused on the woman and child, his adoration shining like the July sun.

Claire was speechless. It's her! Well... it would be her if she had a beard and was a man. I wonder if she even realizes? Her jaw worked for several long seconds before the words could escape. "I never knew you painted in oils," she finally commented her eyes never straying from the mountain man's enigmatic smile.

Amanda winced, misinterpreting Claire's reaction. "I don't... really. Iris asked for something rustic and watercolors just didn't seem to fit the bill. At least not in this cabin." The blonde cocked her head and observed her lawyer. She hates it. She shrugged, trying to set aside the unexpected jolt of disappointment that stung her guts. "It just sort of happened."

"It's fabulous," Claire stated simply, the awe in her voice cutting through Amanda's insecurity.

Green eyes widened in surprise. "Seriously," she begged shamelessly for more reassurances. Damn, what is wrong with me?

Claire nodded and absently reached for Amanda's hand, her eyes still transfixed on the canvas. The blonde let out a shaky breath, a little unsettled by her sudden need, and squeezed the fingers threaded between her own. She was inordinately pleased that Claire appreciated this piece in particular. Amanda hadn't thought it mattered, but in that split second she knew it did... terribly.

The painting had always been one of her favorites and she'd never repeated her effort in the medium, deciding to quit while she was ahead. Amanda's eyes drifted from her partner, to the woman in the painting, and back again. A mischievous smile curled her lips. Tall, broad shoulders, strong arms. "She looks like you, you know." I wonder if I was dreaming about you all those years ago, before we even met?

Claire finally pulled her attention from the mountain man and considered the pictures of other occupants. "What do you mean she looks like me? All you can see is her back." Claire smiled wryly. "Besides, long dark hair doesn't exactly distinguish me from any other Native American woman from the era."

The lawyer noticed the pulling sensation in her shoulders. "Mandy, where...?"

Before she could finish Amanda grabbed several of the larger pieces of wood out of Claire's arms and dropped them into the woodbin near the fireplace. Claire followed suit, stretching out her arms as soon as she dropped the last log. She groaned.

Interested, cerulean eyes scanned the room. "There's no wood stove in here. I guess this big fireplace heats the place all on its own." Claire admired the majestic stone hearth and dark wood mantle, whose color exactly matched the floors. "How are you at starting fires?" She looked to her partner.

Me? Okaaay. "I guess we'll find out." Amanda kneeled in front of the fireplace and poked her head up the chimney. After making sure the flue was open, she grabbed a handful of old newspapers from a stack alongside the woodbin and began crunching them up into balls.

Claire looked on in fascination as Amanda started a blazing fire in under a minute. Jesus Christ. "Where in the hell did you learn how to do that?"

Amanda shrugged. "I dunno." Green eyes twinkled. "I dated an Eagle Scout once."

A well shaped eyebrow rose to it highest level. "And did he light your fire, Mandy?"

A snort was her answer.

Claire stepped forward and handed Amanda two larger logs, now that the flame had taken a secure hold of the kindling. "Well, I'm just glad you're here. Otherwise, I'd be spending the night in the Pathfinder with the heater on."

"If I weren't here you'd be in a hotel." One small adjustment to the logs and Amanda stood up and dusted her hands off on her jeans. Soon it would be warm enough to take off their coats.

Claire stepped closer to her lover and wrapped her arms around the smaller woman's waist. "You..." she touched the tip of Amanda's nose. "...have many skills. And I don't just mean the painting and the fire."

Amanda puffed out her chest. "And you're just now noticing this?" she teased.

Claire slowly shook her head as her eyes took on a serious, intense expression and her finger traced her lover's feminine, youthful features. Another hand slid up as the lawyer cupped both of Amanda's cheeks. Blue held green for a long provocative moment. "I love you more than words can say," Claire whispered, smiling gently at Amanda's startled reaction to the surprisingly reverent declaration. "And no, I'm not just now noticing," she added sincerely.

Amanda felt a pang deep in her chest and wondered why her heart didn't explode on the spot. She clutched at her partner and buried her face in the smooth skin of Claire's neck, taking a deep breath of her lovers reassuring scent, and relishing the closeness she had come to depend on in a way so elemental that the enormity of it was sometimes frightening. "How'd you get so romantic?" her voice cracked. Warm lips gently grazed the top of her head.

Claire didn't answer, instead she simply pulled her partner closer and stared into the crackling flames for so long she wondered if Amanda had fallen asleep in her arms. "Mandy?" she said softly.


"Please tell me this cabin has indoor plumbing." Claire twisted her legs to make her point, and the blonde against her stilled... then convulsed into laughter.


Monica paused outside the door of the Cornerstone Clinic. This is long overdue. With a deep breath the blonde pushed open the door and went inside.

At the reception desk sat a young man reading a magazine in what appeared to be a completely empty office.

Since when did they get a secretary? "Hello," Monica said brightly.

"Dr. Greer?" The man looked confused. "Is that you?" He'd only met Amanda once for a few moments when the temp agency sent him over for an interview with Dr. Penbrook.

Monica smiled. I guess we still look an awful lot a like sis. "No. My name is Monica Greer and I've got an appointment to see my sister, Dr. Greer," she lied.

"You... you have an appointment?" The secretary looked down at his desk calendar and began flipping through the pages as if some piece of previously unnoticed information was going jump out and bite him in the ass.

"I'm sorry, Ms. Greer, but Dr. Greer and Dr. Penbrook are on vacation this week. I'm just supposed to answer the phone and forward any important messages."

"Vacation?" My fucking luck! Monica quickly recovered. "Amanda must have forgotten our appointment..." She paused and looked pointedly at the young man.

"Alan," he provided helpfully.

The blonde flashed him a winning smile. "Alan," she repeated as if he'd given her some unexpected good news. He stood a little straighter and lifted his chin proudly. Men... Jesus. No wonder Amanda is into chicks. "Alan," she purred. "You wouldn't happen to have a phone number and address where I could reach my sister, would you?" She looked at him innocently then licked her lips in a playfully seductive manner. "I'd be ever so grateful."

Alan's audible swallow nearly caused Monica to laugh in the poor boy's face. He couldn't move fast enough. "Yes... absolutely... here... here is her cell phone number." He paused, suddenly unsure of his actions. "She said it was only for emergencies," the secretary hedged.

"Trust me, Alan." Monica drew her finger from his breastbone and up along his neck, stopping when she reached nearly trembling lips. I do believe this boy is gonna blow his wad right here and now. "Amanda will consider what I have to tell her an emergency." She flashed him another coy smile and let her finger slide into his hot mouth. His resolve melted like an ice cube in hell.

"Here." He thrust the paper in her hand. This is the best damn day of my life!

Monica looked at the paper. "This is only a phone number Alan. I need an address too." Round disappointed eyes fixed on their target.


"Please," she added sweetly, batting her eyelashes.

Alan began thinking furiously, then, as if a light bulb pinged on in his head, he remembered something. "I... I started last week, before everyone left and an older lady, Irene or Iris or Irma... something like that... anyway, she asked me to fax Dr. Greer something."

And you're telling me this becaaause? Monica fought the urge to scratch out Alan's eyes and simply dig around herself for the information she wanted. "And?" she said with a patience she didn't really feel.

"And it was a map."

Monica's eyes sparkled. Now she was interested. "And you have a copy of this map," she prodded.

Alan nodded and reached into the bottom drawer of the desk. After a moment of desperate rifling he pulled out a map with a note attached.

Monica smiled and folded the paper into a small square, which she shoved into her jeans pocket. "Thank you Alan, you've been extremely helpful." She studied the secretary with interest.

"Alan, how old are you?"

He opened his mouth but Monica interrupted him before he could begin. "Don't lie to me." She waggled a finger at the flustered temp.


"I see." Monica looked at her watch. It's too late to drive up to the cabin tonight, even if I could beg, borrow, or steal a car. My piece of shit should be out of the shop tomorrow. A mental sigh. Day after tomorrow will have to be soon enough to collect my daughter. Monica's focus shifted to the nervous young man behind the desk. Alan...Alan... "What skills landed you this job?" He must be able to do something. No doubt Amanda and Jody pay well.

"I can type forty words a minute and have a pleasant phone voice," Alan answered, repeating the things the lady at the temp agency told him employers liked to hear. Damn, Ricky and Mike are gonna die when I tell them about her! And they thought I was stupid for not working at the Christmas tree lot again this year. She is so hot! Suckers!

Monica moved around the desk and pressed herself against the young secretary, who looked like he was about to swallow his own tongue. Wild eyes took on a wicked glint. "Which one of these offices belongs to that bitc... I mean to Dr. Penbrook?"

On her last visit, Monica was so strung out she'd paid no attention to her surroundings. Her time in the clinic was all tied up in fuzzy memories involving a shooting and cravings and pain.

Steady, slender fingers trailed down Alan's chest and found their way to the bulge in his pants. Monica began to lightly squeeze. She raised an eyebrow and her lips shaped into crooked grin. Eager boy.

Alan didn't think he could speak, when he realized his mouth was hanging open he clicked it shut, vaguely aware of its parched texture. As the pressure between his legs built he began to feel a little light-headed. Monica's sharply raised eyebrow told him she was waiting for an answer so he just pointed to the right. The older Greer sister nodded and began pushing him toward the office, never removing her hand from his groin. "Alan, let me share with you a little business tip I've come to appreciate over the years," Monica sagely offered as she opened Jody's office door. "Never..." she smiled wickedly "...underestimate the value of good oral skills."

The office door slammed shut.


Cory was sweating heavily by the time he dropped onto the porch of the old wooden house and began unlacing his snowshoes. He'd trudged through the deep snow for the past 2 hours at a break-neck speed, driven by madness, hunger, and a burning yearning not to miss 'Love Connection', which was starting at 1:00 p.m.

He had discovered the idyllic home 3 days ago, while exploring the area. It was approximately 6 miles from the other cabins, down a small tree-strewn ravine and across an ice-covered river. It sat on the edge of a larger county, and was just close enough to the nearest village, that the single-story home had electricity. It would have been perfect had it been abandoned. Unfortunately, it wasn't.

Cory wiped his sweaty brow with his hand. Damn. I wonder if there's a snowmobile in the garage? The wiry man knocked off his boots and laid his snowshoes against the porch railing. He sighed. Time to clean house.

"Hi, mom and dad! I'm home!" the slender construction worker shouted brightly as he entered the house.

Perched on the sofa, in a massive pool of sticky, mostly-dried blood, were Barbara and Davy Jensen. The elderly couple was posed in a macabre embrace, watching television through dead eyes. Their throats had been slit from ear to ear and the bodies were starting to turn rancid in the warm cabin, their acrid stench drifting into every room of the structure.

"Sorry, mom." Rigor mortis had come and gone, and Cory was easily able to pry the old woman's arms from around her husband causing her to crumble into a heap on the floor. "Whew!" Cory made a disgusted face. "You're ripe."

Oblivious to the blood, the dark-eyed construction worker grabbed Barbara Jensen by one leg and one arm and dragged her out of the house and across the porch. Her head thumped loudly as it banged each wooden step leading into the snow. "Oops... Sorry, Mom. I bet you've got quite a headache," he smirked.

Twenty more minutes and Davy joined his wife in a tangled mass next to the well-maintained woodpile. Cory cocked his head to the side and stared at the couple. After several long moments he arranged the bodies so that Barbara's head was pillowed on Davy's slim shoulder. A light snow had begun to fall and was already beginning to blanket the bodies. They're together. All is as it should be. Cory nodded, satisfied with his work, and went inside to clean his rifle. He smiled as he looked at his watch. Just in time for 'Love Connection'.


Mark and Jody's cabin, though it was a good clip larger than the one up the hill, warmed quickly under the influence of the powerful wood stove. Both couples were now able to move around comfortably without their coats. Jody and Mark perched together on the small, but cozy loveseat while Claire and Amanda sat side-by-side on the floor.

Claire knew Amanda wanted to absorb as much of the radiant heat as possible, both from her and the fireplace. Perfect eyebrows drew together. I wonder what it would take to install a fireplace at home? Mandy would love that.

"Thanks." Amanda smiled sweetly as Jody passed her a half-full container of potato salad. The blonde dumped a large dollop onto her paper plate and hummed contentedly as she began to devour the tasty chunks.

Claire's attention returned to her companions and she smiled fondly at her partner. Note to self: Buy more food. The lawyer did a mental inventory of the bags they'd brought with them. Amended note to self: buy lots more food.

When Amanda finished the last of her lunch she patted her tummy appreciatively. "Thanks, Mark. Those ham sandwiches and all the fixin's really hit the spot."

Mark smiled, knowing he'd always have a grateful culinary audience in Amanda. While Jody and Claire enjoyed what he prepared, Amanda experienced it. She was every amateur chef's dream, attentive to the last crumb.

The prosecutor grabbed the empty plates and moved to throw them into the stove. When he realized he couldn't do it one-handed he let out a virulent string of curses and flopped back onto the loveseat in a huff.

Jody patted the big man's knee and leaned forward to open the stove door. With a quick flick of her wrist the flames instantly devoured the plates. Deciding the wood supply was adequate, the brunette therapist turned back to Mark and was met with an adoring look that stole her breath away.

"Thanks," he said, trying to scowl but not quite succeeding. People had been asking him all week why he had such a ridiculously happy grin plastered on his face. He had resolved himself to wear a more stoic look, mentally picturing Claire and her legendary 'bored look'. Mark sighed. Truthfully, his personality was much closer to Amanda's and he found himself lacking the will power and inclination to maintain an unaffected air in the wake of Jody's good news. Teasing be damned, he was thrilled and it showed. Still, his arm made even the simplest tasks unreasonably difficult. The severity of the break and the type and size of the cast made casual movement all but impossible. He was nearing the breaking point and he had still had at least 2 months to go. Jesus, 2 months!

"S'okay," replied Jody, snuggling a little closer to the frustrated man.

Claire watched Jody and Mark with rapt fascination. Although she often saw them together, seeing the affection and easy-going attitude that characterized their relationship always surprised her a little. It was obvious the two were first and foremost friends. She smiled a little when Mark leaned over and placed a light kiss on Jody's cheek, drawing a faint blush from the stocky, sometimes-difficult woman. I guess everything else is just gravy.

"So..." Mark cleared his throat. "What are we gonna do up here?"

Three sets of eyes turned to Amanda causing hers to widen. "What?? Why are you looking at me?"

"Well, you've been her before," Jody explained the obvious.

"But never in the winter." Amanda shrugged. "I was planning on doing some reading, sleeping late, walking through the forest, maybe heading into town to do some shopping..." Making love to Claire until she walks funny.

Mark and Jody turned to Claire dismissing Amanda's idea of 'fun'. The brunette attorney snorted and offered her own ideas. "Hmm... The ice isn't set enough for fishing, and Mark's in no condition for skiing thank God. But Twin Harbors has a movie theater and some bars...we could go there. Or maybe we could rent some snowmobiles?"

Jody and Mark shook their heads and smiled, grunting their approval, which caused Amanda to rise to her feet and place her hands on her hips indignantly. "And what was wrong with my suggestions? We're supposed to be enjoying nature and each other's company not getting drunk, acting like fools, and riding around at one-hundred miles per hour on snowmobiles."

"I wasn't going to drink," Jody informed her business partner, not bothering to deny the rest. Mark and Claire laughed.

Blue eyes rolled in an exaggerated motion as Claire stood up and wrapped an arm around Amanda's waist. "Mandy, I'll bet you were the kid in class who reminded the teacher when she forgot to assign homework."

"I was not!" the blonde protested vehemently. She winced internally. Okay... but I only did that once!

"Suuurrree," her friend's drawled in unison, laughing again.

"Fine." Amanda grumped but was soon smiling herself. "You wanna meet back here around 6:00 p.m. then we can all go to dinner?"

Mark nodded, hoping he could talk Jody into a nap. The tall man stood and tossed Claire and Amanda their coats. He looked out the window and absently noticed that the sun had disappeared behind thick clouds and a light snow was falling. He shut the door behind Claire and Amanda and made his way back to Jody.

"You want me to take a nap, don't you?" Mark had been hinting at it for the last couple of hours and Jody was trying not to let it irritate her.

"Yep." He smiled remembering how easily pregnant women got tired, especially in their first trimester. "Okay if join you? I'm not used to getting up before the crack of dawn."

Jody nodded enthusiastically and looked at the enormous bed and Mark. The combination looked like heaven to the therapist who held out her hand invitingly. "As a matter of fact... I insist."


Cory slipped out of Amanda and Claire's cabin just as the foursome exited the Pathfinder after a pleasant evening of dinner and drinks in town. The young construction worker laughed to himself, confident the blowing snow and darkness would cover his tracks leading from the cabin to the woods. Soon. He wondered how their hot blood would feel running down his hands and forearms and closed his eyes in pleasure. Wonderful, he decided. Simply wonderful.

"Should we head back into town tomorrow?" Amanda asked Claire as she shed her coat and moved to stoke the fire that had burned down to embers in their absence.

"Well, the guy at the bar told me most of the blizzard should pass well North of here. Besides, so what if it hits? We've got food and wood and as many gallons of gas as we could load into the trunk in case we need to run the generator. We should be able to ride it out if it comes to that." Claire studied Amanda's back. Moving forward she laid her palm on her lover's shoulder. "But if you'd feel more comfortable, we can bunk in a lodge or motel until the bad weather passes."

Amanda smiled and shook her head. "Nah, you're right. There's no reason we can't just stay here." Pale eyebrows wriggled. "Most of what I wanted to do on this vacation doesn't require anything but you... and since you're here with me...."

Claire chuckled. "Why, Mandy, are you propositioning me?"

"Me and everybody else in Minnesota," the therapist groused. One of the restaurant's more inebriated patrons had found Claire too appealing to ignore and put a serious damper on Amanda's evening.

"He was just a drunken idiot." Claire rolled her shoulder. "I just try to ignore that stuff." Unless it's directed at you. Claire sat down alongside her partner and gazed into the newly stoked flames, which were shooting dancing shadow patterns across the cabin's mostly dark interior.

Amanda's attention was on her partner and her normally pale blue eyes, gone indigo in the firelight. "You are so beautiful," she offered dreamily. "Too bad for everyone else that you're mine." She reached up and stroked the soft skin on Claire's cheek. "All mine," she added possessively, not worrying at all about her lover's reaction.

A dark eyebrow edged upward and the lawyer flashed Amanda a sparkling white smile. "I think you made that clear tonight when you told my admirer to go back to his sheep before you kicked his scrawny ass all the way to Canada."

Amanda blushed. "Oh yeah, err..." She shrugged. "Sorry about that. But he wasn't taking your hints."

"Hints? I told him I was with you and to leave us alone. That's not a hint."

"But he didn't leave!"

"He did after you kissed me full on the mouth! Though judging from his reaction I think he really liked it!"

Amanda's blush turned scarlet. "I... um..."

Claire leaned over and soundly kissed her partner. "S'okay," she chuckled. "I know exactly how you felt."

"Really?" Amanda asked, surprised.

"Of course. How many times have you been asked out, or at the very least leered at right in front of me?"

Amanda thought about that and frowned. It didn't happen as much with her as it did with Claire, but when it did, she knew it upset the attorney. But what can we do about it? Keep each other on leashes? Have my name tattooed on her forehead and vice versa? The frown deepened. People will always see what they want to see, no matter what we tell them or what the truth really is.

"Earth to Mandy. Are you still with me?" Claire waved her hand in front of Amanda's face and gave her a friendly bump with her shoulder. "Are you okay?" she asked, concerned over Amanda's suddenly melancholy mood.

The younger woman reluctantly drew herself out of her thoughts. "Yeah, I was just thinking." She snuggled closer to her partner.

"Ahh." Claire could read her lover easily and wrapped a long arm around Amanda's shoulders. You said forever, Mandy, but I wonder just what type of commitment you're willing to make. Tucking that idea away for later, Claire thought about what a long day it had been. "I think I'll grab a quick shower before bed."

"You mean a bath," Amanda reminded with a twinkle in her eyes. No interruptions this time, Gumby.

Claire nodded then moaned. "But I don't think I can take that cold water! Have you felt it? When I washed my hands this afternoon I almost had a damned heart attack!"

Amanda laughed. "Oh yeah," she drew out the words. "I remember. It's like that even in the summertime. That's what this rod is for." She pointed toward a bent black metal rod tucked up along the edge of the fireplace. "In the kitchen is this huge steel pot that you can fill with water and then hang over the flame until it's boiling. Two or three pots full added to the cold water and you've got a warm bath. It takes a little time... but it's totally worth it. There's even a smaller pot for soup or stew or coffee maybe. But I've never tried it."

"Why not?" Claire couldn't imagine her lover not trying anything if it meant hot food.

"I just used the stove in the other cabin. You can sit a pot or skillet right on top." Amanda stretched out her feet and leaned back into Claire's strong embrace. She dug her fingers into the soft sheepskin rug, enjoying its fuzzy warmth and the rich smell of the crackling maple in the fire.

"You walked there for every meal?"

"Nope. I always stay in the other cabin. This is my first time in this one."

Claire's eyebrows rose. "Does Iris take this one?" The lawyer wiggled and warmed her toes in front to the flames.

"Dunno. Iris has never been here when I've come up. I've been here four or five times but never with her. I brought Monica once a long time ago." The blonde smiled ruefully. "But we had an argument and she took off the first day."

"Did you guys drive here in separate cars?"

"No," Amanda answered simply, not feeling the need to go into all the trouble it had been to find a way into town and then rent a car. Claire didn't need another reason to dislike her sister. There were already more than enough as it was.

That bitch! Claire shifted and pulled Amanda into a hug. "Sorry," she murmured against fair hair. "Why didn't you ever stay here?" Claire asked, intentionally steering the conversation away from Amanda's troublesome sister, but not releasing her lover from the hug.

Why didn't I? "I'm not really sure. Hmm... You smell good." She felt rather than heard her lover's laugh and happily burrowed her face deeper into Claire's neck. "I guess... it... never seemed right until..." A smile teased at Amanda's lips and she tasted the delicate skin of her lover's throat. "...until you."

Claire smiled back. "Aww... You're such a romantic, Mandy. But are you sure you just didn't want to be closer to the stove and an easy cup of hot chocolate?"

That comment earned the lawyer a smack in the belly. "I'm sure, ya rat."

"Is his bath a warm one."

Amanda didn't have to look to know Claire's eyes had drifted to the oil painting above the mantel. "Sure it is. She heated it for him."

The women didn't speak for several moments. They just sat and thought and gladly enjoyed the soothing presence of the other.

"Why?" Claire finally asked, breaking Amanda out of her thoughts of Missy, even though she painted the picture years before Missy was born, the smiling boy always reminded her of her daughter.

"Why what?" Amanda asked, confused.

"Why did she heat it, even in the summertime?" There was a vulnerable edge to the darker woman's voice that made Amanda pull away so she could study her face.

"Because she loves him," came the easy reply.

"Is he hers? He looks like the man but not the woman."

Amanda's brow furrowed. "No, he's not hers. But she loves him anyway, just like I love Missy."

"I love her too." Claire pushed down a twinge of nervousness as her stomach did flip-flops. Ask her you chicken shit! she mentally prodded herself. The worst she can say is 'no' and think you were nuts for even suggesting it.

Amanda reached out and grasped large hands that were uncharacteristically chilled. The therapist searched the depths of azure eyes in an attempt to figure out where Claire was heading. Finding no guidance, she simply trusted that Claire would fill her in. "I know you do, sweetheart. You show her and tell her everyday. You're a wonderful mo..." Amanda stopped, cursing herself for the near verbal slip. Stop it, Mandy. Claire hasn't said hasn't said that's something she even wants. But even as she thought it, the blonde knew it didn't make any sense.

Claire had eagerly taken on a large part of Missy's parenting. She truly was another mother to the child... in every way. But they'd never really discussed Claire's role with Missy and Amanda didn't want to make assumptions regarding something so important. Not wanting Claire to feel awkward or pressured, she had even taken Missy aside and reminded her to call Claire by her name and not 'mama', when the term had accidentally rolled of the child's tongue more than once.

The lawyer focused open blue eyes on Amanda. "You were going to say mother." It was more a statement than question.

Crap. Amanda swallowed hard and did her best to steady her voice. "Yes, I was." She waited and watched, but Claire showed no response. Then the older woman's jaw began to work. But it was several more seconds before any sound emerged. Amanda could nearly feel the tense waves pouring off her lover.

"You told Missy not to call me that." The normally strong voice cracked a little.

Amanda suddenly felt nauseous and her heart began to pound. Oh God.

Glassy orbs dropped, unwilling to see Amanda's reaction. "I understand that you..." A deep breath. "...didn't want her to. I... I was just wondering why."

She thinks... Nonononono. Damn.

Claire felt soft fingers tug at her chin and soon she was captured in intense green eyes. "You're wrong if you think I didn't want Missy to call you 'mama'. I would love that. You are that to her and you have been for months, even before we moved in together," she added sincerely. "She may be the only person on earth who loves you nearly as much as I do."

The tension in Claire's guts immediately began to ease and she felt like she could breath again. "So... it would be okay for her to call me mom or mama or something like that... you wouldn't mind?"

"We're raising her together, right?" Amanda asked, wanting to hear the words that were really nothing more than a simple confirmation of what had been happening from the very start. Claire nodded and smiled a heart-stopping smile that made Amanda's chest ache. The blonde cursed her stupidity. Jesus, how can I start with the best intentions and then mess up things so badly?

Amanda shook her head, her own eyes welling in response to her partner's unshed tears. A small smile touched her face. "You can tell her as soon as we get home." While the words were still hanging in the air she was pulled into a nearly crushing embrace.

"Thanks, Mandy," Claire whispered. "I've been wanting to ask if that would be okay... but I was worried...well... I wasn't sure... I was just worried that's all," she finished lamely.

Claire's warm breath tickled Mandy's ear, and she silently thanked any Gods listening for the love of this woman. "I know. I love you. I should have asked you about it sooner but I didn't want you to feel pressured. It wasn't a reflection on your parenting. I swear." Amanda closed her eyes and bit the bullet. "In fact, I think we make a pretty good team." God why am I so nervous? "So good in fact, I'd like to add another player." That's right, Mandy, make her solve a damn riddle! "I mean..."


Amanda pulled back. "What did you say?"

"I said 'yes'."

The therapist's senses were reeling. "Do you understand...?"

"You want another child." Just like I do.

Green eyes widened and Amanda could only nod mutely.

Claire cupped her cheeks. "I think it's a fantastic idea. I hated being an only child and we've got more than enough love to share."

A tentative smile edged its way onto Amanda's face. "Really? You've thought about this before?" The younger woman felt an uncontrollable surge of emotion well within her.

"Really and yes," Claire assured and was knocked flat on her back by Amanda's hurling body. How did she work up so much velocity? She was only one foot away from me! The lawyer exhaled loudly as the air was literally forced from her lungs when her shoulders hit the sheepskin rug. Catching her breath, she laughed as Amanda peppered her face with kisses, muttering words of thanks and devotion.

After enjoying the few moments of the lavish attention Amanda was offering, Claire spoke, not wanting to give her partner false hope. "Adoption may not be a reasonable option this time around."

Amanda stopped the constant shower of kisses long enough to consider Claire's statement. "Hmm." Her sexual orientation hadn't been an issue in Missy's adoption. She wasn't seeing anyone at the time and lived alone. No one asked, and she didn't offer the information. Now, even the most cursory investigation could be damning. "Would you...?"

"First thing next week I'll get to work on the research." Time to brush up on my family law. Some states had statutes that outright forbade same sex couples from adopting, and while she wasn't aware of any such restriction in Minnesota, she wasn't sure they didn't have one either.

Now for the tricky part. Claire screwed up her courage. "Have you ever considered one of us actually 'having' the baby instead of adopting."

Amanda stared down at the face inches below hers. "As in one of us getting pregnant?" she asked in a shocked but delighted voice.

"Well, I might have to confirm it with Jody, but I do think that's one way to get a baby."

"Smarty pants." Amanda sat up, straddling her supine partner. "Wow. I never... I mean... which one of us did you want to get pregnant?"

"I'd love to do it."

"REALLY?" Amanda practically shrieked.

"Jesus Christ, Mandy, you're acting like I told you I want to grow a beard! Is this so hard to believe?" Claire asked exasperatedly.

"No, sweetheart. Well...actually it is! You've never said a word about wanting to have a baby."

"Neither have you."

"Yes, but I obviously wanted a baby at one time or I wouldn't have adopted Missy. And when I just 'mentioned', in passing, that it might be a good idea to get a flu shot, you turned pale as a ghost."

A challenging dark eyebrow lifted. "Yeah well, I only consider subjecting myself to voluntary pain under extraordinary circumstances. And this qualifies."

Amanda's smile stretched her facial muscles and crinkled her nose and the corners of her eyes in a way Claire found completely adorable. "I'd love to do it too... Get pregnant I mean."

"Well, it looks like we've got a lot to think about." Claire sat up and nuzzled her partner's neck. "Wadda ya say we do the bath thing in the morning and get right to practicing that baby making thing tonight."

Amanda giggled. "Unless there's something else you want to tell me... I don't think practice is gonna make perfect in our case, honey."

"I know." Claire traced Amanda's ear with the tip of her tongue then moved down to the tender skin on Amanda's neck. She felt her lover's pulse jump in response as small fingers found their way into her hair. "But wouldn't it be fun trying?" she got out, before an insistent mouth covered her own.



Jody stepped closer to the window and peered outside. "It's 9 a.m. and I can't believe how dark it still is!" She turned to face Mark. "Do you think we should try to make it into town?" The wind was howling and whistling, blowing the snow in a nearly horizontal path through the air. Ugh. I shouldn't have eaten -- whatever I ate last night. I don't feel so good.

"Hmm... The guy at the restaurant says we're only gonna catch the very tip of the storm." Mark shrugged. "It should clear up by tomorrow." The tall man gave the bowl of eggs a final whisk then pulled a frying pan full of bacon off the stovetop. "Besides, Amanda brought her cell phone in case of emergencies. We should be okay." Pouring out nearly all the bacon grease, he added the egg mixture to the sizzling skillet.

Normally, Jody would find the smell of freshly brewed coffee and bacon tantalizing. But this morning she found herself wishing for a plain bagel or yogurt or nothing at all. "Mark, I think I'm going to lie back down for a minute..." Jody stopped in front of the door as her mouth started to water and her stomach began to lurch.

"That's okay," Mark said amiably. "I'll bring you breakfast in bed. I'm cooking the eggs in a little bacon fat for flavor..."

"Ugh," Jody groaned.

"You like yours really loose and runny..."

Another louder groan and Jody wrapped her arms tightly around her stomach.

"...almost raw really..." He observed the eggs with mild distaste. "...just barely set, right?" He finally turned to face his pale green lover who was on all fours.

Jody's stomach lurched again and she clapped her hand over her mouth. Her eyes darted to the bathroom across the cabin and she knew she'd never make it. In an act of pure desperation, she grabbed the nearest thing she could find and promptly threw up...

...Into Mark's boot.


Arching her back, Claire tentatively pried one eye open, popping her abused vertebrae back into place. She sighed happily, surprised to feel so rested while it was still dark out. She closed her eyes again and Amanda shifted, burrowing her leg deeper between Claire's and snuggling closer. The attorney found herself unwilling to move, not wanting to break the peaceful connection between she and her partner. Finally, however, her own restless nature got the best of her and she decided to start hunting for some breakfast. Coffee for sure... with Pop Tarts or donuts maybe?

The tall woman leaned over and placed a light kiss on her partner's cheek, closely examining the soft, relaxed features of her lover's face. She looks so young when she's asleep. Claire gently traced a soft eyebrow with her fingertip. The woman is twenty-nine years old and could pass for twenty. Blonde hair lay at odd angles around the therapist's head causing Claire to smile fondly. At least with the new haircut she looks twenty and not eighteen. She wondered how many more years before gray began mixing with the reddish-blonde. She nearly laughed at how delightful that simple thought really was.

The therapist was usually a light sleeper but both women had stayed up well into the evening enjoying their first night in the cabin and the peaceful time together. Occasional twitches testified to Amanda's deep state of slumber and Claire was confident she could get up and mill around without waking her mate.

She carefully extricated herself from Amanda's sure grip and was greeted by a blast of frigid air when the blanket fell away. "Damn," she mumbled as she pulled the blanket back up around Amanda's shoulders. She made her way over to the fireplace to stoke the dying embers, grateful that at some point last night Amanda had convinced her to wear her flannel pajamas.

Before leaving for dinner she and Amanda had filled the woodbin next to the fireplace, anticipating today's heavy snowfall. Shivering at the appreciable drop in temperature, Claire suspected she'd be digging around the woodpile for more logs by that evening. After a few moments of prodding and another three logs, the fire roared back to life and the attorney could already feel the heat cutting into the chilly morning air. Heh. Not bad for a city girl. And I sure as hell didn't date any Eagle Scouts!

Satisfied with the flames, Claire headed for the bathroom.

A piercing scream brought Amanda to her feet out of a dead sleep. Confused eyes darted around wildly. She looked back to the empty bed. "Claire?" she shouted.

A few seconds later Claire emerged from the bathroom with an apologetic grin on her face. "You're awake?" she asked wryly.

Amanda rushed forward. "Are you okay!" She nervously surveyed her partner. "I heard a scream."

Satisfied that Claire wasn't bleeding to death and that all her body parts were intact, Amanda stepped past the embarrassed woman and poked her head into the bathroom. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, she turned to Claire. "Well?" she demanded. "Did you see a mouse, or something?"

"Like I'd scream over a little rodent," Claire snorted indignantly.

A pale eyebrow rose in an arch that rivaled Claire's best 'look'. The 'look' silently screamed at the older woman, who winced under its weight.

"The seat was cold," Claire mumbled under her breath.

"What? Speak up!"

Claire shifted uncomfortably. "I said..." Damn damn damn. "...the toilet seat was cold."

A pale brow joined its twin. "That's what you were screaming about? Jesus, Gumby, you scared the ever lovin' crap outta me!"

"Sorry," the taller woman offered sheepishly. "Good morning?"

"Humph." Good morning, sweetheart. Amanda smiled wickedly. "I'm gonna tell Jody and Mark."

"Nooooo," Claire whined, hoping her partner was just teasing. "You wouldn't do that, would you?" Oh, Christ! There's that eyebrow again! Is it really that annoying when I do it?

Amanda stepped forward and wrapped both arms around Claire's waist. She rested her chin on the taller woman's breastbone and gazed into pathetic eyes. A small hand dropped and goosed the lawyer, drawing a surprised squawk.

"Hey! Be nice," Claire growled.

Amanda smiled as tingles ran up and down her spine. "Ohh. I like that growl. It's..." Amanda's hand lifted from Claire's bottom and began idly tracing the buttons on the front of Claire's pajama top. "...sooo sexy." The tracing shifted and insistent fingers found their way onto warm smooth skin. "What'll you give me not to spill the beans to Mark and Jody?" Deep green eyes danced.

"Whadda ya want?" Claire asked suspiciously, unconsciously leaning towards the younger woman's seductive touch.

Amanda tilted her head down and nipped at Claire's breast through the soft cloth of her pajamas. In a blur of motion Amanda went from vertical to horizontal and was carried across the cabin.

"You drive a hard bargain," Claire chuckled as she lowered her cargo onto the warm blankets of the sleigh-shaped bed. "But I accept!"


"Maybe Mark or Jody borrowed it?"

Amanda shook her head. "No. I put it down here..." she motioned to the cluttered table top "... before we left for dinner last night. They haven't been here since yesterday afternoon."

Claire got up to help look for the cell phone. She knew Amanda wanted to call to check on Missy, and the psychologist was beginning to become upset over the apparent loss of their only connection with the outside world. After fifteen minutes of thoroughly searching every nook and cranny of the small cabin, the location of the phone was still a mystery.

"I'm going to go down to the other cabin and see if Mark or Jody know what happened to it," Claire announced.

Amanda closed her eyes and yawned. "Okay, one second and I'll go with you."

Claire gazed at her companion affectionately and ruffled Amanda's shaggy locks. "Nah, you don't need to get pelted with that snow. Why don't you snuggle back into those nice warm blankets and read that novel you've been raving about. Mark and I can play some cards, and I'll see if I can get him to send back something for a late lunch." Claire wriggled her eyebrows knowing her friend wouldn't refuse.

With Mark's culinary skills thrown into the bargain, Amanda decided it was definitely in her best interest to agree. Besides, even though it wasn't dinnertime yet, she was tired again. The blonde smirked. I wonder if this vacation is going to be more exhausting than our crazy daily routine at home?

"Okay... sounds good to me, Gumby. But let's get you bundled up. That wind sounds nasty."

Amanda pulled their coats from the hooks on the front door and helped Claire slip into her parka. The psychologist pulled the scarf from her own coat and wrapped it tightly around Claire's face, patting the attorney's shoulders when she was finished.

"Thanks, Mom," came the muffled response. Mmm. The scarf smells like your perfume. "And don't worry about the phone. We'll find it. And if we don't... we'll just go into town and call Mrs. Fisher from there."

Amanda nodded, pulling the scarf away from Claire's face to give her a gentle kiss. Settling the scarf back in place she hid behind the door when Claire opened it and stepped out into the cold. "Don't be gone too long, okay?" Amanda called out to her retreating lover.

As soon as the attorney stepped onto the porch she knew they wouldn't be heading into town today. A strong gust of wind sent her sliding across the icy wood into the waist-high railing. "Good God!" She tried to look up into the sky, but the stinging pellets forced her eyes closed. "Shit! This blizzard is hitting us full force!"

Should I just turn back around and spend the rest of the day in bed with Amanda? Yes! No! She wants to call Missy. The least I can do is try to track down that damn phone. What's a little snow between... friends? Lovers? Housemates? We're all those things. But why do the descriptions seem so... inadequate? Partners? Closer. Wives...? She let out a disgusted breath. Not in this country... at least not yet. Would Amanda even want that? I could ask her. Blue eyes rolled. Yeah, right. Would that be before or after you passed out?

Claire put a stop to her mental ramblings. The only person more annoying to talk to than the little voice in her own head, she admitted, was Jody.

Claire's relationship with Amanda's business partner was, as Amanda put it, 'curious'. Both women had privately admitted to Amanda a great affection and respect for the other. But each had sworn Amanda to secrecy, strangely enjoying the antagonistic nature of the friendship they'd reluctantly forged. Although Claire wasn't sure that Jody and Mark were perfectly suited, her best friend was undeniably in love with her. And for his sake, as well as Amanda's, she hoped the dark-haired psychologist would remain a permanent fixture in all their lives.

Fortifying her resolve to find the phone, Claire slowly made her way to the cabin down the hill. She estimated at least a foot of snow had fallen since the night before, but it was a fine, powdery snow, and her long explosive strides easily plowed through the growing white drifts. I can't even see the other cabin! Oh well, as long as I'm going down the hill I know that's the right direction.

Cory, dressed in a snowmobile suit and ski mask, stood not ten feet from Claire as she unknowingly walked past him. Her eyes were firmly focused on her feet. Amanda's woolen scarf and the hood of her parka blocked all her peripheral vision.

I'm invisible! He has made me invisible! I AM His Chosen! Cory didn't even try to stifle his demented laugh. If I can't be seen, surely I can't be heard. As he predicted, Claire kept moving, totally oblivious to the young construction worker as his voice was swept away in the howling wind.

Cory had found a snowmobile in one of the Jensen's out buildings. The nearly two-hour hike was now only a twenty minute trip. The wiry man was 'rested and ready' and eager to show Him he was a loyal servant. It was time.

This was the chance he'd been waiting for-- Claire alone. But if Claire's alone then so is Amanda. Cory took one step toward the rapidly moving attorney then stopped. Amanda first, he decided. That bitch lawyer will suffer more if I kill her lover first! As always, the thought of harming Amanda brought a flash of blinding pain.

I could give her one more chance, he told himself as he approached the cabin. She should be mine! That bitch lawyer can never even give her children. She could carry my seed. She has been led astray. His head began to pound but Cory ignored it. An eerie calm stole over the dark-eyed man as he accepted Amanda's fate and embraced his own. The pounding stopped. The relentless chanting voice stopped. And all was silent accept for the screaming wind and the creak of the porch steps as Cory made his way to his destiny.

Amanda lay on her belly, her chin propped up by her fists as she scanned the next page of her science fiction novel. Claire is so wrong! This book is fabulous!

Amanda and Claire did not share the same taste in reading material. To Amanda's surprise, Claire preferred romance novels to John Grisham or Tom Clancy. And it seemed the tall woman never tired of teasing Amanda about her near obsession with aliens and space travelers. When no amount of pleading could drag Claire or Jody to the Star Wars prequel, Amanda simply went with Mark, whose fondness of for the genre almost rivaled her own.

The cabin door opened then shut with a loud boom. "That was quick, honey. Was the wind too bad?" Amanda asked without looking up from her novel. When no answer came she sat up and peeked over the short wooden wall that partitioned the bedroom from the rest of the cabin. No one. She must have gone right into the bathroom.

Amanda looked over to the bathroom door, which was open. "Claire?" No answer. The blonde folded the corner of her page and tossed the novel onto the bed. When she stood, she saw a shadow move near the fire. "Why aren't you answering me?" she asked frustrated. "How come...? SHIT!"

Amanda's eyes widened and she began to stumble backwards. "Wh..Who are you!" Jesus Christ! Her heart was in her throat... the man looked like something out of a teenage horror movie.

Cory stood next to the fireplace in his black snowsuit, ski mask and heavy black boots. His gloves were stuffed into his pocket, and in his right hand was a long, bone-handled, hunting knife. "You can see me," the man said matter-of-factly, ignoring her question. "Have you been missing this?" He showed Amanda a small cell phone. His mouth curled into a smug, shit-eatin' grin.

Amanda recognized the voice but couldn't place it. He's got the phone... he was in here yesterday? Her eyes darted to the door and she bolted. But Cory was faster, beating her to the door, violently ripping her hand from the knob.

"YOU..." He grabbed her wrist and swung her against the door, "are NOT going ANYWHERE!" Cory hissed, spraying Amanda's cheek and neck with saliva. He leaned forward and pinned his captive to the door with his body. His face was inches from hers and he could see her heartbeat thundering in her neck. He licked his lips.

This close, she could smell him. The psychologist shivered as her body reacted to his foreign scent and her own fear. Amanda fought the immediate instinct to wipe the spittle from her cheek and looked up into coal-black, insane eyes, recognizing their owner. Oh my God. He's totally snapped. "C...Cory? Is that you?" She tried to speak calmly but was finding it almost impossible to control her breathing.

Of course it's me, he answered telepathically, convinced actual words were unnecessary.

"C..Co...Cory?" she repeated, puzzled.

Why is she ignoring me! Long seconds passed before he answered. "Yes."

Okay...okay...calm down...THINK! "Could..." Amanda swallowed and tried to ignore his foul breath. "Could you put down the knife, Cory?"

"This?" He held up the knife and reverently tilted the razor sharp blade. The steel glinted in the dull afternoon light casting exaggerated shadows on the far wall. "No, I don't think so. I'm here to do His will and I'll need this," Cory answered reasonably, his tone giving no hint of his scattered mental state.

Uh Oh. That's bad. VERY BAD! "It's okay, I understand," Amanda placated softly.

Cory furrowed his brow. She understands?

Amanda correctly recognized the young man's confusion and pressed her position. "Of course I understand. You're here to do His will, right?" She had no idea what he was talking about, but hoped her apparent acquiescence would soothe him and buy her a little time.

"That's right." She does understand! I knew it!

Cory brought the tip of the knife up to the tender skin under Amanda's chin. He pressed gently and Amanda tried desperately to stay still as she felt the fiery sting of the blade. A warm drop of blood trailed down the metal, splattering onto the wooden floor by her foot.

Amanda felt beads of sweat form on her forehead and upper lip. "Cory, could you at least take off the mask so I could see your face." She tried to swallow without moving her head or throat. "I've missed you and I'd love to see your face without the mask. Please."

Cory's eyes went round. "You... you missed me?"

Amanda was about to nod, but was reminded to stay still by the tip of the blade at her throat. "Absolutely," she lied.

Cory slowly lowered the knife and Amanda's heart rate dropped below two hundred for the first time in several excruciatingly tense moments. Part of Amanda wanted Claire to come back and help her. A bigger part of her was relieved that her lover was safe and wanted to keep it that way.

Cory took a step back and peeled off the wet mask. His face was flushed and although he appeared calm, Amanda could sense an icy rage floating barely beneath the surface.

Think... Think... "Cory um...could we sit down? You could warm yourself by the fire." Good one, Mandy! Look at him! He's already sweating like a pig! "Why don't you tell me all about Him?" C'mon Cory. "You must be very important to be entrusted with carrying out His will," she tried again.

The young man smiled. She can see I AM His Chosen! "You were just under her evil influence, weren't you? You're not really like that. I thought I took care of everything when I hurt him... but it wasn't him at all. It was always her."

"You're right." She nodded, confirming his every word. "I'm not like that at all." What are you rambling about? Him? Her? Are you talking about Claire? "Let's sit down, okay?"

Out of nervous habit Cory scrubbed his flat-top. "But you understand that I must carry out His will. I am His servant. This will only delay things." Cory's eyes conveyed true regret while his voice held only resolve.

"I understand," Amanda said as she scanned the room for a weapon. I could never get to the kitchen in time. The woodbin? Yeah, a log. That could work.

"Let's go sit on the couch." She pointed to the overstuffed sofa.

Cory stood motionless for a moment, but then nodded. "You first."

He stepped aside and Amanda walked in front of him, glad he couldn't see her eyes. She scanned the stack of logs for something she could easily grip. Her neck burned and she could feel a hot trail of blood snake its way between her breasts. God, how bad did he cut me? Despite the blood, Amanda firmly believed it was just a nick. It won't matter if I can't figure a way out of this. I have a feeling I'm not going to like "His" plans for me.

As Amanda passed the woodbin, her hand shot down and she grabbed a log about 3 inches in diameter. Without looking, she turned and swung as hard as she could, connecting with Cory's shoulder and cracking the brittle piece of wood, sending splinters flying in all directions. The man screamed and dropped the knife as he clutched his shoulder. Amanda could tell the blow wasn't hard enough to do serious damage and she raised what was left of the log to strike again, only to be brutally tackled.

Amanda's back slammed hard against the wooden floor, knocking the wind out of her. Cory sat up and viciously backhanded her jaw. "BITCH! You said you understood! Lying bitch!" He struck her again. "I CANNOT BE DECEIVED!" Cory ranted.

Amanda tasted the metallic tang of blood in the back of her throat, her ears were ringing and she could see only tiny pinpoints of light. Cory straddled her, his dark eyes scanning the floor as the therapist gasped for breath and tried to focus her vision. The knife. Shit! Where is it?

Cory leaned over and reached for the weapon; the tips of his fingers could barely touch the cool bone handle. But before he had a firm grasp, Amanda brought her knee up... hard. Cory lurched forward and Amanda heard the knife slide away. With a quick roll, she was now on top, a drop of blood slid down her chin, landing directly in Cory's eye. He blinked and Amanda wrenched her arm free from his tight, sweaty grasp. Not bothering to try a punch, she slammed her elbow down on the bridge of his nose, using her bodyweight to add to the blow's force. She was immediately rewarded with a piteous scream and a satisfying crunch as the cartilage twisted and snapped. Blood sprayed out of the misshapen nose, covering the front of Amanda's pale blue sweatshirt as Cory tried to sit up.

Both of Cory's hands instinctively flew to his face, allowing Amanda to scramble away from the writhing, crying man. She stood on wobbly feet, and the room started to spin. Christ. No! I can't be dizzy! I've got to get out. She staggered to the door throwing it open. A gust of icy air blew back her short hair sending stinging flakes of snow swirling through the doorway, the flakes clinging to her bloodied chin. She took a step forward and fuzzily realized she was about to walk into a blizzard with no shoes or coat, dressed only in sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Cory was on his knees now, hurling profanities in her direction and she only had a second to decide whether to turn and face the lunatic or try to make it to the other cabin.

Amanda stepped into her boots, which were sitting next to the door. There was no time to tie or lace them as she ran outside and into the snow, trying not to fall on icy porch steps. God, where's the other cabin? It was a complete 'white out' but she pushed forward, the heady rush of adrenaline making the temperature, at least for the moment, irrelevant. Is he behind me? She didn't bother to look.

The snow was deep and with every step more of it poured into Amanda's unlaced boots, making her feet ache and burn. When she pushed hard through a particularly deep drift, she fell, her palms stinging as they scraped against the icy ground. But she scrambled forward, noticing the terrain was leveling out. Where is it? It has to be here! She spun around looking in all directions. Another two steps and she could make out the faint outline of the cabin that was only ten or fifteen feet in front of her. Her eyes were slits and she cupped her hands around her face to block the wind.

With all the speed she could muster Amanda circled the cabin and climbed the steps. Her chest was aching, making each deep breath nearly excruciating. She reached for the doorknob with a shaky hand... but stopped. No. I won't.

During her hundred-yard dash, Amanda hadn't turned around once to see whether Cory was following her. I can't open the door if he's right behind me with that knife. Almost hesitantly she turned her head but saw nothing but sheets of white. Relief flooded through her as she turned the knob. Thank God!


"Aww...C'mon, Marko, you know she can eat more than that!" Claire protested and held out the half-full container.

Mark added another two ladles of steaming vegetable beef soup and Claire nodded, satisfied with the portion size. "Thanks." Man, I wish Amanda or I could cook like this. Jody, you are such a lucky dog!

The cabin door opened and three sets of surprised eyes turned. They had all assumed Amanda was snuggled down for a long winter's nap.

When the blonde stumbled in, it was Jody who made it to her side first. "Where's your coat? Are you insane!" Is that blood? "Blood?"

"Sh...Shu...Shut the...d..door," Amanda stammered, her numb fingers fumbling helplessly at the thin chain lock even before the door was closed.

Claire kicked the door shut and immediately wrapped her arms around the smaller women without getting a good look at her face. "Shit! You're freezing!"

Amanda frantically shook her head. "Nooo..." She stopped and swallowed, her body greedily absorbing the radiant heat pouring from her lover. "I'm okay, lo..lock it...quick!"

Jody did as Amanda asked and Claire reluctantly pulled out of the embrace to look at her shaking friend. "Mandy, you're bleeding! What happened!"

"I'm alright, it's just a scratch. The bleeding has stopped." Amanda had hastily wiped her chin as she ran into the cabin.

Claire cupped Amanda's cheek and noticed the bruise that was already forming along her jawline. "But the blood..."

Seeing her friend's worry she gently squeezed the attorney's hand. Shifting forward she hugged the woman again and whispered in her ear. "I'm not badly hurt, Gumby, I promise. Most of the blood's not mine."

"What the hell happened?" Jody yelled impatiently. "You're cut? And why are you out in a blizzard with no coat or gloves or hat?" Honey-colored eyes observed Amanda's feet. "Jesus, Amanda, take off those boots, they're full of snow!"

Amanda looked down as if she had forgotten all about her feet. But Jody's words seem to bring back the harsh pain. She bent over but was stopped by Claire, who knelt in front of her and gently removed the boots while brushing the snow off the cuffs of her sweatpants.

"Cory showed up just a few minutes after Claire left."

Jody's eyes widened. "Cory Martin? Oh, fuck!" I should have known there was more to him than Amanda was saying. Shit!

Amanda knew what her friend was thinking and grimaced. "He's totally delusional. I don't know how he found me... but he said he was here to do "His" will and he had a knife."

"Would you two explain this to the rest of us?" Mark finally asked, partially confused but completely freaked out.

Claire was listening intently while examining the small gash under Amanda's chin. It doesn't look like it needs stitches... I don't think... Ugh! Like I would know. "Is that the patient who bruised your arms a couple of weeks ago?"

Amanda nodded.

"The one you said was a harmless boy?" Claire continued. Her voice had an icy edge and Amanda caught a glimpse of something dark within her partner that she'd only seen once before.

"That's him, that little shit! He must have totally lost it." Jody answered for Amanda.

"Did she stab him?" Mark wondered aloud as he stared at the speckles
of blood that covered Amanda's shirt. It would be self-defense. I could talk to the local County Attorney.

Amanda shook her head 'no' and her eyes began to fill with tears. The gravity of her miscalculation concerning Cory was starting to sink in. "No..." A sniff. "We fought and he hit me... a couple of times... but I managed to get on top of him... and... I... I think I broke his nose." Tears were now streaming down her cheeks and Claire pulled her lover into a careful hug.

"Good girl," the attorney praised, continuously stroking Amanda's wet hair.

"I was able to get away and I just ran here." Glassy emerald eyes looked to the door. He could have followed me. What was I thinking? Jody's pregnant and Mark's hurt. "I don't know if he followed me."

"Let's get our coats," Mark interjected. "I'm taking you..." he tilted his head toward Amanda " the hospital and we need to contact the police. The Pathfinder has 4-wheel drive, so we should be able to make it even in this weather. I'll walk in front of the damn car if I have to and you can follow me."

"That's a good idea, Marko. You and Jody take Amanda to get checked out. I'm going back to the other cabin."

"Why?" Amanda demanded, knowing full well Claire's temper had silently snapped and she wasn't thinking clearly.

"Because I want to see whether Cory is still there! We can't just let him get away."

Jody rolled her eyes. "Jane Bond is back," she mumbled, earning a dirty look from Claire.

The tall attorney reached for her coat but Amanda grabbed her hand. "He's got a foot-long hunting knife! Are you trying to get yourself killed?"

"That's good! It'll bolster my self-defense claim when I rip his fucking head from his body!" Claire seethed as she reached for her coat again.

"NO!" Amanda's grip held firm.


"Claire's right, Amanda. We should try to catch him before he disappears," Jody called over from her suitcase, having slipped away during Claire and Amanda's standoff. We just need to be smart about it.

"Jody, we are not..." Mark started, then stopped when he saw what Jody was holding. His eyes widened and his jaw went slack.

The stocky brunette approached Claire holding two handguns and a handful of bullets. "Do you know how to use one of these?"

Claire shook her head and shrugged. "Point and pull the trigger?"

"Basically, just make sure the safety is off first," Jody sniggered and handed Claire the .22 caliber handgun, keeping the larger .45 caliber for herself. "Hold this one and I'll load them both."

"Where in the hell did you get those?" Mark yelled. "And don't even think I'm letting you anywhere near some crazy man with a knife."

Jody's eyes flashed. "You don't LET me do anything." She began loading the .45. "And I've always had these. I never travel without them unless I'm flying." She shrugged one shoulder and expertly loaded the long clip. "I'm from Utah, remember? We only have two noteworthy things in Utah... Donny and Marie... and guns... lots of guns." She quickly handed Claire the .45 and took back the smaller pistol. "I never really cared much for the Osmonds."

Is everyone going crazy! Amanda held up her hands. "Stop! No one is going to shoot anyone! Mark's right. We need to get the police," she pleaded. Her voice sounded desperate and green eyes bored into Jody's brown. The best friends didn't speak but each knew what the other was thinking.

Jody gave in first and swallowed her own anger. She nodded, but finished loading the .22 anyway. Better safe than sorry. "Okay, Amanda. I'll go warm up the car."

Claire was about to protest when Amanda covered the attorney's mouth with her hand. "I'm not going anywhere without you. So if you really want me to go into town, you're going to have to come along too."

Claire narrowed her eyes, furious over what she considered a blatant manipulation of her emotions. After a moment of indecision she sighed. "That's really shitty, Mandy," she said softly, and Amanda knew she had won.

Jody and Mark moved away to slip on their coats and Amanda lifted Claire's hand, gently kissing the soft palm. "I know it is, Gumby. But when it comes to your safety... I don't fight fair. I won't be without you... ever..." she fiercely added.

Mark pushed passed the two women and silently slipped out the front door. Claire looked to Jody who shrugged. "He's going to warm up the car."

"Played the pregnancy card, did he?" Amanda asked.

Jody let out an explosive, frustrated breath. "Hell, yes!"

"Good," Claire snorted. "I would have done the same thing."

Jody opened her mouth and shot off an angry retort. Soon both women were arguing bitterly and Amanda was beginning to wonder if she'd have to physically separate them. But before things turned uglier, the cabin door swung open. Jody immediately lifted the .45 and pointed at the door, having convinced Mark to take the other weapon with him.

"It's just me!" Mark said when he saw the gun trained steadily at his chest. God. I hate guns! We are gonna have a long talk about those. "We're not going anywhere. Every tire has been slashed, including the spare."

Claire's hands shaped into angry fists. "Dammit! That settles it! I'll just have to find him myself." She tried, but couldn't manage to feel too sorry about it.

"Not without me!" Amanda challenged. The snowmobiles! "Wait! Iris has two snowmobiles in the shed out back."

Mark instantly warmed to the idea. "We could use the gas we brought for the emergency generator."

Claire shook her head and looked out the window. "Not today or tonight though. We'll have to wait until the blizzard passes if we're gonna make that long of a ride. It's almost twenty miles into town."

"It should clear up by morning," Jody added. "If only we could find the phone!"

Amanda checked the lock again and spoke with her back toward her friends. "He has it."

Everyone's eyes widened.

"I know. That's means he was in our cabin yesterday. He must have followed us up here and then waited until we left for dinner. I don't know how else he could have found this place." Amanda shivered and Claire nudged her toward the wood stove.

"C'mon Mandy, let's get your feet warmed up." Claire settled down onto the loveseat with her partner. "Jody, do you have some sort of shirt Amanda could borrow?"

Jody didn't answer verbally but headed over to her suitcase. She pulled out a navy sweatshirt and washcloth. Mark took the tea kettle off the stovetop and poured some steaming water into a bowl, which he handed to Claire. The big man turned his back while Amanda stripped off the bloodied sweatshirt and tossed it into the fire. Amanda covered her chest with Jody's sweatshirt, not wanting to put it on until she was clean.

Claire dipped the rag into the warm water and began to wipe off Amanda's chin and neck. He could have killed her. He almost did. The older woman forced her eyes to remain on her task, knowing if she met Amanda's she wouldn't be able to contain her rage.

Everyone's attention was riveted on the smaller woman and Amanda rolled her eyes. "For God's sake... I'm fine. It's just a nick and a bruised jaw."

Everyone grumbled their agreement after checking out her injuries for themselves. Tears filled Amanda's eyes again when she saw the concerned worry reflected in her friends' eyes. I am so lucky to have all of you, she thought as Claire delicately kissed her bruised jaw then began massaging her cold feet. Mmm... Especially, you, Gumby.

"I found a first aid kit under the sink this morning. I'll look for a bandage." Mark politely left the living room so Amanda could finish dressing.

"Do you want some ice for your jaw?" Claire asked, deciding the injured body part needed another thorough inspection.

"It's just a bruise," Amanda said more crossly than she'd intended. She winced at the hurt look that flashed across the beautiful features. The younger woman mentally kicked herself. She needs to do something. "But some ice would probably make it feel a little better, thanks."

Claire managed a half smile, glad to be of some help, and already cursing herself for leaving Amanda alone in the cabin. "Okay, I'm going to bring in some more firewood and get the ice."

"You won't go to the other cabin, will you?" Seeing Claire's hesitation Amanda changed tactics. This wasn't the time to try to match wills with her stubborn lover. "Swear to me you won't go to the cabin, Claire. Please." Amanda's voice quivered and Claire saw traces of the terror she'd seen earlier that day. The entreaty was one the older woman couldn't deny. She wouldn't be the cause of Amanda's fear or pain.

Claire dropped her head. Damn, I'm scaring her! Guilt mixed with anger and Claire was hard pressed to keep a lid on her churning emotions. "I swear." You bastard, Cory. You'd better hope I don't get to you before the police.

After a few moments of threats, pleas, and assurances Claire convinced everyone that she didn't need an armed escort to the wood stack. On her way out the door, Jody pulled her aside and she felt the cool metal of the .22 pressed into her hand.

"It's got six shots and the safety is already off. If you have to use it aim for the middle of the body. Don't worry about recoil. There won't be any to speak of. And Claire... if you start shooting it... empty it." Steady honey-eyes held blue for a long moment, silently conveying that while Claire was out of the house Jody would look after Amanda. I knew I liked you for a reason, Jody. The prosecutor grunted her acknowledgement and made her way out into the cold.

Claire stuffed the gun into her parka pocket and began moving toward the woodpile. Along the east wall, logs were piled in criss-cross stacks about four feet high and Claire began the welcome task of bringing logs to the front porch.

Thank God I got out of there. She sighed and allowed herself to silently seethe. Her eyes drifted up the hill in the direction of the smaller cabin, but the blowing snow prevented her from seeing more than a few feet in front of her. No, I promised. I won't break my promise. I wonder if you're sitting there waiting for her? The gray afternoon sky had turned black and the blizzard raged on. I wonder if you're afraid to come out into the dark?

A small, aggressive part of Claire's brain wished Cory would just show up, and save the police the trouble of a manhunt. As it turned out, she got her wish.

Claire bent down to take another log into her arms when she heard a soft, nasal voice behind her. "Hello, you perverted demon from hell."

Claire turned and reached for the gun only to have it knocked from her hand. Next, something solid hit her temple but the blow was muffled by the howling wind. Cory stood momentarily confused, he had hit her as hard as he could and she was still on her feet. But she's a woman!

Claire consciously released the fury that had been building since she saw the first drop of blood on Amanda's chin. She lunged toward the dark figure, causing both of them to fall into the snow. As she fell a burning pain tore through her shoulder. "DAMN!" she screamed and twisted mid-air. The slender man fell on her but she easily threw off his weight and sent him sprawling into the snow with asolid, crushing punch.

"Why aren't you dead?" he howled, reeling from the staggering blow.

Claire looked down, and between her shoulder and breast, a knife handle protruded from her light colored parka, which was turning colored. He stabbed me? That's what the pain in my shoulder is?

Claire grabbed the bone handle and with a forceful yank ripped the blade from her body. A streak of fire followed the blade and she shook at the sickening sensation. She felt a flood of warm wetness trail down her chest and pool at the waistband of her jeans. "I'm not dead... because it would take more than a little piss ant like you to kill me. You, on the other hand, are very, very dead."

Cory swallowed and was hit with the startling realization that he had bitten off much more than he could chew. But that doesn't matter, He will protect His Chosen!

The man scrambled to his feet and began backing away from Claire. The lawyer took a step forward and pushed down a wave of nausea. "Shit," she cursed as she leaned against the wall of the cabin for support.

The man started laughing and took several more steps backwards, disappearing into the darkness.

"No you don't!" Claire bellowed. She looked down wondering whether she should take time to find the gun. No. No time for that now. She stuffed the knife in her parka pocket and took off in the direction Cory had disappeared; carefully following his tracks in what was otherwise pristine snow.

Amanda's head turned toward the east wall. "Did you hear something?"

"You mean something besides Claire banging those damn logs against the side of the cabin?" Jody answered testily.

"I'm going to check on her," Amanda announced, ignoring Jody.

"She's only been gone for thirty seconds!"

Amanda tilted her head and lifted an eyebrow.

"Huh, I wonder where you picked up that particular 'look'," Jody mused sarcastically. "Wait... Don't get up." Shit, woman! Why are you so headstrong? "I'll go."

"You can both stop arguing," Mark said as he draped his jacket over his cast. "I'm already gone." And the door shut loudly behind him.

Both Jody and Amanda exchanged annoyed shrugs and flopped back on the couch, eagerly awaiting the return of their loved ones. When another minute passed and there was no sign of Mark or Claire both women rose and began lacing their boots.

"It's me," the handsome man called out as he entered the cabin, not wanting to be shot by his lover.

Jody sighed with relief and Amanda looked past Mark expecting to see Claire. When Mark turned to shut the door behind him, he let out a long, deep sigh, and turned around very slowly. Even in the candle and lamplight, Jody and Amanda could tell his face was ashen.

Amanda rushed forward, swallowing the lump that had suddenly formed in her throat. She's okay, she's okay, she's okay. She has to be. "Where's Claire?"

Mark held out the .22 and Jody closed her eyes, knowing Claire wouldn't have given up the weapon without a fight.

"She's gone, and I found this in the snow by the wood pile."

"Do you think it was Cory," Amanda whispered, as if saying the words too loudly could somehow make it true.

Mark nodded and decided Amanda didn't need to hear about the crimson stained snow.

This time there was no argument from anyone while they all prepared to go out and look for Claire, in the dark, in the middle of a blizzard.


Claire tipped her head toward the heavens and screamed into the unforgiving night. "WHERE ARE YOU, YOU LITTLE BASTARD?!" With great effort, she could barely make out what she thought were deep boot prints in the snow. And so, relentlessly, she pressed forward. When I find you you're gonna wish you'd let the blizzard take you.

The feeling of pure hatred coursing through her veins caused her to stop dead in her tracks. It fit her like a glove and she realized this... rage... made everything else pale in comparison. Tonight she was eager to commit cold-blooded murder and rather than running from it, she embraced it. Claire began trudging through the snow again.

The strangest thing about this 'foreign' sensation, she mused, was that it didn't feel foreign at all. It felt familiar in a way that was comforting and terrifying at the same time. The rational part of her mind told her it wasn't right for her to play judge, jury and executioner. That if she didn't watch out, the blizzard would finish what Cory had started. But the tall woman simply told the annoying voice to "shut the fuck up".

Finally, the blowing snow caused the tracks both in front of, and behind her, to completely disappear. The weather, she admitted, was as much her enemy as Cory Martin. The attorney squinted as the bitter snow pelted her face. These weren't the soft heavy snowflakes of Courier & Ives fame. These were tiny insidious pellets that felt more like sand than snow. Everywhere they touched stung and itched.

Claire shivered and reached to tug her hood tighter around her cheeks. The adrenaline rush she'd first experienced upon bursting out of the cabin had long since worn off. Experimentally, she rolled her injured shoulder and winced as lancing pain shot down her left side. The pain left her nauseous and unsteady.

For the first hour or so, Claire's shoulder and chest felt warm because of the steady flow of hot blood heating her skin. Now they just felt sticky and stiff and Claire realized that the blood flow must have stopped. Her arms and legs burned with a tingling sensation that felt like fire. Claire wiggled her toes, and to her surprise, found her insulated boots had mostly spared her feet the misery the rest of her body was experiencing.

Where are you, Cory? Her mind hissed as she leaned against a tree and tucked her face up to the rough bark to escape the harsh wind. With supreme aggravation, she closed her eyes, which felt dry and gritty. Her head was pounding and her frustration over having failed to find Cory was mounting.

She opened her eyes again to look around. Where am I? She still couldn't see beyond a few trees on all sides of her. Maybe chasing a collapsing trail for hours in a blizzard wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done. Remember how Jack Nicholson ended up at the end of "The Shining"?

Awkwardly, Claire tugged back her glove with fingers that were starting to feel numb and clumsy. She tilted her frosted-over watch face, wishing she had one of those lurid glow-in-the-dark watches she'd seen Mark's oldest son Keith wearing. With another tilt, she tried to focus on the tiny hands. Shit. Too dark. Angrily, she pulled her glove back down. Okay, my guess is I've been traveling for three hours or so. At the snail's pace I've been keeping I probably haven't gone more than a few of miles.

CORY!! I'm not going to find you tonight, but I will find you.

Not sure which route to take, Claire simply turned around and headed in the opposite direction. After a few more minutes she noticed she didn't feel as cold. Is it getting warmer? She stopped and forced herself to focus on the environment around her. The wind was still furiously howling, drowning out all other sounds. The snow was swirling and blowing and creating tiny white tornadoes. No. I don't think it's getting any warmer. I think I'm just starting to go numb. That is not a good sign. I need to keep moving... and get some blood flowing.

No matter how far Claire walked, the scenery never seemed to change... white... snowy... trees... fallen branches... it all looked the same. After minutes that felt like hours and hours that felt like years, her pace began to slow, and her steps became erratic. It feels like I'm walking through mud, not snow. My arms and legs feel so sluggish. Another step and she tripped over an exposed root. Her body fell heavily into a deep blanket of snow, her arm shooting out a second too late to break her fall. Ouch!! Why is it the only thing that's not numb is my shoulder. Foggily, she acknowledged that she didn't really feel cold anymore and that she was glad that annoying shivering had completely stopped. She relaxed into the snow, not caring that she was lying face down. Her warm breath melted the flakes pressed up against her lips and created a tiny hole in the snow bank. Yeah, I feel much better right here.

I feel so tired, like I've been walking forever. I should rest here and wait for the storm to pass. Just for a few minutes... if I close my eyes... Claire pushed open the drooping lids... I won't wake up. She thought about that for a second and mentally shrugged. Would that be so bad? I could just go to sleep. I'm so tired. This time Claire allowed her eyes to close and a dark peace stole over her.

I wonder what Mandy's doing right now. She's so sweet. Claire's mind began to drift and she found herself without the ability to stop or guide it. Her hands are so soft.

Time marched forward as she thought of Missy and all the toys she'd stockpiled for Christmas and how this would be their first Christmas together as a family. Mandy's gonna love the new paintbrushes I bought her. Hmm... I'll bet she's worried about me. She worries too much. Claire tried to frown but her face wouldn't obey her brain's command. I love her so much. I don't want her to worry. I think I need to try to get up now.

But despite her best intentions, precious moments continued to pass. Finally, with an effort all out of proportion to the task, Claire turned her head to the side and pushed open glazed blue eyes. Rolling her eyes upward, she blinked away some snowflakes and looked up at a million brilliant stars. It's stopped snowing, she marveled. And the moon is out. It's so peaceful now and quiet. It's beautiful. Her attention drifted downward. The snow is black here. I wonder why?

Her arms and legs felt as though heavy weights fastened them ground. After several failed attempts she finally made it to her knees where she laughed weakly, knowing all the while this wasn't funny. Ahh... Damn. I may just die here. I... I don't think I can get up. But before she could make her another attempt a dark body crashed into her. "Cory!" she moaned.

With strength Claire didn't possess a moment before, she rolled her attacker over and managed a flailing strike to the face. She felt a sickening rip tear run through her injured shoulder as she slammed down her fist. "FUCK!" she screamed for the second time that night. The sheer momentum of the wild strike caused Claire to fall forward, covering her assailant.

Once again, there was dead silence.

"C.. C.. Claire is that you?" The body underneath Claire squirmed and groaned. "God, I'm sorry I thought you were Cory. Jesus, did you have to hit me with a log?" Jody wiggled her jaw, hoping it wasn't fractured. "Claire?" No answer.

Jody held her breath and with a single effort heaved Claire from her and onto the snow. She exhaled loudly sending a stream of puffy white steam out of her nose and mouth. Her tongue snaked out and recognized the sharp taste of blood on her lip.

The lawyer still wasn't moving.

"Claire, what's wrong with you? I didn't even hit you!" Jody grabbed the attorney by the front of her coat and leaned forward to get a better look at her face. Her hands slipped off the fabric. "What the... Oh, shit!" A thick glistening substance coated both her gloves. Her eyes widened. Blood? In the starlight, the rich liquid looked like black syrup. Why would she be bleeding? "Where did all this blood come from?" she asked worriedly.

Jody bent down and looked into glassy eyes that were still slightly cracked open. Claire's skin had a greyish-blue tinge that Jody prayed was more the result of the moonlight than hypothermia. Her worry increased tenfold when she considered how badly Claire must be wounded to have produced that quantity of blood.

The taller woman stirred and attempted to speak. Claire blinked her eyes with exaggerated slowness and her first words were a cross between moans and whispers. "Jodeee?" Claire looked confused. "Yurr nah Coree," she slurred.

Jesus Christ, I can't believe she's still alive after being out here all night. Jody, Mark, and Amanda had all been forced inside when the blizzard worsened around mid-night. Although, Jody admitted, she literally had to hold Amanda down to talk some sense into her. The younger woman had repeatedly refused to stop looking despite the deadly conditions. "No. I'm not Cory. Claire, we need to get you inside."

"No... Don... Don't wanna mooov. Trrrred."

"I know you don't. But you don't have a choice." Jody smirked but the normal mirth that accompanied the action didn't reach her eyes. "I'm not in the mood to open a hundred-and-twenty pound can of blonde whoop-ass. So let's go." Jody looked around. Where are you Mark?

"Mandy." Claire closed her eyes, a faint smile tugging at her lips. Then her face relaxed and went slack. The hands that had been resting across her abdomen fell off into the snow.

"Great! Shitshitshitshitshitshit!" Jody mouthed. "Wake up!" The psychologist smacked blood smeared cheeks. There was no response. I wonder if she knows she got blood all over her. "You'd better wake up, Claire. Because no how... no way in hell... I'm telling Amanda you didn't make it." Jody laid her cheek against Claire's mouth. She could still feel the faintest hint of breath. Yes. She's still alive. Her own heart resumed beating.

"I can see you're not gonna help me at all. Goddamn lazy lawyers." But dammit if you didn't almost make it on your own. Jody looked off in the distance to the cabin she could see through the brutal winter landscape. The lamps and candles tinged the windows a peaceful golden color completely at odds with the horrid night they'd all endured. Another hundred yards and you would have made it all the way home. Okay, this is where I start regretting the fact that I let my gym membership lapse last Labor Day.

Jody walked around behind Claire and slid her arms around her chest. She pulled Claire back a few inches until the lawyer's legs were straight out in front of her. Then she pushed forward, locking the taller woman's legs. Another few grunts and Jody had Claire standing. With an expert twist, the therapist was now in front of Claire. She leaned forward and allowed Claire's body to naturally drape over her back. Grabbing Claire's arms, Jody bent slightly at the knees and adjusted the position of her cargo. I knew that six years as a combat medic in the National Guard would pay off someday. Humph. After all that training, Amanda never could master this carry. God Almighty, Claire! How can someone who looks so slim be so heavy?

Hypothermia, hypothermia, how do you treat that? Jody began racking her brain. I was in the Gulf War for Christ' sake, IN THE DESERT!!!

Jody's lungs were burning and her legs felt wobbly by the time she reached the porch. She had run out of curse words fifty yards ago. "Ugh!" I don't know if I can make it up the stairs. Golden-brown eyes flickered up in surprise when she heard the cabin door open. Thank God we ended up back at the smaller cabin. I couldn't have made it down the hill.

A pale head poked its way around the corner. "Is that you, Claire?"


"No!" Amanda shook her head frantically. "Stay with me! You can sleep later." Dazed blue eyes fluttered open. "That's it. Stay awake." Amanda hugged Claire tightly but the eyes drooped shut again. "Dammit!"

Claire teetered on the edge of consciousness as Jody, Mark and Amanda all worked to warm her up and stop the crimson tide flowing from her shoulder.

They'd stripped the brunette of her bloodied, icy clothes, and she now sat propped up between Amanda's legs on the rug in front of the massive hearth. The therapist's strong hold was the only thing keeping Claire from tipping over. Both women were clad only in their panties and Amanda was pressed tightly against Claire's back trying to share as much body heat as possible. Any thoughts of modesty had long since been forgotten. Jody peeled away one of the blankets that wrapped the women together and replaced it with one that had been warming next to the fire.

They had managed to stop the bleeding but couldn't seem to rouse Claire to full consciousness. For hours they'd been trying to force hot, sweet liquids down the attorney's throat but each time Claire would choke, losing more than she was ingesting.

Amanda held on for dear life. Oh God. She's lost too much blood. Too much blood. She's so cold and pale. Nothing is working! Desperate eyes turned to Jody and Mark. "Go! Take the snowmobiles and go for help. She's... she's not... Just go!"

Jody looked at Mark, knowing Claire probably wouldn't survive either way. Her eyes flickered to the window. The brilliant morning sun sparkled off ice crystals creating clusters of diamonds that reflected throughout the room. She turned back to Amanda and spoke softly, not wanting to worsen her friend's pain. Amanda was coming unglued. "Amanda we can't leave you. Cory is still out there and..."

"Jody, please," Amanda begged. "She can't die. She just can't!" Amanda's chest constricted painfully. "If she dies... I... I." She stopped, not having the words to continue.

Mark dropped his head. "I'll go."

"You can't drive with one arm," Jody instantly protested.

"Stop arguing! There's no time for this. You both go! Jody can drive and Mark can ride behind. You shouldn't go alone. Just leave a gun." Deep green eyes glinted with undisguised fury. "Anything that comes through that door without an invitation dies." It was one thing to attack her, but quite another to go after Claire.

Amanda was an expert marksman and Jody knew it. If she'd had any doubts about Amanda's willingness to pull the trigger, they were swept away by the sight of the smaller woman wrapped around Claire, whispering broken apologies for underestimating Cory's obsession. If Cory tried to enter the cabin, Jody knew that Amanda would shoot him where he stood. Looking at the distraught woman, Jody considered that Amanda might very well welcome the opportunity. The older psychologist chewed the inside of her cheek, clearly torn.

Sensing Jody's hesitation, Amanda pleaded with Mark. "Claire's dying, Mark," she choked out. "She's lost too much blood. GO NOW!"

Mark ran a nervous hand through his shoulder length hair. Claire, I know you wouldn't want me to leave her! But you can't expect me to stay here and watch you die. That's too much to ask... even from your best friend. I've got to try. "Okay, Amanda." God help me if anything happens to either one of you while I'm gone. Mark reached out for Jody's hand and they both moved toward the door.

When the couple was fully dressed they stepped back over to Amanda, who was softly whispering in Claire's ear and seemed oblivious to their presence. Jody bent down and laid a gun next to her friend. She didn't need to tell her it was loaded. The brunette exchanged a worried glance with Mark. "We're leaving now, Amanda."

The blonde just nodded and wiped her tear stained cheeks. "Hurry but for God's sake be careful." I can't deal with anymore right now.

Mark nodded and gripped her muscular shoulder with a meaty hand. "We will," he promised gently. His hand drifted to Claire's head and Claire murmured something unintelligible. "Remember, what you said to me?" the big man asked his best friend. "Nobody's stupid enough to go and get themselves killed right before Christmas, right?" his voice trailed off at the end as his throat closed.

Amanda's grip on her partner tightened in response to Mark's words. She wasn't about to let go. The younger women buried her face in Claire's hair as her body shook with silent, heart-wrenching sobs.

Jody's own eyes filled with tears. Okay, enough of this. She began tugging Mark to the door while still facing Amanda. "You lock this when we leave. Amanda?" She stopped until she was sure she had Amanda's attention. "As soon as I'm out the door, you lock it."

Jody's voice seemed to snap Amanda out of her grief. The blonde eased Claire onto her back and wrapped an extra blanket around herself as she walked to the door. On tipped-toes she gave Mark a kiss on the cheek. She repeated the process with Jody, adding a solid hug. As soon as the door closed, Amanda clicked the chain lock into place. She shook her head, noting she didn't hear Mark and Jody's departing footsteps until after she had the lock firmly in place.

Amanda let her blanket drop and leaned back against the cool wooden door, closing her eyes. Her muscles ached from sitting in the same position for hours and supporting most of Claire's body weight. She can't die! Now that I know what life's like with her... I don't think I can live without her. Her stomach cramped painfully and Amanda ran to bathroom where she fell to her knees and promptly retched away the meager contents of her stomach.

Staggering to her feet, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and leaned heavily against the small sink, her white knuckles standing out in stark relief against the stainless steel. There's nothing more I can do. She needs blood and IV fluids! she thought angrily. There must be more! Concentrate... Focus... I... I can't lose it now...

Amanda started to panic as an overwhelming sense of helpless washed over her. Hot tears fell into the shiny metal sink, making small plinking noises in the otherwise silent cabin. Enough... Concentrate... She's still alive. She still needs me. Amanda looked up into the small mirror above the sink. "I will not let her go!" she growled to herself.

She quickly brushed her teeth and washed her face, feeling a renewed sense of purpose.

Without further hesitation, Amanda moved to the fireplace and added 2 more large logs. The fire had been raging all night long and the cabin had gone from cool to comfortable to downright hot as the sun rose and with it the outside temperature. Amanda could feel a thin film of perspiration coating her skin but Claire still felt cool to the touch so she climbed back under the blankets with the attorney and carefully examined her shoulder. Only a few more inches and he would have stabbed you right in the heart... my heart.

The wound was only about 2 inches across but very deep. She shuddered, thinking of the long knife covered in her lover's blood that she'd extracted from Claire's pocket. Good. No signs of infection... at least not yet. Amanda deftly reapplied the bandage, smoothing over the tape and hastily fashioned ties. I wonder if she'll still be able to play the piano? That doesn't matter... as long as she's okay. If she's not... I don't want to think about that. I can't think about that.

The tired therapist closed her eyes and curled around her partner in a position nearly identical to the one they slept in almost every night. Her eyelids felt heavy and she swallowed down the bitter taste of bile as her stomach fought to rebel once again. She hadn't slept the night before and had spent hour after hour in the blizzard searching for Claire before Jody and Mark had dragged her inside the cabin to wait out the worst part of the storm. Her jaw ached and hours of emotional strain and worry had taken their toll. She was exhausted.

When Jody had first brought Claire inside the cabin her breathing was shallow and weak and she was cold as ice. Amanda had nearly dropped dead on the spot when they'd peeled away her mate's bloodied coat, revealing a bruised and even bloodier body. But Amanda's medical training had taken over and she'd pushed through those first panic filled moments only to have to endure what seemed like endless hours of helplessness and frustration.

Amanda smoothed back a stray lock of midnight hair and kissed her lover's temple. "You're gonna be fine, Gumby." Claire leaned into the touch and whispered something Amanda couldn't understand.

Taking advantage of the taller woman's lapse into semi-consciousness, Amanda managed to get Claire to drink a small amount of hot sweetened tea. "Good job, sweetheart." She stroked the soft skin around Claire's eyes in a soothing motion she knew Claire enjoyed and her own eyes closed. Soon, the women were kissing and tickling each other with wild abandon...

...even if is was only in Amanda's dreams.



The unexpected blizzard had delayed Monica's trip north yet again, and the slender blonde was livid. But finally, she was almost there. She closed her eyes, as the constant craving, which never slept for long, awoke with a vengeance. At the moment, she truly couldn't decide which rated a lower level of hell, being an addict or being a 'recovering' addict.

Long slim fingers tightly gripped the steering wheel. All I want to do is collect my daughter and get the hell out of this frozen wasteland! Amanda is not just going to roll over and give Missy to you, her mind countered. Monica's eyes drifted to the envelope on the seat next to her and a cruel smile twisted otherwise delicate features. Oh yes, she is.

Monica suddenly slammed on the brakes, causing her 1976 Pontiac Catalina to swerve, nearly sending the steel behemoth into the ditch. She angrily leaned on the horn and cursed the snowmobilers parked in the middle of the lonely road. When she pulled around the couple she punched her accelerator... hard... using all 8 cylinders to spray snow in every direction. "Assholes, " she yelled as she glanced into her rearview mirror.

"I can't believe they did that!" Jody screamed. "We were parked in the middle of the road for a reason! They didn't even slow down and WE NEED HELP! "

Mark just shook his head, hazel eyes blazing. I'd love to catch up with that dumb bitch... whoever she was. "Come on let's keep going. We're half way there anyway."

Jody and Mark had been traveling for over three hours and had only gone about 10 miles. Every few moments the snowmobile would mysteriously lose power and sputter to a stop. Luckily, they had managed to restart it, but they were both worried that their luck wouldn't hold out. Jody privately speculated that Cory had done something to the engine.

Mark pulled his shiny black helmet down and tightly grabbed hold of Jody's waist, only to instantly release his grip. The psychologist patted his arm reassuringly. "Don't worry, Marko. That wasn't too tight." She felt the big man relax behind her. Is he going to be overprotective for this entire pregnancy? she wondered as the snowmobile sputtered to life again. I don't want to stop playing with him and having fun.

Jody's mind drifted to the frosty November afternoon when Mark asked her to loan him a quarter, and she was too slow about it. The beefy man simply grabbed her by the ankles and held her upside down, shaking her until the change fell out of her pockets and she was laughing so hard she thought she would wet her pants. Jody sighed. I'm gonna miss that.

The couple whizzed down the road, traveling another mile before the engine started to buck and lurch. I have a feeling we're gonna end up walking. The brunette turned her eyes to the sky. The bright morning sun had disappeared and was replaced by a dull, hazy afternoon. Maybe we'll pass another car. Monica's Pontiac was the only other sign of life they'd seen since leaving the cabin. Maybe not.


Amanda awoke abruptly. Panting, she sat up and roughly pushed aside the layers of woolen blankets as a bead of perspiration trailed between her shoulder blades to her buttocks. Confused eyes darted wildly around the room until the furnishings gradually began to look familiar and the last vestiges of a vivid nightmare drained away. The rush of cool air on her overheated skin was welcome and the psychologist let out a long shuddering breath. Shaking hands rifled through red-gold locks. That was some dream! Her entire body ached. Whoa... I think we finally exceeded my comfort zone with these blankets, Gumby. I'm burning up.

Except for the large bandage covering her shoulder and chest, Claire looked as though she was simply sleeping. Even though Amanda could see Claire's chest rise and fall she licked her lips nervously as she checked her friend's pulse, relieved to find the heartbeat steady and strong. Gentle fingers traced Claire's face and a wistful smile touched Amanda's lips. You are so beautiful. But the smile gradually disappeared and Amanda felt tears begin to pool in already glassy green eyes.

Her deepest fears, usually hidden from the light of day, played over and over in her mind, continuously piercing her heart. God, did you look this pale last night? She anxiously looked to the door. Come on! Where are they and why aren't they back yet? The therapist bent down for a quick kiss before she completely climbed out of the makeshift bed.

Claire's skin was still slightly pallid, but her body temperature appeared normal. Making a quick decision, Amanda stripped off the top two woven plaid blankets, leaving two blankets tucked snugly around the taller woman. She warily eyed the gun lying next to the blankets then grabbed it on her way to the kitchen for some water. No, I don't think I'll be seeing you again today, you chickenshit. But just in case...

The old-fashioned windup Cuckoo clock signaled 2:00 p.m. as the little bird cheerfully popped out of the small swinging doors, chirped, spun around in a circle and then retreated. For some reason, she found its hourly display comforting and was glad she'd stopped Claire from smashing it to bits the first night they'd arrived. Amanda smiled remembering the evening.

The blonde woman had rolled over and reached out for Claire, only to find the spot normally occupied by her bedmate cool and very empty. Curious, she moved into the living room and watched in rapt fascination as the grumpy, naked prosecutor actually stalked the clock, looking for all the world like a feral jungle predator. Amanda stood mesmerized as the flickering firelight caressed smooth burnished skin. Oh, to be that light! Hungry green eyes raked over the irresistible combination of sleek, chiseled muscles and lush feminine curves. From a mental health standpoint Amanda found Claire's behavior... well, she really didn't want to think about that then. From an 'everything else' standpoint, the therapist was ridiculously turned-on. She licked her lips and allowed her body to fully enjoy a strong surge of animal attraction for her partner.

Claire paced back and forth, her muscles tensing then relaxing with each step. She held the long metal poker tightly in an angry fist. At precisely one minute before the hour, the lawyer stopped directly in front of clock. She cocked her head to the side causing silky tussled tresses to shift across powerful shoulders. White teeth flashed and with a wicked chuckle she raised the poker. Snapping out of her lust-induced haze, Amanda shut her gaping mouth, wondering if she was actually drooling as she rushed across the room... just in the nick of time.

She laughed a little, thinking of the sheepish expression that had flickered across Claire's face as the dark woman tried to explain why it was absolutely imperative that she 'silence' the 'bird from hell'... permanently.

But a practically purring Amanda easily coaxed Claire back to bed. The younger woman eagerly assured her lover that she would make certain Claire was so tired she'd never notice the clock again. Amanda was nothing if not true to her word, and Cuckoo lived to see another day. Strange... she was now praying Claire would do the same thing.

Amanda's eyes drifted from the clock as her mind focused firmly on the present. She had been sleeping for a little less than 4 hours, but the rest and the intimate time with Claire seemed to recharge the younger woman's flagging spirit, although she was admittedly still on unsteady ground. Jody and Mark had been caring and supportive, but Amanda found herself glad to be in the peaceful cabin, alone with her mate. She vehemently told herself it wasn't because these might be the last few hours they would spend together. That was unthinkable. But she kept thinking it anyway.

Amanda downed a tall glass of water in one long swallow, closing her eyes in pleasure as the cold liquid soothed her parched throat. She sniffed and dried her eyes and cheeks, sparing herself a wry chuckle as she addressed her unconscious partner. "All this crying has probably left me even more dehydrated than you are."

"You're probably right," came the faint reply.

"Claire?" Amanda dropped the cup where she stood and rushed into the living room, falling onto the rug alongside the attorney who still appeared to be asleep.

She cupped Claire's cheeks and studied the older woman's face. "Did you say something?" Please... Please don't let it be that I'm just hearing things! I can't lose you... Again? Amanda had the sickening feeling that she had done this all before but was still unsure of the outcome.

"Claire?" Amanda's voice was pleading. "Please," she choked out, trying not to dissolve into tears for the hundredth time. Amanda's chin dropped to her chest and she closed her eyes just as pale blue ones fluttered open.

Claire turned her head and kissed the soft skin of one of the palms resting on her cheek. Amanda's head shot up and a brilliant, teary-eyed smile instantly lit up her face.

"Hi, Mandy." Claire swallowed hard and a soft groan escaped her lips. "Why is it so hot?"

Noticing the tears streaming down Amanda's cheeks, Claire foggily realized that she wasn't out in the snow anymore. "Or do you just like your woman sweaty?" the brunette teased in a weak but clear voice as she struggled unsuccessfully to untangle herself from her blankets.

Amanda let out a strangled noise that was halfway between a laugh and a sob. "Thank God, you're awake," she whispered brokenly as a nearly painful rush of relief flooded through her and her throat closed tightly, making further speech almost impossible.

Claire lifted her arm and gently pulled the completely overcome woman in for a hug. When she felt Amanda's hot tears trail down her own cheek she gently pushed the shorter woman away. Why is she crying? I can't stand it when she cries. Worried she had injured her lover's bruised jaw Claire asked, "Are you alright, Mandy?" Amanda shook her head then resumed her former position... practically glued to Claire.

The older woman fought to make sense of what had happened, momentarily distracted by the faint smell of strawberry shampoo. She remembered collecting wood and going after Cory... and at some point she knew she had stopped to rest. But everything else was hazy. It seemed as though she had been lost deep in a dream that refused to release her. She couldn't tell what was real and what wasn't as yesterday afternoon bled into the night and this morning.

The dreams had been fantastic, disturbing and comforting all at the same time. She'd felt rather than seen the images of licking flames and ice and blood. Epic battles from centuries past raged and children laughed in tranquil domesticity. There were horses, ships, planes, and men and women with jade and azure eyes in all sorts of crazy clothing and of all ages.

In the dreams, there were occasional flashes of betrayal and pain mixed with long moments of friendship and desire. But through it all, there was always... always... an undercurrent of unyielding, grounding love that was... Amanda... but somehow wasn't. It was so damned confusing that Claire begrudgingly gave up trying to make sense of it.

"Am I alright? You're stealing all my lines, Gumby. I should be asking you that." Amanda sniffed and wiped puffy red eyes with the back of her hand. A nearly staggering sensation of relief threatened to overtake her as she tried to gather her scattered emotions.

Claire shook off the fading images and looked at her friend's body, then her own. "We're naked?" she asked softly, clearly puzzled.

Amanda let out a surprised laugh, reining in what promised to turn into hysteria. She slowly shook her head. "It would appear so, yes." Her eyes went serious. "You were so cold." Small fingers gently stroked dark tresses, as much for her own comfort as Claire's.

Claire nodded and lifted her upper body a few inches off the rug. "I feel much warmer now." The lawyer wriggled her eyebrows but the effect was lost when she let out a painful groan. Shit... sitting up... bad idea. Stupidly, she tried to use her left arm to brace herself and was instantly treated to another excruciating bolt of pain.

"What are you doing? Don't even think about moving! You'll tear the stitches." Amanda gently pressed Claire back against the soft sheepskin rug and nuzzled her neck.

If possible, Claire's face paled even further. "Stitches? Wh... What did you use to stitch me up with, fishing line?"

"Damn," Amanda muttered against Claire's hair. "Why didn't I think of that?"

The psychologist looked up to see Claire staring at her with a mortified expression that would have been comical in any other situation. "Relax, Gumby." Soft green eyes twinkled, albeit sadly. "I used dental floss."

Claire's lips formed a perfect "O" and soft laugh shook her long frame. Ouch! "How very MacGyver of you." A flash of searing pain countered her attempt at humor.

Amanda cringed in sympathy. "Try not to move around too much."

That is such a good idea. "Mandy, what...?"

"I'm not sure what happened. You went out yesterday afternoon to get some wood and never came back. Jody found you early this morning, stabbed, and half-frozen lying in the snow. I assume Cory did this." She motioned toward Claire's shoulder.

The lawyer nodded slowly and opened her mouth to speak but stopped mid-motion to lick dry lips. Amanda mentally scolded herself for not asking sooner and squeezed Claire's hand before moving into the kitchen to get some water. "You need something to drink, I'll be right back."

Claire closed her eyes feeling nearly as drained as she had the day before. Her body was betraying her and part of her was intensely curious, wanting to get back to the confusing but riveting dreams.

In what seemed to Claire like the blink of an eye, a warm palm was cupping her chin and rousing her back to alertness. "Mandy?" she muttered.

"C'mon, you need to drink." Claire let her lover's clear, alto voice roll over her as she tried to decide whether a drink of water was worth the Herculean effort it was taking to stay awake. Then a hand on Claire's chin drifted to her cheek then forehead, where it rested for several seconds before disappearing.

Damn. Worried pale brows drew together. "Honey...?"

This time the voice was more insistent and the lawyer reluctantly opened heavy eyelids. "Mmm?" She was greeted by a concerned smile.

"Here's some water. Please try to drink." With a steady hand Amanda lifted Claire's head and pressed the cup to her lips. The taller woman managed to empty a third of the glass before refusing anymore.

Amanda sat the cup down nearby, hoping she could coax Claire into drinking a little more later. Too bad I don't have any Pepsi. She'll be drinking that stuff on her deathbed. The pang that stung Amanda's chest at the words nearly made her jerk. Shit, that was a stupid thought! "Tell me how you feel."

"Duh! I feel like death warmed-over," Claire said in a soft, flat tone.

Amanda tried not to roll her eyes. "I know, sweetheart. But I mean specifically. You have to tell me what hurts. I need to know if you're injured anyplace other than your shoulder and ribs."

My ribs?

"They looked badly bruised but I don't think they're broken."

Claire sighed. No wonder it hurts to breathe. And do you have to read my mind? That really freaks me out!

"Sorry," Amanda offered a little guiltily. "I know that freaks you out. But sometimes it's like your forehead is made of cellophane. I can't help myself."

Claire looked up from under thick, dark lashes, a grin twitching at her lips despite herself. "S'okay," was the sleepy reply. "I guess I'll just have to get used to the fact that I'm in love with a modern day sorceress."

"Witch, huh?" Amanda laughed and brought her partner's hand to her lips. "I love you too," she added tenderly, allowing a little of her nervous tension to work its way free. Relax... She's awake. She's talking.

"You're gonna be okay, right?" Amanda asked suddenly, cursing her insecurity and fear as the words left her mouth. Why did I say that? Idiot.

"Right," Claire affirmed, aching at the obvious pain in her partner's voice. "Wanna lie back down with me?" She glanced at the soft sheepskin next to her and Amanda eagerly pounced on the empty space.

The blonde snuggled up to her partner's side and laid a flat palm over Claire's heart, soaking in the feeling of its strong, steady rhythm beneath her fingers. "When you're feeling better we're going to have a long talk about promises..." she gently chided, aware that now wasn't the time.

There was a moment of silence. "But..."

Amanda held up her hand. "And splitting hairs."

"I... I didn't..." Claire faltered. Oh, yes I did. I promised not to go to the cabin to find Cory, and then I went and chased him half way around Minnesota during a blizzard. I broke my promise and nearly got my ass (and the rest of me too) killed. Not smart. I'm lucky Jody found me. Dark eyebrows drew together in concentration. Why aren't they here? Amanda shouldn't be alone and I'm in not position to protect her! Claire felt the slow burning anger deep in her guts.

"Mandy..." she licked her lips again. Ah... they must be chapped. "Where are Mark and Jody?"

"They went for help."

For me? Of course. Guilt mixed with frustration. "They shouldn't have left you alone!"

"I'm not alone, you're here."

"You know what I mean! If Cory shows up... I... I can't even..." Claire looked around frantically wondering what she could manage considering her wound.

"Shh..." Amanda quieted, propping herself up on one elbow and resting her forehead against the dark woman's. "We're locked in and Jody left me a gun. He won't hurt either one of us again," she whispered roughly. I won't let him.

Both women were silent for several seconds before Amanda said, "You know, it's not your job to protect me."

Pale eyes widened. "What the hell does that mean?" It means that I've been doing a shitty job until now, stupid. Claire began to stew. Cory was nothing! I could take down someone like him in my sleep. But I didn't. The attorney had no time for 'incompetents', and was not pleased that she now including herself in their ranks.

Amanda easily read her performance-driven partner. "It means that I'm a big girl so you can stop feeling guilty. You didn't do anything wrong by leaving me alone yesterday. And I totally misdiagnosed Cory." I almost got you killed.

Claire thought of a million arguments but found herself too tired to offer any of them. Later, she promised herself. "Ma...Mandy, can we talk later? I'm so sleepy."

Amanda gazed at Claire with an intent, affectionate look that threatened to melt the attorney on the spot. Claire felt a warm rush of love for the beauty at her side and wished her disobedient eyes would obey her command to remain open.

Amanda wrestled against her own fear and what she knew would be best for Claire. Oh, Gumby, I wish you'd stay awake so I could be sure you're all right. But I know your body needs to rest. She bit her bottom lip then offered an indulgent, if slightly shaky, smile. "Sure, Gumby." The therapist pulled away from her partner but was immediately stopped by a firm hand around her wrist and soulful blue eyes.

"Don't..." Don't what? Don't go? Jesus, get a grip she probably just has to go to the bathroom or something. "Umm... I mean..." Claire stammered, clearly embarrassed by what she considered an unreasonable neediness.

"I'll be right here when you wake up," Amanda reassured tenderly, wondering why it was always so hard for Claire to just ask for what she wanted... what they both wanted. The blonde pulled up the soft fleece blanket that had been protecting their skin from the scratchy wool. "Go to sleep," she soothed quietly as she tucked the blanket around them.

Claire's body jerked with a hoarse and obviously painful cough. Amanda wriggled closer and deeply inhaled her partner's comforting scent, willing her pain away. She let out the breath with exaggerated slowness and tried to calm her suddenly pounding heart. She's gonna be okay. She is.

Claire's eyes slid shut before Amanda had even finished speaking. Goodnight, Mandy, she thought.

"Sleep well, love," Amanda murmured. But this time she stayed awake, watching Claire's chest rise and fall and wondering what Missy was doing and when there would be a knock at the door and whether it would be Jody and Mark or Cory Martin.


Monica pulled in front of Jody and Mark's cabin and behind the bright red Pathfinder that was sitting on four flat tires. She let out a little laugh as she turned off the ignition. "Maybe they'll be happy to see me after all." Monica fingered the envelope on the seat next to her then grabbed it and tucked it into her jacket. She didn't bother to take her keys out the ignition as she pushed open the heavy steel door, and began wading through the drifts of fluffy white snow, lamenting her decision to wear sneakers instead of boots.

When she reached the top of the steps she hesitated for only a second then raised her hand to knock.

"Hello, Amanda."

Monica whirled around and looked down the stairs at the dark-eyed young stranger, slightly startled to find anyone out so soon after the blizzard. "I'm not Amanda, buddy." Ignoring the man, she turned back to the door and raised her hand again, but a split second later, she was lying face down on the porch with Cory on top of her, shouting in her ear.


"You crazy fucker!" Monica snarled, trying to wriggle out of his grasp. "I am not Amanda. Now get off!" What did Amanda do to piss off this nut job?

"DO NOT LIE TO ME! I am His Chosen!"

Chosen? Monica turned her head but couldn't see Cory's face. "I said...!" A sweaty hand clamped over Monica's mouth as she was hauled to her feet by her hair. "Owww," she complained loudly through his fingers.

Cory shoved her face against the cold wooden door. "Now you listen to me, bitch," he spat, pushing her face hard enough against the door to draw blood from her lip. "We're going to take a little ride in the piece of shit you pulled up in."

"Fuck you," Monica murmured. "I'm not taking your skinny ass anywhere." She'd swallowed tougher men than this runt, whole. "Dickweed..." Monica continued mumbling obscenities and threats against the splintery wooden surface.

Cory stared wide-eyed at the back of the blonde woman's head. He'd never heard Amanda talk like that before. That's what you get from hanging around that unnatural lawyer. Figures. Of course, He was right. You're not fit to carry my seed, Cory tried to convince himself. But even now, knowing what she'd done and who she was, the wiry man wanted her... badly.

The construction worker tightened his grip on Monica's hair. In a quick movement, he brought her head back about six inches from the door then slammed it forward as hard as he could. The previously noisy woman slid bonelessly onto the icy steps. Cory leaned over and grabbed the back of Monica's jacket, lifting her upper body off of the ground. His heart was pounding furiously and he could feel hot blood coursing through his veins. He'd never felt so alive and fought the nearly overwhelming urge to take her then and there. Why shouldn't I have her? What would it matter? No! She's unworthy of my seed. She's trying to tempt me. Whore.

"This could have been so much easier, Amanda," he said as he dragged the woman back to the Pontiac. I could have made this painless if you'd let me. Now... "I think it's time I introduced you to mom and dad."


Jody and Mark came to a sputtering stop outside a dingy looking Dairy Queen on the outskirts of town. It was clearly closed for the winter. A dark explosion of smoke out the back of the snowmobile nearly gave both riders a heart-attack.

"Check to see if there's a pay phone," Jody instructed as she slid off the big machine and pulled off her helmet. Brown eyes surveyed the empty streets. She looked at the snowmobile with contempt as Mark brushed past her.

It was now 4:00 p.m. and beginning to get dark. The short-haired brunette had lost track of how many times the machine had lost power on the way to town and wondered irrationally if it wouldn't have been faster if they'd just walked.

Mark reappeared, petulantly kicking the snow out of his path. "There's no phone."

"Damn! Well, we can try the next building. I guess things aren't up and running yet." Lord knows, I wouldn't be out if I didn't have to be.

The temperature had been dropping all afternoon. It was well below zero and it wasn't even completely dark yet.

"There!" Mark pointed to a large pickup truck that pulled into what looked like a small grocery store down the block. Its headlights glowed brightly for several seconds before turning black. "Let's go." He jumped back on the snowmobile wondering why Jody was just standing there.

"We're out of gas. We'll have to walk."

Mark growled then nodded and pulled a dark sock hat from his pocket. He offered it to Jody but the psychologist waved him off and pulled up her hood instead.

The big man had to bite his tongue to keep from asking her to stay here and wait for him. But he knew it was too cold for her to stand still. He was still reeling from her heroic, but incredibly reckless, rescue of Claire. Pregnant women should not carry people around! She could have hurt herself or the baby. But, wisely, for once, Mark hadn't said a word. If Claire survived this ordeal at all it would be because of Jody and her actions. What she had risked for his best friend made him love her even more.

He offered Jody his hand. "C'mon. Who knows how long the truck will stay there. Is the nearest hospital here or in Twin Harbors?" Damn, it better be here.

Jody grabbed hold of the massive hand and instinctively looked both ways before crossing the deserted streets. "I dunno. But for... everyone's sake, I pray it's not too far."


"Where the hell am I?" Monica asked as she brought her hand up to her bloody forehead.

The car door slammed and she saw Cory slowly make his way around to her side of the car. She reached over to her door and locked it, drawing an evil glare from her captor. "You'll have to break the windows to get to me, shithead." Lucky this piece of crap is JJ's.

Even in this surreal moment, Monica stopped and wondered how long it had been since she'd spared a second thought about her hapless husband, JJ, who she'd misplaced sometime during a drug-induced stupor months earlier. Cory raised the car keys up to the window and made a show of jingling them in front of her face.


He opened the door and reached in to get Monica, but she grabbed the door handle and viciously slammed the door shut... on his hand. "I am NOT Amanda!" she screamed as she scrambled out of the driver's side door.

Cory howled and clutched his injured hand. He turned his head toward the heavens and screamed his disbelief, "But she's a woman!"

Monica spun around wildly having no idea where she was. Darkness had nearly overtaken the afternoon sky and a few stars were already beginning to twinkle overhead. The car was parked in front of a small wooden house that looked inhabited but completely dark. In a panic, rather than run inside the home, she ran around it.

She rounded the corner at full speed, her sneakers providing almost no traction, and nearly ran straight into the woodpile. She managed to avoid the pile but tripped over a stray log and ended up face first in the cold snow. She opened her eyes and quickly brushed the stinging flakes off her face, her chest already aching from the icy cold air. Dull gray eyes belonging to the elderly Barbara Jensen were staring back at her. Monica scrambled to her feet in horror and disgust. Then it hit her like a ton of bricks. She wasn't running from a pissed off, violent kid. She had plenty of experience with those... having been one herself. She was running from a homicidal maniac. What did Amanda do to you?!

"You can't run from His will, Amanda," Cory shouted hoarsely.

But I can sure as hell run from you! Monica took off into the woods, surprised she could hear Cory's footsteps behind her over the furious pounding of her own heart. She was bleeding and sweating and strands of hair were sticking to her face. Her deep labored breaths were drowned out by the sound of breaking branches as she ran, stumbled, and at times, crawled through the snow-laden underbrush. She finally understood why the women in the horror movies always fell so many times while being chased. It's the fucking shoes!

He wants to kill me... no, Amanda. "I am NOT her!" she shouted as she barely dodged his outreached hand. Suddenly, she broke through the tree line and was tumbling down a steep ravine. Dead, dry branches ripped her jeans and tore deeply into her flesh. But it all happened too quickly for her to cry out. The shooting pain didn't matter because all that did matter was staying in front of Cory. She tumbled further down until the air was forced out of her lungs when her back slammed against a cold hard surface. She took a deep gasping breath of the frigid air before he was on her, grabbing at her coat.

His hands pulled roughly at her jacket, sending the manila folder and its contents sliding onto the ice-covered river. A gust of wind sent the folder farther away, scattering its papers and pictures along the tree-strewn bank.

"You could have been mine! Why did you choose her?!" he spat as he and Monica wrestled and slid a few steps further onto the ice.

"I am NOT her! Look at me! LOOK! LOOK!"

Cory suddenly stopped and stared at the woman pinned beneath him.

Medium length red-gold hair, matted with blood, lay wet on the moonlit snow. Her face seemed a little... harder than normal and maybe a little thinner. Cory squinted his eyes trying to see through the haunting shadows. Then he leaned forward, bare inches from Monica's lips and roared, "I CANNOT BE DECEIVED!" as he shook her violently.

"Why do you keep saying that?! My name is MONICA, you psycho!"

Monica wrenched one hand free and slashed Cory's face with sharp fingernails, drawing blood. He hissed at the white-hot sensation but quickly recaptured her hand, slamming it back down on the ice and causing a long crack to form beneath them. His own hand throbbed from his encounter with the car door but He was urging him on. Not yet! Not until...

Without hesitation, the slender man laid his full body weight on Monica and savagely took her mouth, thrusting his tongue against hers. Monica immediately relaxed. Yes! her mind hissed. This is a game I know how to play... and win.

Cory felt Monica stop fighting and relax into the brutal kiss. His arousal grew. I knew she wanted me! He was on fire. Only I can give her what she needs. When she began responding to his touch by moaning and pressing against him, his heart began to pound. And when she actually started sucking on his hot tongue he came with a loud shaking groan.

Now! Monica pulled both her hands free. With a stiff-armed thrust she pushed up his upper body. With her other hand, and all the force she could muster, she punched him in his swollen groin. Cory immediately fell backwards and began writhing. Wild, high-pitched cries filled the ravine, and the construction worker curled up into the fetal position, rocking back and forth in pure agony.

Monica stood up and sneered. "You shouldn't have messed with me, wacko fucker. Look what a woman can do," she added snidely. Monica reached up and wiped her blood-soaked bangs off her forehead, her body's short-term natural reaction to danger keeping the cold at bay. Then, just 'cause she could, she gave him a swift kick in the mid-section. Cory lurched forward and began to vomit.

The blonde woman began leisurely picking up the contents of her manila folder. She looked back at the whimpering, gagging man. He wasn't going anywhere, anytime soon. She cursed as she scoured the riverbank, sure she'd lost some papers in the dark. Monica wandered further out onto the ice, trying not to slip. Her legs felt strangely warm and she looked down to see enormous bloodstains covering her torn pants. Blood? Oh yeah, the branches cut my legs. When she gathered the last of the folder's contents she stopped about ten feet in front of Cory and stared at the pathetic man. He was shakily perched on one knee, in a pool of vomit, and holding a large stick.

A flash of worry flickered across hazel-eyes. Maybe he's not hurt as badly as I thought. I knew I should have kicked him a few more times! She took a step backwards when Cory tried to use the thick stick as a crutch. But the thin man didn't get past his knees before he collapsed back on the edge of the riverbank.

Monica let out a shrill, demented laugh that the wind seemed to carry and amplify. "Poor baby, hurt?"

Black eyes locked on hazel and Monica's heart leapt into her throat. And for a split second, she realized she'd made a terrible mistake. Cory lifted the would-be crutch over his head and with a primal scream thrust it into the ice in front of Monica.

The earsplitting cracking of the ice barely registered before Monica's world fell away and she plunged into the freezing darkness. It felt as though thousand of knives were stabbing every inch of her body as she was swept away by the strong current. In pure reflex, she opened her mouth to cry out and freezing liquid poured in, burning the back of her throat. With a bubbling cough she choked and began take in more and more water. Her fingers and knuckles frantically scraped the ice above her but there was nothing to grab hold of as she traveled downstream in a heart-stopping panic.

A few twists and turns and she couldn't tell up from down. There was nothing to see but endless, maddening darkness. The freezing water made her eyes feel as though they would explode, so she closed them, drifting further, deeper, as the cold and lack of oxygen drained out her remaining energy. Did I just let go of the folder?

Soon she didn't have arms or legs and the stabbing pain receded into the background of her consciousness. Monica was vaguely aware of a loud buzzing sound and the fact that everything seemed to be going in slow motion. She stopped fighting once her mind accepted the fate her body already had. Water flooded her lungs but she didn't struggle against it... there was no need... no point.



There... not so bad really.


Easy. Let go.


No more pain... her mind whispered as millions of tiny, brilliant stars invaded her vision and the universe faded into the incomprehensible nothingness she had so often prayed for.



Amanda buttoned her rust-colored flannel shirt and pair of soft faded jeans, irrationally hoping that by readying herself, she could somehow hasten Jody and Mark's return. She tiredly gazed into the small bathroom mirror and experimentally shifted her sore jaw. It hurt, but the pain wasn't unbearable. She winced from the appearance as well the soreness when she examined the motley purple bruise.

It was full dark now and Jody and Mark had been gone since mid-morning. Something's happened. They should have been back hours ago. She's got a fever. The wound is becoming infected. She needs to get to a hospital! Now!

Amanda released the fists she didn't realize she'd been clenching and began looking for some aspirin. Her head was pounding.

Claire had been sleeping restlessly for the past few hours. Several times, even in this semi-conscious state, the therapist had been able to rouse Claire into drinking a few sips of water. But her partner's temperature was rising quickly and the feeling of helplessness and despair that had lifted briefly when Claire awoke earlier in the afternoon, began to invade Amanda once again.

She cocked her head toward the door, naturally bringing one ear closer to the sound. Footsteps? Couldn't be. Maybe Claire's awake? Amanda's eyebrows scrunched together. I didn't think she'd be up again without prompting. She's so drained... literally. Amanda frowned as she tucked her shirttails into her jeans and ran icy cold water over the terry washcloth she'd been using to wipe Claire's sweating forehead. With her other hand she picked up the small lantern that nicely lit the bathroom and opened the door.


Bracing his hands on his knees, Cory stumbled to his feet causing the dry snow covering his body to be picked up and carried away by the brutal December wind. He shivered and stared dumbly at the hole where Monica had disappeared into the ice. Coal black eyes had long since adjusted to the moonlight and he could easily make out the small chunks of ice churning against the side of the hole from the river's steady current. Another day or two and the hole would completely disappear, keeping the rivers dark secrets... at least until spring.

I did it! And, ooooh how that bitch deserved it! Even the smallest movement sent shock waves of pain radiating out from his groin and extending through every inch of his slender frame.

Cory had obeyed and done His will. His Chosen stood, swaying slightly, waiting for his well-earned accolades. They never came. It's because I'm not finished isn't it? I'm never finished, he thought grimly.

A sense of calmness and purpose washed over him as he limped back to the Jensen homestead.

I must finish this! He has commanded it! I am powerless against His will. Cory stepped over a large log and groaned.

This afternoon the SUV was still parked at the cabin, maybe Jody and her boyfriend are still there too. Cory didn't even spare Claire a second thought. He was certain between himself and the blizzard she was quite dead.

Amanda and that bitch attorney tainted Dr. Penbrook! I'm sure of it. She's probably one of them too. But I'll help her. I won't stand by while she is eternally damned. It may not be too late.

Cory stepped into the warm house. The heat was almost painful against his itching, numb skin. He immediately went to the kitchen table where several weapons sat in stark contrast to the cheerful, red-checked tablecloth.

He selected his .38, knowing it was already loaded. Fucking slut! He flexed his injured hand and cried out in pain. I hate to shoot with my left hand and now I have no choice. I was so wrong about you Amanda. But in the end you couldn't deceive me! I wish you'd died slower. And I wish I could have watched.

Braving the bitter cold once again, Cory gingerly mounted the Jensen's second snowmobile. Having made this trip so many times over the past few days he easily traversed the rugged landscape in the dark. He guides me. He shows me the way. Maybe he'll make me invisible again. Yes, that would excellent! I want to be invisible and silent again!

The young construction worker parked the snowmobile about a quarter mile from the larger cabin so as not to be heard. The Pathfinder was still parked in the driveway, covered by a heavy blanket of snow. Too bad about those tires though, they looked new too. Although I'd have popped for Michelins. Cheap fucking lawyer! She probably found a way not to pay for them anyway.

The cabin was dark and quiet. Cory's gaze drifted upward. No smoke from the chimney, they must be gone. His soul raged. NO! My work is not complete! They can't be gone, his mind whined.

Then, out of the corner of his eye, through the trees, he caught a golden flicker. The other cabin, of course. They're in there. A cruel smile twisted his lips and he scratched his itchy head through the thick facemask.

Lean legs waded through the knee-high snow, avoiding the deeper drifts, which were waist high. His excitement grew with every step.

The Jensens had been easy, if a little messy. They were old anyway. He ruthlessly justified his actions. I did them a favor, right? Killing Amanda was the hard part. The rest will be simple.

Cory conveniently forgot about his broken hand, nose and throbbing groin, not to mention the multitude of aches and pains, courtesy of Claire, that had kept him from catching 'Amanda' before she made it all the way to the river. I'm getting better at this too, he ridiculously told himself.

Oh yes, someone is definitely home. A cheerful glow poured out the low but wide windows, and smoke wafted happily from the chimney above. Time to huff and puff and blow their house down, he snickered.

The door was locked. Do you think a door can keep out His Chosen? NOTHING CAN STOP ME! Cory let out a muffled curse as he peered into a large window that began a little above knee-level and stretched to the top of his head. Curtains almost completely blocked his view of the cabin's interior. But he could see a blazing fire and several flickering lamps that left the room surprisingly well lit. She must be in the kitchen. Humph... women should cook for their men. She should be in the kitchen. For a moment he questioned his mission. What if Amanda didn't taint her? What if Jody's serving him, as a good woman should?

An irritated hand reached up and tore off the ice-crusted facemask. Steam rose from his dark head as he shook it, trying to dispel his doubts. Cory waited, but He was oddly silent on the subject. Is it my decision then? Still no answer. Ahhh. Another test. I won't fail You. Even if she's not tainted, she's still a whore. The young man nodded. She needs to die, so You can cleanse her everlasting immortal soul. I can help her.

Amanda poked her head out of the bathroom. I could have sworn I heard something. From the kitchen, on tipped-toes she looked over the large sofa to see Claire resting peacefully in the exact same position she'd left her in. For a split second her spirit soared. Maybe it's Jody and Mark. Oh shit! Maybe it's... Before she could complete the thought, glass exploded into the room.

"What in the...?!" She instinctively ducked the flying shards as a dark form crashed through the large bay window.

Cory lay half in half out of the house. He roared as he looked down at his bloodied, mangled leg and grunted as he roughly tore his leg from the stained window frame. "Goddamned fucking...!" He looked more closely at the window. "TRIPLE-PANED GLASS?! Environmental, tree-hugging, bitch!" he howled.

The man had planned on smashing through the window like he'd seen in the movies, not getting caught-up like a stupid animal in a trap. NO! NOOOO! his mind cried.

The gun? Green eyes traveled to Claire who was only stirring slightly, despite the horrendous crash. The gun was lying next to her and across the room from Amanda. Jesus Christ! How could I have left the gun over there? I've been carrying it around with me all day!

Cory whirled around and faced Amanda, his .38 pointing straight at her, stopping any thoughts she had of running across the room. His hand was shaking so violently Amanda was afraid he'd discharge the weapon whether he wanted to or not.

Black eyes bulged in horror. "B... Bu... But you're dead!" he yelled, clearly terrified. "I killed you. You went into the ice!"

"Calm down, Cory," Amanda said in her most relaxed, professional voice, ignoring her pounding heart.

"NO! SHUT UP!" You're dead, you're dead... he chanted over and over, his mind awhirl with images of the snow and cracking ice and a last terrified scream he could hear even though she was already under the ice.


"NO!" He leaned back against the doorframe as His voice entered the fray, cursing him, mocking his continued failures. "SHUT UP!" he begged. "Everyone shut up and leave me alone!" Cory brought his hands over his ears as tears streamed down his face. His eyes darted wildly around the room finally settling on Claire. Amanda followed his gaze.

Oh no. "Cory..." she began, trying to distract him from Claire. "I can help you if you let me." She motioned to his leg, which was bleeding profusely. "Let me help you, you're hurt," she offered carefully, gentling her voice and demeanor further, wishing all the while she had her own gun.

The man exhaled shakily. His breath curled into a cloud of fog around his head as the cold sweat on his face made him shiver uncontrollably. A strong gust of wind blew the light curtains, billowing them in front of Cory. He angrily pushed them aside and took a limping step toward Amanda.

The frigid breeze extinguished the lamps and caused the flames in the fireplace to lengthen and sputter, casting the room in an eerie bluish-gold light.

"Are y... you a ga... ga... ghost?"

What is he talking about? Do I look like a damned ghost? "No, Cory. It's me, Dr. Greer." Relax. Take a deep breath. Don't panic.

Cory shook his head 'no' and raised his hands to his ears. Does He have to yell! Shutupshutupshutup!!!!! I hear you! Awkwardly, he straightened, leaning heavily on one leg, while he recklessly wiped his tears with the barrel of the gun.

Holy shit. Amanda swallowed nervously.

"I can't trust you," he finally said in a soft defeated voice. "You tried to trick me before. You said you understood, but it was all a lie, wasn't it?"

Duh! "No, Cory. That was all a misunderstanding. Why don't you come over here and sit down?" Amanda reached out slowly, never taking her eyes off Cory and his ever-moving gun as she pulled out a nearby chair.


"We could talk for a while. I'll bet there's a lot you have to tell me about," she coaxed as if talking to a slow child.

Claire stirred again and Cory closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them again they were filled with tears. "She's supposed to be dead too." He cocked his head to the side like a curious puppy. "Why won't you just die?"

Uh Oh. Amanda's stomach sank.

Rage flashed across his face, hardening young features. "You liked it when I kissed you. I could feel it! Or were you just trying to trick me again? Weren't you listening to me? I CANNOT BE DECEIVED!"

Cory's last sentence was said in a calm voice laced with so much venom that Amanda involuntarily shuddered. Thankfully, the frosty chill that had overtaken the small cabin would easily explain her actions. She didn't want him to know how badly he was unnerving her. Kissed you? It's just one delusion after another.

Cory's internal dialogue began to spill out in the form of incoherent ramblings or chants or both. Amanda wasn't sure which, and she didn't care. What she did care about was that he seemed to be inching his way toward Claire.

Suddenly, Cory turned to Amanda and said, "Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah, brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven." He slowly raised the gun until it was level with Amanda's chest. Their eyes locked as he cocked the hammer, its clear "click" sounding through the quiet room.

Amanda's mind raced, she knew he was about to pull the trigger. God, he's really going to kill me. She opened her mouth to speak but another voice, deep and angry, echoed from behind Cory.

Claire was on her feet, sans clothing except for a pair of black cotton panties. Her eyes were hard chips of blue ice that seemed to glow. The large white bandage and her unsteady legs did nothing to detract from the sheer power of her presence. Amanda would later recall that her only conscious thought upon the unexpected sight of her lover was pure awe. Claire was simply magnificent. For Amanda, the next events were so horrific and happened so quickly, that they would forever remain a jumbled blur.

"Remember me, dumb ass?" Claire snarled as she raised Jody's gun. It's you who's gonna die, NOT Amanda.

In a surprisingly coordinated move, Cory whirled around on one leg and refocused his aim on Claire.

At the same instant they each pulled their triggers.

"NOOO!!" Amanda wasn't sure if she said it or only thought it as she flew across the room. In front of her, Cory fell like a sack of potatoes. A fine trickle of blood spilled from the small round hole in the bridge of his nose but a large part of the back of his head was splattered on the wall. He was dead before he hit the ground.

Claire's body twisted wildly to one side with the impact of Cory's shot but she remained on her feet for several stunned seconds before dropping to her knees with a jarring thud. Before she could fall completely backwards, Amanda was there, easing her onto the crimson stained rug. Claire felt warm hands on what used to be her 'good' shoulder and faintly heard Amanda agonizingly whisper, "Oh my God."

NO!! NO!! Amanda's mind fiercely denied what she'd just witnessed. Claire had taken a bullet just above her breast on her right side. Hot blood poured between Amanda's fingers even as the psychologist desperately pressed one of the blankets against the wound.

Red and white lights flashed outside the cabin, illuminating the room in a pulsating rhythm, and distant yelling voices gradually grew louder and louder.

Claire weakly grabbed one of Amanda's arms and held it, causing the younger woman to stop her frantic efforts to stem the tide of blood and focus on Claire's face.

"Mandy..." Claire whispered.

"NO!" Amanda cried brokenly. Heedless of the blood, she wrapped her arms around Claire and pulled her lover to own breast, rocking her gently. "You will not die, do you hear me! You will NOT leave me! I won't let you!" She tightened her grip on Claire, feeling the warm blood soaking through her shirt and sliding down her belly, despite the blanket meant to staunch its flow. Ebony hair draped softly over Amanda's arms and blew gently in the icy breeze. Amanda was assaulted with the pungent metallic scent of blood and the faint aroma of Claire's shampoo.

Frothy red bubbles leaked from Claire's lips as she coughed weakly.

"M... Mandy..." she sputtered. "I... I am so... so sorry." Blue eyes struggled to stay opened but failed. I feel so cold and so tired. I'm sorry.

Amanda shook her head frantically as she held onto her lover for dear life. NO! I won't accept this. I won't. I can't! her mind cried. The hand that had been circling her arm loosely fell away and Amanda heard Claire's knuckles rap against the wooden floor, just off the rug.

"Ma'am?" a deep male voice questioned as the sound of a police radio hummed in the background. "You need to let her go, an ambulance is here to help."

Amanda shrugged off the large hand on her shoulder then violently hit away the hand on Claire. "LEAVE US THE HELL ALONE!" she spat, still not comprehending who these people were and why they were there. No one in this life or the next could make her let go of the limp body in her arms.

The police Sergeant looked back to another officer, obviously uncomfortable and unsure of what do next.

"Amanda, let them take her. The ambulance is here to help her." Fuck! We're too late. No one could survive after losing that much blood. A large scarlet pool surrounded the women.

"Jody?" Amanda turned miserable, disbelieving eyes on her best friend. "They're gonna help her?"

"They're going to try." Please let her still be alive.

They're going to help her. Amanda nodded and slowly released her lover to the care of a large man and medium sized woman dressed in white and blue uniforms. She scrambled backward using her heels to push herself up against the wall. She watched as the ambulance crew quickly examined the wound, slid an oxygen mask over Claire's face, and started 2 IVs. The woman turned to Amanda and hastily informed her that Claire was still alive, then she looked at Jody and the older psychologist immediately understood the meaning behind the look of unveiled sympathy.

Jody looked at Amanda and the smaller woman nodded, indicating she was all right... at least physically. Jody offered her hand to Amanda who grasped it and pulled herself to her feet. She wrapped an arm around Jody's waist as they watched the ambulance crew strap Claire into a gurney that was mounted on rails, like a sled. Several more police officers entered the cabin and began milling around Cory's body. With them came in an agitated Mark who turned pale at the sight of his childhood friend.

Jody and Amanda followed the ambulance crew out of the cabin. A neat trail in the snow formed by the numerous policemen and rescue workers made the trip down the hill to the waiting ambulance fast and easy. As they loaded Claire into the large white vehicle, Amanda looked around, in shock, her hair blowing wildly with every gust of wind, wondering if every cop in northern Minnesota had somehow found their way here. The area around the cabins was crawling with police.

Mark caught up to the women, after successfully fending off the police's questions and assuring them Amanda and Claire weren't going anywhere. Occasionally, it did pay to be a prosecutor. The tall man gently wrapped Amanda's coat around her shoulders. She absently patted his hand, acknowledging his kindness. She hadn't really noticed the cold.

When Claire was safety tucked into the ambulance Amanda moved to join her. The female rescue worker stopped Amanda from climbing into the back of the vehicle with a firm hand. "You can't go in there."

Green eyes flashed and Jody feared for the rescue worker's safety.

The woman realized her error immediately and quickly tried to correct herself. "Look... there's no room in the back, we're gonna be working on her on the way to the hospital." She motioned to the large young man that was crouched over Claire working furiously. Dang. "I gotta go help Brian." She pointed to the police car. "Ride with Larry, you'll get to the hospital the same time we will." She paused. "Larry won't lose us, I promise."

Mark and Jody expected Amanda to argue and were stunned when the younger woman simply nodded and thanked the ambulance worker and asked her to hurry. Now Jody was convinced Amanda was in shock.

The ambulance roared to life and began to pull out of the long driveway. Amanda looked around pointedly at the milling policemen. "Which one of you is Larry and why the hell aren't you in your squad car?!" Amanda screamed at the top of her lungs.

A middle-aged, overweight officer ran nervously to her side and directed her to a car parked behind the others. He mumbled, "Shit, don't piss off the little one!" as he loaded Amanda and Jody into the back seat. Mark rode up front with him.

Okay, that was more like Amanda. Jody was more than a little relieved. She found a quiet and demure Amanda especially disconcerting.

The ambulance workers deftly exchanged the saline IV bags for ones containing O negative blood. "Jesus, Brian, did you see these ribs and her other shoulder?" It was a stupid question and the more experienced crewmember knew it was rhetorical and didn't bother to answer. "It looks like she's had a bitch of a few days. Ya think she'll make it?"

The man studied Claire's face for several seconds. Even under the harsh fluorescent lights it was obvious she was beautiful. What a waste. "Well..." he started to speculate when the machine monitoring Claire's heartbeat began to go wild.

Amanda's head was resting against the cold, damp window of the police cruiser as watery emerald eyes watched the shadowy trees pass, one after the other. Suddenly her body jerked as a devastating sense of loss and terror tore through her. Her chest clenched painfully then relaxed. She closed her eyes and a single tear trailed down her cheek and splashed on her bloodied shirt. "Noooo," she whispered to herself.

"Damn!" Brian cursed. "She's not gonna even make it to the hospital if we don't start CPR." He began pumping Claire's chest, while the woman squeezed a bag that was place firmly over Claire's mouth and nose.

Claire was dreaming. She was walking through a dark, quiet hallway whole, and healed, but desperately alone. She could sense Amanda, albeit far away, but was too tired and weak to call to her. She tried again but she had no voice. I can't. I just can't. I am so so sorry, Mandy.

Then the dream faded away.



"Yes! I thought we'd never get here." The paramedic continued his chest compressions as Claire was wheeled into the emergency room while several orderlies and nurses began buzzing around the unresponsive patient.

"I've got it." A gray-eyed resident stepped in for the exhausted paramedic as a serious-looking nurse took over the bagging. "How long?"

The rescue worker stretched out muscular but tired arms. "She crashed about twenty minutes out."

Twenty minutes. Damn. The resident shook her head in dismay while continuing the compressions as Claire was moved into an empty exam room.

Another doctor made his way through the scurrying nurses and stood alongside the resident. "Paramedic said twenty minutes?"

A nod bobbed a curly head.

The doctor frowned. "She hasn't responded at all. You could..."

"Don't even say it. She still has a chance." The resident focused on Claire's gunshot wound as the portable crash equipment unit was wheeled in and quickly put to use.

"Paddles... Charging... Clear!" Okay, work with me gorgeous. You don't want to disappoint that green-eyed beauty in the waiting room, do you?


"Stop!" an elderly nurse commanded as her eyes and voice pinned Mark and Jody to two lurid, pink plastic seats against the wall. Amanda wasn't so easily dissuaded. "That's as far as you go." The nurse pointed to the letters painted on the swinging doors that plainly stated HOSPITAL PERSONNEL ONLY.

"But..." Amanda ran a shaking hand through her hair. I have to...

"There's nothing you can do in there except get in the way. Trust me, honey. It's better to let them do their job."

Shit! I don't have time for this. "Listen, nurse..." Amanda impatiently stared at her name tag then simple gave up. " don't understand! I need to..."

The nurse gently grabbed Amanda's forearm and began guiding her toward the reception desk. "I understand that you need to give me some information about your..." The white haired woman let the sentence trail off in question.

Heart. Soul. "Everything," Amanda whispered giving herself another three seconds before she burst into the exam room, dragging along nurse Ratchet if need be. No more tears. She closed her eyes. Please come back to me.

Soft, experienced eyes twinkled sadly, keenly aware of Amanda's internal dialogue. "Ahh... Your sister then?" the nurse asked knowingly. Damn stupid hospital policies.

The psychologist looked a confused for a second but quickly grasped the nurse's meaning. "Yes, my very dear sister. And I need to go to her..."

The nurse looked down at Amanda's blood-soaked flannel shirt. Scowling, she snatched a pair of fresh turquoise scrubs from a nearby cart. "Here you go, child. You'll be wanting to get out of that shirt."

Amanda grabbed the shirt, but pushed the pants back to the nurse. That's it. I'm through wasting time. "Thank you, but I need to be with her. Now please, get out of my way, " she growled.

The resident pushed open the swinging doors and hurriedly walked up to Amanda and the nurse. Splotchy, deep red stains colored her scrubs and white lab coat. "Are you...?"

Amanda instantly recognized the woman as the doctor who had taken over when Claire was wheeled in. Oh God, she doesn't look happy. "Yes," Whatever the question is, the answer is yes. Amanda swallowed weakly, trying not to be sick.

Shit, I hate talking to the family. "Come with me, please." She motioned toward an unoccupied exam room. "We can talk in here."

Amanda took an unsteady breath, then stepped forward.


Jody looked at her watch with aching tired eyes. How many times in my life have I sat waiting in the emergency room in the middle of the night? She sighed. Too many.

"How long has it been?" Mark shifted uncomfortably next to Jody, his bulky body protesting the long day and the much too small chair. His gaze drifted to the swinging metal doors where Claire, then Amanda, had disappeared. He couldn't help but feel responsible.

Jody patted the big man's thigh. "Too long. Try not to worry." You're making me even more worried!

Mark's jaw dropped. "Don't worry? Are you nuts?" He narrowed his eyes. "How can you even say that?"

Jody bit off the acerbic comment that was on the tip of her tongue but decided that 'blunt' was still good. "I can say it, because worrying ourselves sick won't do a damn bit of good." She yawned. Lack of sleep and stress were making them both irritable and a little punchy.


Amanda sat perched on the edge of a low chair at Claire's bedside. Her head sagged deeply between her knees and her elbows rested wearily on firm thighs. She grasped her lover's limp hand and brought it to her lips.

Her thoughts were spinning as the young blonde tried to wrap her mind around what had happened. I need to go and talk to Jody and Mark, and tell them what happened. I need to call Claire's parents.

Amanda felt a pang deep in her chest at the unpleasant realization that she couldn't turn to her own parents for... anything. In her heart, she knew their relationship was shattered beyond repair. It's times like these that a family should come together, she thought. Today, hers would be notably absent, even in spirit. She loved them... and always would... but she didn't like them and couldn't depend on them and that wounded her in a place so deep she wondered if she'd ever truly get over it. But today wasn't the day to mourn that loss. Other, more pressing matters were at hand.

Amanda laid Claire's hand back alongside the perfectly still body, and made her way to the window. It would be light soon, she knew. But she didn't want to go into the waiting room and face her friends just yet. This time was for her and Claire alone, and she was glad when the last nurse finally shuffled out of the room allowing them a modicum of peace and privacy.

Green eyes closed tiredly, and Amanda rubbed them with a vigorous hand. Images of Cory Martin and coal black eyes, the feeling of hot blood... Claire's blood... soaking into her clothes assaulted her and made her stomach roil. She absently reached down and lightly brushed her hand across the fresh pink hospital shirt she had been given hours before. Although it felt as though she was being crushed under a barrage of conflicting emotions, Amanda managed to contain her reaction to a lonely tear.

"Aww, honey, don't cry," begged the sleepy voice. "What's past is past."

"You're awake?" Amanda turned and smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling endearingly. She put her hand on her hips. "And how did you know what I was thinking about?" Getting pretty good at that mind reading thing yourself, aren't ya, Gumby?

Claire shifted uncomfortably as she pried the bed controls out from under the small of her back. She pushed several buttons before she found the one that would slowly elevate her to a sitting position. The bed creaked loudly under Claire's command.

Dark brows furrowed and older woman studied her partner. "It's been two years, Mandy. Let it go," she said softly.

"I know but..." Here you are laying in a hospital bed again, just like you were then.

A hint of pain edged the normally clear, alto voice and for the millionth time Claire cursed herself for the suffering Amanda had endured because of her carelessness. "S'okay. You don't need to explain. I understand." And she did. Just the thought of Amanda in harm's way sent a shiver down Claire's spine. She took Amanda's smaller hand in her own and gave it a reassuring squeeze, enjoying the soft smooth skin under her fingertips before Amanda stepped away again.

Strangely, although it had been the attorney who had been stabbed then shot, it was Amanda who was plagued with nightmares for months after the incident. Even now, nearly two years later to the day, when she was stressed or when she and Claire were fighting, the nightmares would return.

The night Claire had been rushed to the emergency room she had to be shocked back to life no less than three times. For days, the attorney stubbornly clung to life by what seemed the barest of threads while Amanda stood vigil at her bedside, talking, telling stories, doing anything to breach the thundering silence of the hospital room.

During those long, quiet hours the younger woman realized with sickening clarity that losing Claire now would be even more difficult than when they'd first entered the hospital. Claire was fighting, albeit weakly, and Amanda hadn't used this time to accept the possibility of Claire's death. She couldn't. It was that simple. She chose to pin all her hopes on her lover's will to live. If she died, she would carry on for Missy's sake. But an irreplaceable part of her would follow Claire to whatever lay beyond this realm. Being faced with the stark possibility of life without her partner had brought that elemental truth sharply into focus. Ultimately, however, Claire didn't disappoint, and the teary-eyed morning when she finally woke up and hoarsely called for Amanda was so welcome it hurt.

But time did heal old wounds and while Amanda knew she may never move totally past the experience, she was able to allow it to shrink back into a spot within her memories where it would remain largely harmless. After all, Claire was here... now. And that was what really mattered.

Amanda approached the bed and sat down alongside her lover. Fingertips stroked the dark woman's forehead, then gently pushed aside a stray lock of dark hair. "How do you feel? Are you hungry?" Amanda could smell the strong bitter aroma of freshly brewed coffee coming from the nurses' station and it was calling to her... loudly.

The dark head shook. "I feel like I've been in grueling, excruciating, tormenting, unbelievable pain for the past twenty hours." Claire winced as she shifted and she felt the pull of her stitches. Oh man! I don't even want to think about where those stitches are... and how they're gonna itch... holy shit!

Green eyes widened at Claire's unusually long and descriptive sentence, then warm lips curled into a sympathetic smile. "I know, baby. I'm sorry." The blonde ducked down and helped herself to another tender kiss, sighing happily when she finally pulled away, drawing a light moan from her partner.

Twinkling blue eyes opened slowly. Claire suddenly scanned the quiet room. "Where is she?" I couldn't have misplaced her already, could I?

Amanda rolled her eyes and laughed delightedly. "You're not still worried about that, are you? Jesus Christ, Gumby, you're not gonna lose her in the grocery store or something. It's not like you're a total novice at this, you know."

The attorney affected a fake pout, which Amanda promptly kissed away. "Then where is she?" Claire asked. "And how long have I been asleep?"

"You only slept for about an hour." God knows I could sleep for days myself and you're the one who had the baby! "And she's being checked out by the pediatrician. They should be bringing her back anytime now."

Amanda felt a subtle ache in her chest as she considered her growing family. She cupped a warm cheek that was a little fuller than normal. "She's absolutely beautiful, you know," she whispered, wondering whether a person's heart could get so full it would actually burst.

Claire's smile lit up the room. "Marko is gonna die."

Amanda nodded vigorously. "Oh yeah," she chuckled. "His plans for a catcher to go with his major league infield just went up in smoke." But what about hockey? Oh yeah... I can see that... Grace, agility, speed, season tickets for me... the sturdiest face mask known to man... season tickets for me... the best mouthpiece money can buy... season tickets for me...

The taller woman turned slightly so she could see Amanda's face through the rapidly disappearing shadows. "I still can't believe it's a girl," she snorted. "I didn't think he had it in him."

A year and a half ago, Jody had delivered a healthy and extremely large, bouncing baby boy, who they'd named Calvin. At the birth of his third strapping son, Mark proudly proclaimed himself a 'boy-making machine'. Claire sniggered recalling how she'd half expected him to start beating his chest like Tarzan.

"How could the ultrasound be wrong about something like that?" the lawyer continued, waving her hands as she spoke. Uh Oh. "Are you sure something vital didn't fall off?"

Amanda laughed. God, I love you. "Yep. The umbilical cord can sometimes obscure the picture and appear like a little..."

Claire smirked. "Ahhh... I see. Well, I guess everyone will just be surprised then."

"Everyone is going to be relieved you're all right." I know I'm at the head of that list. After the birth, Amanda had sent a nurse out to tell Jody and Mark that Claire and the baby were doing fine. I hope the nurse really did it, she fretted.

The younger woman's face turned serious. "Did you have to scare the crap out of me again?" God, for a moment there I think my heart stopped beating. I know it did.

Claire's pregnancy had been comfortable and uneventful. She was the model of health and remained extremely active to the very end, much to the consternation and worry of her partner. The delivery, however, was another story.

The baby's position had shifted midway through the labor making both a Cesarean birth risky and vaginal birth unusually difficult. Claire had been in agony hours before finally admitting that she couldn't take anymore. Actually, she screamed, "DRUGS NOW!!" at the top of her lungs, scaring the life out of her doctor and the attending nurses.

Amanda didn't even bat an eyelash. She had been expected the outburst for hours and was amazed her stubborn partner had lasted as long as she did. Besides, seeing Claire in pain and worrying about both Claire and the baby was taking its toll on her too. It was time for a little relief, whatever the source.

When it didn't look as though the doctor, a man whom Claire had come to detest over the past twenty hours, was moving fast enough, the lawyer turned worn-out, pleading eyes on Amanda. That was all it took to set things in motion.

Amanda grabbed the doctor by the ear as though he were an errant child. Pulling the hapless organ to her lips, she repeated Claire's command... loudly. Then, her voice shifted to a bare whisper, as she said something in his ear that caused the color to drain from the middle-aged man's face. He immediately bolted out of the room, mumbling, in search of the anesthesiologist.

Despite her current situation, Claire burst out laughing. The hospital staff had just been treated to a small sample of her protector's persuasive abilities and she was loving every minute of it. But her laughter ended abruptly when another contraction tore through her. How can this be worse than getting stabbed and shot? Oh yeah, I passed out then. Well, dammit why can't I just pass out now! Amanda could hit me in the head really hard. I could give her a puppy dog face... that works every time!

The doctor had only been gone a few moments when, after a surprise shift of positions and an ear-piercing shriek from Claire, the baby decided it was time for her to make her grand entrance. In Claire's mind it was a spectacular ordeal that was worth every moment of pain and every second of worry.

Claire's hospital door slowly opened and a young nurse, obviously tired from the nightshift, walked into the room carrying a pink bundle in her arms. "I believe this belongs to you," she offered cheerfully as she handed the sleeping baby to Claire.

"Yeah, um... thanks," the attorney said a little awkwardly, trying not to be completely overwhelmed by the small body in her arms. Our own living, breathing miniature human. Wow! Carefully, she settled the baby against her belly, happily noting that she could actually see her feet again. She wiggled her toes under the blanket.

"Buzz me if you need anything." And the nurse was gone.

The first rays of the morning sun began to peek into the room, fracturing the last of Night's shadows and painting the room with bold streaks of gold and red. Amanda shifted excitedly, leaning across Claire to get a better look at their new daughter. Profound relief, gratitude, and a generous dose of love mixed to form a heady combination that was nearly intoxicating in its effect. Amanda's good mood was starting to bubble over.

Claire peeled away the soft pink blanket and caressed the impossibly silky skin on the baby's tummy. Then she removed the cap from the baby's head and grinned. "Look's like there's another blonde in the family."

Amanda tousled the thick white-blonde mop of hair as the baby made a soft cooing noise. God, I think I'm in love. "Well, honey, she may not have your hair color but she still looks an awful lot like you." You are one lucky girl. "And I can see some of Mark in her too." White teeth flashed in a wry smile. "She's not exactly a little one though, is she? No wonder you were carrying on like you were gonna die," Amanda teased as she looked at the 9.5 pound newborn.

"Don't even think of trying to blame this on my fondness for Twinkies." Damn Satanic snacks! Claire playfully slapped the warm thigh pressed against her own. She narrowed her eyes, and did her best to look indignant, failing miserably. I'm too happy to even pretend to be unhappy! She laughed at herself. Lord, am I pathetic, or what?

The baby was starting to wake up and Amanda took the opportunity to give her a thorough once over, wishing she would hurry up and open her eyes, secretly hoping to be greeted by a familiar shade of pale blue. "She's perfect! I think we've got a future heart-breaker on our hands, Gumby." The baby began to squirm under Amanda's inquisitive touch. "Breakfast time for the chubby one."

With her eyebrow at its zenith Claire opened her mouth, but before she could speak, a warm palm covered her lips. Amanda rolled her eyes and tried to contain her laughter. "I meant the baby," she barely managed with a straight face. It's not a good idea to tease her about this... no matter how much fun it would be.

"Oh... I knew that," Claire lied, a sheepish look fluttering across her face. She'd gained a total of twenty-five pounds during her pregnancy. Her doctor assured her that she was very healthy and that that was a perfectly acceptable amount. The ultra-fit woman, however, felt like a beached whale, and had grown quite touchy about the subject.

The baby fussed a little more, drawing both women's attention. "Claire?" Amanda gently prodded.

The lawyer gulped, having intentionally forgotten about this part of motherhood. "Umm... okay... I mean..."

Amanda motioned Claire forward and reached to untie her hospital gown. "She's the one who needs to figure things out. You just get to relax," Amanda soothed, sensing her partner's discomfort.

Claire remained frozen and Amanda leaned back to look into worried blue eyes. "Gumby, nobody says you have to nurse if you don't want to. Today's formulas are wonderful." She cocked her head slightly to the side, watching as the wheels in Claire's mind turned. She could almost hear them grinding to a halt. "Missy was bottle fed from the very first day and she couldn't be healthier."

"No... I mean... I do want to try at least. It just seems so..." Claire's forehead creased as she searched for the words that would describe how she felt. "I dunno... so personal."

A puzzled look creased Amanda's face as she considered her normally immodest lover, the woman who had a standing 'clothing optional' policy at home. "You've had her inside your body for the past nine months and this seems personal?" With the back of her hand, she lightly grazed a heavy, bare breast. Amanda stifled a groan as her body went on full alert at the sensual feeling of soft warm skin. Oh boy, I'd better keep what I'm thinking to myself... for now. Or I'll really freak her out. Amanda's lips twitched.

Claire jumped at the touch and shot her partner an evil look, which she again was unable to maintain for more than a few seconds. The annoyed face shifted to worry, which finally shifted again to resolve. Having made her decision, she squared her shoulders and looked pointedly at their daughter. A dark eyebrow rose. "No biting," she commanded. Blue eyes immediately swept sideways to pin Amanda, daring her to comment.

The young blonde bit her lip and scrunched up her face, nearly choking as she tried to hold back the words that were on the tip of her tongue. "Ooooh... you are just no fun!"

"I could have told you that," Claire smirked.

Satisfied, and with surprising ease, the tall woman positioned the hungry infant and allowed nature to take its course. The baby required no further prompting as she greedily latched on. Both Claire and Amanda smiled broadly at their daughter's eager suckling. After a moment, Claire let out a breath she didn't know she was holding.

"Finally! I thought you were going to pass out on me."

"You were monitoring my breathing?" Claire asked incredulously.

"I notice everything about you, Claire," Amanda said seriously. Then she winked. "I gotta watch over my investment, don't I?"

Claire only grunted, confident that it was she, not Amanda, who reaped the most benefits from this relationship. Assured that the baby was enjoying a hearty breakfast, the lawyer settled back into the pillows and released another tired sigh, wondering just how much she and Mark ate as children. Then she thought about Amanda and cringed. I don't even wanna go there.

Amanda laid her head against the taller woman's shoulder as she watched the baby eat, amazed that after over twenty hours of labor and childbirth, the faint odor of roses still clung to her partner. "We didn't pick out a single girl's name." She tweaked the tiny upturned nose that was snuggled against a lush breast and laughed when the baby sneezed then nuzzled back to continue breakfast. "Sorry," Amanda offered playfully.

The infant ate in silence until pulling away for a moment and sleepily opening pale blue eyes. "Yes!" Amanda pumped her fist in victory. Looking at her surprised mate, she smiled impishly. "In case you couldn't tell, I was sorta hoping she'd get those gorgeous baby blues."

"I'm glad you're happy, Mandy," Claire said with a lopsided grin that threatened to melt the younger woman's heart, not really understanding the big deal. I kind of have fondness for green myself.

I'm more than happy, love. Amanda reminded Claire that they needed to decide on a name. "Somehow, she just doesn't look like a Joseph. Any ideas?"

Claire examined the bright red face and cap of pale blonde hair, feeling a smile tease at her lips. "How about Greer?"

"Greer?" But that's... Amanda swallowed. "You don't have to do that." Irrational tears threatened to spill over at the heart-felt gesture.

"Why not?" Claire gently wiped away a shimmering drop of moisture from the corner of Amanda's eye. "It's a pretty name, and I want to give her a little piece of both of us." I want her to have a piece of you. The older woman shrugged. "Wadda ya say, Mandy?"

Amanda rolled the name around in her head. Greer Easton... Well, it would match our mailbox. But I do like it. The blonde nodded and kissed her lover. "That was so sweet," she whispered lovingly.

Claire chuckled and wrapped an arm around a rounded shoulder. "It looks like she's about finished." At least I think so. "You wanna bring Mark and Jody in to meet her?"

"You bet I do, Gumby!" Amanda nearly leapt off the bed, her emotions ping-ponging from one end of the spectrum to the other. "It's about time I get to show my daughter off to someone besides the nurses. I'll be back in a flash." Amanda stopped at the doorway and turned around. Jade eyes took on added warmth and her voice cracked a little as she spoke. "I really love you." Her eyes shifted to the baby where they stayed for a long moment before shifting back to her partner. "Thank you."

The attorney felt her breathing catch as Amanda's words and intense gaze washed over her and heated her from within. Thank you. "I love you too."


"Aww... He's so cute!" Mark exclaimed, watching avidly as Claire began changing the baby's diaper.

Suddenly, a square jaw dropped... then hazel eyes popped out of their sockets and rolled around on the floor like marbles. B...bu...but," the tall man sputtered, pointing at the infant.

Jody broke off her conversation with Amanda to peer interestedly at the baby, wondering why Mark sounded like he was choking on his own tongue. Honey-colored eyes widened. Then she and Amanda exchanged giggling smirks.

The older psychologist gave Mark a hard slap between broad shoulders. "Way to go, Marko!"

"But... but..." He was still too stunned to do anything but ramble incoherently. "But my catcher," he finally whined. Causing the room's occupants to burst into laughter.

The big man swallowed audibly, paling slightly as he said, "Are you sure it didn't..."

"It didn't," Claire reassured. She lowered her voice and urged Mark closer, ignoring the hysterically laughing therapists. "I checked with, Mandy... just to be sure," she whispered conspiratorially.

Mark nodded, mollified but still in shock. He took a few seconds to adjust himself to the idea, then grinned broadly. "She's a cutie!" he corrected himself.

"She is that, Mark." Amanda agreed warmly, giving the prosecutor a soft peck on the cheek. "Thanks really doesn't begin to cut it... but thank you anyway."

Mark looked down at his shoes, embarrassed by the praise. "It was my pleasure, ladies," he scoffed. "Somehow I never imagined being a stud to be such a lonely job." Uh Oh. Did I say that last part out loud? He looked at Jody. Oh yeah. I said it out loud.

He moved quickly to appease his wife, half-expecting smoke to start pouring out of her ears. "It would have been better if you were there, Jody," he lamely stated.

Jody rolled her eyes as both Amanda and Claire shook with silent laughter. Jody spoke to Claire and Amanda while she stared at Mark with what he called the 'eye'. "I think modern technology killed the fantasy."

The stout psychologist let her husband stew for a moment before almost letting him off the hook. "Don't worry, Mark," she mock-comforted. "I know exactly what you meant."

Oh shit, his mind squeaked.

"Where are the kids?" Claire asked, hoping to change the subject and bail out her rapidly sinking friend.

"They're with me." A head poked around the corner of the doorway then disappeared for a second before Anne Easton made her way into the crowded room, children in tow.

"Hiya, Mom!" Claire said happily. "How'd you know? We were just gonna call you."

"Jody phoned me a few hours ago and I thought I'd come by and relieve her from babysitting duty."

"Where's my new baby brother?" an excited 4-year-old exclaimed, her wet winter boots squeaking loudly on the shiny floor as she dashed to her mother. Amanda immediately directed Missy to Claire's bedside so she could get a good look at the baby. Wide eyes focused on the small bundle. "He's all wrinkly!"

Claire smiled indulgently and patted a spot on the bed alongside her, allowing Missy to jump up for an even better examination. "We're hoping that will eventually go away," she explained wryly.

"Are you sure, mom?" Missy asked worriedly, her dolls were always so smooth and never all red.

Claire pursed her lips. "Well, I'm pretty sure. But I guess we'll have to wait and see to be certain."

Judge Easton's smile rivaled her daughter's. "He's beautiful, dear. I knew he would be." A touch of smugness colored her tone as she geared up for some serious bragging.

"Thanks, Mom," Amanda interjected proudly, ignoring the fact she had nothing to do with it.

The next few moments were spent explaining that 'he' was a 'she'. Missy became so excited that Jody marched her into the bathroom for a mandatory potty break, while Mark began elucidating to his and Jody's son, Calvin, the merits of being able to play more than one position at a time. "And think what it'll do for your salary..." his voice trailed off as he steered his son toward a maple-colored rocking chair in the corner of the room.

Amanda stepped alongside Judge Easton who was making cooing noises at the wriggling newborn. "Why don't you let me take Alex?" She gestured toward the sleeping 11-month-old glued to the Judge's shoulder. "I know he weighs a ton."

The older woman nodded and the young blonde reached out and settled her equally fair-haired son against her chest and shoulder. He was snoring loudly and slightly sticky from being plastered to his grandmother for the past couple of hours. Amanda turned and kissed a sweaty head, marveling at the dead weight in her arms. Apparently, babies in Mark's family only came in one size... jumbo.

When Claire and Amanda had decided they wanted another child, two major decisions needed to be made. Amanda was understandably gun-shy about adoption so they needed to find a suitable 'donor'. The 'who' was easy. Mark was the only person they'd really thought about asking, but as they considered Jody's likely reaction they winced.

Amanda approached Jody before she or Claire said anything to Mark. They didn't want to do anything that had the potential to drive a wedge between the newlyweds. But to Amanda and Claire's delight, after several days of serious soul-searching, Jody gave the only answer she could live with... along with her sincere blessing.

When Claire spoke to Mark, and assured him Jody was okay with the idea, her best friend agreed on the spot, citing his two young sons, Bobby and Keith, as living proof of his healthy genes, and strong Scandinavian stock. "Plus my family has a tendency toward good looks," he'd added with a grin.

Claire would have loved to dispute it, but since it was undeniably true, she didn't bother trying. "Let's hope big heads aren't something else that run in your family, handsome," she teased, knowing full well that the man was exceedingly humble considering he was truly easy on the eyes.

Mark didn't have the heart to tell her big heads did run in his family... literally. Oh well, she'll figure that out for herself.

Next they needed to decide who would actually bear the child. Neither woman could deny the other so, although it would be more work initially, they agreed to they would both get pregnant. Amanda succeeded almost immediately. Claire, however, required significantly more time, which put nearly a year between Alex's and Greer's ages.

"Hey Marko, c'mere," Claire called softly, propping herself up on several thick pillows.

The large man lumbered across the room with Calvin in his arms as Jody and Missy reemerged from the bathroom. "Yeah?" He moved closer to the tired-looking woman.

Claire reached up and tugged his longish dishwater hair as a thin dark eyebrow arched menacingly. "About that big head thing..."

Both Jody and Amanda laughed but couldn't stop themselves from squirming a bit and wincing in sympathy.

'Family' had taken on a whole new meaning for all of them and they counted themselves among the very lucky for the opportunity to experience it...




6 months later

"Time to get out!" Claire shouted from her redwood deck.

"Aww.... Do we have to?" complained Bobby and Keith, with Calvin and Alex quickly following suit.

"Yes, you have to. You're gonna be crispy-sunburned if you don't get out of the pool. C'mon lunch is almost ready." Missy had been coaxed out of the pool minutes earlier by the smell of the food alone, and was already eagerly munching away alongside Jody and Amanda.

Four sets of green eyes brightened at the prospect of lunch and the brothers happily splashed and pushed their way out of the large wading pool. Keith remained behind, helping Alex climb out while Bobby and Calvin raced for the wooden deck and their hamburgers.

Jody and Amanda sat in plush deck chairs, happily nursing their bottles of ice cold beer, and 'talking shop', or gossiping as Mark liked to say, while the beefy man fussed over the grill, defending the burgers and chicken breasts from the buzzing insects. It was a heartwarming scene that Claire looked forward to every Fourth of July.

The smell of charcoal briquettes, fresh clipped grass, and a hint of coconut sunscreen, brought a carefree smile to the attorney's face, despite the stifling heat. Claire's parents had even stopped by for a brief visit but were willingly chased inside by the brutal summer sun, promising to watch Greer in a comfortable, air-conditioned environment.

Claire had hoped Amanda's father might stop by as well, but wasn't surprised that he hadn't. She'd called to invite him, hoping to take a tentative step toward bridging the gap in her lover's damaged relationship with her parents, only to have Mrs. Greer answer the phone and politely, but firmly, decline the invitation for both her and Amanda's father. After the conversation, the attorney began to wonder if it wasn't for the best anyhow. But that realization didn't stop her heart from aching for her sensitive partner, who obviously missed her family, especially her father.

Only the month before, Amanda's mother had called and explained that Monica's body had been positively identified via dental records, after her skeletal remains were found by some hapless fisherman on the banks of the Rainy River, over twenty miles from the Iris' cabins. The body's identity would have remained a mystery forever but for an I.D. bracelet wrapped around a sun-bleached bone, which was conveniently engraved with its owner's full name. Over 2 years of waiting and wondering were finally over.

Amanda's reaction to her sister's death was a mixture of sorrow, guilt and relief, serving to further distance the psychologist from her own mother. It seemed that the rift started by Monica would go on despite her death.

"Hiya, mama," yawned Alex.

"Hi, kiddo. Are you ready for your nap?" Claire set down her plate and motioned the little boy closer.

"NO!" the 17-month-old proclaimed, jutting his chin out defiantly.

Claire chuckled, having dealt with this before. Things really are easier the second, her mind drifted to the sleeping baby in the house, and third time around. "Okay." She shrugged. "Stay awake then."

"No nap?" the blonde asked, pale brows creasing in puzzlement.

"No nap," Claire confirmed.

The little boy scrunched up his face in a look that was strongly reminiscent of Amanda and appeared to consider his mother's confusing response. Suddenly, he ran across the deck to Amanda where he unceremoniously buried his face in her outstretched legs. She smiled at his familiar 'I'm so tired I'm about ready to die' gesture.

Amanda reached down and stroked his back. "What's the matter, sweetie, are you ready for your nap?"

The boy sighed at the feeling of her cool fingertips on his T-shirt covered back and his pale head nodded vigorously. He immediately extended his arms asking to be held, looking utterly relieved that he would, indeed, get his nap.

Amanda stood and scooped up the child and walked past a silently laughing Claire. "Messing with the boy's mind again, Gumby?" she playfully inquired as she glanced over her shoulder.

Claire affected a wide-eyed innocent look that merely drew a disbelieving snort from the therapist as she opened the patio door and entered the house.

Food disappeared and beer flowed. Children napped, fussed and played until a little after dinnertime when Jody and Mark began to pack up the kids and their sleeping bags. It had become a tradition that the children would spend the night at the Gustafson's after the Fourth of July picnic. In exchange, Amanda and Claire returned the favor every Labor Day.


The setting sun found Amanda towel-drying her freshly shampooed hair as she watching its descent from their second story bedroom window. Finally, the last purple rays faded into the horizon beyond the thick wall of tall trees. The evening breeze ruffled her clean tresses and brought with it the light scent of pine and grass. She sighed softly when two strong arms wrapped around her from behind.

"Pretty sunset," a low rumbling voice whispered in Amanda's ear.

The warm puff of breath tickled the fine hairs in Amanda's ear and she shivered a little, bringing up her own arms to rest on Claire's. "It is," she affirmed, choosing not to say anything else, contented to silently absorb the light breeze cooling her damp skin and the warm presence heating her back.

"I love it when you wear this." The voice was now a growl.

"I know." Amanda smiled as soft lips kissed a wet path from behind her ear to her shoulder. A soft moan escaped her when Claire's hands moved up and came to rest just below the swell of her breasts.

Claire lovingly stroked the increasingly warm skin through the sheer material of the short silk nightgown. "I just love the Fourth. Today was great, doncha think?" With her fingertips, the older woman gently slid down one of the thin straps of Amanda's nightie, marveling at the deep red fabric atop creamy fair skin. Crimson snow, she mused as she brushed her lips against Amanda's shoulder and was rewarded with another breathy sigh.

Amanda suddenly remembered Claire had said something. "Uh huh," she gasped as Claire's kisses moved from her shoulder to the center of her back and large hands slid lower to caress her abdomen. "Today w... was... was great." The shorter woman was rapidly losing the ability to think clearly as all her attention focused on the hands and lips lightly brushing across her skin and negligee. The silky material felt cool but Claire's hands and breath were hot, making her skin react to even the barest of touches, goosebumps breaking out all along her limbs.

The smaller woman turned in Claire's arms, and her eyes were happily greeted by 5' 10" of stunningly naked lawyer. Amanda wrapped her arms around Claire's waist and rested her head against her chest, listening to the steady pounding of the sure, strong heart.

Claire smiled tenderly and placed a soft kiss on the pale hair resting below her chin as her touch shifted from erotic to comforting. "Do you think I sent enough bottles with Greer?"

The mouth against Claire's chest curled into a smile, even in the times set aside solely for them, their kids somehow drifted into their thoughts. "Yes, I'm sure."

A wicked thought teased Claire's lips. "Did you tell Marko what was in the bottles?"

Claire tightened her hold around Amanda as the younger woman convulsed into laughter. "NO! Don't you remember what happened last year with Alex?"

Amanda had loaded Mark down with several bottles for Alex and his Fourth of July sleep over at the Gustafson's, while Jody and a pregnant Claire were busy readying Missy. Without looking at the bottles, Mark asked if they needed to be refrigerated. When Amanda answered, "Well, they didn't start out that way, but seeing as they're breast milk, it might be a good idea," a comical look of horror seized Mark's face and he flung down the bottles as though they were on fire. It became a running joke between them that Amanda reveled in.

The fragrant breeze softly blew a lock of blonde hair against Claire's face and the attorney playfully captured it between white teeth. When Amanda tried unsuccessfully to pull away, a tickle war ensued with the woman ending up on the floor in a breathless heap. This, in turn, led to Claire being pinned to the bed by a very aroused Amanda.

"No more talk about the kids," Amanda ordered firmly.

Claire could only nod. What kids? The therapist leaned down very slowly, bringing her lips closer and closer to Claire's, letting her hunger show clearly in the expression on her face. Claire willingly fell into dilated, emerald eyes as her lover's touch ignited a passion that was always simmering just below the surface. Every touch was an explosion of sensation, every kiss a reaffirmation of desire and love.

Claire's hands slid under Amanda's nightgown and freely claimed the body as familiar to her as her own. "Your skin is softer than the silk," she muttered against the tender neck alongside her lips.

I really do need to learn patience... just not right now. Amanda was already beyond words, eyes closed tightly, she began rocking her hips against the firm form beneath hers.

Claire reached up and roughly grabbed Amanda's bottom pulling the soft mound of damp curls against her stomach. A husky moan erupted from deep in Amanda's throat and the sound alone caused a light sweat to break out across Claire's forehead and back.

Wanting more control, Claire flipped Amanda onto her back and slid her fingers along where the smaller woman was all fire and heat. Green eyes flew open at the unexpected touch but were quickly slammed shut again when Claire thrust her fingers forward.

Amanda gasped and threw her head back, arching into the exquisite touch as a stream of endearments, peppered with words of encouragement, reverberated off the bedroom walls. One hand tightly clenched the cool white sheet while the other slid along the slick skin of Claire's back, urging her to continue.

Claire's own desire increased ten-fold when she took a moment to study the writhing, carnal body below hers. In Claire's mind, this was Amanda at her most magnificent, all raw want and desire, completely open, allowing Claire to experience the sensations right along with her, supremely comfortable with her own needs but giving as much as she received. If she lived to be 100, Claire was certain she would never tire of making love to this fantastic woman.

The attorney leaned forward and captured Amanda's slightly parted lips, claiming her panting breath as her own. "I love you," she whispered between incendiary kisses as Amanda's hips picked up a furious rhythm.

God, I love you too! Amanda thought, unable to actually form the words. The blonde's belly clenched tightly as she hurtled forward toward imminent climax, wondering at that aching moment, as she always did, why they didn't spend all their time doing this.

When Claire shifted her position and began to nip at a painfully erect nipple through the cool scarlet material, Amanda's body shuddered violently and she was lost in an intense explosion of sensation that rocked her world. Her hands tangled tightly in sable hair as she flew, suspended in space, for long seconds before crashing back to earth with a loud moan of pleasure.

Claire continued raining kisses on her lover's chest and throat as Amanda gulped in deep breaths of air and tried to calm her pounding heart. Jesus Christ, Gumby! "Claire... You... You are..."

"Wonderful, talented," the darker woman helpfully supplied while Amanda took the opportunity to begin her own exploration in earnest.

Claire was on fire, and closed her eyes to allow her other senses to heighten and take control. The sounds of her lover's soft sighs and sensual growls mixed with the sweet musk smell of Amanda's skin and hair and excitement were an aphrodisiac of worthy proportion.

The blonde patiently worked her way down Claire's body, drawing out the anticipation that had Claire shaking. Amanda tasted bite after bite of luscious skin until she found herself languorously kissing the exquisitely soft skin of the attorney's inner thighs. Then she paused, drawing the immediate attention of wild, raging, violet eyes. "What I was going to say..." Her tongue snaked out and tasted the treasure within its reach. " that you are..." Oh God! "Mmm...," she hummed with delight, losing herself in the flood of warmth from her lover and her own body's reaction to her heart's desire.

Much later, with Claire wrapped securely around her, sleeping peacefully, Amanda remembered what she was going to say. Sweetheart, you are truly delicious.


The next morning was cloudy and rainy, a surprise summer shower drenching the Twin Cities. Amanda lay on her back with Claire's head pillowed on her stomach, two long arms holding the psychologist securely in place. Gentle fingers lovingly traced patterns on smooth skin, eventually finding their way across high cheekbones and into hair the color of the night sky.

Amanda absorbed the quiet sound of Claire's deep even breaths, deciding the carpet could just get wet, she wasn't moving an inch... and certainly not for something as mundane as closing the window. It was just water after all.

It was predawn, their usual time for talking before getting up and beginning the day's chores. But this morning she knew Claire would sleep through this time. Somehow the attorney's body always seemed to know it was Sunday, and that she could sleep in a little. It was a skill Amanda couldn't seem to master.

Claire shifted and untucked a large but slender hand from Amanda's back. The wide gold band on her ring finger glittered softly in the gray light of early morning. Amanda entwined her fingers with Claire's and gently brought up their joined hands, enjoying the sight of their fingers and the rings nestled tightly together. Although it was by now a familiar sight, it never failed to warm her heart, helping her center herself and focus on what was really important.

She was glad they did things the way they did. There had been no legal proceeding, since their union was unrecognized by the State.

There was no minister, as neither woman was particularly religious, choosing instead to believe in simple universal concepts like fighting for the greater good and helping those in need and giving of themselves to each other and the people they loved. These were the principles they lived by and they didn't require the blessing of a church.

There were no guests, not even Mark and Jody. Rather, they simply exchanged rings and heartfelt but unplanned words under a starry sky in the gazebo in their own back yard. It was an intensely private moment and the only truly necessary guests were already in attendance.

They had selected plain but wide gold bands, befitting their simple but classic tastes. Each, without the knowledge of the other, had the ring they would present carefully engraved. Amanda chuckled at the memory. When the rings were put together, just like the women, they made perfect sense.

Two hearts... one soul
Forever linked


Thanks for reading.  I'd love to hear what you thought. Comments or questions to Advocate


Return to the Academy