Disclaimers, or lack of them: See Part 1

My thanks as always to my beta reader, Barbara Davies. Her work can be found on her page, Barbara Davies.


Part 24

However many times Marianna viewed Collingford, it would always take her breath away. She remembered the first time she was brought here, as a twenty-one-year-old by her future husband.

The house was quite simply breathtaking.

As they arrived along the long and winding driveway, its illuminated form rose out of the darkness, like a landlocked Titanic.

As the Rolls drew in front of one of the large doors to the side of the house, it opened, a tall man walking out to meet the vehicle. He was greeted by the chauffeur.

"Good evening, M'Lord," said Jonathan as he opened the door at the rear of the Rolls. The man he greeted was tall, a good half foot beyond six feet. His hair was a sandy colour, greying at the temples, his eyes as blue as his daughter's.

Jeffrey Holebrook-Sutherland reached into the back of the car and helped his wife out, bending to give her a peck on the cheek.

"Good grief," he said, peering into the back of the car at the two sleeping women. "What on Earth are they wearing?"

Marianna sighed. "They took their clothes at the police station." She pulled on her husband's arm. "Now, Jeffrey, darling. They're both exhausted. You're going to have to wait until tomorrow to talk to Joanna about what's gone on."

"Of course, dear," he said smiling. "Now, let's see if we can't rouse your daughter." He leaned into the car, grasping Joanna's ankle and shaking it gently.

Marianna chuckled as she made her way into the house; he always referred to Joanna as 'her' daughter when the girl got herself into trouble. But she knew he adored his youngest daughter, and would go to any lengths to make sure she was happy.

She had just handed her coat to her maid, and turned to see Jo entering the huge hallway. Then she saw a sight which brought an instant smile to her face.

Her husband entered, cradling the still sleeping form of the small blonde in his arms. Marianna thought she looked like a child, dwarfed by her tall husband. But then she realised that the blonde was little more than a child, and wondered at how her daughter's friend had survived so much at such a young age.

"Where are you putting us?" asked Jo, stifling a yawn.

"In your usual room," said Marianna. "You'll find some clothes in the bureau. I sent Kate out to get some things for you both - I hope I estimated Michelle's size correctly."

Jo took a step forward and hugged her mother fiercely. "Thank you so much," she said, finding her eyes filling with tears. She heard her father making his careful way up the stairs, and started to follow him.

Halfway up the stairs Jo turned. "Any chance of something to eat? We just had some pretty lame sandwiches at the police station."

"I'll be sure to send some up. You go on up. The fire is lit in the room, and there's plenty of hot water." She started to turn away. "Oh yes, I'll also be calling Dr. Morris tomorrow to get him to look at you both."

"We're fine, Mum," insisted Jo.

"Humour me, dear."

Jo chuckled tiredly, and gave a small nod. "Goodnight," she said, and turned back up the stairs.

When Jo arrived in the huge bedroom, her father had just placed Rocky on the bed. She watched as he carefully arranged her on the incredibly soft bed covering so that she would be comfortable. The huge four-poster bed, with its canopy, almost swallowed up the small woman.

"Your mother's told me a lot about this little girl," he said, and Jo watched in fascination as he gently pushed away blonde hair from the sleeping face. She joined her father, gazing down at the blonde. "She's important to you?"

"Very," said Jo. She looked up at her father. "I don't say thank you enough."

Jeffrey leaned down, and gave his daughter a kiss on the cheek, pulling her into a heartfelt embrace. "You're growing up, Joanna. Never thought I'd live to see the day." He held her away from him, his hands on her shoulders. "I think you may have to accept some responsibility for this girl. Do you think you're up to it?"

Jo looked down at Rocky, then back to her father. "Yeah, I think I am." She hugged him again. "But you know what? I like it." She disentangled herself from his embrace and sat on the edge of the bed. "I like having to think about someone else but myself for once. I like wanting to make sure she's happy."

"That's what I felt when I met your mother." He leaned against one of the bedposts. "It's a wonderful feeling, having someone be a part of you. Is that how you feel about Michelle?"

"That's exactly how I feel." Her hand had found the blonde's, her thumb lightly caressing the back of the small hand. "It means so much to me that you understand."

He leaned down and patted his daughter's thigh. "Sounds like your food is here. I'll be in the library if you need me."

"Okay, Dad. And thanks."

He left her with a smile, passing the maid as she entered laden with a tray full of food.

Jo let the girl place the tray on a small table and then quietly closed the door as she left. She turned back, regarding the silent form on the bed.

Rocky was curled up on her right side, one fist tucked beneath her head. She still wore the white overalls the police had provided them both with. She looked peaceful enough, but as Jo sat on the edge of the bed beside her, she could just make out a small crease of worry between the fair eyebrows.

Jo went to a large bureau, opening a drawer and finding a selection of different colour tee-shirts in there. She pulled out a couple and went back to the bed. Easing Rocky onto her back, she began unfastening the top of the strange garment she was wearing.

"Hey," she whispered as green eyes blinked open. "I'm undressing you again." She smiled down, but the smile wasn't mirrored back at her, and she stopped what she was doing. "You okay?"

Glassy green eyes tracked from her lover and across the room, taking in the antique furniture and then the magnificent decoratively plastered ceiling.

"We're at Collingford," said Jo, reaching out slowly and caressing a flushed cheek.

"Why am I so tired?" said the blonde in a very small voice. She seemed incapable of moving at all, and just watched as Jo resumed undoing the fastenings on the suit.

"They sedated you, back at the police station. Plus, we haven't had a lot of sleep in the past forty-eight hours." She leaned forward and eased Rocky to a sitting position, pulling the top of the suit down so that it pooled about her waist.

Rocky leaned her head onto her lover's shoulder, sighing deeply as she felt the long arms encircle her.

They sat like that for a while in comfortable silence, until Jo felt the weight in her arms become heavy again as Rocky slid back into sleep. She patted the blonde's back gently. "Hey, I want you to eat something first, we've neither of us had much all day."

She snagged one of the tee-shirts, and pulled it over the blonde head, helping the groggy young woman get her arms through the sleeves, and then settled it about her.

"You get the rest of it off, then slip into bed. I'll get the tray."

Jo pulled her suit off and slipped into the other tee-shirt, before getting the tray and balancing it on the bed. The she plumped up the huge pillows and placed them against the dark, intricately carved headboard. She jumped up into the bed, which was as antique as the rest of the furniture in the room, and much higher off the ground than modern beds. She eased under the thick quilt, and leaned against the pillows she'd piled against the headboard. Rocky had dozed off again, and she shook her gently, waking her again.

"Come on, come up here." Jo pulled the blonde up so that she was sitting with her back against the taller woman's chest. "Try eating something." She handed Rocky a sandwich made with some of the ham cured in the huge kitchens of Collingford Manor.

"I'm not hungry," she said pushing away the offered snack. "Just tired."

"Okay," Jo wasn't going to force her. "You want a drink? There's some hot chocolate here."

The blonde head nodded and Jo carefully handed her the mug, watching over Rocky's shoulder to make sure she didn't spill any down her. Then she picked up a mug for herself, closing her eyes at the taste, which reminded her of her childhood again.

"Don't remember coming up here; did I sleep all the way here?" asked Rocky, handing back the half-finished mug of hot chocolate to her lover.

"You did. You're completely wiped out, Sweetheart." She reached down for the plates of sandwiches again. "You going to try this?" she asked, holding the snack in front of her lover's face.

Rocky shook her head. "Don't feel so good, just want to sleep." She turned slightly, taking a handful of Jo's tee-shirt, and snuggled into the embrace.

Jo was left holding the sandwich, but she too had lost her appetite, so she placed it back on the plate on the tray. She tucked the blonde head of the already sleeping woman under her chin, and settled back into the plump pillows.

She dozed for a while, and was woken when she felt the tray lifted from near her legs. Her mother was smiling down at her. "I thought you were hungry," Marianna said.

"I am, just too tired to eat." She blinked sleepily up at her mother, who sat on the edge of the high mattress.

"Your father was quite taken with Michelle." She gazed affectionately down at the sleeping blonde, seeing the death grip she had on her daughter.

"Good, I'm glad." She thought for a moment, chewing her lip. "Will you and Father be at Collingford a while?"

Marianna considered the question. "We could. Is there a reason you ask?"

"I'd like to stay for a few months. Just give her time to rest, to have somewhere where she feels she could maybe belong."

"I've already thought of that. I'd love you both to stay. You could help me with the arrangements for opening the house in the spring." She smiled when she saw her daughter's eyelids start to droop. "We can talk in the morning, dear. You rest now, and tomorrow we'll take Michelle for a tour of the house, if she's up to it."

She made Jo slide down further into the bed and pulled the quilt around the sleeping pair, noticing that the blonde didn't stir or relinquish her hold as her daughter made herself comfortable.

She closed the door quietly on her way out, and made her way down to the library to speak to her husband.

Bright sunshine woke Rocky and she turned her head away from the annoying light. Then she found soft hair tickling her nose, and opened her eyes cautiously to find herself buried beneath the ebony locks.

Her head was resting on her lover's shoulder, her hand on the warm skin of Jo's stomach. She reached up, carefully brushing the hair from her face. The she moved slightly away from the sleeping woman, wanting to see her fully, enjoying the experience of watching Jo in sleep.

There were dark shadows under the blue eyes, now closed, the dark lashes brushing against slightly flushed cheeks. Full lips were parted, showing the edges of perfect teeth.

Rocky couldn't resist. She leaned forward, brushing her lips against those of the sleeping woman, delighted when her lover responded unconsciously. She settled back down in her favourite place, and closed her eyes to the light that wanted to pull her from her lover's embrace. She felt the arms tighten about her as she relaxed again, and Jo mumbled something unintelligible, though she thought she heard a couple of familiar words in there. Words they had used a lot lately, words that made her smile.

She closed her eyes almost reluctantly, wanting to enjoy for longer the sight of her lover so relaxed in sleep. But she felt the pull to return to slumber, and she was not going to try to fight it.

She woke later, her full bladder nudging her to consciousness. She sat up slowly and finally managed to divert her attention from her still-sleeping lover and take in the magnificence of the room she was in.

A huge fireplace dominated one wall, the embers still glowing. All around the room were what were obviously priceless antiques, from the huge rug on the floor to the paintings on the wall. At the edges of the rug she could see the solid oak floor boards, polished over hundreds of years to a mirror-like sheen. There were various small tables and an assortment of chairs and small couches dotted about the room. On just about every surface was a small lamp, those being the only source of light in the room apart from the bright sunshine that poured in through the heavily draped windows.

She eased out of the bed, surprised at how far she dropped to the ground, and padded across to the window.

The sight that greeted her took her breath away.

The grounds of Collingford Manor were covered with a crisp and even layer of snow. She saw what she assumed to be a gardener, sprinkling a mixture of grit and sand across some of the pathways.

The grounds dipped and rose, the snow covering the landscaping for which the manor was famous.

Her bladder complained again, and she pulled the thin tee-shirt about her and pulled open the heavy oak door.

Rocky ventured out into the hallway. More portraits on the walls, and another collection of small tables, each bearing a lamp, greeted her. The plush carpet beneath her toes was cold to the touch. A house of Collingford's size and age was a cold place, even with the newer heating system installed.

She froze when a figure emerged from a room ahead of her.

"Good afternoon," said the tall man, a twinkle of amusement in his blue eyes.

"Afternoon?" Rocky began to back towards her room as the man approached her.

"I'm afraid so, dear," he held out his hand. "I'm Jeffrey. We met last night, Michelle. Unfortunately you were somewhat indisposed."

Rocky smiled, taking the man's huge hand in her own. "Hello, Jeffrey." She shook the warm hand. "Do you work here?"

"In a manner of speaking. Are you lost?" He placed his hands behind his back, rocking slightly on his heels.

"I was looking for the loo," she said, feeling the blush rising on her neck and infusing her cheeks.

"Ah, well, now that I can help you with." He reached out and turned her around, his large hands on her shoulders, pointing her back in the direction of her room.

"But that's...."

"Your room, dear, that's right."

He pushed open the door quietly, and edged around the bottom of the bed, taking a brief glance towards the sleeping woman. Then he reached one of the wooden panels on the wall, and turned a handle. "There you are, dear," he said pushing open the panel to reveal a bathroom.

Rocky shook her head slightly. "I would never have found that. Thank you, Jeffrey."

"Not at all, dear." He made his way to the door again. "We hope to see you later, maybe for dinner this evening." He smiled back at the blonde. "And be sure to wake my daughter by then, otherwise she'll sleep the day away." He gave her a wink and left, closing the door behind him.

Rocky was left staring at the closed door, her mouth agape. "Oh boy."

Jo came to wakefulness experiencing the most amazing sensation of soft lips against her own. She opened her eyes to find her vision filled with golden hair and soft green eyes.

"'Morning," said Jo, her voice rough.

"Afternoon, actually," grinned Rocky back at her. "You think we've caught up with the sleep we've been missing?"

Jo reached up, tracing the yellowing bruise and small cut on her lover's face, finding it reminding her of what they'd just been through. "Are you okay?"

Rocky nodded, smiling down at her. She'd got back into bed after her trip to the bathroom, but this time decided she needed Jo awake. So she'd leaned down, kissing her for long moments until she began to stir. "It's almost like I can breathe again, after holding my breath for a very long time."

Jo chuckled. "Yeah, I know what you mean."

The blonde slumped down beside the taller woman, enjoying the feeling of being pulled closer to the warm body. "There's still a lot to get through though."

"The investigation?"

Rocky nodded. "We still have to do that." She looked up at Jo with watery eyes. "And I have a funeral to go to."

"I'm sorry, Sweetheart," Jo said, ducking her head and kissing the blonde's forehead. "Let's just look forward to what we have now."

Rocky closed her eyes, taking a tighter hold of her lover. "Mmmm, look forward. I haven't done that for years. Never looked further than the next day, even the next hot meal." She looked up, falling into blue. "You changed all that."

"I'm glad," Jo whispered. "I'm glad I found someone who gave me a reason to look forward to tomorrow." She chewed on her bottom lip. "Tell me you'll never leave me."

Rocky hesitated, and Jo's face showed her consternation. "What is it?" asked the taller woman.

Rocky sighed, her breath warm on Jo's neck. "There may be some things we don't control ourselves." She looked up, angry with herself that she'd just spoiled the wonderful mood they'd woken in. "Believe me, I want to stay with you. I love you. But...."

"No, stop." Jo swiped away a tear angrily. "It's okay. We'll take one day at a time."

"One day at a time," Rocky echoed, and lay her head against her lover's shoulder, missing the look of despair on the beautiful face.

By the time they'd got themselves out of bed and dressed in the clothes that Marianna had got them, it was time for dinner, and they sat with the family in one of the smaller of Collingford's dining rooms. The family lived in a small part of the house which wasn't open to the public. But the rooms they used to live in when they stayed at the house were as splendid as any on display.

Rocky had been introduced to Jo's brother, Jeremy, who took after her father in the looks department. He had been polite, and in turn introduced her to his wife. But there was something there that the blonde couldn't quite put her finger on, and it annoyed her.

Jo was oblivious to anything going on between her lover and her brother. She spent a lot of time with her father, who told her, in no uncertain terms, that she would be a fool to let the small blonde go.

After dinner they all sat in one of the large rooms, talking about the future season and what repairs or preparations needed to be done to the house, which would open at Easter.

"It must be wonderful to be made responsible for such a beautiful house," said Rocky, leaning back against her lover as they sat on a large, plump sofa.

"It can be a headache, dear," said Jeffrey. "Sometimes we would just like to give it over to a trust, but it's been in the family for centuries, and I should imagine I'd suffer some unspeakable curse from my ancestors if I were to let it go."

Jeremy suddenly stood. "Could I show you some of the state rooms?" he said, walking across to Rocky.

"I'd love that," she said, taking the offered hand and allowing herself to be pulled to her feet. She looked back at her lover. "Are you coming?"

"Not yet, I'll catch you up."

"Okay," she said, and leaned down, giving Jo a peck on the lips.

She followed Jo's brother as he led her along long corridors, turning on lights as he went.

"The library is one of the most popular attractions," he said, turning the light on as they entered the huge room, every wall covered by shelves to the ceiling bearing books of every size.

Rocky heard the door shut behind her and she turned to see Jeremy standing with his back against the wall.

"You must be pleased with yourself," he said.

"I'm sorry?" she said, not moving an inch from where she'd stopped.

"You've taken them all in. My sister's always had a soft spot for a pretty face, but I thought my parents had a little more integrity." He took a couple of steps towards her, his footsteps loud on the polished wood floor. "I don't quite know how you managed it, but you've managed to worm your way into one of the most influential families in this part of the country. I've been told only a month ago you were living on the streets of London on charitable handouts." He smiled, chuckling to himself. "Well, we all know how you people supplement your income. I hope my sister has taken you to a clinic of some sort; I understand certain diseases are rife."

"No," whispered Rocky, tears forming in her eyes. "I've never...."

"Whatever, but look at it from my point of view. My sister, one of the wealthiest young women in the country, suddenly finds herself with a little parasite in tow." He circled the woman, who was frozen to the spot. "Now this little parasite allows my sister to take her in, and then is drawn into a seedy episode that finds her being bailed out of a police cell in Leicester." He stopped in front of her. "And now you're here." He gestured at the magnificent room.

Rocky looked up at the man towering over her. "She came looking for me," she croaked, her throat closing around the words.

"And you put up a great deal of resistance, didn't you. It took you all of a week or so before you were letting her spend her money on you." He took the edge of a sleeve of her tee-shirt. "This is nice."

She pulled away from him. "I didn't ask for any of this," she sobbed.

"Oh, look," he grabbed her chin, his thumb passing gently over soft lips. "You play the part so well I can see how they were taken in." He brushed away blonde hair from her forehead. "Such a pretty girl."

"What's going on?"

Jeremy turned to see his sister standing in the opened door. He took a couple of steps towards her. "Just having a heart to heart with your little vagrant." He turned back to Rocky. "No offence."

The walls were closing in on the blonde and she suddenly needed to be far away from him, far away from everyone. She pushed past the siblings, running along the echoing hall, not really seeing where she was going.

Jo resisted the impulse to chase after the distraught woman, and faced her brother. "You always were a fucking idiot, Jerry."

"Just looking after the family interests. I thought you had outgrown the Sunday tabloids." He shook his head. "Aren't there enough little blonde bitches in London to fuck in those dykey nightclubs you go to? You had to pull some little vagrant off the street?"

The slap startled them both. Even as children, in the usual fights that kids have, they had never struck each other. "This has nothing to do with her, does it, Jerry?" She advanced on her bother, giving him no option but to take a step back. Before he knew it he was backed up against ancient books, the shelves digging into his back. "You've always been jealous of me. While I was out there having a life, you were being groomed to take on this place. And you hated that, didn't you?"

"I'm aware of my responsibilities. Maybe you should consider that sometime, Jo."

She poked him in the chest. "Stay out of my business, Jerry. Or so help me, I'll make your life hell. And believe me, I could do that." She stepped away from him, and he straightened.

"You've made a lot of enemies, Jo. There are people out there who would love for you to fall flat on your face over this." He straightened his tie.

Jo folded her arms across her chest. "Okay, who have you been talking to?"

"Beatrice called me the...."

"Trixie!?" Jo almost screamed. "You've been taking to that lying bitch?"

"She was concerned that you were being taken for a fool, and to be perfectly honest...."

"For fuck's sake, Jerry. The woman is a fucking psychopath!" She wanted to hit something, but everything in the room was priceless, and her brother just wasn't worth the effort. "I don't have time for this," she said, and stormed out of the library, slamming the heavy door as she went.

Jo started down the long corridor, not really knowing which way Rocky had gone. The whole of the hallway was lit by the lamps, which were on tables between various doorways.

The further into the house she went, the colder it got. It wasn't possible to heat every room of the huge house through the winter, so the more delicate antiques were stored away before the house was opened in the spring.

She went from room to room, checking through that part of the house, until she returned to the room she had shared with the blonde the night before.

Jo pushed the door open, and poked her head around it.

Rocky was kneeling on a small oriental rug in front of the fire, staring into the flames. The room was in darkness apart from the glow of the fire.

Jo walked quietly up to her lover and sat crossed legged beside her, facing her. "Hey," she said quietly, her heart almost breaking when the blonde didn't respond. She saw the flames reflecting off the tears that coursed down the blonde's cheeks.

Rocky's chin dropped to her chest. "I can't take any more." Her voice was small, full of defeat.

Jo reached for her, but the smaller woman shied away. "Rocky...."

"I want to go back."

Jo shook her head. "Back where?"

"Back to being no-one, back to the place I know."

"Don't say that."

"I can't do this, Jo."

"Let me help you."

"You've done enough already. Your brother was right."

"Please, Rocky, don't do this."

Rocky shook her head, the tears drying on her cheeks. "Just help me get back to London, and I'll be out of your way."

Jo was silent for a long time, watching the slumped form of the blonde, golden in the firelight. "Okay, but I want you to do something first."

Rocky looked at her for the first time since she'd entered the room. She nodded, "Okay."

Jo lifted her chin in challenge. "Tell me you don't love me." A sob escaped Rocky's throat, but Jo didn't move. "Tell me you don't love me, and I'll get the damned Rolls and get Jonathan to drive you there right now."

Rocky clutched her stomach and bent over, her forehead nearly touching the ground. And the sight of her lover in such pain propelled Jo forward. She gathered the blonde up, and pulled her into her lap.

They sat like that for a long time, the silence broken only by the crackling of the fire. Jo rocked them both, waiting until the sobs died down, her own tears dripping from her chin onto soft blonde hair.

"I know it's hard," Jo whispered at last. "But as long as we stay together, we'll get through it." She kissed Rocky's temple. "Okay?"

The blonde head nodded. "I'm so tired," she said. "It's been so long. All I see are the people that have been hurt." She looked up at Jo. "Because of me." She wiped at her face. "If I'd stayed away, Susan would still be alive."

"Oh no, don't you go blaming yourself for that." Jo tightened her hold, suddenly realising how much the blonde must have been agonising over her aunt's death. "You can't possibly blame yourself for the actions of a lunatic."

"But if I'd just stayed away...."

"No, Rocky. You have as much right to live a happy life as anyone. And I want to be happy." She smiled down at the blonde. "And you make me happy."

"But your brother, I don't want to cause...."

"My brother is an idiot, and if Mother finds out about this he'll probably be disinherited."

"You see," said Rocky, shrugging out of her lover's embrace in her frustration. "I'm causing problems in your family now." She closed her eyes in anguish, pushing damp hair back from her face.

Jo reached for her hand. "Jerry got a call from Trixie. We'll be fine once we've both calmed down. This isn't our first disagreement, and it won't be the last." She squeezed the small hand in her own. "Please, Rocky. Trust me."

Two simple words, thought Rocky. Trust me. She looked into the blue eyes of her lover, and knew she could. "I always will," she said, and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet.

Jo led her to the bed, and they settled on top of the quilt. "Don't scare me again, okay?" Jo whispered as she settled her arms around the blonde.

"Okay," said the tired voice.

Part 25

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