Title: Wounded
Author: Pink Rabbit Productions
Feedback: Always much appreciated pinkrabbit@altfic.com
Pairing: Lena/Bianca
Disclaimer: It all belongs to AMC and ABC, and I'm thieving scum, but given how badly they've been screwing it up lately, somebody might as well have fun with the characters. Oh, and it's likely to feature all girl nookie, so if that's a problem, just run away.
Author's Notes: This is wholly and completely experimental. I don't know where it's going or even if it's going. I've never tried fanfic for a soap before beyond a couple of missing scene type things. Obviously this is AU, and I'm considering playing with a lot of the same basic overall plot points that they've used this summer, but mixing it up in a completely different way. If I keep writing, I may well use the rape, or I might not. I honestly don't know for certain. In short, I'm just sort of dipping my toe in the water and seeing what happens ... or maybe I'm just diving in. I don't know. I have a bunch of ideas, and little if any idea which ones I'll use. How was that for confusion? Welcome to the wonder that is my life.
Summary: Life damages. Can love heal?

A Note from the Management: We're trying an experiment of allowing stories related to soaps to be posted in serialized form (since they lend themselves to that format), so just so you know, this story isn't finished and is being posted in segments.

| Ch 1 | Ch 2 | Ch 3 | Ch 4 |

Chapter Three

The smell of sterilizing agents teased Lena's nose, a bitter, tangy scent she'd never liked, while the crawling sensation making its way down her spine warned her that Erica Kane was glaring at her once again. She was getting good at recognizing that particular warning sign. They'd found the proper bloodtype for Jackson Montgomery some time before and wheeled him into surgery as quickly as possible, so now it was just a waiting game. The doctors were a couple of hours into the operation and Bianca had disappeared for the moment to speak to see if there was any news on their progress. Knowing her presence was stressing Erica, Lena had offered again to leave, but Bianca had asked her to stay, so she had little choice but to bear the daggers a seething Erica directed her way. She did a half turn, surreptitiously glancing toward the admissions desk and noted Erica deep in a whisper campaign with Opal between scowls flashed her way. Probably trying to come up with a way to get public flogging made legal. Of course, considering Erica's history, that might be cutting off her nose to spite her face. Lena had read the background files on Enchantment's CEO carefully enough to be comfortably certain she wouldn't be the only one feeling the switch if such a law were put into place. That thought actually made her smile ever so slightly and she didn't feel a trace of guilt for it. Some days survival required finding humor anywhere possible.

She was still hanging back and tracking Erica out of the corner of her eye as the older woman turned away, suddenly focusing on something else while Opal hurried out on some errand.

A hint of a frown touched Lena's brow as she noted the way Erica flashed glances around herself as though checking to make certain no one was watching. Suddenly curious, she turned away, but positioned herself where she could watch her former employer's actions in the reflection cast in the in window of the examining room doors. As she watched Erica kept checking to make sure she wasn't being watched, then she grabbed a clipboard from behind the counter, quickly flipping through the papers between quick looks to make certain she still wasn't being watched. She was much too obvious with her efforts, telegraphing her guilt loud and clear to anyone who might happen by. Full lips twisted into a wry smile as it occurred to Lena that she was automatically critiquing Erica's performance even as she plotted how she'd handle the situation. Easy. Just look like she had every right to do exactly what she was doing, and offer a confident smile if anyone came along. They wouldn't think twice as she knew well from past experience.

Erica apparently found what she was looking for because she pulled a sheet of paper off the stack, quickly folding it, and shoving it in her pocket before replacing the clipboard on the counter and hurrying out.

Not exactly the actions of a woman with nothing to hide.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Which just left the question, what was it Erica was so eager to make sure no one else saw. Lena did a slow turn so she was facing the counter and was still contemplating her chances of getting a look at the clipboard in question without being noticed when a hand brushed her arm to gain her attention. Swinging around, she realized that Bianca had returned, looking more relaxed than she had in hours.

"I just spoke to a nurse, and she said the surgery is going well," Bianca spoke quickly, still scared, but holding it together. "They figure it'll be a several more hours before he's moved to recovery though...but she said it should be okay."

Lena reached out, brushing a few loose strands of hair off of her former lover's cheek with a gentle hand. "That's wonderful," she said honestly. She knew what it was like to lose a loved one, and would never have wished that fate for Bianca.

Bianca glanced around the waiting room, clearly hunting for something. "Do you know where mom is?"

Careful not to allow any of her resentment to show---it simply wasn't the time---Lena nodded and gestured toward the door through which Erica had exited. "She left just a minute or two ago. If you hurry, you can probably catch her."

Bianca's expression was so openly grateful that Lena almost felt a twinge of guilt for what she was suddenly planning.

"Thanks." The younger woman turned away, hurried strides taking her in the direction Lena had indicated.

"Always," Lena murmured as she followed Bianca, easily keeping stride. Bianca paused just before they reached the doors, just the way Lena knew she would, and turned toward her, her expression uneasy, undoubtedly about to ask her to stay behind.

Lena hit the brakes, purposely swinging an arm wide as she pivoted to face Bianca. She felt the knocking rattle of pain as her wrist hit the edge of the admittance desk.

And the clipboard sitting on top of it.

She heard Bianca's stumbling, "Maybe you should..." even as she made a show of trying to grab for the skittering clipboard, and Bianca trailed to an uncomfortable halt amid the sounds of paper being ruffled by the fall and metal and plastic clattering noisily to the floor. It was pure luck that her efforts also dislodged pencil holder that tipped and sent pens, pencils, and paperclips scattering everywhere, worsening the mess and making it look like the accident it wasn't.

Lena immediately dropped to a crouch, and made a show of grabbing for things, seemingly fumble fingered in her embarrassment. "Sorry ... you go on without me. I'll just clean up this mess...."

Bianca looked decidedly relieved, which wasn't entirely flattering to Lena's ego, but to be expected. Actually, Lena had relied on it. "Uh...yeah. Why don't you stay here, and I'll find you when I'm done," Bianca said, trying desperately to look like she wasn't grateful that the 'accident' had interfered with Lena joining her in the search for her mother.

Lena offered a smoothly regretful smile, allowing just a touch of her real emotions to show through, not through planning, but just because she couldn't completely hide the hurt. "Of course." Despite the fact that she was rather cold-bloodedly manipulating the situation, she was none too thrilled to be reminded that Bianca was ashamed of her.

Bianca paused, her mouth hanging open, one hand raised as if to gesture, then abruptly shook her head and hurried out.

Lena stared after her for a moment, then looked down, her hands perfectly steady now as she retrieved the fallen clipboard, a hint of a frown drawing her brows together. She flicked the top sheet of paper up, then another, quickly ruffling through them. Just the admissions information with the names and bloodtypes of various donors. Her frown deepened and she looked up to make certain there was no one around, then glanced at the doors through which both Erica and Bianca had disappeared as though that might offer some magical solution to the obvious riddle. "What were you after, Erica?" she whispered softly, then ruffled through the papers again, trying to see if she could find any indications of what Erica had removed. Not alphabetized, so no clues there. It looked like the sign-in sheets were just stacked in the order they'd been filled out.

Another ruffle and she realized that there was a definite jog in the stacking. The point where Erica had removed a sheet perhaps? She checked the names on either side of the disarray. Kendall Hart, Carlos Reyes, Mary Smythe, as well as several names she didn't recognize. Greenlee had come in with Kendall and her mother. Lena searched through the papers more carefully, her frown deepening as she noted that there was nothing on Greenlee Duprés, but Lena knew perfectly well the woman had been there and donated blood, and she was sure that she'd seen her arrive with Kendall and her mother. Another quick glance confirmed that she was still alone. Thankfully, the hospital administrators had forced the news cameras into the parking lot, so the crowds had disappeared in search of other entertainment. Noting there was considerable print through pressure on each of the sheets from each successive person writing on the clipboard as their sign-in sheet was added, Lena drew it closer to study each of the sheets in question more carefully.

Greenlee Duprés. She could just barely see the outline where the pen had pressed through the sheet above Carlos' and below Kendall's. She ruffled through the papers again, double-checking and finding no sign of Greenlee's sheet. Given the evidence, it seemed almost certain that was what Erica had taken. Considering the near-legendary clash between Greenlee and Erica, what reason could Erica possibly have for stealing information on Greenlee's bloodtype? Stealing or hiding? Either way, why? It made no sense.

The soft sound of shoes on tile ended any further on that subject and Lena quickly began gathering things together and looking like she was scrambling to set the mess right.

"Miss?" a nurse asked politely, but with a trace of suspicion as she drew near.

"I'm sorry," Lena said quickly, playing to her own very real anxiety over the possibility of getting caught doing something she shouldn't just when Bianca actually showed some signs of beginning to trust her again. "I'm afraid I bumped something and made a bit of a mess." She continued gathering pens and pencils together, careful to look appropriately embarrassed, but not guilty. Amazing how skilled she was in knowing those subtle, but key differences when it came to such things.

"Oh, don't worry about it," the nurse quickly assured her as she crouched down to help retrieve the scattered items. "We do it all the time." She offered a wry grin. "Need to figure out somewhere to put things where everybody doesn't knock them off when they're walking by."

Lena turned on an easy smile, her manner bordering on flirtatious as she teased, "Well, then this mess is obviously all your fault." With a little charm and a little luck, they could get the mess cleaned up with the nurse none the wiser that it had been quite intentional.

"You've been talking to my boss, haven't you?" the nurse shot back, her manner equally lighthearted.

"I promise you, he only said good things," Lena joked, and the nurse grinned, then slanted a curious look Lena's direction.

"You're Lena Kundera, aren't you?" she asked a little nervously. "I mean, the one who's a witness in the Cambias case."

It was on the tip of Lena's tongue to ask if there was another Lena Kundera in town, but she withheld the impulse, instead muttering a stiff, "Yes," though she attempted to maintain some semblance of courtesy. She couldn't afford to make this woman suspicious, but neither did she wish to invite further inquiry.

The nurse didn't take the hint, just glanced over her shoulder as though a little worried someone might interrupt them. "Wasn't that Bianca Montgomery I saw you with earlier?"

Lena had almost forgotten just how small Pine Valley was, and how famous Erica and her progeny were. This time she didn't answer, though the nurse took no notice of the Arctic chill that entered her eyes.

"Because I heard you two broke up," the nurse continued, apparently blithely unaware of the glacial expression directed her way.

Lena stood abruptly, the last of the pens in hand, and dropped them into the cup where the nurse had already set it on the counter without any comment. "Yes," she confirmed tersely.

The nurse was still oblivious to Lena's tension as she stood, the clipboard in hand. Her expression shifted, going from lightly teasing to would-be seductive. "Well, if you're free, I get off in a little while. I'd love to take you out for a drink." Asking about the breakup had been purely perfunctory. Lena was certain the woman didn't care and would have been making the same offer either way. She was young and pretty enough, a nice figure, blonde, with eyes somewhere between blue and grey, and she leaned in a little closer, wordlessly offering far more than simply drinks, her eyes full of the knowledge of what Lena had been, and the desire for a walk on that particular wild side. Not that she was looking for a relationship. No, what she wanted was far more simple---and undoubtedly carnal---in nature.

Lena raised an eyebrow, not liking suggestiveness turned her way at all, nor the reminder of the less than savory aspects of her past. Not that she hadn't encountered similar looks plenty of times before, but she'd changed in recent months to where it no longer carried the thrill of casual power it once had. She knew perfectly well that she could use this woman's lust against her, might even be able to find out whatever it was Erica was keeping secret, but the idea held no appeal. "No, thank you," she said very softly, her voice going cold and forbidding.

The nurse flinched as though stung, apparently finally noticing that her attentions weren't welcome. "Oh ... well ... I just thought---"

"I can guess what you thought," Lena murmured, her tone uninviting, her expression purposely bland, though there was a disapproving glint in her eye. "But the answer is no."

An embarrassed flush crawled over the nurse's cheekbones. Shot down, it was her turn to become fumbling, though Lena was comfortably certain there was nothing intentional about her sudden stammer and unsteady hands. "Oh ... I ... uh ... I should probably ... I've got to get these reports entered into the computer," she muttered and stuffed the clipboard under arm, then fled as quickly as her feet would carry her.

Lena watched her go, her expression frozen in place, her chest suddenly tight as it occurred to her that she might never escape her own past and simply be accepted. She ran disarrayed bangs back from her forehead, Erica's secrets forgotten in the wake of her own internal turmoil. It wasn't really anything the nurse had said, or even how she'd said it, but the knowledge that that sort of thing was likely to follow her for the rest of her life. She went back to the couch in the waiting room area where she'd already spent much of her time since agreeing to stay, her thoughts rife with doubt. How could Bianca possibly tolerate someone with her past, someone everyone would always expect the worst of? What would she have made of the pass the nurse just made? Would she have been offended or suspicious or believe in Lena's innocence?

Lena shook her head, then leaned forward, elbows braced on her knees. That the last choice seemed least likely did nothing for her self-confidence. Especially when coupled with the fact that, for all of her promises to Bianca, she was already manipulating again, playing games. Okay, so this time, she had no target in mind, just curiosity and the desire to make certain that Erica's secret was nothing that would harm Bianca. She still played such games too easily and far too automatically. If Bianca knew, Lena was quite certain she'd be right back out in the cold.

Where she belonged?

Perhaps. Lena wasn't so self-deluded as to believe she deserved Bianca's love, only that she wanted it desperately. But deserve it? She was trying to earn it, yes. Trying to be a better person and trying desperately to be worthy. Whether or not it was even possible to achieve her ends haunted her though. She loved completely and without reserve, but that didn't guarantee anything. Her parents had loved each other so much that her mother had sold her soul and damn near everyone she'd ever cared about in an effort to save her father, but none of it had done a damn bit of good. Her father had still died alone, frightened, cold, broken, and bloody. A shiver slid down her spine at that reminder that happy endings only happened in fairy tales. In spite of her best efforts, that thought took her back to that tormented past, and she was still lost in the darkest corners of her mind when a gentle hand landed on her shoulder. The distraction was welcome even if the nurse had returned to make another tacky pass. Thankfully, it was Bianca instead. Lena felt her facial muscles pull her mouth into a grateful smile, still amazed by the way Bianca's mere presence seemed to chase her worst demons away. "Did you find your mother?"

Bianca nodded as she sank down next to Lena on the couch. "Yeah, she was really relieved." She massaged her temples with a tired sigh. "It's not over yet, but I think it's going to be okay."

Lena wanted to reach out, catch Bianca's hand in her own and hold on tight, but with so many worries burning in her brain, she made no effort to act on the impulse. She was a little startled when a warm hand covered one of hers and Bianca clung tightly.

"Thank you." Her voice small and soft, Bianca stared at their twined hands. "For being here, I mean." A tiny gust of air escaped her parted lips, and her fingers clamped down even more tightly, the pressure bordering on painful for Lena, though she didn't care so long as it was Bianca holding on that way. A moment and then she continued, "Earlier...you were right," she began hesitantly without looking at Lena, her head firmly down, "about my wanting to hurt you ... when you saw Kristy and I...."

Lena swallowed hard, hating how much it hurt to hear the obvious, hating that Bianca had wanted to hurt her, even if she understood it.

"I'm sorry."

Lena was silent for a long moment, caught so thoroughly by surprise that she didn't know what to say. She couldn't remember the last time anyone had regretted hurting her. A hint of a frown touched her brow as though comprehending the idea was a challenge. "Thank you," she said at last, wondering if Bianca could, in any way, understand the gift she'd just given her.

"But I want you to know," Bianca added, not acknowledging Lena's gratitude, "I never wanted you physically hurt... never," she added with raw intensity. She sounded ill and when Lena risked a look up, she was pale, her eyes wide and soft as she stared off into the distance. "Please say you believe that much."

Lena didn't understand why that was suddenly so important to Bianca, but clearly it was. "I do," she assured her, and found that she did. No matter how serious her anger, Bianca wasn't capable of wishing anyone that kind of harm. "I know you wouldn't ever want that ... for anyone...." Brutally efficient with her emotions, at least when she was in the mental space she was in at that particular moment, Lena didn't allow herself the luxury of thinking that she was in any way special in that regard. She was startled when Bianca finally looked her way, then reached out, almost but not quite touching her cheek.

"Not for anyone," Bianca allowed, her voice dropping low as she continued, "but mostly not for you."

Wanting desperately to believe in the promise of kindness and caring in dark eyes, Lena nonetheless couldn't forget that Bianca had just been speaking to her mother, which called into question some of her sincerity. The sad truth was she didn't know whether to be frustrated or grateful for the fact that Erica Kane's hatred of her seemed to be the most guaranteed method for sending Bianca careening in her direction. Not knowing what else to say, Lena ignored the almost caress, facing forward and purposely not even looking at the hand near her cheek, which Bianca soon dropped to her side.

A long moment of uncomfortable silence and stillness stretched out between them until it was finally broken by Bianca. "Lena?"

Knowing some kind of response was expected---or perhaps required was the better term given Bianca's tone---Lena struggled to find something to say that would satisfy the younger woman without making herself too vulnerable or revealing too much. "I know you wouldn't want to see me physically harmed," she said at last, the statement as neutral as she could make it, then changed subjects. "Your mother must have been very happy to hear the surgery is going well." Bianca's soft, annoyed sigh reached her ears, but Lena didn't continue even though she was comfortably certain that Bianca wanted something more from her.

"Of course she is," Bianca responded at last, her voice clipped and shorter than normal. Not angry, but close to it, Lena realized.

"That's good," Lena murmured, sticking to the neutral topic. She should have known that Bianca wouldn't be so easily distracted.

"Yes, it is," Bianca snapped impatiently, then continued, her tone sharp as she went back to the discarded subject, "Do you honestly think I'd want to see you hurt?"

Bianca had her Erica-esque moments, and being defied when she wanted something tended to bring them out. Right now, she wanted something from Lena and the Polish woman was far from certain what or why. She just knew that it felt like even trying to give it would be much too risky, and would make her far more vulnerable than she was capable of allowing herself to be, especially with Bianca sitting there watching her. "I told you I don't," Lena said, the accusation in Bianca's tone making her defensive.

"Then let me rephrase," Bianca clipped impatiently, "do you honestly think it's the same with you as with anyone else?"

No need for her to explain that question any further. Lena took a breath, feeling like she'd been dropped into the middle of a minefield and a ten-ton bomb was headed straight for her head. She had to move, but which way? "I think," she said at last, "that this isn't the time for this discussion." Emotions were on edge and they were both exhausted and stressed. Bianca might not handle being denied well, but the truth of the matter was that Lena was equally bad when it came to being pushed. It made her feel vulnerable and out of control, and that was never a good situation for her.

That earned her another of the annoyed, impatient sighs. "Lena---"

Sensing she was about to be pressured on a front she was in no way ready to argue about, Lena tried again to change the subject, her tone pointed. "I'm glad you were able to allay some of your mother's fears." Even as the words left her mouth, it occurred to her how ironic it was that she of all people was using Erica Kane as a shield.

Bianca was perfectly silent and utterly still for a long moment. "Lena..." she began again.

Lena was surprised not to hear the expected anger this time, though she couldn't identify the emotions, couldn't even come close. Her rare failure to read Bianca's mood left her feeling frustrated and uncertain, like the tile beneath her feet had suddenly become a shifting sand dune. She risked a quick look at her former lover, noting the determination in velvety brown eyes with a kind of dread. Clearly, Bianca had no intention of backing off. "Please," Lena exhaled, hating the way her tone slid over into begging. But unable to give Bianca whatever it was she wanted and desperate to avoid a fight, she didn't know what else to do, "just leave it alone."

More silence greeted the soft-spoken plea, then finally Bianca cleared her throat. "I do appreciate your being here," she said softly. "I know it can't be easy ... and you'd probably rather be almost anywhere else, but having you here ... it makes it easier for me."

It took a lot for the younger woman to say all of that. Lena wasn't stupid. She knew that Bianca had just given credit and given ground in a way that couldn't be easy for her. Given their history and the difficulties between them, it had to be hard for Bianca to make any allowances, especially when she was so pointedly refusing to do what Bianca wanted. Time for her to give a little ground as well. "I know you'd never want me hurt the way ... the way Michael ... hurt me," she allowed. "I know you ... and I know that." She paused, swallowing hard as she struggled with her own thoughts and emotions, working to separate the rational from the irrational before continuing. "But sometimes it doesn't feel that way," she admitted in a burst of painful honesty that she instantly regretted as she heard Bianca's soft gasp. She carefully didn't look at Bianca, afraid of the fury she expected to find directed her way after her admission. She was startled when a warm hand curved along the side of her jaw and gently tugged her head around.

"No," was all Bianca said at first, her voice thick with the threat of tears. She shook her head, the pad of her thumb moving lightly against Lena's temple. "Never," she added after a beat. "And I'm sorry if I ever made you believe that."

"I'm the one who should be sorry." Lena offered a weak smile. "I've made so many mistakes." She swallowed hard, struggling to put her fears away again, and drew breath to say more--though she was far from certain what---when the whoosh of doors swinging reached her ears and Erica Kane returned in a flounce of perfume and big hair.

Bianca tensed, any desire to discuss their problems undoubtedly gone in light of her mother's return, and snapped to her feet with a guilty look.

She doubtless would have hurried to meet her mother, who hadn't seen her yet, but Lena caught her forearm, holding Bianca in place and drawing her attention just long enough to tell her, "I know," in a rush, wanting some kind of closure between them before communication was ended in favor of Erica's return.

And then any kind of conversation that didn't involve Erica was effectively made impossible as the cosmetics diva laid eyes on them and commandeered her youngest daughter with a piercing, "Bianca." As she hurried over, she caught Bianca's forearm, dragging her away in a fit of worry.

Lena noted Erica's efforts to rescue her progeny from the clutches of the scarlet woman with an ironically raised brow and a wry smile, then glanced at her watch and noted the time. Just a few more hours before she was due back at Woodruff Greenlee's office. It occurred to her that wearing the same clothes and wan from a sleepless night was undoubtedly not the way to impress her new employer. Assuming, of course, that she actually went in, something she was far from certain about. If wide brown eyes turned her way, begging for safety and support, could she turn away and leave, even for the promise of a job that would keep her in the country?

Who was she kidding, she wouldn't even pause to debate. She'd stay and the rest of it be damned. If Bianca needed her, she simply couldn't walk away, no matter how much she ought to.

Erica, meanwhile, having gotten a hold on Bianca wasn't letting go, leaving Lena to cool her heels rather helplessly in the background while Erica's friend, Opal, flashed unfriendly looks her way. And even at that, she didn't regret being there. Her expression wry, she shook her head slowly, wondering at her own insanity in falling in love with someone she was almost certain to lose before it was all over. "The town whore in love with the town virgin," she mused under her breath. Well, no, not a virgin anymore, but still close enough, given that one night hardly counted as massive experience and from what she'd said, Bianca's previous experience had been limited to innocent kisses and a few teenage groping sessions.

She abruptly realized she wasn't quite as alone as she had thought as a hand landed lightly on her shoulder from behind and Greenlee Duprés leaned into her space over her left shoulder. "So was Binky really a virgin when you two finally...." Greenlee smiled wolfishly and waggled her eyebrow with suggestive glee.

Lena narrowed her gaze disapprovingly. She had no intention of answering that question.

"I mean, you have..." more eyebrow waggling followed, "haven't you?" Greenlee demanded, the meaning obvious, "or did Erica manage to get a chastity belt locked on her dear, darling baby?" She eyed Lena consideringly. "No, I'm guessing you're a hell of a lock-pick. She'd have to keep poor Binks with her 24/7 to keep her virtue intact where you're concerned, I suspect."

A suffering sigh escaped Lena's lips before she could call it back. "That's really none of your affair," she sniffed, her tone even more disapproving than her glare. Sometimes it amazed her that she, officially the town pariah, was also the only one in Pine Valley with any manners as far as she could tell.

Greenlee only grinned, apparently far too used to societal disapproval to pay any attention to the bounds of good taste. "Probably not," she admitted, "but I find myself curious since I'm the one who helped keep you in town. Y'know, seems like a lot of effort if you're not enjoying yourselves to the fullest extent." She leaned a little closer, whispering near Lena's ear. "C'mon, you can tell me. Is Binks a screamer?"

A dark eyebrow arched in silent sarcasm. "Why? Are you interested?" Lena shot back, hoping that would chase off someone as rabidly heterosexual and hiddenly homophobic as Greenlee.

The question failed to have the desired effect. Instead Greenlee only grinned. "Oh, please, the day I decide to walk on your side of the street, it ain't gonna be with Binky." She eyed Lena speculatively. "Though I'll bet you could make a bit of experimentation worth the effort."

Lena scowled forbiddingly, which only drew a soft laugh and a snarky taunt. "I mean, those are the lips that have sunk a thousand corporate ships, aren't they?"

Lena was very close to hating Greenlee Duprés at that precise moment, no longer caring about favors done. On top of the nurse's clumsy pass, it was a reminder of her past that she could have done without. "Shut ...up," she hissed very softly, her eyes glinting dangerously.

Having gotten a reaction, Greenlee chuckled triumphantly. "No whining now." She nodded toward the family scene on the other side of the room. "After all, I'm on your side."

With help like this, it was a wonder she hadn't gone mad, Lena mused darkly. Or perhaps she had, and everyone was just too polite to mention it. No, this was Pine Valley. Please and thank you were generally beyond the capacity of the locals. She had no doubt if she'd gone quietly insane, they'd be pointing and laughing. It was just that kind of town.

Clearly oblivious to Lena's dark musings, Greenlee continued cheerfully, "And it looks to me like you could use all the help you can get." She looked down at Lena. "Frankly I'm amazed you haven't already been thrown out."

"Bianca asked me to be here," Lena insisted defensively.

"Ah," Greenlee exhaled, then looked down at her again. "I'd think that would only make Erica even more determined." She grinned so broadly she showed a wide strip of perfectly white teeth. "Personally, I'd advise you not to eat or drink anything she's been near. I wouldn't put it past Erica to put a drop of strychnine in your tea if she got a chance."

"Very funny," Lena growled, wishing Greenlee would make herself scarce. Erica kept glancing their direction, her gaze sharper with each successive look. God knew, Erica already despised her almost as much as was humanly possible, but being seen as a possible ally of Erica's worst enemy wasn't likely to make her efforts to win her way back into Bianca's good graces any easier. "Now if you don't mind---" she started to say, accepting that subtlety wasn't going to work. It was going to take a 2"x4" to get rid of Greenlee.

"Actually I do mind," Greenlee cut her off. "I mind so many things we'd be here for days if I started listing them all." Her smile was downright cheeky when Lena uttered a grumbled curse in her native language. "Yes," she said cheerfully, "I know I'm driving you crazy. According to granddaddy, I do that to everyone." She barely paused to take a breath, she continued, "speaking of whom, aren't you due to report in to him for your second day of gainful employment in just a few hours?" An auburn brow arched suggestively. "Not good appearing for day two of your job in the same clothes you were wearing on day one, but with an all new set of circles under your eyes."

Given that there wasn't much she could do about that situation, Lena could only shrug.

"What if I told you," Greenlee began, her lips twisting into a mad smile, "that I could help you with your little problem?"

Lena twisted to peer doubtfully up at Greenlee. "And how exactly would you do that?" she inquired politely. "Not to mention, why?"

"How is easy," Greenlee drawled and drew a tiny cell phone from her purse, then mimed dialing, and held it to her ear. "Yes, Granddaddy, it's me, Greens. I had a slight problem with my trust fund and that new financial analyst of yours has been kind enough to help me...yes, yes, she is positively brilliant. I just don't know what I would have done without her...probably had to call on you to untangle this whole mess. The thing is we've been at it all night, and we're not quite done, and I was wondering if I could borrow her for a few more hours." She chuckled softly. "Plus I'm the only one who knows that Granddady is up at the crack of dawn so we could get you off the hook for the day very soon."

Lena studied Greenlee with a wry look. "And why would you do that for me?"

"I'm a hopeless romantic," Greenlee shot back. "Why else would I help you get a job?"

Brown eyes narrowed as Lena considered the woman leaning over her shoulder. "You may be a romantic," she murmured. After all, such impulses showed up in the strangest places, and by all accounts Greenlee's relationship with her late husband had been quite romantic indeed. "But that's not why you're offering to do this." Greenlee Duprés did things for many reasons. Altruism and romance might be among them on occasion, but it was unlikely it was a regular event from what Lena had seen.

Greenlee chuckled softly. "I like you, Lena," she admitted through her laughter. "You managed to get past the dogs at the gate and make a fool out of Erica Kane on her home turf. I can respect that. Ah, hell, I love that. I just wish I'd been there to watch it." Her eyes glittered with pure pleasure at the idea of someone making her worst enemy look like a fool. "God, that must have been good."

Lena didn't say a word, didn't admit that, indeed, fooling Erica Kane had been entirely too enjoyable. Arrogant, overconfident, brash, Erica had been so certain of herself that playing her had been downright fun. If not for Michael's stupidity and instability, it would have worked too, and she felt a certain professional regret at her own failure to get what she'd come for.

She should have known that someone like Greenlee Duprés would understand that kind of thrill all too well and recognize the look in her eyes despite her efforts to hide it. She chuckled low in her throat, the sound almost sexual. "That good, huh?"

Lena turned a little more, purposely making certain her answering expression wouldn't be visible from Bianca and Erica's vantage point even though their attention was focused elsewhere. There were some things she couldn't afford to have them see, the pure enjoyment in her eyes was high on that list. "So good I almost had to take up smoking considering how often I felt the need for a cigarette after our meetings." Her smile was smoothly seductive enough to make even Greenlee swallow hard and go a little wide-eyed. They stared at one another for a long moment.

"You were very good at what you did, weren't you?" Greenlee croaked after a beat.

"The best." Lena's smile was wicked and knowing, promising heaven and hell at the same time. She'd used it hundreds of times in the past, and she knew exactly what it did to people, gay, straight, and everywhere in between. If she'd been even remotely interested in Greenlee, she was comfortably certain, she could have taken her back to her apartment and made her beg until the sun rose, then set again. She'd done it before with Greenlee's sort, pampered rich girls desperate to prove themselves worthy of parents who ignored them. They were painfully easy to control. All it took was a little attention paid in the right way. She wouldn't have felt a thing, but Greenlee would have enjoyed herself. Actually, considering her near-obsession with Bianca, Lena suspected she could have made the tiny woman her willing slave if she wanted. Nothing like a little homophobia to hide a secret fascination as she'd discovered on more than one occasion.

Her breathing suddenly harsh and deeper than normal, Greenlee flushed a deep shade of red, her throat bobbing with another hard swallow. "I believe that," she admitted.

It would have been so easy, Lena mused as she noted Greenlee's visceral response, then she shrugged, her expression settling back into its normal cool cast, the seductive aura slipping away in an instant to be replaced by a professional mien that was equally believable. "Good," she drawled, laughing softly. "I'd hate for you to think I was a liar."

A beat passed and then a smile slowly made its way back onto Greenlee's lips. "You are good," she exhaled on an admiring note. Her gaze flicked up, touching briefly on Bianca. "Are you really sure the town virgin is what you want?" she sounded doubtful about the entire prospect. "I mean, Binky's cute and all that, but you strike me as a woman who needs a bit more than handholding and kisses stolen behind the bleachers."

"I love her," Lena responded impatiently, her tone abruptly going flat, her expression forbidding. Mocking Erica was acceptable, but if Greenlee wished to turn the sharp edge of her humor on Bianca, she would regret the impulse.

"Why do I get the feeling that was more of a warning than a declaration of affection?" Greenlee mused out loud, though she didn't appear especially intimidated.

Lena allowed herself a small, deadly-serious smile. "Because you're very perceptive?"

Greenlee grinned, apparently finding some humor in the scene despite the not-so-subtle threats headed her way. "I still like you anyway." She glanced at her watch. "Meet me outside the emergency room door in two hours. We'll call Granddaddy and make sure you're available to look after Binks for the day." Her smile turned sly. "And hopefully the night too." She didn't give Lena a chance to respond, just abruptly turned on her heel and flounced off, leaving Lena staring after her with a bemused look. Some days she wondered if there was something in the Pine Valley water supply that made everyone just a little mad. She looked over at Bianca, noting she was still deep in conversation with her mother.

Herself included apparently.

Lena shook her head slowly, a wry smile on her lips. "I was sane once," she muttered under her breath, "but I got better." She was still musing on her own apparent lunacy when she realized that Opal was looking her direction, an almost frightened expression on her face. Lena frowned ever so slightly, then abruptly realized that Opal wasn't looking at her, but rather past her....

At Greenlee's retreating back.

And then that half-frightened gaze swung her way. Realizing she'd been seen, Opal abruptly straightened and tried to look nonchalant. She wasn't a very good actress, and the effect wasn't terribly believable. Lena glanced over her shoulder just as Greenlee disappeared around a corner, then back to Opal who wasn't handling the situation---whatever it was---very well at all. For instance, she should never have leaned in close to Erica that way and whispered in her ear so soon after getting caught staring. That was just a dead giveaway. Amazing how the Lucy and Ethel of Pine Valley could have had their hands in so many schemes over the years, and yet learned so little. Lena supposed that was predictable as she considered it. Had Erica and Opal been even remotely competent at the art of conspiracy, she wouldn't have had nearly so much entertaining reading material courtesy of Michael's research. She hadn't quite believed their sheer incompetence when reading it all on paper. With the proof in front of her, she suspected the private detectives had been kind in their analysis.

Whatever the news was, it was sufficient to loosen Erica's deathgrip on her youngest daughter, and even had her scrambling for an exit with Opal in tow as quickly as she could arrange it. If they were leaving Bianca to her possible clutches, this was serious. Lena glanced over her shoulder again, a hint of a frown touching her brow. And Greenlee Duprés was definitely involved, though Lena seriously doubted she was aware of that fact. She'd been too comfortable, enjoying the game, but not wary enough for someone who thought Erica Kane might be breathing down her neck. And something definitely had Erica in a snit. No, that wasn't right. It had her scared. Deathly scared.

Now what could do that? Business? No. Fusion was doing well enough, but it was no threat to Enchantment. Certainly not enough to make Erica go white and flee. No, there was definitely something else going on. Lena was still musing on possibilities when she realized that Bianca was standing in front of her, an expectant expression on her fact.

"You're looking pensive," Lena's former lover observed, her brows drawing together in a hint of a frown. She nodded in the direction in which Greenlee had disappeared. "And Greenlee was looking very proud of herself." Though seemingly unrelated, put in such close proximity, the two statements were really an implied question and Lena would have had to be two weeks dead to miss it, or to miss the fact that not answering was likely to end her up right back in the doghouse. Bianca was definitely suspicious. Just what Lena had been hoping to avoid.

She offered a wry smile, offering up, if not the complete truth, then most of it. "She offered to help me stay here today if you wanted me to ... since I'm supposed to be at work for her grandfather," Lena glanced down at her watch, some of the stress and exhaustion of the previous hours coloring her voice at she finished, "in just a few hours."

Bianca blinked, looking surprised by the revelation and went from anger to guilt in a blink. "Oh, god, your job. I completely forgot," she admitted as she sank down onto the couch next to Lena. "No," she said quickly, "you can't miss your second day ... not because I'm...." she trailed off and didn't finish.

"If you need me here, I'm here," Lena said without a trace of doubt. Even if Greenlee couldn't sweet-talk her grandfather, Lena knew she wouldn't be able to leave if Bianca asked her to stay.

Bianca shook her head. "But your job," she disagreed, then looked at Lena, her gaze moving from point to point, taking in what Lena was sure was not a very impressive sight. Dead tired, her makeup worn away, a few bruises, a cut lip, she had to look like something even the cat would refuse to drag in. "And you've been here all night. You'll be exhausted. If you left now, you could still grab a couple of hours of sleep---"

"I'm not going anywhere," Lena insisted before Bianca could say anymore. "At least not as long as you don't want me to."

"But you can't just---" Bianca started to say

"You let me worry about what I can and can't do," Lena urged her firmly, then reached out and tucked a few strands of hair behind Bianca's ear. "Or perhaps Greenlee, if she was being sincere."

Bianca's soft snort expressed quite clearly what she thought of the likelihood of that.

"In any event," Lena added, and laid one hand over a slender hand, "It's not for you to worry about."

Bianca shook her head. "But, Lena, you need this job. You can't risk---"

"I won't risk anything," Lena assured the younger woman. "Just let me worry about things, okay?" She offered a small smile, peering at Bianca until she got a weak one in return. "I'm reasonably good at looking after myself."

"Are you sure?" Bianca whispered, hope and fear evident in her voice in equal measures.

"Absolutely," Lena assured her. "Now why don't you close your eyes and rest for a little while. You've had a hell of a night. You've got to be dead on your feet."

Bianca nodded, leaning heavily against the back of the couch and rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands. "Mm-hm," she groaned softly. "Helluva day...helluva a night," she exhaled.

"Everything's going to be all right," Lena assured the younger woman, while Bianca mumbled something unintelligible and settled deeper into the couch. "Just take a moment and catch your breath. From what you said, it's going to be hours before we know more."

"I should probably be---"

"Leaning back and resting," Lena interrupted and slid a hand behind Bianca's shoulders, massaging taut muscles with just the right touch.

Bianca groaned low in her throat. "God, that feels good."

"Mm, turn with your back to me and I'll make it even better," Lena promised. She half expected Bianca to refuse, but instead the younger woman silently turned the other way, folding one leg underneath her as she sat sideways on the couch and let her head fall forward until her chin was resting on her chest. Curving her hands to slender shoulders, Lena turned to face her former lover's back and pressed her thumbs into muscles that had lost some of their rigidity, but were still painfully tight, slowly working her way along the corded length of each tendon until she felt it begin to let go. "Just relax," she murmured near Bianca's ear, fingers still working deeply into muscles that were softening and warming under her touch. "Lean against me. I'll take care of you."

Her breathing slowing and growing deeper as the minutes passed, Bianca slowly melted back against Lena who finally wrapped an arm loosely around her former lover. Bianca sagged, leaning her head into the curve of Lena's shoulder where it melded into her upper arm.

With one arm pinned between Bianca's head and the back of the couch, Lena continued the massage one-handed. "That's it," Lena soothed, her voice dropping until it was so soft it was nearly subliminal. "Just let me worry about everything for a little while." Bianca mumbled something under her breath and turned more fully into Lena's body as she lifted her feet up onto the couch and curled half onto her side, but it was impossible to tell what she said, only that her tone and body language were relaxed and trusting enough to give Lena more hope than she'd had in a very long time. "Just rest," Lena breathed, suddenly aware of the way the arm of the couch was pressing into her lower back, while the arm pinned against the back of the couch was tingling in anticipation of going to sleep, and the rest of her body was protesting its exhaustion and aches. She sighed softly, still whispering as she felt Bianca relax completely, her breathing slow and deep, apparently asleep. Leaning forward, Lena rested her chin on Bianca's shoulder, dark hair tickling her cheek, the soft scent of soap and shampoo filling her senses. With one leg folded under her, she lifted the other off the floor, stretching it out along Bianca's hip and thigh, holding the smaller woman more securely against the protection of her body. If Erica saw them like this, it would probably give her a heart attack. The grin that thought caused her was still with her when she slid off into a light doze a few minutes later.

* * * * * *

Her back hurt where the armrest was pressing into her lower spine, one foot was tingling painfully, half asleep, but not enough so to be painless, while her left arm was almost completely numb.

And someone was whispering in Lena Kundera's ear.

Despite the obvious physical discomforts, her nose was buried in silky hair and she had the profound sense that she was exactly where she belonged. "Go 'way," she mumbled and pulled the warm weight in her arms even closer. Bianca. Yes, it was definitely Bianca. She recognized those curves, even though she'd only had one night to memorize them. Having won the prize she'd wanted so desperately, she had no intention of letting go until she absolutely had to.

"Lena," she sleepily recognized Greenlee Duprés' voice, then felt a hand on her shoulder, shaking firmly. "C'mon, wakey, wakey, rise and shine."

"G'way," Lena groaned, hoping it was just a temporary annoyance that would give up and leave her alone.

"No can do. Time to get up," Greenlee hissed.

She wasn't going to leave, Lena realized with some disgust. She opened one eye just as Greenlee held up a cell phone almost as tiny as she was.

"If you want to go on holding Binky all day, we need to call granddaddy," Greenlee reminded her. "Now."

Silently reminding herself that Greenlee was just trying to help, Lena contained the urge to strangle the woman and nodded. "Mm-hm," she murmured, struggling to throw off the sleep dazed torpor that had her uncertain standing up was going to be much of an option. She lifted her free hand to push ruffled hair back from her forehead. "Jus' give me a momen'."

Greenlee was crouching next to the couch, smiling broadly and looking disgustingly well rested. "A moment is exactly what you don't have. Granddaddy's schedule is very precise. If we miss him, you're screwed." She shook Lena's shoulder again, and this time Lena had the distinct impression the intent wasn't so much to wake her as annoy her. "Or perhaps more correctly," crimson lips tipped up in a wicked smile, "you're not screwed." Greenlee laughed at her own joke and shook Lena's shoulder again.

Definitely meant to annoy her, Lena decided. "You can stop that now." She glared pointedly at the hand on her shoulder, then offered an acid smile as she carefully worked her arm free from where it was pinned by the weight of Bianca's head and shoulder. Her movements a little clumsy, she was afraid of waking the younger woman as she carefully unfolded and untangled herself, settling Bianca back onto the couch as she worked her way free. Limp in sleep, the young woman stirred a time or two, but Lena leaned close, whispering soothing nonsense near her ear while she petted silky hair, and Bianca quickly settled back into sleep.

Lena was very aware of the way Greenlee watched the entire scene, a wry smile twisting her mouth, her brows climbing higher with every passing moment. Rather dreading the remarks likely to be made at the first opportunity, she cast a disapproving look the other woman's way. She should have known that Greenlee Duprés thrived on that sort of thing. Full lips twisted into a knowing smile. "Come on," she hurried Lena along as she held up the phone.

Still shaking off her daze, Lena nodded and straightened to her feet, limping gently on the leg that was still waking up. She suddenly became aware that Greenlee had tipped her head to one side and was peering at her assessingly. "What?"

Greenlee didn't answer, just snorted some unintelligible under her breath and waved for Lena to follow her as she headed for the entrance to the Emergency Room. Still limping ever so slightly, while she massaged her left arm with her right hand, Lena exited into the early morning air a few paces behind Greenlee to find night giving way to the pale blue of early morning. She blinked sleepily and massaged the back of her neck, still fighting to wake up completely. Instinct told her it was never wise to be at less than one's best when dealing with Greenlee Duprés, but it had been a hell of a week and the wear and tear was starting to show. She leaned against the wall, arms loosely folded, one knee raised, her foot flat on the wall at her back as she watched Greenlee dial her grandfather's number from memory.

The scene that followed was rather impressive and made it crystal clear the Greenlee had her grandfather wrapped around her little finger. She was sweet, cheerful, talked fast, and lied like ... well ... Lena in her heyday. Wisely, she kept her story simple, basically sticking to the script she'd initially laid out to Lena. She was having financial troubles, Lena had helped straighten the matters out, and they were still working on the problem. When she shoved the cell phone at Lena, Lena was equally smooth and confident. Even dead on her feet, she was quite capable of lying through her teeth, and she soon had Woodruff Greenlee eating out of the palm of her hand in spite of his native distrust of someone with her reputation. Several completely fictional---at least as far as she knew---details about the chaotic disarray of Greenlee's financial records had him chuckling, though Greenlee herself was glaring furiously, and soon he was giving his permission for her take that day and the next off from the firm in order to make absolutely certain his granddaughter's finances were in good shape. Finally, she clicked the phone off and handed it back to its rightful owner.

Dark eyes were narrowed with silent fury. "Great," Greenlee complained, "I do you a favor, and you convince my grandfather I'm a completely disorganized mess."

Lena shrugged, enjoying that tiny bit of revenge for Greenlee's earlier attempts to make light of her relationship with Bianca, and also determined to put some distance between herself and the other woman. She had visions of Greenlee playing the friend just to annoy Erica, and she couldn't afford that sort of relationship, not when she was working so hard to regain some measure of respect in her fight to get back into Bianca's good graces. "It seemed best for both our sakes if he believed me ... and extreme organization doesn't seem your style ... nor would he believe that you need two days of my help were things not rather disastrous."

Full lips pursed in annoyance. "Just see if I do you any more favors," Greenlee grumbled.

Lena laughed softly, enjoying the sense of triumph she hadn't felt in far too long. The truth of the matter was that she probably understood Greenlee better than the younger woman understood herself. "Of course you will," she drawled, chuckling when dark eyes turned her way with silent fury, "if it gives you a chance to put one over on Erica Kane." There, just lay it out and refuse to play a game of pretend that this was in any way a favor to Bianca or herself.

Scowling, Greenlee muttered a curse under her breath. "You're good," she repeated her earlier sentiment in a tone that was part admiration, part irritation. She shook her head, eyes running over Lena from head to toe. "Nobody should look that good after spending the night on a waiting room couch."

"That's all right," Lena murmured with a loose gesture to indicate Greenlee. "No one should be that awake at five o'clock in the morning."

That apparently caught Greenlee by surprise because she froze in place, then an admiring, if faintly bitter, grin slowly made its way across her lips. "I still think telling him I keep all my receipts in a shoebox was a bit much."

"Really?" Lena drawled, well aware that she was very likely annoying the other woman and not feeling a trace of guilt. A friendship with Greenlee Duprés was the last thing she needed. "I thought that was rather inspired." She laughed softly. "Particularly when I said it was a Prada box." Her smile turned evil. "Especially since my first impulse was to say Easy Spirit."

"I'd have killed you," Greenlee pronounced, her tone deadly serious.

Lena laughed again, amazed by how good it felt. Even knowing she should get as far away from Greenlee as possible, she had to admit, she enjoyed sparring with a quick and acid wit. "I think my ankles would have survived the assault," she riposted neatly, enjoying the way wide, brown eyes narrowed. Like Erica, Greenlee enjoyed power. The reminder that her own was limited in some way did not set well.

Greenlee's smile became far tighter and more forced. "Careful," she growled in warning, her humor sliding away. "You're pushing it."

And not by accident either, Lena thought with some irony. She didn't want Greenlee thinking she was the one in charge. Instinct told her the other woman would run her life if she thought she could get away with it. Actually, it told her that Greenlee would do anything she thought she could get away with. "Good," she said softly, and Greenlee got the message. They might both be on the outs with Erica, but Lena didn't want to get in the middle of someone else's fight, something she suspected might well happen if she wasn't very careful. Greenlee was just too much the opportunist to miss a chance to hurt her nemesis, and Lena was well aware that there were too many ways her mere existence could be used as a cudgel against Erica.

Greenlee was silent for a long moment, her head canted to one side, apparently considering the situation. "Don't tell me you're actually going to try and get in Mama-Kane's good graces?" she demanded on a note of disbelief when she finally spoke.

"I want Bianca back," Lena responded with utmost sincerity and perhaps even a touch of pleading, "and that won't happen if I'm at war with her mother."

"And being seen with me---"

"Puts me in Erica's line of fire," Lena finished for Greenlee. "Yes," she confirmed firmly. "I can't afford that ... can't afford to be seen as your ally in any way." It was intended as a clear warning shot across the other woman's bow. Lena wouldn't be allow herself to become embroiled in their strange game any further than she already was. She was capable of using the other woman if she had to, and she didn't want to burn any bridges, but she didn't want this to become a regular event either.

Greenlee was silent for a moment, then she shook her head. "Well, I hate to break it to you, but your problems with Erica are a whole lot bigger than being seen talking to me---"

"I'm well aware of that," Lena began, but Greenlee continued as though she hadn't spoken.

Greenlee hooked a thumb over her shoulder, indicating the Emergency Room entrance. "For one thing, you want to get her bouncing baby Binky between the sheets, and that is always going to go over like a lead balloon with La Kane, and for two thing...." She eyed Lena from head to toe, her look frankly assessing, then held up a hand, two fingers curled into her palm as she continued, "For two thing, you've got a hell of a chance of succeeding ... and that's bound to make Erica crazy." She folded a third finger down to join the first two. "For three thing, you damn near took her company away from her, and that is second only to Binky in Erica's affections."

"I'm aware of my actions," Lena said tersely, not liking where this was headed at all.

Again Greenlee continued as though Lena hadn't spoken, tucking a fourth finger into her palm. "For four thing, there's that whole nastiness with your sleeping with Michael Cambias. Not a good choice."

"Not a choice at all," Lena snapped, rage flickering in her eyes for the briefest moment as she remembered the sense of being cornered with no way to escape Michael's perverted desires. "My mother's life---"

"Speaking of excuses that won't impress Erica," Greenlee snapped, her eyes glittering with the joy of combat, leaving Lena to wonder if perhaps the tiny woman was more dangerous than she'd initially thought. "The only mother Erica cares about is Erica, so don't even try that one with her." Greenlee curled her thumb into her palm, making a fist. "And finally, the fifth thing---and this is the really big one---is that all she has to do is look at you two and there's no way in hell she can pretend it's anything but what it is. She can't fool herself that you're best friends, dating, or even just sharing a few innocent kisses. Every time she sees the two of you together, she has to face that fact that Binky is never going to want what Erica thinks she should...that she wants all those things with you that Erica wanted with all those men she's taken to her bed." Lena flinched, and Greenlee grinned in response, clearly enjoying the way she'd managed to take command of the situation. "Every time she sees the two of you, she has to face the fact that her precious little girl wants to get hot, sweaty, and incredibly naked with a woman ... one who's beautiful, smart, sexy ... and who might just take her baby girl away from her."

Leave it to Greenlee to cut straight to the crux of the matter, Lena thought with a small, internal wince. Erica's jealousy was as much of a problem---perhaps even moreso---as her own past.

"Ah-hah, I see you're thinking the same thing," Greenlee said on a note of triumph. "Erica doesn't like to share her toys."

A muscle pulsed in Lena's jaw as she ground her molars together so hard it was a wonder they weren't powder. "I'll find a way to deal with Erica Kane."

"I'd go with a metal baseball bat," Greenlee advised. "A wooden one would only crack on her hair spray."

"I doubt that will be required." In spite of herself, Lena's mouth twisted into a hint of a grudging smile. Greenlee was very good at getting in her digs, and she never let up. The Polish woman admired that spirit even if it could be annoying as hell.

"Hah!" Greenlee shook her head. "Then you haven't been paying attention." She peered up at Lena for a long moment, studying her with an odd kind of intensity, and Lena found herself falling silent and allowing the rather rude perusal for reasons she didn't wholly understand. It was just that for a moment, something happened that had nothing to do with sparring, or Erica or anything else, except something deep inside of Greenlee. "I'll bet you speak French," Greenlee said abruptly. Not quite the ultimate non sequitur, but close.

"French," Lena confirmed, though she was far from certain why it mattered, "also Italian, some Spanish, German, Russian, though I don't read it well, and a bit of Japanese," she added, though she wasn't quite sure why. It just seemed that something in Greenlee's expression expected a complete answer.

The junior-grade, would-be cosmetics diva stared at Lena for a long moment. "God, Leo would have loved you," she pronounced after a beat. "He would have absolutely loved you." She shook her head. "He would have grabbed Binks and shoved her right at you." She sniffed softly, real emotion flickering in her eyes for a brief second. "Either that or he'd have known you too well and run you out of town on a rail," she mused, her gaze becoming distant.

Lena frowned in confusion, feeling like she needed a scorecard to keep up. "I don't understand," she admitted.

Greenlee blinked, straightening her shoulders, her manner abruptly going cold. "Kindred spirits," she said, the words coming out faintly raspy, as though she didn't want to make the admission. She peered at Lena again, but this time her look was flat and unemotional. "You're just like him," she said very softly, her tone bordering on accusation. "And he'd have either been fighting to keep you here or trying to get you as far away from everything he loved as was humanly possible." She shook her head. "It would have all depended on what he saw when he looked in your eyes ... whether or not he believed you really love her."

Standing perfectly still, Lena sensed that what Greenlee was saying was very important to her, even if she, Lena, didn't entirely understand what was going on. She knew that Leo Duprés and Bianca had been very dear friends from the files, but mostly from the way Bianca's eyes and voice softened whenever she talked about him. That he had been a liar and a cheat at one point in his life was not in question, yet Bianca had found it in her to forgive him and care so much for him. It was one of the things Lena clung to when the nights got too dark and closed in on her. Bianca was capable of an incredible measure of forgiveness. Greenlee was still staring at her, watching her closely through shaded eyes that, for once, gave very little away. "I hope," Lena said at last, "that I could have earned his trust ... so that he knew I only wanted to love Bianca and protect her."

A moment of the odd, not-quite staring contest passed and then Greenlee shrugged. "You're never going to be honest and upstanding," she said very softly, the words almost gentle even though they felt like nails in a coffin to Lena Kundera. "You don't have it in you."

That was the last thing Lena wanted to hear. "You're wrong," she hissed. "I'm doing everything in my power to---"

"I know you are," Greenlee inserted, her expression still unreadable. "But it's not enough."

Once again, the tiny woman had cut straight to the heart of the matter. And straight to Lena's heart with what felt like a rusty straight razor. She rocked on her feet, her throat and chest painfully tight. It was her greatest fear. That nothing she could do would change her basic nature enough to allow her to become worthy of Bianca's love.

"I'm not trying to be mean," Greenlee added, her voice working its way through the haze of pain to Lena's consciousness, "just honest. And you will never deserve someone like Bianca Montgomery, no matter how hard you try. It's not in you to be that honest or that perfect."

Lena wanted to scream and rage and deny it all, but the awful truth was Greenlee was absolutely right. She would never---could never---be worthy of Bianca's love, and that was to her utter shame. And the worst part was that it seemed as though there was nothing she could do to change that basic fact. Only one day in and Woodruff Greenlee's office job already bored her to tears and she was already lying to stay away. Oh, she had an excuse and a good one, but she'd always had good excuses. She was a past master at coming up with rationales for doing what she shouldn't. It was a lifetime habit, and how long before she couldn't resist the urge to fall into old patterns and run something fast and loose for Greenlee's grandfather? Oh, it would profit the old man---she'd see to that---but it wouldn't be something on the approved list, and it would probably profit her as well.

"The thing is," Greenlee continued calmly as though she wasn't using words to tear another person's heart from her breast, "if Binks loves you---and I think she does---worthiness won't matter. She'll have you, and common sense be damned. She's enough Erica's daughter that she'll get what she wants, and you have it harder than Leo did because let's face facts, I'm a long ways from perfect, and Leo and I both had to make some pretty major allowances. That won't be the case with Bianca. She's halfway to perfect and she knows it, and just like Erica, if you step too far out of line with Binks, she'll be up on her high horse, and you'll be out in the cold."

Lena found herself nodding against her own wishes. Yes, she'd seen enough of Bianca to know that was entirely too true. Yes, she could be very forgiving, but also very judgmental.

"What you've got to do," Greenlee continued, her voice softening even more, becoming almost kind, "is accept your basic nature, but make sure it's always used to protect her."

The last words sank in and Lena looked up, a bewildered frown settling over her features as she struggled to make sense of that. Advice in the past had always come in the form of telling her how she needed to straighten up, fly right, and become a decent, honest, hardworking citizen, something she had so far been either uninterested in or incapable of. Unless she was very mistaken, Greenlee was taking a wholly new tack and telling her to be exactly who and what she was, just on Bianca's behalf. It was a concept that had never even remotely occurred to her.

"Go ahead and be a liar and a thief," Greenlee recommended. "Hell, you can't be anything else ... but you make damn sure it's always for her and never against her." Her mouth twisted into a wry smile. "You make sure she knows you're always on her side ... that's what Leo did ... and it's the only chance you've got."

Lena blinked as she truly began to understand what Greenlee was telling her, shaking her head slowly in a kind of shock. Only Greenlee Duprés could give this kind of advice. It wouldn't even occur to anyone else, and yet it made a perverse kind of sense. "Everything I do is for her," she said at last.

Greenlee nodded, her expression satisfied if not exactly happy. "I'm going to hold you to that," she said at last, and turned to leave, moving away several paces before Lena finally found her voice again.

"Meaning?" the Polish woman called after Greenlee's retreating back, uncertain exactly where they stood. Nothing seemed to be making sense, and she couldn't decide if it was because she was so damned tired, or because nothing in Pine Valley was ever overly logical.

The smaller woman did a neat turn. "Meaning," she explained surprisingly patiently, "that I owe Leo ... and if you do right by her, you've got an ally whether you want one or not ... and if you don't, Erica won't be the only one out to get you. I believe in second chances, not thirds." She didn't allow time for a reply, just turned and hurried away, leaving a faintly bemused Lena staring after her. She stayed there for a long time, then finally straightened away from the wall and went back inside, Greenlee's words still playing in her mind, as she suspected they would be for some time to come. Like it or not, she had a lot to think about.

To Be Continued

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