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 Four

As night ran into day, details passed by in an oddly slow moving blur for Lena. She spoke to people, sweet talking the doctors and nurses she encountered, looked after Bianca, and did her blend with the wallpaper whenever Erica was anywhere near.

Thankfully, Jackson Montgomery's surgery went well, and he was moved into recovery, and then some hours later, intensive care. Scared and on edge, Bianca stayed close to wherever her uncle was at any given time, the brief bit of sleep apparently having refilled her energy supply enough to keep her going for another day. Eager to stay out of the way and yet there at Bianca's request, Lena just did her best to keep her head down and offer whatever help she could while not taking it personally that Bianca shifted between ignoring her and clinging to her support with whiplash inducing speed. When she remembered her, Erica shot daggers her direction, but mostly, the older woman was too caught up in her own drama to pay much attention to Lena.

Which was something of a relief.

Just like it was a relief for Lena when she was able to leave for a while. A history of anorexia meant that Bianca had to be particularly careful about not going too long without eating, but until she was certain her uncle was out of danger, it was clear she had no intention of leaving the hospital. Which was why Lena had quickly offered to stop by Myrtle's and pick up a change of clothes for the younger woman, then grab something for them both to eat and bring it back to the hospital. Even Erica couldn't argue with that plan, no matter how much she might have wanted to, so she simply seethed and glared the way she did whenever she was reminded of the Polish woman’s presence, but at the same time, was clearly glad to have Lena away, even if only for a little while. Lena had no doubt, she'd be working on Bianca in the meantime, but she had to trust her former employer wouldn't make a dent in the ground she'd gained, and besides, she needed a break from the oppressive atmosphere in the hospital, just a little while to get herself back together before facing the ongoing hostility all over again.

She stopped at the Pine Valley Inn first, pausing just long enough for a quick shower before changing into a black ensemble that was lightweight and would be comfortable if she faced a second night of sleeping in her clothes. That done, she grabbed an overnight bag and hurried to Myrtle's where she found a few toiletries and a fresh change of comfortable clothes and shoes for Bianca. The last stop was a sandwich shop near the hospital that specialized in hoagies with thick slabs of meat and cheese, lots of tomato slices and lettuce, all of it drenched in a spicy dressing that Bianca loved. As she handled such banalities, it occurred to Lena that for once she was aware of someone’s preferences not for practical reasons related to a con, but just because she noticed everything about the younger woman and neatly catalogued it away in her brain. If it hadn't felt so good, it would have been a little frightening to be so thoroughly at the mercy of another person's whims.

As she pulled into the hospital parking lot, she found herself feeling better than she had for spending an hour away from hostile gazes, but also feeling better for the chance to do something practical for Bianca. Getting clothes and food gave her a sense of doing something tangible that all the kind words and handholding in the world didn't do. She supposed it appealed to her practical side, and also gave her some internal sense of refuting Greenlee's confidence that she wouldn't and couldn't change. Before meeting Bianca, she wouldn't have cared. Any efforts to look after someone else would have been strictly a matter of politics and manipulation, any pretense of feeling an illusion in a game played with human emotion. Except in her experience, none of the players on either side had actually felt anything. She supposed it was one of the reasons she couldn't find it in her to feel terribly guilty about the things she'd done prior to coming to Pine Valley. Yes, she'd played games with people's lives, but they'd been playing with and using her as well. She'd been nothing but a toy for those greedy men and women, a shiny bauble to blind them until they stumbled into whatever traps she'd set, and more often than not, in her opinion, they'd deserved everything they got.

Only when she met Bianca had everything changed. She'd begun the friendship with the intent to manipulate one more time, fully expecting Erica Kane's youngest daughter to be one more spoiled, young scion, borne of too much wealth and power and far too comfortable using it. She hadn't been ready for the younger woman to be every bit as beautiful inside as out, hadn't been even remotely ready to feel the heat and need, or the growing pool of very real attraction every time she was anywhere near her. She hadn't been prepared to experience real desire after so many years of being dead inside and hadn't been ready for not just the physical want, but the emotional need. And she hadn't been even close to ready to have someone look in her eyes and believe the illusion so completely that she began to believe it as well.

That acceptance had made her feel every bit as much a virgin as Bianca, hesitant and uncertain, not just when it came to the melding of bodies, but hearts as well. And like any beginner in the art of love, she'd made so many mistakes, but at the same time, for the first time since before her childhood had been brutally shattered, she'd felt like she was a part of something real.

She just wanted that feeling back. A glimpse into heaven had shown her what hell her life had become and as a result, made it very nearly intolerable. She sighed softly as she climbed out of the car, then reached back inside and grabbed the bag, slinging the carry strap over her shoulder, then retrieved the food. Moments later, she was trotting toward the rear entrance of the hospital, intent on her mission. Only a few hours of daylight left, and then another night would fall. With luck, perhaps Jackson would be out of danger sometime soon and she could talk Bianca into going home and getting a little real rest.

On her guard since Michael's attack at the inn, she tracked her surroundings carefully as she moved through the hospital corridors, automatically cataloguing every sound and shifting shadow. It would be like Michael to show up here. That sort of brazenness had always appealed to him, and she had no intention of being caught unawares and on her own again.

Which was why she recognized the familiar hiss of Erica's whisper well before she would have rounded a nearby corner and stumbled into her former employer, though she was too late to hear what was actually said. Not wanting to risk an argument, she started to back up---sometimes a quick retreat was the wisest tactic in her experience---only to freeze in place as another voice responded, the tone tight and angry.

"If you think you can blackmail me into---"

"Blackmail. How dare you use that term when you're trying to force your way into Jack's life."

Frowning, Lena silently crept a little closer so she could hear better, her instincts to gain more information taking command, even though she knew she should turn and walk away.

"I'm not trying to force my way into anything. He has a right to know that---"

"Oh, please, this isn't about Jack's rights. This is about the fact that you want him back." It was impressive just how much force Erica could put into the softly hissed words. "And don't think it's going to work. He doesn't love you ... and this is pathetic."

It sounded like there was a bit of trouble in Erica's life, and it wasn't just Jackson Montgomery's health problems.

"What's pathetic, Erica, is your willingness to lie to a man you claim to love. And if you won't---"

In fact by the sound of it, there was a real viper in paradise.

"Don't even, Mary." Erica had on her hard-ass, bitch from hell voice, the one that made even brave men cower, and had often made Lena grin because she'd figured out fairly quickly that it was all bluster. Erica only used that bullying tone when she was desperate. When she was really in control of a situation, she was far more likely pretend she was all saccharin sweetness and light. Erica loved to play ultra-feminine, especially while twisting the knife with Machiavellian glee. "You are neither welcome nor wanted here."

Straight to the point and enraged sounding. Erica was definitely in panic mode. Mary? Mary who? Lena flashed on the sign-in sheets.

Mary Smythe?

"I have just as much right---"

Greenlee's mother? Damn, Lena wished she'd heard the other woman's voice before, then she might have some chance at deciding if it was her without getting a look.

"You have no rights where Jack is concerned, Mary," Erica insisted. "And if you don't leave now, I'll have you removed...and don't think I can't."

"You wouldn't---"

"Try me," Erica shot back, her tone deadly serious.

"You'd never make that kind of a scene." Mary again. But if it was Mary Smythe, she obviously didn't know Erica very well. Making a scene was her raison d'etre. She was positively brilliant at it and thrived on the chaos she so thoroughly excelled at producing.

"Try me," Erica said again, and Lena had absolutely no doubt that she'd follow through on her threat if pushed hard enough.

A long moment's silence followed and Lena suspected that Mary was assessing the seriousness of the threat.

"Fine," the grudging hiss came a moment later, an angry acknowledgment that Erica had won. "But don't think this is over."

"Oh, it's over, Mary. You are never going to get Jack."

Lena wondered if Mary heard the doubt hidden in Erica’s voice. Maybe, maybe not. It was subtle, but then again, stealing another woman’s man required a certain kind of cunning and the mystery woman might well have it if she was ready to go up against the pastmaster of such things.

"Enjoy your victory, Erica ... while you can."

Lena smirked, recognizing a weak threat when she heard one. So the challenger didn’t have the courage for open combat---that was interesting---though instinct told Lena the game wasn’t over yet. There was a desperation there that didn’t bode well. Then she heard the tick-tack of delicate high heels on tile head her direction and made a fast dive for a nearby storage closet, ducking inside only a moment before the sound signaled someone was about to round the nearby corner. Her heart thundering in her chest---she could not afford to get caught---she gripped the knob tightly, her ear up against the door, listening closely. A moment passed, then she eased the door open ever so slightly, relieved to find no one in the immediate vicinity. She opened it a little farther, leaning just far enough out to confirm that the mysterious Mary had indeed been Mary Smythe when she spotted the brunette rounding a corner at the opposite end of the corridor.

The click of heels warned her that Erica was moving now, and she ducked back inside, pulling the door closed just in time, though she was able to gauge Erica's movement by the shadows cast under the door as they paused. Frowning, Lena leaned closer to the door, her ear right up against it. She couldn't hear anything that way though. Either Erica was just standing there, or whatever she was doing, she was being too quiet for the sound to transfer. Her touch incredibly light, she turned the doorknob and carefully eased the door open ever so slightly, praying as she did so that she wasn't making a terrible miscalculation.

No, thank goodness. Erica's back was to the door, and she was on her cell phone.

"Yes, Tad," Erica’s voice was cool and impersonal, the sort of tone one used when speaking to an answering machine, not a person. "This is Erica Kane. I need to speak to you as soon as possible. It’s important. If you still have your private investigator’s licence, I may have some work for you. Call me at 555-2121."

Private investigator? Lena pulled the door closed again, but kept her hand on the knob. Not that she expected anyone to try and come in, but she wasn’t a trusting soul. Experience had taught her to be very careful in such matters.

Which was why she waiting, silently watching Erica’s shadow pull away where it slid in under the door, then waited even longer, her brain still on the conversations she’d just overheard, trying to decide what to do next. She should just walk away, forget it all. Whatever she’d heard, it was none of her business. Okay, so Erica was up to some kind of game, and Greenlee’s mother was involved, but that didn’t mean that....

What?

That it affected Bianca?

Dammit! Dammit, dammit, dammit. She caught her lower lip between sharp incisors, biting down hard enough that it hurt and pulled, threatening to reopen the cut in her upper lip. Walk away, she told herself as she stood there, paralyzed by indecision, just walk away and forget it all. Erica’s up to something, but Erica’s always up to something, and she already hates you. Don’t make your life any harder that it already is by getting involved and risking making your relationship with her even worse.

Only whatever it was, if it touched Erica’s life severely enough to threaten her relationship with Jackson, then it threatened to blow through Bianca’s life as well.

Damn and double damn.

Which meant she couldn’t just walk away and forget what she’d heard. She had to know more, and only then could she make any decisions. Finally, concluding she’d waited long enough, and she was just mentally chasing her tail, she threw it off for the moment, and carefully eased the door open just enough to peer out through the narrow crack. The corridor was silent and still. Empty.

Good.

Moving fast, Lena stepped out and pulled the storage room door closed in her wake, almost instantly looking completely comfortable and as though nothing had ever been amiss. It was an illusion she was well used to creating, and she pointedly pushed any thoughts of Erica and her latest trauma to the back of her mind, silently vowing not to think about it.

At least not for the moment.

She couldn’t afford the distraction. Not right now. She straightened her shoulders, and started in the direction of the Intensive Care Unit, her strides long and confident. She found Bianca in the waiting room nearest the ICU. She was sitting on one of the couches, reading, or more correctly, staring at, a news magazine. She looked up as Lena entered and offered a wan look, the hours and the stress having had a predictable effect.

Lena set the food on the low table in front of Bianca, then settled the overnight bag on the floor nearby. "Hey there," she said very gently and offered an encouraging smile. "How’s your uncle?" she asked, even though she knew that he had to be doing okay because Bianca would have been a mess if things were amiss.

The younger woman nodded toward Intensive Care. "The news is the same. His vitals are good, but he’s still critical."

Lena pushed the magazines aside, then took a seat on the table so she was facing Bianca. "Right now, that may be the best news you can get," she pointed out gently. She knew from experience that there came a time when such things became a waiting game. It was harder than hell to face the hours of not knowing and living through all the tortures the human imagination can create out of thin air, but there were worse fates. Knowing could be one of them.

Bianca nodded, though she was visibly struggling to try and maintain a positive attitude. Time spent alone in the waiting room had left her mind room to build plenty of worst-case scenarios, and Lena barely resisted the urge to curse Erica for not noticing in her zeal to be involved in whatever conspiracy she had going on this time. She reached out, settling a hand lightly on Bianca’s thigh, well aware of the warmth and firmness of her body through her skirt. "Your uncle is very strong. You must trust that he will not leave you."

Bianca managed a weak smile and reached back, covering Lena’s hand with her own, her thumb stroking lightly. "Thank you," she said very softly, her voice tight and stressed.

Lena felt her facial muscles pull into an encouraging smile, the look in her eyes tender. She rested her other hand on the brown bagged sandwiches where they sat near her hip. "And now perhaps you could eat something?" she asked hopefully, knowing that Bianca hadn’t eaten anything but vending machine snacks since the evening before.

Bianca considered the question for a beat, then nodded. She indicated the discarded overnight bag. "If that’s a change of clothes, I think I should probably do that first." Her next smile was a bit more confident. "And then food sounds really good."

"Fresh clothes," Lena assured Bianca, "as well as a toothbrush, hair brush, and such. I thought you might want to clean up a bit...that it might help you feel better."

Bianca nodded gratefully and rose, grabbing the overnight bag and slinging the carrying strap over her shoulder as she moved. Lena watched her go, her eyes running over smooth curves with an appreciative look as she felt her heart give a little lurch in her chest.

Desire.

She’d almost forgotten what it could feel like. Or maybe she’d never known because she honestly couldn’t remember feeling this kind of molten, wanton heat for anyone else ever before in her life. During the period when most young people were enjoying the first blush of such things, her life had been a misery, and those emotions had caused nothing but more shame, the feelings only more acute for her mother’s suspicions and criticisms. Later, during her college years, barely making ends meet and in a strange country, she’d been too bruised by her own past and much too focused on excelling academically to pay much attention to the normal mating and dating that most students indulge in. Then during the beginnings of her career, she’d spent every moment struggling to be twice as good as anyone else, desperate to achieve success and respect, until even that couldn’t provide what she’d needed to save her mother.

And then Michael.

What had started as a job had become industrial espionage, then morphed into something that still turned her stomach and left her amazed she was capable of feeling anything for anyone. In the interest of survival, she’d faked lust so many times she couldn’t count them, and every time she’d had very little clue as to what it really felt like. In retrospect, it seemed mildly amazing that she’d fooled anyone, because she really hadn’t had any idea what it was all about. Not even a little. She leaned forward, elbows braced on her knees, fingers steepled together, her gaze unfocused. She’d known all about techniques for physically pleasing others, but hadn’t really felt anything. Hands and mouths on her body had left her so cold that she often wondered why others seemed so desperate to engage in their games amid sweaty and tangled sheets.

She’d felt nothing.

While all those marks had been lost in lust, their heads spinning with want, she’d been cool and calm, her brain working at full throttle, her body totally uninvolved. It had made for a rather dramatic tactical advantage, if she was honest, one she in no way possessed when it came to Bianca.

Because where before she’d felt nothing, now she was nothing but feeling, the overwhelming intensity of it sometimes enough to leave her dazed, staggered, and more than a little lost. She couldn’t plot or strategize, could barely even think cohesively enough to put together a coherent sentence. Just the memory of what it had felt like to lie, naked flesh touching naked flesh, in Bianca’s arms, the taste of her filling Lena’s mouth, the scent of Bianca teasing her nostrils, the heat and texture of silky skin a tactile reality was enough to leave her pulse pounding and her body aching, every last drop of blood rushing away from her brain at full speed. Technically speaking, they hadn’t done anything she’d never done before, not one single thing, and yet....

And yet every touch, every kiss, every look, even the tiniest caress had been nothing like she’d ever felt before because before, she’d never really felt it.

She remembered a moment, just a single moment, with a perfect kind of crystal clarity. It had become almost symbolic of that night in her mind, and every single detail was there with a kind of oversensitized, hyper-realized reality. She’d been lying next to Bianca and arched over her, one hand splayed along the curve of her hip, the other braced to hold up her own weight. She’d been so achingly aroused she could barely think straight, the taste of Bianca’s skin filling her senses as she trailed fluttery kisses along the outer curve of a finely shaped breast, and then she’d looked up, meeting her lover’s gaze, the emotion she saw there somehow triggering a flood of sensation that had everything and nothing to do with the touch of hands and bodies. That moment when their eyes met and Bianca let her in was forever engraved in her memory, every detail imprinted in her head so clearly that if she closed her eyes and concentrated, she could take herself back there. She could see Bianca’s expression, the complex shadows and highlights of her irises, literally feel the brush of flesh on flesh, and the ache that had twined its way through every nerve ending in her body. In the days since, she’d envisioned it so many times, closed her eyes, wrapped her arms around her torso, and let herself go back to that moment, needing the love and strength she’d found in that instant when she’d felt so much a part of another person’s life for the first time in her existence. In some ways, it was the only thing keeping her sane.

To have something so dear to her and have lost it again was far more painful than never having known it at all.

"Thinking deep thoughts?" Bianca’s question broke in on her musings.

Lena looked up, blinking in surprise as she realized that Bianca had returned and was standing next to her, dressed now in sweats and track shoes. Aware of the soul deep ache running like melted lead in her veins, Lena couldn’t think for a moment. Clearly Bianca expected a response, most likely something both honest and not too intimate, which left Lena with a problem. Clearly, she could do one or the other, but not both. "Nothing you need to worry about," she mumbled after a beat, hoping a non-answer answer would be enough to satisfy Bianca’s curiosity.

Bianca’s expression remained curious as she sank down onto the couch. "You just seemed a little lost in thought," she murmured.

Lena shrugged. "Just thinking about...everything..." she said a little haltingly. Which was more or less true, if not especially specific. She looked down, concentrating on the bagged food near her hip, well aware of the close perusal of dark eyes as she picked it up and unrolled the top to peer inside. "I got you a grinder and myself an Italian beef, but if you’d prefer to trade, it’s fine by me," she said, purposely focusing on the food to avoid more serious topics. She’d learned through trial and error that the banal could be a very powerful shield, though in Bianca’s case she knew that food wasn’t quite the throwaway subject it might be for some. She tensed as Bianca’s hand swam into view, then covered one of hers, her touch warm and soft.

"Whatever you got is fine," Bianca assured her, then paused for a beat before continuing. "Thanks for thinking of everything." She brushed her thumb across Lena’s knuckles, the delicate caress sending a thrill of awareness through the Polish woman. "Particularly the toothbrush. I really needed that."

Lena looked up and froze, a deer in the headlights under the velvety, brown gaze directed her way. She swallowed hard, trying to think of something to say, but found herself unable to come up with anything. Apparently the power of the banal worked both ways, because all she could think about at that precise moment was how Bianca’s mouth undoubtedly tasted at that moment. "All minty fresh now then?" she murmured, then barely restrained the urge to bash her head into the nearest wall. Oh, that was good. Could you possibly sound like a bigger geek, she silently demanded of herself, then berated herself for the sudden infusion of American slang into her vocabulary. She wasn’t having an easy time of it.

A dark eyebrow arched and Bianca looked vaguely perplexed as though she was trying to decide whether the comment was intended to be flirtatious or not. Finally, she apparently she decided to take pity on one, the other, or both of them by ignoring it altogether, while Lena cringed inwardly. Flirting had been so much easier when it didn’t matter. She’d been good at flirting then. Now she just sounded like a pathetic, tongue-tied fool. If this was what being a teenager felt like, she suddenly wasn’t quite so depressed over not having the time for such things when she was that age.

A moment passed and then Bianca offered a winsome smile. "Since you went to all of the effort to get food, why don’t we eat?" she suggested.

Thoroughly caught in Bianca’s trap, Lena simply nodded.

* * * * * *

By the time night fell again, Jackson Montgomery’s condition had been upgraded to stable and he’d briefly regained consciousness and managed to speak with Erica. He was, it seemed, out of the woods, though no doubt, the healing process would take time.

Still following a strategy that involved doing her best impression of wallpaper whenever Erica was anywhere near, Lena hung back, silent, her head down, watching through thick lashes as others came and went, being remarkably unnoticeable all things considered.

Mary Smythe had not been back, but Greenlee had, and unnoticed by Erica, Lena had seen the older woman’s near panic at her arrival and eagerness to be rid of her even as Lena told herself to ignore it, stay out of it, and it was none of her business. Nonetheless, she filed the data away in her head just as she always had a thousand different, disparate details. It was old habit, a stratagem arrived at through years of automatic manipulation. The more information she had, the easier it was to either maneuver or force others into doing her bidding.

But that wasn’t the aim here, she reminded herself forcefully. Her only goal was protecting Bianca. If and only if the knowledge served that end, did it matter.

Hours later, she found herself hanging back again as Erica and Bianca spoke in the corridor just outside Jackson’s room in ICU. Erica was gesturing emphatically, her eyes a little wild, while Bianca’s back was to Lena, and her body language was stiff, denying the Polish woman any hints as to what she was saying or thinking. Whatever was going on, Erica wasn’t happy. The scene continued until the doctors came to speak to Erica. Bianca listened for a moment, then slipped away.

Lena watched hungrily as the woman she loved turned and their eyes met, the tie holding them together, forming a straight line that Bianca followed as she strode directly toward Lena, her stride purposeful. She didn’t stop until she was standing directly in front of Lena where she sat on one the same couch where they’d earlier shared sandwiches and laughter.

"Since you brought me to this dance, I think maybe you should take me home," Bianca said softly, her attitude more confident than Lena would have predicted, but then Bianca was wont to show an unexpected level of self-confidence at the strangest times.

After all, she was the one who had initiated their shared night of passion.

And was she doing that again, Lena found herself wondering. She didn’t have the faintest idea. This hopeless confusion was not what she had expected at all, and she wasn’t quite certain what to make of Bianca’s tone or the look in her eye. She swallowed hard, wetting suddenly dry lips with her tongue. Time to find out. "Of course," she murmured, standing quickly and fumbling in the search for her car keys, uncertain what any of this meant, and unused to the sensation of being so totally out of control of any situation. When the hell had she become the younger, less experienced one in this relationship? "I...uh...just...there they are," she said with some relief as she finally found them.

Bianca was still watching her silently, and she didn’t speak as they walked together through the hallways and out the rear entrance into the parking lot. Lena unlocked the passenger side first, ushering Bianca inside, then pacing around to the other side and sliding into the driver’s seat. Nervous as a cat, she looked over at the younger woman, admiring the grace of Bianca’s features in profile where it was visible against the glow of the parking lot lights. "I’ll take you home."

"No," Bianca said, the response catching Lena by surprise. She looked over, the change in position throwing her face into shadow, making her mood unreadable. "I don’t want to go back to Myrtle’s yet." She waved a hand in a loose gesture. "Just drive...wherever you want...just keep moving."

Lena nodded, not understanding, but not questioning either. More than willing to take anything she could get, though, she accelerated smoothly out of the parking lot, heading away from the center of town. At a stoplight, she risked another glance at Bianca, noting that way she was leaned back in her seat, staring rather distantly. As she watched, Bianca rolled the window down and rested her arm on the sill. "Is there anyplace you’d like to go?" Lena questioned.

Staring out at the night, Bianca shrugged as she considered the question. "The mountains," she said at last.

Thinking of the low rolling hills the locals considered mountains, Lena was tempted to laugh even as she found herself wishing she could take Bianca away to Europe and show her what true mountains were. She thought of the fun they could have had driving through the Alps, staying in the little villages along the route, making love every night. "The mountains it is," she murmured without further elaboration, accelerating when the light turned green. Feeling her tendency to leadfoot it start to assert itself, she backed off the gas, keeping her speed well under the limit just as she always did when Bianca was in the car. She might take chances with her own life by driving too fast and too carelessly, but never with Bianca’s. They were somewhere past the edge of town and ascending into thick forests when she became aware that Bianca was no longer staring out the window and was, instead, staring at her. Lena glanced over. "What?" she asked curiously.

"Don’t drive like you drive when I’m in the car. Drive like you do when you’re alone." Her voice was thick with the knowledge that Lena was ultra careful when she was along for the ride.

Nonetheless, Lena tried to deny the charge. "I don’t know what you’re---"

"Like you drove to get back to the hospital," Bianca murmured and tipped her head back against her seat. "Open it up."

Lena edged her speed up, concentrating on what she was doing, being ultra careful, driving faster, but nowhere near the speeds she did on her own.

"Faster," Bianca said softly. "I want to feel the wind."

Lena glanced over, then accelerated a little, though she was careful to remain well within her safety range.

"You’re such an old lady driver when I’m in the car," Bianca complained. "A classic Jag and you drive slower than I did the first time I got behind the wheel."

A quick look confirmed that Bianca had slouched in her seat and was staring out at the passing world. "It’s the only way to be safe...especially since you distract me." Lena caught sight of the new tension that stiffened the younger woman’s posture and a hint of a smile touched her lips.

"Do I?" Bianca questioned much too casually. "Distract you, I mean?"

Amazing how much easier it was to admit to these things when they didn’t have to look at one another. "More than you know."

Bianca leaned back in her seat. "Good," she sighed, sounding particularly satisfied with herself.

After that, they were both silent for a long time, Lena focused on her driving, Bianca lost in her own thoughts. Lena soon lost track of the time as she concentrated on the twists and turns of the road, simply enjoying the chance to be with the woman she loved. She wasn’t sure how long they’d been wandering when Bianca cleared her throat for attention. Lena glanced over. "Yes?"

"You know my uncle could have died, right?" Bianca asked, staring down at her hands where they rested in her lap.

 

Lena nodded. It had been a near thing from what she knew, both the injury and the lack of blood supply. "I know...but he’s going to be okay," she reminded the younger woman. Yes, she’d come close to losing someone she loved, but things had come out all right.

"I know...that wasn’t what I meant," Bianca said, her voice coming out in halting syllables as though she was working out her thoughts as she expressed them. "When he got shot, Mom suddenly realized that by pushing him away, she’d nearly lost him...and now she almost did again."

"But she didn’t."

"But she could have...and if she had, she’d have always regretted all the time they wasted being angry about things that didn’t matter."

Lena nodded, uncertain where this topic was leading. "I think that’s human nature," she murmured, "to not appreciate what one has until it’s almost lost."

"Or until after it’s lost," Bianca murmured sadly. "Greenlee and Leo wasted so much time and then suddenly he was gone...and she was alone again...and I think it was worse for her because she knew what it could be like...and that she’d blocked him out...and spent so much time being angry."

Lena was silent for a long moment. She knew something of the story. Some of it had been in Michael’s reports, but some had also simply been the local gossip. "I think," she said at last, "that more often than not, the human need for retaliation punishes the wronged party more than it does their target."

Bianca was silent in the face of that comment, quite smart enough to see Lena’s point, both with regard to Leo and Greenlee and also with regard to their relationship, but apparently not ready to give ground to the extent of admitting Lena might just have a point.

"Can’t you go any faster?" Bianca asked when she finally spoke again.

Sighing inwardly, Lena ignored the refusal to respond to her point, instead focusing on her driving. "Not really." At least not with Bianca sitting there, her mere presence enough to throw Lena’s equilibrium and divert her attention more than she should allow. They were on a lonely stretch of twisting, narrow road, deep in a verdant forest, the sort of course she’d always enjoyed when she needed to escape the world’s demands. She was good at navigating places like this and had been on this particular road several times in the past, but it required considerable concentration to safely hit the speeds she was using.

"Liar," Bianca said very softly, and it was impossible to tell from her tone precisely what she was referring to. Very likely not just Lena’s driving.

"We’re all liars sometimes," Lena murmured, well aware that a defensive note had crept into her voice, but unable to keep it completely out.

"I’m so tired of lies," Bianca breathed, her hurt and anger obvious.

Lena winced under the weight of her own shame, knowing she’d instilled those emotions in the younger woman. "I’m sorry," she breathed. So many times she’d apologized, meaning it each and every time, and so many times Bianca had refused to hear her, but she kept trying, kept hoping this would be the one that got through.

"It’s not just you," Bianca denied, anger giving way to a funny kind of sadness. "It’s everyone." She made a soft growling sound in the back of her throat, leaving Lena to wonder if perhaps Bianca had some idea about whatever was going on with her mother, Greenlee, and Mary Smythe.

"Has something happened? Something else, I mean?" Lena questioned, cautiously probing in hopes of discovering if Bianca knew anything about what might be going on with her mother and Mary Smythe.

"No," Bianca instantly dismissed the inquiry, her tone honest enough, leaving Lena relatively certain that whatever was bothering her wasn’t related to scene between Erica and Mary. "Everything’s happened...everything and everyone." Another soft, frustrated growl escaped her lips and Lena was aware of movement as Bianca turned toward her. "I just want something a little honest."

A warm hand landed on Lena’s thigh. The Polish woman’s hands clenched convulsively on the wheel and she nearly swerved off the road, the light caress Bianca delivered acting like a blow straight to the solar plexus and driving the air from her lungs, giving her no time to think or function rationally and just barely enough strength to hold on.

"Something that can’t be lied about." Bianca’s hand pressed harder, spreading wide and curving around to fit itself to Lena’s inner thigh, the pressure noticeable against the resistance of firm muscle.

Viciously distracted, Lena misgauged the next bend in the road and undercut the curve, then had the swerve violently to keep from sliding off onto the shoulder. The only thing that saved them careening off into the ditch at the side of the road was the fact that she’d instinctively started braking the instant Bianca touched her. Even at that, Lena momentarily panicked as one rear wheel slid off the tarmac and braked too hard. For a second the Jaguar threatened to slew sideways, and then she let off on the brake, pumping it a few times to take them from a near skid into a more gradual stop. As she pulled the car to a halt, she guided it onto the shoulder, draped herself over the wheel and shook.

Bianca’s hand was still on her inner thigh, clinging, the heat of her touch feeling like a searing brand even through fabric. Anger and arousal vying equally for her attention she snarled several curses under her breath in at least three different languages, though at that precise moment, she wasn’t entirely certain which three. Finally, she lifted her head and looked over at Bianca, who was sitting surprisingly calmly and watching her. "What the hell do you think you were doing?" Lena demanded hoarsely.

A dark eyebrow climbed toward Bianca’s hairline and the hand on Lena’s thigh pulled and slid higher, her thumb pressing and moving against taut cords and ligaments. "Drive," she said very softly.

Lena shook her head as she reached down and removed Bianca’s hand. "Not like that. It’s not safe." She’d played games that dangerous and in fact, far more so, but at a time when she’d been clear-headed and completely in control. Clear-headed and controlled had never described her feelings nor any of her reactions where Bianca was concerned.

Bianca’s answering laugh was soft and a little sly, as though she got a joke no one else did. "Nothing about you is safe."

Lena stiffened and clamped down on her temper, well aware that she was on edge after her fright. She took a breath, consciously settling herself. Now was not the time to lose the ground she’d gained by exploding. "Then I’ll take you home," she pronounced, her tone purposely flat, the flare of anger she was feeling tightly contained. If Bianca considered her unsafe, then the evening was over. She reached for the key, only to freeze as Bianca’s hand covered her own.

"No," Bianca breathed, leaning closer in the tight confines of the sports car. After lightly batting Lena’s hand aside, she pulled the key out of the ignition, looping the ring around her index finger then let her hand drop back down to cover Lena’s thigh just above her knee.

Bianca’s other hand came up between them, and Lena watched it as though it was a predator stalking her. It landed on her upper chest, slid higher. Going for the throat, she mused with the last remaining trace of irony she consciously possessed. "Bianca," she croaked weakly, "what are you doing?"

A slow smile crept across full lips, reminding Lena just how young Bianca was, that she was still at a point in her life where she was testing the limits of her power as a woman.

Bianca didn’t answer, or rather didn’t speak because she did answer if one counts physical cues. The hand on Lena’s thigh slid higher, gliding into the same position high on her inner leg where it had been before, then settling in. That fine boned hand tightened ever so slightly, released, tightened again, released again, setting up a slow rhythm.

Lena gasped, barely able to drag air into her lungs, then exhaled a tiny whimper as Bianca’s other hand slid around to the back of her neck, slender fingers working into hair at her nape and using the leverage to draw her head down. Even knowing that the smartest thing she could do was pull away and put a stop to whatever game they were playing right then and there, Lena was nowhere near strong enough to resist the pull of the soft mouth that found her own. She moaned into the kiss, welcoming the heat of her former lover’s tongue into her mouth, one hand clinging to the steering wheel while the other found the front of Bianca’s t-shirt and curled into the soft fabric, torn between the twin impulses to draw her closer and push her away.

Bianca’s hand slid higher, cupped her, still using that same slow pressure and release in a steady rhythm.

Lena nearly screamed, becoming almost frantic as Bianca pulled away from the kiss ever so slightly, gaining enough room to speak. Running on instinct now, Lena tried to follow, but Bianca turned her head enough to deny the contact. "Tell me you’re mine," Bianca commanded, though her voice was no more than a ragged whisper, while the come and go pressure continued to play havoc with Lena’s thought processes.

Lena blinked, hearing the command, but not quite registering its meaning. It took her a second to parse the message, long enough that Bianca repeated the words, impatience sneaking into her voice. For a second, Lena’s mouth hung open and she almost gave way, almost surrendered in trade for a chance to get back into some semblance of the safety she’d briefly known. She was weak, so goddamned weak where Bianca was concerned, that it frightened her.

"Tell me," Bianca whispered again. "Say you’re mine."

Mine. A thing. Owned. Like. Michael. Had. Owned. Her.

And she’d given herself then too. For money then. For the hope of some trace of affection now?

Lena shook her head violently, tearing free of the kiss and dragging Bianca’s hand away from her body. "No." The single word came out as a rough gasp, the sound bubbling up from somewhere deep in her chest. She shook her head again. "I won’t," she hissed, appalled to realize that her vision was blurry. Tears. God, she was crying again. Just a few searing drops this time, not the wrenching sobs she’d managed when Bianca had told her to go away, but she hated it all the same. Hated the sense of powerlessness over her own body that came with hot tears. Before this whole mess, she hadn’t cried in years, and she damn well didn’t want to be doing it now. She felt Bianca start to lean into her space, and yanked back, pressing against the passenger door, some deeply held, instinctive part of her wanting to curl into a tiny ball in hopes of making herself less visible. She didn’t want anyone to see her like this, weak and out of control.

"Lena?"

Lena looked up, suddenly realizing that when she pulled back, she’d half followed through on instinct, folding one leg up between them, the pose twisted and awkward in the cramped interior of the care. Bianca was sitting perfectly still now and had retreated a few inches, making Lena suspect she’d lost a few seconds of time somewhere. She could feel Bianca watching her closely, though she couldn’t see her face, only the silhouetted outline of her head and shoulders. It made her seem far larger than she was, and faintly menacing. "Don’t ask me to say those words," she said very softly, well aware that she was pleading now, and certain Bianca had no way of understanding, nor could she explain. She tensed as a hand landed lightly on her upthrust knee, but there was nothing sexual in the gesture this time, or at least not much. They were both still breathing, so an element of sexuality was almost inescapable, but it wasn’t so overt now.

"Are you okay?" Bianca asked, sounding worried now.

Lena cautiously unfolded herself, sliding back into a more normal position. She abruptly realized that she was still clutching the steering wheel with one hand, holding on so tightly her fingers were threatening to crimp the leather cover. "Fine," she whispered, embarrassed by her overreaction. She understood what Bianca was doing, even understood the need for it, and in a sense, she was glad to hear Bianca wanting to lay some kind of claim over her, but....

But....

No, that wasn’t the way, and if she allowed it, she risked losing herself and any ground she’d gained in all of this mess. Trading one kind of servitude for another was not what she wanted...for herself or this relationship. "I’m sorry about that. I just...." She trailed off, staring forward through the windshield and shook her head.

A moment of uncomfortable silence followed. "I’m the one who should be sorry," Bianca said very softly, her voice seeming almost disembodied in the darkened car as she struggled to explain her actions in halting half sentences, "I guess I just thought...if I...maybe we could just...be together, but not be together...not have to...I don’t know what I thought," she muttered at last, apparently giving up on any explanations.

Sighing softly, Lena reached out, stroking Bianca’s cheek and bringing her head around. She understood now. Lust. Bianca wanted, and she’d tried to play some sort of game, thinking that would somehow make it acceptable or not send out signals she wasn’t ready to deal with. "You wanted the physical release," she diagnosed, her tone practical, "but no emotional commitment...and maybe you wanted to prove you could control me."

Bianca winced away from the light touch, abruptly looking forward. "You make it sound like---"

"Like what Michael and the others wanted from me," Lena said very softly, pulling no punches for once. For both of their sakes, Bianca needed to understand what had nearly happened.

A wince turned to a full scale flinch and Bianca turned away again. "I didn’t mean it that way," she insisted, but didn’t look at Lena.

"But that’s how it felt...like I was a toy...a thing to be owned or used and discarded at will." Lena saw the faint silhouetted movement as Bianca’s throat bobbed. "I can’t be with you like that."

"So you don’t want me," Bianca breathed, the words barely audible.

Lena snorted a soft curse under her breath. "Dear god, Bianca, you felt...and heard...my response to your touch. I want you more than I know how to deal with," she muttered, exasperated with what seemed like possibly the dumbest question anyone had asked her. Ever. "More than I’ve ever wanted anyone in my life. But not like that...not ever like that. If you want to make love...I want you desperately...and if it needs to be with no strings, I may not like it, but I can accept it...but no emotion? In a moving car? Like some hormonal teenager? Or playing some perverse game? No, I can’t do that." She curved her hand to Bianca’s cheek, using enough pressure to bring her head around, staring at her so hard, Bianca had to feel her gaze even in the near darkness. "And I won’t accept it. I won’t taint what we’ve shared by allowing that to happen." Didn’t Bianca understand that what they’d shared was the only time in her life that she’d ever found pleasure in another person’s arms? Lena heard her voice threaten to break as she continued, "And I don’t think you’d like me very much if I did."

Bianca was utterly silent, leaving Lena to wonder if she’d completely blown it with her refusal.

"Say something," Lena whispered when she couldn’t stand the uncomfortable silence any longer.

The silence stretched thinner and thinner until finally, Bianca muttered something unintelligible under her breath.

"What?" Lena pleaded, desperate to understand.

More silence until finally Bianca cleared her throat. "I want you," she admitted, no longer testing her own power now, but sounding as much under Lena’s influence as Lena was under Bianca’s. "But I’m not ready to ... to just forgive everything...." She made a small, frustrated sound in the back of her throat. "I can’t just forget...maybe I should...but I can’t." It was obvious from her tone of voice it was something she’d been thinking about. Something that haunted her deeply.

Lena understood too well. There were so many things in her life that she could neither forget nor completely forgive. Still, Bianca was here...with her. That had to mean something. They both fell silent, both staring out at the world through the front windshield, as though the answers to the problems between them might lie on the road ahead. Finally, Lena slanted a quick look Bianca’s direction. "There’s a motel near here," she said after a beat, then moistened her lips, her mouth feeling painfully dry. "I’ve seen it when I’ve been out driving...a little place...with cabins." She felt as much as heard Bianca’s breathing shift, deepening, the sound thick and rough. "It doesn’t have to be a promise of anything...just a little comfort for both of us." She wondered if she’d just made the ultimate mistake in even offering.

No answer.

Her heart hammering painfully hard in her chest, terrified she’d gone too far, Lena uttered a single word. "Bianca?" She suddenly couldn’t decide what answer she wanted to hear. Both yes and no were fraught with danger and risk. If the answer was no, she had to accept the heartache and chance that they would never be together again. If yes, then there came the responsibilities of making love, coupled with the reality that she would have to accept it if Bianca chose to simply walk away when it was over.

"Is it someplace you went with him?" Bianca whispered, her voice small and scared. "With any of them?"

"No," Lena instantly assured the younger woman, then felt the need to explain, "I’ve never even stayed there. I always notice the motels on the lesser traveled roads, so that if I’m ever too tired while driving, I can stop and sleep till morning." There were times when she drove for hours on end, so she knew her physical limits and didn’t hesitate to rent a room and rest for a few hours when necessary. She might have a self destructive streak, but it wasn’t so overt that she would try and crack herself up by simply going to sleep at the wheel.

Bianca sat perfectly still, silently absorbing the response. Finally she nodded. "Drive," she said very softly, her neutral tone momentarily leaving Lena wondering where she was supposed to drive to. Back to Myrtle’s or to a hidden motel in the woods?

"Where?" Lena asked when she still wasn’t certain.

"I want you," Bianca responded without any further comment.

Hearing the words, Lena took a deep breath and let it out slowly to steady herself. After all, she had to drive, and she was always ultra careful with Bianca in the car, unwilling to take any chances. "All right," she said simply, then realized Bianca still had her keys. A soft, wry laugh escaped her lips and she held out a hand. "But I’m afraid I need my keys back."

Bianca jumped, lifting her hand and staring at it as the jangle of metal on metal teased the air. "I forgot," she admitted with a soft chuckle, the moment acting as a tension release. She held the key ring out, the glitter of her eyes drawing Lena’s gaze even as their fingers just barely brushed. "Here."

Lena took the keys, nodded, and fumbled in the effort to get them back into the ignition. Her hands were shaking, she suddenly realized, and took another deep breath, letting it out on a ten count. Amazing how terrifying it could be to have---perhaps not everything, but a great deal---right within her grasp. The Jaguar purred to life, idling smoothly, and then she slid it into gear and pulled back onto the narrow strip of highway. She kept her speed slow, half afraid that with her luck, they’d wind up in an accident before they reached the motel. This time Bianca made no effort to urge her to speed, just leaned back in her seat. Probably just as scared as she was, Lena realized, the thought making her feel a little better and more in control.

They soon found the tiny motel, with its cabins hidden among scattered pines. The place was dark and quiet---apparently, the world closed up early in the country---and at first Lena was afraid that getting a cabin wasn’t going to be possible, but there was a bell on the door to the cabin that served as the reception office. They rang, waited, rang again, and finally an elderly man in a robe opened the door and peered blearily out at them.

"Hello," Lena said quickly as she stepped forward and put on her most charming smile. "I’m Lena Kundera. I apologize for waking you, but my friend and I have been driving later than we planned and I was wondering if we could rent a cabin for the night."

He looked at her, then past her at the Jaguar parked nearby. It seemed unlikely that either she or the Jag were on his normal customer list. She resisted the urge to smirk as she caught sight of the dollar signs dancing in his eyes. Undoubtedly the nightly room fee had just doubled. Lena couldn’t have cared less. Whatever he wanted to charge, it would have been cheap at twice the price. So when he led them inside and dug out the necessary forms, she filled out the information sheet, handed over her credit card, and tried not to look as eager as she felt.

"By the way," the man behind the counter said as she was finishing up. "There aren’t any TVs in the rooms. Can’t get reception out here, and cable’s too expensive."

Lena shrugged. "Not a problem," she assured him. Watching TV was the last thing on her mind. Her gaze touched on the shelving behind him. However.... "But I don’t sleep well when things are too quiet." She pointed to the boom box on the shelf. "I don’t suppose I could borrow your CD player." She offered a charming smile and gracefully flashed a fifty.

His brows shot up and he looked at her as though making absolutely certain she was serious. "Ah...sure." He couldn’t get the player down fast enough, and she slipped him the fifty as she took possession, well aware of the press of Bianca’s body against her back, and the way the younger woman was shaking gently, probably laughing. He paused in front of a board full of keys, started to reach for one, then glanced over his shoulder, his eyes falling on Bianca, noting the way she was leaning against Lena. "You...uh...want twin beds or...uh...just one?"

A knowing smile touched Lena’s mouth as she noted that he was blushing. Remembering another time when she’d informed a bellboy that she and Bianca were together, she offered a tiny wink. "Only one will be necessary...preferably the largest available...and as much privacy as possible would be nice as well." She flashed another fifty---God, this was going to cost her---then glanced back at Bianca. It was definitely worth it.

Bianca snickered at that and hid her face in Lena’s shoulder as she tried to muffle her laughter.

He grabbed a different key after that comment and traded it for the second fifty. He didn’t do it as gracefully as the maitre d’ at an expensive restaurant, but he managed well enough. "This should...uh...be what you’re looking for." He nodded toward her car. "Just follow the road to the end. It’s the last cabin on the line. Largest one in the place."

"Thank you," she said, being as gracious as she knew how to be.

Several minutes later, they pulled into the parking bay next to a tiny cabin set back amid the pines. It was rustic inside, the wood worn smooth and polished by time and the passage of decades worth of secret lovers’ assignations because the bed that sat in the middle of the main room wasn’t the sort of thing a family needed. Not that it was overtly sexual, but it was huge and piled high with a thick quilt and several pillows, and there were fur rugs on either side to protect bare feet from the chill of the floor. There was also a fire laid in the fireplace, ready to be set to life with the touch of a match.

Lena felt her pulse, which had almost dropped back to normal, slam back into overdrive. They were here for one purpose only. She wondered if she could actually survive it or if she was going to simply combust at the idea. And then Bianca caught her hand, tugging her inside and into a hug that turned into a kiss. In an instant, her fears were forgotten. It felt so damn right, sometimes like the only thing in her life that had ever been right. She lifted a hand, stroking Bianca’s cheek lightly as they continued trading soft kisses, their bodies molded together. By the time their lips parted, they were both breathing hard and trembling.

Offering a shy smile, Bianca tightened her hold on Lena’s waist. "I...uh...should probably grab a quick shower..." She looked away, self-conscious. "Y’know...before...."

Caressing Bianca’s cheek lightly, Lena drew her head back up and around until their eyes met. "Would you like company?" She smiled at the rose blush that crept over rounded cheekbones.

"I-I think maybe...not now," Bianca stammered uncertainly. "But later...maybe."

Stifling a bit of disappointment, Lena nodded, accepting any limits Bianca felt the need to set on things. "Okay...go on. I’ll light the fire and...turn on the music...wait for you."

Bianca nodded, then stepped back and disappeared into the bathroom.

Standing perfectly still, Lena watched her go, unable to move for a long moment after her lover had disappeared. Her lover. It suddenly occurred to her that she was mentally using that word in the present tense. "Oh, please, let it be true."

By the time Lena heard the shower shut off, the lights were out and a fire was crackling gently. Music, low, sexy, and faintly jazzy hung on the air just loud enough to set the mood without being intrusive. Aware of everything around her, Lena knew the moment Bianca exited the bathroom. Standing in front of the fire, her shoes off, her bare toes buried deep in the proverbial bearskin rug, she froze, waiting to see what Bianca would do, then exhaled a sigh of relief as she heard the soft pad of bare feet, then felt slender arms wrap around her from behind. Smiling, Lena turned in her lover’s loose hold.

"The music is pretty," Bianca whispered as she leaned into Lena’s space. "What is it?"

Shrugging slender shoulders, Lena wrapped Bianca in a loose hold, her body swaying gently in time with the music. "Just something I found on the internet...some little band that had their stuff on a website." She enjoyed hunting the internet for oddball bits of music and she’d found the site by accident then downloaded everything, enjoying the delicate instrumentals with their complex rhythms and sometimes mournful strains. She caught one of Bianca’s hands in her own. "Dance with me?" she invited, her voice low and silky.

Full lips turned up in an embarrassed smile. "I’m not much of a dancer."

Still moving with the music, Lena felt Bianca instinctively sway her hips to match, though she doubted the younger woman was conscious of it. "It’s all in who you’re with," she disagreed, lifting their twined hands into the space between their bodies and sliding the other around Bianca’s waist. "Just close your eyes and relax...let yourself feel the music." She pressed a soft kiss to Bianca’s temple, intensely aware of the brush of her lover’s legs against her own, following her movements as she found the beat of the music. "Let yourself feel me."

Leaning her head into the curve of Lena’s shoulder, Bianca slid her free hand around her waist, clinging and following along with Lena’s gentle movements.

Bianca’s hair was still wet from the shower and Lena ducked her head to nuzzle the drying hair at her temple, the scent of soap and shampoo filling her senses, not Bianca’s usual floral scent, but even cheap hotel soap smelled good on her. "Feels good, doesn’t it?" she whispered near a delicate ear. She shivered as Bianca mumbled a lazy confirmation, not words, but simply a sound under the breath, the heated air flowing across Lena’s collarbone and sending a shiver down her spine. On fire all over again, part of her wanted to simply drag Bianca over to the bed and feel the sweet bonding of bare flesh, but at the same time it felt so good to hold each other and just enjoy the music together that she never wanted to let it end. It was like the perfect polar opposite of the devil or the deep blue sea choices that had made up most of her life. Angel or the perfect beach? Caressing the narrow expanse of Bianca’s lower back, she used the light touches to draw the younger woman closer and match her rhythm as they moved together, intensely aware of the press of firm breasts, taut belly, and smoothly muscled thighs. She’d never really understood the appeal of this kind of dancing before, of being so close to another human being. It had simply been another tool in her arsenal to control others. Suddenly it was something that might well push her to the brink while still fully clothed.

Mumbling something incomprehensible, Bianca nosed deeper into the curve of Lena’s shoulder, while her free hand played over Lena’s back, exploring smooth curves and taut muscle, growing bolder as they continued their slow dance. Finally she eased her fingers under the waistband of Lena’s blouse, stroking the silky skin at the curve of her waist. If she had any doubts, she didn’t appear to be feeling them now. She spread her hand, stroking higher, fingers teasing along the line of Lena’s spine.

"Mmm," Lena moaned low in her throat while she did some exploring of her own. She wanted to proclaim her love, but uncertain it would be well received, simply held her lover close, letting her free hand trail and explore, enjoying the heat that came from within and without. She ducked her head to stare down at Bianca’s upturned face. "Tell me this is real," she pleaded, half convinced she was dreaming during one of her rare hours of sleep, or maybe had cracked up on the way to the hospital and this was all one last, euphoric fantasy before death claimed her.

There were days Lena Kundera did not have the most positive outlook on life.

Then Lena quickly forgot any darker thoughts as Bianca slipped her twined hand free and reached up, trailing a fingertip along a high cheekbone. The younger woman’s skin glowed a warm shade and her eyes glinted in the flickering firelight. "It’s real," she breathed, and slid her hand on around to toy with the hair at the nape of Lena’s neck. Their gazes locked and holding, she slid her hand around from Lena’s lower back, stroking her waist, then slipping deeper under her blouse to caress the faintly striated curve of her ribs, her fingers fluttering just under the curve of taut breasts.

It might not be absolutely everything Lena wanted---the knowledge that morning would come and demand she let go still lurked in the backalleys of her mind---but it was more than she’d had any hopes of getting, and more than she could have asked for. Her body shaking under the rush of arousal, Lena whimpered softly, the sound fading into the kiss she suddenly found herself sharing with Bianca. Their mouths moved together, lips parting, tongues meeting and tangling while their bodies continued the slow dance, the easy rhythm evocative of so many things.

So very many other things. All of them hot and sweet and very, very pleasurable.

Nails scraped very lightly against the skin stretched taut over Lena’s ribs, and she responded by sliding a hand into shoulder length hair, her hold tightening on her lover’s smaller frame, guiding her as she changed positions enough to let her thigh ride against a muscled inner thigh. She wanted Bianca to feel, to ache, to need as much as she did, and she got what she wanted as she tasted a growling moan and felt slender fingers dig almost convulsively into her hair and side. No question now. Bianca wanted her.

And she wanted Bianca so badly she hurt with it, ached and needed in a way she’d never even knew existed before meeting the younger woman.

Then Bianca thrust back, her thigh shifting and pressing.

Grinding slowly.

Oh. God.

Lena almost screamed, her entire body on the verge of imploding and exploding again like some dark star folding in on itself before bursting outward into a new universe.

In an instant dancing---at least the vertical kind---was forgotten, the music a distant memory, lost amid a symphony of moans and whispered entreaties. They stumbled to the bed in a flurry of arms and legs, mouths still wedded, hands fumbling, pulling and pushing at clothes with utter desperation. Trembling hands pried and peeled fabric aside, found bare flesh, and flung unwanted cloth away.

The need to touch was primal, beyond words, a tactile expression of emotion. They were the only things that mattered in the universe, perhaps the only things left in the universe. They tumbled onto the bed together, legs scissored, hands floating everywhere, pulling each other close, every breath shared through hungry kisses.

Lena lost all track of time. It was a nonexistent concept as far as she was concerned. She was all sensation and emotion, each one driving the other. Her hands skated over Bianca’s torso, outlining the curve of her ribs, full breasts, the tight tuck at her waist, then down to slim hips.

Bianca whimpered, the sound sharp and high pitched, as Lena pulled her close and thrust with her thigh, silky hair and flesh sliding against her skin in a slick trail of heat and moisture. Lena wanted to go slow, take her time, explore, and learn everything there was to know about the younger woman...

But neither of them was capable of waiting that long.

Denial, frustration, need, they’d all built to a point that they were both were held in a wicked kind of sensual thrall. Lena’s world spun, pleading words escaping her lips in a litany that sounded almost like a prayer.

"I know...I know..." Bianca gasped, her skin glossy with sweat as the firelight kissed them both with a coppery glow. She trailed nipping kisses along the line of Lena’s collarbone, one hand braced on the bed near her hip, the other sliding down her torso and between their bodies.

Then Lena was stroked, entered, stroked again. "Bianca!" she cried out, her back twisting into a painful arch, neatly blunted nails digging into slender shoulders. Her body bucked, blindly seeking more.

"Yes," Bianca panted, lips and teeth trailing up Lena’s throat, following a path to her ear. "Say my name," she pleaded. "Don’t stop..."

"Bianca," Lena gasped, following her lover’s lead this time, a hand slipping between their bodies to find and caress heated flesh. The thrill of touching and feeling Bianca shudder in response driving her own pleasure to greater heights.

"Again," Bianca groaned, muscles flexing and pulling as she thrust her body against Lena’s, using her weight to press her fingers deeper.

"Bianca." They were both drenched in sweat, bodies moving slickly together, damp skin catching the firelight and reflecting it back in ever-shifting patterns.

"Again," Bianca whispered, and her teeth dragged over Lena’s earlobe, almost but not quite hard enough to cause pain, then released. "Say it until I can’t imagine any other name on your lips ...until I can’t imagine you saying any other name ever again...."

"Bianca," she gasped and met Bianca’s thrusts with her own, her touch gentler but no less intense. It wasn’t graceful or easy, but then sex rarely was in Lena’s experience. "Bianca...." It wasn’t the stuff of romantic stories, but hot and sweaty and all too often more embarrassing and humiliating than pleasurable. Not this time. "Bianca..." This time it was all pleasure and rich sensuality, about being found after being lost for far too long. "Bianca...." It meant something. Something Lena would probably be decoding for a long time to come. But at that precise moment, there were no thoughts, only instinct and feeling and Bianca’s name on her lips. She said it over and over and over again, wanting to reassure, to comfort, and to drive any memories of her past from her lover’s mind until a single word gusted in her ear, carried on a hot breathed exhalation.

"Lena."

No professions of love, no teary eyed avowals that all was forgiven, just her name. Enough? Not really, but all Lena was likely to get, and like a drowning woman, any breath of air, no matter how small, was better than nothing. She kissed her way along up the length of Bianca’s throat, nuzzled into her hair, then couldn’t hold back all the things she needed to say, words of love and desire in every language except English, refusing to deny her emotions, yet aware that the full breadth of them might be unwelcome or viewed as too much pressure.

Bianca breathed her name again, her voice more ragged this time, sweat running freely over her skin now, muscles flexing and working under the hand sliding here and there, caressing and exploring.

Trailing her lips along the soft curve of Bianca’s jaw, Lena followed that a meandering path until she found soft lips once again. Their mouths met, blended, and open mouthed kisses followed, their tongues adopting the same rhythm as their hands and bodies. Sensations so thick and rich they made the world spin arced over Lena’s every nerve ending. Bianca had to see it, had to feel it, had to know that this was right. "I love you," she gasped without planning to, her stomach sinking as she realized the words had slipped out, half afraid Bianca would reject the expression of emotion.

Instead, Bianca caught Lena’s lips again, kissing hungrily, her tongue pressing inside, laying claim. "I know," she exhaled when she momentarily broke the sensual contact. And then she ducked her head again, reclaiming their kiss...reclaiming Lena.

It wasn’t the whole distance they needed to travel, but it was another step on the road home.

Then everything but the physical was forgotten as Lena tasted a low, feral groan and felt the first contraction that signaled Bianca’s control was slipping away. Their eyes met, glittering in the firelight, and Lena lost herself in brown eyes that gleamed with pleasure and want. In an instant, her own orgasm was washing over her, wrapping her in a sexual undertow that she couldn’t have escaped if she’d wanted.

And she didn’t want to escape. If anything, she wanted to stay right where she was forever, eternally caught in this single moment. She didn’t care if it meant drowning, she would have gladly surrendered herself to stay right there.

But that wasn’t possible. Not even for love could time be made to stand still. Addictive and intense, pleasure washed over and through her, while she was aware of every sound Bianca made, every thrust of her body, every contraction of taut muscle. Despite being lost in her own responses, she noticed every detail of her lover’s reactions, cataloguing the knowledge away, though whether it was for future reference or simply to comfort herself during lonely nights to come would all depend on Bianca.

Lena had not been so thoroughly at the mercy of another human being since her earliest childhood. She hadn’t allowed it, but now it was too late and there was nothing she could do but ride the waves need and pleasure and pray that she didn’t wind up crashing and burning before it was all over.

"Lena," Bianca whispered again, the sound so soft and rough it was barely audible.

It was enough though. Volcanic heat collapsed, coalesced, then exploded again, leaving Lena trembling and weak. She felt Bianca’s hold on her body tighten, as she delivered a last caress, and then her lover went limp, collapsing into her, her face buried in the hair near her ear. Hot, damp breath fluttered over Lena’s skin, and Bianca shifted to take some of her weight on one elbow while her other hand remained where it was, her touch gentle but possessive where she cupped soft flesh. Where in the past, she’d been eager to be rid of the weight or previous lovers, Lena thrilled to the solidity of the body stretched out above her own. The hand that had ranged soft caresses over the length of the smaller woman’s frame wrapped around her now, spreading against her upper back, clinging tenderly. Feeling Bianca relax further against her body, Lena stroked the back of a slender calf with the bottom of her foot, content to simply hold and be held.

Bianca breathed an inaudible comment and nuzzled deeper into Lena’s neck, her breathing gradually slowing, bodies plastered so close that they fell into a rhythm where one exhaled while the other inhaled in a physical give and take of space, instinctively moving in syncopation with one another even in the aftermath.

They lay like that for a long time, both totally spent, then finally Bianca rolled and flopped onto her back to lie there, staring silently at the ceiling.

Uncertain what to make of the younger woman’s mood, Lena turned her head to peer over at her, simply watching as Bianca stared upward. She wanted to ask a thousand different questions, but afraid of making some kind of mistake, held her tongue. Meanwhile, Bianca seemed to be in no mood to share what she was thinking, her expression unreadable, her body language distant now that they weren’t touching.

Lena waited, hoping for some kind of comment, but when none was forthcoming finally, cautiously rolled onto her side, her head propped up on one hand. All of her life, Lena Kundera had watched people, often silent and unnoticed as a child, sometimes the same as an adult and sometimes while using tools of distraction so the target didn’t know they were being watched. Human behavior had long fascinated her, and she saw it as a canvas of shifting patterns that made it remarkably predictable. Once she found the key to how someone thought and reacted, she’d usually found it very easy to know which way they would jump in any given situation, It was why she’d been good in business. It was all psychology and understand human expectation. And it was why she’d been good in working for Michael. Predicting behavior made manipulation much easier.

Only Bianca Montgomery seemed to so thoroughly and so consistently confound her knowledge, as though she broke all of the painstakingly learned patterns. Rather than predict, she had to go on expressions and words, reading body language as she went along to help her know what was going on. Thankfully, Bianca was generally very open and easy to read, but right now, her expression was closed down, her face cut in deep shadows that made it that much harder to understand her emotions. Denied those cues and uncertain of her place, Lena had no idea what the younger woman was thinking. She ran over various options of things to say in her head, trying them out mentally, and struggling to predict possible responses only to realize she hadn’t the faintest idea how Bianca might respond. She was still calculating possibilities when she suddenly found herself blurting out, "I’m sorry," which even she was smart enough to know was absolutely the wrong thing to say, though unfortunately not until after the words were out of her mouth.

Frowning ever so slightly, Bianca flicked a look her direction. "Why?" she asked, sounding genuinely perplexed.

Slim shoulders dipped in a hint of a shrug. "I meant to take my time...to show you...." She trailed off into silence, trying to marshal her thoughts into some vague sort of organization. She looked down at her own hands, wanting to touch, but afraid to try. "But once we kissed..." she made a small annoyed sound in the back of her throat, irritated with her own lack of self control, "I couldn’t go slow." She was startled when a gentle hand stroked her cheek, drawing her attention back to Bianca, who was staring at her with an odd expression.

"I think that was pretty mutual," her lover pointed out, her tone dry.

Lena looked away again, though she was relieved that Bianca didn’t pull her hand back, simply continued lightly stroking her cheek. "I just...dreamed of this happening...and I wanted everything to be perfect...to do everything right."

"You didn’t do anything wrong," Bianca whispered, turning her hand to run her thumb along Lena’s lower lip.

Bianca accidentally nicked the injury in Lena’s lip with her thumbnail, and the Polish woman jerked her head back, wincing as she unintentionally worsened the injury when the scab caught on Bianca’s nail and tore. Tasting blood, she reached up to wipe a few fresh drops away.

"Oh, god, I’m sorry," Bianca apologized instantly. "I forgot."

"It’s nothing," Lena waved the subject aside. "Just reopened the cut a little."

Reaching up, Bianca lightly batted Lena’s hand aside and gently rubbed at the blood with the pad of her thumb. "I’m sorry," she said again, her expression drawing into a frown, something in her tone leaving Lena uncertain she was referring to the cut or something else.

Lena risked a quick look up. "It’s just that you seem so...so distant...now." She swallowed hard, finding it hard to express herself...which was ironic given her normal facility with language. "And I...I...don’t know what to...to think, I guess."

A soft sigh escaped full lips while Bianca continued gently brushing the blood away from Lena’s lip as it slowed to an ooze. She rubbed her thumb and forefinger together, spreading the blood between them. "This isn’t simple," she said very softly. She shook her head, eyes rolling ceilingward again. "God, my mom would blow a gasket if she knew I was here like this with you."

Her gaze dropping, Lena bit her tongue to stop the sharp reply that instantly came to mind. She took a breath to calm herself, then spoke carefully. "This isn’t about your mother." Despite Erica Kane’s need to be the center of attention at all times, there were a few things she wasn’t a part of.

"I know that," Bianca said a little too quickly, then added, "It’s just that..." she didn’t finish, instead muttering a soft curse under her breath.

Feeling like she’d taken a solid kick to the teeth, Lena tamped down on the impulse to demand something from her lover. But the harsh reality was that Bianca was ashamed of her and that wasn’t likely to change anytime soon. "Do you want me to take you back to Myrtle’s?" she offered, amazed by how cool she managed to sound when she wanted nothing more than to keep Bianca here until she accepted their love.

Bianca turned her head to stare at Lena, her eyes black and unfathomably deep in the thin light.

With her body satiated, it had to be tempting to walk away and pretend it had never happened, and Lena half expected the younger woman to do just that.

Finally, Bianca shook her head. "No," she admitted. "Do you want to go?"

Not as easy a question as Lena might have predicted. "No," she whispered, "I want to be with you more than anything in the world, but not if all you feel afterward is shame or regret." She caught Bianca’s hand with her own, twining their fingers together, relieved that Bianca allowed the gesture. "You are so beautiful...and so special...and I hate the idea that being with me or wanting me hurts you somehow..." her voice threatened to crack as she continued, "or makes you feel ashamed." Her stomach rolled with nausea and tension. "I’m sorry," she said again to fill the silence when Bianca didn’t immediately speak.

"God," Bianca exhaled. "It’s all such a mess."

"I’m sorry," Lena choked, feeling like the biggest idiot in the universe, but unable to get anything else out.

"Stop apologizing," Bianca snapped impatiently.

"Then what do you want?"Lena whispered. "I’ll do anything I can to make this right. God, do you know how much I love you?"

Bianca was silent for a long moment. "You say you love me," she rasped at last. "So why didn’t you tell me you were in trouble? That’s what you do when you love someone. You trust them...let them help you." She looked at Lena, her eyes wide and glossy with the threat of tears, her own insecurities thoroughly in play. "Did you think I wouldn’t understand...or that I wouldn’t care? If I’d known your mother was in danger, I would have tried to help." She looked down at her hand, rubbing her thumb against her forefinger---still dark with Lena’s drying blood. "Just like I’d help you go to Anna about Michael attacking you."

Lena shook her head, wondering if she was even capable of giving Bianca the answers she wanted when she wasn’t sure she knew what they were. "I know that," she insisted, then paused, struggling to find a way to explain her actions and trying to understand them herself. "I was wrong...panicked...so used to having to do things on my own, I suppose I couldn’t imagine anything else...and I didn’t want you to know the things I’d done...the life I’d led." She slowed, caught her breath, then continued, "And I suppose I was afraid that someone like you...so pure...and decent...couldn’t feel anything for the real me...." Her throat threatened to close down, eyes burning as tears made the world swim.

Hearing that Bianca rolled on her side, reaching out, her hand curving to the back of Lena’s neck. "Damn you," she hissed very softly and pulled Lena to her, kissing her hungrily.

Lena felt the press of flesh and muscle, tasted Bianca’s soft growl mixed with a tincture of iron flavored blood---her own---as she was pressed onto her back, and hands began running frantically over her body. She broke the kiss, lips running along the arch of Bianca’s cheekbone.

And tasted tears.

All wrong. It was all wrong. They’d found physical pleasure, but there were so many other issues between them that hadn’t been dealt with. "No," she groaned through the shared kiss and framed Bianca’s face in her hands, pushing her back to stare into brown eyes that were glossy with moisture. Lena smoothed Bianca’s hair back from her face as she studied soft features. "You’re angry at me."

"Imagine that," Bianca snapped. Weight braced on her hands, she pushed away, glaring down at Lena, a muscle pulsing gently along the line of her jaw. "You’d rather let him hurt you than trust me to help you," she accused, blinking rapidly and flicking her head in an obvious effort to clear the tears filling her eyes.

"That’s not true," Lena instantly denied the charge.

"Isn’t it?" Bianca shot back just as quickly.

A hint of a frown touched Lena’s brow as she put things together. "You’re wrong," she whispered at last. Still cupping Bianca’s face in her hands, she brushed dark silky hair back from the younger woman’s face. "This isn’t about trust. I’m trying to protect you."

Tension rippled through Bianca’s arms and shoulders. "Has it occurred to you," she demanded a little bitterly, "that maybe...just maybe...that cuts both ways?"

"It’s not the same," Lena insisted.

Bianca pulled back even farther, her eyes blazing, teeth grinding. "Why, because I’m younger?" she ground out.

"No," Lena disagreed, clinging to Bianca, not letting her pull away when Lena was afraid she would. "Because I’m the one who made this mess with Michael...god, none of this is your fault, and it’s not right that you should suffer or be frightened because of my mistakes."

Bianca twitched free of Lena’s hold and pushed away, not letting herself be drawn back this time. She hit her knees and twisted so she was sitting with her back to Lena, knees pressed up to her chest, arms wrapped tightly around her folded legs. She didn’t say anything, just stared into the distance.

Scrambling to her knees behind Bianca, Lena wanted to touch, but was afraid of how it would be received. "Bianca?" she whispered after a long moment.

Bianca finally turned her head enough to glance back at Lena. "You should have trusted me...had a little faith. If you had just told me...we could have avoided all of this." She buried her face in her knees with a noisy sniffle. "When I found out...even after I knew what you’d done," she whispered, her voice muffled, "I wanted you to tell me so badly. I would have forgiven you anything if you had just come to me...and told me the truth. There was a moment in the restaurant...when you told me about your mother...I thought you were going to tell me and I knew it would be okay if you just did. Dammit, you should have."

Lena froze for a moment, swallowing hard against the brutal tightness in her throat and dashing away tears. So many mistakes. She’d made so damn many mistakes in her life, and most of the ones that truly mattered with her were ones that affected her relationship with the slender figure sitting so close and yet so very far. "You’re right," she said at last. "I can’t defend the choices I’ve made...not in light of everything that’s happened." She closed her eyes for a moment, blocking out Bianca’s narrow back and accusing posture. "I guess I kept hoping that just once in my life I’d get lucky...instead I screwed up...hurt you...damaged everything." She risked a light caress to Bianca’s shoulder.

"And what’s your excuse now?" Bianca demanded without looking back.

And now they were back to Michael’s attack. "I’m trying to protect you...to keep you off his radar."

Bracing one hand on the mattress, Bianca twisted her upper body around, glaring furiously at Lena. "I’m on his radar no matter what you do. He’s after my mother, my sister...and my lover...and as long as that bastard is loose, you’re all in danger...and anything he does to you he might as well do to me." She rolled her head back on her shoulders, teeth digging into her lower lip. When she continued again, her voice threatened to crack. "Don’t you realize he could have killed you last night? He could have killed you...and I would have lost you forever, and you won’t even let me help make sure he can’t try again...." She choked to a halt, her breath rasping painfully, and turned away again.

Utterly paralyzed, Lena couldn’t think for a long moment. She hadn’t really considered things from Bianca’s point of view, had only thought of protecting her and keeping her safe from Michael’s madness. "I’m sorry," she said at last, but Bianca cut her short, her voice sharp.

"Stop apologizing," she snapped. "It doesn’t help or change anything."

"What I’m trying to say," Lena continued more firmly, overriding Bianca and forcing her to listen, "is that you’re right."

Bianca twisted back around to stare up at Lena, her surprise visible in her expression.

"Michael needs to be stopped...and I can’t protect you ...or the people you love...by ignoring that." Lena paused to take a calming breath, then continued, "and the best chance for stopping him is if we go to the police together and tell them what happened." It cost her everything to make that admission and accept that there were things she couldn’t handle on her own. She could feel her heart pounding painfully fast in her chest. Stark, raving terror. God, she was so scared she could barely breathe and wasn’t even entirely certain what of. Michael certainly, and the danger he might present to Bianca, but also of a host of other things she couldn’t name and didn’t begin to understand. She was startled out of her silent reverie when a gentle hand brushed her cheek. "Bianca?" Lena whispered almost inaudibly, drawn in the inviting softness in doe brown eyes.

"In the morning," she whispered very softly. "We’ll talk to the police in the morning."

Which hopefully meant they weren’t leaving that night. Lena still felt the need to be certain. "Then you don’t want to go?"

Bianca shook her head, her expression solemn. And then the hand caressing Lena’s cheek slid around to the back of her neck, tugging lightly. Suddenly Lena was ducking her head, her mouth finding Bianca’s, arms wrapping around her lover’s slight frame. With the edge off their physical desire, the kisses were softer and slower, with a tenderness that came from deep emotion. Hands floated and caressed, lips moving together in a slow dance, every brush of flesh on flesh sending delicate shudders through both lovers. Lena rested her palm on Bianca’s upper chest, feeling the unsteady thud of her heart, then let her hand slide lower, stroking lightly, fingertips painting erotic patterns as they trailed over full breasts, then along striated ribs and well defined abdominal muscles.

Moaning low in her throat, Bianca arched into the caresses, fingers twining into the hair at Lena’s nape.

As the kiss broke, Lena trailed her lips along the curve of Bianca’s jaw, then swirled her tongue in a delicate ear. "Be with me," she invited, her fingertips still swirling over velvety flesh. "Let me hold you...make love to you...."

Bianca nodded, leaning heavily into her lover as Lena urged her to lie back down, then stretched out next to her. They simply stared at one another for a long moment, then Lena rested her hand lightly on Bianca’s abdomen, her thumb moving lightly, every tiny caress earning another hitch in Bianca’s breath. She was so beautiful, so perfect that sometimes, Lena feared it was all a particularly vivid dream, that someone this pure and innocent couldn’t really exist.

But she did exist. It was her hands and mouth clinging, her lips uttering tiny, aroused sounds, her legs tangling restlessly with the thigh and calf draped across her lower body. She was solid flesh and bone and lying there with Lena.

And they had all night....

 


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