My thanks as always to my beta reader, Barbara Davies. Her work can be found on her page, The Writings of Barbara Davies.
Jo had never before encountered such weather. As she picked her way carefully through the almost deserted streets of Leicester, her attention was repeatedly drawn to the hunched figure beside her.
Rocky was fighting against the effects of the sleeping pill that Susan had given her, almost desperate to stay awake, fearful that sleep would only return her to the horror she has so recently escaped.
Jo reached across when the blonde head slumped against the window for the umpteenth time. "Go to sleep," she said, smoothing her hand against a denim-covered thigh.
Rocky captured the hand, but Jo had to pull it away quickly when the need to shift down a gear presented itself.
"Sorry," Jo said. "The weather's getting worse."
"Can we stop?" Rocky's voice was strained, and she shifted uncomfortably in the seat.
"If you want," said Jo, and steered into the small car park of a darkened `Little Chef`, which had obviously closed early for lack of customers. The wheels briefly skidded on the slight incline but then caught, and Jo eased the car behind a large sign, hiding them from the street.
She turned to the smaller woman who quickly undid her seatbelt and crawled across the gap between them.
Jo found herself with an armful of sobbing blonde. "Hey," she whispered into soft hair. "It's okay, we're okay."
"I was so scared," Rocky sobbed into Jo's chest.
"I know, shhh." Jo held on tight, letting Rocky know she was there, and that they were both safe.
"I can't believe you came for me."
Jo slipped a hand beneath the leather jacket and rubbed a trembling back. "Tell me what happened."
Rocky was quiet for long moments and Jo thought she wasn't going to answer. "I don't know how he found us." Her voice was muffled by the sweatshirt Jo was wearing. "He waited until you left, then rang the bell.... I thought it was you." She was quiet for a while, her hands tangling in Jo's shirt. "He said he'd hurt you. I had to go."
Jo closed her eyes, realising what Rocky had sacrificed for her. "How did you know to take my jacket?"
Rocky pulled away from her, wiping at the tears that dampened her cheeks. "I just took it because I wanted something of yours." She lay her head on Jo's chest, and relaxed into her lover when she felt the long arms enfold her again. "I didn't know the cell phone was in there until I put my hands in the pockets when I was walking across to the loo."
Jo tightened her hold. "I'm glad you found it."
"Yeah, me too." Rocky's voice was husky. "Can we get out of here now?"
Jo looked through the windscreen at the worsening weather. "I think we'd better. I'm going to stop to try and get some fuel, then we'll find the motorway and get as far as we can." She gently pushed the blonde across to the passenger seat, and waited while Rocky refastened her seatbelt. "If we have to we'll find a hotel." Jo eased the Mercedes back onto the road, which was nearly deserted.
"What do we do then?" Rocky switched her attention from the passing houses to her lover. "He knows where you live."
"We go to the police."
"Do you think they'll do anything?"
"They have to if you make a complaint."
Rocky looked down at her hands, which were folded in her lap. "They won't believe me."
Jo looked across at her, sensing an attitude of defeat about the blonde. "Susan is going to help us. We'll be fine."
Rocky nodded slightly, not entirely convinced.
Jo managed to find the motorway in what was possibly close to blizzard conditions. Theirs was one of a few vehicles trying to find their way using the three-lane road, which looked more like a toboggan run than a motorway.
"This is scary," said Rocky, leaning forward in her seat, one hand on the dashboard.
"I know, but we'll get as far as the next exit and then get off." Jo peered into the gloom, following the track made some time earlier by a snowplough, which had cleared the middle lane.
The further she went the more confident she became, and she increased her speed slightly.
"Jo," the blonde said, her nervousness clear. "Let's stop; this is crazy."
"It's okay, there's nothing else about. Look," she said glancing at the illuminated clock on the dial. "It's well past midnight. No-one in their right mind is out in this." She shot a wicked grin at her companion, who, despite her nervousness couldn't help but smile back. "I want to get as far as I can."
"That's great, just let's get there a little slower." Rocky winced as the wheels of the Merc hit the snow bank on their left.
"Ye of little faith," Jo chuckled trying to lighten the mood, and increased the speed.
"Don't worry." Jo looked across at the blonde, who was peering beyond the bonnet of the car. The snow was getting lighter, the flakes smaller now, swirling around in the beam of the headlights.
"Shit!" The blonde threw herself back into her seat.
Jo's eyes tore themselves from Rocky just in time to see the abandoned car in their path. She braked and swerved but was only propelled off one snow bank into the other. The car skidded into the parked vehicle, coming to rest half on its right side, wedged between the bank and the bumper of the abandoned car.
Rocky was first aware of a pain across her chest where the seatbelt had held her against the seat during the collision. "Bloody hell, Jo! Watch that last corner," she joked weakly, turning her head slowly towards her lover.
It was dark in the Merc, just the quiet sound of the radio breaking the silence. The engine was dead but the ignition still on, causing the headlights to illuminate the now light snow.
"Jo?" Rocky reached across and down to where her lover lay unmoving. "Hey, Jo." She nudged the brunette's shoulder, beginning to panic when there was no reaction. "Come on, we need to get out of here."
Rocky managed to unbuckle her seatbelt, bracing her arm against Jo's seat so as not to fall onto the obviously injured woman. She managed to get her foot against the driver's door and eased herself down, the steering wheel digging painfully into her back. The deflated air bag hung limply across it. She could see the snow bank packed against the window on which Jo's head was resting. The glass of the windscreen was cracked but not shattered; the driver's window was intact. But the canvas roof of the car was torn and buckled out of shape.
Rocky reached down with a trembling hand and pulled back the hair that obscured her lover's face.
"Oh God," she breathed as she found hair sticking to Jo's face. The sticky substance she immediately realised was blood. Her lover was bleeding from a cut, which must have been inflicted when her head hit the window beside her. She couldn't see the wound, but it was bleeding profusely, congealing beneath her head on the glass. She reached behind her with her right hand, opening the glove compartment. Its contents spilled out, but she managed to grab the small box of tissues Jo kept in there. "Jo?" she asked as she tried to mop away the blood from the side of the slack face. "We have to go. It's getting cold here; we need to get out of here."
Jo could hear her lover, but she sounded far away. Besides she was much too tired to wake up and answer her. But the voice was insistent. And she found she couldn't resist the pleading sound of the blonde's voice. She decided she'd just go and see what it was that was scaring the blonde, then she'd go back to sleep.
Rocky watched as the blue eyes fluttered open then quickly closed again. Jo groaned and her face tightened, and Rocky ran gentle fingertips across a tense cheek. "Careful, take it slowly," said Rocky relieved when Jo's eyes seemed to focus on her and track her as she leaned back for more tissues.
"What...?" Jo tried to talk, but a stabbing pain in her head cut short the sentence.
"Sssh, just lie still for a moment. Then we need to try to get out of here."
Jo tried to lift her head from its sticky place against the window, but gave up quickly. "You go," she mumbled. "Go find help."
"Not without you." She leaned down and managed to undo the buckle of Jo's seatbelt. "I want you to try to pull yourself up."
"No," Jo slumped back, pulling herself out of Rocky's grasp.
"Come on, Sweetheart." Rocky pulled again at her shoulders. "We need to get out of here; we'll freeze to death. The engine's dead, and the roof is bust."
Jo managed to open her eyes again. "Can't see you very well."
Rocky bit her bottom lip. "There's a lot of blood; it's getting everywhere." She leaned in close, switching on the interior light in the car. Jo appeared to be having trouble focusing and blinked glazed blue eyes rapidly. "We're going to have to climb out of my door."
"Why? What's going on?" Jo looked around, then reached for the door handle. "The door's broke?"
The blonde smiled down at her lover. "Jo, the car's broke." She leaned down and gave the groggy woman a peck on the lips. "Now, I'm going to climb out, then I'm going to reach down for you. But I won't be able to pull you out on my own - you're going to have to help me."
"I can do that." Jo sounded annoyed now. Why was Rocky treating her like a kid?
Rocky sighed and turned in the tight space, then reached up and opened the passenger door, which was now above her. She pushed the heavy door up, but it wouldn't stay and kept slamming shut again. Wedging her back against the door she pushed again, and then reached down for Jo.
"Jo," she said. There was no reaction from the woman, and Rocky nudged her shoulder with her foot. "Jo, come on, we need to go."
The dark head turned in her direction, the side of Jo's face painted in crimson. Rocky almost sobbed in relief when Jo reached out a shaky hand to her, and put her free arm below her to lever herself away from the door she lay against. Then the tall woman managed to untangle long legs and use them to get herself out of the awkward position she'd woken up in.
Rocky held the door open with her back, and pulled her lover up. She was relieved that the snow appeared to be stopping, only a few flakes being blown about in the slight breeze. The sky was clearing and a full moon cast the deserted motorway in an eerie blue light.
Jo pulled herself up, her feet slipping slightly in the blood she'd left on the window below her. Using her arms, she pulled herself up and out of the car, falling to the ground which wasn't too far below because of the angle the car had settled at.
Rocky managed to manoeuvre herself out from beneath the bulky door and quickly scrambled to her lover's side.
"Hey, well done," she said, cupping Jo's face. She still had a wad of the tissues from the box in her hand. In the moonlight she parted dark, blood-slicked hair and looked for the wound. She found it, a gash about an inch long, just above her hairline, which still pumped blood that flowed down the side of Jo's face and along her neck. She placed the wad of tissues against the wound and took Jo's hand. "Can you hold that?"
Jo nodded and lifted her hand slowly to hold the makeshift dressing. "Just wait a mo. I'm going to try to see where we are."
"Okay," Jo said quietly.
Rocky squeezed her shoulder, and then left quickly, scrambling up the embankment.
Beyond the ridge was a flat field, and beyond that she could just make out the dark shape of some sort of building. The moon shone brightly on the newly laid snow, and it looked like a simple two or three hundred-yard trek to the house.
She slid back down the embankment to find Jo patiently waiting, still holding the padding to her head. It was by now soaked through with blood. "There's a house over there."
Jo nodded slightly, wincing as the movement caused her pain. "Okay, go get help then. I'll wait here." The feeling of exhaustion was overwhelming, and to her groggy mind it was the best option for her to wait while her lover got help.
"Oh no. You're coming with me." Rocky bent down and caught Jo's free arm. "Come on."
Jo allowed herself to be pulled to her feet, and swayed slightly as Rocky pulled her arm over her shoulders and then started pulling them up the embankment.
Jo stumbled frequently, and struggled through the thigh-high snow. She suddenly pulled away from Rocky and threw up painfully.
The blonde put an arm around her lover's waist, holding her as her body heaved.
"Jesus," Jo rasped, trying to get her breath.
"You okay?" asked Rocky as she wiped Jo's face with her sleeve.
"Can't see a bloody thing."
Rocky peered into blue eyes turned violet in the moonlight, and noticed a glassy look to them. One eye seemed to react quicker than the other, and she surmised the taller woman might have a concussion.
"Let's keep moving. It's not far now." Rocky looked ahead to the house. She could see no lights on, and prayed that the occupants had just gone to bed and weren't away. But she resolved she would find a way in. That was their only hope for survival. She couldn't feel her feet, and she could feel the cold tightening about her chest like a steel band. Both of their jeans were getting soaked, and she knew from her time on the streets that it would be very easy for them to freeze to death in a very short time.
It was only another twenty yards or so, but the snow had banked, and she found it increasingly difficult to pull herself and her lover through the deepening snow. Luckily for them, the snow had stopped falling completely, the moon shone bright, with just a few silvery lined clouds making a slow trek across an otherwise clear sky.
It was quiet, until the silence was broken by the sound of a barking dog. This seemed to strengthen her resolve and she pulled Jo's arm tighter around her shoulders and hauled them both through the snow.
The house was part of a small farm. The main farmhouse stood a little way away from a large barn and a number of smaller buildings.
Jo was flagging and becoming heavy, and by the time Rocky reached the door of the farmhouse she could no longer hold her lover up. She allowed Jo to slide to the ground and lifted an incredibly heavy arm to knock on the door.
The barking became louder and she heard muffled noises behind the heavy wooden door.
The door slowly opened, and she was faced with a growling but rather small dog. She followed the leash, which she found was held by a woman. In one hand was the leash, in the other what appeared to be an ancient oil lamp.
"Good grief, Jasper," said the woman, tugging back on the leash. The dog stopped barking immediately. She was dressed in a tweed skirt, the thickest green cardigan Rocky had ever seen with a roll neck sweater beneath, and green wellingtons. A vision of English aristocracy in all its eccentric wonder.
"Please," was all Rocky could manage.
The woman looked from her down to the other woman who was slumped at the shorter girl's feet.
"We crashed our car." Rocky crouched down to try to lift Jo to her feet. "My friend is injured and we're both freezing."
"Well, get her in here," said the woman without further ado. "Can't have travellers popping their clogs on my door mat." She pushed the door open further, and the heat immediately flushed Rocky's cheeks as it left the house.
She managed to get Jo to her feet, but she was just about incoherent, and they stumbled into what appeared to be the kitchen.
"Bloody power's out." The woman pulled a chair out from beneath a pine table and gestured for Rocky to sit Jo in it. "Lucky I have the Aga - keeps it nice and warm in here."
Rocky eased her friend into the chair and then held her when she appeared to be about to slump to the floor.
Behind her the woman was filling a kettle at the sink, then she placed it on the hot plate on the Aga.
"Jo." Rocky crouched in front of her lover who appeared to be slipping into unconsciousness. "We need an ambulance; can I use your phone?" she asked without taking her eyes from Jo's pale face.
"Phone's down as well, I'm afraid. Snow on the lines, brought them down apparently." She left again for a moment and returned with a cloth and some slightly warm water she'd drawn from the tap. "If she's taken a bump on the noggin, she should be awake for a while after."
Rocky nodded, and started to gently try to wake Jo. "Hey there," she said quietly. "Jo, open your eyes for me." There was no reaction, and Rocky turned to the woman. "She won't wake up."
The woman pushed Rocky out of the way, and pushed back on Jo's shoulders, sitting her up straighter. "Come on, girl. You're not doing yourself any good like this." She gave Jo a slap on the face, causing the blonde beside her to wince. Another slap and the blue and somewhat glazed eyes opened. "Hello, dear. I'm Joscelyn, but everyone calls me Joss."
"Joss," Jo repeated, trying to focus on the woman and place her in the events of the past few hours. Her eyes tracked to the left, settling on the fuzzy form of her lover.
Joss gently turned Jo's face back towards her. "That's right, dear. And who might you be?"
"Jo." The injured woman blinked rapidly, obviously having trouble seeing what was only a few feet from her.
Rocky knelt beside Joss and wrung the cloth out in the water, then used it to start washing the blood from Jo's face. Jo seemed to relax at the familiar touch of her lover, but winced when someone examined the wound on her head.
"This cut isn't too large. Not bleeding much now. I've seen worse on a hockey pitch; bloody Bunty Adams caught me on the ear in 1958 - never been the same since." She chuckled at her own joke and left the two women alone for a moment while she rifled through a drawer. She brought a bottle of antiseptic and couple of clean towels over to them and pressed one on the wound, which had all but stopped bleeding. "How did she do this?" she asked as she poured a drop of antiseptic on the towel and pressed it to the wound.
Again Rocky winced when she saw her lover's face contort with the pain. "I think she must have hit the car window when we collided with the snow bank."
"What make of car was it?" Joss peered at the wound, giving Jo a brief smile as she changed the dirty towel for a clean one.
"Um, Mercedes." Rocky was now undoing Jo's soaking footwear, pulling them off along with the socks.
"No wonder. Bloody German car. Wouldn't have happened in a Jag." She bent to see into Jo's face. "You hear me, girl? British car next time."
Jo nodded mutely, wondering who this person was and where in the hell they were.
"Rocky?" She reached out a hand, relieved to feel it enfolded by her lover's smaller ones.
"Rocky?" Joss repeated. "Good grief, girl. Who on earth gave you a name like that?"
"It's a nickname," said Rocky, vigorously rubbing Jo's frozen feet. "My name is Michelle."
"Ah, much more civilised."
The dog started barking, jumping up at the door.
"Jasper, stop that!" Joss walked across the kitchen, peering through the drawn curtains to see outside. "Looks like we've got another visitor." She turned back to them. "Good job I put the kettle on."
Rocky got up stiffly from her place at Jo's feet. "There's someone out there?"
"Looks like it, dear." She stood aside and let Rocky peer out into the night.
The full moon highlighted everything beyond the farmyard, even giving the figure struggling along the same tracks they had made only twenty minutes or so before a long shadow. And there was no mistaking the figure.
Rocky's chin slumped to her chest, and she turned away from the window. Then she rushed across to Jo, kneeling at her feet. "I have to pop back to the car," she said cupping a still-chilled cheek. "I want you to stay here and keep warm." She leaned forward, her hand going behind Jo's head and tangling in dark hair. Her lips found her lover's and she kissed her long and softly. "I love you, Jo."
Jo looked confused, and her mouth opened and shut without any words forming.
"You shouldn't be going out there, dear," said Joss, suddenly realising the nature of the two girls' relationship.
"Joss, please listen to me. That man is coming here to get me. But I'm scared of what he'll do to her." She looked across at Jo, who was trying focus on them. "So I'm going to try to get out there and lead him away. I've got a cell phone here." She took the phone from her jacket pocket. "I think Jo's got a charger in the car. Hopefully I can get a message out."
Joss was about to protest but Rocky had already opened the door, closing it quickly after her.
The cold hit her hard as she stepped into the farmyard. The night was so still she could already hear his laboured breathing as he struggled through the snow. She knew he'd see her immediately in the moonlight, so she ducked down behind a long wall. There was about fifty yards between her and a small clump of trees, and she decided she would make for them.
As she broke clear of the wall, she saw his head turn in her direction. It was hard pushing through the snow, but she fixed her attention on the trees and only half heard the sound of her uncle as he changed direction and attempted to cut her off.
"Michelle!" he called, falling headlong into the snow.
She kept going, glancing back to see him pick himself up and continue towards her. Her chest was hurting, dragging in the frigid air which then plumed into the still night as she exhaled. She fell, her bare hands sinking into the snow, her knees hitting something hard buried beneath the whiteness. She ignored the pain in her legs and dragged herself to her feet again.
He was close behind her now. She passed the first tree, and was inside the small wooded area. The snow wasn't so thick on the ground here, and she managed to pick up speed. The trees were closely bunched together, and she ran blindly, hearing him curse as his wider frame had more difficulty negotiating his way.
She suddenly felt something slam into her back just as she cleared the trees. There was a sharp slope and they both tumbled down it, sliding through the snow and onto a relatively hard surface. He had landed a few feet beyond her, and she lay for a moment, staring up at the clear sky, breathing hard. She looked to her left to see him sitting very still, looking at her.
"Why did you run from me, Michelle?"
She sat up then stood on shaky legs. "I can't go back with you, Ron. You need to leave me alone."
"I don't understand." He stood and started to walk towards her, but was stopped by a loud cracking sound.
They had fallen onto a frozen lake. He was a good fifteen feet further out than Rocky, and had immediately realised their predicament.
"I can't let you go, Michelle." He said, sliding his foot carefully across the ice.
"Go back home, Ron. Please. Go back; you have a home and a wife waiting for you."
"I couldn't make Susan understand," he said, sliding another foot nearer. "She wouldn't listen."
Rocky backed away, reaching the bank and safety. "Is she alright?"
"She wouldn't listen, Michelle. I tried to make her understand; she couldn't see what we mean to each other. But it's alright now. She won't come between us again."
Rocky felt sick, her chest tightened, and she felt the sting of tears. She turned and started to scrabble back up the bank.
She heard the crack and a splash, and turned to see a hole in the ice where Ron had been. There was no sign of him.
The suddenly he appeared, just his head and shoulders. He clawed feebly at the ice, trying to get a grip, but being pulled back down into the icy depths by his sodden overcoat.
"Help me," he gasped.
Rocky was trembling as she watched the man fight for his life. She took a step back.
"Please!" he cried, hanging onto the edge of the ice.
She looked around for anything that she could throw to him. Some rope, or a long branch. There was nothing that she could see.
She took off the jacket, feeling the cold assault her bare arms, having only a tee shirt on beneath.
She held onto one jacket sleeve and threw the other towards him. He grasped for it, but it didn't reach him. She edged onto the ice, crawling on it, feeling it through her jeans and against the palms of her hands.
It gave way, and she found herself up to her thighs in freezing water. Again she threw the jacket towards him, and this time he managed to get a grip on it. She wound the leather sleeve around her hand and pulled back, watching as the man she hated pulled himself from the ice.
He got his knee onto the edge and was pulling himself up when it collapsed under him once more. He went backwards; the force of his weight disappearing beneath the ice again pulled the sleeve from Rocky's frozen hands.
She waited for him to reappear.
Rocky managed to turn and pull herself out of the water. Then she looked back at the hole in the ice, black and still in the moonlight.
She started to shake, and suddenly was aware of the awful pain in her legs and hands. She knew she was freezing, and she knew she had to get back to the farmhouse. But her body betrayed her. She crawled on hands and knees up the small slope, collapsing at the top.
She looked around, trying to get her bearings, but nothing looked familiar. She was tired now, and wanted nothing more than to just sit for a while and get her breath. The adrenaline rush had gone, and there was nothing but exhaustion left in its wake.
She curled into a ball, and her last thoughts as she drifted off were of her lover.
Jo watched the fuzzy figure approach. She tried and failed to focus on the person, and the voice when it came was not the one she wanted to hear.
"Here, drink this tea, dear. You need something warm in you." Joss watched carefully as the younger woman took the mug from her in shaking hands. "Can you manage?"
"Yes, thanks." Jo took a sip of the warm sweet tea, then looked around through bleary eyes. "Where's Rocky?"
"She went back to the car." Joss sat in a large, plump chair next to the stove, picking her mug of tea up from the hearth where she'd put it moments before.
"She what?!" The mug fell to the floor as Jo lurched to her feet.
For a woman who has seen the top of the hill and is on the way down the other side, as she often put it, Joss managed to move quickly. "Now you sit back down, girl. Your marbles haven't settled yet."
Jo found herself back in the chair. "It's freezing out there." She cast her blurred vision across the floor, looking for her shoes.
"Well, she'd seen someone out there, so whoever it was is probably helping her." Joss turned away from Jo and started picking the remains of the mug up from the cold, hard, stone floor.
"Someone out there?" Jo put the heel of her hand to her forehead, trying to lessen the thumping headache she'd had ever since entering the warm kitchen.
"Yes, dear," Joss said from the floor. "Said he was coming for her, and something about you. Didn't make much sense." She walked across to a small bin and threw the shards of china into it. "Shall I make you another?" she asked.
"Joss." Jo struggled to her feet, steadying herself against the table when the floor beneath her apparently shifted. "We need to go out and find her; I think she may be in trouble."
"We're not going anywhere, dear. We'll wait for her to come back." She tried to push back against the dark-haired woman, but found herself pinned by blue but slightly out of focus eyes.
"If the man is who I think it is, he raped her when she was fifteen, two weeks after her parents had been killed. Do you really want to wait here while he takes her back with him?" Jo gripped the older woman's shoulders, steadying herself as fear and her injury threatened to take her to the floor.
"Good grief," said Joss, paling. "She said she didn't know what he'd do to you."
Jo closed her eyes. "I think he threatened me. He thinks I'd come between them."
"And you love her very much?"
Jo's throat tightened, and she could only nod her answer.
"I'll get you some wellies," said Joss, matter-of-factly.
She brought Jo a thick pair of socks and a pair of wellington boots. Then she found her a coat and a woollen hat. "Probably not what you're used to, dear, but it'll keep the cold out." She opened a cupboard and pulled out a double-barrelled shotgun. Reaching into a drawer she took a couple of shells from a box. "Haven't used this in a while, but it's been kept clean." She looked up at Jo, who appeared to be shaking her head slightly, trying to clear her vision. "You ever used one?"
Jo nodded, recognising the sound of a shotgun being loaded. "My parents have pheasant shoots on their estate."
Joss's head snapped up. "Estate?"
"Not now, Joss," she said, shrugging into the coat.
The woman, her curiosity now seriously piqued, called for the small dog, which had been curled up in a basket beside the Aga. "Come on, Jasper," she said, bending and attaching the leash to his collar.
The animal pulled her towards the door, not caring that the conditions probably would not be comfortable for a midnight walk.
The door opened, and they were both pleased to find that the wind hadn't picked up and the night was still and calm, the blanket of snow thick and even.
Jo took a hold of the other woman's coat and followed her out into the darkness.
Joss didn't make for the field that they had crossed to get to the farmhouse, instead she made her way towards the barn. "Damned if I'm going to be trekking through the bloody snow. We'll get Bessie out."
Jo was too tired and in too much pain to argue, so she followed where the woman dragged her. The moonlight was enough to see by, and she hauled open the door of the barn.
Inside, about half a dozen cows regarded them then went back to munching on the feed that was in a long trough along one wall. In the corner a large lump was covered with a tarpaulin. Joss pulled back the tarp to reveal an ancient piece of machinery.
"This is Bessie," said Joss with a certain amount of pride in her voice. "She'll go through anything."
Bessie was a twenty-year old Land Rover. She sat for most of the year in the barn, but Joss went out every couple of weeks just to turn the engine over. And a young man came up from the village every six months to check it over.
"The hunt goes across my land in the summer, and I like to go out and take a look. Haven't been able to participate for a few years now - bloody hip gave out in 1998."
She loaded Jo into the passenger seat, and Jasper jumped up onto the younger woman's lap.
Joss started the engine, and switched on the lights, startling some of the cows. "Good girl," said Joss, tapping the steering wheel. Then she drove out of the barn and across the snow-covered courtyard.
Jo peered out, relieved that her vision appeared to be clearing. "Where do we start?" asked Jo.
"Well, it's a good clear night, we'll try to find their tracks." She slowed to a halt and leaned across and opened the door beside Jo. "Go on Jasper," she said, and the small dog leaped out of the car, almost disappearing in the deep snow.
"Is that a good idea?" asked Jo, watching as the dog disappeared and then reappeared a few feet away.
"He loves the snow. If there's anything out there out of the ordinary, he'll find it."
They watched the dog for a moment, easily making out his dark form in the moonlight. He found the tracks that they'd made earlier, and then veered off, following another set of tracks.
"He's off!" she said, and spun the steering wheel to follow the dog. The wheels of the old vehicle spun in the snow for a moment but then caught, and Jo had to hang on as the Land Rover bounced across the rutted field.
Even over the top of the ancient engine, they could hear the excited barking of Jasper. "He's found something. Looks like it's in the copse - we won't get Bessie through there."
Jo was out of the Land Rover before it had stopped and was following the sound of excited barking. She heard the Land Rover move away, but ignored it and made her way through the small stand of trees.
"Rocky!" she called, stopping for a moment to listen, but she heard only the excited barking of the dog. "Where are you, you bloody beast?"
The dog was suddenly in front of her, barking maniacally. "What?" she asked it, feeling ridiculous. She saw the lights of the Land Rover through the trees, and followed as Jasper took off again, darting between the tree trunks.
She cleared the trees and saw nothing. To her right, Joss was getting out of the Land Rover and walking towards her, torch in hand.
"Find anything?" she asked, coming to stand next to the tall woman.
Jo shook her head, and looked down towards where Jasper was excitedly dancing around what looked to be a tree branch half way down the slope. That was all she could see, a dark outline on the snow.
"What is it, boy?" Joss trained her torch on the dog, and both women were frozen by the sight that greeted them. The dark shape they could see was Rocky's jeans, her white tee-shirt and pale arms blending into the whiteness on which she lay.
"Oh my God," was all Jo managed and she slid down the slope, coming to rest beside her still lover and the dog, who was licking Rocky's unresponsive face. "Rocky," she breathed, and turned the blonde over. Damp hair fell across the blonde's face, her head lolling limply towards Jo. The dark-haired woman brushed the hair away, her fingers trembling as they encountered cold, marble-like skin. She cupped the pale face in her hands, the moonlight making her lover look even paler, her eyes and cheeks almost sunken, giving her the appearance of a corpse.
Jo gathered the small body into her arms. "Oh Jesus, Rocky," she sobbed, rocking the limp body, praying she would feel just the tiniest response from the woman. "Come on now, wake up," she breathed, looking down into the face of the blonde. "Don't you do this to me. What were you thinking?" She crushed her to her own body once more.
She looked up towards Joss, who was picking her way cautiously towards them. "She's frozen. I don't know if she's breathing." The moonlight reflected off the tears that streaked her face, and she tore her coat off. She gathered the limp form into her arms and tried her best to cover the frighteningly cold body with the heavy coat. "We need to get her inside," said Jo, and she tried to pick her up. But the limp body merely slipped through her hands and back onto the snow again. "I can't..." Jo said, trying again, her frustration getting the better of her. She sobbed at her own helplessness.
Joss gently pushed her aside. "Jo, calm down." She looked down at the girl, who looked small and frail. "Hold this." She handed Jo the coat and reached down for Rocky's arms. "It's all in the technique," she said as she pulled on the blonde's arms and then bent her shoulder into Rocky's stomach so that she fell across Joss's back. "There, " she said, straightening, and looking at Jo, who was staring open-mouthed at her. "Well, come on, girl, we don't have all night." She turned, and Jo followed, her eyes never leaving the sight of her lover's limp body across the shoulder of her new and very dear friend.
"Get in," said Joss as they reached the Land Rover.
Jo silently did as she was told, and Rocky's freezing body was deposited in her lap. Then the coat was thrown over them both.
Joss ran around the front of the vehicle and gunned the engine, taking a moment to negotiate the slope, not wanting them to end up in the lake.
"I can't believe you did that," said Jo, pulling Rocky close and burying her face in damp, blonde hair.
"What, dear?" Joss was peering out into the night, being careful not to run over her excitable pet who was feeling very pleased with himself.
"You just picked her up, like she was a baby." She tipped Rocky's head back so she could see into her face. It was slack and very pale, and her tears began again as her fear for her lover grew.
"I've worked this farm for the past twenty years, five of them on my own. That little slip of a things weighs a lot less than a hay bale." Joss chuckled to herself as she pulled into the courtyard.
She didn't take Bessie back into the barn, instead parking right outside the kitchen door. By the time she had got round to open the passenger side, Jo had opened it herself and was standing with Rocky in her arms, so she just opened the door and let the younger woman carry her lover into the warm room.
Jo collapsed to her knees in front of the Aga, and lowered Rocky to the floor. "What now?" she asked.
Joss was pulling off her coat. She knelt next to Jo and felt for a pulse at the blonde's throat.
"Oh God, she's dead," said Jo, bending forward and burying her face in her hands.
"Nonsense, girl." Joss straightened. "Get her out of those wet clothes, then get yourself out of yours."
"What?" said Jo, but she started to unlace Rocky's ankle boots.
"Body heat, dear. She doesn't have much of that at this moment, you do." She filled the kettle at the sink and then placed it on the hot plate on the Aga. "We need to warm her up slowly."
"Why don't we just put her in the bath?" asked Jo as she pulled off sodden socks and threw them across the room.
Joss watched the socks sail across the floor. "Too much, too quickly. It would be too much of a shock for her. I've seen this before; my husband used to like to climb a bit. Did Everest with him one year."
Jo was pulling at Rocky's damp and freezing jeans, but they resisted her efforts. She felt a hand on her shoulder, and looked up to see Joss. "Slow down; she needs you now."
Jo turned back to her task. "I'm scared, Joss." She managed to pull the jeans off, the cold skin of Rocky's legs feeling unfamiliar under her hands. She pulled Rocky to a sitting position and pulled off her tee-shirt, then cradled the small woman against her chest.
Joss squeezed her shoulder, and then left the room, returning quickly with a few blankets. She placed them on top of the Aga, and then turned to Jo. "Skin on skin is the best thing for someone with mild hypothermia," she saw Jo open her mouth to speak. "That's all it is, Jo. She's not going to die today."
Jo nodded and stood shakily, pulling her sweatshirt over her head and adding it to the damp pile of Rocky's clothing. Then she quickly kicked off the wellingtons and stripped out of her jeans.
"Sit on that chair," said Joss, pointing to the plump armchair beside the Aga.
Jo did so, and Joss got her hands under Rocky's arms and lifted her into Jo's lap.
Jo gasped as her lover's cold skin made contact with hers, but then Joss was covering her with the now-warm blankets, tucking them around the two women.
"You hold tight; she's going to start shivering soon, as her body starts to warm."
Jo wrapped her arms around the small body, kissing the top of the blonde head. "Always," she said quietly.
Jo thought she must have dozed for a while, for she was woken with a start when the blanket was pulled back slightly.
Joss had a hot water bottle, wrapped in a towel. "Here, hold this against her stomach."
Jo did as she was asked, and watched as Joss knelt at their feet and slipped a pair of soft, warm socks onto Rocky's feet. Then she repeated the process with Jo.
"I'm never going to be able to thank you enough for this," said Jo as the older woman stood, stretching her back as she did so.
"Nonsense, dear. It's been a jolly good piece of excitement for me." She pulled up one of the wooden kitchen chairs and sat near the Aga, pouring hot water into a teapot. "Since Hugh died, it's been a little quiet around here. I keep the farm going, but only have a few head of cattle." She put the lid on the pot and sat back in the chair. "You mentioned an estate?"
Jo smiled. "Collingford," she said quietly.
"Good grief, you're Joanna Holbrook-Sutherland."
"Yeah," said Jo warily - her reputation amongst England's upper class was not good.
"You caused quite a stir a year or so ago." She leaned forward and patted Jo's knee. "Good for you, girl. Those damn pale, skeletal young things down in London need shaking up. Saw that article in the Times; you were making headlines for a while there."
"Yes, I was," said Jo, ducking her head, and pulling the still limp girl closer to her chest.
Jo suddenly remembered why Rocky was now unconscious in her arms. "Joss, the man...."
Joss was pouring tea. "There was a hole in the ice on the lake."
"You think he went through?"
"I could see no sign of him."
Jo looked down at the woman on her lap, who was just beginning to move slightly. "Oh, baby, what happened out there?"
Joss stood. "Right then, Jo. We're going to try to get this tea in her. It's only just warm, not too hot. But it'll help warm her from the inside."
Jo gave the mug in Joss's hand a concerned look. "Won't she choke?"
"Probably, a little. But you'd be surprised what the body does out of instinct." Joss smiled suddenly. "Unless of course you'd like to try another way of getting it into her."
Jo frowned, obviously not completely understanding.
Joss grinned. "From the other end."
"Oh my God," said Jo, smiling for the first time in a while. "She'd kill me."
"That's more like it, girl." She took a couple of steps towards the two women in their cocoon of blankets. "Now, open her mouth."
Joss placed a towel beneath Rocky's chin, and waited while Jo gently prised open her lover's mouth. She poured a small amount of tea into the blonde's mouth, then rubbed her throat, which in turn caused Rocky to swallow.
The second attempt wasn't as successful, however, and Joss found lukewarm tea dripping from her face when it was coughed up forcefully by the unconscious woman.
Jo winced, but the older woman just returned to her task, and after a while the whole mug of tea was inside Rocky, and the weak shivering was becoming more insistent.
"Now you drink yours, dear," she said, handing Jo a mug. "She's going to be shivering so hard soon, you'll have a job holding on."
Jo took the mug, draining it quickly, then handing it back to Joss.
"I'll never be able to thank you enough for this," said Jo, pulling Rocky closer to her body when her shivering threatened to make her slide to the floor.
Joss stood and pushed the hair back from the blonde's forehead, pleased at the slight warmth she now felt. "I should be thanking you two. I was just sitting here in front of the stove, trying to sleep. It's the only warm room in the house. Haven't had this much excitement for years."
Suddenly Jo's head snapped up from its place resting against the blonde head. "Did you see anyone else out there? My God, I forgot...."
"Jo, sshhh. I saw a hole in the ice. Rocky's legs were drenched if you remember. I've lost livestock in that lake in the winter before now, I know the signs. Something went through the ice. I told you that," she said gently.
Jo looked down at Rocky; the realisation of how close she'd come to losing her, to the ice and to hypothermia, suddenly crushed down on her. But the feel of the small woman shivering against her gave her the knowledge that she was alive, and for now, that was all she needed.
Rocky suddenly gasped, her teeth chattering as her body finally started to do its work. Her arms drew in about her own body, her fists clenching painfully.
Jo held on, smiling down at her lover as the green eyes opened and looked dazedly around the room.
"It's okay," Jo whispered into a nearby ear.
"Sssso cccold." She was almost incoherent, and threatened to slip out of Jo's grasp.
"I know, baby. But you're warming up, that's why you're shivering so much."
Rocky tried to talk again, but it was just too difficult - she didn't seem to have any control over the spasms that rocked her body or the chattering that echoed through her head.
"We just have to wait it out, Sweetheart. You'll feel better soon." Jo jumped when she felt a small, shaking hand brush against her breast beneath the blankets. "You're feeling better already, eh?" She smiled down at her lover, who returned the smile somewhat shakily.
Rocky eased her head against Jo's chest, relaxing into the feeling of warmth and security she found there. She would tell her lover what had happened at the lake later. She remembered everything. From the feeling of the cold water that encased her legs, sucking the feeling and strength from them. To the look on her uncle's face as he tried to pull himself out of the freezing depths.
The shaking continued and she felt Jo's hold around her tighten. The tears came then, not just for herself, but for her family. Now she suspected she was the only one left. She had no family left. She had lost so much, yet she had found so much more. She had found her heart, and a reason to live.
She looked up. Jo had her eyes closed, and looked exhausted. "Jo?" she managed.
Blue eyes opened. "Yeah, Sweetheart?"
"Dddon't leave mme."
A look of shock and then anguish crossed the angular face. "Never, Rocky. Never." She pulled the damp blonde head against her chest again. "Try to sleep," she said, looking across at Joss, whose tears mirrored her own.
Joss watched the two women sharing her favourite chair by the Aga as they slept. The younger one, the blonde, had seemed to recover quickly once she woke. The other, Jo, had held her closely, the exhaustion on her face evident. Jo had waited until Rocky fell asleep though, before giving in to it herself. But even then her face never quite lost the tension Joss had become accustomed to seeing there.
So she watched them. She watched as the smaller woman became restless, and, in her sleep, Jo rubbed a hand up and down the girl's back, soothing her. Rocky would quickly calm, and the two of them would slip back into a carefree slumber.
Joss opened the heavy curtains and bright rays of wintry sunshine slipped across the bare floor. She turned towards the sleeping women and watched green eyes flutter open. She saw the panic in the blonde's face, until she took in where she was and who held her so tightly.
"Good morning," said Joss quietly.
Rocky just smiled. Then a look a discomfort crossed her face.
Joss stood quickly, crossing the room. "What is it?" she asked, feeling the blonde's forehead with a cool hand.
"I need the loo," Rocky husked, her throat scratchy.
"Hardly surprising, dear, after all the tea I made you drink last night." She pulled back the blankets and helped the younger woman to her feet, replacing the covers over Jo carefully and tucking them around her. "We must let her sleep; she was exhausted last night."
She wrapped Rocky up in her coat. "It's freezing in the rest of the house." She led her along the hallway, and pointed to the correct door. "I'll put the kettle on, and then whip up some breakfast."
When she returned to the kitchen she found Jo to be restless, mumbling in her sleep. "Don't be a silly goose. She's just gone for a moment," she said, laying a hand on the dark head. Jo calmed, snuggling down into her warm nest. Joss watched her for a moment, brushing aside ebony hair to better see the edge of the small wound disappearing into the dark hairline. The bruise extended to Jo's temple, and Joss wondered at the strength of the sleeping woman who had gone out into the night in search of her lover with what must have been a mild concussion.
Joss was pouring tea when Rocky returned to the kitchen. The blonde glanced at Jo, before making her way to the table and pulling a chair out.
"There, dear. The Englishman's cure for all that ails you, a nice cup of tea."
"Thank you," said Rocky, shivering slightly after her trip to the small bathroom. She wrapped her hands around the warm mug. "What time is it?" she asked.
"It's a little after 11. The phone's still out, I'm afraid."
Rocky nodded, sipping her tea. "I'm sorry we've caused you so much trouble."
"Not a bit of it, dear. No trouble at all."
Rocky turned to look at Jo. "Do you think she'll be alright? She looks very pale."
Joss followed Rocky's gaze. "I'm sure she will be. She stayed awake for a while last night, after you'd dropped off. Her eyes didn't look as glazed." Then her attention was on the blonde. "What about you, how do you feel?"
"I feel... numb."
"Do you want to tell me what happened?"
Rocky closed her eyes and shook her head gently. "I don't think I can."
Joss reached across and patted her hand. "That's alright, dear. If it's too difficult for you...."
"No it's not that," said Rocky quickly. "It's all a bit of a mess. I remember going out there. I remember running through the trees."
"There was someone out there, someone Jo was very afraid you would meet."
Rocky looked over at her lover, thankful that she appeared to be peacefully asleep. "Yes. My uncle." She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands, then sat back in the chair, her head back, her eyes closed.
Her eyes suddenly snapped open. "My God, he went through the ice."
"Yes he did, dear." Joss watched carefully as the woman in front of her crumbled.
Rocky sobbed into her hands as the memory of the past night returned. "I tried, Joss. I tried so hard. But he was so heavy. I couldn't hold him.... I threw him the jacket, but it slipped from my hands." She cast stricken eyes on the older woman. "I didn't want him dead, I just wanted him to leave me alone. I thought going with him would be for the best. I was afraid for her."
Joss looked up towards the dark-haired woman, and found herself regarded by two very aware blue eyes. Jo shook her head slightly, and Joss turned her attention back to the blonde and waited for her to continue.
"I can't believe I just left her. I thought she'd just put it down to experience. I mean, we've only known each other a few weeks. I thought maybe I was just a passing fancy, a bit of a distraction." She looked up at Joss, smiling through her tears. "But she came for me. She didn't give up on me." She took the tissues that Joss offered, and wiped her face of the tears that were flowing freely. "When he turned up here, I knew he would never give up, never give us peace. I thought I could lead him away. Maybe find another house. Just as long as she was safe, nothing else mattered."
"You mattered." Jo's voice broke on the last word.
Rocky spun in her seat, taking in the tear-stained face of her lover, and with two strides threw herself into the woman's arms.
Joss cleared her throat. "I have to go and feed the chickens," she said, and, calling Jasper, she pulled on her coat and left the two women still locked in their embrace.
The cold of the morning hit Joss. The snow was crisp, the sky blue, and the sun shone brightly. It was a beautiful morning.
She looked across the field towards the tracks her guests had made the night before, and she stood for a moment, trying to imagine the fear Rocky must have felt as she went out to face the man who was her rapist.
With a shake of the head she made her way to the chicken coup, but stopped suddenly when she heard voices. She looked across the field to see two policemen struggling through the snow. She looked back at the house, and then set off across the field to meet them.
It was almost half an hour later when Joss returned to the farmhouse. She found her two guests to be asleep again. Jo's face was showing the strain, even in sleep. She couldn't actually see Rocky, just the top of a tousled blonde head, which peeked from beneath the blankets.
She lay a gentle hand on Jo's shoulder. "Jo," she said quietly, watching as blue eyes opened, taking a few moments to focus on her. "The police are here."
Jo cleared her throat, looking beyond her friend, but seeing no-one else in the kitchen. "They are?"
Joss nodded. "They've just gone back to their car, then they'll be coming here. They're going to want to take you both back to Leicester."
Jo looked down at the blonde, who was waking. "Hey," she said, her lips brushing the soft hair of her lover. "The cops are here."
Two green eyes emerged from behind the blanket, then scanned the room. "Are we in trouble?" she asked, her voice muffled by the covering.
"We've done nothing wrong, Rocky. There's nothing to worry about." Her words were confident, and she attempted to instil some of that confidence in the now-shaking woman in her arms. "We'd better get some clothes on."
Jo eased Rocky off her lap and stood shakily.
"Your clothes are here," said Joss, handing them the dry clothing, and they both wordlessly dressed in front of the Aga.
"Rocky," Jo said, pulling on her jeans. She waited until the blonde had pulled on her tee-shirt. "I want you to hide."
"No." A shake of the blonde head.
"Please, there's nothing to connect either of us to him; it could all go down as a tragic accident." Jo glanced from her lover to the dark forms approaching the door, her eyes registering sudden panic.
"I'm tired of running, Jo. I want it over with." Rocky turned from her lover as the two men were let into the kitchen by Joss.
"Good morning," said the first policeman through the door, taking off his cap. He wiped his feet on the small mat, and then made his way fully inside. "At least the snow has stopped."
He took in the uneasiness of the two younger women facing him, completely disregarding the older woman in the room, who was busy getting extra mugs from a cupboard beside the sink.
"Sit yourselves down," said Joss, placing the mugs on the table.
The first officer into the kitchen, the older one, sat down. His companion, however, remained standing, just inside the door.
"We're making house to house enquiries," the older man said. "Trying to establish the whereabouts of the owners of the vehicles that have been left on the motorway." He pulled out his notepad, and was just about to read out what he had noted down when Jo spoke.
"The silver Merc is mine. We've been here all night. I would have reported it, but the phone lines are down." The words came out in a rush, but if the officer thought there was anything amiss, he didn't show it.
"Have you seen anyone else? There are a few vehicles abandoned not far from here."
"No," said Jo quickly.
Rocky, who had been watching the exchange, quietly took a step forward. "Jo," she said, and turned to the officer. "There was an accident last night," she said to the policeman. She heard Jo sit in the chair behind her, and Rocky pulled out another chair from beneath the table. "I think I need to make a statement."
The crackle of a radio interrupted them, and the younger officer stepped outside to take the call.
"What is the nature of this statement?" asked the officer, pulling out his pen.
The other police officer put his head around the corner. "Sarge?"
"Excuse me a moment, ladies."
Jo stood quickly, turning Rocky and the chair she was sitting on to face her. "What are you doing?" she hissed, her hands on the blonde's shoulders.
Rocky shrugged out of Jo's grip. "Something right for once. I can't run from this."
The door opened and the two officers walked back into the house. The older officer once again pulled out his notebook. "Can I have your name, miss?" he asked of the blonde woman.
"Michelle Kersey," Rocky said quickly.
"And where were you at around midnight last night?"
She looked to Jo, who sank back into the armchair beside the Aga, then turned back to the officer. "I think we were travelling about that time."
"And where were you before during the evening."
Rocky bowed her head, speaking so quietly the officer had to strain to hear her. "I was at my uncle's house."
"Rocky." Jo's voice held a warning.
"And your uncle is?" asked the officer.
The officer stood. "Michelle Kersey, I'm arresting you on suspicion of murder. I am now going to caution you. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be taken down and used in evidence."
He took a pair of handcuffs from his tunic, and the other officer closed in as he reached for the blonde.
"Wait a minute," said Jo, standing quickly. "Whose murder?"
"Susan Shumacher was found dead at her home in the early hours of this morning. Ronald Shumacher's car is currently next to yours on the motorway." He fastened the cuffs around the wrists of a very docile Rocky and pushed her back down on the chair.
"Is there any need for that?" asked Jo, taking a step towards the officer who was cuffing her friend. "She's no threat to you."
"Procedure, Ma'am," he said, though Jo had enough experience of the police and their arresting procedure to know that this wasn't entirely true.
"He's in the lake," said Rocky, looking down at her cuffed hands.
The younger officer took down what he assumed to be a confession.
"He chased after me; we both fell onto the lake." Rocky closed her eyes. "He fell through the ice." She looked up at the policeman, her eyes tired now and filling with tears. "I couldn't hold him, he was too heavy."
"I think it would be better if you waited until we reached the station." The officer looked to his colleague, who nodded and slipped out of the house again to make another call on his radio.
"Then you'd better take me too, I was with her the whole time," said Jo, standing. She wasn't going to let them take the blonde anywhere without her.
"No, Jo," Rocky sobbed.
The policeman repeated the caution to Jo, and cuffed her as well.
Joss got out a couple of thick coats, and covered both women for their walk to the cars. "Another officer will be up to take a statement from you, Mrs....?" he waited for her to provide her name.
"Carmichael, be sure to spell it correctly," she said, pulling the coat securely around Rocky.
Joss closed the door gently when they'd left, looking back at the now quiet and empty kitchen. And she wondered at the fact that two souls who had visited her so briefly had made such an impact on her.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. Jo and Rocky were separated as soon as they reached the motorway. They were put into separate cars, after first being searched. A tow truck was just hitching up the Merc, ready to tow it away to be examined. The dark BMW was still there, a couple of officers standing guard until another tow truck could be called.
At the police station, they were processed and fingerprinted, and then led to different interview rooms.
Jo was allowed to call her mother, giving her a brief description of the previous evening, and was assured that Marianna would be there as soon as possible. She told her near hysterical daughter that she would arrange for two lawyers to be there within a couple of hours.
"Do you need a doctor?" the officer asked Jo in the interview room, when they were finished.
Jo shook her head. "No," she said quietly. "I don't think so." She looked up at the man, remembering his look of surprise when he'd opened the file and seen a printout of her record. She'd been arrested a few times in London. For offences ranging from a breach of the peace to being drunk and incapable. And most of those occasions had been recorded in the tabloids.
The plain-clothes officer stood, and walked around the table. "You said you suffered a head injury, I think we should get someone to look at it."
Jo shook her head again. "Just something for my headache."
"I think we're finished here," he said, switching off the tape recorder. "We're going to want your clothes. For forensic tests."
Jo nodded. "Can I see Rocky?"
"Not just yet. She's still being interviewed, I think."
The officer nodded to the policewoman who stood just inside the door. "Take Miss Holebrook-Sutherland to one of the holding cells, and give her something to wear." He turned to Jo. "We'll give you some bags. If you could place your clothes into them, we'd appreciate it."
Jo nodded, and followed the tall policewoman out of the interview room.
The thing they'd given her to put on after she'd stripped out of her clothes could only be described as a white boiler suit, which appeared to be made of some kind of strong paper. She'd seen forensic investigators, on the odd occasion she'd watched the news, wearing something similar.
She sat on the narrow cot, her back resting against the wall, crinkling her nose at the faint smell of antiseptic. Her thoughts drifted to Rocky, wondering how she was coping, and hoping that her lover wasn't admitting to something she hadn't done. She knew Rocky's first reaction was to feel guilt for all that had happened in the past few weeks. From not letting her old friends know she was still alive to Jo's anguish when she left her, albeit reluctantly.
She knew her mother would arrive soon, and smiled to herself, wondering if the few officers in the police station knew exactly what was heading in their direction. More than once had her mother bailed her out of a cell in one police station or another. And she was slightly proud of herself this time, comfortable in the knowledge, that, for once, she hadn't actually done anything wrong.
She closed her eyes, and must have drifted off, for she was suddenly woken by the muffled sounds of a commotion outside her thick cell door. She looked at her watch, but that was one of the items confiscated earlier so she had no idea how much time had passed. It had taken over an hour to get to the station from the motorway, a large number of roads were still being cleared of the snow that had fallen the previous day. People were venturing out for the first time in a couple of days, and the roads were clogged. She estimated it to be early evening.
The interview had taken a couple of hours. Jo had told him everything that Rocky had told her. About the death of her parents, and the rape by the man charged with her care. The man who was probably his boss. She hoped, she prayed, that Rocky was telling the same story, again wondering whether her lover was somehow taking the blame for the deaths of her aunt and uncle.
She stood and put an ear against the door. She heard another door open, and footsteps, then the door slammed shut, and the footsteps receded.
She settled back down on the cot, lying down this time. "I love you, Rocky," she whispered to the stark white ceiling, before closing her eyes.
Again she was startled awake, this time by her cell door opening. She was led out by the policewoman and taken to the interview room again. Inside were her mother and another man.
Marianna took a couple of steps and embraced her youngest child. "Are you alright, dear," she asked, pushing the hair off Jo's forehead to better see the bruise at her temple.
"I'm fine. Where's Rocky?" she asked, looking around.
"Rocky is still in her cell." She turned to the man with her. "This is Howard Mayfield, Chief Constable of the Avon and Somerset Constabulary."
Jo took the offered hand, shaking it. "Hello." She turned quizzical eyes on her mother.
"I called Cordelia," she said, easing herself into one of the chairs. "It would seem Michelle's uncle was already under investigation."
Jo's face screwed up in confusion. "Cordelia?"
"Yes, dear. You know Cordelia - her daughter, Rebecca, was a friend of yours."
Jo winced. "Yeah, I remember."
"Her husband, Charles, is with the Home Office. I managed to have a little chat with him."
The Chief Constable pulled out a chair for Jo to sit on. "Joanna," he said, once she was seated. "I have spoken to the Duty Sergeant, and we have arranged bail for you and Miss Kersey. As you were both arrested, we will have to go through the formalities. But for now, we're releasing you both into the custody of your mother." He sat in the one remaining chair. "We'd like to come and see you both at a later date, to take a more detailed statement, especially from Miss Kersey."
Jo frowned. "I thought she was interviewed earlier."
"There was a small problem. It would seem Miss Kersey became hysterical. The officer in charge of the interview called a doctor, and she was sedated. She's sleeping in a holding cell now."
Jo was on her feet instantly. "What? Where is she? I want to see her. Now!" She made her way to the door.
"Joanna, please. Michelle is fine." Her mother placed a tentative hand on her daughter's shoulder, feeling the tension there. "A doctor administered the sedative for her own safety. The two lawyers I asked to attend are here, and everything is being sorted out."
Jo turned towards her mother. "She can't deal with this," she said, scrubbing her face with both hands. "She's been alone so long, now all of this...." She slumped back into the chair. "Maybe it would be better if I'd never found her." She leaned forward, her elbows on her knees, her head in her hands.
"Now, now, dear. You know that's not true."
Jo straightened in the chair. "So he killed Susan?"
The policeman, who had stood briefly when Jo had jumped up, sat again. "Susan Shumacher was found dead in her home early this morning. Two officers had gone there after the abandoned car had been found on the motorway. A number of items from the house have been sent for forensic tests."
"You said he was already under investigation?" Jo asked.
"Yes, we've had a number of complaints against him, regarding harassment, and sex with underage girls." The grey-haired man shook his head. "It would seem he thought his position would prevent any investigation being undertaken."
"Arrogant sod," Jo said between clenched teeth. She turned to her mother. "I need to take Rocky home."
The door opened, and the policewoman poked her head around it. "Miss Kersey is here."
The door opened fully, and a very groggy, very dishevelled Rocky was led in by the policewoman. She was dressed in the same white overalls as Jo, and stumbled into the arms of her lover when she saw the inviting arms open to her.
"Sweetheart," said Jo into soft blonde hair.
"I'm sorry," Rocky mumbled into the strange material of Jo's clothing.
"We're going home." Jo pulled her close, placing an arm around her shoulders. "We can go now, right?" she said to the policewoman.
She smiled. "Yes, we just need your signatures and an address where we can contact you."
The two women shuffled to the Duty Sergeant's desk and filled out the forms, Jo helping Rocky with hers while the two lawyers watched proceedings carefully. Marianna hovered in the background, speaking in hushed tones with the Chief Constable, watching the way her daughter's attention was fixed completely on the small blonde woman.
Rocky was suffering, both Marianna and her daughter could see that. Her eyes were unfocussed, and dark shadows marred the underside of them. She'd said nothing since the muffled apology, just following instructions to sign her name, and nodding mutely when told of her obligations not to leave the country and to inform them should she move from the address that Jo had given them.
Rocky allowed herself to be led through the police station and out of a back door. There, waiting with its engine running, was the magnificent Rolls Royce in which Marianna had travelled down from Collingford.
Jo eased Rocky into the cavernous interior, the smell of leather reminding her of her childhood and the joy of riding in the old vehicle. She slipped into the long seat beside her lover, and pulled the unresisting blonde into her arms.
Rocky snuggled into the hold, relaxing immediately and falling asleep almost at once.
Marianna got into the back sitting opposite her daughter. She was handed a couple of tartan rugs, and she took one, covering the two younger women. The other she put over her own legs, then she sat regarding her daughter.
"She's exhausted," Marianna said, as the car pulled out into the road.
"Yes, she is." Jo leaned Rocky back a little so she could see into the sleeping face. "I wish I knew what happened back there."
Rocky scowled in her sleep, so Jo pulled her in close again.
"I spoke to the police woman, nice young woman. She said Rocky became very upset during the questioning, so they decided to let her take a break. When they took her to the cell, she became hysterical, so they called a doctor. Apparently it's standard procedure."
"Yeah, standard procedure." Jo looked up from Rocky to her mother. "I wish this was all over. I don't know how much more she can take. She's so full of guilt."
"Guilt? She has nothing to feel guilty for."
"You try telling her that." She ducked her head, giving the sleeping women a peck on the cheek. "I am going to spoil her so badly when we get home."
Marianna leaned forward and patted her daughter's knee. "I wouldnt expect anything less from you, dear." She leaned back in the seat, watching the passing scenery for a moment. "Olivia's gone back to Seattle, but your brother is still at Collingford."
"Is he?" Jo shrugged. She hadn't seen her brother in months. She thought for a moment. "Does Father know about all of this?"
"Yes, he does, dear."
"And?" asked Jo cautiously.
"And he's perfectly happy with you both coming to stay for a while. I told him how much she means to you, and you know you're your father's favourite. He just wants you to be happy. As I do."
Jo smiled, the first time for a while. "Thanks, Mum. I love you."
Marianna mirrored her daughter's smile. "Now, go to sleep. It'll be a few hours until we arrive. The traffic's awful."
Jo nodded, and, taking a secure hold on the blonde in her arms, settled down to join her in sleep.
However many times Marianna viewed Collingford, it would always take her breath away. She remembered the first time she was brought here, as a twenty-one-year-old by her future husband.
The house was quite simply breathtaking.
As they arrived along the long and winding driveway, its illuminated form rose out of the darkness, like a landlocked Titanic.
As the Rolls drew in front of one of the large doors to the side of the house, it opened, a tall man walking out to meet the vehicle. He was greeted by the chauffeur.
"Good evening, M'Lord," said Jonathan as he opened the door at the rear of the Rolls. The man he greeted was tall, a good half foot beyond six feet. His hair was a sandy colour, greying at the temples, his eyes as blue as his daughter's.
Jeffrey Holebrook-Sutherland reached into the back of the car and helped his wife out, bending to give her a peck on the cheek.
"Good grief," he said, peering into the back of the car at the two sleeping women. "What on Earth are they wearing?"
Marianna sighed. "They took their clothes at the police station." She pulled on her husband's arm. "Now, Jeffrey, darling. They're both exhausted. You're going to have to wait until tomorrow to talk to Joanna about what's gone on."
"Of course, dear," he said smiling. "Now, let's see if we can't rouse your daughter." He leaned into the car, grasping Joanna's ankle and shaking it gently.
Marianna chuckled as she made her way into the house; he always referred to Joanna as 'her' daughter when the girl got herself into trouble. But she knew he adored his youngest daughter, and would go to any lengths to make sure she was happy.
She had just handed her coat to her maid, and turned to see Jo entering the huge hallway. Then she saw a sight which brought an instant smile to her face.
Her husband entered, cradling the still sleeping form of the small blonde in his arms. Marianna thought she looked like a child, dwarfed by her tall husband. But then she realised that the blonde was little more than a child, and wondered at how her daughter's friend had survived so much at such a young age.
"Where are you putting us?" asked Jo, stifling a yawn.
"In your usual room," said Marianna. "You'll find some clothes in the bureau. I sent Kate out to get some things for you both - I hope I estimated Michelle's size correctly."
Jo took a step forward and hugged her mother fiercely. "Thank you so much," she said, finding her eyes filling with tears. She heard her father making his careful way up the stairs, and started to follow him.
Halfway up the stairs Jo turned. "Any chance of something to eat? We just had some pretty lame sandwiches at the police station."
"I'll be sure to send some up. You go on up. The fire is lit in the room, and there's plenty of hot water." She started to turn away. "Oh yes, I'll also be calling Dr. Morris tomorrow to get him to look at you both."
"We're fine, Mum," insisted Jo.
"Humour me, dear."
Jo chuckled tiredly, and gave a small nod. "Goodnight," she said, and turned back up the stairs.
When Jo arrived in the huge bedroom, her father had just placed Rocky on the bed. She watched as he carefully arranged her on the incredibly soft bed covering so that she would be comfortable. The huge four-poster bed, with its canopy, almost swallowed up the small woman.
"Your mother's told me a lot about this little girl," he said, and Jo watched in fascination as he gently pushed away blonde hair from the sleeping face. She joined her father, gazing down at the blonde. "She's important to you?"
"Very," said Jo. She looked up at her father. "I don't say thank you enough."
Jeffrey leaned down, and gave his daughter a kiss on the cheek, pulling her into a heartfelt embrace. "You're growing up, Joanna. Never thought I'd live to see the day." He held her away from him, his hands on her shoulders. "I think you may have to accept some responsibility for this girl. Do you think you're up to it?"
Jo looked down at Rocky, then back to her father. "Yeah, I think I am." She hugged him again. "But you know what? I like it." She disentangled herself from his embrace and sat on the edge of the bed. "I like having to think about someone else but myself for once. I like wanting to make sure she's happy."
"That's what I felt when I met your mother." He leaned against one of the bedposts. "It's a wonderful feeling, having someone be a part of you. Is that how you feel about Michelle?"
"That's exactly how I feel." Her hand had found the blonde's, her thumb lightly caressing the back of the small hand. "It means so much to me that you understand."
He leaned down and patted his daughter's thigh. "Sounds like your food is here. I'll be in the library if you need me."
"Okay, Dad. And thanks."
He left her with a smile, passing the maid as she entered laden with a tray full of food.
Jo let the girl place the tray on a small table and then quietly closed the door as she left. She turned back, regarding the silent form on the bed.
Rocky was curled up on her right side, one fist tucked beneath her head. She still wore the white overalls the police had provided them both with. She looked peaceful enough, but as Jo sat on the edge of the bed beside her, she could just make out a small crease of worry between the fair eyebrows.
Jo went to a large bureau, opening a drawer and finding a selection of different colour tee-shirts in there. She pulled out a couple and went back to the bed. Easing Rocky onto her back, she began unfastening the top of the strange garment she was wearing.
"Hey," she whispered as green eyes blinked open. "I'm undressing you again." She smiled down, but the smile wasn't mirrored back at her, and she stopped what she was doing. "You okay?"
Glassy green eyes tracked from her lover and across the room, taking in the antique furniture and then the magnificent decoratively plastered ceiling.
"We're at Collingford," said Jo, reaching out slowly and caressing a flushed cheek.
"Why am I so tired?" said the blonde in a very small voice. She seemed incapable of moving at all, and just watched as Jo resumed undoing the fastenings on the suit.
"They sedated you, back at the police station. Plus, we haven't had a lot of sleep in the past forty-eight hours." She leaned forward and eased Rocky to a sitting position, pulling the top of the suit down so that it pooled about her waist.
Rocky leaned her head onto her lover's shoulder, sighing deeply as she felt the long arms encircle her.
They sat like that for a while in comfortable silence, until Jo felt the weight in her arms become heavy again as Rocky slid back into sleep. She patted the blonde's back gently. "Hey, I want you to eat something first, we've neither of us had much all day."
She snagged one of the tee-shirts, and pulled it over the blonde head, helping the groggy young woman get her arms through the sleeves, and then settled it about her.
"You get the rest of it off, then slip into bed. I'll get the tray."
Jo pulled her suit off and slipped into the other tee-shirt, before getting the tray and balancing it on the bed. The she plumped up the huge pillows and placed them against the dark, intricately carved headboard. She jumped up into the bed, which was as antique as the rest of the furniture in the room, and much higher off the ground than modern beds. She eased under the thick quilt, and leaned against the pillows she'd piled against the headboard. Rocky had dozed off again, and she shook her gently, waking her again.
"Come on, come up here." Jo pulled the blonde up so that she was sitting with her back against the taller woman's chest. "Try eating something." She handed Rocky a sandwich made with some of the ham cured in the huge kitchens of Collingford Manor.
"I'm not hungry," she said pushing away the offered snack. "Just tired."
"Okay," Jo wasn't going to force her. "You want a drink? There's some hot chocolate here."
The blonde head nodded and Jo carefully handed her the mug, watching over Rocky's shoulder to make sure she didn't spill any down her. Then she picked up a mug for herself, closing her eyes at the taste, which reminded her of her childhood again.
"Don't remember coming up here; did I sleep all the way here?" asked Rocky, handing back the half-finished mug of hot chocolate to her lover.
"You did. You're completely wiped out, Sweetheart." She reached down for the plates of sandwiches again. "You going to try this?" she asked, holding the snack in front of her lover's face.
Rocky shook her head. "Don't feel so good, just want to sleep." She turned slightly, taking a handful of Jo's tee-shirt, and snuggled into the embrace.
Jo was left holding the sandwich, but she too had lost her appetite, so she placed it back on the plate on the tray. She tucked the blonde head of the already sleeping woman under her chin, and settled back into the plump pillows.
She dozed for a while, and was woken when she felt the tray lifted from near her legs. Her mother was smiling down at her. "I thought you were hungry," Marianna said.
"I am, just too tired to eat." She blinked sleepily up at her mother, who sat on the edge of the high mattress.
"Your father was quite taken with Michelle." She gazed affectionately down at the sleeping blonde, seeing the death grip she had on her daughter.
"Good, I'm glad." She thought for a moment, chewing her lip. "Will you and Father be at Collingford a while?"
Marianna considered the question. "We could. Is there a reason you ask?"
"I'd like to stay for a few months. Just give her time to rest, to have somewhere where she feels she could maybe belong."
"I've already thought of that. I'd love you both to stay. You could help me with the arrangements for opening the house in the spring." She smiled when she saw her daughter's eyelids start to droop. "We can talk in the morning, dear. You rest now, and tomorrow we'll take Michelle for a tour of the house, if she's up to it."
She made Jo slide down further into the bed and pulled the quilt around the sleeping pair, noticing that the blonde didn't stir or relinquish her hold as her daughter made herself comfortable.
She closed the door quietly on her way out, and made her way down to the library to speak to her husband.
Bright sunshine woke Rocky and she turned her head away from the annoying light. Then she found soft hair tickling her nose, and opened her eyes cautiously to find herself buried beneath the ebony locks.
Her head was resting on her lover's shoulder, her hand on the warm skin of Jo's stomach. She reached up, carefully brushing the hair from her face. The she moved slightly away from the sleeping woman, wanting to see her fully, enjoying the experience of watching Jo in sleep.
There were dark shadows under the blue eyes, now closed, the dark lashes brushing against slightly flushed cheeks. Full lips were parted, showing the edges of perfect teeth.
Rocky couldn't resist. She leaned forward, brushing her lips against those of the sleeping woman, delighted when her lover responded unconsciously. She settled back down in her favourite place, and closed her eyes to the light that wanted to pull her from her lover's embrace. She felt the arms tighten about her as she relaxed again, and Jo mumbled something unintelligible, though she thought she heard a couple of familiar words in there. Words they had used a lot lately, words that made her smile.
She closed her eyes almost reluctantly, wanting to enjoy for longer the sight of her lover so relaxed in sleep. But she felt the pull to return to slumber, and she was not going to try to fight it.
She woke later, her full bladder nudging her to consciousness. She sat up slowly and finally managed to divert her attention from her still-sleeping lover and take in the magnificence of the room she was in.
A huge fireplace dominated one wall, the embers still glowing. All around the room were what were obviously priceless antiques, from the huge rug on the floor to the paintings on the wall. At the edges of the rug she could see the solid oak floor boards, polished over hundreds of years to a mirror-like sheen. There were various small tables and an assortment of chairs and small couches dotted about the room. On just about every surface was a small lamp, those being the only source of light in the room apart from the bright sunshine that poured in through the heavily draped windows.
She eased out of the bed, surprised at how far she dropped to the ground, and padded across to the window.
The sight that greeted her took her breath away.
The grounds of Collingford Manor were covered with a crisp and even layer of snow. She saw what she assumed to be a gardener, sprinkling a mixture of grit and sand across some of the pathways.
The grounds dipped and rose, the snow covering the landscaping for which the manor was famous.
Her bladder complained again, and she pulled the thin tee-shirt about her and pulled open the heavy oak door.
Rocky ventured out into the hallway. More portraits on the walls, and another collection of small tables, each bearing a lamp, greeted her. The plush carpet beneath her toes was cold to the touch. A house of Collingford's size and age was a cold place, even with the newer heating system installed.
She froze when a figure emerged from a room ahead of her.
"Good afternoon," said the tall man, a twinkle of amusement in his blue eyes.
"Afternoon?" Rocky began to back towards her room as the man approached her.
"I'm afraid so, dear," he held out his hand. "I'm Jeffrey. We met last night, Michelle. Unfortunately you were somewhat indisposed."
Rocky smiled, taking the man's huge hand in her own. "Hello, Jeffrey." She shook the warm hand. "Do you work here?"
"In a manner of speaking. Are you lost?" He placed his hands behind his back, rocking slightly on his heels.
"I was looking for the loo," she said, feeling the blush rising on her neck and infusing her cheeks.
"Ah, well, now that I can help you with." He reached out and turned her around, his large hands on her shoulders, pointing her back in the direction of her room.
"Your room, dear, that's right."
He pushed open the door quietly, and edged around the bottom of the bed, taking a brief glance towards the sleeping woman. Then he reached one of the wooden panels on the wall, and turned a handle. "There you are, dear," he said pushing open the panel to reveal a bathroom.
Rocky shook her head slightly. "I would never have found that. Thank you, Jeffrey."
"Not at all, dear." He made his way to the door again. "We hope to see you later, maybe for dinner this evening." He smiled back at the blonde. "And be sure to wake my daughter by then, otherwise she'll sleep the day away." He gave her a wink and left, closing the door behind him.
Rocky was left staring at the closed door, her mouth agape. "Oh boy."
Jo came to wakefulness experiencing the most amazing sensation of soft lips against her own. She opened her eyes to find her vision filled with golden hair and soft green eyes.
"'Morning," said Jo, her voice rough.
"Afternoon, actually," grinned Rocky back at her. "You think we've caught up with the sleep we've been missing?"
Jo reached up, tracing the yellowing bruise and small cut on her lover's face, finding it reminding her of what they'd just been through. "Are you okay?"
Rocky nodded, smiling down at her. She'd got back into bed after her trip to the bathroom, but this time decided she needed Jo awake. So she'd leaned down, kissing her for long moments until she began to stir. "It's almost like I can breathe again, after holding my breath for a very long time."
Jo chuckled. "Yeah, I know what you mean."
The blonde slumped down beside the taller woman, enjoying the feeling of being pulled closer to the warm body. "There's still a lot to get through though."
Rocky nodded. "We still have to do that." She looked up at Jo with watery eyes. "And I have a funeral to go to."
"I'm sorry, Sweetheart," Jo said, ducking her head and kissing the blonde's forehead. "Let's just look forward to what we have now."
Rocky closed her eyes, taking a tighter hold of her lover. "Mmmm, look forward. I haven't done that for years. Never looked further than the next day, even the next hot meal." She looked up, falling into blue. "You changed all that."
"I'm glad," Jo whispered. "I'm glad I found someone who gave me a reason to look forward to tomorrow." She chewed on her bottom lip. "Tell me you'll never leave me."
Rocky hesitated, and Jo's face showed her consternation. "What is it?" asked the taller woman.
Rocky sighed, her breath warm on Jo's neck. "There may be some things we don't control ourselves." She looked up, angry with herself that she'd just spoiled the wonderful mood they'd woken in. "Believe me, I want to stay with you. I love you. But...."
"No, stop." Jo swiped away a tear angrily. "It's okay. We'll take one day at a time."
"One day at a time," Rocky echoed, and lay her head against her lover's shoulder, missing the look of despair on the beautiful face.
By the time they'd got themselves out of bed and dressed in the clothes that Marianna had got them, it was time for dinner, and they sat with the family in one of the smaller of Collingford's dining rooms. The family lived in a small part of the house which wasn't open to the public. But the rooms they used to live in when they stayed at the house were as splendid as any on display.
Rocky had been introduced to Jo's brother, Jeremy, who took after her father in the looks department. He had been polite, and in turn introduced her to his wife. But there was something there that the blonde couldn't quite put her finger on, and it annoyed her.
Jo was oblivious to anything going on between her lover and her brother. She spent a lot of time with her father, who told her, in no uncertain terms, that she would be a fool to let the small blonde go.
After dinner they all sat in one of the large rooms, talking about the future season and what repairs or preparations needed to be done to the house, which would open at Easter.
"It must be wonderful to be made responsible for such a beautiful house," said Rocky, leaning back against her lover as they sat on a large, plump sofa.
"It can be a headache, dear," said Jeffrey. "Sometimes we would just like to give it over to a trust, but it's been in the family for centuries, and I should imagine I'd suffer some unspeakable curse from my ancestors if I were to let it go."
Jeremy suddenly stood. "Could I show you some of the state rooms?" he said, walking across to Rocky.
"I'd love that," she said, taking the offered hand and allowing herself to be pulled to her feet. She looked back at her lover. "Are you coming?"
"Not yet, I'll catch you up."
"Okay," she said, and leaned down, giving Jo a peck on the lips.
She followed Jo's brother as he led her along long corridors, turning on lights as he went.
"The library is one of the most popular attractions," he said, turning the light on as they entered the huge room, every wall covered by shelves to the ceiling bearing books of every size.
Rocky heard the door shut behind her and she turned to see Jeremy standing with his back against the wall.
"You must be pleased with yourself," he said.
"I'm sorry?" she said, not moving an inch from where she'd stopped.
"You've taken them all in. My sister's always had a soft spot for a pretty face, but I thought my parents had a little more integrity." He took a couple of steps towards her, his footsteps loud on the polished wood floor. "I don't quite know how you managed it, but you've managed to worm your way into one of the most influential families in this part of the country. I've been told only a month ago you were living on the streets of London on charitable handouts." He smiled, chuckling to himself. "Well, we all know how you people supplement your income. I hope my sister has taken you to a clinic of some sort; I understand certain diseases are rife."
"No," whispered Rocky, tears forming in her eyes. "I've never...."
"Whatever, but look at it from my point of view. My sister, one of the wealthiest young women in the country, suddenly finds herself with a little parasite in tow." He circled the woman, who was frozen to the spot. "Now this little parasite allows my sister to take her in, and then is drawn into a seedy episode that finds her being bailed out of a police cell in Leicester." He stopped in front of her. "And now you're here." He gestured at the magnificent room.
Rocky looked up at the man towering over her. "She came looking for me," she croaked, her throat closing around the words.
"And you put up a great deal of resistance, didn't you. It took you all of a week or so before you were letting her spend her money on you." He took the edge of a sleeve of her tee-shirt. "This is nice."
She pulled away from him. "I didn't ask for any of this," she sobbed.
"Oh, look," he grabbed her chin, his thumb passing gently over soft lips. "You play the part so well I can see how they were taken in." He brushed away blonde hair from her forehead. "Such a pretty girl."
"What's going on?"
Jeremy turned to see his sister standing in the opened door. He took a couple of steps towards her. "Just having a heart to heart with your little vagrant." He turned back to Rocky. "No offence."
The walls were closing in on the blonde and she suddenly needed to be far away from him, far away from everyone. She pushed past the siblings, running along the echoing hall, not really seeing where she was going.
Jo resisted the impulse to chase after the distraught woman, and faced her brother. "You always were a fucking idiot, Jerry."
"Just looking after the family interests. I thought you had outgrown the Sunday tabloids." He shook his head. "Aren't there enough little blonde bitches in London to fuck in those dykey nightclubs you go to? You had to pull some little vagrant off the street?"
The slap startled them both. Even as children, in the usual fights that kids have, they had never struck each other. "This has nothing to do with her, does it, Jerry?" She advanced on her bother, giving him no option but to take a step back. Before he knew it he was backed up against ancient books, the shelves digging into his back. "You've always been jealous of me. While I was out there having a life, you were being groomed to take on this place. And you hated that, didn't you?"
"I'm aware of my responsibilities. Maybe you should consider that sometime, Jo."
She poked him in the chest. "Stay out of my business, Jerry. Or so help me, I'll make your life hell. And believe me, I could do that." She stepped away from him, and he straightened.
"You've made a lot of enemies, Jo. There are people out there who would love for you to fall flat on your face over this." He straightened his tie.
Jo folded her arms across her chest. "Okay, who have you been talking to?"
"Beatrice called me the...."
"Trixie!?" Jo almost screamed. "You've been taking to that lying bitch?"
"She was concerned that you were being taken for a fool, and to be perfectly honest...."
"For fuck's sake, Jerry. The woman is a fucking psychopath!" She wanted to hit something, but everything in the room was priceless, and her brother just wasn't worth the effort. "I don't have time for this," she said, and stormed out of the library, slamming the heavy door as she went.
Jo started down the long corridor, not really knowing which way Rocky had gone. The whole of the hallway was lit by the lamps, which were on tables between various doorways.
The further into the house she went, the colder it got. It wasn't possible to heat every room of the huge house through the winter, so the more delicate antiques were stored away before the house was opened in the spring.
She went from room to room, checking through that part of the house, until she returned to the room she had shared with the blonde the night before.
Jo pushed the door open, and poked her head around it.
Rocky was kneeling on a small oriental rug in front of the fire, staring into the flames. The room was in darkness apart from the glow of the fire.
Jo walked quietly up to her lover and sat crossed legged beside her, facing her. "Hey," she said quietly, her heart almost breaking when the blonde didn't respond. She saw the flames reflecting off the tears that coursed down the blonde's cheeks.
Rocky's chin dropped to her chest. "I can't take any more." Her voice was small, full of defeat.
Jo reached for her, but the smaller woman shied away. "Rocky...."
"I want to go back."
Jo shook her head. "Back where?"
"Back to being no-one, back to the place I know."
"Don't say that."
"I can't do this, Jo."
"Let me help you."
"You've done enough already. Your brother was right."
"Please, Rocky, don't do this."
Rocky shook her head, the tears drying on her cheeks. "Just help me get back to London, and I'll be out of your way."
Jo was silent for a long time, watching the slumped form of the blonde, golden in the firelight. "Okay, but I want you to do something first."
Rocky looked at her for the first time since she'd entered the room. She nodded, "Okay."
Jo lifted her chin in challenge. "Tell me you don't love me." A sob escaped Rocky's throat, but Jo didn't move. "Tell me you don't love me, and I'll get the damned Rolls and get Jonathan to drive you there right now."
Rocky clutched her stomach and bent over, her forehead nearly touching the ground. And the sight of her lover in such pain propelled Jo forward. She gathered the blonde up, and pulled her into her lap.
They sat like that for a long time, the silence broken only by the crackling of the fire. Jo rocked them both, waiting until the sobs died down, her own tears dripping from her chin onto soft blonde hair.
"I know it's hard," Jo whispered at last. "But as long as we stay together, we'll get through it." She kissed Rocky's temple. "Okay?"
The blonde head nodded. "I'm so tired," she said. "It's been so long. All I see are the people that have been hurt." She looked up at Jo. "Because of me." She wiped at her face. "If I'd stayed away, Susan would still be alive."
"Oh no, don't you go blaming yourself for that." Jo tightened her hold, suddenly realising how much the blonde must have been agonising over her aunt's death. "You can't possibly blame yourself for the actions of a lunatic."
"But if I'd just stayed away...."
"No, Rocky. You have as much right to live a happy life as anyone. And I want to be happy." She smiled down at the blonde. "And you make me happy."
"But your brother, I don't want to cause...."
"My brother is an idiot, and if Mother finds out about this he'll probably be disinherited."
"You see," said Rocky, shrugging out of her lover's embrace in her frustration. "I'm causing problems in your family now." She closed her eyes in anguish, pushing damp hair back from her face.
Jo reached for her hand. "Jerry got a call from Trixie. We'll be fine once we've both calmed down. This isn't our first disagreement, and it won't be the last." She squeezed the small hand in her own. "Please, Rocky. Trust me."
Two simple words, thought Rocky. Trust me. She looked into the blue eyes of her lover, and knew she could. "I always will," she said, and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet.
Jo led her to the bed, and they settled on top of the quilt. "Don't scare me again, okay?" Jo whispered as she settled her arms around the blonde.
"Okay," said the tired voice.
"Joanna, dear. I'm sure killing your brother would only bring you short term satisfaction." Marianna looked over her copy of Horse and Hounds at her squabbling offspring. Her youngest looked about ready to beat her eldest to the point of death.
Jeremy was pointedly not looking at Jo as she carried on her tirade. But he felt the weight of her words, and flinched occasionally when she threw her more colourful language in his direction.
"I have the family's good name and the future of Collingford to consider," said Jeremy, shifting uncomfortably in the plump armchair. His sister's knees touched his own as she stood over him.
"And we are no threat to that," Jo growled.
"You are not the eleventh Lord Collingford yet, Jeremy," said Marianna, folding up her magazine and dropping it onto the plush carpet. "And, until you are, you will leave the reputation of the Holbrook-Sutherland name, and Collingford, out of this conversation. Your father and I are satisfied that Michelle has no ulterior motive." She looked up at Jo, who backed away and slumped down onto another armchair. "Now, Jeremy, I wish to talk to your sister. It's late; I'm sure you're tired."
Jeremy let loose an explosive laugh. "You're sending me to my room?" His eyes found his sister's smirking face.
Marianna said nothing, and merely smiled at her eldest.
Jeremy stood. "Very well. Good night, Mother." He turned to his sister. "Joanna."
Marianna looked across at Jo as the door was shut quietly behind her departing son. "Dont look so pleased with yourself."
"Well, he was a jackass," Jo grumbled. "I never said a thing when he got that tart pregnant in '95."
"Where is Michelle?" asked Marianna, trying to divert the conversation away from her son.
"She's asleep," said Jo, suddenly finding the crackling fire interesting.
"She's exhausted." Marianna ducked her head, trying to see into Jo's face. "What is it?"
Jo sighed, suddenly feeling very tired. "She wanted to go back to London. To be no-one again." Jo looked up at her mother. "After she fell asleep, I went into the bathroom and threw up. I never thought anyone would have that kind of hold on me."
"You talked her out of it I assume?"
"Yeah, I did." She shook her head gently. "But if he says another word to her, I swear ."
"I don't think he will now. He knows how your father and I view family members insulting our guests." Marianna looked up at the clock. "It's nearly midnight. Do you think it's too late to wake Michelle?"
Jo frowned. "Wake her? What for?"
"I told you back in London. I have something I'd like you to see."
Jo rubbed her forehead with the heel of her hand. "I remember." She cocked her head to the side. "You gonna tell me what it is?"
Marianna smiled and shook her head. "No, I want you to both see it." She chuckled at her daughter's confused look. "Its nothing spectacular. Just something I thought of the first time I saw Michelle. It's a curious coincidence, nothing more."
"I'll see if I can wake her, but she was really out of it when I left."
"That's fine, dear. If you can't, it will wait." She stood and walked to the door with Jo. "Meet me in the library," she said as Jo left her and started to climb the stairs.
The bedroom was quiet when she re-entered it, save for the soft breathing of the blonde woman on the bed, and the crackling of the dying fire. She walked to the hearth and took a large log, carefully placing it on the glowing embers. Then she made her way to the bed and to the person who had suddenly become the most important thing in her life.
She had come to realise that as she lay holding the blonde after Rocky had fallen asleep. And her anger had grown at her brother's outburst earlier in the evening. So she'd eased out from beneath her sleeping partner, gone in search of Jeremy, and told him exactly where he could stick his opinions.
She climbed onto the bed, brushing blonde hair away from the sleeping face. Green eyes opened and focused on her. "Hi," she said to the groggy woman.
"Hi." Rocky's voice was hoarse, and she cleared her throat. "Is it morning?"
Jo chuckled. "Nope, just about midnight."
"Why are you up?"
"Couldn't sleep." She traced a fair eyebrow, smiling when the blonde's eyes closed dreamily. "I've been talking to mother; she has something to show us."
Green eyes drifted open again. "She does?"
"Yep." Long fingers wound in blonde hair, massaging Rocky's scalp. "But if you're too tired, it can wait."
Rocky smiled, grabbing the hand that was threatening to send her asleep again. "I'd like to see."
"Okay." Jo slid off the bed, and eased the quilt off the blonde, who was still dressed in sweat pants and a tee-shirt. "Let's go see what it is." She stood, and swayed for a moment, the floor appearing to tilt beneath her feet.
"Jo?" The blonde was at her side in an instant, easing her into one of the plump armchairs by the fireplace. "Are you okay?"
"Goodness," said the dark haired woman, holding a hand to her suddenly throbbing head. "Everything phased out there for a moment."
"Hardly surprising. You've got a hole in your head, remember?"
Jo screwed her face up, pulling the willing blonde down onto her lap. "Not exactly a hole."
"It was a nasty cut; if you'd have gone to hospital they probably would have put stitches in." She parted dark silky hair to look at the still angry wound.
"But we didn't, and it's fine now. It hurts, but it's healing." She pulled Rocky's hand away from her own head and kissed the fingers. "I've got a hard head. I'm just tired . We both are."
Rocky nodded gently and stood, reaching a hand down to Jo. "You okay to go now, or do you want to sit a while?"
Jo took the offered hand, letting the blonde pull her to her feet. "Nope, let's go and see what this mysterious thing is she wants to show us."
They walked hand in hand through the silent old house, Jo leading the way to the library. When they got there, Marianna was sitting at one of the large reading tables.
She gestured to two empty chairs. "Sit down," she said, putting on a pair of spectacles. Noticing Jo's lopsided grin she looked at her over the top of the glasses. "Something wrong, dear?"
Jo shook her head. "Never thought I'd see the day," her daughter said, nodding towards the probably horribly expensive spectacles.
"The light is dreadful in here," she said, by means of explanation, and turned her attention to a large book she had on the table in front of her. "I brought this with me from Greece. It's very old and very delicate." She opened the book and turned it so that the two younger women could see its contents.
Each delicate and faded page held a drawing; each drawing was of the same subject.
Jo looked from the drawings to her mother. "Who drew these?" she asked. She looked at Rocky who was staring at the image looking back at her from the pages of the ancient book. Her own image. The hair was longer, the face a little rounder, but otherwise, it could have been her.
"The likeness is uncanny, isn't it?" Marianna was watching the blonde carefully.
"It looks like me, Jo," whispered Rocky.
"There is some likeness." Jo looked up at her mother. "Who did this belong to?"
"It belonged to an ancestor of yours called Evelyn. Whether or not she drew the portraits I don't know, but each picture is signed at the bottom with an `E`. There was also a bundle of letters with the book, written in broken English." She pushed the bundle, tied with a piece of faded blue ribbon, towards Jo. "Most of the letters were returned unopened. I did open a couple." She smiled across at the confused looking women. "They are love letters."
Jo rubbed her aching forehead. "So let me get this right. This person, Evelyn, wrote love letters." She looked down at the sketches in the book. "To her?"
"I do believe that to be the case. Back then it would have been a terrible scandal. Every effort would have been made to keep them apart." She gestured towards the letters. "One of those letters is in a different hand. It would seem the recipient didn't know they were being sent back without her opening them. She sent a letter to Evelyn, asking her why she hadn't written to her."
"I don't understand this," said Rocky, looking again at the pictures in the book.
"Michelle, it would seem that many years ago, a member of my family fell in love with a beautiful, young blonde woman, the woman in those drawings. It would appear that their love was thwarted at every turn. I also believe that Evelyn may have killed herself. My grandmother and my great grandmother would never talk of her." She looked at Jo. "I didn't ever want to see anyone in my family suffer like that." She reached for both the younger women's hands. "I believe in fate. I was given this book and these letters for a reason, by a very wise old woman. As soon as I saw Michelle, I knew why." She reached across and carefully turned the pages of the book, until she found a particular image. The young woman staring from the pages was a mirror image of the young blonde that had first captivated Jo in the gallery in London.
Jo sucked in a breath. "Have you ever shown me this?" she asked. "When I was a kid or anything?"
"Never, Joanna. You've never seen this." She smiled at Rocky. "But as soon as I saw you, dear, I thought of this book."
Rocky pulled the book closer. The face staring out at her was similar to her own. The sketches were obviously drawn with a certain amount of affection. She turned the page and drew in a quick breath at the image she found there.
Unlike the other sketches, which were just head and shoulders, this showed the subject in full, lying on her back on what appeared to be a bed. A sheet was gathered about her waist, showing her upper body in all its glorious nudity. Her right arm was above her head, her left extended towards the artist, a red rose clasped gently in her hand. This was the only shock of colour in the whole book, the red rose.
Rocky's trembling fingers traced the delicate lines of the picture. "I think they found love," she said quietly. "I dont think Evelyn drew this from imagination. This is something she saw." She looked up at Jo, who had moved her chair closer and wrapped a long arm around the blonde's shoulders. "I think she drew this after they'd made love."
Marianna smiled across at the pair, wondering at the contrast in them. "You both look tired," she said. "You can look again in the morning."
Rocky carefully closed the book, and slid it back across the table to Marianna. "Thank you for showing us the book; it's beautiful."
"Yes it is," said Marianna, resting her hand on the old leather cover. "I do hope I'm wrong about Evelyn. Maybe we can go back to my family's home in Greece one day. The family histories are well kept there."
Rocky leaned into her lover. "Well, I'm going to believe they found a way to be together." She looked across at Jo's mother. "And I'm going to believe they found happiness." Her gaze turned to the woman next to her. "Like us."
"I do so hope you're right, Michelle." Marianna picked up the book and the bundle of letters. "We'll open these one day," she said, removing her spectacles. "But now, I must go to bed. Too many late nights are catching up with me, and I meet with the estate managers tomorrow."
"Already?" said Jo. "I thought you didn't do that until the New Year."
"It is the New Year, dear."
Marianna chuckled. "Joanna, it's the second of January; it was the first yesterday."
"So New Year's Eve was the night ."
"The night at Joss'," whispered Rocky.
Jo shook her head. "I completely lost track, what with everything going on. My God." She ducked her head and kissed her companion. "Happy New Year, Rocky."
"You two go on to bed. We'll talk more in the morning, after my meeting. I'll be sure to leave instructions that you're not disturbed."
"Okay, Mother, whatever you say," said Jo, getting to her feet and pulling the blonde with her.
The walk to their room, past walls covered with the portraits of her ancestors, was made in companionable silence. Jo pushed the door open, and Rocky wandered into the room, seeing the fire glowing warmly.
She pulled Jo to the bed, and pushed her down on it, crawling onto her lover's body and lowering her head onto the dark-haired woman's chest.
They lay like that for long moments, Rocky listening to the strong heartbeat of her lover and the even rhythm of her breathing.
Rocky raised her head, looking down into the blue eyes glistening in the firelight. "Thank you."
Jo raised her hand, brushing blonde hair out of her lover's eyes. "For what?"
"For saving me."
Rocky's human mattress chuckled. "You were managing pretty well without me." She was quiet for a moment. "Sometimes I wonder if I've brought you more heartache than joy . Maybe ."
Her musings were cut short by a warm mouth silencing her words. She pulled the blonde closer, her hands tightening on the tee-shirt the smaller woman wore, pulling it from the waistband of the sweatpants and finding the soft warm skin beneath.
When the kiss ended, the blonde rested her forehead on her lover's chest. Her voice was muffled by the shirt that Jo wore. "Jo, please don't ever underestimate what you've done for me." She lifted her head, looking into aroused blue eyes. "What you mean to me."
"So much has happened." Jo pulled Rocky back down, settling the blonde on top of her.
"It has. And for a moment there, I wondered if it was worth it." She closed her eyes, listening to the rapid heartbeat beneath her ear, feeling the trembling hand that was tangled in her hair. "I'd got used to the emptiness, learned to live with nothing." She reached for Jo's free hand, which was still moving in gentle circles against her own back. She pulled the hand to her lips, brushing a kiss across the knuckles. "And it was like an explosion of feeling when you came into my life. That's the only way I can describe it."
Rocky heard the hitch in Jo's throat, and squeezed the woman tighter. "No. Don't be sorry, Jo. You gave me back my life, gave me a purpose." She released Jo's hand and brushed ebony locks back from the bruise that surrounded the cut on Jo's head. "And you came for me." Her eyes filled with tears. "You could have been killed." She felt the arms around her tighten. "And you saved my life."
"Yes, Jo. You did. I couldn't have gone on just existing much longer. My whole aim in life was working out where the next hot meal came from. It was getting harder. All I had was the dreams." She pulled away from Jo slightly, raising herself to look into her lover's face. She smiled, looking into the moist blue eyes, knowing she would never tire of the joy of seeing them. "Youre my life now."
"You wanted to leave," Jo said, her throat closing on the words.
"Wanted is the wrong word, Jo. I thought I should." She lay down again, taking a lock of silky dark hair, winding it around her fingers. "I never want to cause you pain. I won't come between you and your family."
"You never will, because you're a part of me now." Jo rubbed her cheek against the blonde head. "If youd gone tonight, I would just have followed you."
They were quiet for a while, then Rocky disentangled herself from Jo, and knelt on the bed.
"What will we do?" the blonde asked.
Jo put her arms behind her head, suddenly finding herself without the comfort of Rocky's body to hold. "When?"
"When all this is over, where shall we go?"
"Where do you want to go?"
"Wherever you are." She looked across, into the fire. "It's nice here."
"You want to stay here?"
Rocky shrugged. "I'm not really sure. Its too much to think about now." She crawled to the bottom of the bed, and sat on the edge, her legs dangling.
Jo watched her for a moment, then followed her. She used the flat of her hand to brush fine blonde hair away from the back of Rocky's neck, and kissed the skin she uncovered. "What's up?" she asked, her lips warm on the blonde's neck.
Rocky let her head fall forward, enjoying the attention Jo was giving to her tense neck. "Nothing, just tired."
Jo settled herself behind Rocky, her longer legs either side of her lover. "We don't have to make any plans yet. We'll just see what the New Year brings."
Rocky felt Jo's arms surround her, and then the taller woman's hands cupped her breasts. She leaned back into Jo, and felt the hands leave her for a moment, only to return immediately, but this time on her bare flesh beneath the tee-shirt.
She tipped her head to the side when she felt soft, warm lips nip at her neck. One of Jo's hands released a breast, smoothing down across a quivering stomach. The hand eased beyond the waistband of the sweatpants Rocky was wearing, pausing there for a moment, before venturing onwards.
The blonde's hips bucked as the hand found its goal. "Easy," Jo whispered into Rocky's ear, her breath warm.
Jo smiled when a smaller hand pressed down on her own, separated by the fabric of Rocky's clothes.
"I never thought I could do this," Rocky whispered, her breathing starting to labour.
"Sssh," Jo's stroking became deeper, her hold on the blonde firmer. "Don't think, just feel. This is me. Us. No-one can take this from us."
"Oh God, Jo." Rocky threw her head back, feeling again Jo's mouth on her, taking her earlobe between her teeth and biting down gently. "Dont let me fall."
"I won't." Jo felt the body in her arms tense, and held on as Rocky's climax built. Her knowledgeable hands drew out the blonde's pleasure, leaving Rocky limp and sated in her arms. She moved backwards across the bed, pulling her lover with her, until they were lying side by side, their heads on the plump pillows.
"He's gone," Rocky whispered.
"Who's gone?" asked Jo, moving damp hair away from the blonde's eyes.
"Shumacher." Green eyes opened, tired but smiling. "I thought he'd always be there. I didn't think I'd be able to have anyone touch me without feeling him. But he's gone."
Jo smiled. "I'm glad, Rocky."
They lay in silence for a while, Rocky's fingers smoothing across the larger hand she'd captured. "Jo?"
Jo's eyes were closed, but her mouth twitched into a smile. "Yes, Sweetheart?"
"I don't want to be Rocky anymore."
Blue eyes snapped open. "You don't?"
The blonde studied the hand she held closely. "No. Rocky was someone I became. Someone who suffered. Someone I was when I was hiding." She brushed Jo's knuckles against her lips, then raised her eyes to look into concerned blue ones. "I want to be Michelle again."
"Anything you want."
"Shelley. My family called me Shelley," she said, closing her eyes as the memory of her family caused her a sudden moment of pain.
"Do you want me to call you Shelley?"
She sniffed. "I need you to. I want my life back."
Jo gathered her into her arms. "I love you, Shelley." She smiled. "And now I'm going to show you just how much," she said, as she pushed her lover back onto the bed and began to pull her tee-shirt off.
My thanks to:- My beta reader, Barbara Davies. The folks who mailed me throughout the posting of this story, the Cathys and the Kathys and Kays<g> Cathy from Wales, who helped me with the Police stuff, and then I still managed to get it wrong. My good chums, Advocate and Steph, who refused to read it until complete, so ensuring its completion. And Charlie, who came up with some of the best ideas of the story.
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