Part 2

Copyright © 1999 by Alecto. All Rights Reserved.

Please read the disclaimers in part one.

Honorable mention goes to Carol, who named that tavern.


Taylor smiled as Jack rode up to her perch on the split rail fence. "You know, you two look pretty good together." They did, too. The mare was a dark golden color, trimmed with a mane and tail that was almost white. She had a lot of nervous energy, dancing under Jack's calm hand with youthful exuberance. Jack's dark intensity provided a contrast that caught the eye. Taylor cocked her head. Aesthetics aside, Jack looked...comfortable. The impression of rightness and belonging made Taylor suddenly realize that she had never seen Jack completely relaxed before.

Jack looked down, idly stroking the mare's mane. "She's coming along."

Wrapping her hand around her knee, Taylor inquired curiously. "Do you always do that?"

Blue eyes jumped up to meet hers. "Do what?"

"Change the subject when you're the topic of conversation."

The mare danced in place, shifting slightly away from Taylor. Jack rested a light hand on the side of the golden neck, calming the mare's nervous movement.

Taylor chuckled when she got no response; she was getting used to the silences. "So, I take it we're going on a field trip today?" She'd woken up decadently late that morning, finding an empty house, but a pot of hot coffee with a note next to it was waiting for her in the big, airy kitchen.


Looks like the weather's going to hold. We can go to the back property. No problem if you have other plans for the day. I'll be around the stables.


With such succinct wording, Jack really hadn't needed to sign it, the style was characteristic.

"If you want," Jack replied as she slid lightly off the saddle. Taylor jumped down to join her as the older woman gathered the reins under the mare's chin. "I don't suppose you can ride an off-road motorcycle?"

"I haven't before, why? Are we going to?" A bubble of interest filled her as she followed Jack through the large door that connected the paddock to the stables.

"Hmm, no. Not if you've never ridden one before, we'll take the main roads in the truck."

"Oh." Bummer.

Jack looked at her over her shoulder from where she was attaching the mare to cross ties. "You sound disappointed."

"I've always wanted to ride a motorcycle," Taylor admitted. "Guess it's just the romantic in me. They look like so much fun."

Deftly loosening the girth, Jack lifted the saddle and tossed it onto a rack. "Hmm...well, no time to teach you today, but you can ride up with me if you want."


"Why not? It might be an uncomfortable ride though."

Taylor waved her hand impatiently, causing the mare to snort and shift against her ties. "Sorry girl," Taylor absently apologized to the horse. "No, I mean would you really teach me how to ride one?"

Jack shrugged. "If you want."

"I'm going to hold you to that." She cocked her head. "Can I help?"

"I don't really need any."

"Wasn't asking if you needed help Country, I was asking if you'd allow me to help."

"Um....sure." Jack handed her a brush. "Take the other side. You know what you're doing?"

With a cocky grin, Taylor took it. "Nope, but I'm sure this lady here..." she paused expectantly, with a nod towards the horse's head.


"Appropriate. Well, I'm sure Dancer will let me know if I make a wrong move."

Jack's chuckle came from deep in her belly. "Yeah, with a horseshoe to your gut."

"Well, I've certainly had harsher critics."

With a laugh, Jack walked around next to Taylor and showed her how to brush out the horse without irritating the skittish animal.

"Wow. This is gorgeous." Taylor reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out her digital camera. Jack had stopped the bike at the crest of a hill, overlooking a secluded valley. It looked...idyllic. The bright green valley floor, burbling stream, and buildings were clustered together in a way that brought simpler times to mind. She snapped a few pictures before returning the camera to her jacket. Jack was leaning against the bike with her legs crossed, looking gorgeous in faded jeans and brown leather. Taylor caught a suppressed smirk on the other woman's face.


Jack's face resumed its neutral lines, "Nothing."

Taylor strolled up and poked Jack in the arm. "Don't give me that tough look, Ms. McDermott. You were laughing at me!"

Jack reached out and tweaked the elbow of Taylor's jacket. "Fits well."

Giggling, Taylor flopped her wrists around a little, feeling a bit ridiculous. "I feel like a kid playing dress up." She looked at Jack sternly. "But no smiles out of you! You're the one who insisted I wear it." When they'd returned to the house to pick up Taylor's camera, Jack had disappeared into Julian's room to fetch the jacket she insisted was a necessary item on the ride.

"It's the smallest one we've got in the house," she'd said. Well, it may be the smallest. But since all the McDermott's topped six feet--Julian's jacket hit her at mid-thigh. Taylor felt like she was swimming in leather.

The ride had It was nothing like riding behind someone on the street. Though she suspected that Jack had taken it easy on the ride, she'd found the experience to be one big rush. Happily following Jack's instructions, she'd kept her arms tightly tucked around the shifting muscles of a warm stomach, trying to move with Jack's body as they bounced around rocks and powered the bike up hills. Taylor knew that she'd long remember the scent of leather filling her nostrils and the differing sensations of power rising from under her fingertips and between her legs.

Their first stop was an imposingly large stable, only slightly filled by the dozen or so horses poking their noses over stall doors to whicker greetings when they entered. A young blonde woman poked her head up from within an empty stall in unconscious imitation of the animals. She came out of the stall, resting a pitchfork against the wheelbarrow full of soiled straw sitting outside the door.

"Heya Jack. Didn't expect to see you down here till next week." She looked over at Taylor curiously.

Jack introduced the two women, then replied. "Didn't expect to see you here either Gina, I thought I had Mark on for today."

"Aw, his kid caught a cold. Told him I'd take it."

"Remind me to schedule you for some time off next week."

"Nah, it's no big deal, I didn't have anywhere to be today. I can read my book here just as easily as at home."

Putting a hand at the small of Taylor's back to guide her forward, Jack replied, "Well, let me know if he's out again tomorrow. I'll send one of the boys up to give you a hand."

"Will do, boss."

Taylor waved a goodbye over her shoulder as they made their way through a door into a large office attached to the end of the stables.

"How many people work here?"

"Right now there's just Gina, Mark and me." Jack snagged a cardboard cylinder resting against the wall next to a large drafting table.

"And one of you is always here?" Taylor watched as the dark woman popped the top off and pulled out a set of blueprints.

"Yeah. There's a small apartment built in upstairs. They trade off occupying it at night and on the weekends."

"The three of you, um...train the horses all week?" She wasn't sure what went into the workings of a, what? Horse farm? Ranch?

"Among other things. We're building riding trails around the valley, and we spend a lot of time coordinating with the contractors who are building the administrative building. Also, we're handling some of the smaller construction projects, like paddocks and fencing, ourselves. We've got some acreage under hay, though we hire on more people to help with the harvest." She unrolled the large blueprint and spread it out on the table, anchoring the ends underneath clips set on the edges. Taylor moved over to stand next to her, peering down to study the plans intently.

"This is what it'll look like when you're done?" The planned facilities were enormous. Dormitories, two more stables, barns, staff housing, dining facilities, maintenance buildings, trails, and vehicle sheds littered the blueprint. "It's like building a resort."

"Well, I don't think many of the rooms will get a five star rating, but I think a lot of the planning is probably the same."

"It's a wonderful project, but it's kind of sad to think of how much it's going to change this valley." She studied all the labeled icons, trying to imagine how the area would look when all the structures were completed.

Jack looked out the window. "Yeah. It's not going to be the same."

"What has been built so far? Besides the stables."

Jack pointed to a spot on the map. "This barn and these maintenance sheds," her finger moved to a very small square on the fringes of the development, "and this...director's housing."

Taylor looked up. "You have a house here?"

The corner of Jack's mouth quirked. "Yeah, my bribe for being good. Pete gave me my own little hideaway. I only use it if I have to work late, or if one of the mares are due to drop, but it's convenient."

Taylor smiled. "I can see how it might be nice to have a quiet spot when you've got such a crowded home."

Jack rested a hip against the table and crossed her arms. "It's not that bad now. It was chaos when they were in high school."

Taylor wrinkled her nose. "Wow, puberty times six. Sounds as bad as when everyone on my dormitory floor was suffering PMS." One of the joys of boarding school--Taylor had learned to keep a low profile every month. She was blessed with freedom from the rather negative emotional implications that seemed to plague her dorm-mates, but she'd discovered that it wasn't wise to advertise that little advantage.

Jack chuckled. "It was...challenging."

Taylor cocked her head. "Well, if the kind of men they are now is any indication, you were equal to the challenge."

Idly scratching the back of her neck, Jack dismissed the implied compliment with her reply. "They had a wonderful father. He had a lot more to do with who they are now than I did. They're a lot like him."

Restraining the urge to wrap a hand around Jack's arm to get her attention, Taylor tried to make sure that her voice conveyed her sincerity. The woman seemed to have no idea what kind of impact she'd had on her brother's lives. "Jack, just in the week that I've been here, I've seen how much they look up to you and model themselves after you. " She cocked her head and gently emphasized, "They're a lot like you."

Jack blanched, and the muscles of her jaw worked as she pushed herself away from the table. "C'mon, I'll give you a tour of the rest of the property." Rapidly, the tall woman strode through the door.

What was that? Taylor wondered as she trailed Jack out of the office. The look on her face wasn't the discomfort of not knowing how to take a compliment; it was something more. Taylor's brain ticked away, trying to find an explanation as she headed out into the sunlight of a beautiful day.

Jack was leading Taylor up the path that eventually led to her cabin. Taylor had insisted on seeing everything. She'd never met someone so...exuberant. The young woman had laughingly jumped around on hay bales in the barn, cajoled Jack into showing her how to drive a tractor, and poked around the cavernous holes left by excavators at the building site. Jack was grateful that there was nothing on the shaded trail that could spark what she was coming to believe was an ever-present need to experiment.

Not that she had much hope of the peaceful interlude continuing. Taylor had even managed to make the hay fields interesting; planting a stalk of dry grass in the side of her mouth, thumbs hitched in her belt loops, she'd assumed a lanky gait and a poorly imitated southern drawl. "Wall? Do ah look like a farmer now?" Jack couldn't help it; she'd burst out laughing. Taylor certainly couldn't pass as a farmer, but she had looked impossibly cute. Bits of straw and chaff clinging to her clothing and hair, a smudge of dirt decorating her forehead and that impossibly oversized jacket all made her look like a naughty little rascal. Secretly, she admitted to herself that the day had been fun. Taylor's childlike wonder had made the mundane environment of her workplace into something more. That sparked a thought. "Do you enjoy your job?"

Taylor stopped walking suddenly, "Hey!"

"What?" Jack replied mildly, looking around for something that could have generated Taylor's reaction.

"You asked me a question!"

Jack shoved her fists into her jeans, trying to figure out what Taylor was driving at.

"You know you haven't shown any curiosity since I've been here? Not even about the presentation?"

"I didn't figure that you needed any help." A glimmer of worry entered Jack's mind; she thought the other woman sounded slightly affronted.

Taylor tugged lightly on Jack's forearm, resuming their trek up the trail. "Not exactly my point. Never mind, I should reward your first foray into expressing interest in me as a human being with an answer. Do I like my job, right?"

Jack suppressed a wince. Definitely insulted her. Taylor didn't seem to expect an answer though; she rolled right along without waiting.

"Yes and no. I really enjoy the work itself. It's challenging, and it gives me the opportunity to learn in a lot of diverse areas. Do you have any idea how many different industries Drechter is involved in?" Her shoulders slumped minutely. "But, I'm very much the new kid on the block, I'm pretty much doing leg work for other people, and, well, there's a lot of politics in the office."

"That's a polite way of saying that Ms. Benedict is a small minded bitch." Jack replied absently, mind grappling with trying to understand the rules that she'd apparently broken.

Taylor looked up in surprise. "You know her?"

"We've spoken on the phone, longest twenty minutes of my life."

Taylor giggled, then stopped in surprise. "Oh, wow."

Jack looked up. Oh yeah...the falls. "They're kind of nice, aren't they?"

"Kind of nice? Jack, are you crazy? They're gorgeous!" Delight filled her eyes.

"There's another one above...we can take the trail up if you want." Jack offered tentatively.

A small smile shaped Taylor's lips, and she moved forward with a purposeful stride. "I'd rather climb."

Realization hit Jack; Taylor meant to climb up the outcropping forming the falls, alongside the water stream. "Taylor, wait!" But Taylor was already on her way up. Jack squelched the urge to bark at the woman. She's not one of the boys, Jack. Can't just order her down. She forced herself to look at the situation calmly. The craggy rock face offered a lot of handholds, and it wasn't that high. Bull. Those rocks are wet, and a thirty-foot fall isn't going to tickle. Not knowing what else to do, she watched and waited nervously.

Taylor was in trouble. Her arms ached and one heel vibrated up and down minutely, reacting to the tension in her calf muscles. She tentatively stretched her left hand up above her head, reaching for a handhold that was a mere breath beyond her grasp. She knew she could reach it--if she could just convince her body to relax the iron grip it had on her muscles. Just when she thought she might be able to grasp it, she felt her left toe slide off the slippery rock. Automatically, she brought the hand back down to a secure knob by her waist.

She leaned her forehead against the rock face. Her lower back hurt, and her shoulders were screaming discomfort at her. The same thing happened every time she tried to reach that hold. She resisted the urge to peek down. She'd done that already. It was a lot further down than it had looked from the bottom. Climbing back down wasn't an option--she'd tried. Paradoxically, climbing upward was a lot easier.

She sensed movement near her, and panicked. "Don't help me!" Her position was so precarious, her brain was convinced that the slightest wrong move would send her plummeting down.

A hand rested on the small of her back lightly. So lightly, that if she had been less keyed up, she probably wouldn't have noticed. "I'm not," the low voice rose from near her waist.

And she wasn't--the touch didn't apply any force: neither pushing forward or upward. Suddenly, Taylor felt aching, taut muscles relax as her breathing deepened and slowed.

"Try again," the low voice urged.

So she did, slowly stretching her hand up toward the hold. But this time, when her foot slipped she shifted to propel her body up off her right foot, giving herself the boost needed to catch the small ledge with her hand. Gratefully, she clambered up and over the lip of the outcropping, as Jack calmly levered herself up behind her. Taylor threw herself at the older woman in relieved gratitude as soon as she'd found her feet. She didn't know how Jack knew just what to do, but she was unspeakably thankful.

When she felt Jack stiffen, and shift her arms awkwardly, Taylor took a deep breath and pulled herself away from the startled woman. "Sorry, " she laughed shakily, "adrenaline."

Jack ran a hand through her hair, looking around distractedly.

Taylor smiled, "It's okay to yell, you know."

Jack just shoved her fists in her pockets and rocked back on her heels. Gesturing with her chin, she commented. "Well...there's the falls."

Taylor jerked upright in bed, dark imagery rapidly fading from her mind's eye, leaving behind a sense of alien terror and impressions of blazing heat and chilling ice. Slowly, she felt her heart calm as an awareness of reality grounded her.

Tea, she decided. Rising to wrap herself in a robe, she padded out to the kitchen. The dream had been odd...what she could remember of it. Rarely prone to nightmares, the ones she did have were usually rather mundane: showing up at work naked or falling. This one was darker, and much more terrifying.

Well, maybe her psyche was taking a lash to her for the whole rock-climbing thing. She thought about the incident as she quickly assembled mug, water, and tea bag, popping them into the microwave. A flush heated her cheeks. Always impulsive by nature, she still had trouble understanding what had come over her today. Jack's probably convinced I need a keeper...or a babysitter.

But her admittedly silly antics had made the older woman smile. Somehow, garnering those smiles had become important, more so than collecting pictures or doing research. And Jack had seemed to be enjoying a stoic, bemused sort of way, of course. The microwave beeped, and Taylor collected her tea, sitting down at the smaller breakfast table with it cradled in both hands.

At least she was until I decided to play Jane of the jungle. She closed her eyes, breathing lemony steam into her lungs. She'd been so scared, and then Jack was just...there. Not helping, not pushing, but her presence had put everything into perspective, and Taylor had found that it wasn't so hard to make it up the wall after all. Taylor's hands tightened on the mug, realizing that in that moment, her rather lighthearted attraction had shifted subtly. She wanted to feel that again...the sense of rightness, safety, and capability that came over her with Jack nearby. For the first time in her life, she'd felt that she was in the right place, doing the right things. Interesting way to feel in the middle of one of your infamous screw-ups, my dear. With a sigh, Taylor decided that three in the morning was not the best time to get a handle on these things, and took herself off to bed.

Jack left the boys on the roof and sought Taylor out. She'd been thinking about the woman all morning. She'd obviously screwed up, assuming Taylor would prefer to be left alone with her work. The problem was, two hours of hammering down shingles, and she still couldn't figure out how to word an apology. She knocked on the door, and hesitantly poked her head in.

Taylor looked up from her laptop with a surprised expression. "Hey there."

Jack decided that the best course of action was to keep it simple. "Hey. I uh...thought you might be able to catch me up on what you've been doing."

Taylor's eyes twinkled with understanding, and Jack mentally heaved a sigh of relief. "Sure, grab a seat."

Taylor grabbed a sheaf of printouts, marked over with blue pen, and handed them to Jack. "Well, since I had so much time to get this going, I decided to start by profiling the Harrison Foundation. What you've got there is a bio on each board member. Mostly from articles and so forth, but I was able to get some good information from the people in development, and a few mutual acquaintances I was able to track down." Jack raised an eyebrow at that. She knows folks from that set? Taylor handed her another stack of papers, "Next I put together a timeline of what projects they've invested in for the last fifteen years or so, the highlighted portions are ones that showed some relationship to Interception: youth development, aid for the disabled, work with animals, that sort of thing. I also added notes with any info I had on which board members supported the projects, and which were opposed." She shrugged. "That's a bit sketchy, but I was able to get the minutes from a few of their meetings." Jack felt an eyebrow rise even further, and decided not to ask how Taylor had managed that.

Another sheaf of paper landed in Jack's lap. "Here are the statistics I've been able to dig up to show a need for youth development in this region. High school drop out rates, some limited tracking on kids after juvenile detention, parole program success, that sort of thing."

Taylor handed over a folder. Jack opened it in bemusement and leafed through. "Then I decided to see how we compared to other programs that are out there. You'll be relieved to know that there are a lot of organizations working with at-risk youth with a focus on community service. What you've called Pete's 'half-cooked theories' are actually well proven. Several associations exist, North American Riding for the Handicapped seems to be the biggest, that encourage therapeutic riding for the disabled, though I suspect you knew that. However, I was only able to find one program in Colorado that combined the two ideas, and they focus on adults emerging from the prison system. Most of the other programs utilize volunteers, some of them focusing on youths, but the demographics are different, they aren't aimed at troubled young people. Are you planning on getting N.A.R.H.A. certification for your staff?"

Absently, Jack replied. "Yeah, and for the center itself. There are centers in Arlington and Peru that have agreed to help us get started with the training, and fees for the coursework are built into the budget." Jack was amazed at the amount of legwork Taylor had done. Silently she berated herself for not giving Taylor more information to start with. She hadn't thought that info about NARHA would even be relevant, really.

"Good. That'll help." Taylor stuck the end of her pen in her mouth and continued forthrightly. "What all that stuff boils down to is Harrison Foundation's giving seems to be based on a 'good old boy's club' style, instead of interest in specific areas. From what I can tell, if the program is one that is supported by someone in their set, they're much more likely to fund it. We're at something of a disadvantage there. While Pete certainly has the affluence, he doesn't seem to be part of their social circle. The impression I got from David Connor is that he's a little..." She paused as if unsure of how to continue.

Jack smiled, "Rough around the edges? Yeah, his family money is old enough to please the old buggers, but I think the Drechter family have been considered misfits for generations."

Taylor crossed her legs, and forged on in a determined tone. "Right, well, so that works against us. However, they are quite concerned about the quality of the programs they fund, and do spend considerable effort ensuring that there is some guarantee of results from their support. If we can get NARHA certification, that will go a long way towards sparking confidence. Additionally, it helps that your plans are for a unique program that still is based on some well-proven concepts and fills a distinct need in this area, especially for youth development."

Jack put the folders down on the desk and leaned back in her chair, quite impressed. Lacing her fingers over her stomach, she asked. "So where do we go from here?" She was quite interested in discovering what Taylor had come up with; the woman had obviously put quite a bit of thought, and work, into pursuing the project from different angles.

Taylor rocked her chair a bit. "Well, I've started to rough out a pitch for you, and I've sketched out some ideas for PowerPoint layouts, but I've been waiting until you had the time to give me more input to really develop them. I figure that we have to focus strongly on the needs that will be filled, highlighting the dearth of strong youth development programs." She took a deep breath. "And, we've got to convince them that"

A bubble of amusement rose up in Jack's throat. She had an idea where this was going, and decided to play it for all it was worth. "Yes?" She asked coolly. She watched in fascination as Taylor suddenly found the pen she was playing with fascinating, and an adorable little reddish tinge colored her cheeks.

"Well, you've got to be able to, in with them."

Struggling to maintain a neutral expression, she replied. "I don't think we'll be able to convince them that the McDermott's are old members of their social set that got misplaced somewhere."

"No, uh, of course not. What I mean is that we've got to..." As the red began to approach a startlingly bright color, Jack decided to let the smaller woman off the hook.

"Smooth down my rougher edges?" Jack asked with humor in her voice.

"Uh, yeah. No, I mean...oh hell." Taylor looked up and her expression changed as she realized what had been happening. "You're laughing at me!"

Jack allowed herself a slight smile. "A little. I figured it would be a problem from the moment Pete shanghaied me into this thing." Of course, not exactly for the obvious reasons, she thought darkly. "Any advice you can give in that area would be a help," she lied smoothly.

Taylor cocked her head to the side. "So much for my attempts at diplomacy, huh?" Straightening in her seat, she went on brusquely. "Well, it'll be nice to finally get some use out of the cash Daddy dropped into my coming out."

Jack shifted, wondering...just ask, Jack, remember? "Was it a big deal?"

"For me? If I'd thought it would've gotten me out of it, I'd have made an offering of red gold to every deity ever imagined by man. It was a huge production, if that's what you're asking." She wrinkled her nose. "I still remember just about every pimply faced kid my mother bribed, embarrassed and cajoled into dancing with me. It was a nightmare."

Jack laughed at the woman's expression. "Well, I'd better get back." She stood up and headed for the door, pausing just as she was about the exit the room. "Oh, and Taylor?" She looked over her shoulder.


"Don't wait until you think I've got time to ask for input, OK? "

Anna looked up as Jack joined her on the porch, "Done working already kiddo?"

Jack shook her head, "Not really, heard the noise and got curious." Taylor and the boys were playing a full out game of football on the lawn. Jack winced when she saw John hit the dirt as Taylor dodged around his attempt to tackle her. "Ouch. She's as bad as they are, isn't she?"

Anna looked over kindly, "The boys enjoy having her here." She paused for a beat. "So do you."

Jack raised a questioning eyebrow.

Anna reached up and cupped a cheek. "You're smiling more little one." Jack snorted and stepped away.

"She's a bit of a goofball." Jack admitted as she watched all the players piled up over a fumbled ball. "God, we'll be lucky if no one breaks a bone."

"A few aches and pains in the name of a good time are well spent, I think." She waited a beat, before continuing significantly. "You can't protect them forever you know."

"You hear about Jake?" She shoved her fists into the pockets of her jeans.

Quietly, Anna replied. "I heard."

Rocking on her heels, Jack said softly. "I don't know what to do Anna." The silence grew between them, comfortable from long years of use.

Anna thought carefully before responding. Jack never asked for advice. Oh, she'd ask questions. Anna smiled at the memory of a much younger Jack knocking on the door to her room at three in the morning, demanding to know whether Julian's fever was dangerous. But their roles had always been clear: Anna provided information but Jack took responsibility for the decisions, and their consequences. As naturally as breathing, Jack was quickly decisive when faced with hard choices that would send others into a morass of indecision.

But now, Jack was almost asking for guidance. Hesitantly, she offered the thought that had been in her mind since the boys had begun to enter adulthood. "Have you thought about telling him?"

An impatient hand loosed itself from the pockets and ran through her hair. "Knowing Jake...he'd consider it a challenge."

It was interesting that Jack hadn't dismissed the idea out of hand. Although it was the obvious solution, she admitted to herself that it was a long silence to break. The habit was so ingrained that even with Anna, Jack rarely acknowledged the duality of her life. Anna herself often forgot about it; it was easier to believe that the world Jack had made here was real. She gently offered, "You don't want them to know."

"Is that wrong?"

For the life of her, Anna couldn't come up with an honest answer.

Taylor watched happily as Jake and Jimmy made a game of racing for the phone when it rang, Jake throwing Jimmy back bodily so that he could grab it first. She was mighty proud of herself, and she didn't mind admitting it. The air around the house since Saturday's disastrous dinner had been a bit stilted. Jimmy's brothers had been adorably off-balance, but valiantly trying to hide their discomfort. It was kind of nice to see how much effort they were putting in to overcoming the awkwardness. But, in Taylor's opinion, they were just trying too hard. The football game had been perfect the perfect solution. She grinned devilishly. Of course, she'd unfairly traded on inside information to get on the winning team. We scored four times before they got over their fear of cooties and started tackling Jimmy. After a few hours of good old-fashioned full contact, the tension had all but disappeared. Boys, she thought, they're so predictable.

Taylor was still giggling at her gender conceit when Jack wandered by, heading for the front door. Watching the woman, Taylor's thoughts turned down a different path. The boys had been in high spirits at dinner, but Jack had been even more quiet than usual. Jake waved a hand at Jack, stopping her from leaving.

"Uh huh. Gee, I'm sorry to hear that. Jack's here now. Let me put her on." Jake held the phone out to Jack, hand over the receiver.

"Aunt Wendy," he said, his face and voice unusually subdued.

Jack swore under her breath and snatched up the phone. "How much?" She barked tersely.

Taylor shifted uncomfortably as the room quieted, she had no choice but to listen to the one-sided conversation that filled the silent room.

"Do you ever call for any other reason?"

She watched in fascination as the white that had formed around Jack's knuckles began to spread to encompass most of her hand.

She's going to break that phone in half if she's not careful.

"Right." Her voice was tight, and her tone disbelieving.

Jack's tension was evident in the set of her shoulders. She sighed. "If you say so, Mom."

Taylor jerked upright. Mom?

"My brothers are fine." Taylor was listening shamelessly now, intent on hearing the rest of the conversation as her brain whirled with the implications.

If their mother's alive, why did she...

"Yes, yes I am."

"Of course. Why am I not surprised?"

Jack was silent for a long time.

Wait...Jake called her Aunt Wendy. Is that an honorary title, or...

Jack ran an impatient hand through her hair, and her tone was cutting. "Look, I've got things to do. Can we get to the bottom line?"

No, you can see a family resemblance...her mother probably is their aunt.

"Give me his number."

Explains the difference in coloring though, and the odd way she refers to her father.


But where was she when the boy's father died?

"Take it or leave it....555-8364, got it."

Jack hung up firmly without saying goodbye. Taylor watched in fascination as the older woman strode directly for the door, the boys moving unobtrusively out of her way.

Thunk! The two halves of the stovelength flew in opposite directions. Jack picked up another and set it on the old tree stump they used as a splitting block. Thunk! She could feel the pulling weight of the splitting maul stretching the taut muscles of her shoulders and back. Probably not a good idea to be doing this in the dark. She needed action though, channeling the violence of emotion that threatened her composure.

Good old mom. Well, at least she decided to call when I was already in a shitty mood. The sob story she'd heard was typical: long drawn-out excuses. Rent this time. Something about spending all her cash to fix the car.


Right, she thought bitterly. A carefully buried image popped free from the recesses of her brain: a child pleading into drug-glazed eyes, begging for safety.



Jack jumped when she heard the exclamation, nearly slicing her calf open with the maul. She turned to see Taylor balancing on one leg, the other foot up in the air and held by protective hands.

"How long have you been there?" Jack asked shortly.

Taylor gingerly put her foot down and leaned against a tree. "Not long. I wouldn't have thought the pieces could fly so far."

Jack shrugged. "Happens sometimes."

Folding her arms, Taylor remarked nonchalantly. "You've been out here awhile."

Another shrug greeted the comment.

Taylor wasn't quite sure how to proceed. She'd spent some time sitting on the porch, staring into the dark and listening to the metronome-like thumps. She hadn't decided to come out here exactly, her feet had seemed to make the decision on their own. Now that she was here, she found that she was hesitant to break into the other woman's solitude.

"Should I leave?"

Jack sighed and rubbed her face, weariness suddenly coating her features. "No...No, you're right. It's about time I headed in."

Encouraged, Taylor ventured a gentle attempt at drawing Jack out. "You want to talk about it?"

Jack didn't answer immediately, instead she set the maul aside and began picking up the scattered lengths of wood. Wordlessly, Taylor bent to gather up her own armload, following Jack to the neatly laid out stacks under an open shed. Not looking at Taylor as she carefully arranged the wood, Jack responded quietly. "Not much to tell, really."

Instinct told Taylor to keep her eyes on her own section of the woodpile, focussing on her hands and giving Jack some emotional space.

"Sometimes, even sharing the obvious with someone else helps," she said gently.

Jack grunted, turning to rest her hips against the woodpile, staring out into the dark.

Taylor chose to sit down on the ground, resting her back against the bristly wood. She suspected that she might have a long wait. The roof shrouded their figures with the protective anonymity of darkness, while the open sides let them see the silvery moon-tinged landscape. It was, she thought while breathing in the cool night air, a good setting for a difficult conversation, providing a sense of both closeness and freedom.

The words, when they came, seemed to flow naturally from the silence. "She dropped me off here when I was thirteen."

Taylor waited.

With a tinge of bitter humor, Jack continued, "Before then, I didn't even know that I had an uncle, or six cousins."

"Must have been a tough transition for you," Taylor kept her voice neutral, nonjudgmental.

A bit of something flying away from Jack crossed her peripheral vision. "Tougher for Jeb and the boys, I think...I was a pretty messed up kid."

Taylor consciously kept herself from trying to hurry the story along, firmly curbing her natural impatience and slowing herself to Jack's pace. "Where did she go?"

Jack sighed, "Back to Los Angeles, probably. I didn't hear from her for years."

"Did you like it here?"

Jack's voice took on some warmth for the first time, as if surprise at the question brought her closer to the conversation. "Not at first, no."

"What changed your mind?" Taylor allowed her voice to tinge with honest curiosity, subtly following Jack's shift in tone.

"Jeb, I guess. He was an incredibly patient man," another bit of something flew out into the night. "One day, I just discovered that I couldn't hate him any more."

Not knowing exactly why she was doing it, Taylor reached out an arm and wrapped her hand around the dark woman's calf. She felt the slight jump of muscles underneath her fingers, followed by a hesitant relaxation.

Jack shifted her weight slightly and carried on in a tone that approached normal. "Anyway, about six years ago, she got busted for possession; when she couldn't make bail she suddenly remembered that she had a daughter." Taylor felt Jack's eyes on her and craned her neck so that she could meet them. "Probably not the kind of family you grew up with, huh?" Jack offered a tentative smile.

"No drugs," Taylor answered honestly. "But there are a lot of ways to abandon a child. Not too long ago I was wishing that I had grown up in a home that had as much sense of family as you and the boys have."

"Tell me." Its tone made it a plea that Taylor couldn't resist. Jack was feeling exposed. Taylor lightly stroked the warm denim under her hand in reassurance.

"Hmmm," Taylor replied, trying to figure out where to start. "I guess you might say that my parents are a product of their culture." She looked up briefly before admitting to the rest. She caught a glimpse of interested blue eyes looking down at her. "They're old money. Country clubs, prep school, the whole sordid bit."

"It's not a crime."

Taylor grinned, though she knew that Jack couldn't see it. "No, but some people react as if it was. Frankly, my family doesn't do much to convince people otherwise."

She sighed. "I'm not sure they ever had an original thought of their own. Their minds were wrapped up in the nuances of their lifestyle." Her hand continued its soothing motion, though at this point she wasn't sure who she was trying to reassure.

"I don't think they ever really decided to have us, they just followed the timetable set out for the progression of a proper life. I think every now and then that they even forgot we existed, unless we did something that marred the picture. Once in a while I'd catch my mother looking at me or Beth with this puzzled look in her eyes, as if she wasn't sure where we'd come from."

She thought about it for a bit. "Beth reacted by trying to be perfect. I think she decided in some way that if she couldn't have love, she'd at least get approval."

"And you?" The low voice asked with quiet curiosity.

Taylor laughed lightly. "I decided to enjoy life."

She couldn't explain the statement, she knew. Every time she tried, it stopped making sense.

"Subtle form of rebellion."

Taylor looked up, unable to hide her astonishment. "Yeah, I guess so."

Jack smiled down, moonlight glinting off of the whites of her teeth. "Healthier than some of your other options."

"Hey Jack?" Taylor asked her voice rising at the end of the question.


"You could use a little fun."

Jack grinned down cockily, relieved to break the mood. "I thought that was your job?"

"Yeah," Taylor replied with a smile, "I guess it is."

Jack looked around in satisfaction. The roof would be done early this afternoon, barring problems. Jack made a mental note to have the demolition bin picked up.

"We'll be done tomorrow, huh?" Julian asked as he offered her a water bottle.

"Yep," Jack uncapped it and gratefully took a long draught. The humidity was beginning to pick up, making for a thirsty workday.

"You know, Marston asked if I could come back early," he mentioned hesitantly.

She capped the bottle and tossed it into the truck bed. "Up to you kid," she replied casually.

His smile was huge, "Thanks Jack!"

"Got plans for the cash, or are you just anxious to get back to that cute new bookkeeper he hired?"

Julian blushed. "Nothing like that. There's this great '67 mustang that's for sale. It'd be a cinch to fix up." Boyish enthusiasm filled his face. "The chasis's in great shape, and one of my teacher's has a clunker that he said I could have for parts." He went on with a bit of surprise in his voice, "It's been in the paper for about three months now, and the price is really good. I don't know why it hasn't sold yet."

Jack chuckled mentally. Of course you don't. She'd overheard him lamenting to Jeff that he wouldn't be able to get the money together until the summer. Jules had worked hard all year to get his grades up, voluntarily cutting back his hours at the auto shop to increase his study time. Deciding that a reward was in order, Jack made an illicit trip to town to buy the car and enlist the help of the seller to hold it until Julian could 'buy' it. The old Vermonter had gleefully entered into the ruse, refusing extra money for holding on to the car. She had liked him, he was a grizzled old goat who affected a serious expression when he told her that she had her 'hayd on raht.'

"Well, the boys'll bitch some, but you can go ahead and skip the cleanup tomorrow if you want to get started." She looked around a little before continuing. "Tell 'em to knock off for a bit. I'll see if Anna's got some lunch put together yet."

After talking to Anna, Jack went looking for Taylor. Might as well get this over with. She wasn't sure what had prompted her to talk to the woman instead of chasing her away last night, but today she felt...edgy. I thought talking about your problems was supposed to make you feel better.

Taylor was curled up in a chair in the family room, sandwich in one hand and a book in the other. Jack paused in the doorway for a moment. She seemed totally preoccupied with the novel, a little line between her eyebrows appearing as she absently took a bite of her sandwich. Jack started to leave, rethinking her spur of the moment decision to have lunch with Taylor, but the younger woman looked up just as she was turning to go.

"Hey," she said with a small smile.

Jack turned back and leaned against the door frame, "Hey yourself."

Taylor cocked her head inquisitively, "You going to eat that standing up?"

Jack briefly looked down at the tray of food she was holding, "Uh...I didn't want to interrupt you."

Taylor rolled her eyes. "Get in here. Much as I love her, I'd rather spend lunch with you than Misty Lackey."

Jack walked over to the sofa and set the tray down on the battered coffee table. "Who?"

Blushing a little, Taylor responded. "Mercedes Lackey...she's the author." She waved vaguely at the book on her floor.

"What's it about?" Jack asked curiously before taking a bite of her sandwich.

"It's a fantasy novel."

Both of Jack's eyebrows headed north, "Fantasy? What kind of fantasies?"

Taylor laughed self consciously, "You've never heard of fantasy?"

"Nope, can't say that I have."

"Lord of the Rings? Heinlein?" Jack shook her head. In a slightly desperate tone, Taylor continued, "The Chronicles of Narnia?"

Jack smiled slightly, "Lions and closets, right? I remember Jeff reading something like that. He bugged me until we got the whole series."

"Er...right," Taylor rubbed her nose with her index finger, obviously thinking before she responded. "Well, basically it's a genre of fiction in which the author creates their own world. Sometimes it's loosely based on historical times. Feudal England with magic and dragons added is a common example. Or sometimes the author starts completely from scratch, with their own geography, wildlife, and natural rules." Shaking her head, she went on, "It's kind of hard to explain, I guess."

Jack leaned back and replied, "No, I think I get it." She grinned, suddenly feeling much more at ease. "So why are you acting like you're admitting to a predilection for kidnapping babies and selling them to the gypsies?"

Taylor's smile was open this time. "Well, I get twitted about it a lot. It's kind of a...childish preference I guess."

A teasing glint entered Jack's eyes. "Never gave up on Prince Charming, huh?"

Taylor's sudden blush surprised Jack. "Uh...yeah, I did. Quite a while ago." She hurried on, "I can't believe you haven't read this stuff. I thought it was required reading in school."

Jack stretched her legs out and drawled, "Well, it might have been, but I didn't pay too much attention to what was required back then." Heck, I didn't even show up half the time.

Taylor laughed, "That's right, you were a wild child."

Letting a smile shape her lips, Jack replied. "Yep."

Pausing to finish a bite of sandwich, Taylor changed the subject. "So, I hear I'm about to experience a local cultural phenomenon known as 'Monster Poker Night'."

Jack groaned, dismay filling her. "Don't tell me that's this week."

"Worse," Taylor paused dramatically. "It's tonight."

Jack mentally checked the date. Hell, Jack thought in exasperation, she's right.

Taylor was looking at her interestedly. "What can be so bad about a game of poker?"

"It's not a game of poker," Jack replied in an aggrieved tone, "It's the boys and two dozen of their closest friends turning the house into a damn casino."

"Let me guess, you hide in the office all night."

Shaking her head with a grimace, Jack answered. "Nope, too loud. I'll just head up to the cabin."

"And leave me at the mercy of two dozen card sharks?" Taylor challenged.

"I've got an extra bunk."

Taylor shook her head, smiling with devilish glee. "Oh no. This sounds like a perfect opportunity for you to loosen up a little."

She doesn't really think I'm sticking around for this circus? She looked at Taylor and sighed. She does. "Um...what if we skipped it and did something else...uh, fun?"

"You trying to bribe me?"

"Is it working?" Jack asked hopefully.

"Nope." She replied with a grin. "But...maybe a whole night of mass social interaction is a leeetle much," she drew the word out in a teasingly measured voice. "Tell you what. How about it we go do something else, your choice, and just catch the last half of the evening?"

Jack sighed, knowing that she was well and truly roped. Huh, it used to be easy to stay out of situations like this. Wondering what had happened, she replied. "Best I'm gonna get, huh?"


At a loss for a way to proceed, she checked her watch. "Well, I'd better get back out there."

Taylor stood up and gathered up her dishes. "Yeah, me too. I'll see you later."

It wasn't until she was leaving that Jack realized she had a problem. What would Taylor consider fun?

Taylor caught herself staring into her closet, debating what to wear. What am I doing? Sitting down on the bed, she drew her feet up so she could wrap her arms around her shins. Wardrobe panic was a bad sign. This is not a date, Taylor, 'K? Don't get confused.

Resting her chin on her knees, she reflected on her feelings. Lecherous appreciation of a good, um...wonderful body aside, Taylor rarely found it hard to kick an attraction before it got serious. Why she was having so much trouble this time, she wasn't sure. Maybe it was because Jack was such an enigma. She hadn't learned all that much about the woman, but every tidbit brought with it more questions than answers. She had an almost giddy feeling of fascination that lingered in the background of every thought that related to Jack--and she had a lot of thoughts that related to Jack.

Well, it has been a while, she grinned to herself. Barb left for Chicago, what? Six months ago? Her relationship with the gregarious redhead, who'd had a cuttingly sharp tongue and a careless approach to life, had been refreshingly lacking in drama. And, she thought wickedly, she was a lot of fun at family dinners. Barb had a nefarious talent for comments that stretched her parents' ability to maintain their deliberate ignorance about the nature of her relationship with Taylor, without ever quite crossing the line to rudeness. After a few close calls, Taylor had learned to be careful with her drinks. She'd come awfully close to spraying the entire dinner table once or twice.

Taylor sighed. And the sex was great. They'd said a regretful, if tearless goodbye when her company had transferred Barb to their main offices. Since then, she really hadn't been all that interested in finding someone else. Hell of a time for my hormones to wake up, she thought as she got up and faced the closet dilemma. Jeans, she told herself firmly, and the dark green polo.

She found Jack waiting for her downstairs, looking like a freshly scrubbed lumberjack in a pair of work boots, a new pair of Levis with a wide leather belt strung through it, and a dark red flannel shirt. Taylor grinned, wondering if Jack realized how that outfit set off gaydar.

"What?" Jack asked curiously.

Shaking her head, Taylor replied, "Just an errant thought about stereotypes. So," she asked, "where are we going?"

"Um...well, I wasn't sure, but I thought maybe we could go down to the Howling Hawk and grab some dinner? Food's pretty good, and it's a good place to have a drink." Jack looked kind of uncomfortable: her hands were fisted in the pockets of her jeans, and she was rocking slightly on her heels.

"Sounds great."

"You sure? It's not all that exciting, I thought you might..."

Taylor started laughing. "You didn't think I expected a trip to Six Flags or something did you?" She asked teasingly.


Taylor grabbed Jack's arm and started hauling her out of the house. "C'mon."

Taylor looked around in silent appreciation. Warm, well-polished wood glowed under the mellow lighting, bright enough for easy vision without creating a stark environment. The bar was a huge edifice of brass architecture that spoke of the days when a creating a join was the work of a master artisan, and the walls were decorated with hunting prints. Taylor peered for a moment. Expensive hunting prints. Over all, she felt as if she was in a small tavern from the previous century, one that catered to those who were willing to pay for good quality and a comfortable atmosphere.

The menu added to the impression. It was quite limited, with about a half a dozen offerings; nothing too outré, but obviously designed for a discerning palate. She looked up from her menu to comment, "It all looks good."

"Well, there's only five menu items, I'd bet you could finish it all."

Taylor reached over to slap Jack's upper arm. "Hey! It's not my fault that I've got a great metabolism."

"Is that what they're calling it these days?" Jack asked with a grin.

"I haven't noticed that you have a particularly dainty appetite," Taylor retorted.

Jack looked down at her with a slight quirk to her lips. "I could point out the differences between the way we spend our days."

"But you wouldn't want to be afraid to go to sleep at night." Taylor finished for her.

A challenging glint entered Jack's eyes, but the arrival of the waitress curtailed any response she could have made.

"So," Jack began after they'd placed their orders, a fascinated look on her face, "what are we doing next Sunday?"

The question surprised Taylor, she'd convinced herself that Jack had forgotten the whole conversation. "Won't be much of a surprise if I tell you, would it?"

"What if I need to tell the boys how to find me?" The question sounded the slightest bit petulant.

"No dice," Taylor responded teasingly. "I can tell them as easily as you can."

She looked over at Jack's disgruntled expression and laughed delightedly. She looks so cute. "You must open your Christmas presents on the stroke of twelve," she paused to take a sip of her beer. "Instead of working yourself into a swelter, why don't you tell me why your parents named you Jack?"

A calculating glint entered Jack's eyes. "What'll you give me if I do?"

Before she could stop herself, Taylor responded in a flirtatious voice. "What do you want?" She could have smacked herself the minute it came out of her mouth. She quickly tagged on, "Like I need to guess. OK, I'll tell you the name of the town, if you cough up the story."

Jack appeared to consider the offer carefully. "That's a mighty scanty offer."

"Feel free to consider other bids, Stretch."

"No choices, huh?"

"Hey, we got a deal or not?"



An eyebrow arched. "Stowe? All they've got there is a ski resort."

"Yep," Taylor replied smugly.

"Did anyone tell you that they don't make snow in June?"

Taylor looked crestfallen. "They don't? Hmmm, guess we'll just have to stay home and work then." She shot a hand out to smack Jack lightly on the arm again, only to find her wrist trapped in a light clasp, causing the most delightful tingles to shoot up her arm. She quickly tugged to reclaim her hand. "OK, I paid my fare. Now give."

Jack settled in to her seat with a grin. "Well, there's two parts to the story. You already know about the 'J' names for boys in the family."

"Bizarre tradition. Where'd that come from anyway?"

Jack lifted a finger. "Uh uh. You'll have to negotiate another deal if you want additional info."

"OK, OK. Go on."

"Well, my mother thought it'd tick the whole family off if she gave her daughter a name that started with 'J,' so she named me Jacqueline."

Taylor looked over at her. "You know, you don't look at all like a Jacqueline."

Jack grimaced. "I've always hated it."

"So you started calling yourself Jack?"

"Nah, some of the kids I used to hang around with came up with it. It was kind of a joke."

"A joke? Why? It seems like a logical abbreviation to me," she smiled slightly, "I can't quite see you tolerating Jackie"

Jack shot her a quelling glance, "Not on your life. I was real full of myself then. Shortened my middle name to Jazz. Thought it sounded tough."

"Your middle name?"

Jack's reply was suspiciously casual. "Jasmine."

"Bet you hate that with a passion," Taylor chuckled.

The corner of her mouth twitched. "You could say that."

"So, why was Jack a joke?"

"We were, ahh...a bunch of little wanna-be hoodlums. They weren't too excited about having a girl hang out with them, so I beat up a kid and took his favorite weapon...a sap." Jack grimaced in painful memory. To be more precise, I nearly killed him after he konked me on the head with the thing, then I took it as a trophy. Kid never showed up on the street again, wheelchair wouldn't allow it.

Taylor's brow furrowed. "Am I missing something here?"

"They're sometimes called 'blackjacks'," Jack offered helpfully. "Eventually the name got shortened to Jack."

"Hmm...I can see that. With your black hair, it'd be a natural play on words."

"Yeah, that's what they thought," Jack replied with a shrug. "Works as well as any name I guess."

"What the hell happened to you?" The brunette woman demanded the instant Taylor hobbled down the debarking ramp.

"Hello to you too," Taylor grinned. "It's not as bad as it looks. I don't even really need the crutches, but the boys insisted."

Deb quickly moved to grab Taylor's carryon from her shoulder, "But what happened? And what boys?"

Taylor reached over to hug her friend. "First, happy birthday," she resettled her shoulders on the crutches before continuing. "The short version is that I zigged when I should have zagged while playing football. The rest is kind of a long story."

Deb sighed. "Alright, you can give me the details over a cup of coffee after we escape this zoo."

Taylor's chin firmed, "Breakfast and coffee, you don't want to know what they considered food on that plane."

Laughing as they started head out of the gate area, Deb replied. "Guess the injury didn't hurt the appetite any. This your only bag?"


An hour later the two were sitting over the remains of breakfast, Taylor still relating the events of the last couple of weeks to a rapt audience.

"So wait, you're telling me that her pager went off and she just...left?"

Taking a sip of her coffee, Taylor replied. "Yeah, it was really weird. One minute, we're playing poker, and she's finally relaxing enough to joke around a little, then she stiffens up like someone kicked her or something, pulls this pager out of her pocket, and just...leaves."

"And she didn't come back? That was what? Three days ago?"

Taylor nodded her head in emphasis as she answered. "That was Tuesday night, so closer to two, but yeah."

"Weird. Did her brothers say anything about it?" Deb looked like a woman with her teeth in a mystery.

"They just said that it happened sometimes," Taylor grimaced at the inadequacy of the explanation. "I couldn't figure out if they didn't know either, or didn't want to tell me."

Deb grinned. "Wow, this could be fun to figure out. Hmmm...a shy, gorgeous horse trainer suddenly disappears from her family home...uh, maybe an emergency foal delivery?"

"For two days? "

With a wince, Deb replied, "More time than I'd like to spend in labor."

"Yeah, besides, she looked really grim when she left. Intense, as if she'd gotten some horrible news. And if she was just over the hill, I think she'd call or something. She knew I was flying out today."

"Um...she's very fond of the horse?" Deb laughed at the exasperated look that Taylor threw at her. "OK, OK, that's a bust." Her voice took on an air of playful mystery. "Maybe she leads some sort of double life...some deep, dark mystery that no one knows about. Let's see...she's secretly funding her brothers' education by working as a high profile lady of the evening. She had to run out to accompany an infamous drug lord to a..." She trailed off as she noticed the look on Taylor's face. "You almost look like you believe it could be possible," she commented in an incredulous tone.

Taylor shook her head, looking as if she were trying to shake loose some cobwebs. "I don't think she's a prostitute, but I do kind of wonder...there's so many things that don't quite add up."

Resting her cheek on a propped fist, Deb asked, "Like what?"

"Well...for instance, how in the world did she end up with custody of her brothers at sixteen?" Taylor forbore to mention that Jack was not only sixteen, but seemed to have had the kind of past that wouldn't inspire confidence from the state. She'd skipped those bits, not wanting to betray Jack's trust. "How is she paying for six college educations on the salary of a...." Taylor paused, "I'm not even sure what her job title would be. I mean, this stuff with Interception is fairly clear cut, but I get the impression she's been working for Drechter for over a decade. The only job she's referred to is training horses." She picked up her coffee cup, examining the rim minutely. "The company has several commercial stables, but none of them are in Vermont except for the one at the project, but it was just built last year. Other than that, I think there's only, a half a dozen horses that are part of his personal collection."

Deb's face showed comprehension. "I see what you mean. It doesn't quite add up, does it?"

Taylor sighed. "Yeah. The money thing really bugs me out. She tossed a five--hundred--dollar bill at the bartender after that fight, and she didn't look like she particularly cared. I mean, maybe it's feasible that Drechter just sort of adopted her and her brothers, giving her a high salary or something...maybe his way of helping a sixteen year old keep her family together..."

"But if that's the case, why'd she freak out when her brother wanted to work for him?"

Taylor set her coffee cup down decisively. "Exactly."

"Well...we're obviously not going to figure it out now. When did you hurt yourself?"

Taylor sighed. "Wednesday night. The boys invited enough of their friends over for a full game of football."

Deb shook her head. "You know, I can't believe you sometimes. Why in the world would you be playing tackle football with a bunch of guys?"

Taylor grinned. "Because it's fun. You should try it sometime."

"Oh no, too much pain for me."

"You'd change your mind if you tried it. It's a great way to burn off energy."

"I don't have the same inexhaustible supply you do," Deb laughed. "So what happened?"

"I dodged left to avoid one fellow who tried to tackle me from the right, when John came up and hit me from the left," she winced before continuing. "I still had my foot planted, so it put a lot of torque on my knee." She rubbed her leg. "Doc said I was lucky: I didn't do too much damage, it was just a bit painful."

Deb drained her cup, then put it down with a glint in her eye as she asked, "So...d'you think your boss is gay?"

Taylor choked on her own coffee. "What?"

In an amused tone, Deb continued, "C'mon Taylor, it's obvious that you're fostering a major crush. So...I'm asking: Is there a chance she's interested, or are you setting yourself up? Will I be hearing about the drama of unrequited lust soon?"

"Never could hide anything from you," Taylor replied ruefully. She rubbed the end of her nose as she replied. "And the answer is...I don't know. She doesn't really give off vibes either way."

"Hm...well, be careful girl. I haven't seen you look like this in a while. Is it the mystery or just old fashioned lust for her body?"

"Truth? I don't know. She's so...complicated. I've never met anyone quite like her." Taylor sighed. "She is good looking. It's almost intimidating."

Deb laughed. "Now you know how the rest of us feel. You're not exactly lacking in that department yourself."

"Not like this," Taylor disagreed.

"Well, we've been over this before," Deb checked her watch as she continued, "and we don't have time for me to convince you if we're going to drop off your bag before it's time to meet Amy and Erin."

Scott Drysdale happily viewed the last figure in the ledger before locking it away. He'd been dubious four months ago when the young snot had approached him with an offer to market his goods for a higher profit margin. But, he'd taken a risk on the kid and given him a few grams to play with, figuring he could easily take it out of the youngster's hide if he bugged out. The blond had returned with a healthy amount of cash and they'd been in business since. There's no way to lose, he thought smugly as he headed out of his home office to change for dinner.

Stripping off his shirt and tossing it toward the hamper, he headed toward the closet. Little Kyle has increased sales for my whole operation, the bosses are happy, he paused in front of the full-length mirror to grin at himself. I'll be a major player soon if this keeps up. And the best part, he thought complacently, is Caberi has no idea that I've increased my personal profit margin.

His thoughts were interrupted when a telltale click broke the silence. Who the hell is here? He tensed his body, preparing to spin and dive for the bedside table that held his own piece. The light touch of cold metal against his back stopped the movement before it started. A dark figure appeared behind him in the mirror, just as a strong hand wrapped around his throat. His first good look ended any thoughts of trying to break free.

"Hello Scott," the low voice growled. "You know who I am?"

His head swam as he felt his breathing shallow and quicken. Know who she is? Of course he knew who she was. His heart thudded loudly in his chest as he realized what her presence meant. Although there were few living that could describe her, the tall, dark-haired and dark-clad woman was discussed in hushed whispers by all of Caberi's people.

"" He was ashamed to discover that he simply could not get the word out.

"Good," she sounded satisfied. She tightened her grip on his throat slightly as his body began to tremble in reaction. "Relax," she smiled dangerously, "unless you do something unconscionably stupid, you'll live."

He gulped and manfully tried to avoid slumping in relief.

The menacing voice continued. "You've been playing a dangerous game Scott, and now we're in a bit of a jam. It's up to you to get us out of it."

"What do you mean?" His voice was becoming more confident. Since he wasn't dead yet, he'd be damned if he'd admit to anything before being charged.

The butt of the gun impacted with his left kidney, a blossom of nauseating pain filling him. He felt his knees begin to buckle and the prickly sensation of blood draining away from his face.

Breath tickled his ear. "Let's make sure we understand each other. You've never been closer to death in the entire length of your miserable existence. Is that clear?"

He nodded jerkily.

"Now, that kid you've been selling through works for Mendal. Are you smart enough to understand the implications, or do I need to explain in small words?"

Comprehension filled his face. Mendal was a major competitor. The kid was a plant. He nodded again.

"Fix it," the growl sent shivers up his spine. He reached out to the wall for support as the body behind him started to pull away. He froze again as she turned back and spoke casually, "Oh...and I'd suggest you pay up those extra profits...soon."

"Hey Tas-girl!"

Taylor looked up in surprise, easily spotting the large woman over the crowd. "Mad-woman!" She shouted across the bar, delight spreading across her face.

The tall, dark-skinned woman scooped Taylor up in an athletic hug as soon as she got to their table. "How you doin' Tas?"

Laughing as she pounded on a shoulder, Taylor protested, "Put me down you beast!" Once her feet found the ground, she continued, "I'm doing great Mad. You're just in time for the birthday toast."

"Great, I was worried I missed it," Mad turned and gave Deb the same treatment Taylor had received, then grinned at Amy and Erin across the table as she reversed a chair and sat down, folding her arms across the back of the chair. "So, what's the official beverage this time?"

"Gods Mad, can't you ever sit down right?" Amy asked.

Erin flicked a grin toward her partner before answering, "I think we decided on a pitcher of kamikaze's, that right?"

Mad winced, "I can see you're planning to have an interesting birthday, Deb. One suicide mission, coming up."

The tall woman gestured to get the attention of a waiter. After gaining a distracted nod and the lift of an index finger that indicated he'd be there in a moment, she looked around with interest. "Doesn't look too bad, kinda dark and kinky though. Who was it that recommended this place?"

"A woman I work with," Deb replied. "It's been so long since we've been clubbing, I didn't have any idea where we should head. You find the place all right?"

"No problem," Mad grinned. She turned to Taylor, "So what happened to the leg, Blondie?"

"She got beaten up by bunch of boys," Erin piped up for her, making all her friends laughed. Taylor groaned and launched into the story for the third time that day. With the addition of Mad, the evening was guaranteed to be a success. She'd spent the last year at an archeological dig in Equador, just returning last week. Between a stockpile of hilarious stories of misadventure, and an unending supply of acerbic observations about the people on the dance floor, she kept the entire table in stitches. After Mad wound down, they turned their energy towards recounting past exploits and flirting outrageously with every woman that floated by the table. Quite a few hangers-on joined the group, attracted to the infectious laughter that rolled around the table.

Much later, Taylor paused to lean against a post as she was returning from the women's room. The swimming head and feeling of disorientation had hit her suddenly. I didn't think I drank that much. She fiercely tried to focus her sluggishly moving thoughts, trying to remember exactly what she'd had to drink. One kamikaze, then just a beer, and she'd deliberately drunk both slowly. She felt her brow wrinkle in puzzlement. I don't think I had anything else, did I?

Well, she was miserable now. The bar seemed loud, dark, and overwhelming. She could feel her center of gravity moving about. Looking over at the table, she noticed the woman who was sitting next to her chair. Damn, I thought she'd gone. One of these days, Taylor, you've got to get a handle on your flirt meter. She'd gotten more than one unsubtle offer from the admittedly good-looking woman throughout the night. Taylor had tried to gently deflect the comments, but as the woman drank more, she'd become increasingly loud and reactive. Bet she's the type to suddenly turn belligerent, Taylor sighed. She really didn't have the energy to play the game anymore, but she didn't particularly feel up to a scene either.

She closed her eyes, suddenly wishing that she was in Vermont. No, I wish I could be with Jack. She could be sitting on the porch, looking at stars, and teasing awkward conversation out of the taciturn woman. Instead, she felt sick and exhausted, had an aching leg and a problem she wasn't sure she was up to getting herself out of right now. An image of those deep blue eyes filled her inner vision, making her temporarily forget her discomfort.

"You don't look so good," a quiet voice spoke from nearby.

Taylor opened her eyes and looked at Deb ruefully. "Don't feel so good."

"How much did you drink?" Deb's voice was filled with concern.

"Not enough," she rested her cheek against the cool chrome pillar, trying to dump some of the heat out of her body.

Deb grasped her chin, looking into her eyes with clinical interest. "You taking any medication for that knee?"

"Uh huh," Taylor replied, trying not to look at the flashing of the strobe lights on the dance floor, they were doing weird things to her sense of balance.

"Idio...Oh wow. That's a...a whole lot of leather." Deb's voice had rapidly gone from denigrating to awestruck, causing Taylor to look up in confusion.


"Behind you," Deb whispered, in the tone they used when 'scoping' out the bar.

Taylor turned around, fighting her vision along the way. She drew in a surprised breath when it settled. It was Jack...but it wasn't. Black leather encased long, well-muscled thighs with intimate familiarity. Underneath a black leather jacket with the sharp cut and clean lines that screamed 'expensive' and 'custom made', a tight white t-shirt emphasized the breadth of her shoulders and contrasted stunningly with her dark skin. Aviator sunglasses hid the only hint of color.

Her Jack never looked like this. This was an urban predator: cool, dangerous, and radiating pure sex appeal. She felt her feet start pulling her forward with compulsive momentum. I have to know for sure. She watched her hands move, as if they belonged to someone else. They reached out and tugged the glasses away, revealing familiar intense blue eyes with an unfamiliar expression in them.

Relief filled her and she stood on tiptoe to wrap her arms around Jack's neck, seeking refuge in the hollow of Jack's throat. "I needed you to be here," she whispered, giggling a little as she realized that the slight stiffening of the body beneath her filled her with warm comfort. Definitely Jack, she thought happily. She drew in a lungful of the musky scent of skin. It made perfect sense to her chemically befuddled brain that Jack would appear out of the blue, just because Taylor was wanting her here. Listening to the steady heartbeat, Taylor remembered another bar, and being caught just before she was going to fall, a rock face and a light touch that ended her fear, a woman calmly pulling her brothers out of danger. Jimmy was right, she can do anything. And she's here for me. Filled with gratitude, she eased back, kissing Jack lightly. It wasn't a passionate kiss. Rather, it was the quick intimacy shared by long time lovers. "Take me home," she requested, with the child-like confidence that receiving was as simple as asking, before resuming her shelter nestled in Jack's strong shoulder, losing herself in the feeling of safety.

Deb felt the shock run through her as the dark haired woman looked at her appraisingly over the small body that was wrapped around her tall form. I've never heard Taylor sound like that... like she knows the woman will take care of she doesn't mind letting her...What the hell is going on? Deb thought as she sized up the woman before her with new interest. She shivered as the fierce eyes looked right through her. Dangerous intimacy with power and intensity was written clearly in deep blue, and it looked about a hair's breadth from being unleashed in protective fury.

Deb's breath eased when the woman gently disengaged herself from Taylor. The motion was so smooth that later she could never quite say how it happened, but suddenly she was supporting a blinkingly disoriented Taylor, and the tall dark woman had disappeared completely. The anticlimactic release of tension left Deb feeling drained and not a little confused.

The tumbler shattered against the wall with an explosion of sound that should have been satisfying. Damn...Damn!, Jack thought as she paced furiously. Seven milion people in this fucking city, and who do I bump into? She kicked out viciously at a chair, sending it flying across the room.

How long will it take for her to start adding things up? An impatient hand tangled in her hair. Hell, she probably already has. I told Pete this was a mistake. He's taking a huge risk.

She stopped pacing as the coldly clear part of her mind that belonged to the professional presented her with what she had to do. It had happened before, someone getting close enough to start seeing too many details. The same solution still worked, still had the same arguments behind it. It was the only choice. She took three determined steps towards the door before her body balked. Do it damnit! It's the only option! She yelled at herself, but she couldn't make herself move any further.

She let out a frustrated yell, originating in her gut and ripping painfully through her throat. For once, sure knowledge of what needed to be done could not...would...not transmit itself into instant action. One word to Pete and the threat Taylor posed would disappear.

But, Jack thought, how? Granted, it was risky taking out an innocent. Especially one so closely connected to both of them. Logic said that the risk was too great. Most likely Pete would transfer her, maybe working in a promotion to generate the belief that he'd discovered how valuable her abilities were and needed to utilize her elsewhere.

Except that Pete's been unpredictable recently. She didn't know what was going on in that head of his but...he's been taking a lot of stupid risks lately, and he's not a stupid man. He's playing at something, I just don't know what yet.

Her jaw locked with painful force as a new addition to the already confusing morass of loyalties pulling at her further complicated the turmoil in her head. I just can't do it. She's not a threat.

Bull, another part of her brain argued, fear sending yet another surge of adrenaline through her. Her muscles quivered in reaction, demanding release. One wrong word to the wrong person, and it all comes down. And any power-hungry idiot will target the boys first. Remember that, Jack.

She stood, caught between her need to act and her desire not to, trying to force a solution out of her brain. I need answers first, she decided. She strode over to a locked drawer, pulling out several items and arming herself with ritualistically efficient motions. Moments later a nearly invisible form slipped out of a dark window, silently joining the shadows of the city's alleyways.

Pete jerked upright, blinking sleep from his eyes, when his pants landed squarely in his chest

"Put 'em on. We need to talk," Jack said, watching impassively as he vainly peered around, trying to pick her out from the shadows.

"Damnitall Jack, you scare a year off my life when you do that," he grumbled, while swinging his gangly legs around and jerkily forcing them into the trousers.

"Get better security," Jack had replied without sympathy.

"Cost of the system I've got already rivals the national deficit," he complained as he headed out the door of his bedroom, not bothering to turn on the light. "About the only thing I don't have is a masked figure standing at the gates carving Xs with a sword."

"It's Zs, not Xs old man," Jack replied with a touch of asperity. "And I know the system's loaded, I designed the damn thing."

He forbore to reply as he started to turn down the hallway that would lead to his office. Jack stopped him with a, "No." Grunting in understanding, he turned the opposite direction and silently led her out of the house.

They followed the path that led to a small building that looked like nothing more than a gardener's shed, unremarkable and lost among many other small buildings on Pete's Greenwich estate. Measuring no more than twenty feet on its longest axis, it was fitting that this small physical space was the only location where Jack felt comfortable speaking openly.

This was where Pete had taken her when she first sought advice from Jeb's long time employer. Where she had, for the first time in her life, seriously thought about the nature of responsibility and accepted its burdens. She had, Jack reflected, taken her first twisted steps to adulthood in this room. Secure from surveillance, at least as secure as Pete's paranoia and wealth could make it, the little shed was a rarely used location where Pete could attend to his operation from home.

Jack spoke as soon as the door was closed and the display flashed green. "What the hell are you up to, Pete?"

Pete's fierce grey brows drew together as he deliberately drew out a cigar, the strike of the match flaring out in contrast to the quiet space. Once the end was burning steadily, he gestured for her to continue.

She was succinct, "Interception, Taylor Williams."

He drew on the cigar before answering. "You worried about security?"

Jack snorted.

"She's just a girl, Jack, what harm can she do?"

An eyebrow raised, "She can see what is obvious to any human with eyes and ears."

"Not that obvious. The boys haven't seen anything in twelve years," he argued.

She leaned forward, "The boys see plenty, you old fool. They've just learned not to question what they see." She paused for a moment, before amending, "At least not out loud."

Scratching idly at the undershirt covering his chest, he replied thoughtfully. "I still don't see a problem. You're not going to be working while she's there."

Leaning against the wall and crossing her arms, Jack drawled out, "Caberi sent me out."

"He what?" Honest surprise laced Pete's tone.

"What did you think? I'm here on a pleasure jaunt?"

Pete irritably rubbed his face, "Hell."

"This is just going to get worse," Jack pushed off the wall so she could pace. Pete sat back and watched, relieved to see her break out of tense stillness into edgy movement. It was ironic, he thought, that even he wasn't immune to the reputation that he'd helped her create. "Everything about this project is a risk, for both of us. You've never put your name on an operation before, why now?" She ran a hand through her hair, impatience filling her as she thought of all the problems that should be painfully evident.

Pete grunted in comprehension and relief. "Sit down, Jack."

He waited until she had backed off and taken a chair. "Interception is going to be just what it looks like, a nonprofit center for kids."

Her eyebrow raised in disbelief.

He sighed stubbing out the cigar with impatient motions, before uttering the sentence that gave her a whole new set of worries. "I want you to take over for Grayson."

Saturday morning did not arrive gently. Keeping her eyes closed, Taylor slammed her hand down on the clock to silence the penetrating whine of the alarm. Light filtered redly through her lids, causing the dull ache in her head to flare uncomfortably. Groaning, she pulled the blanket over her face and rolled away from the window, seeking refuge under the covers. She pulled her hand back rapidly when her knuckles brushed against the unexpected.

Please tell me I didn't feel that. Holding her breath, she reached her hand out again. Oh God, she thought as she encountered a naked back. What did I do last night? Well...the sewage in her mouth and the pain in her head gave her a good place to start.

OK, I drank too much. Now who in the hell is that? She recounted the events of the evening. Mad showed up, we were having a good time. Erin dumped her drink on the waitress. Deb was learning that electric slide thing from a tiny Latina. I wasn't feeling too good. Deb came and found me and...Taylor felt her heart pick up its pace as the encounter with Jack came back with startling clarity. I didn't do that. Oh, tell me I didn't do that. How am I going to face her? A shifting of the bed and the rustle of covers reminded her that she couldn't wallow in embarrassment right now; she had more remembering to do. But, for the life of her, she couldn't quite figure out who that could possibly be.

I was kind of a mess after Jack left, and...I couldn't have been that stupid, could I? She thought furiously. Wait! Mad and Deb brought me home. Did they stay? She finally dared to crack open an eye. Please, please be Deb. She almost wept in relief when she saw the familiar brown curls and twinkling brown eyes.

"Hey sexy," Deb greeted her, lounging on her side with her head propped on her hand.

Taylor made a face and swatted a hand at her friend. "You scared me to death, Deb."

"I know," her friend grinned. "I've been waiting for you to get up the courage to take a look."

"Mad on the couch?"

"Yeah, I lost the coin toss." She looked over in annoyance, "How do you always manage to steal every scrap of blanket? I practically wrapped myself up like a burrito and you still managed to snake all the covers."

"I have many skills," Taylor grinned. "Thanks for bringing me home."

Deb's face became concerned, "How you feeling, hon?"

"My head feels like it's gonna explode, and I certainly don't want to discuss whatever it was that died in my mouth last night," Taylor made a face, "but no permanent damage."

"That's not...exactly what I meant."

"Oh..." Taylor could feel the blood rise up in her face. "You mean Jack."

"That was Jack?" Deb's voice rose an octave on the name.

"Uh...yeah," she replied, then sighed, as she recognized the speculative look on Deb's face. "You might as well spit it out, I'm in no shape to beat you up over it."

"What?" Deb asked.

"You only bite your lip like that when you think whatever you're thinking is going to upset me." Taylor explained.

"I do?"

"You're stalling."

Deb flopped down onto her pillow, staring at the ceiling. "I think you're falling in love."

"Don't be silly," Taylor scoffed. "She's gorgeous and I like her, but I'm not falling in love with my boss."

Deb sat back up, an earnest expression on her face. "I'm not joking around Taylor. You were devastated when she left, you know." She paused, "Why do you think we stuck around? Neither of us wanted to leave you feeling like that."

"I was drunk Deb, drunk and sick." Taylor replied as if she was explaining what should be obvious. "You know I'm more emotional when I drink too much."

"You know what's going on in your head better than I do, but let me tell you what I saw." She paused before continuing, "I saw my ultra-independent best friend throw herself into the arms of a tall stranger, apparently without a second thought or any hesitation." Deb raised a hand and brushed a bang off of her friend's face. "I've never seen you trust like that before, even dead drunk. tell me what I'm supposed to think."

"Look...I was miserable," Taylor explained. "I wasn't thinking very clearly, and then she just showed up right when I was wishing that someone could make it all go away." She cocked her head, "C'mon Deb, you're not going to give me grief the first time I do something a little nuts while drinking are you? Not the woman who fell in love and did a strip tease for Dean Elworth during her first binge?"

Deb laughed. "OK, I see your point," she paused. "Breakfast?"

Taylor's stomach rumbled in Pavlovian response, "Definitely."

Climbing out of the bed, Deb grumbled. "Figures that you're hungry. I can't eat at all with a hang-over; they make me nauseous."

"Bite your tongue," Taylor joked. "Not eat?"

"How soon do you have to be at the airport?"

Checking the clock, Taylor replied. "We've got some time. Here," she threw a t-shirt and a pair of boxers at Deb, "put those on. Don't want to give Mad any ideas."

"You think my naked body'll convince her to see things our way?" Deb teased, "Wow, you even give compliments when you're hung over. I think I'm going to have to get you drunk more often." Throwing on the clothes, she asked, "You sure you can't stay the weekend? She's flying back out in just a couple of weeks."

Grimacing Taylor replied, "Yeah, I know. But Jimmy's really nervous, I told him I'd try to be there."

"You like them, don't you?" Deb asked, opening the door and heading into the living room.

"Like who?" Mad was still lounging on the couch, watching Roadrunner escape yet another ACME-designed trap.

"The six brothers McDermott," Deb replied as Taylor made a beeline for the orange juice in the fridge.

Mad asked Deb a question with her eyes as Taylor unplugged the carton and began gulping the juice down. Deb just shrugged helplessly.

"Feelin' the pain Tas-girl?" Mad asked.

Taylor turned and wrinkled her nose at Mad. "Don't you dare start. I've hauled your huge carcass home more nights than I can count."

Mad laughed, "Down Tas! Down! It never crossed my mind." She brought her hands behind her head and asked, "So, what are you going to feed us?"

Taylor turned and wrinkled her nose at Mad. "Don't you dare start. I've hauled your huge carcass home more nights than I can count."

Mad laughed, "Down Tas! Down! It never crossed my mind." She brought her hands behind her head and asked, "So, what are you going to feed us?"

"Um," Taylor replied, peering into the fridge, "frozen waffles? Didn't really stock up with much."

Deb rolled her eyes, "Yeah, if you had some food, I'm sure you'd be cooking a gourmet meal."

Taylor grinned impishly, "Nope, I'd get you and Mad to cook one."

Mad laughed, rising off the couch to take the box from Taylor's hands. "Go do something about coffee, I don't want you to burn my only hope of sustenance."

Taylor sniffed deprecatingly but handed over the box, "I've got some real syrup in the fridge, if you want it."

"God no," Deb cut in, "I don't know how you can stand that stuff."

Loading up the coffee maker, Taylor replied in her best society drawl, "Dahling, don't you know that Log Cabin is plebian?"

"Not if it's served in Waterford crystal Miz Wilson ma'am. Now get outta here before you ruin my appetite."

Taylor smiled as she pushed the button to get the machine percolating, "Make sure you clean up when you're done." She ran laughing out of the room, a sponge flying through the door after her.

Jimmy frowned as soon as he saw her. "Where are your crutches?"

"What is this, lecture Taylor week?" Taylor mumbled.

"What?" Jimmy asked in confusion.

"Nothing Jimmy," Taylor brushed her hair out of her eyes. "I left them at home. See? I'm walking fine." It wasn't entirely true. After the activity last night and then being cramped into the plane, her knee was throbbing a little, but damn if she'd let six mother hens know that.

They'd been so attentive when she'd first hurt herself that she'd been relieved to escape down to the city. It was nice to have so many people concerned for her, but when it got to the point that she'd practically had to fight to be allowed to the bathroom by herself, it became more than a little frustrating.

She grabbed his arm and started tugging him away from the gate. "Thanks for picking me up."

He strolled along beside her, "I've gotta be here to pick up Alec anyway, no point in driving down by yourself."

"When does his flight arrive?" Taylor asked.

Checking his watch, he replied, "We've got about an hour. Anything you want to do while we're waiting?"

"Starbucks," she replied succinctly.

He grinned, "We can do better than that. C'mon, I'll show you."

"Better than Starbucks?" Taylor asked doubtfully.


Better than Starbucks turned out to be a little shop in downtown called 'Kathy's Kaffeinated Kosmos.'

"Interesting," Taylor commented, looking around in bemusement. The entire shop was decorated in varying shades of blue. Dark blue walls hosted fields of light blue stars, tabletops held swirled blue patterns reminiscent of tie-dye, and the floor was tiled in a checkerboard pattern of medium shades. It did strange things to the eye.

Jimmy looked at her challengingly after they'd made it to the counter, "You trust me?"

"Sure," Taylor replied, with only the slightest twinge of trepidation.

"Two Kathy Kreations," he told the cashier.

Taylor discretely rested her hip against the counter to take the weight off of her leg. "You nervous about tonight?" She asked as the young girl engaged herself in producing their beverages...a process that looked suspiciously like some form of alchemy.

"A little," he admitted. "Alec's not going to know what hit him if they behave normally; he doesn't have any siblings," he explained, running his hand through his hair in imitation of his sister's mannerism. "And god knows how he'll react if they go weird on him."

"Are they going to?"

He shrugged. "Dunno. They seem fine most of the time, but they're still getting used to the idea. I figure it might be harder for them with Alec though."

Smiling, she offered, "You're their brother who happens to be queer, but he's just a fag?"

"Yeah," he snorted.

"I don't think it'll be that bad, Jimmy. Really," she continued when he looked at her in disbelief, "they're good people. Just...sheltered. You haven't exactly given them a lot of time to get used to the idea."

"I know," he said as he accepted the paper cups the cashier handed him. "I just wanted to get him out here before John started summer session." He sighed as they sat down on an atrociously blue couch near the window. "I should have said something a long time ago."

"How long have you been seeing each other?"

"About a year. Since last spring."

"Hey, this is good!" Taylor exclaimed after taking a sip from her cup. "What's in there?"

He grinned, "Chocolate, almond, the best damn coffee in the state, and god knows what else. Anna buys beans from here...mail order."

"Mm, no wonder." Taylor hummed appreciatively after taking another sip. She looked back up at him. "You're what? About twenty one?"

"Yeah..." He wasn't quite sure where she was going with the question.

"Is Alec your first?"

He shifted uncomfortably. "Um, sort of. I was a little experimental my freshman year," he flushed brightly, looking down at his cup. "But Alec's..."

"The first one you wanted to bring home?"

"Yeah," he said, nodding his head.

She smiled, "If you want my humble opinion, I don't think it's a bad time to be telling them."

"Hunh," he didn't say anything for a minute, looking intently at the wall. Visibly shaking himself, he turned back to her. "Jack's not back yet, y'know."

Taylor deliberately took a sip of her coffee, trying to hide any reaction. She was a lousy actor, and she knew it.

"She usually gone this long?"

"It varies, once she was gone for two months," he grinned at her startled expression. "Don't worry, usually it's just about a week. How was your friend's birthday?"

She hesitated a moment before replying. "Good. We went to see Stomp, then got together with some friends at a club."

"Hey, I've heard about that show, is it as good as they say?"

With a feeling of reprieve, Taylor dived into a detailed description of the various displays of the creative percussion display until it was time to pick up Alec from the airport.

Taylor jerked out of her nightmare with a startled gasp. She felt a trickle of cool sweat creep down between her breasts as she sat up, listening to the rapid thudding of her heart wane in volume and pace. With a frown, she reached to check her watch, cursing as she tried to remember which particular button to push to turn on the blue light.

She groaned, seeing that it was approaching five in the morning. What is going on with these dreams? She wondered. She remembered darkness, and running down a narrow path, a sensation of scorching heat at her back. Weird stuff girl, she thought before pushing the memory out of her mind.

Might as well get up. She slid into a robe and blearily headed the kitchen. About halfway down the hall, her senses began to express interest as they detected a rich scent filling the air. Anna must be up early, she thought, feeling her enthusiasm for the day perk up as she found a cup and poured out her daily dose.

So...this is dawn, she thought as she wandered through the living room. Quiet. Wondering if it was possible to see the sunrise, she cautiously turned the knob, hoping that the door wouldn't creak loudly enough to wake the whole house.

The first thing she saw sent her heart down to her stomach. Jack was leaning against the corner post, one thigh braced along the railing, staring out across the lawn.

"Hey," Taylor spoke tentatively.

Jack looked over and smiled, "Hey yourself."

Taylor found the courage to walk out onto the porch, settling into one of the slatted Adirondack chairs quietly. She wasn't quite sure what to say. I'm sorry I threw myself at you in a drunken stupor? She felt a bubble of laughter rise up as she continued her mental conversation. By the way, do you frequent that bar often...cause you know, I had been wondering if you...

"How'd last night go?" Taylor shifted mental gears as Jack's question cut into her thoughts.

"Um, 'bout as well as can be expected I guess."

Jack winced. "Jimmy's never going to forgive me."

Taylor grinned into her cup, "Jimmy? Of course he will, you're his hero. Now Jer," she paused, "he may have a few choice words for you. He had quite a time sitting on Jake."

Jack's eyebrow rose in inquiry.

"He was feeling rather...uh, manly last night."

Jack just chuckled, shaking her head. "Guess I shouldn't be surprised. What's Alec like?"

Rubbing her nose with an index finger, Taylor wondered if she should mention a couple of other snafu' Jimmy's reaction to the new coat of pink paint in his room, and the Tinkie Winkie that had been left on the bed for him...or the awkwardness when they realized that Taylor would be occupying the only spare bed in the house...or how she'd had to run to the kitchen to hide her chuckles when she discovered that Julian, in a fit of enthusiasm, had rented "Priscilla: Queen of the Desert" for the evening....

Deciding that some things are just not worth going into, Taylor replied, "He seems like a real nice guy. Kind of quiet, but he held up well in all the craziness." She paused, gathering her courage, "Look Jack, about the other night..." A raised hand stopped her mid-thought.

"Not now," Jack asked. "Please."

"But I wanted to..." This time all it took to stop her was the look in Jack's eyes. Blowing out a frustrated breath, Taylor glared at Jack, receiving a lazy smile for her efforts.

Suddenly, she relaxed, realizing that whatever Jack's reaction was, she wasn't running for the hills. She seems different. More relaxed? Taylor studied the woman. Nope. That nervy tension is still there. She still looks like she could suddenly bolt without warning. Suddenly, she realized what it was. There was no longer a guarded edge to Jack's eyes when she looked at Taylor. Before, there had always been a bit of a shadow...As if she was waiting for me to grow horns or something. Now, Jack's look was comfortable, almost friendly. Huh, wonder what caused that, unless seeing me as a complete wreck convinced her that I'm harmless. Taylor stretched her legs out in front of her with a sigh. "I cancelled the reservations for today."

Taylor giggled at the look of consternation that crossed Jack's face. "Forgot, didn't you?"

Jack reached a hand back to scratch at the nape of her neck, "Yeah. I guess I did. When did you cancel them?"

"Last night, when I realized that Alec was leaving tomorrow morning," she reached out with a toe to kick Jack's foot. "You owe me big, Stretch. Do you know how hard it is to figure out what a grumpy farm girl would do for fun?"

Jack laughed, "About as hard as it was for the grump to figure out where to take the city slicker?"

"Worse," Taylor replied.

Jack looked out at the early morning light before responding, "Hmm...we've got some time before there's any hope of the boys waking up on a Sunday. She eyed Taylor speculatively for a moment, "If you go get dressed, I bet I can make it up to you."

Taylor bounced up with youthful exuberance. "You're on."

More to come...

Thanks for hangin' w/me

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