Making Strides (part 2 of 5)
by Tonya Muir
(disclaimers and random ramblings in part 1)
additional disclaimer for this section: There are spoilers for Nintendo 64's Zelda in this part. Nothing huge that the normal 7 year old boy couldn't figure out in about 10 seconds flat. But they're there ... be forewarned :-).
The next morning caused some logistics problems only because they hadn't planned on having Molly home from school.
Rachel needed a few uninterrupted hours to put the finishing touches on a paper that was due by four o'clock today. She had yet to edit it and print it out though at least it was completely written.
Rachel muttered to herself as she chewed on a pen cap and watched the screen intently, trying to formulate her next thought. She should have finished this last night but after a long bout of lovemaking and no sleep the night before, she'd curled up in Lacey's arms and hadn't even ventured off the mattress until this morning.
Lacey was downstairs with Molly and had finally gotten through to Vinnie. She was going to pick up Rico and have the long awaited discussion with their former boss. The dark woman hoped it would be revealing but didn't hold her breath that Vinnie would have the answers to all her problems.
The young blonde woman's deep thoughts and sporadic typing were interrupted by a gentle knock on the door. She looked up. "Hey, Lace," she grinned.
"Hey. I'm headed out."
"Wait a sec. She gets suspended from school and as punishment she gets to play Nintendo all morning?"
"You have a better idea, Raich?" Lacey asked pointedly. "Because I'm open for suggestions. But she can't come with me and you need to finish your paper."
Rachel sighed, Lacey was right. Molly couldn't go to Vinnie's and Rachel really couldn't entertain her and get this paper in on time. "No, you're right. Do me a favor, though. Tell her one hour on Nintendo and then she has to go to her room and do one of her workbooks. I'll check up on her."
"Deal," Lacey nodded and padded across the plush carpet to kiss her partner goodbye.
"Be careful," Rachel whispered, not liking that Lacey was walking back into the family she'd left last February.
"No sweat, baby." Lacey promised, smoothing golden hair with a large hand before heading out of the room. Rachel heard Lacey's hollered instructions to the child downstairs in the television room before the sound of the garage door opening indicated her lover was on her way.
"Please be okay," she murmured, trying to concentrate on her paper once more.
Lacey had chosen the little Mazda RX-7, knowing that Rico liked to drive the sports car. It had been nearly a week since she'd seen the young man and he'd still been pretty torn up over Bernard's death. The two had been close.
Though Rico had received threats as well, they were more vague than the rest and the group used to joke that they were sympathy threats. Whoever was writing them didn't want Rico to feel left out. They didn't joke about them anymore.
Rico was a brilliant kid. He'd been assigned to Lacey's team just a few short months before she left the organization but had proven in that time to be loyal. Now that he worked for Lacey in the computer security firm, his skills really shined. He was a computer geek at heart and was responsible for most of the research and development team. Lacey ran the business side of bidding for contracts and shmoozing prospective buyers though she did dabble in the programming end from time to time. She was no slouch herself in the computer environment, she just didn't enjoy the tedium of it.
Rico was standing outside his apartment complex in the parking lot. His toothy grin widened at the sight of the little red car. Lacey put the car in neutral, set the emergency brake, and hopped out. "Hey, Rico."
"Hi, Lace," his blue eyes danced in merriment as he ran his hand through too long shaggy blonde hair.
"All yours," the dark woman gestured to the driver's seat as she stepped around to let herself into the passenger side. She adjusted the seat to her longer legs and looked over as Rico did the reverse, accommodating his smaller stature. "Just leave more rubber on the tires than the road, bucko."
"No problem," he grinned as he squealed out of the parking lot.
Berto let them into Vinnie's mansion when they arrived. He didn't spare them so much as a lingering glance even though it wasn't common practice for mafia personnel to be released and then waltz back in nearly a year later. He frisked them both and Lacey put on her best glower for him, never caring much for the pompous ass anyway.
The house was just as she remembered as she walked down the hallway into the plushly carpeted anteroom. Rico was hot on her heel. "Stop steamin' up my tail," Lacey teased.
Rico looked at her stupidly for a moment before grinning. "Heh. Bugs Bunny. That's pretty cute, Lace. How about 'Spear and Magic Helmet.'"
"Magic Helmet?" Lacey bantered back.
They were in full swing by the time Berto showed them into Vinnie's office. The room itself was stifling enough that it demanded their silence long before Vinnie could.
He stood quietly behind the desk regarding them both. Lacey had been his best associate for many long years. His family had pulled her away from her abusive mother and nickel and dime dealing to raise her here with his family. He remembered her fondly as an angry young woman with a chip on her shoulder who'd matured into the best business mind he knew. She'd been loyal and ruthless, earned the family only slightly more than she'd saved. If his family hadn't been so indebted to her, hadn't loved her so, she never would have left alive.
He didn't know Rico well at all. They'd just gotten him out of a homeless shelter where Rico'd been holding up a volunteer for drug money when one of the family members had spotted him. He'd immediately liked the kid's bravado and recruited him. Rico had shown promise since day one but showed more loyalty to Lacey than the family. It had been a hard fight but Vinnie had given in when Lacey asked for his freedom as well. If he didn't know she was shacking up with the young rider from Briargate, he would have assumed there was more to the relationship before him.
No one spoke for a very long time, each lost in separate memories. It was finally Vinnie who broke the silence.
"You look good, Lace. Better than you've looked in a long time." It was a completely true statement. Though she still wore the black leather trench coat he'd grown to know so well over black slacks and a white silk shirt, there was something different about her expression. It was something softer and it suited her well. He noted immediately, however, that her ice blue eyes were just as keen, sweeping the room, sizing him up.
"Ya look good, too, Vinnie. A little more grey, maybe."
He smiled. He'd always been fond of her. She'd never once backed away from him merely because of the power he wielded. She was not a yes-man and he'd never had a better right hand. Robbie was no comparison.
"You get bored without me?"
"Robbie, that slime, gave me the run around. He thinks he runs the world now?" Lacey avoided the question. She was a little bored, in reality, but not bored enough to become the cold killing machine she'd once been. There was no going back there. She'd been ready to leave that life for a long time before Rachel showed up. Rachel had just given her a solid reason to walk away. The decision had been easy after that. No looking back.
"Please, sit," Vinnie motioned to the deep leather chairs framing his large oak desk. "You did when you had that position."
"Ah," Lacey nodded with a knowing smirk, taking the seat he'd indicated. Rico followed her lead. "But I did run the world. He has delusions of grandeur."
Vinnie laughed. "Fair enough. He's no Lacey Montgomery, that's for sure."
"Don't hurt his feelings, Vinnie. I'm sure he's doing his best."
"Hah," the tall, dark-skinned man snorted, straightening his silk blazer. "Everyone's been comparing him to you since he stepped into those shoes. He's pretty pissed off at you right now. That's why he was giving you the run around. Why did you ask to see me? He said you wouldn't tell him."
"I wouldn't tell the little fucker who won the Super Bowl, Vinnie," Lacey grinned evilly. "He doesn't deserve to know. I'm here because I need your help on something."
"If I can do it, I will," he promised generously.
She outlined as much of the problem she was willing to share, starting with the mild threats and ending with Bernard's death.
"I'd heard about that, I'm sorry," Vinnie offered. Bernard had been a hard worker and a good guy. "The threats are getting worse, now?"
Lacey nodded and extracted an envelope from the inside of her trench coat. She unfolded the letter and handed it over.
Vinnie's eyes skimmed the note twice before raising salt and pepper eyebrows. "How recent is this?"
"Couple weeks. Before Bernard's death."
"Lacey," Vinnie met her blue eyes with his own dark brown ones. Hers showed absolutely no emotion. "It's not normal protocol to threaten families like this."
"I know." The letter outlined in disgusting detail how Rachel and Molly were going to die. Organized Crime members usually attacked head on, no forewarning letters, always in person. And almost never was the family directly targeted. Wives and children were killed as a matter of course, but not as primary targets. "The letters threatened Bernard's family as well but in the end, he was killed, not his wife and children."
"You think it's a scare tactic? That you're actually in danger and not them?"
"Yes. And let's hope I'm right because aside from having a tail on Rachel, I've not had them protected as if they're targets."
"Rico, you have letters like this, too?"
The young man nodded, reaching into his pocket and extending his own version of the same letter. The target was his girlfriend Mary.
"Lacey, I can't think of anyone right away. That's why you came here, right? To see if it was an enemy you gained while here."
"You're free to go through my records, you built most of them anyway. If I can offer you people or a place to stay-"
"No," Lacey interrupted, shaking her head. "I was reluctant to come here. I'm not interested in being in the business again or owing you that much. I just want our families to be safe."
"You would owe me nothing, Lacey. My family is indebted to you beyond our means."
She remained silent, indicating she was still declining his offer of protection.
"The files and copy machine are at your disposal. Just use discretion, as I know you will."
Lacey nodded and left Vinnie's office through a back door which led to a large library. She'd been here countless times before. She knew that Vinnie trusted her not to expose anything she shouldn't or show records to anyone who could harm him. She valued that trust, had spent over half her life building it, so she wouldn't do anything to destroy it now.
Rachel was driving to the college campus to drop off her paper, Molly in tow, when she received a page from Lacey. It said simply "Meet me at office ASAP."
She hoped it was good news.
"Lacey?" Molly inquired, looking from the vinyl window of the Jeep to her mother.
"Yeah. As soon as we get rid of this paper, we're going to the office."
Her eyes lit up. "Is Rico there?"
"Maybe," Rachel laughed. Molly loved Lacey's young partner like an older brother. They bantered and fought like siblings as well. "He was at her morning meeting but I'm not sure if he was planning on hanging around."
They parked behind the small building and let themselves in the back door. It was a little office attached to a much larger complex and held spaces for Rico and Lacey with a large suite for developers. Everyone had been given the weeks before Christmas off as business had been slow and most of their developers were contracted out anyway.
Rico and Lacey were sprawled on the floor in the front office, files and papers scattered on the carpeting.
"Hurricane strike?" Rachel asked by way of introduction and got a good-natured grin in response. Molly bounced across the room to give Rico a huge hug.
"Hey there, Molly," he smiled. "How's life treating you?"
"Good. No complaints," she grinned. "I was hoping you were here. I have to talk to you."
The adults all exchanged curious looks, wondering what this was all about. They didn't have to wait long.
"Have you gotten past the Deku tree in Zelda? And gone to the castle?"
Lacey and Rachel laughed, the darker woman gaining her feet and ushering her lover across the room where they could speak in relative private.
"How did it go?"
"Vinnie couldn't think of anyone but he let us copy his business folders, prior transactions and such. We're going through them now but haven't really come up with anything. It'll take days just to sift through all this shit."
Rachel nodded, looking at the files laying around.
"Figured you two could join us for dinner and then we'll take all this back to the house to work on."
"Sounds like a plan," the young blonde agreed.
"Get your paper in okay?"
"Yup," Rachel grinned. "No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher's dirty looks."
"Until after Christmas, anyway," Lacey returned the grin. "Don't go writing your valedictorian speech yet, Raich."
"You really know how to bring a girl down," Rachel mock frowned but couldn't keep from laughing when Lacey leaned forward and nipped at her neck.
"But I can cheer you up later, can't I?" she growled playfully.
"Roger that," Rachel whispered, wrapping her lover in a strong embrace and guiding the dark woman's lips to her own. They shared a lingering kiss that spoke more of belonging than of passion. When they broke, they headed back across the room to Rico and Molly.
"No," Molly was insisting, seated cross-legged by Rico's side. "You have to get the chickens. There are six of them, I think. You put them in the pen."
"I can't find the last one," Rico said, shaking his head. "Do I need to save the chickens? Can't I just go up Death Mountain?"
She shook her head. "You get the flask from the chicken lady. You need to have that."
"So where's the last chicken?"
"There's a crate by one of the buildings. Link can roll into it and break it. Did you find that one?" Molly asked helpfully, rising to her feet when she saw her mother and her partner approach.
"No, I think I missed that one. I'll have to go back and look," Rico stood as well.
"I hate to interrupt Nintendo's Greatest Secrets Revealed, but I'm hungry," Rachel announced. The others agreed. "You can work out the finer points of chicken collecting over dinner."
They all joined in to gather the files and carry them out to Lacey's car. They settled them in the hatchback.
"I thought Jose's?" Lacey suggested.
"Sounds great," Rachel agreed and Rico nodded.
"Follow me, then."
The little caravan started up and was on its way.
Lacey and Rachel sat next to each other in the booth they'd acquired while Rico and Molly shared the other side.
"Mary couldn't join us?" Rachel asked, munching on the tortilla chips in the middle of the table. One taste of the salsa was enough for her to claim it too hot. Her partner, on the other hand, scooped the tangy mix into her mouth with abandon.
"She's with her mom tonight. They're doing some shopping together or something."
"You two doing okay?" Rachel probed gently and got a poke in the ribs for her question. "What? We're like his family. It's our job to be nosy."
Lacey smirked at her indignant partner. "For you it's a way of life, hon. Maybe equine journalism isn't what you should do. You should look into the gossip rags."
Rachel glared at her but there was no heat behind it. She turned her attention back to Rico and her expression immediately sweetened. "Anyway ..." she drawled.
"We're doing great," Rico said, watching their suspicious gazes. "Really. It's almost sick, actually. We don't argue over anything, we like to do the same things. We're having a lot of fun."
"That is sick," Lacey mutteringly concurred. "What's the fun in a relationship without a few good fights?"
Molly blanched slightly at the joking words and Lacey felt guilty immediately. She reached across the table and captured the young girl's hand. "I'm teasing, sweetie. Your mom and I don't fight much at all. Just that one time you saw. We're all going to be together for a long time to come, I promise."
Rachel knew there was more unsaid behind the words. Lacey was also vowing to protect them from this unknown enemy. She reached under the table to pat her lover's thigh. "So," she decided it was time to lighten the mood. "Does Mary play this Zelda game, too?"
"Oh yeah," Rico grinned. "But she's not as good at it as Molly and me." With this he turned his attention back to the child at his side. "It took me forever to get into the castle because of those guards. I couldn't tell which way they were facing to sneak behind them."
Molly nodded. "I had the same problem on the television upstairs so Lacey moved it to the big screen. Then I could see what they were doing. But Lacey thinks it has more to do with how far you are from them and not which way they're looking."
"Yeah," Lacey agreed. "You need a big screen, Rico. And run it through stereo. Makes all the difference. I was getting tired of talking to all the people in the market place so Molly showed me where to go so I only had to talk to the people that trigger game changes."
Rachel stared open mouthed at her partner who turned and grinned at her.
"Close your mouth, Raich."
"You play the game too? I thought you were working on your laptop when you were both in that room."
"Heh," Lacey grinned. "It started out that way ... but that game is addictive. You should try it."
"Yeah, Mama," Molly piped up, eager to get her mother involved in their little Nintendo circle. "There's space for one more player on the game."
"Yeah, Mama," Lacey teased. "I think it's a great idea."
"Kids today," Rachel murmured, leaning back so the waitress could set down her plate of chicken enchiladas cautioning, as always, that it was hot.
Rico and Lacey followed the familiar white Wrangler in the dark woman's little Mazda. Rico was, happily, behind the wheel. It was about a twenty minute drive back to the house and they passed the first part in comfortable silence.
Their peacefulness was disturbed when they watched Rachel go through a green light ahead of them and a car come barreling at the Wrangler's side.
"Lace!" Rico yelled, leaning forward, urging the little car to somehow catch up and prevent the horror in front of them.
"Fuck!" Lacey growled, also leaning her tall frame forward. She was in a front row seat to watch a horrible collision involving her family. The car entering the intersection was a sleek dark sedan, details undetectable in the night.
Rachel saw the headlights out of the corner of her eyes, engrossed as she was in Molly's summarizing of a recent story she'd read. The headlights, she realized after a moment's consideration, were not stopping at the oncoming traffic's red light.
"Shit!" she cried out and slammed on the accelerator, knowing she was going to get clipped in the tail end and knowing that the speed of the oncoming vehicle as well as the Wrangler's could result in an ugly collision that would send the Jeep into an uncontrollable pirouette. So she decided to control the spin instead, applying the brakes and taking a hard right which twisted the backside of the Jeep around, bouncing the tires along the pavement and colliding with the curb on the far side. When the wheels rolled to a dead stop, she was facing oncoming traffic and aside from being jostled, everything was okay. She stalled the Wrangler out when she lifted her feet off the pedals, giving it one last lurch into silence. She stepped down on the parking brake.
"Molly?" Rachel asked immediately, reaching across the narrow interior to lay her hands on her daughter.
"M'okay, Mama," she muttered, eyes wide, hands shaking.
Both the passenger and driver's side doors were yanked open and concerned faces peered in. Rachel undid her seatbelt and collapsed into Lacey's arms.
"Thank God," the dark woman murmured, clutching the trembling woman to her, feeling their racing heartbeats compete for tempo. "You were brilliant, baby," she whispered, smoothing her hair. "C'mon out of there."
Rachel accepted her partner's help to climb down from the Jeep and stand on rubbery legs. She leaned into the taller woman's arms and found strength and safety in the embrace. She could feel Lacey trembling as well.
"It's okay, Lace," Rachel assured her. "We're okay, just shaken up."
Lacey nodded numbly, pressing her lips into Rachel's soft hair. "You were great, the way you avoided him."
"Couldn't think of anything else to do," the blonde murmured, feeling her heartbeat slow and her legs become steadier.
"Did just the right thing," the dark-haired woman assured her. "I love you."
Rico was pulling Molly out of the Jeep on the other side and leading the equally shaken girl around to be with the women. Lacey disentangled from Rachel and picked the child up to hold her close.
"We need to get out of the middle of the road," Rachel observed quietly, turning to see that Rico had parked the sports car nose to nose with the Wrangler. She stood close to her lover and her daughter, one hand on each of them, needing that solidarity. A few other people had stopped and were cautiously making their way to the small group.
"Fuck them," Lacey growled. "They can wait a minute."
"They have other lanes to use," Rico supplied a little more helpfully. It was true, their vehicles were parked in the far right lane, leaving two open for westbound traffic.
"Hey," the first man approached a little timidly, taking in the tall dark woman fiercely holding a child and the other smaller woman standing unsteadily at her side. Rico leaned quietly against the Jeep, always right on the outskirts, ready to provide support whenever the two women needed it. Rachel looked pale and shaken still. "I saw everything. I don't know, but I think that guy was aiming for you, even when you spun out."
Rachel looked over to meet her lover's eyes. Lacey nodded solemnly.
"Are you okay?" The man continued. "I can call the police ... or the paramedics. Did anyone hit their head?"
"No," Rachel sighed. "We're okay. Just really shaken up. Did you hit anything, Molly?" her tone softened when addressing her child. She couldn't hear the muffled response.
"She said no," Lacey replied. "She's just scared."
Rico turned to the man offering help, taking in him and the quiet woman at his side in one gaze. "Did you get the license plate number or anything?"
"No," he looked away with evident shame. "I'm sorry. It all happened so fast. I've never seen anything like it. If he'd hit you going that speed ..." he let his voice trail off when he caught the taller woman's warning gaze.
"I got it," said the smaller woman beside him and he turned to her in surprise. She shrugged. "I looked. I thought he was going to clip her and just keep going." She held out a piece of paper. "Our name and number are on there too if you need witnesses for anything. He wanted to hit you."
Rachel nodded glumly as Rico took the offered paper with much gratitude.
The other cars that had stopped were beginning to merge back into traffic again as it looked like everything was under control. The man and woman retreated to their own vehicle after accepting a lot of heartfelt thanks from the small entourage.
Lacey set the little girl down, steadying her. "Go see your Mama for a minute, Molly-girl." She stepped over to Rico to claim the paper, already dialing her cell phone. Molly obligingly went into her mother's welcoming embrace and wrapped small arms around the woman's waist.
"Robbie, put me through to Vinnie right now. I don't care ... right now or I'll come over there myself and shove the telephone down your fucking throat." Silence as she looked to Rico and shrugged, offering him a smirk.
"Some people never lose that charming touch," he murmured teasingly.
"Vinnie ... sorry about interrupting dinner. I need your current DMV contact ... someone just tried to run into Rachel, I have the plate. Sure ... thanks ..." she read the plate number into the phone. Evidently Vinnie had agreed to handle it himself. "Call me on my cell when you find something. Same number." She tucked the phone away and nodded her head towards the little red car. "Follow us. I'm gonna drive them."
Rico nodded and returned to the driver's seat to watch Lacey pile her family back into the Jeep and slide behind the wheel. She backed it up and then waited for traffic to clear before performing a tight U-turn and starting on their way again.
The ride was pretty silent, there really not being much to say. When Lacey wasn't shifting, she rested her right hand on Rachel's thigh where the younger woman clutched the long strong fingers.
They were already settled in the house, files tossed across the living room floor where Lacey and Rachel had camped out when the cell phone rang.
"Great. Yeah, thanks," the dark woman was scribbling on a piece of paper in her hands. Rachel listened halfheartedly to her while the rest of her attention was centered on the voices coming from the television room where Rico and Molly were playing Mario Kart. "They're okay. No injuries. Okay ... bye."
Rachel turned to her partner, waiting for her to volunteer information. Sometimes that could amount to a pretty long wait but tonight was not such a case.
"Stolen plates. They belong to a red Ford Expedition."
"Ah," Rachel nodded, knowing the vehicle that had been aimed at her didn't come close to fitting that description.
"He gave me the information on the Expedition but I think it's a dead end."
The young blonde nodded again, watching her partner with misty green eyes.
Lacey couldn't take it anymore, she set aside paper and phone and crawled across the littering of files to gather the smaller woman in her arms. Rachel went gratefully into the embrace.
"You're not leaving my sight until we figure this out."
"I was in your sight," Rachel pointed out softly, snuggling deeper into the protective arms. She could hear her partner swallow.
"I wouldn't have survived watching that," Lacey admitted hoarsely, rocking the small body slightly. "I don't think ... I've done a lot of things in my life, seen a lot of horrible stuff ... but that would have killed me."
Rachel remained silent, knowing there were no words to express what she was feeling: a mixture of relief, fear, gratitude, and love. Lacey's emotions ran the same gambit and left the normally stoic woman choked up.
"I knew it was going to be dangerous for us to try to lead a normal life. I just didn't expect this. It's been almost a year since I left that scene. Why now?"
"Do they think your guard is down?"
"Maybe it is," the dark woman responded softly. "Two years ago I never would have let someone get that close. I'm getting soft."
"Love," Rachel said gently. "Two years ago you never would have let me get this close. Things change. You've changed. There's nothing wrong with that."
"Yes, there is," Lacey growled. "I could have lost you both tonight."
"I think, Lace, that if you hadn't changed enough to let us into your life, we wouldn't have been here to lose."
The taller woman considered those words for a very long time. Rachel was right, of course. She had chosen Rachel and Molly over the darkness of her previous life and it had been, in all reality, a startlingly easy choice to make. She'd never once regretted it. "It's better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all," Lacey whispered huskily, her breath tickling the small woman's neck as she held her tightly. She knew the statement was true for her. She knew that this time with Rachel and her daughter had enriched her life beyond understanding but was the improved quality of her life worth risking theirs? "Do you think that's true? That even though your lives are risked by being with me, it's worth it?" Lacey asked her lover softly.
"Worth every minute, Lace," Rachel assured her, smoothing taut back muscles with small warm hands. "I never thought I deserved the happiness you've shown me. If I died tomorrow, I would die happy."
"Don't say that," Lacey growled softly. "Not tomorrow or the next day. Or next month. I want you forever." It was a startling admission not because it was unbelievable but because it had always gone unspoken. Everything they had said and done implied a commitment together. Every moment since they'd first met had seemed to lead into a shared life whether it be destiny or good fortune that brought them together that icy morning in January nearly a year ago.
"Forever's a long time," Rachel teased gently. "Can you stand me that long?" She felt the body against hers move with a soundless chuckle.
"That long and more. You can't shake me that easily."
Rachel absorbed the warmth of the body and the words. Lacey was a complex character. Her emotions swung strongly one direction to another with very little warning. Not even a week ago she'd been sullen and withdrawn, pushing Rachel away with angry voice and hurtful words. Now she was declaring a lasting love and a lifelong commitment. Rachel knew the first had been a defense mechanism. Lacey had been confused and shaken, she'd wanted to protect her lover and the small girl and thought removing them from her presence would do that. Her lashing out had been a combination of emotional overload, something the dark woman rarely dealt with, and downright fear, an even more alien feeling.
The words she spoke now were honest blatant truth. She realized the danger, realized the pressure she now carried to protect them both, but gladly paid the price to continue the lives they'd begun sharing. No more pushing away.
"I wouldn't want to," Rachel said at last, the words seeming a nonsequitor after so much silence. Lacey understood, kissed Rachel's fair head.
"I'm not sure I can do this work tonight. I can't stop holding you," she murmured.
"Then let's not. The alarm is on, we're all safe. Let's go watch them play."
Lacey agreed readily, standing and bringing the smaller woman up with her. They straightened the mess of folders and set them up on an end table to prevent Karma from flying through them at top speed and scattering them worse. Then they went into the television room to claim the couch behind the two players and snuggle into each other's warmth.
Rachel absently stroked Molly's hair where it fanned out on the couch cushion, the small girl's back leaning against the leather furniture while sitting on the floor. Molly glanced up at them and offered them a smile. She still appeared a little shaken but the women presumed she didn't understand the danger enough to be as frightened as she should be.
Lacey sighed, buried her face in fragrant blonde hair. How was she going to get them out of this one?
"Lace," Rachel whispered hoarsely, arching into the other woman while also pushing away.
Lacey grinned at the mixed signals, wiggling long fingers where they rested deep inside of her lover. "Hmm?"
Lacey's sexual appetite was directly proportional to her need to feel emotions. Where words failed her, she showed with her actions, ravishing the small woman's body over and over again. She was insatiable in her cravings to feel her partner, taste her, smell her. She wanted to hear the moans that let her know the young woman was alive and well, that they'd survived another day.
She'd denied her younger lover's roving fingers and seeking lips, finding pleasure only in bringing release to Rachel.
"No more," Rachel whispered wearily, burning from repeated internal friction, bruised on the tender skin over her pelvic bone.
"More," Lacey growled, withdrawing her fingers but settling her long frame over her lover and separating her legs with a still-slick thigh. She pressed it solidly against the smaller woman's center. Rachel groaned with pleasure.
"Lace," she complained softly, running her fingers through the tangled dark hair.
"I can't get enough of you," Lacey admitted softly, licking and nibbling her way along the blonde's jawline. One hand caressed a tender nipple, the other stroked Rachel's cheek, bringing with it the scent of her own arousal.
"Sore," the blonde woman gasped out, even as her hips tilted into the warm iron muscle of her lover's thigh. She was reduced to single word sentences in the heated passion.
"I'll be gentle," Lacey promised, knowing she'd been pretty rough earlier in her need to satisfy the smaller woman. She slid down her lover's body to replace thigh with mouth and delicately licked at the swollen lips. Rachel moaned, clutched at the sheets. Any protests died with the building of another orgasm. Using only lips and tongue on the burning flesh, Lacey pushed her to the edge again.
Rachel lay panting, tired.
"Again," the dark woman whispered.
Rachel only whimpered.
"One more," Lacey vowed, all of her previous fervor replaced with complete tenderness. She savored this one, tasting the sweet saltiness on her tongue, smelling the familiar tang of her lover's pleasure. She let this one last, being ever so gentle on the already sore flesh. It took only moments for Rachel to respond, raising her hips slightly to the invading tongue, dropping her knees wider.
"I love you," Lacey hummed on the bundle of nerves beneath her lips. "I will always love you."
Beyond words, Rachel simply reached down to stroke the dark wet hair, smoothing it with trembling fingers.
Lacey continued her gentle assault and whispered endearments. She had to consciously keep herself from using fingers and teeth on this last sweet climb, knowing it would be painful for her lover at this point.
Slowly, Rachel's hips gained more momentum, rising off the bed to meet the dark woman's seeking tongue, feeling only twinges of pain behind the much larger mountain of pleasure. Her eyes were closed to the silver moonlight, leaving her features trusting and vulnerable to Lacey's searching gaze.
The darker woman watched her lover's brow wrinkle in concentration, knew she was on the edge, her breathing irregular, her hips more frantic. She very willingly pushed her over with one final gentle suck. Rachel groaned her release, her hips jerking in the aftermath, her face relaxing finally into peace.
"No more," she murmured, reaching for Lacey's shoulders to tug her up. "Hold me."
Keeping her promise, the dark woman left her sweet haven and crawled up the smaller woman past the familiar abdominal scars and pink swollen nipples. She took the slight frame into her arms and rolled both of them to their sides. "Always," she whispered, placing honey scented kisses along cheeks and forehead.
Weary as she was, Rachel wasn't one to endorse single-sided lovemaking. With a slight smirk, pale eyelids still closed, she slid a slim thigh in between her lover's.
Lacey smiled. "You're too tired."
"Unh unh," she whispered back. "Give me this."
It was an easy request that she knew wouldn't be denied. The dark woman was nearly dripping with arousal, having orgasmed several times simply from riding out her lover's climaxes. It took no more than heated kisses, tender hands, and firm thrusts of hips and thigh to bring her to release again.
"I love you, too," Rachel murmured into the dark woman's sweaty neck. She licked the saltiness there, the contact sending another jolt through Lacey. The young blonde smiled, snuggling closer to her long lover's form and easing gently into much deserved sleep.
Lacey only made it halfway through the night before nightmare images of car crashes and bloody limp bodies awakened her. The rest of the night was spent in silent vigil, holding her partner's naked, well-loved body as tightly as she dared.
Saturday morning always started early in this house. Even Rico, who'd slept on the sofabed in the television room, fell easily into the routine. The only difference this morning was the hawk-like blue eyes that kept track of every move the others made.
Rico and Molly watched morning cartoons in between completing the little girl's chores which included vacuuming the downstairs and cleaning the guest bathroom. It went a lot quicker with Rico's assistance and each was quickly seated back in front of the television as Rachel tidied the kitchen and Lacey prepared Molly's favorite breakfast of blueberry crepes.
The two women had spent the better part of an hour cleaning themselves and the bedroom of the smells of their lovemaking. The chore had been interrupted by occasional breaks for lingering kisses. Lacey had to admit a small surge of guilt when she watched her young lover sit gingerly at the kitchen table to whip cream for the crepes. But it didn't diminish the peace she felt this morning compared to the frustration and helplessness of last night. Even after not sleeping half the night, their consummated love had settled her nerves.
After breakfast and clearing the table, Lacey even followed Rachel and Molly to the barn for their morning ride. Rico tagged behind Lacey mostly because he had nothing better to do.
The two watched silently from the side of the small corral, leaning on plastic white rails. It was cold enough they could easily see their breaths, making it uncomfortable at best to stand still and watch the action inside the ring. Molly grew increasingly frustrated at the way the reins slid through her gloved hands.
"Molly," Rachel called, annoyance in her voice. "Those gloves have grips on them. Just hold the reins tighter. He's getting away with too much."
It was true. The gentle Morgan gelding had an inquisitive nature that far outweighed his years of schooling. He'd learned quickly that Molly wasn't keeping a good hand on the reins and he'd jerk his head up, freeing him of the annoying restriction and allowing him to trot over to Rico and Lacey.
Rico raised his hand when the gelding approached but Lacey stopped him. "Don't pet him. It's a reward for an improper response," she quoted, having obviously been told that before.
"Can we put the martingale on him? He's tossing his head," Molly requested, gathering her reins again and nudging him back along the rail.
"No martingale," Rachel shook her head, stomping her feet to keep warm. "He's tossing his head because you aren't holding him right. You can do this, no aids."
Molly grumbled something as she trotted back by Rico and Lacey, giving the gelding an extra prod to go by the people. Neither heard what she might have said.
It went from bad to worse. Jester was repeatedly taking advantage of the little girl, Molly was growing more and more frustrated, and within twenty minutes she was jerking on the Morgan's mouth and he was stomping and shaking his head angrily.
"Off," Rachel said at last, walking up to child and horse. She captured the reins.
Molly stared at her, making no move to dismount. "I'm sorry, I'll do better. I know I'm pulling on him too much."
Rachel hated to see a horse's mouth abused and her daughter was quickly approaching that. "You're doing fine, sweetie. Just go stand by Lacey and calm down a little. Jester and I are going to have a little chat."
Molly did as she was told and Lacey wrapped the little girl up in her leather trench coat, leaning over to blow hot breath on her cheeks. "Dumb horse," she said, poking Molly in the ribs.
The little girl laughed. "Dumb horse," she agreed, but she was smiling.
They watched Rachel adjust her stirrups and gather the reins to mount. She looked over to Lacey and grimaced at the pain she knew was coming and Lacey actually did a decent job of appearing apologetic.
The small woman gathered the four reins Jester wore, situating the snaffle's by her pinkies and the curb inside further. He danced the entire time, tossing his head and jingling the two bits in his mouth together.
"Doesn't that hurt, stupid?" Rachel muttered, ignoring the painful bouncing. She withdrew a riding crop from its place in her boot and popped him on the shoulder. "Stand still, butthead."
Jester stopped immediately, realizing the game was over. He planted his feet solidly and stretched out to stand in a Morgan park. "Thank you," Rachel grimaced, straightening her reins again before urging him into a walk.
"How many reins does she have?" Rico asked, tilting his head to watch Rachel, squinting to better see her. He'd seen Jester in the barn before but had never been here when he was ridden.
"Four," Molly said. "Two bits. He's a Park Morgan ... but I ride him Saddleseat. Mama said he should come down enough to go to some schooling shows in the spring."
It meant nothing to Rico and his expression said just that. Lacey tried to help since she'd been through the same crash course training.
"It's a style of English riding. The stirrups are longer, the front flaps of the saddle are straight," she gestured with one hand to illustrate her point. "The horses are flashier, higher stepping. The other English you're used to is hunt seat, that's what you see at the Olympics. Those horses are supposed to be quiet and calm, their style more appropriate for long rides after fox or something. This style is showier, these horses are supposed to appear barely contained."
"He looks barely controllable," Rico agreed.
"He's not," Molly assured him. "He gets a little full of himself but he's easy to handle. It's mostly an act."
"Why two bits. Isn't that hard on him?"
Molly shrugged. "It's not hard on him if they're handled correctly. You're supposed to use the snaffle for most things and a curb as a back up. The snaffle's a pretty gentle bit."
"My little walking trivia book," Lacey cooed, bending down to kiss the little
girl's head. Molly elbowed the tall woman's hip.
Rico laughed. "So you're going to show him in the spring?"
"Maybe. If I can handle him."
Meanwhile, Rachel had put Jester through his paces. It took only one more pop to the shoulder to convince the gelding that he wasn't getting away with his antics anymore. Now he was all business, head high but nose tucked, knees reaching up in front of his chest. She stopped him in the middle of the arena seemingly without moving body or hands and he parked out again, back feet stretched behind him. Rachel hopped off and signaled to her daughter.
"You're up again. No gloves this time," she took the hand warmers and stuffed them in her pockets before giving the girl a leg up.
"Can I have the crop?"
"See how he does first. I think he's done sight seeing."
He was. He responded more easily to her now and her hands quieted as the frustration left her. He had the same general look of contained spirit but it was obvious that the little girl had no trouble controlling him.
Finally, after Lacey and Rico thought their arms may just freeze and drop off, Rachel called horse and rider into the center of the ring.
"Great job, Molly. You looked really good. We can get some rides in during the week now, too, since you're off for break."
She slid down, grinning at her mother's praise. "Do you think we'll be ready for any shows? Maybe Rico and Mary would come watch."
"I think you will be. He's a nice a horse, Molly. You just need to learn how to react to him when he's doing poorly. Horses are just like people: they have good days and bad days."
Molly nodded, walking beside her mother towards the gate and then the barn. The three adults sat on hay bales there while the girl untacked her mount and brushed him down.
"You gonna ride Sunny?" Lacey inquired innocently and Rachel cast her a dirty look.
"You are such a smart ass."
Lacey laughed, Rico looked at them with confusion.
"I don't think I'll be riding anymore today, thank you. That was more than enough for me."
"I don't get you two half the time," Rico shook his head and went over to help Molly with the finishing touches.
Lacey watched his departure with a grin.
"You're too proud of yourself," Rachel pointed out.
The dark woman turned to meet her gaze, piercing her with suddenly serious blue eyes. "I do feel a teensy bit bad if that helps."
"A teensy bit?"
"Yeah. I feel too good to feel really bad."
Rachel smiled and leaned in to kiss her partner's cheek. "I guess I'll have to settle for teensy, then. What are your plans for this afternoon?"
"We are all staying put while Rico and I look through all those files."
"Not much of a plan," Rachel observed.
"Not for you, anyway. Maybe you can learn how to play Zelda. I bet my Link will kick your Link's butt," Lacey teased as she got up to join Molly and Rico who were now ready to leave the barn.
"You are so competitive, Lace," Rachel shook her head as she stepped into stride beside them.
"But you love me anyway?" the dark woman wrapped an arm around her partner's shoulders to hold her closer.
Rachel sighed as if she were greatly put out by such an admission. "But I love you anyway, ya old crony."
Lacey and Rico spent all afternoon flipping through the files they'd gotten from Vinnie. On the first time through, they ditched over half of them based on either personal knowledge of the subjects or on information within the file itself. On the second pass through they made a few phone calls, did a few internet checks and were able to bring the possible list down to five.
It was nearly dinnertime when Rico retrieved Rachel from Molly's bedroom where they'd been working on some flashcards.
"Lacey has some stuff for you to look at," he said softly, not wanting to interrupt their work but knowing what Lacey needed was important as well.
"Thanks," she held the cards out to Rico. "Do you mind?"
"Did you get a hold of Mary?"
"Yeah. She's gonna come for dinner and then I'll leave with her."
Rachel nodded as she made her escape, traveling the hallway that wrapped around and looked down into the lower living room and heading towards the office at the far end. She knocked gently on the doorframe.
Lacey looked up, smiled warmly at seeing her. "C'mon in, Raich. I want you to look at these."
Rachel went around the desk to stand beside her lover who pushed her chair out and stood, giving the seat to the young blonde. She took it, looking at the photographs in front of her. There were dozens of them.
"These five here," she tapped the ones on top of each pile, "are the most likely candidates, I think. Below them are pictures of their best known cronies," she grinned at using Rachel's word. "I want you to take a really close look and let me know if you've seen any of them, maybe in your classes or on campus."
"Vinnie let you take his pictures?" Rachel looked up and Lacey shook her head. Didn't she understand the severity of the situation? She was worried about pictures?
"Yeah. Please take a look. I'll give you some time ... I want you to really study them, gorgeous."
"Okay," she nodded, already starting to flip through the first stack.
"I'll be downstairs," Lacey said before slipping out of the room and going down the front stairwell into the living room. She decided she might as well make herself useful and start dinner.
Either Rachel had decided to take studying the pictures seriously or she'd fallen asleep, Lacey mused as she put dinner on the table with Molly's help. Rico and the girl had come downstairs when Mary showed up.
Mary was a petite woman, barely Rico's age, with long brown hair and brown eyes. She was painfully quiet and incredibly shy around Lacey. Though she'd not known of Rico's occupation until he was no longer family, she'd spent plenty of time with Rico, George, and Bernard afterwards to get a clear picture of what he had done.
No less than ninety percent of their tales involved a retelling of something amazing Lacey had done. They never shied away from her darkness in their stories, rather they seemed to embrace it as they did her, accepting it fully as part of the woman. They all held a sort of hero worship for the tall dark beauty and spoke easily of her feral nature and trigger quick thinking.
Mary had gone through the jealous girlfriend routine right at the beginning. Rico loved the woman, that much was clear, but it had taken her awhile to realize that he loved her like a big sister and a mentor. Besides, the first time she'd seen Lacey and Rachel in a room together, she knew jealousy was a stupid emotion. It was quite clear that the tall dark woman was completely and obliviously taken. The entire world could hit on her and she'd never notice them while she was watching the small blonde woman she was committed to.
Once Mary had moved past the jealousy issue, she'd simply been in awe over this woman. She realized that the laurels the team placed on Lacey were well earned and easily deserved. She was a woman with confidence and tightly held emotions. She walked into a room and took it over on presence alone and was incredibly, undoubtedly, intimidating. So even though Rico bantered easily with the dark woman and she'd seen the others do the same, Mary was still too intimidated to do much more than sit silently in Lacey's presence. What surprised her the most, though, was Molly's abandon with the other woman. It was that open emotion which would some day lead Mary to be more comfortable with her boyfriend's mentor.
They were sitting down at the dining room table, the group being too big for the small kitchen table, when Rachel leaned over the balcony in the living room.
"Hey, Lace!" she called.
Her summons was delivered into the kitchen and the dark woman came out.
"Got somethin' to show you," Rachel said softly and Lacey set down the drink she'd been carrying before climbing the spiral staircase and following her lover back to the office.
There were two pictures sitting on the desk and Lacey picked up both of them.
"First I went through and looked at everyone in the pictures and I didn't see anything. So I went back through them and started looking at the whole picture," she said, hands on hips, obviously quite proud of herself.
Lacey looked at the pictures and then at the young blonde. The photos she held were of two different people from two different files. "Ya lost me."
Rachel sighed. "The whole picture, Lace."
The dark-haired woman looked back at the photographs again. She noticed that each one had the same man in the background. She nodded. "Good job," she praised, leaning forward to hug the smaller woman. "Where do you know him from?"
"He ... uh ... hit on me on campus."
"He what?" Lacey narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips.
"I saw him a bunch of times at the cafeteria by the student union. He asked me out once or twice, I declined."
"Once or twice?"
"Maybe three times," Rachel admitted sheepishly. "Doesn't matter ... I declined."
Lacey was more caught up in feeling jealous than in the true implications. She hadn't really thought of losing Rachel to someone else before. She'd thought a dozen times at least about losing her young lover to her own dark past and violent streak but never had it crossed her mind that she needed to worry about outside influence.
"Lace," Rachel prodded gently, rubbing the taller woman's stomach. "No big deal, right? He asked me out, I said no."
"Didja want to say yes?" she asked softly.
The young blonde's brow crinkled in confusion. "Hello? Crony? I love you, I live with you, you're the one who ravishes me at night," she grinned gently. "Why would I have wanted to say yes to someone else?" She'd never suspected this insecure part of her lover. "Always you."
"Not even for a sec-"
"Lacey!" Rachel growled her interruption, shaking the other woman by the shoulders. "Are you not listening to me?"
"Sorry ... sorry," Lacey sighed. "I just ... never really thought of you leaving me for someone else."
"That's because I wouldn't," Rachel pointed out helpfully.
"And the thought of someone else wanting to be with you and you maybe wanting to be with someone else ... just got my mind spinning."
"Okay, well kick it out of the rut it's in because I only want to be with you. All right?"
Rachel was still confused. Gone was the brash confident woman who commanded every room. "Tell me who this guy is? If he works for these people then he wasn't really interested in me anyway, right?"
"I don't know who he is. Obviously your tail didn't recognize him as a threat. We'll have to run some searches. I'm assuming he's a freelance if he was seen with both groups. That makes this harder. Do you still see him?"
"Not that I remember. But I haven't been around the student union for a few days and now I won't be back until the new semester starts," Rachel still watched her partner carefully even though she seemed to be sliding back into a comfortable rhythm. "I have a tail?" she asked, registering the comment belatedly.
Lacey grinned sheepishly and nodded. "Yeah. On campus. Some guy I hired to keep an eye on you once the threats started coming."
Rachel was on the verge of bristling, partially angry that she had a babysitter, partially touched that her lover had been so concerned. She let the latter part win out, knowing the argument about the former concern would have been far from productive. "Why am I always the last to know?" she murmured instead, letting her anger simmer down and keeping it from her voice.
The dark woman shrugged. "I didn't want to worry you. I thought I could handle everything without telling you the details. Plus, you would have found the guy and struck up a conversation with him," she teased gently.
Despite herself, the blonde woman grinned at the comment, knowing it was probably true. She did want to discuss the entire withholding secrets subject that recently appeared to be a recurring theme but understood her partner's side of it too well to take a strong stand herself. So she let it slide. "Is that why you take Molly to school?"
"That's thoughtful," Rachel observed.
Lacey raised a dark eyebrow, her ice blue eyes questioning. "I'm not going to be read the riot act for this?"
"Mmm ," the smaller woman grinned. "I thought about it but realized it wouldn't get us anywhere. I know that you did what you did because you love us. That's enough."
"Wow," Lacey mused. "That's a pretty mature approach, Raich."
"Yes, but I reserve the right to argue this point later when I need a good fight."
The dark-haired woman inclined her head, smiling. "You got it."
They continued to look into each other's eyes for another moment before Lacey dropped her gaze back to the pictures in her hand. "You're sure it's him?"
"Good," she tossed the photos back on the desk and slung her arm around Rachel's shoulders. "Let's go have some dinner before it's all gone."
Rachel wrapped one arm around her lover's waist and slapped the taut abdomen with her other hand, "You're not really worried about that guy talking to me, are you, Lacey? Surely you know that I plan to be here for a very long time."
"I know," the darker woman whispered, turning to place a kiss on Rachel's forehead. "I ... always thought that if we weren't together it would be because of something I did or said. Or because my past was too dark for you or you couldn't handle my anger. I never thought about having to worry about other people, too. Silly ... I mean, you're beautiful and smart and gentle. Of course other people are going to be attracted to you, too."
"Baby, please don't worry about things like that," Rachel requested sincerely. "The only way I'll leave here is kicking and screaming, being dragged out bodily."
"Promise?" Lacey managed a grin, knowing it was ridiculous to be concerned about such a thing. It was really the shock of realization that was slowing her down.
"Promise. Besides, how do you think I feel? Every time we walk into a room, the whole damn place drools when they see you. You're about as eligible as they come and I know there are much better catches out there than me."
"I'm incredibly ineligible, Raich, because I'm absolutely taken. And there is no better 'catch' as you say, than you. So enough of this bullshit insecurity. Let's eat."
"I'm starving," the blonde agreed.
"You always are," her lover teased gently, squeezing her shoulders one last time before releasing her and giving her room to head down the stairs.
Rico and Mary left shortly after dinner. Lacey had shown him the pictures but the man Rachel had seen wasn't familiar to him either. Lacey hadn't expected Rico would know him since the shaggy blonde hadn't been in the business nearly as long as she had but it was worth a try. She went upstairs to the office for some more searching and phone calls while Rachel finished cleaning up the kitchen.
Once she was satisfied with the level of cleanliness, Rachel left the room and started looking for Molly. The little girl was sitting at the foot of the Christmas tree in the living room.
Molly had wanted a real tree but Lacey and Rachel both decided an artificial would be better for cleanliness and because something about chopping down millions of trees each year just to sit in people's living rooms had always rubbed Rachel the wrong way. So they'd gone out and found a nice fake one and put it up the weekend after Thanksgiving. Lacey had never had any reason to care about the holidays and aside from some casual gift giving with her team, she'd really not participated in anything festive as far back as she could remember. She was incredibly unprepared for sharing the holidays with a nine year old.
They'd bought ornaments and light strands, a star for the top. They'd found a tree skirt and stockings. Molly had even goaded the dark woman into decorating the front of the house and the trees and bushes there. Nearly every room held something of holiday flavor from flower arrangements to stuffed reindeer and it all changed the atmosphere of the home dramatically. Lacey'd found rather quickly that Christmas could be a lot of fun if you spent it with the right people. She and Rachel had been forced to have long discussions about spending limits and what Molly did or did not need. They'd finally reached a mutual agreement though Rachel still feared her daughter would be overwhelmed come Christmas morning. Molly had been raised to this point in a foster home with other children and a single adult. Though Rachel had done her best to provide gifts, money had always been tight and the gifts were never huge or expensive. Lacey didn't have those limitations and her extravagance showed.
Now Molly sat silently in front of the tree, the flashing lights reflecting on the golden hues of her hair. She was sorting presents.
"No fair shaking them," Rachel teased gently, sliding to the carpet next to her daughter.
Molly looked at her and Rachel immediately knew that there were other things churning behind those pale eyes.
"What's up, baby?" the blonde woman asked gently, reaching out a hand to rub her daughter's jean clad knee.
By way of response she held a present up to her mother. Rachel read the tag "To: Bernard From: Molly."
"It's hard, isn't it?" Rachel asked sympathetically.
"He's never coming back, is he?"
"I've never known anybody who died before," Molly said softly, crawling into her mother's lap to be held there by secure arms.
"Doesn't matter. Every time is hard, it always hurts."
"Are you and Lacey going to die?" her voice was murmured into her mother's chest.
"Some day. Everyone has to die. But we plan on being with you for many many years."
"But you can't promise that," she stated softly.
"No, baby. We can't promise that because we don't know."
"Would I go back to Aunt Helen?"
Rachel took a deep breath, she'd never really planned on having this conversation with Molly but she needed to be honest with her. "Well, I hadn't thought about it. I figured if something happened to me, you'd stay with Lacey. Would you rather go back to Aunt Helen? She loves you very much, too."
"I'd like to live with Lacey. Would she keep me?"
Rachel almost laughed at the oddity of the question. The way she said it sounded like she was some stray Lacey might take in out of the goodness of her heart. Well, maybe that wasn't so far from the truth. "Of course she would. You'd have to help her out though because I think she would really miss me and be very sad."
"We could help each other."
"Yeah," she kissed her daughter's head.
"What if something happened to both of you?"
"Do you really want to talk about these things Molly? It's very sad to think about them."
"I do. It's not sad because you're right here," Molly said reasonably. Death and loneliness seemed very far away when she was tucked into her mother's lap like this.
"Probably Aunt Helen, then. We'd have to ask her permission to do that."
"Will you ask her when she comes for Christmas?"
"Sure. But, honey, if she doesn't want the responsibility it's not because she doesn't love you. She's older than we are and it's a lot of work raising a little girl. She may think you'd be better off with someone else."
Molly nodded, apparently not bothered by the thought. "Not gonna happen anyway," she decided stubbornly.
"No, not likely," Rachel agreed, rocking their bodies on the soft cream carpet.
They were silent for a long time. "Was it hard coming here, Molly? Moving into this house and leaving Aunt Helen and your friends?"
"I was a little scared at first. I didn't know if it would be for real. I'd had dreams about being with you and Lacey and having a family that was mine and not someone else's. Then I worried that I would mess it up. A lot of the kids who came to Aunt Helen's ended up there because other foster families didn't work out. I wondered what that meant. Do you know?" She twisted in her mother's lap to peer up at green eyes.
"Mmmm ... it can mean a lot of things I suppose. Maybe that the children needed more attention than the other family could give. Maybe the school they went to with the other family didn't meet the child's needs."
"Do you think it could be because the children were bad?"
"It could mean that. Were they bad when they came to live with you and Aunt Helen?"
"Sometimes," Molly said softly. "Sometimes they were loud and mean and yelled at Aunt Helen. But you know what she did?"
"She'd hold them like this," she indicated how she was sitting, "and let them scream all they wanted while she hugged them. They'd tell her they hated her and she just hugged them and said she loved them. Sometimes they even hit or bit her but she never got angry."
"Your Aunt Helen is a very amazing woman, Molly. That's why I left you with her. I knew she would take good care of you until I could again."
"I'm glad you came back."
"I always came back, baby." It was true. Once she'd been released from prison, Rachel had always visited regularly and brought Molly here for visits. She'd never once entertained the idea of leaving Molly for good.
There was lingering silence as they watched the Christmas lights chase each other around the tree.
"You know what's the very worst part?" Molly whispered softly, tears in her voice.
"This is the happiest Christmas of my whole life ... and ... I shouldn't be happy because Bernard is gone. And Brian and Tracey are lonely."
Rachel hugged her daughter more tightly at the mention of Bernard's children. "Honey, you have every right to be happy. Bernard was thrilled for you, coming here and living with us. You know that. He would want this to be a very special Christmas for you."
"He'll never have Christmas again," she cried softly.
"I really think that he can see us and hear us. That Christmas morning he'll be watching Brian and Tracey and blowing them kisses."
"He was always very nice to me."
"He was a good man and we all miss him very much," Rachel listened to her child's gentle sobs for a few long moments. "Tell you what. Every time we miss him really badly like we do right now, let's stop and remember something really good he did." The blonde woman paused in thought.
"I remember when Lacey was away on business and you had just started living here. You got really sick and I didn't know any doctors or who to call or what to do. Bernard came over and took us to Tracey's doctor, remember? And he stayed with us the whole time and calmed us both down. Do you remember?" It sounded so much simpler than it had been. At the end of the summer everything had been in such upheaval as Lacey was trying to get her business started and Rachel was trying to become a full time mother. It had only been the flu, really, but Molly had been throwing up all night long leaving both exhausted and weary by morning. She'd been in tears when she'd called Bernard.
He'd come right over, no questions asked, and whisked them away, carrying a weak Molly and holding Rachel's hand in his big meaty grip. He never once teased her about it being just the flu and her over reacting. He never once looked at her as if she had no right raising a child if she couldn't get through one sleepless night. The support he'd offered that day had given Rachel the strength she needed to keep trying. She would be eternally grateful for that.
"Your turn," Rachel whispered to Molly.
"Brian and I were playing in his backyard and we climbed way up high in that big tree. We got so high we were scared and we couldn't get down. We started crying. Tracey went to get him and he brought out a ladder and pulled us out of the tree. When we were on the ground he just hugged us. I thought he was going to yell at us for being so dumb," her voice gained strength near the end of the story.
Rachel grinned into the fine blonde hair by her chin. She remembered Bernard's half of the story. He'd been laughing when he told it, said the kids were just like mewling kittens waiting for a fireman. He said he'd thought about lecturing them but realized they'd scared themselves senseless enough and just needed a good hug. "That's a good memory, baby," Rachel said softly.
"I have lots of good memories."
"Good for you. Try to remember those when you're really sad, okay?"
"I can do that," she nodded, the advice taking a stronghold. She leaned back and smiled up at her mother, her eyes still moist but no longer shedding new tears. "He would like that."
"Yes, he would."
They sat in silence for what seemed like hours, wrapped in the comfort of each other and fond memories. The Christmas tree lights shined cheerfully on the inviting packages beneath it, promising of treasures to come. Karma sauntered in and curled up next to them, placing a soft white muzzle in Molly's lap.
That was the picture that Lacey walked in on.
"A Norman Rockwell Christmas," the dark woman joked gently, kneeling beside them.
Rachel smiled at her and reached out a hand to stroke a high cheekbone. Her touch was tender and Lacey leaned into it.
"We were remembering happy things about Bernard," Molly piped up, never being one to let a quiet moment last.
"That's really nice, baby," Lacey said softly, leaning forward to cup the back of Molly's head and kiss her forehead.
Ice blue eyes met gentle green and Rachel read in them her lover's need to talk.
"Hop on up, Molly," she gave her a helpful shove and rose to her feet as well, stretching muscles stiff from sitting so long.
"Are we gonna go to the movies?" the little girl inquired, reminding them of their normal Saturday night activity. It had become a ritual of sorts.
Rachel glanced to her partner and realized that the dark woman had every intention of keeping them under lock and key at the house. "Not tonight. Maybe we'll check out the pay per view movies after a little while, okay?"
Only mildly disappointed, the little girl acquiesced. "Then can I play some Nintendo?" she asked instead, already moving towards the television room.
Rachel laughed. "Go ahead. We'll be upstairs in the office."
Lacey was a perfectionist if there ever was one. Everything from her car to her home to her refrigerator was always spotless and well organized. This personality attribute had made getting used to a dog and a child more than a little difficult. But, thankfully, the dark woman never expected that same trait in others and as long as no one else in the house was a blatant slob, she could live with straightening her own things and badgering the others until they did the same. Which was why Rachel was shocked when she walked back into the upstairs office. She hadn't been out of it that long, a couple hours at the most, but the storm that had happened since her departure was startling.
She looked at her partner with wide-eyed wonder and was answered with a smirk and raised eyebrow, daring her to vocalize her comment.
The smaller woman was never one to back down from a challenge so she smirked right back, letting her eyes wander over the strewn files and the open cabinets. "D'ja finally get that letter bomb I sent? Figured it was lost in the mail."
"Funny-girl," her partner grinned. "Come sit down."
"Is there a clean spot to sit, crony?"
"Sit," the dark woman hauled her companion over to the desk chair and applied pressure to her shoulders until she took the seat.
"Control freak," Rachel murmured, but she was grinning and Lacey chuckled dryly at the comment.
"I want you to look at the rest of these pictures I pulled out."
"Who are they?" Rachel asked, turning serious and beginning to examine the photographs laid out in front of her.
"That guy you recognized is named Peter Grazier. He's a freelance hit-man, top caliber, discreet and very clean. He's pretty new to the block, apparently, but has left quite an impression. These are pictures of the people who usually work for him on a job."
Rachel felt her stomach flip at the description of hit man. "He's trying to kill us?" She looked up to her partner, the fear hitting her for the first time. Her green eyes were wide with it.
Lacey knelt down, her brow crinkled. "Baby, what did you think that car was trying to do?"
She shrugged, looked back at the pictures without seeing them. "I guess I knew that. But it seems surreal somehow that someone would want me dead enough to hire a killer."
The dark woman chewed on her lip for awhile, looking at the pictures her lover pushed around with a blunt-nailed finger. "They're after me, Raich. And they're trying to hurt me by getting you. They know I'll be less efficient without you."
The blonde still didn't raise her head. "You'd be more efficient without me, Lace. Because you'd be bent on killing whoever did it."
Silence prevailed for a very long time until Lacey nodded slowly. "Yes. You're right."
"Why can't they see that?"
"I don't think they care. They want to cut me to ribbons and that's the best way to do it."
"I'm pretty sure I don't want to die this way," Rachel said simply, finally raising her head to meet her companion's steady sapphire gaze.
Lacey gave her a lopsided smile, her heart hurting. "It's not too late to walk away. They might refocus their efforts on me."
Rachel smiled affectionately, shook her head. "Way too late, love. I can't walk away."
The dark-haired woman tried not to show her relief but could tell by the warmth in the emerald eyes watching her that she'd been unsuccessful. "We need to get through this then."
The smaller woman nodded. "Do you know who this Grazier guy is working for?"
"No. That's what I'm trying to figure out. None of my sources have a clue, didn't even know he was on a job right now. But from what I hear, he's one of the best, Raich, so it'll be hard to figure out who's paying the bills. I'm hoping that if you've seen some of these other guys that I may be able to narrow it down by how big the job is."
"Whether the person behind it is small change or not."
"Exactly," the dark head nodded confirmation.
Rachel seemed to think for a long time, quiet and withdrawn. Then she started shuffling through the pictures. She took her time, studying each one carefully. She looked at the whole picture, and then covered hair and mouth to focus on the eyes, before deciding. Lacey paced the office, stepping around the scattered files and growing impatient.
"Do you think they were counting on you not recognizing him?" Rachel asked suddenly, interrupting Lacey's thoughts of a Grazier massacre. "Since you've been gone?"
"I doubt it. I don't think I was meant to see him at all. If he's been at school. I didn't recognize any of those guys and I've never seen a tail when we're out together but maybe they're only interested in you right now."
Rachel was silent again as she studied the pictures. "Do you think this is the same guy that killed Bernard?"
"Or one of his cronies," Lacey shrugged. "It really is irrelevant who actually did it. I want the person behind it all."
Finally, Rachel set aside the pictures, withholding a few. These last ones she handed to Lacey who'd stopped pacing in front of the desk.
The dark woman flipped through them. "Are you sure, Raich?"
"Not would-you-stake-your-life-on-it sure. But pretty sure."
There were five pictures total and Lacey studied each one. "All at school?"
The blonde shook her head and left her seat to stand at Lacey's elbow. "That guy was in my critical writing class. That guy in the grocery store last week. The woman was waiting with me in the doctor's office when I went for that sinus infection last month. And the other two are familiar but I don't know why."
"You have a good memory," Lacey praised gently.
Rachel smiled and shrugged. "Can't do names but I'm pretty good at faces."
"I have a tough one for you, then. This guy in your class. What did he say his name was?"
"Lionel somebody or other," the blonde shook her head. "He's not registered. He asked to sit in and observe for no grade and the professor agreed."
Lacey grumbled slightly. "Figures. Can't track him that way."
Rachel stood quietly in the center of the room next to her lover, watching the dark woman's long fingers trace along the pictures. "Five people is a lot, isn't it Lacey?"
Her companion nodded slowly, pursing her lips. "There are more too. Kinda like mice ... for every one you see, there are several you don't. Maybe this is bigger than I thought. But it's so personal, Raich. That's what gets me."
"Didn't they threaten Bernard or did they threaten just his family?"
"But they killed Bernie."
Lacey nodded again, the frustration coming off of her in dark waves. Rachel could picture in her now a little of the woman she was when they'd first met. It had been so long since Rachel had seen the working crony that she'd forgotten the power her companion held.
"So why were they trying to kill me and not you."
"They want to hurt me. Not kill me. It's personal. Never in all the time that I worked for Vinnie did I do anything more than threaten family. Family is everything in that world, Raich, and you make a real statement by killing them."
"We're your family?"
Lacey looked up from the pictures in her hands to cast a glance sideways at her young lover who had a mixture of emotions on her face. "Of course, doofus," she teased gently.
Rachel laughed. "What's Vinnie, then? He was family."
"Was. Not anymore. You walk away from the life, you leave the family as well." She paused in thought as realization dawned. "In fact, this isn't even about Vinnie, Raich. This is about me. They killed Bernard, chased away George. They're after you."
"Rico's in danger," Rachel was suddenly alarmed. "Real danger, Lace. They're going from the outside in."
She shook her head, the long dark braid smacking her shoulder blades. "No ... that doesn't explain the attack on you last night."
"You have to get him and bring him back here. He's safe here. Lacey-" the blonde woman was becoming frantic.
Lacey set the pictures down and captured Rachel's face between her palms. "Stop. Stop. Listen to me. I'll call Rico. We'll bring him and Mary here. But you need to understand something. If they wanted you dead, you would be dead already. I haven't been with you every second, Molly's been at school, so have you. You walk to the barn at least three times a day and only the house is alarmed. Bernard was a professional like me but he still didn't see it coming. They wanted him dead, he is dead."
"You're not making me feel better," Rachel said softly, her eyes growing misty.
"I'm trying to be honest, love. The car meant something ... maybe it was just a scare or maybe it was an intent to kill ... but it was out of place. You're right about their approach: outside in. If they follow that pattern they'll go for Rico next. Maybe find George. Then you and Molly. But they're waiting to make their move because otherwise we'd have attended a few more funerals."
Rachel stood silently for a very long time, staring into the depths of her lover's eyes, realizing for the first time since Lacey had come home after Rico's first kill what she'd walked into. There was no turning back now, that much she knew. Since she needed Lacey as surely as she needed air, leaving the dark woman wouldn't save her life.
The young blonde was frightened and it showed in her face and the way she held her slim body. Lacey waited for something, anything, to happen.
The taller woman realized now that the fear she'd felt last night hadn't been shared. They hadn't really talked about the car or its implications though Lacey had dwelt on them all night long. It was just now, this moment, that her smaller lover was facing reality. Her haunted emerald eyes reflected the depths of her understanding.
"C'mere," Lacey said at last, being the one to break the silence for quite possibly the first time in their relationship. Rachel usually reserved that right. She tugged the small blonde into her arms and sank to the floor with her, settling her in her lap.
"Wow. You lived with this every day?" Rachel asked finally, searching to understand this woman she'd committed to.
"No," Lacey shook her head. "Not this. I never cared before, I never had anything to live for so it didn't scare me. You changed all that. I knew before I met you that it was starting to drag on me, that I couldn't do it forever. But when I started to get to know you, I understood it was time to go. It was an easy decision really, I'd been headed that way for a long time. You can't do that job and have too strong of a desire to live to see tomorrow."
"What about Bernard and George? Rico?"
"I think Bernard and George would have left a long time ago if they thought they could. Bernard carried a picture of his kids in his pocket on every job. Every damn one. And he kissed that photo after he cocked his gun. Rico was just too young. He needed a job, he was a street rat. Easy pickings."
Rachel nodded; she understood that. She would have done almost anything to survive while she was living on the streets. Almost anything, she wouldn't have joined Vinnie's family ... unless of course she'd met Lacey as part of the interview process. She grinned at the thought and it seemed oddly out of place but Lacey didn't comment.
"I don't like having to worry about seeing my daughter in the morning, or waking up next to you in a week. These were things I took for granted," Rachel said softly, her grin from moments before dissolving into nothing.
Lacey nodded her agreement, holding her lover close and kissing just behind her ear. "I'll fix it, I promise."
"You have to come out of it alive, too, Lace," Rachel pointed out. It was a gentle reminder that times were different, that the dark woman couldn't go into this situation full throttle with guns blazing.
She smiled. "Wouldn't want it any other way. I want to see Molly every morning and wake up beside you for a long time to come," she assured her lover warmly.
"Are you afraid?" Rachel asked softly.
"You know the answer to that, Raich," Lacey responded, avoiding saying it out loud.
"I knew you needed to be with me last night," the blonde nodded solemnly. "I understood that. It was part of being alive and you wanted to dwell in it."
"Very much so."
"I guess I didn't think a lot about what happened yesterday and what you would have seen ..." she let her voice trail off to silence.
"I couldn't think of anything else," Lacey whispered softly.
Rachel was quiet for a very long time, her cheek pressed into the silk of her lover's shirt, the denim of Lacey's jeans leaving imprints on her bare feet where she had them tucked beneath a well muscled thigh. "I understand you better at this moment than I ever have," the blonde said slowly into the silence that ensconced them.
"Yeah?" Lacey leaned back to see her partner's face, one dark eyebrow raised.
"Everything you do is so ... big. You were afraid to lose me last night so you couldn't get enough of me. You used to live your life not caring about each coming day but now you need to see tomorrow so much that you'll do anything to get us there. You want to be a mother to Molly but you feel you aren't enough. You push away when you can't hold us closer. Last night you were just as likely to turn your back and lick your wounds as hold me. You never knew fear until you knew love."
The dark woman swallowed, pressed her wet cheek against golden hair. "What, you writing a biography?"
"I want to know you."
"No one knows me better, love."
"Do you think," Rachel grinned slowly, leaning back to see her lover and wiping at her wet cheeks. "Do you think you could teach me the finer techniques of emotional release through love making?"
Lacey smiled. "Sure. But it's not all it's cracked up to be. It's more of an in the moment kind of thing. You still spend the night thinking about it."
"Not if you're too tired to think," green eyes twinkled mischievously and Lacey knew she was in for some revenge.
"You're too sore."
"Not talkin' about me, crony."
The dark woman laughed gently and held her lover close.
Try as Rachel might, all the gentle kisses and sensual touches in the world couldn't keep the morning at bay. They were still awake, exhausted, weary and greatly sated, but awake nonetheless when the morning sun started trickling across the room. It sneaked silently between the white horizontal blinds and chased itself across the plushly carpeted floor before tentatively reaching out and touching the edge of the bed.
Both women watched it as if it were alive. As if, at any moment, it could change its course and spring on them.
"Do you think hamsters are nocturnal because they have sex all night long?" Rachel murmured softly, tightening her grip on the solid frame beside her.
Lacey laughed out loud, bouncing both bodies and the bed. "Where do you come up with this shit, Raich?"
"I'm creative," the blonde said defensively.
"You're borderline psychotic, baby," Lacey corrected gently, brushing at the errant golden locks surrounding her lover's features. "Did it work?" she asked after a moment of silence, meaning the diversion technique.
"Mmm," Rachel sighed, snuggled deeper into the covers and the arms of her partner. "Not really. Don't get me wrong," she grinned, "I'm not complaining. But you were right ... I still can't shake being afraid."
"I have an idea, Rachel," Lacey said softly, the seriousness in her voice letting the small blonde know that this was something big.
"Do tell," she prodded gently.
"I think we should leave here."
"Here as in bed, here as in the house?"
"Here as in New York."
"Come again?" Rachel leaned back and halfway sat up to better see the dark woman's somber profile. "We're running?"
Lacey grimaced. "Don't say it like that," she chided. "Not running ... protecting."
"Please, I'm all ears," Rachel settled back into her comfortable position of moments before.
"We're at a disadvantage here. They know the area, they know our routine, we don't even know who they are. If we move the field to neutral turf, we're all on the same level. The only advantage would be skill and desire. And believe me love, they couldn't possibly want to hurt you and Molly more than I want to protect you."
"And you are one of the best cronies around," Rachel supplied helpfully, getting a poke in the ribs.
"The best, you mean."
"Oh yeah. No ego problem here. Do you walk through doors sideways?"
"It's a damn good thing I love you," the dark woman growled playfully, nipping at Rachel's ear.
"So where are we going?"
Lacey shrugged, stretched her long limbs and unsettled the woman draped over her. "Where do you want to go? Where have you never been?"
"Uh ... anywhere but New York?" the young blonde teased, never having been out of the state except for short jaunts over to New Jersey or Connecticut.
"It's Christmas ... we should go to the Rockies."
"I think that's a song," Rachel murmured, already deep in thought.
"Whaddya think? Colorado?"
"I don't need to point out to you that we have a week until Christmas and unless we drive or hitchhike, there's not much chance of us getting there. And when we do get there, we'll have to sleep on the streets because nothing's reserved."
"Pessimist. Leave that to me."
"What about Mary and Rico?" The two had come back over the previous night and spent it on the sleeper sofa in the television room.
"The more the merrier," Lacey replied, completely undaunted by her lover's unusual cynicism. "You game?"
"You think it's necessary? Really?" Rachel asked seriously, not wanting to uproot everyone and drag them halfway across the country. But it was a small price to pay if it would keep them alive.
"I'm not saying we couldn't get through this without leaving. But I think it betters our odds. And I'd prefer to do it this way," the dark-haired woman said honestly.
Rachel began to softly warble John Denver's Rocky Mountain High slightly off key. Lacey knew the decision had been made.
It took hours and plenty of called in favors to set everything up. Very little sleep for the two previous nights and all day on the phone left Lacey wearily lying on the bed while Rachel packed for them.
"Mama?" Molly hollered, flying in from her room down the hallway. "Should I bring my winter hat? Do you think I'll need it?"
"Probably, squirt," Lacey murmured her response. "And mittens. But bring some cooler clothes too, T-shirts and such. Colorado has unpredictable weather this time of year."
"Weather channel says it's sixty degrees there now," Rico announced as he walked in the room. He and Mary had gone home earlier to pack and now had their bags downstairs.
Lacey nodded. "And it could snow a foot tomorrow."
Molly heaved a huge sigh and turned around. "I'm gonna have to pack my whole room!" she yelled as she stomped out.
"Only the left half, baby," Lacey called after her, grinning. "Leave the nightstand and the hope chest. And break down the bed ... it's easier to pack that way."
Rachel smiled. "Stop teasing her," but it wasn't a statement meant to be taken seriously. You had to learn to hold your own in this crowd.
"She seems excited," Lacey said hopefully, turning her attention to her young lover. Rachel read the comment for what it was.
"Don't feel guilty, Lace. This is fine. It'll be fun. You can catch the assholes that are hunting us down and we get to visit the mountains."
Lacey smiled at the gentle reassurance. "Aren't you done packing, yet?"
"Well, if you'd get off your ass-"
The dark woman started to do just that.
"No, no. I'm kidding. You look beat. Just stay still, I'm almost done," the blonde's teasing banter had dropped away to reveal quiet sincerity.
"Briargate's coming for the horses in two hours," Rico said, still standing in the doorway. "They just called."
Rachel looked from Rico to her lover. "We'll be gone by then."
"Love, I'm sure they can handle our three horses. All of them trailer fine, right?" Lacey asked softly.
"Yeah," she agreed reluctantly. She hated leaving her horses in other people's care. Especially when it came to things like transportation. But they'd decided during the course of making arrangements that it was better to remove the horses than put someone in danger by continuously coming to the house.
"How about Karma?" Rico asked.
"Lacey took her to the vet earlier for her health certificate and we have her kennel ready. Let's hope she likes to fly."
Rico grinned from ear to ear. "You're kidding? She's coming with us?"
Lacey snorted from her prone position across the room. "Are you serious? Do you think they'd let me leave her?"
"What's Christmas without family?" Rachel grinned. "Can't leave her behind."
"That is so cool," Rico laughed. "The whole damn family's going!"
"What honey?" Rachel called, zipping up the suitcase at last, feeling she hadn't packed nearly enough.
"What about the presents?" Molly stepped into the room, Karma bounced in behind her and leapt on the bed to circle once and then settle on Lacey's feet.
All three pairs of adult eyes widened. Oops. Hadn't thought of that.
It was then that Mary stepped into the room and cleared her throat gently. "Uh ... I thought, maybe, we could open some now, take some smaller ones with us, and leave the rest as welcome home presents."
Lacey beamed, gave the smaller woman a grateful smile. "I think that's a great idea. Molly, why don't you finish packing and then go pick two presents to open now and four to take with you. Okay?"
"Do you mean pick out presents I want to give or ones I want to open?"
"Both," Rachel answered. "Scoot or we're never going to get out of here."
When the child had left and only adults and a recumbent pooch remained, Rachel looked to her lover. "Exactly how much does it cost to buy five roundtrip tickets to Colorado with one day notice a week before Christmas?"
"Oh ... you really don't want to know, love," Lacey assured her. They'd been unable to secure all five seats on the same flight or the same airline. But she'd searched long and hard and pleaded and pulled strings to get three on one flight and two on another so Mary, Rachel, and Molly would be protected. They would arrive at Denver International within an hour of each other.
"I think you're right," Rachel nodded her agreement. "Forget I asked."
"All set?" Lacey asked as she sat up and swung her feet over the side of the bed. Karma jumped to her feet to lick the woman's face profusely. "Just you wait, fuzzball. I hope they don't pressurize baggage."
"That's not funny, Lace," Rachel said solemnly.
The dark-haired woman regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth. "You're right. I'm sorry. She'll be fine, Raich. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think everyone would be all right." She hugged the Siberian Husky to her as a show of good faith.
Rachel nodded, believing her partner and trusting in her implicitly. "Let's go see how Molly's doing."
Continued in Part 3
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