With Faltering Steps (continued, part 4 of 5)
by Tonya Muir
Chapter 19: Sneak Attack
By the middle of the week, an easy arrangement had been made. Rachel and Molly would go to Briargate in the morning where Molly amused herself for an hour or two until Lacey came by. The dark woman would take the little girl for some entertainment and lunch then come back in the middle of the afternoon to watch Rachel ride. Usually, they stayed until Rachel was finished for the day and they'd all go have dinner together.
Lacey and Molly were making their way through the training barn to the track beyond where they knew they'd find the young blonde rider when Molly suddenly grabbed the dark woman's hand. "Oh yeah! Mama told me this morning to tell you something and I forgot."
"What was that, squirt?" Lacey inquired, squeezing the little hand she now held in hers.
"She said something like she saw some guy named Benny ... said he was watching us ... something like that."
The dark woman stopped cold in her tracks. "Are you sure that's what she said? That Benny was watching you two?" She'd considered and dismissed the burly kid as a player but if he was still around, and watching Rachel, maybe he was.
"Yeah. I didn't understand it. I didn't see him." She shrugged her slim shoulders absently and began to swing their grasped hands, tugging the woman forward.
"Did she seem worried or afraid?"
The small blonde head cocked slightly, so much like her mother. "Maybe a little. But not a lot. Kinda surprised when she saw him. Told me not to go near him. She said he's not a very nice man."
"No, he's not, Molly. Stay away from him."
"Gosh," she rolled pale eyes. "I will. Having two mothers is a lot of work."
Lacey grinned slightly at her murmured words even though her insides were in turmoil.
When they approached the track railing, the dark woman took more care to look around at everyone. She didn't see the stumpy Benny anywhere.
Rachel was on a grey filly, milling around with a group of riders when she saw her partner and daughter. She excused herself and trotted over.
"You saw him, Raich?" were the first words out of the tall woman's mouth.
"Yeah. Hey, Molly. How was your day?" the blonde said, trying to keep the mood light.
"Good, Mama. We went to the mall and walked around for awhile."
"Lacey? At a mall?" Rachel teased, meeting her partner's worried blue gaze. "Woulda liked to have seen that!"
"What's he doing watching you?"
"Lace, I don't know. As far as I know, he still works here. He just gave me the creeps, that's all. Can we talk about this later?" Rachel pointedly glanced at her daughter.
"We need to find out what he's up to," the dark woman responded immediately. She couldn't believe she'd left Rachel alone all day when there was potential danger.
"I know, love. We will," she glanced over her shoulder. "I gotta get back. See you two in a bit."
A few minutes later the barn trainer walked up to them, nodding to the dark woman who was becoming familiar and grinning to Molly. "Spectators!" he said cheerfully.
"Hi, Ray," Molly's response was equally cheerful.
"You wanna come in here and watch? We can walk over to the infield, the view's better," he offered, extending his hand to the young girl.
She glanced to the woman at her side first, then accepted the hand when the dark head nodded approval. They walked in front of the small starting gate while the horses were still dancing behind it and loading into stalls and ducked under the white pipe rail on the far side.
"Your mom's gonna come out of gate three. See her there now, that little grey filly?"
"Yeah," the child nodded eagerly. "Is that Smoke?"
"Good eye," he said approvingly. "Yes it is."
The little blonde beamed with pride and Lacey cast her a fond smirk.
"She's gonna bring her on the rail. Smoke's a front runner but shies from the rail. So the other horses are gonna push her that direction while your mom holds her at their pace. Teach her to run straight between a horse and the rail. She likes to bump the horse on her side."
Molly sucked up the information, nodding.
With a loud clang the horses surged from the gate not twenty feet in front of the small group watching. Lacey saw her partner gently guide her filly from the outside to the rail and then steady her surging with expert hands. Another horse slid next to her and they rode side by side. As they pulled away and the spectators leaned over the rail for a better view, Lacey saw what Ray had meant. The filly pulled to the right, bumping her running partner on nearly every stride.
"She's a stubborn little filly," the trainer muttered, realizing he'd have to use more drastic measures if she wasn't going to respond to a firm hand. "She'll get disqualified before the first turn in any race."
They were still watching the horses as they came around the bend and were completely unprepared for the mishap. Something popped, a loud capgun sound, and white billows blew up right at the turn. Smoke freaked out, her partial blinders not protecting her from the commotion, and slammed hard into the horse at her side. He broke stride, got angry, and half kicked the young filly.
Smoke turned sharply in response, finding herself right in front of the rail she so hated and in poor position for evasion. Too close to jump but not able to turn, she raised herself up on two legs, hitting her lower chest into the pipe and having enough forward motion to flip herself over the rail, throwing Rachel hard to the ground. Then the filly was on the ground, too, rolling to gain her feet, squealing in fear and dismay. Amazingly, Smoke was able to avoid her rider in her struggles and was back on her feet galloping across the turf.
The whole mess had taken less than three seconds.
Lacey heard the blood curdling scream at her side even as she was stretching long legs and running to her partner. She slowed down long enough to scoop up the girl and hold her. As she was situating the child so her blue eyes peered over the dark woman's shoulder, away from her prone mother, Lacey caught motion out of the corner of her eye.
It was Benny, his lumbering form running towards the barn. She was torn for only a second before she resumed her path to the fallen rider.
Rachel wasn't moving when they got there. One of the other riders had already run to call an ambulance and Ray knelt over the prone woman's body.
"Rachel?" he said loudly. "Rachel? Wake up!" He glanced worried caramel eyes to the tall woman at his side.
"Here," she said abruptly, handing him the screaming child in her arms. He took her willingly and pressed her head against his shoulder, whispering into her ear. The freedom enabled Lacey to kneel down beside her lover.
Rachel looked like she was just sleeping peacefully. Her arms and legs were arranged neatly at her side, indicating that she hadn't broken or twisted a limb. But when Lacey put a hand on the blonde woman's chest, she wasn't breathing.
"Oh, God," she murmured. "Raich, honey?"
Green eyes blinked open suddenly and Lacey saw in them panic and fear. The blonde started gasping for air.
"Easy, easy," the dark woman soothed. "Wind knocked outta you, baby."
Finally, she took a deep painful breath, then coughed it back out before breathing shallowly. Groaning, she tried to move.
"Don't move, Raich," Lacey whispered as she began to run warm hands up and down the blonde woman's extremities. "Does anything hurt?" She unclasped the riding helmet and tugged it gently away, tossing it aside.
"Chest," she muttered.
"Anything else? Back, neck?"
"No ... don't think so. Head ... yeah, head." She began testing movements slowly, pleased to find that nothing appeared broken. "Just sore. Holy shit," she groaned. "D'ya get the license plate? Jesus Christ."
It wasn't until that moment that both women realized they'd been hearing quiet crying and sniffling all along. Lacey turned up and nodded to Ray who let the girl go. She ran over to them but the dark woman grabbed her before she was able to throw herself on her mother.
"Easy, Molly," Lacey soothed, sitting down and pulling the girl into her lap.
"Give me a minute, baby," the blonde woman whispered, still coughing. "I'll be okay."
"Smoke tried to jump .. thought she landed on you ... oh Mama," the girl whimpered incoherently.
"S'okay, squirt," Lacey murmured, holding the small girl tightly and rocking her back and forth. "Your mama's gonna be okay. We just need to let the doctors look at her."
Rachel glanced to her partner, ready to argue that she really just needed a minute to catch her breath, when she noticed the steely gaze. Maybe a doctor wasn't such a bad idea. "What happened? I didn't see."
Lacey glanced down the rail to where several riders were milling about an awkward contraption. "Don't touch it!" she warned. "I want to look at that." They all backed away. "Something on the rail spooked her," the dark woman said when she turned back to her partner.
"You know what?" emerald eyes met hers questioningly.
The dark-haired woman nodded but her expression begged the other woman to drop it. She agreed easily enough since she was pretty miserable and wasn't sure she wanted a lengthy conversation anyway.
When the girl had been reasonably calmed, Lacey was able to scoot closer and smooth her lover's bangs back. Molly held her mother's hand. Before too long, they heard the wail of a siren and then watched the van's progress through the large gates at the end of the track and across the well turned dirt.
The paramedics hopped out and ducked under the rail, elbowing away the dark woman and her cargo. Soon they had the blonde rider loaded up on a stretcher and were moving her towards the van. "Lacey?" she called weakly.
Lacey moved to her side, glaring at the paramedic who tried to discourage her. "I'll bring Molly," Lacey said, wanting to get a look at the contraption on the rail and also thinking the ambulance ride may be too much for the young girl. "I'll call Bernie and George and have them go to the hospital. All right?"
Rachel nodded mutely.
"What hospital?" the dark woman directed her question to the nearest orange suited person.
"Okay," she looked back to Rachel. "It's okay. We'll be right there." She kissed her gently on the forehead, Molly did the same. "I love you."
"You too," she whispered. "Stay with Lacey, baby," she looked to the young girl who nodded meekly.
Then she was loaded up and rolling away.
It seemed as if the little girl's legs couldn't hold her as she stumbled behind the tall woman. Lacey noticed and picked her up, feeling scrawny legs wrap around her midsection and arms tighten about her neck.
With her awkward bundle she examined the odd contraption attached to the rail. It wasn't any bigger than a soda can and looked like a modified firecracker with wiring for remote detonation. She tilted her head in silent scrutiny, before juggling the child in her arms and withdrawing the cell phone from her pocket.
"Bernie," she said without introduction. "Get to Memorial. An ambulance just took Rachel there. I need you and George to keep an eye on her. And send Rico out to Briargate with someone on the tech side ... Tony maybe. Get him here fast so I can go see Rachel."
"Sure thing, boss," he hung up without saying goodbye.
"Now we wait a little bit, squirt," Lacey murmured as she sat in the grass near the incendiary, not wanting to give Benny a chance to come back and clean up his mess.
The hospital corridors were starkly white and silent as the woman and child made their way through them hand in hand. They'd apparently entered from the wrong door and had been forced through a maze of hallways before reaching the Emergency Room and the receptionist there.
"Rachel Wilson was brought in by ambulance probably an hour or so ago?" her words were casual enough but her look was intense. The receptionist's hazel eyes studied the dark-haired woman for just a moment before looking to her records.
"Are you family?"
"This is her daughter," Lacey indicated the child next to her.
"And you're her-" Molly looked up quizzically when Lacey squeezed her shoulder and interrupted her.
"Friend. We'd like to see her."
"She's been checked in for observation on the third floor. Just go down that hall there and take the elevators up."
"Thank you," Lacey gave the effort of a smile before taking Molly's hand and steering her away.
"Why didn't you tell her what you really are?" Molly asked softly. "Mama told me to be honest."
Lacey took a deep breath, curious as to how much water her explanation would really hold. "Sometimes people aren't very understanding of people like your mother and me. Women who love each other like we do. And sometimes it's easier to just ... kinda gloss over our relationship rather than get in an awkward situation or deal with people's criticism."
She wrinkled her small brow. "But Mama and Aunt Helen said it was okay to love someone ... anyone. That it's your heart that decides. Not other people."
The dark woman grinned, ushering the small girl in as the elevator doors slid open and emptied its cargo. "Well, your mom's pretty smart. It is okay. It's just a lot of people are ignorant or prejudiced. Do you know how sometimes people don't like other people whose skin is a different color?"
She nodded, her finger hovering over the three, pushing it when Lacey nodded.
"Well, it's kinda like that. Some people don't look beyond the color of someone's skin to see the human inside. And some people won't look past how your mother and I love each other to see the people we are." She silently cursed the slow moving elevator. She'd never explained her sexuality to anyone, especially not a child.
"But people can't hide the color of their skin. They have to live with it and how people look at them. You and Mama shouldn't hide how you really feel."
"You, squirt, are too smart for your own good," Lacey teased gently.
The child grinned but then turned thoughtful. "Does it bother you that people know you love my Mama?"
"No, baby," Lacey said solemnly, kneeling in front of the girl even as the doors slid open. "Your Mama is the best thing that's ever happened to me. I love her with all of my heart. I'll work harder at making sure people know that, okay?"
The small girl nodded and threw her arms around Lacey's neck. So the dark woman stood, holding her in a tight embrace and carrying her out of the elevator.
A huge bulky form was beside her in seconds. "Lace!"
"Hey, Bernard. George," she nodded to the tall black man who moved up as well. They'd apparently been in a nearby waiting area. "Molly, honey, I want you to meet some other guys Rico and I work with. This is Bernard and George. Guys, this is Molly, she's Rachel's daughter."
They hid their surprise well as Lacey shifted the girl so she could see the two men. The young child extended a tentative hand which each man shook readily.
"Molly, why don't you come with me and help me pick out a candy bar? I just can't decide," George said gently, wanting to give his boss and Bernard some privacy.
"Can I?" she turned questioning blue eyes to the dark woman.
"Sure, squirt," Lacey set the girl on her feet and then fished in her pocket until she presented a dollar bill to the child. "Go ahead. I'll be right here."
Then, when man and child ambled away, the dark woman turned her attention to her companion. "Spill it."
Bernard could read the worry in his boss's eyes. "S'okay, Lace. She's okay. She has a concussion and will probably be really sore and stiff. They just wanted to keep her overnight to watch her head injury. No broken bones, nothing permanent."
The dark woman's sigh of relief was audible. "Can we see her? Are they allowing visitors?"
"I think we need to talk to the head nurse about the tike. I didn't know or I woulda buttered her up."
"You can't butter toast, Bernie," the tall woman scoffed. "But thanks for the offer."
"Yeah, like you're Miss Land O Lakes yourself, Boss," but he grinned at the return of her gentle banter. "So what happened, Lace?"
"That little shit Oz had a partner after all, I guess. Kid named Benny tried to take her out. I thought it was over. Stupid."
"Oz? That guy we killed? He wasn't working alone?"
"Evidently not," she growled softly. "I shoulda been paying more attention."
"We'll find him, Lace."
She nodded her dark head, brushing black tendrils back with long fingers. "You bet your ass we will, Bernard. No one touches Rachel or the girl. Got me?"
"My life, Lace," the bulky man swore and Lacey met his dark eyes briefly. She wondered how such a cold hearted bitch had inspired this kind of loyalty. "Go see her. George and I will work the nurse."
She pushed the door open slowly, trying to make no sound but not succeeding as the door hinges were apparently older than Hippocrates himself and squealed in protest. The blonde in the bed tilted her head slowly in the direction of the noise. A full fledged grin lit up her weary features.
"Hey, you," her voice was slightly hoarse from lack of use.
"Hey yourself, gorgeous," Lacey whispered, her own words thick with emotion. "Ya scared me out there."
"Nah," she pulled up a chair, the metal legs grating along linoleum. "Don't apologize. Just get better," but she grinned with the gentle order. "How do you feel?"
"I really am okay. I think I could use a good massage come tomorrow, though."
"I think I can manage that," the dark woman raised her eyebrows suggestively but her blue eyes shined with only concern and love. "They took out your stitches," she observed after a quiet moment.
"Yeah," the blonde grinned gently. "Said it was the best job they'd seen."
"You lie," Lacey growled playfully. "Looks okay, though. Shouldn't scar."
"That's what the doc said, too," her young companion agreed. "I told them I walked into a stall door at the barn."
The dark woman shrugged her shoulders and nodded. It was as good an explanation as any. Plus it was much better than the truth.
"How's Molly?" Rachel yawned then reached out a hand towards her companion who took it readily and scooted closer.
"She's okay. A bit spooked. Wasn't a pretty sight, love," Lacey whispered gently, smoothing fine blonde hair with her free hand. "She did find time in her busy schedule to lecture me, though."
"Hmm? About what?"
The dark woman grinned and told her about the receptionist downstairs and the ensuing elevator conversation.
"I tried to hammer tolerance into her. Helen helped," the blonde explained, smiling.
"Yeah, I guess so. I just ... do you understand?" the tall woman faltered, surprising her partner.
"I do, Lace. I really do. There's a time and place for every battle. I'll work on Molly's subtlety," she grinned tenderly.
"I meant what I told her, Raich. I love you with all my heart. You're the best thing that's ever happened to me," Lacey's ice blue eyes had deepened in color with her gravity.
"I feel the same, Lacey. I knew how you felt that night in your house when you introduced me to the guys as your lover. I've never felt so honored before. I've done some pretty dumb things and made some pretty big mistakes ... but somewhere down the line the fates must have smiled at me because they led you to the track that morning."
"That was Vinnie. A little known Fate," the dark woman grinned impishly, the feelings overwhelming her. "I'll be sure to thank him."
There was a quiet knock on the door before it squeaked open. Rachel groaned in protest at the offending sound.
"Don't they have any WD40 around here?" she muttered.
Bernard poked his head in. "You up for another guest, Rachel honey?"
Lacey raised her eyebrows to the young blonde at the gentle term of endearment but she simply shrugged. "I've charmed them."
Dark eyebrows quirked even higher as the tall woman smirked.
"Send 'em in, Bernie," Rachel requested, ignoring her partner's teasing look.
Molly tiptoed in slowly, her movements hindered by nerves. Lacey pulled the youngster into her lap. "Hey, squirt. C'mere. See, mom's okay."
"Oh, Mama," the little girl's words were watery.
"Shh, baby," Rachel whispered, reaching a hand out to smooth her daughter's fears by tenderly stroking her hair and face. "Everything's okay."
The girl held her arms out towards her mother, needing so badly to be comforted. Lacey glanced to her partner who nodded.
"Okay, here we go," the dark woman lifted the child up and settled her on the hospital bed at Rachel's side. Then the little girl wrapped her arms around her mother and snuggled into her neck, crying large messy tears.
Rachel let her cry, murmuring words of love and stroking her back with strong fingers. There was a lot of healing in tears and the blonde woman knew her daughter needed this. It took several minutes before the sobs quieted into gentle hiccups.
"Let me see your face, sweetie," Rachel crooned softly, placing hands on the girl's cheeks. Immediately she found tissues held in her direction and she took them gratefully, cleaning up her daughter's face. "Feel better?"
The girl nodded mutely.
"It was pretty scary, I know, baby. But Smoke didn't land on me at all. I just fell off of her and knocked the wind out of me. And I kinda hurt my head so they want me to stay here tonight. Everything's okay."
"Where will I stay?" she questioned plaintively.
"With me, silly," Lacey interrupted, running a strong hand up and down the little girl's back. "You know that. We can keep each other company."
"Can I sleep with you?" the little girl turned waterlogged blue eyes to this mafia big wig and left her weak in the knees.
"Yeah," Lacey agreed easily. "I think that would be good."
"So it's settled then," Rachel whispered, placing a kiss on the girl's forehead. "You go on with Lacey, now, baby. I think they're about ready to kick the two of you out."
Molly leaned forward to hug her mother fiercely once more before she allowed herself to be lifted down. Lacey showed her to the door and opened it, pointing down the hall. "Go sit with Bernie just a minute, okay? I need to tell your mom one more thing." The child left willingly enough with one last glance at her mother.
"What's up?" Rachel asked when the door was closed.
Lacey resumed her seat. "It wasn't an accident," she said bluntly. "It was Benny, you were right. I saw him running from the track. He knew Smoke was shy on the rail so he set up something to spook her. I think he was hoping for more than a concussion."
"Why?" Rachel had trouble believing she'd be significant enough to him for this kind of action.
"I don't know. Maybe cuz he lost money from Wheatridge? Or maybe to get back at me for Oz. We'll find out but Bernard and George are staying here tonight to watch you. Rico's going to come back to the house and be with Molly and me. I just want you to know what's going on."
The blonde head nodded solemnly.
"You look sleepy, love. I'm going to go," she leaned forward for a lingering kiss on responsive lips. "I promise you Molly will be fine."
"I know," her lover assured her. "Sleep well."
"You too, Raich," and with a few lingering touches and words, the dark woman was on her way.
Chapter 20: Midnight Confessions
"My Mama was in jail for awhile," the child's soft voice, though it was quiet and plaintive, pierced the room's darkness. Her little blonde head was snuggled up against Lacey's shoulder in much the same way her mother slept.
"I know," she told the little girl, glancing first to the bedside clock, which showed a ridiculous hour, and then to the moonlit window. Karma shifted in her position at the end of the bed, stretching against Lacey's long legs.
"She's not a bad person, though. Aunt Helen said she helped the police and saved some people's lives."
"That's true," the dark woman agreed, realizing the cathartic nature of this discussion for the little girl. "She made some mistakes, some bad decisions. But in the end she did what was right."
"She got shot in the belly. She can't have any more babies."
That was something Lacey hadn't known. It somewhat explained her closeness to Molly and her aching desire to take her child back and live as mother and daughter. After all, she had been in prison nearly four years, separated from her daughter another two years in addition to that. She hadn't been a hands-on mother to Molly for more than half of the young girl's life. "Your mama loves you very much," Lacey whispered softly.
The girl nodded, shifted her weight slightly. "I want to come stay with her for good. Would that be fun? Would you visit us?"
"All the time, squirt," the dark-haired woman promised softly. "What about Aunt Helen?"
"I love her but she's not my mom, you know? I want my for real mom who helps me with homework and talks to me about school."
"Have you told your mom what you want?" Lacey asked, wondering if Rachel knew they all yearned for the same thing.
"Yeah and Aunt Helen. Mama said that they still need to work out some issues with her history. Said she'd made a promise to Aunt Helen and she had to keep it first, then we would be together."
The dark woman would have to remember to ask Rachel about this later. "That'll be a good day."
"Yeah," the child agreed wistfully , finally seeming to be relaxed enough for sleep. Moments later her breathing evened in slumber.
Lacey watched the moonlight through the window and thought of Rico who was sleeping downstairs on the sofa. He'd been parked outside when they got home. He'd had the foresight to stop at Rachel's apartment to get items for Molly as well as retrieving Karma and bringing her to the house. Lacey was quietly impressed with how quickly the gawky kid was catching on to things even as she cursed herself for turning him into a criminal..
The prints on the incendiary had matched Benny's but that wasn't much help unless they chose to pursue this legally. Which wasn't an option at this point. Lacey and Rico had easily convinced the barn manager to not take this to the police by reminding him who owned the barn. There were too many more difficult questions to answer about poisoned horses and beaten-out confessions.
The smoking contraption itself was a clever little device that was apparently homemade. This worried the dark woman to no end because while she hadn't been worried about Oz who beat just a hair above stupid, Benny may prove to be more clever. She didn't like having to deal with the unknown.
It was barely an hour before dawn when ice blue eyes finally fluttered closed and fell into sleep.
Chapter 21: Casualties
Lacey had been up long enough to have a cup of coffee and shove Molly towards the shower when the phone rang. The caller id showed it to be Briargate. She answered the phone and the barn manager announced himself.
"What is it?"
"Something happened last night. Coupla horses were killed."
"What?!" the dark woman shouted, Rico was next to her in seconds but she shook her head and pushed him away gently.
"Shot. Night watch didn't hear anything but I guess they could have used silencers."
"Yeah," Lacey agreed. "Which horses?" She already knew the answer.
"The poisoned ones. All of 'em."
Lacey groaned, this would be hard on Rachel. "Are they still there?"
"Yeah. Just found 'em about an hour ago. There's a bunch of stuff we have to do about the vet and insurance paperwork before the bodies can be removed."
"Thanks for telling me. Keep in touch about the vet."
"Will do. And Benny's gone."
"No shock there," Lacey muttered, disappointing the other man by her lack of surprise. "He was the one who set up the little device, I'm pretty sure. Keep an eye out for him."
"Yeah," he agreed.
She sighed in thought. "Okay. Let me know about the horses and Benny. We'll come by later today."
Lacey hung up without saying goodbye, concentrating for several long moments before feeling Rico's inquisitive stare. "Horses at Briargate were killed last night."
"Should we send someone out there?"
"Yeah. Do that, Rico. And we have a wild card. Benny Brown. Check out his personnel records in my office. We need to find him. I'm gonna go get ready and then we'll head for the hospital."
Rachel was awake and arguing to be released by the time the trio got off the elevator and walked down the hall. They could hear her soft convincing voice easily. Bernard and George hovered outside the open door, looking as tired as she felt.
"Trying your charm again?" Lacey announced her entrance into the room with a gentle tease. Molly bounced in and up onto the hospital bed.
"Hush, crony, you're not helping," the bed ridden woman teased back. "Hi, sweetie," she hugged and kissed Molly.
"As soon as Dr. Evans can come up and check on you, we'll be ready to sign release papers. Nothing overnight suggested we need to keep you longer," the nurse promised. "I'll let you visit and I'll bring the doctor in as soon as he's here."
"Thank you," Rachel smiled sweetly and the nurse retreated from the room as Bernard and George came in. Rachel turned to Lacey, held out a hand, "C'mere tall, dark, and trouble."
The dark woman grinned and took the offered hand, then leaned over and kissed her soundly. They both ignored the "yuck" coming from the foot of the bed.
"You look good," Lacey said softly, smoothing back blonde hair.
"Feel better. Let's get out of here."
"We will," she pulled the chair up and took a seat. "Molly, can you go outside with the guys for a little bit?"
She hopped down from the bed willingly and took the hand Bernard held out to her. "Are you gonna smooch some more?"
"Maybe," Rachel grinned. "Skedaddle, kiddo."
Lacey met her partner's moss green eyes with her own blue ones for several long seconds, formulating the words in her mind.
"Bad news," Rachel guessed easily.
"The horses that were poisoned ... were killed last night," subtlety had never been the dark woman's strong suit.
The young blonde's eyes grew wide. "All of them?" she whispered.
"Yeah. Sunny, too," Lacey said gently, trying to soften the blow with eyes and voice.
"How?" she choked, tears in her eyes.
"Gunshot. I want the guys to take Molly home and you and I go to the barn. Can you handle that?"
"Are the bodies still there?"
Rachel considered for only a moment before she nodded. "I can do it. I want to see him."
"I thought you might. As soon as we spring you, we'll go."
To say Rachel was a little stiff would have been the understatement of the century. She moved very slowly at Lacey's side once the taller woman had helped her down from the Grand Cherokee.
"Didja take that muscle relaxer?" the dark-haired woman questioned as they made their way tediously from the parking area towards the main training barn.
"Not yet," the young rider muttered, ready for her partner's quick response.
"What? Why not? You can barely move!"
"It'll make me sleepy. I want to be a little closer to a bed first," Rachel replied, reaching a hand out to catch Lacey's and twine their fingers together.
Lacey nodded, squeezing the fingers wrapped in her own. She knew that Rachel was really struggling to stay calm between what happened yesterday and the overnight deaths. "All right, you win."
"And where's my damn tape recorder when I need it?" the younger woman joked gently. They stood now at the entrance to the large barn. Looking down the cement aisle they could see many people milling around towards the middle of the structure.
"Ready?" Lacey's husky voice whispered.
"I guess," she murmured.
"Rachel!" a stocky man in his mid fifties turned and started jogging towards the two women.
"Hey, Frank," she greeted the barn manager with a stiff smile and an extended hand, releasing Lacey's fingers.
"Didn't expect to see you today. How do you feel?" He fell into step beside them, slowing his gait to match the young rider's. He'd known that Lacey would come in but hadn't counted on his young employee.
"Sore. But okay. I wanted to see the horses. They still here?"
"Yeah, we're finishing up with the vet. They all need to be autopsied for insurance claims. They're sending some trucks to take them to the lab."
"What lab?" Lacey spoke up and Frank flinched at the dark woman's voice. He'd spent many years fearing this woman's wrath.
"Whichever lab the vet uses. I don't know the name."
"Which vet?" this question was asked with the young blonde's soft voice.
"New barn vet, Rachel. Michaels," the manager answered impatiently. What other vet would they use?
Rachel glanced quickly to her dark companion and shrugged her shoulders.
"Frank, those horses aren't going anywhere yet. I'm gonna make some phone calls and we'll send the bodies to a different lab." She wasn't taking any chances this time. Let the new vet prove himself on something a little less important.
"But, Lacey," the short man started to complain but stopped mid sentence. "Sounds good. I'll go call 'em off." He trotted away, leaving Lacey and Rachel by themselves as they neared Sunny's stall.
The entire front panel had been removed to allow access to the stiff body when it was time. The surrounding stalls had been emptied of their occupants.
Rachel stepped forward slowly, kneeling in the thick bedding of wood shavings. Taking a deep breath, she pulled the blanket away and looked at the large still form beneath. She watched him quietly for several long moments with watery eyes before suddenly tilting her head. Then she started moving frantically, pushing the rest of the blanket off and crawling around the huge form.
"What is it, Raich?" Lacey asked softly, kneeling down as well.
"Not him," she murmured, moving stiffly to the horse's withers and running her index finger up under the mane resting there. "It isn't him." Mist green eyes looked up quickly to meet ice blue.
"Yeah. Sunny has a scar here, at the top of his withers. When he was a yearling he tried to run under the top half of a stall door. He was following me out."
"How could that be? Otherwise does it look like him?"
She nodded quickly. "But it would be easy to duplicate him. He's got no real distinguishing white marks. Solid bay, tall for his age but not outrageously so. The teeth would check with a horse the right age."
"Tattoo?" Lacey asked.
Rachel moved over next to her partner to peel back cold stiff lips. "It's right. But so what? That wouldn't be hard either."
"But why?" the dark-haired woman murmured, rocking back on her heels.
"They stole him. Wheatridge?"
"Maybe. Let's go check out the others," Lacey got to her feet and helped her partner up, steadying her on painful muscles.
"I don't know the others as well."
"Well then, let's find someone who does," the taller woman insisted as Rachel pulled the blanket back over the unfortunate beast's body.
It was several hours later before the other six horses had been checked out with the help of a couple other barn hands and groomers. Lacey had also called around until she found an appropriate vet and lab to take over the autopsies and the two women waited silently in the main office with the rest of the barn staff until the trucks arrived and the bodies were removed.
By the time Lacey loaded her young lover back into the Grand Cherokee, the blonde could barely move and the pain was evident in her eyes and face.
"Take that pill now, love," Lacey whispered as she started up the vehicle. "We'll be home soon."
"We need to go to Wheatridge," Rachel protested.
"Honey, there's no way we're going there now. You can barely move. First thing in the morning, okay?"
The blonde shook her head slowly. "If he's there, we don't have much time."
"That's not true," Lacey argued. "They took him for a reason. We didn't tell anyone that wasn't Sunny so there's no way that information could leak back to Wheatridge. Whatever their original plan was, they're still following it."
"I hate logic," her blonde companion muttered, opening the glove compartment to extract the prescription bottle she'd shoved there earlier.
Lacey had to gently wake the young woman and help her walk into the house. Rico and George sat at the kitchen table and watched the two women as they entered.
"Hey," Rachel muttered and half waved.
"Hey, darlin'," George said softly. "Ya look like hell."
"So do you, George, only you don't have an excuse," the young blonde responded sleepily.
"How's Molly?" Lacey asked quietly.
"Fine. Bernard's upstairs with her. They're watching a movie," George turned his attention to the tall dark woman.
"In my room?"
"Thanks. C'mon, love," she tugged the young blonde's hand gently.
Bernard stood up from the large bed when he saw the two women entering the room. He helped Molly pull the covers back and watched as his boss settled her lover's light frame into the sheets. Rachel grinned and waved her thanks at Bernie who nodded his had and backed out of the room.
The young blonde was asleep before Bernard was even out of the room. Molly stayed and sat cross legged on the bed while Lacey gently undressed the small woman and put a T-shirt and loose flannel pants on her.
"She okay?" Molly raised questioning blue eyes to her mother's caretaker.
"Yeah. Just tired. The doctors gave her some medicine to take to help her not be so sore and it makes her sleepy. That's all."
"I can hear her belly rumble," the small girl mused and Lacey stopped her ministrations to tilt her head and listen. Sure enough, she could hear the gentle rolling sounds.
"Should we wake her up and feed her?" the dark woman asked Molly.
The young girl nodded.
"Well, go have the guys make some soup and maybe a grilled cheese sandwich? Sound good?"
Molly nodded again and hopped off the bed to run downstairs and deliver the order.
Lacey settled next to her young lover and pulled the woman comfortably against her. She pulled up the covers and tucked them in gently. And then she glanced up and saw what the two previous residents had been watching: George of the Jungle ... again. She groaned.
George was just making himself unwanted at a large dinner party when Molly came back upstairs with Rico in tow. Rico held a lap tray with a mug of soup, a sandwich, and a glass of milk.
"Hey, love," Lacey whispered softly, jostling the young woman resting against her.
"No," Rachel moaned softly.
"C'mon. Wake up, sleepy. Let's put something in that pit you call a belly."
Weary green eyes blinked open and the young woman righted herself, leaning back against the head board. She drank her soup wordlessly and ate about half the sandwich before pushing it away. Lacey finished it while the blonde drank her milk.
"Done?" Lacey asked around a mouthful of crust and was answered by a mute nod. "My thanks to the chefs," Lacey grinned at Molly and Rico as she settled Rachel back into the bed. Then she turned her attention to Molly. "Honey, can you turn off the TV? I'm gonna lay with your mom for a bit."
The little girl did as requested and watched the two women silently for a moment, wanting to crawl into bed with them as well. Rico realized his boss needed some private time and reached out for the child's hand. "Why don't you show me how to play that card game, Molly? The one we picked up at the apartment?"
"Uno," Molly supplied easily, waving slightly to Lacey as she turned and followed Rico out.
When the door had closed and left the two women alone, Lacey let out a huge sigh of relief. Then she wrapped her long body around her partner's smaller one and held her fiercely. "I've wanted to do this since I saw you hit the ground yesterday," she whispered. "You scared the shit out of me. I won't lose you now that I've just found you."
"Love you, Lace," the sleepy woman murmured, snuggling into the warm embrace.
"You too," Lacey responded and just absorbed her companion's presence while looking out the window into the late afternoon sunshine.
Chapter 22: Merging Lives
Lacey sat at her dining room table and observed the occupants with quiet interest. They'd been forced to abandon the smaller kitchen table as they needed six place settings.
George and Bernard shoveled the omelets into their mouths without a word or glance to anyone else. Rico spoke gently to young Molly, teasing her and poking at her as an older doting brother would. She giggled in response, her fair hair pulled back into a ponytail and her blue eyes dancing with amusement. She showed no after effects from the last two days of adventure.
The sixth place setting was empty, waiting for Rachel to come downstairs. She was awake and in the shower when Lacey had last visited the bedroom.
"Lacey?" Molly's soft voice brought the dark woman out of her thoughts.
"Are we gonna go see the baby horses today?"
The dark-haired woman cast her eyes slowly to the men, realizing no one had told the small girl of the deaths at the farm the previous day. She wasn't sure there was much of a point in sharing that news now. "I don't think so," she said instead. "I think maybe we just need to take it easy today. What do you think we should do?"
"We could go to Central Park and feed the ducks," Rico piped up.
"In March? Are there ducks?" George asked skeptically.
"They stay year round cuz people feed them," the blonde man responded easily. "I go there all the time."
Bernard was busy choking on his omelet and the dark woman could tell that he was itching to come back with a biting retort. She pointed at the heavy set man. "You, hush." Then she turned to Rico. "You are so not cut out for this business."
He grinned sheepishly, shrugged his shoulders, and was thankfully saved from any further ribbing by a gentle voice calling from upstairs.
The dark-haired woman pushed back her chair and stood, still shaking her head and grinning as she bounded up the spiral staircase and down the hall into her bedroom.
Rachel stood there, still mostly wet, wrapped in a towel.
"What can I do for you, gorgeous?" Lacey smiled, embracing the other woman warmly.
"I need a little help," she said quietly. The young blonde motioned to her hair. She'd been trying to dry it but was too sore and weary to hold her arms up and complete the task.
"C'mere," Lacey led the other woman to the bed and pushed her down gently before returning to the bathroom to retrieve a dry towel. She rubbed the towel over blonde tresses for several minutes before satisfied that they were about as dry as she could get them without a hair dryer. Then she ran a comb through the tangles and plaited the resulting smooth hair into a braid.
"Better?" she asked softly, observing her handiwork.
"Yes, thank you," the blonde smiled.
"Good. Now let's get you dressed."
When the two women walked down the stairs, the group at the table was discussing the conspiracy on the X Files. It was evident that Molly was the driving force behind the conversation.
"You guys don't have anything better to talk about?" Lacey jibed as she pulled out a chair for the blonde woman.
"This is important," Molly argued before continuing the discussion. The precocious little girl sure didn't sound eight years old when she talked about aliens and FBI cover-ups.
After listening for a moment, Rachel jumped in. Lacey rolled her eyes but was smiling gently. She never thought, as crony number two, she'd be sharing breakfast with friends and family and listening to debates about a television show. It was so ... domestic.
The dark woman went into the kitchen to retrieve Rachel's omelet from the warm oven, switching it off and grabbing a glass before making her way back.
"Here ya go, love," she set down the plate in front of the young woman. "Orange juice or apple juice?"
"Apple, please," the blonde grinned her thanks at her companion before turning back to her conversation about the cigarette smoking man.
"You all are hopeless," the dark woman muttered as she regained her seat. She caught George's eyes when he looked over to her and knew he saw through her posturing. He saw the peace in her.
He smiled, the expression meeting and encompassing his caramel eyes. And he winked at her.
She shook her head and went back to finishing breakfast. So much for her reputation, she mused.
In the end, George and Bernard went to see if they could track down Benny while Rico, the women, and Molly stayed at the house. They'd decided that Rachel wasn't quite up to going to Wheatridge and that they may have a better chance of finding the colt, anyway, if they let yesterday's tragedy blow over. The young blonde rider had eventually conceded to this argument.
Now, Lacey and Rachel sat quietly in the winterized screened-in porch, watching the little girl and the teen aged boy romp around the backyard in the early afternoon chill. The dog ran with them and between the noise all three were making, it was a wonder they weren't waking the dead.
"Can I ask you some questions?" Lacey ventured after they watched the action outside for the better part of an hour. She sounded hesitant.
Rachel turned her eyes from the children at play to her lover. Lacey leaned back in her chair, the front two feet off the ground the back two teetering as she balanced with her fingertip on the glass patio table. She was dressed in faded blue jeans and a thick forest green sweater. Her hair was loose around her shoulders and her light blue eyes were nervously darting around.
"Of course," the blonde woman said softly, reaching a hand out to brush against dark locks. "What's bothering you?"
"Did you know that Molly wants to stay with you for good?"
She was a little surprised by the question, thinking the inquiries would have to do with the farm or the horses. "She tell you that?" she asked carefully.
"Yeah. When you were in the hospital. She was pretty worked up. She talked my ear off all night long," the dark woman chuckled softly at the memory.
"What else did she say?"
Lacey took a breath, released it. "Rachel, I'd assumed that Molly was with Helen on court order. That you'd lost custody. But that's not the case, is it?"
"No," the blonde sighed. "I granted guardianship while I was in prison. We were worried that if I left the decision up to social services, my aunt and uncle would step in and she'd have to go to them. We couldn't let that happen. Helen understood so once I gave up parental rights, Helen proved that Molly had a stable environment. The ... arrangements were made by us at that point. Helen would keep Molly while I got on my feet and I could visit her whenever I wanted to."
"Molly said that you made a promise to Helen that you have to keep before Molly can come back to you," the dark-haired woman continued the prompting.
Rachel laughed softly. "Well, it's not quite that simple. There's a lot involved. I have to be able to support myself and a child. Right now I'm not really there and as long as I stay at Briargate, I won't be. The criminal record isn't helping me out much, unfortunately. I have to get my GED," she turned gentle green eyes to her partner, gratitude showing in them. "Which you're helping me with. And Helen wants me to resolve the issues with my aunt and uncle. She's worried that if I take Molly in, they'll petition for custody and try to prove they have a more stable environment."
"You think they will?"
The blonde shrugged, turning weary eyes back to the games outside. Rico was spinning Molly in the air by an arm and a leg. "They might. I haven't spoken to them since I got out of prison. I think that's the real barrier. If I went and spoke with them, I could probably find out what's going on and maybe there really isn't even an issue. I just ... I don't want to go back there."
They sat in silence for a little while, interrupted only by the squeaking of Lacey's chair as she rocked it back and forth on two legs. "Not even for Molly?"
"Don't say that," Rachel whispered angrily, tears in her eyes. "You don't understand."
"I understand that you have a little girl who loves you very much and wants to be with you. I understand you have a crony who loves you just as much and would do anything for you, including but not limited to, facing past demons."
"Lacey," the blonde said gently, reaching a hand out to capture her lover's. "You have to know that this doesn't help, right? What court would ever grant me custody with a criminal record, working odd hours at a horse barn, having sexual relations with a woman who also happens to be Vinnie Russo's right hand?"
"It doesn't sound so good when you put it that way," the dark woman grinned ruefully, squeezing the fingers in hers. "But you don't even know if your aunt and uncle will step in. You have no reason to believe they will. Do you? Did they even come looking for you and Leslie when you left?"
"They knew where we were. The police returned us once and we ran away again."
"If they didn't want you, why would they want your daughter?" the taller woman asked reasonably.
"I can't risk it, Lace," Rachel whispered. "I won't let them touch her. I won't let them near her."
"Okay, Raich, honey," Lacey slid from her chair to kneel next to Rachel's, clasping the young woman's smaller hands in her own large tanned ones. "Give up your apartment and the job. Move in with me and get your GED. I can support you and Molly while you do that and start some college classes. Even after I leave Vinnie, I have enough in savings to last us awhile. That takes care of the first two requirements."
"I can't ask you to do that, Lace," Rachel leaned forward and pressed her forehead into her partner's. "We aren't your responsibility."
Lacey met the other woman's liquid green eyes. "I ... love ... you. Okay? I want to be with you. You've changed the way I look at life and I don't want to go back to who I was. You are my responsibility because I choose for it to be that way. I want to help you."
She nodded her agreement, her pale eyes reflecting confusion but acceptance.
"As for your aunt and uncle, we'll go visit them when we take Molly back and see what their real story is. Then we'll know what to do next. I think we should wait for the school year to be over before we change Molly's life, anyway, right?"
"Yeah," Rachel agreed, still looking a little shell shocked. "You promise not to pound on them?" she teased weakly.
The dark woman saw the nervous tension for what it was so she couldn't possibly take offense at the statement. She grinned gently. "Only if they give me reason to."
"That's fair," Rachel acquiesced, leaning forward to kiss the other woman's nose. "Couldn't ask for more." She reached up her hands to frame the face before her and met the searching blue eyes with grateful emerald. "Thank you," she whispered.
The emotions were palpable between them as they clung to each other knowing, regardless, that they'd found a home. The moment was interrupted when Molly and Karma came flying into the small room, bringing the cold from outside in with them.
Even the child could feel the emotions in the air and slid to a silent halt to watch the two women before her. Karma bounded forward and kissed both women before flying into the main house. Molly stood awkwardly, watching them, feeling left out, until Lacey snaked out an arm and pulled her to them.
The girl squealed and hugged the dark-haired woman, laughing. Rachel embraced them both, pressing warm lips to the child's cool face. Then the moment was over and Molly bounced away, following Karma into the house just as Rico came in from the outside. He glanced to the two women and grinned before moving along.
"You okay?" Lacey whispered, helping the younger woman to stand, smoothing back the errant hair that had fallen loose from the braid.
"I'm great. I love you."
"You better," the dark woman grinned, tugging Rachel's hand and leading her back into the house where they were cajoled into playing Uno.
Continued in Part 5
Return to The Bard's Corner