Part 3

by: Susanne M. Beck (SwordnQuill)

Disclaimers: The characters in this novel are of my own creation. That’s right, this is an ‘uber’ story. It’s also a sequel to my novel, Retribution, which, in turn is a sequel to my novel Redemption. (That’s right! It’s a trilogy!) You really will want to read those first before tackling this one. Some may bear a resemblance to characters we know and love who are owned by PacRen and Universal Studios.

Violence and Naughty Language Disclaimer: Yup, both. And quite a lot of each, to be truthful. We’re dealing with a bunch of ex-cons and assorted other nasty type people here.

Subtext Disclaimer: Yup, there’s that too. This piece deals with the love and physical expression of that love, between two adult females. There are some graphic scenes located within this piece, but I have tried to make them as tasteful as possible so as to not avoid anyone’s sensibilities. Let me know if I’ve succeeded.

Dedication: Well, it’s that time again, to thank everyone who made the writing of this work a pleasure. It’s a bit sad, as well, since this will likely be the last we hear of Ice and Angel, but heck, it’s been a fun ride, huh? So, deep debts of gratitude go out from me to the following people: Carol "you’d just better have a happy ending!" Stephens; Elizabeth "Four" Baldwin, Linda "Lola" Lynch, Lisa "Sulli" Sullivan, and the rest of the Angry Beavers; Judi "you just better have a happy ending part deux" Mair, Mary "is the Pope Catholic" D, Candace "Theodyke" Chellew, the members of my SwordnQuil list for their wonderful support and feedback, my dogs Kricket and Pudderbear, and a host of other people I’m going to kick myself in the morning for not mentioning. Thanks guys!!!

Feedback: As always, is most welcome. It not only makes this ‘job’ of writing (which is really a love) much easier, it also makes me better at it. And that is my goal. To become the best writer I can be. If the spirit moves you, you may reach me at  with any questions, concerns or comments.

Final Disclaimer: As with my previous two novels, this story will be posted in blocks of thirty or so pages per night. It is fully completed, down to the last punctuation mark, so I won’t leave you hanging. J



The afternoon passed into evening rather quickly as I explored the grounds, poking my nose in anywhere and everywhere and generally making a nuisance out of myself.

As I’d known I would all along, my meanderings eventually led me to the stables and corral beyond. I spared several moments to watch a group of women industriously muck out the stalls, change out the food and water, and do whatever else needed doing to make the stables ready for the horses’ return.

Then I moved on to the corral, climbing up the split rail fence to sit atop one of the posts and watch as a number of women put some of the horses through their paces. Of particular interest to me was a young, lithe, blonde woman who was racing her beautiful chestnut mare around three barrels set up in the central ring of the corral. Horse and rider moved in perfect symmetry, flowing like water around each barrel as women on the sidelines cheered and whooped. Another woman, broad and squat, pumped a triumphant fist in the air, a stopwatch clenched tightly between her palm and fingers.

Hats sailed into the air as the young woman slipped down from her horse, her boots kicking up clouds of dust as they reconnected with the desert floor. She was immediately engulfed by a crowd of cheering onlookers as her horse was gently led away by one of the stable-hands.

Several moments later, the crowd parted and the young woman walked out from the masses, dusting off her clothing and putting her hat back on her head, setting the brim with a casual hand. Walking in my direction, she stopped just shy of the fence and tilted her head up to look at me, smiling. "Hey, there," she said in a musical voice that was vaguely familiar to me, but one which I couldn’t quite place.

"Hello. That was some riding you did there."

Her fair face colored a little as she shrugged and stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jeans. "It wasn’t bad, I guess. I’ll have to get a lot better, though, if I’m gonna have a chance in the Buckeye Rodeo."

"Well, you looked pretty damn good to me. I’m probably not the best authority on the subject, though."

She blushed again, then laughed. "Maybe not on barrel racing, but you’re pretty good at other things."

I could feel my eyes narrow. "Excuse me?"

"You don’t remember me, do you."

I winced. "No, I don’t think so. I’m sorry."

"Don’t be sorry. Please. I wouldn’t expect you to remember me. I’ve changed a lot since you saw me last, even if it wasn’t that long ago."

I peered down at her. "Alright. You’ve baited the hook and thrown in the line. Do you want me to just swim around a little before I go for it, or would you prefer it if I just grabbed on tight so you could reel me in?"

"Sorry." Her smile came again, bright and white. "My name’s Ericka, and you saved my life, once."

"In the Bog?"

"Yup. Mouse and her buddies were set on having me for dessert, but you made sure they went home empty handed." She shook her head, her long blonde hair fanning out in amber waves behind her. "You were amazing. I’d never seen a woman fight like that before. It was . . .unbelievable."

It was my turn to blush and look down at my hands as the awe in her voice washed over me and brought with it, I’ll readily confess, no small sense of pride. I remembered the incident vaguely, as I remembered most of those long ago fights in the Bog. There were so many that after awhile, they all just tended to blend together into one long, nearly never-ending conflict.

My pride wasn’t so much with my fighting abilities, such as they were—and are—but rather with the simple fact that I was given the opportunity to help in the first place. It felt good to know that I was a person others could look to for help, just as it felt good to remember that fact. Especially now, when all it seemed I could do was to seek out and rely upon the help of others.

"I didn’t mean to embarrass you," she said softly, laying a gloved hand on my thigh in a gentle touch.

"You didn’t. It’s just . . . ." I sighed. "That’s not important now. I’m glad I could help."

"I’m glad you could, too. It was the closest I ever came, I think, to dying. Quickly, I mean. I’d been dying slowly for years."

"How do you mean?"

She shrugged again. "I was hooked on drugs for a long time. Cocaine, mostly. My arrest should have given me a wake-up call, but it didn’t. Drugs were easier to get in the Bog than they were on the streets." Her laugh was mirthless. "Course, the price was higher. And when I finally decided to stop paying it, well . . .you walked in on the result. That’s when I decided to quit. Cold turkey all the way. It was really hard, especially at first. But every time I was tempted to score some more coke, I remembered the look on your face when you walked into that room and started beating the crap out of those idiots. And I figured that if someone like you could care so much for someone like me, someone you didn’t even know, then I figured maybe it was time that I started caring for myself, too."

"That’s a wonderful story."

"Every word’s the truth. You saved my life in more ways than one that day, Angel. And I told myself that if I ever got the opportunity to thank you, I would." She looked directly at me, the fire of sincerity burning in her bright hazel eyes. "Thank you. I mean that, from the bottom of my heart."

Jumping down off the fence-post, I pulled her into a tight hug and felt her return the embrace with strength and vigor. Pulling away, I smiled at her. "You’re welcome, Ericka."

She blushed again. "Well, actually, they don’t call me that anymore."


"Nope. See, when I heard that you were an Amazon, I decided that I wanted to be one as well. Kinda schoolgirl crush-like of me, I know, but that’s how I was back then. So I started working out to get back into shape again, and started hanging out with some of the other Amazons. And then, right after you were released, they made me an Amazon." She grinned, gesturing to herself. "I’ll bet you can guess what they named me."

Taking a step back, I made a show of carefully examining her from tip to toe. "Cowgirl, right?"

"Got it in one."

"Figures. Amazons," I snorted, "not an original one in the bunch."

Her laugh and the dinner bell sounded at the same time, jolting me a little. She touched my shoulder in sympathy. "Did that to me the first couple of times, too." Then she looked down at herself, shaking her head. "Well, I’d better get cleaned up before Montana gives me fifty kinds of holy hell for tracking dirt through the house again. See you at dinner?"

"Sounds great!"


That night, sleep claimed me more easily than it had in a very long time. The evening had passed quickly and, for the most part, pleasantly as I spent the time exchanging spirited banter with Cowgirl, Montana and Corinne and ignoring the other end of the table, where Rio held court, her fawning cronies slavish to her every word and action.

That I actually felt tired when it came time to turn in was a blessing in itself, and once the lights were turned off and a quiet good-night was said to my absent lover, I turned to my side, closed my eyes, and remembered nothing until I woke up again.

Which, unfortunately, seemed to be smack-dab in the middle of the night, judging from the absolute lack of light from the direction of the window.

My heart rate was up, though not from fear. At least I didn’t think so. A feeling more akin to anticipation washed through my body, standing the hairs up on my arms and behind my neck. I had the feeling of being watched, though I knew, beyond all shadow of a possible doubt, that I was most definitely alone.

Had it been a dream? Some nightmare which had evaporated back into the dark mist the second I opened my eyes?

No. Nightmares and I were old friends, especially of late. And this simply didn’t feel like the aftereffects of one of their regular visits.

What then?

Cautiously, as soundlessly as I could, I turned from my side to my back. . . .and almost jumped clean out of my skin when my cheek brushed against something soft, cool and giving.

Scrabbling backward, I almost fell off the bed, my arm reaching somehow behind me to turn on the light. My free hand curled into a tight fist as I blinked against the bright light, breathing in quick pants through my nose as I waited for my eyes to adjust to the change.

"What the . . . ?"

Laying on the pillow, completely devoid of thorns, lay one perfect, blood-red rose.

I stared at it dumbly for a long moment, my mind not comprehending what my eyes were seeing.

As if still asleep and dreaming, I watched as my hand slowly snaked out, fingers extended to their maximum length and gently brushing the stem before pulling away slightly, as if afraid they would be bitten. I looked on as they approached the rose again, this time taking it into a careful grip and pulling forward until the bloom was directly under my nose.

Inhaling deeply, I was unable to stop the smile which spread across my face.

"Ice," I sighed with pleasure as I took another deep breath, then gently brushed the incredibly soft petals against my cheek.

Then I stopped, abruptly, as I realized where I was and what I was doing.

My heart sped up again.


Wide-eyed, I craned my neck until the vertebrae popped, scanning every inch of the room for my lover’s dark presence.

My first waking impulse was confirmed, however.

I was completely alone.

Adrenaline shot me out of bed like a rocket, and my hand was twisting the doorknob open before my feet even realized they’d hit the floor. Yanking the door open wide, I stepped into the dim hallway, almost colliding with Corinne, who filled up part of said hallway, her head cocked at an odd angle, as if listening to something I couldn’t hear.

The near collision brought Corinne’s attention to me, and she took a long look at the rose that was still in my hand before dragging her eyes up to my own. "Secret admirer?" she asked, smirking.

"Where is she?"

"Your admirer? I may be good, Angel, but even I’m not that good. To ascertain where she might be, one would have to first know who she might be, yes?"

A harsh, barely restrained whisper from the living-room cut off my retort and I pushed Corinne none-too-gently out of my way as I strode down the long hallway, preparing myself for the much awaited sight of my lover.

What I received instead, however, was the vision of Montana and Rio at right angles to one another; the former standing calmly with a piece of white paper in one hand; the latter gesturing wildly, her face brick with barely controlled rage.

"Do it, Rio. Now. I won’t ask you again," Montana said, her voice calm and uninflected.

"Fuck that, Montana. Everything was fine here before that blonde-headed bitch came down here."

"What’s going on, Montana?" I said upon hearing my cue.

Rio whirled at the sound of my voice, her dark eyes absolutely blazing with anger. "You!"

Reaching out, Montana easily spun the much larger woman around to face her. "Now, Rio."

After a long moment, Rio’s broad shoulders slumped in defeat. "Fine," she said, jerking away from Montana. Whirling again, she strode toward me, her fists clenched tightly at her side.

I braced myself for what was coming, both unwilling and unable to back down from her dangerous threat.

At the last second, she stepped left, jarring my shoulder with the side of her body. The rose in my hand flew loose from the impact, and, turning, I watched helplessly as she kicked it against the door, scattering the beautiful petals across the floor and crushing a few beneath her boot as she left the house, slamming the door behind her.

I turned slowly back. "Montana?"

"I’m sorry, Angel," she whispered.

"What’s going on?"

Walking until she drew even with me, she handed me the sheet of paper she was holding.

It was a note. That much I could tell from my first quick scan. Unsigned, but that didn’t matter, as I knew the bold handwriting as well as I knew the beat of my own heart.

If I were Cavallo, you’d all be dead.

Let me down like this again, and you’ll wish I was.

"Ice wrote this," I said, stating the obvious.

"Yes. I found it stuck into my headboard with this." Holding her other hand out, she displayed a wicked-looking knife, its sharp edge glimmering malevolently in the dim lighting.

"Where is she?"

"Gone." She sighed. "Long gone."

"And you sent Rio to find her?"

"No. Rio’s one of the best there is, but even she couldn’t find Ice if she doesn’t want to be found. Rio’s in charge of security here. I sent her off to call for some reinforcements."

"But why? Why doesn’t she want to be found? Why didn’t she stay? I don’t understand." I felt those damn tears wanting to fall again, but at that point, I think I was just too angry to give them the satisfaction of wetting my cheeks.

Montana sighed. "I don’t understand either, Angel. The one thing I do understand is that she was testing us; testing our defenses. And we failed. Miserably."

"You can’t blame yourself for this, Montana. It’s Ice we’re talking about, after all. I mean, she’s . . .was . . .is . . .hell, I don’t know anymore . . .an assassin. This kind of thing is what she used to get paid to do, remember?"

"Yes, Angel. I remember. But how can I be sure she was wrong? How can I be sure that even if we didn’t stop her, we could stop Cavallo? Or, for that matter, any half-baked idiot or jealous boyfriend who came in here wanting to tear the place up?" She looked down at the knife in her hand, turning it over, and over again. "I used to think we were up to any threat. Now I know how foolish that idea was."

"Montana, you can’t . . . ."

"Yes, I can, Angel. I can and I will. The lives of every woman here, including you, are my responsibility." She looked at me once again, her jaw square and tight. "I failed this first test. Thank god we all lived through it. I’ll be damned if I fail again. If you’ll excuse me, I have some business to attend to."

Nodding to each of us in turn, she turned crisply and disappeared back down the opposite hall to what I assumed was her own room, leaving Corinne and myself to stare after her in shocked silence.


I spent most of the rest of the day shuttling wildly between anger and grief, hope and despair. Part of me was so angry at Ice that I wanted, given the impossible opportunity, to throttle her. Though I well understood her innate need to see to it that I was safe as it was possible for me to be, I didn’t understand why that need had to come at the expense of my own innate need to see her, safe, whole, and, most importantly, free.

Much as it shames me to admit such a thing, part of me was glad Rio had bumped the rose from my hand and crushed it beneath the heel of her boot. The rest of me, however, spent long, painful moments on my knees, gathering up each and every petal I could find as some sort of tangible link to the woman who held my heart in her hands.

Since I knew that sleep wouldn’t let me catch him quite so easily the second time around, I gave up even bothering to try, and instead showered and changed, then padded out to the kitchen, where work had already begun preparing meals for a new day as yet undawned.

Pitching in allowed the time to pass quickly and mindlessly, and before I knew it, I was up to my elbows in soap suds, washing away the fruits of my morning labors.

The kitchen crew, at least for breakfast, was made up of an older, quieter group of women who seemed far more interested in getting the meal made and the dishes cleaned than expending energy on gossiping about who did what to whom, when, where, and how often.

That’s not to say there wasn’t talk, because there was; just not very much of it.

After the last dish was washed, dried, and put away, I escaped the suddenly too small confines of the house, and stepped out into the warm, bright desert day with a distinct feeling of relief. Taking in a deep, cleansing breath, I allowed my feet to take me where they would, not at all surprised to find myself once again perched atop a corral fence-post as the horses were released from their night-time abode.

The bay stallion, of course, led the way, and I felt a little smirk form, tipping my figurative hat to him for getting the plum job of being the only male around for miles. He snorted and bobbed his head at me, as if in agreement, before bounding away, most of the herd in tow.

I watched his antics with pleasure, enjoying the way the sunlight dappled his coat and brought the thick, corded muscles of his massive body into sharp relief. He reminded me, more than slightly, of the horse Ice had carved for me last Christmas—almost a year ago, now.

God, has it really been a year? How could time have gotten away from me that quickly? How could . . .

Any further thoughts along that maudlin line were halted as I felt a gentle nudge to my knee. Startled, I almost lost my balance, but maintained it by grabbing onto the nudger, which in this case happened to be the nose of a beautiful dappled gray pony, who indignantly snorted my fingers from her nostrils.

I couldn’t help but laugh (almost losing my balance again, incidentally) as she appraised me with one huge, dark eye before lowering her head to nudge against my leg again, this time higher against my thigh, her nostrils whuffling as if in search of a treat.

"I’m sorry girl," I said with genuine regret. "I don’t have anything for you."

A musical laugh sounded next to me, and I looked up to see Cowgirl astride a massive horse, the brim of her white Stetson tipped low to shade her face from the relentless sun. "Don’t worry about Cleo, Angel. She thinks she’s a puppy. C’mon, Cleo, give the woman some room. She’s not your personal feedbag."

"That’s alright," I replied, giving the horse a scratch between the eyes. "I don’t mind. She’s kinda sweet."

"Oh, she’s sweet alright. Keep paying attention to her like that and you’ll find yourself with an eight foot shadow for the rest of your life."

"Don’t mind the mean lady, Cleo," I stage whispered, continuing to scratch my newfound friend. "She’s just jealous ‘cause you only have eyes for me."

Cowgirl snorted as she led her horse around in a tight circle. "While I work on trying to get over my envy issues, would you like to take a ride with me? I need to fix some fence out on the back part of the corral and I’d enjoy the company."

I winced. "Well, as much as I love horses, I’m afraid I haven’t ridden one since I was a kid."

"That’s no problem. We’ll just let you ride your new friend there. She’s pretty forgiving."

I looked at Cleo, who tossed her head, then nudged me again.

"What the heck. Looks like I’ve been outvoted anyway."


The sun was very close to setting as I walked my tired, sweaty and saddle-sore body back toward the house. I was exhausted, beyond doubt, but pleasantly so. Cowgirl’s gentle company managed to keep my mind away from sadder things, and her sweet voice belting out country song after country song kept me laughing and humming along, though I couldn’t, as my father was wont to say, carry a tune in a bucket.

I stepped around Rio’s car, which was once again parked in front of the house, and spared a quick wave to Corinne, who was lounging by the pool with a bevy of naked beauties attending her every whim. Grinning and shaking my head at her good fortune, I opened the door and stepped into the house, just in time to see an almost exact replay of the scene early that very morning, this time set in the living room.

Both turned to me as I entered, but any thoughts of simply reversing my steps and spending the night in the stables was erased as Montana beckoned me forward with a smile.

"I . . .um . . .didn’t mean to interrupt. I’ll just . . .be going to my room to wash up."

"No, that’s alright, Angel. I’m actually glad you came back. I have some friends . . . ."

Any further words were blocked out as I felt an unfamiliar, and somewhat gruff, hand clasp hard onto my left shoulder. Already tired and wary from the resentful glare I was getting from Rio, my body reacted without thought, doing what it had been trained to do when it perceived a threat.

Reaching up, I grabbed the hand on my shoulder, twisting the wrist as I thrust my hip out to the left. With a smooth, controlled motion, as I’d been so carefully taught, I threw the body behind me over my hip, then straddled it, glaring down at the idiot who dared to grab me from behind like that.

A glare which quickly changed to a look of shocked disbelief as I recognized the woman I’d just thrown to the floor.

"Pony? Is that you?"

"Surprise?" she wheezed through the broad, proud grin threatening to split her face in half.

"Pony!!" I yelled, grabbing her hand and hauling her back to her feet with adrenaline-fueled strength. "How did you . . . ? Where did you . . . .?" The rest of my babbling questions were lost as I pulled her tight against me in a hug.

Chuckling low in her throat, she returned the embrace before lifting me off of my feet and twirling me around before setting me back down again. "Damn it’s good to see you again, Angel!" After giving each cheek a loud, smacking kiss, she pulled away to the length of her arms and boldly appraised me from head to toe, her eyes lingering longer in some places than others. "Lookin’ good," she said, leering.

"You’re not looking half bad yourself, Pony," I replied, laughing through my tears.

"I’ll bet you say that to all the studs, Angel," came a very familiar, very loved, and very much missed voice behind me.

Stunned, I whirled, feeling my jaw unhinge as I did so. "Critter?"

"Hey there, stranger." Her smile as bright as the Arizona sunshine, she opened her arms and I ran willingly into them, feeling her hug engulf me like the warmest of blankets.

"I don’t believe it," I blubbered. "I can’t believe you’re here. How . . . ?"

"Thank Donita and a very shocked parole board," she said, her own eyes suspiciously bright. "They sprung Pony and I together. I think they’re still trying to figure out why they did that."

"What about Sonny?"

Her smile faltered just a little. "We’re hoping for a little better luck the next time around. She misses all of us, but she’s doing ok." She smirked. "She found a new looooove."

Laughing, I grabbed Pony’s arm and pulled them both in for another tight hug, happy beyond belief that these two old, beloved and cherished friends were with me once again, especially at a time when I needed them so very desperately.

After pulling away, I gave then each a long, assessing look. "Neither of you has changed a bit. Not a bit!"

"You sure as hell have!" Pony replied, poking at my belly and scowling. "Not that you weren’t a knockout before, Angel, but you’re positively buff now! What gives, woman? Ice put you on some steroids or something?"

I laughed. "No. Nothing like that. I came by these muscles honestly."

"Honestly? What’d ya do? Haul rocks around up there in bumfuck?"

"Pony!" Critter yelled, slapping Pony on the arm.

"Hey!" Pony yelped, rubbing her arm and scowling at Critter. "It’s an honest question! When I first saved her ass, she was all skin and bones and babyfat. Now she’s got more muscles than I do!"

Critter laughed. "God, Pony. You’re so butch."

"You got a problem with that?" She turned back to me. "Spill it, Angel. What do I gotta do to get a body like that?"

"Well, for starters," I replied through the smirk that was forming, "you could build your own house."

"Bu. . . ." Her eyes widened. "You built your own damn house??"

"Well, I didn’t build it myself, no. But I helped. A lot." I winced over the memory of strained muscles and splinters and blisters and everything else that went along with building our cabin. That wince quickly turned to a grin, however, when I remembered the tender care Ice took with my injuries, and the many evenings spent face down and blissfully naked as my lover’s hot hands expertly removed each and every bit of soreness from my abused muscles, replacing that soreness with languor, or passion, however she saw fit.

Looking up just in time to catch Critter’s knowing smile, I felt a blush heat my face and quickly looked down again, trying to regain my composure.

Completely oblivious, Pony poked me again. "I can’t believe you built your own damn house."

"Well, I did. I also chopped about a forest’s worth of firewood, walked almost everywhere I needed to go, and swam two miles in the lake every morning and every evening in the summer."

Absolute silence reigned as Pony stared me with eyes the size of silver dollars. After a long moment, she covered her face and shook her head. "Never mind," she mumbled through her fingers. "Forget I asked. I’ll just keep the body I got."

Grinning in absolute satisfaction, I turned to see Montana looking at us with an unreadable expression on her face. Of Rio, there was no sign at all. "Where’s Rio?"

"She left."

"Left?" Pony asked. "Where the hell’d she go? We were supposed to go over the security measures, damnit!"

"Something’s been eating at her all day," Critter supplied. "She’s not like her usual self at all. Is there a problem?"

"It’s been longer than all day," Montana replied, giving me a significant look.

That was something Pony didn’t miss. She whirled back to me, dark eyes narrow and penetrating. "What’s goin’ on, Angel."

"Nothing, Pony. We just . . .we didn’t hit it off real well, that’s all."

"That’s bullshit. You’d hit it off with the devil himself, Angel. What’s really goin’ on."

I shrugged. "I don’t know. There’s obviously something about me that rubs her the wrong way. I don’t know what it is, but I’m sure we can work it out eventually." I smiled. "Not everyone has to like me, you know."

"When I’m around, they do," Pony growled, fists clenched.

"Pony, calm down," Montana said. "It’s gone beyond that now. You know how proud she is. When I had her bring you and Critter in, she got upset. She thinks I’m questioning her abilities."

"And she’s blaming Angel for that? That’s absolute bullshit! If she’d done her job right in the first place, she wouldn’t have had to worry about it!"

"Pony . . . ." This time, it was Critter’s turn to try.

"Forget it, Critter. I don’t know what damn bug flew up her ass, but I’m gonna pull it out for her. Through her throat."

"Pony, there’s a lot going on . . . ."

"Fine. She can have a nice long time to think about it from the comfort of her own bed after I put her ass in traction."

As she turned to stomp away, I grabbed her arm, surprised at the ease with which I turned her back to me. "I appreciate this, Pony, but please, let me handle it myself, ok? When this whole thing cools down, I’ll try and have a talk with her. You can even come along and hide in the shadows if you want. Just please . . .this is between Rio and I. Let’s keep it there for now, alright?"

She scowled at me, obviously not ready to give up her anger, but finally nodded and gently pulled her arm away from my grasp. "Fine. But if you think I’m not gonna rag her ass over the security situation, you’ve got another thing coming. It’s not just Cavallo we need to worry about, you know. There’s a whole planet full of crazies who’d love to bomb this place off the fucking map. If she’s not doin’ her job right, then I’m gonna call her on it."

I returned the nod. "That’s fine. I’m guessing that since you’re down here, that’s your job."

"Damn right it is."

Critter laughed, pushing Pony toward the door. "Go scare the venom out of a rattlesnake or something, Cujo, willya?"

"Fine," she grumped, then turned and left the house without another word.

Unable to stop myself, I just threw back my head and laughed, crossing my arms over my stomach. "God, I missed you guys!"

"We missed you too, Angel," Critter replied, slinging an arm over my shoulder and ruffling my hair. "We missed you too."


" . . .and the next thing we knew, there she went, ass over elbows, right into the septic tank. The stink didn’t come out for weeks! It followed her around like a cloud."

I collapsed against the pillows, weak with laughter, not even bothering to wipe away the tears of mirth which were coursing down my cheeks.

"Yup," Critter continued, her face the very essence of the word ‘smug’. "Ol Mousie was never the same after that. I told her she’d wind up smelling like shit one day. I was right, too. Literally."

Rolling over onto my stomach, I tried desperately to stretch out the cramps that were tearing at my abdominal muscles, already abused from a day of horse riding and hard physical labor. "Stop," I gasped. "Please. You’re killing me over here."

"Sorry." She didn’t sound very sorry at all.

But she did stop, which was a blessed relief. When my hysteria finally got itself back under control, I flipped on my back again and propped myself up on my elbows, fixing her with a pointed look. "You’re bad."

"Sure am."

"Well," I said, sobering up a little, "much as I missed you guys, I don’t miss waking up every morning wondering if someone like Mouse or Derby is waiting to rearrange my face for looking at them the wrong way." Shaking my head, I sighed. "I just wish I don’t sometimes get that feeling when Rio’s around."

"I wish you didn’t either, Angel. I’m not sure what’s going on with her. Rio’s one of those really big people who scares the crap out of you to look at her, but she’s really sweet underneath. At least, she used to be. God knows what’s wrong with her now."

"So, you knew her before, then?"

"Yeah. In the Bog. She got there about a year after I did. She was huge even then, but those muscles were just for show. She couldn’t fight worth a spit in the rain."

"Really?" I asked, finding that hard to believe.

"Yeah. Really. She might have been strong, but she was slow, and clumsy as all hell. The bullies held off at first, because of her size, but once they found out she couldn’t fight, they were all over her like white on rice. It would have been pretty funny if it wasn’t so damn sad to watch."

"What happened?"

"Ice happened. They were giving Rio all kinds of holy hell out by the weight area one day. A few of them were holding her down with the barbell she was lifting pushed against her chest. The rest were punching and kicking the crap out of her. The rest of us were kinda standing by because it seemed like she was big enough to take care of herself, but evidently Ice didn’t think so, because she came out of the prison and before any of us could think to move, it was over." Her look of wonder was obvious as she thought about that incident. "Two of ‘em wound up in the hospital. The rest . . .well . . .let’s just say they weren’t in any shape to bully a tadpole for a few months."

I snorted softly. "Why am I not surprised?"

Critter grinned. "I’d be surprised if you were." She shifted positions, coming to lay on her back next to me, our heads sharing the same pillow. "So anyway, Ice sorta took Rio under her wing and taught her how to fight. She took to it like a duck to water, and before we knew it, she was using those muscles for more than just impressing the ladies."

"Did she ever bully anybody once she could fight?"

"Rio? No. Not at all. Like I said, she’s as sweet as they come. God, you should have seen the look on her face when Ice made her an Amazon. I thought she was gonna bust out crying in front of everyone."

I couldn’t help but shake my head in amazed disbelief. The picture of Rio that Critter was painting was as different from my own version as night is to day. Suddenly, a thought popped into my head. "Critter, were Rio and Ice . . . ."

She looked at me for a long moment. "Are you asking me if they were lovers?"

I nodded.

Her brow furrowed, but after a moment, her expression cleared as understanding dawned. "You’re afraid she’s jealous, aren’t you."

"It would make sense, yes. An ex-lover having to play taxi-driver to the current lover, carting her to hell and back, then being told her skills aren’t enough to protect her." I shrugged. "I’d probably be angry too."

"Well, it would make sense, if that were the case. But, as far as I know, it’s not. Rio worshipped the ground Ice walked on—hell, we all did—but they weren’t an item. Friends, yes. Involved, no."

"Well, I guess that takes us back to square one again," I said, gently hitting the mattress with my hand.

Critter grasped my other hand, threading our fingers together. "Maybe she just has some personal stuff going on right now, Angel. Maybe all this just came at a bad time for her. Maybe after Pony settles things down here, that talk you were thinking about might not be such a bad idea."

"You’re right. I just hope I can wait that long."

She laughed. "You’ve been with Ice for what . . .seven years now? If there’s one thing you have in abundance, Angel, it’s patience."

"A virtue that’s being sorely tested right about now, let me assure you," I said, scowling.

Laughing again, she rolled over and kissed me soundly on the lips, then jumped up off the bed. "Lemme go see if Pony needs me for anything, then I think it’s time to hit the bed. It’s been a long day. Night, Angel."

"Night, Critter."

A jaunty wave, and she made for the door.




A half-cocky smile graced her lips as she sketched a half-bow in my direction. "Anytime, Angel. Anytime."


The next several days passed quickly and without incident as I gradually became accustomed to my new, if temporary, home. I spent most mornings in the kitchen with Corinne, helping to prepare breakfast for the thirty or so women who stayed at the ranch. It was the only real time we had to spend together, so I valued each morning for the chance it gave me to be with her, no matter how briefly.

Critter and Pony were busy as well, reinforcing ranch security with Rio. To her credit, Rio seemed nothing if not extremely dedicated to her job, throwing herself into it one thousand percent of the way and making sure that mistakes like that of a week ago would not be repeated on her watch.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that, where Ice was concerned, those mistakes would always be repeated. Not that it would have mattered, really. She would likely have smacked me senseless if I did.

She seemed a bit calmer with Pony around, though, so I had hope for an eventual reconciliation between us, given the opportunity.

I’d spend a good bit of the daylight hours at the corral, watching the horses, feeding and grooming any that needed it, and generally keeping myself busy and my mind off my absent lover, as best as I was able.

My best was frequently not good enough, and the ache in my chest only got stronger the more time passed without seeing her. I often found myself talking to her, much as one would a deceased loved one, sharing bits of my day with her, and telling her how much I missed her.

An evening ritual had also developed. I’d saddle up my newfound equine friend and set out for the westernmost part of the corral to watch the sun set over the distant mountains. The sight never failed to take my breath away, and it was the one time in the day when I felt closest to Ice.

I shed more than a few tears on those solitary treks, but always returned home feeling better for having gone.

One night, long after the sun had set, I escaped from the too-warm and too-noisy confines of the main house, taking in the cool quiet of the desert and feeling my body calm instantly as the peaceful night drew me in and made me welcome in its darkness.

I headed toward the stables, several carrots in hand, knowing that Cleo’s placid, silent company was just what the doctor ordered for me.

As I entered the cool comfort of the stables, taking in the smell of hay and horses with almost absent pleasure, I heard an odd, rhythmic thumping noise which let me know that I wasn’t the only two footed animal in the place.

Still, the building was relatively well-lit and the horses seemed unconcerned, so I paid no significant mind to the noises and instead moved to answer the anxious greetings of Cleo, who could smell carrots, it was said, from a continent away. With a head cold. In a hurricane.

As she strained her neck near to breaking in order to quickly lip up the treats I had for her, I couldn’t help but laugh at her antics, and give her a fond and happy scratch between the eyes.

When she inhaled what was in my hand, she nudged my chest, whuffling for more. I laughed again, delighted, and as I pushed her insistent nose away, I heard the noises in the rear of the stable stop.

A moment later, a long, wide shadow fell over me.

I looked up to find Rio standing by the open doors, her black eyes glittering with anger, a large knife in her hand.

As I turned to face her, a smirk curled one corner of her upper lip. "Evening, blondie." She gave an exaggerated look around. "Where are your little protectors? Aren’t you all joined at the hip or somethin?"

Pulling away from Cleo, I squared myself to face her. "What do you want, Rio." I could feel my body tense, but I fought it, trying to remain as calm as possible.

The knife flashed as she gestured with it. "Your head on a platter would do, for starters."

Though I kept my gaze pinned to her, in the periphery of my vision, I could see several implements that could be used as weapons should I need one in a pinch. That thought calmed me, relaxing my bunched muscles. "Well, you certainly brought the right tool for the job."

She looked down at the knife as if just realizing it was in her hand. After a second, she dropped it to the ground. "I don’t think I’ll be needing it on the likes of you."

I felt myself shrug. It was amazing how cool and centered I felt. Of course, hearing the low tones of my lover in my thoughts helped immeasurably as well. "Your decision, I guess." As she started to come forward, fists clenched, I held up a hand.

Stunned, she stopped in her tracks and stared at me.

"Before you start rearranging my limbs for me, I have a question."

She squinted at me. "Are you nuts?"

"Maybe. But I still have a question."

She scowled. "What."


"Why what?!"

"Why are you doing this? Why do you hate me so much? I’ve obviously done something to offend you. I figure if you’re going to rip me to shreds, you could at least be nice enough to answer that."

She shook her head, not even considering the question. "You wouldn’t understand."

Then she came at me, her arms open wide for a classic bull rush. It was a move I’d seen a hundred times before. I was, I’ll admit, a little disappointed at her lack of originality.

I was working under no illusions, however. If she got close enough to get her arms around me, I’d be in for a world of hurt. Someone as big and as angry as Rio could easily kill me, even without meaning to do so. And even if she didn’t, I was sure she’d have no qualms about beating me so badly that I’d wind up wishing I was dead.

Waiting until she was almost on me, I simply ducked beneath one of her outstretched arms, darting away and turning just in time to see her narrowly miss the stable wall.

"Try me, Rio," I said as she turned, her face twisted in a snarl of rage. "I might understand better than you think."

"Forget it, blondie." She rushed me again, this time in a more controlled maneuver, then swung one of her long arms out in a wicked cross that would have surely crushed my skull to bits if I hadn’t ducked out of the way just in time.

Another punch came, and then another, but somehow I managed to evade them all.

She was strong, and quite obviously skilled, but no match for the woman I had made a habit of sparring with daily. Her swings seemed slow and almost clumsy in comparison to Ice’s sinuous fluidity.

Still, I kept my eyes open and my hands poised, ready to try my best to deflect anything I wasn’t quick enough to dodge.

Then a huge foot, topped by a tree-trunk sized leg, swung out to connect right at the nerve center of my right thigh. My leg gave out and I went down, quickly rolling away through the straw-strewn floor to evade a flurry of further kicks.

Just as I was about to trap myself in a corner, her foot slipped and she almost went down, her arms pinwheeling wildly for balance. Taking advantage of the opportunity presented, I stopped my roll and jumped back to my feet again, stiffened fingers working desperately to loosen the cramp she’d given me.

The knife glittered up at me through the straw on the floor, but after only a second of consideration, I looked away from that particular temptation. Never again would I go down that road.

Seeing my hesitation, she pounced, easing in and walloping me with a kick to the gut that, though partially blocked, sent me stumbling backwards for several feet while gasping for breath. I hit the wall, then bounced off, managing to evade her wild left to my head as I did so.

When the right followed, as I knew it would, I threw my hands up, catching her at the elbow and using a little move Ice had taught me to spin her away from me and into the wall I had just moved away from.

She hit it with a force to rattle the timbers, then turned, slightly dazed and badly out of breath.

"Talk to me, Rio," I said, circling away from her and back toward the shadowy part of the stables where there was much more room. "Tell me why you’re doing this."

Gritting her teeth, she pushed away from the wall, then kicked up the knife which laid at her feet. "Shut up and fight, bitch," she growled, stepping forward and slashing wildly at me.

I danced away. "I am fighting, Rio. I’m fighting to understand why you’re doing this." I evaded another slash, then ducked around the corner, using the maneuver to kick out at her as she came around to get me.

While my original goal, the knife in her hand, was missed, I did manage to get her a good on in the gut, which brought me precious seconds to regroup.

"Ice taught you to be an Amazon. Did she also teach you to come after unarmed women for no reason?"

"You don’t know anything about what she taught me!"

"Oh, I think I do," I countered, circling. "Because she taught me the same things she taught you."

"You’re not an Amazon! You’ll never be an Amazon!"

"How can you say that? You don’t even know me, Rio."

We continued to circle one another in and out of the shadows, the knife always between us, and my eyes never straying from it.

"Oh, I know all about you, bitch. I know that you’re no Amazon. An Amazon doesn’t suck the life out of people. An Amazon doesn’t make people weak and soft."

"Who have I done this to, Rio?"

"Ice, goddamn it!" she screamed, her face red with rage. "Even you’re not that stupid!"

"Maybe I am, because I still don’t understand."

"It’s all your fault, bitch. It’s your fault Cavallo’s still alive. It’s your fault she got arrested. You made her weak. You made her soft." Each short sentence was punctuated with a thrust of her knife. "The Ice I know wouldn’t play house with some blonde snatch and let the cops get the jump on her. The Ice I know would never have let Cavallo go after she had her gun to his head. The Ice I know . . . ."

The click was loud in the echoing confines of the large stable. I froze in place as I saw the glittering silver of a gun materialize out of the shadows and press its malignant barrel against Rio’s right temple. "Go ahead and finish what you were saying, Rio." The dark, velvet purr of my lover floated out of the shadows, causing every hair in my body to stand at stiff and almost painful attention as my muscles clenched and unclenched in pure animal reaction to her sudden presence. "The Ice you know . . .what?"

Rio was as stiff as I’d ever seen another human being. Her eyes were wide and rolling, and the dim lighting of the stables sparkled off the fat beads of sweat forming at her hairline and upper lip. Her mouth opened and closed, but only a strangled wheeze managed to escape. I could literally smell her abject terror, even over the heavy scent of hay and horses.

"Go ahead, Rio. Finish."

Another strangled wheeze was her answer.

A soft, mocking laugh filtered through. "What’s the matter, Rio? Cat got your tongue? You seemed just fine a minute ago."

"I . . . ."

"Ice," I said softly, taking a short step forward. Though it might have been insane, I found myself suddenly having a sort of strange sympathy for the woman who’d been trying to murder me just moments before. "Please . . . ."

"Well, since you don’t want to talk to me, Rio, maybe I’ll talk to you instead, hm?" The gun disappeared back into the shadows where my lover stood, and a black gloved hand grabbed Rio’s shirt and turned the terrified woman to face in Ice’s direction. "Apparently you’ve forgotten a few things I’ve taught you, my friend."

"Ice . . . ." I tried again.

"Rule number one. Never pick up a knife unless you plan on using it on someone." A booted foot slashed out of the darkness and the knife flew from Rio’s hand, spinning over my head and landing in a hay bale several feet behind me.

"Rule number two. Never threaten an innocent woman."

Rio’s breath exploded from her lungs in an agonized croak as she bent nearly double from the fist Ice drove into her belly.

She was quickly yanked back up once again, however.

"Rule number three." The soft, dark laugh sounded again. "Ah yes. I never mentioned rule number three to you before, did I? No matter. Now’s as good a time to learn it as any, right?"

I could see her huge body spasm as she was shaken, hard.

"Rule number three. It’s the simplest of them all, really. Touch Angel. You die. Got it?"

Rio was shaken again when she remained silent.

"I asked you a question, Rio. Answer me."

"Yes," she whispered. "I . . .understand."

"Good." There was a smile in Ice’s voice, but I knew that it was a smile I would never wish to see. "Now, it seems we have a little problem, don’t we. You broke Rule Number Three, and it’s the most important one of all."

"Please . . . ." Rio and I spoke at the same time, but Ice continued to ignore us both.

"It occurs to me that instead of threatening Angel, you should be on your knees thanking her, Rio. Because if it weren’t for her ‘softening’ me, your brains would be splattered all over this stable. And I think we both know that, don’t we?"

Another silence. Another vicious shake.

"Don’t we?"


"Good. So. I’m gonna be nice just this once and let you use your ‘get out of Hell free’ card. Just make sure you never, ever even think of doing it again. Because I promise you this, Rio. You will die."

As if shot from the mouth of a large cannon, Rio literally flew the length of the stables, landing against the far wall and slumping bonelessly to the ground.

The stables went silent once again, and for a very long moment, I feared Ice had slipped away once again. Somehow, though, I could still feel her presence. That strange sensation I always felt when she was there persisted, giving me hope and the strength I needed to cross those last few feet and step into the shadows.

Before I could, though, she stepped out into the light, birthed from the darkness as if demon-spawned. Her pale eyes glittered coldly and a cloud of energy dark as the shadows from which she’d materialized wrapped itself tight around her like a shroud.

She was dressed completely in black, her hair pulled back into a tight braid which brought the beautiful, chiseled planes of her face into sharp relief.


Almost as if pulled from the depths of a nightmare, her gaze sharpened and focused on me for the first time. And then, before my own eyes, it seemed to soften as she took me in. The tight, coiling energy surrounding her seemed somehow to dim, and the slightest of smiles graced her lips. "Hey," she said, her voice little more than a whisper.

Satan himself couldn’t have stopped me from running into her welcoming arms.

Crushing our bodies together, I wrapped myself around her like a strange, four-limbed octopus, breathing in the scent of her and listening to the slow beating of her powerful heart beneath my ear. "Don’t go," I whispered, knowing I was begging, but not caring. "Please stay."

Her long arms came around me, strengthening our bodies’ embrace, and I could feel the gentle brush of her lips against my hair. Her ribs expanded as she took in a deep breath, then expelled it as a gentle sigh which ruffled through my hair, warming my scalp.

A moment later, I felt her muscles loosen as she gently separated our bodies along their lengths. Her chin lowered slightly as she looked down at me. "Please," I whispered again, laying my hand atop the one which cupped my cheek, "stay. At least for tonight."

The intensity of her gaze stripped bare my soul, leaving me a trembling supplicant to her dark majesty.

When those eyes zeroed in on my lips, I felt a flash-fire of arousal sweep through me with an almost painful intensity, calling up from deep within visions of dangerous, wild things which lashed out from their penumbral lairs to feast upon the blood of innocents.

A gloved hand moved to my chin and suddenly that dark, roiling energy was transferred to me through the searing touch of hot, wet, hungry lips moving against mine, consuming me to ashes where I stood.

"Stay here." Her voice was husky and raw and wanting as she pulled away from me, from us.

I couldn’t have moved if I had wanted to. My feet had grown roots which fastened me to the dirt-packed floor. I watched, helplessly, my fingers brushing lips which felt nothing save the power of Ice’s kiss, as she crossed from light to shadows and back to light again, walking with firm purpose toward the back of the stables.

Bending down, she pulled Rio easily up by the front of her shirt, then ducked close to whisper something in my erstwhile tormentor’s ear. Though I couldn’t hear what was being said, the look of dumb, pathetic gratitude in Rio’s eyes as she nearly bowed deep in my lover’s presence gave me all the information I needed to know about that particular conversation.

She was sent stumbling from the stables, an arm clutched hard against her belly. Ice turned, her eyes quickly scanning the building’s interior. A brief smile crossed her face, and before I could think to move, a blanket-roll came sailing forth from the darkness, only missing my head because my hands happened to get in the way.

I looked down dumbly at it for a moment, and when I looked up again, Ice had disappeared.

The fear that she’d left broke my legs’ paralysis, but before I could take more than a few stumbling steps forward, she returned again, astride the blood bay stallion I’d spent so many hours admiring.

She rode him barebacked, her powerful legs gently resting against his muscled sides, her long fingers twined in his dusky black mane. He held her easily, not even twitching with the weight on his back, as if he had been born and bred for that very purpose.

His neck proudly arched, he looked down at me, his dark eyes alight with some sort of half-amused knowledge. Or perhaps it was mischief. As I’ve said previously, my knowledge of horses is quite minimal.

He stepped strongly forward at Ice’s gentle command, and the next thing I knew, a gloved hand had clasped me securely and I was lifted onto his back with an ease which never fails, to this very day, to both awe and thrill me.

"Hang on," came the low-voiced command as my hands were wrapped around Ice’s lean waist, the bedroll crushed comfortably between us.

"Forever," I whispered, resting my cheek against her back as she urged the stallion onward and out of the stable.

The corral gate was open, and since I knew it hadn’t been that way when I entered the stables, I surmised that it was one of the little tasks Ice had sent Rio on when she pushed her on her way. With a soft "Yah!", Ice sent us on our way, and my gentle hug became a hanging-on-for-dear-life white knuckled death-clutch as the earth flew quickly beneath the horse’s galloping hooves.

"Oooo I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die. I don’t wanna die. Ohhh nooo, I don’t wanna die."

I could hear the chuckle rumble through her as she clasped my hands more tightly in her own and let the stallion have his head. Soft tendrils of hair blew loose from her braid and brushed against my nose and cheeks, reminding me of happier times, and calming me right down to my soul.

Closing my eyes, I burrowed my face into her hair and allowed the scent of her to lead me onward into the unknown.

Some time later—frankly, I was too terrified to bother knowing exactly how much—the stallion’s frantic gait changed to a steady rocking walk, and then to a gentle halt.

Before I knew it, I felt my arms unwrapped from around the waist of my anchor. Then strong hands lifted me and lowered me gently down to the ground once again. Prying my eyes open as I attempted to gather what remained of my wits, I looked around, taking in the beauty of the secluded spot Ice had chosen for us.

And secluded it most definitely was. A three hundred sixty degree panoramic view brought with it no signs of civilization whatsoever. We could have been on the moon for all the life I saw.

Sentient life, that is. Tall, soft grasses with feathery tops grew in abundance atop the broad, flat mesa upon which I found myself. Overhead, the sky was an immense, jeweled tapestry. Without lights to dim its splendor, nor buildings or tall trees to shrink its vastness, it seemed to fill up the entire world in a way I’d never seen before, making me feel very tiny and very insignificant in comparison.

A long, warm body wrapped itself around me from behind, halting my reflexive shiver unborn.

I was hugged briefly, then had the blanket roll taken gently from my hands. As I looked on in silence, Ice unbuckled the straps from the roll, then set the blankets out on the ground, going down to one knee to smooth them out and tack them down with a few judiciously applied rocks to the corners.

Then she looked up at me, the barest ghost of a smile caressing the corners of her lips, and held a hand out. Moon-bathed, her face was a curious combination of gentle light and murky shadow, but her eyes, clear and bright, were the only home I ever needed.

I went to her, feeling strangely innocent; a bride on her wedding night accepting the gentle invitation of her betrothed.

A large, gloved hand clasped itself warmly around mine and a gentle kiss was placed atop my knuckles. Her smile broadened then as she looked up at me, that crooked grin that even now never fails to still my heart for the briefest of moments and always brings an instant answering smile to my own face.

"C’mere," she whispered, her voice barely heard over the gentle hiss of the wind against the tall grasses.

I lowered myself slowly to my knees, feeling the soft leather of her hand trail warmly up my arm and down my side to clasp securely at my waist, steadying me.

I looked up at her, my goddess of the night, as the moonlight anointed her from behind and created a brilliant, shimmering halo around her body. The expression of absolute adoration in her eyes as she looked down at me stole the breath from my lungs and the strength from my muscles.

The world around me ceased to exist. Time was only measured by the beating of my heart. "I love you," I said simply, in a tone I knew was very close to awe.

Truer words were never spoken; dearer words were never meant.

"I know," she returned in kind.

We came together as one being then, emerging from the darkness of our separate selves to meld once again in a language neither of us needed to speak. A language of love and building passion. A language of giving and taking and intimate knowledge. A language which eased hurts and filled to overflowing the empty spaces left behind.

Lips met lips in sensual urgency as hands fumbled at buttons and buckles. I almost screamed in relief as my shirt was torn open in a great rending of seams which echoed through the still desert night, borne up by the currents of the softly blowing wind.

Chill air was replaced by the inhuman heat of my lover’s hands as she teased and taunted, running long, strong, and vastly knowing fingers over my breasts and circling my nipples with merciless abandon until I all but cried out my surrender.

A low chuckle filled the night air, and I was eased gently onto my back as her lips left my mouth and blazed a hot and needy trail down the length of my jaw before finally settling at the sensitized flesh of my neck. My hands fisted the coarse blankets beneath me as strong teeth made their presence felt and a darting tongue danced along my pulsepoint, causing stars the heavens had never seen to begin dancing behind my tightly clenched eyes.

"Dear god," I gasped, and writhed helplessly as her hands left my breasts and moved lower to remove the impediment of my jeans while her teeth and tongue continued to work their magic on my trembling flesh.

A moment of panic froze my movements as I felt her body leave mine, but when I opened my eyes, a hard, sharp wave of intense arousal swept through me, stronger by far than any tidal wave that had ever been birthed from the depths of a churning, frothy sea.

A silver-gilded goddess knelt above me, her nimble fingers removing the last of her clothing and allowing the moonlight to trail along her magnificent body in a lover’s possessive touch.

I couldn’t stop the moan which came forth from between dry lips as I watched her hands run freely down her breasts and belly, following the moonlight’s anointed path and making me wish with all of my being to be given the power to shine down on her so intimately, if only for just a moment.

With a growl I didn’t even know I had in me, I bolted upright and wrapped my hands around her waist, stealing her from the moon’s embrace and bringing the wild, primal beauty of her into my arms, where it belonged.

I heard her quiet moan as I nipped and licked the satin skin of her muscled belly; felt her hands twine in my hair as my tongue found a home in the well of her navel; smiled against her skin as her hips thrust gently forward in unmistakable response to my attentions.

Unable to wait even the length of one more beat of my heart, I lowered my chin to trail ardent kisses down her lower belly, and to seek out the scent and taste of her, something so missed and so needed and so very much cherished that tears formed in the corners of my eyes for the sheer joy of finding it once again within my reach.

And then, finally, after so long waiting and wanting, the taste of her was finally on my tongue. I moaned in utter bliss, hearing the soft, answering moan from above as Ice’s fingers tightened in my hair while her hips began a slow, gentle rocking which brought more of her into my mouth and filled me with indescribable, heart-clenching joy.

My hands wandered down from her waist, over her hips, and down to clench the tightly bunched muscles at the backs of her thighs. I could feel those muscles quiver beneath my palms as she tried to fight the combined hold that gravity and my mouth had over her.

Smiling slightly, I redoubled my efforts, pursing my lips and taking her deep within as my tongue danced against her, long and slow.

The trembling in her legs soon became violent tremors. Her hands clenched reflexively, the incredible strength of her pulling me tightly against her and driving my tongue deeper and then deeper still.

Until finally the edge was reached and, with a long, low moan, she released against my tongue in a great, shuddering wave which brought tears of happiness to eyes long used to sadder emotions.

Her legs gave out, finally, and I helped her down as best I could until she was sitting back on her heels and looking at me with an expression of half-dazed wonder, hands laying limply on her thighs.

A giddy sort of joy rose from my up from my belly and curved my lips in a wide grin. "Gotcha, didn’t I," I said, mock-buffing my nails against my chest.

"That you did," she growled, her crooked smile broadening my own. "That you most certainly did."

I laughed, a gleeful chuckle. "I’ll have to remember to write this down, then. It’s not often that I . . . ."

Any further words were swallowed as a six foot ball of naked, sexual heat seared my lips with her own and powered me once again onto my back. "Turnabout is always fair play, sweet Angel," a low voice rumbled into my ear. "And I intend to . . . play . . .a great deal."

I would have gulped, had I the saliva for it. Instead, I gasped, then moaned as a tongue traced a path around my ear, followed quickly by the gentle bite of teeth which suckled and worried at my lobe. Her hand wandered, once again teasing my breasts, finding each nipple with unerring intimacy until it was all I could do just to remember my own name for the fire she was fanning deep within. "Do you like this game, my Angel?"

"Yes, I . . .god! . . .there! . . . I . oh!. .do. Very . . .oh yes, please . . .much. . . ."

Her laughter rolled through me. "Good."

My body was the sun, burning hot and bright as her hands remapped its peaks and valleys, never stilling, never lingering too long before moving on in their quest.

Her body was the moon, bathing me in its magnificent radiance.

And when she finally entered me, thrusting with a strength and a tenderness which were hers and hers alone, I gave up a sobbing prayer of thanks to the heavens which birthed us and brought her back to me, fully whole, fully strong, and fully alive.

My release came quickly beneath the tender mercies of her skilled and knowing touches. The second was building before the first even died out.

I needed more, needed the power of her love, and she gave it willingly, not stopping even after a second climax left me breathless and shaking.

I felt her strength against me as she moved to straddle one of my thighs, her breath warm and moist on my sweat-drenched cheeks. "I love you, Angel," she whispered, as she began a gentle rocking against me, building a rhythm between our bodies. "So very, very much."

Turning my head, I captured her lips with mine, sinking my hands into the thickness of her hair as our love and passion built strongly once again. Our bodies, wet with sweat, slid against one another with a delicious friction. The coarse fabric of the blanket created a friction of its own as it slid against my back and hips in time to Ice’s ever increasing thrusts.

Radiant energy passed from one to the other of us, binding us closer still, until finally our mouths separated when the need for air became too much. Her eyes glittered as she thrust herself against me, soft grunts speaking their own passionate language to the depths of my soul and beyond. Her fingers danced within me as she moved, inviting me to share this journey to the stars with her.

"Together?" I whispered, gasping deep as my muscles clenched and tightened, promising the release my very soul hungered for.

"Always," she answered, feeding me her own climax through the deep indigo of her eyes.

We stayed frozen for a long moment, two statues locked together by an unbreakable bond, until finally Ice’s eyelids fluttered and closed and she slumped down full upon me, chest heaving as she regained her breath.

As I attempted to bring my own breathing back under control, I turned my head and nuzzled the sweet flesh at the juncture of her neck and shoulder. I smiled slightly as I felt a shudder run the length of her body, then kissed the spot in question, eliciting a smaller, but nonetheless easily felt, tremor.

Growling slightly, she pulled away and turned, using her arms to gather me close against her, breast to breast and belly to belly. "You alright?" A tender kiss was placed, like a benediction, on my forehead.

"I’m . . .wonderful." As if she couldn’t tell it by the dopey, blissed-out grin I was sure was on my face.

"That you are," she said, chuckling.

"You’re not so bad yourself, sweetheart," I replied in my most saucy tone, only wanting to hear that laugh tickle my ears again.

I was well rewarded as her low laughter filled the cool night air, warming my insides right down to my toes. Unfortunately, the same could not be said about my outsides. As the cool wind wafted across my sweat-soaked skin, I shivered from the chill.

"Cold?" She pulled me more tightly against her body, enveloping me in the heat of her.

"A little."

A long arm detached itself from my waist, and a bare second later, I was wrapped in one of the blankets, snug as a babe in her mother’s warm arms.


"Mmm. Much."


As I listened to the slowing beat of my lover’s heart, my eyelids grew heavy as I found myself in a place filled with wondrous beauty and infinite peace, a place only found within the safety of Ice’s embrace.

As I drifted in this place, my mind wandered from thought to thought until one stood out and caused me to stiffen. "Ice?"

"Mmm?" came the contented murmur of my lover’s sleepy voice.

"As much as I can’t believe I’m saying this, do you think maybe we’d better go back now? Before Montana calls in the National Guard, I mean?"

"All taken care of." I felt her stretch against me, then settle back, tangling our legs together and taking in a deep, contented sigh.

I pulled my head back slightly to look up into her eyes. "Rio?"


I nodded, then nestled into her warm body, smiling slightly as I felt her rest against my hair. "Thank you, by the way."

"For what?"

"Being my knight in . . .um . . .black cotton."

Snorting softly, she shook her head, her chin brushing gently along the top of my scalp.

"How long were you there?"

"Since before you came into the stables."

Shock ran through my body, and I pulled away again to look up at her. "Then why . . . ?"

She shrugged. "You were handling it."

I could feel my jaw hang suspended, like that of a gaping fish, as I continued to stare at her. Though a woman of relatively few words, sometimes those she chose to utter made me feel more than fifty feet tall.

Smirking slightly, she brought a hand up and gently closed my mouth. "Don’t want a scorpion crawling in there."

If any threat in the world could have broken the spell I was under, it was that one. Had Ice not been holding me, I would have jumped clear up to the moon. Though I’d never seen one up close and personal, my hatred of scorpions was already legendary, if to no one other than myself.

And now, apparently, to Ice as well. "Don’t worry. There aren’t any around here."

I could feel my eyes narrow. "How do you know?"

"I just know," was the soft-voiced reply.

"Alright then. But if I get stung on the butt, you know who’s going to be sucking the poison out."

"With pleasure." Her tone of voice caused me to think that perhaps finding such an insect was suddenly quite high on her list of priorities.

I grabbed her in a tight hold. "Don’t even think about thinking about it."

An evil little smirk was her only answer.

Stealing a kiss from her lips, I laid my head back down against her shoulder, reveling in the smoothness of her skin against mine and the scent of our loving which surrounded us both. The brush of her fingers against my hair as she started a slow, gentle stroking caused yet another smile to break out across my face. I knew, without any sense of false modesty whatsoever, that I was the most loved and cherished person in all the world at that very moment in time.

A moment I hoped would last an entire forever’s worth of forever.

After several long moments spent in silence, listening to the gentle hiss of the wind against the grass, my mind turned back to other things. Less pleasant things. Things that had no business being spoken of after what we just shared—and were continuing to share—but nevertheless just wouldn’t go away.

Ice must have felt the change, because her hand stilled and she pulled away just far enough to look into my eyes. "What is it?"

I laughed to keep from crying, and she knew that too, because her eyes narrowed and her head tilted as her hand came up to cup my cheek.

"What Rio said back in the stables," I said through a tremor in my voice, "was it true? Did I make you soft? Weak?" I sighed heavily, lowering my head so as to avoid looking into her eyes. "So much of this is my fault."

The hand on my cheek lowered to grip my jaw, forcing my gaze back up. Though her touch remained gentle, her eyes were anything but, reminding me of nothing so much as the roiling black clouds which preceded a midsummer’s furious storm. "Don’t you . . .ever . . .say that . . .again."

"But . . . ."

"Never. Do you hear me?" Her body, once sated and soft, was now hard and stiff with anger.

I felt her stiffen further, fury literally radiating from every pore, and as I felt her muscles begin to move in what I knew was a prelude to escape, I did the only thing my heart would allow. I threw myself on top of her and held on as tightly as I could. "I’m sorry," I said, half sobbing. "Please, don’t leave. I’m sorry. Please."

After a long moment of intense inner struggle, she relaxed somewhat beneath me, though her eyes still blazed out their anger.

"I’m sorry. I should never have said something like that. I don’t know why I did. Please . . . ."

When several more moments passed in silence, I sighed and rolled away, berating myself internally for picking the exact wrong time to forget how to keep my damned mouth shut.

As if agreeing with me, the wind blew harder suddenly, and even though I was still half covered by the blanket, it was as if I was naked to the world without the living heat of my lover pressed so close against me. I fought against the forming shiver, but it came anyway, making me even more miserable than I already was.

Not more than a second later, I was once again enfolded in wonderful warmth as she eased up behind me, grasping me tight and pulling me close. "Never doubt my love for you, Angel." The low, serious timbre of her voice hummed through me, warming me even more. "Never doubt yourself. Never doubt the gifts you’ve given me."

Her arms tightened their hold around my body. "You haven’t made me weaker, Angel. You’ve made me stronger. You’ve taught me how to feel again. And how to love again." My scalp tingled from the kiss she pressed onto it. "You are a gift beyond price to me, Angel. And anyone who doesn’t believe that, or can’t accept it . . .can just go straight to Hell." I felt her chest and belly press against my back as she took in a deep breath of air, then let it out slowly. "And if need be, I’ll put them there myself."

Tears trailed down my face. "You’re . . .incredible."

"’You’re not so bad yourself, sweetheart.’"

The mimicry was damn near perfect and my laughter flowed freely, easing the last of my soul’s somber aches.

Turning easily within the nest of her arms, I pressed my lips to hers in a kiss of profound gratitude which quickly grew into something stronger and more passionate.

The sounds of laughter and tears were slowly replaced by the soft sounds of loving in the cool of a sweet desert night.


The house was tomb-silent as I stepped inside and closed the door gently behind me. Pushing up the sleeves of the too-large shirt Ice had given me to replace the one she’d ripped to shreds (and let me tell you, the added benefit of seeing Ice sitting astride that stallion in nothing but her jeans and a smile more than made up for the destruction of a one-time favorite shirt) I broke out of my bliss-induced haze just long enough to wonder at the silence and chance a look around.

Nearly a dozen women looked back at me from their places on the couches and chairs in the sunken living room. The expressions of awe on some of the faces caused me to whirl and look behind me, thinking that perhaps Ice had reconsidered and decided to spend the night after all.

But no, the door remained resolutely closed, and I remained alone and standing on something which was quickly coming to resemble a stage.

A piercing whistle shattered the unnatural stillness, and when I whirled back around, I saw Cowgirl coming to her feet, a knowing and incorrigible grin on her face. Throwing me a wink, she brought her hands together and started clapping.

Others stood, joining her, and soon the entire house was filled with wolf whistles, thunderous applause, and comments ribald enough to sear the skin from my face.

In a state of embarrassment more acute than any I’ve ever known, I whirled around again, intending to charge right back outside to escape the spontaneous combustion which was threatening to consume me on the spot. Only to find the way blocked by a leering Pony and a grinning Critter who stared at me, arms crossed against their chests and feet spread wide against any possibility of an escape.

"Don’t make me hurt you again, Pony," I half-growled as I slapped away the hand which was intending to turn me around to face the music, as it were.

"Ooo. More butch lessons from Ice, I see." Her leer grew more pronounced as she tried again. "Were they before or after she . . . ."

"Pony . . . ," Critter warned, seeing the glint in my eye.

"C’mon, Critter! It ain’t every day someone survives a knife fight with Rio and goes riding off into the desert to get banged by Ice, ya know. I’m just expressing my admiration here."

Critter barked out her laughter. "God, Pony, you are so damned crude."

"I call em like I see em, babe."

"Keep calling ‘them’ like that and you’ll never see ‘them’ again," I warned through gritted teeth.


Turning at the sudden silence in the room, I saw Montana and Corinne striding toward me, identical expressions of serious resolution on their faces. "Everyone to bed." Montana ordered, sweeping the group with her lancing gaze. "Now."

With some good-natured protesting, the group broke up and filtered through the house to return to their rooms and bed down for the night.

"Don’t you have things you should be attending to?" Montana asked as she arrived at my side, pinning Pony to the door she was guarding with a very pointed look.

My friend paled slightly, then blushed, ducking her head very much like a chastised schoolgirl. If there was a pebble on the ground, I think she would have kicked it. "Yes."

"Then I suggest you attend to them."

Muttering something a touch too soft to be easily comprehended, she spun on her heel and took the ready escape I had been seeking just a moment before, closing the door swiftly behind her.

Corinne closed the distance between us, took my hand, and gently ushered me through the house and into my own room, Montana trailing silently behind. Once the three of us were safely ensconced in my room, Corinne released my hand and smiled. "Are you alright?"

"I didn’t think it was possible to die from embarrassment," I said, chuckling slightly. "Now I’m not so sure." I ran my hand through my still damp hair. "But yeah, I’m alright."

Reaching out, she gave me an "around the shoulders" type hug, something most unusual for her. When I looked up as she pulled away, her eyes twinkled and she fingered the fabric of the black top I wore.

I could feel my eyes widen when the realization sunk in. I couldn’t help but grin. "Who knew there was such a pile of warm mush beneath that granite exterior?" I joked, enjoying the blush which briefly suffused her face.

Easily evading her kidding slap, I turned my head to see Montana studying me intently. I felt a blush of my own coming on, and thanked god that the shirt I was wearing, high necked as it was, covered what was no doubt a multitude of sins.

"Are you sure you’re alright?" she asked.

"Pretty much, yes. Is there a reason you’re asking?"

"Do you want to press charges?"

I could feel my head cock as I looked at her. "For being kidded? I don’t think you can arrest someone for embarrassing you. Can you?"

"I was speaking about Rio," she replied with an air of exaggerated patience.

"Oh. Rio." I could feel the bridge of my nose crinkle with distaste. Still . . . . "Um . . .I don’t think that’ll be necessary. I think she’s pretty much learned her lesson, don’t you?"

"This isn’t about learning lessons, Angel. She came after you with a knife. She could have killed you."

"She could have, yes. But she didn’t."

"Again, you’re missing the point."

Holding up a hand for quiet, I sank wearily down onto the bed. "No I’m not, Montana. I understand your point. And your concern. Believe me, I do. It’s just that . . . ." Steepling my fingers together, I sighed, then looked up at her. "I think people are entitled to second chances. She made a mistake, and I know it was a big one. But it was a mistake just the same. In the end, she realized her mistake and no harm was done."

Corinne snorted. "From what I was given to understand, Angel, Rio didn’t exactly ‘realize’ her mistake on her own. She had it beaten into her."

"She didn’t . . . ." I sighed again. "Ice was very angry."

"And she had every damn right to be," Corinne growled.

I looked up, surprised. Swearing was very unusual for her. As was growling.

"What? She’s just lucky Ice stepped in. Were it me, I would have killed her. Then asked questions."

Smiling slightly, I reached up and took her hand in mine, giving it a fond squeeze. "So no, Montana. I don’t want to press charges. I think that whatever crime she committed has been more than paid for already."

After staring hard at me for another long, tense and silent moment, Montana finally nodded. "Fine. I’ll have her pack her things and be out of here by sunrise." Then she turned to leave.

"No! Wait. Montana, that’s not necessary, is it?"

She turned back to me, a strong sheen of regret easily evident in her eyes. "Rio has broken every oath she has sworn to uphold, Angel. She’s turned the Amazon name into a mockery. That’s not something I can just overlook, no matter how much I might wish to."

Corinne, beside me, looked thoughtful. "Perhaps if she was stripped of her membership, yet allowed to make restitution with the possibility of regaining her status within the group?"

Montana frowned slightly, but after a moment, her expression cleared. "You’ve given me something to think about, Corinne. I’ll let everyone know of my decision in the morning." Looking at me, she smiled slightly. "I’m glad you weren’t harmed, Angel. You’re a very special person."

"Thanks," I replied, returning her smile. "You’re pretty special too."

As soon as the door closed quietly behind her, I let out the deep breath I’d been holding and fell back onto the bed, my feet still planted firmly on the floor, my arms flung wide. "God. What a mess."

"It could have been worse," Corinne observed, coming to sit down beside me and shoving one of my arms out of the way.

"True. I could be lying dead in a pile of horse manure right now."

Chuckling softly, she grabbed my hand and gave it a pat. Reaching out with her free hand, she again plucked at the long-sleeved black shirt I wore, rubbing the fabric between her fingers. "So . . . .how was she?"

"Corinne!" My shock was, of course, feigned. This was Corinne, after all.

"Now whose mind is in the gutter, hmmm?" Her grin was merciless. "I simply wish to know how she’s doing, Angel. Not what she’s like in bed. I have a pretty good idea of that already."

Moaning, I covered my face with my hands, feeling the heat of embarrassment warm the skin of my palms. "Is tonight ‘Kill the Blonde’ night and someone forgot to mention it to me?" As plaintive wails went, it was a pretty good one, if I do say so myself.

She laughed, then ruffled her fingers through my hair. "So?"

"She’s . . .good. I think those months in jail affected her more than she’s willing to let on—she’s lost a bit of weight—but otherwise, she’s doing alright."

"Now tell me something I don’t know," she teased.

Pulling my hands away from my face, I sighed. So much for snuggling down under the covers and letting the memories of the wonderful night I had just spent with Ice lull me to sleep. Rolling over to my side, I tried a diversionary tactic. "We really didn’t spend that much time talking, Corinne."

"Nice parry, Angel. And I just might be willing to buy that load of fertilizer you’re trying to sell. If it was coming from anyone else. Now spill it."

"Can’t it wait until tomorrow? Please? I’m exhausted." Maybe the old ‘end around’ would work.

"I’ll just bet you are, my dear." Nope. Didn’t work.

"Fine," I said, rolling back onto my back. "What is it you want to know."

"Everything you do, of course."

Chuckling, I shook my head, eyeing her. "Is that all?"

"Pretty much, yes."

And so I told her everything I knew, which wasn’t, of course, very much at all. I explained to her how, by Ice’s telling, Cavallo was a small cog in a very big wheel. The spokes of that wheel were made up of bribery, kickback schemes, money laundering, jury tampering and other like crimes all situated within the judicial arm of the state government. Not only was Cavallo himself participating in many, if not all, of the criminal activities taking place, he was also, it was believed, in possession of a very important list. A list which contained the names of many of his co-conspirators, some of which he was also practicing his own extortion schemes on in return for his silence in those matters.

A very special, very secret probe, made up of members of the Commonwealth bureaucracy, was very interested in what Cavallo knew. Very interested. And they figured that if they could just get a hold of him, they could make him crack.

"That doesn’t sound very plausible. They already had their chance at him. He didn’t crack."

"Oh, but he did, Corinne. Ice said he sang like a canary."

"Then why . . . ?"

"He was under the influence of narcotics at the time. They’d just finished plucking eight bullets out of him, remember?"

"Ahh yes, now that you mention it."

"So, his statements were inadmissible as evidence, and by the time they got around to trying again, his lawyer had him trussed up and gagged and that was the end of that."

"Well, if they want him so badly, why don’t they just get off of their fat posteriors and hunt him down themselves?"

"Believe me, Corinne, I asked that question a time or ten myself."


I shrugged. "Ice guesses it’s because they don’t know who the good guys are anymore. That’s not the reason they’ve given her, but it’s the one she thinks is the truth."

"They don’t even trust their own?" Corinne’s eyes were round with disbelief behind her glasses.

"Makes you think, doesn’t it."

She shook her head. "And they call us criminals."

I laughed softly, though in truth, the situation was as far from amusing as it was possible to get.

"So, they offer Ice a deal she can’t refuse and set her up as a tasty little sacrificial lamb."

"That’s about the gist of it, yeah."

"And if she should fail . . . ."

A leaden ball settled itself into my stomach. Failing was definitely number one on my list of things not to even consider.

Corinne gazed at me with eyes filled with compassion. "Forget I said that."

Nodding, I gave her a grateful smile, shoving the notion to the deepest recesses of my mind, where it would linger and, I was sure, come out in nightmares, each worse than the last until a cold sweat would become my nightly companion.

Giving my hand a final squeeze, Corinne stood up and smiled down at me. "Thank you for indulging my rampant curiosity, Angel. I’ll leave you to your dreams. May they be sweet ones."

"Thanks, Corinne. Yours too."

Her gentle smile became a leering grin. "Living in a house surrounded by a bevy of naked bathing beauties? How could they be anything but?"

As she gently closed the door on my laughter, I dragged myself up from the bed and walked to the window, pulling the heavy blinds aside just enough to look out into the dark desert night. "Thanks," I whispered before turning away slipping under the covers, allowing the scent of my lover still clinging to the shirt I wore to lull me into the place dreams were born.

And they were sweet.


To Be Continued...Part 4


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