General Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and various other characters are all property of MCA Universal and Renaissance Pictures, and their writers. All rights are reserved to the legal owners, and no infringement is intended. Please don’t come after me … don’t have much besides a couple worthless horses and a slew of pooches but I love them dearly and you can’t have ‘em J .

This is an uber story, the characters are similar to our bard and warrior and have reflections of them. Their world is a combination of darkness and light with a good dose of neediness, growth, and some detective work.

Specific Disclaimers:


Though not incredibly violent, there are some references to violence that may be uncomfortable and some generally dark ideas and atmospheres.


Part of this story may be best classified as Hurt/Comfort involving the uber characters. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of issue may wish to read something other than this story. I’m a hurt/comfort glutton and likely couldn’t write a story without it.


This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.


This was written as a time killer while I was writing The Journey Home and kind of took on a life of its own once Journey was finished and posted. I started it because I’m obsessed with ubers and a horse person at heart, so enjoyed melding the two. The horses took a backseat to the characterizations in the end but I think that’s okay … you guys aren’t reading for horses anyway J . All constructive criticism will be gratefully accepted! Please send email to

Special thanks to my Beta Reader and good friend Dawn who helped me iron out the plot, tie up loose ends, and generally fix a story that was written haphazardly a scene at a time while my focus had been on another story (Journey). She patiently and kindly guided me to a finished product and then encouraged me to share it.

And, again, much thanks to my husband Clive who encourages me daily though declines to participate in such an odd past time. Part of my courage to share is from his gentle support. I love you.

Here we go…


With Faltering Steps
Part 1 of 5

by Tonya Muir

Chapter 1: Meeting

Lacey Montgomery downshifted the RX-7 with casual skill as she took exit 19 and followed the signs for Aqueduct Racetrack. Horse racing ... of all the jobs she'd done for her boss, this one had to be the most peculiar.

The black-haired, blue eyed woman recalled the conversation with her superior the afternoon before, shaking her head silently as she waited for the light to change in front of her.

"Lacey, get in here," Vincenzo Russo called in his Italian accented baritone, bidding his right hand into his office in the several million dollar mansion he liked to call a home. She entered quietly, as was her style, and observed him and the surroundings with negligent ease, having been in this office countless times before.

He was a large man, just over six foot five with dark hair and dark eyes. His temples greyed slightly as an indication of his forty or so years of existence but he often cited his employees and his family as the real cause. He pinned her with those dark eyes, surrounded by tanned skin and handsome features.

"I need you to go to Aqueduct tomorrow to watch morning workouts. The horses aren't doing as well as they should. I need you to find out why."

Without a word, Lacey nodded and left as the man dismissed her. Great. She'd done everything from drug runs to illegal arms deals for Vinnie; it seemed odd that she had to go play with horses for a day ... or more. The Briargate Breeding Farm was one of Vinnie's more legal ventures. The horses themselves, for the most part, being a legitimate business though it also provided a nice cover for drugs and other illicit ventures from time to time. In truth, he had a soft spot for the horses and racing.

And as a woman who'd tortured and killed many times in the normal duties of her job, it was almost insulting to be sent on a lesser mission. But Vinnie knew that, and would have only sent her if he thought her skills were required for this task and the horses were important enough to him that he wanted her to handle them personally. So she pulled the RX-7 into the trainer's parking lot, already having received the required passes from the farm itself, and parked as near the entrance as she could.

No amount of warm holiday cheer could have worked its magic past Christmas and into the bitter month following. January had brought with it icy rain and biting winds. This morning's only bright point was the rain hadn't started to fall yet. Still the air was unpleasantly cold as the dark woman unfolded her six foot frame from the small sports car and wrapped her leather trench coat more closely around her. She observed her Ray Bans inside the car on the passenger seat, deciding the early grey dawn as not requiring such protection, so she left them where they lay and checked to make sure her Glock was in its shoulder holster. Then, with a deep sigh of icy frosted breath, she made her way through the guarded gate and towards the track, knowing the Briargate horses should be warming up.

She wasn't disappointed as she came to the rail and recognized a short balding man who was thicker through the middle than he probably should have been. He turned grey eyes towards her as she approached and she watched the recognition and alarm flash through his eyes before he held a hand out to her.

"Lacey," he nodded once, gripping her hand firmly. He easily recognized her from business meetings and dinners. No one forgot Vinnie's right hand man if not for her striking eyes and contrasting hair, then for her six feet of intimidating muscular build and often feral look. The stories he'd heard about her inhuman coldness were enough to chill him to the bone despite the heavy barn jacket he wore.

"Bob," she said casually, running cool eyes over his stocky frame, allowing her stoic visage to do its work for her. "Vinnie wants to know how the horses are running."

The trainer shrugged one shoulder and turned back to the track with relief when one of the exercise boys called to him.

"Sunnyside is up at the pole, do you want me to join 'im?" the kid asked, standing upright in stirrup irons as he fought a young chestnut colt for his head.

Bob glanced to the horse in question, 5 furlongs out, dancing at a marker but held in check easily. "That girl never listens," Bob muttered, then, more loudly. "Yeah, take Laddie up there and move back a furlong. I want you to breeze 'em the first and then drive 'em for the five. Stay off the rail, that colt's a hugger. Got it?"

"Yeah, boss," the boy turned his mount and cantered him up to the bay across the track where the two riders chatted for a moment before pushing back another furlong.

Then chestnut and bay stood shuffling at the marker, each decked out in the barn's colors of blue and red, the bay wearing a hood with blinkers to prevent him from shying. The chestnut wearing a shadow roll on his nose band to similarly prevent spooking at shadows in front of him across the track.

The riders glanced at each other and then, simultaneously, urged the horses forward down the dirt track. When they passed the first furlong marker, Bob started his stop watch.

The riders were balanced precariously on the tiny saddles, their bodies raised above the horses' shoulders and necks. Manes whipped at helmets and goggles with the wind. As they came closer, the chestnut edged ahead, long strides eating up the ground easily to pull ahead by a few inches, then half a length.

"Go to the whip, dammit," Bob yelled, his face getting red with his frustration but neither rider did and the bay came behind by a length as they passed the finish line. Bob stopped his watch and glanced over at another man holding a watch.

"Got one oh five on Sunnyside," the other man offered.

"One oh three and four fifths on Laddie," Bob responded with a growl.

Lacey watched all this with mild interest, easily perfecting her air of nonchalance with hands in pockets and dark hair fanned across leather clad shoulders, and personally not caring if the horses had broken a land speed record. Actually, not really caring about anything except what was wrong and why Vinnie hadn't given her more information on this problem she was supposed to be discovering. It was her job to know all about his drug trades and arm deals but she'd never ventured into his horses outside of their less legal uses.

Ice blue eyes followed Bob casually as he stormed onto the track and grabbed at the bay's bridle, literally pulling the rider to the ground as the horse still circled around them, breathing heavily. The rider landed lightly on her feet and ripped her arm angrily out of the short man's grasp.

He yanked the rider's helmet off and threw it to the ground, revealing blond hair that fell free to the woman's mid back. In turn, she pulled off her goggles and retrieved the bay's reins from Bob's hand.

"What are you doing out there? We're not here for a Sunday ride, missy. I said all out and he was loping!" Bob shouted angrily as the rider passed the reins to another helper and watched the horse walk away.

Lacey noticed the smaller woman bristle at the man before her and clench her jaw, but she raised easily to his challenge. "He's not right, Bob. There's something wrong with that colt and he needs to be evaluated before he gets hurt."

"That's my job, not yours. You get on their backs and you don't use your pretty little head for anything except running 'im!" He poked at her shoulder furiously with enough force to actually push the woman back slightly.

"Well if one of us doesn't think, this horse is gonna fall apart before he hits the races. Is that your job? Pull your head outta your ass, Bob, and look at him! He's not right! He's the best bred horse in this whole god damned barn and he won't run past a one oh four. Whipping an off horse isn't gonna make him better." The heat fairly emanated from the young woman as she raised her voice in anger, using all of her roughly five foot four frame and standing on her toes as well as she poked a finger into the trainer's shoulder in turn.

Bob was fuming, his face beet red and the sweat on his brow evident.

Lacey observed all this with a small smirk and an interested eye. This girl was full of attitude, and might just have some answers to her questions. Regardless, she found herself liking her instantly if only because she'd never much cared for the slimy trainer and enjoyed watching him get his due.

"Get back to the barn, girl, and cool out that colt. If you can't ride 'im, you won't. Is that clear?" The stocky man growled in response, the spittle flying from his lips causing Lacey and the small rider to each wrinkle their noses in reaction.

"Crystal," the young blonde responded coldly and retrieved her helmet and goggles before turning on her booted heel and stomping away to take back the colt from the young boy who'd been walking him.

But Lacey noticed that as soon as her hands touched the reins, her shoulders relaxed and she reached up to pat the bay gently on the face. He ducked his head into her and pushed her chest with evident fondness.

Lacey observed Bob carefully as he came back around to the rail side, maintaining her passive look without effort. "Bring 'em all back, that's it for this morning," the trainer yelled then tossed a glance to the tall dark-haired woman waiting for him. "C'mon to the barn." But the invitation certainly wasn't extended eagerly and Lacey kept her responding grin to herself. She fed off of the fear of Vinnie's little worker bees.

She walked quietly behind him, running a cold hand through wind tossed black hair before returning it to the warmth of her pocket. Then she extended her stride.

"Who is that girl?" she asked him casually as she caught up to him and they followed the string of colts and fillies towards the Briargate section of the long training barns.

"Only the most annoying rider I have."

"Why keep her?"

Grey eyes met hers briefly but learned nothing from the stoic face beside him. Of all the things he'd heard about Lacey Montgomery, none of them were good. She was a ruthless killer with a quick temper and no tolerance for bad jobs or stupidity and Bob had lost one of his best jockeys to her cruel hands less than a year ago. Vinnie must be worried about something to send her out. "She's good. She knows the horses. She's not a full time rider, she's out here with Sunnyside. She normally works at the farm itself."

Lacey nodded silently and made a mental note to definitely speak with this young woman. She was familiar with the track and the farm which could only be helpful.

Once at the barn, she deviated from Bob's side and walked down the large cement aisle to find the rider in question. She was at the far side of the barn, stripping the cross tied colt with expert hands and placing the tack in the nearby tack room.

As Lacey approached she heard the woman's voice, soft now and not filled with anger, murmuring to the bay whose ears flipped back casually from time to time. "It's okay, boy," her gentle voice floated through the quiet barn easily. "We'll figure it out, I promise."

"Figure what out?" Lacey asked from her position, leaning against a stall door not fifteen feet away from the blonde, left ankle neatly crossing the right, hands stuffed casually in coat pockets. The young blonde nearly jumped out of her skin.

"Saw you with Bob, you one of the Big Man's cronies?" she recovered and looked to the other woman briefly, but long enough for Lacey to see bright green eyes that twinkled slightly with amusement.

"Depends on which Big Man you're referring to," Lacey responded in her typical husky voice but she found herself liking the gutsiness of the young woman before her. She pushed herself away from the door with her elbow and took a step closer to colt and girl.

"Vinnie what's-his-name," she responded waving a hand with a careless gesture then ducking under the colt's neck to sponge off his other side.

"Ah," Lacy nodded with a smirk and a raised eyebrow which was lost on the busy young rider. "Then, yes, I am a crony."

The woman laughed lightly at Lacey's agreement to that title. "Do you have a name? Or do they just call you crony number six or something like that?"

The dark woman acquiesced, nodding her head slightly. "Lacey Montgomery."

"Rachel Wilson," the blonde ducked back under the horse's neck to offer a soapy wet hand. And Lacey knew this was a test of sorts so she accepted the hand easily, ignoring the wet mess dripping from their joined grasp, and noticed that the smaller woman's grip was firm and well muscled. And that her green eyes were open and honest if not a bit challenging.

"Can I help you with something?" Rachel asked hesitating maybe a bit too long with grasped hands and connected eyes before going back to her task by throwing the soapy sponge into a bucket and using a sponge pulled from a bucket without soap. Once he was rinsed, she grabbed a sweat scraper out of the tack box. She moved the grooming tool quickly over the bay's muscular body and sheets of moisture splattered on the cement floor to steam there in the cold winter air.

Lacey watched her work, impressed by her efficiency and casual nature, moved inexplicably by their brief moment of contact. This was a confident, self assured woman before her, who wasn't afraid to speak her mind. Rachel glanced to her again as she switched to the colt's other side when the dark woman didn't answer her question.

"Ah, the strong silent type," the blonde nodded knowingly. "That's all right, I'm not," Rachel grinned wryly. "So I can talk enough for both of us. Let me guess." She paused in her work to tap the sweat blade against her chin and crinkle her brow in thought. "Vinnie whoever thinks his horses aren't running well and sent you to check it out. Now, the question is, how worried is he ... which would presumably be answered by your number in the line of cronies."

"Call me crony number two in charge of business affairs," the dark woman smirked at this young rider before her, giving her more leeway than she'd ever done in such an interview. In fact, at this point her subjects were often bloody and begging. This was not lost on Rachel who read the other woman's stance and eyes carefully, knowing her to be capable of great violence.

"Ah," the blonde nodded. "Business affairs. So the horses are losing money?"

"Don't think so. Why don't you let me ask the questions?" Lacey asked with flashing blue eyes and it made Rachel smile, not at all responding to the threat in that glare which surprised and impressed the darker woman.

"Ask away. I'm all ears ... well, not all ears. Sunny has bigger ears than I do but I think, in the end, I'm a better listener. Huh, big boy?" She patted the colt affectionately as she pulled a woolen cooler over him and attached it to the back strap of his halter. Then she moved to settle it over his haunches and clip it around his tail.

Lacey was doing her best to not outright smile at this woman, enjoying her company and easy nature more than she probably should. "You said the colt wasn't running right. What do you mean? Is he lame?"

"Nah," Rachel slipped into the tack room where she exchanged tall leather riding boots for ratty tennis shoes and pulled a canvas barn jacket over her navy turtle neck. "He comes up sound for all the checks. Vet's been to see him several times. But he's not himself. He used to love to run, but now it's like pulling teeth to get him into stride. And he doesn't fight to win. He's listless, depressed maybe."


"Nothing unusual, high white counts. See how he's standing?" the rider asked, indicating the colt with a wave of her hand.

The dark woman shrugged, he looked okay to her.

"His feet are spread kinda wide, like he's trying to keep his balance. When he moves he stumbles more than I think he should. We tried a bunch of different shoes on him but it's the same."

"Off his feed?"

Rachel cocked her head the other woman's direction, surprised at her exhibited knowledge of horses. "Yeah. A little. He's lost some weight. His coat's not in as good condition as it should be for his feed and level of exercise."

"Is he the only one?"

The blonde unhooked Sunny's cross ties and attached a lead shank to his stud chain, then jostled it slightly to let him know it was there. "C'mon, son," she said softly to him and started leading him down the barn aisle. Lacey fell into step beside the smaller woman, hands in pockets, head tilted slightly to look at her.

"No. Not really. The barn's been kinda off lately in general. There's a filly we sent back last week, she was here in training and started acting the same. Took her home and she fell down on a morning exercise, it took three people to get her standing and then she kind of acted drunk. She ran great last year."

They left the barn and started out towards a large barren area where others were leading horses decked out just like Sunnyside. "There's a Slew colt who's just being broken and he managed to get hung up in the starting gate at the farm. He stumbled on the way out and ripped the hell out of his saddle and now they're retraining him to the gate. He's behind anyway, shoulda been starting in the Spring this year but he can't even look at the gate without falling apart so they'll probably have to sell him. Plus, he has the other symptoms, too. Off his feed, listless, clumsy," she continued easily, only occasionally glancing to her silent companion.

"Slew colt? What does that mean?"

Rachel cast her companion a somewhat humorous look. Apparently cronies didn't need to know much about this part of the business. "Seattle Slew. Won the Triple Crown in '77. His lines go back to Bold Ruler?" she watched the woman for any hint of recognition. "Bold Ruler was Secretariat's sire."

"Ah," the dark head nodded. There was a name she knew.

Rachel smiled, everyone knew Secretariat the '73 Triple Crown winner, first in twenty five years. He'd run the Derby in under two minutes and won the Preakness by thirty one lengths. The young rider had a framed poster of that victory on her apartment wall.

"Not worth the money and effort to retrain him if he misses this year?" the dark woman asked.

"Well," Rachel inclined her head slightly. "Seattle Slew is a broodmare sire."

"What does that mean?"

"His daughters make great broodmares but his sons aren't normally spectacular. Cigar is out of one of his daughters."

"So, this colt may not have had much promise anyway," Lacey nodded her understanding.

"Ah ha!" Rachel beamed. "Good to know you're not all beauty and no brains." Oh my God, did I just flirt with this woman?

Lacey did her best to ignore the comment and the somewhat shocked expression on the younger woman's face. "So what happens?"

Rachel glanced at her briefly, recovering from her moment of insanity and searching the other woman's well planed features and concentrated look. "Nothing. We sell him as a prospect, hope they look at his bloodlines and his flat run and not ask to see him in the gate. It's poor business for future deals, but ..." she shrugged, letting her voice trail off.

The blue eyes flashed her direction but Rachel had already redirected her own gaze to watch the horse ahead of her who was giving his walker a little trouble. "Is that legal?"

Rachel delivered her own raised eyebrow smirk at this question. "Legal? What do you care about legalities, crony number two? How do you make your money, miss black-leather-trench coat?" But the harshness of her words was lightened by the sparkle in her eyes. I think either I am flirting with her or I've lost my mind because there's no doubt she's a murderer.

And Lacey found herself smiling back even though she'd punched people for less than that. "You always speak so frankly?"

Rachel glanced at her companion again and her expression softened slightly. "Sorry. I'm not normally quite so abrasive." She admitted with a self deprecating grin. "Don't know what got into me." For the first time since they'd met, Lacey saw something close to doubt pass over the fair woman's features. "It's been a rough morning, a rough couple of days. And I guess I knew they'd be sending someone like you to get rid of me. So I thought I'd go out with a bang." The smile she offered this time was apologetic.

"Get rid of you?" Lacey asked slowly, quirking an eyebrow. "I'm not here to off you, lady. I'm just asking questions."

To which Rachel responded appropriately and laughed again. "No, no. I meant there's a lot of stuff going down and I'm about the most verbal person they have at the barn or here. Figured if they needed a scapegoat ... I'd be the best they could find. Easy to fire ... not kill." Moments of silence. "I hope," she deadpanned.

Lacey considered this as they walked along in silence for a few more strides. "So, being verbally abrasive with me helps you how, exactly?"

Rachel flashed a full fledged smile to the taller woman. "Well, you know, brave and smart aren't the same things. I figured I'd go down with a fight. I like to live on the edge." Though this fire I'm playing with now may be too hot for me.

Lacey smiled, the simple move making her dark features light up and her eyes shine brighter. "Okay, let's try this again." She stopped and Rachel pulled Sunnyside to a halt as well. "I'm Lacey Montgomery. Here to do a little research for my boss and find out why his horses aren't doing as well as they were." She removed her warm hand from her pocket and extended it to the smaller woman.

The rider switched Sunny's lead line to her left hand so she could shake with her right, smiling as she did so. "So who'd ya piss off to get that crappy assignment?" But she laughed when she got a raised eyebrow from the other woman. "Right, new beginning. Sorry. Rachel Wilson, rider and barn rat, pleased to meet you."

"Now ... what's the deal with Bob? You two don't seem to be fans of each other."

Rachel resumed walking and shrugged her shoulders. "Bob's an asshole. He knows a lot about horses and how to condition them and train them, but he doesn't like them. Good money, good social ladder. But he'll run a horse to death for the quick win and not care about its future. I don't agree with that."

"So why do you work for him?"

"Tricky question on two different levels. Truth is I work for the farm manager, though I'm equally unimpressed with him, and on loan to Bob. Sunny's their up and coming star but he does better for me than the exercise boys. So I come out and work him here, then go back to the farm and do what I was hired to do ... care for the broodmares and foals."

"And what's the second level?" Lacey asked, blue eyes leaving her companion's profile to travel their surroundings: populated with horses and people glowing orange as sun broke through grey clouds. They'd walked in silence for several minutes before Lacey realized her question hadn't been answered. "Rachel?"

Green eyes glanced her way and something inexplicable flashed across them as she considered her answer, then she turned away and absently ran a hand under the colt's cooler along his neck. "Well, I guess the more accurate question would be 'why am I working for Briargate when it's run by criminals and I disagree with everything they do for the horses.'"

More silence. Lacey couldn't explain her interest in this young woman whose depth and charisma were intriguing her to no end. She felt an urge to know her better and a twinge of regret at the look that crossed her companion's features. "Well?"

A shrug of shoulders and a tilt of her head. "I'm ... uh ... not comfortable answering that question."

Lacey nodded and dropped the subject, knowing already that she'd be headed to Vinnie's offices and rummaging through his personnel files as soon as she left here.

"I gotta put him up and get back to Briargate," Rachel said to fill the void. She offered the woman beside her a slight smile. "Sorry about earlier."

Lacey shrugged her shoulders. "No need to apologize, right? Maybe I'll see you around."

"Yeah, later." And she turned the colt to walk him back to the barn, but glanced over her shoulder twice to see the dark woman's retreating back. And she hoped she would see her again, liking the woman's husky voice and striking eyes.


Chapter 2: Discovery


Lacey glanced at the clock on the mantle. It was just past 11:00 p.m. and she'd been up since well before dawn to go to Aqueduct. Now she sat on the large leather couch in her own home, reading from the detailed personnel files she'd gotten at Vinnie's. Being a paranoid man, Vinnie had thorough checks done on everyone who worked for him.

She'd also questioned Vinnie more thoroughly about his motives and realized the man was genuinely concerned about the horses. Sunnyside was one of his favorites and he had big plans for the stunning colt including campaigning overseas and then returning to stud. The lame filly Rachel mentioned was nice but nothing spectacular, same with the other colt. So now she concentrated on the personnel files she'd pulled.

And Lacey found quickly what the rider had been hiding.

Young Rachel Wilson grew up in rural New York, just outside of Rochester, until her father died when she was in high school. A few short months later, Lacey and her sister became dependents of an aunt and uncle, apparently the mother's brother, when the mother committed suicide. The bare bones factual account had no details on the death or the suicide.

The girls were apparently living in a questionable household at that point. This was evidenced by repeated calls to social services by teachers to investigate bruises on their bodies and markedly withdrawn personalities. And when Rachel turned seventeen, she dropped out of school and ran away from home, dragging her younger sister with her to live in New York City. Her employment history for this time showed minimum wage work in restaurants and hotels. There was no address so the girls must have been living in shelters or on the street.

Rachel also had a criminal record. This part of the file had come from the DA's office, immediately alerting the dark-haired reader to Rachel's association with them. At twenty-one, she'd been convicted of robbery, having turned states evidence against her associates to reduce her sentence from manslaughter.

There was a signed affidavit that outlined the events, from Rachel's point of view, of that fateful night. Her actual offense had been driving the getaway car at a convenience store burglary. And when she'd gone into the store, after her comrades had been inside too long, she'd seen what they had done and the bloody bodies that were left. The DA's report identified the victims as a cashier and two customers. The young woman had talked her partners in crime into surrendering when the police came, receiving a gunshot wound to her stomach for her troubles. The written account indicated it had been transcribed from a recording of a live interview. It was complete with pauses, hesitations, and stuttering words. The discussion had not been an easy one for the young woman. During this interview in the hospital, Rachel was told that Leslie Ann Wilson was killed at the scene when stray bullets from the store shot her as she waited in the car.

According to the accompanying DA's report, Rachel had never had a weapon and her true crime had been in aiding and abetting what was supposed to be armed robbery. So the dealing had been quick and easy, the sentence reduced to seven years in addition to time served, eligible for parole at three. Parole had been granted and the young blonde had been tossed back on the street. She'd been out of prison for two years now and working at Briargate for just under that

The only family on record for Rachel Wilson was the aunt and uncle, and an eight year old daughter who lived with someone in Rochester. Interesting.

Lacey considered this information carefully, setting aside the factual accounting of Rachel's life as she again pictured the young blonde woman in her mind. She worked for a criminal because she had a criminal record herself, which really didn't make her shine as hirable on the open job market. Vinnie had a way of overlooking those kinds of things.

The other woman's history of violence paled in comparison with her own. It was only her ties to Vinnie and their discreet cover-ups which prevented the dark woman from spending her life in prison and she already knew she'd be spending eternity in hell. But the value of human life was not one of the things she pondered late at night. Nor did she think about her own inclination towards violence and bloodshed. It was just her ... no thinking involved. But she couldn't picture the small-statured woman as a criminal. And she certainly couldn't picture her serving time.

Something about those green eyes and that brash smile had captured Lacey's interest and it was this curiosity that had her in her car at just before midnight and headed towards Briargate nearly an hour away. She now knew the factual recital of the young rider's life but she wondered at the emotions behind the printed words. She wanted to know how Rachel Wilson ticked and what she thought. Surely she hadn't misinterpreted the banter and the easy nature, surely the young blonde was equally captivated. And, of course, she wanted to know more about the horses and their poor running. Didn't she?

By the time she arrived, the farm was dark except for the broodmare barn. And she knew from her research and her questioning of the farm manager that this is where she'd find Rachel Wilson. She walked down the wide cement aisle towards the center office and opened the door slowly to see Rachel leaping to her feet and blinking at her sleepily. When the dark woman glanced down, she was greeted by a red masked face and ice blue eyes.

"Woo woooo," the four legged beast offered her happily, doing a full bodied wag with ears flattened against skull and neck. She wasn't a large dog, maybe forty pounds, with red and white fur patterned typically across her back and shoulders. Lacey recognized her to be Siberian Husky and from what little she knew about them, realized they were normally outgoing and friendly and very rarely made any kind of guard dog. If the image before her was any indication, her memory was correct.

"Hey," Rachel said sleepily, running a tired hand through bedraggled blonde hair. "C'mon in and close the door. Cuz if she gets out we'll be chasing her for hours and that's just not on my list of things to do this morning."

"She a runner?" Lacey asked as she came in and pulled the door shut behind her.

"Almost all huskies are. She's no exception."

The dark woman nodded and reached down to stroke the dog's soft fur, laughing when she twisted her body around the woman's legs like a cat and continued her verbal serenade. "So shy and reserved," Lacey commented.

"Yeah, that's her. A regular wall flower." She watched the woman pet her dog for awhile longer before raising her eyes. "To what do I owe this late night visit?" Not that I mind, really.

And Lacey hesitated because that was indeed the question and here she was without a good answer. So instead, she responded, "Frank said you were on mare watch at nights. Said I could probably find you in the office if I needed to speak with you again."

Rachel nodded, recognizing the name of the farm manager. "Here I am, loading up on caffeine and watching monitors." The younger woman picked up her mug of coffee again and took a sip, gesturing to Lacey. "Want a cup? It's only fair that you catch up since I'm on my second pot." She grinned ruefully and Lacey found herself returning the grin for no better reason than she liked this woman.

"Sure. Count me in. Is that the dog's excuse, too?"

"Her? Goodness no," Rachel snorted as she pulled a new mug out from the cupboard over the sink. "That's a natural high. Though I'd pay good money for that kind of love of life."

The dog in question danced behind Lacey gleefully, following her all the way across the office to retrieve her cup. The tall woman poured in some sugar and cream before moving to the small couch and letting her eyes slide along the half dozen monitors set up on the coffee table. The dog jumped up next to her to settle a masked head in her lap and look up at her adoringly. "What's her name?"

"Karma," Rachel responded and the dog rolled eyes towards her owner in response before turning her gaze back to the woman she was using as a pillow. Then more loudly. "Karma, get down you idiot," for which she just got a huge dog sigh.

Lacey laughed and shrugged. "I don't mind." And rested a hand on the dog's shoulder to show that she really didn't mind. Karma flashed her eyes in Rachel's direction as if to brag about her success. "How many mares are due?" Lacey motioned to the monitors in front of her.

"The barn's full of 'em. About twenty. But we're watching five mares and one injury tonight."

"Why the injury? Do you always watch lame horses?"

"No. This filly's a bit sensitive. Whenever we change her routine or feed she gets colicky on us. She hurt herself this morning so they moved her from the training barn over here so I can keep an eye on her. I mean, I'm up all night anyway." Rachel moved to sit beside the darker woman on the couch, realizing fully that her question concerning the late night trip hadn't been answered.

She let her eyes roam casually over her visitor, noticing she still wore the black leather trench coat. When their eyes met slowly, she had to look away because of the flush warming her skin. Though having come to terms with her attraction to women years ago, Rachel normally wasn't quite as flustered as she was now in Lacey's presence.

Lacey smiled at the blush and turned away as well, her fingers playing idly in the soft red fur beneath her hand, because she felt it too. That was the real reason she'd come, she knew. She'd felt it this morning when they'd first met and wanted to see if it was real. At the very least it was mutual. Great, I'm attracted to Pippi Longstockings, where does that leave me?

They each sipped their coffee quietly until Lacey finally broke the silence. "I know why you work for us."

Rachel glanced at her briefly, not missing that this woman easily included herself with the organized crime who signed her paycheck, before rising to her feet again and pacing across the room. "I knew you could find out. Did Frank tell you?"

"No, he didn't say a word. Vinnie keeps personnel records and I read yours."

The blonde head nodded slightly and met Lacey's eyes again. "How much do you know?"

"Not much," the dark woman allowed carefully, watching the rider closely to determine when she'd gone too far. "Just the facts. Death of your parents, living with relatives, conviction, time served."

"That's more than anyone else knows," the blonde turned away again to fiddle with the coffee makings. She organized the small containers subconsciously, lining them up behind the sink. "I'm not proud of it."

"I see that," the older woman acknowledged, able to read the regret in her companion's shoulder-slumped posture. "Is there more to the story? Something else you'd like to tell me?"

Rachel considered these words for a very long moment and realized, much to her own shock, that she did want to talk to this person. She glanced back across the room, observing the lanky woman, dressed casually in jeans and a denim button shirt, Nike high tops completing the aloof look. Her dark hair was pulled back into a loose braid that fell behind her and blended into the black leather coat. Rachel sighed deeply, turned her attention back to the sink where she now opened the overhead cabinets and started rearranging the contents. "I didn't know they were going to kill anyone. I didn't even know they were really armed. Bunch of punks, ya know? Met 'em on the streets and they had these grandiose ideas of getting what life owed us. Whatever. Life owed us nothing, we were street rats. We left the world that had threatened us because we weren't brave enough to stand up to it. We thought it would be easier to be on our own."

She paused for a long moment but the dark woman said nothing to fill the silence.

"So they had this silly plan to heist some quick cash at a convenience store," she continued at last. "I thought it was the dumbest thing I'd ever heard. I mean, stores like that are so used to punks that the doors are marked like yardsticks and cameras are mounted everywhere. Their money is kept in safes and minimal cash is in the drawers. I knew these things. I argued them. But Leslie was sleeping with one of the guys and she begged me to help. They just needed a driver. She said if I didn't go with them, she could drive. And when I knew she was going with or without me, the decision was easy enough. I'd taken care of her for nearly three years by that point, she was my responsibility."

"So you went along," Lacey urged gently.

"Left my daughter with some waitress at the hotel where I was working at the time and away we went. I didn't see Molly again until we were in court and the foster parents brought her and stood in the hall with her when they escorted me by. It was nice of them, I needed to see her."

"What about Leslie?" the dark woman knew she was on thin ice here. But for some reason she didn't understand, she wanted to hear everything. She wanted to help shoulder the burden the young woman had been carrying for years.

"You know what happened," the green eyes flashed away from their mundane task of organizing sugar packets. They reflected annoyance and fear.

"How did you find out?" Lacey pushed a little harder, sensing that the young rider did want to tell the whole story.

Rachel turned back to her task, fingers now numbly pushing around coffee filters. "After surgery. I was in recovery. They'd pronounced Leslie in the car so she didn't come to the hospital when I did. The nurses and doctors hadn't been thrilled to treat me when they found out how I'd been shot: in a robbery mishap. I could hear them complaining and making derogatory comments. I was angry because I needed them to fix me so I could find Leslie and take care of her. And for my daughter. When I found out the truth, there was never a question as to what I would do. I felt no loyalty towards those assholes. They'd killed three people plus my sister. And shot me. They deserved the life sentences they got."

The small office nearly rang with the ensuing silence.

"It took a lot of courage to do that," Lacey said at last, her dark voice gentle.

The smaller woman barked a laugh, closed the cupboard doors. "First time in my life I showed any. I ran away from everything else or evaded it ... or found the short cut. And that night, instead of driving away with Leslie in the car, safe and alive, I walked in there and faced the devil himself. I've had better ideas in my life."

"You brought them to justice," her companion pointed out, slightly amazed that she gave a damn about justice given her personal employment.

"Coulda done that a bunch of different ways. I should have gotten my sister to safety first." Finally the evasive emerald eyes now watched the woman across the room. "I'll never make a mistake like that again."

"Leslie asked you to go in there, didn't she?" Lacey realized, already able to tell that the young woman before her was strongly influenced by her younger sibling's desires.

She shrugged, "So what? I didn't have to listen."

"But you did. Because you loved her and she was worried. You were going to round up the other guys and get them out of there, get Leslie's boyfriend back."

"That was the plan. Not a good one in retrospect."

"Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, Rachel," the dark-haired woman allowed softly. "You can't kick yourself for decisions you made then. You were working off of limited information, you made the best decision you could."

The silence strung out between them and when Rachel met the ice blue eyes she would have found cold just the day before, she saw a gentleness she could hardly believe. She tilted her head, acknowledging the other woman's offered compassion. Then she rolled her shoulders slightly, realizing they did feel a little lighter.

"Why didn't you tell me? Surely you know I've done worse?"

Rachel half smiled, turned away again. She'd of course known that anyone who admitted to being Vinnie Russo's crony number two was well accustomed to violence and killing. "Why would I? I don't even know you. Just because you enjoy a life of crime does not mean it's my cup of tea. You're some random dark woman who wants to know all the barn's secrets. Why would I have spilled mine as well? In fact, I can't believe I told you now."

"Good point," Lacey murmured, on all counts. "So tell me all of the barn's secrets," she made a valiant effort to lighten the mood and change the subject.

It appeared her young companion was more than ready to take the diversion. "You tell me. You know some of them, I'm sure. Why did that filly fall down on the track last week?"

Lacey considered this for a very long moment before deciding to answer the question. "I really don't know. Vinnie's worried about the horses ... apparently he has a soft spot for them. He thinks something shadey's going on."

Rachel took in this information silently.

"Do you know a barn hand by the name of Oz?"

Worried eyes flashed her direction and caught Lacey by surprise. "Yeah?"

"Why does that name worry you, Rachel?"

She laughed softly, setting her mug back down on the counter to twist her hands together nervously. "Sometimes he comes here at night and ... bothers me. I thought maybe you were him when the door first opened."

"Bothers you?" Lacey felt a fury rise in her belly. "How?"

She shrugged it off. "He hasn't been back since I started bringing Karma to spend the nights with me. He's afraid of her."

Lacey glanced down at the sleeping dog and then raised a questioning eyebrow to the blonde across the room.

"Hey, don't look a gift horse in the mouth, I say. Why do you ask if I know him?"

"Spoke to him today. He seemed kind of evasive."

Rachel raised her head to meet ice blue eyes across the room, "That lame filly I told you about this morning?" she waited for the dark head to nod. "She was his ... like Sunny's mine. We all have certain horses we handle." She was silent for a moment, putting two and two together rather quickly. "He had a colt last year that suddenly started acting differently."

"Like Sunny and the others are now?"

"Yeah. They sold him to some German guy and shipped him there to be put at stud. We never found out what was wrong but he apparently did fine once he got there."

Lacey nodded slowly.

"Where were the drugs?" Rachel blurted, suddenly worried. "Did they put them in him? Did they kill him when he got there?"

"No, no drugs." Lacey promised softly. "Honestly, there are a lot cheaper and more efficient ways to ship drugs than using horses."

"That's good ... I guess," the blonde managed a confused smile. "What do you use them for then? What happens to the horses?"

Lacey met the searching emerald eyes and tried her best to put forth a reassuring smile. "There really is nothing, Rachel. The horses are legitimate. Occasionally, Vinnie uses them to close a business deal or to meet someone promising but, for the most part, the horses are just ... horses. A hobby. "

Several long moments of silence hung between them until Lacey broke it, "Did you know that Wheatridge wants to buy Sunny?"

"No," Rachel's voice was tired.

"I think he's been made to run poorly so that he'll be for sale."

Rachel nodded but was silent for many long moments as she absorbed the last few minutes of conversation and her unprecedented confession. Then, with a sigh, "Wow, I feel enlightened. What great news. Did you come here just to cheer me up, crony number two? Cuz it ain't working."

"No, sorry," Lacey smiled gently. "I didn't intend to tell you all this. Who would be working for Wheatridge?"

"You haven't told me anything," Rachel pointed out quietly, shaking her head. "Hell if I know. I didn't even know there was anything going on here, really. Just a string of bad luck, I thought. So I sure as hell don't know who would be giving away secrets. You really think Wheatridge did something to Sunny?"

"Maybe," the dark woman shrugged.

"Why am I so blind?" she groaned and was vaguely surprised at the gentle laugh across from her.

"Because I get the feeling you like to be optimistic."

"Shit load of good it does me." Then she seemed to consider something carefully before lifting her chin. "If you're looking for leaks, I'd start with Oz. And he has a friend he hangs out with named Benny, but Benny works the stallions."

"Any stallion trouble?"

"I'm not over there much so I don't know."

Lacey nodded and stared thoughtfully at the fur under her hand before she glanced back up at the emerald eyes watching her from the desk. "Can I have another cup of coffee?" she requested, not quite ready to leave.

Rachel sat for a long time, part of her wanting to send this darkness away and the rest of her intrigued by it. "Come with me to check the mares and then we'll have another cup," the blonde suggested as she gained her feet and started towards the door.

"I thought that's what the monitors were for," Lacey said but she pushed the dog gently to the ground and stood anyway.

"Still have to look at them. A camera doesn't show everything." She opened the door for her companion while pointing a finger at the dog that followed on the dark woman's heels. "You, wait," she commanded.

Karma gave her owner a startled look before launching into another round of vocal assaults. "Rooooo. Arrrrrrrr."

"I'm not kidding, girl," Rachel said in her sternest voice and was answered by more noise and a swinging of the dog's head from side to side as blue eyes rolled.

"What's she doing?" Lacey asked quietly from her position in the barn aisle, peeking around Rachel to watch the dog's antics.

"She's telling me off."

"That's pretty funny," the dark woman chuckled.

Rachel pushed the door closed and made sure it latched before turning her attention to her companion. "Oh sure, you laugh but you don't live with her," but the young woman was smiling fondly as she spoke.

They walked side by side down the barn aisle, Lacey staying outside when the blonde entered certain stalls and spoke to the inhabitants in a soothing voice. Before too long they were back in the office and pouring more coffee.

"So you do this every day? Are up for morning workouts and then stay awake all night?"

"Mmmm," Rachel agreed, sitting on the couch again and patting its surface for Karma to join her. It didn't take much prompting. "I usually try to sleep a little in the afternoon but I didn't get a chance to today. It's only for a couple of months, really, and then the mares are re-bred and I get to be up more normal hours to concentrate on working the foals that don't go back to their own farms."

Lacey sat on the other side of the dog who greeted her eagerly, thumping a fluffy tail on the couch's cheap upholstery. Ice blue eyes met gentle emerald for very long moments, warming each woman immediately as they read the clear emotions. Finally, Lacey smiled and stood. "I gotta go." Chicken, she admonished herself.

"Some place to be at two in the morning?" Rachel teased and was rewarded with a smirk and one wryly raised eyebrow. But the eyes that had revealed so much moments before were now shuttered and showed none of the emotions the young woman had seen. Instead they were cold and lifeless.

Rachel tilted her head slightly at this transformation and saw a look of sadness cross Lacey's features.

"Sorry ... I just ..." but she faltered, not willing to reveal too much to the probing gaze before her. She'd spent years closing herself off from others and living in her world of darkness and death. Rachel was the first person in a long time to chink at that well placed armor. And she wasn't even trying. She felt bad that the young woman had poured her heart out tonight and she, in turn, was merely taking that and running without any sort of recompense. "I'll see you around, Rachel. We'll get to the bottom of this."


Chapter 3: Sunnyside Up


Two mornings later, Rachel stood in the barn aisle at Aqueduct, wrapping Sunny's legs in heavy cotton bandages. The bay shook his head, tossing the stud chain up and catching it easily in his teeth, seemingly unconcerned at this turn of events.

In contrast to the colt, the young blonde occasionally wiped at wet eyes with her sleeve. The colt's performance had continued to decline and a new rider had been put up for this morning's workout. The exercise boy had been willing to go to his whip as Bob had instructed and Rachel could still see the welts on the bright bay hide. He was being sent home.

She was furious at Bob, the exercise boy, and Lacey. Where did that come from? she wondered idly but it was true. She'd felt a fierce attraction for the woman, had known it was returned, but hadn't heard from her or seen her since that night in the broodmare barn when she'd revealed so much of herself. Probably running scared, she mused. A woman like her doesn't need my emotional baggage.

"C'mon, son," Rachel whispered to the colt as she fit a head protector over his ears and then fastened on a bright blue stable sheet with the farm's red lettering on the side.

Bob watched silently as the young rider led the colt outside the barn and to a waiting horse trailer. She tossed the lead line over his withers and gave him a pat on the rump and the colt loaded easily, stepping up into the three horse slant without hesitation. She followed him to attach the trailer tie and take his lead shank off, then she pushed the slant wall into place and secured it before hopping out and closing the back trailer door.

"Rachel," Bob called from the doorway to the barn but just got an evil glare of glittering green eyes.

"Shove it up your ass, Bob," she muttered, not projecting her voice but hoping he heard it anyway.

Then she was driving the Ford diesel out of the race track grounds and towards the highway that would take them back to Briargate farms.

She unloaded the colt nearly forty five minutes later and led him silently into his waiting stall in the training barn. There she unwrapped his legs and removed the halter and head protector but left his sheet on him. She was latching his stall when Oz walked by.

"Hey, baby," he said in his creepy southern drawl. "Looks like your baby boy has come back to me."

"Not to you, Oz. Shari's gonna get him," Rachel turned to face the young man.

"No, I got 'im," Oz sneered. "Frank wants some sense knocked into this boy and the job is mine. Unless you want to give me some more favors and I'll spare him."

That was about all that Rachel could take and she snapped. She threw down the items in her arms and launched her compact body at the lanky man in front of her, landing a solid punch before he recovered from the initial shock and returned the punch in kind. Then Rachel jumped on him, forcing him to the ground, straddling his hips and wrapping her fists in his shirt front.

His only response was taunting laughter. "Oooh, this is just right, baby. Like it was the first time ... move your hips a little to the left, baby."

The young blonde started pummeling him in the jaw and face, oblivious to his words and her own surroundings at this point, growling fiercely to him throughout her assault. She was shocked to suddenly feel an arm wrapped securely around her waist and more than shocked when she was lifted bodily from the man below her. She squirmed against this hold until she heard a dark husky voice.

"Easy, Raich, easy," Lacey breathed into the younger woman's ear as she placed her feet securely on the ground.

"Lesbian slut," Oz sneered as he gained his feet and Rachel lunged again but was held securely in place by the taller woman.

"Get the fuck outta here, you shit," Lacey growled, the anger evident in her look and her stance. "Or I'll rip you limb from limb. Ya think I can't do it?"

But Oz knew she could do it. He knew who this woman was and what she was capable of. So he scrambled to his feet and fled the barn, leaving the two women standing in the empty aisle.

Slowly, Lacey released her hold on the young woman and watched her closely as she trembled all over with anger and frustration.

"God dammit," she screamed at last, spinning away from the dark woman and kicking a nearby tack trunk with all her might. "Fuck him and his fucking attitude." There were tears in her eyes. "Damn it." Rachel remained quiet for several long moments before turning to Lacey. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Lacey quirked her lips into a half smirk as the assault turned in her direction. "Can I ask what started this?" she gestured with one hand toward Oz's departure route.

Rachel took a deep breath, expelled it slowly, then ran a tired hand through blonde hair. Then she pointed silently to the stall in front of them.

Lacey glanced at the young woman before advancing a step and peeking over the half door. "Sunnyside Up," she read from the embroidered blanket. "Aw, Rachel, what happened?" she asked with sincere regret.

"Bob put up someone else this morning and he whipped the shit out of him. Of course he didn't run any better. Bob pulled him from the string and sent him back here for Oz to fix."

"Why not you? He's yours."

"He's mine only in a pinch. I usually only deal with the foals and weanlings. And I'm an extra rider when they need it."

Slowly, the tall woman tried to assess the slight form in front of her, wondering if she should broach the subject on the tip of her tongue. Lacey decided to go for broke. "I heard Oz say some things, Rachel. About you being on him like the first time ..." her voice trailed off as she watched the blonde tense up. "Wanna talk about it?"

"Go back to your drugs and guns, crony number two," she muttered softly, trying to hurt the dark woman, intent on forcing her away. She didn't want the pain her already deep feelings for this mysterious woman would inevitably bring. She'd given up her darkest secret only nights before and had gotten nothing for her heartbreak. "I got enough problems without your on again, off again compassion. You come in here like some damned knight in shining armor and you want to know my whole life. You already know most of it. Who the hell are you anyway?" She started to stomp away, moving away from Lacey, attraction be damned.

"Rachel," the dark woman called, causing her companion to stop in her tracks but not turn around. "I guess I'm more used to investigating than revealing. I want to know you better ... for me, not for Vinnie or for Briargate. I've read the records but it's all paper and facts ... I wanna know who Rachel Wilson really is."

"Why?" still without turning.

Lacey took a deep breath, ran nimble fingers through her dark bangs. And decided, once again, to spill it, "Cuz there's something about you that just pulls me ... and I want to know what that is. Because I swear to God I've never felt it before. You feel it too, I know you do." Look at me, Rachel. I'm pouring my heart out to you like I've never done in my life. "What do you want to know, Raich. Anything." God, am I pleading to her?

The blonde turned slowly, wiping at tear streaked cheeks with an already soaked sleeve. She tilted her head in consideration before smiling meekly. "Just how tall are you anyway?"

Lacey laughed with relief. "Six feet even." More silence as they watched each other from several yards apart. "C'mon. Let's go have some coffee. My treat."

Rachel nodded solemnly and waited for Lacey to come even with her before turning and walking beside the dark-haired woman out of the barn.


Chapter 4: Java the Hut


"Sprite," Rachel nodded to the woman behind the counter.

Lacey cast her companion an odd look. "I thought you were loading up on caffeine these days?"

"Unh unh," the blonde shook her head. "It's too early yet, I still have to take a nap this afternoon."

They sat quietly at a corner table, each fiddling silently with her cup until Rachel, unable to stay silent any longer, began to talk about the horses. She told the dark woman which mares had foaled since she'd been gone and what they'd had. Told her about the lame filly and Sunnyside.

"What were you doing yesterday?" the blonde ventured after nearly an hour of idle chatter. "Can you tell me?"

Sapphire eyes met emerald as the dark-haired woman shook her head slowly. "Better if I don't."

"How ... look," the young rider sighed softly. "I ... I like you. You know that right? And I'm thinking that you ... probably ... play on my team as well," she used the euphemism with a wry grin.

"Good team," Lacey nodded, raising her eyebrows. "Wouldn't play for another." She didn't know how she still managed to be surprised at the young woman's candor.

"Okay ... but how can ... we," said with pale hands motioning between the two of them, "go any further if one of us, meaning you, crony number two, can't tell the other one of us, me, anything?"

"Ah," Lacey nodded, meeting bright green eyes before glancing away to study something infinitely less interesting like the wallpaper across the room. "That would be a problem. Because, see, I kinda like you and I'm afraid that if you know what I know ... you'd be in danger."

"Are you in danger?"

Her eyes flashed back into the inquisitive gaze for just a moment. "Yeah. But it's my choice."

"Can I choose? Or are you going to do that for me?"

Lacey's lips twitched very slightly. "Well, we're here aren't we?" This is a big step for me, Rachel.

As if the young blonde could read her companion's mind, she leaned away from the table slightly. "You need me to back off a little? Are you uncomfortable?"

The nod was barely noticeable.

"But you are willing to try?"

Another very slight nod.

"That's good, Lacey. I can live with that," Rachel grinned, all tenseness from the morning seeming to disappear when faced with the remote chance of knowing this dark woman better. "Now, can I talk you into driving me to Aqueduct so I can pick up my Jeep?"

"That I can do."


Chapter 5: Searching of Souls


Lacey watched the young blonde climb into her white Jeep Wrangler and pull out of the lot before leaving as well and heading back into the city proper to speak with Vinnie.

She used the hour or more of driving to consider her feelings for this woman. And she wanted, on some level, to walk away and never come back because the small woman couldn't know what she was getting into. Rachel Wilson had an open mind and a love of life, though she denied it. She was honest and good, loving animals and people with abandon. Her smile welcomed Lacey from the darkness she'd known her whole life into the light the other woman held against all odds.

The last relationship Lacey had been in was nearly four years ago. It had ended badly, her lover of nearly six months having decided that she wanted in on the organized crime action. She'd gotten in too deep, too fast, and quite frankly wasn't cut out for it anyway.

She mentally shrugged off the haunting recollection, not willing to think about the dark past when her present contemplations were so centered on the fair young rider. It hadn't been love, she'd known that then and she knew it now. It was convenience and good sex and loneliness needing an out. But it was an eye opening experience.

She'd had her occasional flings since then but mostly one night stands or nameless faces whom she'd forgotten by morning. Rachel was different. She pounded closed fists on the black leather steering wheel, growling to the dashboard. How could she make sure that this time was different? Aside from not starting anything at all ... because her heart simply wasn't into considering that option.


Rachel, on another level, was questioning her own sanity when she returned to her apartment and took Karma for a quick walk. How in the hell had she fallen for this woman who was so unlike her, so dark and dangerous?

But she'd had occasional glimpses into a heart that was good. Into a soul that had some love left to give. In the way Lacey had listened to her story in the office, had touched her arm as they walked, had pulled her off of Oz and then held her steady. God, it had felt good.

And no one had called her Raich since Leslie. No one. But then again, no one had stood up for her since Leslie either, she grinned ruefully to herself, sitting on the couch and hugging Karma to her.

What now? I don't know her world, but I have an idea and I don't care. Which is more frightening than anything because I should.

"Everyone has a soul mate," her mother had said mere hours before committing suicide. "And that half of their soul is why they live and breathe, Rachel. It's everything in the world. Everything. It lasts for eternity."

I hope to God you were right, Mama. Because you sure chose to test that theory to its fullest extent. You taught me to see the good in people. You taught me to put my heart on the line. I think it's time I tested your theory myself.


Chapter 6: Looking for Reason


The scrawny man was tied securely to the chair, his eyes wide and frightened but he'd finally stopped whining. Thank God, Lacey thought.

"What do you know about Wheatridge, Oz?" she asked again, obviously growing tired of this escapade. When she was answered by more blinking silence, she backhanded his already swollen face then grabbed his shirt collar and pressed her nose within an inch of his.

"Look, ya little shit. I don't much like you anyway and we certainly don't need you to continue this investigation. So you can talk or die, I really don't give a damn which you do."


With a fierce growl, Lacey shoved him and the chair back before spinning to the other man in the small room who had, until this point, been standing in the corner watching silently. "Kill him," pointing to Oz with one long finger. "And clean it up."

"Wait!" Lacey's hand was already twisting the cold metal door knob. She stopped but didn't face him.

"There's a guy at Wheatridge who's trying to get some of our horses. Don't know what he wants 'em for. But I get a cut ... if we help."

"Why does he want certain horses?" Lacey turned on him, letting her glittering blue eyes convey her seriousness.

"I told you, I don't know. They tell me which ones and then ... then I ... give 'em something. I make 'em sellable," his nasally voice was pleading.

Lacey stood watching him for a very long time. "Who's the guy at Wheatridge?"

"I don't know! I swear to God." Smack. And then for good measure, Lacey grasped his middle finger and twisted it until the bones crunched inside her fist. He screamed at the pain. "He leaves an envelope and money at my apartment. I've never seen him!"

"Are you working with anyone at Briargate?"

"No, no," he said quickly, fear in his eyes. "Just me."

The dark woman, with bone chilling calmness, withdrew several paces to survey the sniveling mess before her. Instead of pursuing the issue with the horses and Wheatridge, she could only think of one more question. She glanced at her companion, knew he was listening, before turning her gaze back to Oz. "What did you do to Rachel Wilson?"

The words shocked everyone in the room, even herself, actually, because though she'd been thinking it, she really shouldn't have asked it. She silently cursed herself for her lack of professionalism.

"What?" Oz stared at her, crinkling a sweat glazed brow.

In for a penny, in for a pound, she sighed. "You heard me asshole. Rachel Wilson."

"She attacked me!" he yelled indignantly. "You saw it, you were there! You had to pull that bitch offa me!"

Lacey lunged forward, grabbed his other middle finger and gave him the fiercest look he'd ever seen.

"No!" he screamed. "No, okay ... okay," her grip relaxed slightly. "I ... uh ... made a deal with her. About that dumb colt she loves so much. I was gonna hurt him for Wheatridge because they wanted him to be put up for sale ..." his voice trailed off and she tightened her grip again, twisting his finger slightly. "But I told her I'd spare him ... if she ... she had sex with me."

Lacey felt her stomach drop and tasted the bitterness of hatred in her mouth.

"But she chickened out ... in the end ... and I wouldn't let her back out."

"You raped her?" Lacey growled, the sound of it being so feral that Oz just blinked at her for several seconds.

"No ... uh ... it was a deal. That's all. That I wouldn't hurt him. A deal's a deal."

"But, the colt, he's still not right? Wheatridge still wants to buy him?"

The sleazy face before her widened into a grin. "I didn't say I would keep my part of the deal." He sounded so damn smug.

"What did you do to him?"


With two quick punches, Lacey broke his nose and two ribs. "What did you do?"

He blinked at her stupidly even as he choked on the blood trickling down his throat. She gave him a few more well placed blows and asked him again. It was evident after she shattered his cheek bone that he wouldn't be talking.

Lacey kicked the chair over backwards to send his howling body to a painful impact on the cement floor. She turned to her companion. "I'm done with him. Kill him." Then she turned to the sobbing man and gave him one more withering glance before looking away. She left the room with all the grace of a prowling panther.

Lacey looked at the clock on her dashboard, not yet noon. So she pulled out her cell phone and Rachel's personnel file, dialing quickly.


"Rachel? It's Lacey," the dark woman expertly steered the sports car one handed along the New York City streets.

"Hey," the voice on the other end softened and it caused Lacey to smile slightly.

"Hey, yourself," said gently, then, more abruptly: "Do you think someone could have given Sunnyside an injection of some kind?"

"I'm great, Lacey. So good to hear from you. How are you doing?" Rachel spoke sarcastically.

"Rachel," there was a hint of warning in the darker woman's voice but the smile that edged it took away any bite that may have been there.

"Not likely. Blood work's been done on him several times and most drugs would have been picked up. He's getting progressively worse so an injection would have been evident."

"How else could someone have given him something? Feed?"

She was answered by thoughtful silence. "Maybe. But he's not eating well, he's losing weight."

The husky voice on the end of the phone line seemed to breathe deeply. "Raich, if you were going to feed a horse something to poison him, how would you do it? Is there an easy way?"

"Poison him!" Rachel squeaked.


"Is the poison tasteless, odorless?" the blond asked after overcoming her initial shock.

"Let's say yes."

"Did you talk to Oz? Is that how you know this?" her voice sounded a little bewildered.

"We questioned him, yes."

"Did he tell you how?"

"Would I be asking you?" the husky voice teased gently.

"Good point," Rachel acceded. "If it's not in his grain, we'll assume it would be too hard to put on hay," she paused for a long moment, considering. Grain would be too tricky anyway because he'd have to either personally feed the horse or slip in afterwards and put it in. "Mineral blocks!"


"Mineral blocks. Each horse has its own ... in the stall. Sunny's been chewing on his like it's damn candy."

"Can you get to Briargate and switch out Sunnyside's salt? Plus the others: the fillies and the colt who got hung up in the starting gate."

"Yeah, of course."

"I'm going to confirm that and then I'll meet you there. You may want to call a vet out."

"Lacey?" Rachel's voice became soft. "Is he gonna die?"

"I don't know, Raich. We'll do what we can. I'll see you there in a bit," she ended the call with a quick jab of her finger.


Rachel stared at the phone in her hand for nearly thirty seconds before hanging it up. Her association with this dark-haired blue eyed woman was getting weirder and weirder by the moment. Oh, by the way, kid, that guy you hate so much is poisoning your favorite horse. Cool.

"Karma," she called, already grabbing the dog's leash off of the doorknob. Her call was answered by the sound of paws hitting the ground and tags jingling as the dog came out of Rachel's bedroom.


"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Can you not argue with me just this once? I don't know how long I'll be at the farm."

With Karma belted into the front passenger seat, Rachel took every short cut she could and went twenty miles an hour over the speed limit to arrive at Briargate in record time.

"Wait here," she said calmly to Karma while unzipping the passenger window in the Jeep's soft top and checking to make sure the dog was attached securely to the seatbelt by her harness. "Good girl." And she turned and ran from the lot, ignoring Karma's expressed complaints.

Rachel ran to the training barn first and slid to a stop in front of Sunny's stall. The colt casually pushed his head over the stall door and whickered eagerly at her.

"Hey buddy. Hi, my boy," the young blonde whispered, slipping into his stall with him and hugging him soundly around the neck. "Oh, thank God. Then she released him to push his curious nose away from her and run hands along his body, under the blanket, down his legs. Of course he looked the same, she chastised herself. He's been this way for weeks now, standing in his odd spread-legged way. He stomped one foot impatiently as she paid him no further attention and instead grabbed his half-eaten mineral block and left his stall.

Then she retrieved the others Lacey had suggested, carrying all four brick sized blocks with her to the broodmare barn office and called the vet. Rachel went back to her Jeep to disengage Karma and lead her back to the office where she tied her to the couch, and propped the door open to wait.

Moments later, Lacey came into the room and Rachel realized that the woman's presence immediately calmed her. She smiled tightly by way of greeting and pointed to the small stack of red mineral blocks, while talking on the phone to the barn manager and explaining the tainted blocks of four horses.

"There may be horses," Lacey interjected as she went over to try and quiet Karma. "Hi, baby," she said softly to the dog, sitting on the couch and allowing herself to be mugged and kissed.

"Maybe more. We'll have to check it out when you get here." A pause as she raised eyebrows at the dark woman across the room and received a nod. "Vet's on his way. See you soon."

She hung up and walked over to the couch, bending down to her knees to scratch Karma behind the ears. Rachel looked up and met an ice blue gaze.

"You okay?" Lacey asked gently, reaching out to rest a hand on the younger woman's shoulder which was now just above the couch's seat. "You're trembling."

"I'm worried for him," she whispered as the intensity of the sapphire gaze became too much and she had to look away. She shrugged one shoulder, laughed self deprecatingly. "Silly, I know. He's a horse."

"Not silly, Raich. Don't think that," the woman said gently. A moment hung between them as the young blonde felt the heat of Lacey's hand on her shoulder but absorbed it with head bent and closed eyes, still stroking Karma's soft ears. "C'mon," Lacey said at last. "Let's go check on the other horses."

"Right," the young woman bounced fully upright so quickly it startled both Lacey and Karma. Two sets of blue eyes studied her closely and she smiled at them. "Let's start in the training barn."

The rest of the afternoon was spent pulling blood on horses and having the vet evaluate them. They'd isolated three other horses based on their behavior and the mostly devoured mineral blocks. Lacey left just before dark when the vet said they'd know nothing more for several days at least.

The dark-haired woman had taken a big step upon her departure. She smiled gently at her young blonde friend before stepping forward to hug her and place a warm kiss on the wind cooled cheek. Then she mumbled something about calling Rachel tomorrow and abruptly climbed into her little sports car and sped away.


Chapter 7: Back to Work


Lacey Montgomery left her house later that same evening, dressed in black jeans, a black turtleneck, and her customary black leather trench coat. Her weapons consisted of a Glock, a Sig Sauer, and two knives and were all concealed by the length of her coat. She left the sports car snugly in its space in the garage and chose instead a black Jeep Grand Cherokee parked in the farthest spot of the garage.

She ran a tired trembling hand through her bangs as she made her way first to Vinnie's then, later, she would collect her helpers and go to her previously scheduled meeting. She drummed her fingers impatiently on the steering wheel, the nervous tension completely new to her. Just a month ago her hands wouldn't have trembled, she wouldn't have felt nervous, and she had no clue how to deal with this new facet of herself.

Her mind wasn't on tonight's drug pickup and she blamed the strange mess with Oz and the horses. But, the truth of it was, she was occupied with a certain blonde-haired green eyed young rider. Her mind kept spinning back to the warmth and smell of the young woman. Simply thinking of Rachel caused a flipping

feeling in Lacey's stomach that she couldn't shake.

"What the hell have I gotten myself into," she murmured to the surrounding darkness, revving the V-8 to merge with highway traffic.


In addition to the broodmares, Rachel's rounds included the horses who'd had the tainted blocks removed that day and found no change in their appearance. Then the young rider decided to pull all of the mineral blocks, just in case, and piled them in a wheelbarrow as she walked through the barns. She returned her confiscated bounty to the broodmare barn office where Karma still waited for her.

Rachel was glad she didn't run into Oz and, in fact, realized she hadn't seen the gangly man since Lacey'd said she'd questioned him about the horses. She hoped he was gone for good.

Feeling like she'd done the best she could for now, she pulled a sandwich and salad out of the small dorm-style refrigerator and prepared a fresh pot of coffee.

"You know, I may have lost my mind," she said softly to the eager blue eyes that watched her every move as she emptied a plastic condiment packet of salad dressing. "I can't stop thinking about her."

"Arrr," Karma answered and began running through every trick she knew in weak attempts for food tidbits.

"You like her, doncha?"

Karma was in the middle of rollover.

"I know you do. How can she be ... who she is? And still ... still be so caring? When she touches me, or those eyes. Ugh," the young blonde tossed her head back in frustration, completely ignorant to Karma's playing dead. "What am I gonna do? We're okay by ourselves ... we don't need someone else ..."

The red Siberian leapt to her feet, tired of waiting to be noticed, and sat primly on the linoleum, waving a paw at her owner.

"But I think I do need her, Karma. It kinda scares me," she licked her fingers clean of dressing and picked up the sandwich before leaving the small kitchen area to sit on the couch in front of the myriad of monitors. "You're shameless," she intoned to those hopeful blue eyes on the way by.


"Not right," Lacey muttered. Then more loudly. "Rico. This isn't right. Get over here."

They stood several hundred feet from a dark underpass. She'd been accompanied by three other men and a second black sedan. One young man ran to her now. He pushed unruly blond bangs out of blue eyes before he smiled at her weakly.

"Wipe the mug, Rico. This isn't good."

He cleared his throat. "What's wrong. His car is up there," he started to point but his arm was smacked down by a powerful swipe of Lacey's hand.

"Amateurs," she growled. "Who sent the kid??" her voice was exasperated as she questioned the two men standing on her other side but they simply grinned at her. She knew Rico'd been sent specifically with her because she could handle the rookies. She didn't like them but she could keep them alive and show them a lot. Which is exactly why she had called him over from his hindmost position in the group.

"That car is a grey Ford Taurus," she explained impatiently. "Al doesn't drive a Ford Taurus. He drives a black BMW. And he always has a follow car."


"Whaddya think, Bernard?" this question was directed to one of the other men.

"Sent someone else, Lace?" a heavy set man ventured, having learned from years of working with this woman that you should be more afraid to mistakenly consider her questions rhetorical than answer them.

"Not Kalzar. He only works with certain people."

"Think Al got busted?"

"I think he got jumped."

"Couldn't he have just bought a new car? And not wanted company?" Rico offered. Lacey glanced from the teenager to the large man who'd been speaking and lifted an eyebrow. Rico got a firm swat in the back of his head for his comment and Lacey grinned her thanks to the other man who simply shrugged.

Suddenly, the Taurus began moving, gaining speed as it came under the bridge. All four of Vinnie's men scrambled over the nearest sedan and drew weapons as the driver of the Taurus swerved towards them. A dark tinted window rolled down to reveal the muzzle of an AK 47 peeking sleekly into the poorly lit night.

"Here we go, boys," Lacey yelled in her own version of fire at will and her team discharged their weapons willingly. The Taurus lost two windows and had several pocks in the body panels. They may have even lost a passenger before the limping grey vehicle passed them and drove easily into the darkness beyond as if reclaiming a lair where it could curl up and lick its wounds. "Everyone?!" Lacey shouted, standing slowly and leveling her weapon at the retreating vehicle.

"All good, Lace," one of the men responded after hauling Rico to his trembling legs.

"Fuck!" the dark woman growled, slamming her fists into hood of the car. "Bernard, call Tony and get a team over to Al's baker. Fuck it all, we're going to check out Kalzar."

Both men stood away from her and eyed her carefully. Rico tried to touch her back but he caught the dark waves of anger rolling off the woman next to him and he backed away.


After a thankfully uneventful night, Rachel and Karma stumbled into the apartment. The young blonde hit the blinking button on the answering machine on the stand by the door.

"Hey, beautiful. It's Lacey."

The young woman smiled, both at the compliment and at the thought that a woman with a voice like that would have to identify herself.

"I wanted to take you to dinner tomorrow before your shift but I have to take care of some business. Don't know how long, but I'll call you as soon as I can. Later."

Rachel crawled into bed feeling decidedly warmer despite the early morning chill.


Lacey broke into the old building with negligent ease. Rico was hot on her heels which annoyed the hell out of her but she was too interested in being quiet to snap at the kid ... again. She could see the shadows of her other two partners coming in through the back door before it registered that she shouldn't be able to see them.

She'd been in this old deli before and there should be a wall between the front room and the back. Only now there was a nice jagged hole and the glass deli counters were shattered and laying around on the linoleum floor. Surprisingly, there was no stench of spoiled meats and cheeses. No scent of bodies. And the front door hadn't appeared to be damaged in any way.

Quietly the small group prowled the ground level floor and then climbed to the living quarters which seemed untouched. Then they made their way downstairs again. Treading their way carefully back through the kitchen the team walked into the large refrigerator at their dark leader's bidding. There they pried away shelves, bloodying their fingers and giving Lacey funny looks.

Until their effort revealed a half door.

"How'd ya know?" Rico asked, his whispered voice full of awe.

"I'm psychic," Lacey grinned. "One of my many super talents. Stick around, kid, and it may rub off."

"No, really," the young man said, not even buying her reasoning for a split second which made Lacey smile wider.

"Where I woulda put it," she shrugged. They made quick work of the door and were immediately assaulted with gut wrenching smells. Rico gagged behind her but everyone else just kept moving down the darkened stairs.

"Lace?" Bernard said softly when they reached the floor. The other team member, a tall and lanky black man in his forties, moved around his larger companion to squint into the darkness around them.

"They shoved the bodies down here," Lacey responded quietly, hoping her voice would have a calming effect on her team. "Turn on the lights and count 'em up. We should have Kalzar, his wife, his brother, three kids. Look for the drugs or the money ... but I'm sure it's gone."


Continued in Part 2

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