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Kris stopped and tried to penetrate through the rain-streaked window, through the downpour, with her gaze. A spotlight shifted and she caught a glimpse of an orange boot and a yellow leg. “Thank you, Mentor.”


“You are welcome, doctor.”


Letting out a sigh, Kris opened a storage locker and pulled out an umbrella. Leave it to Jason to sit outside in a deluge. She pulled open the roof access door and opened up the umbrella. Kris took her time crossing the roof.


Jason looked broken, diminished somehow, to her. He sat with his back to the elevator housing. His mask was off and draped across his leg. His head was hanging. If it was to avoid the driving rain, Kris couldn't tell. Depressed, came an unbidden thought. He canted his head back at her approach.




“You changed.”


Kris shrugged. “It felt kind of funny to wear it again.”


“That isn't who you are anymore,” he told her quietly. “'We grow. We change.'”


“Some of us. Others tend to be a rock of stability.” She squatted down, giving him partial cover of the umbrella. “Why are you out here instead of inside where it's warm and dry?” She laid her hand on his where he had it hanging loosely, forearm resting on a raised knee. “You're shaking.”


Jason turned his hand and took hold of hers lightly. “Just adrenaline.” He gave her a weak smile. “I figured too many people would want to talk. Out here,” he looked up into the darkness and falling rain, “out here, there's just me, my thoughts, and my memories.” He sighed. “I find the rain to be cleansing.”


“I find it wet and cold,” she told him. “I'm surprised there's no fish swimming in it the way it's coming down.” He gave her a small chuckle. She cocked her head to the side and her demeanor became serious. “How do you feel?”


“Cold. Empty. I had him, Kris. He was right there and I had him. I could have killed him and it would be all over.” His eyes went back to the sky. “And it would have been the worst possible thing I could have done in that instant,” he said quietly.


Kris gave him a long concerned look. “Are you mad at me?”


He gave a slight shake of his head. “No.” He gave her another weak smile. “Have you eaten?”


She frowned. “No. I've been busy trying to keep a good friend from making a big mistake. Why?”


Jason forced himself to his feet and pulled Kris up with him as he went. “Can I interest you in dinner? I have a story I'd like to tell you.”


She raised an eyebrow. “You planning on cooking?”


“No,” he said turning towards the door, holding Kris's hand. She shared the umbrella with him. “I was thinking we would go out.”




He shrugged. “Pick a place.”




“No. Just us. I feel the need for a quiet night with a good friend. I don't think I could handle a party with the way I'm feeling,” he said.


“I need to change again, then. Give me an hour?”


“As long as you dress to impress,” he smiled at her. She smiled back. “Do you have that bodystocking?” he asked opening the door.


Kris stopped and looked at him. She had bought it as a joke as a point to tease him with after he had admitted to her that he had had a lingerie dream with her in it. “It's in my room. Why? Are you asking me to...”


He smiled warmly. “Depending on how long the talking goes, I was thinking I might ask you to model it for me later.”

She gave him a curious look. “Okay,” she finally said.

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“Why did it have to be the basement?”


Hellfire's voice came through the earpiece perfectly, even though she was sitting on a rooftop across the street. “What's the matter, T? Afraid you might run into a little spider?”


“Nope. Just wishing I was upstairs instead of babysitting this crystal doohickey.” She pointed the beam of her flashlight at a tall crystal point sitting in the middle of a rune-marked circle. Five candles were lit and placed an equal distance around the circle. “Besides, the last time I ran into anything like a spider that made me feel even a little afraid, it was the size of a VW Beetle. You wouldn't have believed how long the legs were.”


“Eww. No, T, just... no. Now I'm going to be having nightmares,” Hellfire said. Titania laughed.


Flashing the light beam around, she asked, “What did Jason use this area for, anyways?”


“Mostly for art supplies. Large rolls of canvas. Big buckets of gesso. Wood and frames to stretch canvas on. That sort of thing.”


Something attached to the ceiling caught her eye. “That motherless son of a rat-bastard,” she said quietly.


“What was that, T?” Hellfire asked.


“What's this cable for?”


“Which cable?”


Titania tracked the cable in question. “It's white, maybe an off-white. About an inch, inch-and-a-half thick. Stamped with Jason's logo every foot or so.” The cable disappeared into the wall.


“On a guess, that sounds like the fiber-optic cable. The juncture should be there where it switches to a standard cable and then goes up to the third floor inside the wall.”


“What's it for?” Titania asked.


“That's Mentor's tether to the tower. What you got, T?”


Titania followed it to the opposite wall where it went into a utility cabinet. “Is this one solid cable from the loft to the tower?”


“No. I think it's a two-piece. They join together in the sewer line somewhere between.”


“Then there's no reason at all why there should be something attached to the cable down here, outside of this tin wall box?”


“No. You got something.”



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Kate wandered slowly down the hall from the bathroom into the bedroom she shared with Warren. Tousled and damp from the shower, she rubbed absentmindedly at her hair with a towel as she crossed the room. She hung the towel on the doorknob and stopped in front of the antique freestanding mirror. It had been the last gift her grandmother had given her before passing.


Laughter drifted up the stairs. Leah, Dani, Warren, Ash, and Warren's mom. Aaron was quiet. Kate smiled to herself. She had always wanted a big family. Growing up Kate had always tried to fit in with a group to cover her loneliness. She had kept that up until college when she met Leah. The two of them had been assigned to the same dorm room as freshmen. Right away it was if she had found the sister she had never had.


Leah's studies had been Pre-Law. Katie's studies tended to be a major in partying and a minor in hang-over recovery. Between part-time modeling, studies and other odd jobs, Leah had managed to graduate early. Kate all but dropped out after... Nope. Not going to think about it.


Her partying had ended in a single night. She all but refused to leave the apartment unless someone she knew and trusted was with her. At the time that meant Leah, Jason, or Warren. Kate smiled again. I must have driven him crazy.


Kate took in her reflection in the mirror and took off her robe. She turned to different angles and frowned.




In here, Warren.” She reached for her robe, but stopped herself. Warren was her husband. Let him see what his wife looked like now. She ran her hands over her sagging belly. She had often gone with Leah on modeling jobs, but never had the self-confidence to step in front of the camera.


Hey, whatcha doing?”


Feeling depressed. “I took a shower. Aaron's got gramma and Aunts Leah, Dani and Ash to fuss over him. I thought I'd get a little 'me' time while I could.”


Warren admired his nude wife. “Any time you need time for you, just let me know.” Kate nodded. She bit her lower lip to keep from frowning at her reflection. “Are you okay?”


Warren, am I pretty?”


No.” Tears threatened to spill from her eyes. Warren stepped up behind her. With one hand he brushed the hair from the side of her neck, caressing her arm downward. With the other, he caressed her arm until his hand overlaid hers. He ran their hands together over her body while keeping his eyes on those of her reflection. “You're beautiful.” He kissed the side of her neck. “What's wrong?”


Tears spilled. “I just... I don't feel like I'm me.”


Tell you what. I'll talk to mom and see if she's willing to watch Aaron for a few hours.” He started swaying behind her. “Then we can go up to Rosie's and dance. I missed you at the dinner party. Had to dance with Leah,” he joked.


Oh, like dancing with the goddess was a chore.” She turned to him with a laugh. Her eyes shone brightly with tears. Warren kissed her.


Oh, it was. Believe me.” He pulled her close, kissed her passionately, and whispered, “I only wanted to dance with you.”


You still love me?”


Warren wiped tears from her face. “I never stopped. As soon as you're up to it, and the doctor clears you, I'll show you how much.”


You could have showered with me,” she said.


Warren kissed her again. “Too much temptation to do something we don't know if we should be doing. Let me go talk to mom. Maybe manage some girl time for you, too.” He released Kate and headed out the door.


Warren?” she called.




When he turned back to her she said, “I love you.”


I love you, too, Katherine.”

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Appetites sated, Jason gave Warren a tour of the house, leaving Beth with Marlene. They had passed through the library, Warren was astounded by the size of the room and the sheer number of volumes it held. “It was the most important room in the house according to my mom,” Jason had told him. They were on their way to the billiard room, which meant a pool table and video games from what Jason said, when a tall blonde woman came around the corner.


“Jason,” she called out. Not loudly, but in a way that would make just about anyone stop.


Jason sighed. “Hello, Sharon.” She drew close to the two young men. “Sharon, I'd like you to meet Warren Asher. Warren, this is Sharon Anderson.”


Warren stuck his hand out. “How do you do?”


A hint of a smile passed Sharon's face. “I do just fine, Mr. Asher.”


“You're Dani's sister?” he asked, pulling his hand back.


Sharon laughed. “I thank you for the compliment, Mr. Asher.”

“Just 'Warren' is fine,” he said, looking back and forth between Jason and Sharon in confusion.


“Sharon is Dani's mom, Warren.”


Warren looked stunned. “But you don't look to be much older than I am. I'd say you were around twenty-five, maybe. Which would mean you had Dani when you were... eleven?”


“I'm older than I look, Warren.” She lifted her hands towards Warren. “Do you mind?”


“Mind what?”


“Sharon is blind, Warren. She wants to know what you look like,” Jason explained.


“Oh! No. Go right ahead.”


Sharon's hands moved across Warren's face. “You have a kind and gentle face, Warren. Very handsome,” she said with a smile. Then her face turned to Jason and her demeanor changed. “We've been waiting on you. You father told you that we'd like to speak with you.”


“Not interested,” he said bluntly.


“You don't even know what it's about.” Warren got the impression that she was getting angry.


“If Dan Thomas is here it invariably involves him wanting a new recruit. I am not interested in being that recruit.”


“Jason,” Jordan spoke, coming around the same corner that Sharon had. “I think maybe you should hear us out first.”


“Jordan, Warren. Warren, Jordan,” Jason said with a gesture indicating who was being introduced to whom. A blond man, Warren guessed him to be a little taller than himself, with a hard, but handsome face, followed behind Jordan. “Director Thomas,” Jason said testily.


“Jason,” he said with a nod. “I've got a operation scheduled in a few days. I'd like your help. We've uncovered a Nest. I've been authorized to take in a small force. I have discretion to augment my forces. I could use you, son.”


“I am not your son. And maybe, Dan, I don't want to be used.”


I'll be going along, Jason,” Jordan said.


Enjoy your trip.”


You have a gift, Jason,” Sharon told him. “And maybe you need something to focus on beyond your troubleshooting trips.”


Jason's eyes flashed in anger. “Well, let's just tell everyone that Jason's got a secret. I do not want to be used. I do not want to be chewed up, spit out, left blinded or otherwise crippled...” Sharon's hand flashed out and slapped him. Jason glared at her. “If you'll excuse me,” and he turned to go.


Jase? Maybe we can help. Between what you can do and what I can do...” Warren broke off when Jason turned to glare at him. “Maybe we can help.”


You know that database you didn't want to end up in?” Warren nodded. Jason pointed his finger at Dan Thomas like it was a gun. “He's the guy running it.” Warren looked at Dan, swallowed, and tried to smile.

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“So, who's winning the argument?”


Jason smiled with half his mouth without looking up. “She is.”


Dani slipped down to sit beside him, her arm pressed against his. “She usually did.”


“Only when it was important.” With a crimson flash, Jason changed the pencil he was working with. “So, how is Cory doing?”


“Cody,” she corrected him. “Cody decided that he's going into the Marines. He shipped out for basic last week. That sucks on top of him graduating early.” Jason nodded his head in understanding, but kept working on his drawing. “But...” Jason sighed and disappeared the pencil. Dani took a look at the picture before he closed the pad. “It's scary how well you can draw her,” she said quietly.




Oh, well, see there was a problem at the ranch.” Dani threw herself up off the ground, practically dancing. “See, when Cody told me he was leaving, he kind of, uh, punctuated it with a kiss.”


First time kiss?”


Dani blushed. “That's not the point!”


Then what is?” Jason asked. The question was heavy with perturbation.




Dani.” Jason couldn't help but accent it with annoyance.


I kinda burned down my grandfather's equipment barn.”


Jason cocked an eyebrow at her. “What do you mean you burned it down? How?”


Dani gave him a mischievous smile while raising her hand palm up. “Kinda like this,” she said and a flame sat in her open palm. Within a few moments her hand ignited. And then the flames raced up her arm.


So your powers came in,” Jason said. “Fire suits you. What are you going to do?”


What do you mean 'fire suits me'? Are you saying that I'm fiery or something?” The flames went out.


No,” Jason said. “All things considered, you've got a pretty good temperament. Fire is also used to refer to passion. And that's pretty much you in everything you do.”


Oh.” Dani smiled at him. “I've got to finish school, and I need to learn what all I can do, but after that, I figured I'd go into the family business with my mom,” she said grinning.


Yeah,” Jason sighed. “Your mom. I need to go apologize to her.”


Dani's grin faded and she cocked her eyebrow up at him. “For what?”


My mouth ran faster than my brain.”

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Six days and two missed dates. Marlene looked up at the windows. The third floor hall lights were on, but the fourth floor windows were dark. She wasn't sure if that meant anything or not. The fourth floor was only a partial floor, large enough for one finished bedroom and an open area where Jason's sleeping area was located. Marlene pulled the collar of her coat close.


Al escorted Marlene to the front door, keeping himself between her and the street. His attention drifted from one direction to the other, watching the sidewalks. Marlene pulled out her keys. On her first attempt at inserting the key into the lock, she dropped her keys. Barely a few inches below her hand, Al managed to catch them. Marlene turned to smile at him, but his attention was behind her. “Thank you, Al,” she said when he hand her keys back to her.


Ma'am,” was his reply with a nod of his head. Marlene slipped the key home and released the lock. “Are you alright, Miss Palmer?”


Kind of nervous. I don't really know why,” she said to him.


You want me to run a check inside?”


Marlene shook her head. “No. I think we can trust Jason,” she told him with a smile. “It's just when I left here, the last time I saw Jason I wasn't seeing Jason. You know what I mean?”


Yes, Ma'am. Are you sure you don't want me to check?” he asked again.


Thank you, Al. I think I'll be alright. Good night.” Marlene passed through the door, leaving Al outside. Inside, Marlene walked to the elevator and pressed the call button. The doors opened immediately. She rode it in silence to the third floor.


When the door opened, Marlene walked at a slow pace. Butterflies in her stomach made her cautious, but why, she couldn't really explain to herself. Quiet music came down the hall. The steel door to the loft was ajar. Marlene gave it a curious glance. She slid it open enough to allow herself entry. The loft was dark.


“Jason?” she called out quietly. After a few moments without answer, she said to herself, “Damn it. Captain Stone said you'd be free tonight.” The butterflies edged their way closer to being a case of nerves. “Jason? Are you here?” she called out a little louder. Still there was no answer.


“Mentor?” Even the AI refused to answer her.


Marlene was about to turn and leave when something started glowing on the dining table. She cocked her head to the side, her curiosity quelling her nerves. She set her belongings inside the door and pulled it all the way closed. She pulled her coat off and hung it from a peg on the back of the door. Her eyes never left the glowing light.


She walked slowly to the table. There before her was a spun glass rose. She thought it might have been what the one she had thrown in the trash the week before might have looked like whole. She smiled. She felt a tear slip down her cheek. She slowly reached for the rose, but stopped herself. Marlene realized that there was no light source. The rose was glowing on its own. She picked it up and marveled at the simple beauty of it.


“Jason?” she called again. A flame flaring off to the side caught her attention. A small candle, set on the floor was alight. She was looking at that curiously when a second one lit. She set the rose lightly back on the table and started walking towards the candles. A third one blazed. She realized that they were leading her towards the bathroom. She followed.


When she entered the bathroom, candles surrounding the tub, already filled with water and bubbles, came to light. Marlene laughed. “I guess I'm supposed to get in?” There was no answer. “Okay then.” She started removing her clothes. She couldn't help herself, but laugh.


Naked, she slipped into the water. The temperature was to her preference. She sighed, feeling some of her tensions easing. She closed her eyes for a moment. Something caught her notice. When she opened her eyes, the caddy had moved closer from the end of the tub. Laying on it was the spun glass rose. Beside that was a champagne flute filled with bubbly. “Now all I need is someone to slip in the tub with me,” she called out towards the door. She noticed that her clothes were no longer in sight. “Okay then,” she said quietly and settled back into the water.

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Jason stood leaning back against his desk. He was nervous, like a kid out on his first date. Quiet classical music was playing. He checked his watch, realized what he was doing, and put his hand back down to grip the edge of his desk.


He heard the elevator running, and after a few moments, heard the door open. He heard the quiet pace of Marlene's footfalls in hall, drawing nearer. He pulled himself upright off the desk. He looked around the loft one more time to see if there was something that he hadn't cleaned up. His eyes snapped back to the door when it slid wider.


“Jason?” Marlene called. He stiffened. Angelique lay her hand on his arm.


“She can neither see us nor hear us,” she said to Jason. “Just like I said.” He nodded in understanding.


“Damn it. Captain Stone said you'd be free tonight,” he heard her say. “Jason? Are you there?” He saw her getting impatient. “Mentor?” Jason had ordered the AI to remain silent for the evening.


“I guess it's show time,” Angelique said. She spoke quietly. Jason saw none of the outward signs that he was used to seeing when Angel cast a spell. The only effect was the rose he had fixed earlier, left on the island by Trese when she had fished it out of the trash, started to give off light. Marlene has started to turn back towards the door when the light caught her eye.


Watching her bend at the knees to set her bags down, Jason was enamored simply in looking at Marlene. It was as if he were under a different, more powerful spell than the one Angelique had cast. Marlene hung her coat and walked slowly to the table. Jason saw a tear slide down her cheek to slip around her smile.


Marlene was tentative about picking up the rose, as if she were afraid it might break. “Jason?” she called. His heart hammered in his chest. The first candle ignited, catching Marlene's attention. The second candle caught in Angelique's casting and lit. Marlene set the rose back on the table and followed the candles into the bathroom. Jason released a heavy breath that he hadn't realized he had been holding.


“You realize that she will figure it out?” Angelique teased.


“Maybe,” he said. “But I don't think she will tonight. Tonight all she is going to see is the magic.” He turned to Angel and smiled. “Are you okay doing this?”


“Why wouldn't I be? She's...she's my friend. It hasn't been easy on her, knowing what you and I have shared, but she has made an effort where the others haven't. I just wish...” Angelique watched Marlene disappear into the bathroom.


“Wish what?” he asked her gently.


“I wish someday that someone will look at me the way you two look at each other.” She glanced up at him and then turned away. They heard Marlene laugh and then a splash of water.


“Someday, Angel, you will. I meant are you okay doing this with the block in place?”


Her golden hair tumbled about her shoulders when she nodded. “It's easy. I'm not feeling any drain, any stress about the block. I'll have to talk to Adalene about it.” She followed Jason into the kitchen area. He poured champagne into a flute and handed it to Angel. Then he poured another. He retrieved the rose from the dining table.


He carried the flute and rose into the bathroom. Marlene was relaxing in the tub with her eyes closed. Jason cast a glance at Angel, who had followed. She nodded at him. He set the rose on the caddy and slid the caddy up towards the middle of the tub. Then he set the flute of champagne beside the rose. He righted himself and gazed down on Marlene's face. His fingers burned to touch her, caress her.


He smiled and gathered up her clothes. Angel smiled at him as he passed her. They heard a splash of water and Marlene called out, “Now all I need is someone to slip in the tub with me!”


Going past the stairs, Jason reached out and appeared a candle. He set that on a riser, then another candle on a different riser, until every other step had a candle. In the sleeping area, he hung Marlene's clothes on a rack for her. From the closet he pulled out a black skirt and a pink silk blouse.


Why those?” Angelique asked.


He stopped and looked at the blouse draped across one arm while the other held the hanger. “This is what Trese said she had on when Shyft...” Anger flared. It wasn't what he wanted to think of tonight, but it was the fear that something might happen to Marlene that was a the core of Jason's denial of his feelings for her for so long.


Angel canted her head and nodded. “I understand,” she said with a smile. “That was how she wanted you to see her and it wasn't you.”


Yeah,” he said quietly. He lay the clothes on their bed. “I need to check on dinner.” He made his way back down the stairs.


Taking a drink from her flute, Angel watched him go. Once he was down the stairs she looked at Marlene's clothing Jason had laid out. Angel smiled. Chanting quietly, hand extended towards the blouse and skirt, violet light flared from her hand and outlined the clothing. The clothes writhed on the bed. When the movement ceased, she nodded in satisfaction at what she had wrought. She headed back down the stairs.


Jason had several pots going on the stove. He would stir the contents of one and then move on to another. “I cast the counter spell in two parts. The first part is on the clothes on the bed. The second is on the threshold of your bedroom. When she changes and comes out, the veil will drop. After that,” she told him, “after that, it's all on you.” Jason nodded. “That smells good. What is it?”


Smiling at her without looking at her, Jason continued dealing with his cooking. “Pepper steak. Steamed vegetables. Fried rice with pork and mushrooms. Peanut butter chicken. Won ton soup. Spring rolls.”


Angel smiled. “Wouldn't it be easier to just order in?” she teased.


Jason looked wounded. “And have my cooking skills get rusty? What are you planning on tonight?”


“Like I said, I have a few things I want to talk to Adalene about. I was thinking that I would head to her place when I leave.”


He caught her gaze and smiled. “You and Adalene seem to be getting along pretty well.”


Angel gave a coy smile and shrugged. “What can I say? I've gone from maybe two to at least four. Look at Charley and Ash. They spend a lot of time together.”


It was his turn to shrug. “Frenemies with a playful rivalry to full-blown friends. I can't say I'm disappointed or shocked there. I'm happy for you, Angel.” Jason pulled several disposable food containers out of a cupboard and began portioning out food. “Is Charley going to be with you?”


“No. Just me and the Binder. Why?”


“Just want to know how much to send with you. Seems feeding you is the least I can do,” he said.


“Ah, the old 'here's some food, now get out' dismissal,” she said with a laugh. Jason laughed with her.


“If it was any other night, Angel, I would invite you to stay, but there is a woman that I very much want to reacquaint myself with tonight.”


Angel looked thoughtfully at him, and her eyes sparkled with humor. “If it were any other woman, I'd be tempted to take her place.”


Jason bagged up the food containers he had filled. He picked up his phone and placed a call. “Still waiting, Al? Miss Darque would like a ride to Adalene Master's. After that the rest of the night is yours. Thanks, Al.”


“And I get the limo?”


Jason quirked another smile at her. “You've done enough. I wouldn't want you to hurt yourself attempting to weave a gateway.”


Angel dropped into a quick curtsy. “Why, thank you, Mister Scott,” she said with a Southern accent. “Whatevah would I do without you?”


“Walk. Or call a cab, I suppose.”


“Well, there is that,” she said as they walked to the door.


Jason pulled the door open for Angelique. He caught her hand when she went by. “Thank you, Angel,” he said, kissing her knuckle. When she took her hand back, he handed her the bag of food.


Angel reached up and caressed the side of his face. She pulled him down and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Take care of her, Jason,” she said before letting him go. Jason watched her until she disappeared into the elevator.

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Marlene pulled herself from the tub and dried herself off. From a hook on the back of the door, she took down a long bathrobe and slipped it on. The candles in the bathroom went out. One by one, the candles along the floor led her to the stairs. She followed the flames like a moth.


Upstairs, seeing the outfit laying on the bed, Marlene smiled and let the robe slip from her shoulders. She dressed quickly and applied a little makeup. She left her pendant out of her collar. Her fingers touched the amethyst star. “Can we, please?” she asked it. It faded from her view. “Thank you.”


She found a pair of shoes that went with her outfit, stepped into them and headed for the stairs. Jason was waiting for her at the bottom, a look of surprise on his face. Marlene smiled. “You look like you've never seen a beautiful woman before,” she teased, taking her time descending the stairs.


“I love this dress!” she told him. It was a mid-thigh, short sleeved, black cheongsam dress with a Mandarin collar. Across the front of it was cherry blossoms. The slits on either side were almost to her hips, revealing the tops of pink stockings with every step. “You realize that it is positively indecent and that I'll never really be able to wear it anywhere, don't you?” Jason smiled lovingly, nodded and held his hand out for her. She slipped her hand into his. “I should have realized you were up to something, with how clean the place is. Almost like you were expecting female company,” she teased. Marlene took the last step down and stood before him. “Now what?”


The music changed and the volume rose a notch or two. Jason pulled Marlene close and they danced.

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The music was just a bit too loud. The bass sent out vibrations that could be felt through the soles of one's shoes, or boots in Jason's case. He stood leaning against a column, one foot up against the column, toe tapping to the beat of the music. He was looking down on the ballroom floor, watching his guests dance.


“You never really did like to mingle. Always kept yourself isolated, drawing or painting, while everyone else had fun. I guess with the way you were raised, it was to be expected.”


Jason brushed his long brown coat away to bare the long six-gun holstered on his hip. “Hello, Uncle Jordan. I don't mind mingling with friends and family, but these,” he waved his hand at the crowd below, “these parties tend to suck the energy right out of me. They always have.”


“Planning on shooting me?” he joked. “You haven't called me 'uncle' in a while.”


Jason shrugged. “Sorry.” He returned his attention to a figure in yellow and orange that was dancing with someone from Accounting. “I never really understood the whole point Mom had of the women being announced by who they were pretending to be at these things.”


“All part of the fun, Jason. Then you spend time trying to figure out who is whom.” Jordan's gaze swept over the crowd to pick out a multi-colored floppy hat being worn by Warren, and the redheaded woman he was dancing with. “That hat makes him look like an idiot.”


“Yeah, but he's on my crew,” Jason said with a smile when he returned his attention to Jordan. “Looks like some brothel's love seat got its covering stolen.”


Smiling back, Jordan put put his right hand on the lapel of his red velvet long coat. “You don't like it?” Low, black, buckled boots were on his feet, with his calves covered in white hose. His red velvet breeches were tied just below his knees. The matching wide-brimmed, plumed hat rested upon ebony locks that hung below Jordan's shoulders. A silver hook took the place of his left hand.


“Looks fine, Cap'n.” Jason looked back to the dance floor to pick out “Lady Pulsar”, as she had been introduced, and watched her dance.


“How are you and Marlene getting on?”


Jason watched the woman dance and smiled. “Just fine.”


“How did she handle your disappearance?”


Jason frowned and shot a glance at Jordan from the corner of his eye. Jordan was watching his wife dance with Warren. “Not so well.”


Jordan tapped his chin with the hook. “Any idea who was behind Shyft taking your place?”


“Not a clue, but I've got Bauer pretty high on my list of suspects.” Jason took a drink from a glass resting on the balcony railing. Jordan lay his hooked arm on the railing and leaned against it, looking down to watch the dancers. Jason set his glass aside and unconsciously mimicked the older man.


“Have you figured out who is whom down there yet?” Jordan asked.


“For the ones that matter the most, I have an unfair advantage.” Jason's finger pointed from one person to another as he called off their names. “Leah, dancing with Michaels. Fast dance. Hands off approach. Trese, dancing with...looks like Clay Stafford from Legal. Stacy is sitting on the sofa below us. Over there, Dani is dancing with Rob Layton. Aunt Emily is standing over by the window seat. Kate is there, dancing with...don't recognize him, but she's where Warren can keep an eye on her.”


Jordan nodded his head. “She's a good kid. She's trying to come out of that shell she built for herself.” Jordan looked at Jason out of the corner of his eye. “Any news on the bombing?”


Jason's hand rubbed at his jaw. “Black Jack. Captain Stone filled me in on what the investigators turned up. The bomb had Black Jack's signature all over it.”


“You're thinking Bauer?”


“I've got... Marlene has a detail going over copies of the records of that building. See if there's anything that was being worked on there that would give an indication as to why. Why leading to who might have reason to blow it to hell.”


Jordan nodded in thought. “Where's Kris?”


“Couldn't get free. Her night at the hospital.”


The two men fell silent. Songs ended and began. Dance partners changed. “Did you ever follow up on what we discussed?'


“I did.”


“Did she give you an answer?”


“She did.”




Jason watched Marlene spin around and come back into her partner's arms. “We were going to have dinner with her parents, but the explosion pulled us back here.”


“So no formal public announcement.”


Cocking a smile at the older man, Jason said, “Have to get her father's blessing first.”


“Old fashioned girl.” Jordan nodded to himself.


“About some things,” Jason agreed.


Slipping his hand inside his coat, Jordan pulled out a parchment envelope and held it out to Jason. “Brianna wanted me to give you this. Along with her regrets for not being here.”


Jason took the envelope and tapped it against the knuckles of the hand laying on the railing. “What's she up to?”


“Fashioning a suit.”


Brow knit and lips pursed before Jason said, “Sewing?”


Jordan gave a slight shake of his head. “Forging,” he said.




Footsteps, hard against the parquet floor behind them, caught their attention. They both turned. “Please forgive my intrusion, gentlemen.”


Jason gave the woman a smile that never quite reached his eyes. “Julia Frost, The Ice Queen.” Everything about Julia sparkled. Small gemstones, whether rhinestone or real couldn't be told, were spread across her bodice like seed pearl embroidery. Light glittered from her hosiery when she stepped, her leg appearing from a slit in her long skirt. Her shoes twinkled in reflected light. On her head was a tiara made to look like ice. Julia's face was pale. Her eyeshadow and lipstick was a silvery blue, giving the impression of cold. Her lashes and hair had the look of being covered with rime. Her ice blue eyes flashed brightly.


She nodded to each in turn. “Jordan. Jason. No one has called me that in quite a while,” she said with a small laugh.


“Why? Did you have them all killed?” Jason said with a look to indicate it was a joke.


Julia quirked a slight smile at him. “Apparently I missed one. I was wondering if we could talk.”


Jason shrugged. “What would you like to talk about?”


Stepping closer, Julia said, “I was wondering if you gave any consideration to our meeting?”


“Julia, we haven't had a meeting.” Her eyebrow shot up. “And if you want to discuss business, I'm afraid that you'll have to discuss it with Marlene Palmer.”




Jason reached for his glass. “It seems someone saw fit to abduct me and put someone in my place. Unsure of when such a thing occurred, Miss Palmer filed an injunction, keeping me locked out while the impact of my disappearance is investigated. If you and I had any meetings, Julia, it wasn't me you were meeting with. Any agreements made would be looked into.”


“I see,” she said coldly.

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After the call disconnected, Ash sat lost in thought, chin resting on knuckles. Leah gave her a few moments before she walked in. “How is she?”


Kris?” Ash swung her chair about to face Leah. “She's fine. Jason did his paladin thing, laid on his hands and accepted her wounds unto himself.”


So what was it?”




Leah looked down at the floor. “Which leads directly back to Ste...Bauer.”


Ash nodded. “That's Jason's train of thought. Only thing is, Kris wasn't supposed to be there with him. Theresa was.” Leah shook her head. “You okay?”


I'm just thinking of all the damage that this...rivalry, I guess, between Jason and Bauer is wracking up. Jessica, the attempt on Kate, the research facility and all those people.” A click of her nails sent sparks flying. “Marlene,” she added quietly. She popped her head up to look at Ash. “How is he?”


From the sounds of it, fraying around the edges,” Ash told her. “I told Kris about you wanting to go out. She said she'd ask him next time he wakes up.” Ash cocked her head to the side and raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure you want to go out there?” Leah bit her lower lip. Her lips tightened in a line before she nodded her head. “Alright. Mentor, release all files locked under 'Jason is batshit'. My authorization and prepare the presentation for Leah.” Ash slowly got to her feet. “It runs for just under three hours, Leah. When you get hungry...”


Call for food?” Leah teased.


Actually, I was going to tell you that you know where the kitchen is.”

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Slowly, with deliberate movements, the wooden staff shifted, then spun, and finally was thrust straight-out. Blood hammered in Jason's temples. Whether to the beat of his heart or the music that was playing just a touch too loud, he wasn't sure. His attention was focused on his movements. The staff was brought back into a guard position. Then it spun deftly and moved through a low sweep before coming to rest in a one-hand grip, braced along the back of Jason's arm.


Sweat slicked his body. With the back of his empty hand he wiped away beads of perspiration that threatened to sting his eyes. The staff came back into guard. With a flick of Jason's wrist, the staff flashed out to rapidly strike the body of a wing chun wooden dummy. He brought the staff upright, the butt of it resting between his bare feet on the mat.


Jason crouched low with one leg outstretched. The staff was held in a two-handed grip, pointing low along the line of his leg. He rose up on one foot and planted the staff. First one foot, and then the other, kicked out. Jason landed facing the opposite direction from whence he started.


He continued with his workout until the music cut out and threw him off his rhythm. “What?” he called out.


“There is an individual at the front door,” Mentor told him.


Jason tossed the staff toward the rack, a reflection of his mood that had sent him in to workout, where it clattered before coming to rest on the floor. He picked up a towel and stepped into house shoes. Mopping his face with the towel on the way out the door, Jason stopped and looked at the staff. With a sigh, he turned and collected the staff, putting it in its proper place.

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Jason turned the corner and stepped off the landing, taking the last few stairs to the main hall. Sharon, wearing a leotard that left very little of her figure to the imagination, came out of the kitchen. “Sharon,” Jason said quietly. She turned towards him. Jason tried to smile at her, fully aware that she couldn't see his expression. “I looked for you last night.”


Our planning session went late. Dan Thomas has a relatively narrow window of operation.” She pulled her hair back and put it up in loose ponytail. “What did you want to see me about?”


“I wanted to apologize for what I said yesterday about you being crippled. I'm sorry.”


“Jason, you know that Dan Thomas was not responsible for what happened to me. Someone else was. With your abilities, I don't see it ever being an issue for you.” Sharon turned in the direction she had been headed when Jason called to her. “Dan is not a bad man. He's in a difficult position, doing a thankless job. Sometimes he needs help.”


“And the first time I agree to do his dirty work it opens the door for the next time. You say he's not a bad man. That doesn't necessarily entail that he's a good man, either.”


Sharon canted her head as if looking at Jason from the corner of her eye. “Sometimes there is a thing as necessary evil. 'When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.'1


“'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.' Also attributed to Burke. I don't know, Sharon. It just... it rubs me the wrong way, I guess.”


“Tell you what. I was going to do some katas, but how about we spar a few rounds? Say best two out of three. If I win, you sit in on our planning meeting today and listen to what Dan has to say.”


And if I win?”


Sharon smiled. “You come up with something and let me know what it is. If you win.”


Jason stared at her for a long moment. “I'll need to change.”


1Edmund Burke

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Her socked feet gliding on the waxed floor, Dani slid around the corner using the wall as leverage. “Sorry, Missy,” she said when she narrowly missed the housekeeper.


You know you aren't supposed to be running in the house, Dani!” Missy scolded her.


Dani shrugged. “Hey guys, if you're interested, my mom and Jason are going to be playing.” She snatched several rashers of bacon and bolted back out the door.


Beth noticed the sparkle in Marlene's eye when she got up from the table. “What are they going to be playing?” she asked.


Sharon is going to be bouncing Jason all over the gym,” Marlene answered with a laugh.


Beth and Warren shared a look. “Okay... We don't get it.”


Well, I guess you need to come watch, then,” Marlene said leaving the kitchen.


Warren looked at his plate. “Uh, Missy? I'll be back to finish this.” Warren followed Marlene. After a moment, Beth followed Warren.


I thought the gym was back the other way?” Beth pointed in the opposite direction from where they were going.


It is,” Marlene said. “But if those two are going to play you don't want to be at ground level. You're going to want a higher perspective.” She led them up the stairs Jason had come down earlier.

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Pausing while wrapping her hands, Sharon cocked her head to the side. “Full gear, Jason,” she said. He lifted hand guards, disappeared them, and reappeared them on his hands. He checked the straps and then went through the same motions with foot and shin guards.


Why?” he asked, taking up a padded helmet.


Sharon was donning her own gear in a more ordinary manner. “Because we are about to have an audience.” Quietly, she counted down. When she reached zero, Dani called down from the upper gallery, “Hi, mom!” Jason glanced up to see Marlene, Warren and Beth take up positions along the rail.


Hi, Honey! Told you so.” She checked Jason's gear and then he checked hers, making sure everything was tightened down properly. “First round is unarmed. Second round will be staff work. If the third round is necessary, anything goes.”


Jason nodded to her and stepped out on the mat, slipping a mouth guard in. He rolled his neck and shoulders, loosening up. He dropped to do a couple of quick stretches for each leg. Standing back up, he brought up one knee to his chest, and then did the same with the other leg.


Sharon stepped out on the mat. She didn't do any quick stretches, apparently already limber from either yoga or a morning swim. “Ready?” Jason nodded to her and she slipped her own guard in her mouth. Facing off, they bowed to each other.

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With a flutter of wings and the crash and clatter of tools, Kris kicked over a utility table. “How can anyone do something like that to someone?!”


Asks the gurl wit' wings.”


Aargh! I have half a mind...”


Tae do nothin', Kris,” Irish admonished her. “Ye wanna be a doctor, part o' that is respectin' yer patient's wishes. I nae like it enna more than ye, but the gurl has made it clear. She does na wanna file charges.”


Right now!”


Aye, righ' now. Later, she'll still hae the choice. Righ' now, ye'll respect her wishes and ye'll abide by confidentiality. Tha' means ye'll no be tellin' enna one. No Ashleigh. No Warren. An 'specially no Jason. He hae enough on his mind righ' nae.”


Dammit!” Kris slammed her fist into a supply cabinet. “How can you just sit there so dispassionately? Doesn't it bother you?”


Irish crossed her arms. “Aye, it bothers me. It bothers me ye be rantin' an railin'. Ye break yer han' ye'll be the next thing ta useless ta me.”


Shaking her hand loosely, Kris shot a glum look at Irish. “I'm just venting.”


Aye. I'm dispassionate on account I need ta be. Ye need tae bottle up tha' frustration. Take all'a yer emotions an clamp them down. Ya need tae think, Kris. Ye go all emotive wit' yer patients and ye won't be able tae do wha's necessary sometimes. As fur Theresa, I don't think ye needs remindin' wha' she done ta Dani yesterday when tae little hothead got tae wayward upset wit' her.”


Kris hung her head and sighed. “Your brogue is heavier than usual.”


Aye,” Irish said. “Tha' 'appens when I git angry an upset.”


I'm sorry,” Kris said sheepishly. “You think Jason was right?”


Nodding her head, Irish said, “Aye. I do. Realization sickness coupled wit' repression and denial. From wha' she's said, her mum was tae one tha' was her world. Her stepfather seems ta be a real piece o' work.”

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The hum and vibration of the tires on the asphalt soothed her. Music played so quietly she could barely make out the song. The aroma of fresh coffee permeated the interior of the Range Rover. It was obvious to her that morning had come, even with her eyes closed. The warmness of the sun caressed her face. The warmth of the hand resting on her thigh made her smile.


Turning her head to the left, Leah squinted against the early morning light. “What time is it?”


Jason gave her leg a light squeeze. “A little after nine.”


Shading her eyes with her hand, Leah ventured a glance out the window. “Where are we?”


Less than two hours out,” he said.


Leah lay back against her seat and looked at him. “You didn't have to drive all night. I could have taken a turn.”


You've been running your ass off getting ready for your two weeks in Europe. You were exhausted. You didn't even twitch when I stopped for food.”


Speaking of which...” She reached for the cup resting in the holder. “Hey, it's empty,” she said with a pout. She put the cup back in the holder.


Jason glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and cast a smile at her. He took his hand off her leg and turned it over. With a crimson flash a carrier with a large coffee cup locked into it and a bag advertising some relatively local bakery resting beside the cup appeared on his hand.


Leah took the carrier and set it on her lap. The cup came free and she cracked open the drinking hole. She closed her eyes and smiled when the smell of hot coffee assailed her nose. “Hmm, premixed,” she said after taking a drink. “I think I'll keep you. You're mostly trained,” she teased. The cup went into the holder next to Jason's empty one. She tossed the carrier over her shoulder into the back seat. With a rustle of paper she opened the bag. “Fresh bagels! Where's the cream cheese?”


In the cooler,” he told her.


She turned to rummage through the cooler on the floor behind the driver's seat. Turning back with the packets in hand, she saw Jason flexing his hand. Her voice was serious. “Are you alright? Siobhan said you shouldn't be using until you're fully healed. I didn't think about it when you pulled the bag out.”


I don't plan on letting White Tiger use me as a sheath for his sword again any time soon,” he told her. “I'll be okay. The body is healed. If I don't try, then I won't know how far along the rest of me is coming.”


Leah slathered cream cheese on one half of a bagel. “You scared the crap out of Katie coming through that window.”


Jason ran his hand down Leah's thigh and gave her another squeeze. “At least I was able to find your apartment.”

Dan was able to get the damage fixed quickly. What was Warren planning?”


He checked the mirror on the driver's side. “Warren wanted to use the loft. Wanted a weekend with Katie without the girls around. Getting her out of your apartment for a few days.”


That'll go over well. What are they going to do for food? Order pizza?”


That works for us,” he teased.


Sometimes. You can cook. That keeps me out of the kitchen. You don't think I agreed to start dating you because of your rugged good looks and your million dollar bank account, do you?” she teased back.


Ignoring the jab, he said, “I made some bare bones stuff and left some instructions for them on what to do with it. How much skiing do you think we'll get in today?”


Leah smirked at him. “Who said anything about skiing? I was thinking a long weekend away from New York and California. No business. No Charles. No Beth. No Marlene. No Kris. And no Ash. Just you and me in a quiet, secluded place.


The only strenuous activities I was envisioning involves little or no clothing. In fact, once we get there, we may not come out until you have to get me to the airport so I can catch my flight.”


Uh huh,” he said. “We could have just gotten a hotel room.”


Pfft. No romance. Tawdry cheap motel room. I like going up to your cabin. It'll be worth it. I got some new lingerie,” she said rubbing her hand on his leg.


They slipped into silence while Leah ate.


After a while, bagels in her belly and the bag joining the carrier in the back, Leah stretched out her legs, coffee cup held in both hands. “We're going to need to stop.”


Okay. There's a place up ahead. Not too far.”


Where are my boots?” she asked.


Reaching behind her seat, Jason pulled out her footwear. Leah slotted her cup and took them from him. She began to put them on. “Can you reach my coat?”


Once I've got the car stopped. I figure I'll top the tank off while you check the munchies racks.”


Leah stopped and cocked her head at him. “It isn't the munchies rack I was thinking of that I need. That was a large coffee. It is now empty. Which means I'm not.”


So you just need to make room for the next cup?”


She pulled the zipper up on her boot. “Something like that. I don't know why I put up with you sometimes.”


Jason smirked. “That's an easy one to answer. Most guys couldn't handle you.”


What? Are you saying I'm high maintenance or something?”


You? High maintenance? Perish the thought. You ever stick your tongue on a 9-volt battery?”


Leah pushed her foot down and pulled the other boot's zipper. “That's a boy thing. I've never heard of any girl doing that. Besides the only thing that would do is drain the battery.”


Gravel crunched under the Range Rover's tires when Jason pulled off into a small convenience store. The car rolled up next to an island. Jason cut the engine and sat and looked at Leah.


What?” she asked quietly. Jason leaned over and reached behind her seat. “What?” she asked, barely a whisper. Jason caressed the side of her face before slipping his fingers in her hair and pulling her close to kiss. When she broke the kiss, Leah rested her forehead against his chin. “Hmm. I need my coat.” Jason sat back and handed her her coat.


Jason collected the carrier and bag before stepping from the vehicle. He tossed those in a trash barrel and set to filling the gas tank. Leah came around the back. “So what does a battery have to do with me?”


He smiled at her. “Kissing you, especially when you're excited, is a lot like putting your tongue on the battery. There's a little charge to it.”




So when I'm...plugged in at both ends, the charge runs a little bit higher.”


Leah pulled the sunglasses down that she had put on before getting out, so that she was looking at Jason over the frame for a long moment. “Oh,” she said with a slight blush before grinning at him.


She waited a little impatiently, watching the occasional car or truck drive by on the highway or looking around her current surroundings. “That's different,” she said.


What is?” Jason asked her, putting the nozzle back in its cradle.


You've got your little convenience store here with the gas pumps attached to a bar?” She looked at Jason. “A restaurant I can understand. A bar? 'Oh, I'm gonna fill up my tank and then go get tanked.'” Jason chuckled and Leah slipped her hand into his.


This is an older highway,” he explained as they walked. “It doesn't see the amount of traffic that the interstates do. I think this place used to be diner or a restaurant back in the day.” He pulled open the door to the convenience store. “After you.”


Leah slipped inside and gravitated to the munchies rack, picking up a bag of vinegar and salt chips, then moving on to the magazine rack. Jason nodded to the scruffy looking guy behind the counter before following in Leah's wake. “Meh,” Leah said. “Trucker magazines. Car magazines. Tattoo magazines. Gun magazines. I'm surprised there's no porn magazines.”


Top rack,” the cashier called out. “Gotta keep 'em out of sight, but available.”


Leah glanced at him. “Thanks.” She pulled out what few glamor magazines were in stock. “Well, there's two that I don't have.”


Work related.”


She smiled at Jason. “Well, yeah.” Leah handed the chips and magazines to Jason and headed over to the coffee machine. She pulled out a large cup. “You want?” she asked Jason.


No. I'm good until.”


Walking toward the cashier, Leah paused at the munchies rack again. “Ooh, snow balls.”


What happened to your diet?” Jason asked in all seriousness.


Leah turned to him with a pout. “Pwease?”


Two of them won't keep you out of a corset.”


Okay,” she said with a laugh. She took two packs off the shelf and added them to the bundle in Jason's hands. He gave her a questioning look. “You said two.”


That wasn't what I meant.”


I know,” she said smiling. Jason set their things on the counter and the clerk began ringing them up. “Do you have a ladies room?”


It's in the bar,” the clerk said with a shrug. “The bar is closed until eleven. That'll be forty-four fifty-eight.”


Jason pulled forty-five dollars from his wallet and handed it to the clerk. There was a muffled scream from a dark hall. Jason turned. “What's back there?”


That leads to the bar,” the clerk answered nervously. Leah raised an eyebrow at the clerk and then gave Jason a questioning look. Jason headed towards the hall. “You can't go back there. The bar is closed.” Jason shot a menacing glare at the clerk and headed down the hall with Leah following.


They heard a plaintive “please!” muffled by a closed door and the sound of several people laughing. Jason pushed on the door. It swung inward easily. The crack of pool balls sounded. A long bar with stools ran along the back wall. Tables that would seat six easily were spread around the floor. Two pool tables took up space near a jukebox. A couple of pinball machines lined one wall, standing back to back, bells and whistles adding to the sounds.. Around the bar men and women, a biker gang from the looks, stood. Some in a group around someone on the floor.


Leah settled nonchalantly beside the door with her coffee cup. Jason walked slowly with a confident grace. Combat-honed senses gave him the impression where everyone was, even as he stepped past them. “You read in the news how biker gangs aren't really bad people. I guess they weren't talking about you lot.”


“Please,” sobbed a girl at the center of the group, laying on the floor.


“Who the hell are you?” one of the men growled.


Jason shrugged. “A concerned bystander.” Movement behind him caused Jason to spin. He caught the wrist of the arm swinging a whiskey bottle at his head. A twist of his hand brought a yelp of pain. With his other hand he caught the biker's shoulder and slammed him face-down on a table. “Now this is where you show me that you can make an intelligent decision.”


“What?” came out of the man's mouth strained with pain.


“Well, you can drop the bottle or I can rip your arm off.” The glass clattered against the floor. “Smart move.” Jason lifted the man by his collar only to slam him back into the table. The man slid to the floor when Jason released him. Jason moved forward as if he had not been interrupted.


The girl, a teenager, looked to be in a sorry state. Her face was grimy and streaked with tears. Her red hair looked like it hadn't been washed in more than a few days. One pant leg had been torn or cut to reveal her leg. A t-shirt showing the logo of a band Jason had never heard of, was similarly cut or torn to reveal her bra.


Jason breached the circle. “Are you all right, miss?” he asked holding out his hand to her. She reached out tentatively, slipping her fingers into his. He pulled her gently to her feet.


“Whadda you think...” started a man brandishing a knife. Jason assumed he was responsible for the state of the girl's clothes. Without jarring the girl, Jason kicked the guy in the chest hard enough for him to slam into the bar.


Stunned by the sudden violence, no one moved. Jason slipped his coat off and draped it over the girl's shoulders. “Take her outside.” Leah nodded. “Come on,” she said with a smile.


The girl stepped towards Leah and looked back over her shoulder at Jason. With a smile he nodded at her. “Go on. You're safe.”


“My bag!” She dashed to a booth where a backpack rested. Its contents spread haphazardly across the table. She stuffed everything back in as fast as she could.


“You've got some nerve!”


Jason shrugged and rolled his neck and shoulders. “Take her out.”


“Don't be long,” Leah said with an amused smile. The two women disappeared through the door.


“What are you? Her guardian angel?”


“Angel? No.” Jason turned and looked at the speaker over his shoulder. “Just a Guardian,” he said with a malicious grin. He exploded into motion.

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Leah stood in the hallway, hidden in shadows, watching Jason poke at the fire through the screen hanging around the central fireplace. He had spread a duvet or comforter on the floor and was kneeling on it. He settled a couple of logs on the embers. He was only wearing a pair of shorts. The muscles in his chest and arms were enticing to her in the firelight. He drew the screen closed and sat back against a sofa. Jason picked up a coffee mug and took a sip. Near at hand on a low table was a glass of white wine. Leah smiled and stepped into room.


Without looking at her, Jason said, “I'm sorry.”


How is she?”




Leah shrugged. “Then we leave tomorrow and take her to a hospital.”


A hospital can't help her.” He looked up at her. Leah had opted to wear socks that came up to mid-thigh and a long t-shirt. “I'm sorry,” he said again.


Leah shrugged again. “It's more than I had been expecting to wear. I guess you'll have to wait to see the new stuff,” she said, stepping on the blanket. “I assume this is for me,” she indicated the wine glass. She sat down between Jason's legs and leaned back into him. “Why do you say that a hospital can't help her?”


Slipping an arm around her, Jason buried his face in her damp hair taking in the aroma of the shampoo that she liked so much, and her. “What was it like for you?” he asked quietly.


She closed her eyes, enjoying the closeness. “What was what like?”


When you realized.” Leah leaned her head to the side. Jason kissed her gently behind the ear and softly down her neck. Leah moaned.


Stop that. I already want you. When it started it was weird. The lights would flicker and die. The kitchen appliances had...issues, I guess. My dad went nuts because the circuit breakers would keep popping. That was...the week or the week before that I manifested. He thought that the wiring in the whole house was bad. Mom thought we had a poltergeist,” she said with a quiet laugh. “Then I got really sick for about three days. After that I was fine.” She turned sideways to better face him, pulling her legs up under her. “Are you saying that our guest is realizing?”


When I went up and checked on her, her eyes were partially open. They were giving off a pretty shade of purple. Yeah, I think she's realizing. I think she's going through the sickness of her body changing.” Jason slipped his other arm about her and rested his chin on her head. “And I think she's fighting it.”


What was it like for you?” she asked.


Jason shrugged. “Born this way. If I suffered it, it was before I was born.”


Lucky you,” she teased.

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Leah led the girl out into the convenience store moments before the sound of the first body hitting the floor was heard. The clerk was nowhere to be seen. Through the window she saw a beat up sports car tear out of the parking lot, snow and ice flying out from under the tires in its hurry to be gone. She grabbed the bag off the counter as she went by.


She opened the back door to the Range Rover. “Go on. Get in,” she prompted the girl. The girl was nervous. Her eyes darted everywhere. “It's okay. Really. I won't let anyone hurt you,” Leah said gently. The girl seemed to relax a bit and tossed her backpack into the Rover, climbing in after it. Leah closed the door and went around to the other side and climbed in the driver's seat. She cranked over the engine. “That'll help keep us warm.”


Turning to face the red haired girl with a smile, she asked, “What's your name? I'm...”


“Leah Capwell,” the girl interrupted. “You're a fashion model.”


“Only part of the time. Mostly I do legal research for a law firm in New York. My boyfriend is...”


“Jason Scott. Industrialist, philanthropist, and millionaire.” Leah raised an eyebrow at the girl. She looked down sheepishly. “I read. A lot.”


“So, what's your name?”


“Trese. Theresa Gardner,” she said quietly.


Leah cast a glance towards the building. “Can I ask you something, Theresa?” Theresa shrugged her shoulders without looking up. “What were you doing in there?”


“I was cold and hungry. The guy behind the counter, he said that I could get warm and that I would get something to eat. I didn't do anything wrong!”


“I just bet he did,” Leah said under her breath. She smiled at Theresa. “I didn't say you did. We've got the engine running, so you'll be warm. If you're hungry, there's some food in the cooler here.” Her hand fell behind the seat where she tapped on the side of the cooler. “Help yourself.” Theresa's eyes darted to the cooler, but she kept her hands still. “Go ahead, Theresa. There's nothing in there that'll bite you.”


Cautiously, Theresa reached for the lid of the cooler. She pulled out a thick sandwich. “Is this one okay?”


Leah turned so that she could get a better look. “That's fine, Theresa,” she said gently. “I told you to help yourself.” Theresa quickly opened the sandwich and took a bite. Leah tapped her finger against the steering wheel.

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The wooden bench was uncomfortable to sit on. No matter how she adjusted, Theresa couldn't overcome the fact there was no padding. Not for the seat, nor for the back. She was still wearing Jason's long coat. She had refused anything from the sheriff, since all they had available was intended for prisoners; orange pants, shirts and jumpsuits.


The sheriff had taken her statement. He had asked her questions. No matter what he asked, her story that she gave in her statement didn't waver. Questions about her and her life she obfuscated or outright ignored.


They had taken pictures so that there was a record of the state of he clothing. A female deputy had taken the pictures. She had ordered Theresa to take off her clothes so that they could inspect her for wounds or bruises. Theresa refused, saying that she had been camping rough and was bruised from that. Close enough to the truth in her mind.


She didn't want to press charges. She just wanted the situation to go away.


Theresa knew that they were discussing her by the way the sheriff kept looking at her. Jason turned to her and smiled warmly.


One of the deputies had his lunch out on his desk. The smell of food was causing her stomach to rumble. The sandwich Leah had given her was hours ago. She looked up from the burger only to find the sheriff staring at her. She pulled Jason's coat tightly closed. She started reading the bulletins hanging on the wall for what seemed to be the thousandth time.


She was startled when the sheriff asked, “Well, Deputy?” not ten feet away from her.


Nothing, Sheriff. No wants. No warrants. She hasn't been declared missing.”


Thank you.” The sheriff turned to look at her. He was an Indian. His hair was silver and his face lined. The sheriff's eyes seemed to bore into her, trying to find her secrets. “Well, Miss Gardner,” he said kindly. “I have no reason to hold you, although I wish you were more willing to help.”


They didn't hurt me. I just want to get on with what I was doing.” Theresa was frustrated. Part of her wanted to cry. The lessons Burt, her stepfather, had taught her kept the tears at bay.


The sheriff nodded slowly. “All right. Is there any way we can get in touch with you if we need to?”


I...” her mouth started moving, but no words seemed willing to come forth. Jason smiled warmly at her again, locking his eyes with hers.


She'll be with me, Sheriff. If you need to get in touch with her, just call me,” Jason said.


Theresa didn't understand it, but she felt relief. She nodded in agreement. Jason held his hand out and helped her once again to her feet. There was more said between the two men, but Theresa didn't catch any of it. One moment she was standing in the sheriff's office, and the next Jason was helping her into the back seat of the Range Rover.


Jason slipped into the front and cocked his seat back a little before locking his belt. Leah drove the car out of the parking lot and out on to the road, headlights slicing through the dark. Night had already fallen, the sun having sunk behind the mountains. Theresa dozed while Leah and Jason talked quietly.


About twenty minutes down the road from the sheriff's station, Theresa jerked awake. She said, “You can pull over and let me out here.”


In the rear view mirror, Leah gave her a questioning look. Jason turned in his seat. “I can't do that, Theresa,” he said with a smile. He reached back and gently laid his hand on her leg.


Why? Because you gave the sheriff your word?” she asked nervously, dropping her chin to look at his hand where it lay atop his coat.


No,” he said gently. “Because I gave it to you.” Once again a sense of relief flooded her. “Besides,” Jason said, getting himself re-situated. “Your coat didn't survive the hunting knife. You want to get out here, you aren't keeping mine.” Theresa smiled to herself, hearing the humor in his voice.

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A curl of cedar peeled up from the blade of the hand plane. Warren blew it loose and gauged the edge of the board with eyes and fingers. He didn't see any of his penciled line and, while it might need a few passes with sandpaper in places, it had a smooth edge.


“How are you doing over there?” he called to his companion.


Jason adjusted the light shining on the board he had been drawing on and made a few more marks with a pencil. He canted his neck until it popped and stretched his arms and back. “One large rose drawn on a hardwood board. Per your request.”


Warren stepped up behind Jason and took in the image of the rose. His fingers moved across the board, getting a feel for the wood. “I like the border you drew for it. It'll be difficult to carve out, but I like it. I'm sure Leah will love it when she gets the chest.” Thorny braided vines encircled the rose Jason had drawn.


“What are you going to do? Cameo or intaglio?” Jason asked.


“Hmm. I hadn't really thought about it yet. What do you think?”


Jason lifted the board and looked at the drawing from an angle. He laid the board back under the light. “Well, if you do it intaglio, be gentle with the edges of the petals. Go for more depth around the center.”


Warren rubbed his chin. “What if we do it cameo?”


“Two options. First you carve out the from the border.” His finger drew a circle following the border without touching the board. “And then you decide how thick you want the top to be, and take all the excess wood off the board that isn't part of the design.”


“What's the second option?”


Jason gave Warren an amused look. “Carve up another piece of wood. Something that will contrast with this,” he indicated the board. “Carve out the design and border and mount them on this.”


Warren gave it some thought. “I'll have to think about it. What about the next design?”


“What next design?” Jason asked with some confusion.


“Well,” Warren said, “Christmas is coming and I was thinking, since we're already making one, we might as well go ahead and make one for each.”




Warren smiled. “Well, yeah. Since I've already got you involved.”


Jason sighed. “How many are you thinking of making?”


“Leah, Kris, Kari, Trese, Ash, Dani, Lisa, Jenny, Addie. Maybe Charley.” Warren paused and gauged Jason's reaction. “Maybe Angelique. Marlene.” The pencil in Jason's hand snapped. Warren sighed. “She's still not talking to you?”


“We talk,” Jason said quietly. “We talk about business. Once the business is done, we don't talk. Do you have any idea what it's like when the push of a button sounds like the slamming of a phone?”


“Did she say why?”


Jason dropped the bits of pencil into his case and fished out another. “She said she needed to regain her equilibrium. She wants time and she wants space.” He flipped open his sketchbook and let his fingers go where they would.


“And you've given her both?” Jason didn't immediately answer. “Jase?”


Jason pressed two fingers against his temple and watched the basic form appear on the paper. “As much as I don't want to. I've stayed in New York. Any meetings that require both of us present are telecoms.” Warren glanced at the sketch over Jason's shoulder. He could tell by the shape that Jason was sketching someone's eyes. With where Jason's mind was, he didn't doubt that it was another sketch of Marlene.


“You know, Jason, there was a time that we used to talk. About anything and everything when something bothered one of us.” Warren released the piece of cedar from the clamp that held it and stacked it with others of similar size. “I miss it. What happened?”


“You got married. I didn't want to drag my problems into your happiness and perfect life. I didn't want to whine about how everything I touch turns to ash.”


“We aren't perfect, Jason. We fight. We argue.” Warren marked off another plank and fit it in the clamp. “You wouldn't believe the way she went off on me because I had put the roll of paper on the spindle backwards,” Warren said with a laugh. Jason merely nodded, the pencil in his fingers moving across the paper. “With...with the way you obviously feel about Marlene...with the way you've obviously felt about her for a long time, why didn't you try with her before?”


“After what happened with Sandy? After getting dragged into Wildfire business? After...after everything that's happened, with everything we deal with, sometimes on a daily basis, how can you ask me that?” Jason was getting angry.


“Well, I open my mouth and the words just tend to fall out."


“Damn it, Warren. You're not funny.”


Warren shrugged. “Sorry. It's just, for so long you've kept her at arm's reach, when everything we've been told, the two of you should have been together.”


Jason closed the sketchbook, disappeared it and his pencil, and leaned back against the chair he was on, hanging his arm over the backrest. “I was trying to keep her safe.”


Using a push broom to collect the shavings and sawdust he had created, Warren said, “But not Leah.”


“Leah is one of us, Warren. She knows the risks we face. I didn't need any of our enemies going after her if they found out who I was.” Jason rubbed at his face. “Not that it matters. I've lost her again.”


“How can you be sure of that, Jase? She just needs time to come to terms with the fact that she's almost a year younger than her driver's license reads.”


Standing up and twisting to stretch his back, Jason said, “Because some of us don't get happy endings.”


“Leah told me you said that to her.”


“So much for confidentiality,” Jason half joked.


Warren stared at him with disbelief. “You are so full of shit it isn't even funny. Leah cares about you. She pretty much proved that the day she sat out here freezing her ass off just to be close to you. In case you decided you wanted to talk. She proved it again when she hauled you out of the office for a weekend. I can't believe that the two of you spent the night in the same bed together and you never touched her.”


“I touched her,” Jason said quietly.




“I said I touched her. We went into a roadhouse for lunch once we found out that we needed a part for the car. They had a live band coming in later. When Leah got me out I told her that the weekend was hers. She wanted to listen to the band play so we came back for dinner and stayed until...”


“Until what?” Warren was leaning on the broom, giving Jason his full attention.


Jason waved him off. “The band played a lot of old pop country. I recall Two More Bottles of Wine because that song, Leah got me up to dance with her. Don't recall too many of the others. Just Leah moving to the music until they played...” Jason searched his memory. “A Trisha Yearwood song, I think. Like We Never Had a Broken Heart.


Ouch,” Warren winced. “And then what happened.”


She pulled me down and kissed me. She had tears rolling down her cheeks. Then she ran out the door. When I got back to the room Leah had herself locked in the bathroom with the shower running. When she came out about an hour later, she said she didn't want to talk about it and she was going to sleep. I took my shower and laid down. I couldn't sleep, so I was going over reports on my pad. Leah laughed in her sleep.” Jason moved to the loft door. The top half was open to allow the breeze to pass through. “I set the pad aside and rolled over to look at her. I asked her why she was there. She rolled into me, burying her face in my chest and throwing an arm and a leg over me.” Jason shook his head at the thought. “I put my arm around her. Her hair was still damp and smelling like her favorite shampoo.” Jason shrugged. “Then I kissed her on her forehead and tried to sleep.”


Racking the broom with the rest of his tools, Warren chuckled and said, “Wow. That's almost like taking advantage of her.”


No,” Jason said shaking his head. “I did that with Trese.”



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Boring. That's the only way Brad Michaels could define his current situation.


Come out to the farm. We'll get together, have a few laughs,” he said miserably. He raised the long-necked brown bottle to his lips only to find it empty. He lifted it over his head and closed one eye to look into the mouth of the bottle to check that it was empty. He dropped it into a waiting bin sitting on the ground at the end of the picnic table.


He sighed. There was nothing to do here. It was the same as being at the tower without the bars and clubs being readily available in the city. Granted, if he wanted to head into the city there might be dance clubs, but with his luck, they would all be country and western bars and the only dancing that would be going on would be line dancing.


Brad had no idea why Warren liked living out in the middle of nowhere, or why Kate, a city girl, would love it so much. It was crazy.


Maybe if he had stayed at the tower he could get Lisa to talk to him. Had it been almost a year already since she had stopped? He seriously didn't understand women some times and why she was still mad at him. Not that that would have mattered. Lisa and Jenny were visiting with Spellbinder. He shook his head. It wasn't his fault that Scott was a loser.


He absently reached for another bottle only to knock the empty carton over. Brad sighed again. He had another six bottles in the fridge, but that meant going in the house and walking through the minefield that was every other woman in his life except his mother and oldest sister. Most of their reactions would be cold politeness. Especially if he only went in to get more beer.


The sun was sinking and the shadows were stretching into early twilight when a limousine pulled into the lane. He watched it approach through beer fogged eyes. His buzz was fading. Damn mutant system, he thought. Can't even get a good drunk on.


The car rolled to a stop and the driver got out, walked around to the door closest to the house, and opened the passenger compartment. Marlene Palmer, fresh faced with very little makeup, got out. With his enhanced vision, Brad saw her as if she were standing right in front of him. Her hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail. He raised his hand to wave. She simply stared at him for a moment. Stuck up, bitch. Don't know what Scott sees in you. He belched.


Marlene turned her attention back to the car when a second woman emerged. Dark hair hung in loose natural curls. She turned to look at him and smiled a greeting. Brad wasn't sure if he smiled back. He didn't know who she was, but maybe going in to the house wasn't such a bad idea after all.


The two women jogged easily up the steps to the porch. Brad watched the tanned legs of the dark haired woman as she went. Maybe things were about to change around here for him.

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Giving it another moment's thought, Brad hoisted himself off the picnic table and ambled towards the door. There was laughter coming through the screen door. Marlene was caught up in a hug from Kris that he was sure violated the standard doctor-patient relationship.


And every thing is fine?” Kris asked, releasing Marlene and brushing back a lock of Marlene's reddish blonde hair.


I'm...fine, Kris. Physically. I just...thought it was about time that Jason and I talked.”


Kind of warm for a jacket, don't you think?” Kate asked. Brad saw Marlene blush and drop her head to hide a smile. He shook his head. Women.


I'm fine, Kate,” Marlene said quietly.


Brad tugged open the screen door and was presented with a view of the dark haired woman's tanned legs. “He is just so adorable, Kate. Can I hold him?” He found her voice pleasant and wondered how his name would sound coming from her lips.


Sure you can, but I got to tell you, it's more fun when they're smaller,” Kate teased the woman. “You haven't been out since the wedding. You should visit more often.”


The woman laughed. “I'll try, Kate. Honest.”


Trese?” Marlene called to her. When Trese looked up, Marlene nodded her head towards the kitchen. “Can we talk?”


Red hair flashing with the nod of her head, Trese said, “Sure,” and got up from where she was sitting.


Brad made his way through the room to the kitchen where he liberated a few bottles from the refrigerator. “Don't you think you've had enough, Brad?” Ash asked.


I'm fine, mom.”


Ash raised an eyebrow at him. “How many have you had already?” Leah asked.


He thought for a moment. “Eight.”


Your brain is obviously still working to the best of its ability,” Ash said. “You took two six-packs out earlier.”


Kris shook her head. “One of these days you're going to find your limit.”


I keep hoping. I haven't been drunk since high school.” He twisted the top off a bottle and held it out to the dark haired woman. Had nobody said her name? “Hi.”


She smiled at him. Damn, she's gorgeous. She had Aaron sleeping with his head on her shoulder and she took the proffered bottle. “Thank you, Mr. Michaels.”


He stopped for a moment. “Okay. What's the joke?”


Joke?” She looked confused.


How do you know who I am?”


There's no joke, Mr. Michaels. I worked for the better part of the last ten years as Jason's personal assistant. Part of my job was being aware of who he interacted with regularly.”


You're Beth?”


You seem surprised. What is it? Am I not good looking enough?”


“No. I mean yes. I...you're gorgeous!”


“Thank you, Mr. Michaels.”


“Brad, please. Would you be interested in dinner?”


“I appreciate the offer, but tonight I am here for a friend and to meet this little one,” she said with a smile, bouncing Aaron lightly.


Brad shrugged. “Tomorrow?”


“Tomorrow I'm supposed to meet some old friends that I haven't seen since I left.”


“You're from around here?”


“Born and raised.”


“How about Monday? I have some pull with your boss. I'm sure I could get you the day off.” He ignored the snickers and giggles from the assembled women.


“Mr. Michaels...”




“Brad,” she agreed. “I know exactly how much pull you have with my boss. I dare say that I would have a much better chance of getting Monday free by telling Jason straight up that I'm taking Monday off.”


“You can do that?”


“I am one of the few people that work for Jason that can tell him whatever I feel if it is warranted.”


“Why do I get the feeling you don't want to go out?”


"Well, Brad, in the first place, you haven't bothered to ask if I'm involved. Since you didn't ask, I can only assume that the answer either doesn't concern you...”


“I'm sorry. Are you seeing someone?”


“...or you don't care if I am.” Beth dropped her chin to the top of Aaron's head and raised an eyebrow at Brad. “Let's just say I'm working on it.”


“Oh.” He caught a glimpse of green being passed from Ash to Leah. “What? Don't tell me you were betting on me!”


“Betting on whether or not you'd hit on Beth at first sight,” Ash confirmed.


“Betting on whether or not you'd crash and burn doing it,” Leah added. “Milkshakes at Rosie's tomorrow!”

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Theresa sat up and became more aware when Leah pulled off the main road. The track they were following looked like it had been recently plowed clear of snow. Blue and red reflectors marked the lane to either side. Leah drove the Rover at a careful pace.


Man-made light broke through the trees here and there before a final turn that brought them within sight of Jason's cabin. Light poured from large windows, illuminating a pickup truck with a snow plow mounted on the front. What Jason called a cabin struck Theresa more like a palace.


A shadow crossed the light coming from the opened door and a figure descended the steps. Jason opened his door and climbed out of the Rover. “Michael,” he said, holding his hand out.


The shadowy figure grasped the outstretched hand and the men shook. “Mr. Scott. Everything you requested has been stocked. I doubled up on the food supplies, just in case that storm we've been threatened with hits.”


Hello, Michael,” Leah said, coming around the front of the car. “How is your mom?'


Miss Capwell,” Michael said with a smile and nod of his head. “She is doing very well, thank you. I think me having some direction in my life has helped her.”


Theresa slipped from the back seat. The first thing she noticed was the biting cold. She pulled the coat she was wearing closer. Then she realized that she still had Jason's coat on. He was standing there in a flannel shirt and didn't seem to mind the cold at all. Michael seemed familiar to her some how and he turned his attention to her when she opened the door.


You must be Miss Gardner.”


I must?”


Grandfather told me you had unexpected company. That was another of the reasons that I bought more food.”


Grandfather?” Theresa was beginning to feel like an idiot, barely able to repeat what someone else said.


Michael's grandfather is the sheriff, Theresa. Leah, why don't you two go in and we'll get the stuff out of the car,” Jason suggested.


* * * * *


Jason closed the door behind Michael after making sure the man made it safely into his truck. They heard the engine catch and the tires crunch snow when he headed down the lane he had plowed on his way up.


Why did he say not to wander?” Theresa asked.


Leah smiled. “Lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my,” she sang. Theresa gave her a funny look.


More like 'mountain lions and wolves and bears', but the idea is the same. This is a wilderness area, Theresa. In the winter food is sometimes scarce and the cats and wolves will hunt people if they're hungry enough,” Jason explained.


Oh,” she said quietly. “What happens now?”


Now?” Jason looked at her for a long moment. “Now, how about a bath? It must have been a while since you've had a real chance to clean up.”


She gave him a grateful look. “Too long.”


Leah, why don't you pull stuff out for dinner while I get her settled?”


Leah gave him an amused questioning look. “My weekend. Remember? I'm not cooking.”


Didn't say you were. I just asked that you get stuff out so I can cook.”


Well, I suppose I can do that much,” she said, turning to open the refrigerator.


Jason lead Theresa down the hall to the bath room. She held her bag with both hands tight against her body. “I don't have anything to wear,” she said despondently. “Everything I have with me is dirty. Until earlier, this shirt and jeans were in the best shape. Now...”


Stopping to look at her, Jason said gently, “One thing at a time. Okay? First, we get you cleaned up so that you feel better.” He stepped into the bathroom with Theresa in tow.


That's a big tub,” she said quietly. The bathtub looked like it could accommodate five of her. Jason smiled.


Pulling towels and washcloth from a linen closet, he said, “When you're older, you might understand why.”


Looking confused for a moment, Theresa looked at him for a long moment. “Oh!” she exclaimed, blushing. She looked around for a moment. “Where's the door?”


Ah, a friend of mine got a little carried away. She didn't realize her own strength.” He went out into the hall from where Theresa heard a door open, and then a few seconds later, close. Jason reappeared with a wolf throw hanging from a rod. He set the rod into hooks above the door. “There's soap and shampoo in the cabinet there. Pick your flavor.”


Theresa opened the indicated door. “There's so many different kinds.”


Lots of female friends with different preferences,” he said by way of explanation. “Run the water to your liking. I'll see what I can find for you to wear.” He slipped from the room, allowing the curtain to fall into place.


Looking at her reflection in the mirror, Theresa said, “He's not what I expected.” She took a closer look at herself. Her hair was lank and dirty. Her face, while cleaner than it had been in the bar, was still a far cry from being fresh. Her fingers traced the cut in her shirt. Tears stung her eyes. “It's just a stupid shirt,” she said quietly. She pulled it over her head and tossed it next to her bag. Fingers wiped at her eyes.


Sitting on the edge of the tub, she said, “I like it hot. Not too hot.” She reached for spigot. Water running, tested for temperature, Theresa shucked her jeans off. Those she lay on the counter and took in the long cut in the leg. She checked her bare leg and saw a light scratch running up where the knife had passed through the denim. Seeing it and realizing it was there made it start to ache.


Jason's hand passed by the curtain and set sweat pants, shirt and socks on the counter. Theresa squeaked. “You okay?” he asked.


Giggling to relieve tension, Theresa said, “You startled me.”


I'm sorry. Set your clothes here by the door before you get in tub. I'll collect them in a few minutes and we'll get your stuff cleaned up as best I can. Okay?”


Yeah, sure, I guess. Is it okay if I...”


Anything you like, Theresa. As long as it doesn't involve anyone breaking a law.”


Theresa grabbed a bottle of bubble bath and poured plenty in under the water flow.

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