Okay, so  I made a joke about one day putting all of my notes out for people to read while I was working on a story. A friend saw the comment and spent two days hounding me. Dares were involved. Regular dares, dog dares, multiple dog dares. It was awful. I wasn't made to resist such things, and I will say in my defense that I held strong until the dreaded triple dog dare when I started to seriously waffle (yes, I know it says Double Dog Dare in the Subject line, but Disconnected and the Triple Dog Dare lacked alliteration), and then the whole thing got really interesting when a $50 bet was tossed into the mix. Yeah, I caved. This is probably a deeply, meaningfully bad idea, but we shall see. If nothing else it has the value of being unique (and hey, I'm $50 richer---Bwah!). I just wanted y'all to know why this particular bit of strangeness is being inflicted on anyone who cares to look.

Oh, well. It has the value of being a unique choice if nothing else.

That said, I should add that everything is subject to change, most of the scenework contained herein is just to remind me of what I was thinking (I forget these things rather quickly) and should not be taken very seriously at all, and that this is actually a lot more organized than my usual efforts.  There is lots and lots of stuff missing and I tend to figure out the emotional beats as I go along. Also, I do tend to add to outlines as I write and things build in my head, so if anyone finds this interesting, I'll update as I go.

Sections in black are currently being written, though may include outline notes and old scenework. Purple = outlines and selected scenework. Red covers research and such.

First Posted  01-04-04
Updated 01-08-04
Updated 01-19-04
Updated 01-23-04
Updated 02-06-06
Updated 02-17-04
Updated 03-01-04
Updated 03-28-04
Updated 05-05-04
Updated 07-16-04
Part 21 - Updated 08-27-04 - Read it
Part 22 - Updated 12-22-04 -
Read it
Part 23 - Updated 02-18-05 - Read it
Part 24 - Updated 03-06-05 - Read it
Part 25 - Updated 03-31-05 - Read it
Part 26 - Updated 11-05-05 - Read it

Note: the file with the story got so huge it was crapping out my html editor, and so it's now broken into two pages, plus the spoiler page.

Make that three pages, and I'm going to start listing the chapter numbers associated with various places I've been posting it.

| Story to date Page 1 | Story to date Page 2 | Story to date Page 3 | Story to date Page 4 | Spoilers |

Last Updated 07-16-04

Title: Disconnected
Author: Pink Rabbit Productions
Email: pinkrabbit@altfic.com Yes, please. Feedback welcome and encouraged be it good, bad, or indifferent.
Disclaimer: Yes, this includes all female prurient type stuff. Gonna be offended, run away, please for all of our sakes. Offending you doesn’t please me. I don’t enjoy it, so go away. Likewise, if reading my work is going to get you tossed in jail. I like to think I’m a reasonable writer, but nobody is that good. Also, if you’re underage (which might get me tossed in jail), please wait until you’ve passed whatever age is legally acceptable in your neck of the woods to read this. I would not do well in jail as I am an utter and complete coward, and while being locked in with nothing but women has some theoretical appeal, I just don’t think I’d do well with the criminal element. Also the lack of computer time would seriously affect my mood. So let’s just avoid the whole scenario. For those of you likely to freak over spoilers, you’re in luck. There aren’t any. If you’re looking for Baggie Bonding, there’s none of that either, though the Maggot will be mentioned and might even show up in a scene or two. Plot? Oh, who knows, if I’m feeling inspired, I might include one. I will warn you that I’m thinking of trying (yet another) experiment with this one in terms of process, so I may sort of end up posting it virtually a scene at a time (I’m thinking about it). The end result of that would be more frequent posting, but they could easily suck like few things have sucked in the history of suckage if that happens because my own worst instincts might well get away from me before I can keep it from happening. I’m just saying....
Also, kind of important author’s note here (which is code for: READ THIS:) I’m not really feeling the Bianca love right now and it’s showing. Not that Binks has become a nasty, backstabbing sort or anything like that, but at the same time, she’s a looooonnnngggg way from perfect, sweet, wholesome, and thoughtful. In short, this is not a sweetsty-sweetsy piece, and she’s not especially admirable...at least at the moment. And I’m thinking I may have to force her to see that fact (I mentioned I’m not much feeling the Binky-Love, right?), and I’m being honest here in saying I barely have a plan where it might lead, and I dunno how far it will even go. I just mention these things because I wouldn’t want to bug anybody or leave them thinking I know what the hell I’m doing.
Oh, and the angst factor here is pumping way higher than my usual tolerance levels will allow. Yeah, I’m a sick puppy.

Disconnected
by Pink Rabbit Productions
Page 1

Pleasure washed over her. Sweet, rich, incredibly intense, and far too pure to trigger any of the darker emotions Bianca Montgomery had once feared might appear. A low, pleading whimper escaped her lips as her body arched upward, a thin sheen of sweat gleaming on her skin.

"Tell me," a voice, honey smooth and seductively exotic, whispered in the darkness, "what it feels like when I touch you like this."

Bianca could feel her heart hammering in her chest as she fought to draw sufficient breath to answer the question. "Can't," she gasped weakly, threading her fingers into short dark hair and pulling her lover's head up until their eyes met in the faint light.

Lena shook off the surprisingly firm hold, ducking her head again, lips finding soft flesh, holding, stroking.

Taut muscles rippled beneath the surface of pale flesh and soft sounds erupted from Bianca's throat as her head rocked back on her shoulders, slamming into the softness of a pillow. She found Lena's hair again, tangling her fingers in the silky strands and holding on with a certain kind of desperation, as though that was the only thing still tethering her to the earth. And maybe it was. Sometimes when they made love it seemed as though she'd finally slipped those surly bonds and was floating somewhere in the ether where nothing could ever hurt her again.

"Tell me," Lena Kundera repeated the command, her voice a warm purr that vibrated through her lover as the caresses slowed, drawing the pleasure out to near-painful lengths, using the power of their lovemaking to draw Bianca in, not letting her simply slide away and disappear into the physical release. Bianca looked down again, while Lena looked up, gazes that were both dark but in very different shapes and shades meeting and holding. Lena tracked the slender hand that shifted to stroke sweat damp bangs off her forehead. In an instant, she went from totally in command to completely enslaved. "Please," she croaked, her voice threatening to crack, desperate for some acknowledgment that this was more than just a little illicit sexual relief for the younger woman.

They had been back together, or at least semi-back together---which was code for meeting and making love whenever Bianca called, which was usually once or twice a week, though sometimes as often as four or five times---for a little over three months. It wasn't common knowledge, though Kendall was aware since she'd caught them once when she'd been worried about Bianca and stopped by at some late hour. By Bianca's preference though, it was otherwise secret. Certainly Erica and everyone else Bianca cared about had been kept thoroughly in the dark. Which was why Lena found herself parking her car in the back and checking over her shoulder every time she was summoned just as she had when she'd been meeting Michael and for much the same reason. God forbid she should get caught. Michael would have punished her one way, but the sad truth was Bianca would punish her another, most likely by simply banishing her again instead of merely treating her like a dirty little secret. Some days she felt like she'd simply gone from being Michael's favorite waste of time to Bianca's.

She pushed that thought off. It simply hurt too much to contemplate, invariably leaving her with a sense of being caught in the same trap over and over again, only this time it was even worse because this time her heart was at stake not just her body or her bank account. Lena's heart sank steadily lower the longer she waited for an answer that never seemed to come, her hands still sliding restlessly over velvety flesh, a silent, tactile reassurance that no matter how emotionally distant she might seem, Bianca had chosen to be here with her. After all, it was always Bianca who called her and who had from the beginning. As much as she loved and wanted the younger woman, she would never have asked for this, in fact, had ceased to ask for anything when she’d found herself summoned back into some element of Bianca’s life. Finally, accepting that her lover wasn't going to say anything, she ducked her head, intent on using the one tool she had at hand. A light tug on her bangs a moment later brought her head back up until she encountered near black eyes once again.

Her breathing ragged and unsteady, her body quivering with tiny quakes that threatened to slide over into something far more intense with just the slightest encouragement, Bianca ran her thumb along a sculpted cheekbone. She wasn't stupid. She knew what her lover was asking for and it wasn't simply a description of physical sensation. At some level she even wanted to give it to her, but something held her back just as it had for months. Her hand moved on, seeming almost disembodied and under its own control, and she watched as her thumb ran along the edge of a glossy lower lip. She saw the longing in rich, brown eyes, the hunger and desperation...and the love. God, it was the love that hurt the most because at times like this she knew she didn't deserve it.

And then suddenly, Lena blinked, her eyes closing momentarily, just long enough that when they opened again, her emotions were shuttered and contained. She turned from Bianca's light touch, then ducked her head, rededicating herself to burying Bianca in physical sensation. If she couldn't have anything else, she could have that much. In their time together, Lena had made a study of her lover's every response, applying the same drive to the task that had taken her far from home and poverty into a world she couldn't have even guessed existed during her childhood. She controlled nothing else in their relationship, but this much was completely under her purview, at least for the moment. Her hands floated over velvet soft flesh, caressing and teasing, playing the same way her lips did. She was totally lost in their lovemaking, drinking in Bianca's every response, the taste of her body, the feel of her skin, the tiny sounds she made. She knew exactly what she was doing and gloried in it, thrilled to take her lover right to the edge.

Only to suddenly stop.

"Say something," Lena hissed, a hint of a triumphant smile touching curving her lips upward as she heard Bianca's soft moan of disappointment at being denied the physical sensation she so craved.

Bianca's hips bucked upward, her body instinctively seeking a return of the mind-bending pleasure, while her hands tightened in thick hair. Lena resisted the pressure, her eyes blazing, hands braced flat on the mattress on either side of slim hips, refusing to give way this time. It was the first time she'd done anything but accede completely to her lover's wishes since Bianca had chosen to renew their physical relationship, and the younger woman clearly didn't quite know what to make of it. Her hands trembling, chest heaving as she fought to drag air into her lungs, she simply stared at Lena for a long moment as though struggling to understand.

As time passed and Lena refused to continue the sweet caresses, she saw some light of knowledge enter dark eyes.

"Lena," the younger woman whispered, her tone an implicit command, her hands pressing a little harder, though they stayed short of causing pain, while her body shifted restlessly amid the sheets, instinctively seeking more of the sweet caresses.

But Lena shook her head ever so slightly, uncertain why it was suddenly so important to her to get just a little more than the physical satiation that was the normal outcome of their times together, only knowing that it was.

And suddenly needing, wanting, Bianca surrendered just a little. "I...it's ... I can't think ... like this..." she gasped. Couldn't think, couldn't speak, sometimes she could barely even breathe. It was like she became nothing but her body, all past and future driven from her mind, existing only in the present. For just a little while she could just escape all of the ugliness, not think, just forget. The irony that it was this that allowed her some respite from her darkest thoughts didn't escape the younger woman, though at that precise moment that fact, like everything else, was barely even a distant memory. "Please," she whimpered when Lena still hadn't moved after a beat.

Suddenly, Lena slid up the length of her body, bisecting Bianca's torso with the tip of her tongue, pausing only briefly to taste the swell of each breast, before stretching languorously over her lover, her braced hands taking most of her weight. "Anything for you," she whispered, her lips dusting over Bianca's cheeks, then teasing her mouth before sliding down the length of her throat.

The dark haired woman whimpered softly, wrapping an arm around the back of Lena's neck, tipping her head back and opening her throat to exploring lips. A low, pleading moan vibrated up from her chest as a graceful hand trailed down the length of her torso, then fitted itself to her hip, guiding her into a slow rhythm that brought their bodies together in all the right ways. "God, what are you doing to me?" she panted.

Lena laughed softly, the sound soft and a little grim, though Bianca was too lost to hear the broken note in her lover's voice. "Nothing you don't want," the Polish woman breathed as she pushed up on one hand to nibble on the point of Bianca's chin. "After all," she added, her voice little more than a low growl, "tell you me you don't like having me watch you like this." She leaned down to run her tongue along the upper curve of a taut breast before swirling it around the coral tip. "And taste you like this."

Bianca dug her fingers into Lena's back so hard her nails left half moon indentations, then reached up with her other hand as if to grab, only to meet her lover's hand halfway. Fingers twined together, and Lena pressed their joined hands into the softness of the mattress. She leaned across Bianca, dragging her tongue to the center of her chest, then rubbing her cheeks against the inner curve of rounded breasts. "Tell me you don’t want me to feel you like this," she dared the younger woman, challenging her to try and play the game as though she didn't really care and wasn't really involved.

"God," the tiny bit of sound burst from Bianca's chest, half curse and half prayer, as her head slammed back into the pillow again. She needed this, needed the escape, the peace that no one else seemed to be able to give her no matter how much she might have wished it were otherwise.

Half draped across her lover's body, Lena slowly slid up to share another languorous kiss, deliberately playing with Bianca's mouth while she matched time with the slow undulations rippling through the smaller woman's body. "That's it, love," she praised between kisses that fell everywhere she could reach, onto Bianca's lips, across her cheekbones, over her closed eyelids, then along the hairline at her temple. She trailed lower, nibbling her way along the rounded curve of Bianca's jawline before closing her teeth very lightly on either side of her lover's carotid artery, her tongue pressing there, tasting the unsteady throb of Bianca's heart. She waited a beat, then released the possessive hold, licking softly while she adopted a slow, thrusting rhythm. Bianca was fighting it, she could see it in her eyes and feel it in the stiffness that entered her muscles. It wasn't fear. They'd faced and avoided that particular obstacle and Lena had learned by paying careful attention what to do and what not to. It hadn't been an issue in weeks. No, it was an inborn desire to maintain control, and Lena was tired of being the one on the losing end of that battle. More than once Bianca had pulled away at times like this, and she had accepted it every time, afraid of moving too far or too fast, well aware that she was being tested at every turn. "Be with me," she pleaded. She thrust, grinding their bodies together, and played over velvet flesh until she felt Bianca thrust back again, her control not merely slipping, but shattering completely.

Point, counterpoint; they moved together in graceful syncopation, bodies sinuous and perfectly matched, while their mouths blended together in intimate mimicry of the game played between their bodies.

"Tell me," Lena whispered again as she dragged their woven hands over Bianca's head until her lover's body was stretched taut, every muscle standing out in sharp relief. She leaned down, tasted the underside of her jaw, pressed lower, her muscles strained to maintain both the position and the rhythm of their lovemaking. Sharp teeth ranged over Bianca's heaving chest, scraping softly, but never leaving a mark.

"Damn you," Bianca gasped, loving and hating the other woman at the same time, her body no longer her own. She didn't want to have to talk or think, certainly didn’t want to be pressured to look at the things running through her head in order to give them voice and life. It threatened to make them much too real, and she wasn't sure she wanted any of this to be real. The moment it became real and not just a heated, late night fantasy, she'd have to start dealing with things she didn't feel ready to face, like her mother's disapproval, the inherent conflicts that came with this relationship, and hardest of all, her own actions. She hooked a leg over lean hips, trying to draw her lover even closer and hold her there as if they could become one body. But want it or not, she couldn't deny the need, not when Lena's body was bound so intimately to her own.

Lena arched up, kissing her lover hard as she watched the shifting play of emotion and arousal in her dark eyes. "...if I am damned..." she growled through the blending of their mouths, ashamed to be so thrilled by finally drawing some kind of emotional response instead of just a physical one, "...it's for you...all for you..." She covered soft lips once again, drinking in, Bianca's aroused groan.

When the kiss finally broke, Bianca trailed soft kisses along her cheek into the soft flutter of hair near her ear. Her voice little more than a ragged whisper, she hissed, "Why...you? Why not...someone ... easier?"

"I don't know...but it's like this for both ... of ... us," Lena groaned, turning her mouth into the roving kiss, then whispering ragged words through the blending of their mouths, "...dangerous...frightening...and safe at the same time...anyone else would be safer than you...but you're the only one...who's ever touched my heart...." Sometimes she thought it would have been better if she hadn't fallen, had simply seduced Boyd, stolen the formula, and gone back to her old life. Bianca would have hated her, but she would have been safe. Michael would have moved on if he'd just been allowed to win. And while Lena knew she would never have known heaven, she also knew wouldn’t have known the depths of hell. Her life before had been a kind of unfeeling Nirvana and there was a kind of safety in being that uninvolved in the world.

Now there was no safety, no certainty, nothing really but whatever Bianca chose to dole out which never seemed to be anywhere near enough.

"Please," Bianca groaned, her body reacting to the gasped words, the knowledge that despite everything Lena loved her driving her passion. Writhing desperately, all control lost, she was so close that just breathing had become a strain, and she could hear a buzzing in her ears that she instinctively knew was the pulsing flow of her own blood. Their mouths met in ranging kisses and their hands trailed over sweet curves with confident familiarity, fingers dancing over sweat damp flesh, stroking, teasing, leaving no inch untouched.

Releasing the hands bound to her own, Lena pushed up on her hands to stare down into her lover's eyes, watching the shift and play of arousal, seeing the burn as they drew closer and closer to the edge.

Bianca slid her fingers into damp strands of chestnut hair, toying with them as she shaped fine boned hands to Lena's face, watching the intensity of emotion playing over her features. She loved and feared these moments when her lover's eyes were an open window to the deepest parts of her soul, no longer shuttered to hide her secrets from any and all who might try to look too deeply. It was when she knew that Lena loved her with a frightening kind of totality, and the responsibility scared her to death. She wasn't ready for it and had already abused it horribly. Given everything that had already passed between them and the fact she truly didn’t know what her own emotions were when it came to the other woman, she honestly didn't see how Lena could still feel the way she did.

Lena's breath caught and she experienced the by-now familiar flood of emotion as she stared into dark eyes and felt her lover's response, still tasting the musk of Bianca’s body on her lips and smelling it thick in the air. She swallowed hard, overwhelmed by the depth and intensity of her own feelings. Later there would be plenty of time for recriminations, but for the moment, this was everything she needed. She'd spent so much of her life alone even when she wasn't alone, that it still shocked her to realize just how deep her feelings ran, how integral this woman had become to her life. "I love you...."

Bianca held Lena tightly, staring into passion-dazed brown eyes uncertain whether she really wanted to hear the depth of Lena’s emotions when her own were so torn and confused.

"...more than my life...." Lena whispered, her heart in her eyes. She would die for Bianca. It was just that simple. And if she really did cause the younger woman more pain, she would gladly leave her even if it destroyed her.

"Don't say that," Bianca hissed, a shiver running down her spine as though someone had walked over her grave. She didn’t want that gut-wrenching level of emotion and the reality of it scared the hell out of her because she didn’t see any way she could ever live up to it. She looked away, pulling back mentally if not physically. Focused on her own response, Bianca missed the shadow that crossed Lena's expression, but she felt it when her lover started to draw away as if to leave. She tightened her hold, fingers digging in and nails pressing until they were close to drawing blood. "No," she gasped, pulling Lena back to her with desperate strength. "Stay," she breathed, making the single word a command even though part of her knew it should be a plea.

Lena nodded, allowing herself to be drawn back down, and then she was moving with Bianca again, pressing her into the mattress, muscles flexing and drawing them together and apart again in a staccato rhythm, her passion a piano wire drawn impossibly tight until it had to either snap or break the instrument.

Bianca heard the scream bubbling up in her chest, felt the bowstring tautness of her own muscles as they strained more with every passing second. Time slowed, each second becoming ten as she hung poised at the edge of an abyss, her only tieline to earth the sensation of her lover's flesh against her own. She tasted Lena's breath in her mouth, felt the matched pounding of her heart where they lay breast to breast, smelled the sweat and musk of their lovemaking thick in the air. She was everywhere and nowhere, her entire existence spinning down until there was nothing but their coupling in this moment. Then the bowstring snapped, electricity flaring outward from the center of her body along overheated nerve endings and oversensitized skin, the invisible arc encompassing both of their bodies in its sensual fire.

Her own body screaming its need, Lena pushed up on one hand to stare down into her lover's eyes, intently watching the emotions that traced their way across her features, seeing all of the familiar signs of the final moments. The sight and the knowledge that she'd caused it, swept over her, triggering her own pleasure. Lena cried out, her lover's name torn from her lips in the conflagration that followed as she clung to sleek curves, all self-control lost. Pleasure condensed, thickened, coalesced in a secondary pulse almost as intense as the first that left her barely able to think or breathe. "Oh god," Bianca groaned after an eight-pointer's worth of shocks and aftershocks, muscles going completely limp as she tumbled back to earth, sinking into mattress in a puddle of sweat and satiation.

Muscles trembling violently, Lena collapsed into her, her chest heaving, her breathing ragged.

Bianca turned her face into the curve of her lover's neck. Nails that had dug in hard enough to leave scratches pulled away from soft flesh as she spread her hand, her touch gentling. Her other hand was in Lena's hair and went from holding on with punishing strength to petting very lightly. She wanted to say something, but there weren't words, or at least she didn't know of any.

Lena would have preferred to remain wrapped in the textures of silky hair and velvet flesh, but well aware that she was a limp deadweight and afraid that would bother her lover, physically or otherwise, she summoned the wherewithal to ease to one side, bracing her weight on one elbow, muscles working despite the desire to remain utterly still. She was surprised when Bianca didn't release her hold, instead rolling onto her side and continuing to nuzzle close. More often than not, after their lovemaking, Bianca pulled away, usually to the point that Lena felt unwelcome and simply slipped from bed, dressed, and quietly left without a word. On those occasions, Bianca had never called her back or asked her to stay. In fact, only a few times had Bianca cuddled or shown any real affection in the aftermath, which was why Lena didn't question her good luck, simply rolled onto her back, wrapping her arms loosely around the smaller woman and tugging her close as she moved. She was surprised when Bianca nosed into her shoulder, pressing a soft kiss to bare flesh. Lena exhaled a sigh, tenderly petting silky hair, content for that moment to simply enjoy any affection she could get.

They lay there for several minutes, both catching their breath. Finally, Bianca pushed up on one elbow, peering at Lena, a hint of a frown touching her brow. "Lena," she said very softly, a hint of a questioning note in her voice. Reaching up to stroke her lover's cheek very lightly, Lena ended the caress by settling her fingers over Bianca's lips, silencing her. "Just sleep," she whispered, her expression soft and pleading. All she wanted was a little peace, even if it was nothing more than an illusion. She slid her hand back, fingers combing into silky hair, and tugged Bianca's head back down to her shoulder.

For once, the younger woman made no effort to resist, simply sagged against her, her breathing slowing as her body relaxed into sleep.

 

* * * * * *

Bianca woke alone, wrapped in blankets and equal measures of disappointment and relief. Disappointment that she wasn't wrapped in Lena's arms the way she sometimes dreamt of being, and relief for exactly the same reason. Pinching the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger, she swallowed hard and blinked away the threat of tears. It was for the best this way, safer and easier. It would have been safest for both of them if she could have stayed away from Lena entirely, and god knew she tried, but then the night would close in and the loneliness would threaten to overwhelm her, and Bianca would find herself dialing Lena's cell number again, and it would start all over again.

That was how it had happened that first night. She hadn't meant to call Lena, but with the night terrors crushing her down, she'd reached for the phone, dialing other numbers first only to find no one answering. Then, lonely and terrified, she'd dialed Lena's number before she could think better of it. Half hysterical, she'd barely known what she was saying, only that a low, soothing voice was in her ear, the accent warm and exotic. She'd been vaguely aware of the background sounds of traffic, but hadn't really considered that within moments Lena had been in her car and driving her way. And then Lena had been there, standing at the door, visibly scared, wet from the rainstorm that been part of what had left Bianca so shaken, and staring at her through impossibly deep brown eyes. Bianca had found herself forgetting everything but the love, and then she'd found herself dragging Lena close, holding on and sinking into the arms that wrapped around her. Lena had driven the storm back in moment, and she’d been safe, warm, protected. Then a flash of lightning and an ear shattering crack had thrown the world into darkness as a power line went down somewhere, and the fear had returned in full force.

Looking back, Bianca was still shocked that rather than reacting with terror the way she would have predicted, she'd suddenly pulled Lena close in an altogether different way. Frantic to feel anything but the gut-wrenching dread that came with storms, she'd dragged Lena's head down, capturing her mouth hungrily, tasting her shock, the tiny gasp that escaped her lips, and the confused tension that suffused her muscles. Not giving herself time to think, she'd pushed that lean body down onto the couch, reacting at an instinctive, animal level, escaping the sound of thunder and the flashes of lightning by losing herself in human silk and velvet.

It shook the young woman to think back and realize that she'd been the aggressor, taking Lena in a way she never would have considered in the sane light of day, her pleasure coming not from being touched in return, but from the way that long, lean body bucked and twisted under her control. She’d fed on the other woman’s arousal and the soft, begging sounds that had escaped full lips. Almost detached, she'd watched the hard shudders and uncontrolled contortions of the first orgasm. Then, still fully dressed, she'd slid higher, straddling slender hips and catching the hands that reached for her before they could make contact, pressing them into the cushions over the Polish woman's head.

In retrospect, she was a little horrified by her own actions that night because there'd been no gentleness, no love, only wanton instinct overlaying some deeper need to lay claim, though whether to the other woman or some part of herself, she still wasn't sure.

Lena had started out dressed, her clothes pulled this way and that to make room for hands that claimed and commanded, but those garments had been stripped off one orgasm at a time until Lena had lain naked beneath Bianca, nothing held back, not her body, not her emotions, not her responses. No words had been spoken beyond a few mindless pleas, as though they were both afraid of what anything else might do to both of them. In any event, she'd driven Lena to the limit over and over, making her beg and cry out, pressing her until her muscles trembled and her hair and skin were damp with sweat, needing the power that came with driving the thick pleasure that had rippled through the taller woman.

When Lena finally couldn't move any longer, her body totally spent, Bianca had found herself staring down at her, silently watching, confused and ashamed for reasons she couldn't even begin to name. The storms outside and inside both abated, she'd scrambled away, unable to face what she’d done, and left without further word, thoughts swirling in her head. To her shame, she'd been relieved that Lena had made no effort to follow her. In her room alone, she’d listened to the sounds of the front door opening then closing again as she silently vowed that it was a one-time event, that whatever madness had overcome her, it wouldn't happen again.

Then just a few nights later, the fear and loneliness had caught up with her again. She hadn't meant to pick up the phone and dial that number, had planned on calling Kendall, her mother, Maggie, anyone but her.

But it was Lena’s number she dialed that night.

And other nights that followed.

And in spite of any aftermath-generated resolutions to the contrary, it had happened again and again. She'd felt lost and alone and called, Lena had come over, few words had been spoken, and they’d touched and couldn't stop touching, the carnal need driving out the terror, giving her a little respite despite the guilt that always came afterward.

It wasn't until their fifth night together that she'd allowed Lena to touch her in return at all, and even then she'd maintained control over the situation, allowing only so much, testing the other woman, letting her have so much and no more, and afterward, she'd turned away again, and again, Lena had silently left.

Guilt ridden over her behavior, she’d finally broken down and told her counselor the whole sorry story, surprised to find her amazingly understanding without any hint of the judgment Bianca had both feared and expected. She’d been calm and very kind, asking gentle questions clearly intended to elicit more information, not so subtly checking on Lena's physical condition as much as Bianca's mental state. She'd been almost clinical, pacifying the worst of Bianca's fears and easing some of her guilt, explaining that the need for control wasn't an unusual response and trying without success to chase out the shame.

Growling a curse under her breath, Bianca ran a hand through her hair, scraping disarrayed strands out of her eyes, blinking rapidly to chase off the threat of tears. It all just felt so...so not right...and yet she couldn't seem to do anything else. It was a damned compulsion, one she often felt she’d be better off without, and yet she kept coming back for more.

She was still trying not to look too closely at her own emotions when the soft sound reached her ears.

Tyler.

Bianca was out of bed and reaching for the velour robe slung over the chair next to her bed in an instant. There was a small attached room off the master bedroom. Intended as a dressing room, she'd turned it into a temporary nursery when she’d decided against having a full-time nanny. This way, her son could be close until it was time for him to sleep in his own bedroom. There was a baby monitor, but with the door open, she could easily hear him if he cried without the electronic aid. She instantly came to a halt as she stepped through the doorway, freezing in place, her expression etched with shock.

Lena hadn't left. Instead she was standing near the crib, her body swathed in a black, silk robe of Bianca’s that revealed more than it covered, a small figure in her arms, her head down as she whispered. "Shhh, let's let your mama sleep a little longer, little one."

For the briefest second, Bianca couldn't move, her heart in her throat. As illogical as it was, all she could remember was Lena's intensity on the subject of abortion, how she'd insisted Bianca couldn't have a monster's child. Some part of her instinctively afraid of some unnamed something, Bianca had kept her son well out of Lena's way during their clandestine meetings, carefully keeping those two parts of her life completely separate, in fact keeping Lena separate from every part of her daylight life. The truth was that she’d done everything in her power to keep their affair hidden, barely even speaking to the other woman if they accidentally met in public, afraid that others would see what she felt if she showed any interest.

Lena abruptly pivoted, her eyes going wide as she realized she was no longer alone. She glanced down at the infant in her arms, then back up at Bianca, her expression seeming guilty to Bianca's eyes. "I-I was just...he was fussing...and I heard him...I just...." She looked down again, stammering uncomfortably under the suspicious gaze turned her way. "I was just...up ...and-and heard him." She turned away, settling Tyler back into his crib.

She was reaching for the blankets to tuck them around the child when Bianca stepped forward and around her lover, leaning over to check on her son.

"I probably should have gotten you," Lena murmured, backing away quickly as Bianca took over fussing with the blankets, blocking the taller woman out with her body as though she expected her to do something untoward to the child. "I'm sorry...I just...I heard him and you were deep asleep...and he started to quiet when I picked him up, so I thought perhaps he’d fall asleep again without waking you."

Her attention completely focused on making certain her son was all right, Bianca was only distantly aware when Lena backed up another step, "You should have gotten me," she confirmed, her voice little more than a tight rasp. It was insane. She knew that. Lena would never hurt any child, but she couldn't help but remember Lena's hatred of Michael and the fact that she'd been so intent on the abortion.

"I realize that now," Lena said too quickly. "but when I heard him cry, I just checked on him without---"

"I'm his mother," Bianca cut her off, not quite angrily but close to it as she continued checking on her son. A quiet child who was seldom fussy for more than a few minutes unless he was hungry or wet, he was dry and so having had a few minutes of attention was already sliding back to sleep.

"Right," Lena exhaled. "And you wouldn't want him anywhere near me."

It took Bianca a moment to register both the words and her lover's tone, hurt with an undercurrent of anger. By then Tyler was almost asleep, close enough that she could leave him, and she hurried into her bedroom to find Lena yanking on her clothes, her movements fast and jerky. Not bothering with her bra, she'd pulled on her blouse and was struggling with the delicate buttons that ran up the front, the dark maroon silk slipping and sliding in her fingers. Her hands were visibly shaking, making the task almost impossible.

"Lena?" Bianca whispered very softly, her ire disappearing in a blink. Torn in a thousand different directions, uncertain what she felt, wanted, or feared, she was nonetheless well aware that the other woman was upset even if didn’t want to look at the reasons too closely.

Brown eyes briefly rose to touch on Bianca. "My fault," Lena said sharply, her voice tight and ragged around the edges, as though she wanted to just let go of her emotions, but didn't dare. That said, she looked down again, focusing on stubborn buttons. "I forgot the rules."

"Rules?" Bianca repeated on a confused note, instinctively aware of what Lena was referring to and at the same time, wanting to deny it. So far every aspect of their affair had been totally under her control, only that seemed to be blowing up in her face, leaving her uncertain just how Lena was going to react.

Lena looked up again, a derisive smile twisting her lips, her eyes harder and darker than Bianca could remember seeing them, at least when focused on her. "The ones that say I’m supposed to be a good girl and quietly slip out while you’re sleeping...with no trace left behind to prove I was ever here," she responded after a beat, laying it all on the line with quiet brutality. "My apologies." She ducked her head in an acid mockery of courtesy. "For a few minutes, I forgot my place." Then, as if realizing she was much too close to some invisible line in the sand, she shook her head and took a step back, the bitterness in her expression replaced by an exhausted sort of depression.

Stung, Bianca tensed. "I never said---"

"No, of course not," Lena confirmed, her tone hardening again, the hint of mockery returning to the faint twist of her lips. "You didn’t need to. You made yourself quite clear without words that I could accept the hidden late night assignations or nothing at all." Her gaze dropped away again, a sad sigh escaping her lips, the anger slipping away in an instant to be replaced by a defeated sense of hopelessness. "I was a fool to think...." She trailed off, shaking her head, her throat bobbing as she swallowed hard. "It doesn’t matter," she said at last, noting that she’d misaligned the last two buttons, and finding she didn’t care. She didn’t look at Bianca, knowing full well that if she did good judgment would be out the window and she’d be back under that spell. Not for the first time, she found herself wishing she could resist that particular siren’s song and stay away. Looking around herself, she hunted for her shoes until she spotted them under a nearby chair.

"Look," Bianca said, ignoring the accusing words she was nowhere near ready to deal with. She folded her arms across her chest as she watched Lena retrieve her shoes and yank them on, "I’m sorry if I was a little short, but---"

"It doesn’t matter," Lena said again, cutting her off, sounding tired this time rather than angry. She just didn’t want to hear it. She did a slow pivot, brows drawing together in a frown as her gaze touched on the slender figure standing stiffly in the doorway watching her closely. In spite of her determination not to, she stood studying Bianca, trying to get some sense of what she was thinking only to find herself once again denied the knowledge she was seeking. "Obviously I should have gotten you. I just thought...he’s settled down quickly the time or two he’s stirred in the past...and I thought he would again...and that you needed the sleep." She looked down again, unable to face Bianca and continue. "And I forgot my place for a moment." Her teeth clenched as she finished that admission, hating the way it made her feel, but knowing that anything else was likely to get her banished from Bianca’s life once again. Even knowing she would likely have been better off to simply walk away, she couldn’t seem to do so, so instead she settled for even the slightest crumbs of affection, no matter that she didn’t like herself at all for doing so.

"I just...it just startled me," Bianca muttered.

"I’m sorry," Lena found herself apologizing again and borderline to hating herself for it because she honestly didn’t see what she’d done that was so wrong. Faced with a crying infant, she’d checked on him before thinking to get his mother. She truly couldn’t see the sin in that choice, and she couldn’t escape the memory of the horrified, accusing look on Bianca’s face, not so subtly reminding her that her only place in the younger woman’s life was sexual. "But you didn’t need to...I mean, what did you think? That I was going to hurt him?" The question was actually facetiously intended, the closest she could come to offering a rebuke for Bianca’s hurtful response because it never even remotely occurred to her that Bianca could ever think that of her.

Until she saw the guilty confirmation of just that in her lover’s expression.

Lena froze as though struck, her expression falling, mouth gaping, eyes wide. A moment passed during which her only movement was an impossibly high blink rate. "You think that I...." She couldn’t finish, couldn’t quite believe she was even contemplating such a thing, or rather that Bianca would.

Realizing that she’d let far too much of her admittedly irrational fears show in her expression, Bianca tried to repair the damage. "Of course not. I just---"

"Don’t lie," Lena interrupted, more shocked than angry. She snapped her mouth shut, still staring at Bianca, her thoughts swirling, wanting to deny the obvious, but unable to escape that look. "You actually thought I would...."

No anger, but Lena’s hurt was thick and visceral, shaming Bianca with its intensity. "No, of course not," she denied the accusation, sounding a little panicked this time, the truth of what she’d thought and implied starting to sink in, the mere idea seeming hopelessly ridiculous now that she was forced to face it.

"I knew you didn’t think much of me, but I had no idea you actually...." Lena trailed to a halt, still shaking her head dazedly. "I had no idea your opinion was so low," she exhaled at last, her voice coming out as a pained rasp, as though she’d been struck in the solar plexus and had to struggle just to drag air into her lungs.

"I didn’t say that," Bianca muttered, though her denial sounded painfully weak even to her own ears.

Lena moved back another pace, nearly stumbling, her normal grace taking flight. "I have to go," she muttered, her tone becoming distant. She turned, trying to flee before she lost all control only to be pulled back as a hand caught her forearm.

"Lena, I didn’t say---" Bianca started to repeat the denial.

As Lena came back around, her eyes narrowed as the truth sank in. Bianca was going to deny it all, put the onus on her. One more time she was going to get the pleasure of bearing the full responsibility for all the evils in the world, or even just the paranoid fear of all the evils. For months she’d borne it all, her guilt over her past and her ties to Michael driving her to accept the blame for almost any accusation anyone wished to hurl her way. Hell, none of them had equaled the accusations she’d directed at herself anyway, so it hardly seemed to matter. But not this, not the inference that she would harm any child, and particularly not that she would ever harm Bianca’s child. In an instant, hurt turned inside out, revealing the bitter anger she’d doubtless been nursing and holding back for months. "No, of course not," she snapped, taking a certain pleasure from the way Bianca’s eyes went wide in response to her tone, "as that would require actually speaking to me beyond saying, ‘Harder, faster, slower, there, no there.’" Brown eyes went a little wider still at the obvious sexual connotation of the words, and Lena found she quite enjoyed her lover’s shocked look. No, not a lover, since that implied emotion on both sides, and she was far from certain there was any such thing involved in their frenzied couplings, at least for Bianca. God help her, she was still so desperately in love with the younger woman that she’d tolerate almost anything to be with her, as she’d proven over and over again in her willingness to accept being yet another dirty secret because it seemed better than nothing. Only suddenly it seemed far worse than nothing if Bianca could think her that evil. Seeing it that way, she felt something let go inside, cracking at that core of painful love and letting bits of it float away, maybe never to return.

Bianca meanwhile had rocked back on her heels and was staring up at Lena as though she’d grown a spare head. Her gaze dropped as Lena yanked her arm free, then rose again.

"I have to get out of here," Lena rasped. Now, quickly before everything exploded the way she could feel it threatening to do. She’d never been one to lose her temper easily or lightly, but on the rare occasion it happened, it tended to do so explosively and in a way that left her totally out of control. The last thing she wanted to do was hit that particular boiling point. It would destroy any hope of a future and she wasn’t ready to give that up just yet. Reaching for her coat where it was tossed over a chair, she slung it on, striving to find a mental place that was cool and above it all. Once upon a time she’d been so good at that sort of apathy, but coming alive again had made it almost impossible.

"Lena," Bianca’s voice was small, almost childlike, stopping Lena before she could flee. "That’s not fair."

It was the wrong thing to say at every level. "Not fair?" Lena exhaled, going absolutely still for a long moment. Finally she looked back over her shoulder. "Very little in life is fair," she said very softly. Had Bianca been more attuned to her moods, she might have recognized the inherently dangerous note in her lover’s voice, but focused on her own thoughts, she missed it completely.

"Do you think I don’t know that?" the younger woman demanded, well aware that she was sounding faintly petulant and not liking it but helpless to do anything else.

Lena’s response was a tired sigh. "Of course you do," she allowed, looking away again. Reminded of what had happened to her lover, her temper was cooled several notches simply by the horror of it all. Her eyes slid closed as she tried to block everything out for a second and regain some equilibrium. Except the effort wasn’t working because she could still hear Bianca, and just the roughened sound of her breathing served as a reminder that she was there, seemingly standing in judgment yet again, which in turn triggered some very dark emotions. She could feel the cliff’s edge crumbling beneath her feet, tiny rocks and stones trickling away, and knew she was going to tumble over if she wasn’t very careful. And if that happened, god help them both, because she was going to lose all control and even she didn’t quite know what might be said in that event. She’d spent so many months sublimating her emotions, she wasn’t entirely certain what they even were anymore. "I have to get out of here," she muttered at last, more than a little desperation in her voice. She started to flee, made it perhaps two steps and felt a hand on her arm.

"Lena, not like this." Bianca’s voice was a strange mix of command and plea and Lena froze in place.

"Then how?" the Polish woman asked too quietly, clamping down so tightly on her emotions that her voice came out unnaturally flat. She looked back over her shoulder at Bianca, who made the mistake of reading her calmness as something more than just an illusion.

Bianca tugged lightly on Lena’s arm, pulling her back around until they were facing each other. "Look, you just misread things," she lied, then slid a hand up Lena’s chest, fingers toying with her coat. "There’s no need for you to leave yet."

Lena’s expression remained fixed, but Bianca was staring at her own hand where it was smoothing the line of her lover’s coat.

"Meaning?" Lena asked very softly.

Bianca curved her fingers into the soft fabric of Lena’s lapel, tugging lightly. "Come back to bed," she invited, looking up through thick lashes as she spoke.

"At least for a little while?" Lena murmured on a questioning note.

Bianca nodded. "For a little while." It was the final nail in the coffin.

Cupping Bianca’s cheek in her hand, Lena slowly shook her head, then used her other hand to peel Bianca’s fingers away from her coat. "No." She carefully stepped back a pace, letting go of Bianca’s hand and breaking contact with her cheek. "I can’t do this anymore," she murmured after a beat, her voice thick from the effort required to force it past the tightness in her throat, the words startling her more than they did Bianca. It wasn’t what she’d planned to say and yet the words had come out all the same.

"Look, if this is about---" Bianca began, but Lena held up a hand, silencing her.

"It’s not about any one thing. It’s everything." Lena shook her head, her expression maintaining the same too flat cast. "I can’t do this," she repeated, the enormity of what those words really meant just beginning to sink in. She wasn’t talking about leaving for the night. She was talking about leaving and not coming back again. Ever."I’d die for you," she continued with a softly-spoken kind of rage, "but most days, you’re barely willing to speak to me on a public street." She shook her head, disgusted with her own willingness to give her self-respect away yet again.

Bianca paled, a none too flattering image of herself suddenly flashing in her head, but still not really comprehending the extent of what Lena was saying. "You know," she muttered, though she had the good graces to flinch, "why that is."

"Do I?" Lena questioned, then shrugged. Actually, she didn’t because Bianca never really told her anything. She called, commanded, controlled, and expected. She was completely in control of the situation and seemed to have neither any desire nor any intention of explaining or rationally discussing much of anything. She simply didn’t seem to want to communicate beyond the obvious sexual limits of their present relationship, all of which suddenly felt intensely hollow. And the fact that Lena had momentarily felt like she was gaining ground only made it that much worse now that she knew Bianca thought she might be capable of the worst thing imaginable. When the sexual relationship had begun, Lena had thought it was just part of the process, that things would change and normalize as Bianca realized she could trust her. She’d made the tactical error of allowing herself hope that it was the beginning of something rather than simply an end in and of itself. Precious little chance of it going anywhere if the younger woman considered her a danger to her child. Now it all seemed like a wasted effort, and she felt like a fool for thinking that she had any place in Bianca’s life beyond the sexual.

"It’s just that---" Bianca began.

"It’s easier for you and I’m not worth anything more---" Lena laid the truth as she saw it on the line with quiet brutality.

"I’ve never said that," Bianca insisted. It wasn’t like that and she would never have said anything like that. Lena was being unreasonable when she knew perfectly well how difficult things were. "It’s just complicated. You know that."

Lena shook her head, unwilling to let Bianca off easily for once. "Given the lack of communication, I don’t know anything," she disagreed without raising her voice but also without giving ground, "except that it’s clear you don’t need me for anything but that." She waved a hand to indicate the twisted sheets that still showed the signs of their intimate struggles. "I’m not really a part of anything in your life that matters. For that you have the people that you truly love...your mother, Maggie, Kendall, Jackson. I’m just a convenience you make use of when you’re in the mood."

Bianca rocked on her heels as though struck. God, didn’t Lena know? It wasn’t the way she was saying at all. "That’s not---"

"Fair," Lena finished for her, the bitterness that slipped through finally beginning to give Bianca a clue that things were changing in ways she wasn’t prepared for. Lena wasn’t going to be a good girl and simply follow orders any longer. "There are a great many things in life, Bianca," she said in the tone of a professor giving a lecture to a class of not-too-bright freshmen, "that simply are not fair." She shook her head again, hands fisted so tightly at her sides that her nails were digging into her palms, her head suddenly throbbing in time with what seemed like a flood battering the dam holding back her emotions. The dam was cracking badly and she needed to get out of there. Quickly. She stepped back another pace as though more distance might allow her to regain some control.

"Lena, I---" Bianca started to speak, though she had no idea what she was going to say, only to be interrupted by the ringing of the phone next to the bed.

"You should answer that," Lena said quietly, perversely grateful for the real-world intrusion into a situation on the verge of exploding. "It might be someone important." Her lips twisted into the faintest of smiles as she saw Bianca flinch, clearly getting the intentional implication that she didn’t fit into the category. She was tired of politely overlooking that harsh reality and allowing Bianca simply ignore anything beyond the meeting and mating of bodies. They stood there in some impromptu kind of staring contest, neither one certain what was going to happen next. This was all new territory.

It was Bianca who cracked first, grabbing for the ringing phone, her voice instantly smoothing out and becoming almost too friendly when whoever was on the other end of the line started speaking. "Oh...hi, Maggie...."

Lena’s mouth twisted in the faintest of ironic smiles, while Bianca turned away as though to gain some privacy, though she couldn’t actually lower her voice for fear of alerting Maggie that she wasn’t alone, and god knew, they couldn’t have that happening.

"No, nothing’s wrong. Tyler just woke me up...oh...you should have stopped by if you saw the lights on."

The ironic smile turned to an outright smirk as Lena envisioned herself hiding in yet another closet had that happened. Shaking her head, she reached up to massage her temple. How strange was it that she suddenly found herself being perversely grateful to Maggie Stone of all people for unintentionally reminding her of so many things. It made it so much easier to do the best thing for both of them.

Bianca was still assuring Maggie that everything was fine and she was welcome any time of the day or night when Lena silently turned and walked out. She moved comfortably through the darkened house, pausing in the livingroom to find her purse where she’d discarded it on the couch. As she took a moment to dig out her car keys, she wondered how Bianca would have explained away that little slip had Maggie knocked. Oh, well. It hardly mattered now. It wouldn’t be a problem in the future. Maggie could play guard dog to her heart’s content. Hell, the two of them could set up their own asexual little house as far as Lena was concerned. It was no longer her problem. A wry smile twisted her lips as she finally found her keys, the last step before leaving. She could finally stop pretending she didn’t despise the younger woman and her need to own Bianca. The need to be polite for Bianca’s sake had left her on the verge of grinding her molars to dust on more than one occasion as the girl had gotten in assorted accusations, digs, and low-level insults, all without any payback. It was going to be a relief not to feel that pressure to be nice any longer. She almost hoped Maggie was foolish enough to be rude to her sometime in the near future so she could have the pleasure of teaching her how that game was really played.

And then she was standing at the front door and it all struck her like a hammer blow between the shoulderblades. The momentary bout of wry humor fled in an instant, melting away like a hard snowfall in hell, fast and with a certain sizzle. God, what was she doing? She gripped the front doorknob, muscles rippling beneath the surface of her skin with the force of the conflict. After months of rejection and sneaking around, it should have been easy to simply walk out that door. Whatever her dreams had once been, they should have been completely shattered, especially in light of the latest revelation.

And yet, standing there in the darkness, she couldn’t forget that initial euphoria at feeling her emotions come alive again after so many years of being dead to the world. For a little while it had seemed as though anything could be possible, as though she’d been given her life back and made whole again.

And she couldn’t help the tiny bit of hope that it had meant as much to Bianca as it had to her.

Which was why she couldn’t resist the need to turn and glance back the way she’d come, her eyes going to the top of the landing in hopes of seeing someone there ready to call her back.

Her heart sank when she found nothing but dark shadows.

It seemed like a sign from the god she hadn’t believed in in years. It really was over.

Suddenly numb---she supposed it was the mind and body’s way of protecting itself from the sort of pain that felt like it ought to have fatal implications---she swung the door wide and stepped into the night. The air was cool and there was a hint of a breeze to ruffle her hair. It helped clear her head a little, and she managed not to stumble as she staggered down the porch steps to the front walk, moving slower than usual and feeling far older than her years.

It was time, she decided with an oddly objective sort of practicality, to crawl into a bottle of cheap scotch---the kind that burned one’s throat until it was raw and turned a human stomach to little more than acidic pulp---and not come out until absolutely necessary. She ran a hand over her hair and kept walking. She was moving around the side of the house headed toward her car where it was parked in the back when she heard the sound of the front door.

"What are you doing?" Bianca was slightly out of breath. She must have taken the stairs two at a time. Only moments ago, Lena would have been thrilled. Now it was like something had finally broken inside and she was just tired.

Lena stopped, but didn’t turn back or look up. "Leaving," she answered simply.

"Without even talking about it...while I was still on the phone?" Bianca demanded, resenting the position the other woman had put her in, feeling defensive and irritated with the sudden shift in everything.

Lena shrugged, still not looking up, half afraid that she’d break completely if she looked into Bianca’s eyes. "It seemed like the best choice."

"So you’re just going to run away," Bianca accused.

Lena had the urge to demand, ‘From what?’ but held off on the impulse, well aware that it was only likely to spark a fight that wouldn’t do either of them any good. "Bianca," she sighed after a long beat, sick and tired of the whole subject. Even though had never come up before, it had been there between them, unspoken but very real, and avoiding something as studiously as they had required an amazing amount of effort. "What do you want me to do?" She wasn’t surprised when no answer was forthcoming, leaving them both to stand there helplessly. "You accuse me of leaving without talking, but that implies there was some other choice." She finally did look up, a beaten, strained kind of agony showing in her eyes. She was so damn tired she hurt. "We don’t talk." She felt no pleasure at the way Bianca winced, but there was a curious sense of satisfaction.

Bianca took the softly spoken words for an accusation and tensed. "And I suppose that’s my fault," she snapped.

Lena simply shook her head in the face of the other woman’s obvious anger. "It’s no one’s fault," she sighed. "It just is." She looked away again, not wanting to see the condemnation she expected in brown eyes as she continued, "It’s obvious you’re ashamed of me...of wanting to be with me in any way. I thought I could prove something to you, but it seems that’s not possible. As a result I just don’t think this is healthy for either one of us."

Bianca was suddenly utterly silent, barely able to even draw breath. She shook her head stiffly, wanting to deny what Lena was saying, yet not quite able to do so.

"Now you should call Maggie back," Lena continued, her voice low and husky, allowing herself one small twist of the knife. "She’ll be upset with you if she’s feeling ignored."

Bianca reacted instantly to the pointed chiding, her eyes flashing resentfully. "Is that what this is about?" she demanded, seizing on the obvious and clinging to the self-righteous anger it engendered. "Your jealousy?"

Hands tightening into fists, Lena held back a caustic reply. "No," she denied. Of course, she was jealous of Maggie, but that had nothing to do with why her reasons for walking away. She would have easily tolerated it if she felt she had some place of her own in her lover’s heart and life that wasn’t purely physical, if she just once felt Bianca supported her in the least. The jealousy was just a symptom of that denied longing, and Bianca was a fool if she couldn’t see that. "It’s about what’s between you and I...or what isn’t."

But Bianca didn’t let it go, instead seizing on what seemed like an easy answer. "Oh, come on," she snapped. "It’s been obvious just how jealous you are more than once."

This time Lena couldn’t hold back a sharp response, her own resentments after months of being pushed aside, slighted, and insulted catching up with her in a rush. "I can’t imagine why," she growled. "You only parade her around as your best friend ever while she insults---"

"Maybe that’s because I know I can trust her," Bianca shot back before thinking better of it. Hurt and angry that Lena could even consider walking away, she struck back where she knew the other woman felt particularly vulnerable.

Lena stiffened as though struck and felt something give way deep inside. Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly, her temper finally getting the best of her as Bianca threw that at her after she’d spent months doing everything in her power to prove herself. Suddenly dangerously calm, she tipped her head to one side, appearing to consider Bianca as she spoke, "Well, then perhaps Maggie can overcome her squeamishness about such matters and you can finally have everything you’ve ever wanted." She would never have hurled that particular comment were she not so hurt and angry, but the harsh reality was that she had long been terrified that the day Maggie was interested in sex, she would lose Bianca completely, and Bianca had done little to soothe that fear. In fact, if anything, she’d nursed it along by her refusal to publicly admit to their relationship.

"You have no right to say that," Bianca snarled. "We’re just friends." Yes, there had been a time when she’d wanted more from Maggie, but not since meeting Lena. The Polish woman’s entry into her life had ended any thoughts along those lines because she hadn’t been able to think of anyone else that way since even when it would have been easier.

"Oh, sorry, I forgot for a second that I have no rights," Lena shot back, finally losing all control over her temper, "that I’m good enough to fuck in the dead of night, but no more than that."

Bianca flinched, startled out of her own rage by the obscenity. Lena almost never cursed. In fact her language tended to be borderline to courtly. On the rare occasion some minor curse slipped out, it was usually only because she was utterly furious and English had become something of an effort. For her to let that slip meant she was well beyond anything Bianca had seen before. "Lena---" she began, intending to deny the charge in an effort to undo the damage, but uncertain how without revealing more of herself than she was ready for. Unfortunately, the other woman wasn’t listening.

Lena shook her head, fighting for some measure of control without much success, the disgust she felt for herself coming out as anger. "Oh, no," she growled. "Don’t you dare put this all on me," she warned Bianca. "Not when you control everything...and the only choice I have is nothing or sneaking around like your whore." She swallowed hard as the last word escaped her lips. Suddenly reminded of too many dark moments in her life, she let go of the rage as quickly as it had come over her and was left feeling like she’d been beaten and was still punch drunk. "I’m nothing to you," she muttered more to herself than Bianca, then continued before she could stop herself, "Just like I was to...." And then she regained control, falling silent before the final words were out of her mouth.

Bianca stiffened, rearing back as she gripped the porch railing so tightly the edges threatened to cut into her palms. She hated this, hated the pain and fear, and yet she was totally powerless to make it stop. For a moment, she’d been feeling guilty, seeing all too clearly what Lena was saying, and then her lover had said that and suddenly her stomach was rolling, fury sliding over her. How dare she even start to say that. How dare she even think it. "Just like you were to who?" she demanded even though she knew the answer just like she knew full well she should just back away before they both said even more things they’d have cause to regret. This conversation was far too dangerous. The emotions between them were too intense and too twisted. That was why she’d so studiously avoided anything more serious than the weather, preferring the safety of simply losing herself in the physical because everything else seemed hopelessly threatening. So many times she’d backed away, only suddenly backing away wasn’t an option for either of them.

Lena blinked away the haze of tears threatening to turn the world to a blur, sanity struggling to reassert itself. Despite her anger, there were some lines she didn’t want to cross. "Don’t make me say it," she pleaded, pulling back from the cliff’s edge at the last moment, well aware that answering that question would just hurt them both when they were already slashed and bleeding. Tired as she was of the situation, she didn’t want to cause Bianca that kind of pain. Not for the first time, it struck her that she should have simply left town once she was no longer a suspect in Michael’s murder. It would have been kinder for both of them. Maybe then they could both have moved on with their lives. It would have been hard to do and certainly it would have hurt, but it would have been a kind of relief as well. Anything to free them both from this strange pas de deux from which they couldn’t seem to escape, and which seemed to cause them both so much pain. "I should have known this was a mistake," she said at last, "but I was so damn pathetic and wanted it so much." She looked down at her own feet, all of it sweeping over her with damning intensity. She should have known better than to think someone like Bianca would ever be able to see through her past or be able to completely accept her. "I should have known," she repeated almost inaudibly, anger suddenly forgotten in favor of sick guilt and shame. She was never going to escape her past and had been a fool for thinking otherwise for even a moment. Michael and Bianca had only one thing in common, their mutual opinion of what she was good for.

Perfectly unmoving as though cast from stone, Bianca stared at her lover, caught in an swirl of dangerous emotions. Lena looked so damn hurt and shattered that a part of Bianca wanted nothing more than to wrap that elegant frame in her arms and offer whatever reassurances were necessary to make things right again. Unfortunately there was the other part of her, the part that resented like hell that Lena was rocking the boat and making things difficult when she just wanted her to leave things alone. They had something together. Maybe it wasn’t exactly what Lena wanted, but it was comforting and offered Bianca a much needed respite from the internal storms. She didn’t want to risk it for something that was fraught with anger and discord and threatened to do nothing but make everyone’s life harder.

Bianca was startled out of her silent musing by Lena’s exhaled, "I’m sorry." Something achingly sad and final in the Polish woman’s tone held her silent. She blinked as though to clear her vision and for just a second she had a sense of truly seeing Lena for the first time in months. She’d looked past her, around her, even through Lena, but carefully had never looked at her as though she couldn’t bear the intensity of what she might see and feel. Or maybe it was that she couldn’t bear to see and acknowledge the other woman’s feelings because once she did everything would have to change. The moment that happened, she couldn’t go on pretending that Lena was hard and cold and hadn’t been hurt by everything that had happened, including her actions.

Bianca was still struggling to process her own thoughts when Lena turned, trudging strides carrying her toward the back of the house where she always parked in a protected spot in the alley. She wanted to call her back, even drew breath to make the effort only to gasp as the phone rang again and she automatically clicked it on. She heard a voice and responded automatically. "Oh...hi, Maggie...sorry, I just had to run when Tyler cried...no, everything’s fine...."

Hearing that, Lena lengthened her strides until she was nearly running by the time she reached her car.

Bianca barely heard her friend’s comments, her entire attention absorbed by the sound of Lena’s car surging to life, the sound an angry roar as she gunned the engine hard. It screamed for a moment, and then faded as she disappeared into the night.

* * * * * *

She was driving too hard and much too fast, cutting corners by a hair, skidding on tight turns, and careening along in the straightaways.

And Lena Kundera couldn’t possibly have cared less.

Friends---back in the day when she still had a few---had often teased her about her wild driving, and more than one had suggested she had a suicidal streak that came out when she was behind the wheel of a car. She’d denied it then, insisting that she just liked speed, but at that particular moment she would have had to admit there was some truth to the charge. She was close to that edge. Very, very close.

Death by fast driving. She should have gone for that rather than poison. Maybe it would have taken and she could have avoided the whole damn mess by taking a nice quiet rest in the cold earth.

Wonderful, suicidal ideation. That would make for yet another uncomfortable session with the counselor Dr. Grey had recommended. The poor woman was probably starting to dread their sessions. God knew, she was getting a sort of rabbit in the headlights look in her eyes every time she saw Lena in the waiting room. Of course, the Polish woman couldn’t really blame her. Her problems weren’t exactly the sort of thing generally faced by small-town psychologists.

‘Hi, what’s your problem?’ she conjured the counselor’s overly chirpy voice in her head, followed by a sarcastic version of her own history. ‘I tried to commit suicide because the woman I love was raped and had a child by my former employer, whose bed I was blackmailed into sharing, and for whom I served as a corporate spy...which principally involved sleeping with whoever he told me to.’ Yes, that was definitely not the sort of thing small town counselors heard every day. Then again, this was Pine Valley, so it was possible she was wrong.

God, what a mess. After a beginning that would have done a Russian tragedy proud, her life of late had turned into the worst of soap operas. She was definitely on a downward spiral. So what was next? Sitcom hell? She really would have to finish herself off if it went that way. Better dead than Friends as far as she was concerned.

She gunned the engine on a tight curve, clutching the steering wheel tightly as she felt the rear tires grind and kick gravel as she tried to avoid imagining that same syrupy counselor’s voice explaining to her that she was falling into old, unhealthy patterns.

Gosh, d’ya think? She thought, mentally mimicking a clueless American accent that she couldn’t have done in reality if her life depended on it. Not too surprisingly, the voice in her head bore a distinct resemblance to Bianca’s.

And speaking of clueless.

"Have a few issues, do you?" she demanded sarcastically of herself.

Issues? Yes, she definitely had a few on that front. Not that she’d allowed herself to face them before. Overwhelming guilt had kept her from admitting to anything so human as resentment and frustration at being locked out and thrown away only to find herself pulled back and treated as little more than a plaything once again. For both of their sakes, she should have refused, but instead she’d acquiesced as Bianca used her, fooling herself into believing it would eventually lead to something more. In reality, that didn’t seem likely to happen if Bianca had so little respect for her that she would think she’d hurt a child. Now there was a bit of knowledge she could have done without.

The woman she loved thought she was so inhuman as to be able to harm a child.

Lena automatically downshifted into a turn, then accelerated hard at the midpoint. The car threatened to fishtail when a rear tire hit more gravel, but she held on and pulled it out, her response mechanical, her brain on everything but her driving.

The woman she loved thought she was so inhuman as to be able to harm a child. The thought just kept repeating over and over in her brain like some nonstop torture session, except a few hours on the rack or in the nearest iron maiden would have been far more pleasurable than that particular realization. Bianca actually thought she could....

She couldn’t even finish the thought this time. It was too horrifying.

Apparently Bianca wasn’t the only one with a clueless streak, although as Lena thought about it, she was inclined to think she was more delusional than clueless. She’d seen all the signs, but had chosen to ignore them in favor of believing what she wanted to believe in the face of the obvious evidence.

Not exactly a first in her life, now was it?

She revved the engine, accelerating hard enough to make the tires squall even on wet pavement. It had rained earlier in the evening, not enough to leave any deep water, but enough to leave the road glossy and a little slick in places. Lena neither noticed nor cared. She was too lost in her own thoughts to worry about such minor matters as her own survival.

She’d fooled herself where Michael was concerned too, so desperate for the money he’d dangled in front of her that she’d allowed him to him draw her steadily deeper into his machinations until she’d become something she despised. Then Bianca had found her, looked into her eyes, and somehow seen someone worth caring for. That faith and love had pulled her out of a pit of her own making, the younger woman’s gentleness and decency overcoming her cynicism and reminding her that such things still existed in the world.

How could something so good have drawn her into yet another pit, one twice as deep and five times as painful because she’d actually started to care and have hope again.

Maybe it really was true. Those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.

And wasn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?

Which meant by that standard, she probably qualified as being mad as the proverbial hatter. Oh, hell, probably by any standard.

That thought running through her brain, she nearly fishtailed on another corner, surviving mostly because her reflexes were good and there was no one else on the road at that hour. Accelerating hard, she exited the turn far faster than was even remotely prudent. Lost in her own thoughts and wondering how far and how fast she’d have to drive to escape her own past, she almost didn’t hear her cell phone. Her first thought when she heard the distinctive musical tune was that it was Bianca calling to....

What? Call her back? Make sure she stayed away? Apologize for her actions? Vent her fury at being denied? A whole range of possibilities ran through Lena’s head during the seconds it took for her to dig the phone out of her purse one-handed.

She experienced a mix of relief and disappointment on noting the number on her caller ID. Not Bianca, but Adam Chandler. Oh. Joy. He’d been calling and leaving messages for well over a week, and she’d been carefully ducking his efforts to make contact. Experience and all available information told her that whatever Adam wanted it wouldn’t be to her benefit only his own. Given that she already had quite enough of that sort of thing in her life she just wasn’t interested in getting involved. She seriously considered just shutting the phone off and continuing on her path of avoidance. Then again, he didn’t seem to be backing off and she was getting tired of his pursuit. Maybe it was time to turn and face the devil in hopes he’d go away when he didn’t get what he wanted.

She held the tiny phone to her ear and clicked it on, then cut right to the chase, "All right, Adam, what do you want?"

"That’s what I like about you, Ms. Kundera. Always straight to the point," Adam Chandler’s too-smooth, dangerously cheerful voice came back to her almost instantly, as though he’d known she’d finally answer. And maybe he had. The man had a knack for exploiting people’s weaknesses. "A woman after my own heart."

"Hardly," she drawled, her voice rife with sarcasm. Adam was a gameplayer and the last thing she needed in her life was more games. "Now I suggest you tell me what you want before I hang up. You have five seconds."

He chuckled, clearly not taking her lack of welcome to heart. "Now let’s not get impatient---" he began, but she cut him off.

"Make that four seconds." She was in no mood to be teased.

"And here I was hoping we could have a civilized conversation---"

"I’m not feeling very civilized at the moment," which was the understatement of the year, "so I strongly suggest you talk fast."

Apparently he’d finally figured out she wasn’t going to be charmed that easily because he didn’t try to push the point any farther. "I have a job offer for you---"

She almost laughed. "Sorry, not interested," she cut him off before he got any farther and started to hang up.

"Hear me out," Adam said quickly. Too quickly for Lena’s comfort. She knew enough about the man to be very distrustful of his aims. He wanted Chandler Enterprises back and since that was now under Kendall’s control on Bianca and Tyler’s behalf, that put people Lena cared about---whether she wanted to or not---right in his path. "I think you might find my proposition interesting."

"All right," she said cautiously. Maybe it was best to know the enemy’s intentions.

A note of triumph leaked through as he offered a few ego strokes and praise. "Good girl. I knew we could deal with each other."

Then again, maybe not. "You should know, Adam, that calling me a girl only irritates me, while false praise truly gets on my nerves...and since I’m already on my last one, it’s not helping your case. Now what do you want?" His five seconds was down to one or two and she wanted him gone.

This time he dropped the friendly, lighthearted attitude entirely, becoming all business in a blink. "My company back."

Which was hardly unpredictable. "And I want my idealism back, but sometimes we don’t get what we want in this life."

"I haven’t gotten to where I am in life by taking that attitude."

No, he hadn’t. He’d gotten where he was by being a ruthless bastard. God, she was sick of his kind. "That would be more impressive were it not for that fact that where you presently are is not so high on the food chain---"

"Higher than you, my dear," he reminded her sharply, her refusal to fall into line pushing him into intimidation mode.

Which wasn’t likely to work either. She’d faced down men who would make even Adam Chandler run for cover. "Of course you are," she sighed, wishing he’d just go away and stop reminding her of things she already knew. "In case you haven’t heard, I’m the town pariah. Everyone’s higher on the food chain than I am."

He went back to using a voice so smooth she could almost hear his smile. "What if I offered you a chance to move up a few notches?"

"I’d wonder whose dinner plate you were fattening me up for," she replied honestly. If Adam wanted her to higher on the food chain it was only because he didn’t think she was currently tasty enough bait for whatever fish he wanted to hook.

He laughed, but there was a forced timbre to the sound. "I want my company back...but I can’t exactly do it myself---"

"Yes, I suppose having a serpent in the nest could make that challenging," she allowed. "How is your son? Doing well running Chandler Enterprises, is he?"

She smiled as she heard the tiny gasp of air that signaled his flinch. "Careful, Ms. Kundera," he warned her, savagery echoing just beneath the cultured surface. "You don’t want me for an enemy."

"Believe it or not, I don’t want anyone for an enemy," she explained a little impatiently. She was tired of being on everyone’s hit list and associating with Adam wasn’t likely to change that fact. At least not for the better. "Which is why I’m ending this call now."

"You haven’t even heard my offer," he said quickly, unwilling to let her go so easily.

"I don’t need to. It doesn’t matter what it is, I’m not interested," she responded, her exhaustion slipping through. She was so sick and tired of all lies and game playing. Even Monte Carlo was more civilized than Pine Valley, and she hated Monte Carlo. "Which is why whatever it is you have in mind, you’ll have to do it without me."

"I’m offering a great deal of money...and a hell of an opportunity to show a lot of people what you’re capable of," he offered, clearly hoping to entice her over to his side.

"That’s what I’m afraid of," she admitted, her brain racing in an effort to understand his plan. She spun it around in her head until she was pretty sure she had it all figured out, and it wasn’t pretty. "Because if you’re offering me an opportunity, my guess is it’s only so that I can play the villain until you rush in and play the hero. No, thank you. Not a role I’m interested in, no matter how much money you’re offering."

He was absolutely silent for a long moment which only confirmed her opinion. "So instead you’ll keep sneaking around, playing the role of Bianca Montgomery’s dirty little secret."

It was Lena’s turn to exhale a startled gasp. He knew. Somehow Adam knew and that did not bode well. "Whatever you think you know---" she began hotly, but he cut her off.

"Oh, I know," he quickly assured her, then some tiny measure of humanity must have asserted itself because he sighed softly and sounded almost sympathetic. "Just like I know that as long as you allow her to use you that way, that’s all you’re going to be."

The understanding in his voice did what all the cajoling and threats couldn’t, getting past her caustic shields. "I work for Kendall," she reminded him.

"Right, shepherding the Cambias fortune...paid a quarter of what you’re worth by people too immature and uneducated to truly appreciate what you’re capable of. They’ve completely underestimated and undervalued you." He wasn’t playing to her ego any more, at least not in an obnoxiously flowery way, just telling the honest truth.

Lena swallowed hard, not wanting to admit he was right. She’d taken the job out of gratitude to Kendall, and kept it because it was the only way she could protect Bianca and her child, but she got little or no credit for the work she was doing---it was all about making Kendall and Ryan look good to the press---and the pay, while better than what she’d gotten of late, was far below what she should have been earning.

"Without you, Kendall would already be on the street, and there wouldn’t be much left for Bianca’s son to inherit because Kendall and Ryan’s sterling leadership would have either bankrupted Cambias and its holdings, or lost control of the lot to one of any number of the sharks circling."

Which was true. The corporate great whites had scented blood on the water and been looking for a chance to take a bite out of the Cambias fortune for months. She’d kept them at bay in ways the others couldn’t even begin to imagine. Without her efforts, it would have all been gone very quickly, probably with little to show for it. She kept driving, focusing on the road, not wanting to hear his insinuating voice, but unable to summon The strength turn the phone off.

"And they repay you how? By treating you like garbage," he added quietly, understanding her too well. Like her, he came from poverty and had faced a world where he’d been considering nothing. He knew just what buttons to push.

"True enough," she admitted, his softly spoken words acting like an acid dipped knife twisting in her guts because they stabbed at her worst fears. That she really was nothing. "But if I do what you want I become everything anyone’s ever accused me of being." She had precious little self-respect left, but she had enough to see that. She’d been Michael’s tool, and then Bianca’s. She was damned if she was going to become Adam Chandler’s. "Sorry, I’m just not interested in that. Now don’t call me again."

Adam was silent for a long moment before he responded. "Fair enough." He didn’t try to argue this time, apparently accepting that she wouldn’t be falling into line with whatever plans he had for her. "But if you change your mind, call me...anytime of the day or night."

"If I change my mind," Lena murmured, then hung up without further goodbye. She’d had enough of Adam Chandler reminding her of things she’d have preferred not to think about. She was about to toss the phone aside when it rang again. She noted the number. Kendall this time. More and more fun. God, why couldn’t a person get an out of area signal when it would do some good?

Lena clicked the phone on. "Lena Kundera," she answered before the caller could speak.

"Lena, it’s Kendall," Bianca’s half sister said without preamble.

Lena didn’t let on that she’d already seen the caller ID. "Kendall, how can I help you?" Her tone was cool and formal, purposely not letting on anything was wrong. If Kendall wasn’t aware of the situation between herself and Bianca, Lena had no intention of letting it slip.

Since she didn’t have a subtle bone in her body, Kendall didn’t try to sugarcoat things, just jumped straight in with both feet. "I just spoke to Bianca."

"I see," Lena said cautiously, still playing her cards close to the vest. Given Kendall’s tone, it wasn’t good news, but perhaps it wasn’t the worst either since she had a hard time imagining that Bianca had told anyone, even her sister about what had transpired between them. God only knew what Kendall might know, or think she knew, but Lena doubted it was the truth. There were both advantages and disadvantages to Kendall’s being aware of her affair with Bianca. Instinct told her she was about to discover the another of the disadvantages.

"Look, you’ve done some incredible work for the company...and for Bianca. I know that...but with Bianca getting more involved in the business...and things between you two going bad---"

"I’ve become a liability," Lena said dryly, wondering at the timing that had her turning Adam down only moments before Kendall’s call. Some days god had a very strange sense of humor. Which was why she should have known this would happen. Bianca must have called Kendall quickly indeed. No question who the villain of the piece was. She shook her head disgustedly. Once again she was showing loyalty to people wholly uninterested in returning the favor. How much more foolish could she get?

"As far as business is concerned, of course not," Kendall disagreed, sounding frustrated and guilty. "Frankly, without your help, things would have been a disaster...but on the personal front...well, I just don’t see how---"

"I’ll save you the effort of firing me and messenger my resignation to you in the morning." If Bianca wanted her gone, well, she wasn’t going to fight it any longer. Months of resisting her banishment had only made things worse and delayed the inevitable. Time to accept her fate and get out.

Kendall had the good graces to be ashamed of what she was doing. "I’ll make sure you get a hell of a severance package---"

As if money would fix anything. Lena had at least learned what a lie that promise was. "Keep your money, Kendall. I don’t want it." Things would be tight for a while, but she’d enough set cash aside to see to her mother’s needs for several months. Poverty didn’t frighten her and she could always wait tables or tend bar until she got something better. God knew, she’d done it plenty of times before.

"Look, Lena, I know this sucks and I’m sor---"

"Don’t apologize," Lena snapped impatiently. "You don’t do guilt well...and I’m not really in the mood." She was getting very tired about being so damned nice about everything.

"Lena, just take the---"

Lena shut the phone off while Kendall was still trying to talk her into accepting the payoff. Maybe she was being foolish for refusing the money, but she just couldn’t stomach the idea, not when the mere idea made her feel like all of the things she’d been called since coming to Pine Valley. She took another sharp turn, avoiding a skid without even thinking about it, only distantly noting that it had started raining again sometime during the last few minutes.

She could probably pack in an hour, and it wouldn’t take more than a few minutes to write Kendall a letter of resignation. She supposed if she was honorable she’d stay around long enough to make certain her replacement was brought up to speed on business matters given that Kendall, Ryan, and Bianca were all hopelessly ignorant about the corporations for which they’d become responsible. Lucky for her, rumor had it that honor wasn’t something she was overly cursed with. Unluckily for them, she wasn’t feeling so charitable as to shepherd in her replacement to save that bunch. No, this time they were on their own. Everything she owned fit in two suitcases and if she did everything right, come lunchtime tomorrow, she could be halfway to....

Where?

She was debating between Munich and Nice when a shadow flittered at the very edge of her peripheral vision, then abruptly leapt straight into her car’s path. Lena registered a dark sleek body and night-glitter eyes---a deer, smallish and panicked by the oncoming lights---even as she whipped the wheel hard and slammed on the brakes.

Unfortunately, enough rain had come down in just a few minutes and she was going fast enough that her car was already hydro-planing which meant the brakes grabbed, but the tires didn’t. The skid that followed was perversely silent, her tires sliding over the highway as though greased in a blinding spray of rainwater. With no time to consider her actions, she turned into the skid in an effort to get things under control, only to realize too late that it put her too close to the steeply banked edge of the highway. She began to realize her mistake when the passenger side rear tire dropped off the tarmac, spinning uselessly in deep mud and battering itself against the edge of the road. It blew and in an instant was dragging her car sideways over the edge. At 80 miles an hour she was suddenly completely out of control.

No more than a half a second and the front wheel dropped off the edge of the tarmac, tipping her car violently to one side. A single heartbeat passed while she fought to try and regain control, but it was hopeless. The embankment was too steep and slick with mud. Another heartbeat and then all hell broke loose as momentum sent her skidding sideways down the sheer dropoff. Then the strange silence gave way to an overwhelming din as her car, still moving far too fast, hit a sharp ledge and was briefly airborne. Hurled against the restraint of her seatbelt with brutal force, Lena barely felt the pain amid the sensory overload of the world spinning by as her car went into an uncontrolled tumble. It hit on the passenger’s side first, crumpling plastic and steel, then rolled onto the roof, collapsing it to the built-in roll bars before momentum carried it on around. Still careening forward, it bounced and rolled again to hit on the driver’s side, crunching the door inward with enough force to snap bone where Lena’s left forearm was trapped between the panel and the steering wheel. Pinned, there was nothing she could do as her car kept rolling, the wheels briefly touching the ground before momentum carried it on over up where it landed on the passenger side at the bottom of the embankment in a narrow streambed. Skidding in a flare of sparks, it burned out the last of its energy tearing through the rocky streambed before finally coming to a halt still lying on the passenger’s side.

Hanging in her seatbelt, her left arm still pinned between the steering wheel and crushed door, Lena was barely aware of her surroundings for several minutes. Her chest and shoulders were in agony from the way she’d been thrown around and her head had hit the steering wheel sometime during the wild ride, opening a cut at the hairline and spraying blood all over the interior of the windshield in a fine spatter. Her headlights were still burning and they shone on the surrounding landscape through crimson droplets of blood and a spiderweb of shattered safety glass. Lena blinked, struggling to focus without success. The red wasn’t just on the glass she realized after a long moment. She was staring out through a haze of crimson and it took her a beat to process the fact that she was bleeding heavily, red streamers running over her face, into her hair, and falling away to gather on the passenger’s side window below her. In an effort to clear her vision, she tried to wipe it away with her free hand, but it only smeared and got worse until she gave up.

Staring at her other arm, Lena noted the way it was clamped in place between the steering wheel and the collapsed door panel. A weak attempt to move her fingers sent a sharp bolt of pain up her arm, confirming it was probably broken and also that she still had feeling in the nerve endings. Good news, bad news, she supposed. On the other hand, if she could just work it free and climb down, it looked like the front windshield would be easy enough to kick out. She could at least make her way to the road then, and hope to be found reasonably soon. Unfortunately, her efforts to free her arm jarred shattered bone and had her close to screaming, the pain was so intense.

Her arm didn’t move an inch.

She reached for the seatbelt catch, thinking that maybe if she freed it, she’d fall, her weight enough to pull her arm free. Bent sometime during the crash, the catch didn’t release, and she had no way of cutting the belt itself. She was trapped.

This was bad. She wasn’t going anywhere without help.

A soft, ironic burst of laughter escaped full lips as it occurred to Lena that she was probably going to get her wish. Death by speeding. Only it wasn’t a nice, neat, quick death. Instead, it was apparently going to be a very slow and painful one. Not exactly what she’d been hoping for.

She looked down, saw a few more fat droplets of blood spatter onto the expanding pool directly below her, the color almost black in the thin light reflected from her headlights. The sound of rain playing on steel and glass echoed inside the small vehicle as she watched another drop of her blood join the growing puddle. And then another, and another. There was something almost hypnotic about it all, lulling her and seducing her into simply accepting her fate. It was what she’d wanted after all. Okay, so not exactly, but maybe it was for the best this way.

No! She couldn’t give up that easily. She tried again to work her arm free, but succeeded only in making herself even more lightheaded from the pain. That wasn’t going to work, so she shifted tactics, scrambling desperately in a one-handed effort to find her cell phone. Only it was nowhere within reach and the attempt sapped even more of her limited strength.

Her body growing more lethargic with every passing moment, Lena watched a few more blood droplets hit the black pool below her. Shouldn’t the bleeding be slowing? No, maybe not. Head wounds were infamous for bleeding heavily now that she thought about it.

And hers seemed to be getting even worse. The flow of droplets turning to a slow stream, and then a faster one.

Maybe it was the position hanging nearly upside down that was doing it. Or maybe it was just her usual piss-poor luck.

The darkness didn’t come swiftly, didn’t wash over her in a sudden wave. It snuck in on little cat feet, swallowing her slowly, numbing her body a piece at a time, muting her struggles, stripping away any hope of escaping, and finally sapping her will to survive before she finally gave way and knew no more.

* * * * * *

Faintly bored with the monotonous view visible within the glow of his headlights---with only an hour before sunrise nothing was moving---David Hayward glanced over at the delicate figure in his passenger seat, noting her perfect posture. Not a hair of her silhouette was out of place and he knew perfectly well that would be equally true if he turned on the dome light. Flicking quick glances her way he once again amazed at Erica Kane’s ability to look totally unruffled after a night of...well...things that left most people decidedly ruffled. But no, not Erica. Erica didn’t do guilt and apparently regret was off the table as well as any number of other emotions that might have involved Erica feeling Erica might have made some kind of mistake or misjudgment. Erica didn’t do those either.

Of course, if he was honest, he was no better since he wasn’t exactly overly cursed with guilt either. A hint of a smile touched his mouth. In fact, there was a certain grim pleasure to the whole situation, though he strongly suspected that came almost as much from putting one over on Jackson Montgomery as the more obvious benefits. He really just didn’t like the self-righteous prig. It was that simple. Okay, so the guy had helped keep his backside out of prison in connection with the whole Cambias mess, but David was under no illusions that Jackson had done it for his sake since Erica would have been in the cell right next to him had the DA pursued assorted perjury and tampering with evidence charges. And god knew, Jack didn’t want that. When it came to Erica, he was even more whipped than the rest of her entourage.

Which was why he wasn’t feeling overly guilty for cuckolding the other man. Ah hell, who was he kidding? He wasn’t feeling guilty at all. If anything he was enjoying the way his unplanned tryst with Erica had come out. After all, husband or no, it wasn’t Jackson Erica had turned to when it all got to be too painful. Despite all of Pine Valley’s insults regarding his trustworthiness, he was the one that Erica had turned to and trusted would simply listen to her fears regarding her feelings about her grandson and not stand in judgment.

So take that, Jackson Montgomery, you self-righteous ass.

No question about it. He was definitely enjoying this a little too much.

David risked another quick glance at Erica, some of his triumph deflating as he noted that her head was down now, her posture decidedly...odd.

Maybe he was wrong and Erica did do a few doubts because she almost looked upset. With no traffic on the road, he probably watched her longer than was prudent, but—

"DAVID!!" Erica’s head came up and her scream echoed through his car at the same instant.

David slammed on the brakes even as he looked up and saw the dull gleam of headlights ahead and to the right.

Too close. No way to stop in time.

He fully expected to hear and feel a solid crash as his brakes locked and his tires left a long set of skid marks in damp tarmac before the car came to a halt. Blink. He glanced sideways, spotting the lights he’d fully expected to run into and took a moment to process what he was looking at.

The roof of a car that was apparently lying on its side in the ditch next to the road. As he stared, he saw that every surface he could see was dented and scraped and it looked like the front windshield was broken. By the look of it, it had rolled all the way around on the way to landing where it was. The lights were still burning, but only faintly. Signs of a dying battery. The accident had obviously happened within the previous couple of hours. He uttered a profanity that was short and to the point, then eased his car over to the side of the road and flicked on the emergency lights to warn any oncoming traffic.

"Dear Lord," Erica whispered and he realized she was staring at the upended vehicle with a faintly horrified expression. "Do you think...." she didn’t finish her question, apparently too horrified by the concept.

"The lights wouldn’t still be on if the police or fire department had been here," David offered an oblique answer to the unfinished question. It was possible that someone had climbed out and gotten help, but in looking at the volume of damage, it didn’t seem likely. Still staring at the wrecked car, he reached across Erica, popped open the glovebox, and retrieved a mini-maglite he kept there. "Stay here," he ordered and climbed out into the crisp night air. If it was as bad as he half expected, the last thing he needed was Erica getting a look and fainting on him.

The highway had mostly dried after the recent rains, but the embankment was still treacherously slick, and it took considerable care to reach the vehicle without falling. As he reached the bottom of the rise, David reached out, his hand resting on cold steel near the trunk, steadying himself as he reached the bottom of the streambed, only to change his mind when metal creaked and groaned as though even that slight pressure might disturb the precarious balance. He yanked his hand back, expecting to have to leap to avoid a toppling car, but after a few creaks and groans it stabilized and remained where it was.

Lovely. A little bit of luck. Maybe it would hold and he’d find the interior empty, the inhabitants already having escaped uninjured and found transport to the nearest hospital.

David flashed a light over the vehicle. The beam from the mini-mag was narrow but bright, revealing more of the brutal damage to the small sportscar as he moved around to the front. The front windshield was definitely shattered, though the safety glass was still in one piece, and he was sure he could see flakes of brownish red in his flashlight beam. The exact color of dried blood. He couldn’t see anything else though, and there was some part of him still hoping for a little more luck, that there would be nothing to see when he was in position to peer in through the windshield.

His luck ran out.

David froze for just a moment, staring in horror at what he could see of the shadowy figure still trapped in the upended driver’s seat. They were just hanging there. No sign of movement. He heard Erica call his name from the top of the embankment, but ignored her in favor of running the fingers of one hand along the rim of the glass. Easily finding a spot where it had popped out of the frame, he slipped his fingers under the rubber bumpered edge and peeled it back like a shattered shell away from a hard boiled egg.

A woman, one arm dangling, the other trapped so firmly it was keeping her from slipping free of the seatbelt, her face streaked with dark blood. He started forward, easing only foot inside the cab of the vehicle as he moved forward, only to grab for the carframe as his shoe slipped in something dangerously slick. David flicked the flashlight beam down. His heel had landed on the passenger side window and he paled as he realized it wasn’t water or mud that had nearly sent him skidding, but blood. A lot of it.

His gaze rose again, instinctively following the logical path that had created the darkening pool as he flashed his light over features that were nearly obscured by a congealed layer of blood. Frowning as he started to recognize bone structure that could only be described as elegant, he reached out, tracing a smooth cheekbone with light fingers. "Oh, god." Suddenly David was moving quickly. Leaning into the car, the flashlight stuffed in his back pocket in order to free both hands, he cupped her head, steadying it incredibly gently as he pressed the fingers of his other hand against her carotid artery. The flesh under his own was ice cold. Too cold.

"David?"

Focused on the injured woman, he only distantly registered Erica’s voice. Unable to find a pulse, he pressed harder, then shifted his fingers fractionally. Still nothing. "Oh no," David hissed. "Don’t you do this to her." He moved his fingers again, hunting desperately for some sign of life no matter how small.

And finally he found it. Just the barest thread of rhythmic pressure under his fingers, so faint he nearly missed it. Anyone other than a surgeon sensitive to the slightest shifts in texture and pressure probably wouldn’t have noticed. She was still alive, but only just. He leaned out of the car. "Erica, call 911, now!"

"David, what---"

"It’s Lena Kundera! She’s still alive, but I don’t know how long she’s got." She’d lost a lot of blood and was deep in shock. God only knew how long she’d been hanging there like that. Long enough to nearly exsanguinate, but not so long that the blood she’d lost had fully congealed. "Then get into my back seat," he added. "My medical bag’s back there. Bring it!"

"David---"

"MOVE!" he shouted impatiently, his attention focused on the unconscious woman as he slid his hands over her body in an effort to assess her condition. The one arm was pinned and undoubtedly badly broken, but he couldn’t find any other serious injuries other than a nasty laceration at the hairline that was probably responsible for the heavy blood loss. Of course, that didn’t mean there weren’t any. Given the severity of the accident and how hard she’d doubtless been thrown around, internal injuries and/or spinal damage were a definite possibility even if he couldn’t feel or see any sign of them. The rescue crew was probably going to need the jaws of life to get her free and she’d have to be backboarded out. Blood transfusions were also going to be a must.

"Right, it’s roughly a mile past the turn to Mill Street, on Lancashire Road," Erica explained to the 911 dispatcher as she carefully climbed down the steep incline, David’s medical bag in her other hand. Her shoes weren’t exactly made for climbing, but somehow she managed to avoid slipping. Maybe it was the fact that she was used to maintaining her balance while perched on heels far too high. "And hurry." She still wasn’t sure she’d heard David right, was in fact praying that she hadn’t. Despite everything she’d done for Michael, Erica wished Lena no ill. She couldn’t forget that the Polish woman had loved Bianca enough to try and kill Michael in order to protect her. Nor could she forget that she’d been honest enough to take Kendall’s place on the chopping block when she could have gotten away scot free. It might not have earned her a place in Erica’s heart, but it had earned her a measure of respect. "It looks bad."

"Are they still on the line?" David demanded as she drew close.

"Yes," she answered him, then took a moment to explain that a doctor was with the victim.

He stepped away from the car and reached out a hand, taking the phone from her.

Erica tracked the conversation with one ear as he explained the situation to the dispatcher, letting them know what to expect and making sure the right equipment was on the way, but her attention was on the car, the name David had called up still ringing in her ears, some part of her praying he’d been wrong. She stepped around him, leaning into the cab, her eyes going wide as they touched on Lena Kundera. Without a light shining on her face, the blood wasn’t so obvious, just that very distinct bone structure and silhouette. "Lena?" She reached out, her touch gentle as she brushed blood stiff hair back from the younger woman’s brow. She was caught by surprise by the way Lena’s body shuddered and a soft moan escaped her lips. As Erica watched, a flutter of thick lashes revealed the faint glitter of dark eyes.

Lena groaned again, the sound pained and frightened. "Papa?" she whispered almost inaudibly, showing no signs of recognition.

Given that Lena’s father was long dead, Erica couldn’t believe that boded well. She leaned closer, just barely stroking a high cheekbone in hopes of offering some slight comfort. "No...Lena, it’s Erica Kane. I’m here with David Hayward. You’re going to be all right." She glanced over her shoulder as she heard David tell the dispatcher that the victim didn’t have much time. "You just need to hang on."

Lena mumbled something, the words unknown to Erica, though she recognized the fear and confusion that underlaid them.

"Shhh," the older woman soothed, something lost and afraid in the other woman’s tone scaring her to the core. "You’re going to get out of this," she said firmly. "Do you hear me? You’re going to be fine, but you have to hang on." She was still offering the mindless comfort when Lena groaned sharply, her eyes rolling back in her head, body spasming with brief pulses of rigid tension. "David!" she shouted as she leapt back out of his way.

Hanging up, he lunged past Erica, hands going to his patient. "She’s seizing," he snarled as Lena’s head slammed into the backrest with enough force to make the perilously balanced sportscar shudder. He got his watch off and pressed the leather band between her teeth during a brief letup of pressure to try and keep her from injuring herself, watching helplessly as another spasm jarred and shook her slender frame. The convulsions seemed to go on forever while he did his best to cushion the worst of it. In reality only a few seconds passed and then finally the storm passed and she went hauntingly limp. When he was certain it was over, David pulled back and reached for his medical bag and grabbed the stethoscope out of the top.

"David," Erica broke in, breathless and frightened, "why did she---"

He shook his head, already sliding the chestpiece under Lena’s blouse and shifting it from point to point as he listened to the unsteady flutter of her heartbeat. "Could be almost anything. The head injury, shock, internal injuries..." With so little information and so many possibilities he had no way of knowing what had caused the seizures, only that they threatened to rapidly worsen an already drastic situation. "...what has me worried is if she seizes again...." Her heartbeat was irregular. Listening to it, he could envision the EKG that would accompany the soft, almost random beats, and it wasn’t good.

David glanced around himself, noting their surroundings. It would be at least 15 minutes before the rescue crew could even get there and probably an hour before they could get her into a hospital emergency room. He was far from certain she had an hour, particularly if she suffered from another round of convulsions. The bleeding had stopped, but her heart was already struggling in its effort to pump what little blood she still had left. And then there was the shock. That wasn’t helping either.

He made his decision in a moment.

If he was right, and her injuries weren’t that severe, once in a hospital they could quickly get her stabilized and pull her back from the edge, but she had to survive long enough to receive care. Something that didn’t look terribly likely at that moment.

Crouching down, he quickly dug through his medical bag until he found what he wanted, a small bottle marked with a code only he understood. He’d doubted his own sanity in not destroying the sample, given that it could have been used as evidence if Maria or Anna had ever really pressed the issue. He had the various formulas locked away safely, but those weren’t the same thing, and were so coded that anyone but him would have been years figuring out his method for recording the process.

Yes, he definitely should have destroyed this version along with all the others but he’d never quite been able to do so because that the earlier versions had saved both Maria and Dixie. And though he hadn’t had cause or the ability to test it yet, but he had every reason to believe he’d ironed out the worst of the design flaws while retaining its more valuable abilities.

Oh, it couldn’t replace lost blood, repair a damaged spine, or even stop her from bleeding to death if there were severe internal injuries. But it could stabilize her heart, help fend off brain damage from lack of oxygen due to blood loss, and jumpstart the healing process.

In short, it wasn’t that he thought it would give her a good chance, but that he thought it might give her her only chance.

David filled a hypo, guessing at the dosage, then rapped it lightly to make sure there were no bubbles. This would have to go straight to the vein. Hearing a soft, hurt-animal whimper, he looked up and saw Erica trying to comfort the injured woman who had regained some small measure of consciousness, but appeared to be totally unaware of her surroundings beyond the pain no doubt wracking her body. Straightening, he stepped past Erica, gently pushing her out of the way.

"What are you doing?" Erica questioned.

"Nothing," he responded as he caught Lena’s dangling arm and rolled her sleeve back. He looked over at Erica. "You didn’t see this and I didn’t do it." Holding her arm carefully in place he rapped her inner elbow lightly to bring up the vein, a little worried it might be a problem after as much blood as she’d lost.

"David?"

He glanced over again. "I have no legal right to do what I’m about to do, but she doesn’t have a chance if I don’t." Even in the faint light, he could see the way Erica lost all color.

"You can’t let her die, David. It would destroy Bianca." Even though they weren’t a couple any longer, she’d seen the longing in her daughter’s eyes whenever the Polish woman’s name came up and was under no illusions that Bianca no longer felt anything for Lena. Michael’s attack had hurt her and left her unable to deal with that kind of intimacy for the moment, but despite her discomfort, it was obvious there were still deep feelings there. It might make Erica uncomfortable and she didn’t understand it, but she knew what it would do to her daughter for the other woman to die this way. It was another blow she simply did not need.

"No promises," David answered honestly as he slid the needle into the vein and depressed the plunger. He was just hoping to buy enough time.

Lena whimpered softly, the sound small and frightened and Erica stepped past David, once again offering some measure of comfort, her fingers gentle as she petted dark hair very lightly, every pass dislodging fresh flakes of dried blood.

"Just hang on," Erica soothed. "You’re going to be all right." She glanced over her shoulder, praying she wasn’t lying as she got a look at David’s expression. She leaned closer to the injured woman, still stroking her hair lightly an added note of desperation in her voice as she whispered, "You’ve got to keep fighting...and not let go. I know you can do that. You’ve fought so many things in your life. You just need to fight one more battle."

Stepping around Erica, David leaned past the tiny woman, squeezing into the narrow space in order to use his stethoscope to check Lena’s heart again. As he listened the sound grew a little steadier. It wasn’t great, but better, and realistically, better was the best they could hope for.

They stayed like that for what seemed like forever, him listening, Erica offering what little comfort she could, Lena limp and unmoving except for the occasional soft moan, but finally he heard the soft sound of sirens in the distance. Erica tensed and he glanced at her. Even in the faint light David could see her fear. If her name was mentioned in any reports, Jackson might well find out about it and then he’d know she hadn’t been safely tucked away in her penthouse while he was out of town.

He might not like Jackson, but he wasn’t ready to put Erica in that position if he could avoid it. "Erica, go back and get in my car. Stay down...and with luck the rescue team won’t know you’re here," he instructed quietly.

Startled, she initially shook her head. "David I---"

"There’s nothing more you can do here," he pointed out logically. "And it should keep anyone from finding out."

Erica swallowed hard, visibly debating. The sirens were getting closer, leaving her very little time to make up her mind.

"Just go," he ordered her. "I’ll be there as soon as possible."

Finally, Erica nodded, brushing Lena’s hair one last time. "Just hang on," she encouraged and pulled away, climbing back up the way she’d come. She slid into David’s car and dove into the backseat only moments before the flashing lights of a paramedic vehicle rounded a turn and bright headlights shone on the highway.

Ducking down, Erica silently watched the rescue crew work, saw them wave David back, then heard the sound of buzz saws cutting metal. It seemed like hours, then finally they carried Lena out of the ditch strapped to a backboard, her neck locked into a stiff plastic brace, several tubes and lines already in place. They were moving fast, careful with their patient, but clearly eager to be on their way. As the headlights momentarily flashed on the Polish woman’s still frame, Erica had a good look at why. She looked like she’d been dipped in blood that had dried to a streaky, dirty brown.

Closing her eyes, Erica swallowed hard, fighting nausea and fervently wishing she’d just stayed home. In a night full of disasters, this was just the crowning glory. God, what had she done? Risked everything for what? A little comfort from David? She pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger, fighting the beginnings of a headache.

And now this. If Lena died....

One more thing for Bianca to deal with. God, would it never end?

She was still sitting there like that when David returned and slid into the driver’s seat. Moving mechanically, he clipped his seatbelt into place, then sat there clinging to the steering wheel.

The emergency vehicle pulled away, driving as fast as it safely could, the sirens screaming.

"David?" Erica whispered after a beat.

His head was down and he was still clinging to the steering wheel. "I don’t know," he admitted quietly. "She wasn’t doing well by the time they cut her free." He leaned back in his seat. "Hopefully, the biggest problem is the blood loss, but I just don’t know." He reached for the key and turned the engine over, then glanced over at Erica. "Do you think maybe one of us should call Bianca and let her know?" He knew they’d been broken up for some time, but couldn’t help but think that no matter how much time and distance lay between himself and Anna, he’d always want to know if she was hurt or might need him.

Erica shook her head slowly. "They haven’t been together in months...not since before...." She didn’t finish. She didn’t need to. They both knew what she was referring to. "It would just upset her...and with luck Lena will be fine."

"And if not?" David said very softly, far from certain that Lena was going to pull through. He’d left out the fact that the young woman had seized a second time shortly after being freed from her steel prison, and the paramedics had barely been able to stabilize her afterwards. "What then?"

Erica swallowed hard. She bore Lena Kundera no ill will, would have done anything she could to keep her alive, but she owed her nothing. "Then I’ll do everything in my power to make certain Bianca never knows."

David twisted in his seat, brows drawing into a frown. "Erica...they were lovers."

Stiffening, she glared at him, hating that reminder of her daughter’s preference on top of everything else. "I know that, David, but Bianca’s already been through too much, and I see no reason for her to suffer through another loss that she can’t do anything about. There’s no reason for her to know...and I suspect Lena would agree with me."

Thinking of the fact that the Polish woman had kept the secret of her suicide attempt for months, David couldn’t argue even if he did disagree. Finally, with nothing else to say, he slid the car into gear and muttered, "I’ll take you home."

* * * * * *

Three Days Later

Sitting on the couch in her sister’s office, Bianca Montgomery leaned forward, moving slowly as though it was almost too much effort and stared at the information on the text screen of her cell phone. Nothing. No messages, text or otherwise, waiting for her. And according to the building’s receptionist Lena hadn’t come in today so there was no chance of ‘accidentally’ running into her to open a line of discussion.

Running her thumb over the number keys, Bianca touched them in a well-known pattern, but didn’t press any hard enough to activate them, still debating in her mind what to do next.

She’d called Lena three times since the angry scene between them, leaving messages each time. Nothing long or complicated, just simple requests to make contact.

So far, no response. Whatever was going on in Lena’s head, she apparently wasn’t in the mood to talk.

Bianca ran the pad of her thumb along the edge of the phone and exhaled a tired sigh. The night terrors had come again, forcing her to face them alone, and she’d barely slept in the last 24 hours. She was so tired she hurt with it, and she just wanted....

Wanted something or someone to push the nightmares back when she was too weak or tired to do it for herself.

And the sad truth was that neither her mother, nor Kendall, nor Maggie seemed to be able to do much for her on that front. Oh, they tried, but as much as they all thought they understood, they simply didn’t and always seemed to be pushing her in one direction or another, each of them invested in some image of her that had little to do with reality. The perfect daughter, the perfect sister, the perfect friend. None of them looked past their own wants and needs and none of them seemed to understand that their image of her wasn’t reality. They all kept talking and never listened, as though they couldn’t face the reality of what might happen if they ever once really heard what she was saying. They tried, but they couldn’t even begin to make things better or easier.

They didn’t make her feel safe or protected, never let her forget that she was now damaged goods. They were sweet, worried, and always looked at her like some broken thing that they maybe they could fix if they just worked hard enough.

Lena was the only one who never looked at her like that. Yes, there was often hurt and sadness in her eyes, but also a kind of understanding as though she knew too well the sorts of demons driving Bianca and understood that exorcizing them wasn’t always as simple as everyone thought it should be. For all the secrecy and even shame involved in their relationship, it had never come from Lena, only herself. It was as though Lena understood that Bianca herself didn’t really even know what she needed and so was willing to simply follow along. Until the fight she hadn’t questioned or argued, willing to accept whatever Bianca said or did.

Or maybe she’d just been seeing what she wanted to, Bianca thought as she considered the phone, because Lena definitely hadn’t been simply following along when they’d fought. She’d been angry, hurt, and deeply resentful. Had that been going on all along, and she’d simply missed what she didn’t want to see?

She truly didn’t know and it was scary as hell not to be able to trust her emotion, instincts, or view of the situation when she’d been so convinced she had it all under control.

Some control.

Everything was all screwed up and she didn’t have the slightest idea how to fix anything. Of course, it could probably be argued that after months of doing everything wrong, it was hardly surprising she didn’t know how to make it right.

And now, along with everything else haunting her, she had a perfect image of the hurt in Lena’s eyes when she’d recognized Bianca’s suspicions. No one had ever looked at her like that before in her entire life. It was as though she’d seen something die inside the other woman, and worse, as though she’d been the one to do the killing. And then were Lena’s softly spoken words....

Playing over and over in her head.

"I knew you didn’t think much of me, but I had no idea you actually.... I had no idea your opinion was so low."

Not bothering to turn the phone on, she shoved it back in her purse, her hand shaking painfully. Why bother? After that, Lena wasn’t likely to want to talk to her. Certainly not now and maybe not ever.

Ducking her head, Bianca pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. It was all just so damned impossible. What the hell was she supposed to do? Everyone was pulling her in one direction or another and now it felt like Lena had joined in the tug of war. She just wanted a little time where she didn’t have to deal with the pressure. Why the hell couldn’t Lena just accept that? One hand tightened into a fist, neatly blunted nails pressing deeply into her palm as her guilt melted into a wave of resentment that Lena had forced the issue. Dammit, why couldn’t she just leave things alone? Why did she have to—

"Thinking serious thoughts?"

Bianca couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so grateful for her sister’s unique brand of timing. She desperately needed the distraction and Kendall was nothing if not distracting.

"Oh, god," Kendall exhaled in horror before Bianca could pop off with some ironic quip. Or at least something mildly clever that might send Kendall into one of her inane, yet strangely engaging babble fests. "I wasn’t thinking...I mean, about you and Lena and you’re probably sitting there scared you’re going to run into her or something...after you’ve...but you won’t have to. I made sure of it."

"You what?" Bianca exhaled in confusion as she tried to parse her sister’s scattered comments.

Kendall plopped onto the couch next to Bianca and took one of her hands, patting it in what was clearly intended to be a comforting fashion. "I know how upset you were when I called the other night...and...well...I made sure you won’t have to deal with...anything." She offered a gentle, encouraging smile. "It’s okay for you to be here. You won’t have to face her."

A frown creasing her brow, Bianca just stared at her sister as she struggled to understand what she was being told. Logic and Kendall not being overly twined concepts, it took her a moment to catch up. "What are you...." Oh god, Kendall had that look she got whenever she was convinced she’d done the right thing. Given that she was almost invariably wrong, Bianca felt her stomach drop. "Kendall, what have you done?"

"It’s okay, Bianca," Kendall said quickly, still using that same reassuring voice that was quickly driving Bianca to the edge of panic. "I know you’ve been wanting to get more involved in the business end of things...but it was uncomfortable because of Lena being so involved...and...well...after the other night, and the way you broke it off with her---"

"Kendall, what have you done?" Bianca whispered, her tone growing tighter with every syllable that left her mouth as the dread increased exponentially with each passing second. Kendall blinked and Bianca could see the uneasiness set in as she started to suspect that perhaps she hadn’t made the right decision. This did not bode well. "Kendall," she repeated her sister’s name, her tone sliding over into one of command.

"Look, I’ll make sure she gets a hell of a severance package---"

"You fired her?!" Bianca exploded in disbelief. Oh god, no wonder she wasn’t answering her phone.

"Not exactly," Kendall said quickly. "B-but when I mentioned things...that you’re working with her would be impossible...she said she’d resign."

Her heart suddenly thudding hard in her chest, Bianca stared at her sister as though she’d lost her mind. "You...you called her?" she gasped, finding it harder and harder to breathe. And she’d thought things were messed up before.

"It was obvious that she upsets you. I mean, why else would you break it off...and with you getting more involved in things here, I just couldn’t see how---"

"I didn’t want you to fire her!" Bianca interrupted, then scraped her hair back from her face and pushed to her feet. "God, she probably thinks..." she muttered without finishing the sentence, her stomach twisted into knots of tension caused by what? Fear, anger, hurt. She lived with all of them on such a constant basis that she couldn’t even reliably tell them apart any longer. She just knew that she couldn’t breathe and it felt like everything was going to hell again. Struggling to calm herself and catch a breath, she took a moment to gather herself before speaking again, at least managing to sound like she was faintly in control. "Kendall, what were you thinking?" she asked at last, not giving her sister time to respond before she continued, "You need Lena to help you run these companies. You can’t do it on your own."

"I think I’ve done pretty well to date," Kendall insisted defensively.

"Because Lena’s been doing most of the actual work," Bianca pointed out, the energy suddenly draining out of her as though she’d been stuck with a pin. This day was just getting better and better. She gestured to Kendall’s desk, suddenly understanding why the usually clean surface was now brimming over with papers. "Do you even understand any of those reports?"

"I’ll have Ryan to help out," Kendall said quickly in an effort to reassure her sister.

Bianca sighed. Only Kendall could think that would help. "Have you talked to her? Maybe you can get her to---"

"I already called her," Kendall admitted before Bianca could get any farther, "to try and talk her into taking the severance package...but she wasn’t answering."

No, of course she wouldn’t be. After what had happened, Lena probably never wanted to see either of them. "You need to try again," Bianca said softly, her voice low, but intense. "You need to get her back here." Kendall couldn’t do this alone, and Ryan was no help whatsoever.

"But I figured..." Kendall said uncertainly, her tone plainly confused. When she’d first learned that Bianca was sleeping with Lena again, she’d expected things to get serious only to be caught by surprise when they didn’t. And with the breakup she’d figured this was the best thing. "I mean, you broke things off with her. I thought you’d be relieved."

Bianca did a slow pivot, staring at her sister for a long moment before she turned away again, her voice soft and tired. "Kendall, I didn’t..." she paused for a moment, considering her words and discarding several options before continuing. She wanted to lie so badly, but she couldn’t do it. "I’m not the one who broke things off." She took a deep breath, her stomach coiling into knots as she admitted, "She did."

Kendall’s mouth dropped open, her eyes wide with surprise. That sure as hell wasn’t what she’d expected to hear. She would have predicted that Bianca could do almost anything and Lena would meekly take it. Surprise, surprise. "What happened?"

Bianca didn’t turn back, simply continued staring out the window behind Kendall’s desk at the world below. God, she wished Kendall hadn’t asked that question or that she could simply lie. A nice comfortable lie would be a vast improvement over the truth. "I did something," she admitted after a beat. "Or rather thought something...and she realized it." Bianca was grateful that her sister didn’t say anything, just stood listening. Kendall in babble mode might help some situations, but this wasn’t one of them. "The irony is that I didn’t really...I just...my imagination got away from me." Several days to think about things had left her firmly aware of that much at least. Lena would never harm any child and she’d completely overreacted.

"What did you think?" Kendall asked cautiously.

"That she might hurt Tyler," Bianca admitted and heard Kendall’s shocked gasp. "I didn’t really," she added quickly, her tone defensive. "It’s just that she was holding him and suddenly all I could think about was how much she wanted me to get the abortion...how she said I couldn’t have a monster’s child---"

"Bianca, that’s just nuts!" Kendall responded before she could think better of it. "Lena would do anything for you. She was ready to go to prison to protect me just to save you a little pain." It was as close to finding fault with Bianca’s actions as Kendall had come in months. "She’d die for you and I’ll tell you something, I’d bet money she’d die for your child as well."

"I know," Bianca exhaled very softly, not wanting to think about what she’d thrown away. "And now she probably thinks that I asked you to fire her."

"I just thought---"

Bianca looked back at her sister, some of her frustration showing in her expression. She loved Kendall dearly, but her need to rush off and do something without considering the consequences was becoming too costly for all of them. "Kendall, I’m glad you called because I needed to talk about it...and it wasn’t exactly something I could discuss with Mom or Maggie." The nasty remarks and bitter judgment alone were enough to make that plain. And her mother, while not so hateful, wasn’t what one would call supportive either. "But I wasn’t asking you to do this. My god, she doesn’t deserve to lose her job because she..." Bianca paused, her voice catching on the words she’d started to utter. She took a deep breath and tried again. "She doesn’t deserve to lose her job because she didn’t want to sleep with me anymore." She tried not to think about how much it hurt to say those words. "Hell," she growled, trying to be practical about it all when she just wanted to shake Kendall, "you’re lucky she’s not suing." She turned again to glare out at the city as though that might provide some answers.

"She wouldn’t do that," Kendall muttered, though it was impossible to tell whether it was the Polish woman or herself she was defending.

No, she wouldn’t. Even if maybe she ought to. Bianca ducked her head and closed her eyes, blocking the world out.

Kendall was silent for a long moment before finally speaking up. "Binks," she said cautiously, "you said she broke it off?"

"Yeah," Bianca exhaled.

More silence followed, then finally Kendall cleared her throat and questioned, "Did you want her to?"

If only that were a simple question, Bianca thought, but didn’t answer.

Still more silence. "Did you maybe push things until she had no other choice?" Kendall had done things like that more than once in her life.

Bianca glanced over her shoulder, brows drawing into a frown. "No," she instantly denied the charge and shook her head. "I didn’t...everything just...it just got out of control." She swallowed hard, struggling to ignore the pain in her chest and the tightness in her throat. "I never meant to...but I thought she’d left and then she was still there...and she was holding Tyler...and I thought...and she realized. I tried to tell her that she was wrong...." She fell silent for a long moment. "And then I tried to get her to go back to bed...only she said no, and then Maggie called."

Kendall sucked in air. "Let me guess, you didn’t admit Lena was there?" Maggie’s heavy-handed approach to that friendship was grating as far as Kendall was concerned, but she knew it was a steady and painful irritant for Lena, especially with Bianca keeping their relationship secret. After months of being treated that way, it was no wonder Lena had finally lost it.

"What was I supposed to do?" Bianca demanded as she pivoted and glared at her sister. "Tell her? God, that would just make things harder for everyone." Kendall was silent for another long beat. She didn’t express any disapproval, but Bianca could see it in her eyes.

"What do you want me to do?" Kendall asked at last.

Bianca turned away again, unable to face Kendall, not wanting her sister to see her indecision. She honestly didn’t have an answer. If Lena was so miserable the way things had been between them, perhaps it was better this way. Just that thought was almost enough to send her crashing to her knees. Massaging her temple, she tried to concentrate on figuring out how to respond, struggling to impose some kind of logic on her thought processes. "You need her here," she said at last. "You and I both know it. You don’t know enough to run these companies...and neither does Ryan." She concentrated on the cold hard facts of the situation, struggling for some objectivity that might make it easier to deal with it all.

"Look, Binks---"

"I need to get out of here," Bianca said abruptly and spun, grabbing for her purse on the way to the door. "I’ve got a counseling session at the hospital in a little while," she lied when she saw Kendall draw breath to say something more. She just couldn’t deal with it all at that moment. "I’ll call you later, okay?" She didn’t give Kendall time to answer, just fled.

Minutes later, on the street below, she pulled out her cell and dialed her counselor’s number from memory. She didn’t have any realistic hope of getting in, but there’d been a cancellation and before she quite knew what was happening, the receptionist had her promising that she’d be over in just a little while, even though she wasn’t entirely certain she really wanted to talk about her feelings at that moment since she didn’t quite know what they were.

God, what a mess.

* * * * * *

Bianca hated hospitals, hated the white, the smell of sterilizing agents that barely overlaid darker, uglier scents, hated the aura of carefully cultivated, professional interest, but mostly she hated the sense that nothing good ever came of hospitals. Oh, she could make a logical argument for all the times they’d made a difference for the better in her life, all the lives saved, the family members still with her, her son, all of it.

And still, whenever she entered one there was an instinctive sense of dread.

Which made her counseling sessions even more fun than they would have been anyway. Even knowing she doubtless needed some objective feedback to the outside perspective on things, she found herself wishing the therapist hadn’t had an empty space on her calendar. It might be the healthiest thing for her, but she’d found that discussing her feelings with anything approaching honesty was about as much fun as gargling with carpet tacks.

Gee, ain’t mental health fun, she thought as she wandered rather aimlessly through the corridors of the Pine Valley hospital to waste a few minutes before her appointment. In no particular hurry to reach her destination, she found herself wondering if her counselor would believe her if she just didn’t show up and said she’d gotten lost. Probably not. The woman was remarkably intuitive. Or maybe she just knew perfectly well that no sane person would be eager to open themselves up the way she was expected to do in therapy. Oh, she supposed it helped, though healing was clearly a slow proposition, but there were days it just felt like too much to discuss and analyze her thoughts and feelings---especially when most of the time she could barely face them much less talk about them.

More and more fun. That running away and lying plan was sounding better all the time, which she supposed was one of her problems. All that running away for so many months. She tried to pretend it didn’t matter and that she didn’t blame herself for all the horror spawned by her mistakes, but the reality was that it was always with her, the knowledge that she’d set so many things in motion that had hurt so many she loved. Oh, her counselor was trying to help her work through the self-blame, but she wouldn’t play to the denial Bianca so desperately wanted to maintain anymore than she was willing to allow her to slide into the pit of self-hatred that was so tempting. It was a fine line the woman wanted her to walk, and most of the time Bianca sincerely doubted it was even possible.

And it didn’t help that even now she was still making bad decisions. Ones that hurt more people. And yet she didn’t seem to know how to do anything else.

The memory of Lena’s pain and the knowledge of Kendall’s actions---driven by the things she’d told her sister---still at the forefront of her thoughts, she barely noticed her surroundings until she abruptly realized she was standing in front of the bank of elevators that would take her to the counselor’s floor.

Time to face the devil.

She punched the call button, then glanced around, trying not to think about all the confessions that would be required during her coming session. Better to focus on anything but the elevator given where it would take her. It was probably cowardly, she knew, but there were times when a bit of denial made things easier and she needed any help she could get at that point. It was easier by far to concentrate on the strangers passing her by, the people who nothing about her and were too involved in their own traumas and tragedies to care about Erica Kane’s youngest daughter.

That was the one nice thing about hospitals. Concentrated on their own problems, people tended to ignore anything that didn’t directly affect them. It made for a sense of anonymity that was somewhere between comforting and frightening.

Oh, and wasn’t she just a bucket of good cheer? Bianca mused with some irony. And then she blinked, bringing the world into focus as she recognized a slender figure talking to someone some distance away.

Dr. Maria Santos Grey.

Bianca didn’t know the other woman well, but she’d been very supportive a couple of times during the previous months, something which was deeply appreciated by the young woman. Still had a few minutes before her appointment. Enough time to at least say hello---and maybe make the wait a little more bearable by concentrating on something outside of herself---assuming of course, that the doctor wasn’t too busy with a patient. It couldn’t hurt to try.

Maria was in profile from her angle and speaking to someone just out of Bianca’s line of sight. It occurred to the young woman that perhaps her timing wasn’t the best as she realized the doctor’s expression was worried and intense, her body language almost protective and very gentle. That wasn’t the look of someone giving good news, and it occurred to Bianca that maybe she should turn around and avoid intruding. Yet another problem with hospitals. It was all too easy to accidentally stumble into someone else’s grief.

The thought took her a moment to process, time during which she was still headed toward the doctor. It was just sinking in that she really should turn back just as the other figure came into view.

And then Bianca almost stumbled as she caught a glimpse of who Maria was talking to. Average height, once blonde hair that had gone grey, a figure that time had turned matronly. The woman was staring up at Maria, who had several inches on her, and the line of her body was all tension and fear.

No, it couldn’t be.

Bianca forgot all about turning back even as she tried to tell herself that she was just imagining things based on what was doubtless nothing more than a slight resemblance. It couldn’t be her. There was no reason for her to be here.

Except the resemblance didn’t dissolve as she got closer. In fact, it intensified, until Bianca found herself a very short distance away and staring, her pulse going into overdrive. For reasons far too frightening to name, she didn’t want it to be, but like everything else for months, her wishes had precious little to do with reality. It definitely was her. Brown eyes darted, hunting for the other figure that logically should be there, but the woman was alone. "Mrs. Kundera?" she croaked at last, thinking that maybe the woman was having health problems and Lena had brought her here for treatment. She hunted again for some sign of her former lover, both afraid to face her and eager for any contact that might allow some kind of rapprochement. Only as far as she could tell, Paulina Kundera was alone.

Twin gazes, one dark, one a watery shade of blue swung her way.

"Oh...Bianca, I---" Maria began, but Paulina Kundera cut her off.

"You," the older woman hissed as she stared at Bianca, her expression full of equal measures of horror and dislike.

The girl’s eyes touched on the older woman, the hostility not really registering as she noted the older woman’s sallow skin tones, deep circles under her eyes, and overall exhausted posture. She definitely looked like someone who could be dealing with health issues. God, Lena had to be so worried. No matter what Bianca might think of the woman, Lena clearly adored her mother. "Are you all right?" she questioned and started forward.

Paulina Kundera backed up a step, her lips curling into an instinctive snarl, her breathing suddenly harsh and quick. "Get out!" she snarled before Bianca could say anymore. "You don’t belong here."

Bianca blinked in confusion. This wasn’t the response she’d expected at all. True, the only time they’d met hadn’t exactly been friendly, but this fury was new and she didn’t know quite what to make of it. Not knowing what else to do, she tried again. "Please, Mrs. Kundera. I don’t know if you remember me, but---"

Paulina turned an almost desperate gaze Maria’s way, pointedly ignoring Bianca. "Make her leave. I don’t want her here." Already heavily accented English thickened until it was nearly incomprehensible.

The doctor reached out, laying a hand lightly on the older woman’s forearm as though she expected to have to restrain her, and turned gentle gaze Bianca’s way. "Bianca, maybe it would be best if you---"

Bianca glanced around again, instinctively hunting for Lena. If her mother was ill or something was wrong, no matter any problems between them, Bianca just wanted to offer her support. Everything else suddenly seemed minor by comparison. "Please, Mrs. Kundera, your daughter and I---"

"Don’t you speak about her," Paulina interrupted, her voice rising until it echoed off the walls. "You have no right."

Bianca glanced around. Still no Lena. If something was wrong she would have expected her to stay close to her mother, and to come running if she heard their confrontation. Something wasn’t right. "Mrs. Kundera?" she said again, her voice coming out as a weak croak this time as another possibility finally occurred to her. She glanced around again, desperate to see a tall, lanky figure, but there was no one there.

"Bianca," Maria said carefully, "Maybe you should---"

"Oh god," Bianca exhaled, her chest suddenly tight and aching with the influx of sheer terror. Growing frantic, she looked around, still hunting for a familiar frame and finding nothing. Finally her gaze swept past Maria to settle on Paulina again. The woman wasn’t just exhausted. She was scared, her expression rife with that particular kind of fear one sees in people on the verge of losing something they love too much. Even with the evidence in front of her, Bianca didn’t want to believe. "Is it Lena?" she demanded even as she struggled to reassure herself that couldn’t be it. She was just scaring herself. Lena was okay. She had to be. "Has something happened to her?" Amazing how much it hurt just to give voice to the fear threatening to turn her knees to water.

Blue eyes narrowed and Paulina shook her head. "Stop acting like you care," she hissed and backed up another step when Bianca started to reach out to her, "when we both know it’s a lie."

Bianca reared back at that, shaking her head to deny the charge. "No, I---you’re wrong...." She stumbled over the words, suddenly so scared it was hard to breathe. Paulina was furious at her, but worse than that, there was something hurt and scared in her eyes which had nothing to do with Bianca and only made the terror spin ever tighter and tighter. "I care." God, if Lena....

She couldn’t bear the thought. "Please," she begged, "what’s happened?"

Lena’s mother responded in Polish, English apparently deserting her in her distress. Bianca didn’t speak the language, but the intensity of emotion was inescapable.

"Please," the girl whispered, fear turning to stark terror.

Paulina Kundera just shook her head, her teeth clenched, eyes threatening to fill with tears. More Polish followed, the woman so upset that English was a near impossibility.

It was bad, Bianca realized in a sick rush, really, really bad. Her brain spun and she couldn’t think. All she could imagine was a mental image of her lover broken and bleeding and crying out for her.

And she hadn’t even known. Sick, scared...ashamed...Bianca couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. One hand rose, clenching into a tight fist where it pressed against her chest. Her mouth worked, struggling for words her brain refused to process. She was still struggling against her own inability to react sanely when Maria interceded between them, her tone kind, but very firm.

"Bianca," she said as she settled a hand lightly on a slender shoulder, "I think you should go."

Bianca shook her head, pulling away from Maria’s light hold. No, she couldn’t just leave like that. Not if Lena needed her. She finally found her voice. "Not until I know what’s happened."

Paulina Kundera looked to Maria like she might just come apart at the seams and her complexion had turned a disturbing shade of grey. She wasn’t a young woman and she’d already had several days of ongoing stress. Maria could easily see her being pushed into a stroke or heart attack if the situation was allowed to continue. The doctor’s attention was drawn back to Bianca as her hand was grabbed. Bianca had turned deathly pale and her eyes were wide, dark pools of fear. Poor kid. After everything that had happened to her, to stumble onto this had to be enough to shake her badly. Unfortunately, while Maria felt for the girl, her presence was clearly making things worse. "Please, Bianca, this isn’t the time," she explained in an effort to break through the panic. The older woman had enough to deal with. Given how upset she already was, she didn’t need this too.

Bianca heard the worried note in Maria’s voice and even realized with some distant, oddly objective part of her brain that she should do as asked and walk away, but she couldn’t. It simply wasn’t an option for her to leave if Lena was hurt or ill. "Please, just tell me." She looked at Lena’s mother, a sense that she was spinning out of control washing over her as she pleaded desperately.

Paulina just shook her head, not even trying to speak now, her lower lip quivering, her eyes rimmed in silver tears.

Bianca looked at Maria again, striving for some of the sense of her mother’s ability to command people into doing things as she tried to bluff and force an answer. "You have to tell me---"

"Actually, she not only doesn’t have to," a richly accented drawl broke in, "but if she does, I’ll see to it that she and this hospital are sued into oblivion."

For just a moment, Bianca experienced a wave of relief as she looked past Paulina’s shoulder and saw a tall, graceful figure come up behind the older woman. Obviously her fears had been misplaced. Lena was there. She was okay.

"Irina," Paulina exhaled and looked up at the other woman gratefully.

Even as Paulina found some succor, Bianca’s relief gave way to something much darker as the truth struck her.

The newcomer wasn’t Lena.

Though for the first time, Bianca could see some resemblance between Lena and a family member because it seemed impossible to think that the newcomer wasn’t related to her former lover somehow. Though older, she had much the same height and native elegance while her bone structure was faintly exotic, her eyes a dark chocolatey brown. Amazing how a color so warm could seem so cold, Bianca thought as that gaze touched on her.

The newcomer stepped around Paulina as she spoke to her in what Bianca assumed was Polish. The answer came quickly, the sentence short, the tone bitter. Irina was considerably younger than Paulina, appearing to be in her mid-forties at most, and a faint twist of a smile touched her lips as Bianca stared at her. The expression never reached her eyes.

"Look, I’m---" Bianca began only to find herself cut off by the newcomer, her voice softly accented and honey smooth, yet diamond hard, leaving the younger woman with the strangest sense that she was facing the woman her lover might have become had she continued working for Michael, all soft illusion and hard reality.

"I know who you are." Irina glanced at Paulina, then back at Bianca. "Just like I know that you’re not wanted here...so please leave. This is a time for family...not...acquaintances." Though clearly not a native speaker, she was comfortable enough in English to twist the knife without being crude about it.

Knowing that Lena’s mother had gone to Chicago to live with cousins Bianca assumed this woman was one of them. One who apparently knew something of the story between them, if not the whole truth. She was probably angry about the breakup, the way it appeared Paulina was. "I just want to know what’s happened." If she could just make this woman understand, maybe she could find out what was going on. That idea slid away almost as quickly as she was caught and held by the expression turned her way, a look so utterly glacial and unwelcoming that the younger woman fought the urge to cringe. "Please," she said softly, her heart thumping so hard in her chest that she was feeling lightheaded. She glanced at Paulina, silently pleading for some kind of answer. She finally understood that the woman hated her and maybe she had every right given some of the things she’d done, but something had obviously happened and she needed to know what. "Is Lena hurt?" Some part of her was terrified of the worst, but she kept reminding herself that Paulina wouldn’t be in the hospital if that was the case. Nails digging into her palms, she just kept telling herself that if Lena was dead she’d be in the morgue, not here. If she was here that meant she was alive, and as long as she was alive there was a chance it would all be okay.

A long beat followed while Paulina just stared at her. It was like they all hung poised on what she would say. "She loved you..." the older woman whispered at last, "...more than her life...and she was nothing to you. That’s why she---"

"No," Irina cut her off, though whether it was to stop whatever she was about to say or to stop Paulina’s use of the past tense in reference to her daughter, it was impossible to tell. Turning to face Paulina, she cupped her face very gently in her hands, then spoke softly in Polish, the tone and words clearly intended to soothe. " Now why don’t you return to the waiting room," Irina said, switching back to English. "Niko’s there. He’ll look after you."

Paulina looked at Bianca, the anger giving way completely to anguish. Paulina Kundera wasn’t a young woman, but at that moment she appeared even older than her years. No hate this time, just a sick kind of confusion that left Bianca even more frightened than the rage because it seemed far more hopeless. She muttered something beaten under her breath.

"No, no, no," Irina murmured, and reached out to brush her knuckles lightly along the older woman’s cheek, the gesture tender. "No thinking like that. I’ll take care of this. You just worry about more important matters." This time her smile was genuine.

A moment passed and then Paulina nodded haltingly.

"Go on," Irina encouraged, then waited silently while Paulina staggered away and disappeared around the corner. When she finally turned back to face Bianca again, her expression was stony, her mouth twisted in the slightest hint of a sneer.

"What is it?" Bianca demanded, no longer able to contain her fear. "What’s happened to Lena?"

"Even knowing what I know, three days ago I might have believed you actually care," Irina whispered, then shook her head as if to dismiss the entire notion. "But you’re a bit late. Now I suggest you leave before I have security remove you." Her tone and bearing were of someone used to being obeyed, leaving Bianca with little doubt that she would do exactly as she threatened.

"I really don’t think there’s any need for that," Maria attempted to smooth things over.

"You may think anything you like, Doctor," the older woman murmured, her gaze remaining locked on Bianca with laser-like intensity, "but Miss Montgomery is not to be allowed anywhere near my family." Finally, near-black eyes swung around to touch on Maria, silently warning her. "The last thing any of us need right now is to have to deal with is her. Am I understood?"

"I’m just suggesting that perhaps if Paulina---" Maria began, hoping to calm the situation.

"These aren’t your decisions to make, Doctor. You saw her reaction...I won’t have her stressed this way. Not now."

"Please," Bianca broke in, struggling against her own demons to try and remain as calm as possible. "I’m not trying to hurt anyone. I just want to help if I can."

Maria glanced back at Bianca, seeing the girl’s terrified expression, not entirely understanding the cause given that her relationship with the Polish woman was apparently long over, but also sympathetic to the situation. She knew from experience that just because a love affair end, it didn’t mean a person just ceased caring. "I know Bianca." She looked at Irina again, trying to make her see reason. "She’s a good kid. Whatever’s happened, she’s not trying to hurt your family...and certainly not Lena."

"What she is trying to do is unimportant," Irina said very softly, pulling no punches as she continued, "Only what she does matters...and that sadly, is cause pain."

Whimpering softly, her stomach muscles knotting as though she’d taken a blow, Bianca shook her head, denying the accusation. "No, you’re wrong," she whispered, the threat of tears making her voice quaver and threaten to break. "I just...just want...." She just wanted to see Lena, make sure she was still alive, hold her hand and feel that her skin was still warm to the touch. Nothing else mattered. It was like she was drowning and that was the oxygen she needed to survive. All other concerns came second to that.

The proclamation only earned her a sneering look and a pithy, "Unfortunately for you, your wants have no bearing on the situation." Irina took a breath and seemed about to say more only to change her mind at the last moment. Finally, she turned a hard glare Maria’s way. "You have your orders, Doctor. See that you adhere to them." The subject effectively dismissed, she started to turn away, but Bianca caught her forearm.

She couldn’t let it just it go like that. "Dammit, just tell me what’s happened," she demanded desperately as she pulled hard enough to bring the woman back around.

As Irina pivoted, she knocked Bianca’s hand off her arm, her expression going from dismissive to furious in a blink. Her other hand came up, fingers spreading to return the grab with a slap.

Bianca stood frozen, so startled she didn’t even try to pull away.

"Hey, hey, hey."

Bianca felt a hand land on her shoulder as her uncle Jack abruptly came up on her left side, his other arm up as if to block the expected blow.

The two stared at each other for a long moment, silently measuring each other up.

Finally Irina dropped her raised hand to her side, her expression abruptly going very flat as though she regretted the momentary loss of control.

"I’m not sure what’s going on here," Jack continued, his voice hard, "but whatever it is, it stops now."

Irina attention shifted back to Bianca. "What’s happening is the young lady is being asked to leave before she’s removed," she said without preamble.

Jack glanced at his niece, his expression questioning. "Honey, what’s---"

"It’s Lena," Bianca said before he could any farther, "her mother’s here...and I think she must have been in some kind of accident, but no one will tell me what’s going on." He’d do something about the situation. Either make them see reason or find out what was going on.

"Ah," he exhaled, then glanced past his niece at the woman standing a short distance away, her expression forbidding, her hands now folded together at the small of her back. She’d pulled herself back together and regained control, but she was right on the edge. Aware of his perusal, she raised an eyebrow ever so slightly. That wasn’t the expression of someone who had any intention of giving ground. "I know, honey," he admitted after a beat.

"You already knew?" Bianca questioned instantly, her tone shifting from trusting to confused. He knew how much she’d cared for Lena. He should have known to tell her if something had happened.

"Well, my office did," Jack explained quickly when he saw her look. "I’ve been in New York for several days and only just got back and found out." He left out that he’d hurried straight over when he’d seen the brief report, hoping to find out what was going on. "But the hospital notified my office just after the accident to get her contact information since we had it on file."

"Then you must know what happened," Bianca exhaled in relief. At least he could tell her what was going on, and she was quickly growing desperate enough that any scrap of information was better than nothing.

Jackson shook his head. "Not really, no," he admitted and glanced at Maria who only shook her head ever so slightly, "only that there was some kind of car accident." The hospital had explained that much when trying to make contact with Lena’s mother through the DA’s office, but no more in consideration of patient confidentiality.

"Which is already more than my family cares to share with Miss Montgomery," Irina broke in to put a stop to things.

Jack glanced at the woman glaring at his niece. Definitely not a woman who gave ground. He looked at Bianca again, seeing her fear and understanding it too well, but also in no position to do much about it. His gaze swung back to the hostile brown eyes watching him so closely. "Look, Miss---"

"It’s Irina," the brunette informed him sharply, giving him no more information than her first name.

"Right," he exhaled, striving to sound as reasonable as possible. Whatever was going on, more anger didn’t seem likely to help the situation. "I don’t know if you’re aware, but my niece and Ms. Kundera were...involved...and obviously that’s why she’s interested in Lena’s condition. It’s nothing sinister, I assure you."

Bianca flinched as the older woman’s gaze swung back to land on her.

"Oh, I’m quite aware of their involvement," Irina murmured, then stepped forward until she was nearly toe to with Bianca.

Jack tensed, but the momentary bout of near-violence had passed and the woman simply stared down at his niece for a long moment until Bianca broke and looked away.

"Though I doubt you are..." Irina added, her tone disdainful.

She knew, Bianca realized as something in the older woman’s tone sank in. Her gaze snapped back up to clash with fathoms deep brown eyes and she saw the knowledge. She definitely knew. A band tightened around her chest, making it almost impossible to breathe. This woman did not like her in the least and she was angry. She’d take pleasure in striking back any way she could.

Including making a potentially humiliating announcement in the middle of a hospital corridor?

Irina offered a hint of a knowing smile, and Bianca swallowed hard, seeing the fear in her own expression where it was reflected in eyes that reminded her eerily of Lena’s, only stripped of any warmth or kindness.

"...though perhaps you should be," Irina continued, the threat not even remotely subtle to anyone who knew the secret of the code she was using.

Bianca got the message. Back off or her clandestine nights with Lena would be revealed. She swallowed hard, a confession on the tip of her tongue. All she had to do was tell Jackson. Maybe that would prove something and make the woman watching her so closely see that her emotions were real. She almost did it, just told her uncle everything, but at the last second the words wouldn’t come, the shame too thick and real to allow her to tell the truth.

A moment passed and then Bianca lost track of her reflection as Irina’s expression melded into an odd mixture of disappointment and triumph.

"Bianca, honey?"

Jack broke in and Bianca abruptly realized she’d lost track of her surroundings for a moment.

"Maybe it would be best if we left." It was obvious to Jackson that his niece’s presence was only making things an already volatile situation worse. The last thing anybody needed was a knock-down, drag-out yelling match in the hospital hallways. Especially since the woman looming over his niece looked like she’d enjoy it entirely too much.

Irina was still eyeing Bianca with that faint smile that said very clearly that she knew she’d won.

Bianca blinked at the tears suddenly making her vision watery. "This isn’t right," she whispered, barely forcing the words past the tightness in her throat.

The older woman offered a mockingly sympathetic look that barely covered her contempt. "One of the things I’ve always found fascinating about those born to wealth is their automatic assumption that their interests should be everyone else’s," she said when she finally spoke. "In short, it’s right for my family. Anything else is not my problem."

"Look, I don’t think there’s any cause for insults," Jack inserted, trying to smooth things over.

"That’s only because you know so little about the situation," Irina dismissed, her expression almost challenging Bianca to say something. And perhaps she was. Perhaps there was some part of her hoping the child might show a little spine and do the right thing. No such luck. Brown eyes dropped, fixing firmly on the floor, and slender shoulders slumped in defeat. Well, that settled that. "Now if you’ll excuse me, my family needs me. Doctor," she turned a hard gaze on Maria, silently reminding her of the consequences if Paulina’s orders were ignored, "whenever you’re finished here." Then she turned on her heel and headed toward the waiting room attached to the ICU ward without looking back.

Dismissed, Bianca realized as she heard the tick-tack of heels on tile moving away. She’d been neatly and effectively dismissed as though she didn’t even matter in Lena’s life. She looked up, blinking rapidly to clear a haze of tears. This was all wrong. If Lena was hurt, she had a right to know what was going on. Whatever their problems and mistakes, she should be there with her. She felt a hand settle on her shoulder and shrugged out from under her uncle’s light hold.

"Bianca, honey," Jack began gently, "I know you’re upset, but I think it’s best if we leave Lena’s family alone right now." He glanced at Maria who was watching his niece when not flashing worried looks toward the waiting room. "Obviously they’ve got things to deal with," he added, "and...." Uncertain what to say next, he trailed off, hunting for the right words.

"And I have no right to be here," Bianca rasped, her voice filling the void left by his hesitation.

"I really don’t think that’s what she meant, honey," Jack said. He knew from experience that people said and did things under stress that they wouldn’t normally. "It’s just that---"

"Oh, that’s exactly what she meant," Bianca disagreed, understanding far better than her uncle that she’d just had a warning shot fired across her bow and been put thoroughly in her place all at the same time. Whatever had happened to Lena, it was obvious to her that her family had no intention of including her in the loop. She didn’t know about Paulina Kundera, but it was obvious that at least one family member wanted her to bleed. A sick wave of nausea washing over her, Bianca fought the urge to scream as the walls threatened to close in. Again a warm hand settled on her shoulder and again she shrugged away from the contact, taking a step forward and putting some distance between herself and Jackson, but also drawn toward Lena’s family and the answers they held. It took all of her willpower not to simply march in there and demand what instinctively felt like her right.

Only it wasn’t her right.

She’d made absolutely certain of that.

And if Lena died thinking she didn’t give a damn, Bianca knew it would be all her fault. She almost laughed at the pitch-black irony of the situation. Totally focused on her own needs, she’d neatly denied Lena everything she wanted.

And wound up denying herself instead.

"Bianca," Maria drew close, her voice low, using that tone of professional interest that Bianca so detested, "I’m sorry, but---"

"Is she dying?" Bianca asked before Maria could get any farther, finally giving voice to the terror threatening to turn her inside out.

Maria glanced at Jackson, then looked back to the young woman staring so forlornly toward the waiting room. She liked Bianca and felt for her, but ethically there was nothing she could say. As much as she might wish it were otherwise, she couldn’t go against the wishes of her patient’s family. "I’m sorry, Bianca. I can’t answer your questions." Another quick glance at Jackson revealed a man staring worriedly after his niece. "I need to go speak with them," she said, sensing it was time to leave those two alone.

Jack nodded. "I’ll need to speak with you when you’re available," he said softly and Maria nodded.

"Just have someone at the nurse’s station page me when you’re ready," Maria told him, then turned a sympathetic look toward Bianca. She drew a breath as if to say something, but with no comfort to offer finally fell silent and simply slipped away.

Jack waited until he was alone with Bianca, then stepped forward. She hadn’t moved in several moments, instead just staring in the direction that Maria and Lena’s family had gone, her expression distant. Completely blocked out---not exactly an unusual feeling since Michael’s attack---he didn’t know how to read her response. "Bianca, honey," he began carefully, hoping to get her to open up a little. "I know this is tough, but I’m sure she’ll be fine...and she has her family to look after her."

She ignored his softly spoken words. "If Maria’s on her case, that means there’s neurological damage." She had a sudden mental image of that brilliant mind no longer working and machines keeping Lena alive. God, she’d hate that. The only time they’d ever talked about it, Lena had been very clear. She never wanted to live at that price. Bianca’s world twisted and wavered, but she somehow managed to maintain some vague semblance of control even though she was screaming inside.

"Bianca, you don’t know that," Jack reminded her, well aware of the kinds of terror that could haunt a person when there was no hard knowledge to fill the void.

Looking back at her uncle, Bianca felt her eyes burn and fill with tears, his words breaking through the emotional wall she was trying to construct and triggering more of a response than she was ready to deal with. "I don’t know anything," she croaked. She saw the sympathy in his expression, and he started to reach out, but she danced backwards, avoiding his touch and the comfort she didn’t deserve.

A hurt frown touched Jack’s brow and he let his arm drop to his side. "Honey, I understand---"

"No, you don’t," Bianca denied, her voice strained. A tiny, ironic laugh escaped her lips. He had no idea at all, and she could only imagine his disappointment if he ever found out the truth.

"Okay," Jack said, watching her carefully as he struggled to figure out what was going on, "then why don’t we go get a cup of coffee and you can explain."

Ignoring the invitation, Bianca glanced at her watch. "I-I have an appointment with my counselor." When she looked up again, she carefully avoided his gaze, barely able to deal with her own emotions without falling apart much less his worries. "I’m already late. I’ve gotta go."

"Bianca?" Jack said quickly, obviously hoping to stop her from bolting.

She glanced back the direction she’d come. There was someone getting on the elevator and if she hurried she could just catch it before it left without her and she was forced to wait for the next one.

Because if she had to wait, he was going to ask more questions, and she was already close to breaking down and telling him everything. Even knowing she should, she couldn’t let herself do that and she certainly couldn’t remain where she was. Do that and she’d do something they’d all regret. She didn’t know what. She just knew that the walls were closing in and that was never a good sign.

And then she was moving, nearly running. Jackson called after her, but it only drove her to move faster and she ducked onto the elevator, spinning back just in time to see the doors closing on her uncle’s worried expression. Leaning heavily on the waist high railing that ran along the walls, Bianca tried to stop the shaking without much success.

A moment passed and she suddenly realized the man standing next to the buttons was looking at her expectantly, clearly waiting for her to either say what floor she wanted or reach past him and select for herself. Tempted to just run and hide, she stood frozen as she felt the elevator lurch upward. She could just ride it to the top, then back down to the ground floor and get the hell out of the hospital. Hell, she could just get in her car and get the hell out of town.

Total anonymity had a certain appeal at that point. Or maybe it was the idea of just escaping everything that sounded so good.

Except she had a son she was responsible for, family, friends, people who be hurt if she simply walked away from her life.

And there was Lena. Hurt, maybe dying.

"Miss?" the man next to the controls questioned, looking at her a little worriedly.

"Eighth Floor," Bianca exhaled, the decision already made for her. Oh well, it wasn’t like running and lying had served her very well to date.

* * * * * *

Better than 30 minutes into her appointment and Bianca hadn’t said more than 20 words.

Dr. Zimmerman---Sylvia, though Bianca had never been comfortable calling the woman by her first name---was watching her closely, but had apparently decided to follow Bianca’s lead into silence after several attempts to draw her out had failed completely.

Which was fine by Bianca. Discussing her feelings was the last thing she wanted to do.

No, that wasn’t quite right. Feeling her feelings was actually the last thing she wanted to do, leaving everything else so thoroughly in the dust that any form of discussion was a distant, distant second. She wrapped her arms tightly around her torso, rubbing her upper arms as though trying to ward off a chill and stared out the small window that looked onto the world from one corner of the doctor’s office. She could almost feel the way Zimmerman was watching her, easily imagining the worried look on the older woman’s face. It would be akin the one Bianca remembered on the faces of assorted grade school teachers when they’d cleaned the scraped knees and mopped up the tears of the their young charges, gentle but at the same time faintly disapproving of the latest insanity that had led to the injury.

Actually, the doctor reminded her a lot of those teachers. Grey haired and steely eyed, her figure bordering on the patrician, she had the same strange knack for going from kindly confidant to stern authority figure then back again, all without breaking stride.

Which was probably a necessity, considering the job she did trying to shepherd people back to some semblance of mental health after suffering some of the worst traumas imaginable. Sometimes it took understanding, other times gentleness, sometimes the refusal to be put off, and other times it just required a solid kick in the ass.

Only Bianca had the sense that the doctor thought none of those tactics were quite right this time and was debating the problem, considering her line of attack like a general preparing for battle, leaving Bianca to simply stare out at the world below. It was late in the day---she was Zimmerman’s last appointment---and the sun was just starting to set, casting the world in a soft amber light. With luck, maybe the doctor wouldn’t figure out a way to breach her emotional walls before the appointment was over and she could just leave and....

And what? She had no idea, which made the idea of the appointment ending almost as frightening as the idea that it wouldn’t.

"Bianca," the doctor said at last, her voice low and gentle with an underlying note of something deeply worried, "what’s happened?" Despite some worrisome setbacks, they’d been gaining ground in recent months, but this silence and utter distance was new. The girl glanced back over her shoulder, her expression lost in a way Sylvia hadn’t seen in months. She fully expected to be rebuffed yet again. If life with Erica Kane had taught her youngest daughter one thing it was how to avoid any discussions she didn’t feel like having, which often made getting her to look past her own internal defenses extremely challenging. Which was why she was so surprised when Bianca drew a breath and spoke.

"Did you know that Lena Kundera’s a patient in this hospital?" the girl asked, the question coming in halting syllables as though she wasn’t quite sure she wanted to know the answer.

Zimmerman frowned, startled by the question. Clearly she was out of the gossip loop in the hospital. "I had no idea. What happened?"

Bianca turned to stare out the window again. "Some kind of car accident?" she responded, her tone distant and far too flat.

That explained a lot. The relationship wasn’t what anyone would call healthy, and there were days Sylvia was almost as worried about the woman she’d never even met as she was her young patient---it took a dangerous level of self-hate to put up with some of the things Lena Kundera had tolerated, and she doubted Bianca really understood what she was dealing with. Despite that, she had to credit the Polish woman for the care she’d clearly taken in the progress of their intimate relationship. Yes, their was a darkness to the situation and definite problems that worried Sylvia, but at the same time from everything she knew Lena Kundera had been relentlessly kind and understanding and had gone a long way toward giving Bianca that part of herself back. Certainly the doctor had seen a kind of longing in the young woman when she discussed her lover, and sometimes a lightness that nothing and no on else seemed to give her. "I hadn’t heard," she said after a beat. "What’s her condition?"

It was a logical enough question and nearly reduced Bianca to tears because it reminded her that she had no idea. Vicious, bloody scenarios playing in her head, she shook her head. "I don’t know," she rasped. "She’s in ICU, but they wouldn’t tell me anything," she answered vaguely, nowhere near ready to discuss the scene with Lena’s family. A long moment of silence followed and Bianca could almost hear the gears turning in the doctor’s head. She should have stuck with the whole silent treatment. Silence didn’t open up avenues for questions she had no desire to answer.

"They?" Zimmerman questioned, picking up on the bitter emphasis that word received.

Bianca seriously considered lying or just not answering, except she knew that the doctor was more than capable of pushing the matter until she got some kind of response. "Her family," she admitted after a long moment. "Her mother was there. That’s how I found out...I saw her in the hallway talking to a doctor...and...I thought maybe she was having health problems...that maybe Lena would be there for her...only it was the other way around...." She trailed off again, not even trying to finish.

"So what happened?" the doctor probed.

"Lena’s mother didn’t want me there." Grinding her molars together to banish the threat of tears, Bianca took a long moment to answer. "And then some cousin showed up. She ordered me out...wouldn’t tell me what happened or anything about Lena...and somehow she knew...about us...."

"What did she say?"

"It wasn’t what she said," Bianca admitted. "It was the way she looked at me...and then later...she made it clear that if I didn’t leave, she’d tell my uncle...and I panicked. I just...." She trailed off, helpless in the face of overwhelming guilt and anger. "I couldn’t say anything."

"Would it really be that bad if your uncle found out?" the doctor asked after a moment. Bianca’s need to keep the affair secret had worried her from the start, just like her need to keep so many other secrets. Her young patient had fallen into a pattern of lying that had consistently proven destructive and didn’t yet seem to comprehend the ramifications to herself or those around her.

Bianca just froze, not knowing what to say. It shouldn’t have mattered. She should have faced up to the truth, thrown the subtle threats back at the woman looming over her and demanded answers. And yet she’d run screaming. God, she was such a damned coward.

"Bianca?" the doctor prompted when she still hadn’t answered after several long moments.

"I just couldn’t tell him," the girl gasped at last.

The doctor exhaled a soft sigh. Unfortunately, there was only so much she could do. She couldn’t force the girl to tell the truth or face her demons, only try to make her see reason and help her as best she could. "You’re an adult. Your uncle knows you’re gay," she said, going back to the basics. "From what you’ve told me of the man, I can’t believe he’d want you to go through your life alone." She looked down for a moment, considering her words carefully. Every patient was different and required a different approach. "If you were a family member of mine," she said at last, uncertain that personalizing things was the best choice, but nothing else had worked, "I’d want to know that you were healing enough to open up to someone...that you were able to form romantic, emotional bonds again."

Bianca just shook her head, still staring out at the world. It seemed she’d been doing a lot more of that in recent months, watching humanity go by from a safe distance and seldom allowing herself to be a part of it all. It was easier that way. "You don’t understand," she said at last.

"Then why don’t you explain it," Sylvia suggested quietly. "Tell me why admitting that you and Lena Kundera are lovers is such an awful idea."

"We aren’t lovers," Bianca said very softly, just uttering the words hurting more than she could have imagined and battering at the wall she was trying to build brick by brick around her emotions.

"Bianca," the doctor said a little impatiently. Given that she’d already admitted to the affair, it seemed a little late for a denial. Of course, the girl had gotten so good at parsing her terms that perhaps she was once again bending the language to suit another lie. "Whatever term you want to use, you’re intimately involved---"

"Not anymore," Bianca interrupted, her voice coming soft and slow, sadness leaking through her tone at every level. "We fought...and she walked out...." Traffic was heavy on the street below, Bianca noticed, the cars moving back and forth, jamming together, cutting each other off, speeding, people eager to get home after a long day. All the normal patterns of life. And here she was, high above it all, distant from that daily reality. It was sort of fitting. Her life hadn’t seemed real in months, and more often than not she’d felt like she was watching it from a distance just like she was watching life pass by on the streets below. Strange as it might seem to anyone else who knew the whole story, the most real moments since Michael’s attack had been those hours she’d spent wrapped in Lena’s arms.

And ironically, the most unreal had been the sight of Lena walking away. She’d put up with so much, never complaining, simply accepting whatever Bianca needed. It still didn’t seem possible that she could have surrendered what they had. After the blowup she’d been so certain that Lena wouldn’t be able to stay away that she’d left her cell phone on ever since and had nearly hung up on anyone who called her on that number because it was the one that Lena preferred to use and always tried first. For three days she’d waited on pins and needles, expecting a phone call that never came.

For three days.

Three days.

"Even knowing what I know, three days ago I might have believed you actually care."

Three days.

She hadn’t really heard or registered the words Irina had thrown at her until that very moment, hadn’t put things together, or seen the temporal relationship between their fight and Lena’s accident.

Three days.

She’d been waiting for Lena’s call for three days.

And Lena had been lying in the ICU for three days.

She heard the doctor asking her another question, but the words sounded garbled and unintelligible to her ears, just distant white noise in the background.

Three days.

Had it happened that night? Lena drove wildly whenever she was agitated, and she’d sped off much too fast. Had she cracked up her car while Bianca was lying safe in her bed waiting for a call that couldn’t come because the only person she wanted to hear from was dying in a ditch somewhere?

Bianca gulped in air, her emotional walls shattering in a way she wasn’t even close to ready for. Suddenly she was shaking violently, horrific images playing in her head. She’d managed to shut down while she was talking to Jackson, and even partially contained her emotions while explaining to the doctor, but suddenly it was all washing over her with damning intensity, denying her any hope of peace.

Her name echoed in the background, the sounds so unfamiliar and discordant that they made absolutely no sense.

Bianca turned and stared at the doctor who was frowning worriedly now.

More garbled words followed, their tone questioning.

Bianca didn’t care. "I have to go now," she muttered and pulled away from the window. She had to get out of there. Now.

Realizing that her patient intended to bolt, Sylvia pushed to her feet intending to intercede, but Bianca darted around her and kept moving, hurrying out the door too quickly to be stopped. The doctor called after the girl, but Bianca didn’t even slow down. "Dammit," the older woman hissed as she leaned against the doorframe, staring at the now closed outer door to her office, still rattling gently on its hinges in the wake of her patient’s hurried exit. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a damn thing she could do. Clearly the girl didn’t want help this time, which meant she was on her own until she decided otherwise.

All Sylvia could do was pray for her.

* * * * * *

Finished with Lena Kundera and her family, Maria Santos Grey found Jackson waiting in the hall outside her office. She met his gaze, seeing the worry in his eyes even as she contemplated the next task before her. Namely what to say and how much of the coming meeting could be considered professional and how much was purely a matter of personal interest. "Why don’t you take a walk with me," she invited him. "I could use a cup of coffee." Since the hospital had contacted his office in order to find a way to notify Lena Kundera’s family of the accident he was formally in the loop, even though under normal circumstances she would have expected any followup to be purely a matter of formality.

Unfortunately, the fact that his niece had been Lena’s lover made everything complicated.

And then there were the facts of the accident itself. She didn’t know everything, but enough to be aware of the possible complications. Lena Kundera might have been maintaining a low profile for some months, but she was tabloid fodder of the most tempting kind, exotic, beautiful, infamous, and gay. Reporters would sell body parts, their own or someone else’s---preferably someone else’s---for that kind of story.

Jackson nodded and fell in step next to her, letting her lead the way. In no more hurry than she to do this, he was silent until they reached the machine. "How’s she doing?" he asked, nodding to indicate in the direction of the ICU.

The doctor shrugged, feeding quarters into the coffee machine as she answered. "Is this the DA asking or Bianca Montgomery’s uncle?" It seemed easiest to just lay the obvious conflict of interest on the line.

"Practically speaking," Jackson answered after a beat, careful to keep his voice low so as to avoid any chance of being overheard by any passers-by, "probably a little of each. Legally speaking? You’re aware it was a one-car accident, I assume?"

Maria nodded to indicate she was.

"And that she had made an earlier attempt on her life?" Jack continued and received another nod, but no particular explanation. Maria was playing her cards very close to the vest. "What you probably don’t know is that I just got a copy of the police report. There were no skid marks at the crash site." And with no evidence that Lena had made any attempt to stop on top of a previous suicide attempt, they both knew what that probably meant.

"Actually, I know," Maria admitted the machine finished filling her cup and she retrieved it. A pair of twos, she noted distantly as she eyed the familiar poker layout printed on the outside. That fit her day all too well. Not quite a completely empty hand, but definitely not one to bet the farm on. "The paramedics who brought her in informed the ER staff so we could keep her on watch if need be," she explained, but carefully didn’t let slip any more than that. Knowing the animosity her patient’s family felt toward Jackson’s niece, it was time to be even more circumspect when it came to the rules. The last thing any of them needed was a nuisance suit designed more to punish and embarrass than anything else.

"Oh," Jack murmured, a little surprised, though it occurred to him he shouldn’t have been. "Normally, I’d would have let someone else handle informing you," he admitted since they both knew these sorts of formalities were usually handled by secretaries, "but I wanted to touch base...find out anything possible...." He paused for a moment before continuing, his tone sliding over into that of a man well aware he was calling in a personal marker. "...and also ask you to help keep this as quiet as possible. You can imagine what the tabloids would do if they got hold of the news."

Exhaling a heavy sigh, she ran a hand through her hair, brushing it back from her face. "I’ll make sure the nurses are warned to keep quiet." She was more than happy to try, though she had doubts how much good it would do. "The last thing this hospital needs is more gossip." They already had more than enough of that particular commodity.

"Thanks," the DA sighed, glancing away briefly to gather his thoughts before returning his attention to the doctor. "Is there anything you can tell me about her condition?" he asked, well aware that she’d been careful about not answering any questions even by inference.

"Is there legal cause for you to need the information?"

It was tempting as hell to push the point. Technically speaking, the accident was still listed as cause unknown, and her car had been impounded for a mechanical review. He could claim an ongoing investigation into the matter, but realistically it wasn’t something his office or any responsible officer of the law would pursue as long as the most likely answer was that it was an attempted suicide. No question that it would be misusing his office, and he’d already done far too much of that in the previous months. "Not really, unless you have some proof of something." he admitted after a long pause.

Maria looked down momentarily, her expression clear when she looked up again. She’d rather hoped the answer would be different so she could put the problem of what to say and what not to on someone else’s shoulders because she hated the position she was in. Unfortunately, that put the ball squarely back in her court. "Then there’s not really much I can tell you. There was no note, and a standard tox screen came back clear. She wasn’t drunk or taking any illegal drugs. Past that...." She shrugged. Legally, she’d just given him all she really could.

Jack fell silent while he absorbed her answer, unable to forget the intensity of Bianca’s response and afraid for the girl if the worst happened. She’d already come through so much. The last thing she needed was another emotional blow. "Is Lena going to make it?" he asked at last, giving voice to his fears. If the answer was no, he wanted to know so he could at least cushion the blow as much as possible. Only hours before, he would have predicted Bianca would handle the loss well, wouldn’t have really considered it a loss except in a rather distant sense. Yes, he’d known there were still emotional ties, that Bianca was the sort of person who would never completely stop caring, but he’d thought the current emotional investment was a lot less than was apparently the case.

Maria was silent for a long moment, then she shook her head. "Jack, you know I can’t---"

"I’m not asking you to breach your professional ethics," he quickly assured her, "but you know what Bianca’s been through in the past year and a half...and you saw how she reacted just now. I just want to know if we should be bracing for another storm."

A soft sigh escaped the doctor’s lips, and she bought a moment’s time by taking a long sip from her cup as she tried to decide how much she could tell him without going over the line. "It’s not a simple question, Jack." She looked down at the swirling dark surface of the coffee, eyeing her own reflection.

Jack was utterly silent, accepting that it was time to hang back and just let her say whatever she felt comfortable telling him.

"There are complications...and we’re still running tests." She paused for another long moment, fighting the urge to curse under her breath, hating the position she was in. "I don’t think you’re facing another storm," she said at last, "but I can’t guarantee it."

His eyes slid closed and he nearly stumbled. Not as bad as it could have been, but not the answer he was hoping for either. "Meaning?"

Again Maria fought the urge to curse. "Like I said, there are complications...hopefully we’ll know more when the tests come in."

He looked over at her, a worried expression creasing his brow. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

Maria glanced over her shoulder, then back at him. Only one thing she could think of and she felt like a total heel asking it of him, but he’d already asked a few favors of her. Time for her to do the asking. "You saw how her family reacted to Bianca," she said softly. "Right now, they can’t deal with her."

"Maria, I’m not sure I can---"

"Her mother’s already had to face...a lot of things," Maria said haltingly, just barely holding back on the truth because a part of her felt Bianca deserved to know. "She can’t handle any more stresses. If you want to help the situation, I need you to keep Bianca away from here...away from her...and away from Lena."

Broad shoulders slumped and Jack was silent for a long moment as he considered her request. Maybe it would be for the best anyway. The last thing Bianca needed now that she was getting her feet back under her was to be drawn into another trauma and it seemed obvious that her presence only made things far harder for Lena’s family. Finally he nodded. "I’ll do what I can."

As they moved on, neither one noticed the slender figure that stepped into the corridor from a shadowed hallway that crossed the main one, her expression determined, though there were the remains of tears in her eyes.

Bianca stared after her uncle, wishing she’d heard more, but knowing she’d heard enough to be certain of one thing.

Keep her away from Lena?

Like hell.

* * * * * *

Cursing under her breath, Kendall studied the dense print on the paper in front of her, struggling to understand the financial report she was more staring at than actually reading. She already gone through the same paragraph several times and it had yet make even a hint of sense to her. Damn Lena Kundera for just bailing on her. The least the woman could have done was hang around long enough to make sure her replacement was in place.

It would have been the professional thing to do and Kendall would have made certain she was well compensated in return. Instead she’d apparently gone off in a huff, leaving them all in the lurch since she couldn’t have what she wanted.

Fine then. To hell with her.

If she couldn’t be an adult about things, then who needed her?

Kendall went back over the paragraph again, understanding no more than she had the first time through and cursed the Polish woman all over again because the sad truth was that the answer to the question, who needed her, was Kendall did.

She glanced at her watch, noting the time. Normally she’d already have been home for several hours, shoes off, showered, and catching the latest sitcom on TV. Fat chance of that happening anytime soon. Until she could find someone to replace Lena, she’d probably just be wisest to move a cot into her office since it wasn’t like she was going to be headed home at a reasonable hour, at least not if she intended to actually stay until the necessary work was done each day.

Damn her. Why the hell did Lena have to go taking things so blasted personally? She’d just made everything harder. Why couldn’t she just take the money and run instead of getting all emotional about things. Hell, it wasn’t like she was some cringing virgin for god’s sake.

Kendall flipped the page. Not that she understood what she’d already read over, but since rereading didn’t seem to be doing any good, she opted to move on and see if maybe the next page made more sense.

Just her luck. It didn’t.

It was going to be a very long week. Kendall massaged her temple, hoping that Ryan could help her with the interviews to find someone to replace Lena because if this kept up much longer, they were going to be in real trouble. The Cambias holdings waited for nothing, not men, women, or lesbian breakups. Her lips twisted in an acid smile at that thought. "You’re getting bitter in your old age, Kendall," she muttered under her breath.

She was still rereading the latest incomprehensible paragraph when the phone on one corner of her desk rang. "Thank god," Kendall exhaled as she reached for the handset. "Ryan, if that’s you, please get over here. I need help with---"

"Kendall, it’s me," Bianca broke in.

"Oh, hi, Binks," Kendall murmured, deflating slightly. She’d been hoping for someone who might help. Not that Ryan was necessarily brilliant when it came to business given his less than auspicious past on that front. On the other hand, he projected an aura of confidence that always left her feeling better about things. Even when he was screwing up, somehow he made her feel safe and important. "What’s up?"

"I need you to do me a favor," Bianca said a little hesitantly.

"Sure...anything I can," Kendall said instantly. "Whatcha need?"

Bianca was silent for long enough that Kendall found herself frowning worriedly. "Tyler’s nanny isn’t scheduled to spend the night tonight...she’s already stayed later than usual...and it looks like I’m going to be running late on something. I was wondering if you could babysit until I get in. It could be pretty late."

Kendall didn’t hesitate. "Sure." She could use the excuse to get out of her office anyway. "Is something wrong?" she couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but her sister’s voice was decidedly odd.

A long moment of uncomfortable silence followed before Bianca spoke up, the words coming in halting syllables. "It’s Lena---"

Already pissed off at the Polish woman, Kendall uttered a curse under her breath, then started a rant. "Look, Binks, if the two of you are back together and playing house...or whatever it is you do, kindly tell your Polish kielbasa to get her butt back in here. Otherwise I swear to god, I’ll have her deported for---"

"Kendall, she’s in the hospital," Bianca interrupted her voice husky and tremulous as though she was fighting tears.

Kendall froze, her stomach sinking. Oh god! Damn, she should have made sure she got her hands on Lena the moment she knew about the breakup. God save her from people so batty in love they couldn’t resist the urge to do the most asinine thing imaginable. She should have known. With the Cambias billions largely under her command on Bianca’s behalf she controlled more than enough money to have the stupid idiot locked up in nearest loony bin on ‘round the clock suicide watch if need be until Bianca wanted her back...which now that Kendall thought about it, she should have known was bound to happen. Lena was Bianca’s version of catnip and she might want to stay away, but it wasn’t going to happen for long. "What happened?" she asked, dreading the worst, and more than that dreading the idea of explaining to Bianca that she’d known about Lena’s earlier suicide attempt for months and hadn’t shared the information. If and when her sister found out about that particular decision, she was not likely to forgive it lightly.

"A car accident...."

Kendall fought the urge to heave a sigh of relief. Thank god. If Lena’d gotten herself killed, it wasn’t her fault.

"She’s in ICU...and I-I need to stay here...I need to know...how bad it is...."

The very real pain in Bianca’s voice cut through Kendall’s self interest and she deflated, shoulders slumping as she leaned forward, elbows braced on her desktop. "Okay," she said quickly. "I mean, don’t worry about anything. Tyler’s a good kid. I’ll stay all night...and tomorrow too if you need me to. In fact as long as need be."

Bianca was silent for a long moment and her voice strained and abnormally husky when she finally spoke up. "Thanks. I-I really appreciate it. I just...I can’t---"

"Just don’t worry about anything. You do what you need to do," Kendall encouraged her. "I’ll make sure Tyler’s fine." Kendall fell silent to give Bianca a moment to speak up but her sister didn’t respond, though Kendall could almost feel the intensity of emotion on the other end of the line. It was a stark reminder of just how much the younger woman had been through and how much of an emotional investment she had in Lena Kundera’s survival. "And I hope she’s okay, Bianca...I really do."

"Thanks," Bianca exhaled raggedly, then quickly added, "I’ve gotta go now."

"Okay," Kendall responded, then added, "you just...you take care of yourself, okay?"

"Yeah," Bianca agreed none-too-believably. "Look, I have to go now. I’ll call you later to check on things. Bye." She hung up before Kendall could say any more.

Kendall considered her now silent phone for a long moment, then hung it up again, depression threatening to overwhelm. God, did it ever end or was life just destined to be one trauma after another? Oh well, at least it gave her an excuse to get the hell out of the office.

* * * * * *

 

 

 

Her posture straight, her expression carefully neutral, Bianca Montgomery checked the hallway in front of Lena’s door one last time. After calling Kendall, she’d found a shadowed corner and watched long enough to figure out the nurse’s schedule---they were very rigid in how often they checked on the patients in ICU---and to be certain which room was Lena’s. Paulina stayed close to Lena’s door, pacing, clearly worried. Bianca was surprised to note that she was alone with the exception of a young man who came and went and whose face she never got a look at. She didn’t see Irina again until it got quite late and she appeared, quietly speaking to Paulina before they retreated together to a nearby waiting room.

Thankfully just out of sight of the door.

Bianca glanced over her shoulder, double checking to make certain there was no one in sight who might notice her. She only had a few moments before a nurse would pass by and likely see her, and she suspected Maria Santos Grey might have warned them to keep her away from Lena. It was now or never.

She reached out, fingers not quite making contact with the doorknob, aware that her breath was suddenly coming in ragged gasps and her hands were shaking. Uncertain she was ready to face what lay in the next room, Bianca almost couldn’t move. There was a frosted window in the door and she caught a glimpse of her own reflection looking pale and terrified. Momentarily paralyzed by the sight, she stared at the washed out image of herself for a long moment, studying her face in a way she hadn’t in ages, looking closely in an effort to see if the past year and a half had marked her features the way it seemed it should have. She leaned closer, noting the hint of maturity that hadn’t been there before as it struck her that she hadn’t really looked closely at herself in ages. No surprise there. She hadn’t looked very closely at a lot of things in a long time. Instead she’d been floating along in a fog, ignoring everything but her own life and problems.

Just like she’d ignored everything but her own feelings for the last three days, wallowing in her own anger and hurt, not thinking of anything else.

And meanwhile, Lena had wound up in ICU while she sat waiting for a call, convinced Lena would give way and too proud to give ground and go over to her place and make sure Lena was all right. Instead she’d wasted so damn much time, thinking she could have whatever she wanted whenever she was ready. Only now maybe she’d lost everything. Suddenly Bianca wasn’t sure she wanted the answers to her questions because if it was really bad, she wasn’t sure she could survive seeing that beautiful face and body broken and bloody.

No. No thinking like that. If Lena needed her, she had to be there. No backing out and running away like a scared little kid. She’d already done that too many times, and seen the price exacted for such cowardice, one much too high for her to contemplate paying it again.

She could do this.

Lena was still alive. She had to concentrate on that. How ever bad it was, she was still alive and that meant there was still hope. Her teeth gritted, Bianca struggled to brace herself as her brain insisted on conjuring mental images of broken bone and torn flesh.

Calm. She needed to be calm.

She took another deep breath and let it out slowly, mentally imagining the stress floating out of her along with the air. She could do this.

She had to. Lena needed her to be strong.

Only she didn’t feel strong. She felt like a frightened child facing the worst demons from hell. If she lost Lena. If. Lena. Died. She wasn’t sure she could survive it. She had thought that Michael’s attack was the worst thing that could ever happen to her, but suddenly she was presented with the harsh reality that there might be something even worse, losing someone she loved, or seeing them shattered beyond repair.

That thought punched the air from Bianca’s lungs and nearly drove her to her knees, forcing her to struggle to shake off the panic.

Terrified of what lay beyond the hospital room door, she almost chickened out and tried to find Maria in hopes of making one more attempt to find out something that way. If it was really bad, it would be easier to just hear it, then Bianca wouldn’t have to actually see the harsh reality of seeing whatever cruel damage fate had inflicted. She’d know, but it wouldn’t be real in the same way. Maria would be kind, try to reassure her that everything would be okay even if it wasn’t likely. Maria would—

No, that was a waste of time. If Maria wouldn’t tell Jack what was going on, she certainly wouldn’t tell the one person Lena’s family had specifically ordered kept in the dark. No, that avenue was clearly closed.

Which left her with no choice really. At least none she could tolerate because the only other thing she could do was what everyone seemed to want and walk away.

Only, that was no choice at all. Better to face the worst than go on not knowing because that was killing Bianca an inch at a time.

Finally, she closed her fingers on the doorknob, turned, and pulled, terrified of what she might find, but needing to know.

The room was dim, the illumination low enough that Bianca’s gaze was first drawn to the bright lights of the various monitors off to one side, the rest of the room little more than dark shadows.

Still blinking as her eyes adjusted to the dim illumination, it took Bianca a moment to make out the slender figure lying lost in the hospital bed. Afraid of what she might see if she got too close, it felt like her feet had been nailed to the floor, but finally she forced herself to stumble forward, every step harder than anything she could remember before in her life.

Bianca’s brow drew into a frown as she drew closer. Half expecting to see massive injuries, she was a little surprised to see that Lena’s face was nearly undamaged. A cut and some swelling marred one cheek, and a pale bandage dominated the left side of her forehead. Careful not to touch, Bianca leaned close enough that she could see the dark swelling and bruising peeking out from under the edges. "Lena?" she whispered almost inaudibly, hoping for some sort of sign, a miracle to tell her the other woman heard her.

Nothing.

Her breathing slow and even, Lena never even twitched. She was lying perfectly still, the bedrails drawn up on either side somehow making her seem painfully small and fragile. An I.V. line was attached to the back of her right hand and her hospital gown was split down the center to allow for a myriad of tubes and wires that were attached to her chest under the gown. Leaning closer, Bianca reached out, hesitantly moving thin cotton aside ever so slightly, then wincing as she got a look at the dark bruises that cut a slashing line across the unconscious woman’s chest. She eased the hospital gown another inch or two to the side. Dark red and purple weals marred soft flesh, but there was no sign of broken skin beyond the deep scratches. No stitches or indications that she’d needed surgery, so hopefully that meant there’d been no internal damage.

Reaching up, Bianca tenderly brushed overlong bangs aside, a soft smile touching her lips. Lena’s hair grew too fast and she was usually loathe to get it cut as often as she should, too busy most of the time to spare the hour needed. As she stroked spun silk with gentle fingers, she was careful to avoid the edges of the bandage. Studying faintly exotic features, she tried to glimpse some hint of the expressive emotion she was used to seeing. "Lena," she whispered very softly, even though she wasn’t sure the other woman could hear her, "it’s Bianca. I’m here."

Still nothing.

Blinking back a few tears, Bianca drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. She started to reach for Lena’s hand only to pull back before making contact when she looked down and her eyes fell on fingers that were badly bruised, the nails torn to the quick, the knuckles cut and swollen. Though they’d been cleaned and treated, it was obvious she’d fought with something. They weren’t quick injuries. They’d taken time, and they’d undoubtedly hurt like hell, but she’d been desperate enough to ignore them and keep going. Bianca looked up, zeroing in on Lena’s other arm, seeing what she’d initially missed in her eagerness to check other things. Lena’s left arm was tightly bound from the elbow to the first joint in her fingers, thick ridges under the bandages indicating the arm was splinted. The fingers on that hand were undamaged, though they were badly swollen.

"God, Lena, what happened to you?" Bianca breathed, horrified to think of the other woman being hurt in any way, but especially that she’d faced whatever happened alone. Tugging nearby chair over to the bedside with her foot, she sank down, her knees shaking so badly she wasn’t sure she could remain upright much longer. Slipping the rail down and out of the way, she leaned forward, elbows braced on the mattress, and allowed herself to stroke Lena’s forearm well above the I.V. line, just barely making contact, half afraid even that might cause some kind of damage.

Lena’s skin was warm and soft, her breathing slow and even. From Bianca’s angle, the bruises were almost completely out of sigh and if she tried hard, she could almost pretend her former lover was just sleeping deeply. "Lena," she whispered as she let her head fall forward, still stroking the unconscious woman’s inner arm very softly. "I’m here...and I...I just want you to know I’m sorry..." Her voice trailed off and she glanced up, brain playing tricks on her. For just a second, she thought she’d felt a tiny bit of movement, but no, Lena was still perfectly still except for the gentle rising and subsiding of her chest. She stroked the other woman’s forearm again, her touch incredibly light, needing the reassurance that came from feeling warm, living flesh. "God, Lena, I’m so sorry. If I’d known...I would’ve been here. I didn’t know you were hurt. I swear."

Bianca ducked her head, fighting the sudden influx of emotion, her throat tight, chest aching, stomach twisted up into knots. A long moment passed before she looked up again, a little more in control of her emotions, though she was right on the edge of a total breakdown. Working with a counselor had taught her enough to recognize that edgy, slightly out of control feeling, but she was too lost in her fears to be paying attention. "Lena, please," she whispered after a beat, staring hard at features that were perfectly relaxed in repose, "just open your eyes for a moment...just look at me," she pleaded. She just wanted some proof that Lena was going to be all right.

Still nothing.

Brown eyes tipped up to touch on the snowy bandage that covered Lena’s forehead. Bianca experienced a sick rush as she realized they must have had to trim her hair back to make way for the gauze. It was stupid, she knew, but she hated the idea. Somehow that realization made it all the more real. Lena would never have let anyone do that if it wasn’t serious.

Her stomach twisted harder.

Serious. A head injury, a hint of bruising visible from under the edge of the bandage, the injury itself obviously somewhere right at or just past the edge of Lena’s hairline.

A head injury. That could be serious. Really serious. Brain damage serious. And Maria was obviously on her case. She wouldn’t need a neurologist unless....

Thoughts and fears spun in her head, making her more nauseous and desperate with every passing second. She stared at the bandage as though she could see through it to the injury beneath, her brain completely absorbed with the sudden thought, what if it was bad, really bad?

Lena didn’t appear to be badly injured, but she was so still, so unresponsive.

And she’d been in ICU for days, with Maria as her doctor. Why did she need a neurosurgeon?

Bianca couldn’t take her eyes off of the bandages, so snowy white against the faintly olive tone of Lena’s skin. It didn’t look like much, but head injuries....

Head injuries.

"Lena, please," Bianca croaked, her voice louder and more desperate this time. She trailed her fingers lower on her former lover’s arm, stroking the back of her hand more firmly, though she was careful to avoid badly bruised knuckles. "Just please open your eyes and look at me, just for a moment." She reached up, brushing dark hair back from Lena’s forehead, caressing her brow lightly. "Just a moment...please." She heard her voice tremble and crack as it rose the better part of an octave. "God, Lena...please..." She shuddered, fighting the urge to shake Lena in an effort to make her respond.

What if this was it? Her body relatively undamaged, the exotic beauty of that face and body as stunning as ever....

And her mind burned out and gone away.

A soft cry escaped Bianca’s lips, the literal physical pain of that thought hammering at her. Bent nearly double, she had to fight with every ounce of strength she possessed just to keep breathing.

She ran a fingertip along the line of Lena’s brow as though she could somehow sense any thoughts running through her head through tactile contact. Despite her stunning beauty, it was that amazing mind that made the Polish woman who she was. If that was somehow gone or damaged, Bianca wasn’t sure she could stand it.

"Lena, please," she whispered. "Just give me...look or move your hand...say something...just let me know you can hear me." Only Lena didn’t move, just lay there perfectly still, her skin like warm velvet. Bianca knew Lena was hurt, that none of this was her choice, and yet there was a sense of being punished that triggered an inescapable and unwanted anger that set off a corresponding wave of guilt. "Just open your eyes for a moment." She stroked fine boned fingers, careful not to touch the ugly bruises or cruel abrasions. "Or move your hand...something...anything." Her whole body shuddered under the force of a harsh sob. "Please...please...just something...I just need to know you’re still in there...."

Only Lena didn’t respond, didn’t open her eyes or move her hand. There were no miracle words to reassure Bianca that everything would be all right.

She simply lay there, perfectly still and silent.

No, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Lena wasn’t supposed to be lying in a hospital bed. She was supposed to be up, moving, running things for Kendall and rolling her eyes over Ryan’s total lack of understanding of all things business oriented, but mostly she was supposed to be there for Bianca, smiling, serious, protective, teasing, making love, doing whatever Bianca asked of her, and being whatever Bianca needed of her.

A tiny, pained cry escaped the young woman’s lips as her head fell forward on her shoulders, her hair drifting across Lena’s forearm, forehead just barely touching soft skin. "I’m sorry," she whimpered, imagined pictures of the accident playing in her brain. "I’m sorry," she moaned again as her mind conjured up a hallucination of Lena crying out her name as she was hurt and bleeding, trapped inside the shattered wreck of her car. "I didn’t mean it...none of it." She couldn’t fight the tears any longer and her whole body shook as they escaped and spilled onto rounded cheeks. "I know you’d never hurt Tyler...I know that." A harsh sob rattled her from head to toe. "I never meant for you to be hurt...I never wanted that," she choked, the tears rushing now, spilling from her eyes and falling onto bleached white sheets. Reaching up blindly, she stroked Lena’s cheek and down the line of her throat, pressing in just enough to feel the beat of her pulse just under her jawline. "God, why didn’t you just stay...then maybe this wouldn’t have happened. You’d be okay...not like this." She continued to shake and tremble in time with the harsh sobs that bubbled up from her chest. "Dammit, why did you have to...."

The words trailed off as she recognized her own anger, and flinched in horror. "I’m sorry," she gasped. "I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry." Horrified by her own shortsightedness that felt like it bordered on cruelty, she just kept apologizing, her body trembling with every utterance, hot tears running over her cheeks and clogging her throat.

The sudden feel of a gentle hand in her hair instantly brought Bianca’s head up. "Lena," she whispered hopefully, tear stained eyes falling on the slender figure lying so perfectly still.

"Bianca."

It took a moment for the young woman to process that it wasn’t Lena who’d spoken. She turned her head just as Maria Santos Grey crouched down next to the chair, blinked, staring in confusion as it slowly registered that the hand that had gently petted her hair wasn’t Lena’s. It was Doctor Grey’s and it slid on to land very lightly on her shoulder. The girl stared blankly for a moment, then looked back to the woman in the bed, abruptly realizing that of course it couldn’t have been her hand. Lena’s hand was still clutched in her own. Realizing she was holding on too tightly, she purposely opened her fingers, wincing as she realized how hard she’d gripped bruised fingers in her panic.

"You can’t be here, Bianca," Maria said softly, her tone low and sympathetic, but decided firm.

Bianca just stared at the woman in bed, the disappointment that came with the extinguishing of that momentary burst of hope leaving her close to collapse. She continued stroking Lena’s hand very lightly. "I talked to her," she croaked unsteadily, completely ignoring Maria’s words, "but she hasn’t responded...nothing."

Pushing her pity aside, Maria reached out, gently bringing Bianca’s chin around until their eyes met. "Bianca," she reiterated, speaking slowly and carefully, "you can’t be here. You have to leave---"

"No." The girl shook her head mutinously, jerking back from Maria’s light touch. "No, I-I can’t leave her...not like this." She looked at Lena again, willing her to move or speak, show some sign of life and make it clear that she wanted Bianca there. "Not when she’s so...so...when she thinks that I...." Her voice faded into creaky nothingness, the emotions too intense to allow continued speech.

"I wish I could let you stay," Maria admitted, "but I can’t." Lena’s family had been very clear about their wishes in that regard. Like it or not, she had her duty. She curved a hand to Bianca’s upper arm, applying gentle pressure to try and get the girl on her feet.

Bianca yanked her arm back, shaking her head back and forth, one hand still clinging desperately to Lena’s. "No...no, she needs me."

"Bianca---"

"No!" the girl said sharply. "You can’t ask me to leave her like this," she insisted, then looked back down at Lena, eyes running over that long, elegant frame, taking in the sight of cuts and bruises, thick bandages, tubes, wires, and a tightly wrapped brace. "Not when she’s...when she needs me." It wasn’t rational. She knew that, but then nothing she was feeling was rational. She just knew she belonged here and that leaving felt all wrong.

Maria paused for a moment, not really understanding the intensity, though it was obvious the girl was hurting. "I understand that you’re worried, but she’s getting the best care possible...her family’s here for her...and we’ll all do our best for her...but, Bianca, her family doesn’t want you anywhere near her." Seeing the way Bianca flinched under the weight of those softly spoken words, Maria felt like the cruellest person alive. Unfortunately, she didn’t have much choice in the matter. The last thing any of them needed was another scene, and she’d heard enough from Lena Kundera’s family to be certain that if they ran into Bianca Montgomery, there would be a scene, one she doubted the younger woman was anywhere near ready for.

Bianca swallowed hard, not even hearing Maria as she continued to stare at the unmoving woman, hunting for some sign that it wasn’t as bad as it felt. "Why won’t she respond?" she whispered as though Maria hadn’t spoken, simply refusing to deal with what she’d said.

Much as she wanted to answer, Maria had her professional ethics to consider. "I can’t discuss this with you."

"She’s not just sleeping," Bianca whispered raggedly, her entire concentration on her former lover. "I spoke to here...tried to wake her," she admitted. "And she didn’t hear me. Something’s wrong." She shook her head slowly. "Why won’t she respond?"

Even knowing she had no business saying anything and that she should just keep her mouth shut, Maria quietly explained, "She’s heavily sedated right now." She had no business going against the family’s wishes, but it was just too cruel to go on denying the girl any information. She didn’t have the heart for it. "They had to surgically set her arm earlier today, so we’re controlling the pain and keeping her quiet for the moment."

Bianca blinked, processing the words with effort. "She’s okay then?" she questioned when she finally spoke.

Maria froze. No good answer to that because she honestly didn’t know. "We’re running tests...and we’ll know more later." She ran her hair back from her face. "But that’s as much as I can tell you...more than I should have in fact." If Lena’s family found out, there’d be hell to pay. "But now you need to come with me." She kept her tone firm, brooking no argument this time. She’d given more ground than she had any business doing, and it was time to put a stop to this before something bad happened.

Bianca looked down at her former lover again, her head tipping to one side as she stared at smooth features and elegant curves she knew so well, marred now by injuries. "But I don’t want to leave her alone...what if she wakes up...and thinks there’s nobody here or that I don’t care?"

Caught by the vivid emotion in the young woman’s voice, Maria was momentarily struck dumb, her throat surprisingly tight. She’d been in that place, not with someone, yet caring more than she knew how to deal with. She understood too well. She also had a bad feeling about just what might happen if Lena’s family caught Bianca here. They’d be lucky if all hell breaking loose was the worst thing that happened. "Her family’s here...and the staff will take care of her---"

"B-but she probably thinks that I---"

"Bianca---" Maria began, but the girl cut her off.

"No, you don’t understand," Bianca interrupted. "The last time we...we were...we saw each other," she stumbled over the explanation, not quite able to admit to what had happened, "we fought. She probably thinks that I don’t give a damn...maybe even that I’d want her hurt." She shook her head, rejecting that possibility. "I can’t let that happen. I have to be here. She has to know. I can’t let her think that...." Unable to finish, her voice trailed into nothingness. She was babbling, she realized, just spewing whatever thoughts passed through her head. So much for making a cogent argument. It was all she could do not to simply beg.

Maria paused momentarily, searching for the right response, instinctively sensing there was a lot of the story that she didn’t know. Unfortunately, as much as she sympathized, she couldn’t do what Bianca wanted. "Bianca, her family’s already hurting...and right now, seeing you makes it worse...makes this that much harder for her mother to bear. You know how much Lena loves her mother. Don’t you think she’d want you to make sure her mom had as easy a time dealing with all of this as possible?"

Bianca just blinked, staring silently for a long moment before she whispered a heartbroken, "Please." Even knowing that Maria was probably right, she couldn’t imagine leaving this way, without Lena at least having some idea she’d been there.

"I’m sorry," Maria exhaled and held out a hand, "but you need to come with me." Hopefully she could get Bianca off the floor before anyone noticed her. That would be the best thing for all involved.

Bianca avoided the hand held out to her, instead turning in the chair to stare at the unconscious woman, eyes running over her lean frame with the intensity of a palpable caress. "She seems so small," she whispered at last. She reached out and brushed silky hair, letting the strands flutter between her fingers as she allowed Maria to draw her to her feet. "She never seemed that way before." Tall, dramatic, charismatic, Lena tended to be like a force of nature, mesmerizing and irresistible. From the very first, she’d seemed larger than life, more intense, more powerful, and a little more alive than everyone around her. Now suddenly she seemed delicate and painfully fragile.

"I promise you, Bianca, we’ll do everything in our power to take care of her," Maria assured her, and tugged lightly.

Still fluttering her fingers over and through chestnut hair, Bianca resisted the light pressure. "I know," she admitted, "but...." She trailed off and shook her head, feeling all wrong about leaving. In her heart she knew she needed to be there. Anything else felt like a sin of the highest order, a straight ticket to hell, because all she could see in her mind’s eye was Lena waking alone and thinking Bianca didn’t care that she was hurt. After the Lena had said during their fight, the things she thought and the way she believed Bianca thought of her, it was almost enough to break the younger woman’s heart. She ran a fingertip very lightly along the line of Lena’s unbruised cheek, absorbing the texture of warm velvet silently willing the other woman to respond somehow.

Only she didn’t.

Maria tried again. "Bianca," she said considerably more firmly.

"Will you tell her I was here..." Bianca whispered, her voice threatening to crack, "...that I’m thinking of her?"

Caught by surprise by the request, Maria momentarily froze, uncertain quite how to respond when she had no easy answers, and certainly none that wouldn’t open up more questions. Finally she snapped her mouth shut, took a breath, and said, "If she asks, I’ll tell her." Bianca looked like she might just break down all over again. Her mouth worked soundlessly, her eyes going back to the woman lying so helplessly in the hospital bed. She wanted to ask for more. Maria could see it as clearly as she could see the shifting readouts that gave some indications of her patient’s condition. "That’s the best I can promise," she said to forestall the request she knew was coming.

Bianca snapped her mouth shut, took a breath and let it out slowly. A moment passed and finally she reached up, dashing the moisture away from her eyes as she straightened her shoulders. Looking up at Maria, she saw the determination in brown eyes. The doctor wouldn’t give any more ground, the girl realized in a rush. "Thank you," she said at last, shoulders slumping as she surrendered to reality. She turned back toward Lena, well aware the seconds were counting down. Maria wasn’t going to allow much more delay. Bianca brushed dark hair back from the undamaged side of Lena’s forehead as she leaned down until her lips were near her former lover’s ear, her voice a whisper meant just for the two of them. "If you need me I’ll be close. I promise." Straightening ever so slightly, she pressed the softest of kisses to Lena’s temple, the caress so light she barely made contact. She brushed the back of Lena’s hand with her fingertips. "You just have to ask...I know we both said things...but that doesn’t matter. I’m here...and I...I care...." Finally, feeling a hand on her shoulder, she straightened, the tears threatening to begin again as she allowed Maria to lead her from the room.

As they reached the door, Maria paused, cracking the door and peering into the hallway to make certain it was clear.

Bianca took the moment to look back, drinking in the sight of the woman in bed one last time, consciously imprinting the image in her memories, some part of her afraid she might never see Lena again. God, if she’d only known....

There were so many things she would have done differently. She wouldn’t have let the fight escalate, wouldn’t have let her temper get the better of her, wouldn’t have let Lena think she didn’t trust her....

Wouldn’t have let her leave without making some kind of peace between them.

Hell, wouldn’t have let her leave at all. If she’d had any idea what could happen, she’d have kept Lena there, held on even if they were screaming at each other, but she’d have made sure she was okay.

Too late for that now.

And then Maria was pulling her into the hallway, the door slipping closed on the sight of the unconscious woman.

As the last crack disappeared, cutting off even a glimpse of Lena, Bianca stumbled, might have even gone down if not for the hand that curved to her upper arm. Wide-eyed, she glanced toward the waiting room, her brows drawing together into a sad expression. Despite the earlier scene, the instinct to go to Lena’s family was nearly overpowering. She just wanted to let them know she cared, that she was sorry, and would never want Lena hurt. They had to be feeling the same raw, sick pain that she was, and she was a little surprised by the protective desire to make certain that the people Lena loved most in the world were okay. She owed her former lover that much.

"You’d only make things worse," Maria said as if reading her mind and rested a restraining hand very lightly on Bianca’s shoulder.

Bianca nodded, knowing Maria was right even though it didn’t feel that way. Standing there stiffly, nails digging deeply into her palms, helpless to do anything else, she could only try to hold herself together. Even that was almost too hard.

"Why don’t I call your uncle to take you home," Maria suggested, worried about letting the young woman leave alone when she was so clearly upset. "I’m sure he’d be happy to help out."

Thinking of the questions Jackson Montgomery would ask, the gentle tone, the worried look, she shook her head. She’d never be able to stand up to the worried, caring pressure. It would all come tumbling out. Maybe that would be for the best, she couldn’t stand the idea. She’d gotten used to keeping her secrets. It felt safe and familiar, like the one thing she could always control.

"Bianca," Maria’s voice was low, understanding, "y’know, if you’d like someone to talk, I’d be happy to listen."

"Thanks, but no," Bianca said and turned away, not waiting to hear Maria continue to push her to open up and discuss what was bothering her. She was so damned tired of everyone pushing, wanting her to get the truth out in the open, wanting her to be honest about her feelings, pushing and prodding and pulling at her until she was half mad from it all. Only Lena had seemed to understand that she didn’t want to talk about some things, that talking about them made them more real and that much harder to bear.

And now maybe Lena was lost to her.

She heard Maria call her name and it only added length and speed to her stride. She had to get out of there fast.

Just get the hell out.

Fighting tears desperately, she reached the elevator bay and hammered on the call button as though repeatedly hitting it would bring the lift arrive more quickly. She just wanted out before someone else decided to be helpful. If one more person asked her to talk about her feelings, she thought she might just scream. It seemed like an hour passed and then suddenly the double doors were sliding open. Wrapped in her own thoughts and desperate to escape, she started forward, stumbled, then felt someone catch her by the arms as she fell against a tall, hard frame.

"Are you all right?" Male, distantly worried, faintly accented, the voice belonged to the owner of the body suddenly uncomfortably close to her own. There was nothing of Michael in his build or voice and yet her body reacted more quickly than her mind to having an unknown man’s frame so close to her own.

Tense and close to spitting, Bianca jerked back, ready to defend herself, shaking free of the hands on her arms, her reaction bordering on the feral. Then she tipped her head up and found herself facing familiar brown eyes and froze.

"Are you all right, Miss?"

Bianca blinked in confusion, her focus shifting, taking in features that were familiar and yet not. It was surreal to find herself staring at Lena’s face imposed on a man’s features, squared out, harder, leaner in the jaw, but with the same thick lashed, brown eyes and exotic beauty. He was young, her age, the softness of youth only intensifying a resemblance that would doubtless fade somewhat with age. Another relative of Lena’s. No doubt about it. Probably the young man she’d glimpsed from the back. She stared up at him in shock for a long moment.

"Miss?"

Bianca ducked sideways, neatly avoiding the hand that reached out as if to steady her, and she saw his frown even as she darted around him into the elevator. "Fine," she mumbled distantly, well aware that he was staring after her, probably thinking she was some crazy woman. Better than having him scream at her that she didn’t care for Lena, she supposed. Anything was better than having another person looking at her like she was some kind of monster with no soul, who cared for no one but herself. She couldn’t face that again, not when her own internal voices were whispering so many similar lies, leaving her feeling like she’d swallowed ground glass somewhere along the way and it was slicing her to pieces from the inside out.

In a daze, she hurried through the hospital as quickly as possible, dodging anyone or anything in her path, distantly aware that more than once someone flashed a worried look her way and started to ask a worried question.

She never gave them time, darting around those professionally interested obstacles like so many orange cones on a driver’s ed course. They weren’t going to make her stop, weren’t going to make her talk, and they certainly weren’t going to see her break down.

As she stepped into the night air, Bianca felt the chill of a breeze hitting cheeks that were damp. Damn! She rubbed at the moisture, her vision blurred by the unwanted influx of tears, but didn’t slow down until she reached her car. Trembling hands fought to get the key in the lock, fought to make it turn, her grip too tight and too clenched to make even that simple act easy.

Finally, the door was open and Bianca all but fell into her car, yanking the door shut in her wake and throwing the lock, feeling safer and less exposed with a wall of steel and glass between herself and the rest of the world.

Sitting there, locked away in her own space, it took a moment for everything to catch up with the young woman and as they did she started shaking uncontrollably. Images ran like rough water through her mind, tumbling and churning over sharp rocks and heavy boulders, and at the center of them all was the woman lying helpless in ICU so many floors above.

The woman she’d failed so miserably at every level, the woman Bianca had just had to leave because her own lies had guaranteed she no longer had a place in her life, the woman who might well have died without her even knowing.

Unable to hold back her emotions any longer, Bianca hung her hands over the steering wheel, buried her face in her arms.

And wept.

* * * * * *

"That was her, wasn’t it?" Low, polite, curious without the expected taint of underlying rage, the question reached Maria even as the young man who’d asked it came to a halt in front of her.

He was, she thought, as she stared up at him, quite simply beautiful. She knew it was an odd word to use in reference to a tall, muscular, thoroughly masculine, young man, and yet there it was. He was simply beautiful, a young adonis, the masculine counterpart to Lena Kundera’s exotic appeal. Even happily married, and as uninterested in other men as it was possible to be, she felt her pulse pick up fractionally as a virtually autonomic hormonal response kicked in. No wonder Lena had been so good at her job. If she possessed even a tenth of her younger relative’s innate charisma, anyone even remotely sexually interested in a woman would have fallen at her feet, and possibly a few who weren’t as well. "It’s...uh...Niko, right?" she questioned to forestall answering his question.

"I usually go by Nick, actually," he responded smoothly, still showing no signs of hostility, though given Irina and Paulina’s earlier responses, Maria was very much on edge. "Mom’s the only one who still calls me that." His accent was American, but with an overlaying hint of other things, foreign places and unknown cultures, the influence too faint and general to be easily identified. He’d been quiet since arriving the day after Irina and Paulina, hanging in the background---as much as anyone that gorgeous could---giving Maria very little sense of what he was thinking or how he might react. He glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the elevators, then back at Maria. "And don’t worry, I’m not going to freak out like my mom or my grandmother...and I think we’ve all had enough drama for one day. Unless I miss my guess, there’s no reason to tell them she was back." Another quick glance over his shoulder. "But that was Bianca Montgomery, wasn’t it?" he asked when he finally spoke, purposely keeping his voice pitched too low for any passers-by to hear.

"Yeah," Maria admitted after a beat. "That was her."

"She didn’t look too good," Niko observed.

"No," Maria agreed and didn’t say anymore, still uncertain how he might respond if he knew Bianca had snuck in to see Lena. All that calm, reasonable attitude might just be out the window then.

He nodded to indicate Lena’s door. "Did you tell Ms. Montgomery?"

Maria shrugged. "No," she answered without getting too specific.

Studying her thoughtfully, he cocked his head to one side. "Did she see her?" he asked at last.

Damn. Maria had really been hoping no one would ask. She’d already gone against her ethics so thoroughly that it was tempting to lie, but she had her limits. "Yeah...for a moment. Lena’s still heavily sedated, so she never knew Bianca was there."

"That must have been rough." He nodded, and she was relieved to note he still showed no signs of any anger, but instead an emotion that bordered on sympathy.

"Yeah...she...uh...she took seeing Lena like that...so unresponsive...pretty hard."

He stepped past Maria, still staring at Lena’s door, his manner distant. "At least she didn’t see the seizures."

No, thank god, she hadn’t. It was bad enough that Paulina had been alone with her daughter when one of the episodes started. She didn’t want to imagine the fallout if Bianca had been there as well. "No," Maria agreed, still uncertain of his mood and hesitant to say anymore than necessary.

"They’ve stopped though, right?"

"Yeah," Maria answered quickly, grateful for a less mine-strewn topic of conversation. "They couldn’t have done the surgery on her arm otherwise. It would have been too risky."

"Do you know why she seized?" he asked. "I mean, is that normal?"

Maria shrugged. "It was probably the head injury coupled with the blood loss causing a low oxygen supply to the brain."

"Is that why...." He didn’t finish, but she understood the question. "I mean, are we talking brain damage?"

"We’re still running tests."

"The all-purpose medical answer for, ‘We don’t know,’" he sighed, sounding tired and a little depressed.

"Sometimes," Maria admitted. "But the good news is that the seizures seem to have completely abated. The transfusions went well, her blood ox level is good enough we’ve got her off oxygen, and the MRI and CT show no signs of serious injury or organic cause. Most likely, her condition is just a temporary response to the accident."

"Good. It was hell on my grandmother...seeing her like that."

Maria nodded. Not knowing what to say, she found herself babbling to fill the dead air. "I guess you must all be pretty close."

He glanced back, shaking his head. "No...actually...I’d never met my grandmother...or Lena before." He paused thoughtfully. "I guess I still haven’t met Lena."

Dark brows drew together in a startled frown. "Oh, I just assumed...."

"No....my mom wasn’t much more than a kid when she defected from Poland. The communists were still in power and I guess Lena probably hadn’t even been born yet. Obviously she’s a lot younger than my mom...late in life kid, I guess." He turned back to face Maria, his expression odd. "I guess Mom never looked back because I didn’t even know they existed until she called me at school...asked me to fly down and help out." He offered a faintly embarrassed shrug. "I knew there were some cousins...but I thought mom’s parents were both dead."

"Do you have any idea why she didn’t tell you?" Maria asked before she could think better of it.

Nikos shook his head. "No. I tried to ask, but she’s not talking...and when she and my grandmother talk, they mostly stick to Polish...which leaves me out of the loop."

Maria had the distinct impression the whole situation was bothering the young man. She took a breath, started to ask, then thought better of it.

Apparently he did too because he straightened his shoulders. "I should get back...see if there’s anything I can do...offer to get food or something." He took several steps in the direction of the waiting room and then turned back, nodding in the direction Bianca had gone. "For her sake, make sure she stays away. After everything that’s happened, my mother’s on the warpath where Bianca Montgomery’s concerned...and believe me, you don’t want to see what will happen if she catches her here."

Maria nodded her understanding, then watched silently as he turned and hurried on his way, her brain still on the evening’s events. So damned much pain, and there she stood, helpless to do a blessed thing about it. Some days she seriously wished she’d gone for a career with less trauma attached to it. Maybe tax accounting. From what she’d seen accountants seldom faced life and death decisions. Finally, she stepped back into Lena’s room to check on her patient.

* * * * * *

 

After arriving at her sister’s and seeing the nanny out, Kendall had read and tried to stay awake, half expecting Bianca to call with news on Lena’s condition, but as the hour grew later, her determination wavered and finally, she fell into a shallow sleep on her half sister’s bed. Still fully dressed and sprawled on top of the blankets, she lifted her head, blinking muzzily when she heard the sounds of someone entering through the front door and was sitting upright, leaning back on her hands when Bianca appeared in the doorway a minute or two later.

Her sister looked like hell, as bad as Kendall had seen in months.

"Binks?" Kendall said, her voice coming out as little more than a shocked breath. "Did you see Lena?"

Stepping into her bedroom, Bianca nodded and all but fell into a high back wing chair that sat near the bed. Her eyes were red and swollen from crying, her cheeks blotchy.

Kendall pushed upright, scared now and slung her feet over the side of the bed. Oh, god, this was not good. "Bianca...what’s happened?" When her sister didn’t speak, Kendall kept pressing, sliding off the bed to crouch in front of Bianca. "Is it Lena? Is she...." Knowing how Bianca felt about the Polish woman, she couldn’t finish the question, knowing full well it would kill her sister if the worst had happened.

"She’s alive," Bianca responded, her tone flat, her gaze distant.

Exhaling a relieved sigh, Kendall brushed tousled hair back from her face as she peered worriedly up at her. "But that’s good...I mean, she’s alive, so that must mean she’s going to be okay...right?" she asked, trying to gauge her sister’s mood even as her stomach seemed to sink. Bianca’s expression wasn’t exactly one to encourage a lot of hopeful thoughts. In fact, judging by her response, Lena was in bad shape. "How was she doing?" she questioned when Bianca still hadn’t spoken several moments later.

"I don’t really know," Bianca admitted, blinking rapidly as if to clear her vision. She stiffened, breaking free of her own lost thoughts as she tipped her head down and focused on Kendall. "Maria has orders from her family not to tell me anything."

Kendall frowned, ready to be outraged on her younger sister’s behalf. "But that’s just---"

"They think I don’t care about her," Bianca said very softly, the raw pain in her voice cutting Kendall’s rant off before it could get started. She looked away, her gaze unfocused, shrugged one shoulder a little helplessly and continued, "And who can blame them. She was in a car accident...three days ago...and I wasn’t there for her...didn’t even know." Her voice cracked. "I was too busy being convinced that she’d come crawling back---"

Kendall gasped, instantly understanding the importance of the time span, though it took her a moment to speak, and even then she stumbled in the hunt for something to say. "Three days, but---"

"It must have happened not long after she left...after we fought," Bianca confirmed, so lost in her own agony that she could barely breathe. "No wonder she didn’t answer her phone or pick up her messages." She reached up, massaging one temple, her expression screwed into a look of pain. "She’s been in ICU all that time...and I didn’t even know." Her voice cracked ever so slightly. "God, Kendall, she could have died, and I wouldn’t have even known." That thought would haunt her to her dying day. She’d been lost in her own bitterness and resentments, going about her life, waiting for Lena to give way, and Lena had been lying hurt and alone. What if she’d died? Bianca wondered if she would have ever known. Lena’s family wouldn’t have contacted her, and no one else seemed to think it was any of her business either. Would anyone have even bothered, or would she have gone through her life thinking Lena had just left town, hating her for bailing out when she was really in a cold, dark grave somewhere? Would everyone have just gone on letting her think that, letting her silently hate the one person she....

Bianca didn’t let herself finish that thought, instead moving on to the next. And why wouldn’t they? She’d made so damned certain to inform everyone that she wasn’t with Lena and there was nothing between them now, been so careful to make sure everyone knew that Lena wasn’t important to her anymore.

Fighting a wave of nausea, Bianca clutched her stomach.

Bianca’s reaction frightening her, Kendall reached up to massage a delicate hand, startled by how chilled it was to the touch. "Binks, whatever happened, it’s not your fault," she insisted.

"I saw her," Bianca mumbled as she looked down at her sister. A hand fluttered near her cheek and then her temple. "There were some bruises on her face, but they didn’t look that bad...and some on her chest that were pretty ugly." She shook her head slowly, trying to throw off the daze that threatened to completely swamp her. "She was still so beautiful," she breathed, summoning the image of her lover’s face, the perfect Sleeping Beauty in repose. Only nothing so simple as a kiss had worked to wake her. "I spoke to her...tried to make her hear me, but she didn’t even know I was there."

Kendall saw and felt the shiver that worked its way through her sister’s frame.

"She just lay there." Bianca shuddered again, tormented by the memory of her former lover looking so painfully limp and fragile.

Not knowing what to say, Kendall clung a little harder to Bianca’s hand. "But she’s going to be okay, right?" She couldn’t imagine the Polish woman being anything else. There was a core of strength there that she couldn’t imagine breaking just because of a car accident.

"I don’t know," Bianca admitted and leaned forward, pulling her hand free of Kendall’s to brace her elbows on her knees and bury her face in her hands, rubbing her eyes slowly. "Maria said she was just sedated because they had to surgically set her arm, and she was in pain...but...why would Maria be her doctor if that’s all it was...and you don’t keep someone in ICU because of a broken arm." She’d spent the entire drive home going over everything she knew to the point that she’d probably been a danger on the road, her thoughts swirling dizzily, and she kept coming up with the same thing. It was more than just a broken arm or a bump on the head, and Maria had been parsing her words very carefully to avoid letting anything slip. She looked up, meeting Kendall’s gaze, her eyes scared and rimmed in silver tears. "Something’s wrong, Kendall."

Arched brows drew into a frown. "Did Maria say anything else?" Kendall asked hesitantly.

Numb and dazed, Bianca shook her head, her tone faintly resentful as she responded, "I told you, Lena’s mother left orders that I wasn’t to be told anything about her condition." She looked, her gaze taking on that distant quality that was starting to scare Kendall. "Maria wasn’t even supposed to tell me as much as she did...hell, they tried to keep me from seeing her. I had to sneak in just to...just to even be certain she was still alive." She rubbed her eye sockets, and then her cheeks, smearing any remaining moisture and wiping it away. "God, Kendall, she looked so small in that bed...so alone...." Lost in the memory, she stumbled over the words, her voice rasping painfully. "I didn’t want to leave her, but Maria wouldn’t let me stay." Her chin and lower lip trembled, though her eyes blazed. "She said it would just upset Lena’s mother if she found out."

"God, I’m sorry," Kendall breathed as she rubbed Bianca’s knee lightly in an attempt to offer some measure of comfort. "But maybe if you talk to them when things are a little calmer---"

"No," Bianca interrupted, her voice cracking, "I saw her mother before that..." She sniffed hard on the threat of tears. "She hates me...she’s never going to let me near Lena...and some cousin knows about us...she made it pretty clear that if I don’t stay away she’ll make sure everyone knows." Bianca would have to be blind to miss Kendall’s flinch and she stared at her sister for a long moment as what she’d just said sank in. "God, no wonder they don’t want me near her," Bianca croaked in a voice thick with disgust. "She could be dying and I’m worried about people finding out we were sleeping together---"

"Look, Binks, don’t beat on yourself---"

"Why not?" the younger woman demanded bitterly. "I’m the one who pushed her out...made sure she felt like I thought she was nothing...and now I’m the one who’d rather let her family blackmail me into staying away rather than risk anyone finding out."

Kendall was silent for a long moment, her mouth working, but no words coming.

Flopping back in the chair, Bianca tipped her head back, and hid her eyes behind her hand, Kendall’s shocked silence saying far more than words could have.

It took Kendall a moment to throw off the daze, and come up with something to say. Rubbing her younger sister’s knee soothingly, she cleared her throat, then said carefully, "Okay, so you panicked...but you were faced with a hostile situation and you’d been thrown for a loop." She took a breath, struggling to catch up with her tongue. "It doesn’t mean you don’t care about her. I know that." She paused long enough to take a breath, then continued, "And I know that, for whatever reason, you haven’t wanted people to know about you two...but you’re a good person Bianca. I know that if there was anything you could do to help her, you’d do it."

"I knew keeping it secret was hurting her," Bianca admitted the one thing she hadn’t let herself acknowledge before. "I just wouldn’t let myself admit it...it was more important to keep it secret...to...." she trailed off, unable to finish because she honestly didn’t understand her reasoning. "I don’t know why," she admitted at last. "And now she’s lying in the hospital and I can’t even be with her...because I made sure everyone thinks she’s nothing to me."

"Binks, y-you didn’t mean to---"

"Yes, I did," Bianca disagreed quietly, not giving herself any breaks. "I don’t even know why. I just...I needed to control...and I made her...and I knew...and then I drove her out...and she---"

"Don’t," Kendall said sharply as she caught a delicate hand in her own. It was chilled and stiff and she massaged gently, trying to induce some kind of heat. "Whatever happened, it’s not your fault," she said firmly. Bianca had already survived so much, and carried so much guilt for it all that it seemed painfully unfair to add one more burden to her load.

"How can you be so sure?" Bianca rasped. "I let her think I didn’t trust her near Tyler...and she was so upset when she left. She kept going over those final minutes in her head, replaying that awful confrontation, and the agonized look in Lena’s eyes, hearing again the pain soaked words and the squeal of tires as her lover pealed out.

If she’d just....

What? She didn’t know, but it seemed as though there should have been something she could do differently so that this wasn’t happening. "God, Kendall, what if was because---"

"No," Kendall cut her sister off. "Just don’t go there. You don’t know what happened...and even if---Look, Lena’s accident is just that, an accident. And hell, if anyone’s at fault...I’m the one who just had to call her and tell her she was fired that night." The brief explosion died away almost instantly and then Kendall fell painfully silent, the words she’d uttered in a rush hurting them both.

"It’s not your fault," Bianca breathed, then folded her arms around her midsection, teeth digging into her lower lip, her gaze unfocused. It didn’t matter. "I’m the one who told you...and maybe I even knew what you’d do." Suddenly doubting herself, she couldn’t help but wonder if she’d instinctively sent Kendall to punish Lena for daring to leave that way. Once upon a time, Bianca would have scoffed at the notion of her subconscious mind playing such sick games, but she didn’t know herself well enough to be so certain any longer. And it didn’t really matter anyway. None of the blame mattered because it didn’t change the fact that Lena was lying in a hospital bed. That was reality, and nothing changed reality. Bianca had learned that much over the previous year and a half.

"It’s not anybody’s fault," Kendall assured her sister. "Look, Binks, you’re probably worrying for nothing. I mean, Lena’s strong. I’m sure she’s gonna be fine." She swallowed hard, amazed by the intensity of her response. God, why now, just when Bianca was starting to put her life back together and get things under control? "You said there was a head wound...they’re probably just being extra careful by putting Maria on her case."

Wincing, Bianca bent nearly double, her hair falling across her face in a protective curtain. "Something was wrong, Kendall. Maria wouldn’t say what, but I could see it in her eyes...and when I asked, all she’d say was that they were running tests."

Bianca’s voice kept breaking up randomly, making her hard to understand and it took Kendall a moment to come up with the meaning. When she did, she gently brushed dark hair aside. "You can’t think like that. You’re just scaring yourself. It’s probably nothing---"

"And what if you’re wrong?" Bianca demanded without looking up. "What if she...." She couldn’t finish.

Unable to think of anything else to say, Kendall simply whispered, "She’s gonna be okay. You’ve got to believe that."

Her voice a heartbreaking whimper, Bianca rocked gently back and forth. "But what if she isn’t? What am I gonna do?"

"Shhh, whatever happens, you’ll get through. It’ll be okay." Easing forward, Kendall wrapped her sister in her arms, holding her gently and whispering soothing nonsense as she slowly massaged her back, offering what little comfort she could. "It’ll be okay...somehow...it’ll all be okay." She kept uttering the same assurances over and over even as she prayed she right.

Because she wasn’t sure what Bianca was going to do if she was wrong.

* * * * * *

One advantage to having a child, Bianca decided the next morning as she settled her son back into his crib after breakfast, was you couldn’t wallow in your own grief and pain. No matter how thoroughly the world seemed to be coming apart, this tiny person still needed you, still depended completely on you. Lose it, and you weren’t the only one who suffered. If she couldn’t keep it together, Tyler would be the one to pay. So small and helpless, he wasn’t at fault for any of the current mess.

She could spend the night crying on Kendall’s shoulders, but eventually life had to go on. Tyler had to be bathed, fed, changed, cared for. And so, as much as she wanted to crawl into a hole and pull it in after her, she simply didn’t have that option.

She’d already failed so many people that the notion of failing her child turned her stomach.

She was yanked out of her silent musings by the feel of tiny hands grabbing at her fingers. A gentle smile touching her lips, she played finger tag with her son until he tired of the game and moved on to the scintillating world of exploring his own toes.

Folding her arms along the edge of his crib, she watched for a long moment, finding some degree of escape from her own thoughts in the simplicity of an infant’s games. God, what she wouldn’t give for life to be that simple again. Unfortunately, Pandora was out of the box. That time of her life was come and gone. She would never be that innocent again. She reached down, cupping her son’s head tenderly, fine, dark hair brushing her fingers and palm as she studied him, once again relieved to feel no tie between this child and the animal that had fathered him. Tyler was hers and hers alone. In a way, it was her final revenge on Michael, to raise this baby, love him, see that he was a good person, and make certain that there was nothing of Michael in him. A muscle pulsed in her jaw as that thought occurred to her, leaving her vaguely uncomfortable. Much as she loved her son, there were times when she wondered about her decision to keep him, worried that she’d made the choice to make up in some way for her mother’s tortured relationship with Kendall, and to win one last battle with her rapist, to take from him something he would have battled to take from her.

She was terrified of the load that might one day rest on his shoulders because of her choices. What had all seemed so simple when she was pregnant was often terrifyingly complicated now that she was faced with this tiny person who relied on her completely and who might well suffer for her decisions. She’d thought parenthood would be simple, never guessing that it was often one part hope, one part joy, and at least a dozen parts sheer terror.

"Just full of cheery thoughts today, aren’t you?" she muttered disgustedly, then reached up to massage the back of her neck which was stiff from a night of twisted postures while crying on Kendall’s shoulder.

"Still having a rough time of it?" Kendall questioned as she appeared in the doorway and held out a cup of coffee, the steam wafting off the top smelling of hazelnut and cream.

Knowing Kendall’s version of coffee, it would be sweet enough to qualify for the candy aisle of the nearest quickie mart, thick and strong with enough caffeine to keep her going for at least a week. All of which sounded good to Bianca and she took the mug gratefully, not bothering to sip and instead taking the first dose in a long drought. "Had better days," she admitted after a beat, well aware of Kendall watching her worriedly. She turned back toward her son, reaching down and brushing impossibly fine, dark hair back from his forehead. Tired of the exciting world of his own toes, he’d moved on to fighting with his jumper, pulling at the snaps with tiny fingers. A hint of smile touched her mouth as she watched his efforts. "Thanks for staying last night."

Kendall shrugged, watching her sister closely. "Not a problem. Glad if I could help at all. You okay?"

Bianca shrugged one shoulder, but didn’t reply, her throat too tight to allow for speech.

"Tell me what to do," Kendall begged after a long moment of uncomfortable silence, "how to help make this better."

Bianca shook her head, still watching Tyler and petting his hair gently. "I don’t think you can," she admitted, her voice thick and ragged. "Her family was dead set against my seeing her or knowing anything...and legally they have every right." She’d gone over it all in her head a dozen times, and couldn’t see any way around that basic reality.

"Maybe if I talked to them," Kendall offered, "tried to make them see how this is hurting you."

A grim laugh escaped full lips. "I don’t think my pain is really their primary concern right now," Bianca pointed out dryly, leaving off the near-hatred she’d encountered or their clear belief that she didn’t really care for Lena. She couldn’t forget Paulina’s distress or the disdain in Irina’s dark gaze. It still tore at her to think about looking into eyes so much like Lena’s and seeing nothing but contempt. The memory left her feeling like someone had taken a razor blade to her flesh.

With no ready reply to that, Kendall was silent, simply standing there, ready to offer any assistance possible.

"Is this what it was like for her?" Bianca asked at last, the softly spoken words hanging in the air between them.

"I don’t understand," Kendall admitted, uncertain of her sister’s point.

"When I wouldn’t see her," Bianca said by way of explanation. "Is this what it was like...this sick sense of total helplessness?"

Glancing down at the floor, the memory of Lena lying deathly pale and still in bed suddenly running through her head, Kendall didn’t know what to say. She certainly couldn’t tell her sister the truth about the ends to which Lena had been driven. "I don’t know," she said at last, not quite lying as she continued, "She’s never talked to me about it." Never talked, though Kendall knew more about how desperate Lena had become during that time than she would have preferred.

Bianca was silent for a long moment, still gently petting her son’s hair, finding some comfort in the warmth and simplicity of an infant’s existence. "It must have been even worse for her," she said softly. "It wasn’t just my family that rejected her. It was me." She’d tried to avoid letting herself think about what she’d done in the past, and when she did she’d told herself over and over that Lena was better off without her, that she was protecting her, and any number of other lies. Now faced with being blocked out, she couldn’t help but wonder what it had been like for her former lover, thinking that if it had been like this, she wasn’t sure how she’d survived with her sanity intact. It was awful, a running film in her head that insisted on playing the worst possible scenarios over and over until she wasn’t sure how much longer she could stand it. It drove her to wild fantasies of finding a way to be with Lena, of sneaking in despite their orders, or confronting her family and forcing them to give her what was her due, or of just sweeping in and using to Cambias money and power to save Lena so that her family had no choice but to give way to her desires.

Pure fantasy. The reality was painfully different. She wasn’t welcome and even if Lena was up and talking, she probably still wouldn’t be.

Kendall’s mouth worked for a moment as she struggled to find the right words. "You can’t think like that," she said at last, well aware that the words were wholly inadequate even as they left her mouth.

Bianca glanced back over her shoulder, her mouth twisted into a hint of an ironic, bitter smile. "Funny," she whispered, "I can’t seem to think any other way."

"Binks, it won’t do her any good for you to beat on yourself...and whatever’s happened between you...no matter difficult things were that night, I don’t believe Lena would want that. I’ve never seen her be vindictive that way...especially where you’re concerned." No, from everything Kendall had seen, Lena had been willing to surrender every bit of herself for Bianca. The last thing she would want was to hurt her.

"No," Bianca murmured, a took a deep breath to keep from falling apart, Kendall’s quiet defense of her former lover hurting in ways she couldn’t begin to understand. But Kendall was right, Lena had never been cruel that way, in fact had been nothing but kind where Bianca was concerned. She’d quietly taken it all, simply offering her love and until that last confrontation showing none of her own pain. She felt a twist of self-hatred as a wave of resentment slid over her that Lena had broken that pattern and now everything had gone to hell. God, why had she done that? It would have been okay if she’d just....

Bianca shook her head, not finishing that thought, hating herself for the anger she couldn’t help feeling. "How awful am I that that just makes it worse?" she whispered at last, sickened by her own thoughts.

"Bianca, don’t do this," Kendall begged instantly, easily recognizing the signs of someone sinking into a well of self-blame. It was a trap she’d fallen into too many times, and it never made anything better. "It doesn’t change anything...or fix anything." She took a breath, straightening her shoulders and firming her voice. "You can’t afford to wallow in whatever guilt or self pity you’re feeling. You’ve got too many responsibilities...with Lena out of the picture at Cambias for the moment, we both do."

"Kendall, I don’t care---"

"Let me finish," Kendall said sharply, purposely cutting her younger sister off. "You’ve got business and you’ve got Tyler relying on you. Don’t get me wrong. If there’s anything you can do for Lena, you need to do that, but if there isn’t...if you can’t help her...then you need to hold it together and focus on the things you can do...your responsibilities."

Bianca froze, her sister’s words washing over her, reminding her that she no longer had the luxury of reacting like a petulant teenager. She had too many people relying on her now, not the least of them the tiny figure once again playing with his toes. Nice idea, but much harder than she could have imagined to put into practice when all she could think about was the woman lying in a Pine Valley Hospital bed. "What if I can’t?" she breathed as the fear slid through her, invading every inch of her flesh, accelerating her heartrate, and making her feel like her body temperature had dropped a dozen degrees.

"You grit your teeth and you do it anyway," Kendall said firmly, hiding any sympathy she was feeling, instinctively knowing that Bianca might just fall apart if she softened at all.

Bianca glanced back, wide brown eyes flashing a wounded look Kendall’s way.

The hurt expression was nearly Kendall’s undoing and her shoulders slumped ever so slightly under its impact. She was no good at being firm with Bianca. Actually, none of them were, which probably wasn’t the best thing for her sister. It had allowed her to delay and avoid too many things for too long, so much so that Kendall found herself wondering if fate had finally decided to kick in and teach Bianca a few lessons in spite of everyone’s desire to protect her. "Look," she said after a beat, "maybe you should call your counselor...see if you can get in and see her." So far, Dr. Zimmerman had proven to be one of the few people capable of kicking Bianca in the backside where necessary. Noting the look directed her way, Kendall wondered if the woman had a heart, or just an ice cube in her chest to stand up to that sort of thing.

Shaking her head, Bianca turned back to stare down at her son as he grabbed her fingers to demand her attention. "Her office is at the hospital," she said very softly. "I just don’t think it’s a good idea." She didn’t look back this time, unable to face her sister’s look as she added, "I don’t want to hurt Lena’s family...and I don’t think I could stay away...it would just hurt too much to be that close and.... I can’t."

Kendall drew a breath and blew it out. "Okay," she said, unable to press her younger sister even though a part of her thought Bianca should march down, confront Lena’s family and tell them exactly just how important she was in the Polish woman’s life. It might make for a hell of a scene, but at the same time, maybe it would drive home just how much Bianca did care---for Lena’s family and for Bianca herself---and just how important she was in Lena’s life whether her family liked it or not. It might just make them stand up and take notice, and just maybe it would do the same thing for Bianca. Unfortunately, it seemed apparent Bianca simply couldn’t face that option. "In which case, there’s a lot of work to be done at the office. I don’t understand half of what I’m looking at, and I could use some help."

Bianca snorted softly. "I don’t know any more than you do," she denied.

"You’re wrong," Kendall disagreed. "You’ve learned a lot in the last couple of months...Lena’s taught you a lot even if you don’t realize it."

"She just tells me stuff sometimes, but I don’t---"

"You know more than I do," Kendall cut her sister off. "I’ve watched you. You get this stuff. I don’t." She shook her head disgustedly. "With Enchantment and Fusion, I know how figure out what’s going to be popular...what’s going to catch fire...the right colors, the right mood, the right feel. I’m good at that and I know it...but all these reports and this corporate maneuvering...numbers coming out of my ears? It doesn’t make any goddamned sense to me." She paused for a moment. "I need your help. You can’t do anything for Lena, but you can do something for these companies...because without her, we may be in trouble very quickly. The sharks are already circling and I don’t know how to fight them. Lena did and my guess is she explained it to you."

"A little," Bianca admitted, thinking of the times when the other woman had carefully answered her questions and at least tried to explain the situation in the companies her son had inherited.

"Which is a lot more than I know," Kendall told her.

Looking back, Bianca shook her head. "Kendall, I really don’t think I can...."

"You can," Kendall disagreed. "You have to."

The sound of the front door opening and closing echoed through the small house, followed by a woman’s voice calling out, "Ms. Montgomery, I’m here." Tyler’s nanny had a key.

"The hardest in this life some days is to just muscle through and do what you have to...but you are more than strong enough to do that." Bianca swallowed hard, while Kendall paused, giving her time to consider her comments. Finally, she rested a light hand on her sister’s shoulder. "Now come on. We’ve got work to do."

"Hello, Ms. Montgomery," a cheerful voice said from the doorway before Bianca had a chance to respond.

The younger woman glanced at the newcomer, a smiling, grandmotherly figure. "Hi, Mrs. Timmons." She turned to look back down at her son. "He’s been fed and changed...and had a good play. My guess is he’ll fall asleep soon."

The older woman looked back and forth between the two sisters, her expression politely curious. Well aware of all the traumas surrounding her young employer, she never pressed, but was sensitive to the shifting emotional currents. There was something so heartbreakingly young and innocent about Bianca Montgomery, and it broke her heart to think of the hurt that had been inflicted on the girl, so she tried to offer a supportive presence in hopes of helping any way she could. "He’s always a good boy, Ms. Montgomery. I’m sure he’ll sleep peacefully."

Bianca looked at Kendall, holding her sister’s gaze as she nodded. "Yeah," she said very softly. "I’m sure he will," she agreed. "Meanwhile, I’ll probably be gone most of the day." Her gaze slid over to meet her nanny’s pale blue eyes, then back to Kendall. "I have to go into the office. You can reach me there or on my cell if you need me."

* * * * * *

Staring at the pages of the financial report spread out on the desk in front of her, Bianca reached up and rubbed the back of her neck, still struggling to understand it all. The graphs and charts helped, but it was still largely Greek to her, leaving her to wonder how the hell Lena did it, how she looked at this much disparate information and made it all make sense. Reaching out, she trailed a finger along a handwritten note jotted in the right hand margin of one page in Lena’s flowing script. There were other notes scattered through the documents Bianca had been reading. Most were meant to trigger the writer’s memory and were well over Bianca’s level of understanding, but a few were simpler and made things clearer for the young woman, giving her some insight into Lena’s thoughts and plans regarding the companies.

It helped a little, and if nothing else, reminded Bianca just how much effort her former lover had put into the companies over which she’d had inherited control. At a time when she felt hopelessly alone, it chased off the darkness inside of her just a little to realize how hard Lena had worked in an effort to protect things for Tyler.

To realize just how much she’d cared.

She pinched the bridge of her nose, closing her eyes and momentarily blocking everything out, struggling not to give way to a crushing wave of guilt over the fact that even as she’d been so carefully blocking Lena away from her son, Lena had been doing everything in her power to secure his inheritance.

No, she couldn’t afford to go there. Kendall was right about that much. The guilt wouldn’t help anyone, not the companies, not her son, and certainly not Lena, so she just had to hold it together and get through.

She’d been working virtually straight through since the morning after visiting Lena in the hospital, struggling to understand what had Kendall so rattled. Two days of reading over reports and trying to make sense of it all, and she didn’t feel any closer to understanding than she had when she started. The only things she’d figured out for certain were that several companies had made plays for various Cambias holdings since Tyler had inherited it all, though Lena had found any number of ways of fending them all off, and that more companies were waiting in the wings, all of them eager to get a piece of the Cambias pie.

Oh, it wasn’t going to be instant, but they were moving, maneuvering, sharks circling and getting ready to clamp down, and with Lena out of the picture, things seemed to be spinning faster. They’d scented blood on the water, maybe even knew for a fact that their nemesis was lying in a hospital bed and couldn’t do a thing to stop them. Stock prices were still holding firm, but someone was buying and selling a lot of shares, indicating something was going on. Lena had clearly been afraid of someone maneuvering the prices downward to force a selloff to raise capital, and in looking at the information in front of her, Bianca could understand the fear. The Cambias holdings were rich in capital, but cash poor. If stock prices dropped too much and they couldn’t use them as collateral for certain ongoing loans, then they could be in trouble very quickly. Lena had jotted the comment, "House of cards," in the margin of one report on a Cambias pharmaceutical subsidiary in Europe, and Bianca was afraid that wasn’t the only one.

In looking at the overview of things, it seemed clear that Lena had been trying to shift things around, make them more stable and shore up the problem areas. Alexander Cambias had played a wild game his entire career, building a fortune from a tiny family business by riding the knife’s edge and profiting highly from it. Unfortunately, without his particular genius, things were tenuous at best and businesses set up the way Cambias was had to constantly grow or they died. Lena had been trying to rein things in, well aware, to judge by her notes, that the current owner wasn’t up to that sort of high-flying game. Unfortunately, she hadn’t had time. The basic layout was still very much the cult of personality that Alexander Cambias had begun with only a patina of modern corporate organization to keep it from falling apart completely.

She’d ignored and avoided the reality of her responsibilities since inheriting them on behalf of her son, trusting everyone else to deal with the problem, only now it looked like she didn’t have much choice. Kendall was a wreck who didn’t understand five words in ten of the reports she was supposed to be tracking, and seemed to stress hideously over the whole situation, while Ryan was absolutely confident of his abilities, which as far as Bianca could tell were entirely nonexistent. She seriously considered asking her mother to help. God knew, Erica Kane understood business and was quite capable of playing the game. Of all of them, she was the only one who could do what Lena had done, but since her retirement from Enchantment, Erica had been dealt enough blows. She was already under so much stress, and the relationship between them still so strained that Bianca was hesitant to ask. She just didn’t want to add to her mother’s problems.

No, this time it was her problem.

Bianca cursed softly, letting her head fall into her hand as the weight of it all threatened to overwhelm her. She flipped another page, scanning the contents only to come up short as she noted a note in the margin; a few numbers and then simply the words, "For Bianca and Tyler."

Barely able to hold the tears back, Bianca traced the neat handwriting with the tip of her finger, her brain playing tricks on her, making her imagine that she could feel some sense of Lena just by touching the notes she’d left behind. She outlined the flowing letters over and over, a tiny shiver working its way down her spine, the intensity of the experience only growing until she had the oddest sense that Lena was somehow there with her.

And then, almost as abruptly as it had come over her, the sensation disappeared, leaving Bianca feeling even more bereft. Hopelessly lost and alone she simply sat there for a long moment, staring into the distance, feeling as though her brain was spinning its wheels in the sand because nothing seemed quite right. She forced herself to look down at the papers on her desk, struggling desperately to dismiss the sinking sense in the pit of her stomach and the sense of Lena that had briefly been with her. It didn’t mean anything. It just a trick of the imagination, and any fears she had that she’d had some kind of psychic event or that something was wrong with Lena were just foolish superstition caused by watching too many late night shows on ghostly hauntings.

Work. She needed to concentrate on work. Just focus on her responsibilities and get through. She was just being stupid and paranoid. Whatever was going on with Lena, it had nothing to do with any fanciful thoughts of her part.

Just concentrate on work.

Only she couldn’t. It was like the fear was building on itself, spinning tighter and tighter, threatening to make her crazy.

She couldn’t concentrate on anything except the her terror and the memory of her lover stretched out and alone in a hospital bed.

Finally, she threw down her pen, grabbed for her car keys and hurried out.

* * * * * *

 

At some level she knew she had no right to be there, that she should have done as told and stayed away, even that she risked hurting people and causing a problem.

Nonetheless, Bianca Montgomery stood bouncing nervously on the balls of her feet, trying to look like she was right where she belonged as she checked out the corridor in front of the ICU, making absolutely certain Lena’s family was nowhere near. Seeing no sign of them, she hurried forward, reaching the door to Lena’s room in record time.

Where before she’d paused, afraid of what she might find, this time she moved fast, gripping the knob and turning sharply, pushing the door. She’d just check on Lena and go, that was all. That couldn’t do any harm.

And then she froze, her heart suddenly a frozen mass in her chest.

The bed was empty.

No, no, NO!!!

Bianca was sure she was screaming, but no sound escaped her lips. She was just standing there, her brain short-circuiting, the air trapped in her lungs, every muscle in her body seized and non-functional.

It couldn’t be. She couldn’t be....

And yet how many times had she heard tales of the dead and dying paying one last visit to those they loved? Was it possible that that sense of Lena being there in her office had been real, that it had been some kind of last visitation just as she---

NO!!!!

Standing in a state of total paralysis, her ears ringing violently, she didn’t realize someone was speaking to her until a hand landed on her shoulder.

"Miss? Miss?"

Her movements marionette-stiff, Bianca turned her head to find a nurse staring worriedly at her. "The woman who was in this room," she croaked as her heart slammed back into motion, beating hummingbird fast and jackhammer hard in her chest, "she...." She couldn’t finish and just wound up stammering, "she-she w-was---"

The nurse’s hand slid down to Bianca’s arm just above her elbow, ready to offer a supportive hold, experienced enough to realize the young woman was in shock. "Ms. Kundera?" she said on a questioning note, then continued before Bianca could find a breath to respond, "They moved her to a private room," she quickly assured her.

"A private room?" Bianca repeated as though she hadn’t heard correctly. Already half convinced she’d lost Lena forever, she couldn’t quite believe what this woman was telling her.

"Yes, miss...yesterday afternoon."

Her knees threatening to turn to jelly, Bianca had to fight not to sink to the floor. "Th-that must mean she was doing better," she managed to croak after a brief moment as she struggled to process the answer, still unconvinced at some deeper, instinctive level.

Obviously Maria hadn’t warned this nurse about her---or maybe she hadn’t warned any of them---Bianca realized, because the nurse nodded and then answered, "I’m sure they were confident she was completely stable before they moved her."

"So she’s okay now?" Bianca whispered, her desperation evident in every syllable.

The nurse started to answer, only to pull up short, abruptly remembering patient confidentiality, though she’d momentarily forgotten when she’d looked into that pain-soaked gaze. "I think her family or her doctor would be a better choice to answer any questions," she said after a beat. She’d never been good about withholding information or not offering comfort where possible, but Doctor Grey had been very clear about not discussing this patient with anyone because of the interest shown by the tabloids. Not that she believed the young woman in front of her was part of that element of the press, but it wasn’t the time to slip up and cause a problem.

The momentary burst of hope slipping a notch, Bianca’s shoulders sagged. "But she must have been doing better for them to move her, right?" she repeated, needing more assurances, still not quite believing Lena was okay.

"Better...yes," the nurse confirmed without getting specific. "They moved her to room 1215. You can visit her there."

"Right. Visit." Bianca pivoted neatly in place, staring back the way she’d come, the hallway seeming longer than she remembered.

"In the morning, of course," the nurse added, adding a faint note of warning to her professional concern as she continued, "You do realize that visiting hours are over for day...but you can come back...starting at nine tomorrow morning."

Bianca still had the wherewithal to tamp down any desire to argue. The last thing she wanted to do was make this woman suspicious. "Right...in the morning." She glanced back into the now-empty hospital room, feeling the need to explain even if it was a lie. "I know that. I was just stopping by...thinking I’d see her family or something...y’know just to check on how she’s doing...and when I saw the empty room, I just panicked for a moment."

The nurse offered a smile meant to comfort. "Understandable," she admitted, once again forgetting her responsibilities in the face of Bianca’s pain. "I wasn’t on duty the first couple of days, but I gather it was pretty bad. She’d lost a lot of blood...and the seizures...those are always difficult."

Bianca stuck her arm out, clutching the doorframe tightly when the world seemed to tilt on its axis around her. "Seizures?" she whispered hoarsely, her voice little more than a rasp, her imagination summoning painful images of Lena’s body wracked with violent shudders, her eyes rolled back, all control lost.

The nurse nodded again. "She had several episodes. That’s why they had to wait to do the surgery on her arm." Her expression shifted back to the worried cast that had momentarily disappeared. "I assumed you knew."

Realizing her ignorance was likely to trigger the woman’s suspicions, Bianca tried to cover her response. "No...I mean, I knew she was hurt, but I hadn’t heard about the seizures."

"Yeah," the nurse sighed sympathetically. "I heard her mother was actually in the room during one episode...poor woman. Must have scared the hell out of her."

Her brow drawing into a frown, Bianca found herself nodding in agreement, unable to imagine how terrifying it would be to see someone you loved going through something like that and be unable to help. No wonder Paulina Kundera had looked like she’d been hit by a bus. "I know she was very upset," she said, her voice threatening to trail away into nothingness. "Well, I guess I should head home," she said at last, lying surprisingly smoothly given that she had absolutely no intention of leaving without seeing Lena. No surprise about the lying though. She’d become a past master of lies, a true artist of the medium. "Thanks for everything...sorry if I kept you from anything. I’ll...uh...try again in the morning."

"Like I said, visiting hours start at nine."

"Thank you," Bianca spoke and turned, striding away, well aware of the eyes that tracked her. Was the nurse suspicious, curious, or just bored and watching everything that moved to entertain herself. Or maybe she was just being paranoid and the woman wasn’t watching her at all. Nonetheless, she opted for paranoia and hit the down button to call the elevator, then punched the button for the lobby when she got in. Once it hit the ground floor, she switched elevators, and punched the button for the twelfth floor. With luck, she’d just scared herself and everything was fine, but in spite of the nurse’s assurance, she wanted to be sure.

No, scratch that. It wasn’t about wanting or not wanting. It was a compulsion she couldn’t resist. She had to see Lena no matter what it cost her, had to be certain she was still alive, still breathing, touch her hand, feel the warmth of her skin.

Which was why she found herself peering around the corner of a corridor near Lena’s room several minutes later, checking to make certain there was no one there to stop her or make a scene. The last thing she wanted was to encounter any more members of Lena’s family, for their sake and for hers. But it was late. Hopefully, they had left for the evening.

Finally, concluding the corridor was clear, she moved forward, tracking the room numbers and hurrying along until she found the one she was looking for.

1215.

Lena’s room.

Once again she paused before entering, though this time it was only as long as a heartbeat. Still, it was enough time for every doubt about herself that she’d ever had to go running through her mind. Amazing how fast the brain could work with sufficient incentive. Part of her wanted to run away and forget Lena had ever existed, as though that would somehow erase her own failings, and the other part just wanted to find the other woman, crawl into her arms, and beg for the forgiveness she knew in her heart she didn’t deserve.

Only neither answer was a real one. She couldn’t run away, and Lena couldn’t protect her from her demons this time. No, she was on her own, sink or swim. Either way, it was all up to her this time. Bianca took a breath, screwed up her courage....

And then suddenly she was pulling the door open and slipping inside. No more time for contemplation now. Since it was night the lights were low, and she froze as the door slid shut in her wake. With no bright monitors to draw her gaze, her eyes went straight to the slender figure lying so silently in bed. A few steps and she was standing close, staring down at elegant features, drinking in the signs of life; the way Lena’s breathing came slow and steady, and the faint flush of her skin. There was still a bandage on her forehead and her left arm was braced and wrapped, but her color seemed better and her sleep more natural even if she was just as unconscious.

Bianca stood there for a long moment, simply watching, tempted to reach out and touch, but afraid of doing the wrong thing. Lena looked so fragile. Despite her height, she was a slightly built woman, her bone structure bordering on delicate, and right now, lying so still, she appeared downright frail.

"I’m so sorry you were hurt," Bianca breathed almost inaudibly, then reached out, just barely stroking the back of her former lover’s hand, needing the tactile reassurance of life and hope. Warm and as silky as ever. A hint of a smile touched her mouth.

A moment passed. A flicker of facial muscles drew Bianca’s gaze and she leaned closer. "Lena," she breathed, "I’m here."

Dark lashes fluttered, the movement so faint that for just a moment Bianca wasn’t certain it was real, and then it happened again, more distinctly this time.

Very real.

Caught by surprise, Bianca guiltily leapt back a pace, afraid her former lover would react the way her family had and uncertain she could bear the idea of that much rage directed her way from this woman. For a moment Lena didn’t move, and Bianca thought perhaps it was just a tiny muscle twitch, then long lashes fluttered again and suddenly Bianca was faced with curious brown eyes. She froze like a deer in the hunter’s sights.

Lena looked at her, a hint of a frown creasing her brow as though she was struggling to focus. Still blinking dazedly, she ran her eyes over Bianca from head to toe, then returned to stare at her face, her frown deepening ever so slightly.

"I’m sorry," Bianca apologized haltingly, feeling the need to fill the silence. "I didn’t mean to wake you."

Lena continued silently staring at Bianca. "It’s all right," she murmured, her voice thick with sleep. She blinked muzzily, looking around momentarily, before peering at Bianca again. Her good hand rose from the sheets, gesturing loosely. "I’ve probably been sleeping too much anyway." She offered a hint of a blank smile and indicated her injured arm. "The drugs for the pain," she explained, "they make me tired."

Despite her fears of rejection, Bianca couldn’t take her eyes off the woman in the hospital bed. She was moving, awake, very much alive and conscious. Bianca could barely think straight, too thrilled by the sight to be particularly coherent. Drawn by the need to be certain, her movements bordering on cautious, she retook the steps she’d retreated. Given the way they’d parted, she was a little surprised not to feel any hostility directed her way, but Lena was simply watching her a little blankly. "You...uh...you look good. I mean..." her eyes went to the brace on Lena’s left arm, then touched on the bandage on her forehead, "like you weren’t hurt too badly."

"They don’t think so," Lena agreed, then added, "but they’re still running tests." She rolled her eyes in annoyance. "Lots of tests." She looked down, picking at the sheet with her good hand, then looked up through clear brown eyes. "And I guess more to come."

"Running tests?" Bianca repeated, her heart in her throat, terrified something was very wrong and no one was telling her. "Like what?" she asked, hoping maybe she could figure out what was going on if she knew more.

Lena frowned ever so slightly, still peering at Bianca, her expression faintly blank. "Everything I think." She looked down at her inner arm, which showed the signs of needle pricks. "I think they took back most of the blood they put into me." Still staring at her arm, she gestured toward her head. "Plus scans, X-rays, other tests..." She shook her head. "I don’t even know what half of them are for." Finally, she looked up again, meeting Bianca’s eyes, then moving on, studying her.

There was something unsettling about Lena’s gaze, and Bianca felt her pulse accelerate as it struck that her former lover’s expression was much too blank, the only emotion a shallow kind of inquisitiveness. Lena had never looked at her like that before, not even when they’d first met. There was none of the anger she’d feared, but no love either, not even the intense, nearly combustible sensual connection that was always with them, just a polite sort of curiosity. Bianca swallowed hard, wanting to say something, but not knowing what to make of what she was seeing and feeling, she had no idea what, so she just stared back.

"I’m sorry," Lena said at last as her eyes slid back up to meet Bianca’s, "but do I know you?"

Do. I. Know. You? Bianca blinked, her mouth dropping open. "Wha’?" she croaked, barely comprehending the question. It didn’t seem possible that four, single syllable words could make so little sense.

Embarrassed, Lena looked away, not seeing Bianca’s goggle-eyed confusion as she gestured to her head. "They think it’s probably only temporary...but the last few years seem to be a little...foggy." Brown eyes darted around the room, focusing on anything and everything but Bianca.

Shock threatening to flatline any brain activity, Bianca couldn’t think of a single thing to say. In a strange moment of clarity, it abruptly struck her that the other woman’s accent was thicker than she was used to hearing it, her speech pattern halting as though she was struggling just a little to find the words she wanted. An older pattern, before she’d become so comfortable in English? Was such a thing even possible?

Bianca suddenly realized that Lena had fallen silent and was looking at her again, waiting expectantly. "You’re saying y-you don’t...remember..." she stammered the first thing that came to mind, well aware even as she said the words that she probably sounded like a total idiot.

If she did, Lena didn’t appear to notice because she just offered an embarrassed shrug. "No...not really," she confirmed. "The last few years I guess are...well...kind of missing. The last thing I remember is graduate school." She trailed off and they both fell into an uncomfortable silence, Bianca shaken to the core, while Lena was simply staring, clearly confused and questioning. Her frown continued to deepen as she watched Bianca closely. "So do I know you?" she repeated the question after a beat, then added, "Are we friends?"

"Friends?" Bianca repeated and reached up to massage her temple as the world threatened to spin around her. Friends? Lena was lying there, innocently asking if they were friends as though they hadn’t lain naked together, hadn’t kissed and touched and explored each other’s bodies by the hour, as though they weren’t----

"I just wondered because no one’s come to visit except my mother...and I thought maybe...." Lena trailed off uncomfortably, staring at Bianca with that same openly curious, strangely innocent expression.

Bianca barely registered the other woman’s words, too shocked to be thinking clearly. She shook her head slowly, struggling to force it all into some coherent form without much success. Lena was saying she had no memory of their time together, no knowledge of what they were to each other. It just didn’t seem possible. How could anyone forget those hours spent wrapped in each other’s arms, flesh to flesh? At some level she was almost suspicious that it was just another lie; a way of punishing her for the insisting on the deceit that Lena had so hated.

"Miss?" Lena spoke hesitantly.

Still caught up in her private musings the younger woman tipped her head to one side, silently assessing her former lover, trying to decide if it was possible her suspicions had any merit. Could Lena be that cruel? Could she strike back in such a visceral way?

"Miss?" Lena repeated, growing more uneasy with every passing moment of the close perusal.

Bianca blinked, abruptly realizing she’d fallen silent and was simply standing there staring while Lena was looking worried. She started to reach out, only to drop her hand to her side, the gesture unfinished.

Lena flinched, looking stressed and uncomfortable under that probing gaze. "Are you all right?" she whispered after a beat. When Bianca didn’t answer, she cradled her injured arm against her body and pushed up on her good hand, muscles tensing as though she might try to climb out of bed in an effort to help.

"Don’t," Bianca said quickly, the realization that her former lover could be hurt if she tried to stand yanking her out of her momentary paralysis. She held out a hand, gesturing for the other woman to stay right where she was. "Yes...we’re friends," she assured her, her voice bobbling a little. "Good friends," she added, the words coming too fast and a little tremulous.

The Polish woman remained poised as if to come to her aid, looking like the woman Bianca knew for the first time since she’d entered. "You’re a friend?" she repeated, and Bianca could almost hear the gears turning in her head as she struggled to piece things together, only she didn’t have all the pieces and she seemed to know that because she abruptly shifted focus. "Are you all right?" she asked again, leaving Bianca to wonder just how bad she looked.

Then again, judging by Lena’s expression maybe it was best not to know some things.

"I’m fine," Bianca reassured her, again gesturing for Lena to stay where she was. "You just startled me. I didn’t know about your...about your memory. I’m sorry if I scared you," she apologized, wanting to soothe the fear she saw in Lena’s eyes.

"You just seem a little...shaken," Lena said after a brief pause as though she had to search for the right words. "Do you need a nurse?"

"No, I’m fine," Bianca repeated, waving off that idea. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you," she apologized again as she continued studying every inch of her former lover, seeing the innocent curiosity in her eyes. It was no game. Whatever her past, Lena wouldn’t do something like that. It would require a level of cruelty she simply didn’t possess, and Bianca was disgusted with herself for entertaining the notion for even a moment. She continued studying soft curves, comforting herself with the obvious evidence that Lena was alive and healing. "Do they know why?" she blurted out the first question that came to mind. "The memory loss, I mean?"

Lena sank back into the mattress, with a soft sigh, her strength running out so thoroughly that Bianca could see a faint tremor in her muscles as she lifted her hand and indicated her bandaged forehead."Maybe the head injury," she explained, still watching Bianca, though her expression softened somewhat, going from wide-eyed and frightened, to exhausted. "Or maybe the oxygen deprivation from the blood loss." She shrugged. "I don’t think they know," she confided, the faintly lost, frightened look returning to her expression.

Of course she had to be scared, Bianca reminded herself as she tried to imagine what it would be like to have several years of her life simply erased. Tempting as it the idea might be, she had little doubt that in practice, it would be scary as hell. She drew a little closer, wishing she could find a way to wipe the fear away. "I’m sure it’ll be all right," she said after a beat.

"That’s what my mother keeps saying," Lena whispered, her gaze becoming distant. She plucked at the blankets with her good hand.

Reaching out, Bianca gently covered that slender hand, stroking fine-boned knuckles. "I’m sure she’s right...after all, you should always listen to your mother, right?" she teased, trying to lighten the moment and buy a little time in hopes of kick-starting her brain because shock was making it hard to think coherently.

The effort fell hopelessly flat as Lena tipped her chin down, staring at Bianca’s hand in that particularly intense way of hers, her brows drawing into a frown.

Bianca found herself wondering if maybe the other woman was starting to remember or if she was just reacting to that same chemistry they’d always shared.

Or maybe there was a third option she realized as Lena looked up, her eyes rimmed in silver tears. "She just seems so much older now."

The fear of loss lived in those eyes, Bianca abruptly realized. She swallowed hard, trying to imagine losing five years and finding her life an unfamiliar puzzle, her mother altered by the passage of time. Unfortunately, Erica Kane was such an unchanging force that it didn’t really help. "Well, you said you don’t remember several years...time has passed." She didn’t know if it was the right thing to say, but it was all she could think of.

"It’s not that," Lena whispered almost inaudibly, then looked up again and it struck Bianca how young she seemed. "It’s her eyes," the Polish woman continued, her worry palpable, "I’ve never seen them like that...so sad and frightened...not even after my father was killed." She paused, swallowing hard, then looked down again. Staring hard at Bianca’s hand. "You said you’re a friend?"

"Yes," Bianca said cautiously.

Tipping her chin up, Lena stared at Bianca, her gaze so open and deep the younger woman feared she might just topple and fall into that limitless gaze. "Can you tell me what’s going on then? Why she seems so sad?"

Without the faintest idea what to say, Bianca nearly stumbled over her own tongue. "I-I’m sure she’s just worried about you," she muttered when she couldn’t think of anything else, startled by how bereft she felt when Lena looked away again.

"Maybe," Lena exhaled, though she didn’t sound at all convinced. She looked up again. "Please," she said softly, her tone heart-wrenchingly poignant, her eyes an inviting shade of brown and so guileless she might have been a child again were it not for the face and body that were decidedly adult. "If you’re a friend, can you make sure she’s okay while I’m in here?"

Bianca froze. It was the one thing she couldn’t possibly do for Lena, not because she was unwilling but because Paulina would never allow it. And yet she had lost brown eyes staring pleadingly up at her, silently begging for some kind of assurance. "I-I’ll do what I can," she muttered uncomfortably. "But your mother...she’s...I don’t know that she’d accept my help...and I’m sure your family---"

Lena shook her head. "She barely knows most of the family we have in the states. I doubt they’d be much comfort." She turned her hand under Bianca’s, clutching tightly. "Please, I’d feel better if a friend was keeping an eye on her."

The total trust directed Bianca’s way was faintly confusing. It was so at odds with the woman she knew---one who kept her secrets, hid her past, and shared only the emotions she chose to---that Bianca hardly knew what to make of it. It was like she was facing a different person; one with the same beauty and native charm, but not so frightened or scarred by life. Drawn by the pleading gaze, she leaned a little closer, barely resisting the urge to reach out and pet the lock of hair that fell across Lena’s brow. She searched dark eyes, feeling some of that old combustible energy. She thought maybe Lena was feeling it too as the Polish woman’s breath caught and black pupils expanded until there was no more than the tiniest ring of brown around them. Bianca drew breath, trying to come up with an answer that would salve Lena’s fears without making promises she couldn’t possibly keep. "Lena, I---"

"You," the hiss was soft, but full of anger and accompanied by the faint sound of hinges moving.

Bianca’s head snapped up, eyes going wide as they fell on the figure standing in the doorway.

Paulina Kundera.

Standing stiff, her expression a mask of fury and disbelief, the older woman glared at Bianca and drew a breath. "How dare you," she snarled, her voice a throaty growl. "You come here now...against my wishes---"

"Mama...what’s---" Lena whispered in confusion, sounding small and frightened.

Paulina didn’t notice her daughter’s upset, her attention focused on the woman she saw as an interloper. "Get out," she commanded and pointed at the door. "Get out before I-I---" Frustrated, English becoming more difficult, she slid into Polish, snarling soft comments under her breath.

"Mama!" Lena broke in, sounding appalled as she pushed up on her good hand. "Please, I don’t understand. What’s---"

The older woman turned a strange look that was a mix of hurt and chiding her daughter’s way, responding in her native language and leaving Bianca out of the mix.

Whatever she said, it was no compliment, and only left Lena looking more bewildered. "I don’t understand," she repeated, looking back and forth between them, obviously trying to comprehend the hostility and having no luck.

"She has no right to be here," Paulina said again, the bitterness sliding over into something approaching pleading as she looked at her daughter.

Lena stared at her mother for a long moment, then looked to Bianca. "Why...what’s going on?"

"Nothing you need to worry about," Maria Grey broke in firmly as she stepped inside the open doorway behind Paulina. Her eyes blazed as they landed on Bianca, and the younger woman cringed at the disapproval directed her way, though there was something faintly satisfying in the fact that Maria turned a similar look on Paulina, quelling whatever she’d been about to say. The doctor stepped over to the bed, neatly supplanting Bianca and turning a smooth, professional smile her patient’s way. "In fact, you’re supposed to be resting."

Lena continued to look worried, her eyes darting from person to person. "But---" she started to argue only to have Maria cut her off.

"Doctor’s orders." Maria rested a hand lightly on Lena’s shoulder, gently urging her to lie back down. "You just got out of ICU. This is not the time to be worrying about anything but getting better." She cast another hard look over her shoulder at Paulina who stood fuming and Bianca who was all hangdog guilt. "So just relax. Since visiting hours are over," she glanced at Lena, then hurled a quick glare at Bianca and Paulina, "I’ll just see your visitors out and then come back and check on you, all right?"

Lena looked very doubtful, but managed a weak nod, sinking deeper into the mattress as her muscles gave out, exhaustion depleting her limited stores of strength.

As Bianca watched Paulina stepped forward, nodding ever so slightly to acknowledge the warning look Maria cast her way. Maria’s chiding had drained the anger, making her look less the avenging angel and more like what she was, a very tired, emotionally drained, elderly woman. Despite an emotion that bordered on dislike where Paulina Kundera was concerned---Bianca could never forget what she’d had allowed her daughter to do---Bianca couldn’t help but feel for the pain she saw in pale blue eyes. The older woman drew close to Lena’s bedside and Bianca found herself pulled aside by Maria to make way.

Leaning down, Paulina tenderly brushed her daughter’s bangs aside and whispered something in Polish that was for them alone.

The soft words drew an uncertain smile from the woman in the bed and she replied in her native tongue, her voice low and intended to offer comfort.

Paulina responded, then leaned closer, brushing a kiss onto her daughter’s forehead. Finally, she straightened, casting a quick, hostile glance over her shoulder at Bianca, then a more serious and meaningful look at Maria. Still staring at them, she said something to her daughter, her tone gentler than Bianca expected. Finally, she pulled away, stepping toward the door.

Tempted to try and get one last moment of her lover’s time, Bianca started to step around Maria only to feel a surprisingly strong hand clamp down on her shoulder, while Maria kept her body between Bianca and her patient. Her grip firm, she pushed Bianca toward the door, trailing after Paulina.

"I’ll be back in just a few minutes," Maria informed Lena with a quick glance over her shoulder.

Bianca twisted to stare at the woman in the bed, meeting her worried gaze, wanting to convey some kind of last message, a silent reassurance that she was there and she cared.

Maria glared at Bianca for her efforts, but didn’t say anything, simply continued the steady pressure on her shoulder, urging her toward the door. Paulina had already exited and they were only a few paces behind her when Lena suddenly spoke up.

"Wait."

Bianca spun in spite of the pressure from Maria, her gaze meeting her former lover’s.

"Your name," Lena said, sitting up a little, something in her tone leaving Bianca was the distinct impression she was just as hesitant to let the moment end, though perhaps it was only wishful thinking. "You never told me what it is."

"Bianca," Bianca responded, not giving Maria a chance to stop her. "Bianca Montgomery."

Lena nodded, her eyelids heavy now, and sank back into the mattress.

"Rest now," Maria ordered her patient. "I’ll be back shortly." Then she pushed Bianca through the hospital room door, not giving her an opportunity to resist. Her lips were pursed, eyes blazing and as the door closed in their wake, Bianca drew breath to say something and Maria turned a hard glare her way, holding up a hand in warning. "Don’t," she hissed under her breath and shook her head. She was seething, so angry that she didn’t trust herself to handle the necessary dressing down calmly.

Bianca unwisely didn’t listen, too lost in her own emotions to accept the warning. "I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t have snuck in...but I needed to see---"

"I said, ‘Don’t,’" Maria warned her sharply, her eyes going to the woman who stood a short distance away, her back to them, one hand braced on the wall where she leaned heavily, her shoulders slumped as though she’d taken one too many body blows.

Hearing the sound of the door, Paulina did a slow turn, her gaze following on Bianca with an expression that contained more hurt and fear than anger. "Why are you here?" she demanded, her voice a tight, pained rasp.

"I just wanted to see her," Bianca tried to explain, "to make sure she was okay...that’s all."

Paulina shook her head, her eyes momentarily sliding closed as though she couldn’t bear to look at Bianca. "You wanted," she repeated, the words taking on an ugly, sarcastic cast that was punctuated by a low, bitter laugh. "Get out," she said at last. "Leave my daughter alone." Shaking her head, she turned away again, leaning heavily against the wall, too tired to fight any longer.

"Let’s go." Maria started to tug Bianca toward the elevator, but the younger woman shook her hand off and pulled away, approaching Paulina Kundera as she spoke, her voice low and intense.

"Please, Mrs. Kundera, I realize you don’t approve of what Lena and I shared---"

"I’ve come to peace with my daughter’s desires," Paulina snapped before Bianca cold finish. "That has nothing to do with this."

Bianca didn’t believe her. Remembering Lena’s admission that he mother had never approved of her sexual preference, she pressed on, ignoring the way Maria tried to hush her. "I’m sorry if I upset you, but you must realize that I---"

Paulina Kundera spun, shaking her head. "You think this is about you...or my problems with who she sleeps with?" she demanded. "None of that matters now." She paused momentarily, haunted by the image of her daughter pale and unconscious, her body wracked by harsh convulsions. "Do you even care that she nearly died...that they don’t know whether her mind will ever be the same?" She shook her head, fighting tears as she glared at Bianca with a strikingly eloquent sort of rage, her eyes expressing emotion better than words ever could. "You sneak around...lie...deny her... then come here like this...like you have the right---"

"No," Bianca cut in, her voice breaking with the intensity of emotion. It hadn’t been like that. Lena hadn’t understood, and this woman didn’t either. "I j-just wanted to see her---"

"You just wanted," Paulina sneered. "Have you ever cared what she wanted...or needed? Where were you when she was trapped in her car, bleeding to death?"

Cringing under that furious gaze, Bianca looked away, unable to face the anger directed her way. "Please, Mrs. Kundera...I just wanted to see Lena...to make sure she was okay." She knew she was repeating herself, but it was the only defense she had to offer even though it suddenly seemed gossamer thin even to her.

Blue eyes threatened to fill with tears, and Paulina Kundera faced Bianca with a fierce kind of courage, barely holding onto what little strength she still possessed. "You would have done better to have done so that night...when it might have made a difference." She glared at Bianca, hating her in spite of a treacherous wave of pity. "Was she coming from your bed?" she demanded. "Is that why she was out driving that late?"

Her worst fears confirmed, Bianca stood frozen, her heart feeling like a lump of clay in her chest. Given the timing, Lena had doubtless had her accident the night of their fight, the night she’d left so hurt and angry. "No," she exhaled, barely getting the denial out as she realized the truth; everything Paulina Kundera was accusing her of was true. She’d been safe in her bed, furious at Lena for daring to leave her while Lena had been alone and in agony.

"Her car rolled...and she hung there for hours...trapped and bleeding," Paulina breathed, haunted by the knowledge of what her child must have suffered during that time, "...with no one to care whether she lived or died."

Bianca shook her head stiffly, but there were no words, and even if there were she was suffering her own torments of the imagination as her mind insisted on conjuring a fantasy version of what Lena must have endured, alone, in pain, and afraid, probably thinking that Bianca didn’t care. She couldn’t breathe. Her skin ran hot then cold, her heart pounding an unsteady beat in her chest, mind swirling, sweat beading across her back and shoulders.

"Were you sleeping peacefully?" Paulina hissed as she took a step closer, driving the emotional knife deeper. "She kept hoping that you’d accept her love again...thinking she was gaining ground even when you made it clear that she was just a body for your pleasure...unwelcome even to sleep in the same bed where you used her." The elderly woman shook her head slowly, disgust curling her lip. "Did you spare even a thought for her? Did you care how you hurt her, or was she just a toy for you to play with when the mood struck you?"

Bianca swallowed hard, fighting the tightness in her throat, hating the image Lena’s mother was painting of her, one that was agonizingly close to how Michael’s treatment of Lena could be described. "You don’t understand." She glanced over her shoulder, the nausea only growing worse as she realized that Maria Grey had heard it all and was frowning ever so slightly, the gears in her head turning as she put the pieces together. Realizing Bianca was watching her, she abruptly looked away, acting as though she hadn’t heard, but it was obvious she had.

"I understand that you have no heart and no soul," Paulina continued cruelly. Needing to punish someone for what had happened to her child and offered a convenient target, she was eager to draw emotional blood. Perhaps it would ease some of her own guilt. "...that you use people and care nothing for them..."

Bianca couldn’t even defend herself from the charge because there was a part of her terrified that it was true. She’d made so many mistakes and done so many desperate things that had hurt others that she couldn’t deny anything.

"Mrs. Kundera," Maria tried to intercede, her tone placating, "this isn’t doing anyone any good. Why don’t you---"

"No," Paulina hissed, refusing to be put off. Ignoring Maria, she glared at Bianca. "She needs to hear the truth...that she’s hollow inside...demanding everything and giving nothing in return---"

Wishing she could shrink out of existence, Bianca wrapped her arms around herself, shoulders hunching as though she expected blows to start raining down at any moment.

"How dare you." Unexpected, rich, and frothing with self-righteous indignation, the words were snarled with all the subtlety of a lion protecting its cub.

Bianca’s head swung around, her eyes going wide as she recognized the slender figure who entered the scene from a nearby hallway. Her mother, Erica Kane.

Damn.

She wasn’t quite the last person Bianca wanted to see in the world, but she was close. Very close. "Mom," she managed to gasp with what little air remained in her lungs, horrified by the notion that her mother might have overheard all of Paulina’s accusations, and not just the last few insults. God, what if she knew? "What are you---"

Erica barely noticed her daughter, her attention focused on Lena’s mother. "Your daughter is the one who came here with no purpose in mind but to manipulate and steal---"

"Mom, don’t---" Bianca broke in, but no one was listening to her.

"She’s the one who used my daughter, Bianca...used her...her weaknesses...against her," Erica’s lip curled, the disdain in her tone making Bianca flinch. "And now you stand there, attacking Bianca, when she was the victim...when the man your daughter worked for...when he..." Erica couldn’t finish, the words choking off painfully. "Do you even know the things your daughter has done?" she demanded, while Bianca cringed inwardly, her mother’s tone reminding her of too many painful realities. Much as her mother made a pretense of acceptance, it was all an act. She would never truly accept or approve, never respect any relationship she had with Lena, never really understand who she was.

Her complexion suddenly grey, Paulina staggered, then straightened her shoulders, facing Erica’s accusations with an oddly regal air. "I know my daughter’s sins," she said at last, making no effort to defend Lena’s actions. Her gaze fell on Bianca with an expression akin to disdain. "Can you say the same?"

Erica flinched, the quietly asked question an unwanted reminder of all the lies and the pain they’d caused. She tensed, the need for denial driving her to avoid the obvious. "My daughter has no secrets left...no sins in any of this," she shot back, "while yours has---"

"Mom, don’t," Bianca broke in, uncertain she could bear to hear her mother tear into Lena right now, not after what she’d learned.

"Bianca," Erica exploded, "how can you defend---"

"I mean it. Not now," Bianca snapped, hardening her voice. She flashed a quick glance at Paulina, seeing how the older woman had paled. Despite the blaze of her eyes, she looked awful, and Bianca was relieved to see Maria draw close, ready to step in if need be. The only thing Lena had asked of her was to look after Paulina, and now she was standing there while her mother tormented the woman. Shame washing over Bianca, she faced her mother again. "They told me to stay away. I’m the one who broke the rules." She turned an apologetic look Paulina’s way. "I’m sorry," she whispered, her voice strained and weak. "I won’t bother you again." It was literally all she could do.

"Sorry?" Erica repeated, her tone rising in a combination of disbelief and outrage. "I can’t believe you’re apologizing when these people---"

"These people?" the voice that cut Erica off was male and sharp. Four sets of eyes swung to land on the young man who stepped out of the same corridor that had produced Erica. His eyes had seemed kind when he’d reached to help Bianca after she’d collided with him at the elevators, but now they were bitter cold. Despite his youth, he matched Erica arrogant note for arrogant note, facing her with the confidence of someone far older. "What’s that supposed to mean?" He stepped forward, sliding an arm across Paulina’s shoulders, and pulling her into a one-armed hug.

"Lena Kundera came to this town for no other reason than to steal from my company," Erica accused without missing a beat. "She seduced my daughter and used her," the words caught momentarily, a verbal reminder of her discomfort with her daughter’s sexual preference, "...her weaknesses against her, and now you expect---"

"I don’t expect anything," he cut Erica off, giving no ground, pulling Paulina closer when she shuddered violently, "except for you to leave my family alone." He glanced at Bianca, eyes narrowing faintly. "If you hate Lena that much, you have no reason to be here, so please leave."

Bianca cringed under the impact of that look. Did he know? Paulina and Irina did. Was he warning her to shut up and get out or challenging her to do the right thing. Unlike Irina’s not-so-subtle threats, and Paulina’s agony soaked hate, she couldn’t decide what that look meant, leaving her to stand there paralyzed by her own fears.

Erica meanwhile, was in no mood to back down. It wasn’t even about Lena anymore. She thrived on conflict and needed to be right in all things. Being thrown out by this boy simply wasn’t acceptable in her view. "That woman manipulated and used my daughter...and now you’re---"

"Asking you to leave," Niko reiterated firmly. He massaged Paulina’s shoulder soothingly. "Whatever Lena did, my grandmother’s done nothing to you...and right now all you’re doing is making her life that much harder." Again he flashed a quick, hard to read look at Bianca. "Now you can get out or I can call the police and have you thrown out. Your choice."

Erica sputtered, started to argue, and then fell silent as Maria stepped forward, apparently deciding it was time to shut this down. "And I’ll back him up," she said quietly. She didn’t like doing it, but this had to stop.

Erica flinched as though struck, her gaze sharp and angry. Slender shoulders snapped straight and she drew breath, ready to explode.

Niko smirked, not the least bit intimidated. With Irina for a mother, he wasn’t one to quaver in the face of stamping feet and angry glares. A lifetime of that and worse had left him inured to such theatrics. Erica was going to have to do better to attain the effect she so craved where he was concerned.

Maria meanwhile cringed ever so slightly, though it was more because of the disturbance likely to result for the hospital than any personal response. She’d long since grown immune to Erica’s tempers.

Denied the cowering response she craved, Erica was ready to lash out full force, not because she hated Lena---in fact she was at the hospital to check on the Polish woman and had been every night since the crash since the hospital wouldn’t give her any information over the phone, but a discreet bribe to a nurse worked wonders---but she’d gotten a taste of combat and couldn’t stomach the idea of losing. Instinct, not thought was driving her now. "You want to support a---"

"No!" Bianca exploded, the single word escaping her lips as she stepped between her mother and the others. Whatever her mother was about to say, she wouldn’t hear it, couldn’t hear it. She held up a hand in a halting motion. "Stop," she pleaded, her voice threatening to break. "Just stop." She rubbed at a few escaped tears with her knuckles with her other hand, horrified to realize how close she was to breaking down completely.

The agony in her daughter’s eyes finally broke through Erica’s battle haze and she pulled up short, the breath knocked from her by Bianca’s begging.

"Just stop," the girl repeated. "Please." This time her voice did break. She just wanted it all to end; all of it; every last little bit, the screaming, the yelling, pain, the hurting. She just wanted them all to shut up so she could figure out what the hell was happening, what she’d seen, and heard, and most of all, what she was feeling. Her whole body shuddered, a violent, wracking, breathless, tearless sob.

Lena didn’t know her, had looked at her like a stranger.

Another shuddering, dry-eyed sob shook her slender frame. "Just stop," she said again. "Just leave them alone. They didn’t do anything...and Lena? You got what you wanted. We all got what we wanted...made sure she knew exactly what we thought of her...and just how far above her we all were...and now she’s lying in that hospital room," she flung an arm in toward the door to her former lover’s room, "and believe me, I am the last thing she’s interested in."

Erica froze except for the faint shift in her expression as her brows drew into a disbelieving frown. The nurse had mentioned complications, but she’d only been interested in Lena’s survival, not her mental health. "Bianca," she whispered hoarsely.

"Head injury...she doesn’t remember the last few years." A cynical, near-hysterical laugh escaped Bianca’s lips. "She looked right through me...no idea who I was."

The anger knocked right out of her along with her breath, Erica had no idea what to say. She started to reach out to her daughter, but Bianca shook her head and avoided her mother’s touch.

"So you see," Bianca continued, anger driven by pain as it all began sinking in, the import of that blank look catching up with her in spite of the haze of shock, "she doesn’t even know me anymore...certainly doesn’t love me." Where before her chest had felt tight and strained, suddenly it was hollow, no heart left to beat. A cold sweat broke out over her skin, and the world threatened to spin.

Lena didn’t know her anymore. Worse. Lena didn’t love her anymore. Those same brown eyes that had watched her with such love, desire, and devotion had been blank; no emotion, no invitation, just polite curiosity. Rage swept over her at the unfairness of it all, at her mother for her obvious disgust, and at herself for allowing the judgment of others to cost her something she wanted so much.

"I’m sure you’re thrilled," Bianca added, her voice rising unnaturally at odd points, indicating just how out of control she was. "I guess the only thing that would have been better is if she’d helpfully died, right? Then we could all just wipe her from the face of the earth and pretend she’d never even existed."

Erica lost all color, her daughter’s bitterness too thick to ignore no matter how hard she tried. She shook her head, remembering the stench of blood and the sick horror as she’d tried to comfort a woman she’d feared was dying. Whatever ill will she’d borne Lena at one time, she could never want that for the woman, especially not since finding out that Lena had been ready to surrender her life and freedom to protect Bianca. "No, I-I never wanted..." she trailed to a brief halt, then quickly inserted, "It’s just that she hurt you, and I-I hate---"

"God, Mom, I know!" Bianca exploded, not letting her mother finish. "Everybody knows!" Her voice choked, the world suddenly a blur as seen through unwanted tears. "You’ve made it very clear how much you hate Lena...and how much you hate that I ever felt anything for her...and I’m sorry I disappointed you by falling in love with her...hell, I’m sorry I disappointed you by being gay..." It was all crashing in on her and she knew she wasn’t being the least bit rational, but she couldn’t seem to stop the words from tumbling forth, all those old resentments escaping their tightly leashed confines, forever destined to come out and haunt them at the worst times.

"Bianca, I---" Suddenly pale, the enormity of what she’d done and what she’d made her youngest child think breaking over her, Erica tried to break in, but Bianca wasn’t listening. Not even to herself.

"And I know that you hate that I didn’t get the abortion...." It shouldn’t have had anything to do with the situation, but suddenly it felt like it did. Tyler, like Lena, was on the outside, unable to gain Erica Kane’s approval and an ongoing reminder of so many things none of them wanted to remember. Sometimes that knowledge left Bianca terrified the day would come that she would push her child away just as she had her lover.

And would she do it for no more reason than to gain her mother’s approval, just like she had—

"Bianca, please---" Erica tried again, any remaining aggression disappearing in a wave of sick shame.

But Bianca was in no mood to discuss things reasonably with her mother. She was too angry and hurt and much, much too guilty. "But whatever you feel about me or about Lena," she snarled, not letting her mother continue, "you leave her mother alone!" She couldn’t protect Paulina Kundera the way Lena had asked, but she could make sure of that one thing. Out of words, she fell silent while Erica had no response.

Mother and daughter stood perfectly still, just staring at one another.

It abruptly struck Bianca that their audience had gone just as silent. Probably horrified by what they were witnessing. Either that or maybe thinking she was getting her just deserts. She almost barked a hollow laugh. Suddenly exhausted and close to breaking down, she shook her head, her voice quavering as she spoke more softly, "Just leave them alone." A hand fluttered near her temple, almost but not quite making contact as though she could rub away the violent headache suddenly hammering at her skull.

She glanced over at Paulina. The older woman was still pressed against Lena’s young relative, though she’d pulled away enough to look over her shoulder, watching Bianca with a look that was equal parts dislike and suspicion. Paulina’s protector---Bianca found herself trying to remember if she had any clue about his name, and concluded she didn’t---on the other hand was nearly expressionless, watching closely but giving nothing away.

Maria looked away, clearly embarrassed by the scene, as Bianca’s gaze fell on her, though not before the younger woman saw the pity in her eyes. It jarred the bitter rage, knocking it back and reminding Bianca just where they were.

Her gaze swinging back to her mother, Bianca experienced a sick kind of mortification over the accusations she’d hurled. After all, her mother, like Maggie and David and several others, had just been trying to protect her from someone they thought might hurt her. They didn’t truly know Lena.

But Bianca did.

And Bianca was the one who had treated their relationship as a shameful secret; had treated Lena as a shameful secret, something to be pushed aside, hidden, denied.

Whatever her mother’s crimes, hers were a thousand times worse.

Slender shoulders sagged as she deflated. "Just leave them alone," Bianca whispered after a beat, the look she turned her mother’s way openly pleading. It was the only thing she could do for Lena, and that was suddenly more important than she knew how to express. "We don’t belong here," she added, the words making her chest ache because it drove home just how true it was. She’d made sure Lena had no rights in her life never thinking that choice might turn against her one day. She glanced over her shoulder at Paulina, apologizing again. "I’m sorry," she repeated. "We won’t bother you anymore." Her gaze slid on to Maria who looked up in time for their eyes to meet. "It won’t happen again."

Realizing her mother was just looking on in shock, Bianca clamped a hand on her shoulder and pushed her toward the elevators, hoping to get out of there before they made things any worse.

"Bianca, I---" Erica started to say, but her daughter cut her off.

"We’re leaving." She looked at Paulina again, started to say something only to have the words dry up unspoken. There was no way to apologize for the things she’d thought and done, and no way to offer her condolences that wouldn’t be viewed with suspicion. Much as she might wish it were otherwise, the kindest thing she could do was simply go and take her mother with her.

Erica drew breath again to speak, but Bianca shook her head, her expression grim and set. The last thing she wanted to do was discuss Lena with her mother. Thankfully, the elevator arrived quickly though it forced her to bear the tightly confined space and more togetherness than she would have preferred.

Rubbing a few escaped tears away, Bianca looked away from her mother, barely able to stand her presence, feeling sick and vulnerable and hopelessly ashamed of what she was and what she felt. She knew what her mother wanted, denial and absolution, but she just wasn’t up to it. She just wanted to get away from it all, find a quiet corner alone, and probably cry until she couldn’t cry any longer. Seeing her mother draw breath to say something, she shook her head. "I really don’t want to talk about this."

Her expression creased with worry, Erica nonetheless held back her questions, for once wise enough to realize that her daughter simply wasn’t up to dealing with her needs. As the elevator reached the ground floor and the doors slid open, she reached out, resting a gentle hand on Bianca’s forearm. Jarred out of her reactionary anger, she was sickened by Bianca’s pain. If only she’d been able to keep the accident secret. There was nothing Bianca could do for the Polish woman and it seemed obvious the knowledge only caused more grief, something she’d already had far too much of. "Bianca, honey, would you like to go somewhere and get a cup of coffee...maybe talk about---"

"Mom, I really don’t want to talk about it," Bianca reiterated, her voice flat and cold, barely resisting the urge to yank her arm back. She could feel her mother wanting to push for more information and the idea turned her stomach because she could already feel the pressure to deny she felt anything for Lena starting to build. And worse, she knew she’d do just that. She’d hate herself, but she’d do it in some neverending quest for a sense of approval she was never going to feel.

Erica stiffened as though struck, Bianca’s chilly tone throwing a wall up between them, or more correctly, reminding her of the emotional wall that had been there for months. She’d made plenty of mistakes and worsened the situation in so many ways, but she’d seen the anguish in her daughter’s eyes and heard it in her voice, and knowing how terrifying it could be to face knowing someone you cared for was hurt, she just wanted to offer some kind of support. "Bianca, please," she whispered, "I know you still care about her even though---"

"Even though I made everyone happy and threw her out of my life," Bianca whispered bitterly.

"Bianca---" Erica gasped and reached out to her daughter.

"Just let it go," Bianca hissed and pulled away.

"Please," Erica pleaded, "let’s just go somewhere and talk. You need to---"

"What I need to do is get out of here," Bianca said, the words tumbling out fast and panicky sounding. The walls were threatening to close in, claustrophobia wrapping her in a tight grip, making it hard to breathe.

Again Erica started to reach out to her daughter and this time Bianca gave in to impulse and danced back a pace, avoiding her touch. "Bianca, honey, please."

"Mom, I just...I can’t deal with this right now." Bianca backed up another step, saw her mother draw breath to try again, and held up a hand, silencing her before she could speak. "I just can’t," she whispered, shaking her head stiffly. "Don’t ask."

Her previous explosion over, Erica stared at her daughter, her eyes soft and pleading. Wanting back some of the closeness she’d once shared with her youngest child, she started to follow, but Bianca kept backing up and shaking her head.

"I can’t do this...not with you," Bianca said very softly, and then she was moving, darting around her mother, and all but running as she fled the building.

Shattered, Erica stared after her daughter long after she’d disappeared through the front doors of the hospital. "Bianca," she whispered at last, her voice so soft it was barely audible. Finally, she drew her cell phone out of her purse and dialed a number from memory. She waited, heard the familiar message as voice mail picked up and waited for the beep. "David, it’s Erica...Bianca knows about Lena...god, she knows." She wasn’t making sense, could barely speak, her throat so tight that every syllable was an effort. "She still loves her, David. She’s hurting so much, but she won’t talk to me...can barely even look at me...and I...I’ve made everything worse." She rubbed at a few gathered tears, her voice rough and strained. "I don’t know what I’m going to do...just help her if she contacts you...please." Her voice choked into nothingness and she gave up, clicking the phone off and shoving it back in her purse. "God, what have I done?" she whispered at last, then finally, accepting that Bianca wasn’t going to return and no miracles cures were going to magically appear and make everything better, she hurried out.

* * * * * *

With Niko’s help, Maria guided Paulina Kundera to a nearby chair, then crouched down in front of her, curving gentle fingers to her wrist and automatically checking her pulse. The poor woman was ghostly pale and trembling gently, her pulse running too fast. Maria shared a worried look with Niko as he took a seat next to his grandmother. "Mrs. Kundera," she said gently, "maybe you should---"

"I’m fine," the old woman grumbled stubbornly and pulled her wrist out of Maria’s loose grasp. She jerked her head to indicate Lena’s hospital room. "Use your energy to make my daughter well."

"It’s not an either or proposition, Mrs. Kundera. You’ve been under a lot of stress for the last several days, and I really think---"

"I’m fine," Paulina insisted stiffly, her expression set, her jaw thrust forward at a pugnacious angle.

Realizing the Polish woman wouldn’t be swayed, Maria glanced at Niko who shrugged a little helplessly. Having only recently met the woman, he had no more influence than Maria. "All right," she said at last, afraid arguing would only make things worse. "But why don’t you let Niko take you back to your hotel room," she suggested gently. "Visiting hours are over, there’s nothing more you can do here...and clearly you could use the rest."

"No," Paulina insisted, shaking her head, unable to bear the idea of being any farther from her child than was absolutely necessary. She’d made so many mistakes and failed Lena so many times. To leave now felt like it would simply be adding to a shamefully long list. "I need to be here in case she needs me."

"She’s stable and resting now," Maria explained in an effort to reassure the other woman. "I don’t see anything for you to worry about...and there’s nothing more you can do for her tonight..."

Paulina just kept shaking her head. No, she couldn’t leave Lena. She’d done so before---they all had---and her daughter had been nothing but hurt by all the people who’d left her to suffer for their sins. Not again. She wouldn’t fail Lena this time, and wouldn’t let anyone else do so either.

Resting her hand lightly over the older woman’s, Maria softened her voice, coaxing now. "We’re going to be running a lot of tests tomorrow...and she’s going to need you to help her through it...to be there for her and be at your best." She patted one of Paulina’s hands very lightly. "You can’t do that if you’re on the verge of passing out because you haven’t slept in days."

"But if she wakes and needs me," the older woman whispered with such intensity that Maria couldn’t help but imagine how she’d feel were their positions reversed.

Maria curved her fingers around a surprisingly frail hand, then felt Paulina cling tightly. "Look, I’m going to be on duty all night...and I promise you I’ll check on her regularly and call you if there are any problems." She looked over at Niko. "The hotel’s close, right?"

"Just around the block," he confirmed as he slid an arm across his grandmother’s shoulders. "I’ll even stay dressed. We can be back here in minutes if need be."

Paulina looked back and forth between the two before her gaze finally settled on Maria. She didn’t want to go, but the doctor was making more sense than she would have liked.

"You need to take care of yourself," Maria advised during the silence, "so you’ll be strong enough to take care of her."

"You’ll call if there’s any change?" Paulina questioned, hesitant to leave, but also exhausted and aware of the wisdom of what the doctor was saying.

"I promise," Maria assured her. "If there’s any change, I’ll call you immediately." She offered an encouraging smile. "But really, she’s doing much better now. I don’t think there’s anything for you to worry about."

Paulina’s mouth twisted into an ironic smile. "Except a daughter who doesn’t remember the last five years of her life." Pale eyes slid closed for a long moment. "And the fact that there’s a part of me that wonders if perhaps it’s for the best that she never does." Her eyes snapped open, her expression torquing into one of profound guilt. "You must think I’m a monster," she barely managed a horrified whisper, "to even think that. But she’s seen so much pain. Maybe it’s better this way."

Her throat suddenly tight, Maria had no idea what to say. She didn’t know all of the details, but she’d heard enough that she couldn’t judge the other woman for having those kinds of thoughts, even if she knew too well the terror of losing one’s history. "I think I understand," she allowed, "and I don’t think you’re a monster." Slim shoulders dipped in a hint of a shrug as she hunted for some the right words to say. "Just a frightened mother trying to take care of her child...which is why I think you need to get some rest...so you can take care of her." She patted Paulina’s hand again. "I promise I’ll look after her like she was one of my own while you’re gone. You have my word."

Blue eyes narrowed a little suspiciously. "You won’t let that girl in?" Paulina whispered. "I don’t want her near my daughter." That girl had no rights where Lena was concerned, not after the things she’d done and the way she’d used Lena, the way she’d made her think she was nothing.

Maria glanced away for the briefest second, feeling guilty for taking sides against Bianca, but she nodded. "I don’t think Bianca will be back," she said when she looked at Paulina again, "but if she does return, let me assure you that my first concern is my patient’s welfare...and no one else’s...which is why I want you at your best." She offered an encouraging smile. "She’s going to need you tomorrow."

Paulina nodded slowly, accepting that answer. She looked down at her hands, seeing how they trembled even as she was reminded of the aches and pains of age, magnified by several days of stress and fear. "Perhaps it would be best if we left for a little while," she admitted at last.

"I think so," Maria concurred, relieved by that decision.

"Me too," Niko said very softly. He offered a small, encouraging smile of his own. "You’ve been going nonstop for days. You need some rest. Let me just speak to the doctor for a moment, make sure she’s got all the contact information she needs, and then we’ll go.""

Paulina turned her head, a hint of a frown creasing her brow as she studied her grandson for a long moment, the intensity of her perusal startling Maria. "You’re very like her," the elderly woman murmured at last, her voice low and a little lost sounding.

Niko glanced down, avoiding that sharp gaze, a hint of an ironic smile touching his mouth as he laughed uncomfortably. "Like my mother?" he murmured and shook his head. "No...not even a little."

"No, I meant..." Paulina began only to trail off, the thought unfinished. She started to reach up as though to touch his cheek only to stop and drop her hand back to her side before Niko even realized she’d made the gesture.

As he looked up, dark brows drew into a frown, but he waited for her to continue, curious what she had to say.

Instead of answering, Paulina shook her head ever slightly. "I’m sorry. It’s nothing," she murmured. "Just an old woman’s ... fantasies."

Watching them, Maria had the definite sense that it was more than that. It wasn’t the time to ask though.

Niko seemed to sense the oddness of the moment as well because his head tipped to one side and his frown deepened. "Are you sure?" he questioned.

Paulina offered a tired smile. "Very." She nodded to indicate the doctor. "Go on...get things straightened out. I’ll wait for you here."

"Okay," he exhaled, patting her shoulder awkwardly as he rose. "I’ll just be a moment."

Maria rose, realizing he wanted to speak to her alone as he drew her aside. She doubted it was just phone numbers on his mind, though she couldn’t begin to guess what he wanted to discuss. "Yes?" she murmured on a questioning note when they were far enough away to be guaranteed a measure of privacy.

He glanced over at his grandmother, checking to make certain she wasn’t paying any attention before continuing, "I just thought you ought to know that the woman who arrived...Ms. Montgomery’s mother...."

"Erica Kane," Maria filled in. "What about her?"

"She’s been here every night," Niko explained quietly, well aware of Maria’s confused frown, "usually late...always speaking to one specific ICU nurse...the brunette on the late shift...pretty, blue eyes, about five-six...." Lacking his mother’s facility with languages and his father’s native instinct for manipulation disguised as diplomacy, he’d developed the habit of simply watching people, finding the patterns of human behavior innately fascinating. With nothing else to pass the hours and no great emotional investment in the situation, he’d passed the time by watching people come and go.

"That sounds like Melinda Carl," Maria said, genuinely mystified now. "But what the hell would she be doing talking to Erica Kane?"

He shrugged. "I don’t know, but I’m sure it was her," Niko agreed. "And they were both up here last night after Lena was moved."

Maria’s frown deepened. "But Melinda’s an ICU nurse. She shouldn’t be on this floor."

Broad shoulders dipped in another suggestive shrug. "She went into Lena’s room, came out, and a few minutes later Ms. Kane showed up and they left together. I got the feeling neither one was eager to be seen." In a way they’d been too covert, drawing attention to themselves in their desire not to be noticed. "On at least two occasions Ms. Kane handed her something. I couldn’t see very well, but it looked like folded bills to me." The implication was obvious.

A soft curse escaped full lips and Maria reached up to massage the back of her neck. "Why didn’t you tell me this before?" What the hell had Melinda been thinking?

He shrugged. "I didn’t know who she was or what was going on...didn’t think it was any of my business...but now...." Now his family was involved. That changed the rules.

"Are you sure it was Erica Kane?" she questioned. None of what he was telling her made any sense. Why the hell would Erica be paying off an ICU nurse?

Broad shoulders momentarily collapsed in another shrug. "Oh yeah," he exhaled. "She’s not exactly forgettable, if you know what I mean."

Maria noted his tone, and her mouth twisted in a wry smile. He had a point. "Thanks," she muttered, half wishing he hadn’t told her. This was bound to complicate everything.

"I just thought you should know," he said, keeping his voice too low for his grandmother to hear, though having agreed to leave, she appeared to have all but collapsed in her chair, completely uninterested in what they were saying.

Maria nodded, uncertain what she was going to do about this latest piece of information, even if it was probably for the best that she knew what was going on. On the other hand, some days she thought that ignorance, while it might not be bliss, sounded very tempting.

"One more thing," Niko continued.

Barely resisting the urge to roll her eyes, Maria peered at him. "What now?" she asked with a touch of sarcasm, a little afraid of what new problem might be presented. The whole situation was becoming an unneeded gordian knot in her life that she was rapidly starting to resent.

"Just that you might want to repeat any warnings to Ms. Montgomery to stay away. She got lucky tonight. If my mom hadn’t gone back to the hotel to call dad..." he trailed off suggestively, pausing momentarily before continuing. "If she catches her here, she’ll rip her a few new body parts...and the whole hospital will get to listen in." His mother did not suffer her anger in silence.

"Yeah," Maria exhaled, not really needing the reminder. She’d seen enough of his mother’s temper to have a pretty good idea what could happen. "Don’t worry. I’ll make sure Bianca understands she’s not welcome here."

"You do that," Niko murmured, "because I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but mom is seriously on edge, and you do not want to be on the wrong side of her temper...and if you care at all about that girl, you don’t want that for her either. Trust me." Having looked into those eyes, he had no desire to add to her pain.

Maria nodded her understanding. "I understand."

After that, he took a few minutes and went over the contact information, jotting it down on the back of a business card with his cell number.

Maria accepted the card, tucking it into her breast pocket as they made their goodbyes. She folded her arms across her chest, watching curiously as Niko returned to his grandmother. His manner solicitous, he helped her to her feet, keeping an arm around her as he led her out. Oddly touched, Maria watched until they disappeared onto the elevator, then turned and moved back into Lena’s room.

She was relieved to find the Polish woman’s eyes closed, her breathing slow and easy. Good. She needed the sleep, and Maria was far from eager to answer any questions about the scene between her mother and former lover. There would be no easy answers there so she preferred to just avoid the subject altogether.

She should have known she wouldn’t get that lucky. Maria was just checking Lena’s chart when she became aware of a crawling sensation that warned her someone was watching her. She looked up to find Lena’s head up and clear brown eyes fixed firmly on her. "I thought you were asleep."

Lena shook her head, her expression thoughtful if very tired. "Dozing only...and awaiting your return."

Great. Something in the other woman’s tone did not bode well and Maria resisted the urge to curse. "Well, you really should get some rest."

Still watching the doctor closely, Lena shrugged only to wince as her bruised body protested the slight movement. "The young woman who was here," she said softly, completely ignoring the advice and instead going to the subject heavy on her mind, "who is she?"

"Bianca Montgomery," Maria responded, hoping that would buy her off without really saying anything.

No such luck. "Yes," Lena murmured, "she told me that. I meant..." she paused, considering what to ask and how, the difficulty with the words frustrating, though it was hard to know whether it was a difficulty with the language or simply uncertainty about what to say, "I meant who is she to me?" That got the doctor’s attention. The woman stiffened, focusing more intently on her chart.

Maria shook her head, purposely keeping her expression as neutral as possible. "What did she tell you?"

Lena frowned ever so slightly. Since earliest childhood she’d watched people, studying them in an effort to understand, fascinated by the constantly shifting paradigms of human behavior. In the beginning it had been a game, later, as the communists pursued her parents, a survival tool, and in school a valuable asset to a young student struggling survive an alien environment. She didn’t know the doctor well---or at least she didn’t as far as she knew---but there was no doubt Maria Grey knew more than she was letting on. Lena considered her answer for a moment, trying to decide the best way to draw information out of the other woman, a little frustrated that her mind felt like it was moving so slowly. "She simply told me we were friends," she said at last, deciding to stick with the truth.

"Well, then that’s your answer," Maria murmured, relieved to have an easy out.

Lena wasn’t that easily mollified. "I don’t think so," she said hesitantly. She looked down at her uninjured hand where it rested on the sheets, absent-mindedly smoothing a few wrinkles. "She was ... uncomfortable...upset...." She couldn’t forget the look in brown eyes, the raw, unguarded shock when she’d realized Lena didn’t know her.

"I’m sure it was very jarring to see you like this...and then to find out about your memory."

Looking up, Lena frowned, considering that possibility, then shook her head, discarding it. There’d been an intensity there that seemed to outstrip simple friendship. "No," she said distantly, running over everything in her mind, "it was more than that...and my mother...." She looked up, head tilting to one side as she peered at the doctor. "Why was she so upset...what she said...." She stammered to an uncomfortable halt, then shook her head. "What’s going on?"

Maria swallowed hard, fervently wishing she’d be paged so she’d have an excuse ro exit gracefully. Only no page came and that intelligent gaze kept watching her, assessing and seeing through the lies. No wonder the woman had been a hell of a corporate spy. She had a way of watching someone that created the sense she could see right through every lie. "What did your mother say?" she said at last, wanting to know exactly what she was dealing with before she said any more than was necessary.

"Nothing that made any sense," Lena responded, her own manner becoming guarded, native instinct kicking in and driving her to play her cards close to the vest. Having grown up in a society where survival was often a matter of giving nothing away, she was quite capable of shielding her emotions where needed.

Startled by the wall that suddenly went up between them, Maria was momentarily fascinated by the contrast between the emotionless stranger now facing her and the soft, seemingly young and open woman who’d first regained consciousness in her care. She sighed very softly. This wasn’t a game she was meant to be playing. Having been in Lena’s shoes, she felt for the other woman’s situation. She knew just what it was like to be the only one in the room who didn’t have all the facts, knew just how frustrating and frightening it could be, and how much she’d hated it. She couldn’t imagine this woman was any fonder of that sort of helplessness than she’d been.

Which in theory didn’t erase the fact that it wasn’t her place to overrule Lena’s family or their wishes.

Except they weren’t her responsibility, the woman suddenly watching her so suspiciously was.

Damn.

"Please," Lena said very softly, the mask slipping ever so slightly to reveal some of the fear that Maria understood far too well. "I need to know what’s going on...why my mother reacted the way she did...and who that woman is." Every instinct she possessed was telling her it was profoundly important she understand.

After taking a moment to consider several options, Maria asked, "Do you remember anything...about Bianca, I mean?"

Lena took a moment to search her memory. Some things were almost painfully clear while others---like graduate school---were more than a little foggy. During the span of her current memory she’d never even been in the states. Only she was here now and according to her mother she’d been in Pine Valley, Pennsylvania for over a year. The disparity between what she felt and what she’d been told was hard to comprehend, leaving her with the distinct sense she’d stepped through the looking glass somewhere along the way and was no longer dealing with reality. Pushing that thought aside, she searched for a memory of a heart-shaped face and doe brown eyes, something in her stomach knotting painfully when she came up empty, the sense that something very important was missing leaving her with a phantom awareness of loss that she couldn’t comprehend. Finally she looked up and shook her head. "Nothing."

Brown eyes swung away as Maria debated her options, not liking any of them.

"Please," Lena repeated the quiet request, her voice low and throbbing with intensity. "I need to know."

"I really don’t know much," Maria answered after a beat, trying to escape the corner she was quickly being painted into. This wasn’t her problem and she didn’t want to be in the middle of it.

"Anything is better than nothing at this point," the Polish woman countered seriously.

A soft sigh escaped full lips. "You’re not going to give this up, are you?" Maria questioned wryly.

"I can’t," Lena admitted, uncertain what was driving her only that it was. "I need to know...and don’t tell me she’s just a friend...when we both know that’s not true." The doctor’s response only confirmed her suspicions that much more was going on. "If that’s all it was, you wouldn’t be so hesitant to answer."

Trapped by that simple logic, Maria momentarily froze. After a brief pause, she opted to answer the question while saying as little as possible. "From what little I know you and Bianca Montgomery were involved." Hopefully that would salve the other woman’s need for information without leading her back to the mess with Michael Cambias, a subject that Maria had no intention of discussing with Lena in her present condition.

Lena blinked, apparently struck dumb and simply staring.

"Romantically," Maria felt the need to clarify as the other woman continued to stare.

"And my mother knows?" Lena whispered after a moment, the color draining from her face at the thought.

Maria nodded, questioning her own ethics, but uncertain what to do. It wasn’t like she was dealing with a situation that was covered in any manuals.

"Oh god, no wonder she was so rude," Lena muttered to herself, the knots in her stomach twisting tighter.

"I gather she doesn’t approve of---"

"The fact that I’m romantically attracted to women?" Lena supplied. "No." She shook her head, her eyes sliding closed as she quietly explained, "There was a girl in Poland. When my mother found out she was furious...threatened to disown me if I didn’t break it off...."

Shock left Maria silent for a long moment. Unable to imagine the woman who’d been so terrified for her daughter’s life reacting that way, she didn’t know what to say. "I-I’m sorry," she whispered at last, horrified to think of anyone being treated that way.

Lena shrugged. "In her eyes it was a sin...plus the communists were still in power...." She paused, ducking her head, her eyes hidden behind the dark bangs that fell across her brow in defiance of the thick bandage at the hairline. "It wasn’t safe to be different or draw attention to oneself...especially not for the child of," she stumbled verbally, then continued, "...of dissidents."

"God," Maria exhaled on an outraged note, trying to understand how any parent could put their child in that position. She shook her head. "You must have been very hurt."

"I wasn’t much more than a child," Lena whispered. "I think she thought I’d outgrow those feelings." Still focused on the sheet, counting the tightly woven threads to distract herself, she shrugged, not allowing herself to feel the too well remembered pain and sense of rejection. She might have lost the last few years of her life, but it seemed as though other things had been brought into sharper focus. Which was not necessarily a good thing. "She thought she was doing the right thing," she whispered, feeling the need to defend her mother.

"But still," Maria breathed, shock muting some of the fury. "I can’t imagine ever doing that to one of my kids." As far as she was concerned one of her jobs as a parent was to make certain her kids knew she’d always love them and accept whatever choices would make them happy.

The other woman’s outrage only exacerbating her own hurt and sick sense of shame, Lena kept her head down, her voice growing thicker with every syllable as she explained, "The communists had murdered my father. I think she was afraid it would give them an excuse to take me as well." Her chin tipped up and she peered at Maria, that lost, velvety gaze holding the doctor perfectly still. "You have to understand," Lena continued, feeling the need to try and explain, "my mother, she was afraid." She looked away, struggling with the knowledge of the things her mother had done and the people she’d betrayed. It was so tempting to simply confess everything. The doctor was kind, sympathetic, and she was so tired of the weight of guilt and fear on her soul. No, that was a fool’s path. She’d learned long ago how easily sympathy could turn to scorn, and it was a risk she couldn’t take, not when the price could be so high. She looked at Maria again. "My father was the strong one...and when we lost him...she just...she didn’t know what to do. She let fear rule her...in so many ways."

Dark eyes dropped, and Maria experienced a tight coil of anger at the shame the other woman clearly felt. "She shouldn’t have done what she did," she said very softly. Maybe she should have kept her mouth shut, but she just couldn’t do it. "She shouldn’t have made you believe that your feelings were wrong." Even as the words left her mouth she found herself wondering if anyone had ever said something that simple to Lena Kundera.

"It doesn’t matter," Lena lied, not wanting to delve too deeply into her own past or her mother’s when they had so many dangerous secrets. This woman was being kind now, but that might well change if she knew the truth. She looked up again, going back to the original subject. "This woman, Bianca Montgomery...you said we were in a relationship," she said, rerunning the words in her head and combining them with everything else she knew. "I take it that’s no longer true?"

"No," Maria confirmed, a little startled by the sudden subject change and the way Lena picked up the subtleties in tone and emphasis so easily. She started to say more only to pull up short as she thought back on the scene she’d witnessed in the hallway which indicated that perhaps that wasn’t entirely true, that in fact they were involved again, even if it was completely on the sly. "Or at least...I don’t really know." She saw Lena frown in confusion and tried to explain. "I get the feeling it’s complicated."

"She still cared enough to come here," Lena whispered, uncertain why it seemed so important that the pretty brunette had clearly been worried about her, only that it was.

"I don’t think a lack of caring was the problem," Maria said. She didn’t know much of the story, but the look in Bianca’s eyes told her that much.

"She didn’t seem angry," Lena mused out loud, "only worried." Her exhaustion catching up with her, she sagged more deeply into the mattress, fighting to stay awake, some part of her feeling like everything would fall into its rightful place if she could just fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

"I don’t think Bianca would ever wish ill on you," Maria said softly. "It’s just not her nature."

Her eyelids growing heavier, Lena absorbed those words. "I’d like to see her again," she murmured, then looked up at the doctor.

Maria froze. She knew she should have just kept her mouth shut. "Your mother’s banned her from seeing you."

A frown touched dark brows as Lena considered that answer. "Can she legally stop me from having any visitors I want?" she questioned uncertainly. Not knowing American law, she honestly didn’t know.

"No," Maria admitted, "but it could definitely cause a fight." Which was the understatement of the year.

"Then sometime when she’s not here," Lena murmured muzzily. "Could you arrange it?"

She definitely should have stayed out of it. Maria looked away. "I really don’t think that’s a good idea." She could just imagine the fight that would spark if the wrong people found out. That would be the ultimate episode of Family Feud. They’d be lucky if the hospital was still standing when it was over.

Swallowing hard, Lena tried without success to hide her eagerness to see the other woman. There was something there that drew her, a kind of curiosity and fascination overlaying a sense that this was important. "But if we were lovers, perhaps seeing her will help my memory...or maybe just help me feel like this is real."

"Lena, your mother really doesn’t like her...and there are other complications."

"Please," Lena said again, her tone low and coaxing.

Once again Maria found herself thinking that it was no surprise the woman had been so good at her job. Faced with that look and tone and knowing what that kind of emptiness felt like she couldn’t refuse. "I’ll see what I can do," she sighed at last, though she felt the need to add, "but no promises."

"That’s all I ask."

Maria snorted a soft curse under her breath. "I’ll do what I can...and now I need to ask you to close your eyes and get some sleep, okay?" Now, before she promised something else likely to make all of their lives much more difficult.

Full lips turned up in a wan smile while dark lashes fluttered sleepily. "All right," Lena exhaled, raw exhaustion catching up with her. Feeling completely boneless, she laid her head back down, eyes sliding closed and blocking the world out. "But I want to see her as soon as possible...as soon as you can arrange it."

"I’ll see what I can do," Maria promised as she made several notes on Lena’s chart.

"Thank you," the Polish woman sighed. Having gotten what she wanted from Maria, she couldn’t fight the fatigue any longer. Her limbs felt heavy and completely boneless while it was growing harder and harder to keep her eyes open. "I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, Doctor."

"It’s my job," Maria responded. After that the conversation died away as the doctor checked Lena’s vitals and made a few notes on her chart.

Lena was sound asleep by the time Maria finished and the doctor drew close, silently studying her patient. Relaxed in sleep, the Polish woman didn’t look like any of the things she was rumored to be. Instead she appeared touchingly young and innocent just as she had since waking in ICU. Maria was startled to realize she rather liked that woman, and knowing what she did there was a side of her that wondered if indeed it might not be a kindness if she never remembered her recent past.

She shook that thought off almost as quickly as it appeared. No matter its appeal, in her experience ignorance of the truth solved nothing. Moving to leave, she started to step into the corridor only to pull up short as a pair of sly, cheerful voices reached her ears.

"...don’t figure she’s really forgotten a thing either. I’ll be you she’s running some scheme."

"Oh yeah, this way she gets a fresh start...and a chance to grab for the brass ring. Hell, little miss moneybags was even here to visit...and you know what she’s worth now that she’s got her mits on the Cambias fortune."

"Enough to afford that piece of---"

Clearing her throat pointedly, Maria stepped out and pushed the door closed in her wake, cutting off the conversation. She glared at both nurses, her gaze swinging back and forth. "That piece of what?" she demanded quietly.

Both nurses pulled up short, staring at their superior in silent horror.

"That piece of what?" Maria repeated when no answer was forthcoming.

"We were just---" one of them began, but Maria cut her off.

"Oh, I think I know what you were just," she sneered and took a step forward, ready to get in their faces, "and If I ever hear either one of you refer to a patient so disrespectfully again, I’ll see you fired." She looked back and forth, their unwillingness to meet her gaze only worsening her disdain. "The same goes for any speculation regarding Ms. Kundera’s personal life or medical condition...either in her presence or to anyone else. Am I understood?"

Dropped eyes and mumbled confirmations followed.

Her temper a hair’s breadth from blowing, Maria nodded to the blonde nurse. "I’ve already checked Ms. Kundera, Angie, so you can go...but I suggest in the future you remember to protect the privacy and interests of this hospital’s patients."

"Yes, Doctor," the nurse said with a quick nod and gratefully disappeared in a rush.

"Well, I’ll just---" the brunette started to say, but Maria cut her off.

"Not one step, Melinda," she snapped.

Melinda Carl froze.

"What have you been telling Erica Kane?"

"I don’t know what you’re---" Melinda started to deny the charge, but Maria interrupted impatiently.

"Don’t lie. You have no business being on this floor and I already know you and Erica having been having nightly chats...for which you were paid," Maria bluffed. "Now what did she want from you?"

No answer as the nurse simply stood there, frozen in place.

"I strongly suggest you answer or your days at this hospital are very numbered," Maria warned, furious that a patient had been betrayed by a staff member.

"I-I just gave her updates on the Kundera woman’s physical condition...that’s all," Melinda stammered, afraid now. What she’d done was a firing offense. Even the union would have a hard time protecting her if Doctor Grey had proof of her charges. "I-I didn’t think it would matter."

"Well, you were wrong, and if I ever get wind of anything like this happening again, you won’t be able to get a job cleaning bedpans when I’m done with you. Understood?"

"Yes, Doctor."

"Good," Maria said, her voice deadly soft. "And I don’t want to see you on this floor as long as Ms. Kundera’s a patient in this hospital."

"Yes, Doctor," Melinda croaked, her eyes still downcast. "I’m sorry, Doctor," she apologized rapidly. "I didn’t think it was a problem. Ms. Kane, sh-she just wanted to know about Ms. Kundera’s physical condition...if she was going to survive or not. I didn’t think it would hurt to answer her question."

"Bullshit," Maria growled, doing her best to put the fear of god into other woman because it was all she had. For all her bluster, it was doubtful she could get Melinda fired on the word of one patient’s relative who wasn’t even sure what he’d seen. She didn’t want the other woman to know that though. "You wanted the money and thought you could get away with it. Hopefully, now you know that’s not the case."

"Yes, ma’am."

"Now get out of here," Maria dismissed the other woman.

Grateful to get off so easily, Melinda fled as quickly as she could.

Still steaming, Maria watched the nurse go, then reached up and massaged the back of her neck, instinct a klaxon at the back of her neck warning her things were only going to get more complicated because she still needed to call Bianca Montgomery.

And that wasn’t going to be fun.

Continue to Part 2

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