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 -
Part 24 - Rewritten 03-13-05 - 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 |

Begin Part 21

Bianca arrived at the hospital to find the entrance devoid of life and corridors dark and silent. Despite an aura that many would have found creepy, she preferred it that way. The usual array of visitors had long since gone home while patients were settled in their rooms. The E.R. was undoubtedly its usual mass of confusion and desperation, but the rest of the hospital seemed like a quieter, safer place without the teaming masses and their respective traumas. She could almost pretend it was nothing more than an overly antiseptic spa at this hour. On her way to the elevators she passed a security guard who was hurrying the opposite direction and focused on his radio. He glanced her way, but paid no more attention to her than she paid to him. She’d forgotten even seeing him by the time she stepped onto the elevator, her mind already on all the things she wanted to say to Lena to reassure her and help her see all the reasons moving to Chicago with her mother was a bad idea.

Lost in her plans, she paid scant attention to her surroundings when she stepped onto Lena’s floor, unaware of the slight increase in sound, the shuffle of shoes on tile or the low murmur of voices until a nurse nearly ran her down as she entered the main corridor. The woman muttered an apology, but never slowed her pace, leaving Bianca staring after her with a bemused expression. Somebody was having a bad night. Then she noticed several others hurrying away down other corridors. More than one bad night by the look of things. Frowning, she looked around, suddenly uneasy. The staff was tense and moving fast, reminding her of other times when people she cared for had been at risk.

What if---

No, it couldn’t be. She wouldn’t let herself panic. Okay, so something was wrong. It didn’t mean Lena was the one in danger. The Pine Valley Hospital had plenty of patients.

Despite the mental reassurance, she redoubled her pace only to skid to a halt as she rounded a corner and saw that the door to Lena’s room was half open to make way for an orderly who hurried away from the room in the opposite direction, moving fast.

She landed on the urge to panic with both feet. She was in a hospital. There were bound to be tense situations and orderlies came and went all the time. It didn’t mean a thing.

Then a distressed looking Maria Santos-Grey exited Lena’s room and Bianca knew she was wrong. It meant everything.

"Oh god," the tiny gasp escaped barely parted lips, but she didn’t move. Couldn’t move. Please god, let her be okay. The thought ran through her head at amazing speed, leaving more than enough time for it to repeat itself several times before a second figure exited the room. Paulina Kundera, pale and trembling and leaning heavily on a slender figure. For the briefest second, Bianca thought it was Lena, the reaction more instinct than thought, but no. The body was just as tall and elegantly curvaceous, but the hair was longer, a hint of crow’s feet and the faint texturing of aging skin marking the owner as a good 20 years older than her lover. Irina.

Bianca half expected the other woman to see her and treat her to another round of insults served with a side of subtle threats, but neither Irina nor Paulina even glanced her way. Just as well. She wouldn’t be welcome, certainly wouldn’t help the situation, but she couldn’t just leave, not if something was seriously wrong.

Then a final figure exited behind the two women, his presence startling Bianca: Jackson Montgomery, still in a suit and tie as though he’d come straight from the office, his expression grim.

Maria turned to speak to Paulina, her voice too low for Bianca to hear what she said, but it was easy to see how tense she was, her careful movements those of someone trying to appear calm when they were anything but. Bianca had seen that professional mien in doctors enough times to recognize it. Her worst fears were confirmed a second later when Paulina wavered so badly that Irina slid a protective arm across her shoulders, ready to cushion a collapse if need be.

No one noticed the figure silently watching them. It seemed strange how in an open corridor full of people one could feel so invisible. Paralyzed by shock, Bianca’s only movement was the rapid sweep of her eyes as her gaze darted back and forth between her uncle and the doctor in the hunt for clues about what had happened. Jack stood listening intently as Maria spoke, silent other than an occasional comment to Paulina that appeared to be nothing more than offers of sympathy.

Plenty of emotion, but nothing to tell her what had happened.

Stomach muscles clenching tightly, Bianca took a step forward. There was no reason for Jackson to be there unless---

No, she couldn’t let herself contemplate the worst. She took another hesitant step, her heart pounding so hard it hurt as it slammed against the inside of her ribcage. Another step followed even as Jack reached out to settle a sympathetic hand on Paulina’s shoulder, his deep voice just loud enough for Bianca to make out the first real words she’d heard since arriving.

"I promise you Mrs. Kundera, everything possible is being done to---"

Bianca didn’t intend to speak. "Uncle Jack?" But suddenly the words were out and hanging in the air like her breath during a harsh winter chill.

Every eye in the place turned her way, but all she saw was the uneasy, worried expression on her uncle’s face.

"Uncle Jack," she said again, "what’s happened?" Even knowing she should just shut up and go, she couldn’t move and couldn’t hold back the obvious question.

"Bianca, honey," he began carefully, "I think maybe you should---"

"Was it you?" Paulina demanded, breaking away from Irina and advancing on Bianca before anyone could stop her. Her hand came up and Bianca instinctively braced for a blow.

It never came.

Instead a magazine was shoved under her nose. It flashed by so quickly that she barely had time to register the cover. Unfortunately, Bianca didn’t need a good look to recognize it. A back issue of Tempo magazine. She remembered the headlines and pictures. Unlike the tabloids, Edmund and Brooke’s version had been tastefully salacious, the cover suggestive while the Photoshopped picture of Lena in bed with Chandler CFO Bob Barrett had gotten a full page inside. It had come out while Lena was still in jail, falsely accused of insider trading, and managed to include every filthy rumor imaginable, albeit couched in artfully delicate language. It had sold out the same day it hit the stands.

She abruptly realized Paulina was still speaking as the magazine swept past the tip of her nose again.

"Did you give this to her hoping to cause a little more pain? Wasn’t the way you treated her enough revenge?"

Everyone else fell silent---either waiting for an answer or just paralyzed with shock---leaving Bianca to face the enraged woman on her own. But knowing no more than she did, she could only shake her head dazedly, her jaw hanging open, eyes wide with fear and confusion. "I don’t know what you’re---" she managed to croak.

Paulina slapped the magazine into the girl’s chest, not giving her a chance to finish the denial. "We found this in her room...open to that damned article...and she’s missing. Someone must have given it to her." Her voice gained volume with every word until the final accusation came out as a dull roar. "Was it you?!"

Still frozen in place, Bianca could only shake her head, too scared and overwhelmed to form a coherent answer. Her chin dropped and she stared at what she could see of the hated cover.

Show Lena that magazine? That was the last thing she would have done, but she didn’t know how to make Paulina Kundera believe that, not when the woman clearly hated her with a passion. "Mrs. Kundera," she managed at last, "I didn’t," she croaked. "I wouldn’t." If Lena had seen that, read it, it meant everything Bianca thought she’d regained was slipping away like an early morning mist. "I would never hurt Lena that way---"

She didn’t get any farther as Paulina Kundera’s temper exploded. "You’ve done nothing but hurt her," the older woman raged. "You’ve never been there for here...couldn’t be bothered to care even when she..." She paused, her eyes falling away, voice so thick she was nearly incomprehensible as she continued, "...she tried to hurt herself...not even then...." She choked off, her complexion suddenly tinged in grey while she wavered on her feet, so unsteady Bianca thought she was going to collapse. "She needed you. You were everything to her. Why didn’t she mean even a little to you?"

"She did." A chill slid through the younger woman as though someone had walked over her grave as she realized she’d used the past tense. "I mean she does," she corrected as quickly as she could get the words out, putting extra emphasis on the last syllable. "She does," she whispered again, though she doubted Paulina Kundera heard her.

Lost in her own pain, Paulina she looked away, visibly struggling to catch her breath.

Lena had asked her to look after her mother. Hell of a job she was doing, Bianca thought with a guilty wince.

"Mama, please." No rage or fury in Irina’s voice this time. "Just let it go," she soothed. "The girl doesn’t matter." Curving her hands to her mother’s shoulders, she tried to pull her back, but Paulina resisted the pressure as she looked up again, straightening herself with effort to scowl at Bianca, her bearing almost regal as she fixed a hard look on the younger woman."

"You would have been kinder to a dog in the street than you were to her."

Fighting to drag air into lungs that threatened to collapse with every breath, Bianca wanted to scream and shout and deny the charge, but the words wouldn’t come. Her mouth worked silently and she tried to find something to say, but there was nothing. She was too lost and overwhelmed, everything Paulina had said spinning in her head as she struggled to assemble it into a coherent picture, the words forming and reforming in new patterns in her efforts to understand the incomprehensible.

"Do you even know what she’s gone through for months?" Paulina demanded when no one else spoke, still too shocked to say a word. "Do you even care about the hate directed her way because of what happened to you...the loneliness...the guilt...so bad she tried to...." Again she couldn’t finish, and fell silent for a long moment. "She kept hoping you might forgive...." A few tears spilled onto her cheeks and her teeth were tightly clenched as she fought to contain them. "Will you finally have punished her enough when she’s cold in the ground?"

Shaking off the paralysis, Jack stepped between the two. "This won’t help find Lena," Jackson reminded the older woman, his voice an odd mix of firm and gentle. He had nothing but compassion for the older woman, but he wasn’t going to stand by and watch her use his niece as a punching bag. He traded a look with Irina, silently warning her.

The look he got in return was just as hard and just as determined. "Mama, come on," Irina said, firmly pulling her mother back. "The police and security are searching for Lena. That’s what matters...not the girl or her family. They’re not worth making yourself crazy over."

"Your daughter’s right," Maria inserted in hopes of calming the situation. She stepped forward for the first time since Bianca’s abrupt appearance. "We’ll get her back, but right now you need to stay calm and take care of yourself." She offered a hint of an encouraging smile. "The last thing she’s going to need when we find her is for you to be ill."

"Come," Irina repeated the plea, afraid the stress was truly on the verge of damaging her mother’s health. It wasn’t the time for a stroke or heart attack, not when everything else seemed to be going wrong.

"Whatever happens Lena’s going to need you," Maria added to bolster the plea. "You need to take care of yourself for her."

 

Paulina stood stiffly, the knowledge that she needed to care for herself at war with the instincts driving her to find her child and strike back at what she saw as her tormentors. Unfortunately, she had no choice but to trust others to bring her daughter back to her. She took a deep breath, fighting the overwhelming terror until she could offer a shaky nod.

"Come on," Irina urged again, pulling lightly, desperate to get the situation under control before things got even worse.

Another nod, then leaning heavily on the supportive arm, Paulina allowed the younger woman to draw her away from the confrontation.

As she led her mother to a nearby waiting area, Irina threw a hard look over one shoulder and nodded to indicate Bianca. "Get her out of here," she mouthed, eyes blazing threateningly.

Maria followed them, crouching down next to Paulina as she took a seat, and taking her pulse, clearly worried.

Badly shaken, Bianca stared after the elderly woman. She was trembling, the adrenaline rush having fled, leaving exhaustion and terror in its wake. "I want to know exactly what happened," she said without looking at her uncle, afraid that if she did she might just break down completely.

Curving a gentle hand to her shoulder, Jack tried to draw her away from Lena’s room. "Let’s just---"

"Why are you here?" Holding her ground, Bianca resisted the light pressure, still staring after Paulina Kundera where Maria was still checking her over and looking worried. God, she had to be okay. It would destroy Lena if anything happened to her mother.

Noting the stubborn set of his niece’s jaw, Jack accepted she wouldn’t leave without some kind of answers. He would have preferred to avoid the discussion, but it seemed he had little choice. "The hospital called the police to help with the search. The officer on duty recognized Lena’s name and called me."

Bianca nodded slowly, absorbing her uncle’s answer. That made sense. She took another breath, trying desperately to clear her head, but it was harder than hell to think when all she could see in her mind’s eye was that damn magazine flashing past, the moment replaying over and over again. If it had her shaking, what must it have done to Lena to be handed such an ugly version of her past? "Lena," she said at last, "do they have any idea where---"

"Bianca, we need to take this somewhere else," Jack broke in, aware of the potential for more conflict as long as Bianca was anywhere near her former lover’s family.

Bianca drew breath to argue, then Paulina glanced her way, her eyes watery and full of sick depression, as though she could no longer even summon the energy to hate. She looked utterly and completely lost, and as much as the older woman hated her, Bianca couldn’t help but pity her. She had to pray she was all right for Lena’s sake.

"Please," Jack whispered when his niece didn’t answer. "Like it or not, your being here makes it harder on Lena’s mother. There’s another waiting room not far from here. I’ll answer any questions you have," he promised, realizing she’d gone into stubborn mode and wouldn’t accept anything less. "But let’s just go there...and leave her family in peace." They’d had days of stress and terror, and his niece’s continued presence was cruel. He could only pray Bianca would see sense and do as he asked.

Another beat, then Bianca nodded. Accepting his judgment, she gave way to the gentle pressure and allowed him to draw her down the corridor and around a corner. They found the waiting room and he guided her to a chair where she sank down, knees suddenly trembling so hard it was a wonder she’d managed to stay upright as long as she had.

Lena knew the truth---the thought kept playing over and over again in her head---only it was the worst, ugliest, most corrupt version of it. For a moment she thought she might just throw up. "What happened?" she questioned, each word coming out distinct and separate with an unnatural pause between them.

Taking a seat next to his niece, Jack folded his hands together and leaned forward, elbows braced on his knees. "Lena was in radiology and her mother left to get something to eat...when Mrs. Kundera returned, she found the magazine...open...and Lena missing. According to the orderly who brought her down from her tests, she had it with her when he picked her up."

Bianca just stared at her uncle, struggling to put everything together. "Why would Paulina Kundera think I gave it to her?" she demanded raggedly after a beat. "That anyone would have?" She made a sweeping gesture to indicate their surroundings. "It’s a hospital. There are magazines in all the waiting rooms." She couldn’t imagine anyone would be so cruel as to intentionally hand that to Lena. It had to be an accident. "It was probably just lying around and...god, it’s just bad luck." That had to be the explanation. Anything else was just inconceivable. Besides, it was just like her luck for this to happen now.

Jack was silent for a long moment, tempted to let her retain her protective wall of denial.

"Uncle Jack," the girl whispered when he still hadn’t answered, his very silence making a lie of her beliefs.

"It’s not the kind of waiting room that has magazines," he explained quietly, "and the orderly remembered her saying something about woman giving it to her." No question about it from his tone. It was no accident.

It took a moment for his answer to penetrate Bianca’s brain. When it did, the words came in slow, halting bursts as she worked her way through the disbelief. "Somebody gave her that...intentionally...to hurt her?" She couldn’t believe it. She let her head fall forward into her hands, the enormity of that cruelty washing over her. Without all the walls she normally used to protect herself, Lena would have been nearly as vulnerable as a child. "I wouldn’t do that," she insisted more to herself than him, needing to reassure herself that no matter the problems between she and Lena, she would never do something that intentionally vicious. When he didn’t answer she looked up, shaking her head, a couple of tears spilling from her lashes onto a gently rounded cheek. "I wouldn’t."

Seeing the doubt in her eyes, Jack quickly nodded. "I know," he soothed, "but under the circumstances...well, I think you can understand why it would be best if you left."

Bianca instantly shook her head, rejecting that idea. "I can’t," she croaked. "I can’t leave when she’s...when I don’t know how she is." Lena was hurt and running scared. Bianca had no intention of going anywhere until she knew her lover was safe.

Reaching out, Jack laid a hand over his niece’s. "I realize that you still care about Lena...and it’s very sweet of you...but there’s nothing you can do for her tonight." He offered a gentle smile, hoping she’d see the obvious: that she had no place here. "Why don’t I call you a cab," he suggested. As shaken as she was, he didn’t want Bianca trying to drive.

He received a firm headshake in reply, but Bianca didn’t trust herself to speak as she was once again reminded that no one thought she had a place in Lena’s life.

"Then why don’t I call Kendall," he suggested. They’d become so close, and maybe a friendly ear would make things easier on the girl. "I’m sure she’d be happy to give you a ride."

"I’m not leaving," Bianca found her voice and dismissed that idea without pause. "I’ll stay away from Lena’s family...but I’m not going anywhere."

"Bianca---" Jack began, his tone reasonable.

"I mean it," Bianca snapped and flashed a glare his way, shaking her head silently.

Jack took a deep breath, massaging his brow as he debated what to do. "Bianca, please," he said at last, "They’re already scared to death." As much as he loved the girl, she was pushing too hard. He understood. Despite their breakup, it was obvious she was still emotionally invested. And there were things she didn’t know, so maybe her refusal to back down was understandable, but he couldn’t just stand by and watch her inflict more pain, even unintentionally, on a woman who’d already had to bear too much during the previous several days. "You need to leave," he exhaled even as she continued to shake her head in refusal. Frustrated by her unwillingness to see that this was the last place she belonged, he ran a hand over his hair, jaw muscles grinding. "Look," he said at last, "I understand you still have feelings for Lena and want to help...if anything had happened to your mother during the times we weren’t together I would have gone a little crazy..."

Reminded of her mother, Bianca suddenly stood, her back to her uncle, arms folded tightly across her chest.

Thinking she was just reacting to the emotional intensity of the moment, Jack softened his voice, but continued, "But Bianca, right now, the kindest thing you can do for Lena is leave her family alone."

Bianca barely heard him, her mind on other things; like the fact that her mother had known about Lena’s condition. She swallowed hard, a chill sliding over her skin. No, she couldn’t believe her mom hated Lena that much. "You said the orderly said Lena told him a woman gave her the magazine. Do they know any more than that? A description? Anything?"

Frowning in confusion, Jack shook his head. "I think dark hair was mentioned, but that’s all I know."

Oh god, if that was true it could have been Erica Kane. She wanted to think it wasn’t possible, but she’d known her mother too long to think she was incapable of something like that. "Whoever it was, she knew it would hurt Lena," she gasped, her voice threatening to catch on every syllable.

"Undoubtedly," Jack confirmed, his tone thick with disgust.

"Probably thought it would drive her out of town," Bianca breathed, sick at heart because it was just the sort of revenge that might well appeal to her mother’s often twisted sense of justice. And after that scene in the hospital, her mother might just feel the need to punish someone.

"Or worse," Jack muttered under his breath, then realized he’d spoken aloud even as Bianca spun, a suspicious frown darkening her expression.

"What do you mean?" she demanded before he had a chance to try and undo the damage.

"Nothing," he tried to wave the slip off, but given his fear that Lena’s next stop might be the morgue, he wasn’t terribly believable.

He was keeping something from her. "What do you mean?" Bianca repeated the question, pronouncing each word slowly and carefully. "Uncle Jack," she whispered, willing him to tell her the truth.

Jack was silent for a long moment as he debated his response.

"I should never have let her go," Bianca whispered, desperate to know what he was holding back and using the only weapon she had at her disposal, "and if it’s the last thing I do, I want her back." It wasn’t exactly the whole truth, but at least it was an acknowledgment of what Lena meant to her. "And you know as well as I do that she’d want it too." Her stomach twisted and rolled, but she shook the nausea off, refusing to give way. "I have a right to know," she continued as she took another step toward her uncle.

The muscles along Jack’s jaw bunched and his adam’s apple bobbed under the force of a hard swallow. He felt like he’d taken a solid punch in the gut. He recognized the look in his niece’s eyes all too easily. He’d seen it often enough in the mirror when thinking of Erica. He almost wished he could spare her that kind of overwhelming emotion because it never came cheap. As he watched she straightened her shoulders, marshaling herself as she struggled to stay strong. She’d healed so much and was getting her feet back under her. Maybe it was time she knew the truth. It wouldn’t ease her fear. In fact would probably worsen it, but with Lena missing it seemed likely the truth would come out anyway, and better she hear it from him than Paulina Kundera. The older woman had already come close to telling the girl and if the worst did happen, he feared the older woman would be just as cruel to Bianca as someone had been to her child.

"Yes," he said at last, "you do." Jack leaned back in the chair, took a deep breath and let it out to settle his nerves. He would have given anything to avoid this conversation. "The hospital didn’t just call the police to help with the search. They were legally required to do so," he explained quietly.

"Because of the Cambias case?" Bianca questioned. Logical or not it was the only thing she could think of.

He shook his head. "No...because they’re required to in the event they have a patient at risk of harming themselves leave without being properly released."

The words washed over Bianca but for a moment, she was certain she’d heard wrong, and then it began to sink in as she went back over the words in her head. No, that wasn’t possible. She shook her head, denying even the possibility. "Lena wouldn’t...do...that," she insisted, the words coming out disjointed and oddly staggered, his serious expression threatening to shatter her certainty.

"Bianca, sit down," Jack told her as he gestured to the chair next to him.

Bianca sat. Given how badly her knees were suddenly shaking it was a wonder she didn’t fall. If she could have, she might have fled because every instinct was screaming at her to get out of there before she had to hear what her uncle intended to tell her.

Jack leaned forward again, elbows braced on his knees as he tried to find a way to tell her why Lena’s mother was so scared for her child. "There were no skid marks at the accident site---" he began, the words soft and hesitantly spoken.

A sharp sigh escaped the girl’s lips as relief swept through her, and a little of the awful tension in her chest let go. "It was raining that night," she reminded him. "The roads were slick." That was the most logical explanation because she couldn’t believe the crash had been anything but an accident. If it was that meant...

It meant she’d nearly killed Lena.

No, Bianca couldn’t accept that possibility. Lena wouldn’t do that. She just wouldn’t. She’d proven plenty of times that she had a survival instinct a mile wide and ten miles long. She wasn’t capable of what Jack was suggesting. The roads had been slick. That was all the explanation necessary.

She was almost satisfied with her conclusion when her uncle spoke again.

"Maybe," Jack allowed, ignoring the temptation to leave things as they were. No, she needed to know, and if she really did want Lena back, he needed to be certain she understood what she was getting into. "There’s no way of knowing until she remembers that night." He took a breath, steadied himself, then continued, "But she tried once before."

Bianca drew a breath, then fell silent, her denial unspoken in the face of the look he turned her way.

Jack ran a hand through his hair. He could only hope she was strong enough to hear the truth now. "Months ago...she took poison." He tried to keep his voice low and sympathetic, hoping to drain some of the potential pain from the news. "It was the same one she tried to give Michael. That’s how she proved Kendall wasn’t the one who poisoned the allergy pills."

Feeling like she’d been turned to ice, Bianca just stared. "No," she whispered very softly, but she could see it in his eyes. It was true. "The hospital," she exhaled as she remembered. She’d almost forgotten finding Lena in the hospital, and the sense that something was wrong. Lena had brushed her off with a story about food poisoning, and she’d been so eager to pretend she felt nothing for the Polish woman that she’d bought the lie hook, line, and sinker. "She was in the hospital.... That’s when it happened, isn’t it?"

He nodded.

Suddenly so numb she wasn’t sure she whether she was still in her own body or watching the conversation from a distant point down the hallway, Bianca was slightly surprised to hear herself quietly ask. "Lena’s family, they know, don’t they?"

Her uncle nodded. "But they only found out when they got. Maria had to inform them because of Lena’s condition: there might have been decisions that needed to be made for her."

Bianca’s chin tipped up and down again in an unsteady nod. Well, that explained the hatred. She’d thought it was just about keeping their affair secret, but no, it was far more than that. Paulina hated her for nearly driving Lena to her grave.

Amazing how every time in her life she thought the pain couldn’t get any worse it found a way to defy expectation. "And she’s so panicked because she thinks that when Lena learned the truth she...." She didn’t finish, unable to voice the terror that suddenly held her firmly in its grip. Bad enough to contemplate such a thing, but to speak it aloud would give it a weight and reality that she didn’t think she could bear. Despite that attempted avoidance, thoughts and images of Lena hurting herself in a fit of self-loathing hammered themselves into her brain, breaking past every wall of denial she tried to erect. "Oh god," Bianca exhaled a tiny beat later and pushed to her feet, breaking away from her uncle and the worried look directed her way.

"Bianca, honey---" Jack began. Following close behind, he reached for his niece, but Bianca sensed him coming and ducked his hands, holding up a palm in a halting motion to keep him away.

His sympathy was the last thing she deserved as far as she was concerned. "Don’t," she hissed before her uncle could say any more. The walls seemed to pulse and ripple, threatening to crash inward. Logically, she knew it was purely a psychological panic response, but that didn’t make it any easier to bear. She felt her uncle draw another step closer and took a corresponding step away. She knew him. He would want to settle a hand on her shoulder, then probably draw her into a hug, but the last thing she wanted was human contact when all she could think about was the scenarios looping in her head: Lena taking poison, crashing her car, stepping into traffic, off a roof, or into a gunshop. The images spun faster and faster, coalescing into one running nightmare of bloody tragedy. On the verge of hyperventilating, she rubbed her temple as though she could physically stop her imagination from playing out its sick, hurtful games. She’d pushed Lena to that, hurt her so deeply she’d been ready to give up on life. "I never wanted her hurt," she muttered between harsh breaths.

Only it was a lie. She had meant to hurt Lena.

And she’d gotten her wish. Sick and ashamed, she almost bolted. Paulina was right to want her as far away from Lena as possible. She’d already done too much damage. She’d pushed and pushed, wanting to hurt, and damn near broken Lena in the doing. And if she was right and it was her own mother who’d thrown the latest bomb into Lena’s life, then her mere presence had once again brought nothing but more agony. No wonder Lena had fled that night. If only she’d done so sooner, maybe she’d be whole and happy, not sick at heart and broken in body. In the past Bianca had sometimes wished she’d never caught Lena at the airport the day they’d shared their first, heartfelt kiss because it often seemed as though it would have spared her so much pain. For the first time it occurred to her just how much it would have spared her lover as well.

"I’ll take you home," Jack said quickly, terrified by his niece’s obvious response and kicking himself for telling her the truth. He should have told her whatever lie was necessary to put her off.

"No," Bianca said quickly and spun to face him. She swallowed hard, fighting to keep herself together when the barely plastered over shatter-points were all threatening to come undone. "You need to be here---" He was one more body who could be searching, one who’d be kind and understanding and do everything in his power to help Lena if he could. She needed him to be there.

Because it was suddenly obvious to Bianca that she couldn’t stay.

"Bianca---" Jack began, but before he could say more a stocky figure rounded the nearby corner and began speaking as soon as he glimpsed the D.A.

"They’re still checking the security tapes, Mr. Montgomery, but no sign of Ms. Kundera so far..." Sean Lyman trailed off as he recognized the young woman with his superior. "I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t realize you weren’t alone. I’ll come back later." He started to turn, but Bianca spoke, bringing him back around.

"No," Bianca said. His reason for being there was far more important than her problems. She looked at her uncle. "I need you to take care of her," her voice cracked and broke in spite of her best efforts, "because obviously I can’t." She’d already failed miserably in that regard. Better to get the hell out of there before she made everything worse.

Jack took a step toward the girl, but she darted just out of reach. "Bianca---"

"Just get her back," Bianca begged. She danced back several more steps, avoiding another attempt to reach out to her. "Please." And then she broke. Losing her last little bit of self control, she turned and ran and didn’t stop until her hand collided with the down button next to the elevator. She could hear Jack calling after her and knew he was probably following close behind, but some kind of luck was with her---though one could argue whether it was good or bad---because the elevator doors opened only a moment after she hit the call button. Ducking past a startled nurse, Bianca dove into the elevator, then hammered on the button for the first floor, grateful that the nurse exited before the doors closed.

Finally alone, she heaved a sigh of relief and fell against the back wall, clinging tightly to the bar that ran along the sides at waist level. The world spun dizzily and she realized she was hyperventilating. Bad idea. Passing out would just be the final, humiliating straw so she consciously slowed her breathing until the dizziness began to pass.

In a shocked haze, she was barely aware of the journey to the ground floor. Her mind was running too fast, incoherent thoughts swirling into a mass so twisted and confusing that it left her numb. Too many thoughts had become no thought at all.

It wasn’t the first time she’d felt that way. Not even close. There was the night of the rape, the day she’d discovered she was pregnant, the scene when she’d rejected Lena that last time, there was a perverse familiarity to it all. She distantly recognized the same hot and cold sensation sliding over her skin, the shame and anger, the sense of total helplessness in the face of things she neither face nor change. And like those other times she was all instinct with no logic left, a feral animal bolting in the face of the hunter’s sights.

It was a relief when the doors finally slid open. Running on autopilot, Bianca started to step forward only to pull up short as she got a look at the scene in the lobby. Everything had changed in the time since she’d first arrived. An officer was speaking to the nurse at the front desk, while others were moving from point to point, clearly organizing a search. Through the front windows she could see the faint glitter of red and blue police lights. More police officers.

They were there to search for Lena, hoping to find her before some kind of tragedy could befall her.

And there she was, running away again only minutes after telling her uncle she wanted Lena back. Total strangers and they were willing to do more for the Polish woman than the woman who’d shared her bed. Shuddering under the crushing weight of shame, Bianca couldn’t move. Leave now and it would confirm everything Paulina Kundera and Lena herself had ever accused her of.

Worse, it would confirm everything she’d ever accused herself of.

Glancing down, she had the strangest sense of the crossroads at which she stood. It wasn’t the first time she’d faced a hard choice. In nearly two years of hell, she’d made every bad decision possible, choosing the wrong road nearly every time.

Now she stood at another juncture, ready to run one more time, her instincts driving her to escape before she was hurt one more time.

Only so far her instincts had been a poor guide, driving her to run when she should stand and fight, lie when the truth was her only hope, and push away the very people who would have cherished and protected her.

One hand fisted tightly as she fought that deep seated, injured-animal side of herself, refusing to bolt.

Choose wrong this time and she stood to lose one more time, but this time there would be no blaming her mother, sister, Michael, Lena, or anyone else.

It would be her fault, pure and simple.

"No," she whispered at last, her heart barely seem to beat as the fear threatened to choke the life out of her. It took every last bit of strength, but she took a step back, reaching behind herself to blindly grab the support rail even as she punched a floor button with her other hand. A beat, then the doors slid closed again, and the elevator lurched upward.

* * * * * * *

Torn between the waiting police officer and the desire to chase after his niece, Jack momentarily stood frozen.

"I’m sure she’ll be all right, sir," Lyman offered sympathetically, alert enough to realize he’d intruded, no matter how unintentionally.

Jack nodded, still distracted, his thoughts with Bianca. He shouldn’t have told her. It was too much.

"I think she’s stronger than you realize," Lyman broke in as if sensing the direction of his superior’s thoughts. He couldn’t help but remember the girl’s presence at the impound lot. It had to be hell to be so in love with someone everyone you knew blamed for all the evils in the world.

Another nod followed by a heavy sigh. "Yeah," Jack admitted. "I just hate that she has to be," he croaked.

Lyman nodded. "Do want me to call in more people to help with the search?" he questioned, reminding Jack of their reason for being there.

Too late to bother trying to follow Bianca now. Jack forced himself to concentrate on the problem at hand. It was the only thing he could do for the girl. "Yeah," he responded huskily. "Get in as many people as you can." They went over a few more issues, then the officer hurried off, and Jack headed back toward Lena’s room, hoping to speak to Maria Grey. The doctor was nowhere to be found, and Paulina Kundera still sat in the waiting room chair, her head down, one hand shielding her face. She looked like holy hell, and he could hardly blame her. In her shoes, he’d have been ready to tear the place down along with anyone he felt was out to hurt his child. As much as he would have liked to offer his sympathies and promises that he’d do everything in his power to find Lena, it seemed unlikely his presence would be much more welcome than his niece’s. Better to just leave the woman alone.

Stepping away, he found a phone at the nurse’s station and dialed Kendall’s cell number from memory, hoping she might have heard from Bianca. No answer. Either it was off or she hadn’t heard it. He tried Bianca’s number. No answer there either. A quick call to Erica’s number got her voice mail, and he left a message letting her know he would probably run late, though no mention as to why. Wonderful. What a time for everyone to stop answering the phone.

He was still debating trying another number or two in hopes of tracking Bianca down when he realized he wasn’t alone. A slow pivot brought him around until he met dark eyes watching him assessingly. Irina....

He suddenly realized he had no idea what her last name was. He’d been thinking of her as Kundera, but given her son, that seemed unlikely. She hadn’t been one to volunteer any information, so what little he knew seemed more by accident than design. Or perhaps he knew so little by design, he mused as he noted her shuttered expression. Not a woman who wore her emotions on her sleeve---unless she chose to.

Arms folded across her chest, she nodded in the direction she’d last seen Bianca headed. "Is she gone?"

He nodded, in no mood to discuss just how much he’d had to tell his niece to get her to leave, and resenting the need to tell her anything at all. "She understands the situation now," he said, keeping his voice as neutral as possible. No matter his personal feelings, it was no time to make an enemy of this woman. Massaging the back of his neck, he made an effort at a peace offering. "Thank you for your help," he added, "before...when your mother...well, you helped keep the situation from spiraling out of control."

"I wasn’t helping you," Irina muttered through an exhausted sigh, and ran her hair back from her brow.

It was, Jackson thought as he watched the gesture, more than a little distracting to watch someone who looked so much like Lena, even down to small gestures, yet was more his contemporary than his niece’s, and who loathed them all every bit as much as Lena loved Bianca. "I’m still grateful," he told her.

"Don’t be," Irina told him with quiet bitterness. "The last thing any of us needed was the explosion my mother was well on her way to." She gnawed absently on a thumbnail, her expression momentarily distant.

Uncomfortable, Jack stuffed his hands in his pockets just to have something to do with them. "Well, I’m grateful to you for interceding." Remembering how his niece had taken the news about Lena’s attempt to take her own life, he felt the need to make certain the Polish woman’s family understood that she hadn’t abandoned Lena. "And I want you to know that Bianca didn’t know about Lena’s suicide attempt. She was in bad shape at the time...because of...the attack...and Lena and Bianca’s sister kept it from her."

The faintest narrowing of dark eyes was the only sign that Irina had heard him.

There was something about that all-seeing gaze and her resemblance to his niece’s lover that made Jack feel the need to explain more than might have been entirely wise. "They were trying to protect her. After what happened...what she went through...they thought it was for the best." He looked down for a moment, struggling to clarify his thoughts. "What I’m trying to say," he said when he looked up again, "is that I think you’re wrong to block her out of helping Lena if she can. She cares for your sister," he glanced away, not entirely comfortable with the discovery of just how involved his niece still was, "more than I realized."

"You care very much for your niece," Irina observed.

"The same way I’m sure you care very much for your family." Maybe it was possible to work this all out in a civilized fashion.

Irina didn’t immediately answer, her gaze becoming distant again. "I care that this situation be dealt with properly," she responded when she finally spoke, the answer seeming oddly formal to him. "And your niece isn’t part of that."

He tensed at the finality in her tone. "Bianca’s an adult...so’s Lena," he pointed out. "They have the right to decide that."

Brown eyes flashed, giving him a brief view of some hidden core of emotion he had no way of understanding. "Lena may already be dead," she snapped back, her voice low, but hard enough to make him flinch.

Jack shook his head, denying that possibility. God, it would destroy Bianca, and leave him feeling like he’d failed her one more time. "We’ll find her...alive," he swore, but Irina shook her head.

"Don’t make promises you may not be able to keep," she warned him. Her gaze slid away from his but not before he caught a glimpse of deep and private emotions too complicated for him to read.

"Your mother---" he began, but Irina cut him off.

"Fears for the loss of her meal ticket." Given the gentle way she’d handled the older woman, the bitter remark caught Jack by surprise and he pulled up short, staring dumbfounded. She abruptly turned away, hands latching together at the small of her back with enough strength to leave her white knuckled.

"That’s a harsh assessment," he ground out at last. He didn’t know Paulina Kundera, but from what he’d seen she genuinely loved her daughter, and was incredibly torn up over what had happened to her.

A soft humorless laugh was her initial answer. "But an honest one."

"You sound like you hate her," Jack exhaled, so shocked by what he was hearing that he didn’t bother to try and hide his response.

"My mother betrayed my father’s ideals, her friends, her neighbors, even her own family," Irina whispered, her voice soft and tight, the words ground out a syllable at a time. "And she raised a child to play the same games." A muscle pulsed in the Polish woman’s jaw as she ground her molars together. She turned to face the DA. "I will do what I can in this situation...because it’s my responsibility...but the best thing would be---" She abruptly stopped, seeming to catch herself. Her hand rose, fluttering near her temple, and she abruptly turned away, shoulders heaving as though she was fighting to catch her breath. "The kindest thing," she began again, her voice becoming inhumanly cold, "for Lena would be if she never regains her memory and gets as far from this city...and my mother as humanly possible." Her head came up, and Jack tracked the line of her gaze down the corridor to where Paulina Kundera was still seated, looking grey and haggard beyond her years while Niko crouched down in front of her apparently offering some measure of comfort.

Jack could only stare. "Your mother loves Lena," he said at last, his confusion plain to hear.

"Yes," Irina murmured distantly, "and yet she still allowed her to sell herself to Michael Cambias in order to save her own skin." There was no mistaking the soft undercurrent of contempt in her voice.

Jack tensed. "Are you saying that she knew?" he asked, the question coming out disjointed. He’d always assumed the Paulina Kundera had been unaware of Lena’s situation until well after it had begun.

Irina turned again, her expression a reserved mask designed to hide whatever she was thinking and feeling from the world. "Yes," she said simply. She turned to stare at her mother again, muttering something under her breath in what he assumed was Polish. "She knew...and did what was necessary to save herself...or more correctly, manipulated Lena into doing it."

Jack didn’t know what to think. The woman’s anger was palpable. It might have been hidden before, but it was inescapable now. "You must love your sister a great deal to be here now," he said at last, trying to make some sense of the situation.

"I barely know Lena," Irina informed him. "She’d only just been born when I left Poland for good."

Somehow things just kept making less and less sense. A beat and then Jack asked, "Then why are you here?"

She turned to face him, her mouth twisting into an ironic smile. "A debt, I suppose...or perhaps a duty." She shrugged. "Love my mother or hate her, she’s still my mother. When she called I couldn’t say no...and I suppose I thought my son should meet his...grandmother..." She massaged her temple slowly. "Or perhaps I just hoped his presence would make this easier," she mused aloud. She glanced at the young man again, her expression softening for the first time since their conversation had begun. "He has a good heart."

"I’m sure he does," Jack agreed. From what he’d seen the kid had been nothing but kind and supportive. "But he’s not necessarily the only one."

Irina suddenly shook her head, looking away and straightening her shoulders, giving him the distinct sense that she regretted dropping of her emotional walls for even a moment, and was busy putting them back in place. Hiding the truth from him, Jack wondered, or herself?

"For all our sakes, keep your niece away from all of us," she whispered at last and started to walk away.

"Why?" Jack demanded, resenting the imperious orders.

Irina did a slow turn, assessing him with eyes that saw too much. "You really have no idea," she said on a surprised note, and he had the sense she was speaking more to herself than him. "Because Mr. District Attorney," she explained after a beat, "your niece plays dangerous games with people’s emotions," the words were low, intended for his ears alone, her soft but pronounced accent turning her voice into a low purr that sent unwanted shivers down his spine, "and I don’t think she’s anywhere near ready to deal with the consequences."

Bristling, Jack ignored any response other than anger as he snapped, "Bianca’s not the one who’s played emotional games in all of this."

His naivete earned him an indulgently mocking smile. "I’m sure you believe that," Irina assured him in a way that made Jack feel like a slightly slow six year-old being patted on the head for finally learning how to tie his shoelaces.

He took a step forward, not towering over her, but tall enough that most women would have regarded him as imposing.

She never batted an eyelash, simply peered up at him with that same faint, mocking smile.

"If you think you know something," he growled, "I suggest you just say it."

Still not cringing, she shrugged. "I’m afraid it’s not my secret to tell." And then any trace of a smile fell away, her expression becoming very serious as she continued, "Understand something, I have nothing but compassion for your niece, but she’s in over her head." She paused just long enough to take a breath, though he had the sense that her mind was racing as she hunted for a way to say just enough and not too much. "She sees only what she wants to and doesn’t understand that we all---all---have our demons...those things we cannot forget...and cannot forgive..." Another short, thoughtful pause. "Lena is no exception to that rule and she’s smarter, better educated, and far more experienced than your niece. If pushed too far, I fear she’ll use everything she’s learned to make us all pay." She took a step back, straightening herself and regaining some measure of momentarily lost composure. "Better the girl just stay away."

"You’re afraid of her," he exhaled almost inaudibly as the truth hit him with the force of a baseball bat.

"Your niece?" Irina scoffed. "Don’t be ridiculous."

"Lena," he corrected.

No laughter or mocking smiles this time. Irina looked like she wanted to reply, even opened her mouth, but words wouldn’t come for a long moment. Finally, she shook her head in an effort to dismiss the charge. "I respect her...the way a mongoose respects a cobra."

Jack felt the need to defend his niece’s former lover. "Whatever her past mistakes, she’s tried to make up for them." He’d seen how hard Lena had struggled to change her life. She might have been the villainess of the piece once, but nothing was that simple now. "She’s not the same person she was when she worked for Cambias."

A half smile twisted full lips. "Well, she’s certainly not right now," Irina drawled, "but if she gets her memory back, don’t be so certain the fangs won’t come out."

"Maybe she’s not the one with the fangs," Jack shot back accusingly, her callous attitude bothering him. He fully expected Irina to get angry, but he wasn’t prepared for the hurt that flittered through dark eyes before it was hidden behind an impassive mask.

A moment passed while she regained enough control to speak. "If you want the truth," she said at last, her tone utterly serious and without even a hint of mockery, "she is more sinned again than sinning, but what you don’t understand," she continued, "is that only makes her more dangerous...because it will serve as justification for the havoc she is more than capable of wreaking should she see fit." She glanced away for the briefest second. "And if that happens, you’ll all wish she’d died in that car accident," she said with almost desperate intensity. And then suddenly, she pulled back a step, her movements unsteady for the first time as she spun away.

"And do you already?" Jack demanded before she could escape.

The Polish woman froze, one hand coming up and fluttering near her temple. A moment and then she half turned, staring over her shoulder at him with eyes that showed a pain he had no way of understanding. "Don’t say such a thing," she whispered, her voice sounding like a smoker’s throat rasp though an oddly pleading note underlaid the words.

Pushing aside any inclinations toward guilt brought on by the hurt he could see in her expression, Jack refused to back down. "Why not?" he ground out.

She had no answer, and her gaze broke from his. She turned away, started to leave, then froze, her voice stiff and more accented than usual. "I may have wished she’d never been born," she told him, "but I have never wished her dead...never," she added more forcefully as she threw a hard glare over her shoulder, momentarily pinning him in place.

For a moment he thought she was going to say more, but finally she just shook her head and hurried away, leaving Jack to stare after her, frustrated by the sense that there was far more going on than he knew, and everyone knew the rules of engagement but him. He was still standing there like that when Maria Grey shoved a cup of coffee into his hand.

"Don’t try to figure it out," the doctor advised, her tone making it clear she’d seen and heard at least some of the exchange. "It’ll just give you a headache."

Jack peered at her curiously, his questions implicit in his expression. "Care to explain?"

Maria shrugged. "It’s just very strange," she told him. "The sister and the nephew...they’re here all the time, but they’ve never visited Lena. In fact, she doesn’t even know they’re here, and I have firm orders not to tell her. And her mother? That’s a woman with secrets." She took a sip of coffee. "I swear it’s like mystery is genetically bred into the whole brood."

Jack glanced at her, then back down the hall where Irina was now sitting with her mother. Mystery bred in? He could almost believe it. "She’s afraid," he said very softly, still in shock over the discovery. "Of Lena," he added, his voice dropping another notch. "And Bianca." Lost in the jumble of discoveries and still struggling to piece them together, he was really musing out loud, barely even aware he had an audience. "And what might happen if they...." Afraid he’d said too much, he trailed off and tried again. "She thinks Bianca’s playing with Lena’s emotions somehow."

Maria didn’t say a word. No agreement, but no denial either, and she suddenly found the contents of her coffee cup intensely fascinating.

"It’s crazy," Jack continued, too absorbed with his own thoughts to have even an inkling of Maria’s discomfort. "How could she think that?" His frown deepened. Bianca had been the victim in all of it; first Lena’s schemes and then Michael’s attack. But given the way the relationship had ended, perhaps the Polish woman hadn’t seen it that way. "Maybe Lena said something...because of the breakup," he muttered, not comfortable that explanation, but unable to come up with anything else that made any sense. Lena wouldn’t be the first discarded lover to vent over the unfairness of it all.

"Lena may have cried on her mother’s shoulder, but I don’t think she’d say anything against Bianca," Maria felt the need to defend her patient. It was clear that Lena told her mother something of her situation when she had no one else she could talk to, but instinct told the doctor that Paulina’s anger was largely a product of her own take on the situation and not her daughter’s words.

Uncertain why she’d have any opinion either way, Jack glanced at her, his expression questioning.

"She was my patient after the first suicide attempt," she reminded him, trying to draw attention away from what she might know about the current situation. As far as she knew Jack was unaware of Bianca’s late night visits---not to mention the likelihood that considerably more had been going on between the two women for quite some time---and she really didn’t want him pushing for answers she had no business giving. "She never expressed any anger at anyone but herself...none. The only thing I saw Lena worried about was protecting Bianca." She paused for a moment as she remembered some of the things the Polish woman had said during their first meeting. "Frankly," she said at last, "I think she thought that’s what she was doing...that her death would somehow make up for what happened."

That comment pulled Jack up short. "That’s the last thing that would help," he muttered, thinking of his niece’s agitation over her former lover’s condition. Even now Bianca wasn’t as stable as he would have liked. Had Lena succeeded in her suicide attempt when all hell was breaking loose, he couldn’t imagine what might have happened and didn’t want to.

"I know," Maria allowed, "but grief can make people crazy." She paused long enough to take a breath and gather her thoughts before continuing, "Which is why I don’t think you should pay much attention to anything Lena’s family says. They’re too upset right now to be very rational." She didn’t really believe that was the explanation, particularly where Irina was concerned. The woman was strung tight, but completely in control. "They need a villain...and Bianca fits the role...but it doesn’t mean anything." The last thing any of them needed was for Jackson Montgomery to decide to dig into what was going on. Maria might not think much of all the lying going on, but she doubted any good would come of sudden a dose of the complete truth either. That was the sort of medicine likely to kill the patient.

Jack nodded. Maria was right. He was reading too much into Irina’s comments at a time when she was incredibly stressed. "Good point," he murmured, reaching up to massage the back of his neck. "It’s just frustrating," he admitted. "I feel like there are things I don’t know...like people are keeping secrets." And keeping secrets had already caused them all too much pain.

Despite any temptation to the contrary, Maria held her tongue. Sympathy for his situation or no, she had no right to breach her patient’s confidentiality. "Everyone’s emotions are ramped up right now," she said when she finally spoke. "But what we really need to concentrate on is finding Lena. That’ll do more good for everyone than anything else."

Reminded of the stakes, Jack nodded, putting everything else aside. "Right," he exhaled, slightly ashamed of himself for being distracted from his real reason for being there. "I should probably get downstairs and see if they’ve found anything on the security tapes."

He was just turning to leave when Sean Lyman came barreling around a nearby corner. He was breathing harder than normal and had a two-way radio in hand. "Sir, security just notified me. They spotted a woman on one of the parking lot cameras that might have been Ms. Kundera. Looks like she left through the west entrance no more than a half hour ago. She was on foot, and it doesn’t look like she caught a cab."

Jack and Maria traded relieved looks. With any luck everything was going to be all right. "I want every officer canvassing the area," Jack told Lyman, "but don’t approach her unless necessary and let me know the instant she’s spotted." He glanced at Maria again who nodded in agreement. "She’s undoubtedly very upset, and so we need to handle her with kid gloves." He turned a serious look Maria’s direction. "I’ll send someone up with a radio...so we can notify you if you’re needed."

She nodded her understanding. "Good luck," she breathed, offering an encouraging smile as the two men turned and hurried out. "Let this come out well," she prayed quietly, though she didn’t have a good feeling. Not a good feeling at all.

* * * * * *

Begin Part 22

With nowhere she was welcome, but desperate to stay close, Bianca ducked the nurses and orderlies prowling the corridors in search of her missing lover until she spotted the staff elevator. It took some stealth since she was terrified that if seen, they might force her to leave, but finally she slipped inside when no one was looking, and a short time later stepped out onto the roof of the hospital. A ragged sigh escaped her lips and she tipped her head back to absorb the cool breeze, mentally envision it washing her problems away. If only it were that simple. Only it wasn’t because Lena was out there somewhere, hurting and scared, undoubtedly ashamed, and maybe on the verge of doing something stupid. "She’ll be okay," she whispered to herself. She had to be. "She’ll be okay," she repeated more forcefully in an effort to push back the horrific scenarios playing in her head.

Shaking off the encroaching terror with conscious effort, she took a step forward, her heart twisting with remembered emotion as she envisioned the moments they’d shared only a few feet from where she now stood. Was it only the night before? Suddenly seemed like a lifetime ago. "She’ll be okay," she breathed a little more desperately, fighting to keep her head clear and the panic under control.

Only despite her best efforts, she couldn’t forget what her uncle had told her. Lena had tried to kill herself, had deliberately taken poison, maybe tried to crash her car, and even now might be hurting herself somehow. So much for staving off panic. Terror settled in the pit of her stomach like a two-ton chunk of lead that threatened to drag her down through the floor.

"She’ll be okay," Bianca said again, turning the words into a mantra and clinging to them with fierce passion.

Nails digging into her palms, she focused on her memories of the night before, of shared, low words that carried the weight of promises, gentle caresses, the feel of that elegant body cradled against her own, the velvety press of warm lips, and the back and forth rhythm of their synchronized breathing.

Lena had to remember those moments too, wherever she was. She had to. She had to know there were people who cared for her---

But people had cared for her before, and she’d still taken poison. The thought occurred too quickly to be deflected. Running scared, confused, thinking the worst, who couldn’t be pushed to---

An unwanted image of her lover’s body, bloody and broken, flashed in Bianca’s head before she could find a way to stop it. Whimpering under the impact, she clenched her fists so tightly her nails threatened to draw blood where they clawed into her palms. She never noticed. The physical pain was a distant sensation, so slight when compared with the emotional agony as to be irrelevant.

She didn’t know what she’d do if Lena didn’t come through this. Just the thought was almost enough to sink her in guilt and rage, both emotions so thick and dark it felt like they congealed the blood in her veins. She wanted to grab her lover and shake her, scream at her and demand to know why the hell she’d do something so stupid, then grab hold and never let go, no matter what anyone said or did.

Including her mother.

Now there was someone Bianca would have preferred to avoid thinking about.

Her mother. Erica Kane had her own unique sense of justice, and Bianca knew all too well just how much she despised Lena. Her mother wasn’t above any number of other cruelties. It would be just like her to blame Lena for their fight. It would give her all the reason she needed to take a bit of revenge on the object of her daughter’s affection. Whoever had given Lena the magazine had been dark haired, cruel, and carrying a grudge. Now there was a description that fit Erica Kane to a tee, and who else fit that desciption? No one that Bianca could think of.

Needing to escape that thought, Bianca hurried forward to the edge of the roof, leaning forward to grip to the low retaining wall that ran around the edge so tightly she half expected the cement to powder under her fingers.

In the parking lot far below the rooftop lights from a pair of squad cars cast constantly shifting red and blue streamers onto the surrounding walls and vehicles, the effect oddly hypnotic. Occasionally Bianca caught a glimpse of human shaped shadows moving among the cars, hunting for Lena, she suspected. Like so many things in her life, it all seemed horribly unreal, like she couldn’t really be standing here, watching them search while she waited to hear if Lena was alive or dead.

She shook herself, consciously struggling to throw off the dark thoughts that threatened to drive her to do something she shouldn’t.

Like go back down to the twelfth floor, and demand to be told what was going on whether Paulina Kundera liked it or not. No, hard as it was to stay away, it was her only real choice. Lena would never forgive her if she upset the older woman any more than she already had. Besides, having so carefully created the illusion that Lena was nothing to her, maybe being up here alone was a fitting punishment for all her mistakes.

Bad thinking. That was definitely an example of the sort of thing her counselor kept lecturing against. Dr. Zimmerman was wont to impress on her that bad events in her life weren’t punishment for some imagined evil she’d done. They were simply bad events. The girl ruffled her hair, trying to force her thoughts onto more positive pathways, but it was harder than hell when she didn’t know what was happening to someone she cared for.

She was still leaning against the wall, watching the scene below and trying to clear her mind when a sound touched her ears. Very small, almost lost in the delicate breeze that played with Bianca’s hair, it was just enough to draw her head around as she searched the unfamiliar landscape of the roof, nerves suddenly on edge. It wasn’t that she was afraid of running across some madman on the PV hospital roof, but her senses had become more acute, her responses more cautious since Michael’s attack. It was, Dr. Zimmerman had assured her, perfectly normal, but somehow it still felt wrong, like she was someone else every time she jumped and her heart accelerated over some tiny sound or movement at the edge of her peripheral vision. She’d always been comfortable in strange places, calm, and remarkably confident even as times in her life when she’d felt like an alien in her own skin. No more. Now she had to fight the urge to panic at every tiny sound no matter how soft or seemingly benign.

Her mouth suddenly dry, she straightened, turning to scan what she could see of the rooftop. Nothing moving. Maybe it was nothing. Just a random city sound.

She was just starting to relax when she heard it again, clearer now that she was listening so carefully.

A tiny, drawn out rasp of moving air with a high pitched undercurrent. She looked around. There was a breeze, but the sound was too soft and irregular to be caused by a whistling wind.

There it was again, delicate and mournful. Definitely not the wind nor anything mechanical. The timbre and rhythm were that of a live thing.

A frightened child? Or perhaps an injured animal?

She took a couple of steps, heard it again---louder now---and followed the tiny whimpers, hunting the shadowed corners of the darkened roof with every step. A narrow ledge ran around the edge of the building, following its shape and occasional jogs perfectly and as she rounded the side of the small elevator housing, she realized there was an additional half story to the building apparently built to house the cooling and heating system.

The whimper came again, soft, feral, and desperate in a way that tore at Bianca’s heart.

And suddenly she knew.

No animal, no matter how badly hurt, could have drawn that visceral response from somewhere deep inside her, and the only child who could have caused such a fiercely protective wave was her own. And he was safe at home.

Desperation drove her now, until she spotted the slender figure she knew had to be close.

She was curled into the smallest ball possible tucked into a narrow corner where ledge butted against the vertical wall that went up to the higher level. Her back was against the wall, knees folded tightly against her chest, arms wrapped around her legs, head down, tiny tremors shaking her entire body. Bianca suddenly realized the rhythm of the tiny sounds matched that of a very small, back and forth rocking motion.

Lena.

In more agony than anyone should ever be in.

And sitting on a ledge more than a dozen stories above the street. A few inches to one side, a moment’s unbalance, or even a hard breeze and it would all be over in moments.

Muscles locked with sheer terror, Bianca fought the urge to simply rush forward and snatch the other woman back from the edge, but all it would take was the slightest mistake and she would achieve what poison and a car accident hadn’t managed. A missed grab or a moment’s panic and Lena would be as dead as if Bianca had put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.

Now was not the time to panic or screw anything up. Take it slow, think it through, and for god’s sake, don’t startle the woman on the ledge.

She took a breath and let it out, getting herself under control before carefully edging forward one step. And then another. And another. Each step bringing her a little closer.

Her heart hammering so hard she was amazed Lena hadn’t long since heard her coming, every movement was a torment of taut muscle and terror.

Just a little farther. Just a little—

And then Lena’s chin rose. She moved incredibly slowly, like someone too old, too drugged, or simply too badly beaten to go any faster.

Bianca froze as tear stained, dark eyes slid closed for the briefest second, then opened again, fixing a sad look on her.

A beat. "Go away," Lena said at last, the words dragged out as though it took all of her effort to form them.

Bianca stood frozen for a beat, her brain refusing to process the situation. "Lena, what are you..." she started to speak as she instinctively advanced.

Lena instantly tensed, her position suddenly seeming even more precarious.

Bianca froze.

"Just go," Lena rasped and looked away. "I don’t want you here." Bianca was literally the last person she wanted to see.

Uncertain how to respond and terrified of doing the wrong thing, Bianca struggled to stay calm even as she tried to remember those hours after Michael’s attack when she’d been in this kind of hell. What kind of approach might have reached her then? She didn’t know. Maybe nothing, and that scared the hell out of her. "I know you saw the article," she said at last.

Lena exhaled the tiniest of bitter laughs, the sound bordering on a whimpery cry, but didn’t say anything.

"Why don’t you come down and we’ll talk about it," Bianca suggested, hoping she sounded cool and logical and not as panicked as she felt.

"There’s nothing to talk about," Lena whispered in a hauntingly dead voice, the newly gained knowledge of all the things she’d done burning holes in her heart and mind like still-smoldering coals searing her body from the inside out to leave her a burned-out husk of a human being.

"That’s not true," Bianca said very gently as she eased forward a small step. David had physically dragged her back from the edge of the clinic roof once. Was she strong enough to do the same for Lena? She wasn’t sure and didn’t want to have to find out. "There’s you and I...and the future...our future."

That drew another low, half mad laugh. "That wasn’t real."

Lena was right on the edge, not just physically, but mentally as well. Bianca took another step toward her lover, poised on the balls of her feet in case she needed to move fast. "Remember last night," she coaxed, hoping that bond could bring Lena back to her, "the time we spent up here, how right it felt? How can you say that wasn’t real?"

Dark eyes slid closed, blocking out the younger woman’s tender appeal. "Because none of it was true...just a pretty fairy tale," Lena said in a dead voice. No matter how much she wanted to believe in all of those things---no matter how much she was drawn to the younger woman---she couldn’t believe that Bianca felt anything but loathing for her after everything she’d learned. She didn’t know why the younger woman had seemed so kind, or why she’d said and done the things she had. Maybe her mother was right and it was nothing more than a cruel game. But knowing the truth, she couldn’t imagine any possibility of a shared future, no matter how much part of her craved it. In truth, she couldn’t imagine she had any kind of future at all.

"No---" Bianca insisted almost instantly.

"Don’t lie," the Polish woman bit out in a momentary burst of frustration, then her expression crumpled again as she drew more tightly into herself. "No more lies," she begged, her voice cracking painfully. "I know about the things I did." Her eyes slid away from Bianca, the pain of facing her victim too much to bear. "I know I can’t make up for any of it...but I’m sorry." She shook her head. "I don’t know how I could have...." She trailed off. There were no words sufficient to express the depth of her shame and regret, at least none that she could think of. "I’m sorry," she muttered again.

Another cautious step forward. Bianca took a breath, fighting to keep her head clear. A gentle touch wasn’t working. Lena had lost any trust for what they’d shared. She glanced toward the elevator enclosure, wondering if she should try and get someone else. Maybe Lena’s mother could—

Accurately reading Bianca’s internal debate in that quick glance Lena shook her head. "I won’t be here when you get back," she said very softly, her voice floating sepulchrally on the faint breeze.

Not liking any of the possible interpretations of that comment, Bianca looked at the other woman again, her expression horrified.

Lena saw the way the other woman’s eyes softened and wanted to reassure her, but even she wasn’t quite sure what she was threatening to do. She just knew she couldn’t face any of them. Not her mother or the doctors or any of them. Not now. She just wanted to escape, run away, and be someone else---her eyes flicked to touch on the world far below---but with nowhere to go and no one she trusted, there was a certain dark temptation to seek out the ultimate form of oblivion.

"Listen to me." Bianca sharpened her tone, the words carefully spaced and firmly spoken in her best effort to ape the tone her counselor got when she was desperately trying to imprint something on her young charge.

Lena looked up, but didn’t speak.

At least she was listening now. Bianca took a breath, ignoring her own nerves---no time for her problems now---as she continued, "I know that article said some awful things, but you have to believe me, most of it was lies and distortions...and you’ve done nothing worth the pain you are going through right now...nothing."

Brown eyes refocused on her, momentarily gleaming with hope. God, how Lena wanted to believe the other woman. Anything to take away the horror and shame of what she’d read. And yet there were still too many things she couldn’t forget even though she couldn’t remember them. "But it said I worked for that man---Cambias---that I..." she trailed off, her gorge rising as she fought to breathe. "...that he paid me...to sleep with men...for information so he could steal from them." She desperately wanted Bianca to deny it all, tell her it was nothing more than a nightmare, a lie, a prank, anything to make it go away.

The younger woman paled, her momentary silence and obvious panic all the answer Lena needed.

"Oh god," the words came out through a gasp, as though someone had struck her in the solar plexus just as she started to speak. A fresh wave of tears seared her eyes and she couldn’t breathe. Until that very moment, she’d held onto some tiny core of hope that it was all some kind of lie, but Bianca’s response made it obvious it wasn’t. In an instant, it all became real, the horror all the more intense because of her overwhelming attraction to the other woman. Her stomach rolling, throat so tight it felt like fingers squeezing the life from her, she buried her face in her upthrust knees, clinging tightly, her whole body randomly convulsing as she fought not to give way to harsh sobs.

The sudden brush of a hand against her upper arm caught Lena by surprise and she jerked back, nearly upending herself, her balance wavering violently even as she cried out, "Don’t touch me!" Bianca leapt back and Lena experienced a lightheaded loss of equilibrium followed by a panicky sense of falling. For the briefest moment, she expected to topple into a freefall that would carry her all the way to her doom. Then as abruptly as she’d lost her balance, she caught it again and held on. Her heart still thundering in her chest, she looked up. Bianca stood poised on the balls of her feet, ready to leap to her aid, but clearly afraid of making things worse.

Lena didn’t know what to make of the terror she saw in brown eyes. Not a woman eager to see her dead. That very lack of hate made her want to hope, but she knew from experience that hope could be the most dangerous of emotions. When falsely felt, it could lead a body down the worst paths and drive a person mad. Her mother had hoped once, and it had nearly destroyed them all.

"Lena," Bianca croaked, her voice unsteady. She held out a hand still trembling from the terror of seeing her lover nearly fall. "Please let me help you down off that ledge."

Lena tucked her hands more tightly around her body, refusing the proffered hand with a sharp headshake, afraid that she would lose all control if they made even the slightest contact. She looked away, pressing her cheek firmly against her knees, unable or unwilling to trust the other woman. She wanted to, but she couldn’t forget.... "Why didn’t you tell me the truth?" she whispered through thick tears. "Why did you let me think I meant something to you?" That was the worst part; believing she was someone with friends and people who cared for her, a lover who couldn’t stand the thought of losing her, only to discover it was all a lie.

"You mean a great deal to me," Bianca assured her, crouching down as she eased forward ever so slightly. "Please believe that if you can’t believe anything else."

It was so tempting to just surrender to that sweet promise, but Lena couldn’t afford the risk. "My mother said you were just using me," She looked up through clear brown eyes. "That you wanted me to love you so you could break my heart." That thought was almost worse than the things she’d read in that article.

"That’s not true," Bianca swore as she gained a few more inches by sliding forward to one knee.

"No one would blame you...not after the things I’ve done." Unable to bear the weight of guilt any longer, Lena looked away.

"Lena...please look at me," Bianca begged. One beat passed and then another and another while she patiently waited until brown eyes finally swung her way. "I would never...never," she said a second time with more emphasis, "want to see you hurt."

"Why not?" Lena asked. "I deserve---"

"Listen to me," Bianca broke in sharply. She edged forward a few more inches. Almost there. "Your mother was wrong...and so was that article. You and I are the only ones who know truth about what we are to each other."

Lena was listening to her now, unable to fight the thing between them, hope holding sway in spite of her best efforts. "But I worked for that man. Don’t deny it, I could see it in your eyes."

Bianca’s throat bobbed as she swallowed hard and took a brief second to gather her thoughts. "Yes," she said at last, the words coming haltingly, "you worked for Michael Cambias..." she ignored the stab of pain caused by just saying his name, "...and you came here to help him steal from my mother’s company."

Looking away, Lena trembled as though she’d taken a vicious blow to the body and Bianca flinched right along with her.

"Then I did come here to seduce you." The barely audible words were full of sick shame, with an undercurrent of anger. "To use you...to make money."

Shaking her head desperately, Bianca reached out without thinking, hooking Lena’s chin to bring her head back around, her voice sharp and hard. "No," she insisted.

Caught and held by something in the younger woman’s demeanor, the Polish woman didn’t pull away this time, but instead sat frozen.

"Michael wanted you to do that," Bianca admitted, then leaned a little closer, her voice dropping low as she swore intently, "but you never did...never." Suddenly it was just as important to her as it was to her lover to hear and believe that simple fact. Whatever Lena’s crimes, Bianca had never been the target.

"Even if that’s true, I still came to steal," Lena reminded Bianca, even as she tipped her head to avoid contact with the hand that moved as if to stroke her cheek, implicitly rejecting the offer of a safe haven. She couldn’t believe anyone could be so forgiving as to overlook the things she’d done and couldn’t trust no matter how much she wanted to.

"It wasn’t that simple," Bianca disagreed, buying a moment’s time while she searched for a way to explain the past in way that wouldn’t push Lena off the ledge. "You were desperate for money...for your mother," she began at last, drawing a little closer as she spoke.

A hint of a frown creasing her brow, Lena stared at Bianca, while the girl used the distraction to reach across Lena, almost but not quite touching, ready to grab her shoulders if need be.

"And Michael used that against you." Carefully holding Lena’s gaze, Bianca moved her other hand so that it was hanging in the air near her lover’s waist. Once again nearly touching but not quite.

Almost there.

"And when you tried to defy him to protect me..." She just needed to keep talking until she could get Lena down, or at least until she was angled so any loss of balance would throw her away from the long drop to the ground. "...Michael threatened your mother if you didn’t do what he wanted."

In one way it was the sort of explanation Lena had dreamed of hearing, one which almost made sense of her actions and made them forgivable. At the same time, it meant some kind of threat hung over the head of the only family she had left. Intending to demand more information, she turned toward Bianca, a dozen unspoken questions already forming in her head.

Bianca saw the fear and longing to believe in dark eyes even as Lena leaned toward her. There. The angle was right and she took her chance, acting before her lover had time to speak. Her hands were already in place and her grab was hard and a little rough, but she couldn’t risk losing her grip at the wrong moment, not when she instinctively knew how her lover would react when hauled off the ledge. Badly.

Which she did right on cue, panic instantly sweeping over her as she was unexpectedly grabbed and hauled off the low brick wall. Already emotionally on edge, Lena reacted like a wild thing betrayed, striking out and resisting the pull of slender hands and surprisingly strong arms.

Bianca couldn’t afford to allow the fight to continue. Too much chance of Lena being injured in the struggle, or worse, escaping her hold and doing a nose dive over the side of the building in her panic. Teeth gritted, the girl braced herself and kicked off, throwing them both a few feet from certain doom. Twisting with the momentum she hit the roof on her shoulder, shielding her lover from the worst of the impact.

It was still enough to drive a grunting shriek of pain from Lena’s lungs as badly bruised ribs were jarred and broken bones nearly knocked out of their carefully constructed alignment. Bright lights exploding behind her eyelids, her only coherent thought was that Bianca had lied, her sweet words of absolution nothing but a trick. Her struggles were automatic, mindless, and fierce, the reaction of a woman who’d been betrayed too many times to react calmly to what looked like one more lie. Even without the memories of Michael Cambias, Lena Kundera had seen too many evils in her life to accept some sins.

Mindless with rage and pain, Lena drove the elbow of her injured arm into Bianca’s midsection, strangely gratified by the younger woman’s answering grunt and sudden spasm.

Left gasping for air, Bianca momentarily lost her grip on the desperately squirming woman and Lena twisted free in a blink. Her only aim to escape, she never realized that her mad scrambles were taking her straight toward the edge of the building.

But Bianca did. "No!" She rolled to one knee and dove after her lover, tackling her from behind. "No, no, no," she panted near Lena’s ear as she got an arm around her waist and hauled her back from the edge.

"Let me go!" Lena was all angry, writhing flesh, nearly impossible to hang onto, using every ounce of her waning strength, her muscles trembling with the effort required to fight, her breath coming in harsh, panting gasps.

"No!" Bianca ground out through clenched teeth. Sharp elbows caught her in the ribs, but she ignored the pain. If she lost her grip, Lena was likely to wind up a grease spot on the pavement far below. And if that happened, Bianca knew she might as well just leap right over after her. Another sharp shot to the ribs and a crashing impact between Bianca’s jaw and the back of Lena’s head left them both seeing stars. "Dammit, Lena," the girl grunted as she grabbed for flailing hands. She clamped her fingers around a delicate wrist and jerked, yanking it into the taller woman’s body with enough force to drive the air from her lungs, "stop fighting me."

A sharp imprecation in a language Bianca didn’t recognize heralded a new wave of struggles so desperate she knew she couldn’t hold on long. She had to do something. Quickly. Lena’s other hand swept by, the metal clasps on the brace catching the light. Without thinking, the girl grabbed for the passing limb, clamping down so hard the metal edges of the brace indented the meat of her palm and the canvas rasped against her skin.

And then suddenly Lena wasn’t struggling anymore. Instead she fell back against Bianca, a sharp gasp driven from her lungs as she pushed frantically at the hand wrapped around the shattered joint, small keening cries escaping her lips. Words, high pitched and pleading reached the girl’s ears in what she decided had to be Polish, followed by English so broken it barely sounded like Lena. "Please...let...go...."

It took the girl an extra second to parse the heavily accented words and realize what she’d done and when she did she was horrified. Lena twisted and Bianca could almost hear the grinding of shattered bone where she gripped the Polish woman’s wrist. "Oh god," the words escaped her lips in an appalled blast of sound, as she let go of the damaged limb. Even as she let go, she stretched her arm across Lena’s shoulders to maintain some kind of hold, half afraid the other woman might still make a bid to escape.

Only Lena wasn’t up to going anywhere. As her arm was released, she pulled it against her body, curling into a tight ball, small, wounded whimpers the only sound she was capable of making.

"Oh god, Lena, I’m sorry," Bianca breathed in horror, her hold going from restraining to soothing in an instant. "I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just..." She clutched the woman in her arms a little tighter, though she was careful not to disturb her injured limb this time. As she held Lena close the girl’s gaze rose to lock on the nearby ledge, a shiver running over her skin when she realized just how close they were.

Only a few more feet and it would have all been over.

The shiver turned to a shudder until Bianca was trembling almost as violently as the women in her arms. "I’m sorry," she breathed again, though Lena showed no sign of hearing her.

Her lover was curled around her broken arm, rocking back and forth ever so slightly, her eyes squeezed shut, mouth pursed into a line of agony. Lena took in a deep breath and let it out on a ragged gasp that quickly turned into spasmodic shudders. Her teeth were clenched so tightly Bianca could see the ripple of muscle at the jawline and her throat muscles bobbled unsteadily. She was fighting it, trying to maintain some semblance of control and failing miserably. A single silver tear escaped the trap of tightly shut eyes and then another and another. "No." The word came as a tiny, near inaudible gasp as she wrapped her arms around her midsection. She rocked one shoulder as if to pull away from the woman at her back, but Bianca refused to let go.

"Lena, please stop struggling before you’re hurt," Bianca begged.

That brought a sharp bark of dark laughter, and then suddenly Lena was rocking again, the tears that had started with the blast of pain fast gaining momentum. Bianca could almost hear the snap as something inside of her lover shattered and within moments, the slow trickle of moisture had turned to harsh sobs.

At some level, Bianca wanted to rail at her lover, scream and demand to know how she could risk her life, but faced with a woman coming apart at the seams, she just gathered her close, petting her hair soothingly and whispering comforting nonsense the same way she would have with Tyler if he had a bad nightmare. There would be time for recriminations later. "It’s gonna be okay," she breathed over and over. "You’re safe...you’re all right." The words had less meaning than her tone as she gently rocked her lover, crooning softly and petting her hair, gratified by the way Lena finally sagged against her and turned her face into Bianca’s shoulder.

By the time Lena finally still in her arms and her breathing became slow and steady, Bianca had little sense of how long they’d been there. Her position wasn’t conducive to checking her watch, but the moon had shifted several degrees, and the air was fast turning cold. Not the time of year where staying outside much longer was a good idea for a woman in hospital scrubs and bare feet, especially after a recent accident. "Lena," she whispered gently, "Lena," she said again more sharply when there was no immediate reply.

A beat and then the Polish woman tensed fractionally and started to pull away.

Bianca tightened her hold.

"Let go," Lena muttered without looking at her.

"No." Not a chance after what had just happened.

"Why not?" Lena demanded bitterly as she tried again to shrug free of the other woman’s hold. Suddenly feeling profoundly embarrassed, she just wanted to be left alone. She needed space to think. Nothing made sense anymore and her tie to Bianca was the most confusing part of the whole sorry mess.

"Because I’m afraid of what you might do," Bianca admitted, her own strain showing in the way her voice creaked tremulously.

Shaking her head, Lena couldn’t contain a tiny, near hysterical burst of sound that was somewhere between laughter and tears. "It doesn’t matter."

"Doesn’t...matter?" Bianca repeated as though she couldn’t quite believe she’d heard right. Something inside of her twisted, the anger at those simple words swelling and washing over he like a vicious undertow threatening to drag her under, reminding her once again of what her uncle had told her. "We’re at least fifteen stories up," she snapped. "You were sitting on that ledge...and then trying to..." she paused, uncertain exactly what Lena had been trying to do, simply escape or find oblivion in the peace of freefall. She couldn’t deal with the possibilities so she didn’t even try, just launched into another, more direct, if equally painful line of thought. Still, sometimes it’s easier to deal with results than motivations. "You could have been killed." It was all catching up with the girl. Not just the scene she’d stumbled onto, but everything. Her lover had nearly killed herself, then again nearly died in a car accident, and both times she’d been everywhere but where Lena needed her to be. And now tonight, she’d nearly had to watch it happen. And as angry as she was at herself, she was twice as angry at her lover. It wasn’t worth dying for.

She. Wasn’t. Worth. Dying. For.

And yet Lena had been ready to do so. Furiously angry and desperately terrified at the same time, she tightened her hold still more, ignoring the hand that pushed weakly at her restraining arm. Bianca didn’t want that kind of responsibility on her shoulders. She’d already proven she couldn’t handle it and Lena had no business asking it of her.

Only she hadn’t asked, hadn’t said a word, had in fact been ready to simply crawl away and silently die with no one the wiser.

Which only made Bianca angrier and guiltier. Burying her face in chestnut hair, she fought a harsh sob without success and her body shook under its impact. "I could have lost you forever."

"Why would you care?" Lena rasped.

Bianca flinched. "We were lovers," she reminded the other woman.

Lena shook her head violently, remembering too late her mother’s warnings about this woman. Much as she wanted to, she couldn’t afford to trust. "You’re trying to trick me---" she gasped, fighting the urge to curl even more tightly around her broken arm, the agony still vicious enough to make it hard to think.

"No," Bianca shot back, her voice thick with tears. "I wouldn’t---"

"Then why did you lie to me?" Lena exploded. She waved her uninjured hand in a loose gesture, indicating the roof’s edge where she thought they’d shared so much only to have it all blow up in her face. Another ragged sob shook her frame, the world a watery blur, her mind still spinning with all the things she’d read, none of it feeling real. And yet there had been the pictures: herself, and the two men she’d been in league with, one of them so perverse as to take a photo while they were in bed together. "Why didn’t you tell me the truth?" During those moments on the roof, she’d felt so safe in Bianca’s arms, so lost in her eyes, so touched by her voice, and so taken with her kisses.

Only it was all a lie. Maybe just an attempt to set her up for the massive free-fall she was caught in now. Just like her mother had warned her. Painful as the truth was, she might have been able to believe Bianca had forgiven her if she hadn’t lied, but now...

Now how could she believe anything the other woman told her? Lena rubbed at the random flow of tears heating her cheeks. "Why did you let me find out by reading some damn magazine article?" she whispered again, the words accusing.

Bianca froze. There was no good way to answer without offering explanations she had no intention of giving. Her mind racing as she hunted for an answer, she pressed her face deeper into the comforting warmth of soft hair, breathing in the scent of her lover’s body, comforted by the solidity of her frame even if it was frailer than usual. "It never occurred to me that anyone would be so cruel as to give you that article" she whispered at last. No matter what lies had been told or what truths not told, that much was true. Still holding Lena tightly, she gentled her grip, lifting a hand to tenderly stroke fluttery hair, the position strangely reminiscent of more innocent intimacies. "I didn’t tell you about what happened because I was trying to protect you. Maria was afraid any stress might trigger more convulsions...and there was no easy way to tell you about what happened. It was just too risky." Bianca nuzzled Lena’s cheek, hot tears suddenly burning her eyes, shock and adrenaline leaving her nearly incoherent. "And I admit it...it was easier to wipe the slate clean...to see you free of the guilt."

Lena’s quieted, signaling that she was listening in spite of herself, or maybe she was just so exhausted she had nothing left with which to fight.

Bianca risked pressed a soft kiss to her lover’s temple. "We were putting things back together," she assured the other woman. "I didn’t lie about that. I’m not saying it was easy...but we had so much...and neither of us wanted to throw it away."

A tiny sound escaped Lena’s lips.

Bianca couldn’t tell what it meant, so she simply hoped for the best and continued. "Last night," she murmured, nuzzling Lena’s ear, her breath heating velvety skin, "I know you felt it too...that magic." She stroked a rounded cheek with the pad of her thumb, her touch incredibly tender. "We both wanted it...and I just needed to be here for you...that’s all. I wasn’t trying to hurt you...I wouldn’t. God, Lena, I...you have no idea how much you mean to me." Even as the words left Bianca’s mouth, a tiny voice whispered in her ear, taunting her with the fact that Lena couldn’t have known, not when she’d been so careful never to tell her. She pushed it ruthlessly aside. Doubts weren’t a luxury she could afford. "I was just trying to do what was best for you," she said at last.

Lena wanted to believe, wanted it so badly she could taste it. "But that man---"

"No," Bianca snarled, rage glittering in her eyes for a brief second before she got it under control. Michael had already too damn much from her. She wasn’t going to let him have one more thing. "I told you, he forced you to do the things you did...threatened your mother’s life...and even then, once your mother was safe, you turned on him and gave evidence to the police." It was almost the truth.

"But---"

Bianca didn’t let her get any farther. "You had no choice. Yes, I was angry at first, but once I understood what you’d been through, I realized you couldn’t have done anything else." That much was true. A year of making nothing but wrong decisions had taught her that sometimes there was no right path, and a person just had to get through life any way they could.

The hope in dark eyes was cautious, but it was real enough. "But the picture..." Lena said hesitantly, uncertain she wanted to know. Maybe for once she should just grab for the brass ring and not ask any questions.

"A fake," Bianca told her. "Michael needed to discredit you before you could testify against him, so he set things up to look like you’d embezzled funds for an illegal stock trade. He created that photo to make you look guilty...and to humiliate both of us." she hardened her voice, wanting to drive the point home, "but it wasn’t real." A little more truth, even if it held out the possibility of a lie by inference, giving Lena room to hope that perhaps the other accounts of her activities for Michael were equally fake. Bianca didn’t care. In fact, she would just as soon have seen Lena spared those memories.

Physically uncurling just a little even as she mentally drew into herself, Lena struggled to put things together in her head, but her arm was still a raging mass of agony and the rest of her body wasn’t far behind which made it hard to think and harder still to resist any comfort offered. When standing right at the edge of an abyss, it’s nearly impossible to refuse the only hand being offered to pull one back. At the same time, as much as she wanted to believe, there was some niggling sense of doubt. It just didn’t feel quite right even if she couldn’t quite decide why. Or perhaps she was simply too paranoid to trust in someone else’s goodness. Certainly Bianca wasn’t acting like a woman who hated her even if she should.

Aware of the tension rippling through her lover, suddenly so attuned to Lena’s mood she could almost hear the doubts making their way through her brain, Bianca knew she sensed the holes in the story even if she was in no shape to accurately spot them. Even without her memory and as banged up as she was, Lena was too smart not to see there had to be more to the story if she had enough time to think about it.

And neither of them was up to dealing with more doubts or questions.

"That article was written over a year ago," the girl inserted almost too quickly, "...while you were still in jail---wrongly---because of Michael." Bianca could feel Lena pulling away, her innate sense of logic driving her to question the holes in the story. She had to distract her from that line of inquiry. "Stop and think," the girl hissed a little desperately. "If you had done those things, you’d be in prison by now...not walking around free. She pressed another delicate kiss to the other woman’s temple, feeling her relax fractionally, though far from completely. Bianca was just grateful the desperate struggles had stopped and Lena seemed to be listening to her again. The Polish woman didn’t respond to the pointed logic, though Bianca was certain she was mulling it over. "You were innocent of those charges," she said sharply, "...and we proved it." Which wasn’t exactly the truth, but Kendall had done it on her behalf and for both of them, and at the point Bianca was desperate for anything that might make Lena trust her a little more.

A long pause and then a hesitant question. "Y-you helped me?" Tentative, uncertain, desperately wanting it to be true, and horribly afraid that it wasn’t, Lena barely got the words out.

Bianca couldn’t lie so completely as to simply confirm that statement, but neither could she tell the whole truth. "Not at first," she admitted, unwanted memories of thinking Lena had betrayed her again playing in her head. "I was stupid." She stroked dark hair very gently, drawing much needed comfort from the cool weight. "I believed those pictures...but later I realized..." she trailed off, struggling with the guilt of one more lie, but seeing no other way. "...later I realized you couldn’t have done it," she whispered at last. That much was true. "Please say you believe me," she begged as she nosed deeper into the soft hair at Lena’s temple.

Exhausted beyond measure and too confused to think straight, the fight drained out of Lena along with the last of the adrenaline rush that had kept her going that long. Trembling and weak, she sagged against the younger woman, a soft, hiccuppy sob escaping her lips. None of it made any sense, but she turned into the arms that held her so tenderly, her response less about trust than it was the human need for comfort when she was at her lowest ebb.

"Lena, please," Bianca pressed, her voice low and gentle, but oddly firm at the same time, "tell me you believe me."

Even wanting to trust Bianca, Lena couldn’t quite let go of her suspicion that something wasn’t quite right. "I-I don’t know," she mumbled, the words threatening to slur together. "I don’t know anything anymore." Despite her fears, she didn’t resist this time as she was gathered closer, though whether it was because she truly wished it or no longer had the strength to fight even Lena didn’t know. "It feels like everything’s wrong now."

Bianca silently cursed whoever had given Lena that article, then wondered if it was her own mother she was cursing. God, what a mess. "Tell me what to do to make it right," she begged, her voice thick with guilt and regret.

"I don’t know," Lena admitted, wishing she had a better answer.

"I’d do anything in my power to take away your pain," Bianca breathed.

"If there’s anything I don’t know..." Lena trailed off into silence. After everything that had happened, she wasn’t sure she could take any more surprises. "Just tell me."

Bianca didn’t even pause before she lied. "There’s nothing." Neither of them was prepared to deal with the realities of the rape, and Lena would understand that if she ever got her memory back. It was for the best.

Twisting, Lena peered up at the other woman, seeing no hint of dishonesty in her expression, and yet....

And yet. "No more lies," she said very softly, the hypercharged emotion of minutes before giving way to a weary blandness. It wasn’t that she was hiding her emotions so much as she was simply too fatigued to feel very much any more.

"No more lies," Bianca lied smoothly. It was for the best, she assured herself again, carefully locking away any doubts.

That finally seemed to satisfy Lena because she looked away again and drew in a deep breath, letting it out slowly and leaving Bianca with the sense that she was trying to marshal whatever reserves she had left.

"Let go," Lena requested quietly when she finally spoke.

Bianca tensed, but made no move to comply.

"Don’t worry," the Polish woman sighed, the tiniest flicker of frustration sneaking into her tone. "I’m not going to do anything stupid."

Bianca didn’t resist this time when she was pushed away, but she stayed close as Lena staggered upright, rising along with her, hands outstretched, ready to catch her lover if need be. When she was finally on her feet, Lena just stared at the low wall where Bianca had first found her, shoulders slumped, her breathing slow and strained sounding.

Reaching out, Bianca settled a hand lightly on Lena’s upper arm only to have the other woman shrug away from her touch and take a step forward. Stung over the unspoken rejection, she let her arm drop to her side. "Why don’t you let me help you back downstairs," she suggested.

Lena distantly heard the words, but the meaning barely registered as she stared out over the city, her mind busy trying to make something understandable of what she knew and felt. Unfortunately, what few facts she had were too disparate and too at odds with the confusing jumble of emotions for her to come up with anything remotely coherent and trying to make it fit left her skull feeling like it might just explode at any time. She massaged her temple slowly, but it did nothing to ease the pressure or make sense of it all.

"Lena," Bianca spoke carefully, her tone intended to gain her lover’s intention and also to gently chastise her into doing what she was supposed to.

"No," Lena broke in and shook her head, rejecting the implicit suggestion that she return to her hospital room. "I don’t want..." she trailed off, the fingers at her temple moving to the center of her forehead where an all new pressure point had settled during the intervening moments. At that precise moment she was in no condition to face dealing with her mother, her fears, her accusations, or her demands. Much as she loved the older woman, she was under no illusions as to just how difficult the scene would be.

"Lena," Bianca tried again, her tone placating, "you’re hurt. You need---"

"I said, no," the Polish woman bit out, squeezing her eyes shut again as she fought a rapidly increasing headache. She wavered on her feet, knees weak, vertigo threatening to topple her only to find herself steadied by a gentle hand.

"I really think---" Bianca began, but Lena interrupted.

"I can’t deal with it all right now." Lena shook her head, already imagining the heated words and ugly insinuations. She knew exactly what would happen. Her mother would be angry, there would be insults and accusations, and when she hurled hurtful accusations at Bianca Paulina Kundera wouldn’t understand that she was calling her daughter those same things by extension. Lena wasn’t certain what she felt for the younger woman, but she knew she wasn’t up for the emotional drubbing that would come from watching her raked over the coals. "I need to get out of here," she croaked, suddenly feeling hemmed in, like the sky was pressuring down on her. Was it possible to be claustrophobic outside? Apparently it was. She pulled away from the hand on her arm, spinning too quickly and nearly toppled again.

Again Bianca was there to catch her, though the position put pressure on her cracked ribs and she gasped in pain.

"Lena, please---"

"No," Lena jerked away from the cushioning strength of slender arms and stared down in to frightened eyes, almost resenting that soft look because it made it so damned much harder to see things objectively and she desperately needed some measure of objectivity if she was going to navigate the minefield ahead. "I can’t. I need to get away from here...to think." The words came in a rush, but with oddly spaced pauses as she struggled with the language. Bianca still had one hand under her elbow and another on her side just above her waist and she pushed them both away, ignoring the sharp pain that came from using her broken arm. She started to turn away only to be held back by a surprisingly tight grip on her shoulder.

"You can’t just leave," Bianca reminded her. "You’re still hurt."

It was tempting to point out in how many ways, but Lena resisted the urge. "I’ll be fine," she muttered.

"Your mother---"

"I’ll call her," Lena said before Bianca could get any farther. "I just..." her voice cracked painfully and she couldn’t continue for a long moment. "...I can’t deal with my mother...or any of them...I just..." she trailed off again, struggling to draw in a breath before continuing. "I can’t face everyone....knowing what they know." Everything was crushing in on her and were it not for the hand on her arm she might well have fled.

Bianca was silent for a long beat, but finally she took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Okay," she said at last, her voice low and almost too calm, a forced illusion that was belied by the faint tremor that shook the hand on Lena’s shoulder. "But I’m not letting you leave here alone."

Lena drew a breath to argue---Bianca was one of the things she wanted to get away from in order to think---but the girl cut her off.

"Don’t even think it. I’ll have security tackle you in the parking lot before I let you out of my sight." No question that she meant it too.

"I’m not a child," Lena whispered. "I can take care of myself." God knew, she’d nearly always had to. The last person she remembered taking care of her was her father and he was long gone now.

Bianca shrugged. "Maybe," she allowed, "but right now, you’re not thinking clearly...and I’m afraid of what you might do." She laid it on the line, then waited a beat, staring intently at her lover as though expecting some kind of response before finally saying, "Don’t you understand that I couldn’t live with myself if anything happened to you...especially if I could have done something to stop it?"

A long, uncomfortable silence followed before Lena spoke. "I don’t understand why you care," she admitted.

Sneaking a hand out to touch Lena’s where it hung at her side, Bianca shrugged. "Does it really matter why?" she asked. Lena didn’t pull away, so she risked pushing things a little farther. Wrapping her fingers around her lover’s palm, she tugged very lightly, the gesture so gentle Lena could have easily resisted. This time she didn’t. "Just know that I do care...and I want to make certain you’re safe." Reaching up, she guided Lena’s chin around until their eyes met again. "Will you trust me to do that?"

Lena considered the question for a moment, her gaze sliding away from the younger woman, faintly ashamed of her own cowardice as she whispered, "I can’t deal with my mother or any of it right now. I need time to think." Maybe if she could figure things out in her own head, it would all start making sense.

Even knowing she should have been pushing Lena to return downstairs, Bianca nodded, understanding the need to run away all too well. "Okay," she sighed. Much as she should have, she couldn’t force Lena to face what she knew she wouldn’t have had the courage to deal with.

Afraid of being tricked, Lena sharpened her tone. "I mean it."

"I know," Bianca said seriously. "I promise...I’ll take care of you."

Common sense should have directed Lena to run away as quickly as possible because every single time in her life someone had made a promise like that they’d broken it in the worst way possible. Bianca, she feared, could do all that and shatter her heart in the bargain if she so chose. Yes, she should definitely run and run fast. Unfortunately, in her present condition she’d be doing well to walk slowly.

And she was so tired. So damn tired she hurt with it. A gentle hand continued to stroke her knuckles, and another petted her cheek tenderly, reminding her of a thousand childhood fantasies of some knight errant who would protect her from all the evils of the world and carry her off to a shining castle by the sea where everything would be happily ever after. So foolish to believe in childhood fairy tales, and yet so very alluring.

Which left Lena to wonder if Bianca Montgomery was a knight in white armor ready to slay dragons in her name or a beautiful siren with a sweet song of pretty promises designed to lure her to her death.

"Trust me," Bianca said again, and Lena found herself captivated and uncertain she cared about the answer to her questions. If Bianca wasn’t real, perhaps she was better off dead, but at the same time she couldn’t believe such soft eyes could hide cruel lies.

For the first time in a long time, the Polish woman allowed herself to hope.

"Please," the girl coaxed.

A long beat and then Lena nodded. She made no attempt to resist as Bianca slipped her coat off and draped it around her shoulders, then caught her hand.

"It’ll be okay," Bianca assured her.

Suddenly overcome by emotion, Lena swallowed hard and momentarily turned her head away, blinking rapidly to clear the threat of tears. She flinched like a wild thing when tender fingers stroked her cheek and brow, drawing her head back around.

"I’ll take care of you," Bianca promised, her voice husky with emotion.

For the first time in a long time, Lena truly believed.

She should have remembered that hope is a dangerous thing indeed.

* * * * * *

Begin Part 23

"And remember," Bianca murmured as she slipped the concierge of the Pine Valley Inn a fifty, "we’re not here."

He smiled smoothly and nodded his understanding, quite used to the odd demands of the Inn’s well heeled clientele. Besides if the youngest daughter of Erica Kane wanted to check in under an assumed name with only himself the wiser, bring no luggage, but rather a striking brunette with bruised eyes and bare feet---well, who was he to judge? Especially since he knew perfectly well there would be an additional bribe of considerably greater size when the younger lady checked out. Provided her privacy was adequately protected.

Which was fine by him. Selling clients out to the gutter press was the sort of hobby he’d learned to avoid. Yes, it could be profitable in the short run, but it often made things very dicey on down the line. Sometimes one had to take the long view when it came to the profit margin on certain actions. Better to just get the largest bribe possible from the customer, provide the desired service, and move on. There were always plenty of fish in the sea. And plenty of businessmen with girlfriend and wives who took extra long lunches in an upstairs suite and didn’t want anyone to know. "If there’s anything else you need, just call the front desk and ask for me." He looked up from the young woman watching him so closely, silently tracking the lanky brunette as she staggered into the bathroom, all but ignoring him. She looked like hell, but it was impossible to miss the striking beauty in that bone structure. Impossible too to miss the fact that she was Lena Kundera, more infamous than famous and hardly the sort of company young Ms. Montgomery was expected to keep, though rumor had it she’d kept it quite well once upon a time. There was definitely a story there, one juicy enough he suspected to make him regret his stance against calling in the tabloids hacks. All thoughts of profit aside, it would probably make for interesting reading.

"I’ll do that," Bianca said just sharply enough to draw his attention back to her, none too eager to have him consider Lena too closely. He offered a calculated, conciliatory smile she found slightly off-putting. "And now if you’ll excuse us..." she said, pointedly indicating the door.

He offered a practiced smile and carefully didn’t use a name. "Of course, Miss."

Unused to the vagaries of bribing hotel clerks, Bianca wondered if she should offer him another fifty, but he finally seemed to take the hint and slipped out before she could consider finding out. Just as well, she thought as she pushed the door closed in his wake and threw the locks, she was running low on cash and had other things to worry about.

Like Lena and the fact that she’d seemed to just shut down since leaving the roof of the hospital. At first Bianca had just thought it was nervousness coupled with the need to act normal as they’d slipped past the milling police officers. But Lena hadn’t spoken during the car ride either, and had only grunted her assent when Bianca pulled into the parking garage of the Pine Valley Inn and called the desk to have someone meet them and take them up the back way to a room. Bianca wasn’t so foolish as to expect everything to be hearts and flowers, but neither did it seem right or healthy that Lena had withdrawn from her so completely when all she wanted to do was help.

The uneven sound of the shower starting brought the girl out of her dark musings and she hurried into the bathroom where she found Lena, her good hand braced against the wall next to the bath tub. She appeared to be leaning heavily on that scant support as she watched the spray from the showerhead. As Bianca watched, she started to reach out with her bad arm as if to test the water temperature.

Bianca caught her back. "Your arm," she reminded Lena as a confused look was flashed her way. "You shouldn’t get the brace or stitches wet."

Looking down, Lena frowned ever so slightly as though she’d forgotten the injury. "I don’t care," she muttered. "I just want to feel clean." No question from her tone that she wasn’t simply referring to any blood, sweat, and grime left over from the accident and several days in a hospital bed.

Bianca flinched, but didn’t argue. Understanding the impulse all too well, she nodded and brushed her fingers along the line of Lena’s brow, the light caress intended to be soothing, though there was little sign it did much good. "Okay, but we need to make certain your arm’s protected." She carefully lifted dark hair from the scar at Lena’s hairline. Bandaged until a day before, it had been sealed shut with surgical glue and looked to be healing cleanly. She could only hope it would be okay. "Just give me a few minutes to call down and get what we need." Curving a hand to Lena’s shoulder, she gently pressured her to sit on the edge of the tub. "Just a few minutes," she coaxed again until finally Lena nodded. "Okay," Bianca said, then slipped out.

She returned a few minutes later with what she needed in hand, and if the concierge had been curious about why she needed an empty dry-cleaning bag, scissors, and duct tape, well, he’d contained his nosiness, though she wasn’t so blind that she’d missed the speculative look in his eyes. Which was neither here nor there, she reminded herself with brutal honesty. So long as he kept his mouth shut, she didn’t care what he thought.

She found Lena exactly where she’d left her, still sitting on the edge of the tub, though her head was down and she looked like she might just topple over if not for the support of her elbows where they were braced on her knees.

"Hey there," Bianca said softly as she moved to kneel in front of her lover. She held up the things she’d ordered. "I got what we need."

Lena looked up, but her expression was almost painfully blank, all emotion wiped away.

For Bianca, it was like looking at a mask; one with Lena’s features and bone structure, but without her life or animation. "We need to protect your arm," she reminded her lover haltingly, suddenly self conscious under the eerily flat gaze directed her way. "In the shower," she added when Lena didn’t move. She tentatively reached out to guide Lena’s arm out where she could reach it. Her lover simply went along without argument, but Bianca had the sense that she was barely there, and she suddenly found herself babbling mindlessly. Anything to fill the uncomfortable silence. "My dad had to do this for me when I was little." She risked a quick glance up under the cover of thick lashes as she carefully wrapped the plastic around the splint, noting worriedly that Lena wasn’t even looking her way now. "I broke my arm," she explained to fill the oppressive threat of silence. "Fell off a horse in a moment of stupidity." Noting the expression on Lena’s face, Bianca had the distinct impression the other woman wished she’d quit talking, which only made the impulse to babble that much worse. "I had to wear a cast for weeks...and couldn’t get it wet." Even Bianca was wishing she could just shut up, but it didn’t seem to be an option. "It itched like hell...made me crazy." She tried to focus on what she was doing, but her hand shook ever so slightly in spite of her efforts and she felt Lena wince, though she didn’t make a sound. "Sorry," she quickly apologized, though there was no sign her lover was listening. "I guess my dad was better at this." A sad smile touched her lips. "He always did it perfectly...so it didn’t hurt at all...and made me feel like everything was going to be okay...." She trailed off into silence only to be startled a moment later when Lena quietly spoke.

"He sounds very special."

Bianca nodded, slightly appalled to realize she was suddenly fighting tears. "He was...really special." A beat passed while she swallowed hard to loosen the tightness in her throat. "I miss him so much." He would have known what to do or say, found something to make things right again.

"He’s gone now?" Lena asked, showing the first trace of emotion since leaving the hospital, a soft note of sympathy nearly hidden under the exhaustion.

Bianca nodded. "A few years ago," she whispered, the threat of tears returning with a vengeance. "A stroke." Focused on her own thoughts, Bianca missed way Lena flinched or the frown that creased her brow.

"I’m sorry," the Polish woman said. "That must have been very difficult for you."

Not trusting herself to speak, Bianca simply nodded, the sudden longing for her father’s presence so profound that everything she could think of to say seemed painfully banal. Her hands still trembling ever so slightly, she finished taping the plastic in place, then rose as Lena pulled her arm back.

Uncomfortably aware of the dark gaze tracking her every movement, Lena twisted and flicked the shower back on, a silent hint to the young woman watching her so closely that she wanted to be alone.

Bianca didn’t move. "Do you need help?" she asked, her voice shaking with stress.

Lena shook her head, instantly rejecting the offer. That was the last thing she wanted. "I’ll be fine."

"Are you sure?" Bianca questioned and hesitantly touched a slender shoulder. "Because---"

"I’ll be fine," Lena repeated, her tone sharp as she flashed a quick glare at the hand on her shoulder.

Her eyes showing the hurt caused by Lena’s rejection, Bianca jerked her hand back, then tried to cover the abruptness of the gesture by hooking her thumb over her shoulder. "I think there’s probably one of those hotel robes in the front closet," she murmured. "Why don’t I get it for you."

Lena didn’t respond, simply rose to her feet, completely ignoring the woman watching her so closely. She was already peeling off her shirt when Bianca backed out of the room. The girl returned a minute later, a white terry cloth robe folded over one arm. Uncertain what to expect, her steps were hesitant and she pulled up short as she recognized the sleek, flesh colored silhouette visible through the hazy barrier of the shower door. Lena, her broken arm braced against the shower wall over her head---Bianca could see the color of the brace contrasted against her skin tones---her head tilted back, face directly under the spray. As Bianca watched, her lover tipped her head down, letting the water sluice over her. Under the sounds of the water, her soft sobs were nearly inaudible, but Bianca heard them and she backed up a step, too many memories sweeping over and through her. She’d been here before. No, not here, but there, where Lena was; lost, confused, scared to death, and sobbing her eyes out while wishing she was anyone but who she was. Only Lena wasn’t supposed to feel that way. Endlessly strong, she wasn’t supposed to be subject to all the same human frailties as everyone else, wasn’t supposed to break or crack, or come apart at the seams, and certainly wasn’t supposed to try and bury her sobs while alone in the shower. That she could only made other possibilities of human frailty seem far more real.

Like Lena alone, guilty and desperate, swallowing poison or deliberately driving her car into a ditch. None of those things fit the profile the Polish woman presented to the world, but the woman on the roof and crying in the shower? It was horrifyingly easy to envision her in that mental space.

No. Bianca shook her head, fighting the images that speared through her brain. Lena was alive. She was going to be okay. Whatever it took, she’d make sure of it.

* * * * * *

Heat flowed over Lena’s skin, beating at it, stinging in places where cuts were still healing, throbbing where deep bruises still made muscles and tendons stiff and marred faintly olive toned flesh. Expensive, sweet smelling hotel soap was nowhere near as rough on her skin as she would have preferred, but she scrubbed until she was close to bleeding. Even the lightest touch hurt in some places, and the rough motion was agonizing at times, but with the pain came a brief escape from the tormenting run of thoughts moving through her head. It even let her ignore or at least pretend to ignore the hot tears that wouldn’t stop and let her feel almost human or perhaps more correctly forget how inhuman she’d felt in learning what she’d become during the forgotten years. Leaning heavily on her broken arm where it was braced against the shower wall, she turned into the harsh spray, letting the sharp needles of water batter her face and chest until she couldn’t take the pain any longer then tipped her head forward, shielding the worst of the cuts and bruises and letting the water slide over her hair and down her back.

She took a deep breath, then let it out slowly, allowing the steam time to soothe the raspiness left in her throat and chest from all the crying. Time to be strong, she reminded herself. She’d survived worse; she could survive this.

Another breath, slow and still a little ragged, but steadier. Just remember to keep breathing. Sometimes it almost felt like she forgot when things got too bad. And the last several hours had definitely been far too bad.

Images tried to flash in Lena’s head, threatening to send her careening back to the precipice she was painstakingly crawling away from. She slapped her broken arm into the wall, relieved by the bright lights that exploded behind her tightly shut eyes and drove back any ability to think. Better not to think sometimes.

Better to just breathe. Just concentrate on that, she told herself when the pain began to recede, making way for thought once again. Just breathe.

If she could focus on that and not stop, she could get through. Eyes still closed, Lena focused on the slow in and out bellowing of her lungs, refusing to give way to panic. A memory of a time long before slid through her: frightened by a nightmare, she’d cried out until her father came and soothed her, his voice warm and reassuring in the alien feeling darkness of her bedroom. Just his presence had driven the imagined monsters back when she was a child, and she clung to the memory of his voice in hopes it would do so again.

Just breathe.

Just breathe.

Just breathe.

She repeated the words over and over, first simply thinking them, then whispering, then finally speaking them under the sound of the spray. As she clung to that mantra until the words themselves became nearly meaningless the heat continued to flow over and around her, blocking out the real world, giving her time and space to claw her way back from the edge.

Just breathe.

Finally Lena reached down and snapped the shower off.

Denied the protective wall of water, she found herself intensely aware of the real world again: the low rumble air conditioning reached her ears followed by the awareness of the muted pitch of different voices as filtered through an electronic speaker---the TV in the next room undoubtedly---and farther away, the dull flutter of street sounds, traffic, people, lives moving on all around her.

Just breathe.

The sounds in the next room stopped---doubtless Bianca had shut the TV off and was waiting for her.

Lena almost flipped the shower back on. The other woman had expectations of love, support, absolution, and a dozen other things she didn’t fully understand: she could feel it every time those remarkable eyes turned her way. Only a few hours before she would have been more than happy to offer all of that and more, but now....

Now she wasn’t so sure. Of herself. Or Bianca.

She dragged wet hair back from her forehead, then grabbed a towel off the rack next to the tub and absently began rubbing her skin dry.

Maybe it wasn’t fair, but the knowledge that she’d been lied to---even under the guise of protection---and hadn’t suspected a thing left Lena feeling like she couldn’t put any faith in anyone. Her mother’s warning echoed in her head, no more trustworthy than her emotions, Bianca’s promises, or even her doctor’s reassurances. Like a house of cards, her version of reality had tumbled, leaving nothing standing in its place.

Noting the hotel robe Bianca had brought as promised, Lena fingered the soft fabric before shrugging it on, wondering whether to feel grateful for the small gesture or resentful of the forced intimacy that no longer felt comfortable or comforting. Strange as it was, she managed to experience both emotions at once, which was every bit as confusing as it sounded. Meanwhile Bianca was doubtless still out there waiting for her, which did nothing to ease her inner turmoil.

Lena glanced around herself. No window. Pity. A fast exit had more than a little appeal at that point. Of course, they were several floors up, which could be a drawback. Unless she had been on that ledge with the intention of getting down the hard way. Something she still wasn’t entirely certain about.

None of which changed the fact that it was time to beard the lion. She had Bianca to face, and other things that had to be dealt with if she was going to live with herself.

* * * * * *

Bianca instantly looked up from the hotel’s in-room magazine she was barely even pretending to read when she heard the door to the bathroom open. Her hair slicked back, expression drawn, Lena wore the thin robe as though it was the only thing standing between herself and an attacking army. "You okay?" the girl questioned worriedly. Her eyes went to Lena’s broken arm, but her lover had already managed to remove the plastic cover on her own.

Lena tensed faintly, her eyes sweeping the room until they came to land on Bianca where she sat in a straight backed chair near the door. One shoulder dipped in a tired shrug. "Been better," she admitted as she sank down on the edge of the bed. Well aware of the impact of dark eyes watching her, she reached for the phone. "Do you know the number to the hospital?"

"Wh-why?" Bianca stammered. That was the last question she expected to face.

Lena didn’t look up. This was hard enough as it was, but there were things she had to face up to. She’d apparently screwed up more than enough things in her life; allowing her utter cowardice to screw up one more would be totally unforgivable. "My mother," she said softly, "I need to let her know that I’m..." she faltered momentarily, then continued, "that I’m all right."

"Oh." She knew it was probably hopelessly selfish and even cruel, but Bianca found herself wishing Lena wouldn’t, not when Paulina Kundera’s response was only likely to cause more pain, though whether she was more afraid for Lena or herself, she wasn’t quite brave enough to consider. She watched Lena lift the handset off the cradle, though she kept the buttons depressed, apparently not yet ready for the next step. "You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, you know," she reminded her lover, the words coming quick and breathless.

Dark eyes rose, focusing on the girl with serious intent. "Yes," Lena said very softly, momentarily losing the lost expression and seeming more like the woman Bianca was used to, "I do." She took a breath, and let it out slowly before adding. "I have to do this." Panicked and lost, she’d bolted, but there was no excuse for not making some kind of contact now that she was at least marginally back in control.

Stung by the inherent rebuke in her lover’s response, Bianca fought a flinch. "Oh." She looked down, ashamed of herself as she remembered just how terrified Paulina Kundera had been for her daughter. No one deserved to be left with that kind of fear any longer than necessary. She fumbled with her purse where it sat next to the chair until she found what she was looking for. Finally, she stood and held out her cell phone. "I don’t remember the number, but Doctor Grey’s service is eight on the autodial."

"Thank you," Lena said as she set the hotel phone aside and accepted the cell only to realize a beat later that her knowledge of technology was as outdated as her knowledge everything else. The phone was less than half the size of what she remembered, several of the buttons wholly unfamiliar, and she didn’t have the slightest idea how to access the doctor’s number. She realized Bianca must have recognized her confusion because a hand suddenly swept down into view, slender fingers quickly indicating various buttons.

"Just hit the that button, then the number eight, and then that one to connect," Bianca explained.

The information went by almost faster than Lena could quite track, especially with the distraction of the younger woman leaning so close, her perfume a taunting reminder of the attraction she could no longer trust, but she forced herself to concentrate and ignore the sudden acceleration in her pulse. God knew, she had more important things to worry about than a romantic entanglement.

Like calling her mother and letting her know she was still alive.

The phone momentarily seemed to loom larger and heavier in her hand.

"You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to," Bianca repeated, her voice strained.

Teeth gritted, Lena squelched the urge to tell the younger woman to stop saying that. Unpleasant as what lay ahead was likely to be, she couldn’t leave her mother living in fear just to save herself a little stress. Good lord, didn’t the girl realize that there were a great many things in life that a person might not want to do, but which they were obliged to do? Which they had to do, she added, mentally sharpening the point. Her head suddenly a little clearer, she punched the necessary buttons with more force than was entirely necessary, then listened to it ring. She had to do this.

Feeling chastened and uncertain why, Bianca stepped back a pace, though it felt oddly like she’d been pushed back rather than retreated voluntarily.

Lena ignored her, instead focusing on the phone, listening, then speaking to what was apparently Maria’s answering service. "Yes, I understand that Doctor Grey is on duty, but I don’t have her number, and this is very important...yes...you don’t understand.... Look, I’m probably the emergency she’s currently involved in." A brief pause followed, and then Lena added, "Lena Kundera." Doubtless someone had finally asked for her name. This time the wait was considerably longer before Lena murmured, "Thank you." She glanced at Bianca. "They’re switching me over to her mobile."

The girl nodded, jaw clenched, hands twined together in front of her, knuckles white with stress. On the roof of the hospital she’d wanted to lead Lena back to her family, but now she was none too eager to return to what she suspected would feel like an armed camp---an armed, enemy camp because she had no doubt that Paulina Kundera would be no friendlier now than she had been before. In fact, if she realized that Bianca had helped Lena escape the hospital without being seen, she was likely to go thermonuclear.

No, here they had a chance to deal with each other again and find a way to return to the way it had been before everyone else got involved. It wasn’t just that she wanted to avoid a fight, she told herself over and over. Lena clearly didn’t want to return, and she was in no position to deal with any stresses she wasn’t ready for. A chill slid over the girl’s skin as she remembered what her uncle had told her, how Lena had broken under the pressure once before. No, she had to protect the other woman. She couldn’t risk putting her in a situation where she might break again.

Bianca abruptly realized she’d lost track of the conversation as Lena’s voice cracked, drawing her attention back to the present.

"I’m sorry, Doctor, I can’t." A momentary pause followed---obviously Maria was speaking---while Lena dashed away a few stray tears and stared resolutely at the floor between her feet as she shook her head back and forth, silently rejecting whatever the doctor was saying. "I understand, but I just...." Her voice cracked again. "I can’t...not right now. Tell my mother I love her and I’m safe...but I just need a little time away...from it all." She clicked the phone off, not giving the doctor any more time to try and talk her into coming in, then sat there staring at it, her expression rife with guilt and confusion. After a moment, she shook her head ever so slightly, her voice low as she spoke more to herself than Bianca, "Maybe I should go back."

No. Bianca crossed the distance between them, crouching down as she reached out to cover the hand holding the phone with her own. "I know you’re worried about your mom, but Dr. Grey will look after her and right now, you need to concentrate on yourself...on what you need."

Her frown deepening, Lena shook her head, uncomfortable with that choice. It suddenly felt far too selfish and cruel when she knew how her mother would be worrying. "I don’t know," she murmured. "It’s not---"

"Lena, you’ve had a hell of a shock," Bianca broke in. "You need to take time to deal with it." Lena would have looked away, but Bianca reached up, tucking a finger under her chin to draw her head back. "Right now, the only person you should worry about is you...and what will most help you get through this."

"I don’t know---"

"Trust me," Bianca urged her lover as she reached up and tenderly brushed dark hair back from Lena’s brow. "Your mom’ll be okay...and right now...I just don’t think you’re up to dealing with...with everything," she finished after a momentary verbal stumble.

"You mean my mother and the things she’ll say?" Lena whispered raggedly, a muscle pulsing in her jaw as she turned away from Bianca to retrieve a pillow off the head of the bed to hug it tightly to her chest. She closed her eyes tightly, flinching ever so slightly as she was reminded of past fights and the way they’d made her feel so ashamed and sick inside that sometimes she’d almost wanted to die.

Seeing the hurt in Lena’s expression, Bianca almost broke down and told her, if not everything, then at least that her mother’s anger came less from issues with her sexuality, than from issues with Bianca.

Almost.

The words were on the tip of her tongue; a fast running explanation that would hopefully take some of the hurt from her lover’s eyes. And yet.

And yet.

Was it really true? Paulina had told Bianca she’d accepted her daughter’s sexuality, but Bianca couldn’t really see any reason to believe her, not after the way the woman had attacked her for daring to visit Lena. Her mouth snapped shut. Paulina would just cause more problems and hurt Lena in the doing. Resting a hand lightly on her lover’s knee, she watched her carefully. No, Lena wasn’t ready for everything that would come with returning to the real world. Despite her pallor, there were dark circles under her eyes, and she looked like it wouldn’t take much to knock her over. Hardly surprising given that she probably still belonged in a hospital bed, although maybe not. The doctor had been honest that they were mostly keeping her in due to the memory loss and continuing tests. She’d even mentioned releasing her in the next few days. Of course, she probably hadn’t planned for Lena’s exit to go quite the way it had. Then again, who could have planned that?

Erica Kane, a taunting voice insisted on whispering in her ear before she could stop it. Erica Kane could have planned it, executed that plan, and still had time to get her nails done before an expensive lunch. And dear god, what the hell was Bianca supposed to do next if her mother was that determined to hurt Lena? A tiny shudder slid down Bianca’s spine as she tried to assure herself that her mother couldn’t have done something that cruel. "Do you think maybe you could get some sleep?" she asked gently, purposely focusing on practical matters. There was nothing she could do about her mother’s possible actions tonight.

Lena didn’t reply, but one narrow shoulder rose and dipped in a faint shrug.

"Why don’t you at least try," Bianca suggested.

It abruptly occurred to Lena that she was beyond exhausted. The sharper pains had drawn her attention away from the general overall ache that pervaded every muscle, but as she sat and thought about it, it was like someone dialed up the volume. "I am tired," she admitted, not resisting as Bianca tugged the blankets back before urging her to lie down. A moment later, she settled them back over Lena, gently tucking them in the way she might have for a small child.

"Just try to sleep," Bianca whispered very softly as she sat on the very edge of the bed.

"You don’t have to stay," Lena mumbled, torn between the desire to be alone and the fear that Bianca would leave her.

Bianca shook her head, instantly dismissing any thought of leaving. "I’m not going anywhere," she assured Lena and settled a hand lightly on her hip.

Muzzy headed and lost in her thoughts, Lena closed her eyes and folded her good arm over them, even dim illumination enough to make her temples throb.

"You want the lights out?" Bianca questioned.

"Mm," Lena mumbled by way of confirmation, "...making my head hurt." She felt the bed shift as Bianca rose. A moment later, the room was plunged into near total darkness, the only light coming from the dim reflection of the moon through narrow windows on the opposite side of the room. A second later, she felt the bed shift as Bianca returned and then the gentle weight of the other woman’s hand at her hip once again. Several minutes passed while she floated, not quite sleeping but not far from it until faintly uncomfortable, she shifted her position to try and reduce the stress on her broken arm.

"Lena?" Bianca’s voice was nearly inaudible, clearly uncertain whether Lena was sleeping or not.

"Mm?" the Polish woman murmured sleepily.

"Do you remember anything about the woman who gave you the magazine?"

A frown creased Lena’s brow. "Dark hair, dark eyes, pretty enough, I guess. I wasn’t paying that much attention."

"What about height, weight, age?" Bianca pressed.

"I don’t know," Lena muttered, wishing Bianca would leave it alone. The last thing she wanted think about was that damned magazine article, no matter how much of it might have been wrong. However, sensing the other woman’s tension, she tried to answer. "She was thin...not very tall, I think...maybe late 30s to early 40s. Why?"

Bianca was silent for a long moment before muttering. "I...I just wondered," she answered, sounding stressed and uneasy. "Do you think you’d recognize her if you saw her again."

Which was the second to the last thing Lena wanted to think about. "I don’t know," she grumbled and rolled onto her side, purposely turning away from the younger woman as she retrieved the pillow Bianca had pried from her arms before and tugged it against her chest in a tight bear-hug. "She wasn’t anyone I remember ever seeing before, but that’s not a very good gauge for me these days," she added with a degree of bitterness, hoping Bianca would take the hint and drop the subject. She didn’t want to think about that woman or her smile. It had seemed kindly enough at the time , but in retrospect, clearly it had been cruel beyond measure. Even if Bianca was to be believed and much of the news article had been wrong, there were still apparently more than enough reasons for someone to hate her so much, and it was jarring to be faced with that harsh reality. "Why?" she muttered a beat later as a thought occurred to her. "Do you have some idea who it might have been?"

"No," Bianca said quickly, too quickly if Lena had been thinking about it, but she was too tired to notice. "I just...wondered." She was silent for a long moment, almost long enough for Lena to escape into sleep.

Almost.

"I didn’t mean to upset you," the younger woman apologized when she spoke again, clearly realizing she’d pushed too hard. "It just bothers me that someone would try to hurt you that way."

"Apparently I lived the kind of life that creates enemies," Lena sighed. Doubtless the woman who’d handed her the magazine was just one among many.

"I’m sorry," Bianca muttered. "I shouldn’t have said anything." She fell silent again, though Lena heard her draw a deep breath and release it. "Just try and sleep," the girl said at last, "and don’t worry about anything. I won’t let anything else happen to you."

Too tired to try and make heads or tails of the conversation Lena simply mumbled something she hoped was sufficiently placatory and buried her face in the pillow. This time she was asleep in moments and never heard her former lover’s voice, soft and sepulchral in the enveloping safety of near-total darkness.

"I’m so sorry...for everything...."

* * * * * *

Begin Part 24

Soft whimpers and delicate pleading sounds filled the darkness of the small hotel room along with the rustle of shifting sheets while the pale moonlight that leaked in through the windows gleamed on fair skin as it glossed with thin trickles of sweat, artfully revealing the twist and play of muscle and sinew.

"Lena...Lena..." Bianca’s voice was low and intense, her touch light, careful of the deep bruises she knew marred soft flesh, the delicate brush of her fingers only spurring the soft cries that escaped the Polish woman’s lips. "Lena, please," Bianca whispered in the darkness.

Lena twisted, a low, rolling moan escaping her lips as her body arched helplessly.

"Lena," Bianca said sharply as she gripped a slender shoulder more firmly and shook. "Lena, wake up. It’s just a nightmare."

This time Lena snapped up in an instant, her breathing ragged, her expression confused as she stared around herself, then at Bianca. "Wha’?" she croaked uncertainly. Uncertain where the nightmare left off and reality began, she glanced toward the door, relieved to find it closed and locked, then back to the young woman sitting on the edge of the bed. Not real, she realized in a rush. None of it was real. There was no one crying out or trying to hurt her, no one coming through any doors. She was in an expensive hotel room with a young woman she’d probably scared the hell out of, but there was nothing there that was any threat to either of them.

"You were having a nightmare," Bianca soothed as she brushed dark hair back from Lena’s brow. "You okay?" she questioned.

Her head still down, Lena massaged her temple as she nodded distantly. Her primary concentration on reassuring herself, it took her a moment to realize that Bianca’s hand had slid on from her temple and was gently petting her hair. The tactile reassurance felt better than she would have predicted, reminding her of the way Bianca had made her feel before the truth had come out; safe and protected, even cherished. Dark eyes slid closed, hiding the anguish that came from not quite trusting those emotions.

"Can you tell me about it?" the younger woman questioned.

The nightmare? Lena considered the request, her thoughts disjointed and confused. Discuss her nightmare? She shook her head. How to do that when it didn’t even make any sense to her.

"Lena?" Bianca pressed worriedly. "It might help if you talk about it."

Help? Maybe it would since it seemed everyone knew more about Lena’s life and history than she did. As she tried to summon the words, her throat tightened, threatening to make speech impossible. A flood of confusing, visceral emotions hammered at her as she tried to make sense of it all. "It was dark...and someone was screaming..." she managed at last, the task of finding the right words difficult when it seemed that in her jumbled memories she was both the person screaming and the one helpless to do anything for the woman in such pain. A tremor of remembered fear slid over her skin. "I was...was trying to help...but I couldn’t..." She shook her head slowly, struggling to resolve the tangle of images playing in her head. "And I was afraid...of a man, I think....but I’m not...." She fell silent again, faintly shaken to realize she was crying. Wiping at the tears, she fought to gather herself back together and continue. "I felt so lost...like I wanted to die...and I knew no one would miss me." When she looked up, Bianca was sitting perfectly still, her gaze unfocused.

The younger woman abruptly shook herself, throwing off the brief daze, her voice a ragged hiss. "Don’t ever say that."

"I just---" Lena started to say, but Bianca cupped a hand along the side of her jaw, leaning in close, her hot breath playing over Lena’s face.

"I mean it," the younger woman whispered intently. "Don’t ever say anything like that again." She blinked away a few stray tears. "I almost lost you before...and I’m not sure I could have survived it if I had."

"You would have been all right in the long run," Lena disagreed. In her experience, the human survival instinct was paramount, even during the worst times.

"Maybe," Bianca allowed, sensing that any other answer would only make the other woman uncomfortable, "but I don’t want to have to find out."

Dark eyes slid closed, once again blocking Bianca out as Lena continued to fight the panic from the dream.

"Talk to me," Bianca urged, tenderly smoothing dark hair back from Lena’s brow, hoping to soothe her obvious distress.

Lena took a breath and let it out slowly, the slow petting comforting her more than she would have predicted. "There was a man in my dream," she whispered at last. "Someone who hated me, and wanted to...." What had he wanted? She couldn’t remember anything other than the sense of raw terror. She looked up, her eyes scared. "That Cambias man? Am I remembering his threats against my mother?" That didn’t feel right somehow, but she couldn’t think of anything else to explain the horror and shame brought about by whomever had been pursuing her in her nightmares.

Feeling the color drain out of her face, Bianca shook her head, unwilling to let him in here. "Don’t," she hissed, not wanting to hear his name on Lena’s lips. He’d already caused too much pain and taken too much from both of them. She had no intention of letting him have even another moment of either of their lives. "Don’t think about him. He can’t hurt you or anyone else ever again."

"But---" Lena began, but Bianca cut her off, her voice flat and hard.

"He’s dead." And buried right where he belonged in a garbage heap.

Caught by surprise it took Lena an extra beat to understand. "How---" she began at last.

"It doesn’t matter," Bianca cut the other woman off, her tone forbidding. Then seeing the fear in dark eyes, she softened her voice and reached out, tenderly stroking Lena’s cheek. "He can’t hurt you or your mother or any of us ever again...and I just...I don’t want to talk about him." She just wanted to focus on Lena, on their relationship. Michael or discussions of Michael were the last thing in the world she wanted intruding on this time. "And I don’t want you to let him hurt you any more." Her gaze dropped, touching on the full curve of Lena’s lips. They had far more important matters to work out and a future to build together. Michael was dead, and he would never touch them again.

Her mind still spinning with the latest revelation, Lena was just drawing a breath to ask a question when soft lips found hers. Startled, she didn’t resist, but instead stared at the other woman in shock, her eyes open wide above their bonded lips.

Neither slow nor quick, the kiss lasted several beats until Bianca momentarily broke the contact, putting no more than a few millimeters of space between their lips. "Don’t think about him," she implored, though the words were as much for herself as her lover. She wasn’t going to let him destroy anything else for her or steal another moment of her life. She curved one hand to the back of Lena’s head, urging her close. "Just think about this."

That warm mouth found Lena’s again, moving, caressing, laying claim, the sensations it evoked so intense she didn’t know how to respond. Then she felt Bianca’s tongue tease her lips, wordlessly demanding entrance. A soft gasp allowed the sweet invasion, but it was too intimate. She wasn’t ready. Twisting her head aside, she broke the connection and leaned back as far as the hand at the back of her neck would allow. "This isn’t..." she stammered uncomfortably, her English threatening to fall completely apart. "I don’t...I’m not...." That was the last thing she’d expected and she didn’t know what to do or how to take it.

"Shhhh," Bianca soothed, laying her fingers over her lover’s lips. They couldn’t afford to doubt one another now. "It’s all right. You’re safe now...we both are." She slid her fingers from Lena’s lips to stroke her chin lightly, the warmth of Lena’s skin against her own a much needed reassurance that neither life nor hope was dead. She and Lena had been through the fires of hell, but they’d come out the other side. Now it was just a matter of holding on and not letting go. "And I’ll never let anything hurt you again." Not Michael, not Lena’s mother, not her own mother, not even herself. She’d failed Lena before by pushing her away---she could see it so clearly now---but she wouldn’t fail her again.

"But---" Lena began only to have her words cut off by the press of the other woman’s lips.

The kiss wasn’t planned or thought out it just happened, desire offering the tantalizing allure of silenced doubts, absolution, escape, and possession all in one neat package. When they were lost in each other, none of the rest of it mattered.

Deepening the kiss, Bianca ignored the faint resistance as she tasted the competing textures of soft flesh, rough tongue, and sharp teeth. Pushing any thoughts of Michael back, she laid claim to what should have been hers all along. She should have pulled Lena close all the times she’d pushed her away, but there was still time to make up for that mistake. Lena was still warm and loving and very much alive.

Bianca dropped a hand to the curve of a slender hip, stroking through the thin robe without applying any real pressure, just reassuring herself of the shape and feel of the Polish woman’s body, absorbing the heat of her skin and outlining the solidity of muscle and bone. After everything they’d been through, the losses and near losses, just touching her like that felt so damned good it almost hurt and the girl moaned into the shared kiss. Drinking in Lena’s answering groan, she tightened her grip. She’d never make the mistake of letting go again.

When Bianca finally broke the connection of their lips, it was to dust tiny kisses along the curve of her lover’s cheek and jaw. Mumbling tender assurances that everything was going to be okay between butterfly soft caresses, she trailed down the arch of Lena’s throat, drinking in the tiny sounds that vibrated the length of her windpipe, every brushing caress, every tiny whimper a much needed reminder that Lena was alive and there with her. They were together. It was going to be all right, and she would make damn certain Lena never again felt like her best option in life was dying.

Confused and overwhelmed by her body’s responses, Lena found herself washed along as though caught in a vicious riptide, her body lost to fingers that seemed to know just where and how to touch, her heart to lips that knew just what promises would completely enslave her. Had she been thinking more clearly she might have been frightened by the ease with which the younger woman took control, but there was so much coming at her that it made it hard to think and harder still to refuse the hands and mouth that caressed and laid claim. Every touch made her tremble while electricity seemed to arc over her skin and pressure coalesced and heated the very center of her body with an intensity no one could have resisted.

The wanton, sensual haze that seemed to follow the younger woman’s every touch left Lena helpless to do anything but moan when Bianca slid a hand down, cupping the heart of her desire through the thin robe, not pressing hard, just riding Lena’s slow moving hip thrusts.

"That’s right," Bianca praised, ducking her head and nudging thin fabric aside to swirl her tongue around a coral tipped breast exactly the way she knew Lena liked. If it was manipulative or cheating, she no longer had it in her to care. They needed this and if Lena ever remembered the past, she’d understand that better than anyone. That thought running through her brain, she drifted onward, tasting and teasing another sensitive expanse of velvety skin, confident she was doing the right thing.

Unable to fight the heat rushing through her veins, Lena moaned softly, her body arching out of her control. It wasn’t until Bianca reclaimed her lips and caught her good hand to guide it to the front of her blouse, silently urging her to work the buttons free, that some semblance of sanity fought to reassert itself. This was all wrong. She couldn’t be certain she knew the truth or even if she could trust the other woman. Hell, only a few hours before she’d been on a rooftop, possibly contemplating suicide, and a short while before that in a hospital bed. Leaping into some kind of affair was madness at best. "No," she groaned as she twisted away from the drugging weight of Bianca’s mouth and pressed her hand flat over the other woman’s chest, pushing her back. "We can’t---"

Poised above Lena, her weight braced on her hand, Bianca froze, her mind refusing to process the denial. Finally, she swallowed hard and ducked her head, her body trembling with the effort required not to just do what she wanted and forge ahead. Though it had been pushed aside to make way for heated caresses, Lena was still swathed in the light hotel robe, the terry cloth pale against her skin and Bianca suddenly noticed just how dark it made the contrasting bruised flesh seem. Without thinking, she leaned closer, just barely touching her lips to the worst of the injuries as though she could heal it with just a kiss.

"Bianca, no," Lena groaned weakly, but her hand lacked any real strength as it slid from her former lover’s chest to her shoulder. Even knowing it would be foolish to succumb, the younger woman’s tenderness was nearly impossible to resist.

Ignoring the pressure, Bianca leaned closer, studying the damage, then reached out, trailing a single, slender fingertip trailed along the deepest of the angled gashes, tracing it from where it began just below the mid point on Lena’s left collarbone to where it faded away again well below her right breast. Every time she thought maybe she’d grasped just how bad it had been, something happened to drive home the point that she still didn’t get it. "You could have died," she whispered, stroking the tip of her thumb along another rough edged cut, horrified by the image her mind conjured of the seatbelt sawing back and forth, the webbing cutting deeper with every movement as Lena struggled to escape. It had to have been agonizing. "And I would never have held you like this again."

The terrified, lost note in the younger woman’s voice threatening to melt her resolve, Lena shook her head slowly, struggling against the emotional quicksand slowly but surely drawing her in.

Bianca’s lips found another cut, warmth radiating away from the gossamer contact as though it really could knit damaged flesh back together. "Trust me," she pleaded, not looking up as she trailed tiny kisses along another of the cruel bruises.

"I can’t," Lena breathed at last as she found the strength to resist the sweet, hypnotic spell the younger woman seemed to be weaving from the very air they were breathing. It was just physical, she told herself, no more trustworthy than it had been in college when she’d watched her friends lose sight of their goals and make fools of themselves at the first rush of lust. "I can’t do this...be what you want." She shook her head. "I don’t know even know what you feel for me...or how I---"

"I love you," Bianca whispered without planning, using the last weapon in her arsenal.

Lena’s mouth worked silently and her eyes slid closed. She was falling again, tumbling into an abyss from which she might never escape. "I don’t know you," she tried one last time, but Bianca caught her good hand, lifting it to press it against her own chest.

"You know me," the girl breathed. "You’ve always known me."

Unable to resist, Lena spread her hand, feeling the rapid thrum of the younger woman’s heart. A tiny frisson of awareness slid down her spine, not memory, but something akin to it. This wasn’t the first time she’d been aware of that exact rhythm.

"I love you," Bianca whispered again, using the words like a prybar to wedge Lena’s heart open. She let one hand fall to land on her lover’s upper chest over her sternum, fingers spread. So many lies and so much pain. The skin under her palm should have been smooth and unblemished, but she could feel the shape and texture of at least a dozen still-healing abrasions. "Let me show you," she murmured against warm skin as she fluttered delicate kisses in a journey that led her to the base of her lover’s throat. Carrying her weight on her hands, she pushed up to stare down into doe brown eyes. "Let me," she pleaded huskily, "love you."

Lena’s lips were parted ever so slightly and she drew a breath, though whether to accept or reject the offer, Bianca didn’t know. She didn’t wait to find out. Instead she found silky lips with her own.

Lena only managed to hold herself back for a brief moment, and then she couldn’t do it any longer, couldn’t fight the promises of love and affection. There were no romantic avowals in her memory, and no lovers who made her body ache or her heart pound, certainly no soft lips that toyed with hers, tutoring and seducing between more whispered promises. Maybe it was insane to give way, but she found herself lost to the very human need to believe there was one person in the universe with whom she belonged one person in the universe to whom she belonged.

"That’s right," Bianca murmured through the back and forth kisses as she felt Lena surrender. "Trust me...and just let go."

Trust...and let go. Two things Lena couldn’t remember ever doing. Her whole life she’d kept everyone’s secrets and trusted no one with her own. And no matter what any magazine articles said---no matter she had become during the intervening years---in her memories, she was the boring good girl, the A student, the scholarship winner, and the grad student least likely to be making love on a Saturday night. Which was why it was so strange that despite everything, she found herself doing exactly what Bianca wanted, surrendering her heart and trusting when she might have been wiser to turn away. No longer resistant, she allowed the younger woman to guide her into fumbling with unwanted clothes until fabric fell aside and flesh could meet flesh, then offered up every inch of her body to soft caresses and sweet lips even as the flavors of sweat and musk filled her senses.

By the time Bianca’s lips found the side of her neck, applying just enough sharp, suctioning pressure to leave a possessive mark, Lena was completely lost. Moaning softly, she arched into the flickering pain even as she clung to slender shoulders and twined her body with the smaller woman, denying her nothing.

Hours later, her body aching far less than she would have predicted---Bianca had been incredibly gentle---Lena lay cuddled in protective arms, amazed at the emotions that seemed to permeate every cell of her body. She rolled onto her side, head braced on her hand as she peered down at the sleeping woman, carefully studying the rises and hollows of a face that lacked the cookie cutter beauty so often found in places like Hollywood, but which had its own unique appeal.

A hint of a smile touched full lips. She’d lain like this before, Lena realized suddenly, lain and watched the younger woman sleep. It wasn’t so strong a sensation that she could call it a memory, but she was certain of it in every fibre of her being. She had lain and watched Bianca sleep and marveled at how much she loved her.

That revelation seemed to tighten a band around her heart, making it hard to breathe, the loss of that past a literal physical pain. Careful not to wake the sleeping woman, she brushed dark hair back from her brow, enjoying the glide of silk over her fingertips. This was what she’d missed during all the dark years on her own, and the most frightening part was she’d never even believed it was possible. All through school she’d watched her fellow students’ fortunes rise and sink with their love affairs and disdained what she considered their foolish, hormone driven needs. Only it seemed she’d been the foolish one if this was what she’d denied herself.

Lena knew she should try to sleep and wasn’t sure why she couldn’t. She’d had a hell of a day and was more than physically exhausted enough to be unconscious for a week. Added to that, her body was still healing from the crash and pleasantly satiated in the aftermath of making love. She should have been so deep asleep as to border on comatose.

But her mind didn’t seem to want to cooperate. Instead of slowing and settling into sleep it kept buzzing, replaying every moment spent in Bianca’s arms, the spoken promises, the soft caresses, and the brush of silky lips. What few lovers she could remember had never been so concentrated on her, but Bianca had made Lena almost her entire focus, barely seeming to even think of her own pleasure. Both tender and utterly voracious, she’d been endlessly careful of fading injuries even as she’d replaced the pain of the previous days with sensuality and pure physical delight. The need had ebbed and flowed, but never seemed to completely dissipate until Lena had begun to wonder if the younger woman was some kind of succubus sent to steal her soul.

And god help her, even if Bianca had been, Lena suspected she would have given it up willingly.

That thought sent an uneasy shiver down her spine as though someone had walked over her grave, reminding her that considering her history, perhaps those sentiments weren’t the wisest. Amazing how she could forget something so awful, but unlike the woman snuggled so close, it felt totally unreal to think that she could have done any of the things listed in that article.

Fighting a hint of melancholy at that thought, she reached out to stroke Bianca’s hair again, reminding herself that whatever her sins, it seemed they’d forgiven, so perhaps—

The thought went unfinished as a sudden flash tore through her brain like a gunshot. For less than a heartbeat, the image was clear in her mind a shadowy lover rising over her as she surrendered to hands and lips that demanded everything and gave no quarter. Then just as suddenly as it came it was gone, leaving her shaking and confused, uncertain even who the cruel figure might have been.

Cambias. A shudder slid over her skin, gut level horror ripping through her at the mere thought of his name. It had to be him. She knew he’d blackmailed her into his bed, and he’d probably gloried in her pain and humiliation. That had to be it. Any sense that it was something far more shattering was just---

Another flash, so intense she grabbed for her temple and let out a tiny cry.

It had hurt---the sensory memory of the pain rippled through her---but she’d been helpless to walk away, too ashamed or frightened or---

Him. It had to be. She cut off any other thoughts before they could even make themselves known. Even with as many enemies as she must have accumulated, he had to be the only one evil enough---

In an instant it felt as though her skull might just crack and implode inward so agonizing was the pressure. For days she’d wanted nothing more than for her memory to return, but suddenly Lena would have given anything to drive it back again as the chaotic jumble of memories forced themselves back to the forefront in a riot of pain and confusion.

It had hurt. It did hurt. It had to be....

She rolled into a tight ball, nearly screaming as the pressure ratcheted a little tighter. Had she been capable of thought she would have been amazed that she hadn’t woken the woman sleeping so peacefully a short distance away.

But thought was impossible as she was assaulted by the tactile memory of fabric rubbing hurtfully against her bare skin as hands locked on her wrists and pushed them down.

Clutching her skull tightly, Lena tried to drive the images back through sheer force of will, but the unwanted tableaus tumbled through her mind in an uncontrolled clutter that seemed to fall all around her like a box of spilled snapshots. The pictures hurt and taunted, every single one of them feeling like knives on her skin as they reminded her of a past that would have been better never remembered.

But worst of all, the hurtful lover of those unwanted images wasn’t the faceless man from her dreams. That would have been far kinder, because that parody of lovemaking had hurt---so much so that even now the pain sliced through her---and it had left her feeling so ashamed she could only wonder that she hadn’t walked off the side of the nearest bridge. No, the worst part of it all, was that as she remembered the agony and humiliation of those moments, it was Bianca Montgomery’s face that rose above her and taunted her with her own worthlessness.

Meanwhile, only inches away Bianca slept so deeply she didn’t stir when her lover carefully slipped from her arms and free of the bed they’d shared.

* * * * * *

Part 25

A sound that was part yawn, part satisfied groan on her lips, Bianca did a slow roll onto her left side as she reached for the body she sleepily expected to find next to her in bed. Nothing. The other side of the bed was empty, the pillow where Lena’s head should have been resting, cool. Terrified that the other woman had fled while she slept, the girl desperately searched the room for some sign of her lover.

She calmed no more than a second later when she spotted the slender figure in front of the windows on the opposite end of the room. Her back was to Bianca and she’d dressed in her stolen scrubs. She was apparently staring out at the world below, though what thoughts might have been running through her head were a total mystery to the younger woman. Bianca could only hope they were as good as her own. Despite all the challenges facing them, their lovemaking had felt like coming home again, leaving the girl content for the first time in nearly two years---maybe even longer than that. Her lips tipped in a relaxed smile, she drew the sheet around herself as she pushed upright.

Lena tensed faintly at the slight rustle of fabric, but didn’t turn, leaving Bianca to admire the clean cut line of her back and shoulders a little longer, a task she didn’t mind at all. "Hey there," she said softly when her lover still hadn’t moved a long moment later. "Enjoying the view?"

Lena flashed a quick glance over her shoulder and shrugged. "It’s a view," she exhaled. "Better than some. Not as good as others."

A hint of worried frown creased Bianca’s brow at Lena’s flat tone, but she offered a hopeful smile. "Well, I was enjoying my view," she flirted, thinking that perhaps the other woman was worried about possible regrets and wanting to reassure her.

Lena did a slow pivot and nudged her shoulder up against the windowframe, her arms loosely crossed, the broken limb protectively supported. With the sun streaming in around her, she was little more than a silhouette, her expression lost in the shadows. "And that is what’s important, isn’t it?" she drawled suggestively. "Your enjoyment, I mean."

A hint of a frown touching her brow, Bianca stared at her lover a little uneasily, the words feeling slightly insulting. No, that had to be her imagination because Lena’s tone, after momentarily seeming overly flat, had quickly become warm and inviting. Probably just a slight mistranslation on her lover’s part since her English did seem far less refined with the memory loss. "I think you mean, our enjoyment," she corrected gently, her smile encouraging in an effort to mute any possible embarrassment on the other woman’s part.

Lena tipped her head in acknowledgment. "I’m sure you would know better than I," she murmured.

Feeling like she was floundering and uncertain why, Bianca didn’t know what to say to that and finally opted to change subjects, nodding to indicate the windows. "Anything interesting going on outside?"

Turning back to the windows, Lena peered out, raising her uninjured hand to rest it lightly on the glass. "Just life...people coming and going...the world turning on its axis." That said she fell silent as though she simply didn’t have the words to cover the situation.

"Deep thoughts," Bianca mumbled, then she too fell silent for a several moments, uncertain what to make of the distance between them. After the way they’d connected, she’d expected to wake and feel Lena all warm and soft and pressed up against her, expected to look into fathoms deep brown eyes and see all the love they shared shining back. Instead it felt as though all the unwanted doubts had crept back in while she’d slept. "Talk to me," she pleaded a long moment later when Lena still hadn’t said a word.

"What about?" Lena asked without looking back.

"Tell me what you’re thinking," Bianca pressed. God knew, she understood how doubts could catch up with a person when they were least expecting them. She’d lost track of the times she’d made one resolution in the dark when it felt safe only to find herself unable to follow that path in the cold light of day.

"Fishing for compliments?" Lena asked dryly.

"I don’t know," the girl murmured, then purposely lightened her voice in an attempt to smooth things over as she teased, "Would I get any?"

Lena flicked another glance over her shoulder, the movement almost impossibly fast. "For all sorts of things," she murmured, her voice sounding low and inviting to Bianca’s ears.

Hearing that warm, sensual note enter her lover’s voice, Bianca relaxed fractionally. Everything was going to be okay. Lena wouldn’t use that tone with its exotic promise of all things sensual if there was a serious problem between them. "Why don’t you come back to bed," she invited as she patted the space next to her, her voice taking on a sultry note, "and I’ll see if I can earn a few more...compliments, I mean."

Lena did a slow turn, nudging her shoulder against the windowframe, arms loosely crossed, her head tipped slightly to one side. Despite the fact that she couldn’t really see the other woman’s face, Bianca could feel the intensity of the other woman’s gaze sliding over her skin like an actual caress. Straightening her spine, shoulders thrown back, she released her loose grip on the sheet hiding her body from view, felt the faint brush of it as it slid into a puddle around her hips, then the touch of cool air on her breasts.

"Very pretty," Lena murmured appreciatively, but didn’t move from her post at the window. "And such an inviting offer from my lover," she added, putting extra emphasis on the last word.

"It’s meant to be," Bianca breathed, silently willing the other woman to come to her.

Lena didn’t move. "Tell me you love me," she murmured, the words an intoxicatingly sexy command.

"Let me show you." Bianca wanted to feel her lover’s heat, cling to soft flesh and rippling muscle, hear the tiny whimpers as she surrendered to desire.

"First let me hear the words," Lena breathed, her voice low and husky enough to remind Bianca of all the words said in the heat of passion, promises whispered between and during kisses, tribute paid to expanses of velvety flesh, and silky covenants of heat and fire whispered during the most intense moments. Her body shuddered under the near tangible impact of the memories, her breathing slowing and deepening with the onset of arousal. She’d almost forgotten how it could be between them, but with the past erased, she’d remembered, and she only wanted more.

"Let me whisper them against your skin," the girl said, hoping to lure her lover back to bed, eager to continue the sweet bonding of the night before.

Bianca had the briefest sense that Lena stiffened and momentarily thought she heard the softest of imprecations only to decide she’d imagined it when Lena’s voice slid through her a millisecond later, soft, sweet, and vibrating with sensual undertones. "You’re very good at that...uttering words in the dark that make a body feel wanted...." She straightened away from the windowframe, drawing a little closer, her movements languid and innately seductive.

Her mouth suddenly dry, Bianca could only watch, her blood pressure nearly off the charts, every inch of her body trembling faintly. She could almost feel the touch of graceful hands and the wet heat of a rough tongue sliding over her skin. Heat coalesced, pulsed, and made her head spin with desire. She was still lost in her musings on just how good Lena’s skin tasted and felt when Lena spoke again, still using that seductive drawl that threatened to heat Bianca’s blood until it immolated her from the inside out.

"Did I do that for you?" Lena murmured, her knee nudging up against the edge of the mattress. "Make you feel desired." She sat on the edge of the bed, still a dark silhouette to Bianca’s eyes.

"Yes," the girl moaned, then tipped her head back as Lena curved a hand to the back of her neck and leaned close enough to flutter near-kisses that didn’t quite make contact along her cheek to her ear.

"And did I make you feel loved?" Lena continued.

Heat twisting the pit of her stomach into tight knots, Bianca barely retained the ability to utter a gasped, "Yes."

"Even that night?" Lena demanded, her breath heating Bianca’s skin and teasing her ear.

Her mind spinning, the girl didn’t understand the question at first. "Th-that night?" she moaned, anything approaching thought a challenge as heat teased her skin and turned the blood in her veins molten.

"The night of my accident," Lena clarified, her voice still warm and husky, as she nuzzled Bianca’s ear and the side of her throat, almost but not quite pressing soft kisses, the only real contact coming from the way her breath played over silky flesh. "The night I wound up hanging from a seatbelt nearly bleeding to death,"

Surging heat turned to blasting cold almost instantly, leaving Bianca shivering under the impact of pure fear. The accident might not have been the absolute last thing she wanted to think about, but it was a close second. She was still struggling to formulate some kind of answer when Lena continued.

"I know we fought that night...but before the fight," the Polish woman whispered, her accent wicked and exotic, the tone still seductive enough to make Bianca’s heart rush ever faster but at the same time somehow intimidating. "Did I make you feel loved...or did we fight because I failed to."

Bianca would have tensed and pulled away, but Lena’s hand slid down, cupping her shoulder, while soft lips just barely dusted a caress onto the curve of her throat, the faint contact making it harder to think again. "N-no," she stammered, hot and cold flashes sparking all over her skin, "y-you always made me feel...feel loved."

"Really," Lena drawled, somehow sounding both hesitant and confident at the same time, a feat that only left Bianca more confused, "I would have thought otherwise given that you said my refusal to publicly admit my feelings was such a problem between us."

God, Bianca had almost forgotten Lena’s mistaken reading of her non-answers in the hospital. She shook her head, pushing that idea aside even as she braced a hand flat on Lena’s chest, pushing to gain some space and maybe the ability to think. "No, it wasn’t that. It was just a stupid fight," she insisted, wishing she could see Lena’s expression better. "It wasn’t about anything."

"Not about anything?" Lena repeated doubtfully as she reached out, grazing her knuckles along the curve of Bianca’s cheek. "No lies now," she coaxed. "Given the way we parted that night, I must have done something---"

"It wasn’t anything either of us did," the girl snapped, desperate to cut off that line of inquiry as quickly as possible. "It was just a stupid misunderstanding." Any discussion of that night or the reasons for their fight was a minefield of unimaginable proportion. She glared at her hands where they were clenched together in her lap. "And there’s no reason we need to rehash it now." Feeling the bed shift, she tipped her chin up as Lena rose and backed away from the bed several paces.

"Not even to avoid making the same mistakes in the future?" Lena queried, her tone still soft, but lacking the seductive note. "After all, it was serious enough to send to careening on a wet road...while you were too angry to even call for several days...it was several days, wasn’t it?"

"Yes, but it wasn’t like that. It was just---"

"Then why wouldn’t you call?" Lena pressed, her voice going from invitingly soft to diamond hard in a millisecond. "Were you too busy, still angry..." she paused for effect, then continued with added emphasis, her voice softening again, becoming sympathetic as she invited Bianca to confess the truth, "or were you perhaps hoping that I’d be the one to make the first move---"

"Maybe," Bianca admitted under pressure as she remembered feeling like if she just outwaited Lena, the other woman would come back on her terms, "but if I’d had any idea you were hurt---"

"Yes, of course," Lena murmured, her voice low and hypnotic enough to lull Bianca into thinking she was smoothing things over. "I’ve no doubt that if you’d had any idea I might be dying, you would have dialed 911 before insisting I come crawling back to you,"

Bianca’s chin snapped up and she shook her head slowly as she struggled to parse the softly spoken words. Lena’s tone fooled her and it took several extra seconds. And even when she did decide what the other woman had meant, she still couldn’t quite believe it. Everything seemed to be spinning out of control, and she couldn’t spot the point where everything had started to go hopelessly wrong. "No," she denied, suddenly feeling like she was sparring with Mike Tyson. So far she’d only been tapped, but the potential for something much worse was definitely there. "No, I didn’t---"

Lena shrugged. "It’s all right," she soothed. "It’s a common dynamic in relationships. One person in control while the other is expected to play the submissive role---"

"It wasn’t like that," Bianca denied, refusing to see their relationship characterized that way. "It was just...." She stumbled to a halt, unable to describe what had happened without saying far too much. If she heard the whole story, Lena would probably run like hell.

"What was it like then?" Lena questioned, looming over Bianca, her silky drawl sliding from seductive to commanding in an instant.

The words refusing to come, Bianca just shook her head silently.

"Come on now. This isn’t the time to back down," Lena chided, then sharpened her tone. "Tell me what it was like between you and I...how I wanted to hide our relationship from my mother...how she was the one against us...and how often you told me you loved me." Her tone hardened another notch with every successive word, the rhythm of her delivery giving Bianca no chance to respond.

Bianca finally realized the truth. It wasn’t even well hidden. It lay just beneath the surface where low tones could be mistaken for invitation or confusion when they were really anger and bitterness. "You remember," she said at last as she felt so many illusions tumble like the proverbial house of cards.

A soft laugh confirmed her worst fears. "Tell me again how much you love me," Lena taunted. "Whisper it in my ear...so you can get what you want if I dare refuse you."

Bianca’s lungs seized and for just a moment she had to fight the panic as she lost the ability to breathe. "It wasn’t---"

"Like that," Lena finished for her, then chided "You’re becoming a broken record, my dear." She tsked, then added. "The irony, of course, is that to my eyes it looks like it was exactly that."

"Maybe I shouldn’t have lied---" Bianca began a scattered apology, but Lena didn’t give her a chance.

"Maybe?" the Polish woman demanded, her voice rising for the first time.

"All right. Fine. I’m an awful person," Bianca snapped. "Is that what you want to hear?"

Her martyred tone earned a disgusted snort. "No," Lena shot back. "I want to hear that I’m not, but apparently that’s completely beyond you." She ran a hand through her hair, massaging her throbbing temple. "Just like the truth." After months of being Bianca’s darkest secret, the realization that she’d played the fool one more time was close to leaving her in shreds. "God, I begged you, no more lies, but what did you do, you lied about everything---"

"All right," Bianca allowed. "Maybe I should have told you about the rape---"

"The rape?" Lena repeated. She turned away to stare out the window again, more than a little afraid of what she might say or do if she didn’t gain a little distance.

"But Maria warned me not to say anything about it," Bianca continued, either not seeing or not accepting that her explanation wasn’t having the effect she’d hoped for. "She was afraid that kind of stress could trigger the seizures again...and then on the roof---"

"I understand why you didn’t tell me about the rape," Lena interrupted as she clamped down on her rage with all her strength, some distant part of her still praying for something that force her to come to some conclusion that didn’t paint her as nothing but Bianca’s sex toy. She turned to face her former lover, her movements slow and carefully controlled. "In fact, I absolve you completely of that lie," she continued with deceptive calm. "It was completely understandable. You had an upset woman who was already dealing with entirely too much. I don’t blame you in the least for holding that piece of information back."

"I’m glad you understand," Bianca breathed. Suddenly shaking with relief, she heaved a huge sigh. Thank god, despite any anger and confusion, Lena was coming around. It had just taken her a little time to process everything.

"Too well," Lena whispered, her voice sounding too flat even to her own ears. Despite the brief respite from the aches and pains of the accident, morning, memory, and depression had all brought them back with a vengeance. She felt like she’d been beaten with a baseball bat and left for dead. No, actually, she felt worse than that. Dead would have offered some freedom from pain. Unfortunately, Bianca’s self centered responses were doing nothing to ease her hurt. "Were you this completely self obsessed before the rape and I just didn’t notice?" she whispered at last. "Or is that my fault too?"

Bianca’s chin snapped up, her eyes going wide as it began to occur to her that Lena’s response wasn’t quite what she’d thought. "What are you---"

Full lips twisted into an acid laced mockery of a smile. "The only lie you can imagine might bother me is that one...one in which you’re the central player," Lena mused aloud, then broke off into a tiny, grim laugh. "It’s unimportant that I broke things off...that I didn’t want to be with you any longer...and you didn’t bother mention it before last night’s little...workout. No, the only thing that matters is Bianca Montgomery...her feelings, her experiences, her wants." She’d boxed her anger away for months, but it was fast catching up with her and pounding on the latches, eager to be released. "That I no longer wished to be with you was unimportant...it only mattered that you got what you wanted even if you had to lie to do it."

Bianca shook her head, rejecting the charge. "No, I was just trying to show you how---" she began, but Lena broke in.

"Show me you were in control," the Polish woman snarled, her anger momentarily breaking its tightly leashed confines. Then fury melted into pain and her voice cracked, then faded. "...that I had no rights...and that you could whatever you wanted with me." There were more words she wanted to hurl, but it suddenly seemed like a hopelessly lost cause. Words were for communication and clearly there was nothing like that between them. She stared into wide brown eyes that showed no understanding and felt something inside of her break. Why bother?

"No," Bianca swore, amazed that Lena could so misread the relationship between them. There were problems, yes, but it was the only thing in her life other than Tyler that offered her pure love with no demands and no criticism. It was the only thing that had gotten her through some days, and she wouldn’t stand to hear it denigrated that way. "Maybe I didn’t use the best judgement in not telling you more about the fight, but I was afraid that you---"

"That I might dare refuse the great Bianca Montgomery," Lena snarled, the anger bursting forth again.

"No!" Bianca couldn’t let her say things like that. "I was afraid you wouldn’t understand...that you’d be like you are now...like you were that night---"

"So you just took what you wanted under false pretenses and my wishes be damned."

"We made love last night---" Bianca said, needing to defend what they’d shared. That sweet bonding of flesh and hearts was anything but the ugliness that Lena implied.

"No," Lena disagreed, exhaustion draining the wild emotions out of her if only for a moment or two, "we had sex...maybe that’s all we’ve ever had," she added, disgusted with herself once again for the months of being Bianca’s willing slave, and then for nearly making the same damned mistake all over again. The younger woman’s behavior on waking made it obvious that were it not for the inconvenient return of her memory they’d already be back to tearing up the sheets. Her gaze touched on Bianca, then shifted away, the younger woman’s semi-nudity making her uncomfortable.

Seeing the way Lena flinched and looked away, Bianca dragged the blankets up, embarrassed color heating her skin, their earlier ease with each other completely missing. "We had a lot more than sex," she disagreed, fighting the waves of shame. "We have a lot more than sex," she added, putting extra emphasis on the present tense.

Lena just shook her head, amazed at the younger woman’s skill at self deception. Having regained her memory, she’d spent the last several hours going over the past, spinning it around in her head and looking at it from every angle, the bits and pieces return of the past allowing her an odd sort of objectivity that had been largely missing for months. Sadly, she’d had to conclude that while she was emotionally invested in Bianca, the emotion wasn’t returned. The younger woman might enjoy the use of her body, but she’d never had much use for her mind or any trust in her heart. "Name one thing," she whispered, neatly deflating Bianca’s attempts at dressing their relationship in hearts and flowers.

The girl’s mouth worked, but words wouldn’t come.

Which only made it worse. Lena had to fight a slightly hysterical laugh as she spoke again. "Even you can’t do it." She drew a deep breath, the sense of hopelessness threatening to completely overwhelm her as she realized she’d still held out some tiny kernel of hope that Bianca would find a way to fix the damage or offer some kind of reassurance. One more silly fantasy. She backed away another step, one hand held out in a halting motion. "I have to get out of here," she muttered and shook her head, desperately fighting a sudden wave of dizziness. If she didn’t get the hell out of there she was going to say far more than was even remotely wise, hurt both of them, and expose far too many of her own vulnerabilities.

Realizing Lena intended to run, Bianca lunged out of bed, wrapping the sheet around her as she moved. Putting herself between Lena and the door, she started to reach out as her lover wavered on her feet, but Lena yanked her arm out of reach and glared, silently chasing Bianca back.

Dark eyes tipped up, touching on the door just behind Bianca, then tipped back down, falling on the girl with an expression of contempt.

"If I made mistakes, I’m sorry," Bianca began, plunging ahead in spite of the other woman’s hard look, "but running away won’t help." Lena’s disdainful snort threatened to throw her off, but she held her ground with gritted determination. "We need to talk about this."

"Talk about what?" Lena demanded and pointed at the bed. "Last night? The fact that you made me believe that you---" She cut herself off right there, but couldn’t stop the tears that filled her eyes.

"I wasn’t trying to hurt you," Bianca swore and tried again to reach out to her lover only to have Lena dance back before she could make contact.

"I’m sure you weren’t," Lena admitted. "So long as you get what you want, my pain or pleasure has always been irrelevant to you."

Bianca shook her head, rejecting that accusation. "That’s not true. I know I’ve made mistakes, but you wanted me last night."

"I wanted someone I thought cared for me...someone who whispered words of love...only they were a lie...just like everything else." Lena pressed into Bianca’s space, eyes glittering dangerously. "Instead of force, you used trickery and guile to take something that wasn’t yours." There it was. Let her deny it all she wanted. It didn’t matter. They both knew the truth.

Bianca swallowed hard, her breathing suddenly shallow and too fast as what Lena was implying swept through her. "No," she growled, her own underlying anger winning for the moment. "Don’t you dare say that...not when you know..." She choked off, shaking her head wildly. "It’s not the same thing at all." If Lena really understood what it was like, she’d never imply any relationship between what they’d shared and.... She couldn’t even finish the thought. It was too horrifying.

Perversely calm, Lena drew back, the saddest of smiles touching her mouth. "It’s exactly the same result," she quietly condemned. "Only the method was different."

Close to hating the other woman for daring to suggest such a thing, Bianca glared at her. "I can’t believe that you...that you think it’s the same."

Lena shrugged, just as close to hating as Bianca. "And I can’t believe you don’t," she shot back. So many times she’d felt out of control of her own body, loathing herself and what she had to do to survive, that she’d learned a thousand ways to deal with the shame and the guilt, found all the places in her own head she could escape to in order to make sure she felt nothing. As shielded as she’d been with Bianca, it had never been like that between them. Now it was. The one person she should have been able to trust had taken away her control at the most vulnerable time by using the very words she’d prayed to hear for months. She wrapped her arms tightly around herself, shivering violently. "You could have said those words for a thousand different purposes...to offer some comfort or reassurance...to heal...Instead you used them to take." Another shudder left her trembling from head to toe.

"Maybe I didn’t use the best judgment," Bianca allowed, unwilling to hear what they’d shared characterized that way, "but I didn’t force you. If you had any idea what it’s like, you wouldn’t---"

Lena’s barely leashed temper finally exploded. If Bianca thought she didn’t understand, she was painfully mistaken. "You selfish, arrogant, ignorant child," she snarled. "What do you think he did to me every time he touched me...only I didn’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not to keep secrets. I didn’t get to debate whether or not to call the police or throw people I claimed to love to the wolves to protect a lie. I was his toy to use as he wished! That was the price of my mother’s survival. I had no choices...and no one who even cared...so don’t tell me I don’t understand!" Then suddenly as quickly as she’d exploded she pulled back, catching herself, forcing the dangerous rush of emotion down behind a wall of cold rage. It was never wise to let anyone see just how vulnerable you were to them. She’d learned to hide her soul from Michael, but that had been child’s play compared to the task she now faced---hiding it from the one person she loved more than life itself, but could no longer trust in the least. She’d nearly lost herself by tying herself to a man who’d used her. She wouldn’t make the mistake again, particularly when Bianca had far more power to destroy her than Michael had ever even dreamt was possible. She blinked, refocusing, forcing herself to consider the present. Bianca was staring at her as though she’d grown a spare head, much as she had the night of the accident. Unused to having Lena fight back at all, she didn’t quite know what to make of this recent change.

Bianca’s head tipped to one side, a hint of a frown touching her brow. Lena could almost see the gears turning in her head. She was finally starting to think and put things together despite her defensiveness and anger.

Any other time it might have been welcome to see her actually putting a little effort into some kind of deeper understanding. At that precise moment it was threatening as hell. She’d already used Lena’s weaknesses too effectively. No telling what she’d do if she truly began to see the truth.

"Lena?" Bianca said very softly, her voice rising at the end.

A cold sweat slid over the Polish woman’s skin, but she ignored the clammy sensation and the desire to run. Never show weakness. As she’d learned the hard way, it will always be used against you. Pity she’d had to be so cruelly reminded of that basic fact of life. She straightened her shoulders and offered a chilly smile. "I have to give you credit," she said at last as she summoned the last remaining dregs of the woman she’d become under Michael’s tutelage, her tone full of mocking praise. "You really came into your own." She held up her broken hand and offered a regretful shrug. "I wish I could offer a standing ovation for the sheer brilliance of your performance."

Sensing a trap in the making, Bianca didn’t respond, just stared at her warily.

When in doubt, always attack. Few enemies will remember your weaknesses when they’re busy concentrating on their own. "You did me one better." That same brittle, enraged smile continued to play about Lena’s lips while her eyes were black chips of ice that gave away nothing. "I always had one rule. I never told them I loved them, no matter what. Even when Michael hit me for refusing, I never said those words to anyone without meaning them."

Bianca’s throat bobbed under a hard swallow and she dropped back another step, arms folded protectively across her chest as though she expected Lena to attack with fists rather than words. Fists would have been kinder. "Don’t," she pleaded, but she’d already brought them to this point and Lena was helpless to pull back and open herself up to one more hurt.

Having finally reached her breaking point, Lena couldn’t have pulled her punches to save her own life. "You beat the whore at her own game," she said very softly, though no one could have ever mistaken her tone for that of a lover. "Congratulations," she added, the words every bit as cruel for her to say as for Bianca to hear. "If I had any doubts left about what you think of me, they’re gone." She knew she was hurting the other woman and part of her hated it, but another part needed it like she needed air to breathe. Convinced that she meant nothing to the younger woman except a body to use no matter how Bianca might want to deny it just as she had denied their relationship, she wanted to punish her for her emotional manipulation. Months without any succor or kindness, of sublimating her every emotional need, all while bearing her own guilt and the hatred of much of the community alone had not left her many reserves of kindness or trust, and those had been shattered by the most recent betrayal.

"It wasn’t like that," Bianca insisted, her voice little more than a dry rasp.

"It was exactly like that." A bitter twist of a smile touched Lena’s lips. Bianca never wanted to admit she might be less than perfect, that she could use people just like everyone else. She preferred to dress her cruelties in pretty clothes, but they were the same underneath, and Lena had no intention of allowing any pretenses this time. "Pity I had to remember. You could have kept playing me for a very long time otherwise."

Bianca flinched guiltily, remembering her own relief that Lena had lost her memory. Momentarily lost in her own thoughts, she jumped when Lena suddenly stroked her cheek very lightly, the caress anything but affectionate.

"It’s so much easier when you’re completely in control...and everything’s my fault, isn’t it?"

"That wasn’t---"

"Stop lying," Lena begged, her voice barely above a whisper still enough to cut Bianca off more effectively than a shout would have. "For once...just stop."

Sensing just how close to the edge Lena was dancing, Bianca fell silent.

Both relieved and disappointed, Lena let her hand drop to her side. She had to get out of there before she did something she couldn’t forgive herself for. The blackness inside her soul raged and screamed, wanting to strike back and return every ounce of pain she’d been delivered with a pound of retribution. She saw Bianca start to take a step toward her and held up a hand, shaking her head in silent warning.

The girl froze, then fell back the half step she’d started to take.

"No more," Lena breathed. It had to end, this perverse game of advance and retreat played between them. It had already cost them both too much and done too much damage. She absently massaged her broken arm above the edge of the brace, clenching and unclenching her fingers as it occurred to her that it was aching from the first knuckle on her fingers all the way up to her shoulder and along the clavicle before the pain finally petered out at the base of her neck. She shook her head slowly as it struck her that a corresponding pain was throbbing at the base of her spine and along the slant of bruises on her chest. It hurt worse than she remembered. The physical pain seemed to be catching up with the emotional, or maybe it had been there all along and she was just starting to notice it as the other slid into a shock ridden kind of numbness. "Now get out of my way," she bit out, her voice hard and unforgiving.

Bianca didn’t move, her voice close to cracking as she begged, "Please...don’t go."

Once upon a time Lena would have braved the fires of hell to hear Bianca say those words. Now they just caused more pain. "Not this time, Bianca," she whispered, refusing to be drawn back in. She was already too close to either breaking or striking back. It had to stop now before it destroyed them both. A wave of exhaustion swept through her so intense that it threatened to knock her to her knees. "Just let it go...before we hurt each other even more."

"Please," Bianca begged, "we have too much to just give it up---"

"What do we have, Bianca?" Lena demanded, truly mystified by why the younger woman couldn’t just let her go. "You want my body in the dead of night...but won’t even speak to me in the light of day." She shook her head, sick to realize that even now there was a part of her that wanted to give the younger woman another chance. "That’s not love, it’s prostitution."

Bianca gasped as though she’d been struck. "No---"

"Yes!" The word exploded from Lena before she could even begin to contain it. For months, she’d pushed that thought down, but now it refused to remain out of sight. "You used me," she whispered, the anger once again giving way to hurt, "for months...and again last night." It hurt so much it was a wonder her heart was still beating. "How could you do that?"

The enormity of what she’d done still washing over Bianca, she could only shake her head, any anger forgotten as she stared into eyes that shone with pure agony. "I never meant to," she whispered, shaking her head. Hurting Lena hadn’t been her intention. Yes, it had been, the thought occurred before she could chase it away. She’d pushed Lena away plenty of times expressly to hurt her. And now that she’d gotten her wish, it wasn’t what she wanted at all. Unable to bear the guilt any longer, she looked away.

Lena took a breath, then let it out again on a shuddery gust, suddenly so lost and confused she didn’t know what to do. Even knowing she should leave, she couldn’t quite do it, and at the same time she couldn’t help but resent Bianca’s expectations and her refusal to see what she’d been doing for months. "Do you know that when you called me that first night, I actually believed it meant you’d finally forgiven me," she whispered at last, the truth coming unbidden as though it simply refused to remain hidden any longer. "...even trusted me a little." A tiny, bitter laugh escaped her lips as she remembered those moments of utter blindness when she kept thinking Bianca would give way and show some sign of emotion. "And then all you wanted was..." She couldn’t finish. It hurt too much to remember lying beneath a fully clothed Bianca, naked and vulnerable, unwelcome to touch or speak, her body nothing but a toy for the younger woman to play with and then discard. Even a flicker of thought about those moments lying on the couch after Bianca’s exit threatened to reduce her to tears, but she clamped down, refusing to give way to the pain. She’d already cried more than enough about that. She wouldn’t make that mistake again.

Remembering that tortured mockery of passion, Bianca paled. Even she couldn’t explain or defend her actions that night. It might have been the first step in regaining some measure of her sexuality, but it hadn’t been a healthy one. "That night I..." It hadn’t been about pleasure. She wasn’t really sure what it had been about---control maybe---but the taste of sweat and musk, the feel of muscle rippling under her touch, the sound of tiny, pleading whimpers all echoed in her memory along with the knowledge that she’d hurt Lena in treating her the way she had. "I didn’t handle it well," she allowed, struggling to face something they’d both avoided for too long, "but you wanted me," she offered the one defense she still had.

This time Lena shook her head, a tiny, almost disappointed gesture, no longer willing to pretend in order to protect the younger woman from her own actions. "Like many before you," she twisted the knife, tacitly accusing Bianca of being no better than those past conquests who had cared nothing for her, "you believed what you wanted."

A chill slid through Bianca. "You’re lying," she accused. Lena was hurt, angry. She was just trying to hit back on a vulnerable front. It couldn’t be anything else, because if that had been nothing but a lie that she’d constructed to protect herself, then.... She couldn’t even finish the thought.

"No," Lena disagreed, almost pitying the other woman, but needing to protect herself from the abyss threatening to drag her in, "I’m not. At first I thought you just needed to feel safe...to feel in control of the situation...but I thought you’d realize I’d never hurt you...never force you to do anything you didn’t want to. I kept thinking if I gave you what you wanted, you’d finally trust me...and we’d talk...work things through...." She trailed off, momentarily falling silent, well aware that she was using the cruellest weapon in her arsenal, one that might well leave no road back. "But you never did of course. You just left. Even Michael never...." She took a deep breath and let it out in a gust of air as though trying to break a cramp or spasm, her gaze unfocused. She didn’t look at Bianca as she continued, "I was never aroused that night."

"No," Bianca denied the softly spoken words, unable to bear the idea that they might be true.

"Yes," Lena said with quiet finality. She’d spared Bianca so many times, but not now, not after what she’d just done. She needed a way to drive the other woman back and gain some much needed distance. The truth promised her only chance to do so. "Not even for a moment." Suddenly she needed to say the words and desperately needed Bianca to hear them.

"You reacted," Bianca croaked, unable to let herself believe what Lena was saying. It couldn’t be true. It simply could be because it would change everything, and she wasn’t ready to deal with the implications of her own actions if that was true.

"It. Hurt." Each word was hard to say and carefully pronounced to make absolutely certain it was clear and undeniable. "You saw what you wanted...and I foolishly allowed you to believe your own imagination. But. It. Hurt."

Shaking her head, Bianca backed up a step, moving away from the door. "You’re lying," she insisted, but Lena shook her head, her expression grim. "Other times...y-you enjoyed---"

"Yes," Lena broke in before Bianca could say any more, "because I thought it would lead to something more than just sex...prove to you that you could trust me...because I was so pathetically desperate for your attention that even being used like a whore seemed better than nothing---"

"I didn’t---" Bianca denied the charge, but Lena cut her off.

"Yes, you did, and I allowed it, so I suppose the blame is equally my own...but this," she gestured to the rumpled bed as proof of their late night coupling, resisting any traitorous urge to soften toward the younger woman, "this was your doing, not mine. You took what you knew I wouldn’t have given if I’d known the truth." With those words, she felt a surge of disgust overtake the depression. In spite of her mistakes, she hadn’t deserved that, especially not from someone she should have been able to trust. Whatever she’d ever done to Bianca, it had been paid back a thousand times over with this. "God, just let this end," she muttered at last, tired of the pain and anger and recriminations. She just wanted to be free of the whole mess. "Clearly, we’re not good for one another."

Bianca wanted to scream at Lena for saying such a thing, but lost in her own agony, couldn’t deny the charge, so she just stood helplessly, arms wrapped tightly around her torso as though to ward off a chill.

"I need to return to the hospital," Lena whispered, forcing herself to focus on practical matters to stave off a wholly unnatural sense of guilt when she saw Bianca’s obvious pain.

"I’ll take you," Bianca said without looking up, well aware that it would mean facing the fires of hell, but unable to maintain even a hint of self respect if she took the easy route yet again.

Lena couldn’t contain a soft laugh. Talk about too little, too late. "I don’t think that would be wise."

Hearing the mocking note in the other woman’s voice, Bianca looked up, a glint of anger in her eyes. "I’ll take you," she whispered. Obviously, she’d failed Lena more times than she could count, but she didn’t intend to add to the list.

"Bianca, just let it go," Lena pleaded, stepping past the younger woman and reaching for the door. Any masochistic desire she had to face the music now weren’t likely to do anyone any good.

Lena was just starting to pull the door open when Bianca laid a hand lightly on her undamaged forearm. "Please, Lena..." she began only to trail off as she felt raw tension enter the muscles under her hand and heard a soft, startled gasp. Her chin rose just as Lena fell back a step and she saw elegant features draw into a confused, almost frightened expression. "Lena?" Following the line of her lover’s gaze---even if Lena didn’t want her, she couldn’t think of their relationship any other way---Bianca frowned as she saw the woman standing in the half open doorway, easily recognizing her from the hospital. "Irina?"

"What are you doing here?" Lena demanded, her voice close to cracking with stress.

Bianca’s head swung around, her gaze falling on Lena as she stumbled back another step. Brown eyes turned her way and for the briefest second the girl had the sense that Lena wanted to reach out to her as her hand rose, fingers slightly spread. Before she could even begin to follow through on the impulse, Irina’s voice sliced through both of them.

"Nice to know you scared the hell out of mother for something important," the older woman said as she flashed a disdainful look Bianca’s way, gaze trailing over sheet clad frame before returning to Lena with searing intensity.

Yanked out of her momentary daze, Lena checked any urge to put any faith in the younger woman and let her hand drop to her side. Bianca was the last person who could help her now. Glaring, she put more distance between herself and both of the two women who seemed determined to destroy her life. "I said, what are you doing here?" she repeated with more force as she turned an icy look Irina’s way, hardening her voice. If she’d thought she couldn’t afford to show any weakness before, it was doubly true now.

"Your young friend used her credit card to pay for the room. It was easy enough to track down."

"That’s not what I meant," Lena hissed, "and you know it." Straightening her spine, she forced down any desire to run and took a step forward. "Why would you be in Pine Valley at all?"

Irina noted the slight advance with a cool look. "I’ve been here since the morning after your accident," she explained, then added, "mother called me and asked me to come---"

Bianca was surprised when Lena shook her head, clearly not believing the explanation.

"No," Lena breathed, "she wouldn’t---" The Polish woman’s hard façade threatened to crack, but she held on if only by the barest margin.

"She was alone," Irina broke in, her voice momentarily just as hard as Lena’s before it smoothed out, becoming flat and distant and offering no clue as to her emotions as she continued, "afraid that you were going to die---"

"She wouldn’t even know how to contact you," Lena interrupted, falling back a step in spite of her intention to hold firm, part of her half afraid her mind had finally irreparably shattered and this was all nothing but a particularly horrific hallucination. How else to explain her presence now? "And even if she did, she wouldn’t---"

"Your Aunt Kira in Chicago contacted me for her---"

"No," Lena hissed, but her voice was very small this time.

As Bianca watched, helpless to do anything, Lena seemed to shrink, slender shoulders hunching as she drew her arms around herself. When they were fighting she’d seemed hard and larger than life, but suddenly she seemed delicate, almost fragile---like she had during the worst moments in the hospital---and painfully young and frightened.

"She didn’t want mother to be alone...not at her age," Irina continued, her tone flat and cold, though it was hard to believe she was as dispassionate as she sounded, "...with her health problems. And when I spoke to mother...she asked me to come...said she needed me."

Bianca wanted nothing more than to go to her lover and enfold her in her arms as she watched Lena back up another step, her movements uncharacteristically clumsy, but when she made the faintest move that direction, brown eyes momentarily flashed her way, showing nothing but fear and distrust rather than the relief the girl wanted to see. Realizing she was the last person Lena could turn to now, Bianca froze.

Irina took a step forward and brown eyes released their hold on Bianca to swing her way.

Lena shook her head a little wildly, hunting for a way to deny the obvious. "Why would you come?" she demanded. "There’s no political gain here...and god knows, you don’t care...about either of us."

"If that were true, I wouldn’t be here," Irina reminded her a little impatiently and took a careful step forward. "Now let me take you back to the hospital before this situation becomes any worse." Too many hours without sleep, but with more stress than a body could bear had not left her at her best. Perhaps she should have handled the situation differently, but she’d honestly never known how to deal with the younger woman and that hadn’t changed in the least. There was too much anger between them and they were too much alike for their relationship to ever be comfortable.

Moving surprisingly quickly, Lena darted out of reach, a frown creasing her brow. "Situation?" she repeated, then let out a hollow laugh as the truth struck her. "Let me guess, you’re afraid the news might pick something up," she whispered. The gutter press was forever sniffing after her. With this newest opportunity for a little mudslinging, Irina had to be scared to death someone would finally come up with some kind of association between them. "Must protect the ambassador’s good name and all that."

Irina flinched, but didn’t give way under the baleful gaze directed her way. "I’ll protect my husband where needed," she allowed, "but no, that’s not why I’m here. I was hoping to---"

"To finally see me in the grave?" Lena threw out defiantly enough to make the older woman blanch. "Must have disappointed you when I lived."

Bianca gasped, then cringed as matching pairs of brown eyes swung her way with equal measures of scorn.

"Don’t talk like that," Irina hissed, instantly dismissing Bianca as unimportant and returning her attention to Lena.

"Why not?" Lena shot back, taking strength from the way the other woman momentarily faltered, almost relieved to have a target for her free-floating rage. Yelling at Bianca might offer a sense of release, but it always brought a wave of guilt that negated any momentary satisfaction. The same was not true of the woman standing a short distance away. Sharpening her knives on that target promised nothing but satisfaction. "My death would rid you of so many unwanted associations---"

Bianca didn’t understand what was happening, but if she’d thought things were spinning out of control before, she’d had no idea how bad it could get.

Irina, meanwhile, caught herself, slamming the cold mask back into place. Now was not the time for opening old wounds. "I’ve never wanted you hurt." She eyed Lena, taking in the wild look in her eyes, and cursed herself for not realizing just how on edge the other woman was. Time to calm things down.

A bitter, angry laugh burst from Lena’s lips. "Yet you threw me to the wolves easily enough---"

"I made mistakes," Irina snapped too quickly, a sign that her control was nowhere near as absolute as she would have wished. She shook her head, unable to look away from her own reflection where it shone in eyes that were an eery mirror of her own. Whatever the battle between them, it wasn’t the time or place, she reminded herself as she fought for some distance on the problem. "But right now the only thing that’s important is your health and---"

"Stop pretending you care," Lena growled, the sound low and feral, "when we both know it’s a lie."

"Don’t presume to know what I do or do not care about," Irina shot back, her own anger momentarily getting the best of her. After a night of no sleep, soothing Paulina’s terror, and suffering an adrenaline rush every time she saw a police officer’s uniform for fear it was someone with bad news, she was a hair’s breadth away from a breakdown of her own.

"All I know is that I’m not on the list," Lena whispered, her anger slipping for the briefest second to reveal the underlying hurt.

The agony in brown eyes threatening to undo her, Bianca fought the urge to reach out to her lover, well aware the gesture wouldn’t be appreciated. It wasn’t supposed to be like this; all rage and pain. That wasn’t why she’d brought Lena here, and after Maria’s warnings, she was rapidly becoming afraid her lover might have some kind of collapse. God knew, she’d had far too much stress. She was white faced, breathing hard, her hands shaking. That couldn’t be a good sign. Without thinking, just wanting to get the other woman out of there, she laid a gentle hand on Lena’s uninjured forearm, thinking to lead her away. "Lena---"

Dark eyes swung her way, and her hand was knocked off with considerable force. "Get away from me," Lena hissed, her response that of a cornered animal who no longer knew friend from foe and so treated everything as a possible enemy.

Bianca fell back a step, driven away by the hate in eyes that only hours ago had gleamed with love. "Lena, please---"

"Another one who would probably be happiest if I’d just helpfully died in that wreck," her former lover jeered, wanting to drive them all away before she broke down completely.

"No...no... that’s not true." Shaking her head, Bianca stared at the other woman with undisguised horror, sickened to think she could believe such a thing. "You know that I---"

Another bitter, near-hysterical laugh. "I know that you like to fuck me," Lena snarled, purposely using the obscenity because that was how it felt to her as she leaned down to glare into wide eyes, "that I’m handy to have around because you can blame me for anything and everything...and I know that you care about your desires more than my health." She glanced at Irina, then back at Bianca. They were both the same, happy enough to use her when it suited their needs, then just as happy to bury her when it didn’t. She was better off free of both of them.

"That’s not true," Bianca whispered helplessly. "I almost lost you and I just needed---"

"You needed," the Polish woman repeated. Every moment of their association had been about Bianca’s needs and never her own. She’d tolerated it because of her guilt and desperation for love, but suddenly it tasted like ashes in her mouth. "No more," she said very softly when she finally spoke again, her voice like finely ground glass. As the hurt threatened to take over, she reached deep inside herself for her rage, grabbing the tatters and stitching them back together, using her anger to get her through because it was all she had left. Her expression hardened. They weren’t going to hurt her. Not again. "No more believing sweet words and easy lies. No more being everyone’s ugly little secret...while they use me to get what they want." Her gaze swung back and forth between Bianca and Irina. "I won’t be used again...not by any of you," she ground out. Irina started to reach out, but Lena caught sight of the movement in her peripheral vision. Using her injured arm, she knocked the older woman’s hand aside before it could make contact, the force of the blow sending streamers of pain up and down her arm. She paled, wavering on her feet. "Not by any of you," she growled through tightly clenched teeth.

"Lena, please," Bianca whispered, her voice coaxing. She didn’t understand what was going on, but she could see that something had to give and she desperately didn’t want it to be Lena. "You said before that you wanted to return to the hospital...just let me take you...please."

This time it was Lena who reached out, stroking Bianca’s cheek in tender mockery of a lover’s caress. "You should have played all that caring and concern last night," she mourned. "I would have believed you then...been right back in your thrall." She yanked her hand back as though Bianca’s touch burned. "No more," she whispered with painful finality, her tone making it clear that whatever her path, Bianca wasn’t welcome to join her on it.

"Lena," Irina’s voice took on a note of command in an effort to break the cycle before it was too late, "the girl’s right. You’re hurt. You need to return to the hospital."

Lena did a slow turn, the smile that curved her lips almost sensual, reminding Bianca eerily of how she’d been when still doing Michael’s bidding. "And you only have my best interests at heart, of course."

"Mother needs you---" Irina began, but Lena cut her off, the anger returning full force.

"Don’t you talk to me about her, not when you---"

"I’m here for her now," Irina shot back before Lena could finish. Her own temper stretched gossamer thin, it took all of her self control to subdue the impulse to give as good as she was getting and consciously soften her voice to add, "for both of you if you’ll let me."

"Now that’s a first," Lena sneered, not wanting any kindness from this woman. Like Bianca’s version of love, it couldn’t be trusted and as a result, was best avoided.

Still struggling to control her temper, Irina tried for a conciliatory tone as she coaxed, "Lena, please, let’s not---"

"What, discuss the family business?" Lena demanded. "Can’t have that sneaking out and damaging anyone’s political career, now can we?" She had no illusions that the other woman was there for her sake, not when it had been well proven exactly where her loyalties lay.

"Lena, stop it. Mother needs to be with family right now."

"Then why is she with you?" Lena demanded, explicitly rejecting any tie between them. She took a step forward and would have left, but Bianca stepped into her path, intentionally blocking her way.

The older woman blanched. "Lena...please---" she began, but Bianca broke in, trying to take command of the situation in hopes of calming things down.

"Lena, you need to return to the hospital," she interceded between the two women, afraid for Lena’s health if things continued on their current path. The longer it went on, the worse her lover was looking to the point that Bianca had visions of her collapsing. "I’ll take you...and then if you want, I’ll just go away," she promised. Anything to get her out of there. "But please, let me take you back."

Dark eyes fixed Bianca with a hard stare and a brittle smile twisted full lips. She was so pretty, her face so expressive, her eyes promising heaven. But the reality was pure hell, every promise her body made utterly and completely empty. "You know, you two really should talk," Lena murmured when she finally spoke, her tone deliberately bland as though she didn’t want to rip a hole in their emotions with every word. "You have so much in common," she put enough of a twist on the comment to make it a clear cut insult. "You could trade ideas for how to slip the knife between my ribs---" God, she hated both of them. They were the same, so achingly perfect on the surface but beneath it all they were crueller than she had ever thought of being.

"Lena---" Bianca tried to short circuit the tirade before it could get started as she reached out and laid a hand on Lena’s forearm.

Lena yanked her arm back and looked like she might just swing on Bianca. "Don’t you touch me," she hissed. "Don’t you ever touch me again." Bianca had lost that right. Her eyes black with wounded, feral rage, she glanced back and forth between Irina and Bianca, feeling cornered and threatened. Neither one of them cared about her, just their own needs, and any comfort they offered came at too high a price. To hell with both of them. "And you, "she snarled at Irina, "do you think this makes up for anything?"

"I’m not trying to---"

"Oh, please. I’m well aware that the ambassador wants to come home and run for governor...and I must be an embarrassment too great to be borne. Well, don’t worry, I’m no more eager to associate with you than you are with me." She looked back and forth between them. The two people she should have loved most in the world, should have been able to most trust. They’d both betrayed her at every turn and left her feeling like nothing. She shook her head slowly, rejecting that view of herself. "How is it I’m supposed to be such a wonderful liar and yet the two of you...pillars of the community...put me to shame. My hats off to both of you." And then suddenly she was moving, ducking through the door and slamming it shut in her wake, blocking both of them away from her. Someone was stepping onto the elevator and she broke into a run, voices following her, but they couldn’t catch up as she dove onto the lift and the doors slammed shut before anyone could reach her.

 

* * * * * * *

enied her target, Irina rounded on Bianca. "I told you to stay away from her," she hissed, glaring furiously.

"I found her on the roof last night. She was---"

"Then you should have brought her back down," Irina snarled, so furiously angry she was close to throttling the clueless child in front of her just to release a little stress. "For god’s sake, she was seizing in ICU just a few days ago. She belongs in a hospital, not---"

"I tried to get her to," Bianca defended herself as she began grabbing for her discarded clothes, "but she wouldn’t go---"

"So you just swept her off to get a little sex---"

"That’s not what---" Bianca began, but the other woman didn’t even slow her ranting.

"---while her mother spent the last several hours scared to death that she was already dead!" Irina roared, hardly believing anyone could be so irresponsible, and yet there was the proof right in front of her, clad in a sheet and nothing else, her hair only slightly less rumpled than the bed they’d obviously shared.

"I’m sorry about that," Bianca whispered hoarsely as she realized how frightened the older woman must have been. "I didn’t think. When I found her on the roof, she was a wreck. I tried to take her back down, but she wouldn’t go. I thought maybe if she had a little time to regroup she’d be okay." It wasn’t quite the truth, but it was as close as she could come without making things worse.

Dark eyes swept over Bianca, taking in her obvious nudity under the sheet wrapped sarong-like around her. "I’m many things, Miss Montgomery. Stupid is not among them. I warned you not to use Lena this way. You should have listened. Now you’ve made everything far worse."

Unable to bear the idea that might be true, Bianca shook her head wildly. "Last night...it just happened---"

"Do you know what she tried to do to herself before?" Irina exploded, then froze when she saw Bianca’s guilty flinch. "My god, you do," she breathed. She was utterly silent and still for a beat, processing that wordless answer and then she flung a hand toward the bed. "And you still did this...still played with her emotions this way." She shook her head dazedly, not quite believing someone could be so cavalier. "Are you trying to kill her?" She’d ignored her mother’s more paranoid ravings where this girl was concerned, convinced the older woman was too caught up in her own fear and anger to see the situation objectively, but suddenly she had to wonder. Bianca Montgomery had every reason to hate Lena Kundera. Was she devious enough to be out to destroy her in the guise of the adoring lover?

"God, no," Bianca gasped when she found the breath to speak. Her clothes clutched tightly in one hand, she turned to face the suspicious look cast her way. "I know I’ve made mistakes, but I never meant to hurt her." Her eyes slid closed, blocking out the other woman’s doubtful look as she struggled to ignore the sense of being judged and found wanting. "I just want her to be okay."

"Then I suggest you pray for her," Irina ground out, "and stay the hell away."

Her eyes still tightly closed, Bianca shuddered a millisecond later as the door slammed with the force of a gunshot. Finding herself alone again, she stood perfectly still for a long moment, the only movement, the unsteady rise and fall of her chest as she gasped for air. Finally, she pulled the knotted sheet loose and let it fall forgotten to the floor to begin pulling her clothes on. Lena would head for the hospital, Bianca was comfortably certain of that. Paulina Kundera was there, and she would be the first thing Lena worried about.

Or at least she hoped that was what Lena would do, because if it wasn’t, she had no idea where the other woman might go or what she might do.

And that scared the hell out of her.

* * * * * *


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