Chapter 10

She watched the droplet of water slowly cascade down the side of her pint glass of Guinness, like a glistening teardrop. But no tears would come for Taylor, despite the fact that she felt like her heart would surely never recover from losing what might have been with Cami.

Grabbing the glass, she let the cold beer trickle down her throat, firmly trying to push away images from yesterday. But all she could see was that red haze of hatred and violence: Frank’s face turning purple as she choked him, and those solemn green eyes of Cami’s. Those eyes that had haunted her all day today, that Taylor was certain she would never see again.

Taylor grimaced and ran her hand through her hair. Although the blonde woman had said nothing to Taylor when she released Frank from her stranglehold, the barkeep had felt the shudder ripple down the smaller woman’s spine. She knew without asking that any friendship she might have begun with the photographer was lost. Lost in her inability to control the violence she carried around inside of her - that she had hoped in vain was long ago buried. Camryn was an intelligent, sophisticated woman - not someone who would invest herself in a relationship with a violent, unpredictable person like Taylor.

Why didn’t you just hit her too while you were at it, she scolded herself. May as well have, for all the terror she must have felt at seeing that darkness inside of you.

Fighting back the waves of misery that clamped in her chest, Taylor mentally punished herself for allowing that sniveling coward Frank to get the better of her. She knew he had been baiting her, trying to gauge her reaction to his not so subtle threat against Cami. And she had fallen right for it. With the finesse of a common street thug she had allowed her primitive nature to react. This time she was sure it would cost her a friendship and her heart told her, the possibility of something even more precious than that.

For some insane reason, her soul kept telling her that Cami was the key; that somehow the little blonde was connected to her in some inexplicable way. But how and why were the real questions. And it seemed that neither question would have an answer now that Cami knew what kind of woman Taylor was inside. She hadn’t heard a word from the photographer all day, and Taylor figured likely as not, she never would again. If she’s smart, she’ll get as far away from a person like me as she can.

The lively music of the pub swirled around her, and the Friday night crowd was as boisterous as ever. But for the moment, Taylor was oblivious. She chugged the remainder of her glass, ordered up another pint of Guinness and ignored Tommy’s mildly disapproving look as he served it to her.

Propping her feet on the barstool next to her to ward off any unwanted advances, Taylor let her mind drift, thinking about Frank, who was nowhere to be seen tonight, and the world of trouble he was likely bringing into her life. She had thought that was all behind her for good, and now…now she was dredging up memories that she had safely locked away to protect herself from the intense pain. But tonight, with the misery she was feeling, she would allow herself for the first time in two years to recall the last time she had let her dark side take over - the time it had nearly cost her soul.

When Colin had been falsely imprisoned, Taylor had made it her mission to discover the true felon. She knew someone must take the fall, but damned if it would be her baby brother.

She began a month of single-minded violence to find the man who set the bomb, never slowing down, never stopping, no matter the consequences. Like an avenging fury she scoured North Ireland, ignoring her better sense, which told her to find another way to free Colin. Carefully packing away her emotions until she became empty inside; everything else was set aside in her brutal and vicious quest to find the bomber. Not to bring him to justice, for she knew the improbability of that. No. She wanted to kill the coward who framed her brother.

And when she eventually caught up with him, she found herself face to face with a fourteen-year-old boy.

In a dirty, old warehouse she threw the boy to his knees in front of her. Taylor’s men surrounded her, urging her on: "Shoot the bastard, Jamie. For Colin." Many others murmured "Aye, for Colin." To this day she could still recall every detail of that warehouse - the musty, dank smell, the dust that coated everything, the broken windows and beams, and rotted wooden crates that lay shattered on the concrete floor. One small streak of moonlight penetrated the dirty glass remnants that jaggedly reached across the window frames. The dim moonlight that had covered everything in a silvery haze, making it seem almost like a dream to her.

As Jamie put her gun to the boy’s trembling temple, she looked down into his terrified brown eyes - and caught her breath. She could feel the cold steel of the gun warming in the sweat of her palm; see the tears streaking down the boy’s face. Suddenly it was her brother’s face she was staring at, not a stranger, not the coward who set the bomb. She struggled between the ruthless need to pull the trigger and the knowledge that this boy was someone else’s brother. And in that internal war, her soul shattered.

Later she would scrutinize that moment of clarity, that instant when she felt her world shift, turn her upside down and dump her on her ass.

She knew it was impossible, yet in the moment she clearly felt her father touch her shoulder and whisper in her ear: "No darlin’. Please." The hand holding the gun began to tremble, and she felt the uneasy shift of her men around her, all wondering why she was hesitating. "Shoot the bastard and be done!"

Again her father’s clear, resonant voice: " ‘Tis not for me nor Colin ya do this then. Be assured, ‘tis not the way ta honor my memory, nor ta ease your guilt for not protectin’ your brother. Let him go…let it go, T.J." T.J. His childhood nickname for the daughter he had adored.

She reached down and grabbed the boy by his shirt front and lifted him completely off of the ground until his eyes were level with her own blue steel gaze. She stared into that young face for what seemed like a lifetime. Long enough for Taylor to remember - remember....something....another memory, from another lifetime...but whose? Hers?

A dark room lit only by a few torches, a baby’s cry, a man with a scarred face drawing a sword . . . A sword? She held up her hand to him - "You can’t hurt this child! We don’t murder children!" Men swarmed around her. Shadows, fear. Derisive laughing. ‘She’s gone soft.’ Must protect the baby, no matter what, I won’t…The blinding pain, the beating, the incredible torture, I can’t let them do this, I won’t kill innocents . . .have to go on . . .protect . . .

The memories like a vague shadow in the farthest corner of her mind began to torture Taylor’s soul, until in self-preservation she shook her head and the vision had cleared. But the truth of her heart remained; she was not a murderer. Sure she had killed before- soldiers in a war of the streets, to protect her men, but this - this was not a soldier, this was a kid. This was pure blood vengeance. Murder . . . The boy’s youthful, nearly angelic face swirled before her and blended again with that of her brother’s. "He’s just a child. I can’t hurt a child!"

One lone tear cascaded down her high cheekbone, and she dropped the gun. She heard her men begin to grumble to one another as her Glock clattered to the concrete, but she refused to turn around to look at them. Instead she held the boy’s chin in her powerful hand to force his eyes to her own.

In a voice husky with emotion she warned him, "I’m giving ya back your life. But ya must swear that ya’ll leave the ranks. Ya’ll never set another bomb or take another life. For if ya do, I’ll follow ya inta the deepest level of Hell and torment ya there for all eternity."

The boy blinked at the dark avenging angel before him, his slight body quaking with terror. He had no doubt that the woman before him was a demon who could do just what she warned. So he hesitated in his answer, unsure if he was making a deal with the devil herself. But when he didn’t respond, she gripped his face harder and shook him with the other hand. "By god! You swear or I will make ya wish ya were never born…Swear!"

"I.... I.... swear" his adolescent voice shook and stammered.

With one final look in his eyes to judge his sincerity, she tossed him to the concrete floor staring blankly ahead until he scrabbled safely away into the night. Then she turned and walked out of the warehouse, and away from everything she knew.

She didn’t even stop for her gun.

In the aftermath, she knew a new leader of the F.E.P. would emerge, so the next day she visited Jimmy Lynman to make the arrangement to free her brother, and banish herself from Ireland. There was nothing more for her here now.

Her men would not follow her after what they would deem an act of cowardice on her part. And her brother was set to be executed. So her choice was simple. Leaving her homeland versus her brother’s life and freedom. There was no more question as to what she would do.

But her sacrifice became a wasted effort in the explosion that killed her brother just three days after that fateful night in the warehouse. The day after she left Ireland behind. Forever.

Now two years later, that violent streak had resurfaced; a reminder of what she had been, what she likely would always be.

Despite her best efforts to reclaim herself, something was still missing. Unbidden, her thoughts jumped to Camryn, as though the soft green eyes held all of her answers. Perhaps they do hold the answers. But she is likely lost to me now.

Taylor was just about at the point when she was feeling the effects of the five pints of Guinness she had consumed, and feeling damn sorry for herself on top of it, when she felt a hand on her shoulder.

"Evenin’, Taylor." Joe, the talented, regular musician was standing next to her, smiling down through his grizzled three day growth of beard.

"Evenin’, Joe." She nodded at the portly man.

The musician looked pointedly at the now empty pint glass in front of Taylor. "Had enough of those yet for me to persuade you to join me for a song on the next set?"

Joe had discovered Taylor’s amazing singing voice, and was always after her to join in, despite her obvious reluctance. Although she had once or twice in the past joined him for a song or two, she was not a performer and preferred to do her singing in the privacy of her own shower at home.

Joe noticed her hesitation, and took it as an opening to pry a bit further. "It’s just that you’ve been sitting on that stool for the past two hours looking for all the world like you’ve lost your best friend. Thought a song might cheer you up some."

Taylor’s eyes narrowed as she took in his friendly face, and she nearly snapped at his presumption, before she took a moment to realize that he was right. She was feeling like she had lost her best friend, and for that reason his request struck her tonight. Musta had one too many beers, old girl. She snorted. Or it could be the misery that you’re lettin’ eat ya up inside. Picking up the new Guinness that Tommy had placed in front of her she took a long pull before answering.

"Aye. I think ya can get me ta do one with ya." She held up a warning finger to stress her point. "But just one, mind ya."

Joe was delighted and a quick grin split his face. "Great!! What’ll it be tonight?" He rubbed his hands together and nodded at Tommy who brought him his customary whiskey, with a Coca-Cola chaser.

"I’ll think about it, mate." As he reached for his shot of whiskey she toasted him with her pint, "Slánte."

"Slán na gath" he automatically responded to the Gaelic toast, raising his glass before downing it in one gulp. "I’ll be ready in a few..." Then he turned to chat with some of the regular customers, leaving a miserable Taylor to her own tortured thoughts.

****************************************************

She was hot, tired and stressed, and what she should have been doing was going home to work all night in her darkroom. But all she could do was think about T.J. Is she ok? What the hell really happened last night? Driving home from a job, she contemplated the vivid images from the fight in the bar the previous night.

Camryn had spent the day doing the publicity still shots for the local television production company’s latest pilot series, and she hadn’t had a spare moment to call her friend. Nor had she been certain if she should call T.J. for fear that the woman needed some time alone. But for the life of her, the photographer could not get those haunted blue eyes out of her mind.

Cami could not fathom how or why, but in the past few weeks T.J. had become very important to her. In fact, if truth be told, she thought about the dark-haired woman constantly. Damn Cami, obsessive much? You have a crush on her, get over it and function here! But, as she maneuvered the Jeep into her driveway, she glanced at her watch, wondering if she could catch T.J. at home.

Hmm… 8:00 p.m. on a Friday night…She’s probably at the pub… An idea formed in Cami’s mind, and she mentally warred between her rational brain that told her T.J. was fine and she should leave her alone for awhile, and that spoiled brat side of her that wanted to see her friend, just to be sure.

She keyed open the door, dropping her large camera bag in the hallway and making her way upstairs. She’s a grown woman, Camryn. She is fully capable of taking care of herself, her rational side supplied. Camryn chewed thoughtfully on her lower lip, never stopping in her path to the master bathroom, where she began methodically stripping and starting a shower.

But those eyes. She looked so…hurt? Troubled? In pain. Cami couldn’t place just why, but somehow she instinctively knew that the altercation between T.J. and Frank last night had little to do with their erstwhile marriage.

Climbing into a soothing shower, she let the water ease her stress, and her mind flow over the events of last night. She sent a silent thanks to Vicki and Jo who had been wonderful about the whole fiasco. Frank’s parting "dyke" comment to the women had actually amused Cami’s two friends, who chuckled over the whole thing on the way home.

"I’m sorry about all of that." Camryn had told them contritely, once they were safely in Vicki’s car.

"Ha! What’s to be sorry for?" Jo had interrupted the apology. "Frankly, I’m kinda sorry we didn’t let your friend Taylor kick the crap out of that jerk." She finished with a grin.

"Yeah. I knew she was a tough customer, but whew!" Vicki faked a wiping of sweat from her forehead. "She is damned strong, you know?"

"I thought it was kinda cool, actually." Jo continued, "I mean, he is not a small man, and she was really letting him have it. She seems like the kind of friend I’d really want on my side when the going got tough." The redhead turned around and smiled at the still brooding Camryn in the backseat.

"True. I’m just…well, I’m sorry you had to get involved in that…..sorry that Frank called you….um….thought you were…." but the blonde couldn’t bring herself to repeat the insult that he had hurled at them.

Vicki began to laugh. "Sorry he thought we were what, Cami? Friends? Part of the …what did he call it…same tribe? He was right. We are family." The tall woman glanced quickly at Jo’s diminutive form next to her. "But honey, since you insist that

I’m an Amazon, that must make you two…what?… Amazonettes?"

Jo began laughing as well, and reached back to squeeze Camryn’s knee. "Cami. It’s no problem - Honestly." She paused, a mischievous smirk creasing her elfin features. "If you ask me, I think he was just having some lustful fantasies about getting the three of us in bed…together!"

Vicki nearly ran her Four-Runner off of the road she was laughing so hard. "Yeah! What is it with men and those lesbian fantasies anyway? Todd, that last guy I was dating…he was seriously turned on by that."

Despite herself, Camryn was smiling a little. "How did you find that out?"

"Remember that time you met him at Jo’s BBQ?"

"Yeah." Then it dawned on Camryn what Vicki was getting at. "You don’t mean he wanted us…you ……er…oh shit!" She began shaking her head.

"Yup. You got it! As soon as he found out you were gay, he asked if I thought you’d be interested in a threesome." The car rang with laughter. "Of course, I told him he wasn’t man enough to handle both of us…that shut him up pretty good."

"Ooooh! You are sooo bad Vicks!" Jo supplied. "Although if I were Cami, I’d be flattered."

"Flattered?" The blonde was clearly puzzled.

"Sure! Damn woman! You are so sexy and attractive you have both men and women alike falling all over themselves to have you!"

Camryn’s snort from the back seat echoed through the car. "Yeah. Right. So that explains why I haven’t ever had a long-term dating partner, male or female."

The three women moved on to talking about other topics, and Cami was pathetically grateful that neither of her friends had grilled her about her relationship with T.J. Because she just didn’t know what to say.

The cool water of the shower forced her thoughts back to the present. She turned the water off and leaned her forehead against the cool tile of the wall.

I have a crush on her. I can’t stop thinking about her. Her eyes haunt my dreams. All of those things were true, but Cami was scared to give voice to those feelings - afraid that if she did, they would shatter like glass under sane, rational scrutiny. Because, in the harsh light of her bathroom, her brain was telling her that a logical person just didn’t feel this strongly for someone they had just met a few weeks ago. It was impossible. And yet…I feel it…so what in the hell am I going to do about it?

She stepped from the shower and toweled off, running a comb negligently through her short hair so it wouldn’t stand up in spikes all over her head. She made her way into her bedroom; automatically reaching for a pair of boxers to sleep in, when it became clear to her just what she was going to do. She would do for T.J. what she would for any friend in need. She would be there. And that meant a trip to the pub tonight to make sure the dark-haired woman was okay.

Camryn grabbed a pair of faded jeans instead, and tried to convince herself that she was not totally insane. Rational people feel this intense craving for another person’s company sometimes too, don’t they?

***************************************************

Before she could really think about what she was doing, Taylor found herself standing on the stage next to Joe, wondering again why she had said yes. There was an undercurrent of murmuring from the crowd; some of the regulars recognizing her and whispering in delight at this rare treat of hearing her perform.

"So boss, what do ya wanna sing?" Joe grinned in expectation.

Swallowing another gulp of her Guinness, she set the pint down and perched herself on the tall stool that Joe normally used during his act.

"Think with the mood I’m in, we’ll go for something a little more melancholy." Taylor’s song choices were diverse and ran from the standards to contemporary pop, but tonight a certain sparkling pair of green eyes dominated her thoughts, so she had a sudden inspiration. "Let’s try A Pair of Brown Eyes." The song was an Irish ballad that echoed of lost love and pain, and Taylor felt in tune with the message of the lyrics tonight.

Joe ran a few riffs on his guitar with her, picking out the correct key and then stepped toward the microphone to make his usual announcement to open the new set.

"Alright folks! Welcome back." His baritone voice echoed through the sound system, and the loud chattering of the customers subsided, as most of them turned to listen to the popular singer. "Tonight we have a special treat! I’m being joined by the Publican herself, Ms. Taylor Jameson! So, put your hands together and encourage her, ‘cause she’s gonna kill me later for making such a fuss over this."

A raucous round of applause and smattering of wolf-whistled accompanied his announcement. He turned and winked saucily at Taylor, who merely raised an eyebrow and shot him a look that indicated he was indeed in trouble later. "We’ll begin this set with an old favorite, A Pair of Brown Eyes."

Taylor licked her lips, wondering why she suddenly felt so nervous. It was her own damn pub after all, and it wasn’t as though she had never done this before. She nodded at Joe, who began strumming the intro notes on his beat-up guitar. Before she could chicken out, she picked up the microphone, caught the rhythm of the piece and in a clear, low, sultry voice began to regale the admiring audience.

Summer’s evening, drunk ta hell. I sat there nearly lifeless…on the jukebox Johnny sang about a thing called love. He said, ‘How ya kid? What’s yer name? And what do ya know?

***********************************************

For the fiftieth time since she had gotten into her Jeep for the quick trip to the pub, Cami scolded herself for such a spontaneous act. It was totally out of character for her to just drop in on people unannounced. And even more out of the ordinary for her thoughts to be so consumed with one person. The war in her head vacillated between the notion that T.J. might not be at the pub or even want company, and the idea that her friend might need a friendly shoulder to lean on, someone to talk to after last night’s outburst.

The spoiled brat inside of her won out. She wanted to see T.J.; it was as simple as that. So as she pulled her Jeep into the parking lot, she took a deep breath and ran a slightly trembling hand through her close-cropped hair before turning off the engine and heading into the bar.

It’s what any friend would do under similar circumstances. She reasoned with herself. The difference was, her heart would not be racing so much at the prospect of seeing a friend. She felt more than that for T.J., and her heart would not allow her to just stay at home and wait for the prickly, unfathomable woman to contact her.

As she approached the door, she heard the mournful strains of the guitar picking out a ballad, and smiled to herself as she felt the familiar, home-like atmosphere wash over her. She eased the door open, intent on slipping up to the bar and asking Tommy if T.J. was even there. But before she was even two feet inside of the door she stopped dead in her tracks, her heart pounded into her throat and her jaw dropped at the sight before her.

Taylor was on the low stage at the other end of the room. The carefully designed lights were focused on her and brushed off her hair, causing it to nearly give the silky darkness a halo-like quality. The tall woman had one hip cocked on the stool, one foot planted firmly on the floor, the other khaki-covered leg dangled indolently.

Her clear, husky voice rang through the bar, causing shivers to course up Cami’s spine. Dear God! I had no idea she could sing like that!

But while T.J.’s voice was intoxicating, it was her eyes that most interested the small photographer. The amazing blue eyes that she had peered into last night were now sparkling with unshed tears, as T.J. poured her heart into the song. Unseen, Cami leaned a shoulder against one of the pillars in the back of the room, awash in shadows, and absorbed in the intensity of T.J.’s performance.

So a roving, a roving, a roving I’ll go…for a pair of green eyes. For a pair of green eyes.

At the chorus, a small murmur rushed through the crowd as though something were wrong, and even Joe briefly narrowed his eyes and looked in puzzlement at the woman who seemed to be really putting her soul into her singing tonight.

Camryn tore her focus away from the woman on the stage and glanced around the room. She was unfamiliar with the tune, but by the audience’s reaction, T.J. had apparently gotten some of the words wrong.

At the table near Cami, she over-heard one of the patrons whisper. "Thought the song was Pair of Brown Eyes?" His tablemate nodded and then shrugged. "Yup. Sure is. She must be thinking about someone in particular." Both men were riveted on the stunning figure that T.J. presented.

Cami’s mind did a somersault. Is she…? But I have green eyes…No, she isn’t …she can’t be…

Her thoughts raced out of control and she swallowed hard, willing herself not to gleefully jump to the conclusion that Taylor was singing a song about her - about her green eyes. She leaned forward a bit, listening more intently to the lyrics now.

She knew the minute that T.J. figured out she was in the room. Cami saw the tall woman slightly stiffen, her voice take on a more raspy quality as her eyes swept the rear of the room, looking for those green eyes that she had been so plaintively singing about - so sure she would not see them again.

Taylor was well aware of Cami’s presence, long before she caught sight of the blonde in the shadows near the door. It was as if her body sensed the blonde woman, instinctively knew she was there. Her stomach clenched momentarily and she briefly thought about stopping her ballad right then and there. But her heart won the day when their gazes locked for a long, poignant moment, and T.J. gave Camryn a lopsided grin and a half shrug, but never missed a beat.

And I thought about a pair of green eyes that waited once for me, that waited once for me. So, drunk ta hell, I left that place. Sometimes walkin’ - sometimes crawlin’.......... I heard that sound of long ago, along the old canal. And the birds were whistling in the trees and the wind was gently laughin’. So a roving, a roving, a roving I’ll go - for a pair of green eyes... ...a pair of green eyes.

The last note echoed over the crowd, and there was a brief moment of stunned silence before the crowd burst into enthusiastic, wild applause. Taylor turned and nodded a thank you at the still confused Joe, before stepping off of the stage and heading straight for her office. She needed a second to compose herself before being faced with Cami’s inquisitive eyes.

The decision to change the color of the eyes that she was singing about had been a last moment one. And had she known that Camryn would be privy to the performance, she never would have done so. For in that change, she revealed a great deal more about herself, about her feelings for the blonde, than she was comfortable with at the moment. It made her too damned vulnerable.

But less than a minute alone in her office gave her the necessary deep breaths to control herself, and to allow herself to admit that despite being caught practically singing a love song about the woman, Taylor was damned glad to see the photographer again. Something she feared would never happen. But why is she here?

Before her imagination could fly into hyper-drive, there was a slight knock at the door, and Taylor was certain that when she opened it she would be face to face with Cami. So, she made her way around the desk and plopped in the chair, propping one booted foot on the desk in what she hoped would convey a casual air.

"Come in." She called out.

Camryn opened the door, a small, shy grin gracing her face. "Am I interrupting?" She inquired.

"No, not at all." T.J. sat forward and gestured to the chair opposite her. "Will ya have a seat?"

The photographer obliged and a moment of silence ensued as the two women studied each other. Both were too afraid of taking that leap into the unknown, and both were hoping against all odds that the other would be brave and leap first.

Camryn was the first to break the silence. "That was…um…wonderful! I had no idea you could sing like that! Do you…uh…do you sing here often?"

Taylor shook her head before answering, a small grin gracing her features, as her ears reddened at the compliment. "No. I dinna make it a habit, no. I …er…just sometimes get in the mood ta let off some steam, and …well…" She spread her hands in an indefinite gesture.

"You’re terrific! You should sing more often. Probably be really great for business." She paused before realizing how that might sound. "Not that Joe isn’t good, of course, or that business is bad…." She realized that she was stammering now, trying desperately not to show how the song had effected her. "It’s just that…well…you should have seen the way some of those men were reacting to you!" She teased.

Taylor smiled in response. "Aye. Well, perhaps if business drops off I can peddle my er… ‘talents’ then, eh?"

Camryn burst out laughing. "That’s not what I meant!"

The laughter between them subsided and another intense moment of silence passed between them before Taylor remembered her manners. "So. Can I get ya anythin’? Or did ya just drop by ta say ‘hello’?"

Cami looked nervously at her hands for a moment before responding. "Actually, I just came by to see how you were doing. I mean, after last night and all……" Her words drifted off.

Taylor was absurdly touched and pleased at the photographer’s concern, but her pride leapt forward and stopped her from saying something too damning. "Oh, aye? Well t’was just a misunderstandin’ between Frank and I. T’was nothing really. I’m fine as frog’s hair, as my gramps used ta say."

Green eyes narrowed knowingly. But that was as close as Camryn would come to calling her friend a liar. She knew it wasn’t just "nothing" that caused the barkeep to nearly choke Frank to death in her own pub, but Camryn had also established the policy of not prying too deeply were Taylor refused to open up, so she let the comment slide. For the time being, anyway.

"Oh. Well. Good…good. Glad to hear that." Camryn trod carefully. "I was just a bit concerned is all."

"Aye. Thank ya. Actually I am glad ta see ya. I know I left rather, um…. suddenly last night. And well…. I wanted ta thank ya for what you did. Stepping in like that, I mean." Taylor swallowed hard, she was finding it difficult to face the temper that had overcome her last night, and the fact that Camryn’s presence made rational thought nearly impossible was not helping matters.

A small smile lit up the blonde’s face. "You’re welcome. That’s what friends are for, right?" The smile broadened a bit. "Besides, Frank may be a horse’s ass, but he didn’t look good in that particular shade of purple."

It took Taylor a moment to understand her meaning, and another moment to realize that Camryn was trying to lighten the mood, before Taylor started chuckling.

"Aye. True. Purple was never really his color. I think he may look better in pastels, don’t ya?" She quipped in a clipped, faux fashion designer voice.

The phone on Taylor’s desk interrupted the sweet moment of laughter.

"Excuse me then, for a moment?" She asked, and at Camryn’s nod of assent, Taylor picked up the receiver.

"Boss? Sorry to bug you, but some dude is out here looking for you." Tommy’s rich baritone voice came from the other end.

"Aye? Someone I know, Tommy?"

"No. Don’t think so, boss. I’ve seen him in here a few times in the past few weeks, but…" Tommy trailed off. "He seems like it’s urgent, but he could be just an overzealous customer who caught your act, and now thinks he has that pair of green eyes you were looking for."

Taylor bit her lip to keep from bursting out laughing and telling Tommy that the green eyes in question were right in front of her thank-ya-very-much. "Aye. Well. Give the man a Guinness and tell him I’ll be out shortly."

"Problems?" Camryn quirked her head to the side when T.J. dropped the phone back onto the desk.

"No problems - Just some business ta take care of. It can wait if ya had a mind ta stick around for some dinner, or…?"

Camryn was sorely tempted, but an eight a.m. work deadline loomed in front of her. "I…I’d love a rain check. I actually have a ton of work waiting at home."

Taylor hid her disappointment, but even that was tempered by the knowledge that Camryn wasn’t entirely lost to her. She came back

"Aye. A rain check it is. Ya know ya are welcome anytime. No invitation necessary." She gracefully rose from her place behind her desk and joined Camryn as she moved towards the office door.

The man waiting for Taylor at the bar looked up as the two women exited the office and caught the barkeep’s eye, but although she had seen him in here before, he was not familiar to her. Her sense of self-preservation rattled her brain and she instinctively laid a hand on Camryn’s shoulder to protect the smaller woman.

When a pair of green eyes drifted up to hers in question of her gesture, Taylor covered her unthinking gesture with a smile and a blithe, "I’ll walk ya out then."

Outside the pub, Taylor’s hackles rose even further. On the short walk to Camryn’s Jeep, the ex-mercenary could feel someone watching them. Without arousing too much suspicion, T.J.’s eyes expertly swept the parking lot. Who the hell is there?

Stopping at Cami’s battered Jeep, the blonde turned and smiled at the dark woman beside her and decided that since she had already taken a leap this evening, one more small jump couldn’t hurt. "Listen, T.J…"

Taylor’s eyes tore themselves away from surveillance to meet Camryn’s intense gaze. "I was um…I’m going to take a road trip to Julian tomorrow... I need some pictures of flowers and various things for a calendar shoot that I’m way behind on. um…and…" Oh for God’s sake, Wells. Will you ask her?! The worst that can happen is she’ll say "no".

Camryn licked her lips before continuing. "Anyway, it’s a pretty drive into the mountains - East of here - and…well… I was wondering if you’d like to go with me." There. I said it. And it didn’t even take me until Christmas to spit it out.

T.J. was momentarily startled. Up until about an hour ago, she had been certain that she was never going to see the petite photographer again. And now, here she was - out of concern for her friend, and offering to spend more time with her.

And yet… Taylor warred within her brain that was screaming that even now there was someone watching them very closely. That just by being seen with Camryn, Taylor could be putting her in danger. I should say no, for Camryn’s own safety.

Finally, her heart gave her the best possible answer. Face it. Frank knows who she is already. She’s already in danger, so who better than an ex-terrorist leader to keep her safe. Right?

"Aye. Surely that sounds like a good idea. Shall I pick you up in the morning then?" Damn. Being rational and right sure feels good.

Camryn shot a meaningful look across the parking lot at T.J.’s low-slung roadster, and then back to her own battered, yet practical Jeep. "Uh. Well. Meet at my house by 8:30, but I think I’ll be doing the driving. Your car won’t last long on some of those non-paved mountain roads, I’m afraid."

With a quick hug for the taller woman, Camryn slid into her Jeep. "See you in the morning. Oh, and T.J.?"

The dark woman was still vigilantly standing right next to the Jeep. "Aye?"

"You’d better wear some hiking boots, and bring a flannel. It gets cold up there after the sun sets."

T.J. playfully narrowed her eyes. "Aye? Is that cold cold, or Southern California ‘tis 65 degrees and we are all freezin’ our arses off" cold?"

Camryn laughed. "Well. Julian passed a town ordinance. They allow it to get a bit chilly at night, so they can have snow in the wintertime. Good for the tourists."

Taylor chuckled, before her gaze turned serious. "Uh. Cami? Um…thanks again. For uh…checkin’ on me and all. T’was very kind of ya."

"Anytime, Jameson. Anytime." And with a wink Camryn started the Jeep and left Taylor to glance speculatively around the parking lot before heading back into the bright light of the pub, and the mysterious man waiting for her at the bar.

**************************************************************

 

Chapter 11

Taylor’s eyes narrowed as she re-entered the bar, and approached the man waiting for her. He was a tall man, muscularly built, with dark curly hair and deep brown eyes. She recognized his face as someone who had recently frequented the pub, and she mentally cursed herself for not paying more attention to her surroundings.

Back home, she had made it her business to know who was around her at all times. But lately…well, lately her attention to detail had slipped. Helped along, of course, by the fact that her focus was divided between Frank’s stupidity, and a certain green-eyed blonde.

"Good evenin’ ta ya." She reached out her hand, which he automatically took and gave a cordial handshake. "I’m Taylor Jameson, can I help ya with somethin’?"

"Yes. Nice to meet you, Ms. Jameson. I’m Peter Knight. I was hoping to have a few words with you in private." So that only Taylor could see, with a slight, subtle motion Mr. Knight drew back his leather jacket to reveal a badge clipped to his belt.

Taylor clenched her teeth and quietly damned Frank to hell and back for bringing trouble into her life. But, she instinctively turned on her charm, offering Knight her best smile and gesturing towards her office door. "Of course, Mr. Knight. My office is right over there."

When they were both safely in the confines of the office, Taylor moved around behind her desk and sat down, quietly indicating to Knight that he should do the same. He eased himself into the chair opposite her and studied her a moment before he reached into the pocket of his leather jacket and pulled out a well-used note pad.

"What can I do for ya?" Taylor asked, managing to keep her voice steady and clear, although her gut had begun to ache - not with fear, but more like irritation.

She had dealt with the police for most of her life, but in the past two years since leaving Ireland, she had not had a run-in with the American version. Although by the looks of him, her gaze traveled the length of the ruggedly handsome man before her, the only difference between Ireland and here is that this one doesn’t have red hair. A rose by any other name…would still be a cop. She was amused at her analogy, but kept her face impassive.

"As I said, I’m Peter Knight. I’m with the Federal Bureau of Investigation." He flipped open his FBI credentials and set them on the desk for T.J.’s inspection. As she picked up the ID to examine it further, he continued, "I need to speak with you about your pub."

T.J. smiled her best charming smile. "Dinna tell me that the IRS dinna get my last check?" She tossed the ID back onto the desk. FBI, eh? Perfect. Between the drug dealers and the Feds it's no wonder I have so damn many people prowlin' around outside my place.

The agent’s sharp, intelligent eyes lit momentarily with humor, but his face remained cool. "Nothing like that. What I’m here for, Ms. Jameson, is to ask your cooperation with on ongoing investigation. As you can imagine, I am not at liberty to discuss the details of the case, but I can tell you a few specific things."

T.J. leaned back in her chair and her mind kicked into overdrive. If he is here talkin’ ta me, he likely doesn’t think I’m mixed up in this. So what in the bleedin’ hell does he want from me?

Agent Knight continued. "In conjunction with Mexican authorities we are working on an International drug trafficking case. Suspects from this case have been seen frequenting your establishment."

T.J. narrowed her eyes. The Reynoso Brothers, of course. "Aye. And what do I, or my pub for that matter, have ta do with that? I dinna ask my customers for their FBI file before I serve them a beer." I’m gonna bloody well kill Frank for this.

The agent relaxed his posture slightly to put T.J. at ease. "No, of course you don’t. The FBI does not believe you are involved."

T.J. simply nodded and waited for him to continue.

"Actually, I am here to ask your permission to use your establishment in order to gather information."

T.J. nearly choked inwardly, but she gritted her teeth and refused to show her contempt for him asking her to be an informant. Instead she folded her arms and replied, "So. Let me get this straight. What ya want is for me ta eavesdrop on my clientele and then tell ya blokes about it?"

Knight smiled. "Of course not, Ms. Jameson." He picked up his ID and put it back into his jacket. "I’ll be the one eavesdropping."

"Excuse me?"

"The FBI needs your cooperation to stop this drug ring. So, I have been asked to go undercover here as your bartender."

"No." She bit off her answer.

"I understand your hesitation, Ms. Jameson."

T.J. stood and shoved her chair back. "No, you dinna understand at all, Agent Knight. I willna allow the government to endanger my customers by placing ya here. Not really great for business if my place gets shot up and patrons are killed!" Taylor was fuming but she kept her voice low and dangerous.

Knight stood as well, but slowly, to indicate that he was not angry. "Your point is valid. However, think of this before you give me your final answer: Your customers are already in danger. The people I am talking about are violent and would not hesitate to shoot up a bar full of innocents. By having me here, I can offer you some measure of protection in case things go bad."

Taylor began pacing. I can take care of myself, dammit. But he has a point. The place is already dangerous. Then an idea struck her. "Now wait just a bloody minute! The FBI does not come inta places and ask permission ta send agents undercover! The whole purpose of 'undercover' is that no one is suppose ta know!"

Knight nodded. "Of course you are right. But in some cases, when we feel that we are putting a great number of civilians at risk, we ask key individuals, like yourself, to cooperate with us. We want you to know your options, as well as the fact that you have to hire me to work here. Now if I just came in off the street looking for a job, you likely wouldn’t make me a bartender."

T.J. slightly smiled. "You’re bleedin’ right about that. I have a damn fine bartender." She sized up the man in front of her. "Naw, if ya came lookin’ for a job I’d likely make ya the bouncer."

Knight smiled and reached into his jacket pocket, producing a business card. "Listen, Ms. Jameson. You don’t have to help us - you know that already. But. Please consider the fact that with me on the inside, this investigation will be over faster and we can limit the danger to your patrons."

T.J. stopped pacing and folded her arms.

"Take my business card. Think about this for a while. Let me know if you have any questions at all."

T.J. took the card. It was white, non-descript and just had "Peter Knight" printed on it, along with a local phone number. What where ya expectin’? That he’d give ya a card that advertised what he is? He’s an undercover agent for fuck sake.

Knight reached out his hand and T.J. automatically shook it. "I’ll be in touch, Ms. Jameson. But don’t hesitate to call me." And with that, he exited the office, leaving a frustrated and furious T.J. in his wake.

Taylor returned to her chair and tapped the business card aimlessly on the top of her desk for a few minutes, deep in thought.

Finally she picked up the phone and punched in the numbers by heart.

"Jake?"

"Ahyeah? Jamie? Is that you? What’s up?"

"Things just got more complicated. Meet me in a half an hour."

************************************************

The early morning light sparkled off the harbor as Camryn watched the Saturday sailboat enthusiasts zipping around and dodging the larger Navy ships. She was propped up on a deck chair, taking advantage of a few solitary moments.

She took another sip of coffee and mused that she should feel a lot more tired than she did. The photographer had spent most of the night working in the darkroom, and had just managed about three hours of sleep.

It’s inhuman to feel so damn good on such little sleep. And Camryn knew exactly why she felt so damn good. Taylor Jameson - who would be arriving any minute for their road trip to Julian. Camryn found her stomach doing flip-flops at the prospect of getting to spend the whole day with the barkeep.

It occurred to Cami that she had let Taylor off the hook last night. She hadn’t even mentioned the "green eyes’ song. Mostly because she feared that she was wrong.

Maybe she wasn’t singing about you. I mean, how arrogant is that?? Lots of people have green eyes. So, discretion being the better part of valor, Camryn had prudently kept quiet about the incident.

Although, secretly in the far reaches of her heart, in a place she hardly admitted existed, Camryn hoped and dreamed that the tall blue-eyed woman had been singing about her. That the friendship that was blooming between them could develop into something more. But for now…Cami would settle for spending the day in her company.

Camryn had taken a small gamble last night, just showing up at the bar unannounced. The way Taylor had left the bar after her fight with Frank had made it clear that she wanted to be alone. So, Camryn knew that is was a tad presumptuous on her part to just drop in and check on her friend.

After all, Wells, when you want solitude you get very testy at whomever interrupts you. Luckily though, Taylor couldn’t hide her obvious delight to see the photographer, so the risk had been worth it.

And that voice! Cami was still in awe at Taylor’s singing voice, still could conjure up the chill that it sent down her spine to hear the sultry tones sweep over her. Whew! Damn. Take a deep breath, Cami. Gonna have to spend all day with her and try not to drool. She chuckled. Oh well, what’s a little drool among friends?

Her delicate features lit with an inward smile as she heard Taylor’s BMW pulling up the street. Rising from the deck chair she headed for the kitchen to rinse out her mug and face the adventure that lay before them.

*********************************************

The drive to Julian was lively. Camryn piloted her battered, but practical Jeep Wrangler along the winding mountain roads that lead them from the flat beach community into the lush evergreens of the Cleveland National Forest. A name that Taylor was obliged to point out made no sense whatsoever since Cleveland was in Ohio, clear across the country.

"True. But Cleveland is also the name of one of our former U.S. Presidents." Cami felt obliged to defend one of her favorite places to hike.

"Aye, sure enough." Taylor nodded in agreement. "Still, dinna ya think they might call it somethin' cool like Yellowstone or Yosemite?"

Cami laughed. "Well, those names were taken." T.J. playfully nudged the blonde. "Besides, with the foliage around here they'd have to name it 'Manzanita' or 'Scrub Pine'. Neither one seem very dignified for a National Park."

The radio blasted classic rock from one of the local stations, and the two women found themselves loudly singing along to the Rolling Stones and the Eagles. The forty-five minute drive flew by in a flurry of shared companionship and beautiful scenery.

The only mar in an otherwise gorgeous, sunny summer day was the fact that Taylor seemed somewhat distracted from time to time. She continually scanned the surrounding area, and kept her eyes riveted to any cars that appeared in their rearview mirror. Although she was subtle about her surveillance, Camryn finally noticed her friend’s somewhat tense demeanor.

"Expecting someone?" Cami finally inquired.

"Aye…er…what?" Taylor hadn’t been paying attention to the question.

"You just seemed very interested in the cars following along behind us."

Taylor flushed. "No. Um…I was just looking at how close the bloke was getting ta your fender, ‘tis all." A lame excuse, but better than the alternative. Aye, Camryn, I keep checkin’ ta see if the Reynoso Brothers are waiting back there to put a couple of bullets in our heads.

T.J.'s mind was awash with the new revelation that the FBI was hanging around, and her life seemed to be growing more dangerous by the moment. May as bloody well have stayed in Ireland for all the crap goin' on around here.

Although she didn’t push, Camryn did shoot T.J. a look that indicated her disbelief at the tall woman's explanation. With a half-shrug, Taylor turned away and became highly interested in the trees that were wizzing by them.

Just at the turn-off to State Route 79 that would lead them along the winding road through the mountains, they began to pass signs that read "delicious Julian apples", "fresh honey", and finally the sign that truly caught their attention: "ass-kicking beef jerky." The two women shared a laugh. "Well, that we must try."

Camryn steered the Jeep into the little dirt parking area next to the makeshift wooden fruit stand. The women were greeted by the proprietor; a jolly, gray-haired woman who was absently shooing away the myriad of bees that had gathered around the fragrant, ripe fruit. A beautiful parrot was perched next to her, chattering away and occasionally fluttering its wings to ward of the buzzing nuisances around him.

T.J. found the place charming, and purchased quite a few apples, and of course, some of the highly touted beef jerky. Back on the road, the pair contentedly munched on the jerky that did indeed kick their posteriors with its spicy flavor. Then Taylor pulled a dark red apple out of her bag and took a healthy crunch.

" ‘Tis delicious apples as well then." Taylor noted.

Cami smiled. "Yep. Julian is famous for their Apple festival every fall. Just wait until we get into town and get some of Mom’s Apple Pie." She waggled her eyebrows.

Taylor was momentarily puzzled. "Aye? Your mom lives here then?"

Cami shot a sideways glance at her companion. "What? No. I …" Her brows knit in consternation for a second before she realized what Taylor had thought. Then she burst into a fit of laughter so hard she nearly drove the car off of the windy, narrow mountain road.

"No. No." She spluttered out between chuckles. "The name of the famous pie shop in Julian is ‘Mom’s’". Then she caught sight of the look on Taylor’s face and instantly stopped laughing - for fear that she had really embarrassed her friend.

A second of silence passed before a merry sparkle lit Taylor’s eyes, and she too began to chuckle. "Aye. I see. For a minute there I thought I was driving with the Pie Princess of Julian or somethin’." With a pair of loud chuckles, Cami continued to zip up the highway towards the hiking trails.

They made the turn into Green Valley Falls camping area and Cami showed the Ranger her Parks and Recreation permit, so he smiled and waved them through the gate.

"Does everyone need one of those ta come here?" Taylor inquired.

"No. It’s just a yearly parking pass. Certain areas up here are protected by law, so they try to limit how many people park up near the falls. But if you just want to go hiking, there are plenty of places along the road to pull over and park." Cami expertly guided the Jeep along the barely visible fire road, and drove quite a way into the mountains before finding the place she wanted to stop.

The air was crisp, and clean, and Taylor found herself taking deep breaths of it, trying in vain not to feel like a cliché. " ‘Tis beautiful mountain air."

"Yeah, it’s great out here isn’t it?" Cami agreed.

She pulled her camera backpack from the lockbox in the back of the Jeep, and then stuffed the apples and jerky they had purchased into a smaller sack, along with two large bottles of water and few other hiking essentials.

Before Cami could figure out how to juggle both bags on her back, Taylor calmly reached over and shouldered the heavier camera sack, holding up her hand when Cami tried to protest. "Ah, ah! No complainin’. It makes sense for me ta carry this one, so ya can reach whatever equipment ya need without having ta take off your pack."

When Cami started to frown, Taylor smiled and winked at her. "Just make sure you bring all of that jerky, though. ‘Cause I may need my ass kicked later and that stuff sure did the job."

Cami grinned and stuffed the second package of jerky into the pack, before zipping it up and starting out on a nearby, rather overgrown trail.

Camryn stopped periodically along the trail to capture images of flowers, trees, birds, and the occasional deer that they spotted in the distance. They hiked for about a half an hour before they reached the large waterfall that gave this particular section of the park its name.

Standing on the huge rock outcropping at the top of the falls, with the water roaring into the crevice below them, was actually rather peaceful.

The two women readily agreed that this was a great spot to stop and rest for a while. So Camryn eased her pack off and distributed the jerky, apples, two sandwiches, and water, along with a couple of nutrition bars that she always packed in her camera bag.

The makeshift lunch was delicious, and made even more so by the crackle of energy that snapped between the two women. The tension was heavy, yet pleasant, and as they sat contentedly shoulder to shoulder and admired the beautiful surroundings, Camryn willed every ounce of her being to keep from just leaning over and laying her head on T.J.’s shoulder. It just seemed so natural, so right.

Unbeknownst to Camryn, T.J. was having the same inner debate, and twice stopped herself from leaning over and kissing the adorable blonde woman next to her. Instead, when she couldn’t stop her wandering hands, she reached over and tucked a lock of yellow hair back into Camryn’s baseball cap.

"Thanks. My hair is getting to that unruly, ‘should I cut it or let it keep growing out’ stage." Taylor merely smiled in return, unable to trust her voice at the moment.

A hawk traced across the sky nearby, its call echoing across the canyon over the noise of the waterfall, and Camryn captured the moment with her long lens.

"So." Taylor finally broke the companionable silence. "What are these pictures for again? A calendar ya said?"

Camryn nodded. "Yup. I work for several calendar companies. Freelance stuff, but the one I’m really short on stock photos for is a nature calendar, so…here we are…communing with nature."

The sun was creeping low into the western sky when the two hikers finally wearily turned their steps back towards the Jeep. Dirt-streaked and tired, Taylor could not remember a more perfect day. And she was almost disappointed to see the Jeep as they rounded the final bend in the trail. Well. Almost. Her stomach was already growling at the thought of the apple pie that Camryn had promised.

"We headin’ into the town now?" Taylor asked.

Cami squinted up at her taller companion, somewhat disappointed because those incredible blue eyes were hidden behind her sunglasses. "You got it. I'd guess we have less than an hour before sunset. I think we need a good meal at Aunt Mary’s Inn and some of Mom’s Apple pie. Not necessarily in that order."

T.J. smiled at the child-like grin that lit up Cami’s face. "Do all of the places in this town have the names of relatives? Is there a Dad’s hardware and an Uncle Bob’s General Store?"

"Weeeeellll…it is a small town, after all." Camryn deadpanned.

They safely stowed the gear in the back of the Jeep and started cautiously back down the dirt road. Taylor was admiring the gorgeous streaks of orange and red that were just beginning to light the sky. She was lost deep in thought, so she missed seeing the large pothole in front of them. Camryn was too focused on thoughts of the beautiful, dark-haired woman next to her.

The next thing either woman realized, they had hit a large hole with a sickening crunch. Normally, the Jeep would have eaten road like that for breakfast, but as Camryn tried to steer, her heart-stopped. The wheel stopped responding, followed by

a horrifying sound of metal scraping metal, and the last thing she remembered thinking as they careened off the road was Dammit! I didn’t even get to kiss her!

*****************************************

 

Chapter 12

She tasted blood. And felt like she was swimming in jello. Wake up, dammit! Wake up! Taylor’s instincts were screaming inside her head. Groggily she opened one eye and looked around. She could feel the cool, damp grass beneath her cheek and the cold, biting wind ruffling her hair.

What the hell? Ok . . .Ya were in the woods with Camryn, and ya fell asleep…Camryn!!!

Her mind raced and she sat up with a jerk, instantly remembering. No. I was looking at that gorgeous sky and thinking about Cami . . . and then the world turned upside down. The Jeep turned over!

She leapt to her feet, ignoring the throbbing pain in her shoulder and the myriad of cuts and scrapes that protested her every move. The only thing she could think of was Camryn. Where the hell is she?

Frantically she scanned the area where she had landed, thrown clear of the tumbling Jeep because she had stupidly forgotten to put on her seatbelt. The bright red Jeep was nowhere to be seen.

"Camryn?" She hollered out, mindful of the slight tremor of panic in her voice.

When the photographer didn’t respond, Taylor willed herself to remain calm. Get a grip. Jeeps just don’t disappear. With a patient, practiced eye, she scanned the terrain. A cold ball of fear settled in her stomach as she realized that she was not too far from the edge of a ravine.

Edging closer to the lip of the rock face, she looked down and caught a glimpse of red metal peeking out from the bushes below. Camryn! Holy shit! She searched her brain and vaguely remembered Cami buckling herself in, so she must still be in the Jeep.

She instinctively reached for her cell phone, before remembering that it was in the glove compartment of the Jeep. Shit!

With less care than speed, she raced down the path into the ravine, not caring about the branches and bushes that tore at her clothes and skin. All she could think about was her friend. "Camryn!" No response. "Cami, dammit answer me!" Still nothing.

She’s ok. She must be ok. She just can’t hear me. Taylor repeated to herself over and over.

The journey took less than five minutes, but seemed interminable to Taylor. As she neared the wrecked Jeep, she smelled gasoline and she picked up her speed. Nearing the vehicle she could see it had landed on the driver’s side door, and wedged itself into the face of the rock cliff.

Taylor clambered onto the Jeep and hoisted herself until she could look through the passenger side window. She didn’t know whether to be relieved that she had found Cami, or scared to death that her friend was pasty white with her forehead covered in blood.

She eased herself down into the backseat area and unbuckled Cami’s seatbelt. "Camryn, can you hear me?"

She checked her pulse and heaved a grateful breath that she could still feel her heartbeat. She tried for a minute to revive Cami, but to no avail. So, she reviewed her options.

They were in the middle of nowhere and she smelled gasoline, which meant they should get the hell away from the wreckage as fast as possible.

Bloody hell! All right, Jameson. Only one way out of here. Once again ignoring her throbbing shoulder, Taylor wedged herself into the front seat and eased Cami up onto her back. That was the easy part.

It was very disconcerting for T.J. to feel her friend’s limp hands as she wrapped both of Cami’s arms around her neck. Carrying her piggyback style, Taylor hoisted both of them up through the open passenger window and onto the top of the wreckage. Gently laying Cami down on the flattest part of the metal she could find, Taylor leapt to the ground and then reached back up to pull her friend down from the ruined Jeep.

Her labored breathing was the only thing that gave away Taylor’s intense exertion. Lifting Cami onto her shoulders in a fireman’s carry, she began to pick her way back up to the dirt fire road above them. She’s ok… Still breathing… Just

passed out from the trauma. Maybe in shock?

When she reached the top, she found a grassy spot near the fire road to ease her friend down on. Collapsing beside her, she pulled Cami into her lap and began to frantically search for the source of the blood dripping at an alarming rate down the blonde’s face.

I need a bandage or a cloth or. . . Taylor then remembered she was wearing a sweatshirt over her t-shirt in deference to the chilly mountain air. Stripping it off, she used the soft, absorbent material to gently staunch the flow of blood.

The source of the bleeding seemed to be a rather nasty gash over Camryn’s left eye. But that didn’t explain why her friend was still out cold.

Concussion? Dammit, Camryn. Don’t you leave me! The usually stoic Taylor allowed herself a moment to take a deep breath and acknowledge the heaviness in her chest. It felt like she had swallowed hot lead and someone was tightening a vice around her chest.

Blood was nothing new to Taylor. She’d seen her share – even caused her share. In fact, she had held some of her men in just this same way as they took their last breath on earth. And somehow a part of her had remained detached. Because it hurt too damn much otherwise.

How in bleedin’ hell did you let this happen? She roundly cursed herself. Why did you let her inside, close enough to hurt you? One lone tear tracked its way down Taylor’s dirt-smeared face, leaving a clean trail behind it down her cheek.

With a heavy sigh, Taylor glanced at the rapidly setting sun, and finally acknowledged a truth to herself. Wrapping both arms tightly around the bundle of injured woman on her lap, Taylor gently rocked them to and fro.

Because. Because you stupid git. Admit it. You love her. Face it. Deal with it. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she registered that the sunset was absolutely gorgeous, and she wished Camryn were awake to see it.

Glancing down at the dirty face beneath her, Taylor nearly leapt out of her skin to find rumpled-looking green eyes staring back at her.

"Sweet Jesus! You’re awake!" Taylor caught Cami in another hug and kissed her forehead just above the cut, before realizing just exactly what she was doing and easing the blonde woman back down into her lap. "Are ya ok? Where are ya hurt?"

But Cami didn’t respond for a moment. She found herself drowning in the steady blue eyes that were mere inches above her. "Am I dreaming?" She finally quietly asked.

"No darlin’. We had an accident." Taylor absently pushed back a lock of Cami’s hair and used the sleeve of the sweatshirt to continue to wipe away some of the now crusting blood from Cami’s face.

With glassy eyes, Cami was still staring at Taylor. "No. I’m dreaming. You just kissed me and you are holding me . . ." Confusion wrinkled Cami’s forehead.

Taylor swallowed hard. "I was glad ta see ya awake ‘tis all. You’ve been out of it for about ten minutes or more. I’m not really sure actually…"

Cami didn’t want to move. She felt more safe and protected right there in T.J.’s arms then anytime in her whole life. Reaching up a tentative hand, she felt the warm stickiness on her face, and her mind registered it as blood. "Wha . . .What happened?"

"You’ve got a cut here. Are ya hurtin’ anywhere else?"

"Hurting?" Cami’s eyes started to roll and Taylor recognized she must have a concussion.

"Stay with me now. You’ve got ta stay awake, Cami!" Strong fingers swept across Cami’s cheek.

With great determination Camryn focused on T.J.’s worried face. "Ok. I’m awake." She reached one arm up and grabbed her head. "Oh, damn! My head is killing me!"

"I think ya have a concussion, Cami. Please stay awake, ok?" The strong fingers were cupping her cheek in a most pleasant manner, but Cami could hardly focus on them.

Camryn swallowed hard. All she wanted to do was close her eyes and bury her face into T.J.’s chest and sleep. But T.J. sounded upset and worried, so Camryn concentrated on staying awake. She took a mental inventory and aside from some bruises and cuts, the only other thing that was bothering her was her ankle. "Think I hurt my leg."

T.J.’s eyes swept down the jean-clad leg to Cami’s ankles. "Where?"

"Ankle. The right one."

Taylor eased Cami’s head down to the grass and began to minister to her ankle with practiced hands. She unlaced the blonde’s hiking boot and immediately noticed the swelling. "Looks sprained. Kinda bad." Shit. Even if Cami could stand, she can’t walk on that ankle. "Ok. I’m going ta leave ya for a moment and hike down ta the Jeep and find my cell phone. Then call someone ta get us the hell outta here."

"No." A hand reached out and touched her arm.

"I’ll only be a minute. You’ll be fine. Just stay awake, ok?"

"Not what I meant." Camryn took a deep breath to focus her energy. "No cell in the mountains. Can’t use the phone here. No network."

Double shit! The sun was quickly disappearing in the west, and they were running out of options. "How far are we from the Ranger’s shack we passed on the way in?"

" Probably ‘bout 5 or 6 miles. Not sure. Closed down now anyway."

"Huh?"

"Ranger. Gone. Park closes at dusk."

Ok. Options. Review and focus. Taylor’s militia training rolled into her brain. I could walk that distance easily, flag down a motorist. Might take awhile ‘cause it will be dark soon…slow goin’.

She glanced down at Cami’s pale face and realized that was not the best option. Shouldn’t leave her alone that long. Not safe – she’d fall asleep for sure. And what if…someone or something comes along – she’s defenseless.

With a heavy sigh, Taylor began deftly tearing a piece of the sweatshirt to use as a bandage for Cami’s head, and another for her ankle. Leaves us only one choice.

"So. Ya like camping?" She daubed the remaining blood from her friend’s face and wrapped the makeshift bandage around Cami’s injured head. She looks like a war casualty. But a cute one at that. Taylor smiled to herself.

"Camping?" Camryn was clearly puzzled.

"Aye. I dinna think ya are goin’ anywhere on that ankle, young lady."

"You could go. Find help. I’ll be fine." She tried unsuccessfully to sound completely convinced. Taylor set to work on loosely wrapping Cami’s ankle, her deft fingers making sure that the bandage didn’t put too much pressure on the already swollen joint.

"Well. Ta tell ya the truth, it’s not practical. I dinna know where I am going, and it will be pitch dark here in a few minutes."

"Don’t have sleeping bags. Cold here." Camryn was already starting to shiver in the brisk wind.

"Pssh." Taylor dismissed this notion with a wave of her hand. "You Southern Californians and your notion of ‘cold’." Tying off the impromptu bandage, Taylor reached up and brushed her fingers across the photographer’s cheek. "Now, dinna go ta sleep on me. I’ll be right back. I promise." With a final squeeze on Camryn’s shoulder, Taylor disappeared from sight into the twilight.

When Taylor returned, she found Camryn had half dragged herself into a sitting position, leaning against the trunk of a nearby tree, and looking a little worse for the wear. But to Taylor’s eyes, Camryn was the most incredible sight she had ever seen.

"Decided ta sit up then, did ya?"

"Yeah." Cami answered rather meekly. "Was having trouble staying awake while I was laying down."

"Look what I brought." Taylor set her bundles down on the ground next to Camryn. The backpack and camera sack were there, as well as a well-worn, colorful Mexican blanket that Cami had picked up in Tijuana years before and always kept in the back of the Jeep.

Dropping down next to Camryn, Taylor pulled the blanket up and over her friend who was shivering in the cold. The sun had completely gone and so had most of their waning light. Pulling the beef jerky and apples from the backpack, Taylor managed a weak smile. "Hey. At least we’ve got some ass-kickin’ dinner."

Camryn gave a small smile in return. The blanket offered a little warmth in the chill night air, and she was grateful for Taylor’s attempt at humor. The dark-haired woman gently propped up Cami's injured ankle on the camera pack, to elevate it and hopefully take some of the swelling down.

"Thanks." She gratefully acknowledged that having her foot up did help the pain some, although Cami still longed for an axe to just cut off the damned foot, it hurt so bad. "If you can gather some of that deadwood over there, I’ll make a fire."

Cami was on the receiving end of an arched eyebrow. "Ya mean ya know how ta do that trick with rubbing two sticks together?" Taylor inquired.

She started to shake her head, but that hurt too much. "No, nothing like that. Although I was a Campfire Girl in my ill-spent youth." She smiled genuinely at her friend now. "No. I always carry matches in my hiking pack. But I don’t think I could manage to get up and gather the wood."

With a nod, Taylor got up and began to gather the few pieces of wood she could scout up in the surrounding area. She found, much to her puzzlement, that for a girl who was raised on urban warfare, she was rather adept at this whole wilderness thing. Stealth had never been an issue for her, but she was surprised at the survival instincts that were kicking in here and now; like where to look for wood, what to use for tinder, how much water they had, and where they could start a fire and not burn down the forest. Hmmm…

She returned a few minutes later with a large armful of wood. Cami caught her grimace as she laid down her burden. "Are you ok? All this fussing over me . . .did you hurt yourself?"

With a sigh, Taylor gently prodded at her aching shoulder. " ‘Tis nothin’. I just hurt my shoulder a bit ‘tis all."

"Let me get the fire going so I have some light, and then I‘ll look at it."

"No worries." Taylor stated noncommittally. "Stay put."

Before Cami could move herself closer to the wood, Taylor was already expertly stacking it and lighting a neat, small fire that gave off welcome warmth.

"Thanks. Where did you learn to make a campfire? Can’t quite picture you in one of those Girl Scout uniforms." Although Camryn smiled at the mental image.

"Tch. No. Lived most of my life with a coal furnace. Or peat sometimes. I don’t know . . . I just . . .figured it out. Dinna want ya ta strain yourself."

Where in the hell did I learn to do that? A long forgotten memory wisped away in Taylor’s brain as though it were dancing on the wind. She gave a half shrug. "I dinna know."

Taylor became acutely aware of movement in the nearby bushes and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. One of the bastards that the Reynoso’s hired? Come ta finish off the job? Cocking an ear to listen more intently, she discerned it was likely a four-legged foe. But possibly just as dangerous as our two-legged buddies, eh?

Camryn heard the noise as well and reached for the blood stained remains of Taylor’s sweatshirt. "They can probably smell the blood."

"What kind of animals do ya have out here?"

"Mostly mountain lions. They can get kind of bold at times. The news reports an attack every once and awhile. Mostly tourists getting stupid and thinking that they can pet the big kitty."

Taylor snorted. "Aye, well. We’ll just get rid of the temptation then." Taylor leaned over and calmly placed the blood-soaked cloth into the fire, effectively destroying part of the scent. The wrapped head wound was still showing a bit of blood, but Taylor reasoned that the fire should keep animals away if nothing else.

With one eye and ear on the surrounding brush, the two women shared the remaining apples, leaving a few pieces of jerky and a nutrition bar for their breakfast, and washing it down with the water Camryn had packed. Taylor finally gave into the chill of the evening and crawled under the proffered half of the blanket, admonished by a stern, motherly look of concern from Cami.

When Taylor had finally allowed Cami to take a look at her aching shoulder, Camryn was astonished to see the lurid purple bruising that was already taking place. "I think you did something serious to this. I mean, I’m no doctor, but…."

"Well, an probably I did. ‘Twill be fine."

"How on earth are you using it so much without it killing you? I mean gathering the wood and all."

"I just do what I have ta ‘tis all." Truth be told, T.J.’s shoulder was aching so bad she knew from experience that she probably had some ligament damage.

"Wait a minute…" Cami looked around for the first time at just where they were "camped." "How in the hell did we get here?? Where is the Jeep?"

"Guess your scrambled brains are slowly working out the kinks, eh?" Taylor ruefully smiled. "The Jeep is over that edge."

"The cliff??" Camryn looked seriously alarmed.

"Aye."

"Thank god we were thrown from it. Wouldn’t have liked to have seen what the bottom of that ravine looks like." She peered fruitlessly into the blackness towards the cliff’s edge.

Taylor opened her mouth to respond, but something held her back. The panic on Camryn’s face was enough to forestall her from divulging all the details to her sick friend. Time enough later for the whole truth, I guess.

"What happened exactly?" She inquired, effectively moving the subject in a slightly different direction.

Camryn thought for a moment. "Hmm… Last thing I really remember was hitting a pot-hole of sorts. Then there was this loud bang, like a tree branch breaking . . ." She trailed off for a moment, deep in thought. "Then I guess I lost control of the steering."

Her forehead wrinkled in concentration. At last she came up with the information she was reaching for in her addled brain. "It was the damnedest thing. Like I was driving one of those cars in Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland. You know the kind where you can spin the wheel all you want and nothing really happens?"

Taylor nodded. "Never have been there myself, but I have an idea what ya are talkin’ about."

Cami got briefly distracted. "You’ve never been to Disneyland?"

"Nope."

"Heathen."

Taylor chuckled in response. "Aye. That’s what my ma would call me."

"Anyway, the steering didn’t respond properly, but . . .I don’t remember what happened after that . . .I guess . . .I . . .the next thing I really remember was looking up into your eyes."

In the dimness of the firelight, Camryn couldn’t see Taylor’s blush. But it was there. "I was worried when I couldna get ya ta wake up."

"Thanks. For . . .well, for being worried - taking care of me." It feels nice. In fact it feels so right . . .

" ‘Tis no problem. Ya would’ve done the same." Taylor concealed her face in the shadows for fear of giving too much away.

The two women talked well into the night, until Camryn could no longer keep her eyes open, and Taylor felt it was probably safe for her friend to sleep a little. Propping her back against the tree, Taylor shivered in intense reflex when Camryn tucked her head onto Taylor’s uninjured shoulder and promptly fell asleep there in the tall woman’s arms.

Damn, this feels . . .perfect. Like we’ve been here before, under the stars, next to a fire, with Cami in my arms. T.J. shook her head. Impossible. But a beautiful thought nonetheless.

Just before Taylor drifted off to sleep herself, she examined her revelation from earlier in the evening. Face it kid. You are in love with Cami. And it feels damn good.

***************************************************

Chapter 13

Hearing the steady heartbeat beneath her ear, Camryn grinned in involuntary reflex and snuggled closer to the warm body that her brain registered was T.J.

Hmmm. . . T.J. . . . Then another part of her brain woke up and stiffened when she realized that she was lying on top of her tall friend. Damn! T.J.! How in the hell . . .? What in the . . .?

Just then the events of yesterday came flooding back to her – the gorgeous hike, the incredible sense of peace just sitting on top of that waterfall with T.J., and the car accident. Cami remembered insisting that T.J. share the one blanket they had for warmth, and she vaguely remembered using the older woman’s uninjured shoulder for a pillow.

But sometime in the night, she had turned into the warmth of the woman lying next to her and she currently had one arm and a leg curled possessively around her friend, with her cheek pillowed on T.J.’s breast. She turned beet-red as she realized she was enjoying the feel of T.J. beneath her – a little too much in fact.

She peeked open one eye and hazarded a glance at the peacefully sleeping face just inches from hers. T.J. looked different in her sleep; with her eyes closed, she lost some of her wariness, some of the guarded expression. Her tension-filled face eased into a soft, more youthful appearance – open and trusting. And Camryn was struck once again at just how beautiful T.J. really was.

With a rueful grimace at the pain in her ankle, she eased her leg from T.J.’s and was in the process of moving her arm and trying to ignore the throb in her head when she caught sparkling blue eyes looking down at her.

"How are ya feelin’ this mornin’?" Taylor’s voice held the deep huskiness of sleep, which sent a shiver down Cami’s spine.

"Ugh." Cami grunted in reply.

"Aye? That good, eh? Well then. Glad ta see the rest did ya some good." Taylor hesitated, deciding if it was wise to tease her friend, before giving in to the imp inside. "Were ya...ah... comfortable?"

Cami’s flush told the tale. "Um . . .er…yeah…thanks." She cleared her throat before continuing. "You make a great pillow. Sorry about that."

Taylor’s brilliant smile told Cami that she had nothing to worry about. "Good. Glad ta hear it. How’s the ankle?" She blithely inquired, changing the subject to allow each woman to come to grips with the sexual tension of the morning.

"Still sore, but I think I’d like to try standing on it, ‘cause I need to . . .um . . ."

Taylor took pity on her deep crimson-flushed friend. "Need ta go about your morning routine?"

With a small sigh in relief, Cami smiled. "Er. . .yeah . . .something like that."

Before she could ask, Taylor was on her feet in one swift motion, holding out a hand to Cami’s still prone position. Taking the proffered help, Cami pulled herself slowly into a standing position, fighting back the nausea that swirled through her head and the dizziness that threatened to put her back down on her butt.

Steady, strong arms clasped around her and T.J.’s voice in her ear sent electric shocks through her body. "Easy now. Slowly. I’ve got ya."

Once Camryn regained her balance she was able to hobble into the nearby bushes. Her ankle was still painful, but she could put a little weight on it this morning, which was a relief.

When she returned, T.J. was nowhere to be seen. Assuming the taller woman was also going through her "morning routine," Cami sat back down on the blanket and looked doubtfully at the heavily overcast sky. Thick, black clouds were racing in from the west, and Cami knew from experience that likely as not, they were soon to be drenched.

Taylor returned to find Cami munching on half of the remaining nutrition bar. Cami’s eyes narrowed as she looked up and caught the ill-concealed grim look on T.J.’s face. "What’s wrong?"

"Just had a look at the Jeep. It’s bad. Think ya cracked an axle or something." T.J.’s hackles were standing straight up, fully aware that it was likely that the damage to Cami’s car was not all created by the wreck. I’ll kill you Frank, so help me! Forcing her suspicions aside, she focused on the task at hand.

"Yeah? Well guess it was time for a new car anyway." Cami shrugged and offered up the remaining half of the nutrition bar.

Taylor made a bit of a face.

"What’s in those things?" She took her half and examined it as though it might bite her at any moment.

"Whole grain oats, wheat, yummy stuff. Please just try it. We have a long walk and you don’t want to make it on a totally empty stomach."

Taylor gave into the concerned look on Cami’s face and took a tentative bite, then shrugged. "Not so bad."

She sat down next to her diminutive friend and mentally reviewed their options. The fastest thing would be for T.J. to hike up to the Ranger’s shack and bring back help. However, with the gnawing fear that someone had deliberately sabotaged Cami’s

Jeep, Taylor’s protective instincts were shouting that she should not under any circumstances leave Cami out here unarmed and injured. Damn!

"How’s the ankle feel? Were ya able ta walk ok?"

"Hurts some." It was Cami’s turn to be stoic. "But I was thinking. If my memory serves correctly, the town is only about 3 or 4 miles that way." Cami pointed vaguely in a Northerly direction. "It means more hills, but it would probably be faster than hiking back out to the ranger station. And from the looks of those clouds, we don’t have much time before we are soaking wet."

Taylor considered this and glanced at the fairly rugged terrain around them. "Don’t ya think that someone will come by on this road?" She indicated the dirt fire road a few yards away.

"Naw. Not today. Even the most avid hikers will likely stay away with a storm threatening. When it starts to rain up here, it happens damned fast, and you don’t wanna get stuck out here in a mud bog or something." Trying not to sound like an alarmist, she made her final point. "Besides. It’s cold here and I don’t think that blanket will be much help once it is wet."

She was right and T.J. knew it. But that didn’t help the fact that it was still going to be a lot slower going with Cami injured. Likely as not it would take them considerable time to cover the distance.

With a heavy sigh, Taylor capitulated. "Ok then. Guess we’d better get started. Can ya remember this place ta bring a wrecking crew back up here for your Jeep?"

"Sure. I come out this way a lot. I’ll remember it."

"Then let’s go. Guess since the town is closer we should head that way." Besides, Taylor reasoned with herself. They were cold and hungry and the town would offer the best in shelter, food and medical attention for her friend. Taylor was not pleased at Cami's pasty appearance or the still somewhat glassy look to her eyes. But she was left with little choice at the moment.

Before they left their makeshift campsite, Cami eased over to the edge of the ravine and peered down into the early morning mist at the remains of her Jeep.

"Damn glad we didn’t go over the side with that thing." She muttered, shaking her head in disbelief. So many things about the moments right before the accident were a blur. I probably just scrambled my brains a bit is all. Small comfort to know the reason when her head felt like it was about to split in two.

Taylor disappeared for a moment and returned with a small tree branch that could serve as a walking stick for Cami. "Here, this ought ta help. Ya really need crutches or a wheelchair but…." T.J. shrugged.

The blonde reached for the stick and was intrigued at the feel of the wood in her hands. This is cool. It would make a great defensive weapon, I think. She blinked at the random thought. Weapon? Were in the hell did THAT come from?

Giving in to Taylor’s insistent grappling with the packs, Cami reluctantly allowed her tall friend to shoulder both burdens. "The small one is nearly empty. We ate most of the food and water. ‘Tis no problem. Besides, with your ankle and the cane, ya will have enough trouble keeping your balance." T.J.’s shoulder radiated a warm throbbing ache this morning, but she refused to allow Cami to carry anything extra with her sore ankle.

About twenty minutes onto the trail, Taylor realized that although the town may be closer in the direction they were headed, the terrain was much rougher on Cami. The ground was uneven and littered with rocks, twigs and the like, and twice already T.J. had kept Cami from falling when she stepped wrong on her tender ankle. Taylor roundly cursed Frank at every step, knowing in her gut that the son of a bitch had something to do with their present predicament. Bastard. You’d better hope I don’t catch up with you.

Taylor was no mechanic, but she knew ways to disable a car, knew what damage looked like from an accident and what it looked like when someone helped the accident along. For all intents and purposes, Frank or the Reynosos had been trying to kill her – to kill them both.

Taylor accepted her own mortality; she accepted the fact that she was, albeit involuntarily, involved in this mess Frank had brought down on her. Therefore she knew she might become a casualty of that war. But what she refused to accept, what caused her to feel the old darkness creeping into her soul, was that Frank or one of his "business associates" had set out to hurt Cami as well. That was not acceptable to her. And he would pay dearly for the pain Taylor saw etched clearly across her smaller friend’s face. You hear me, Frank? You’d best disappear before I get back to civilization.

"Quarter for your thoughts?" Cami interrupted T.J.’s blackening mood.

"A quarter? Is that all?" Taylor managed a smile, taking notice of her friend’s labored breathing and deliberately slowing the pace on the pretense of allowing them to talk easier.

"Yeah. Well. Best I could do out here in the wilderness, there are no ATM machines." Twin smiles caught each other and created a small ball of warmth inside of Cami. "Tell you what. Talk to me; tell me a joke or something to keep my mind off this damn ankle, and I’ll buy you the largest slice of Mom’s Apple Pie we can find when we reach town."

Taylor considered that offer for a moment. "Throw in a hot shower, and a cup of steaming hot coffee and ya got yourself a deal."

Camryn chuckled. "Ok. That can be arranged. So . . .what was causing that look on your face just now?"

With a slight hesitation, Taylor opted for something near the truth. "I was just thinkin’ about that damned Jeep. If I could get my hands on the bloke who … um . . .worked on it last, I’d throttle him."

"Oh." Camryn responded quietly. "Actually my mechanic is a really nice guy. I don’t think there was anything he did to it. In fact, I haven’t had the steering worked on ever. The last work done on it was new brakes. That’s about it." She was feeling terrible for the fact that Taylor was stuck out here with her in the middle of nowhere.

With a heavy sigh, she continued. "Listen, T.J.? I’m really sorry. It’s my fault we are in this mess. I should have been watching more carefully and avoided that pothole. Then there is that broken down contraption I call my car . . ."

"Hold up a bit." Taylor interrupted. "Don’t ya go blamin’ yourself for this! T’was an accident plain and simple. Not a damned thing ya could have done. In fact, it is probably true that what ya did do was keep us from running headlong off the deep part of that canyon. And that, my friend, woulda meant neither of us would be here right now."

The truth of Taylor’s words started to sink in to Cami. Next to the ravine where the Jeep had landed was a deep canyon, dropping down some 400 or more yards. "But I didn’t do much, just muscled the wheel, and it didn’t respond."

"Well, whatever it was, it worked. We are here, aren’t we? Alive and a bit worse for the wear . . . but we’ll survive. And we'll feel a damned sight better as soon as we reach this town of yours." She placed a comforting hand around Cami’s shoulders and left it there for awhile, helping her friend steady herself over the rough places on the trail.

"Thanks. I . . .that makes me feel better anyway."

Just then a clap of thunder rolled across the valley and the two women were instantly drenched by a deluge of rain.

"Of course." Both of them spoke at once, then blinked at each other and burst into peals of laughter that rendered them helpless for a few moments.

"What next??"

Taylor’s eyes held a merry twinkle despite their predicament. "I dinna think ya wanna ask that question, Cami. Let’s keep moving or we’ll soon need ta build an ark." Taylor urged them forward.

"Yeah, there’s not much shelter around here that I know of. But look on the bright side…" At Taylor’s doubtful look, Cami continued. "At least with the rain, the mountain lions and coyotes won’t likely be stalking us."

A slight flicker of anxiety darted across Taylor’s face before she aggressively pushed down the thought of wild animals. "Gee. Thanks. Makes me feel loads better."

The rain made the terrain more difficult for Cami to manage with her injured ankle, and soon the visibility was effectively cut down to just a few yards in front of them.

***********************

Two hours later, the photographer was cold, shivering, in intense pain, and working on a headache the size of Montana. But absurdly, she was still smiling at the beautiful woman who traipsed alongside her. Damn. She’s just as gorgeous wet, covered in mud and shivering.

As the rain lessened to a persistent drizzle, the noise of the storm subsided enough for Cami to pick up the conversation again to pass the time.

Besides. You really just want to know more about her dontcha . . .? Firmly quieting her inner monologue, she decided to test the waters once more…so to speak.

"So Taylor. Tell me a story to keep my mind off of the fact that we are both looking like we went over Niagara Falls without the barrel."

A small grunt of agreement. "Aye. What kinda story did ya have in mind?"

"Oh, I don’t know." Yes you do, you little sneak. "Tell me about your love life."

She was instantly pinned by intense blue eyes. "My love life? A short tale at the moment, ta be sure."

"Well, how come a woman as beautiful as you are doesn’t have a boyfriend? Or did Frank put you off of relationships for awhile?"

Despite the fact that she was freezing, Taylor felt heat rush into her cheeks at the compliment, and struggled with the proper phrasing of her answer. When she didn’t comment right away, Cami rushed on.

"I’m sorry. That’s probably none of my business. I was just curious."

"No. ‘Tis alright. I was just thinkin’. Frank is certainly a trial, but as we were never in love in the first place, he’s not why I’m ….um...unattached. I . . .I guess I just haven’t met my anam cara as yet."

"Your ‘ana’ what?"

Taylor smiled. " ‘Anam cara’ is the ancient Celtic expression for soulmate. Roughly translated into English, it means ‘friend of the soul’."

"That’s beautiful." Their eyes met for an instant, and the tension became so powerful that both felt they should turn away, but neither could break their gaze.

"Aye. I’ve such a foul temper sometimes that I have always wondered if there was anyone out there that could even stand ta be around me, much less anyone who could be a soul mate. I dinna even know if I believe in such things anymore." Taylor finally broke the contact as her eyes turned towards the path once again and took on a far away look.

"Anymore?" Cami gently urged her friend onward with the topic.

"I’ve done things, seen things that are horrific…and I…sometimes I dinna think I can ever put them out of my mind. Unspeakable things that color a person, make them into something . . .I dinna know…less than human…" She was obviously at sea here, her expression so lost that Cami reached out and wrapped her small hand around Taylor’s arm. "Let’s just say that I have never expected ta lead a ‘normal’ life, have a ‘normal’ relationship."

Cami pondered that for a bit. "I see. But, T.J.? Don’t you think that ‘normal’ anything could get awfully boring after awhile?"

T.J. turned and met the earnest green eyes that were so full of compassion and tenderness that her heart ached just to look at them. "I suppose it can." She stopped walking and took Cami’s hand from her arm and just held it in her own, trembling at the contact. "But, ta someone like me…well I, for one, could use a little ‘normalcy’ in my life."

A clap of thunder broke the stillness and Cami was pulled from the intense blue eyes above her. For the first time she really looked around at where they were, taking note of the small canyon they were about to enter into.

"Hey!" Cami’s voice took on an exuberance her body didn’t share. "What’s that?" She pointed into the forest ahead of them.

T.J.’s eyes followed the blonde’s gesture and tracked into the canyon. Through the trees she could just make out what looked like a road, and a structure just beyond that. "A cabin or something…can’t tell."

"No, wait." Camryn looked excitedly around and judged their location. "That’s the highway! Which means that Julian is just over there!" She pointed to the North and as she did, T.J. caught sight of smoke curling from several chimneys in the vicinity. "Awesome! We made it!"

When T.J. glanced back down at the diminutive blonde next to her, she lost her heart – completely. Something about the rain-drenched figure, the slick-backed hair, the beautiful, laughing smile caught a hold of T.J. and she gave into the insidious cravings she had been fighting so hard against.

Perhaps it was the joy of the moment, knowing they were near safety. Or perhaps it was two souls refusing to deny each other any longer. Whatever the cause, T.J. reached down with her good arm, grabbed Cami around the waist and pulled her up off of her feet until their faces were mere inches apart.

"Yes. We made it... At last." Her voice was a bare whisper, as it curled into Cami’s heart and caused a shiver to race down her spine.

Camryn, too, gave up the struggle and took the last step. As the rain drizzled around them, Cami forgot that her head and ankle hurt, forgot that they were a short walk from shelter. Instead, she finally listened to the truth of her own heart. "At last," she whispered back as she strained upwards and her lips met the softness of T.J.’s mouth.

At first the kiss was soft, tentative, even questioning. But when T.J. pulled her closer and wrapped her other hand in Camryn’s soft, damp hair, Cami knew for sure she had made the right leap of faith this time. The kiss grew more passionate and intense until they both pulled back, fighting for control of their own bodies that demanded even more.

T.J. eased Cami back to the ground, and gently brushed her finger across the smaller woman’s now somewhat swollen lips.

"T.J.? I….I…." Cami stuttered.

But the dark haired woman simply left one finger on her lips. "Shhh. Don’t."

"Don’t?"

"If ya dare apologize for that, I’d….I don’t know what I’d do." T.J. finished with a lopsided smile.

"Apologize?" Cami was clearly confused. "No. Never that. I was just going to say. Wow!"

T.J. flashed a brilliant smile. "Indeed. Wow!" When she saw concern etched on Cami’s face, she continued. "Dinna worry darlin’." Glancing back to the canyon below them, "We should get out of this rain, get some food in our stomachs, and ya, lass, should get off that ankle."

"And then we should talk?"

T.J. rewarded her with another rakish grin. "Yes. Then we can talk. About any damned thing ya want ta."

The two women carefully made their way towards the town, arm in arm, each lost in the joy of the moment they had shared.

******************

 

Chapter 14

"I think I’ve died and ended up in a John Wayne movie." T.J. quipped. The two weary travelers were currently seated in a quiet, out of the way booth, with the remnants of T.J.’s meal strewn about the table.

Once they had finally made it into civilization again, they had unanimously decided that warmth and food were their first priorities. So with an arm around T.J. for support, Cami hobbled them to the rustic looking dining room of Aunt Mary’s Inn.

The town of Julian was a nineteenth century gold mining town that had changed very little since it was founded in the late 1800’s. Located about an hour east of downtown San Diego, the picturesque, quaint little place was nestled among a glorious abundance of pine trees on a steep hillside. The main part of town boasted wooden sidewalks, a General Store, soda fountain, and a cigar-store Indian that gave the town real character and charm, and made one feel like they should be riding in a horse and buggy, rather than one of those "new fangled" horse-less carriages.

Aunt Mary’s Inn, one of the larger structures in town, assaulted the senses with the heavenly smell of freshly baked apple pie and homemade fried chicken. The dining area of the inn was decorated in typical wood cabin style, with the prerequisite gingham curtains and Mason jar of flowers on every carved wood table. A cozy fire was lit in the fireplace in deference to the cool air outside. A stuffed deer head and rusted, antique cooking implements that hung from the walls completed the décor.

When they stumbled into the Inn, the rosy-cheeked owner herself had taken one look at the bedraggled pair and had bundled them off to a room with a hot shower. She had even sent down to the General Store for some clean clothes for the two women.

Now curled up near the warmth of the fireplace, clean, with her throbbing ankle propped on a nearby chair, and the dizziness finally easing off some, Cami let the exhaustion of the day wash over her. But nothing could dim the solid glow that emanated from her heart. She kissed me…well, kissed me back at least! The photographer was still proud of herself for taking that big final step. Granted, T.J. had picked her up…But I listened to my heart…finally! She refused to examine the precious instance in time any further. For now at least, she would revel in the joy of being with T.J. Time enough to deal with the possible repercussions later.

T.J. pushed her plate away and patted her stomach. "That was the best damned fried chicken I’ve ever tasted!"

Cami was pulled from her reverie and grinned at the sparkling blue eyes across from her. "Told you it would be worth the wait!" Cami’s look turned rueful. "I’m not sure it was worth the car accident, the physical injury, and the hike we took, but…

T.J. laughed at Cami’s wry attempt to smooth over the events of the past few days. "No…I’m not so sure! I’ll reserve my judgment until I’ve tasted that famous apple pie!"

The laughter at the table echoed through the mostly empty dinning room. "I don’t know if I could even eat a slice of pie right now," Cami said. "This chicken broth isn’t setting well with me." She feebly gestured to the bowl of soup in front of her. The blow to her head from the accident had made her nauseous and dizzy.

"Still not feeling well?" T.J. voiced her concern, and leaned forward to place a hand on Cami’s forehead. "That accident must have scrambled your brains worse than I thought!" T.J. secretly reveled in the electrical jolt she felt at the contact with Cami. Now that she knew the cause, she thoroughly enjoyed the sensation.

While T.J. had eaten her way through several pieces of fried chicken, a mountain of mashed potatoes and numerous pieces of cornbread, the two women had talked about everything except the magical moment they had shared on the mountain. It was almost as if they feared the kiss was all a dream, and talking about it would make them wake up. Instead they continued to stare at each other from opposite sides of the table, grinning like fools, and reveling in the amazing feelings that were swirling around them.

The proprietor interrupted them by serving up two giant slices of her famous apple pie. "Here ya are!" She placed a piece before each of them and cheerfully began cleaning up the dinner remnants.

"Uh…thanks Aunt Mary, but umm…"

Cami’s objections were dismissed with a wave of the plump woman’s hand. "No arguments now! Besides after the ordeal y’all told me you had been through, well…these are the least I could do."

"That’s really sweet, but my stomach…"

T.J. jumped to Cami’s defense. "Aye. She’s feeling a bit worse for the wear. But if ya’d wrap it up we’d be happy to take some with us. Besides, ya done plenty for us! Ya gave us that lovely room to shower in. And ya sent for dry clothes." She reached a hand up to brush the front of her new blue flannel shirt.

"Are y’all arguin’ with Aunt Mary??" The owner managed to look astonished and amused all at the same time. "If that sweet potato over there is not well enough to eat, you can have her piece and I’ll send another home." She gestured to the rather pale looking blonde woman. "Besides, y’all came all this way! And what is a trip to Julian without the apple pie!" She glanced from one sheepish grin to another. "You wouldn’t want to offend an old lady by refusing her pride and joy now, would you?"

T.J. looked at Cami, who was doing her best not to fall over laughing. "Aye. Well. When ya put that way…" She gave a winning smile to Aunt Mary. "Me gran taught me ‘twas rude to refuse the cook’s favorite dish, so…" She picked up a fork and took a large bite of the warm pie.

Aunt Mary stood with her hands on her hips, awaiting T.J.’s verdict.

The Irishwoman deliberately slowed her chewing, savoring every morsel, and ended by licking the fork clean.

"Well?"

"Hmmm…" T.J.’s eyes took on a mischievous glint. "Just missing one thing."

"WHAT!?!" Both Cami and Aunt Mary’s eyes’ simultaneously bugged out of their heads.

"Coffee." T.J. nodded with finality and deftly ducked the napkin that Cami threw across the table at her.

Aunt Mary threw back her head and gave a rich hearty laugh. "Just for that young woman…. you’re taking a whole pie home with you!" She continued to chuckle to herself as she started from the table. "One cup of hot coffee, and one chamomile tea, comin’ up!"

"Oh you’re bad!"

Cami was rewarded with a sultry look from T.J. "Aye, lass. An sure as you don’t even know just how bad I can be."

The temperature in the room instantly rose 30 degrees. Cami gulped in air and took a sip of the water in front of her. "Yes. Well." And if my damned head didn’t hurt so much, I’d love to find out just how bad you can be! Cami felt the flush from her thoughts color her face.

But she was saved by Aunt Mary who returned with their drinks, and a grim look on her face. "Alright ladies. Looks like the chances of us getting you a ride home tonight are kinda slim." She frowned thoughtfully. "I’d give you my car, but the brakes are shot. Not ideal to be heading down the windy road in the dark."

"No. Thanks. One car accident is quite enough for the weekend, thankyouverymuch." Cami shuddered.

"Unfortunately, it’s Sunday evenin’ and even if the town weren’t closed up tighter than a mason jar at canning time, we don’t have a car rental joint here." Aunt Mary folded her arms and leaned a hip against the booth.

"That’s ok. I have a couple of friends we can call."

"Or y’all could just stay here tonight. This is an Inn after all! I have a room I can spare." Aunt Mary looked at Cami, who looked over at T.J. Both women were struggling with a variety of issues, the least of which being the sexual tension that was radiating between them in waves.

God I would love to stay…to wrap Cami up in my arms…Enjoy the feel of her body pressed into mine…T.J.’s thoughts took a lovely flight of fantasy until she glanced across the table at her friend, who was obviously in tremendous pain. Holy Shit! She looks like…well like she was in a car accident you damned fool. T.J. chided herself for her lustful thoughts, when it was obvious that what her friend needed most was to get to a doctor and have her head checked and her ankle wrapped properly. T.J.’s commander instincts kicked into high gear and she immediately took charge.

"Aye. And sure as we are grateful for such a wonderful offer. I promise we will take you up on that sometime." She cast a worried glance across the table at the small blonde who looked suddenly very pale. "But…sweet potato did ya call her? I think I need to find her a doctor to look at that noggin’ of hers."

Sweet potato?? Oh damn. T.J. is never gonna let me live this one down.

Aunt Mary cast a decidedly fretful look at Cami. "She does look pale. And if she turned down apple pie, she must feel poorly. I’ll go call the doc." She turned from the table muttering to herself. "I should have done that sooner, darned old fool, what were you thinkin’…that girl needs medical attention…"

Cami had gone rather quiet on the other side of the table, so T.J. moved to the other side of the booth and slid herself in next to the smaller woman. Just for comfort. She rationalized as she felt herself slip an arm around Cami’s shoulders and ease her friend onto her shoulder.

Cami almost wept with relief and joy at the same time. Her head was pounded so hard she was sure that a marching band had taken up residence there, and she reveled in the warm, safe feeling she got being wrapped up in T.J.’s arms. She gratefully closed her eyes and almost seemed to doze for a moment or two.

That was how Aunt Mary found them a few minutes later. "Doc’s on her way to the clinic. She said she’d meet ya there."

"Clinic?" Cami’s sleepy response was muffled by T.J.’s chest. "Don’t think I want to move anywhere."

T.J. might have chuckled at the implications of that statement, but she was afraid of moving Cami too much, so she settled for a smirk instead. "Shhh. Darlin’ we’ve got to have you looked at. You cracked your head pretty good."

"It’s ok, sweet potato. The clinic is just two blocks down the street. Not far. I’ll just go tell Billy to fire up the Chevy and he can drive ya’ll."

"Yeah, sweet potato. I’ll help you." T.J. couldn’t resist and a gleeful look lit her face.

Cami nearly groaned aloud. She would have too, if she weren’t afraid that her head would split in two from the sound. Sweet potato??? She cast a glazed green eye up at her friend, and sure enough the Irishwoman was grinning from ear to ear. Great. Thanks bunches, Aunt Mary. She thought ruefully.

"Ok. I’ll go." She slowly sat up, steadying herself against the wave of nausea that hit her. T.J.’s arms were there to hold her fast and keep her from swaying. She smiled into the beautiful face that was still just inches away. "But if you call me sweet potato again, I swear to you I’ll shove one up your nose."

T.J.’s laughter echoed through the dining room.

**********************************************

"I’d venture to say you have yourself a mild concussion." Dr. Jones stood and pulled off her pair of surgical gloves. "Your left pupil is still a bit static."

"So. Umm. What do I do for a concussion?" Cami sighed, hoping against hope that she could soon get out of the skimpy paper apron she currently found herself wearing.

"Well, again, I’m not 100% positive without a proper scan, but all the signs are there." The cute, dark-haired doctor was scribbling notes on Cami’s chart. "You say the accident happened when?"

Cami looked momentarily puzzled, so T.J. came to her rescue. "Last evening. A bit over 24 hours ago."

The doctor frowned momentarily and double-checked a few things she had written on the back of the form. "How long was she out?"

"About 5 maybe 10 minutes. I’m not sure."

"Did she land on her back or… How was she positioned when you saw her?"

T.J. sighed. Ah well. It was bound to come out sooner or later. "She was still in the driver’s seat of the jeep."

"WHAT?!" Astonished green eyes swept to T.J. "I thought….But wasn’t I thrown…?" She was clearly shocked.

The small doctor looked from one woman to the next, and finally settled her gaze on T.J. "Ok. Still in the Jeep. And I’m guessing from her reaction that she didn’t walk away from the crash site?"

T.J. looked a bit sheepish. "No, uh…I …well…I carried her away from the car ‘cause I smelled gasoline."

Up that ravine?? And how in the HELL did she get me out of the Jeep in the first place!!

"As a rule you shouldn’t move accident victims like that, but in that case, I’d say you were wise. I don’t see any other real damage, besides the sprained ankle." She turned back to Cami. "Looks like, all things considered, you were lucky."

Cami’s gaze never left her tall friend. "Yeah. I am lucky." She offered up a small smile. Looks like we have even more to talk about, my friend.

"Well. I’m going to prescribe some mild pain medication for you, but your best bet is to stay in bed for a few days. Especially until the nausea subsides."

Green eyes tore away from an intense blue gaze and looked back to the physician. "Thanks, Dr. Jones. Sorry to drag you out on a Sunday evening."
The doctor smiled. "No worries. Actually I was just getting ready to watch X-Files."

T.J. engaged the doctor in a lively debate about the direction that the popular T.V. show was taking, while Cami took the opportunity to slip behind the changing screen and gingerly slide back into the pair of Levi’s that Aunt Mary had gotten for her.

Before they had ridden the two blocks or so to the clinic, Cami had taken the time to call her friend Jo. With an extremely worried sound in her voice, the diminuitive woman had offered to drive up to Julian to pick up T.J. and Cami. The blonde was almost disappointed that she would have to share T.J. on the long ride home. Shame on you, Cami. You’ll have plenty of time to talk to T.J. And plenty to talk about, I think. Her thoughts drifted back to the crash site and she shuddered at the new knowledge that she had gone over that edge with the car.

*****************

Jo arrived at the clinic a few minutes after the doctor had finished giving Cami her instructions for the "care and feeding of a mild concussion."

The women once again gave their thanks to Dr. Jones, and piled into Jo’s car for the trip down the mountain. Cami’s nausea returned with a vengeance, and Jo took the drive down the curving road as slowly as she dared. T.J. filled the petite red-head in on the events of the past few days, with a miserable Cami leaning her head practically out the window to keep from being sick.

Somewhere between Julian and San Diego, T.J. came to a hard decision. Looking at her ailing friend in the front seat, T.J. knew it was time to do something about Frank and the Reynoso brothers. But for the very first time in her life, T.J. felt like she might be in over her head. So old girl…time to ask for help, eh?

********************************

T.J. hung up the phone with a decisive click. The deed was done. Agent Peter Knight would now begin tending bar in her pub. The barkeep’s jaw was clenching involuntarily. It was a move she never wanted to make. But. If they are already after Camryn…

The memory of the pain etched on her friend’s face still troubled T.J. My fault. Well, more accurately it’s Frank’s fault, but…

The dark haired woman shifted in her chair and pushed away from the desk, intent on having a talk with Tommy. She briefly toyed with idea of telling Tommy the truth, but she was sure that the loyal bartender would certainly balk at the idea that he couldn’t protect the pub himself. But it wasn’t the safety of the pub that had a permanent frown pasted on T.J.’s face.

She had left Cami last night, much to both of their chagrin, in the capable, fussing care of Jo. The red-head’s no-nonsense attitude was not to be argued with, so T.J. had placed a chaste kiss on Cami’s head and sped off towards her own home.

She had spent a restless night, arguing with herself and changing her mind at least a dozen times. But when she set her stubborn pride aside, and all was said and done, T.J. knew she was in over her head.

In the early hours of the morning, she called Jake and sent him to find the Jeep. It was imperative that T.J. find out if the axle had been tampered with. If for nothing else, at least she would have justification for killing Frank.

********************

Part 5

Taiko's Scrolls of the Xenaverse