See disclaimers on Page One
by Emily Duncan
Nia released a tiny moan as the tips of Jake's fingers moved lightly across her throat. The dark woman's tongue had already worked its way into her mouth, sending shivers up and down her spine and making her body convulse with each advance and retreat. Her own hands were tangling freely in the short, inky crop, and she felt the sharp intake of breath as her right slid around to play with the ends of hair on the back of Jake's neck. The blonde fuzzily wondered whether they ought to check that everyone had survived upstairs, to make sure that all the Blue Caps were really retreating to the hole they'd crawled out of - but this errant thought was dispersed with little resistance when Jake grasped her by the elbows, drew her up to a standing position, and backed her against the wall in one fluid motion.
So this is how the bad girls do it…was Nia's last coherent thought, before she resigned herself to complete loss of control as a solid thigh wedged itself between her legs. Unconsciously, she ground against the limb, eliciting a groan from its owner as the muscles pulled taut and almost lifted the small bar manager off the floor.
"Does that feel good?"
Came the husky growl that had been wreaking havoc with her hormones for the past week. And as the meaning of the words permeated her brain, she surrendered to the knowledge she was careering straight towards the edge and Jake was driving. The dark woman's lips resumed the assault on her neck, and she let her head fall back, powerless to do anything but give in to the sensation.
One large hand traced Nia's collarbone and cupped a firm breast, palming it gently until her nipples were aching for attention, visible even through two layers of clothing. Jake worked them both between her thumb and index finger, holding the blonde tight with the other arm and continuing to thrust with her tongue as Nia gasped into her mouth. The blonde's hips were undulating of their own accord, sliding on the leather-clad thigh upon which she was perched as both sets of breathing became ragged and two bodies began to throb together.
The responsiveness of the small blonde was a revelation to Jake, and she wondered how long she'd be able to maintain her fabled self-control before throwing her down on the cold cellar floor and ravishing every inch. But even though they were precariously balanced between crates of Diet Coke in a beer cellar that was not especially clean, and all hell was probably breaking loose upstairs, the brunette had decided that she was not to be rushed.
Not exactly the time or place to blow someone's socks off, Jake…but you'll have to be inventive.
Consideration for her conquests was not a new phenomenon in the life of the dark woman, given that her own desire seemed to be primarily satiated by the experience of having them helpless to her touch - but Nia was provoking a hunger to please that came from a source usually untapped. Looking down at the woman who was clinging to her, stroking her hair, covering her face with soft kisses, and seeming to fit between her long limbs as though she was made for precisely that purpose, Jake felt compelled to put herself at the service of Nia's pleasure - an inclination that was alien to the complicated power games that normally characterised her sexual relationships.
She gently flicked at Nia's ear with her tongue, before breathing into it softly,
"You're driving me wild, Nia. You really are."
Nia was convinced she was going to lose it right then and there. Squirming beneath Jake's solid, capable hands, pinned against the wall by a pair of strong arms and shuddering under the assault being made on her body, she discovered soundless promises that almost blew her mind. She felt the butch's tongue in her ear and her chest began to heave frantically. The muscle was warm, wet, and soft, filling her and blocking her hearing until she could only make out her own quickening heartbeat. Which raced and began to flutter as the hand kneading her breast unbuttoned her shirt, and slipped under the fabric of her bra.
"You…and…me…both…" The blonde mumbled into a muscular chest, as skin connected with skin at last. She began to work at the dark woman's T-shirt, worrying it upwards to reveal a washboard abdomen and beautiful, flat breasts. She experimentally flicked out her tongue, level with a reddened, straining nipple, and was rewarded with a hoarse groan that echoed her own intense pleasure.
The butch's hands had already begun their downward exploration, one grasping Nia's behind and the other hovering for a moment at the top button of her jeans. Nia instinctively felt the fleeting pause and looked up at the beautiful woman wrapped around her, seeing the hint of a question floating amidst the passion that half-lidded those incredible blue eyes.
"Please?" She whispered, so quietly she wondered whether or not Jake had heard.
Came an ear-splitting, exasperated shout that told her she wasn't going to get a chance to find out.
Blue eyes met green and the two women froze against the wall for what felt like half an hour. For a moment Nia was tempted to ignore the imminent interruption and damn the consequences, but her better nature eventually won out - and with a sigh, she raised her own voice to reply. Never once wavering from the gaze that she'd locked with the tall, dark butch.
"I'M IN THE CELLAR, MAX!!"
"ARE YOU OK? WHAT'S GOING ON?"
Damn. I should have known she'd come looking for me.
If she catches me like this she'll be horrified.
"I…I'm fine." Nia choked out, trying to still her nerves.
Answering the question in Jake's eyes with a regretful nod, she slipped out of the clinch that five minutes previously she'd been fantasising about staying in forever. Hurriedly buttoning her shirt and wishing with all her heart she'd had the presence of mind to lock the door after the Blue Cap had left.
Thankfully, the bar manager had time to set her clothing, if not her hormones, to rights before the cellar door burst open and Max crashed in, clutching at her hands and venting all her concerns at once.
"Nia, are you hurt? I was really worried…you disappeared, we couldn't find you anywhere…we thought you'd been murdered, and this wild woman bowled right past me on the door, asked for you by name at the bar, dashed down the stairs so fast she almost fell and broke her neck, and then the Blue Caps all left, tails between their legs, for no apparent reason, but you still weren't there, and…"
Here the small butch stopped short, noticing that the woman who had almost knocked her over earlier was leaning against a crate in the corner of the room, displaying no reaction to her arrival and hasty speech save a slightly amused look in her eyes. The barely discernible twinkle, coupled with a telling twitch at the corners of Jake's mouth, appeared to nettle Nia's assistant, who shot several agitated glances from the "wild woman", to her friend, and back again.
"OK. I can see I've missed out on part of the loop. Would either of you like to fill me in? What's going on?"
She demanded, her ire no longer directed towards the Blue Caps but at the suspect character lounging in front of her in the recesses of the dank, dusty cellar.
Looks as though she thinks she owns the place…thought the assistant manager, bitterly.
"Nia?" She looked to her boss for an explanation of the strange scene she'd stumbled upon.
Nia sighed, knowing that by virtue of a painful history Max deserved some attempt at a story, but reluctant at that moment to oblige. Her assistant's self-righteous indignation at finding her in the cellar with a strange woman was leaving a disagreeable taste in her mouth, although she couldn't work out why her irritation was so extreme. She knew her friend had overprotective tendencies - but had always found it flattering in previous situations when the "big brother" streak had reared its head. However, this time Max seemed to have moved up in the billing, playing a role that was a little more invasive.
Who does she think she is? My girlfriend?
For the umpteenth time Nia wished that she wasn't quite so responsible for her friend's emotional well-being.
"Listen, Max…its no big deal. One of the Caps dragged me down here to intimidate me a little, and Jake told him to back off. I was feeling a little shaken up, so she stayed until I calmed down. That's all."
Fervently, she hoped that this rationale would suffice - she wasn't feeling inclined to clutch at straws for Max's benefit if it didn't. She idly wondered whether it was at all likely that her furious assistant would just turn around and leave them to finish what they'd started.
Max turned to Jake, incredulous.
"You told him to back off? YOU? Why should he listen to you?"
A shrug was all she got in response, as Jake crossed her ankles and slouched against the cellar wall. This seeming display of arrogance caused Max's face to turn redder and redder, threatening to send her into an apoplectic fit and inspiring a tiny smirk from Nia, who had been watching the interaction between old friend and new and trying to scout a way out.
I don't think I can chat my way out of this one. She thought, wryly.
In fact, I'd probably have better luck trying to negotiate with the Cap.
But the Bar Manager knew her taciturn, enigmatic new acquaintance was relying on her to smooth things over. And despite the brevity of their encounter, she felt an inexplicable urge to protect the dark woman from Max's irate inquiries.
"Listen Max…" She began again. "I don't care WHY he listened, he just did. And they all left. Can we leave it at that?"
She thought she saw a flash of gratitude in the blue eyes that were now fastened intently upon her, but it vanished just as soon as it had come, leaving her straining to read the careful neutrality that soon took control of Jake's features.
God, she's complicated. I've never seen anyone with so many visible walls. Wonder how many invisible ones she's got? Wonder if I could ever work her out?
Putting her burning curiosity aside, Nia turned back to her assistant.
"We need to get back to the bar. I think all this hassle calls for an early closing, a quick cleanup and a round of staff drinks, don't you?"
Max looked as though she was going to continue to argue the toss, but Nia turned an inflexible gaze directly upon her stubborn assistant and watched her decide against it. The defeated butch darted one last hostile, suspicious look at Jake before nodding.
She did an exaggerated about-turn and started back up the stairs, leaving the cellar door wide open in a clear invitation for Nia and Jake to follow her at close quarters. Nia rolled her eyes. It was clear that her assistant manager was not going to give them any opportunity to spend more time in private.
The bar manager turned to her dark guest, with regret and apology showing in her face. "I'm sorry about that. Max can be a bit of a bulldog. She's a little over-protective sometimes."
And as she finished speaking, she was surprised by the gentle understanding that suffused the face in front of her. But too soon, a detached, lofty demeanour took its place.
"Well…" Drawled the butch. "I can see why."
The small manager found herself blushing, and as was her wont when she was embarrassed, she blurted out the first thought to enter her head.
"Do you want to hang around so we can carry…I mean…um…I can thank you properly for saving my bacon? The cleaning won't take too long."
Her new friend hesitated for a few seconds. Then a slow grin began to dilute her disinterested expression, making Nia instinctively smile back.
"Oh, what the hell. You're on."
An openly approving expression set in on Jake's face as she followed the small blonde up the stairs back to the bar. The bar manager moved with a dancer's grace, stepping this way and that with a quiet, sure gait that made her a pleasure to watch.
She looks like someone who's comfortable in her body…the dark woman mused.
And I was getting pretty comfortable with it, too…until Max turned up.
Her interest in Nia seems to be quite intense…wonder what that's all about?
Jake shook her head at herself as they mounted the last of the four flights.
What is up with me? They could be married for all I care.
She spread a charming smile across her face as Nia turned around and motioned for her to enter the bar.
But once inside, a resounding commotion pulled both women up short. The two brawny bouncers were having a heated discussion with a small brunette that Jake recognised as being the one she'd been checking out on her last visit.
"We need to find Nia!" Liz was yelling, desperation and frustration clouding her pretty face. "They could have done anything to her!"
"And who was that woman that came rushing in and demanded to know where she was? She could have been one of them! Nia could be downstairs bleeding to death for all we know!"
"Liz." Said Harry, quietly. "This isn't helping. Just calm down."
"I'm fine, Liz." Nia assented gently, as she began to approach the group.
"They just shook me up a little bit, that's all."
The bar manager was touched when the small barmaid flew at her and caught her in a hug. Patting the girl's back, she murmured awkwardly, "It's over now."
She missed the barely perceptible nods exchanged by Harry, Ricky and Jake.
Although they didn't go unnoticed by Max.
There's something fishy going on here, I know it…she thought.
Jake idly played with the cuffs of her biker jacket while she consumed the scene playing out in front of her. Respect for her most recent conquest was mounting by the second as she observed the slick operation the small woman had created. The staff were rapid and efficient, getting their allotted jobs done with the minimum of fuss, but the atmosphere was a congenial one, people stopping occasionally to offer a joke or a helping hand.
The dark woman was well aware that she was the focus of a good deal of concealed attention. However, but most of the glances thrown at her held little more than curiosity, apart from the vitriol directed at her by Max.
Her sensitive ears picked up a conversation bouncing back and forth between two girls who were gossiping while they washed trays of glasses.
"Do you think that's Nia's girlfriend?"
"I dunno. She's gorgeous though, isn't she? Did you see the way she charged in here?"
"I know. I wish someone would play hero for me."
"Look at those cheekbones! Do you think she's sucking in?"
Jake suppressed a snort and turned back to the action.
The small Bar Manager was mucking in with the rest, she noticed with approval, watching as Nia swept up bits of broken glass, cigarette butts and beer mats with quick flicks of her wrist. The blonde was also keeping half an eye on everyone else in the little team, making sure jobs were being done properly and that no-one was struggling unduly with their task. The dark woman reflected with regret that fear was usually the means of administering any projects she'd been involved in. But Nia managed to remain on friendly terms with her staff without putting any unseen boundaries at risk. That the staff liked her was obvious, some even treating her with affection, but more importantly - she appeared to command a great deal of respect because the camaraderie forfeited not one iota of her serene authority.
They get a kick out of helping her. And I don't blame them. A smile and a little praise from her would be a pretty powerful motivation.
There had been plenty of questions about the evening's events, not least regarding the bar manager's disappearance. Nia had dealt with these by playing her report down, telling the staff enough to let them know they could be trusted, but leaving out details that might cause them panic.
Hmmm. Those kids obviously don't know much about what really goes on here. Not that it's a bad thing. The less people carrying information the better, I think.
But Nia must bear the brunt of it alone. Jake mused, marvelling at the strength that faced the ogre without asking for help.
"Jake, are you OK? Would you like another drink while we get the last of this cleaned up?"
The brave, gentle blonde came sharply into focus, as Nia leaned her broom against the bar and patted Jake on the arm.
"I'm fine, thanks. I was just wondering…can I be of any help?" The dark woman devoured the delighted gratitude in Nia's eyes as she voiced her offer.
"I think you've done enough, thanks." Max piped up from behind her boss.
Oh, God. Doesn't she ever give over? This is getting a little tiresome.
Nia's eyes flashed as she turned around to face her assistant. "Max, please don't create a scene. I don't need your opinion on this."
Out of politeness, the bar manager had been planning to refuse the dark woman's offer of help, but Max's attitude aroused a tendency to petulance she normally kept well hidden. However, she did force herself to refrain from darting a victorious look at her over-zealous friend, before she made her point.
"That's very kind of you, Jake. Do you think you could stack some chairs up by the wall?"
"No problem." Jake slid off her barstool, and met Max's glare with another characteristic shrug as she began hefting wooden chairs into neat piles.
"Nia, what do you think you're doing?" Hissed the assistant manager, as soon as the dark woman was out of earshot. "You know nothing about this woman. I know she helped you out earlier on, but why is she still here? Can't you just say thanks and send her home?"
The still-fresh memory of the ordeal in the cellar, coupled with Max's grasping behaviour afterwards, was making Nia feel like a gazelle caught in a trap. The sensation of being physically and metaphorically pawed at by so many people was distasteful beyond belief to the blonde's keen sense of pride and dignity, and her temper was beginning to rise.
"Max, if you force me to argue with you in front of the staff, I'll be furious." She said. "Remember who you are. You're management, and management don't bicker in front of employees."
She watched as her friend forced a slow nod. And although she knew she was tiptoeing on the line that separated assertiveness and anger, her turbulent emotions were rapidly throwing her off balance. Impetuously, she continued.
"And for your information, Jake will stay here as long as I want her to. You have no right to ask her to leave. Those gangsters don't own me. You don't own me. And you can't tell me who I should and shouldn't consort with. Alright?"
Anticipating the hurt expression on her assistant's face, Nia sighed and tempered her statement by patting Max on the arm and speaking a little more gently.
"I appreciate your concern, I really do. But I can look after myself. I don't need anyone to take care of me."
Oh yes you do. Thought the assistant manager.
But I can see I've been pipped at the post for that job.
"So you're a friend of Nia's then?"
Jake set the last chair atop the pile, as the quiet young man regarded her with undisguised interest.
This could be messy. She thought, turning to face him.
Her interactions with men normally followed one of two routes - they either viewed her as a threat, or identified with her masculine qualities, affording her a grudging acceptance that rapidly turned to respect. She sent a silent prayer up to whoever might be listening that the latter would be the case in this instance.
Come on, cut me some slack, please. Haven't I dealt with enough animosity for one evening?
"Yes, I am." She replied, briefly.
Tom gave her a sober nod of recognition.
"Listen." He said, turning his back on his colleagues and dropping his voice.
"I don't really know what went on tonight, and I'm not about to ask Nia any difficult questions. But I saw what happened out here. She was nowhere to be seen, then you stormed in, shoving people out of the way, rushed down the steps, and soon after that all the Blue Caps left. I don't know what you did - I don't really care, but thanks for taking care of Nia. And all of us."
He clapped her on the back, a gesture that Jake recognised with relief as part of an attempt at male bonding.
Suppressing a jubilant grin, she grasped the lad's arm.
"No problem." She said. "Just glad I was here to help."
After the little exchange, they regarded each other politely until the silence became uncomfortable. Despite his friendly overtures, the lad was obviously intimidated – and the dark woman was unsure of how to make him feel more comfortable. Clearing her throat, she enquired,
"Do you like working here?"
Tom's face brightened and he relaxed into a shy smile.
"Oh, yeah." He nodded, enthusiastically.
"I've been here a year and it's the best job I've ever had. Not because of the work, but because of the people. They're a friendly bunch. And Nia's a great boss, you know. She never makes you feel as though you're just a lowly employee."
He bashfully glanced over to where his manager was standing, deep in conversation with Max.
Jake nodded in acknowledgement, and was surprised to see a wicked glint appearing in the timid young man's eyes, as his voice faded out to a conspiratorial whisper.
"But for all her sweet, harmless appearance, she's got one hell of a temper when she thinks someone's trying to pull a fast one…doesn't take any shit, you know? She's sweet as honey most of the time, but bees can sting as well. I wouldn't mess with her - anyone who thinks they can control her has another thing coming."
He smiled at the dark woman and moved off to finish the clearing up, leaving her chuckling to herself.
I think I may have met my match. She thought.
"Are we done?"
Nia surveyed the bar with a rapid, practised eye and noted that everything was roughly in order.
Twenty minutes…must be the quickest cleanup ever. Not that it had anything to do with a certain tall, dark handsome rescuer of maidens…she grinned.
Jake had made herself more than useful, helping out with the heavy work that normally took some time.
Looks as though we're both being motivated by the promise of things to come.
Nia was well aware that her new friend probably didn't usually spend her time offering to help clean up in dirty bars, and the small woman was touched by the interest that Jake's efforts had shown.
She's fascinating. I hope I get to know her better. She's probably dangerous, I know - but that just makes her more attractive.
She shook her head at herself in the glass door.
Get over yourself, Nia. Thought you'd left that bad boy fetish behind.
You know, you'd think I'd be sick of tough guys, working here. And I am. But there seems to be more to her than six feet of leather and bad attitude. Max thinks she's suspicious…I suppose she is, really…I can't explain how she managed to scare the Caps away, and I don't know whether I want to even try.
But I feel as though she's a good person, deep down.
And I can't wait to pick up where we left off earlier on.
"Ok!" She shouted.
"I think we've done enough! Sit down and I'll get you all a drink."
She watched as the staff gratefully finished their chores, and hauled stools up to the bar. Jake favoured Nia with an enigmatic smile as she sat down, almost turning the Bar Manager into a quivering heap on the floor and making her determined that this round of drinks would be a very quick one.
Handing over a large vodka and tonic, Nia leaned towards the dark woman, and whispered in her ear.
"We're nearly done, I promise. I'm really sorry you've been hanging around."
Why am I hanging around, anyway? Jake mused.
It's not as though I'm desperate to get laid…I'm not short of offers.
I can't believe I've been helping to close a bar for the sake of a one-night stand.
Maybe I should have walked out while I had the chance.
But she found herself responding with unusual tenderness. "No problem, Nia. Take all the time you need."
And Nia could have sworn Jake's lips brushed lightly against her cheek before she moved away.
An hour later drinks and conversations were finished – leaving Nia thankful that the socialising had included few questions about what prompted the Blue Caps' mysterious evacuation. Liz was the last member of staff to say goodbye, having tried to the bitter end to make conversation with her manager's swarthy friend. The one-word answers she received had finally convinced her to abort her mission, and as Max locked the door behind the petite brunette, Nia turned to Jake in relief.
"Sorry about Liz. She's a lovely girl, but she can be a tad nosey."
Jake nodded in recognition and raised an eyebrow. It was getting late, and as well as being painfully conscious of Max's constant, hovering presence, she found herself impatient to get Nia alone. She could still feel the blonde's soft skin beneath her fingertips, and her warm breath in her ear.
"Are you ready to go?" She asked, a little hoarsely.
"Max and I need to sort the tills out first. Five minutes more at the most, I promise."
Nia rang up a "no sale", and removed the till tray, which was stuffed with a considerable amount of money.
At least we didn't do too badly on cash…she thought.
"I'll take that." Snapped Max, striding through the swing doors.
"We shouldn't leave money out in front of people we don't really know."
She finished, with a pointed look at Jake.
The dark woman sighed. She had attempted to deploy herself with tact during the course of the evening - an undertaking which mainly consisted of attempts to avoid Nia's glowering assistant and her constant barbs - but it was 2 O'clock in the morning, she was feeling increasingly tired and frustrated, and her good humour was almost spent.
"Listen." She said, shortly. "If I was into stealing money from bars, which I'm not, don't you think I would have done it already? While the coast was clear and you were all cleaning up? Don't insult my intelligence."
The two stared at each other for a long moment. Then Max returned the till tray to the top of the bar, muttering,
"Fine. You do whatever you like. Nia, are you sure you need me here at all?"
Sarcasm dripped from each word as the little butch jutted out her chin and turned to face her boss. Seeing too late the fury that was beginning to distort her friend's normally cheery face.
"Max, I've pretty much had enough of you." Nia spat. "Of course I still need you here – we're going to go through the takings, and then you're going home. And I'd appreciate it if you could learn to act your age."
Oooo…she does have a temper…thought Jake. Looks as though that lad was right.
A few moments later, the tension was broken by a violent banging on the door. The women looked at each other. This could mean only one of three things – the Caps had returned, Matt had caught wind of the episode – or someone had called the police.
"Shit!" Max exploded. "You stay there…I'm going to check who that is."
Jake turned to Nia. "Do you want me to go?" Max was already nearing the door and trying to peer around the frame without being seen.
"No." Said Nia abruptly, her anger still riding high.
"Don't make it any worse than it is. I don't need both of you engaging in heroics at the same time. In fact, I'd have been perfectly capable of doing it myself."
A bit nettled, Jake resumed her seat and began to turn her back on the fuming blonde, only to be stopped by a hand on her arm. She looked up into translucent green eyes that had taken on a milder hue.
"I'm sorry." Nia offered, softly.
"I didn't mean that. I speak before I think, sometimes. I don't think I'd have gotten through tonight without your help, and I'm very grateful for it, honestly."
Jake's shuttered expression melted under the gentle treatment that caressed her small insecurity and carefully laid it aside.
"Don't worry about it." She said quietly, with a small, but genuine, smile.
"I didn't mean to try and take over. It's just that I'm impatient to get out of here and spend some time alone with you."
Nia's blush was the most charming thing that Jake had ever seen. And her thumb was unconsciously making circles on Jake's arm, a sensation the dark woman found strangely comforting. She wished that Max would get rid of the mystery visitor and then hurry up and make herself scarce.
But no such luck.
"Nia!" Hissed the assistant manager from the door. "It's Matt!"
Nia's heart sank, and perhaps in response to her distress, she felt Jake's arm tense for a few seconds.
"You'll have to let him in, Max." She sighed.
Max unbolted the front door and let the gangster in. The huge blonde man was sopping wet from the rain, but otherwise looked unperturbed.
He doesn't seem to be spoiling for a fight…thought the assistant manager with relief, hoping that this meant the visit would be short-lived.
But unlike Max, Nia knew the underworld well enough to know that judging a situation, and more specifically, a person, according to appearances was a mistake.
She'd seen Matt with exactly the same expression on his face before he calmly broke someone's arm with his bare hands. Which was not an experience she'd care to repeat. Acutely attuned to Jake's presence beside her, she was also aware of the fact that Matt did not tolerate customers staying behind after the bar had closed. It was far too risky, from his point of view, for the public to be exposed to even a hint of the private face of Fire and Ice.
Stay calm, Nia.
Speak when you're spoken to, and don't do anything stupid.
The imposing Chief began to make his way over to the bar, at the same time asking a barrage of questions in a tone that betrayed little hint of feeling. Nia couldn't decide whether this should cause relief or fear.
"Nia, what's going on? Heard from a contact that the Caps were in here. What happened? Did they hurt you? Those guys are pretty…"
The interrogation stopped, mid-flow, as Matt's eyes fell upon Jake. His progress towards the bar ground swiftly to a halt, and he became rooted to the spot, staring at Nia's visitor. In fact, Nia was convinced that if he'd had a little less self-control his jaw would be hanging open. She froze, unused to seeing her intimidating boss so speechless and unsure of how to handle it.
I knew he'd be annoyed at me for keeping a punter behind, but I didn't expect him to lose his cool like this. He's really disturbed. This does not look good.
I know I ought to say something, but what?
Luckily, Jake was not struck dumb. She rose at a leisurely pace, saying evenly,
"I don't think we've met. I'm Jake." Extending her hand to the gang chief in a gesture intended to placate.
Matt considered the extended hand dumbly for a long moment, before grasping it and nodding his head. Three pairs of shoulders relaxed as he did so.
"Sorry about that." Matt said gradually, speaking to Jake but looking at Nia.
"You just reminded me of someone I used to know."
Nia's wits were slowly returning to their rightful place. "Would you like to come through to my office, Matt? I can fill you in on what happened tonight."
Jake and Max watched in silence and a little apprehension as the tiny blonde woman preceded the enormous blonde man down the stairs.
"Is she going to be OK?" Jake whispered, their earlier friction momentarily forgotten in the service of Nia's welfare.
"She'll be fine." Returned Max, caustically. "Nia can handle herself, you know."
Funny…thought the dark woman, biting off the cutting remark that was on the tip of her tongue.
You didn't seem to think so when you were implying that I should stay away from her.
"Matt, this isn't the way it looks." Nia began, as she unlocked the door to the office.
"I don't normally let customers stay late, whether there's trouble or not, but the woman upstairs…um…stumbled upon me in the cellar when one of the Caps was giving me a hard time, and I think she surprised him into leaving."
She had already decided that it was wise to make light of Jake's involvement in the proceedings, since she knew there were factors at play that she didn't understand. Somehow she felt that telling Matt how Jake had scared the Blue Cap almost out of his skin would make the situation more complicated than it was already.
Matt's face betrayed nothing that told her whether or not she'd chosen the right approach.
"Did she tell you who she was?" He asked carefully, perching on the edge of the desk.
"No." Nia said, unlocking the safe and depositing the entire till tray inside.
"It didn't matter. She's a customer who just happened to be in the right place at the right time."
"Has she been here before?" Asked Matt, raising an eyebrow.
"No." Nia lied.
It was an irrational move, she knew, but Jake's actions had inspired a loyalty in the small manager that made her want to protect her new friend, even if it was dangerous, and most probably stupid. She knew that if she told Matt about their previous meeting, he'd probably consider the acquaintance a risk. Although on the other hand, if he found out she'd lied to him, she'd be history.
The Chief gave her a penetrating stare.
"What happened with the Caps?"
"I tried to keep them happy. But they got boisterous and the customers started to smell a rat, so in the end I put my foot down. One of the Caps dragged me down to the cellar to tell me who was boss." A familiar set, sinister look worked its way on to Matt's face as Nia relayed this information.
"Did he hurt you?" Was the tight reply.
"No." She said, knowing what might have happened if Jake hadn't been in the right place at the right time.
The Chief gave her a slow, deliberate nod. "I'll take care of it."
His demeanour softened slightly, as he noticed the troubled expression that crept on to Nia's face.
"Don't worry about it, Nia. The Blue Caps won't be bothering you any more."
Funny… thought the bar manager.
That's exactly what Jake said.
"I'll be in touch." Muttered Matt, rising to leave. "And someone will be making a drop-off tomorrow afternoon."
"Right." Nia murmured assent, glad the interview had been brief. "I'll see you."
She watched the door close behind the commanding figure, and for a fleeting second considered staying behind to cash up. But the promise of the dark, handsome butch who'd been waiting so patiently all evening made her throw the thought away.
Regaining some of her bounce, she tripped back up the stairs to the bar. She was keen to forget her worries and enjoy the imminent tryst she knew would be explosive.
Returning to the bar, the manager was surprised to find Max by herself.
"Where's Jake?" She asked her assistant.
"She split." The abrupt reply crushed all her tender hopes.
"Cut and ran." Repeated Max. "Five minutes after you took Matt down to the office, your marvellous new friend just up and left without a word."
"I don't believe it."
"Told you she was dodgy." Max was feeling pretty complacent. But the imminent smirk had barely a chance to form before being halted by the confusion and anger in Nia's eyes.
"I couldn't bloody well believe it."
Nia was pacing about the sitting room in Rachel's flat, recounting the events of the previous night to her friend in tones that were heated to say the least. And despite her intimate knowledge of the usually gentle blonde, Rachel found herself flinching at the scorching anger rolling off her small friend.
Damn. She's really furious. She thought.
"One minute she's rushing through the door like a conquering hero, swaggering about and intervening in what could have been a hairy encounter with a customer, and the next she's helping me clean up – actually helping me clean up! She went from lion to lamb in a matter of minutes. And then she left. Just like that, without a word. Isn't that dreadful?"
"Well." Rachel began a half-hearted attempt at reason, although she knew all to well that this generally served to fan the flames when Nia was wound up.
"Did she have any good reason to leave? Did Max say something to put her off? Sounds pretty suspicious to me. What do you know about this woman? What happened that night, anyway? Sounds like there was trouble."
Nia stopped her nervous circuit of the room, thrown by this tirade of queries from her friend. Since being hired as manager at Fire and Ice, she'd tried to shield Rachel from the grim realities of her position, knowing that if her friend became involved in her affairs she would never be able to guarantee her safety.
Sensing the blonde's discomfiture, Rachel raised one eyebrow and folded her arms, a signal that she was anticipating a far fuller explanation than the one she'd been given.
"Yes, there was trouble, and no, Max didn't say anything." Nia muttered, hoping that this would stave off the inquisition she'd invited upon herself.
The blonde was sorely tempted to go against her own better judgement and tell Rachel about the hideous machinations that went on behind the scenes at Fire and Ice. It drove her mad that she had nobody, except Max, to turn to for support. And something about the situation didn't sit well with her – she was certain that Matt's sudden appearance was connected to Jake's hasty departure, and she was desperate to voice her hunch in front of a disinterested audience. Otherwise, she knew she'd just end up jumping to conclusions that were sensational in the extreme. Nia had trouble thinking clearly when her passionate spirit was in control of her agile mind, and Rachel's detached, unsentimental way of handling anything personal – a way that less understanding friends had called heartless on occasion - would come in very useful in her current frame of mind.
"Well, do you know who this woman is? Did you ask her anything about herself before she kissed you?" Rachel persisted.
She was determined to ferret some sense out of her small friend, even if it killed her. How Nia expected her to give useful advice without any of the particulars, she just didn't know. Rachel loved the blonde bar manager like a sister, but found her infuriating beyond belief when she was letting her emotions blur her vision. It was a weakness the computer programmer couldn't fathom, no matter how hard she tried.
Nia owned, frantically trying to quench the tinge of embarrassment that crossed her pretty features as she watched Rachel process this information and wondered how she'd react.
Rachel had told her to call the woman, sure, but Nia was certain that she hadn't been expecting her to get in so deep in such a short time. Her friend was what you'd call conservative - and some of Nia's wilder impulses often left her a little shocked and more than a little scared. But to the blonde's surprise, the computer programmer rolled her eyes and went on with the questioning.
"What was all the trouble about? You don't think Jake had anything to do with it, do you? Do you think that's why she cut and ran?"
Nia knew that the ice she was walking was getting thinner by the minute. In fact, if she looked down, she could just about see a couple of cracks beginning to sprout underneath her shoes.
My dear, smart friend is going to put two and two together one of these days. And she'll come up with sixty-eight.
And what's worse, she'll probably be right.
The bar manager miserably wondered what Rachel would do when she finally found out that she, Nia, who'd been top of her class all through school and of whom everyone had harboured such high hopes, was now beholden to Manchester's Mafia.
But surely Jake couldn't be mixed up with them as well? If the dark woman was one of Matt's inner circle Nia was certain she'd know it – he always made sure she was kept informed of the identity of local personalities, so that she knew who she had to curry favour with and who would become impotent if she stood her ground.
Max and Rachel are right about one thing, though.
Jake is suspicious.
And I almost gave it up in that cellar without knowing the first thing about her. That was clever, Nia. What were you thinking?
Nia squirmed again, at her own question this time. Because she knew she hadn't been thinking at all – she'd been a more than willing participant in the dark, dusty cellar - in fact, she hadn't been in control of any of her own reactions. Max's appearance had been the only thing in the way of her shedding her clothes and allowing the dark woman to take her in every way that was humanly possible. And now that Jake was nowhere to be seen, Nia's dignity was suffering some extremely harsh blows.
I can't believe I did that.
Maybe that's why she left – I was too easy and she just got bored. I don't blame her.
God, when I was dating men I used to make them wait at least two months before I even let them see me in my underwear. In a matter of minutes, this woman had reduced me to a quivering heap.
What on earth is wrong with me?
"What on earth is wrong with you?" Asked Rachel. "You seem so injured by all this."
The bar manager turned to the friend who'd been part of her life for so long now they could communicate without words. Rachel had begun to regard her with genuine concern, instead of the long-suffering, patient expression she often wore when she was waiting for Nia to calm down. This in itself was enough to start tears forming behind the bar manager's beautiful green eyes.
"It's not really the end of the world, is it? Talk to me, Nia. What's going on?"
A long silence followed as the small blonde avoided eye contact and furiously fought the urge to tell her friend everything. Absolutely everything, with no holds barred.
"I don't know." She eventually replied, in a small voice.
"I realise I'd only ever clapped eyes on this woman twice before, called her once, and let her kiss me in a cellar before she disappeared."
She sighed, knowing full well that what had gone on in the cellar was much more than a kiss. In fact, she doubted whether she'd ever meet another woman who could so effortlessly light her fuse.
Rachel put a hand on her friend's arm, mutely encouraging her to carry on. Nia wiped away a few tears with the tips of her fingers and looked helplessly at the computer programmer.
"I just can't seem to forget about this and chalk it up to experience. And I don't know why. I feel…hurt. And I've really no reason to be. I barely know her. But I just can't stop thinking about the way she left."
She searched Rachel's face with sad green eyes, pleading for an answer from her ever-practical friend.
And she got one.
"It seems to me that you need an explanation."
Nia nodded, slowly.
Rachel took the bar manager's hand.
"I said this the first time, Nia, and I'll say it again…call the woman. It's the only way."
"But Rachel, I called her before and she didn't even bother to call me back. I'm starting to feel like a stalker. Surely it's right to wait for her to make the first move?"
The computer programmer heaved an exaggerated sigh. Nothing was ever simple with her sweet, sensitive friend – she saw the politics in everything. Even when they weren't really there.
"Yes, Nia. A self-respecting woman wouldn't dream of picking up the phone. Not in a month of Sundays. But you want to know what her game is. So put your pride in your pocket for the time being, and give the woman a call. You can worry about making a fool of yourself later."
"I'm sorry, Matt." Repeated Jake for the third or fourth time.
"I left my phone in Fire and Ice on New Year's Eve, and met Nia when I went back to pick it up the next day. It was by no means an intentional acquaintance, I can assure you."
She was leaning against the wall in her sparse flat, a cup of coffee rapidly going cold on the small table in front of her, listening with a growing sense of apprehension to the gang chief's complaints. She knew she wasn't at risk – and anyway, she'd probably rise to the challenge of living her life with a price on her head - but the gruff voice at the end of the line carried a familiar sinister note that made her fearful for Nia.
I shouldn't have gone there in the first place.
I should have ignored my impulses when I found out the Caps were planning a visit.
I've probably made the situation even worse for that poor girl. She berated herself.
Face it, Jake – your help is the last thing in the world she needs right now.
The growl was becoming deeper and more ominous by the minute - and although Matt always kept his voice scrupulously quiet, it made the dark woman flinch.
"I don't care who you are or who you think you are, but Nia ought to be off limits. Not only because she already knows far too much, but also because I don't want her put at risk. I'd have a hell of a time finding someone else to manage my bar, and she's a damn good manager. Do you get my drift?"
"Yes, I do." Replied Jake.
I wonder how he keeps her there? She thought.
Simple threats or something a little more sophisticated?
I hope to God he's learned from the mistake they made with the last guy.
She shook her head sadly at the memory, as Matt continued.
"However," he said, "Now you've started this friendship with my little blonde, I think the best thing for you to do is to maintain it – otherwise she's going to start to smell a rat. And loath as I am to reconnect you with the operation at Fire and Ice, I need to keep Nia's mouth shut."
The dark woman blinked a couple of times as she considered this line of reasoning.
I suppose that's logical enough. Because Nia will have already assumed that if I'm connected with Matt, I won't be coming back. If I show up, then I'm in the clear.
It's the classic double bluff.
And now he's going to tell me that if she blabs I have to "take care of it". He's so predictable.
"I think you should stay in close contact with Nia, so that if she's tempted to blab, at least I know you can take care of it. It would be a shame if you had to, don't get me wrong – but I need to have you near her, just in case. And if she has no idea who you are, that gives us the advantage."
Jake suppressed a snort of laughter as the head of Manchester's gangs played his part to perfection.
He ought to be careful. He's in danger of becoming a parody of himself.
"I have to keep an eye on her, after the scare she had on Friday." Matt said. "She's likely to snap, and I need you to be there if she does. I'd consider it a personal favour, Jake."
And for his final trick, he pulls out the loyalty card.
"So, what do you say?" the Chief finished.
The question hung in the air, delicately, for a moment. But Jake already knew what her answer would be. She was uncomfortably aware that Nia's future rested in her large, powerful hands. The head of Manchester's gang scene was playing on her protective instincts to get what he wanted, and she had no choice but to play along. If Matt gave the task of watching Nia to anyone else, she'd probably end up dead.
I'd much rather saddle myself with this job than give it to someone else who might actually be compelled to follow orders, and I think he knows that.
But I hope she keeps her mouth shut, for my sake as well as hers.
"No problem, Matt. I can do that for you."
She sighed, as her reply put both women in a predicament that was going to be potentially explosive. She knew they were going to end up in bed. She just hoped it wasn't going to turn out to be a fatal attraction.
"So, have you seen Nia since Friday night?" The gangster asked, lightly.
Jake replied briefly, deciding at great speed that she wasn't going to mention the irate message Nia left on her machine demanding to know what she was playing at.
"I suggest you see her again soon, Jake." Matt said. "She'll be suspicious as hell if you're nowhere to be seen after what happened on Friday. And that's the last thing I want."
Little does he know that I've already done the disappearing act. Jake thought. How am I going to talk my way out of that one? I get the feeling that Nia's not going to be fobbed off too easily.
"Okay, Matt." She automatically acquiesced to the Chief's demands. "I'll do it."
"All right, Jake. See ya."
Jake leaned her head against the wall as she replaced the handset. The chilly, unyielding feel of the paint against her skin did little to assuage the feeling of guilt that was becoming overwhelming.
What a mess.
Not only have you gotten yourself in trouble, but that beautiful, innocent girl is mixed up in it as well.
Nice one, Jake.
When are you going to get out of all this shit for good?
She gulped down the remnants of her cup of coffee, stone cold now, and stood with her back to the wall, staring out at the pounding rain, for a very long time.
"The Albanian trade in illegal drugs has stepped up recently, taking advantage of the chaotic border situation resulting from the Kosovo conflict. This development has been combined with a large rise in the movement of immigrants and asylum-seekers to countries across Western Europe and threatens to cause trouble all over the continent."
"A little bit higher, Tom!"
Nia yelled over the news broadcast, holding a barstool steady as it shook precariously with the young man's weight. She'd recently revised the menu at Fire and Ice, and Liz, the resident artist, had written up the new selection on a blackboard that normally sat on a high shelf behind the bar. Now it was the task of Tom and his long arms to set the board back in its place.
"Drugs became an integral part of the Albanian black-market economy under the communists, and during the disorder and violence following the stockmarket crash of 1997 the forces of the underworld began to cement their influence. By 1998 the country was home to more than 10,000 drug addicts."
"Left a bit! Don't fall over!" Shouted Liz from the other side of the room, where she was unstacking tables and chairs in preparation for opening time.
These audacious remarks earned her nothing but a scowl from her good-natured colleague, who almost lost his balance as he poked out his tongue in reply.
"Very amusing, Lizzie!" Was his retort. "You're just jealous 'cos you're too short to be able to reach."
"Farmers who used to provide groceries are now finding it more profitable to grow marijuana. Cocaine refining laboratories are thriving in the South of the country, and some of these drugs leave the country via the border with Greece. The rest is transported via Macedonia, an easy gateway towards the West due to the unstable state of this particular region. European integration has meant that border checks in most of the states throughout the European Union are very limited."
Is this OK, Nia?" Tom swivelled from the waist so he could see his boss, an awkward position that nearly threatened to send him tumbling down on top of her.
"That's perfect! Thanks. You can get down now."
After helping her employee down from the stool, Nia surveyed their handiwork. The blackboard looked pretty. Now she only had to check that the food would do it justice.
The bar was due to open in half-an-hour, but there was very little left to do that the staff couldn't handle. Turning off the radio, the small manager noticed Liz coming up behind her with a "can I help you?" look on her pert, pretty face.
"We'll open at about midday." She told the brunette. "I think we're close to being ready, but can you get some beermats out and check the glasses? Send someone down to me in about ten minutes and I'll bag up some change."
The small barmaid nodded at her boss, and Nia gave her a grateful smile before making her way downstairs to check up on the chef.
She was halfway down the stairs when the ambient sounds of her favourite CD drifted into her ears.
Well that's a bit of a contrast to the hubbub that seems to be going on down here…she grinned, as she prepared to brave the disorder of the kitchen.
An unusual lurch in the recesses of her gut almost caused Jake to sway against the door of Fire and Ice as she pushed it open and stepped out of the rain.
Not nervous, are you, Jake? She chided herself.
What's she gonna do, beat you up?
Bracing her broad shoulders, she pushed her nerves down into the pit of her stomach and prepared to approach the nearest member of staff with her customary self-confidence.
But as she navigated her way past the tables occupied by the first few customers of the day, the woman who could cut off someone's breathing with one powerful hand found herself admitting that this situation was making her a great deal more apprehensive than she'd ever imagined. Under circumstances such as the Caps' raid of Friday night, Jake could deploy herself with self-possession and an intimidating presence that meant nobody could get under her skin. But she knew that when it came to truthful, personal communication, the shield she habitually erected would wind up as little more than dust on her steel-toed boots. Jake didn't care too much for too many people - but somehow, Nia had managed to join the ranks of the privileged already.
Sucker for a damsel in distress…that's my trouble.
And a few harsh words from this particular damsel would probably smart a lot more than somebody's fist in Jake's face.
What a mess.
She sighed inwardly as the bar came into view, and she realised that the member of staff who was manning it was the feisty brunette who'd been mouthing off on Friday night.
Great. Let's hope she's less outspoken during the day, shall we?
The dark woman advanced a little shakily, and cleared her throat in order to get Lizzie to turn around. She wondered if she'd be met with open hostility or something a little more subtle – but in her heart there was no doubt that she was about to be given her marching orders.
After the stunt I pulled on Friday night, I don't deserve any better…she thought, sadly. Well, at least if I get it in the neck from her first it'll cushion the blow.
She was convinced that Nia's suspicions and her own subsequent failure to return the manager's phone call would mean that the staff would be instructed to throw her out on sight - to play it safe with reference to Matt, as much as anything else. Whether she was connected to him or not, playing host to her at Fire and Ice would be a very dangerous move. She was suspicious, and she probably had "great big risk" painted all over her now, as far as Nia was concerned.
She must have been going through hell trying to work out what to do.
I'm such a rat.
But to the dark woman's surprise, Liz turned around with a beaming smile, and her greeting betrayed barely veiled interest rather than righteous indignation.
"Good to see you again! How are you?"
Interesting. Jake thought.
Looks as though Nia's been keeping it all in. This girl has no idea.
Wonder if any of them have any idea about what went on in here on Friday? And do they even know that Fire and Ice is run by a gang? Nia's been hiding a great deal to protect these kids, I think.
"Liz, is it?"
She responded, combining a non-committal tone with a subtle perusal of the brunette's trim body.
Liz dropped her eyes slightly, and Jake saw the hint of a blush just below the lashes.
I've still got the knack…she thought, suppressing a chuckle.
"Are you here to see Nia?" The barmaid asked, regaining her composure and picking up the internal handset attached to the wall.
The dark woman's smirk faded, as though she'd forgotten why she was really there. And as she nodded, she remembered that this encounter was highly unlikely to be as pleasant as the last. Her heart leapt straight into her mouth.
She's going to pretend to be out. I know it.
Liz, about to dial, looked on with amazement as the enigmatic visitor went from smooth operator to gawky teenager in a matter of seconds. It seemed like an age to both - but it was probably only ten seconds or so before Jake blurted out,
"Could you not tell her it's me?"
Gritting her teeth and hoping fervently that the little brunette wouldn't demand an explanation. All the carefully erected barriers had come down momentarily as the dark woman tried desperately to find a way to bring Nia upstairs to speak with her.
Liz seemed almost as surprised by Jake's sudden loss of control as the dark woman was herself. Looking slightly askance, she hit the speed dial on the phone without another word.
"Hi, is that the kitchen? There's someone here to see Nia. I don't know who it is, just tell her she has a visitor. And tell her to come straight up."
Jake was leaning against the bar, the serene set of her long limbs belying the trepidation she felt, when Nia appeared five minutes later. But the nervous twitch of her fingers, wrapped around a triple espresso that would make an Albanian coffee drinker proud, might have given the game away - if the Bar Manager had bothered to look.
Came a tight, cold voice, telling Jake before she turned around that this was not going to be a pleasant encounter. She nervously reflected that it was pretty easy, when a person was usually so warm and open, to tell they were feeling the chill.
She has every right to be. Considering the fact that I legged it with no explanation, following the appearance of an underground drug lord.
I just didn't expect it to make me feel so...small.
The dark woman replied quietly, swivelling slowly to face her Waterloo, and swallowing her nerves along with the dregs of her hot drink.
She'd been rehearsing several explanations at breakneck speed for the short time she'd been waiting, stopping only when the reactions she was attributing to Nia became so ridiculously cruel and dismissive she knew she was assuming the worst. But the altercations seething inside her head were squashed by the vision that was her nemesis. And for the second time that day, Manchester's Charmer of Maidens found herself lost for words.
She's adorable...she thought.
Nia was wearing a pair of faded workman's jeans that threatened to swallow her whole from the waist down, juxtaposed against the most petite red T-shirt Jake had ever been lucky enough to clap eyes on. Over this ensemble was thrown a huge black apron, splattered from top to bottom with some kind of tomato sauce. The fine, strawberry blonde hair had been twisted into an absent-minded knot at the back of her head, held in place with a ballpoint pen - and an intrepid blob of flour had taken up residence on her right cheek, just below the freckles that were darkening angrily with her blush. Jake's self-control reached phenomenal proportions as she valiantly fought the desire to reach over, tilt Nia's chin, and dust away the flour with her fingertips.
Sadly, the big, beautiful green eyes that were the crowning glory of the whole image were not such an agreeable sight. Jake baulked as she saw a storm brewing in their depths. There was surprise written all over Nia's features, her appearance fluctuating between the most implacable of the Furies, and a startled deer caught in the headlights of a car. However, the obstinate set of the pretty lips and determined jaw hinted that the young doe was not to be quietened by her assailant.
Don't you dare bolt, Jake. The butch told herself.
Disappearing is what got you into trouble in the first place, remember? You're better off staying put and trying to explain.
Unaware of the internal battle that preoccupied the dark, mysterious woman facing her, Nia decided to break the silence.
"I really didn't expect to see you." She said.
Her voice, pitched a little higher than usual, was betraying remnants of her shock. Jake was the last person in the world she'd expected to ever darken the doors of Fire and Ice again. But there was something else fighting its way through the cadences, something that allowed the dark woman a small hope that this situation might not end with a door closed in her face and a barring order.
It was relief - as much as she wanted to play the injured maiden, Nia couldn't deceive herself about the fact that she was glad to see the tall brunette. She found herself hoping against all hope that the explanation she was about to be offered would be acceptable, wouldn't connect Jake to Matt and his gang - because she desperately wanted to see the dark woman again. And again. And finish what they'd started. And then maybe start something else.
However, the ever-vigilant sense of honour and justice that informed the small blonde's understanding of the world, as well as the sleepless nights spent worrying over Jake's sudden departure, were not going to let her push the events of Friday night to one side just yet. With a resolute inward breath, the diminutive Bar Manager decided that she was going to assert herself.
Or at least to start with, until her burning desire to know this strange woman liquefied her resolve.
Green eyes met blue as the air began to sharpen around them. They were quite a tableau - to outsiders, the tiny blonde bravely facing off against the dangerously magnificent figure of the brunette must have looked like a madwoman. Whispers were coming from all quarters, but Nia was too consumed by the interaction between herself and the dark butch opposite her to care.
I must be mad...was her first coherent thought.
What if she's working for Matt?
From the sheer size of her, she'd be able to kill me with her bare hands if she wanted to. I must be crazy to even think about standing up to her. She's unreliable, volatile and probably an extremely hazardous proposition.
But Nia was not crazy, and she certainly wasn't stupid. She knew that a public confrontation would be relatively safe. And she also had an instinct that her new acquaintance was not going to hurt her. It was a strange certainty, but it went bone deep and felt as old as the hills.
Also, being an infinitely sensible girl, she knew that if her relationship with Jake was going to progress, she was going to have to kick off on the right foot with the intimidating brunette. Nia already had a definite impression that the tall, dark and handsome object of her desire was used to having her own way, and a sly suspicion that most of her sexual conquests had let her get away with it.
Well, not me. She thought.
Not on her nelly.
I don't care how big, bad and bossy she is.
Silence continued to hang in the air, as both women deliberated over what to say next. Inner conversations grew even more heated as they refused to break eye contact even for a second. Customers in close proximity began to comment on the restless fizz emanating from the bubble that seemed to envelop the two.
And still, the small blonde and the large brunette stared at each other in silence, straddling the fault line between emotional combat and something infinitely sweeter.
It was Jake who broke the deadlock.
"Um...can we talk?" She asked.
Great opener, Jake. That's original.
And after what you did on Friday I wouldn't blame her for telling you to get lost.
However, Nia's reply was not so dismissive as the miscreant had suspected.
"All right." She said.
"But this is my lunch break and I'm hungry. Have you eaten yet?"
Jake shook her head.
"Fine." Replied the bar manager.
"Take a seat. I won't be long."
Left to her own devices, Jake scanned the bar for appropriate seating. Fire and Ice didn't have an atmosphere conducive to peace and privacy, she realised ruefully.
I don't want her to feel too isolated...she thought, remembering the stricken look in Nia's eyes when she'd first come in.
But somewhere relatively secluded would be nice in case she decides to bite my head off.
Attracting all eyes and not a few murmurs as she stalked the territory, the tall, dark visitor had eventually settled on a corner table that wasn't too solitary by the time Nia returned, hair brushed, apron removed, face clean - carrying two plates.
The bar manager gave Jake a tight smile, setting half her burden down in front of the other woman before she sat down. Crossing her legs under the table, she motioned with a flick of the wrist that was both imperious and endearing, for her guest to commence her lunch.
Looks as though it's food first, argument after. Thought the butch.
Well, I suppose I can live with that...
Shrugging and unfurling the large, red napkin that housed her knife and fork, Jake looked down at the concoction she'd been presented with.
"This looks great." She said, with genuine enthusiasm.
A shy smile and a grateful flush began to jostle each other for purchase on Nia's face. And for the second time since she'd entered the bar, Jake became sharply cognisant of the fact that the small woman was wreaking more havoc on her senses with every moment. That her need to be exonerated and to compensate for the events of Friday night was really tied to her own awakening feelings, rather than any outmoded loyalties she may have owed to the head of Manchester's most formidable gang.
"We're trying a new menu today." The blonde told her guest. "Let me know what you think."
The plates were piled high with large chicken pieces, tender and slipping off the bone, drizzled over with a simple tomato and honey sauce. Fragrant wild rice framed the dish, which was sprinkled liberally with toasted almonds and sesame seeds, caramelised onions and sultanas, and roughly chopped coriander.
Jake intoned, as the first forkful melted in her mouth.
"This is wonderful."
"I'm not just trying to butter you up - I mean it!" She protested, in response to Nia's raised eyebrow.
"I dated a chef a long time ago, but her inventions had nothing on this."
To Jake's surprise Nia failed to respond to the compliment, merely conferring another little smile as she continued with her lunch. Alone in the silence, the raven-haired caller wondered if she'd said the wrong thing.
Careful, Jake…flattery won't get you anywhere. Even if you mean it, you'll only end up looking insincere.
And talking about your personal history may be a little inappropriate, considering you almost bedded her and she's mad at you.
Curbing an unusual impulse for chatter, inspired by the delicious food and the even more delectable blonde sitting opposite her, Jake concentrated on clearing her plate before she cleared her throat. Ten minutes later and feeling a good deal calmer, she resumed the conversation.
"So what's this creation called? Chicken, honey and almonds is such an original combination...it must have an exotic name."
"Yeah." Replied Nia, dryly. "Chicken with honey and almonds."
The chuckles that erupted at this gentle irony were a tonic for two wary souls. Nia's anger seemed momentarily forgotten, as she favoured Jake with a beaming smile that started at the corners of her eyes and didn't stop until she'd revealed two rows of small white teeth. The front incisors were slightly uneven, Jake noticed - which only served to enhance the charm.
"I'm glad you like it."
Nia's radiant countenance was infectious, and Jake found herself grinning in reply, reasoning with premature satisfaction that perhaps the confrontation she'd been dreading was not going to occur.
"Where did you learn to cook like this?" She asked.
"At home." Replied the blonde.
"My parents were very busy people, and I was the eldest child – cooking was one of my chores."
Filing away this microscopic insight into the curious blend of innocence and responsibility that Nia embodied, Jake nodded as she polished off the last piece of chicken on her plate.
"Dishes like this one were easy because they're so quick - you can prepare the sauce in advance. I became pretty good at convenience cookery when I was a teenager." Nia said, stacking the plates in front of her.
"I'll say you did if this is anything to go by." The agreement resounded, from the beneficiary of her latest culinary labour.
The bar manager favoured her guinea-pig with another wide smile.
"I invent the menu here, and hire a couple of chefs who learn my recipes. It's arrogant, I know - but I'm a control freak in the kitchen."
"You have every right to be. You have many skills." The brunette bantered.
"More than you think." Was the manager's good-natured response.
"I'd love to attend one of your cookery classes. What's the reward for good behaviour, teacher?" Countered Jake, with a wink.
"Or do I get the feeling that you like the bad boys best?"
As the last, teasing words dropped from her lips the brunette realised that she'd made a mistake. Her outrageous attempt at flirting had rekindled the tension the meal had dispersed. The shuttered look returned to the green eyes that had previously been dancing with light.
"I believe you had something to say." Nia stated, quietly.
Jake refused to meet the blonde woman's eyes. She'd never been one to apologise, especially not in the context of a relationship that promised to be more than just a friendly one - it tore at the gossamer strands of power that always had to be woven in her favour. Not unevenly enough for her partners to notice - Jake was not a cruel woman, so she liked to grant her conquests a certain degree of independence - but the subtle disparities still had to exist, if only in the shadows. If she was honest with herself, this was motivated solely and simply by fear. Fear that if her intimates were not bound and beholden more to her than she was to them, they would leave her, betray her, and break her heart as it had been broken many years before.
Even after devouring the healing gifts of time, a few stubborn, battered remnants of the dark woman's heart continued to call out to the architect of her destruction.
In the bleak aftermath of the devastation that Tara had wrought, an apology had become something that was highly unlikely to cross Jake's mind, let alone transmute itself into speech. Even if she'd done something terrible, she learned to be extremely clever about admitting responsibility – avoidance, denial and half-baked admissions became her stock-in-trade. And the women she picked up and discarded were left frustrated, denied any valid reason for their distress.
Jake had seriously wounded some of her paramours. She wasn't a philanderer by any means, but she habitually managed to convey the impression that she was looking for something...and that this prize had so far managed to elude her. Her attention was as fleeting as it was intense, and when the honeymoon was over and she'd reached the threshold of boredom, she invariably managed to find someone else, usually an even more beautiful blonde, to gift with her legendary charm. And she never, never let anyone close.
She winced as she remembered one particularly well aimed parting shot.
"If you'd only pluck up the courage to let me in, we might have a chance! But that would perforate the armour, wouldn't it?"
Momentarily unconscious of her surroundings, the dark butch allowed a sigh to escape her.
It certainly would.
I let Tara in, and she took the damn lot - busted my heart into smithereens and left me with nothing.
I can't risk that again.
The voice of the bar manager, clear as a bell, pierced through the Babel of bewildered, abandoned sweethearts that were grasping desperately at her visitor's heart and mind and almost winning the struggle for suffocation.
With one foot still in the desolate battlegrounds of the past, Nia's dark guest stepped into the immediacy of a charged situation - and not without an inward moan at her own weakness, decided to try again with the charm.
After all, it normally worked a treat in the first stages of an acquaintance.
"Listen, babe...I had to take off on Friday night - something came up - you know how it is. I hope it didn't screw up your evening too much. Maybe we could try again - I've been thinking about you ever since."
Watching carefully for a sign of relaxation on the blonde's face, but finding none.
In fact, the charm seemed to be having exactly the opposite effect to the one Jake had intended. Nia's mouth was hardening into a thin line, and suppressed anger made her eyes sparkle like emerald chips.
Fuck. Thought the butch.
I seem to be making things worse.
What am I going to do?
And as she searched for an answer, the words of Nia's young employee began to drift around her head.
"for all her sweet, harmless appearance, she's got one hell of a temper when she thinks someone's trying to pull a fast one, you know? Anyone who thinks they can control her has another thing coming."
The dark woman blew out a breath.
I'm treating her like a fool...and she knows.
And frustrating as this was, she couldn't resist a smile.
Well, Jake - someone has your number at long last.
Now do you think you can bring yourself to cut the crap?
She really didn't know.
But looking at the beautiful blonde who sat across the table waiting for an explanation, a hint of trust and acceptance still visible, although her eyes were now brittle with anger, Jake felt that perhaps honesty might not hurt her pride after all. The words "I'm sorry" seemed to lose their power to humiliate when confronted with Nia's sensitivity and lack of guile, and became a way of reaching out, rather than an admission of defeat.
So Jake took her courage in both hands and decided to try a brand new endeavour - speaking from the heart.
"I'm sorry, Nia." She said.
To her relief, a slight warming in the depths of the resentful green eyes facing her told her that she might be on the right track, emboldening her to continue.
"I didn't want to leave on Friday night. I was having a wonderful time."
A slow nod from the blonde.
"I know you must have been worried sick for the past few days over why I left."
The words were beginning to come naturally now, as she who was normally berated for being as cold as ice confessed to a complete stranger,
"I like you. I think you're beautiful, and warm, and interesting."
"But there are parts of my life that I just can't talk about, even though at the moment I feel like I could tell you everything."
A statement which she realised with some shock was true.
"It's not only in my interests, it's in your interests, too. I think you're smart enough to know that."
Nia was by now both judge and jury, so earnest was Jake's intent - and the explicant saw warmth start to spread, suffusing the beautiful eyes she was by now ready to drown in, as flecks of gold punctuated the green.
"I'll never hurt you or get you into trouble. I promise."
Relaxation was dawning on the Bar Manager's face, as a hint of a smile began to tug at the corners of her mouth and softened the lines of her jaw. Jake took a deep breath and voiced the question she'd been longing to ask.
"So do you think you can risk going out with me tomorrow night?"
The manager of Fire and Ice was universally known for her ability to listen with generosity and grace. However, during the past few minutes she'd been uncharacteristically inanimate, digesting Jake's offering with a far away look muting her pretty features. Now the smile finally broke through in all its glory.
"It's a date."
OK…It's a date. Thought Nia.
So far, so good.
But what on earth am I going to wear?
A few hours after the conversation during which the most baffling woman she'd ever met had asked her out, Nia sat cross-legged on her bed, chin resting on her hands, contemplating her wardrobe.
I don't think anything in here is at all suitable…considering the fact that I'm always at work, and all I ever go to work in are baggy combats and T-shirts.
Not particularly appropriate for a first date, Nia.
Shuffling over to the small rail, she leafed through the collection of hangers, perusing each item and mentally wearing it for Jake's intent gaze. Her eye was swiftly drawn to the little black dress she'd worn for her graduation ceremony - but this idea was thwarted by a well-practised sense of occasion and the start of a shrewd understanding of the dark woman's wild spirit.
Nah…the black dress is out. That would be a tad too much. She thought.
Something tells me that if I look as though I've made an undue amount of effort in a bid to "catch" her, she's going to head for the door.
A shake of the pretty golden head punctuated this thought.
Butches are so predictable. I swear most of them think it's charming to be a lady-killer who runs scared at any sniff of commitment. And it's our idea of romance that's to blame – Heathcliff, Rhett Butler and Mills & Boom have a lot to answer for.
Nia chuckled and chided herself as she admitted how many times she'd sat through old black and white films, lapping up the drama and loving every moment.
But this is real life. She mused. Everyone likes the bad boys, but there is a difference between being sexy and a little dangerous, and an out-and-out bastard.
They didn't tell you that in Gone With the Wind, did they?
The bounders and cads may be able to get the girls - but they're highly unlikely to be able to keep them.
But while she continued to examine her wardrobe, the feisty bar manager climbed down from her favourite soapbox, admitting to herself that her new acquaintance might be able to break the usual cycle.
She did a pretty good job of dropping the tough guy routine when it really mattered. She was far more open than I'd ever have expected. And when she apologised I thought I must have been dreaming.
She didn't look as though she was used to letting the barriers down.
Feeling encouraged by the memory, Nia continued to flip through the contents of her closet, until her gaze alighted on a long khaki skirt with deep pockets that clung to her small waist and slender, shapely legs.
Following the breakthrough, it didn't take the small bar manager long to team this with a fitted vest in fawn-coloured cotton, and her favourite piece of clothing, an indigo denim jacket.
The garment that goes with everything…she thought triumphantly, as she slipped it over the back of a chair so she could grab it when it was time to depart.
A chunky silver necklace fastened around her slender throat completed Nia's look. This had been a gift during a relationship that turned out to be one of the briefest and most hurtful of her short life. After Paula, when she realised it was time to acquaint herself with the desires that she'd spent most of her adulthood trying to understand, her journey of self-discovery paved the way for her first, and so far only, experience of the butch-femme dynamic. The dance had been beautiful but the ending had been explosive and it had taken her a long time to recover. But these days her dogged determination to forgive and forget meant that the trinket evoked only the pleasant, if bittersweet, memories - of strong arms around her, ready laughter and a passionate if translucent love.
She slid in front of her full-length mirror to survey the total effect of her outfit.
Not bad at all. She thought.
Nia was a tomboy at heart. Although the small blonde had proven on more than one occasion that she could be a knockout in standard feminine gear, she preferred to garb herself primarily with comfort in mind. She worked and played in the same scruffy old pair of combat pants. And although for a couple of years she'd been happy to embrace the combination of her lesbianism and her femininity, she had quickly tired of the short skirts and spike heels that seemed to be standard uniform for the lesbian femme. Not only were they uncomfortable, but they often tended to attract the wrong sort of butch. Generally what she termed superficial "jock" butches, who proclaimed the desire to be with a femme but who actually meant "wife", which loosely translated as someone who would accompany them to sporting events and bars as a trophy who was seen and not heard.
And the prospect of being a silent ornament was not especially palatable to Nia. Though she was normally a gracious and dignified contributor rather than the life of the party, she was nevertheless someone who seemed to command attention when she did open her mouth to speak. Because what came out of that pretty mouth was the product of an insightful, sensitive intellect and was generally worth listening to.
And while she might be lacking in confidence on occasion, the small blonde possessed a healthy amount of self-respect that made her baulk at the idea of being anybody's appendage. Being dominant was not her scene, either - having realised thanks to several adoring men during her period of "playing it straight" that an inordinate amount of power made her uncomfortable - but she passionately believed in equality. A commitment that encompassed more than the boundaries of her own life, and one her friends admired, even if sometimes they didn't understand the fervour with which she pursued it.
Having provisionally approved her own reflection, the prettiest bar manager ran her fingers through her hair and fought the urge to cover her face in makeup.
The awareness of this urge was a gift she'd forever be thankful to Paula for. She smiled gratefully as she remembered the day the redhead had exclaimed,
"Why do you wear so much makeup, Nia? You're perfect without it. In fact, you probably don't need to wear any."
The blonde had been shocked and a little offended by the blunt statement, her sensitive power boundaries screaming at what she thought was an attempt to tell her what to do.
And she'd spent years hiding behind her painted face.
Nia was only just beginning to grow into her looks, having spent years at school being bullied for being a "Plain Jane". This had been compounded by the fact that she was a rather anti-social child, preferring to spend her free time living in her head, making up stories about a life which was far removed from her own. Nia was an escapist by nature - even as an adult her stark reality often paled in comparison to the fantasy life she sustained in her imagination. She spent a great deal of her free time devouring books, films and the theatre, living vicariously through characters she was convinced were more beautiful, more exciting…and happier…than her.
Although she had to admit that the prospect of tonight's date with a tall, dark, mysterious stranger came close to rivalling even her most exciting daydreams.
Nia had known throughout school that the other kids thought she was strange. And when she'd discovered makeup it was welcomed as a mask, a fake smile behind which she could hide the hurt and insecurity caused by the teenage boys whose favourite amusement was to rag her for her physical imperfections.
So when Paula suggested she reveal the reality under the disguise, she'd been terribly afraid. In truth, she didn't even know if she would be able to wean herself off her security blanket.
But the trust and genuine love she'd felt for the redhead had at last lead her to take the well-meant advice, and she had felt the benefits immediately. It wasn't that she laboured under the delusion that "natural" was better - it was a look like any other, and probably no more genuine in terms of trying to project a representation to the outside world - but she had to concede that Paula was right, and she'd been wearing piles of makeup for the wrong reason, not to enhance, but to hide her face. And not only did it take her at least half an hour less than usual to get ready to face the day, but people even began to comment on how healthy she was looking. It was bizarre. At twenty-six, she was just beginning to realise that she was an attractive woman - that indeed, some people even thought she was beautiful.
Thanks, sweetheart…she thought, mentally giving Paula a hug as she applied a little blusher and a slick of mascara to her otherwise bare face. A squirt of perfume on her wrists and behind her knees - and she was ready.
But it's only five-thirty.
And she's not picking me up until half-past seven - what am I going to do until then?
A few miles away, Jake was undergoing a slightly less pleasant preparation for the evening's entertainment – a tongue-lashing from Kim. Her slender friend could be as trenchant as she was beautiful, and although she was more than aware that the rebukes sprang only from affection, Jake was beginning to buckle a little under the verbal assault of home truths.
The quarrel had resulted from the dark woman's painful realisation that as well as being the setting for her first date with Nia, tonight was to witness the staging of a mammoth birthday party for Kim's housemate Al. Jake knew that the event would be packed to the rafters with Al's colleagues - loud, obnoxious television wannabes – but she also knew, with a sinking heart, that absolutely nothing could get her out of attending.
So, rumpling her thick raven crop and bemoaning the fact that of all the nights for a media "happening", this had to be the one, Nia's incumbent escort turned to Kim's famed negotiating skills to salvage the situation.
"So you have a date with the girl you met in the bar on New Year's Day – that's great!" Kim twisted a long strand of chestnut hair around her index finger as she and Jake sipped herbal tea in her cosy kitchen.
Jake shrugged her broad shoulders, a little abashed by her friend's effusion.
"It's just a bit of fun, Kim." She said, gruffly.
The knowing look that came from her old friend caused both her hubris and her hackles to rise.
"It IS. It's nothing serious – I asked her out, and she couldn't resist my charm."
Ignoring Kim's playful swat and the flagrancy of her own untruth, Jake continued with growing irritation and unusual petulance. "Don't make a big deal out of it. We're only going for drinks."
For God's sake. She thought, bitterly.
Why is it that every time I show an interest in a woman she - and everyone else – thinks it's love at first sight?
Why can't women understand that a little flirtation doesn't necessarily lead to a big commitment?
Especially not with someone like me.
I don't want to be tied down, and I never will.
The tall, dark butch looked accusingly at her friend – but the only satisfaction she got was a dramatic roll of large grey eyes. Kim was well acquainted with Jake's predilection for either sulking or posturing when she felt ill at ease, and normally chose to ignore it, knowing that this was the best way to make her incorrigible friend "get real" and cut the crap. This was a lesson that few of the people close to Jake ever learned, and the tall, dark butch had more than once cursed Kim for doing her homework, following her perceptions, and working out how to handle her.
"Well, you know Al's going to be upset if you don't show, so whether she's the love of your life or not, you're going to have to bring her down to the bar for an hour or so at least."
The dark woman sighed, her fretful mood worsening as she anticipated the difficulties of the situation she faced.
"Yeah, you're right." She said, ruefully. "If I don't go I'll never hear the end of it. But when Al gets together with her friends they can be so embarrassing."
"I know. I think they all have ADHD." Kim laughed, sympathetically.
"They've got what?" Jake asked.
"ADHD. Attention Deficiency Hyperactive Disorder." Replied the femme. "Don't you read the papers? It's what some kids get – makes them misbehave - it used to be called bad parenting."
"Perhaps we ought to spike the champagne with Ritalin to keep them happy for a few hours." Snorted Kim.
Jake chuckled in agreement. "If it'll keep them quiet, let's do it."
"Well, I can't guarantee that would work." Said her friend. "But that's the media for you. No matter what they say – and they will deny it, mark my words – every single one of those researchers and techies working behind the camera secretly longs to be in front of it."
Although she'd been chuckling at Kim's shrewd wit, Jake continued to look downcast, and was actually starting to dread the moment when she'd have to introduce Nia to Al and her friends. For some reason, what the small blonde thought of her, her acquaintances and their social activity was beginning to become disproportionately significant.
Staring at her boots, the dark woman failed to detect the signs of comprehension on Kim's face.
"Hang on a minute, Jake. If you're not really bothered about this girl, then why are you so worried Al might embarrass you?"
The astute brunette received no reply but a glare, and what she could have sworn was the beginning of a pout gracing Jake's full lips.
Kim let out a hearty laugh. "You're impossible. If you weren't so damn sweet underneath it all I swear I'd give up on you."
The butch made no answer, although the corners of her mouth twitched in response to the backhanded compliment.
"Here's the plan." Kim told her, briskly. "And make sure you follow it, or you're going to upset her. Remember – I know how women think – I am one."
"And I'm…what?" Asked Jake, outraged.
"A clueless but absolutely darling boy." The femme replied, laughing infectiously.
"Listen to me. Bring her down to the bar for a little while. Make it early – because then I'll be there to greet you. I don't plan on staying long, either. But make sure you tell Nia that this party's a commitment you can't break. Don't let her think you're using an excuse to get out of being alone with her."
"Kim." Said Jake, her exasperation returning.
"It's only a flippin" date. I'm sure she won't be mortally wounded by the fact that we have to drop in on a friend of mine."
"You really don't have a clue, do you?" Kim asked, amused.
"Of course she'll be upset."
"God, why are women so difficult? Why do they read so bloody much into everything?" The butch said, frustrated.
"What is wrong with you, Jake? Why are you being so heartless about this? There's nothing wrong with exercising a bit of sensitivity, you know."
"But women expect so much."
"Honey, it's relatively easy to please a woman when you know how."
Kim appraised her friend with eyes that betrayed a wisdom belying her twenty-eight years, before letting out a sigh.
"You know what? I think you've got butch block." She pronounced.
"Butch what?" Jake looked at her friend as though she'd lost her marbles.
"What I mean is that your reluctance to show any kind of enthusiasm, even though I know you've been thinking about this woman ever since you met her, has a logical, and psychological, explanation."
"Alright, smart Alec." The butch was beginning to feel a little vulnerable - but she was damned if she was going to show it.
"Hit me with it. Tell me all about the insecurities lurking in my unconscious. I've no doubt got thousands of them. Should I get horizontal on the couch?"
"Very funny. Jake, you have defences." As she stated the obvious, Kim felt her irritation rise.
"But I don't think you realise that having those elaborately built barriers doesn't turn you into you a mysterious, romantic hero – it makes you downright frustrating. So whatever you do, please don't try and cultivate them. You can stride about with your elbows out and your nose in the air and say you're independent. I don't agree."
The femme paused for breath and added, a little more mildly, "Now let me finish what I was about to say. Someone hurt you terribly, didn't they?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I've never seen anyone so gun-shy in my life. And as a femme lesbian who's been dating butches for many years, that's worthy of note. Someone broke your heart so completely you're afraid to try again, I'm sure of it."
"Kim…you know I'm not scared of anything."
"Oh, I beg to differ." The femme looked as stern as her exquisite features would let her, in her eagerness to make her point.
"I know you're tough physically, Jake, and your job requires a great deal of emotional detachment and resilience that I can't help but admire in you. But put your heart at the mercy of a beautiful woman and you're absolutely petrified."
"I am not."
"Oh, spare me the argument and just admit it. You like this woman – you've told me as much, and even if you hadn't I'd be able to tell – it's obvious from the way you talk about her."
"But you're scared, because you know that you might not be able to leave and shut the door after the one night stand like you usually do. You'll probably want to see her again. And maybe again after that. And after that, who knows what might happen?"
"Kim, you're hallucinating."
"I don't think so. And what happens when you've known each other for a few months, a year, even? She might acquire the power to affect you, to get past the shields you have on alert. And the thought of letting those barriers down is frightening, isn't it? That, my friend, is what they call butch block. It's not that you're a cold, heartless womaniser - in fact, It's the opposite – you treat women badly because you're scared to unlock your feelings in case you turn into a great big ball of mush. And then the control that you cherish, sometimes over other people but mostly over yourself, might be threatened. And then when your girl leaves you, as you believe she always will, she'll take far too much of you along with her. You know I'm right."
There was a long pause, as the ethereal force in Kim's delicate grey eyes challenged her friend to defy her.
But she couldn't.
She's right. Jake thought.
I'm so scared to let anyone in that I can't even admit an interest half the time. Which is why all my relationships since Tara have been dead in the water before they even started.
Why can't I let go of the past? I was such an idiot then…
"Then" was while the dark woman was at college in London. She'd been studying for a qualification in Social Work, while at the same time getting heavily involved in all the social activities – and trouble – that university had to offer. Eventually she'd become entangled with a local drug gang – small timers, really – who would visit her small apartment most evenings and spend their time inhaling marijuana by heating a small lump clasped between a couple of knives on the stove. This procedure was imaginatively termed "hot knives", and they swore it got them stoned much quicker than usual – so by the time Jake left her student accommodation all the knives in her cutlery drawer were ruined. After enough of the substance had been consumed, the lads would retire to the sitting room to chat with Jake and her long-suffering flatmate, perhaps winding up a couple of deals on their mobile phones at the same time. Jake would never allow them to deal from her terrestrial line – she knew the risks well enough, having seen plenty of university dealers carted off to prison for Possession with Intent to Supply.
She didn't really experiment with the stuff herself – not after the first year, when she tried just about anything she could get her hands on that wasn't administered via a needle. Looking back now, she couldn't really explain why she'd done it – but at any rate, it was true that a social worker who was going to be dealing with kids who were using would be better able to empathise if she had a little understanding of what they did and the culture they were engrossed in. She hated it when people made proclamations about how drugs ruined lives, repeating what they'd heard in the right-wing press, without really knowing what they were talking about. It wasn't that she thought all illegal substances should be legalised – she knew both sides of the debate and honestly didn't have strong leanings one way or the other, mostly because she didn't really think the law could make much difference. But she hated self-righteous opposition that was only based in ignorance. Like the old argument that smoking pot automatically lead to injecting heroin.
Jake's friends were thankfully not involved in heroin – dope being their main business, with a bit of ecstasy, cocaine and speed on the side. They were criminals, yes, and could also be idiots, but all in all, she had fun.
Not too much fun, though.
The leader of the pack, Greg, was a rough but perceptive man who soon cottoned on to the fact that Jake was completely immune to any kind of masculine charm. Probably because she had plenty enough of her own. After confronting her about her proclivities, he made it his task to see that none of his cohorts overstepped the mark. More for their own safety than Jake's, he would readily admit – even at 19, the young butch was showing signs of the physical power that would for a brief period make her notorious across Northwest England, and would even earn her the nickname of "The Crow", because she regularly brought decimation in her wake. But whatever the reason, Greg's mantra became "nobody touches Jake."
That is, until Tara came on the scene.
Tara was employed as a podium dancer at one of Manchester's premier nightspots, and would often visit Greg or one of his cronies for a little cocaine to keep her energy – and her confidence – going. This should have been a warning signal to anyone on the alert: however, once the two women met all rational thought was burned out of their heads by a chemistry that was incendiary.
And unusually, the initial physical attraction lead to an equally ardent love. It lasted a few months – but Tara's residence in the UK was subject to the operation of her short-term Visa, which was nearing the end of its duration by the time she met the young Jake. In fact, the toast of Capetown's socialites winded up overstaying her welcome, loath to leave her new-found love and return to a home and country that continued to be beset with complications, even after Mandela had claimed both his freedom and the government. However, the Immigration and Nationalities Directorate caught up with her, and the love of Jake's life was unceremoniously given a week to pack her bags and leave. It was too bad that marriage between two women remained illegal, and that Tara was too proud and Jake too possessive for her ever to marry a man.
A devastated young Jake decided to quit university and follow her fugitive African consort. However, the funds and travel documents required took some time to amass, so during the year-long wait the two women kept up a lively correspondence via post and E-mail. Their love remained strong – or so Jake thought. But when she reached Capetown's International Airport, Tara turned up to meet her with a new partner.
A husband, no less.
One of South Africa's new generation of entrepreneurs, he was successful, moneyed, and male. Three things Jake couldn't compete with. She never realised that such a man was just an easy option, in terms of the wishes of Tara's family and the traditions of her ancestry, she'd never forget Jake. The cruel, exquisite African woman never told her that. She couldn't. She did what she thought was her duty while laughing at Jake for her "outmoded" loyalties and reminding her that open relationships were actually coming back into fashion. In short, she ripped out the vulnerable heart of the young butch and ground it up beneath her spike-heeled shoes.
Her hopes and plans shattered, Jake continued in South Africa, wandering the cities and old Bantu homelands with a heart cleft in two, and jobbing as a driver for tourist trucks full of camera-flashers. While on a restless drift through Johannesburg, she had a chance encounter with a couple of men who were associates of her old ally Greg. By this time too well known to the police in London, they'd made the trip over to the 'Burg in search of cheap LSD, which apparently was coming back into fashion among Britain's student populations. So Jake took the plunge back into the shadows, and when her new cohorts decided that the North Country was the safest setting for their return, she accompanied them to their next base – Manchester.
On her return to England, the bleeding heart of the wounded warrior breathed a sigh of relief, and she made a vow to never again to let Tara's name cross her lips. She'd never broken it. To start with the silence helped keep her together, and eventually the episode merged with the armoury of defences that made up the dark woman's personality – the most prominent hurt but by no means the sole source of pain.
"Jake." Kim's voice, a little gentled, dispersed the dark woman's melancholic recollections.
"You look so far away. Come back, please."
Blinking away the past and willing, as she always did, the remaining bruises to fade, Jake turned to her now repentant friend.
"Look, Jake…I'm sorry." Said Kim.
"I didn't mean to be so belligerent about it. You're entitled to be cautious. I just want you to be happy, that's all."
Jake took her friend's small hand in her own large one, still duly chastised, but a little mollified by the apology.
"I know you do. And you were right."
"I do block people out, I always have – because I'm afraid. And I'm attracted to Nia, so the once-bitten-twice-shy defence is on extra alert. Do you know what I mean?"
A sympathetic glistening in soft slate-grey eyes showed that Kim did.
"I wish you'd talk to me more, Jake – but I know I can't force you. You can't wallow in old resentments forever – one day it'll become an effort to keep them alive, and it really won't be worth it."
She patted her friend's hand.
"Do you think Nia is different to the woman you were involved with before?"
"Yes, I do." Jake replied without hesitation. "She makes me feel…safe." She admitted.
"Well, there's your answer." Replied her friend. "She's different - so don't treat her as though she's the same. Let yourself go, big brother. Don't hold back – or you'll regret it later."
"I'll try." Muttered the butch, as she headed for the door.
Kim didn't hear her whisper, "I just hope it isn't too late."
Continue on to Part Eight