Chapter Two

Sixty-seven, sixty-eight, sixty-nine...seventy.

Jake loosened the foot straps and slid off the rower. One foot behind the other, she stretched her calves, then brought her head to her knees and groaned in pleasure as her hamstrings tugged.

Five days had passed and the manager of Fire and Ice still hadn't called.

Why I am I so het up about this?

She blew out a breath.

It's not as though there's a shortage of pretty little blondes around...she reasoned, rocking back on her heels.

But somehow, she felt as though Nia promised more than the average golden-haired bit of fluff she was used to. She seemed intelligent, for a start, but it was more than that - the woman had an honesty about her that threatened to make the butch feel all at sea without a rudder. She chuckled as she remembered the blonde's nervous blunders during their conversation, her complete lack of guile making the interest immediately obvious. Jake was used to games and machinations in her personal relationships, and Nia's sincerity was refreshing and frightening all at once. It was a strength differing greatly from Jake's own, and it seemed to demand a matching authenticity that she didn't know if she could deliver.

It had taken the dark woman years to amass a battery of self-defence mechanisms, cementing them together with bitterness and resentment and building a fortress that by now was almost impenetrable. In contrast, Nia projected a gate that could be opened with a gentle push. It had drawn Jake in, fascinating her like the peculiar calm that follows a thunderstorm - serene, but at the same time alive with electricity. She was dimly aware of the quiet might that allowed the blonde to hold the door open - and had already sensed that it was greater than what was required for the maintenance of her own barricade. Nia knew only too well that vulnerability and understanding were necessary bed-partners, and her gentle nature gave her the power to marry them.

Jake stood up to her full six feet and stretched her arms above her head. She'd spent the past few days staring at the phone, checking her messages over and over - and had eventually decided that she needed to get over it. She rarely wasted time worrying about problems she could do nothing to change, and the fact that her thoughts seemed to be insistent on dwelling on the small Bar Manager was irritating to say the least. Working out was a tried and tested method of disposing with pent-up energy and frustration, so she had thrown some gym clothes in a bag and made her way out of the house - hoping to leave all vestiges of the blonde behind when she closed the door.

It wasn't working.

If she was honest with herself, the main reason for her chagrin was that her pride had been hurt by what she interpreted as a rejection. The butch was not accustomed to giving her home number to women she'd just clapped eyes on, preferring instead for them to come to her. And come they did - with unerring frequency. Pulled by the power of her physique, her piercing blue eyes and the air of mystery and authority that was the trademark of her potent yet very private personality.

But not, it seemed, the blonde bar manager.

Jake grinned at her reflection in the mirrored walls of the gym.

Your ego's working overtime...admit it. You wanted her to chase you and she didn't. Get over yourself.

Sucking at her bottle of water, she surveyed the machines. Jake was a regular visitor to this particular gym, preferring to come during the day when most people were at work - it was quiet, usually accommodating just a couple of dykes pumping iron to impress their new girlfriends. She watched these visitors with amusement, recognising the frailty beneath the machismo that fluctuated between being exasperating and endearing, depending on who the conduit was.

"Well, I normally push more weight than this, but I'm having an off day."

A voice carried over from the bench-press and the butch shook her raven head.

I wondered when Avril would show up. She doesn't have a hope of endearing anyone.

Avril was a dead ringer for the dyke your mother would have warned you about, if she'd been hip enough to consider the possibility. She cultivated a public face that caricatured the misogynist masculinity of the seventies sitcom - her staple line being, "Come on, baby...I know you want me...don't be such a tease."

Jake sniggered like a schoolboy behind the exercise bikes, remembering the numerous times she'd seen Avril end up with a hefty measure of gin and tonic in her face after pulling that particular trick.

People like her never learn.

Nia would give her short shrift...she thought. The bar manager was an innocent looking girl, yes - but one glance into those malachite eyes and you knew she didn't suffer fools gladly.

Why can't I get her off my mind?

The dark woman stomped over to the low pulleys, moved the pin up a few notches, gritted her teeth, and began to lift in furious frustration.

***

Jake took a quick shower in the women's changing room, crammed her tracksuit bottoms and T-shirt into her bag, and slipped into her jeans. Visions of strawberry blonde hair and green eyes swimming relentlessly through her mind as she towelled her own dark crop.

Nia serving behind the bar...Nia's hips swaying as she washed glasses in the sink...Nia blushing as she spilled the coffee, a little pout gracing her lips as she dispatched that cute little brunette Jake had been shamelessly checking out...

"Long time no see, big boy." Came a familiar voice.

Jake slipped the towel around her neck and flashed a wide and genuine smile.

"Kim!"

Thank God. Just the person to take my mind off this before I go nuts.

Covering the length of the changing room in a few short strides, she pulled her friend into a hug.

"It's great to see you." She whispered, into the girl's dark hair.

Kim and Jake had been friends for a little over three years, after meeting on the Internet on a discussion list for butch-femme lesbians. They had begun corresponding privately almost straight away, both relieved to find a sensible person in a forum that was mainly devoted to the discussion of makeup and power tools as people desperately tried to appropriate a role. The conversation had become quite flirtatious, and both were holding out a degree of hope that the relationship would turn into something passionate...until their first meeting.

It wasn't that Kim was unattractive - on the contrary, she was an extremely pretty girl, perhaps a little too pretty for Jake, who appreciated a little character in a face. Rich brown tresses sporting the latest cut framed her porcelain skin, and her small, delicate features almost looked like those of a doll. Jake wasn't surprised when Kim told her she used to earn her living as a model.

The body wasn't bad either, Jake had reflected on their first meeting, when they'd finally taken the plunge and decided to move their cyber-friendship into "real time". Kim was slender, perhaps a little on the skinny side, but shapely none the less.

In short, the pair made a stunning couple when they got together for a few drinks in a bar near the house Kim shared. And the initial meeting had gone remarkably well, with conversation flowing and very few awkward pauses. However, the sexual chemistry both had been hoping for staunchly refused to put in an appearance. After three or four drinks Jake made a half-hearted attempt to take Kim's hand across the table, and both subsequently sat in silence, staring at each other, unsure of what to do next.

Luckily, the irony of the situation won the day, and much laughter ensued.

"It's just not going to happen, is it?"

Kim disengaged her small hand from Jake's large one and looked at her with amusement.

"Damn!"

Try as she might, Jake couldn't prevent a snort escaping her at their unfortunate lot.

"I'm sorry." She sighed.

"I didn't mean to come on too strong. It's just that it's nigh on impossible to meet feminine lesbians on this scene. It's shaved heads and combats all the way - I've been bemoaning it for years. And now here I am sitting across from one of the most womanly women I've ever met, and something just doesn't feel right."

Kim giggled in derision and a little shared exasperation.

"You don't need to pay me compliments if you're not trying to get into my knickers, Jake."

The retort was wry, but her beautiful face soon settled into a more serious expression.

"I don't think it's me you're looking for." She said, softly.

Jake sighed again.

"Perhaps you're right. Looks as though we're destined to be friends."

And firm friends they had been ever since. Once the speculation regarding the sexual aspects of the relationship was over both found it easier to open up, and their friendship had gone from strength to strength. Jake appreciated Kin's gentle interest in her life, and as a result began to share some of her concerns with another person for the first time. In return, she became very protective of the bright, beautiful girl, watching over her in a manner akin to that of an anxious older brother.

Kim appraised the outline of her friend under the harsh light of the locker room.

"Well. Nice to see you're still tall, dark and handsome, Jake. Where were you on New Year's Eve? We missed you. Can you spare an hour to come home for a cup of tea and a chat with your neglected old friend Kim?"

***

Kim warbled along with the radio as she waited for the kettle to boil, smiling affectionately as she passed the open kitchen door and caught a glimpse of Jake on the sofa with one of her cats.

"Gabriel still loves you." She commented.

"I know." Was the modest reply.

Jake's friend chuckled, and poured water over the herbal tea.

She's so charismatic...even animals can sense it. She thought.

It's amazing. There's always been something so...primal...about her. It seems even more obvious than usual today. She seems almost ready to explode.

Wonder what that's all about?

Frowning, she gave the tea a stir.

I can see I'm going to have to do some digging. Jake doesn't give anything away for free.

The dark woman winked at Kim as she glided through the opening, and continued to scratch the ginger tom behind the ears, grinning when he wriggled with pleasure.

"I don't really understand I'm getting all this attention, though - doesn't he normally like men? It must be those testosterone pills I've been taking."

"He can sense your masculine energy."

The femme stated in a solemn tone, handing her friend a mug of steaming camomile tea. Jake chuckled and took it. Their battle over the dark woman's caffeine intake was long-running, and had wound up with Kim absolutely refusing to serve her friend a cup of coffee in her own house. The butch knew when she was beaten. And to her credit, she'd taken the defeat gracefully - after a short battle between pride, self-control and cognisance of the femme's good intentions, she'd given up the effort to argue.

"Would you like to stay for dinner?" Kim asked, curling her feet beneath her in the chair.

That ought to do it. She congratulated herself, as the butch shrugged and nodded.

I'll wheedle it out of her before the evening's over.

***

"So we're in this stately home at the back of beyond, and we can't leave. We're all shepherded into a darkened room, and as you can imagine, we're wondering what's coming next. You'll never believe what happened after that."

Kim's housemate Al had returned from a weekend away at a "stress-busting" workshop that sounded so bizarre it was bordering on the insane, and was recounting her experiences nineteen to the dozen. Jake and Kim were sitting at the kitchen table amongst remnants of cannelloni, Greek salad and Rioja, providing a captive audience and obliging the story-teller with mouths agape.

"What?" Asked Kim, indulgently.

"She put some rock music on and asked us all to express ourselves."

"She didn't!" Now the femme was genuinely aghast.

"She did. It was the middle of the day and I was stone cold sober. I don't think I've ever been so mortified."

"Whatever made you go, Al?" Jake asked, staring at the slices of cucumber she'd left on her plate.

"Long story. Condensed to the absolute basics - my damn libido."

Peals of laughter ensued as the listeners voiced their disbelief.

"You mean you went through all that just for a crush?"

Kim began clearing the plates away and filling the sink with hot water and detergent.

"Yep. Although I think after seeing her gyrate like Tina Turner I'm over those desires."

"But did you get any?" The dark woman only just managed to bury a grin.

"Nope. Big fat waste of time."

***

As Al dragged herself upstairs to bed, singing at the top of her voice and slightly off-key, Kim turned to Jake with contrition and amusement mingling on her beautiful features.

"Sorry about her." She muttered.

"She's a great girl, but she tends to forget that those around her get bored of being her audience after a while. She's an only child - she expects to be the centre of attention."

Jake's friend finished wiping the large pine table with a soft cloth, and sat down. Looking expectant, she patted the seat next to her until the butch complied and took it.

"Anyway, my sweet...now that my beloved housemate has retreated to her boudoir, it's time for us to get down to business. There was a reason I asked you to stay and eat with us, you know."

Kim concluded the brisk change of subject with a mock glare that was nonetheless penetrating. The brunette's perceptive nature was legendary amongst her friends, along with her ability to keep her finger on the pulse of exactly what was going on in their small community. However, despite her feminine tendency to gossip, those closest to her respected her unusual tact and ability to draw the line between harmful and idle chatter - as a result she never forfeited their trust when it came to more important information.

"Why?" Jake idly wondered whether she'd done anything recently that was worthy of note.

"You know why. Who is she, Jake?"

Shit. She's good...

Although she was aware it was fruitless, Jake elected to feign ignorance and glowered at her friend.

"I have no idea what you're talking about. Who is who? You're hallucinating...have you been smoking those funny cigarettes again, Kimmy?"

"Very funny." Was the retort.

"Denial won't work, Jake - you're too mean and moody to ever make a spectacle of innocence."

Jake stared at her boots to hide her discomfort.

She's right - I can't pull this off. She's going to get it out of me, and sooner rather than later.

Reading the butch's body language with one shrewd glance, Kim grinned and continued.

"Do you remember when we first met and I said you looked as though you were waiting for something?"

Eyes still glued to her boots, the dark woman granted her friend a minuscule nod.

"Well...now you look as though all your buses have turned up at once - but you can't remember where you put the damn ticket. So spill it."

***

Well, that was quite the interrogation...the butch observed as she fiddled with her key in the front door of her flat. Glad to see Kim hasn't lost her touch.

She chuckled as she let herself in.

I'm so pathetic - a pretty girl bats their eyelashes at me and I turn to jelly.

Still musing on that insight, she flicked the switch on the answerphone and began setting her sparse living room to rights as she listened. The first two messages were work related, and promised no end of hassle. She was pouring herself a cup of coffee when the tape reached the beginning of the third.

"Jake...It's Nia. I'm sorry I didn't call you before...stuff came up at work...but I'd like to go out for a beer or two sometime next week if you're still up for it. I hope you are...my home number's 458 0221...give me a call...OK...bye."

Jake sugared her coffee, set it down on the table, and played the message again before seating her long frame on the low couch.

Well, she called. So what now?

The dark woman realised that she'd been so busy speculating about whether Nia was going to ring or not that she hadn't even considered what her next move would be if she did.

And it suddenly hit her that she was more than a little nervous about calling the blonde bar manager who had dominated her thoughts for the past few days. In fact, she felt decidedly vulnerable - and that was a feeling she didn't enjoy one little bit.

Playing hard to get never hurt anyone, did it? She thought.

I don't want her to think I've been waiting by the phone.

She kept me cooling my heels for long enough - two can play at that game.

She pressed "delete" on the answering machine until the green light stopped flashing. She didn't bother to write the bar manager's number down.

***

Nia almost jumped out of her skin...and her bed...when she heard the phone ring.

It's 6:30 in the bloody morning! What sort of a freak would call me at this time?

Surely it can't be Jake...can it?

Grumbling and wrapping the duvet around her ears to drown out the sound of the driving rain, she lifted the handset and spoke.

"Hello?"

She groggily tried to make her voice sound bright, just in case it was the tall, handsome woman who had persisted in inhabiting the forefront of her mind for the past week.

"Hi there, Nia!"

It wasn't Jake's voice that replied.

"Sam?" She whisperd, as her heart sank into the floor.

Sam was...to put it mildly...a blast from the past. A relic from Nia's college days, when she had experimented with men in an attempt to satiate her desire for a firm hand, the thrill of yin and yang, the attraction of opposites. Before the revelation that was a long time in coming, when her senses and sensibilities had finally joined forces to tell her she was attracted to masculinity, alright - but men just didn't cut the mustard. Nia wasn't a man-hater by any means, and she'd had several meaningful friendships and a couple of very pleasant relationships with members of the opposite sex - but she'd eventually reached the point where she had to accept she was looking for that special person in the wrong place.

Sam had been 28 and Nia was 18. He was the DJ at the bar she was working in to make ends meet while she finished her education, and was a vivacious sort of chap - the life of every party. As a subdued and slightly skittish youth, Nia had been drawn to his charisma, and things had progressed to the point at which their attempts at a sexual relationship had made it apparent that Sam's magnetic energy was all a front. He'd only been interested in having a pretty girl he could control - and she'd become nothing but an accessory, a perk of his glamorous lifestyle. They'd gone their separate ways soon after, Nia moving to Manchester and making sure she didn't leave him a forwarding address.

Nia shuddered at the vision of her ex-lover hovering over her, moaning and grunting and never noticing the bored look in her eyes.

How on earth did he get my number?

"How are you, Nia?" Her old flame began to prattle, nineteen to the dozen. "I've never been better. I moved to London. I've got a new job - presenting at breakfast on Capital Radio."

"That's great." The bar manager vainly attempted to muster some enthusiasm for his news. "How's the show going?"

His reply made her wish she'd never asked.

"You tell me." He said. "You're on it."

"I'm sorry...what did you say?"

Nia lowered herself into a chair, for fear she might fall down.

"You're live on the radio, my darling. As we speak, the whole of London is listening. I thought you could help me to entertain them - I've told them all about my little Barbie girl."

Please, tell me I'm dreaming. This is just about the worst stunt he's ever pulled.

Sam had pulled these tricks all the time while Nia was at college. He had a spot on the university radio station, and made a habit of calling her while he was on air. She was expected to be dumb blonde or doting girlfriend as the mood suited - it gave him something to talk about when they went to industry parties, and it made him look virile, smart, and in control. It was beyond frustrating - being forced to play appendage in front of everyone she knew.

Nia choked back her anger. It was just like Sam to call her unannounced after years had passed, and expect her to put up with the same old shit.

Sorry Sam - I'm nobody's plaything any more. Find some other little blonde to harass.

She hung up, and put the answering machine back on.

***

I'm so pathetic.

Nia chastised herself as she put the kettle on.

I only answered the phone because I thought it might be Jake.

She threw two teabags in a small blue teapot.

I left that message over a week ago - why hasn't she called?

The kettle began to whistle.

Shit. I wish I'd called her earlier - she probably thought I was playing some stupid game.

But the truth of the matter was her planned phone call to Jake had been delayed for a very good reason - events at Fire and Ice had taken a remarkably unpleasant turn since Nia first met the fascinating, dusky butch.

It was the day after Jake's visit, and she'd been sitting in her office completing the spirit order when two large men barged in without knocking.

"Hi there, sexy."

Fuck...she thought. Why can't they just come here, do what they have to do, and leave me alone? I don't need this in my life.

"Is there a problem?" She asked, politely. "Everything's in the usual place. Or has the panel in the Gents come loose again?"

"Oh everything's just fine." The larger of the two sneered.

"We just thought we'd drop in and see our favourite bar manager."

Fantastic.

"Well, you've seen me now...is there anything else you want?"

Nia desperately tried to talk the aggressors out of her office, wondering if there was anyone upstairs who would hear her if she yelled.

"Well, now you come to mention it..." snarled the smaller, weasel-like companion,

"Perhaps there is something you have that we want."

The men advanced on Nia's desk, smirking at the terrified look in her eyes. One of them grabbed her wrist and held on to it tight, leaning so close to her that she could feel his hot breath in her ear and smell the stale sweat and cigarette smoke on his clothes.

"Come on, sweetheart...do yourself a favour."

Nia really thought it was going to happen this time. This sort of intimidation was a fairly frequent occurrence on the part of the controlling gang who were the best kept secret of the bar, but it had never gone far enough to make her believe they would actually do what they promised.

Until today, that is.

"Take your hands off me, moron." She plucked up all her courage and looked the nearest man directly in the eyes.

"You cheeky bitch!"

He backhanded her across the face and sent her sprawling from her chair.

"What are you, a dyke or something?"

If only you knew...Nia thought.

She looked up from her prone position to see both men bearing down on her, anger fuelling the lust in their eyes. The one who had slapped her unzipped his trousers.

"I think it's time to show you who calls the shots around here, sweetheart."

Nia closed her eyes to stop the tears from falling.

I've had nightmares about this...she thought miserably.

But when the chips were down, Nia was no shrinking violet. So she retained her self-possession, lifted her head and met their eyes without flinching - which just seemed to enrage them even more. You could have heard a pin drop as all three occupants of the office stared each other down.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

The most welcome voice in the world broke Nia first. She yelped with relief and jumped to her feet, diving straight for her assistant who was standing in the doorway, hands balled into fists, furious.

"I think you'd better leave - NOW!"

Max's face was purple with emotion.

"Before I call the police." Nia added, a little shakily.

Both men straightened up and headed for the door.

"Just a bit of fun." One of them spat, turning around. "No need to make a big drama out of it."

"Fucking dykes, the pair of you." Hissed the other. "And you know you can't call the cops."

Nia waited, face set, until the door was safely shut, then burst into tears and collapsed into Max's waiting arms.

***

Understandably, these events had pushed the all-important phone call out of the Bar Manager's mind. And the aftermath was almost as stressful as the attack itself. Max had kicked off big time, telling Nia she had to go to the police.

"Nia, if you don't report them, they're going to keep doing it!"

Nia sighed and fingered the rapidly darkening bruise on her cheek.

"Yes, I know - but if I do, then I'll lose my job, and put myself at risk of losing everything else, as well. You know it's true, Max."

She regarded her assistant with sad green eyes.

"The only reason they keep up this intimidation is to make sure I won't tell anybody. It's part of the system and you know it. They depend on my fear. And I am afraid. Two men, fully prepared to barge into my office and rape me in broad daylight. What else are they capable of?"

"But..."

"Dammit, Max! I can't even resign because that would make things worse. They'd never leave me alone if I left this place - they'd be too scared of who I might talk to. They'd have to make certain I wouldn't tell a soul. I'd be on the run."

"Well, why don't you speak to Matt about it?"

Max eventually asked, knowing that the manager was ready to snap and desperate to make some sort of suggestion.

"Come on, Nia - I'm sure he wouldn't be happy about his employees throwing their weight around like that."

Matt was the head of the drug cartel who owned the bar, and Max was right - he had a strict code of honour. "The murderer with manners", as Nia had christened him, was always perfectly pleasant and polite, unlike the thugs he hired to do his dirty work for him.

It was always the way...she reflected. Where there are bars, there are drugs. And where there are drugs, there are always thugs.

"But if I speak to Matt, they're going to know it was me who told him. What's to stop them coming after me and finishing what they started to get their revenge? I can't win, Max." A tear dripped from the end of the Bar Manager's nose.

"It frustrates me beyond belief that I can't handle this. I try not to let them get to me, but it's just so hard..."

Max drew Nia into a hug.

"Nia, this would test anyone's strength. And for what it's worth, you deal with them remarkably well. You never let them see how much they upset you, and I admire you for that."

Nia's assistant paused and looked at her boss. The sheer panic she saw in those usually cheerful features thrust straight at her heart.

"We'll put our heads together and work out a way to get you out of this mess...even if it means I have to deal with them myself."

Nia didn't like the sound of that.


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