First Light

by Emily Duncan

Chapter Four

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.

"Oh, God..."

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.

"NIIIIIIA!!!!!"

Came an ear-splitting, exasperated shout that told her she wasn't going to get a chance to find out.

Shit.

Max.

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.

Perhaps not.

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.

"Whatever."

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.

Right?

Right.

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.

"She's lovely."

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 think 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 attittude. 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 thought 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.

Shit.

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.

"She WHAT??"

"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.