DISCLAIMER: Xena Warrior Princess is the property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By Della Street
Janice glanced up over the edge of the dig, taking in the woman lounging on the blanket a few yards away. Ankles crossed, Mel fanned herself with a wide-brimmed hat, her face flushed. Janice frowned. She still wasn't used to this heat; maybe she should suggest that Mel go lie down in the tent.
She straightened her shoulders and grunted, absently brushing dirt off her pants. How did Mel always manage to look so attractive? Granted, she didn't get down in the dirt, but the sand blew across her the same as everyone else, didn't it?
The archaeologist readjusted her hat and turned to canvass the site. She was going soft, she grumbled. If Pappas couldn't handle the heat, that was her problem. She was only here to translate. She didn't need to be at the dig site, and Janice wasn't here to babysit.
The site looked the same as it had three minutes earlier, and Dr. Covington's gaze returned to her colleague. Mel replaced the hat on her head and brought a tablet onto her lap, squinting down at it in concentration.
Janice smiled. In the beginning, the fair-skinned woman had sought refuge from the glaring rays of the sun in her tent most of the day, making steady headway on the backlog of written materials the Covington expedition had unearthed before her arrival. With the easy finds out of the way, new strikes were fewer and farther between, and more often than not Janice did not have anything new to present to the translator. Still, there were enough tidbits, or questions, or breaks for the crew to bring Janice to Mel's tent a couple of times a day.
Every evening, the two women would get together and report on their progress. Even the smallest of finds was worthy of analysis, and often the discussions would carry into the early morning hours, until finally Janice would pull herself to her feet, waving casually before wandering back to her own residence.
A few weeks after her arrival, Mel had emerged from her tent one morning under a floppy white hat, wordlessly lowering herself to a blanket near the edge of the site. Janice scrambled from the hole. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing'," Mel answered, slightly taken aback. "I just thought I'd sit outside for a while."
Janice peered down at her. She seemed all right.
"Don't look at me like that, Janice Covington. I just wanted to watch what you all are doin' for a while."
"It's not that exciting."
"Well, not if all you're gonna do is stand here and yak at me," Mel concurred. She really hoped that the doctor would return to the site soon. The urge to fan herself was almost overwhelming, but she wasn't going to do it with those skeptical eyes watching.
"Did you put on some of that lotion I--"
"Yes, mama," she interrupted, smiling wryly. "Will you just go on, now? I'll be fine." For crying out loud--she had come out here to watch the archaeologist at work; now if she could just get her to work.
Janice shrugged indifferently. It was no skin off her nose if the debutante passed out from the heat. Miss South Carolina would figure out soon enough what it was like without half a dozen servants wafting cool air up her skirts. She turned to leave, then stopped and pulled a relatively clean rag from her pocket. She shook it, getting rid of most of the loose sand, and wet it from her canteen. "Here. You might want this."
Mel's daddy hadn't raised any fools, and she graciously accepted the offering, lasting nearly an hour before the sun drove her back inside. The next day, it was a little longer, and a little longer the next. She now spent much of the daylight hours outdoors, aided by the makeshift umbrella shelter Janice had had her men construct, moving it among various locations, depending on where Janice was working that day.
Janice was still contemplating her partner when Mel stood shakily, losing her balance. An outstretched hand kept her from landing squarely on one of her best features, and she sank down on the blanket again.
"Hey." Blue eyes looked up to see Janice by her side, the tanned woman's hand on her shoulder. "Drink this." She took a sip, and her eyes widened in surprise; the water was cold.
"How did you do that?" she asked, holding up the canteen. Janice shrugged and bent down, pretending to examine the tablet that the translator had been studying.
"Well, it's wonderful. Thank you." Mel smiled gratefully at her benefactor, and was rewarded with a slight upturning of the other woman's mouth. The investment in a small generator to keep water cool for Mel had been worth it, the doctor decided.
Encouraged, Mel spoke again. "So, Janice," she began casually, "are you going to stay out here while the men are gone? Or . . ."
Janice straightened, glowering. Damned inconvenient custom. The men would not work during the two-week religious observance, no matter what temptations she dangled before them.
She glanced over at the dark-haired woman, who had drawn her hair up behind her head to dab a wet towel against her neck. Well, there was one temptation the men hadn't been offered, she observed dryly. The explorer's intimidating snarl, reinforced by bull whip and shooting iron, had kept roaming hands from interfering with her assistant's work too often.
Of course, Melinda was oblivious to all but the most egregious affronts, but even then she persevered. In fact, Janice had to concede that the woman really complained very little about the conditions she lived and worked under, so different from the comfort she had enjoyed all but the last eight weeks of her life. She hadn't protested at all about moving into Janice's tent a few weeks go, even though it was strictly for the doctor's own convenience. Most of the local hires weren't exactly at the top of their social class, and the belle's delicate features had proved irresistible to one too many former employees. After the third time Janice had rushed to the other woman's tent in the middle of the night, revolver in hand, she had suggested moving Mel's cot where she could keep a closer eye on her. Now when she awakened at night, she could look over and see that Mel was safe, filtered moonlight illuminating her face.
"Goddamn it," she growled, her mind reverting to the impending two-week delay in the project.
Melinda blushed, still not accustomed to the epithets which flowed freely from her new partner. After a moment, she made a decision, and approached the blonde woman hesitantly. She reached out a hand, but her confidence ebbed and she withdrew it before it touched Covington's shoulder.
"Um . . . Janice?" she said, tossing her head shyly, "I was wonderin' . . ." She wasn't sure the other woman was listening. "Dr. Covington?"
The archaeologist turned to face her, scowling, and Mel swallowed.
"I, uh . . ." She took a deep breath and blurted it out. "I thought maybe we could go to the city while the work is shut down." She wrung her hands together hopefully. "I reserved some rooms for us at the Westin, and I got us some tickets for a . . ." The words trailed off at the expression on Covington's face.
"You did what?"
Mel lowered her gaze. "I thought you might enjoy spending some time in the city, it bein' a holiday and all . . ."
Janice snorted. "Ha. You mean you might enjoy spending some time in a nice, comfy hotel. You go right ahead, sweetheart; I've got work to do here. I'm not wasting money on some cozy cushions."
"I paid for it myself," the southern woman declared indignantly.
"Whatever. That's your style, not mine." Mel's lip quivered for an instant, then she stiffened and turned away. Janice stared at her. Tears? That seemed a little extreme. Lord, spare her from having to work with emotional females. "Listen," she said in what she hoped was a cheerful tone, "you should go. It'd be a nice break. I'll have one of the men drive you." She paused, trying to remember which of her employees she hadn't caught ogling Dr. Pappas' daughter.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the muted sounds of sniffling. 'Oh, for Christ's sake,' she thought, uncertain what her next move should be. She extended her hand to the other woman's arm. "Mel, is something wrong?"
Mel shook her head, not meeting her gaze. "It's nothing. You'll just think I'm stupid."
Janice winced; she really needed to remember to say more encouraging things to her new acquaintance. Nearly two months into their relationship, Mel still bore the brunt of Janice's impatience more often than she should. "No, I won't," she said soothingly. "I don't think you're stupid." Mel relaxed a little, and Janice continued. "You're a good partner."
Mel whirled around. "Oh, do you mean that? That means so much to me, Janice," she said, embarrassing Janice with her gushing.
"Sure. You're pretty good with that syntax."
"Oh. Well. Thank you."
Now what was the problem? Here she'd just paid her a compliment, yet the translator seemed disappointed. She couldn't win. "So tell me what's bothering you, Mel."
Mel glanced away uncertainly, then brought her gaze back to the other woman. She shrugged apologetically. "Next week is my birthday, and . . . we always . . . This is the first year since my daddy died . . ." Her voice cracked, and she clamped her lips together.
Janice could have punched herself. The poor kid. After a moment, she pulled her hat off and fanned herself with it slowly, running her gaze across the dig site. "You know, a couple of weeks away from this hellhole might not be such a bad idea."
"Really?" Mel asked hopefully. "Because if you don't want to,--"
"I want to." And, in a way, she did. It would be interesting to see Mel in an environment more familiar to her.
Janice gawked at the vision in white before her. The dress was fantastic, absolutely fantastic. And flattering. It clung nicely to the tall woman's frame, stopping just above well-toned calves.
"So, what do you think?"
"It's--" She cleared her throat. "It's great." Janice walked over to the bar and poured herself some ice water. She took several generous swallows, wiping her mouth on her sleeve, and turned back, only to discover that Mel had now taken the new dress off. She pivoted quickly, and gulped the rest of her drink. She'd been out in the desert too long, she told herself. She had heat stroke or something.
She waited until even the slowest dresser would have been back into her clothing, and swung around casually. "You're going to look gorgeous tonight. I'm kind of . . ." She looked down at her own clothing self-consciously.
"I like that outfit," Mel announced firmly, stepping closer to her friend. "It's very accommodating to your figure. Very . . . forceful." Janice blinked, not certain what she meant by that.
Mel reached out a hand, and Janice drew back suspiciously. "Hey, silly, I'm not going to pinch you." Mel brought her hands to the buttons on Janice's shirt. "These just need a nice going over. The hotel has promised to have them back by this afternoon. Come on, get 'em off." When it came to fashion, she was firmly in control.
Janice backed up a step. "I don't have anything else to wear."
Mel laughed and walked over to a closet, withdrawing a long robe. "There's one of these in your suite, too. Now get your clothes off, woman," she drawled.
Funny, Janice thought, she hadn't realized before how much she liked a Southern accent.
"I just hope he's taking care of them. I wish we had some of them with us." Janice took another sip of wine and rolled over onto her side, looking up at the woman propped up against the headboard.
She frowned, cursing that idiot Joxer for picking up her satchel -- and the scrolls with it -- by mistake, and herself for not noticing until it was too late. The women had tracked him until his passage to the United States, reluctantly concluding that the scrolls would be safer there until the war was over.
"Hey!" Janice held her drink up to keep it from spilling as the taller woman bounced off the bed.
"Well . . ." Mel said with barely hidden excitement, "I was waiting until I finished the translation, but . . ."
Janice sat up, her eyes flashing. "You--"
Mel wheeled around, holding a rolled parchment in front of her chest. "Had one with me he didn't get."
Janice jumped up and hugged her. "Oh, you doll! I love you!" She maintained the embrace a moment longer than she intended, then released the slender body. Mel held the scroll out over her head, teasing her, leading her toward the bed with it. The women dropped down on the soft mattress and Mel untied the string, Janice peering over her shoulder.
"Would you like me to read it to you?" Mel asked. Janice smiled and lay on her back. "That'd be nice." Mel shifted her body and drew the blonde head onto her lap, and Janice closed her eyes contentedly.
Mel gazed down at her for a moment, her heart beating faster. "It may be a little rough. I haven't finished analyzing the syntax." She glanced down at her rapt audience, and shifted nervously. "Um, it's kind of . . . personal."
Janice opened her eyes. "Personal?"
Mel nodded. "It's not like the rest. I noticed something different about it right off. That's why I kept it out. It's more . . . well, you'll see." She took a deep breath, and began to translate.
"She touched me last night. The moment I had been waiting for since the day I met her, since the day I was born, I think." Mel glanced down; no reaction yet. She willed her breathing to remain calm. "It began with a kiss. She was smiling at me, happy, and she leaned down to kiss my forehead. I had to know what her lips would feel like against mine."
Janice shot upright. "What the hell is that?"
Mel blushed. "I told you it was personal."
"That's not one of the Xena Scrolls. It's not about them."
"I believe that it is," Mel replied gently, picking up where she had left off. "Xena held back at first, afraid she would hurt me. My warrior, so fierce in battle, so gentle in love."
Janice bolted off the bed and paced for a while in silence, tugging on her hair. Finally, she spoke. "Have you read enough to know--is that Gabrielle?" Mel nodded. "Xena and Gabrielle . . .?"
"I'd say they were in love with each other." Mel lay the scroll down, disappointed. She had hoped Janice would respond to the intimate writing the same way she had. "It's a beautiful piece," she said. "Gabrielle had feelings for Xena quite some time before they . . . became intimate. But Xena never let on that she felt the same way until Gabrielle kissed her."
Janice looked at the beautiful woman in her own life, reclining comfortably on the king-sized bed. "That's understandable," she said. "Gabrielle was softer than she was, more refined." Her gaze locked with the other woman's. "Xena was hard. She had to live down her past. She didn't have anything to offer a woman like that." She paused, then added softly, "She was probably afraid."
"She shouldn't have been," Mel said quietly. "Gabrielle wanted her touch more than anything in the world . . ."
Drowning in deep pools of blue, Janice started toward the bed. A knock on the door broke the spell, but neither woman moved. After a moment, four clear and precise raps sounded again, and Janice turned to the dresser, unconsciously tightening the belt on her robe. "It's your room," she said, gesturing toward the door.
Mel wished she were a cursing woman. She hauled herself off the bed and stormed through the bedroom entrance to the door, fully intending to take out her irritation on whichever poor servant had picked this moment to disturb them. She jerked the door open, and her jaw dropped.
"Darlin'!" Long arms draped around her, and a tan face leaned in to kiss her.
Mel recovered, and pulled back. "Edgar! What in the world are you doing here?" She fought to keep the horror from her face. This was a disaster.
"Your attorney told me about makin' the hotel arrangements for you."
Mel smiled through her teeth. "I must remember to have a word with Mr. Harris about confidences," she said.
"He knew you wouldn't mind me knowing. Hell, he thought you might be makin' plans." He winked.
"I was," she muttered, still trying to recover from the unforeseen complication. "The other room is Dr. Covington's." She turned her head toward the bedroom, calling to the other woman, and Janice stepped into the room, her face tinted a slight pink.
"Edgar, this is Dr. Janice Covington, my partner." She smiled down at the smaller woman. "Janice, this is Mr. Edgar Whited."
"Her fiance," he added, extending his hand.
Janice froze, concentrating for a moment on tightening her belt again, finally remembering to take the proffered hand.
"So, you're the woman who's got my little darlin' traipsing all over the countryside," he said, a flinty look momentarily entering into his gaze.
"No, that would be me," Mel said sweetly. Edgar chuckled, and tightened his hold around her waist.
"My little explorer," he teased, leaning in for another peck on the lips.
Mel drew her face back. "Edgar, stop."
He glanced over at Janice, and took off his hat. "I'm sorry, ma'am. My manners have failed me. It's just that I haven't seen Melinda here for nearly the entire summer, and she is a sight for sore eyes."
"Yes, I'm sure you two have a lot of catching up to do," Janice stammered. She turned to her partner. "I'd better head to my room. They'll be bringing up my clothes pretty soon. I'll see you later."
"No, Janice, wait--" Mel stood motionless, her palm pressed against the door closed hastily behind the fleeing woman.
A blonde head banged against wooden panels on the door of her suite, over and over. What had she been thinking?
Mel pivoted slowly and leaned against the door, her hands resting behind her. Instantly she realized her mistake, as her visitor moved in on her.
"Well, now that we're alone . . ."
She wrested away from his grasp and sat on the bed, then quickly stood up again, wringing her hands. "Edgar, what are you doing here?"
"Gee, honey, you could be just a little happier to see me."
"I'm on a job, Edgar. I'm working on something important."
Her expression cooled at his tone. "Yes."
"Honey, I had her checked out after your first little surprise telegram. Do you know who she is?"
"Yes, I do. She's a brilliant archaeologist."
"I'm not talking about her academics, darlin'--"
"And the daughter of Harry Covington, widely known for bein' a grave robber," she said defiantly. "I know all about it. It doesn't change who she is."
"Widely known for being a grave robber, thief, and thoroughly corrupt. She worked with him for years, Mel; the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree."
Mel pressed her lips together, wanting to say something cutting, but knowing it was better just to let him have his say.
Rough fingers touched her chin. "Have you given her money?"
"Dr. Covington is not interested in money. She pays me a salary." Well, she'd offered to, but Mel had refused it. Janice hadn't asked, and Mel hadn't told, about the healthy trust fund that had been established for her upon her grandfather's death some years ago. She hadn't looked forward to the sarcastic remarks she would have heard -- or worse, not heard -- about that little item.
"A salary? Can't be much."
Mel gathered her resolve, never in excess supply in the presence of her fiance's dominating personality. "I don't wish to discuss it any further, Edgar. She's doing important work, and she needs me."
He chuckled. "She needs you? For what?"
"To help her translate," she replied, a molecule of self-doubt beginning to creep in. "That's what I do."
"Darlin', what you do is look pretty and smell good. You're no scholar."
"I am!" she said. The molecule was threatening to become a tidal wave. "My daddy taught me--"
"Yeah, I know, your daddy taught you," he repeated. "So tell me, has Covington told you she needs you?"
Mel stood still for a moment, her face betraying her. He smiled at her, his point made.
"She says . . . my syntax . . ." she faltered. "She does need me," she finished curtly. She did. Mel knew it, even if the scientist didn't come right out and say it.
"No, she doesn't, and you know it, darlin'" he said smoothly, circling her waist. "But we need you back home. You should be with your family, your loved ones, not with some stranger who probably resents having to watch out for you."
She pulled away from his hold. "I need to get ready now, Edgar. We'll have to finish this discussion later."
"Get ready for what?"
"We're having dinner, and then we're going to a play."
"Sounds great. I'll have a man bring up my evening suit."
"No! I mean, I made these plans with Dr. Covington."
"Well, I'm sure she'll understand. She's had you for the past two months."
A light tap sounded on the door. Mel crossed the room and opened it, delighted to see Janice standing there in the full glory of her newly pressed clothing. "Wow," she murmured, running her eyes up the familiar attire to the woman's still-damp hair.
Janice's shoulders moved up and down. "Guess it doesn't hurt to be clean once in a while."
"Let's ask her, Mel." The man's voice boomed from the other side of the room.
"Ask me what?"
"Nothing." Mel turned to him. "I told you already."
"Told him what?"
"Nothing." Her gaze returned to the smaller woman's body. "You're gonna look gorgeous tonight yourself," she said quietly.
"Uh, well, that's what I came to tell you." The archaeologist shifted uncomfortably on her feet, and the smile began to fade from Mel's face. "I've been thinking. I don't really think it's a good idea to leave the dig right now. Someone might take advantage of the timing to do some damage. I'm not sure I trust the guys we left there--"
"No," Mel broke in. "I'm sure it's fine." She lowered her voice. "Please don't--" She heard patent leather shoes approaching behind her, and left her plea unfinished.
Janice held out her hand. "Good to meet you, Whited." She resisted the temptation to squeeze his fingers a little harder than necessary, and turned back to Mel. "I'll be at this site til the end of the year, if . . ." She shook her head. "But I probably won't be finding any new scrolls for a while, so I really won't be needing you, . . . so . . . see you around sometime." She turned and walked away.
Mel stared after her, tears filling her eyes. How had everything gone so horribly wrong?
"Well, that answers that." Edgar's chipper voice only served to depress her further. "Let's get ready for dinner." He smiled broadly. "Did you buy a new dress for the play?"
She stared down the empty hallway. "No."
Janice looked around, hands at her sides. No sign of foul play, but her hired sentries were nowhere to be found. Her lip curled. Untrustworthy bastards. She fingered her whip; if she spotted them in the village, she'd extract her payment from them one way or the other.
She smiled ironically. So it really was a good thing she'd come back. Tearing herself away from her friend -- her employee, she amended -- had been one of the hardest things she'd ever done.
She rolled her eyes. That showed just how far gone she was -- coming within a hair's breadth of jumping the poor woman on the bed, then experiencing pure jealousy when her boyfriend showed up. Boyfriend, hell--fiance.
It would have been nice if Mel had mentioned him even once. It was pretty clear now just how little they knew each other. Mel didn't even feel close enough to share something mildly relevant like the fact that she was engaged to be married. When exactly was she planning to mention it? In the middle of some project, when she just up and ran off to get married? Pretty damned inconsiderate to keep it to herself, really.
Janice pulled off her boots. Of course, she hadn't exactly been forthcoming with the other woman herself, but that was different. It's one thing to mention your fiance -- perfectly respectable, even expected -- and another to mention that you'd like to tear someone's clothes off and bury your face in her--
Whoa. She didn't need images like that at the moment, thank you. It was ridiculous to have these feelings about a woman, anyway. She never had before. Janice raised her hand to her forehead. Maybe she really did have some form of heat stroke. She had been feeling warm a lot lately. That could easily be it. '
Right. And by remarkable coincidence, it started just about two months ago,' she reminded herself dryly. She closed her eyes, embarrassed at what she had nearly done in Mel's hotel room. Had the knock come five seconds later, she would have been on top of the helpless woman, her mouth smearing that bright red lipstick. "Oh, god," she groaned at the remembered humiliation, burying her head in her hands.
"You've been awfully quiet. Didn't you like the play?" They walked slowly back toward the hotel, her arm tucked in his.
"It was fine. It just wasn't what I had in mind." Mel tried to keep focused on the conversation.
"What did you have in mind?"
She sighed. "I don't know. Something I couldn't have. Something I was foolish to want." She stared out ahead of her. "It must have been the heat. I was starting to think things . . ."
"What are you talking about?"
She shook her head. "Nothing."
Edgar's eyes ran down her conservative plum suit. "You know, I think you've lost a little weight, darlin'." He leaned closer, and she tensed.
"Look at that statue, Edgar. Kinda looks like old Mr. Weathrington, doesn't it?"
His arm left hers, and snaked around her waist. "You're beautiful. We're here, alone in an ancient city . . . I think the time is right, Mel."
She pulled away. "No, Edgar, we've talked about this. Not before we're married."
"But then you keep putting off the damned wedding," he grumbled. He valued her sense of propriety, but prudishness started to wear thin after a while.
"Please don't swear, Edgar," Mel said primly. She glanced at her escort, smiling anxiously. "I can't help it if things come up unexpectedly."
"Like a little road trip to Macedonia?"
"Um, well, you know, I had a telegram from her . . ." Mel waved her arms around. "She needed help right away. It was important."
He frowned. "And just what did you get out of all that, anyway?"
She spun around excitedly. "We found them! The Xe--some important scrolls. When they're translated, it'll be the greatest archaeological find of the century," she said, echoing Janice's words.
"How many have you translated?"
"Only one so far. The rest are in America."
He stopped walking. "Wait a minute. You came over here to translate these scrolls, you haven't translated them yet, now they're in the U.S., but you're here?"
She repeated the question to herself, making sure she remembered all the subparts. "Yes."
"What the hell are you still doing here, Melinda?"
"Janice thinks there may be some more scrolls," she said. "They've been found on two sites already," she added, warming to her subject. "It's really very interestin'--"
"I don't give a damn about the stupid scrolls," he interjected. "I give a damn that my wife-to-be has been lying to me. What's going on, Mel?" She pursed her lips, trying not to show her nervousness. "Are you in on it with her?"
"In on what with her?"
"Some scheme, ripping off artifacts or something." He shook his head. "No, you don't need the money. So what's in this for you?"
"You're being ridiculous, Edgar Whited. If you can't accept the fact that I am accomplishing something on my own for once, that is your problem."
He knew this woman too well not to know she was hiding something. Fortunately for him, Melinda Pappas was the worst liar on the face of the planet. All he had to do was hit on the right topic, and he'd have her.
"It's not a money thing," he said, as much to himself as to her.
She stared silently at him.
"Is it her? Covington?" Ah ha. A home run on his first swing.
"Okay. What is it about her?" Mel tried to pull her arm away, and his grip tightened. "You like her?" He couldn't read her expression, but knew he'd hit home again. "Okay . . ." he continued, watching her closely, waiting for more clues to cross her face. "You like her . . ." Suddenly he dropped her arm, disgust oozing out of every pore. "Oh, my god. What has she done to you?"
"Nothing!" she shouted. "She hasn't done anything! Except treat me like a human being," she added pointedly.
He turned away, pressing two fingers to his forehead. "I should have known. Look at the way she dresses."
"That's what archaeologists wear, Edgar," she snapped. "Not that I'd expect you to know. That would have required some interest on your part in my career."
He would not be distracted. "Have you been to bed with her?" he asked bluntly, his anger rising sharply at the notion that his fiancee had given this Covington bitch what she wouldn't give him.
"No, I have not," she said, but her mind flashed, unbidden, back to that instant in the hotel room when she thought Janice had shared her desire, thought she would finally get to hold her as she had fantasized about for so long.
She felt herself flushing and quickly tried to refocus, but it was too late; Edgar had seen the look on her face. "Jesus, you're lying. I'm gonna kill her." He grabbed her arm, dragging her up the street toward the hotel, "and then you're coming home with me."
Mel sat as far away from him as she could in the car. She would have jumped out, speed be damned, but he had gotten directions to Janice's camp from someone in the village, and would just go there without her. At least she could help Janice this way.
It was no good; Janice could not get to sleep. Her mind kept drifting back to that hotel room, imagining what might have happened if Mr. Suntan hadn't shown up. If Mel had responded to her kiss, to her touch . . .
It didn't matter now, anyway. Melinda Pappas was gone, and she was going to stay gone. Probably halfway home to South Carolina, if Mr. Possessive had his way. She wished she'd popped him one, just once across those smug chops of his--
She sat up, alert, at the sound of a vehicle approaching. She listened as it drew nearer, nodding absently. Definitely a car, and a new one at that. Whoever it was had money, at any rate. She dressed calmly, checking her weapons before she stepped outside, and lit a cigar, the small flame illuminating the darkness.
Two bright headlights came into view, and the car skidded to a halt a dozen yards away. Janice drew her revolver, narrowed eyes watching as the driver and passenger doors flew open at the same time. A male figure strode toward her, his features obscured by the blinding lights. Suddenly a leaner silhouette grabbed at him. "Edgar, don't!"
The cigar dropped from Janice's mouth. Mel? She holstered her handgun and started for the source of the voice she knew so well.
Rage surged through the doctor as she heard the unmistakable sound of a hand striking flesh, and saw the smaller form stumble to the ground.
An instant later, Edgar Whited stood a few inches from her, anger distorting his features. Janice appraised him coolly, every ounce of her willpower focused on not killing him where he stood. She didn't know what was going on, but she had to remember this was the man Mel loved.
"What's your problem, Whited?" she said. "I don't like it when people beat up on friends of mine."
"My problem is your relationship with my wife."
Janice's ears detected the soft crunch of shoes crossing the sand, and she sensed Mel near her. "I'm sorry, Janice," the woman said miserably. "Edgar has developed this" -- she turned her head toward him -- "this CRAZY idea that . . ." She broke off, too mortified to continue.
"That you've been bedding my fiancee." He finished it for her.
Janice hoped he couldn't see her face clearly in the dark. After a moment, she found her voice. "Didn't she tell you it wasn't true?"
"Yes, I did!" Mel interjected.
"Seems to me you have your answer then."
"I think you're both lying."
Janice shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "Now, I don't know what makes me madder," she said, her voice low, "you calling me a liar, or calling someone I care about a liar."
Mel perked up. Janice cared about her? Her attention refocused at the sound of Janice's voice again.
"In deference to Mel's feelings for you, I'm going to let you walk out of here, Whited. Mel, are you going or staying?"
The translator swallowed. "I'll be staying," she said meekly, glancing briefly at her fiance.
"No, you won't," he said, crossing over and grabbing her arm, causing
her to cry out in pain. Instantly his arm was jerked back, and Janice
backhanded him savagely. He dropped to the ground and she picked him up by
his collar, bringing her knee up into his groin. She held him up by the
collar, drawing back her fist--
'The man she loves. The man she loves.' The words came back to Janice, her brain doing battle with her surging adrenalin. After a moment she punched him in the face, hard, and he slid to the dirt. She uncoiled her whip, and heard a gasp.
"Janice . . ."
"Don't worry, honey. I won't waste good leather on the likes of him." She knelt and rolled him over, quickly binding his hands and feet with the dark material, then hauled him up, dragging him over to her truck. Opening the passenger door, she pitched him onto the seat, slamming the door behind him.
"You follow behind me in the car. We'll drop your boyfriend off at the hotel." She wondered if Mel would really join her for the return trip.
She looked up to see that her assistant hadn't moved. "Is there a problem?" she asked, a little annoyed.
Mel held out her hands. "I'm sorry." Janice waited. "I can't drive."
The corner of Janice's mouth curled. The evening just got better and better. She'd never get a cabby to bring her back out here at this hour. After a moment, she decided to leave the car and take the truck; Whited would have to make his own arrangements to retrieve his rental.
"I'll be back by sunup," she said.
"I'll be here," Mel replied, relieved that Janice wasn't expecting her to ride with them. She didn't particularly want to face her angry fiance again at the moment.
Janice stepped up to her, holding out her hand. Mel smiled and reached out to her, but then saw that the other woman's hand was not empty. "I don't need that," she said nervously.
"I don't think you will either, but just in case." She placed the revolver in Mel's fingers. "Hold it like this. If you run into trouble, just . . . like this . . ." she illustrated with one hand, the other on Mel's forearm.
"Janice, I'd rather not--"
"I'm not leaving you here alone unless you take it. If you want to squeeze in between your boyfriend and me for the next few hours--"
"No! I'll do it." She cringed at the heavy steel weighing on her wrist.
The women stood wordlessly for a moment, both wanting to say something, but neither able to come up with the words.
"Well, see you later." Janice moved toward the truck. She opened the door and raised her foot to the sideboard, then turned back. "Are you sure you want to stay here?"
Mel nodded, then realized that Janice couldn't see her in the dark. "Yes," she said simply. A moment later, the truck pulled out, and she was alone.
A loud groan heralded her passenger's return to consciousness. After a moment, his mind registered that he was in a moving vehicle, the dizziness in his head gradually adjusting to the constant motion. He glared at the driver's confident profile.
"Do you want something to drink?" Covington's eyes scanned the black expanse in front of them.
"I don't want anything from you."
"Suit yourself." She glanced over at him, reaching into her pocket for a cigar. With a little maneuvering, she lit the end, and inserted the stogie between her teeth. "You know," she said, chomping steadily, "Mel didn't lie to you. We're not--" She found herself at a rare loss for words. "She's not my bed warmer," she finished crudely. She could speak crude.
"Why else would you keep her around?"
"Because she's helpful to me."
"You really don't think much of her, do you?"
"That's a stupid question. She's my fiancee."
"That doesn't answer my question."
"What would you know about it?"
She shrugged. "I know that Mel Pappas has a lot of qualities that should be appreciated."
"And I'm sure I know which ones you appreciate most."
Janice ground away on the cigar, wrestling with her rising temper. 'Don't,' an inner voice commanded. The voice had served her well over the years, but this bastard was talking about the woman she loved. She stopped chewing. 'The woman she loved?' Where did that come from?
"You're selfish, Covington."
"Button it, Whited." She needed to think.
"You're gonna ruin her life."
"Shut - up - Whited."
She lashed out and clamped her hand on his throat. "I asked you politely. Now I'm telling you. Shut up." She released him, and brought her hand back to the wheel.
"Fine. I don't give a damn. You can have the frigid bitch."
She fought to control her breathing. She could kill him right here and dump his body for the scavengers. In less than a week, there'd be no sign of the corpse. What did Mel see in this guy? After a moment, she addressed him, speaking deliberately.
"You know, Whited, maybe I'll take you up on that. I hadn't really thought about it before, but she is one gorgeous woman. That body . . . Mmm . . ." she growled. "We sleep in the same tent, you know. I watch her when she takes her clothes off . . ." The image seeped into her brain. "One of these nights, I might just go over to her cot . . ." She withdrew the cigar, exhaling a long trail of smoke, letting his imagination complete the picture.
Dark eyes bore into her wordlessly, and they rode the rest of the way in silence.
Mel held the khaki material up, smiling excitedly, then nodded and handed them to the proprietor. Her first pair of pants. She hoped Janice would like them.
With the small packages tucked under her arm, she stepped outside and peered into the adjacent storefront. Suddenly she felt hands on both arms, her body lifted almost entirely off the ground. Garbled sounds began emanating from one of two men in suits standing a few feet away, and she stared at him, wide-eyed, until her ears picked up a familiar word.
"Covington? Yes--I mean, I'm Dr. Covington's assistant," she said, trying to be helpful. The unintelligible noises began again, and she listened until he seemed to come to a stopping point, shaking her head apologetically. "I'm sorry. I translate ancient Greek, I don't really speak it. AH -- DON'T -- SPAKE -- GRAKE," she pronounced slowly for his benefit.
The second of her observers stepped forward. "I am Anton Zurasan. You are . . .?"
"Mel -- Melinda Pappas. Dr. Covington's partner."
"Which is it? Partner or assistant?"
Good question. It seemed to depend on Janice's mood these days, which had been completely unpredictable since the incident with her fiance--former fiance, she corrected. "Partner," she said decisively.
"I see." He gestured to the minions gripping her arms. "You will come with us."
"I--" And then she was lifted off the ground. The men virtually carried her down the street, the bottoms of her shoes occasionally scraping the ground.
She twisted her head around, spotting one of the men who had accompanied her to the village. "Um . . . help?" she called to him. "Haaayulp!" she yelled more emphatically, throwing in a facial contortion in case she was being too subtle. He shook his head. "Well, thank you very much!" she shouted after him.
Janice glared down at her cot. What idiot had unloaded all of this--an image of Mel flashed into her head, and she chose another word--stuff on it? She just wanted to lie down for a couple of minutes. It was a luxury she didn't afford herself very often, and when she did, she didn't want to be foiled by a cluttered bed.
She glanced across the tent, and after a moment walked over to Mel's cot. What the hell.
The dark-haired woman shoved her glasses back onto the bridge of her nose, and patted the roll of hair pinned into a neat bun behind her head. "Well! I believe there is a need for manners to improve," she said stiffly.
"Miss -- Pappas, is it?" The taller of the two men lit a cigarette, studying her over his cupped hands.
"I will come straight to the point. It has been reported to us by reliable sources that Dr. Covington has violated our antiquities laws by smuggling valuable artifacts out of the country."
Mel's mouth fell open.
"Of course, we are not completely surprised, given her family tradition."
"I -- I don't know what you're talkin' about," Mel stammered, adding with more conviction, "but Janice Covington is a decent person, and I will not listen to slurs against her."
"You'll listen to whatever we say." The voice came from over her shoulder, and Mel jumped. She had almost forgotten about the second of her inquisitors. "Janice Covington is a thief, as her father was."
Mel stood. "I demand to be released this instant."
A heavy hand clamped down on her shoulder and shoved her down. "Shut up and answer our questions," he ordered, his English not quite as accomplished as that of his colleague, but definitely understandable. "Tell us about the Xena scrolls."
Mel could feel the color begin to drain from her face. "Oh, my," she breathed, sliding to the ground.
Janice pulled the sheet up around her neck. Just a little nap. She'd stayed up too late with Mel again, talking about something she couldn't remember now that had seemed important enough at the time. Sending Mel to the village for supplies had been an inspiration; maybe Janice could concentrate on something else for at least those few hours.
She smiled, remembering the expression on her men's faces when Mel climbed in behind the wheel of the truck. Her pupil's eager anticipation -- "Practice!" -- had burned itself into Janice's heart, the men's panicked protests from across the camp silenced with a single meaningful caress of her whip.
She burrowed deeper into Mel's pillow, breathing in the aroma of the woman who slept in this bed every night. She pressed her face into the pillow, groaning softly at the unique scent that could drive anyone to distraction.
A soaked rag pressed against her forehead, and Mel's eyelids fluttered open. She had just needed a few minutes to prepare herself; she was ready now.
"My, this heat . . .," she proclaimed, putting everything she could remember from charm school into it. She turned to the more civilized of her questioners. "It's so much more intense than back home in South Carolina. Have you ever been to the States, Mr. Zurasan?"
"Tell us about the scrolls," the other man interrupted.
"The scrolls," she repeated haltingly. "Well, of course, I've heard rumors about the scrolls. Dr. Covington has been searching for them for some years, as I'm sure you know. What exactly are you asking?"
"Where are they?"
"Well, I certainly wish we knew," she answered truthfully. "Do you know, Mr. ---?"
"We both know," he snarled, leaning down until his face was inches from hers. "Covington found them and sold them."
"No! I can most emphatically assure you that Janice--Dr. Covington has not sold the Xena scrolls. She would never do that."
"You're lying, as I would expect from the partner of a thief. Tomorrow we will tear her camp apart, and your friend will be deported, never to darken our soil again."
"Deported?" Mel shook her head. "No, you can't do that! Janice has devoted her whole life to finding the scrolls. You can't--"
"We can, and we shall. Frankly, it should have been done years ago," he added, casting a pointed glance at the other official. "Of course, such decisions are in the hands of the antiquities administration, but I am pleased that we have finally reached agreement on this occasion."
He scrutinized her closely for a moment, ultimately concluding she wasn't worth his time. Covington was the brains behind this operation. He strode to the door, then turned back. "Zurasan?"
The administrator fingered his moustache. He spoke a few words in Greek and the other man left the room, closing the door firmly behind him.
Mel stared, unseeing, at the floor, her head spinning. Zurasan perched on the corner of the desk, surveying the exquisite female before him. "I'm sorry, but you must understand. We cannot have people selling our country's heritage for private gain."
She sighed. "She didn't."
"Our information has come from a most reliable source."
"It would not be proper for me to say."
Mel frowned. She hoped it wasn't one of the workers Janice had disciplined for making advances to her. This whole terrible situation might be her fault.
"But as one of your fellow countrymen, his word is given much credit."
Fellow countrymen . . .? The realization struck her with almost physical intensity and she paled, a sick feeling enveloping her. She took a deep breath and tried to focus. Would it do any good to tell him about Edgar's hatred for Janice? She'd have to explain the embarrassing circumstances, but nothing was more important than Janice's work. She lowered her gaze, knowing it wouldn't really make any difference to them. Tears welled in her eyes. So this was her fault, after all.
The official's smooth voice broke into her thoughts. "You know, in many ways I will be sorry to see Dr. Covington go. I have found her quite stimulating to deal with. A very interesting woman."
"Yes," she managed weakly.
"Quite unlike you, though, no?"
"She does not have your subtle charm, for instance." He rose and paced across the floor, smoke rings rising from his cigarette. "Of course, her life has been a difficult one. She has worked hard for many years with little reward. It can be frustrating."
"Then surely you understand how devastatin' it would be for Janice to make her leave," she pleaded.
"Yes, I can, but we all have our jobs to do." He stopped directly behind her, and sighed. "Unfortunately, my work too has few rewards." He slid his fingers into Mel's hair, releasing it to fall around her shoulders.
She started. "What are you . . .?" She twisted her head around to meet his gaze, and went silent at what she saw there.
"As you say, Dr. Covington would be devastated. Her life's work over, banished, branded a criminal throughout the archaeological community." The hand left her hair, and trailed down the side of her face. "She is your friend and partner, is she not? It must disturb you greatly to think of her fate." His fingers wandered down her neck, coming to rest on her shoulder. "I think we have much to discuss," he said.
Mel looked down at her clenched hands and closed her eyes.
"Where the hell is she?"
Great. First, she had overslept, sinking into a deep sleep in Mel's bedding, waking to the dark-haired woman's delicious fragrance, only to realize it was just a pillow and not the woman herself she was inhaling. Now her men had returned from town without her assistant.
The object of her wrath emitted a nervous stream of verbiage, coherent enough in parts for Janice to piece it together. Miss Pappas had met up with an acquaintance, and was staying the night in town. She would be back in the morning.
"A man?" she asked, frowning at the affirmative response. What acquaintance could she possibly have met in this out-of-the- way place? "An American?" This time her listener shook his head. "A Greek?" A nod.
Now that really made sense: Mel, who didn't speak a lick of the language, met a Greek acquaintance in the middle of nowhere and decided to spend the night with him. She stopped abruptly. Spend the night with him?
"She was with this man when she talked to you?" Another yes. "Was she staying with him?" A shrug; how would he know? She stepped closer to the quivering employee. "Now, listen to me. Was she in any trouble?" His head shook back and forth so rapidly she half expected him to hurt himself. He wouldn't have left Miss Pappas if she was in trouble, he assured her.
She waved him off, and he scurried away. She could go into town and look for Mel, but that would take hours, in all probability unnecessary. And if she did, Mel might think she was obsessed with her--which is exactly what she was.
She'd wait til tomorrow.
Four long, black automobiles pulled up, trailed by clouds of dust. "What now?" Janice muttered. She pulled off her gloves and waited for this latest problem to announce itself. Car doors opened, and four, then eight, men filed out.
One man from the lead vehicle circled the front of the car to open the passenger door, and a shapely leg came into view. Janice stared as Mel stepped out onto the ground, but then her line of sight was cut off by two men standing in front of her. That slime Zurasan and some other goon, she observed, annoyed already.
"Pardon us for the intrusion, Dr. Covington," Zurasan said, "but I'm afraid a most serious accusation has been made against you." Janice's eyes involuntarily flickered over to Mel, and Zurasan laughed. "Not by her. Your assistant is most loyal."
Her attention returned to him. "What kind of accusation?"
"It has been reported to us that you have smuggled valuable artifacts out of the country."
"Yeah? Reported by who?"
"Where are the Xena scrolls?" his colleague interrupted.
"Well, I've got a lot of money riding on this spot," Janice said, gesturing toward the dig site.
"We know you have sold them!"
"Kind of an excitable fella," she said to Zurasan, nodding in the other man's direction.
"We are talking about our nation's heritage, Doctor," he replied evenly. "You of all people can understand the passions involved."
The last few words eluded Janice, her attention diverted by the sight of Mel hesitantly approaching. Suddenly the smaller man barked out an order, and men poured into their tent, the supply tents, and even the latrine, scouring the site. "Hey!" Janice instinctively reached for her revolver, but Mel's hand held her wrist.
"Janice, let them," Mel said. "It will help prove that you're innocent."
"They're tearing up the place!"
Again the calming voice brought her back down to earth. "Please, Janice. It'll be all right."
Janice watched, hands coiled into tight fists, as half a dozen men violated their privacy, pawing through their possessions, interrogating their workers. Periodically, the searchers would report to Zurasan, the men conferring quietly in their native language outside of Janice's hearing.
Finally, the administrator called out to his subordinates, and the men gathered one by one near the automobiles. "There is nothing here to support the accusations," Zurasan announced loudly in English. "I declare them to be unfounded."
The archaeologist gaped at him, dumbfounded. She glanced at Mel, noting suspiciously that the other woman didn't seem to share her surprise.
She turned her head then at raised voices; the two men were arguing now. Janice listened with only half an ear, but it was clear who had the upper hand. The antiquities administrator had the final say, and he had cleared her. The bigger question in her mind was why.
The confrontation ended with a few well-phrased epithets and a dismissive wave of the administrator's hand as his angry colleague marched toward a car, his wheels soon spinning out on the sand. Janice watched the abrupt departure, then whirled at the sound of a crash within their living quarters. She hurried inside, spying the clumsy sneak in the corner. She caught his arm with her whip, jerking him forward until his face connected with her fist. "Didn't you hear? Your little outing is over," she said.
She looked down at shards of a vase that had formerly rested on her writing table. "Have you got the money to pay for that?" At the shake of his head, a slow smile spread across her face, but he did not mistake her expression as friendly. "Good. I'm in a really bad mood."
He emerged from the tent a short while later, assisted by the archaeologist's dark boot, and hobbled to one of the remaining government vehicles, jumping inside and locking the door behind him. Janice followed him outside, noting that Zurasan and her partner were no longer beside his car. Her ears picked up the deep tones of his voice, and she crept silently around the side of the tent.
"I regret that I have to leave, Miss Pappas. It has been most enjoyable making your acquaintance." There was a pause, as if he expected her to reply. "I may be in the village again next month, and would like the pleasure of your company for dinner." Silence for a moment, then, "I prefer your hair down, like this."
"Our business is concluded, Mr. Zurasan. I do not wish you to touch me again."
Janice's hand curled around the handle of her revolver. The son of a bitch.
"You could show perhaps a bit more appreciation for my efforts, Miss Pappas. Your friend is free to stay and continue her work here. I believe that is what you wanted."
"Yes, it is, but this entire process is to be reviled, Mr. Zurasan. Now, if you will excuse me, Dr. Covington and I have work to do." Light footsteps headed her direction, and Janice scooted around to the front of the tent, leaning casually against the administrator's sedan as the pair came into view.
Zurasan whistled shrilly, and two assistants hurried over to the car, his driver holding open a door. In the instant before his head dipped into the vehicle, he locked eyes with Janice, and a flicker of fear pulsed through him. A moment later, his car led the others from the site.
From the corner of her eye, Janice saw Mel step through the flap of their tent, and she followed the other woman inside. "What's going on here?"
"Mr. Zurasan was persuaded that the report was in error," Mel said.
"I figured that out. How was he persuaded?" she asked, anger mixed with a growing fear that she didn't want to know the answer. Mel hesitated, and Janice grabbed her arm. "Did you sleep with him?" she demanded.
Mel jerked her arm away, annoyed with Janice's overbearing attitude. She'd had enough of that with Edgar. "And what business is it of yours if I did?"
"It is my business," the explorer insisted, although she couldn't come up with a reason at the moment. "I'm entitled to know if you did something for my benefit."
Mel stared unwaveringly at the other woman until she felt the iron grip on her arm relax. She raised her hands to the back of her head, working on re-establishing the loose bun that the administrator had unraveled. "Mr. Zurasan ultimately found economic incentives more compelling," she answered casually.
Janice turned away to hide her relief, her eyes closed. After a moment, she asked soberly, "How much did you give him?"
"Ten thousand dollars."
Janice whirled around. "What? Jesus, Mel, I don't have that kind of money!"
"I do. I had it wired from my bank. That's why it was necessary for me to stay in town last night."
The words didn't register with the doctor, who paced anxiously across the narrow floor. "Jesus!" she repeated. "Ten thousand dollars." She brought her hands up to the sides of her forehead.
"Well, I could have purchased Mr. Zurasan's assistance for a lesser sum, but the price would have included certain other considerations," Mel observed archly. "I guess if you'd rather I acceded to his other demands . . ."
"No!" Janice raised her hand, trying to get her thoughts in focus. "No. You stay away from him. I'll come up with the money."
"I have already come up with the money. I told you that."
"I'll pay you back. I can sell some things. It may take me a couple of months, but--"
Mel drew herself up stiffly. "Janice Covington, are we partners or not?"
Janice rolled her eyes, her back to the other woman. There was no point in arguing with Mel when she got in one of her moods. "We're partners," she sighed.
"Then please stop insulting me."
Janice spun around. "I'm not--"
"Anyhow, what's done is done." Mel patted her hair, reasonably assured that most of the strands were in some sort of order. She glanced at the archaeologist. "You know," she said, bringing her hand down to finger a wooden chalice Covington's men had uncovered a few weeks ago, "in some respects, Mr. Zurasan's attentions were rather gratifying. After being out here for months, a woman begins to think that no one notices her feminine attributes."
"People notice," Janice said dryly. "Remember why you're sleeping in my tent?"
"That sort of man isn't particular. I meant someone who's opinion I value." She paused. "So what do you think?"
"About what?" Janice asked, confused by the sudden change of subject.
Mel pursed her lips. "I bought a new pantsuit." She pirhouetted slowly, Janice's eyes riveted. "It's more practical. I thought you might have noticed," she added in a disappointed tone.
"I noticed," Janice said quietly.
"And what did you think?" There was no reply, but Mel felt her heart begin to race. "What do you think, Janice?"
The blonde woman finally spoke, her voice so low she could barely be heard. "I think you're beautiful."
Mel crossed over to her. "So are you, Janice Covington. You're the most beautiful creature I've ever laid eyes on." She reached out a hand and stroked the smaller woman's face.
Janice moved her head slightly, brushing the palm of Mel's hand with her lips. Mel's breath caught, and the warm lips moved up to the inside of her wrist. Mel sighed, and the doctor looked up.
Mel leaned down, her heartbeat growing faster until their lips touched, and she felt as if a surge of electricity had shot through her. "Janice . . ." she gasped, and the other woman's hand curled around her neck, pressing their mouths together hungrily. Mel surged into her, wanting to feel their bodies touching, her arms circling Janice's body with surprising strength.
Just when Mel thought she could not withstand any more, she felt Janice's hands at the buttons on her blouse, and she whimpered against Janice's mouth, drawing away to catch her breath. She stood motionless, breath uneven, as rough hands slipped under the light-colored cloth. This time it was Janice who groaned, already feeling the soft flesh hardening under her hands.
Mel's mouth returned to Janice's, her hand digging into blonde hair as the unbelievable sensations flowed through her body. Janice drew the blouse down around Mel's shoulders, her lips beginning a sensuous journey down the taller woman's neck, her hands molding well-rounded breasts. A guttural sound rose from Mel's throat, sending chills down the doctor's spine.
Suddenly, Janice's mouth withdrew from its delicious task. "I'll be back," she promised, starting to turn away.
"You've got to be kidding," Mel said, halting her progress with a firm grip on her arm.
Janice looked at her partner, her gaze lowering to firm breasts peeking out of the open blouse, and pulled her down into an intense kiss. "You'll thank me," she said, smiling, then turned and walked out of the tent.
"I'll thank you to get back here and--" she yelled after Janice, "make love to me," she finished quietly, dizzy with the realization that they were going to do just that.
So far, Janice had been a patient lover, unhurriedly driving her to a level of excitement she couldn't possibly endure for a protracted period of time. Mel couldn't be patient. She drew her blouse off and reached for the belt on her pants.
A few minutes later, Janice stepped through the flap, frowning. Where had she gone?
"Hurry up and get yourself over here, Janice Covington," a throaty voice ordered, and she looked over at Mel's cot. Mel's bare shoulders emerged from above the sheet, and for a moment Janice thought she was going to swoon like one of those ridiculous women in the movies. Mel took the edge of the sheet in her hand and drew it aside, and Janice felt her knees buckle. The woman's body was incredible.
Her self-control evaporated, and with a loud cry she threw her hat across the tent and hurled herself onto the cot, covering the other woman's body with her own, kissing her as if there were no tomorrow. Her hands began eager exploration, torn between the desire to know every inch of the woman's body and the desire to hear Mel scream out in ecstasy.
She shifted her body and felt Mel push lightly against her chest. She drew back, worried that the sheltered woman had all of a sudden figured out what she had gotten herself into. Instead of frightened eyes, she saw Mel grasp the belt of her pants. She brought her hands down, taking over the assignment, and felt herself flush when Mel moved her hands to the buttons of her shirt.
Moments later, the two women lay together, naked, neither able to articulate the extreme emotions she was experiencing. Janice wasn't exactly sure how to make love to a woman, but she had a lot of faith in natural instinct. She slipped her thigh between Mel's legs, exclaiming as the warmth contacted her skin. Mel gasped, and that did it for Janice. Desire number two won out--she had to hear that woman scream. Now.
She kissed her way down Mel's flat stomach, immersing herself in the warmth between the other woman's thighs. So this was what a woman smelled like, and tasted like. God, she'd been missing the boat.
She pressed her lips against the soft flesh. A muffled sound reached her ears, and she glanced up to see Mel's finger clenched tightly between her teeth. "The men are gone," she rasped, running her tongue inside soft folds.
"They're gone. I sent them to the lower site." She ran her hands up Mel's thighs, now circling with her tongue, then slipped inside her lover.
"My god, Janice!" Mel shouted, her head tossing back and forth on the pillow. Janice smiled. This was what she had wanted to hear. And see. Every one of her five senses fully and gloriously engaged.
Mel's hips rose from the bed, begging for more. Janice raised her tongue and began a series of slow, firm strokes, her speed increasing with the movements of Mel's hips, detecting an unmistakable change in the woman's body. "Janice . . ." Mel writhed excruciatingly under her tongue. "Yesss . . ." she moaned, then "Janice!" Her body quaked, bucking wildly under strong hands, animal noises torn from her throat. Finally, breath still ragged, she settled back onto the cot.
Janice drew herself up and positioned herself between Mel's legs, grunting as she pressed against the taller woman's bone. Gripping Mel's shoulders, she began to rock up and down, the cot creaking noisily with each thrust.
"Janice," Mel breathed, "are you sure--"
"They're gone," she said, groaning as eager hands slid down to grasp her hips. Within seconds, she clutched at Mel's shoulders, making final, forceful thrusts as she gasped for air. Gradually, she relaxed, panting, hot breath warming the skin on Mel's neck.
Janice shifted to take some of her weight off the fragile woman, and immediately felt Mel's lips on her collarbone, making their way to her breasts. "Oh, god," she groaned.
Mel turned her onto her side and buried her face in her breasts, massaging them, taking a nipple into her mouth. "Jesus, Mel," she uttered, closing her eyes as Mel made love to her breasts. A hand pressed against Janice's shoulder, and she allowed herself to be pushed onto her back, cot springs complaining again at the twisting of bodies.
"My goodness," Mel said, "if those aren't the noisiest."
"I never noticed," Janice lied. She had noticed every night, every creak from a turn of Mel's body music to her ears, reminding her that this godsend was here with her.
Janice's eyes drifted closed, feeling Mel's lips on her stomach, slowly edging lower. "Mel . . . you don't have to . . ."
Mel ignored her; Janice wasn't going to have all the fun. She kissed firm thighs, squeezing them, enjoying their muscular composition. She ran her tongue up the inside of Janice's thigh, sighing, working her way to blonde curly hairs, then to the heat below. Janice arched her back, and Mel suspected happily that she was on the right track.
Janice gazed down at dark hair moving with the motions of the other woman's tongue, and felt her second release building rapidly. The sight of Melinda Pappas performing such an intimate act on her drove her to the edge, then over. She gripped fine dark hair, pressing Mel's mouth against her, her head tilted back as sweet convulsions racked her entire body.
"God . . ." she uttered. "They must teach a few things in Dixie."
Mel smiled, pleased that Janice hadn't been disappointed with her efforts. She pulled herself up and lay her head on Janice's shoulder, meeting the archaeologist's hot gaze.
"You know what I want to do to you?" Janice asked, eyes burning. "What I've wanted to do for months?"
Mel shook her head, unable to speak. In answer, Janice gripped her shoulders and rolled her over. She brought her mouth to an unbelievably soft breast, consuming it, urged on by the contented sighs echoing down around her ears.
Her hand slid down Mel's stomach. "I want to be inside you," she said, flicking her tongue across her lover's sensitive flesh. She felt Mel's body tense, and looked up to see an unreadable expression on the other woman's face. "Mel?"
Mel smiled at her, and she lowered her head again to tempting breasts. She could feast here all night. Her hand slid down to thick curls, fingertips playing in the soft thatch. Mel's thighs parted, and Janice moaned. Her mouth drew in tighter around the breast she was devouring, and she slid her hand through Mel's wetness.
Janice could not hold back another second, and she drove her fingers inside. Mel's shoulders jerked upward, and Janice glanced up from her dessert. "Are you all right?"
"Yes. I've just never . . ."
"Never what?" Janice drew her fingers out and plunged them in again, deeper and harder with each thrust, her eyes closed.
"Never . . ."
Janice stopped her motions. "Never--" She met blue eyes, and Mel shrugged, embarrassed.
"I'm sorry," Janice said, feeling like a brute. Mel deserved gentle, painless lovemaking, not . . . She hesitated, uncertain whether to proceed.
"I'm fine," Mel said, gliding her hands across Janice's shoulders. "I want you to."
Janice lowered herself back onto her lover, and slid her fingers in as far as they would reach. She caressed Mel lightly with her palm, murmuring in her ear as the woman's passion climbed. "I love you," she whispered, noting the way Mel's breathing accelerated. "You're beautiful. Wonderful. You're like no one I've ever known before." Mel was almost crying now. "I've wanted to touch you for so long. I watched you, and I wanted you . . ."
Mel's hips rose, and she surged forward into the woman on top of her, clawing at the doctor's back, her cries intermingled with the groans of metal springs. Finally, she brought her hands up to her forehead, resting with her eyes closed.
The two women lay together quietly, Janice's fingers still sheltered in Mel's warmth. She drew them out slowly, laying her hand on her lover's flat stomach, then raised her head at the familiar sound of a truck speeding toward the camp.
She jumped up, throwing on her pants and blouse, and grabbed her boots. She stepped outside with the boots in one hand, and was still tugging at them when the driver exited the truck.
Mel luxuriated on the cot, debating whether she should get dressed. She was hoping that Janice would come back and lie with her again, and she didn't want to spoil the mood. She felt tears slide from the corners of her eyes, and she closed them, a smile on her face. She was asleep within seconds.
She awakened to the din of excited voices, Janice's among them. The sounds quieted, and a moment later daylight entered the tent through the opened flap. Janice hurried over to the cot, kneeling beside it, and laid her hand on Mel's arm.
"They found one," she said excitedly.
Mel sat up. "A scroll?"
Janice nodded. "It's looks like a scroll case, maybe more than one. I've got my best men on it; we should know more by tomorrow."
Mel clasped her hand, squeezing her fingers. "Oh, Janice, I'm so happy for you!"
"For us," Janice corrected. She kissed the back of Mel's hand. "Partners, right?"
Mel's blue eyes sparkled. "Partners. Always."
Janice rose and gazed down in wonder at the beautiful woman in their bed. "Two gifts in one day," she marvelled, shaking her head.
"They're not gifts if they're earned," Mel replied, smiling. "We should celebrate tonight. Do you have any plans?"
"Yeah. I plan to make love to my translator, my partner in work, and my partner in life."
"Goodness . . . all three? Do you think you'll have the energy, Dr. Covington?"
"Oh, yeah. In fact . . ." She walked over to a bench and picked something up, carrying it back to the bed. She held up a large oil can. "I think I'll just see to the springs on that cot."
Mel met her lover's warm gaze, her own temperature rising. "Oh, my . . ."
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