Part 10

Lauren had awakened in a good mood after her talk with Ash the night before and had been working diligently on her thesis for most of the afternoon. She turned her head with annoyance at the sound of a knock at the door.

"Who is it?" she called in irritation as she swiveled her chair and stared at the door.

"It’s me," Rachel’s voice said muffled by the door. "Are you going to stay cooped up in there all week or what?"

Lauren grinned as she made her way to the door and pulled it open. "I was thinking about it. Why?" she greeted Rachel as she stepped back from the threshold to allow Rachel to enter.

"You’re going to go blind staring at that computer screen all day long," Rachel informed her waving her hand in the direction of the monitor. She strolled into the studio and flopped down on the couch. "You going to give me an update on what the hell is going on in your life or what?"

"What do you mean?" Lauren asked as she went over to her computer and saved the file she had been working on. She closed the program and shut down the computer.

Rachel sighed dramatically. "You know what I mean, Laur!" she stated glaring at her friend’s back. Her eyes narrowed at Lauren’s chosen attire. "Hey! Isn’t that Ash’s shirt?"

Lauren felt the heat rise on her face. She turned, glanced down at the shirt, and pulled it out from her body. "What this?" she asked innocently.

"Yeah that," Rachel intoned pointing at the shirt in question. "I don’t believe you’ve ever been a big Harley fan so the logical conclusion would be that you swiped one of Ash’s shirts."

"I did not swipe it!" Lauren defended as she looked up and saw Rachel’s amused smile. "She let me borrow it when I slept over the other night and I just didn’t get the opportunity to return it to her before she left."

"Uh-huh. So why are you wearing it now? Don’t tell me you just got up!" Rachel said with mock horror.

"No! Of course not! I’ve been up for hours," Lauren replied as she made her way over to the papa san and sat down.

"So is there a reason you’re still wearing that?"

"Umm…" Lauren met Rachel’s knowing look and let out an exasperated sigh. She threw up her hands in surrender and said, "Fine! You caught me. I’m wearing it because it smells like her! Happy? It makes me feel closer to her."

"Chill, Laur. I didn’t mean to upset you," Rachel apologized. "I think it’s cute."


"Yeah, cute." Rachel nodded and gave her a wink. "Heck if Ash smells half as good as she looks, I’d be wearing her clothes too!"

"Don’t even think about it!" Lauren growled as she chucked a pillow at Rachel’s smug face.

"Hey!" Rachel yelped as she dodged the pillow. "I don’t poach! She’s all yours!"

"Yeah, remember that," Lauren warned, smiling to soften the threat.

"No worries," Rachel assured her. "Besides, she doesn’t even know I’m alive."

"Of course she does, Rach!" Lauren laughed.

"No. She doesn’t." Rachel asserted solemnly. Lauren gave her a puzzled look. Rachel rolled her eyes and decided she better explain to her naïve friend. "Geez, Laur! Are you really that blind? Don’t you know that no other woman even exists in her eyes?"

"What?" Lauren gaped astounded.

"Oh, Laur," Rachel shook her head in sympathy. "Tall, dark, and dreamy has her blue eyes pinned solely on you. I don’t think anyone could turn her head!"

"Really?" Lauren asked with a doubtful frown. "I mean, come on, Rach. Ash is absolutely gorgeous. She’s the head turner in our partnership, not me!"

"Hmm, I dunno about that," Rachel said as she thoughtfully studied her reclining friend. "You don’t give yourself enough credit. But that’s not the point here. Ash has eyes only for you. That’s the point."

"If you say so," Lauren sighed shrugging in dismissal.

"I know so," Rachel assured her as she sat forward in earnest. "I’ve seen the two of you together remember?" Lauren nodded. "Believe me, Laur, Ash never took her eyes off of you for one moment! If you were in sight, her baby blues were locked on you like heat seeking missiles!"

"Okay, okay! I believe you!" Lauren replied with a small laugh. "As far as Ash is concerned I’m a total knockout."

"Yep!" Rachel agreed gleefully and laughed when Lauren blushed. "So, what’s the news with tall, dark, and dreamy anyway? Is she still in Spokane? When’s she coming back?"

"Well, some things happened in Spokane," Lauren began slowly trying to organize her thoughts. "Ash’s friend ended up getting hurt and was in the hospital." Rachel’s eyes widened and her mouth opened to form a perfect "o". Lauren nodded. "But she’s fine. Ash said they released her from the hospital and she should be okay."

"So when is Ash coming back here?"

"I don’t know," Lauren sighed sadly.


"Monday night didn’t go as she had expected and her reaction to the event really freaked her out," Lauren explained softly. "She told me about it and said she needed some time to work some things out."

"What does that mean exactly?" Rachel asked with concern. Lauren looked so melancholy that it was beginning to worry her.

"I’m not sure," Lauren said shaking her head.

"Laur," Rachel said as she stood and came over to crouch by Lauren and gently took her hand. "Are you okay?"

Lauren shook her head vigorously and her eyes brimmed with unshed tears. "No, I’m not okay!" she cried. "I’m scared out of my mind that she’s not going to come back, Rach! That she’s going to decide that she was wrong about us and just come get her guitar and leave me!"

"Oh, Laur," Rachel sighed as she enveloped her sobbing friend in a warm hug. "I don’t believe that. She loves you. She’ll work through whatever it is and come back. I’m sure of it."

"Why won’t she let me help?" Lauren sobbed into Rachel’s shoulder.

"I don’t think she’s used to having people around to help her, hon," Rachel consoled her. "She probably wouldn’t know how to ask even if she really wanted you there."

Lauren cried softly and thought about it. What Rachel said made sense. Ash wasn’t the type to ask for help in anything. I just have to go and offer it and make her understand that I can help her! I know I can help if she’ll just let me! Her mind began to formulate a plan.

"Rach?" she asked quietly, sitting back and wiping her eyes.

"What?" Rachel asked offering her a tissue to blow her nose. Lauren smiled a thank you and took the tissue.

"Can I borrow your car?"

"Sure, I guess," Rachel said confused. "Why?"

"I think I need to go to Spokane and have a little one on one with Ms. Gray," Lauren stated with determination.

"Oh, you do, huh?" Rachel asked with a smirk.

"Yeah, I do," Lauren nodded and grinned. "So can I borrow your car?"

"If you promise to bring it back with a full tank, sure," Rachel agreed.

Lauren’s face beamed. "You are the best, you know that?" Lauren stated as pulled herself out of the chair.

"So, I’ve been told," Rachel said smugly as she rose from her crouch. "So when are you planning on going on this little road trip of yours?"

"I thought now would be good," Lauren said as she strode into the bedroom and pulled out a gym bag. She began going through her closet and throwing clothes haphazardly into the bag.

Rachel shook her head in amusement at her friend’s single mindedness. She went into the bathroom to gather some toiletries for her. She came back out to see Lauren staring down at the half full bag with a lost look on her face.

"Hey? You okay?" Rachel asked as she came up to her and placed the things from the bathroom into the bag.

"Am I crazy to be doing this, Rach?" Lauren asked softly as she gazed at her friend doubtfully.

"Yes," Rachel stated. Lauren’s mouth fell open in surprise. "You are certifiably crazy in love with Ash and I think you should go for it."

"You are so mean!" Lauren said as she punched her playfully on the shoulder.

Rachel grinned. "Yeah, I know."

"Thanks," Lauren said gratefully as she zipped her bag closed and slung it over her shoulder.

"No prob. Do you have any idea where you’re going?" Rachel inquired as she led the way towards the door.

"I have Lu’s phone number. That’s her friend in Spokane," Lauren said following in Rachel’s wake. "I figured I’d give them a call when I reached town and ask for directions."

Rachel eyed her skeptically. "Don’t you think you should call them before you get there?"

Lauren shook her head in denial. "No. I’m afraid they’ll say something to talk me out of coming. If I’m already in town, I think it will be harder for them to say no."

"Okay if you think so," Rachel said doubtfully as she opened the door and waved Lauren out.

"I really don’t think rational thought has anything to do with this, Rach," Lauren chuckled wryly. "I just know I have to go and try to get Ash to open up to me."

The phone rang. The two looked at the phone in surprise and then at each other. Rachel gave her an inquiring look and Lauren shook her head. "Let the machine get it. It’s probably my sister Katie and if I get on the phone with her, I’ll lose my nerve and never go!"

"Okay, Laur," Rachel sighed as she watched Lauren close and lock the door. "Can you drop me off back at my place?"

"I think that can be arranged," Lauren teased as she led the way down the stairs and out into the drizzling fall day. She scowled at the dark clouds and groaned. "Damn. I hate driving in this shit."

"Do you want me to go with you?" Rachel offered as they scurried towards her car.

"No, I need to do this by myself," Lauren stated as she watched Rachel fumble with her keys and finally get the door open. "I’ll drive."

Rachel shook her head at her and ran around the front of the car to the passenger side. "Hurry up and unlock the door! I’m getting drenched!"

"Yeah, yeah," Lauren grumbled as she got into the car and leaned across to unlock the passenger door. "Thanks for letting me take your car, Rach."

"No problem. Just don’t spend all week there!" Rachel teased with a grin. "I may want to go somewhere this weekend and you know how much I hate mass transport!"

"I shudder to think of it!" Lauren laughed as she started the car and pulled out. "I’ll call you when I get there so you won’t have to worry."


"The least I can do," Lauren said as she pulled into the early evening traffic.


"Which one’s the target?" the young man sitting in the passenger seat asked as he watched the two women get into the green Integra.

"The strawberry blonde getting in on the driver’s side," answered the older man behind the wheel in a gruff voice.

The two men watched as the target started the Integra and pulled out into traffic.

"Ya gonna follow ‘em?" the young man asked nodding toward the departing car.

"Yeah," the older man grunted as he started the engine and pulled out to follow the women keeping a few car lengths between them.

"She don’t look like much of a threat to me, Roy," the young man said doubtfully. He glanced at his scowling brother. "I think she looks pretty nice."

"Shut up, Tommie," Roy growled as he changed lanes to get closer to their target. "We’re not being paid to think."

Tommie shrugged and sat back. He peered out the rain swept windshield and kept his eye on the green Integra. "Fine. So, what’s the plan?" he asked, eyeing his brother. He knew Roy was in a bad mood and was hoping not to provoke him, but he wanted to know what exactly they were getting into with this contract.

Roy sighed and shot his brother an annoyed look. "We’re suppose to make it look like an accident," he explained patiently. "We’re getting paid a lot of money for this, Tommie, so don’t fuck it up."

"Why ya think I’ll be the one to fuck up?" Tommie protested. The car signaled to make a right turn. "You better get over or we’re going to lose them."

Roy swore and swerved into the turn lane, cutting off a Ford Explorer who honked and slammed on its breaks. Roy flipped the driver off and turned right to follow the target car. Tommie made a grab for the dashboard as their car lurched around the corner. He glared at Roy, but prudently kept his mouth shut.

The two brothers followed the car in silence for 20 minutes when it pulled up in front of an apartment complex. Roy swore under his breath and turned into the parking lot across the street. He slowly drove down the lane of parked cars, trying to keep an eye on the target’s car.

"What are they doing?" he growled at Tommie, frustrated at not being able to see for himself.

"Looks like the passenger is getting out," Tommie informed his brother as he squinted to try see better.


"I think blondie is dropping her off," Tommie reported.

"Huh. That’s strange," Roy said with a frown.


""Cause she don’t own a car. I figured it was her friend’s," Roy explained absently as his eyes narrowed in thought.

"Maybe she’s borrowing it for something," Tommie reasoned. He saw the passenger stand and with a wave head into the building. "The other girl went inside the building. Looks like blondie is getting ready to pull out."

"Okay. I’m on it," Roy said as he steered the car out of the lane and towards the exit. They saw the green Integra pull away from the curb and Roy gunned the car to follow.

"Wonder where she’s headed?" Tommie mused as he leaned back and shrugged his shoulders to adjust the weapon harness that had ridden up.

"Dunno," Roy answered as he followed the unsuspecting woman. "Guess we’ll find out."

"Looks like she’s pulling onto the freeway. Think she’s going outta town?" Tommie asked, glancing at his brother.

Roy shrugged. "Could be. May offer some opportunities."

"Ya think so?"

Roy followed the target onto the freeway and relaxed back in his seat. He turned his head and gave his worried baby brother a wink. "Yep. Things are looking up. Money in the bank, little brother, I can just feel it!"

"Whatever you say, Roy," Tommie said shaking his head and returning his attention to watching the green Integra.

"I do say! You just do what I tell you and everything will be fine!" Roy growled as his good mood was dampened by his brother’s lack of enthusiasm.

"Okay, Roy. I’ll do whatever you say," Tommie placated.

"Good," Roy answered petulantly as he followed the girl wondering where the hell she was going and how he could use it to their advantage.


Ash tread down the hallway that lead to the offices of the Manor jubilant after her ride on Bellator and lunch with her folks. She cocked her head as she approached the office and heard the telltale clacking of someone furiously typing away. A grin crossed her face at the sound. She stopped at the threshold and peeked her head around the corner to look into the office.

Her brother Graham was sitting with his back facing her, furiously tapping away at his keyboard. She cleared her throat and he glanced over his shoulder. His eyes met hers and a joyous smile crossed his features. He grabbed the desk and spun his chair around.

"Hey, sis! Pop told me you were here!" he greeted her and waved for her to come in and take a seat.

Ash grinned and strolled into the room. She realized that Graham was sitting in a regular office chair and gave him a puzzled look. "Hey. Where’s your chair?" she asked pointing to the desk chair he was sitting in as she took a seat across from him.

Graham chuckled. "Oh, it’s right here." He leaned back in his chair and reached around with his right hand to grab the wheelchair that was folded and resting against the edge of his desk. He lifted it and showed it to Ash.

"Oh," she said as he held it up. "So why aren’t you sitting in it?"

"Well, I was going to leave it as a surprise, sis," Graham sighed but his hazel eyes were twinkling with mirth.

"Surprise? What surprise?" Ash questioned leaning forward eagerly.

"Okay! I guess I’ll share!" Graham laughed and reaching to the left pulled out two crutches. He affixed them to his forearms and looked up to meet Ash’s surprised eyes. "Been practicing for about 6 months with these. Guess I can show you what I’m capable of!"

Ash nodded dumbly as Graham settled the crutches on either side and pulled himself to his feet. He gave her a sly wink and took a step towards her with his right foot.

"Oh my god!" Ash gasped as her baby brother walked towards her with a huge grin. "What? How?" she stuttered in shock as an overwhelming feeling of joy descended at the sight of her brother standing.

"I got involved in an experimental treatment about 2 years ago. That and the fact that my spinal chord wasn’t completely severed," Graham explained as he gazed down on his older sister with obvious pride at his accomplishment. "So now I have almost complete feeling in my right side and partial on the left." He shrugged. "Some days are better than others."

Ash just sat there and stared dumbfounded. She couldn’t help it. Here was her brother who she figured would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life standing before her and relating in a rather offhand manner what she considered to be a miracle.

"You gonna say something or what?" Graham teased as he waved a hand before her stunned face.

"I… I’m not sure what to say," Ash choked out, fighting back the tears. She looked up into Graham’s smug face and felt an answering smile split her face. "This is so great!"

Graham laughed as Ash leapt from her chair and enveloped him in a bone-crushing hug. "I kind of think so too!" Graham wheezed as he patted Ash’s back clumsily. "Ease up, sis! Or I’m going to pass out from lack of oxygen!"

Ash quickly loosened her embrace and leaned back. Her eyes widened in surprise when she realized she had to look up to meet Graham’s eyes. "Sorry about that," she apologized. "Damn, guess you got the height gene after all!"

"Yeah," Graham chuckled as he gazed down into his sister’s joyous face. "How you been, sis? I haven’t seen you in forever. What’ve you been up to?"

Ash laughed and helped Graham back to his seat before resuming hers and fielding his questions. "I guess I’ve been all right." Ash shrugged and narrowed her eyes at her brother. She reached out and ruffled his short curly hair. "Looks like you finally gave up wanting to look like an 80’s hair band icon!"

Graham grinned sheepishly as he ran his hand over his short-cropped hair. "Yeah. I decided it was time for a change. What do you think of the goat?" he asked as he stroked his goatee.

Ash cocked her head to on side and studied her brother. "Hmmm. Looks good on you. Makes you look older. Bet mom says you look just like pop did when she met him!"

"You’re right about that!" Graham said shaking his head. "She said it was like looking through a window of time back to when they first met."

"She get all mushy and sentimental on ya?" Ash teased leaning back in her chair with a grin.

"Nah," Graham waved dismissively. "I’ve had it for awhile now and she no longer stops and stares every time I come in the room now!"

Ash laughed. "Oh! I wish I could’ve seen that!"

"It was pretty funny," Graham mused. "I’d roll into the kitchen and mom would just stop whatever she was doing and stare at me. I’d say hi and she’d blink and shake herself and go back to whatever she was doing like nothing had happened!"

The two siblings laughed and Graham began telling her about the goings on around the homestead and what the various cousins were up to.

Ash sat back and just listened to her brother talk in his usual animated way. His face would light up and his hands would start waving as he described every detail. His enthusiasm reminds me of Lauren. Her heart warmed at the thought and she smiled as a far away look fell into her eyes.

"Sis? Hey!" Graham shouted and Ash jumped and focused her eyes on her grinning brother. "Where’d you go and who with?"

Ash felt the heat rise on her face and shrugged sheepishly. "Sorry about that, Graham," she apologized with a sigh. "Guess I’m more tired than I thought."

"Uh-huh," Graham stated unconvinced. "You want to tell me the truth now?" Ash narrowed her eyes and gave him a warning look. Graham just grinned. "Nope. That doesn’t work on me, Ash. Hasn’t since I was 12!"

Ash tried to hold the menacing look but lost it when Graham stuck his tongue out at her. She laughed. "Okay, okay, you win," she surrendered with a wave.

"I almost forgot!" Graham interrupted as he leaned forward eagerly. "A package arrived for you from Benson. What’s that all about?"

"Oh. I forgot I had him send it here," Ash stated realizing that it could only be one thing. "Figured it would be better to send it here where there would be someone to receive it."

"So, what is it?" Graham asked excitedly.

"It’s the print I bought at the charity gala last weekend that Benson and Louis’s gallery hosted," Ash said as her mind brought forth an image of the print and the beautiful artist who had painted it. A smile curved her lips at the thought of Lauren and the knowledge that she would soon be able to hold her once more.

"You went to Seattle?!" Graham shouted in astonishment his eyes going wide.

Ash saw the look and laughed. "Yeah, I did," she nodded. "Had a good time too! Didn’t Davis tell you?"

"No, the fink. Wow," Graham gaped as he flopped back in his chair eyeing his sister. "So, are you going to show me this work of art or what?"

"Sure," Ash shrugged.

"Cool!" Graham enthused and leaned back to pull out his chair. He snapped it open and quickly slid into it. He looked up to meet Ash’s puzzled frown and shrugged. "This is faster. The package is in the family living room and it would take me forever to get there on my crutches! So let’s go!" Finished with his explanation he maneuvered around Ash and headed for the door. "Calm on, slowpoke! Don’t take all day! I’ve been dying to see what’s in that package for 2 days!"

Ash shook her head and stood to follow her brother. "I’m coming, hot wheels," she called as he disappeared down the hallway.

"Don’t think I forgot about wringing every last detail of your trip to Seattle out of you!" he teased over his shoulder.

"Like I would believe that!" Ash said rolling her eyes. She lengthened her stride and came up to walk beside his chair. "Have you met this Paula that Davis is seeing?"

"Yeah," Graham nodded as he led the way into the family’s private living room. "She’s really nice and has a wicked sense of humor." He rolled across the hardwood floor to the side table where Ash saw a large, flat package propped up. She frowned in puzzlement when Graham grabbed it and settled it on his lap. He spun the chair around and glided back to her. "I think you’ll like her. She definitely doesn’t take any shit!"

"Good thing, since she’s with Davis!" Ash grinned and accepted the package from her eager brother. His eyes were alight with curiosity and he was practically bouncing in his chair with anticipation. "Calm down, Graham. You’re going to give yourself a stroke."

"Calm on, sis! Open it already!" Graham begged as he followed Ash over to the couch.

"Give me a minute will ya?" Ash teased as she sat down on the couch and set the package on the coffee table. She was happy to see that Benson had been his usual cautious self and had sent it in a padded and reinforced shipping box. She was slightly puzzled by the size though. Huh, I figured it would be in packing tube. She pulled out her pocketknife and carefully slit the end open. She opened the end and her eyes widened in surprise. Oh Benson! You stinker!

"What did you say?" Graham asked giving her a quizzical look.

Ash glanced up from the box and gave Graham a wry smile. "Oh, I was just commenting on what a meddler Benson is."

"Why you say that?" Graham asked puzzled as he watched Ash pull a framed picture swathed in bubble wrap out of the box.

"Because this wasn’t framed when I bought it," Ash explained as she began pulling the bubble wrap off of the picture admiring the simple but elegant oak frame Benson had chosen. She turned the frame so the back was facing Graham. She didn’t want him to see it until she had it fully unwrapped.

Graham shifted in his chair trying to look around the edge of the picture to get a look at it. "Come on, sis! I wanna see what it is!" he whined as he grabbed her arm and tried to make her turn the frame so he could see it.

"Hold on!" Ash admonished with a chuckle. "Let me get it unwrapped and then I’ll set in on the couch and you can gawk at it all you like. I was thinking you might like to have it anyway."

"Really?" Graham asked enthusiastically. "Why? What is it? Come on, sis! You’re killing me here!"

Ash laughed and finished unwrapping the print. She scooted down the couch and stood with the print hidden against her chest. "Close your eyes, Graham," she ordered with her blue eyes twinkling.

"What?" Graham asked his eyes widening in disbelief. "No way! I’ve waited forever to see this!"

"Come on, Graham," Ash wheedled. "Close your eyes while I set it up. I want you to get the full experience."

Graham scowled at her for a moment as he thought about it. "Fine." He tossed up his hands in surrender and dutifully closed his eyes.

"No peeking now," Ash warned as she arranged the print on the couch. She kept one eye on Graham to make sure he didn’t try to see it until she was ready.

"Are you done yet?" Graham asked impatiently.

"Almost," Ash grinned as she stepped back from the print and silently walked around the coffee table to stand next to Graham’s chair. She wanted to be in a good position to watch his expression when he first laid eyes on Lauren’s warrior woman.

"Can I open my eyes yet?"

"Sure," Ash said softly.

Graham jumped at the sound of Ash’s voice coming from right beside him and his eyes flew open to glare at her. "Damn! I hate it when you do that!"

She shrugged and pointed towards the print. "Well, go ahead and look."

Graham turned his head and looked. He inhaled sharply and his eyes widened in shock. "Holy shit!" he gasped as he took in the print. "Is that you? I thought you said you bought this at the show."

"I did," Ash stated enjoying her brother’s reaction.

"But how did the artist get your likeness?" Graham queried as he rolled his chair closer to get a better look. "Did Benson give…" he squinted to make out the artist’s signature, "L. O’Shea your picture or something? Did you commission this or something?"

"No Benson didn’t give Lauren my picture and no, we had never met until the day before the show," Ash explained as she sat down on the corner of the coffee table and watched her brother inspect Lauren’s work. She was amused by her brother’s reaction to the uncanny similarity between Lauren’s dream warrior and herself. Not surprised since she had reacted much the same way when she first laid eyes on it.

"But how?" he demanded as he turned with a bewildered look on his face. "You’re not going to sit there and tell me that that," he pointed at the woman in the picture, "isn’t you! Are you?"

Ash shrugged noncommittally.

"Oh come on, sis! She looks just like you! Right down to the piercing baby blues and trademark crooked grin!" he argued exasperated by his sister’s seeming nonchalance. "So how did this Lauren guy paint your exact double if he had never seen you?"

Ash burst out laughing.

"What?" Graham demanded with a scowl. "What is so damn funny?"

"I’m sorry, Graham," Ash laughed her eyes dancing with mirth. She patted her chest and struggled to contain her laughter. She made the mistake of meeting his confused eyes and burst out afresh.

"Damn it, Ash! Tell me what is so damn funny?" Graham rolled his chair over to her and grabbed her by the shoulders giving her a shake. "I don’t see anything to laugh at!"

"Okay, okay," Ash chuckled as she shoved her brother playfully away from her. "No need to get rough."

"Uh-huh," he muttered as he crossed his arms over his chest. "So spit it out already."

"Lauren is a she," Ash stated.


Ash chuckled. "Lauren is a she not a he."

"Oh," Graham said. "Lauren is a girl. Okay, so why is that so funny?"

"Lauren being a woman isn’t what’s funny," Ash explained. "The fact that you assumed she was a he is."


"Because Lauren thought I was a man when Louis gave her my cd to listen to and was rather astonished to discover her error when we were introduced," Ash explained giving her brother a wink. "So when you made the same mistake about her, it struck me as funny."

"Oh, I see," Graham nodded. "Guess I can understand that. But how did she paint that," he waved over his shoulder towards the print, "without every meeting you?"

"You wouldn’t believe me if I told you," Ash stated as she glanced at the painting and felt the awe once more as her likeness stared back.

"Try me," Graham said as he leaned forward and waited patiently.

"She saw the woman in a dream," Ash said quietly as she gazed at the woman in the print.

"A dream? Really?" Graham asked unconvinced. Ash nodded. "What were you doing running around in an artist’s dreams in leather?"

Ash’s gaze left the painting to meet Graham’s. He smirked and waggled his eyebrows at her. "Graham! Get you mind out of the gutter!" Ash retorted surprised by her brother’s audacity.

"So is she cute?" Graham asked deciding he’d attack while his sister was off balance.

"Yes. No!" Ash said flustered and feeling the heat rising to her face. She dropped her gaze and ran her hands through her hair in frustration.

"Well which is it?" Graham teased.

"Which is what?"

"Is she cute or not?" Graham prompted. He watched with unabashed amusement as his big, tough sister blushed and started fidgeting. "Oooh! She is cute! And you like her!"

Ash’s head snapped up at blue eyes pinned Graham to his chair. "Yes, she is and yes I do," she stated.

Graham’s eyes widened and he held his hands out defensively. "Whoa! Didn’t mean to touch on a sore subject!"

"She’s not a sore subject," Ash sighed as her eyes softened and a goofy grin appeared.

"Okay, so you gonna enlighten me or what?" Graham asked eagerly. He hadn’t seen Ash like this in a long time and he wanted to see more of it.

"I…" Ash began and then stopped at a loss for words.

"You what?" Graham prompted. He studied his sister’s face intently and his face lit up when he realized what it was that was making his sister so flustered. "You’re in love with her aren’t you?"

Ash nodded shyly. "Yeah."

"Holy shit!" Graham exclaimed staring at his sister. "Do the folks know?"

"I talked to pop about it," Ash said as she picked imaginary lint off her jeans. "He must have said something to mom because at lunch she kept hinting that it would be nice if I brought a guest for the family gathering in December."

"You know you have to bring her if mom knows," Graham stated shaking his head.

"I want to but…" Ash whispered and sighed heavily.

"What?" Graham asked with concern. He lightly rested his hand over Ash’s fidgeting fingers. "Is there a problem, sis?"

"No, I don’t think so," Ash said quietly as she studied her brother’s long fingered hand. "Not now anyway. I just… well… I…"


Ash shrugged and looked up to meet his concerned gaze. "I had some stuff I needed to work out," she explained. "I think I’ve done that. So now I just have to go back to Seattle and see what happens."

"Okay," Graham said slowly still confused. "So what exactly is the problem?"

"I’m scared out of my mind!" Ash confessed passionately as she gripped her brother’s hand tightly.

Graham chuckled. "You’ll be fine, sis. Just listen to your heart. It won’t lead you wrong."

Ash nodded as she studied her brother’s kind face intently. "Okay, I’ll do my best."

"What’s she like?"

"She’s wonderful," Ash enthused as a big smile lit up her face. "She’s a writer. I’m sure you two will hit it off right away. She’s got a bachelor’s degree in English and is just finishing her master’s thesis in medieval history."

"So she’s not an art major?" Graham inquired in surprise.

"No. In fact she doesn’t think she’s an artist at all!" Ash laughed.

"You’re kidding, right?"

"Nope. Serious as a heart attack."

"Then how does she explain that?" he asked nodding towards the print.

"She said that sometimes painting is a better medium to get her point across," Ash explained shaking her head in wonder.

"I definitely want to meet this Lauren!" Graham laughed. "She sounds fascinating."

"Oh, she is that!" Ash grinned as she glanced at the print once more and an idea came to her. "Hey, Graham?"


"You still friends with Thomas over in Bozeman?"

"Yeah. Why?" Graham asked puzzled by the sudden topic change.

"He still into that medieval reenactment thing?" Ash questioned as her eyes studied the print intently.

"Yeah," Graham said as he turned to look at the print again since Ash was staring at it. "What are you up to, sis?"

"I have a date on Halloween and I think I just figured out what to do for my costume," Ash informed him. "Why don’t you call Thomas and see whether or not he’s free tomorrow and we’ll make a run into Bozeman?"

Graham looked back and forth between the print and Ash. A sly smile slipped onto his face. "You are such a romantic!" he accused.

"Who me?" Ash protested making her eyes big and innocent.

"Yeah you!" he confirmed pointing at her. "I’ll give Tom a call and let you know. Don’t see why he wouldn’t be available."

"Think he’ll be able to hook me up with something?" Ash asked eagerly as her mind began formulating a plan.

"I think so," Graham nodded. "He did a roman thing last year and I’m sure he still has most of it lying around. The guy’s a packrat. Besides knowing you money is no object!"

"Nope!" she winked. "I got the bread if he’s got the time!"

"Oh, believe me, he’ll make the time!" Graham stated knowingly. "Why don’t you go up and go to bed before you pass out? I’ll give Tom a call and let you know at breakfast."

"Sounds like a plan," Ash said as she stifled a yawn, the long day was finally beginning to catch up with her and bed sounded like a very good idea. She rose from the table and stretched. "Want me to take that to your room for you?" She nodded towards the print.

"Nah," Graham shook his head. "I want to show it to the folks."

Ash’s eyebrow shot up. "Okay," she drawled hesitantly.

"Hey. I won’t tell them that your Lauren is the same as the L. O’Shea who painted it if you don’t want me to," Graham reassured her. "I just want to see mom’s jaw hit the floor when she sees it!"

Ash grinned and shook her head. "You are an evil man!" she scolded.

"I learned from the best," he replied cheekily.

Ash laughed as she strode towards the back stairs that led to the family’s bedrooms. "I’ll see you at breakfast."

"Later," Graham called as Ash waved over her shoulder and disappeared up the stairs.


"I just can’t do this without popcorn," Lu sighed into Sheila’s hair as the last sneak preview ended and the main title began to run on the TV.

Sheila raised her head from Lu’s shoulder to give her a reproving look. "Honey, we just had dinner an hour ago!" she admonished.

"I know, I know. I just can’t enjoy a movie without it!" Lu argued giving Sheila her best hang dog expression. "Please?"

Sheila giggled and patted her lover on the stomach lovingly. "Oh, all right," she said as she snagged the remote off of the coffee table and hit pause on the VCR. She stretched and sat up. "Why don’t you go make the popcorn and I’ll go use the little girl’s room."

Lu’s eyebrow went up. "You have to pee again?" she teased as she stood and pulled Sheila to her feet.

Sheila grimaced and nodded. "I can’t help it if I have a bladder the size of a walnut," she said defensively.

"Uh-huh," Lu smirked. "You know, I hear it only gets worse the farther along in your pregnancy you get." Lu tapped her chin thoughtfully. "Maybe now would be a good time to look into putting in a second bath, otherwise I may be peeing in the backyard in a couple of months!"

"Keep it up and you’ll be sleeping on the couch," Sheila warned with a smile as she patted Lu on the cheek and headed towards the bathroom.

Lu chuckled as she shook her head. She strolled after her lover admiring her walk. "You know for a pregnant chick you sure have a nice ass," Lu commented.

Sheila glared at her over her shoulder and shook her head. "You are really pushing the envelope tonight, love," she stated as she turned left down the hall. "What has gotten into you?"

"Dunno," Lu shrugged as she halted and followed her retreating lover with her eyes. "Just feeling frisky, I guess."

"Well, keep that thought in mind," Sheila winked over her shoulder as she turned into the bathroom and closed the door.

Lu stood with a huge grin on her face as Sheila’s words conjured possible outcomes of the evening. She shook herself out of her reverie and went into the kitchen to make the required popcorn.

Lu strolled back out into the living room, cradling the required popcorn in a huge bowl in the crook of her left arm. She spotted Sheila already ensconced on one end of the couch, wrapped up in an afghan. "Thought you might like something to drink too," she announced holding the juice and a beer up for Sheila to see.

"I take it the juice if for me?" Sheila teased with a smile as she took the offered juice from Lu’s outstretched hand.

"You don’t like beer," Lu reasoned with a shrug as she sat down next to Sheila.

"True," Sheila nodded. "So are you prepared to enjoy this movie now?"

"Yeah, I…" Lu was interrupted by the phone ringing. She scowled and Sheila laughed.

"I think I better get that. You’d probably bite the poor person’s head off," Sheila teased as she reached over her shoulder to grab the portable phone that was resting on the end table.

"I just hate how that damn thing always seems to be interrupting me," Lu groused pointing at the still ringing phone in her lover’s hand. "It’s probably just some damn telemarketer trying to sell us shit we don’t need."

"Hush so I can answer this," Sheila said holding up the phone with an amused smile.

"Yeah, yeah, fine," Lu waved dismissively and leaned back on the couch folding her arms over her chest with a scowl. "Well? You gonna answer it or what?" she grumbled nodding at the phone.

"Yes, dear," Sheila intoned and gave Lu’s knee a loving pat. She clicked the on button and brought the phone to her ear. "Hello?"

"Sheila? Is that you?"

Sheila frowned as she plugged her other ear to hear better. There was so much background noise that she could barely make out the speaker’s voice. "Yes," she said raising her voice hoping to be heard over the cacophony in the background.

"Hi, it’s me Lauren," Lauren practically shouted into the phone to be heard over the semi pulling out behind her.

"Lauren?" Sheila’s eyes met Lu’s in surprise. "Where are you? I can barely hear you."

"Lauren? As in Ash’s Lauren?" Lu whispered sitting forward. Sheila nodded her head and held up her hand to silence her curious lover so she could hear Lauren.

Lauren giggled nervously. "Well, actually I’m at a truck stop on the outskirts of Spokane."

Sheila’s eyes widened in surprise, "You’re here? In Spokane?" she asked to relay the information to Lu.

"Oh shit," Lu swore as she felt her stomach drop.

"Um… yeah, I am," Lauren confirmed sheepishly. "I thought I’d come see how Ash is doing. Do you think you could give me directions to your house?"

"Sure, Lauren. You have something to write with?" Sheila asked. She mouthed to Lu, "She’s here to see Ash."

Lu swore under her breath and shook her head. "I’m going to go upstairs and call Ash to give her a heads up," she whispered and stood. "What the hell are we going to do?"

"I don’t know," Sheila mouthed and cocked her head when Lauren said something. She shooed Lu towards the stairs as she began to explain to Lauren how to get to their house.

Lu ran up the stairs and to her office where she had installed a second line for business. "You, my friend, are in a world of shit," Lu said as she dialed Ash’s cell number and listened to the rings. She drummed her fingers impatiently on her desk and swore as she heard the phone click to the voice mail. "Shit! Since when did you stop having this damn thing connected to your hip 24-7?" she demanded after the tone. "Ash, listen to me, you are in a world of shit. Lauren is here in Spokane. She came to see you and guess what? You’re not here! Didn’t you fucking tell her you were going to your folks? Thanks a lot, buddy. Now I get to do your damn explaining for you! You better call me ASAP!" She slammed the receiver home and glared at it.

"I hope Sheila has some ideas, ‘cause I’m fresh out," Lu sighed rubbing her eyes. She rose from her office chair and headed back downstairs to find out what Sheila discovered about Lauren’s impromptu trip.

Sheila had just hung up the phone when she saw Lu descending the stairs. "Hey," she sighed as she sat back and eyed her lover.

"Hey," Lu said as she came over to the couch and sank into it with a frustrated sigh. "What did Lauren have to say?"

Sheila scooted over to sit next to Lu and rested her head on Lu’s shoulder. Lu’s arms came around her comfortingly. "She said she borrowed her friend Rachel’s car and came out here on the spur of the moment. It wasn’t planned."

"I thought you called her this afternoon?" Lu asked puzzled.

"I did. I talked to her machine. I guess she must have already left otherwise I would have told her Ash wasn’t here and not to bother," Sheila explained with a sigh. "Did you get a hold of Ash?"

"No," Lu grumbled with a shake of her head. "Talked to her damn voicemail. I’m praying that she checks her messages soon. I don’t know what is with her! She used to have that damn phone grafted to her hip! And now the one time I really need to get a hold of her, she doesn’t have it with her!"

"Easy there," Sheila soothed her irate lover. "Lauren is going to be here in about 20 minutes and we need to figure out how we’re going to handle this."

"Tell her Ash isn’t here," Lu grumbled.

Sheila peeked up at Lu’s grumpy face. "I don’t think Lauren would appreciate being told that bluntly. Do you?" she scolded.

Lu shrugged embarrassed and gave her a sheepish smile. "No, I guess not," she admitted softly. "But I don’t know what to tell her!"

"Why didn’t Ash tell her she wasn’t here?" Sheila asked puzzled by Ash’s insensitivity.

"I dunno. I’ve been wondering the same damn thing," Lu sighed as she pulled Sheila closer. "I’m hoping she just hasn’t had the chance. Giving her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she hasn’t talked to Lauren since yesterday morning when she was still here."

"Could be," Sheila nodded. "Well, one things for sure. We can’t let Lauren leave and drive back to Seattle tonight. I have a feeling she’s going to be pretty upset when she realizes Ash isn’t here and I don’t want her driving."

"Yeah. That would be bad," Lu agreed. "I’m going to kill Ash for this."

"No, dear, you’re not," Sheila stated firmly. "You’re going to have to wait in line behind Lauren and me to get a shot at her!"

Lu chuckled. "Far be it for me to stand in the way of you two! I have a feeling that the two of you are going to be force to be reckoned with."

"Probably," Sheila said with a smirk. "So now I guess we just wait and play it by ear."

"Yeah, guess so," Lu agreed as she closed her eyes and tried to think of how Lauren was going to react. She shivered. "This is not going to be good, is it?"

"No, I don’t think so," Sheila sighed with regret.

Lu pulled her close and they sat in companionable silence as they waited and both tried to think of some way to comfort Lauren when she arrived.


The two brothers watched as the target pulled into the drive of a modest ranch style house and turned off the engine.

"Guess she’s visiting friends," Tommie offered as he watched the pretty young woman get out of the car and head up the drive. She sure is nice to look at, he mused. Guess this doesn’t totally suck.

"Yeah," Roy grunted as he turned off the car and watched the house. The porch light came on and a tall woman stepped out onto the porch. Roy’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward as he tried to make out her features. "Damn."

"What?" Tommie asked glancing at his brother’s serious face.

"Can you make out the broad who just came out on the porch?" Ray asked. The light coming from behind the tall woman had turned her into a silhouette and he couldn’t make her out, but in his gut she seemed familiar.

"No," Tommie shrugged confused by his brother’s behavior. "Why?"

"She looks familiar is all," Ray stated as the two women went inside the house.


"So, I don’t like surprises," Ray growled as he leaned back and made himself comfortable. I think I’ll call Pablo and see if he knows anything about the broad who owns this house. Something about her… he shook his head as the memory eluded him.

Tommie eyed him suspiciously. "Don’t tell me we’re going to just sit here and wait."

"Yep," Ray nodded his eyes trained on the house.

"Aw come on, Ray! I’m starving!" Tommie whined. "We haven’t eaten all day and you wouldn’t let me go into that truck stop and get something while blondie was on the phone."

"Shut up," Ray warned as he scowled at his brother.

"She’s not going anywhere," Tommie pointed out. "This is where she was headed. Let’s go get something to eat and then come back. I really don’t think she’s going to go anywhere."

"You willing to risk it?" Ray demanded turning his cold eyes on his brother.

Tommie gulped but held firm. "Yeah, I am."

Ray studied his brother with cold hard eyes. He had to admit he was proud that Tommie had actually stood up to him. "Okay," he growled as he started the car. He pointed a finger at Tommie. "But if she takes off and we lose her, I’m taking it out of your hide!"

"Fine. Whatever. Let’s just go," Tommie said, relieved that Roy had agreed. He never knew how his volatile brother was going to react and his heart began to slow down into a normal rhythm as Roy drove the car down the quiet street.


"Hi, you must be Sheila," Lauren said with a nervous smile as she held out her hand to the petite oriental woman sitting on the couch.

"And you must be Lauren," Sheila smiled warmly and took the offered hand with a reassuring squeeze. "Won’t you sit down?"

Lauren nodded and perched on the edge of the couch. She looked between the two women and laughed nervously. "Sorry to drop in on you like this. I don’t suppose you were expecting company," Lauren apologized with a contrite grin.

"No problem," Lu assured her as she sank down into the recliner across from Lauren and Sheila. She figured she’d let Sheila handle the situation. I’m not the sensitive chat type! She smirked.

"So… umm… where’s Ash?" Lauren asked scanning the room hopefully. "I didn’t see her truck. Did she go out to get something?"

Sheila met Lu’s eyes and saw that Lu was leaving it up to her. She glared at her lover and received a helpless shrug in answer. "No, she didn’t go out to get anything," Sheila said slowly as beautiful green eyes came back around to meet hers.

"Oh?" Lauren asked with a sinking feeling. Sheila face reflected compassion and Lauren started getting a bad feeling. "Oh gods! She’s not here is she?"

"No. No, she’s not," Sheila informed her in a gentle voice. Sheila saw the tears forming in Lauren’s eyes and felt her heart clench. "She went to her parents’ house last night. She said she needed to get away and think and she wasn’t able to do that here." The tears began to silently stream down Lauren’s face as she stared at Sheila in disbelief. Sheila reached out and took her hands gently in hers. "She didn’t tell you?"

Lauren shook her head and swallowed the lump of betrayal that was trying to choke her. "N… no. I talked to her last night and she didn’t say anything about leaving here," she explained weakly.

"Figures," Lu said under her breath in disgust. Sheila gave her an evil look and she shrugged.

"I guess I should’ve called first," Lauren said in a small voice as she began to rise from the couch. "I’m sorry for disturbing you. I think I better go."

"No!" Sheila pleaded as she gently tugged Lauren back down. "You’re not disturbing us. I tried to call you today. You must have already left. So this is the perfect opportunity for us to chat."

"Oh!" Lauren’s head came up in surprise. "I bet you were the person who called as I was leaving. I decided to just let the machine get it." Lauren shook her head ruefully. "Well, that’s just par for the course, now isn’t it?"

Lu chuckled in agreement. "Sounds like my kind of luck."

"No matter," Sheila said with an encouraging smile. "You’re here now so I’m going to take advantage of the situation and get to know you."

Lauren met Sheila’s kind eyes and felt an answering smile curl her lips. She wiped her eyes and sniffed. "Okay. If you’re sure I’m not bothering you."

"No, not at all. We were just going to watch a movie," Lu assured her with a smile. "Why don’t I go into the kitchen and get you ladies something to drink? Did you get something to eat Lauren?"

"Yes, I went through a drive-in but thanks," Lauren answered returning the smile. "But something to drink would be welcome."

"I think there’s that bottle of Chardonnay in the fridge, Lu. Why don’t you bring Lauren a glass?" Sheila suggested. "I think Lauren could use something a little stronger than soda!"

"Well, I know I could use another beer," Lu stated as she headed towards the kitchen.

Lauren watched her go with a sad smile.

"Hey? You want to talk about it?" Sheila asked as she studied the young woman.

"No, not really," Lauren sighed as she shook her head. "I feel pretty stupid right now and I can only imagine what you must be thinking!"

"I don’t think you’re stupid just concerned," Sheila asserted.

"Yeah I am, but I think I may have overreacted a bit," Lauren said ruefully.

"Well, maybe a little," Sheila smiled as she held up her hand with barely an inch between the fingers in emphasis. "But I think I would probably have done the same thing."

"Oh?" Lauren asked curious. She began to relax and enjoy Sheila’s company.

"Yes," Shelia nodded. "I was pretty worried about Ash myself."

"You were? Why?" Lauren asked as concern clenched her heart.

Sheila sighed and closed her eyes to think. "She was really shaken up by what happened to Lu. She blamed herself for it and the aftermath." She opened her eyes and looked at Lauren’s concerned face. "Did she tell you what happened?"

"Some," Lauren said softly. "I know she blames herself for Lu getting hurt and that she beat the hell out of the guy responsible."

Sheila snorted. "Well, that’s putting it mildly." Lauren gave her a puzzled look. "She put the guy in the hospital. They had to wire his jaw shut and he had to have emergency surgery to fix a collapsed lung. Among other things."

Lauren’s eyes had grown wider with each statement. She stared slack-jawed at Sheila in astonishment. "She did what?"

"Oh, umm, guess she didn’t tell you that part?" Sheila said weakly.

"No. No she didn’t." Lauren shook her head trying to dispel the images of Ash doing that to someone. A sudden image of her warrior popped into her mind and she felt herself suddenly go calm. She knew Ash was dangerous. You could tell just by looking at her and that aura of danger was one of the things that attracted her so strongly. "It’s okay, Sheila. I know she’s capable of it. It just took me by surprise to hear you confirm it."

Sheila nodded in relief. "I think that’s what really freaked her out. I think she realized how dangerous she really is and she’s afraid she’ll hurt you."

"Why? Why should she be afraid of that?" Lauren asked truly puzzled. Her brow furrowed as she tried to think of some logical reason for Ash’s fear. "It’s not like I’m going to go after people with a tire iron!"

Sheila laughed lightly. "I think she’s afraid that she’ll go into a rage and hurt you by accident."

"No, she won’t," Lauren asserted firmly.

"How can you be so sure?" Sheila asked in concern. She was beginning to really like Lauren and the thought of Ash hurting her even unintentionally made her blood run cold.

"She knows you’re there, right?" Lu stated as she walked up to the two women and handed the wine to Lauren.

"What do you mean?" Sheila asked Lu puzzled.

Lu noted that Lauren had a thoughtful look on her face as she considered it. "She senses you’re there, right? Bet you’ve come up behind her unawares and she hasn’t thrown you through a wall yet!"

Lauren’s green eyes focused on Lu’s smug face startled. "Thrown me through a wall? Why would she do that?"

"’Cause that’s what happens to people who come up behind the Wolf unawares," Lu stated matter-of-factly as she took her seat in the recliner. "Have you come up behind her?"

Lauren nodded as she remembered all the times she had come up behind Ash and wrapped her arms around her. Ash had only stiffened once and had never reacted like Lu was describing. "Are you sure?" Lauren asked doubtfully. "I’ve done that any number of times with no dire results."

Lu snorted. "Oh yeah. I’ve seen her do it."

"Really?" Lauren squeaked wide-eyed.

Lu nodded, "Yep."

"So why hasn’t Ash ever done that to Lauren?" Sheila queried puzzled.

Lu threw up her hands in exasperation. "Like I already told you! She senses Lauren’s there and knows she’s not a threat so her body doesn’t react."

"Oh," Sheila said as the explanation penetrated. "So that’s why you’re not worried that Ash would ever hurt Lauren, right?"

"Exactly," Lu agreed emphatically.

"You’re right, Lu. She does know I’m there," Lauren confirmed as she ran the incidences through her head. "She knows I’m there as soon as I walk into a room. I don’t know how. I’ll walk in and spot her and within a few seconds her blue eyes are coming around to meet mine."

"See? No worries," Lu assured them as she twisted the top off her beer and took a large swallow.

"Well, I’m sure Ash will come to the same conclusion and be back here before you know it," Sheila announced with a smile.

"Doesn’t explain why she didn’t tell me she wasn’t here," Lauren sighed feeling the anger well up.

"Nope. Sure doesn’t," Lu agreed eyeing the young woman and seeing the anger flash in her green eyes. "Guess you’ll just have to ask her about that."

"Oh, believe me, we are definitely going to have a talk," Lauren assured as her mind turned inwards and she began formulating what she would say when she got the chance to talk to her.

Sheila watched the byplay between Lu and Lauren and almost felt sorry for Ash. Almost. She was pretty angry with her too and wanted an explanation just as much as Lauren did. She just hoped that the fiery redhead didn’t let her temper get the better of her. She was afraid Ash would throw up her walls again and stalk off.

"How about we watch the movie?" Sheila suggested to the two plotting women.

"Sure," Lu shrugged.

"Sounds good to me. Thanks for everything you two. I really appreciate this. Especially since you weren’t planning on entertaining a basket case tonight!" Lauren said with an appreciative glint in her eye.

"Oh, don’t worry about it," Lu waved off the praise. "I’m planning on making Ash pay dearly for my time!"

Lauren and Sheila laughed and Lu grinned. Sheila picked up the remote and restarted the movie on the beginning credits. The three sat back to enjoy the film.

Lauren’s head was spinning and she felt like she was in a dream. She couldn’t believe she had driven all the way to Spokane just to find out that Ash wasn’t here! I feel so damn stupid! Lu and Sheila are nice, but I’m sure they think I’m out of my mind! You have some serious explaining to do, Ash. I have never been so embarrassed in my life! Lauren’s mind continued to berate her as the movie began and she stared blankly at the screen as she continued her interior dialogue. Why the hell didn’t you tell me on the phone last night? Sheila said you left yesterday afternoon so you must have called me from your truck! Lauren felt her temper flare and her frustration and hurt coaxed the flame to burn hot and bright. Is it some kind of deep dark secret? What’s the big deal?

Sheila glanced at Lauren out of the corner of her eye and saw the furrowed brow and slight frown. She sighed. She had a feeling that Lauren was angry and was probably working herself up to a full-blown fury. Problem was she didn’t see any way to diffuse the situation short of getting Ash here. Obviously that wasn’t going to happen, so she’d have to think of something else. She watched the movie absently as her thoughts turned to ways to head off the coming explosion.

Lu glanced between the two women on the couch and shook her head. Not good. Not good at all. You blew it big time, my friend. She silently admonished Ash as she watched Lauren surreptitiously. She seems like a great girl and I really hope you haven’t fucked this up. She’s pretty upset though and I think you’re going to have to do some fast-talking. Her eyes shifted to the contemplative face of her lover. She smirked. She knew that look. Looks like Sheila’s on your side, Ash. Better hope she comes up with something.

The three sat in companionable silence as the movie attempted to entertain them. None of them were interested in the least. They were all too busy thinking to pay much attention to the movie’s attempts to entice them into the fantasy world of Hollywood.


Ash fell back on her bed with a contented sigh. She grinned happily up at the ceiling and wallowed in the feeling of complete serenity. The day had fulfilled all her hopes and she thought she had laid all the demons to rest.

"The only thing that could make this any better would be Lauren here beside me," she mused aloud. "I can’t wait to tell her." She reached for her phone and frowned when her hand felt nothing but her hip. "Now where?" she muttered as she rolled over and spotted her duster. "Ah!" She stretched and snagged the duster. She pulled it into her lap and began rummaging through the pockets. She grinned when she felt the telltale shape of her phone. She pulled it out and flipped it open. Nothing happened. She scowled. "Damn. Battery must be dead," she muttered.

She flopped back on the bed and tried to remember if she had packed her other battery. She shook her head ruefully when she realized she hadn’t. She had the car charger but that would mean taking the phone out to her truck and plugging it in. She still wouldn’t be able to use it until tomorrow. She growled in frustration.

"Guess I could call her on the house phone," she muttered turning her head to stare at the phone. She nodded decisively and reached for the receiver. She quickly punched in the number and leaned back listening to it ring.

Her happiness was dampened slightly when the phone clicked and she heard Lauren’s sweet voice inform her she wasn’t home and to please leave a message.

"Hi, sweetheart," she said in a low, loving voice. "I was just calling to tuck you in. I wanted to let you know I’m at my folks place and I’ll be going to Bozeman with my brother Graham for the weekend. I’ll call you from there," she sighed wistfully and continued, "Hope you haven’t been trying to reach me. Seems my battery is dead on my cell phone. Guess I forgot to plug it in." She fidgeted as her happiness bubbled up once more. A smile curved her lips. "I was thinking of coming back to Seattle on Monday… how does that sound?" She paused as anticipation welled up making her feel giddy. "I miss you. I can’t wait to see you again and pull you into my arms." She smiled at the thought. "I guess you must have gone out with Rachel. Well, hope you had a good time. I’ll call again tomorrow night. I love you."

A disappointed sigh escaped as she gently laid the receiver back in its cradle. She shook her head trying to dispel the sudden feeling of unease. No! She’s just out with Rachel or something. Nothing to worry about, she reassured herself. She said she’s been working on her thesis like crazy and Rachel probably came over to drag her out to relax. She nodded in agreement. The unease lightened and she yawned making her jaw crack. The long day was catching up with her. She felt her eyes beginning to droop and quickly sat up. Nope. Not going to fall asleep in my clothes! She stood and quickly undressed. A whiff of spring wafted up from the bed as she pulled the covers back. She smiled nostalgically as she climbed into the welcoming softness of her childhood bed. She snuggled her head into her pillow and inhaled the fresh clean scent that always meant home to her. She reached out and flicked off the bedside lamp and relaxed as the familiarity of her room lulled her.

Thoughts of Lauren and the impending trip to Bozeman kept running through her head keeping her from sleep. Maybe I shouldn’t wait ‘til Monday, she worried as she felt the unease return. No. I really want to go to Bozeman and talk to Thomas about my potential costume. She grinned in the darkness of the room as she imagined Lauren’s reaction. Besides it’s probably a good idea to give her the weekend to work on her thesis. I would only be a distraction, she reasoned. Monday will be soon enough, she yawned and felt sleep calling her. She sighed and gave up the fight, drifting off with images of Lauren running through her head.


"Come on, Roy. She’s obviously spending the night," Tommie argued gesturing towards the now dark house. "Let’s go get a hotel and come back early tomorrow morning."

Roy scowled at his brother but nodded. "Yeah, I guess you’re right. Besides I want to call Pablo and see if he knows who the broads are that live there," he waved towards the house.

"Why?" Tommie asked derisively.

"’Cause they might be trouble that’s why!" Roy barked as he slapped Tommie on the back of the head.

"Hey!" Tommie yelped glaring at his brother. "I don’t see why we don’t just go in and whack her."

"’Cause it’s supposed to look like an accident, you numbskull!" Roy explained through gritted teeth as his cold eyes raked his brother scornfully. "Do you really think a bullet in the head is going to look like an accident?"

"We could make it look like a robbery gone bad," Tommie suggested fingering his gun suggestively as he met his brother’s cold stare with defiance. "No more of this sneaking around in the shadows. Just bang!" He pointed his finger like a gun and fired at the house. He tilted it up and blew the imaginary smoke away with a feral glint in his muddy brown eyes.

Roy shook his head in fierce denial. "NO! Are you outta your mind?" Roy growled and felt his heart skip a beat when his brother’s wild gaze met his. "Let me talk to Pablo and find out who lives here and then maybe we can come up with a plan."

"You’re no fun," Tommie sulked.

"Come on, little bro," Roy coaxed giving his brother a conspiratorial wink. "I promise that if we haven’t taken care of her by the end of the weekend, you can pop her okay?"

"Really?" Tommie asked his mood brightening at the prospect.

"Really," Roy assured him and started the car. "Let’s go to the hotel and I’ll call Pablo."

"Okay," Tommie agreed happy once more.

Roy glanced at his brother out of the corner of his eye as he pulled out into the street. He was a little unnerved by his brother’s sudden bloodthirstiness. Especially since earlier in the day he was trying to talk him out of doing anything to the girl because she looked too nice. He shook his head baffled. I sure hope Pablo has some info for me. I need to get this taken care of. We need the money, he mused as he guided the car absently through the quiet streets. Maybe a car wreck? He pondered the idea for a moment and then discarded it. Nah, too risky. She could easily walk away from that and the boss wants her dead. His mind kept coming up with ideas and he kept discarding them. He was starting to feel desperate. I gotta come up with something; otherwise Tommie’s going to get to use his precious gun. He glanced over at his smiling brother who was humming tunelessly and staring out the window. I don’t think we’d get away with that. Too many chances of getting caught. Damn. He sighed and pulled into a motel parking lot. He was really beginning to fear his baby brother was going to go off half-cocked and do something stupid.

"I’ll go get us a room," Roy said as he parked the car.

"Okay," Tommie agreed readily. "I’ll get our stuff together while you do that."

Roy nodded agreement and walked away towards the office of the cheap motel. Tommie watched him go and a slow evil smile crossed his thin lips. He whistled tunelessly as he climbed out of the car and popped the trunk and grabbed their scruffy duffle bags. He pulled a cigarette out of a crumpled pack and lit it, inhaling deeply as he waited for his brother to return.


"Whoa there, speedy!" Harrison exclaimed as his daughter came barreling down the stairs and almost bowled him over.

"Sorry, pop," she apologized her eyes dancing with happiness.

Harrison eyebrow went up in surprise at his obviously jubilant daughter, which was a far cry from the exhausted haunted one he had talked to in the barn early yesterday morning. "You’re in a good mood," he commented as they walked together down the hall towards the kitchen. "Guess you got some thinking done."

"Yeah I did. Thanks, pop," Ash grinned gratefully at her father as she shyly peeked at him through her bangs.

"I’m just glad to see you so happy," Harrison smiled and patted his daughter on the shoulder as they rounded the corner and the delicious smells of breakfast assaulted their senses. "Ooh! I do believe your mother has made sweet rolls!"

"We better hurry before Graham eats them all," Ash warned playfully and quickened her step.

"Good idea," Harrison agreed and followed in his daughter’s wake.

Eleanor spotted her daughter and husband as they scurried across the kitchen making a beeline for the family’s table and the sweet rolls. She smiled in amusement and was pleased to see Ash looking so radiant this morning. She crossed the kitchen and set a plate laden with bacon and a bowl of scrambled eggs on the table before her ravenous family.

"Now don’t fill up on the sweets," she admonished as she filled a plate with eggs and bacon and set it decisively in front of her daughter. Blue eyes came up to meet identical ones and Eleanor caught her breath at the sight. Sheer unadulterated joy radiated from eyes she had given up hope of seeing anything but guarded and slightly cold.

"Thanks, mom," Ash grinned up at her.

"You’re welcome," Eleanor said breaking eye contact with her daughter for fear she would start crying. "What are your plans for the day?"

"Ash and me are going to Bozo," Graham mumbled around a mouthful of sweet roll.

"Ash and I," Harrison corrected giving his son a reproving look.

"Yeah, yeah," Graham waved dismissively and ducked the playful slap his father aimed for his head. "Missed me!" he taunted, smirking at his father mischievously just as a resounding slap landed on the back of his head. "Hey!" he cried and whipped his head around to eye his sister who was innocently eating her eggs.

Harrison quickly covered his mouth to stifle the chuckle as his daughter glanced over at her brother, the picture of innocence. She cocked one eyebrow at him in question.

"You hit me," Graham accused turning in his seat to face her more directly.

Ash sat back in her chair, wiped her mouth and swallowed before replying. "Hmm, think so?" she drawled with a playful glint in her eyes.

Graham nodded emphatically. "Yeah. What’d you do that for? That hurt!"

"Guess you shouldn’t have ducked pop’s then," Ash reasoned as her trademark crooked grin graced her lips.

Harrison couldn’t hold back the laughter any more and guffawed. Ash gave him a wink and Graham grinned sheepishly.

"Why are you going to Bozeman?" Ellie asked bringing the conversation back to its original purpose. She smiled warmly at her family as she took her seat and filled a plate.

"Oh, Ash wants Tom to help her with a project," Graham explained as he began shoveling food into his mouth like he hadn’t eaten in a year.

Ash watched him with amusement for a moment and then turned to her mother. "I’m escorting Lauren to a Halloween party next Saturday and thought Thomas could help me out with my costume idea," she offered as explanation.

"Oh?" Ellie prompted with interest. "Is this Lauren the person that’s got you walking on clouds this morning?"

Ash ducked her head to hide the blush she knew was rising to her face. Graham chuckled with glee and Ash narrowed her eyes at him in warning. He stuck his tongue out and addressed his mother. "Oh yeah. She’s got it bad for her!"

Ash kicked him under the table and he gave her a smug look knowing exactly what their mother was going to do with the information and was ready to sit back and enjoy watching his big sister squirm.

"Oh?" Ellie asked pleased by the news. "When are you going to bring her to meet the family, Ashlin?"

Ash gave her father a pleading look for help. He shook his head with a smile and mouthed, "You’re on your own, maestro."

Ash turned to her mother and saw her mother’s hope and genuine interest in her happiness shining on her gentle face. She knew at that moment that she would do anything to make her mother’s wish come true and if that meant the torture of bringing Lauren here to run the gambit of her family than so be it. "Well if things go like I’m hoping they will…" she paused and her mother leaned forward eagerly. Ash grinned. "I’ll bring her to meet you all at the family gathering in December."

"That would be wonderful" Ellie enthused clasping her hands in front of her and beaming at her daughter. "Tell me all about her."

"Mom," Ash said with a slight whine. "I don’t think we have time to get into this right now."

"Sure we do, sis," Graham disagreed and smirked when Ash threw daggers at him with her eyes. "We’re not on any timetable. Go ahead and tell mom all about her."

Ash glanced at her father and he leaned forward expectantly and she knew there would be no help from that quarter. She felt her stomach begin to flutter and swallowed the sudden nervousness as she met her mom’s curious gaze and attempted to smile. "Okay. What do you want to know?" Ash asked stalling for time.

"Why everything, Ashlin!" Ellie exclaimed and saw her daughter’s face drain of color. She quickly reached out and took Ash’s cold hand in hers and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Ash gazed at her like a deer in the headlights and Ellie’s heart ached for her. "Honey, just tell me what you think I’d like to know. This isn’t the Spanish Inquisition or anything so relax."

Ash stared at her a moment longer and then visibly relaxed with a sheepish grin. "Sorry, mom," she said meekly. "I’m just not sure what you want to know."

"Well, you could start with that amazing painting Graham showed us," her father offered helpfully.

"Oh, umm…" Ash looked back and forth between her parents and thought furiously for something to say.

"Yeah, sis. Tell us all about it," Graham teased as he drew out the last sentence for emphasis.

"Graham," Harrison scolded.

"Sorry, pop," Graham apologized hunching down in his seat but his eyes glinting with humor at his sister’s discomfort.

"I was as surprised as you when I saw it," Ash began as her mind pulled up the memory and she felt the residue shock course through her. "She said she saw the woman in a dream and just had to paint it."

"So you didn’t pose for it?" her mother asked in surprise.

"No," Ash chuckled with a rueful shake of her head. "Can you really see me sitting still for that long, mom?"

"No, I guess not," Ellie agreed with a fond smile.

"Well it’s an amazing likeness," Harrison commented thoughtfully. "She’s quite the artist."

"Not according to her," Graham threw in his two cents worth and his parents’ attention turned to him in surprise. He shrugged sheepishly. "Ash said that she doesn’t consider herself an artist. She’s a writer."

"Really, Ashlin? What does she write?" Ellie asked returning her appraisal to her fidgeting daughter.

"Her thesis is on Eleanor of Aquitaine." Ellie smiled in pleasure at that and Ash returned the smile. "Yeah, I thought you’d like that. She also writes poetry."

"Really? Do you have any with you?" Ellie asked hopefully.

Ash ducked her head and blushed as she nodded. "Umm, yeah. I found this in my coat’s pocket this morning," she admitted softly as she pulled a folded piece of paper from her breast pocket.

"Will you read it to us, Ashlin?" her mother asked gently seeing the obvious embarrassment her daughter was feeling.

"I…" Ash fingered the poem nervously as she thought about it. It was pretty personal and she didn’t think she could get through reading it, especially not to her mother! "Why don’t I just let you read it, mom?" she suggested offering the poem to her mother.

Her mother smiled in understanding and took the folded paper from her daughter’s slightly shaking hands. She unfolded it and began to read:


Blessed Pain

A tear falls

As you walk away

Turn and wave

The trial has begun.

Time passes as it must

The need for your secure embrace

Your easy smile and laughter

Becomes harder to bear.

The sound of your voice

Echoes from miles away

A smile touches

Blessed Pain

The knowledge of one gone

Who cares as I care.

Distance separates

Loves keeps us close.

Blessed Pain

The hollowness of absence

The simmer of passion

Two hearts beating as one

Tho’ miles do part

Blessed Pain

Knowing you will come back

Knowing I have someone

Thank the fates

Blessed Pain

Love from a distance

Distant from a love.


-I love you, Ash and am thinking of you- L

Eleanor blinked back the tears and folded the poem carefully. "She’s a very talented writer, Ashlin," Ellie asserted her voice rough with emotion. "And she loves you very much."

Ash smiled at her mother as she accepted the poem back and returned it to her pocket. "Thanks, mom."

"Hey! Don’t we get to read it?" Graham demanded.

"No, I think not," Ellie stated narrowing her eyes at Graham in disapproval for his outburst. "I think that will stay just between us ladies."

"Okay fine. Keep your secrets," Graham grumbled crossing his arms across his chair sullenly. "I think we should get going."

Ash nodded. "I promise to sit down and tell you everything you want to know, mom," Ash vowed as she leaned over and gave her mother a gentle kiss on the cheek. "Or better yet, I’ll bring Lauren here and she can satisfy your curiosity on her own! She loves to talk."

"I’ll be looking forward to that day, Ashlin," Ellie asserted with a gentle smile. "Now go off to Bozeman and be careful on the roads."

Ash rolled her eyes at the concern but nodded in acquiescence. She strolled around the table and dutifully kissed her father’s cheek. "Where’s my mutt anyway?" she asked her family as she straightened.

"Bellson?" Harrison asked surprised. Ash nodded. "Last time I saw him was with Davis. Guess he must’ve taken him with him to Missoula."

Ash scowled darkly. "That boy is trying to steal my dog! I just know it!"

"Not a chance, sis!" Graham laughed as he pushed back from the table. "That dog sees you and goes absolutely nuts! Davis doesn’t stand a chance."

"True," Harrison confirmed.

"Okay if you say so. But he better bring him back or I’m going to hunt him down and pummel him!" Ash announced as she pulled on her duster.

"I’ll watch your back," Graham offered and Ash raised an eyebrow at him. He grinned. "Someone has to watch for Paula. I don’t think she’d take to kindly to someone pounding her potential husband!"

The family laughed and Ash gave Graham a high five as they left the kitchen with shouted goodbyes to their folks.

"You got a hold of Thomas?" Ash questioned as she held the door open for Graham.

"Yep. He’s really excited. I swear I could here the ka-ching going off in his head," Graham laughed as he steered his chair down the ramp.

Ash joined in his laughter as she led the way to the truck and opened the passenger door for him. Graham pulled himself in and Ash folded his wheelchair and placed it in the jump seat behind him. She hurried around the truck ducking her head into the biting wind and climbed in with a relieved sigh.

"Let’s get this show on the road," Graham enthused buckling up.

"You got it," Ash grinned and started the engine. She began to pull out and then remembered her phone and stepped on the brake. She had left it sitting on her nightstand.

"What? Did you forget something?" Graham asked.

"Nah, nevermind," Ash said as she put the truck back into gear and drove down the drive. I don’t really need it. I have my calling card. I’ll just use that to call Lauren tonight, she decided.


"Gray Manor."

"Mr. Gray?"

"This is he. Who may I ask is calling please?"

"This is Lu Darkcloud, Mr. Gray. I was wondering if I could speak with Ashlin."

"Sorry, Lu, you just missed her. She just left to go to Bozeman with Graham," Harrison said and heard Lu swear under her breath. "Is there a problem?"

"Problem? No, no problem," Lu assured him with a sigh. "I was just hoping to relay some information to her. Guess I’ll try her on her cell."

"Hmm," Harrison frowned in thought. "I don’t think she had it with her."

"She doesn’t?" Lu asked incredulously.

"No, I don’t think so. I didn’t see it anyway," Harrison informed her. "Is it something I could pass along to her?"

"Do you know when they’re planning on being back?"

"I think they were going to stay the weekend with one of Graham’s friends. So I suppose that means they won’t be back until Sunday," Harrison said as concern began to grow with each passing moment. "Do you want me to see if I can find Thomas’s number for you? If it’s that important I’m sure Ash would want to know."

"No, that’s okay, Mr. Gray," Lu assured him. "I’ll just leave a message on her voicemail and hope she checks it. It’s not urgent or anything."

"You sure?"

"Yes, thanks," Lu said.

"Okay then. I’ll tell her you called."

"Thanks, Mr. Gray. Good-bye."

"Good-bye," Harrison replied and hung up the phone. He stared at it puzzled by the entire exchange. He shrugged and decided he’d just tell Ash she called and hope for the best.



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