Part 13

Sheila sipped her tea thoughtfully as she digested what Pete had told Lu about the incident. The whole thing seemed crazy, but yet it had happened. The idea that she may have been the target sent chills down her spine and she cupped the mug of warm tea for reassurance. When they had gotten to the point of moving in together, Lu had sat her down and told her of the dangers of being involved with her. Sheila had dutifully listened to every word and patted Lu on the hand and then promptly forgot about it. Guess that's coming back to bite me in the butt, Sheila smirked.

The very idea of being a target for vengeance was just a little hard for her to swallow. Lu hadn't worked any really dangerous cases for the two years they had been together, so Sheila had never really thought the possibility would ever arrive. She frowned as the idea sunk in a little deeper and an overwhelming sense of protectiveness came over her. She placed her hands on her still flat abdomen and rubbed it gently. Don't you worry, little one, neither of your mamas is going to let anything happen to you, she assured her unborn child with conviction.

Lu told her that she had finally checked the answering machine after talking to Pete and that there had been 5 messages from Ash. Which at first made Sheila very happy until Lu told her that the last one was made from what could've only been a bar and that Ash had been totally trashed. Wonder what that was all about? I know I don't know her that well… but it seems odd that she would leave so many concerned and urgent messages for Lu to call her and then go out and get totally tanked. Sheila shook her head in confusion. Lu said she had called her and ripped her a new one. Sheila smiled grimly. Oh yeah, my honey the subtle one. Not that Ash didn't deserve it, but… Sheila sighed. Things just weren't adding up in her head and she hated that. Guess I'll just have to pin her down and ask her. Bet she's on her way here. Especially after the tongue lashing Lauren obviously gave her. Lu had said she had heard Lauren shouting and when she went to investigate had found Lauren curled up in her chair and sobbing. Lauren had tumbled into Lu's arms and caused her poor stoic lover no end of discomfort. Yes, but you came through like a champ, love, Sheila complimented her absent lover fondly. Wish I could've seen that. You are just full of surprises lately. Hmmm, I think I need to do something extra special for you once we have the house to ourselves again. She grinned as a myriad of ideas flooded her head on how to make one soon to be ex-bounty hunter very happy indeed.

"Hey, Sheila."

She glanced towards the entryway to see Lauren standing there looking a bit lost. She smiled. "How did you sleep?" she asked kindly, motioning Lauren to come take a seat at the table.

"Okay, I guess," Lauren replied with a shrug. She walked into the kitchen and sat down across from Sheila with a sigh. "Whatever they gave me sure knocked me on my butt."

"Well, you needed the rest," Sheila said simply. She studied Lauren thoughtfully as she took another sip of her tea. She looks so tired. Poor kid. "Are you hungry? I was just thinking of whipping up some brunch."

"Yeah, a little," Lauren sighed. She folded her hands on the table in front of her and stared at them.

"Honey? Are you okay?" Sheila asked, knowing that Lauren was probably upset about Ash and needed to talk, but wasn't sure how to bring the subject up.

"I…" Lauren looked up to see Sheila's concerned face and quickly dropped her eyes back to her hands. "Umm… no not really," she whispered.

"Is it Ash?" Sheila asked softly, leaning forward and taking Lauren's hand in hers. Lauren nodded minutely. "Lu said you talked to her. Want to talk about it?"

Lauren visibly swallowed and nodded again. "Oh Sheila! I was so mean to her!" Lauren cried.

"Shh, it's okay, honey. Why don't you just relax and tell me about it," Sheila soothed.

"I totally went off on her, Sheila," Lauren said fighting back the tears. "I yelled at her for not being here and so forth."

"And?" Sheila prompted gently giving Lauren's hand a soft squeeze.

"And I blamed her for me almost getting hit by that car," Lauren admitted sheepishly. She squirmed in her chair and finally looked up to meet understanding in Sheila's eyes.

"Honey, you were really shook up about what happened yesterday," Sheila said calmly. "Its not really surprising that you lashed out and Ash was a likely target."

Lauren sniffed and nodded in agreement. "I suppose… but it was really unfair of me to blame her, Sheila. It wasn't her fault some maniac almost hit me." Lauren glanced up in time to see something flicker across Sheila's face. She felt her blood run cold. "Sheila? What is it?"

"Hmm? Oh nothing, honey," Sheila released Lauren's hands and took a sip of her tea. Her mind reprimanding her for letting her emotions slip and possibly cause more harm than good.

"You sure?" Lauren prodded suspiciously. "Did Lu talk to that detective friend of hers? Did she find something out about the accident yesterday that I should know about?"

Sheila's mind whirled as she tried to think of something to say. She stood and made her way into the kitchen to pour another cup of tea and buy her some thinking time.

"Would you like a cup of tea, Lauren?" she asked turning on the kettle.

"Sure," Lauren replied, turning in her seat to watch Sheila go through the motions of making the tea. "Are you going to tell me or do I have to guess?"

"Tell you what?" Lu asked as she strode into the kitchen and made a beeline for the coffeepot.

"Thank you god," Sheila muttered under her breath and turned to Lu. "Honey, Lauren was just asking me what Pete had to say, but since you're here, why don't I let you tell her?"

Lu turned and gave Sheila a bemused look. "Umm, sure. Guess I can do that," Lu said as she poured herself a cup of coffee. She strolled across the kitchen and pulled out a chair to sit down across from a very attentive Lauren. Hoo boy. What to say? And how damn much? Lu thought. She had spent the morning going through her files and still had a ton more to go through. She wasn't any closer to an answer as to who could be behind the incident, but she wasn't about to give up now. Wish Ash would hurry up and get here.

"Did your friend have anything to tell you?" Lauren asked hesitantly.

"Pete you mean?" Lauren nodded. "Well, yeah he had a few things to say," Lu said slowly as she took a sip of her coffee and looked over Lauren's shoulder at Sheila. Sheila gave her a helpless shrug and Lu realized she was on her own. "For one they found the car."

"They did?" Lauren asked surprised.

"Yeah, seems it was stolen and they found it abandoned a couple miles down the road," Lu replied, sitting back in her chair and sipping at her coffee thoughtfully. "So that's pretty much a dead end. Could've been that a couple of kids stole it and were just being reckless. They almost hit you and got spooked and ditched the car."

Lauren studied Lu carefully. "But you don't think that's so… do you?" she asked, convinced that she was right.

"It's possible, but no I don't think that's the case," Lu shrugged noncommittally. "Sheila? What's for lunch? I'm starving."

"I thought I'd just heat up that stew I made the other day and make up some sandwiches," Sheila answered. The teakettle began to whistle and she pulled it off the burner and poured two cups of tea.

Lu glanced at Lauren to see that she was studying her hands and looked to be deep in thought. Well, either that or she has heartburn, Lu thought seeing the furrowed brow and tiny frown. Damn, how the hell am I going to convince her to stick around without making her totally panic?

Sheila came over to the table and placed a steaming mug of tea in front of Lauren. "Here you go."

"Thanks, Sheila," Lauren said absently. She pulled the mug to her and cupped it with both hands. She brought it up to her lips and gently blew on it before taking a tentative sip.

"You're welcome," Sheila said. She gave Lauren's shoulder a gentle squeeze before escaping back into the kitchen proper to prepare lunch.

Lu watched the retreating back of her lover and cursed herself for coming downstairs to refill her coffee cup. Knew I should've put that coffee maker in my office, she grumbled with a rueful shake of her head. She turned her head and ran smack dab into penetrating green eyes that bore into her. She shifted restlessly and tried to smile.

"Lu, what is going on?" Lauren asked with deceptive mildness.

Uh oh. Now what? Do I tell her my suspicions? Pete's suspicions? Hell, it's possible she wasn't the intended target, but if she was… Lu shuddered at what that could mean if she let Lauren out of her sight and something did happen to her. Ash would kill me, that's for sure. Not that I wouldn't deserve it. Lu brought her mug to her lips for a gulp of coffee to give her some time to think. Besides, I have to think of some way to keep her here. Guess the truth would work.

"I'm not really sure yet, Lauren," Lu said honestly, setting her mug down and playing with it idly. "To tell the truth I'm as confused as you are."

"Really?" Lauren asked surprised.

"Yeah, really. I do know that I don't think yesterday was some random incident," Lu said slowly. "I think it was deliberate." She saw Lauren's eyes go wide in shock and quickly continued. "Now wait. I don't know if you were the intended target or if you just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's possible that they were after Sheila and they didn't have a good description of her and just thought you must be her since you were meeting me."

Lauren frowned as she considered. "But Sheila was there, Lu. She crossed the street before me. I forgot my wallet and went back for it."

Lu nodded. "Yeah, I thought about that. I don't think they saw her. I think they spotted me first. When I came up to the crosswalk to meet you. That's when they spotted you and figured you must be meeting me. It fits." Lu shrugged and sat back in her chair.

"I guess so," Lauren replied hesitantly. She absently sipped her tea as she mulled it over in her mind. Some how it just didn't seem plausible to her. She didn't know why, but for some reason she felt that if it hadn't been an accident, then the car had been after her not Sheila. "Why would someone be after Sheila? Or for that matter after me?"

Lu snorted. "'Cause she's married to me."

"Huh?" Lauren asked perplexed.

Lu sighed and leaned forward placing her forearms on the table. "I'm a bounty hunter, Lauren. I catch very nasty people and they don't like being caught. Some of them get rather nasty about it and decide to go after the bounty hunter that put them away. Or in some cases, the people they love and care about," Lu explained, seeing the dawning comprehension in Lauren's eyes.

"Oh," Lauren said in a subdued voice. "Do you think they might've been after me because of Ash?"

"I honestly don't know," Lu said watching Lauren struggle with the knowledge that loving Ash may put her in danger. "It's a definite possibility."

"But why? She doesn't do that anymore, Lu. She hasn't for years," Lauren argued looking up to meet Lu's eyes. "I mean, she helped you out earlier this week, but that's it. Right?"

Lu heard the uncertainty in her voice. "That's right, Lauren. She's been out of the game for a couple of years now," Lu said with conviction.

Sheila listened to the exchange as she stirred the stew and got out the ingredients for sandwiches. She laid the bread out and began to prepare the sandwiches as she tried to think of some way to get Lauren to stay the night. I just know Ash will be here sometime tonight. If we can just keep her here long enough, Sheila thought as her hands went through the motions of cutting the sandwiches and arranging them on a plate. She was worried about the two of them. She didn't know either of them real well, but she after listening to both of them talk about one another; she just knew they were meant to be together. Yeah if Ash could get over being stupid and Lauren her insecurities! She snorted as she ladled out the stew. She pulled out a serving tray arranging the plate of sandwiches and the bowls of stew on it. She picked up the tray and made her way to the table.

"Lunch is served," she said setting the tray down with a flourish.

Lu smiled at her as she chose a bowl of stew and grabbed a spoon. "Thanks, honey. This looks great."

Sheila slid a bowl in front of Lauren and held out a spoon. "You need to eat, Lauren," Sheila stated in a perfect mommy voice.

Lauren looked up to see the stern look on Sheila's face and felt a hysterical giggle rise. She cupped her hand over her mouth and managed a nod as she took the offered spoon.

"Something funny?" Lu asked eyeing Lauren with amusement.

"Mmm… nope," Lauren managed to choke out as she ducked her head and stirred her stew industriously.

Lu gave Sheila a puzzled glance and Sheila just shrugged. "Okay," Lu said slowly as she selected a sandwich and took a hearty bite.

Sheila sat down between the two and pulled her bowl in front of her. "So… Lauren, what are your plans?"

Lauren swallowed her bite of stew and considered her options. "Well, I thought I'd head back to Seattle today," Lauren said thoughtfully. Lu stiffened and Lauren hurried to explain. "I borrowed my friend Rachel's car and I promised her I'd have it back to her before the weekend. It's already Friday so I thought I better get it back."

Lu and Sheila exchanged glances and Lauren had a distinct feeling that this was not a plan they approved of. She sat back and nibbled on a sandwich as she waited. You can tell they've been together for awhile. They don't even need to talk. They can just sense what the other is thinking or something, she thought as she watched the interplay between the two and felt a pulse of jealousy. I want that. She blinked as the thought flashed through her mind. I want that with… she searched within and her eyes closed when the answer came… Ash.

"Lauren," Sheila began, turning in her chair to face her more directly. She waited for Lauren to look up and make eye contact before continuing. "I would really feel better if you'd at least stay the night."

"But…" Lauren protested.

"Wait," Sheila said holding up a hand. "Please, Lauren, listen to me. I would really feel better if you spent the night and gave Lu and Detective Branigan a chance to look into this. I'm sure your friend, Rachel?" Lauren nodded. "Would understand that. Why don't you give her a call and explain you need to spend another night?"

Lauren glanced at Lu and saw a very serious expression on her face. Lu nodded in agreement with Sheila and she sighed in defeat. "Okay, Sheila. If it will make you feel better. I guess one more night won't make much difference."

"It would and thank you," Sheila said with a smile. "Now let's get this lunch eaten so we can decide what to do with the rest of the day."

"Well, I know what I'll be doing," Lu said as she grabbed another sandwich and dipped it in her stew. "I'm going to be going through my case files and see if I can come up with any suspects."

"Do you think you'll find anything?" Lauren asked as she took a bite of her stew.

"Don't know, but I can try," Lu said with a shrug.

"This is delicious," Lauren said to Sheila.

"Thank you. Glad you like it," Sheila said giving her a gentle smile.

The three continued their lunch as a comfortable silence fell, lost in their own thoughts and plans for the afternoon.


Graham watched his sister out of the corner of his eye with growing frustration. She tapped the steering wheel in time with the music and kept her eyes firmly on the road. He sighed. He'd tried to get her to talk to him for the last two hours and was running out of time. They were almost to the Manor and he still didn't know why she was yelling into the phone or why she was in such a hurry to get back to Seattle. Or wherever the hell she's so hot to get to, he grumbled internally. He crossed his arms and stared out the window watching the drizzling rain and trying to think of anything that would get his stubborn sister to open up. He knew she was hurting, but didn't have a clue as to how to help. And she's not helping any.

Ash took the turn onto the gravel road that led to the Manor. Graham grimaced and decided he'd try one more time. Hell, if I can't get her to talk I'm going to sic Pop on her, he thought with a smirk. He could always get her to spill her guts. And if I give him a heads up that something's going on, she won't stand a chance.

"So," he said drawing the word out as he turned his head to study her stoic profile. Oh yeah, full stoic 'I don't give a shit about anything' mode in full swing. "You want to tell me who you were yelling at on the phone?"

Ash stiffened slightly. "No," she said in a flat voice.

"I see," Graham nodded and rubbed his goatee. "How about I tell you and you can just tell me if I'm right or not?" Ash grunted and Graham took that as a yes and continued. "Okay… I'm thinking it was Lu finally calling you back and for some reason you two had one hell of an argument. Am I right so far?"

Ash glanced at her brother and saw the concern evident on his face. She rolled her eyes and decided she might as well say something. Maybe it would shut him up. "Yeah."

"So what did you fight about, huh?" Graham asked intently. Score one for the home team!

Ash tapped the steering wheel and tried to think of something to say. How could she tell her baby brother that she hadn't been there when the woman she loved was almost killed? That Lu totally chewed her ass about it and was damn right to do so. "Why do you want to know?" she finally asked trying to stall.

"You're kidding right?" Graham asked incredulously.

"Uh… no…" Ash mumbled as she slowed the truck to go over a cattle guard.

"Come on, Ash! You have got to be kidding me. Of course I want to know! I care about you, you lunkhead and obviously something happened that has you way upset. Tho' if I didn't know ya like I do, I probably wouldn't be able to tell," Graham stated.

Ash felt a blush rising and fought it down. "Sorry, Graham. I'm just not used to talking about stuff."

"Yeah, yeah," Graham said with a dismissive wave. "But maybe you'll feel better if you talk to someone, huh?"

Ash thought about that for a moment as she maneuvered the truck around a tree that had fallen across the road. "We better tell Pop about that so he can get it moved before one of his guests plows into it," she said, nodding towards the tree.

"Yeah, I'll give him the heads up," Graham agreed, knowing Ash was trying to change the subject but determined not to let her. "So? What did you and Lu fight about?"

Ash sighed. He's like a damn puppy gnawing at a bone. He'll just keep chewing on it 'til he finds out something. She had been thinking about nothing else but the fight with Lu and then Lauren blowing up at her. Going over it over and over in her mind. Maybe he's right. Maybe another perspective will help.

"Lu yelled at me because Lauren showed up in Spokane thinking I was there and she had to explain to Lauren that I wasn't there. She was not thrilled," Ash said in a flat voice.

Graham sat forward intently. Now we're getting somewhere. "I guess not," Graham said shortly. Ash glanced at him inquiringly and he shrugged. "Hell, sis, by the volume I figured it was not a happy conversation." That earned him a self-deprecating smile and he grinned.

"True," Ash stated with a shake of her head. "That wasn't the worse though."

"Oh?" Graham asked with interest.

Ash swallowed the lump that had suddenly appeared in her throat. "No. Lauren got on the phone next."

"Oh," Graham said and waited. When Ash didn't continue he decided she needed to be pulled out of her head. "And?"

"And…" Ash sighed and took her left hand from the steering wheel to pinch the bridge of her nose. "She totally went off on me. I deserved it and everything she said was true."

Graham sat back in surprise. Oh boy, no wonder you've totally thrown up your walls and are acting like a whipped dog. He studied his sister's slumped shoulders and blank face and realized that she truly believed that she deserved whatever Lauren had said. Shit, she thinks that since Lauren yelled at her, she doesn't love her anymore. He snorted. And I always thought you were the smart one in the family.

"What did she say, Ash?" he asked gently.

"That the only reason she was there was for me and it almost got her killed," Ash stated in a monotone. She shrank back into her seat and her eyes pooled with unshed tears. She wiped at them with her left hand and slowed the truck as her vision blurred.

"What?" Graham practically shouted, sitting up straight in his seat and turning to his sister in shock. "What the hell do you mean by that?"

Ash swallowed and decided she better pull over before she ran off the road and plowed into a cow or something. She pulled over and put the truck in neutral as she struggled to fight down the overwhelming guilt that was trying to consume her. She rested her head on the steering wheel between her hands and took in deep breaths. "It's true," she managed to get out. She couldn't look at him. Didn't want to see the look of horror when she told him what had happened. "She almost got run over and it's my fault."

Graham just stared at her totally perplexed. "Hit by a car? How could that be your fault?"

"Because it wasn't an accident, Graham. Someone purposely tried to run her down because of me," Ash explained wearily.

"How do you know that? Come on, Ash, this is crazy," Graham stated, reaching out and giving Ash's shoulder a squeeze.

Ash flinched at the contact and pulled away. "No. It's not," she said through gritted teeth feeling her rage rising swelled by her guilt. She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and turned to glare at him with fire in her eyes. "I'm not a nice person, Graham. I haven't been for a long time. I have a lot of enemies and some how one of them found out about Lauren and went after her. She was almost killed and it's my fault! Do you understand that? My fault!" Ash's voice had risen to a roar and Graham shrank back from her pressing against the passenger door.

Graham raised his hands in a defensive posture. "Whoa, sis, calm down. Just calm down," he said in a slightly shaky voice trying to soothe her. Waves of rage washed over him coming from his sister and he suddenly, for the first time in his life, was afraid of her. He stared into her eyes and saw the self-loathing and pain hiding behind the rage. He felt his fear begin to dissipate as he realized that his sister was acting like a wounded animal and decided to treat her accordingly.

Ash felt the rage wash over her fueled by her guilt and the cab of the truck started closing in on her. She began to pant and fumbled at the door.

"Ash? Ash, what are you doing?" Graham asked in a low quiet voice.

"Too close… gotta get out," she panted as she jerked at the door handle and finally managed to push the door open. The freezing wind gusted through the cab bringing with it pelting sleet. Ash slid out of the driver's seat and out of the truck. She staggered a few steps away and threw her head back taking in big gulps of the frigid air seemingly unaware of the freezing rain soaking her.

Graham sat there totally at a loss. Where's the cavalry when you need them? He wondered as he watched his sister helplessly from the cab of the truck.


"Hope we can get that tree moved before dark," Davis said.

"Me too. Last thing I need is for one of these out of staters to crash into it and sue," Harrison replied as he tried to get the defroster to work. "Damn this truck. I knew I should've paid Bill to fix it before the weather turned."

Davis peered out the windshield trying to see through the sleeting rain. He squinted and reached up to wipe the condensation from the windshield with his sleeve. "Hey, Pop?"

"Hmm?" Harrison asked not looking up from fiddling with the old farm truck's heater.

"Isn't that Ash's truck?"

Harrison's head shot up in surprise and he glanced out the window to see where his son was pointing. He leaned forward and squinted as he tried to make out the vehicle in the gloom. "It could be," Harrison said slowly. "But why would she be stopped here?"

Davis shrugged noncommittally as he geared down and steered the truck through some deep ruts. He was concentrating on the road so hard that when Harrison swore he jumped. "Damn, pop! Trying to give me a heart attack?" Davis groused giving his father an accusatory glare.

"Davis, stop the truck. Now!" Harrison ordered his eyes never leaving the sight of his daughter standing in the pouring rain with not so much as a jacket on.

"Okay, okay. Geez, what's the deal?" Davis grumbled as he slowed the truck and looked out the foggy windshield trying to see what had upset his dad. He spotted Ash and felt his stomach plummet. "Oh shit," he whispered as he finally got the truck to come to a stop.

"Go check the truck. I'm going to Ash," Harrison told Davis as he jumped out of the truck and pulled his hood up. He reached behind the truck seat and grabbed the blanket they always kept there. He slammed the truck door as he scanned the area and saw Graham sitting in Ash's truck looking fine but upset. He turned his attention to his daughter and what he saw made him quicken his step.

Harrison's steps slowed as he approached his daughter. He studied her pale profile framed by black hair that was plastered to her skull. Her eyes were closed and her face was twisted with anguish. He took in the rest of her and saw that her flannel shirt and jeans were soaked through and she had begun to shiver, but she didn't seem to be aware of it. Holy Mary, mother of God. What's happened? The father in him wanted to rush forward and wrap her in his arms, but the practical side knew that would be a sure way to find himself in the mud flat on his back. Probably with something broken and then Ellie would surely kick my ass, he surmised as he came to a halt a few paces away and tried to think of some way to comfort his child.

He heard Davis talking to Graham in the truck. Time to bite the bullet, he decided. He cautiously stepped forward, unfolding the blanket as he closed. Harrison scrutinized her, trying to deduce if she was aware of his presence or was too lost inside herself. "Ashlin? Honey?" he asked softly as he stepped in front of her.

Ashlin twitched at the sound of his voice. Encouraged, Harrison stepped closer and carefully draped the blanket over her shoulders. "Ashlin? Let's get you out of the weather, okay?" he suggested gently as he adjusted the blanket around her.

Ash's head came down and her eyes opened. She turned her head and looked at him. Harrison swallowed as he saw the raw pain reflected in those clear blue eyes. He smiled gently and wrapping his arm around his daughter's waist started leading her towards the farm truck. "Come on, honey. Let's get you home and warm," he said as he opened the truck's door and gently pushed her in.

Ash nodded numbly and slumped into the seat. She pulled the blanket up and closed her eyes with a sigh.

Harrison was overcome with the image of his daughter as a small child doing the exact same thing. He had pulled her out of the creek after she had fallen through the ice and she had been soaked to the bone and shivering just as she was now. He reached out and gently brushed her wet hair out of her face and tucked the blanket in snug around her. He closed the truck door and with one final glance to make sure she was okay, made his way over to his anxiously waiting sons.



"Hey, Rachel. It's me, Lauren," Lauren said as she curled her legs up under her on the couch. Lu and Sheila had gone out to run some errands and Lauren had decided it was the perfect time to call Rachel and let her know what was going on.

"Hey! How's it going? I guess you know Ash isn't there," Rachel said.

"Umm, yeah. Kind of found that out when I got here. How did you know?" Lauren asked surprised.

"Oh, Ash called me," Rachel answered.

"What? She called you? Why? When?" Lauren asked in a rush.

"Whoa! Take a breath, Laur," Rachel laughed.

"Sorry," Lauren apologized sheepishly.

"No prob. Now let me see… she called yesterday… wanted to know if you were okay and all that," Rachel informed her.

"Thursday?" Lauren asked puzzled and Rachel agreed. "When on Thursday?"

"Oh I don't know. Around 5:30 or so, I guess. I was just leaving to meet Anne for coffee and an early dinner so it had to have been around then," Rachel said and then snorted. "I'm afraid I ripped her pretty good."

Lauren sat there stunned. Ash had called Rachel around 5:30? Why? Why did she wonder if I was okay? Did she sense something? Lauren felt her thoughts careen out of control as Rachel's voice continued on the other end of the phone. How did she get Rach's number? How many people did she call? Why didn't she call here? Her mind quickly answered the last, because she didn't know you were here that's why.

"Laur? Hey? You still there or am I talking to hear myself?" Rachel's voice asked from the receiver that Lauren had let drop practically to her lap.

Lauren blinked and quickly brought the phone back to her ear. "Sorry, Rachel. That just really took me by surprise."

"What did? That you guys are in the paper?" Rachel asked confusion evident in her voice.

"What? Paper? What are you talking about, Rachel?" Lauren asked sitting bolt upright in surprise, her thoughts totally derailed.

Rachel laughed. "You haven't heard a word I've said have you?"

"Rachel," Lauren whined. "Come on! Tell me what you just said."

"Heh, I don't know. What's in it for me?" Rachel teased.

"Ummm," Lauren murmured as she tried to think of something.

Rachel giggled. "It really is a fantastic shot. I bet Louis just about died when he saw it."

"Rachel, I'm going to hurt you if you don't start talking," Lauren warned shaking her finger at the phone.

"Okay, okay. I guess I'll tell you. Even though you were off in la la land and didn't hear me the first time," Rachel taunted.

"Okay, you're right. I should be hung up by my toes and tickled mercilessly. You can torture me later. Now spill!" Lauren ordered with a grin.

"Hmm, torture later? I guess I can live with that, but just remember you owe me," Rachel stated.

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Lauren said impatiently. "Will you just tell me before I explode?"

Rachel laughed good-naturedly. "Okay. Well, it turns out that the charity auction made the paper. Not too surprising considering some of the people who attended."

"Really?" Lauren asked excitedly. She sat forward on the couch and listened intently.

"Yeah. There's a whole two page layout in the Arts section of the paper. It was in one of the gossip rags too, but the pics aren't as good," Rachel informed her.

Lauren could hear the sound of paper being rustled through the phone and was dying of curiosity to see those pictures. "Whose in the pictures, Rach?"

"Well," Rachel said drawing the word out dramatically. "Let's see here…"

"Yes?" Lauren prompted.

"There's one of Alexis Reid. You know that up and coming jazz singer?" Rachel asked but went on without waiting for an answer. "And she's pictured with that snarky blonde that was all over Ash." Rachel snorted. "Doesn't even give her name. Just says Alexis Reid and guest."

Lauren's eyes narrowed at the mention of the blonde. She smirked when she heard that the woman hadn't even been named. "Guess she's not as important as she thinks she is," Lauren said dryly.

"Yeah, guess not," Rachel agreed. "There's a really good shot of the gallery with Louis and Benson standing in front. Don't know how they got that shot. I don't remember there being any reporters around and I sure don't remember Louis and Ben going out with a photographer to have some pictures shot. Maybe they had some done up before hand and the paper just got a hold of one."

"Bet Louis is ecstatic about that," Lauren replied with a laugh. "He'll probably frame it and put it in the gallery office."

"Oh, I think he'll have more to frame than just that," Rachel said gleefully.

"Okay, what are you keeping from me?" Lauren asked with suspicion. "You are waaay too smug and that scares me."

"Nothing to be afraid of, my dear," Rachel soothed. "But the best picture of the whole set is the one of the reclusive Ashlin Gray and the until now unknown artist L.E. O'Shea."

Lauren stared at the phone. "You're kidding right?"

"Nope. Nice big color photo of the two of you standing in front of your painting. Wonder who took it and when?" Rachel murmured thoughtfully.

"Oh my god!" Lauren gasped into the phone feeling her face redden.

"Hey, don't worry, it's a good picture," Rachel assured her cheerfully.

Lauren covered her eyes with her hand and flopped back on the couch with a groan.

"Honest, Laur. It looks great. It just came out in today's paper. Guess they wanted to wait for the weekend issue. You should see if it made the Portland paper. Wouldn't that be wild?" Rachel enthused.

"I am going to die," Lauren groaned in embarrassment.

"Well, if you think that's bad," Rachel quipped, "Wait 'til you see the gossip rags. They have some very interesting theories, that's for sure. I think only the local ones did anything, but I wouldn't be surprised if one of the big names picks up the story since I hear Alexis Reid's new video is coming out the beginning of next month and those vultures just love to throw dirt on the beautiful people."

"Wait a minute," Lauren said, stopping Rachel's diatribe. "What kind of pictures are in the gossip rags and what do they have to do with me or the charity auction?"

"They don't have a damn thing to do with the show, but you're in them because Ash is in them and they love to speculate," Rachel explained.

"So what exactly is the story, Rach? Just give me the headline or something," Lauren asked, wondering if her family would end up seeing her face plastered all over a gossip rag displayed prominently in the local grocery store. She shuddered at the thought and prayed it wouldn't come to that.

"Well, the reporter for the Tattler, one Ruby Mae, must've done her homework, because she has pictures of Ashlin and that bitchy blonde together. Did you know they used to be an item?" Rachel asked.

"Yeah, Ash told me," Lauren said with a nod.

"Really? Well, says here her name is Judith Sinclair and she's some kind of actress slash model." Rachel snorted derisively. "Some actress. I've never seen her in anything."

"And?" Lauren prompted with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.

"Well, it talks about how Ash disappeared for a number of years and then suddenly reappeared at the show. How Judith was seen on the arm of Alexis Reid, but this Ruby Mae must've seen Judith hanging all over Ash and you coming out to see that, because she comments on it," Rachel informed her.

"Oh god. What does she say?" Lauren groaned.

"Umm, let me find the exact wording," Rachel said as she flipped through the paper.

Lauren waited impatiently as the events of that night played out in her mind. I hope this Rita Mae didn't follow Ash outside! Lauren felt her heart jump at the thought. Pictures of the two of us rolling around on the ground together would be just her idea of juicy news.

"Ah, here it is. 'It would seem that the fire between Miss Sinclair and the elusive Ashlin Gray was well on its way to being rekindled. This reporter witnessed the two of them in a close embrace at the Richards' Gallery charity auction. That is until what appears to be the new flame in Ashlin's life discovered the two together. Miss Gray practically tossed Miss Sinclair aside and quickly chased after the petite blonde when she fled. Through diligent reporting, this reporter discovered the identity of the young woman as one of the amateur artists in the show, Lauren O'Shea.' Diligent reporting? Who is she trying to kid? Your name and picture were displayed with all the other artists," Rachel stated in disgust. "It goes on to say how Judith regained her composure and made her way back to Alexis Reid and blah, blah, blah."

"Does it say anything about Ash finding me outside?" Lauren asked with trepidation.

"No. Guess she didn't think to follow Ash. She stayed with Judith instead. She goes on about how Judith always seems to find herself on the arm of some rising star. This reporter is a real piece of work. She actually asks if people think Judith may be the reason stars fall! Can you believe that?" Rachel asked incredulously.

"Wonder what she meant by that?" Lauren wondered as she sat up and ran her fingers through her hair.

"Who knows? She's a loon. I wouldn't worry about it too much. Tho' she did get a picture of you asleep leaning against Ash. I'm glad that Benson had ushered almost everyone out before Ash scooped you up and carried you upstairs. That would've been one hell of a picture," Rachel surmised.

"Eek! Me too!" Lauren said with relief. "Hey, Rach, I don't mean to change the subject, but Lu asked me to stay the night. I'll be home early tomorrow morning. Will that be okay?"

"Yeah, that's fine. I don't really have anything planned until tomorrow night," Rachel agreed. "You okay with all this, Laur? You sound pretty shaken up."

Lauren barked out a derisive laugh. "Oh, Rach, you have no idea. This is just the icing on the cake. I promise to tell you all about it when I get back."

"You sure?" Rachel asked with concern.

"Yeah. There's just too much to go into right now. Do me a favor and keep those newspapers for me, okay? I want to see them for myself," Lauren replied.

"Sure. I guess I'll see you tomorrow then," Rachel said.

"You bet."

"Great! And I have a feeling we have a lot to discuss, missy," Rachel said with mock firmness.

"Oh yeah. We do," Lauren sighed.

"You hear from Ash?" Rachel asked suddenly.

Lauren sat up at the mention of Ash's name. She felt her mouth go dry and her heart speed up. "Yeah, I talked to her this morning."

"And?" Rachel prompted eagerly.

"I yelled at her," Lauren said softly. "Look, Rach, I really don't want to go into this right now. I'll tell you when I get back. Okay?"

"Okay," Rachel said slowly. "Guess I'll talk to you then."

"Thanks, Rachel. I promise full disclosure on my return," Lauren promised pushing the well of emotions back.

"I'll hold you to that. Later, girlfriend," Rachel said.

"Bye," Lauren replied. She lowered the phone and turned it off letting it rest in her lap. She sat back on the couch with a sigh and wondered what more could possibly happen to complicate her life?



Lu turned from opening the trunk of her car to see her next door neighbor waving to her. Oh great, wonder what she has to report now, Lu grumbled as she pasted on a smile and waved back.

"Hello, Mrs. Kaufman," Shelia greeted as she stepped out of the car.

"Hello, dear. How are you feeling? Better I hope," Mrs. Kaufman said as she stepped up to the fence that separated their drives and leaned against it.

"Much better, thank you," Shelia said with a mental headshake for the ability of this woman to know everything that happened in the neighborhood. Next thing you know she'll be telling me what day the baby will arrive and what sex it will be!

"What can I do for you, Mrs. Kaufman?" Lu asked as she pulled the bags out of the trunk.

"Well actually, dear, I was hoping I could do something for you," the old woman said loftily.

Lu rolled her eyes but managed to school her face to polite interest as she closed the trunk and turned to her nosey neighbor. "Oh?"

"Yes," Mrs. Kaufman nodded knowingly. She looked between the two women and waved them to come closer.

Sheila looked over her shoulder at Lu and gave her a resigned smile as she walked over to the fence. Lu shook her head and with a deep sigh she readjusted the bags in her arms and followed her wife to the fence to hear the deep dark secret Mrs. Kaufman had to impart.

"You have an out of town guest, yes?" Mrs. Kaufman asked knowingly.

Sheila glanced at Lu. Lu raised an eyebrow and gave her a slight shrug. "Yes, we have a friend who came over from Seattle," Sheila replied.

"Did you know she was being followed?" the elderly woman asked in a stage whisper.

Lu stiffened in surprise. "What do you mean, Mrs. Kaufman?" she asked wondering if having a busy body next door neighbor wasn't so bad after all.

"Well," Mrs. Kaufman leaned on the fence and lowered her voice. She scanned the empty street before continuing. "I was sitting in my rocking chair which as you know has a good view of the street. I'm a member of the neighborhood watch and I take that responsibility very seriously."

Lu fought back the urge to shake the woman and managed to just nod. Sheila glanced at her out of the corner of her eye and Lu could've sworn she was fighting the urge to giggle at her impatience. Lu reached over and poked her in the side making Sheila jump and give her a mock glare.

"Yes, we know, Mrs. Kaufman. And we do appreciate your diligence," Sheila said stepping out of reach of her anxious lover. She swore she could practically hear Lu's teeth grinding, but she knew the only way to get anything out of the older woman was to let her tell it in her own way. Pushing her would just drag it out that much longer.

"Thank you, dear. The watch has really been doing well lately. Why just last week Mr. Drummond… he lives across the street in the blue house…" Mrs. Kaufman paused to see if they knew whom she was talking about. Lu and Shelia quickly nodded, "he saw a suspicious man hanging around the Templeton's place and reported it to the police. Turned out the man was just a meter reader, but he could've been up to no good."

"Bet the police were thrilled about that," Lu grumbled under her breath. Sheila elbowed her in the stomach in warning. Lu grunted and stepped out of range with a scowl.

"What was that, dear?" Mrs. Kaufman asked turning her attention to Lu.

"Nothing," Lu replied with a shake of her head as she shifted the bags in her arms to rub her stomach.

Sheila rolled her eyes at her. "I know I feel safer knowing you all are watching the neighborhood," Sheila offered with a smile.

Mrs. Kaufman beamed. "Yes indeed. We know everything that happens around here. That's why the strange car the other night made me wonder."

Finally! Lu thought as she leaned forward with expectation. "What did you see, ma'am?"

"Well, I saw your young friend pull into your driveway in that car," Mrs. Kaufman pointed to Lauren's car parked in the drive. "And thought it was real nice that you had someone coming to visit. I miss having people visit. My children all live back east. They don't get out this way very often. They're too busy with their own lives and children to come visit their mother. I miss having the grandchildren around. Someone to fuss over and cook for."

Shelia quickly interrupted feeling Lu's patience reaching the breaking point. "Yes, it is nice. Did you see another car after Lauren arrived?"

Mrs. Kaufman blinked. She stared at Sheila for a moment and then seemed to remember what they had been talking about. She nodded. "Oh yes. About 15 minutes after your friend went inside. I was sitting in my rocker doing my needlepoint. I looked up and saw this brown car park down the street."

"Where did it park?" Lu asked abruptly.

Mrs. Kaufman looked at her and frowned at her rudeness. "Mrs. Kaufman?" Sheila asked quickly to pull her attention away from Lu. "Did anyone get out of the car?"

The old woman turned back to Shelia with a sniff. "No, dear. That's why I thought it was suspicious. They parked down there," she pointed down the street, "in front of the Bower's place. Now I know the Bowers are out of town. They went to see their kids in Arizona and won't be back for another week. At first I thought maybe it was someone they had asked to watch the house."

"What persuaded you otherwise?" Sheila asked giving Mrs. Kaufman a guileless look, hoping to ease the woman's pique.

"Because they just sat there, dear," the old woman said matter of factly. "They didn't get out of the car. They just turned off the engine and sat there."

"How strange," Sheila murmured.

"I thought so too. That's why I watched them," Mrs. Kaufman agreed nodding her head.

"Them?" Lu asked.

Mrs. Kaufman glanced at her reproachfully. "That's what I said, dear. There were two of them in the car. They sat over there for almost 20 minutes before driving off."

"Did you happen to get a good look at the car?" Sheila asked hopefully.

Mrs. Kaufman's face scrunched up in thought. Lu mentally crossed her fingers in hope that the woman had seen something. And if she remembers anything. Damn!

Mrs. Kaufman stood up straight with a triumphant grin. "I'm sure I wrote it in my log book. Wait right here," she demanded as she turned and shuffled towards her house.

"Well? What do you think?" Sheila asked softly as she watched their neighbor make her way slowly to her house.

Lu shrugged. "It's probably just coincidence. They were probably lost and pulled over to look at a map or something."

"But you're going to check it out with Pete anyway, right?" Shelia guessed, turning to look at her lover.

Lu nodded. "Hon, why don't you take this stuff inside and tell Lauren we're home? I'll find out what Mrs. Kaufman has to say and tell you all about it."

Sheila eyed her doubtfully. "You sure? I could wait and talk to her. I know she drives you nuts."

"I can be civil when I have to be," Lu argued stubbornly holding out the bags to her. "Besides, this is important and I want to make sure I get all the information possible."

"And you're afraid I won't ask the right questions or let Mrs. Kaufman go off on one of her tangents and be out here half the evening and leave you to chew your fingers off," Shelia surmised with a knowing grin. Lu opened her mouth to protest, but Shelia leaned up and gave her a kiss to silence her. She took the bags from Lu's arms and stepped back. "I understand, love. You need to get the information from the horse's mouth so to speak and don't want to hear it second hand."

Lu scrunched her shoulders in embarrassment. Shelia knew her so well. "Umm, yeah, something like that," she murmured giving Sheila a sheepish grin.

Sheila laughed and bumped her with her hip as she walked by. "Well, let me know what you find out. I'll go see what Lauren and I can scare up for dinner."

"Okay," Lu said as she followed her wife with her eyes. Shelia turned as she reached the front door and gave her a wink. Lu grinned and waved. She watched until Shelia was safely ensconced in the house and turned back to the fence with a sense of purpose.

Mrs. Kaufman came out of her house with a notebook clutched firmly in one hand and shuffled back towards her. Lu watched her come and thought maybe she should've walked around the fence and waited for the elderly woman on her porch instead of making her trek all the way back to her. Nah, she'd probably invite me in and I'd never get out of there. She smiled pleasantly as Mrs. Kaufman reached her.

"Shelia went to let Lauren know we were home and to put the bags in the house," Lu answered the unspoken question in the elderly woman's eyes.

"Oh, I see," Mrs. Kaufman nodded. She fumbled with the glasses on a gold chain around her neck and finally got them situated on her face. She pulled the notebook forward and opened it. She began flipping through the pages and mumbling to herself.

Lu fought the urge to just grab the notebook from the woman and crossed her arms trying to appear merely curious and not as anxious as she felt.


"Harrison? Davis? Is that you?"

The three men standing in the back mudroom froze at the sound of Eleanore's voice emanating from the kitchen. Harrison stared down the hall towards the kitchen. "Graham, go into the kitchen and distract your mother. The last thing we need is for her to see Ash this way with guests in the house."

"Okay, pop," Graham agreed. He looked up at his silent sister and asked, "Is she going to be okay?"

"She'll be fine," Harrison assured as he pulled his daughter closer to his side.

"Okay. I'll go keep mom and the ladies busy," Graham said as he started his chair in motion. He sped down the hall and without slowing bumped the kitchen door open. "Hey, mom! It smells great in here. What's for dinner?"

Harrison listened to the conversation with half an ear as he turned to Davis. "Davis, I need you to…"

"I know, pop. I'll go make a few calls and get some of the cousins to help me move that tree. You just take care of Ash," Davis said giving his father a squeeze on the shoulder.

"Thank you, son. I'm going to get her upstairs and out of these clothes. We have a couple of hours before your mother starts looking for us for dinner, so let's make good use of it," Harrison smiled gratefully at his son. He gently turned Ash towards the back stairs and began to lead her towards them.

"No problem, pop. See you in a couple of hours," Davis said in a low voice. He pulled his hood up and braced himself to go back out into the weather.

Harrison heard the back door open and close. Well, Graham should be able to keep Ellie's attention for awhile. Hope Graham can think of something to say if she asks where Ash is.

Harrison gently guided his daughter upstairs. She's so unresponsive, he thought with concern. The last time she was like this was after the accident that paralyzed Graham. I have to pull her out of this before whatever is eating her up inside destroys her.

He pushed Ash's bedroom door open with his shoulder and led her over to the bed. "Come on, honey. Why don't you sit down right here and we'll get you cleaned up okay?" Harrison said.

Ash nodded blankly and settled onto the bed with her head bowed. The blanket that Harrison had wrapped her in slid from her shoulders and pooled around her.

Harrison stood watching her, fearing she would once more internalize whatever was bothering her and not allow him to help. The summer that Graham was hurt was the hardest one he had ever lived through and he knew it had been even more difficult for his daughter. She had dismissed any offers of help then and ran away when the pressure became too much. He prayed that this time she would give him the chance to help. He shook himself out of his reverie and turned towards the dresser.

"First things first," he said as he pulled open a drawer and began pulling out a change of clothes for her. "We need to get you out of those wet clothes."

He came back over to her with the clothes in hand. He noticed that she was still shivering and realized he had forgotten to grab any towels. "You wait right here, honey. I'm going to go grab some towels. Okay?" he said as he laid the clothes on the bed.

Ash didn't answer, but then he really hadn't expected her to. He ruffled her hair and quickly went out of the room and down the hall to the linen closet to grab some towels.


Harrison froze at the sound of his wife's voice. He quickly gathered up a couple of towels and struggled to appear calm as he turned to face her. "Hi, honey. Guess Graham told you we were home?"

Eleanor stood halfway down the hall from him with her arms crossed over her chest. She had a no nonsense look on her face and Harrison fought down the urge to fidget under her regard.

"No. He did all in his power to keep me from coming up here," Eleanor informed her husband. "You want to tell me what you and the boys are hiding from me?"

"Oh, Ellie, we're not hiding anything from you. I just knew you were busy and didn't want to bother you. I have everything under control," Harrison explained giving her what he hoped was a charming smile.

"What is there that needs to be controlled?" Eleanor asked her eyes narrowing dangerously.

Harrison regarded his wife's determined posture and his shoulders sagged. He ran his hand through his hair and sighed. "Ellie, it's Ashlin," he confessed.

"What? What's wrong?" Eleanor asked in a rush her eyes widening. She quickly made her way to her husband and grabbed his arm in concern. "Has something happened? Graham didn't say anything. What's going on?"

Harrison smiled trying to reassure her as he raised his hand and gently covered her mouth. "Easy there," he soothed. "I'm not sure what happened. I haven't really had a chance to talk to Graham. I thought it was more important to get her out of the weather and dry first."

"Out of the weather?" Eleanor looked up at him puzzled as she cupped his hand to her cheek.

"She was standing out in the rain without a coat and was soaked through. I don't know what set her off, but I'm going to find out," he assured.

"Oh lord have mercy," Eleanor closed her eyes and leaned into her husband's touch.

Harrison wrapped her in his arms and rested his head on her soft hair. "Don't worry, Ellie. We'll work it out. You know how she is. She's always been moody and takes things onto herself."

"What could've possibly happened? She was so happy yesterday. I haven't seen her like that in years and now this," Eleanor pleaded resting her head on his broad chest and listening to the comforting rhythm of his heart.

"We'll find out," he promised holding her close.

"Do you need any help? Can I get you anything?" Eleanor asked pulling back from him and looking up with glistening eyes.

Harrison smiled lovingly at her and gently ran his fingers through her silky hair. "No, love. Not right now. Why don't you go back to the kitchen and I'll get Ashlin settled and come down. I think we need to talk to Graham and find out what happened in Bozeman."

"You sure?" she asked.

He nodded and gave her a gentle push towards the stairs. "If Graham doesn't have any answers, I just may call Lu Darkcloud."

"Lu? Why would you call her?" Eleanor asked pausing at the staircase.

"She called here yesterday for Ashlin, but didn't leave a message. Said it wasn't urgent but," Harrison shrugged with a thoughtful look on his face. "I'm starting to think that maybe it was more urgent than she let on."

"Okay," Eleanor sighed. "Go take care of Ashlin and I'll see if I can get through dinner preparations without having a meltdown."

Harrison grinned and shooed her. "You'll be fine. I'll be down in two shakes, I promise."

"You better," she warned as she turned and headed down the stairs.

Harrison stared after her holding the forgotten towels in his hand. If there is any justice in the world, we'll be able to help her this time, he thought shaking his head. I'm not going to lose my daughter for another ten years because she's too damn stubborn and prideful to let anyone help. His resolve strengthened he went back to his waiting daughter and the mystery of what could be troubling her so deeply.


Ashlin woke with a start and sat bolt upright. Her heart was pounding as she quickly took in her surroundings. "What the hell?" she murmured aloud as her room at her parents' house came into focus. She glanced down and saw that she was wearing a pair of flannel pajamas. "Okay, I'm at the Manor," she stated fingering the front of her pajama top, her brow furrowing in thought. "Now how did I get here?"

A low whine made her look up and brought a smile to her face unbidden. Her dog Bellson was staring up at her from beside the bed where he must've been sleeping. She patted the bed beside her and he energetically accepted the invitation. He jumped up on the bed and began to lick her face enthusiastically.

"Easy there, boy," she chuckled trying to fend off his kisses. "I missed you too." She hugged him and scratched his ears. "Now lie down here, okay?"

Bellson gave her face a couple of more good swipes with his tongue before he settled down next to her. He rested his head in her lap and looked up at her with adoration.

"Guess Davis gets to live now, huh?" she commented as she curled up around the warm body of her dog. "I think I really messed up, boy. I don't remember getting here. Last thing I remember is driving down the road with Graham."

Bellson licked her hand and snuggled up close to his mistress. She grinned and buried her face in his ruff. Loving the comforting feel of him next to her. She absently petted him as she searched her memory for what had brought her to be in her parents' house.

"Okay, we were coming home from Bozeman," she murmured.

Bellson's ears turned at the sound of her voice and he gently licked her arm that his head was now lying on.

"Thanks for agreeing, boy," Ash said thoughtfully. Her thoughts turned to the drive home and it hit her. She stiffened at the memory. Bellson turned his head and looked at his mistress when the petting stopped. He whined softly pulling her out of her trance. "Oh man," she sighed and began petting Bellson reassuringly. "I bet I totally freaked out the family."

She recalled standing in the rain. Feeling nothing but the fear and anguish over what may have happened to Lauren. How she hadn't been there. How it was more than likely that someone from her past had found out about Lauren and taken out their anger on the woman she loved. Then her father had just been there. He stepped into the bleak despair and lent a soothing presence. He gently guided her to the truck and got her home and into bed.

"Damn. I guess I better get up and go down and face the music," she sighed as she sat up in bed.

Bellson sat up and looked at her in concern. Ash smiled at him and gave him a reassuring pat on the head.

"I'm okay, boy. I just have a lot of explaining to do and I hope I can get out of here without them having a total fit," Ash said. She climbed out of bed and stretched the kinks out of her body. She glanced at the clock and saw that it was almost six o'clock. "No wonder I'm so stiff. Its almost dinner time," she groaned as she made her way to her dresser and began pulling out clothes. "Mom's probably going to lecture me about being out in the weather without a coat and the horrors of pneumonia."

Bellson jumped down from the bed and walked over to her. He pressed his cold nose to the back of her knee causing Ash to jump and yelp.

"Hey!" Ash skipped sideways and looked down at the dog with reproach.

He sat down and began thumping his tail with a puppy grin on his face. He looked up at her and woofed.

"Oh I see how it is. You take off with Davis and now you expect me to play with you. Is that it?" she asked the canine as she pulled off her pajama top and rummaged in the dresser for a sports bra and t-shirt to pull on.

Bellson wiggled happily and woofed in agreement.

"Well, go find your ball while I finish getting dressed," Ash told the excited dog. She pulled off her pajama bottoms and found some jeans. Bellson woofed and took off down the hall. She watched him go with an indulgent smile. She shook her head and continued to get dressed. She knew she better hurry because he would be back soon and she better be ready to play.

She was just pulling on her boots when she heard him barreling down the hallway. She looked up just in time to see him careen into the doorframe with a ratty tennis ball in his mouth. He bounced off the doorframe and charged towards her with unbridled glee to have his playmate back.

Ash laughed and reached out to take the ball. Bellson backed up and woofed. "Now are we going to play ball or keep away?" Ash asked as she stood and began stalking the playful dog.

Bellson growled playfully and leapt away from her. He dodged towards the door and turned to make sure she was following.

"I'm right behind you, Bellson. You better run," Ash warned as she jumped forward. Bellson ducked and dashed down the hall. Ash laughed and followed in his wake.


"I think Ash will be joining us for dinner, mom," Davis said as he entered the kitchen and took a seat on one of the bar stools.

Eleanor turned and gave her son an inquiring look. She wiped her hands on a dishtowel and walked over to finish up the salad. "Oh?"

"Yeah," Davis nodded as he reached out to swipe a tomato slice. Eleanor smacked his hand and he pulled it back with the stolen slice and a grin. "Ow! Mom, that hurt!"

"Well then don't snatch," Eleanor told him as she finished slicing the tomatoes and moved on to the cucumbers. "Did you see Ash?"

"Yeah, she's out by the barn playing ball with Bellson," Davis informed her as he munched on his booty. "Sure glad it stopped raining."

"She did have a coat on didn't she? Its getting awfully cold out there and plus its getting dark," Eleanor asked with worry.

"Yes, mom. She's a big girl and she put on her coat and boots and everything," Davis said with a grin.

"Watch your mouth or you don't eat," Eleanor warned pointing her knife at him for emphasis.

"No! Not that!" Davis pleaded his eyes going wide in mock horror as he clutched his chest and swooned.

"Get out of my kitchen, you. Go tell your brother and Paula that dinner will be ready in 15 minutes," Eleanor said shooing her offspring.

"What about Ash?" Davis asked as he stood.

"I'll tell your father to go out and tell her," Eleanor said.

Davis nodded and left the kitchen in search of his girl and baby brother.

Eleanor finished the salad. She sighed and looked around the cheery kitchen. "Please don't let her run off again," she prayed.

"Ellie?" Eleanor jumped and whirled around to see her husband standing in the doorway of the kitchen.

Harrison walked towards her with a concerned look. "Who you talking to, sweetheart?"

Eleanor smiled as he reached her. She pulled him into a hug and gazed up at him. "Oh no one, dear. Just talking to myself. Davis saw Ash out by the barn with that fool dog of hers. Do you want to go out and tell her dinner is about ready?"

Harrison studied his wife's face intently. He saw the slight tension around her eyes and the worry in their depths. He smiled and gave her a gentle squeeze. "Sure, love. Sounds like a good idea. We should be right in."

"Take your time," Eleanor said as she released her husband and stepped back. "But not too long. I don't want dinner to get cold."

"Me neither! I'm starving!" Harrison chuckled as he fended off the expected slap from his wife. "Be back in a few."

"Just for that, you and Ash can do the dishes!" Eleanor called to his retreating back.

"Yes, dear," Harrison called back as he turned into the mudroom and pulled on his overcoat and hat.

He glanced out the back door and easily spotted his daughter and dog. He grinned at the sight feeling his heart lighten. He stepped out the back and headed towards her. He watched as she grabbed the ball from the dog. He woofed excitedly and danced around her. She held the ball out and then her arm whipped back and the ball went flying out into the pasture with Bellson after it like a bullet.

"Still got quite the arm I see," Harrison observed as he stepped up beside her.

Ash turned and smiled at her father. "Yeah, I guess so."

Harrison studied her out of the corner of his eye as he watched the dog field the ball and come running back. She had pulled her hair back into a long tail that flowed down her back and had her old high school letterman jacket on over a t-shirt. She appeared relaxed and in control of her emotions. She shoved her hands deep into her pockets and turned to look at him more directly.

"You come out here for a reason, pop?" she inquired raising an eyebrow at him.

Harrison felt his face redden at being caught. "Umm, yeah, dinner's about ready," he said as he leaned down to wrestle the ball from Bellson.

"Okay," Ash said watching her father play with the dog.

Harrison got the ball away from Bellson and sent it flying once more. Harrison watched the dog run after the ball. He cleared his throat and turned to face his daughter, struggling to think of something to say. He had talked to Graham and found out what had transpired. He didn't believe Ash was being fair to herself anymore than Graham did. He knew she had a tendency for blaming herself for things that happened to people she loved. "Ash…"

Ash held up a hand to halt him. "Pop, its okay. I'm okay."

Harrison gazed into those clear blue eyes that were so much like his wife's and saw she was telling the truth. The pain and anxiety were still there but weren't all consuming. "Ashlin, you can't blame yourself for everything that goes wrong with the world," he said softly stepping forward to lay his hand on her shoulder.

"I know that," Ash sighed closing her eyes for a moment before meeting his concerned hazel ones.

"But you do," Harrison stated.

Ash nodded. "This time, I do."

Harrison sighed. "Honey, I talked to Graham. He told me what you said. You want to explain to me how Lauren almost getting hit by a car could possibly be your fault?"

Ash swallowed noticeably and shrugged. "I don't know, pop. I just have this feeling."

"I tried to call your friend Lu," Harrison said as he turned his attention back to the returning figure of Bellson to relieve some of the tension he felt from her.

"You did?" Ash asked surprised.

"Yes," Harrison said as he took the ball from Bellson and kneaded it in his hand. "She called here right after you left. Didn't leave a message. Said it wasn't urgent. But after what happened earlier today…"

Ash nodded in understanding. "Did you get a hold of her?"

"No," Harrison shook his head. He threw the ball for Bellson before turning back to his daughter. "I do think you need to go to Spokane and straighten this out."

"I was planning to," Ash said watching Bellson charge into the field after the wayward tennis ball.


Ash looked up to meet her father's gaze. "Hmm?"

"Ask for help if you need it. Don't go running off again, you hear?" Harrison beseeched.

"No sir. I won't. I promise," Ash pledged ducking her head guiltily.

Harrison stepped forward and cupped her chin bringing her face up until her eyes met his. "We love you, Ash. We want to help. Need to help. Don't shut us out again."

"Okay," Ash managed to get out around the lump in her throat.

"Now let's go eat dinner before your mother comes after us with a wooden spoon for spoiling her special dinner," Harrison said nudging his daughter towards the house.

Ash swiped at her eyes and nodded. She turned and whistled for Bellson. "What's the occasion?" she asked as she trailed her father.

"Davis has finally brought a girl home and your mother is beside herself," Harrison chuckled.

"Paula?" Ash asked knowingly.

Harrison raised an eyebrow at her. "You've met?"

"Nah, but I talked to him a couple of days ago. Said something about Paula liking dogs and that's why he swiped mine," Ash explained as Bellson bounded up to her.

"Ah. Well, you're mom is pulling out all the stops and don't be surprised if she tries to hoodwink you into staying the night," Harrison warned as he pulled the back door open.

Ash stiffened. "I can't stay the night! I have to get to Spokane. I shouldn't even be staying for dinner."

"Maestro, calm down," Harrison soothed. "Just stay for dinner and make your mother happy. I'll help you get out of here after that if you promise to keep me informed about what the hell is going on."

"Yes sir," Ash agreed readily. She pulled off her jacket and hung it next to her father's.

Bellson took the opportunity to shake the moisture from his coat. Both father and daughter yelped and leapt away from the soaking.

"Bellson! Damn!" Ash groaned wiping the muddy water from her face. She grabbed an old towel that was kept on the top shelf of the mudroom to wipe down boots and grabbed the dog's collar. He plunked down and gave her an abashed look as she began to vigorously rub him dry.

"Well, I see you have everything under control," Harrison said dryly. "I'll go tell the family you'll be a few minutes. Plus I need to wash my hands."

"I'll be right there, pop," Ash assured him not looking up from her pet drying.

"Make sure you wash your hands," Harrison said as he walked out of the mudroom.

Ash shook her head and grinned at her dog. "Never changes does it, boy? I'm still 10 years old in his eyes."

Bellson thumped his tail in agreement.


Lu groaned as she flopped down on the bed. She flung her arm over her eyes and struggled to relax.

"Lu? You okay?'

Lu peaked out to see her wife framed in the doorway. Sheila had changed for bed and was wearing a deep red silk nightshirt that hit her mid thigh. "You look good enough to eat," Lu commented rolling over to get a better view.

"You are incorrigible. You know that?" Sheila asked as she stepped into the room and shut the door.

"Mmm-hmm and you love me for it," Lu replied with a cocky grin.

Sheila turned from the door and looked at her wife. "True," she stated as a slow sexy smile spread across her lips.

Lu sat up and opened her arms to Sheila in invitation. "Come here, sweetheart," she growled.

Sheila glided across the room and happily fell into her lover's embrace. She kissed Lu gently as she pushed her back onto the bed and rested on top of her. "You planning on sleeping in this?" she asked fingering the tank top Lu was still wearing.

Lu shrugged. "You have something else in mind?" she asked innocently as she rested her hands lightly on Sheila's waist.

"Oh, I think I'd prefer you in a little less," Sheila stated running her hands down Lu's side to the edge of her shirt and giving it a yank.

"I think that can be arranged," Lu growled as she rolled Sheila over onto her back and hovered above her. She pulled the tank top off and smiled down at her appreciative audience.

"You might want to rethink the boots," Sheila suggested helpfully.

Lu's cocky smile faded slightly as she blushed. "Umm, good idea," she said abashed. She slid off the bed and began to work her boots off.

Sheila giggled. "I love you, honey, but you sure do get focused."

"You expect me to be able to think when you come in looking like that?" Lu asked waving towards Sheila's body lying prone on the bed.

Sheila glanced down at her silk clad body and crossed her ankles. "Hmm, I guess you do have a point," she agreed.

Lu chuckled as she pulled off her slacks and let them fall to the floor.

"You aren't going to leave those there are you?" Sheila asked pointedly.

Lu paused half on the bed and looked down at the discarded pants. "No, of course not," she assured Sheila as she reached down and snatched up the slacks. She threw them towards the hamper and watched as they hit it and then fell onto the floor next to it. Lu sighed and started to get up.

"Close enough," Sheila said in a throaty voice as she grabbed Lu's arm and pulled her back onto the bed.

Lu grinned and climbed into bed. "Glad you think so."

Sheila snuggled up to Lu and sighed contentedly. "This has been the longest day."

"You can say that again," Lu agreed as she pulled her closer to her.

"This has been the…" Shelia was cut off by Lu's mouth claiming hers. She smiled into the kiss as she let her hands trace the muscular back of her lover.

Lu raised her head from the kiss and met her lover's dark eyes that were alight with kindled passion. "You are so beautiful, you know that?" she asked softly as she gently cupped her lover's face.

"Glad you think so," Sheila whispered as she pressed her cheek into Lu's caress.

"I do," Lu vowed leaning down to brush her lips across Sheila's.

"Do you think Pete will find out anything?" Shelia asked thoughtfully.

Lu's eyes widened as she pulled back to look at Sheila in surprise. "What?"

"Do you think Pete will find out anything?" Sheila repeated.

"I heard what you said," Lu replied as she rolled over and flopped back on her pillow. "I just can't believe you are thinking about Pete right now."

"Oh honey, I'm sorry," Sheila apologized rolling over and snuggling up to Lu. "I just can't stop thinking about it."

Lu sighed and hugged Sheila close. "I know, baby. I can't either. That's what I was thinking about before you distracted me."

"And?" Shelia prompted. She began to gently run her hand up and down her lover's flat abdomen reveling in the play of muscles under her hand.

"And I guess I should be thankful for having a busy body neighbor who takes impeccable notes," Lu replied ruefully. She rubbed Shelia's back in a soothing motion as she thought about what Mrs. Kaufman's notebook had to say about the activity in the neighborhood. It was surprising how much really did go on and she was shocked to realize that she had had no idea.

"Did Pete have any luck with that plate number you gave him?" Sheila asked fighting back a yawn.

"He said he'd run it through the system and call me when he had something. Hopefully something will come of that. I'd like to have something concrete by the time Ash finally gets her ass here," Lu growled.

"When do you think she'll get here?" Sheila asked raising her head from Lu's chest to look at her.

"Probably some time tomorrow," Lu answered with a touch of anger coloring her voice. "I swear I'm going to beat the hell out of her."

"Now, Lu, don't overreact," Shelia cautioned softly.

"Overreact? She left us hanging in the wind and you ask me not to overreact?" Lu barked glaring down at her.

"Yes, that is exactly what I'm asking. I think you're going off half cocked and you're going to end up hurting both Lauren and yourself," Shelia informed her meeting her angry eyes with calm.

Lu stared at her in disbelief waiting for Shelia's reasoning to sink in. She shook her head and grunted. "Okay, okay. I'll try not to punch her lights out, but no promises."

"That's all I can ask," Shelia replied as she lowered her head to rest on Lu's shoulder once more. "I'm glad we were able to talk Lauren into staying."

"Me too," Lu agreed.

"Do you think we can keep her here long enough for Ash to arrive?" Shelia asked softly as she returned to her interrupted caressing of her lover's stomach.

"Depends on how soon Ash gets her butt here. If she left Bozeman after we spoke and doesn't make too many stops, I figure she could be here any time now," Lu said. She closed her eyes and luxuriated in the feel of her lover's soft touch.

"Well, that's good," Shelia said turning her head so she could place a soft kiss on Lu's bare shoulder.

"Can we talk about something else now?" Lu asked plaintively as she ran her hand lightly up Shelia's back to come to rest at the nape of her neck.

"Mm, what do you have in mind?" Shelia whispered as she kissed the bare skin beneath her lips once more.

For answer Lu pulled Shelia on top of her and kissed her passionately.

Shelia gasped and then melted into her as Lu's hands traced a fiery path up and down her back. "Right, no more talk," she panted between kisses.

"Nope, no more talk," Lu growled as she captured Shelia's lips once more.


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