Part 14

Sheila groaned and rolled over, burying her head against Lu's broad back, but still the pounding continued. She sighed and leaned up to peak over Lu's shoulder to see the clock. Who in the world would be pounding on our door at 6 blessed a.m.? She wondered as she flopped backed down.

"Honey," she said quietly as she nudged her somnolent lover.

Lu grunted and pulled the covers up.

Sheila nudged her harder and said a bit louder, "Lu, wake up. Someone is at the door."

"Wha?" Lu asked sleepily as she rolled onto her back.

"Someone is pounding on the door. Can't you hear it?" Shelia asked as she propped her head up on one hand.

Lu rubbed her eyes and cocked her head to listen. "Damn! What time is it?"

"Barely 6," Shelia answered through a yawn.

Lu grunted as she sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed. "Guess I better go see who it is."

"Hopefully it's our missing Ash," Shelia yawned as she too sat up.

Lu glanced at her and smiled wickedly. "Oh, I do hope so," she said as she pulled on a pair of sweats and reached for her discarded tank top of the night before.

"Now, Lu, you promised not to go off half cocked," Sheila reminded her as she stood and slipped into her robe.

"Yeah, yeah," Lu said waving the warning off. "What is she trying to do, knock the damn door down?"

Sheila shrugged noncommittally as the pounding continued. Lu swore under her breath as she made her way to the bedroom door. "I'll be right down," Sheila said tying her robe.

"Okay," Lu replied as she made her way out of the room and down the stairs to the accompaniment of the pounding. "She's going to wake the whole damn neighborhood. Good thing I don't have a damn dog," she grumbled as she hit the bottom stair and headed for the front door. "I'm coming! I'm coming! Keep your damn shirt on!" she yelled at the closed door with annoyance.

The pounding ceased and she grunted in satisfaction. Her fury at Ash rekindled after the rude awakening. Lu hoped it was Ash out there on the doorstep because she was in the mood to pound on someone and Ash was her top pick.

Lu reached the front door and hit the switch to turn on the porch light. She unlocked the door and pulled it open. Standing on the stoop was none other than her missing friend, Ash.

"Hey, Lu. Is Lauren here?" Ash asked giving Lu a tired smile.

Lu frowned as her anger reached new heights with the sight of her friend. She clenched her fists and struggled not to lash out as she slowly counted down from ten. She managed a brisk nod and Ash's smile grew.

"Thank goodness. I've been worried sick," Ash replied with relief.

Lu remained blocking the entryway as she fought her anger.

"Umm, Lu? You going to invite me in or what?" Ash asked puzzled by her friend's behavior.

Lu's fist flew out and slammed into Ash's jaw with a resounding crack Ash's head snapped back and her eyes went wide in utter surprise.

"Lu!" Sheila screamed as she ran across the room in time to see Lu follow up the first punch with another to Ash's midsection.

Ash was ready for it this time and rolled with the punch. "Lu! What the hell?" Ash yelled as she stepped back from her enraged friend.

"Stand still!" Lu growled as she stepped forward to swing another punch towards Ash.

Ash deflected the blow and felt her own anger beginning to rise at this unprovoked attack. She dodged another punch as Lu bulled her way out the door and came at her with both fists flying. Ash backpedaled off the porch and onto the lawn.

Sheila dashed out hot on her heels trying to grab her but Lu was moving too fast for her to get within reach. "Lu! Stop it! Just stop it!" she ordered.

"You deserve an ass whooping, Wolf, and I'm going to deliver it," Lu informed Ash as she followed her out onto the lawn.

"Okay," Ash agreed as she dodged another punch. "Mind telling me what for?"

"What for? What for!" Lu bellowed as she lunged in and swept Ash's feet out from under her.

Ash went with the motion and grabbed Lu to bring her down with her. She rolled them over as her back hit and flipped Lu over her head. Lu flew through the air with a howl and landed on her back with an audible oof.

"Stop it!" Sheila ordered as she ran between the two combatants. Ash held up her hands and settled back down on the grass. Sheila waited to make sure she would stay there before turning to see how Lu was. She strode over to Lu's prone body and knelt next to her. "Lu? Honey, are you all right?" Lu managed a nod as she gasped for breath. "Yeah, just got the wind knocked out of me."

"Are you two done acting like a couple of kids?" Sheila asked leaning back on her heels and looking back and forth between the two of them.

"Hey, all I did was knock on the damn door. It was Rocky there who came out swinging," Ash said pointing at Lu who had managed to sit up.

"Fuck you, Ash," Lu swore as she batted Sheila's attempts to help her up and stood.

Ash shrugged and rubbed her aching jaw where Lu's sucker punch had landed.

"Well, why don't you two get your asses inside and stop giving the neighborhood a show and we'll all have a nice little talk," Sheila said as she stood. She crossed her arms beneath her breasts and glared at the two women.

Lu glanced at her and felt her anger melt under her lover's disapproving regard. She grunted and started walking towards the house. "I'll go put some coffee on," she said over her shoulder.

Sheila and Ash watched her until she disappeared back into the house. Sheila sighed and turned her attention to Ash who was still sitting on the lawn rubbing her jaw. "I guess good morning wouldn't be the appropriate greeting at the moment," she said with a small laugh as she walked over to her and offered her a hand.

Ash grinned as she took the hand and pulled herself up. "No, I guess not," she replied dusting her pants off. "Where's Lauren? You can't tell me she slept through all this?"

Sheila bit her lip and glanced at the dark house. "Well, I wouldn't be surprised if she would've, but she didn't have to."

"What?" Ash asked looking up from dusting herself off. "You're talking in riddles, Sheila."

"Well she was sleeping on the couch when we went to bed last night," Sheila explained as she led the way up to the house. "But I noticed when I came through the living room that she wasn't there now."

"What?" Ash asked stopping dead and staring at Sheila in disbelief.

"Just what I said," Sheila sighed. She took Ash by the arm and led her into the house, closing the door behind them. "Look for yourself. She's not there now and Rachel's car wasn't in the drive either."

Ash stared at the empty couch at a loss. "You mean she left?"

"Looks like it," Sheila stated as she turned on the living room lights. She walked over to the couch and saw that the bedding was neatly folded on the end of the couch with what appeared to be a note resting on top of it. She picked it up and quickly scanned its contents. "She left a note."

Ash looked from Sheila to the note in her hand and back. She felt her heart plummet as the realization that Lauren really wasn't here sank in. "What does it say?"

"Says she couldn't sleep so she decided to head back to Seattle," Sheila said as she sat down on the couch with a weary sigh. "She thanked us for our hospitality and says not to worry that she'll be fine."

Ash nodded slowly as she sank down unto the recliner in defeat.

"What's going on?" Lu asked as she came into the living room a few minutes later carrying a serving tray with steaming mugs on it.

"Lauren's gone," Ash answered bleakly.

"Shit," Lu swore as she set the tray down and held out a steaming mug of tea to Sheila.

"Thanks," Sheila murmured as she took the tea and sat back on the couch.

Lu smiled and sat down next to her taking a cup of coffee for herself. "Now why the hell did she go and do that?"

"She said she couldn't sleep so she thought she'd get an early start," Sheila replied holding up the note for Lu to see.

"Oh that's just great," Lu grumbled shaking her head in disgust.

"What happened the other day?" Ash asked as she leaned forward and captured a cup of coffee.

Lu dampened her rising anger as Sheila placed a restraining hand on her thigh. She glanced at her lover and Sheila shook her head. Lu sighed and nodded in agreement and was rewarded with a smile. "Some asshole tried to run Lauren down," Lu stated.

Ash nodded. "And?"

"And I don't think it was an accident and after talking to my neighbor I think Lauren was the intended target not Sheila," Lu stated as she leaned forward meeting Ash's cool blue eyes.

Ash's eyebrow shot up. "Oh? What did you find out?"

"My next door neighbor is a bit of a busybody and she spotted a car that showed up shortly after Lauren arrived and then sat out front for about 20 minutes before leaving," Lu said.

"Was it the same car?" Ash asked doubtfully.

"No," Lu said shaking her head. "But the guys in the car do match what little description we have of the guys that were in the car that tried to hit Lauren."

"Guys?" Ash said slowly as her mind began to work. "As in more than one?"

"Yeah," Lu nodded in agreement. "There were 2 of them. Pete already found the car that almost hit Lauren. It was stolen and dumped not far from where it happened."

"Any clues there?" Ash asked hopefully.

"Nope. Wiped. That's what made me believe it wasn't an accident, but a pro job," Lu explained taking a sip of her coffee. "If it had been a bunch of kids joyriding they wouldn't have thought to wipe the car clean."

"Shit," Ash groaned closing her eyes in despair.

"I did get the plate of the brown sedan that followed Lauren here though," Lu offered.

Ash's eyes shot open and pinned Lu to her seat. "And?"

"Don't know yet," Lu apologized with a shrug. "I gave the info to Pete and he was going to run the plates and get back to me."

Ash nodded and sat back to mull it over. Her hunch had been right. Someone from her past was after Lauren to get to her. Question was who? And how had they found out about her? She had only known Lauren for a week. So it had to be someone who had either been following her for a long time or just spotted her in Seattle and put two and two together.

"You didn't tell her about the paper, Lu," Sheila said quietly.

"Paper?" Ash asked looking back and forth between the two.

"Oh yeah, I forgot about that," Lu said as she reached behind the couch to grab a stack of newspapers sitting on the table behind it. "Here," she said as she held out the papers to Ash.

Ash took them with a puzzled look. "What am I looking for?" she asked as she sat back with the papers in her lap.

"Open up the Arts section," Sheila suggested.

Ash nodded and flipped through the stack until she came to the right section and began to go through it. The two-page layout of the charity auction came into view and her eyes widened in shock. She let the papers fall to her lap as she stared at the pictures.

Sheila stood up and came around beside her chair to look at the pictures over her shoulder. "Lauren told us about them when we got home yesterday."

"But how? Why?" Ash murmured in disbelief.

"She talked to her friend Rachel and she told her that someone had done a spread on the auction. Not too surprising since there were some pretty big names in attendance. Yours included," Sheila said as she sat down on the arm of the chair.

Ash looked up at her totally at a loss. "But… but…"

Lu chuckled. "You keep forgetting that you are considered a celebrity, Ash. And that shindig of Louis's brought quite a few people out of the woodwork. Maybe it was a slow news day and they needed filler. Point is it's there and who knows how many people have seen it."

Ash nodded as she looked back at the story and saw the picture of Lauren and her smack dab in the middle in full color. "I don't remember anyone taking pictures," she muttered as she frowned in thought.

"But this didn't come out until yesterday. So, whoever is after Lauren knew about her before this," Sheila pointed out.

"True," Lu agreed.

"But the auction was pretty well advertised and like you said, people knew I would be in attendance. Louis made sure of that," Ash grumbled.

Lu nodded. "Yeah. That's what I thought. I don't think its likely to be related to the help you gave me earlier this week, because those boys wouldn't have any way of knowing about Lauren. Plus they're small time and don't really have the connections for this sort of thing."

Ash nodded absently as she thought back to the auction and tried to think of who could have seen them together that could potentially be dangerous.

"That's not the worse of it though," Sheila said. Ash looked up at her questioningly. Sheila leaned over and flipped through the papers and pulled one out. She laid it in Ash's lap and pointed to it. "This is what really upset Lauren."

Ash glanced down at her lap to see her own face staring back at her. Her eyes narrowed as she took in the pictures of Lauren and her, of Judith and her and then of Judith and Alexis Reid. She quickly read the article and felt her blood begin to boil.

Sheila saw Ash's knuckles go white and her eyes narrow dangerously as she continued to read the article and glanced at Lu. Lu smiled and motioned her to come sit next to her. Sheila stood and quietly made her way to the couch and sat down next to Lu taking her hand in hers. Lu squeezed it gently in reassurance. They waited patiently for Ash to finish the article and say something.

"What did Lauren say?" Ash asked finally.

"She was pretty upset," Lu said with compassion.

"True, but she was more worried about her folks seeing it than anything else," Sheila said.

"Did it get more than local coverage?" Ash asked in resignation. She sat back and pinched the bridge of her nose feeling a headache coming on.

"Not so far," Lu replied.

"Well we can hope," Ash said without conviction.

Lu snorted. "Yeah, right."

"I think I'll go scare up some breakfast," Sheila remarked as she stood.

Lu and Ash watched her leave and an awkward silence fell. Ash dropped her gaze and stared blankly at the newspaper in her lap as she tried to figure out what to do next. Lu cleared her throat and Ash looked up at her in question.

"Sorry about smacking you, Ash," Lu offered studying her hands. "But damn! I was just so mad at you!"

"You had every right to be and I deserved it," Ash said quietly.

"No. You didn't," Lu said emphatically.

Ash looked up to meet Lu's concerned eyes and managed a small grin. She shrugged. "Okay, but I feel like I did."

"Water under the bridge," Lu said waving her hand for emphasis. "I've been going through my files trying to match up the descriptions of the guys in the car with any of my past cases, but I haven't had any luck so far." Ash nodded in understanding. "Do you have remote access to your system?"

"Yeah," Ash said leaning back in her chair with a weary sigh. "I just can't figure out how anyone would know about Lauren and I."

"I don't know, but they do," Lu said tiredly. "Why don't we head upstairs and you can access your system from mine and I'll call Pete and see if he has any information for us."

"Sounds good," Ash agreed as she stood. "I'd like to see your notes on what your neighbor had to say plus the police report."

"No problem. I have a file," Lu said with a grin as she stood. She waved Ash to go before her and then followed in her wake. "I'll just pop into the kitchen and let Sheila know where we'll be."

"Okay. Meet you upstairs," Ash agreed as she turned and headed up the stairs.

Lu watched her go and sighed. "Damn does this whole situation suck. Why did you have to go and take off, Lauren? I pray for both your sakes that those guys weren't lurking around and saw you leave." Lu's mind brought up an image of Lauren dead on the highway and she shuddered. She shook her head to dislodge the image and turned to go into the kitchen. "I hope Pete has something for us."


Lauren pulled into the parking space and turned off the car with a sigh. She sat back and wearily closed her eyes listening to the car tick. The drive home had been uneventful but she had hit the city limits right at morning rush hour and her already stretched nerves were frazzled. She opened her eyes and looked at her watch to see that it was almost eight thirty.

"Well, Rach should forgive me for waking her up so early on a Saturday when she sees this," Lauren surmised as she grabbed the flat holding the coffee and got out of the car. She shivered as the damp wind hit her and wondered once more what possessed her to go to school in the Pacific Northwest where it always seemed to be raining or on the verge of raining.

She juggled the coffee as she pulled the door to the apartment building open and hurried over to the elevator. She pressed the button and hummed absently as she waited. The building was eerily quiet at this time of the morning on a Saturday. During the week it would be busy with people coming and going both to school and to work, but it seemed no one was ever up at this time on a weekend here. It surprised Lauren that people weren't up and about at this time, but then she had grown up getting up early to help her mom in the barns before school.

The elevator dinged and she jumped at how loud it sounded in the still lobby. She giggled self consciously as she stepped into the elevator and hit the button for the 5th floor. She leaned back against the far wall and cradled the coffee to her chest as the elevator lurched into motion. She let her eyes droop shut with weariness. She just wanted to go home and crash but at the same time was too wired to sleep.

The elevator lurched to a halt and the doors slid open to reveal the hallway to Rachel's floor. Lauren pushed herself away from the wall and made her way down the hall. She stopped before Rachel's door and knocked on the door. She waited but there was no answer. She sighed and tried pounding harder.

She leaned forward and listened at the door to see if she could hear any movement from within. Hearing nothing she pounded the door with her fist once more. "Rach! Come on and get up and open the door!" she called.

She heard a thump and then muffled cursing. She smiled as she stepped back from the door and waited for Rachel to make her way across the apartment and open the door. The door swung open to reveal a very sleep rumpled and annoyed Rachel.

"I brought coffee," Lauren offered holding up the coffee tray.

Rachel's eyes focused on the coffee and she nodded as she stepped back from the door allowing Lauren to enter. "Good thing or I may have had to kill you."

Lauren giggled as she stepped over the threshold and made a beeline for the couch. She set the tray down on the coffee table and popped off the lids. "Double espresso latte," she said as she held the cup out to her sleepy friend.

Rachel eagerly took the cup and brought it up to her face to inhale the sweet aroma. "Mmm, that smells good," she murmured as her eyes closed in pleasure.

"You are so easy," Lauren giggled as she took her own cup and settled on the couch pulling her legs up under her.

"For some things, yes," Rachel agreed as she sat down next to her and sipped her steaming coffee. "So, you want to tell me why you're pounding on my door at such an ungodly hour?"

Lauren broke Rachel's curious gaze and stared into the mocha depths of her coffee. She shrugged uncomfortably as she tried to think of something to tell her best friend.

"Laur? What is it?" Rachel asked in concern. She leaned forward and set her coffee down before turning to face her friend more directly. She reached out and gently cupped Lauren's chin, bringing her head up so she could see the weariness reflected in those deep green eyes. "What happened in Spokane?"

Lauren gazed into Rachel's caring eyes and felt a lump rise in her throat. She swallowed and attempted to smile. "How much time you got?" she joked feebly.

"For you? All the time in the world. You know that. Now spill," Rachel said with a smile. She picked up her coffee once more and sat back on the couch with an attentive expression on her face.

Lauren fiddled with her cup as she struggled to form her feelings into words. She was so tired and the last couple of days felt more like a deluded nightmare than reality. "Well, you know that when I got there Ash had already left," Lauren began.

Rachel nodded and motioned for her to continue.

"Well the next day I went baby shopping with Sheila," Lauren continued as she leaned back on the couch feeling the lack of sleep weighing down on her.

"Wait. Baby shopping?" Rachel asked holding up a hand to forestall her.

"Oh! Yeah," Lauren nodded with a twinkle in her eyes. "Lu and Sheila are expecting."

"Really? Wow," Rachel said in surprise. "Sorry to interrupt, but that just took me by surprise."

"No problem. You'd really like Sheila, Rach. And Lu tries to act so tough but Sheila totally has her number! She's a total mushball when it comes to Sheila," Lauren said grinning.

"Can't wait to meet them," Rachel enthused. "So what happen when you went shopping? That doesn't sound too dire. At least not for you! You love shopping!"

Lauren nudged her friend's knee reproachfully. "Hey!"

Rachel smirked. "Well, it's true."

"Yeah, I know, but the shopping was fine. It was what happened when Sheila and I went to meet Lu for dinner," Lauren said as all the playfulness fell from her tone.

Rachel sat up as she felt the mood darken. "What happened, hon?" she asked quietly.

Lauren stared blankly into her coffee as she remembered that fateful day. "We went to meet Lu at this restaurant that Sheila wanted me to try," she said in a monotone lost in her thoughts. "We parked across the street and started for the crosswalk when I realized I had forgotten my wallet. Sheila gave me her keys and I went back for it while she continued to go meet Lu since we were late and Sheila said Lu would probably be chewing her fingers off."

Rachel reached out and rested her hand on Lauren's knee giving it a gentle squeeze. "What happened then?" she asked.

Lauren swallowed as she felt the tears begin to rise. The image of the car veering towards her and the sound of Lu's voice shouting for her to look out. "I started across the street and then… and then…"

Rachel saw the tears begin to fall and quickly wrapped Lauren in her arms. She gently stroked Lauren's hair trying to soothe her. "Easy, honey. You started across the street." Lauren nodded against her. "What happened when you went to cross the street?"

"A… a car… came at me," Lauren sobbed as she clinged to Rachel's warm presence trying to ground herself in the here and now and not be swept back to that moment. "I just froze. I just stood there like a deer in the headlights waiting for it to plow me down."

"But it didn't," Rachel reasoned. "How did it miss you?"

"Lu," Lauren cried.

"Lu?" Rachel asked puzzled. "What did Lu do?"

"She… she ran across the street and tackled me," Lauren explained between sobs. "We landed on the sidewalk. And the next thing I remember is Sheila kneeling next to me asking me if I was okay."

"Wow," Rachel said in awe.

Lauren hiccupped and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She struggled to pull herself together. "Yeah, it was pretty amazing."

"You okay? I mean physically?" Rachel asked as she released her, feeling Lauren begin to right herself.

"Yeah," Lauren nodded as she leaned forward and snagged a tissue from the dispenser on the coffee table and wiped her eyes before blowing her nose. "Just bruised and a bit scraped up. Minor concussion, but nothing permanent."

"Did they catch whoever was driving the car?" Rachel asked.

"No," Lauren shook her head. She picked up her coffee and sat back with a sigh. "But they found the car. It was dumped a few miles away. Lu is under the impression that it wasn't an accident."

"What?" Rachel asked in shock her coffee forgotten halfway to her lips. "Why?"

"The car was wiped down," Lauren explained. Seeing the blank look on Rachel's face, she continued, "Whoever was driving the car removed any sign of fingerprints or any other evidence." Rachel's face brightened with understanding and Lauren felt a small smile grace her lips. "The car was stolen from some pastor or priest or something. So basically the car is a dead end and they have no idea."

"Shit, Laur. I leave you alone for a couple of days and this is what happens?" Rachel chided gently.

"Afraid so," Lauren sighed as her eyes drooped shut.

Rachel studied her friend and saw the dark rings around her eyes and the evidence of the near miss in a bruise on Lauren's left cheek. She looks totally washed out. I better just get her home and pour her into bed. "Hey, Laur, why don't I throw some clothes on and drive you home so you can crash? You look totally wiped out."

Lauren opened her eyes slowly and nodded. "Probably a good idea."

"I'll be out in two shakes," Rachel replied as she stood up from the couch and headed towards her bedroom to change.

"I'll be here," Lauren murmured to the empty room as she let her eyes fall close once more.

"Laur? Honey?"

Lauren jerked awake and her eyes popped open to see Rachel leaning over her shaking her gently. "Guess I fell asleep, huh?"

"You sure did," Rachel said with a grin. "Come on, let's get you home."

Lauren took Rachel's outstretched hand and pulled herself out of the comfort of the couch. She grimaced at how stiff her body was. "How long was I asleep?"

"About 15 minutes or so. You probably crashed as soon as I left the room," Rachel replied.

Lauren rubbed her face as she tried to wake up. She shook herself and yawned. "Ugh. I just want to go home and fall into bed and sleep for a week."

Rachel chuckled. "Now you can't do that. You promised to meet me on campus tomorrow afternoon and help me with that damn lit paper."

Lauren groaned. "Oh yeah. I almost forgot."

"No worries. That's what you have me for," Rachel teased as she led the way to the door.

"My humble appointment book," Lauren said wryly.

Rachel gave her a cheesy grin as she pulled the door open and motioned for Lauren to precede her. "Well someone has to do it."

"True, true. Lately I've been such a scatterbrain," Lauren said as she walked out the door.

Rachel fell into step beside her as they headed down the hallway towards the elevator. "Have you heard from Ash at all?"

"Not since I yelled at her yesterday morning. I'd be surprised if she ever talks to me again," Lauren said in a defeated voice.

"Oh, I think you'll be hearing from her," Rachel said mysteriously as the elevator arrived and they stepped in.

Lauren looked at her quizzically. "Why do you say that?"

Rachel shrugged. "I dunno. Just a feeling I guess. I just don't think Ash is the kind of person to give up that easily."

"I hope you're right, Rach. I really do," Lauren said feeling hope rise again in her heart.

"Hey, have I ever been wrong?" Rachel asked arrogantly as the elevator door slid open to reveal the lobby.

Lauren raised her eyebrow and folded her arms across her breasts. "You really want me to answer that?"

"What?" Rachel asked defensively as she led the way across the lobby and out the front door. "When have I been wrong?"

"Hmmm, let me count the times," Lauren said as she rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Let's start with you thinking that camping in October in the Pacific Northwest was a good idea."

"I wasn't wrong about that," Rachel sniffed. "Its not my fault they don't make a decent tent these days."

"Uh huh. Well, I don't think the manufacturers had a deluge for 3 solid days in mind when they said they're tent was waterproof," Lauren said with a giggle.

Rachel rolled her eyes and snorted. "Well then they shouldn't advertise that they are! I mean what's a little rain? We had the right gear supposedly."

"A little rain?" Lauren guffawed as she followed Rachel to the car. "It was raining buckets! You couldn't see 5 feet in front of you and you call that a little rain?"

Rachel ignored the parry as she busied herself unlocking the car and climbing in. She leaned over and unlocked the passenger door.

Lauren grinned as she opened the door and sank into her seat fastening her seat belt and leaning back.

Rachel started the engine and backed out of the parking space. "Glad to see you filled the tank," Rachel commented.

"I told you I would," Lauren replied letting Rachel get away with the subject change.

"And you're a woman of your word," Rachel said as she pulled into traffic and headed for Lauren's place. "Why don't you just lean back and relax and I'll wake you when we get there."

"Okay," Lauren agreed readily. She let her eyes slide close and leaned back into the seat. She let the sound of Rachel's humming to the radio and the sound of the windshield wipers lull her to sleep.


"Uh huh, uh huh, sure," Lu murmured into the phone as she listened to what Pete had to say. She rested her forehead in her hand and closed her eyes at the news. "Shit. Okay, thanks. Let us know if you come up with anything. Bye." She slowly hung up the phone and stared blankly at her desk not wanting to meet the piercing blue eyes that were attempting to drill holes through her head.

"You going to sit there all day or are you going to tell me what the hell he had to say?" Ash asked impatience evident in her voice.

Lu finally glanced up to meet those all to knowing eyes and shook her head. "Sorry, Ash, but the plates are another dead end. Seems they were stolen off a car from a long term parking lot at SeaTac."

"Damn," Ash swore as she sat back in the office chair. "Well, at least we know they were in Seattle then."

"True," Lu agreed leaning forward. "You find anything in your files?"

Ash shook her head. "Not really. I've been studying this damn sketch for hours now and while they look familiar, I just can't figure out where from," Ash said holding up the sketches in frustration.

"It will come to you, just give it time," Lu assured her.

"I don't have time!" Ash growled as she stood abruptly and began to pace. "Someone is after Lauren and I need to figure out who it is and why so I can stop them!"

"Getting upset isn't going to help," Lu said calmly as she sat back in her chair and regarded her pacing friend.

Ash paused in her pacing to glare at the seemingly relaxed Lu. "Well, what do you suggest then?"

Lu shrugged. "I suggest we go down and have some lunch," Lu said glancing at her watch for emphasis. "It's after 2 and I'm starving and I'm sure Sheila is beginning to wonder whether or not we've managed to kill each other up here."

Ash ran her hands through her hair in frustration but had to agree with Lu's logic. "Okay. I want to call Lauren's too and see if she got home safe."

"Good idea," Lu said as she stood and made her way around the desk. "Why don't you use the phone up here and I'll go downstairs and see what Sheila is up to and give you some privacy."

"Thanks, Lu," Ash said giving Lu a heartfelt smile.

Lu slapped her on the shoulder. "No problem," she said as she made her way out of the office.

Ash watched her go and then turned towards the desk. She walked around the desk and sank into the office chair. She reached for the phone and then hesitated. Come on, Ash. You need to know if she's all right, she told herself as she willed her hand to pick up the phone and dial the number before she could change her mind. She took a deep breath as she brought the receiver to her ear and listened to the phone ring. Ash's brow furrowed in concern when the phone continued to ring with no answer. A soft click and Lauren's recorded voice came on telling her to leave a message. Ash closed her eyes and struggled for calm.

"Lauren? It's me, Ash. I just wanted to make sure you got home okay. I'm currently in Spokane at Lu and Sheila's. I have my cell phone too if you want to call," Ash said. She paused listening to the silence on the other end of the line as she thought frantically for something else to say. "Please be careful. Lu and I both think someone may be out to hurt you. Please stay at home or with people. Don't go anywhere alone, okay? I'm planning on leaving here and being in Seattle sometime tonight. I'm checking into this, Lauren. I won't let anything happen to you, I promise." She paused as her emotions surged to the surface and threatened to choke her. "I… I love you, Lauren. See you soon."

She quickly lowered the receiver and hung it up. She stared at the phone as she fought to bring her breathing back under control. "Damn, Lauren. I don't know what the hell is going on, but I swear to you I'm going to find out," she vowed as she stood up from the desk and headed downstairs to find Lu and Sheila and hopefully something to fill the void in her middle.


Alexis exhaled in relief as she dropped her bags in the entryway. She glanced around the dusk darkened interior of the condo wondering where Judith was. She hung up her coat and rung out her rain-dampened hair. She had missed Judith and was ecstatic when her shoot had been rained out and she was able to come home. She hadn't called because she wanted to surprise Judith. She smiled happily as she went in search of her lover.

She heard yelling as she made her way down the hallway towards the office and slowed when she realized it was Judith doing the yelling. She paused indecisively. She wanted to know what Judith was up to but at the same time felt guilty for eavesdropping. She bit her lip as her conscience struggled with her curiosity. Curiosity finally one and she tiptoed towards the partially opened door of the office.

"Shut up!" Judith's voice yelled, making Alexis flinch and press herself against the wall. She swallowed fearfully as Judith continued to harangue some poor soul. "I don't want to hear excuses! I paid you good money and this is what I get for it?"

Alexis jumped as something hit the wall she was leaning against and shattered. She shrank farther down the wall as she listened to the woman she loved going off the deep end.

"I don't care what happened in Spokane or who showed up! You want to get paid don't you? Then the annoying little bitch better be dead by Sunday! You got me?"

Dead? Did she just say dead? Alexis wondered as her eyes widened in shock. Who does she want dead? And who in the world is she talking to?

"I don't care how you do it! Forget making it look like an accident. Obviously that is too difficult for small minds such as yourselves! Just make sure she's good and dead or else!" Judith barked.

Alexis heard her slam down the receiver and begin pacing. Judith was mumbling to herself but too quietly for Alexis to make out. She slowly began to back away from the office, praying Judith hadn't heard her and wouldn't come out into the hall.

She let out a breath of relief when she reached the entryway once more. She quickly made her way to her coat and pulled it on. Her mind whirled as she tried to figure out who Judith would want dead. Maybe I misunderstood her, she tried to convince herself weakly. Maybe she was practicing lines for a new role or something. But the thought fell flat and she knew she was just trying to make up excuses for Judith. Oh gods! Do I love this woman? This woman who could so coldly order someone to kill another? She asked herself as she quietly opened the front door and grabbed up her recently discarded bags. Don't want Judith to know I was home and possibly overheard her, she thought feeling a chill run down her spine at the thought. She quickly made her way down the drive, lowering her head to keep the rain out of her eyes. She made it to her car and quickly tossed her bags in the back and climbed in.

How am I going to figure out who Judith wants dead? She wondered as she started the car and backed out of the drive. "Well, I better before tomorrow," she said with determination as she put the car in drive and sped down the rain slick street.


"Damn insolent fools!" Judith swore as she turned from the phone and paced to the floor to ceiling windows to stare out at the storm. She clenched her hands into white knuckled fists as she fought back her anger. She stared out at the fury of the storm letting it flow over her. The wind was whipping the trees causing the branches to lash back and forth wildly. The rain pelted the windows drowning out any other sound but the howl of the wind. "How hard is it to kill one annoying blonde?"

She whirled from the window and stalked across the room to sit behind her desk. Her eye caught the other object of her fury as she sat. The newspaper articles of the charity auction glared up at her mockingly. She sneered as she once more read over them.

Her eyes narrowed dangerously as she read the caption under Alexis and her picture. "Friend am I? Is that all I am?" she said through gritted teeth. "No one of mention am I? We'll see about that!"

Her eyes fell to the picture of Ash and Lauren and she felt her blood begin to boil. "That should be me! Me!" she shouted tapping the picture with her manicured nail. "Not you! You worthless little tramp! You stole her from me! I won't have that. No… no I won't," Judith's voice faded off as her eyes glistened with madness. "You'll see. Soon everyone will see that I am someone. Someone not to mess with."

She violently swept the papers off her desk as the fury began to rise once more. "I will have you, Ash. I will," she vowed as she stood and made her way out of the office ignoring the papers falling behind her.


Lauren fought her way to consciousness and frowned as she tried to figure out what had awakened her. She lay quietly in her bed refusing to open her eyes and face the evening. She yawned and rolled over pulling the covers up more tightly around her shoulders.

The phone rang.

Lauren pouted as the phone rang again. She sighed and rolled over making a grab for the phone. She picked it up half way through the third ring. "Hello?" she yawned into the phone as she sank back down.

"Lauren? Is that you, sis?"

Lauren's eyes popped open in surprise at the sound of her sister's voice. "Katie?"

"The one and only. Did I wake you? What are you doing asleep at 8 o'clock at night?"

"Eight o'clock?" Lauren parroted in surprise as she turned her head to look at the clock and saw that it was indeed just after 8 in the evening.

"Yeah 8. You okay? You sound really out of it. Didn't mom tell you I was going to call?" Katie asked.

"Yeah she told me you were going to call," Lauren replied as she sat up and stretched. "Sorry, I've had a rough couple of days and I guess they caught up with me."

"No problem. I just wanted to call and tell you my flight info and all that."

"Okay. Hold on and let me grab something to write with," Lauren said as she flipped on the bedside lamp and groaned as the bright light penetrated her eyes.


Lauren plunked down the phone and threw back the covers. She rubbed her eyes as she clambered out of bed and made her way towards her desk. Her unfinished thesis glared at her accusingly from beside her computer. She stuck her tongue out at defiantly as she rummaged for a notebook and pen and returned to her bed and her waiting sister.

"Okay, Katie, shoot," she said as she cradled the phone with her shoulder and prepared to write down the information.

"I'm coming in on Delta flight 364 at 4:15 on the 27th. That's Wednesday in case you didn't know," Katie said smartly.

"Ha ha, very funny," Lauren said as she scribbled down the information. "You going to tell me what you're costume is or do I have to torture you when you get here?"

"Nope! It's a surprise," Katie laughed.

"Oh great," Lauren said rolling her eyes heavenward.

"Hey, I'll look stunning and outshine you for once!" Katie shot back.

"Oh, like that has ever been a problem for you, Kay," Lauren argued back good-naturedly.

"Uh huh, sure, sis," Katie said. "Hey, mom said something about you meeting someone famous. What's that all about?"

Lauren felt the smile on her face freeze as images of Ash flashed across her mind's eye. "Ummm…" she murmured into the phone as she tried to get her emotions under control.

"Laur? Hey, what's wrong?" Katie asked in concern.

"Nothing!" Lauren said quickly. Dead silence from the phone informed her that maybe she said that a bit too quickly to be believable. She thought furiously and continued. "Honest, Katie. It's nothing. Yes, I met a few famous people at the charity auction. Alexis Reid was there, though I didn't actually meet her."

"I know who she is! She's Barb's new favorite singer! She's going to just die when I tell her you were actually in the same room with her!" Katie crowed.

"Well its not like I got her autograph or anything," Lauren replied.

"Doesn't matter. You breathed the same air so therefore Barb will be beside herself with envy!" Katie explained gleefully.

"You are so mean," Lauren scolded.

"Yep! Hey, maybe I'll get a chance to meet this Alexis Reid while I'm there. I mean she does live in Seattle and I hear she's gay so I bet she hangs around the same people you do," Katie stated sure of her logic.

Lauren laughed. "Oh yeah, I forgot that all gay people automatically know all other gay people! Come on, Katie! Get serious! You know better than that."

"Okay, okay. But I can dream can't I?" Katie apologized unrepentant. "So who else did you meet?"

"Ummm," Lauren stalled.

"You met someone didn't you?" Katie asked knowingly. "You met someone that stole your breath away and that's why you're not telling me anything!"

"Katie," Lauren warned.

"You did! I knew it! I told mom that's why you've been such a scatterbrain lately!"

"Katie!" Lauren gasped feeling the blush creep up her face.

"What?" Katie asked innocently.

"You actually said that to mom?" Lauren asked flopping back on her bed and throwing her arm across her eyes mortified.

"Umm, yeah sure did. Why?"


"Well, mom agreed with me ya know. Of course she thinks its some young guy that has you all hot and bothered. I really had to bite my tongue to keep from blurting it out when she started talking about grandchildren and big church weddings," Katie said.

"Oh gods, just kill me now," Lauren moaned.

"So who is it? I know it's someone. So spill," Katie demanded.

"Ashlin Gray," Lauren said quietly deciding it was best to just get it over with and tell her persistent sister otherwise Katie would just nag her to death. Besides, she'll meet her on Halloween anyway, Lauren thought feeling her heart skip a beat at the thought. Then the reality of her estrangement from Ash came home once more and her heart plummeted to play with the butterflies in her stomach.

"Ashlin Gray? What a cool name. Who is she? Wait, I remember mom going on about some CD set that she really wanted and that you had met the musician. Is that the same person?" Katie asked.

"Yeah," Lauren managed to get out around the lump in her throat. The phone clicked to tell her she had another call on the other line. She paused a moment and then decided to ignore it.

"Did I just hear a click?" Katie asked.

"Yeah, but I'm not going to answer it. It's probably just Rachel wanting me to go out with her tonight and if I talk to her she'll talk me into it," Lauren explained.

"Why don't you want to go out?"

"I really need to work on my thesis and I just don't really feel like it," Lauren said as she rolled over on the bed and stared at her desk and the pile of papers she had thrown there. It felt like weeks had past instead of only a few days.

"Ooookay. So, give me the details of this Ashlin character," Katie said.

"I think it's a moot point, Kay," Lauren sighed hugging her pillow to her chest.

"What? Why? Don't you like her? Doesn't she like you?" Katie asked confused.

"Yes I like her and yes, I think she likes me too. It's just complicated."

"Complicated," Katie said drawing the word out. "How so?"

"I'll make you a deal," Lauren said quickly hoping to forestall the interrogation.

"Let's hear it," Katie said.

"I promise to tell you all about it when you get here. Maybe by then I'll have more of an idea of what is going on and will actually have something to tell you," Lauren said softly.


"Wow? Wow what?" Lauren asked perplexed by her sister's response.

"You love her, huh?" Katie asked gently.

Lauren jaw dropped as she stared at the phone at a loss for words. How does she do that? I didn't say anything! I swear she's some kind of psychic.

"Laur? You still there?"

Lauren snapped her mouth shut and managed to murmur an affirmative.

Katie laughed. "Well, that has to be a first! My sister speechless! I better write this down. Darby will never believe it!"

"Oh shut up!" Lauren said feeling her equilibrium return as her sister once more turned back into the precocious brat.

"Do I get to meet her?"

"Meet her? Who?" Lauren asked dumbly.

Katie sighed. "Ashlin. Do I get to meet her and see if she's even good enough for my big sister?"

Lauren chuckled. An image of Katie with her hands on her hips scowling down at Ashlin strapped to a chair with a bare bulb illuminating her features flashed through her mind. "You going to go all Spanish Inquisition on her?"

"Maybe," Katie replied.

"Well, supposedly she's going to be my date for the Halloween party. So I guess that means you'll get the opportunity to meet her," Lauren said.

"Cool! Why not before then?"

"Because she's out of town," Lauren thought furiously for a reason and then continued. "She had to go see a friend in Spokane and take care of some business. She said she'd be back before Halloween but I'm not really sure when."

"Oh, okay. Do you know what Rachel is going as?" Katie asked.

Lauren blinked at the sudden topic change. "Rachel?"

"Yeah, you know, your best friend?"

"Yeah I know who she is. Why do you care?" Lauren asked wondering.

"Just curious, that's all," Katie said quickly.

Oh ho! So… my little sis may have a thing for my best friend does she? Lauren's lips curled up in wry amusement. I think you are way out of your league, little sister. Rachel chews up little girls like you and spits them out. "I think she's going as Mae West. Or at least that was the last idea on the drawing board. Knowing Rachel that could change before next Saturday though."

"I see," Katie replied. "Well I would hate for us to show up in the same costume or something equally as embarrassing."

Lauren laughed. "I really don't see that happening! Not unless you're 10 years old and going as a Power Ranger or a Jedi Knight or some such!"

"How very true. Gotta love mass marketing," Katie giggled. "Plus I don't think they make those costumes in adult sizes do they?"

"I wouldn't be surprised if they did. I'll bet you ten bucks there will be at least one of each of those at the party," Lauren said knowingly.

"You're kidding right?"


"Well I can't believe that so I'll take that bet," Katie replied.

"Easy money," Lauren said with a laugh.

"Well I guess I better go and start packing," Katie said.

Lauren rolled her eyes. "You're not leaving for another 4 days."

"I know! I cut it awfully close! I hope I'll have enough time!" Katie replied.

Lauren shook her head in amusement. "Okay, sis, I won't keep you. Say hi to the family for me. I'll see you on Wednesday."

"Sounds good. Talk to you later. Bye," Katie said.

"Bye," Lauren said and waited until she heard the phone being hung up on the other end before hanging up. She stared at the phone for a moment and then with a decisive nod reached out and turned off the ringer. "If I have any hope of getting any work done, I can't have the damn phone ringing every five minutes distracting me."


Lu leaned against the doorframe to the office and waited for Ash to finish on the phone. Ash drummed the fingers of her free hand on the desk as she spun the desk chair back and forth. She seemed to be staring blankly out the window. She growled deep in her throat and slammed the receiver back into its cradle.

"Easy on the equipment," Lu scolded.

Ash's head whipped around and her eyes met Lu's contritely. "Oh, yeah, sorry. Guess I'm a bit frustrated."

"Just a bit, huh?" Lu mused as she stepped into the office and slid into the chair opposite the desk and Ash.

Ash ran her hands through her hair and nodded. "Yeah. I just tried to call Lauren but I didn't get any answer. It just rang and rang. Strange since she has an answering machine."

"Maybe she was on the other line," Lu suggested.

"Could be," Ash agreed sullenly.

Lu decided it was time for a change of topic. "Sheila's made cappuccino and chocolate mousse for dessert and I was sent up here to drag your butt downstairs."

Ash grinned. "That sounds good. Though you know I'm not much of a dessert person."

"Just don't let Shelia know!" Lu warned as she stood. "She's in the mother hen mode and its best just to go along with whatever she says."

"That bad huh?" Ash asked raising an eyebrow in question.

"You have no idea, my friend," Lu vowed as she waved Ash to precede her out of the office.

Ash chuckled as she made her way down the stairs and rounded the corner to see Sheila bustling back and forth from the kitchen to the table. She strode over to the table and took her seat giving Sheila a toothy grin when she set a plate with a huge piece of pie before her. "This looks totally delicious, Sheila."

Sheila blushed and murmured a quiet thank you before turning and scurrying back into the kitchen.

"You definitely have a way with women," Lu stated as she turned from watching her wife's retreat to eye Ash knowingly.

"What did I do? I just smiled and said it looked good," Ash said innocently. She picked up her fork and took a hearty bite of the pie.

Lu rolled her eyes and seeing Sheila return carrying a heavily laden coffee tray stood to help her. "Here, baby, let me get that."

"Thank you," Sheila said with a grateful smile as she released the tray to Lu and slid into her chair to Ash's left. "How is it?"

"Delicious," Ash managed to mumble around the food in her mouth.

Lu handed her a cup of cappuccino and Ash nodded her gratitude as she took a sip to help cleanse her palate.

"So, what did you two find out?" Sheila asked as she cupped her mug of herbal tea and blew on it to cool it.

"Not much unfortunately," Lu groused as she dug into her dessert.

"I know I've seen those guys before but for the life of me I can't place them," Ash remarked her brow creasing in frustration.

"It will come to you," Sheila assured her as she reached out and gently patted Ash's hand.

"I hope so," Ash said shaking her head in resignation. "This is going to drive me nuts. I think I just need to get back to Seattle and watch over Lauren from there. Do you think I should call Benson and have him go over to her place and make sure she's okay?"

"Do you really think that's necessary?" Lu asked. "I mean its Saturday night. Do you think he'd even be home?"

"Probably not. But damn! I don't know if she made it home safe or anything! Its almost 9 at night and she should've been home by 9 in the morning! So where is she? Why isn't she answering the phone? Maybe I should call Rachel and see if she ever arrived there," Ash said getting more and more agitated by the moment. "Of course knowing Rachel I highly doubt she'll be home on a Saturday night."

Shelia reached out and gently grasped Ash's arm. "Easy, honey, easy. She was probably exhausted by the time she got home. Maybe she fell asleep on Rachel's couch or maybe she went home and fell asleep. I swear that girl could sleep through air raid sirens! So her not answering the phone does not mean she isn't there," Shelia said reasonably.

"Ain't that the truth," Lu said finishing the last of her pie and sitting back with her coffee. "That girl sleeps like the dead, Ash."

"I know," Ash said. Lu's eyebrows shot up at that and Sheila giggled. Ash realizing what she had implied raised her cup to her mouth in an attempt to hide her faux pas.

"So," Lu said clearing her throat. "What's the plan now?"

"I figured I'd head back to Seattle tonight," Ash said thanking whoever was listening that Lu decided to let the knowledge of Lauren's sleeping habits slide.

"Oh no you don't!" Sheila barked with fire in her dark eyes.

Ash's eyes widened in surprise at Sheila's vehemence. She looked at Lu and then back to Sheila. "I beg your pardon?"

"There is no way you are driving to Seattle tonight, Ashlin! No way!" Sheila ordered poking Ash in the arm for emphasis. "You haven't slept and I'm not going to let you go and then hear you died on the highway because you fell asleep behind the wheel."

Ash glanced at Lu beseechingly. Lu held up her hands informing Ash she was on her own. Ash swallowed and her spine stiffened in defiance. "Look, Sheila, I need to get back to Seattle. I'll be fine."

"Absolutely not!" Sheila said her face screwing up into a scowl.

"Ash, she's right. You're exhausted. You drove all night to get here and haven't had any rest all day. Why don't you just sleep here and get a fresh start in the morning? I'm sure Lauren is tucked up in bed and will be fine until you get there," Lu said reasonably.

Ash opened her mouth to protest but Shelia raised a hand to forestall her. "Don't Ash. This discussion is over. You are staying over and that's that," Shelia informed her as she stood and began collecting the dishes. Ash sat back in defeat letting her shoulders sag. "Okay, Sheila," she said meekly. I can always wait for the two of them to go to bed and then leave, Ash thought smugly.

Sheila paused in her cleaning and eyed the compliant Ash suspiciously. Her eyes narrowed as she turned to face Ash directly placing her hands on her hips. "And don't think you'll pull a Lauren and high tail it out of here in the middle of the night! You're sleeping upstairs on the couch in Lu's office. I'll lock the damn door if I have to!"

Lu chuckled and Ash turned to glare at her friend. Lu grinned unrepentant.

"Okay, Sheila. I'll be good," Ash answered.

"Promise me, Ash," Sheila said.

Ash looked up to meet Sheila's dark eyes and saw the genuine concern there. She nodded. "I promise."

"Good. Now that that's settled I can go to bed and not have to worry," Sheila said as she scooped up the dishes and headed into the kitchen proper.

Lu shook her head and turned to Ash with a knowing smile. "I warned you not to go head to head with her when she's in this kind of mood."

"You weren't kidding," Ash replied watching Sheila industriously clean the kitchen.

"Why don't we head upstairs and see if we can find you some bedding," Lu suggested.

"Sounds like a plan. I think I'll try and go to sleep. I am pretty tired and I'd like to get an early start tomorrow," Ash agreed as she stood with a stretch.

"And I suggest you do stay the night and don't try and sneak out," Lu warned as she led her up

the stairs.

"Why Lu! Would I do that? I gave my word," Ash said in mock hurt.

"Yeah you would. But I hope you won't because if Sheila even suspects you will try something like that she's going to make me do something stupid like sleep across the threshold of the door to make sure you don't escape," Lu grumbled as she tromped up the stairs.

"You can't be serious!" Ash laughed.

"Dead serious," Lu affirmed. "So just do me a favor and stay put for the night okay?"

"Sure thing," Ash agreed as she followed Lu into the office. "I really do need the sleep. Besides, Lauren knows the number here and the number to my cell phone. I left enough messages on her machine that she should know that I'm concerned for her. Hopefully she'll get around to listening to them sooner or later."

A thought struck her and she paused in mid step. "Lu?"

Lu turned from pulling a quilt out of the closet. "What?"

"You don't think she's already listened to the messages and just decided I wasn't worth it do you?" Ash asked in a small voice as she stared down at the tips of her boots.

Lu tossed the quilt on the couch and walked over to her insecure friend. "Ash, look at me," Lu said firmly. Ash glanced up and Lu saw all the insecurity and fear swimming in those clear blue depths. "That girl is totally head over heels in love with you. The minute she hears those messages, nothing could stop her from trying to contact you."

"Really?" Ash asked in wonder.

"Really," Lu assured her. "Now go to bed and I'll wake you at the butt crack of dawn so you can get on the road."

"Thanks, Lu," Ash replied with a shy grin.

"No problem," Lu said brushing aside the gratitude gruffly. "I'm going to go drag my wife out of the kitchen and her cleaning frenzy and go to bed."

Ash laughed and waved as Lu exited the room and headed back down the stairs. She flopped down on the couch with an exhausted sigh and leaned forward to pull off her boots. Just listen to your machine, Lauren. Know that I'm thinking of you and am worried. Gods, I miss you. I just want to get back to Seattle and work all this out, Ash thought as she pulled off her socks and leaned back on the couch closing her eyes. I'll be there soon, I promise. With that thought, Ash quietly drifted to sleep.

Sheila peeked into the room 20 minutes later and smiled fondly at the half sprawled sound asleep Ash. She tiptoed into the room and deftly covered Ash with the quilt. She leaned down and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead before slipping out as quietly as she had entered.


Lauren stepped out of the shower and quickly toweled her hair dry. She glanced into the mirror and grimaced at the sight of the bruises on her torso and right side. "Good thing its not bikini season," she told her reflection as she turned to survey one of the more spectacular bruises on her right hip. She slipped into her undergarments and began to run a brush through her hair in a vain attempt to tame it.

Someone pounded on her front door. She stuck her head out of the bathroom and called, "Just a minute!" She quickly donned her jeans and headed for the door as she pulled a sweatshirt over her head. Who the heck would be pounding on my door this early in the morning?

She pulled the sweatshirt straight and swung the door open to be met by a grinning Benson. Her face split into a smile. "Benson! Come on in! What the heck are you doing at my door so early?" she asked waving him in.

"This package arrived for you while you were gone," Benson said holding up the package for emphasis as he crossed the threshold and made his way over to the couch. "I thought I'd bring it over before Louis and I left for the day."

"Oh? Where you two heading off to?" Lauren asked as she sat down next to Benson and accepted the package from him. She glanced down at it curiously and smiled when she saw her mom's address in the return spot. Another one of her care packages! I'm surprised she didn't just wait and send it with Katie

"We're meeting up with a few others and going fishing," Benson said lounging back on the couch.

Lauren looked up in surprise. "Louis? Fishing?"

Benson laughed heartily. "Are you kidding? No, he's going to sit on the boat and drink whatever crazy fruit concoction they come up with and gossip! But I and a couple of the others actually do fish."

Lauren giggled. "Now that sounds a bit more believable! Sounds like fun though."

"Usually is. We try to do it at least a couple times a year. We're going a bit late this year since everyone's schedules have been so hectic. I just hope it doesn't rain or this could be one miserable afternoon," Benson replied. "Are you okay?"

"What? Why?" Lauren asked feeling suddenly defensive.

"You look a bit pale. Did Ash get ahold of you?" Benson asked.

"What? Why does everyone keep asking me that?" Lauren asked bitterly as she abruptly stood and stalked into the kitchen. She began fiddling with the coffeemaker as an excuse for her behavior.

"Whoa, Irish. What's going on?" Benson asked in concern.

Lauren gripped the coffeepot tightly and choked down the lump in her throat as she tried to think of something to say. "I went to Spokane to see Ash," Lauren began softly. She slowly began to go through the motions of making coffee using it as something to focus on to keep her from flying off the handle. "But when I got there I found out she had left to go to her parents' house without bothering to tell me! I felt like such and idiot, Ben!"

"I know, hon," Benson soothed as he came up behind her and gently began to massage her shoulders. "She called me to get Rachel's number. She thought you might be with her since she wasn't able to reach you at your place. I didn't know you had gone to Spokane or I would've told her."

"She called you? When?" Lauren asked turning to look up into Benson's kind face.

"It must have been Thursday night," Benson said thoughtfully. "She was pretty abrupt. Just wanted to know if I had seen you and if I knew where you were. Then asked for Rachel's number and hung up on me once I gave it to her."

"Oh," Lauren sighed closing her eyes tightly to keep the tears at bay.

"What's going on, Irish?" Benson asked as he pulled her into a gentle embrace.

Lauren buried her head in his broad chest and sniffed back the tears. "I didn't know she was trying to track me down. I just thought she headed off to her parents' without any regard to my feelings. I talked to her Friday morning and totally blew up at her. I was so angry and hurt. I think I made a big mistake, Ben."

"Did you check your machine? I bet there are half a dozen messages from her," Benson said softly as he stroked her back comfortingly. "I know my cousin, Irish, and believe me when I tell you that she cares for you a lot. I haven't seen her as happy and as animated as she was those couple of days she spent with you. Please give her a chance to explain okay?"

"I will," Lauren said choking back the tears that were beginning to fall. "I think I owe her an apology and a chance to tell me what happened. Everything just happened so fast and I was scared and hurt that she wasn't there for me."

"What happened?" Benson asked.

"It's a long story and not something I really want to go into right now, but I promise I'll tell you everything once I've had some time to digest it all and had a chance to talk to Ash and make things right. Okay?" Lauren said wiping the tears from her eyes before stepping back to meet Benson's clear blue eyes that so closely matched Ash's. "I better get my butt in gear or I'll be late meeting Rachel on campus."

"Okay, Irish. I'll hold you to that," Benson replied. "Now why don't I get out of here so you can finish up your morning routine. I'll stop by tonight and see how you're doing."

"Thanks, Ben," Lauren said with a small smile. "I'll talk to you tonight."

"Til then," Benson said with a grin as he turned and headed for the door.

"Good luck fishing," Lauren called after him.

Benson laughed and gave her a wave as he opened the door and disappeared down the hall.

Lauren stared after him lost in thought for a moment. She finally shook herself and glanced at the answering machine and saw the telltale blinking light. Guess Benson was right, she thought with a grimace. She turned on the coffeemaker and then went over to her bed and sat down. She stared at the blinking red light on the answering machine and prayed that there would be a message from Ash somewhere in there. "Bite the bullet and hit play, stupid!" she admonished herself as she reached out and hit the play button.

She lay back on her bed in a daze as the last message finished playing. There had been not one or two from Ash but a total of 10 different messages left for her. The first telling her that Ash had gone to her parents' house and Lauren felt the flush of shame color her cheeks. She had decided to run off to Spokane without telling Ash. It wasn't Ash's fault she wasn't here to get the message. She had totally wronged her on that score. Ash's messages got more concerned and frantic as time passed without any answer from her. Lauren felt the tears begin to slide down her cheeks unchecked.

"Oh Ash! I'm so sorry! I owe you the biggest apology. I'm sorry I was so insecure and yelled at you for something that really wasn't your fault," Lauren cried into the still apartment. She swiped at her eyes and rolled over to see what time it was. The clock read quarter to ten and she swore. She was going to be late to meet Rachel if she didn't get a move on.

"I'll call you as soon as I get home, Ash," Lauren vowed as she scooped up a light jacket and ran for the door. She dashed out and quickly locked the apartment before running down the hall hoping she hadn't missed the bus.


Ash pulled into the back parking lot of her cousin's building and parked. She turned off the truck and steeled herself for whatever lay before her. Part of her wanted to run up the stairs and pound on Lauren's door until she answered and then swoop her into her arms and kiss her passionately. The other part was afraid that Lauren would see her standing there and slam the door in her face. She ran her fingers through her hair and pushed the truck door open. "Might as well get it over with," she said as she climbed out and absently locked the truck.

She hesitated before Lauren's door her hand raised to knock. Her knees felt weak and her heart seemed to be trying to escape via her mouth. She swallowed and let her fist fall upon the door. She cocked her head to listen but didn't hear anything from within the apartment. She knocked again, but after waiting a few moments came to the conclusion that Lauren wasn't home.

She sighed and with a weary stride made her way to her cousin's door down the hall. She knocked and waited.

"Be right there!" Benson's voice boomed through the closed door.

Ash felt a small smile curve her lips as she waited for her cousin to make his way to the door. Maybe he knows where Lauren is.

The door swung open and Benson's eyes widened in surprise at the sight of his cousin on his doorstep. "Well, well, well, if it isn't the long lost cousin."

"Hi, Benson," Ash said. "Sorry about being so short with you on the phone the other night."

"Well considering the circumstances I'm willing to forgive you," Benson replied waving her in.

Ash cocked an eyebrow in question as she stepped inside the apartment.

"I talked to Irish. She gave me the condensed version," Benson explained as he led the way to the kitchen.

"You've seen her? How does she look? Is she okay? I tried her door but no one answered," Ash said in a rush.

"I saw her this morning. She was heading out to meet Rachel on campus I think," Benson replied as he poured them each a cup of coffee. He turned and handed her one. "You're not the only one who's been here looking for her this morning. Every time we try to get out of here someone else comes knocking on the door in search of her."

Ash paused with the coffee cup halfway to her lips. "Who was here asking about her?"

"Alexis Reid," Benson replied thoughtfully. "It was really strange."

"Strange? What do you mean strange?" Ash asked her uneasiness rising once more. She set her coffee cup down and pinned Benson with a demanding eye.

"Well, Alexis showing up on my doorstep was weird enough. I couldn't believe it when I opened the door," Benson said ignoring Ash's glare. "I mean it's not every day that someone famous comes calling and you really don't expect it early on a Sunday morning!"

"What did she want with Lauren?" Ash demanded crossing her arms over her chest to keep from reaching out and shaking him.

"Don't know," Benson shrugged. "She just asked if Irish lived in the apartment down the hall and I told her yes, but that Irish had left awhile ago to meet a friend on campus."

"And?" Ash prompted.

"Well, she kind of paled and thanked me and left in a hurry," Benson replied. "Got any ideas what that was about?"

"Not a clue," Ash said as she headed for the door.

"Hey! Where are you off to?" Benson asked perplexed.

"I have to go see Lauren. I'll talk to you tonight," Ash called over her shoulder as she opened the door and left.

"Why won't anyone tell me what the hell is going on?" Benson asked the empty apartment. He shrugged and finishing his coffee decided he better go grab Louis and get out of there before yet another crazy lesbian showed up on their doorstep and detained them.


"Come on, Roy! I get to pop her! You said so!" Tommie whined as he squirmed in his seat. He watched the little blonde walk across the quad with fevered eyes.

"Are you nuts? You're just going to go out there and shoot her in the middle of the damn campus?" Roy growled glaring at his brother.

Tommie's face flushed in anger as he turned in his seat and glared at his brother. "None of your stupid ideas have worked, Roy. You said I could blow her away and I'm going to," he said in a deadly voice.

Roy felt a chill run up his spine as he looked at his brother. "Tommie, you can't just go out there and shoot her. People will see you," he said trying to reason with him.

"I don't care!" Tommie roared. He yanked at the door handle and began to step out of the car.

Roy reached out and grabbed his arm. "Tommie, think!"

"Fuck you, Roy!" Tommie shouted. He yanked the gun from its holster and swung at Roy's head. Roy was taken totally by surprise and the blow landed across his temple.

Roy slumped back in his seat dazed, his grip loosening. Tommie cackled as he swung the gun once more towards Roy's unprotected head. The blow landed with a satisfying crunch and Tommie grinned. He pistol-whipped his brother a couple more times for good measure before climbing out of the car and slamming the door shut.

His fevered gaze swept the campus in search of his quarry. He finally spotted her and his heart pounded in anticipation. He stroked his gun as he shoved it deep into his pocket and began to make his way towards her.


"Rachel!" Lauren called as she spotted her best friend sitting on a bench halfway across the quad. Rachel glanced up and waved. Lauren hurried her step to meet up with her. "Sorry I'm late."

"No problem. I just got here myself," Rachel said as she stood and gathered up her books. "Do you want to go over and get a coffee first or head straight for the library?"

"I think we better head straight for the library or you'll think of some excuse to get out of doing this paper," Lauren said with a knowing grin.

Rachel grabbed her chest in mock hurt. "Would I do that?"

"In a heartbeat!" Lauren laughed giving her a gentle shove.

"You know me too well, my friend," Rachel said as she dutifully turned and headed for the library.

"Lauren? Lauren O'Shea?"

Rachel and Lauren both turned at the sound of the voice and stopped their progress. Rachel's eyes widened as she recognized the hailer. "Isn't that?"

"Yeah, I think so," Lauren whispered back. She turned and smiled. "Yes?"

"Hi, I don't know if you remember me or not," Alexis said as she came up to them with a shy smile.

"You're Alexis Reid. I saw you at the charity auction," Lauren said helpfully. She wondered what this woman could possibly want with her?

"Yes, that's right," Alexis said with a nod. She began to wring her hands nervously as she tried to think of how to broach the subject of why she was here. She glanced around the campus and spotted a strange man walking towards them and frowned.

"What can I do for you?" Lauren asked puzzled.

Alexis tore her eyes from the man to look back to Lauren and tried to smile. "I need to tell you something, but it's going to sound totally crazy."

"Try us. Nothing could shock us much anymore," Rachel said with a grin.

Alexis's eyes strayed once more over Lauren's shoulder to the greasy haired man that seemed to be heading in their direction. He looks like he's stoned out of his mind, she thought. Just then the man pulled his hand from his pocket and Alexis saw a glint of metal. Her eyes widened in horror.

"Alexis?" Lauren asked in concern. She began to turn to see what had caused Alexis to suddenly go so pale.

"Gun! Get down!" Alexis shouted as she threw herself at Lauren and Rachel.

"Wha?" Rachel gasped as Alexis's arm came around her waist and pulled her down.

Lauren's eyes came to rest on the crazed muddy brown eyes of the gunman just as he pulled the trigger.

She felt Alexis's arm around her waist and then the ground coming up in blinding speed.


Ash had spotted Alexis and hurried to follow her. She saw Alexis reach Lauren and Rachel and the two turned to talk to her. Her eyes strayed to the skinny disheveled man coming at the trio diagonally away from her position. She narrowed her eyes to try and make out the features of the distant man. She felt her stomach tighten and her blood run cold as she recognized him as one of the men that had been in the car that had tried to run Lauren down. No! Oh no! Her mind screamed as she began to run.

She saw the man pull out a gun and fire as Alexis tackled Lauren and Rachel. NO!!!!! She screamed as she felt the red haze of rage color her vision and fought to make her legs go faster to get her there in time knowing that she was already too late.


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