Ash rubbed at her burning eyes as she glanced at the clock. Damn! Its 4 a.m.! Well, I guess its a good thing Im pulling into Spokane. She shook her head wearily and thought about the last time she had been to Spokane. It seemed like a lifetime ago not over 3 years
"Ash? Hey, Ash? You up there?" a raspy alto voice bellowed up the stairs.
Ash rolled her eyes at the voice and sighed. Guess I should answer her. "Yeah! Come on up!"
Ash turned her leather swivel chair around and gazed at the door waiting for her mentor and friend, Lu Darkcloud to make her appearance. A few moments later the door flew open and the lanky frame of her friend came into view carrying a pizza box and a 6 pack of beer.
"Hey, Wolf, thought you might be hungry?" Lu said holding up the pizza and beer as she strode across the room.
Ashs left eyebrow shot up at the name but she made no comment as she watched her friend deposit the pizza on the coffee table and twist the caps off of a couple bottles of beer. Her friend was clad in her usual black tank top tucked into black cargo pants that were tucked into black combat boots. We really need to get the girl to wear some color, she thought with silent amusement as she kept her stoic mask firmly in place. Her waist length black hair was held back in a long braid that brought out the strong plains of her deeply tanned face. Hazel eyes looked up and met Ashs ice blue as Lu grinned and held out one of the bottles of beer to Ashlin.
"So? You gonna talk to me or what?" Lu asked as she held out the beer with a lop-sided grin.
Ash waited a couple of beats and then a slight smile touched her lips. "I dunno, Lu. You seem to be walking on a thin edge today."
Lu looked at her with puzzlement. Oh shit! Guess the Wolf comment didnt go over too well. Oh well. "Hey, you know me, I can never keep my foot out of my mouth!" she shrugged and waved the beer hoping Ash would accept it as a peace offering.
"Mm-hmm," Ash said and then deciding she had tortured Lu long enough, reached out and took the beer.
Lu sighed in relief. Thank you, ancestors! Last thing I want to do is piss her off! She grinned and flopped back on the couch. She studied her friend and a small frown fell over her sharp features. Damn! But she is too damn thin! Ash was lounging in her office chair giving all appearances of a lazy jungle cat. She wore cut off jeans that showed off her long tan legs and a blue mid riff tee that did little to conceal the powerful and sensuous body underneath. Her raven black hair was loose and hung midway down her chest framing her high cheek boned face. The outfit did not hide the scars along her right side and her skin was still too pale.
"Hey, Lu? You still in there?"
"Wha?" Lu jumped at the soft melodious tone of her friends voice and looked up to meet startingly blue eyes. She blushed and the left eyebrow of her friend went up in question. "Umm, yeah sorry." She mumbled as she struggled to regain her composure.
"Something wrong?" Ash asked gesturing down her lanky frame.
"Umm, no, no! Of course not!" Lu protested as she pulled herself upright and made her self busy with opening the pizza box.
"You, my friend, are a terrible liar."
Lu glanced up from the pizza box and was once again captured by that ice blue gaze. She studied her friend for a few minutes and then let out a sigh of frustration.
"Fine! Youre too damn thin and you look like you havent slept in a week!"
Ash sat back in surprise at her friends frank observation. Did she really look that bad? Well, it had been a hell of a month. She had only returned to Washington a week ago after finishing up a case in Texas and was getting ready to go back to her familys home in Montana. A place she hadnt been to openly in almost 10 years. She had promised her brothers though and she never went back on a promise.
"I guess youre right, Lu," she sighed ruefully as she leaned forward and snagged a piece of pizza.
Lu blushed. "Im sorry. Ive just been worried about you, ya know?"
"Yeah, I know," she sighed as she sat back and took a bite of the pizza. "Guess youve had every right to be. Its been a hell of a month."
Lu snorted at the understatement as she sat back in the couch and sipped her beer between bites of the pizza. The two friends sat in companionable silence eating their pizza and lost in their own thoughts.
"So, you really packing up and moving back home?" Lu finally asked wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and reaching for another beer.
Ash smirked. "Yeah. Since you decided to bushwhack me with my brother down in Texas and he cornered me and made me promise to come home at least to visit."
"Moi?" Lu questioned innocently pointing at her chest with mock innocence.
"Yeah you! And dont try to deny it!" Ash growled. "My family had no idea I was in Texas and unless a certain Native American who will remain nameless, hadnt opened her big mouth they still wouldnt know!"
"Okay, okay, you got me dead to rights," Lu announced throwing her hands up in surrender. She studied her friend out of the corner of her eye as she absently peeled the label off of her beer. "You really mad about that?"
Ash thought about that for a moment. Was she? No, not really. She had been getting tired of the life she was leading but didnt see a way out. After the fiasco in Texas she had pretty much decided to give it up anyway. Seeing her brother had just been the final push she had needed.
"No, not mad exactly."
"Then what?" Lu asked really wanting to know the answer. She had known this woman for 10 years, but she was still a mystery. She had pulled her off the street when she was just a teenager and watched her blossom into this beautiful and deadly woman before her. She had taught her the trade of bounty hunting but was soon left far behind by her student. The woman was truly a natural and who ever she went after was as good as caught. She had made quite a reputation for herself. She was known to be single minded in the pursuit and absolutely ruthless. Lu fought back a shudder at the memories of how some of those cases had ended.
Ashlin noticed the shudder and saw the faraway look in Lus hazel eyes and had a pretty good idea what she was thinking about. She sighed. No, she was definitely not a nice person and Lu was in the best position to know that.
"Im tired, Lu, and I just want to get away from " Ashs soft voice trailed off and a haunted look fell into her blue eyes.
"I understand, Ash," Lu said quietly as she reached out and patted Ashs muscular thigh. Ash flinched at the contact but didnt pull away. "So, where are you going?"
"Ive been invited by my dear brothers to attend my mothers birthday at the Manor," Ash said with sarcasm sitting back in her chair and taking a healthy swig of her beer. "After that? Who knows? I have a piece of land out there, guess Ill finally build something on it and go sit up on my mountain."
"And thats a problem because ?" Lu probed watching her friends stoic face for any reaction.
Ash sighed. "I havent seen my family in almost 10 years, Lu. Im not Im not the same person I was when I left."
Lu was astonished. She knew that Ash was a private person and had very few close friends but she hadnt known that she had completely cut off her family. "But I thought you went to Montana on a regular basis?" Ash nodded her head. "You mean youve gone there numerous times over the years, but never went and saw your family?"
Ash shrugged. "No. I never went and saw them."
"Why?" Lu asked incredulously.
Ashs eyes went cold and she stared at her friend. Lu felt goosebumps rise all over her skin and her neck prickle. She was now looking at the predator that was hidden behind Ashs cool façade, the wolf in all her glory. She swallowed the lump in her throat and fought to keep eye contact with that piercing blue stare.
"Because I am not a nice person, Lu. You should know," Ash answered in a voice with no inflection.
Lu nodded in understanding praying Ash would release her from that cold stare. She knew that Ash was deadly and had a temper to match. Please, ancestors, do not let her fury fall upon me!
"I chose not to subject my family to that. I send them money and check up on them to make sure everyone is all right, but I havent been in physical contact with them until you decided that my brother needed to come to Texas," she continued in that cold stoic voice. Her eyes were locked on the fear filled eyes of her friend but her thoughts were a million miles away. Her mind saw the image of her family having a picnic on a warm summers day next to the river. She watched from afar on a wooded hill. Wanting desperately to go down and join them but knowing that she didnt deserve to be there. She had done things that they would never be able to accept. Her heart cried out for the warmth of her family, but her head knew it was something she could never have again.
She shook her head and forcefully pulled herself from the memories and noticed the pale wide eye face of her friend. She blinked and consciously softened her gaze.
"Sorry, Lu. Didnt mean to take that out on you."
Lu swallowed and nodded her head. "Its okay, Ash. I know the years havent been kind and well, the last month or so have really sucked."
Ash smirked at the understatement. "You could say that."
"Yeah well," Lu waved her hand in dismissal. "So, when you leaving?"
"Tomorrow? That soon?" Ash nodded. Lu grimaced. "I guess that means I have to finish up the Swanson case on my own, huh?"
"Yeah, sorry," Ash said lowering her head in what Lu could swear was almost a sheepish look.
"No prob. Ive got a few good leads already. Think the bastard is hiding out here in town if you want to know the truth."
Ash nodded. "Good. Id hate to leave you in a lurch, Lu, but I just cant do it anymore."
Lu studied her friends bowed head in silence. Truer words have never been spoken, my friend. I hope you find peace up on that mountain of yours. "Well, if you ever get tired of the country life youve got my number."
Ash grinned at the comment and looked up at her friend. "Yeah, I got your number. Im hoping I wont need it though."
Lu nodded in agreement and smiled back. "Well, if youre ever in the area, give me a holler will ya?"
"Sure. Its not like I know a lot of people in the area. I may need some place to crash one of these days!"
"Well, I have a couch with your name on it then," Lu answered standing up and collecting their refuse.
"You heading out?" Ash watched her friend clean up their mess.
"Yeah, I got to meet an informant at 5." Lu answered as she stood with the detritus in hand. "You give me a call when you reach your mountain, k?"
"You betcha," Ash said with a smile as she stood and walked her friend to the door. She reached around her and pulled open the door and watched her friend walk out.
Lu paused at the threshold and gave her a long look over her shoulder. "You ever need anything well, Im only a phone call away."
Ash blushed at the sentiment and gently pushed her friend out the door. "Yeah, yeah, I know where you are." Lu nodded and started down the stairs. "Thanks."
Lu turned at the last but the door was already swinging shut. She shook her head. Had she really heard the Wolf say thanks? Will wonders never cease? With a last long look at the door she turned and made her way out of the building.
Ash shook her head and looked at the highway signs. Ah, Lu lives off the next exit. Guess I should give her a ring. Ash chuckled evilly at the thought of pulling her friend out of her bed and reached for her cell phone. She hit the speed dial and hooked up the hands free set up on the phone and idly drummed her fingers on the steering wheel listening to the rings.
The phone had rung three times when it was abruptly picked up.
"What?!" a very grumpy and angry voice shouted into the phone.
"Now is that any way to say hello to an old friend, Lu?" Ash asked softly struggling to keep the amusement out of her voice.
Dead silence was the answer from the phone. For a minute Ash thought that Lu had hung up.
"Wolf? Tha you?" a sleep muddled voice asked.
"Hmmm, I guess since its 4 in the morning Ill let you get away with that, Lu," Ash chuckled as she signaled and took the next exit.
"What the hell are you doing calling me at 4 bloody a.m. and where the hell are you?"
Ash openly grinned at her friends tone. She was obviously still half asleep and probably pretty pissed off.
"Whose on the phone?" Ash heard a soft soprano voice ask in the background.
"No one! Go back to sleep!" Lu gruffly responded.
"Fine. I think Ill go elsewhere!"
"No! Baby, no. Im sorry. Its an old friend." Ash heard Lu try to explain to what was obviously the current woman in her bed. Ash chuckled. "Hey Ash, can you hold on a minute?"
"Sure, Lu. Why dont you take care of business and call me back?"
"Sure, okay. You still have the same number?" Lu asked with obvious distraction.
"Okay, bye." Lu said and hung up the phone.
Ash sat back and laughed. Oooh, that was too precious! I am definitely going to get mileage out of this one! Since when did the mighty Darkcloud bend over to any skirt? This could definitely be an interesting trip! Ash continued to chuckle as she made her way through the quiet streets of Spokane and turned up the street that would lead her to Lus house. She parked out front and noticed the red Sable in the drive. Definitely not Lus!
She shut the truck off and leaned back waiting for Lu to call her back. She watched the house idly and saw the upstairs bedroom light come on and saw two shapes moving about behind the blinds. Hmmm, this is better than the movies! She watched as the two paced back and forth across the room and the arms flying up on the smaller of the two and the placating motions of the larger that could only be Lu.
After 10 minutes it seemed Lu had calmed her lover down and they embraced. Ash almost felt guilty watching but decided the added ammunition against her wayward friend was worth it. Five minutes later the petite shadow left the area and Ash figured she probably went back to bed as the lights flicked off in the room and the hall light went on. She waited.
She saw Lu through the picture glass window as she walked across her living room and settled into the couch. You really should get dead blinds, my friend. You never know who might be watching! She chuckled to herself as her phone rang.
"Hey. Where the hell are you?" Lu demanded.
"Wouldnt you like to know?"
"Well, yeah. I havent heard from you in almost a year and now out of the blue and at an ungodly hour I might add you call me up. So, whats the story?"
Ash watched as Lu ran her hands through her long black hair. It was sleep tousled and unbound. She grinned at the puzzled frown on her friends face.
"Walk out onto the porch."
"What?" Lu shouted as she stood with obvious frustration.
"Come out on the porch, Lu," Ash demanded in a low voice.
Lu shook her head and threw up her hands. "Fine."
She stomped across the living room and Ash heard the tumblers of the lock as she unlocked the door and switched on the porch light. She strode out onto the porch in nothing but her ever present black tank top and very brief black bikini underwear.
Ash chuckled as she watched her friend squint into the dark of her front yard.
"Well? Now what?" Lu asked in exasperation as she peered around her property.
"You know, Lu. You really shouldnt go parading around in nothing but your underwear." She paused to see Lu stiffen. "What would the neighbors think?"
"Where are you?"
Ash chuckled again and hung up the phone as she stepped out of her truck. The cab light came on and she saw Lus eyes tract to her. She waved. Lu stared and then threw up her hands and stomped back into the house leaving the front door open.
"Guess that means I can come in," Ash smiled as she reached into the back and snagged her duffle bag. She locked the truck and set the alarm before she strode across the lawn and up onto the porch. She stopped at the threshold and peeked around the corner to see where Lu was.
Lu was sprawled across the couch with her arm thrown over her eyes. Ash grinned and walked in pulling the door closed behind her. She padded silently into the room and sat down in the recliner across from her friend. She appraised her closely. Lu still had the lanky muscular build of an athlete and her hair was in total disarray falling over her breasts. A frown crossed her face as she saw the gray streaking the ebony black. When had that happened?
"Sorry if I interrupted anything," Ash offered as she sat back in the recliner.
Lu lifted her arm from her eyes and glared at her friend. Ash was lounging back in the recliner as if she didnt have a care in the world. She was wearing a MSU sweatshirt in royal blue and 501 jeans with her typical highly polished black boots peaking out. Her raven black hair was longer and held back in a ponytail and her ice blue eyes shone with merriment as they met hers.
Lu sighed. "What the hell are you doing in Spokane?"
"Just a pit stop. Im on my way to Seattle," Ash answered crossing her legs in front of her and rubbing her tired eyes.
Lu sat bolt upright at the mention of Seattle startling Ash and making her fight her instincts to keep from leaping up. The adrenaline surge made her heart race.
"Jesus, Lu! Dont do that! You know better!" she growled as she fought to slow her heart and sat back in the chair.
Lu just sat there and stared at her with her mouth half open.
"Close your mouth, Lu. Youre going to catch flies," Ash advised as she struggled to bring her body back under control. Damn! Guess Im still hair triggered.
"Seattle? You telling me that youre going back to Seattle?" Lu questioned as she flopped back down on the couch and struggled to get her brain to function.
"Yeah. My cousin, Benson talked me into coming for his lover Louiss charity art show."
Lu just shook her head in bewilderment. "I need caffeine," she groaned and rolled off the couch and made her way towards the kitchen.
Ash watched her go and shook her head. Guess I could use some too. I have a feeling Im not going to be getting any sleep any time soon. Not until little miss nosey has put her two cents in. She rose from the chair and followed the retreating back of her friend.
Louis shook his head in frustration as he tried to get the damn boys to place the pedestals like he had asked. Obviously they are all muscle and no brains! "NO! That goes there and this goes here!" he shouted waving his hands to emphasize his point.
"Easy there, lover. Youre going to burst something if you dont calm down," a deep bass voice advised as strong arms wrapped around Louis from behind.
He melted into his lovers embrace and struggled to keep his temper. "I know, Ben. But they are theyre just so damn stupid!"
Benson grinned at his lovers frustrated sigh. "Hey, why dont you go see what the girls want and Ill take care of this, okay?" He nodded his head towards the girls in the corner.
Louis glanced over and saw Lauren and her friend Rachel standing in the shadows giggling. "Great! Just great! Now I have to go defend myself to the lesbian league!"
Benson laughed as Louis pulled himself away and gave him a perturbed look over his shoulder as he strode over to where the girls were standing.
"Hello, girls. What can I do for you?" Louis asked as he came within speaking distance, hoping the girls hadnt been there long.
Lauren smiled and her green eyes danced with amusement. "Well that depends, Louis."
"On?" he asked tapping his foot as he crossed his arms over his silk clad chest.
"On whether or not youre over your hysterics and can have an intelligent conversation," Lauren said fighting back the mirth that wanted to come forth. Rachels smothered giggles behind her were not helping.
Louis blushed. "Oh that?" He waved his hands negligently over his shoulder. The girls nodded. "That was nothing. You should have been here an hour ago when that," he pointed to the muscular blonde in a red polo, "decided to drop one of Bensons sculptures."
Laurens eyes grew wide at the statement and she sucked in a sharp breath. "No?"
"Mm-hmm," Louis nodded sagely. "It was not pretty. Good thing, my gentle lover over there was upstairs at the time. Otherwise I think I would be trying to get blood stains out of my beautiful floor."
Lauren nodded in agreement as she glanced over at the impressive figure of Benson directing the men in setting up the area. She shuddered at the image that came to mind of Ben going off the deep end and strangling the clumsy blonde fool.
"So, you see, I am rather calm and quite put together dont you think?" Louis asked cocking an eyebrow at Lauren.
"Most assuredly, Louis. I think I would have lost it too!" she agreed wholeheartedly as she returned her attention to the gallery owner. "The sculpture wasnt damaged was it?"
"No, thank the gods!" Louis raised his eyes to the ceiling and gestured with his arms. "I would never have been able to face Ben if that had happened! Its his favorite piece. The one of Hercules battling Ares?"
Lauren nodded. She knew the piece well. Benson had been like a little boy when he snagged her coming home one day to pull her into his studio and present it to her. She had praised it highly. She would have praised it anyway, since it was done by a friend, but the piece was definitely magnificent and she was sure it was going to go for a large sum of money. Benson had quite a following and his limited edition bronzes went for a tidy sum.
"So, what brings you ladies here?"
Lauren was pulled out of her musings and suddenly became very shy about the whole thing. Rachel saw the look and rolled her eyes. Guess I get to take over. "Well, Louis, did you get a chance to see Laurens painting?"
Lauren looked at her friend in shock. She shook her head at her, but Rachel just smirked and turned her attention back to Louis.
"Yes, Benson showed it to me this morning." Louis looked between the two women and saw Lauren pale. Now what is up with that?
"And what did you think?"
Louiss eyes narrowed as he studied the pale form of Lauren. She obviously was upset about something. It couldnt be the painting could it? It was magnificent! Surely she knew that? Hadnt Benson said that he told the girl so?
Lauren fidgeted. She felt Louiss eyes on her but for the life of her she couldnt meet his eyes. She nervously studied the toes of her shoes and prayed he would hurry up and say something. Anything! The silence was going to kill her or at least give her a heart attack!
"Well as you know I am a bit of a connoisseur when it comes to fine art," Louis began.
"And?" Rachel interrupted seeing the distress Lauren was in.
"And well, the piece is absolutely fabulous! I would be proud to show it here in the gallery."
The words washed over Lauren. He liked it? He really liked it? Now what? Lauren let out a sigh of relief and felt like she was going to faint.
Louis noticed Laurens pallor and reaching out gently took her arm in his, "Why dont we go sit down in my office and discuss it?"
Lauren nodded woodenly and let Louis lead her through the gallery.
Benson glanced over with concern and started walking over, but Louis shooed him back and mouthed Ive got it. Ill tell you later. Ben nodded and returned his attention to the men setting up the gallery for Saturdays show.
Louis gently led Lauren across the gallery and deftly opened the door to his office with Rachel trailing behind. He maneuvered Lauren into one of the visitors chairs and motioned for Rachel to close the door and have a seat. He walked over to the mini bar and poured Lauren a glass of water. He turned and handed it to her before walking around his desk and taking his seat.
Lauren took the water automatically and took a sip struggling to get her bearings. After drinking half of the glass she looked up to see both Louis and Rachel watching her with concerned looks on their faces. She blushed.
"Im fine, thanks," she said softly staring into the glass.
Rachel reached out and patted her knee. "Okay then. Do you want me to tell Louis about our proposal?"
Lauren nodded not looking up.
Louis sat back in his chair puzzled. Proposal? Whats this then?
Rachel patted Laurens knee again and then turned her attention to the puzzled countenance of Louis. "Lauren doesnt want to sell the painting." She saw Louis begin to open his mouth and held up her hand to halt him. "Wait, let me finish." Louis sat back and nodded. Rachel sat quietly for a moment collecting her thoughts before she began. "Okay, heres the deal. Lauren doesnt want to part with the original painting. It means too much to her personally. So, I thought maybe we could do a set of limited signed and numbered prints that you could have sole right to sell."
Rachel watched Louis carefully for his reactions. He stiffened at the mention of not selling the original but as she got to the idea of limited prints she could almost see the wheels beginning to turn in his head.
"I see," Louis murmured. "Does that mean we cant show the original painting in the gallery?"
Lauren finally looked up and met his kind gray eyes. "What do you mean?"
Louis smiled at her. "I just thought maybe we could show the original but offer the prints for sale? What do think?
Lauren processed this and as the idea sank in a beautiful smile crossed her face. "That would be great, Louis! Do you really think theyll sell?"
Louis snorted. "Sell? Sell? Hell and damnation, girl! Ill be lucky if I can keep them on the shelf!"
Laurens eyes went wide at this pronouncement and her jaw dropped. Rachel and Louis both took in the look and laughed. Lauren blushed and returned to the fascinating surface of her water.
"Oh my dear Lauren! That was truly priceless!" Louis laughed as he wiped his streaming eyes. "Have you really looked at that painting of yours?" Lauren nodded. "Well then, have no fear! I have a feeling it is going to be the hit of the exhibit!"
"I told you, Laur. No worries," Rachel said sitting back in her chair with a smug look on her face.
"So, how many prints do you think you can have ready for the show?" Louis asked as he sat forward in his chair all business.
Lauren glanced up and at him and then turned her eyes on Rachel. "What do you think, Rach? Its your area of expertise after all."
Rachels faced scrunched up in thought as she absently tapped her chin. "Hmm, I think I could probably do a run of 100 by then." Her eyes came down to meet Louiss. "How does that sound?"
"Good, good," he nodded. "Will you be available for autographs, Lauren?"
Lauren started at the request. "Auto autographs?"
He nodded with a smile.
"Umm sure I guess. Why?" she asked her gaze bobbing between her two friends.
"Well, most people like to have the piece they buy autographed, Laur. Makes it worth more," Rachel informed her with a smile.
"Yes and I am trying to have as many of the artists present as I can for the people to meet," Louis agreed watching Lauren closely. She was still pale, but seemed to be getting her fire back. "That way people can see the artist behind the art! Not that it was any easy fete! You know artists! So damn reclusive!"
Lauren laughed at the look of exasperation on Louiss face. "Okay, Louis. I was going to be there anyway."
"Good," he pronounced slapping his hand down on his desk. "Now I just have to figure out where to put you." An idea suddenly popped into his head and he grinned. "Say Lauren, how would you like me to set you up next to Bensons cousin Ash?"
Laurens entire face lit up at the mention of Bens cousin. "Really, Louis? Do you think he would mind? His music is absolutely fantastic! Ben said he would introduce us and if we are sitting next to each other maybe we could get a chance to talk! Do you think hell talk to me?"
Louis laughed and held up his hands. "Whoa! Slow down there! Im sure Ash would have no problem with you, Lauren. Take it easy!"
Lauren blushed and Rachel chuckled.
"Gee Laur, gush much?" Rachel joked giving her a friendly punch on the arm.
"Okay then. Rachel why dont you take our budding new artist here and get started on those prints. Im going to go talk to Benson and see if we can get a spot set up for her display." Louis stood and motioned the girls towards the door.
"No problem, Louis. Ill have Lauren bring over the preliminary tonight and you can tell me what you think and if you want anything done different before I make the main run tomorrow." Rachel stated as she guided the slightly dazed Lauren out of the office and towards the back door of the studio.
"Sounds good. See you later, Lauren!"
Lauren nodded and waved absently as Rachel pulled her across the gallery and into the quiet back hall of the building.
"Told you!" Rachel chortled as she skipped down the hall.
"Okay, so you were right!" Lauren said jogging to catch up to her friend.
Rachel glanced over her shoulder and laughed at the dazed expression on her friends face.
"What?" Lauren demanded stopping in her tracks and placing her hands on her hips, her green eyes flashing with indignation.
"Nothing! Geez, you are sooo uptight!" Rachel rolled her eyes and continued down the hallway.
Lauren watched her go and then sighed. Guess shes right. Damn! Now Im going to have to put up with her being smug! She trudged down the hall in her friends wake. Then she remembered something and a smile warmed her features. Yeah, but I still got her to take me country dancing tomorrow night! Heh. Paybacks are a bitch, my friend. You just wait and see. With a bounce in her step she followed her friend up the stairs to her apartment already formulating her plans for Friday night.
Ash stepped into the kitchen to see Lu staring at the coffee maker as it brewed. She smiled and walked around to take a seat at the kitchen table.
"I watched pot never boils, Lu," she advised as she sat back and crossed her ankles.
Lu glanced over her shoulder at Ash. Her eyes narrowed and she raised a finger in answer to Ashs comment. Ash laughed and Lu shrugged as she returned her attention to the coffee maker.
Five minutes later Lu had her coffee and carrying an extra cup for Ash, made her way to the kitchen table. She set the mug in front of Ash and sank down in the chair to Ashs right. She cradled her coffee mug with both hands and breathed in the aroma of the brew.
Ash watched her with amusement. She knew Lu wasnt at her best when she first woke up. At least not until she had her infusion of caffeine. She looked at the cup set before her and was pleasantly surprised to see that Lu had remembered how she liked it- double cream and a dash of sugar.
"You remembered," she commented bringing the mug to her lips.
Lu glanced up at her friend. "Yeah, pretty easy actually, just pour a glass of cream and add coffee to color."
Ash smiled. "Its better with cream."
Lu grunted and sat back in her chair sipping her coffee contentedly. Ash waited. She knew that they wouldnt get anything accomplished until Lu had finished her first cup. She figured the questions would start flying as soon as she got up to replenish her mug.
Lu sipped her coffee and studied her friend. She was trying to wrap her mind around the fact that Ash was actually contemplating going back to Seattle. She figured that would never happen but here she was. What had changed? That was the real question. What had made Ash decide to give up her recluse status and not only come back out into the real world but to Seattle of all places.
Lu finished her first cup and stood. She strode into the kitchen and fixed herself another cup. Ash braced herself for the coming barrage of questions.
Lu turned with a fresh cup and leaned against the counter. Her hazel eyes met Ashs blue gaze and locked. Hmmm, something is definitely different here. Question is what? Shes at least put on some weight and it looks to be all muscle. Guess the mountain life is good for your physique. Lu shook her head to clear it from her musings. "So Seattle huh?"
"Yeah," Ash replied noticing Lus attempts at being casual about it. She knew Lu felt anything but casual when it came to Seattle and her.
Lu pushed herself off the counter and walked back to the table. She set her mug down and finally frustrated with her hair falling in her face, deftly began to braid it back.
Ash watched. She was starting to feel uncomfortable with Lus seeming nonchalance. What was going on behind those hazel eyes? The silence was getting to her and she decided that if Lu wasnt going to get down to it, shed put her on the defensive with an attack of her own. "So whos the skirt?"
Lu stopped in the process of tying off her braid. Her hazel eyes came up and studied the stoic face of her friend. One elegant brow rose in question and Lu felt herself blushing. Oh damn! I am never going to live this down!
"Skirt?" She knew the question sounded stupid but she was trying to buy some time to get her thoughts in order.
Ash let a small smile grace her lips. "Yeah, you know, a dame? A girl? The decidedly female voice I heard on the phone asking you who would be calling?"
"Oh, that skirt," Lu mumbled as she collapsed back into a chair and her hand reached out blindly for her coffee.
The silence deepened. Ash was beginning to wonder if Lu was going to tell her about the girl or not. Not that it was really any of her business but she really didnt want to discuss the trip to Seattle and figured this was the best way to distract Lu from her interrogation.
"Lu? You still in there?" she asked finally leaning forward and waving a hand in front of her friends face.
"Huh?" Lu started and then grinned sheepishly at her friend. "Oh sorry. What was the question again?"
Ash chuckled. "The girl, remember? The one asleep right now up in your bed? You do remember her dont you?"
"Of course!" Lu retorted stiffening at the implication.
"Easy girl. I was just asking a simple question," Ash placated. Hmmm, interesting. This one obviously means something to her. Wonder how long shes been around? Ash realized then that she hadnt exactly been a very good friend for the past few years. The only time she had called is when she needed something. She hadnt asked Lu anything about her own life or what was going on with her. "Im sorry, Lu. Its really none of my business. You dont have to tell me if you dont want to."
"Nah, thats fine, Ash. I keep forgetting you havent been around in awhile," Lu said shrugging the apology aside. "Her names Sheila. Shes a grade school teacher if you can believe that!" Lu shook her head in wonder.
Ash smiled and relaxed a little. "A teacher? How in the world did you two meet?"
Lu grinned. "On a case of course!"
Ash saw her friends face become animated as she began telling her how the two of them had met while Lu was chasing down a drug dealer who had jumped bond. It was obvious Lu cared a great deal for this woman and Ash felt the loneliness of her life descend once more.
Lu stopped in mid sentence. She had seen the change come over Ashs face. Someone who didnt know her well would have missed the signs but Lu had known this mysterious woman since she was a teenager and the signs were obvious to her. Ash still sat in her relaxed pose with her head slightly cocked in a listening pose but her eyes had gone dark and were far away.
Ash pulled out of her dark memories when she noticed the silence. She focused her eyes on her friends face and saw the concern plainly written there. She struggled to smile but knew she failed when Lu shook her head at her. She sighed.
"Sorry, Lu," she murmured sitting upright in her chair and reaching for her coffee. "She sounds like a great girl."
Lu snorted. "Yeah, I could tell you were riveted by my description." Silence. "So, you gonna tell me why the hell youre going to Seattle?"
Ash shrugged. "I already told you. My cousin Benson invited me to attend Louiss charity art show."
"Uh-huh. And?" Lu probed noticing that Ash was looking anywhere but at her. She fiddled with her coffee cup and glanced around the kitchen. Lu knew that the only time Ash fidgeted was when she was nervous and unsure of herself. Not that it happened very often but she knew the signs.
"And? And thats it!" Ash said grabbing her mug and slamming back the rest of her lukewarm coffee.
"You know, Ash, Ive known you for a very long time and that line of bull is not going to fly," Lu stated. "You want to try again?"
Ash glanced at her friend and then quickly away, she couldnt meet those knowing hazel eyes. She sighed. "Fine. I needed to come down from the mountain for awhile. I was starting to feel well, twitchy I guess."
Lu nodded in understanding. Ash had gone from living her life on the razors edge to basically an almost sedentary lifestyle. She knew it was only a matter of time before Ash craved the excitement and the adrenaline rush of life.
"So, why Seattle?"
"Why not?" Ash asked her frustration starting to leak out behind her mask. "Benson invited me. It seemed like as good an opportunity as any. Louis wants me to be there. Hes trying to have all the artists there. Some crackpot idea that people want to see the people behind the art or some such nonsense."
"Uh-huh. So, youre going just as a favor to your cousin," Lu stated watching Ashs stoic façade slowly begin to crumble.
Ash swallowed. "Um, yeah. What other reason would there be?"
"Oh, I dunno. Maybe you were hoping that a certain tall blonde would be there," Lu watched Ash carefully for her reaction. She wasnt disappointed as Ash stiffened and her face paled.
"No!" Ash said through gritted teeth. She jumped up from the table and strode over to the sliding glass doors to peer into the blackness of the backyard.
Lu studied the stiff back of her friend and sighed inwardly. Damn that woman! Ash was finally beginning to heal and start her life over and then you had to come and break her heart. Lu would have killed the bitch if she thought she could get away with it.
"Ash," Lu began but she didnt turn around. Lu sighed and continued, "You know there is a very real possibility shes going to be there. This kind of thing always brought her out of the woodwork."
Ash struggled to pull herself together. She listened to Lus voice but her words barely penetrated. Judith was all that she could see, the tall stately blonde with the chocolate brown eyes. Ash shook her head trying to banish the image.
"I know, Lu. But I have to go. I have to see her," Ash whispered leaning her head against the cool glass of the door and closing her eyes.
Lu watched her friend with sympathy. The broad shoulders slumped and she took on a look of defeat that nearly broke Lus heart. Ash didnt deserve this heartache and she didnt know what weird hold Judith had over her. She had met the woman once and thought she was a shallow annoying bitch, but put up with her for Ashs sake.
"Why Ash? Its been almost 3 years. Why do you want to drag all that shit up again?" Lu asked quietly as she stood and went back into the kitchen for another cup of coffee.
Ash shook her head. "Because I cant get her out of my system, Lu. Ive tried. Ive tried working on my music. Ive tried running and working out until I drop from exhaustion. But nothing, Lu, absolutely nothing has helped."
Lu nodded. She had received Ashs latest cd in the mail 6 months after Ash had retreated from Seattle and returned to her recluse in Montana. It was beautiful but so heart rending it made you want to weep. She had figured at the time that Ash had used the music to exorcise her demons and had thought it had worked. Obviously she had been wrong.
"I loved your cd ya know," Lu offered as she reclaimed her seat.
Ash turned and looked at her friend in surprise. "You did?"
Lu nodded. "Yeah. I even played it for Sheila." She looked down and studied her coffee cup. "She cried."
Ash stared at her friends bent head. "Cried?"
Lu shrugged. "Yeah, Ash. That cd is totally heart wrenching." She looked up to meet a puzzled blue gaze. "Didnt you know that?
"I I guess not," she murmured as she stumbled forward and fell gracelessly into a chair.
"Well, it is. Its haunting and beautiful and sorrowful," Lu said quietly watching her friend in concern.
Ash thought about it. Really thought about it for the first time. She had been in such a dark place when she had returned to Montana. The 6 months she had worked on the cd were a blur. She couldnt really remember anything about that time, but agony and a soul searing emptiness. She had worked feverishly day and night on the 12 tracks and then turned them over to her brother, Davis. He had been frantic with worry when he arrived at her door after her call. She had opened the door, handed him the finished product and told him to do with it as he would. She had then closed the door, staggered towards her bedroom ignoring the frantic pounding of her brothers fist upon her door. She had collapsed and slept for 2 days.
"Hey, Ash? You still in there, buddy?" Lu asked softly.
"Huh?" Ash looked up at met her friends eyes. "Yeah. Sorry. Guess I never really thought about it. I just came home from Seattle, worked like a maniac and gave it to Davis when it was done."
"He called me, you know."
Ash blinked in surprise. "He did?" Lu nodded. "Why?"
"He was worried about you. Said you looked like death warmed over and wouldnt answer your door. I told him to give you some time," Lu explained. "A few months later I get this package and lo and behold its the latest cd from one Ash Gray."
Ash blushed. "Yeah well, I figured youd want one."
Lu snorted. "Of course! I got your first one too." Ash looked at her startled at that revelation and Lu laughed at her expression. "Heh, heh, it was really good. You sure have a lot of things you kept hidden, my friend."
Ash shrugged. "I only played for myself back then, Lu. I wasnt hiding it."
"Uh-huh. You never bothered to reveal that I was pulling a gods be damned maestro off the streets!" Lu accused crossing her arms over her chest.
Ash laughed. "Oh please! Maestro?" Lu nodded. "Not even. Sure I had talent, but really, Lu, lets not get carried away here."
Lu looked at her in disbelief. "Oh really? Then why were you named a music prodigy when you were 3? Why were you giving concerts when you were 6? Why was it that every major music school in the world were trying to get their grubby little paws on you?" Ash blushed and ducked her head. "You were no are one of the most talented musicians out there! You dont just play music, Ash. You live it. You bring it to life and make people feel every nuance of emotion."
"You looking to change careers, Lu?"
Lu was stunned by the sudden topic change. "What? No, why?"
"Because you sound like youre thinking about becoming my press agent," Ash chuckled sitting back in her chair with a crooked grin.
Lu looked at her friend and saw the relaxed and playful pose and grinned. "Nah, Im not very good at dealing with the public."
"True," Ash nodded. "It probably wouldnt be good for my image if my press agent kept slugging the reporters."
"Exactly," Lu agreed sitting back in her chair and taking a sip of her coffee. "You ready to talk about Judith now?
Ash stiffened slightly. "I dont think theres really anything to discuss."
"Have you kept tabs on her at all over the years?"
"Well, I have."
Ashs eyes widened at this pronouncement. "And? What do you know?"
"Are you sure you want to hear this?" Lu questioned. Ash nodded and leaned forward slightly. Lu sighed. "Okay. Last I heard she was still in Seattle working the music scene. Shes been in a couple of videos and the like. I heard from a friend in Seattle just last week so this is pretty recent news shes been seen going to a lot of promo stuff with Alexi Reid. You know who that is?"
"Yeah. The rising star in jazz," Ash mumbled.
"Yeah, thats her. Pretty dynamite from all reports. Hear shes quite the looker too." Lu waited for Ashs reaction to that.
Ash shrugged trying to appear nonchalant but inside her guts were churning at the news. She knew about Alexi Reid. Boy did she! She had just made her appearance on the scene when Ash was leaving it. She was beautiful in an exotic kind of way. She was short, probably only about 52" and wiry. She had mocha colored skin and beautiful black hair that she kept cut short. She had a beautifully rich alto voice that boomed out of such a small petite frame and hazel green eyes that pulled you in. They had been introduced at a party by of all people, Judith. She fought down the wave of jealousy and rage that swept over her as the images of the two of them together.
"Ash?" No response. "Ash!"
Ash blinked and pushed the images aside. She raised her eyes and glanced at the concerned visage of Lu. "What?
"Hey, you okay?" Lu was afraid. She had watched the emotions play across Ashs face and then the cold mask slip down. She saw the barely contained rage flickering in her friends ice blue eyes and was fearful that Ash would do something that she would regret.
"Yeah. Thanks for telling me," Ash stated in a monotone.
"Well, I think Ill go back upstairs and take a shower and then maybe try to get some work done," Lu stated as she stood. She knew the conversation was at an end. She just prayed that she would get a chance to talk to Ash again before she went off half-cocked to Seattle.
Ash nodded. "Sure. I think Ill just catch a few zs on the couch and then head out."
"At least let me buy you lunch and introduce you to Sheila," Lu said over her shoulder as she headed for the stairs.
"Sure, Lu, wouldnt miss it," Ash replied standing and heading towards the couch in the living room.
Lu paused with one foot on the stairs and turned to look at her friend. Ash had sat down on the couch and was in the process of removing her boots. "You gonna be okay?"
Ash thought about it before replying. "Sure. Arent I always?" she asked looking over her shoulder.
Lu shrugged. "Okay, then. Guess Ill come down and wake you in a few hours."
"Sounds good." Ash stretched out on the couch and pulled the afghan off the back.
Lu watched her for a few moments more and then shaking her head made her way up the stairs. She was worried and wasnt sure what she was going to be able to do to help. "Guess Ill think of something," she muttered to herself as she peeked into the master bedroom to see if Sheila was still sleeping. Assured that she was, she turned and headed for the bathroom for a much needed shower and time to think.
Lauren was pulled out of her dreams by the insistent beeping of the alarm over her head.
"No ." she muttered as she slapped the snooze and struggled to recapture the dream but it was allusive. Already drifting away and try as she might she couldnt bring it back into focus. "Damn."
She opened her eyes and stared up at the ceiling. She had been having the dream more and more recently. She wondered why. She hadnt had one after the first year after leaving home and coming to Seattle for school. She kept in contact with her mom and her brother and sister but she had never gone home. Her mom had tried to get her to come home for the holidays but she had adamantly refused. Her younger sister, Katherine had come and stayed with her for a few weeks in early June and her brother and his family had visited back in August.
"Guess its time to start the day," she sighed as she rolled out of bed. She glanced at the clock and grimaced. "Seven a.m.? Why am I getting up?" She flopped back down on the bed. Today was her free day- no classes. She knew she should get up and go to the library to work on her Masters thesis. Louis would be expecting her in the gallery after 1 to help finish prepping for the show on Saturday, but at the moment all she wanted to do was lay in bed and try to recapture the feeling of security and And what? What is it about the dark haired warrior in her dream that makes me feel so, so cherished? Cared for? Maybe even loved? She shook her head at the thought. Great, Laur, you find the perfect woman and shes a hallucination!
The alarm started its infernal beeping again.
"Yeah, yeah, Im up, Im up," she mumbled as she hit the snooze once more and then turned the damn thing off. She sat up and raked her hands through her short-cropped blonde hair. "Okay, lets be about it." She stood up and made her way towards the bathroom to start her morning ritual when the phone rang. Turning aside she picked up the cordless phone, hooked one of the barstools at the breakfast bar, and sat down with a sigh.
"Hello?" she asked tiredly into the receiver propping her head up on her hand.
"Good morning. Did I wake you, dear?"
Lauren sat up straight at the sound of her mothers voice. "Umm, no. Im up. I was just getting ready to take a shower when you called."
"Oh good. Listen, I was wondering if you would consider coming home for Thanksgiving this year."
"Mom " Lauren started to interrupt.
"Lauren, please. Let me finish."
"Okay," Lauren sighed as she stared into her tiny kitchen. She saw the dirty dishes and grimaced. Her mother would kill her if she could see that she left the kitchen a mess before she went to bed. Guess its a good thing she never visits. Rachel had swooned over the dinner she had made and they had been so busy talking about the art prints and speculating about the mysterious Ash Gray that she hadnt thought about cleaning up. When Rachel had finally called it a night and left, she was too tired and had just fallen into bed.
"Lauren are you listening to me?"
"Im sorry, mom, what did you say?" Lauren asked chastising herself for not paying attention.
"I said that this will probably be the last chance for the whole family to be together for the holiday. Your sister will be going off to college next year and may not be able to come home. It would mean a lot to me if you would consider coming home so that the whole family could be together."
Lauren listened to her mothers pleas and felt the guilt seep in. She knew her mother didnt understand why she hadnt been home. There was no way she was going to tell her either. "Will will father be there?"
Silence. Lauren swallowed her dread.
"Ive asked him but he hasnt confirmed," her mother answered softly.
"Lauren, please. I know you have problems with your father, but it would mean so much to the rest of us if you would come. Lisa tells me that Dougal asks after you all the time. You must have made quite an impression over the summer when they came and visited."
Lauren smiled at that. She loved her 3- year-old nephew. He looked just like Darby- flaming red hair and dancing green eyes. He was so full of energy and questions. She had taken them to the Space Needle and he demanded that Lauren be his personal guide. They had been connected at the hip for the rest of the visit and he had cried piteously when Darby strapped him into his car seat for the ride home. His baby sister, Erin had only been 6 months old at the time and since Dougal was crying she started crying too. Her brother looked at her and gave her a martyred look. She had laughed and told him it was the price of being a father and to suck it up. He grinned and gave her a hug and said they hoped to see her soon.
"Lauren? Are you there, dear?" Lauren was pulled out of her thoughts by her mothers voice.
"Sorry, mom. Ill think about Thanksgiving okay?"
"Okay," her mother sighed. "Hows your thesis going? Have you met a nice young man to bring home to mother yet? Hows the apartment?"
Lauren laughed at the barrage of questions. "Mom! Slow down, slow down. My thesis is going fine. I should finish it this semester and then Ill be done. The apartment is fine except for the problems with my kitchen sink that keep cropping up."
"And the young man, dear? Any one of interest I should know about?"
"No, mom. No one of interest," Lauren sighed. One of these days she was just going to get so sick of having her mother hint around about settling down and marrying some nice young man and just blurt out that she was gay, but not today.
"What about the apartment manager? Whats his name again? Benson? I remember the picture you sent at Easter. Hes handsome and so tall!" Lauren burst into laughter. "Whats so funny, dear? Is he married?"
"You could say that, mom," Lauren chuckled wiping the tears from her eyes.
"I thought I just did. So, he is married? Well, what about that other fellow? Louis isnt it? You know the one that owns the art gallery? He would be a good catch."
"Mom! For Petes sake! Theyre gay! Theyre a couple," Lauren finally managed exasperated at her mothers attempts to find her a man.
"Yes, mom. Gay."
"As in homosexual? Is that what youre trying to tell me Lauren Elizabeth?"
Uh oh. She used my full name. Not good. Not good at all. "Ummm yes?"
There was a long pause and then her mother said, "Oh, I see. Well then, I guess neither of them would be interested. So, how about someone from school?"
"Mom! You never give up do you?" Lauren laughed relieved that her mother hadnt gone off the deep end when she found out about the boys. She was half afraid her mother would demand that she move out or some other nonsense. Like being gay was catching and if she hung out with them shed turn gay. Well, too late! She giggled.
"No, I dont. I just want you to be happy, Lauren. It must be so lonely living there all by yourself with no family near."
"Im fine, mom, really. I have friends and school keeps me really busy. I really dont have time to be lonely."
"If you say so "
"I do. Mom, I really need to jump in the shower and get on with my day. Louiss gallery is having a charity show this Saturday and I have to help him finish up the last minute details today.
"Oh? What charity? Is anyone famous going to be there?"
"The show if for a group of local charities, mom. The money raised will be divided among them. The only famous person that I know for sure is going to be there is Bensons cousin Ash," Lauren explained as she made her way into the kitchen and began to prepare coffee.
"Ash? As in Ash Gray the musician?"
Lauren stared at the phone. Her mom knew who Ash Gray was? The world must be coming to an end! "Yeah, Ben told me yesterday that Ash would be coming. Why? Have you heard his music?"
"His music?" her mom asked puzzled.
"Yeah, Louis gave me his latest cd that has all these Gaelic ballads on it. Its absolutely beautiful! It makes you want to cry just listening to it," Lauren said in awe. Laurens mother laughed. Lauren stared at the phone again. What the hell was so damn funny? "Hey mom, are you going to let me in on the joke or what?"
"Im sorry, Lauren. And no I dont think I will. Lets just say I think youll be surprised when you meet Ash Gray."
Lauren was stumped. What was going on? How come every time she talked about Ash everyone around her got all weird? Was she missing something? "Yeah, okay. Well, I guess Ill have the chance since hell probably be staying with Louis and Ben. Have you heard his music, mom?"
"Oh yes! It was a number of years ago, but I actually went to a live performance. It was amazing! If you get the chance I would love an autograph."
Lauren chuckled. "Mom, you sound like a lovesick groupie, but Ill see what I can do. I know that one of the items up for bid is a collection done by Ash. His original cd, the Gaelic one and one thats being called The Early Years but I highly doubt Ill be able to afford that! Im sure its going to go for a bundle. Especially since the Early Years has never been published and I guess this is only one of 500 that are being released at all!"
"Lauren, will you put in a bid for me?"
Laurens eyes widened in shock. "Umm, sure. How much?"
"Oh, lets say 10 grand."
Lauren almost dropped the phone. "Ten grand? As in ten thousand dollars?"
"Not enough? Okay, make it 15. Its all going to charity right? So, its tax deductable and really not costing me anything."
"Umm, mom, is there something youre not telling me?" Lauren finally choked out. She couldnt believe her mother was throwing around numbers like ten thousand and fifteen thousand dollars like it was pocket change.
"What do you mean, dear?"
"Did you win the damn lottery or something?"
"Lauren, watch your language! And you know very well that Utah does not have a lottery."
"Sorry, but honestly where are you going to get that kind of money?" Lauren reached up and pulled down a coffee mug and poured herself a cup of coffee and turned to open the fridge for some cream. She saw that she was out and made a note to buy some while she was out today.
Laurens mother chuckled. "Really, Lauren. I am a doctor. Do you think I work for free?"
"Mom, youre a vet and I know that at times you dont charge nearly enough for your services. Now what gives?" She picked up her coffee and made her way to her couch deciding the shower could wait.
"You remember that breeding program I used to talk about?"
"Yeah, you always talked about wanting to start breeding horses, but you said you never had the time."
"Well, now I do. With Darby here to help with the practice and Lisas expertise with the running of stables it seemed like the perfect time. So about a year ago Lisa and I wrote up a proposal and got some backers and well, lets just say its going better than I had hoped."
"Oh mom! Thats great! Why havent you told me about this before now?" Lauren asked.
"Well, its only really begun to show profit recently."
"Thats great, mom. Im really happy for you. Im glad youre getting to fulfill one of your dreams."
"Yes, its wonderful. Maybe when you come home at Thanksgiving Ill give you a tour of the new stables and introduce you to the horses."
Lauren laughed at her moms machinations. "Well see. I guess I should really get going. Say hi to Darby and the rest of the family. Is Katie still thinking of coming to visit me over Halloween?"
"I believe so. At least thats what she said when I told her I was giving you a call today. Promise me you wont take her anywhere dangerous, Lauren. That girl is wild enough without your influence."
Lauren rolled her eyes at that. "Mom, I wouldnt take Katie anywhere dangerous. Geez, give me a little bit of credit would ya? I am 24 years old in case youve forgotten."
"No, I havent forgotten. I just know that the two of you have a way of getting into an awful lot of trouble."
"Were going to a house party. At least thats the plan. So I doubt it will be dangerous."
"House party? Who are the hosts?"
"Mom! Trust me, okay? Katie will be perfectly fine. Now, I really gotta go."
"Okay, Lauren. Ill talk to you next week. Bye."
"Bye mom." Lauren clicked off the phone and sat back on the couch letting out a sigh of relief. Talking to her mom always seemed to take it out of her. "Time for that shower." She pulled herself off the couch and headed once more to the bathroom.
Thirty minutes later Lauren was showered, dressed and sitting at her computer waiting for it to boot up. She munched on a bagel smeared with cream cheese as she watched the screen before her come to life. Just as her desktop came up the phone rang.
"Damn! I am never going to get anything done today!" she complained as she grabbed the phone on the second ring. "Hello?"
"Hey girl. We still on for tonight?"
Lauren smiled. "Yeah, Rach, were still on. You better warm up those boots because Im planning on wearing the soles right off of them!"
Rachel laughed. "Oh? Does that mean Im going to get more than my one obligatory dance?"
"Well, if youre lucky and no one else catches my eye."
"Oh yeah right. Im going to have to beat them off with sticks!"
Lauren laughed as she swiveled in her desk chair. "I doubt it, Rach, but thanks for the ego boost. So, what time do you want to head out?"
"Depends on whether or not you want to eat first and if you want to actually be able to get a table at the bar."
"Well, food would be good." Rachel laughed. "No smart ass comments from you." Lauren wagged a finger at the phone. "And I think a table would be nice too. So I guess we better be there by 8 at the latest huh?"
"Yep. Otherwise it will be standing room only. Are Benson and Louis going to be there?"
"I dunno. Benson mentioned something about wanting to drag his cousin out dancing. He was raving that Ash was the best damn two-stepper that ever lived and he was going to take advantage of it." Lauren replied.
"Hmmm, maybe we should ask them if they want to hook up? Its always easier to keep a table if you have someone to hold onto it for you when youre on the floor. If theyre going to bring Ash that means there will be five of us, so the odd man out can hold the table."
"Oooh, Rachel. You missed your calling! You are just too damn mathematically inclined to be wasted in multimedia!" Lauren teased.
"Shut up. Ill meet you at your place at 6. Give the boys a call and see if the plan sounds good to them, k?"
"Sounds good. See you at 6."
"Chow," Lauren chuckled. She hung up the phone and sat back in her chair. If the boys agree to this that means Ill get to meet Ash that much sooner! That would be so great! That means we wont be total strangers tomorrow at the show! Maybe well have hit it off and boy will mom be jealous when she finds out that not only did I get to meet the infamous Ash Gray, but I actually went dancing with him! She clapped her hands in delight. The decision made she decided to ask the boys in person. The thought of one of Louiss mocha lattes did not enter the scenario. No, of course not.
Lu made her way down the darkened staircase and almost ran over her lover. "Whoa! Hey, sweetheart what are you doing standing in the middle of the stairs in the dark?"
Sheila felt Lu settle her arms around her and she leaned back and without a word, pointed out into the living room.
Lu raised her head from her kiss to Sheilas cheek and glanced out into the living room to see Ash in nothing but a black sports bra and mid thigh cotton boxers moving effortlessly through a set of katas. Ashs long raven hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail and it played across the hardened muscles of her back as she slid from one form into another. "Hmm, see something you like?"
Sheila peeked up at her and grinned sheepishly. "She is something else, Lu. But I think I have all I can handle right here." She pulled Lus arms more snuggly around her as emphasis to her last statement.
Lu gave her a squeeze, "Yeah, she is. Well, lets go see if shes ready to have some lunch."
"Are you going to try to get her to talk about this Judith woman?" Sheila asked, distaste obvious in her voice. Lu had given her a brief synopsis of her conversation with Ash and some of the history and she was disgusted with Judith and her games.
Lu sighed. "Yeah, I think I better. I just wish I could get Ash to realize that shes better than that conniving bitch, but Im at a loss at how exactly to do that. Any ideas, love?"
"Ill think about it," Sheila said as she released Lu and continued down the stairs.
Ash heard the two of them talking on the stairwell but once identifying whom it was, returned to the tranquility of her morning ritual. She flowed from one form to another, they were almost second nature to her since shed been doing them since she was 4 years old. She finished and opening her eyes, turned to her friends.
"Afternoon," she smiled as she glided across the living room and offered her hand to Sheila. "You must be Sheila."
Sheila gasped as her gaze met mesmerizing blue eyes and felt the impact of the dark womans charisma. She dumbly reached out and took Ashs hand feeling the coiled strength. "Umm, yes."
"Good to meet someone who could tame the savage here!" Ash said with a crooked grin and a wink.
"Hey! Who you calling a savage?" Lu demanded with mock indignation.
Sheila laughed. "Why, that would be you, love."
"Hmmph. Well see," Lu grumbled as the two other women laughed.
"Come on, Lu. I do believe you promised me lunch."
"Well, I dont think the restaurant I have in mind has a clothes optional policy," Lu said pointedly.
"Oh," Ash blushed and strode over to her duffle to grab a pair of jeans and a shirt. "Guess I should put some clothes on, huh?"
"Not on my account," Sheila grinned.
"Hey!" Lu retorted giving Sheila a hurt look. Sheila laughed and walked over to give Lu a hug.
Ash grinned at the byplay of the two. They had obviously been together for awhile and seemed comfortable with the easy banter. She pulled her jeans on and decided on the grey crewneck shirt to go with it. "So, where you taking us?"
"Depends on whether or not you want to eat something other than dead cow," Lu teased.
Ash arched an eyebrow at her. "Are you saying that since Ive been living in Montana Ive become uncivilized?"
"Would I say that?" Lu bantered back.
"Yes. But as for an answer to your previous question, anywhere is fine." Ash said as she sat down to pull on her boots.
"I was thinking of seafood. Sound good?"
"Sure. Havent had a decent plate of bait in months," Ash deadpanned standing.
Sheila laughed and Lu was hard pressed not to join her. "Okay then I know the perfect place."
"Great. Shall we just take my truck then?"
"Sure. Lead the way," Lu said bowing towards the door.
"You are a nut job," Ash admonished as she strode past.
"Yep." Lu agreed with a nod as she took Sheilas hand and led her out of the house.
Twenty minutes later the three friends entered a well respected local restaurant and Ash nodded her approval as they were led to a table with views of both the front door and the kitchen. "Nice."
"Thought youd approve," Lu commented pulling out a chair for Sheila and then sitting down to her left.
Ash took one more quick look around, automatically dismissing people as no threat and checking escape routes.
"Do you do that all the time?" Sheila asked as Ash took the seat to her right.
"Do what?" Ash questioned meeting Sheilas puzzled gaze.
"Case the joint," Lu offered.
"Oh. I guess so. Its just an automatic thing. I dont even think about it anymore," Ash said with a shrug as the waiter approached.
The three ordered their drinks and the waiter informed them he would be back in a few moments to take their orders.
"So whats good?" Ash asked perusing the menu.
"Just about everything," Lu answered absently. She was trying to figure out how to broach the subject of Judith.
"Sheila? What do you recommend?" Ash decided that Lu wasnt going to be much help.
"Oh, I always get the variety plate. A little taste of everything," Sheila said pointing to the option on Ashs menu.
"Hmm, sounds good," Ash closed the menu and sat back. She knew Lu had something on her mind and wished she would just get on with it.
Sheila felt the tension at the table, but wasnt sure how to alleviate it. She tried making small talk, but it was soon obvious that Ash was not a talker. Her monosyllabic answers did not keep the conversation going and Sheila finally stopped trying to draw the stoic woman into a conversation. She almost sighed with relief when the waiter returned.
"So, what will you ladies be having?" he asked as he set their drinks down.
"Ill have the variety platter," Ash stated.
"Me too," Sheila echoed.
"And you, maam?" the waiter asked turning to Lu.
"What?" Lu asked looking up. "Oh, Ill have the same."
"Very good. Any appetizers today?"
"No," Lu said.
"All right. Ill put this order in. Hope you enjoy your visit," the waiter replied as he turned and walked off to the back of the restaurant towards the kitchen.
"Okay, Lu, spit it out," Ash growled taking a sip of her drink.
"What?" Lu questioned glancing at Ash and then over to Sheila. Sheila just shrugged.
"You have something on your mind and youve been sitting there trying to figure out how put it delicately. Just spit it out so we can get on with it," Ash said raising her eyebrow.
"Okay fine," Lu muttered throwing up her hands. "I want to know what you intend to do if you run into that bitch Judith."
"Oh that was subtle, sweetheart," Sheila whispered as she kicked Lu under the table.
"Ow! What?" Lu asked turning her attention to Sheila. Sheila glared at her. "She said to spit it out, so I did!"
"Oh Lu, youre hopeless," Sheila shook her head and sat back figuring the fireworks were about to begin. She just hoped that the two wouldnt cause such a scene that they wouldnt be able to come back here. This was her favorite restaurant and that would really piss her off.
Ash chuckled. "Shes right, Lu. You are hopeless."
"Hey! Who asked you?" Lu said turning back to Ash and giving her an evil look.
Ash raised her hands in surrender. "No one. Now the answer to your question in nothing."
"Answer to my question ?" Lu gave her a puzzled look and then realized what the question had been and grinned. "Oh! Nothing? Really? You sure about that?" Ash nodded. "Uh-huh. So seeing Judith wrapped around Alexi isnt going to send you through the roof and make you do something crazy? Id really hate to have to drive out to Seattle and bail you out of jail."
"If I did something, do you really think they would catch me?" Ash asked quietly. Sheilas eyes grew round at the statement and Lu visibly swallowed.
"Uh, no. I guess not," Lu finally managed.
"Hmm," Ash nodded. "But seriously, Im not planning on doing anything but see her and maybe talk to her. I have to put her ghost to rest, Lu. Its been driving me nuts."
Lu nodded in understanding. "Yeah okay. I can understand that. So how long you planning on staying up there?"
"Well, you remember that Sullivan case a few years back?" Lu asked as the waiter came back.
Ash nodded and waited for the waiter to depart before answering. "Yeah. He was the asshole that beat his wife almost to the death with a crowbar, right?" Lu nodded. "So, what about him?"
"He got out on a technicality about 6 months ago and found out where his ex was at. He bashed in the door and went at her again. Put her into a coma this time." Ash paused with her fork halfway to her mouth and glanced at Lus face. "Thats not the worse of it though. Seems their 12 year old daughter walked in on it and he not only beat her into a bloody pulp but raped her on top of it. They caught him in a bar about 5 hours later drunker than a sailor on leave and bragging about the damn thing. He jumped bail first chance he got and now hes disappeared."
Ash carefully laid her fork back down her meal untasted. "What are you asking me, Lu?" she asked in a deadly quiet voice.
Lu leaned forward. "Im asking you to help me take the bastard out. I have a good idea where hes at. Its worth 50 grand to you if you can help."
Ash felt the sirens call and fought it. This wasnt who she was anymore! She had put that life behind her. She didnt want to go back to it. Did she? "I "
"Ash, please, I cant do this one alone and I dont trust anyone else to help me with this guy," Lu stated.
Sheila sat quietly between them and stared at her plate. She didnt want to get involved. She studied Ash out of the corner of her eye and saw the emotions flicker across the usually stoic face. Obviously Lu had rattled her and Sheila had the feeling that was a dangerous thing to do.
The quiet lengthened to the point of becoming uncomfortable. Lu sat with a pleading look at Ash, Sheila continued to study her plate, and Ash stared back at Lu.
"Say something, please!" Sheila finally burst out glancing back and forth between the two.
Lu looked at her lover and felt the heat rise to her face. "Sorry, Sheila." She reached out and took Sheilas hand. "Never mind, Ash. I know youve put this shit behind you. Sorry I asked."
"No, I " Ash stopped and mentally steeled herself to go on. "Youve always been there for me, Lu. The least I can do is return the favor. Ill be back through on Monday. Why dont you give me what you got and Ill take a look at it while Im in Seattle so I can refresh myself on the guy."
Lu beamed a smile at her. "Thanks, Ash. I wouldnt ask if I thought there was any other way, but I cant see this bastard getting away. I want to take him down."
"Well get him, Lu," Ash answered as she picked up her fork and started on her lunch.
"Yeah," Lu agreed and began eating.
Sheila looked back and forth between the two of them totally confused. She had expected an argument or at least raised voices. But just like that they were done discussing it and went about eating like they hadnt just been talking about going after a guy who raped his own daughter and beat his exwife into a coma. She shook her head in disbelief. Bounty hunters! They make absolutely no sense at all! She picked up her fork and began her own lunch.
The rest of lunch had turned out to be uneventful and an hour later Ash was ready to get on the road and head out.
"So, see you on Monday?" Lu asked as she walked Ash out to her truck.
"Thats the plan," Ash said as she opened the truck door and tossed her duffle into the back.
"Heres the file on Sullivan. Everything about the previous case and all the info Ive been able to collect on him over the last month," Lu said handing Ash the file.
"Ill take a look at it," Ash said tossing the file onto the passenger seat.
"Well, okay then. Guess Ill see you Monday. Try not to have too much fun out there in Seattle. Knowing Benson hes going to drag you to one of those shit kicking bars and make you dance!" Lu teased. "Try not to break too many hearts, okay?"
Ash raised an eyebrow at her and offered her token crooked grin. "Right. No heartbreaking. Ill keep that under advisement."
"Dont let the bitch get to you, Ash. Youre better than that," Lu offered quietly as she gazed back at the house.
"Yeah, I know. I just got to see her again to get her out of my system," Ash answered patting Lu on the shoulder. "Ill see you some time on Monday."
"At a decent hour this time!" Lu advised with a smile.
Ash chuckled as she climbed into her truck. "Sure, Lu. I wouldnt want Sheila mad at me. You found a good one there. Dont let her get away."
"Not planning on it," Lu said as she met her friends gaze. "See you later."
"Yeah," Ash said with a wave as she started the truck and backed out of the drive.
Lu watched her go. Damn, I hope she gets that bitch out of her system once and for all. Maybe then she can focus on finding someone good. She waved once more as Ash blew her horn before she turned the corner and disappeared from sight. "May the ancestors watch over you, my friend," Lu prayed under her breath as she turned and headed back into the house.
CONTINUED IN PART 3