Lauren glanced at her watch once more, sighing when she noted that only a few minutes had passed since the last time she'd checked it. The airport was a madhouse as usual and she was glad that they had arrived early enough to get seats facing the concourse Katie would be arriving at. Sheila had decided to remain in the limousine stating that being pregnant did not lend itself to crowded airports and walking forever. She had to agree that Sheila had been right and wise to stay with the car. Lauren had informed her that they would be out as soon as they had secured Katie's luggage. The chauffer had assured Lauren that she'd be curbside to pick them up.
She was thankful that the drive to the airport took awhile since she had needed the time to gain back her equilibrium. She was still flabbergasted and giddy from Ash's display of affection. She felt heat rising to her face and ducked her head to hide it. Oh, Ash! Every time I try to be upset with you, you turn around and floor me, she mused with a smile curling her lips.
"Hey, when is her flight supposed to get here?"
Lauren turned and spotted Rachel leaning against a support pillar checking out all the passing women with a hungry eye. She shook her head in amusement knowing that the tiger was once more on the prowl. I'm surprised her head didn't explode being cooped up in the apartment for the last week. "The board says her flight should be coming in on time," Lauren said pointing her thumb over her shoulder at the lit arrivals board. Rachel strolled casually over to her friend and took a seat next to her. "See anything you like?"
Rachel perused the passing women and a predatory gleam glinted in her hazel eyes. "Oh a few are worth pursuing," she replied casually.
Lauren laughed. "Well, you're out of solitary confinement, why don't you go sow your oats while we wait?"
"Hmm, I might just do that," Rachel said, straightening and scanning the crowd for a likely candidate. "The woman serving lattes over there is pretty hot. Maybe I'll stroll on over and see what the specials are." She gave Lauren a self-satisfied wink as she drew herself up, the hunter persona dropping over her like a well fitting coat.
Lauren watched with amusement as Rachel sauntered over to the coffee vender, and had to admit that Rachel was a pro at looking nonchalant. She was always in camouflage; these women never knew what hit them. That girl could corrupt a nun, Lauren mused indulgently. Not to mention she puts on one hell of a show when you know what she's up to.
She watched as Rachel stepped up to the counter and placed her order. Her body language basically saying, "I'm yours for the taking" and waited to see if the woman would fall under her friend's spell. The woman smiled saying something while Rachel casually leaned against the counter. Here fishy, fishy, fishy. Take this nice juicy bait, Lauren thought biting back a giggle.
Lauren's head snapped around at the sound of her name and her eyes fell upon a beautiful petite redhead standing beside her. "Katie?" she managed to say standing and looking her sister up and down. Katie had French braided her long auburn hair and was wearing a deep green oxford that brought out the color in her eyes tucked into a pair of faded blue jeans. "Wow! You look great!" she exclaimed holding her at arms reach before pulling her in for a bone-crushing hug.
"Thanks!" Katie giggled, stepping back from her sister and inspecting her. "You don't look so bad yourself."
Lauren grinned. "I love what you've done with your hair." She reached up gently stroking the tight braid. "I can never do that with my own. It's too damn thin."
Katie laughed her eyes shining. "Well mom had to help me. I can't do it by myself without it being crooked."
"Do you know where your luggage is?" Lauren asked, pulling her sister in beside her and loosely looping her hand around her waist, headed towards Rachel.
"Yeah, carousel three according to the ticket," Katie replied falling into step and placing her arm around her sister's waist. "Damn, I forgot how much taller you are than me. You make me feel like a midget."
Lauren laughed. "Hey I have to be taller than someone!"
"Where's Ash? I thought she'd be with you. I'm dying to meet your mystery woman," Katie asked, looking around the crowded area. "This place is a zoo."
Lauren paused in midstep and then resumed hoping Katie didn't notice her hesitation. Her mind whirling, she said, "Oh, you'll meet Ash tomorrow night. She has some business to wrap up. I did bring Rachel though."
Katie looked up at her smiling. "Rachel? Really? Wow, I haven't seen her in ages. Where is she?"
Dodged a bullet there, Lauren thought. "She's right over there," Lauren replied waving towards the coffee bar.
Katie rose up on tiptoe trying to see through the crowd and Lauren bit back a grin. "Where?" Katie asked frustrated.
"Come on, I see her," Lauren replied as she led her around a group of people hugging and laughing.
They walked around the crowd and came up behind Rachel still on the prowl. Lauren noted that Rachel must have scored because the woman behind the bar was practically falling over it as she wrote down her number whispering into Rachel's ear. Rachel threw back her head laughing before patting her gently on the hand.
"Do they know each other?" Katie asked innocently as she watched the display.
"Uh, they do now," Lauren replied as they came to a halt a few feet behind Rachel.
"What?" Katie asked, looking at her sister in confusion.
"Nevermind," Lauren said, tapping Rachel on the shoulder. "Hey, Rach, I found Katie. We can go now."
Rachel held up a hand without turning saying something to the woman behind the counter too low for them to hear. Picking up her latte and saluting the woman with it, she turned her eyes falling upon the sisters behind her. Her eyes widened and her mouth fell open.
"Rachel! Its so great to see you again," Katie said, stepping forward and enveloping a stunned Rachel in a hug.
The hug seemed to break Rachel's paralysis and she managed to return the embrace. "G-great to see you too."
Lauren's brow furrowed suspiciously as Katie stepped back and Rachel eyed her like a prime cut of meat. Hey, that's my baby sister you're eyeing, buddy, she thought a surge of mama bear enveloping her. "Why don't we go find your luggage?" she suggested, pulling Katie back beside her.
"Sure! I can't wait to get out of here," Katie readily agreed, heading down the corridor towards the signs that read, Baggage Claim.
Rachel watched her walk away and Lauren saw the predator peeking out. "Rachel," Lauren warned, grabbing her friend's arm.
Rachel turned, staring at her in surprise. "What?" she asked innocently.
"That is my baby sister. Not one of your chippies," Lauren reprimanded sternly.
"I beg your pardon? What the hell do you mean by that?" Rachel asked defensively, her face clouding up with anger at the implication.
"I know you, and you're looking at my baby sister like a hungry wolf during famine," Lauren replied, emphasizing the baby part.
Rachel's eyebrows rose. "Baby? Have you taken a good look at your sister? There is nothing baby about her," Rachel shot back, able to choke back the besides she ain't my sister, knowing full well her friend would kill her.
"Just don't look at her that way, okay?" Lauren pleaded, seeing that she had offended Rachel and didn't mean to, but damn it! This was her kid sister they were talking about! And she didn't want her to end up being just another notch on her friend's bedpost.
Rachel scowled, crossing her arms defiantly as she eyed her best friend. "Do you honestly think I would hurt her?"
Lauren stepped back abashed at being called out. "N-no. Of course not." Yes, yes! That's exactly it, her mind wailed unrepentant.
"You do. You honestly think I'd play her? Just treat her like another conquest," Rachel stated, the realization of her friend's distrust causing tears to spring to her eyes.
"No! No, Rachel. I know you'd never intentionally hurt her," Lauren quickly assured, giving her arm a gentle squeeze. Rachel looked up unsure of her sincerity. "It's just that she is my baby sister, and the thought of anyone touching, her much less hurting her, sets my teeth on edge."
"I wouldn't hurt her," Rachel pouted, wiping at her betraying eyes angrily. "Now touching her is something else all together."
"I know, I know. I'm sorry. I don't know what I was thinking, okay?" Lauren pleaded, and then realized what Rachel had said. "Touching her? What?"
Rachel smirked and gave her a saucy wink. "Gotcha."
"Oh you!" Lauren growled, slapping her playfully on the arm. "I don't even know if she's gay!"
Rachel gave her a smug smile. "A lot of women are straight until they're not, Laur. I'm not the type to force myself on anyone. You should know that."
Lauren blushed at the reprimand. "I know. Just be gentle okay?"
"No problemo. Wouldn't have it any other way," Rachel assured her.
"Hey! Are you guys coming or what?"
Rachel and Lauren turned to see an impatiently waiting Katie looking back at them tapping her foot. They both laughed.
"Coming, dear!" Rachel called, heading her way.
Lauren followed laughing. She looked at her sister and began to see her as a young, vivacious woman instead of the little girl with pigtails that used to tag along behind her like a lost puppy.
Sheila flipped idly through her magazine as she sat comfortably within the plush interior of the limousine. Suddenly, the silence was broken by the tinkling sounds of the "Xena" theme filling the limo. Sheila squealed in surprise having forgotten she even had her phone with her. She fumbled for the phone as she saw the partition slide down, and a concerned Linda looking back at her.
Sheila, red faced, held up the phone in explanation. "Hello?"
Linda nodded and the partition began to rise.
Sheila placed her hand over the mouthpiece and mouthed, 'wait'. Linda nodded and the partition slid back down.
"Sheila? Are you there? Damn cell phones. Always cutting out."
Sheila smiled at her grumpy lover's voice filled her heart. "No, Lu, I'm here. How are you baby?""
"Oh! Good. I thought we had a bad cell or something. I'm okay, honey. How're my baby and my baby's baby?"
"We miss you."
"I miss you too. Listen, honey, I don't have a lot of time. I just wanted to call you, and tell you that I'm thinking of you, and I'm sorry for not calling sooner. I love you and I can't wait to have you in my arms again."
"Oh really?" Sheila purred. "Is that all?" Sheila blushed prettily as her usually stoic lover went on to describe in great detail just how much she was missed and exactly what she would do to make it up to her. She glanced up to see Linda smiling at her indulgently with a knowing gleam in her eyes. "Lu, honey, I'm not alone here," Sheila said weakly into the phone fanning herself with her magazine.
Lu chuckled. "Well I guess you have some explaining to do then. I'll see you tomorrow night at the party."
"Did you get a costume?" Sheila asked thankful for something to focus on other than her throbbing libido.
"Yeah. I got something."
"Care to share?" Sheila asked her curiosity piqued.
"Nope. You'll just have to wait and see."
Sheila smiled. "Okay. I love you. Be careful. Oh, by the way, thank Ash for the limo. "
"You mean to tell me you weren't in on this little conspiracy?" Sheila asked, but had a feeling Lu didn't hear a word she said since she could hear her barking at someone on the other end of the phone.
"Sorry, baby. I'm back. So my so-called friend set you up with an elegant ride and didn't bother to tell me," Lu grumbled.
"Seems that way," Sheila replied with a smile.
"Well, you enjoy it, baby. I'll see you tomorrow night. Love you."
"Oh we will. Love you too. Be careful."
"Bye." Sheila sighed and let the phone fall limply to her lap. Linda cleared her throat and Sheila looked up chagrined. "Oh sorry, Linda. Guess I spaced out for a minute there."
"No problem. I think I would've too," Linda replied with a grin.
Sheila smiled. "Well, I wonder where the girls are? I thought they'd be back here by now," she said glancing at her watch.
"They should be along any moment. I checked the airline and Miss O'Shea's flight has arrived. They're probably just fighting through the crowd at the luggage claim," Linda replied.
"Oh good! Quick thinking," Sheila said with a nod. "Guess that means you'll be taking us back to the apartment soon."
Linda laughed and Sheila looked at her questioningly. "Sorry, Sheila. I guess I should give you this now."
Linda held out an embossed envelope over the partition. Sheila frowned as she took it. "What's this?"
Linda shrugged. "Why don't you read it and find out? I need to get this boat moving so we can be at the curb when they come out."
Sheila nodded distractedly, turning the envelope over in her hands as she listened to the soft whir of the partition sliding back up. "Hmmm, now what?" she mused as she turned the envelope over and slid her finger under the flap to open it. "Whoa!" she yelped, reaching out to stead herself as the limo surged into motion. She righted herself, glancing out the window to see the area packed with cars. She marveled at the ease in which Linda maneuvered the large car through the crush, the envelope temporarily forgotten in her hand.
Linda eased the car towards the curb and Sheila searched the milling crowd for her friends. A flash of color caught her eye and she turned her attention towards it. She spotted Lauren, Rachel, and a petite auburn haired woman, who had a striking resemblance to Lauren. That must be Katie, she presumed as the limo came to a halt.
Rachel stepped up to the back of the limousine and opened the door. "Hey, Sheila."
"Hi," Sheila replied, scooting back across the seat to make room for the new arrivals.
Rachel climbed in and went straight to the mini fridge, pulling out a bottle of water. She sat down, unscrewed the cap, and drank. "That really hit the spot."
"Thirsty?" Sheila asked in surprise.
"Parched," Rachel said as she reached for another bottle. "It was really warm in there."
"Gee, Rachel, I'd think all that coffee you had would keep you from being thirsty," Lauren teased, as she ducked inside followed closely by the young auburn haired woman. "And I don't think the heat had anything to do with the air conditioning. Sheila, this is my sister, Katie. Katie, Sheila," Lauren introduced them as she took a seat next to Rachel.
"Pleasure to meet you," Sheila said with a smile, noting the wide-eyed stare of the girl. "Are you okay?"
Katie blinked, seeming to come back to herself. "Huh? Oh yeah. I've just never ridden in a limo before." She looked around the interior curiously. "Where'd you get the car, sis?"
Lauren laughed. "I didn't." Katie pinned her with a quizzical eye, which succeeded in only making Lauren laugh harder.
Rachel elbowed Lauren, but to no avail. She rolled her eyes and replied, "The limo is a gift from Ash. Guess she wanted you picked up in style."
"Really? Wow," Katie said impressed.
The partition whirred down, all eyes turning to Linda sitting behind the steering wheel. "We all settled?"
"You bet," Rachel assured her.
"Home, James," Lauren said with a pompous wave of her hand. The affect was totally ruined by the giggles that were still escaping though.
Linda smiled indulgently. "We have a few stops to make first."
"What?" Rachel asked, turning to stare at her. "Stops? What are you talking about?"
"The note will explain it all," Linda replied mysteriously as the partition whirred up before anyone else could voice a query.
"Note? What note?" Katie asked.
"Oh! This!" Sheila answered, holding up the forgotten envelope for all to see. "I totally forgot about it."
"What does it say?" Lauren asked, leaning forward intently.
"I guess we'll have to open it and find out," Sheila said as she put actions to words. The limousine pulled out into traffic without anyone taking note, since they were all staring with open curiosity at Sheila as she opened the envelope. Sheila pulled out the creamy white card within, looking up to see the anticipation on their faces. She giggled. "I feel like there should be a drum roll or something."
Rachel happily obliged by beating a tempo on her thighs. Lauren and Katie laughing joined in.
Sheila grinned, raising the card to read the inscription. She cleared her throat and read, " 'Greetings, Ladies. I hope you're enjoying the limo, but the surprises have just begun. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the rest of your evening. I can't wait to see you all at the party tomorrow night.' And it's signed, Ash."
The women all turned to look at one another to see if anyone had any clue as to what was going on. All had the same identical puzzled face.
"Huh, I wonder what she has in mind for us?" Rachel said breaking the silence.
"Ash? That's your girlfriend, right?" Katie asked her sister causing her to blush and Rachel to guffaw.
"Oh yeah, she's her girl all right," Rachel teased, poking Lauren playfully in the ribs.
"Shut up," Lauren grumbled, poking her back before turning to her sister. "Yes, Ash is my girlfriend for lack of a better word."
"And she did all this? Why?" Katie asked, waving her hands for emphasis.
Lauren opened her mouth and then snapped it shut unsure of how to answer that. Luckily Sheila saw her distress and rode to the rescue. "Oh, Ash has been really busy with work this week, and I think she's trying to make up to your sister here for all the time they missed together."
"Oh," Katie replied with a nod.
Lauren mouthed a thank you to Sheila before saying, "So where do you think we're headed?"
"Guess we'll just have to do what Ash suggested," Rachel said leaning back as all eyes turned to her. "Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride."
Lauren laughed followed by the others, who all nodded in agreement.
The limousine slowed and turned into a parking lot. The women in the back peered out the windows with growing excitement and curiosity.
"Simone's," Rachel read the sign above the door of the shop that they had stopped before. "What kind of place is this?"
Lauren frowned puzzled and then spotted a showcase window. Her lips curled up into a grin. "I think it's a dress shop."
"Clothes? Why would Ash send us for clothes?" Sheila wondered as Linda came to the back door and opened it.
"Ladies, if you'll follow me please," Linda said.
"Do you know what this is all about, Linda?" Sheila asked as Linda helped her out of the car.
"I just drive the car," Linda deadpanned with a smile.
"Uh huh," Sheila murmured unconvinced. She stepped out of the way so the others could exit the car and walked towards the front of the shop. She peeked in the window, realizing right away that this was not your average buy off the rack type of establishment. Now just what exactly are you up to, Ash? You have more facets than a damn diamond, she thought, turning to wait for the others to approach.
"Wow! This looks really ritzy," Katie exclaimed, coming up beside Sheila and peering through the window like a little kid at a candy shop.
Linda stepped around the gaggle of gawking women, pulling the door open causing a gentle peel of bells to sound. "After you," she said, sweeping her arm out to them.
"Well, let's go in and see what's what," Lauren suggested.
The others readily agreed and followed in Lauren's wake as she stepped through the open door to be greeted by the aroma of some exotic flower.
"Holy moly," Rachel gasped, gawking at the opulent interior.
"Close your mouth, Rach. I don't think we can afford to pay for any of this if you stain it with drool," Lauren reprimanded partially serious as her gaze fell on some of the most beautiful gowns she had ever seen.
A soft laugh pulled their attention to the shadowed alcove at the back of the shop. An elegant silver haired woman dressed in flowing blue silk glided towards them with a welcoming smile. "Oh, I don't think you need concern yourself about that, dear," she said in a light contralto with a slight accent. Her eyes alighted on the chauffeur. "Ah, Linda, good to see you again. Are these the friends of Miss Gray?"
Linda took the older woman's hands in hers, leaning forward to lightly kiss her cheek. "Yes, ma'am. I was informed you would take good care of them, so I'll just wait out in the car."
"Nonsense!" the woman announced with a dismissive wave. "You scoot right on back to the parlor and have some tea. I'll have Gwen come get you when we're finished here."
"Yes, ma'am," Linda replied meekly, ducking around her to disappear through the alcove that the woman had appeared in.
Rachel glanced at Lauren, but Lauren had no answers for her so she just shrugged.
"Ah, you must be Lauren," the woman said stepping over to Lauren and offering her well-manicured hand.
Lauren unconsciously took the offered hand. "Y-yes, ma'am."
The woman smiled indulgently. "I'm Simone, the owner of this humble boutique. And since we have much to do and not much time to do it in, why don't we get started?"
"Get started?" Lauren asked perplexed.
"Doing what?" Rachel added.
The woman laughed softly. "Why getting you dressed of course." She clapped her hands and three elegantly dressed women materialized out of the back and took up positions behind Simone waiting attentively.
"But we can't possibly afford-" Lauren's argument was cut off by Simone lifting a hand.
"No, I will not hear of money," Simone said, meeting Lauren's confused green eyes with pale blue. "Miss Gray did me a great favor once upon a time, and I promised her I would be forever at her disposal. So please don't sully the gift by speaking of payment."
Lauren studied those pale blue eyes and saw kindness wrapped in steel. "I'm sorry," she murmured, bowing her head to gather her thoughts, and then looking up once more. "Please show us what you have in mind."
Simone smiled warmly and walked around the group her pale blue eyes studying them with an educated eye. She'd pause and murmur to herself, and then continue to circle them. She finally came to a stop before Lauren once more and winked. "I think I'll handle you myself, dear," she said, taking Lauren's hand and gently leading her to stand beside her. "Hannah, you help the lovely blonde," Simone said nodding at Rachel.
Rachel blushed at the compliment as Hannah came up to stand beside her.
Simone tapped her chin thoughtfully as she studied the remaining two. "Beverly, you aid the mother to be and Fiona that leaves you with our young fiery one."
The two attendees came forward, introduced themselves, taking up positions beside nervous, but excited Sheila and Katie.
"Let's get this show on the road," Simone said with a laugh, leading Lauren over to a rack of exquisite silks.
An hour had passed and Linda was getting antsy. She sipped her tea trying not to fidget. She knew that they had to be at their next appointment soon, but she also knew to interrupt Simone was never a good idea. I'll give them ten more minutes, but then I'll just have to take the bull by the horns and insist that we get going, Linda decided.
Linda had just set down her cup of tea and stood as the time expired when Gwen, Simone's personal assistant, stepped through the door surprising her. "Damn! You scared me," Linda said, grasping her chest.
"Sorry, Linda. I just came in to tell you that Simone says the ladies are ready to depart," Gwen said in her quiet voice.
"Oh good. Now I don't have to face her down and demand she relinquish them," Linda replied with a grin.
Gwen laughed lightly. "I think I'd pay to see that."
"I'm just glad it wasn't necessary," Linda said, shaking her head ruefully. "The last time I had to do that, it took me weeks for the skin to grow back on my hindquarters." Gwen's eyes widened and Linda laughed playfully. "Just kidding."
"That was mean," Gwen retorted, but her smile belied her anger.
"I promise to behave next time. Thanks for the tea," Linda said, brushing past Gwen and heading into the public area of the salon.
Linda paused as the women came into view. Simone had worked her usual magic, and they were all beautiful to behold. Simone's designs were simplicity taken to an art form using rich materials and knowing the way to drape a body to bring out its best features. Lauren and her sister Katie, being of similar coloring, were draped in elegant blue-green silk gowns that hugged their bodies, hinting at treasures beneath. Rachel hair had been piled on her head to expose her long neck and was wrapped in a fiery red sheath that practically screamed sensuality. For the delicate featured and obviously pregnant Sheila, Simone and her staff had layered her in a silk that looked black until she moved; then highlights of purple shone. Linda couldn't resist the urge to let out a wolf whistle in appreciation. All heads turned towards her. "Hot mamas!" Linda crowed, waggling her eyebrows appreciatively.
"Linda! Did no one ever teach you manners?" Simone scolded, shaking a finger at her.
Linda grinned unrepentant. "Some old woman, but I guess it didn't stick."
Simone glided over to her and gently slapped the back of her head. "Old woman? Really!" Simone said haughtily.
Linda laughed, swooping in to give her a quick kiss on the cheek before dancing out of reach. The others watched this baffled at their chauffeur's antics and Simone's sudden slip into domesticity.
"What's going on?" Rachel asked Hannah out of the corner of her mouth.
"Oh, Linda is just up to her old tricks again. Simone is her grandmother, and I swear that girl lives to irritate her," Hannah whispered.
"Really? Now that's interesting," Rachel murmured thoughtfully.
Linda dodged her grandmother, laughing as she halted before the front door her eyes twinkling with mischief. "They look great and we really need to get going."
Simone paused in her pursuit and swept her hair back with one hand. "Very well. They're ready to go as you can plainly see," Simone said before turning to the group of guests. "Please do me the favor of getting this hellion out of my boutique."
"That would be our pleasure." Rachel smirked walking over to Linda and taking her arm so the taller woman could escort her. She looked up to meet the mischievous gaze and said, "You heard the woman, out! Rachel glanced back at the splendidly attired women waiting. "Thank you, Simone."
Linda laughed, but obligingly opened the door walking out with Rachel on her arm.
Sheila and Katie both murmured their thanks before following in Rachel's wake, leaving only Lauren to bid her respects.
Lauren gazed once more into the large mirror before her shaking her head in disbelief. That elegant woman staring back at her couldn't possibly be her.
"Do you like it, my dear?" Simone asked appearing in the mirror over Lauren's right shoulder.
"I love it," Lauren murmured sincerely. She met Simone's eyes in the mirror and held them. "Can I ask you a question?"
Simone's lips curled up in slight smile. "Never hurts to ask, my dear, though I don't promise to answer."
Lauren giggled. "I was just wondering how you knew Ash?" She felt her heart constrict and then begin racing in anticipation of the answer. "I mean, she must have done something extraordinary for you to do all this for us."
Simone dropped her eyes, busying her hands by minutely adjusting Lauren's dress. "I owe her more than a few gowns, my dear." She glanced up to meet Lauren's curious gaze before continuing. "It was many years ago. My daughter was murdered, and my grand daughter had taken it into her thick skull to go after the murderer." Simone eyes darkened at the memory.
"I'm so sorry," Lauren murmured.
Simone shook her head to banish the images. "It was many years ago now. I was frantic with worry for my grand daughter. Afraid of what trouble she might get into. I had already lost a daughter, I didn't want to lose her too."
"What did you do?"
Simone chuckled. "The only thing I could do, I forbade her to do it. Of course that didn't stop her, and one day I came home from work and she was gone. I didn't have the shop then, I was working retail at one of the big department stores. She just left a note saying she had to find out who had killed her mother." Simone closed her eyes sighing. "I didn't know how she, a 16 year old girl, was going to be able to do what the police hadn't, but like I said, she was pigheaded."
Lauren turned to face her laying a gentle hand on her arm in comfort. "I bet you were beside yourself with worry."
Simone opened her eyes and smiled. "I'm afraid I went a little crazy in my grief and worry. I stormed into the police station and demanded they do something. They said they'd do their best, but I didn't think that was good enough. I was on the verge of taking to the streets myself that very night when a knock came at my front door."
Lauren's eyebrows shot up. "You don't mean…?"
Simone nodded. "I opened the door and there was my errant grand daughter being held by the scruff of her neck by none other than your Ashlin. I couldn't believe my eyes."
"Really?" Lauren asked in disbelief.
"Really," Simone concurred with a nod. "She introduced herself, frog marched my wayward child in, and then told me in no uncertain terms that she would catch the man responsible for my Danielle's murder, but that this little hellion of mine was messing up the works and I needed to sit on her."
"That definitely sounds like Ash," Lauren said with a fond smile.
"To tell you the truth," Simone said, leaning in close to whisper this confidence. "The woman scared me to death! I think she put the fear of God into my grand child too, because I had no problems with her after Miss Gray left. She just got up, meekly went in her room, and pretty much stayed there until we found out the murderer had been caught and was in jail." "So Ash caught him?" Lauren asked rhetorically.
"Yes, she most certainly did. We heard it on the news a few days later. Then about a week later I opened my door to receive a telegram," Simone replied her eyes taking on that distant look of one seeing past events. "The man handed me a large envelope. I remember being annoyed because I was running late and I needed to get to work. The man insisted that I sign all these forms. I kept asking him why I needed to sign so many forms for just one little envelope?"
Lauren leaned forward intrigued. "What was in the envelope?"
Simone blinked coming back to the present. "Would you believe it was a deed to this very shop and the beginning capital to get it started?"
"No!" Lauren gasped in amazement.
Simone nodded. "There was a note. Something to the effect that she knew that this wouldn't make up for the loss of a child, but knew it had always been a dream of mine. Plus having my own place would allow me to keep a more watchful eye on my grand daughter, who was going to need a lot of attention over the next couple of years."
"Wow," Lauren murmured stunned.
"Wow indeed," Simone agreed softly. "Now, my dear, I think you better go before that crazy grand daughter of mine comes in here on a rescue mission."
"Linda? Linda is your grand daughter?" Lauren asked finally putting it all together.
Simone smiled. "The one and only. She's a handful, but she has a heart of gold."
Lauren stepped forward, pulling Simone into a heartfelt embrace. "Thank you for everything, Simone. I'll never forget you."
Simone patted her gently on the back. "I'm just glad to see that Ashlin has finally met someone to love."
Lauren blushed as she stepped back. "Thank you. You've given me a peek into her past and I'll always treasure that. There is so much about her that is a mystery. I'm looking forward to many years of playing sleuth to puzzle her out."
Simone laughed enchanted at the analogy. "Well, you bring her by here one of these days. She doesn't visit often enough."
Lauren nodded, heading towards the door. She turned and waved once more, knowing that she would be back. "Thank you."
"Most welcome," Simone said as Lauren exited the shop.
The foursome speculated as to where they could possibly be going next as the limousine drove into the night.
"Well, it's obviously somewhere snazzy considering the clothes," Rachel deduced.
"And it's almost dinner time," Lauren pointed out.
"So, I guess our best bet is some kind of restaurant," Sheila surmised with a nod.
"Ash sure did go through a lot of trouble to set all this up," Katie said, shaking her head in amazement.
Lauren blushed. "Yeah, I guess she did."
"Told you she was a keeper," Rachel stated, giving Lauren a toothy grin.
"You did not!" Lauren argued playfully. "You just said she had a hot body."
"Well," Rachel said drawing the word out as she tapped her chin, "she definitely has that."
"Really?" Katie asked leaning forward eagerly as her sister blushed.
"Oh yeah," Rachel replied making an hourglass motion with her hands. "Tasty."
"Rachel!" Lauren said in mock outrage, slapping her friend on the shoulder.
"What? Just stating the facts, ma'am," Rachel said, fending Lauren off.
"What does she look like?" Katie asked looking between the two.
"She's tall, dark haired, with blue eyes," Sheila replied, causing Katie to turn to her seatmate.
"How tall?" Katie asked as Sheila's eyebrows rose. "Well, I mean, everyone is tall to me." She looked Sheila up and down. "And I have a feeling the same goes for you. So, does tall mean five-six or what?"
Sheila laughed at the young woman's audacity. "True. Everyone does seem tall when you're vertically challenged, but Ash is the genuine article when it comes to tall. Considering Lu is five-ten and she tops that, I'd say she's around six foot."
Katie's eyes bugged out. "Six foot? As in six feet tall?" she asked, trying to wrap her brain around it.
"Yep, and strong as an ox. Not that you can tell that by looking at her," Rachel added.
"I wouldn't go comparing her to an ox in her presence, Rachel," Sheila suggested dryly.
Rachel noticeably paled and Lauren laughed. "Oooh, I dare you, Rach! I'd love to see Ash pin you with one of her looks, arch that eyebrow at you, and watch you squirm."
"Oh no, no, no!" Rachel said holding up her hands defensively. "I do not have a death wish, thank you very much. I'll leave tall, dark, and dangerous to you."
"Tall, dark, and dangerous?" Katie asked with a slight frown marring her features. "What do you mean by that?"
Rachel glanced apologetically at Lauren who shrugged. "Ash just has this aura of menace about her if you don't know her," Lauren explained. "She's really quite sweet."
Rachel snorted making Lauren elbow her in the ribs. "Oof!" Rachel scooted across the seat, glaring at her friend. "Right. Sweet."
Katie's suspicions were up. "What aren't you telling me?"
Lauren met her sister's eyes and knew that she had to tell her something, but what? That Ash had been a ruthless bounty hunter and had probably killed people? No, no, not a good idea.
"I think what Rachel is trying to say is that Ash can come across as being a bit threatening," Sheila said as all eyes turned to her. Lauren mouthed a silent, thank you, as Sheila continued, "Ash is really rather shy and I think she puts on this air of mystery and has this look that says, 'don't come near me or I may have to hurt you.' She hides behind this stoic mask so you don't realize what a kind, gentle person is hiding beneath that façade."
"Oh," Katie said, nodding in understanding. "I can understand that. Especially since she's been in the public eye so much with her music. That must be really hard."
Lauren jumped on the idea. "Right. She's a very private person, so to keep people from constantly badgering her she makes herself unapproachable."
Katie glanced at her sister, a wicked smile curling her lips. "So how did you manage to get so close then?"
Lauren's mouth fell open dumbfounded. "Uhhh," she stuttered.
Sheila and Rachel laughed at the look on Lauren's face as Katie sat back pleased with herself.
"That was Benson's doing," Rachel said.
"Benson?" Katie asked.
"Benson is Ash's cousin and Lauren's landlord. He kind of set them up," Rachel explained getting into the groove of totally embarrassing Lauren.
"Oh really?" Katie asked interested.
Before Rachel could expound on the set up, the limousine slowed. The four women looked at one another and then glanced out the windows.
The limousine was pulling into a sparsely filled parking lot. They looked around trying to figure out where they could possibly be going since nothing offered itself as a restaurant or anything else. The vehicle stopped and they all stared at one another at a loss.
"Do you think Linda is lost?" Rachel asked, peering out the window at the drab surroundings.
"I wouldn't think so, but this sure doesn't look very inviting," Sheila replied with a puzzled frown.
The rear door opened and Linda stooped over to peer inside. "You ladies ready?"
"Ready for what?" Lauren asked, accepting Linda's hand to help her out.
"You'll see," Linda replied cryptically as she turned to aid the others in exiting the limousine. When the four women were all accounted for, Linda turned. "Follow me."
Linda started across the parking lot and after glancing at one another the others followed. Linda stopped before a brick wall that had a banged up metal door. She rapped a peculiar rhythm on it, and rocked back on her heels as she waited for someone to answer.
"What is this place?" Katie whispered, inching closer to Sheila for comfort.
Sheila shook her head having no idea.
The door suddenly swung open bathing them all in pale light. A delicious aroma wafted out along with the sounds of laughter and music. A slight Hispanic man in a tuxedo stood silhouetted in the doorway his face unreadable. "Son estedes el groupo de Gray?"
"Si, Senor," Linda replied, stepping back so the man could see the women behind her.
The man looked them up and down and a sunny smile transformed his dour face. "Ah! Bien! Bien! So glad you have arrived. If you will follow me, porfavor," he said beckoning them forward.
Lauren glanced at Linda questioningly. Linda grinned motioning her to go on.
Lauren turned to the man managing a smile. She felt the others at her back and that gave her enough courage to follow the man as he led the way inside. She trailed behind him looking around in curiosity. They seemed to be in some kind of service entrance with plain unadorned walls. The man glanced back to make sure they were still behind him an eager grin on his lips. Lauren smiled weakly back, the man's enthusiasm making her uneasy. The man turned to the left and ascended a staircase.
"Quidado… uhh," he stopped visibly fishing in his mind for the correct translation. A light reflected in his eyes when he found it, "Please be careful."
Lauren felt behind her and was grateful when she felt a warm hand clasp hers and squeeze reassuringly. She looked over her shoulder to see Rachel smiling encouragement.
"I'll say one thing for Ash, she's full of surprises," Rachel whispered gently pushing Lauren to set her back in motion.
Lauren nodded in agreement, climbing the staircase after their host's retreating form. She had no idea where they were going or what to expect, but knowing that Ash had set this up did bring her a modicum of comfort.
Their host waited at the top of the stairwell. He held back a heavy golden drape beckoning her through. "This way, Senorita. Watch your step."
He held out a hand to steady her. Lauren, bowing her head in thanks, stepped through the opening. She looked up and gasped.
"What?" Rachel demanded from behind her as she bumped into the now frozen Lauren. "Hey, Laur, move your can so the rest of us can see."
Lauren shook off her paralysis, moving forward a few steps to peer over the balcony. Before her was one of the most beautiful rooms she had ever seen. It was obvious that at one time it had been an old turn of the century opera hall that the owners had refurbished. The ceiling was still adorned with gold leaf that framed hand painted frescos of cherubs, clouds, and flowers--all designs reminiscent of that time; large crystal chandeliers hung every few feet to add to the elegance. The walls were hung in heavy damask draperies. She grasped the brass rail and peered down, seeing candlelit tables arranged on a hard wood floor all facing a raised stage. She gawked at the heavy red velvet drapes across the stage and wondered what they would reveal.
"Holy cow! This rocks!" Rachel exclaimed, coming up beside her and leaning dangerously far over the railing.
"Rachel! Be careful," Sheila gasped, grabbing the back of Rachel's dress and tugging her back from the brink of disaster.
Rachel gave Sheila a properly chastened look, but her eyes danced unrepentant. "Sorry, Sheila. Guess I got carried away. How come I never knew about this place?"
Lauren turned at the question, meeting the cheerful dark eyes of their host. "Welcome to the Forum, senoritas," he greeted them with a wide flare of his arms to encompass the room. "Yo soy Diego, I am to be sure that your--Como se dese? -Every desire is fulfilled. Con permiso?" His dark eyes gleamed as he pulled out a chair, looking to Lauren he asked, "Senorita, porfavor?"
Lauren stepped forward gracefully taking the seat that Diego held for her. "Gracias."
Diego beamed at the use of his native tongue as he held the next chair. "Senora? For you."
Sheila smiled graciously taking the proffered seat. "Thank you, Diego."
"De nada," he replied stepping to the next seat available. "Senorita?"
Katie cheeks flushed pink as she slid into the seat. "Thank you," she said softly, ducking her head shyly.
Diego smiled warmly as he held the remaining seat for Rachel. "Senorita, this is for you."
"Gracias," Rachel replied hoping her accent wasn't as atrocious as she thought. "Is that right?"
Diego grinned. "Si. Very good, senorita."
Rachel beamed in pleasure, scooting her chair closer to the table and looking around. "Is there going to be some kind of show?" she asked waving towards the stage down below.
"Si. You have good seats, no?" Diego replied, passing out menus.
"Is this where Ash would sit when she's here?" Lauren asked accepting the menu. Diego looked at her blankly and Lauren realized her mistake. "Oh! I mean Miss Gray."
Diego's face lit up. "Si! This was her favorite table," he replied nodding enthusiastically. "I will bring you something for appetizer while you look over the menu."
He turned and disappeared down the stairwell before any of them could say anything more.
"This place is awfully fancy," Katie remarked as she gazed out across the softly lit room.
Lauren looked up from the menu with a nod. "Sure is. I wonder what the entertainment is in a place like this?"
"Hey!" Rachel said her brow furrowing.
"What?" Lauren asked surprised.
"Do any of you have prices on your menus?" Rachel asked, holding out her menu so they could see that no prices were listed next to the entrees.
They all glanced down at their menus.
"Mine doesn't. Does yours, Sheila?" Lauren asked.
"No, and I doubt Katie's does either," Sheila surmised, looking up to meet quizzical eyes all around.
"Nope. No prices here," Katie agreed, setting her menu down.
"Well how are we supposed to know how much stuff costs?" Rachel demanded belligerently.
"I think that's the point. You're not supposed to know," Sheila remarked with a small smile playing across her lips.
"What? Why?" Lauren asked perplexed.
Sheila chuckled. "Because this is a treat from Ash and she doesn't want us to know how much she's spending on us." They all stared at her for a moment as realization began to dawn. "You don't think these dresses were free do you?" Sheila asked fingering the exquisite silk of her gown. "And I doubt that the meal we're about to have along with the entertainment would be within our normal budgets."
Lauren's eyes widened. "Oh my God! How much do you think Ash is spending on all this? This looks like a pretty exclusive place and I have a feeling that not just anyone gets one of these private balconies."
Rachel scanned the crowd below them, nodding in agreement with Lauren's assessment. "I think you hit the nail on the head, Laur. I see the district attorney down there and she's not getting a private balcony. She's on the floor with everyone else."
The others peered over to where Rachel pointed. "Oh wow! Is that really the district attorney?" Katie asked staring at her. "She's kind of cute."
Rachel narrowed her eyes to get a better look at the D.A. and had to grudgingly agree with her. "Yeah, I guess she is."
Sheila noted the stunned look on Lauren's face. She leaned over, gently taking Lauren's hand in hers. "Ash wanted to do this for you, Lauren. Don't let the cost bother you," she whispered.
Lauren looked up to meet Sheila's sympathetic gaze. "I just can't believe she went through all this trouble."
Sheila smiled in amusement. "She loves you and she's trying to make up for the really rotten last couple of weeks we've all been through." Lauren nodded. "I think being able to do this makes her feel better and also lets her know we'll be safe."
"Safe? What do you mean?" Lauren asked.
"She made the arrangements. She knows all the people. Therefore she's pretty assured that we won't get into any trouble without adequate back up," Sheila replied knowingly.
Lauren smiled fondly. "You're right. That does sound like Ash. She'd know that we've been going stir crazy stuck in the apartment, and would more than likely want to go out. Especially with Katie being here."
"Exactly," Sheila agreed.
"So she made it possible for us to go out and have fun and still be safe," Lauren finished. "Do you think this is the same as Simone's?"
"What do you mean?" Sheila asked.
"Do you think Ash did something to help the owners?" Lauren asked trying to clarify.
"Oh, I never thought of that," Sheila replied thoughtful. "Could be, or it might just be a place she frequented when she lived here and got to know the owners really well."
"True," Lauren replied.
The four perused the menu and people watched. They had spotted numerous local celebrities, including the local news channel anchor when Diego reappeared carrying an ice bucket with a cloth wrapped bottle tucked within.
"You have decided?" Diego asked, placing the bucket in a stand to one side of their table that until now had gone unnoticed. He waved another waiter to place a platter with an assortment of appetizers on their table.
"Si," Lauren replied with a giggle, eying the delicious sampler.
Diego grinned as he expertly popped the cork on the bottle, pouring foaming champagne into glasses before all but Sheila. "I bring you something special, senora," he promised with a wink.
Sheila laughed. "Thank you, Diego."
Diego quickly took their orders before disappearing once more down the stairs.
A drum roll sounded from below and the party eagerly watched the stage as a spotlight came on. A man in a tuxedo stepped out from behind the curtains with a microphone and waved.
"Welcome to the Forum!" he said into the microphone over the applause that had erupted at his appearance. "We have a great show for you tonight. First we'll have a few very talented and lovely comedians entertain you before our musical act." People in the crowd shouted questions asking whom the performers were going to be, but the announcer shook his head. "Now, now, I can't tell you! Half the fun is not knowing what is coming next! So sit back and enjoy." The crowd erupted in applause once more.
"Who do you think it will be?" Katie asked excitedly, her eyes glued to the stage.
"I don't know," Lauren whispered back.
"Our first lovely entertainer is a home town girl, please join me in giving a big welcome to Lydia Freckenberger!" the announcer said.
The crowd went wild.
"Lydia who?" Katie asked blankly.
Rachel laughed. "She's a lesbian comedian. She's really funny."
"Oh. Okay," Katie replied returning her attention to the stage just as a tall, blonde woman walked out.
The four were so engrossed in Lydia's performance that they barely noticed when servers discreetly appeared to clear the now empty appetizer platter and bring Sheila her beverage.
Lydia was accepting her final rounds of applause as Diego arrived with their dinners. "Here we are," he said as he efficiently placed all their orders before them. "Enjoy."
They all murmured their thanks and quickly dug in. The food was exquisite and the table was quiet except for the sound of forks scraping across plates and little moans of pleasure.
"This is the best night out I've ever had," Katie remarked, swallowing the last bite on her plate and sopping up the sauce with a piece of bread.
"Definitely," Rachel agreed, swirling her champagne in her glass before taking a sip.
The announcer's voice rose over the crowd once more and the foursome eagerly peered towards the stage for the next act.
The four friends wearily climbed the stairs towards Rachel's apartment with Linda trailing behind carrying Katie's luggage that she had insisted on bringing up for them.
"I'm beat," Rachel yawned pulling out her keys to unlock the door.
"Yeah, what a night," Lauren replied holding Katie up, who was practically asleep where she stood.
"I just want to crawl into bed and sleep," Sheila said leaning against the wall watching Rachel fumble with the keys.
"Ugh, this damn door," Rachel swore as the lock finally gave way. She pushed the door open fumbling within for the light switch.
The lights came on and Rachel began to lead the way in and stopped dead in her tracks. Lauren following close behind ran into her. "Hey! Come on, Rach," Lauren grumbled barely catching her balance.
"Holy shit!" Rachel swore causing Lauren to peer tiredly over her shoulder.
Lauren gasped surveying the room. "I can't believe this!" she mumbled. The room was completely full of bouquets and baskets leaving only a narrow path to maneuver. Her eyes fell upon a very large stuffed panda sitting in a rocking chair with a big ribbon tied around it to keep it seated. She frowned walking over to it. She spotted a tag and pulled it up to read it. "Hey, Sheila. This is for you," Lauren called over her shoulder.
"For me? What?" Sheila asked surprised walking across the room to see what Lauren had found.
Lauren handed her the card and turned to meet her sister's very curious eyes. She felt the heat rising to her face as Katie gave her a knowing wink. "Wow, I think someone likes you, sis," Katie remarked dryly.
"Uh, yeah. It would seem so," Lauren murmured walking around the room peering into baskets here and there.
"Where would you like me to put these?" Linda asked from the doorway.
"Umm, good question," Rachel said looking around the room with a loss expression.
"How about I lead you through this maze to the back bedroom?" Sheila replied waving Linda to follow her.
"Sure thing, Sheila," Linda said with a huge grin. She nimbly weaved her way through the chaos of flowers to follow Sheila down the hall.
Katie strolled through the room, peeking into baskets and smelling the roses. "Is all this from Ash?" she asked in awe.
"I don't know who else would be flooding my apartment with freaking flowers," Rachel grumbled pushing aside a basket so she could flop down on the couch.
"Oh look! Here's something for you, Rach," Lauren said excitedly as she found a basket with Rachel's name prominently displayed.
"Really?" Rachel asked sitting up eagerly her grumpiness evaporating as if by magic.
"Really," Lauren said carrying the basket over to her friend and dumping it in her lap. "See what's in it." She slid another bouquet out of the way and sat down next to her gleeful friend.
Rachel grabbed the small envelope attached and tore it open pulling out a card. She read it aloud. "Rachel, to you for being the best friend any girl could ask for. Thank you for being there for Lauren. Ash."
"Awww, that's so sweet," Katie said as she came around the end of the couch to perch on the arm next to Rachel.
"Yeah," Rachel said staring at the card perplexed.
"What?" Lauren asked seeing the look.
Rachel looked up and shrugged. "I just never expected this."
Lauren laughed. "Yeah, she is full of surprises isn't she? Go ahead and see what's in it."
Rachel grinned and tore open the tissue paper that hid the treasure within. She reached inside and pulled out something. "Ooooh! Now this is nice," she said eyeing the red negligee.
"Hey! Ash gave you sexy underwear?" Lauren barked sitting up in shock. "What's with that?"
Rachel grinned evilly. "Well, I guess she knew that I could never have too many."
Katie blushed. "Wow. How did she know your size?"
Rachel looked up at her in surprise. "Uhhh," she mumbled unable to come up with a reply.
"Yeah, Rach, explain that one to me too. Inquiring minds want to know," Lauren teased crossing her arms in challenge.
"Uhhh, good guess?" Rachel offered giving Lauren her best innocent look before ducking her head and digging into the basket to see if there was something else in there to divert everyone's attention. "Hey, look!" she exclaimed pulling out a thick manila envelope.
"Look at what?" Sheila asked returning to the room with Linda in tow.
"Ash got Rachel a present. Sexy underwear so far," Katie replied wiggling her eyebrows.
"Oh really?" Sheila asked with amusement. "Well by all means continue."
"I'm going to leave you ladies to it," Linda said making her way across the room towards the door.
"Thanks for everything, Linda," Lauren said with sincerity.
"Thanks, Linda," Rachel mumbled her attention still fixated on the envelope she was turning over and over in her hands.
"Thanks, Linda. I hope I'll get to see you again," Katie said with a wave.
"Oh, I'm sure you will. Knowing Ash she'll have me take you back to the airport," Linda replied with a wink for Katie.
"That would be cool!" Katie exclaimed clapping her hands.
Linda laughed waving goodbye as she pulled the door open disappearing down the hall.
"What's in the envelope?" Sheila asked coming over to the group. She looked around for a place to sit but there were none available.
Lauren quickly stood, waving Sheila to take her place. "Here, Sheila, sit here. I can manage on the floor."
"Thank you," Sheila replied sinking down on the couch with a sigh.
"Open it, Rachel," Katie demanded bouncing on the arm of the couch as she nudged Rachel.
"Okay, okay," Rachel groused as she carefully worked the flap loose, peering into the envelope.
"Well?" Lauren asked when Rachel had remained silent just staring blankly into it for more than a minute.
"Huh?" Rachel said looking up with a dazed expression.
"You mind telling us what's in there or do we have to guess?" Lauren asked starting to wonder what exactly Ash could have given her to make her usually gregarious friend speechless.
In answer Rachel handed the envelope to Sheila. Sheila took it and pulled out the contents for all to see.
"Looks like plane tickets," Sheila remarked flipping through the papers.
Rachel nodded numbly.
"Where to?" Katie asked leaning across Rachel to get a better look.
"California," Rachel mumbled.
"What's in California?" Katie asked staring at Rachel puzzled.
"My," Rachel cleared her throat. "My family. I haven't been able to afford to go home for a couple of years now." Rachel turned pleading eyes on Lauren and asked, "How did she know?"
Lauren shrugged. "I don't know. I swear I didn't mention anything. She seems to have a way about her though, huh?"
Rachel nodded sniffing back the tears that threatened to fall.
Lauren knew Rachel would need some time to catch her balance so turning to Sheila she asked, "Who's the panda and rocking chair from?"
Sheila laughed softly. "Have you taken a good look at that bear?" she asked gesturing towards the panda.
Lauren looked and this time noticed that the panda sported an Indian headdress. She laughed. "Oh my God! She didn't!"
"Ash has always had a twisted sense of humor," Sheila replied shaking her head. "The bear is from her and the rocker is from Lu."
"When did they find time to shop?" Rachel asked her equilibrium finally starting to right itself.
"Who knows?" Sheila said with a small shrug.
"Well, we could spend all night trying to go through all this," Lauren said waving at the plethora of baskets before them. "I don't know about you all, but I'd rather go to bed and deal with it in the morning."
The other three nodded in agreement.
"Well since the couch is definitely not going to be slept on tonight, I guess that means you'll have to bunk with me, Sheila," Rachel said as she stood stretching.
Sheila quirked an eyebrow and smiled. "Is my virtue safe with you?" she teased accepting the hand Rachel held out to her to help her up.
Rachel chuckled. "I don't trespass," she promised with a wink.
"Come on, Katie," Lauren said standing. "Let's go get some sleep."
"Sounds good to me," Katie replied fighting back a yawn. "Tomorrow will feel like Christmas. We can sit and go through all your goodies."
Lauren blushed to the roots of her hair and the others laughed.
"To bed with you, imp!" Lauren said giving Katie a push towards the hall.
"I'm going, I'm going," Katie replied with a giggle.
"See you all in the morning," Lauren said following her sister down the hall.
Lauren slowly drifted awake and smiled as she felt the warm body wrapped around her. She pulled the arm more tightly around her waist snuggling closer. It felt so good to just laze around in bed ensconced in Ash's arms. She stretched and felt Ash's feet rub against the back of her calf and a puzzled frown descended.
Ash's feet? That can't be right, she mused trying to fight through the fog of sleep. Ash is taller than me. My feet always hit her in the calves. She softly stroked the hand about her waist as her mind tried to penetrate the conundrum.
"Umm, Laur? Could I have my arm back?"
Lauren's eyes snapped open as she shot up in bed. She whirled to see her baby sister lying back with a smirk. "Uh, morning," she mumbled her face heating.
"Actually it's afternoon," Katie replied propping her head up with her hand studying her sister.
Lauren rubbed her face trying to disperse the cobwebs. "Guess we better get the day started then," she said, praying that her sister would just let it drop. She slid to the edge of the bed, peering over to look for her slippers.
"Uh-huh," Katie murmured watching her sister's avid search. "I think they're at the foot."
"What?" Lauren asked her reply muffled since she was hanging half off the bed.
Katie grabbed her by the back of her shirt hauling her back onto the bed. "I said, I think they're at the foot of the bed. That is if you're searching for your slippers."
"Thanks," Lauren replied scooting towards the foot. Katie laid a hand on her arm stopping her. Lauren turned to meet her sister's eyes and saw the concern there. "What?"
"Are you okay?" Katie asked releasing her.
"I-I'm fine. Why do you ask?" Lauren asked looking down at her fidgeting hands and knowing that was a sure give away that she was lying through her teeth.
"Well for starters you practically jumped out of bed when I woke you. Want to tell me what that was all about?" Katie asked.
Lauren blushed shrugging. "I…" she paused as she struggled to think of something to say. "I… I thought you were Ash," she whispered tangling her fingers nervously in the sheet.
"What?" Katie asked surprised. Lauren peeked up at her through her bangs and Katie began to laugh. "That's what caused you to freak?"
Lauren smiled. "Uh, yeah. Waking up and discovering I was cuddling with my baby sister was a bit of a shock."
Katie laughed holding her sides. "Oh! That is too funny."
"Shut up! It's not that funny," Lauren said swatting at her sister's knee.
"Yes it is," Katie crowed fending off Lauren. She scooted off the bed and stood. "Hey, wait a minute."
"What?" Lauren asked pausing in her advance across the bed towards her sister.
"That means you've slept with Ash!" Katie accused pointing a knowing finger at her sister.
"I have not!" Lauren said defensively, sitting up and crossing her arms across her chest. She cocked her head and then added, "Well, not in the sense that you're probably meaning that."
"Huh?" Katie said confused.
Lauren sighed. "Yes, I have slept in the same bed with Ash," Lauren began holding up a hand to keep her sister from interrupting. "But, and this is a big but, I have not slept with her if you get my drift."
Katie opened her mouth and then closed it as she thought about what her sister had just said. "So, you've never?" she asked slowly, looking at her sister expectantly.
Lauren shrugged looking down at the bed covers once more. "No, not that I haven't wanted to, but no," Lauren replied softly. She couldn't believe she was having this conversation with her baby sister of all people. She looked up when she felt Katie sit down beside her and take her hand. She studied her for a moment and realized that Rachel had been right. Katie was not a kid any more.
"Whoa. I figured after last night that you two had … well, you know," Katie said embarrassed.
Lauren laughed lightly. "Nope. We've only kissed and cuddled."
"Really?" Katie asked in surprise.
"Really," Lauren confirmed.
"So Ash just did all that for you just because?" Katie asked dumbfounded.
"Yep. She did it just because she loves me. Not because I was good in bed," Lauren said reprovingly.
Katie looked at her in shock. "I can't believe you just said that!"
"Well, that's what you were thinking after all," Lauren replied feeling her anger heat up at the thought that her sister would think that Ash was paying her for services rendered. She stood and stomped around the bed to find her slippers.
"Lauren, I didn't mean it that way," Katie said apologetically. "Please don't be mad."
Lauren found her slippers and slid them on as she fought to cool her anger. She looked up and met repentant green eyes. "I'm sorry, Katie. I'm not mad," Lauren said coming around the bed to sit down next to her. "It just really makes me mad when people think stuff like that about Ash."
"About Ash? Heck, I would think that about anyone," Katie replied.
Lauren looked at her in surprise. "Why would you think that?"
Katie shrugged. "Because that's the way daddy always tried to make up with mom. He'd buy her stuff after one of his binges. He expected everything to be fine once he bought you a gift. He wouldn't show up for something, but the next day I'd get a new dress or something."
Lauren sighed. "Oh, Katie." She pulled her sister into a hug gentle kissing the crown of her head. "Not everyone is like that. When you find someone that really loves you and you really love him or her, you'll understand. You just want to do nice things for them. Not because you've been rotten or done something wrong, but because you love them and want them to feel special."
"Is that how Ash makes you feel?" Katie asked in a small voice.
"Yeah, that's exactly how she makes me feel," Lauren replied hugging her sister tight.
"I'm glad you found someone to make you feel that way," Katie said sitting back and meeting her eyes. "I can't wait to meet her."
Lauren smiled. "Well, the sooner we get up and moving, the sooner you'll get to do just that."
Katie grinned standing up and pulling her sister up after her. "Well, what are we waiting for then?"
Lauren laughed following her sister out of the room and down the hall to see if the others were awake yet.
Lauren stared into the mirror and had to admit that Rachel had been right. She cocked her head to the side as she studied her reflection. The dress that she had been horrified about when Rachel pulled it out actually looked great on. It fell across her left shoulder leaving her right shoulder bare. The creamy material clung to her body before flaring at the hips. Rachel had teased and curled her hair so it fell in ringlets about her face and Lauren was amazed at how good it looked. I can never get it to do that, she thought frowning at her reflection. She fingered the crown of white rose buds and baby's breath that sat atop her head. Sheila had a brainstorm and decided to make it out of one of the bouquets of flowers Ash had sent. She thought it would look marvelous and Lauren had to agree that it did add a certain elegance.
Her eyes slid down and came to rest on the delicate gold chain around her neck with a golden heart locket hanging from it. Her lips curled into a fond smile as her fingers played with it. The locket was a gift from Ash. It had been in one of the plethora of baskets. She couldn't wait to get a picture of the two of them to put within.
Her gaze drifted farther as she stood to take in the overall affect of the outfit. Rachel had found a gold link belt made out of hearts. Lauren had thought it would look cheesy, but it actually looked good riding across her hips. She glanced down at her feet and grinned. Rachel had wanted her to wear spiked heels but she had been adamantly set against that. She wanted to be able to feel her feet at the end of the evening. She had decided on a pair of simple low-heeled white shoes that she thought looked just fine. Rachel had whined and cajoled, but Lauren had refused to be swayed.
She slid her leg forward giggling as the skirt parted along the slit that ran almost to her hip to display her thigh. "Well I definitely wouldn't wear this if we weren't going to a private party," Lauren said aloud as she shook her head at how much of her body was revealed.
She looked up into the mirror and met the green eyes of her reflection. "Well? What do you think? Think I'll sweep Ash off her feet?" she asked turning this way and that to let her reflection see the entire outfit.
"I think you look devastating."
Lauren jumped, squealed, and spun around to see Rachel in the doorway. "Crap! Are you trying to give me a heart attack?" Lauren demanded sagging back against the dresser and patting her chest.
Rachel laughed. "Nope. But I could start to worry about you talking to yourself like that," she replied striding into the room and inspecting her friend from head to heel. "You look fantastic."
"Think so?" Lauren asked glancing down and smoothing down the front of the dress.
"Definitely," Rachel replied nodding. "How do I look?"
"Just what exactly are you supposed to be?" Lauren asked taking in the cheerleader outfit stained with blood. "A dead cheerleader or something?"
"Heck no! I'm Buffy," Rachel replied indignantly.
"Buffy?" Lauren asked confused.
"Yeah, you know, Buffy the vampire slayer?" Rachel prompted. Seeing the blank look on her friend's face she elaborated, "Remember that movie we saw awhile back with Rutger Hauer as that cheesy vampire? The serious B movie?"
Lauren thought about it for a moment and then nodded. "Oh right! And the head cheerleader becomes some kind of slayer or something right?"
"Exactly!" Rachel said grinning. "Look, I even have my stake." She held up a sharpened piece of wood. "And we can't forget the ever important cross." She pulled out a huge clunky cross from under her sweater and let if fall against her ample bosom.
"Only you would think of something this corny," Lauren said with a laugh.
"Yeah, yeah," Rachel replied waving it off. She looked about the room before saying, "So, you ready to go or what?"
"Yep. I'm ready," Lauren said, grabbing a white shawl to wrap around her shoulders against the chill of the evening. "Has Katie come out of the bathroom yet?"
"Nope," Rachel replied leading the way out of the bedroom. "And I'm getting really curious as to what she came up with this year to embarrass you."
Lauren rolled her eyes following in Rachel's wake. "God only knows."
The two friends entered the living room to be greeted by a grinning Sheila in her habit. "You two look great," Sheila complimented pulling herself up from the rocking chair where she had been waiting.
"You look pretty great yourself," Lauren replied coming over to help Sheila rise from the chair.
"Thanks," Sheila said.
"Katie still in the bathroom?" Rachel asked.
"Afraid so," Sheila replied shaking her head. "I figure if she's not out in another ten minutes we can start pounding on the door."
"Katie!" Lauren bellowed down the hallway. "Come on!"
"I'm coming! Keep your pants on!" Katie's voice echoed back muffled by the bathroom door.
Lauren rolled her eyes turning to the others. "We might as well sit down. Who knows how long she'll be?"
Sheila groaned. "I think I'll stand. If I sit down again I may not be able to get back up."
"You okay, Sheila?" Rachel asked concerned.
"Oh, I'm fine. Just pregnant," Sheila reassured them.
Lauren smiled perching on the edge of the couch. They had managed to clear most of the living room of the flowers and baskets during the afternoon and arrange them around the circumference. She still couldn't believe how much money Ash must have spent on it all.
"Hey, you okay?" Rachel asked sitting down next to Lauren.
Lauren looked at her smiling reassuringly. "Yeah, just still a little overwhelmed when I look around the room," she replied sweeping her arm out to indicate the bouquets.
"Yeah, but you have to admit it was pretty damn cool," Rachel replied with a wink.
Lauren giggled. "Yeah, I guess I do."
"Okay, here I come!" Katie called.
All eyes turned towards the hallway expectantly. Katie glided into the room to a chorus of gasps.
"Well? What do you think?" Katie asked twirling in place.
Lauren's eyes bugged out of her head staring at the woman that was supposedly her sweet baby sister. Katie's auburn hair had been died black and was ratted out to frame her pale face. She wore a black dress that was cut open all the way to her navel not leaving much to the imagination. The sleeves fit tightly and ended at her elbows to flare out into black wings. The skirt was slit to the hip on both sides to expose black fishnet stockings along with black stiletto heels.
"Urgh," Rachel gurgled falling back on the couch her mouth hanging open.
Sheila glanced quickly at Lauren noting the pole-axed look. "Ummm, who are you supposed to be?" Sheila asked hoping to defuse the situation.
"I'm Elvira!" Katie replied smugly. "You mean you couldn't tell?"
"Oh, of course!" Sheila replied coming forward to inspect Katie up close. "It just took me a minute to place it. Doesn't she look great, Lauren?"
Katie looked at her sister expectantly. "What do you think, Laur?"
Lauren gawked at her sister. "I-I…" Lauren stuttered before snapping her mouth shut and closing her eyes. She took a deep breath trying to focus. She opened her eyes and once more looked upon her sister. "I think there's no way in hell I'm letting you go out in that!"
Katie's eyes widened in shock before a frown descended. "What do you mean by that?" she demanded placing her hands on her hips and glaring at her sister.
"Did mom see this… this… costume?" Lauren asked striding over to Katie and plucking at her sleeve.
Katie shrugged away from her sister. "No! And what's wrong with it?"
"You can't be serious?" Lauren asked incredulously, meeting her sister's angry green eyes.
Sheila quickly stepped between the sisters. "Lauren, just calm down," Sheila said in a low voice.
"Calm down? Calm down! How can I calm down with her dressed like that?" Lauren yelled throwing her hands up in the air and stalking across the room.
Sheila gently patted Katie's arm reassuringly. "Don't worry. She's just not used to seeing you as an adult. She'll cool down in a moment or two," Sheila assured Katie quietly.
"What's wrong with my costume? I thought it would be great," Katie asked her lower lip beginning to quiver.
"Shh, nothing is wrong with it," Sheila said gently.
Lauren glared at one of the bouquets without really seeing it as she struggled to get her temper back under control. She clutched her fists to her sides taking deep breaths and letting them out. She's my kid sister! Not a damn streetwalker! Oh my god! What would mom think? If she finds out I let Katie go out like that I might as well sign my own death warrant. She's seventeen! She can't possibly be serious about wearing that… that… outfit.
Lauren opened her eyes turning her head to meet the gaze of her best friend. "What?" she asked in a clipped voice.
"Don't you think you're being a little hard on her?" Rachel asked nodding over her shoulder towards Katie.
Lauren glared at her. "You can't seriously agree with her going out looking like that!"
Rachel shrugged. "Why not? It's not like she's a kid anymore. Hell, I think she looks damn hot."
Lauren gaped at her. "What? Hot? Katie?"
Rachel chuckled reaching out to close Lauren's mouth. "Yeah, hot. Now quit being such a priss and go apologize to her so we can go." She spun Lauren around pushing her towards where Katie stood talking to Sheila.
Lauren stumbled glaring daggers over her shoulder at an unrepentant Rachel, who just shooed her forward. Lauren gritted her teeth looking at her sister and trying to see her as a young woman and not as her kid sister. She disassociated her feelings for a moment and looked at Katie dispassionately. Crap. Rachel's right. She does look hot, she thought slowly walking towards Katie. And she is seventeen not seven. I'm her sister not her mother. And it's not like we're going somewhere where there'll be a bunch of horny boys drooling over her. She paused as she realized just where they were going a smile gracing her lips. Of course I can't promise there won't be a number of drooling women--Rachel for one. Her smile broadened to a Cheshire grin as an image of all the women at the party falling over themselves trying to impress her little sister. This might actually be funny.
Katie looked up and Lauren saw the hurt she had caused reflected back at her. She swallowed the lump in her throat and said, "I'm sorry, Katie. I don't know what came over me. Call it a knee jerk reaction. Forgive me?"
Katie studied her stoically for a moment then smiled. "So you're done going apeshit?"
Lauren nodded. "Yeah."
"Then I suppose I'll forgive you just this once," Katie replied with a small smile.
"Thanks," Lauren said pulling her sister into a hug.
"Can we go now?" Rachel whined.
Lauren and Katie laughed as they broke their hug.
"Sure, Rach. Let's go," Lauren said.
"Finally!" Rachel said dramatically.
Sheila weaved her way through the crowd towards the refreshments table. She selected a cup of juice turning to survey the party. She spotted Benson dressed as a gladiator across the room with Louis dressed as a Roman lord tucked tenderly under one muscular arm. She smiled noticing the how much he and his cousin Ash resembled one another. Benson was hard to miss since he stood almost a head taller than everyone else in the room not to mention that like Ash he was extraordinarily good looking. She was glad that he and Louis had agreed to come. She was even more pleased when they had volunteered to drive them to the party. Somehow she felt safer seeing the big man across the room, especially since Lu was still missing in action.
She scanned the crowd spotting Katie holding court in one corner. She had a bevy of admirers around her and seemed to be having the time of her life despite the fact that her admirers were all women. I wonder how Lauren will feel about that? Sheila lifted her cup to hide the smile that developed when she spotted Rachel standing behind Katie with a lost look on her face. She's either drunk off her butt or she's totally gaga over our dear Katie, Sheila thought with a silent chuckle.
Two strong arms slid around her waist and before Sheila could react a deep throaty voice whispered, "Miss me?"
Sheila immediately relaxed falling back into the familiar embrace. "Terribly. Where have you been? It's after eleven," she asked gazing up and over her shoulder to see her lover's strong profile.
"We got held up," Lu replied turning Sheila around in her arms and leaning down to steal a kiss.
Sheila smiled before looking her lover over. "And what are you supposed to be?" she teased noting the usual black t-shirt and cargo pants that were her partner's every day wear. "And what's this?" she asked pulling a hot pink water pistol from its holster.
"What? You've never seen an undercover cop before?" Lu asked widening her eyes in mock disbelief. "And that, my dear, is my weapon of choice."
"Oh really? And what are you packing?" Sheila teased sniffing the end of the barrel. "Rum?"
"Blackberry brandy actually," Lu replied wiggling her eyebrows as she took the pistol from her and slipped it back in its holster beneath her left arm.
"Blackberry brandy?" Sheila asked surprised. Lu nodded smugly. "I see. And what pray tell did our dear Ash come as?"
"See for yourself," Lu replied taking Sheila's chin in her hand and gently turning her face.
Sheila looked across the room finally spotting Ash as she weaved around people without pause. "Wow. That's quite the outfit," she said admiring the dark leather. "Where did she ever come up with that?"
"Who knows?" Lu said with a chuckle. "Where's Lauren?"
"Mmm, I think she stepped out on the balcony to get a breath of fresh air," Sheila replied turning to look at her lover once more. "I think she's half convinced that Ash wasn't going to show."
Lu frowned. "Shit. I was afraid of that. Well, I hope Ash can make amends."
"I think you have your own amends to make," Sheila said sidling up close to her and pulling her head down to meet her waiting lips.
Lu paused with her lips hovering above Sheila's. "And sully a nun?" she asked dryly.
"You damn well better," Sheila growled.
Lu chuckled before dipping her head to meet her lover's hungry mouth.
Ash walked into the midst of the party clad in black leather. Her blue eyes scanned the throng unaware of the appraising looks that surreptitiously caressed her form. She had searched the entire party but hadn't seen Lauren anywhere. She spied Lu holding Sheila in her arms. Lu tilted her head towards the balcony. Ash nodded slightly walking towards the fluttering curtains that concealed the balcony. The sheer drapes the only thing that separated her from her love.
Louis spotted Ash walking to the back of the crowd and tried to follow to greet her but was stopped by a strong arm that surrounded his waist. He looked up to see Benson smiling down at him. "Let her be alone with Irish for awhile." Louis nodded and together they walked to another part of the party to socialize some more.
Standing just inside of the balcony doors she paused to calm her racing her heart. She raised a hand and gently pulled back the sheer curtain that billowed around her. She peered out into the blackness and saw someone standing at the balcony railing in the dim light. She took a deep breath and silently stepped onto the balcony.
She paused in the shadowed eave giving her eyes time to adjust. Her eyes fell upon the woman leaning against the railing and her breath caught. The moon peeked out from behind a cloud to illuminate her in pearly light. The woman leaned back from the railing to peer up at the moon and Ash gasped as Lauren's profile glowed in the soft light. Lauren's beauty left Ash completely breathless. In her mind she was convinced she was having a vision and that if she tried to touch this apparition or even utter a sound that this exquisite beauty would vanish leaving Ash forever alone.
Ash was brought from her trance when the fair maiden shivered. Taking her cape from her shoulders she stepped forward and gently settled it around the younger woman's fair shoulders. With this action Ash silently promised that she would always keep Lauren safe, warm, and loved.
Lauren pulled the cape around her more tightly before turning to thank the person who had cloaked her against the cold. Words would not leave her lips when she saw the warrior from her painting come to life before her very eyes. The magic of the moment was palpable and both women knew that words could break the spell.
Ash's eyes met Lauren's surprised green and she quickly enfolded her in her arms breathing in the sweet scent of roses.
Lauren wrapped her arms tightly around her, listening to the steady thump of Ash's heart, the warmth of her body chasing away the chill that had fallen over her. She pulled slightly away to peer up at Ash's chiseled profile and her heart leapt when Ash's pale blue eyes met hers a crooked grin twitching her full lips.
Ash lowered her head slightly to meet Lauren's lips setting off an explosion of emotion that swept through both of them. The world faded away until only the two of them existed the promise of forever surrounding them.
Henry glanced up from the desk when he heard the telltale sound of high heels upon the polished marble floor of the foyer. An elegant woman dressed in a cream colored linen suit strode confidently towards him. She wore dark glasses and a silken kerchief was tied around her auburn locks to keep them from being mussed by the wind. He scurried around the desk to greet her.
"Madame Dellacroix! So good to see you again," Henry greeted her stopping before her. "I see you brought you're beautiful blonde companion with you."
The woman smiled. "Bonjour, Henri. Oui, I go nowhere without her," she replied in a husky voice lilting with the sounds of France.
He loved the way his name sounded when she said it. She always made him feel important. Henry's grinned broadened as he knelt down to pet the beautiful golden Labrador. "How are you today, Isabeau?" he asked the dog, who wagged her tail. "We have been expecting you. You're suite is prepared."
"Bien. Could you have the boys take my things up? I wish to sit somewhere quiet and have something to drink," she replied as Henry stood. "It has been a long trip."
"At once," Henry said snapping his fingers to get the attention of two of the bellhops lounging by the desk. "You there! Go see to Madame Dellacroix's bags," he ordered imperiously.
The two bellhops sneered, but hurried towards the entryway. They may not like Henry, but they knew what side their bread was buttered on.
"May I escort you to the lounge?" Henry asked solicitously.
"Oui. Merci," Madame Dellacroix replied placing a long fingered hand unerringly on Henry's outstretched arm diamond rings flashing.
Henry grinned as he self-righteously escorted her across the foyer. It never failed to amaze him how she seemed to know exactly where everything was. Must be because she's been blind for so long, he surmised. She just senses things.
"I wish to sit somewhere out of the way, but where I can hear the television," she said as Henry led her into the dim interior of the lounge.
"Certainly," Henry replied guiding her around a couple of tables to one in the corner out of the main flow of traffic. "Here we are."
She nodded before taking a chair in the corner. "Down, Isabeau," she commanded softly and the dog lay down beside her chair.
"What can I bring you?" Henry asked.
"A sweet tea would be lovely," she replied cocking her head listening to the ambient noise of the room.
Henry nodded, then realizing she couldn't see that said, "Right away. Be right back."
He stepped up to the bar placing the lady's order. He leaned against the brass rail of the bar glancing up at the television. He scowled as another report of the fugitive woman, Judith Sinclair, hunted by the FBI, blared from the screen. He shook his head in disgust unable to believe that such people existed in this world. He thanked the bartender and turned.
His eyes fell upon Madame Dellacroix freezing him in his tracts. He would swear on a stack of bibles that she appeared to be glaring at the television. A small smile curled her lips that Henry could only describe as wicked. He swallowed shaking his head to dislodge such thoughts about one of the most prominent patrons of the hotel. Madame Dellacroix had been coming here since he was no more than a mere bellhop and the rumors ran that she was old money. She was mysterious and aloof. No one had ever seen Monsieur Dellacroix, but everyone assumed he existed. Maybe she's a widow? He wondered thoughtfully. Some said she had a place in the Garden District, but chose to stay at the hotel because it was more convenient to downtown New Orleans.
He closed his eyes and opened them once more to look at her. She seemed perfectly normal now--just a blind woman in an elegant suit waiting patiently for her drink. He berated himself for being fanciful walking the few paces to her table.
"Here you are, Madame," he said placing the drink before her.
"Merci, Henri," she said with a gracious nod. "What is all this nonsense on the television?"
Henry's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Nonsense?"
"This fugitive. This Judith Sinclair. What did she do?" Madame Dellacroix asked taking a sip of her drink.
"Oh! That. Umm, she killed some cop up in Washington, ma'am," Henry explained. He couldn't believe that only moments before he thought she had actually been watching the television. Stupid!
"Oh my," she replied clutching the pearls around her neck and twisting them nervously.
"No need to worry, ma'am. The police and FBI think she's left the country. No way is she here in New Orleans," Henry reassured her.
"Well that is reassuring," she replied patting her chest in obvious relief. "I believe I'll retire now, Henri. I do believe the trip has caught up with me."
"Certainly, Madame," Henry said scurrying around the side of the table to offer his services.
Madame Dellacroix smiled as she stood and rested her hand lightly on his outstretched forearm. "Merci, Henri, but I think that Isabeau and I can manage."
Henry blushed stepping aside to allow her to pass. "Of course," he stuttered.
She gave him a smile before turning and heading out of the bar towards the bank of elevators that would take her to her suite on the top floor of the elegant hotel Isabeau pacing her gracefully at her side.
Henry followed her out of the bar returning to his station at the front desk. His eyes continued to stray to her statuesque form standing patiently waiting for the elevator to arrive. He couldn't help himself. He was totally enamored with the mysterious woman.
Henry jumped spinning on his heel to see the hotel manager standing behind him scowling. "Y-yes sir?" he stuttered quickly straightening his jacket.
"Did you make sure Madame Dellacroix's suite was prepared?" Mr. Fontaine, the manager, asked tapping his foot impatiently.
"N-no, sir," Henry replied gulping. Seeing Mr. Fontaine's face darken he quickly added, "But I did send Juan and Jean to take her bags up. I figured they'd inspect the room and inform me if there were any problems."
Mr. Fontaine stared at him for a few moments making him sweat before nodding curtly and striding out from behind the front desk and towards where Madame Dellacroix was still waiting for the elevator.
Henry stuck out his tongue at his retreating back watching Mr. Fontaine step up beside Madame Dellacroix and speak. He bit back a grin as she waved him off. Fontaine started to speak once more and she must have said something rather curt by the way his face turned beet red. Henry openly grinned at his manager's discomfort. Take that, you bastard. She thinks you're a bootlicking ass, Henry crowed watching with glee as Fontaine scurried back across the foyer ducking his head like a whipped dog.
His eyes returned to Madame Dellacroix widening in shock. She stood looking back over her shoulder watching Fontaine's hasty retreat. She had pulled down her dark glasses and he could've sworn her dark eyes were shining with fiendish delight upon seeing Fontaine's obvious embarrassment. Henry quickly slid behind a potted plant as her gaze swept across the front desk. He swallowed nervously before peeking around the potted plant to see she as once more facing the elevator with her back to him. He slid down the wall his legs having lost any ability to hold him upright.
"I did not see that! I did not see that!" he chanted under his breath his heart beating wildly in his chest. He closed his eyes attempting to dispel the fear those dark brown eyes had instilled in him in just that brief glimpse. "She's blind. She's been coming here for years. You're just seeing things," he said trying to convince himself of the audacity of it all, but failing miserably. He could've sworn he'd seen unbridled madness in that brief glimpse into dark feral eyes, but he'd never known her to be anything but courteous. The very idea of her being… well evil was crazy. Wasn't it?
He didn't know how long he sat there shaking before he finally climbed to his knees to peek out at the elevators. He sighed in relief to see she was gone. He wiped his brow surprised when his hand came away sweaty.
"Henry! Where the hell are you?"
Henry jumped. "Shit," he swore under his breath standing. He tugged his jacket straight hurrying towards Mr. Fontaine.
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