"Coming!" Lauren heard Benson shout as she stood outside their door. Now that she was standing there, she suddenly felt nervous about asking them to meet them at the club.
The door swung open and Ben smiled at her. "Hey, Irish! What can I do for you?" Ben motioned for her to come in.
"Hey, Ben. I have a question for you and Louis," Lauren smiled as she followed Ben across the apartment to the kitchen where Louis was busy making lattes. "Hi, Louis. Think I can talk you out of one of those?"
"As if you had to ask?" Louis answered with a smile as he turned and presented a latte to her.
"Thanks, Louis. Youre the best." She sat down on one of the barstools and accepted the latte from him. She breathed in the heady aroma and groaned in delight.
"How could I do any less for such an appreciative audience?" Louis laughed as he handed Ben his cup and leaned against the counter across from her. "So, what brings you to our door at such an early hour? Isnt this your free morning?"
"Yeah, but I forgot to turn off my alarm so I was up at 7 and then my mother called so I figured I might as well get on with it," Lauren explained. "I just got off the phone with Rach and thats what actually brings me over."
"Oh? Whys that?" Ben asked as he sat down next to Lauren and sipped at his latte.
"Well, were planning on going out dancing tonight and I remembered you telling me that your cousin is a fabulous dancer so I figured you were probably going to go out tonight and I said that to Rach and she thought that maybe it would be a good idea if we all went together or met there because then we would have someone to keep the table while the rest were on the floor dancing and "
"Whoa! Slow down, Irish! Youre going to swallow your tongue!" Benson laughed as he patted her on the shoulder. Lauren blushed and came to an abrupt halt.
"As a matter of fact, we were thinking of dragging dear Ash out dancing tonight," Louis offered trying to get Bens attention.
"You did say you were going to go country dancing didnt you?" Lauren asked looking at Benson with such a hopeful expression that his heart almost burst.
"Yes, Irish. My cousin is a wonderful dancer and Im planning on taking full advantage of the fact while sh " Louis started to cough and Benson glanced at him and then realized that he had almost slipped. " um while Ash is here and glean all the tricks I can," Benson finished.
Lauren gave him a puzzled look and then asked Louis, "You okay?"
"Yes. I think it just went down the wrong tube," Louis said coughing again for affect and patting his chest. "I dont see any reason why we cant meet you there, Lauren. It sounds like a wonderful idea."
Benson looked at his lover startled. Huh, guess hes decided to up the timetable. Thank God, Irish came to ask us to meet them. I can just imagine walking in there and seeing them and then trying to figure out how to keep them apart! Ash is a little too big to hide in my back pocket and if I suddenly came down with a headache she would really be pissed. No, not a scenario I care to ponder. Benson shuddered involuntarily at the image of an irate Ash.
" right, Benson?" Louis asked.
"Hmmm? Oh, Im sorry, Louis, I missed that." Benson apologized as he returned his attention to the conversation at hand.
Louis sighed. "Really, Benson. Pay attention. I was just telling Lauren that we werent sure when Ash would be arriving so we would meet them there."
"Right. That sounds like a plan. Ash said something about arriving around 6. So we should have time to get a bite to eat and then head over," Benson stated nodding his head. "Hows that sound, Irish? We could probably be there by 9 or so."
"That sounds great!" Lauren smiled with joy. "Do you think your cousin will dance with me, Benson?"
Benson had just taken a sip of his latte and began to choke as he inhaled the hot liquid at Laurens question. Louis leaned over the counter and smacked him on the back.
"Im sure Ash would be more than happy to dance with such a beautiful young lady," Louis stated, eyeing his partner to make sure he was okay, so missed Laurens blush. "You okay, Benson?
Benson coughed once more and nodded. "Yeah, sorry. Must have gone down wrong."
"That seems to be happening a lot this morning," Lauren observed dryly, eyeing the two men with a touch of suspicion. "Is there something you two arent telling me?"
"Why, Lauren, whatever do you mean?" Louis asked making his eyes go big in an attempt to look innocent.
"No nothing." Benson offered raising his coffee cup to try and hide the grin that was fast approaching.
"Uh-huh," Lauren said narrowing her eyes. "You two are up to something, but for the life of me I cant figure out what."
Louis decided a subject change was in order. "So, what are you planning on wearing tonight?"
Lauren felt the heat rise to her face and she looked down into her cup. "Umm, Rach took me shopping yesterday and helped me pick some stuff out, but I dont think Ill have the guts to actually wear it out in public."
Louis crossed his arms over his chest. "And why the hell not? Rachel has good taste and Im sure she picked out something that will flatter you. Anything is better than your usual attire."
"Now, Louis, be nice. I happen to like the way Irish dresses," Benson admonished his lover and was rewarded by a grateful smile from Lauren.
"Hmmph. Well since my opinion doesnt seem to matter, I think Ill go downstairs to the gallery and work." Louis said haughtily. He set his cup in the sink and strode past the two and out the front door before either could make a reply.
They both stared at the closed door for a moment and then looked at each other. Both broke into grins at the same time and then started to laugh.
"Well, I guess he told us!" Lauren giggled as she picked up her latte.
"Guess so!" Benson agreed. "So, what did your mother have to say?"
Lauren shrugged. "You know, the usual. Hows school going? Are you coming home for Thanksgiving? Have you met a nice man yet?"
Ben noted the touch of bitterness that colored Laurens tone at the last statement. "I take it you havent told her youre gay yet."
Verdant eyes rose to meet his and Ben felt his heart go out to her. Fear flickered in those green depths and he could have sworn sorrow.
"No. Why should I?" Lauren laughed bitterly. "Its not worth it, Ben. Why should I risk alienating her when theres no one in my life right now? My sister Katie knows and she thinks its cool. I told my brother Darby before I left home and he was very supportive. I dont think hes told Lisa. Shes real religious and Im afraid that if he does tell her shes going to think Im some kind of deviant and not let me see the kids!" Lauren swallowed the tears that started to rise at the thought.
"Hey, Irish. Im sorry. I didnt mean to drag all this up," Benson apologized softly reaching out and taking her hand in his and giving it a reassuring squeeze.
"No. Its okay," she shook her head and returned the squeeze gratefully. "I figure when I find my tree in the forest and I know its for real, then Ill tell her. But its getting harder and harder to put her off. She was real insistent about coming home for Turkey day and my excuses are getting thinner and less believable."
Ben studied his young friend carefully. She had never revealed to him what had happened to prompt her to come here for school and never once go home to visit. He had some ideas, but wasnt sure. Whenever she talked about going home, it seemed like the self-assured, happy woman he knew turned into a scared little girl.
"Im sure everything will be fine, Irish. Who knows maybe youll meet someone between now and then and youll have someone to take home to mother!"
Lauren laughed. "Thanks, Ben. I doubt it. But thanks for trying to cheer me up!"
"Its what I live for!" Ben grinned, sitting back on his barstool and retrieving his latte.
"Hey, guess what?" Lauren asked thinking of her mothers interest in Ash.
"Hmm?" Ben asked looking at Lauren with polite interest.
"Guess who is a devoted fan of your cousin and wants me to put in an obscenely large bid on Ashs cd collection?" Lauren smiled mischievously. No way would Ben ever guess this!
Benson studied her. She was positively gloating at the knowledge. "Hmm, lets see " Benson pondered, tapping his chin. "This is a recent development?" Lauren nodded. "And youve talked to your mother and Rachel only this morning?" She nodded again with a slight frown. "I know Rachel doesnt have that kind of money so I would have to say your mother."
Lauren mouth dropped in shock. "How? How do you do that?"
"Deductive reasoning, my dear Watson," Benson grinned. "So, how did you get on the subject of Ash with your mother?"
"We were talking about the charity show and she asked if anybody famous was going to be there. I told her the only celebrity I knew for sure would be attending was your cousin," Lauren laughed. "You should have heard her, Ben! She was gushing like a teenager. Said she had seen Ash in concert several years ago and it was amazing!"
Benson nodded. "Yes, Ash definitely dominated a stage."
"Mom said several years ago so that means that Ash is either rather old or " Lauren looked at Ben expectantly.
He laughed. "No, Irish. Ash is younger than me. Ash was considered a child prodigy and starting performing at the age of 6."
Lauren eyes widened. "Wow! How come he doesnt have more cds out then?"
Ben shifted uncomfortably at the question and stared across the kitchen. "Ash stopped performing live at the age of 10. My aunt and uncle said it was no way to live and wanted Ash to have a more normal childhood. So, they packed up the family and moved back to the Manor. Ash still had private tutors and would do the occasional concert but nothing like before. The cd "The Early Years" is recordings from Ashs early concerts."
"Wow. That must have been really hard," Lauren said softly shaking her head.
"What?" Benson asked surprised by the response.
"To be in the limelight and be expected to perform at such a young age. Im glad Ashs parents did what they did. So how come when he graduated he didnt continue in music? Did something happen?"
"Umm " Ben definitely didnt want to go into this! "Some things happened and Ash left music for about 10 years." Ben held up his hand to keep her from asking. "No. Im not going to go into details. If you want to know youll have to ask Ash yourself."
Lauren nodded in defeat. "Okay, Benson. I cant help it. For some reason everything about your cousin fascinates me."
"Well soon at least a few of your questions will be answered!" Benson was pleasantly surprised by Laurens interest. Oh honey, if only you knew! He frowned. Maybe he should tell her? Was it really fair to let her continue to believe that Ash was a man? "Hey, Irish " the phone interrupted his statement.
Lauren grinned and got up from her barstool. "Ill see you tonight, Benson." She leaned in and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
"See you there," he promised as he reached for the phone. "Hello?"
Lauren walked across the apartment with a spring in her step. She glanced at her watch. Hmm, 11 a.m. Only 10 more hours and Ill be face to face with the infamous Ash Gray! She giggled at her thoughts. Geez, and I gave mother a hard time? Talk about calling the kettle black! She shook her head as she opened the door and let herself out.
Judith glanced up from the fashion magazine she had been flipping through to see Wayne finally approaching. She sighed. She hated being kept waiting and Wayne had let her sit her for the past 15 minutes. "Youre late," she replied coldly, returning her attention to the magazine.
"Im sorry darling," he apologized as he came up behind her and began to tease her shoulder length blonde hair. "I do believe I have some juicy gossip that will be of interest to you to pay for my rudeness."
"Oh?" Judith asked meeting Waynes eyes in the mirror. If there was one thing Wayne was good for it was the gossip. "And that would be?"
"Well, you know that Louis Richards is having that charity gala tomorrow night at his gallery?" Wayne asked lifting an eyebrow in question.
"So? What about it?" Judith asked. She hated the twenty questions routine, but she knew it was the only way Wayne would tell her anything so she sat back and waited.
"Youll never guess who has agreed to be there!" Wayne gloated. Cold brown eyes locked with his and Wayne swallowed, feeling a shiver course down his spine.
"Who?" Judiths voice was cold.
"Um Bensons cousin. Um Ash Gray I believe her name is," Wayne babbled. "Didnt you used to date her?" Judith released him from her gaze at the news and he raised a shaking hand to wipe the sweat from his brow.
"So the infamous Ash Gray is going to come down off her mountain and grace us with her presence. Interesting." Judith said steepling her fingers under her chin. Her mind was whirling at the news. She hadnt seen Ash in 3 years, but oh how she remembered her! Alexi, her replacement, wasnt nearly as passionate. Truly a disappoint in all ways, but if Ash had resurfaced maybe she had a chance to get her back in her clutches. "So Wayne?"
"Yes?" he asked quietly as he studiously avoided her gaze and went about preparing her hair for the set.
"How does one get invited to this little event?"
"The afternoon showing is open to the public," he offered hoping she wouldnt ask more.
Judiths eyes narrowed dangerously. "Wayne, you and I know that the celebrities are not going to be present in the afternoon free for all. How do you get into the evening auction?
Wayne swallowed. "Um its by invitation only, Judith."
"I see," Judith said her eyes narrowing in thought.
Wayne continued to fuss with her hair praying she wouldnt ask. Please, God!
"Do you have a copy of the guest list, Wayne?" Judith asked with a sweet smile.
Wayne swallowed. He was never more afraid then when Judith turned on the charm. It always meant trouble. "As a matter of fact I do. Would you like to see it?"
"I would be most grateful," she said as she turned her chair around to face him.
He took a step back and nodded. "Ill Ill go get it. Its in my bag," he said with an obvious quaver in his voice. She nodded and he turned and practically fled.
Judith let a cold laugh past her lips. "Oh this is delicious! Have you missed me, Ashlin? I bet you have." A cruel smile curled her lips as she began her plans on how to crash the event.
Ashlin pulled her truck into the back parking lot of Bensons building with an audible sigh of relief. She scanned the lot and saw an open space and pulled in. She turned off the engine and rested her head on the steering wheel trying to relieve the tension that had infused her body ever since she entered the outskirts of town. The rush hour traffic and the rain hadnt helped her mood and by the time she had gotten here her nerves were about shot.
She sighed and sat up. "Guess its time to go in and face the boys." She turned in her seat and pulled her oiled duster from the back and struggled into it. She grabbed her Stetson and pulled it on. Frowning at the rain she opened her door and flipped the seat back to reach for her guitar cases and duffle. "No way am I leaving these in the truck."
She grabbed her things and slammed the door shut, pressing the alarm button on her key chain she turned and dashed for the back door of the building. She juggled the cases and finally managed to get the door open and slid in. She stood in the quiet, dimly lit hall for a few moments assessing everything around her. She cocked her head and listened to the muted noises coming from down the hallway. She knew that door led to the gallery and she figured that Louis still had people there finishing up last minute details for the show tomorrow. She turned her attention to the stairs and started up.
"Hope Bensons planning on feeding me, Im starved," she muttered as she made her way up the narrow staircase. She walked down the hall and paused at the door to the rental cocking her head to listen. Her music was playing behind the door. "Huh, now thats a surprise." She shook her head and continued down the hall to her cousins door. Reaching it, she kicked it a couple of times to announce her presence.
"Yeah! Im coming! You dont have to kick the door in!"
Ash grinned at the voice. The door swung open and she was face to face with her cousin Benson. "Hey, Benson. Mind if I come in and put some of this stuff down?" she asked holding her bags aloft.
Bensons face lit up at the sight of her. "Ash! Damn but its good to see you! Get in here!" He pulled the door wide and reached out to take her duffle. He knew better than to try and take the guitar cases. "Hey, whats in the little case? You start playing the violin or something?"
Ashlin snorted as she made her way past her cousin and laid the cases down on the coffee table. She shrugged out of her duster and laid it across the chair by the fireplace to dry. Pulling off her hat and shaking the water from it she said, "No, Benson. That is not a violin. Its a mandolin and I thought Id bring it along. Its something Ive been fooling around with and I thought I might get a chance to play it while I was here." She glanced around the loft and noticed that Louis had redecorated again. "So, wheres Louis?"
Benson smiled and gave a deprecating shrug. "Where else? Down in the gallery yelling at muscle clad imbeciles!"
Ashlin grinned and nodded. "That sounds about right. So, you gonna feed me or what?"
Ben laughed. "Yeah, I was planning on it. Let me give Louis a call and tell him your here. Believe me the boys will thank you!" Ben walked out of the room towards the office to make the call.
Ash looked around the loft and had to admit that Louis was really a pretty good decorator. She walked into the kitchen and over to the French doors that led to a small balcony. The rain was coming down in sheets and she shook her head. "Now I remember what I liked about Seattle."
"What was that, Ash?" Benson asked coming up behind her and looking out at the rain with a grimace.
Ash glanced over her shoulder and gave him a smile. "Oh, just remembering what it was like to wake up to the sound of rain almost every day!"
Ben chuckled. "Yeah, it does rain a lot here doesnt it? Oh well, you get used to it. Want something to drink while we wait for Louis?"
"Sure," Ash said as she followed Ben back into the kitchen and took a seat at the bar. "So, whod you rent the studio down the hall to?"
Ben paused in the process of pulling the wine glasses down. "Oh, thats right. The apartment was still empty when you were here last." He brought the glasses down and pulled out a merlot. "Merlot okay?"
"Fine," she said watching her cousin closely. Something was definitely up.
"We finally rented the studio to a college student about two years ago. An English and medieval history major if you can believe that," he said as he opened the wine and set it out to breath. "Shes working on her masters thesis now and will probably be moving out the end of the semester. Shes a real sweetheart. Quite the writer too."
"Uh-huh. Whats the story, Ben? I heard my Gaelic cd playing in there as I walked by," she asked watching Ben fiddle with the wine glasses and then stride over to the fridge and start pulling out some cheese and fruit.
"Oh that. Louis gave it to her. Thought she might enjoy it being a history buff and all," Ben said trying to sound nonchalant as he pulled down the cutting board and began to slice cheese.
"Louis gave it to her?"
Ben heard Ashs voice drop an octave and swallowed. Oh shit! "So, hows the family? Davis have a new girlfriend yet? Hows Graham doing?" Benson knew he was babbling but he was hoping that something would spark her interest and he wouldnt be interrogated about Irish.
"Benson. Turn around and look at me," Ashs voice was low and demanding.
Ben sighed and set the knife down. Ash watched as Ben steeled himself to face her. She didnt know what the hell was going on, but shed be damned if Ben and Louis were going to ambush her on this visit. It was time to get some answers. She watched him through narrowed eyes as he turned around with a sickly smile and leaned against the counter, folding his arms across his broad chest.
"Yes, Ash?" his voice rising from his usual bass to an almost tenor when he saw the look on her face.
"What have you and Louis cooked up?" Ben started to protest and she held up a hand in warning. "Dont Ben. Dont deny it. Ive known you all my life and youve never been able to hide anything from me. Youve been acting all weird since I mentioned the studio apartment. Now, I figure its not the apartment thats got you all flustered, therefore it must be the tenant. So spill it."
Ben sighed and glanced down to study his shoes. "Im not plotting anything, Ash. Ive just been worried about you." He looked at her out of the corner of his eye and saw the look of surprise on her face. "We really havent had a chance to talk in quite awhile. And what discussions we have had have been less than enlightening."
Ash opened her mouth to respond but nothing came out. She shook her head and ran a hand through her damp hair. "Im sorry, Ben. Things have been "
Ben waited for her continue but when she didnt he walked over to her and gently put his arms around her shoulders. She stiffened and then with a sigh relaxed back into his broad chest. "What is it, Ash?" he asked softly, gently stroking her hair.
Ash closed her eyes and fought back the tears. "I dont know. Ive just been feeling raw. Emotionally, I mean."
"Im sorry, Ash," Ben said softly as he felt her shake in his arms.
"No, its okay. Really," Ash said as she pulled out of his embrace and wiped her eyes. She stood up from the stool and walked around the bar into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine. She needed to get some physical distance so she could put her walls back up, something that was becoming harder and harder to do. "Nice try. But I still want to know what youre plotting."
Ben surprised himself by laughing. Ash turned with her glass of wine and an eyebrow rose. He saw the look and laughed even harder.
"You find this amusing?" Ash asked in a soft voice as she took a sip of her wine and leaned against the counter.
"No no Im sorry, Ash. For some reason that struck me as funny," Ben chuckled trying to catch his breath. He placed his hands flat on the counter and gave her a rakish grin. "Why is it you always think that Louis and I are plotting something?"
"Because you usually are," she grinned and turned to pour him a glass of wine. She picked up both glasses and with a nod towards the living room said, "Shall we take this conversation into more comfortable surroundings?"
Ben shook his head and followed his cousin into the living room and sat down on the couch next to her. He took the glass of wine she held out with a nod. "Well, we usually are so I guess youd be correct in assuming such."
"Mm-hmm. So you want to tell me what it is this time so I dont have to beat it out of you?" Ash asked, leaning back and sipping her wine.
"Oh hell," Ben sighed. "Why do I even try?
"Fine. If you must know, I thought it would be nice to go dancing tonight and we happen to be meeting some friends at the club," Ben explained, watching Ashs face. Seeing only polite interest, he continued, "Female friends." Ash frowned. "Hey wait. Im not trying to set you up on a date or anything. Irish is the student renting the studio and is also one of the artists who will be in the show tomorrow. Shes bringing her friend Rachel."
"Artist? I thought you said she was a writer?" Ash asked intrigued in spite of herself. "And what kind of a name is Irish?"
Ben laughed. "Oh, Irish is the nickname I ended up giving her since her last name is OShea. Her first name is Lauren. And she is primarily a writer, but the other day I was in her apartment fixing her sink and saw this canvas and took a look at it." He leaned forward and caught Ashs gaze. "It was the most amazing painting, Ash. Totally blew my socks off. I just stood there and stared like a damn fool."
Ash chuckled. "I can believe that. So, shes been living her for what? Almost 2 years and you just now discover that she can paint?"
Ben nodded sheepishly. "Yeah. It was a well kept secret thats for sure."
"Youre not trying to fix me up on a date are you, Ben?" Ash asked with a touch of menace in her voice.
"No! Would I do that?" Ash nodded. "No. Actually Irish is the one who asked if we would meet them at the club. She thought it would be easier to keep a table with a group of us."
"So, what does she know about me?" Ash asked quietly as she ran her finger over the lip of her wineglass.
"Nothing much. She knows youre my cousin and she loves your music," Ben reassured. "If you want to know the truth, she thinks youre a guy."
Ash sat up straight at that. "What?"
Ben nodded. "Yeah. I thought it was kind of funny at first, but now Im thinking maybe I should have corrected her."
Ash smiled slightly. "Well, I guess shell be in for a surprise then wont she?"
"Youre not mad?" Ben asked eyeing her cautiously.
She waved a hand in dismissal. "Nah. Why should I be? Were just going out and meeting a few friends to go dancing right?"
"Right," Ben quickly agreed. "I think youll like Irish. Shes a sweet girl."
Ash rolled her eyes. "Ben, you said you werent going to fix me up."
"Im not. I just thought you might be interested in knowing something about the girls were going to meet."
"Then why dont you tell me about her friend Rachel?" Ash asked with a small grin.
Benson threw up his hands in defeat. "Fine. Rachel is 56" or so, has curly shoulder length blonde hair, brown eyes, and a body that would stop a truck."
Ash laughed at the description. "Dont hold back on me, Ben!"
Ben grinned. "Well, its true. Shes also a real player. Not the settling down type but sweet nonetheless. I think shes a media major."
"Hmm. Okay, now you can go ahead and tell me about your pet lesbian Lauren," Ash smirked waiting for the explosion.
"Hey!" Ben said outraged. "She is not my pet anything! You be nice to her, Ash. Shes a sweet kid and I liker her. I dont want to see her hurt."
"Whoa! Easy there, big guy. I didnt know I was going to be put in the position of hurting her," Ash said defensively.
Ben snorted. "Hell, you just walk into a room and hearts break."
Ash chuckled. "Have a pretty high opinion of my charms, dontcha?"
"Well its true and you know it," Ben said pointing an accusing finger at her. "How can any woman resist you?"
"Me?" Ash pointed to her chest and gave him her best bambi doe look.
"Yeah you! Miss tall, dark, and mysterious. Women swoon and practically throw themselves in your lap!" Ben said waving his arms in emphasis. "You walk into a room and the world pauses. Dont tell me you dont know that. Youre stunning, Ash. I happen to believe it comes from good genes."
Ash tried to keep a straight face, but she made the mistake of meeting Bens eyes and burst into laughter. Ben grinned with pride and picked up his glass of wine.
"So there!" he announced and drank down the rest of his wine.
"Okay, Ben. We have great genetic stock and we just cant help how dazzling we are," Ash chuckled nudging Ben with her knee.
"Exactly," Ben nodded.
"So, you going to tell me what Lauren looks like or are you going to make me guess?" Ash asked.
"I think Ill make you guess," Ben replied. He was happy to see that Ash had lightened up and seemed to be enjoying herself. He had to admit that the scene in the kitchen had spooked him a little. Ash rarely lost control of her emotions. He had a feeling that she was nearer to the breaking point than she realized. He just hoped she would let him help when the time came.
"Hmm, lets see," Ash said sitting back and stroking her chin. "You said her last name was OShea and thats why you call her Irish, right?" Ben nodded. "So, Id say she probably has red hair no, strawberry blonde. And most Irish lasses have either blue or green eyes and I think Ill pick green. How am I doing?"
Ben stared at her. "Umm so far so good."
"So, lets see a strawberry blonde with green eyes living in Seattle. Id say she keeps her hair pretty short and its not straight maybe has a bit of natural wave to it. Probably doesnt tan real well but Im thinking she has a golden skin tone. Probably not very tall considering the genetic stock so Ill go with the national average of 54". Shes gay so Im guessing shes probably in pretty good shape. You said she was working on her masters thesis so Im guessing her age to be between 23 and 25." Ash raised an eyebrow in question.
Ben just stared at her with his mouth hanging open. She laughed and he snapped his mouth closed. "How the hell do you do that? You practically described her to a T!"
"Deductive reasoning, Ben. Its not that difficult," Ash answered casually. She felt anything but. This was an old game between the two of them, but this time something was different. As soon as she had started her description a picture had formed in her mind and she had just described it. Nothing like that had happened before and it felt strange.
"You saw her when you came in, right?" Ben asked thinking he had figured it out.
Ash shook her head. "No, I didnt see anyone. So want to tell me what points I had right?"
"I can do better than that," Ben said and jumped up from the couch and walked over to fireplace mantle.
Ash turned around to follow his path and watched as Ben pulled down a framed picture and held it out to her. She raised an eyebrow in question and then took the picture. She glanced down and felt the breath leave her body. There before her was a picture of the woman she had pictured in her mind, laughing up at Benson with beautiful green eyes. Her strawberry blonde hair was wind tossed and framed her joy filled face. "Thats Lauren?" she whispered raising a hand that trembled slightly and stroking Laurens face with a finger.
Ben watched his cousins reaction. She had gone perfectly still when her gaze fell upon Lauren. He almost missed the question, he was so intent on her. "Yeah, thats Irish. Shes something else, huh?"
Ash nodded her eyes never leaving the photo. "Beautiful," she whispered.
Before Ben could reply the front door opened and Louis came in.
"Greetings all! I am here so the party may now officially begin!" Louis announced as he walked up to Ben and pulled his head down for a kiss.
Ben kissed his lover and when he turned back to Ash she had set the photo down on the coffee table and was greeting Louis like nothing had happened. Ben shook his head. I have a feeling, cuz, that you are smitten with our young Irish lass. Im not sure what you saw when you looked at that the photo but its the most emotion Ive seen out of you since before you left home.
"Well, let me throw something decent on and then I do believe Ben promised me dinner," Ash said as she picked up her duffel.
"Marvelous. Go ahead and freshen up, Ash. Ill just discuss with loverboy here where we should take you," Louis said with a smile.
"Sounds good. I should be ready in 20 minutes," Ash said over her shoulder as she made her way down the hall to the bathroom.
"Take your time, dear. Were not on a timetable!" Louis yelled after her. He turned back to Ben when he heard the door to the bath close. "So? How is she?"
"Hmm, not too bad. I have a feeling that she and Irish are really going to hit it off," Ben mused as he sat back down on the couch.
"Oh? What makes you say so?" Louis asked as he sat down next to Ben.
Ben shrugged. "Well, she managed to get me to tell her where we were going and the fact that we were meeting some other people." Louis stiffened. "Hey, you know Ive never been able to hide anything from her. Besides, surprising Ash is never a good idea. We talked about Irish and Rachel and I ended up showing her a picture of Irish."
"And?" Louis asked impatiently.
"And well, lets just say I think Ash is going to like her," Ben shrugged.
Louis sighed. "You would make the worse spy! Details, man! I want details!"
"Youll just have to wait and see. Its just a gut feeling, Louis. Nothing concrete," Ben said.
"Well, your gut feelings about her are usually pretty accurate. Guess well see what happens when we get to the club," Louis said settling back against Bens chest. Bens arms came around him in an automatic gesture.
"Yep, guess well see."
"Lets divide and conquer," Rachel said as she handed her coat over to be checked and accepted her claims ticket.
"Okay. What do you have in mind?" Lauren asked as the two of them made their way into the bar proper. She looked around and was happy to see it wasnt too crowded yet.
"Why dont I go up to the bar and get us some drinks and you go and find us a table," Rachel said.
"Sounds good. Ill have whatever microbrew they have on tap," Lauren said and watched Rachel grimace. "I like beer, Rach."
"Yeah, whatever," Rachel said waving her hand. She turned and made her way towards the bar.
Lauren laughed and started looking for a good table. She was happy to find one right on the dance floor, but back behind the speakers so they should be able to talk without having to yell. She sat down and waited for Rachel to return. She glanced around the bar and recognized a few of the women there from other times she had been there and smiled and waved when they looked her way.
"Already scoping out potential dance partners?" Rachel asked as she set their drinks down on the table and took her seat.
"No, just being friendly," Lauren said picking up her glass and taking a healthy swallow. "Ah, that really hits the spot."
"I dont know how you drink that swill," Rachel said making a face as she sipped at her drink.
"Misspent youth," Lauren grinned.
"Yeah sure. Tell me another one, Laur, Im feeling gullible tonight," Rachel said sarcastically nudging Lauren with her shoulder.
Lauren laughed. She was starting to think that this was going to be a good night. She had a feeling that something momentous was going to happen and it made butterflies dance in her stomach.
"You sure are in a good mood tonight," Rachel observed.
"Yeah, I am," Lauren replied, sitting back in her chair. "I just have a good feeling about tonight, Rach. I cant explain it, but theres magic in the air."
"You are a hopeless romantic," Rachel said pointing a finger at her friend.
"No, Rachel. Im a hopeful romantic. Big difference," Lauren said seriously.
"Whatever you say," Rachel said with a shrug. "So when did the boys say theyd be here?"
"Ben said that he thought Ash would arrive around 6 and they wanted to eat before coming out. He said to expect them sometime after 9," Lauren replied feeling the butterflies speed up. "So I guess we have an hour to kill."
"Hmm, well I can think of many ways to kill an hour," Rachel said suggestively.
"You are so bad!"
"Yeah, but you love me anyway." Rachel glanced around the bar seeing who was here and who was potential date material.
"See anything you like?" Lauren asked.
"Nah, not yet. Im sure I will before the night is over though," Rachel said with a shrug as she returned her attention to Lauren.
"Oh, I have no doubt. Especially not in that outfit," Lauren said, pointing at her friend.
"What?" Rachel asked innocently. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with this outfit."
Lauren looked her friend over and had to admit that Rachel had curves in all the right places. She had on a red silk blouse with the top three buttons undone which let just a hint of the lace bra she was wearing peek out when she moved. A form fitting black leather miniskirt that showed off her legs to good effect and what the boys would have called fuck me pumps in black. "I didnt say there was anything wrong with it. I just said that Id be surprised if you walked out of here alone dressed like that. I dont know how youre going to dance in that though."
"Have no fear, my dear. I can dance in just about anything!" Rachel announced with a wink.
"If you say so," Lauren said with a doubtful look on her face.
"Come on. Ill show you," Rachel said grabbing Laurens hand and pulling her onto the dance floor.
"Hey!" Lauren exclaimed as she managed to just barely set her drink down.
"Now, follow me," Rachel said as she took Lauren into her arms and waltzed her around the floor with no problem.
Lauren laughed in her friends arms. "You are something else!"
"Yep," Rachel grinned smugly and sent Lauren out in a spin. "I am definitely that and oh so much more!"
They finished the dance and laughing returned to their table. They collapsed at their table and took up their drinks. They sat and people watched and Rachel ran a running commentary on the clothing choices of each new woman to walk into the bar keeping Lauren in stitches.
Lauren began glancing towards the door as 9 oclock approached. But so far she hadnt spotted the boys and she was feeling more and more nervous as the time drew closer.
Lauren jumped as a hand settled on her shoulder and she looked up to see Rachel standing next to her. "Im sorry, Rach. What?"
"I said Ill watch the table here if youll let this lovely creature give you a spin around the floor. I told her you were a fabulous two-stepper and she wants you to prove it," Rachel said taking a seat at their table.
Lauren stared at her for a few moments and then smiled weakly at the tall brunette smiling down on her. "Well, guess Ill just have to prove it then wont I?"
"It would be my pleasure," the brunette said offering her hand to Lauren.
Lauren accepted it and let herself be led onto the dance floor. It was a typical Rachel move and she should have been expecting it, but she had been so distracted watching for the boys that she hadnt seen it coming.
"Rachel didnt really introduce us. My names Lauren," she said looking up at her dance partner. She had to admit that she was attractive. She had soft brown hair cut close to her head making her gray eyes stand out in her handsome face.
"Im Sam. Nice to meet you," she said as she sent Lauren out in a spin and deftly reeled her back in. "Rachel wasnt kidding when she said you were a great dancer."
Lauren blushed. "Thanks. Its not hard when you have a good lead."
"Ill take that as a compliment," Sam replied with a grin as she spun Lauren around the floor.
The song ended and Sam escorted her back to their table.
"Thanks for the dance, Lauren. Mind if I have another later?" Sam asked as she gallantly pulled out Laurens chair for her.
"Sure. Ill be here all night. Thanks for the dance, Sam. Youre a great lead," Lauren smiled as she took her seat.
Sam grinned and with a small wave walked back into the crowd.
"You are so dead," Lauren said to Rachel leaning over the table to be heard.
"What? You needed to relax and Sams a great distraction," Rachel said with a shrug. She glanced towards the door and her eyes widened at the sight of Ben and Louis walking in with the most gorgeous woman Rachel had ever seen. "Umm, Lauren?"
"What?" Lauren asked as she watched the dancers on the floor.
"Did Ben ever tell you what Ash looked like?" Rachel questioned as she watched the boys and the woman check their coats. The woman could be a female doppelganger of Benson. She had the same raven black hair and dazzling blue eyes and must have been at least 6 feet tall. She watched as they began to make their way towards them. Well the boys walked, the woman practically glided. She was wearing faded jeans that fit snuggly over her long muscular legs and a powder blue oxford with the sleeves rolled halfway up exposing tan muscular forearms. Ben spotted her and waved.
Lauren shrugged at the odd question. "No. I figure he looks a lot like Ben. They are cousins after all. Why?"
"Well, I think you may have been mistaken on one small detail," Rachel said quietly as the boys and the woman came up behind Lauren.
Lauren turned away from the dance floor and looked at her friend. "What would that be, Rach?"
"Hi guys. Whos your friend?" Rachel asked looking over Laurens shoulder.
Lauren spun around and saw Ben and Louis standing behind her. "Hi guys! Glad you could make it. Didnt Ash make it into town?"
Benson grinned, "Yeah." He reached down and taking Laurens hands pulled her up from her seat and turned her to face Ash. "Irish, Id like you to meet my cousin, Ashlin Gray. Ash, this is Lauren OShea."
Lauren glanced up at the statuesque woman in front of her and almost passed out when Ben introduced her as his cousin.
"Its a pleasure to meet you, Lauren," a low contralto voice said softly, offering her hand.
Lauren glanced up and her gaze met the face of the woman in her dreams. She felt all the blood drain from her face as her vision narrowed to the beautiful face before her and dazzling blue eyes. She stumbled forward and would have fallen if Ashs hadnt reached out and steadied her. A feeling of familiarity and safety coursed through her at Ashlins touch.
"Are you all right?" Ash asked with obvious concern. The picture of Lauren hadnt prepared her for the woman who stood before her. It hadnt captured her vibrancy and energy. When Laurens green eyes raised and met hers she felt an electric jolt course through her body.
"Im Im fine. Sorry. I must have tripped," Lauren croaked unable to look away from Ashs concerned face.
The other three watched the tableau in front of them. Benson and Louis looked smug and Rachel was shocked. Ash was a woman? Holy shit! She looks just like the warrior in Laurens painting. This is way too weird. Rachel shook her head.
"Maybe we should sit down," Ash offered even though Lauren felt very nice in her arms. Almost like she was meant to be there. Ash mentally shook her head at the wayward thought.
"Oh! Sorry!" Lauren blushed and stepped back. She was flustered and was afraid she had made a total fool of herself in front of Ash.
Ash saw the blush and smiled. "Hey, no harm done." She led Lauren back to the table and pulled a chair out for her. Lauren smiled gratefully at her and took a seat. Ash found the young womans honesty refreshing. She studied the young woman admiring the way her emerald green shirt enhanced the color of her eyes and the tight black jeans hugged her hips.
"What will you have to drink, Ash? Im making a bar run," Benson asked.
"Whatever microbrew they have on tap will be fine," Ash said taking a seat next to Lauren.
Rachel burst out laughing and Lauren smiled weakly at Ash.
"Whats so funny?" Louis asked as he sat down and looked at Rachel like she had lost her mind.
"Nothing. I just feel like Im in a Twilight Zone episode," Rachel gasped wiping her eyes. "Ill have a white wine spritzer, Ben."
"Irish? You want your usual?" Ben questioned leaning down so he could hear her answer.
"That would be fine, Ben. Thanks," Lauren answered with a smile.
"Okay then. Be right back," Ben said as he made his way through the crowd towards the bar.
"Hi, Im Rachel," she said offering her hand to Ash.
Ash smiled and shook the offered hand. "Pleasure to meet you."
Rachel grinned and thought she detected a slight accent in Ashs voice. Huh, Ben doesnt have an accent. I do believe I could sit here all night and just look at this woman. I have a feeling Lauren feels the same way. She glanced at her friend and saw she still had a dazed expression on her face as she tried not to stare at Ash.
A waltz came on and Louis turned to Ash. "Ash would you honor me with the first dance?"
Ash nodded her assent and stood. She needed to get away from the table for a few moments anyway to collect her thoughts. She didnt know what it was about Lauren, but she felt some kind of connection to her and it was scaring her.
Louis came around the table and led Ash onto the floor. Ash took the lead and they spun off into the crowd.
"Wow!" Rachel exclaimed as they disappeared into the crowd. "That is one fine looking woman. I cant believe Ben didnt tell us that Ash was a woman. And she looks just like your painting, Laur! That is so weird! Are you sure were not dreaming? Maybe you should pinch me." Rachel offered her arm to Lauren.
Lauren smiled weakly and pinched her.
"Ow! Guess not!" Rachel said pulling her arm back.
Lauren glanced around the dance floor and spotted Ash and Louis. She watched mesmerized as Ash deftly led Louis around the crowded floor effortlessly. She seems to be almost floating above the floor her moves are so graceful.
"Earth to Lauren! You in there?" Rachel asked waving her hand in front of Laurens face.
"Huh? Yeah, Im here. What do you want?" Lauren asked with distraction. Her eyes continued to follow Ash around the floor.
"Boy, have you got it bad. And you dont even know her," Rachel stated scooting closer to Lauren so she didnt have to shout.
"I feel like I know her," Lauren said softly.
Before Rachel could reply Ben returned and set down the drinks. "Hey girls. Heres the firewater. So, Irish, what do you think of Ash?" Lauren didnt seem to hear him and he looked at Rachel with puzzlement. "Whats with her?"
"You are an evil man," Rachel said taking her drink and pinning Ben with an evil glare.
"What did I do?" Ben asked as he took a seat and grabbed his beer.
"You led us to believe Ash was a man. Do you have no shame?" Rachel accused leaning forward and punching Ben on the arm.
"Hey!" Ben said scooting his chair farther away from Rachel. "Its not my fault you decided that Ash had to be a guy just because of her name."
"Well, I think Lauren has gone off the deep end," Rachel said pointing towards Lauren who was still avidly watching Ash.
Ben glanced at Lauren and saw the dazed expression. Shit! I really should have warned her. Especially after I saw that painting! Ben stomach cramped at the thought.
Louis and Ash came back to the table and took their seats. Louis looked at the three of them and wondered what the hell had gone on while he and Ash were on the dance floor. Rachel was giving Ben the evil eye and Ben was looking like someone had just run over his dog. Lauren was looking a bit pale but seemed to be rallying. A nice two-step came on and gave Louis and idea.
"Hey, Ash. Why dont you give Lauren a spin? Ben tells me shes a fantastic dancer. Im sure between the two of you, you can clear the dance floor," Louis offered looking at Ash.
Ash felt trapped as Laurens green eyes met hers and a hopeful smile graced her full lips. "Umm, sure. Lauren?"
Lauren nodded and eagerly took the outstretched hand. She had wanted to ask Ash herself, but knew she never would have gotten up the courage. Ashs strong hand took hers and she felt that surge of familiarity course through her again and shivered.
Ash led Lauren onto the dance floor hoping Lauren didnt notice how nervous she was. Her legs were shaking and she felt light headed. The feel of Laurens hand in hers was a heady experience and she was afraid she would spontaneously combust when she took Lauren into her arms to dance with her.
Lauren smiled up at her with delight as Ash turned and swept her into her arms. They fit together perfectly and danced like they had been doing this together for years. Lauren lost herself to the feel of Ashs strong arms around her and the gentle beat of the music. It felt like a dream. One she was hoping she would never wake from. She knew she was grinning like a fool, but couldnt seem to stop.
Rachel watched as Ash swept Lauren into her arms. "Shit, they look like theyve been doing that for years!"
"Yeah," Ben nodded, watching as Ash led Lauren through a complex set of spins. "Ive never tried spins like that even with Louis. And weve been dancing together for years. Lauren follows Ashs cues like she knows theyre coming."
"I have a feeling that if the rest of us want to dance it will have to be with each other," Louis observed as Ash pulled Lauren close once more and they moved as one across the floor.
The other two nodded in agreement.
Ash was having the time of her life. She had never had a partner like Lauren. It was like Lauren anticipated every move she made and flowed through the moves flawlessly. Ash felt herself grinning and for the first time in a long while just enjoyed the moment.
The song came to and end. Ash continued to hold Lauren close, inhaling the sweet fragrance of her hair. She didnt want it to end. A slow waltz came on and she bent down to whisper into Laurens ear. "You want to stay out here?"
Lauren shivered at the feel of Ashs breath on her ear. "I would be delighted," she said as she glanced up and felt herself once more falling into the cool crystal depths of Ashs eyes.
Ash smiled. "Ive never had a partner as good as you." Ash tightened her hold slightly and began to lead them across the floor in a slow waltz. She felt Laurens body fit snugly against hers and felt her own body flush at the nearness.
"Thank you," Lauren blushed as she laid her head against Ashs broad shoulder and listened to the steady beat of her partners heart.
Ash lost herself to the moment. The feel of Lauren in her arms, her soft hair brushing her chin, her warm hand fitting perfectly into hers. Ash absently rubbed Laurens back as she led her around the floor.
The song came to an end but neither moved away. They stood in each others arms as the crowd ebbed and flowed around them. Someone bumped into them breaking the moment and Ash loosened her hold suddenly feeling self-conscious.
Lauren glanced up and saw the uncertainty flicker across Ashs chiseled features. "Hey, how about a beer? All this dancing has made me thirsty." Lauren took a step back allowing Ash some space, but keeping claim to her hand.
Ash grinned. "Sure. I could use one." She placed her hand on the small of Laurens back and deftly guided her through the crowd to their table and waiting friends.
The three saw them approach and Rachel began to clap. Ben grinned at her and started clapping too. Louis rolled his eyes but joined in.
Lauren blushed and Ash gave them a cold stare but it didnt deter their applause.
"Damn but you guys looked great out there!" Rachel enthused pulling Lauren into a quick hug.
"Thanks," Lauren murmured into her friends shoulder. She was on cloud 9 and really didnt want to come down yet.
"Ash, I do believe youve gotten better," Ben commented moving out of the way so that Ash could claim the seat next to Lauren.
"Helps to have a good partner," Ash said, nodding towards Lauren.
"Here. I got you two fresh drinks. After that display, Im sure you can use them," Louis said pushing the beers toward the two women.
"Thanks, Louis," Lauren said as she picked up the beer and took a long drink. She was overheated, but she thought it had more to do with the partner then the actually dancing.
"Thanks," Ash nodded, taking the offered beer. She sat back in her chair and glanced around the bar. It was a typical Friday night, so was packed to the rafters.
Rachel looked at her friend and could have sworn she was glowing. She leaned in to whisper into Laurens ear not wanting their tablemates to hear her. "So was it as good as it looked?"
Lauren glanced at Rachels inquiring face and felt the smile spread across her face. "Better," she whispered back.
Rachel gave her an oh really? look and Lauren nodded. Rachel sat back. Huh, guess that answers that. If I hadnt known Lauren had been dancing, I would say she had that morning after glow about her. I think I need to experience the allure of Ash for myself. She glanced over at the relaxed pose of Ash. She practically radiated with animal magnetism. Rachel girded her loins and asked, "Hey, Ash?" Ashs blue eyes came up and pierced her. She swallowed. Damn! She makes me wet with just a look! "Umm, do you think youd be willing to umm give me a dance?"
Lauren looked at her friend puzzled. Rachel? Sounding flustered? The queen of the innuendo and tease extraordinaire? No way! Lauren shook her head. I think youve met your match, my friend. A sudden jolt of jealous raged through her at the thought of Rachel in Ashs arms. Whoa! Where did that come from?
"Sure, Rachel," Ash said as she stood and came around the table to offer her hand to Rachel. She glanced at Lauren over Rachels head and saw the small frown and introspective look on her face. Damn. Is she mad? The thought rocked her to the core. Why should she be concerned about Laurens feelings? Hell, she had just met her!
"Thanks, Ash," Rachel beamed as she took Ashs hand and was led out onto the floor.
Ben watched them go and shook his head. "Heartbreaker yep, theyre already dropping like flies."
Louis couldnt argue the point as he saw all heads turn to watch Ash lead Rachel around the floor. Ash didnt even seem to notice. She was focused on her partner and nothing else seemed to enter into her realm of consciousness. "Well, she does have a way of making you feel like youre the only one in existence when youre in her arms. Right, Lauren?"
"Huh?" Lauren muttered, hearing her name called. She glanced up and looked around the table. Ash and Rachel were gone so she figured they were out on the floor somewhere. "Im sorry. Did someone just call my name?"
Louis looked at Ben and Ben shrugged. "That would be me, Lauren."
"Oh. Im sorry, Louis. Did you ask me something?" Lauren asked, trying to pull her wits together. Geez! Youre acting like a lovesick teenager! Pull yourself together, girl!
"Nothing important, dear," Louis said giving her hand a reassuring pat and returning his attention to the dance floor.
"You want to give me a try, Irish? I doubt I can top my cousin, but Im not too shabby of a dancer," Ben offered giving Lauren a warm smile.
"Sure, Ben. That sounds great!" Lauren gave him one of her dazzling smiles and stood.
"Guard the table and booze, love," Ben said leaning over and giving Louis a quick kiss.
"Oh, be off with you!" Louis chastised, shooing them towards the floor.
Ben laughed and swung Lauren around into his arms and through the press of people.
"You should have warned me, Ben," Lauren stated looking up at Ben with a hurt look. "Thats why you were so freaked out when you saw my painting, because the woman in it is the spitting image of Ash. Why didnt you tell me?"
"Im sorry, Irish. I dont know why. I was going to tell you that Ash was a woman this morning, but then the damn phone rang and you left," Ben apologized as he led her across the floor. "What do you think of her?"
Laurens face lit up. "Shes wonderful, Ben. I dont know what she thinks of me, but Id really like to get the chance to get to know her better. Its strange. I feel like I know her, but at the same time I dont." Lauren shook her head in frustration. "Im not sure if I can explain it. I just feel I dunno a connection between us. Does that make any sense?"
"Sure," Ben nodded in understanding. "I felt the same way when I met Louis."
Laurens eyes widened. "Re really?" Ben nodded and gave her a wink. "Oh shit, Ben. What if she doesnt like me?"
Ben laughed. "I dont think that will be a problem, Irish. She hasnt taken her eyes off you yet!"
Lauren looked up into Bens smiling face and saw that he was telling the truth and felt herself relax. "Well, thats a relief. Guess I have a fighting chance then, huh?"
"Yes, my dear, I do believe you do!" Ben laughed as he spun Lauren around.
"So, Ash, you going to be in town long?" Rachel asked as Ash led her across the floor. Ash was a strong lead and Rachel had no problem following her cues, but she had a feeling they didnt look nearly as good as Ash and Lauren had.
"No, just until Sunday," Ash answered as she led Rachel through a spin and spotted Ben leading Lauren onto the floor. Lauren was laughing and her whole face lit up with the happiness she was feeling. Ash had never met anyone who showed emotions so openly.
"So, youre just here for the show and then youre going back home?" Rachel prodded.
"Hmm? Oh yeah. Im just here for the show," Ash answered absently as she watched Ben lead Lauren throw a series of twirls. Damn, but she is so graceful and beautiful.
"What do you think of Lauren?" Rachel had noticed that Ashs attention was obviously not on her and finally spotted Ben and Lauren. That was where Ash was looking and she had a pretty strong suspicion that her innocent young friend had just grabbed the proverbial tiger by the tail.
"Shes a marvelous dancer," Ash replied. "Other than that? I really cant say. I dont know her."
"Do you want to?" Rachel asked. She was feeling daring and figured she might as well find out what Ashs intentions were. Lauren had never been into the casual fling thing and if Ash was leaving on Sunday, she didnt want to see Lauren left with a broken heart.
That got Ashs attention and she looked down into Rachels curious face. "I beg your pardon?"
Rachel shrugged. "I guess I want to know what your intentions are towards my friend. I dont want to see her hurt."
Ash stared at her. Intentions? Towards Lauren? Well, Id like to take her home and make love to her til I passed out. Ash shook her head at the thought. Jesus! What the hell is going on? I dont even know her! Yet theres something comforting about her. She realized Rachel was still waiting for an answer, so to buy herself more time she sent Rachel out into a complex spin.
"Im not quite sure what youre asking," Ash said as she brought Rachel back into her arms.
Rachel sighed. "Yes you do. Are you going to charm her out of her pants and then leave her high and dry or what?"
Ash gaped. "You cant be serious!" Rachel nodded looking adamant. "I wouldnt do that to her, Rachel. I swear."
Rachel studied Ashs face and saw the sincerity there. "Okay. I believe you. But I have to warn you, that girl is gone for you in a major way." She nodded towards Lauren as Ben led her past them.
Ash looked towards Lauren and was rewarded with a radiant smile and a small wave from her. She found herself smiling back. "I I think I am too," she said softly not realizing she had spoken aloud as she continued to follow Lauren with her eyes.
Rachel almost missed the confession it was said so softly. Oh boy. This is going to get weird. I wonder how Ash feels about being a dream woman?
The rest of the night past swiftly and to no ones surprise Ash and Lauren danced mostly with each other. Before they realized it, it was last call and people were starting to head towards the exit.
Lauren didnt want the night to end. She had spent most of it in Ashs arms on the dance floor and she had never felt like this before. They had talked a little on the floor and Lauren was beginning to draw a picture of Ash in her mind. She didnt offer much about herself, but that only intrigued Lauren more. Ash was a wonderful dancer, had a wicked sense of humor, and a gentle touch.
"So, anyone up for breakfast?" Rachel asked.
"I could eat," Ben agreed with a smile. "How about you, love?"
"Sounds good to me as long as it isnt some god awful greasy spoon," Louis said with a shudder.
"I think Ill pass. Im pretty tired from the drive," Ash said stretching.
"I think Ill pass too. I got up way too early this morning and its catching up with me," Lauren said with a yawn.
Rachel stared at her friend. Lauren passing up food? Thats a first! "Well then. Ash, do you mind driving Lauren home? Ill take the boys and well go get something to eat."
Ash looked at Lauren to see if that plan was acceptable and was rewarded by an enthusiastic nod. "Sure. Since were going to the same place."
The light came on. Oh Lauren, you are such a sneak! Rachel mused as she caught her friends eye and gave her a wink. Lauren blushed, but gave her a small smile.
"Great. Come on, Rachel, I hear pancakes calling my name," Ben said as he headed towards the door to retrieve his and Louiss coats.
"Ill see you tomorrow," Rachel said as she gave Lauren a hug. "I expect to get a detailed report on how the rest of this evening turns out!"
Lauren hugged her back and giggled. "Youll be the first to know, Rach. I promise."
"Nice to meet you, Ash. See you tomorrow," Rachel said as she headed after the boys.
"See you tomorrow," Ash called after her retreating back.
Lauren watched them go and then turned to Ash. She suddenly felt shy around her and wasnt quite sure what to say. "Guess we should get going."
Ashlin looked down at her and smiled. "Yes, I guess we should." She offered her hand and was relieved when Lauren took it with a happy smile.
Ash led Lauren towards the door. "Do you have your claims ticket?" she asked as they neared the congestion at the cloakroom.
"Yeah," Lauren said searching her back pocket for her ticket. She pulled it out and held it up.
"Why dont I fight throw that mess and get our coats and you can wait here for me?" Ash asked holding out her hand for Laurens ticket.
"Sure," Lauren said giving her a grateful smile. She hated fighting through the crush of people and Ash obviously didnt mind. She handed her ticket over and said, "Ill just wait here for you."
Ash gave her a crooked smile and nodded taking the tickets and striding towards the cloakroom. Lauren watched her go and couldnt help noticing how well Ash filled out her jeans.
"Wow, Lauren. That is some woman you got there."
Lauren turned and saw a woman she knew vaguely. Now what is her name? Tammie! Thats it. "You mean Ash?"
Tammie nodded. "Shes not from around here is she? I think we would have remembered her!" Her two friends nodded in agreement.
"Shes my landlords cousin. Shes just here for the weekend," Lauren said as her eyes narrowed. She didnt like the way the 3 women were looking after Ash like a pack of starved dogs.
"She is one gorgeous woman. If she makes love anything like she dances, you have your work cut out for you," Tammie chuckled.
"Definitely grade A," the short blonde standing to Tammies right said licking her lips.
"Did you see the muscles in her legs? Damn, but I wouldnt mind having them wrapped around me!" Tammies other friend said wrapping her arms around herself. "Mmm, mmm, good."
Laurens temper flared. "She is not some piece of meat here for the sole purpose of your drooling pleasure!" she growled her green eyes flashing.
The three womens eyes widened as Lauren took a step forward with fury written across her face. Laurens hands were balled into fists and it didnt look like it would take much for her to start swinging.
"Easy, Lauren. We didnt mean anything by it," Tammie said trying to placate the enraged woman.
"Yeah, we were just kidding around," the blonde said in a quiet voice taking a step back and lifting her arms in a warding gesture.
"Well, look somewhere else!" Lauren growled her voice rising. The three nodded and scurried towards the door.
Ash slowed her step as she saw Laurens back stiffen and go into an aggressive stance. She saw the other three women pale and start to retreat. Huh, wonder what thats all about? Whatever they said, they sure set Lauren off. Ash heard Laurens last statement as she came up behind her. It was obvious Lauren was upset and without consciously thinking about it Ash walked up behind her and wrapped her arms around Laurens waist. "Hey? You okay?"
Lauren felt someone behind her and knew it was Ash even before strong arms encircled her waist and a low contralto voice murmured into her ear. She felt her anger slip away as she relaxed against Ashs broad chest. "Yeah, Im fine. Just had to chase away the vultures."
"Oh?" Ash queried, brushing her lips across Laurens soft hair.
"Yeah, seems youre the prime choice on tonights menu," Lauren sighed.
Ash chuckled. "How about we get out of here?"
Lauren nodded and turned around in Ashs arms to look up into her amused face. "Sounds like a plan."
"Good." Ash stepped back releasing Lauren and held up her coat for her. Lauren grinned as Ash helped her into her coat.
Ash took Laurens arm and secured it in hers as she led the way out of the bar into the parking lot. It had stopped raining but the night still had a bite to it. Ash led the way to her truck.
"This yours?" Lauren asked as Ash pulled out a key chain and disarmed the alarm.
"Yes," Ash replied leading Lauren around to the passenger side and opening the door for her.
Lauren looked up into the cab and realized it was a long way up. "Umm, its really tall isnt it?"
Ash laughed. "Yeah, I guess it is. Here let me give you a boost." Ash placed her hands on Laurens hips and boosted her into the cab.
"Thanks!" Lauren grinned as she settled into her seat.
Ash smiled and slamming the door shut made her way around to the drivers side. She opened the door and settled into her seat and started up the truck.
Lauren studied the interior of the truck. It was immaculately clean and she could swear it still had that new car smell. "Have you had this long?"
Ash shrugged. "About a year. I got tired of digging out my other car. I needed something that I could get to my place in the winter and this seemed like the thing to do it. My road is a private lane so no snow plows."
"Oh, that makes sense," Lauren nodded. "Whats your other car?"
"A 69 GTO," Ash answered as she pulled out of the lot and headed towards downtown.
"Really? A muscle car, huh? Guess that fits," Lauren said as she watched the play of light and shadow across Ashs face.
Ash looked at her out of the corner of her eye. "Oh? Whys that?"
Lauren giggled. "Well, its sleek, fast and potentially dangerous. Fits you to a T."
Ash pulled up to a red light and turned to looked at her. "You think Im dangerous?" she asked in a low voice.
Laurens eyes met Ashs blue and she was once more swept into their depths. "Definitely," she whispered.
Ash felt herself being drawn forward. Laurens slightly parted lips were so inviting, she just wanted to kiss them. Lauren leaned towards her, their eyes still locked. Ash felt her heart beating wildly. It felt like it was going to burst out of her chest.
A horned honked and Ash jerked back and whirled her head around to see that the light had turned green. Damn! She grabbed the steering wheel and gunned the truck through the intersection, keeping her attention on the road. She was afraid to look at Lauren and see her expression. What the hell am I doing? Shes a beautiful, kind, caring woman and the last thing she needs is me complicating her life! I doubt shed want to kiss me if she knew the truth. Ashs thoughts darkened and she frowned slightly as she drove.
Lauren sat back and tried to get her heart rate back to something resembling normal. For a moment there she could have sworn Ash was going to kiss her. Oh, how she wanted her to! She glanced at Ash and saw the slight frown and Ashs studious attention to her driving. Maybe not. She felt her heart constrict. Maybe Im reading more into this than is really there. Lauren looked deep inside herself. She knew what she was feeling. She felt like she was falling and the only one who could catch her was the dark woman sitting not 2 feet away. Question is, does she want to catch me? Lauren glanced over at Ash. Ashs chiseled face was devoid of any emotions. You would think you were looking at a statue until you saw her eyes; vibrant blue eyes that every once in awhile would turn and meet Laurens. I think I think shes scared. Laurens eyes widened at the thought.
Fifteen minutes later Ash pulled the truck into the parking lot of Laurens building and parked. The rest of the drive had been driven in silence, both lost in their thoughts about each other.
Ash turned of the engine and sat back with a sigh. She rolled her head to look at Lauren. "Guess, were here."
Lauren nodded and tried to think of something to say. She didnt want the evening to end like this. "Yeah, guess we are." Oh that was brilliant!
They sat in silence for a few moments and then Ash sighed and opened her door. She wanted to talk to Lauren about what had almost happened, but words werent her strong suit and she had no idea how to go about it. She made her way around the passenger side of the truck and opened Laurens door for her. She offered her hand and Lauren gave her a grateful smile as she took it. Ash lowered Lauren to the ground and closed the door.
Lauren shivered. "Are you cold?" Ash asked with concern.
"A little. Its gotten a lot colder out," Lauren said softly as she stared down at her boots.
"Come on. Lets get inside," Ash said as she pulled Lauren close to her side and headed towards the back door of the building.
Lauren put her arm around Ashs waist and snuggled close to Ashs warm side. Ashs arm draped over her shoulder and she smiled. Now if I can just figure out how to keep her there, Im in business.
They made their way inside and up the stairs and stopped before Laurens door. Lauren felt Ash lift her arm from her shoulder and sighed. She pulled her keys out of her pocket and unlocked her door. "You want to come in?"
Ash glanced down the hall and then back to Lauren. "Umm, sure."
Lauren smiled and opened the door beckoning Ash to follow her. She turned on the lamp in the living room and then made her way towards the kitchen. "Would you like some coffee or something?"
"Sure, whatever youre having is fine," Ash said as she looked around the tidy studio. She walked into the living area and went over to read the titles in the floor to ceiling bookshelf. There was a wide range of subjects: history of all sorts, biographies, fiction, science fiction, fantasy, English literature and computer manuals.
She turned to the fireplace mantle and saw a picture of Lauren standing in front of a barn flanked by a slightly older redheaded man and a blonde teenager. All three had Laurens laughing green eyes.
"Thats my older brother Darby and my younger sister Katie."
Ash turned her head to see Lauren standing behind her holding two coffee cups. "You all have the same eyes."
Lauren laughed. "Yeah, I guess we do." She held out one of the mugs. "Hope hot chocolate is okay?"
Ash nodded. Ashs hand brushed Laurens as she accepted the mug from her. She felt her entire body tingle at the slight contact and quickly stepped back. She looked around the studio and spotted the easel next to the desk. Intrigued she headed towards it. "Ben told me you were a painter. Said that your painting just about knocked his socks off," she said as she stepped around the couch.
Laurens eyes grew wide. "Ash! Wait!" she shouted and reached out to grab Ashs arm as she passed.
Ash jumped at Laurens outburst and almost reacted without thinking when she felt Lauren grab her arm. She fought down the impulse and came to an abrupt halt. She glanced down at Lauren with puzzlement. Laurens face was pale and her eyes were as big as saucers. "Hey. Whats wrong?" she asked softly reaching out and cupping Laurens cheek with her free hand.
Lauren looked up into concerned blue eyes and tried to swallow the panic. "Nothings wrong. I just I just " she tried to explain, but couldnt. She felt the tears welling and fought them.
Ash saw the tears and quickly set down her mug and pulled Lauren into her arms. "Ssh, its okay," she soothed as she gently stroked Laurens hair. She didnt know why Lauren was so upset, but she knew she didnt like it.
"Im s sorry," Lauren cried into Ashs chest. She gripped Ash tightly around the waist and struggled to get her emotions back under control. The feel of Ashs hand gently stroking her hair was helping calm her down. After a few moments she felt more in control of herself and with regret pulled back.
Ash released her and looked down at her with concern. "You okay?"
Lauren nodded and wiped her eyes. She was embarrassed and wasnt sure how to proceed. "Yeah. Im fine."
"Lauren. Look at me," Ash demanded softly, cupping Laurens chin and bringing her face up. Lauren complied and Ash saw the blush and what looked very much like fear in those green eyes. "You want to tell me whats got you so upset?"
Lauren studied Ashs face and saw only concern written there. "Im sorry, Ash. I just wanted to explain something before you saw the painting." Ashs eyebrow rose in question and Lauren smiled weakly. "Youll see it tomorrow at the show, so I guess its better to prepare you now so it wont be such a shock."
"Okay," Ash said slowly, wondering what this was all about. "Why dont we sit down on the couch and you can tell me."
Lauren nodded and walked over to the couch and sat down. Ash followed and took a seat next to her. Lauren reached out and took Ashs strong hand in hers and was glad that Ash didnt pull away. She stared down at their clasped hands, trying to figure out how to tell Ash about the painting.
Ash looked at Laurens bent head and wondered what it was about that painting that made Lauren so nervous. Why is she so afraid of my reaction? Benson said it was incredible so I dont think shes afraid of me thinking its bad. So what then? She gave Laurens hand a gentle squeeze for encouragement and sat back to wait for Lauren to get her thoughts in order.
Lauren sighed and in a soft voice began, "I started having this dream when I was about 16 or so. Im a villager in the British Isles and were under attack by the Romans. Were losing badly. Im hiding behind some brush and the Romans were getting nearer to my hiding place and Im afraid. Then suddenly over the hill comes this yell and I look up and see this warrior woman come tearing down the hill with a bunch of warriors behind her. Shes laughing and swinging her sword and well, she comes to my rescue basically."
Ash listened with a puzzled frown. "So, this dream is the inspiration for the painting?" Lauren nodded still studying their clasped hands. "Okay. So whats the problem?"
Lauren steeled herself and looked up into those piercing blue eyes. "Because the warrior woman in my dreams and in that painting," Lauren nodded towards the easel. "Is you."
Ash stared at her in disbelief. "Me?"
Lauren nodded unhappily. She had no idea how Ash was taking this. She couldnt read her at all. Her own emotions were in such turmoil and she felt the tears rising again.
"I think I need to see this painting," Ash said softly. She gave Laurens hand a gentle pat and stood. She walked around the couch and came around the easel to see the painting.
Lauren watched her as she came around the easel and her eyes fell upon the painting. She saw Ashs eyes go wide and then narrow. Ash crossed her arms across her chest and cocked her head to the side as she studied the painting. She stood like that unmoving for several minutes and Lauren felt her heart tremble and the tears slowly course down her face.
"Lauren. Come here please," Ash asked softly, her eyes never leaving the painting.
Lauren swallowed and stood. She wasnt sure her legs would hold her, but after a moment she made her way over to stand before Ash. "Yes?" she asked softly, her back to the painting.
"What do you call it?" Ash asked nodding towards the painting.
Lauren stared down at her boots and answered, "Vengeance."
Ash nodded. It was fitting. She wasnt sure what she had expected when she came around the easel, but the painting before her definitely took her by surprise. It was uncanny how much the woman in the painting resembled her. Lauren had managed to capture everything. The woman had a coiled strength about her and such energy that you half expected her to jump off the canvas. The thing that shook Ash to the core was the expression on the face and the passion in the eyes. She knew that look well. She had worn it on a number of occasions in her past when she had taken down one more asshole and knew that they wouldnt be able to hurt anyone ever again. She shuddered.
"That is an amazing piece of work," she said softly as she turned to look at Lauren.
Lauren looked up through her tears and saw the slight smile on Ashs face and felt a flood of relief wash over her. "You think so?"
Ash nodded. "I dont know what Ive been doing in your dreams, Lauren, but I cant deny the resemblance is definitely there."
"Youre not mad? Or freaked out?" Lauren asked scanning Ashs face.
Ash raised an eyebrow. "Mad? Why would I be mad? Freaked? Well, maybe a little." She smiled and was rewarded when Lauren relaxed and smiled back. " I think we should call it a night."
Lauren nodded. "Yeah, I guess youre right." She turned and walked towards the door with Ash following at her heels. "What are you planning to do tomorrow?"
Ash looked down into the hopeful face of Lauren and found she could deny her nothing. "I dont have any plans. Why?" She stepped closer to Lauren and found her arms circling Laurens waist of their own volition.
"I would really like to spend more time with you," Lauren said softly as she lifted her arms to encircle Ashs neck.
"Mmm, I think that could be arrange," Ash replied in a low voice as she was captured by Laurens gaze. She lowered her head and brushed her lips across Laurens.
Lauren felt Ashs lips on hers and her body exploded. She tightened her grip on Ashs neck and deepened the kiss.
Ash felt her senses narrow to encompass only the feel of Lauren in her arms and the gentle exploration of her lips. Her heart was beating wildly and her legs trembled as Lauren deepened their kiss.
Finally sense returned and Ash regretfully pulled back. She opened her eyes to meet half lidded green eyes that were alight with passion. "I should go," she whispered.
Lauren nodded but didnt release her hold. She didnt want Ash to walk out that door. She was afraid that if she let her out of her sight she would disappear. "Stay?" she asked softly.
Ash felt Lauren tremble and saw the insecurity flicker across her eyes. She reached up and gently took Laurens face in her hands. She leaned down and gently brushed her lips across hers. "I dont think thats a very good idea. Im not sure I could restrain myself and Id really like to get to know you better."
Lauren sighed. "Okay, but promise me Ill see you tomorrow?"
Ash grinned. "Most definitely, Miss OShea." She released Lauren and reaching around her pulled the door open and stepped out into the hall.
"Ash?" Lauren asked softly as she watched her go.
"Hmm?" Ash questioned turning around to face her. Lauren was standing in the doorway and Ash felt her heart skip a beat at the sight.
For an answer Lauren stepped out in the hall and standing on tiptoe brushed her lips across Ashs. "Thanks for a wonderful evening. Goodnight."
Ash stood there stunned as Lauren whirled around and disappeared back into the apartment, closing the door behind her. Ash reached up and ran her fingers across her lips. Her lips tingled from Laurens kiss and she felt a smile curl her lips. She shook her head and made her way down the hall to Benson and Louiss place with a definite spring to her step. She had a feeling that tonight her dreams were going to be filled with a certain mesmerizing strawberry blonde with dancing green eyes.
CONTINUED IN PART 4