Ashlin unlocked the door thankful that she had kept the key that Benson had made for her on her last visit. She strode into the apartment flipping on the lights. Her gaze fell on her guitar cases and she smiled. She had a feeling that sleep was a good ways off and for the first time in a long time she felt the urge to play for joy instead of despair. She shrugged off her duster and hung it up by the door.
She picked up the two cases and walked down the hall to the guest bedroom and flipped on the light. She placed them on the bed and snapped open the case of her 12 string. She lifted it out and sat down to tune it. She cocked her head to listen as she deftly turned the keys to bring the instrument into tune. Satisfied, she stood and left the bedroom.
She paused in the living and looked around. "Hmm, I think Ill sit out on the deck."
She strode into the kitchen and spotting the half bottle of Merlot decided that a glass of wine would be welcome. She poured herself a glass and took it with her out onto the deck. The air was cool, but not too cold for someone who endured Montana winters. She set her glass down on the iron table and sank down into one of the chairs cradling the guitar in her lap.
She let her head fall back and stared up into the sky, letting her mind go blank and just feel. The glow of the city was reflected on the cloud cover making them have a surreal glow. Dancing green eyes framed in a cheerful countenance floated into her minds eye and she felt herself grinning. Just the thought of Lauren made her feel warm inside. Something she had thought she had experienced before, but after meeting Lauren she doubted those memories.
With a sigh she sat up and let her fingers dance across the guitar in her lap. "I think Im in the mood for some romance," she said softly as a romantic ballad flowed from her fingers and into the instrument. She hummed the lyrics softly to herself and felt the quiet joy of music infuse her. A joy that had been absent from her music for more years than she cared to count. Her hands stilled as that fact penetrated her consciousness. "I dont know who you are Lauren OShea or why you affect me the way you do, but Im thankful," she whispered softly as she let her hands bring the instrument to life once more.
"Ben? Do you feel a draft?" Louis asked as he stepped into the apartment.
Benson strode in and glancing around the apartment, saw that the French doors that led out onto the deck were open. "Yeah. I think Ash is out on the deck." He started towards the open doors to let Ash know they were home. He came to an abrupt halt when he heard the music. Not only was Ash playing, she was singing!
"Benson? Are you going to tell Ash were home?" Louis asked coming up beside Ben and looking at him puzzled.
Ben quickly clamped a hand over Louiss mouth and pulled him close. "Ssh. Listen," Ben whispered into his lovers ear.
Louis stiffened in surprise but then did as Ben ordered. His eyes grew wide at the sound of Ashs clear alto voice accompanied by her guitar floated through the open door of the deck.
Ben saw that Louis had heard and took his hand from his mouth. "Ive never heard her sing before, Ben. Its its ," Louis whispered flustered he couldnt think of a word to describe the enchanting sound of Ashs voice singing softly in what sounded like Gaelic.
"Miraculous," Ben whispered in awe. Pulling Louis into his arms and resting his chin upon his head.
Louis nodded and leaned into his lover. They stood like that mesmerized by the sound of the usually stoic womans voice as it sang out in joy and longing. The song came to and end and Louis shook himself to break the spell of the song.
"You never said she could sing, Ben," Louis whispered accusingly.
"Thats because she hasnt sang since since before she left home," Ben replied his voice showing his surprise and pleasure at hearing his cousin express herself again. I guess I have Irish to thank for this. I wonder what happened after we left them? Ben was pulled out of his musings when Ash suddenly appeared in the door with her guitar in hand. She looked happy.
Ash grinned at the boys and pulled the door shut behind her. "Hi guys. Did you just get home?"
"Just arrived a few moments ago," Louis replied noting the definite spring in Ashs step as she walked over to them.
"See you got your guitar out," Ben said pointing at the instrument. "You up to playing something before we turn in?"
Ash shrugged. "Sure, Ben. Any requests?" Ash made her way into the living area and sat down on the couch.
"I think Ill let Louis pick," Ben said as he steered Louis to the loveseat and the two of them sat down.
Louis sat back and a thoughtful expression fell across his face. "Hmm, Im not sure what to pick. Im not real up on your current repertoire, Ash. Why dont you choose something?"
"Okay," Ash shrugged as she strummed the strings and made a few adjustments to bring it back into tune. She sat with her head bowed over the strings for a moment and then making a decision, nodded and began to play.
Louis watched Ashs fingers fly across the strings as she played a classical piece. The piece sounded vaguely familiar, but he didnt know what it was called. Whatever it was Ash played it with absolute precision. The song came to an end and Ash raised her head and met Louiss eyes. She winked.
Louis clapped. "Wow! What was that?" he asked leaning forward.
Ash grinned as she sat back on the couch. "Its called "If love now reigned" and it was written by King Henry the 8th."
"Really?" Ben asked. Ash nodded. "Know anything by Bach?"
Ash raised an eyebrow. "Youre kidding right? I was playing Bach when I was 5, Ben. How about Badinagie?" She brought her guitar up and began playing the bouncy tune.
Louis was amazed at the intricacy. He had a feeling that the piece wasnt originally written for the guitar, but the way Ash played you would think that it was.
Ash finished the song and looked at Ben. "See? Told ya!" she grinned. "Do you want to hear something more contemporary or stick with classical?"
"Ooh, Id love to hear something. Anything!" Louis enthused bouncing a little in his seat.
Ben grinned at his lovers enthusiasm and then turned to Ash. "What do you have in mind?"
Ash grinned as she rested her chin on her guitar. "Oh, I thought maybe a little Melissa Etheridge was in order."
"You gonna sing?" Ben asked hopefully.
Ash laughed at his expression. "Well, I guess I could," she teased as she sat up, lowering her head once more over her guitar.
Louis glanced at Ben with amazement. "You have balls, my love," he whispered as Ash began to play.
Ben grinned, "Well, shes definitely in a mood so I thought Id take advantage of it."
Ashs head raised and the boys noticed her eyes were closed. She opened her mouth and began to sing:
I had a dream late last night
The water was running low
And my fields were on fire burning my sky
My body was moving slow
And when I awoke I tasted the sweat of desire on my mouth
And I realized my heart had abducted my mind
And they were last seen headed south
Now I cant sleep Im so wired
And I find myself screaming out
Dont you need dont you want
Cant you taste it when youre alone
Dont you cry dont you feel
Sometimes I wonder if you are real
Dont you bleed
Dont you need
Ben was flabbergasted by the selection. He knew a lot of Melissas songs were about love and angst, but damn! Obviously something had happened tonight to put the song in Ashs mind. And by the lyrics he had a pretty good idea what that was. Ash poured so much emotion into it that he felt his pants getting tight. He glanced at Louis and saw he had a stunned look on his face, but was leaning forward to capture every nuance of Ashs performance.
Theres no quenching the thirst theres no relief
For the hungry at heart
And as far as youre concerned Im just a thief
Entertaining in the dark
But its you that holds the cards
Now that the joker is wild
Dont you need dont you want
Cant you taste it when youre alone
Dont you cry dont you feel
Sometimes I wonder if you are real
Dont you bleed
Dont you need
Dont you want to lay it down
And feel your skin against the ground
Dont you want to ride the storm
And then sleep inside the calm
Dont you want to get that high
Dont you want to be satisfied
Well if you dont want if from me
Dont you need
I had a dream late last night
The water was running low
And my fields were on fire burning my sky
How was I to know
That I burn every night in my dreams
And only morning can set me free
Dont you need dont you want
Cant you taste it when youre alone
Dont you cry dont you feel
Sometimes I wonder if you are real
Dont you bleed
Dont you need
Ash let the last chord drift away and felt the peace descend. Music had always been a balm for her and tonight was no exception. She felt so light she thought she could almost float away. She opened her eyes and looked up at the boys and laughed. They were wearing identical stunned expressions.
"You guys look like someone whacked you on the back of the head with a board," Ash teased setting her guitar aside and stretching.
Ben felt the heat rise in his face and laughed sheepishly. "You caught us by surprise with the song, Ash. Id forgotten how beautiful your voice is."
Ash blushed and waved a hand in dismissal. "Yeah, yeah. Well, dont expect it to happen too often. I was just in a mood."
"But Ash! You have an absolutely marvelous singing voice! Why havent you ever recorded it?" Louis asked truly puzzled.
"Its too personal, I guess," Ash shrugged.
"Oh," Louis replied nonplussed.
Ben saw his lover flounder and picked up the conversation. "So how did the drive home go? You been home long?"
"The drive was fine," Ash said glad of the subject change. She knew Ben was fishing for information on what had happened between Lauren and her, but shed be damned if she was going to give him any details. That was between her and Lauren. "Saw Laurens painting. I can see why you were so shocked."
Bens eyes widened at the revelation. "Oh? She showed it to you?"
"More or less. It really is pretty amazing," Ash said nonchalantly. "Is she really going to sell it?"
"No," Louis offered and Ashs eyes turned to him. "Rachel had the idea to make limited prints of it, because Lauren doesnt want to part with the original. Said it meant too much to her to part with it."
"Well, on that note, I think Ill turn in," Ash stated picking up her guitar and standing. "Goodnight guys."
"Goodnight, Ash," Ben said as he watched her stride down the hall to the guest bedroom.
"Goodnight," Louis echoed.
Ben turned to Louis and gave him a questioning look. Louis shrugged.
"I dont know what Irish did, but I hope she continues to do it," Ben stated shaking his head in wonder.
"That is the most animated I have ever seen her, Ben. She seemed happy and that is not the Ashlin Gray I remember!" Louis exclaimed. "What about the song? I think our Lauren has definitely set her hooks in her. Question is, when? I mean I saw the chemistry at the bar, but nothing that would cause that!" He waved his hands in emphasis.
"I dunno, love. I just hope it works out," Ben sighed as he stood and offered Louis his hand to help him up. "For both their sakes."
Lauren woke to the sound of the phone ringing. She rolled over and glanced at the clock. She groaned when she saw it was only 10 past 8. She rolled back over and made a grab for the phone.
"Hello," she yawned laying back down in bed and closing her eyes.
"Good morning, sunshine!" Rachel said cheerfully. Lauren groaned. "Come on, get up and go make yourself some coffee so youll be coherent for my interrogation."
"Okay fine. Im up," Lauren said grumpily as she rolled out of bed. She stood and stretched trying to shake the cobwebs out of her brain.
"Do you want to call me back?" Rachel asked gleefully.
"You are too damn cheerful in the morning," Lauren accused as she stumbled sleepily towards the kitchen.
Rachel laughed. "Well, actually the reason Im waking you up, other than the fact that I want to know what happen with talk, dark, and dreamy, is that I need to swing by and pick up the painting. I talked to some guys yesterday about it and they told me how to go about doing some prints. So I need to take the painting and get started if you want to have any for tonight."
"Sure. Whatever. Bye," Lauren said and clicked off the phone. She stared at the coffee pot and muttered, "Coffee. Good. Want some." She walked over to the machine and turned it on. She made sure it started and then made her way towards the bathroom with the phone still in her hand.
She flipped on the bathroom light. She raised her hands to pull off her nightshirt and saw the phone. "Oh damn!" she sighed and leaning out of the bath tossed the phone onto the bed.
Twenty minutes later she was well on the way to feeling human again. She stood naked in front of her open closet door trying to decide what to wear when someone knocked at the door.
"Who is it?" she called.
"Its batman. Come on, Laur, open the door!"
Lauren grinned at the sound of Rachels voice. She grabbed her towel and wrapping it around herself went to the door and unlocked and opened it. "Hey, Rach."
"Hey," Rachel said walking in juggling two Styrofoam cups and a paper bag. "Figured you could use a latte and something to eat."
"Thanks," Lauren replied as she closed the door and took one of the cups. She pulled off the lid and inhaled the aroma of hot java. "This smells divine!"
Rachel shook her head. "Are you sure youre from Utah? You sure act like a Seattle native when it comes to this stuff." She held her cup aloft.
"Im sure," Lauren grinned. "Come help me pick out something to wear."
"What? Youre actually asking my opinion on your wardrobe?" Rachel asked clutching her chest dramatically.
Lauren rolled her eyes. "Yes, oh mighty fashion goddess, I want to look nice today and Im having a hard time figuring out what to wear."
Rachels eyes narrowed as she walked over to Lauren and peered into the closet. "Any particular reason you want to look nice today?"
"Yeah, I think Im going to ask Ash to lunch and I want to look good," Lauren revealed.
"Oh really?" Rachel said drawing out the words. "Interesting. Veeerrry interesting."
"Oh, shut up!" Lauren slapped her playfully on the shoulder. "Now are you going to help me or are you just going to give me a hard time?"
"Hmmm," Rachel stroked her chin thoughtfully. "I pick both!"
Lauren sighed in defeat. "Fine. Just help me okay?"
"Sure, no prob," Rachel stated as she began sorting through the closet. "Where are you taking her? And what kind of a look are you going for?"
"I was thinking of taking her to that Chinese bistro that just opened. I hear it has really good food and its casual. Im not really sure what kind of clothes Ash brought with her. Im sure she has something dressy for the gala tonight, but I doubt she packed more than one outfit like that," Lauren explained as she peered into her closet with an anxious expression.
"Okay, so were going casual. Not a problem," Rachel said sorting through Laurens shirts. "Now do you want to be your usual conservative cute self or do you want her eyes to melt out of their sockets when she looks at you?"
"Rach!" Lauren exclaimed her eyes widening.
"What?" Rachel asked turning to look at her friend. "Its a simple question, Laur. Do you want to come across as the girl next door or as a lusty sexpot who cant wait to rip her clothes off? I personal think option 2 has more merit, but I have a feeling youre going to pick door number one."
Lauren stared at her openmouthed.
"Close your mouth, Laur," Rachel said as she reached out a hand and pushed Laurens chin until her mouth closed. "I guess well mix and match the two since you dont seem to have an opinion."
"Ill wear whatever you pick out, Rach, just please dont make me look like a 2 bit whore," Lauren finally said. She remembered her latte in her hand and raised it to take a long drink.
"Okey-dokey. Lets see what we have here," Rachel said as she turned back to the closet and started going through the clothes once more.
Lauren shook her head and decided to let Rachel do her thing. She found the paper bag Rachel had brought and opened it to see what goodies hid within. Mmmm, Krispy Kremes. Just what the doctor ordered. She pulled out a couple of the donuts and sat down on the bed.
"So, what happened after you guys left the bar?" Rachel asked her voice muffled since her head was deep in the closet.
"Ash drove me home," Lauren stated with a mischievous grin.
"And?" Rachel demanded.
"And we came inside."
Rachel turned her head and scowled at Lauren. "What is this? Twenty freaking questions? Are you going to give me the low down or not?"
"Hmm," Lauren pondered as she took another bite of her donut. "How about not."
"What!" Rachel squawked coming out of the closet and stalking over to Lauren.
Lauren threw back her head and laughed merrily.
"Oh? Its funny is it?" Rachel asked with an evil grin. "Ill show you funny!" Rachel pounced on Lauren and began tickling her.
Lauren squealed and tried to fend off Rachels hands, but it was a losing battle. She squirmed out from under Rachel and scooted up the bed. Rachel crawled after her holding her hands out menacingly.
"You vill tell me vhat you know or I vill have to torture you!" Rachel said in a bad German accent advancing up the bed.
Lauren held up her hands in surrender. "Okay, okay!" she panted. "Just let me catch my breath."
Rachel gave her a smug smile and flopped down on the bed. She rolled onto her side and propped her head up and gave Lauren an impatient look.
"You are a cruel and evil woman," Lauren admonished shaking her finger in Rachels face.
Rachel grabbed her finger and said, "Only when there are juicy details to be had."
Lauren felt the heat rise in her face and pulled her finger back. She scooted back on the bed and leaned against the headboard. She readjusted her towel that had practically been torn off in Rachels tickle attack and thought about how to begin.
"Well? Im waiting," Rachel said.
"Yeah, yeah, keep your shirt on," Lauren said. "Give me a chance here will ya?"
"I swear Im going to die of old age if you dont hurry up and get on with it." Rachel snagged the bag of Krispy Kremes and pulling one out began to eat.
Lauren gave her a yeah right look and began, "Okay. Lets see. We left the bar and Ash drives this monstrous truck. She had to give me a boost to get into the damn thing. We just talked a little and "
Rachel glanced up when Lauren stopped talking. She saw the faraway look on her face and figured something good was coming. "And?" she prompted.
"Huh? Oh!" Lauren said blushing. "Well, I thought she was going to kiss me at a red light, but then the light turned green and some jerk behind us blew his horn."
"Really?" Rachel asked. "She almost kissed you?"
Lauren nodded. "Yeah. Anyway we get here and Ash comes around the truck and helps me down. And Im shivering because its cold, ya know?" Rachel nods. "Ash asks me if Im cold and I say yes and she pulls me close against her and we head inside."
"Bet that was nice," Rachel comments.
"Oh yeah. You have no idea, Rach. She put her arm across my shoulder and I was leaning up against her. It was really nice. Nicer than nice. It was a little slice of heaven," Lauren said with a dreamy look on her face.
"Uh-huh. And then what?" Rachel asked figuring she better keep Lauren on track or she would go off into her only little Ash-world.
"Well we get to my door and I ask her in and she says sure."
"No way!" Rachel exclaimed sitting up. This was getting good.
"Way," Lauren nods. "So we talk a little and Ash says that Ben told her about the painting and she starts walking towards the easel." Rachel eyes widen. "Yeah, I kind of freaked and pulled her back. She asks why and so I end up telling her all about my dream and how she looks like the woman in it and so anyway she looks at the painting and basically doesnt run screaming from the room never to be heard from again."
"Wow! That is so cool!" Rachel said with enthusiasm.
"Yeah," Lauren said as she scooted off the edge of the bed and walked over to her closet. "Oh and then we kissed goodnight and she left." Lauren started counting. She had made it to 5 before Rachel went ballistic.
"What? You kissed? Did she kiss you or did you kiss her? Was it just one kiss or a series of kisses?" Rachel shouted as she jumped up from the bed and began pacing. "Was it just a little peck on the cheek? Or was it one of those deep down soul searing type of kisses?"
Lauren laughed and Rachel stopped her pacing and glared at her.
"Well? What was it?" Rachel demanded tapping her foot.
"It was " Lauren paused trying to think of a way to describe the feel of Ashs lips on hers. The feeling of being held in those strong arms and found herself at a loss. She shrugged. "I dunno, Rach."
Rachel rolled her eyes. "Oh come on, Laur! Youre the writer with the huge vocabulary. Give me some adjectives!"
"Okay, lets see " Lauren said tapping her chin. "How about sensual? Mind blowing, phenomenal, make your toes curl, and lets not forget the fireworks."
"Wow! Really? So did you kiss her or did she kiss you?" Rachel asked as she made her way over to her friend.
"The first time, she kissed me," Lauren said.
"The first time? There was a second time?" Rachel demanded as she took Lauren by the shoulders and shook her gently.
"Yeah!" Lauren grinned at her friend her eyes dancing. "She had walked out into the hall and I called to her and then I went out and I kissed her. I didnt wait to see her reaction. I dove back in here and closed the door!"
"So did you get a chance to cop a feel? That woman has an amazing body! I wouldnt mind letting my fingers do the walking!" Rachel said as she wiggled her fingers.
Lauren frowned. "It wasnt like that, Rach. Dont cheapen it."
Rachel glanced at her friend in surprise. Lauren looked upset and Rachel felt her stomach drop. "Im sorry, Lauren. I didnt mean anything by it. I was just kidding around." She pulled Lauren into a hug.
Lauren sighed as she hugged Rachel back. She knew Rachel was just playing around, but it seemed wrong to talk about Ash that way. Last night had meant more to her than all the previous encounters shed had. She had always given Rachel a blow by blow of those, so why should Rachel think this was any different?
"Its okay, Rach," Lauren said giving Rachel one more squeeze and then stepping back. "Just dont talk about Ash that way okay?"
Rachel nodded with relief. "Sure, Laur. You tell me what you want to and well leave it at that."
Laurens face lit up with a wide smile and her green eyes danced. "I promise to tell you stuff, but Im afraid youre going to get the kiddie version."
Rachel sighed with mock regret. "Okay. So, did you really chase her into the hall and give her a kiss goodnight?"
Lauren giggled and nodded.
Rachel shook her head in wonder. "You never cease to amaze, girl."
Lauren shrugged. "So, you gonna help me pick out an outfit or what?"
Rachel tossed her hair back and grinned. "Sure. Lets see what we have here."
Benson was welcomed into the kitchen with the smell of fresh brewed coffee and the aroma of bacon cooking. He came around the bar to see Louis standing at the stove poking at the bacon with a fork.
"Mmm, it smells good in here," Ben complimented as he pulled down a mug and poured himself a cup of coffee.
Louis glanced over his shoulder at his lover and smiled. "Thanks. The bacon should be done in a few minutes. Theres eggs in the warmer and toast if youre fainting from hunger."
Benson leaned against the counter and sipped his coffee. "I think I can wait for the bacon. Have you seen Ash this morning?"
Louis shook his head and returned his attention to the bacon. "No, but I did hear her. I think shes out on the deck with her guitar." He waved the fork towards the French doors that led outside. "I dont think she slept much, Ben. I was up at 7 and she was already out there."
Ben frowned in concern. "Huh. I think Ill go talk to her. See what her plans are for today," Ben said. He gave kissed Louis on top of his head and then headed out to the deck in search of Ash.
Ash glanced up when she heard the door open. Ben walked out and smiled. She let a small smile grace her lips and nodded to the other chair at the table. "Morning, Ben. Care to sit down?"
"Morning. Thanks," Ben agreed. He studied Ash as he walked across the deck and took his seat. She had her hair pulled back in a ponytail and was slouched back in her chair with the mandolin resting on her stomach. She was wearing cutoffs that had seen better days and a loose fitting black t-shirt. His eyes came up to meet her curious blue gaze.
"So did I pass?" Ash asked quietly, amusement coloring her tone.
Ben grinned. "Yeah, youll do! How long have you been up?" He sat back and sipped his coffee.
Ash shrugged and absently strummed the mandolin. "Oh, since 6 or so. I got up, ran a couple of miles, did my morning katas, and took a shower. Then I came out here and have just been playing around on my mandolin."
Bens eyebrows shot up. "Damn. You have way too much energy. Anyone ever tell you that?"
"Only my mother!" Ash chuckled.
Ben laughed. "Why doesnt that surprise me?"
The two cousins sat in companionable silence. Ash sat absently plucking the mandolin and staring out over the view of the city from the deck. Ben sipped his coffee and regarded his cousin. He hadnt seen her this relaxed and unguarded in years. It was almost like the past 13 years hadnt happened and he had his boisterous 17-year-old cousin back. What had happened last night to make such a dramatic change in her? A certain young woman with laughing green eyes came to mind and he smiled.
"Yeah, Ash?" Ben asked softly. He saw the introspective look on Ashs face and wondered what was going on behind those crystal blue eyes.
"You ever show Lauren any pictures of us? Of the family, I mean?" Ash asked softly as she strummed the mandolin. She couldnt meet Bens eyes. She didnt want him to see how out of control her emotions were.
"No. I keep the family photos in the office. Irish has never been in there," Ben answered. "Dont know why I never did. Ive seen pictures of her family and shes spent just about every major holiday with us when weve been in town over the last two years."
Ash glanced up in surprise. Why didnt she go home for the holidays? I saw the picture of her and her brother and sister. They looked close. Huh, guess Ill have to ask her about that. She looked down at her hands and watched them idly pluck the strings as she asked, "So, how did I end up being in that painting if shes never seen me before?"
Ben shrugged his broad shoulders and sighed. "Hell if I know, cuz. She said she saw the woman in a dream."
Ash nodded and said softly, "Yeah, she told me." Ben sat up in surprise.
"And?" Ben probed.
Ash closed her eyes and sighed. "And nothing, Ben. What was I suppose to say? No? Its the only explanation really if youve never shown her any pictures and there have never been any pictures published of me. So I guess I have been traipsing around in her dreams dressed in leather and swinging a sword."
"Are you freaked?" Ben asked as he set his coffee cup down and leaned forward to study Ashs face.
"A little," Ash said opening her eyes and meeting Bens concerned look. "Its not very often that you find out youre someones dream woman. Not to mention the fact that Im some kind of savior in it!"
The bitterness and scorn at the last statement was not lost on Ben. He knew Ash had this image of herself as being damaged goods. He had a feeling that she didnt think she was worthy of Laurens attention let alone any deeper feelings.
"Ash listen," Ben said gently and waited for Ash to meet his gaze. "Quit beating yourself up about the past. Its over and done with. You cant change it." Ash sat up and opened her mouth to protest. Ben held up a hand. "Ash, please. Just give me a moment here, okay?" Ash stared into his eyes for a few moments and then obviously satisfied with what she saw, nodded for him to continue. "I dont know why the woman in Irishs painting looks like you, I really dont. Maybe it is just coincidence. What I do know is that I havent seen you this relaxed and well, happy in a very long time, Ash. And I have a feeling it has something to do with a certain Irish lass with green eyes. Tell me if Im wrong here, but you havent sung since before the accident have you?"
Ash stared into Bens knowing blue eyes and couldnt deny what he was saying. It was true. All of it. She hadnt felt this peaceful in ages. The moment her eyes had met those kind green ones her world had been turned upside down. She had been feeling lost and out of control when she came here and there was something about Lauren that grounded her. Made her feel calm and warm and She shook her head and closed her eyes. The feelings she had for Lauren were overwhelming and they scared her. She was afraid to let down her carefully constructed walls and feel. Problem was, those walls already had chinks in them and Lauren had crept right in and now Ash didnt think she could keep her out.
Ben watched the play of emotions as they flickered across Ashs face. He knew she was fighting an internal battle. He was just hoping Irish would win.
Ash opened her eyes and gave Ben a rueful smile. "Okay, Ben. Youre right. I havent sung for anyone but myself in " she waved her hand. "Well, I cant remember its been so long."
Ben nodded and asked softly, "What about Irish, Ash?"
Ben was stunned by the transformation at the mention of Lauren. Ashs face lit up and her smile was dazzling. Her eyes showed that old spark that had been missing for so long.
"Shes something else, Ben," Ash smiled with a quiet joy. "Shes brought joy back into my music. Id be thankful to her for that if nothing else."
"Breakfast is ready!" Louis called from the open door of the deck. "Come and get it!"
Ben turned at the sound of Louiss voice. When he turned back to Ash she had already gotten up and was carefully packing the mandolin back into its case. He sighed. The moment had past and her walls were back up. He hoped he got another chance before she left on Sunday. And what about that? What would happen to Irish when Ash left on Sunday? He frowned as his thoughts turned to his young friend and hoped that his cousin wouldnt let her fears and insecurities get in the way of probably the best thing that had ever happened to her.
"Are you sure about this, Rach?" Lauren asked looking down at herself doubtfully. Rachel had picked out a powder blue, scooped neck, short sleeve sweater that fit snuggly across her breasts and flat stomach and ended just below her navel. Next came loose fitting white cotton pants that Rachel had adjusted to ride low on Laurens hips accenting her flat stomach and the curve of her hips.
Rachel stood back and surveyed her handiwork. "Hmm," she mused as she looked Lauren up and down and smiled as Lauren blushed. "You planning on doing a lot of walking?"
Lauren nodded and tried not to fidget under Rachels scrutiny. "Yeah. I was thinking after lunch we may want to take a walk along the pier or over to one of the parks. Depends on what the weather decides to do."
"Well, it was sunny for once when I got here so that will probably not be a problem. So if youre going to be walking a lot I guess well have to go with the tennis shoes since you dont have anything else except boots!" Rachel said as she bent down and pulled out some white tennis shoes and held them out to Lauren.
"Well, I dont usually worry about my footwear like you do," Lauren replied taking the shoes and sitting down on the bed to pull them on.
"Now all thats left is your hair and makeup," Rachel stated as she headed towards the bathroom.
Lauren finished tying her shoe and stood. "Rach, no."
Rachel turned and looked at her puzzled. "No? What do you mean no?"
"I mean Im not going to get all dolled up. I never wear that stuff and you know it. Besides my hair looks fine," Lauren explained.
Rachel rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. "Okay fine. No makeup. But at least let me do something with your hair."
Rachel arched an eyebrow and Lauren blushed. "I promise to be subtle. No hairspray or curling iron or anything. Just let me fluff it a bit."
"Fine!" Lauren said and stalked past Rachel and into the bath.
Rachel laughed and did a little victory dance before following her friend.
Twenty minutes later Rachel was heading for the door with a carefully wrapped painting in her arms. Lauren opened the door for her and followed her friend into the hall.
"I should have this back to you by 4. You going to be around?" Rachel asked.
"Hmm, Im not sure. Why dont you just take it to the gallery and give it to Louis. Ill tell him to expect you when I go over there. Hopefully he wont be too upset that its not going to be there for the open exhibit this afternoon."
"Okay. Then I guess Ill see you tonight. You got something decent to wear?" Rachel teased.
"Yeah, smartass. I have that black dress I got in the spring to go to that dinner party you dragged me to," Lauren replied sticking her tongue out.
"Since I picked it out and I know how fabulous you look in it that will do," Rachel announced smugly. "Now go see Ash and good luck."
"Thanks," Lauren said with a wave as Rachel headed down the stairs. She watched until Rachel opened the door and disappeared into the parking lot. She straightened her shoulders and gave herself a little pep talk as she headed down the hall towards the boys place. "You can do this. You can do this. You can do this." She stopped before the boys door and before she could lose her nerve, knocked.
"Wonder who that could be?" Ben said giving Ash a sidelong glance and chuckled when she had the grace to blush.
Louis wiped his mouth with his napkin and stood. "Why dont we find out?" he said and left the table to go answer the door.
Ash watched him go and suddenly felt very nervous. She was hoping it was Lauren, but at the same time was terrified to see her again. She swallowed and looked at Ben pleadingly.
Ben saw the look and nodded in understanding. "Why dont you go freshen up, Ash? Im sure Louis and I can entertain our guest while you get ready."
Ash gave him a grateful smile and leapt from the table and dashed down the hall. Ben watched her go and chuckled.
Louis opened the door and his eyes widened when he saw Lauren. She obviously had dressed with care and she looked stunning. Her hair was artfully tousled and Louis had a sneaking suspicion that Rachel had had a hand in the transformation. Lauren shifted uncomfortable under his frank appraisal and he smiled.
"Well good morning, Lauren. Would you like to come in?" he asked as he stepped back from the entry and waved her in.
"Morning, Louis. Thanks," she said shyly as she walked into the room and looked around. She was disappointed to see only Ben sitting at the table finishing up breakfast.
Louis walked past her and said, "Why dont you come have a cup of coffee and tell us what brings you here so early."
Lauren nodded and followed Louis to the table. "Morning, Ben."
"Good morning to you, Irish. You look absolutely beautiful today," Ben complimented as he stood and held out a chair for her.
"Thanks," Lauren blushed as she took the offered chair.
Louis and Ben resumed their seats and waited patiently for Lauren to tell them why she was here. Louis poured her a cup of coffee and she gave him a grateful smile.
"Rachel came by this morning to pick up the painting and go do the prints. Im sorry, Louis, but she said that she wouldnt have it back until around 4 so it wont be available for this afternoons exhibit," Lauren apologized watching Louis for his reaction. She relaxed when Louis waved it off.
"No big deal. Tonight is the auction. Today is just for the gawkers," Louis replied as he sipped his coffee.
"I told Rachel she could come to the back door of the gallery to deliver it. Shell probably have the prints with her too. I guess Ill sign them before the show tonight if thats okay with you?" Lauren asked. She glanced around the apartment and wondered where Ash was.
Ben saw Lauren trying to be casual about looking for Ash and had to hide his grin behind his coffee cup. Irish definitely has it bad for my cousin. Good thing the feelings are mutual. He had noticed the outfit and had to admit he had never seen Irish look lovelier. Cuz, if you can resist her, Ill be truly impressed! He chuckled at his thoughts and Lauren gave him a questioning look.
"Something funny, Ben?" she asked.
"No, Irish. Sorry, guess my mind was wandering," Ben said giving her hand a gentle pat. "So, what are your plans for today?"
"Yes, Lauren, do you have any plans?"
Laurens eyes widened and she whirled around in her seat at the sound of Ashs voice. Ash was leaning casually on the counter behind her smiling. She was casually dressed in a pair of stonewashed jeans with a white polo tucked in. Lauren felt the room recede as their eyes met. She searched those blue depths and saw amusement and tenderness and
"Lauren, you should take Ash around town. She hasnt been here in awhile and Im sure you know where all the hot spots are," Louis said breaking the spell. Lauren blinked and glanced at Louis.
"Actually I was going to ask Ash if shed like to try out this new restaurant that just opened up," Lauren said returning her attention to Ash with a hopeful look on her face.
Ash smiled and nodded. "Sounds good, but I think its a little early to eat again." Lauren blushed and lowered her head to study her hands. "Would you like to sit out on the deck with me? I remember you saying you had an interest in my music. Maybe I could play you something?" Ash offered. The words were out of her mouth before she realized what she was saying.
Lauren looked up at her and her face shone with delight. She nodded vigorously and Ash found herself laughing at the enthusiasm of the young woman.
"That would be great!" Lauren said happily. She couldnt believe Ash had offered to play for her, but she wasnt about to let the opportunity pass her by.
"Well, I need to get down to the gallery and be about it," Louis said rising from the table.
"Ill come with you, hon. I want to call the caterers and confirm when theyre going to be here," Ben said. "Well see you ladies later."
"See you tonight, guys," Lauren said giving them a small wave.
Lauren and Ash watched the boys leave. The door closed behind them and an awkward silence descended.
"Well, Ill go get my guitar. Why dont you meet me out on the deck?" Ash suggested when the silence became too much.
"Okay," Lauren smiled meeting Ashs eyes.
Ash nodded and tearing her eyes from Laurens hurried down the hall to the sanctuary of the guest bedroom. Lauren watched her go and giggled nervous. "Oh boy! Definitely need to think of something to relieve the tension here."
Ash hurried into the guest room and closed the door leaning against it with a sigh of relief. She closed her eyes and struggled to bring her emotions back under control. Seeing Lauren had been harder than she expected. She was frustrated to find out that she couldnt seem to keep up her walls around her. Laurens green eyes would meet hers and she found herself grinning like an idiot. She thumped her head against the closed door in frustration.
Her feelings were all over the place. One moment she wanted to sweep Lauren into her arms and kiss her senseless and the next she wanted to run from the room because the depth of her feelings scared the hell out of her.
"Get a grip," she chastised herself. "You can do this. You used to chase down murderers and rapists without breaking a sweat. Spending time with a beautiful woman shouldnt be that tough." She swallowed as images of Lauren looking up at her with passion danced through her head. A jolt of fear and longing coursed through her causing her to shiver.
"I can do this," she said determinedly as she opened her eyes and straightened. "I want to do this. Gods help me, but I want her!" Her voice trailed off at the admission. She took stock of her emotions and a slow smile crept over her face as she realized she really did want Lauren. Wanted her in her life. Wanted to know everything about her. What she liked to do. What her favorite color was. Just everything. Dark images of her past tried to intrude, but she shoved them aside. "No!" she told herself as she shook her head denying the darkness admittance. "Ben was right. Thats the past. This is the future. I need to let it go and go forward instead of living in the past. Ive done that long enough!"
She strode across the room with purpose and picked up her guitar case. "Im going to go out there and play for Lauren and just enjoy the moment," she vowed as she walked out of the room and down the hall.
Lauren was leaning against the railing gazing over the city trying to think of some way to relieve the tension that now existed between the two of them when she heard the door to the deck open. She glanced over her shoulder and felt a smile touch her lips as Ash sauntered onto the deck with a guitar case in her left hand. Ash grinned shyly as she set the guitar case down on the glass-topped table and came over to her.
"Hi," she said in a low sensuous voice that made Laurens knees go weak.
Lauren ducked her head and felt her face flush. "Hi."
Ash reached out and gently cupped Laurens chin and raised her head so their eyes met. She gazed down into soft green eyes and felt her walls crumbling and didnt bother to fight it. She watched Laurens face as it transformed from wary bashfulness to quiet joy as she met Ashs tender gaze.
Lauren gently laid her hands on Ashs waist and gently pulled her forward. Ash didnt resist and Lauren felt giddy as Ashs body came into contact with hers. She asked the question with her eyes and was rewarded when Ash bent down and gently brushed her lips with hers. Lauren closed her eyes and reveled in the feelings this exquisite woman caused in her with her gentle touch.
Ash raised her head from the kiss and trailed a finger gently down Laurens cheek. Green eyes opened slowly and met clear blue eyes that were darkened with emotion. "Thank you," Lauren whispered.
Ash raised an eyebrow and a crooked grin graced her lips. "For what?" she asked softly as she let her fingers trail down Laurens cheek and come to rest on her shoulder.
Lauren laughed gently and shook her head. "Would you like a list?" she asked playfully as she let her hands slide around Ashs waist and come to rest on the small of her back.
"Hmm," Ash pretended to think about it and Lauren poked her in the ribs. "Hey!" she yelped and squirmed to the side.
Lauren gave her a mischievous grin, but relented. "Are you going to play for me?"
Ash glanced down at the hopeful face and grinned. "Well, that was the plan," she said as she stepped back and took Laurens hands in hers. "Do you have any requests?"
"No. Whatever you want to play is fine with me."
"Okay. Come on," Ash said and guided Lauren over to the table and pulled out a chair for her. Lauren smiled and took a seat.
Ash turned and opened the case. She pulled out the guitar and sat down in the chair across from Lauren and deftly brought it to tune.
Lauren watched her happily. She felt like she could just sit her all day and watch Ash do the most menial tasks. Oh boy! I have definitely fallen here. But I think, just maybe, she feels the same. Lauren relaxed into her chair and waited for her private concert to begin. She couldnt wait to tell her mom! The thought of her mom suddenly brought reality crashing down. Oh shit! My mom! Ash! My mom! Her mind began to whirl at the implications. Whoa! Wait a minute! She shouted in her mind. There is no reason to tell mom anything other than I got a private concert from Ash. I dont need to tell her that I think that I think Im falling in love with her. She let the thought take life in her mind and it felt right. At least not yet. Not until I know if Ash feels the same way. She felt her heart speed up at the thought. OH GOD! Please, let her feel the same way! What am I gonna do if she doesnt? She looked over at Ash and saw her looking at her with concern. She put on a smile and Ashs face relaxed.
"You ready?" Lauren asked waving towards the guitar.
"Yep. All tuned up and ready to go," Ash stated as she settled the guitar in her arms. She studied Lauren once more and asked, "You okay? You looked kind of far away there for a moment?"
"Im fine. I was just thinking about how I get to rub it in to my mom that I got a private concert by you," Lauren explained gleefully. Ash gave her a questioning look. "My mom saw you in concert several years ago and it seems shes a devoted fan. In fact she wants me to put in a bid for her on your cd collection."
"Really? Huh. Did she say where she saw me?" Ash asked curious. She hadnt given many concerts in her teenage years. The only one that came to mind that Laurens mom could have attended was a charity thing she had done in Salt Lake when she was 15.
Lauren shook her head. "No. I could ask her though."
"No. It doesnt really matter," Ash said as she strummed her guitar. "Well, lets get this show on the road so youll have something to brag about!"
Lauren laughed and leaned forward with anticipation. Ash bent her head and her raven black hair fell around her face framing it. Her slender fingers flew across the strings and an Irish jig came merrily to life. Lauren clapped in delight and Ash raised her head and gave her a saucy wink.
Ash continued to play for the next hour to her enraptured audience of one.
Ben heard the laughter and the music coming from the deck when he walked in and couldnt resist sneaking a peak. He crept up to the doors and lifted a finger to part the drapes to see what was going on between his two favorite ladies. A broad smile broke across his face when he saw Lauren laughing and clapping along to the reel that Ash was playing. Things were going well. Very well indeed.
Alexis eyes followed Judith as she paced across the hardwood floors of their condo, her steps echoing eerily across the sparsely decorated room. She had her hands clasped behind her back and her head was bent causing her blonde hair to obscure her face. Alexi knew her lover was furious, but she didnt know why. She was just hoping Judith wouldnt decide to vent it on her.
Judith came to an abrupt halt with her back facing Alexi. Her head came up and she appeared to stare out the window. She stood like that for so long that Alexi started to relax. Maybe she had calmed herself down.
Alexis hopes were dashed when Judith swung around and pinned her with a glacial stare. Judiths eyes were lavender today and they held Alexi with an iron grip. A slow smile crept across Judiths face and Alexi swallowed convulsively.
"Alexi, my dear," Judith purred as she stalked towards her. Alexi watched as Judiths countenance thawed and a charming smile curled her full lips. Alexi cringed back in her chair and looked at Judith with apprehension.
Judith straddled her lap and leaned forward slightly so Alexi would have a perfect view down her shirt. She smiled as Alexis eyes gravitated to her unbound breasts. She brought her hands up and began to tease the nape of Alexs neck with her nails.
"Yes, Judith?" Alexi asked with a slight tremor in her voice.
"You know how much I love you dont you, sweetheart?" Judith purred into Alexis ear bringing her breasts up to brush against Alexis face.
Alexi nodded as she inhaled Judiths perfume and openly admired her breasts that were so tantalizingly close to her that it made her mouth water. She slid her hands up Judiths hips and let them glide across her back. Judith was an intoxicatingly beautiful woman and Alexi felt her body tremble at her nearness.
"And you want to make me happy, dont you?" Judith moaned into Alexis ear nipping it gently. She trailed her hands down Alexis shoulders in a feather light caress.
"Of course, Judith," Alexi groaned as she leaned in and began placing feather light kisses on Judiths exposed neck and chest. She pulled Judith closer to her and ran her hands more aggressively up and down Judiths back.
Judith grinned as she continued her seductive dance upon Alexis willing body. "If thats true, than why arent you taking me to the gala tonight?" Judith pouted. She kissed down Alexis neck and felt Alexis body quiver under her touch.
"Judith I promised " Alexi attempted to explain but her brain had shut off and her body had taken over under Judiths amorous ministrations.
Judith pulled back and waited for Alexi to meet her eyes. "What? Someone else is more important to you than me?" she accused letting her lip quiver.
"No, no, honey. Its not that," Alexi quickly reassured. "I didnt know you wanted to go. I thought it was beneath you. Thats why I told my little brother Id take him." Judith pulled further away and made as if to stand. Alexi gripped her around the waist and held her in place. "If you really want to go, Ill call Renny and tell him Ill take him to the concert next week instead."
"Really?" Judith asked letting hope color her voice.
Alexi nodded. "Yes, of course, sweetheart. I would much rather have you on my arm than my brother."
Judith gave her an adoring smile and leaning down captured Alexis lips with hers. Judith kissed her hard, taking full possession and then pulling back ever so slightly whispered, "I have the perfect thank you, love."
She slid from Alexis lap and pulled the stunned woman up. She began walking backwards and brought her hand up to give Alexi a come hither gesture. Alexi stood there for a moment and then grinned and followed Judith out of the room and down the hall to their bedroom.
Laurens stomach grumbled again and this time she was sure Ash had heard it. She had her head cocked in that endearing way she had when she was listening to something intently. Lauren was hungry, but she was having such a marvelous time listening to Ash play and chatting with her that she didnt want it to end.
Ash stretched and smiled endearingly at Lauren. "Well, I dont know about you, but Im starved," she said with a twinkle in her blue eyes.
"That obvious, huh?" she asked with a regretful toss of her head.
Ash chuckled. "Its cute. And besides I am hungry." She leaned over and placed the guitar back in its case and snapped the lid shut.
"Well, I do believe I promised you lunch." Lauren uncrossed her legs and stretched them out in front of her. She was surprised at how stiff she was. She glanced at her watch and was shocked to see it was almost one. Well, I guess I should be stiff after sitting here that long!
"Hmmm, I think I do remember you saying something about trying out a new restaurant," Ash mused as she stood and offered her hand to Lauren.
Lauren clasped it and allowed Ash to pull her to her feet admiring the play of muscle across Ashs tan arms. "Well, why dont you go put your guitar away and find some shoes and Ill step into the little girls room and we can be off?"
Ash picked up her guitar case and with a bow said, "After you."
"You are a goofball," Lauren teased patting her head as she strode past and through the French doors.
Only with you, Ash thought with a grin and followed Lauren in with a bounce to her step and a song in her heart.
Lauren headed straight for the bathroom and Ash followed in her wake to return her guitar case to the guest bedroom. She set the case down on the bed and couldnt help the smile that spread across her usually stoic features. She absently ran her hand across the leather case as she thought about the day so far. There was something about Laurens enthusiasm that was infectious. Ash had never had a more appreciative audience and every time she glanced up from her guitar she was met with Laurens sunny smile and green eyes that sparkled with open admiration. She couldnt remember a morning she had enjoyed more. After the initial awkwardness had been alleviated it was like she frowned trying to think of some way to describe it. It was like they had known each other for years. She was comfortable with Lauren. Not having to feel on guard all the time. She had her defenses up for so long that it had become second nature to her, but somehow Lauren made her feel safe enough to just be herself without any barriers. She didnt even feel that way around Benson and he was probably the closest person she had in her life.
Warm arms slid around her waist from behind. "Where are you?" a voice asked softly. Ash grinned, but was startled. She hadnt heard Lauren come in and was surprised that when she touched her she hadnt thrown her across the room.
She turned in the embrace and regarded Laurens curious expression. "Right here," she said in a low voice and leaned down to brush her lips across Laurens. An intense wave of desire washed over her and her body quaked.
Lauren glided her hands up Ashs back in a feather light caress. Her heart was beating double time and she wanted nothing more than to pull Ashs head back down and kiss her until her eyes crossed. She scanned Ashs slightly flushed face and saw the open desire there. Her eyes came up to meet Ashs and that is where she found the hint of uncertainty swimming within the passion. "I think I better take you to lunch before I do something we might both regret," she whispered bringing her hand around and caressing Ashs cheek with the back of her hand.
Ash closed her eyes and leaned into the caress. She licked her lips and cleared her throat. "Lunch is probably a good idea," she said as she opened her eyes and captured Laurens with a passionate gaze. "Though I cant think of anything you could do that I would regret."
Laurens entire body flushed at the promise in those blue depths. She tangled her hands in Ashs silky hair and pulled her head down for a passionate kiss. The world exploded as their lips met. Lauren opened her mouth slightly and allowed Ash entry. She molded her body against Ashs lithe muscular form and felt her nipples harden as they rode underneath Ashs full breasts.
Ash kissed Lauren deeply letting her hands caress Laurens back and come to rest on her ass pulling her closer as their kiss deepened. Her world had narrowed to the feel of Laurens body pressed against her and the exquisite taste of their kiss.
Lauren finally came to her senses and lovingly leaned back to gaze up at Ash. "I was trying to be good and then you had to go and say that," she accused softly running her fingers through Ashs hair.
Ash shrugged unrepentant. "Cant help it. You bring it out in me."
Laurens stomach chose that moment to growl and she shook her head sadly. Ash laughed and pulled her into a crushing hug.
"I think thats our cue to feed you," Ash teased as she released Lauren and stepped back.
"Guess so," Lauren agreed.
Ash grinned and strode over to her duffle to grab some socks. "I kind of got side tracked," she said as she held up the socks.
"Mmm, guess so," Lauren agreed as she watched Ash sit down on the bed and put on her socks and boots.
"So where are you taking me?" Ash asked as she stood and stomped to adjust the fit of her boots.
"Do you like Chinese?"
"Well, theres a new Chinese bistro that just opened up a couple of blocks away and Ive heard good things about it, so I thought we could try it out."
"Sounds good to me," Ash said as she reached out and took Laurens hand in hers. She led them out of the bedroom and down the hall. They came around the corner into the living room and spotted Benson on the couch reading the paper. He glanced up when they entered and smiled.
"Hey girls. You off to get something to eat?" he asked folding his paper and laying it aside.
"Thats the plan," Ash said walking over to him with Lauren tagging along slightly behind her.
Ben noted the clasped hands and his smile widened. "Going to try out the new Chinese place, right?"
"Yeah. Some of the girls from my study group tried it out and said the food was to die for," Lauren asserted coming up beside Ash and sliding an arm around her waist. Ash put her arm around Laurens shoulders and Ben couldve sworn that she didnt even realize she was doing it.
"Well dont forget you need to be back here by 6 to sign those prints, Irish," Ben warned shaking a finger at her.
"Ill remember. Besides, I have to be back before that to get dressed," Lauren replied as she casually leaned against Ash.
Benson regarded the two of them and mentally shook his head in wonder. If he didnt know better he would have sworn on a stack of bibles that the two of them had been together for years not just met yesterday! Both stood relaxed in each others arms and had that aura of familiarity that comes from being with someone for a long time. He peaked at Ashs face and saw peaceful contentment and a look of such fondness fell across her features whenever she looked at Irish that Ben felt his heart constrict. Irish was practically glowing with happiness and the she kept giving Ash loving looks when she didnt think Ash could see her.
"Well, I guess you two should get going then. Ill see you tonight," Ben said as he picked up his paper once more and snapped it open.
"Louis making you wear a monkey suit?" Ash teased.
"Dont remind me! I hate that thing!" Ben groaned as he buried his head in his paper.
The two women laughed and said goodbye as they headed out the door.
They strolled down the sidewalk hand in hand. Lauren looked up at Ash and saw a far away look on her face. "Hey? You in there?" She asked giving Ashs hand a gentle squeeze.
Ash glanced down and smiled. "Yeah, Im just trying to figure out how to ask you something."
"Oh?" Lauren said hoping she sounded casual.
"I was talking to Ben earlier this morning and he said something thats been bugging me ever since," Ash admitted.
"He said that youve spent almost every major holiday with him and Louis and I was just wondering why?" Ash asked softly. Lauren stiffened at the question and came to an abrupt halt. Ash stopped and gave her a concerned look. Lauren looked like she was about to faint. Ash quickly wrapped her arms around her afraid she would fall. "Im sorry, Lauren. I didnt mean to upset you. Im sorry."
Lauren felt the comforting embrace surround her. The question had blindsided her and she was having a hard time fighting down the emotions that always arose when she thought of returning home. She sobbed and buried her face in Ashs shirt.
Ash was totally taken aback. This was not a situation she was ready to deal with. Lauren clung to her desperately and was crying piteously. Ash held her close and gently rocked her. She stroked her hair and tried to calm her by humming softly. She was terrified by Laurens reaction and angry with herself for upsetting Lauren.
Lauren gulped back a sob and struggled to regain her composure. She slowly became aware of Ash softly humming to her and rocking her gently. The feel of Ash so lovingly stroking her hair almost made her start crying again, but for a totally different reason. She raised her hand and wiped at her eyes.
Ash felt the movement and relaxed her hold. She waited patiently for Lauren to regain her composure and look at her.
Lauren raised tear-swollen eyes and met pain stricken blue. Ash gently wiped her tears away with her thumb. "Im sorry, Ash. I didnt mean to fall apart like that."
Ash shook her head. "Its my fault. Im sorry I upset you." Ash released her and stepped back. Now that the crisis was over she was unsure of herself and couldnt meet Laurens eyes. She was furious with herself for causing Lauren such anguish and was afraid of what she would see if their eyes met. She gazed across the street not really seeing as she continued to berate herself.
Lauren looked at her perplexed. "Hey," she said softly, tugging on Ashs hand. When Ash didnt look at her she frowned. "You didnt do anything wrong, Ash. You just asked a simple question. I was the one who had an emotional meltdown in the middle of the street."
Ash crossed her arms over her chest. She heard Laurens words, but she was so far into her self recriminations that they didnt sink in.
"Ash?" No response. "Ash? Are you going to just stand there and ignore me?" Lauren was getting upset. She didnt know why Ash was acting this way and it suddenly made her angry. "Ash! Damn it! You look at me right now!" she shouted grabbing Ashs arm and yanking her around to face her.
Ash stared down at her in shock. Laurens face was angry just as she had expected it would be. She ducked her head and stared at the tip of her boots. "Im sorry, Lauren. I think Ill go back to the boys now. I Im not really that hungry anymore."
Laurens mouth fell open in shock. "You cant be serious?" Ash nodded. "Oh no! You are not running away from me, Ashlin Gray!" She grabbed Ash by the shoulders and shook her. "Now snap out of it and talk to me damn it! Why are you trying to run away? Because Im an emotional basket case?"
Ash looked up at her in surprise. Laurens face was pleading and she felt like her heart was going to break. She shook her head. "No, no, its not you, Lauren. Its me. I Im sorry. I didnt mean to upset you. I know youre angry. Ill just go."
"Arrgh!" Lauren growled with frustration. She stared into Ashs repentant face and wanted to scream. "Would you stop apologizing? It was not your fault! Okay?" Ash nodded doubtfully. "Now, will you please just talk to me?" she asked softly as she loosened her hold on Ash.
Ash nodded and tried to figure out what to say. She had never been good at revealing her feelings and she wasnt sure how to go about it now. She ran her hands through her hair in agitation. "Okay," she agreed in a quiet voice.
"Good," Lauren sighed with relief. She scanned the area and saw a park bench. "Come on," she said and dragged a willing Ash over to the bench. "Sit." She pushed down on Ashs shoulders until she sat down and then dropped down next to her. She captured Ashs hands in hers and waited for Ash to look up.
Ash swallowed and fought down the fear. She didnt want Lauren to be mad at her. It hurt too much. She raised her head and met compassionate green eyes. "Why did my question upset you so much?"
Lauren closed her eyes and took comfort in the feel of Ashs strong hands in hers. "I left home as soon as I was able to. I havent been back. I have some bad memories and when you asked me it just brought them to the surface," she whispered hanging her head.
Ash heard the pain and fear in Laurens voice and felt the rage well up. Someone had hurt her. Thats why she doesnt want to go back there. "Im sorry, Lauren. I didnt mean to stir up bad memories."
Lauren shook her head and fought back the tears. "Its okay. You didnt know," she said opening her eyes to look at Ash. "Now. You want to tell me why you were going to take off on me?"
Ash stared down at their clasped hands and fought down the urge to fidget. "I didnt know what to do!" she cried. "You were crying and upset and I didnt know what to do, Lauren. And then I realized I had upset you and I thought you were mad at me and "
Lauren cupped her chin and lifted Ashs face until she looked up and met her warm regard. Lauren leaned forward and kissed her gently. "You did just fine by my book," she whispered huskily.
Ash blushed. "So, youre not mad at me?" she asked in a small voice.
"No. Im not mad at you," Lauren reassured. She realized then that Ash was easily hurt. She had a feeling that Ash hadnt been in many relationships, so all of this was new to her. "Ash, I care about you. A lot."
"I care about you too, Lauren," Ash said as a small smile graced her lips. "Lets not fight anymore, okay? It hurts too much."
Lauren chuckled. "Okay. No more misunderstandings."
"Good! Then lets go get something to eat. Im starved!" Ash announced as she bounced to her feet and pulled Lauren up.
Lauren laughed and allowed Ash to pull her down the street in search of the restaurant. She felt like a major disaster had been avoided and was giddy with relief. Ash had bounced back and was acting like nothing had happened. She smiled fondly at the broad back of a very complex woman and she was looking forward to exploring every facet.
Ash glanced over her shoulder and gave her a rakish grin. "I do believe this is it."
Lauren glanced at the window and nodded. "Yep. Looks like you found it. Shall we go in and chow down on egg rolls until they have to roll us out of there?"
"Sounds good to me!" Ash said as she opened the door and waved Lauren through.
"Thank you, maam," she said with her head held high.
"Most welcome," Ash said and slapped her on the butt as she passed.
Lauren yelped and gave her a mock glare over her shoulder as she strode into the restaurant. Ash smirked and followed.
The two dashed up the stairs at a quarter to 5. They had been walking in the park and had lost track of the time and were now running late. Lauren slowed to a walk when she crested the stairs and smiled as she felt Ashs arms come around her. She leaned back and gripped the encircling arms lightly with her hands.
They stopped in front of Laurens door and Lauren sighed.
"Whats wrong?" Ash whispered into her ear making her shiver with delight.
"I dont want to let you go," Lauren wailed tightening her grip.
Ash chuckled and kissed the top of her head. "Im only going to be down the hall putting on my own monkey suit. Ill be back to escort you down in half an hour."
"Half an hours too damn long," Lauren pouted. "Youre leaving tomorrow and I want to soak up every minute I can with you."
Ash tightened her embrace as she rested her chin on Laurens head. She didnt want to think about leaving. She didnt have to really. Yes I do. I promised Lu Id be in Spokane on Monday to help her with that damn case. She closed her eyes with a sigh. "Ill be back, Lauren. Dont think you can get rid of me that easily."
Lauren spun in Ashs arms and looked up at her. "I dont want to get rid of you. Dont you see? I want to spend time with. I enjoy being with you. I dont want to think about you not being here."
"I know," Ash said gently.
"You dont think were going too fast?" Lauren asked studying Ashs face intently.
"I dont know, Lauren. All I know is that I love being with you and I miss you when youre not there." Ash shrugged. "I know that sounds crazy since we just met yesterday, but "
Lauren placed her fingers gently on Ashs mouth to silence her. Ash looked at her questioningly. "Ash? If I tell you something, do you promise not to freak out?" Ash thought about it for a moment and then nodded. "I know this is going to sound well, crazy I guess is the best word but I feel like Ive known you forever. I know we dont know a lot about each other and Im sure we have lots of things to discover, but here," she placed her hand over heart, "I know you. I feel a connection between us that I dont understand and its kind of scary, but exciting at the same time. Am I making any sense?" Ash nodded. "I think I love you, Ashlin Gray," she finished softly as she rested her head on Ashs shoulder.
Ash felt her heart skip a beat at the words. She she thinks she loves me? Me? She tightened her hold on Lauren afraid shed disappear if she let go. She was overjoyed and scared out of her mind at the same time. What am I gonna do? I I think I love her too. Should I tell her? Ive never felt like this before. Is this what love feels like? "Lauren, I "
Lauren looked up at saw the wonderment and uncertainty on Ashs face. "Ash, honey, you dont have to say anything. I just wanted you to know."
Ash grinned and scooping Lauren up spun her around. Lauren let out a startled yelp and then started to laugh in delight. She flung her arms around Ashs neck and just glorified in the moment.
Ash finally set her down and kissed her leaving her breathless.
Ash stepped back and said, "I need to go get dressed. Ill see you in half an hour. Im preparing myself to be dazzled by your beauty."
Lauren laughed and shooed her down the hall. "Go on! Ill do the best I can with the limited resources I have available."
Ash turned and gave her an appraising look. "Oh, I think youll manage," she said in low sexy voice.
Lauren giggled self-consciously. "Im sure all eyes will be on you, my dear," she informed her as she unlocked her apartment and opened the door.
"We shall see, we shall see," Ash called as she strode down the hall.
Lauren watched her go and felt punch drunk from the well of emotions that was racing through her. She couldnt believe it, but she felt like maybe, just maybe she had found her tree in the forest. She shook her head in wonder and headed into her apartment determined that Ashs eyes would be on her and her alone tonight. "Wheres Rachel when I need her?" she wondered as she headed towards her closet to pull out her outfit for tonight.
Ben looked up from adjusting his cufflinks when the door burst open and Ashlin dashed in.
"Whoa! Wheres the fire?" he asked. She skidded to a halt and gave him a beaming smile.
"Im running late. I need to go get ready for the shindig tonight and I really need to jump in the shower. I told Lauren Id be back to escort her down in 30 minutes," Ash explained as she bounced over to Benson.
Benson looked at her in surprise. Was his cousin actually bouncing? "Okay," he said slowly. "You okay, cuz?"
Ash grinned and threw her arms around Ben giving him a squeeze. Bens eyes widened in surprise at the affectionate display. "Im great!" Ash enthused releasing him from her hug. "No! Im better than great. Im fantastic!" She reached up and gave him a kiss on the cheek and then spun around and trotted down the hallway towards the bathroom.
Ben just stood there dumbfounded staring after her. Louis came out of the office and saw his lover and stopped with a puzzled frown.
"Ben? Is everything all right?" Louis asked coming up to Ben with concern.
Ben shook himself and looked at Louis still dazed. "Who is that woman and what has she done with my cousin?" he asked pointing down the hall.
Louis glanced down the hall and then back to Ben. "You want to explain that?"
"I dont know who just came barreling in here smiling like they had just won the lottery, but it sure looked like Ash," Ben said distractedly as he continued to stare down the hall where Ash had disappeared.
"What..." Louis question drifted off as they heard Ashs voice singing coming from the bathroom. "Is that Ash?"
"Thats what Ive been trying to tell you!" Ben exclaimed. "I think aliens swiped her and left a pod person in her place."
Louis shook his head and chuckled. "No, I just think Ash is falling in love."
"What? With who?" Ben asked finally turning his attention to Louis.
Louis slapped him playfully on the arm and reached up to adjust his tie. "With Lauren, you idiot," Louis explained. "You remember Lauren right? Well, I think shes worked some kind of magic and has thawed that frozen heart of your cousins."
Ben frowned in thought and then a beauteous smile fell across his face. "You know, Louis. I think you may be right!"
"Mmmm, I usually am," Louis stated. "Now, I think we better get downstairs and make sure those cretins dont eat all the food before the guests arrive."
Ben laughed. "Yes, dear. We must
keep an eye on the hired help. Who knows what they might walk off with."
"Exactly," Louis nodded seriously, taking Bens arm.
Ben grinned and escorted his lover from the apartment accompanied by the glorious sound of Ashs joyful singing.
"Dont You Need" by Melissa Etheridge on her cd Melissa Etheridge is copyrighted by Melissa Etheridge and Island Records. Used without permission but with no copyright infringement meant.
CONTINUED IN PART 5