Lauren gazed into the mirror lost in thought as she brushed her hair. Her eyes focused on her reflection and she asked, "You do know what your doing dont you? You just bared your heart to a woman youve known less than two days. How can you be so sure?" Her reflection stared back but didnt offer any insight. She sighed as she set the brush aside and placing her hands on either side of the sink she leaned forward, studying her reflection intently. "Shes leaving tomorrow. Then what? What if she leaves and realizes youre a total psycho and shes better off without you?" She voiced her fears and her reflection frowned back at her. "Of course, youre right." She nodded. "She cares about me. I know that. She didnt freak about the painting or my total melt down when she asked me a simple question well, not completely and we worked through that. If that didnt scare her off, I dont think anything will." Her mind flashed to images of her past and she shuddered involuntarily. Her eyes closed as she forced the memories back. "No," she demanded. "Time enough to go into that later. Tonight and tomorrow is just for us. Just live in the moment, Lauren, you dont know how long it will be before you see her again. What is it the Romans say?" She asked her reflection. "Oh yes, carpe diem. Seize the day. Well, I plan to." She grinned at her reflection. "Thanks. I needed that."
She walked out of the bathroom and sat down on the bed to pull on her heels. Now should I wear the pearls or the silver? She glanced towards the door at the sound of a knock. She looked over to the clock and saw it was quarter to 6. "Well, shes punctual. Ill give her that," she mused as she stood and headed for the door.
She paused with her hand on the doorknob and took a deep steadying breath. Well, here it goes. She turned the knob and swung the door open and her jaw dropped at the sight. Standing before her was a vision. She blinked but she was still there. Her eyes raked down Ashs lithe form. Ashs hair was unbound and cascaded in gentle waves to just brush the top of her breasts. She wore a cobalt blue silk blouse that made her eyes practically glow with a black jacket that accented her broad shoulders and was tailored to show the gentle line of her hips. A form fitting black skirt clung to her hips and stopped just above her knees. Her long muscular legs were encased in sheer black hose and black pumps accented the shapely curve of her calves. Laurens eyes traveled back up and came to rest on Ashs face that was sporting an amused half smile.
"I take it I meet with your approval?" Ash questioned in a low, sensuous voice spreading her arms wide. She was pleased with Laurens obvious pleasure at her appearance. She had been stunned speechless when Lauren had first opened the door and her eyes fell upon the young woman who had so easily captured her heart. Her mouth had gone dry and her heart had started pounding so hard she thought for sure Lauren could see it through her blouse. The light from the hallway caressed Laurens hair making it shine like spun gold with touches of fire racing through it. Her wonderfully expressive green eyes had widened and the love that shone out of them made a lump form in Ashs throat. A black slip dress embraced her slender form, the v-neck line pleasantly accenting the curve of her breasts. The dress hung to mid thigh and appeared to mold to Laurens trim waist and thighs. Ash wondered idly how she could walk in it.
"Wow! Are you a dream?" Lauren asked in awe as she reached out a hand to touch her.
Ash laughed. "No, but I think I may be in the presence of an angel." She stepped forward and rested her hands on Laurens waist. Laurens arms automatically lifted to encircle Ashs neck.
"Oh believe me with the thoughts that are running through my head, Im no angel," Lauren said huskily, drawing Ashs head down for a kiss.
Ash drew back from the kiss and gazed down into the face of love. She acknowledged it, but somehow couldnt bring herself to say so. She smiled. "Well, my dear, I do believe there are prints to be signed and people are expecting us."
"I know," Lauren sighed stepping back. She gave Ash a fond smile. "You want to help me pick out some jewelry to go with this?"
"Sure," Ash replied following Lauren across the studio and admiring the gently sway of Laurens hips.
The dress was slit up the right side and with every other step Ash was treated with a flash of Laurens tantalizing thigh. Ash had her answer.
"What do you think? The pearls or the silver?" Lauren asked holding up the two choices.
Ash studied them and then appraised Lauren thoughtfully. "Hmm, I think the pearls."
"My thoughts exactly," Lauren agreed as she turned her back and set the silver necklace back into her jewelry box. She found the pearl studs and put them on. She brought the necklace up and felt warm hands take it gently from her.
"Here, let me do that," Ash whispered, gently taking the necklace from Laurens hands. Lauren nodded and leaned her head forward. Ash stepped up to stand so close behind her that her breasts just touched Laurens back. She draped the necklace around Laurens slender neck and with hands that trembled slightly fastened the clasp. She rested her hands lightly on Laurens bare shoulders and leaned in to place a feather light kiss on the nape of Laurens neck.
Lauren shivered when she felt Ashs lips touch her. "You know, if you continue to touch me like that were never going to make the show," she warned Ash in a quiet voice.
Ash chuckled and slid her hands down Laurens arms to come to rest lightly on her stomach. She pulled her gently into a loose embrace. "I seem to recall warning you that you seem to have this affect on me," she stated resting her cheek on top of Laurens silken head.
"Mmm," Lauren murmured her assent as she relaxed into the secure embrace. She loved the feel of Ashs arms around her and the comfort of her body so close to hers.
"We really need to get going, sweetheart," Ash murmured not really wanting to break the moment, but knowing that Louis would be frantic.
Lauren turned her head and peaked up at her with a demure smile. "You called me sweetheart."
"Do you mind?" Ash asked suddenly unsure of herself as she cocked her head to see Laurens face better.
"No! Not at all," Lauren quickly reassured her. She turned in Ashs arms and brought her hand up to caress Ashs cheek. "I want to be your sweetheart."
Ashs face lit up with delight. "You are my sweetheart," Ash said reverently as she turned her head and kissed Laurens palm.
Lauren smiled. "Good. Now we better get out of here or we never will."
Ash laughed and stepping back offered her arm to Lauren. "Well then. Would you be so kind as to give me the pleasure of escorting you, Miss OShea?"
"I would be delighted, Miss Gray," Lauren replied slipping her arm through Ashs.
"Where the hell are they?" Louis demanded glaring at the clock. "Its already after 6! Lauren still has to sign those prints!" He waved at the stack of prints that Rachel had dropped off that were lying across his desk. "Guests are going to start arriving before 7! You know they always do!"
Ben watched his lover pace with amusement. He knew that Louis was stressing and was just venting to relieve the pressure and the ladies being late was just an easy target for his wrath. "Easy, hon. Theyll be here," he reassured from the office doorway where he was casually leaning against the frame keeping one eye on the hired help and the other on his frantic lover.
Louis glared at him and then began pacing again muttering to himself. Ben grinned and returned his attention to the activities in the gallery. He caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and turned his head to see the back door to the gallery opening. His eyes widened in appreciation as Ash came into view escorting Irish. Both looked absolutely radiant. Irish met his eye and waved with a bright smile. He waved back and called over his shoulder. "Louis, the ladies have arrived."
"Well, its about damned time!" Louis fumed as he stomped over to Ben and glared out the door. His gaze found the pair and he gasped.
Ben chuckled with wry amusement. "They are rather stunning, arent they?"
"Amazing," Louis said with surprise coloring his voice. "Ive begun to rethink your hypothesis of pod people, Ben. I think they may have swiped Lauren too."
Ben burst into laughter at the comment and heads turned to stare curiously in their direction. Louis grinned and joined in the laughter.
"Care to share the joke?" Lauren asked glancing between the two men as they came up to them.
Louis shook his head and looked at Ben and started laughing harder. Ben closed his eyes and fought back the merriment, but when he opened them and saw the looks of confusion on both their faces he lost it again. He bent at the waist and sucked in a breath. He held up a hand in a wait motion and finally straightened when he thought he had his humor under control.
"Phew! Sorry about that ladies," he apologized still chuckling.
"Uh-huh. Have you two been sampling the bubbly already?" Ash asked pointing her thumb over her shoulder to where a champagne fountain stood.
"No, of course not!" Louis said with a touch of indignation. "Where have you two been? Lauren you need to get into the office and start signing those prints! People are going to start arriving any time now and youll need to be out here for the meet and greet." His voice had taken on a demanding tone and he raised his hand to shake a finger at Lauren.
"Okay, Louis," Lauren said in a quiet voice as she shrank against Ashs secure frame.
Ash felt Laurens hand tighten on hers and glanced down with concern when Lauren huddled against her. She saw the lost frightened look that had overtaken her radiant face and felt her heart constrict.
"Shell get to it in a minute, Louis!" Ash growled as she glared at Louis and wrapped a protective arm around Laurens shoulders. "Keep your damn pants on! Why dont you go bother the help?"
Louis stepped back in surprise as Ashs eyes locked on his with cold rage shining in their depths.
"Umm sure. That sound like a good idea," Louis stuttered. Ash finally released him from her cold regard as her attention focused on Lauren. Louis blew out a breath in relief and quickly fled across the gallery.
Ben stood back and watched. He was too stunned by Ashs aggressive defense of Irish and Irishs obvious distress to even think of interfering before it was all over. He noticed that Ash and Irish were totally focused on one another and didnt seem to even notice him. He felt guilty watching them so slowly turned and slipped away.
Ash bent her head inhaling the sweet fragrance of Laurens hair as she reigned in her rage and unclenched her jaw allowing her face to relax. The last thing she wanted to do was frighten Lauren any more than she already was. "Lauren? Sweetheart? Are you okay?" Ash questioned in a soft voice cupping Laurens chin and lifting her head until their eyes met. Ash saw fear in those lovely green eyes before Lauren blinked and her eyes cleared.
"Im fine, Ash," she reassured softly, taking Ashs hand tenderly in hers and kissing it lightly on the palm.
"You sure?" Ash asked scanning Laurens face.
Lauren nodded and a fond smile touched her lips. "Yes. Now, I need to go in there," she nodded her head towards the office. "And get those prints signed. Why dont you mingle?"
"Are you sure? I could come sit with you if you want?" Ash offered. She knew she sounded clingy, but Laurens sudden bout of unaccountable fear had rocked her to the core. She felt protective and wanted to make sure Lauren was all right.
"No," Lauren said as she reached up and placed a kiss on Ashs chin. "Go on. Ill be fine." She gave Ash a gentle shove.
"Okay, if youre sure. Ill be right out here if you need me," Ash said as she stepped back and studied Laurens face to make sure she was telling the truth about being fine.
"I know where to find you," Lauren said touched by Ashs solicitous behavior. She gave Ash a bright smile that touched her eyes.
Ash was relieved by the smile and grinned her lopsided grin back. "Okay. Ill go see where they have us set up then."
"Good idea," Lauren said as she turned with a small wave and walked into the office.
Ash watched her go and shook her head. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Being around Lauren was like being on an emotional rollercoaster and she was beginning to feel the strain. So much had happened in such a short period of time that she hadnt had the opportunity to sit back and think about any of it.
When she was with Lauren she just enjoyed the ride, but she knew that sooner or later she would need time alone to analyze all the conflicting emotions that were running rampant through her. Guess Ill get the chance while Im in Spokane. With that thought she gazed around the room and spotting Benson headed towards him.
Ben turned away from the buffet table at the call and came face to face with his cousin. He glanced at her calm face but noticed the spark of anger still flickering in her ice blue eyes. "Hi, cuz. Would you like a glass of champagne?" he asked holding up a glass.
Ash nodded in agreement and Ben turned at the waist to secure another glass. He smiled as he held it out to her.
"Thank you," Ash said as she surveyed the gallery and noticed that guests had begun to arrive. "How many people are invited to this thing anyway?"
"Louis sent out 150 invitations and if they each bring a guest that will bring the total up to 300," Ben answered sipping his champagne and looking around the filling room.
Ashs eyebrow rose in inquiry. "Oh? Are they all going to fit?"
"We bought out the store next door last year and expanded," he said pointing to double doors to the right. Ash looked and nodded. "Thats the room where all the sculptures are on display. Its quite a bit bigger than this one. Want to go take a look? I dont think youve seen my latest pieces."
"Sure," Ash agreed as she followed Ben across the room. "Where does Louis have Lauren and I set up?"
"Over there," Ben pointed to the far corner where Laurens painting hung illuminated indirectly with a table in front of it with a small display. Immediately to the left of Laurens display was hers. A tri-fold display board had been set up and looked to hold newspaper articles and what appeared from this distance to be some of her old promo posters from concerts. A table sat before the display with the autographed cd set resting on a silver pedestal.
"Why there?" Ash frowned.
"Because its close to the office and the back door. I thought it best in case things go a little nuts like last time," Ben explained as he led the way into the sculpture room.
"Why would things go nuts, Ben? No one knows Im going to be here except for the invited guests, right?" she questioned in a cold voice.
Ben came to a stop and turned to her. "Its just a precaution, Ash. I dont want to see that happen again thats all."
Ash clasped her hands behind her back and rocked back on her heels as she studied Bens sincere face. "I believe you, Ben, but there must be a reason that you suspect something might happen. Now spill it."
"I really cant get anything past you can I?" Ben asked exasperated.
"Nope," Ash smirked.
"Fine. One of the guests invited is Alexi Reid," Ben studied Ashs face carefully for her reaction. Her eyebrow rose in question, but her face remained calm. "When she returned her RSVP, it stated she was bringing a guest."
"And that guest will probably be Judith Sinclair," Ash finished for him with a touch of malice in her voice.
Ben nodded. "I see youre
still hooked into the grapevine."
"No," Ash shook her head. "But I have a friend who is and she warned me ahead of time."
"Are you worried about seeing Judith again?"
Ash thought about it. Was she? She had wanted nothing else, but to see Judith again when she had first arrived back in Seattle, but meeting Lauren had thrown the thought of seeing Judith again right out of her mind. Now Laurens laughing green eyes eclipsed Judiths brown. She searched her feelings and realized she had none where Judith was concerned. There was just nothing. She shrugged. "No, Ben. Not really. Ill be polite and hopefully she wont cause a scene. I mean what would she want with a classical and folk guitarist trying to make a comeback when shes on the arm of woman who is a good bet for a Grammy?"
"You know, cuz, youre powers of self-delusion are truly phenomenal," Ben commented shaking his head.
"What do you mean by that?" Ash asked bewildered.
"You really have no idea how alluring you are do you?" Ben asked studying his cousins stunned face. He chuckled and patted her on the shoulder. "Dont worry, cuz, I dont think you have anything to worry about. I have a feeling theres a certain Irish lass that will probably claw Judiths eyes out if she even dares to glance your way."
"Benson!" Ash exclaimed at his idea that Lauren would be jealous of Judith. "Why would Lauren do that?"
Benson smirked at her knowingly. Ash blushed and the image of Lauren leaping over the table to claw Judiths eyes out flashed across her minds eye. She grinned.
"Well, lets just hope Judith keeps her eyes to herself then," she said sipping her champagne.
Ben chuckled. "Come on. Let me show you my masterpiece."
Ash grinned and followed him to where his display was set up. The idea of Lauren taking offense at any possible advances from Judith had warmed her heart. She hoped Judith didnt put Lauren to the test, but she was betting that her feisty redhead could take her.
Lauren flopped down into the leather office chair and puffed out an exasperated breath. She absently began arranging the prints in front of her to be signed. She picked up the pen Louis had left for her and stared blankly down at the first print noticing the number inscribed in Rachels exacting hand.
Her mind was on Ash and what she must think of her. She must think Im some kind of emotional nut job. First I burst into tears when she tries to see my painting and I confess that Ive been seeing her in my dreams as some kind of avenging hero. Then she asks me a seemingly simple question and I have a nuclear meltdown in the middle of the street. She propped her elbows on the desk and leaned her forehead into her hands. Then Louis yells at me out there and I overreact and shes forced to comfort me yet again. She must feel like shes walking through a field of landmines. Never knowing whats going to set me off next. She felt the tears well up and swallowed. Shes known me less than 48 hours and I keep coming apart. How long before she decides I have too much baggage and shes better off without me? The thought brought the tears to the surface and she squeezed her eyes shut trying to hold them back.
She finally sat back and wiping at her eyes went over to the mini bar in the corner and soaked a bar towel with cold water. She pressed it to her eyes hoping to erase the evidence of yet another emotional outburst. The last thing she wanted was to go out there and worry Ash even more. She placed the wet towel in the sink and went back to the desk to begin signing the prints.
She had been signing prints for what felt like hours and was shaking out her hand when she sensed someone watching her. She looked up and Rachel gave her a small wave from the doorway. She grinned and beckoned her in.
"Hey, girl. Hows it going?" Rachel asked as she took a seat in front of the desk.
"Fine other than I feel like my hand is going to fall off!" Lauren stated as she rubbed her right hand with her left trying to relieve a cramp.
"How many have you got done?"
"I think Im about halfway through, but my hand started cramping so bad that I couldnt even read my signature!" Lauren answered motioning to the stack of finished prints.
"Well, I doubt youre going to sell them all tonight so why dont you quit? You can always finish them later. Besides, there is a party going on out there and I saw tall, dark, and dreamy pacing back and forth trying to appear casual as she kept an eye out for you to emerge!" Rachel informed her with a wink.
Lauren sat back and sighed deeply. Rachel cocked her head and studied her closely. "Hey, are you okay? You look like youve been crying."
Lauren looked at her friend and smiled weakly. "Yeah well, I seem to be getting pretty good at emotional outbursts," she lamented.
Rachel hurried around the desk and perched on the arm of Laurens chair. She slipped her arm around Laurens shoulder and gave her a reassuring squeeze. Lauren rested her head on her thigh and sighed. "You want to tell me about it?" Rachel asked as she stroked Laurens head.
"Oh Rach!" Lauren cried miserably. "Ash must think Im some kind of loon. Every time she asks me something I burst into tears and she has to keep comforting me like Im some kind of baby! I know its freaking her out! I can see it in her face! But I dont know what to do! Im so afraid shes just going to throw up her hands and walk out the door."
"Ssh, its okay," Rachel soothed. "What happened today after I left you? I know about last night, but you had a pretty good reason to be upset and you talked like Ash understood and was fine with it. So, what happened today to bring this on?"
Lauren was quiet and Rachel continued to gently stroke her hair knowing that Lauren would tell her when she was ready.
"She she asked me why I didnt go home for the holidays," she finally whispered in a small voice.
"And?" Rachel prompted gently.
"And it caught me by surprise. I kind of lost it and she wrapped me in her arms and held me until I came out of it," Lauren said as she remembered the feeling of Ashs comforting embrace. "I I felt safe."
"Okay and then what happened?"
"Then she said she was sorry and totally shut me out."
"What? But Louis told me Ash escorted you here tonight," Rachel said surprised.
Lauren looked up and a delighted
smile touched her lips. "She did."
"Then what are you talking about?" Rachel asked totally confused.
"She thought I was mad at her. Can you believe that? I go into hysterics and she calmly pulls me out of it and she thinks Im mad at her!" she exclaimed shaking her head in wonder.
"I basically gave her a shake and yelled at her until she agreed to talk to me."
"You forced her to talk to you?" Rachel asked with disbelief.
Lauren nodded. "Yeah. It was a misunderstanding and we worked it out."
"Oookay so if all is well and good then why did I come in here to find you red eyed from crying?"
"Because Louis yelled at me and I wigged. Ash growled at him to chill out and go bother the help or something to that affect," she explained. "She was really worried about me and I felt like such an idiot. I convinced her I was fine and to go mingle while I came in here and signed these," she waved at the prints. "Otherwise she would have come in here and hovered and I needed some space to pull myself together."
"Okay, let me get this straight," Rachel said bringing her hand up and ticking off the points. "First you tell her youve been having dreams of her forever and she doesnt run screaming." Lauren nodded. "Second you have a meltdown and she comforts you and you two work everything out." Lauren nodded again with a frown as she tried to figure out where Rachel was going with this. "Third you think you acted like an idiot in front of her and she just about rips Louiss head off in your defense. Am I missing anything?"
Lauren shakes her head. "No but whats your point, Rach?"
"Well, so far Ash has showed commendable staying power. I mean I think if some woman told me that I was her dream woman and showed me a painting to prove it, she would have to be an Olympic caliber runner to catch me!" Rachel announced. "So, you have a few quirks that set you off. So what? Everyone does, Laur. Youve just had the misfortune of having every button pushed in front of her. I think shes handled it pretty damn well, to tell you the truth."
Lauren glanced up at Rachel with hope. "You think so?"
"Lauren. The woman frantically pacing out there and staring at that door like a lovesick puppy," she pointed at the closed office door, "is not a woman who is going to be easily spooked and run away. I honestly dont think Ash knows the meaning of the word retreat."
"Lovesick puppy? Ash?" Lauren teased. "I think you need to get your eyes examined."
Rachel tapped her sharply on the head. "I know what I saw. Now are you ready to face the public or do you need to talk some more?"
Lauren examined her emotions. "I think Im okay now. Thanks for the pep talk, Rach."
"No prob. Now, lets get out there before Ash wears a groove in the floor!" Rach teased as she stood and pulled Lauren up with her.
Lauren laughed her spirits brightening. "Okay, okay! Just help me fix my face so Ash doesnt go ballistic when she sees me."
"Okey-dokey," Rachel said dragging Lauren over to the mini bar.
Judith scanned the crowded gallery as Alexi escorted her around to various groups of people and introduced her. She smiled charmingly and made polite small talk absently as she searched for the allusive Ash.
"Judith dear, I saw your last commercial. It was absolutely marvelous!" gushed some bespectacled peon. Judith gave him a false smile and a made a witty comment that sent the group into gales of laughter.
Her search finally bore fruit as she spotted her prey near the back of the room. She narrowed her eyes as she tried to discern what Ash was looking at. She craned her neck to see and saw only the closed office door of the gallery. Hmmm, curious. I think Ill go say hello.
"Alexi dear, I spotted an old friend. Im going to go over and say hello," Judith whispered into Alexis ear.
"Would you like me to go with you?" Alexi asked glancing up at her.
"No, honey. I dont want to pull you away from your friends. Ill just be a moment," Judith said giving Alexi a quick kiss.
"Okay," Alexi agreed returning her attention to the group.
Judith turned and a predatory smile graced her lips as she strolled across the room towards Ash. She snagged a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and sipped it as she scrutinized the woman she hadnt seen in close to 3 years. She looked even better than she remembered. Her raven black hair was longer and cascaded down her back and as Judith watched she reached up and ran her hand through it in her signature gesture of agitation. Hmm, somethings got her worked up. Her lithe muscular body practically radiated with the raw sensual presence of the woman. Judith felt her body flush as her eyes roamed over the exquisite body that she had always wanted to possess.
She quietly made her way towards Ash until she was standing only a few feet away. She placed her empty glass on a side table and waited until Ash strode back her way before calling out. "Ashlin? Is that you?"
Ash stopped in her tracks and swung her head around to meet Judiths inquiring face. "Hello, Judith," Ash said absently and returned her attention to the closed office door.
Judith was stunned by Ashs seeming disinterest in her. "Ash? Arent you happy to see me?" Judith asked in a seductive tone as she slid closer to Ash and slipped her arm through hers.
Ash glanced down pointedly at Judiths arm and then raised her eyes to meet Judiths. "I suggest you remove your arm," she advised in a cool voice.
Judith stiffened slightly and then moving with lightening speed draped herself on Ash. "What? Didnt you miss me?" she purred as she ground her hips suggestively into Ash.
Ash grabbed Judiths wrists in a vise like grip and forcefully pushed her away. "No," she snarled.
She heard a sharp gasp behind them and whirled to see Laurens pain stricken face. She froze, loosening her hold on Judiths wrists and staring at Lauren guiltily.
Judith saw her opportunity and moved in. She slipped her arm possessively around Ashs waist and pressed her body close. "Arent you going to introduce us, love?" she purred resting her head on Ashs shoulder.
Lauren stiffened at the endearment and giving Ash a wounded look, spun on her heel and dashed back into the crowd pushing people aside. Ash saw Rachel give her a hateful look before she turned and ran after Lauren.
Ash felt her world collapse. She stood there dumbly staring at the spot where Lauren had disappeared. What had just happened? She was bewildered and felt her control slipping.
"Oh, too bad. She looked nice," Judith pouted as she let her hands roam over Ashs muscular body in a sensuous caress.
The sound of Judiths mocking voice snapped Ash out of her paralysis. She roughly shoved Judith from her and glared at her with loathing. "Stay the fuck away from me you conniving bitch!" she warned through gritted teeth. She spun on her heel and followed the path of Laurens retreat without a backwards glance.
Judith stared after her nonplussed. She couldnt believe Ash had just tossed her aside. And for some half grown simpering redhead! She stomped her foot in frustration and then casually glanced around and was relieved to see that no one had seemed to notice their confrontation. She straightened her jacket with a quick tug and fluffed her hair. Putting on a charming smile she sauntered back into the throng in search of Alexi. Round one to you Ash, but Im not through with you. I will have you. One way or another. Judith silently vowed as she offered greetings to the people she passed.
Ash had been desperately searching for Lauren for the past half hour with no luck. She was becoming frantic as she scanned the room once more. She spotted Ben and hurried over to him.
"Ben! Please tell me youve seen Lauren," Ash pleaded swinging Ben around to face her.
Ben gave her a startled look that quickly turned to one of concern. "Not in the last few minutes, Ash. Why? Whats going on?"
"I I have to find her, Ben. Please, think. When did you see her last?" Ash pleaded clutching his lapels so tight her fingers turned white.
"I saw her a few minutes ago go out front with Rachel," he offered. Ash released him with a thankful nod and shoved through the crowd without so much as a by your leave, making a beeline for the door.
Ash stepped out into the night and gulped in the crisp cold air hoping it would help clear her head. She anxiously scanned the street praying to spot the silhouette of the woman she was beginning to realize she cherished more than life itself. She had just about given up hope when out of the corner of her eye she saw movement. She turned her head and narrowed her eyes to get a better look. There. Across the street in the small park, someone was sitting on the bench. She strode across the street with purpose. She frowned as she drew near and saw that Lauren was alone. Where was Rachel? She glanced about but didnt see her anywhere. She shrugged. Rachel was not her concern, Lauren was.
She stopped a few feet away and felt her legs go weak at the sound of the heart wrenching sobs that wracked Laurens petite frame. She took a step forward and then found herself on her knees before Lauren. "Lauren?" she asked in a strangled voice.
Lauren struggled to quiet her sobs so she could hear. She sat motionless and sensed Ash in front of her. "Go away, Ash," she sobbed in an agonized voice.
Ash felt like Lauren had stabbed her. "Lauren, please. Talk to me. Its not what you think. Please, let me explain," Ash begged reaching out tentatively and laying her hand on Laurens knee.
Lauren yanked her knee away and began sobbing again. "Why should I? It was pretty obvious, Ash. That woman was all over you and you didnt seem to be fighting her off," she accused bitterly as she brought her hands up to cover her face.
Ash felt her own tears begin to slide down her face. How could she get Lauren to listen to her? Damn you, Judith! Why do you always manage to fuck up my life? She ran her hands through her hair in frustration. "Okay, Lauren. Youre right. You have no reason to believe me since you barely know me," Ash said in a low earnest voice. "But Im going to explain anyway." She studied Lauren intently but couldnt tell if she was listening or not. "Judith was someone I met 3 years ago when my first album was released. We had a relationship, but she was just using me to meet the right people and spend my money." She swallowed and nervously ran her hands up and down her thighs. "She tossed me aside when I was no longer useful to her. I tucked my tail between my legs and ran away to Montana to lick my wounds." Ash paused and choked down the anguished cry that was fighting to get out. "I thought I knew what love was," Ash said gravely. "Then I met you and I realized I was wrong."
Lauren had listened intently to every word of Ashs impassioned speech. At the last statement she lowered her hands and saw Ashs desolate expression with tears streaming down her face unchecked. "And then you met me?" Lauren prompted quietly as she reached out and wiped Ashs tears away with her thumbs.
Ash nodded her gaze never leaving Laurens tear-streaked face. "And then I met you and discovered what love really was," she whispered as hope rekindled in her heart. "I I love you, Lauren."
The words hit Lauren like a beam of light breaking through the clouds and she collapsed forward. Ash automatically caught her and cradled her protectively to her breast, raining kisses down on her silken hair. Lauren sobbed and wrapped Ash in a crushing embrace.
Ash held her close and felt a wave of relief wash over her. She rubbed Laurens back soothingly and rested her cheek on Laurens head perfectly content to sit there forever.
Lauren didnt know how much time had passed as she raised her head and glanced up to be met by Ashs loving gaze. She smiled as she ran her hands through Ashs gloriously thick ebon hair. "Do you think our entire relationship is going to be fraught with emotional upheavals and misunderstandings?"
Ash shook her head. "Gods, I hope not! This stuff is exhausting!" she vowed letting out an exaggerated sigh.
Lauren giggled. "I guess we need to work on our communications skills and maybe inform each other of any potential pitfalls," Lauren advised as she snuggled into Ash and softly began kissing Ashs exposed throat. The delicate aroma of Ashs perfume tickled her nose and sent her senses whirling.
"Mmm, that would probably be a good idea," Ash murmured her agreement as she arched her neck to give Lauren better access. Her hands caressed Laurens back as she closed her eyes and reveled in Laurens touch.
Laurens heart was pounding wildly as she kissed up the column of Ashs neck. Ash moaned and tightened her hold and Lauren felt her body begin to burn with an internal heat. She grabbed a handful of Ashs hair and pulled until Ashs lips came around to meet hers. Their lips met and Lauren kissed her with wanton abandon. She felt them falling back, but was too intent on the feel of Ashs hands as they glided up her back making her shiver with desire and the unquenchable need to feast on Ashs lips.
Ashs mind shut down as it short-circuited under Laurens impassioned assault. Her body was aflame with desire and she couldnt touch Lauren enough. Her hands wandered up Laurens back and she guided them around to rest under her arms, her palms coming to rest against the swell of Laurens breasts. Lauren moaned into her mouth and arched her back into Ashs willing hands. Ash slid her hands forward slightly and sent her thumbs to brush lightly over Laurens erect nipples.
Lauren felt Ash stiffen and opened her eyes drawing back from her kiss to look at her questioningly. Ash was gazing over her shoulder with a wide eye stare. Lauren peaked over her shoulder to see Rachel standing behind them tapping her foot with two steaming cups of coffee in her hands. Lauren groaned and collapsed on top of Ash burying her face in her shoulder.
"Well, I guess the crisis is over and you two made up," Rachel stated walking around the two and taking a seat on the bench. "Dont stop on my account. By the look of things its better than any porn Ive seen lately." She crossed her legs, popped the top off her coffee, and settled back to watch the show.
Lauren giggled and Ash hugged her. Lauren peaked up at Ash and saw she had a bemused look on her face. "I think thats our cue to get up and make ourselves presentable."
Ash winked at her and then with one powerful surge she was standing with Lauren cradled in her arms. Rachel blinked in surprise with her cup halfway to her mouth. Ash gave her a bored look with one eyebrow raised and set Lauren gently on her feet.
"Shit!" Rachel exclaimed. "Its not just amazing that you can do that, but you did it in freaking heels!"
Lauren burst out laughing and had to lean against Ash to keep from falling. Ash smirked and steadied her by placing a hand on the small of her back.
Lauren wiped her eyes and shimmied in place to readjust her dress. She then turned and began carefully readjusting Ashs clothes. Ash gazed down at her with a look of tolerant affection as she stood still and allowed Lauren to fuss over her.
"Geez, you two are gonna make me puke!" Rachel complained. Lauren paused in her adjustment of Ashs lapels and gave her a puzzled look. "Im going to go into a sugar coma!" Rachel dramatically swooned and threw her hand over her eyes.
"You are out of your mind," Lauren stated as she returned to her primping.
Ash reached up and gently stilled Laurens fussing hands. "I look fine. I guess we better head back before Ben sends out a posse."
"Why would he do that?" Lauren asked resting her head on Ashs chest.
"Because I was running around like a madwoman trying to find you," Ash replied kissing the top of Laurens head.
"Oh," Lauren said sheepishly.
Ash shrugged. "Lets go face the music, shall we?"
Rachel stood and walked over to them. "Ash, who was the bitchy blonde that was draped all over you in there?" she demanded.
"Judith," Ash replied coldly.
"She better stay away from you if she knows whats good for her," Lauren growled as she gave Ash a quick hug before stepping back and taking her hand in hers.
"So who the hell is she?" Rachel asked with impatience.
"Someone I used to know," Ash replied.
"Dont worry about it, Rach, its not important," Lauren said giving Rachel a warning look.
Rachel saw the look and nodded slightly. "Well then. I guess we better get back. Its " she glanced down at her watch, "Shit! Almost 10 and thats when the auction officially closes. So, they should be announcing the winners pretty soon and Louis was babbling about photo opportunities for the winners with the artist of the piece they purchased."
Lauren stiffened. "Whats wrong, love?" Ash asked.
Rachels eyes widened at the endearment but wisely kept her mouth shut.
"I forgot to put in the bid for my mother! Shit! Shes going to kill me if it went for less than her bid!" Lauren wailed.
Ash chuckled and squeezed her hand. Lauren looked at her puzzled. "Have you forgotten who youre " she looked at Rachel and chose discretion, "with? I think I may just be able to get you a set of cds at bargain basement prices. Heck, I could probably swing autographed copies!"
Lauren leapt forward and gave Ash a crushing hug. "You are the absolute best!" she enthused, elated with Ashs generosity.
"All right you two, break it up," Rachel ordered.
Ash scowled at her but added a wink to soften it. Lauren disengaged and tugging on Ashs hand headed back towards the gallery. "Hurry up, Rach! I wanna see how much my painting went for."
"Yeah, yeah, now youre in a hurry!" Rachel grumbled as she followed the two lovebirds.
They entered the gallery just in time to see Ben and Louis posting the results. The crowd surged forward and they decided to wait for the press of people to die down. They headed towards the back of the gallery and ended up sitting down in front of Laurens painting. Lauren sat and fidgeted nervously.
"Do you want me to go find out the results for you?" Ash asked her with amusement.
"No! You are not leaving my sight!" Lauren stated grabbing Ashs hand and holding it tightly.
"Im not going anywhere," Ash said seriously meeting Laurens eyes so she could see her sincerity.
Lauren nodded and gave her a small smile. "Rach? Will you go see if you can find out something?"
Rachel glanced at her with her best suffering look and stood. "Yeah, I suppose. Im curious anyway," she sighed heavily and trudged off into the crowd.
"Shes quite the character," Ash commented as she admired Rachels performance.
"She is that," Lauren agreed resting her head on Ashs shoulder and fighting back a yawn.
"Mmm," Lauren nodded sleepily. "And hungry."
Ash chuckled. "Well, considering we havent really eaten since our late lunch, Im not surprised. Did you get any of the buffet?"
"No. I finished signing the prints and came out here looking for you. I saw Judith all over you and "
Ash stroked her hand softly. "Im sorry, Lauren."
"Its not your fault. I overreacted. I should have given you the chance to explain. Guess my temper got the best of me," Lauren said ruefully.
"How about I take you out for some dinner when this is over?" Ash offered.
"Mmmm, no. Im too tired. I think Ill just go upstairs and collapse."
"Okay," Ash said disappointed. She didnt want to say goodnight, but she understood. She was exhausted and the idea of a nice soft bed was sounding pretty damn good right about now.
They sat in companionable silence and watched the crowd ebb and flow around them. Ash spotted Judith near the double doors that led to the sculpture room. Her arm was linked through the arm of a short, petite brunette that Ash thought was Alexi Reid. She felt her temper flare at the sight of her, but Laurens presence calmed her and allowed her to evaluate Judith for the first time with an impersonal eye. Maybe I should go warn Alexi what a manipulative bitch Judith is before she takes her for everything shes got. She watched Judith charm everyone around her and saw the adoring look that Alexi gave her. Judith acted towards Alexi exactly how she used to act around her and she couldnt believe what a fool shed been. How could she not have seen how shallow Judith really was? She shook her head wondering at her own stupidity.
She leaned forward slightly so she could see Laurens face and saw that she was sound asleep. Her peaceful face had softened into youthful lines as she slept. Ash smiled fondly and glanced up at the sounds of approaching footsteps. She spotted Rachel and raised her hand to her lips to shush her and dipped her head towards Laurens sleeping form.
Rachel grinned and tiptoed over to Ashs other side and sat down. She leaned forward and whispered, "Youre cd set went for a bundle! The guy who won isnt here. It was a phoned in bid, so youre off the hook for pictures." Ash nodded and motioned with her hand for her to go on. "Laurens number 1 print was bought by a certain renowned musician."
Ash gave her a smug smile and winked. "Well then, I think Ill take sleeping beauty here upstairs and put her to bed."
"Youll probably have to carry her," Rachel advised softly. "I swear once that girl goes out, an air horn wouldnt wake her."
Ash raised an eyebrow in question. Rachel shrugged and nodded. Ash studied the situation and after formulating a plan, acted on it. She turned in her seat and gently pulled Lauren into her lap. She slid her left hand under her knees and her right hand across her back. Satisfied with her positioning, she rose slowly to keep from jostling Lauren.
Rachel watched in absolute wonder. Laur, honey, I dont know what the hell you were worried about! This woman cares more for you than I think is legal! Ash gave her an inquiring look and she quickly stood and followed her towards the back door. She scurried around them and opened the door. Ash gave her an appreciative smile as she carefully turned and cleared the threshold.
"Goodnight, Ash," Rachel said softly. "Take good care of her, okay?"
Ash turned and looked at her seriously. "I could do no less, Rachel. Goodnight." She cradled Lauren to her and turned to make her way down the hall.
Rachel watched them go with a touch of awe. A shiver ran down her spine and she rubbed her arms briskly. I sure hope you know what youve gotten yourself into, Laur. Because I dont think that woman knows how to do anything by halves.
Ash paused in front of Laurens door nonplussed. She didnt have a key and she didnt want to wake Lauren to ask her where hers was. Its probably down in the office. I really dont want to go all the way back down there, especially not carrying Lauren around for everyone to stare at. She frowned and then making a decision continued down the hall. She fished out her keys and unlocked the door to the boys apartment. She walked in and kicked the door shut behind her. She stood in the dark for a moment waiting for her eyes to adjust. Lauren sighed contentedly and nuzzled her head into Ashs shoulder. Ash grinned happily and crept across the living room and down the hall. She nudged open the door to the guest bedroom with her knee and walked over to the bed. She gently laid Lauren down and turned to pull off her shoes. Lauren mumbled and Ash froze for a moment. When Lauren made no other movements, Ash continued. She set Laurens shoes aside and shrugged out of her jacket. She kicked off her heels and began to undress as she walked over to her duffle. She quickly stripped out of her clothes, laying them on the dresser. She bent down and rummaged through her duffle until she found a t-shirt and a pair of boxers to throw on. She donned her chosen pajamas and ran her hand through her hair as she realized that the woman she was hopelessly in love with was asleep only a few steps away.
She turned and gazed at the peacefully sleeping woman. "I cant let her sleep in that dress. It will ruin it," she said startling herself when she spoke aloud. She held her breath to see if Lauren heard her, but she didnt move a muscle. "Guess Rachel was right."
She walked to the bed and stared down at the beautiful young woman trying to figure out how to get her out of her dress. She snorted when she realized how ridiculous the situation was. She sat down and gently lifted Lauren to a half sitting position. Laurens head lolled forward and came to rest on Ashs shoulder. Ash reached around and unzipped the dress and ran her hands up Laurens back to her shoulders and pulled the spaghetti straps down. She felt her heart begin to race and she shook her head in denial. She paused and took a deep calming breath, struggling to detach her mind from what her hands were doing. Finally content with her control she continued. She carefully laid Lauren back down and pulled the dress down averting her eyes from the temptation of Laurens nude torso. She deftly lifted Laurens hips and pulled the dress off. She stood and hurried over to her duffle to find a t-shirt to put on her. She found a t-shirt by touch and steeled herself to return to Laurens enticing body. She swallowed and sat down once more beside her. She lifted her up and quickly tugged the shirt over Laurens head and worked her arms into the sleeves. She laid her back down and let out a sigh of relief. She scooted down the bed and noticed that Lauren was wearing a garter belt. "Well, that makes things easier," she whispered. She unsnapped the hose and carefully removed them. She grabbed the comforter off of the end of the bed and spread it over her, gently tucking her in.
She sat there for a moment just watching Lauren sleep. The light from the window gently touched her face making her appear surreal. Ash leaned forward and gently brushed her lips across Laurens in a feather light kiss. "Sweet dreams, love," she whispered as she sat back and saw a small smile grace Laurens lips as if she had heard her words.
She stood and made her way around the bed. She was thankful that the boys had a queen size bed in here. She didnt think shed be able to contain herself in a double and would probably have ended up on the couch to rule out the temptation. She pulled back the covers and slid into bed with a contented sigh. She rolled onto her side so she could watch Lauren sleep. She tucked her left arm under her head and brought her right hand out to rest on Laurens shoulder. She yawned and the last thing she saw was Laurens face relaxed in peaceful sleep before she succumbed to a dreamless slumber.
Lauren slowly drifted up to the edge of awakening still under the spell of her dream. Ash had been lovingly cradling her in her arms as they slowly danced to the beat of a drum. She could still hear the drum and its steady rhythm was lulling her back to sleep. She nuzzled her face deeper into her pillow and her pillow moved. Huh? Pillows arent supposed to move are they? She frowned as her brain valiantly fought through the fog of sleep to give her an answer.
She slowly cracked her eyes open and saw her right hand resting on the swell of a t-shirt covered breast, a very warm and soft breast that rose rhythmically with every breath, not the down comforter she had been expecting. Her eyes widened slightly. If my hand is resting on one breast then that means she frowned as she struggled to make the connection my head must be resting on the other one. But whose? Her mind whirled and then images of Ash floated to the surface and she had her answer.
"You awake?" a low musical voice asked and Lauren felt it resonate through the surface her head rested on.
"Mmm," she managed to mumble, nodding her head minutely. An elegant long fingered hand came into her line of sight and she watched mesmerized as it tenderly brushed her bangs from her forehead and tucked wayward strands behind her ear. She became aware of a hand rubbing her back in a soothing rhythm and luxuriated in the sensation.
Her brain finally kicked in and started feeding her data. The first being that she was no longer wearing her dress and was sprawled over the warm muscular body of Ash. Next, that she had no idea how she got here. The last thing she remembered was leaning against Ashs comforting shoulder at the gallery waiting to hear the results of the auction and then nothing. She figured she must have fallen asleep, but how did she end up in Ashs bed and in a t-shirt?
She shifted her head and peaked up at Ash. Ashs eyes were closed and she had a slightly crooked smile on her serene face. "Umm, Ash?" she asked hesitantly in a quiet voice.
"Hmm?" Ash murmured not opening her eyes.
"What exactly happened last night?" Clear blue eyes opened and gazed fondly at her with a touch of amusement.
"You fell asleep, so I carried you up here. I didnt have a key to your apartment so I brought you here," Ash answered as she brought her hand up to caress Laurens cheek.
"Oh " Lauren said as she closed her eyes at the feel of Ashs hand on her cheek. The implications finally clicked in her brain and her eyes popped open as she sat bolt upright. She stared down at Ash in open-mouthed astonishment.
Ash saw her expression and laughed gently. "Its okay, sweetheart," she soothed rubbing Laurens arm.
"But how?" she stuttered looking down at her t-shirt clad front and then back to Ashs amused face. "How did you ? I mean how did I ?" she grabbed her head in frustration. "How did I end up practically lying on top of you?"
Ash grinned as she pulled Lauren into her arms. She placed a kiss on the sleep tousled head and said, "I dont know. We were both on our own sides when I fell asleep last night. But your not totally to blame," she gently pried Laurens hands from her face and gestured to where they lay.
Lauren looked and saw they were lying in the middle of the queen-sized bed and a dazzling smile beamed across her face. "Heh, guess were both guilty huh?" she mused as she glanced up at Ash.
"Afraid so," Ash nodded running her hands up and down Laurens back. "It was a very nice way to wake up," she admitted softly.
Lauren studied her face intently and whispered, "Yes. Yes it was."
"So, what do you want to do today?" Ash asked wanting to lighten the mood. She was suddenly acutely aware of Laurens warm body lying on top of her with just the sheet offering a flimsy barrier.
"You mean other than this?" Lauren teased tucking her head under Ashs chin and soaking up the wonderful feeling of just lying here in Ashs embrace.
"Well I thought you might be hungry," Ash said and her point was made as Laurens stomach chose that moment to voice its displeasure. Lauren groaned and Ash chuckled. "Come on, lazy bones, time to feed the monster." Ash swatted Lauren lightly on the butt.
Lauren gave her a mock glare but rolled off of her and rubbed her face. "Okay, Im up." She gave Ash a sidelong glance and warned. "Im not much of a morning person."
Ash gave her a crooked grin as she sat up and rolled out of bed. "Oh I dunno. You dont seem too bad to me," she said as she raised her arms above her head to stretch out the kinks.
Lauren eyed her with appreciation and a touch of desire flowed through her. She crawled across the bed and climbed off the bed to wrap Ash in a hug. Ashs arms came down and pulled her close.
"So, do I get a good morning kiss?" Lauren asked innocently as she looked up.
Ash nodded and leaned down to lightly brush her lips across Laurens. "Good morning," she murmured pulling back slightly to bring Laurens green eyes into focus.
"Mmm, it certainly is," Lauren said as she lost herself in crystal blue eyes.
"Do you want to go back to your place and get dressed and Ill come get you as soon as I jump in the shower and find something to throw on?" Ash asked.
"That sounds good," Lauren agreed as she stepped back.
"Okay. Ill see you in lets say half an hour? Will that give you enough time?" Ash questioned as she squatted to rummage through her duffle for something to wear.
"More than enough," Lauren said as she spotted her clothes neatly folded on the dresser. She picked them up and tucked them under her arm. "Mind if I return this to you later?" Lauren asked fingering the large t-shirt that hung halfway to her knees.
Ash looked up from her duffle and nodded. "Sure. I wouldnt want you streaking down the hall now would I?"
Lauren laughed. "No. I guess not. Ill see you in a little while." She turned and walked towards the door.
Lauren paused at the threshold and looked questioningly over her shoulder at Ash. Ash had such a look of vulnerability on her face that Lauren turned and quickly came over to squat next to her. She took Ashs face in hers and gently kissed her forehead. "I love you, Ashlin Gray," she assured capturing Ashs uncertain blue gaze. "Ill be waiting with baited breath for you." A look of wonder eclipsed the insecurity at her words and Lauren felt like her heart would burst with the joy she felt at that moment.
"I love you too, Lauren," Ash whispered as she took Laurens hands in hers and raised them to their feet. "Im sorry I sound so " her voice trailed off and she shrugged in frustration.
Lauren smiled at her kindly. "Hey, its okay. Ill go get cleaned up and then you can take me to breakfast, okay?"
Ash gave her a bashful nod and squeezed her hands gratefully.
"Okay, Im going," Lauren said as she slowly drew her hands from Ash and began to walk slowly backwards so she could keep Ash in her sight as long as possible. Ashs head came up and gave her an adoring smile.
Lauren reached the threshold and gave Ash a tiny wave. Ash waved back and watched as Lauren turned and disappeared down the hall. She stared at the empty doorway as the echo of Laurens words flowed through her making her feel so so cherished. She blinked and gave herself a shake. She grabbed her clothes and headed towards the bath whistling a jaunty tune.
Lauren stepped out into the living room and came to an abrupt halt when her eyes met those of an appraising Ben who was leaning against the breakfast bar sipping a cup of coffee. She felt the heat rise to her face and shuffled her feet.
"Good morning, Irish," Ben said trying not to laugh at her obvious embarrassment.
"Umm, good morning, Ben," she said softly, staring at her bare feet.
"Thought you might want your keys," Ben said gently as he picked up the keys from the counter and held them out to her.
Lauren peaked up through her bangs and quickly stepped forward and took the keys from his outstretched hand. "Thanks, Ben. Umm, I really need to get going. Bye," she said quickly as she turned and hurried towards the door.
"Your welcome!" Ben called after her as she opened the door and made good her escape. He chuckled and shook his head.
"Whom are you bellowing at?" Louis demanded as he came down the hallway and scanned the room.
"You just missed Irish," Louiss head spun around and gave him an oh really? look. "She was in a hurry. I gave her her keys and she left."
"Are you saying Lauren stayed here last night?" Louis demanded as he walked into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee.
"Hmm, would seem so," he said and turned his head to listen down the hall. He heard Ash whistling as she stepped out of the guest bedroom and strode down the hall to the bath. "And by the sounds of it, the night went well."
"Is Ash still planning on leaving today?"
Ben nodded as he turned around to face Louis. "Thats what she told me yesterday. Said she told her friend Lu shed be there by Monday to help her with some problem."
"Hmmm," Louis pondered as he sipped his coffee with an introspective look. "How far is it to Spokane?"
Ben shrugged. "Just under 300 miles, I think. A good 4 hour drive. Why?" Ben asked eyeing his lover suspiciously.
"Well if thats the case then she wouldnt have to leave her until tonight. Did she say when Lu was expecting her?"
"Ummm, no. She just said Monday," Ben said. "She didnt say when. What are you up to, Louis?"
"Me?" Louis asked with an innocent look. "I was just thinking that maybe you should take me out to dinner tonight. You know to celebrate the success of the show."
Ben looked at him in puzzlement. "Okay."
"Youll need to tell Ash we wont be home all night. In fact I think we may stay over at this cute little bed and breakfast Ive been dying to try," Louis said smiling impishly.
"All night?" Ben murmured and then understanding dawned. "Oh yes! All night! I think Ill tell her when she comes out of the shower. Wouldnt want her to worry. You know, I think I heard on the radio that it was going to storm tonight. I should probably suggest, as a concerned cousin of course, that she stay over tonight and head out early tomorrow morning."
"Oh, I think that would be best," Louis agreed in a serious tone.
They grinned at each other over their cleverness.
"Do you think Ash will fall for it?"
"Oh, Im sure shell figure somethings going on. She always knows. I just have to make sure I tell her in such a way that she can draw her own conclusions and take advantage of our generosity," Ben said giving his partner a sly wink.
"Hmmm," Louis nodded and set his coffee cup down. "Well, I better get down to the gallery. The cleaning crew is supposed to be here at 10."
"Okay, love," Ben said giving Louis a kiss as he walked by. "Ill come down and help as soon as I talk to Ash."
Louis left and Ben went over to sit on the couch and read the paper. He made sure he had an unobstructed view of the hall. He didnt want to miss Ash when she appeared and she had a way of slipping past undetected if she so chose. He was hoping shed want to talk. He knew she was in a good mood, but had a feeling shed be in a hurry to get out of here to see Irish.
Ben looked up from his paper and eyed his cousin. She had a genuine smile on her face and she practically glowed with happiness. She was wearing a charcoal gray oxford over a black t-shirt that was tucked into stonewashed jeans with her black boots.
"Good morning, cuz. Where you off to?" he asked lowering his paper.
"Im going to take Lauren to brunch," she said happily as she perched on the arm of the sofa across from him.
"Sounds good. Any other plans for the day?"
Ash shrugged. "Nope. Not yet. Why?"
"Louis wants me to take him out to celebrate the success of the show. We were going to drive down the coast to this bed and breakfast hes been wanting to try, so we wont be home until tomorrow. I figure well be leaving around 2 and I wanted to let you know in case I didnt see you before you left," Ben explained.
"Oh, okay. Well, I was planning on being out of here by 6 What?" She asked when Ben started shaking his head.
"I think you should wait and leave early tomorrow," Ben said in a serious tone.
"Because the radio said there is a huge storm front moving in and I would feel better if you left in the morning instead of driving through it in the dark."
"Oh " Ash frowned. "Okay. I guess I can stay another night. I never told Lu a specific time. Just that Id be there by Monday."
"Good!" Ben said with enthusiasm.
Ash eyed him suspiciously. "What are you up to?" she asked in a low voice.
"Nothing, Ash. I just thought with Louis and I gone you could, maybe, you know, have Irish over for a nice romantic dinner or something," Ben babbled.
Ash chuckled and patted him on the shoulder. "Are you trying to be a matchmaker, Ben?"
"I think its a little late for that dont you?" Ben accused giving her a knowing look.
"What?" And then she realized that he must have seen Lauren as she left. "Its not like that, Ben!"
Ben laughed. "Okay, cuz. I was just razzing you." He glanced at his watch and said, "You better get going. Irish is probably wondering if you ditched her."
Ash shot up and raced for the door. "Bye, Ben. Have a good time tonight," she called over her shoulder.
"You too!" he yelled at the closing door. He chuckled and shook his head. "Oh, cuz, you have got it so bad! I have a feeling Im going to be seeing a lot more of you in the coming weeks."
Ash ran down the hall and stopped before Laurens door. She took a deep breath and let it out trying to calm her nerves. She had never felt like this before. Like she could run forever or leap buildings in a single bound. She chuckled and knocked.
She cocked her head to listen and heard a muffled reply to her knock. She clasped her hands behind her back and rocked back on her heels. The door swung open and Lauren greeted her with a sunny smile and waved her in.
"Im on the phone. So, come in for a sec, k?" Lauren explained as she held up the phone.
"Sure," Ash said crossing the threshold and going over to look at the pictures displayed on the mantle.
"Im back," Lauren said into the phone as she let her eyes travel over Ashs gorgeous body.
"Is that Ash?" Rachel asked.
"Yeah, she just got here."
"She taking you to lunch?"
"Thats the plan."
"Where you going?"
"I dunno." She turned to Ash and asked, "Any idea where were going?"
Ash turned and gave her a shrug. "I really dont care as long as Im with you."
Lauren blushed as she said in to the phone. "Nope, no idea."
Gagging noises came from the phone. "Did she say what I think she just said?" Rachel asked incredulously.
"Yeah," Lauren said giving Ash a bright smile and motioning her to come over. Ash smiled and sauntered over. Lauren turned and leaned against Ash who quickly wrapped her arms around her waist and rested her head on Laurens head.
"Thats really sick, Laur," Rachel advised. "Geez, next thing you know shes going to be saying she loves you!"
"Too late," Lauren stated looking up at Ash and winking.
Ash chuckled. She figured Lauren was probably talking to Rachel and was thoroughly enjoying giving her a hard time. "Say hi for me," Ash breathed into Laurens ear causing Lauren to shudder.
"What?" Rachel shouted into the phone. Lauren tore the phone from her ear and rubbed it.
"Jesus, Rach! Are you trying to make me deaf?" Lauren accused as she brought the phone warily back to her ear.
"Sorry," Rachel apologized. "Now are you telling me that Ash said she loves you? When did this happen? Did you say you love her? Are you holding out on me?"
Lauren chuckled. "Yes. Last night. Yes. And youll have to wait. Oh, and Ash says hi."
"Whoa," Rachel sighed dramatically. "Okay, fine. Go eat, but I am expecting a full report tomorrow. Say hi to Ash for me."
"Rachel says hi," she said to Ash and then into the phone, "Okay, Rach. Well do lunch or something, okay? Now weve got to go. Ill talk to you later. Bye."
Lauren clicked off the phone and leaned back into Ashs comforting presence.
"So, I take it Rachel wants all the details," Ash stated.
"What are you going to tell her?"
Lauren turned and looked up into Ashs worried face. "Im going to tell her that Ive found my tree in the forest and that Ive never been happier," she stated and stood on tiptoe to brush her lips across Ashs in a quick kiss.
Ash smiled her crooked grin and scooped her off her feet in a bone-crushing hug. "I was hoping it was something like that."
Lauren giggled and hugged her back. "Come on. Lets go get something to eat before my stomach decides my backbone looks like a tasty treat."
Ash chuckled as she set Lauren back on her feet and released her. "Well, we cant have that. Lets go feed the beast."
Lauren backhanded her playfully in the stomach at the comment and led the way out of the apartment.
After a quick debate on the way to Ashs truck, they decided to head over to Pike Place Market and find some place to eat there, so afterwards they could peruse the shops.
"Ugh! I feel like Im going to explode!" Lauren moaned clutching her stomach as they walked out of the restaurant.
"I cant believe you ate that entire variety platter and then had dessert!" Ash said in wonder shaking her head. "Where do you put it all?" she asked reaching out as if to pinch Laurens waist.
"Hey!" Lauren squawked as she slapped at Ashs questing hand. "I have a fast metabolism! Just you wait. Ill be hungry again in a couple of hours!"
Ash groaned and placed her hand over her eyes. "Good thing I brought my platinum card then."
Lauren bumped her with her hip. "I never told you I was a cheap date," Lauren teased.
"No, but you also never told me you ate enough to feed the Green Bay Packers!" Ash shot back with a laugh.
"If you think I eat a lot, you should see my family at meal time. It looks like sharks in a feeding frenzy!" Lauren said and started singing the theme to Jaws.
Ash laughed at her antics. "Think Ill get that chance?"
Lauren looked at Ash and saw the seriousness of the question in Ashs eyes, though she was still grinning playfully. She shrugged. "Sure, if you want to."
Ash reached out and pulled Lauren to a stop. "Lauren, I think we need to talk about some of those pitfalls you mentioned," she said seriously.
"Okay, Ash," Lauren said softly looking around for a private place to sit. "Why dont we grab something to drink and go sit outside and watch the ferries?"
"Great," Ash said with a warm smile.
They grabbed a couple of sodas and walked out towards the ferry landing in companionable silence. Both thinking about what they were going to say to each other and unsure of the others reaction. They found a bench that was out of the flow of traffic and semi private. They sat down and absently drank their sodas as they watched the activity in the bay, neither knowing quite where to start.
They both started talking at once and looked at each other with nervous smiles. Ash motioned for her to go first and turned slightly to face her.
"Im not sure where to start," Lauren said.
"Tell me whatever you think I should know," Ash replied taking Laurens hand.
Lauren stared at their clasped hands and sorted through her mind what she wanted to say. "Okay. I guess youre probably curious why I never go home for the holidays and why I wigged when Louis yelled at me?" Ash squeezed her hand in encouragement. "Well, theyre both related so I guess thats where Ill start. Its because of my father. My parents are divorced now, but my mom has this crazy idea that he should be included in all the family gatherings like holidays. We we dont get along. I came here to go to school to get away from him and I dont even want to think about going home alone and knowing hell more than likely show up. When Louis yelled at me I flashed to my father doing the same thing."
"Did he hurt you?" Ash demanded in a soft voice.
Lauren shook her head. "No. Not really. I mean, yeah he slapped me around a little, but he did that to all of us kids and never when we didnt really deserve it. He was mean. He was always telling me how worthless I was and how I better find a good man to take care of me because I was too stupid to take care of myself."
Ash gritted her teeth. She knew there were a lot of bastards out there, she had helped put quite a few away. What she couldnt believe was that a man could be so blind as to not see that this beautiful, kind woman was obviously bright and was meant for better things than just be some mans wife. "He was wrong," Ash asserted.
Lauren nodded. "I know that in my head, Ash, but part of me is still that little girl being yelled at by her daddy," she said in a quiet voice.
Ash pulled Lauren into a hug. "I know, honey, I know," she soothed. "But you shouldnt let him keep you from the rest of your family."
Lauren closed her eyes and let Ashs secure embrace comfort her. "I know. I just I just dont think I can go back there. Darby and Katie come and visit whenever they can, but mom has always been too busy. I miss her," she admitted softly.
Ash frowned in concentration as she tried to think of a solution. "Would you go back if I went with you?" she asked.
Lauren sat back and met sincere blue eyes. "Youd do that for me?" she asked surprised by Ashs offer, but overjoyed at the thought of going home with Ash by her side.
"In a heartbeat," Ash stated gravely.
"You know, you truly are amazing, Ash. Its no wonder I love you," Lauren reflected her cheery disposition restored.
Ash winked. "I aim to please."
Lauren laughed and slapped her playfully on the thigh. "Well, Ill get back to you on the whole going home thing. My mom has been bugging me about Thanksgiving, but lets not get ahead of ourselves here!"
"Okay. You just let me know when you want to go and Im there," Ash stated leaning back on the bench and recapturing Laurens hand. "So, you have any questions youd like to ask me?"
Ash chuckled. "How about picking a couple and Ill see what I can do about answering them."
"Okay, let me think," Lauren said tapping her chin with her free hand thoughtfully. "How about why did you leave music for so long?"
Ash stiffened, but the openly curious face of Lauren relaxed her. "I guess I should have been expecting that," she said ruefully.
"Hey, we dont have to talk about it if you dont want to," Lauren reassured her. She had seen Ash stiffen at the question and then force herself to relax. Obviously this was a touchy subject. She wanted to know, but not at the cost of causing Ash pain.
"No, Lauren, there are some things you need to know about me before this goes any further," Ash said staring out at the water. She didnt think she could say what she needed to say while looking at Laurens trusting face.
"Okay. Go ahead," Lauren said fearful of what Ash thought she needed to know. She couldnt think of anything that would change her feelings towards her.
"I left home when I was 17. Something happened and I didnt feel like I could stay," Ash began and her mind traveled back to those dark memories. She continued in a voice devoid of any inflection. "I wound up in Spokane. A woman by the name of Lu Darkcloud basically pulled me off the street and took me in. I began helping her with her work and when I was old enough got licensed and went out on my own."
"What did you do?" Lauren asked softly. Ashs face had gone blank and the tone of her voice was scaring her a little.
"I became a fugitive apprehension agent," she glanced at Lauren and saw her confusion and clarified. "A bounty hunter." Lauren nodded her understanding. "I was good. Really good. I was not a nice person to know back then, Lauren. I had a case go bad in Texas and I quit and went back to Montana to try and recapture who I used to be. Im still trying "
They sat in silence. Ash praying Lauren wouldnt get up and walk off and Lauren trying to figure out why Ash thought this would bother her.
"Okay, let me see if I got this right," Lauren said slowly. "You used to go out and catch bad guys and you think that would upset me." Ash nodded. "Why?"
"Because I was ruthless. I didnt care who I hurt as long as I got my man," Ash said bitterly as she ran her hand through her hair in agitation.
"I see." Lauren paused thinking it over. "But you dont do that anymore, right?" Ash nodded. "Now youre just a musician trying to make a comeback, right?" Ash nodded again and began to relax when she realized Lauren was being very calm about the whole thing. "Ash, I dont care what you did in your past. Thats the past. What I care about is now. I love the woman you are, Ash, and you wouldnt be who you are without your past, so I guess I love it too."
Ashs eyebrow shot up in surprise at Laurens logic. "You really mean that, dont you?" Ash whispered in awe.
Lauren grinned at her fondly. "Yes, Ash, I really mean that. Im sure there are things about that time in your life that will probably bother me a little, but more because the thought of you hunting down some violent creep scares the hell out me! You could have been hurt or worse yet killed!"
Ash grinned. "Well, I wasnt." She patted Lauren on the knee. "So, you dont mind being seen with a slightly broken down ex-bounty hunter turned musician?"
"Broken down? Where?" Lauren asked making her eyes wide as she inspecting Ash with her hands.
Ash laughed and fought off Laurens searching hands. "Okay, okay. Im good to go."
Lauren sat back with a smug grin. "Yep, you are."
"If you have more questions about it, I promise to tell you more, okay?" Ash offered quietly.
"Im sure questions will pop up as we go along, but Im perfectly content with what I know for now," Lauren assured her.
"So, are we done with the sensitive chat?" Ash asked cocking her eyebrow in question.
Lauren giggled. "Yeah, I think thats enough heavy stuff for awhile."
"Good," Ash stated and slipped her arm around Laurens shoulder and pulled her close. Lauren eagerly scooted closer and rested her head on Ashs strong shoulder.
"When do you have to leave?"
Ash bent her head to see the apprehensive look on Laurens face. "Well, Benson convinced me that it would be a bad idea to travel tonight. I guess theres a storm coming in."
Lauren peaked up at her and waited expectantly for her to continue. "And?"
"So, how does dinner sound?"
"Really?" Lauren asked turning so she was face to face with Ash.
"Really," Ash asserted gazing into excited green eyes.
"What do you have in mind?"
"I thought maybe we could order in and sit in front of the fire. Ben and Louis are going out of town, so I have the apartment to myself," Ash explained. "I want it to just be you and me. Is that okay?"
"Okay?" Lauren asked in mock indignation. "Thats wonderful!" She wrapped her arms around Ash and kissed her enthusiastically.
Ash returned the kiss and felt like she was going to burst with the love and happiness she was experiencing at this moment. She closed her eyes and lost herself in the sensations of loving this woman.
Lauren leaned back from their kiss with her heart pounding madly. She looked into loving blue eyes and mentally shook her head in wonder that this beautiful, sexy woman loved her. "So, you up for some shopping?"
Ash groaned. "If I have to."
Lauren giggled. "Come on. It will be fun."
"Fun and shopping do not belong in the same sentence," Ash stated as she rose from the bench and offered Lauren a hand. She took it and smiled when Ash pulled her up with ease.
"Ah, I think youve just never shopped in the right frame of mind," Lauren said. "You just need to shop where your interests lie. So, what kind of things interest you?"
Ash raised an eyebrow and looked her up and down with and appreciative eye. "You interest me," she said in a low sensuous voice.
"Umm, well," Lauren stuttered, blushing at Ashs frank admiration.
"So, I guess anywhere you want to go is fine," Ash said in the same low voice, but added a crooked playful grin to alleviate Laurens discomfort.
"Okay, lets go," Lauren agreed quickly and began dragging Ash back towards the market.
"Lead away," Ash laughed as she happily let herself be pulled along by her petite friend.
CONTINUED IN PART 6