Ash glared at the road as she idly drummed her fingers on the steering wheel deep in thought. It was after 11 and she had hoped Lauren would have called by now. Maybe shes still asleep. She thought hopefully. Her mood had progressively darkened the farther she got from Seattle. From Lauren. "Snap out of it, Gray!" she barked. "Youre acting like a lovesick teenager!"
Her frowned deepened. She couldnt help it. She missed Lauren. She had the overwhelming desire to call Lu and tell her she was sorry, but she just couldnt make it and turn her truck around and race back to Seattle. She shook her head in denial. No, she had promised Lu shed help and she owed her. Owed her a lot more than simply helping her take down one measly bond jumper. Her mind flashed to Texas and waking up in a hospital bed with Lu grinning down at her.
"Hey there, Wolf," Lus voice said emanating from the fog that still clouded her vision. She blinked and struggled to focus her eyes. Lus face swam into view and she concentrated to bring it into focus. She hurt everywhere.
"Lu?" she slurred. "Wha happened?"
Lu smiled in relief as Ashs blue eyes lost their glassy stare and focused on her. "You went and got yourself stabbed and beat all to hell," she said perching carefully next to Ash on the bed. She studied her friends pale face and tried to hide her worry behind bravado. "Of course you did manage to kill one and incapacitate the other before they took you out."
"How long?" Ash asked struggling against the allure of the painkillers and their promise of relief in sleep.
"You were in ICU for 3 days in a coma caused by the blood loss," Lu answered and saw Ashs blue eyes widen perceptibly. "You were moved here this morning when youre condition stabilized."
"Mmmm," Ash nodded and closed her eyes.
Lu had thought she had drifted back to sleep and was just getting up when those blue eyes opened and pinned her to her seat.
"Wh "Ash cleared her throat and tried again. "What are you doing here?"
"I was the contact name on your medical card," Lu said giving her hand a gentle pat.
"Oh," Ashs eyes drifted shut and then slowly opened again. "When can I get out of here?"
"Depends," Lu said with a shrug. Ash gave her a dangerous look. "On how much of a pain in the ass you are. I figure if you raise enough hell, theyll kick your ass out!"
Ash smirked. "I think I can manage that," she slurred as the drugs won and pulled her under.
The next time Ash woke she sensed more than one person in the room and keeping her eyes shut and her breathing even, she listened.
"Have you told her Im here?" a deep, male voice asked.
"Do you think Im crazy? She may be hurt, but shed still climb out of that bed to kill me," Lus voice answered in a harsh whisper. "You can wait for her to wake up and tell her yourself. Now, I have to go talk to the mayor and see if I can talk him out of this whole medal idea. Ash will flip if she finds out about that!"
"Okay. Ill just sit here with her. Shes going to be all right?" the male voice asked with concern evident in his voice.
"Yeah, Davis. Thats what the docs are saying. She just needs to rest and shell sleep a lot because of the blood loss," Lu assured him. "Ill see you later."
"Okay, Lu, and thanks for letting me know," Davis said.
"Sure," Lus voice said sounding like it was coming from the hall.
Ash had been shocked to hear her brothers voice and angry that Lu had called her family. She hadnt had any contact with her family other than the occasional e-mails to her younger brother Graham in close to 10 years. She desperately fought against the haze of drugs to try and think of what she could possibly say to her brother.
"I know youre awake, Ashlin," Davis informed her in a deep, bass voice.
When had his voice gotten so deep? The irrelevant thought skittered across her mind as she slowly opened her eyes to meet identical blue eyes in a face that had changed drastically since she had seen it last. Gone was the baby fat to be replaced by strong hard lines. His eyes had wrinkles around them from squinting into the sun too much and his upper lip sported a thick black handlebar mustache. His hair was cut short and a few silver hairs marred its ebon surface.
""Lo, Davis," she said her voice hoarse from disuse.
"Hey, Ashlin," Davis said and walked over to the bed and pouring a glass of water held it out to her. "Bet you could use this."
Ash narrowed her eyes at her brother and then with her left hand fumbled for the controls to the bed. She finally found them and hit the button to raise her to a more upright position. She gritted her teeth and fought down the wave of dizziness and nausea that came with the movement. Damn, but Im weaker than a newborn kitten! She dropped the control and willed her left hand to be steady as she reached out to take the glass from Daviss hand. She took a welcome sip of the cool water and closed her eyes.
Davis shook his head. "Still have to be the stoic hardass I see," he commented as he pulled the visitor chair over and sat down.
Ash looked at him through half-lidded eyes. "What are you doing here?"
Davis sighed and ran his hand through his hair in a familiar gesture. "Lu called the Manor two days ago. We knew something was wrong before that because Graham was going on about how you were down here in Texas and something must have gone wrong, because he hadnt heard from you and the cop whats his name?" Davis furrowed his brow in thought. "Ah, Ebelhard. Thats it. Was being evasive."
Ash frowned. Graham? Graham had known? But how? Then she remembered. She had gotten a bad feeling right before leaving her motel room in Pecos and had sent him off an email and told him where she was. She had been right. The take down had gone very bad as was evident by her current position.
"Excuse me? Miss Gray?" A clean-cut man in a drab suit that screamed, "cop!" was standing in the doorway looking in.
"Yes," Ash said raising one elegant eyebrow in question.
The man grinned and walked in carrying a black duffle. Ash recognized it as the bag she had left in her motel room in Pecos. "Im Marshall Brad Cooper," he introduced himself as he came to the foot of her bed. He held up the bag. "I thought you might like this back."
"Thank you. Just place it on the table there," Ash waved at the roll table beside her bed.
"I thought youd like to know that no charges are being pressed regarding the death of Jose Rodriguez," he informed her. "It was ruled self defense."
Ash said nothing. What was she going to say? That the bastard deserved to die and she wasnt sorry she was the one who got to do it?
"I just wanted to say how impressed I am that you managed to save those two kids," Cooper complimented her with open admiration. "I honestly dont know how you managed to get in there and perform first aid on them in your condition. Must have been quite the sight! The EMTs who were on the scene said they found you passed out from blood loss between the two kids. I hear the mayor wants to give you a medal for your bravery!"
Ashs face remained passive but her eyes widened slightly as the young marshal enthused over her bravery. I did what? She closed her eyes, trying to recall that day and what had happened. She remembered approaching the dilapidated farmhouse and peeking into one of the dirt encrusted windows and seeing the two teenagers, probably hitchhikers that had the misfortune to be picked up by the sadistic pair. They hadnt been pretty to look at after Jose and Kim had been amusing themselves with them for the better part of two days. The next thing she remembered was being totally shocked when Jose grabbed her and then fighting desperately with him for way too long. She remembered finally being able to break away and pulling her Sig Sauer. When he lunged for her she had shot him point blank in the chest. But he had done some serious damage before she took him down. The next thing she remembered was a blood curdling scream and the crazed eyes of Kim Baker as she lunged for her. She desperately tried to bring the gun around and shoot the enraged woman, but couldnt manage it before Kim was on her. She remembered struggling with Kim and pain and then nothing. She shook her head in bafflement.
One question kept intruding on her mind. How the hell had they found her? She hadnt told anyone where she was going. She was a lone operative. Always had been and liked it that way. If you didnt rely on anyone, then no one could let you down.
"Marshal Cooper," Ash interrupted his babbling praises over her supposed heroics.
"Yes, Miss Gray?"
"How exactly did you find me?" she asked.
Cooper grin widened. "Now that is a story in and of itself, maam. Right out of a spy novel! Seems a very, irate young man from Montana called and demanded to speak to the detective in charge. Well, out of sheer perseverance and probably a good dose of pig-headedness he got Detective Ebelhard on the phone. Dont know what that boy said, maam, but he sure lit a fire under the detective! He started shouting to get our asses in gear because we were going to Pecos!"
Ashlin listened in stunned disbelief. How? How had Graham figured all that out from my email? She shook her head in wonderment. Guess I owe the kid my life. Her mind was in chaos. Somehow her baby brother 2000 miles away had ridden to the rescue. She closed her eyes and leaned back. She could hardly believe it. She felt a smile tug at her lips and let it come. A warm feeling descended on her. One she hadnt experienced in a very long time. It took her a moment to realize what it was. Happiness. Pure unadulterated happiness and she relished it.
"Well, Miss Gray, Ill let you get your rest," Cooper said. "It was a pleasure meeting you, maam"
Ashlin listened to him same good-bye to Davis and leave with her eyes closed. She didnt want to be fawned over and the Marshals obvious case of hero worship annoyed her. She finally opened her eyes when she heard Davis doing something at her side table.
"What are you doing?" she asked in a low dangerous voice.
He looked at her unimpressed. "I thought you might like to check your email and the like." He pointed to the laptop he had set up.
"Hmm," she murmured and nodded.
Davis shook his head. "Okay, Im going to go get something to eat and then head back to my hotel. Ill see you tomorrow," he said as he gave her a brief wave and walked out the door.
Ashlin closed her eyes and willed the headache to go away. The doctor had been in earlier on his morning rounds to give her the rundown on her condition. She had a dislocated right arm that was now inconveniently strapped to her chest. Four ribs were broken on the left side with the added bonus of a punctured lung. Kim must have knifed her sometime during their struggle because she had been informed that they had to do emergency surgery to repair her liver and kidney but luckily got to keep her spleen. And the icing on the cake, a nice skull fracture that was giving her one Hades of a migraine and her eyes felt like they were going to throb right out of her head.
She sighed and slowly squinted her eyes open and looked at the laptop. Guess, I should check my mail. She leaned over and grabbed the edge of the table with her left hand and rolled it over to straddle her lap. She flipped up the cover of the laptop and booted up the machine. She leaned back fighting down the wave of nausea and dizziness the movement had caused. Damn, I feel like I was run over by a truck. She rested with her eyes closed until she heard the telltale sound of the laptop finishing its start up program.
She opened her eyes and blinked a couple of times to clear her blurry vision. "Damn drugs," she growled as she raised her left hand to the keyboard and awkwardly keyed in her password. She noted with satisfaction that her cell phone was still plugged in so she had access to the Internet. She smiled as she logged on and opened her email account. Not surprising there were quite a few messages. Two from Rob, a fellow bounty hunter, probably wondering if I finally managed to get myself killed, she smirked. Five from an overly anxious Benson wanting to know what the hell happened and what the hell was she doing in Texas of all the gods forsaken places? She chuckled at that. She awkwardly typed one handed a quick reply to both Rob and Benson to tell them she was fine and would be coming home soon. Her eyes scanned down the list of messages and froze on the 1 urgent from none other than her baby brother. She closed her eyes and swallowed trying to force down the well of emotion that one message brought. After a few minutes to regain her composure she opened her eyes and clicked on the message. It was 2 lines:
Ashlin, I saved your life, so you owe me.
It wasnt signed but then it didnt need to be. She felt the tears begin to fall and was helpless to stop them. Ten years. It had been 10 years since she had been home. What could she possibly say? How could she face them? Especially now. Now when it was soon to become public knowledge, at least in the great state of Texas and probably New Mexico that she was nothing but a bloodthirsty bounty hunter? What would her parents think when they found out the money she had been sending them all these years was soaked in blood? That there precious musician daughter had turned into a ruthless killer? She shook her head in denial. NO! I cant go back! I dont have any right to bring my blood soaked hands to their door. How can they be anything but horrified and ashamed at what Ive become?
She closed her eyes and fought an inner battle. And Grahams plea won. She knew deep down that it would. She owed him. Owed him so much and he had asked many times over the years for her to come home but she was always able to deny him, but now she just couldnt. She was tired of fighting and just wanted to go home. The decision made, her mind settled and she drifted into a troubled sleep.
Ash was snapped out of the past by the sound of her cell phone ringing. She shook her head to banish the memories and took a deep calming breath before answering the phone.
"Gray," she said in voice lacking inflection.
"Ash?" a tentative voice asked.
Ashs face split into a grin at the welcome sound of Laurens voice.
"Hey, sweetheart. Did you sleep well?" Ash asked her voice warming. She realized that she was entering the outskirts of Spokane and glanced quickly at the clock. Damn! I spaced out for over an hour? Not good, Gray. Not good at all!
"I slept very well, thank you. Of course waking up alone sucked," Lauren said with censure.
"Im sorry, Lauren, but you looked so sweet that I didnt have the heart to wake you," Ash apologized softly. "Did you get my note?"
"Yes," Lauren said with love evident in her tone. "I loved the rose. Thank you."
"I cant believe you entrusted me with your guitar, Ash," Lauren said reverently.
"Couldnt be in better hands. Besides, I wont need it while Im here in Spokane. Id rather you hung on to it for me, because then Ill know its safe," Ash asserted. Like my heart, her mind added silently.
"Ill keep it safe until you return, Ash, I promise," Lauren vowed.
"Good. Werent you going to lunch with Rachel?"
"Yeah!" Lauren laughed. "But shes late, so I thought Id give you a call while I was waiting."
"Oh, so Im just good for killing time?" Ash teased.
"What? No! Of course, not!" Lauren assured indignantly. "Ive wanted to call you since the moment I woke up! But I knew if I did, Id never get anything accomplished today. Id rather sit on the phone and just listen to you breathe than do anything else. So, I figured calling you while waiting for Rachel gave me a safety valve. When she arrives, Ill have to let you go."
Laurens words washed over Ash like a healing rain. She felt invigorated and her good humor was totally restored by just the sound of her loves effervescent voice. "I see. Well, that makes sense. Does that mean youre only going to call me right before you dash off somewhere?" Ash asked trying to sound wounded.
Lauren giggled. "No. I was planning on calling you before I go to bed, so your voice would be the last thing I heard as I drifted off to sleep."
The image of Lauren lying in her bed flashed across Ashs inner eye. She could see Lauren in an over large t-shirt snuggled down in her bed with her hair slightly mussed. Her vibrant green eyes growing heavy with sleep and her angelic face graced with a gentle smile as she hung up the phone. She cleared her throat as the vision caused a lump to rise.
"Im looking forward to that," Ash cleared her throat and replied in a low, amorous voice.
"Me too," Lauren whispered fervently.
A long pause of silence ensued as each fought down the surge of longing to be with one another that flowed over them.
"Are you in Spokane yet?" Lauren asked breaking the emotion-laden silence.
"Just pulling into town," Ash sighed, wishing she was just pulling into Seattle instead.
"Promise me youll be careful," Lauren implored.
"I promise to be careful, Lauren," Ash vowed with a smile touching her lips at Laurens concern. "I believe I have a date for Halloween that Id be loathe to miss."
"Yep. And Id be terribly angry if you stood me up!" Lauren warned with a laugh. "So you better start thinking about your costume and get your sweet self back here."
"Yes, maam," Ash quipped.
"Rachels here, so I better go. I love you, Ash. Take care of yourself since Im not there to do it for you," Lauren said lovingly.
Ash chuckled. "Say hi to Rachel for me and tell her to watch over you for me. I love you, Lauren. Ill talk to you tonight."
"Okay. Love you, bye."
"Bye," Ash said softly as she reached out and clicked off the phone.
Spotting Lus exit up ahead, she turned on her blinker. Guess I should tell her Im here. She drove down the exit ramp and stopped at the red light. She quickly dialed Lus number and drummed her fingers idly as she listened to the rings. Four rings. Five rings. She frowned at the phone. Doesnt she have a machine? On the seventh ring she clicked off the phone. Well, I guess Ill go over there and camp out in her driveway until she shows up. Not like I have anything better to do! Ash was irritated at Lu and knew she was being unfair, but she had other places shed rather be. Lu not being around when she knew she was coming into town around now really pissed her off.
She frowned as she turned in the direction of Lus house. "You better have a damn good explanation, Darkcloud. Thats all I gotta say," she growled as her blue eyes narrowed and went cold.
"Hey, lovebird. You ready to go get some chow?" Rachel asked as soon as Lauren opened the door.
"Sure. Just let me grab a coat," Lauren replied with a woebegone look on her face.
"Geez! Whats the matter with you? Someone die or something?" Rachel queried as she leaned against the doorframe and watched Lauren grab a jacket wearily and trudge back towards her. "Oh, I can see youre going to be loads of fun today." Rachel rolled her eyes as she stepped back into the hall.
"Sorry, Rach," Lauren apologized as she endeavored to lift herself out of the melancholy mood that had befallen her as soon as she had hung up the phone. "Ill work on being a little more upbeat."
"Uh-huh," Rachel said doubtfully.
Lauren locked her apartment and gave Rachel a weak smile. "Where do you want to go?" Lauren asked as she walked down the hall with Rachel at her side.
"Dont care as long as they have coffee and women to ogle," Rachel said waving her hand dismissively.
Lauren laughed. "You are such a horn dog!"
"Yep, I am. And damn proud of it too," Rachel stated buffing her nails on her shirt and batting her eyelashes at her flirtatiously.
Lauren slapped her shoulder playfully and giggled. "You are out of your mind."
"Mmm, probably," Rachel agreed. She tapped her chin thoughtfully. "I mean I am friends with you after all!"
"Hey!" Lauren protested and reached out to grab Rachel.
Rachel dodged and laughed as she barreled down the stairs with Lauren in hot pursuit.
The two made their way to one of their favorite haunts, the Lavender Bean coffee house. Rachel kept up a steady stream of commentary on the various women in the establishment and their wardrobe as they ate their lunch. Lauren tried to get into the spirit of things, but was having a hard time shaking the depression that had settled over her. She missed Ash so much that it was like a physical ache. Rachel watched her surreptitiously throughout the meal and worried.
When Lauren sat back with a satisfied sigh and patted her stomach, Rachel decided the serious discussion could now begin.
"So, now that the beast is sated," Rachel commented, eyeing Laurens stomach. "Can we talk about what the hell has got you so far down in the dumps that Im amazed you can see daylight?"
Lauren gave her a guilty look and tried on a smile. "That bad, huh?" she asked sheepishly.
Rachel nodded emphatically. "Oh yes! Its that damn bad! So you going to tell me what the hell is going on or do we have to play twenty freaking questions?" Rachel demanded as she leaned forward on the table to give Lauren a no nonsense look.
Lauren sighed. "I miss her, Rach. I miss her so damn much it hurts!" she lamented hugging herself in anguish.
"Ash?" Rachel asked with compassion in her eyes as she scooted her chair closer to Lauren.
"Who else?" Lauren asked with a wry grin.
"I thought you just talked to her before we came to lunch?"
Lauren nodded sadly. "I did. It only made it worse."
"Oh," Rachel said nonplussed. She didnt know what to say. She had never felt that way towards anyone and wasnt sure how to pull Lauren out of her funk. "She in Spokane yet?"
"She was just pulling into town when I talked to her," Lauren answered. "It was really good to hear her voice. I told her I would call her again before I went to bed."
"Okay, so whats the problem? Other than wishing she was here?"
Lauren shrugged. "Nothing."
"Okay," Rachel said dragging out the word. "New topic. What happened last night?" She waggled her eyebrows suggestively causing Laurens face to brighten.
"We had dinner," Lauren said smugly watching Rachel out of the corner of her eye.
"Argh!" Rachel groaned as she pulled her hair in mock frustration. "You better tell me more than that, girlfriend, or I may be forced to kill you!"
Lauren giggled, but relented. She told Rachel about walking into the romantic setting that Ash had painstakingly conjured and how she thought she was going to pass out from sheer happiness and surprise. She told her about the champagne and the toast with a dreamy expression. She skirted over the part where she almost ripped Ashs clothes off and Ashs withdrawal, believing that was private and really no ones business but theirs. She had reached the part about dancing when her narrative came to an end as her mind took her back to the blissful dance and the entrancing sound of Ashs voice as she sang her love to her.
"Earth to Lauren! Come in, Lauren!" Rachel urged as she shook her friend who was obviously caught up in a fantastic memory and she wanted to know what it was! "Yoo-hoo? Lauren?"
"Hmmm?" Lauren asked dreamily as her eyes started to refocus on Rachels bemused but annoyed face.
"You want to share with me where you just went?"
"Oh! I was just remembering something," Lauren replied as she picked up her latte and drank. She set her drink down and looked at her expectant friend with quiet happiness. "Did you know Ash can sing?"
"Sing?" Rachel said perplexed. "No. She can sing? What does that have to do with dancing?"
Lauren beamed. "She played Martina McBrides song I Love You for our first dance and she sang it to me while we danced. Her voice is so so sensual. I thought my heart was going to burst, Rach. She looked at me with those baby blues and sang and I thought I had died and gone to heaven, since nothing that romantic happens in real life. Right?"
Rachel shook her head in astonishment. "Tall, dark and dreamy can sing?" she asked dazed. Lauren nodded. "And she sang a love song by a country chick that I take had some meaningful lyrics?"
"Oh yeah!" Lauren enthused, nodding her head. "I have the cd. Ill play it for you."
"Okay," Rachel agreed. She fell back in her chair and let out a deep breath. A thoughtful frown marred her features as she asked once again. "She can really sing?"
Lauren laughed. "Oh yeah! She could probably make a killing as a recording artist!"
"So why hasnt she?" Rachel asked confused. "I mean if shes that good, why not take advantage of it? She already plays guitar. Seems the next logical step for any true lesbian musician!" Lauren gave her a confused look. Rachel rolled her eyes and explained. "You know, the biggest fear known to man?" Lauren shook her head. "A lesbian singer with an acoustical guitar!"
"You are a total nutball," Lauren announced as she shook her head at her friends logic. "For your information, Ash says its too personal. She only sings when the mood strikes her."
"Guess youre mood material!" Rachel teased suggestively, giving her a sly wink.
Laurens face heated up at the comment. "Yeah, I guess so," she admitted bashfully.
"So, did you sleep in your own bed last night or ?" Rachel asked leaning forward avidly.
"I slept with Ash," Lauren said not offering any more details.
"And?" Rachel prompted scooting closer.
"And I thought I already told you I wasnt going to go into this with you?" Lauren asked sitting back and crossing her arms over her chest giving her a stern look.
"Oh come on! At least tell me the bare bones!" Rachel begged giving her a pleading look.
Lauren grinned. "Oh, okay," she relented. "We kissed and I got to feel up close and personal how fantastic that body really is." Rachel nodded eagerly and Lauren could have sworn she was about to start drooling.
"And we cuddled and went to sleep. I woke up to find her gone, but with a single white rose resting on her pillow and a note," Lauren replied with an enigmatic look on her face.
"So did you or didnt you?" Rachel asked.
"Did we do what?" Lauren asked being purposely obtuse to make Rachel stew in her own juices.
"Damn it, Laur!" Rachel swore in frustration. "Did you do the belly bump? The horizontal hustle? The ever popular, perpendicular polka? Or not?"
Lauren burst out in laughter. She patted her chest and closed her eyes as the images Rachels words had invoked danced across her mind. "Geez, Rachel! Could you be a little more crude?" Lauren finally managed to ask.
"Hmmm." Rachel contemplated the question as she stroked her chin. "Im sure I could. Would you like me to give you a few more euphemisms?" Lauren quickly shook her head no. "Alright then. Spill it or I will be forced to embarrass you further!"
"No," Lauren stated.
"No?" Rachel clarified.
"And that would be because ?" Rachel prompted motioning with her hand for Lauren to go on.
"It wasnt the right time," Lauren answered. "Can we talk about something else now?"
Rachel gave her an aggrieved look, but then shrugged. "Sure. How about Halloween?" Lauren nodded in agreement. "Whens Katie going to get here?"
"Shell be here the morning of the 28th. Jody and Vals party is that night at 8 since Halloween falls on a Tuesday this year and they thought theyd get a better turn out if they held it on the Saturday before. Youre still planning on going with us, right?" Lauren asked as she began to relax now that the interrogation was over. She loved talking about Ash, but sometimes Rachel got too personal. Besides she would never believe the truth even if I did tell her! I can still hardly believe it! But when the time is right I know it will be magical.
"Yeah," Rachel nodded. "Have you figured out what youre going to tell her about Ash?"
"What do you mean?" Lauren asked the confusion evident on her face.
"Are you going to tell her that you and she are seeing one another," Rachel explained patiently.
"Of course! Why wouldnt I?" Lauren asked not understanding why Rachel would ask. It seemed pretty obvious to her. "Katie knows Im gay. Its not like its going to come as a shock."
"She knows youre gay in the abstract, Laur," Rach said her face going serious. "But shes never seen you with anyone. Do you think shell be okay with it? I know for a fact that youre not going to be able to hide your feelings for Ash, so you better decide whether or not your baby sister is going to flip out or not before she gets here."
"Oh," Lauren said when understanding dawned. She absently played with her latte as she thought about it. Would Katie freak? She didnt think so. When they had talked about it, Katie had seemed cool about the whole thing, telling her she had a couple of gay friends at school and it was no big deal. "I think shell be okay. I think I may have a few problems now that youve brought it up though!"
"Now Im going to be hyper-aware of every move I make around her! Thanks, Rach. Thanks a lot! As if I didnt have enough problems," Lauren said in an aggrieved tone, shaking her head.
"Oh, I have no worries," Rachel said dismissively with a wave of her hand. "Tall, dark, and dreamy will give you one look with those baby blues and youll lose all rational thought and just react!"
"Gee, Rach, Im glad you have such a high opinion of my self control!" Lauren remarked as she placed her hand on her forehead and wailed, "Im crushed!"
"Yeah, right," Rachel snorted. "You know Im right. Ash will do that sexy thing with her eyebrow and youll swoon. Katie would have to be blind not to see that youre head over heels in love with her!"
"Okay, okay, youre right," Lauren agreed with mock sadness. "As usual."
"Yep. So, is Katie staying with you?" Rachel asked giving her an inquiring look.
"Of course. Where else would she stay?" Lauren asked. "What are you getting at, Rach?"
"Hold your horses, Im getting there," Rachel replied. "So, if Katies staying with you, then where is Ash staying?
"At Ben and Louiss I guess," Lauren said as her puzzled frown turned to one of consternation. "Oh!"
Rachel nodded as Lauren came to the same conclusion she had earlier. "Yeah, you have a studio and I really dont think youll want to entertain Ash at your place with your sister sleeping 10 feet away on the couch."
"Oh shit! What am I going to do, Rach?" Lauren pleaded. "I cant have Ash stay at my place with Katie there! And I cant leave Katie alone and go over to Bens to sleep with Ash!" Lauren blushed at the admission. "Can I?"
"Well, she is 18. So technically shes an adult, Laur," Rachel rationalized. "Its not like she needs a babysitter or anything."
"I know, but geez!" Lauren sighed in exasperation. She ran her hands through her hair in frustration as she tried to think of a workable solution. "What would Katie think if I handed her the keys to the apartment and told her I was going to go stay with Ash?"
"That you were damn lucky?" Rachel offered giving her a smug look.
Lauren swatted her shoulder. "Rach!" she gaped.
"Well, thats what Id think. Why shouldnt she?" Rachel stated logically. "I mean if I had the choice of spending the night with my baby sister or with a sexy, gorgeous woman, guess which one Id pick?" Lauren stared at her wide-eyed. "Yep, the hot babe hands down! And if my sister loved me, shed get over it!"
"You are incorrigible!" Lauren informed her. "I have no doubt that Katie loves me. I just dont want to lose her respect."
"Come on! Give me a break here!" Rachel retorted. "Respect? Whats there not to respect? You love Ash and she loves you, so there is absolutely no reason why you shouldnt sleep together and I have no clue why you think Katie would see it any differently!"
"I dunno, Rach," Lauren sighed as she tried to put her feelings into words. "I guess Im afraid shell think Im a slut or something." She stared at her latte cup as she nervously began to pick at it. "I know logically she probably wont think that, but "
"But?" Rachel prompted quietly, sensing that Lauren needed to get this out in the open.
Lauren closed her eyes to be able to focus better on her emotions. "But part of me still sees her as that little girl who followed me around and wanted to grow up to be just like me. I guess I dont want to fall from that pedestal she has me on."
"Lauren, look at me," Rachel demanded in a quiet voice.
Lauren opened her eyes to meet the concerned brown eyes of her best friend. Rachel reached out and took Laurens hand gently in hers. "Listen to me," Rachel said earnestly. "There is nothing wrong with loving Ash "
"I know but " Lauren interrupted. Rachel clapped her hand gently over her mouth to silence her.
"No buts. Katie is a smart girl and she loves you. She is not going to think any less of you for being madly in love with another woman. Shell be ecstatic when she finds out youve finally found someone to cherish. Someone who looks at you with such adoration that it makes me wish I had someone who would look at me like that," Rachel admitted softly giving Laurens hand a reassuring squeeze. "Believe me, Laur, if anything, Katie will want to be even more like you after she sees you with Ash. Not less."
"You really think so?" Lauren asked hopefully as she worried her lower lip with her teeth.
"Yeah, I really do," Rachel affirmed, glancing at the clock. She stood abruptly. "Oh shit! Look at the time! Im going to be late for my lab if I dont move my ass!"
Lauren looked at the clock and sat back in shock. "Is it really almost 2?" she asked.
"Yeah. I gotta go," Rachel said. She eyed Lauren with concern. "You okay? I can miss my lab if you need to talk some more."
Lauren gave her a grateful smile. "Nah, get out of here," she said giving Rachel a gentle shove. "Ill be fine. Besides I need to get back to my place and figure out what Im going to tell my advisor at our meeting at 4, since I havent worked on my thesis all weekend and hes going to want an update!"
Rachel gave her a surprised look. Whats this? Lauren the ever vigilant has been slacking? Rachel could hardly believe it. Laurens meticulous study habits and need to be one step ahead on her studies was one of the things that drove her absolutely batty when they shared a dorm room. Huh, guess this whole thing with Ash really has thrown her for a loop if shes letting her studies slip. "Boy, you must really be in love if thats the case," Rachel said shaking her head in amusement.
"Get out of here before youre late!" Lauren chuckled as she pushed Rachel towards the door.
"Im going!" Rachel stated as she fended off Laurens playful shoves. "Ill call you tonight, okay?"
"Okay. I should be home," Lauren agreed. "If Im not its because I got swallowed in the bowels of the library never to be heard from again!"
"I promise to send out a search and rescue mission if I havent heard from you by morning," Rachel said solemnly giving her a cheeky grin.
"Go!" Lauren demanded giving her one final shove.
"Bye!" Rachel sang over her shoulder with a wave as she hurried out of the coffee house.
She was half way across the street when her eye spotted someone standing in the doorway of the bookstore across the street. She turned to get a better look, but the person must have gone into the store. She frowned in thought. If I didnt know better, I could have sworn that was that bitch Judith! But what would she be doing hanging around down here? Its not exactly her scene. She shrugged dismissively deciding it was probably just someone who looked like Judith. She unlocked her car and got in knowing she would have to bend the speed limit to get to her lab on time.
Ash sat on the porch of Lus house absently playing her mandolin as she waited for her erstwhile friend to appear. She was glad she had stopped and grabbed a bite to eat since it was going on 4 oclock and there was still no sign of Lu or Sheila. Her thoughts kept returning to waking up with Lauren in her arms and she couldnt contain the contented smile that spread across her usually stoic features. She had slept soundly again. Just like she had the night before with Laurens warm and comforting presence in her arms. So, it wasnt a fluke! There is something about her that allows me to just let go and totally relax. I have a feeling Im not going to sleep that well without her. She sighed with regret and her hands unconsciously plucked out a dirge.
Ash looked up when she heard a car coming down the street. She watched as the red Sable pulled in and her brow creased when she saw that Lu was driving and looked upset. She quickly replaced the mandolin in its case and rose to walk down the steps.
Lu climbed out of the car and gave her a distracted wave as she hurried around to the other side and opened the passenger door to help Sheila out. Ash was surprised to see that Lu was dressed in a maroon cable knit sweater and black dress pants instead of her usual ensemble of black tank top and cargo pants. Shit! Shes even wearing loafers! Something is definitely up. Ash watched as Lu wrapped her arm around Sheilas waist and gently led her up the walk.
"Lu, honey, Im fine. Quit fussing," Sheila argued as she gave Lu a fond smile.
"The doctor said for you to take it easy," Lu said stubbornly as she continued her solicitous behavior. "So, Im going to help you into the house and up to bed."
Ashs annoyance at Lu for not being here when she arrived was quickly alleviated by that statement. One elegant eyebrow rose in question as Lus eyes came up to meet hers.
"Hey, Ash. Come on in. Ill be with you in a sec," Lu said as she ushered Sheila by.
"Hi, Ash. Nice to see you again," Sheila said peeking around Lu to see her.
"Nice to see you too, Sheila," Ash replied as she followed the pair into the house.
Lu escorted Sheila up the stairs. Ash stepped out on the porch and grabbed her mandolin case, bringing it inside and setting it next to the recliner. She was worried about Sheila. Obviously something was going on. She just hoped Lu would fill her in when she came back down. She sighed and sank into the recliner to await Lus return and hopefully enlightenment.
Fifteen minutes later, Lu trudged down the stairs. Ash noticed with a smirk that Lu had taken the time to change back into her normal attire. Lu walked into the living room and leaned on the back of the couch. She studied Ash with an unreadable expression causing Ash to raise one eyebrow in question. Lu shook her head. "So, I see you made it," she said drolly.
"Mmm, I was here a little after noon," Ash stated flatly as she crossed her arms over her chest. "I do believe that was the time I told you Id be here?"
Lu glanced down and nodded apologetically. "Yeah. Sorry about that, Ash," she said as she picked idly at the couch.
"You want to tell me why you had to take Sheila to the doctor?" Ash asked in an even voice.
Lu sighed and came around the couch. She fell back onto the couch and kicked her feet up to rest on the coffee table. "Sheila was having some pain and was spotting. So we thought it would be a good idea to get it checked out."
Ash hid her bewilderment at the explanation behind her stoic mask as her mind furiously processed the information. Spotting? Pain? Now what does that mean? What condition goes with those symptoms? Her eyes widened slightly when the answer came. "Are you trying to tell me that youre going to be a mommy?" Ash asked dryly.
Lu fidgeted under her regard and finally blurted, "Yeah! You got a problem with that?"
"No," Ash stated calmly.
Lu sat back and blew out a long breath. "Sorry, Ash. I didnt mean to snap at you. Im just a bit frazzled," Lu apologized as she rubbed her eyes.
"Its okay," Ash replied eyeing her friend closely. "Is Sheila all right?"
"Yeah," Lu grinned as she opened her eyes and gave Ash a proud grin. "Everythings fine. She just needs to take it easy for a couple of days. Doc said its not uncommon for this kind of stuff to happen, but to be safe to just try and reduce the stress level."
"I see," Ash commented and then a wicked grin crossed her face. "So, you want to tell me how you managed to knock her up? Last time I checked you needed a penis for that!"
Lu laughed. "Yeah well, its amazing what modern medicine can accomplish!" Lu replied her eyes shining with happiness. "My brother donated and we did the artificial insemination thing."
"Guess that means youre serious about this one," Ash said mischievously.
"Obviously!" Lu smirked.
"Arent you a little old to be thinking about being a parent?"
"Hey! Who you calling old?" Lu asked indignantly sitting up and pulled her feet from the coffee table to rest on the floor with a thump. "Im only 41, Ash! Im not ready for the rocking chair just yet!"
Ash chuckled and held up her hands in surrender. "Okay, okay, youre not too ancient, I guess," she agreed.
"Besides, Sheila wanted kids and shes only 28," Lu defended as she leaned forward and rested her forearms on her knees giving Ash a shy smile. "So, somehow she talked me into it and thats that."
"You are so whupped!" Ash teased her eyes twinkling in mirth.
"I am not!" Lu defended as she frowned. "Am I?"
"Certifiably!" Ash intoned with a nod. "I never thought Id see the day that the mighty Darkcloud bent under the yoke of domesticity!"
"Yeah well," Lu gave her a helpless shrug and a wry grin that made Ash chuckle.
"Im happy for you, my friend," Ash said sincerely letting a small smile touch her lips.
"Thanks," Lu grinned widened with happiness. "So, you want to be the godmother?"
Ashs eyebrow went up. "You cant be serious?" she asked stunned.
"Yep!" Lu said with glee. She hardly ever got to turn the tables on Ash and she was loving every minute of it. "I already talked to Sheila about it and she agreed that youd be an excellent choice."
"I Ill think about it," Ash stated still dazed with the revelation that Lu would entrust her child to her.
"Good," Lu said with a grin. She glanced at her watch and said, "So, I guess we better discuss what we want to do about Sullivan."
Ash pulled herself together and focused on Lu. "You going to keep risking your neck after the baby is born?" she asked flatly.
Lus face registered surprise. "Umm, no. Actually this is my last take down," she replied. "My uncle is retiring and Im going to take over his bail bond business. Nice cushy desk job."
Ash was relieved to hear that Lu was getting out of the business. She didnt want to think about Sheila and a newborn having to be told that Lu went and got herself killed. "Thats good to hear," Ash replied. "So, what do you know about Sullivan and his whereabouts?"
Lu and Ash spent the next half hour going over everything Lu had on Randy Sullivan and the people he was likely to be with at the club. The club was on the seedier side of town in an area that was known for violence and rough trade. Ash interrogated Lu thoroughly until she was sure she had all the details she would need to take down Randy Sullivan and any of his cohorts.
"You still licensed?" Lu asked when Ash finally sat back with a satisfied smile.
"Yes," Ash nodded. "I kept it current. Plus I still have my Fed credentials."
"Oh?" Lu asked curious. She knew that Ash had worked with the FBI on the Campus Killer case, but Ash had never shared any details.
"Yeah, from that time 6 years ago when I freelanced to the feds on that serial killer case," Ash explained. "Agent Ferraro, the head of the Behavioral Science division, was impressed with my work and sent me down to Quantico for a crash course," She shrugged dismissively. "So, I have a badge, though technically I dont work for them. Ferraro said it was just so it would be easier for him to call on my services again if he needed them. Wouldnt have to fight through the red tape with the higher ups."
"Wait!" Lu demanded with an incredulous look on her face. "Are you telling me youre a fucking card carrying FED?"
"Umm, yeah," Ash shrugged giving her a chagrinned look.
"Holy shit," Lu groaned stunned by the revelation. "Is that how you ended up in Texas? Because this Ferra Ferrari Ferra-whatever asked you to go?"
"Ferraro. He called me about it and sent me the jacket," Ash stated with nonchalance. "I looked it over and told him Id go take a look, since his boys werent having any luck."
"Fuck," Lu swore as certain things about the whole incident finally made sense. "Guess thats why the media never got a hold of you, huh? The feds told them to back off. They didnt want it publicly known that they had sent a freelancer to do their jobs!"
"Mmm, something like that," Ash agreed. "So, when do you want to head out to the club and watch for Sullivan to show up?"
Lu gave her a blank look and then grinned. "Oh, I figure we should be there around 10 or so. I doubt hell show before 9 and I dont want to go in after him," she said as she stood. "So, I guess we have some time to kill. You got your rig with you?"
Ash stood and raised an eyebrow. "So little faith, Lu?" she asked dryly.
"Well, you have been out of the game for awhile," Lu stated deprecatingly. "And I seem to recall you having to run to answer your phone last time I called, because you didnt have it on you." She smirked. "Seems the wolf may be slipping a bit."
Ash let her gaze go cold as she stared at Lu. Lus eyes widened and she took a step back. A slow feral grin fell across Ashs chiseled features and before Lu could move she found herself on the floor with a predatory Ash standing over her. She fearfully glanced up and let out a sigh of relief when she saw Ash giving her a cocky grin.
"Still think Im slipping, Darkcloud?" Ash asked amusement coloring her deep voice as she offered Lu a hand.
"Umm, no," Lu stated as she shook her head and accepted the hand. Ash pulled her easily to her feet and gave her a pat on the shoulder. "You know, one of these days that ninja shit isnt going to save you."
"Ninja shit?" Ash commented with amusement. "Well, it comes in handy when youre up close and personal, Lu."
"Yeah, but it wont stop a bullet," Lu argued.
"Well, Im not in the habit of putting myself in those type of situations," Ash chuckled. "Im just a musician remember?"
Lu gave her an incredulous look. "Yeah right! A musician with lethal combat skills!" Lu stated as she turned her back and strode towards the kitchen. "You want something to drink?" she called over her shoulder.
"Sure," Ash replied delighted with the easy banter between them. She had forgotten how much fun Lu could be. She was easygoing and had a wicked sense of humor much like her own. Maybe I should tell her about Lauren? Ash mused as she followed her friend into the kitchen. I could really use some advice about things. She felt the heat rising to her face and quickly strode to the door and looked out onto the neat backyard to hide the fact from Lus perceptive eye. She obviously knows about women and relationships. More than I do at any rate, which is squat!
"Hey? See anything of interest out there?" Lu teased, glancing at the broad back of her friend. She took a seat at the table and waited for Ash to join her. Hmm, something is definitely going on with her. She seems different. I just cant quite put my finger on what it is. She narrowed her eyes as she studied her reserved friend more closely. Ashs shoulders sagged slightly as she sighed. Now what?
Ash turned from the sliding glass door and met Lus inquiring look with a sheepish grin. She walked over to the table and slid into the chair across from her. She picked up the can of soda Lu had set before her with a nod of thanks and took a long drink.
"Lu, how did you know you were in love with Sheila?" Ash finally asked softly, studying the soda can in her hand.
Lu was startled by the question, but answered, "I just knew." Ash looked up and Lu saw that she was genuinely curious and spooked? The Im too bad for my own good, Wolf is afraid of something? But what? Love? Hmm, must have met someone in Seattle. Interesting. Go slow, Lu, or youll scare her back behind those damn walls of hers. "My heart would beat triple time whenever she was near and when she smiled I thought my face would split with an answering grin. I couldnt stop thinking about her when she wasnt around and missed her so bad I thought I was going to die."
Ash nodded slowly at the description. Yeah, that about sums it up. Thats exactly how I feel about Lauren. "I met someone while I was in Seattle," Ash said hesitantly. Lu gave her a reassuring smile and motioned for her to go on. Ash closed her eyes and found the courage to continue. "Her names Lauren. Shes well, shes amazing is what she is!"
Lu chuckled at the look of sheer wonder that came over Ashs face. "So, what happened?" Lu prompted as she sat back and took a drink of her soda. She knew she needed to sound interested, but not too eager or Ash would clam up.
Ash ginned and her blue eyes danced with joy. "I spent every free minute I had with her!" she announced eagerly leaning forward. "I met her when Benson and Louis dragged me out dancing. Benson admitted he had set me up before we got there so I was expecting to meet a couple of his female friends. But what I wasnt expecting was that one would be the kindest, warmest, most wonderful woman I have ever met!"
Lu laughed at the enthusiastic description. "So, what does she look like?"
Ash cocked her head as she brought forth an image of Lauren and her face beamed. Lu didnt miss the smitten look but kept quiet wanting to hear what Ash had to say.
"Shes about " Ash grimaced and then stood raising her hand to breast level, "this tall. She has short slightly wavy hair thats the color of sun kissed gold. She has an athletic build and umm curves in all the right places." She blushed at the admission and then continued, "She has the most beautiful and expressive green eyes! They look at me and I just about melt!"
Her eyes took on a far away dreamy look and Lu smiled. I knew that when you finally fell, my friend, youd fall hard! I sure hope this Lauren is the real deal! "So, what did you guys do together other than dance?"
Ash came back to herself at the question and gave Lu a shy grin as she sat down. "We talked and I played my guitar for her," Lus eyes widened at that. "We umm ended up sleeping together while I was there."
"Sleeping together?" Lu asked slowly.
"Yeah," Ash replied. "She fell asleep at the end of the show and I carried her upstairs and then realized I didnt have a key to her place so I took her to Bens and she slept with me in my bed. And she spent the night last night too."
"Ah," Lu said at the clarification. "So, you didnt have sex with her?"
"No," Ash admitted softly studying her hands intently as they fidgeted with her soda can. "We kissed and stuff, but no."
"I see," Lu said as she studied her friends fidgeting. "Did you tell her how you feel?" Ash nodded and a cheerful smile reappeared on her face. "Did she tell you?" Ash nodded again. "And?"
"She told me she loves me, Lu," Ash sighed happily finally meeting her friends gaze. "And I love her too!"
"Okay," Lu smiled kindly. "So, did she not want to or ?"
Ash dropped her gaze shyly and shook her head in frustration. "It wasnt her. It was me," she stated softly. "I I froze and and well, she was very understanding and said that when the time was right it would happen!"
Lu gazed at her friend in wonder. She had never seen Ash so open and vulnerable. It was a little scary to see the stoic woman pouring out her heart to her at her own kitchen table. It felt very surreal and she was hoping she didnt mess up and send Ash running.
"You want to talk about it?" Lu asked quietly.
Ash looked up and met compassionate hazel eyes. She did want to talk about it, but she was afraid to at the same time. "Yeah, I guess," Ash said.
"Why do you think you froze?"
"Because because I was just so overwhelmed with everything I was feeling!" Ash said as she pounded her fists on the table in frustration. "I felt totally out of control! And it scared the hell out me!"
"Ssh, okay. Calm down," Lu advised. Ash took a deep breath and nodded. "Do you want to make love to her?"
Ash gave her an incredulous look. "Of course I do, Lu! I love her so much it makes me crazy!" Ash declared running her hands through her hair in agitation. "She kisses me and I lose my mind! My body feels like its on fire and she feels so good in my arms, but damn it! Im afraid that shell find out what Im really like and leave and that would kill me, Lu." Ash said the last with such heart-rending conviction that Lu felt her heart skip a beat in trepidation.
"Have you told her about your past?"
"Some," Ash said staring at the table blankly. "She knows I was a bounty hunter. She said that was my past and made me who I am." She shrugged. "She said it didnt matter what I did in my past, she loves me for who I am now."
"I definitely want to meet this woman!" Lu declared in fascination. "She sounds wonderful, Ash. From what youve told me, it doesnt sound like shes going anywhere." She waited for Ash to look up at her. She smiled reassuringly. "Just give it some time. Believe me, love is an overwhelming experience no matter how many times youve gone through it."
"Really?" Ash asked hopefully.
"Really." Lu said sincerely. "Trust me. Ive been there. I felt the exact same way with Sheila." She chuckled wryly. "Hell! I still do! But it gets easier."
Ash sat back with relief. "Gods, I hope so!" she wished fervently. "Otherwise its going to kill me!"
Lu burst out laughing and slugged her playfully on the shoulder. Ash grinned and joined in the laughter. It felt good to laugh and Lus words had reassured her that her reactions were normal. Now, she just had to figure out how to relax and just let nature take its course.
"Im going to go check on Sheila," Lu said as she stood wiping her eyes. "Then we can figure out what we want to do for dinner."
"Sounds good," Ash agreed as she got up. "I think Ill go out to my truck and pull out my kit. Its been awhile and I want to make sure everythings in working order."
"Okay. I should be down in half an hour or so," Lu said as they walked out of the kitchen. "See you in a bit."
"Okay," Ash agreed as she watched her friend go up the stairs. Thoughts of seeing Lauren again floating to the surface of her mind and she grinned. She spun on her heel and began whistling as she headed for her truck to pull out her gear.
Judith pulled her coat more closely around her as a cold gust of wind blew against her meager shelter of the tree she was leaning against. She watched for the scrawny red head to appear. She knew sooner or later she would return home and she wanted to observe her unaware. She had seen her with that airheaded fashion victim friend of hers at the Lavender Bean, but had retreated into the bookstore when it seemed like her friend had spotted her. She didnt want to be seen. Yet.
Her eyes narrowed in malice when she spotted her prey hurrying down the sidewalk headed for the back door of the building. What does my darling Ash see in you? She scrutinized Lauren with a jaded eye and was dumbfounded. Shes so so perky and wholesome looking! Judith frowned. And so short!
Alexi is shorter, her mind pointed out.
Shut up! This has nothing to do with Alexi! She cursed her inner voice vehemently. Alexi is just a means to an end. It doesnt matter that shes short. But this this girl has somehow won my darlings heart and I want to know how!
Maybe she just loves her for who she is and not for what she can give her, the voice stated logically.
Judith laughed condescendingly. Oh, thats rich! Everyone wants something, my dear. Our annoying little redhead is no different! Judith watched as Lauren opened the door to the building and paused. She glanced around the parking lot and then shaking her head went inside. You, my dear, are the one obstacle keeping me from reclaiming Ash. Without you around she will fall gratefully into my arms! Judith informed Laurens disappearing back.
Ash told you she didnt want to have anything to do with you, Judith, the voice reminded her. Lauren not being around isnt going to change that.
Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Judith howled at the voice as she grabbed her head and shook it violently. You dont know what youre talking about! Ash will be devastated when that scrawny girl disappears without so much as a good-bye! And I, an evil smile crossed her lips as she anticipated the moment, I will be there to pick up the pieces of her heart and console her. Oh yes, I will.
The voice remained silent knowing that Judith was beyond listening to reason.
So, my dear Lauren, youll just have to go, Judith stated matter-of-factly as she turned to walk back to her car that was parked on the next street over. Yes, somehow, someway, I will remove you from Ashlins life and then shell be mine!
People turned to look at the lithe blonde when she let out a bone chilling cackle. She seemed oblivious of the furtive stares as she unlocked her car and got in. She drove away still laughing and plotting how to get rid of the annoying redhead.
Lauren closed the outer door of the building with relief. It had felt like someone had been watching her out there, but she hadnt seen anyone. She shook her head in dismissal and wearily trudged up the stairs. The appointment with her advisor, Dr. Stein, had been a real eye opener. She unlocked her apartment door and walked in kicking the door closed behind her. She sagged into her office chair and flipped on the computer. She leaned back and stared at the monitor as the machine booted up, but didnt really see it. Her mind was back in Dr. Steins office and the conversation they had had.
Dr. Stein leaned back in his chair with a weary sigh. He pulled off his reading glasses and absently began to chew the stem as he studied his star scholar perplexed. The distracted young woman fidgeting with the notebook in her lap was not the cheery Lauren he was used to seeing. Her work was brilliant and he had praised her on a number of occasions with pride, but now, something had happened to turn Laurens focus away from her studies and it showed in her work.
"Lauren, I have a few questions," Dr. Stein said as he folded his hands across his ample stomach.
Lauren jumped, startled out of her thoughts about what Ash was doing right now by Dr. Steins concerned tenor. Pay attention, Laur! "Yes, Dr. Stein?"
"Correct me if Im wrong, Lauren, but the courses youre taking this semester are just for your own enjoyment?" Lauren gave him a puzzled look, but nodded. "Hmm, so you dont need the credits, correct?" he asked tossing his glasses on his desk and rocking back in his chair.
"No, I dont need the credits," Lauren answered slowly.
"I see," Dr. Stein stated.
Lauren waited for him to continue, but he just rocked back in his chair and looked at her with an unreadable expression. She studied Dr. Stein in puzzlement and growing apprehension. He was wearing his usual tweed jacket and a garish striped tie that was loosened at the knot and hanging askew down his rumpled shirtfront. His receding salt and pepper hair was sticking up in tufts since he had mussed it when he rested his head on his hand as he had read through her latest report. She had been leery of having a man as her advisor, but after meeting him and getting to know him, she grew to respect his insight and his kindness. Lauren fought not to fidget as she met his sharp gray eyes in question.
Finally not being able to stand the scrutiny any longer she asked, "Are you saying I should drop my electives, Dr. Stein?"
A kind smile graced his lips as he rocked forward and rested his folded hands on his chaotic desk. "Lauren, I want to know whats going on with you," he implored.
"I I dont know what you mean," Lauren said averting her eyes and shifting in her chair nervously.
Dr. Stein sighed and shook his head slowly. "Lauren, Ive known you for 2 years and your work has always been impeccable. Until now." He held up a hand to keep her from interrupting when she looked up. "Something is distracting you. Is there something going on with your family?" Lauren shook her head. "Okay. Then that leaves personal." Laurens eyes widened at his observation and he chuckled. "Lauren, Ive been an advisor at this institution for almost 20 years. Ive seen it all and youre not the first student to be distracted by matters of the heart. Is that the problem?"
Lauren felt the heat rise to her face as she nodded. "Yes," she whispered.
"Do you want to tell me about it?" he offered. "Maybe I can help."
"No, theres nothing you can do, Dr. Stein," Lauren sighed. "I met someone last week and fell hard. I just got so caught up in being with her that I let everything else slide. Im sorry."
Dr. Stein laughed heartily and Laurens head shot up in surprise. His laughter was contagious and she soon found herself joining in.
"Oh, my dear, that is just precious!" he laughed shaking his head in wonder. "You apologizing for finding happiness! I had started to wonder if you were going to ever find someone! I was beginning to give up hope! Please, dont be sorry!"
"You were worried?" Lauren queried as her brow furrowed in confusion. "Why would you be worried about that?"
"Because, my dear, you are a marvelous young woman and I was afraid you were going to leave your college experience behind without learning the most important lesson!" he explained as he brushed the tears from his eyes. He saw her blank look and explained, "Love! To experience love and to learn how wonderful it can be and how consuming!"
"Oh," Lauren mumbled in embarrassment.
Dr. Stein slapped the table sharply causing Lauren to jump. "So! My suggestion to you is to drop your electives. You dont need the credits, so why bother?" He shrugged in dismissal and gave her a sly wink. "Besides, I think you would much rather spend your time studying something a little more extracurricular."
Laurens mouth dropped open in shock. "Dr. Stein!" she gaped.
"Plus if you have more time to spend with ?" He gave her an inquiring look.
"Ashlin," Lauren supplied.
"Ah. Ashlin. Then maybe youll be able to concentrate more on your thesis and have it ready for final review by the end of this semester," Dr. Stein explained sitting back with a pleased look.
"Okay. If thats what you think," Lauren said with a small smile taking hold. "Ill see what I can do about spending more time with Ash so that I can concentrate on my thesis."
"Mmm, yes, I think that would be best," Dr. Stein said. He pointed a finger at her and demanded, "Now. I do expect to see your best work in the coming weeks, young lady! No more of this this," he picked up her report and shook it for emphasis, "drivel! I want my brilliant star back in the heavens of the Medieval History department! Do I make myself clear?"
"Crystal, sir," Lauren said solemnly with a wide grin, "I promise to do my best."
"Well, I know for a fact that your best is exceptional!" Dr. Stein winked. "So, Ill accept that. Now get out of my office and I dont want to see you again until the first of November. Im expecting to be impressed and maybe even overawed by your next report, Miss OShea. Dont disappoint me."
"No, sir!" Lauren promised as she stood and gathered her things. She gave him a cheery wave and headed for the door.
"Yes, Dr. Stein?" Lauren asked pausing with her hand on the doorknob and glancing back over her shoulder.
"Good luck with your Ashlin," he replied sincerely.
"Thank you, sir," she said with a joyous look and left the office.
The computer beeped and she blinked. Well, Laur, you promised Dr. Stein you would work on your thesis. Theres no better time then the present since its she glanced at the clock only quarter to 7 and I highly doubt Ash would believe you if you called her now and told her you were getting ready for bed! She grinned at the thought and then scooted her chair forward and began to work in earnest.
Ash rolled her eyes to heaven praying for patience as Lu began to hum tonelessly under breath again and tap the steering wheel. She turned her head and gave Lu an icy glare. "Lu!" she growled.
Lu jumped in surprise and looked at her. "What?" she asked grumpily.
"Would you please stop doing that?" Ash implored through gritted teeth eyeing Lus tapping fingers with annoyance.
"What?" Lu asked perplexed and then saw where Ash was looking. "Oh, sorry. I just hate waiting for something to happen."
"Are you positive theyre in there?" Ash questioned gazing back out the window at the strip club they had been watching for the past hour.
"Yeah, my boy Raul saw Sullivan go in with two of his cronies," Lu confirmed.
"Who are the other two?"
"Jeff Hixson and Larry Belmont," Lu said. Ash raised an eyebrow in inquiry. "Hixson is the usual deadbeat. On parole for petty theft and assault, 27 yrs old, 58", weighs in at about 160, black crew cut hair, brown eyes, and tattoo of a snake on right bicep. Belmont on the other hand is a real loser. Been in the pen twice, both times for assault with intent. Hes big, Ash. Stands 65" and weighs in at close to 350. Luckily thats mostly blubber and not muscle, 42 yrs old, mousy blonde hair also in a crew cut, beard and mustache, blue eyes, and a tattoo of a swastika on left pec. Nice, huh? My buddy, Branigan said hes run this yahoo in before. Says hes a real piece of work. Thinks Hitler was a god. Believes in all that white supremacy crap."
"Mmm," Ash murmured as her eyes narrowed in thought. "So, I take it Belmonts the ringleader and the other two are his stooges."
"Would be my guess," Lu shrugged as she observed Ash. She was always fascinated to watch as Ashs sharp mind took the problem apart and came up with the most amazing solutions.
"Well, I think " Ash was cut off when her phone rang. She frowned slightly as she pulled it out and looked at the display.
Lu noted a ripple of pleasure mar the perfect calm of Ashs face when she saw the display and then it was gone and the emotionless mask was back.
Ash flipped open the phone, "Hey, sweetheart," she said in a soft voice. Ash saw Lus smug grin and turned her back slightly to her to give herself some privacy.
"Hi!" Laurens voice washed over her and she fought the happy grin that was trying to surface.
"Hey. You getting ready for bed?"
"Im already in bed and it feels pretty lonely without you here."
"Sorry to hear that."
Lauren sighed. "Its okay. At least I have your t-shirt to wear. It smells like you."
Ash couldnt fight the crooked grin that snuck onto her face at the comment. "I hope it brings you sweet dreams," she said in her low melodious voice.
"Oooh, I love it when you do that!" Lauren enthused.
"Do what?" Ash smirked in the same voice.
"Make your voice go all low and growly. It sends shivers down my spine," Lauren said in a slightly husky voice.
"How was your day?" Ash asked acutely aware of Lu listening intently behind her.
"Oh, it was fine. I met with my advisor, Dr. Stein. He suggested I drop my class load and focus on my thesis."
"Can you do that?" Ash questioned, surprised by an advisor actually telling a student to drop classes.
"Oh sure. I was just taking them for fun, honey. I dont need the credits," Lauren reassured her. "He said if I dropped the classes I would have more time for extracurricular activities too."
"Extracurricular activities?" Ash frowned. "Are you going to play a sport or something?"
"Whats so funny?"
"Im sorry, honey," Lauren apologized fighting down her giggles. "No, Im not going to play a sport. The extracurricular activity he was referring to was you."
Stunned silence. Ash stared out the window blindly as she tried to grasp what Lauren had just said.
"Ash? Honey? Are you still there?"
"Yes, Im still here," Ash replied slowly as she shook off her shock. "Did he really say that?"
"Oh yeah! I almost swallowed my tongue!" Lauren confirmed with amusement.
"Ill bet," Ash chuckled.
"So, how are things going there? Have you solved Lus problem yet?"
"Working on it right now," Ash stated.
"What kind of problem is it? Maybe I can offer some advice and get you back here that much sooner!" Lauren offered cheerfully.
"Its work related," Ash stated her voice cooling.
"Oh," Lauren murmured in a subdued tone.
Ash could have kicked herself. "Sweetheart, if I thought you could help, Id tell you," Ash asserted trying to convey her sincerity and appreciation of the offer.
"What does Lu do?" Lauren asked in a quiet voice.
Ash pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes trying to think of what to tell her. She didnt want Lauren to worry and knowing she was about to go apprehend a known wife beater and child rapist was probably not the best dream material. "Lauren, sweetheart, Ive got to go," she finally said.
"Okay," Lauren replied quietly. Ash could have sworn she sounded like she was about to cry and berated herself for evading the question.
"Sweetheart, Ill tell you everything when I get back, okay?" Ash promised in earnest.
"Ill hold you to that, Ash," Lauren said fervently. "Be careful and know that I love you."
"I love you too, Lauren," Ash said as she mentally sighed in relief. "Sweet Dreams."
"Good night," Lauren said softly and hung up.
Ash clicked off the phone and leaned back resting her head on the back of the seat. She blew out a deep breath and turned to Lu. Lu was scowling at her and her eyes were flashing in anger. "What?" Ash demanded in an even voice.
"You know very well what!" Lu retorted. "You didnt tell her what you were coming here to do did you? She has no idea that youre helping me apprehend this scumbag! How could you do that, Ash?"
Ash felt her anger flash at the accusations. "Why should I have told her, Lu?" she growled turning in her seat to face Lus angry countenance. "So she can lay in bed and worry?" Lu opened her mouth to reply, but Ash rode right over her. "I wont do that to her, Lu! Theres no reason to tell her that Im back bounty hunting again. Besides, its just this one time and then Im through!"
"Nice rationalizing, Wolf!" Lu barked purposefully using Ashs old nickname. Ash stiffened and her eyes narrowed dangerously.
"Watch yourself, Darkcloud," she warned in a cold voice, her blue eyes flashing with repressed rage.
"You lied to her, Ash. Plain and simple," Lu stated with conviction, not backing down from Ashs cold stare even though her heart was doing its damnedest to climb up into her throat.
"I did not LIE!" Ash said her voice ending in a roar.
Lu swallowed her fear and confronted her. "You most certainly did. By omission." Ash glared at her with rage filled eyes, but Lu saw the flicker of doubt. "You told me she knows about your past and is fine with it. So why didnt you tell her the truth?"
"She accepts my past, because thats what it is. My past," Ash explained through gritted teeth as she reigned in the rage and stuffed it back into its cage. "To her, Im a musician with a dark past who is struggling to overcome it. What do you think shed do if I told her I was back on the job?"
"Do you really have so little faith in her?" Lu accused vehemently.
Ash was stunned speechless by the question. Did she? No. It wasnt Lauren she doubted. It was herself. She felt the adrenaline high and the allure of the chase the moment they had left Lus house. The siren call had lured her back and she relished it. She was afraid she would become addicted to the danger and excitement again and not want to give it up. The thought left a bittersweet taste in her mouth.
"Ash?" Lu asked unsure how Ash would react. She had watched as Ashs eyes had turned inward and the emotional turmoil swept across her face. She was afraid that maybe she had pushed Ash too far this time.
Ash finally glanced up and her blank mask was firmly in place. "Lets get this over with," she said in a flat voice.
Lu nodded. Ash yanked off her jacket and threw it in the back seat. She pulled the tie out of her hair and ran her fingers through it to make it fluff out and fall in waves down her chest. She unbuttoned the top 3 buttons of her shirt and pulled it down to expose her cleavage. Lu watched in fascination as the level headed, stoic bounty hunter transformed into a sexy, alluring woman in a matter of moments.
"What are you doing?" she asked incredulously.
Ash turned from her primping in the mirror and gave her a suggestive half smile and a flirtatious wink. "Why, I thought Id go on in and see if I could find me a real man to satisfy my needs," she announced in a high suggestive voice.
Lu blinked. "Umm, okay," she said slowly.
Ash let the act dropped and one elegant eyebrow rose. "I thought Id go check out the scene and if all looks good Ill see if I can lure them out and we can get this over with," she explained in her normal clipped voice.
"Oh, okay," Lu agreed nodding in understanding. "Do you want me to go with you?"
"No. Sullivan might recognize you. Youre my ace in the hole. They wont be expecting you when I lure them out. Give me about 20 minutes and then be ready," Ash replied as she opened the door and stepped out. "Besides, I really cant see you playing the seductress."
"Thats not what Sheila says," Lu retorted.
Ash winked and slammed the jeeps door. She sashayed towards the club and Lu watched her go marveling at Ashs ability to take on any persona and make it believable. She watched Ash disappear into the club and leaned back to wait the prescribed 20 minutes before getting out of the jeep. Besides, its cold out there and I might as well be warm while I wait, she decided.
Ash stopped just inside the entry of the club and let her focus narrow to her objective. The musician, the vulnerable caring woman that Lauren loved, the doubts and insecurities all faded away to be replace by the predator. The wolf surfaced in all her savage glory and was on the prowl and smelled blood in the air. Ash stepped into the dim, smoke filled room and paid the cover giving the bouncer a coy wink. She glided into the club and made her way to the bar as she scanned the room for Sullivan and his buddies. She spotted them sitting ringside. Figures.
"Whatll it be?"
Ash flipped her hair over her shoulder and gave the bartender a slow sexy smile. "Mmm, are you on the menu?" she purred leaning against the bar to show off her cleavage to the best advantage.
"I could be," he leered as he ogled her breasts.
"What time do you get off?" she asked emphasizing the last words in a sexy, low voice. Her blues eyes raked him up and down as she ran her tongue suggestively over her upper lip.
"Not until 2," he pouted.
Men! They are so damn easy! She thought smugly. "Oh, too bad," she said with pity. "I dont think I can wait that long, stud. Guess Ill just have to have a whiskey sour and try my luck out there." She waved her hand to indicate the smoky room.
"Okay, sweetie, but if you dont find anything you like, Ill still be here," he advised grabbing his crotch in lewd invitation.
"Sure, stud. Ill keep that in mind," she said and gave him a saucy wink. He leered and turned to make her drink. She smiled. Oh, this is fun! I forgot how much. She felt the flush of exaltation at her ability to still be able to manipulate men into doing what she wanted. Guess I havent lost my touch.
She scanned the room and let her eyes settle on her prey. Her eyes narrowed dangerously as she watched Hixson harass the dancer with Sullivan and Belmont urging him on. She noted the bouncer frowning at the men and figured he would probably expel the drunken idiots any time now. I better hurry and make my move before the bouncer decides to throw them out and makes a scene.
"Here you go, sweetness. Thats on the house."
Ash schooled her features before turning and giving him a salacious smile. "Thanks," she purred her voice dripping with sexual promise.
"No problem! You just remember Ill be waiting," he reminded her with lust in his eyes.
"I wont forget," she said over her shoulder as she made her way across the club towards the three obnoxious drunks that were her intended victims.
"Hello, boys," she said in a low seductive voice.
Belmont turned at the greeting and found himself staring directly at the voluptuous breasts of a statuesque woman. His eyes drifted up and his jaw dropped at the sight of the most alluring woman he had ever seen. He felt his pants grow tight as his eyes met sapphire blue ones that shone with raw desire.
"Why hello," he smirked as he sat back to view her better. He was not disappointed. He ogled her with lust in his eyes. She had on tight blue jeans that hugged her very long legs and his imagination went wild with images of those legs wrapped around him. She had on a white oxford that was partially unbuttoned that gave tantalizing glimpses of her breasts as she moved.
Ash let a slow sensuous smile cross her full lips. She observed that she had all three men completely enthralled. She mused that poor Hixsons eyes were going to pop right out of his head. The dancer gave her a thankful wave and moved down the stage to another group of horny men.
"So, what do you boys call yourselves?" she purred as she placed her hands on the table and leaned forward suggestively.
"Im Bud," Belmont said ogling her cleavage and waved absently at his two buddies as he introduced them. "Thats Randy and Joe."
"Mmmm," she nodded as she met each mans eyes as they were introduced and let loose the full power of her magnetic personality. "Im Candice. But my friends call me Candy since Im so sweet," she said waggling her eyebrows suggestively.
"I bet you are!" Hixson stated enthusiastically nodding.
"Why dont we go somewhere and you can find out just how sweet?" she suggested giving him a coquettish look.
"Hey! What about us?" Randy bristled when the raven-haired beauty turned her charms from him to focus on Hixson.
"Oh, didnt I say you could come too?" Ash asked, making her eyes go wide.
The three men stared at her and then glanced at each other. They all began grinning and stood.
"Lead the way, Candy, I believe me and the boys can show you a good time," Belmont leered sure of his own prowess.
"Oh, Im sure you can," Ash purred as she turned and gave them a come hither look over her shoulder.
They scrambled to follow her out of the club. Ashs eyes narrowed in anticipation and a feral grin touched her full lips as she led the unwitting slobs out the door.
Ash sensed Lu to the left standing silently waiting in the shadows of a doorway. She turned in that direction and gave Lu a jaunty wink as she called over shoulder. "Come on, boys, I cant wait much longer!"
She strode past Lu and heard the men stumbling after her. When she cleared Lus hiding place she whirled with a spinning kick that connected to the side of Hixsons head with a solid thunk. He fell bonelessly to the ground and before the other two could react Ash was on them.
Ash sent a roundhouse kick towards Belmont and felt the adrenaline surge through her in a wave of pleasure. Belmont threw up his hands defensively and managed to deflect the first kick but not the follow up. He spun with the impact and slammed up against the wall. Ash saw Lu step up behind the stunned Sullivan and pull his arms back in a wristlock and swept his feet out from under him. She knelt on his back and calmly cuffed him.
She turned her back on Lu seeing she had things well in hand when she heard Belmont roar and charge.
A small laugh passed her lips as she easily dodged his wildly flying fists. She step inside his reach and dealt him a few well-placed punches. He staggered back from the assault and she lazily sent her foot out in an arch to connect with his temple and send him to sleep. "Nighty-night," she said cheerfully as she watched his eyes roll back in his head and slump to the ground.
A gunshot shattered the night air. Ashs eyes widened in surprise and she spun. She watched as Lu slowly crumpled to the ground in what felt like slow motion with a brown haired unshaven man standing over her with a satisfied grin.
"LU!" she roared and felt the rage descend. Her vision tunneled to the man standing over her friend and a red haze covered her eyes as she felt herself begin to move.
Four hundred miles away Lauren sat bolt upright in bed her heart pounding with foreboding and terror. "Ash!" she wailed into the night.
CONTINUED IN PART 8