Lauren groaned in frustration as she threw back the covers and sat up. She cradled her head in her hands and tried to dispel the lingering feeling of something being seriously wrong with Ash. It was just a bad dream! Thats all. Youre missing her and your mind is conjuring all kinds of dire things because of her being evasive about what shes doing in Spokane. Her stomach knotted in anxiety. The conversation with Ash before she had gone to sleep had disturbed her. What are you trying to hide from me, love? She had a feeling she knew what Lu did for a living. She was a bounty hunter and the problem Ash went to help her with had something to do with that and was therefore potentially dangerous. Her fear rose renewed at the idea that Ash could have gotten hurt. Images of Ash lying hurt somewhere flashed through her mind with horrifying detail. She swallowed the lump of dread and rocked gently backed and forth, trying to dispel the sudden panic that had shot through her.
Deciding she needed to do something, anything, but lie here in the dark and let her mind create even worse scenarios, she rolled out of bed, knowing that sleep would not be returning this night. She stretched and wearily flipped on the bedside lamp, squinting at the sudden brightness. She glanced at the clock and saw it was 3 a.m. Her sense of foreboding hadnt lessened at all since she had first awakened at a little before midnight. She hugged herself tightly and rubbed her arms trying to alleviate the sudden chill that coursed through her.
Maybe, I should just call her. Her heart began to race hopefully at the thought. No! Its 3 a.m. for gods sake! Shes probably sound asleep and will think youve totally lost your mind if you call telling her you had a bad dream and woke with a feeling something was wrong and wanted to make sure shes okay. She shook her head and began to pace in agitation. Her mind flinging logic at her, but her heart crying out that she was right and something was wrong and she should call.
"I know somethings happened!" she argued vehemently coming to a halt to glare at the phone. "I just need to know that shes all right. Shell understand that." She reached out for the phone and noticed that her hand was trembling. She quickly drew it back and hugged herself tightly trying desperately to comfort herself. She closed her eyes and felt the wave of dread wash over her again and the tears rise and start to fall. "Oh gods!" she cried as her eyes snapped opened. She didnt want to see what her imagination was conjuring. "Whats happened, Ash? Please be all right! I I dont know what Ill do if youre not!"
She sank to the bed and cried in anguish. Just call her! Then youll know. She stared at the phone and sniffled. She reached out and grabbed the phone before she could talk herself out of it and quickly dialed Ashs cell phone number.
She took a deep breath trying to obtain some semblance of calm as she pressed the receiver to her ear and listened to the rings. Her anxiety began to grow more and more acute as the phone continued to ring. Ash usually picks up by the second ring! Her mind supplied and she raised her hand to cover her mouth and stifle the anguished cry that struggled for release. The phone clicked and rang a fifth time and a mechanical voice informed Lauren she could leave a voice message to Ashs mailbox. She strived to force down the panic and calm the turmoil of emotions, so she would be able to talk in a normal voice.
"Ash? Its me, Lauren," she said her voice quavering. "I know this is going to sound crazy, but are you all right? I I had a nightmare or something and felt the need to find out that youre okay. Its after 3, so I guess youre asleep and Im just being silly. But will you please call me as soon as you get this message? I love you. Bye."
She slowly set the receiver back in its cradle and stared blankly at it for a long time. Her mind was in chaos and she couldnt shake the feeling of ill ease.
"Everythings fine. Youll see," she reassured herself, but she didnt believe it. She stood abruptly and began to pace again knowing she wouldnt be able to rest until Ash called her back and let her know she was fine. "Guess, I might as well make some coffee," she murmured heading into the kitchen. She tried to convince herself that doing ordinary things would help dispel her unease, but she knew she was fooling herself.
"Any of them dead?"
Ash slowly fell back into herself at the gruff question emanating from her lap. She slowly became aware that she was sitting on the ground with Lus head cradled in her lap. She blinked and glanced down to see Lus slightly unfocused eyes glancing around, her face creased in pain. She noticed with detachment that her hand was softly stroking Lus hair in a soothing manner. Relief that Lu was okay enough to joke crashed against her walls of isolation and slowly seeped in.
Lus eyes came up to meet dazed blue. "Hey? You kill any of them or are they just hurting?" Lu coughed and a red-hot lance of pain shot through her head.
Ash struggled to understand Lus question through the haze of detachment that always followed one of her rage blackouts. She glanced around at the bodies strewn around them and noted that they all seemed to be breathing. "No. Theyll live," she answered in a distant flat voice.
"Good," Lu groaned. She squinted her eyes and tried to overcome the searing pain in her head to focus on Ash. Her face was completely blank, but her eyes were awash with horror and guilt. Lu struggled to sit up and Ash glanced down at her movement with seeming dispassion. A blinding pain ripped through her head with a wave of nausea at the attempt. She sank back down and closed her eyes.
"You shouldnt try to move, Lu. I think you have a concussion," Ash stated in a monotone.
"Thanks for the update," Lu growled as she raised a trembling hand to rub her forehead. "What the hell happened?"
Ashs mind whirled as she tried to remember. "I came out of the club with Sullivan, Belmont and Hixson," she began frowning in concentration. "I took out Hixson and was working on Belmont when I saw you had Sullivan under control and were in the process of cuffing him. I turned and finished Belmont off and heard " Her mind flashed to the sound of the gunshot and her entire body stiffened in reaction. She felt her calm indifference begin to crumble as images of turning and seeing Lu slump to the ground flickered across her minds eye in vivid clarity. "Oh gods! Lu, Im so sorry! I didnt know there was another one. I should have spent more time checking out the scene before making my move," she berated herself as her guilt-stricken eyes fell to meet compassionate hazel.
"Ash, its not your fault," Lu stated with gentle authority. "Raul said there was only 3 of them. You had no way of knowing there was a fourth guy."
Ash shook her head in denial. "I should have looked!" she argued lost in a wave of grief and guilt. "You could have been killed, Lu! I heard a gunshot!" she frowned. "But you werent shot."
"No, I sensed the guy behind me and pulled my gun," Lu explained. "I starting to turn and that must have been when he clobbered me. I guess my gun must have discharged."
"Oh," Ash nodded in understanding.
"Do you remember what happened after I went down?" Lu asked. Ashs face paled and a look of self-loathing overtook her chiseled features. "You blanked?" Lu stated knowingly. Ash nodded numbly. Lu sighed and slowly began to sit up.
"What are you doing?" Ash questioned quietly.
"Im getting up. What does it look like?" Lu growled as she concentrated on sitting up, fighting down the dizziness and searing pain.
"I think you need to go to the hospital," Ash commented as she moved out of Lus way but hovered nearby in case Lu needed her.
"Im fine!" Lu retorted. "Besides, we need to get this mess cleaned up. You got your phone on you?" Ash held it out. "Thanks. Im going to call Branigan and have him come sweep up this mess," Lu informed her as she grimaced and began to dial the phone.
Ash sat back and idly listened to Lu talk with the cops. She was feeling completely off balance and had an overwhelming sense of shame for allowing Lu to get hurt. You should have seen that guy! You are slipping, Gray. What would you have told Sheila if you had allowed Lu to get killed? Gee, sorry about that Sheila, I didnt see the guy! She admonished herself sarcastically. She glanced around when one of the men moaned. Her gaze focused on him and she noted it was Belmont. He was moaning and beginning to move lethargically. Her eyes narrowed in speculation, but after a brief exam dismissed him as harmless. She turned her head looking for the man that had hurt Lu. She felt the bile rise as her eyes settled on his beaten body. She had obviously beaten him to within an inch of his life in her rage. His left arm was bent the wrong way at the elbow and his clothes were torn and soiled like he had been repeatedly thrown to the ground. Her eyes traveled up to his face and her eyes widened in horror at the proof of her rage. His face was completely coated in blood. His eyes were swollen shut and it appeared his nose and probably his jaw were broken. She swallowed convulsively in revulsion and glanced quickly to his chest to make sure he was breathing. His chest moved feebly up and down and she heard a faint gurgling in his breath.
Lu glanced up from the phone at her name and looked at Ash. Ashs face had gone blank again as her eyes stared at something behind and slightly to the left of Lu. She glanced that direction and saw the man who had jumped her. He was looking the worse for the experience. "Yeah?" Lu asked turning with a dismissive shrug.
"Tell Branigan to send an ambulance," Ash intoned in a flat voice. "I think that guy," she nodded towards the body behind Lu. "May have a punctured lung."
Lus eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Sure, Ill tell him," Lu said and reached out to gently pat Ash on the knee. Ash stiffened at the contact and quickly stood. Lu sat back in surprise as Ash stalked away. She kept a watchful eye on her as she returned her attention to the phone.
Ash strode down the sidewalk needing to get some distance from the harsh reality of what her rage could do. She clenched her fists and fought down the urge to flee. She wanted to just keep walking and not look back. Leave it all behind and forget it ever happened. But she couldnt. Lu needed her here and she couldnt abandon her. She stopped and ran her hands through her hair in frustration. She glared down at the cracked pavement under her feet and tried to sort through the conflicting emotions flooding her senses. She knew what her rage was capable of. She had seen it enough in the past, but this time it was different. She scowled and focused her mind to analyzing why.
Lauren. Her mind supplied and a wave of shame and fear washed over her.
Oh gods! How am I going to face her? Her mind conjured up an image of Laurens kind, gentle face smiling at her lovingly and she swallowed the rise of tears that threatened. How can I go back and tell her that I almost beat someone to death? That I allowed Lu to get hurt and it was because of my own carelessness. I was so wrapped up with being on the hunt again that my pride almost cost me Lus life! She berated herself scornfully. A thought flashed through her mind bringing her rant to an abrupt halt. Her eyes widened in fear of the possibilities. Oh shit, she moaned in heart wrenching apprehension. I cant control my rage. It got away from me and I could have killed someone! What if what if it overtakes me when Im with Lauren and I hurt her? The idea rocked her to the core. NO! I would never hurt her! She swore vehemently.
But what if you do without realizing it?
She felt her knees weaken and locked her legs to keep upright. I I wouldnt. I couldnt! She pleaded with herself.
You could. Youre not aware what happens when it overtakes you, her inner voice stated in cold logic. NO! I I wont let it! She vowed clenching her fists.
How? The voice asked reasonably.
Her shoulders slumped and she lowered her head in defeat. I I wont see her again, she answered feeling her heart constrict painfully. Ill walk away and then I wont have to worry about lashing out at her.
Mmmm, that may be for the best, the voice agreed solemnly.
"Hey Ash!" Lu called as she flipped the phone closed. Ash turned her shoulders slumped in defeat and raised her eyes to meet Lus. Lu bit back a gasp at the soul rending devastation apparent in those blue eyes. Lu fought down the growing panic and fear for her friend. She had seen her depressed and in dark moods before, but the azure eyes that met hers were now totally devoid of the fire of life. They gazed at her with the weary acceptance that she was just biding time her on earth before death would bring its welcome release. "Branigan is on his way with some uniforms and a meat wagon." Ash nodded minutely and walked over to Lu. Lu noted that her steps were heavy, like the weight of the world had come crashing down on her shoulders and the burden was beginning to be too much.
Ash leaned against the wall and crossed her arms to wait for the cops to arrive. She had time. There was no longer any place she needed to be and her hearts screams of loss and grief echoed in her mind.
Lu sat quietly waiting for Branigan to arrive and take the men into custody. Ashs total withdrawal and apathy spooked her. She knew Ash blamed herself for what happened. She always took responsibility when things went wrong whether it was her fault or not. Lu had seen it before, but she had never seen Ash look so defeated and without hope. What the hell are you thinking? She asked Ash silently as she furtively watched her out of the corner of her eye. What demons have you let loose to torment you? I have a sinking feeling that this has less to do with what you did to that scumbag and more to do with Lauren. I bet youre terrified of what shes going to think when you tell her. Lu rubbed her aching head as a thought slipped into her mind. No! Please tell me youre not going to be that stupid! Youre not going to run are you, Ash? She raised her head and studied the beautiful chiseled features of a woman in torment. She noted the slumped shoulders and the dull eyes and knew that she was correct in her assumption. Oh no! Im not going to let you do that to yourself! Or Lauren! She swore as she heard sirens and turned her head painfully to glance down the street. Two police cars and an ambulance were making there way towards them. She sighed in relief and felt a wave of dizziness overtake her. She struggled to fight the encroaching darkness but to not avail.
Ash saw the authorities coming and Lu begin to collapse. She rushed over to her and deftly caught her before she did more damage to her head by slamming it on the pavement. She gently laid her down and went to talk to the officers that were stepping out of their cars.
Ash paced the waiting room of the ER restlessly as she waited for news on Lus condition. She had spoken to Branigan and when he saw Lus condition he had ordered the paramedics to check her out first. They had hurried to do his bidding and he had ordered his men to arrest the already restrained group lying haphazardly on the sidewalk. He asked Ash what had happened and she gave him a brief emotionless synopsis of events. He had studied her for a moment and then nodded. He informed her she could come by the station to pick up Lus body receipt and then he had left. Ash had hurried to Lus jeep and followed the ambulance with her unconscious friend here. She had given the nurse Lus information and had been left to wait and fret for the past 4 1/2 hours.
"Anyone here for Lucinda Darkcloud?"
Ash spun around and advanced on the doctor with intent. His eyes widened as the statuesque beauty stalked towards him with wild eyes in a face devoid of emotion.
"How is she?" Ash demanded in a cold voice.
"Shes she has a hairline fracture at the base of her skull," the doctor stuttered taking a step back from the menacing woman. "We did a CAT scan and everything looks okay, but we want to keep her overnight for observation."
"Umm, 312 I believe."
"Thank you," she said as she spun on her heel heading for the elevators.
The doctor sighed in relief as the dark, intimidating woman retreated. He shook off the lingering aura of menace the exquisite and imposing woman had left in her wake. He turned and made his way quickly back into the haven of the ER.
I need to call Sheila and let her know what happened. Ash thought as she waited for the elevator to arrive. She pulled out her phone and frowned when she realized she must have turned it off inadvertently. She hit the power button with her thumb and saw the mailbox icon lit as the display came up. Her eyebrow rose in surprise. Now who would be calling me in the middle of the night? She dialed her voice box and went through the motions of retrieving the messages as the elevator dinged and the doors slid slowly open. She stepped into the elevator and pressed 3 for the third floor. She leaned against the back wall and brought her phone to her ear to hear her messages.
"You have one unheard message left at 3:07 a.m.," the mechanical female voice informed her and then Laurens quavering voice came on. Ashs legs buckled and she slid unceremoniously to the ground as Laurens glorious voice pierced her aching heart. She choked back a sob as Lauren told her she had woken up afraid something had happened to her and to please call her to assure her she was all right. Ash dimly heard the mechanical voice come back on asking her if she wanted to save the message. She fumbled, blinded by unshed tears, to hit save and then the phone clattered to the floor as it fell from nerveless fingers. She pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them tightly as she lowered her head to rest on her knees as gut wrenching sobs ripped through her.
Ash had no idea how long she had sat lost in her stupor of despair. She rubbed her eyes angry at her show of weakness. She pushed herself up and gazed numbly around the elevator. She spotted her phone and bent to retrieve it. She glanced at the display and saw with amazement that it was almost 6 a.m. She input Lus number and leaned forward to press the 3rd floor button. She absently watched the floor indicator light as she waited for Sheila to answer the phone.
"Hello?" a sleepy voice asked.
"Sheila. Its me, Ash," Ash said trying to sound reassuring and calm.
"Ash? What time is it? Why are you calling?" Sheila asked trying to wake up. "Wheres Lu?"
Ash opened her mouth to answer, but nothing came out.
"Ash? Has something happened? Is Lu all right?" Sheila implored her voice beginning to rise in concern.
"Sheila, listen to me," Ash finally managed to say. "Lu is in the hospital."
"Oh god!" Sheila moaned.
"Shes going to be fine, Sheila. She just got a knock to the head and they want to keep her overnight for observation," Ash explained as the elevator doors opened. She stepped out into the quiet antiseptic hall and looked around.
"What happened, Ash?" Sheila demanded quietly.
Ash closed her eyes and fought the wave of shame and guilt. "I missed one of them and they came up behind Lu and hit her over the head with a tire iron," she answered with bitterness.
"Ill be there in 30 minutes, Ash," Sheila stated in a deadly calm voice. "Ill get more details when I get there. What room is she in?"
"312," Ash said.
"Okay. You go sit with her and Ill be there as soon as I throw on some clothes and wake up enough to drive," Sheila said. "We need to have a little talk, Ash. So dont go disappearing on me."
"Ill be here," Ash vowed. The hope of escaping was dashed by Sheilas demand that she be present when she arrived. She had so wanted to slip out of the hospital as soon as she saw Sheila was here to keep an eye on Lu. She was wary about confronting Sheila and having to tell her how she had failed Lu. Her mind had no problem supplying her with an image of Sheilas angry and accusing face.
"Good. See you soon," Sheila stated and hung up.
Ash lowered the phone and absently closed it as she scanned the hall trying to locate Lus room number. Spotting it halfway down, she started towards it slowly. She needed to make sure Lu was all right and then then shed talk to Sheila and go home to Montana.
Lauren rubbed her burning eyes and glanced at the clock. 5:48 glared back at her mockingly. She had spent the entire night frantically pacing and willing the phone to ring. Ash still hadnt returned her call and her worry was quickly turning into outright panic. The sense of disquiet had not abated in the least in the passing hours. In fact, it had grown stronger and she felt like she was going to lose her mind if she didnt hear Ashs reassuring, low voice soon.
"I have to do something!" she asserted with passion. She tangled her hands in her mussed hair and yanked hard as she tried to think of something to do. Her face brightened with hope as an idea popped into her tired mind. "Ill call Lus! Maybe Ash has turned off her phone for some reason. Ill just call Lus house and ask to speak to her and ." Her words tapered off as she realized in dismay that she didnt have Lus number. She gave her hair another couple of yanks as she struggled for an answer to the dilemma. "Benson! I bet Benson has her number!" she cried exultantly.
She ran over to her closet and rummaged through it for a pair of sweats to pull on. She yanked them on and headed for the door with a mission. Her mind finally caught up with her halfway down the hall and her steps slowed. She realized it was barely 6 a.m. and the boys were probably still sleeping. She came to a stop before their door and hesitated unsure if she should intrude.
I have to know! Ben will understand that and forgive me for waking them, she reassured herself. She raised her hand and knocked before she could talk herself out of it. She shuffled impatiently as she waited. After a few minutes had past with no answer, she scowled impatiently and pounded the door with her fist. She leaned forward to listen and heard heavy footsteps heading for the door. She swallowed in nervousness and steeled herself for the coming confrontation.
The door swung open and Laurens green eyes locked beseechingly on the surprised, sleep heavy eyes of Benson. "Irish?" he queried in sleepy surprise. "Whats wrong?" Lauren burst into tears and Benson quickly enfolded her in a comforting hug. "Hey now. Shhh. Its all right," he soothed rubbing her back.
"I Im so sorry B Ben," Lauren sobbed into his shirt.
"Irish, sweetheart, tell me whats got you so upset?" Ben asked gently as he guided her into the apartment and over to the couch.
Lauren raised her head to meet Bens concerned look. Ben noted with concern that Laurens face was puffy from lack of sleep and looked like she had been crying most of the night. His eyes met hers and he felt his heart jump into his throat at the sight. Her green eyes were awash with agonizing pain bordering on the verge of panic. He reached out and took Laurens cold hands in his and began to softly chafe them as he waited for her to explain what had brought her to his door.
"Its Ash," Lauren cried.
"Ash? What about her? Did you two have a fight?" Ben asked puzzled.
"No no we didnt have a fight," Lauren said shaking her head. "I just have this this feeling that somethings terribly wrong, Ben. I cant explain it, but shes in pain and " The sobs overtook her once more wracking her slight frame with their intensity.
Ben contemplated Irishs explanation as he tried to calm her down. "Irish?" he asked softly. She hiccupped and looked up. "Are you saying you think Ash is in trouble?
She nodded vigorously. "Yes!" she proclaimed letting out a sigh of relief that Ben understood. "I woke up just before midnight scared out of my mind that something had happened to her. I tried to convince myself that it was just a bad dream, but the feeling hasnt gone away, Ben. Its only gotten stronger and I feel like Im going to fly to pieces if I dont find out whats going on with her!"
"Okay, honey," Ben consoled. "What can I do to help?"
"Do you have Lus number?" Lauren asked hopefully.
Ben scratched his beard in thought. "I think so," he said. "I think its in my rolodex. Why dont you go wash your face and Ill go see, okay?"
Lauren graced him with a grateful smile and stood. "Thank you, Ben. Thank you for not thinking Im crazy and trying to help," she said fervently.
"I never disregard a womans intuition," he stated as he stood and gave her a brief hug. "Now lets go see if I can find that number for you."
"Okay," Lauren agreed. The panic was beginning to recede now that she was actively doing something. Her worry was still palpable, but Bens belief had done much to alleviate her anxiety.
Ben went into the office to search for Lus number and Lauren went into the bathroom to splash some water on her face. She turned on the light and met her reflection. She grimaced at the sight. Her hair was sticking up every which way and her face was blotchy from crying. Her eyes were red rimmed and stared back at her tiredly. I look a fright! Im surprised Ben even recognized me! She informed her reflection as she turned on the sink and splashed cool refreshing water on her face. Ah! Much better. Her reflection returned her satisfied grin. You dont think Im crazy do you? She asked her reflection earnestly. No, I guess you wouldnt. She grinned sheepishly. I hope and pray I am overreacting and Ash will laugh at my silliness. She told her reflection. Her reflection stared back with doubt. She sighed. I dont believe it either, but you could at least try and go along with my self-delusions! Her reflection shook its head and she gave it a wry smile and a little wave as she shut off the light and returned to the living room to wait for Ben.
Ben returned a few moments later, snapping a card between his fingers. He strode over to Lauren and held it out to her. "There you go, Irish. Why dont you give it a try?"
Lauren took the card and stared at the number. "Do you think Im being silly, Ben?" she asked in a hesitant voice.
"No, Irish, I dont." Ben stated sincerely. "Give her a call and alleviate both our worries and then Ill make you some breakfast."
"Okay," Lauren said with a small smile. She walked over to the phone and dialed the number.
It rang 3 times and then a breathless voice said, "Hello?"
"Ummm, hi. Is this the Darkcloud residence?" Lauren asked.
"Yes. May I help you?"
"Umm, this is Lauren OShea. Im a friend of Ashlin Gray and I was hoping I could speak to her?" she queried nervously.
"Oh! Lauren, Ive heard so much about you!" the rich voice enthused.
"You have?" Lauren asked perplexed.
"Yes, Ash speaks quite fondly of you. Im Sheila, Lus partner. Im afraid Ash isnt here right now and Im on my way out the door to go meet her. Did you try her cell number?"
"I tried that first, but she must have turned it off or something because shes not answering," Lauren said as relief washed over her.
"Well, Ill tell her to call you when I see her," Sheila promised.
"Is everything all right? I mean is Ash all right?" she asked hesitantly her voice no more that a whisper at the last.
Sheila thought about it before replying. "Physically shes fine. As for emotionally? Im not so sure."
"What do you mean?" Lauren asked urgently as butterflies began to flutter in her stomach.
Sheila sighed. "Lu got hurt last night. And I think Ash is blaming herself for it."
"Oh," Lauren murmured nonplussed. "Well, I better let you go so you can go see Lu."
"Okay," Sheila said puzzled by Laurens abrupt change of topic. "Ill tell Ash to call you when I see her."
"Thank you, Sheila. I hope Lus all right," Lauren said sincerely.
Sheila chuckled. "That woman of mine has a head as hard as a rock! Im sure shes already bitching to anyone who will listen thats shes fine and would they please just leave her alone!"
Lauren giggled. "Im sure shell be fine then."
"More than likely. Ill tell Ash to call you. Now, I really got to go. It was nice talking to you, Lauren. I hope we get the opportunity to meet in the near future. Bye."
"I hope so too. Bye."
Lauren hung up the phone and breathed out explosively to relieve the tension. She turned to meet Bens concern gaze and smiled.
"Seems my intuition is a little off," Lauren said ruefully.
Lauren nodded. "Guess Lu got hurt doing whatever they were doing last night and Ash is blaming herself for it."
Ben snorted. "That sounds like her! Everything and anything that went wrong while she was in charge was her fault! You would think that such an intelligent woman could grasp the concept of Murphys Law!"
Lauren laughed at the description. "Well, Sheila seems to think that Ash may be beating herself up over it," she said as a thoughtful look crossed her face. "Maybe thats what Ive been feeling. Ashs distress over what happened."
"Hmmm, could be, Irish. Now how about some breakfast?" Ben asked and was rewarded with a ravenous look from Lauren. He chuckled. "I just love an appreciative audience. How about some omelets?"
"Oooh, Ben! You are so lucky we are both gay or I may just have to marry you!" Lauren swooned as she batted her eyes at him. "Youre handsome and you can cook!"
Ben roared with laughter. "Oh Irish, honey, you definitely chose the wrong Gray to fall for!"
"What?" Lauren asked giving him a puzzled look.
"My dear cousin cant even boil water without burning it!" he announced his eyes dancing merrily.
"Oh," Lauren said and then looked at Ben with a look of doubt. "Really?"
"Really!" he confirmed as he draped his arm around her shoulders and ushered her towards the kitchen. "Why dont you take a seat and Ill regale you with the horrors of Ashs attempts at cooking!"
"Sounds good! Id love to hear about anything you have to say about my favorite subject," she enthused giving him a bright smile. She appreciated Bens attempts to distract her from worrying about Ash and the impending phone call. Oh love, please, please dont shut me out! I know youre hurting and blaming yourself. Please, let me help! She wished fervently and then focused her attention on Bens deep bass voice as he told her about Ashs misadventures in the kitchen.
Sheila peeked into the quiet hospital room. Ash was sitting with her hands folded across her stomach with her eyes closed seemingly asleep. Her hair had been pulled back haphazardly into a ponytail making the exhaustion on her sharp features evident in the subdued light. Her eyes were red rimmed and her mouth was set in a grim line. A smudge of dirt streaked her left cheek making her seem more vulnerable somehow. Her clothes were rumpled and stained and the right sleeve was torn from the seams at the shoulder to hang limply against her tanned bicep. Sheilas heart went out to her sensing the pain Lauren had told her about emanating from the somnolent woman.
Her eyes tracked to the hospital bed and the body of her sleeping lover. A tender smile crossed her lips as she gazed upon her. Lus face was relaxed in sleep making her look more like a peaceful child than a 41- year-old woman. Her hair had been braided and the braid laid across her breasts. Her eyes hard dark circles under them and a slight tension around them bespoke of the pain she was in.
Sheila quietly stepped into the room and over to Lu. She gently stroked her cheek with a fond smile. She bent at the waist and kissed her tenderly on the brow and whispered, "Youll be just fine, love. You have a hard head. Im sure you did more damage to the tire iron."
She straightened to meet wary blue eyes watching her. She smiled kindly and motioned for Ash to follow her out of the room. Ash nodded and followed silently.
"So, whats a girl got to do to get you to buy her some breakfast?" Sheila teased as she slid her arm into Ashs and looked up at her with warm smile.
"Ask, I guess," Ash replied, a small crooked grin touching her lips at Sheilas light banter.
"Well, Im asking then!" Sheila said resolutely and tugged a willing Ash down the hall. "Im starving and Id kill for a latte!"
Ash chuckled bitterly as she was forcefully reminded of Lauren by Sheilas effusive behavior. Sheila looked up at her in question at the sound of the laugh.
"Something amusing?" she asked.
"No," Ash said shaking her head. Sheila stared at her with an inquiring look until Ash looked away and elaborated. "You just reminded me of Lauren there for a minute."
"Oh? Hows that?" Sheila inquired in a purposefully light tone.
Ash shrugged her broad shoulders. "She loves food. Rachel, her best friend, calls her stomach the ravenous beast because she always seems to be hungry. Lattes are her favorite coffee beverage," Ash said with a far away look entering her eyes.
"Sounds like she and I have lots in common!" Sheila stated her face taking on an anticipatory look. "I cant wait to meet her! So, when are you going to bring her to visit?"
Ash stumbled at the question, but Sheilas arm through hers kept her from taking a header.
"You okay?" Sheila asked steadying Ash and noting the despair flicker across her face before vanishing behind the cool façade.
"Yeah. Must have tripped on something," Ash replied as she turned in a circle studying the floor intently. Knowing she wasnt going to find anything she gave Sheila a who knows? shrug and continued down the hallway.
"So, are you going to answer my question?" Sheila asked.
"What question would that be?" Ash asked evasively.
"When are you going to bring Lauren here to meet us?" Sheila asked enunciating every word for added clarity.
"Probably never," Ash answered in a quiet flat voice as she stared straight ahead.
"What?" Sheila squawked pulling Ash to an abrupt halt. "What the hell do you mean by that?"
Ashs entire body went rigid with despair and anger battling for dominance. She clenched her jaw and replied in a low, spiritless voice, "I mean that I highly doubt Lauren is going to want to have anything to do with me after last night." She pulled her arm out of Sheilas shocked grasp and stormed down the hall.
Sheila stood there stunned for a few moments by Ashs obvious misery and her total abandonment of faith in Laurens love. The memory of Laurens sweet voice asking with quiet desperation if Ash was all right hardened her resolve. She spun on her heel and hurried after Ashs retreating back with determination.
Ash abruptly turned and entered a room disappearing from view. Sheila scurried down the hall and realized Ash had ducked into the chapel. She peered through the window in the door and saw Ash sitting with her head in her hands halfway down the aisle. She eased the door open and slipped inside. She silently walked up to Ash and took the seat next to her. Ash did not acknowledge her presence.
Sheila sighed and sorted through her mind trying to think of something that she could say that would reach her. A small smile touched her lips as the perfect answer came to her.
"You know, Lauren has a beautiful voice," Sheila volleyed and waited for a reaction. She didnt have long to wait. Ash turned her head slightly and gazed at her questioningly with one azure eye. "I know because I spoke to her before I came here to the hospital." Sheila paused letting the words sink in. "Seems shes been terribly worried about you."
Ash raised her head slowly and turned to face Sheila more fully. Sheila watched as the cool façade crumbled and her anguish and inner turmoil was laid bare. Her blue eyes pleaded silently for solace. Solace that Sheila was afraid she would be unable to give.
"Wh " Ash cleared her throat and tried again. "Why is she worried?"
"Have you checked your messages recently, Ash?" Sheila asked ignoring the question.
Ash blinked and then nodded her head once.
"Did you happen to receive a somewhat frantic message from the woman you claim to love?" Sheila demanded letting a touch of anger color her tone.
Ash nodded again and ducked her head in shame. She starting wringing her hands in agitation under Sheilas disapproving gaze.
"So, why havent you called her back and reassured her youre all right?" Sheila asked and waited for an answer. When none came she continued her barrage of accusations. "The caring, young woman I talked to sounded like she deserved better from you. Dont you agree? The woman who you so avidly described at dinner last night, that you say you love more than life itself, and yet you leave her wondering what the hell is going on?" Sheila shook her head in disgust. "How could you, Ash?"
Ashs hands clenched into white knuckled fists as her eyes came up flashing with agony. "Because I dont want her to know what a monster I really am!" she howled.
Sheila leaned back and folded her arms. She waited for Ash to bring herself under control. When she decided Ash was calm enough to hear, she stated with authority, "You are not a monster, Ash."
Ash met her sincere gaze and shook her head. "Yes, Sheila, I am," she stated flatly. "You werent there. You didnt see what I did. You "
Sheila cut her off. "No, Ash, I wasnt there. But I thank God that you were," Sheila vowed fervently.
Ash blinked in shock. "What? Why?" she asked bewildered.
"Because if you werent, Lu could be dead. Not lying down the hall in a hospital bed with nothing worse than a bump on the head," Sheila stated solemnly. "I thank God you were there to make sure she came home more or less in one piece."
"But its my fault that she got hurt," Ash argued.
"No!" Sheila swore vehemently and Ash sat back at her tone. She softened her voice and continued. "No, Ash its not. Lu is a big girl. She knew the risks involved. Hell and damnation! She trained you. You should know better than anyone that she knew what she was getting into. Sometimes things just happen, Ash. Its no ones fault. No ones to blame. Its just fate or karma or whatever you want to call it."
"No buts!" Sheila admonished holding up a hand to forestall any more outbursts. "Youre not all powerful, Ash. Youre not infallible either. Youre human just like the rest of us." Sheila met her eyes and held them with her conviction. "Maybe you did make mistakes. No matter. Lus fine. Youre fine. Thats all that matters at the end of the day."
Ash leaned back and closed her eyes letting Sheilas words echo in her mind. Was it true? Did things just happen no matter what you did to prevent them? Could Lu have ended up dead if she hadnt been there? She let her mind analyze the possibilities and frowned at the answers. Yes, she could have. If she had gone after Sullivan alone she could have been seriously injured or even killed. Sheilas thankful I was there, that I was there to help Lu. Her mind processed that information and she felt the burden of guilt lift. Okay, I can accept that. But she doesnt know about the rage. Doesnt know about the monster that I become when it takes over. How can I expose Lauren to that? How can I take the chance that it will overwhelm me and I could hurt her? It would be better if I just walked away now, before she couldnt finish the statement. She knew it was already too late. Lauren loved her. But she could still protect Lauren from herself. She just needed time to work on controlling her rage. Then she could return and try and make amends.
Ash opened her eyes and looked at Sheila. "Okay, Sheila, I accept the fact that Im not responsible for Lu getting hurt," she said softly.
"And? Are you going to call Lauren?" Sheila asked giving her a stern look.
Ash let a small smile grace her lips. "Yes, Ill call her and let her know Im all right."
"Good," Sheila stated with a nod of approval. She rose from her seat and looked at her with compassion. "Youre a good and noble person, Ash. Lauren loves all of you. Dont lose faith in her even if you lose faith in yourself."
Ash nodded wanting to believe so much in what Sheila was saying that it was a physical ache in her chest. "Ill remember."
"Well, Im going to go get some breakfast and go back and sit with Lu," Sheila said as she turned to leave. "I suggest you sit here and think for awhile and then call Lauren. Dont make her wait too long, Ash. She was really worried."
Ash nodded in agreement and watched her go. The chapel door swung quietly shut behind her and Ash was left alone with her thoughts and her demons.
Lauren leaned back from the table laughing hard. "Oh, Ben! Stop! Youre going to make me sick!" Lauren gasped between laughs giving the grinning Ben a pleading look.
"Okay, Irish," Ben chuckled as he began collecting the breakfast dishes. "We wouldnt want you losing the only decent Gray meal youre likely to get for awhile!"
"You are so mean!" Lauren accused, shaking her finger at Ben.
"Who me?" Ben asked innocently.
"Yes, you! Im sure Ash could learn to cook if she just took the time to," Lauren stated, watching Ben carry the dishes into the kitchen and set them in the sink. "She seems to excel in everything else she puts her mind to!"
"Oh, believe me, Irish, its a lost cause," Ben said as he turned and leaned against the counter. "Aunt Ellie tried for years to get her interested in cooking." Ben shook his head regretfully. "No interest what-so-ever. Luckily her brother Davis was interested and was good at it too! Otherwise poor Ellie probably would have gone mad!"
Lauren giggled. "So, her brother Davis can cook?" Ben nodded grinning. "What about her other brother? Graham right?"
"Hes the dessert king!" Ben said as a look of longing crossed his face and licked his lips. "That boy is the ruin of more diets than I care to count!"
"That good, huh?" Lauren asked, giggling at Bens antics.
"Gods yes! You will have to get Ash to take you for a visit to the Manor and have one of Grahams infamous Death by Chocolate desserts!" Ben enthused as he came back to the table.
"Well, I can ask " Lauren sighed sadly.
Bens mood sobered. "Hey, Irish?" Lauren looked up to meet his eyes. "Would you like to see some pictures?"
"Pictures?" Lauren asked puzzled.
"Yes, pictures of a certain woman we both know and love," Ben offered giving her a sly wink.
"Really?" Lauren asked as a hopeful look crossed her face.
"Absolutely!" Ben confirmed. "You just wait here and Ill go see what I can find in the office."
"Okay, Ben," she smiled and sat back to wait for Ben to return. Will I ever get the chance to meet your family, Ash? Whats happened in Spokane? Lauren felt her mood dampen and the anxiety surface once more. She fervently hoped Ash would call soon.
"Okay, Irish. Lets see what we have here," Ben said as he walked back into the room, sorting through a handful of snapshots.
Lauren smiled and leaned eagerly forward. Ben took a seat and stared at one of the photos in his hand. His face took on a far away expression as the image swept him back in time.
"Ben? What are you looking at?"
"Hmm? Oh! Sorry, Irish," Ben said as he came back to himself and smiled at Lauren. He held out the photo for her to take. "This is a picture of Ash at her high school graduation." Lauren took the photo and looked at it. "Guess it just took me back there for a moment."
Lauren looked at the photo. It showed Ash wearing a cap and gown in black with one arm draped over a grinning Bens shoulders and the other holding her diploma up in triumph. It had been a sunny day and the wind ruffled Ashs long raven hair. She had a huge smile on her face and her blue eyes were alight with happiness and excitement.
"She looks so happy," Lauren said softly, raising a finger to gently brush the image of Ashs smiling face.
"Yeah. It was a great day," Ben said as he leaned forward to look at the photo in Laurens hand.
"What was she like back then?" Lauren asked looking up at Ben curious.
"She was pretty intense even then," Ben smiled as he leaned back in his chair. "Always the overachiever. Did she ever tell you that she has 3 black belts?"
Laurens eyes widened. "No. Really?"
"Yep," Ben stated smugly. "She had so much energy! Even as a kid and studying music didnt exactly wear her out! So, her dad, Harrison thought that they needed to figure out a way to help Ash blow off some of that excess energy and learn to focus. He came up with the idea of martial arts when he saw a special on TV about Bruce Lee!"
"Youre kidding!" Lauren giggled.
"Nope. The next day, he drove into town and went to the library to study everything he could get his hands on about martial arts. After his research, he went out to try and find her a teacher," Ben related in amusement.
"I take it, he succeeded?" Lauren observed as she studied the openly happy countenance of Ash.
"Oh yeah!" Ben chuckled. "She took to it like a fish to water! Thought the poor man was going to go out of his mind trying to keep up with her! Her brothers joined her for about a year, but soon lost interest when they got sick of having their sister beat them up on a regular basis!"
Lauren grinned. "I think I would have got sick of that too! Darby and I never really fought. At least not physically! And Katie was so much younger than the two of us that we just babied her."
"Well, my family is a real rough and tumble crowd!" Ben laughed with a rueful shake to his head. "Theres 5 of us and we were always scuffling! And when we came to visit at the Manor, well lets just say it wasnt for the faint of heart."
"You didnt live in the same town?" Lauren asked with interest.
"No," Ben shook his head. "My family lives in Boston. We spent every summer in Montana at Uncle Harrisons though."
"Sounds like your family is really close knit," Lauren said wistfully.
"Yeah, I guess we are," Ben said thoughtfully. "We all try to get together at least once a year, usually during the summer, but sometimes over Christmas. My aunt Bethel and her family live overseas in Wales, so its not always easy to get all of us together." Ben frowned. "We really missed Ash when she left. The family gatherings just werent the same without her."
Lauren looked up and saw the regret on Bens face. "When did she leave?" she asked softly.
"At the end of the summer she graduated," Ben sighed and gave Lauren a sad smile. "Uncle Harrison about went out of his mind! She just left a note and was gone." Ben shook his head. "My aunt and uncle tried to find her, but she covered her tracks really well. She would mail them occasional letters and later email them that she was all right. After she had been gone about 3 years, she started sending home money too."
"Why did she leave?"
Ben met curious green eyes and sighed. "I think thats for Ash to tell you, Irish. Its her story to tell."
Lauren sighed in disappoint. "Okay. How about telling me something about this Ash," she said, pointing to the smiling Ash in the photo.
Ben chuckled, "Okay. Give me a moment to think of something." Ben sat back and scratched his beard as he thought. His face brightened and he began to laugh softly.
Lauren grinned, "I take it you thought of something?"
"Oh yeah!" Ben enthused and sat forward. "Did Ash ever tell you how she told me she was gay?"
"No," Lauren said, leaning forward eagerly. "Are you going to tell me?"
"Yep!" Ben nodded. "It was the summer she graduated. We had all come for the big day and " Bens mind went back to that hot June day as he related the tale to a fascinated Lauren.
Ben stepped back and wiped the sweat from his brow. It was hot in the old tool shed that his Uncle Harrison had let him turn into a studio. He scrutinized his latest effort with a slight frown.
"Somethings missing," he murmured as he narrowed his eyes at the sculpture.
The door to the shed slammed open with a bang and Ben jumped and whirled around. His cousin, Ash came barreling in practically dancing with excitement. Her raven hair was flying wildly about her face and she was breathing hard from exertion.
"Ben! Im a lesbian!" she blurted proudly as she came up to him. Ben stared at her for about 3 seconds and then burst out laughing. "Its not funny!" she scowled.
Ben saw the scowl and his hysteria doubled. He finally had to sit down before he fell down. He saw Ash giving him a menacing look and struggled to fight back the hilarity of the situation. He held up a hand to ask her to wait and gulped in a big breath trying to regain his composure.
"Well, its about time you figured it out!" he stated smugly.
She stared at him dumbfounded. "You knew?"
He nodded, "Yep, since you hit puberty. Geez, it was pretty obvious, cuz!"
She stared at him for a few moments and then an evil grin curved her lips. "Guess it takes one to know one, huh, Ben?" she drawled as one eyebrow went up in challenge.
He stared at her in shock and then a sheepish grin surfaced. "Guess I had that one coming, huh?"
Ash smirked and then asked earnestly, "Ben, what should I do? Should I tell mom and pop?"
Ben blew out a breath as he thought. "Well, Ash, thats up to you. My folks have known about me since I was 16 and I finally realized why gym was always my favorite class!" He grinned and waggled his eyebrows suggestively. She blushed. "They took it better than I thought they would. Guess they figured the gene pool is secure with Parker, the twins and Everett still flying the straight and narrow, so they just accepted it. I try not to rub their faces in it though."
"So, is that why you decided to move to Seattle?"
"Yeah," he nodded. "Ive always wanted to live on the Pacific and plus theres a really good art school there."
"Well, I guess Ill just have to bite the bullet and tell the folks," she decided standing with a determined look.
"Umm, Ash? Have you ever um you know even kissed a girl?" Ben asked to forestall her.
"No why?" Ash asked frowning.
"Well, before you go blaring out life altering choices dont you think you oughta test the waters first?" Ben asked giving her an inquiring look.
"Test the waters?" she asked, giving him a blank look.
Benson rolled his eyes and tried again. "You know, take a girl out on a date? Hold hands, kiss, the usual."
"Oh " She had to agree that it would probably be a good idea. "So, how do I go about doing that?"
Benson grinned. "Tell ya what, I was planning on sneaking out of here tomorrow night and going to this club I know about. Wanna come along and test the waters?"
She nodded enthusiastically and they began to plan their escape.
"And? Did you guys go out?" Lauren asked impatiently.
"Yeah, we did," Ben stated quietly.
"And youll have to ask Ash for more details!" Ben grinned and ruffled Laurens hair playfully.
"You are no fun!" Lauren pouted with a grin.
"Yeah, yeah," Ben waved his hand dismissively.
Laurens brow creased in thought. "So, she came out to you and then she left home at the end of that summer?" Ben nodded. "Did she tell her parents? Did they freak out? Is that why she left?"
"No, she never told them," Ben stated. "Irish, I really dont think its my place to tell you why Ash left home. Im sure shell tell you when shes ready. To tell you the truth, I still dont really understand it myself!"
"Okay, Ben, Ill stop grilling you!" Lauren promised. "Im just so damn curious! I guess Ill just have to ask her." Her face took on a pensive look as she glanced at the phone. "Maybe when she gets back from Spokane. If she comes back."
She had said the last so softly that Ben had almost missed it. His heart constricted at the look of insecurity and pain that had replaced the good-natured cheer of a moment before. "Irish, honey, shell be back," he reassured her. She gazed up at him with sad green eyes. "She has every reason to come back."
"Does she?" Lauren whispered doubtfully.
"Yes!" Ben affirmed. "Youre here. Thats reason enough!" Ben hoped his cousin did come back for Irishs sake and her own. He had been so overjoyed to see how happy his cousin was when she was with Lauren. Lauren had revitalized her and made her more like the cousin he saw when he looked at that old graduation photo. Dont fuck this up, cuz! You need her!
Lauren sighed and nodded slowly. "I hope youre right, Ben. I dont know what Ill do if she doesnt."
"Im sure when she calls, shell tell you when shell be here," Ben stated firmly.
Laurens head shot up and her eyes widened. "Oh shit!"
"Ash is going to call!" Lauren shouted as she shot to her feet.
"Yeah, so? Why are you so upset?" Ben asked as he stood.
"Shes going to call and Im not home! She has no idea Im over here! I didnt tell Sheila where I was! I have to get home!" Lauren explained in a rush as she headed for the door.
"Im sure shell call back if she missed you," Ben offered. "Besides, you can always call her back!" he yelled to her back as she opened the door and disappeared down the hall.
Ben shook his head and sighed. You better call, cuz! That girl is so madly in love with you that it will probably kill her if you dont! And Im afraid Id have to hunt you down and kick your ass and then drag you back here so Irish can give you a few smacks!
Lauren ran into her apartment and directly to the phone. She groaned in dismay when she saw the telltale light on her answering blinking. "Oh no! I missed her!" she groaned as she slumped to the bed dejectedly. She hit the play button and waited impatiently for the machine to rewind and play back the messages.
Beep. "Lauren? I " Ashs low contralto flowed out of the machine. "I guess I must have missed you. I just wanted to let you know that Im all right ." There was a long pause and Lauren was afraid she had hung up when her voice came back on. "Lus in the hospital. She has a concussion and they wanted to keep her for observation. Im going to stay here with Sheila until Lus released "
Lauren felt the tears well up. She sounds so so emotionless! Oh gods! Why wasnt I here to talk to you? I need to talk to you. To tell you everything is going to be okay. Please, Ash! Please, let me help you! She prayed desperately as she listened to the rest of Ashs message.
" I guess I better go. Im sorry I missed you. Bye."
The machine clicked and Laurens tears began to fall. "Oh Ash!" she cried in anguish as she fell back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. She let her emotions overwhelm her and cried.
"I should call her back!" she shouted and sat up quickly. She snatched up the phone and dialed Ashs number. She felt the butterflies take flight in her stomach when the phone rang. One ring and then a click to tell her she could leave a message. She closed her eyes in defeat and blindly fumbled to hang up the phone.
Guess she wasnt waiting by the phone for my call! She covered her face and fought the wave of tears. I should have left a message! She admonished herself. But she had sounded so distant. She didnt sound like she wanted to hear from me! Didnt sound like she wanted to hear from anyone! She felt the stirrings of insecurity and doubt take hold. Maybe all this weirdness Ive been feeling is because Ash is having second thoughts. Maybe she got to Spokane and had time to think about things and decided she was nuts to think she loved me! Lauren sobbed as the idea took hold and flourished. Oh gods! This is just like when Amanda left!
The world spun away as she spiraled down into memories of a time when she had thought she had found the one to make herself complete. Then discovered how wrong she was. She moaned as fell back on the bed, trapped in heart-rending visions of the past.
The day was a scorcher in late August as Lauren hurried to reach Amandas house. She was excited and couldnt wait to see her. Today was their 3-month anniversary and Lauren had planned a romantic night out. She had made a romantic picnic dinner planned and had found the perfect spot to celebrate. She had found it by accident while riding and hoped Amanda would love it as much as she did. She glanced at her watch anxiously and realized she was going to be late. She began to jog feeling the sweat begin to trickle down her back. Hope shell let me take a shower before we go! I must look a sight!
She thought back on the last 3 months and couldnt keep the smile off her face. They had been glorious! She had met Amanda at a church function of all things! She had just moved to town and was renting one of her Uncle Thomass places. She remembered her first sight of Amanda and how her breath had caught and her heart sped up. Amanda was taller than she was by about 6 inches and had the slim build of a runner, long legs and slim hips with small perky breasts. She had been wearing white slacks that day and a burgundy sweater that brought out the red highlights in her curly brown hair. Amandas gray eyes had met her green and she had been lost. They had become instant friends and Lauren had spent every free moment with her. Amanda was 21 to her 17 and seemed very worldly and sophisticated to her. She was funny and had tons of stories about all the places she had been. Lauren would rush out of school at the final bell and run all the way to Amandas to spend time with her until she was due home for dinner.
At the end of the first month, Lauren began to realize that she felt more for Amanda then mere friendship. It took her another month to finally get up the nerve to say something to Amanda about it. She smiled at the memory. Amanda had smiled fondly and leaned over and had kissed her. The rest as they say is history!
She rounded the corner and the sight of a moving van parked in front of Amandas place caused her to slow her pace with a puzzled frown. Wonder whos moving? She scanned the other houses, but didnt see anyone around. She saw Amanda come out of her house carrying a box and felt her heart constrict. Oh god! Her mind wailed as she watched Amanda set the box into the back of the van.
She walked up slowly and asked, "Amanda? Honey, whats going on?
Amanda turned with a scowl. "What does it look like? Im moving," she stated and walked away up the drive to the house.
Lauren stood there shocked. Moving? Where? Why? Her mind whirled in confusion. Is she mad at me? Why isnt she talking to me?
"Amanda! Wait!" Lauren desperately called as she reached out to grab Amandas arm.
Amanda wrenched her arm out of Laurens grasp and turned on her with anger. "No! Im leaving, Laurie! Just let me go!" she ordered through gritted teeth.
Lauren gaped at her in shock. Amandas face was twisted in anger and her gray eyes had gone cold. Lauren searched for any sign of the woman she loved and found nothing. "But why?" Lauren pleaded. She reached out tentatively, but Amanda stepped back out of reach. "Why are you doing this? What have I done?"
Amanda sighed and shook her head in disgust. "Done? What have you done?" she asked sarcastically. "Everything is about you is that it? Heaven forbid someone does something without consulting you first! This isnt about you, Laurie! This is about me! I just have to go. Okay? This has nothing to do with you!"
Amanda turned and stalked angrily back into the house leaving a bewildered Lauren behind. Lauren frantically searched her memories, trying to come up with something that made sense. She had just seen Amanda 3 days ago and everything seemed fine. And now she was just packing up and leaving? She wasnt even going to say good-bye? I thought she loved me! What the hell is going on? Lauren felt the frustration turn to anger as Amanda came back out of the house with another box and pointedly ignored her.
Laurens temper flared and she stalked over to Amanda and spun her around to face her. "What the hell is going on?" she shouted into Amandas surprised face. "I thought we had something here. Were you just going to leave and not even bother to tell me? Dont I at least deserve a good-bye? An explanation after all weve shared?"
Amanda stared at her coldly. "Fine. Good-bye, Laurie," she stated and watched stoically as Lauren began to cry.
"Thats it?" Lauren choked back the sobs. "Just good-bye?"
Amanda nodded and turned to go, but Lauren grabbed her arm. "Let go of me, Laurie," Amanda demanded in a cold angry voice. "I dont owe you anything."
Laurens hand slipped from Amandas arm to hang loosely at her side at the words. She felt like she was dying and struggled desperately to think of something to say. "But I I love you, Amanda," she cried softly.
Amanda laughed scornfully. "Love me?" she barked. "Laurie, you dont even know what love is! Youre just a kid with a crush. Youll get over it. Now, why dont you run along home, I have things to do before I leave."
Laurens heart broke as she watched the woman she loved turn her back and walk away without a second look. Her knees started to tremble and she spun around and fled. She ran blinded by the tears that fell with Amandas condescending words echoing in her mind.
Ash frowned as she hung up the phone after leaving Lauren a message. Where is she? I thought Sheila said she was waiting to hear from me? She let the phone drop to her lap as she leaned back and closed her eyes soaking in the tranquility of the hospitals chapel.
She had spent the last hour thinking long and hard about what Sheila had said and thought she had it sorted out in her mind. One statement kept coming back to haunt her and no matter how often she brushed it aside it persisted in being heard. Dont lose faith in her even if you lose faith in yourself. Sheilas voice echoed in her mind. Her brow furrowed as she finally gave the statement her attention. Dont lose faith in her even if you lose faith in yourself. What exactly did she mean? She pondered thoughtfully. Was she talking about my past and that Lauren will understand? Maybe. She shook her head at a loss. She would have to think about it some more when shed had some sleep. Trying to think clearly about anything right now was near impossible. She felt drained both emotional and physically. She sighed and opened her eyes.
"Where would you go, Lauren?" she asked in a quiet voice, not wanting to disturb the tranquility of the chapel. "Who would you go to when youre upset?" She ran her fingers through her hair as she tried to think through the exhaustion. Finally an answer came and a small smile of triumph touched her lips.
She raised the phone and dialed. She leaned forward and rested her head tiredly on the pew in front of her as she listened to the rings. Finally on the third ring the phone was answered.
"Gray-Richards residence," Bens deep bass answered.
"Hey, Ben. Its Ash," Ash said trying not to sound as tired as she felt.
"Ash? Shit! Are you okay? Irish has been beside herself with worry! Have you called her? You better have !"
Ash grinned in wry amusement as she listened to Ben rant. She let him go on for awhile before interrupting. "Ben!" Bens diatribe slowly dribbled to a halt. "Can you let me get a word in edgewise please?"
A brief pause and then Ben said sheepishly, "Sure, cuz. Sorry about that. Its been a long morning."
"Tell me about it," Ash said dryly. "Is Lauren there?"
"No. Why?" Ben asked.
"Because I called her place and no one answered."
"Oh. OH! She was here! She only left a few minutes ago! She was afraid she was going to miss your call and ran out of here like her hair was on fire!" Ben explained.
"How is she?" Ash asked timidly, steeling herself for his answer.
"Worried sick about you!" Ben stated vehemently. "What the hell is going on, Ash? Irish showed up on my doorstep near frantic with worry over you before 6 a.m. Said she had a really bad feeling that something had happened to you and did I know Lus number since you werent answering your cell. So, you want to tell me what the hell is going on?"
"The apprehension went bad," Ash stated her voice losing all inflection. "Lu got her bell rung and ended up in the hospital. Ive been up all night here at the hospital."
"Oh shit," Ben exclaimed breathlessly. "Is she okay? Are you okay? When did this happen?"
"Shell be fine. Im fine. Sometime shortly after midnight," Ash answered in an even tone.
Silence as Ben processed the information. "Did you say, shortly after midnight?"
"Yeah. Why?" Ash asked wearily.
"Interesting. Thats when Irish said she woke up in a panic," Ben answered softly.
"What?" Ash asked sitting bolt upright in surprise.
"I said, thats when Irish said she woke up with a feeling that you were in trouble," Ben reiterated. "What do you make of that?"
"I I dont know," Ash stuttered as her mind tried to make sense of what Ben had just said. Lauren had felt that? But how? Her mind played through her memories of conversations with Lauren. One jumped out at her. She had been dropping Lauren off to go change for the show Saturday night. Her mind replayed the memory in vivid clarity, Lauren looking up at her and saying, I know this is going to sound well, crazy I guess is the best word but I feel like Ive known you forever. And then she had placed her hand over her heart and looked at her with serious green eyes and said, Here, I know you. I feel a connection between us that I dont understand. She had felt it too was still feeling it. She closed her eyes and concentrated on Lauren and felt pain anguish despair. Her eyes popped open as her heart raced wildly. Oh gods! What have I done?
"Ben, I have to go. Ill talk to you later," Ash said abruptly cutting Ben off.
"Okay," Ben said drawing the word out in confusion.
Ash leaned back and willed her heart to slow. She needed to calm down before she called Lauren. Oh, Lauren! Im so sorry! I hope you can forgive me. Her heart clenched in pain as she considered what she was going to say to Lauren. Especially after She shook her head squelching the thought. She lifted the phone and resignedly dialed Laurens number. She closed her eyes and willed herself to be calm as she listened to the rings.
"Hello?" Laurens voice said in a tear-roughened voice.
"Lauren, its me," Ash said in a quiet gentle voice. Her heart began to hammer in her chest with nervousness.
"Ash?" Lauren asked with hope in her voice. "Ash? Is that really you?"
"Yes," Ash affirmed, closing her eyes and bringing forth an image of the woman she loved.
"Oh, Ash!" Lauren cried in relief. "I was so worried! Are you okay? Is Lu okay? Sheila said something about Lu being in the hospital. Are you hurt, honey? What happened?"
Ash smiled sadly as the tears came and trailed down her cheeks as she listened to the concerned voice. Even after all that had happened, Laurens voice was like a healing balm on her jagged nerves. She felt herself begin to relax and accept the comfort Lauren was giving.
"Lauren, slow down," Ash interrupted gently.
Lauren paused. "Im sorry, honey," she apologized sheepishly.
Lauren waited for Ash to continue but realized that Ash was having a hard time explaining. "Ash? I know why you went to Spokane," she stated softly, hoping to alleviate some of Ashs obvious discomfort.
"You do?" Ash asked surprised.
"Yes. You went to help Lu capture someone, didnt you?"
"Yes," Ash confirmed, shaking her head in wonder.
"I thought so. When you wouldnt tell me about it, I figured you were worried that I wouldnt approve or some such nonsense," Lauren said. "Ash, I know you were once a bounty hunter."
"Ash! Let me finish, okay?"
"Okay," Ash whispered in a subdued voice.
"Im sure Lu had a good reason to ask for your help. From the way things turned out, it sounds like it was a good thing you were there," Lauren stated.
Ash chuckled. "You sound like Sheila."
"Well, Im sure she was glad you were there too!" Lauren asserted.
"Yeah, she was."
"So no, Im not mad at you. Get that idea right out of your head!" Lauren demanded. "I am a little disappointed that you didnt feel like you could tell me."
"I was afraid to," Ash admitted quietly.
"I I was afraid youd be upset with me. That I was going back to doing that again," Ash explained with anguish coloring her voice. "I didnt want you to think well, no matter. I guess I just didnt want you to worry. I figured it would be an easy takedown and then it would be over. Guess I was wrong, huh?"
"Yeah, I guess you were," Lauren said with a smile evident in her voice. "Im wouldnt have been upset, Ash. Terrified of the possibility of you getting hurt, yes. Upset? No. Do you want to tell me about it?"
"Uh sure just give me a few moments to get my thoughts in order," Ash replied as she pinched the bridge of her nose trying to force down the headache that was begin to pound behind her eyes.
"Take your time, love. Im not going anywhere," Lauren assured her and waited patiently for Ash to begin.
Ash reviewed the events of the previous night. She closed her eyes and began, "Lu had gotten a tip as to where Sullivan, thats the jumpers name, was going to be last night. He and a couple of his buddies were going to be at this strip club. So, Lu and I went to stake it out. Thats where we were when you called."
"I thought so," Lauren interjected softly.
"Anyways, Lu was driving me crazy with her fidgeting so I decided to go in and lure them out," Ash explained in a flat voice. "I went in and got them to follow me out where Lu was waiting. There were 3 of them. I disabled the first, Hixson right away and was working on Belmont. I saw that Lu already had Sullivan down and cuffed, so I focused on Belmont. I took him down and then " Ash heard the gunshot again and the memory of turning to see Lu fall flashed behind her closed eyes.
"Ash? Honey, what happened then?" Lauren coaxed in a gentle voice.
Ash opened her eyes and stared at the altar trying to banish the image of Lu lying there on the sidewalk. "I I heard a gunshot and turned to see Lu fall."
"She wasnt shot was she?" gasped Lauren horrified.
"No," Ash reassured her. "It was her gun that fired. Lu thinks it must have went off when the guy hit her over the head."
"Oh, thank the gods!" Lauren sighed in gratitude.
"Yeah," Ash replied softly, lost in the memory.
"Ash? What happened then?"
"I took care of the guy that had hurt Lu," Ash stated bitterly.
"Oh," Lauren murmured. She was puzzled by Ashs tone. Why wouldnt she take care of the guy? Thats what she would expect her to do. So why was Ash so upset by it? "Ash? Is there something youre not telling me?"
"No yes " Ash stated, warring with herself to just tell Lauren the truth. She rubbed her temples in frustration. She swallowed the tears that threatened to choke her as waves of regret washed over her at what she was about to say. "Lauren, last night just reminded me of some things that I thought I had left behind me. Some things that I need some time to work out. "
"What does that mean, Ash?" Lauren asked fearfully. Oh gods! Shes not coming back! Her mind screamed in panic.
Ash sighed and struggled through her exhaustion and the jackhammering pain in her head to give Lauren a coherent answer. "Just that I need to be alone for awhile. I need to take some time and figure out if " she bit off the statement at the last minute realizing what she was about to say. She didnt want Lauren to know about her rage, about her fear that she wouldnt be able to control it and would therefore never allow herself anywhere near Lauren again. Too afraid of the chance that she could turn it on the young woman that she loved.
"If what?" Lauren asked in a small voice.
"Lauren, I just need to take some time, okay?" Ash asked her words coming out sharper than she had intended.
"Okay, Ash," Lauren said meekly. Her mind began overlaying the memory of Amandas leaving and Ashs words to send her into a whirling vortex of despair.
Ash cursed herself for snapping at Lauren. She blamed the lack of sleep and stress of the past 24 hours, but knew that was no excuse. "Sweetheart, listen to me," Ash pleaded in a gentle voice. "Ive been sitting here for the past hour thinking about this and I know its something I have to do before I can come back to you."
Lauren covered her mouth to dampen the sobs as she fought to answer in an even tone, "Does that mean you wont be coming back for Halloween?"
"Oh, Lauren!" Ash cried feeling her heart ache at the pain she was causing, but not knowing how to alleviate it. "I want to be there! And Ill try to get this all sorted out before then. Thats all I can promise. Is that enough?"
"Is there something I can do to help? Maybe I could help you work through whatever it is? Please, Ash, let me help you," Lauren pleaded through her tears.
"I wish you could," Ash sighed. But I need to protect you from me! "Ill call you, okay? Im going to stay here in Spokane for a couple of days to help Sheila and Lu, then I think Ill go back to my place in Montana."
Lauren nodded numbly and then realized Ash couldnt see her nod and spoke, "Okay, Ash. If thats what you feel you have to do."
"I do, Lauren," Ash stated solemnly. She was torn between wanting to run back to the comfort of Laurens embrace and the need to protect her from her uncontrollable rage. "Im sorry. Can I call you?"
"Its okay, Ash. I understand," Lauren said, her voice going flat as the realization that Ash was probably saying good-bye and not knowing what she could say or do to stop her. Just like Amanda. "You can call me."
Laurens tone sent a stab of pain through Ashs heart. What am I doing? I should be going to her not running away! No! I cant! Not until I have a handle on this and know that I wont be endangering her by being around. Damn! She swore in helplessness and frustration at the situation. I will get this under control, Lauren! I swear as fast as I can and then Ill come back to you! "Lauren, do you still have my guitar?" Ash asked in a low voice.
"Yes," Lauren assured her sniffling.
"You keep it safe for me, okay?" Ash asked gently. Please, Lauren! Please realize this is the only way I can think of to assure you Ill be back.
Lauren let the words sink in and a small ray of hope shone down into her pit of despair. A small smile curled her lips as the meaning of Ashs words became clear. She wants me to keep it safe for her! Until she comes to retrieve it! Which means, if nothing else Ill see her again! Hope blossomed in her heart and faith in Ashs eventual return banished the lingering doubts. "I will, Ash. Ill keep it close to my heart," she promised earnestly. "Im touched by your faith in me."
Ashs eyes widened at that. Dont lose faith in her even if you lose faith in yourself, Sheilas words chimed in her mind. "You are the one thing I do have faith in," Ash whispered not realizing she had spoken aloud.
"I have faith in you too, Ash. Dont ever forget that!" Lauren answered passionately.
"I I wont. Thanks," Ash replied realizing that she must have spoken aloud and Lauren had answered.
"Ill talk to you soon?" Lauren asked with hope.
"Yes, soon," Ash affirmed.
"I love you, Ashlin," Lauren pledged fervently. "Try not to take too long."
"Ill try not to. I love you too," Ash vowed in a voice deepened by emotion.
"Bye for now," Lauren said her voice softening.
"Bye," Ash replied and slowly lowered the phone and flipped it closed. She leaned back and closed her burning eyes.
CONTINUED IN PART 9