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She prowled around the office like a restless panther, hands clasped behind her back. Dr. Joyce Bane watched in annoyed fascination. "So, do you wish to tell me what has you so keyed up today?" she asked her new patient. Braxton Crowley had only been coming to her officer for the past four months.
The blonde made one more lap around the plush office, then sat heavily in the leather recliner, her slight weight creaking. "I’m not keyed up."
"No?" Joyce glanced at her watch. "You’ve been pacing my office for the past fifteen of the eighteen minutes you’ve been here. Wish to share?"
Braxton sat for a moment, unsure how to answer that. She found herself absently picking at the paint that had dried in the cracks of her hands. She stopped with an apologetic smile when she caught Dr. Bane watching the paint flecks fall to the thick carpeting. "There’s something that happened to me when I was younger, back in college, that I haven’t told you about. I think it might be important."
"Alright," Joyce said, uncrossing her elegant legs only to re-cross with the other. "Does this have to do with Alec?"
Braxton smiled and shook her head. "Amazingly enough, no. However," she raised a finger, "this did start a chain of events that led me to Alec. Does that count?"
Joyce chuckled, readjusting her glasses. "Sure."
"Alright. Anyway, I was at the school today, working on the flats, getting the set ready for the production they’re getting ready to do. Lugged all my third-year students down to help out. I turn around, and I see this woman," Braxton grabbed the aged sketchpad she’d brought with her, flipping it open to a drawing she’d done eight years before.
Joyce accepted the sketchpad, looking over the black and gray images. The picture showed the face of a beautiful woman, features seemingly sculpted from the statue of a goddess. Her eyes were light in color and filled with an intensity that jumped out at the viewer. Behind and around her were rows of tombstones and menacing-looking forests, their skeleton arms reaching up to a stormy sky.
"Exquisite work, Braxton," she said. "What does it all mean?"
"Thank you. And that’s where my story begins." Braxton took a deep breath, readying herself for the full story she’d never told anyone else. "I was in a terrible car accident when I was twenty-one. Last day of my junior year." She told her therapist about the events that led up to the tragedy, the older woman listening impassively. "Anyway, so I’m in this coma for three months, but for me, it was a crazy adventure."
Joyce listened, doing her best not to scribble down every word the petit blonde had to say in her notes for Braxton’s case. She listened to a world filled with adventure, wild horse rides, a cemetery never-ending, and a fight for her very soul. "Tell me more about this Marcus character."
"What do you want to know? He represented every evil I was afraid of in my life, which was a lot at that time. Ultimately, it all boiled down to my father. I was having horrible nightmares, but then once Fletcher was dead," Braxton shrugged, "they stopped."
"You refer to your father as Fletcher. Why?"
"Because that’s who he is: Fletcher Crowley. Nothing more."
"Alright. So, back then to your sketch." Joyce tapped the pad still on her lap. "Are these images from your dream?"
Braxton nodded. "That’s Asima. She was my guide. She came to me in dreams for a long time." Braxton’s voice was almost wistful. Her guide had become a nocturnal guard and protector, keeping all her bad dreams away for many years.
"But not anymore?"
"No. She stopped coming after Grace was born."
"Why do you think that happened?"
"I really don’t know." Braxton shook her head with a small sigh and a sheepish smile. "I do miss her, though. She was so comforting to me."
"Did you always dream about her once you woke up from your coma?" Joyce flipped the sketchpad closed and handed it across the short distance to her patient.
Braxton took the pad, hugging it to her chest with both arms. "No. It was a gradual thing. I think she was there the entire time, but I didn’t realize it."
Confused, Joyce pulled off her glasses, absently cleaning them with a tissue. "Something from all this has you rattled today, then?"
"Yeah," Braxton said in a burst of laughter. "I saw Asima on stage at the college!" She laughed again at the unusual break in Joyce Bane’s expression. "I know. Trust me, I know." She shook her head to try and get the image out of her mind. "I think I’ve had a few too many paint fumes over the past week." She was up and pacing again.
"Perhaps it was someone who looked remarkably like your dream figure?" Joyce suggested, following Braxton’s progress with the turn of her head. "Someone you actually knew in your life prior to your accident and incorporated into your dream world?"
Braxton stopped, looking out the window into the early afternoon. An image came before her eyes, one that she hadn’t thought of in many years. "Maybe," she said murmured.
Braxton listened absently to the chatter of the four year old who held onto her hand as they made their way outside of the childcare facility. Years of practice had taught her when and where to ohh and ahh, even as her mind somersaulted around other thoughts.
"Mamma, can we get a happy meal for dinner?" the dark-haired child asked.
Braxton looked down into the hopeful green eyes, the exact same color as her own, and smiled. "You got it, sweetie." She gave the small hand within her own a loving squeeze, then helped her daughter into the child seat that had grown with her, a baby shower gift four years before.
Everyone loaded safe and sound into the Pathfinder, Braxton got them on their way. As she drove, she reached back and pulled the hair tie out of her long, blonde hair, shaking the strands free from their day of confinement.
"Mamma?" Grace called from the backseat.
"Yeah?" Braxton met her daughter’s gaze in the rearview mirror. "Can we color when we get home?"
Braxton smiled, nodding. "Of course we can, sweetheart." Her child was already proving to be quite the little artist, which put a smile in her mother’s heart.
The moment Braxton had arrived in New York City, looking up at the huge buildings and the crazy busy traffic, she knew she’d found somewhere different, somewhere she could grow and eventually fly. She’d taken to her new school like a duck to water, and had excelled in the program. She’d been offered a position at NYU right after graduation with her masters, and she’d taken it, working on her doctorate in Art Studies while she taught undergrads.
Five wonderful years of education later, she’d become Dr. Braxton Crowley, and mother of Grace Lindsey Crowley. She thought back to the days when she’d met Grace’s father, Alec Robecheck. They’d met during her first day of the program, he a fellow student. Alec’s dark good looks and amusing take on life had caught her attention, and they’d become instant friends. It had helped soothe her loneliness, and for awhile had helped to fill the void that not having Jared nearby had left.
After almost three years of friendship, Braxton found herself and Alec becoming closer and closer until one day he asked her to go out with him. For reasons that made no sense to her now, and not much more sense then, she’d agreed. It made no sense at all, considering she’d turned down innumerable date invites from guys since day one at in the program. She’d even had one of her professors ask her out for coffee. When she really thought about it, she figured it just boiled down to needing that connection, that one person who knew her better than anyone, which Alec did.
Their dates weren’t a whole lot different than when they’d just hung out, except it had added a new dimension to their relationship that had never been there before: nerves. Braxton remembered well that night, up in Alec’s apartment he shared with three other guys. The stars had aligned, or conspired, and all three of his roommates were out for the night. The two were curled up on Alec’s old, avocado-green couch munching on popcorn and watching movies when Alec had kissed her. Though they’d been ‘dating’ for nearly a year, it was the first time either of them had initiated any sort of intimate or sexual act.
At first, Braxton’s own nervousness and innate realization of how crazy it all was, wanted to laugh at the gesture, but the part of her that had been celibate for more than three years cried to be touched. She kissed him back, and before either of them knew it, Alec was grunting with one more thrust as he came, then fell limply on top of Braxton.
For a long moment they were both too shocked to move, then finally he got up, shyly pulling his clothes on and handing Braxton hers. Not long after Braxton had gone home, mixed feelings bringing her to tears in the tiny stall that was her shower in the seemingly tinier studio apartment she rented. Two days later they’d cried together when Alec told her he realized he was gay, and couldn’t "do this" anymore. Both relieved and angry, Braxton had held him and let him talk.
Together they strived to keep their closeness as friends, and let the fact that they’d had sex draw them closer rather than tear them apart. That had been the case until two months later when she’d gotten the shock of her life. Alec took the news of their impending child better than she did. Her first thought was to abort it. She still had more schooling, and had absolutely no idea how to raise a child. She did not want to replay the sins of her own parents, and was terrified that she would. Ultimately, Alec had talked her out of the abortion, something for which Braxton would grateful the rest of her life. She wept and fell in love during the first ultrasound, when her child was not much more than a spec on the radar.
"Mamma?" Grace called from the backseat, pulling Braxton out of her reverie. "The lady’s talking to you."
Confused, Braxton looked around, then at the speaker next to her open window, where undoubtedly an impatient teenager waited to take her order. "Oh, sorry." She quickly ordered their dinner then collected it at the second window.
"Grace, run upstairs and put your backpack away, then come back and eat," Braxton instructed as they entered the small, but nice three bedroom two-story she’d bought six months ago when they’d arrived in California. Her daughter raced up the stairs, pink and blue backpack in hand, which contained all her coloring books, crayons and Dora the Explorer play kits that she took with her to daycare everyday.
Braxton kicked off her shoes and padded around the first level of the house, taking their dinner to the kitchen and spreading it out over the small, oak round table she’d brought with her from their apartment in New York. Though she’d been sorry to leave the City, she had to say, having their very own house was worth the move across the country in itself!
Grace raced down the stairs, reaching the kitchen in record time. She climbed onto her chair, immediately snagging a fry before starting in on her cheeseburger- no pickles, extra onions. Braxton had never understood her daughter’s love of the fragrant vegetable, but just hoped she outgrew it before she started dating. In twenty years.
After a long evening of drawing pictures for Grace to color, Braxton was glad to have a little time alone, her daughter long ago bathed and read to sleep. She sat in the living room, a cup of coffee in her hand as she watched the evening news. Well, that is, the TV was on, but she wasn’t doing much watching.
Instead, her mind raced back to earlier in the day and the moment she’d seen those piercing blue eyes staring back at her. She thought she had, anyway. She remembered finishing up her painting on the flat, then turning to see her students, and some of the actors and crew gathering around the chariot prop. On the far side had stood a tall woman with long, dark hair, her sky-blue eyes in direct contrast with the color. They’d shared a look for a moment, and then a group of tall, male students had gathered, severing the connection.
Braxton had hurried over to where she’d seen the woman standing, only to find nothing. Had she imagined it? Had it been someone who had just happened to look exactly like her guide? Or, was Dr. Bane right, and perhaps Asima had been created from someone Braxton had seen in her life before the accident, and this woman either looked like her, or had been her?
"Maybe I’m just going crazy," she muttered, sipping from the steaming brew. The other possibility teased her brain, but she knew that couldn’t be it. The day she realized that Becca Steiner had been a dead ringer for Asima, just with lighter hair, Braxton had gasped in shock. She hadn’t seen her old roommate since the morning after…. Well, since the morning after. She had done what she could to erase those events, and the woman from her mind. Once upon a time it had hurt too much to allow Becca back into her thoughts. Then, after awhile, she’d just drifted away, seeming to be from another lifetime.
Eyes briefly watching a story on yet another bombing in a distant and strange land, Braxton clicked off the television and returned to her thoughts, turning so she reclined on the couch, cup resting on her stomach. She stared up at the slowly turning blades of the ceiling fan. One thing she did miss about New York, and even Colorado, for that matter, was snow. Maybe next winter she’d take Grace back to visit friends.
Or, she thought with a bright smile, maybe they’d go and visit Jared and Karen. The couple had married six years ago. Braxton had been Jared’s "Best Woman". She had felt beyond strange heading a row of tuxedo-clad men, her best friend looking gorgeous in his own tux.
Jared hadn’t seen Grace since the baptism ceremony where he became her Godfather. He was busy working as an administrator in Karen’s hospital, where she was still an ICU nurse. Braxton always lamented the fact that they had no children for her to spoil, as they spoiled Grace. The little girl was constantly getting presents in the mail from her "Uncle Jared".
Her smile faded as yet again Becca came to her mind. She’d asked Jared about her exactly once. He’d told her that their old roommate hadn’t been seen around town, but that Carrie had run into Becca’s aunt. Barbara had told her that Becca was doing well, and had gone into business with her brother. Short and sweet. Barbara hadn’t told her where, or what kind of business they were in.
She couldn’t help but wonder where Becca had landed, and how much she’d managed to reconcile with her family. Obviously things had gone well with one of her brothers. Braxton allowed herself to think of that final night they’d spent together. If she thought hard enough, she could still feel Becca’s hands on her. Could see the beautiful blue eyes as they’d looked into hers, holding her gaze as they’d made love. Other than the quickie with Alec on the couch, Braxton hadn’t been touched by anyone else.
She was surprised to feel her body start to burn low in her belly. It was a relatively foreign feeling for her. She indulged occasionally in a little self-exploration, but usually between her full-time teaching position and Grace, she was far too tired to consider sex. She was happy that way, blocking it out of her mind. Grace was her life, now. Anything else could wait.
The wet heat that was beginning to gather between her thighs told a different story. Braxton groaned, her sex clenching with memory of being touched. She set her coffee cup on the coffee table, then rested her hand in its place. The material of her shirt was still warm from the hot mug. Braxton closed her eyes, clenching her thighs together, trying to squeeze the need away.
A low groan escaped as her body betrayed her. Her clit began to pulse as blood gathered, demanding attention. Almost as though of their own accord, her hand slid down the flat planes of her belly, the rough material of her jeans meeting her fingertips. Through the haze of memory she could feel the gentle, yet firm touch of fingers between her legs. She groaned as she slid her hand underneath the waistband of her jeans. Thick heat met her fingers. Her breath caught as a finger of pleasure raced up her spine. She could feel Becca’s own wetness against her thigh as she’d ridden Braxton’s leg, all the while stroking the blonde.
Braxton’s thighs parted slightly, almost to make room for her ghost lover. She found her clit, hard and almost painfully swollen. She stroked it with rapid, firm strokes, matching that of her memory. Her hips began to move with her hand, her pleasure rising, head pushing back into the pillow beneath it. With a gasp and final shudder, she forced her body over the edge, her orgasm devastating in its intensity.
Panting softly, Braxton tried to get her body back under control, a hand raising to cover her eyes. She felt a sting of loneliness behind her eyes as her heart began to calm.
"Mamma?" was called softly from the landing at the top of the stairs.
Braxton swallowed several times before answering. "Yeah, honey?" she called back.
"I need a drink of water."
Braxton sighed, sitting up and running her hands through her hair, pushing it back away from her face. "Okay, Grace. Be there in a minute." On shaky legs, she headed to the kitchen to do her daughter’s bidding. "I’ve got Grace," she murmured. "That’s all I need."
Becca sat on the beach, watching as the waves moved in, their crests painted with moonlight. It truly was beautiful, but she couldn’t see it’s beauty. All she could see was Braxton. It had been eight years, but it didn’t matter. It could have been forty, and she still would have known the blonde anywhere.
What the hell was she doing at UCLA? What the hell was she doing in California? It had been surreal. Becca had blinked several times to make sure she was seeing what she thought she was seeing. The visage hadn’t gone away, those green eyes still held her captive. Becca’s heart had stopped, her world stopped. When the crush of students had broken the eye contact, she’d been so grateful. She had needed to get out of there, had to escape a past that had never been reconciled.
She held the bottle of her Coke by the neck, taking a quick swig before returning her gaze to the waves. She assumed Braxton worked there, was a teacher. After all, that Michael guy kept calling her Teach. Was that true? Was Braxton teaching art at UCLA? Not likely it would be anything else.
At one time Becca would have begged for the opportunity to see Braxton again. To talk to her. Touch her. That was long ago when she’d been young and drifting through life without a goal or destination. Now, she had her business, which was extremely successful, and a basically satisfying relationship. Satisfying enough for what she wanted, anyway. It was enough. Damn it, it had to be enough!
Becca pushed to her feet, wiping the sand off the seat of her jeans. She made her way along the beach, booted feet sinking into the softness. She’d once been told that most of the san on the beach was actually petrified fish poop. She didn’t know if that was true, but found it amusing all the same.
She swung her Coke back and forth casually as she walked, looking at the millions of other foot impressions in the sand all around her. She wondered who had made those, and what had they been thinking as they had walked this same stretch. Were they happy? Were they sad? Were they confused as she was now?
Images of Jae came into Becca’s mind. Her multi-colored hair, crazy makeup and mischievous eyes. More than once the makeup artist had accused her of being too serious. Becca often wondered if that was true, and if it was, where had her humor gone?
Without looking a the clock on her cell phone, Becca knew it was close to ten p.m., and she was exhausted. Another long day and little sleep the night before, she was ready to crash. Jae was gone on set for a film in Montana, and would be gone for the next fifteen to twenty days until the production moved back to California and the sound stages.. She would be missed, but at the same time, Becca was glad to have some time to herself. Those breaks, when Jae was away, was probably the only way their relationship had survived thus far. They were so different. More than once Becca had wondered who she’d ended up with the energetic makeup artist in the first place.
Becca ran a hand through her hair, chuckling to herself at what she’d allowed Jae to do to her over the last couple years. It was a good thing she wasn’t in a job where a hair dress code was required. The only thing she’d not allow Jae to do was cut or style her hair. She’d had blue hair, green, pink stripes, and now nearly black hair. Out of all the crazy concoctions, Becca had to admit she liked it the best. Looked great with her eyes.
The house was dark when Becca arrived, which was nice. She craved solitude. She let herself in through the kitchen and tossed her keys onto the counter, along with her cell phone. She headed straight for the bathroom, needing a shower after a long day of lifting and moving heavy props, and climbing the numerous ladders in the warehouse like a monkey.
Padding around in boxers and a tank top, Becca ran her hands down the wet rope that was her hair, tugging it over one shoulder as she headed back into the kitchen. She was craving iced tea. The shower had woken her up a bit, so she decided to catch some TV before crashing.
Remote control in hand, Becca eased down onto the couch, but her eye caught the bookcase that stood sentinel in the corner of the room, next to the sliding glass doors that led out to the back patio. She saw the three large albums that were lined up along the bottom shelf. Pushing up from the soft cushions, she walked over and squatted, taking the first album into her hands. She looked at its face, white plastic with gold edging. She knew what lay within and decided to indulge.
Sitting cross-legged on the couch, Becca opened the cover, the plastic creaking slightly. An instant smile came to her face when snapshots of her family grinned back up at her, taken a long, long time ago. Before the accident. Grabbing a handful of pages, she flipped them over, wanting to get past those happier, yet painful times with her family. Instead, she wanted to see the pictures taken during her time living with the roommates.
Becca laughed out loud when she saw the picture of Jared splayed out over the living room floor, passed out after a party. Carrie and Lydia had decorated him with shaving cream while Becca had snapped the picture and Braxton had stood back laughing.
The years melted away as she looked into the youthful faces of her ex-roomies. So much hope for the future shone in their eyes. She hoped they got the futures they wanted. She hadn’t spoken to or heard about any of them since she left town. Aunt Barbie had told her that Carrie had asked about her one time, but other than that, she had shelved it in her memory and heart as another time in her life.
She turned yet another page and stopped. Calm fingers lifted the clear, plastic covering and removed the snapshot beneath, bringing it closer for her inspection. Braxton was looking back at her. Short, blonde hair was sticking up all over her head, as she’d been caught right after she’d woken. The look on Braxton’s face was curious annoyance. Her eyes were so clear, the color beautiful. Like a spring day. Becca smiled when she noticed that one of the dark blonde brows was lifted slightly in question.
Becca brought two fingers up, stroking the smooth face of the picture, wishing she could caress the face in the image.
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