Disclaimer: This is an original story and any resemblance to people living or dead is coincidental. There is sex between consenting adults and some reference to violence.

Special Thanks to Q for beta reading. If there are mistakes, they're my own because I didn't always follow her suggestions.

Comments and suggestions are always welcome. Send to dillonwatson@bellsouth.net

April 2006

Getting Over It


Dillon Watson



The violent clinking of wind chimes gradually filtered through Madison Norman's consciousness. Damn, the cat climbed the tree again. She groaned, tempted to use her pillow to cover her face and pretend she didn't need to leave the warm cocoon to rescue Toby. "Why can't he do this shit when Courtney's home?"

She swung her legs over the side of the bed and with her eyes still closed, felt around the thick rug with her feet. "Crap, I must have left my slippers in the living room," Madison complained. "Feet prepare to meet cold wood." Yawning, she stretched then stood up and wiped away the sleep from her eyes.

Madison opened her eyes, surprised by the darkness. "Just great! Now I get to climb a ladder in the cold and the dark." Still mumbling about being used for a scratching post, she walked in the direction of the light switch. She stopped after only a couple of steps, brought up short by the sound of running water.

Startled into instant wakefulness, her heart started hammering as she covered her mouth to keep from screaming. There isn't supposed to be anyone else in the house! On shaky legs she backed up as silently as possible, intent on getting dressed. She was halfway to the dresser when it dawned on her that being naked was the least of her problems.

Madison shivered, remembering a scene from one of the numerous cop shows she was addicted to. Shit, I need to get out now! Shaking off the paralyzing effect of panic, she ran from the room, intent on reaching the front closet. All she needed was her heavy winter coat. She would have made it to safety if someone hadn't put an obstacle in the middle of her empty hallway.

"Ow!" Madison knocked over a chair and fell to the floor with a loud thump. "What the hell is going on?" she asked, feeling as if she were losing touch with reality. "What kind of sicko breaks in and brings furniture?"

"Hey, are you okay?"

Sheer terror washed over Madison's body. She put up her arms to shield her face, not wanting to see what was coming. Run, don't get taken alive! Blinded by panic, Madison scrambled to her feet and bolted for the front door. Pain exploded behind her eyes when she ran head first into a wall. Moaning from pain mixed with despair, she grabbed her forehead. "Damn it all to hell," she sobbed, losing all hope of escape and sliding to the floor.

"Madison, please tell me that you're okay!"

That voice. That smooth as whisky voice that wrapped around me last night and kept me from drowning. No, she wanted to shout, wondering if she would ever be okay again. She gingerly touched her forehead, wincing at the tenderness of the bulging skin.

Madison heard a soft click and the room was suddenly flooded with light. She blinked, her eyes taking in the unfamiliar decor. Forcing a smile, she turned her head in the direction of the voice. As soon as she saw the woman standing across the room with only a towel covering her curvaceous figure, the events of the night before filled her senses. She closed her eyes and held her breath a couple of seconds, hoping this was all a bad dream—it wasn't.

Okay, the good news is that you're not going crazy. The bad news is that the woman you allowed to pick you up last night now thinks you are. She huffed and gave a halfhearted laugh that sounded more like a sob. "I am so sorry, Cindy, I, um..." She took a couple of slow breaths, waiting for the blood to quit coursing through her head. "By now you must think I'm crazy, but really I'm not," she said, giving a self-depreciating shrug. "At least not certifiably," she added, attempting another halfhearted laugh that fell flat.

"You had me wondering for a quick minute," Cindy responded slowly. A brief smile touched her lips, but didn't her eyes.

"I've been told I sometimes have trouble leaving the dream world behind," Madison said with what she hoped was a disarming smile. She had seen the nervous flickering of Cindy's eyes. "This was one of those times." Please don't let her call the paddy wagon! Although at the rate I'm going, I might need one.

"Okay. Would you like some coffee?"

"That would be great." Madison was sure she'd seen a flash of compassion in those soft, brown eyes. She struggled to recall what she had revealed in her alcohol-induced haze, but nothing came to mind. "Just what I need to wake me up, and at the same time dampen my overactive imagination. It can wait until you get dressed though. I...uh...wouldn't want you to catch a cold." She tried hard to keep her eyes on Cindy's face and not on the barely-covered curves that had fit so nicely in her hands the night before. As much as she hated herself for it, Madison felt the instant tightening between her thighs at the remembrance of that soft, smooth, brown skin under her hands and lips.

Before she could stop herself, Madison stood up and took a step in Cindy's direction with every intention of taking up where they left off. Wait, what am I doing? She stopped and briefly squeezed her eyes shut, fighting against her desire. I need to get dressed and get the hell out of here!

"I'm finished with the bathroom if you want to take a shower," Cindy offered, chewing on her lower lip. She had seen the look on Madison's face and it was the same one that swayed her last night.

Jerking her eyes away from Cindy's full lips, Madison said, "I can wait until I get home, but I guess I should find my clothes." She looked down at her nakedness and felt her cheeks get warm as she recalled shucking off her clothes in abandon, wanting so badly to be skin to skin. She gave Cindy a nervous smile, unsure of how to proceed. Please don't let me have made any promises last night.

"I should probably go find my clothes as well," Cindy said casting a longing look at Madison's toned body. She had hoped for a repeat of last night, but when no encouragement was forthcoming, she went to the bedroom to get dressed.

Confusion and feeling like a heel, Madison hurried after her. Biting back a nervous giggle, she gathered her clothes from around the room, sneaking a forbidden peek at Cindy sans towel. Immediately, guilt clawed at her stomach just thinking about how she'd used the other woman. Last night, feelings hurt and raw she'd deliberately gone out with the intention of getting even with Courtney. For the first time in twenty-eight years, she'd let her emotions overrule her common sense. And look where it got me.

She turned away, walking quickly to the bathroom and away from temptation. Leaning against the door, Madison gave a rueful snort as she was surrounded by the lingering scent of Cindy's perfumed soap. It was a scent her nostrils remembered so well. She shook her head, trying to get rid of the thoughts about what had happened in the adjoining bedroom.

After putting on her clothes, she walked to the sink and splashed her face with cold water. "Funny Norman, you don't look like a slut," she told her reflection through clenched teeth. Despite yesterday's discovery, the image that greeted her was the same as always--well except for the bump and the bruise. Her face was too round for her liking and caused others to underestimate her age. Her long, curly, light brown hair was pretty much beyond her control. She ran her fingers through it a couple of times before letting her hands drop. It doesn't really matter now. I'm not trying to convince some woman to find me attractive.

She looked deep into her eyes, which were more brown than green today, searching for answers. "I just messed up," she admitted and turned away grimacing. "It's my fault." An image of the card attempted to worm its way into her mind, but she quickly squashed it. The bad memories would have to wait until she got home. Right now she needed to concentrate on smoothly extricating herself from Cindy while doing the least damage possible. As she reached for the door handle, she decided to wait five more minutes to make sure Cindy was fully dressed and preferably out of the bedroom.

Madison spent a painstaking thirty minutes nursing a cup of horrible tasting coffee and making small talk. Gazing at Cindy, she found herself wishing the circumstances surrounding their meeting could have been different. Seeing desire directed her way was a heady rush. It took every bit of willpower she could muster to forgo experiencing again the ego boosting being with Cindy had provided. Only the sense of honor, which had obviously been absent the night before, allowed her to leave with a simple goodbye.

Madison hurried to her car, eager to get away from the feeling of shame wrapped up in lust. As she started the ignition, it dawned on her that she didn't know where she was. Last night, she had been caught up in a sensual haze that she'd only paid attention to following Cindy's car. I really am a slut. With carefully controlled movements, she looked in the rearview mirror for traffic and slowly backed out. She arbitrarily made a right, hoping it would lead her to familiar territory.

She wasn't even halfway down the block when her location became crystal clear. Laughing hysterically, she sped by an all too familiar house on the left. I guess now we'll both have something to talk about. "Damn, leave it to me to pick up a woman who lives in the same block as my lover's best friend. Make that soon to be ex-lover." Swallowing the lump in her throat, she turned on the radio and cranked up the volume to ward off thoughts that would lead to tears.

It wasn't until she was making the left turn onto her street, that her heartbeat picked up as the reality of her situation hit hard. Clutching the steering wheel to steady her hands, she drove to the house she'd shared with Courtney for five years. Almost blinded by the tears welling up in her eyes, Madison pulled into the driveway, rested her head against the steering wheel and gave in to them.

Yesterday she had been too angry to grieve. The only thought on her mind had been retaliation, but today was different. Today, she felt sorrow and anguish, knowing her relationship was irrevocably over. When the storm of tears abated, she sat back and wiped her face with her coat sleeve. Madison looked at the door leading to the kitchen and wondered why it seemed so far away. I can get through this. She exited the car grateful she didn't have to confront her cheating spouse before having a decent cup of coffee.

After a long, hot shower, Madison dressed comfortably in well-worn jeans and a sweatshirt. Capturing her still wet hair in a ponytail, she wandered to the kitchen and started the coffee maker. She looked down after feeling the cat weaving between her legs. "Oh, so now you pay attention to me, huh?" She filled up Toby's dish and smirked when the calico lost his haughty air and began to eat noisily. "You won't miss me at all, will you?"

Swallowing hard, she turned away and let her eyes settle on the dripping coffee. Sure hope I know what I'm doing. She fixed herself a cup of coffee, picked up a bagel, and moved to the fully enclosed sunroom. She had done some of her best thinking in this room. She stared at the clear, light blue sky waiting for enlightenment to hit her upside the head.

All she got was a fragmented phrase from a song about keeping love from dying. If I knew how to do that, I wouldn't be in this situation right now. She gave a tortured groan. When did we let love go? Their relationship had been rocky the past year, but Madison had attributed it to the stress Courtney was under to make tenure.

"How stupid am I?" Madison turned away from the view of the bare trees, almost smiling when she heard the tinkle of the wind chimes. She took a sip of her sweet, milky coffee. Though Courtney had always expressed disapproval at what she termed the ridiculous amount of cream and sweetener Madison mixed with her coffee, the habit stuck; one of the few she hadn't acquiesced on over the years. Guess I won't have to hear about that again.

Gently rubbing the lump on her forehead, she inhaled the scent of the flavored coffee, loving the smell as much as the taste. She leaned back and allowed herself to remember some of the good times, something she seemed to be doing more and more.

She was a seventeen- year-old freshman at Stephenson University, a small liberal arts college in Central Florida when she met Courtney Sams. It was the first time Madison had been away from her grandmother for any length of time and she was having a hard time adjusting. Courtney, a junior, had been the resident advisor in Madison's dorm and had gone out of her way to provide the homesick young woman with comfort. Madison was so grateful for what she viewed as a lifeline that she had attached herself to Courtney, hanging on for dear life.

At first, Courtney had been flattered by the adulation shown her by the younger woman, but over the school year her feelings had deepened to affection. Although Madison was shy and reticent, through persistence, Courtney had brought the younger woman out of her shell. In the process, they had forged a deep friendship that turned into love.

After Courtney had graduated she stayed on at Stephenson for graduate school. They moved off campus and settled into a life of domestic bliss. Courtney continued to thrive in the role of guardian with Madison as the ever-adoring follower.

"Yeah, but that was then and this is now," she said, her mouth twisted in a sneer. Neither one of us is like we were then. Madison took another sip of coffee, savoring the richness of the gourmet brand. But reminiscing was not going to stop the feelings of hurt and inadequacy brought on the discovery of Courtney's infidelity, and it certainly wasn't going to help her take action.

She sighed. "Okay Norman, you need to figure out what you need to do." She had been hanging on for too long hoping things would turn around. Now she knew it wasn't going to happen so it was time to own up to the end of her ten year relationship and make plans to move on.

Madison stood and stretched limbs that were a little sore from active use, knowing it was time to draft a list. Lists were her friends, and they would help her see her way through this crisis. There was something cathartic about writing things down on paper. She backtracked to the home office she shared with Courtney to find pen and paper. The phone rang as she was leaving the room. "Hello?"

"Madison is that you?"

"Gee Susan, I do live here."

"Smartass. So what happened to you last night?"

Madison felt her cheeks heat up. "What do you mean?"

"Hello," Susan said, drawing the word out. "Remember the long conversation we had Thursday? You were going to call me after you and Courtney had the talk."

"Oh...yeah. It kind of slipped my mind, but I couldn't have told you anything because we didn't talk," she explained. "Somehow between Thursday night and Friday her plans mysteriously changed. So she was gone when I got home."

"That explains why Courtney didn't answer the phone last night, but it doesn't let you off the hook. Where were you last night?"

"I hope you're sitting down, this could take awhile." Madison walked over to her chair and plopped down, propping her feet on her messy desk. "I left work early thinking we would have plenty of time to talk things out before she had to leave on Saturday. Like I said, when I got here, she was gone with no note, no nothing. Needless to say, I was pissed."

"Understandable given how long it took you to work up to it."

"But that's not the worst. Trust me it gets better."

"What? Please tell me you didn't drive to D.C. I told you--"

"Thank God it didn't occur to me," she interjected. "I don't have your conniving mind."

"That's your loss," Susan muttered under her breath. "If you didn't drive up there what did you do?"

"You know, I could tell this story a lot faster if you would just zip it," Madison teased.

"Okay," was the meek sounding response.

"Where was I anyway? Oh yeah, I was pissed so I stormed to her file cabinet looking for information on the conference hotel. The first thing I stumbled in the folder is a card." She exhaled as her eyes started to burn with an onslaught of emotions. "Okay, long story short, Courtney is having an affair with some woman named Denise." Madison was proud she managed to keep her voice even.

"So your problems had nothing to do with tenure," Susan said and swore softly. "I'm sorry, Madison."

"Me, too." She swallowed the lump in her throat before continuing. "I don't know why. It's not like I haven't been miserable for the past two years," she finished as her voice broke.

Susan for once held back a denouncement of Courtney. "I wish I wasn't down here in Georgia."

"Me, too." Madison drew in a couple of shuddering breaths, trying to get her emotions back under control. "But that's not the worst," she admitted, squeezing her eyes shut. "I...this is so embarrassing," she complained, raking her fingers through her hair.

"It's me, Maddy. You know you can tell me anything."

"I had a one night stand," she said so softly her friend had to strain to hear. "I felt so fricken inadequate after reading about how glorious their sex life was. Shit, I can count the number of times we've made love in the past few years on one hand," she said bitterly, pinching the bridge of her nose. "But then...this morning I felt so ashamed."

"You need to get over that, girl," Susan stated firmly. "Courtney treats you like crap, so don't you dare feel guilty about her."

"My head know that, but--"

"But nothing," Susan interjected. "Yeah, I know it's hard for you to get over that honor thing you got going. I think you must have been a knight way back when," she teased. "I hate to be repetitive, but it's okay."

"I guess." Madison let out a shaky breath. "Maybe, one day I'll even believe it. But enough about me, let's talk about your problems so I can feel better."

Susan gave a shout of laughter. "Okay, but first one last question. Was it good?"

Madison couldn't stop the laughter that bubbled up from her stomach at the eagerness in her friend's voice. "It was better than good," she said, laughing again at the hum of approval Susan gave.

Thirty minutes later, she hung up the phone. She wished Susan lived closer. It was great talking on the phone, but a hug would have been more comforting. Madison glanced at Courtney's pristine desk before she quickly looked away. She didn't need to see the card again to remember the hurtful content.

Her stomach growled, reminding her of the uneaten bagel. Even sorrow couldn't dampen her appetite. And it's not like I didn't use a lot of energy last night. "No, don't go there." A look at her watch told her that it was already close to one. She decided to head to her favorite pizza place near the University campus. While she was out, she could pick up one of those monthlies that published available apartments and really start to plan.

She gathered up a small pad and her leather backpack. After setting them on the table in the hall, she went to the sunroom to retrieve her dishes. She stopped in the middle of the room and took a sixty-degree turn. Madison could find no solace here--her favorite space in the entire house. She had envisioned this room to be simplistic, a place where she could write and block out all distractions. To that end, she had wanted to furnish it with a couple of comfortable chairs, and the old, wooden trunk that had been her grandmother's.

She had lost the fight and the room had beautifully appointed pastel furniture with a delicate glass top coffee table. Hell, she couldn't put her feet on it without Courtney scolding her as if she were a child. She scowled at the table. This was supposed to be my room. Some place where I could be comfortable away from Courtney and her friends.

There's nothing here for me. Blinking back tears, she trudged back to the hall and grabbed her things. "No," she said as she passed the stylishly decorated living room that looked like it was straight out of the cover of a glamour magazine, "I won't miss her cold showpiece of a place at all."





Chapter Two


Madison sat up with a groan. She had spent a fitful night tossing and turning. This was the fourth time she'd been awakened by disturbing dreams that made her heart pound and her body sweat profusely. She didn't need a psychology degree to know the cause. The events of the past two days were catching up to her with a vengeance. In her dreams, she had been driving around--her car filled with all her possessions--searching for the apartment she had signed the lease on the day before. Every time she turned on to the street leading to the house, she would find herself trapped in a maze unable to escape. After calming down, she would fall back asleep only to have dream return.

She exhaled sharply and threw off the covers, not wanting to experience yet again the fear and panic. She got up, started the coffee maker and went to take a long, hot shower. Under normal circumstances, she would take a morning run, but today her life was in too much disarray, and there was still much to do.

Madison frowned at the mirror, noting that the bump and the bruise looked even worse. She used some of Courtney's makeup to cover most of the damage sustained while trying to escape a serial killer. The absurdity of her actions the day before brought a reluctant smile to Madison's face.

The smile quickly turned to a frown. Today, she would have to face Courtney, and change her life forever. "Coffee, I need coffee." She made her way to the coffee maker. Her hands trembled slightly, as she filled her cup, causing a couple of drops to spill over onto the kitchen counter. Grabbing a sponge, Madison blotted up the mess, knowing the mess that was her life wouldn't be so easy to clean. With a sigh, she picked up the cup and went to the office.

Turning on the computer, she slowly sipped her coffee while her mind churned away. Reaching for the pad with the list she had started yesterday, she boldly crossed off the number one item—finding a place to live. Madison methodically worked her way through the rest of the list until the gurgling sound in her stomach was too loud to ignore. Rubbing her eyes, she sat back and stretched out her arms, pleased with the progress she was making. As terrified as she was, it was exhilarating to finally feel in control of something in her life besides work.

While the chili was heating up, she looked out the window. The sun was shining brightly, but she could tell by the sway of the tree branches that it would be another windy day. Shivering from imagined cold, she wrapped her arms around her waist and was suddenly lonely. Soon she would be on her own and she wondered if it would feel as lonely as she had felt living with Courtney this past year.

"I'm getting maudlin." She turned away from the window to stir the chili. "Don't think, just do." Taking her own advice for once, Madison ate her lunch and returned to her lists. By three, she pushed away form the desk and yawned, thinking longingly of her bed. Her eyes lit upon the shelf filled with her books and she quickly dismissed the notion. Hell, I need to think about packing all my stuff. I may not have a lot of large items, but these small ones will probably drive me bananas. Giving a protracted sigh, she headed for the attic to see how many empty boxes she could find.

As she walked up the carpeted staircase to the unfinished attic, she started adding up the number of possessions she'd accumulated. Funny how you always think you don't have a lot until you have to move it. Madison opened the door and stepped into the cold room. It was fairly empty, with only a few boxes lined up against one wall. She forgot all about looking for empty boxes when she spied the wooden trunk that held some of her dearest memories. With a smile, she dropped to her knees and positioned the container in front of her. Madison lifted the top eager to get to the treasures from her time with her grandmother. She sat down and let the memories wash over her, remembering the events that led up to meeting her beloved relative.

"Mama, can I have some lunch money?" Madison asked from the back seat. Her parents were dropping her off at school.

"I always forget, don't I baby?" Fay Norman picked up her large, floppy purse at her feet and pulled out her coin purse. She turned to her daughter with a smile. "I don't know what we would do without you to keep us straight. I hope this is enough money," she said, holding out a ten-dollar bill.

"Thanks." Madison smiled and reached for the money. Now she could pay for the other two days and the cafeteria lady wouldn't look at her funny. "Bye, Daddy, bye, Mama," she said, grabbing for the door handle.

"Bye sweetie," her father replied. "We should be back to get you by three-fifteen."

"Okay, I'll wait," she promised, knowing that they would probably be later. She climbed out and closed the door. With a quick wave, she ran up the stairs determined to be on time today.

At three-thirty, Madison was in her hiding place on the second floor. She could see her parents arrive and also be hidden from the departing school staff. Used to waiting, she pulled out her notebook and started copying her word list. She took her time, wanting to impress her teacher. Although she was only in the first grade, this was the fourth school she had attended.

Madison started to worry when she heard the vacuum cleaner, signifying the arrival of the evening cleaning staff. Keeping a nervous eye on the window, she prayed that her parents hadn't forgotten her again. She knew they loved her, but sometimes they got wrapped up in taking pictures and forgot the time.

She didn't panic until the lights turned off, meaning she was alone in the building. She ran downstairs to the front office and called home. When she got no answer, she called the next-door neighbor, Mrs. Newman, who babysat her occasionally, but she wasn't home either. Not knowing what to do, she curled up under the secretary's desk and cried herself to sleep.

She was awakened the next morning by a cry of alarm from the secretary who pulled out her chair and discovered Madison. The girl's first instinct was to get up and run away, not wanting to get her parents into any trouble. She was stopped at the door by the principal, who rushed into the office after hearing the scream. Madison burst into tears, distraught that she was in trouble.

Ten minutes passed before Madison calmed down enough to explain why she was still at school. Mrs. Danon, the school secretary, immediately tried calling Madison's home to no avail. Madison volunteered Mrs. Newman's number, knowing the other woman would come to her aid.

A quickly placed phone call sent Mrs. Newman over to the house next door. After getting no response to her knock and not seeing the car in the driveway, she let herself into the house using her spare key. While she was searching the house, thinking that the Norman's had simply gotten lost on one of the jaunts, the police arrived with news of an accident.

Once informed of the deaths, Mrs. Newman searched the home office looking for any information on next of kin. She was afraid that poor Madison would be all alone because neither Norman had ever spoken of family. She finally found a file with important documents in a kitchen drawer. One of them had contact information for Evelyn Norman who was listed as the mother of Don Norman. Knowing she couldn't put it off any longer, Mrs. Newman phoned the school to let them know what had happened and at the same time she volunteered to break the news to the little girl.

Madison dealt with the tragedy by retreating within herself, eaten up with guilt that she hadn't been there to watch over her parents. She barely spoke the week she was under the guardianship of Mrs. Newman while Social Services tracked down Evelyn Norman. Since Madison's father had been estranged from his mother for over twenty years, the address in his file wasn't current. Once contacted, Evelyn immediately agreed to assume responsibility of her only grandchild.

After much coaxing, Evelyn was able to establish a rapport with Madison and gradually brought the little girl out of her self-inflicted exile. By the time the guardianship papers were final, the two had bonded, and Madison had no qualms about moving to Oklahoma. She had been ecstatic to learn that Evelyn had lived in the same house for fifteen years and planned to live there for many more.

"Oh Gran, maybe I should have just stayed in Jonesboro with you," Madison said her voice filled with sadness. "Maybe my life would have been different." She picked up the Christmas ornament that signified their first Christmas together. She smiled, remembering how excited she had been to go shopping that year because Gran had promised they could have a big tree. Her parents had always put up a small artificial tree, but that was never really enough for the little girl.

The sound of the garage door opening caused Madison's heart to start racing. Courtney's back much earlier than usual! Madison's breathing quickened, dreading what was to come. "Shit, I'm not ready!" She covered her face with her hands as her mind raced to come up with something to say. Drawing a blank, she decided she would let Courtney set the tone.

Striving to keep her hands as steady, she again returned to sorting through her treasures, carefully placing items beside the trunk. With her nerves stretched taut, she stopped reminiscing and instead concentrated her attention on taking even breaths and keeping her expression neutral. When the footsteps stopped so did her even breathing. Madison looked around, desperate for any means to delay this moment. There were none. Her shoulders slumped in dejection as any chance of choosing the manner of their confrontation was taken away from her. She exhaled sharply and sat on her shaky hands.

"Are you up in the attic, again?"

Madison had to clear her throat two times before she could speak above a whisper. "Yes," she answered, her voice shaking with nerves and anger at the usual taunt. She took a couple of deep breaths to slow down the pounding of her heart as she listened to the creaking of the stairs.

"What are you doing up here, Madison?" Courtney asked stepping into the attic a minute later.

As if you didn't know. "I was thinking about Gran." Madison pointed to her spread treasures, careful not to look at the other woman.


Madison forced a smile in response to the sneer in Courtney's tone. "You're early today I wasn't expecting you until this evening," she said, looking Courtney in the eye.

"None of the sessions today was interesting."

What? Tired of your little love thing already? Trying not to smirk, Madison said, "Too bad. I know how you enjoy going to conferences."

"Well I'll leave you to your things," Courtney said, rolling her eyes. "I just wanted to let you know that I'm back in town. And, oh," she added as though it were an afterthought, "I'll probably go over to Olivia's later if you want to come along."

"Sure," Madison replied, her smile wide. "You know me, always up for a good time. And it will give us a chance to be together." She was amazed at the genuine sounding sincerity in her voice. I didn't know I had it in me.

"Good. Let's plan to leave in a couple of hours." Courtney gave a self-satisfied smirk and left the room.

"Well, well, well," she said and gave a humorless laugh once Courtney's footsteps faded away. "I do believe she intends to expose me in front of her friends." She snorted, tightening her jaw. "Olivia wasted no time calling" Shaking her head in disgust, she carefully replaced the items and closed the lid. Walking over to the folded boxes, she quickly took count. "I guess I need to start looking for empty boxes, sooner rather than later."



"Are you ready to go?"

Madison didn't flinch at the impatience in Courtney's voice. "I'll be right there." She grinned, giving her baggy jeans and midriff level black tank top reflected in the full-length mirror two thumbs up. Pulling on her long coat that she had deliberately removed from the front closet earlier, she though with pleasure of Courtney's ire when her outfit would be unveiled at Olivia's house. Definitely not the look you want your friends to see, eh lover?

Madison bit her lip, wiping the grin off her face as she joined Courtney in the kitchen. "I'm ready," she said pausing in the doorway to reluctantly admire her partner. Courtney was wearing black gabardine slacks that flattered her long lean figure, topped with a thick, off-white cable-knit sweater. As usual, her short hair was perfectly coiffed with not a single strand out of place. Madison was suddenly consumed by a wild desire to run her fingers through the thick, honey-blond strands. She managed to control it, knowing that she would have her chance to rattle Courtney later.

"Are you cold?" Courtney asked with raised brows.

Madison shrugged. "I hear the temperature is going to drop later. You might want to grab a coat yourself," she suggested.

Courtney gave her lover a sharp look, finally saying, "My coat is in the car."





Chapter Three


The drive to Olivia's was filled with inane chatter on Courtney's part. She went on and on about the presentation given by one of her graduate students. Madison made no pretense of listening as she was more concerned about how to handle herself later. She had no intention of going down quietly, and the card in her pocket was backup insurance. At the same time, she didn't want to come out of this labeled as the jealous shrew. The world was too small to burn any bridges.

She gave an exaggerated sigh of relief as Courtney maneuvered the sedan into a parking space near Olivia's house. Why do I have the feeling this isn't a small gathering? Madison craned her neck, taking in all the cars parked along the quiet street. Stepping out of the car, she pulled her coat tighter against the swell of cold air. Good day for a public hanging.

Following Courtney up the walkway, something clicked and she made the connection between the talented grad student and the sender of the card. Madison faltered, suffused by an intense jolt of anger. Fingering the car keys in her pocket, she was tempted to give up their little game, allotting Courtney a clear victory. No, it's time I show her that this lap dog has teeth. She squared her shoulders, hurrying to catch up.

The front door opened before Courtney had a chance to ring the bell. Olivia stood in the doorway, with a smile that was a little too over the top for Madison's taste. Her petite figure was complemented by an attractive face, green eyes and shoulder length, dirty-blonde hair. "I saw you drive up," she explained in her high-pitched voice. "Come on in."

Madison smirked, watching the two women share a hug. Here goes nothing. She joined the other women by the front closet, making a show of removing her coat. She got a great deal of satisfaction when she heard the intake of breath Courtney was unable to suppress. Feeling supremely confident, she turned to face the firing squad. They both had carefully blanked their expressions, but that was okay with Madison because she had heard the telltale sign.

"Come on you two, let's go join the crowd," Olivia said with a barely perceptible nod to Courtney. "We're all in the back room with the heater turned up high, pretending it's spring."

The first person Madison laid eyes on was Cindy. She swallowed nervously, feeling an immediate twinge in her groin as her senses remembered the feel of that soft, ebony body. At five feet six inches, Cindy's head fit perfectly on Madison's chest. Something she had first discovered on the dance floor.

Today Cindy, unlike the other women present, was dressed casually in a tight fitting hooded top and low riding draw string sweat pants that hugged her hips lovingly. Madison was glad Cindy was not facing the door, giving her time to wrestle down the desire she knew was reflected in her face. She looked away, embarrassed at the hardening between her thighs as she imagined tugging on the barely covered belly button ring with her teeth.

That wasn't enough and she turned abruptly, desperate to find something to wet her dry mouth. Something cool, not the hot passion she'd slaked herself with as she feasted between Cindy's thighs. Madison covered her mouth, faking a cough to cover the groan that snaked its way up from her groin. Where is my self control? She moved her hand to her forehead, afraid she was feverish.

Not looking to see if Courtney was watching, Madison left and marched to the bathroom. She closed and locked the door before leaning against it. Maybe the stress of breaking up was more than I figured. Fearing a nervous breakdown, she tried to control the trembling of her limbs.

If only I could control the images that are racing through my mind. I don't need to be thinking about this right now. I need to be strong and alert, ready to face whatever they have planned for me. Ignoring the almost unrelenting throbbing, she walked to the sink and splashed cold water on her face.

Madison grabbed one of the fancy hand towels and dried off her face, wishing she could hose down the area that needed it most. The reflection showed hazel eyes that were more green than brown with the feverish glint of a wild animal. It was fitting because something inside of her seemed poised for escape.

Knowing she couldn't stay in the bathroom any longer, Madison opened the door and eased out. She held her head high, even as her heart pounded at finding herself face to face with the firing squad comprised of Courtney, Olivia and a couple of other women. "Sorry it took me so long. I didn't realize there was such a line. Are your other bathrooms broken, Olivia?" she taunted.

"Oh, no, Madison," Courtney said in a syrupy sweet voice. "We just were having a little discussion and were waiting for you to clarify something for us."

"I aim to please," Madison said, smirking as she pulled herself up to her full five feet, ten inches and tucked her thumbs into her front pockets. "What can I do you ladies for?" she purred, almost spoiling the effort by breaking into laughter at the look on Courtney's face.

"Sam thinks she saw you at Passions Friday night," Courtney ground out. Her voice was cold and the smile was gone.

"Give that woman a prize!" Madison exclaimed with feigned glee. "I was there and I have to admit I haven't danced that much in a long time. I don't remember seeing you there Sam, but the alcohol I consumed could account for that." She rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Nope, I don't remember seeing you there. Hey, I'm thirsty. Olivia, do you have anything for a dying woman to drink?"

Before Olivia could respond the doorbell rang. Exchanging a quick look with Courtney, Olivia reluctantly strode off in the direction of the front door.

"Is this the line for the bathroom?" someone asked.

"No, just an ambush," Madison replied tossing Courtney a glare. With a look of disdain, she strode to the kitchen, going straight to the fridge and grabbing a cold beer. Once the top was off, she guzzled half the contents of the bottle, enjoying the cooling sensation as the liquid slid down her throat. "I needed that." She closed her eyes and took a couple of deep breaths, undecided about her next move.

"You must be very thirsty," a familiar voice inquired.

With a wry smile, Madison turned to Cindy. "Interrogations make me thirsty. I was just being grilled about my whereabouts Friday."

"I knew something was up when I got an invitation to drop by. I'm usually not good enough to hang around with this crowd," she said acerbically.

"I think you have that turned around. They aren't good enough to hang out with you." Madison tipped her bottle in Cindy's direction before finishing it off. "I'm sorry I got you into this mess, but I'm not sorry for anything that happened between us. I just wish we could have met under different circumstances."

"My eyes were wide open Madison, so no need to apologize. I'm just sorry you had to leave so early," she added, unconsciously licking her lips.

Me, too. Madison eyes were drawn to the tongue licking those sweet, brown lips. She gave a start as a flash of pleasure shot through her, accompanied by the feeling of wetness between her thighs. Madison couldn't stop the trembling in her legs, recalling all too well the heights that tongue had taken her to.

They stood there staring at each other, desire visible on their faces as they recalled the explosiveness of their night together. Madison took a step towards Cindy unmindful of where she was. The sound of approaching footsteps echoing off the hardwood floor caused her to pause.

She blinked her eyes to dissipate the sensual cloud that fogged her brain. Only then was Madison able to form a coherent thought. "You better go before the lynch mob reconvenes," Madison suggested gently, putting her hands behind her back to keep from reaching out.

"I'm a big girl. I can handle myself in this crowd."

"Okay, well then go for me. I feel guilty enough as it is."

Cindy took a deep breath, feeling regret. "Will you be all right?"

"I'll be fine." Madison bent and gave Cindy a fleeting kiss. She watched with a twinge of regret as the other woman walked away then opened the refrigerator and grabbed another beer. "I'll be just fine." Buoyed by the desire that had been evident in Cindy's eyes, she went searching for trouble.

The group had reassembled in a corner of the back room where they appeared to be having an intense discussion. Smirking, Madison walked up to Courtney and possessively draped an arm over her shoulders--a move she knew the other woman hated. "I know we got interrupted earlier, babe, was there anything else I need to clarify?" Madison couldn't help but laugh out loud, at the look of astonishment that lit the other women's faces.

"What's gotten into you, Madison?" Courtney hissed, shrugging away from her lover's arm. "How much have you had to drink?"

"Not nearly enough," she replied, enjoying Courtney's discomfort. Now she knows how I feel. "Anybody for shots?" she asked, glaring at the remaining women. "Then maybe we can have an in-depth discussion about my movements on Friday night."

Courtney's cheeks turned bright red, and her eyes grew wide.

"Honey, are you okay?" Madison asked with insincere concern. "Do I need to take you home?"

"I'm fine! I think I need to take you home since you seem to be having some difficulty."

Sounded like an order to me. Madison gave her partner a measured head nod. "Great party, Olivia." Blinded by rage, she strode through the house, grabbed her coat, and proceeded out the door. Finally giving in to her anger, she slammed the door, rattling the front window.

Madison paced along side of the car, glad for the cold wind slashing against her heated cheeks. Angrier than she ever remembered being in her life, she unlocked the car and climbed in. She stared blindly out the front windshield as her heart beat rapidly. "I don't need this shit!" she fumed, hitting the dashboard. Realizing she still had the beer in her hand, she opened the door and threw it on Olivia's yard. Serves her right.

What am I doing? She ran a shaky hand through her hair, trying to get her raging emotions under control. Screaming and shouting weren't her usual way to deal with adversaries. She caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. It was Courtney, no doubt come to take the recalcitrant child home. Madison turned to detect the extent of the other woman's displeasure before she realized that it didn't matter—there was nothing to salvage.

Courtney got into the driver's seat and slammed her door, a clear indication of how upset she was. She turned to scowl at Madison, without saying a word. When Madison said nothing, Courtney put the key in the ignition and started the car.

The silent treatment, eh? Well two can play this game, dear. Madison had no desire to hide the satisfied smirk that took over her face.

The fifteen-minute drive home was accomplished in a silence that sizzled with the tension between the occupants. A couple of times, Madison almost forgot herself and opened her mouth to say something conciliatory before clamping her mouth shut in self disgust. It wasn't her role anymore to apologize for things that weren't of her doing.

Courtney pulled into the garage and made a big show of turning off the ignition. She made no move to get out of the car. "You want to tell me what the hell your little act was about?" she demanded looking straight ahead.

Madison bit back a vitriolic retort, saying in an even tone, "It wasn't an act. Sometimes even the downtrodden rise up," she added quietly. A rueful smile crossed her lips at the images that statement brought.

"Downtrodden? Don't give me that nonsense," Courtney replied. "I demand to know why you felt the need to embarrass me in front of my friends, Madison."

"And I demand to know why you feel the need to continually try to embarrass me in front of the whole world," Madison shot back, mimicking her lover's tone. "Answer that for me, love."

"What is this really about?"

Madison let out a snort of humorless laughter. "I have to give you points for the righteous indignation. I think you know exactly what this is all about. But just in case you don't, it's about the guilty casting the first stone," she said.

"You're not making any sense. It wasn't me crawling all over some woman in front of our friends," Courtney retorted, gripping the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white.

"No, you do it in private places, don't you Court?" She rested her head in her hands and exhaled before lifting her head. "Let's cut to the chase here. It's over." She reached in her coat pocket and pulled out the card. "Please inform Denise she has a career in erotica if she ever gets tired of economics."

"How dare you go through my things?" Courtney snapped her head toward Madison, her deep blue eyes blazing.

"Well excuse me for giving a damn about your whereabouts!" Madison shouted, her eyes glistening with tears. "I was looking for the number to the conference hotel. Lucky for me, you're so organized. I can't believe you did this to us," Madison admitted, her voice hoarse with unshed tears. "I don't even know you anymore." She blindly yanked open the car door, needing to get away. Driven by pain to put much needed distance between them, she ran out of the garage, ignoring the falling tears.

When her feet started screaming from the pounding they were taking, she stopped. Breathing heavily she looked around and was surrounded by house after house that looked almost alike. At least we don't live on a cul-de-sac or I would really be in hell. Turning around, she started walking back, praying to whoever would listen for relief from the pain. Concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, she made it back to the house--her earlier sense of being in control was completely shattered.

Standing in the yard, Madison looked at the house that had been her home for five years. It was much like the other houses in the newer subdivision. The two-story building was covered with pastel blue siding. Giving a sigh, she approached the decorative front door. Turning the key, she pushed the door open, relieved to hear the sound of the security system. She crossed the hall and punched the code into the pad.

Tired beyond belief, she went to the guest bedroom where she had slept the night before and fell down onto the bed. Wrapping her arms around the pillow, she waited for sleep to release her. Five minutes later, she got up, took off her shoes, coat, and pants, and slipped under the blanket. If she couldn't fall asleep, at least she could be comfortable.

The tears started to flow as she contemplated her situation. Why me, why us? Wiping her face on the pillow, Madison thought back to the first time Courtney reached out to her.

One Saturday night early in the semester, while the other freshmen were attending a dorm get together, Madison was once again in her room missing her Gran like crazy and crying about it. Courtney, having been alerted by Madison's roommate, entered the darkened room and sat on the bed. She reached over and started rubbing the sobbing girl's back, not saying a word.

Madison was startled at first, but allowed her body to absorb the comfort of another's touch. Gradually she stopped crying and leaned into the gentle swirling motions. She hadn't felt attuned to another person like this since her beloved Gran had come to rescue her.

"Thank you," she whispered to her savior.

"You're more than welcome," the older woman replied. "Why don't you wash your face and come join the party?"

"Uh, okay." Madison sat up looked into beguiling gray eyes and was lost. The kindness shining through hit her in the solar plexus, making breathing a little more difficult. Wow, she is beautiful!

Madison took in the thin face with a strong chin and dark brows. Her fingers itched to run through the short cut, honey-blonde hair to see if it was as soft as it looked. She couldn't seem to stop staring, even when she became aware of what she was doing.

"Are you okay?" Courtney asked with a smile. She reached over and smoothed back Madison's long, curly hair.

"Yeah." Madison sniffed and gave a tentative smile. "I think I am." With the back of her hand, she wiped the remaining tears from her eyes. "I promise I'll come down in a minute."

Courtney stood up, pulling Madison with her. "Just be sure you do, or I'll have to come get you," she threatened playfully.

Madison's heart constricted under the force of that playful grin. "Thanks again," she whispered, dropping her head bashfully.

"Any time." Courtney patted Madison's shoulder and with a final smile she left the room.

She is so wonderful! Madison wanted to lay back down and daydream about their encounter, but she wanted to see those gray eyes shinning upon her more. She sped to the bathroom and did the best she could to clear the signs of tears from her face. Madison brushed her long hair until it crackled, wanting to look her best for the other woman.

"Courtney," she said testing the name and loving how it felt on her lips. Grinning at herself in the mirror, she realized that everything seemed so much brighter. She rushed downstairs eager for more contact.

Growling, Madison threw off the covers and stood up. Using the hem of her tank top, she wiped her face. Since she obviously wasn't going to go to sleep, she might as well start getting her life back together. She walked to her former room, pulled a handful of clothes from the closet and returned to the guest bedroom.




Chapter Four

"When were you going to tell me?"

Ashley Patterson lifted her head and looked around the room furtively before she spoke. "Do we have to do this here?" she whispered, barely glancing at her former lover.

"It's the only place I can see you anymore," Cass replied in a terse whisper. She crossed her arms and exhaled loudly through her nose.

"Fine, meet me at Rick's at seven." With a curt nod, she returned to her paperwork. As soon as Cass left the room, Ash picked up a piece of paper and crushed it into a ball. Damn, I don't need this! Suppressing a frustrated groan, she carefully placed the wad in the trashcan next to her desk.

At one minute after seven, she walked through the heavy door at Rick's tavern. On a Tuesday night, the place was mostly deserted, giving her a clear view of Cass seated in one of the back booths. Goody. Without acknowledging the other woman, she stopped at the bar and ordered a draft. Let her wait. She slapped some ones on the bar, picked up the glass and joined Cass.

"Hi," Ash said with a barest of a smile and slid into the booth.

"Hello," Cass responded and frowned. "I wasn't sure you were going to show up."

"I didn't have much choice, now did I?" she asked, pushing back the hood of her bright yellow slicker. "I didn't want to talk about it at work." She locked her gaze with dark brown eyes.

Cass shook her head vehemently. "Admit it. You didn't want to have this conversation at all."

"Because there is nothing to talk about," she bit back, enunciating each word carefully. "We said everything there is to say a month ago."

"So that's your final word?" Cass asked and pursed her full lips. "You don't think I deserve more than that?"

Ash sipped her beer and silently counted to ten. She looked at the thin, intense face with sharp features and wondered if she'd ever get through to Cass.

"Well, are you going to say something?" Cass put her hand on Ash's wrist. The darkness of her skin contrasted with the light brown of Ash's. "Talk to me, please."

Ash looked away, fixing her gaze at some point over Cass's right shoulder. "I got the job at Georgia, and I'm moving next month," she said succinctly. "Don't pretend this is a shock, Cass. You knew I wanted to move back South, you just never accepted it."

"Because it's crazy for you to want to go back there," Cass argued, removing her hand and clinching it into a fist. "It's so much more progressive here."

"Why are you doing this to yourself? You know how much family means to me." She glared at the woman who had caused her so much turmoil in the last year. "I've got to go." She slid from the both, unwilling to do this anymore. "I'll say goodbye now, Cass. There's nothing else to say," she added and left without waiting for a reply.

Ash stormed through the bar, her fists clenched. She stood in the doorway and exhaled sharply. She was too mad at herself and Cass to pay attention to her surroundings. It was stupid to let her get to me again. She sighed, flipping up the hood of her slicker for protection from the cold drizzle of early spring.

"Excuse me."

She looked around, realizing she was blocking the door. "Sorry." As she walked to her small apartment, some of her anger dissipated. There was no reason to get upset with Cass. It was her own fault for even thinking for a second she could reason with her ex.

But that's not my problem anymore. Another month and I'll be on the other side of the country. Away from a woman who doesn't believe we're finished, even after ten months.

Ash grimaced, upset she was allowing Cass to ruin the excitement she felt about landing a better job and moving closer to her family. She had enjoyed most of the past five years living in Portland. She liked her job, her coworkers and the new friends she'd made, but Ash had always known she'd move back home. She missed seeing her parents and sister on a more regular basis. The four of them had always been close knit. She would be living an hour from her parents and probably too close to her sister.

Her cell phone buzzed against her waist. She unclipped it and looked at the caller ID with trepidation, being in no mood to continue her discussion with Cass. A smile lit up her face as she flipped the phone open. "Hey."

"Hello Baby. I was just calling to see if you needed me to fly up and drive back with you? Your other mother is worried about you being on the road by yourself."

Ash laughed when she heard her Mama's loud denial in the background and said, "Now Mom, fess up. It's okay to still be worried about your grown daughter."

"I'm not worried about the drive. I'm worried about your ex," her mom grumbled. "Have you told her yet?"

"Yeah, I...I told her today." She had hoped she wouldn't have to share that information. "But before you start worrying, we came to an understanding," she fibbed, crossing her fingers. "Do I hear kids in the background?"

"You do. Latasha let us borrow them since they're on spring break."

"Let you? More like begged since Laura and Derrick are on vacation."

"We don't mind, honey."

"I know you don't mind," Ash said with wry amusement. "And I'm glad my runt of a sister is getting a break. Although I don't know why she doesn't just insist that Latasha give them custody of the boys. They're over at her house more than they are at home."

"Mind your own business, Ashley Monroe Patterson," Jan Benford admonished. "As Latasha gets older, I'm sure she'll be more responsible."

"Right," she said, remembering the last time she saw her brother-in-law's younger sister. "Whatever happens, I'll be there soon to help out." She jammed the phone against her shoulder and unlocked the front door. "I can't wait to be near you guys again. I'll be at your house so much, you'll probably forbid me to come back," she teased.

"We won't forbid you to come we'll just set limits."

Ash smiled when she heard, "Give me that."

"Don't listen to her," Sandra Patterson said, having successfully wrestled the phone from her partner. "She's the one who's been driving me crazy about your move. We have to go put the boys to bed now. I love you and don't be shy about calling if you need us to do anything."

"I won't. I love you and Mom, too. I'll call next week with more info."



Ash looked in the mirror, checking her appearance. She was attending a going away party, hosted by a couple of her coworkers. Her friend Tina had already warned her to expect to play games, so Ash had dressed accordingly. Her long, lanky figure was clothed in a ragged, short-sleeved shirt and jeans loose enough for maneuvering. She had braided her black hair in a neat braid that hung halfway down her back.

Feeling a little melancholy, she glanced around the almost empty studio apartment. A yard sale took care of the anything that didn't fit in her Forerunner. The house she'd rented in Athens, Georgia came fully furnished. Ash refused to dwell on how good it would feel to have possessions that had no memory of Cass attached. Even though the other woman had called her a couple of times, Ash didn't foresee any last minute drama.

She locked the door and drove across town to Tina's house. She parked in the driveway as instructed then proceeded to the door.

"Ash!" Tina called, throwing the door open. "What a surprise." She giggled and took a shaky step back. "Whoops."

"Whoops is right," Ash said with a grin. "I think someone started partying a little early."

"I'm allowed. My good friend is moving all the way across the country."

"That and it's Friday," Ash smirked.

"Minor detail." Tina waved her hand wildly. "Well come on, we're in the kitchen eating food."

Ash was hailed by a few early comers. The majority of those present were friends she had met through Tina.

"Don't you look hot," Marilyn, Tina's partner, said. Her green eyes made a playful study of Ash's limbs. "But then you always look hot, doesn't she Tina?"

"For sure," Tina titled her head in consideration. "I personally think it's the exotic combination of Asian features and brown skin."

Ash waved aside their praise. "Just get me a beer, and I'll be happy."

Tina promptly complied. Ash spent the rest of the evening mingling with the friends. She lost track of the number of cards and promises to keep in touch she exchanged. At eleven, the last of the guests left.

"I'm going to miss you," Tina said, her eyes filled with tears.

"I'm going to miss you too." Ash's eyes became moist and she pulled her shorter, rounder friend into her arms. "You and Marilyn have been good friends for me." She reached out an arm to pull Marilyn close. "Don't forget you have to come visit."

"We won't," Marilyn promised.

Ash gently disengaged herself and left. Wiping away tears, she climbed into her SUV and popped in a CD. The bag of gifts in the passenger side seat caused her to smile. She had made some good friends over the years. Now she would have to find a new community in Athens. Her friends Kahla and Dee, who lived in nearby Atlanta, had promised to help.

As she passed the front of her building, she noticed a familiar vehicle parked near her building. "Shit," she groaned. She pulled into the small parking lot on the side of the building and considered making a run for her door. Her black eyes widened when Cass started walking in her direction. Obviously she wasn't going to be given a chance to escape. With a sigh, she grabbed the bag and jumped out of the vehicle.

Anger propelled her to Cass. "What do you want?"

Cass looked unsure. "I...wanted to say goodbye," she said softly, longing evident in her expression.

Ash steeled herself against the attempt for sympathy. "We already did. Listen, you've got to leave me alone, Cass. We can't be friends, we can't be lovers, we can't be anything. Don't try to get in contact with me again." She brushed past Cass brusquely, trying to stifle any compassion.

"But what if I can deal with your family and the location?"

Ash stopped, almost against her will. She sighed deeply before turning to address her ex. "I'm sorry, but we are finished. You need to get over it," she said, willing Cass to actually hear her for a change. "I don't love you, and I haven't loved you in a long time. Please accept this."

Cass's face crumpled as the tears flowed. "Then I guess I'm the one who's sorry. I won't bother you again."

"Shit." Ash smoothed back her hair and watched the other woman walk away. "Thanks for ruining a good evening." She quietly let herself into her apartment and was glad she'd given the last of her alcohol to the party boys down the hall.

Flopping down on the futon, already promised to one of her neighbors, she let out a cry of frustration. Ash wasn't sure if she was madder at herself or Cass. For a minute, she had actually felt sorry for the other woman. "I'm an idiot. She's the one who forced me to be nasty." Stretching out on the couch, she remembered a different time.

She met Cass at a fundraiser for lesbian breast cancer survivors. Tina, one of the organizers, had convinced Ash to attend. Ash had been new to the area and was looking for an opportunity to make acquaintances. From the moment they were introduced, Cass made her interest in Ash abundantly clear. Ash, who was used to being pursued, wasn't overly impressed by Cass's intensity. She had smiled politely and allowed Tina to take her to another group.

Cass had not been deterred by the minor setback. She backed off somewhat but didn't give up the pursuit. She only joined every third group Ash was a part of, making no attempt to catch Ash's eye.

For Ash, it turned into a fun game. She began a deliberate sabotage, lingering longer in each group thereby cutting down the number of times Cass could intercept her in a group.

"What are you doing?" Tina queried, watching the byplay with interest.

"I'm not really sure," Ash answered truthfully. "Just having fun, I think. She seems so earnest and intent that I'm intrigued."

"Well don't break her heart," Tina cautioned.

"If her heart is so easily captured and broken, I certainly don't want it." She studied the other woman intently. Cass was about five feet seven inches with a lean build. Her dark brown face wasn't beautiful, but her well-defined eyebrows and full sensual lips, along with the intense brown eyes, certainly made her striking. Ash smiled when she noticed Cass had caught on to the perusal.

"I think you changed the rules," Tina said dryly. "Here she comes."

"I can handle it," she replied, the smile still on her face.

They moved in together almost a year after they met. The explosive passion between them had helped offset differences for several years. It was only when Ash began to talk more about moving closer to her family that their relationship started to unravel.

Ash's lips curled in self-derision. Blaming the demise of their relationship on one thing was too simplistic. But it didn't matter now anyway. What was in the past should stay in the past. Now was the time to focus on a new beginning.



Chapter Five

Madison parked her car on the street. She slowly made her way to her small apartment at the back of the house, shoulders slumped and head held down. Ineffectually blinking at the tears falling from her eyes, she fitted the key in the lock and opened the door.

Only when the warm water of the shower was cascading over her body did she finally quit trying to hold back the pain. She held on to the shower walls as the sobs wracked her body. The water was turning colder when she regained control. Shivering, she dried off and put on her pajamas.

Squinting at the alarm clock through puffy eyes, she decided it wasn't too late to call.


"It's Madison. Sorry to call so late, but I..."

"Hey, you okay? You know you can call me anytime."

Madison let out a ragged sob. "I ran into Courtney at the party tonight," she said, her voice raw from crying. "I'm just so disgusted with myself. I really thought I was over her, but seeing her with another woman hurt so damn bad." She pulled out a tissue and patted her nose.

"Tell me what happened," Susan said. "I thought the get together was going to be kind of small."

Madison snorted. "Yeah, so did we. I guess we weren't the only ones wanting to beat the winter blahs."

"But where does she fit into this? Surely she wouldn't be caught dead hanging out with you guys."

"Apparently, she will for her girlfriend," she choked out and started to cry. "Oh, God, I feel like shit. You should have seen how she was!" She stopped, sucking in a ragged breath. "And I had to pretend that I didn't care. That it didn't bother me that Courtney couldn't keep her hands off of Denise."

"Hold up!" Susan said raising her voice. "You mean she had the nerve to bring another bitch? As small as that community is, she has to know how tight you and Julia are. Damn, Maddy, I don't know what to say." And you were doing so well.

"That makes two of us," Madison sniffed. "You'll love this part. The girlfriend was none other than the grad student she told me meant nothing to her five months ago."

Susan managed to swallow an expletive and was ready to throttle Madison's thoughtless ex. "I'm so sorry you had to go through that again."

Madison raked her hand through her wet hair, separating the tangled strands. "The only consolation was finding out I wasn't the only fool."

"What do you mean?"

"Julia told me that Denise only broke up with her lover a month ago."

"And you being you didn't say a word about it, did you?"

"Nah, I hope Liz never has to know, especially not from me. Nobody deserves that kind of humiliation."

"Damn, I wish I could have been there," Susan said. "I would have had a few choice words so share with them. I can still be threatening keeping my voice low."

"In Denise's defense, I don't think she knew who I was. I guess I wasn't important enough for Courtney to tell her about me."

"I know you've had a difficult night, but don't go getting down in the dumps. You should take a couple days off and come visit me here in Atlanta. I promise to show you a good time," she wheedled. "At least promise to think about it."

"There's certainly nothing keeping me here now," Madison replied. "I finally got that crazy Dr. Novak's project off my back."

"There you have it, you deserve a vacation for putting up with all the crap he gave you."

"Let me talk to Warren and get back with you." Madison sighed, suddenly worn out.


Madison gave a weak chuckle. "I promise. Thanks for letting me cry on your shoulder in the middle of the night."

"Always," Susan said, her voice husky with emotion. "And the next time you see Courtney, tell her your friend says she has an ass whuppin' coming."

"I'll take that under advisement." Madison hung up the phone and climbed under the covers, but sleep was a long way from coming.

Madison came to at what seemed like only a few hours later. Although she was tired, her mind contrarily decided it wouldn't shut down and allow her to rest. The lingering anguish from the night before made a long, hard run a necessity. She threw off the covers, shivering at the cold air and got out of the bed.

The briskness of the winter morning stirred her blood and she sat out at a fast pace. As much as she tried to fight it, the image of Courtney and Denise claimed her mind. The connection between them still hurt because it had forced her to recognize her relationship with Courtney never had that kind of standing.

Madison continued running even as tears fell steadily from her eyes. Her chest burned not from exertion, but from the realization she had just been fooling herself about getting on with her life. Sure, she had made a small circle of friends away from Courtney and their friends, but her sense of accomplishment had been wiped out in one fateful instant.

I have to get away from here. Madison looked around the neighborhood she had only now gotten used to. With a heavy heart, she accepted what her mind had been trying to tell her last night. She choked back a sob at the thought of leaving behind the only family she had. Not wanting to consider the consequences, she turned her thoughts to making a list. Lists are my friends, she chanted, stepping up her pace because once again in less than six months, she had so much to plan.



"Okay, tell me again why you have to move?" Warren asked.

"It's right for me, Warren. I've thought about little else for the past two month so I know that I have to do this," Madison replied barely able to keep her voice from cracking. For distraction she absently picked an errant piece of onion off her sandwich.

She and Warren were sitting in their favorite deli trying to enjoy their lunch, but not having much success. Madison had just informed her boss and friend that she had been short-listed for a job interview at another university research center.

"I know what we talked about before. Believe me, I have taken all that in consideration, but it just keeps coming up that this is the right thing for me to do," she said, willing him to understand.

"As your friend, I'll be very sorry to see you to go." Warren picked up his cup and chewed the straw thoughtfully. "It's always hard to see friends move away. But, since you know this is best then as someone who cares about you, I have to support it. I just don't like the idea of you going all the way across the country. Couldn't you move someplace closer?"

"I have to go where the jobs are, War," she explained as she leaned forward. "I don't want to move all the way to California but I need a job, and I need to be away from here. I just hate that I have to leave my family."

"I can't believe you're leaving me just when I've trained you to be sociable. David and I will really miss you, sweetie."

"I'm going to miss you guys, too." Warren and his partner, David, had been her biggest supporters after her breakup. As much as she tried to be a hermit, they just wouldn't let her and drug her one place or another.

"Hey, isn't your friend Susan originally from southern Louisiana?"


"Couldn't she get somebody to put a curse on that nameless heifer?"

Madison cracked up. "Thanks, I need that laugh." She reached out and put a hand on her friend's arm. "You're a good friend and I'm going to miss spending time with you and David. I know you still think I'm overacting to the situation with Courtney and Denise and probably at first I was," she admitted with a shrug. "But now I really feel like this is something I want to explore. The more I think about it the more excited I get. If I don't get this job, which I think I have a good chance of getting by the way, I'll keep applying for others."

"So tell me a little more about the job," he said, resigned to losing a good friend and an excellent employee. "And don't you need a reference from your boss?" he kidded.

"I put your name down on the application, but they probably won't call until they come closer to selecting a candidate. I also talked to Dr. Novak, and he agreed to give me a good recommendation." She added the last part with a grin.

"It's the least he could do after all the trouble he put you through," her friend said, getting irritated at the thought of all the extra work the demanding professor had wrung out of his department and Madison in particular. "Now tell me a little about the job duties?"

"It's pretty much what you do now. They mentioned that they're looking to expand, so I could have as many as four people to supervise. And that's the scary part because I don't have any experience with being in charge."

"Sure you do, you just didn't have the title. I have no doubt you could step in and take my place with no problems."

She smiled. "Nobody could take your place, Warren. You're one of a kind." She gave a silent sigh of relief. Warren took the news better than I had hoped. Madison picked up her sandwich and took a big bite. Hmm, maybe I should see if Susan has any connections.



Three months later, Madison walked around her tiny apartment one last time to make sure she hadn't left anything behind. She would miss this place that had sheltered her through a rough time. With a sigh, she trudged to the front of the house to turn over the keys to her landlords, Sara and Melissa.

Madison's eyes filled with tears as she said goodbye to the older women who had provided her with support and encouragement for the past eight months. Being around them had been akin to living with her grandmother, and she was grateful to have had that experience again. After a couple of rounds of hugs and kisses, Madison bade them goodbye. With a last wave, she got into her loaded Outback wagon and set her sights for Athens, Georgia, home of the Georgia Bulldogs.

She couldn't help but laugh when checking the rear view mirror she spied Sara waving vigorously. I'm going to miss them. Madison consoled herself with the thought that they would stay in touch and Georgia wasn't that far away. Popping in a CD, she turned up the volume and started her five-hour drive south.

Her job outlook had changed in the six weeks since she'd told Warren she was leaving. Madison had gone on the interview for the job in California, but before a final decision was made, Susan forwarded her an opening in one of the University of Georgia Research Centers. Madison had promptly applied, jumping at the chance to be an hour away from Susan and within driving distance of her North Carolina family. While she was still waiting to hear about the California job, she was selected for a second interview in Athens. The Georgia job was a good match of her skills, and she and her perspective boss established an immediate rapport. Making a decision when offered both jobs had not been hard at all.

A tired yet excited Madison pulled into an older apartment complex, which was to be her new home for at least the next six months. The complex consisted of three, two-story red brick buildings that formed a U shape surrounding a grassy courtyard. The upper units had balconies while the lower units had small patios, all of which faced the courtyard. She had found out about the place through a friend of a friend of Susan's who was looking for someone to sublet to. When she saw the recently refurbished apartment, Madison had been sold.

She backed into a vacant parking space, grabbed some of her possessions, and proceeded toward her first floor unit in the building on the left. In the forty minutes it took her to unload, she silently cursed herself for not getting rid of more stuff. After the final load, she collapsed on the sofa with a groan, trying not to think about the unpacking to be done. Madison leaned back and closed her eyes, wanting to just vegetate for a few hours. As her mind was gradually emptying of all thoughts, she remembered her promises to call and check in.

"Hi, Susan, Madison here. Just wanted to let you know I arrived, but I guess I just did that since I said I was here. Don't listen to me I'm almost zoned out. Well anyway, from a cursory search it seems all my furniture is here and in the correct place no less. Thanks again for being here for that. My plans right now are to commune with the inside of my eyelids for a couple of hours, wake up and then go to bed. As you might have guessed, the phone works so call me when you can. I would love to get together with you before I have to start the daily grind."

Madison then spoke briefly with Warren, Sara and Julia, assuring each of them that she had arrived safely and would call back once she got her bearings. She hit the off button, and once again leaned back having every intention of taking a nap. After a couple of fruitless minutes spent trying to shut down her brain, she sat up and stretched her back. Rolling her weary shoulders, she looked around the sparsely furnished living room and grimaced at how much the bare walls reminded her of her previous apartment.

She chuckled, thinking about the first time Warren and David stopped by her old apartment. They had come over to escort her to a party.

Promptly at eight, there was a knock at her door. She quickly crossed the room to answer the door. Madison was relieved to see that the guys were dressed as casual as she was. She didn't have to worry right off the bat about not fitting in with the crowd.

"Hey, girl," Warren said with a big smile and pulled Madison close for a hug. "I'm glad you're ready because David and I already planned to kidnap you if we had to."

"Hey I promised," Madison said, stepping back so they could enter. "Welcome to my humble abode."

David gave her a playful grin. "I'm a little disappointed we don't have to take you by force, babe. We have rope and everything in the car." He gestured toward the closed front door.

Madison chuckled at the notion that the six-four, two hundred fifty pound David would need a rope to restrain her. "You know I would follow you anywhere, big guy," she asserted, giving him a hug.

"Don't be giving my man those coy looks, hussy," Warren said and put up his fists.

"Like he would really use them," David mocked with a roll of his emerald-colored eyes. "He may look macho, but he fights like a girl."

"I resent that!" Madison and Warren said in unison before they all started laughing.

"Well, take us on a tour," Warren ordered when the laughter subsided. "I see you're going for the minimalist look here," he said after a quick look around the front room. And plastic frames?" He picked up the photo of Madison and her grandmother. "You can do better than that."

"Sorry I didn't know we had a show called 'Queer Eye for the Lesbian," Madison deadpanned.

Warren put his hands on his hips and huffed. "Well from the looks of this place maybe there should be one."

"Okay, so maybe I should be thinking about decorating." Madison stood up, knowing the first thing she should do. Moving some boxes aside, she found the one she was looking for. She opened it and pulled out the group of pictures of her grandmother and her. Warren and David had surprised her with an expensive set of frames as a going away present. Looking around, she decided they would look good on one of the tall bookshelves across from the sofa.

Before she could place them, the phone rang. She set them down carefully and walked across the room. "Hello."

"So you made it, huh?"

"Yeah, it was a cinch, straight down I-85. The hardest part was carrying all my junk from the car to the apartment."

"Well if somebody hadn't been so stubborn, she would have had two hunks to help."

"I couldn't let them do that. Warren and David have already done so much," Madison protested.

"That's what family is for," Susan pointed out. "One day you'll recognize that."

"Yes mother. For now I'm thankful I live downstairs."

"So now that all the hard labor is done, I guess I can come for a visit," Susan teased.


"How does tomorrow sound? I'll even help you unpack."

"You're on, but you have to help me decorate, too."

Susan sighed loudly. "If you insist. But let me warn you we will have to shop, and you do have to feed me."

"Dang, I knew there had to be a catch," Madison grumbled. "I could probably hire a decorator cheaper."

"Ha, ha. I'll be there by eleven, smart ass."

"Bye." Spending time with Susan was just what she needed to help the transition. Although, she had to admit that the move to Georgia from North Carolina was mentally much easier than the move from her relationship with Courtney. Initially the need to move had been all about getting away from her former lover, but gradually the idea of Courtney and her new woman became less devastating than it had been in the middle of the night. In the end, this move had become more about really starting to live than anything else.

It had taken awhile, but Madison had finally been able to grasp the notion that Courtney's ability to feel more for another woman was not a reflection of her or her worth. She'd come to grips with the fact that relationship interactions could not and should not be transferred. Each person brought a unique interaction to the relationship, and therefore it could not be duplicated. This realization, more than anything, had freed up a lot of angst in Madison giving her hope that a new relationship could be different especially if it was forged on a stronger foundation and equal footing.

"So no matter what happens, I made the right decision." Deciding to give her brain a rest, Madison found her portable CD player, stretched out on the sofa and let the mellow sounds of John Mayer take her away.

After sleeping in the next morning, Madison decided to forgo her usual run. Standing in the kitchen with her eyes half closed, she realized that her coffee pot was still stuck in a box somewhere. She vaguely recalled seeing a coffee shop a few blocks down the road. Road trip, I need coffee, and I need it now!

Sure enough, after walking a couple of blocks, a small commercial strip with the sign for a popular brand of coffee came into view along. To her delight, the shop not only sold coffee, but offered breakfast as well. Madison had a satisfying meal before returning to her new abode.

With an hour left before Susan's arrival, she went to work. As she unpacked, Madison kept a running list of the items she needed to procure on her shopping expedition. She was mulling over the idea of a multi-cultural theme for the living room when the front door rang. Jumping up from the floor, Madison hurried to the door. She peeked through the peephole then pulled the door open with a huge smile on her face. "Suzy!" she cried, reaching down to pull her shorter friend into her arms, dropping a kiss on a smooth brown cheek.

"Maddy!" Susan smiled, showing her white teeth as she returned the hug fervently. "I'm glad you're so close now."

"I'm glad I'm so close by, too." Madison stepped back and ushered her friend inside. She smiled taking in her friend's appearance. Susan looked nothing like the polished professional instructor she had met two years ago. She looked remarkably butch in a tank top that left her muscular arms and wide shoulders exposed.

Susan dropped her duffle bag and studied the room. "I see you started without me," she said with a grin, pointing to the photos. "Any ideas of what you want done in here?"

"Well, I was kind of thinking about some kind of world theme. I confess I don't know the first thing about this kind of stuff."

"Then I'm just the woman you've been looking for," she declared, flashing Madison a mischievous grin. "My mom is always telling me I'm a frustrated decorator at heart."

"Come on maestro, I'll show you the rest of the place," Madison said, bowing. "Then you can get your brain working on ideas."

"The brain is always working," Susan protested, tapping her forehead. "You just better hope you can keep up."

Madison and Susan spent the rest of the day shopping. Madison's feet and legs were protesting when she finally called uncle. On the way back to the apartment, they stopped to pick up a large pizza. At Madison's, they collapsed on the sofa and devoured the pizza and beer while talking about everything under the sun.

Sunday was another busy day as Madison, the willing slave, put all of Susan's ideas into practice. By the time Susan got ready to leave in the early afternoon, the apartment was fully decorated. She and Madison took a final tour, after which Susan couldn't help but pat herself on the back. She had taken her friend's world theme idea to heart and knick-knacks from all continents were carefully spaced throughout the apartment.

Madison's favorite find was the plate-sized glass etched with the yin yang symbol. She hadn't known what the symbol represented, but the design had caught her eye. When her friend explained the significance, Madison knew she had to make it a centerpiece in her new space. Once they finished the tour, Madison walked Susan to her car, thanking her again for her help and support. After exchanging hugs, she stood on the curb and waived until her friend was out of sight.

Feeling a little let down, Madison returned to her now seemingly lonely apartment. Some of the excitement of being in a new place dimmed now that she was alone. Instead of giving into the tug of depression, she grabbed her wallet and keys, deciding now was a good time to start becoming more familiar with the University.





Chapter Six

A very nervous Madison walked up the stairs to her third floor office area. Despite having taken a hard run to sooth first day jitters, she still felt like she had butterflies flitting in her stomach. Glancing at her watch, she detoured by the restroom to kill some time. After making sure her appearance was as neat as it had been when she left her apartment, she practiced smiling. A nervous giggle escaped as she imagined her boss walking in on her, which eased some of her tension. Deciding that nothing but time was going to help, she left the restroom and walked down the hall.

Madison approached the department secretary with a tentative smile.

"Hello again, Madison," the other woman said in a friendly voice, returning her smile. "I hope you found your way here okay."

"Yes, thank you."

"Good, have a seat. I'll buzz Stephanie and let her know you're here."

With a nervous smile, Madison sat down and looked around. The reception area was very plush, obviously designed to impress prospective clients. As with any business, appearance was a key selling point. And it helps to have an attractive woman on the team. Madison looked up expectantly as Stephanie's office door opened.

She felt a pleasant flutter in her stomach at the sight of her very attractive boss. Stephanie Edwards was average height with a medium build. Her shoulder length, blond hair was parted in the middle and fell gently on either side of her oval-shaped face. Realizing that she was staring, Madison stood up and walked toward her boss.

"Madison, it's so good to see you again." Stephanie smiled and held out her hand.

Madison returned the strong grip. "It's good to be here." She was warmed by the welcome that shone in her boss's green eyes.

"I hope you're all settled in?"

"Yes, I came down a little over a week ago, so I've had time to get everything organized and find my way around."

"Good, that's almost the hardest part. Come in to my office and we'll go over a few issues, then I'll introduce you to your staff. Let me apologize again that they were both away the last time you were here."

Stephanie began the discussion by outlining the structure of the department and how each division functioned. Madison's division was the smallest at present and responsible for developing survey research questionnaires and producing reports of the data collected.

Stephanie was looking to expand the number of clients served by her department over the next year through more active marketing. She had chosen Madison for the job because of her strong writing skills and her advanced degree. "One of the first tasks I'd like you to undertake is rewriting some of our old executive summaries. I already have the University Graphics department working on a new brochure. That together with samples of our end products will help get our name out there."

Madison nodded, taking careful note of the time frame for completion. "It won't be a problem," she said with assurance.

"Good, now let's talk a little more about current projects." She handed Madison a handout of all the department projects and their schedule. "In the future, it will be your responsibility to provide me with this type of information for your division."

"This is very similar to what I'm used to," Madison replied with relief. So far her responsibilities were exactly as discussed during the interview. They spent the next hour going over the projects.

"Excuse me, Stephanie, sorry to interrupt, but Human Resources is ready to process Madison," Rachel announced.

Stephanie looked at her watch. "Is it that time already? I'm sorry, Madison, your introduction to your staff will have to wait for a little while longer."

Madison stood, unnerved by the delay. Her stomach churned at the thought of having to sit through orientation while worrying about meeting the people whose work she would be held responsible for. None of her nervousness showed on her face as she reached over and shook Stephanie's hand. Gathering her belongings, she followed Rachel.

By the time she made it back to her office, it was almost eleven thirty and she was too irritated to be nervous about meeting her employees. Madison realized that paperwork was a necessary evil of any job, but surely it could have waited until after she had been introduced around the department. With a smile firmly in place, Madison approached the administrative assistant she shared with two other divisions. "Hello, I'm Madison Norman," she said, extending her hand to the older woman sitting at the desk.

"Ah, yes," the other woman said, returning the smile with one of her own. She stood up and walked around her desk and shook Madison's hand.. "I'm Shirley Dennis. Rachel told me to expect you. I bet you're now well acquainted with our personnel department," she joked with a roll of her eyes.

"We know each other pretty well." Madison grinned, deciding that she was going to like working with this woman. Shirley was above average height and thin. Her body, shown by the sleeveless blouse and mid-thigh length skirt, was toned and tanned. The wrinkles around her eyes belied the youthfulness of her body, placing her over forty.

"I'll show you to your office and then you can meet Laura Parker and Bruce Johnson."

A few minutes later, Madison walked into the conference room to meet her employees. She did a quick assessment of the two people sitting at the long rectangular table. They both stood up as she entered the room with ready smiles on their faces.

"Hello, I'm Madison Norman," she said as she advanced toward the pair with a smile. "I'm sorry I didn't have a chance to meet you when I was here interviewing." She held out her hand to Laura who was short and petite. Madison took a brief moment to admire what she could see of the silky, black hair that seemed to hang in a neat curtain, halfway down the other woman's back.

"Hello, I'm Laura Parker. It's a pleasure to meet you." She returned the handshake with a firm grip of her own, her manner slightly stiff.

Madison smiled again and turned the other person present. She extended her hand which was grasped in a strong but not bruising grip.

"I guess you've figured out that I'm Bruce Johnson," he said and gave Madison a friendly, toothy smile. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

"Thank you," Madison said, returning the infectious smile. "It's a pleasure to meet the both of you. I just wanted to introduce myself and talk for a little bit before I start wading through all the material Stephanie shared with me. This room seems too big for just the three of us. Let's go to my office," she suggested, trying to act as if supervising employees was an everyday occurrence for her.

Bruce and Laura nodded their agreement and followed Madison to her office.

Madison drove home that afternoon feeling pretty good about her new job and the people she would be spending so much time with. She tried to down play the niggling doubt she felt about Laura's demeanor. While Laura had been polite, Madison sensed some undercurrent tension emanating from the other woman. She was baffled since today was the first time they had met and try as she might, she couldn't think of a single thing she had done or said that could have offended Laura.

"At least I have Bruce," she said, grabbing her briefcase and walking to her apartment. Bruce's manner had seemed much more forthcoming. He seemed like an easy person to get along with and had gladly accepted Madison's invitation to lunch. Over lunch, which Laura declined pleading a previous engagement, he had shared his insights into the inner workings of the department as well as the University. She unlocked her door, smiling at the memory of his air guitar demonstration on the walk back from lunch. Bruce had even taken a couple of bows after a few bystanders applauded his effort.

He was definitely going to be an asset to have around. To be fair, Madison had to admit that Laura had also been helpful, but still the feeling of distance, maybe even resentment, seeped through her polite demeanor. Her almond-shaped dark eyes seemed to be waiting for Madison to trip up and make a wrong move. It was not the best way to start a new job in a new city and a new life.

Please let me be imagining things. Her behavior just seemed distant because Bruce's was so friendly, I hope. Madison reached up and smoothed out the wrinkle that was surely marring her forehead. "Only good thoughts," she told the yin yang symbol and took a deep breath. After only one day, it was too early to be certain about anything.

She shook her head and went to change out of her work clothes. As was her custom, she picked out the outfit for the next day. With the department staff meeting in mind, she chose the charcoal striped jacket with the matching knee length skirt. It looked very demure until one noticed the slit up the right side. Adding a sleeveless red shell, she was satisfied that she would appear professional and in control when she met the remainder of her peers.

After throwing two slices of pizza in the toaster oven, Madison pulled out a chair and sat down at the small kitchen table. Winding down from the excitement of the day, she was struck with a sense of loneliness. She frowned, considering what she had to do to meet new people. There was no Warren or David to smooth her way.

In the distance, she heard a barking dog. "That's what I need," she decided. Considering the size of her apartment, she should search for a small dog or a cat to keep her company. She gave a start as the timer on the oven sounded. Her stomach grumbling, she pulled out the heated slices.

Later that evening, Madison hit the save button and gave a sigh of relief. She was glad to finally get the pieces of a story that had been floating around in her brain together. Closing out of the software, she opened her e-mail and was disappointed to see zero new messages. Even junk mail would have been distracting. The phone rang before she could berate herself for being pathetic.


"Hello, Dr. Norman, it's the not-so-neighborhood welcome wagon," a chipper voice said. "I'm calling to make sure you're transitioning okay."

Madison smiled. "Hey Suz, what's shaking?"

"You don't want to know," Susan quipped. "So how did it go today?"

"Okay. It went...okay."

"So why do I hear hesitation in your voice?"

"It's nothing really," Madison said quickly, not wanting to give credence to her doubts. "First day jitters. Ask me again in a couple of weeks."

"I will," Susan replied, willing to let the matter drop. "So how's the cute boss?"

"As attractive as ever. In fact, after talking with her this morning, she seems even more attractive. I know I'm going to enjoy working with her."

"That's great. Hey, why don't you come to the big city for the weekend? We'll celebrate your first week on the job."



Three weeks later, Madison dropped her briefcase by the door and kicked off her heels, letting out a long, relieved breath. Today she finally felt like she was settling into the job. As she had surmised, Bruce was easy to get along with. They had quickly established an easy give and take relationship that made her job easier.

Madison frowned as she sorted through her mail, thinking about her other employee. Laura was still an enigma. On a couple of occasions, Laura had seemed in danger of losing her aloof demeanor, only to catch herself and clam up. Staring blankly at the envelopes in her hand, she admitted to herself she was bothered by being disliked for no reason. She placed the mail back on the counter and proceeded to her bedroom.

While she undressed, Madison considered and dismissed several reasons for Laura's dislike. In the end, she reached the conclusion it was up to Laura to bridge the gap. She had done everything possible to reach out to the other woman. And now it's up to her because I'm not going anywhere.

Her stomach growled in a demand for attention, banishing thoughts of her problem child. Madison threw on some clothes and made her way to the kitchen in search of dinner. She longed for one of Melissa's delicious meals, and sighed as she pulled a frozen meal from the freezer. She knew how to cook, but it seemed like too much effort for just one.

"You need to learn how to cook for one. All this artificial stuff can't be good, no matter how convenient it is."

After she finished her meal, Madison moved to the living room. She walked over to the bookcase, her gaze caught by the tranquility of the yin yang symbol. She removed the piece from its stand, wondering if her life would ever have this kind of balance. On the job front things were going okay, but her social life still needed a boost. With a fanciful bow, she replaced the glass, settling on the couch smiling.

Despite the social void, she was happy with her new life in Athens. "I just need to get out more," she told herself once again. Maybe next week she would start her search for a local group to join.

Madison glanced at the caller ID before answering the phone. "Hey Susan, what's up?"

"Good news," Susan burst out with excitement. "I met some neighbors of yours last weekend. I took the liberty of telling them about you, and they promised to look you up."

"You're a life saver. That's one thing I can cross off my list. When do I get to meet them?"

"I gave them your cell phone number. And before you worry that they're serial killers or something, I have several friends who can vouch for them."

"Like your friends couldn't be serial killers."

"No, I leave that to your one night stands."

"Low blow. That could have happened to anybody."

Susan chuckled. "Right, Madwoman, keep telling yourself that. One day it may come true. So what ya doin' this weekend?"


"Such suspicion. Here I am calling you with good news and you treat me like an ugly stepsister."

Madison rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. What do you need me to do?"

"Come play at a charity soccer game Saturday."

"But I haven't played soccer in years," she protested.

"Trust me, this is the kind of game you can play with a beer in your hand," Susan explained. "Come on. I already volunteered you to be on offense since you're in such great shape and all."

"You flatterer you. But you're in just as great shape as I am, how come you aren't playing?"

"You're so cynical, my dear," Susan said, brushing aside her friend's question. "You know you don't have anything better to do and I promise it'll be so much fun. Plus I have it on good authority that it's a great opportunity to cruise chicks," she added with a wicked laugh.

"Me or you? Just fess up."

Susan grumbled. "Okay, I'm working the concession stand and maybe there might be somebody else working as well."

Madison grinned. "You sly dog."

"Hey, a sista needs love, too. And so does her friend".

"Give me time. I'll see you Friday, and think about where you're taking me to dinner."





Chapter Seven


Madison clutched her stomach as Susan expertly maneuvered her sedan into the already crowded parking lot. "I didn't realize it was going to be this big." She frowned, watching the throng of lesbians making their way to the field.

Susan pulled into an available space and turned off the ignition. "Hey, relax, will you. It's for a good cause." She put a reassuring hand on her friend's thigh. "It's all about fun," she joked.

"Then you go out there and play."

"Somebody has to be in charge of the concession stand. It's a sacrifice, but I'm a team player," she added, flashing a toothy grin.

"You are so full of bull," Madison charged, opening the door. She got out and stretched, her eyes getting wide as she took in the variety of attractive women.

"You will be able to keep your eyes on the game, won't you?" Susan asked, following the direction of Madison's eyes.

Madison turned, wiggling her eyebrows. "You're the one who said it was supposed to be fun."

"Now you're talking." Susan gave her a thumbs up before reaching in the trunk for her bag. "Let's go pick up chicks."

"I thought yours was working concession," she said, bumping Susan with her shoulder.

"Doesn't hurt to look." Susan flashed another grin and led Madison to her assigned team.

Madison was happy to spot one of the women she had met at dinner the night before. After quick introductions, the coach directed the team to the field for warm up. Although it was early, the day was already warm, and Madison was soon sweating.

"You can close your mouth now," Kahla taunted. "You'll catch bugs."

Ash whipped her eyes from the field and gave her friend a piercing glare. "What are you mumbling about now?" she asked, her tone bored. "I can't believe you're drunk already, the game hasn't even started."

"Somebody's drunk, but I don't think it's via alcohol," Kahla retorted, nudging her friend with her foot. "She is pretty cute."

"Hey!" Dee protested, slapping her partner's arm. "You're not supposed to notice that."

"Notice what dear?" Kahla looked around, her expression innocent.

"Oh give it up, you're busted." Ash reached out and poked Kahla in the stomach."

"Oh yeah? Well, you're busted with me, buddy. Even somebody with coke bottles for lenses would have noticed you staring."

"Shut up."

"Make me," Kahla taunted her expression smug.

"Time out!" Dee placed herself between the two friends. "I swear the two of you are so juvenile." She folded her arms over her chest and said, "Don't make me hurt you."

"Spoilsport," they muttered simultaneously.

"Somebody has to be the adult around the two of you. Now can we turn our attention back to the field? I think the game's about to start."

"Yeah, so Ash can go back to drooling," Kahla said with a snicker.

"Kahla, be nice," Dee warned. "Her tongue may have been hanging out of her mouth, but she was definitely not drooling."

Ash threw her hands up in the air. "Why am I friends with you two nut jobs anyway?" She stuck out her tongue and turned her attention back to the wild-haired brunette with the killer thighs. Must be a runner, she decided, unconsciously nodding her head. Making sure her mouth was closed, she was more careful about watching the other woman zip up and down the field.

Unaware of the scrutiny, Madison was having a great time. To her amazement, some of the players did actually play with a beer in their hands. She spent as much time chasing the ball as she did laughing at the ribald comments from the sidelines. Obviously soccer took a back seat to the opportunity to socialize, drink beer and cruise chicks.

At half time, she gladly accepted a cold beer from Susan. "This is good," she commented after the first deep swig.

"Yeah, but are you having fun?"

"Hell, yeah!" Madison clicked her bottle against Susan's. "This is a blast. I can't remember the last time I laughed this hard."

"And you have to admit the scenery is easy on the eyes." Susan's eyebrows crawled up her forehead as a well endowed red head with a bare midriff walked by.

"Down, girl."

"Don't I wish." Susan moaned and shook her head. "There's talk of a party after the game. You up for it?"

"Sure," Madison replied absently, admiring a buff butch who was flexing her arms. "Look at those arms. I bet she gives great hugs."

"You should go talk to her," her friend said.

"Are you crazy?" Madison put up a hand to cover her reddening cheeks.

"Want me to do it for you?"

"Don't you dare," she shot back, grabbing Susan's arm. "Besides, the game's getting ready to start up again," she noted with relief. "Don't you need to go back to selling stuff?"

"I'll let you slide this time, girlfriend," she said. "But it's time for you to start mixing it up, and now is as good a time as any."

Madison took the last swallow of beer and wiped her mouth. "I'll think about it," she said. Handing Susan her empty bottle, she grabbed a towel and wiped the sweat from her face. She threw the dirty towel at her friend and ran off to join her team on the sidelines.

Susan watched her friend go and was tempted to disobey orders and approach the buff brunette. Before she could make up her mind, she was called back to the concession stand. "There's always later." With a wicked laugh, she placed the bottle in the bin and stepped up to the counter. She was almost blinded by the display of yellow and black. "What can I get you, Buzz?" she asked grinning, referring to the mascot on the other woman's shirt, shorts, and cap.

"Funny," the other woman replied with a grin of her own. "I'll take three beers."

"Coming right up."

Kahla paid for her purchases, putting the change in the contribution cup. "Say, your girlfriend sure can play."

"Madison doesn't have a girlfriend." Susan gave the woman in front of her a closer look. Not buff, but cute in a boyish kind of way. "You interested?"

Kahla shook her head. "I'm asking for a friend."

"Tell your friend I'm a very protective friend," Susan said evenly.

Kahla nodded again. "Will do."

Susan watched her walk away before turning to the other person working with her. "Denise, do you know the Georgia Tech fanatic who just left?"

"Not really, but I think Trish works with her wife."

Susan raised her hands and smiled. "I'm not asking for me. She said one of her friends was interested in Madison. I'm just trying to check it out."

"If it's the tall one who looks like a model, your friend is very lucky," Denise said with a knowing smirk.

"Can't be her. This one would have to be the shy type."

"Then I don't know. Check with Trish," she said before stepping away to help another customer.

Kahla sauntered back, her mind furiously scheming. She handed out the beers then plopped down on the blanket. "That's not her girlfriend," she announced. "You owe me Patterson."

"Why should I believe you?"

"Fine, ask her yourself then, unless you're too chicken?" She put her hands under her armpits, flapped her "wings", and made clucking noises.

"Is that a dare, Kahla Marie Bowens?" Ash asked, her almond-shaped eyes narrowing to slits.

Kahla leaned to her side and pulled out a ten-dollar bill. "This says you won't say a word to her before the end of the game. Her name is Madison by the way."

Ash raised her right pinky and held it toward her friend. Still smirking, Kahla grabbed it with her pinky and pulled.

Dee looked from one to the other, grinning. The game was suddenly much more interesting.

Ash spent the next ten minutes thinking of ways to approach, Madison. Normally, other women approached her. Damn, why did I let her psyche me like that? She growled under her breath when her friend started clucking. "Juvy."

"Chicken. Bawk, bawk," Kahla taunted, flapping her arms.

"That's it!" Ash said, reaching for her friend.

"Wait," Dee yelled, looking over toward the coach. "Looks like they're asking for subs. Now's your chance, Ash."

Kahla wasted no time and hustled her friend over to the coach. Ash watched on the sidelines as Madison managed to score a fluke goal passing to a teammate. The teammate, who was a little wobbly, stuck out her foot to kick the ball and missed. The poor goalie, who switched positions thinking the trajectory of the ball would be changed, could only watch the shot blast by her untouched.

Ash grinned as she watched Madison jump up and down, accepting high fives from the other players. Her grin grew wider at the flustered look on the other woman's face brought on by some of the comments from the sidelines.

"Ash, line up as half-back," the coach ordered, throwing her a blue vest.

Ash ran on the field, keeping her quarry in sight.

Madison was getting into position, when a new player for the other team ran out on the field. Wow! She eyed the tall beauty appreciatively. The other woman had a lanky figure, with wide shoulders that tapered down to a trim waist. Her long black hair was pulled back in a pony tail that was threaded through the back of her cap. Her skin was almost bronze, but from where she was standing Madison couldn't tell if it was because of heritage or tanning. From the distance it appeared that her eyes were almond shaped, hinting at Asian heritage. One thing was for sure, she seemed to be one confident woman, easily accepting the accolades being slung her way. Guess I'm not the only one enjoying the new scenery.

The referee, who had also been ogling the new player, was brought back to attention by a shout from her partner from the sidelines. She gave a sheepish grin and blew the whistle signaling a kick-off, forcing Madison and the other players to reluctantly bring their attention back to the game.

Madison took one more glance then turned away as the ball was kicked. She backed up, keeping her eyes on the advancing players. She moved forward to intercept the ball while searching for a teammate to pass to. As the ball hit her foot, Madison tumbled under the onslaught of another body. She was momentarily taken aback at the aggressive play before sniffing for the scent of beer, figuring it was alcohol and not overzealousness that caused the collision.

"Are you okay?" the body on top of her asked in a pleasantly deep voice.

"I think so," Madison said. She looked up into the beautiful face of the new player. Definite Asian ancestry, and I don't think the skin color is all due to a tan.

The other woman rolled off slowly and stood up. She leaned over and offered a helping hand. "I got a little carried away," she explained with a crooked grin. "The league I used to play in was much more aggressive, and I forgot myself for a moment."

"You can knock me over anytime," Madison said without thinking and then blushed. Think it, don't say it! She took the proffered hand and let herself be pulled up by a sure, strong grip. Yup, she must be about five-eleven. Look at those sleek muscles, and she has the cutest grin. She definitely has a girlfriend, and I'd better quite staring before she comes on to the field to kick my ass. Madison made herself look away from the entrancing woman before her and smoothed back her hair.

"I'll try not to do it again, at least not during the game," the dark-haired woman said with a wink. "I guess I should introduce myself since we've already been horizontal together. I'm Ash."

Is she flirting with me? "I...um...I'm Madison," she stammered, blushing from the caressing glance she was getting from those dark eyes. She is flirting with me. Her heart rate sped up as she swallowed nervously.

"Are you ladies okay?" the referee asked. She started patting each of them on the behind under the guise of brushing off non-existing grass.

"Sally!" a voice yelled from the sidelines.

"I was only helping, honey," Sally whined and reluctantly moved her hands. "You've got to watch that woman, she can be mean," she whispered with a conspiratorial grin.

Both women laughed and assured the ref that they were okay. Madison was awarded a free kick, and the game continued with both Ash and Madison exchanging glances and comments while still maintaining some semblance of playing soccer. Madison wasn't sure where this overconfident, close to obnoxious woman inside her came from, but she was happy to have her.

The game ended with Madison's team ahead, two to one. Bystanders joined the players on the field for congratulations. Sally blew her whistle, getting everyone's attention. She announced they had raised over five hundred dollars in tips and donations to help defray medical costs for one of the participant's partner.

"And let me remind you that Dee and Kahla have graciously volunteered their home for the after party. If you signed up to bring something, bring it. See you there."

Madison stood on the outskirts of the crowd chewing on her bottom lip. I have to do something. I can't just leave it. Straightening her shoulders, she walked in Ash's direction. She smiled, noting that the tall woman was by herself.

Ash looked up to saw Madison advancing. She smiled in relief. "Hey."

"Hey yourself," Madison said feeling her cheeks heat up. "I was just checking to see if maybe you...we...like...um...are going to the party?"

Ash nodded. "Hopefully, I'll see you there?"

Madison grinned and nodded, not trusting her mind to come up with a coherent response.

"Good." They smiled at each other with neither one talking.

"Ash, you coming?" Kahla yelled.

Ash gave a start. "I...got to go. I'll see you later, right?"

"Definitely." Madison clasped her hands together and watched her sprint away. She turned to look for Susan.

Ash ran toward Kahla, snatching the ten-dollar bill her friend was waving. "Be right back." She hurried to catch up with the woman who was carrying the tip jar. "Here," she said. "The best ten dollars I've ever won." Giving the surprised woman a big grin, she returned to her friends.




Chapter Eight

I can't believe I just did that! Madison picked up her pace to give Susan a hand with the ice chest.

"I saw a whole new side of you today," Susan said slyly, as they walked to her car. "I liked her," she added with a wink.

"Funny." Madison smirked. "You know, I saw a whole new side of me, too. I don't know where she came from, but I think I'll keep her," she joked.

"Could it have been brought on by the gorgeous Amazon who was so obviously pursuing you?"

"Pursuing is a little bit strong, don't you think?" Madison asked. "I tend to see it more as showing of interest. I mean she didn't even ask for my full name or phone number and I was the one who tracked her down to make sure she was coming to the party."

"Oh, so you were the one doing the pursuing?"

"Yeah, I guess I was." Madison blushed and gave an embarrassed laugh. "You don't think I came off too strong, do you?" she asked suddenly unsure of herself. They set the cooler down.

"No," was the succinct reply accompanied by a roll of the eyes. She unlocked the car, flipping open the trunk. "Believe me, she's very interested." She motioned for Madison to help her put the cooler in the trunk.

"Thanks." Madison wiped pretend sweat off her brow. "I had me worried for a minute. It's amazingly hard to be rational when you're in a tizzy. Now, let's go before the old me shows up," she urged.

"No chance I'm going to let that happen," Susan mumbled under her breath as she slid in the driver's seat. Susan pressed on the gas pedal and swiftly pulled out of the parking lot. "I need to stop by the store and grab some more ice."

"Okay. Should I pick up something? I hate to go empty handed."

"Nah, you and the ice are with me." She spared her friend a quick glance. "And Maddy, don't worry, be happy."

"How wonderfully trite. And for your info, I'm not worried just anxious. There is a difference."

"You're talking to a professional writer," Susan said dryly, pulling up to a red stop light. "I was your teacher remember?"

"I already knew everything before the class," Madison bragged. "I just signed up to get a free trip."

"Whatever." Susan pulled into a convenience store. "I'll be right back. Then you can tell me more tall tales about your writing skills."

As soon as Madison walked into the party, her eyes searched for a certain tall soccer player who had so thoroughly captured her attention. She was extremely disappointed when a perusal of the house didn't turn up her prey. It really was too much to expect a gorgeous creature like that to not only be available, but to be interested in me as well.

"Looking for anyone in particular?" a familiar voice resonated near Madison's ear.

Madison shivered and goose bumps ran up her arms as warm breath caressed her ear. She tried to tone down the grin on her face to below face splitting level before turning to look up at Ash. "Just checking out the house," she said, liking the feel of the taller woman's eyes on her face. "It's my first time here."

Ash nodded as if she believed the story she had just been told. "Look, my friend drafted me to be in charge of the grill, would you care to join me outside?" She titled her head in the direction of the back door.

"Sure." Madison forgot all about the notion of dampening her grin this time and followed Ash to the back yard. Now that she didn't have to pretend to focus on the game, she became aware of the awesome backside that preceded her. Please let her be somewhat sane.

"That was some game," Ash said when they reached the grill. "Are you on a team?"

Madison shook her head. "It was easy to look good with that bunch," she replied and smiled. "I would have been put to shame if that had been a real competition."

Ash gave her a measured look. "I'm not so sure about that," she said with a quick glance at Madison's strong thighs.

Madison ducked her head to hide her red cheeks. "Thanks." She kicked at a tuft of grass. "You're not so bad yourself." She looked up, taking in the crooked grin on Ash's face that made her pulse race. She swallowed hard. "Do you need any help?"

"I got it," Ash replied evenly even though her heart was pounding. She opened the grill and waited for the smoke to dissipate. "I could use a beer though if you don't mind." She spread out the white coals. "There are some in the cooler against the wall."

"Be right back." Madison silently exhaled pent up angst. Being charming and spontaneous had been so much easier during the game. She grabbed two bottles and rejoined Ash. "Here you go."

"Thanks." Ash accepted the beer, twisted off the cap and put it in her pocket. She took a long swig before setting the bottle down and arranging the meat on the grill. Once everything was to her liking, she closed the top and turned back to Madison.

"You do that well."

"I should as many times as Kahla has stuck me with this job," Ash said wryly. "She loves to throw a party and draft her friends to help."

"I know all about drafting. My friend Susan drafted me for the game today. I can't complain though," she said, sneaking a quick glance at Ash before taking a sip.

"Me, either," Ash agreed. "I've only been back a couple of months so this was the perfect opportunity for me to meet new people."

"I've only been here a couple of weeks myself," Madison admitted. "I moved down from North Carolina, you?"

"Oregon, but I'm sure you can tell from my accent that I'm from around here."

Madison grinned and nodded. "I bet you got teased about it a lot in Oregon."

"All the time." She chuckled. "People see my face and expect an entirely different accent. It comes in handy sometimes," she admitted with a wicked grin. "I can pretend like I don't speak English and be believable."

Madison laughed. "I bet that's pretty funny."

"What can I say?" She shrugged. "I'm just a walking mass of contradictions--a tall, Asian-African American with a thick southern accent."

You forgot beautiful. Madison suppressed a sigh when a crowd spilled out the back screen door and headed their way. She wanted to keep Ash all to herself for a little while longer. She forced a welcoming smile.

"We'll talk more later," Ash said quietly and turned to the grill.

"I should have known you'd be out here," a short, powerfully built woman said, giving Ash a slap on the back.

"What can I say, T?" Ash joked. "It's my role in life."

Madison soon found herself separated from Ash to the outskirts of the group. At first she pretended to keep up with the conversation, but her eyes continually gravitated to Ash. She was fascinated by the coordinated movements of Ash's body as she tended to the food, and the way she flung back her head and laughed. But she was especially drawn to the warmth radiating from the dark inky eyes and the crooked smile.

"Kahla I need a platter to put these dogs on," Ash announced. She looked around and into hazel eyes that were regarding her steadily. Her chest tightened and a tingling started in her stomach. "You okay over there?"

"Yeah," Madison said with a shy smile.

"Here." Kahla thrust the plate at Madison with a knowing grin. "Maybe you can help Ash with this."

Madison blushed. "Sure." She accepted the platter and moved to Ash's side.

"Thanks." Ash deftly transferred the wieners from the grill to the platter. "Hurry back out, okay?" she said for Madison's ears only.

Madison could only nod. With a last glance at Ash, she rushed to the kitchen and passed the plate to one of the women arranging the food.

"Great. Can you take this chicken back with you?"

"No problem," she replied, grateful for an excuse to get close to Ash again. She spent the next hour, transporting food from the grill to the kitchen, standing a close to Ash as she could get without being in the way.

"Thanks for your help," Ash said, closing the top of the empty grill. "We make a good team."

"Yeah, we do," she agreed, her cheeks warm. "But you'll find I like to eat."

"Well let's go before the vultures eat everything." Ash held out her hand.

Inside, they shared a plate, squeezed against one another on a crowded sofa. The heat emanating from Ash's body made concentration difficult. Only the smirk on Susan's face, sitting across from her, kept Madison's mind focused on the discussion. She was startled when Ash mumbled something about the grill and left abruptly.

Ash stumbled into the back yard and started pacing. Being so close to Madison made it impossible for her to sit still any longer. She had to leave before she did something totally stupid like grab the other woman, throw her over her shoulder and head for the jungle. I'm crazy! She grinned at her foolish thoughts.

"What's up?"

Ash's head jerked up in alarm. "Shit, Kahla, you almost scared the shit out of me."

"It's not my fault you're acting like some kind of caged animal. What happened?'

"Nothing." Ash put her hands behind her back and gave her friend a sheepish smile. "I'd just like to be alone with her for ten minutes. Is that too much to ask?"

"Ashley's got a girlfriend," Kahla chanted, enjoying her friend's discomfort.

"One of these days, I will kill you," she promised with a glare. "Real slow like."

"Come on, I'm your bestest friend. You can't kill me."

Ash exhaled loudly. "You're right, but I can think about it."

"Instead of that, go back inside and figure out how to lure Madison away from the pack." Kahla slung an arm over Ash's wide shoulders. "I bet you ten, she's just as eager to have some down time with you."

"You're not getting any of my money, Bowens," she said, feeling saner.

Madison gave a sigh of relief when she noticed Ash standing in the doorway. Rubbing her forehead, she worried about what she had done to push the other woman away. With a slight shrug, she shot Susan a questioning glance. Her friend shrugged in return, seemingly indicating her own confusion.

Trying for nonchalance, Madison let her eyes drift in Ash's direction. She jerked them away, startled when they fell on dark brown eyes. Rattled, she stood up and headed for the other opening and the bathroom. A short time later, there was a soft knock on the door. She opened it and quickly pulled Susan inside.

"I came on too strong, didn't I?" she asked, pressing her fingers against her eyes. "I'm an idiot!"

"First, calm down." Susan removed her friend's hands, smoothing down the strands of hair that had escaped from their band. "I think you're reading the situation wrong. I'm no scientist, but there was enough chemistry between you guys to bring down the house. Come on, we need to be out there to check it out."

"I don't know." Madison frowned, shaking her head. "I think we should go before I embarrass myself some more. She obviously doesn't want to be around me."

"Ten minutes," Susan pleaded. "Just ten minutes and then we can go. You don't even have to talk to her."

Madison chewed her lip, uncertainty written on her face.

"Please, Maddy," Susan begged. "I'm so close to getting a phone number." Madison was instantly contrite. "Oh jeez, I'm sorry. Of course we can stay. Take as long as you need."

"Thanks, you're a good friend." Susan hid her relief in a tight hug.

"You go on out. I need another minute." Madison opened the door, shooing Susan out. She walked to the mirror above the sink, frowning at the appearance of her hair. "No wonder she bolted." She released her hair, combing it with her fingers. "Don't even look her way," she told her reflection as she replaced the band.

She eased from the bathroom and made her way to one of the front rooms, hoping Ash wouldn't be there.

"Hey, Madison."

Looking across the room, she spied some of the players from her team. With a smile of relief, she joined the group and was quickly pulled into their argument about female TV detectives.

At some point later, she turned when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She expected it to be Susan checking up on her. Madison felt the heat rising to her cheeks as her heart started to race.

"I brought you a beer," Ash said, holding out a bottle.

Madison smiled her thanks, unsure of how to proceed. She took a sip and looked away.

"Can I talk to you for a minute?" Ash asked.

She searched Ash's face before nodding. They found a quiet space for just the two of them.

"I'm sorry--" they began in unison and stopped.

"I'll go first, okay?" Ash asked. "I just wanted a chance to talk to you away from everybody else," she explained, staring at the label on the beer bottle. "Is that okay?"

Madison smiled in relief. "I thought I came on too strong or something."

"No, no. I was just a little frustrated earlier. Patience is not my strongest virtue," Ash added with a smile.

"Then what is?" Madison asked, intrigued by the woman standing before her.

Ash put a finger to her chin and pretended to think. "Will this be on the test?" she joked.

"Of course. And let me tell you right now, young lady, I don't grade on a curve."

They looked at each other and laughed, letting most of the tension dissipate.

"Tell me more about Portland. I've never been."

They lost track of time, talking and getting to know each other better. Madison was just starting to discuss her recent relocation when Susan interrupted them. She had Madison's neighbors in tow. After a round of quick introductions, Jenny and Reggie admitted that they needed to leave but promised to get in touch with Madison soon.





Chapter Nine


"I can't believe we did all that talking and didn't get around to discussing where we lived," Ash said once they were alone again. She smiled to show her appreciation of this new bit of information. "I just assumed you lived in Atlanta."

"I assumed the same thing about you. And I didn't want you to know right away that I didn't live here." Madison shrugged sheepishly. "I figured we get around to it later."

"Okay, that might have crossed my mind, too," Ash said, her lips twisted in a rueful smile.

"So not only did we both recently move to Georgia, we both moved to Athens, huh?"

"Must be fate," Ash said with a satisfied grin. "Although, I'd like to think we would have run into each other closer to home anyway."

"Athens is much smaller." Madison said.

"Believe me it expands once the University cranks back up in August."

"We still would have had six weeks to find each other."

"I like that," Ash said, moving closer.


"Finding each other." She reached for Madison's hand, intertwining their fingers.

Madison smiled, returning the pressure. A feeling of tenderness rose swiftly, almost knocking her off balance. "Well you can always find me at the University."

"You work there, too? But I shouldn't be surprised, given that Athens still is primarily a University town. You should come to the rec center, we can work out."

"A jock, huh? I should have guessed," Madison teased. "You probably spend you day watching nubile women working out."

"Jealousy will eat you up." Ash released their hands and tapped Madison lightly on the nose.

"Being eaten up is not necessarily a bad thing." I can't believe I just said that! How many beers have I had?

My kind of woman! "Oh, yeah?" Ash had a wicked grin. "You're a lot wilder than you look, aren't you?"

Madison's face turned bright red and she brought up her hand to cover her cheeks. What have I gotten my self into? She dropped her hands and took a deep breath to regain some calm. "Truth is, I've been wilder today that I have been for most of my twenty-eight years." Madison peered into her empty beer bottle. Shit, I just blew it.

"So is that good or bad?" Ash nudged Madison's shoulder.

"Uh...huh?" she stammered, wondering what to say.

"You being wild today, is that good or bad?" Ash looked at Madison intently.

"Good. Well, as long as you don't expect me to be this witty and vivacious all the time," she clarified tongue in cheek.

"Vivacious?" Ash threw back her head and laughed. "Do you write Harlequin Romances for the University? I swear I haven't run across that word since I tried to read one of those when I was twelve."

"Oh, so you used to read romances?" Madison grinned. "Did you read them before or after basketball practice?"

"It was softball, smarty. And basketball, soccer, track and any other sport I could get into."

"So you admit that you read Harlequins."

Ash shrugged and had a sheepish look on her face. "There was this girl I liked who used to read them all the time, so...you know..." She once again shrugged her shoulders.

"Stud muffin at twelve," Madison said. "Wow, I am in the presence of royalty." She offered an abbreviated bow.

Ash blew on her fingertips and wiped them off on her shirt. "I wanted to be," she admitted. "Of course it was all for naught as she only had eyes for Billy."

"Naught? Do you write medieval tales to go along with the recreational torture?" Madison teased.

"Forsooth, you found me out." Ash leaned closer to Madison and whispered, "If you tell anybody I'll have to kill you."

"By eating me to death?" Madison's lips touched Ash's ear.

"If it's necessary for the job, it will be done." Ash pulled back and gave Madison her best feral stare. "I do have some experience in this area," she added with cocky assurance.

"Is it me, or is it getting hot in here?" Madison pulled on the collar of her shirt and fanned herself.

Ash placed a hand on Madison's forehead. "It's you," she said, her voice deep and smooth.

Madison shuddered and closed her eyes. She exhaled sharply, sure her body was going to spontaneously combust as she struggled to slow down the heat curling up in a spiral from her groin. A moan escaped her lips before she could control it.

"Madison, are you okay?"

Madison opened her eyes and discovered almond-shaped black eyes filling her vision. "You mean other than the fact that you started a barn fire in my shorts?"

"Did I do that?" Ash stepped closer and pulled the other woman's hips to hers. "It's only fair because you did the same thing to me," she whispered. They stood there not moving, hips touching, lost in each other's eyes.

"I knew you were trouble," Madison finally whispered and rested her head on Ash's shoulder. "I really like what we have going, but I need to slow it down or get burned up.".

"I'm glad one of us has some constraints." Ash moved to embrace Madison, and she bent down so her cheek was resting against Madison's head.

"Hey you two, get a room."

The two startled women jerked apart, having forgotten that they weren't in their own private world. Ash blinked rapidly before turning her head in the direction of the suggestion. "You're just jealous, Kahla" she taunted and prominently displayed her middle finger for her friend.

"I must inform you, Ashley Monroe Patterson that you are in violation of the anti-trust monopoly stipulation." Kahla said in an officious tone

"Ashley?" Madison turned to the tall woman beside her with raised brows.

"Excuse me a minute while I go violate the anti-butt kicking stipulation." Ash took off at full speed toward her friend who having known this crazy person all her life was already trying to bail. The chase led them through a crowded room and out the back door.

Madison followed and was just in time to see them run out the door.

"They're never going to grow up," someone nearby commented.

Madison turned to the person beside her, picking up on the underlying fondness in the other woman's voice. "Do they do this often?" she asked.

"All the time," the tall blond assured her. "My name is Dee by the way. I don't think we've met yet."

"I'm Madison." She extended her hand with a smile. "I take it you know those two well then."

"Since about kindergarten. We all grew up not far from here and have stayed friends over the years. In fact, Kahla is my partner, but you have to promise not to hold it against me."

Madison laughed. "Wouldn't think of it. She's a Georgia Tech fanatic, right?"

"Did the shirt, shorts or hat give it away?"

"All of those and some disparaging remarks she threw at Ash earlier."

"You got to love 'em," Dee deadpanned as she tucked a strand of her shoulder length hair behind her ear. "You're new around here, aren't you?"

"Yeah," she nodded. "A friend of mine signed me up for the team. She claims it's to help me get adjusted to a new city."

"Well welcome to Atlanta."

"I don't technically live in Atlanta." Madison glanced at the doorway, hoping for Ash's return. "I live in Athens."

"I know you've met Ash, but did you meet Reggie and Jenny? They live there too."

She nodded. "They're my neighbors. Susan Lindley, who seems to know everybody, introduced them to me."

"Should I assume you're affiliated with the University?"

"I was recently hired at one of the research centers."

"Do you know Laura Parker?"

Madison noticed the perceptible stiffening in Dee's demeanor. "Small world, huh?" she joked with a nervous laugh. "Yes, she works with me." Madison fought to keep her features neutral. This world is too damn small!

"Oh." That one word spoke volumes. "So you're her new boss. She's told us all about you," she said. "I need to go play hostess. I'll talk to you later." She left with a curt nod.

Damn, what did I do to Laura to deserve this? I wonder if everyone here is a friend of hers. Hell, I bet Ash is a friend of hers!

"I guess I don't have to ask if you're having a good time," Susan said, sidling up next to her friend. "Can I say I told you so?"

"Told me what?" Madison asked, distracted by the Laura problem.

"About the game being a good way to meet women?"

"Meet yes, keep no."

"You didn't seem to be having any problems a few minutes ago." Susan nudged her friend with her shoulder. "You should do like I do and just kiss them," she said while waving a piece of paper with a number on it.

Madison gave her a wan smile. "If only it were that easy. You don't have a coworker who hates you for no reason." She stopped when her voice began to quiver. "Turns out I've done something that she's shared with who knows how many people. God, can I just get transferred to Mars?" She pressed her palms against her eyes and sighed.

"Shit!" Susan smacked herself on the forehead. "This can't be happening." Madison groaned. "Should I shoot myself now?"

"I hope I'm wrong, but I overheard someone asking about Ash's sister Laura. They were surprised she didn't show up because she's also good friends with Dee and Kahla."

"That would explain the glacial lasers shooting from Dee's eyes when she realized who I was. I guess the good news is that she doesn't hate me because I'm a lesbian," she said more to herself than her friend. "I swear, Susan, I haven't been anything but nice to that woman. I don't understand." Madison rubbed her temples, trying to contain her frustration. It was bad enough to have to deal with this situation at work, but now that it spilled into her personal life, she was ready to shake a certain someone.

"Me, either." Susan frowned. "We need to get to the bottom of this. Why don't you try to talk to Ash? You guys were really mixing it up earlier. I bet she'll be willing to listen to your side."

Madison shook her head, suddenly disheartened. "No, let's just go. If the vibes I got from Dee are anything to go by, I don't even want to know what I'd get from Laura's own sister." She bit the inside of her cheek, fighting off tears. There was no way she was going to give anyone here the satisfaction of seeing her cry.

Susan took one look at her friend and nodded. Now was not the time for reason.

By the time they reached Susan's car, tears were flowing unchecked down Madison's cheeks. She cupped her face in her hands as they drove away. Susan didn't attempt to console her friend. She simply handed her a pack of tissue and kept quiet.

When they pulled into her garage, she hustled Madison out of the car and onto the sofa. Excusing herself, she went to the kitchen for water. "Here," she said, pressing a glass of water in Madison's hand. "Your throat is probably dry."

Madison attempted a smile before dutifully taking a sip of ice cold water. "Thanks." She cleared her throat. "Sorry we had to rush out of there," she said looking at the glass in her hand. "I didn't even give you a chance to say goodbye." She felt the cushions sink as her friend sat down.

"Don't worry about that. Tell me what's going on with you," Susan urged gently.

She carefully placed the glass on the low-slung table in front of her. "I'm terrified," she whispered, squeezing her eyes shut. "I figured I could handle the work situation, but now that it's spread..." Madison plopped her head back unable to continue. The reflection from the overhead light seemed to trace the path of her tears. "I feel so goddamn hopeless."

Susan gathered Madison into her arms. "We'll get this straightened out. I promise."

"I can't move again. I can't," she sobbed.

"I don't want you to." Susan leaned her head against Madison's unruly strands, her eyes glistening with tears. "I'm just getting used to having you around." She rubbed Madison's back, waiting for the storm to subside.

With a wrenching sigh, Madison finally pulled away. She reached for the box of tissues and wiped her burning eyes. Picking up the glass, she drained it then used the condensation to sooth her heated cheeks. "I had to get out of there," she said, her voice low. "It's stupid I know, but I didn't want Ash to look at me the way Dee did. That would have hurt too much."

Susan hesitated. "I hear what you say, but I still think it might not have been like that. You guys were doing some serious connecting. I think...I think you should give her the benefit of a doubt. Just think about it."

"What's the use?" Madison blew out a sharp breath. "Hell, I don't even know why she would give me a second look. She's like some model, and I'm strictly average. She's probably glad I left."

Susan growled in frustration, wishing again for ten minutes alone with Courtney. "You know that's not true," she retorted. "She was as interested in you as you were in her. And she wasn't the only one, let me tell you. Plenty of other women asked about you."

Madison grimaced. "Part of me knows that. But the bigger part is still terrified that every lesbian between here and Athens is whispering about me behind my back. And those who aren't will eventually."

Again Susan hesitated before speaking. "That can't be true, Maddy. I know a lot of people, and I haven't heard a thing about it."

"I wish Ash hadn't been one of those who knew." She sighed. "I have to talk to Laura. She's the key to all my problems. It's too late for Ash, but I don't want to go through this again. I shouldn't have to," she said and wiped her eyes. "I haven't done anything wrong."

"That's the spirit," Susan cheered. "You might want to drop a hint about libel. And tell her you know a good attorney if that doesn't convince her to keep her mouth shut."

"But I don't know any lawyers."

Susan gave her an evil grin. "Yeah, but I do."

Madison shuddered, imagining the damage a suit would cause. "I hope it doesn't come to that."

"It won't. Look, it's been a long day. Why not take a hot shower and hit the sheets. You remember what they say about tomorrow?"

"It's another day?"

"No," she said, rolling her eyes. After clearing her throat, Susan bellowed the theme song from "Annie" and refused to stop until Madison joined her.

"You are certifiable," Madison declared once they finished singing. "Thanks for your wonderful support, friend." She smiled at Susan and pulled her close for a hug.

"Anytime, sweetie," Susan said and patted her on the back, thinking all the while about strangling a woman she had never met.



With a sigh Ash sat up and turned on the dim bedside lamp. She swung her legs over the side of the bed, ready to admit that she wasn't going to fall asleep. According to her watch, two hours had passed since she had first lain down. She looked around the room and wondered if she shouldn't have gone back to Athens. Maybe then she could sleep.

She crossed the floor of Dee and Kahla's guest room and looked out the window. Ash looked up at the sliver of the moon shining brightly enough to overcome the city lights. Leaning against the window jam, she sighed for what might have been.

The evening had been going so well. "If only...if only..." Flipping her loose mane behind her ears, she started pacing around the large bedroom. She didn't know which if only to stop at. ""If only I had never gone to the game...never seen Madison...never talked to her...never connected with her...never left her alone....enough already, what's done is done." Ash trudged back to the bed and sat down, but her mind didn't want to forget.

Screaming like a banshee, Ash caught up with Kahla in the back yard, tackling her from behind.

"Shit, Ash, I'm think I'm getting to old for this."

"I know what you mean." Ash rolled onto her back, squinting against the brightness of the floodlight. "Next time I'll just tag you, okay?"

"Works for me." Kahla sat up with a grin on her face. "So, is it okay to sing 'Ash's got a girlfriend' now?"

"Only if you want my hands around your throat. I didn't do it to you when you started acting like a wuss over Dee."

"That's right, you did worse."

"Get over it." Ash jumped up and dusted off her clothes. "And now that I've taken care of your tired ass, I believe I have some unfinished business in the house," she said, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively.

"You wish."

"You're just jealous 'cause I have skills." She sauntered to the house wearing a big smile. Her smile gradually faltered as she worked her way through each room. Ash finally approached a group of players from the other team. "Hey, have any of you seen Madison recently?"

"Check with Susan," someone suggested. "I know they came together."

Ash managed a quick smile of thanks. She had a vague memory of what Susan looked like and none of the women she had seen so far was her. Another circle through the house, front and back yards didn't produce Madison or Susan. Dejected, Ash wandered to the empty back yard. Grabbing a beer from the cooler, she plopped down in a chair next to the now cold grill.

What did I do? Ash looked up at the dark sky. As usual, the stars were mostly obliterated by the city lights. "I can't even wish upon a star." She took a swig of beer and replayed the tail end of their conversation. Nothing explained Madison's abrupt departure. If Kahla hadn't interrupted, they might have kissed. "Damn!" Resting her forearms on her thighs she exhaled sharply and brooded.

"Hey, you, the party's over." Kahla shook Ash's shoulder.

Ash gave a start, blinking her eyes rapidly. She stretched her stiff back. "I must have dozed off." Taking a sip of her now warm beer, she grimaced. "I guess you've heard she left? So much for my skills, huh?"

Kahla put a hand on her friend's shoulder and squeezed. "I think I found out why she left and it had nothing to do with your lack of skills."

"I came on too strong, didn't I?" Ash asked, looking up at Kahla.

"No, but maybe Dee did."


Kahla let out a humorless snort. "Instead of six, this was more like two degrees of separation. Dee found out that Madison is none other than Laura's despised new boss."

"Fuck me!" Ash threw back her head and screamed. "Shit!"


"Nothing to say, buddy." Ash's voice sounded hollow to her own ears. "Fucking, goddamn, twisted fate."

Ash arched her back onto the bed feeling as if she had lost something very important. "Let it go, Patterson. You didn't really know her." Rubbing her dry eyes, she wondered when her heart would get the message.





Chapter Ten

Madison's stomach was twisted in so many knots that she was in danger of throwing up as she approached her office area Monday morning. She had slept badly the night before plagued by nightmares that Laura had spread her rumors to other department employees. The fear of having to face any of her coworkers upset her stomach so much, she had almost called in sick. At the last minute pride and anger got her out of the house—she had a problem to solve.

Madison had dressed carefully in black fitted slacks with a matching black jacket and white shirt. It was the kind of outfit she wore when she wanted it to be clear that she was all-powerful and in charge. And to kick some butt if necessary.

She took a deep breath and stiffened her spine before pasting a smile on her face. Madison waved to Shirley as she walked into the reception area. The relief she felt when the other woman gave her the usual friendly smile and wave caused her knees to get weak. Maybe she would make it through the day with her reputation intact.

That's one down, two thousand more to go. Once in her office, she went about her usual morning routine, bolstering her nerves for that all-important call to Laura. She didn't want to have this confrontation, but she knew that this situation had to be resolved before it exploded in both of their faces.

Madison thought about her long talk with Warren the night before. He had urged her to take control of the situation by scheduling a meeting with Laura right away. Warren had been very sympathetic about how hard that would be from a manager's perspective, but he explained this needed to be done before the situation degraded beyond repair.

Of course she had already known what had to be done and just sought Warren's advice for backup. Deciding she had wasted enough time, she picked up the phone and dialed Laura's extension. Her heart hammered furiously while she waited for her employee to answer the phone. Someone knocked on her door right when Laura's voice mail came on. With a guilty feeling of relief, Madison hung up the phone and called out, "Come on in."

Laura, appearing to be very nervous, peered around the half closed door. "I was wondering if you had some time to talk today?" she asked in a tentative manner, not at all like the formal tone she normally reserved for her boss.

Madison swallowed the extra large lump in her throat and attempted a smile. "Sure, we can do it right now. My schedule is wide open this morning. Come on in and have a seat." She gestured to the chair in front of her desk. "What did you need to talk to me about?" Madison asked, watching her employee take a seat after closing the door.

Laura shifted nervously and reached up a hand to tuck her long, silky, black hair behind her ears. She absently picked up a pen from the desk and began to wind it through her fingers. "This is hard for me," she said, looking down at the pen in apparent fascination.

Please don't quit already. I'll never get to the bottom of this. Madison cleared her throat, trying once again to dislodge the huge obstruction that clogged it. "Is there anything I can do to help? I know we haven't worked together very long."

"Actually Madison, it's me. I'm so embarrassed." She put down the pen and used her hands to cover her reddened cheeks. "I heard some things about you from someone I trusted, and instead of giving you the benefit of doubt, I believed this person. But what's worse, is that I shared part of that information with other people. Not that you would ever meet them in a professional way, but still it was a horrible thing to do," she added, shifting restlessly in her seat.

"Oh." Madison was nonplussed. Damn, this might be worse than I thought. She counted to ten, giving herself time to come up with a professional response rather than blurt out a few choice words. "Is that why you've been so...distant from the very beginning?"

Laura nodded. "I want you to know that I have nothing but admiration for your professional skills." Laura paused, biting her lip. "As I've come to realize what a nice person you are, it has been really hard for me to keep my distance. I can't tell you how sorry I am that I let myself behave in such an unprofessional manner. And let me assure you that the people I mentioned this to are good friends of mine and will keep what I shared with them in confidence."

Sure they will. She bit back a sarcastic retort. "I'm at a slight loss here," Madison admitted, her brain churning furiously. She rubbed her forehead, feeling a headache starting to bloom. "Is this information common knowledge around the department? Should I be expecting someone else to throw this in my face?"

"Oh, no," Laura assured her. "I was told in the strictest confidence."

"Which you didn't keep," was the dry rejoinder. "What makes you think your source won't talk to someone else?"

Laura shifted in her seat and grimaced before raising her head to look Madison in the eye. "Because I don't think anyone else would believe her," she admitted, feeling incredibly foolish.

Dee certainly did! The temptation to share that bit of information was almost overwhelming. Madison pressed her lips together and once again counted to ten. What good would it do now? The damage was already done and she did need to establish an amiable working relationship with her employee or they would both be miserable. "Okay, I can believe that since no one else has--"

"Treated you the way I have," Laura interjected and cringed.

Madison nodded and looked away from the shame shown on the other woman's face. "I admit I've been struggling trying to figure out how I insulted you." Pushing back her chair, she walked over to the double windows facing another mid-rise building. She looked down on the cars queuing to enter the parking deck adjoining the building.

Leaning her head against the coolness of the window, she searched for something else to say. Something that would put both of them at ease and help them get past this situation. "I'm sorry, I don't know what to say. This wasn't in the management training handbook."

"I understand."

Madison returned to the desk. Avoidance wasn't going to solve their problem. She sat down, placed her hands flat on the desk and established eye contact. "I like this job, Laura. I'm willing to work through this, are you?"

"I wouldn't be here if I wasn't," Laura replied, her expression earnest. "I'm very sorry and I appreciated the opportunity to start over."

"Hello, I'm Madison Norman." She held out her hand with a smile.

A smile of relief lit up Laura's face. She leaned forward, eagerly grasping her boss' hand. "Hello, I'm Laura Parker. It's a pleasure to meet you."

A wave of relief washed over Madison's body once she realized that just maybe she would not be a pariah after all. "I want to thank you for being brave enough to admit your mistake. I know it took a lot of guts to come in here and do a tell-all for your boss."

"Thanks," Laura said, returning the handshake.

Madison watched Laura leave and suddenly wished she had gotten an extra jolt in her coffee. She was tempted to call her back and find out her supposed crime. She quickly dismissed the notion as foolish. Hearing about it would only bring back her anger.

Folding her arms on her desk, she rested her head on her hands, contemplating what Laura's confession could mean. She thought about the woman she had flirted with so outrageously and smiled. Ash had scarcely left her thoughts. At odd moments she would recall a gesture or expression and fall right back in...Madison jerked up her head, sitting up straight. She shook her head, hoping to knock loose ridiculous notions. It simply wasn't possible. Sure she had never been so wild and crazy, but come on.

Giving a protracted sigh, Madison switched her brain to work related issues. Ash was just a fairy tale, right?



That evening, as Madison pulled up in front of her apartment, she was once again debating whether to contact Ash. Several times during the day, she had been tempted to call the recreation center and ask to speak to her. Every time, her natural reticence won out. By the time she left work, she had almost convinced herself that getting involved with the sibling of an employee would be totally unprofessional.

As she trudged to her apartment, she was cranky, hungry and craving a lobotomy--or at least the removal of the second guesser who lived in her brain. Barring that occurrence, she mentally went through the contents of her refrigerator, assessing the quickest, nutritious meal she could throw together in a matter of minutes. If it took longer than that, the nutritious part would be tossed out the window.

So intent was she on food that she didn't notice the tall brunette getting out of a SUV and striding purposefully in her direction.

"Madison, do you have a minute?"

The hungry woman gave a start at the sound of the voice she couldn't get out of her mind. Madison feasted her eyes on Ash, who was looking very sophisticated in her dark fitted slacks, white shirt and red cotton blazer. Those black eyes seared into her, wiping away thoughts of non-contact and professional liabilities. "Ash?" she said as her heartbeat accelerated.

"I'm sorry to come over unannounced, but I couldn't track down your home number, and I didn't want to call you at work." Ash stopped a few feet from Madison, trying not to startle her.

"How did you know where I live?" Not that it matters how you got here. I'm just glad you thought enough to find me.

"The lesbian pony express," Ash said and gave the other woman a beguiling smile. "I really would like to talk, care to go out for an early dinner?"

"As long as it's close and we don't have to wait long to be seated," Madison said. "Let me just put my briefcase away, and I'll be ready to go." As she motioned for Ash to follow her, her stomach let out a loud growl.

"Whoa, was that your stomach? You've been starving that poor thing?" Ash asked with a big grin. That was the perfect icebreaker.

"You would think so, wouldn't you?" Madison replied with a grin of her own. She felt a lot of the tension from the day melt away. She was going to have a second chance to make things right. I guess not going off on Laura was good karma.

Soon enough for even Madison's empty stomach, they were seated at an 'all you can eat' buffet. It was close to Madison's apartment, and the wait was nonexistent. At first the conversation was stilted, but the longer they interacted, the more they were able to recapture the easy give and take from Saturday.

While they ate, the conversation was focused on benign topics. Ash did most of the talking, watching in amazement while Madison plowed through several plates of food with the precision of locust. Finally sated, Madison sat back and declared she couldn't eat another bite.

"You're very impressive," Ash marveled. "I like a woman who's not afraid to eat."

"That would be me," Madison said with a smug smile. "Although I do have to admit that I might have overdone it a little bit. Thank goodness this isn't one of my tight outfits." She tugged at the waistband of her pants.

"I promise to give you more warning next time, so maybe you could wear sweats," the brunette teased.

"Funny." Did she just ask me out again? Madison couldn't even begin to keep the smile off her face.

"And now for something completely different," Ash said as she nervously studied her blunt cut fingernails. "I'm sorry about what happened Saturday night. We never did get to talking about where exactly you worked, and my brain was too stimulated to make the connection." She smiled. "At first when I found out why you left, I was angry that you didn't bother talking to me. I thought we were really connecting."

"We were," Madison concurred. "I was just scared that you would react the same way as Dee."

"I realized that after I stopped being mad," Ash said while smoothing down her already neat hair. "My mind told me to just let it go, but I couldn't. You were in my head the rest of Saturday night and all day Sunday. I thought about our situation real hard last night and decided that I should at least try to find you."

"I'm glad you did."

Ash took a sip of water to wet her dry throat. "I know I came across as very assured and cocky, but I've never been so aggressive with anyone else. Kahla even commented on it."

Madison smiled. "I was acting out of character myself," she said, her confidence bolstered. Maybe Ash wasn't as far out of her league as she had believed.

"Yeah, but I really like that about us, Madison. I know this is a complicated situation, but can we try to work past this?" She gave Madison a pleading look. Please let her give me a chance.

"What about your sister? Have you talked to her about this?" Madison felt the need for caution even when all she wanted was to scream 'yes' at the top of her lungs. Their interaction tonight had proven to her the spark started at the soccer game had not been a fluke.

"No, and I won't until you and I get this settled," Ash said, acting as if her stomach wasn't churning from the stress. "I don't know why she believed that crap anyway. Hopefully, she'll figure that out for herself."

"She did."


"I'm not sure, but she apologized to me first thing this morning. I think she and I are going to be okay, but that still won't make any relationship between you and me less stressful. And then there's the 'me and Laura', and 'you and Laura'."

Ash placed her hand on top of Madison's. "No bout adout it," she agreed, allowing a tentative smile to curve her lips. "That's why I'd like to keep us separated from Laura, at least at first. We'll have enough 'getting-to-know-you' issues without adding that to the mix."

"What about Dee and Kahla?" Madison felt compelled to ask even knowing she was probably in danger of pushing Ash too far. "Dee gave a real good imitation of a person who thought I was pond scum. Is a word from you really going to change her mind? I can see this being a point of contention between us not too far down the road."

"What are you, the devil's advocate?" Ash asked, half joking. Fighting down her frustration, she laced their fingers together. "I thought about all the different angles, but it comes down to knowing that there is something between us. I can't explain it right." She sighed and searched for better words. "There's some song where they sing about a moment when you know that you can't let someone pass you by. I experienced one of those moments when we met Saturday, Madison." Ash he bit her lip as she looked into Madison's hazel eyes, trying desperately to read the reaction to her impassioned speech. "Am I coming on too strong?"

I'm lost in her already. Please let this work out. "Never." Madison exhaled the breath she had been holding. "You're not even close, Ash." She smiled warmly as she squeezed Ash's hand. "What you just said blows me away," she added and closed her eyes to let the emotions wash over her again.

"Is that good or bad?"

She opened them and took in Ash's worried expression. "I want you to know that you've been on my mind, too. I don't know why I'm being so stupid and throwing up all these obstacles when what I want is to say yes. It's just," she paused, looked down at the table and took a deep breath before continuing rapidly, "I can't really see what a beautiful woman like you sees in me." There, she'd admitted what had been lurking in the back of her twisted little mind--her insecurity. She raised her head and reestablished eye contact.

"A beautiful woman whom I would like to have the chance to get to know better." Ash held Madison's gaze. "I don't play games, Madison, but you'll have to get to know me better to discover that."

Madison nodded thoughtfully. "Okay." She wondered if the glow in her heart showed on her face. "I don't play games either, and I want you to get to know me better. You probably won't believe this because of all the grief I've been giving you, but I've been stupidly arguing with my self about tying to contact you all day," she admitted. "Since you'll be getting to know me, I have to warn you that I have some pretty intense discussions, no, wait...make that arguments in my head."

"I can live with that as long as you don't get physical, at least not with yourself. Feel free to get physical with me anytime." She wink, wanting so badly to pull Madison into her arms and go back to that place they'd been Saturday night. We can do this. No, we will do this!

"You wish." Madison hooted. She was happy they had reached a workable understanding concerning the progression of their relationship. Now she would have to do her part and be open enough to give whatever was growing between them a chance. Madison knew she would have to work hard to fight her insecurities. But nothing in life is easy, so why should this be? If I had only listened to myself this morning, I could have spared myself some serious angst.





Chapter Eleven


A sleepy, but still chipper, Madison walked into the reception area of her division the following morning. In her hand was a large, potent cup of coffee that she needed to stay semi-alert for the rest of the morning. She smiled at Shirley and proceeded to her office, praying the monthly division head meeting would be somewhat interesting. It was much too early in her career to fall asleep during the meeting. With that thought, she took a large sip of coffee, wishing she could just inject the caffeine directly into her blood system.

While she waited for her computer to boot up, she leaned back in her chair and reflected on her evening with Ash. She was completely unaware of the dreamy expression that came over her face. After leaving the restaurant, Ash had strongly hinted that they should drive by the recreation center. Madison quickly agreed. She too wasn't ready for their time together to end.

The center was closed, but they walked around the parameter holding hands. Madison listened with interest as Ash informed her of all the activities she was in charge of. She smiled at the enthusiasm Ash displayed. "You really know your stuff."

Ash nodded and grinned. "Occupational hazard," she shrugged. "What good is a facility like this if it doesn't get used? And the fee you pay is much more reasonable than a private gym."

"You're right, I should join. Maybe you could assist me with the weight machines?" she asked archly.

"But of course. I'm always willing to watch your weight." She wiggled her eyebrows and laughed.

Madison stuck out her tongue. "You wish."

"No, you do."

"Come on, you nut. Let's go by my favorite coffee shop and get dessert. You can watch me gain some weight."

They had reluctantly parted at one because they had to be at work the next morning and the shop was closing. At Madison's door, they exchanged a chaste kiss and phone numbers. Madison locked her door and leaned against it, almost fearful at how well their impromptu date had gone. Discounting her doubts, she floated to bed with a sigh of contentment.

"Reminiscing is nice, but you really need to get to work," she said and clicked on her e-mail messages. She was reviewing her schedule for the day a few minutes later while, when her phone rang. "Hello, Dr. Norman speaking. How may I help you?"

"So you made it, huh?" a tantalizingly familiar voice asked.

Madison's pulse started racing as an image of Ash right after they kissed popped into her head. "Only on a hope and a prayer and a gigantic cup of coffee," she replied, as a smile played around her lips.

"I bet it's not as big as my liter of Dr. Pepper," Ash said playfully, feeling her nerves settle at the welcome in the other woman's voice. She had debated whether to call, not wanting to seem too needy. In the end, she couldn't help herself and that concerned her just a little bit. She didn't usually jump into situations quickly. As she had told Madison, she was more the reticent type, letting other women pursue her. With Madison, everything was different, and she hoped her heart wouldn't pay. "Well, uh, anyway, I just wanted to hear your voice again, and let you know what a good time I had last night."

"Same here, same here," Madison answered. Did that ever sound stupid! "I enjoyed myself, too. I'm...uh...wondering if I could I interest you in dinner tomorrow night? It may not be a gourmet meal, but I can occasionally throw together something edible."

"I'd love to. Should I bring wine, and if so, what kind?"

"Here's where I confess that I'm not very fond of the stuff, and you suggest that you bring only yourself and your charming company."

"And here's where I confess that I'm not fond of the stuff, either, and I suggest that I stop by the store and pick up dessert. I couldn't help but notice that someone, who shall be nameless, snarffed down a huge piece of cake last night." Ash snickered, clearly amused.

"Okay, I confess I do like sweets," Madison agreed. "So, you and dessert at my place around seven?"

"I'll be there with bells on, bye."

"Bye. And Ash, thanks for calling." Madison put down the phone still smiling. Oh, she is good. She looked up at the ceiling. Kudos to the one responsible for our meeting. Clearing her head, Madison reached for one of the reports needing her review.

At ten till ten, she put the document aside and gathered the materials she needed for the meeting. As she was leaving her office, she almost bumped into Laura. "Sorry about that," she apologized and gave a startled smile.

"No harm, no foul," Laura joked and smiled in return. "I was just bringing you the files you asked me to pull together. Do you have any plans for lunch today? Bruce and I are going to this great little Italian restaurant, and we'd love to have you tag along."

"Count me in." Madison placed a hand on the shorter woman's shoulder. "Thanks for thinking of me. I'll come find you guys when I get out of my meeting," she promised, accepting the proffered information.

Lucky for Madison's career, the staff meeting turned into a heated debate between two of the more vocal division heads. She had no trouble staying alert while trying to decipher the dynamics involved in the disagreement. By the time the meeting was over, she felt remarkably energized and was determined to steer clear of the two hotheads.

Wearing a bemused expression, she returned to her office and collected her two employees, demanding they take her to food. Over lunch, she had them in stitches describing the nuances of each heated scene from the meeting. Every time Bruce and Laura calmed down, she would add another little twist to the tale until they all were writhing with laughter.

By early afternoon, Madison began to feel the effects of her late night. The words started dancing on the paper, and her eyelids kept fluttering closed. When her head fell forward and jerked her awake, she pushed back from her desk for a much needed break.

Feeling the urge for caffeine, she grabbed some change from her desk. She rubbed her tired eyes and yawned as she walked down the stairs to the vending machines in the basement.

"Madison, is that you?"

She turned and smiled as she recognized her neighbor Jenny. "In the flesh."

"Caffeine break?" Jenny guessed. She was petite with golden hair and big green eyes. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she was comfortably dressed in a T-shirt and shorts.

"It was either move or fall asleep at my desk." Madison dug in her pants pocket for money and fed the machine that contained the 20-ounce drinks. "I decided that I didn't want that desk impression mark on my forehead," she joked.

"Yeah, it wouldn't go too well with your suit." Jenny grinned and pressed the button for her drink of choice. "I'd forgotten how much studying is involved with going to school full time. And this is during the summer when it's supposed to be easier."

"I'm not studying, but I spend an incredible amount of time doing painstaking reviews. On days like today, when I didn't get enough sleep the previous night, it becomes almost impossible to stay sharp and focused. Do you have a minute to sit and chat?"

"Sure, I'd like that. I'm sorry we couldn't stay and talk with you longer Saturday night, but Reggie had to go to work early the next morning. It's a shame really because crowd was really lively."

"I understand. I'm just glad I didn't have to get up early on Sunday." They walked to a couple of empty seats and sat down. "How long have you lived in Athens?"

"Only since June, the start of the summer semester. I was commuting back and forth from Atlanta going part time before that. It's been somewhat of a change, but I really like it here and so does Reggie. Of course it helps that she got a better job out of the move. How do you like living here so far?"

"I really like it." Even more since last night! "In some ways, it reminds me of the town I moved from in North Carolina, only bigger."

They talked for ten more minutes, making plans to get together over the weekend for dinner. As Madison walked back up stairs, she wondered if she dare invite Ash to join them. They were supposed to keep their relationship quiet, but Madison didn't know how realistic that was given the size of the town and the fact that Jenny lived in the same small complex.

Away from Ash, Madison felt niggling doubts creep into her mind. She worried if they could make the relationship work. Starting out in secrecy could prove to be detrimental in the long run. Would they have to start meeting at some clandestine location so that no one would seem them together?

Madison groaned under the weight of all of the questions beating on her brain. I'm being ridiculous. We haven't even gotten started, and I'm trying to end it. She took a deep breath and focused on Ash, remembering how she felt in her presence. Surely that was worth a few moments of secrecy. Of course it is.



The minute she pulled her car into a parking space at her apartment complex, Madison grabbed her cell phone and dialed Susan. She grumbled impatiently when she got voice mail. "Susan, it's Madison. The mystery of Laura is solved. Give me a call and I'll fill you in. And if you beg hard enough, I might throw in a bonus." She gave a wicked laugh and turned off the phone.

Her phone rang before she made it to her front door. "Hello, Susan."

"Tell me everything," Susan demanded. "I can't believe you beat me to it."

"If it makes you feel any better, I didn't figure out anything. Laura was at my desk first thing this morning." She squeezed the phone between her ear and shoulder, while she unlocked the door. "It's kind of funny, but I was calling to talk to her when she knocked on my door."

"So what's the problem?"

"She said somebody she trusted told her some things about me that were false."

"Well, who's the source, and what did they say?" Susan asked.

"She didn't say, and I didn't ask. I have a feeling it was a friend of hers."

"What? You didn't ask? Are you crazy?"

"That's beside the point. Come on, what's the use?"

"So we can hunt them down and have a friendly chat with the fishes."

Madison rolled her eyes. "No more TV for you, okay? What's important is that Laura realized she had bad information and came to me to make things right."

Susan sniffed. "If you say so. I'd be a little more vindictive toward the woman who cost me the love of my life."

"No more movies, either. I admit I was attracted to Ash, but I don't think we can quite classify her as the love of my life."

"Well, we won't know now, will we?"

Madison grinned. "I wouldn't say that exactly."

"Hey, I think you're holding out on me. Spill it."

"Oh no. This is the part where you beg."

"With friends like you who needs enemas?" Susan groused. "Pretty please?"

"That's was the surliest begging I've ever heard."

"Madison Elaine Norman!"

"Okay, okay," Madison relented. "Ash found me yesterday. We went out to dinner and ended up talking until early this morning."

"You can't tell, but my mouth is figuratively hanging open," Susan said. "Just wow. You gonna see her again?"

"Tomorrow night. I invited her to dinner," Madison said smugly. "We still have some issues to work out, but she's worth it."

"Ain't that sweet," Susan cooed. "All jealousy aside, I'm happy for you. You certainly deserve it."

"Thanks pal."

Hours later Madison was brooding in front of her computer. She had been ready to pound out a short story that had been smoldering in the recesses of her mind. Unfortunately, her muse was not cooperating. So far she had alphabetized the books on two short bookcases, cleaned off her desk and done some filing. Now she had run out of chores and was staring at the blinking cursor light, mesmerized.

She let out a huff of frustration and reached for her pad that held possible story ideas. There she found the one paragraph description that she had intended to expand upon. The story line dealt with a woman who is forced to change her life around. Madison had liked the idea but was having a hard time finding a good reason for the main character to go through this evolution.

Before she had to resort to something drastic like pulling out her hair, the phone rang. Grateful for the distraction, she picked up the receiver. "Hello," she said eagerly, willing to talk to anybody at this point--even a dreaded telemarketer.

"Hi, Madison, it's Ash."

Madison's heart started pumping faster. "Hey, Ash, how are you?" she asked, suddenly feeling very nervous. She's changed her mind about us, I know it!

"I've been better," Ash replied. "I hope you're feeling more rested now, what with the coffee and all?" she teased, trying to delay giving Madison the bad news.

"And the soda I had this afternoon," she said, feeling some of her anxiety ease. "I know I would take being sleepy tomorrow, if it was for the same reason," She rubbed her forehead and waited for the reply.

"I am so behind that sentiment," Ash said, her voice suddenly became husky as she imagined spending another long evening with Madison. I'm such a nitwit. I should have asked her out for tonight, then I wouldn't have to worry about breaking the date.

"Ash, it just occurred to me that I needed to make sure you're not allergic to seafood or anything like that. I would hate for our date to end in the emergency room."

"Well...uh...now that you bring it up, I've...got some bad news. One of my co-workers was scheduled to go to a conference tomorrow, and now he's sick. I'm sure you can guess which newbie got drafted as his replacement." She paused before continuing, "I'm really sorry to cancel on such short notice, Madison. I'll be out of town until late Thursday night, but could you fit me in Friday? I'll buy."

"I understand." Madison swallowed her disappointment. "That's the drawback of being low on the totem pole. Friday works for me, but are you sure you'll feel up to it?" Why did I give her an out?

"Would, uh...you rather not do it?"

"No!" ," Madison said responding to the uncertainty in Ash's voice. "I mean, I would love to cook dinner for you Friday night " And every night thereafter. "I guess I can sacrifice sitting on my sofa flipping through channels to feed you."

"What an honor."

"And don't you forget it, Patterson. So about those food allergies?"

"Liver and Brussels sprouts give me the hives."

Madison snickered. "I think I can work within those parameters."

"Good. I guess I won't see you until Friday then, huh?"

Madison automatically nodded her head before realizing that the other woman couldn't see her. "Yeah, I guess it'll be Friday," she agreed, longing clearly evident in her voice. I should have invited her over tonight! "Does that sound as far off to you as it does to me?"

"Even longer." Ash sighed. "You know, I was thinking that maybe I could, you know?" She stopped, realizing that she wasn't making any sense. Real smooth there, Patterson. Jeez, I wasn't this bad in high school. She took a deep breath before continuing. "Is it okay to call you tomorrow night?"

"I'd like that a lot. Any particular time I should be here?" As if I would be anywhere else.

"Will eight-thirty work for you?"

"I'll be here."

"Great! I'd better go, I have an early flight."

"Goodnight. I'll talk to you tomorrow."

"Goodnight. Miss me."

"I already do."





Chapter Twelve

By eight o'clock, the following evening, Madison and her phone were lounging on the couch waiting for the all-important call. For a good part of the afternoon she had been edgy. She felt kind of silly getting so excited about a phone call, but she couldn't deny the boost to her emotional wellbeing Ash invoked.

Staring at the phone, she suddenly felt the pull of doubt. Maybe her feelings were too intense this early in the relationship. She didn't want to repeat the same mistake she made with Courtney by letting Ash become her everything. She would have to fight against latching on like a leech and keep them on equal footing.

I'm not that lonely seventeen-year-old anymore. Madison told herself that she would be fine without Ash in her life, but even to her it sounded a little hollow. Sighing, she looked at her watch, but only a few minutes had passed since she sat down. Deciding that anything was better than sitting and fretting, she reached for one of the writing tablets she kept strategically placed throughout her apartment. With any luck, tonight she would be able to come up with a good reason to totally change her character's life.

She set the alarm on her watch for five minutes and forced herself to write down as many reasons as she could in the time allotted. When her time was up, she looked at the list. About half of them were nonsensical and she struck through them. Still there were a couple that caused her to think further. She quickly turned to a clean page and drew a line down the middle. At the top of each column she wrote a reason and filled out scenarios to go with each reason. Before she knew it, Madison had the beginning for two separate stories or one story with parallel plots.

She was so involved in the process that she was a little startled when the phone finally rang. She quickly reached for the receiver, lying beside her. "Hello?"

"Hi, it's Ash," said the familiar voice. "I hope I'm not calling at a bad time."

Madison smiled. As if you could. "No, I was sitting here doing some writing, while waiting impatiently for you to call."

"Oh?" Ash laughed. "I almost called you at seven."

"You should have, you big chicken," Madison teased.

"Who you calling, chicken? I'm too big to be a chicken, at least call me a turkey."

"Gobble, gobble," Madison said and laughed. "How's the conference going so far?"

"Better than I expected, once I got over my disappointment at missing dinner with you. "I made some good contacts so it's not all that bad. What about you? How is my bratty sister behaving?"

"She's been great. I can tell she regrets how she treated me before and I think we'll end up being good friends even outside of work."

Ash smiled, crossing her fingers. "I'm glad. I wouldn't want to call my mom and tell on her," she joked. "Tell me more about this writing thing? Is it work stuff?"

"No." Madison suddenly felt shy. "It's just something I do for myself. When I was eight or so, I wrote my first short story, and since then I've wanted to write the great American novel--or that's what I've always told myself."

"And now?" Ash asked, sensing something was left off of the last sentence.

"Now, I'm not so sure I have a goal." She paused to give the matter some thought. "I just want to write something that I think is great, and I don't care so much about what others think."

"That sounds like a goal to me. Do you want to publish or anything like that?"

Madison laughed. "It's funny, but I've never really planned that far ahead. When I was younger, I had all these notions of glory. Once I went to college, I mostly got away from creative writing. It's only been through Susan that I've gotten back to it."

"Susan sounds like a good friend."

"She's the best. We met about three years ago at a workshop she was conducting and really hit it off. I have her to thank for introducing me to the wonderful world of fan fiction. After reading 'til my eyes bled, I pulled out pen and paper and started writing."

"I have a few favorite sites myself. Maybe I can read something of yours one day."

"I'm still kind of shy about sharing. Susan's the only one so far."

"What if I promise I won't say nothin' unless I have somethin' good to say?"

"Hmmm, I'll think about it." After we've been together for ten years. "Now it's your turn to spill something, Ms. Patterson."

"Don't tell anybody," she whispered, "but this is one jock who loves to read. I try to keep it on the down low 'cause it doesn't go with my macho image."

"I don't worry about image. What kinds of books do you like to read?"

"I'm mostly a fiction buff. I especially like mysteries and thrillers that have a tough lesbian heroine."

"Yeah, but for me there has to be some romance in it, too," Madison said, switching the phone to her other ear. "I like to see the detective get her girl. We'll have to compare our libraries one day, you just might be surprised."

"Well, you are full of surprises, Ms. Norman." Ash's voice was laced with affection. "I can't wait to learn more about you. I hope I will have the opportunity to do just that."

"Only if you return the favor," she said softly.

"You can count on that," Ash said, her voice sure. "I hate to break up this party, but I have to read some material before tomorrow's session. Can I call you tomorrow night?"

"I'm counting on it. Goodnight, and I'll talk to you tomorrow. Oh, and Ash, I'm still missing you."

Ash caught her breath then exhaled noisily. "Not as much as I'm still missing you."

Madison turned off the phone and hugged it to her chest. "She's wonderful," she said with a wide grin, her earlier doubts completely obliterated.



When Madison got to her office the next morning, there was an e-mail from Ash waiting for her. She open it eagerly, releasing a shout of laughter when the media clip showed dancing books. The message read, 'Good morning, I thought about you after I finished my work, but it was too late to call. This will have to do until I can talk to you later.'

Better than wonderful, she thought, wishing she had had the foresight to ask Ash where she was staying. This deserves something special in return. Madison searched the web, finding a clip art of a buxomly, police officer in uniform. She pasted it into her word processing program and added a couple of paragraphs that could have been the start of a police thriller. With a giddy laugh, she attached the document to an e-mail and clicked on the send button.

"Someone's in a good mood."

Madison looked up to see Laura standing in the doorway smiling. "It's already Wednesday, what's not to like about that?" She beckoned the other woman into her office. "You look pretty chipper yourself," she said, raising an inquiring brow. "What are you up to?"

"Just enjoying life, boss," the petite woman said. "I know it's early, but are you interested in lunch today? There's this great barbeque joint on the other side of town. They have a special on Wednesdays, and they pile the plates up high.

Madison's stomach grumbled just at the thought. "I guess that's a yes." She grinned. "Will Mr. Johnson be joining us?"

"Nah, he's ditching us for his wife of all people." Laura feigned indignation. "We should leave at eleven-thirty in order to beat the lunch crowd."

"Can do. Now get back to work." Madison smiled and made shooing motions with her hand before turning her attention back to her computer. She was disappointed that she there wasn't a reply from Ash. Releasing an audible sigh, she picked up the stack of forms in her in-box that required her signature. Once that was finished, she went to the more pleasurable task of reviewing the first report to be released under her guidance.

Her stomach started making feed-me noises at eleven-fifteen. She tracked down Laura, easily convincing the other woman to leave early. Soon they were in Laura's mid-sized sedan, barreling down the street. Madison clung to the armrest, afraid to say anything that might disturb the driver's concentration. They pulled into the mostly empty parking lot, and Madison got out gingerly, on shaky legs.

"You forgot to tell me you were a NASCAR reject," Madison said with remarkable calm as they walked to the restaurant that wasn't much bigger than a shack. The old worn sign proclaimed Barbecue Haven, and the air was heavy with a smoky aroma.

Laura turned and grinned up at her boss. "Reject? Why if I had empty streets, I bet I could beat all of them."

"Alrighty then," Madison replied and cleared her throat dramatically. "Unless you want undigested barbecue on your dash board, I suggest you slow down on the way back."

"Spoil sport," the shorter woman charged. "You sound just like my sister." She opened the metal screen door, motioning Madison inside.

Don't even go there, please! "No, I sound like any sane person," Madison pointed out as she removed her sun glasses now that they were inside. She took a deep breath. "It smells even better in here." The restaurant, crammed with small plastic tables, was permeated with the smell of roasting meat.

"Wait 'til you taste the food," Laura said. She rubbed her hands with glee and joined the end of the short line. "I promise you will love it."

They placed their orders at the counter against the back wall. If you craned your neck, you could see the huge grills just outside the back door. Madison stared in bemusement at the huge plastic cup she received after paying for her order. "No need for a refill." She followed Laura to the drink area, choosing the sweet ice tea at Laura's urging.

Laura chose one of the tables near the front window and away from the door. Each table was furnished with a metal napkin holder, barbecue sauce and ketchup.

"I see why we had to get here early," she said, noticing the rapidly growing line.

"Oh, that's nothing. Sometimes it's out the door and down the sidewalk."

"That's customer loyalty for you."

"Well deserved. How are you liking our city so far?" Laura asked after taking a sip of her tea.

"I'm enjoying it. I got a great place to run, a park nearby and twice a week I treat myself to the best cup of coffee right on my way to work."

"You don't ask for much, do you?" Laura asked, dryly. "What do you like to do for fun?"

"I'm still working on that," she said. "Right now I try to get together with my friend Susan as much as I can."

"That's good that you've already made a friend to hang out with."

"I knew her before I moved here. In fact, she's the one who told me about the job." Madison bit her lip in consternation once she realized what she had said.

"It's okay, really." Laura smiled to show there were no hard feelings. "I was totally stupid about all that, and I'm glad you've been so forgiving. What part of town are you living in?"

"Off of Collier, near tenth."

"I know that area. Is it that old apartment complex that they've fixed up?"

"That's it." Madison's eyes lit up as she spotted a server headed their way. "I think our food is about to arrive."

"Well, I knew it wasn't me, lighting up your eyes," Laura joked. "You can thank me for turning you on to this place later."

"And she's so humble," Madison deadpanned. She thanked the server and leaned over her basket, letting the aroma waft toward her nostrils. "Heavenly." She cut off a piece of chicken and popped it into her mouth. "Yum, this is good," she said before cutting another piece.

As they ate, Madison steered the conversation away from her and toward Laura. She found out that the guy wrapped around Laura in the picture was indeed Laura's husband. His name was Cedric, and they had been married for five years. They met when they were both freshmen in college. At first, Laura hadn't like him because she thought we was just another stuck-up jock. Over the course of the year, Cedric had managed to change Laura's impression, and she finally agreed to go out with him.

"So you've known each other a long time," Madison marveled. "That's special." She thought about her relationship with Courtney for a second before banishing it from her mind.

"I have to admit, it's pretty amazing that we've managed to grow up and still stay together," Laura said. She used her slice of bread to sop up the leftover barbecue sauce. "I know a lot of the friends we used to have, have gradually discovered their differences and drifted apart."

"What does Cedric do?"

"He's a financial analyst, and he's very good at it. A lot of people underestimate him because of his looks, which is something he loves to use to his advantage. I'll never make that mistake again," she said. "Others, yeah, but not that one," she grinned.

"Good to know you can learn from your mistakes."

She shrugged. "I try. What about you, have you ever been married?" Laura asked looking down at her plate.

It always comes to this. Madison stiffened and took a sip of tea before meeting the other's woman gaze. "No," she replied, working to keep her voice even, "it was never legal where I lived."

"I for one have never understood why it isn't. One day things will change." She looked up and the two women shared a smile.

"This was good." Madison pushed her empty plate forward and leaned back in her chair. "Thanks for bringing me, Laura."

"Any time. It was all part of my plan to recruit another Shack follower. We will rule the world one day," she declared, impishly.

"You're like a bloomin' onion, aren't you?" Madison asked, her smirk taking way any edge to her words.


"You have all these spicy, deep-fried layers."

"It seems I'm not the only one. I have young nephews, so I know what movie you paraphrased that from. What's you excuse?"

"Excuse for what?"

"Going to see an animated movie."

Madison gave Laura her haughtiest look. "I don't need an excuse to go see animated movies. I go to see them because I happen to enjoy watching them."

"Oh." Laura nodded thoughtfully. Her mind started to churn, and she stored that bit of information for later use.





Chapter Thirteen

Madison sat on her bed, making no pretense of doing anything but waiting for Ash's phone call. She was using pillows to prop herself up against the headboard. She had already showered and changed into her pajamas, which consisted of an oversized shirt and Mickey Mouse boxers.

The phone only rang once before she answered. "Hello."

"May I speak with an M Norman, please?" a thick-accented voice asked.

"This is she." Who the hell is this?

"Ah, Ms. Norman, I'm calling about your unfinished novel."

"You must have the wrong number," Madison said.

"Oh no, I have the right number. Are you the M. Norman who sent the two paragraph teaser to a Ms. Ashley Patterson?"

"Ash?" Madison held the phone away from her ear as if expecting to see something. She returned it to her ear when she heard laughter on the other end of the line. "You tease."

"Serves you right," Ash said in her normal voice. "You teased me first."

"Remember what you said last night about surprises, well right back atcha. I can't believe you fooled me."

"You are speaking with a woman of many talents."

"So it seems," she agreed. "I guess this means you got my e-mail?"

"Yeah, but only about ten minutes ago. I've been busy attending sessions all day. And they had the nerve to have a speaker at lunch and a speaker at dinner. I finally was able to sneak away at seven-thirty."

"You had to suffer through two chicken something meals in one day? You poor baby. I hope you got something real to eat before you called."

"Actually, the food was decent, it's the speeches that I could have done without," Ash said.

"After you've spent a day listening to presentations, meals should be more social in nature. If for nothing else than to let the mind unwind."

"I agree. Talking strategy over a couple of drinks is more beneficial. That's how Susan and I ended up connecting."

"And boy am I grateful you did," Ash declared. "You tell her that when I see her again, she's got a great big hug coming."

"I don't know if I like the sound of that," Madison complained. "You're supposed to be saving all your hugs for me."

"And you will get all my special hugs."

"I can accept that as long as there is a distinction."

"I'll demonstrate it for you Friday," Ash said, her voice slightly deeper. "By the time I'm finished, I promise you will know the difference."

"Ooh, promise?"

Ash gulped at the sound of Madison's voice. "Uh...maybe we should be talking of other things," she suggested. "When can I expect the next installment in my cop story? The beginning has me begging for more,"

"You'll be waiting a long time, I'm afraid. That was just something I thought up at the spur of the moment. Inspired by your thoughtful message," she explained, her voice getting progressively softer.

"Good, I'll have to think of other things to inspire you," Ash said, grinning. "I've been told that I can be inspirational, and I do have time to come up with something."

Madison's breath caught in her throat, imagining what Ash would do to spark her creativity. "Will you bring me a list Friday, or do I have to guess when I'm being inspired?" she asked, coyly.

"If you have to guess, I haven't done the job right." The deep timbre of her voice caused Madison to shiver. "Ms. Norman, take my word for it, you will know."

"I don't know if I can wait," Madison said with a catch in her voice.

"Patience is a virtue."

Madison laughed. "As if you know anything about virtue."

Ash huffed loudly. "I'm deeply hurt. Believe me, I know all about virtue and how to steal it."

"Now that I'm sure of, Ms. Patterson. I can't wait to see you in person. I need to see your facial expression when you make your outrageous claims," she taunted.

"That's funny because I want to see your facial expressions as well." Ash paused and let what she said sink in. "But it will be while I'm proving my not so outrageous claims. And Madison, we probably won't be standing."

Madison couldn't suppress the moan that accompanied the hardening between her thighs. "You're trying to kill me aren't you?" she charged, her voice shaky. "I thought we were getting off of that subject."

"It's hard to get off that subject when I'm around you," Ash whispered, clutching the phone. "You've really invaded my thoughts."

Madison exhaled sharply. "The things you do to me, Ms. Patterson," was all she could say in response to the honest emotions Ash expressed. They were both silent for a moment, lost in their own thoughts.

Ash took in a shaky breath. "I've told you about my day, how was yours?"

"It was good. The more I learn about the Center and my responsibilities, the more I like the job."

"How different is from your last job?"

"The only real difference is that I'm a supervisor and technically, I do higher level work. The reality is that I'll still be doing some grunt work, just not near as much."

"I think no matter how high you get, there's always some grunt work waiting for you. I hope you're not having any problems with Laura," she said, unsure of whether to bring up the subject of her sister.

"Not at all. In fact, we went out to lunch today. I feel honored that she introduced me to her favorite barbecue place."

"What? She's never done that for me. No matter, I'll just call up her husband and have him throw something on the grill. My brother-in-law can cook."

"Yeah, she told me about Cedric and how they met."

"Laura must really like you if she told you about Cedric. I'm glad, but I still want to hold off telling her about us. That's not a problem, I hope?"

"Nah," Madison said. She was willing to work through anything for Ash. "It's probably better that we keep it between ourselves for awhile."

"Thanks for understanding, Madison. I need to go, but can I call you again tomorrow?"

"Of course. I always want to talk to you. Goodnight, and I still miss you."

"Bye. I still miss you, too." Ash turned off her cell phone and leaned back against the pillows. Just one more day, and I get to see her again. She reached over, placed her phone on the bedside table and picked up the notes for the morning session.



Madison hit the off button and placed the receiver on the nightstand. She leaned back into the softness of the pillows. I hope I can hold out until Friday. A shiver ran down her spine as she remembered the timbre of Ash's voice. Oh yeah, you can inspire me all right. Madison clambered out of the bed, suddenly inspired. In the room that did double duty for a home office and guest bedroom, she turned on her computer.

With her mind racing furiously, she opened up the two-paragraph story and began expanding. At some point in the first chapter, the heroine morphed from a large chested blonde to a tall, lanky woman with long black hair and bronze skin. She was amazed at how easily the words flowed from her brain to her fingers.

At some point, the words slowed down, and her eyes started to droop. She saved the document, stretched out her arms, and gave a satisfied smirk. Still smirking, she sent Ash an e-mail with the story attached. "How's that for inspiration?" After turning off her computer, she fell into bed a few minutes later. Her last thoughts were of Ash's reaction to the changes in the cop's appearance.

When her alarm sounded four hours later, Madison slapped the snooze button. Ten minutes later when it sounded again, she reached for the snooze button, hitting the off button instead. "Just ten more minutes," she promised herself, before sinking back down.

Light filtering through her window jerked her awake. She looked at the clock, noting that it was seven thirty and ran to the bathroom. Madison made quick work of her morning routine and was out of the door, her hair still damp, at ten till eight. She stopped by the coffee shop, grabbed a triple shot latte and a muffin, and headed to work.

"Good morning, Shirley."

"Good morning. A little late today?" she called after Madison and laughed when the other woman shrugged.

Once in her office, she placed her breakfast on the desk and logged on to her computer. Taking a sip of the coffee, she hung up her suit jacket and sat down. In a lack-of-sleep induced trance, she watched the University intranet screen appear on her screen. With a wide yawn, she opened up her e-mail account, searching for a particular one. Madison grinned and double clicked the one from Ash.

Dear Madison,

If you're reading this and it's before ten, I know you must be very sleepy. Just want you to know that I will be late to the first session because I couldn't stop reading your story. And you have the nerve to say you don't do thrillers. If you're able to write all that from just talking to me, imagine what will happen after you see my lovely self in person. <g>

Thanks for the story, but I have to go. Talk to you tonight.

Yours, Ash.

Madison wrapped her arms around her middle and squeezed, trying to take hold of the emotions washing over her. "Yours, Ash," she said, testing the words on her lips. "I like that," she exhaled and clicked the reply button.

Dear Ash,

Thanks for the compliment, and you're right, I am very, very sleepy. Let's hear it for caffeine! Call me as early as you can, because I can't guarantee that I'll be coherent after about nine. Scratch that thought. I probably won't be coherent before that either <vbg>, but please don't let that stop you from calling.

Yours, Madison.

She looked over what she had written and hit send. She reached for her coffee and took a big sip. Resting her head on one hand, she read the rest of her mail, hoping the day wouldn't drag.

By exercising sheer will power, Madison made it to quitting time. There had been a couple of instances when she had to get up from her desk and walk around, or risk falling asleep. She had reviewed a couple of reports, but feared she would have to revisit them the next day. Tonight, I'm going to sleep early.

Too tired to think about cooking, she stopped by the grocery store and purchased a pre-made salad. Once home, Madison took off her work clothes and made herself eat at the kitchen table, wary of the comfort of the sofa. "I will stay awake," she announced loudly, rinsing off her dishes and placing them in the dishwasher. She finished cleaning the kitchen and moved to the living room.

Enfolded in the softness of the sofa, Madison fell asleep in minutes. When the phone rang, she reached over to turn off the alarm, groaning because morning had already arrived. She woke up when her hand knocked the phone off the side table and it landed with a thud. Madison sat up and looked around, trying to get her bearings. Realizing that the phone was ringing, she dove for the floor and hit the talk button. "Hello?"

"Don't you dare try to deny that I woke you up. I can hear it in your voice."

Madison chuckled weakly. "Okay, I may have been counting sheep," she admitted and yawned. "Excuse me. I'm glad you called and woke me up, though." She rolled on her back and closed her eyes. "How was your day?"

"Good, but long. I would have called earlier, but I ended up going to a late lunch with some of the others. Then I had to go back to the hotel, pick up by bag, and wait for the shuttle to take me to the airport."

"What time does your flight leave from Houston?"

"We're supposed to board in about thirty minutes." Ash, stretching her legs was caught by an unexpected yawn. "Sorry about that. Now that I'm sitting still, my body is realizing that it wants to take a nap."

"I hope you can sleep on the plane. What time are you getting in to Atlanta?"

"Around ten, but Hartsfield-Jackson is always so busy. Don't worry, I'll be back in plenty of time to come to dinner tomorrow night."

Madison smiled. "Glad to hear it. I'll be waiting for my inspiration. You do remember your promise, don't you?"

"As if I could forget. I've already started working on the list, smarty."

"Yeah, right! You're just all talk, Ms. Patterson."

"We'll see about that, now won't we Ms. Norman?" Ash deepened her voice, and said, "Let the record state that I meant what I said about you not standing."

She whimpered. "You don't play fair. I may be the writer, but you have no problem burning images into my brain," she whispered. "You are trying to kill me, aren't you?"

"Um...I think I'm trying to kill myself as well," Ash admitted and cleared her throat. "You know they really need to make these chairs more comfortable. All I can say is that's it's a good thing I'm sitting here in a public place, and you're miles away."


"Because if I weren't, all that talk of taking it slow would be out the window," she said. "You do still want to take things slow, right?"

Madison groaned. "You would have to ask me that when all my blood has pooled south." She was torn, not knowing what Ash wanted her to say.. "Don't doubt that I want you, Ash." she said. "But I want the chance to really know you before we rush to the next stage." She gnawed at her bottom lip, worried she sounded too prudish.

Ash sighed softly. Her heart knew Madison was right. They didn't need to jump into a physical relationship. If things didn't work out, it would hurt that much more. "In saner moments, I agree with you on that," she replied ruefully. "But I hope that doesn't mean we can't kiss and cuddle."

"Kisses and cuddling are not optional. Neither are long conversations that take a quirky turn. I love those." And I'm starting to really fall for you. Even to herself, she didn't want to use the word love.

"Agreed. They just announced that they're boarding for my flight. I have to go," she said with regret. "Sorry, I'm always the one who has to hang up first."

"The important thing is that you called. Goodnight, and have a good flight."

"Goodnight. See you tomorrow."

"You bet." Madison turned off the phone and went to bed. Nestled between the sheets, she scolded herself for sending mixed signals. It would be her own fault if Ash ran scared.

Maybe I am the sex fiend I never knew I was. Her relationship with Courtney had started slowly, going from adoration to love then desire. With Ash, it had started with red-hot desire that continued to flame. But underneath the flame was a longing for intimacy that sex alone couldn't assuage. "Okay, so we take it slow and let the love catch up with the want to have red-hot monkey sex."



Ash boarded the plane and waited for the opportunity to stow away her carry-on bag in the overhead bin. She sank into the aisle seat, grateful that the window seat was already occupied. Closing her eyes, she drifted into a light doze, punctuated with images of Madison.

She roused herself when the lights came back on that signaled they would be landing soon. Energized, she left the plane. As usual, her flight was at a gate at the end of the terminal. She joined the throng of passengers heading for the transportation corridor.

Exiting the airport, she was blasted by the hot, muggy air that was in deep contrast to the cold plane and airport.

"Ash, over here."

She hustled over to Kahla's Xterra, having been forewarned about the zealousness of airport security. Throwing her bag in the backseat, Ash quickly climbed into the front. "Thanks for picking me up."

"No prob. How did the trip go?"

"Better than I expected, considering how much I didn't want to go in the first place," she admitted with a shrug. She grabbed the seatbelt and buckled it.

Kahla smirked in the darkness as she pulled into traffic. "Was somebody missing her sweetie?"

"Good thing you're driving," Ash said. "And for your info, I don't have a sweetie."

"Then what do you call, Madison?"


Kahla snorted. "You know what I mean."

"Jeez, Kahla, we're just dating," Ash said and cringed at how defensive she sounded. "I guess I call her a date."

"Okay," she said, drawing out the word. "How many times did you call her this week?"

"A couple."

"Then I think she's more than a date," Kahla explained. "Hell girl, she was more than a date when you met her."

"So?" Ash feigned exasperation. "I admit I missed her, and I can't wait to see her tomorrow, but she's not my sweetie."

"What is she then?"

Ash shifted in her seat before saying, "A wonderful woman who makes me feel alive. I feel like I'm getting ready to jump out of a plane without double checking the parachute."

"Be grateful you have the parachute. When was the last time you felt like jumping?"

Ash smiled wryly. "So long ago, I can't remember."

"Then this is a good thing."

"I know that. Believe me, I know that. I'm just a little worried that I'll push her too fast. She's told me she wants to go slow, but every time I talk to her that seems to slip my mind. I just pray I can practice restraint when I see her in person."

"Don't tell me, tell her. I think it's a real turn on when your girl tells you she can't keep her hands off of you."

"You don't think that adds more pressure? I don't want her to think I'm some kind of sex fiend." Ash smoothed back her hair, her gaze fixated on the dashed lines of the highway. "And I really don't want to scare her off."

"And you're worrying too much. Try to relax and enjoy." She placed a hand on Ash's knee. "For what it's worth, I know you won't do anything Madison doesn't want you to do."

"I hope not. This is too important for me to mess up."



Chapter Fourteen

By Friday afternoon Madison was gazing out her office window while her thoughts paced back and forth relentlessly. She felt like a certifiable wreck and was sure she had forgotten something. And even though she'd checked off everything on her 'to do' list, 'to buy' list and the 'to clean' list, she was still worried.

"Hi, Madison, do you have a minute?"

Madison turned and smiled at Laura, motioning for her to enter. "Sure, it'll stop my mind from churning like a crazed gerbil." She leaned a hip against the edge of her desk. "What's going on?"

"I know it's kind of last minute," Laura began. "But my sister convinced Cedric to cookout on Sunday, and I was wondering if you could join us. Nothing formal, just food, beer and company.

"How can I turn down an invitation like that?" Madison asked, wondering what Ash was up to. "What can I bring?"

"You don't have to bring anything."

"Laura, Laura, Laura." Madison shook her head and sighed. "I would lose my status as a Lesbian if I came empty handed."

Laura hung her head in shame. "Sorry, boss, what was I thinking? I promise I really do know the lesbian code." Laura grinned. "My sister and my best friends are lesbians. They used to let me hang out with them but only if I acted gay. So I've been indoctrinated into the culture."

"I thought there was a warped spirit hiding beneath that pastel exterior," Madison said with a knowing smile. "Count me on for Sunday and be prepared to spill your guts. I want to hear what exactly you had to do to act gay."

Laura's face lit up with a warm smile. "Great! I'll e-mail you the directions to the house. We're real flexible so you can wander over any time after two." She stood up to go. "If you want to bring a special friend that would be fine," Laura said from the doorway.

How can I? She'll already be there. Madison suppressed a smile. "There's not really anyone." Ash and I are going to have a long talk tonight. What is she thinking, stirring up trouble?

"Good." Laura gave a sigh of relief. "Good that you're coming, I mean. I'll see you Sunday then," she said on her way out.

She's setting us up. Madison settled in her chair and grinned. Fine with me, now I get to see Ash tonight and on Sunday. That just might make up for her having to cancel on Tuesday. It'll be good to see her beautiful smile in person. Well, I have to admit it will be even better to be able to hug and kiss her again. And I definitely plan to get a better kiss tonight during the mandatory kissing and cuddling session.

Giving a self-depreciating snort, Madison reached for the ringing phone. "Hello, Dr. Norman speaking, may I help you?"

"You sure can," replied a voice that was never far from Madison's thoughts.

"Oh?" She switched to her professional voice. "What type of assistance are you inquiring about?"

"Ma'am, I am conducting a survey on the dessert eating habits of lesbians." Ash said in a monotone. "We are interested in your opinion concerning certain sugary confections. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the highest, how would you rate chocolate mousse?"

Madison didn't have to think before firing back the response, "Ten,"

"Now, ma'am, on that same scale how would you rate cheesecake?"

"Definite ten."

"What about strawberry shortcake?"

"Definite ten."

"Ma'am, what if your date were to bring Draino with plenty of sugar, whipped cream and ice cream?"

"Did you say ice cream?"

"Yes, ma'am, I did."

"Definite ten."

"So ma'am, what you are saying is that you like sweets very much?"

"Definite ten."

"That was our final question and on behalf of the 'Let's Have a Great Date' foundation, I would like to thank you for your participation. May I add that your date is looking forward to seeing you in person in, say...three hours?"

"Not half as much as I'm looking forward to seeing her." Madison's heart rate speed up as her thoughts turned once again to hugging and kissing.

"I beg to differ, my dear Madison, and I reserve the right to discuss this further at a later date."

"I'm sorry, ma'am, this fine dining establishment does not accept reservations," Madison responded, her tone equally as haughty. There was silence for a moment before they both broke out laughing. "You're a nut, Patterson."

"Yeah, but I'm cute with it. See you later."

"Not soon enough, Alligator." Madison set down the receiver, still laughing. Every time she talked to Ash, she learned another facet of her personality. Gone was her earlier worry, now she couldn't wait for the appointed hour to arrive.

Admit it, Norman, you're smitten with one tall, dark and gorgeous woman. She looked around her office nervously. I think I'll plead the fifth on that.



"Did you move and forget to tell me? I'm about to have a breakdown here. It would be nice if my bestest friend were available to give me counseling. I guess I'll have to wing it. Call me tomorrow if you ever come home."

After leaving work, Madison's doubts had crept back in. She had hoped to get a quick pep talk from Susan to bolster her flagging nerves. You can do this. Replacing the receiver, she crossed the room to stand in front of the yin yang symbol. "Balance." She closed her eyes and took a deep soothing breath.

"This is Ash, the woman you've been talking to all week. Seeing her in person will only make everything better." Madison exhaled and sketched a quick bow before moving to the kitchen to begin dinner preparations.

When the doorbell rang at seven, she rushed to open the door. Ash was leaning against the door jam wearing a mischievous grin and looking good enough to steal Madison's breath. Her tall, toned figure was complimented by the sleeveless black tank top and mid-thigh length khaki shorts. She was holding up a plastic bag with one finger.

"May I come in?" she asked, enjoying the look on Madison's face.

Madison felt shivers run down her back. "Oh...yeah...sorry," she managed to say, while blushing profusely. "You look great," she dared to add, once her brain neurons started to synapse again. Madison stood back to allow her friend to enter.

"You look good yourself." Ash made no apology as she perused Madison's body. They seemed to linger on the enticing hint of cleavage shown by Madison's V-neck shirt. Ash shivered as she watched Madison's nipples harden under her intense gaze. "Uh...here's dessert." She thrust the bag forward. It took some willpower, but she was finally able to tear her eyes away from the spectacular display of mostly covered flesh. Her cheeks warmed, meeting the amusement on Madison's face.

"Now that we've gawked at each other, can I get a hug?" Madison asked.

"Be careful what you ask for," the taller woman replied wiggling her eyebrows before pulling a willing Madison into her arms. "Hmmm, I've been looking forward to this."

"So have I, so I know I won't regret asking for this." Madison resisted the urge to burrow into Ash's skin. She reluctantly pulled back from the embrace, trying to control the volatile emotions sweeping through her body. "Why don't we move to the kitchen? I need to check on dinner and put this scrumptious Draino in the fridge." She gave Ash a goofy smile, needing to tamper down the heat of her thoughts and body.

With a last squeeze Ash let go, giving Madison a look from the corner of her eye that was accompanied by a dramatic sigh. "Okay, I wouldn't want the Draino to go to waste. It took me hours slaving over a hot stove to get it to the right consistency, you know."

"My shero." Madison put a fluttering hand to her heart and batted her stubby eyelashes. She took the other woman's hand, leading her to the small kitchen.

Ash inhaled deeply. "Something sure smells good."

"Thanks. What can I get you to drink?"

"Some white wine would be nice, but I'll take red if necessary."

"Smartass." Madison wrinkled her nose at Ash before walking over to a cabinet and pulling out a bottle of wine vinegar. She handed it to the other woman saying, "It was a very good year, dahling."

Ash cracked up, laughing so hard she almost choked. "You didn't tell me you did a stand-up comedy routine. May I please have a beer?" she begged, giving her best cute puppy dog impression.

Look like that, and I'll give you anything! "Only because you asked so nicely," she was informed. Madison retrieved two beers from the refrigerator and handed one to Ash. She moved over to the stove and poured oil into the hot wok. The necessary ingredients were chopped and waiting to be stir-fried.

While they waited for the oil to heat up, she and Ash got into a discussion, brought on by the Mulan cup on the counter, over who was the best animated princess. Ash argued for Fiona from the movie Shrek, while Madison, of course, chose Mulan from the movie by the same name.

"I hate to burst your bubble, but Mulan isn't even a princess," Ash said, leaning a hip against the counter.

Madison looked up. "She is too," she argued. "At least I think she is. And what's more, she's all human."

"Oh, low blow, Norman." Ash grabbed her waist. "Well being human isn't all it's cracked up to be."

"I don't think I want to know how you know this." Suppressing a smile, Madison began adding vegetables to the wok. "Mulan might not be a certified princess, but in my mind she's a warrior princess."

"And I should trust what's in your mind?" Ash asked, thickening her southern accent.

"If you know what's good for you." She raised a wooden spoon to Ash who flexed her arm muscles in response.

"Make those muscles useful and get the salad from the fridge." Madison directed.

Ash hung her head and let her arms fall to her sides. "Okay, dear."

Madison laughed and added the shrimp and noodles, deftly stirring until the shrimp turned pink. She turned off the burner and spooned the mixture onto a platter.

"Do you need me to do anything else?"

"Not unless you need another beer." Madison removed the bread sticks from the oven, sliding them into a napkin-lined basked. "It's time to eat."

"Yummy." Ash's eyes lit up when Madison placed the past dish and bread on the table. "This smells so good. Thank goodness I had a light lunch." She reached for the spoon and filled her plate.

During dinner, they discussed current events, sprinkled with compliments to the chef from Ash. After a second helping, she pushed her plate away and patted her full stomach. "Thanks," she said giving Madison a satisfied smile.

"I'm glad you liked it. Even I need to wait a while until before attacking dessert. You up for a walk to the park?" Madison stood up and began gathering dirty dishes.

Ash grabbed a couple of dishes and followed Madison to the sink. "As long as we don't have to walk too fast."

"My poor stuffed baby." Madison rubbed Ash's taut stomach. "I promise we will stroll."

The air was still humid, but the falling sun allowed the temperature to cool to bearable. They walked on the sidewalk with sparse tree covering, ignoring the steady stream of cars passing by.

"I guess this is Friday night date traffic," Madison commented, feeling at peace. "Some of those kids seem kind of young, though."

"More like Friday night cruising," Ash corrected. "Most of those cars seem pretty full."

"Did you ever do anything like that in high school?"

"Not in cars. We used to hang out near this teen club. There were always more kids outside than inside. What about you?"

"Nah, I was pretty much a recluse. I spent my time hanging out with my grandmother or alone. Well...except for my junior year. I had a wild friend and every now and then she would talk me into doing something crazy." Madison smiled at the fond memories.

"What happened to her?"

"Emily's dad got transferred just before senior year. It was probably just as well. We had some pretty outrageous exploits planned. When she left, I went back to being dull Madison with no friends and zero personality."

Ash took Madison's hand and squeezed it gently before letting go. "That must have hurt."

Madison shrugged. "Yeah, but I had my music and my writing, but most especially, my grandmother. I got by," she added, downplaying past rejection.

"I wonder if we would have liked each other back then." Ash mused, reaching for Madison's hand again. "I like to think we might have."

"No way." Madison tightened her grip to take the sting out of her words. "You would have ignored me like everybody else did. I guess I should be grateful the other kids just left me alone. Some of the others weren't so lucky."

"You're probably right. I was much more brash and foolish in my teen years. Did you know you liked girls?"

She nodded. "Emily and I figured things out together. I lived vicariously through Emily's love life," she said with a grin. "Not that there was much involved beyond kissing. Trust me, we wouldn't have gotten along. Which is probably why we met now."

Ash stopped, turning to face Madison. "You believe everything has a reason?" she queried.

"No, not everything," Madison replied, shaking her head. "But sometimes I like to think there's a higher order. Of course, sometimes I don't. It seems to balance out."

"I can agree with that."

"Which part?"

"The vacillating between believing and not believing."

"Wow, how do we go from cruising to this?" Madison wondered out loud. "You ready to head back? I hear the Draino dessert calling my name," she joked.

"I guess that's the one thing you always believe in—your stomach."

"You got that right." They turned around and retraced their steps.

"Make yourself at home," Madison bade Ash once they were back in her apartment. "I'll go get dessert. Would you like some coffee with that?"

"No thanks, but I'll take another beer."

Madison made a face. "Okay, beer and dessert coming up."

Ash used Madison's absence to explore the living room. She was immediately drawn to the bookcase with the photographs. Earlier, she had been so focused on Madison she hadn't noticed anything else.

A smile curved her lips as she gazed at a picture of a young Madison. Her missing front teeth were showcased by a huge smile. A Christmas tree with presents underneath was in the background. There were other photos of Madison and an older woman, whom she assumed to be her grandmother. After a closer inspection, Ash decided they had the same shaped eyes and mouth.

She let out a shout of laughter when she came to the picture of a couple of good looking guys hamming it up for the camera.

"You must be looking at Warren and David."

"Yeah, if they're the ones clowning around."

"That's them." Madison set the tray on the coffee table and joined Ash by the bookcase. "We were at a party and as you might have guessed, they were none too sober. I keep that around in case I have to resort to blackmail."

"Note to self, check Madison's camera."

"Ha, ha."

"Who are the two older women?"

"They were my landlords. This is Sara Conner," she managed to say with a straight face, pointing to the shorter woman.

"She isn't dead? I thought the Terminator got her."

Madison slapped her arm. "And this is her partner, Melissa. This couple is Julia and Del. They got together shortly before I moved here." She didn't add that it happened at the same party that changed her life.

"Those are some nice photos."

"Thanks. My adopted family."

"Well, you already know how I feel about adopted families." Ash smiled. "And speaking of families, my sister called and invited me over Sunday."

"What do you mean? I thought you called Cedric and invited yourself?"

Ash cocked her head, a puzzled expression on her face. "Who told you that?"

"Laura, when she invited me for a cookout on Sunday," Madison replied smugly.

"That conniving little shrimp," she growled. "She called me late this morning and after talking about nothing, conceded that Kahla and I had been right."

"About what?" Madison asked, gesturing with her hands.

"That she shouldn't have listened to that crazy woman she calls a friend. You know, the one who told her how you got the job?"

"No, and I don't want to know who it is," Madison said quickly. "It was enough that Laura admitted her mistake and apologized. I decided I didn't need or want to know anything more because it was a lie."

Ash nodded, understanding. "I'm not sure I'd be so gracious," she said wryly. "Well anyway, after that she said I should come over on Sunday. She would invite Kahla and Dee and have Cedric throw something on the grill I'd be a fool to turn that down."

"Interesting." Madison pursed her lips.

"I smell a set up."

"Duh! You should have seen the look of relief on her face when I admitted that I didn't have a special friend to bring with me. I'm glad you brought this up. I thought you were the one setting this meeting in motion."

"Oh, no," Ash said, shaking her head vigorously. "I would never do something like that without consulting you first. "It's my sister up to her old tricks. I can't believe she's starting already."

"Is this too soon? I can always call and cancel."

"What? And miss out on Cedric's barbecue. Hell, no, woman. But," she added with a wicked grin, "we can delay telling her about us. Can you act?"

"My grandmother never thought so. What have you got in mind?" Madison shot Ash a suspicious glance.

"We need to make her work a little bit to bring us together. I say we toy with her first, like they do on one of those prankster TV shows. What if we meet and rub each other the wrong way? I'm good at playing the over-confident, obnoxious jerk. I've had lots of practice," she admitted sheepishly.

"And I'll pretend that everything you say offends me, so say some pretty offensive things," Madison said, getting into the spirit of things. "Then I can be outraged at your behavior and threaten to leave or something."

"I knew I liked you for a reason." Ash reached for Madison's hand and squeezed. "Are you okay with seeing Dee? She searched Madison's face intently. At the easy nod, she continued, "I talked to Dee and we came to an agreement. She promises to reserve judgment until she gets to know you better. I know Dee, she'll keep that promise."

"Hey, I might have thought the same thing if it had come from my best friend," Madison said. Not for anything would she reveal the dread she felt at meeting Dee again. "I'm willing to start over with her. I hope they're okay with not telling Laura about us just yet."

Ash nodded. "Sure, they understand our reasons. And I bet once they hear what we have planned, those two will want to get in on the act." She laughed. "The four of us were notorious for pulling stunts like this. It used to drive our parents crazy. This is kind of fitting," she added with satisfaction, "because Laura was the most diabolical one of the group."

"What do you mean the four of you? According to Laura, you guys only let her hang around if she acted gay."

"Hey, that little runt was butcher than all of us put together. Looking back at us as kids, she should have been the one who turned out to be a lesbian. I always got in trouble, because my parents always assumed that Kahla and I were the ringleaders, when really it was that shrimp Laura. You should see that innocent little girl expression she gets on her face to this day," Ash said with a disgruntled expression on her face.

"You're talking about your sister Laura, who looks like she wouldn't hurt a fly?" Madison's eyes grew wide at the thought. "Come on, she looks like a Zen goddess."

"Don't let that petite outer shell fool you," Ash warned. "Inside she's like a cyborg, all steel. And don't ever get into a drinking contest with her because you will lose."

Madison raised an eyebrow and shot Ash a look filled with skepticism. "Right. I save judgment until Sunday. Now, about that Draino cheesecake you slaved over all day," she said, pointing to the large servings she'd placed on the coffee table.

"Those are pretty big slices."

"You up to the challenge?" She titled her head and gave Ash an engaging smile.

"I'm always up for a challenge, Ms. Norman," Ashley boasted, straightening her shoulders and puffing out her chest. "You just make sure you keep up."

"Promises, promises," Madison taunted, pulling the other woman to the sofa.





Chapter Fifteen


A bleary-eyed Madison was finally able to convince herself she needed to get up at ten the next morning. Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she spent ten minutes psyching herself up for a morning run. A groan escaped her lips as she forced her eyes open wide enough to locate her workout gear. I really need to do a better job of suppressing that masochistic runner who lives inside of me.

After Ash left at close to four, she had cleaned up the kitchen then discovered she was too wired to fall asleep. Eventually, her mind had slowed down enough for her to drift off to sleep. Now, she was paying for it. "Ash was well worth it." A smile lit up her face as she reached for her running shoes.

As she used the sidewalk outside her apartment to stretch her calves, Madison was beset with memories of the bone melting goodnight kisses they had shared. She was proud of herself for following through with her kiss plan. She started out slow with soft nibbles that changed into gentle kisses that ended with them straining against each other barely able to stand. Just the thought was enough to cause a tightening between her thighs.

Sucking in a ragged breath, she knew it was going to be difficult pretending to be uninterested in Ash for Laura's benefit. One glance from Ash and all she would be thinking was backing Ash up against a wall and losing herself again in the feel of those soft lips and sleek muscular body. Madison drew in another ragged breath, shaking her head to diminish the vivid images before she gave into the temptation to head back inside and temporarily relieve the ache.

"Hey, Madison, I thought that was you."

Startled, Madison lifted her head and spotted Jenny and Reggie walking toward her with a small black puppy in tow. "Hey guys," she smiled, grateful for the distraction from her lustful thoughts. "We still set for this evening?"

"Oh yeah," Reggie agreed, nodding enthusiastically and grinned. Her pale blue eyes sparkled. "Pizza, beer, and games are some of my favorite things." Reggie was a couple of inches shorter than Madison with a muscular build. She had short, light brown hair with blond spikes.

"Who's your friend?" Madison knelt down to pat the friendly puppy that was sniffing at her running shoes.

"Reggie's latest project." Jenny rolled her eyes. "Meet Maximillion."

"That's a big name for such a tiny pup." Madison gave into demanding eyes and pulled the puppy into her arms. She stood up, continuing to pet him while he wiggled in ecstasy.

"Careful there, Madison, he's not fully potty trained yet," Reggie said. "That's why Maxi is still a work-in progress."

Madison quickly placed the black puppy at arms length. "I see," she said, returning him to the ground. "I'll remember that next time. Well, I'd better do this run before I talk myself out of it. I'll see you guys this evening." She was gone with a quick wave and a smile.

Once she hit her stride, Madison's thoughts automatically drifted back to her evening with Ashley. Warmth radiated from her heart and a smile touched her face. I've got it bad, and I don't care. Like a slide show, the evening before played through her mind. Ash had looked gorgeous leaning against the door jam with a cocky grin. And she wants me. And Lord help me, I want her, too. Talking about taking things slow had been much easier over the phone.

She sped up the slide show to later in the evening. They had talked about a many different subjects and she now knew for certain the other woman didn't take herself too seriously. Ash had made her laugh, cracking jokes about the stereotypes associated with both her African American and Asian heritage. That had led to a discussion of race relations, politics, and the state of the world.

When they had both started to feel discouraged, Ash decided they needed a change of subject. The next hour had been spent in a friendly, but heated, discussion of movies and television shows. At two, when they were having a hard time keeping their eyes open, Ash stood and asked Madison to walk her to the door. Before Ash could open the door, Madison pinned her against it and started with the lip nibbling.

You're not supposed to be thinking about that, remember? Oh, yeah. Madison forced her thoughts away from Ash, kisses and touches. For a few moments, she enjoyed the exertion and sweat brought on by the temperature as much as the exercise. She turned onto a side street that was quieter and heavily shaded by oak and pine trees. Unbidden, she wondered what had happened to her friend Emily. When Emily first moved away, they had corresponded regularly, but eventually it dwindled to nothing. Before she mentioned her to Ash the night before, Madison hadn't thought about Emily in years but knew that she would have approved of Ash and vice versa. Everything always comes back to Ash. And well, it should, I guess. Where else was she going to find another woman who could intelligently argue the merits of animated princesses and politics? She'd never been able to convince Courtney to go see any movie involving animation. Raising her fist in victory, Madison gave a leap of joy. Grinning sheepishly, she looked around quickly to see if anyone had seen her exuberant behavior.

What the heck? Who cares what other people think? I've got the girl.



Promptly at five, Ash knocked on the back door at Laura's house. Cedric who had two young boys attached to his legs, opened the door.

"Hey, Ash," he said, flashing her a grateful smile. "Thanks for coming on such short notice."

"No prob." Ash leaned forward and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "I'll just eat enough tomorrow to make up for it."

"Are you going to stay with us, Aunt Ash?" Keshawn, the older of the two boys asked, letting go of his uncle's leg to grasp Ash's hand.

"Hi, Aunt Ash." DeMarcus let go and held up his arms for her to pick him up. He planted a sloppy kiss on her cheek. "You play with us?"

"Of course." She pulled him closer before tickling his stomach. "Don't I always? I hope you guys brought that cool garage thingy with you."

"It lives here now," Keshawn said. "Mama says we don't have enough room at our new place."

"Ooh," Ash squealed, pretending delight. "Then I can come over and play with it all the time."

"Not without me," DeMarcus said with a pout.

"Why don't you go get the garage set up while I talk to your Aunt Ash?" Cedric waited until they raced out of the room to speak. "Latasha broke up with her latest boyfriend, so they moved to some one bedroom dump," he said unable to hide his bitterness. "I told her she should move in with us for a while, but you know how she can be."

Stupid is more like it. Ash looked into Cedric's worried light brown eyes and bit back a nasty retort. "They can stay with me," she offered off hand. "I've got plenty of space."

"Thanks for the offer, but she already signed a six-month lease."

Ash sighed. "What about the boys? They don't need to be in that kind of environment."

"Tell me about it," Cedric said. "You try talking some sense into my hard-headed sister. It's okay for her to take money from me, but for some reason, it's not okay for the boys to move in with us," he added, clearly frustrated. "But you don't need to hear this from me. I'm sure your sister will give you an earful."

"Hear what?" Laura asked, stepping into the kitchen.

"Latasha drama."

Laura grimaced, but didn't respond. There was no love lost between her and her selfish sister-in-law. "Thanks for coming, sis. I hope we didn't mess up your plans?" She gave her sister an appraising glance. "Are you seeing anyone?"

"Who me?" Ash returned with a smile. "What do you think?"

Laura nodded, satisfied with the response. Wait until tomorrow. She shot Cedric a look of superiority, threading her arm around his waist and leaning her cheek against his chest. She always did have trouble keeping her hands off the tall, handsome hunk.

"You two should get a room." Ash rolled her eyes in mock disgust.

"Laura, you weren't supposed to tell her where we were going."

"Sorry, babe, she forced it out of me. Said she wouldn't babysit if I didn't divulge our plans."

"You two are crazy. I'd think you'd be tired of that high yellow, ex-jock by now, sis," she joked, knowing that time would never come.

"You're just jealous 'cause Laura saw me first," Cedric taunted. "But I keep telling you there's enough for you too." He reached out his other arm and pulled Ash into a breathtaking hug. At six foot two and over two hundred pounds, he had no trouble squeezing both sisters at once.

Ash and Laura's loud protests drew the boys into the kitchen.

"I wanna play." DeMarcus, grinning from ear to ear, attacked his uncle from the back. His eyes, the same color and shape as Cedric's, danced with glee.

Keshawn, whose face had first expressed concern, started giggling at the sight of his aunts trapped in his uncle's arms.

"Keshawn, come help," DeMarcus commanded.

"Nah, Aunt Laura likes it when Uncle Cedric hugs her like that."

Giving a shout of laughter, Cedric let his arms fall. "You're right about that, son," he said smugly.

Laura tried to fix Keshawn with the evil eye, but spoiled it by laughing. "Okay boys, come give me a hug, so we can go out on our hot date."



Madison was doing a final look-see in the mirror, when her phone rang. Her heart leapt, hoping it was Ash saying she was available after all. She rushed into the bedroom and grabbed the phone. "Hello."

"Hey, girlfriend, what's shaking?"

"Your behind no doubt."

Susan tsked. "Now that was just ugly. I'm returning your SOS from yesterday. Can I assume you got through the big date okay?"

"No thanks to you," Madison grumbled good naturedly. "Can I assume you're just getting home from yesterday?"

Susan laughed. "I'm hurt, Maddy. What do you take me for?"

"You don't want to know."

"You're probably right. So tell me all about last night. Did you do the nasty?" she asked with a snicker.

"No! There's a three date minimum. I think it's written in blood somewhere."

"Damn, I must have missed that memo. Did she at least try to hit it?"

"Ash was the perfect gentlewoman. She left after giving me a chaste kiss on the cheek," she lied.

"I may have been born at night, but it wasn't last night. I know she slipped you the tongue."


"Maybe, my ass. And now that I think about it, I bet you slipped her the tongue. Come on, fess up."

"I plead the fifth."

"I knew it! There's hope for you yet. I guess this means you had a good time?"

Madison sighed dramatically. "It was wonderful. I didn't want it to end."

"Why did it?"

"The more I get to know Ash, the more I like her. It's kind of scary."

"Come on, you deserve this, Maddy."

"I worry I'll fall too deep, too soon. I know if we made love, I would be way over my head," she admitted softly, gripping the phone. "I would lose a little part of myself and it's way too early for that."

"But what's the alternative? I'm not saying jump into bed with her," Susan quickly clarified. "Just be careful you don't hold back too much. You can lose that way too."

"Whoever invented relationships must be laughing herself silly right about now."

"Buck up, Norman," Susan chided. "You've got a hot chick wanting to crawl all over you. You're not going to get any sympathy from me."

Madison smiled. "Thanks, Suz, I needed that proverbial slap in the face. Now that that's settled, you never did confirm whether you were just getting home from yesterday."

"That my child will have to be a story for another day. I only have fifteen minutes to get cleaned up and get out of here. But before I go, when will the third date be?" She let loose a wicked laugh.

"Goodbye." Madison turned off the phone and tossed it on the bed. "That woman."

Twenty minutes later, she rang the doorbell at Jenny and Reggie's apartment. She was more than ready for beer, pizza and companionship. Their apartment was toward the back on the other side of the courtyard. The door was answered by a petite blonde woman who was neither Jenny nor Reggie.

"Hello?" Madison checked the door, to making sure she had read the number right.

"You must be Madison," the blonde said with a smile. "I'm Sabrina, the official door answerer." She stepped back and gestured for Madison to enter. "Reggie is changing her shorts, and Jenny is taking Max for another walk while no doubt giving him a lecture on the behavior patterns of good puppies."

"Uh, oh, he had a little accident?"

"Unfortunately, Reggie was cuddling him at the time. Sometimes when he gets real excited he pees."

"Didn't I warn you about that this morning?" Reggie asked dryly, entering the room. "I should listen to myself some time. I assume you two introduced yourselves?"

"We did," Sabrina answered. "I was just about to offer Madison a drink, but now I notice she brought her own."

In response, Madison held up a twelve pack produced by a local brewery, offering them to the other women. Reggie offered to place the rest of the beer in one of the coolers on the balcony.

As Madison and Sabrina lowered themselves to the plush fabric sofa, Jenny and the properly chastised puppy entered the apartment. Maxi raced over to sniff the new arrival, determined to behave properly this time. He sat as still as he could, his tail wagging furiously while Madison lovingly petted him.

"Madison, I'm glad you made it," Jenny said, plopping into a wide leather recliner. "I hope you weren't expecting a quiet evening because this had morphed into a party of sorts."

"How quiet can it be with beer and pizza?" Madison gave her an easy smile. "I had enough quiet during the week, it's time to get loud and rowdy.

"I'll drink to that," Reggie said, reentering the room. She walked over and handed her partner a light beer in deference to her low-carb diet. "I'd like to propose a toast to the weekend, especially since I don't have to work tomorrow." They held their bottles high before taking deep sips.

"Wow, this is good beer, Madison. May I compliment you on your selection?" Sabrina joked.

"You can, but a friend of mine should really get the credit for this find."

"Okay, then I'll compliment her for the selection," was the prompt reply followed by another deep swallow.

"What a horrible host I am!" Jenny exclaimed, jumping out of the recliner. "I forgot to put out the snacks. Reggie, you should have reminded me."

"Sorry babe, I forgot as well. Blame it on Maxi for distracting us at the crucial time. I'll help." As they walked into the kitchen, the doorbell rang.

"I guess I'm back on duty. Hey guys, come on in," Sabrina said, opening the door wide.

Madison gave a nervous smile and stood up. This was her opportunity to meet new people, and she intended to make the most of it. Wiping her sweaty hands on her pants, she stepped forward to be introduced.

In the next twenty minutes, ten more women showed up. Reggie organized the collection of pizza money and called in the order for five large pizzas. When she found out the wait time was an hour and a half, she drafted Sabrina to ride shotgun to the restaurant.

Madison was a relieved to see Sabrina go. She was beginning to get the suspicion Jenny was trying to fix them up. Sabrina was an attractive woman but didn't stand a chance with Ash as a formidable opponent. She sighed, wishing Ash was beside her. Wait a minute. This is what I want, friends to be from my side of the family. Looking around, she edged to the group Jenny was in.

Later in the evening, her stomach filled with beer and pizza, Madison glanced around the crowded living room. She laughed silently when she spotted a contented Sabrina lounging on the lap of her girlfriend. I guess it's not all about me.

"You doing okay?"

She looked up with a smile. "I'm great. This is a good group of women."

Reggie nodded, lowering herself to sit on the carpet beside Madison. "Yeah, and you fit right in. Sharon tells me you're a writer."

"I don't know that I would go that far. I put pen to paper every now and then."

"Then you write ergo, you're a writer."

Madison chuckled. "Okay, then I am a writer," she said dutifully.

Reggie rubbed her hands together and grinned. "Good. Now that we've got that established, I can work on recruiting you to our fledgling writer's group. I've been doing some research on how to get one started, and now all I need are members."

"What do I have to do?"

"Show up, write and listen. Sharon and I are still figuring out the basics. Would you be interested?"

"Do I have to read what I write?"

"Only if you want to," Reggie assured her. "We want to make this as safe as possible."

"Okay, then I'm in."

"Was that an answer or a question?" Reggie joked, slinging an arm around Madison's shoulder.

"I'll let you decide."

Reggie withdrew her arm and cupped her hands around her mouth. "Yo, Sharon, we got another one!"

"Woo hoo!" Sharon waved her arms in victory.

"Do you get a toaster for this?" Madison asked with a straight face.

Reggie laughed uproariously, drawing attention. "Hey, everybody, Madison thinks I should get a toaster."

"Good work, honey," Jenny said. "I hope it's a toaster oven this time."

Sure that she'd put on five pounds from the excess food and beer, Madison left the party around midnight with the last of the stragglers. She knew, without a shadow of a doubt, she needed to do some extra running in the morning as penitence for overindulging.

"It was well worth it," she told her reflection while she got ready for bed. She went to sleep a short time later with a smile on her face, as a vision of Ash was her last waking thought.






Chapter Sixteen

Before Madison could reach the front door of the one-story ranch style house, Laura opened the door with a beaming smile.

"I'm so glad you could make it, Madison," she said, giving her a quick hug. "Come on in, everybody is in the backyard. What a beautiful salad," she remarked upon being presented Madison's offering.

"Thanks for the invitation, Laura. It's nice to have something to do on the weekend that doesn't involve just me. I brought some home made dressing to go with the salad." Madison held up a plastic container.

"Now I'm impressed," Laura said, leading Madison through her comfortably furnished, but cluttered living room. "Excuse the mess, but we're unexpectedly keeping Cedric's nephews for the weekend. Don't get me wrong, I love them to death, but the timing was not the best."

"Hey, relax, it's impromptu remember?" Madison said not letting on that she already knew about the boys. Besides, I smell meat cooking. For me it's always the call of the food, not the call of the wild," Madison said with levity in an attempt to dispel Laura's obvious embarrassment.

Laura smiled her thanks and led Madison to the bright spacious kitchen. Off to one side was a table filled with food. Laura did a little rearranging to make the salad bowl fit. "I have one of those fancy dressing doohickeys around here somewhere." She walked to the row of cabinets and started searching. "It was one of those wedding presents that you get but never really use. Ah yes, here it is." She pulled out the crystal piece and brought it over to the table. "Now let's go outside and mingle," she urged. "I really want you to meet my friends and my sister as well."

Sure you do. Madison followed the shorter woman, trying to suppress a smile at Laura's eagerness. Before walking onto the deck, she steeled herself for the sight of Ash. The last thing she needed was to have her face light up like a department store Christmas display. Okay, remember you've never met these women. Polite smiles and glances only. Straightening her shoulders, she put on her social smile. The necessity of having to concentrate dispelled any lingering trepidation over meeting Dee again.

"Okay, people, it's time to behave, my boss is here," Laura announced, stepping on the back deck. "Remember, I need my job," she reminded them, trying to maintain a serious demeanor, but was unable to keep from smiling. "Everybody, this is Madison, let's give her a warm welcome."

On cue, they called out, "Hello, Madison."

Madison responded with a wave saying, "Hello, everybody." She let her eyes sweep the group, ignoring the increase in her pulse rate when she spotted Ash leaning against the deck railing. When her eyes made contact with Dee, the other woman seemed to shrug her shoulders. Madison chose to view the gesture as a silent apology and she nodded almost imperceptibly.

"I'll introduce you to everybody individually in a minute, but first what can I get you to drink?"

"A diet soda would be good," she said, turning her attention back to Laura.

After retrieving the beverage, Laura introduced Madison around as promised. She first introduced her to Cedric, a couple of his friends, and his two nephews. Madison was startled by the likeness between Cedric and one of the boys. The taller boy was darker skinned with deep brown eyes, and looked nothing like his brother. Cedric easily towered over the other guests. He had a warm easy smile that made her feel welcome.

Madison and Laura then moved to the group that encompassed Ash, Kahla, Dee and another woman who was introduced as Jane, the wife of one of Cedric's friends. Madison dutifully shook hands, doing to her way of thinking, a credible job of pretending she hadn't recently shared searing kisses with Ash. Laura was called away by her husband before she had a chance to say anything more.

"Ash, keep an eye on Madison please?" Laura asked before leaving.

"Sure, sis," Ash said with a cocky grin. "You know you can depend on me."

Giving Madison an apologetic smile, Laura withdrew. Jane quickly followed.

"Sorry about jumping to conclusions," Dee said.

"I understand. I hope we can get past it for Ash's sake."

"Not a problem," Dee and Kahla said simultaneously. They turned and smiled at each other, exchanging a quick kiss.

Madison glanced at Ash, letting her see the desire she'd hidden from Laura. "I missed you," she mouthed and licked her lips.

Ash's breath caught in her throat and she looked away from the glistening lips. She jerked her head back when she heard a chuckle.

"So Madison, I hear you're new in town," Ash said, noticing her sister's return.

"Yes I am. I moved here from North Carolina and I'm really enjoying my new job and city."

"Oh good," Laura said with a wide smile as she rejoined the group. "You guys are getting to know each other. I think you'll find you have a lot in common," she added. "Madison, these are my friends I was telling you about, the ones who only let me hang out with them if I pretended to be a lesbian."

"Now Laura, you know that's not true. I'm your sister, not your friend," she argued.

"And we didn't make you pretend, Laura," Kahla said. "You were the butchest one of the group back then. Everyone just assumed you were a dyke because of your bad attitude and demeanor," she added, her brown eyes twinkling.

"Oh, totally." Dee nodded her head. "That big mouth of hers always got us into trouble. Then she would pull that innocent act, all sweet and smiley, so our parents always assumed we dragged her into the situation."

"How do you plead, ma'am?" Madison held an imaginary microphone in front of Laura.

"Innocent of all counts." Laura did her impression that had kept her from getting any share of the blame. "It wasn't my fault these crazy Lesbos kept starting stuff." She sniffed, dismissing the snorts of indignation from the crazy Lesbos.

"Now, Madison, who are you going to trust?" Dee asked. "Three of your own kind or one demented, vertically challenged straight woman?"

Madison pursed her lips, pretending to give the matter some thought. "I have no comment at this time. You can direct any questions to my press secretary," she said.

Kahla gave a shout of laughter. "Uh, oh, a politician."

Laura turned to Dee and stuck out her tongue while crossing her eye. "Vertically challenged." She raised her fist. "I'll show you--"

"Aunt Laura, Uncle Cedric says it's time to eat," Keshawn said.

Dee jumped off the railing and stretched leisurely. "I rest my case, Madison," she said sweetly, dodging Laura's flailing arm.

"Don't listen to anything they tell you," Laura advised Madison before joining Cedric at the grill.

They ate on the deck at the two card tables with the mismatched chairs. Laura took great pains to maneuver the seating so that Madison and Ash shared an oversized chair not meant for two people. Once they started eating, she forcefully directed the conversation toward activities she knew both women enjoyed.

Madison was relieved she didn't have to pretend indifference to the person whose lap she was, for all intents and purposes, sitting on. It was all she could do to focus her attention away from the warmth that radiated through her body where it was in contact with Ash. Regular breaths were almost a hardship, when all she really wanted to do was to drag the brunette to some secluded location. Hell, if this keeps up I won't even demand secluded location! She squirmed trying to get some relief.

"Madison, are you okay? You look a little flushed," Ash asked, showcasing her own wide-eyed look of innocence. Payback is a bitch. She bit the inside of her lip to keep from smiling.

"I'm fine," Madison replied. The sweetness in her voice was at odds with the threatening glare she gave Ash. "I must have gotten some sun on my run this morning. I wasn't able to run as early as I'm used to doing."

"Hey, that's something else you two have in common," Laura noted. "Maybe you could run together sometime," she suggested, hinting broadly. "Exercising is so much easier when you do it with a partner."

"No subtlety involved in that, was there?" Kahla asked no one in particular.

"I've seem more finesse in a dump truck," Dee said. She had to bite her lip to keep from laughing at the expression of outrage on Laura's face. "How do you suppose Sheila would like you exercising with an attractive woman, Ash?"

"Sheila!" Laura sputtered and was barely able to keep from spitting out her food. "Who the hell is Sheila?" she demanded, turning to glare at her sister.

Madison's heart stopped for one second until she caught the wink from Kahla. Ah, different tactics. She leaned away from Ash and frowned displacing the arm the other woman had thrown across her shoulder.

"Some babe I met last week at the after soccer party. You know the one you were invited to, but couldn't make?"

"Like I was going to take Cedric to a party with woman-on-woman action all over the place. I'd never get him to go home. You didn't tell me you met someone." The look she gave her sister spoke volumes.

"Is that how you refer to other women?" Madison asked, her demeanor stiff and disapproving. "You call them babes?"

"Only the good looking ones," Ash said brashly and traded high fives with Kahla.

"Uh...Ash, can you come help me in the kitchen for a moment?" Laura asked, jerked her head in the direction of the house. She quickly made eye contact Madison and gave her a reassuring smile.

"Sure sis." Ash nodded her head and stood up, making sure to touch Madison in as many places as possible as she wiggled her way out of the seat. "Now don't go away while I'm gone, darlin'," she told the other woman, thickening her southern accent.

Laura looked as if she were ready to explode but simply clinched her jaw and led her sister into the house.

The three remaining women tried not to laugh, but when they caught each other's expressions, they were consumed with chuckles they tried to tone down with their hands. They fed off of each others laughter for a couple of minutes before managing to regain some control. When they finally noticed the looks of amusement they were getting from the adults at the other table, they went into another fit of laughter.

Making sure not to make eye contact with Dee or Kahla, Madison took a sip of her Diet Coke. She wanted to cool her reddened cheeks before the two sisters returned. Taking a couple of deep breaths, she managed to quell the straggling giggles that wanted to bubble up as she imagined the conversation occurring in the kitchen.

"You still got it, babe," Kahla said with admiration, once she got her laughter under control. "Throwing in an imaginary woman was a stroke of pure genius."

"You even had me fooled for a second." Madison held her cold can against her overheated cheeks. "I don't think my employee is too thrilled with her sister right now."

"Laura shouldn't complain too much," Kahla said, drying her eyes. "She practically threw you into Ash's lap when we sat down to eat."

"And then there was the not so subtle way she pointed out the things you have in common. Frankly, I think she's lost her touch. She used to be more skilled at this matchmaking business."

"Now Dee, she hasn't had Ash around for the past couple of years," her partner said. "She's just a little rusty and real eager to get those two together."

"Maybe she should have practiced," Madison said, reaching for her barbecue sandwich. She took a huge bite, savoring the smoky flavor of the meat. Now that Ash's body wasn't there to distract her, she discovered how empty her stomach was and how quickly it could be filled.

In the hallway outside the kitchen, Ash was having her own troubles keeping a straight face. She had dutifully followed her sister into the house, trying her best to maintain a puzzled expression on her face. Leaning against the kitchen counter, she shrugged her shoulders and raised her arms asking, "What's up?"

Laura looked at her sister as if she were a stranger. "The question is what's up with you, Ash? I can't believe some of the shit I just heard coming out of your mouth."

Ash let her mouth fall open in disbelief. "What did I do wrong?".

"What didn't you do wrong?"

Ash shook her head, tsking. "Times have changed, sis. That macho bullshit works these days. Your boss will be drooling all over me before we leave," she said with a smug smile. "She is single, right?"

"Do you know how ridiculous you sound?" Laura shouted in disbelief. "Do me a favor and forget about Madison. I don't know why I thought..." She blew out a sharp breath. "Just help me take out the dessert." She turned her back to her sister, so she was unable to see Ash's gesture of victory.

Ash was chagrined to find her place usurped by the boys when she and Laura returned with dessert. DeMarcus was sitting in Madison's lap while Keshawn sat on the armrest. They appeared to be having an animated conversation. Ash smiled at the intensity on Madison's face.

"See, sis, I'm not the only one who wants to be close to her," Ash whispered for his sister's ears only.

"True, but I think she actually likes having the boys that close to her, you, I'm not so sure about."

"Hey boys, we brought dessert," Ash called out, drawing everyone's attention to her. She was hoping that the announcement of sweets would free up her previous spot. She suppressed a grimace when DeMarcus scooted off Madison's lap and pulled her with him. Duh, Patterson, of course she got up. What was I thinking? Ash mentally thumped herself upside the head.

Making sure Laura's attention was diverted, Madison gave Ash a saucy wink.

"Glad to see you stuck around for me, sweetheart," Ash spread her legs and hooked her thumbs through her belt loop. Knowing her sister was now watching, she made a big show of checking out Madison's figure.

"I only stuck around as you say, because I promised the boys I would play a couple of video games with them," Madison shot back and gave a sniff of distain.

"You play video games?" Ash asked with a huge grin. "If you can cook I might just have to marry you."

"I suppose you'd keep me barefoot and pregnant, would you?" Madison put her hands on her hips, letting her outrage show. Damn, this role-playing is fun!

"I'm pretty good with a turkey baster." With a cocky grin, Ash puffed out her chest and thumped it a couple of times.

Madison made the mistake of glancing in Laura's direction. The petite woman was standing with her mouth hung open, looking at her sister as if she were an alien. Although she tried to keep it down, Madison couldn't stop the laughter that flowed up from her belly and spilled out of her mouth. Within seconds, she was bent over with laughter, laughing even harder when Ash joined in. Fearing a tumble, Madison grabbed hold of unsteady Ash. They teetered on the brink of falling still laughing uncontrollably.

Laura looked from her boss to her sister, her eyes narrowed suspiciously. She closed her mouth when it dawned on her that she was being tweaked. She stood watching them for a moment, her lips clamped shut to suppress any hint of a smile. Pulling herself up to her full height, she gave Madison an inscrutable expression, and asked, "Et tu, Brutus?"

Madison and Ash looked at each other and howled. Convulsing in laughter, the two women slowly slid to the ground. Laura shot Dee and Kahla dirty looks when she noticed they were laughing as well. She turned to her husband and he quickly wiped the mirth off his face.

"Aunt Laura, can I get dessert now?" DeMarcus asked pulling on her shirt. He had been eyeing the sweets greedily.

"You sure can," Laura replied and stepped over the prostate bodies, shaking her head. She put generous helpings of chocolate cake and apple pie on paper plates, helping DeMarcus carry his plate to the table. Returning to the table with the baked goods, Laura picked up the big knife again and glanced first at Ash, then Madison. "I will get even," she swore as she drove the knife into the chocolate cake. "And don't think you're off the hook," she said, shaking her finger at Dee and Kahla. I think they like each other.

After all the guests had left, Ash was in the kitchen helping Laura clean up. Cedric had been assigned the job of keeping the boys out of the way.

"I think that went well," Laura said as she dried on of the platters that wouldn't fit into the dishwasher.

"It was fun. Thanks for being such a good sport."

"I can't believe you guys talked Madison into your little stunt so quickly."

"Yeah, she's okay for the academic type." Ash hid a smile as she reached up to put a bowl in the cabinet. "Not at all what I was expecting."

"That's good then right?"

Ash turned to Laura, her expression serious. "Listen sis, she's a nice woman, but the spark wasn't there," she lied.

"Give it a chance," Laura urged. "You have to admit she really is nice and she is single."

Ash sighed in exasperation. "I know it's been a long time since you dated, but surely even you remember something called chemistry."

"Yeah, you pour ingredients in a bottle and mix them up until they fizz. You just need to mix a little longer."

"Give it up."

"At least promise you'll think about it."

"Okay." Ash rolled her eyes and flicked her sister with the dishtowel. "Still as tenacious as ever."

Laura put her hands on her hip. "And don't you forget it."






Chapter Seventeen

The phone was started ringing before Madison could let herself into her apartment. She unlocked the door, raced across the room and picked up the receiver. "Hello." she said, her voice a little breathy.

"Do I want to know what you were doing before you answered the phone?" Susan asked. "And if you were doing that, why did you stop to answer the phone?"

"Actually, you with the perverted mind, I just got in and had to run for the phone." Madison crossed the room to close and lock the door. "Believe me, if anything else were happening, you would have reached the answering machine."

"That's a relief to know." Susan exhaled. "So, kiddo, how goes the romance? I'm calling to make sure you didn't do something stupid."

"Gee, nice to know I have your trust," she said dryly. "Rest assured, the romance is still hot and heavy. But enough about me, what have you been doing all weekend? And don't try to put me off again."

"I've been busy."

"Duh!" Madison sank to the couch. "Details, please."

"Okay, remember the number I got at the party?"

Madison grinned. "The woman you were trying to impress?"

"Let's just say we went out to dinner Tuesday night and things progressed from there."

"Not good enough, my friend. I want the juicy details," she teased.

"I can tell you she didn't get the third day memo either."

"You sly dog."

"I wasn't the only one," Susan protested.

"That would be a very big duh. Too much sex has rotted your brain. You should have listened to your mother."

"Bite your tongue. That too much sex thing is a myth. Ask Ash," she added slyly.

Madison retreated. "So the party at Jenny and Reggie's was fun."

Susan laughed. "Chicken shit."

"I prefer prudent Hey, I almost forgot to tell you I got talked into joining a writer's group."

"Good for you. Now you'll have to get past the fear of sharing."

"I'll have you know I let Ash read some of my stuff."

"Now I am impressed." Susan whistled. "I take it you like this woman?"

"She'll do in a pinch. But only until someone better comes along though."

"Yeah right. I'd better start planning the wedding."

"Let's not go there. I'm happy with what we have, and we'll see where it goes from here."

"It's a start. What did you guys do today? Something tells me it wasn't what I was doing."

"That would be correct." Madison soon had her friend laughing about the trick they pulled on Laura.

"I always miss the good stuff," Susan complained. "I'm glad you and Dee worked things out."

They talked for a little while longer and made tentative plans to get together over the next couple of weeks. In talking to Susan, Madison had tried to downplay the feelings Ash spurred in her. But it was only wishful thinking to believe she could view their relationship as day to day. She was too far gone for that.

I never had this strong of an emotional pull for Courtney. Madison grimaced, feeling in some way disloyal for thinking about her ex and Ash at the same time. She reached for a throw pillow and held it against her stomach. But wait, why should I feel guilty? Courtney played a large role in my life.

Jumping up, Madison crossed the room and picked up her favorite symbol. Some days it was enough just to look at it, but today she felt the need to hold it. Staring at the two halves so different and yet so complimentary gave her pause. Her relationship with Courtney to some degree had been based on gratitude. With Ash, the primary emotion started out as lust but had quickly evolved into liking and caring. She stopped short of the four-letter word beginning with an L. Her mind wasn't ready to process that thought yet.

One day. She replaced the glass and sighed. In need of distraction, she retreated to her office and turned on the computer. Sitting down and stretching her fingers, she pulled up the cop story. I really need to think of a good title for this. She rubbed her forehead thoughtfully. What had started out as a joke had morphed in to the beginnings of a thriller. Deciding that a title could wait, Madison reread the last page to pick up the thread.

"Now I remember why I stopped," she muttered to herself. "I wrote myself into a corner." She sat back in the chair, searching for a solution. The crime had already been committed and was under investigation. What she needed now was an interesting criminal. As she tapped her fingers against her forehead, the solution popped into her head. Rummaging through the papers on her desk, she pulled out the sheet she'd worked on Monday night. Committing murder would be a perfect reason to start your life all over again. "Aha!" she cried triumphantly and began weaving the two stories together



"Good morning. You got a minute?" Laura didn't wait for a response, but came in and sat down in one of the chairs facing Madison's desk.

"Oh, good, you did recover from yesterday," Madison said and smirked. "I thought you might have to call in sick."

"Very funny," Laura deadpanned. "So did you have a good time?"

"Without a doubt. Thanks again for having me over."

"You're welcome. Next time, I'll try to plan more in advance to make sure Bruce can join us. Don't tell him I said this, but he can get lively when you get him away from the office."

"And you're not?" Madison asked, remembering some of the stories that had been shared the day before. She took a sip of coffee from her extra large traveling mug.

"Low blow, boss," Laura said with a fake pout. "So the four of you quickly saw through my matchmaking plot, huh?"

"Subtlety is not one of your strong points."

"I'll work on it," she promised, picking up a pen and twirling through her fingers. "So what did you think?"

"That you were right about your husband. That brisket of his deserved an award." Madison kissed her fingers.

Laura let the pen drop. "No, my sister. You know, the tall, beautiful, but arrogant one."

"Oh, her," Madison nodded and managed to keep her expression noncommittal. "She has a great sense of humor. And she took the drubbing I gave on the video game pretty well for a jock. Ash seemed really nice, but there was no spark between us," she lied.

Laura suppressed a groan. Not chemistry again. It's a start. She had been hoping for a stronger reaction from Madison. "By the way, in case you didn't figure it out, you're a big hit with Keshawn and DeMarcus. They can't wait to have you come over and play with them again."

Madison grinned. "Cool. They have the best toys. I take it they stay at your place a lot?"

Laura nodded. "Don't get me started talking about that situation. I'll fill you in at lunch one time."

Madison gave her employee a sympathetic smile. "Any time you need to vent my office is open, and I won't even charge you five cents."

"Thanks, I'll keep that in mind." Laura stood and walked to the door. She left Madison's office already plotting her next move. They might not see it, but Ash and Madison were perfect for each other.



Ash returned from the meeting covering a yawn. A long, drawn out discussion of nothing was just what she didn't need after being out of the office for almost a week. Rubbing her temples, she looked at the stark, black and white clock on the wall opposite her desk. "Damn, I can't believe we wasted that much time," she muttered. It was already close to noon, and she still had to make sure the fall schedule of activities was correct before it got sent to the printer.

She reached for the phone, thinking a quick lunch with Madison might improve the serious case of Monday blahs she was cursed with.

"Ash, can I see you in my office a minute?"

"Sure." She forced a smile. Grabbing a pad, she followed the Director to his office.

She left an hour later, laden with folders and suggestions.

"Ash, Steve's making a run to the sub shop, you in?"

"Let me get some money," she yelled back and hurried to her office. Dropping the folders on her desk, she suppressed a scream as they missed the desk and cascaded to the floor. What a shitty day! Yanking open a drawer, she pulled out her wallet and retrieved some money. Ash walked back to the front desk, leaving her money and order.

At five, she stretched out her arms and yawned. "Time for a break." Pushing away from the desk, she walked down the hallway to the staff lounge. She opened the door to the fridge, only to remember she drank her last Dr. Pepper with lunch. Slamming the door shut, she stomped back to her office.

Without conscious thought, she pulled out her cell and pressed Madison's number.

Madison was almost to her car, when her cell phone rang. She sat her briefcase on the hood and dug around for her phone. "Hello, Ash" she said warmly.

Ash smiled, relaxing for the first time all day. "Hey, you. I know it's late notice, but any chance you can meet me for dinner tonight?"

"I have to think about that," she teased playfully She was already trying to decide if she had time to go home and change into something less business-like.

"What a tease," Ash said, drawing out the last word. Her voice turned serious when she admitted, "Today has been a disaster and I really need to see you to regain my sanity." Her heart fluttered when she heard a gasp.

"That was so not fair," Madison complained as her heartbeat quickened. This woman was making it impossible for her to hold back anything. "I guess I can spare you the time since you asked so nicely. What did you have in mind?" Madison unlocked her car door and threw her briefcase on the front seat.

You don't want to know. "Assuming you mean food, how 'bout Frankie's? They have a little bit of everything on their menu. Can you meet me in about thirty minutes?"

"That works for me. I can't wait to see you again."

"Me, too," Ash said, her voice husky. "See you." She turned off the phone and stuffed the schedule and her notes in a briefcase. She could work on it at home, later. Turning off the light, she left her office with the see-through front wall.

Twenty minutes later, she was leaning against her SUV waiting for Madison. Ash smiled when she saw a familiar vehicle turn into the parking lot and pulled to a stop next to her. She hurried around the car and opened the driver side door. "Hi," she said with a warm smile, her eyes taking in every detail of Madison's appearance. Ash held out her hand.

"Thanks." Madison accepted the assistance. Feeling the familiar warmth spread through her body, she smiled.

They stood in front of each other, grinning as if they hadn't seen each other in a long time. Ash wanted to hug Madison, but wasn't sure she could keep it friendly. She put her hands into the pockets of her pants and cocked her head to the side, letting her eyes show her longing. She was rewarded with a sizzling glance.

"Dinner," Madison suggested, momentarily closing her eyes against the swirling lust threatening to overtake her.

Ash swallowed hard and nodded. She shut the door and led Madison to the entrance. Opening the door, she gestured for the other woman to enter. Unable to stop herself from touching Madison, she put her hand in the shorter woman's back as they walked toward the host's station.

"Thanks for meeting me on such short notice," Ash said once they were seated. She reached across the table and took one of Madison's hands in hers.

"As if I had a choice," Madison said with a gentle smile. "You made sure of that when you begged. I have to confess that I like that in a woman, but especially in you," she added raising a finger to her chin. "Or maybe it might have been the thought that I could get one of those sizzling kisses like you gave me at Laura's last night."

"Just doing my job, ma'am," Ash said. She let go of Madison's hand and reached for the menu. "I can't begin to tell you how much my day improved just hearing your voice. It was one of those days where everything that could go wrong did. I'd been running like crazy from the moment I got to my office until I called you."

"Not the best way to start the week," Madison commiserated. "Why not try to put all the aggravation out of your mind and concentrate on me?" she asked with a sensuous smile.

"Madison." Ash leaned forward, her eyes watching intently. "If I concentrate on you anymore we could get arrested."

A ball of heat formed south of Madison's stomach. She squirmed involuntarily, feeling the hardening of her clit as she easily visualized one particular act that could get them arrested. Just then their waiter arrived with glasses of water. Madison shot Ash a tortured look and drained the glass nonstop. She really wanted to pour it in her lap and have Ash lap it up. Down, girl, down!

"You certainly were thirsty," the waiter commented with a friendly smile. "Let me get you another glass."

"Thanks," Madison said with an embarrassed smile, knowing her cheeks were bright red. She hardly dared look at the woman sitting across from her.

"Are you okay?" Ash asked her voice smooth as silk. She smoothed back unruly strands, loosened from Madison's hair band, enjoying the silky feel.

Madison shuddered and opened the menu. Food, think food! "Oh yes, I'm fine. Now, what's good here?" she asked, licking her dry lips.

Ash followed the pink tongue in fascination. I am in so much trouble! She sucked in a breath, caught in her own teasing. That little shiver of Madison's was about enough to make her explode. Now it was her turn to do some squirming. "Uh...it's all good," she stammered, her kept eyes glued to the menu. It didn't help she could still see the effect of the shiver on the other woman's body. "All the food here is good."

"Maybe we should talk about your aggravating day." Madison smiled at the waiter and accepted the glass of water.

"You're probably right," Ash agreed, taking a sip of water.

They spent a good deal of the meal, rehashing Ash's frustrating day. The subject matter served its purpose--lessening the sexual tension that seemed to spring between them so quickly. During desert, Madison recounted her conversation with Laura.

"I don't believe it." Smiling, Ash shared her conversation with Laura. "If I know her, she's not giving up yet."

"I'll remember that when she invites me over to play with Keshawn and DeMarcus. Laura did mention they spend a lot of time at her house."

Ash pushed her half-eaten cake to the side and frowned. "It's a complicated situation. In many ways they're better off when they stay with Laura and Cedric. Latasha is little more than a child herself. A lot of the time, the boys aren't her highest priority like they should be."

"That must be rough on them." Madison placed her hand on top of Ash's balled fist to smooth it out.

"It is. Sometimes I want to strangle her," she admitted, taking a deep breath. "Latasha thinks nothing of dropping them off without any notice, but she won't consider leaving them there permanently. I just get so mad that she can't see they need more stability than she can provide."

"That makes me feel sad." Madison blinked rapidly, feeling the sting at the back of her eyes as she was beset by old memories.

Ash leaned across the table, once again smoothing down the errant strands of hair. "Hey, it will be okay. I'm here to help out Laura and Cedric now. And maybe you can be enticed to help out as well?"

Madison nodded, feeling foolish. "They seem remarkably well adjusted considering their situation." She let go of Ash's hand to pick up her napkin and dab at her eyes.

"Only thanks to Laura, Cedric and my parents. To my parents, DeMarcus and Keshawn are their grandchildren, and they have always treated them as such. We won't even talk about their, quote unquote, real grandmother tonight." Ash balled up her napkin and placed it beside her plate

"You take your role as aunt very seriously, don't you?" Madison asked, her voice filled with admiration.

"We're a tight-knit family, so it comes with the territory." Ash shrugged and searched Madison's face intently. She still had the scars from her disagreements with Cass.

Madison smiled. "Sounds wonderful. Family is very important." She wanted the chance to get pulled into Ash's tight knit-family.

Ash smiled in return, giving a silent sigh of relief. She doesn't realize how special she is. I'm glad I'll get the chance to show her. "As much as I've enjoyed our evening, I need to get home and finish up some work," she said and signaled the waiter for the check.

"Can I interest you in coming over for dinner one day this week? I enjoy spending time with you."

"Is Wednesday too soon?" Ash asked, really wanting to ask for Tuesday.

"Wednesday would be great. I'll be home by five-thirty, so come whenever you want. That is, as long as you aren't bothered by being my prep chef."

"I'll be there." Ash smiled.

The shared a restrained hug and kiss before going to their separate residences. Ash climbed into her yellow Xterra in a much better frame of mind.





Chapter Eighteen

"That was wonderful." Ash pushed aside her plate and rubbed her stomach. They were sitting in Madison's kitchen finishing up dinner. "I don't know what you put on that chicken, but it tasted great."

Madison smiled. "Thanks. It's a secret family recipe."

"Passed on from your mother, no doubt."

"No, my grandmother," she said. "I don't remember my mother being much of a cook."

"I'm sorry." Ash was instantly contrite. "I forgot your mom died when you were young."

Madison forced a smile. "That's okay. It was a long time ago." She grabbed the empty plates and walked to the sink. She didn't want to think about her life before her grandmother. She'd done enough of that over the last couple of days. Placing the plates in the sink, she returned to the table.

She silently chastised herself when she caught the worried look in Ash's brown eyes. "Can I interest you in some leftover Draino cheesecake?" she asked with a genuine smile.

Ash nodded, grinning. "I'm surprised you have any left."

"Smart aleck." Madison put her hands on her hips. "Didn't your mother teach you not to make fun of the hostess?"

"What's a hostess?" Ash feigned confusion. "I thought they only had those at Shoney's."

"Hopeless." Madison shook her head. "Do you want anything to drink with this?" she asked after removing the dessert from the fridge.

"I still have water," she said as she lifted her glass. "And may I have a non-Madison-sized slice please?"

Madison looked up from cutting the cheesecake and glared. "I'm sure there's an insult in there somewhere. Give me a couple of days and I'll find it."

Ash gave her a wide-eyed look of innocence. "I wouldn't dare."

Rolling her eyes, Madison picked up the plates and brought them to the table. "I hope this isn't too much for you?"

"Just right." Ash grinned, noticing the size of Madison's piece. "I don't know where you put it

"If I didn't exercise regularly, I think it would settle on my hips."

"Never," Ash said loyally, pushing the cheesecake around the plate.

"Is something wrong with the cake?"

"Are we okay about earlier?" she asked, needing to know why Madison had been upset.

"It's funny. I haven't thought much about my life before my grandmother in a long time." Before now that is. Madison fixed her gaze on the logo affixed to refrigerator located above Ash's right shoulder. "My parents weren't abusive or anything like that, but sometimes I felt scared that they would forget all about me." She tried to smile, but it came off flat. "That never happened, but yet the feeling was still there." She shrugged, biting her lip to stop the tears from welling up.

"And you're thinking about it now because of our talk Monday night?"

"Yeah, it's silly I know."

Ash placed a hand on Madison's arm. "It's not silly. Do you feel like talking about it? I'm a pretty good listener."

"My parents loved me. I know they did. They just weren't very good at minor details like picking me up on time. But I was pretty resourceful back then. I always found a safe place to wait for them."

"What about your grandmother? She couldn't come get you?"

"She and my dad had a falling out before I was born. I didn't even get to meet her until my folks died. But if she had known about me, nothing would have kept her away." Madison smiled, blinking back tears. "She was my security blanket when I really needed one," she added softly It just took me too long to realize I didn't need one anymore.

Ash smiled, rubbing Madison's arm. "I'm glad you had her."

Madison raised her hands and wiped away the tears she couldn't stop. She pressed her lips together to stem the tide. Reaching for a napkin, she blotted her face. "Now it's my turn to apologize," she said, her eyes obscured by the napkin.

"There's nothing to apologize for. I'm glad you felt comfortable enough to share that with me."

Letting the napkin drop, she gave Ash a teary smile. "I do feel comfortable around you. Thanks for being so understanding."

"Always," Ash promised solemnly, her voice husky. She watched in satisfaction as Madison returned to her dessert.



"Bruce, this is Madison. Could you join me in my office, please? I want to review this proposal one last time."

"I'll be right there."

Madison replaced the receiver and slowly opened the file on her desk, praying this would be the last time they would have to look at the damn thing before it was mailed out.

"Reporting for duty." Bruce sketched a mock salute.

"Come on in," she beckoned and waited for him to take a seat. "Here are the latest revisions," she said, handing him a copy. "I highlighted all the changes in red. I was happy to see they didn't make any substantive changes this time."

"I'm more than ready to be finished with this." Bruce scanned through the document, making note of the changes. "This looks good," he declared. "I don't know how you managed to get some of my original specifications put back in, but I thank you."

"They're back because they're vital to us. Once I explained everything to Stephanie, she agreed. I also made sure she's aware of all the hard work you put into this."


Madison signed off on the project with a flourish. "Thank you for the good work, Bruce. I would say this was unusually complicated, but I suspect I would just be fooling myself."

"Most likely. I couldn't have done this without you, boss. Getting the buy off from higher-ups is always the hardest part."

Madison felt a glow of pride. "You'd better leave before we break our arms, patting each other on the back," she joked, handing him the signed copy.

"Gotcha. I will personally escort this to the copy center. We should get the requisite fifteen copies in plenty of time to have them delivered."

Nodding her approval, she picked up the ringing phone. "Hello. Dr. Norman speaking, how may I help you?"

"Hi Madison. This is Reggie. I'm sorry to bother you at work, but I wasn't sure I'd be able to catch you later."

"Please don't tell me the meeting's cancelled. I'm really looking forward to it."

"No, nothing like that. We decided last night to have refreshments. I'm wondering if you could bring chips and dip."

Madison gave a sigh of relief. She had been struggling for a week to find the courage to even think about sharing some of her work, and she didn't want to have to find it again. "Can do. I'll be there at seven."

"Thanks. Bye now."




Ash walked up to Laura's back door and knocked before turning the knob. "Knock, knock."

"Who's there?" Laura was standing at the stove stirring something in a big pot.

"Your hungry sister, that's who." Ash crossed the room and leaned over to peer in the pot. "Ah, spaghetti. Where's the garlic bread?" she asked, sniffing the air.

"Sitting on the counter. Cedric went to pick up the boys. I didn't want to put it in until they get back."

"Good thing you made a big batch."

"I made it for you," her sister said, flipping her hair behind her ears. "Leftovers, Ash. If I make a lot, we have enough for a couple of meals. Then I don't have to cook as much."

"You know I don't do that cooking stuff. That's what wives are for," she said slyly.

"And who's going to marry you?" Laura asked. "You need to do better than you're doing if you want a wife. Although, Madison did say you were okay."

"Yeah?" She gave her sister a rakish grin. "She should, I let her win a game."

"Then why didn't you ask for her number?"

"She's your boss, pip squeak. That whole situation would be too complicated," Ash said, shaking her head. "There have to be other single lesbians over the age of twenty-five around here."

"So you don't want to date her because she's my boss, right? I mean you did like her other than that, didn't you?"

"God Laura, you're as persistent as you've always been," she said, faking frustration. She had to fight to hold back her laughter. "I don't think I'm your boss's type. And she's probably too bookish for me."

"This from a woman who used to hide a flashlight in her bed so she could read into the night?" Laura turned to walk to the stainless steel fridge, missing her sister's grin. "And she has a great sense of humor. Look at how well she did playing along with you nut cases."

Ash wiped the grin off her face when her sister turned back around. "Listen sis, you're overdoing it again. The more you talk, the more I think there must be something wrong with her."

"Then I'll invite her to dinner, and you guys can talk." Laura dumped the vegetables on the counter. "Grab a cutting board. You can help me make the salad. Okay, so maybe you could just come for dessert," she said when she saw Ash's frown. "I'll invite Madison to dinner, and you can drop by later. Then you wouldn't have to stay long if you find you really aren't interested."

"If I promise, will you shut up about it already?"

"Of course." Laura hid a triumphant smile. "Just one more thing."

Ash sighed loudly. "What now?"

"She enjoys animated kiddie movies like someone else I know." Laura turned, giving Ash a pointed look.

"I don't know why I didn't smother you when you were younger."

"Because Mama would have been real upset with you."

"Whatever. Just give me enough notice of when I need to show up."

"Here come my boys," Laura said when they heard the sound of the garage door opening. "Let me slip the bread in the oven. Can you find a bowl for the salad, please?"

"Do I look like I came over here to slave?"

"No, you look like you came over here to eat. So get to work."

"You're just talking trash 'cause you muscle is back."

Laura stuck out her tongue. "Mama didn't raise no fool."



"I missed you." Madison backed up so that Ash could enter.

"I missed you more," Ash said, engulfing her in an embrace. She ducked her head, pressing her lips against Madison's. The kiss started gentle as a simple hello. But as always when they touched, their need grew. With a moan, Madison threaded her fingers through Ash's long, silky hair, pulling her close to deepen the kiss.

Ash answered the moan, placing her hands in the small of Madison's back, bringing their bodies closer together. Her only thought was of losing herself in the surge of passion that stoked her body. She eased her hands under Madison's shirt, searching for warm skin.

"Oh," Madison groaned, her lips inches away from Ash's mouth. "I think I missed you more."

"Not possible," she replied tersely, grasping at restraint. Ash took a deep, shuddering breath, reminding her body that Madison meant too much to her now to ruin things with a quick jump in the sack. She removed her hands and gently eased their hips apart. "I like your greeting," she joked, using levity to help dissolve her ardor.

Madison leaned her head against Ash's chest, struggling to calm her racing heart. Why am I making us wait? I want her so much. She closed her eyes momentarily, trying to get her thoughts together. "I--"

"It's okay." Ash kissed the top of Madison's head. "I understand, babe. It's okay to wait."

"But I'm so sorry."

Ash leaned back and gently lifted Madison's chin. "I'm not. I love holding and kissing you. It's enough, okay?"

Madison nodded. "I love it, too," she said, thinking I love you. But she couldn't make herself say the words yet.

"Get your stuff, or we'll miss the previews."

"You just can't wait to snarf down popcorn. I'm on to you, Ashley Monroe Patterson."

"Hey, I have to snarf it down before Madison the Blowfish sucks it all up."

"Blowfish? Why can't I be a shark?" She gave Ash a quick kiss before she went to her bedroom to grab her small backpack.

Ash watched her go with a smile on her face. "I guess you could be a shark," she said a moment later when Madison returned. "I've often suspected you eat all that food without really tasting it."

"You're way off," Madison led the way to the front door. "I taste everything I eat."

They continued to bicker back and forth on the drive to the movie theater. Ash dropped Madison off in front to stand in line while she drove through the nearly-filled parking lot looking for a spot. "I need to get out more," she said, amazed by the number of people crowding the multiplex for the late shows. After zipping into a parking space, she hustled across the lot to join Madison.

"I've been thinking," Madison began as they sat in the theater, waiting for the lights to dim.

"About us?"

Madison turned to her head and smiled. "I always think about us. It's about Laura and how she's never going to let up on me until you and I agree to meet. I think we should let her set us up."

Ash grabbed a handful of popcorn and smirked. "You'll be happy to know I agreed to drop in the next time you're over for dinner."

"When did this happen?"

"Last night while you were off playing bard. I'm surprised she didn't invite you today."

"She did," Madison whispered as the lights dimmed. "I made up an excuse because somebody didn't tell me we were changing strategies."

"Oh." Ash slouched down in her chair, keeping her eyes focused on the screen. "My bad."

Madison leaned over, kissing her on the cheek. "You're so cute when you're contrite." She laughed softly and scoped up some popcorn.

When the movie started, Ash reached for Madison's hand, resting it on her thigh. She sighed in contentment and leaned back to enjoy the latest blockbuster movie she had been waiting to see. The opening scene was dramatic; it startled the audience and caused a rash of nervous laughter.

"I told you it was going to be good," she whispered to Madison, her eyes glued to the screen. She regretted those words ten minutes later when the plot sunk into a quagmire of boredom. Ash wasn't surprised to feel Madison's head lolling against her shoulder at the mid point. Adjusting their positions to provide Madison's head a softer resting place, she sighed in contentment. Although she had also lost interest, Ash was loath to pass on the opportunity to have Madison, with all her shields down, in her arms.

Leaning down, she placed a soft kiss on Madison's forehead, breathing in the fresh herbal scent of Madison's shampoo. Ash exhaled slowly and turned her attention back to the movie, very conscious of the woman resting against her. When the lights came on, she reluctantly nudged Madison, saying, "Time to wake up."

Madison slowly lifted her head and looked around. "I guess I missed the end," she said. "Sorry I'm such a dud." She sat up and ran her fingers through her hair.

"Don't worry. You weren't the dud, the movie was. The only good parts were what they showed in the trailer."

Madison groaned and allowed Ash to pull her up. "Can we stop for coffee and dessert?" she asked, not ready for the night to end.




Chapter Nineteen

Ash grinned mischievously as she pulled up behind Madison's car that was parked in front of Laura's house. Tonight she was going to express an interest in Madison for her sister's benefit. Although she wasn't supposed to arrive until after dinner, Ash realized that showing up early would give her more time with Madison.

She gave a perfunctory knock before opening the back door.

"Ash!" Laura turned from the stove, surprised. "What brings you here?" she asked after giving Madison a furtive glance.

"I was hoping for leftovers. I didn't realize you had company," she said with an apologetic smile in Madison's direction. "Maybe I should come back another time?"

"No!" Laura smiled nervously. "You're already here. You remember Madison, don't you?"

"Of course. It's a pleasure to see you again, Madison." She crossed the room to the table where Madison was sitting and held out her hand.

"Same here," Madison replied, working hard to keep her smile friendly as she shook Ash's hand. "Don't leave on my account."

Ash grinned. "I guess I'm staying for dinner." She took off her black cotton blazer and carefully hung it on the back of a chair. She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively, catching sight of Madison's appreciative expression. She had stopped by her house and changed into a silky beige blouse and form-fitting, black slacks that showed off her flat stomach.

Madison quickly lowered her lashes, knowing her face was in Laura's line of vision. She wondered if Ash had deliberately worn a blouse that drew attention to her small, high breasts.

"Are you still enjoying our city?" Ash asked with a knowing smirk. Pulling out a chair, she sat down and was glad she was facing away from her sister. Now she could torment both of them.

"Yes I am." After a quick glance in Laura's direction, she shot Ash a warning glare.

"Good," Ash purred. "Then you'll be sticking around. I believe you owe me a video game challenge."

Madison smiled, tucking her head behind her ears. She was wearing it loose for a change. "I do, don't I? We'll have to rectify that."

"I'm always game. How bout Friday night?" Ash asked, wishing she could see her sister's expression.

"Uh...I think I'm available then. I need to check my schedule."

Ash twisted around to face Laura. "Do you have a pad? I left my stuff in the car."

"The drawer by the microwave." Laura looked from one woman to the other as though she was confused by how fast things were moving.

"All right." Ash retrieved the pad and pen and returned to the table. She wrote down her name and number then tore off the page. "I hope you'll call me after you check your calendar," she said, pushing the paper across the table.

Madison picked up the page, folded it in half and stuck it in her pocket. "Maybe I should give you my number as well."

Ash nodded enthusiastically. "I'm free Saturday as well," she offered while wiggling her eyebrows. She pursed her lips and mimicked kissing.

Madison coughed to cover her laughter. "I'll keep that in mind," she said and smiled, aware they had Laura's undivided attention. She gave a mental sigh of relief when she heard footsteps approaching the kitchen.

Cedric ambled into the kitchen dressed in shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt. His hair still glistened from his shower. "Ash! I didn't know you were coming over." He walked behind her and put his hands on her shoulders.

"I was hungry," she said, tilting her head back. "I came hoping to be saved from another microwave meal."

Cedric gave a shout of laughter. "You need to learn how to cook or find a rich wife. I'm not slaving away at the office to feed you."

"How rude and in front of a guest no less." Ash folded her arms and stuck out a quivering bottom lip. "Laura, tell him to stop being mean to me."

"Cedric, stop being mean to my sister. And come help me with dinner."

"I can help. I do know how to cook," Madison said with a sly glance at Ash.

"Ooh, I knew there was a reason I liked you." Ash reached over and rubbed Madison's arm.

"Ash, you can set the table in the dinning room," Laura ordered. "The food's almost ready, Madison, so you can just sit and relax."

Ash sighed loudly and stood up. "She really should have joined the military," she whispered, smiling at Madison. She walked slowly to the cabinet, sure that someone was watching. As she passed her sister, she gave her the 'thumbs up' sign.

"Don't overdo it," Laura whispered.

"I got it under control," she said, using the noise of the clanking plates as cover. "I think she likes me."

Laura snorted and rolled her eyes.

After an enjoyable dinner, Laura shooed Ash and Madison into the family room while she and Cedric assumed clean-up duty. Madison made a half-hearted protest, but was quickly overruled by the other three. As soon as they were in the other room, Madison and Ash fell into each other's arms. Their bodies melded together as their lips met in joyous welcome.

With a muffled moan, Ash's tongue parted Madison's lips. The rhythmic stroking of her tongue garnered a response from Madison. She thrilled when hands grasped the back of her head, pulling her closer. Ash forgot about everything but the fire threatening to consume her.

They jerked apart, startled by the phone ringing. Her breath ragged, Ash smoothed back her hair, her body aching with desire. She raised a hand to her lips, still hot from the onslaught of Madison's mouth and exhaled.

A dazed Madison took a step back. Unconsciously mirroring Ash's action, she touched her lips, hoping they weren't as swollen as they felt. "You are in so much trouble," she said, her voice raw with need. She held her breath briefly before releasing a stream of air.

"I had a little help." Ash brought Madison's hand to her lips, gently kissing a soft palm. "Another couple of minutes, and we would have made Cedric a happy man," she joked, her voice shaky.

Madison smiled. "Forget about him. In another couple of minutes, I would have been a happy woman." She removed her and gave Ash a hard kiss. "Now behave."

"You're no fun," Ash grumbled, sticking out her bottom lip. She pointed to the sofa and moved in its direction after Madison's nod. "Think how shaken my sister would be if she caught us in a passionate clinch."

"Not gonna happen," she declared, sitting a respectable distance from Ash. "Besides, you have to talk me into going out with you Friday night. We don't really know each other, remember?"

"So Madison, my sister tells me you're really a doctor," Ash said and folded her hands in her lap.

When Laura entered the room ten minutes later, her eagle eyes noticed the easy familiarity between the two women. I still got it She mentally patted herself on the back. Placing a tray on the coffee table, she gave them a bright smile. "I hope you like chocolate mousse, Madison."

"She likes anything that's sweet," Ash said before thinking. "I mean...uh...being that she's so sweet herself," she added quickly, flashing a sexy smile in Madison's direction.

"Is your sister always this charming?" Madison asked, covering Ash's gaffe.

"She has her moments," Cedric answered for Laura as he stepped into the room carrying a tray with coffee and cups.

"Only moments?" Madison teased, accepting the delicate looking glass bowl filled with mousse from Laura.

"Go out with me and you can judge for yourself," Ash pressed..

"Okay," Madison agreed with seeming reluctance. "I still need to check my schedule for Friday. I seem to remember promising to get together with a friend that night."

"Saturday then."

Madison paused, her spoon full of mousse inches away from her mouth. "If I promise to go out with you one day this weekend, will you give me a chance to enjoy my dessert?"

"You can even have half of mine," Ash promised with a dazzling smile.

Madison nodded as her pulse sped up.



The chirping of birds woke Madison without the aid of her alarm. Looking at the clock, she noted there were still twenty minutes to go before she had to get up. It was Friday morning and tonight was the big date Laura thought she had engineered. Putting her hands behind her head, she smiled and contemplated how well her relationship with Ash was going. They had managed to see each other every day this week, even if it wasn't for more than an hour. The connection they forged was helping her let go of her fears concerning relationships.

Madison chuckled, thinking about yesterday afternoon. Laura had come to her office around two and out of the blue started talking about favorite foods. Once she had gotten Madison to admit to enjoying a rare steak on special occasions, she had suddenly remembered a report she forgot to email. While Madison was trying to figure out what had just happened, Laura returned. She claimed Cedric asked her to pick up some flowers on the way home. They were attending a dinner at his boss's house and naturally Cedric wanted to impress the man.

"I don't know what to get," Laura said. "What kind do you like?"

"You can't go by me," Madison said with a smile. "I like things simple, like a bouquet of wild flowers. For the boss's wife, I'd go with something more formal. Ask the florist, they'll know what you should get."

Laura nodded thoughtfully. "Thanks for your help." She smiled and once again left the office.

"That was strange." Madison shook her head, returning her attention to a printout of results from a health awareness survey. She jotted down a note to schedule a meeting with the manager in charge of the interviewers. Productivity would have to increase if they were going to meet their deadline.

"Just one more thing."

Madison looked up in amused consternation. "Yes?"

"Chocolate. What kind of chocolate?"

Something is definitely going on here. "Are you leaving your husband for a woman, Laura?" she joked.

Laura gave a start. "No! Why would you even think that?" she asked, looking flustered.

"You've asked me about special meals, flowers and now chocolate. That sounds like wooing to me."

"But not the way you think," Laura said. "I'm asking for Ash. She's afraid she won't be able to impress you."

Madison's brow furrowed in surprise. "She is?"

"Okay, so maybe I'm afraid for her." Laura looked at her hands studiously. "I think...no, I know you would be good for my sister."

Madison rubbed her forehead and suppressed a groan. Damn, I should have seen this coming. "Close the door and have a seat for a minute." She waited for Laura to sit down before continuing. "I appreciate that you think enough of me to set me up with your sister." She rubbed her nose, searching for words. "However, I...uh...I'm worried this could lead to conflicts in our working relationship."

"I'm sorry I made you uncomfortable," Laura rushed to say. "Whatever happens between you and Ash should be separate from work. I hope I haven't put you off?"

"Not as long as you and I can continue to function, okay?"

Laura nodded. "It's kind of like our friendship. We can be good friends, but I never forget when it comes to work, you're the boss."

Madison gave a sigh of relief. "Good." she said. "Now go tell you sister what you found out."

Madison glanced at the clock. Only five minutes had passed. "Today is going to last forever." She wished she could go back to sleep and wake up at nightfall. When Ash invited her over for dinner, Madison made sure the rest of her weekend was free and clear. She briefly considered whether it was too tacky to take an overnight bag. Nah, maybe next time.

She pursed her lips and her heartbeat sped up. All doubt was gone--tonight they wouldn't have to pull back. Madison sat up with a shiver. The image of the goodbye kisses they shared was fresh in her mind, especially the kisses that left them panting heavily, barely able to move apart. She felt the tingling between her thighs and shifted. "In eleven hours, I'll be certifiable."

Madison was tempted to provide herself with temporary relief, but held back, savoring the tension. This time the tension was tempered by the knowledge that the wait would not go on much longer. Her body trembled as she imagined running her hands over Ash's taut, strong body. She wanted her fingertips to be intimately familiar with every inch of that beautiful body. Then and only then, would she let her lips worship supple flesh. Madison couldn't suppress a moan as her body tightened perceptibly.

Wishing it was already night, Madison jumped out of the bed. She needed to go for a long, hard run to dampen her libido before she suffered permanent damage. She set a record getting dressed and once on the road, started at a fast pace. Madison pushed her body hard, focusing on staying at a brisk cadence. But even that only worked partially. She still had errant thoughts of Ash and the passion that sprang between so quickly. The exertion and a cold shower helped enough to keep her focused on mundane tasks like getting to work in a timely fashion.

The day turned into one of those excruciating days that seemed to last forever. Madison looked at her watch for what she was sure was the tenth time that hour and it still hadn't passed three o'clock. Giving a loud sigh, she once again tried to direct her focus to the document in front of her.

"Long day?"

Madison looked up to see Bruce and Laura standing in her doorway. "Long doesn't even begin to describe it," she said. "What are you two up to?"

"Watching the clock," Bruce confessed with a dimpled smile. "We thought we would go downstairs for a snack to pass some time."

"Count me in." Madison eagerly reached in her drawer for her wallet, more than ready for a distraction. "Maybe then I can stop reading the same page over and over again."

"I'm glad I'm not the only one having that problem today," Laura said and yawned. "It doesn't help that the campus is starting to come back to life with the arrival of the students."

"I noticed that there was more traffic this morning," Madison commented as they walked to the entrance of their department. "Hey, Shirley, we're escaping to the snack machines, would you care to join us?"

"Sure, I could use a caffeine rush." Shirley stood up and stretched her five-foot three-inch frame as far as it would go. "Some candy wouldn't hurt either." Shirley was well known for her sweet tooth, even though there wasn't an ounce of extra fat on her body.

Once downstairs, they decided to forgo the vending machine and instead ventured to the snack stand that offered more choices. Fortified with snacks, Laura suggested eating outside. They moved to one of the benches that were shaded by trees. After they spent thirty minutes spent discussing weekend plans, Madison reluctantly announced it was time to head back.

She stood up and stretched, watching the others do the same. "You know what? I think we should just close the office for the week. I know I'm not going to get anything else done today." She laughed as Bruce did his impression of a bobble-head. "I think that's a yes."

Before leaving her office, Madison tried to contact Ash about moving up the time of their date. She sighed when she got the answering machine. "Ash, it's me. I'm leaving work early so call me on my cell when you get this message." Hanging up the phone, she left her office, mulling over her options for dinner wear.



Chapter Twenty


By the time she arrived home, her cell hadn't rung. She let herself into her apartment, sighing in disappointment. After putting away her work clothes, she went through her closet and drawers, looking for the right outfit. She settled on a lightweight, sleeveless, V-neck sweater, which displayed a satisfying amount of cleavage. Madison added a pair of mid-thigh length denim shorts that fit snugly.

She fiddled with her hair before deciding to leave it down. I look kind of wild. Madison studied her reflection with a half smile. She liked the confident-looking woman looking back at her, but more importantly, she liked the confidence she felt inside.

Walking to the living room, she picked up the picture of her grandmother. She traced the beloved face, whispering softly, "I think you would be proud of me, Gran." Madison placed a tender kiss on the glass and carefully replaced the photo. Looking at the other pictures, she snapped her fingers, remembering she owed Sara and Melissa a reply to their e-mail. "I'll wait until tomorrow. I'm sure I'll have more to tell."

Grinning, she turned to her favorite symbol and bowed. As usual, the symmetry etched in the glass brought her pleasure and a sense of comfort. Balance. She held out her arms and twirled around in a circle, letting the giddy laughter escape her lips.

When the phone rang, she stopped and looked around, feeling foolish. "Get a grip, there aren't any hidden video cameras here yet." Madison ran to her bedroom and grabbed her cell phone off the bedside table. She smiled when she saw the name of the caller. "Hello, Ash."

"How soon can you get here?"

"Twenty minutes," Madison said, and the smile on her face was reflected in her voice.

"Then I'll be eagerly awaiting your arrival."

"Wait! Do I need to bring anything?"

"Everything is taken care of. All I need is you, Madison."

"Okay," she said, swallowing the sudden obstruction in her throat. "I'll be there." Madison turned off the phone and slipped it into her pocket. She hurried to the full mirror in the bathroom for a last minute check. She hesitated a moment before removing her bra. Giving a satisfied nod, she took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm ready."

Ignoring Ash's instructions, she stopped by the grocery store and selected a bouquet of wild flowers and chocolate. Forty minutes later, she pulled into the driveway behind Ash's SUV. She had forgotten to factor in the increase in traffic due to the influx of students. Twisting to release her seatbelt, she caught sight of her chest. A wicked grin lifted the corner of her lips when she imaged how one tall, dark-haired woman would react.

With the flowers hidden behind her back, Madison rang the doorbell to the older house Ash rented. She didn't have long to wait before the door was flung open. The two women stood looking in each other's eyes with matching goofy grins on their faces.

"Do I get to come in?" Madison asked, breaking the impasse. Her eyes gleamed with joy that came from being in Ash's presence.

"It'll cost you." As Ash's eyes found the expanse of bare skin between Madison's high breasts, she almost lost her train of thought. Exhaling, she stepped back and beckoned the other woman to enter. After closing and locking the door, she reached for Madison. "About that penalty." She lowered her mouth to soft, glistening lips.

This was one price Madison was more than willing to pay. She let the flowers drop heedlessly to the floor and slid her fingers into Ash's hair, drawing their lips closer together. With a moan of delight, she spread her lips to let the searching tongue enter. She trembled as intense feelings flooded her body. She knew this was where she was supposed to be--with this wonderful woman.

Ash leaned back against the door and pulled Madison closer until there was no space between their bodies. A shred of reason remained, allowing her to pull back when she felt close to surrendering to the heat coursing through her veins. She cupped Madison's face with her hands. Inhaling a shaky breath, she stared into eyes that seemed more brown than green. "I've wanted to do that all day," she whispered, rubbing her nose against Madison's.

Madison murmured something incoherent and burrowed into Ash. She listened to the synchronized beating of their hearts, wanting this moment to last forever. Breathing in the scent of Ash's perfume, she sighed in contentment. Her stomach had other ideas and announced its displeasure by growling loudly.

Ash's started shaking with laughter. "I think the lion is trying to tell me something."

"Sorry." Madison shrugged. "Love me, feed my stomach," she added as another growl erupted.

Before Ash could respond, something started beeping. "Saved by the bell." She gently pushed Madison away and patted her stomach. "Why don't you bring that poor thing and follow me into the kitchen."

An eager Madison allowed herself to be led to food. "Hmm," she said, taking in the counter with the appetizers. She spared an apologetic shrug in Ash's direction before sampling the humus with wheat crackers. At Ash's insistence, she moved on to the still hot artichoke dip, accompanied by pieces of crusty French bread. "Thanks," she mumbled around a mouthful of dip, watching as Ash finished arranging the platter for the main course.

Ash grinned upon satisfaction up hearing the sounds of satisfaction. Maybe cooking isn't such a bad thing if you have an appreciative audience.

"This dip is to die for," Madison raved while spooning more onto her plate. "I thought you didn't cook?"

"This is a recipe from Laura. As she put it, even I couldn't mess this one up. Glad to see you're enjoying it so much." She gave Madison an indulgent smile.

Madison paused in the act of stuffing her face with more dip. "Am I being too greedy? Should I wait?"

"No, I put it out for you to enjoy. I have seen you eat before."

"Okay, but let me know when I start grossing you out." Madison used a napkin to wipe her mouth. "I'm not real in tune with dating etiquette stuff."

"Don't worry, women who love food are definitely not on my 'turn off' list." The tall brunette looked up from finishing the tray to make eye contact with Madison. "Women who are skeletal because they don't eat, now they're on that list."

Madison nodded. "That won't be me," she said and put the piece of bread spread liberally with dip into her mouth.

"Do you want to stay here and graze or should we move this operation to a table?" Ash asked with a wink.

Madison held up her hand as she finished chewing and swallowing. "I think I can wait long enough for you to set the meal up properly. Let me help you."

Ash directed Madison to set the larger table in the adjoining dining room. She finished off the platter and added it to the table. Ash lit a couple of lightly scented candles and dimmed the lights.

"Wow, this is a nice room." Madison looked around, surprised by the niceness of the furniture.

"And so is the rest of the house. I can't take any credit though. I'm renting it furnished until the owners come back from sabbatical." She excused herself to go to the living room to put on some mellow jazz music.

The two women spent the meal feeding each other tidbits and adding to their 'turn on' lists. By the end of the meal, they weren't so much nibbling on the food as on each other. After a prolonged kissing session that started with Madison licking Ash's fingers which had somehow strayed into the dip Ash stood up to led Madison to the living room.

Before they made it to the sofa, Madison had Ash pinned against the wall, her mouth devoured the other woman while her hips thrust forward. Moans were heard as their hands searched under each other's clothing for skin.

Her lungs screaming for air forced Madison to pull back a fraction of an inch. She made sure her hands and hips kept the flame burning high. After sucking in much needed air, she turned her attention to the soft neck that seemed to beg for her touch. Both women moaned when Madison's smooth lips placed gentle kisses on an obviously sensitive neck.

Ash angled her head, silently begging for more attention. The feel of Madison's lips and her tongue along with her hands and hips created a flood at the juncture of Ash's thighs. Her breathing quickened and she began to pant, feeling the spiraling intensity radiating out from her midsection. "Oh, Madison, yes."

That one small sentence forced from Ash increased Madison's desire. She had wanted this woman all day, and now she would have her. Her lips tangled with Ash's, while her hands skillfully unfastened offending clothes. Madison placed her head between the other woman's exposed breasts, enjoying the tactile smoothness against her cheeks. Slowly, she kissed her way from one nipple to the other as if she had all the time in the world.

"Madison!" Ash tried to force that wonderful mouth to stay on one nipple. She caught her breath as Madison latched on to her nipple and sucked it into her mouth. "Oh babe, oh babe, oh babe," Ash chanted, driving both of them closer to abandon. "I need you to touch me," She reached for Madison's hand and placed it between her thighs.

Madison eagerly slid her hand past silky panties into damp curls. She growled deep in her throat as her fingers were coated with the passion she had helped stoke. She wanted to take it slow, to tease the other woman a little bit, but her hunger was too great. Bringing her hand up to her mouth, she sucked her fingers and watched Ash's eyes narrow into slits.

She kissed her way down Ash's body, encouraged by pressure from her lover's hands tangled in her hair. Sliding down the other woman's shorts and panties, Madison put her face up against Ash's sex and breathed in the scent of desire. Her tongue parted the folds and lapped up the dew, once again increasing the litany of panting and chanting from above. Madison kept up the pressure with her tongue as her fingers slid into the dripping wetness and began thrusting.

Ash tightened her thighs as her senses began that thrilling spiraling, higher and higher. "Oh, yes!" she sobbed as spasms wracked her body. She threw back her head and let out a hoarse groan as she reached her peak. Ash's legs were trembling so hard she was afraid she would fall. She closed her eyes, taking deep breaths and waited for her heartbeat to slow down.

At Ash's release, Madison lightened her touch to allow her lover to catch her breath. She leaned toward Ash's stomach and gave it a gentle kiss.

"I do have a bed," Ash said, her breathing still choppy. "We could try it out."

Madison cocked her head back, flashing a roguish grin. "Umm, you mean I can have seconds?" She licked her lips in anticipation.

"Sure, but only after you wait your turn." Ash finally caught her breath. "I have plans for you first," she said with a sexy grin. "Plans that have been on my mind since we met. It may take me awhile to work through them."

"Ooh, is that a promise?" Madison stood up and leaned in to kiss her lover's sweet lips.

Ash deepened the kiss, enjoying the taste of her passion on Madison's lips. She sucked Madison's tongue into her mouth and threaded her fingers through Madison's unbound hair. She let up when she heard a deep moan, which threatened to drive her over the edge again. "About that promise," she said and bit Madison's neck, laughing at the shiver it caused. "You have to follow me to find out." She moved her lover back and stepped out of her shorts. Reaching for Madison's hand, she led her to bed where she proceeded to keep her promise.



The persistent stroking on her stomach finally caused Madison to stir from her stupor. With a satisfied smirk, she turned her head and was met by those almond-shaped, dark eyes that never failed to thrill her. "Hey, you," she whispered.

"Hey you, back. I was just...well, I really didn't mean to wake you up. My hands just couldn't keep away from your warmth."

"I'm glad because my skin likes your hands touching it and my mind likes that your hands want to touch me. This is one of those win-win situations."

"I'm glad you were at that soccer game, Madison." Ash buried her face in Madison's hair and breathed in the fresh scent of her herbal shampoo..

"Me too." Madison smiled and pulled her lover closer to her. "But even if I hadn't been, we would have met somehow," she added and dropped a kiss on Ash's temple.

"What, you saw it in the tea leaves? Or did you have a vision?"

"Laugh if you will," Madison said loftily. "I just know things, trust me."

"I do," Ash said in all seriousness and gave her lover a squeeze. "Hey, did you know I have chocolate mousse pie and whipped cream in the fridge?"

"Then why are we here?" Madison sat up and threw back the sheet, prodding the other woman to get up. "I thought I heard it calling me earlier. Someone distracted me," she said with a mock scowl.

"Who?" Ash looked around for the guilty party. "Who would dare?" she asked with outrage. She stood up and stretched, unashamedly naked and glorious.

"Yeah who?" Madison cuffed the narrow backside in her view. "Let's go have some of that pie because sugar gives me lots of energy."

"I'll be sure you get a big serving," Ash said and gave a wicked laugh. "I hope you don't have any plans for tomorrow morning?"

Madison stood up and moved behind Ash. "Plans are always being formulated in my lecherous brain," she stated, parting her lover's hair and kissing her smooth back.

Ash shivered at the touch of warm lips against her skin. "I do like that sound of that, Ms. Norman. Now let's get you some mousse."

"Lead the way, Ms. Patterson. The sooner I get nourishment, the sooner I can turn to ravishment."

"Oh Madison, you brought me flowers!" Ash exclaimed upon spying the forlorn bundle of wild flowers by the front door. She crossed the room to pick them up. "And chocolates."




Chapter Twenty-One

Madison gradually returned to consciousness. Her lips were touched with a smile brought on by the arm wrapped around her stomach and the warm body pressed up against her back. Madison couldn't remember the last time she had felt this much contentment and well-being. She only knew she wanted it to last and last and last. Reaching down, she gently caressed the arm encircling her, needing to feel the extra connection to the wonderful woman holding her.

"You awake?"

"Maybe," Madison said, pressing her behind against a warm center. "Who wants to know?"

"Keep that up and you'll find out." Ash groaned and thrust her hips against her lover. She moved her hand lower to the soft, springy curls. "I might get enough of you one of these days," she whispered, rubbing her palm against Madison's mound.

"One of these days." Madison shifted her legs, allowing Ash better access and groaned when the other woman followed her silent directive.

Ash took her lover slowly, using her hands and mouth to drive Madison to new heights. When Madison's body trembled in release, she gently enfolded her in her arms, murmuring soothing noises. I love you, "I love your body."

"And my body loves you." Madison blindly found Ash's mouth with her own, intent on returning the mind-blowing pleasure she'd just experienced. She watched, awed by the beauty as Ash called out in release. Pressing her cheek against Ash's hair, she drew lazy circles on Ash's back. "You are so beautiful when you come," she whispered and kissed Ash's temple.

"You make me feel that way." Ash sighed. "I feel so damn good, I don't know if I can ever get up again."

"Me either. My body is liquefied. I don't think I can move a muscle." The words were barely out of her mouth when her stomach rumbled.

"I think that's a muscle, honey." Grinning, Ash leaned over and kissed Madison's stomach. "Is she starving you, poor baby? Don't you worry, I'll take good care of you," she promised. "Ow!" she complained, rubbing her behind. "That hurt."

"Sorry...not!" Madison quickly scrambled off the bed out of Ash's reach.

Ash put her hands on her hips and glared. "It's a good thing you're so cute."

After finishing her shower, Ash put out some clean clothes for her lover to wear before proceeding to the kitchen to fix breakfast. She pulled out the rarely used coffee maker and added the special store blend she'd purchased for Madison the day before. Looking at the time on the microwave, she was amazed at the lateness of the hour. "Wow, I wonder what time we finally went to sleep this morning?" A smile covered her face, remembering what had kept them up late.

"I could tell you if someone hadn't gotten carried away and knocked the alarm clock off the bedside table," Madison teased, walking into the kitchen. She sniffed the air. "Hmm, love the smell of coffee. So what's for breakfast?" she inquired, her face lit with a hopeful expression.

"Omelets?" Ash suggested, opening the refrigerator. Good thing I bought extra groceries.

"Can I have some of that leftover dip as an appetizer?"

"You may have whatever your heart desires, Madam." Ash handed Madison the dish with the dip in it. "Go ahead and warm it up in the microwave. The bread is in the pantry."

She smiled her thanks. "Twist my arm why don't you." Madison put the dish in the microwave and gleefully rubbed her hands together. Realizing what she was doing, she snuck a quick peek to see if her lover was watching. Busted. It's a good thing she likes a woman who loves to eat.

"That hit the spot." Madison wiped her mouth before crumpling the napkin and dropping it onto her empty plate. "We make a pretty good cooking team."

"Oh, yeah. We are cooking on so many different levels," she said with a wink. "Now that we've tamed the beast within you, what would you like to do for the rest of the day?"

"Spend every minute with you." Madison reached across the small kitchen table and took Ash's hand in hers. "I really don't care what we do as long as we do it together."

Ash nodded as her heart seemed to swell in her chest. "Ditto," she said unable to hide the slight quiver in her voice. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "If it wasn't so hot out already, I would suggest miniature golf. I hear there's a new super arcade on the eastside. Maybe it's time for the challenge."

"You're on, hot shot."

The two women had a fun time at the arcade. Ash was the clear victor at all the shot-em-up games while Madison was superior at racecar driving. "Remind me to let you be my get away driver the next time I rob a bank," Ash joked, placing her hand on Madison's back as they left the crowded arcade. "I can't believe you beat me so many times in a row."

"What can I say? I've got Indy 500 in my blood," she boasted, giving Ash a superior smile. "Ooh, is that an ice creamery place across the street?" Shielding her eyes, she pointed to the sign.

"I don't suppose you want to go there do you?" Ash asked, smiling even as she rolled her eyes

Madison just snorted and pulled her lover in the direction of the crossing light. "Come on, my treat since you fed me dinner and breakfast."

They shared a banana split, unashamedly feeding each other spoonfuls of ice cream and talking about books and music in between bites. Totally involved with each other, Madison and Ash were oblivious to everything else.

Ash smiled indulgently, watching Madison finished up the last of their treat. "I still don't see how you can eat so much."

"I probably shouldn't have," Madison groaned, patting her full stomach. "Thanks for sharing with me."

"No prob, I enjoyed it too. What's next on the agenda?"

"I need to move around." She pointed at the empty ice cream container. "Why don't we go toss a Frisbee at the park near campus? I have one in the back of my car."

"Sure, as long as you promise to save some energy for later. I can't have you getting tired out too early, darlin'," she drawled.

"Well, gee whiz, honey, everybody knows that's what dinner is for. Don't you worry about my energy, you just make sure you can keep up." She gave Ash a broad wink and stood up.

"Wow!" Ash said her eyes wide with pretend awe. "That insatiable appetite doesn't just pertain to food, does it?"

"Now you're catchin' on, sugah." Madison sashayed out of the parlor, quickly followed by Ash.



Ash sighed and stretched languorously, feeling content. Her leg encountered warm skin and she smiled. I could get used to this. She tightened her hold on Madison, snuggling closer. I've only known her a few weeks, but I already care more for her than I ever did Cass.

"What are you thinking about?" Madison asked from her warm cocoon.

Ash smoothed down Madison's unruly locks before answering. "How good I feel being here with you, and how much I've enjoyed our extended date."

"It has been pretty special, hasn't it? And just think, three weeks ago we didn't even know each other." She rubbed the arm draped over her waist. "I need to send Susan a box of chocolates."

"And why is that?"

"For convincing me that the soccer game was a great way to pick up chicks."

"Oh, so the truth comes out. You were after me all along."

Madison chuckled. "I wish. I was too shy to even think about doing anything but looking," she said and turned onto her back. "That's why I'm so glad you were used to more aggressive play. If you hadn't knocked me over, I know I wouldn't have gotten the nerve to speak."

"Umm...well, about that." Ash released a sigh. "I...sort of did it on purpose. But it was all Kahla's fault."

"But she wasn't even in the game."

"But she bet me I wouldn't have the nerve to talk to you." Ash suddenly found it necessary to lie on her back as well. "Okay, I admit I was checking you out from the sidelines."

Madison twisted her head to look at Ash. "Me? Why me?"

"Why not you?" She regarded her lover with affectionate exasperation. "Do you have any idea how good your thighs looked in those black mesh shorts? And there was something about the way your whole body was all lit up with enjoyment. How could I not be attracted?"

"I guess I've never seen myself that way." Madison brought her hands up to cover her face. "I...I still wonder--"

"Don't. Look at me," Ash said. She waited for Madison to establish eye contact before continuing. "I believe that what's in your heart is ten times more important than how you look. And the more I know you, the more beautiful you become to me. Do you really think I'm that shallow?"

"No!" Madison propped herself up on her elbow. "It's me." She exhaled loudly. "Sometimes insecurity catches up with me. Forgive me?"

"Always." Ash stroked Madison's cheek. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"Will you hold me?"

Ash lifted her arm. Madison lost no time scooting closer. Starting slowly at first, she shared a condensed version of the last year of her relationship with Courtney. "It took me a long time to realize how much I let her take over my life. That's why I wanted to take things slowly with you. I want to make sure we're equal."

"I want you to know I would never treat you that way," Ash said softly. "I enjoy sparring with you too much."

"I know that. But more importantly, I won't let myself fall back into a situation like that."

"I'm glad." They were silent for a moment, contemplating what they had revealed.

"So what's on for tomorrow?" Madison raised her head from Ash's chest and smiled. "It's Sunday, so we can't rob a bank."

"Darn. Then I'm fresh out of ideas."

Madison squinted at the clock. "Let's see, it's almost two now, so I suggest a leisurely brunch followed by wild, abandoned lounging."

"Lounging? Maybe I can come up with something better to do." She pulled Madison to her, giving her a preview.



Earlier than she would have liked, a loud noise caused Ash to feel around for the snooze button. It's Sunday. She slapped the off button in relief.

"It's not the alarm," Madison mumbled and yawned.

"Huh?" Ash opened her eyes and sat up, finally realizing the noise was coming from her cell phone. Hopping out of the bed, she dug through the pile of discarded clothes before pulling the phone from her pants pocket. With bleary eyes she looked at the info from the last caller. Before her brain processed the information the phone rang again, startling Ash so much she dropped it. "Shit!"

Madison couldn't suppress a laugh at the expression on her lover's face.

Ash shot her a wrathful glare and hit the talk button. "Hey, sis, you know some people have a good reason to sleep late on Sunday mornings," she grumbled. "What? Hey slow down! I can't understand what you're saying." She stuck a finger in her and closed her eyes in concentration.

Madison sat up, alarmed by the sound of fear that had crept into Ash's voice.

"Okay sweetie, I'll meet you at the hospital and pick up the boys. Don't worry about anything but Cedric, Laura. I'll handle everything else, I promise." Ash turned off the phone and started shaking. This can't be real.

Madison jumped up from the bed and rushed to her lover's side. "Baby, what's wrong?" she asked, running a soothing hand along Ash's back.

Ash allowed herself the luxury of leaning into Madison's touch as tears started flowing down her face. "Some...something terrible happened," she sobbed. "Oh, my God, I don't believe this." She buried her head in Madison's neck, seeking something to keep her from falling apart. "I can't believe she's gone."

"Who, baby, who's gone?"

"I...I should have tried harder." Ash moaned.

"Let me help," Madison pleaded, pushing panic aside. "Let's get dressed, and I'll take you wherever you need to go."

"The hospital." She stopped and swallowed back bile as the shaking began anew. "Latasha just died, and Cedric...is...he's in intensive care with a gun shot wound to the abdomen."

"No!" Madison put her arms around the other woman and squeezed her tightly. "I'm so sorry, baby." This cannot be happening! Good people do not get shot!

Ash drew a shuddering breath and pulled out of the embrace, immediately missing the enveloping support. "I have to get to the hospital to help Laura," she said, trying to regain her composure while absently wiping away tears. "She has the boys with her and she shouldn't have to deal with them and worry about Cedric." Drawing in a deep breath, she let it out slowly. My family needs me. Now is not the time to fall apart.

"I'll come with you," Madison said. "I'll take care of the boys, and you can take care of Laura. Maybe I can bring them back here," she suggested.

Ash shook her head. "I can't ask you to do that."

Madison put a finger on Ash's lips. "You're not asking. I'm volunteering. I know I really haven't kept them on my own, but I can improvise. Please let me do this for you and Laura. You both mean a lot to me."

After a moment's hesitation, Ash nodded. "Thanks, I promise to make it up to you." She gave her lover a weak smile. "I don't know the details, but I'm sure I can make a good guess," she said, biting her lip against the burn of new tears. If only I had been more vocal about my concerns, this wouldn't have happened.

They got dressed quickly and left for the hospital. Ash readily agreed with Madison's suggestion that they take separate cars. During the drive to the hospital, Ash cursed every red light, and beat her fist against the steering wheel at any delay. She arrived at the parking lot, her body stiff with frustration.

Leaning back, she gave in to the grief for a brief moment before toughening up. I have to be strong for Laura and the boys. Everything else can wait. Feeling more centered, she stepped out of the car and waited for Madison to join her. Her stomach was twisted in knots as they walked through the automatic doors of the hospital.





Chapter Twenty-Two


Ash was startled by the lack of activity, having expected total chaos. She looked around blindly until she felt Madison's hand in the small of her back.

"The sign says intensive care is to the right," Madison said, gently directing Ash with her hand. "I imagine the waiting room is near there."

Ash swallowed and cleared her throat. "Okay. Let's go then." She blanked her fear from her mind, thinking only of the task ahead. Quickening her steps, she approached the glass doors of the waiting room. Her heart almost broke when she spotted her sister with Keshawn and DeMarcus huddled against her.

Pushing open the door, she crossed the room to her sister. "Hey," she said softly, pulling Laura into her arms. Some part of her registered that Madison had taken Laura's place and both boys were in her lap.

"Thank God you're here." Laura turned her face into Ash's chest and gave way to the tears that had been simmering beneath the surface.

"Of course I am," Ash whispered, fighting back tears. "I'll take care of everything." She gently rocked her sister from side to side. This was the first time she had ever seen her sister looking so vulnerable.

Madison observed the sisters' interaction closely, only now realizing the terrible strain Laura must have been under by having to remain strong for the boys. Feeling a tremor run through DeMarcus's body, she pulled the youngster closer. She turned her head to see an intense looking Keshawn wipe away a tear. "How would you guys like to go find a snack machine?" she asked, dropping a kiss on Keshawn's head. "We could get your Aunt something to drink. I bet it would make her feel better."

She spoke quickly with Ash and held out her hands for Keshawn and DeMarcus, promising them an adventure. They were a little reluctant, but the lure of candy and a reassuring word from Ash swayed them. With the trustfulness of children, they each took one of Madison's hands and let themselves be led off.

As she walked away from Laura and Ash, Madison experienced a moment of panic. She had had very little exposure to kids and here she had volunteered to be the sole caretaker of two. Suppose she lost them, or worse yet, they got kidnapped? Her heart beat faster, remembering all the horrible stories on the news. Get a grip, Norman. She looked down at Keshawn and DeMarcus. This is about them not you. They trust you, so you need to trust in yourself.

Madison took a deep breath, stiffened her spine, and forced a smile. "Hey, are you guys doing okay?" she asked the boys while they waited for an elevator. That was dumb. Of course, they're not okay. "I mean...um." There wasn't really anything to say. Where's the damn elevator? She let go of Keshawn's hand and pressed the already lit button several times.

"Our mama is gone to heaven with the angles," Keshawn said looking down at the floor.

"Oh, uh...I'm sorry," Madison said. "I'm here if you want to talk about anything. I lost my mother when I was young, too."

"Did she go to heaven, too?" Keshawn asked.

"Yes, she did." Madison fought back tears. "Heaven is a good place."

"Can I have a soda?" DeMarcus asked, pulling on Madison's hand. "Aunt Laura said she was gonna get us one."

"And some chips?" Keshawn asked.

"Sure," Madison said, knowing she would do what ever it took to keep them occupied. "Here's the elevator now," she noted with relief. "The sign says we need to go the basement because that's where the cafeteria is. Have you guys had anything else to eat today?"

"Uncle Cedric made chocolate chip waffles and bacon for breakfast." Keshawn's bottom lip started trembling at the mention of his uncle.

Madison's stomach chose that moment to grumble loudly. The two boys gave her wide-eyed looks. For once, you come in handy. "I haven't eaten yet, so I think I need something more substantial than chips and soda."

"Did ya eat a lion?" DeMarcus asked staring at Madison's stomach, his light brown face alive with curiosity. "The wolf ate the grandmother," he said as if that explained everything.

"That's just a story, silly." Keshawn gave his younger brother a look of superiority. "When you're seven like me, you'll understand. People don't eat lions, lions eat people."

"And the only lion I would eat, would have to be an animal cracker, DeMarcus," Madison said, dampening her amusement at the seriousness of the boy's question. "I'm afraid that noise was just my stomach announcing that it needs to be fed."

Despite her momentary misgivings, Madison managed to keep up with Keshawn and DeMarcus. That task was made easier because the boys rarely ventured from her side. After she and the boys finished their snack, Madison went through the line again, grabbing some food and drinks for Ash and Laura. They might not be hungry, but even a few bites of nourishment would make them feel better.

When the trio entered the ICU waiting room, they found Laura curled up on a sofa sleeping. Even in sleep, lines of worry were evident on her face. Madison took one look at Ash and knew whatever news she had to impart was very serious. Kneeling down to their level, she asked the boys to go sit quietly while she spoke with Ash. She promised that in return for their cooperation, they could be as loud as they wanted later. Madison squeezed her eyes against the burn when Keshawn took DeMarcus's small hand and drew him over to the kid's corner.

"I brought you and Laura something to eat," Madison told Ash, holding up the offerings. "I know you don't feel like eating, but you need to keep your strength up, babe."

Ash smiled with tears glistening in her eyes and pulled her close for a hug. "Thank you," she whispered. "Lets move away from Laura, and I'll fill you in." Once they were seated, she pulled a weary hand through her ebony locks, which she hadn't bothered to restrain in a ponytail. "Cedric is still in critical condition. They're operating on him right now, but it could be a couple of hours before we know his prognosis." She closed her eyes and pinched her nose.

"Here, eat some of this biscuit while you talk." Madison thrust the food at her lover. "Then you can have some of this," she said, taking a bottle of Dr. Pepper out of the bag.

"This is a bossy side I haven't seen," Ash said with a wan smile and accepted the offering. "The moms are on their way, but Latasha's mom hasn't called me back yet. God, this is such a nightmare." Ash leaned back into the chair and closed her eyes. "I keep thinking that any minute I'll wake up and everything will be back to normal." This time she couldn't hold back the tears that streamed through her closed eyelids.

"I'm so sorry," Madison said, her own eyes misting as she took the other woman into her arms. "Can you tell me more about what happened?"

Ash rested her head on Madison's chest, taking comfort from the steady heartbeat. "This is pieced together from what Cedric told Laura while they were waiting for the ambulance and a neighbor's statement. Latasha stopped by to introduce her latest boyfriend to the boys. For reasons we will probably never know, DeMarcus's good for nothing sperm contributor showed up, too." She stopped, wiping her cheeks. "It's crazy because this is a guy who has never shown any interest in DeMarcus." Realizing that her voice was getting louder, she looked first at Laura then at the boys, sighing in relief when it appeared they hadn't heard her.

"It's okay," Madison whispered, rubbing her back while her mind was trying to make sense of the senseless horror

Ash nodded, saying in a lowered voice, "He and the new boyfriend started arguing. Cedric went outside, telling Laura to keep the boys away from the windows. Laura heard a gunshot and dialed 911. By the time she got outside, only Cedric and Latasha were there in the neighbor's yard."

"She was so young." Madison buried her face in Ash's hair and the tears flowed. "I didn't know her, but she didn't deserve to die like that--over nothing." She stopped and took a couple of deep breaths. "But why am I telling you this?" she asked with a rueful grimace. "You already know."

"I know that you care about me and that you care about my family," Ash said and sat up. "And that means so much now that I need it most."

"Thanks, but this is right where I want to be, helping you and your family." Madison sniffed then wiped away her tears. "Whatever I can do to help, I'll do it. I mean that."

"You're already doing it, Madison." Ash placed a hand on her lover's thigh. "Why don't you go home and get some sleep. I'll call you as soon as I know something."

"Why don't I take the boys back to your place? They don't need to be here."

"You don't have to do that."

"I know that." Madison paused, searching for the right thing to say. "Look around. Your sister needs you, and DeMarcus and Keshawn need someone. I don't know much about kids, but I can empathize with them. I've been where they are now. Please, let me do this for them and for Laura."

Ash searched Madison's eyes, finding what she was looking for. She blinked at the tears welling up in her eyes and felt the ties of love tightening around her heart. "Thank you," she whispered, knowing words weren't enough. She brought Madison's hand to her lips. "Thank you."

Madison shook her head. "You don't need to thank me for this," she said. "Maybe we should go," she added tentatively and managed a smile despite the panic that was starting to build in her gut.

Wiping her face, Ash heard DeMarcus's loud sigh. She turned, noting he was still sitting, but barely. DeMarcus was on the arm of the chair, threatening to teeter over the side. "I wonder if you know what you're getting into." She asked watching Keshawn give his brother a nudge while at the same time grabbing his shirt.

"No, I don't," Madison admitted then smiled. "And don't you dare tell me. We'll muddle through somehow. I pass as long as the house is standing when you get home, right?" she asked, looking purposefully vague.

Ash's face relaxed in a smile. "But only with a D minus, minus," she joked. Her eyes took in Madison's tired appearance, but to Ash, she had never been more beautiful. Raising a hand, she smoothed out a couple of wiry strands of hair.

"It's a mess, isn't it?" Madison lifted her hands to her head. "I should have taken the time to fasten it back."

"Actually I was thinking about how beautiful you look," she said, capturing Madison's hands in hers. "You should let your hair down more often."

Madison's cheeks warmed under Ash's gaze. "You say the sweetest things."

"For the sweetest person," Ash said, her expression serious. "I--" She jerked her head in the direction of the boys, in time to see Keshawn join DeMarcus on the floor.

"I think that's my cue." Madison stood and walked over to the boys, giving them a reassuring smile. "You're coming with me for now. Say goodbye to your Aunt Ash and we'll go trash her place," she promised with a wink in Ash's direction.

The boys clambered up from the floor and stood in front of Ash with guilty expressions. Ash got down on one knee and pulled them into her arms. She kissed each one of them and whispered something for their ears only. Ash then stood up, put a hand on each of their shoulders and led them over to see her sister. The boys bent over, placing sloppy kisses on the Laura's cheek.

Laura's eyelids fluttered, and she opened her eyes to find two pairs of brown eyes watching her. "Hey, guys." She sat up slowly and held out her arms. The boys fell into her arms, grateful that something was still the same in their world. Over their heads, she looked at Ash asking, "Any news?" Laura held her breath, hoping against hope that her world had been righted.

Ash shook her head, trying unsuccessfully to smile. "Not yet, sis. Madison is going to take the boys to my house so they can have some room to act like kids. They just wanted to say goodbye before they left."

Laura sighed, tightening her arms around her nephews who were more like sons. "Okay boys, I'll see you later."

DeMarcus started to cry and was soon joined by Keshawn. Laura pulled them onto her lap and rocked them back and forth, "It's okay," she murmured softly. "It's okay."

"It's not fair." Madison spoke barely above a whisper, tears glistening in her eyes. "I hope that guy has a long time in a cell to think about what he did."

"That's putting it nicely," Ash said, her jaw clenched. The only consequences she wanted to inflict were physical. She forced back a groan of frustration as a feeling of helplessness settled over her. There was nothing she could do to make things better for her sister or her nephews. Damn, I should have done something. Swallowing the bitter taste in her mouth, she turned away from the sight of her grieving family.

Once Keshawn's and DeMarcus's sobs died down to sniffles, Laura kissed them and said, "I love you. I'm going to stay here, but I promise to call you later, okay?" When they nodded, she motioned for them to stand. Blowing out a breath, she stood, took their hands and joined Madison and Ash. "They're ready. Thank you so much, Madison. You're a true friend."

"Anytime." She gave Laura a hug. "Call me if you need anything. The boys and I can play taxi, right guys?" she asked, holding out her hands to them. They reluctantly let go of Laura's hands to take hers. "Hey, maybe we could have pizza and ice cream later." It might not cheer them up, but it sure would help her.

"What a good idea," Laura said with more enthusiasm than she was capable of feeling. Now she could focus on Cedric knowing the boys were in good hands.

"Thanks, Madison." Ash leaned in and kissed her on the lips. "You're the best," she whispered. "I'll call as soon as we get word."



Chapter Twenty-Three

"Nothing will ever be the same, will it?" Laura asked, sinking on the sofa next to Ash. The shield she'd surrounded herself with for her nephews' sake was crumbling. "What will I do if he doesn't make it?" she asked, her lips trembling.

Ash's stomach clinched at the sense of helplessness she heard in her sister's voice. "You won't have to find out," she said firmly, picking up her hand. "Cedric's tough, he'll be up and about in no time."

"Ash, I'm so scared." She wiped away tears. "He...he's been my life for so long now, I'd be lost with...without him." Her words were almost incoherent as her body shook with sobs.

"Laura, look at me," Ash said, raising her sister's face. "Don't give up hope. Cedric will be okay." He has to be. "He knows you'd follow him to hell if he isn't," she said with a tiny smile of encouragement.

"You're right, I need to believe," Laura said and closed her eyes as if she were praying.

"Sleep some more," Ash urged, standing up so her sister could stretch out. "You need to conserve you strength. Cedric is going to need it." She watched as her sister lie down and close her eyes. Too restless to sit, she walked to the window. Glancing at the sparsely filled parking lot surrounding the hospital, she prayed her brother-in-law would pull through. She took the sight of a bird circling in the distance as a good omen.

Turning away from the window, Ash spared her sister a glance. Her heart contracted at the lines of worry marring Laura's smooth forehead. She sighed, knowing even if, no when, Cedric made it through surgery, they would all have tough times ahead. Running her fingers through her hair, she sat down in a chair near her sister. She looked up expectantly when the door opened, dropping her eyes quickly after seeing the stricken expressions on the older couple's faces. Obviously, more poor souls who had a quiet Sunday interrupted.

Grimacing, Ash rested her arms on her knees, feeling guilty for spending a second thinking about what she might have been doing. I wonder how Madison is holding up. A fleeting smile quirked her lips as she recalled the momentary look of panic in her lover's eyes. She'll do okay. I just hope she realizes it as well. I just hope I can do as well with my part.


Madison shepherded her two charges to her car, holding their hands firmly. She kept a constant vigil for suspicious looking characters and run away cars. Thank you for getting us safely to the car.. Taking one final look around, she unlocked the car and opened the backdoor. "Okay, hop on in." After helping DeMarcus with his seatbelt, she slid into the driver's seat and turned around, giving them a reassuring smile. With a silent sigh, she started the car, leaving the hospital behind.

During the drive, Madison kept a watchful eye on her charges. She was worried that any moment the reality of the situation set in. She still remembered not believing for a long time that her parents were dead. Although she was happy in her grandmother's loving care, some part of her expected her parents to show up one day and casually tell her about the adventure they had been on.

By the time she unlocked the door to Ash's house, Madison's nerves were frayed. She took one look at two scared boys and sat down on the sofa to gather them close. Not knowing what else to do, she sang an old lullaby while rocking them back and forth. She held them in her arms until she was sure they were asleep, then arranged them on the sofa and went to take the shower she'd missed earlier.

Only when she was in the shower with the hot water beading on her head, did Madison let down her guard. Her tears flowed freely as she grieved for the lives changed by a senseless act. She cried because a young woman's life was snuffed out way too soon. She cried for Cedric, Laura, and Ash who through no fault of their own were facing major life changes. But mostly she cried for the two babies sleeping in the living room and prayed Cedric's would be able to continue to be a steady presence in DeMarcus's and Keshawn's lives.

After she cried herself out, Madison was able to move beyond the initial horror. There was nothing she could do to change what had happened. The most important thing for her to do now was to provide support, not get lost in feeling of injustice.

Madison reached for the soap and quickly washed her body. Looking around, she spied bottles of shampoo and conditioner. She took the cap off the shampoo and inhaled the light floral scent that reminded her of Ash. With a wistful smile for what might have been, she washed and conditioned her hair.

When she was dressed in fresh clothes pilfered from Ash's closet, Madison felt like a newer woman. Her eyes were red and puffy from the tears she shed earlier, but she felt much better knowing that she would be a part of the solution. She was ready to deal with the challenges that would be thrown her way over the next few days.

Yawning, she settled on Ash's bed, intent on resting her eyes for a moment. A choked cry of "Uncle Cedric!" woke her up. Madison jumped from the bed and rushed to the living room. DeMarcus was sitting upright on the couch with tears streaming down his face. Keshawn's eyes were barely open as he looked around, his face showing signs of something that was close to fright. Even being barely awake, he instinctively reached for his little brother.

"Hey, fellows, you're not alone," Madison said, once again folding them into her arms. "I know this is hard, but I'm here to help you."

DeMarcus's reply was to bury his head in Madison's neck and hold on tight until his crying gradually abated.

"Madison, is my Uncle Cedric in heaven, too?" Keshawn asked as if he were afraid of the answer.

"No sweetie, he's still in the hospital where the doctors are trying their best to make him feel better," Madison replied with as much honesty as the situation called for.

DeMarcus sat up and turned to Madison. "I was in the hospital once," he said, full of self-importance. "The doctors took care of me real good," he added, nodding his head. "Then I got better and came home."

"Oh yeah," Keshawn remembered, perking up. "It was the one with the big fish tank in Atlanta. I bet Uncle Cedric's hospital doesn't have one of them."

"I bet you're right about that."

"Uh...Madison," Keshawn whispered and then paused. "Do you think Aunt Laura will let us live with her now?" he mumbled, looking down at his hands. His shoulders had a dejected slump, as if expecting a blow.

"I'm sure there's nothing she and your Uncle Cedric would like better, sweetie."

"I...I don't want to live with--" He stopped and clamped his mouth shut..

"Me, either," DeMarcus whispered loudly. He scrunched down and once again buried his face in Madison's neck.

What is going on here? "Don't worry about that now. Things will work out," she said, hoping she was right.



The murmur of familiar voices gradually filtered through Ash's consciousness. She opened her eyes, blinking against the bright lights. "Huh?" Sitting up with a groan, she rubbed her eyes and yawned, trying to shake off the vestiges of sleep.

"Sleeping Beauty is finally awake," Jan Benford teased, a smile on her broad face.

Ash let her hands fall from her eyes. "Mom? Mama?" She looked at her mothers and her memory returned with a rush. "How's Cedric?" she asked, searching her sister's face for clues.

"No word yet," Laura said from the security of her mother's embrace. "I can't believe it's taking this long.

"You should have woken me up." I'm supposed to be here for you, not sleeping. Frowning, she stretched her neck to relieve the stiffness before looking at her arm where her watch usually was. "What time is it anyway?"

"Hello to you, too, Ash," Sandra Patterson said dryly. "Looks like somebody woke up on the wrong side of the chair."

"Sorry." She raked her fingers through her hair and pushed herself up. "Hello, Momses," she said, managing a weak smile.

Jan stood and pulled her oldest child into her arms for a quick hug. They stood eye to eye. "How you holding up?"

Ash grimaced. "I've been better." She bent to give her other mom a quick kiss. "Have you checked on the boys?" she asked Laura, really meaning have you checked on Madison.

Laura shook her head absently, her gaze focused on the doctor who had just walked in.

"May I speak with the Parker family?"

Swallowing hard, Laura stood up and walked toward the door, closely followed by her family. "I'm Laura Parker," she said.

The doctor ushered them into the hallway. "I'm Dr. Harris, the surgeon on call."

"How is he?" Laura dared to ask.

Ash heard the words stable condition, and her body began trembling in relief. She didn't resist when her mom placed warm, safe arms around her, but she did fight against the tears. She needed to be strong. Biting her cheek, she stepped away from Jan. "That's good news," she said, her voice strained with suppressed emotions.

"It's a start." Jan had tears glistening in her brown eyes. She frowned, watching Laura sag against the slightly taller Sandra and weep uncontrollably. "Has she eaten?" she asked briskly.

"I don't think so. There should still be a sandwich in the waiting room."

"Then let's steer them that way." Jan approached her partner and child, convincing them to get out of the hallway.

Ash stood there watching them go. She impatiently wiped away tears. Get a grip, he's going to be okay. Blowing out a long breath, she willed the tears away. When she felt more in control, she pulled out her phone and punched in ten digits.


Ash smiled when she heard the sleepiness in Madison's voice. "Did I wake you?"

"Yeah, but that's okay. We need to wake up anyway."

She heard Madison try to cover a yawn. "Cedric's made it out of surgery, she said. "He's in a serious, but stable condition."

"Thank, God." Madison exhaled. "I'll let the boys know. How is Laura doing?"

"Okay. She's wrapped up in the momses' supporting arms."

"Moms what?"

"It's like parents, but with two moms. And speaking of motherhood, how are you adjusting?"

"Okay, I think. We had a good crying session and crashed."

"I really appreciate you helping out." Ash's grip on the phone tightened. "It means a lot to me," she said, her throat suddenly dry.

"Thanks for trusting me, considering my inexperience."

"You don't give yourself enough credit, Madison. Your willingness to help out counts for ninety-five percent of your score." She paused and took a deep breath, her heart hammering loudly. "I love...that about you." Shit, now is not the time for this! Ash didn't want Madison to think a declaration of love had anything to do with her assistance.

"Thanks, I appreciate that."

"I'll call you later when we figure out what we're going to do, okay?"

"We'll be here. Bye."

"Bye." Ash closed the phone and stuffed it in her pocket. She stopped by the bathroom before joining her family. "I called Madison," she said, taking a seat.

"How are my grandkids?" Jan asked, leaning forward.

"They were just waking up. They'll be okay with Madison for awhile."

"I can't help but worry about them. They shouldn't have to go through something like this without a family member present." Jan sighed heavily. She really meant herself.

"Madison will take good care of them, Mom," Laura assured her, placing a hand on her arm.

Sandra lifted her head from the back of the sofa abruptly. "Madison? Isn't that the woman you work with?" she asked, her light blue eyes intense.

"Yes." Laura nodded, shooting a nervous glance in her sister's direction.

"Oh." Sandra settled back against the sofa with a smile. "I hope I get to meet her."

Ash looked from her mother to Laura. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion when her sister looked away. Someone's been talking.

"Why would you leave them with her? Wasn't she the one who slept with that old dean to get the job?" Jan asked.

"Mom, please lower your voice. That was all a mistake. I believed something I shouldn't have," Laura explained. "We're friends now." She tried to suppress a yawn. "How much longer I wonder? I just need to seem him for myself."

"They're probably waiting for the anesthesia to wear off," Sandra said, stroking Laura's arm. "It probably won't be too long now. Maybe Ash could to round up something to drink." She looked at Ash expectantly.

"I'll go with her." Jan quickly stood up. "When was the last time you ate?" she asked, her gaze fixed on Laura.

"I'm not hungry," she said, looking down at her lap. "I couldn't eat anything anyway."

"We'll see. Come on, Ash." Jan waited until they were out in the hall to ask, "What do you know about this Madison person?"

"She's okay," Ash said, keeping her eyes focused on the floor. "I trust her, Mom."

"I want to meet her," Jan insisted. "I guess we should stay at your place tonight. I imagine your sister will want to sleep here at the hospital."

"No doubt about that," she said, grateful for the change of subject. She wasn't ready to reveal her relationship with Madison yet. Her mom would want to grill her and Madison to within an inch of their lives. "You and Mama can have my room, I'll sleep in the guest bedroom, and the boys can share the daybed in the office." Ash sighed and pushed the elevator button. "This is all so unreal. I can't believe this is happening to us. It's so much different than when you see the stories on the news."

"Neither can I," Jan said soberly, waiting for the elevator doors to open. "All we can do is to rally as a family and support each other. Together, we can get through this crisis intact."

Ash smiled through tears. "I love you, Mom."

"I love you, too, Ash. Too bad it takes a tragedy to prod us to say the words out loud." She leaned against the wall and ran her fingers through her short dark hair that was liberally sprinkled with gray. "Regret is hard to live with."

They made their purchases and returned upstairs to find Laura and Sandra absent. "I hope she's getting a chance to see Cedric. Maybe now she'll be able to eat some of the food you bought." Ash sat down and opened the sandwich Madison had left earlier. "Waiting makes me hungry."

"Nervousness makes you hungry," Jan corrected dryly. "It always has. What I haven't figured out is what's causing all this nervous energy." She gave her daughter an appraising look.

How does she know? Ash swallowed before taking a sip of her drink. "We are in a hospital," she said, silently cursing the shakiness in her voice.

Jan continued to look at her daughter

Ash flopped back against the chair with a groan. "Do they teach these techniques in parent school?" she asked, covering her eyes with her hands.

Jan laughed, placing a hand on Ash's knee. "Ah. It's Madison that you're all nervous about. No. You're nervous about us meeting Madison. I wonder why?" She laughed again when her daughter moaned. "Honey, this is a stressful time for all of us. I promise I won't say anything to embarrass you today."

"Promise?" Ash asked, still covering her eyes.


Ash let her hands fall down. "We've been dating. But you can't tell Laura, she thinks she just set us up."


"It's a long story."

"We're not going anywhere soon," Jan said, nudging her daughter with her shoulder. "Don't make me torture it out of you."

"Madison and I--" she stopped when the door opened and jumped up when Sandra and Laura entered. "How's he doing?" she asked, hurrying across the room to grab Laura's hand.

"He's good." Laura gave her a teary smile. "I got a chance to tell him I love him. He could barely talk, but he said he loves me."

"Of course he does, you numb skull." Ash pulled her sister into a bone-crushing hug. "I'm so glad to hear that," she whispered and closed her eyes to give a silent thanks.

Jan put her arms around Laura and Ash, adding her own heartfelt prayers. "What happens now?"

"I stay here tonight and you all go home," Laura replied firmly. "I can see him for a few minutes every couple of hours."

"I'll stay with you," Jan volunteered.

"No, Mom, the boys are going to need you tonight, especially Keshawn."

"So you have a couple of hours before you can see him again?" Ash asked, wanting to forestall a battle of wills. When Laura nodded she continued, "Then I'll take you home so you can take a quick shower and change your clothes. We'll be back before visiting time."

"Okay. You should call Madison again and let her know the plan."

"I'll...uh...do it in a minute," Ash said, pointedly ignoring the knowing smirk on Jan's face.




Chapter Twenty-Four

Ash kept sneaking sideways glances at her sister on the drive to Laura's house. She was worried Laura was reaching a breaking point. "Let me stay at the hospital with you tonight," she urged. "The boys will be okay with the momses."

"I can handle it," Laura said, her voice brittle. "I won't be good company anyway."

"I don't expect to be entertained. I just want to be there for extra support. It's okay to admit you need it, Mighty Mite." Stopping for a red light, she turned to flash Laura a wide-toothed grin. "If not me, then let Mama stay. I think it might kill her to leave you alone. She always liked you better."

"And don't you ever forget it, Amazon." Laura blinked her eyes rapidly and smiled. "You don't always have to take care of me, you know."

"Old habits are hard to break," she admitted ruefully. "It's how I'm wired."

"You mean miswired, don't you?"

Ash grinned. "I don't even think that's a word. I told Mom she shouldn't have let you go to college in Alabama."

"If I hadn't, we wouldn't be here right now." Laura grew quiet, caught up in memories.

Idiot, why did you bring that up? Ash gripped the steering wheel. "Sorry," she mumbled.

"Hey, it's okay." Laura placed a hand on Ash's arm. "I don't ever want to forget how Cedric and I met. They're good memories." She wiped the tears from her face. "And we'll make many more."

"I know you will. In fact, I bet you'll be insufferable at your fiftieth anniversary celebration."

"Yeah, and I'll probably still be trying to get you to settle down with a good woman."

"Say it ain't so." She groaned and suppressed a smile. "By then, I will officially be an old maid, living in a one-bed room apartment with twenty cats."

"You don't even like cats."

"I will by then." She activated the left turn signal to pull on to Laura's street. "Um...Laura...this may not be such a good idea," she said frowning. "What if the police are still here, you don't want to go through that. We can just go to my place."

"I can do this, Ash," Laura said. "Now that I know Cedric is going to be okay, I need to get back some feeling of normalcy. Keshawn and DeMarcus need that too. We can pick up some of their stuff while we're here."

"Okay, if you're sure." Ash scanned the street for any sign of trouble. Ignoring Laura's smile of superiority, she pulled into the driveway.

"Don't forget to call Madison," Laura reminded her once they were inside. "I'm going to take a quick shower. Could you start grabbing some clothes and toys?"

Ash nodded. Once Laura was upstairs, she walked around downstairs and checked every window and door, making sure they were all secured. In the family room, she picked up the scattered toys, separating a couple to take with her. As she was leaving the room, her eyes were drawn to the wall covered with family pictures. She walked closer, entranced by the one with Cedric, Laura, Keshawn and DeMarcus. She had taken the photo a couple of months ago when she came for the job interview. "I'll take another one when Cedric gets better," she vowed.

She shied away from Latasha's graduation picture as guilt gnawed at her stomach. I should have done more to help her. Maybe she had expected too much of someone who was more teenager than adult. Now she would never really know. Leaving the room quickly, she sprinted up the stairs.

Not allowing herself to think, Ash assembled enough clothes for a couple of days.

"There's a bag on the top shelf of the closet," Laura said from the doorway. She was dressed in Auburn University sweats and was towel drying her hair. "I'm almost ready to go."

"There's no hurry."

"I know. I'll just feel better being close by."

"I understand." Ash grabbed the bag and began packing. She was startled by the buzz from her cell phone. "Hello," she said with a quick glance at the now empty doorway.

"Hi. I just called to let you know we're going to get pizza and ice cream. I don't think any of us are very hungry, but a promise is a promise."

"Once you get there it'll be different. Have you decided where to go?"

"Keshawn suggested Chuck's or something like that. I called and got directions."

"Prepare to lose your sanity," Ash said under her breath. She shuddered, remembering the noise, the mediocre pizza, and the abundance of small kids when Keshawn had a birthday party there.


"Oh, nothing. Mom and I will probably be there when you get back."

Madison gulped audibly. "I hadn't thought of that."

"Don't worry about it, okay? I'll see you later." Replacing the phone, she picked up the bag and joined Laura on the landing. "All set?"



When Madison and the boys pulled up at Ash's house, an unfamiliar late model sedan was parked in the driveway. Up until that point Madison had successfully buried any thought of meeting Ash's parents. Now it was back full force, accompanied by a serious case of anxiety. She and Ash hadn't even officially declared themselves girlfriend-girlfriend, and she already had to meet the mother!

As she approached the door, Madison realized that not only was she meeting her lover's parents, but she was also wearing her lover's clothes. I hope her mother doesn't know everything that's in Ash's wardrobe.

Keshawn, giving a shout, ran ahead and rang the doorbell several times. He obviously knew what the car in the driveway meant. The door was thrust open by a tall, middle-aged woman with short, dark hair. She reached out and pulled a willing Keshawn into her arms.

"How's my big boy doing?" she asked in a deep, resonate voice.

"I'm okay, Nan," Keshawn said, burying his face in her stomach.

"I'm here, too, Nan," DeMarcus announced, tugging on her jeans.

"Well give me a hug, son." She held out her other arm for the boy. "I've missed you guys so much." She held them closer, bending over to drop kisses on the top of their heads.

"Dear, maybe you could unclog the doorway so that Ashley's friend could come in," a softer voice suggested from behind Jan.

"Grandma!" DeMarcus shouted and pulled away from Nan to rush behind her.

"Sorry," Jan said smiling. "Come on in." She stepped back to allow Madison to enter the house.

Madison entered and immediately noticed a nervous looking Ash fidgeting in the background. She gave her lover a reassuring smile. "Hi, I'm Madison Norman." She held out her hand to Ash's mother. "Sorry we have to meet under these circumstances."

Jan took Madison's hand in a firm grip. "Thank you. I'm Jan Benford."

"Hello, dear, I'm Sandra Patterson," the woman who had been standing behind Jan said. "Ash's other mother." Instead of offering her hand, she stepped up to engulf Madison in a hug. "Thank you so much for stepping in and helping out. You did my girls a world of good when they needed it."

Although she was surprised by the warm greeting, Madison returned the hug. "I was glad to do it," she said, enjoying the warmth of Sandra's embrace.

"Do you have time to visit for a minute, Madison?" Ash asked, wiping her hands on her shorts. She almost hoped Madison would say no.

Sandra released Madison from her grip. "I hope I didn't get too familiar," she said, giving Madison a disarming smile.

"That's okay," she replied with a bright smile. "You give great hugs," she added shyly, feeling her cheeks redden. I hope it was okay to say that.

"Aren't you sweet?" Sandra reached for Madison's hand. "I hope you can stay for a little while?"

She nodded, knowing it would be churlish not to stay, and allowed herself to be led to the sofa. Sandra sat down, patting the seat next to her. With a quick glance at Ash that told her nothing, Madison sat. Does she want me to leave? Turning her attention back to Sandra, she asked, "How is Laura holding up?"

"Too stubborn to admit how tired she is," Sandra replied with fond exasperation. "I wanted to stay, but she insisted I come help with the boys. As if I need to," she added, pointing to Jan wrestling with Keshawn and DeMarcus on the carpet.

"I'm sure tonight will be a difficult time for them," she replied diplomatically.

"Ash, why don't you sit down," Sandra suggested. "You're making me nervous hovering above us."

"Not as nervous as you're making her," Jan teased.

"Mom!" Ash growled with a pointed glare.

"Ash, could I have a glass of water please?" Madison asked, seeing her lover's uneasiness.

"Uh...sure." Biting her lip, she looked from Madison to Jan. "Can I get anyone else anything?" she asked, her tone less than gracious.

"I need a Coke to keep up with these animals," Jan joked, causing the boys to giggle.

"I'm fine, dear."

Ash gave Madison a look that she hoped begged for understanding and left the room. She hurried to the kitchen, keeping an ear open in case she had to intervene. Ash was especially worried that Jan might tease Madison, given that her mom had seen the state of the bedroom before Ash had a chance to set it straight. Jan hadn't said a word, but Ash swore she heard the wheels grinding in her mother's head. I hope she remembers her promise.

Grabbing a Diet Coke and a bottle of water, she hurried back. She was pleased to note that her more outspoken mother was still occupied with the boys. After passing out the drinks, she sank down in the chair closest to Madison. Ash gradually relaxed as her mother steered the conversation to innocuous questions about Madison. She enjoyed hearing tidbits of her lover as a child, going so far as to spur her mother on occasionally.

Madison met Ash's easy grin. Two can play this game. "I'm sure you have some interesting stories to share about Ash, Ms. Patterson."

Sandra exchanged looks with her partner and gave an evil laugh. "Where to begin?"

Ash squirmed as her mothers told stories about her young self. Each one was more embarrassing than the last. "Don't the kids need to go to bed?" she finally asked, rubbing her heated cheeks. When that got no response, she pointed to a drooping DeMarcus.

"I guess we should stop," Jan agreed before giving her child a wicked looking grin. "We need to leave some stories for later."

Ash sniffed loudly, grumbling, "Child abusers."

"Sorry, baby." Sandra stood up and patted Ash's head. "It was just too good an opportunity to pass up. Come on boys, let's get you ready for a bath."

Once the others left the room, Madison patted the sofa next to her, mouthing, 'Get over here.' She pulled the Ash into her arms, and kissed her temple.

This is what I need after a stressful day. Ash sighed. "Can I just stay here in the shelter of your arms forever?" she asked, plaintively.

"That would be fine with me." Madison released a sigh of satisfaction and closed her eyes, stroking Ash's silky hair. She jerked to wakefulness a short time later when she felt her head starting to loll. It only took her a few seconds to realize where she was. Madison nudged Ash who had also dozed off.

"It can't be morning already," Ash groaned, refusing to open her eyes. "I swear it feels like I just went to sleep." She snuggled closer to Madison, enjoying the intense feeling she was getting from simply holding her close.

"It's not morning, but we are sleeping together on the couch, and your parents could stumble upon us at any moment."

"They won't care." Ash tightened her arms around Madison. "I'm too comfortable to move."

"What a big baby." Madison leaned down and kissed the pouting lips.

"Um...Madison, that doesn't make me want to move."

"Sorry," she said, clearly unrepentant. "I couldn't help myself because your lips looked so kissable." She kissed them again to prove her point.

"Hmmm." Ash pulled Madison's lips back to hers and gave her lover a kiss that quickly threatened to get out of hand.

"We still have to get up," Madison said moments later against Ash's lips. . Ignoring Ash's protest she pulled her head back, breaking contact. "I would hate for one of your mothers to come out here with a shotgun," she joked and took a ragged breath.

"It would be Mom, and she's definitely more partial to bows and arrows," Ash said as she sat up and stretched. The material of her top stretched tight against her braless breast, drawing Madison's gaze.

Madison turned her head away from temptation. "Your mothers are really neat," she said.

"For you, yeah. You weren't the one getting embarrassed."

"Is that a pout?" Madison put her hand and pushed Ash's bottom lip. She got bitten for her efforts. "Ow!"

"No who's pouting?" Ash leaned in, capturing the stuck out lip between hers. She gave it a gentle tug before letting go. To bad my mothers are here. She shook her head and tried to banish thoughts of what she and Madison had been doing last night—she wasn't successful.

"Don't look at me like that."

"Like what?" Ash's voice was deep and raw. "Like I want to consume you?"

Madison drew a ragged breath. "Yeah, like that," she groaned, shifting positions. "Don't do that when your mothers are nearby."

"But what if I want to create another embarrassing Ash moment right now?" she asked, stroking her lover's arm. "Only this time it won't involve Ash the child."

"You, back to your chair," Madison ordered, giving Ash a push. At Ash's cry of protest she said, "Don't make me get rough with you."

"Please do," Ash begged and wiggled her eyebrows.

"You are incorrigible, Ms. Patterson." She tried but failed to keep a smile off her face.

"What has she done now?"

Both women jumped apart and turned to Jan with matching guilty expressions. "Nothing," Madison denied, her cheeks bright red. "We were joking around."

"Sure." Jan nodded in agreement, though her expression said otherwise. "DeMarcus wants to tell Madison goodnight," she said, referring to the sleepy child in her arms.

Madison gave him a kiss, promising to visit soon. She swooped down on an unsuspecting Keshawn, hugging him close. "Sweet dreams," she said softly, ruffling his hair. She reluctantly let him go, knowing his dreams would be anything but sweet. Madison forced a smile and waved to DeMarcus as he was carried away. "It's going to be a long night for them, I think."

"I know," Ash said, nodding. It's just not fair. "I wish...hell, I don't know what I wish any more." She smoothed back her hair and took a deep breath. I do know what I want, I'm too afraid to admit it out loud. Ash wondered how shocked Madison would be if she knew about the violent thoughts that were running through her mind.

"I understand." Madison put her arm around Ash's waist and rested her head on Ash's back. "I'm glad I'm here with you now."

Ash allowed Madison's warmth to sooth her and some of her anger fell away. "Me, too." She released Madison's arms and turned around to face her lover. "Thank you for everything," she said and rested her head in the crook of Madison's neck. Even with all that had happened, she still enjoyed their moments together.

Madison tightened her grip momentarily. "You're welcome." She kissed Ash's cheek before saying, "I should go so you can rest. You will need it."

"My head knows you need to go, but my heart wants you to stay right her with me," Ash said. Where I know you'll be safe. "But at the very least, I do get to walk you to the door and get a proper good night kiss. Hopefully Mom has grown past flickering the front porch light."





Chapter Twenty-Five


After watching Madison drive away, Ash locked the door. Closing her eyes, she leaned against it with a smile on her face.

"I think she likes her," Jan said.

Ash's eyes flew open. Her mothers were standing arm in arm, looking right at her. I can't believe they can still sneak up on me. "I don't know what you're talking about, Mom. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to bed."

"You should," Jan said with a grin. "Judging from the shape your bed was in before you changed it, I'd say you didn't get much sleep last night."

"Jan, don't tease," Sandra admonished. "I think she's a nice woman, Ash."

Ash smiled. "Thanks, Mama, she is."

Ash fell into a restless slumber almost as soon as her head hit the pillow. She tossed and turned, beset by dreams of guns and death. She was running through the jungle dodging bullets when Madison appeared from out of nowhere. "What are you doing here?" she screamed, pushing her lover to the ground.

"Keeping you safe," Madison replied and stroked her cheek.

The surroundings changed, and Ash found herself back at the hospital, forced to watch her sister suffer while being unable to help her. Suddenly the door burst open and in stepped a gun-totting man, spraying bullets everywhere. Ash watched in horror as a bullet pierced Laura's chest. "No!" she screamed when the gunman turned his sights to DeMarcus. Jumping up, she put herself between the gun and her nephew. "Leave him alone," she demanded of the faceless killer. She closed her eyes and prepared for death. Once the gunshots died away, she opened her eyes, surprised by the lack of pain. A soft thud caused her to turn around. Dropping to her knees, she pulled the lifeless body of DeMarcus in her arms. "Hold on," she begged, watching her tears mix with his blood.

Ash jerked awake, clutching a hand to her chest. Breathing heavily, she looked around the room, spooked by the effect of the full moon light. Throwing off the covers, Ash went to the room where the boys were sleeping. She put a shaky hand on DeMarcus's forehead and gave a sigh of relief when it was warm.

Backing out as silently as she had entered, she made her way to the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of water. Twisting off the top, she gulped down the cool liquid, not caring when it overflowed her mouth and damped her nightshirt. Ash leaned a hip against the counter and stared out the window. She didn't see the moon. All she could see was her sister's body recoiling from the shot and falling to the floor.

Biting her lip, Ash tried to fight free of the nightmare. It didn't happen. Placing the drained bottle on the counter, she brought her hands close to her face, looking for signs of blood. Giving a sob, she pressed her fingers against her burning eyes. She was so tired, yet afraid of what sleep would bring.

A scream startled her from her daze. She sprinted to the bedroom the boys were in. "It's okay, DeMarcus," she said, flipping on the lights and making her way to the bed. She picked up the screaming child and cradled him close.

"I want Aunt Laura," DeMarcus sobbed.

"She's at the hospital with your Uncle Cedric, baby," Ash cooed, rocking him gently. "But I'm here, and Nan and Granny are here, too. We'll look after you. I promise."

"But what if he died like Mama?" Keshawn asked, his voice trembling. "What will we do?" His hand gripped Ash's arm, forcing her to look at him. "I...I don't--"

Jan swept in the room, fastening her robe as she walked. "Hey buddy, he's going to be okay," she said, reaching down to pick up Keshawn. "Cedric just has to stay in the hospital until he's better."

"But when will that be? If Aunt Laura doesn't come get us, we'll have to stay at the apartment alone. Mama said so," he said before breaking into tears.

"No, baby, no." Jan sat on the bed with Keshawn in her arms. "Look at me, okay?" Keshawn looked up at one of his favorite adults. "I promise you won't be alone. We'll be here while Laura is at the hospital. She told us to come stay with you," Jan said and kissed his forehead.

"She did?" DeMarcus asked.

"Yes," Ash and Jan answered simultaneously.

"But what if the angry man comes back?" Keshawn whispered fearfully.

"What angry man?" Jan asked.

"The one who wants Mama back. He's mad 'cause she won't do it."

"He doesn't know where we are," Ash said, taking his fears seriously. "Plus, I have an alarm. He can't get in here."

"Nobody can get in unless you say so?"

"That's right. We're safe here."

"And you won't let him in, even if he says he's going to be good?" Keshawn pressed, looking at Ash.

"I promise," she said solemnly. She and her mother traded uneasy glances. Maybe the arrival of DeMarcus's father hadn't been as unexpected as they previously thought. Ash glanced down and noticed DeMarcus had fallen back asleep.

"Will you feel better if you sleep with me and Granny?" Jan asked.

Keshawn nodded. He knew his Nan would keep him safe. "What about DeMarcus?"

"He can sleep with me." Ash stood up with DeMarcus in her arms.

Keshawn sighed and released his hold on Jan. "Okay," he agreed. "Can we go see Uncle Cedric tomorrow?"

"I hope so," Jan said and rubbed her eyes. She stood up and held out her hand. "Let's go get some sleep, buddy."

Ash watched them leave before returning to her temporary bedroom with DeMarcus. She laid him on the bed and returned to the kitchen to turn off the lights. Trudging back to bed, she prayed for dreamless sleep.



"What are you doing up already?" Sandra asked, dropping a kiss on the top of Ash's head.

"I couldn't sleep," she said with a rueful smile. "I'm not sure who had more bad dreams, me or DeMarcus."

"Maybe the both of you should have slept with us as well." Sandra opened the cabinet and pulled down a cup. Walking to the coffee maker, she poured herself a cup. "What had you all jumpy?"

Ash twisted in her chair and looked at her mother. "The shooting, the boys...Madison." She raked her fingers through her hair

"And why are you worried about Madison?" Sandra prodded, joining Ash at the kitchen table.

She let out a breath. "This is too much drama at the beginning of a relationship. Maybe she was right about us."

"About what?"

"That a relationship between us would be unnecessarily complicated because of her relationship with Laura. Now she has to deal with it at work and at home. I don't want that for her."

"Did you ever think maybe she can make her own decisions?"

"Of course she can," she answered impatiently. "She shouldn't have to. I bulldozed through all her objections like they didn't count, and now they do. What's she going to think about me, about us when she wakes up?"

Sandra put a hand on Ash's arm. "Ash, she's not Cass, and you shouldn't treat her like she is. I don't know Madison very well, but I didn't see her running out of here with a terrified look on her face last night. And I could tell by the way she talked about her grandmother how important family is to her."

"But what if she wakes up this morning and has a change of heart? She'll realize that I can't protect her because I couldn't even protect my own family."

Removing her hand, Sandra took a sip of coffee to buy some time. "Ash, what makes you think Madison expects you to protect her? She seemed quite capable to me."

"You don't understand." Ash jumped up from the table and left the room, brushing past Jan on her way out the door.

"What's with her, or don't I want to know?"

"Past insecurities, I think. She spent the night worrying that Madison wouldn't want to see her anymore."

"I'm sure that's only part of it. She's probably pretty upset that she couldn't stop this from happening to her baby sister." Jan shook her head sadly. "I hope she can come to see that there was nothing she could have done to stop this." Covering a yawn, she reached for a coffee cup. "When do you think we can call Laura?"

"It's barely six. I think we should wait for her to call us."

"I was thinking we should just go to the hospital." Jan stirred her coffee slowly. "If nothing else, I can hold her while she sleeps."

Sandra smiled and regarded her partner fondly. And she wonders where Ash gets her strong sense of family responsibility. "I guess I should shower and get dressed then," she said wryly.

Jan raised her head and smiled. "It was just a suggestion, dear."

Sandra rolled her eyes. "Right."

It took some doing, but Jan and Sandra convinced Ash to stay with the boys while they went to the hospital. A disgruntled Ash watched them drive away. She knew her nerves were stretched too thin from lack of sleep to provide support for Laura. If luck was with her, the boys would sleep until lunchtime and give her time to recuperate.

With anxiety gnawing at her insides, she prowled around the living room. It looked the same as it did when the owners left two months ago. The dark brown leather sofa and chairs along with the wooden coffee table and end table gave the room a homey feel. This house felt like a home, yet she never let herself forget it was only temporary. When she left here, she hoped to move into a home of her own.

Ash looked at the clock, willing it to move faster. She wanted to check in with Madison and make sure her lover had spent the night okay. No, I really need to know if she still wants me. She checked the time again, making a promise not to call until six forty five. Madison would be up and moving around by then.

At six forty three Ash made the call. She left a quick message on the answering machine, hoping Madison was in the shower.



At six o'clock, Madison finally gave up all thoughts of sleeping. She had spent a restless night, bothered by old memories from her parent's death. On autopilot, she got ready to do the one activity that usually settled her down after long restless nights--a long run.

She took the long route that led through the park and toward the University. As she ran, her mind gradually calmed down, and she was able to have coherent thoughts. She could see she wasn't going to end up alone hiding under a desk. There were friends she could call on to help her.

So you're not in the same boat, Norman. Concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, the slap of her feet against the asphalt, barely dinged her consciousness. Madison pushed her body hard to clear her mind of the remnants of last night's buried terrors.

Halfway through the run, her mind let go and moved to thoughts of Ash. Madison smiled and her heart hummed. Their weekend together had been very special, no matter the ending. There had been moments when she had suppressed a declaration of love. At the time, she believed it was too early, but now she wasn't so sure. Yesterday's tragedy should have brought to the forefront the mercurial nature of life.

I'm still a chicken shit. She thought about the moments they'd shared saying goodnight on the front porch. The kisses they had exchanged hadn't been about sex but comfort and connectivity. In Ash's arms, she had been giving comfort while at the same time receiving it. "Balance," she cried out as though a light bulb had been turned on. Balance.

Speeding up her pace, she loped through campus, swinging around for the return journey. The neighborhood was starting to stir when she made it back to her street. Her body was tired, but her mind felt energized. She was ready to go to the office and tackle rearranging the workload.

Carrying a traveling coffee mug, Madison unlocked the door to her office suite. "This is certainly different," she said, looking around the darkened space. After a brief search, she found the light switches and flipped them up before going to her office. Once settled, she checked the calendar to see what Laura had scheduled for the next few weeks. Madison blew out a sigh of relief at the light production schedule for her division. If there is any bright side in the shooting, it's that it occurred during a slow month. She immediately admonished herself for even thinking the shooting could have a bright side. I bet DeMarcus and Keshawn don't see any advantages. Pushing back her chair, she walked over to the window. The offices in the building across from hers were still dark.

Madison sighed, leaning her head against the glass. She had looked out this same window Friday. Then, Ash had been the only thing on her mind. Suddenly the need to hear her lover's voice was almost overwhelming. She glanced at her watch and exhaled sharply. It was too early to call. Most likely Ash and her family had spent a more restless night than she had.

Her stomach rumbled, reminding her she'd skipped breakfast. Madison rubbed her stomach ruefully, soothing the proof that nothing disrupted her appetite. She decided to walk to the coffee shop in the next building and grab a muffin. If she took her time, she could call Ash when she got back.



"That's great news. Tell the runt I love, her and I'll bring the boys over later." Ash closed the phone and gave a silent prayer. Maybe I will get through this. Squinting her eyes at the clock on the microwave, she dialed Madison. When she got no answer, she tried the work number.

"Hello. Dr. Norman speaking, how may I help you?"

"You're at work kind of early, aren't you?" Ash asked, smiling at hearing Madison's voice.

"I couldn't really sleep anymore, so I got up. Then I had to do something to waste time until I could call and reconnect with you."

Ash bit her trembling lip and sat down. "You really do say the sweetest things, Madison," she said, her voice broken. "I was almost afraid we might have scared you off."

"Not a chance, Patterson. I'm tougher than that. If you were here, you could see me flex my muscles."

Thank you. "Show off," she teased, wiping away tears. "I just heard from Mom, and Cedric is still doing well this morning. They just got to visit him."

"I'm glad to hear it. How much sleep did you get last night?"

"Not a lot," she admitted and yawned. "Sorry, the boys were frightened and wanted Laura and Cedric." Ash wasn't ready to share her own nightmare and misgivings.

"I'm sorry any of this had to happen, but I'm not surprised. I really empathize with what those boys are going through. And not to sound negative, this will probably happen again."

"That's not being negative, that's realism," Ash said and tried to cover her yawn this time. The sleepless night was finally catching up to her. Or maybe it was that she could finally relax knowing Madison's state of mind.

"Poor baby, you didn't get much sleep at all, did you?"

"I'll make it up today," she replied. Now that I know you're still with me. Ash battled the tears that tried to breach her lowered defenses.

"Good. Now go to sleep, and remember to call me if you need anything."

"Can I call if I don't ?"

Madison's laugh was deep and throaty. "You can always call me. Bye, sleep well."

"Bye." Smiling through tears, Ash hugged herself. And I thought she would run. It must have been the stress. Shaking her head, she made her way to the bedroom, sure that she would be able to sleep.

Lying down next to DeMarcus, she turned on her side and wiggled until she was comfortable. Ash closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.

"He's coming!"

Groaning, Ash rolled off the bed. "I'll be right back," she told DeMarcus before sprinting to Keshawn, who had woken up and discovered he was alone. "No, he's not coming, baby." She sat on the bed. "We're still safe."

"But I saw him," he said, his bottom lip quivering.

"Oh sweetie, that was just a bad dream." Ash pulled him onto her lap. "The only ones here are you, me and DeMarcus."

"Can we go check?" he whispered against her chest.

"If it will make you feel better, we can do it." She smiled at DeMarcus who was standing in the doorway with his eyes wide open.

Keshawn nodded, sliding off her lap.

You can do this. She slowly eased her weary body off the bed. Rubbing her tired eyes, she took a deep breath. "We'll start in this room."

Keshawn wasn't satisfied until they looked in every room and closet. "He's not here," he said, sounding surprised.

Ash looked down at her nephew and smiled. "Nope. Now that we're all up, we might as well eat." After breakfast, they moved to the living room where the boys watched television while Ash dozed intermittently. More awake than asleep, she reached for her ringing phone and answered without opening her eyes, "Hello."

"I'm sorry I woke you," Madison said. "I'll call back later."

Ash opened her eyes and sat up. "No, it's okay. What's up?"

"I was thinking I could come over and bring you guys lunch."

"That would be great." Ash checked her watch. "I can't believe it's after twelve already."

"I'll be there in about twenty minutes, okay?"

"Great, see you then." Ash closed her eyes and drifted back to sleep.





Chapter Twenty-Six

At twelve-thirty, Madison pulled into Ash's driveway. She walked up to the door, hands full of food, and rang the doorbell with her elbow. Ash opened the door and motioned her inside. Madison noticed with concern that her lover's eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, and that her complexion was pale.

"Here, let me take some that," Ash offered with a wan smile, after giving Madison a peck on the cheek. "We can put this in the kitchen and I'll go see if the boys are ready to get up and eat." With slumped shoulders, she slowly led the way to the kitchen.

"Ash, are you okay?" a worried Madison asked. She had never seen her lover looking so defeated. "You don't look like you got much sleep at all."

Ash put the drinks on the table, looked into concerned hazel eyes, and promptly broke in to tears. Madison quickly placed her items on the table and pulled the other woman into her arms. Although concerned, she let Ash cry while rhythmically stoking her back. Madison wasn't sure how long they stood there barely moving until the tears slowed down.

"Thank you, Madison, I really needed that," Ash said, her voice hoarse. "I'm so tired I can hardly stand it." She drew in a shuddering breath, tearing up again.

"Why don't you go lay down, and let me take care of everything?" Madison suggested lovingly, still stroking Ash's back. She took pleasure in having her lover in her arms, no matter the circumstance.

"But the boys might need me," Ash protested, half-heartedly. The idea of a few hours of uninterrupted sleep sounded heavenly, but she didn't want to take advantage of Madison.

"Hey, I did okay with them yesterday," Madison reminded her. "If you don't get any rest, you won't be any good to them or to Laura. I took the rest of the afternoon off, please let me help."

"I don't want you to get burned out or overwhelmed," Ash said so softly that Madison had to strain to hear her. And leave me.

Madison kissed the taller woman on the neck. "You let me worry about that. I'm a long way from burning out, okay? Now come on, and let me tuck you in." She stepped back, reluctant to break the contact, but knowing that Ash desperately needed to rest. The hand she held out was quickly grasped.

"You're kind of bossy, aren't you?" Ash asked with a tired smile and allowed Madison to lead her. Maybe this day wouldn't be a total disaster. She couldn't suppress a moan of pleasure when she lowered her body to the bed. Ash was barely conscious of the fleeting kiss to her forehead before she drifted off into a deep sleep.

Madison gave her sleeping lover another kiss and quietly left the room, pulling the door closed behind her. She then went to the bedroom where the boys were huddled together in the middle of the bed. They looked so peaceful she decided they needed the sleep more than they needed lunch.

Backing out of the room, she went to the living room where she made herself comfortable in the leather recliner. Once she sunk into the softness of the leather, Madison realized how tired she was. Pulling the side lever, she reclined the chair with the intentions of closing her eyes for only a moment.

Madison woke up sometime later to the sound of whimpering. "The boys." She stumbled up from the chair, hoping to reach them before Ash woke up. She hurried to the room and was saddened by the sight of a scared little boy with tears running down his face. Keshawn was sitting next to him rubbing his eyes and looking equally as scared.

"You're okay, DeMarcus,," Madison said and climbed onto the bed. She took the crying boy into her arms and rocked him until he calmed down. Once he stopped sobbing, she put an arm around Keshawn and brought him up against her side. "I know this is really scary for the both of you, but I'm here to help you guys," she said. "Why don't we get you dressed, and you can have some lunch?"

"I want Uncle Cedric. When can we see him?" Keshawn asked, leaning into Madison.

"I'm not sure," she answered truthfully. "Let's get dressed and then call the hospital to see."

"I'm hungry," DeMarcus announced. "Can we have macaroni and cheese?" he begged looking at her with big sad eyes.

"I'll try," she said with a kiss and a smile. "We can eat first, then call, okay?" After both boys nodded, she helped them pick out clothes, assisted DeMarcus with brushing his teeth, and seated them in the living room in front of a children's program. She checked on Ash before heading for the kitchen to prepare lunch.

Madison was pleased with the amount of food the kids ate. Once they were finished, she shooed them back to the living room and called the intensive care room. Jan assured her Cedric was not only getting better, but there was talk of moving him to a room.

"That's great because I have two gentlemen with me who are anxious to see him. Would it be possible for them to visit this afternoon?"

"Have you watched the news today?" Jan asked quietly.

"No, but I heard the shootings made the news last night, and my boss mentioned that Latasha's mom was on the morning news."

"She cried so prettily for the camera, yet she hasn't asked about her stepson or her grandchildren," Jan said acerbically. "For now this place is crawling with camera crews waiting for another gruesome update. I expect they'll be gone, delving into some other tragedy tomorrow."

"I hope they didn't try to interview Laura."

"No, they can only harass you at the front door. I'm sorry to sound so bitter, Madison. I know none of this is your fault."

"I'm not taking it personally," she assured Jan. "I know the boys will be disappointed, but it sounds like it's better to keep them away for now."

Jan sighed. "I'm afraid so. They don't need to be caught up in this madness. Laura's sleeping right now, but I'll have her call as soon as she wakes up. How is everybody there doing?"

"Ash is finally getting some sleep, and the boys seem a little unsure about their situation. Would it be possible for you to say a quick hello?" Madison asked tentatively. The last thing she wanted to do was to have Ash's parent think she was trying to take control.

"That's a good idea. If I weren't so frazzled, I would have thought of it myself. Go ahead and put them on, please."

After a chat with their grandmother and the promise of a call from Laura and Granny, the boys seemed less anxious. For distraction, she let them "help" her bake cookies from a mix she found in the pantry. Madison had just pulled the first batch out of the oven when Laura called.

Ash wandered into the living room around five looking rumpled and adorable in that 'just woken up' way. She grunted at everyone and continued to the kitchen. Madison excused herself from coloring and joined her in the kitchen.

Ash bent over, peering into the fridge while absently rubbing her flat stomach. Madison sidled up behind her, put her arms around Ash's waist and leaned her face against the warmth of Ash's tank top covered back.

"The thrill must be gone," Madison said, accompanied by a loud, dramatic sigh.

"Huh?" the other woman asked, still staring blankly at the filled shelves.

"I've been in your home for almost five hours and I haven't even been given a decent kiss," she complained. "Ergo, the thrill must be gone and I have to find some train to throw myself in front of."

Ash straightened slowly, loosened the arms around her waist and turned around. She looked at Madison intently before swooping in and taking possession of Madison's lips. When she pulled back, minutes later, Ash was pleased to note the dazed look on her lover's face.

"Uh...Ash," Madison stammered once the pieces of her mind came back together, "forget what I said earlier."

"If you insist." She winked and turned to once again peruse the fridge

"There's a salad with your name on it in the paper bag."

"Thanks, Maddy." She reached for the salad and closed the door. "Oh, by the way," she said with a serious expression on her face, "anytime you feel the thrill is gone, please let me be the first to know, Ms. Norman." Ash gave Madison a knowing smirk.

"Don't worry, I will Ms. Patterson," Madison replied with raised eyebrows. "I'd lie for another response like that."

Ash gave her another smirk before she sat down and demolished the salad. "Now I feel almost human." She pushed aside the plastic container and propped her elbows on the table. "I assume I didn't miss anything important during my self-induced coma?"

"Nothing that you could have done anything about." Madison stood up, clearing away the empty container. "And your mother agreed with me that you needed your sleep."

"Now tell me the bad part."

Before Madison could reply, DeMarcus walked into the kitchen and grabbed her leg. She looked down and ruffled his hair while giving him a welcoming smile. "What's up, doc?"

He just shook his head and clung to her leg.

"Why Madison, that's a large growth you have on your leg," Ash teased. She came around the table and started poking at it. "Hum, it sure is soft for a tumor and it sure is making some weird sounds." She stopped poking and put her hands on her hips. "What could it be?"

"I don't know, Ash. I think you need to poke it some more, so we can figure out what that sound is."

Ash bent over and resumed her poking, using both hands this time. DeMarcus turned into a giggling mass as he fell to the floor. Keshawn ran into the kitchen, drawn by the sounds of laughter. He was soon embroiled in the game when Madison attacked him with her tickle fingers. The game ended when Ash conspired with the boys to tickle the now prone Madison almost senseless.

"Uncle, uncle," she cried between giggles.

"Should we let her up boys?"

"Yeah," DeMarcus said, vigorously nodding his head. "She makes good macaroni and cheese, and cookies, too."

"Okay, I guess that's a good reason to let her up." Ash made a show of letting go of Madison's wrists while still pinning Madison's lower body to the floor. The sound of a car horn sent Keshawn and DeMarcus racing to the door, the game completely forgotten.

Once they were alone, Ash lowered her upper body until it covered Madison's. She smirked triumphant as she heard the gasp from her lover. "Do you have anything to say about the thrill now?" she taunted, moving her hips in a circular motion.

"No." Madison groaned. Her treacherous hands settled on Ash's behind, pressing her lover's center tight against her own. "But if you don't quit making your point soon, somebody is going to be in for a real show," she added, hearing the excited greetings from the living room.

With one last grind, Ash reluctantly rolled off of Madison. She took a deep breath, in an attempt to stop the trembling of her limbs. "That wasn't the smarted thing I've ever done," she said, her voice husky with the need to finish what she had inadvertently started.

"Your timing was off a bit," Madison said, wanting so badly to climb all over the body beside her. She sat up and made the mistake of looking at Ash. Seeing the unsuppressed look of desire on her lover's face, Madison leaned toward Ash intent on devouring her. Her haze of desire burst at the sound of approaching footsteps. She quickly scrambled to her feet and thrust her unsteady hands into the pockets of her slacks.

Ash stood up and forced herself to turn away from Madison. She exhaled, trying to erase the feel of her lover's body beneath her. Was it only yesterday morning that I had her naked in my arms? To her body it felt like a lifetime ago. Ash walked to the sink and splashed her face with cold water. She didn't immediately turn around at her mom's greeting, needing a moment to compose her features.

Remember Laura and Cedric. That's what's important right now. Ash stiffened her shoulders and turned around with a smile that faltered when she noticed the lines of tiredness on her mother's face. "Hey, Mom, you must be exhausted," she said. "Why don't you go stretch out and relax. Madison and I have everything under control."

"I think you're right, Ash." Jan advanced across the room and gave her daughter a kiss and a hug, then did the same to Madison. "Wake me up in a couple of hours, I have to go pick up your mother."

"Sure, Mom." Ash watched her mother leave the room. "That's a first," she told Madison, who was still standing in the same spot. "She usually protests that she doesn't need any rest. It's kind of scary to think of her as a mere mortal."

"The evening news might explain some of that. A certain member of your extended family has been drawing a lot of attention from the media these days."


"Jan mention earlier that Latasha's mom has been talking to the media."

"You mean playing up for the media," Ash said clearly disgusted and unconsciously clinched her hands into fists. "I was wondering when she would surface from her hell hole."




Chapter Twenty-Seven

Bruce was waiting for Madison when she walked into the reception area the next morning. He quickly hustled her into his cube and modeled his fake mustache and beard.

Madison laughed at the sight of Bruce with a bushy mustache and a scraggly beard. "Did you go buy those last night, or were they laying around your house?" she asked between chuckles.

"Well the wife and I had unusual costumes last October," he explained with a shrug.

"You're really into this cloak and dagger stuff, aren't you?"

"Of course, only because it's for a good cause," he said and cleared his throat.

"I don't think we're going to need the fake facial hair to slip the boys past Marilyn," she said, trying for diplomacy. "They won't be expecting a family and she doesn't know either one of us."

"Okay." Bruce sighed loudly. "I was really looking forward to my first big role. I can see it leading to a starring role, my name if lights, commercial endorsements, the whole thing."

"Or maybe not," Madison deadpanned before cracking a smile. "So that's what you wore last year?" She raised her eyebrows as she tried to imagine what the rest of the costume consisted of.

"Not me, this is what Sondra was wearing," he said with a straight face.

"Alrighty then," Madison said, trying to keep a straight face as well. She took one look at Bruce and they both succumbed to laughter. "I need to get to know your wife much better," she said, wiping the tears from her eyes.

"Be careful what you wish for," he said, showing her his easy going grin. "Just a word of caution, be very afraid if you get stuck with her and Laura."


"That's all I'm going to say. You have to experience it for yourself."

Sooner than later I hope. "Can I go to my office now? Maybe I need to come up with a disguise."

"Ha-ha. So boss lady, did you have a chance to look at my suggestions?" he asked, changing the subject.

Madison invited him to follow her to her office where they spent an hour discussing Bruce's ideas for updating the database system that tracked project status. Toward the end of their discussion, they were interrupted by Shirley who came in with a big smile, an envelope with donations, and a card.

"You're an angel. Thank you so much for organizing everything so quickly." Madison stood up and gave the other woman a hug. "Bruce and I will take this with us later this morning. I know that Laura will want to call you later and thank you herself."

"You tell her not to worry about thanking me," Shirley said. "She needs to worry about her husband and keeping that woman off the TV." She rolled her eyes thinking about the interview that had been shown on the late evening newscast.

"Marilyn was on the news again?"

"She was quite the tragic figure," Bruce said dryly, having caught the morning repeat. "The grieving grandmother asked everybody to have pity on her poor grandbabies who lost their beloved mother. I would have fallen for it, but I know she didn't have much to do with her poor tragic grandkids."

"It figures. She looked too controlled," Shirley said with a disgusted look on her face.

"Perhaps she realizes how much she needs them in her life now that Latasha is gone," Madison said quietly. She thought about her own grandmother and didn't want to believe Marilyn had an ulterior motive.

"You are too sweet," Shirley said, pinching Madison's check before leaving to go to her desk.

"Don't pay her any attention, Madison," Bruce said. "You just go on thinking what you want. I'm going to head back to my office and work off some of this nervous energy. I'll see you out front at ten." He sketched a mock salute and left the office.

Madison watched him go, wondering if she had been complimented or insulted. Shaking her head, she turned on her computer and checked her email. She would worry about everything but work, later.

At ten-thirty, Madison, Bruce, DeMarcus, and Keshawn walked into Cedric's hospital room. They'd had no trouble walking in unobserved, because unknown to them, Marilyn and her lawyer had unwittingly helped them by scheduling a news conference. All of the media attention was therefore directed on Marilyn.

Cedric was awake, but still a little groggy from the pain medication. The boys grinned happily as they gave him gentle kisses, like the ones they had practiced on Ash earlier. They seemed content just to be near him, but despite his pain, Cedric allowed both of them to sit on either side of him on the bed.

Madison wiped away tears at the happiness shining in Keshawn's and DeMarcus's eyes. To cover her embarrassment, she handed Laura the envelope that held the card and the money. Laura, whose eyes were already glistening with tears, cried when she saw the number of signatures on the card, overwhelmed by the generosity. Madison held her as they cried together.

"I'm so touched by this," Laura said, once she had her emotions under better control. "It really does help to restore my faith in this crazy world."

"I'm glad," Bruce said and squeezed her shoulder. "All you need to do is say the word, and a colony of worker bees will descend upon you."

"It's been almost frightening seeing Shirley swing into action," Madison said as she wiped her face. "So don't even consider turning down the help," she warned Laura with a smile.

"I wouldn't," Laura assured her, smiling through her tears as she stepped away from Madison's embrace. "I'm going to need all the help I can get with that crew," she said, motioning her head in the direction of the bed. "Thank you guys again for helping out today."

"Not a problem," Bruce said, pulling her close for a quick hug. "Now if you ladies would excuse me for a minute, I think I'll go have a chat with the guys."

"Gowan," Laura said, returning the hug.

"What's going on downstairs?" Madison asked once Bruce walked away. "We saw all the news trucks congregating."

"Marilyn called a news conference for ten-thirty. I guess it wasn't enough that she cried her eyes out so prettily, on the evening news," Laura said, her voice tinged with bitterness. "But that's okay, it helped you get in here without notice."

"I'm so sorry you have to deal with this on top of everything else, Laura."

"Thanks, but don't worry about it. I should be strong as hell when this crisis is over," she joked.

"I'm not making any promises about not worrying, It's what I do best, you know," Madison said and smirked. "I hope you won't hesitate to call me if you need anything. Stephanie has been great about letting us work an alternative schedule."

Laura smiled. "You've already done so much already. I'm proud to call you my friend."

"Now you're getting maudlin. It's probably a by product of the hospital walls," she said, looking around the room. "I guess we should go soon. Looks like Cedric is about ready to fall asleep."

Laura turned to look at her husband. "The pain medicine does that to him," she said and walked over to the bed. She explained to the boys it was time to leave so their uncle could rest up. Seeing the worry return to their eyes, she promised that they could come back for a visit later that afternoon.

After another round of kisses, Bruce made a game of lifting the boys from the bed. Laura then took each boy by the hand, and walked them to the elevator. She was in the process of telling them how much she loved them, when she stopped abruptly, coming face to face with a short, nicely dressed, older woman. "Marilyn, how nice of you to visit," she said, her tone indicating the opposite.

Madison, reacting to the palpable tension between the two women, studied the older woman carefully. Marilyn looked nothing like what she had imagined. Not that I've really thought about what she looked like. The tiny woman looked much younger than her age. Her short, tinted blond hair was perfectly styled, as if she had just stepped out of a salon. Madison noted with interest that Marilyn's green eyes were looking at Laura with an expression that bordered on hostility.

"I think of Cedric as my son, Laura, you know that. And it seems I had to come here in order to be able to see my grandchildren," she said, though she made no move to greet either child.

"All you had to do was ask." Laura bit her cheek to keep her tone even. "They've been staying with my family, so that I can concentrate on helping Cedric get well."

"Of course, I want to see them," the older woman said impatiently. "They are all that I have left of my only daughter. I am allowed time to grieve the loss of my child, I hope?"

Laura's jaw tightened. "I meant no disrespect. The boys were just leaving. You and I can discuss visitation while we wait for Cedric to wake up again," she added with a strained smile.

"Visitation? I think we need to discuss more than that, my dear. Now boys, come give your Nana a hug."

Madison was surprised it took prodding from Laura to get the boys to comply with the request. Remembering the effusive way they greeted Laura's parents, she was confused by how stiff and ill at ease they seemed. Although I can see why. Marilyn's manner was reserved as she dealt with DeMarcus and Keshawn. It's almost as if she's not used to dealing with them.

Once they were on the elevator, Bruce and Madison exchanged concerned looks. The boys looked uneasy, and DeMarcus clung to Madison's leg. She placed a comforting hand on his head. Something isn't right. When she felt a tremor run through DeMarcus, she picked him up. "We're okay," she whispered, kissing his round cheek. In response, he clamped his arms around her neck. Madison reached for Keshawn's hand and was gratified when his little finger intertwined with hers.

"Hey guys, remember you get to come back and see your Uncle Cedric this afternoon," she reminded them as they exited the elevator. "Maybe you can draw him some pictures to make him feel better."

"I can draw a really neat car," Keshawn said with the beginning of a smile. "He likes cars."

"I can, too," DeMarcus said, loosening his grip on Madison's neck. "A red one. I like red."

"I can draw better 'cause I'm older." Keshawn let go of Madison's hand and rushed to open the door.

DeMarcus squirmed to get down and rushed after his brother.

Bruce smiled. "I didn't realize you knew so much about kids."

"I didn't, either." She grinned and hurried after her charges. "Hey, wait for us!" she called, stopping DeMarcus from walking out the door.

When Bruce pulled his sedan in Ash's driveway, he and Madison were well acquainted with the pictures Cedric would be receiving. Given the large number of ideas, it was highly probable the boys would be drawing for the next couple of months.

Madison was undoing her seat belt when she remembered Sunday's conversation. How could I forget? Both boys had been emphatic about not wanting to go live with an unnamed person. It has to be Marilyn, but why? Her pulse quickened, imagining the possibilities. She exhaled slowly and got out of the car. Don't jump to conclusions.

None of her thoughts showed in her face when she opened the back door and released DeMarcus' seat belt and helped him and Keshawn to get out of the car. Draping an arm around both of them, they walked to the front door. "So guys, you be good for your Aunt Ash this afternoon, okay?"

They both nodded solemnly. "You hafta go to work?" DeMarcus placed an arm around Madison's leg.

Madison squatted down to his level and pulled him into her arms. "Yes, I do, but I promise to come by before you go to bed tonight. Maybe we can play that warthog game again."

"Hedgehog," Keshawn corrected before a reluctant smile crossed his lips.

"Okay hedgehog then," Madison said with a grin. "We will play a video game this evening."

"Yeah!" DeMarcus cheered. "Can Keshawn play with us too?"

"Of course, he can. Now somebody ring the doorbell." She smiled as the boys took off in a race to be the first to reach the doorbell. Madison's smile got a lot wider at the sight of her lover standing in the now open doorway, dressed in a sweat-drenched tank top and miniscule running shorts. Yummy!

"Good timing guys," Ash said with a smile, "I just got back from my run. Which one of you little rascals wants a big sweaty hug?" she asked and lunged at DeMarcus. He quickly jumped back with a giggle.

"I bet Madison wants one," Keshawn said to ward off his Aunt. "She really likes hugs, and she liked it when you hugged her in the kitchen yesterday."

"But she's dressed for work, so it'll have to be one of you." Ash ignored the reference to anything she and Madison had done in the kitchen. She pounced on an unsuspecting DeMarcus and gave him a bear hug. He shrieked and squirmed to get away. Once he was loose, he slipped by Ash and ran into the house with Keshawn close on his heels.

"Too bad I'm already dressed for work, because I'd really like to become acquainted with every drop of sweat on your body," Madison said. Only knowing that Bruce was watching from the car kept her from licking the sweat from Ash's tender neck.

"I knew you were trouble the moment I spotted you from the sidelines," Ash said, her eyes narrowed, desire flushing her face.

"You're the trouble," Madison retorted, giving the dark-haired beauty a whimsical smile. "I'm not the one looking hot in a skimpy, sweat-soaked outfit. Yeah, you're the troublemaker, Patterson. But hey, I still love you." Did I say that? She gave Ash a panicked look.

Ash's smile lit up her face. "Hey Norman, I still love you too," she said, wishing they were alone. "We'll talk more later," she promised with a wink.

"Talk?" Madison leered before she turned to walk back to the car. She was almost there, when she remembered what she needed to discuss with the other woman. She held up a hand to Bruce, signaling that she would be right back and ran up to the house. "You're so much trouble you made me forget what I wanted to say," she complained with a playful pout. "Laura is stuck at the hospital with Marilyn, and I'm sure that woman did something to the boys. They're scared they might have to live with her," Madison whispered so quickly the words almost ran together.

"Calm down, sweetie." Ash put a hand on Madison's shoulder. "Laura called and the Momses rode off to the rescue. And we're still trying to figure out the second concern. I'll call you later and fill you in on what we know. Now go to work, before you get fired, young lady."


"Oh, and Madison, I'm available this evening to finish our other discussion."

Madison gave a shout of laughter and waved without turning around. She knew she had that goofy grin on her face again, but she just didn't care. Damn, that woman is too much of a distraction!



Chapter Twenty-Eight

That evening, Madison pulled to a stop in front of Ash's house. She was tired, but she had made a promise to DeMarcus and she had to keep it. Even though it was only seven-thirty, she was more than ready for bed. She psyched herself up by promising her tired body a long rest after a couple of video games.

A grinning DeMarcus met her at the door. "You came!" he said, sounding thrilled.

Madison's tiredness dissolved as she bent to give the excited child a hug. "I promised," she said, stepping into the living room. "How else am I going to beat my boyfriend Keshawn at the warthog game?"

"Keshawn, Madison say you her boyfriend and she gonna beat you at that warthog game!" the grinning boy announced at the top of his lungs.

"Gross Madison, I ain't your boyfriend," Keshawn said, not looking up from the game he was playing. "But you have to wait in line to try and beat me 'cause Aunt Ash is going down first."

"You wish, Keshawn," Ash said, staring intently at the television screen. "You may have beaten me two times already, but this is my time to win."

"Hello, Ash, it's so nice to see you again," Madison said dryly. She unceremoniously plopped down on the sofa, close to where Ash was sitting.

"Hey, Madison." Ash tilted her head back and gave her lover a welcoming smile. "Sorry about that, but I'm in a fight for my life."

"That's okay." Madison leaned forward and patted Ash on the head. "I'll get you house trained yet."

"Hi, Madison, I thought I heard someone shouting your name." Sandra entered the room, with a warm smile on her face. "I see the kids are still playing a game," she joked, poking her daughter with her bare foot. "Can I get you something to eat, dear? Rumor has it you have a healthy appetite," she said, her eyes twinkling at the look of embarrassment on the younger woman's face.

"I can always eat," Madison admitted with a shy smile. "And something sure does smell good."

"I wish I could take credit for it, but Bruce and his wife dropped it off earlier. It's the best lasagna I've had in a while."

"And that's saying something, cause my mama is no slouch in the kitchen," Ash commented. "Ha! Finally it's my turn now," she said with glee, turning her full attention back to the game and the controller in her hands.

"Madison, why don't you come to the kitchen, and I'll get you set up."

At Sandra's urging, she sat at the table and waited to be served. Her stomach grumbled loudly as a plate with lasagna, salad and bread was put in front of her. She's going to think I'm a total pig.

"What can I get you to drink with that?" Sandra asked with a chuckle.

"Water is fine." Madison waited for the older woman to step away before taking a small bite of the lasagna. If she had been by herself, she would have hummed as the combination of flavors burst in her mouth, instead she allowed an appreciative, "This is very good."

Sandra pulled out a chair, and sat down facing Madison. "I want to thank you again for the way you've helped our family."

"Thank you, Ms. Patterson."

"Please call me Sandra, child. Now you go right ahead and eat, because I know you're hungry."

Madison took another small bite, chewing quickly and swallowing. "How is Cedric doing this evening?"

"Still improving," Sandra said, giving a relieved smile. "They've been able to determine that all his organs are okay, and they expect him to be able to go home by next week."

"That's great news," Madison said, fervently. "Laura and the boys must be ecstatic."

"Yes. Laura and Jan are going to come here after visiting hours are over. At Cedric's urging, Laura agreed to sleep here tonight. We'll have a full house. I know Ashley will be glad to have her house to herself, once this is all over."

"She doesn't mind, because she was finally able to defeat a seven year old," Ash said, coming into the kitchen on the tail end of her mother's comment. "Madison, I've been sent to tell you that DeMarcus is waiting to challenge you."

"Tell him I'll be there in a minute." Madison gave Sandra an apologetic smile before she began to eat in earnest. Her plate was quickly emptied. She stood up, put her dirty dish in the sink, and rinsed it off.

She and DeMarcus had just started their game, when the doorbell rang. Keshawn jumped off the sofa, and ran for the front door. "I bet it's, Aunt Laura and Nan," he announced with a wide grin and yanked the door open. The grin left his face and he immediately took a step back. Bellowing, "Aunt Ash!", he ran across the room to his brother.

Ash, alerted by the boy's tone, hurried in from the kitchen. Her expression changed from concern to anger, once she noticed their visitor. "Hello, Marilyn," she said in an unwelcome tone and quickly blocked the doorway. "I thought we agreed earlier that you would call ahead of time."

"That's ridiculous. I shouldn't have to make an appointment to see my own grandchildren. Neither you or your sister have any right to those boys."

Sandra motioned for Madison to take the kids and leave, before walking over to her daughter and the woman she had come to dislike. "No one wants to keep you from your grandchildren, Marilyn," she said pleasantly. "Why don't you come in, and have a seat. Ash, please get our guest something to drink."

"What can I get you?" Ash asked with open hostility, making no attempt to hide her anger. Clinching her jaw, her dark eyes glittered with something dangerous as she looked at the older woman.

"A glass of wine, please." Marilyn gingerly sat down in one of the large chairs. "Now Sandra, don't think me rude, but I really would like to see the boys," she said with more than a hint of steel in her tone. "I've spoken with my lawyer, and he assures me that grandparents, real grandparents that is, have custodial rights."

"Do I hear a threat?" Sandra said, struggling to keep her voice even. "Let's be clear Marilyn. No one in my family has tried to keep you from Keshawn and DeMarcus. Furthermore, as far as I know, today is the first time you have inquired about their wellbeing. This is a very stressful time for all of us, and I would like to think that no unnecessary stress will be added." She gave the other woman a pointed look.

"I would also like to think that no more stress has to be added," Marilyn said, returning the look with one of her own. She broke eye contact, turning to Ash to accept the glass of white wine.

"I'll go get them...if I can," Ash added balefully and left the room wanting to break something. How dare she threaten my family! Before entering the room, she paused, struggling to get her temper under control. Blind rage would only scare her nephews and possibly give Marilyn the upper hand

Ash almost broke down and cried at the sight before her. Both boys were sitting on Madison's lap with tears running down their faces. When she looked at Madison, she noticed that her lover had tears running down her face as well. "Oh, you poor guys are scared to death." Ash sat down on the bed, and put her arms around all of them. "It's going to be okay, I promise," she said, dropping kisses indiscriminately. "Marilyn just wants to see you for a little bit. I think she misses your mother very much, and she would feel better if she could see the two of you." Ash hated to lie to them, but she couldn't think of anything else to tell them. "It will only be for a little bit, guys. She will not take you with her, okay? I promise."

"But...she don't like my mama," Keshawn protested, his voice wobbly. "She told Mama she hated her and us too," he added and drew a shuddering breath.

"She hate me," DeMarcus said, rubbing tear-drenched eyes on Madison's shirt. "She hits me 'cause I no good."

"That is not true!" They turned to see Marilyn and Sandra were standing in the doorway. "Those boys are making that up. Why I would never hit anybody?" Two read spots, contrasting with the whiteness of her skin had appeared on Marilyn's cheeks.

"Is, too!" Keshawn shouted, breaking free from Madison's arms and standing up. "Mama said we weren't gonna go to your house ever." He balled his hands into fists and scowled at his grandmother.

"So now you people have decided to turn my daughter's sons against me. I know just who to blame for that." She gave Ash a cold stare before bringing her gaze back to Sandra. "I'm sure my lawyer will have something to say about this. Expect to hear from him."

"Marilyn, you need to calm down please." Sandra realized she needed to move the other woman away from the door way. "As I said before, this is not the best time to talk about this. You and I should go back to the living room and let the boys get settled down." She placed a hand on the other woman's arm, ready to drag her away if necessary. They were the same height, but Sandra outweighed Marilyn by fifteen pounds.

"Get your hands off me. You people are not normal, and I won't let any kin of mine stay in this house! I'm leaving now, but I will be back," she promised and left the room.

"I no tell stories." DeMarcus whimpered and burrowed into Madison body. "I be good."

"I know, baby," Madison said woodenly, unconsciously stroking his back while fighting the urge to flee. She felt like she was trapped in the crossfire of a battle sure to have devastating outcomes. Her breathing quickened as the room seemed to close in around her. What am I doing here?

"You okay?" Ash whispered and kissed her ear.

Madison leaned against Ash, her body trembling. She nodded slowly as the tightness in her chest lessened and disappeared. She closed her eyes and took deep, cleansing breaths. I'm here because this is where I belong—with Ash and my family.



Later that evening, Madison and Ash were by themselves in the living room. Everyone else was already asleep, and the house was finally quiet. Madison was sitting on Ash's lap, with her head resting on lover's chest and her arms draped around Ash's neck.

"I feel better now about the situation with Marilyn," Madison said.

"I'm not so sure," Ash replied. "Mom's lawyer friend is pretty sharp, but I'm afraid that a call from her will set Marilyn off."

"Why should it, she already has a lawyer," Madison argued. "And frankly, I don't think she can be set off more than she is."

Ash frowned. "Maybe I'm being pessimistic, but I just don't believe we've seen how far she can go." She sighed and grappled with her thoughts. "I'm having a hard time getting past—Well, I always thought she was manipulative, but now to find out that she was abusive as well is unsettling. I guess that's why Latasha started leaving the kids with Cedric and Laura all the time."

"I wonder why she hid it from them. It seems like something she would want them to know about."

"We'll never know. All we do know is that we have to keep a supposedly loving grandmother from her terrified grandchildren." Ash blew out a breath through her mouth. "I didn't want to say this earlier, but I'm really afraid this could tear the family apart."

Madison lifter her head and noticed the tears beading in Ash's eyes. "How so?" she asked softly.

"It's obvious Marilyn is going to play the gay card. And in this state, she has a damn good chance of winning. The outcome is that either Marilyn wins custody or Laura and Derrick have to distance themselves from us."

"You don't really think a judge would let the boys go with somebody they're scared of, do you?"

Ash blinked away her tears. "It...depends," she said and bit her quivering lip. "Can we talk about something else, please? I don't want to waste any more time thinking about that woman."

"Sure, baby." Madison, seeing the embarrassment on Ash's face, lowered her head back to Ash's chest. "I'm glad we have some time alone. I've been wanting to cuddle up to you all day," she said and kissed Ash's neck. "Too bad the sweat is gone."

"It'll cost you, you know," Ash teased. "I don't give these good cuddles of mine away for free."

"But I don't have any money." Madison kissed her way from her lover's neck to her ear. "Whatever...will...I...do?" She punctuated each word with a kiss.

"I'll think of something." Ash ran her hands across Madison's back suggestively.

"How bout if I do this?" Madison captured Ash's head between her hands and gave her the kiss she had been storing up for what seemed like eternity. The kiss quickly deepened as they tried to make up for lost time. They couldn't seem to get close enough to each other.

"Oh baby, I so needed that." Ash gazed into loving hazel eyes. "Having you here with me is my sanity. You're my very own touch stone."

"There's no place I'd rather be." Madison exhaled slowly as her heart swelled with love. "I meant what I said this morning. I do love you, Ash. And being here, cuddled up with you, is my saving grace."

"I'm glad 'cause I love you so much." She closed her eyes against the storm of emotions sweeping through her body. She wanted to remember forever how she felt at this moment.

Madison pulled Ash closer until their lips touched. Ash opened her mouth, welcoming the entrance of her lover's tongue. She turned their bodies so that they were lying down with Madison on top. She moved her hands to Madison's bottom, pulling their bodies closer together. The kiss seemed to go on forever.

Searching for breath, Madison pulled back, breathing heavily. "I don't think this is a good idea," she said, looking at her beloved's face. She leaned back down and tugged on Ash's bottom lip with her teeth while pressing against her lover's center. "I want you," she said hoarsely when a moan escaped Ash's lips. Unable to resist, she went back for another kiss.

"You're trying to kill me, aren't you?" Ash groaned and lifted her hips to meet Madison's thrusts.

"Poor baby is that a bad thing?" Madison slipped her hand between their bodies to cup Ash, shivering at the moisture and heat she felt through the shorts. "You really like this, huh?" she asked, laughing throatily. "I wonder what else you would like." With a wicked smile, she moved her fingers, delighting in the gasp she drew.

"If you keep that up, I'm going to come," Ash said through clenched teeth.

"You mean this?" Madison moved to her side and slid her hand beneath the elastic waistband of Ash's shorts. She fingered Ash through the silk of her panties, loving the feel of wetness against her fingers.

"Yeah," Ash whimpered and spread her legs wider. "Just like that," she added before bringing one of the throw pillows to her face to silence the sound of her moans.

Madison noticed the pillow and got an idea. She slid off the couch and raised Ash's shirt. Ash removed the pillow to look at her lover. Madison winked and placed butterfly kisses down Ash's exposed belly. She took a deep breath, savoring the scent of Ash's passion. She pulled at the shorts and panties, and dipped her lips to the ambrosia.

Ash whimpered at the contact, stiffening her legs. She was torn between holding the pillow to her mouth or holding Madison's mouth to her. The issue became mute when she felt Madison's fingers enter her. "Yes!" she hissed and pressed the pillow against her mouth to mute a long, deep moan. She bucked her hips as Madison's stroked her deeper and felt the familiar stirrings of eminent release. Shaking her head from side to side, she let the building sensation erupt into intense pleasure. The pillow helped muffle most of the sounds of pleasure pouring from her mouth. With a final grunt, she relaxed her trembling legs and let the after shocks rumble through her body.

"I guess you were right," a husky voice teased. "I did make you come."

Ash removed the pillow from her face, took in a long, deep breath and released it slowly. "And you have the nerve to call me trouble," she said after her heart beat slowed down. "I thought you said you just wanted to cuddle?"

"That wasn't cuddling?" Madison smiled and licked her lips. "Yummy."

"Payback is a bitch,." Ash warned and pushed her tormentor onto her back, into the thickness of the rug. She returned the favor and then some. Ash managed to hold back a shout of triumph when her lover exploded beneath her mouth and the silken walls clamped down on her fingers.

"I'll have to write a story about this," Madison said some time later. They were fully dressed and once more sitting sedately on the couch. "There's something delicious about having sex when you know there's a possibility you could be caught."

"You lived a sheltered life, didn't you?" Ash smirked. "I figured that out at sixteen."

"I wish I had figured it out at sixteen. What can I say, I was a real slow starter."

"Well it certainly has not impeded your performance."

"You say the nicest things, Ms. Patterson." Madison smiled, feeling the warm glow inside her stomach. "It still amazes me that you would even look my way."

"Honey, how many times do I have to tell you that I think you're beautiful inside and out?" Ash picked up Madison's hand and brought it to her lips. "You're a real heroine to me and my family. You've had all this mess thrust upon you and instead of running screaming into the night you waded right in. That's incredible."

Madison looked up at the woman she was so glad to have found. "What you just said touches me on so many different levels. I could never run away from you." She reached up and brought Ash's head to hers so that their noses could touch. "I love you," she said as if that explained everything.

"And I love you." Ash gave a half sob. "I wanted to tell you Friday, but I was afraid it was too soon," she admitted with a shy smile.

"Never," Madison said and kissed her.





Chapter Twenty-Nine

The next morning, Madison woke up to the sound of music. Though she hadn't gotten much sleep, she feeling on top of the world. Maybe it was that mind-blowing orgasm I experienced. Laughing, she slapped the off button.

Folding her hands behind her head, she looked at the ceiling and grinned. "She loves me." Breathing deeply, she relived the moment Ash admitted to returning her love. Madison was surprised by her own boldness. She had felt no hesitation at saying the words that had been living in her heart. "I love you, Ashley Monroe Patterson," she announced loudly and gave a giddy laugh. And she loves me back.

A warm glow ignited in her stomach and spread throughout her body. Giving a deep sigh of contentment, she slowly exhaled. The only thing missing was Ash. Of course, she probably wouldn't be reminiscing if her lover were present. Madison giggled and rolled over onto her stomach. I've got it bad, and I like it. Full of energy, she rolled off the bed and headed for the bathroom, singing an old Beatles song at the top of her lungs.

As she walked back into her room, absently towel drying her hair dry, the phone rang. She was pleased to see Ash's name on her caller ID. "Hello," she said, keeping her voice low and sexy.

"Hello, may I speak with Ms. Norman please?"

"This is she," Madison said, trying hard to suppress a laugh.

"Great. Ms. Norman I'm calling to inform you of a brand new organization. We're soliciting donations to provide assistance for our members."

"And what organization would that be?"

"Ma'am, the name of our groups is, 'I Got Taken Advantage Of on the Sofa Last Night'."

Madison pretended to cough, trying to cover up her laughter. "I would love to make a donation, but I've just started a club of my own," she said with feigned regret.

"Oh, and what is the name of your organization?"

"'We Ravish Wenches' WRW for short," Madison got out, barely able to hold back her laughter. "Ravish has more romantic connotations than taken advantage of," she added before breaking in to laughter.

"I stand corrected, Ms. Norman," Ash said between snorts of laughter. She allowed herself a moment to get the chuckles out of her system before continuing. "Did you sleep as good as I did?"

"I would have slept better if a tall, lanky, ebony-haired beauty had been naked in my bed. Wait! Hold that thought--I can't say I would have slept better," she corrected. "But yes, I did have a restful night's sleep. How are you doing this morning?"

"I can't complain. Despite the lack of sleep, I feel good. Mama made us a kil...uh...bad word," she said, catching herself. "Mama made a great breakfast, so I feel fortified and ready to deal with anything."

"Good, after what I witnessed yesterday, I think you'll need fortification and armor. I wish I could be there for you this morning. I'll be thinking about all of you while I'm slaving away at work."

"It's only fair, since I think about you all the time." Ash said softly.

Madison was touched to her core. "You just have to keep racking up those bonus points, don't ya Patterson?"

"I want another visit from the founder of WRW," she whispered.

Madison gave a shout of laughter. "Why are you whispering?"

"Momses alert."

"Aha. Will you still enjoy the services of WRW when your mommies are gone?"

"More. I won't have to try to smother myself with a pillow."

"You are a certifiable nut."

"You like it," Ash said and laughed. "Let me get off the phone so Mom can stop pretending she's reading the paper."

"Okay, I love you." Madison blew her love a kiss.

"I love you more. I'll call you after the big meeting," Ash hung up the phone with a smile on her face.

"Now who could you have been talking to?" Jan asked, looking up from the morning paper.

Ash felt her cheeks heat up at the teasing tone. "The utility company," she mumbled smirking. "When is that meeting anyway?"

"I think you make a cute couple," Jan replied with a wink. "She's definitely a keeper."

Grinning, Ash turned around to face her persistent parent. "I know. I plan to keep her for a long, long time."

"What are you keeping?" Sandra asked walking into the living room.

"Madison," Jan replied for her daughter.

"Does she know?"

"Duh." Ash gave her mothers a smug smile. "She knows. Now if you old ladies will excuse me, I need to go take a shower and get dressed." She hurried from the room before Jan could stand up.

"Somebody is in a good mood," Laura commented, stepping out of her sister's way. "The couch must be more comfortable than I thought."

"Of course, it didn't have you," Ash retorted. Laughing, she dodged Laura's jab and raced to her room.

"What's up with her?" Laura asked, a puzzled look on her face.

"Love," Jan and Sandra replied.


"Love's first blush," Jan clarified. "I'm sure you still remember that."

"I sure do," Sandra said. "It was Cedric this and Cedric that. I don't think you said a sentence without his name in it."

"I know what love is," Laura said and rolled her eyes. "What I don't know is how Ash can possibly be in love. It can't be Madison because they've only had one date, and I had to almost force her to go on that one. Please tell me she isn't serious about the woman she picked up at the party." Laura's eyes grew wide and she ran after her sister.

She knocked loudly and entered without waiting for a response. Closing the door, she leaned against it and watched her naked sister gather some clothes without saying a word.

"What?" Ash asked. "I'll be ready in ten minutes."

Laura gave her sister a hard look. "Did you have the decency to tell Madison you're in love with someone?"

"Huh?" Ash looked at Laura in confusion. "You're not making much sense, short stuff. Can we start at the beginning of the conversation?"

"Answer me this," Laura demanded. "Are you in love?"

Ash grinned and nodded enthusiastically. "Oh yeah. I've never felt this way before. It feels great."

"I'm glad, you deserve it." She crossed the room to give Ash a hug. "I'm sorry. I should have known you wouldn't lead Madison on. Hang on to this one, okay?"

"Jeez, why is it everybody assumes I have no staying power?" Ash grabbed her sister in a headlock.

"Past history," she replied, breaking free. "When do we get to meet her? I know it can't be easy connecting with a house full of relatives."

Ash put her hands on Laura's shoulders and pushed her back so she could see her expression. "You really don't know?"

"Know what?" Now it was Laura's turn to look confused. "Just tell me, damnit," she demanded.

"I'm in love with Madison. I think I've been in love with her every since I saw her thighs at the soccer game," she said with a far away look. "I hate to admit it, but you were right for once, sis. We do have a lot in common."

Laura reached up and grabbed Ash's chin. She looked in her sister's eyes and knew the answer to the question before she even asked. "You're serious, aren't you?" She smiled. "When did you meet her?"

"She was at that charity soccer game Kahla dragged me to. We connected and after ironing out some bumps, we started dating."

"Why didn't you tell me?" she asked, sounding hurt. "You knew I thought she would be good for you."

Ash sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Madison was concerned about how it would affect your work relationship. I had to beg her to go out with me once she found out we were sisters."

"And how did she find that out?" Laura asked. Her eyes grew wide. "Shit! She talked to Dee at the party, didn't she? Oh, my God." She covered her mouth with her and started to cry.

"It's okay." Ash put an arm around Laura and hugged her. "It's forgotten. Come on sis, please don't cry."

Laura looked up, her eyes wet with tears. "How could she forgive me? I'm so ashamed, Ash. She sat there and let me tell her that my friends wouldn't tell anyone about that rumor, and she already knew."

Ash swallowed, trying to stave off tears. "Don't beat yourself up about this. You have other things to worry about. Madison is okay with this. If you don't believe me call her," she urged. "I know she would be the first one to tell you to let it go."

Laura nodded and took a step back, holding her palms against her eyes. "You're right," she said, releasing a shaky breath. "It's been a tough couple of days. I'll make it up to her, I promise."

"You don't have to, short stuff." Ash rubbed the top of Laura's head, messing up her hair.

"Hey, stop that," she complained, jerking her head back. "So my sister has a girlfriend. I guess I didn't dream those moans I heard last night after all."

"You hush." Ash fixed her sister with a threatening glare. "It was all your twisted imagination. Probably from the stress you've been under."

"Yeah, right." She grinned. "I'm telling," she said and took off running.

"Come back here, you little creep!" Ash started after her sister but stopped, realizing she wasn't dressed. "Sisters," she said, reaching for her robe.



It was close to noon before Madison had a chance to take a breather. The morning had turned into one crisis after another that was made more severe by the shortage of one staff person. She dropped into her chair, kicked off her heels and propped her feet up on the desk. Taking a deep breath, she let it out slowly. Her stomach rumbled loudly as a reminder it was time to eat.

Rubbing her tired eyes, she decided she had just enough energy to make a trip to the sub shop. Madison was reaching for her wallet when the phone rang. "Hello, Dr. Norman speaking. How may I help you?"

"Too many ways to count," Ash replied whimsically. "I'm free for an hour, are you available for lunch?"

"How soon can you get here?" Madison asked, her tiredness forgotten. "Ash, hold on a minute, there's someone at my door." She pushed the hold button and called out, "Come in."

The door was pushed open to admit a waving Ash. "Is this quick enough?" she asked, smirking.

Madison's pulse sped up at the sight of her lover. She suppressed an answering smile and pushed the hold button. "Ash, bad news," she said into the receiver. "I'm dumping you for the sexy woman who just walked into my office." Replacing the receiver, she grinned.

"I can live with that. You ready to go eat?"

"Of course." Madison put her shoes back on and stood up. "I have to warn you, I've set my sights on a large sandwich from the deli." Her stomach grumbled to back up her words.

"I know better than to mess with your stomach. The deli's fine with me." She hummed and wiggled her eyebrows when she spotted her lover's thighs left bare by a short skirt. "That whole short skirt with the long jacket thing is so sexy."

Madison winked. "Glad you like it."

"Like is too mild a word. Now let's leave before I lose any more brain cells."

While they walked the three blocks to the restaurant, Ash shared her morning horror story. Marilyn had dropped by the house at eight-thirty, claiming to have temporary custody papers and demanding the boys be handed over to her. "She didn't even have the sensitivity to make sure the boys were out of the room. DeMarcus ran out of the room, but Keshawn really surprised me."

"How so?" Madison turned her head, her expression one of concern.

"I swear I thought he was going to hit the her. He just looked so angry. I can't really describe it, but take my word for it, it was...well, I've never seen him act that way."

"You have to admit he's in a pretty scary place right now. It's obvious Keshawn thinks he needs to protect his little brother from Marilyn while Cedric isn't around." Madison blew out her frustration. "How can she do this to her own grandchildren? It makes me sick that she doesn't seem to care what all this upheaval is doing to them."

"Hey, it turned out okay." Ash opened the door and gestured for Madison to enter. "Mom was in her glory," she said with smug pride. "She immediately demanded to see the papers, forcing Marilyn to admit she didn't have them yet. Then Mom grabbed her arm and forcibly dragged her out of the house. I don't know what was said, but when mom came back in the house, Marilyn wasn't with her." She nodded her head and looked up to study the menu on the wall.

"Remind me not to make your mom mad. Where are the boys now?" Madison asked, rubbing her forehead.

"Visiting Cedric. He's improving rapidly, by the way. Now there's talk of letting him go tomorrow."

"So soon?"

Ash shrugged. "They don't let you stay in the hospital that long. And besides, he's been up walking around. I think that's all it takes."

"I guess it's better for Laura that way." She turned to place her order. It wasn't until they were sitting at a table on the small deck behind the deli that Madison remembered the meeting scheduled with Marilyn's lawyer. "Did Marilyn's lawyer show up, or was that just talk too?"

"It was over by the time we got there. Cedric showed them Latasha's will, and once again, Marilyn was forced to leave. If I hadn't been so wigged out, it would have occurred to me that he wouldn't leave something this important to chance."

"I wish I could have been there to see her face."

"Me, too. If it had been up to me, I would have ripped her a new one."

"I would have liked to see that as well." Madison smiled and took a big bite, humming in pleasure. "I really needed this," she said before taking another bite.

Ash gave a half-smile at the enjoyment on her lover's face. She separated the two halves of her sandwich, but didn't pick up either one. Then she rearranged the pickle and picked up her drink.

"Something wrong?" Madison asked, the look in her eyes watchful as well as concerned

"I feel so guilty about how I treated Latasha ," Ash said quietly, focusing on a space over Madison's right shoulder. "I was so hard on her, but now that I've dealt with her mother...well, I see things a lot differently. I wish I had been more understanding and less critical." Ash pulled on her straw, continuing to look anywhere but at Madison's face.

"Hind sight is always easier, honey." Madison placed a hand on Ash's arm. "The important thing now is that you're helping to do something that she can't do anymore."

Ash looked up inquiringly. "What do you mean?"

"You're helping to take care of her children and keep them away from Marilyn. I think she would look on that favorably."

"I hadn't thought of it that way." Ash nodded her head slowly as the knot in her stomach loosened.

"Think about it, you've put your life on hold to a certain extent."

"I do have a lot of help with that." Ash hung her head, embarrassed by the praise. "And I didn't do it for her, I did it for Laura."

"Initially you probably did, but you can't tell me that all you do for Keshawn and DeMarcus is because of Laura."

Ash squirmed in her seat. "Well...no. Okay, so maybe in some infinitesimal way I've made up for my treatment of Latasha. But why doesn't the light bulb ever go off before the end?" she whined.

"I don't know," Madison said with a smile for the big kid sitting across from her. What I do know is regardless of her death, Latasha was still not the best of mothers and some of your derision was deserved. Madison looked at Ash, hoping that none of her thoughts showed in her expression. She changed the subject by asking Ash's opinion about her almost forgotten cop story.

They were walking back to Madison's office when Ash's cell phone rang. She pulled it from her pocket and flipped it open, grimacing when she read the caller ID. "Hello." Please don't let this be bad news.

"I just wanted you to know Latasha's ex turned himself in about twenty minutes ago," Laura said without preamble. "So the media circus is back."

She smoothed back her hair and frowned. "Where are the boys now?"

"Mom took them to your place. Cedric thinks we should release a statement and ask them to leave the boys out of it."

"You sound tired, sis. Madison and I just finished lunch, so why don't I come to the hospital and relieve you? I'll be more than happy to share a few words with those reporters."

"Now that sounds like a really bad idea, sis. I'd like to keep our relationship quiet or next thing you know, they'll be showing up on your doorstep."

"Okay, I promise not to talk to the press, but I am coming to the hospital," she insisted, hating the constant strain her sister was under. "You can take my car home and get some rest while I keep that hunk of yours company. Then you can come back to the hospital later, all revitalized and sexy."

"I don't know if I'll be revitalized or sexy, but I will take you up on your offer. I've just felt so tired the last couple of days," she added softly, ensuring her that husband wouldn't hear.

"I'll be there in twenty minutes. And let Mama know she's getting the boot as well."

"Oh, no, you have to deliver those orders yourself." Laura gave a tired laugh. "Thanks, and just to be on the safe side, park in the back."

"Will do," Ash agreed and turned off her phone. She slipped it back in her pocket before turning to her concerned-looking lover.

"Is everything okay?"

"Yeah. Laura called to let me know that they caught that piece of shit today. I wish I could have five minutes alone with that worthless scum." She clenched her hands into fists and her eyes glittered with something dangerous.

"He's not worth it." Madison put a hand on Ash's back. "Punishing him yourself won't solve anything. Let the courts take care of him."

"My head knows you're right, but my heart wants to kick the shit out of him for what he did to my family," Ash said, pointing to her chest to emphasize her point. "He didn't think about anybody but himself when he decided to confront Latasha. Did he care that his child was in the house when he pulled out a gun?" she railed, tears running down her cheeks. "No! Why should he when he never gave a damn about DeMarcus."

"Oh, honey." Madison pulled Ash into her arms and rubbed her back. "I am so sorry, sweetie."

Ash took a shuddering breath, accepting the comfort of her lover's arms. I'm losing it here. "I didn't know I was so mad," she whispered, wondering what Madison must think of her outburst.

"It's okay to be angry. Hell, I'm angry. You've been too busy dealing with more important matters to waste your time thinking about him. So get as angry as you want but just don't hold it inside. I did that for years and it never got me anywhere."

"Some lunch date I am, huh? I bet you didn't realize a temper tantrum was on the menu."

Madison looked into her lover's eyes. "Your little show of temper is not going to drive me away. I love knowing you feel comfortable showing me all your emotions."

Ash smiled and wiped her cheeks. "Thanks. I love you, Madison. And I love the way you make me feel."

Madison laughed with joy. "There you go again, Patterson, trying to get those brownie points. I love you, too. Now go get on your charger and rescue Laura."

Ash put her hands on her hips and faked a pout. "There you go being bossy again, Norman. Don't you know that I'm the boss in this relationship?"

"Whatever you say, dear." Madison smiled sweetly and winked.





Chapter Thirty

A puffy-eyed Madison sat on the back deck of Laura's house with an equally puffy-eyed DeMarcus in her lap. They were both dressed in black, in deference to Latasha. Madison had her arms around the boy's, waist and he had his head resting against her chest. They were outside because Marilyn was inside. Even though the older woman had made no attempt to interact with her grandson, DeMarcus had begged Madison to accompany him outside.

"Madison, is heaven a good place?"

"Yes it is. I know your mom is very happy there because even if she can't be with you, she can look down and see you."

"But she can't come back. I want her to," he said, his bottom lip quivering.

"I know you do, sweetie." Madison dropped a kiss on his head. "She can't come back, but she knows your Aunt Laura and your Uncle Cedric will take good care of you and Keshawn for her."

"And Nan and Granny and Aunt Ash?"

"Yeah, them, too." Madison smiled and nodded her head.

"And you?" he asked, snuggling closer.

"And especially me." She gave him a squeeze, amazed that this kid had gotten to her so thoroughly. "See your mama loved you so much, she made sure there would be a lot of grownups to take care of you guys."

"So this is where you're hiding," Ash said, walking onto the deck. "How's it going?" she asked as she sat down next to them.

"My mama loveded me a whole lot," DeMarcus said proudly.

"She sure did, kiddo." Ash reached over, and ruffled the dark curls on top of his head. "I just wanted to let you know that most of the guests have left," she said with a pointed look in Madison's direction.

Madison nodded her head. "Maybe we should go inside and get some food, DeMarcus. My stomach is feeling pretty empty."

He turned around and looked up at her. "I can have macaroni and cheese and cake?"

"Only if you eat some green beans as well."

"Okay," he agreed, slipping off her lap. "You come too, Aunt Ash," he added offhand.

Ash stood up and stretched, causing her black silk blouse to separate from her pants, allowing Madison a glimpse of taut flesh.

Don't even think it! Madison admonished herself, and took the hand that DeMarcus proffered. With the three of them holding hands, they walked into the house where as Ash had promised, only a few non-family members remained.

Everyone, save for Cedric, was in the formal living room that never saw much use. Ash explained that Laura insisted he rest once they returned to their home after the service.

"I see someone who should have joined him," Madison whispered, taking in the sleeping woman curled up in a corner of the sofa.

"Too stubborn for her own good."

DeMarcus ran to Keshawn, who was sitting in one of his favorite spots--Jan's lap. "Madison said Mama loved us a lot and left family for us. Uncle Cedric, Aunt Laura, Nan, Granny, Aunt Ash and Madison," he rattled off, full of self-importance.

"I knew that," Keshawn said, not wanting his little brother to think he didn't know everything.

"Oh." DeMarcus looked deflated. He walked over to where his other grandmother was sitting. "I can have food now, Granny? Me and Madison is hungry."

Sandra smiled and stood up. "Well if Madison is hungry, we better find her some food before her stomach wakes Laura up," she teased the young woman who was now an integral part of the family.

"I'm not that bad." Madison stuck out her bottom lip and tried to look pitiful.

"Sure you are," Jan and Ash said simultaneously.

Madison covered her face with her hands. "Jeez," she mumbled, "your stomach makes a little noise, and people blow it all out of proportion."

"What's a pro por ton?" DeMarcus asked, scrunching up his face. "I don't hafta eat that, do I?"

Madison laughed and hugged the very lovable youngster. "Not today."

"Good," he declared with such satisfaction the other adults laughed along with Madison.



Madison slipped into bed and rested her head on Ash's chest. She had been quiet since they left Laura's house. She swallowed, struggling to find the right words.

"What is it?" Ash maneuvered their bodies until she could look down into hazel eyes. "Spill it, Madison."

"How can you read me so well, already? That's not fair."

"You do the same to me, and you are evading the question. Don't you know yet that you can ask me anything?" she asked, gently stroking Madison's cheek.

Madison nodded. "It's about the DeMarcus," she relented, undone by the loving touch. "He was too scared to be in the room with Marilyn, even with all of us to protect him. I know it's none of my business, but--"

"It is your business. Just tell me, sweetie."

"I think he could use some extra help, like counseling," she said and held her breath, prepared to be shot down.

"You're probably right. When I came out on the deck and saw how she still affects him, I wanted to cry," Ash said, feeling the sting of tears behind her eyelids. "He needs more help than we can give him. I'll talk to Laura and Cedric tomorrow. I already found out what can happen when you don't speak up."

"I don't think it would have made a difference. Latasha didn't share all her problems, and she made sure the kids didn't either."

"You're so smart, babe. I guess that's why you're a doctor."

"You're absolutely right," Madison agreed with a superior smile. "Now is there any other family business that I can meddle in?"

"Anything you want." Ash turned on her back and put her hands behind her head. "The only thing I'm wondering now is how I ever lived without you in my life," she said with a wondrous smile.

"Too bad we're not on the sofa, cause I feel a definite need for a session of sofa ravishment. I guess I'll just have to work with the tools at hand." She swooped in and took possession of Ash's mouth, her body and her heart.

Madison smiled, taking in the glow on her lover's face. "I love you," she said, kissing her way up Ash's body. "I want you to always remember that."

"I love you, Madison Norman." Ash pulled her willing partner into her arms. "I could stay like this for eternity," she whispered against Madison's throat and closed her eyes.

"Me too," Madison said, caught between wakefulness and sleep.

"Good, 'cause I'm not letting you go." She turned her head to kiss Madison's temple. "You're stuck, Norman."

"I wouldn't want it any other way, Patterson," she asserted. Closing her eyes, she gave a contented sigh. "I'm never getting over you," she promised softly.

The End

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