Twilight by Kim Pritekel

Twilight
by Kim Pritekel

 

Prologue

 

The world was one big swirl, mixing with the cool breezy night. Christine stepped out of the rental that she’d parked smack in the middle of the rickety old bridge. She had no idea that bridges like this even existed anymore. Certainly not in L.A.

The boards creaked under her booted feet, her unsteady body reeling as the chemicals raced through her blood stream, slamming every nerve ending she had alive as it passed. Her vision was blurred, the rail she was nearing seeming so far away, her hand reaching out, trying to bring it back.

The brunette nearly fell as the rail hit her mid-section, knocking her off balance. She giggled to herself, thinking of those warning signs on mirrors- Warning: Objects may seem closer than they appear.

Grabbing onto it, she steadied herself, looking over it, down into the murky depths of the river, which river? Hell, she couldn’t remember. All she knew was it was some river in the podung town she’d found herself in.

Raising a leather-clad leg, Christine rested her boot against a rung of the railing, grunting slightly as she pushed with her thigh, her other boot finding the top rung of the railing. She cursed at the splinter that lodged in her hand as she grabbed the nearest support pole, a dangling light attacked to it swinging back and forth as she disturbed it with her head.

“Fucker!” Christine slurred, bringing a hand to her head, then grabbing the pole with both hands as she began to lose her balance again.

Steadying herself, she once again looked down into the water, midnight black in the near moonless night. The swinging lantern cast eerie shadows on everything, shadows dancing across the wood planks of the bridge, shadows dancing across Christine’s features.

She felt a sting behind her eyes, and shook her head to try and get rid of it. She was also trying to shake the memories that were beginning to flood back in, her high wearing off, the numbness wearing off. She was starting to be able to think, and she didn’t want to think, feel, remember.

The crowd, huge and loud, demanding, wanting every part of her that they could get, or could take. The band behind her, playing, exchanging glances with each other as Christine had stood there, microphone between her hands, forehead resting against the silver head. She had missed her cue twice over, and she didn’t care. She couldn’t remember the words, her mind and focus stolen from the good hit she’d taken in her dressing room.

“What the fuck is the problem?” the lead guitarist, Joey, had asked, after he’d made a stroll up to the lead singer, playing the entire time.

This snapped Christine out of her stooper for a moment. She grinned at him, telling him it was all good, and then turned to her audience, not seeing any of them, not one single face.

A disaster. A total, fucking disaster. Christine felt the sting worsen, and then wetness on her cheek, chilled by the breeze.

Her eyes refocused on the water below, so inviting, so calming in its chaos. She felt the weightlessness as one boot left the security of the railing, and she leaned further over, seeing her leg dangling above the churning river. Leaning further, further, further. Her last thought was that she had gotten another splinter in her palm as she let go.

****

Frizzy synthetic red hair brushed across the ceiling of the Dodge Ram. A pale hand slammed against the steering wheel in time with the beat of the music on the radio, ridiculously pale face, streaked with color, bobbed to the beat of the gloved-hand, flopping that frizzy red hair around like a huge bush.

“Yeah, sing it, Christina!” Willow sang out, painted green eyes closing for just a moment before opening up again, only to squint with her raucous laughter. She wasn’t exceptionally keen on Christina Aguilar’s attitudes or public persona, but the girl could sing.

She loved the high she got after doing her gigs on the side. All the energy from the little rascals at the birthday party seemed to flow into her, giving her a natural high like nothing else. Even her job as a nurse on the children’s ward couldn’t affect her the way the parties did.

She reached down to the volume knob and cranked the sucker, laughing at herself as she sang, quite horribly, along with the next song that came on, which made it worse, because she had absolutely no idea what the words were.

Life was good for Willow Bowman as she headed out of the small town of Williamsburg, Oklahoma, which wasn’t terribly far from Oklahoma City, and headed further out toward her small ranch just outside.

Voice giving out finally, probably God’s way of telling Willow to shut it, she continued to bob her head and beat the steering wheel along with the music.

Heading around Dittman’s Curve, she approached the bridge named after Ronald Dittman, some old guy who’d done something or other for the town a hundred years ago. What Dittman really needed to do was fix his bridge.

As she neared it, she noticed a car parked smack dab in the middle of it, lights off, looking quite abandoned.

“Shoot,” she muttered, as the bridge was only one laned, and the only way to get to her ranch. Eyes still on the bridge, Willow blindly reached across the console until she felt the passenger seat, then her phone.

Movement caught Willow’s eye, and she looked to the rail of the bridge.

“Oh my god!” Pulling the truck to a stop, she dropped the phone, the engine running, door swinging open as she ran to the rail. A huge splash in the dark depths. Without another thought, Willow climbed up where she had seen the dark figure only seconds before they jumped, and followed suit.

The water was freezing, chilling every part of her, stabbing at her like thousands of tiny knives. It took her a moment to get her bearings, then she began to thrash around in the near complete darkness, using her hands to feel frantically.

****

It was cold, but she figured it would be. She allowed that cold to embrace her, swallow her. Christine was angry for a moment as her body’s natural survival instincts made her hold her breath, her body far more willing to survive than Christine’s heart.

The weightless sinking, further into the dark depths, her brain still hazed enough to see it as a comforting cocoon, swarming around her body, ending the demons that lurked above the surface of the water.

She felt the numbness begin to overcome her again, that lack of feeling, ability to feel, inside or out. She welcomed it, prayed for it, wanted it.

Christine was brought from her reverie as she felt something grab her wrist. She began to thrash, horrid images swarming her mind, scenes from a child’s nightmare. She could hear the muffled sounds she made as she tried to escape the demon that had followed her into the depths, but it refused to let go.

The brunette took in a lungful of water as she tried to scream, then began to thrash anew as she tried to dispel it, only to take in more water.

Floating, floating, blackness, sinking, sinking, ….

Willow broke the surface, frizzy synthetic hair now covering one eye as she drug her find out of the water and to the banks of the river. The body was heavy, but the small woman was determined.

Heaving it to the rocky shore, she pushed the hair out of her face, seeing that it was a woman, who’s own face was half covered by long, dark hair. Not bothering to move it away, Willow jutted the woman’s jaw back, plugging her nose, and leaned down to blow hot, life-giving air into her open, chilled lips.

Sitting back up, she pressed on the woman’s tank top-clad torso, feeling the clock tick, the woman’s chances of survival speeding away with each second.

“Come on,” she panted as she went back to giving air. After several tries, Willow threw herself back, startled at the feel of water hitting her lips. She looked down, relief filling her as the woman coughed, which racked her entire body, throwing her halfway to her side as a stream of water was spewed to the sand beneath her. More coughing and spasms.

Willow sat back on her heels, waiting, watching, brows narrowed in deep concern. The woman calmed after a few moments, still coughing, but she was alive. She slowly rolled back onto her back, head turning, then she jumped back.

“Fuck!” Christine exclaimed, turning to see a monster sitting next to her- a mass of smashed red hair covering part of the face, which was streaked with white, black and blue. A slash of red extended from the lips down the chin and splotched the neck.

“Shh, it’s okay,” Willow said, realizing she must look a sight. She yanked off the wig, her slicked short, blonde hair turned a strange gray, green in the night. “Are you okay?” She asked, her voice soft as she put a hand to the woman’s arm.

Christine calmed, finding it funny that she’d been drug out of the river by a clown. She hated clowns. As a kid they used to creep her out. She nodded, trying to sit up, but found the hand that had been on her arm move to her shoulder.

“Just lie there. Can you breathe?” the woman asked, and Christine nodded, taking several deep breaths just to make sure. “Okay. Stay here.” The clown jumped up and ran, though the brunette couldn’t figure out how she was running with massive, red shoes on. As a strange thought, she figured they must have made great flippers to swim in.

This thought sent a giggle through Christine’s still fuzzy brain. Within moments she heard the rocks crunching under foot, and the low, soft voice of her savior coming back, having a one-sided conversation.

“Okay. Thanks, John. We’ll be here.” Willow flipped her phone shut and knelt down next to her companion again. The woman laid there, staring up at the sky, then closed her eyes, bringing an arm up to rest across them. Sighing, Willow couldn’t stop the questions from parading across her mind. Why had this woman done this? Was it suicide or an accident? Who was she? From the woman’s dress, black tank top with black leather pants and heavy boots, she doubted she was from the area. Also the car had a Hertz sticker on the back window.

She sat next to the woman, waiting for the Ambulance to arrive. She began to shiver, the chilled night breeze getting under her wet skin, seeping into the completely saturated material of her once baggy clown suit, which now clung to her like a second skin.

“Do you have a name, honey?” she asked quietly, reaching out to brush some of the hair from the woman’s face.

“It doesn’t matter.” The arm came down, and blue eyes looked into Willow’s briefly before turning away. Finally the woman sighed. “Christine,” she said quietly.

“Nice to meet you, Christine, though I’m sorry it has to be under these kind of circumstances.” Christine could see worry in the other woman’s eyes, and that surprised her. They were total strangers, why should she care? Shit, those in Christine’s life who knew her better than anyone on the planet didn’t care about her, or show the kind of concern this woman did.

“Yeah. And you, Bozo?”

Willow stared at her for a moment, mouth open to protest when she remembered her current get up. She chuckled lightly. “Willow Bowman.”

The brunette nodded in acknowledgement, then turned to look back up into the heavens, the sound of a siren not far away.

****

The lights of Mercy Medical’s ER nearly blinded Willow as she parked her truck in a parking spot, and hurried in after Toby and Allen, the two EMT’s.

The sound of chaotic activity surrounded the blonde as she pushed through the ER doors, hurrying along side the gurney where Christine had been strapped down.

“Why am I here?” the brunette asked, her head lulling from side to side, her skin pale, heavy, dark shadows underneath her closed eyes.

“Just to make sure everything checks out okay,” Willow said, holding the woman’s hand.

“I don’t need to be here,” she muttered, then began to cough violently, more water coming up. She’d had similar fits the entire way in the ambulance. As doctors and ER nurses emerged on the scene, Willow knew it was her cue to back off; it was no longer her patient.

She grabbed a cup of coffee and headed out into the waiting room of the ER, wanting to get out of the way. She told one of the nurses to notify her the moment they were done with Christine.

“Hey, girl, what are you doing here?” Rachel Smith asked, lightly touching the blonde’s arm as she sat in one of the black, plastic chairs against a wall.

“Hey,” she smiled, then sighed, “Guess I decided to go fishing at,” she looked at her watch, noting the hands weren’t moving, and a very menacing bubble was floating around the face. “Shoot,” she turned to her friend. “some late hour.” She leaned against the wall behind her, exhaustion finally taking root.

“What? What happened?” The nurse sat in the chair next to the blonde’s, hands clasped between her spread knees.

“Oh, you wouldn’t believe it.” Willow opened her mouth to speak, then noticed two men walking through the automatic doors of the lobby. One wore a black suit, a large, black leather satchel in his hand. The other was also dressed in finery, though more understated- a white button up shirt, sleeves rolled to the mid-forearm, the shirt tucked into expensive looking gray slacks.

The men immediately began to look around, one spotting Rachel in her scrubs. Walking over to her, the man with graying hair, yet young skin, smiled.

“Excuse me, nurse, but I need to find someone.” Dark brown eyes looked from one to the other of the women, his brows furrowing when he saw the destroyed clown makeup still smeared all over Willow’s face. This, of course, made her extremely self-conscious. In all the activity, she had forgotten all about her appearance.

“Who’s that?” Rachel asked, standing.

“Uh,” the man turned to the suit behind him, who handed him a piece of paper. “Willow Bowman?” the man said, raising a brow at Rachel. “I understand she’s a nurse at this hospital?”

“I’m Willow Bowman,” the blonde said, also standing. The man looked at her, doubt evident in his eyes. “It’s a long story,” she said softly. “What can I do for you, mister,”

“Robert Knowles.” He extended a hand, which she took, after removing her ruined white glove. “I need to speak with you concerning tonight’s events. I assume it’s why you look like a drowned rat?” His smile was tight-lipped, and she wasn’t so sure she liked this guy.

“Ah, yeah,” she looked down at herself, then back up at him. She found a white handkerchief being held out to her.

He turned back to Rachel. “Is there somewhere we can speak with Miss Bowman?”

“Sure. Follow me to the conference room.” Rachel looked at her friend, who only shrugged.

“Miss Bowman will join us once she’s cleaned up a bit.” Knowles said. Yeah, Willow didn’t like him.

****

She splashed water all along the white sink, rinsing off the last vestiges of makeup, then looked at herself in the mirror. Her face was freshly cleaned, though there wasn’t much she could do about her attire. She had unbuttoned the coverall-type clown suit, letting the top hang down, arms flapping around her legs. She was glad she’d worn a tank top underneath it.

Pushing open the doors of the conference room, Willow saw the two men, the suit standing over a laptop, a tiny printer buzzing away next to it, spitting out a single sheet of paper. Robert Knowles was sitting at the head of the table, fingers steepled under his chin, an expensive gold watch glittering against a tanned wrist and large, gold pinky ring on his right hand.

“Ah, Miss Bowman. Please, have a seat.” He indicated the chair to his left, and the blonde took it, glancing at the suit across the table from her, who had yet to speak.

“What’s going on?” she asked, looking back to Knowles, who sighed and sat forward in his chair, fingers clasping as he rested his hands on the table before him.

“Have you spoken with anyone about what happened tonight? Other than emergency personnel, of course.”

“No. Listen, Mr. Knowles,”

“Miss Bowman,” he interrupted, stunning the blonde into silence. She started as something was put before her by the suit. Looking at it, she realized it was a check. Green eyes flew up to meet dark brown.

“This is a check for twenty-five thousand dollars,” she said, her voice breathless and even more confused.

“And all yours if,” he held up a well manicured finger, “you do one simple thing for us,”

“Us? What, you and the suit?” she thumbed at the other man who was busy typing on the small keypad of the laptop. Robert Knowles chuckled, making Willow’s skin crawl.

“No. Jack is simply Miss Gray’s attorney. What you’ll be doing will be for her, me, and Miss Gray’s reputation.”

Willow stared at him, utterly baffled for a moment, words flowing through her head, trying to make sense of what he was telling her. Miss Gray, Christine.

“Holy shit!” Her eyes widened, hand going to her mouth. The men exchanged a glance, then Robert looked at her again. “I pulled Christine Gray out of Chandler River?” she breathed. He nodded. “As in won six Grammy’s last year?” He nodded once more.

“Perhaps now you see just how important it is that we get your full cooperation with this.” The paper from the printer was slid in front of the blonde. She looked down at it, realizing it looked like a contract of sorts.

“What is this?”

“It’s your promise that you’ll keep what happened tonight to yourself,” Robert said simply. She picked it up and began to scan over it.

“So,” Willow drawled, eyes still scanning over the document, “You’re saying I get the money if I keep my trap shut?”

“Miss Bowman, Christine has a great many fans that are young girls, girls who are in their teens, early twenties. These fans look up to her, emulate her. In her music they find inspiration for their own lives, as well as words they can relate to. These girls would be devastated to find out their hero, their role model has fallen from grace,”

Willow looked up at the man, the corner of her mouth quirking up at his spew of crap. “You play a good game, Mr. Knowles,” she chuckled. His brows drew in irritation.

“Then let me put it to you this way. If this got out, Christine would be finished. Better?” He sighed, flopping back in the chair, his hand going to his forehead. “Cleaning up this mess is going to cost her enough as it is.”

Willow turned back to the contract under her hand, then glanced over at the check. Instantly, as if the lawyer were reading her thoughts, a gold pen appeared before her. She picked it up, tapping it against her chin as she read over the document.

“I’ll sign your contract here, Mr. Knowles, but I don’t want your money.”

“The check stays here, Miss Bowman. Whether you chose to cash it or not is entirely up to you.” She nodded, scribbling her signature across the dotted line.

“This is a legal document, Miss Bowman,” the suit said, taking the pen and contract from her before the ink had a chance to dry. “If you were to breach it, Christine Gray can and will take legal action against you. Do you understand this?”

Willow nodded, sighing warily. “Yes.”

“Thank you,” Robert Knowles said, standing. “Good evening to you.” With amazing efficiency, the attorney had the laptop and printer packed up, and both men were on their way.

Willow glanced at the check, taking it in her fingers. “Holy crap,” she whispered. “I just saved the life of the woman who won the Grammy for best female vocalist of the year,”

****

The day outside was gray, the rain only stopped falling an hour ago. Blue eyes gazed out, noting that the sky didn’t look quite as pregnant as it had earlier.

Christine brought her knees up in the chair, pressing them against her chest and wrapping her arms around them. As she rested her chin on her knees, she sighed deeply. She felt strange, somehow changed beyond reconciliation to the person she was this time the day before.

A soul-altering choice, said the lady from the psych ward, who had administered a mental evaluation that morning. Christine guessed they wanted to see if she was crazy, or just really fucked up. She voted for both, and was craving a cigarette like nothing else.

So she’d finally tried it, finally reached the edge that she had been able to step back from time and time again. Christine shivered, realizing how close she’d come to succeeding. She also realized how close she was to not caring.

She flinched slightly at the sound of the key in the door to her room, but didn’t turn around. Her gaze was still fixed on the gray world outside her window, little metal criss-cross bars embedded into the glass.

There was quiet murmuring just outside the room, then footfalls, followed by the heavy sound of her door being closed and locked.

“Hello, Christine.”

“Bob,”

Her manager was silent as he took a seat on the bed behind her chair. The room was sparse at best. Simple bed, no rails, no bars, bolted down. The chair she sat in and a bathroom off to the side with a pedestal sink and toilet. Everything nice and snug, nothing she could harm herself with.

“Quite a mess you’ve gotten yourself into here,” he said, his voice quiet, tired.

“So it would seem.” She didn’t look at him, in truth, not wanting to see the disappointment she knew she’d find there.

“Everything’s been taken care of- hospital staff, doctors, ambulance drivers, the police, and the crazy little clown that fished you out.” He snickered. ‘Apparently she’s a nurse of some sort here.”

He looked at his client, studying the back of her head, dark hair hanging free. He knew it hung wildly around her face, giving her the feral look that her fans loved. He had to use will power to not reach out and touch it.

The silence grew heavy, Christine changing positions slightly, letting one foot slip to the floor, still holding the other leg tightly.

“Why’d you do it?” he finally asked, breaking the silence with the effect of a sledgehammer through glass.

“I don’t want to talk about it with you, Bob.” Christine’s voice was low, silently suggesting a change of topic. He didn’t bite.

“Christine, I’m your friend.”

“Friend?” She turned on him then, blue eyes blazing brilliantly, expensive white teeth bared. “No, I don’t think so. I’m no friend to you. I’m your meal ticket. Always have been,”

“Christine,”

“No!” she hissed. “If I meant anything to you, you never would have scheduled this tour. I told you I needed a break, that I was struggling. You knew,” she turned back to the window, hugging herself as she walked over to it, jaw muscles clenching.

“But the album,”

“Fuck the album. What about me?” she near whispered. “Not like what I thought or wanted has ever mattered. Should have fired your ass years ago.”

“You’d be nothing without me and you know it,” he spat. She looked at him over her shoulder.

“Maybe not. But I’d still have me.” Turning back to the window, shoulders falling. “Do something useful, Bob. Get me the fuck out of here.”
Part 1
Willow turned up the volume on her stereo, continuing to fold laundry as she listened to the impassioned lyrics of ‘Swan Song,’ the latest release by Christine Gray. The song was much slower than most of Gray’s strong, alternative style. This one was just a piano, a cello in the background, and Christine’s strong, but velvety voice.

Pair of unfolded socks still in hand, the blonde sat on the edge of the couch, closing her eyes as she listened to the words. Such sadness, emptiness. The song was filled with a longing for love and acceptance. It talked about how the world expected the singer’s very soul, yet gave nothing return, as money, after all, can’t buy happiness.

Willow was surprised to find that she had tears streaming down her cheeks, images of that night, more than a month ago, flashing before her mind’s eye.

She had been a nurse in the children’s ward for six years, and had experienced babies dying in her arms, but nothing she had seen before could prepare her for the profound way she would be affected by the soul shattering sadness she had seen in that woman’s blue eyes. The loneliness and desperation.

That was why she had stayed with her to the end, as long as she was allowed, She wanted Christine to know that she wasn’t alone, she had someone there who cared and would hold her hand through her pain.

After her meeting with Robert Knowels she had headed out to her truck, tucking the check into the glove compartment, not wanting to chance it getting ruined in her saturated pockets.

Shivering and soul tired, that’s what the nurses called it at the hospital when one of them had been so drastically affected by something at work, she had headed to the female employee locker room. Glad to find a pair of scrubs in the her locker that weren’t too smelly, she’d hurried into the shower room, stripping out of her pasted on clothing and had stepped under the warm, calming spray.

She felt her skin warming, but her heart was still like ice. She kept seeing Christine’s face as she lay there on the banks, so vulnerable, death hovering in the air.

She couldn’t reconcile in her own mind the face of the woman she’d seen that night with the woman she’d seen on television and on CD and magazine covers. What had caused someone like that, the world at her feet, money and fame in abundance, to do something so drastic?

She wondered if the toxicology reports would tell them anything. The look in the woman’s eyes had been dazed and fuzzy, eyes very dilated, which the near-drowning could only partially explain. She had a hunch there was more to it.

Willow stepped out of the small stall, pushing the curtain aside. Grabbing a towel, she quickly dried herself and slipped into the scrubs. She had no shoes and eyed the big red ones.

Opting to not look like Patch Adams, she stuck some surgical booties on her feet, and headed out to get some information.

The air in the ER was cool and sterilized, as every ER that Willow had been in or worked at, was. She saw Dr. Samms making some notes on a chart and hurried over to him.

“How is she, Brad?”

The large man looked down at the nurse, seeing the worry in her beautiful green eyes. If only she weren’t married. He closed the chart, tucking it into a plastic chart box mounted to the wall above the nurses station.

“She’s okay. Nothing major sustained though her blood stream was having one hell of a party in there.” He sighed, crossed muscular arms over a broad chest. He and Willow often worked out together in the hospital’s gym. It was a great way to stay in shape and ease the tensions of their respective jobs.

Willow nodded, biting her lip. “I was afraid of that. Can I see her?”

“Sure. She’s in three resting.”

“Thanks, bud.” Squeezing his bicep, she hurried down the hall that would lead her past the other cubicles, some with closed curtain, some empty and ready to be used. At three, the curtain was pulled, the beeping of machinery behind it could be heard.

Gently pushing the curtain aside, she slipped around it, looking around the dim space. The lights above Christine’s gurney had been turned off, only a circle of light breaching around the top of the curtain. Red, green and blue lights shone in the dim.

Willow’s eyes quickly adjusted, and she focused on the form tucked under a thin, white blanket, arms out, a hospital band wrapped around one wrist, an IV taped to the back of her hand.

The blonde looked down at the closed eyes, long, dark lashes, face at peace in slumber. She studied the face, high, sharp cheekbones, and a prominent jaw. The skin was very pale, blue veins visible from beneath the skin.

Christine’s hair looked so dark, black, against the paleness of the skin and the white bedding beneath her. A few wisps rested against the singer’s face. Gently, Willow tucked the strands back behind an ear.

Reaching behind her, the blonde found the chair she knew was there, and scooted it forward until she was able to sit. Taking Christine’s hand within her own, she felt the warm skin, relieved beyond belief that it was in fact warm, and not the cold, stiff skin it had been at the river.

Sighing softly, Willow lowered her head, her exhaustion reaching her eyes, making the heavy and burn.

Christine could sense someone was with her, then as the haze lessoned, she realized that the someone was holding her hand. Eyes slowly fluttering open, she turned, her head pounding, making her close her eyes for a moment before opening them to focus on the figured slouched over in a chair next to her bed.

Short blonde hair, light blue scrubs. Who was this? A nurse from the ER? A doctor, maybe? Her gaze fell to their joined hands, the hand in her own tanned against her own pale skin, the nails trimmed neatly, well taken care of. A small hand, no, petit. Looked like all of her was petite- narrow shoulders and fine features.

The face.

Christine concentrated on the face, much of it hidden by the angle in which the woman slouched. Dark blonde brows, a slight crease between the closed eyes. The woman looked as though even in slumber she was worrying something.

A very gentle face, lips lightly brushing against one another, the blonde hair slightly covering the tops of small ears.

As she drifted off to sleep again, she wondered who her visitor was.

****

Willow woke with a start, eyes popping open to see Rachel smiling down at her. Realty coming back to the blonde, she sat up, looking around. Her gaze moved to the woman in the bed, realizing their hands were still linked. She was, however, surprised to see that the position of their hands had changed, Christine’s fingers curled around her own.

Rachel said nothing, turning away to give her friend some privacy. She knew how compassionate Willow was, all too often taking the pain and fear of her patients onto her own shoulders. It always worried the ER nurse. Willow was one of the best nurses at Mercy, and she didn’t want to see the young blonde burn out, especially with how stressful their job could be.

Willow gently pulled her hand free of the brunette’s, laying the larger hand on the bed beside the other woman. Pulling the sheet up to tuck her in, Willow turned to her friend, nodding toward the partially open curtain.

Once out of the cubicle, she led her friend away so they could talk without disturbing Christine.

“You should go home, Willow. It’s late and Kevin’s going to be worried.”

“Oh, crap,” The blonde ran a hand through her hair, her eyes even more heavy than before. “I need to get home. Call me if anything changes, okay?” she asked her friend, who nodded and patted her shoulder.

“I will. No get to bed.”

The drive home was long, and as Willow drove across the Dittman Bridge, she felt a shiver pass through her, green eyes automatically were drawn to the spot where Christine had jumped, and a wave of sadness washed over her.

Taking several deep breaths, she forced her eyes straight ahead, driving the last ten miles to her ranch.

“Mmm, must have been some party,” Kevin rolled over, pulling his wife against his naked body, still half asleep.

“Had an emergency at the hospital,” Willow murmured, settling her tired body against the soft mattress.

“Everything okay?” Willow’s husband sounded a bit more awake, though his eyes were still closed.

“Mm hmm. Talk tomorrow,” the blonde slurred, already asleep. It had been a long day.
Part 2
Knowing fingers moved across the keys, blue eyes closed, body swaying with the music she was creating.

Christine had written more music in the past two months than she had in two years. Brows drawing as the emotion passed through her, filling her with a peace that only music could give her, the creation and execution of it, giving her a sense of control that she didn’t have anywhere else in her life.

During her stay at Promises, she’d started having the dreams again, and remembering things she thought long dead. Demons of her past, some self-invoked, others thrust upon her, haunting her and dogging her nocturnal steps.

Her therapist at the exclusive rehab told her that now that her body and mind was free of the poisons she’d been feeding it, it left the gates wide open for her to face whatever was causing her to run in the first place.

Therein lies the problem; she didn’t want to face the ghosts.

Christine stroked the ivories with a lover’s caress. Music was the only thing she’d ever had that hadn’t betrayed or demanded from her. Music gave itself willingly to her, allowing her to bring forth into the world freely and willingly, never asking questions or wanting answers. It just was. Through music Christine could tell a story, share a part of herself without the vulnerability that a similar conversation would have.

No one knew the real her, and that was what she wanted. She had always been so grateful that when Bob had found her in that shit hole bar in Queens that she’d been doing her own stuff. She had been smart enough at fourteen to make sure he knew she would only do her own stuff, and that any covers he wanted her to do, he could shove up his ass.

That’s basically where her creative freedom had stopped.

If she were to play the piece she played now for Bob, he’d laugh then tell her to burn it; it had no place in his show.

Christine didn’t want to think about all of that. Those thoughts dogged her days as it was. Right now all she wanted to do was lose herself in her music and forget about all the things that were wrong in her life. That was part of the problem. She’d started to allow everything to weigh so heavily upon her shoulders, not dealing with any of it, that it had started to overwhelm and then finally control her.

Her counselor said that was why she’d turned to drugs. She wanted to numb herself to the internal turmoil and pain.

Christine snorted softly at the truth of those words. Music was becoming her new drug. One addiction for another. Her creative juices had started to churn within her soul, demanding to be let out. The singer was happy to oblige.

Her fingers came to a stand still as a knock sounded on the outer door to her suite.

“Come in!” she called, pushing the bench back and standing, carefully closing the lid of the baby grand as the door opened, then swiftly closed. “Good afternoon, Margaret.”

“Hello, Christine. Were you practicing?” the older woman asked, arranging her bulk on the couch that faced its twin, where Christine seated herself.

“Composing, actually.” The singer ran her arm along the length of the back of the couch, her head slightly tilted as she studied the brunette sitting across from her.

Margaret Olson looked at the white Baldwin, then to her patient. “I see no music.” Christine tapped her temple.

“All up here.” The singer smiled.

“Ah. If only I had one-tenth of your talent,” the counselor said with a sigh, Christine chuckling. “Alright,” getting down to business, the older woman opened a manila folder, searching through some papers as she spoke. “Last time you talked about the dreams that were coming back,” she glanced up at Christine, then gazed back down at her notes from their previous session. “Have you had any more since last week?”

Christine blew out a breath, glancing out the French doors, which overlooked the beautifully manicured grounds of the posh rehab center. “Yes.”

“When was this?” Margaret clicked her pen, which was poised over a clean sheet of legal pad paper.

“Sunday night,” Christine said, her voice quiet, almost fearful. The counselor waited for her patient to continue, as she had come to learn she would in time. Her own time. As the singer began to speak, her voice remained quiet, almost a haunted tone. “The alley again,”

“Tell me about that alley, Christine,”

****

It’s dark, the best time to be up and about. That’s when it’s easiest to score a little extra money. I hated to do it, but if I learned anything from those bastards who fucked and gave birth to me, you did what you had to do.

With a sigh, I headed down the dark streets of Queens, New York. It amazed me what a shit place this was considering it’s named after royalty, or some such shit. Royal my ass. Well, royal pain in the ass, maybe. Speaking of, mine sure hurt.

Guy from the night before; what the fuck had I been thinking, letting him shove his dick up there? Jesus, and people get off on that shit? Oh well. He’d given me dinner for the next week from that. Backdoor man, that’s what Adam called those guys.

I really needed to get a gig, and soon. This street shit was for the birds. Damn, it’s cold. I wrapped my arms around myself, then quickly drop them. Dude needs to see what he’s buying.

The streets were slow, a few cars passing now and then, and I was beginning to get impatient. The boots I wore, fake leather and extremely shiny, reached to my knees, my thighs bare to just below my ass, where the mini I wore ended. God, I hate dresses. My legs felt like they were about to get frost bite. Luckily this piece of shit outfit came with a little Jacket. My tits may have been cold, nipples like rocks, but my arms were relatively warm.

Ohhhh, a car! Dark in color, the headlights nearly blind me as it pulls to the curb, squeaking to a stop next to me. The window rolled down with a mechanized buzz.

Walking over to the small sedan, I leaned down, making sure plenty of my size D’s could be seen in the low cut shirt.

“Hey, sugar,” looking in, I see a man, big surprise. His hair is short, kind of choppy, like his barber went a little nuts with the scissors. The thing that really catches my eye is his left cheek, all pock marked. It kind of reminded me of that actor guy from that movie, ‘Stand and Deliver’.

“How much, sweetheart?” he asked, his voice surprisingly high-pitched.

“Well, that’s all up to you. What’s on your mind?” I grinned, cocking an eyebrow. God he made my skin crawl.

“Stand back a little, honey, so I can get a look at you,” he said, leaning slightly over the passenger seat. Standing upright, I hold my arms out, turning in a small circle, eyes never leaving his. Turning back to face the car, hand on hip. His face was buried in shadow, but I thought I could hear a small moan coming from the car. It took everything in me to not vomit on his front tire. “Get in,” he said, his voice taking on an unmistakably aroused tone.

Stepping to the car again, I noticed the tenting action going on in his trousers. Rolling my eyes, I took a deep breath, hand on the cool metal of the handle.

“Christine!”

I jumped, startled almost out of my skin. Glaring at my friend, Adam, telling him with my eyes that he better have a very good fucking reason for interrupting me.

Adam reached me, grabbing my hand and yanking me away.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I hissed.

“I don’t trust this, Chris,” he whispers, keeping an eye on the guy who my back is to. “This car looks like the one that Chantal drove off in before she disappeared.” His dark eyes met mine, pleading with me. I sighed, not happy about this. Don’t get me wrong, I was not looking forward to porking the dude, but I need the damn money. I knew my best friend would never steer me wrong.

“Fine.” Turning back to the guy who had to be blue ballin’ by now, I grinned sexily. “Sorry, but there’s been a change in plans.”

To my shock, he nearly drove over my foot, slamming the car in gear and screeching into the night.

“I’m so sorry, Chris, but I just had a really bad feeling about that guy,” Adam said, his hand resting on my shoulder. Shrugging it off, I turned and started walking away. “Chris! Come on,” I heard him running up behind me, but being the stubborn ass that I am, I didn’t stop. All I could think about was I was going to use the money to add to my savings for my guitar.

It wasn’t two days later when I was back on the street and a familiar silver car pulled up to the curb. This time, though, it was the light of day, and I could wear my pair of jeans. Man, it feels so good not to have my ass or tits hanging out.

“Hey, kid,” a deep voice calls out as the silver car drives slowly along with my steps. I look over at the man behind the wheel, the familiar gesture of his fingers caressing the hair that connected his mustache to his goatee.

“Wanna date, stud?” I call out, winking and walking over to him. He pulls the car to a stop and rolls his eyes.

“Dream on, Christine.”

“I’m dreaming, sugar.” Leaning down to his window, I lift my sunglasses and put them on my head. “What’s up?”

“Working on a case. You seen this guy?” Det. Harmon hands me a picture and my brows furrow in thought. Looking over him, seeing dark eyes, dead, dark eyes. He’s not smiling, like it’s a mug shot photo or something. He’s a white guy, dark hair, long and messy, bits of gray in his eyebrows, which are thick and heavy over those dead, dark eyes.

“Nah, haven’t seen ‘im,” I’m about to hand the picture back when I look at it again. “Shit,” I whistle between my teeth. The left side of his face is all scarred up, just like that actor guy.

“What’s up, Christine? You’ve seen him, haven’t you?” I nod, suddenly feeling sick to my stomach. My eyes meet the detective’s.

“He killed Chantal, didn’t he?”

“Who says he killed anybody?” The detectives’ blue eyes look into mine, like he’s looking through me.

“Come on, Mike. You’re homicide.” I wave the picture around. He smiles, nodding as he taps the steering wheel with his thumb.

“You know I can’t tell you anything, kid. You seen him or not?”

“Yeah, I seen ‘im. Just a few nights ago.”

“You telling me the truth, Christine? This is serious shit. Don’t play with me.” He leans his arm out the car, letting it dangle over the edge, hand lightly tapping the driver’s side door.

“Don’t worry, Mikey,” I hand the picture back with a smirk. “You’re too cheap for me to play with.” He threw his head back and laughed, waggling his finger at me.

“Careful, kid, or I’ll send vice after you.”

Holding my hand up, I held it, palm to the ground. “See this, detective?” he glanced at my steady hand. “Controlled fear.”

He chuckled. “Alright, alright. What’cha got for me?”

“Well,” I look out at the street, almost like I think that bastard is going to pull at the curb, or something. “He tried to pick me up. I almost went with him. My buddy recognized his car from the one Chantal got into the night she went missing.”

“Why don’t you come downtown and tell me this, Christine?” he offers, hitching his thumb at the backseat of his car. I shake my head.

“Not happening, Mike. I got things to do today.”

He sighs, also looking out over the streets. “Okay.” Grabbing a pad of paper, he wrote down what I told him, then looks at me expectantly.

“What? What more you want?”

“What type of car was it? What was he wearing? Did you notice anything new about him? Hair style? Color? Eye color? Tattoos?”

“Whoa, dude. I didn’t blow him right there, ya know. I never got into his car.” For some reason I feel the need to tell him I didn’t go through with it. Mike Harmon was the only guy with a good job I knew who didn’t treat me like the trash I am.

“Alright. Start slow. Kind of car? Color and make,” his pen was poised over the pad.

“I don’t know what kind of car, but it was a sedan, a small one. It was a dark color, blue or black, I think.”

“Okay,” he scribbles in absolutely unreadable writing. “Hair? Color and style?”

“Dark and really short. The dude looked like someone had gone to his head with pruning shears or something,” I laughed at the memory. “He looked like a dumb ass.” Mike chuckled. I close my eyes for a second, trying to think of anything else that caught my eye about the guy or his car. “He had on dark clothes, but I noticed he wore a Chicago Bears shirt.”

“Okay, good, good. Why didn’t you go with him?” he was eyeing me and I shrugged.

“I was going to. Like I said, my buddy recognized his car and stopped me. He owes me big, too.”

“He probably saved your life, kid.”

“Maybe.” I shrug, not figuring that’s a huge save.

“Well, if you or your friend remember anything else, give me a call.” He hands me a business card. Not bother to look at it, I tuck it into the back pocket of my jeans. “Here, kid. Get yourself some lunch.”

Stunned, I take the five dollar bill, also tucking it into my pocket.

“Take care of yourself, Christine.” He starts his car, and with a final wave, drives off. I watch him go, then hurry toward the McDonald’s on the corner, my mouth already watering.

****

“These dreams are pretty vivid,” Margaret said, her voice quiet, subtle. Christine nodded.

“Yes, they are.” The singer sighed, running her hands through her hair, leaving it in disarray. The counselor was quiet for a moment, studying her patient, who hadn’t looked at her during the entire telling of her story.

“How did you feel about that? The fact that you may have been his next victim?” Christine looked at the woman for a moment, not sure what to say to the kind, knowing smile she saw. She turned away again.

“I don’t know that I would have cared. There wasn’t much to save, you know?” Christine leaned back into the soft cushions, hands tucked behind her head and her eyes on the older woman.

“Did they catch him?”

“Yeah,” she snorted. “But not before the bastard nabbed three more girls.”

“Did you know the girls?”

Christine was quiet for a moment, her mind reeling back, then slowly she nodded.

“And what about your friend? Adam, was it?”

The singer couldn’t keep the smile off her face. “He’s fine.”

“Present tense? You keep in contact with him, then?”

“Oh, yeah,” she turned that brilliant smile to Margaret. “He’s my boy, my kind of people.”

“And what kind of people is that?” Margaret asked, putting her pad of paper aside and crossing her legs. She studied the woman in front of her. Such a lovely girl.

Christine smiled, looking down at her lap. “I’d rather not talk about that,”

“Alright. You look good, Christine. You’ve put on some weight. I must say, a woman of your height, what, five ten? should not weigh one hundred and thirteen pounds.” Margaret couldn’t help it as the mother in her came out. Watching her own daughter go through a terrible struggle with anorexia was a difficult thing to watch.

“Yes, well it’s hard to keep the weight on when four lines of coke is dinner for three days and nights at a time.”

The counselor smiled, though it was sad. “How do you feel?”

“How do I feel, good question.” Bringing her hands out from behind her head, Christine stood, walking over to the French doors and looking out. A few fellow residents were strolling around the grounds, talking with each other or alone. Sitting on a stone bench she recognized a fellow musician that she was stunned to see at Promises. “Interesting,” she muttered.

“What was that?”

“Huh?” Realizing she’d been asked a question, the singer turned from the doors and walked back to the couch. “I feel okay, I guess. Very worn out.”

“What are your plans once you leave here? You’re to be released in what, three weeks?”

“So they tell me.”

“Do you feel you’re ready?”

The singer studied the older woman, taking in her caring features, concerned eyes and motherly bulk, and felt something she hadn’t felt in many, many years- she wanted a hug.

Shaking that thought out of her mind, she shrugged. “To be honest, Margaret, I don’t know a damn thing anymore. I’m void of all thought and understanding of myself.”

“What does that make you want to do? How do you want to deal with that?” Margaret’s soft voice made the singer smile. She knew what she was getting at.

“Don’t worry, Margaret,” she said quietly, smiling at the counselor. “I think I’ve learned my lesson.”

“In what way?” Margaret uncrossed her legs, straightening the skirt of her dress, then re-crossing them.

“I could have hurt another person this time,” Christine whispered.

“The nurse?”

“The nurse.” Christine dropped her head, shame filling her.

“What about your fans? How do you feel about them? The last concert …” Margaret’s voice trailed off, seeing the hurt and uncertainty in the piercing blue eyes, made electric by unshed emotion. If only Christine would allow herself to cry, to release her pain.

“They’ll come back,” the singer said, her voice so low the older woman almost missed it. “They always do. Bob will make sure of that.”

****

“You about done with my air compressor, there, Kevin?”

Willow’s head shot up from the fence she was working on. Her husband, wiping his forehead with his hat, headed on over to Richard Dean, their closest neighbor at three miles.

“Hey there, Dick. Yeah, sorry about that. Come on into the garage. I’ll get it for you.” The sandy-haired man said, patting the old man’s back.

The blonde smiled as she turned back to her work. She had been telling Kevin for months to get the thing back to Dick, but it wasn’t as if he listened. Stubborn male. She had no idea what he’d even been using the thing for in the first place.

“Ouch, dang it,” she nabbed her finger away from the wire cutters that had pinched the skin on her index finger, making it bleed. She stuck the wound into her mouth, a mumbled curse aimed at the fence around the finger in her mouth. Examining her hand, she saw that she was fine. Just a small cut.

Once her work had been interrupted, the blonde realized just how hot it was. She looked up into the May sky, blue as a robin’s egg. Snatching the doo-rag from her short hair, she wiped her face down with it, then beat the kerchief against her cargo-clad thigh and decided to head in for some iced tea.

The walk back to the house was a long one, but beautiful and peaceful. The soft whinnies and snorts of the horses could be heard, as well as the squawk of chickens in their pen. The dogs were out running, making those chickens squawk, but it was okay. Life over the past six days had been good.

Willow and her husband, Kevin, had taken some well deserved vacation time, trying to get to some of the repairs and improvements on the ranch they’d been wanting to do for a couple years, but had never seemed to find the time to do. It was Saturday, and she’d be going back to work Monday night.

“Hey, honey?” Kevin called, pulling Willow from her thoughts.

“Yeah?” she called back, stopping just shy of the square plot of grass that was their ‘backyard’ on the two hundred and sixty-five acres of land they owned. Kevin came out from the shade of the garage, hand shielding his eyes from the sun.

“Have you seen the attachments to the air compressor?”

The blonde shook her head. “Nope. Did you look in your work bench?”

“Why would it be in there?” he rolled his eyes and headed back into the garage.

The blonde headed toward the house again. “Five, four, three, two,-”

“Here it is!”

She sighed, pushing the back door open, knowing damn well that he’d never admit to finding it in the Bermuda Triangle of Oklahoma known as his work bench. Heading over to the fridge, she pulled it open and surveyed the contents, looking for the jug of iced tea she had brewed the night before. Moving aside Kevin’s gallon of Gatorade, she spotted the green top of the pitcher.

Sighing with contentment, she pulled the jug free, and poured the dark gold liquid into a glass, drinking half of it down before she could even get to the freezer for ice. Breathing heavily as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, she filled the glass once more, adding a few cubes of ice.

Kicking her hiking boots off, she padded around the cool Mexican tile of the kitchen with pleasure. She hated shoes and ditched them at every possible moment, hauling herself up onto one of their tall bar stools that sat before the breakfast bar. The paper had been tossed there earlier that morning, neither she nor Kevin having a chance to read it.

“He’s a cool old guy,” her husband said, near bouncing into the house, tugging his Gatorade out of the fridge and drinking straight from the plastic jug.

“Yeah, he is,” Willow said absently, shaking the pages of the Williamsburg Gazette. Kevin walked over to the bar, Gatorade in hand.

“Give me the sports, will ya, honey?” He sat next to her, seeing his wife glance at him, only to do a double take, a grin spreading across her lips. “What?”

Without a word, Willow reached up with her thumb, wiping the red smudge from Kevin’s upper lip. He looked away sheepishly.

“What can I say, I like my fruit punch Gatorade.”

“Obviously. Here.” Handing him his section of the paper, she went back to the leading stories of their small area of the world. She grazed the local stuff, not caring much about the local pig competitions or how large Meridath Graham had grown a squash this year, she made her way to national news.

A familiar picture catching her eye, she zoomed in on the short editorial.

Singer and song writer Christine Gray front woman of the group Twilight, who mysteriously dropped from public view last winter, has announced that the concert tour for her latest album, Swan Song, which was cancelled after she was hospitalized for fatigue and exhaustion last February, had been rescheduled.

Announced yesterday, “All those who had tickets to the cancelled performance, including those in Oklahoma City, will be valid to attend Miss Gray’s concert in their respective cities,” said Gray’s rep, Mark Hutchins, who added that Christine is feeling great and in good spirits and is looking forward to seeing her fans.

Willow couldn’t keep the smile from her face, resting her chin on her palm. She had thought about the singer often, wondering what had happened to her, where she’d ended up. Obviously the news was no help, nor E! or Entertainment Tonight.

Robert Knowels had done his best to keep things under raps at the hospital, let alone the rest of the world, she figured, She couldn’t help but wonder how much that silence and privacy had cost Christine.

“Who’s’ that? She’s pretty,” Kevin said, resting his chin on his wife’s shoulder.

“Christine Gray,” Willow said absently, reading over the article again.

“Who?” His sandy brows drew in confusion.

“She’s not country, honey, you wouldn’t know her.” The blonde grinned, gently patting her husband’s stubbled cheek.

“Hey, I’ll have you know I once shook the hand of George Jones!” he said, looking at her with narrowed brows. She loved it when he looked at her like that. In that moment she knew exactly what he had looked like as a young boy. Though she was filled with love, she wasn’t through torturing him just yet.

“Who?”

“God, what kind of country girl are you? You do your state shame, woman,” he muttered, turning back to his sports page. She snickered, turning back to her own paper.

****

Willow stepped out onto the wrap around porch of the light smoky blue two-story with the white trim. Something else she and Kevin had done during their working vacation. It had taken thirty years off the old farm house.

She smiled, closing her eyes as she inhaled the early morning air, hands wrapped firmly around her mug of mint tea. She loved the way two worlds were merging- the sounds of male crickets frantically rubbing their back legs together, desperate for a mate. Their song bearing witness to the night while the songs of the birds in the dozens of trees around the house birthed a new day as the sun peeked over the flat plains of Willow’s beloved Sooner state.

This was her time, a time of peace and tranquility where she could regroup and gather strength from the dawning of new life.

She was usually just getting home around that time, always getting her tea and watching the day reborn. Come Monday morning Kevin would just be getting up for work.

She looked out over the pastures, hearing the horses start to wake, snorting, their hooves stomping lightly on the ground. In the distance she saw the headlights of Macy Allen’s car as she delivered the morning paper to all the outlying farms and ranches; her own homestead was only about ten miles away. The blonde usually passed the small blue car on her way in.

Sipping from her mug, she made her way slowly down the stairs of the porch to the flagstone path that led to the edge of the landscaped part of their yard, and ended in the dirt road that led to the gates of their property.

She noted the colors that spread across the sky, pinks and oranges, stretching fingers through the clouds, with rays falling through the cracks, seeming to send a spotlight on the plains.

Memories began to flood Willow’s mind of an earlier time. Her grandfather had been born in the farmhouse in 1918, his parents adding another story to the once tiny, one-room house as their family began to grow. Eight children later, everyone began to disperse and find their own place in life.

Willow’s grandfather, Earnest, had stayed on, loving the land far too much to leave it. His brothers had gone off to fight in World War II, while he’d stayed on, not having to go as he was the sole son left to run the ranch. His father, aged and weathered by that time, was far too weak to run things.

Earnest Wahl had lost three of his four brothers in the war or from just plain stupidity, and one sister, Rose, who had gone over as a WASP. The remaining sister, Lucille had married and moved off to New Jersey, Earnest’s brother Carl had no interest in the life of a farmer/rancher, and made his west to explore the world of real estate, making his fortune in San Francisco.

Willow walked to the fence, which she needed to finish fixing today, pushing the waist-high gate open and headed across the dirt road to the mailbox on the other side, standing tall before the ditch filled with water for irrigation. Grabbing the paper from the yellow, plastic paper box mounted on the mailbox pole, she tucked it under her arm and headed back across the road.

Hours and hours and hours Willow had spent with her grandmother on this land. Myra Wahl, now that was an interesting woman.

Born in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, she was the middle of six children, born to poor farm hands. Having no interest in the farm life, she ran away from home at the age of sixteen, running of with the strong man at a carnival that was coming through Rifle, Colorado.

By this time World War II was over, and the country was desperate to have their spirits raised as so many of their young men didn’t come home. The carnival was a great success, and Myra traveled all around the United States and Canada with Dale, she working as a weight guesser and dancer in one of the carnival’s many shows.

Tiring of the carnival life, Myra decided to find her own way and began hitching rides along Route 66, where a lonely driver named Earnest Wahl picked her up. That had been in 1951. They’d been together until the day Earnest had died, October 2, 2000. Myra and Earnest had only one child, a bouncing baby boy, who eventually became Willow’s father.

When Willow’s grandfather had died, Myra had decided the ranch was too much to take care of, and since her granddaughter had always loved the place so much, and her son had his own life and home, the ranch in its entirety, repairs and all, had been willed to Willow.

****

Everything in grandma’s house intrigued me. It was filled with big, sturdy furniture, every bit an antique. It amazed me how she had a set of pans, the silver kind with the copper bottoms, and after fifty years of use, the copper was as clear and unblemished as it had been the day the pans were made.

I sat on a stool in the kitchen, next to the counter, watching as grandma washed dishes, heavily corded hands lovingly scrubbing every bit of food, baked on or otherwise, from the pans, then dipped them in the hot rinse water, her skin beat red from the heat, setting the pan on the spread out towel. I grabbed the newly washed pan, drying it just as lovingly.

“How have you kept these so nice, grandma?” I glance over at her, setting the pan aside to grab for the bouquet of flatware she’s just washed.

“Time and patience, my love,” she smiles, winking a light blue eye at me. I roll my own eyes. I know that’s her way of telling me it’s her secret. She would always sprinkle something into the dish water from a corked bottle filled with white and blue granules of something.

We were silent for a while, the only sounds were the quiet, soothing splashing of water as grandma continued to wash the supper dishes. I never understand why she calls it supper when it’s only two-thirty in the afternoon! See, with grandma there’s supper then there’s dinner. Dinner was served at five-thirty sharp. I’m never hungry when dinner comes along because I’m still so full from supper three and a half hours before.

It was dizzying, her logic.

“Grandma?” I ask, setting aside the glass casserole dish I had just dried.

“Yes, love?” she pulls the plug from the large, stainless steel sink, using the sprayer to get rid of all the suds.

“I was out with the horses earlier and it looks like Wanda is about to pop any minute,” I glance up at her, seeing wrinkles of concentration marring her otherwise smooth forehead Though she was a year from sixty, she was aging very well, which was surprising considering she spent most of her life outside in the harsh sun. Grandma had a permanent tan that I was grossly jealous of. Grandpa had one, too, though it always made me laugh when he took his almost ever-present baseball cap off. He had a perfect line of white across his forehead just under his hairline. Grandma called it a farmer’s tan.

“You think so, do you?” grandma asks, wiping down the counter and sink with a dry towel. I nod.

“She started to really stomp her feet when I was over there earlier. I don’t know,” I shrug. “I just feel it.” Hopping from the stool, I put it where it goes, against the wall by the door to the kitchen, where grandpa always sat when he took his boots off. Grandma would fillet him for supper if he got mud in her immaculate house.

“Let’s go have a look.” Grandma kissed me on the temple as she neatly hung the towels on the magnetic hooks attached to the side of the fridge, then she led the way toward the door.

****

Willow’s father had inherited his mother’s wandering spirit of her youth. Throughout the duration of the blonde’s own youth, he had moved them from this house to the next, one town to the next, and even spreading across state lines. She had no real childhood home to speak of, never living anywhere longer than a few years.

Once Willow had figured it out, and was stunned to realize she’d attended nine schools and had lived in more than a dozen houses or apartments.

The ranch had become her stability, always something that she knew she could return to, and it would be in the same place, look the same, feel the same, be the same. Willow spent nearly all of her summers there, and when her parents lived close enough, her weekends, too. Once her grandmother had even called Willow’s own mother, Helen, to see if there was a problem at home because the girl waned to spend so much time at the ranch.

Helen had been hurt by the question, but the blonde hadn’t the heart to tell her mother that it was because she felt she had no security with her own parents, and so sought what she craved with her grandparents.

It had been even worse when Willow’s parents had divorced during her sophomore year of high school. She had felt lost and adrift. Once again the ranch had provided the emotional nourishment she had needed, even going so far as to consider moving in with her grandparents indefinitely. But by that time, Earnest was getting sick, and Myra had enough to deal with, so the blonde had stayed with her mother and Helen’s new boyfriend, Shawn, who eventually became Willow’s step-father.

****

“Wow, look at that,” I breathed, eyes huge with what I was seeing. The new mother and her colt lay together in the hay, the baby trying her very best to stand, though it just wasn’t working. Her thin, bony legs weren’t cooperating.

“You were right, my love. You’ve got good instinct,” Myra whispers, her arm slung around my waist. “Maybe you should be a vet instead of a nurse.”

I shook my head adamantly. “I want to be a nurse. I can do far more for people than animals.”

“A noble stance, Willow.” She smiles at me, and I smile back, feeling the warmth of love and pride fill me. Grandma makes me feel like I can do anything and she’d still be proud of me. It was a good feeling. “What should we name her, my love?”

“Hmm,” I chew my lip as I study the brown colt. As I look at her I noticed a splotch of white on her nose, it’s small, but I know it’ll get bigger, and it looks like a lop-sided star. “Star,” I say, looking over at grandma, who I am proud to say is a wee bit shorter than me now. “See her nose?”

Blue eyes twinkle and grandma nods. “Star it is.”

****

Willow walked over to the pasture, the horses seeing her coming, and walked over to the wooden rail fence.

“Hey, guys,” she murmured, reaching a hand out to pet waiting noses. “How’s my girl, huh?” The big, brown horse snorted, nuzzling her with a hairy nose, tickling Willow’s face. The blonde smiled, running her thumb over the bright, white marking that gave the horse her name. Star had three babies of her own now, all grown and making her a grandmother.

“Hey, you,” Kevin’s soft voice said from behind the blonde. She leaned back into him, smiling as warm arms snaked around her to clasp under her breasts. “I missed you this morning,” he said into her ear, kissing the tip.

“Mm, sorry,” she sighed in contentment. “I need to get myself back into a routine. Staying up all night Monday night will not be so fun if I don’t.”

“Hmm, true.” Together they watched the horses, absorbing the warmth of the dawning day and of each other.

Kevin hated how often he awoke alone, even when his wife was off, but he understood her need for the alone time, so he did his best to not complain too often, though he had hoped they could have at least spent their last morning together in bed, before the real world of work encroached upon them. He decided to try.

“So I was thinking,” he said, leaning down to nibble lightly at his wife’s neck. “This is our last day together,” he moved up to her lobe, encouraged as she tilted her head a bit. “And maybe we could spend it in bed.” Green eyes closed as Willow’s head tilted even more, feeling the soft lips and tongue spread to her jaw. A soft moan escaped the blonde as a large, warm hand cupped one of her breasts.

Kevin knew he had her. Her breasts were so sensitive, the nipple already pressing against his palm. The blonde turned in his arms, mouth finding his. Yeah, he had her.

****

Christine set the silver tray with its empty dishes out into the hall, just outside her suite door.

Belching loudly, she put her hand to her stomach, feeling full and content. She walked over to the French doors, knowing she’d miss the view when she left. It was amazing how colorful and beautiful things were to her again. Through the haze of the past ten years, the world around her had started to lose its color, flavor and beauty. How had she allowed herself to become numb to the sounds of life? Weren’t they music of a sort?

Wrapping her arms around herself, she leaned against the open doors, not quite stepping out onto the balcony. She did one night, and nearly fainted. Looking down, it had reminded her entirely too much of a lost night in Oklahoma nearly four months ago.

It was almost time to go home, and the singer was glad of it. She wanted her own house, her own bed. Plus she missed Milly, which surprised her. The housekeeper had been with her for just over two years and had quickly become a cherished friend, as well as one hell of an employee. The older woman had no family in California to speak of, and her son was clear across the country in Nashville trying to become the next Kenny Chesney.

Christine shivered. Who one earth could listen to that country babble? The stuff gave her ulcers. How could anyone have that many problems in one song?

Glancing over her shoulder at the unexpected sound of a knock on the outer door, the singer pushed away from the door and headed back across the room, pulling the door open.

Blue eyes grew huge at the smiling face that waited on the other side.

“Adam!” Finding herself almost picked up in thin arms, Christine hugged her old friend for all she was worth, thrilled beyond words to see him there. Finally pushing him away, she held him at arms’ length, looking him up and down, finally resting on the face, skin slightly darker than her own, white teeth blinding in contrast, and hazel eyes twinkling.

“Hey, gorgeous,” he said, deep voice resonating through her.

“My god, come in, come in.” Ushering him inside, she closed the door behind him, turning to just look at him. His dark brown hair was long, pulled back into a ponytail, slicked back from his broad face. “What are you doing here?” She walked over to him, taking him into another hug, this one warm, soft and comforting to them both. He held her, chin resting on top of her dark head, breathing in his past.

“I heard you might need a friend. So here I am, friend.”

“I’ve missed you, buddy,” she whispered, head resting against his narrow chest. After a long, contented moment, Adam slowly pulled away, taking his friend by the hand and leading her to the couch. He looked around the opulent room as he did so, amazed and awed by where Christine had ended up.

“Robert Downey, Jr. really stayed here, huh?” He grinned big at his friend, who rolled her eyes, smacking him lightly in the stomach. All joking aside, intense hazel eyes looked into Christine’s. “What’s going on, Chris? Why are you here?”

Sighing, the singer looked away, ashamed to face him. “I almost did it, Adam,” she finally said, her voice quiet and alone.

“How?” he asked, voice almost choking over the single word. Christine chuckled ruefully, really unable to look at him.

“I jumped off this old, rickety bridge into a river.”

Adam closed his eyes, Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed, trying to keep his emotions at bay. He couldn’t keep the image out of his mind of a pale, bloated Christine from his tortured mind.

“Why didn’t you call me?” he whispered. “I would have been there in a heartbeat.”

“I know.” The singer turned to her friend now, seeing the pain on his face. She hated herself knowing she’d put it there. “I know,” cupping his prominent jaw, she made him look at her, brows furrowed. “I lost control, Adam.” She shook her head to emphasize her point. “I lost it.”

“What were you on?” his voice was low and serious.

“Everything. Anything.” She sighed, glancing at the hand that grabbed hers, holding it tight. “I was taking anything I could get my hands on, Adam. I totally fucked up, bud. I may have ruined my career.”

“I heard about the concert in Oklahoma City,” he said quietly. She met his gaze, hers filled with terror.

“How?”

“It was all over the news, in the papers. They said it was because you had worn yourself to exhaustion, but I knew something was wrong. I’m only sorry I couldn’t get here sooner.”

Christine closed her eyes, taking several deep breaths, her stomach in knots. Now she wasn’t so sure she should have eaten as much as she had for breakfast.

“I’m just glad you’re here,” she finally said.

“And don’t worry, Chris. There’s no way you could ruin your career. They love you. Don’t you know that?”

“I don’t know, Adam. I just don’t know anymore.”

“How did you get out of the river?”

Christine grinned, feeling foolish. “A clown saved me.”

“What?!” Her friend looked at her like she was crazy. “Jesus, you really were on some bad shit.”

The singer laughed, letting it roll out of her throat with abandon. He grinned, confused.

“No, really. It was this woman, a nurse or something, who was dressed as a clown. Scared the shit out of me, too. I hate clowns.”

“Oh man,” Adam laughed. “Why was she dressed as a clown?”

Christine shrugged. “I have no idea. But I do know she saved my life. In a lot of ways,” she blew out a breath.
Part 3
“Hey, girl!” Rachel jogged across the parking lot to her friend, and one time college companion.

“Hey.” Willow smiled, stopping her path to the building. Rachel grinned, out of breath from her short run. “What’s up?” The blonde nurse shifted her bag from one shoulder to the other, already in her scrubs for the night’s shift.

“Did you see that article in the newspaper?” Rachel asked, digging through her own large bag, bringing out Sunday’s paper, folded so that Christine Gray’s picture smiled up at the blonde. Willow nodded, but took the paper from her friend anyway. She wondered how long ago the picture had been taken, as the singer looking nothing like the black and white, grainy image.

“I’m so glad she’s doing better,” she said quietly, glancing up at her friend, also nodding.

“I know. Did you tell Kevin about it?”

“No.” Willow sighed. “I know he won’t say anything, but, I don’t know,” she shrugged, a sheepish grin tugging at her lips. “He didn’t even really know who she was when I pointed it out to him yesterday. I think the specialness of it would be lost on him, you know?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you tell Connor?”

“Yeah. And don’t worry, he won’t say anything, either.” Rachel said, taking the paper back, stuffing it back into the bag. “Sometimes it still amazes me that she was here,” the red head indicated the building they were both walking toward.

“I know.” The blonde was silent for a moment. She and her friend hadn’t talked about it since it had happened, both afraid to. What if someone else heard them? Was it breaking the rules of the contracts they had signed? “It was so scary that night, Rache. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw someone plunge off the bridge.”

“You’re brave, Wills. I don’t know that I would have jumped in after them.”

“Sure you would have. You’re a nurse, it’s instinct.”

“Not to risk my life, it isn’t.” She smiled, Willow chuckling lightly. “I give total props to you, my friend. That was really an incredible thing.”

“Thank you.” Willow glanced shyly at her friend before smiling down at the asphalt of the parking lot they crossed.

“I’ll be so glad to get rid of these damn nights.” Rachel sighed. “It’s just a good thing that Connor works from home and can work any ol’ crazy schedule. How is it working with you and Kevin?”

Willow shrugged, holding open the tinted glass door for her friend.

“Thanks,” the redhead said.

“It’s okay, I guess. We manage. Don’t have much choice. To be honest, the hardest thing is taking care of the animals almost by myself.”

“Kevin doesn’t help?”

“Hey, girls,” doctor Kathryn Morrow said as they passed her in the hall.

“Hey, doc,” the nurses said in unison, all three chuckling. Rachel pushed the button on the elevator that would take them to the floor where the nurse’s lounge was, with attached locker room.

“He does, but I’m the one there during the day. I mean, shoot, he doesn’t even get home until after dark half the time.” Willow leaned back against the stainless steel walls of the large car, hands tucked behind her butt, palms against the cool steel.

“Well, if they’d hire someone else down at the lumber yard, I doubt he’d have to work so damn much.”

“I agree.” The blonde looked up at the lit dial above the doors, watching as their floor came nearer, the car jolting to a stop, then slid open.

“Hey, are we all still on to go see the new Star Wars movie this week? I hear it’s getting great reviews.” Rachel pushed open the locker room door, her friend following close behind.

“Uh, I think so.” Willow turned the dial on her lock, the numbers whizzing by until it clicked and the lock slid down, allowing her to remove it. Every time she released the lock she couldn’t help but think of high school, fumbling with the lock the first day of classes until you learned the unique intricacies of the new padlock.

“I can’t wait! And Connor! My God, you’d think the world had come to an end,”

As Rachel went on and on about the movie, blonde brows drew. She noticed something, and bent down to pick it up. At the bottom of her locker lay a white business-size envelope. It had been slipped in through the vents in the door.

“What’s that?” Rachel asked, noticing her friend’s preoccupation.

“I don’t know,” Willow said absently, turning the envelope around in her fingers. Written across the front was her name and the hospital’s address. There was only a P.O. Box for a return address.

“Maybe it’s anthrax,” Willow met grinning blue eyes. “I’m just kidding, Wills, jeez.”

“Funny.” Now curious, the nurse shook the envelope, holding it up to the light.

“Oh, jeez, come on. Just open the damn thing.”

Slipping her finger under the flap, she ripped across, the paper slicing easily. Inside was a folded piece of paper, folded in thirds. Opening it, she saw it was a hand-written letter, something else sliding out of the folds of the paper. She caught it, realizing they were tickets. Eyes trailing back to the letter, she read:

Dear Miss Bowman,

I feel strange writing a letter, not having done it in a very long time. I can’t thank you enough for what you did, risking your life to save that of a complete stranger. I’ve never seen such heroics, and can’t believe people like you truly exist.

I wanted to say thank you. Because of you I have another shot, and that is something I don’t take likely, nor will I soon forget. Not in this lifetime, anyway.

Please accept the tickets enclosed. You and a guest are invited to my show in Oklahoma City, June 13. I hope to see you there and thank you in person.

Yours,

Christine Gray

Willow looked up at her friend, stunned, then looked back at the letter, quickly reading it again.

“What is it?” Rachel breathed, trying to read over her friend’s shoulder.

“It’s from Christine Gray,” the blonde breathed, handing the letter to the other nurse, her hand trembling. Blue eyes read over the letter, eyes getting wider and wider with each passing line.

“Oh my god,” she said, a smile spreading across full lips. “That’s incredible.”

“Yeah,” Willow swallowed, still unable to believe that Christine Gray had taken the time to write her a personal missive, as well as send concert tickets! As the blonde studied the tickets, she noted they were good for backstage entrance, too. Her eyes met those of the redhead. “Guess what?”

“What?”

“You’re going to a Twilight concert with me.” Willow showed her the tickets, both women erupting into cheers and whoops. Jenny Marquis, self-proclaimed maintenance expert, walked in, eyeing the two like they were nuts. Quieting down, they quickly got their bags stowed, then hurried off to their respective floors.

****

Willow leaned against the sink, blonde bangs falling into her eyes, the hairs sticking to the moist skin found under them. Taking several deep breathes, she pushed off the sink, looking up into the mirror above it.

She looked so worn down, bags under her eyes, which glowed green from the upset.

“Honey, are you okay?” Dr. Maureen Halston asked, hand on the nurse’s back. She looked on with concern at one of the most compassionate women she’d ever been blessed to know. She worried about her, worried that Willow would give far too much of herself to her patients, not leaving anything left for the woman herself.

Willow sniffled, running her hands through her hair, nodding.

“Yeah. I’ll be okay.” She laughed nervously, feeling foolish. “You know, after all the years I’ve been doing this, you’d think I’d get used to losing them.” She looked up at the doctor with pleading eyes. “Does it ever stop, Maureen?”

The twenty-year veteran sighed, shaking her head. “No, honey. You’re always affected by God’s special babies, but you learn how to deal with it. You have to, Willow.”

“I know.” She sniffled again, running the back of her hand across her nose. The doctor smiled, heading into a stall to grab a wad of toilet paper.

“Here, honey.”

“Thanks,” the blonde blew her nose, then sighed, trying to make her heart release just a bit of sorrow; just enough to get back to work. “I’ll be okay, Maureen, thank you.” She smiled up at her friend.

“Okay. I best get back to it.” With a quick one-armed hug, the older doctor was gone, leaving Willow with her thoughts.

The grounds of Mercy were impeccably kept, grass green, flower beds scattered in an array of colors and smells, tucked into brick planters.

Willow sat on the edge of one of those planters, arms wrapped around herself as she stared out into the hot summer afternoon. It may have been in the upper nineties on her skin, but inside it was the dead of winter.

It was almost three in the afternoon, and she’d been at Mercy for just over eighteen hours, and she felt the strain. She’d worked long shifts before, and she was usually able to push the fatigue away and turn that tress into determination.

But this time, …

Willow folded her legs up, wrapping her arms around her knees, resting her chin upon them. She thought back to the events of the past day.

****

“Hey, sweetie. How are you today?” I pull up a chair, taking Melissa’s hand in my own. I notice her fingers wrapping around mine, so small and thin. Very pale. How could she not be pale? In and out of Mercy for long stints over the past six months.

“Okay,” Melissa says, her voice very quiet, whispery. Blue eyes, made huge from all the weight the girl had lost, embraced by dark circles and dark lashes, which flutter as she blinks. “’M so tired, Willow,”

“I know, honey.” I smile at her and caress the back of her hand with my thumb. I can’t help but feel my heart swell at the sight of this lovely twelve year old girl. Her hair had long been gone- chemo. Her doctors and all us nurses were doing everything possible to save her from the leukemia that ravaged her body.

My heart is breaking, knowing that Melissa’s time is short, but I still prayed with everything in me that she’ll be okay, that some miracle that Maureen talks about so often, will happen, saving this poor, innocent kid.

Still, I held strong.

“Can I get you anything, sweetie?” I ask, glancing up as someone walks into the room. I smile at Melissa’s mom, Ellen, then turn back to the girl.

“No,” she says, looking over at her mom. “Hi, mom.”

“Hi, sweet pea.” Ellen takes the chair across the bed, reaches out to me. I take her hand and squeeze it. As I look into her eyes, I can see she knows what I do. Time is running out. Both our eyes turn back to the beautiful young girl in the bed between us. “Your dad is picking up Brian. They’ll be here soon.”

“Kay,” Melissa fights to stay awake, her eyes getting heavier and heavier.

“Sleep, honey,” I say, squeezing the girl’s fingers. “We’ll be here when you wake up.” She mumbles incoherently, then nods off. I look back to Ellen, nodding toward the hall with my head. She nods, standing. Leaning over her daughter, she kisses the girl’s naked head, then we head out.

I close the door to room 212 as we step out into the hall, and I turn to Ellen. She’s beginning to cry, her dark eyes liquid, and it breaks my heart.

“Come here,” I open my arms, and she falls into my embrace, crying into my shoulder. Squeezing my eyes shut, I try and keep it all inside. The last thing Ellen needed was for me to fall apart, too. “I know,” I cooed, feeling this woman’s pain and anguish.

It took several minutes for her to calm, but finally she does, but I don’t break physical contact with her. My arm around her shoulders, I lead her toward a small area down the hall where a couple of sofas are set up, as well as vending machines.

“Want some coffee, Ellen?” I ask, kneeling before her. The dark head nodded, and I quickly make myself busy making the coffee that I knew so well- two bags of Splenda and a dollop of cream. “Here you go.” Helping her to keep the Styrofoam from spilling in her trembling hands, I sit next to her, rubbing gentle circles over her back.

“She’s going to leave us soon, isn’t she?” Ellen asks, her voice trembling as badly as her hands. I sigh, not sure how to answer that. I had yet to lie to the family, and sure didn’t want to start now, but at the same time, I didn’t want to cause her anymore pain than she was already in.

“She’s put up such a good fight, Ellen,” I say quietly. Ellen turns to look at me, dark eyes pleading.

“Please just be straight with me, Willow. I need to know,” the last comes out in a whisper, and she starts to cry again. Afraid her coffee will spill all over her hands and lap, I take it from her, resting the cup on the table next to my chair. Taking her into my arms again, I let my actions speak for me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Tammy Wistoff, another nurse, run down the hall, almost comically sliding to a stop when she sees me. Waving her hand frantically, I gently pull away from Ellen and go to Tammy.

“Willow, Melissa is asking for you and her mother,” the young nurse says. Just one look in her eyes, I feel a stab of dread in my heart. Glancing over m shoulder, I meet dark eyes, looking pleadingly at me.

With a sigh, I head back to the woman and hold my hand out for her.

“What?” she asks, “You’re scaring me, Willow,”

“She’s asking for us, Ellen.”

Making our way down the hall, Ellen clutches my hand while trying to get hold of her husband and son on her cell phone with the other.

Comforted with the knowledge that they are close, we hurry into Melissa’s room.

“Hey, baby,” Ellen whispers, standing next to her daughter’s bed and takes her hand. Blue eyes, faded and so tired, turn to me, and I, too, go to the side of the girl’s bed. Slowly, as though she had a twenty pound weight in her small hand, Melissa holds her hand out to me. I take it.

Melissa blinks, though it’s almost as if in slow motion. In the past few days she’s gotten so weak.

“I love you, mamma,” she says suddenly, looking at her mother, who’s eyes are filled with tears.

“I love you, too, my baby,” Ellen says, clutching her daughter’s hand in both of her own, bringing it to her lips. I feel my own eyes stinging as the tears push against my will. Then those eyes were on me.

“Hi, sweetheart,” I whisper, smiling down at her.

“You’re so cool,” she says, the softest smile on her lips. My smile widens, my vision becoming even more blurry.

“I think you’re pretty cool, too, Melissa.”

She smiles, eyes closing before her head turns, and once again she looks at Ellen.

“Mamma,” she says, almost like she’s caressing the endearment with her lips. “Don’t cry, mamma,” Melissa reaches up with slow deliberation, the tip of her finger touching a tear that slides gracefully down Ellen’s cheek. “I’m not scared,”

With those few words my own dam breaks. I try and hold in the sob that is struggling to get free, and luckily only tears come out, quiet, unobtrusive. Part of me feels like I should leave, giving mother and daughter these last moments alone.

There is commotion in the hall, then Ellen’s husband, Jack and their son Brian hurry into the room.

“Baby, daddy’s here,” Ellen whispers, making room for him. I smile at the fourteen year old boy, standing to give him my spot next to his sister. Slowly I back away and out of the room.

****

New tears fall as Willow could hear Ellen’s voice echo in her head- “No!” She knew in that moment that Melissa had lost her battle, and her young body was finally able to find peace.

Burying her face in her hands, the tears slipped between her fingers, making her shiver as the cool breeze caught the wetness, cooling her skin.

After awhile Ellen had found Willow and had clung to her, thanking the nurse over and over again for everything she’d done for Melissa and the family. Willow took her thanks, but felt she wasn’t deserving. No, she wasn’t a doctor nor a miracle worker, but felt she should have been able to do more, just a little extra.

She felt like she’d failed the girl, and it ate at her.

Sniffling several times, she swiped at her eyes and pulled her cell phone out of her pocket, flipping it open and staring at the keypad. All she had to do was press the button with the number one on it, send, and she’d be connected to Kevin.

With a sigh, she flipped the phone shut, gently setting it on the planter beside her. She’d have to do like Maureen said and deal with it, find a way to let it go.

****

Christine inhaled deeply, just the barest touch of a smile curling the corner of her lips. Eyes opening, she looked around. It was just as she’d left it before starting her tour- scattered sheets of blank pages feathered out on the wood floor, resting in the shadow of her beloved grand. Finished work was still resting on top of the piano, the lid down.

Walking over to it, she fingered some of the pages, her mind automatically conjuring up the music in her mind’s ear, following the notes with her eyes for a brief moment before memory finished the song.

Striding past the piano, she walked over to the bar at the far end of the large, spacious, nearly empty, room. The late morning sunlight filtered in, coloring everything bright and clean.

Stopping, she opened the cabinets next to the small bar fridge, surprised to see it empty.

“Milly,” she murmured, a pleased smile quickly spreading. As the singer expected, the trashcan under one of the cabinets was filled with glass bottles of varying shapes and sizes. Christine knew if she bent over the small, stainless steel sink she’d smell the distinct odor of alcohol.

Walking back across the room, bare feet padding against the cool, oak boards, she seated herself in front of the keyboard of the Baldwin, lovingly lifting the lid, the black and whites coming into view. Reaching out a finger, she tapped middle C, listening to that one beautiful note resonating in the room, which stood two-stories tall, the entire outer wall glass and looking out into the Japanese gardens.

Closing her eyes, she sat straight, hands poised above the keys, and with blinding speed began to play, her fingers racing over the ivories, the music flowing like water, her ears drinking it in. She needed to feel the music.

Her body swayed with her emotions, rising and falling, cresting only to slam down again upon the rocky shores of melancholy. Though the music was sad, Christine couldn’t be happier.

****

“Okay, here’s the plan,” Bob clicked a button on the small remote that rested unseen in his hand. “We follow basically the same route as last time.” A list of cities in various states all around the country popped up on the large, white screen. Another click and bullets appeared next to certain cities. “In these places you’ll be meeting with camera crews for pre-arranged conferences, which,” he looked at Christine, eyes sharp, “you will continue with the story of fatigue and over doing it, got it?”

She nodded dumbly, eyes on the screen, mind in outer space. She tugged at her bottom lip with her fingers as she slowly propelled the chair back and forth, using her feet for leverage.

“Good deal.” He clicked again and went through a quick slide show of the various venues she’d be playing at, including Coors Field in Denver. “The good thing about doing this now instead of February is that in Colorado you’ll be in the stadium as opposed to the Pepsi Center, where we were before. More seats, more people, bigger pay check.”

“For who?” she muttered, eyes reaching the ceiling. Bob looked at her, clicker ready to do the voodoo it did far too well in Christine’s opinion.

Bob Knowels ignored the singer’s comments, moving on to the next slide. It showed Christine at an earlier show, hair wild around her face, makeup dark and smoky. She recognized the pants she wore- black leather, slung low on her hips, and black boots. Very similar to what she wore at every show. The top, however. That was new.

“What is this? I don’t own a top like that, nor have I worn one. Hell, it’s not a top, Bob, but a friggin’ bra!”

“I know,” he grinned, obviously proud of himself. “I had Wayne play a bit with a picture of you during the Toronto tour, cut and paste with his computer, and voila!” He indicated the picture. “This is our new look.”

“No way,” Christine sat forward in her chair, hands clutching the edge of the conference table before her, ready to rise. “I am thirty-one years old, Bob, and the fifteen year old skanky look is out. You have me looking like a goddamn prostitute!”

“Old habits die hard, eh, Christine?” She looked at him, stunned and deeply wounded. Opening her mouth to say something, he quickly continued. “You need to do something to put you back on the map, Christine. You’ve been out of the game for six whole months! And you fucked up during a goddamn tour! We’ve got to get you back in the spotlight.”

“And dressing me like a whore is the way to go?” she growled, nails digging into the wood.

“Careful, Christine,” Bob warned, his own voice lowered.

She looked at him, hatred running through her veins, face like stone. Biting her tongue, she decided to change the subject.

“By the way, I’m doing much better. Thanks for asking.”

“I know you are.” He tossed the clicker across the smooth, wood table. “I’ve spoken with your doctors.”

“And?”

“And what?” He rested his temple against his fist, hooded eyes studying his client.

“Forget it.” She shoved out of the chair, heading toward the door to the conference room in Bob’s office building.

“Christine,”

The singer stopped, hand on the door. She glared at him over her shoulder.

“Why should I give you my pity or congratulations? You did it to yourself.”

She stared him down, neither of their gazes wavering. He was pushing her more and more, and she wasn’t sure how much longer she could take it. His threats were beginning to ware thin, her priorities shifting.

Without another word, Christine walked out, leaving the door open behind her. Bob called out after her.

“Fittings are set up for Wednesday!”

Christine slammed through the double glass doors of Bob’s offices, nearly running a passing woman over as she headed toward the elevator, hastily pulling her long hair into a ponytail and tugging the baseball cap on low. Mirrored sunglasses would follow once she hit the bright day outside, famed blue eyes hidden from view of fans and paparazzi.

She got about ten feet from the building when she heard the first rush of camera clicks.

“Fuck,” she mumbled under her breath, not in the mood to deal with the photogs. Fans she could handle. After all, it was because of them she was allowed to do what she did and making a living from it. But the photogs, or hounds as she thought of them, were a whole different story. They sniffed around the city all day and night for a high-profile celebrity to snap unsolicited pictures of to sell later to high paying magazines, newspapers, collectors, and magazine shows.

She hurried her pace when she heard her name being called by a chorus of photog hopefuls.

“Christine! Over here! Look this way, Gray!”

This, of course, drew the attention of fans and autograph dealers. It still astounded her that an autograph dealer had made fifteen thousand bucks off a graph from her last year. The more elusive the celeb, the more their graph went for.

It made the singer sad, never knowing who wanted her autograph because they were truly a fan or if the were just trying to make a quick buck off her.

Up ahead she spotted a little girl, probably about eleven or twelve, standing in front of a shop window with an older version of herself. Dark brown eyes peered at her shyly from under black bangs, white teeth appearing as they clamped down on a lower lip.

Christine pushed her way through the growing crowd of photogs, grinning when she saw the girl talking excitedly to the woman at her side, pointing at the singer and basically looking as though she were about to bounce right out of her shoes.

The older woman glanced at the singer, her own dark eyes widening in shock, and nodding vigorously at the little girl who then took off at a dead run at Christine.

The girl stopped just shy of reaching her, suddenly turning very shy and uncertain. Finally brown was able to meet blue, and Christine smiled down at the girl, bending slightly so she was more on the short girl’s level.

“Hi.” The singer said, all paparazzi stopping, clicking away at the exchange. The singer stood, annoyed, turning to the rude intruders. “Come on, guys. Give us a moment, huh? I promise to give you a few when I’m done, okay?”

“Cool! Thanks, Christine!” Jerry Mitchell, who the singer had seen tons of times, grinned at her.

Turning back to the star-struck girl, she smiled. The girl smiled back.

“Can I have your autograph?” the girl managed around the finger that had found its nervous way between her teeth. Christine smiled.

“Sure. What’s your name, hon?” The singer smiled up at the older woman who stood behind the girl, and handed Christine a deposit slip she’d torn from her check book and a pen.

“Juanita,” the shy girl said.

“Juanita. That’s a very pretty name.” The singer gave the girl her signature smile, beautiful white teeth, blinding. This made the girl even more shy, seeming to revert in age right before Christine’s eyes. She leaned back into the body of the woman behind her, a protective hand coming to rest on the girl’s shoulder.

Using her knee for a solid surface, Christine quickly scribbled out a message to the young Juanita, then handed the page to the girl.

“Here you go, hon.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Oomph!” The singer was shocked when the girl basically launched herself at her, wrapping thin arms around her neck. Unable to hold back the grin, Christine hugged the girl, giving her a squeeze before letting her go. Standing, she shook the older woman’s hand, the older woman saying something to the girl in Spanish.

“Thank you again,” Juanita said, both smiling at the singer, then heading back toward the store they’d been about to enter. Filled with a sense of pride that a sweet kid like that would want her autograph, and think she was something special. Yeah, it made all the paparazzi in the world worth it.

Turning, she put on her game face, ready to pose.

“Alright, boys. Who’s first?”

****

We both flinched at the sound of breaking glass, Adam looks around frantically for the sound. His dark eyes finally meet mine in the darkness of the alley.

“Are you sure you wanna go in there?” he whispers. Looking up and down the trash-filled alley, I sigh, nodding as I meet his gaze.

“I have to, man.”

“No you don’t. Chris, we’ll find another way. You can stay with us again for a few days. You know mom won’t mind-”

“It’s not about finding a place to stay, Adam, or having money for a place. Man, this is my chance!” my voice is filled with passion, as are my eyes. Imagine, the guy giving me a chance to sing. Me!

“But this place is a dive, Chris. You’re not even old enough to get in this place, let alone sing here.” He grabs me by the shirt, dragging me into the shadows as two men start to fight in the mouth of the alley, one being thrown out into the street, the other following.

The truth of the matter is I’m scared to death. The Diamond Back is not exactly top of the line entertainment in Manhattan, but it’s the only gig I can get right now, so I’m taking it. I want to say that to my friend, but he won’t understand. He doesn’t get how bad I want to sing and play my guitar. Adam doesn’t have a passion of his own, other than finding trouble, so he can’t understand.

“Listen, Adam, I’m gonna do this, so either you can sneak in with me to listen or you can grab the next train home. Your choice,” I turn and head toward the back door to the bar with far more confidence and bravado than I actually feel.

“Wait,” Adam snags my arm, nearly pulling me off my feet. I glare at him. “I just worry, okay?”

“Yeah, I know.” I grin at him, tapping him playfully on the cheek. “I love you, too, bud. Now I have to go.”

This time he doesn’t stop me, and I make my way into the dark, smoky bar. The stage is tiny and behind a screen of chain-link. The Diamond Back is known for its fights and rowdy patrons, so I’m glad it’s there.

It was my first appearance here, though I’ve played at any number of other cheesy joints. It was a quick buck, usually in the neighborhood of about seventy-five to a hundred bucks. It was free money to line my pockets, and it meant I didn’t have to swing a trick for a couple weeks. I was thrilled.

Grabbing my guitar, I step on stage. There’s no house band tonight, and I certainly don’t have a band of my own, so it’s just me, myself and I. Oh, and Pluck, my guitar.

I had on the best pair of jeans I owned, only a couple holes instead of connect the dots holes. Topped by a black t-shirt, I was stylin’.

Adjusting the microphone, I looked out at the crowd, which was filled with mostly men in very dangerous looking chains and leather, and looking at me rather expectantly.

“Hi,” I say, the microphone moaning in a shrill screech, already gaining me boos from the crowd. So, standing on that five foot by five foot stage, me, a microphone and a stool, I was supposed to entertain these guerillas.

“Hey, honey, ain’t I seen you somewhere?” someone yelled out, and I felt the hair on the back of my neck stiffen. Fuck, that was all I needed was to run into a client. Thinking fast, unable to see the guy’s face as the lights were in mine, I quirked a grin.

“I don’t know- you been to Hef’s mansion lately?” To my surprise and relief this got a round of laugher, and before anymore questions or comments could be shot my way, I lowered the guitar strap over my shoulder, and placed my fingers on the guitar’s neck. “Here we go, boys.”

Looking down at my fingers as they strummed the instrument, I got myself in the right frame of mind, head beginning to bob with the acoustic beat I was creating. I decided to ease this crowd into my own stuff, first warming up with a few classics. Bob Seger, Bonnie Raitt, then really got them excited with ‘Holding Out For A Hero’ by Bonnie Tyler. Those boys were whooping and cheering. Shit, I’d never had so many offers in one night in my entire life!

They were nice and ready for me, so I launched into a song I’d written last year.

“Okay, this next song is called ‘Clutch’, written by yours truly.”

Damn, I was having fun! I don’t remember ever having such a responsive audience before. I’ll definitely be coming back to this place.

With more drinks shoved in front of me than I can remember, I pop the top off a Corona and swig from the golden liquid, a very satisfied smile spreading across my face.

“Are you even old enough to drink that?”

“Excuse me?” I turn around, ready to grab some nuts when I see who’s sitting on the stool next to mine, one manicured hand casually dangling off the edge of the scarred bar. He’s dressed in a gray suit, tie perfectly tied, dark gray. His hair is dark and perfectly slicked back from a tanned face. “Who the fuck are you?”

“My name is Robert Knowels and I’m wondering if you’re old enough to drink that.” He indicates the cold one dangling by the neck from my fingers.

“Fuck off, Bob.” I turn my stool, back to him.

“How old are you, kid?”

“Old enough to know where the sun don’t shine, and to stick my bottle there.” I glare at him over my shoulder, and he laughs.

“Look, kid, I’m not here to cause problems for you or bust you. I was walking by this … bar,” he says grudgingly, looking around with distaste, ” when I heard you singing.” He explains, the contempt in his voice at the mention of the place obvious.

I turn my stool, glancing over at him, looking him up and down, nose wrinkled. “Great. So I got me an old guy for a fan. Lucky me.”

“No, but perhaps you’ll have an old guy as a manager.”

I look at him, trying to read his eyes. This dude’s serious! Turning to fully face him, I tilt my head, eyeing him as I sip my beer.

“Here’s my card. I’ll be in town for another few days.” He reaches into the inside breast pocket of his suit Jacket, bringing out a very thick wallet. Opening it up, he digs for a moment, then withdraws a black card, handing it to me tucked between two of those manicured fingers. “I hope to hear from you, Christine. You’ve got quite a talent.”

I take the card, looking at it. In silver, textured letters reads ROBERT T. KNOWELS, MUSIC ENTERPRISES LTD. Looking back up to him I see he’s already getting off his stool. Tucking the wallet away, he looks around once more, then without so much as another glance at me, he leaves.

****

The last of the bags are loaded into the belly of the black and silver bus, two identical ones idling behind it.

“Are we all good?” Stone Lee, road manager extraordinaire asks into the small cell phone/walkie talkie in his hand.

“All loaded and ready to roll,” answers the tinny, disembodied voice.

“Okay. Let’s roll ‘em!” he calls out, waving his arm high in the air for the other drivers to see. All the buses go from idle to roaring to life as the large man climbs the stairs of the first bus. The doors closed behind him with the whoosh of air brakes being released, and they’re moving.

The early morning air is crisp, but there was already every indication that it would be a hot day in L.A.

Stone made himself comfortable on the couch toward the front of the bus, made to seat five, the television unwatched as he typed away on his laptop, making sure everything was still good to go for the first couple upcoming concerts. They’d hit all of California then move up through the north west then over and down, zig zagging their way across the country.

Christine was back in her private quarters on the bus, which took up the entire back half. She lay on the queen-sized bed, knees drawn up, bare toes tapping to the beat on the comforter as the music played through the headphones of her Discman.

She so preferred headphones to the larger speakers of a stereo. Somehow it brought it closer, made it more personal and intimate. Three Door Down sang to her, her fingers clasped over her stomach, eyes closed.

The singer was filled with a mixture of fear, anticipation and excitement like nothing else could bring her. She had been told that ticket sales were outstanding, most of the concerts sold out. But still, would her fans forgive her for abandoning them last winter?

Sighing, she threw those thoughts out of her mind, instead concentrating on the music. She had to get herself clear in the head for the performance that night. It would be the first concert she’d given sober in more than two years. Part of her was excited, actually able to be present for it, and not go through it in a numb haze. Oh, but what she wouldn’t do for a calming hit of weed.

This thought startled her, making her feel guilt course through her. Margaret had warned that could and probably would happen. “You can’t expect a habit of over a decade to just fade and go away over night,” the counselor had warned.

That wasn’t good enough for Christine. She was stubborn and impatient, and wanted it to happen now. She had worked so hard to give up the want and need for the numbing medicine that drugs had become for her. Life was so much easier when you didn’t have to feel.

****

“Check, check, check. Check one, check one, check one.”

As the sound engineers and set builders did their thing, Christine met up with the boys for talks of how the show was to go that night.

The singer walked the large auditorium, able to hold twenty-thousand pulsing, cheering, screaming fans. She smiled at the thought, closing her eyes to imagine their voices, all mingling into one beast of excitement.

“Okay,” she breathed, “maybe this won’t be so bad.”

****

“Why didn’t you tell me, Willow? Damn it, I’m your husband. I know how attached you were-”

“I’m fine, Kevin.” The blonde looked at her husband’s reflection through the mirror, telling him with her eyes that she didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t take the bait.

“When did she die?” he persisted, sitting on the closed toilet seat, watching as his wife applied a touch of make up to the eyes that had first caught his attention six years ago. So intense in the way they looked at you, into you. It made lying hard.

Willow sighed, twisting the cap off of her mascara, looking back at herself, opening her eyes wide as she lined her lashes. “Two weeks ago.”

“Two weeks,” he did the math in his head, brows knit. He shook his head, not remembering any change in Willow’s demeanor. He sighed, picking at a stringy wedge of toilet paper that had been left after some of the tissue had been ripped from the roll.

He hated how much Willow kept to herself, wishing that she’d let him help her. He knew that the death of that girl with leukemia must have been devastating to her. She had been with the family since the kid got sick. That much Willow had told him.

“Do you trust me, Will?” he finally asked, watching as she brushed something across her cheeks and forehead. He didn’t understand all that makeup stuff, and since she didn’t wear it much, had no idea what was what. She stopped what she was doing and looked at him.

“Of course. What kind of question is that?” The nurse felt slightly hurt at such a question. Kevin shrugged.

“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.” He stood, kissing the back of her neck. “I hope you guys have fun at the concert. That was really nice of Rachel to get you guys tickets like that.” He appraised the beautiful woman in the mirror, wrapping his arms around her waist.

“Yeah, it was,” Willow couldn’t meet his eyes. She felt guilty as hell lying to him about where the tickets came from, but if she told the truth, she’d have to tell him about that night in February.

“I’ll see you when you get home.” One final kiss to her cheek, he left her alone in the bathroom.

Willow sighed, understanding why Kevin was hurt with her, but not knowing what to do about it. They had dinner with Rachel and Connor two nights ago, and Rachel had brought up Melissa’s passing. Kevin had been stunned, looking at his wife with expectant eyes. The blonde had expected a discussion that night when they’d gotten home, but instead he had waited until that morning.

****

“So since when do you keep stuff from me?” he asks, putting away the laundry I’d washed yesterday. Confused, I glance up at him, making the bed.

“What?”

“That girl who was sick. The one we took to the movie that time.” He closes the closet door, perhaps a little harder than necessary.

I sigh, realizing he was ready to rumble now. “I wasn’t aware that I had to keep you updated on everything at work.” Tossing the folded socks from the dresser to the bed, I open the sock drawer and begin to move things around, making room for the freshly washed items.

“Oh come on, Willow. It’s not about that and you know it. I’m not your keeper, but Jesus, you really cared for that kid, and from what Rachel said at dinner, you were pretty devastated when she died.”

“Look, Kevin, it’s my job, okay? I took on the responsibility of becoming a nurse, so now I have to deal with it. And I certainly don’t need you to babysit me, alright?”

He looks at me, and as soon as the words are out of my mouth I feel like a real bitch. Sighing, I run a hand through my hair. “I’m sorry.”

“No. No worries. You’ll deal. Fine.” Kevin rushes by me, heading out of the bathroom. I don’t follow, knowing how he is when he’s upset, I’ll leave him be.

Putting the rest of my clothes away, I head to the bathroom for a shower.

****

“Honey?” Willow pulled her wallet out of the purse that sat on the kitchen table. Not hearing anything, the blonde looked over her shoulder, trying to spot her husband. She could hear the faint sound of the television, and headed into the living room.

Kevin sat on the couch, arm resting along the back. Willow leaned down, hugging him from behind.

“I’m sorry, honey,” she said into his neck.

“It’s okay,” he said quietly, turning his head to give her a solid kiss on the lips. “You two have a great time, okay?” Willow nodded.

“Okay.” Hugging him tightly, she let him go, grabbing her keys from the table, tucking her wallet into the back pocket of her jeans, and headed out.

****

“I have never seen so many women in all my life,” Rachel muttered, leaning over to her friend who chuckled.

“I guess that’s what happens when you’re a lesbian icon.” Willow muttered back, eyeing all the excited women around them.

“You’re kidding? What, is she like Melissa Etheridge or something?”

“Of the alternative music world, yes.”

Rachel looked at the blonde, brows drawn. “How do you know?”

“I read about it,” Willow whispered, smiling at the look of confusion on her friend’s face.

“Huh. Guess I didn’t know you were such a fan.” Rachel whispered back. The lights began to lower.

“I’m not.”

The lights were nearly completely dimmed now, the front of the auditorium, and blackened stage, filling with gray smoke. A pulsing beat could be heard, low, almost to quiet to be heard, but could certainly be felt. Willow’s bones pulsed with it.

“Mm, you feel that?” a smoky, almost deep voice riding on velvet, said, the voice sensuous as it spread throughout the auditorium. The audience started to go nuts.

Willow and Rachel looked at each other, matching grins spread across their faces. The excitement was palpable.

The beat was getting louder, blue lights slowly rising, pushing their way through the smoke, sparkling lights all around the stage, giving the effect of a night filled with fog, the coolness from the dry ice machines reaching the front row, where Willow and Rachel sat, making the effect that much more real.

“You feel it. Like a heart beat,” followed by a long sigh.

“She’s got a really sexy voice,” Rachel whispered, Willow nodding in agreement, eyes searching the stage. “I wish I sounded like that when I talked dirty.” Dark figures began to be outlined as more lights rose. Members of the band, a low guitar beginning to join in with the beat.

“Feel it, want it, taste it,” the last whispered, as if said in the throes of passion. The audience was on its feet now, eyes desperately scanning for just one glance of Christine Gray.

Willow gasped as a small burst of light illuminated the drummer from below, casting his features in freakish shadows, his sticks in continuous motion.

“That’s right. Let’s get a little light on the subject,” was breathed over the audience. The blonde was surprised to feel a little shiver down her spine, her excitement building with everyone else’s.

Another burst of light and the guitarist was revealed, followed by the bassist and keyboards, all in swift succession. A ring of smoky figures around the outer edges of the stage, the center in impenetrable darkness.

The drum beat was at a feverish pitch now, resonating in the bones of the excited, anxious fans, nearly out of their minds with anticipation.

Suddenly all music stopped, a heavy silence filling the large space, and everyone in it. Willow was almost holding her breath, hearing her own heartbeat fill her ears.

A sensuous sigh, then blinding light, thousands of pairs of eyes squinting at the burst, then cheering like mad once their vision cleared, Christine standing center stage, head arched back, eyes closed, the silver light above her shining down like the very touch of God.

A heartbeat passed, the cheers at a deafening pitch, then the music began in earnest. A blast of fire and smoke, and Christine Gray was visible in all her glory, the light full-on, blue eyes gazing out upon her sea of fans, microphone held to her mouth as she began to sing.

Willow, caught up in the rush of adrenaline, was on her feet with twenty thousand other people, dancing in the aisles. The front row was close enough to the stage that they could take a few steps and touch the apron.

Christine felt her own blood roaring through her veins, standing on that stage, singing her heart out. The audience was a black blur to her, save for the first six rows or so.

Dressed in fitted, yet comfortable, blue jeans, ripped in all the right places, her ribbed, white tee molded to her torso, capped sleeves hugging firm biceps. Her dark hair was wild, spread across her shoulders and down her back. She was the picture of sensuous strength.

She scanned those rows, seeing a mass of faces, all looking up at her in absolute adoration, some singing along with her. She played to them, walking to the very edge of the stage, feeling hands grabbing at her legs. She touched some of those hands, kneeling down and singing directly to certain women.

As she moved her way down, seducing them with her voice and words, and what has been described by more than one journalist as “Unearthly beauty and sexiness,” she reached the seats that had been reserved for Willow Bowman and her guest.

She recognized one of the women, realizing she was one of the nurses from the ER that night. She studied the people flanking the redhead, seeing that the one to her right was a man, so figured the woman sitting at her left must be Willow.

The blonde looked so much different without the creepy clown makeup. When Christine looked into those green eyes, she knew it was the same woman.

She smiled at the nurse, bowing slightly and looking up at her through her bangs.

The blonde looked at the singer, not four feet from her, and her excitement level rose. She blushed, having the lone attention of Christine Gray. She almost fainted when the woman bowed to her, giving her a playful wink before standing and moving on.

“Oh my god!” Rachel yelled above the music, tugging excitedly at her friend’s hand. Willow grinned.
Part 4
Willow and Rachel stood in a dimly lit hallway, lined with large, black cases that would hold the band’s equipment.

“What are we supposed to do?” Rachel whispered, looking around, seeing the door behind them that she knew would lead to the now empty auditorium.

“I haven’t a clue,” the blonde said, resting against the cool, cinderblock wall. The security guard had told them to wait there, so that’s what they were doing, and had been for about five minutes.

“Ladies,” both nurses turned, startled by the sudden appearance of a very large man, bald and dressed in black with an I.D. hanging from his neck. We waved them with his fingers. “Follow me.”

As he led them down the hall, they stuck together, nervous. Closed doors began to appear in the wall to their right, various signs marking their purpose- Electrical Room, Storage, Props, and then Private.

The Mr. Clean look-a-like stopped at that door, holding it open for them. “Go on in,” he said, the door closing behind them, the large man gone.

They were in another hallway, this one well lit. Noise could be heard further down where the light from various open doors could be seen. There was laughter, and whooping before conversation. People, all dressed like Mr. Clean, swarmed from room to room, talking amongst themselves, some barking out orders for the removal of equipment, the breaking down of the stage flats. None paid a lick of attention to the women.

Willow felt uncertain, in a strange world that she didn’t understand. She had no idea where they were supposed to go or what they were supposed to do. She felt like an encroacher.

Finally a familiar face appeared out of the closest room, which the nurse was beginning to realize were dressing rooms. He had been playing guitar, his long, blonde hair back into a ponytail, as it had been down and free during the show.

“Hey. Are you the nurse?” he asked, walking over to them, a half-drank bottle of water in his hand.

“Yes. Willow Bowman,” she said, holding out her hand.

“Hey. Nice to finally meet you. I’m Joey Manning.” He grinned at both women, charm oozing from him. “Come on, I’ll take you to Chris.” He turned to head back down the hall, Willow and Rachel following. The redhead’s eyes were fixed firmly to his leather-clad butt, fanning herself.

Christine held her hands in tight fists, willing them to stay put. She watched as Bob went through her makeup kit, tossing tubes and compacts to the floor.

“These colors don’t work for you,” he muttered, opening a tube of lipstick, grimacing at the color.

“Be glad I wear the shit at all, Bob,” she growled. She hadn’t expected him anywhere on the tour. He usually stayed back in California making more deals on her behalf.

“And what the hell is this shit?” he walked over to her, leaving his mess on the vanity counter and floor. He snapped the white tank top she’d changed into mid-show. “This isn’t what you were fitted for.” He looked into her eyes, on level with his, dark and dangerous.

“It’s called a shirt, Bob,” Christine stared back with just as much intensity. “And I told you back in L.A. that I wasn’t going to dress like a whore.”

He moved in closer, nose to nose with her. “And I told you to wear it.” It was a battle of the wills as they stared each other down. Robert Knowles could tell his ingénue wasn’t going to back down. Seems she’d turned into a downright diva.

Fine. He knew how to deal with her and nip the problem in the bud.

“Don’t fuck with me, Christine,” he murmured, looking her face over. “What would the world say if they knew their hero was a two-bit whore with a drug problem?”

Christine was trembling, hatred seething through her at an alarming pace. Her nostrils flared, pulse racing in her temples and neck.

The spell and thoughts of homicide were broken by the clearing of a throat. Blue eyes tore from brown and saw Joey standing in the doorway

“Chris, you’ve got some visitors,” the guitarist said quietly, moving aside to reveal Willow and Rachel.

“You enjoy your little nurse,” Bob said, bringing the singer’s attention back to him. He took a step back, bringing his hands up to brush non-existent lint from Christine’s shoulders. “We’ll continue this later.” Turning, about to leave, he stopped. “Oh, and if you play that sappy, Liberace bullshit that you did during your encore again, I’ll pull your song-writing rights.” With that, he was gone.

The manager eyed the two women as he passed them in the doorway, stopping for a brief moment.

“Mrs. Bowman, nice to see you again.” He gave her a toothy grin, his skin as smooth and tanned as she remembered.

“Mr. Knowles.” The blonde smiled, but she felt suddenly nauseous. Something about the well dressed man made her nervous and feel covered in slime once he’d oozed by.

Christine took several deep breaths, knowing she had to calm herself. She really wanted to meet and speak with Willow Bowman, but didn’t want to be completely keyed up when she did.

She’d have to give Joey a hug and kiss later on- he was keeping the women occupied, showing them around Christine’s dressing room, explaining things to them and making them laugh with various little stories of being on the road.

Finally getting herself under control, Christine put a smile on her face and turned to the trio.

“Oh, don’t lie, Joey. You set that fire in the Ritz, not Wade.” The guitarist looked at the singer, relieved. He was running out of off the top of his head stories. She turned her winning smile to the two nurses. “Welcome, ladies.”

“I’ll leave you three be now.” Joey grinned once more at Willow and Rachel, winking at the redhead, making her swoon.

The singer looked at the woman who had saved her life, really able to see her for the first time. She was a small woman, petit yet didn’t look frail in the least. After all, she’d been able to drag her sorry ass out of the water. Her green gaze was strong and steady, though from the flushed skin of her face, Christine could tell the nurse was nervous. She wore jeans that hugged narrow hips, and showed off muscular thighs. A fitted baby doll tee set off the outfit.

“I must say,” she said quietly, a soft smile grazing her lips. “You look a lot different minus the creepy clown makeup.”

The blonde smiled shyly, looking down for a moment before pinning her with those beautiful eyes.

“It’s really nice to see you, Miss Gray, to know that you’re alright.” Willow said softly, meaning every word.

“Please call me Christine.” Blue eyes turned to the redhead. “I don’t think we’ve met. Hi, I’m Christine Gray, midnight scuba diver.”

Rachel was surprised at the way the singer poked fun at herself. She smiled, taking the hand extended to her. “Rachel Dodge. I’m a nurse in the Mercy ER.”

“I thought you looked familiar. Thank you ladies so much for coming. I hope you had a good time?” Raising a dark brow, she looked from one to the other.

“You were wonderful,” Willow said with reverence. “I’ve never been to such an amazing show,”

“It was fantastic,” Rachel agreed, all smiles.

“I’m so pleased,” Christine was surprised to feel the heat of embarrassment ride up her neck, and the need to say, “Aw, garsh, thanks.” Instead, she turned to Willow and said, “I hope you don’t mind, but there’s something I’ve been wanting to do for six months.”

“Sure,” the nurse looked expectantly at her, stunned when the tall, beautiful singer opened her arms, and grabbed her in a tight embrace.

Willow was stiff at the unexpected physical contact, but then found herself leaning into the warm embrace, tentatively wrapping her arms around the singer’s back. The hug was brief, but ended with a firm squeeze.

Christine pulled away, but kept her hands on the blonde’s shoulder as she looked down into her eyes.

“Thank you, Willow. Those words seem so puny for the depth of my gratitude, but I can’t quite think of anything else to say.”

Willow was stunned yet again. The singer didn’t have to say a thing- she could see it in those bright, clear blue eyes. She nodded, hoping that Christine could see her acceptance of the gratitude.

“I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” she finally managed.

“I have no doubt.” They shared a smile, then Christine broke the spell. “So, did you ladies meet the band?”

“Just Joey,” Rachel said quickly, then blushed furiously. Both Willow and Christine grinned.

“Well, come on. I’ll introduce you to the rest of the boys.”

As they followed her out of the room, Willow was lost in thought. She was amazed at how warm and generous Christine Gray was, as well as drop dead gorgeous. None of the singer’s pictures or commercials could do her justice. She was by far the most beautiful woman the blonde had ever seen.

She thought back to that cold, frightening night six months earlier. Christine had been ghostly pale, eyes sunken in, her body so thin she looked as though she could be snapped in half if not handled with care. In short, she had looked sick.

Now, green eyes wondered over the form ahead of her. She was tanned and vivacious, filled with life. It was a rare thing for Willow to see patients once they’d left the hospital, and to see this magnificent turn around filled the nurse with an unending gratitude to be able to do what she did, and have the knowledge to help Christine that night. It made it all worth while.

“What are you grinning at?” Rachel asked, brow raised.

“I don’t know. I guess it’s just an amazing thing for me to be able to see her, you know? After that night, I don’t know,” she shivered at the memory.

“That really got to you, didn’t it?” the nurse whispered, eyeing the singer to make sure she couldn’t hear them. The blonde nodded.

“Yeah.”

“Guys, I’d like you to meet two very special women.” Christine walked into Eli’s dressing room where the band had gathered, beers already cracked open. Three sets of eyes turned to look at Willow and Rachel. The singer brought both woman to her sides, a hand on both their outer shoulders. “This is Rachel, one of the nurses who helped to bring my sorry ass back to the world of the living, and this is Willow Bowman. She saved my life.”

Willow blushed, unsure what to do with the round of applause she got from the band. Finally able to meet their eyes, she whispered a thank you.

“Ladies, the guy standing over there, as you know, is Joey, better known to his mother as Joseph Howard Dillon. Joey’s up there with his idol and mentor Eddie Van Halen. Greatest guitarist in the world. Sitting with beer in hand, Eli Stein, drummer extraordinaire, and finally Davies Washington. Keyboards and bass.”

“Nice to meet you two fine looking ladies.” Davies grinned, teeth blinding against his dark skin.

“Hello,” Willow said shyly with a small wave.

“You guys were fantastic,” Rachel’s eyes were huge as she took in the guitars laying around, drum sticks on the vanity counter, and the atmosphere that radiated from those guys. They were rockers, musicians. That was something she’d always been drawn to. When she was a teenager she’d told her mother she wanted to be a groupie for Bon Jovi when she got older.

If only she weren’t with Connor. She sighed at the lost opportunity. She’d certainly love to be a groupie for Joey Dillon. His long, blonde hair, bright blue eyes …

Rachel shook herself out of her less than pure thoughts, seeing smiling green eyes studying her. She glared at her friend, feeling embarrassed.

“Hey, Chris, we were all about to grab something to eat. You commin’?” Joey asked, standing next to the singer, eyeing Rachel with an appreciative gaze.

Christine turned to her guests with questioning eyes. “You guys want to come?”

“Oh, we can’t,” Rachel said, true regret coloring her words. “I have to work tonight and get this one back home.” She put her arm around Willow’s waist.

“Do you work tonight, Willow?” Christine asked, leaning her shoulder against the doorframe, arms crossed over her chest.

“No,” the blonde said slowly, noting the smile that spread across the singer’s face.

“Then how about this, Rachel you go on to work, and I’ll personally make sure Willow gets home before curfew.” The brunette grinned.

****

“Your band mates are pretty crazy.” Willow glanced over at the woman who sat next to her in the very back of the stretched limo. Christine chuckled.

“You have no idea.” She met the smiling green eyes. “Thanks for coming to dinner with us. I hope we didn’t scare you too badly.”

“No. Not too bad.” They shared a shy smile. “No, in all honesty, it was fun. You guys are so fun to watch together.”

“Well, most of us have been together for many years. Eli is our newest member.”

“When did he join?”

“Three years ago,” Christine said quietly. Willow studied the singer’s profile, feeling the sadness that roiled off her. Then it hit her.

“After the accident.”

Christine nodded. “Yeah.”

“I’m sorry.” Willow remembered reading about it when she’d done research on Christine Gray. Three years ago original band member Frances Ray, or Frankie, had been killed in a horrible motorcycle accident.

They were both silent, the long car turning onto the private road that led to Willow’s ranch, driving under the wrought iron arches. Glad for the reprieve, Christine leaned toward the window, watching the dark scenery pass by. Unfortunately she wasn’t able to see much, but she had the feeling the ranch was something to see come daylight.

“You live here, huh?” she said, her voice wistful.

“Yeah.” Willow couldn’t take the pride from her voice. “My grandparents made this place special.”

The singer looked at the blonde, moved by the reverence she heard in her voice and saw in her posture.

The limo came to a stop in front of the farm house, and Willow turned to Christine. “Want a midnight tour?”

At the question, Christine was poised to happily accept, but then realized just what a time crunch she was in. Smiling apologetically at the nurse she said, “I really would love to, Willow, but I can’t. We need to get moving.”

“Oh, of course.” Willow smiled, feeling silly for even offering it. Why on earth would this woman, famous, rich, talented beyond all belief, want to see what the simple people do? She wanted to melt into the car mat.

The door was suddenly opened, the driver extending a hand to help the blonde out. She took it, surprised to find Christine following her out. She looked up at the singer uncertainly.

“Thank you for coming, Willow,” Christine said. “It meant a lot.”

“Oh,” Willow was stunned by how genuine those words were. “It was truly my pleasure, Miss Gray.”

“Christine.”

“Christine.” Willow smiled sheepishly.

“Good. Here,” Willow found something placed in her hand, and realized it was a small slip of paper. “If you ever need anything, please don’t hesitate to call.” At the stunned look, Christine suddenly knew she could trust this woman with the personal information she’d just given her. It wasn’t just anyone she gave a path of contact to.

“Thank you,” Willow said with awe, having noticed a phone number on the paper she pocketed. She then found herself wrapped up in a warm hug.

“It was nice to see you, Willow,” Christine said, releasing the smaller woman.

“You, too. Please, please take care of yourself.” The blonde looked up into blue eyes, her own pleading. The singer smiled with a nod.

“I promise.”

With that she was gone.

Willow watched as the red taillights of the limo disappeared into the darkness, a buzzing soaring through her body. She was filled with adrenaline as she fully realized what her evening had been.

She felt like jumping up and down, howling at the moon. A natural high coursed through her, that she had no doubt must be what drugs were like. She grinned from ear to ear, a little chuckle-growl erupting from her throat.

“Hey, babe,” Kevin called out from the living room as Willow headed toward the stairs.

“Hey,” she answered, voice in a daze. Kevin’s brow drew, leaning back in the couch, trying to get a glimpse of his wife. “Did you have fun?”

“Amazing.”

“Long concert,”

“We went to dinner after.” Willow tossed her keys and wallet to the small table at the foot.

“But I thought Rachel had to work tonight?” Kevin said, standing in the archway between the living room and small foyer where his wife stood, foot on the bottom step.

“She did.” With that quiet response, the blonde headed up to bed. She was exhausted from all the excitement of the night. Kevin watched her go, shaking his head as he turned back to the living room and ESPN.

Willow headed out of the bathroom, soft flushing behind her, and grabbed her shirt from the hem, pulling it off in one fluid movement. Tossing it to the laundry basket at the foot of the bed, she emptied her pockets, pulling out change, Chap Stik and the folded piece of paper. Looking at it, she shook her head in disbelief.

“I can’t believe she gave me her number,” she muttered, tucking the paper into her jewelry box for safe keeping.

****

Christine sat back against the soft, leather seat of the long car. She sighed happily, thinking over the evening. Willow was everything she expected someone so generous to be. She could sense a level of compassion in the nurse that she’d never seen before.

Such a beautiful woman. She hoped to see her again.

The ride back to the hotel was quiet, Christine so lost in her thoughts that before she knew it, they were pulling into the circular drive, and her door was being opened.

“Have a nice night, miss,” the man in the chauffeur uniform said, tipping his hat.

“Thank you.” He bowed slightly at the money given him as a tip

“Good evening, Miss Gray,” the doorman said, opening the tinted glass door at the front of the hotel.

“Good evening to you, too. Thank you.” She passed through with a smile, hurrying to the elevator banks. She had a lot to do tonight, and didn’t want to be sidetracked by fans or the press. Truth be told, she was exhausted and just wanted to rest in a real bed. Not to be.

Light flashing green, Christine removed her keycard and pushed the door to her suite open. She groaned when she saw the lone figure sitting in a chair, legs gracefully crossed and a well manicured hand casually holding a tumbler filled with amber fluid.

“What are you doing in here?” she sighed, headed toward her bedroom. She’d changed clothes after the show, but was craving a hot shower.

“I told you we weren’t finished with our conversation.” He downed the rest of his drink, setting the tumbler on the glass and wrought iron table next to him.

“What’s to talk about?” Christine called from the bedroom, digging through her suitcase until she found a comfortable pair of jeans and tank top to change into after her shower.

“Plenty.”

The singer turned, seeing her manager standing in the doorway of the room, noting his perfectly tailored slacks with a white button up shirt tucked into them, sleeves rolled up to mid-forearm. That was his ‘sloppy’ look.

“Such as?” Tired of this, the singer turned to him, hand on hip.

“Such as what was that garbage you pulled out of your ass during the encore? That was not on the roster, Christine.” Arms folded across his chest, he took an aggressive stance.

“I wrote that song, Bob. I wanted to try it out on a live audience, and it worked. They loved it.” She turned back to her mission, tossing a thong and pair of socks onto the bed next to the jeans and tank.

“You sitting at a piano, spotlight on you, singing some bullshit song about love is not you, and it will never be you. Got me?”

Christine gasped, Bob’s voice suddenly directly behind her. She quickly moved away from him, putting the bed between them.

“Are you threatening me?” she asked, anger building.

“I’m simply telling you how it is. I’ve not steered you wrong in almost twenty years, and I’m not about to start now.” Bob leaned against the dresser behind him.

“I’m a big girl now, Bob. I’m not some naïve kid off the streets,” she pointed out.

“You think you can take care of yourself?” he asked, dark brow raising, as was his voice, though still under careful control. “Then why the fuck were you in rehab not six months ago?”

Jaw muscles jumping in frantic beats, she made her way around the bed in a second, mere inches from Knowles.

“Don’t kid yourself, Bob,” she growled. “My problems are my own, but know that you’re at the root of many of them. You’re only going to push me so far and then that’ll be it. Got me?”

Bob stared at her, will power alone keeping his jaw from dropping. In all his years as Christine Gray’s manager, she’d never spoken back to him, or outright threatened him. He was at loss for words. The singer used that to her advantage.

“Now get out of here so I can get ready to go.” She grabbed her clothes then headed into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.

Robert Knowles stood there in the empty room, blinking rapidly. Swallowing his anger down, he glanced down at the bed, not two feet in front of him. Reaching out, his fingers made contact with the soft, silky material of one of Christine’s shirts. Sighing sadly, he gently tucked the shirt back into the suitcase and left the suite.

****

“This is Christine Gray. Christine, Dr. Wayne Pollani.” Fourteen years old, I’m left by the door as the two men consulted. “Wayne, I want every part of her checked. I want to know anything she has, sexual diseases, birth defects, every and anything. Even if she has lice, I need to know.”

“You’ve got it, Bobby,” the doctor said, slapping the manager on the shoulder. The door to the large office opened, almost knocking me on my ass. I growl.

“Oh, sorry, hon.” A young woman wearing scrubs smiles, holding a gown in her arms. “I need you to go across the hall and put this on, okay? I need everything gone, panties, bra and all jewelry. Alright?”

I nod dumbly, not sure what to do. I was overwhelmed, suddenly finding more people in the room as a man and a woman entered pushing a table of equipment and covered tools. With a smile, Robert Knowles leaves, leaving me alone with these people. I go to change. Not sure what to do with my only pair of jeans, and one of three shirts, I fold them and leave them in the curtained cubicle.

In bare feet, and trying to not let my ass show, I go back across the hall to the office where it’s just the doc and that nurse chick. I swallow, uncertainty flowing through me in very unwelcome waves.

“Come over here, Christine, honey,” the nurse grabs me by the arm and leads me to the scale where my weight and height are written down, Dr. Pollani and the nurse muttering amongst themselves. God damn, I feel so exposed! Maybe that’s cause the doc is telling me to lay on the table and put my legs in the cold, metal stirrups.

I have never in my life been so humiliated as he sits on a stool between my legs looking into my twat, the nurse standing behind him scribbling in my chart whatever he says.

I stare up at the ceiling, trying to forget what’s happening to me. I could go out and fuck ten guys and not feel nearly as exposed.

I cringe as I feel something cold and metal inserted inside me, making me feel as if I’m being fucked by the Terminator or something.

Vaginal and anal rape, at least it feels like it, finished, and I was sat up, asked a ton of questions, then finally the doc gets around look into my eyes, my nose my ears.

Like a day later, okay, so about two hours later, the doc is done and I’m finally allowed to get dressed.

In a whirlwind flurry I’m whisked off into a town car with darkly tinted windows, then up into the hills of Beverly Hills, through locked gates and on up to a mansion, the likes I’ve only seen in People magazine and reruns of Dynasty.

I’m so tired and just want a bed. My body hurts from being almost ripped apart by that damn doctor.

The house is chaos as I’m ushered in, people flying around everywhere, barking orders, following orders, all of them ignoring me.

“Tonya, take her.” Knowles shoves me toward a young Hispanic woman who takes hold of my hand, wordlessly leading me toward the massive staircase.

“Where am I?” I ask, looking frantically around as we hurry past a hall of closed doors, the one at the very end being opened by a key Tonya slides in the lock.

“You’re at Mr. Bob’s house, and this will be your room while you’re here.” The door opens to a large room with a bed, two dressers and two huge windows. A closed door off to the left is what I assume is a bathroom.

“How long-” the door closes and Tonya is gone. “Great fucking hospitality,” I mutter, heading over to the closed door. Yep, bathroom, claw-footed tub, toilet and oval mirror. Very basic. “Jesus. Feel like I’m in a fucking hospital.”

The room is just as basic, though nice. Certainly nicer than where I’ve been. Looking out one of the windows I see the sun is high, the grass green and flowers in bloom.

“So this is California.” Before this joker showed up I never even flew before. Don’t like it. There’s just something unnatural about being thirty-five thousand feet in the air when God didn’t give us wings.

Sleep came quick. It wasn’t anything new for me to sleep in a strange place, but this time it was nice for it to actually be clean. Man, some of those motels got nasty!

I don’t remember the last time I’d had sheets that felt or smelled so good. I stretched my body out, luxuriating in the feel against my naked skin. Maybe this wouldn’t be such a bad deal after all.

****

“Whoa, baby. That a girl.” The horse pulled up to the fence, Willow swinging off her back. “That’s my Star. Good girl,” the horse snorted, nudging the blonde with her nose. “How about an apple, huh?” Heading over to the bucket on the porch, she grabbed a nice, juicy Granny Smith and headed back to rail fence that Star leaned her head over. “Here, baby.”

The horse took the treat, the hairs on her nose tickling Willow’s palm. She smiled, running her hand down the mare’s nose, fingering the white star pattern.

“Hey, babe?” Kevin called out from the garage.

“Yeah?”

“Have you seen my fishing gear?”

Willow glanced toward the large structure, hearing things being moved around, then a crash.

“I’m fine!” the man called out, making Willow dread what she’d find. As she got to the garage, Kevin came out, fishing pole and tackle box in hand. Showing her the rod with a victorious grin, then loaded them into the back of his truck.

“Do you have everything?” she asked, peeking over the side of the large truck, seeing the tent in its bag and sleeping bag. The cooler filled with food they’d bought four days before, and now the rod and tackle box.

“I think so.” He grinned, his fishing vest in place, which the blonde knew would be accompanied by that horrible fishing hat he loved so much.

“You guys have fun, and no falling into the river this time,” she poked him.

“Yeah, yeah.” Leaning down, he kissed his wife, savoring her feel and flavor. “See you Tuesday night.”

“Okay.” Giving him one last squeeze, Willow let him go, watching as he climbed into the truck cab. With a last wave, he started up the engine and headed out.

Willow took care of Star, then headed toward the house. Kevin and his three brothers were going fishing for the next four days, leaving her by herself. She relished the time, almost skipping to the porch.

Walking into the quiet house, Willow trailed her fingers over the walls of the entry hall, meaning to change the wallpaper, yet so hesitant. It was her grandma’s favorite, and she was loathe to lose it, even though she loathed it.

Peeking into the kitchen, she saw the dishes still drying in the rack by the sink, the newspaper folded neatly at the edge of the table in the breakfast nook. All was quiet.

Not sure what she wanted to do, she hurried up the stairs, which squeaked all the way. Once reaching the bedroom she shared with Kevin, she decided to take a long, hot bath in their Jacuzzi. She striped down, walking around nude to get a little friend from the top drawer of her bedside table. Tucking the small toy in her palm, she noticed her jewelry box out of the corner of her eye.

The paper was cool between her fingers.

****

Eyes closed, her fingers raced over the keys, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata filling the large room and her soul. The smooth feel of the ivory, slickness of the black keys.

Eyes closed, head swaying, she found peace.

The song ended, the final note uttered with such love, such care, slowly dying out in the space.

Christine’s head turned at the soft knock on her music room door.

“Yeah, Millie?”

“You’ve got a call, Christine.” The older woman walked into the room, cell phone in hand.

“Who is it?” the singer turned on the slick wood bench to give her house keeper her full attention.

“Willow Bowman,” Millie said, a twinkle in her dark eyes.

“Oh. Thank you.” Christine smiled, taking the phone. The older woman nodded, then hurried out, softly closing the door behind her. “Willow?” There was a slight pause.

“Um, hi.” The blonde sounded so nervous.

“Are you okay? Do you need anything?” Christine sat forward on the piano bench, worry suddenly filling her. She heard the soft laugh on the other end of the line.

“I’m fine, Christine. I just, I don’t know, just wanted to say hi, I guess.” Willow leaned back against the headboard, tucking the phone beneath her cheek and shoulder. She felt nervous chills race up and down her spine, palms sweating, voice almost quivering.

“Oh,” the singer covered her eyes with her hand, feeling silly. “Hi. Sorry, just got worried for a second.”

“It’s no problem. I guess you did say call if I needed anything.” Willow chuckled nervously, feeling like a dork. “How are you doing? I hear your tour was an all around success. Working on anything new?”

“Yeah, I was pleased with the tour. Glad it’s over for now, though,” Christine smiled, finger tracing one of the piano keys. “No, I’m taking a break right now, writing some new songs. Oh, and I’m fine.”

Willow smiled then took a deep breath to gather her courage. “Listen, Christine, um, I’m glad to hear that you’re taking some time off because uh, well, to be honest I do have a slightly ulterior motive for calling.”

“Oh?” Truly intrigued, the singer leaned back, bracing her weight on her hand.

“Yes. Um, well, see Kevin is out fishing with his brothers over the weekend, and I have some time off, and I was wondering if maybe, well, if perhaps, you might want that tour now.” She squeezed her eyes shut, grimacing as she waited for the answer.

“Yes.” Christine said, not even thinking. She surprised herself with such a spontaneous reaction, but didn’t regret it.

Willow shot up. “Yes?”

“Yes. I’ll come.”

“Oh,” the blonde let out her held breath, a smile spreading. “Oh. Great!”

“When would you like me to come?” Christine stood, heading out of the room to write a note for Millie to start on the arrangements.

“Well, uh, whenever it’s feasible for you.”

“Well, let’s see,” the singer glanced over at the wall clock. “It’s ten-thirty a.m. here, about a four hour flight, give or take, how about I get there around three?”

Blink, blink. “Yeah, okay!”

“Great!” Christine grinned. “See you then.”

“Kay,” Willow hit the off button on her phone, a grin plastered to her face. Then, “Oh my god!”

Jumping up from the bed, the blonde began to run around the house cleaning like she’d never cleaned before, changing sheets on every single bed in the house, not knowing if Christine Gray would be staying for the weekend or if she’d don her cape and fly back home that night.

She quickly took a shower, making sure her little buddy was safely put away back in the bedside table. There was no way she could do that then face Christine Gray. She’d melt from embarrassment, thinking that perhaps the singer would be able to look into her immediate past and see what she’d been up to that afternoon.

Pushing those thoughts from her mind, she quickly took care of the animals, then waited. Impatiently. Her eyes strayed to the clock above the kitchen sink for the fifth time in fifteen minutes.

“A watched pot will not boil. A watched pot will not boil.” Willow gasped, eyes opening wide when the sound of gravel crunching under tires hit her ears. Taking a deep breath and wiping sweaty palms on her denim-clad thighs, Willow ran a hand through her hair and headed to the front door. Through the screen she saw the flicker of red as a car came up the drive, then the whole thing. A red Jeep Wrangler.

The jeep pulled to a stop in front of the small yard, the woman behind the wheel wind-blown and wild looking. She glanced over at the nurse, smiling with a wave. Willow waved back.
Part 5
Willow glanced over her shoulder again, stunned all over again to see Christine Gray following her up the squeaky case, overnight bag slung over the singer’s shoulder. Blue eyes grinned knowingly up at her, making the blonde almost trip over the top step as she reached the second floor landing.

Leading her to the first door they came to, she entered the large, sun-filled room. Christine looked around, finding the rustic, country feel of the place almost comforting in a way. She could feel the warmth and love that radiated from the old walls.

“Is this okay? I know it’s not much. Probably not what you’re used to.” The nurse smiled, leaning against the wall by the open door.

“No, this is beautiful.” Christine smiled, taking in the antique four-poster bed with matching dresser and vanity. The handmade quilt on the bed and antique water basin atop the small table under the window. “I love it,”

Willow watched as the singer walked around the room, booted heels knocking on the old, wooden floor, which squeaked in a few places.

“How old is this house?” Christine set her bag down on the bed, making her smile as the bag bounced a bit.

“Well over a hundred years.”

“Show me.” At the blonde’s look of confusion, Christine grabbed her hand, pulling her out of the room. “You promised me a tour, so come on.”

Willow grinned, nearly tugged off her feet. “Okay, okay!”

“And, last but certainly not least, my babies.” Willow hung her arms over the rail fence, nodding toward the pasturing family of horses.

“How many do you have?” Christine also leaned on the fence, though backed off a bit when Jack, a huge black gelding, snorted in her general direction.

“They won’t hurt you. I have six. That big guy there eyeing you is Jack. He’s seven and as gentle as a bear, aren’t you, big guy?” Snorting again and tossing his head, Jack walked over to Willow’s outstretched hand, sniffing it.

“Wellll, they’re a bit too tall for my taste.”

The blonde eyed the tall singer, a brow raised. Christine smiled sheepishly, looking down. “Yes, well, the secret’s out. I’m a big ol’ wuss.”

“I won’t tell.” Willow glanced at her companion, chewing on her lip for a moment, thinking. “Want to see the rest of the property?”

Blue eyes left the horse, looking at the nurse. “Yeah,” she said, a bit of challenge in her voice.

“Follow me.”

****

“Okay, pull in the clutch here and give her gas at the same time. Easy, easy, now,” Willow grinned, holding the brunette back as she almost gunned the engine, sending her flying off god knew where. “Your break is here,” she squeezed the break on the left side of the handle bar.

“Okay. I think I got it,” Christine looked down at the red bike, which Willow had called a 1994 Yamaha WR 250. The blonde sat astride a matching yellow one.

“Ready?”

The singer nodded, revving her engine, which the blonde was doing as well. With that, they were off in a spray of dust and gravel.

It was strange getting used to the feel of the heavy bike between her legs, and balancing it. She’d never been on a motorcycle before, not even a small dirt bike like this one.

Willow led them through pastures, down dirt trails, and through the small cherry orchard that took up the southern corner of the property.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding!” Christine exclaimed, pulling her bike to an unsteady stop. Seeing her companion still back in the orchard, Willow turned her own bike around, idling next to the red Yamaha. “I love cherries!” The singer grinned at the blonde, then turned back to the trees before her. Rich, dark red and purple cherries covered the branches, making them hang tantalizingly close to her reach. “May I?”

“Please. Help yourself.” Willow sat back on the tell tale blue seat, Yamaha stenciled in large, white letters along the side. She was amused and charmed, watching her new friend jump up to snag a handful of the fruit, humming as sweet juices filled her mouth.

“This place is amazing, Willow.” Christine, hand filled with cherries, walked back to her bike, sitting sideways on the seat. She looked out over the acreage, the trees, sun, flatlands, beautiful, clear stream. All of it.

“Thank you. I love it here,” the blonde said quietly, a smile of pride and love on her lips. “It’s very special to me.”

“I can see why. You know, if this were my place, I’d grab my guitar and sit right out here,” she hitched her thumb back at the tree where she’d just picked her snack.

“You know,” Willow looked at Christine, her head slightly tilted shyly, “Kevin’s guitar is in the attic,”

“He plays?” Christine perked up.

“He used to. That’s how he got me to go out with him,” Willow chuckled.

“Oh yeah?” All cherries gone, the singer crossed her arms over her chest, a small smirk spreading.

“Yeah. He made up this horrible song, and wouldn’t stop playing it until I said yes.”

“And so you said yes,”

“And so I said yes.”

“How long have you been together?”

“Seven years.” Willow killed the engine on her bike, dismounting and plopping down in the shade of the huge trees. It felt good, just a lazy, late Saturday afternoon. She was amazed at how comfortable she felt with the singer. Willow realized that Christine Gray was just a woman. A wonderfully talented and famous one, but a woman all the same. Human, flesh and bone.

“What are you thinking about?” Christine asked, her voice quiet, not wanting to break the peace that filled her.

“Hmm? Oh,” Willow looked away, hiding her smile. “I was just thinking that I’m surprised about you.”

Brows drawn. “Why? In what way?” She stood from the bike and sat next to Willow.

“I don’t know,” the blonde shrugged. “I’ve never met a celebrity before, and I guess I thought-”

“Okay, hold that thought,” Christine held up a hand, a gentle smile pulling at her lips. “This weekend, here on your beautiful ranch, what say you we’re just Willow and Christine. Please?” Green eyes stared into blue for long minutes, when finally Willow nodded.

“Okay.”

“Thank you.”

“Well,” Willow put her hands on her knees, ready to push up and stand. “You hungry?”

“Starved,” Christine grinned.

“Come on. Let’s get you fed.” The blonde stood, holding her hand out, which was taken in a larger, calloused one.

****

I was sleeping soundly, my body able to stretch out and relax for far too long when I bolted awake, nearly pissing myself as the door to the room I’d been drug to the night before flung open.

“Time to get up, Christine,” a woman’s voice rang out, managing to cut through my muddled haze. She walks across the room with purpose, grabbing the closed curtains and pulling them open, sunlight spraying into my eyes.

“Jesus Christ, lady!” Bringing my hands up, I cover my face. “Who the hell are you?”

“My name is Sandra and I’ll be your stylist.” She walks back to the door from whence she’d so rudely come, hand on the door frame. I finally get a look at her. Blonde hair piled on top of her head in some pompous do, pristine suit in a vomitous color of greenish brown. Dangly gold earrings and very high heels, making the muscles in her bare calves stand at attention. “You have three minutes.” With that, she’s gone.

“Fuck me.” Scrubbing at my face, I pull the covers back, and I groan. This is crap. All I want is a good night’s sleep and to be left alone! That thought is no sooner out into my head when the door opens again. “What the fuck!” Snatching a pillow, I try to hide my naked ass.

“I need you to shower as quickly as possible,” the woman says. She’s a creepy looking chick, very dark hair, like bottle black, cut into a page-boy, eyebrows plucked to near nothing and extremely long lashes that have got to be fake.

“What happened to three minutes?” I growl, not happy in the least.

“Deal. Besides, that was Sandra’s rule, not mine.” She goes out into the hall, returning moments later with a large, pink case. She sets it on the dresser top, opening it to reveal row upon row of various make-ups in every shade you can imagine, and even some you can’t.

Stopping, she looks at me through the mirror. “Is there a problem?” she asks, her voice decidedly nasal. Glaring, I shake my head and pad into the bathroom.

I stand in the shower, letting the hot water run over my chilled skin. I don’t know how long I’m there before I even touch a single bottle of soap. I’m confused, yes even scared, and feel utterly helpless. About to grab a bottle of shampoo, I nearly jump out of my skin when someone bangs on the shower doors.

“Scrub your face really well with this,” a pale hand reaches inside the damn shower stall! I can’t believe this. I snag the little jar from those clawed fingers, looking at it. It’s clear glass, the goop inside looking sandy and rather disgusting.

“Ack!” I scream out. That shit burns! Scrubbing my face as quickly as I can, I jerk the knob to cold, the cool water easing my burning skin.

Wrapping in a robe, I head back into the bedroom, my face still burning, the skin red and angry. There is quiet murmuring as I enter, Sandra and the goth bitch are talking amongst themselves, a very queer looking man mixing various chemicals, holding up his results to look at in the bright sunlight.

“Oh good. You gave her the crème.” My head jerks when I hear Sandra’s voice. She and goth chick, which in my mind I refer to as GC, are looking at me. Sandra walks over to me, walking around me in a slow circle. At first I try to follow her progress, but with an irritated sigh, she puts a stern hand on my shoulder to stay me, and continues her journey.

“See anything you like?” I ask, feeling beyond exposed as the robe is opened.

“Hmm, not yet.” Sandra grabs a small tape recorder from the dresser, speaking closely into the mic. “Gray is too thin, call George this afternoon. Hold off on true fit until gain.” Clicking it off, she looks at me, head slightly tilted to the side.

I am so completely out of my league here, and I have no idea what to do or what to say. I don’t think I’d ever felt totally scared until that moment.

Within moments, I stand naked, three pairs of eyes on me and a cloth measuring tape on my skin. Standing straight, arms held out. It’s Chris on a cross.

As measurements are being called out, I close my eyes, trying to pretend this isn’t happening. Suddenly I find I’m alone, the three heads bent over the page my measurements were written on.

“How’s it going ladies?” Robert Knowles says, clapping his hands together as he stands in the doorway to the room. My eyes bulge, and I grab the robe to cover myself. “Don’t worry, honey. Nothing I haven’t seen before,” he actually winks at me!

“Her body is awful, Robert. I don’t know what you were thinking,” Sandra laments.

“So fix it! What the hell am I paying you for?” Bob glances over at me, taking in an eyeful, then turning back to the swarm of stylists. And why the fuck didn’t the hair guy, no matter how queer he is, bitch slap him for calling him a woman?

“Does God make enough duct tape?” Sandra muttered, turning back to her notes.

“So how are you this morning? Did you sleep well?” Knowles asks, absently twisting his gold, pinky ring around the hairy-knuckled finger.

“It was okay,” I shrug, trying to come off as nonchalant as possible, standing here with a terry cloth robe held in front of my naked body. Man, he was giving me the chills.

“Here,” large hands rest on my shoulders, and I find myself being turned around, my bare ass open for his gaze. Two arms reach around me, almost in some creepy fatherly hug, the robe taken from my trembling hands, then spread over my shoulders. Quickly my arms find the sleeves, and I wrap that puppy around me quicker than you can bat an eye.

“Robert, we need to talk,” says GC.

“Alright. See you later, okay?” is said in my ear, making me shiver. I nod, turning to face him, back away a step or two, just glad to get away from him. “Enjoy your day, ladies,” and with that, he’s gone.

****

It had been an amazing day. Willow stripped down, a cool summer breeze blowing in to cool heated skin. Sometimes she wished she had a summer home in Montana- escape the oppressive heat.

Pulling back the cool, cotton sheets on the king-sized bed, she slid inside, sighing softly. She had very sensitive skin, and the feel of something sliding against it was often pure bliss. Tactile bliss.

A blonde head met the softness of the pillow, and green eyes closed. Only to open a few seconds later.

Willow’s mind was abuzz with the events of the day, so unexpected and extremely fun. Christine Gray, beautiful, talented, famous, and at her ranch!

After finally getting back to the house, Willow had dug out Kevin’s guitar in the attic, as promised, embarrassed at the layer of dust and spider webs that clung to the hard, black case. Cleaned off, she’d handed it over to the singer who gladly took it.

Willow insisted Christine relax as she made them dinner- a wonderful pasta salad with vegetables grown in her own garden.

Christine sat on one of the stools at the breakfast bar, tuning the acoustic.

“Is that your favorite instrument?” the blonde asked, chopping veggies.

“No,” Christine smiled, strumming a simple tune. “I love the guitar and it’s pretty easy to lug around, but it can never match the beauty of the piano.”

“Ah, the piano.” Willow wiped her hands on a dish towel, indicating that Christine should follow with the flick of her head. The singer gently set the guitar on the bar before her and followed.

She was led into a small room off the main hall where a fireplace was tucked into a diagonal corner, a couch ran in front of it, and an upright against the opposite wall.

“Ohh,” the singer breathed, taking in the beautiful, and very old instrument. “Wow. This must be your pride and joy.” Wide blue eyes took in the dark cherry wood and two curvy front legs, which held the heavy instrument up. She brushed long, experienced fingers over the smooth, curved cover, which she knew hid the key to the angelic sound.

“Well, to be honest, my grandparents have had it all my life. It’s one of the few furniture pieces that I’ve kept in the house.”

“Well, they’ve had this piano all their lives, too. I’d say,” she knelt down, looking under the keyboard, bringing a finger up to trace an inscription in the wood. “What I thought,” getting to her feet, she told Willow of her find. “This, dear Willow, is a Pleyel, I’d guess from sometime around the mid-nineteenth century.” She lovingly caressed the wood. “You’re sitting on a small gold mine with this baby.”

“You’re kidding?” the blonde looked at the piano she’d seen almost everyday of her life, stunned. “What’s a Pleyel?”

“French piano maker. May I?” Christine tapped the rounded cover.

“Please.”

Willow quietly stepped up to the side of the instrument, leaning against the high top, watching those same long fingers ran across the aged keys, testing its tune. Within moments, the notes began to make sense and come together to form a wonderful song that Willow had never heard.

Not wanting to interrupt the singer, she slowly made her way back to the kitchen, humming softly to herself as she finished dinner.

Willow turned over to her side, watching the tree branch sway in front of the window, the moonlight peaking through the leaves, creating strange shapes of shadow on the bedroom walls.

She thought about the way Christine had wolfed her food down, little moans of appreciation slipping out now and then, making the blonde smile.

Willow had never seen someone eat so much, but she was glad to able to offer what she had. She encouraged a slightly shy-to-ask Christine to take as many helpings as she wished.

The highlight of the night, however, had been when they’d gathered into the piano room, the blonde taking a seat on the couch, bare feet curled under her, and a glass of iced tea in her hands. Christine had taken her place on the piano bench, back straight, form perfect. The music she’d produced had brought tears to Willow’s eyes. So fluid and heartfelt, bringing a round of solo applause when the song was done.

Christine had taken the gratitude with a shy smile, bowing at her audience of one, then moving on to one of her own pieces.

“That was amazing,” Willow whispered, having made her way over to the piano during the song.

“Thank you.”

“What is it called? Who composed it?”

“Well,” Christine said, sipping quickly from her own glass of tea, resting on a TV tray next to the instrument, “It’s called ‘Twilight’, and I wrote it.”

“You wrote that?” Willow pointed at the piano, incredulous. The singer nodding with a chuckle. “Wow. Why that name? Is your group named after it, or is the song named after your band?”

“Yes.” Christine grinned. “I love twilight, and think it’s one of the most important times of the day. Well, next to dawn, that is. But I think twilight is more important.” She turned on the bench to face her friend. “See, for me twilight is kind of like the path for a new beginning. Everything that happened that day, good, bad or anywhere between, is gone, but not forgotten. Almost as if the next day you can try again, new slate, but with the memories of the past. You know?” She grinned at the memories. “Back home I used to climb up on my friend Adam’s building and watch the sun go down before I, well.”

Before you what, Christine? Went out to be a whore?

“I seen you on that stage, kid, just like I seen you on them streets with the rest of us. I seen them guys in the audience watching you, one hand around their girl, the other on their crotch, waitin’ for their chance to fuck the entertainer.” Bitter laughter and a puff of smoke exhaled. “Get over it. You is a whore, always been a whore, and always be a whore.”

Shaking her head to clear the memory, she looked down at her hands, still resting on the keyboard.

Willow stared at the singer for a moment, the softly spoken words fully entering into her brain. Finally she nodded. “Yes. I understand perfectly. The amazing thing is I got that from your song. The way the song, and please forgive me. I’ll probably butcher all of it as I know nothing about music or its terminology. Anyway, the way the song just kind of went along on its merry way, some high notes, some low and melancholy. But,” the blonde paused, chewing on her bottom lip as she tried to find the right words. “but the entire time, there is this kind of underlying build, like its all leading to something, and something big, making my heart beat just a little faster, and my body fill with anticipation. Then all the sudden,” she clapped her hands loudly. “It all comes together like the crest of a huge wave, falling over you in a sensation that I still feel as a shiver down my spine,”

Christine looked at the smaller woman’s face as she expressed her thoughts. How bright her eyes got, the excitement flushing her features. She noted the whiteness of the teeth seen briefly pulling the full, lower lip inside her mouth.

The singer was truly touched by Willow’s words, no matter how simple. She was beyond pleased that the music had filled her so completely, and that the blonde had been moved and touched. Realizing Willow was no longer speaking, but was simply looking at her, she cleared her thoughts and smiled.

“Thank you, Willow. You explained it beautifully.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Willow nervously ran her fingers across the top of the upright, feeling suddenly very stupid for her little monologue.

“No, really. I understand perfectly what you mean, and how it made you feel. That means a lot to me that you were touched so deeply.”

“I was,” Willow said softly. “Why don’t you play more of this sort of thing? Like that song you played during your last encore. Just you and that beautiful grand piano. It was wonderful.”

“Well,” Christine cleared her throat, wanting to change the subject. “That was a rarity, and it probably won’t happen again. Unfortunately it doesn’t fit too well with Twilight’s style.”

Willow could tell there was more to it than that, but decided not to push or ask.

****

Christine pulled her t-shirt on, lifting her hair to free it from the cotton confines. T-shirt, shorts and bare feet, she slowly opened her door, trying to stay quiet. Not hearing anything, and figuring the small blonde was probably sound asleep, so she continued on.

Creeping down the stairs, wincing with the squeak that punctuated every step. Finally making the ground floor, she took it slow, not knowing the house well enough in the day she’d been there to not run right into something and lose a toe.

Heading down the hall that led to the kitchen, she fumbled around until she found the glasses, then ever grateful to the little light on the fridge ice maker. Sticking the glass under the cubed ice slot, she winced again as the ice clinked into the glass, and the maker’s engine groaned at the activity. Finally filling the glass with water, the ice popped to life as the little air bubbles were broken by the water.

Listening, she heard nothing. Coast clear, she brought the glass to her lips.

“Christine?”

“Shit!”

Both women jumped and yelped as the glass slipped through the singer’s fingers, falling to the floor with a crash, Christine gasping as the cold water and ice covered her bare feet and splashed up onto her legs.

“Oh my god, I’m so sorry!” Willow exclaimed, muffled through her fingers. “Are you okay?” Flicking on the light above the stove, she gasped. “Oh, Christine, I’m so sorry,” falling to her knees, she picked at the pieces of broken glass that littered the singer’s feet, sucking in a breath as she saw a small sliver sticking out of the top of Christine’s right foot.

“It’s okay. I’m sorry,” the singer said, trying her best to not react to the intense sting flowing from her foot, coloring Willow’s fingers red.

“No, no, hang on,” the blonde stood, hurrying across the kitchen, careful to avoid the incredibly sharp little glass daggers spread all across the tiled floor. Quickly grabbing the First Aid kit from the downstairs bathroom, she ran back to find Christine on her knees, gathering pieces of glass into the palm of her hand. “No, no. Don’t you dare clean that up.”

Christine looked up, watching as the frantic blonde got the First Aid kit set up on the counter by the sink. “I’m okay, Willow,” she said quietly.

“No, you’re cut.” Willow grabbed the singer’s hand, pulling her to her feet. “Can you walk? Or do you need to lean on me?”

Christine couldn’t keep the wince off her face as she tried to put weight on it. Before she knew it, a strong arm was around her waist, and she was being led the short distance to the counter by the sink.

“Hop up,” the two women got the singer situated on the counter, her foot in the sink, and warm water running over it. “I know it stings. I’m really sorry,” Willow gently ran her fingers over the soft skin of the top of Christine’s foot, making sure there was no glass remaining on her skin.

“Oh, I don’t know,” the singer grinned. “I’m thinking it’s your very own personal burglar alarm. You scare them so badly that they hurt themselves by dropping their weapons. You know, maybe they’d shoot off their own foot or something,”

“Oh, stop,” Willow glared playfully up at her patient who was smirking at her.

Carefully drying the skin around the rather deep cut, Willow looked at it carefully, trying to determine if it needed stitches or not.

“I think butterfly stitches will do.” Meeting blue eyes, Willow saw the slight nod, and turned back to the wound. Realizing Christine had in fact not been asleep, but awake, a worry line creased between her eyes. “Are you okay, Christine? Was the bed uncomfortable?”

“No, it’s great. I’m fine, just couldn’t sleep,” the singer explained softly. “My mind just doesn’t always shut off, you know?”

“Yeah. I understand.” Willow unwrapped the sterile butterfly strip.

“What about you? Why are you up? Did I wake you?” Christine leaned back on her hands, watching the blonde’s gentle, yet very skillful fingers work on her foot.

“No.” Willow smiled, placing a piece of gauze over the wound, and taping it into place. “I was craving Oreos.” She risked a glance up into amused blue eyes. “And I couldn’t sleep.”

Christine looked down at the neat dressing and gave the blonde a lopsided grin. “Will I walk again, doc?”

“In time.” Willow patted the foot, then began to clean up.

“Oh, good. You know, it just won’t do to have to run around stage with a walker or crutches.”

“No, but if you’re not careful, you’ll be rolling around the stage in a wheelchair.” Willow raised a brow at her empty threat, smiling with the other woman threw her head back and laughed.

“Come on, doc. Bring out the Oreos.”

****

Strong, tanned fingers held the small, brown cookie, another set of fingers twisting, brining two halves apart, slowly and deliberately. Finally, in one solid piece, the white cream was revealed.

Christine forgot about her own cookie as she watched a tongue snake out, the pointed tip caught the edge where the cream met the cookie, lifting it just enough to slide the tongue further under the thick layer, slowly lifting it further and further, a dry residue powdering the dark lower cookie layer.

She couldn’t help but wonder how the little blonde made such an innocent, child-like activity so erotic.

Turning back to her own cookie, she popped it into her mouth and sipped from her glass of cold milk.

Willow swallowed thoughtfully, totally unaware of the scrutiny from the singer moments before.

“So,” she took a small sip of milk. “You’re originally from New York, right?”

Christine glanced at her, taking another bite from the Oreo held gingerly between her fingers. She chewed slowly, mind churning. She dreaded having to deny the blonde, but she had no desire to answer questions she knew were coming. Wiping the milk mustache away, she nodded.

“Yes. Born in Queens.”

“Are your parents still there? They must be so proud of you.” Willow smiled big, grabbing another cookie from the blue, white and black package.

Christine smiled back, though it was very sad. She contemplated for all of three seconds, knowing how easily she could lie and say yep, they’re so proud and they tell me all the time. But somehow she couldn’t lie to the woman sitting across from her. It amazed the singer just how much she felt she could trust Willow. She decided to tell the truth about her family for the first time in more than twenty years.

“I don’t know,” she said quietly, looking into confused green eyes.

“You don’t know?” Willow cocked her head to the side slightly.

“I haven’t seen my parents since I was nine years old.”

Willow looked at her friend’s face, seeing the pain in the blue eyes. The voice was so soft, not a whisper, but almost as though Christine couldn’t quite get the words out. She said nothing, waiting for the singer to say more. She had the strangest feeling that Christine wanted to get some things out.

“My father was a thug basically. Always in and out of trouble.” She played with her milk glass, unable to meet the steady gaze from across the table. “My mother was a drug addict, also in and out of jail.” She sighed. “One day they just didn’t come home.”

“Did they-”

“No.” Christine shook her head, sitting back in her chair. “I think Gary got caught up in something over his head, and she got involved, too.”

“Gary is your father?” Willow asked quietly.

“Yes. His common-law wife, Caren, gave birth to me. And, in the long run, I think they packed up all their shit and were gone.”

“They left you!” Willow’s voice squeaked with the outraged surprise. Christine smiled softly. She’d had twenty-two years for it to sink in.

“It all turned out okay, Willow,” she said softly, that same smile on her lips. Willow stared at her for a long moment, letting everything she’d been told absorb, as well as adding little details of her own fiction. Sensing the discussion now closed, she lowered her eyes and nodded.

“I’ll just say one thing,” she glanced up through her bangs. Christine looked at her expectantly. “I’m very sorry.”

“Thank you.”

“And,” swallowing the sorrow that filled her for her friend, Willow smiled large and bright, then yawned. “I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll be able to sleep now. Oh, excuse me.” She covered her mouth as her yawn got bigger.

“Me, too.” Christine lied, knowing that she was probably done with sleep for the night. She stood, closing up the cookie package, and stowing it in the cabinet she’d seen Willow take it from. The blonde rinsed out their glasses and turned to her friend. Squeezing the taller woman’s shoulder, she wished her a good night, then headed upstairs.

Christine watched her go, then sighed and ran a hand through her hair. Trying to decide what to do, she saw the guitar standing in the corner of the room.

****

The apartment was empty, and I just see half-drank carton of orange juice sitting on the dust-covered floor. I go over to it, dropping my pink backpack on the floor as I go. The juice isn’t cold no more.

I got a bad feeling.

Going to the only other room I see the bed is gone. There’s not even that big ol’ crucifix that was above it.

I jumped as the front door is opened, the many locks banging against the wall behind it. Voices, and they don’t belong to Gary or Caren.

“We gotta get this shit cleaned up. Got another tenant,” a man’s voice said, deep and gruff.

“I’ll get right on it.” Somebody leaves, but the heavy footfalls across the wood floors. I look at the doorway, waiting for whoever. I feel sweat start to break out under my hair. I don’t have to wait long.

The man’s gut appeared before he did. He looks like he’s pregnant, and I have to stop myself from giggling at the thought. He’s in one of those shirts Gary calls a wife beater, and dirty black pants that hang down under his gut.

“What are you doing here, kid? This ain’t no goddamn playground! Get outta here!” He lunges at me, but I’m faster. Running around him, I don’t even grab my backpack, and suddenly I’m out of the smelly old building and out on the streets, traffic whizzing all around me, and people on the sidewalks pushing past me.

It’s hot and I’m scared. Wandering down the street, looking at every person who passes, desperate for a friendly face.

I make it the three blocks down to the almost non-existent park that’s not far from my school. I hear laughter, kid laughter. Lacing my fingers in the chain link that surrounds the small, grassed area with a bench and a basketball hoop, I watch the kids play. There’s about six or seven of them, and they all look a little older than me, like around eleven or twelve. Boys.

There’s one boy, smaller than the others. He’s being teased, and pushed.

“Come on you little half-breed. Come get the ball!” one boy yells out, holding the basketball high up. The kid with the glasses is trying to grab it from him. I’m impressed that he’s not giving up.

“Give it to me, Victor,” he growls, taking a running jump, but the tall boy called Victor shoots the ball over to one of his pals.

Then I get real mad. The kid with the ball throws it at the little guy, hitting him right in the face and knocking his glasses off. I hear them crack as they hit the small, cement court.

Fists clenched, I make my way over to the partially opened gate and run up to the boys, pushing the one who threw the ball.

“What the-”

“You’re an asshole!” I yell out, pushing him again. I feel the anger of finding Gary and Caren gone again rising in me, lava under my skin boiling to the surface. These jerks picked the wrong day to mess with someone.

We hit the ground with double grunts and I start to wail on him. His eyes squeezed shut, his head flailing back and forth to try and avoid my blows from my fists.

“Get her off me! Get her the fuck off me!” the kid cries. I growl as hands are anchored under my arms and I’m pulled off, kicking and flailing.

Landing hard on my shoulder, I jump up, really mad now, thrashing out at anyone close to me.

“Jesus! You crazy, bitch!” Victor says, jumping back away from me. I glare at him, chest heaving with unvented anger and frustration. “Let’s get the fuck outta here,” he says, turning and walks away.

The other boys look at me as they pass, one by one, including the kid I just beat the shit out of. He swipes the back of his hand across his bloodied nose, broken lip trembling. It satisfies me to see how shook up he is. I smirk at him, just as I seen Gary do to Caren after he beat her real good.

Once they all left, I turn and see the kid with the broken glasses sitting on the cement, head hanging.

I see the glasses all twisted and messed up, lying near the bench.

“Here.” The kid looks up at me, a tear-streaked face, and takes the glasses from my fingers.

“Thanks,” he says quietly. Plopping down next to him, I bring my knees up and wrap my arms around them. “What’s your name?” he asks, turning the broken glasses this way and that, his dark, curly hair flopping in his face.

“Christine.”

“I’m Adam.” He looks at me, a small smile on his face. “You really kicked some butt.”

I grin, looking down at the stained cement under us.

“You like basketball?” Adam asks. I glance at him.

“Yeah. I like basketball.”

Christine wiped the wetness from her cheek, stared up at the stars. She hadn’t seen such complete darkness before, no lights from the city to obscure the heavens.

She set the guitar aside and scooted down, her head resting at the bottom of the tree, a hand behind her head.

It had been a long time since she’d thought about Gary and Caren. It seemed like a lifetime ago, and in many ways it was. Things she didn’t like to think about. Unfortunately her conversation with Willow over Oreos hours before had brought it all back. Now she was being haunted. Old specters she had thought long dead, or at least forgotten.

The sun would be rising soon, and the singer felt chilled. The emotions of the night making her cold inside, the kind of cold that a blanket or cup of coffee just can’t warm up. She’d yet to find anything that could warm her up.

Scrubbing at her eyes, she sat up, then with a groan stood, grabbing the neck of the guitar and headed toward the house.

****

“Thank you, Willow. This has been one of the most wonderful weekends I’ve had in a very long time.”

Willow smiled into the hug, squeezing a bit before being let go.

“Even with your battle scar?” she asked with a raised brow, nodding toward Christine’s foot. The singer chuckled.

“Yes. Even with my battle scar.” She heaved her bag into the back of the Jeep.

“You’re welcome here any time, Christine. If you need a break from all the glitz and glamour and adoring fans.” They both laughed, but then Willow sobered. “Or if you just need a break,” she finished softly.

“Thank you. And if you ever need a little glitz and glamour that the horses just can’t provide,” the singer winked, making Willow grin.

“Will do. Have a safe flight.” Willow watched as the singer climbed into the Jeep and drove away in a cloud of dust.
Part 6
Kevin grunted one more time, then slowly lowered his body, sweat making his skin stick to his wife’s. Willow wrapped her arms around his neck, kissing the side of his head as her heart rate began to slow, her body relaxing.

“I love you,” he whispered, laying a gentle kiss on Willow’s lips. She smiled.

“I love you, too.” Giving him a squeeze, he moved off her and rolled over. Within moments, he was asleep.

Feeling warm and content, but also rather sticky, and not completely satisfied, Willow made her way to the bathroom to clean up. Looking at herself in the mirror, she wet her fingers, trying to flatten her wild hair.

Using the toilet, she headed back to bed, climbing in to find herself curled up in strong arms, and warm breath on her neck. She fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.

****

“Here you go, honey,” Willow handed the little birthday girl a big, red balloon.

“Can I squeak your nose?” another gap-toothed kid asked. Willow bent over, and small fingers squeaked the red, bulbous prop. The kid gasped when the blonde made a loud horn noise between closed lips. Big, brown eyes looked up at the nose, and small fingers reached up again. But before they could touch the spongy nose, Willow reached out and tickled the little one’s sides, making him giggle.

“Okay, kids! Cake time!” little Amanda’s mom called out from the back porch. A dozen screaming, laughing five and six year olds ran to where the large cake with Care Bears on it, was being settled.

Willow eased her way out of the peripheral of the kids’ attention, and headed inside the house where Amanda’s dad was waiting to pay her.

“Hey,” he whispered, so as not to grab the attention of the kids, he opened his wallet. “great job.”

“Thanks, Ted.” The blonde grinned, stuffing the payment into the pocket of her baggy costume. “See you at work.”

“Have a good one, Willow.”

The clown turned to leave when she spotted the leftover burgers and hotdogs from the kids’ lunch.

“Oh, jeez,” making a very hasty retreat, Willow leaned against her car, hand to her stomach and eyes closed. She willed her stomach to settle, taking deep breaths of fresh air, letting it fill her lungs and settle her body.

Feeling the nausea beginning to pass, she fumbled with her keys, hands shaky. Inserting the silver key into the lock, she slid behind the wheel, tearing the frizzy red wig from her head. It was almost as just the slightest bit of extra clothing made her blood boil, and body heat rise.

She heard her mother’s words echo in her head:

“You’re fine, Willow. Now get up off the floor and finish vacuuming.”

“But mom, I don’t feel good,” I cry, wiping the back of my hand over my mouth, grimacing at the taste of fresh vomit.

“I said you’re fine,” mom looms over me, hands on her hips. “Everyone gets sick. You’ve gotten it out of your system, now don’t be a baby. You’re fine.” With that, she leaves me alone on the bathroom floor.

I try not to cry, knowing she’s right and that I’m making a big deal out of nothing. I mean, everyone throws up. Why should I be any different? Special?

“I’m fine,” she whispered, taking several more deep breaths.

****

“So you had to assure him he’d like it, huh?” Rachel grinned, closing the oven door and removing the oven mitt.

“Yeah. I promised him there would be no, oh what does he call them? Right, weird vegetables.” She chuckled, struggling to pop the cork on the wine bottle.

“What the hell are weird vegetables?” Rachel asked, stacking freshly baked rolls into a basket, then covering them with a towel to keep in their heat and freshness.

“Broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, or shrooms, as he calls them.”

“Oh my god. So are there normal veggies?”

“Yes, there are, actually. They consist of peas, corn, carrots and beats. It’s a bitch to cook for him.”

“No doubt!”

“Is Connor that difficult?” Willow glanced over at her friend, pouring four glasses of wine.

“Not hardly. The guy will eat anything.” She caught the blonde’s eye. “And I do mean anything.”

“Ew, gross! Far too much information, Rachel.”

“Yes, well, that’s easy for someone to say who has never had that done.” Turning off the oven, she got the salad together, tossing it with a set of tongs.

“I don’t know. It’s only fair, Rach. If I’m not going to go down on him, why should he have to on me?” Gagging once when an ex-boyfriend had roughly shoved himself down her throat, she was done with that nonsense. She had thought it one of the most disgusting things anyway. Luckily Kevin didn’t seem to care much.

“I don’t get it.”

“Apparently you do.” They both laughed.

“So have you heard from Christine again? I cannot believe you didn’t call me when she was there,”

“I know, and I’m sorry. No, I haven’t.”

“But it’s been what, a month or so? Here, take this.”

“Yeah, about that.” The blonde took the salad in its large, wooden bowl, and hugged the various bottles of dressing to her body.

“Are you going to call her?” Rachel carefully removed the casserole from the confines of the cooling oven, setting it on the stovetop.

“Why would I do that?” Willow pressed her back to the swinging door of the kitchen.

“Don’t want to seem like some silly, obsessed fan, huh?” Rachel grinned, making the blonde roll her eyes.

“It’s not like that, Rachel. I don’t know,” she sighed as she thought of what she was trying to say. “She’s not like that. She’s fun, has a great sense of humor.” She shrugged. “She’s a normal person.”

“And I guess one who isn’t into suing for damages,” Rachel’s eyes twinkled with mischief. Willow blushed, looking down.

“Yeah. That was extremely embarrassing.” With that, she butted the door open, and dinner was served.

“You guys are going to really like this,” Connor informed his dinner guests, forkful halfway to his mouth. Kevin looked doubtful, but was willing to try it, at least for his wife’s sake. He’d never been a huge fan of Rachel, seeing her as a gossip and a somewhat overpowering personality. They’d always clashed, but had kept it to themselves, both loving Willow too much to hurt her.

“Thanks, honey. It’s just a little something I threw together once,” Rachel said as she buttered a roll.

Willow smiled at the exchange, looking down at her own meal. The casserole looked good and even smelled better. At first.

She felt a bubbling in her stomach. Turning her head, she pushed her plate away.

“Honey?” Kevin said quietly, noticing his wife’s color had suddenly become very pale.

“I’m sorry. I don’t feel so hot,” Willow almost knocked her chair over in an attempt to get away from the smells and sights that were making her want to lose her non-existent dinner.

Closing the bathroom door behind her, green eyes squeezed shut as she tried to get herself under control.

“I’m okay, I’m okay,” she whispered over and over again. “I’m not going to throw up, not going to throw up. Shit, gonna throw up-” Rushing over to the toilet, she flung the lid open and anything she’d eaten that day came back for an encore, including the wine she’d had that night, which burned her throat. The taste alone made her gag all over again.

There was a soft tapping on the bathroom door as Willow rinsed her mouth out.

“Honey? Willow, are you okay?”

“Yeah,” she opened the door, a very concerned Kevin standing on the other side.

“Are you sick?”

“I don’t know.” Clicking off the light, she stepped out into the hall, her husband resting his hand on her back. “Guess I have a touch of the stomach flu.”

“Or maybe you got the plate Rachel intended for me,” he whispered, nipping at her earlobe with his teeth. The blonde giggled, playfully pushing him away.

“Stop. You two are like children, I swear.” She gave him a one-armed hug before heading toward the dining room. “Besides, I haven’t eaten a thing, yet.”

“You okay, sweetie?” Rachel asked, meeting the couple in the hall. Her blue eyes were narrowed in concern, glancing at Kevin for answers. He shrugged, and her gaze turned back to her friend.

“I’ll live,” Willow muttered, not wanting to talk to anyone. She felt self-conscious of what her breath must smell like.

“Come on, Wills. Let’s see what I’ve got for your tummy,” Rachel said, grabbing her friend’s hand.

“Rachel, I’m not four,” the blonde grumbled, feeling less than playful.

“Okay, hmm,” the redhead put her fingers to her lips, looking through the medicine cabinet. Willow sat heavily on the closed toilet lid.

“I feel like a truck just rolled over me.”

“Well, try this.” Rachel handed the pale woman a bottle of Milk of Magnesia.

“Thanks,” she unscrewed the cap and filled the little cup she was handed. Downing the thick liquid with a grimace, she handed it all back to her friend. “Yuck!”

“Give it a minute. It should help settle-” Rachel winced, looking away. “Or not.” Rubbing small circles on her friend’s back, Rachel was very concerned. “Honey, are you …”

“Pregnant!?” Willow’s eyes were huge as she looked at the stick in her hand, a plus in the little window. “This can’t be,” She looked at it again. She was on the pill.

“It happens, Willow. In fact, it’s not as uncommon as you might think.” Dr. Adele Stride removed her latex gloves, tossing them into the waste basket. “I bet Kevin’s excited, huh?” the doctor, and long time friend smiled.

“He doesn’t know yet.” Willow stood, smoothing her gown in place. She sighed. “I wanted to make absolute sure, first.”

Adele studied the blonde for a moment. She saw a line appear between the green eyes, but chose to say nothing.

Willow sat in her car, keys dangling from the ignition, unturned. Staring out the windshield, the small, one-story building squat before her.

Without warning, she was sobbing, face buried in her hands. The uncontrollable upset racked her entire body; tears of joy, tears of sorrow, and tears of fear.

Looking up through water-blurred vision, she saw a woman, probably not much older than herself, if not younger, carrying a toddler dressed in pants and little white tennis shoes. The child’s thumb was in her mouth, black hair running down her back in a shiny wave.

Willow’s tears stopped, her complete focus on mother and child. The woman balanced the girl on her hip, holding her steady with an arm while the other hand unlocked the back passenger side door of the Jeep Cherokee. She said something to the child, making her nod with a smile, dark eyes glimmering with the innocent happiness of youth.

The child was placed in a black and gray car seat, buckled into safety, then with a small kiss to the child’s cheek, the door was closed, and the mother moved to her place behind the wheel. As she got herself settled, Willow’s gaze turned back to the little girl who looked back at her through the window, dark eyes squinting against the harsh glare through the glass.

Willow smiled, the child smiling back, raising her colorful cup to the blonde in unrealized salute. The Cherokee was started up, and pulled out of the space, and out of Willow’s sight.

She took another deep breath, running her hands through her hair, her eyes slowly following a path down her own body, hands falling to her flat belly.

“A baby,” she whispered, sudden giddiness making her laugh almost manically.

The drive home was in a daze. She knew Kevin wouldn’t be home when she got there, and that nagged at her. She wanted so badly to tell him. Seeing the turnoff that would lead her toward the ranch, she had a sudden burst of inspiration and flipped a bitch, headed the other direction, back toward town, then through it, into the neighboring town of Gail.

She smiled when she saw the orange diamond-shaped signs- MEN AT WORK. Driving past them, she pulled off onto the dirt shoulder, spotting Kevin’s truck and pulling in behind it.

Checking herself in the rearview mirror, she spit on a Kleenex and rubbing the tear streaks from her cheeks and from under her eyes. They were still red, but what the hell.

Slamming the car door shut, she was mindful of random stacks of wood and plywood, as well as a wheelbarrow, dried remnants of cement crusting the edges.

“Excuse me, ma’am. Can I help you?” the first man she came to asked, his bare chest darkly tanned, white t-shirt tucked into a belt loop.

“Yeah, I’m looking for Kevin Bowman.”

The man turned to the group who was pounding away on four-by-fours that would ultimately be part of the roof of the house.

“Hey, Johnny! You seen Kevin?” he yelled up, one of the men glancing over at him, hitching his thumb back toward the other side of the house.

“He’s talking to Norman.”

“Thanks. Follow me,” the man led Willow around the rubble, reminding her to watch her step until they reached a huge, green dumpster, a small group of men standing in its shadow talking. Kevin was one of them.

He glanced over, sensing someone watching, a huge grin spreading across his handsome face at the sight of his wife.

“Hang on a sec, Norman,” he said to the plumber, then walked over to his wife, pushing his sunglasses to the top of his head. “Hey, you,” kissing her quickly, he looked down at her. “What’s up?” His expression was a mixture of happiness at the unexpected visit by Willow, but also slight concern. She generally didn’t come to a site unless there was good reason.

“I went to the doctor today,” Willow began, her voice quiet, own eyes hidden by her sunglasses, though she studied those of her husband closely.

“Right. The stomach thing. Are you okay?” he tucked his thumbs in the back pockets of his jeans.

“Well, yes. And no.” She smiled, but felt her heart began to hammer against her ribcage.

“What? I don’t get it.” He watched as his wife shifted her weight from one leg to the other, white teeth peeking out as a bottom lip was sucked in for a moment. Suddenly he felt a pang of unease wash through him.

“Honey, Kevin, we’re going to have a baby.” There, she’d said it.

Kevin stared at her, face barren of expression. “What?”

“I’m pregnant!” she said, her voice filled with joy.

“I don’t understand,”

“Oh, come on, Kevin. I know for fact you know about the birds and the bees,” Willow joked, though she felt her joy beginning to leak out her ear.

“But you’re on the pill,” he said. Yeah, her happy balloon was definitely starting to deflate.

“Yes, I am on the pill, Kevin, which tells me that this baby is supposed to be here.”

“So you’re going to have it?” The words were out of his mouth before he could even think, and knew immediately that had been the very last thing he should have said.

Willow stared at him for a brief moment, feeling her heart break, and her eyes fill with tears. Without another word, she turned and began to storm off. She heard her name called, and heavy footfalls behind her, which only made her move even faster, then into an all out run.

“Willow! Wait!”

She kept going, reaching her car, trembling hands dropping the keys before she finally got the large key in the lock. A hand rested on her shoulder, but she pulled away from it, opening the door and hearing Kevin’s grunt as it smacked him in the mid-section.

“Damn it, Willow, wait.”

“Go to hell, Kevin.” She slammed the door, barely missing her husband’s fingers. She locked the doors when she saw him reach for the handle, revving the engine to life.

She put the car into reverse, not daring to look at him, knowing full well that she’d stop and listen to what he had to say. She didn’t want to hear him, didn’t want to see him. She just waned to be angry.

Nearly running over that MEN AT WORK sign, she headed away with the squeal of tires and a rubber trail on the street.

“Fuck!” Kevin yelled, hating himself for what he’d just done and praying to God Willow could forgive him.

The blonde wiped angrily at the newest wash of upset that blurred her vision and made her cheeks feel tight and sticky.

She drove around for a long time, not sure where to go. She didn’t want to go home as she knew Kevin was probably calling every few minutes. She knew he hadn’t meant it that way, but still ….

Driving through the gated community, she drove through the winding streets, strangely shaped properties filled with beautiful townhouses. Fancy town cars were parked in many of the driveways, young kids in shorts and t-shirts working in the yards, watering, mowing and pruning.

Finding 216, Willow pulled up to the curb, the Lincoln in the drive, and cut the engine. Wiping her eyes and nose, the blonde sniffled once then headed out into the hot day.

The lawn was immaculate, of course, as were the flowers that lined the driveway, drying patches where the lawn had recently been watered.

The white sandstone townhouse seemed to glow from the afternoon sun, soft music coming from inside, the screened door doing nothing for sound insulation.

Willow rang the bell, waiting as she heard movement inside, then the music being cutoff.

“Willow!” the older woman hurried to the door, pushing the door open with her hip and pulling her granddaughter in with her arms. The blonde smiled, almost pulled off her feet as she was roughly hugged. The old woman still had some serious strength.

“Hey, grandma.” She closed her eyes, reveling in the warm security of the older woman’s embrace. Grandma could always make her feel like everything would be okay.

Pulling away, Myra studied her favorite person in the world, a barrage of wrinkles forming around her mouth and eyes. Something was terribly wrong.

“Come in, my love, and I’ll make some tea.” Willow followed her through the townhouse, open and airy, to the kitchen at the back of the place.

Within moments the two women were seated at the table, tall glasses of iced tea in hand. Narrowed, concerned eyes studied the downcast green.

“You know, Willow, I could begin by telling you a bunch of gossip that you won’t care about anyway, or we can just get to it.” She squeezed a bit of lemon into her glass, watching her granddaughter as she lazily stirred the juice into the drink.

Willow studied a bead of condensation that slid its way down the smooth glass, trying to get her thought and emotions in order.

“I’m going to have a baby, grandma,” she said quietly.

“Oh, honey! That’s wonderful news!” Myra Wahl reached across the table, taking the blonde’s hand in her own. She was overjoyed.

“I just got back from Kevin’s construction site.” She took a deep breath, fighting the tears that were trying to break through again. “He’s not thrilled.”

“What? And he’ll make such a wonderful father, too.”

“I know.” Willow sniffled back the threatening tears. “I don’t know. We’ve talked about it, about kids, and we decided to wait.” The tears began to fall. “I didn’t do this on purpose, grandma,” she looked up at the older woman with pain-filled eyes.

“I know that, love. Kevin knows that, too.”

“He actually asked me if I planned to keep it,” she buried her face in her hands. “It! As if this baby is some sort of growth inside me instead of a human life that he helped to create.”

“Oh, my love.” Myra sighed, glancing out at all the lovely birds that bathed and drank from the stone bird bath set up in the small backyard. She watched them flap their wings to rid of the excess water and then preen. She so loved birds. “He’s young, honey. You both are, and he’s afraid. Your grandpa was the exact same way.”

“Really?” Willow looked at her grandma, desperation in her eyes. “I love him, but I love this baby, too. It’s crazy- it’s no more than a tiny blob right now, but I love it as if it were sitting right here,” she patted the table and Myra nodded.

“Of course you do, love. It’s a part of you, created of your own flesh and blood. This is a time of rejoicing, Willow, not tears,” the older woman reached over and gathered some of the blonde’s tears on a fingertip.

“I can’t seem to stop,” the blonde laughed.

“Get used to it, my love. Your hormones are going to be out of whack for some time.” She stood, pulling her granddaughter to her feet, and pulling her into a gentle hug. The taller woman went willingly, resting her head on the sturdy shoulder. “Give him time, honey. This is all new to him. Women are far stronger creatures than our male counterparts, I’m afraid.” She smiled when she heard Willow laugh softly.

“Isn’t that the truth,”

They parted and sat again. “Have you told your father?”

“No. Only you and Kevin know.” She blew her nose, then sipped her tea.

“Well, I think you should stay here with me for a bit and make him sweat,” Myra winked, making her granddaughter smile. That was truly one of the most beautiful pictures in the older woman’s mind. Her granddaughter was an unusually beautiful girl with an equally beautiful inside. Kevin had no idea just what he had.

****

“Well, it’s about time you show,”

“I’m sorry, Sandra. I had a photo shoot this morning.” Christine tossed her coat on the arm of one of the many plush couches the desinger had scattered around her studio. “What have you got for me today?” she asked, eyeing the blonde, who was impeccable as usual. Her hair, as usual, was pinned up into some intricate style on top of her head, her clothing, wrinkle free and fitted like she was born with it on.

“Well,” she said from behind her drawing board. “You could have at least called,” glancing up at the singer, there was teasing her in her blue eyes. “Now,” finishing a few lines on her newest design, she tossed the pencil down and walked over to her favorite client. “Robert has sent over some rather,” she paused, looking for the right word, “interesting … ideas.”

“God. What now?” the singer sighed, running a hand through her wind-blown hair.

“Well, sometimes I think it would be easier, and far cheaper for you, if you just went out naked.”

Blue eyes pinned the desinger to the spot. “What did he do,” was almost growled through clenched teeth.

“Come,” Sandra led the way back to her drawing board, flipping back a few pages in the giant sketch pad. Basically strips of cloth, arranged in fortunate patterns to hide Christine’s more personal spots, but otherwise, all was revealed.

“No fucking way,” she said. They looked at each other, then Sandra smirked, flipping to another page. “Jesus! I’d look like Cher!” Storming away, she stood before a floor to ceiling window, looking out over L.A. “This is getting out of control,” she murmured.

“Christine, come back here. It’s no secret how Robert is. Everyone in the business knows that. Especially with you.”

Christine looked over at her long-time desinger, and reluctant friend. With a sigh, she walked back over to her.

“I already told him no. I told him I wasn’t about to turn my creations into something you’d find on the Strip at two a.m. Here,” flipping to one last page, she showed the singer what she intended to create instead. “You have a wonderful body, Christine, that’s also no secret, and I think Robert’s smart in showing that off. You have an army of lesbian fans who’d love nothing more than to see some great skin. The men, too, obviously.”

She took in the designs, most of which were stunning.

“I figure this dress could be worn for the MTV Awards later on, and this one for the Grammy’s.”

“Grammy’s? Sandra, I haven’t even been nominated-”

“Yet. You and I both know you will be. Now, mouth shut, eyes open.”

Soon enough Christine stood in the center of the room in a thong and matching bra, arms stretched out as Sandra took her measurements.

Christine had learned to disappear into her own little world while this was going on. She wasn’t a fan, and still, after all this time, felt like it was an invasion of her personal space.

“When are you going to get rid of that man, anyway?” Sandra asked around the pencil she held between her teeth.

Christine snorted. “God only knows.”

“You know, you’re big enough now that you could easily drop him like a bad habit, and be fine.” The desinger looked up into those beautiful eyes, then turned back to the little, ever present pad of paper, scribbling down notes for herself.

“I know, Sandra,” the singer sighed. “I know.”

It had been a long day and Christine was sick of everything and everyone. She wanted to go home and rest, chill out, write some music and be alone. Not to be.

After Sandra was finished with her, she would be headed to the valley for some interviews and then off to LAX to catch a plane to promote the new album.

Whoever came up with no rest for the wicked certainly had her in mind.

“Are we finished here, Sandra?” the singer asked, getting antsy and anxious. The desinger, who had been working on some measurements of Christine’s hips, glanced up at irritated blue eyes.

“That time of the month is it?” she quirked a perfectly plucked brow.

“No. That time of year. New album.”

“Ah. Say no more, and yes. We’re finished.” Standing, Sandra put the material tape around her neck and tossed her notebook to a table. She looked at the singer. “You have changed since you came to us, Christine,” she said quietly, looking deeply into a pair of the most beautiful eyes she’d ever seen. And in her business, with her clientele, that was saying a lot. She was around the most beautiful people in the world, with the most beautiful bodies created. Christine Gray, though. Ah, Christine Gray. She stood above the best of the best, her beauty not from a knife and nip tuck, but from the grace of DNA. She was a lucky one.

The singer stared back, not sure where this was going.

“You were so timid and sad.” Sandra smiled, though it was troubled. “You’re still sad. Aren’t you?” She reached out, uncharacteristically touching the tall brunette. She brushed her fingers over a soft, tanned cheek. “Break free, Christine.” She whispered. “Before it’s too late.”

Christine stared at her, this woman whom she’d known for seventeen years, and had a love/hate relationship with, though she did respect her talent and vision. The unusual caring and personal touch almost brought a tightness to the singer’s throat that she didn’t dare let break free.

“I need to go,” she stepped away from the older woman’s fingers, grabbing her bag and heading toward the door. “Give me a call when you’re reading for the fittings.” And she was gone.

Sandra sighed, shaking her head. She worried that one day Christine Gray would just disappear.

****

“Christine! Over here, please! Look this way, Miss Gray!”

Christine kept the smirk on her face, her trademark and professional disinterested look. She’d done it at fifteen just because she had felt unbelievably uncomfortable with a swarm of photographers snapping the new girl, and that discomfort had shown itself in a cocky smirk. It had stuck and was expected.

What the paparazzi wanted, the paparazzi got. God forbid she actually be herself.

She hooked her thumbs in the pockets of her tight-fitting jeans, holes in all the right places, and turned this way and that, nearly blinded by a veritable sea of flash bulbs. She recognized all the regulars- reporters from ET, E!, People and US Weekly, local news stations and of course the piranha of that sea, the free-lance photog. They were the most dangerous and most bold, as they were certainly the most hard up.

“Hey, there’s Lindsay Lohan!” someone yelled, making Christine ever so grateful that the heat was off her. Keeping the façade in place until she was tucked safely into the back of the limousine, she sighed, grabbing herself an ice cold bottled water from the small fridge.

Snagging her cell phone from the console, she saw she had six missed messages. Rolling her eyes, she tossed the phone down again, having no interest in dealing with Bob.

****

With a small sigh, Willow tucked her cell back into her purse then studied herself in the rearview mirror again. She looked like hell, and felt about as grand.

Sniffling once more, she gathered up all her stuff and locked up the car, juggling her key ring to find the house key. Kevin’s truck wasn’t in the drive yet, so she’d have a few minutes to get herself together.

Patting her face dry with the wash cloth, Willow stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. She definitely looked like hell, and felt tired, her eyes burning from all the crying. As she stared at herself, she couldn’t help but wonder if she’d overreacted where Kevin was concerned.

She looked down at herself, seeing absolutely no physical difference, but she felt different. It was all psychological, but there was a human being growing inside of her body, feeding off the nourishment she was providing without knowledge. That little human would form into a child, which was up to her and the baby’s daddy to raise, mold and teach.

Willow burst into tears again, plopping down hard on the closed toilet lid. What if she were a horrible mother? What if she was unsuitable and the kid turned into a raving lunatic serial killer?

In her misery she failed to hear the front door open then close, a pause, and heavy footfalls on the stairs, two at a time.

“Baby? Honey,” Kevin set the bouquet of roses on the bathroom counter and knelt down next to his wife who was crying hysterically.

Willow looked up, seeing the hazy image of her very concerned husband through her tears. She tried to pull away from him as he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her into him.

“Shh,” he cooed, mentally kicking himself over and over again for doing this to her. He was stunned by the words that met his ears.

“I’m going to be a horrible mother!”

“What?” For a brief moment Kevin was relieved that maybe he hadn’t caused such intense upset after all. That quickly ended when the little blonde pushed him away, swiping at her continuously leaking eyes.

“Why am I telling you that. You don’t care.” She stood, blowing her nose then angrily throwing the spent tissue to the bathroom trash.

“Hey, that’s not true, or fair.” Kevin also stood, trying to keep his temper down and be understanding. That’s what his mother had told him to do- be understanding and caring. He went over to her and hugged her from behind. She was stiff, but didn’t pull away. “I’m sorry about earlier, Willow,” he said in her ear, “it was a knee-jerk reaction, though I admit not a very good one. I was surprised.”

“It’s your baby, too, Kevin,” she turned in her arms, looking up at him with beseeching eyes.

“I know,” he said, his head lowering in shame. “I thought we were going to discuss when to have children.” He looked at her shyly.

“We did talk about this, Kevin,” she moved out of his arms, glancing at the roses, but making herself not react to her favorite flower and gift. “Do you really think I planned this behind your back? I said, okay, tonight’s the night, God, knock me up?” Her anger was returning.

“Come on, Willow. Don’t be ridiculous. I know it’s not your fault-”

“Why does it have to be a fault at all, Kevin?” she whirled on him. “This is our child,” she clutched her non-existent stomach. “and I refuse to see this miracle as a mistake. So with you or without you, I’m having this baby.”

He looked at her, stunned and struck dumb. Blinking several times, he let out a breath.

“Are you threatening me?” he asked, his voice soft, anger draining out with the shock and blow of her words and the meaning behind them. She said nothing, just looked him square in the eye, jaw as firm as her resolve.

****

The hotel suite was like any other Christine had been in- beautiful, opulent and disgustingly expensive. This time, however, the bill was on the promoters, so it was all clear and free.

She went to the huge bedroom, her bags already unloaded and waiting for her to unpack. There was also a vase on the dresser filled with beautiful flowers of varying colors, shapes and types.

Snatching the card with two fingers, she took it out of the small envelope:

Welcome, and I look forward to sharing stage space with you. I expect you at dinner tonight, too.

Love,

Melissa & Tammy Lynn

Smiling, she tossed the card to the dresser and leaned down to take a deep whiff of the flowers, humming contentedly at the overwhelming fragrance.

She was glad to be in Colorado to do the benefit concert at Red Rocks. She loved performing there; the city lights behind the stage, cool night air enveloping the performers and audience, bringing them together in a sort of outside bond.

Sliding the light leather Jacket she wore off her shoulders, she tossed it to the king-sized bed and walked over to the French doors, which led to the balcony that overlooked Denver proper. She didn’t come this way often, but always enjoyed her time in the Mile High city when she was there. Though how on earth these people lived at such an altitude eluded her to no end.

Turning back to the suite, she got herself a bottle of water to clear her throat so she could start her singing exorcises. She always had to do more of them when in Colorado to get her lungs ready to work harder.

She cleared her mind, taking deep breaths to cleanse her from the inside out, almost putting herself in a momentary meditative state, releasing the breaths in slow, measured movements, eyes closed, body relaxed. She was about to open her mouth when her cell phone rang.

Growling as her concentration was shot, she walked over to the bed, fishing her phone out of her Jacket. Looking at the digital display, she rolled her eyes.

“Yes?”

“Jesus, Christine! Where have you been? I’ve been trying to get hold of you since you left Sandra’s yesterday.”

“I’ve been a little busy, Bob. Maybe if you wouldn’t jam pack my days so full I’d have the time and sanity to answer your calls.”

“Well, either way, how’s it going? Are you there, yet?”

“Yes,” the singer sighed, sitting on the end of the bed. “I was about to start my breathing exorcises, so make this quick. I have to be downstairs in two hours.” She ran a hand through her hair, feeling the exhaustion already seeping in.

“Alright. Well listen to the messages I left you, they have more information. But a quick rundown is you’re not going to Philly anymore, but instead are hitting Baltimore. Also, the Kodak people want you in New York by Monday night.”

“Jesus, Bob! I’m not seventeen anymore, trying to get me noticed. Why am I doing all this shit?” She stood, pinning a hand to her forehead.

“To make up for your fuck up earlier this year,” he said, his voice dangerously low. “If it gets out you’re ruined. The public has to think you’re still with it and capable and willing.”

“You make me sound like a cripple, Bob. Any particular reason?” her voice was dangerously calm, belying her bodily fluids which were now on boil.

“In some ways you are, Christine,” he answered, his own calmness coming across the line. “You let yourself go and let yourself be taken over by that poison. I have to look out for you more than ever now.”

“I have to go,” she sighed, knowing that if she didn’t hang up, she’d scream.

“Have a good show and give my love to Sting.” The wall of silence made her grit her teeth as she snapped the phone shut. Holding it in her hand, she squeezed the small bundle, all too tempted to throw it against the wall.

Instead she set it down on the bedside table, hooking it up to its charger, then returning to her bottle of water and vocal exorcises.

****

Willow stared up at the dying day, the twilight upon the land. The trees began to look like giant, black monsters against the purple sky, their arms reaching up for their salvation of another day ending and night encroaching.

She ran a hand over Star’s neck, the coarse hair of the mare’s mane tickling her palm.

“Not sure how much longer I’ll be able to do this, girl,” she said quietly, the horse snorting in response.

The evening breeze blew warm air over her, displacing her short hair. She inhaled the smells you only found on a ranch- animals, earth, feed and nature. She loved it, bringing her security and peace. It always amused her how the smells she loved so much made new-comers wrinkle their nose up in distaste.

Eh, what do they know?

Urging Star into a light trot, they headed back toward the stables.

****

In a Colorado hotel room a cell phone rang before being picked up by voice mail. When finished, the lit up green display proudly blinked MISSED CALL.
Part 7
“What? Stop that,” Willow swatted Rachel’s hand away from her stomach. “Move on. There’s nothing to see here.” She quickly pulled her scrubs shirt over her head.

“I just can’t believe there’s a baby in there!” the redhead gushed, giving her friend a hug for the umpteenth time.

“Me, either.” Willow grinned.

“Have things gotten any better with daddy dumbass?” Rachel slammed her locker shut, clipping her name badge to her shirt.

“Yeah. He’s trying. I don’t know.” She closed her own locker. “I think it’ll just take time for him to get used to the idea. He only found out a week ago.”

“Are you guys talking yet?”

“We never really stopped. Things are just, I don’t know,” the blonde plopped down on the bench that lined the aisle between the rows of lockers. “I just feel very distant from him right now. I’m sure I’ll get over it, and he’ll grow up, and everything will be fine.”

“Hmm,” Rachel didn’t sound so convinced. She opened her mouth about to say something when she stopped at the knock on the frosted glass window of the door. It squeaked open and Lindsey Huff stuck her head in.

“Um, sorry to bother you guys, but Willow, you have a visitor,” the young volunteer said, her cheeks flushed.

“Thanks, Lindsey. I’ll be there in a-” the blonde stopped, seeing her visitor standing in the doorway of the locker room, where the volunteer had been.

“Holy shit,” Rachel muttered.

“Hi,” Willow walked over to the taller woman, a smile instantly lighting up her face. Christine smiled in return.

“I was in the neighborhood.” She held up two big brown teddy bears, one with a pink bow around its neck, the other blue. “You never know.”

“Oh,” instantly the emotion welled up in Willow’s chest, and she flung her arms around the singer’s neck, overwhelmed by just how sweet a gesture it was. God only knew how busy the singer was, and the fact that she’d actually listened to her message, and had come from god only knew where, just for her!

“Whoa!” Christine had to balance herself against the doorframe in order to not be totally bowled over by the crying blonde.

Mid-hug, Willow realized how obnoxious she was being, and feeling very self-conscious, she stepped back from the woman who grinned down at her.

“Sorry.” She stepped back to a polite distance.

“It’s okay. I’m happy to see you, too.” Christine gave the little blonde the most winning smile she had, wanting the nurse to know her exuberance was very okay. “Here.” She held out the bears again, and the blonde hugged them to her.

“This is so sweet, Christine, thank you.”

“Well, it’s a very special occasion. Congratulations.” She leaned down a bit, studying the blonde with concerned eyes. “Are you okay, Willow?” The message had been harried and the blonde had sounded very upset, causing Christine to immediately cancel her last shoot, and catch a flight down to Oklahoma.

“Oh,” Willow looked away, realizing suddenly that two very interested pairs of ears were with them. She looked around, seeing Rachel sitting on the bench, and Lindsey hanging out in the hall. “Want to get some coffee? I have about thirty minutes before my shift starts.”

“Absolutely.”

Teddy bears in arms, Willow led them toward the cafeteria. “Will this be okay?” she asked quietly, seeing people already beginning to stare. She had no doubt that Lindsey was telling as many people as possible who was in their hospital.

“We should be fine. And, if things start to get too bad you can beat them off with Anne and Andy there,” she tugged on the ear of one of the bears. Willow glared, earning her a smile.

They found a seat at a table toward the back of the cafeteria. Willow wanted to make as little deal of this as she could, and bring as little attention as possible. But the first person who bugged them, she was dragging Christine out of there.

“What are you doing here?” Willow asked, her voice hushed as she removed the lid from her hot cider, blowing across the surface of the amber liquid.

“I got your message. I’m so sorry I couldn’t be there for you.” Christine looked so genuine Willow wanted to cry again. “I just, well, I’ve been so busy and everything has been beyond crazy, I kind of went on ignore mode.” She smiled sheepishly. “I was trying to avoid Bob.”

“Bob?”

“Knowles. My manager.”

“Oh. Can’t say I blame you,” the blonde muttered, then looked up at her friend shyly. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. So anyway, what’s going on?” Christine wrapped her hands around her cup of coffee, which she’d already noticed Willow had given a coveting look to twice.

“Oh gosh, you’re so busy and yet you’re here? I’m so sorry. Please, Christine, don’t mess up your schedule or make it worse on my account, please-”

“Willow,” Christine gently interrupted. “I’m here because I want to be. Okay?” The blonde nodded. “Okay.”

“Well, what’s happening? Why is your schedule so busy? You must be exhausted.”

“Yes, however,” the singer placed a warm hand over Willow’s “We’re not here to talk about me. I came here to talk about this wonderful news. Don’t change the subject.”

“I’m fine, Christine. Really,” the sadness in those expressive green eyes told a very different story. Christine decided to try a different tactic.

“Willow,” she said, lowering her voice. “you live your life to help other people. You have one of the kindest hearts I’ve ever seen in another human being. Hell, your life and your job is spent helping.” She paused, looking into those green eyes, making sure that her words were sinking in. “Please let me be there for you. Let me help. Okay?”

Willow studied the beautiful singer, finally looking away, unable to meet that intense gaze.

“I found out about this the day I called you. I was five weeks pregnant, and very thrilled about the baby, …”

“But?”

“But,” she sighed. “Kevin, …”

“Isn’t.”

“No. He’s not.” Willow looked down, staring into her cup, wishing to god she could see her future in it. She felt the hot sting of unshed tears.

“I’m sorry,” Christine squeezed the hand that her own still covered. Willow shrugged, taking several deep breaths.

“He just needs some time to get used to the idea.” She smiled though it was completely forced, and very obviously so. “I have no doubt that I’ll be so busy getting ready for the baby and throwing up that I won’t even notice.”

Christine studied the blonde for a moment, then smiled gently. “I’m sure you will.”

“Well, I need to start my shift, so,”

“Of course.” The singer pushed her chair back, taking a step sideways so she was standing next to the table. Willow did the same, smiling shyly up at her friend.

“It means a lot to me that you came. Thank you.”

“Any time.” Christine took the smaller woman into a warm hug, tight but brief. “Take care of you and little you.” She glanced down at what would soon be a little basketball.

“I will,” Willow chuckled. “Take care of you, too. Okay?”

“I will. See you later, Willow.”

“Bye, Christine.” The blonde watched as the singer tugged on a baseball cap, pulling her ponytail through the back. She headed toward the sliding glass doors of the hospital entrance, swallowed up by the night beyond.

****

The flick of the crisp paper filled the breakfast nook as pages were turned and straightened, then coffee sipped as a new morning dawned.

“Hmm. That big car show is coming back this year,” Kevin murmured, absently sipping from his big mug, handmade by a local potter.

“You and Joe going to go?” Willow asked, finger running down the page as she scanned for her horoscope.

“We might.” More paper ruffling, then the screech of Kevin’s chair on the Mexican tile. “Wait,” he said, brows furrowed. Willow ignored him, figuring if it was that big a deal he’d tell her about it. “Isn’t this that singer you like?”

Willow glanced over at her husband, who was holding the paper up, his finger tapping a short story in the entertainment section.

GRAY VISITS HOMETOWN HOSPITAL

Green eyes flicked up to her husband. “Holy shit!” Willow grimaced, knowing what was coming next. “She talked to you? It says here you guys were chatting at a table in the cafeteria.” There was no accusation in his voice, just wonder and confusion.

“Yes, we were.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? What was she doing here?” He looked at her with narrowed brows.

The blonde sighed, deciding to tell Kevin about Christine and their past. She just hoped he’d be understanding.

“Christine and I kind of know each other, honey.”

Brows shot up. “How?”

“I saved her life.” She looked at him, seeing the slow grin of disbelief spreading across his features. The seriousness of her own gaze stopped the grin in its tracks.

“You’re serious,”

“Yes. She has come here before. She stayed in our house.”

The paper hit the table with a crisp slap. “What? Why didn’t you say anything? How long ago did this happen? Where the hell was I?”

“Which?” she was beginning to feel the first strains of panicked guilt.

“Any of it. All of it,” he looked at her with hard eyes, unconsciously leaning forward in his seat.

“I saved her last winter,” Willow sighed, looking down. “The concert Rachel and I went to was a thank you from her. She took us backstage after the show, then took me to dinner.”

“Christine Gray took you to dinner?” there was doubt in his voice.

“Yes. I went to dinner with her and her band, and before I came in the house she gave me her phone number. I called her out of curiosity, and invited her out here.”

“Where the hell was I?”

“Fishing with your brothers.”

“I see.” He sighed, glancing out the window. “This would be the weekend your friend, Marion came to stay, right?” he glanced at here again, blue eyes blazing. “Marion who is in the middle of a divorce with her husband and needed to get away. That Marion?” Willow opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by the screech of his chair. It was nearly knocked over backwards as Kevin pushed away from it and stormed out of the house.

The blonde ran a hand through her hair, then stood, pushing both her and Kevin’s chair under the table.

It wasn’t hard to find the man who had retreated to his cave and play land- the garage. She could hear him sawing away at something, and wondered just how good an idea it was to talk to him when he was not only angry at her, but also had a weapon in his hand. Deciding to take the risk, she entered into his domain.

“Kevin,” she said quietly as she took in the mass of materials spread out over the concrete floor of his workshop- wood, metal scraps, tools and buckets of various types and sizes of screws and nails. He did not answer, nor did his sawing slow. “I’m sorry.”

“Why did you lie to me?” he asked, his voice breaking her heart. He sounded like a little boy.

“When everything happened that night with Christine, her manger and lawyer made me sign a contract that I wouldn’t tell anyone-”

“I’m your husband, Willow!” he looked at her, face red from the exertion of his sawing mixed with his anger. “You should have trusted me.”

“You’re right.”

“And the rest of it. I mean, this woman was at the house! It doesn’t get anymore personal than that.” He sighed again, giving up on the sawing. He set the blade on the counter of his workstation, one hand on his hip, the other fingering some wood shavings. He did not look at his wife. “You’ve always been a private person, and I’ve really tried to do my best to understand that, to try and respect that.” He looked at her.

“Yes, you have,” Willow said quietly.

“Why do you keep stuff from me?” his voice was pleading now. “Respecting your privacy and you keeping stuff from me are two very different things. This isn’t the first time, either, Willow. Why was Rachel good enough to go to the concert?”

“She was there that night, Kevin. She was working the ER.”

“What happened? Why was Christine Gray, first off, here, and secondly, why was she in the hospital?”

“It’s personal to her, I can’t-”

“Jesus!” He stormed past her, yanking the door open on his truck and climbing behind the wheel. Glaring at her through the windshield, the truck roared to life, and he backed out of the large garage with a squeal of tires.

“Crap,” Willow plopped down on his stool, head cradled in her hands. She knew she was wrong, should have told Kevin about all this long ago. She should have trusted him with this, knowing damn well he wouldn’t go yell it out on the rooftops. Truth be told he would have said something akin to, “Neat.” All this, Christine, meant far more to her than ‘neat’. Somehow she wanted to keep it her own little secret, to be able to take out late at night and look at. Like a little kid with a flashlight and book under the covers.

Standing, she brushed the butt of her shorts off, dirt and dust everywhere in Kevin’s shop. She walked out into the early morning sun, letting it warm the cold that filled her. She was tired of fighting, and it had been happening a lot. And over the stupidest things.

Ever since she had told him about the baby, they’d both been edgy, and Kevin seemed constantly on the defense. She thought back to a few nights ago.

I crawl up his body, kissing a trail as I go. I feel hands in my hair, caressing my scalp, sometimes tugging on the strands. I wince but say nothing. He still tastes like sweat.

“Mm,” I moan as I reach Kevin’s neck, the little hairs of his days worth of growth tickling my skin. “You know what’s a good thing?” I breathe into his ear.

“That you’re going to let me finally rest and recuperate?” he grinned. I chuckle against his temple.

“No, the fact that I can do this all the way to the end, just before I give birth,” I purr. He stiffens, and not in the good way. Feeling the change in him, I sit up from my place, straddling his body, just in front of his erect penis. I look down at him, brows drawn. His face is turned to the side, a hand resting behind his head. “What is it?”

“Guess I’m just really tired,” he says, a cold smile covering his lips.

“Bull.” Anger is beginning to fill me. “Did mention of our baby make you go soft?” I smirk at my little joke, noting that was exactly what was happening.

“Can we just have some time for us, Willow?” he is looking at me, eyes blazing. “Can we just have some fucking peace before this kid comes? Jesus! I don’t give a shit! I just want to fuck, okay?”

I’m stunned, and frozen with disgust. It only took me a moment to gain myself, and push away from him. Sitting on the bed, looking at him, I pull my legs up, knees against my naked breasts. He stays where he is.

“What?” he asks, voice defensive.

“Where did you learn to be so cold?” I whisper. He sighs, then sits up, turning so his feet on the floor and back is to me. He says nothing, making me that much angrier. “Kevin?” He sighs again.

“Don’t you like our life as it is?” he asks, standing and facing me.

“Yes, of course I do,” I say, unsure where this is leading.

“Then why change it, Willow? Why bring a stress in that we don’t need? Or want.” He looks at me, eyes boring into mine, demanding an answer.

I stare at him, trying to keep my tempter under control, as well as try to understand why this baby bothered him so much. I find my voice, though it’s low and dangerously calm.

“Why do you hate your baby so much, Kevin?”

“I don’t, but I don’t feel we need it. We have such a good life, honey, and we can go wherever we want at will, we are finally doing really great financially,” his voice trails off, seeing the look of disgust I have no doubt on my face. It’s certainly what I’m feeling.

“You selfish bastard.” He blinks in surprise, but says nothing. “We’re both almost thirty, and it’s time to be grown-ups. We’ve had seven wonderful years together, and now I’m ready for a family. No, it may not have been planned in your perfect little world, but it happened, and I’m ready for this.”

His jaw and lips tighten. “Well I’m not.”

Willow felt something tickling her neck, and she raised her tear-streaked face from her arms, which rested on the top rail of the fence. Star snorted, nudging her with her nose again.

“Hey, baby,” the blonde whispered, kissing the mare’s nose. “What are we going to do, girl? Huh?” Snorting again, the horse bobbed her head, making her owner smile. “Yeah, I know we’re screwed.”

****

“Jesus!”

“What?!” Sandra ran into the room, hot espresso sloshing onto her hand. “Fuck,” she muttered, setting the tiny cup down.

“Oklahoma! She was in fucking Oklahoma!” Bob Knowles cried out, backhanding the newspaper in his hand.

“I ran in here for that?” Sandra untied the belt of her silk robe, letting the garment slide to the floor, and took her place back in bed, a hazelnut breve in hand. “And here I thought it was something important,” she muttered.

“Did she tell you she was going to Oklahoma?” Bob asked, turning to the desinger, dark brows drawn to form a perfectly arched line above his dark eyes.

“By she I assume you mean Christine, and no, I wasn’t on guard duty that day.” She looked at the manager who sat next to her, as naked as she.

“Don’t be smart, Sandra. This could be disastrous.” He studied the story once again, scanning it for any minute detail he might have missed.

“For whom, love?” she sipped the rich drink, closing her eyes in satisfaction.

“What if someone finds out,” he murmured, to no one in particular. “My career would be over.”

“Robert, you are absolutely obsessed. What say you loosen the reigns a bit, hmm?” Bob’s dark eyes met the desinger’s blue. “Me thinks the natives are getting restless,” she finished quietly.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, Christine is not the stupid, naïve fourteen year old girl you brought here almost two decades ago. She has learned well from you, Robert, and I fear she may very well turn those lessons back onto an unwavering master.”

“I have never steered her wrong, Sandra. Anything I have ever told her to do was for her best interest.” He said, voice low and defensive.

“Hmm. I’m sure. But you must know she is biting at the bit?” sip “She’s a grown woman now, and no longer needs daddy to guide her every move and shadow her every step only to question her. Robert, you’ve done everything you can do for her, so now just sit back and reap the rewards of twenty years of hard work.”

Bob turned in the bed, his mood darkening significantly. “What are you saying? What has she told you?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all.” Sandra smiled sweetly as she sipped her breve, eyes never leaving her lover of more than ten years. She may fuck him, but she would never understand him. Hell, she didn’t even like him half the time.

Knowles studied her, eyes narrowing as he watched ever muscle in her face, every nuance of her eyes. He was good at reading people, and Sandra was no different.

“There’s something you’re not telling me,” he said quietly.

“What’s to be told?” Sandra grabbed the entertainment section from the paper that lay in a neat pile on Robert’s lap. He snatched the page from her hands, tossing it aside.

“Tell me,” he demanded, leaning forward, face mere inches from the desinger’s. She met the challenge, loathing to be made to feel intimidated.

“Look into her eyes, Robert. She’s miserable, and I don’t blame her.”

“Is that so?” His eyes narrowed even more, mere slits. “If you dislike the way I handle my business so much then why don’t you go? Remember, Sandra, I made you and I can unmake you.”

Oh, no. He did not just make a threat! “As I recall, Bob, Christine made me. And she made you, too.”

With that, she threw the sheets aside and stormed into the huge, adjoining bathroom. In furious haste, she threw her clothing on from the night before. Finger-combing her hair, she looked at the man who still sat in the massive bed.

Stopping at the door, she turned to him. “Don’t forget, Christine is the one with the power now. In fifty years who are people going to remember? Christine Gray or Robert Knowles?” With that she was gone.

****

Willow chewed lightly on the arm of her reading glasses, looking down at her most recent work. The words and letters stretched out across the page, in the slightly crooked angle that she could never straighten on the unlined paper. The last line caught her and made her already burning eyes feel like they were on fire-

My heart bleeds.

Indeed it did. It made the blonde sad that she was writing again after so many years; she only wrote when in the deepest pain, or confusion. She was now in both.

Setting the glasses down, she sighed and closed the notebook, holding it against her chest as she stared out the living room’s bay window, watching as the sun began to settle over the landscape. The tips of the trees were golden, beautiful. Off toward the main road leading to the ranch, she saw a pair of headlights, bouncing on the uneven dirt road.

Willow sat back in the large rocking chair her grandfather had built from scratch more than thirty years ago. She waited, a touch of nervousness gnawing at her spine as Kevin’s truck pulled around to stop in front of the walk that led to the front porch, where the blonde sat and watched.

He rolled the window down, arm leaning out. “Get in,” he called out. He continued when his wife didn’t move. “Come on, honey, get in. Let’s get some dinner.”

Willow stared at him, undecided for a moment, then decided to try and salvage what was left of her day off.

Pushing out of the chair, Willow trotted down the few stairs to the path, then around the truck and slid in next to her husband. She wondered what was going through his head.

“Where did you go?” she asked quietly, snapping seatbelt into place.

“Joe’s.”

“I’m sure he hates me, huh?” she was only half kidding.

“No more than Rachel hates me.” He pulled the truck around to the dirt read, pushing the gas before slowing once he hit the gate. Flicking the turn signal, they both looked both ways, then Kevin turned onto the main road that led toward town.

****

Christine laughed as she watched the boy attempting to play an old Hendrix tune. His concentration was so complete as to make him forget he was supposed to be tough, his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth.

“Are you going to stop the agony?” Adam whispered so that only the singer could hear. She smirked and elbowed him in the ribs. “Thank you so much for doing this, Chris. It was amazing, and I love to hear you sing. I don’t get to much anymore.”

“You’re very welcome, bud.” She smiled at her oldest friend, elbowing him again, but this time out of affection.

“They really loved you. I wasn’t sure how it would go over, I mean, you’re not 50 Cent or even Usher.”

“Hey, I can rap with the best of ‘em, word,” Christine flashed a rapper sign at her friend, making him chuckle. “I’m glad they enjoyed themselves. And if you think those guys would be well received, …” she let her thought drift off into his imagination. He paused for a moment, thinking, then turned to her.

“No way. You could get those people to do something like this,” he held his hand out to include the small, shabby building where his ‘boys’ met every week, or just hung out, keeping out of trouble.

“Sure, why not? I know people.” Adam laughed, making Michael look up from his attempts on Christine’s guitar.

“I’m sure you do. Come on.” He led his old friend to the small office, which he shared with the little fireball coming through the front doors.

“Maika’i!”

Christine turned at the familiar nickname. “Alice!” She grabbed the tiny woman in a massive hug, almost lifting her off the ground. Once parted, the small Hawaiian woman looked up at the best friend of her long-time partner. “You get more and more beautiful every time I see you,” she said, beautiful dark eyes twinkling.

“Well, I think you’re full of shit, but as long as you don’t call me pupuka, I’ll believe you.” She grinned while Alice let out a full-bodied laugh, which shook her entire four foot eleven, ninety-seven pound frame.

“Come on, you crazy gal. I have dinner ready.”

Adam handed the reigns of the club over to one of the employees, and the three headed upstairs to their apartment.

“That was wonderful, Alice, thank you.” Christine sat back in her chair, chewing the last bit of the lasagna, hand covering her stomach.

“You’re very welcome, Maika’i.” the beautiful woman smiled. Christine had always thought that Alice was one of the most beautiful women she’d ever seen. Though she was physically attractive, most of it came from within. The woman’s dark eyes told volumes about how she was feeling, and glowed with a life the singer had never seen before.

“Come on, Christine. Let’s go have a smoke.” Adam stood, tossing his napkin onto his empty plate. He walked over to the small kitchen and opened a cabinet, pulling out two cigars. Wiggling his brows at his old friend, he headed out to the window that led to the fire escape.

“Do you want any help, Alice?” Christine asked as the smaller woman began to clear the table. She looked up at the singer, her eyes amazingly dark and filled with unshed tears.

“No, Christine. Go spend time with him.” She smiled, though it was weak. Christine got the distinct feeling she wasn’t to ask questions, but just to obey. Trying to shake a feeling of foreboding that was creeping around her heart, Christine followed Adam out to the rickety old landing.

“It’s a beautiful night out,” he said, clicking his Zippo against the brick of the building.

“Sure is.” Christine sat with her legs dangling off the landing, arms resting along the rail. “It’s funny, I have no desire to live here again, but whenever I am here, I miss it, you know?”

Adam nodded, handing his friend a cigar. “I do know. Place gets into your blood. You’ll never lose that, bud.” He looked at her, dark eyes shining in the darkness of the night, though reflecting some of the light from the tenements around them.

“I wish I could convince you and Alice to come west. You wouldn’t believe the space out there. I mean, yeah, L.A. is like this,” she spread her hand out, indicating the humanity packed into such tight quarters. “But there are other places in California that aren’t like that.”

He covered the stogie with his hand as he lit it, puffing to get the cigar to light properly, then held the flame out to Christine. She ducked her head, puffing her own Cuban, then sat back, sighing as she exhaled the sweet smoke, closing her eyes in contentment.

“Honey, Maika’i, you want some coffee?” Alice asked, kneeling in front of the floor to ceiling window, hands resting on her knees.

“No, thanks, sweetie.” Adam smiled, then leaned over and gently kissed the small woman on the cheek. Christine watched the pair, loving to see them together, but ever envious of the obvious love and devotion to each other.

“Thank you, no, Alice. I’m still stuffed.”

“Your loss,” was muttered as the woman disappeared back into the tiny apartment.

“Crazy woman,” the singer murmured, then took a long, satisfying drag.

“She’s right. You are beautiful,” Adam said, a soft smile curling his lips. Christine gave him a side glance.

“Alright, what do you want.”

He laughed. “Nothing. Just agreeing with Alice.”

“Yeah, well you look like shit, my man,” she looked him up and down, his stick-thin body, clothing hanging off him.

“Yes, well, I’ve discovered the ultimate diet,” he said, his voice somewhat bitter. The singer was surprised.

“What’s that?”

“How are things going, Chris?” Adam asked, tipping some ash over the side of the fire escape landing. Again, she was surprised by the sudden change in topic, but went with it.

Christine sighed, knowing damn well what he was referring to. She ran a hand down the length of her long hair, feeling the cool strands run across her skin.

“I’m taking it day by day, Adam. Trying not to make demands of myself that I know I can’t fulfill, you know? Like this,” she held up the cigar, “this is basically a no-no for what I’m trying to do, so I’m seeing it as a reward for what I’ve done.”

“Makes sense,” he puffed, eyes squinting as the smoke filled his immediate space. “This will be the last one I have.”

“No way,” Christine laughed, tapping the thick, brown stogie, ash glowing all the way down to the pavement four stories below before it scattered as it hit the sidewalk. “You quitting the stogies? Not likely.”

“No, I mean it.” She glanced over at her friend, hearing how serious he really was. “I have to.”

“Why?” She was serious now, too, beginning to get a little worried. Adam had started smoking his mother’s boyfriend’s Camels at the age of eight.

“I need to tell you something, Chris,” he said, his voice very quiet. He was not looking at her, instead his gaze on the stogie in his hand. “This has been the only bad habit I kept, and that was to help me feel somewhat normal, somewhat like I had a bit of control left, you know?” he glanced over at her, seeing her shake her head.

“No. Explain it to me.” She drew her legs in, crossing them and turning to face him. “What’s going on, Adam?” she asked, her voice soft and encouraging.

He sighed. “Eight years ago I went to donate at a local blood drive.”

“Okay,”

Adam met her eyes finally. “Chris, I tested positive for HIV then.”

Christine felt the breath sucked from her lungs, a wave of dread so fierce smashed through her body that she felt like she’d throw up.

“Why didn’t you tell me this eight years ago, Adam?” her voice was shaky and low.

“Because you had your own shit to deal with and I didn’t want to worry you-”

“Didn’t want to worry me?!” she flared, pinning him with an electric gaze. He stared helplessly back. “So why are you telling me this now?” She was sure whether she was feeling profound sadness or was absolutely pissed off. Probably a volatile mixture of both.

“I’m telling you now because I’m in full blown AIDS.” It was his turn to pin her with his gaze. She froze, words of recrimination forever lost on her lips. There was no point now.

“When?”

“I found out last week.”

****

The silence was only broken by the quiet humming of the radio, some country tune that Willow would rather not hear anyway. She looked out her window, temple resting against the cool glass.

“I figure maybe next weekend we can go shopping for furniture or something,” Kevin said quietly, glancing at the blonde.

She looked at him, brows furrowed. “Furniture for what?”

“Well, for baby stuff. Cribs and stuff.” He smiled, though it was forced, and they both knew it. Willow realized that he was trying to make up in some way, but it was all so contrived that it left her cold. He was only saying what he thought she wanted to hear.

“Forget it,” she muttered, looking back out the window.

“What? Forget what?” He looked at her for a long moment, then remembered the road ahead of him, so his eyes tore away from Willow’s sullen form.

“I know you don’t give a crap, Kevin, so don’t try and pretend that you do. The last thing on earth you want to do is go shopping for baby anything, and we both know it.”

“Honey, you know I don’t like to shop-”

“Save it, Kevin,” she growled, feeling her stomach beginning to churn. Another one was on its way, and there was no way to stop it.

“Save what?” he yelled, voice loud and booming in the truck’s cab. “Jesus, Willow! I’m trying to be what you want me to be, and you’re shooting me down!” he looked at her, face contorted as the anger filled him.

“You’re not my pet, you’re my husband and this baby’s father!” she laid her hand on her belly, feeling very protective of what lay inside. “Don’t do what you think I want you to do. My god! What the hell kind of logic is that?” Her own voice was rising as her frustration level did. Why couldn’t he just understand?!

“What kind of logic, what the, goddamn! I can’t win with you!”

“Watch the road, Kevin!” Willow yelled, noting that he was beginning to weave in his lane as his attention was drifting further away from his driving. He straightened the wheel, though there was still fire in him.

“I react in a way that was natural for me, that’s not right. I tell you what I think and feel, which you tell me all the goddamn time to do, so I do it, and it’s not right, either!” He slammed the heel of his hand against the wheel, making the truck jerk slightly. “What do you want from me?” He glared at her, an intensity in his eyes that was scary.

“I want you to be happy that you’ve helped to create something, and I want you to be a part of it, but because you want to be and not because you feel forced.”

“I’ve tried-”

“You have not tried. I know you, Kevin, and know how you work. The first idea that pops into your head is what you stick with. This is no different.”

Kevin was quiet for a moment, though the vein in his neck was sticking out dangerously, and the muscle in his jaw was working like mad. Willow was expecting him to explode any minute.

“You want me to be honest? You want me to tell you how I’m feeling and all that psycho babble shit? Alright, fine,” his voice was so calm, it sent a chill down Willow’s spine. “I’ll tell you.” His breathing was unsteady, heavy and jagged. He looked at her, eyes ablaze. “I don’t want this fucking kid, I never did. I don’t want it disrupting our life. I do not want to be a father!” This last was yelled, almost making Willow crawl into the corner of the cab.

She tore her eyes from him, turning to the road, just in time to see a pair of bright red break lights, not six feet away.

“Kevin!” she screeched.

****

Stuffing her hands into the pockets of her jeans, Christine walked the streets, the city alive and well all around her. Truly the city that never sleeps. Cap pulled low, the singer blended in well. She didn’t want to be bothered tonight. No, not tonight.

Adam and Alice had been asleep when she’d snuck out of the apartment, locking the many locks with the set of keys she’d been given years ago. More than once she’d been able to duck out of the public’s eye within the safety of those walls.

Tonight it felt anything but safe; it felt like a prison and she its prisoner to have to wallow in her sorrow of the death sentence given to her best friend.

She found a bench and sat, watching the trickle of humanity flow by, some glancing her way, most walking by as though she were part of the scenery.

Feeling the uncomfortable bulge at her hip, she placed her hand over the cell phone clipped there, fingers running over the smooth surface. Plucking it from her belt loop, she placed it in her lap, looking down at it. Running her thumb over the display window, over and over again, she felt just how heavy her soul was. It felt as though her shoulders were being pushed together by this great burden and cross, slowly pushing her down to a slouch on the bench. Her thumb continued to caress the little window.

Absently her fingers flipped the phone open, the blue light of the display screen and keypad caught her eye. She glanced down at it, seeing that it was after one in the morning New York time. She saw the little symbol at the top right hand corner for her address book, and, of its own accord, her thumb hit the button that would illuminate that, and the numbers marched down the screen, curser blinking on the first name.

Scanning down the list, she saw the names, Melissa, Sandra, Robert, Julia, Meg, Elton, Mick, Heff. Nothing that would do her any good, none of those people could help her. None would understand or listen the way she needed to be listened to.

Willow. The name was like a beacon, a guiding light to her emotional salvation.

Hitting the send button, Willow’s number appeared on the blue screen, and it began to ring.

****

Time slowed, the taillights getting closer and closer until she could no longer see them, only the truck’s headlights’ beam illuminating the entire interior of the car and it’s two occupants as they plowed into them.

The seatbelt dug into Willow’s middle, making her cry out in pain as it felt as though her insides were being squeezed in a steel vice. She heard a terrible crash and realized it was the windshield shattering as the frame of the car’s back window fractured and crashed through the window.

Shards of glass showered upon her and Kevin, sticking in their hair and the skin of their face and arms.

It was all over within seconds, though for Willow it felt like hours. As she heard sirens in the background, and somewhere heard Kevin’s voice, though what he said made no sense to her. She had one thing on her mind.

“My baby!”

****

“Hey. Uh, well, I know it’s late and I’m really sorry. Um, I guess I just needed to talk. I’m really sorry if I bothered you or woke you up or anything. Um, I’m fine, so don’t worry. I guess just give me a buzz whenever. I uh, I’ll talk to you later.”

Phone snapped shut, Christine stood from her bench, turning in a slow circle, seeing a café not far down the sidewalk. Eddie’s. She’d give Eddie a try. Coffee. Coffee would be good.

Pushing through the glass and metal door, the bell above it ringing loudly in the quiet din of the small shop. Blue eyes looked around, seeing a few customers sitting at scattered tables, a man behind the counter, white apron with the Eddie’s logo proudly splayed across it in large red letters. She noted that the bright lights directly above him put strange shadows on his worn face and made him look unnaturally pale. He looked at her with old, droopy eyes, wrinkled before their time.

Archie Bunker. He reminded her of Archie Bunker before Carroll O’Connor went totally white.

This realization made her giggle just a bit, a slight burp in emotion. She stared at Archie/Eddie, her eyes locking with his for just a moment, just the barest connection to another human being.

“You alright, miss?”

That’s all it took. One single act of kindness, one single moment of a complete stranger’s concern. She felt her face fall, hands come up to hide her pain, even though it seeped out through her fingers.

Gentle hands were on her arm and shoulder, and blindly she was led to a chair, where she sat hard on the plastic seat. She couldn’t hold it in any longer, and the flood gates were blown out of the way as a wave of tears filled the void, a concerned hand lying warmly on her back.
Part 8
“That son of a bitch,” Rachel muttered, pushing through the ER doors that would eventually put her right smack in the middle of the ER waiting room. That’s where she found her target.

He sat in one of the hard plastic chairs, head back against the wall, a Band-Aid covering the lone boo boo he got on his forehead. Though Rachel had to smirk knowing the headache he must have from hitting the steering wheel with his worthless noggin.

“Well, I don’t really think you give a damn, but you’re wife is going to live, and so is her baby. At least as of this moment.”

Kevin looked up at the terse tone, seeing the redheaded nurse with hands on hips, looking to do battle.

For a moment, albeit a very short moment, Rachel almost felt bad at the utterly pitiful look on his face. Luckily it passed quickly.

“Can I see her?” he asked, getting ready to stand. He oomphed as a hand pushed him back into his chair.

“Not on your life, pal. She doesn’t want to see you. Besides, she’s sleeping. We had to give her a sedative because she was so worried that her baby was dead.” The nurse looked at the man with hard, accusing eyes. “And just so you know, that nice officer over there would like to have a word with you.”

Rachel turned and headed back into the ER. Perhaps she was getting a little too much satisfaction from this, but she couldn’t help it. From what she’d gathered from her friend, they’d been fighting over Kevin’s immaturity in taking responsibility for the child he helped to create. Ungrateful bastard. He had one of the finest women God had ever deemed worthy to create, and he was letting her get away. Dumbass.

She headed down the hall, hearing the chaos of a new arrival in progress. Seeing they had it under control, she headed to the cubical where Willow slept.

She felt her anger grow as she thought back to just how hysterical Willow had been, terrified that her baby hadn’t made it, had been killed by the impact of the seatbelt against her mid-section.

“Bastard,” she muttered, pushing the curtain aside.

Kevin watched the nurse leave, dread and fear creeping up his spine to fill him with a sense of loss. He was stunned to find out his wife didn’t want to see him, and suddenly felt panicked, like a little boy who wasn’t allowed to join in.

“Shit,” he muttered. He’d really fucked up this time.

“Kevin Bowman?” the officer asked, pad of paper in hand.

Blue eyes turned to the tall, black cop. His sense of dread intensified.

****

Willow moaned slightly, head turning to the side, hand automatically resting on her stomach. Green eyes popped open.

“My baby,” she whispered.

“Is fine. Honey, you and your baby are okay.”

Willow turned to see Rachel sitting at her bedside, and realized the redhead held her hand. She squeezed the cool fingers around her own, then settled back onto the scratchy pillow.

“Are you sure, Rach?” she asked, voice just as scratchy.

“Yeah. We’re sure, honey. How are you feeling?” Rachel brought her other hand up, checking the temp of the blonde’s skin, as she was still deathly pale.

“Well, as you said, I’ll live. Is he still here?”

“No. He left once the cops were through with him. Some big, burly guy came and got him.”

“His brother Joe,” Willow readjusted her aching body, sighing heavily. “Did he say anything?”

“Not much. He asked to see you. That was about it.”

“Can I crash at your place for a little while?” Willow asked, her voice very quiet.

“Of course you can, honey. I was going to insist on it, actually.” The redhead flashed a brilliant smile at her friend, who weakly returned it.

“Thanks, Rachel.”

“Anytime, sweetie. I have to get back to work. You relax and allow yourself to sleep, okay? Everything will be fine, sweetie. I promise.” Rachel stood, then leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on her friend’s forehead.

Once left alone, Willow stared at the light above her, dimmed, making the cubical near dark. Rachel wanted her to sleep and relax. How on earth was she supposed to do that? Kevin’s words echoed through her head:

“I don’t want this fucking kid, I never did … I do not want to be a father!”

The sting of fresh tears made her squeeze her eyes shut once more, tired of crying. Her eyes hurt and the skin of her face was stiff and tight, trails of salt still able to be felt.

She had some serious decisions to make.

****

“Is there anything else you need, sweetie?” Rachel asked, about to stand from sitting on the edge of the bed. Willow looked just like a little girl, all tucked in, covers up to her chin. Rachel thought it was adorable.

“Yeah, for you to let me give you your bed back,” the blonde grumbled.

“Nonsense.” The redhead stood, patting Willow’s foot. “I want you to be as comfortable as possible, got me? TV’s right there, remote is on the table next to you, glass of ice cold iced tea next to it. Um, I think that’s it. You just rest. You need it, honey.”

After awhile Willow was left alone to toss and turn, trying to sleep. It just wasn’t happening. Her mind was everywhere at once, like a million voices all talking at the same time.

Finally giving up, she sat herself up, wincing at the sore muscles and bruised mid-section. Glancing at the illuminated red numbers on the alarm clock across the room, Willow saw that it was just after three in the afternoon. The blonde’s OBGYN had insisted that Willow stay overnight in the hospital for observation, just to make sure nothing unexpected came up with the pregnancy. Everything okay, she was released the following morning.

She hadn’t realized she’d even slept that long, as she’d finally closed her eyes around eleven. Sipping from the now room temperature iced tea on the bedside table, her fingers bumped against the remote for the mounted television, so she grabbed it.

“Who cares who the father of your kid is,” she muttered bitterly as she passed the Maury Povich show. “Even when you do, it doesn’t matter.” Having no desire to see a pride of lioness’ stalk and kill an antelope, she bypassed Animal Planet.

“She was real upset. Don’t know what it was all about, but she stayed for like two hours, bought everyone in the place my award winning cinnamon roles,” said some guy in an apron, that when Willow squinted, kind of reminded her of that guy who was in that show her dad used to watch all the time, something night, heat, Heat of the Night, that was it.

About to move on, she stopped, an image of Christine in earlier footage greeting a crowd, then onstage.

“She was in a hospital for fatigue earlier in the year, wasn’t she?” one anchor asked the other on the entertainment program.

“Maybe she’s pulling a Mariah Carey.” They both laughed, then the man turned back to the camera. “In Wacko Jacko news-”

“Christine,” with a grunt, Willow pushed the heavy layer of covers off, a chill hitting her bare legs from the ice-age temp Rachel kept her house at the end of summer.

Finding her clothes neatly hung up in the closet, Rachel’s own clothes shoved aside, she tugged on a pair of jeans, leaving the tank she slept in on, and headed out further into the house, looking for her purse and phone.

“Willow! What are you doing up? I don’t recall giving you permission to only sleep for,” the redhead checked the stovetop clock, “four hours.” She set her cup of coffee down on the kitchen table, where she’d been working on bills.

“Yeah, and I don’t recall giving you permission to freeze me out of your house.”

“Eh, stop whining. A colder environment is better for you, and you get used to it.” Rachel smiled, though it faltered when she heard Willow’s muttered comment about polar bears. Noting that her friend was obviously on a mission, looking under couch pillows, in the pantry and even glancing out the window. “Uh, honey, what are you looking for?”

“My purse,” the blonde murmured as she opened the slatted door once more.

“Yeah, cause I always keep mine in the pantry,” Rachel chuckled as she got up and walked into the small office off the living room. Coming back, she handed the small, brown bag to her friend. “What’s up? Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Willow took the bag then began to look through the leather compartments frantically. “Got it!” Raising the phone in victory, she flipped it open.

“Whoa, no. You are not calling him,” Rachel was over there in a second, trying to grab the phone from the blonde, who yanked it away.

“Kevin? Are you out of your mind? No, I’m calling Christine.” She turned her attention back to the phone, seeing she had a missed message.

“Gray!?”

“The one and only.” Willow put the phone to her ear, listening to her message. Rachel watched in fascination as her friend’s facial expression went from surprise to brow-furrowed worry, to outright collapse in upset. “Oh, Christine,” she whispered, searching through the phone’s address book until she came up with the singer’s number, then quickly hit send.

“What’s going on?” Rachel asked, all humor gone.

“I don’t know. I think something’s happened. I saw on TV that, hey!” she was interrupted as the call was picked up.

Realizing that their conversation was over, the redhead left Willow to it.

****

Eyes closed, Christine spread her hands out, the smooth, polished surface under her palms as she leaned her weight on the grand. Shoulder hunched, she hung her head.

“Fuck,” she whispered. “What was I thinking. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

“Indeed.”

Christine whirled, eyes teared up, face red with a mixture of upset and rage at the invasion of her privacy.

“Not now, Bob. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll leave me the fuck alone,” she growled, body tense, pounce-mode. The manager stopped where he stood, frozen mid-step, but it passed. He continued on, though didn’t step up as close as he intended.
“I don’t think it would be wise for you to threaten me right now, Christine,” he said, his voice a low purr.

“What are you going to do?” she asked, taking a step toward him, satisfied as he took a step back. She needed to see that flicker of fear in his hard, cold eyes. She needed to feel there was some control for her, that she affected him in some way, other than as a living bank.

“What were you thinking, Christine?” he asked, backing up another step in their little tango of power. “It’s all over the news and the papers. The public is starting to think you’re losing your mind. I’m wondering if they’re not right.” A light smirk touched his lips when the singer faltered, but only for a step.

“What do you know, Bob? You’re nothing but a heartless bastard,” she hissed.

“What had you so upset?” he asked, struggling to gain the upper hand back in this conversation. “Forget to take your anti-depressants again, did you?”

“Go to hell, you son of a bitch. How about I tell you that your friend, shit you don’t have any, okay, your accountant was dying of AIDS, then we’ll talk.” She gave him one last glare then started past him.

“That little faggot got the gay cancer, huh?”

Christine’s blood froze for just one moment, then she turned to him and without another thought, her fist went flying through the air. The sickening smack that followed was punctuated with first a grunt if impact, then a yelp of pain.

“Christine!”

Fist in mid-air again, the singer stopped, turning to see Sandra run into the room, her heels clacking noisily against the hardwood.

“No!” she put herself between Robert, who was holding his nose, blood squirting between his fingers, and one enraged ex-street fighter. “No,” she repeated, putting a hand on Christine’s arm. “This isn’t the way to go about this. Please, stop,” two sets of blue eyes met, one pleading, the other filled with a fiery hatred. “Please,” Sandra whispered, praying to god she could get through to the singer. She knew Robert would ruin her in any way he could to make up for his humiliation.

Blinking several times, Christine came back into herself, shaking visibly, she hurried out of the room.

“That fucking bitch,” Bob husked through his fingers. “Fucking bitch.”

“You deserved it, Robert.” Sandra helped him to his feet. “Jesus,” she grimaced at the sight of his ruined nose, lower half of his face covered in blood. “I hope you didn’t pay a lot for that nose job, or at the very least have full coverage on that thing,” the desinger smirked.

“Get the fuck away from me,” Robert growled, pushing past the suited woman, heading toward the wet bar at the far end of the room. “Do something useful and call Dr. Rae for me. Here,” he tossed her his cell phone. “He’s on speed dial 1.”

“Good to know where I rank in the scheme of things,” Sandra muttered as she did as asked. Robert grabbed a white bar towel, running it under cold water, then put it to his nose. The coppery taste of blood in his mouth was making him nauseous, as well as the pain.

He looked up, seeing his reflection in the mirror above the small, stainless steel sink. The white Prada shirt he wore was ruined, the pressed, yet ‘casually’ open collar was stained pink from the diluted blood and water. A reddish brown stain was on the side of his neck, sticky, making his skin feel tight.

“Fucking cunt.”

He straightened, keeping the rag to his nose as he heard the soft murmurings of Sandra on the phone with his plastic surgeon, or more accurately, with his secretary. The phone was snapped shut.

“If you can get there in fifteen minutes he can see you.” Sandra walked over to him, tucking his phone into his hip pocket. “Robert, you really should go to the-”

“No! There will be no fucking photographers to see that my fucking client broke my fucking nose.”

Rolling her eyes, she grabbed him by the arm, only to have him snatch it away. “Stop being such a baby.” She grabbed it again, this time digging her perfectly manicured nails in for good measure, and led him out to the car.

****

“Hello?” Christine nearly barked into the phone once she flipped it open.

“Hey! Are you okay?”

Christine’s mood immediately improved at the soft words of her friend.

“Hey,” she replied, though the intensity was still there, her hand aching badly; she figured she’d probably broken it.

“What’s going on? I saw this thing on TV, and then got your message,” Willow took a breath. “Are you okay?” she was truly worried, hearing something in the singer’s voice that was unsettling.

“Can you take some time off?” Christine asked, though she had no idea why. Spontaneity was a shortfall for her sometimes.

“Oh, uh,” Willow was struck by the question, not expecting it at all, nor the very straightforward, almost hard, tone it was asked in. “Yes, I can. Well, have already, actually.”

“Good. Pack for a few days, a little bit of everything, shorts, pants, but keep it casual. A car will be around to pick you up in about,” Christine studied the clock in the hall, “four hours.”

“Oh, um, alright. Oh, wait, I won’t be at home. You’ll have to come to Rachel’s house.”

The singer faltered for a moment, finally computing that Willow didn’t sound so great herself . “Are you okay? I’m sorry, I’m so preoccupied right now, I should have-”

“I’m fine. I’ll be okay.” Willow smiled into the mouthpiece, though didn’t feel a word of it. Neither did Christine.

“Well, tell me where Rachel lives.”

****

“Have you lost your mind, Willow?” Rachel asked, following the frantic little blonde around her house. “You need to rest, not go globe trotting with this singer!” Rachel grabbed her friend’s shoulder, turning her so the blonde was forced to look at her. “Honey, what are you doing?” she asked, her voice filled with quiet concern.

“I need to get out of here for a little while, Rachel. Honey, you have been so good to me, but I need a change of scenery.” Willow sat heavily on the bed behind her. “I’ve been so stressed for the past few weeks since I found out I was pregnant.”

“And you trust this woman?” Rachel sat next to her.

Willow sighed, looking into the pretty brown eyes of her friend, then nodded. “Yeah, I do. I can’t explain why, but I trust her implicitly. And,” she chuckled lightly. “It seems like she needs to get away as much as I do.”

“Where are you going? How long?”

“I don’t know, and a few days.”

The conversation was cut off by the sound of a car outside, pulling to a stop out front. Both women stood and headed to the window to look out.

“Holy shit,” Rachel whispered, her friend looking just as wide-eyed at the tiny, red convertible sports car. “Looks like a Porsche of some kind.”

The driver’s door opened, and a tall figure pulled herself out. Willow chuckled, wondering why on earth Christine would get such a tiny car.

“Well, I guess this is it. You all packed?” Rachel asked, turning back to her friend, who was grinning at her.

“Yes, mom. Ow,” she held her arm where the redhead smacked her.

“Be nice. And I hope my stuff isn’t too big on you.”

Willow found herself pulled into a warm embrace, her eyes closing at the contentedness that filled her. They parted at the sound of the doorbell.

The blonde was nervous as she tugged the strap of her bag onto her shoulder, following Rachel down the stairs.

“Hi, Christine,” Rachel opened the door wide, silently inviting the singer inside. Christine pulled her sunglasses off, smiling at the nurse.

“Hello. Nice to see you again.” She stopped into the small foyer, hands clasped before her, looking for the world like she was there to collect her date. Rachel laughed internally at the thought. Willow stood behind her, stepping around her friend, but was caught up in a quick, tight hug first.

“You two crazy gals have fun.”

“We will,” Willow laughed, rolling her eyes at her friend’s antics.

Once outside, Christine took the bag from Willow’s shoulder. At the odd look she received, she grinned a little sheepish.

“Hey, now, can’t have the mommy-to-be doing hard labor.” Christine opened the itty bitty trunk, which still freaked Willow out, as it was at the front of the car, gently setting the duffel inside, then slamming it shut. Chuckling, Willow stepped into the car, sinking into the black leather, almost afraid to breathe.

“This is one heck of a car,” she whispered, reverence in her voice. Christine smiled as she tucked herself behind the wheel.

“Well, I decided to pick you up in style. I mean, it’s not like I could really bring mine along.” She turned the ignition, the powerful engine roaring to life.

“Uh, you have one of these?” Willow quickly strapped herself in as the car sped off down the street.

“I do. This baby is a 2005 Porsche 911 Carrera S Coupe. This baby will do zero to sixty-two in five point two.” She grinned with pride, glancing over at her passenger, who looked just a little frightened.

“So, did you rent this?” Willow asked, brows drawn as she looked around the inside of the tiny car, taking in all the instruments and plush settings.

“Nah. Borrowed it from a friend. It’s just to get us to the airport. Do you like to fly?” Christine pulled the red blur up to a stop light, glancing over at the blonde once she was stopped.

“I do.”

“Excellent. I hope you like sun, sand and surf.” The Porsche was put into gear, and buzzed through the green light, turning off toward the highway where Christine would show Willow what the little car could really do.

“Where are we going? And that sounds wonderful!”

“Good!” the singer yelled above the howl of the wind. “We’re going to my summer house.”

“Really? Where is it?” Willow was more than thankful she had short hair as she watched Christine’s long, dark hair dancing around like black flames. She could imagine the tangled mass she’d have once they were stopped.

“You’ll see.” Christine grinned, though a bit devilish.

“I can’t believe you have a second house! Shoot, I’m just pleased as punch to have one house!”

Christine grinned, eyes planted firmly on the road. “Does it bother you?”

“What, that you’ve got more money than god? No. As long as it doesn’t bother you that I don’t.” The singer pulled up to another red light, glancing over at her friend, looking at her over the tops of her Ray Bans. “What?” Willow asked at the near glare she was receiving.

“Of course it doesn’t bother me.” Christine got the car going again.

“So, why do you need a summer house? I mean, you live in California, right? It’s not like you need to escape the snow.” The blonde asked.

“No, but I do need to escape my life sometimes. Where we’re going it’s quiet and peaceful. Somehow I get the feeling you and I could both use a bit of peace and quiet right now.” The singer’s voice was quiet, almost sad. Willow had to put the scattered words together to even understand what was said, the wind stealing most of Christine’s voice.

“I think you’re right,” she said finally. “I saw something on the news about you. I’ve been worried about you, Christine.” She looked at her friend’s profile, the sleek, classic lines and perfect features. How was it possible for someone to be so completely beautiful and amazingly talented? And Willow’s inexperienced eye could tell that Christine Gray’s beauty had nothing to do with makeup or money, but purely by the graceful hand of genetics. Some girls had all the luck.

Christine sighed, then turned to the beautiful blonde tucked into the leather seat next to her. “Willow, please don’t be offended, but can we perhaps have that conversation another day? Today I just want to enjoy a bit of freedom and your company. Okay?” Their gazes met, mirrored in two sets of mirrored sunglasses. Willow nodded with a smile.

“You’ve got it.”

Christine smiled big and bright. With that, she floored it, and the tiny car sped off like a shot, a screeching Willow white knuckled.

****

Willow looked around, green eyes wide as she took in everything. The long flight in a plush, private jet landed them on a tiny island that looked from the air like she could skip from one side to the other. Once the jet had touched down, they’d been swarmed by a small army of assistants and crew for the small hangar.

Now tucked into the front seat of a black Jeep Wrangler, Christine navigated them over the rough terrain and dirt paths that led deep into what could only be described as a jungle. Willow held onto the roll bar next to her head for dear life- the ultimate “oh shit” bar.

Christine glanced over at her, grinning. “You alright there?”

“Oh yeah, just fine.” Willow was doing her best to not lean her head out of the open door and puke along the path. Since she’d gotten pregnant, her once iron stomach had turned to fine porcelain.

“I can tell by the fine pea-green color you’re sporting.” Christine laughed loudly at the glare she got in response to that fine observation. She was in a wonderful mood, which wasn’t hard to obtain when she was on Quenby Island, just off the coast of Belize.

“So now can you tell me where we are?” As if reading the singer’s mind, Willow began to try and figure out where their very long flight had ended up.

“We are on a private island called Quenby, or ‘womanly’, as it were. We’re not far from Belize, which is in the Caribbean.”

“Oh my god,” Willow really began to look around now, though she couldn’t see anything but trees. The sun was also setting. Christine was trying to get them to the house before that happened so the blonde could see the sun set over the water.

“Just wait until we clear all this and get to my property.”

“Do you own this island?” Willow asked, holding on tighter as the Jeep plowed over a huge set of ruts in the primitive trail.

“Well, let’s just say I own my own little part of paradise.”

They were quiet as the rough terrain made talking difficult, but finally they made it through the jungle, the big tires of the Jeep finding purchase on the flagstone drive that led up to an amazing house on the cliffs, all stone and glass.

Willow leaned forward in her seat, eyes once again popping open as she took in the sight before her.

The house was a two-story, facing out to sea. The long drive curved around to the side to a set of unusually tall French doors, painted white to match the trim. There was no planned yard to speak of, all natural and all very tropical. Palm trees and huge, colorful flowers littered everything.

“God, that’s gorgeous,” Willow whispered, antsy for Christine to stop the Jeep so she could explore.

“I’m glad you like.”

“What’s not to like?” The moment the brakes were applied, the blonde was fumbling with her seatbelt, then out running. Christine pulled the break then got out herself, leaning against the side of the Jeep, the engine ticking as it cooled. She watched the child-like antics of her friend.

Willow ran to the edge of the cliff, stopping short as she looked down at the thirty foot drop, the sea roaring against the rocks.

“Wow,” she whispered, eyes scanning the horizon, seeing the sun melting into molten waves. The breeze rolling in from the ocean felt wonderful, and the blonde lifted her face to the heavens, letting it run through her hair and wash over her face.

She’d been there for exactly five minutes and felt like she could stay forever.

Finally turning away when she heard footsteps behind her, she smiled up at the singer.

“This is amazing, Christine. No wonder you like to escape here. How often do you come?”

“Not near as often as I’d like,” Christine sighed, squinting into the dying sun. “A handful of times a year, I guess. Since I’ve had the place, anyway. Bought it four years ago.” She ran a hand through her hair, which was terribly tangled. “Come on. I’ll show you around inside.”

Willow followed Christine up the flagstone path that reached the base of a long staircase that ended at a massive deck jutting out of the back of the house, and wrapped around to the other side.

“Does anyone else live here? On the island?” Willow asked, waiting as Christine unlocked the second set of French doors, then pushed it open, gesturing that the blonde should enter.

Again, Willow’s mouth was hanging open as she saw the twenty foot ceilings, glass from floor to ceiling, white everywhere, tile, paint and marble.

“I hope you never have children in here,” she grinned.

“Hey, it gets hot here. You have to do what you can. Come on.”

Willow was led through the downstairs, which wasn’t huge, but was beautiful. Kitchen, living room, bathroom and a game room made up the main floor. Upstairs was comprised of four bedrooms and three bathrooms.

“And, if all looks okay to you, I figure you can stay in here.” Christine walked into the second largest bedroom, and the other one that had its own bathroom. The room was easily larger than Willow and Kevin’s master bedroom back at the ranch.

“Yeah, I think I can hack it. I mean, it is only for a few nights,” she dramatized, running a finger disapprovingly across the spotless, shiny surface of the dresser. Christine rolled her eyes.

“Oh, thank you ever so much,” bowing deeply, she jumped back, laughing as she avoided a feisty little blonde attack.

“Feed me, will ya?”

****

“That was fantastic,” Willow sat back in the metal, but surprisingly comfortable, chair that belonged with the very contemporary set on the deck. It almost matched the mammoth stainless steel grill that Christine barbequed their chicken on. Her belly was full, and she felt utterly satisfied.

“Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it.” The singer sipped her iced tea, looking out over the water that sparkled in the moonlight. Like a million little stars in the waves.

Willow sighed again, utterly content and happy, and thrilled to no end she was able to keep her dinner down thus far.

“Why here?” the blonde asked, looking out into the darkness that lay over the cliff, the sound of the ocean far below. “Other than the fact that’s it’s so beautiful it’ll make you cry, that is.”

“That is true. It certainly did me the first time I saw it. But,” Christine raised a single finger to show the importance of her coming point. “for me the biggest reason I bought the place is for the privacy. The airport is owned by local islanders who understand, personally, the importance of privacy for us here. They turn planes away all the time.”

“So they protect you guys?”

“Yep. The owners aren’t here all the time, but the crew does not want to mess with Keller Davies.” Christine grinned.

“Tough?”

“Oh, yeah. She doesn’t take any shit.” The singer sighed and pushed away from the table. “I’m sorry, Willow, but I’m exhausted.” She began to clear away the dishes on the metal and glass table.

“Oh, of course,” Willow automatically stood, taking the plates from her friend, who looked quite baffled at the gesture. “Let me do something to repay your kindness.”

Christine snorted. “No need, but if you feel the overwhelming need to do dishes, don’t let me stop you,” she raised her hands in supplication. “I hate dishes.” They laughed. “Look, the house is yours, Willow. You know the whole me casa, su casa, or whatever the hell it is. I’ve got tons of books in the recreation room, food galore, whatever you want.”

“Thanks.” Willow tucked the dishes in her arms, a gentle smile gracing her features that made Christine melt.

“If you need anything, anything at all, please don’t hesitate to wake me up, okay? I mean, like, I really want you to come get me. I get the distinct feeling that you’re a strong chick who can do it herself,” Christine grinned at the blush that made the blonde even more adorable. “Not here. Got me?”

Willow nodded. “Got you.”

“Good. Goodnight, Willow.” She turned to go, then stopped, back still to the blonde. “We’ll talk tomorrow.” Then she was gone. Willow stood, dishes still in hand, looking around the large deck, lit with small Tiki lights that were festooned to the top of the deck’s railing. They had flared to life all by themselves, so Willow assumed they must be gas lit.

Sighing with renewed contentment, she stacked everything, remembering with not much fondness, doing just that very task during her college days. She’d been a waitress at various restaurants the entire time. Stacking plates and other dishes up her arms, just as she did in the old days, she got everything inside and stacked in the dishwasher.

Inside, can and track lighting gave everything a golden hue, scattered lamps helped with brighter, or more direct lighting. She looked around, trying to decide what to do. She was tired, no doubt, but her mind was still reeling in a million different directions. She knew sleep would be a joke.

Wandering around the main level of the beautiful house, getting ideas for what she might like to do with the ranch, she trailed her fingertips over the white, leather sofa, the smooth, yet textured material making her sensitive fingertips tingle. She couldn’t believe where she was, and had the instinct to call Kevin and tell him all about it.

The sting of unshed tears made her nose itch, and she quickly tried to blink them away, shaking her head free of thoughts of him. She couldn’t afford to think about him right now, didn’t want to think of him.

Still the tears came.

Christine had said if she needed anything … did that mean a shoulder, too?

“I’m fine,” she whispered, pressing at her moist eyes with the heels of her hands. “I’m fine.”

She found her way into the recreation room, pool table’s antique, carved wooden legs catching the gleam from the other room’s light. Finding the wall switch, suddenly the room was bathed in soft light. The pool table with a funky pink top, which made Willow smile, stood century in the center of the large room. Around the edges of two walls were various arcade-type games, Pac Man, Frogger, a few fighting games, then Willow’s personal favorite, pinball.

Her fingers itched to hit those paddles, and slide that ball back only to shoot it like a canon. But, alas, she walked past it, not wanting to wake her host. The final two walls were lined top to bottom with inlaid shelving filled with books.

Not a huge reader, Willow did have her favorites, and as she trailed her fingers across the spines, lined up like soldiers, she found a few of those.

“Oh,” she sighed with pleasure, finding the newest novel, Carmen, by Parker Davies- Dubois. Turning the book over, she read the back of the hardback, then opened the back cover to look at the author’s picture and bio, a habit she’d always had. There Parker Davies-Dubois was, her signature curly blonde hair around a very attractive face, blue eyes twinkling with the brilliance of her smile.

Green eyes trailed down to the bio, which explained that Parker and her son lived in the Boston area.

Decision made, Willow tucked the book to her chest, and turning out lights as she went, made her way up the stairs to her bedroom.

****

It was a brilliant day! Christine couldn’t keep the grin off her face as she made her way back toward the house, her breathing coming in quick gasps now as her run came to an end.

What could be better? Paradise all around her, her body alive and ready to fly from the wonders of motion and exertion and just all that the human body could do.

Jogging in place, she looked out over the ocean, thinking of when she’d been on the beach below just moments before. Finally turning, she jogged up the two levels of stairs that took her to the deck, the sun just now starting to blaze down after it’s slow rise.

Running a hand through her sticky hair, grimacing at the feel, she made her way to the kitchen and opened the fridge, moaning in pleasure as the cold air hit her overheated skin. Grabbing a bottle of grape flavored Fruit 2 O, she twisted off the cap, guzzling half the drink in one go, then headed upstairs, taking it two at a time. Shower, she needed one, and she needed one badly.

Freshly showered and dressed, long, wet hair soaking through the thin material of her tank top, which felt wonderful to cool her off from the morning heat, she padded back to the kitchen and started on breakfast. She was glad that Donna had restocked the house with fresh fruit and groceries. She’d have to give the caretaker a raise.

Cutting up cantaloupe, kiwi, mandarin oranges and apple, she arranged it all on a platter with a cup of plain yogurt in the center. Freshly squeezed and poured orange juice in a big glass, napkin neatly folded, it was time.

Christine balanced the tray on one hand as she used the other to knock lightly on Willow’s bedroom door. After a moment she heard a sound from the other side, then a soft “Come in.” Turning the knob, the singer pushed the door open with her hip as she took the tray in both hands again.

“Hey, sleepyhead,” she smiled, entering the room, still dark as the heavy blinds were closed.

“Morning,” Willow said, her voice heavy and thick with sleep. She blinked sleepy eyes several times, unknowingly charming the hell out of her friend with her sleep-tussled hair and the t-shirt she wore twisted around her small frame.

“Come on, up, up.” Christine set the tray on the side table, noting her friend’s choice of reading material as she pushed the book aside to make room. Helping the blonde pile fluffy pillows behind her. “Settled?” At Willow’s nod, the singer placed the tray on her lap.

“Oh, breakfast in bed!” Willow exclaimed, suddenly very awake and very hungry. “Thank you, Christine.”

“My pleasure.” Standing at the side of the bed, hands on hips, the singer looked around, seeing if there was anything else she could do. “Well, then you enjoy.” She turned to leave, but was stopped by a warm hand on her arm.

“You’re going?”

She looked down at the blonde, who’s brows were drawn to almost make her look petulant. Too cute.

“Well, I was going to let you eat in peace-”

“Unh uh, no. You sit your butt down right here and join me.” Willow scooted a bit, patting the bed next to her. “There’s plenty here.”

Happily accepting the invitation that secretly she hoped would be extended to her, Christine got herself situated against the headboard and smiled as the tray was scooted over so it rested across both their thighs.

“So I see you like Parker Davies-Dubois,” the singer said, eyeing her friend as she popped a bit of kiwi into her mouth. Willow, who was chewing contentedly on a bit of cantaloupe, the tiniest bit of yogurt leaking out the corner of her mouth, nodded.

“Love her work,” she finally managed.

“Hmm, I do, too.” She licked some yogurt off her own lip as she thought for a moment. “How long have you read her?”

“Since her first book, ‘Control’. Loved that one. So I don’t know, five years?”

“Welllll,” Christine watched as she drug an apple piece through the creamy yogurt, leaving a trail in the goo. “How about we have her over for dinner tonight?” Eyeing her friend, she saw those brows drop again.

“Come again?”

“Yeah. She’s my neighbor. She stays here all summer while her son is with his dad back in Boston.”

“You’re kidding me, right?” Willow could feel her excitement level rising, though unsure.

“Not at all. I’m quite serious.” Blue eyes met green, steady and true.

“Holy cow,” Willow whispered, realizing that her leg wasn’t being pulled.

“So, what, around six? Seven?” Christine was having to stop herself from out and out laughing her ass off. “Close your mouth, Willow. You’re going to catch flies.”

“You got anymore surprises up those sleeves of yours?” Willow asked, taking a long drawl of her juice.

“Guess you’ll have to wait and see, won’t you?” She nudged the blonde with her shoulder.

“So what’s the special occasion?” Willow indicated the tray on her lap. “What did I do to deserve breakfast in bed.”

Christine shrugged, feeling a bit sheepish. She wished Willow would have just accepted it quietly.

“Guess I just wanted to. That alright with you?”

“Very. Just wondered.” She handed the brunette the last piece of fruit, which Christine took gratefully.

“Come on. Let’s go outside. I want to show you the beach.” Christine took the tray from Willow, making her way off the bed. Willow followed, quickly pulling up all the covers and tucking them in. Christine watched, shaking her head as she headed out to take care of their breakfast dishes.

Willow headed into the bathroom attached to the bedroom. Pushing the glass door aside, she turned on the water for the shower, the smile unshakable on her lips. She couldn’t wait to explore this amazing place Christine had brought her to, as well as she was excited to spend time with the singer.

As the water turned warmer, then finally hot, she turned the knob that sent the roar of the powerful shower to fill the large bathroom. Tugging her t-shirt over her head and stepping out of her panties, kicked them aside.

“Oh, yeah,” she sighed, stepping under the spray, feeling millions of little fingers massage her skin. Closing her eyes, she tilted her head back, letting the water smooth her hair back from her face, slicking it down to her scalp. Running her hands over the slick helmet of hair, they made their way down, over her neck, down over enlarged, sensitive breasts, and finally to a flat tummy.

Willow knew her baby was not even quite an inch in length yet, only eight weeks along, but she was still there. Yes, she. Willow couldn’t shake the thought that she was having a daughter

The smile that spread across her face was made of utter beauty, the type that can only be created from the gentleness of maternal instincts and pride. Her baby. Her daughter.

Would Kevin ever come around? Would he ever accept that fact that he had fathered a child?

The accident.

Willow’s eyes squeezed shut, her face slowly collapsing unto itself as the tears fell, a loud, painful sob pulled from her throat. Her logical side told her it had been just that, an accident. But her emotions told her differently, that he had done it on purpose, that in his mind it was the quickest, easiest way to not have to deal with a tough situation. Had he tried to kill her baby?

No. That was purely the nonsense musings of a woman who was scared and had her world shaken to the core. The blonde knew that, but it was still hard to swallow.

Finally feeling clean and able to face the day, Willow turned the water off, automatically wiping down the inside of the spotless little cubicle.

Towel wrapped around her head, she padded naked across the bedroom, hefting her bag up to the bed, unzipping it and digging around. Figuring they’d be in California at Christine’s place, she’d brought her bathing suit. She slipped the panties of the two-piece up her legs and over her hips, snapping it into place, then spread the top out on the bed.

Slipping the halter over her neck, she reached around to tie the ties at mid-back. Brows narrowed as she tugged the top into place, the ties shorter than she remembered. True, she hadn’t put the top on in more than a year, but still …

Finally getting the thing tied into place, she walked over to the mirror, making sure she wouldn’t offend anyone’s sensibilities with showing so much skin and possibly cellulite.

Turning this way and that, her eyes bulged at the cleavage threatening to spill out of her top. Cupping her enlarged breasts, Willow squeezed them just a bit, feeling their heft. Turning to the side, she looked at her profile, tucking a finger into her cleavage, giggling at the way it disappeared.

Feeling a bit self-conscious, she grabbed a light button-up shirt, tying it around her waist, and headed out.

Christine stood out on the deck, leaning against the railing, can of ice cold Coke dangling from her fingers. She heard the whir of the air conditioning for a brief moment as the door behind her was opened then closed.

Turning, she was so glad she had sunglasses on, and her expression could be somewhat hidden. Her eyes traveled up and down the strong, compact body of Willow. The blonde’s physique well sculpted from hours of hard work on the ranch and work with those mammoth animals called horses.

“What,” the blonde looked down at herself, smoothing her hand down her bare midriff, worried she looked far more horrible than she thought.

“Oh, nothing.” Christine smiled, mentally slapping herself. Yes, the dark lenses may have hid her expression, but she was still caught staring. “Ready?”

“Yeah. I’m really excited!” Willow followed her friend down the stairs to where the Jeep was parked.

“Want to walk or drive?” Christine asked, placing her hand on the front left fender. Glancing toward the cliffs, hearing the sea beyond, Willow chewed her bottom lip for a moments thought, then turned to the brunette.

“Let’s walk.”

They walked along the flagstone path that led to a narrow, railed stairway, ten stairs to a level, three levels down with small, cement landings to separate them.

Sliding her hand along the smooth metal of the tube railing, Willow watched her step, Christine leading the way once more. As they made their way down, she watched her friend, dressed in a black tankini, her skin evenly tanned, legs long and muscled, beautiful. She watched as the pronounced muscles in Christine’s back worked with each move she made, long, graceful fingers trailing along the rail with each step. Green eyes traveled down that same strong back, noting the slender hips which led into one of the most shapeliest behinds she had ever seen. Normally not one for ass-gazing of either gender, Christine certainly had one that was quite worthy of attention. The singer’s calves flexed with each step, muscle standing in stark relief, never fully disappearing, even as the calve came into disuse.

Perfect body. Perfect face. Perfect talent. All this made Willow feel perfectly inferior.

Flipping the two towels she carried over her shoulder, Christine downed the rest of her drink, crushing the can in her hand then tossing it into the metal trash can that sat at the base of the stairs.

The beach was of course empty, as that particular stretch was the singer’s own private playground. She led her friend to the white sandy beach, away from where it became rockier, eventually dissolving into the base of the cliffs.

Willow felt the hot sand give underneath her sandaled steps, so perfectly white it was almost blinding.

“God, too amazing for words,” she murmured, lifting her glasses to the top of her head to take in everything in its natural, untinted color.

“Yeah, it really is.” Christine smiled, pleased to see that the view touched Willow as deeply as herself.

Finding a good place, Christine spread out their huge, over-sized towels. Meanwhile, Willow dug into the bag she’d brought down with her, pulling out a very squished hat with a big, floppy brim, followed by a tube of sun block.

Feeling eyes on her, she saw a dark brow raised in her direction.

“What?” she asked, banging the hat against her thigh so it would fall into its regular shape, then plopped it on her head. “I’m fair skinned.” To emphasize her point, she grabbed the tube of lotion, popping the top. “You try being a blonde sometime.”

“I have,” Christine said dryly, finding a comfy spot on her towel, lying on her back, arms out at her sides. She smirked at the surprised chuckle that produced. What she wasn’t telling the feisty blonde was that she’d already lathered up with SPF 40 back at the house. But she would never, ever be caught dead in such a hat.

Both settled, Christine rolled to her side, bracing her head up with her palm. Again feeling eyes on her, Willow met her gaze. Christine couldn’t keep the slight smile from her lips at the ridiculous picture that bloody hat made.

“Don’t even say it,” Willow warned, her voice low. “I hate a burned scalp.”

“Whatever you say, farmer Joe.”

Willow tipped her sunglasses down, glaring over their rims. Putting glasses back in place, she turned her face back up to the sun, a fresh coat of sunscreen giving her face a slight ghostly pallor.

“So what happened? Somehow I get the feeling you weren’t just at your friend’s house for a how do you do.”

Willow met her friend’s gaze again, then sighed, also turning to her side. She looked down at some sand that had managed to make its way onto her towel. Picking at the individual granules, she shook her head.

“No. It wasn’t just a visit.” Flicking some sand off, she watched it land to join its fellow grains. “When you called I was being admitted into the Emergency Room of the very hospital that took care of you.”

“What?! Why? What happened?” Christine jumped up, sitting now, leaning toward her friend, face a vision of panic. Willow paused for a moment, temporarily surprised by the concern she heard in the singer’s voice, but deep down pleased beyond words, eating it up. Though she’d never admit that to anyone- not even herself.

“We were in a car accident, Kevin and I.” Flashes of that night raced through her mind’s eye, the terror and panic she’d felt then accosting her once more, making her stomach flop and a wave of nausea wash over her. Swallowing it all down, she continued. “We were fighting, about the baby, of course. And Kevin was yelling at me, and the next thing I know, we’re wearing a sedan for a hood ornament.” Her voice broke ever so slightly at the reveal, but she cleared her throat, trying to cover her emotional tracks. Too late, as Christine had picked up on it.

Reaching out, she took the blonde’s hand in her own, stroking the soft, but calloused fingers with her thumb.

“Are you and the baby okay?” she asked, her voice quiet. She was relieved at the nod she received.

“Yeah,” to her horror, a sob managed to make its way out of Willow’s throat. She did her damndest to swallow it down, but it didn’t work. “Just this,” she indicated the deep bruising that stretched across her bare abdomen.

“Come here,” pulling the smaller woman to her, she cradled her, resting her chin atop the ridiculous hat, which was nearly cutting off her breathing, but she said nothing.

“He doesn’t want his own child, Christine,” Willow cried, the tears falling now in a way that she hadn’t allowed them to that point. “How could you not want your own blood!”

“I don’t know, sweetie,” Christine whispered, understanding that sentiment all too well. “I just don’t know.” She rocked the blonde until the smaller woman got herself under control a bit, moving so her body was curled up sideways between Christine’s long legs, finally tugging the hat off and tossing it to her own towel. Grateful, the singer began to gently run her fingers through the soft, golden locks.

Willow got herself calmed and decided to just enjoy the safety of Christine’s caring, and let herself talk.

“You know,” she began, her voice soft but thick from the tears, “I used to fantasize about what it would be like to have a child, you know?”

“Mm hmm,” Christine looked out over the ocean as she listened.

“When I was a little girl it was hard. My mom was so wrapped in herself, my dad or whichever boyfriend she found after they divorced. Even besides that, she had it rough as a kid, and I don’t think she fully knew how to love, you know?” Willow sniffled once, then continued. “I think she did the best she could, but just wasn’t emotionally available.”

“Right. I know what you mean.”

“Yeah. I think you do. So I decided young that if I ever had kids, I’d give them everything I didn’t have. All the love inside me. And then with Kevin,” here her voice gave out just a bit, spearing through Christine’s heart. “I thought, damn, Willow, you got lucky. He’s so great, so sensitive and kind, man what a great father,”

Christine felt her jaw tighten as anger bubbled inside her. What an absolute fool he was. The singer held on tighter as Willow began to shed new tears, her voice giving way to her grief and profound disappointment.

“He … he doesn’t want … his own baby,” Willow cried, clutching almost painfully to Christine’s arm that was so protectively wrapped around her.

“I’m so sorry, honey. So sorry.” All her anger slowly drained away, replaced by a protective compassion she’d only ever experienced with Adam. This wasn’t about Kevin- fuck him. This was about a wonderful, precious woman that was currently nestled in the singer’s arms.

Again, Willow began to calm, Christine’s heartbeat against her ear pure magic. Closing her eyes, she allowed herself to absorb that magic, adjusting her body so she was even closer, the entire length of her side cuddled up against her friend’s front.

“What are you going to do?” was whispered into her hair. Willow sighed, smiling faintly at the tender pressure atop her head that she recognized as a kiss.

“Have my baby. Raise he or she, though I think it’ll be a she, to the best of my ability.”

“You’re going to make a wonderful mother, Willow. This child is a very lucky one.”

“Thank you.”

Together they watched the tide rolling in then swiftly out, painting the white sand dark as it was swept away once more in the magical forces that were nature.

“What happened, Christine? Why were you so sad?” Willow finally asked, running her thumb along the smooth, warm skin of the arm she found.

Christine sighed, rubbing her cheek against the soft hair for a moment before she spoke. Pulling away just a bit, she looked into the questioning eyes, those beautiful green eyes, that every so often would sparkle with a bluish gray tint, such as right now- grabbing the color from the sea.

Willow felt a bit of nerves creep up on her at the intense scrutiny. Finally, it seemed as if Christine had made a decision of some sort, and pulled the blonde back into her.

Knowing that she could trust the nurse completely, Christine began her tale.

“I told you about my parents when I was nine,” she felt a nod. “Well, though I was able to stay with Adam and his mother from time to time, things don’t always work out, and I still needed money, and being the stupid young thing I was, I decided why not add a bit of adventure into my money making.” She smirked at the ridiculousness of the idea.

“Come on, Adam. It’ll be fun!” I begged, tugging on his arm. He looked skeptical at best, chewing on his lip, looking at me over the tops of his taped glasses. “Think about it- lots of money, free sex.”

“I don’t know, Chris. Sounds kind of dangerous,” he hedges.

“Oh come on, Adam. Be a man! I live for danger.”

“But I’m just a kid.”

Shaking herself from the past, Christine continued. “At first we started selling anything we could get our hands on, little things we’d steal around the neighborhood, you know? Clothes off clotheslines, fruit, whatever. We almost got caught, so I decided on another angle of attack.”

Willow squeezed her eyes shut, her gut instinctively roiling against whatever she might hear next. Her heart broke for the young, lost girl Christine Gray must have been.

“We had one thing left to sell, and that was ourselves.” She sighed, resting her chin on Willow’s head. “I talked Adam into joining me on the streets, Willow. We sold ourselves to the highest bidder at first. Then when we realized we had way too much competition to be picky, we just plain out went with whoever had the cash.”

“Oh, Christine,” Willow hugged her friend, wrapping her arms around her waist and burying her face in her neck.

“See, there’s a certain group of men out there who love the company of a young boy,” she whispered, feeling a shiver wash through her friend. “Adam is a handsome man, and made a very handsome boy. He was quite popular,” her voice cracked. “And now, because of me, he’s paying with his life for that popularity.”

Willow was blown away by Christine’s quiet words and their implications. She gently pulled away, looking up into the tortured face of the beautiful woman sitting behind her. There was an almost audible crack as things began to really sink in, and Willow’s heart split in two.

“He’s sick?” she asked, though it was more a statement than a question. She winced at the nod she received.

“Full blown AIDS. He was diagnosed with HIV eight years ago. He just didn’t bother telling me.” Her head fell, hair falling forward to create a protective curtain. Willow scrambled out from between the singer’s legs, pushing herself up to her own knees and taking the silently crying woman into her arms.

“I’m so sorry, honey,” she whispered, gently rocking her and stroking her hair. Suddenly, and slightly startling the blonde, long, strong arms encircled her waist, and Willow was nearly crushed by the intensity of Christine’s hug. They clung to each other, Willow’s own tears now joining those of her friend, feeling her pain as well as her own.

The sun continued to shine, the waves to pound the surf. The world lives on, and so does the heart.

****

Willow was extremely surprised at Christine’s extensive cooking talents. Together they prepared a wonderful meal for their dinner guest, due to arrive in just under two hours.

The day had been perfect, a dream and welcome addition to an already amazing place. She felt a connection and bond with the beautiful singer that she had never known before, and it was wonderful, and sorely needed right now, for them both, she suspected.

“Stop,” Christine slapped Willow’s hands away. “The table looks perfect already. Leave it be.” Willow blew raspberries at her, but dropped the napkin she was refolding. “Scoot. Go get ready.”

“Alright, alright. Jeesh.” Rolling her eyes playfully, Willow scurried upstairs. She was nervous with a capital N. Parker Davies-Dubois, tonight, sitting at dinner with her.

“Oh my gosh,” she muttered, hurrying into the bedroom she was using, digging through her clothing. She had nothing even remotely nice, even though Christine tried to tell her again and again that it was just a casual dinner between friends.

Finally settling on a pair of fitted khaki shorts and light green cap-sleeve shirt, she jumped into the shower, taking her time, washing and shaving. She felt like a fool trying to impress some woman who probably didn’t give a damn anyway. Laughing at herself and her own childish giddiness, she finished dressing and looked herself over in the mirror. She was pleased with the sun she got, turning her skin a nice, golden brown. It helped the bruises from the crash not stand out quite so much.

Taking a deep breath, she was surprised to find that Parker would be there in twenty minutes.

“I wondered if you’d fallen in or something,” Christine joked, bringing out the last finishing touches of dinner. She looked comfortable in a pair of cut-offs and a white tank top.

“Hey now, be nice. I’m nervous.”

“Willow, just relax. Parker is a very sweet woman, very down to earth, and trust me, fanfare makes her uncomfortable.” She set down a basket of fresh baked rolls. “Just be you.”

“Okay,” she blew out. “I can do that.” Even still, when the door chime sounded, the blonde jumped and felt her palms grow sweaty. Wiping them on the thighs of her shorts, she took several deep breaths.

Christine answered the door, a wave of salt-scented air rushing inside with their guest.

“Hey, girl! It’s been so long,” the last muffled into Christine’s shoulder as the two women hugged.

“Man, you look great,” the singer said, looking the tall woman over. “I tell you, hotter and hotter,”

“Oh, stop,” Parker laughed, playfully smacking the singer on the arm.

“Come in, I’d like you to meet a very good friend of mine.” Christine and Parker Davies-Dubois entered the dining area, where Willow waited with bated breath. “Parker, this is Willow Bowman. Willow, Parker Davies-Dubois.”

The author was presented to the blonde, hand held out.

“Hi, Willow. What a beautiful name.” Parker smiled, her big, blue eyes twinkling with unending merriment. She had her long, blonde curls bound in a thick ponytail, random escapees curling around her face.

“Oh, uh, thank you,” Willow smiled shyly, taking the proffered hand, finding hers engulfed in a gentle, but firm handshake.

“Okay, let’s get it out in the open,” Christine interjected, standing between the two woman. “Parker, Willow is a huge fan of yours and is nervous as hell to meet you.” She turned to the blushing blonde, who was looking at the singer with murder in her green eyes. “Willow,” Christine continued, ignoring the look of profound embarrassment, “Parker is a woman like you or I, and is a hoot to hang out with. She just happens to have a successful hobby.”

“Oh, god,” Willow squeaked, burying her face in her hands. The author laughed heartily.

“Don’t you just love the gall of this woman?” she said, grabbing Willow’s hand and taking it away from her face. Once garnering her attention, “I thank you, Willow, and I’m pleased that you enjoy my work. Please don’t be nervous.” Her smile was utterly disarming. “Tonight I just want to have a good time and get to know the new friend that I’ve heard so much about.” She snagged Willow’s hand, tugging her toward the table behind her. “I want you to tell me all about you, where you come from, what you do, don’t leave anything out.”

Once the nurse looked into that innocent, most genuine face, she felt her nerves begin to leak out her ears, and a slow smile began to form.

“Okay.”

****

Willow wiped her eyes once more, recovering from the last little ditty that the author had told them. Who kneew she’d be so funny?

“Oh, stop,” she begged, using her napkin to dab at her eyes, making the other two laugh even harder.

“Oh, ladies, it’s been a wonderful evening, and Christine, as usual, I’m stuffed to the gills. I’ll have to bring Keller and Garrison by next time. Keller will definitely appreciate your choice in wine.” She grinned, then tossed her napkin to the table.

“You’re coming to the Montreal concert still, right?” Christine asked, downing the last of her water. She had declined the wine, not wanting to tempt herself.

“Shit yeah!” Parker looked at her as though she’d lost her mind, then pushed back from the table. Christine did the same, and they met for a deep hug. “Don’t stay away so long next time,” she said quietly into the singer’s ear.

“Okay. I promise.”

“Good. And you,” Parker turned to Willow who looked on with wide eyes. “Up, up,” Willow stood, then yelped slightly as she was pulled into an equally tight hug. “It was delightful to meet you,” Parker said, smiling from ear to ear.

“You, too.” Willow grinned like a fool.

“You’re a cool chick,” the author poked her playfully in the chest, then let her go and turned to leave.

“Come on. Let’s go out,” Christine said, a playful gleam in her eye. Willow quickly drained the rest of her wine, knowing that one glass wouldln’t hurt the baby, then joined the singer at the door.

“What about the dishes?”

“Eh,” they were waved off. “I’ll get it in the morning.”

The night was gorgeous, the moon a sliver. Carefully making their way down the long staircase, Christine and Willow walked in step along the beach, the sea beyond turned a glowing blue by the reflective light.

“Amazing,” Willow whispered, looking up to see a billion stars. “I can’t even see this many stars from the ranch.”

“Definitely can’t from my place in L.A.” They stopped walking, both looking up, pointing at a falling star. “Make a wish,” Christine whispered. Willow closed her eyes, wishing with all her might that everything would be okay and that her heart would find peace. “May your wish come true,”

Opening her eyes, she saw her friend smiling down at her, an she returned it fully. “Yours, too.”

Christine looked down at the beautiful woman, eyes turned a dark gray in the near moonless night, the barest beginnings of tiny lines at their corners. The softest smile curved full lips. Blue eyes studied those lips, the soft lines of chin and jaw, leading down to a smooth neck, snow white in this light.

Her eyes flickered back up to Willow’s, then back to those lips. As if in a dream, the distance closed, though she has no idea how, but suddenly she felt those lips against hers, as soft as they looked, unyielding.

The dream continued as Christine brought a hand up, brushing the backs of her fingers against the cool cheek, smooth and tender.

The mouth under hers moved with her, the lips brushing her own. Just as suddenly they were gone.

Coming to her senses, hand left to caress the cool night air, Christine’s eyes popped open. Willow was backing away from her, fingers on her own lips, eyes first confused, then angry.

“What are you doing?” Willow finally asked, getting her bearings. Her lips still tingled from the kiss, and it frightened her. “What do you think? Do you think I came here for that!” The fear turned into anger, which meant she was going to lash out.

“God, I’m sorry, Willow, I didn’t mean-”

“Damn it, Christine! Don’t I have enough shit to worry about? I don’t need this, too!” With that, she turned and almost blindly made her way back to the stairs, her quiet sobs floating over the breeze to Christine’s ears.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” the singer beat herself in the thigh with her fist. “What have I done,” sinking to the sand, she hung her head, the tears making twin dark spots that she didn’t see.

****

“Are you sure, Chris? This may be a huge mistake, hon-”

“No, I already made my mistake.” Christine ran a hand through her hair, then across her nose and eyes, gathering moisture as they went. “God, I fucked up,” she whispered, then sniffled noisily, getting her upset under control. For now.

“What happened?” Parker asked, concern written all over her face, hand resting on her friend’s leg.

“I don’t want to talk about it. Just please, do this for me?” Pleading blue eyes met Parker’s own. Searching that gaze, the author finally agreed.

“Okay.”

“Thank you.” Gathering the author in a painful hug, she hurriedly left the bungalow.
Part 9
Green eyes opened, looked around the room. The space was dim, all blinds and curtains pulled as tightly closed as possible, shutting out the world and Willow’s own fears.

She turned over in the bed, looking out over the mess she’d made. Her clothing lay scattered as she’d pulled it off, may it land wherever. The bedside clock readout said it was almost eight-thirty, which surprised the blonde. She’d been up most the night, either sitting in the chair in the corner thinking, or tossing and turning, her mind unable or unwilling to shut off.

Sitting up, eyes instantly closing at the pounding at her temples. Taking slow, deep breaths, she tried to get the pounding under control, feeling the pulse in her neck beating time with it, making her entire neck hurt. She knew she would have to get rid of this herself, medicine not really an option right now.

“Okay,” she moaned, slowly pushing the covers back and tossing her legs over the side of the tall bed, bare feet making contact with the fuzzy rug placed over the tile under her bed. Making slow progress to the bathroom, she rinsed a washcloth under ice cold water, placing it around her neck. She grimaced at the new shout of pain at the cold sensation, but it quickly ceased, giving way to slight relief.

Finding some clothing that would resemble an outfit, she gathered her courage and strength, tugging them on like a shield, and headed out to face a new day, and her host.

Willow had a lot of time to think about things the night before. Her stomach was filled with nausea and undecided emotions. Yes, she had been angry at Christine for doing that, the unexpected kiss, the unexpected tingle of the loss of it.

Why had Christine done that? To what end had she hoped for? Willow went over the events just prior to in her head again and again until it had led to the migraine she had at waking. The perfect night, the fun they’d had, the comfort they’d felt. The beach, the romance of the ocean. Had it just been something that happened, or had the singer lured her to the island in hopes of just such a thing? Had it all been orchestrated? Is that why a famous, beautiful, rich woman like Christine Gray, who got anything she wanted, and it had been rumored for years about her preference, had taken interest in a faceless nurse in Oklahoma? Far from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.

“Uh, stop,” Willow groaned, leaning against a wall in the hallway, holding her head in her hands. The march of thoughts through her head again was making her want to throw up.

Making her way down the stairs, she heard nothing but the tick of the huge, round clock that graced the wall by the kitchen. Coffee had been made, the little green light glowing in invitation. Luckily Christine only drank decaf, so it all worked out.

Glancing around, Willow realized that everything from the night before had been cleaned up and put away. Impressed, she moved on.

Pouring herself a mug, the blonde headed out to the deck, figuring that’s where she’d find the singer. They needed to talk, and they needed to talk badly. She didn’t want to lose their friendship, and only understanding the previous night could stop that from happening.

One side of the French doors was open a crack, allowing the sounds of the morning ocean in just a bit, the closer the blonde got to the doors.

Willow’s heart began to beat double time as she got closer, making her head pound worse. She stopped for a moment, closing her eyes to allow herself a calming moment so her blood would slow down and not all try and push through the constricted arteries all at once, making the migraine worse.

“Okay,” she breathed, feeling everything settle again, and she began to move forward once more.

The morning was gorgeous, and for just a moment Willow was able to forget everything, and get lost in what her grandmother would call God’s perfection.

“Beautiful out here, isn’t it?”

Willow turned at the voice, the strange, not Christine’s voice, voice. Parker Davies-Dubois sat in one of the metal chairs, feet up and crossed on the table, cup of coffee cradled against her stomach. She was smiling up at Willow, blue eyes squinting against the morning sun.

“Oh, uh, yeah. It really is.” Willow managed to smile through her surprise, setting her cup on the deck railing. “Is Christine out running?” she glanced out over the beach far below, looking for the little jogging speck.

Parker chuckled inwardly. Out running. Nice choice of words. “No, she’s not.”

Willow turned to her, brows drawn. Something was wrong. “Where is she?” The blonde had remembered seeing the door at the end of the hall open, which meant the singer wasn’t in it.

“Please sit down,” Parker said, her sandaled feet hitting the deck, and setting her cup atop the glass. Wary, Willow pulled out a chair diagonally to the author’s left. She sat, also setting her cup on the table top.

“What’s going on, Parker?” the smaller blonde asked, her voice quiet and grave.

“Christine left-”

“What!?”

“Hold on,” the author raised a hand. “Let me finish. Okay?” Grudgingly Willow nodded, her head pounding even more. “She came to me early this morning, pretty upset. I don’t know what happened, she didn’t want to talk about it, but she felt awfully bad.”

“So bad she couldn’t stick around to talk to me about it?” Willow asked bitterly.

“Honey,” Parker sat forward in her chair, concern written on her face. “I’ve known Christine for about four years now, and I know what a good person she is, but she, like everyone, has flaws and faults. One of her most grievous faults is she tends to run when she feels cornered or bad about something.”

Willow looked down at her hands, feeling bad about her comment. She readjusted the warming rag on her neck, knowing she’d have to re-cool it soon.

“She asked me to be here when you got up to take you to the airport, or let you know that you’re welcome to stay here as long as you want. Or, and this is from me, if you want to talk, I’m certainly willing to listen.”

Willow met the other woman’s eyes, seeing nothing but genuine compassion and concern there. She gave it a serious moments thought, then shook her head.

“If you don’t mind, Parker, I think I want to be alone for a bit.” She smiled apologetically, and found her hand wrapped in two warm ones.

“I understand. Listen, before I go I want you to know something,”

“Alright,”

“Christine cares about you, and I know she’d never do anything to intentionally hurt you. She considers you a real friend, and sadly for her, real friends are far and few between, so I know she’d never do anything to jeopardize that.” That said and a kind smile, Parker stood, grabbing her coffee cup and headed inside, only to return a few moments later to take her leave via the stairs. At the bottom, she looked up at the nurse who hadn’t moved.

“When and if you do need something Willow, I wrote my number on the dry erase board in the kitchen.” And she was gone.

Willow sat where she was, absently sipping her coffee, wondering what she should do. She also was battling with her emotions internally. Should she be angrier at Christine for the kiss or for abandoning her in paradise?

“Crap,” she muttered, then stood to head inside. Sure enough, there was a number written in large, balloon numbers, and a happy face that made the blonde smile. She dumped out the rest of her coffee in the sink, loading the mug into the dish washer, which she realize belatedly was filled with clean dishes. When had Christine done all this? Cleaned the kitchen, washed all pans, put food away, and ran the dish washer.

Maybe she, too, was up all night. When had she left? Willow couldn’t help but feel betrayed by finding Christine gone. Why couldn’t she have stuck around so they could talk it out? Yeah, Willow had heard Parker’s explanation, and she understood it quite well, a little too well, perhaps. After all, she was on Quenby Island, wasn’t she? But still.

Rinsing her washcloth out, all the water in the material grown room temperature from Willow’s body heat warming it. Almost drooling at the cold water that ran over her hands as she rinsed out the rag, she reapplied it, then headed upstairs. Maybe a nice, cool shower or warm, relaxing bath would help.

****

The journey into wakefulness was quick and startling. Willow looked around, unsure of where the hell she was for a moment, and what had wakened her. She realized she was on one of the white leather couches in the large living room, a string of drool leading from her lips to the pillow beneath her head.

“Crap,” she cleaned it off with her hand, which she drew across her mouth. Blinking in rapid succession, she also realized someone was at the door.

Making her way over there, she saw a man standing there, dressed in white from head to toe, a bundle at his feet, and a smile on his handsome face.

Curious, she opened the French door, looking up at him. “Um, can I help you?”

“If you’re Willow Bowman, you certainly can.” His smile was radiant, bright as his clothing, which almost glowed in the intense, noon sun.

“I am,”

“Fabulous!” Grabbing his bundle, he pushed past her, talking all the while as he unpacked his equipment. “I’m Freddie Sanchez, and I hear you’ve got quite the noggin ache, so I’m here to make your day lovely again.” He smiled again, dark eyes twinkling, and little peak that rose from his Caesar hairdo bobbing with the motion of him violently shaking out a white sheet, which he spread over the blue, padded table he’d set up.

“What?” Utterly baffled, Willow took a step back. Was he insane?”

“Come on, honey. Let’s get you out of those clothes and onto my table,” he said, pulling out numerous glass bottles with cork stoppers from the bag he’d had hung over his shoulder. He lined them up in no order the blonde could discern, on a folding table that had been packed with the folding padded table.

“You want me to undress? I don’t under-”

“Honey, I am not going put my hands on your sweet skin through cotton, I’m sorry,” he looked at her with accusing eyes, hand on hip. Understanding dawning, Willow sighed relief.

“Uh, who called you?”

“Parker, of course. Isn’t she a doll? I just love her. And her son is going to be a heartbreaker just like his daddy, someday.” Freddie had begun to uncork a few of the bottles, pouring some sort of fragrant, thick green liquid on his palms, then rubbed them vigorously together. “Come on, snap, snap,” he ordered, turning his back to her to afford her a bit of privacy.

Looking down at herself, Willow, still stunned by the handsome whirlwind, decided what the hell. Quickly, and shyly, shrugging out of her clothes, she snagged the white sheet that Freddie had hooked on his thumb over his shoulder. Wrapping it around herself, she walked over to him and the table.

He turned around, looking her up and down. Oddly, Willow didn’t feel uncomfortable with his attention.

“Mm, mm. Fabulous.” He grinned, big and disarming. Stepping toward her, he raised strong, manicured hand, rubbing a few strands of blonde between thumb and forefinger. “Who does your hair, sweetling?” he asked, running his hand through the thick strands.

“Uh, Cost Cutters, usually,” Willow muttered, brows drawn as she wondered what the hell he was doing now. She wasn’t used to such focused attention, and wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it.

“No,” he blew out, bending down to look her in the eye. “You let those oafs touch this gorgeous golden fleece?!” She laughed, nodding. “Oh, honey. Now that is pure evil sin right there.” Dropping his hand, he shocked her by smacking her on the ass. “Okay, girl friend, jump up on that table for me, please.”

Doing as asked, Willow climbed up, laying on her back.

“Turn over, sweetling,” he instructed softly, adjusting the sheet for her, keeping her privacy as long as possible.

As Freddie began to work his hands into her tender flesh, yammering on and on about who his hands had been on, why he wouldn’t touch if his life depended on it, and who he’d do anything to get his mitts on, Willow allowed her mind to wander.

She thought about Kevin, wondering where he was today, what he was doing, and thinking. What was she going to do once she got home? When was she going home? Where was Christine? Why had she left? She knew what Parker had told her, and she understood that, but why couldn’t they just work it out amongst themselves? Why had Christine drug Parker into this, then leave the poor woman in the dark about what had happened?

Her eyes drifted shut, a soft purr growing from her throat as Freddie began to find her most tense areas.

“That’s right, sweetie,” he murmured. “Let Freddie fix everything,”

“Hmm,” she responded, eyes growing heavier and heavier, mind wandering further and further out into space. Her shoulders relaxed, fingers uncurled at her sides, and her breathing evened out. Peace.

The sound of the ocean hitting the surf is wonderful, crashing into my ears, the salty air fills my nose. All I can do is sigh in satisfied contentment

The sand seeps in between my toes, a feeling I hadn’t realized I like so much until I got to paradise.

The palm trees sway, wild flowers make the air fragrant. Down the beach I see someone, and I smile, recognizing the nature of movement.

“Kevin!” I yell out, hurrying my barefoot steps in his direction, though he’s still just a shimmer in the heat. I begin to run, curious as to why he hasn’t gotten closer, and I’m impatient to tell him about my big news. I don’t know what my big news is, but I know it’s big, and I know he needs to know about it.

He raises his hand in greeting, a big arch of a wave. Even though I’m running, I’m not getting any closer to him, and I feel frustration bearing down on me.

“Bear down, Willow! Push!” he screams, but I’m having trouble with it. My body is too relaxed, I can’t move, I can’t push. Looking between my spread legs, I see blue eyes looking back up at me from the apex.

“Christine,” I plead, breathless fear clenching my gut as Kevin paces restlessly behind her, his eyes never leaving the main attraction between my legs. “Save my baby,”

Like a lion ready to pounce, Kevin paces closer to me, covering shorter distance, fingers flexing and re-flexing, knuckles popping.

“I need you to relax, sweetling,” Christine says, though it’s not her voice. “Sweetling,”

Willow’s eyes popped open, and she was immediately met with very concerned dark brown.

“Are you okay, honey?” Freddie asked, his hand gently combing back locks of hair that were stuck to the blonde’s tear-streaked face.

She sniffled once, trying to stop the flow of emotion, though was only half-successful at it.

“I’m sorry,” she tried to sit up, Freddie helped her, keeping her sheet in place for her. Running hands through her hair, Willow tried to smile away her embarrassment. The masseuse saw right through it.

“Want to talk about it, doll?”

“I don’t know,” she sniffled, then laughed nervously again. “I bet I’m the first to cry on your table, huh?”

“Well, actually no. It’s not horribly uncommon, but it’s usually tears of release, not,” he gently swiped a falling tear with his fingertip. “tears of pain or distress. I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

“No. In fact, I think it’s because you had me so relaxed and it felt so good I couldn’t push.”

“Say what?” his brows shot up. She chuckled.

“I’m pregnant, my husband doesn’t want it, so I dreamt Christine was trying to deliver my baby and kept telling me to push but I was too relaxed.” Her eyes began to leak again at the memory of seeing Kevin’s face, so vicious, ready to take her baby away from her.

“Oh, honey,” he sat next to her, shoulder almost brushing hers. “I’m so sorry.” The look of compassion she saw on this strangers face was her undoing. The dam fell again, and she dissolved into a pool of self pity. The feel of his strong, yet gentle arms around her felt good.

Getting herself together, she sniffled, wiping her hand across her nose before smiling shyly. “I bet you don’t deal with this kind of thing often, huh?”

“Are you kidding?” he waved her off. “Honey, I’m like a bartender- when I work I’m a captive audience, so who better to tell your woes to?” He smiled with a wink, and she smiled back.

“Thank you.”

“No worries, beautiful. Let’s say I finish up, huh?” He nudged her with his shoulder, and she nudged him back, nodding.

****

Willow sat on the deck, curled up in a padded lounge tucked against the rail, cup of decaf cuddled against her chest. The sun had set hours ago, and she was basking in the ocean breeze, which cooled off over-heated skin. She’d frolicked on the beach for most of the day after Freddie had left. It had been nice, but she was lonelier than she could ever recall.

The massage and relaxing day had helped to clear her mind a bit, and get her ready for the return trip, and for getting back into her daily life of the hospital.

She also had to meet with Kevin so they could come up with a plan of action. She felt strongly that they needed a separation until either he could get whatever was up his ass out, or she could garner the courage to make a final decision on the fate of her marriage.

In some ways to Willow it seemed so sudden, abrupt, to be thinking along those lines. But a force so powerful within her was rising, a force that she knew was her maternal instincts kicking in hardcore. She knew she’d do anything for this baby, and staying with a man she wasn’t sure could love the child wasn’t an option. This was an all or nothing for Kevin. Either he tried, really tried, or it was over.

Willow needed to respect whom she loved, and at one time she did respect Kevin. A great deal, in fact. But he’d shown her a side of him over the past weeks that made her all but lose her respect.

Sighing, she grabbed the cordless off the chair’s thick arm and dialed the number she’d just memorized from the dry erase board in the kitchen.

****

“Thanks, doc.”

As the door to the small room closed, Robert Knowles examined his face, turning from one side to the other.

“Your plastic surgeon has a nice ass,” Sandra said, re-crossing her legs and adjusting her pants to drape over the top of her boot just so.

Bob glared at her through the mirror, then turned back to his own reflection. “This better fucking heal right or I swear I’ll take her for everything she has,” he muttered, as if to himself. Standing, he put on the light-weight dress Jacket that hugged his broad shoulders just right. It helped to fuck a clothing desinger.

“Let’s go,” he said, hating that the bandage on his nose was so stark against his tan, making it all the more apparent. Sandra stood, pulling the thin straps of her purse onto her shoulder and digging out her car keys.

“How does it feel?” she asked, stepping through the examination room door that Robert held open for her.

“It’s fine. It feels just fucking peachy.” He grumbled, following her down the hall that would lead to the private exit of Dr. Rae’s office, for important clients like himself, who didn’t want it splashed all over the fucking newspaper the next day that they’d had a bit of medicinal help.

“Well, perhaps you can learn to keep tactless comments to yourself,” Sandra suggested, hitting the button on the private elevator, glancing over her shoulder at the smoldering man at her side. He glared at her, dark eyes full of fire.

“Don’t start, Sandra.” The warning was low, dangerous. The desinger laughed off the unspoken meaning, but she shut her mouth all the same.

After being dropped off at his downtown offices, Knowles caught the elevator, groaning internally as the sleek, polished elevator car stopped short of the twenty-first floor, and opened at seventeen. A man of short stature and big attitude stepped inside.

“Hey, Bob. How are you?” Dennis Weinz asked, bushy brows narrowing to form a furry caterpillar across the bridge of his nose. “What happened?”

“Tennis accident,” Bob smiled, secretly despising the Fox exec.

“Ah,” the shorter man drew out, obviously not believing a damn word, but knowing full well he’d come up with the same lame excuse if he were so inclined to go with the putty job. The doors dinged open on nineteen, and Weinz smiled. “Watch that serve, huh?” He disappeared with the sound of his own laughter.

“Prick,” Bob muttered, punching the button unnecessarily for twenty-one again. Stepping into the offices he’d had professionally decorated by a wonderful desinger before he’d gone off to one of those horrific reality TV decorating shows. He’d have to yell at Jeff Probst the next time he ran into him.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Knowles,” Katrina, the newest cool, drink of water hired at Knowles Group, said, light brown eyes twinkling with a knowing glint. He wiggled his brows.

“Kat.” He remembered how those long, nineteen year old legs had felt wrapped around him. She may not be able to carry a tune in a tin bucket, but was she ever a good fuck.

He collected the latest calls and messages from her flirtatious fingers, fighting the urge to take her right there on that desk she sat at, her tight pencil skirt hiked up around her hips … He shivered at the thought, forcing it away as he had work to do.

Unlocking the frosted glass door that led inside the frosted glass walled office, he sorted through the messages, tossing most into the trash. Everyone wanted something for nothing. The important ones were given a place of honor in the center of his blotter calendar. None from Christine.

“Bitch,” he muttered. He had given her a week to contact him and apologize. She hadn’t. Alright. She had her chance. Sitting in the expensive chair, liking the sound of the leather creaking under his weight, behind his even more expensive desk. Booting his computer, flat screen monitor perched at the corner of the desk, he grabbed his handheld from the briefcase he’d brought in. Using the stylus, he scrolled through his address book until he found what he was looking for.

Eyes still on the number, he grabbed the phone and quickly dialed.

“This is Brine,” came the quipped answer.

“Mr. Brine,” Bob leaned back in his chair, the spring bouncing his weight. “Robert Knowles with Knowles Group Agency here.”

“Right, how are you, Mr. Knowles?”

“Fine, fine. Quite well, actually. How quickly can you meet me at my downtown office?”

“Well, if you can give me an hour to get past deadline-”

“Fine. Then I’ll see you at,” Bob glanced at his Rolex. “two-thirty.”

“I’ll be there.”

“Wonderful. Come ready for a cover story.” With a wicked grin Knowles gently laid the receiver in its cradle.

****

The streets were quiet finally, many of the tourists gone home for the weekend, the locals at home. Aspen nights were chilly at the end of summer. All the same, Christine strolled, hands in the pockets of her loose chords, button up shirt untucked and unbuttoned three down.

She gazed at the closed shop fronts, seeing their displays and wares, knowing that most of it was highly overpriced with under quality. Mugs, art work, pottery and ‘local clothing’ met her eye.

Moving on, Christine ran a hand through her hair, the thick, dark strands falling back into place with no frizz. The great thing of having her hair professionally treated once a week. She remembered the days when after a good rain she looked like a rose bush.

Smiling at the memory and image that conjured, she crossed the street, pausing for a Lexus to pass, then went into Sonny’s, a wonderful little bakery that stayed up late. They had the best mocha breves in the world- so rich and smooth. Her mouth watered just thinking about it.

White, nondescript bag of croissants in one hand, and a twenty ounce mocha breve with extra whipped cream in the other, Christine headed back to the street where she’d left the rented yellow Hummer. Sliding into the huge vehicle, she set the bag on the console between the two front seats and sipped her drink, wincing as it stung her tongue.

“Damn it,” she hissed, sucking in mouthfuls of cool night air to chill the inside of her mouth. “Well, there goes about a hundred taste buds,” she muttered, sliding the large cup into one of the many cup holders in the big truck. Turning the ignition, she got the beast rumbling beneath her, and pulled away from the curb.

Flying directly into DIA in Denver, after she’d randomly picked a state from a map, she’d found the nearest car rental place that rented the big guys, and off she went, traveling around the state, killing time and thinking. Ending up in Aspen for a couple days, she’d enjoyed the atmosphere. It had been awhile since she’d been there, maybe three years since she’d landed the slopes, not having a chance during her Red Rocks gig not long ago.

Traffic was light as it was after ten. Christine turned the CD player up to near deafening levels and sang along with whomever came up on her MP3, which had over one hundred songs on it by various artists and styles.

Fingers fumbling with the GPS, a map of the United States popped up, the camera zooming in to where she was, listing surrounding states as it did. Oklahoma popped across the screen for a partial second, then was gone.

A stabbing pain hit her heart, nearly making her choke up. Again. Sighing heavily, she grabbed her cell phone from one of the drink holders, flipped it open, not even glanced at it as she hit the number 7 key. Putting the phone to her ear, she listened to the pause as the long distance was covered, then finally a ring. Then two, followed by a third and a click.

“Hi, you’ve reached out, but you can’t quite touch me as I’m not available to take your call. Leave something at the beep. Bye.” The long beep that followed her own voice.

Christine waited a heartbeat, then spoke. “Willow? Are you there? If you are, please pick up.” She waited, one beat, two. Sighing, her shoulders slumped. “Guess I missed you.” Clapping the phone shut, she tossed it to the seat next to her, not caring as it smashed into the bag of croissants. She thought about the thing that had haunted her every step of her journey over the past week. How had she managed to fuck things up so horribly? She knew better, and yet had let her emotions lead her anyway.

What got her the most though, was knowing that Willow thought she’d done it on purpose. If only the little blonde knew how far from the truth that statement was. If only Willow knew that she’d been the first person Christine had ever kissed because she really wanted to. If only Willow knew.

“Stupid,” she hissed for the zillionth time. Willow was right- all the shit the blonde was going through and all Christine could do was make it worse. How could she have kissed her!? She knew Willow wasn’t into that, and even if she were, she’s married!

Christine raised a hand, swiping at the tear that tickled the skin of her left cheek. She worried that she’d ruined what she knew intuitively would have been a wonderful, life-long friendship, the kind she’d never thought she’d find again. When she’d met Adam she’d had the innocence of youth and desperation to act as the glue for them. As an adult, friendships like that were next to impossible. Adults learned to not trust already, and don’t let someone in to that emotional level.

Willow was different. The singer knew that she could trust Willow with anything, tell her anything, unburden herself of a past that still dogged her steps. A past she had to lie about in just about every article when she was asked where she came from, questions about her parents, siblings.

Willow knew the truth now, and still hadn’t turned her back. No, instead Christine betrayed that mutual trust and stepped over a line that should never have even been drawn, let alone crossed.

It was better this way, Christine told herself, sniffling back the rest of the tears that threatened. Willow could go back to her life in Oklahoma, work things out with Kevin, or move on in her life and not have such a troublesome burden tagging along. With friends like that….

Christine turned the music up to a level that almost hurt her head, the sound pushing her thoughts out.

****

“Kevin, I mean it.” Rachel looked up at the man who had shown up over the past three nights, her hand pushing firmly against his chest. “She’s trying to work and you’re going to get her in trouble if you keep hanging out here, hoping for a glimpse.”

“She won’t return my calls, Rachel,” he said, brows drawn. “Damn it, how are we supposed to work on this if she won’t talk to me?” he threw his arms out in exasperation. Rachel felt bad for what she was about to say, but it needed to be said.

“Maybe she doesn’t want to work it out, Kevin.” Her voice was quiet, almost gentle. His face crumbled, but he took a deep breath, keeping it together.

“I see.” He stood straighter, backing away from the redhead, her hand falling to her scrub-clad side. “I can’t believe she won’t give us another chance. She really wants to throw it all away? Just like that?” he snapped his fingers. When Rachel didn’t respond, he nodded. “Well, she needs to get hold of me. She and I need to talk, regardless.”

Rachel nodded. “I’ll talk to her.”

“You do that.” With that, he turned and strode out the main entrance, leaving Rachel to watch him go. She sighed, hating that she was put in this position. It wasn’t fair to her, or to Kevin, for that matter. She went off in search of her cowardly friend.

“Stay out of it, Rachel,” Willow muttered, looking at a chart for a ten year old who had just been brought in with seizures that they couldn’t get to stop, her epilepsy medication all out of whack. What the hell was her neurologist thinking putting her on Tegretol, Dilantin and Diezepam all at the same time!

“I can’t stay out of it, because you won’t talk to your damn husband!”

“Would you lower your voice?” Willow hissed, looking around the bustling hall of pediatrics. Clearing her throat apologetically, Rachel continued.

“Look, Willow, I don’t agree with what he’s been doing and what he did, but the guy deserves an answer or at the very least a decision. No matter what that is, you both need to be able to move on from this.”

The blonde sighed, shaking her head. She had no idea what she wanted to do.

“What’s going on with you lately? You’ve been so secretive and indecisive. It’s not like you at all, Wills. How can I help you if you won’t let me in? Ever since you got back from your trip three weeks ago you’ve been like a zombie. You came back upset, you don’t want to talk about it. Fine. Kevin comes in nightly you won’t talk to him. Fine. But now you won’t even talk to me. Not fine.” She studied her friend’s profile, waiting for Willow to look at her, but she never did. Sighing in frustration, she threw her hands up. “Fine. Whatever, Willow. I’ll see you later.”

Willow watched the redhead huff down the hall. If she hadn’t been the cause she would have found it amusing. As it was, she indeed felt like a zombie, unsure of which way to turn, and doubting her anger at Christine more and more each day. No, the singer shouldn’t have done that, but in retrospect, Willow believed it was just a heat of the moment thing, and that nothing had been expected, nor planned. She also had to come to grips with the simple fact that Christine had been a handy outlet for a lot of pent up anger and hurt with Kevin.

“Great,” she muttered, turning back to the chart. “Pissing everyone off.”

Her day was long, but finally came to an end. She found Rachel and they headed home together. Sitting in Willow’s truck, they were both quiet, the redhead staring out the window, watching the dawn of a new day. Willow glanced over at her a few times, trying to decide what to say. She knew she had to say something.

Sighing, she began. “Okay. You’re right, you do deserve an explanation.” Rachel looked at her, eyes blank. Willow chewed on her lip for a moment, staring out the windshield, trying to decide where to start.

“Alright,” Rachel said, her voice very quiet, though stale in the confines of the truck cab.

“What I’m going to tell you cannot leave this truck, Rachel.” At a red traffic light, the blonde looked at her friend, expression absolutely serious, demanding acceptance of these terms.

“Okay. I promise.” She would stand by that promise, but the gossip in her was now standing at full alert, curiosity gnawing at her.

“Okay. Here goes. Christine took me to an island off the coast of Belize, a private island that she and a few other very rich folks bought for privacy.”

“Oh, wow,” Rachel breathed. “Where the hell is Belize?”

“In the Caribbean.”

“She took you to a goddamn tropical island!?”

Willow laughed, nodding. “Yes, now shut up. Anyway, so it was wonderful, amazingly beautiful, and I want her house there. I mean, she is so generous. She offered me anything in the house, use of anything, just amazing.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah, and she brought me breakfast in bed! Fresh fruit, it was fantastic.” Willow smiled at the memory, a wave of sadness washing over her. “God, she is such a sweet woman,” she nearly whispered. Rachel glanced over at her, surprised by the vehemence in that simple statement. “She introduced me to a friend and neighbor.” She smiled. “This may not mean much to you as I know you’re not much of a reader. But do you know who Parker Davies-Dubois is?”

Auburn brows drew. “Author, right? I saw her on Oprah one day.”

“Yeah, and one of my favorites to boot. Anyway, so we had dinner with her, had a great time, then when she left Christine suggested we go walk on the beach, so we did.”

Here she paused, mind wandering back to that night, how beautiful and magical it had been, the moon just right, ocean churning with life and mystery. She sighed.

“It was perfect, Rachel,” her friend had to really listen, Willow’s voice almost a whisper. “Romantic in another life.” She sighed again, glancing at the redhead. “She kissed me.”

“Hmm,” Rachel said absently, then it penetrated. Her head snapped around. “What?!”

“Yeah. I said some bad things, Rach. Some things I regret now.”

“Like what? Why did she do that? Is she after you?”

Willow shook her head, bangs falling into her eyes. She brushed them away. “I don’t think so. I did at first, like when it happened, you know? I accused her of that very thing, in fact.”

“What did she say?” Rachel’s voice was also quiet, sensing that this was a huge hump in the burgeoning friendship.

“Not much, really. But I could see it in her eyes, Rach.” She risked another glance at her friend. “She was just as stunned at her actions as I was.”

“Then why did you get upset? Why do you think she did it?”

“I got upset because that was my knee-jerk reaction. I think I let everything that had been boiling over the last weeks spill over onto her. She didn’t deserve that. And as for why, like I said, it was a beautiful, romantic night; I think she got caught up in it.”

“Oh boy.” They were quiet for a moment, each in their own head, thinking the situation through. “Have you apologized?” Rachel asked finally. Willow shook her head, again the hair falling back into her eyes. She was amazed at how fast her hair grew now, all those wonderful hormones.

“What would I say? She hasn’t gotten hold of me, either, so my guess is she’s done with me. I was a bitch, and accused her of something that was really messed up. How can I take that back?” Willow clicked on the turning signal, waited for a couple cars to go by, then turned onto Rachel’s street.

“Well, you can’t. But you can try and make things right-”

“No, I can’t. It is as it is, and now I get to live with it.” Turning into the driveway, the blonde pulled the parking break and cut the engine. She turned to find her friend’s gaze on her. “What?”

“Nothing.” Shaking her head, Rachel got out of the truck, tugging her massive, everything but the kitchen sink bag with her.

“No, what’s on your mind?” the blonde asked, following her, closing the newly unlocked front door behind them. “Come on, Rachel, out with it.”

“Alright, fine.” The nurse set her bag on the sofa then turned to her friend, hand on hip. “I think Christine was turning out to be a great friend to you, intuitively I think she would have been a big part of your life. I think you’re throwing it away, and all for stubbornness.”

“I am not being stubborn,”

“Aren’t you?”

“No, I don’t feel that I am.” Willow held her ground, but it was shifting under her feet.

“Willow! What are you always telling me? You won’t know unless you try, right? I mean, shit, take your own advice. If she slams the phone in your face, at least you’ll know, and you won’t be throwing a friendship away unnecessarily. Right?” Willow muttered something under her breath. “What?” Rachel flipped her ear slightly forward, making a show of making her friend repeat the heard comment.

“I said I know you’re right.”

“Good. I’m glad we finally agree.” Rachel smiled wide and satisfied, making her friend roll her eyes. “Now, what do you want for breakfast?”

Willow muttered something else under her breath as she followed the pesky redhead to the kitchen, though this time she didn’t repeat it.

****

The man in the cheap gray suit, black and green tie loose under the unbuttoned collar, notebook in hand, stuck out like a green thumb.

Residence of the neighborhood sat in the cool shadow of tenement archways and falling porches, smirking at the shoes the yahoo was wearing, way not practical for the streets of Queens. Dumb shit.

The conspicuous white bread walked up to a woman standing on the corner, her long, thin black hair piled unskillfully on her head, a smattering of love marks mingling with scars on her neck and bare shoulders.

Hearing him stumble his way up to her, the woman known on the street as Molly Tamale, turning and looked white boy up and down- cheap suit hanging from thin shoulders like a shirt hung badly on a wire hanger. His hair, strawberry blonde, combed back to look slick and sophisticated, instead making him look like Rick Astley mated with the mob.

She turned away. No way she sleep with that.

“Excuse me,” he said, his voice soft and filled with California sun. She graced him with another dark-eyed appraisal. “Hello,” he extended a thin fingered, very pale and freckly hand. “I’m Kenneth Brine, and I’d like to ask you some questions if I might.”

She studied his offered hand, trying to figure out what his game was. No way he was a cop, or if he was, he wouldn’t be lasting long.

“So what,” she said, ignoring the hand and turning her attention back to the street before her.

“Uh, well, uh, Miss Tamale, is it? I can compensate you for your time,”

A flash of green caught Molly’s eye. He had her full attention now. Sighing in relief, Kenneth continued.

“Do you know her?” he pulled out a five by seven glossy. Dark eyes moved over the features, so familiar to everyone in the neighborhood for one reason or another.

“Who don’t?” she asked, flipping the wisps of hair over her brown shoulder.

“Uh, true. Um, how well do you know her?”

Molly met his desperate blue eyes and smirked.

“How well you want me to know her?”

Kenneth Brine grinned. “If you’ll step into my office?” and he led her toward his rented car.

****

Willow ran her fingers through her hair, stomach in knots, lunch ready to make an encore appearance. Lifting her face to the light streaming through the skylights in the kitchen, she sniffled, tears glistening in the late afternoon sun.

Mackenzie Deaton’s card, of Century 21, lay on the table next to her hand. She looked at the glossy card through liquid eyes. How could this have happened?

Wiping her face down, she pushed back, the chair gliding easily over the wood floor on its coasters. She remembered Mac’s message on her voice mail. An offer had been made, and it looked very promising. He’d be by later in that afternoon with the prospective buyer to finalize details and stipulations.

Walking over to the window above the sink, she looked out toward the stables, seeing the lone horse, head bent, munching on hay.

“I’m sorry, girl,” she whispered, swiping yet again at her wet cheeks.

“Thank you for coming,” Kevin says, standing from the recliner by the fireplace. He looks good, though tired.

“It’s my house, Kevin.” I say, my voice probably more harsh than I intend, certainly my comment. I can tell it stung as he gets quiet, jaw muscles working.

“Well,” he says finally. “thanks for agreeing to talk.” Sitting again, he rests his hands on his knees, almost as though he’s ready to bolt at any moment. I figure he probably is. I can tell he’s nervous. We haven’t spoken since the night of the accident nearly a month ago.

Deciding to reign in my anger, bitterness and profound disappointment, I sit on the couch. I would have laughed at my posture were this a different situation- legs pressed firmly together, back ram-rod straight and arms almost wrapped around myself. Guess I’m nervous, too, and need reassurance from the only other person in the room.

“How have you been?” Kevin asks, crashing through my amused thoughts.

“I’m alive,” I hedge. “And yourself?” He shrugs, glancing out the window, then down at his hands, which work nervously on his knees.

“I’m okay. It’s been tough, trying to keep up with work and this place,” he indicates the house around us.

“Yes, it is hard work. The house hasn’t burned down, so I guess you’ve kept it up.”

He doesn’t find my little joke funny. “Are you coming home? I don’t see any bags with you,” he says instead, eyes pinning me to my seat. As I look back at him it occurs to me that he hasn’t asked a single question about the baby- is it okay, how’s the pregnancy going, can I be a daddy?

“Do you still mean it?” I counter, looking at him just as intensely. His brow wrinkles in confusion.

“Do I still mean what?”

“What you said about the baby, that you don’t want it, don’t want to be a father.”

He sighs, running a hand through his newly cut hair, the short strands spiking in its wake. He sighed, Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed hard. “I can try-”

“No try, Kevin. It either is or it isn’t.” Feeling my confidence and resolution coming in full force, I raised my chin just a tad, just enough to exert control over the situation. He looks up, eyes filled with … tears?

“So that’s it? Just like that,” he snaps his fingers, “you can put ultimatums on this? Either I be the perfect Hallmark card father in two point three seconds or we’re finished?”

“Try three months, Kevin,” I say, my voice raising just a bit. “You’ve known about this child for three months and yet you couldn’t bring yourself to even care, let alone become father of the year.”

“I do care!” he exclaims, pounding his fist on the arm of the chair where he sits. I shake my head.

“No, you don’t.”

“Damnit, I love you, Willow. I was at the fucking hospital every day to see if you were okay, or if I could talk to you.” His eyes are a vibrant blue as his anger rises.

“Kevin, it’s not just about me anymore,” I wonder if I sound as hopeless as I feel. “What about this child?” I rest my hand on my belly, still mostly flat. “We’re a package deal now.”

He says nothing, resting his chin on his knuckles and looks out the window again. I study his profile, strong, rugged features. He truly is a handsome man. God, I thought we’d be together forever. The seconds tick on, the crack in my heart growing wider and wider.

“Then I think we need to separate,” his head snaps around at my words, but I hold up a hand to stop anything he has to say. “You make far more than I do, so I think it’s only fair you find another place to live.”

“Don’t do this to us,” he says, his voice trembling. For a moment I’m ashamed at how calm I feel, how right this decision is. What I said is true- it’s not just about me anymore.

“I didn’t do this to us.” I say nothing more, letting my words penetrate and hit their mark. I don’t want to hurt him, it’s not my intention to be a cruel, uncaring woman. I just need for him to understand the breadth of what he’s done, and profound betrayal.

It had started slow, the money trickling thin. First Buster had been sold for a stud horse, which had helped. Next it was shaving off small pieces of the land, then bigger pieces, and another horse. Next Willow had to make the most difficult decision of her life- sell the ranch.

Various folks had tromped through her sanctuary, cheapening it somehow. Refinancing the paid off ranch had seemed like such a good idea four years ago. All the repairs that had needed to be made could be made, a new truck for Kevin, and that trip to Greece.

“Damn it!” she exclaimed, pounding her fist on the table, startling the quiet in the house. The prospective owner wanted Star in the deal, and how was Willow’s desperation to say no? Besides, it wasn’t as if she could really take the mare to an apartment complex, or house in the city.

She heard gravel under a pair of cars’ tires. Hurrying over to the kitchen sink, she wet a dishtowel and scrubbed at her face, trying to hide her utter devastation. Clearing her throat, she ran her hand through her shaggy hair a few times, then after a deep breath, headed toward the front door where her unwanted guests would be ringing.

Sure enough, within moments the muffled voices got louder, Mac’s very easy to pick out, loud, boisterous and deep.

“I agree, it is lovely,” he said, followed by several sharp knocks. The door opened, and Mackenzie Deaton burst into the house filled with vigor and looking fresh, cheeks tinted rosy red from the bright, Oklahoma sun. “Hello, hello, hello!” he bellowed, spying his current client and quickly making his way over to her. “How are you? You look beautiful today,” he gushed. Willow smiled shyly, always overwhelmed by his radiant personality.

“Thank you, Mac.”

The realtor leaned in conspiratorially. “You are going to die when you see who is interested in your spread,” he winked, then stood at his full height. “Willow Bowman, may I introduce to you the new owner of this magnificent home.”

A tall figure stepped inside the entryway, casual in faded, comfortable jeans and boots, and a fitted spring yellow tee. Dark hair tossed back over her shoulders, Christine smiled shyly.
Part 10
Willow blinked a few times, staring dumbstruck at the woman who was now walking toward her, a cautious smile upon the singer’s face.

“Hello, Mrs. Bowman,” Christine said quietly.

“Miss Gray, oh to hell with it,” she turned to the realtor who looked most surprised by her outburst. “Mac, we need a few moments.”

“Oh, uh,” Mackenzie looked from one to the other, then back to Willow. “Certainly.” He made himself busy in the living room. Willow grabbed Christine’s hand and drug her to the privacy of the kitchen. Whirling on her, hands on hips.

“What are you doing?” the blonde demanded. Christine leaned against the counter, arms casually crossed over her chest.

“Seems I’m buying a ranch.”

“But why? How could you!” It angered Willow more than she could bear, knowing that she was losing her home, her sanctuary, to a friend!

“Because I’m not about to let you lose your home!” Christine fired back. Willow’s mouth was open to spit something back, but the words got caught in her throat.

“What?” She would have stumbled back if she hadn’t been already leaning against the island. Recovering, “Christine, you can’t buy me.”

Stung, the singer’s shoulders slumped. “I would never do that, Willow,” she said quietly. “I never have.”

Looking as regretful as she felt, Willow nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“Think of it this way,” Christine said, pushing herself past the hurtful comment, and brightening the room with her smile. “think of it as a gift for the baby, the ultimate crib.” She grinned, eyes twinkling. Willow caught the spark and grinned back. “All repayable, of course. Ten dollars, paid in full, check made out to me, please.”

“Christine, I can’t-”

“Too high, huh? Hmm,” she made a show of rubbing her chin. “I know of a lender I can direct you to, fair fees and low interest.”

Willow looked up at her, smile fading into genuine curiosity. “Why are you doing this?” Christine’s own smile faded into a look of affection.

“Because I can’t stand to think of you losing something that I know means so much to you,” she said gently.

“How did you know?”

“I came by here a couple weeks ago, planning to visit when I saw the for sale sign. I did some investigating and found out what was happening, so,” she shrugged. “here we are.”

Overwhelmed by emotion and gratitude, Willow threw herself at the singer, finding herself engulfed in strong arms.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“You’re welcome.” Christine whispered back, eyes closing at the relief of the days events. “I’m so sorry, Willow.”

“No, I’m sorry.” Pulling back a bit, misted green eyes looked up into concerned blue. “I was cruel, I’m so sorry-”

“No,” Christine held up a hand. “My actions were completely inappropriate, and I’m forever sorry.”

Smiling through her tears, “Let’s just agree that it was not a good thing all around and move on, okay?”

The singer smiled, nodding. “Agreed.” One final hug, and she pulled totally away. “Come on, let’s go finish this deal.”

The paperwork was signed, and a most confused, but happy, Mackenzie Deaton left the two ladies alone.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get here before you sold the other horses,” Christine said quietly, leaning against the rail fence next to the blonde, who watched her Star frolicking. “If you know where they are,” Christine’s voice trailed off. Willow sighed, slowly shaking her head, eyes never leaving her lone remaining horse.

“Nah. Some things just have to change.”

****

Turning to the left, then to the right, dark eyes never leaving the large, round handheld mirror in manicured hands.

“I have to tell you, Joel, you are a master artist.” He grinned at the good-looking doctor who stood back, Armani’d arms crossed over a well developed chest.

“It looks fabulous, Bob,” the plastic surgeon said, his slight Brazilian accent smoothing his words. “Better than before.”

“Hmm,” Knowles toned absently, still checking out the new look and new nose.

“When am I going to get my scalpel on the gorgeous Christine Gray?” the doctor asked, wiggling dark brows.

Bob chuckled, re-slicking a piece of hair that had flopped over his forehead. “You’re a married man, Joel.”

“Eh, just a simple procedure, Bob.”

“Well, I wouldn’t count on that, my friend,” he tugged on his suit Jacket, adjusting the lapels in the same small handheld, now laying on the counter in the examination room. “You don’t have the right equipment to get her on your operating table.”

“So the rumor are true, eh?”

“Well, you know what they say, there’s a kernel of truth in all rumors.”

“Really?” intrigued, Joel Rae leaned forward on the stool he was perched upon. “Perhaps something could be worked out …?” an elegant brow rose in question.

Again, that bitter chuckle. “To my knowledge, Mizz Gray hasn’t been with a man since … well,” feigning protective silence, “that’s not for me to tell.”

“Hmm,” disbelieving. “How about a drink between old friends, eh?” Dr. Rae questioned.

“Sounds wonderful. I know of a great place on the strip.”

“Lead the way.”

****

Trista Metzger ran as fast as her short legs would allow, long dark hair trailing behind her. She nearly twisted an ankle as she turned the sharp corner, her boot sliding on the burbur carpeting, hand hitting the plastered wall with a solid smack to steady herself, then sprinted down the final hall, headed for the jarred door at the end.

Bursting through the heavy oaken door, she slapped the magazine down on the large desk, holding up a finger as she tried to catch her breath, lungs burning from the exertion. She really did need to stop smoking.

“Where’s the fire, Trista?” Christine asked, a half smile on her face as she recognized the look of horror on her assistant’s face. Gazing down at the copy of the Enquirer that had almost slid into her lap, her own eyes widened with horror. “No,” she breathed.

“Mary brought that in to me just now,” Trista managed, plopping down in one of the leather chairs in front of the singer’s desk. Christine liked to keep an office downtown so business didn’t have to be done at her house or rented conference room.

“What have they done?” she read the headline: ROCKER CHICK BY THE HOUR? There was a fuzzy, and obviously doctored, picture of a much younger Christine Gray standing on a street corner in a tiny dress, hand on hip, leaning slightly forward as she talked to someone in a car.

Frantically opening the shit rag, she saw the article right away, filled with various pictures of her in concert, press release photos, as well as candid shots that had been taken of her over the years. Some she didn’t recognize, and wondered if the Enquirer had been keeping them for later use.

“They’ve really gone too far this time, Chris. You should sue their asses for slander,” Trista was saying, her words only a murmur in a mind filled with fear and disgust.

Christine read a ‘first-hand account’ from some woman named Molly Tamale who remembered the singer as a young girl working the streets, going with Johns when she was as young as seven.

“Jesus,” she moaned. “Who wrote this piece of shit?” she flipped to the first page of the article, seeing Kenneth Brine’s by-line. “Get me this bastard on the phone,” she growled, tossing the magazine back across her desk, turning in her chair to look out the window. She felt sick, the bile rising with each panicked thought.

“You got it, boss.”

Once alone again, Christine stood, running her hands through her hair, shaking out the long strands. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” This could ruin her. The story was crap, and most probably wouldn’t believe it, but fuck! It was very, very close to the truth. Who could have found out about this? Where did it come from?

“Chris?” the tinny voice in her intercom said.

“Yeah, Trista?” She had to force her voice to be calm.

“Myron Reyes on line one. He’s the editor in chief. They won’t let me talk to Brine.”

“Fine. Patch the line.” Christine sat heavily back in her chair, face turning to stone.

“Miss Gray, what an honest to god pleasure,” a deep voice intoned. The singer ignored his pleasantries. She’d had smut published about her before, hell, who hasn’t in this business? But this was an outrage.

“What is this shit in your magazine, Mr. Reyes? A term I use lightly.”

“I stand by the article, Miss Gray.” His voice and demeanor had changed in the blink of an eye- all business and hard and as unmovable as stone. “We have reliable and reputable sources, I assure you.”

“What, like Molly Tamale!” Christine stood, the rage seeping up through her pores. “And that I was allegedly on the streets at seven!? Mr. Reyes, I was living in an apartment with my goddamn parents at seven. And as for this Tamale character, I have never even met this woman, let alone her knowing a damn thing about where I was in grammar school!”

Myron Reyes was silent, a sliver of panic shooting through his veins before he recovered.

“We stand by every word that Mr. Brine wrote. He did his research and found the dirt. I’m sorry if it was dirt you’d hoped would not be uncovered. Guess our tactics are better than yours, eh?” he chuckled softly, only infuriating the singer more.

“Who sent you on this wild goose chase?” Christine growled, picking up the receiver so she’d have something to wrap her fingers around and squeeze.

“Goose chase, Miss Gr-”

“Who?!” She was finished with his fucking games. She had a cold feeling in her gut that the Enquirer had been set up.

“We protect our sources, Miss Gray.”

“I will take everything you’ve got for this, Reyes. Bet your ass on it,” her voice was like a razor. The echo of the ringing from the slamming of the receiver filled the space. Blue eyes were electrified with rage and hurt. Who could have done this to her? So few knew her past. Yes, it was true the Enquirer could have found out, but it was so deeply buried, no one knew-

Her line of thought stopped short, almost screeching in her mind. Besides her, three people, who were still alive, knew of her past. One was Adam, and he would never betray her like that, nor Willow. The third was-

“You can’t go in there!” Kat hurried after the tall whirlwind that had just pushed past her desk. “He’s in a meeting,” the young secretary’s cries were cut short as the frosted glass office door was slammed open, the crack from the force filling the office like a clap of thunder.

“It’s alright, Katrina. I’ll take it from here,” Bob Knowles said, phone still held in his hands. His dark eyes never left the beast before him, murmuring his goodbyes, then gently laying the receiver in its cradle.

Katrina was nearly trembling in the stilettos Robert loved so much, as she returned to her desk.

Bob got up, again eyes never leaving Christine Gray as he made his way around her, closing the ruined door for some sort of privacy. He had never seen her like this, and in truth, he was frightened of the oozing hatred pouring from her.

“How could you,” she growled as he made his way behind his desk again, feeling better with something strong and sturdy between them. His biggest client stood before him, eyes sexy as hell in all their rage, hands splayed out as she leaned over his desk, taking some of that safe space away from him.

He swallowed, though did so as quietly and with as little show as possible. He didn’t want her to know how frightened he really was.

“What are you talking about?” he said, quite impressed with how calm his voice was.

“Do not attempt to lie to me, Bob. I know you did it. I want to know why.”

He stared back at her, dark eyes cool and calm, though Christine knew he was a coward at heart and he was quaking in his perfectly shined Gucci’s. He said nothing, and she knew he’d never admit to it. In this case, his silence said everything.

“You’ll not get away with this,” she hissed, standing up straight again. “Mark my words, Bob.” She was slowly backing out of the office. “The ruin you’ve just visited upon me is one in the same for yourself. You’re fired.” With that, she turned and stalked down the hall.

****

Her world was almost quiet as the empty road spread out before her, trees whipping by the open window, the only sound to interrupt almost perfect silence of isolation. The sky was getting darker and darker, prematurely, clouds heavy and pregnant.

She brought a hand up, swiping at a new strain of tears, the ultimate betrayal ripping at her insides. She felt lost, everyone who had been safe yesterday was now an angry, greedy monster at her door, seeking more, more, more. Her music, her face and body, her voice, her name had not been enough. Now they wanted her soul. There seemed only one safe place in this dark night, and the turn was coming up.

****

The rain was coming down in earnest now. Willow was just thrilled that she’d taken care of Star earlier, and the mare was tucked safely and dryly in her stable.

She headed back toward the stairs, retying her doo-rag to keep paint from getting in her hair. Hand on the banister, she heard something, and glanced out the beveled glass that lined either side of the front door, locked tight. Headlights shone across her face for a moment as a car pulled into the circular drive.

Turning away from the stairs, Willow peered out of the window, images in prism of someone opening a car door, slamming it shut, then the figure walking toward the porch stairs.

Willow unlocked and opened the door, light spilling out into the storm-dark night. The tall figure stepped into the hall-lit porch.

Pushing open the wooden screen door, Willow stepped out. There stood Christine, hair plastered to her head, clothing like a second skin, just from her walk to the porch from her rental. The look on the singer’s face was what really got the blonde moving- absolute anguish, and Willow knew why.

A sob ripped through the night, and Christine found herself engulfed in those safe arms, resting her head on a sturdy shoulder.

“Come inside,” Willow said into her ear. “Come inside, Christine.”

****

She’d been driving straight through for a day and a half, and was sleeping soundlessly in the guestroom. Willow checked on her often, wishing so badly that there was something, anything she could do. She thought about earlier that day:

“Wolf man eats his wife,” Rachel smirks as she shoves the smut mag back into its rack at the register of the Safeway she and I are waiting in line at.

“Shouldn’t it be wolf woman eats her husband?” I say, we both chuckle. I’m fingering a tin bubble gum container, the little pieces of gum inside are shaped like dolphins. I’m intrigued, just like a child.

“Oh, no,” Rachel says, her voice filled with foreboding.

“What?” I ask, checking the calorie count on the little fishy gum.

“Look, Wills,” Rachel shoves the magazine in front of my face, and my eyes immediately settle on what looks to be a very young Christine Gray: ROCKER CHICK BY THE HOUR? I feel my blood go cold.

“Oh god,” I gasp, taking the mag from my friend’s hand. “God, I hope she hasn’t seen this.”

“Who could do such a thing?” Willow whispered, gently brushing locks of dark hair from a pale forehead, feather light touches, not wanting to wake the troubled woman. With a sad sigh, she stood, heading downstairs where Rachel was making coffee for them.

“God, how can you drink this stuff?” the redhead asked, handing Willow a steaming mug. Green eyes rolled.

“It doesn’t taste any different, you pain in the ass.”

“Yeah, but where do you get your little extra oomph from?” the women sat at the breakfast nook, Rachel’s painted nails clicking lightly against the ceramic mug.

“Oomph? You’re kidding, right? Shoot, my energy is being sucked down into my gut,” she grinned.

“How is she?” Rachel asked, sobering. Willow sighed and shrugged.

“She’s still asleep. God, Rachel, you should have seen her.” Willow shook her head, looking out at the muddy morning. “Drenched to the bone, but I swear it was like the sky was crying for her. She was devastated.”

“The sky was crying for her, huh?” Rachel grinned. “Me thinks you’ve been hanging out with the songstress a little too much.”

“Oh, hush,” the blonde playfully smacked the giggling redhead. “I know that was corny, but it’s true. I just wanted to protect her from the world, you know?”

“That’s probably why she came here, Wills. I’m sure she feels safe here, with you.”

“I hope so. If I can keep her out of the public eye for even just a few days, you know?” Willow stirred in a bag of Splenda.

“Yeah. What is she going to do?”

“I have no idea. She crashed within twenty minutes of showing up. All I know is that she drove here from L.A.” Willow stood, and walked to the fridge, pulling out a couple containers of yogurt.

“Thanks,” Rachel opened the container put before her, then grabbed the spoon set next to it. “You still craving this stuff?” she chuckled, stirring the fruit up to the top.

Willow rolled her eyes. “God, it’s been weird. At least I know I won’t be having any yeast infections.”

“Monostat 7, ladies. Works wonders.”

Both nurses turned to see Christine grinning from the doorway. Willow thought she looked adorable, hair disheveled in every which way, t-shirt slightly askew, and one leg of her shorts longer than the other from moving in her sleep.

“Hey, you.” Willow smiled, standing. “Are you hungry? Thirsty? Can I get you anything?” She was stopped with a hand to her arm and a gentle smile.

“I can get it. Take a load off, kay?” Christine squeezed the blonde’s arm affectionately until she got a nod.

“Help yourself to anything, okay?” Willow said quietly, getting her own nod.

Rachel was surprised to find a sting of jealousy rushing quickly through her veins, then dissipating just as quickly. Watching the interaction between her friend and the singer was most interesting to watch. There was an easy trust between them, a comfort level that was quite surprising considering first off, how they met, and secondly, Christine Gray was one of the topmost female recording artists in the world.

Willow took her seat across from her old friend again, hearing the rustle and clinking in the kitchen of pans being pulled, fridge being opened, items removed and arranged on the counter.

“You ladies like omelets?” Christine asked, glancing at the two nurses.

“You any good at making them?” Rachel teased. “I’m pretty damn picky when it comes to my eggs.”

“Well, lucky you; so am I.” The singer winked, then began to crack some shells.

An hour and eight eggs later, the three sat scattered in the living room, each nursing a cup of hot decaf.

“I need you both to understand that now this story has broke, they’ll stop at nothing to find more, which will ultimately lead here,” she pointed down, “to your hospital, and to the events that happened last February.”

“We won’t say anything,” Rachel said, indicating her and the blonde.

“Say what you will, Rachel. That’s what these bastards to for a living- find the dirt. Mark my words,” she sipped her brew. “the hospital is going to be bombarded by questions.” She sighed, that sadness clouding her features again. “I’m really sorry to put you guys through this.”

Willow and Rachel shared a quick look, then the blonde went to her, sitting next to the singer.

“Please don’t apologize, Christine,” she said quietly, taking the large, calloused hand in her own. “You don’t deserve this. I really hope you don’t think that you do.”

Christine raised sad eyes to meet those of the beautiful nurse. “I did all this, Willow. What they’re accusing me of, I did.”

“I know that. But look what you’ve done with your life since? Look how many people you’ve touched out there all over the world. With your music and your talent you’ve reached inside millions and made them smile, made them forget their problems for just a short while.” She smiled. “I speak from personal experience here, okay?”

Christine studied those eyes, seeing nothing but truth. Rachel nodded in agreement, though the singer never saw it. Finally she conceded.

Rachel waited a heartbeat, not wanting to interrupt the silent conversation happening across the coffee table on the sofa, but then she downed the rest of her coffee, gently setting the mug on the end table next to the loveseat where she sat.

Standing, two sets of eyes alighted on her. “I have to get going, girls. Connor’s waiting.”

Shaking herself out of her almost trance-like state, Willow stood and walked over to her friend. “Thanks for coming,” she said quietly, taking the redhead in a tight hug.

“Anytime, sweetie.” Rachel turned to look at Christine, surprised to see the singer had made her way over to them. Squeaking quietly as she found herself engulfed in warm arms, she grinned up at the taller woman. “You’ve got a hell of a hug machine there, Gray.”

The singer grinned. “Why thank you. Never had any complaints before.”

“Hmm, bet not,” Rachel muttered, then headed out.

****

Taking the brush between her teeth, Christine readjusted the doo-rag covering her dark hair, then took the handle between nimble fingers and began to work the delicate blue paint into the wall.

“This is all going to be so cute,” the singer gushed, unable to keep the grin from her face, which her painting partner shared.

“Thank you. I’m glad you like it.”

“I’m surprised you’re starting this so soon,” Christine glanced down at Willow, working around the floorboards while she took around the ceiling, not wanting the blonde to climb the ladder.

“Well,” Willow shrugged. “I figure I might as well just get this stuff started now, the stuff I won’t really be able to do later, you know?” Glancing up, she saw Christine’s nod. “And now that Kevin won’t be helping me,” she shrugged again. “It’s all me,” this last part was more muttered to herself than meant to add to the conversation at hand.

“Not if I have anything to do about it,” Willow met her gaze again, brows drawn in question.

“Oh?”

“That’s right,” Christine said with determination, dipping the small brush into the plastic pan balanced on the flat at the top of the ladder, filled with paint. “I’m going to make sure you get all the help you need, my friend. Don’t you worry about a thing.”

“Oh, well thank you very much,” Willow wiggled her brows at the singer, making her chuckle.

They worked in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Willow wanted to get to the heart of her thoughts, but wasn’t sure if she should broach the painful subject.

As if reading her thoughts, Christine asked quietly, “What are you thinking about down there?’

Willow sighed, brushing a stray lock behind her ear with her pinky, one of the last fingers still paintless. “Who did this to you?” For a moment Willow wasn’t sure the singer understood the question, her silence stretching on, but finally she spoke.

“Bob Knowles.”

“That son of a-”

“I know,” Christine smiled at the vehemence in the blonde’s voice.

“Why would he do that to you?” Willow stood, stretching out her aching back, tossing her brush into the pan not far from where she’d just finished up.

“Because he’s a bastard who was angry that I laid him out,” Christine said, leaning in close as she painted a tight spot, making sure she didn’t paint the ceiling, which, like the woodwork, would stay white. “He was unfortunate enough to be born with little to no tact and made a very stupid and thoughtless comment.”

“I’m sorry,”

“So was he,” Christine gave the blonde a shit-eating grin, then turned back to her task at hand.

“So what are you going to do?”

“That is the question, isn’t it?” dip, dip “I don’t really know. Disappear off the face of the earth, maybe? Pretend it never happened? Lie? I don’t know.”

“Why not call him on his own methods?”

“What do you mean?” She stopped painting, leaning on the ladder, brush-holding hand dangling off the second rung from the top.

“Well,” Willow drawled, crossing her arms over her growing chest. “Play his game, Christine. You have tons of high powered friends out there. Make them work for you. Tell your story. The true story.” She stared up at her, letting her words sink in. “The truth shall set you free.” She grinned, green eyes twinkling in the streaming sunlight.

****

“He is as smug as a bug in a rug, Chris,” Trista said, flopping herself down in one of the chairs in front of the singer’s desk.

“Hmm,” Christine hummed, staring down at the bustling city below. “I’m not surprised. Is everything arranged?”

“Yeah. Oh my god, yeah! Her people were nearly peeing in their pants with excitement to get such an exclusive.” She rolled her eyes, “You should hear what Katrina says about him. The guy’s going way over the top with this. That son of a bitch is talking to anyone who’s willing to listen to his garbage.” She crossed a bare knee over the other, lazily swinging her high-heeled foot.

“No, I’m not surprised in the least. He wants the spotlight- always has.” With a sigh, Christine turned to her assistant, hands tucked into the pockets of her jeans. “When are we on?”

“Wednesday night, your place.”

The singer nodded. “Good.”

****

“I’m nervous,” Willow gushed, laughing with nervous energy.

“I know. Me, too.” Rachel patted her on the knee, then began to tuck into the freshly popped bag of Orville Redenbacher with extra butter.

The sitcom they’d been watching ended, and an advertisement came on for the Barbara Walters Special, an exclusive with Christine Gray.

****

The singer was surprised at how warm the legendary journalist was. She’d heard a whole variation on the same cry of diva, but she found no such thing.

Happily showing the older woman around her house in the hills overlooking L.A., the grounds perfectly kept, beautiful and elegant, the small camera crew constantly filming, though she knew from specials she had seen, much of it would be edited out, only a few scenes for visual effect during Barbara’s narrative.

Sitting stiff and compliant in one of the extremely comfortable wingbacks brought to the music room from the formal living room, Christine waited for the makeup girl to finish, listening to the murmured orders and requests from the crew. They were slowly turning her sanctuary into a theatrical production, meant to look like a sanctuary, filled with intimate conversation.

“And in five,” the producer, headset in place, counted backward to three, then fell silent, fingers counting down the rest of the way.

“There has been much said of late about your past, Christine,” Barbara said, an almost motherly accusing tone to her voice, a soft smile on her lightly painted lips.

“Tell me about it!” Christine said, rolling her eyes, followed by a playful smile, earning a small chuckle from the journalist.

****

“Turn that up, please Raymond. Thank you.” Robert adjusted his head against the padded rest, face gooey and stiff from the mud masque, eyes closed from the slices of cucumber resting upon his lids.

His masseuse did as bade, the television’s sound and light filling the small, darkened room. He had heard from some of his friends, and even a couple clients, that Christine would be doing that well-preserved journalist’s special.

“Special, my ass,” he murmured, hearing Raymond leaving him to ‘soak’. “You want special you should’ve come to me, Walters,”

****

“How did the story in the tabloid make you feel?” Barbara asked, hands resting peacefully on the yellow legal pad of notes on her skirted lap.

Christine sighed, thinking of the best way to answer that. “Truth of the matter is, Barbara, the story is true,” the singer noted the slight widening of the journalist’s eyes, but nothing more. “It was a very painful time for me, and certainly one I wanted to forget.” She shrugged, a sad little smile tugging at her lips. “It wasn’t to be so.”

“Do you want to tell your story? Here and now? Your side of things?”

“Yes. What that tabloid printed was based on truth, yes, but it made a mockery of human pain. That pain was mine, so now I’m here to set it straight.”

****

Alice held Adam’s hand tightly in her own, her other hand strumming through the dark hair that rested in her lap.

“She’s so brave,” he said, mesmerized by the strongest woman he knew, who dominated his twenty-seven inch screen.

“Yes, she is,” Alice said quietly, leaning down to gently kiss his temple, slightly damp from sweat. “How are you feeling, my love?”

“I’m fine,” Adam said absently, still waiting almost breathlessly for Christine to speak.

****

The front door opened, Rachel’s finger automatically going to her lips, Connor looking at her like she’d lost her mind.

“Come sit,” she whispered, patting the couch next to her. The man entered the room, glancing at the light from the tube, heart falling in disappointment.

“But Rach, the first game of the season is on,” he whined,

“Then go watch it upstairs,” she hissed, noting her friend’s eyes were pinned to the screen.

“But this has the surround sound-”

“Then go to your own damn place to watch it!” she snapped, irritated that he wouldn’t watch this with her, something that was very important. Far more so than stupid football.

Knowing a losing battle when he saw one, he clicked his tongue like a pouting child, and stomped upstairs.

“God, such little boys,” Rachel muttered, shoveling anther handful of popcorn into her mouth. Willow didn’t answer.

****

“So tell us, in your own words, what is the true story of Christine Gray.”

“Oh, where to begin,” Christine breathed, raising a hand to run through her hair before she remembered it was plastered with product and they’d have to shut down, allow time for her hair to be fixed, then start up again. She’d have to find a new nervous habit for this journey.

She began her tale, beginning with her parents and their abandonment, and her fortuitous meeting with Adam.

“I can’t, Adam,” I hiss, being pulled along by my wrist, the third flight of stairs before us.

“Come on, Christine. Don’t worry.”

“Will she get mad?” I ask, looking around, waiting for my friend’s mom to pop out of the walls somewhere.

“Why would she? She probably ain’t even there. God, you worry all the time.”

We continue on in silence. The picture of what I’ve heard about Toni “machete” Mischetti is not pleasant, and she scares me. Word on the street is she was with Derrick Zolna, a real tough guy, and he disappeared after they got into a fight, never to be seen again.

Our feet slamming onto the landing for the third floor of the old brick tenement, we head down the hallway, carpet almost totally worn through in places.

Adam stops at his door, struggling with the knob that likes to stick, then finally kicks the door open, a million old shoe prints at the bottom of the stained, wood door.

The apartment is tiny, as was ours, stuffy, stale cigarette smoke and vomit lingers in the air.

Fighting the urge to hold my nose, I follow him inside, looking around. The furniture is old, holes eaten through to the stuffing, either by the huge mice problem in New York, or from some evil pet. My guess is the first one.

“Rosco, honey, that you?” a woman calls out from the one bedroom. My spine stiffens for just a moment, then I look at him.

“Rosco?”

“Shut it,” he hisses. I stifle a giggle. The woman comes into the living area, which doubles as a kitchen. Flopping down on the couch, she runs heavily ringed fingers through a mane of wild black hair, brushing it back from her face. She’s not what I’d call pretty, but I wouldn’t call her butt ugly, either. She looks older than her twenty-four years, face lined from years of hard drinking and smoking. Her eyes are a dark gray, that would probably be pretty cool if they weren’t so red-rimmed and bloodshot. Twin patches of acne riddle her temples. My mom would say it was from all that hair.

“Where you been, son? Who’s this?” she asks, snagging a pack of Camels off the badly scarred blonde wood coffee table. Shaking one loose, she grabs it with dry, cracked lips, then quickly lit it with a red plastic lighter. A cloud of smelly smoke billows out around her head. She eyes us both through that haze. It always amazes me how relieved smokers look once they get that cigarette lit and between stained fingers.

“Ma, this is Christine, that girl I told you about.” Adam says, standing next to me. His mom eyes me, inhaling another drag, squinting her eyes as she does.

“Nice to meet you, Christine,” she exhales. “I got company tonight, Rosco. Be a good boy and you and your little friend go play, huh?”

“Yeah, okay. Can she stay with us for a little while?” he asks, young voice raising in hope.

“Adam,” I hiss, he shoves me with his shoulder, eyes never leaving his mother.

Inhale, exhale. “Sure, why not. You two be quiet and use the backdoor. James will be here soon.”

“Ah, mom, I can’t stand James,” Adam whines.

“You watch your mouth, son,” Toni says, pointing at him with her cigarette fingers. “He been nothing but nice to you.”

“Yeah, till he gets mad,” he mutters, tugging me by the sleeve back out the door.

And so it went. Toni still scares me. She’s a nice enough lady, but don’t get her mad! Whoa, boy. Bad idea. I came to the apartment more than once to listen to a screaming match between Adam and his mom.

He never did tell me what was up with the Rosco bit. I think it has something to do with some dead relative.

My eleventh birthday is when things changed for me forever.

See, since I grow up to be about a million feet tall, I was tall for my age then. Me and Adam are sitting on the living room floor, fighting over who gets to play Nintendo next. They only had one controller. Very frustrating.

“You are so full of shit!” Adam yells, shoving me. I shove him back.

“Hey,” Bernie, Toni’s latest squeeze, smacks the boy upside the head. “Shut that hole of yours.” We both look up at him, surprised. He’s looking down at me, winks. I shiver in disgust.

Bernie has been watching me all week, and it’s giving me the creeps. I’d say something, but see the problem is that Toni’s been watching me, too. Two totally different kinds of watching. One is filled with that lust I saw in those movies Toni and James used to watch all the time. Toni, however, looks at me like I’m some damn rival or something!

Well, all hell breaks loose one day when Toni comes home to find me and Bernie in a most compromising position. I was sitting on the couch, minding my own damn business when the guy jumps on me! He starts kissing me, his big hand, greasy from a day working at the shop, covers my breast and squeezes. Hard.

“What the fuck!” Before I know what’s happening, other than I want this idiot off me, I’m grabbed by my ear and yanked off the couch. I can’t believe my ear isn’t yanked off!

Toni starts yelling at me, calling me little bitch and whore, meanwhile I’m yelling back, trying to explain that it was her buffoon of a boyfriend, not me. She’s not listening, and finally screams,

“Get out! Get out of my fucking house right now!” She marches toward me, but I slink away, not letting her grab my damn ear again. My back hits the door, the many locks jamming into my shoulder. “I took you in, you little slut, and look how you repay me,” she hisses, her breath reeking of the rum and grape juice she likes to much.

I fumble with the locks behind me, trying desperately to get away from those bloodshot eyes, veins popping out all over the place. Finally the door opens, and I literally fall out into the hall, that floor hurting my ass.

I scramble up, wiping myself off, trying to keep any dignity I had left, which isn’t much. Storming down the hall, I run headlong into Adam, coming back with a paper bag filled with a few grocery staples in his arms.

“Whoa, fuck, Chris!” He yelled, picking his own ass off the floor.

“Sorry,” I grumble, jumping back to my feet and run down the hall, bypassing the ancient elevator, and hitting the stairs.

“Hey! Wait!” I hear yelled after me. I keep going, not wanting him to see the tears that are falling freely now. “Damn it, wait up, Chris!” The door at the top of the stairs is banged open, footfalls echoing a flight and a half up.

I push through the door that leads to the main hall, using my long legs to my advantage. Adam is almost running after me now, finally catching up, out of breath, four doors down.

“What happened?” he gasps, hand on his knees, trying to catch his breath.

“She kicked me out,” I say, bitterly swiping at the tears that still run down my cheeks.

“What?!” He stands straight again, looking at me with narrowed eyes. “Why?”

“That asshole boyfriend of hers fucking attacked me, and she took his side!”

“No way!”

“Way.” I start walking again, wiping away the last of the tears. Fuck this shit. I can make it on my own just fine. I don’t need her. Yeah. I don’t need her.

****

Televisions across America watched in rapt silence as one of the greatest musicians of her time told a story of innocence gone bad. Nielson would later report that as many people watched the special as did the previous Super Bowl.

****

A blonde in Oklahoma sat with her legs drawn up, arms wrapped around her shins, eyes wide, unrealized tears gently streaking the smooth skin of her cheeks.

****

A man sits on a padded table, face like wood with a mud masque completely dried, forgotten about, two pink circles around his eyes where two slices of cucumber had once been. He watched as old, faded snapshots were paraded across the screen, overlapping Christine’s story of a childhood gone terribly wrong. He was transfixed.

****

A young couple cuddles on an olive green couch, a light breeze rolling in through the window that is open to their fire escape, or very own ‘back door’. One gently combs her fingers through soft, thick hair while the other feels his stomach roil at what he knows is to come.

****

Christine sat in her chair, silent for a moment, all the memories attacking her at once.

“Do you need a break?” Barbara asked, reaching across the distance between them to gently cover a pale, trembling hand.

“No,” she smiled weakly, then sipped the goblet of water that was placed on the small, oval table next to the chair. Taking several deep breaths, she continued.

Well, I got myself into this mess, I had to go through with it. If for no other reason than I didn’t want Adam to think I was a dork or a loser.

“Come on, honey. I don’t have all night,” he calls from the main room of the cheesy motel. Closing my eyes, my fingers try and undo my top button again. Fingers are still trembling, damn it.

“Come on,” I try and encourage myself. He seems like a nice enough guy. God he’s old.

Finally the button is successfully pulled through the sliver of a hole, followed by the next. The white of my very first bra comes into view. It had belonged to Toni, but she said she outgrew it, so gave it to me. I think it might be a little big, but figure I’ll grow into it. I’m careful to throw the stuffing out before old guys sees it. The white satin makes my skin look darker, like I got a tan or something.

My mind flashes to the guy in the other room, unable really to remember what he looks like. Does he have light hair or dark? I don’t know. The only thing I remember seeing clearly was the massive gold belt buckle with a gaudy J written in rhinestones.

I jump at the knock on the other side of the door. “Look, honey, are we gonna do this or not?”

“Yes,” I whisper, looking at my eyes, my face, trying to make it look more grown up, make me more grown up. Taking several deep breaths, clenching and unclenching my hands, I unbutton the rest of my shirt, letting the material slide from my shoulders, leaving it there, hoping it looked sexy. “Here we go,”

****

The interview ended, credits rolling, heart sinking.

“Fuck,” Robert Knowles muttered.

Continued in Part 11

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