Thief: The Dove in the Darkness by Katlynn Rose

The small, lake-side store was packed, flooded by rowdy college students participating in their yearly spring break ritual. Lea ground her teeth as she waited in line, trying not to glare at the obnoxious boys that were trading punches in front of her. Even though they were only a year or two younger than her, she classified them as boys in her mind. Immature and green.
Thief: The Dove in the Darkness
Thief: The Dove in the Darkness by Katlynn Rose
Lea imagined she already knew their life stories; sheltered and pampered in high school and receiving the same treatment in college. They couldn't possibly know what it’s like to live on their own in the real world. Bitter with a hint of envy, Lea struggled to keep her eyes from rolling. Instead, she fixed them on a magazine rack and pretended to read the headlines. Damn you, Ox, she cussed her friend in her mind. Lea blamed him even though she was fully aware it wasn't his fault. She had volunteered, knowing this whole week was going to be chaos, needed to be chaos, but her nerves were working against her, cranking her irritation level to the max. Maybe this whole week wasn't his fault, but he was the one who sent her up here for his damn chocolate fix. Lea fiddled with the Snickers bar in her hand. She briefly toyed with the idea of putting it back on the shelf and deserting the store, but the cold bottle of Diet Coke in her other hand sang to her. She swallowed dryly and shifted her weight from one foot to the other, resigning herself to the wait. The line moved forward, and two giggling girls walked past Lea to the exit. She ground her teeth and once again, consciously put a halt to her eye-rolling. She imagined her stoic glare at the magazine rack would make a passerby think she wanted to rip them to shreds, but no one was paying attention to her. They were all self-absorbed with only two things on their mind; alcohol and sex. Suddenly, a loud smack jostled one of the boys toward her. Lea side-stepped quickly, narrowly avoiding him, but the girl behind her wasn't as quick to move. Absorbed in her smart phone, she squealed as it was knocked from her hand, careening to the hard-wood floor. Landing hard, it busted into several pieces as the protective case popped off, and the back cover snapped free as the phone bounced, sending the battery sliding across the floor. "Watch it, dick!" the thin blonde screeched, not even bothering to look up. She was already darting for the pieces of her busted phone. "Woah. Sorry, sister." The boy who had fallen backward apologized in a deep, slow voice. He bent to help her while the clown that had punched him turned away, hiding his laughter. Lea exhaled sharply, exasperated. "Get off me, you prick!" the blonde yelled as she hauled back and punched him solidly in the arm. "Don't touch my shit!" "Ow," the big guy whined, handing the cover back to the angry coed. His free hand was rubbing his arm where she'd slugged him. He gave the girl a wounded, puppy dog frown and sounded sad when he spoke again. "I said I was sorry." "If you broke it, you're gonna be sorry," Blondie barked as she snatched the cover from his hand. Lea almost smirked when the blonde turned violent, but it quickly faded as the lummox stood up. He was tall, but to Lea, everyone was tall. That wasn't what bothered her. Lea's annoyance turned to alarm because he had finally noticed her. The confrontation with the blonde had already slipped from his mind as he became fully focused on Lea. His smile slowly curved his thick lips at the corners, crinkling his large nose, and his droopy eyes lit up when Lea accidentally made eye contact. "Hey there, little sister." "Oh, Jesus." Lea sighed under her breath. She figured he was either a bit slow or high. Probably both. Either way, Lea felt she was going to have a tough time shaking him if something else didn't grab his attention. One thing Lea lacked was social grace, and these types of guys only took rudeness as a challenge. "It's not turning on!" The squeal came from the forgotten blonde moments before the angry girl grabbed his arm and jerked him around. She slammed the phone against his beefy chest as he stared down at her in surprise. "Fix it or pay for it!" Lea's eyes widened as she watched the lummox get slugged in the arm again. His companion – the one actually guilty – finished up at the counter and was turning back to intervene. Lea took the chance to slip silently behind the commotion and breathed a sigh of relief as she escaped anymore unwanted attention. Setting her items on the counter, Lea pulled a five from her pocket and impatiently waited for the cashier to accept her money. He was distracted by the scene playing out behind her, and Lea huffed, wanting nothing more than to get her change so she could get the hell out of there. The attendant didn't seem to be concerned with her or her irritation. By the time he passed the change back to her, the blonde was shouting at both of the boys with neither one able to get a word in. Lea ducked out behind them as the cashier's voice added to the rising tumult, yelling for them to take it outside. No, no, no! Lea thought, wanting to get safely away without the bickering group following her out the door. She needn't have worried. In fact, she was actually quite impressed by the tirade that followed. The blonde turned her rage on the cashier, and everything else in the small store ceased to matter. As Lea made it to the door, she allowed herself a look back at the scene she narrowly escaped. Distracted by what was happening behind her, she wasn't paying attention to where she was going. She failed to notice that someone outside had opened the door, and she proceeded to stumble gracelessly through the opening. The weight of the door Lea had expected to be there was gone, and she flailed for a handhold somewhere – anywhere – to keep from going down. Her hands grasped a strong bicep as an arm shot around her waist, and her body collided with a stranger as he caught her before she fell. Cheeks already flaming, Lea quickly regained her footing and spun away. She automatically began to stutter out an apology before she looked up. "Thank you. I'm sor..." Her voice trailed off, the words getting tangled in her throat and then forgotten when she finally met his eyes. Beautiful eyes. They sparkled a brilliant green in the sunlight and stole Lea's breath. She stared at him stupidly, mesmerized by the intent way he was looking at her, and she couldn't tear her eyes away from his lean, handsome face. He was the one to look away first, to eye the ground purposefully, and even then Lea couldn't break free of his thrall. She intently watched him, noticing how his t-shirt clung to his thin frame and the thick locks of brown hair that fell into his face as he bent to pick something off the ground. She gaped over the strong muscles that flexed in his arm as he reached for a Snickers bar – the Snickers bar she had just bought for Ox – and finally her loopy brain snapped back into focus. "You dropped this," he said as he held the candy bar out to her. Lea reached for it, noticing her fingers were trembling, and quickly snatched it from him. Her stomach was twisting in nervous knots as the man continued to watch her expectantly. Thank you! I should say thank you! Lea opened her mouth to speak when the furious blonde inside the store kicked her tirade up a notch, and the cashier and the two culprits were facing a full on meltdown. The heightened shouts caught the stranger's attention, pulling his penetrating gaze away, and Lea stole the opportunity to escape. She spun and hastily walked down the gravel path toward the lake. Her cheeks were on fire, and she didn't dare slow down. Finally, when she reached the bend in the road, Lea chanced a look over her shoulder. She didn't know what she expected, but her heart skipped a beat when she saw he was still standing in the shade of the small awning, watching her. Blushing even more, Lea continued on her way. She was supposed to meet Ox at one of the many campsites, but the trip to the store had taken longer than expected. He wasn't one to get irritable, but Ox was too hyperactive to sit in one place for long. Lea actually hoped he had gotten bored and wandered off so she could have a few minutes to collect herself, to let the flush die down. She felt the blush clinging to her skin, branding her, a tell-tale sign that something wasn't right. If anyone noticed, it would be Ox. As the awning came into view, Lea whistled happily through her teeth when she saw it empty. It could have been suspicious that no one was sitting at the campsite, considering all awnings were prime real estate this week, but Lea knew of a few well-placed rumors that would keep the coeds far away. After all, who needed their good time ruined by a bunch of undercover cops? Only it couldn't really be a rumor if it were the truth, could it? Lea smirked as she looked at the group of supposed family and friends at the adjacent campsite, and she took her seat at the picnic table. The hard concrete bench was uncomfortable, but here she could sit and watch unsuspected. And sit she did, the uneventful minutes stretching out to impossible lengths. Observe was the word they had used, but what they had actually meant was die of boredom. She didn't bother masking her eye-roll this time. She had calmed down and was hoping Ox would show up soon to keep her company. On the bright side, she was finally able to crack open her soda, and the hiss of carbonation was music to her ears. The feel of the cold liquid hitting her tongue and running down her throat helped her relax. As she sat the bottle back on the table, she looked at the Snickers bar. "I hope you melt." She said snidely, but she was grinning to herself. She felt more mischievous than angry and knew a little thing like melted chocolate wouldn't slow Ox down. The playfulness was short-lived, though, and Lea's mood began to sour the longer she sat alone in the hot afternoon. The awning shaded the table at least, and she openly stared at the people she was spying on, envious of their two fancy RVs. A low hum made it to her ears, and she knew it was the sound of the generator and the AC it powered. Lea let out a long, drawn out sigh. They were the dullest undercover cops ever. "Oh, but she's young. She looks like a coed. They won't suspect her," Lea scoffed under her breath, her voice nasally as she mimicked Scott, the jackass that had volunteered her. He had been wrong, though. Sitting there alone, she was probably the most conspicuous coed at the lake. Taking another swig on her soda, she sighed, "And then I agreed to it, so it's my own damn fault." Lea casually looked around, saw no sign of Ox, but was really making sure no one had been in earshot. Satisfied it was clear, she went back to picking at the plastic label on her bottle to pass the time. She began to yawn, but her breath was stolen as she caught site of a dark haired man joining the other camp. Her pulse instantly went into hyper drive. "Oh, shit." She groaned, recognizing the gorgeous stranger she had literally run into outside the store. Her eyes were glued to him as he stopped to chat with the man tending the grill, and then he disappeared inside one of the RVs. "Shit, shit, shit!" Lea grumbled, standing to flee before he came back outside. "He's a cop? Of course he's a cop!" A hushed tirade of words came out under her breath as she tried to casually run away. Her face was hot again, but this time from panic. Nikki was not going to be happy with her! She had struggled for that one's acceptance the whole time she'd been with this operation, and if she drew unwanted attention down on them because she'd caught a cop's eye, she was dead! "Lea!" The deep voice jolted her, but she recognized it. She looked up to see Ox grinning at her from the road, and she frowned at him. She was angry he had taken so long getting back to her, but the feeling of relief at seeing him standing there was undeniable. "Hey, hold up!" The call came from behind her. Instinctively, Lea's head shot around before the thought entered her mind to pretend she hadn't heard anything. She knew who it was before she met those striking green eyes. Even at this distance, they sparkled like emeralds. Lea stalled, captured again by the intense way the stranger looked at her. Her heart was fluttering from more than panic, but she was aware enough to know how dangerous her situation had just become. Lucky for her Ox had shown up when he did. As soon as the stranger spotted the large man heading toward her, he paused. Ox's sleeveless shirt was designed to show off his bulky biceps and thick chest, and even though he sported plaid swimming trunks and flip-flops, the man looked intimidating. He came to tower over her, and pulled her close with a possessive arm around her. Goosebumps crawled across her skin as she denied her impulse to pull away, and his huge lungs filled up with air. "What you want with my woman?" he barked at the cop, and Lea winced. A rebellious emotion stirred inside her, and she wanted nothing more than to correct the lie. She wisely held her tongue, and for a brief moment, saw the stranger's confidence broken. It wounded her, and her wayward feelings added confusion on top of everything else. "Sorry. I thought she was someone else." The stranger said and turned back to his camp. Ox had to pull her along with him to get her moving, and it took several steps before she was able to shake off the strange feeling. That's when she noticed Ox's hand becoming a bit too familiar. As Lea pushed it back to her waist, he leaned close to whisper in her ear. "Give me head, and I won't tell Nikki." "Ugh!" she squealed, finally pulling away and slapping his arm. "Nikki can kill me first!" Ox laughed; a deep rumble that started in his belly and shook his shoulders as it burst out. Once his amusement died down, he smiled at her sincerely. "She'll never know. Scott's set up down at the boat house, and I'll send the twins back here. I think we're covered." "Thanks, Ox." Lea started to breathe easier, knowing Ox was true to his word. He would protect her. Still, she couldn't let him get away with deserting her for so long. She fussed at him. "God, I was dying out there. Where the hell were you, anyway?" "Sorry about that. Scott held me up, so I went to meet you at the store." Suddenly, Ox's eyebrows shot up and his hands moved excitedly as he remembered something. "You must have missed it! Someone seriously beat the shit out of the cashier. The dude had scratches all over his face and there was blood everywhere, and..." As Lea listened to him in astonishment, she began to laugh. Chapter 2 – Distraction Back at the camp, Lea learned that a small team of associates had a new assignment; a hit on a gas station about fifty miles from the lake. It was a distraction. Law enforcement would receive an anonymous tip in the hopes the undercover cops would take the bait. It was nothing but a chancy ruse just so Nikki could get a sucker punch in and rob their campsite. Lea was grinding her teeth, having been told she was to be one of the guinea pigs to hit the camp. She knew it was Nikki's sadistic idea of punishment. Since Lea had pulled unwanted attention that caused a deviation from her duties, the operation's flow had been disrupted, and everyone knew you didn't fuck with the flow of Nikki's operation. Lea's argument had received a blank stare. How could she help it if someone wanted to strike up a friendly conversation with her? One of her duties was to look like a coed, and that alone garnered at least a little attention. Lea hadn't bothered to mention how much she had gawked at the dreamy cop, but it didn't matter. Nikki's mind was made up. Chewing nervously on her bottom lip, Lea huddled in the corner of Ox's RV She wondered if this new life was any better than the troubled one she fled years ago. Being motherless with her barely there, alcoholic father had not made for a happy home, especially on the bad nights. Father could be a mean drunk. Lea had come to regret some of her past decisions, but the leap she had taken to get away from her father was not one of them. However, she had deluded herself into thinking that joining Nikki's outfit would be something fun, adventurous. It didn't turn out to be what she had imagined. Now she wondered if she would have followed Ox into the lion's den if she had known what lay beyond. Because, after tonight, there was no going back. Tonight, she had to prove herself. Lea swallowed hard, realizing she was about to cross the line between a slap-on-the-wrist and jail-time. The RV rocked to one side as Ox entered, his weight tilting the whole vehicle. She looked to him, and his expression was laden with sympathy as he met her eyes. Lea had just enough bravado left to scoff. Ox saw through her charade and chuckled softly, motioning her to follow as he turned around. She joined him at the barbecue pit, where the other associates were already waiting. The light had faded to dusk, and it wouldn't be long before full night settled across the lake. It was time to go. Lea followed close behind Ox, almost in a daze. They walked along the trails around the lake, and were constantly running into drunken revelers, but no one paid them any mind. Even if they had, Lea probably wouldn't have noticed. Her palms were sweaty, and she was fighting back the nausea roiling in her gut. Nervousness crawled through her limbs and into her fingers and toes like little electric worms, and she clasped her hands together to stop them from shaking. How was she going to do this without fainting? Her mind was so deeply mired in worries that Lea almost ran into Ox's broad back when he stopped. He looked down at her, surprise on his face at how close she stood, but then he smirked. "Now's not the time to get friendly, sweetheart." Lea stumbled back a few paces and managed to scowl at him, but even that did little to help harden her wavering nerve. Ox did not share her same reservations. He had gone from pleasure to business in the blink of an eye, and his expression was hard steel as he addressed everyone. "No cell phones, no pagers. Are we clear?" There were nods from all around. "Nikki doesn't want damages, so no vandalism. Get in, take what you can, and get out. Sutton is our primary target here, so bonus points for anyone who can dig up some extra info, but don't take any unneeded risks. I doubt he's got his stash here, but he's got to launder that shit sometime, right?" A chortle, some nods and a "Yes, sir" answered Ox. "Go. You know what to do." He whispered, but his voice boomed in Lea's ears. Scarcely able to breathe, she turned to follow, and her heart leaped into her throat as Ox's big hand encircled her arm, jerking her to a stop. "You're not going." Lea stared up at him, confused. Her mouth worked wordlessly for a moment before she finally found her voice. "But Nikki said--" "Nikki would like to get you killed. She's jealous, but I said wait. You're not up to this." And with that, Ox was gone, his big frame swallowed up in the darkness. Lea stood dumbstruck, staring at the spot where Ox had disappeared. Shouts and laughter of the festivities could be heard in the distance, but no sound came from close by. The half-moon didn't offer much light under the trees, and the wooded area that had seemed so secure a moment ago had taken on a creepy vibe. What the hell was she supposed to do now? Alone, she spun in a circle and huffed. She knew where their rendezvous point was, but she had doubts she could find it in the dark. Had Ox thought of that before he tried to be a hero? Lea took two steps back the way they had come, intending to head toward their camp, but stopped short. What if she made it back before everyone? What would Nikki do to her then? Pressing her lips together to stop a groan, she turned in the direction where she thought they would rendezvous, took two steps, and stopped again. What if she couldn't find it? What if she got her ass lost out here in the woods? Stomping her foot and unable to stop the growl this time, she turned toward the undercover's camp. Damn you, Ox! Goddamn you! After a good few moments of waiting, her indecision eating up valuable time, Lea finally got her feet to move. Moving as quietly as she possibly could, her tentative steps led her toward the campsite to where she could find Ox or one of the others to lead her out. It was eerily quiet, unlike every other campsite on the lake. The only light Lea could see was the glowing red embers in the barbecue pit. She stalked closer to the RV, her eyes straining to penetrate the darkness of the abandoned camp. Had they actually fallen for Nikki's scam? Idiots, Lea smirked wryly to herself, sidling against the wall of the tall vehicle, feeling somewhat safer hiding in its dark shadows. Abruptly, Lea tensed as she saw a shadow move in front of the tent, but she relaxed a second later when she recognized the shape of once of the twins. His blond hair was unmistakable in the night, and Lea exhaled slowly, letting the relief wash over her. She caught more movement at the other RV, and the big shadow could only belong to Ox. He was at the door, probably trying to pick the lock. Lea's eyes became slits as she glared at his back, a foolish wave a courage breaking through her. She could pick a lock too, and if Nikki sent her out here to prove something, then she was damn sure going to prove it. Her small body slid along the side of the RV, slipping through the shadows like a cat. At this point, she was sure the need for secrecy was null, and everything depended on speed, but she thought it a good opportunity to hone her skills. Making a game of it, she was determined to get as far as she could without Ox noticing her. Coming to a dark, curtained window, she raised on tiptoe to peer inside. A sliver of dim light at the edges of the curtain caught her eye like it was the noon-day sun. She tensed, her breath catching in her throat, and she stood transfixed by it as if it was a trap that had snared her. A flash of rational thought pierced her fear, and she latched on to it, suddenly realizing that it wouldn't have been out of place for a light to have been left on. The courage she'd momentarily gained that led her to break into the RV was definitely gone, though. Silently berated herself again, she started to pull away when I shadow passed by the light source, momentarily blocking it out, and the RV rocked slightly. Her heart was suddenly thundering in her chest. Someone was in there! Lea's gasp was like a whip crack through the silent camp, and she had pushed away from the window in her shock, not realizing what she'd done. She stood frozen in the dim moonlight that illuminated her. "Lea?" The soft call came from Ox, and she spun toward him. "Someone's in there!" She rasped. Other shadows around her stood at attention, and a noisy rattle came from one of the tents as something was knocked to the ground. That was only the beginning of the cacophony as Lea watched in horror as the tent collapsed, one of the supporting rods snapping loose and launching toward her. It missed her by several feet but banged loudly against the side of the occupied RV. A light flared to life, its beam manifesting from where it was mounted on the RV. The door sprang open a second after Lea dashed back to the shadows. She made it in time, but unfortunately she was cowering in the shadow of the open door. Her hammering heart made her feel dizzy, and the fear of fainting came back ten-fold. "Who's there?" The bellow came from a short, round-shouldered man that came swaying down the short RV steps. He had a gut to match those shoulders, but Lea didn't have time to analyze anything beyond that. She forced her legs to move, attempting to slip around the corner while he was distracted. "Mother fucker!" The man cursed when he caught sight of the tent, and he stepped away from the RV, his back to Lea. She thought she was in the clear and hurriedly stepped further into the shadows when a rusted piece of metal siding snagged her shorts, ripping them open and piercing her sensitive flesh. Lea reversed direction, but she couldn't correct her carelessness. Her moment was lost. The sound of ripping fabric, her exaggerated movement, and her nearly inaudible gasp had drawn the attention she so desperately needed to dodge. "The hell?" The man was muttering as he spun on her. Fear froze her in place, and the certainty of her discovery trapped her. Their eyes met, and she flinched as something like recognition flashed in his beady eyes. Had he seen her this afternoon? "The fuck you think you're doing?" The man snarled, clearly hostile as he advanced. They were only a few paces apart, and Lea wasn't going to wait to find out what he planned to do once he caught her. Without even thinking about her actions, she dropped into position and completed a beautiful spinning heel that connected nicely with the cop's double chin. Having been caught off guard, the huge man flailed backward, and the power of her kick sent him into the dust. Lea's movements were smooth, fluid. Her body reset into a defensive stance instinctively. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach and her will wavered as she became aware of another man advancing on her from behind. She heard Ox's voice bellow a warning from the shadows. "Dammit, Lea. Run!" She ran. Chapter 3 – Chase The sound of a struggle followed Lea but quickly faded as she ran further into the trees. That was when she became aware that someone was following her. Panic lent her speed, and she darted between the trees, her small form easily slipping through the tight spaces. Her pursuer fell back, and she knew her only hope of escape was hiding in the foliage, unless.... Maybe she could make it to the ghost town and lose him in the maze of buildings. She began to veer her course to the tourist attraction, already feeling the strain on her ribs and lungs, but she dare not stop. As she zigzagged through the trees, she began to think her labored breathing was louder than her footfalls. Her lungs burned, but she kept her lead and burst through the tree-line to race past the ticket counter well ahead of her pursuer. The old town had been turned into a tourist attraction, featuring a string of stores and restaurants, but thankfully it was under construction and closed for the season. Even though it was infested with security lights, there were still enough shadows for Lea to lose herself in. She turned down the first alley she came to, hoping to find a place to lay low for a bit, but found a smooth rock wall at the back of the building. It was the perimeter wall circling the town, but nothing was there to help her climb it to freedom. The only escape was between the backs of the buildings and the sheer wall. Suddenly, as she darted down the narrow path, she knew she should have stayed in the trees. The feeling of impending doom crushed her insides when she realized she was trapped. She had expected to take the next alleyway back to the main road of cobblestones, but there was no other alleyway. Up ahead, a security light on the outside of the wall illuminated a bend in the tight alley. Behind her, the sound of the following footfalls had faded. Panic and apprehension kept exploding in waves inside her body, giving her the energy she needed to keep the exhaustion at bay, but she would soon reach her limit. Lea pressed on, rounding the bend only to skid to a stop. She emerged into something that resembled a small back yard, but mostly she noticed it was a dead-end. The only exit was the way she had come. Whining, she looked around frantically for another way out and spotted a door hidden in the shadows. She leaped toward it, grabbing for the knob, but found her only escape locked tight. She moaned as a swell of loss tried to drag her down, but she couldn't give up. She moved to the bend and hid, hoping the element of surprise would give her the edge she needed. Now she waited, trying her best to catch her breath quietly. She strained to hear the sound of footfalls but heard nothing over the rush of blood pumping through her ears. She took a moment to squeeze her eyes shut, focusing on calming herself when the sound of a twig snapping sent her heart racing again. He was out there, stalking her. Silence followed. Lea counted out the agonizing seconds that slipped by while she waited, and her breath suddenly caught in her throat as the security pole cast a shadow on the wall opposite her. Sweat trickled down her temple as the shadow crept closer, growing in size. Fear and anticipation rampaged through her as her mind urged him to turn around, to go back, to give up on her. But, of course, he didn't give up. His face was in shadow as he passed her, but the light shone down on his smooth, tanned back. This was not Officer Tubby. That back was broad and rippling with muscles, and where was his shirt? The stress of the situation was sending Lea's mind in a crazy spiral, and she mentally shook herself, forcing her mind to focus on escape. Then a beam of light flashed off the steel in his hands, a gun he was holding before him, and Lea's hope of running flew away. Now, her only chance was to disarm him before she fled. Lea had to move before he noticed her. She couldn't lose the element of surprise. Aiming to kick the gun from his grasp, Lea attacked, but there wasn't enough room for her to maneuver. The kick fell short, and the cop reacted quickly, easily dodging her before dropping into the shadows. Already knowing her best chance was gone, her body instinctively recoiled into Sudo-Ma-Ki. Mentally preparing for her next attack, she faltered when she heard the gun cock. No matter how fancy her kicks were, or how well executed her punches, no amount of Moo-Du-Kwan would help her escape a bullet, but she refused to give up. This wasn't over yet. "Ashley." The man said one word, and it froze every drop of blood in her body. Suddenly, she was struggling to breathe as if she had forgotten how. That smooth, baritone voice had called her by a name she had left behind long ago. Her real name. "I've been looking for you for a long time." "Who are you?" Her voice shook, and it was the only thing she managed to get out. She dug deep to find her resolve and was able to hold her position despite the incredible shock. "Not a cop," he answered as he lowered his gun. "I'm a P.I. I've been looking for you for nearly two years. Never thought I'd find you working with Nikki." Then he laughed. The bastard actually laughed! Ashley shook off the confusion as anger bubbled up to replace it. She wasn't going to let anyone take her back there. Jail was better than home. "Who hired you?" "Not your father," he said and went silent. That was a relief at least, but who else would have been looking for her for that long? She hadn't managed to get herself into that much trouble.... Yet. Tonight was a turning point. "Who hired you?" Ashley asked again and wished he would step forward so she could see his face. Her eyes tried to penetrate the shadows that surrounded him, but it was no use. He chuckled, a smooth, disarming laugh that rattled her nerve. "Client privilege. I can't tell you. Besides, what fun would it be if I did?" "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" She spat. Ashley ground her teeth in frustration and visualized her next attack as she prepared for an Ap-Chagi. Then the man relented. "Lance Walker." The air stilled around her. That name hit her harder than hearing her own. She didn't have time to recover when the man stepped forward, and Ashley found herself staring into the strong, handsome face of the undercover cop she had been dodging all day. Her attack crumbled. He slowly advanced, closing the gap between them, and Ashley managed to summon the resolve to glare into those mesmerizing green eyes, but it was a struggle. Her eyes were drawn to his full lips as they curved into a smile. "I never knew a man who wanted a woman more than he wants you." "We never actually met, you know," she stuttered. Did he really know Lance? Could he take her to him? She balled her hands into fists to keep them from shaking, but the P.I. noticed, and he cocked an eyebrow at her. "Are you still planning to beat me up and run away?" His look turned coy, letting her know what he thought of that idea. It was obvious he didn't think her chances of escape were very high, and Ashley sniffed derisively. Her eyes strayed to his body to size him up, and then lingered on his trim frame. The security light didn't illuminate everything around him, but was that a washboard stomach? How could he be so beautiful? So perfect? Heat rushed to her cheeks when she realized she was staring. Ashley swallowed hard, her confidence fading. His eyes sparkled in the dim light, intent and full of heat as he stared down at her. She knew she couldn't escape him. Even if she slipped past him now, he would catch her. A rebellious stir in her stomach dared her to run if only for him to give chase and tackle her. Her mind strayed, wondering what it would feel like to be wrapped in those strong, muscled arms... Stop it, Ashley! She berated herself, struggling to find her focus. He knows Lance! Supportive Lance that helped talk her through the trauma of her home life. Lance, who helped her find the strength and courage to escape. But Lance was only a voice over the phone and one faded picture in her memories. This man in front of her was real, and the situation with him no longer seemed dire. It felt electric. "Should I restrain you?" he said, taking a step closer. "Search you for any concealed weapons?" Ashley gasped, stepping back as he advanced and was stopped by the wall behind her. Where could she hide a weapon on her body? Her shorts were practically painted on and nothing but her breasts were hiding in her halter-top. She wasn't concealing anything, and he knew it. Her pulse raced as he stepped closer, and she remained frozen against the wall. He was slow, antagonizing slow as she watched him, waited for him to make a move, but nothing came. He only stared down at her, closing the gap between them until he was mere inches away. Ashley leaned against the wall, trying to keep as much distance from him as possible, but she couldn't deny the feeling of anticipation swimming through her stomach. Ashley was so transfixed by the intensity in his eyes that she didn't sense him moving until his fingers touched her bare thigh, and she jumped. Her gasp was audible, and she closed her eyes, embarrassed. She had never been searched before, but she was positive this wasn't how it was supposed to go down. Still, she couldn’t summon the words to make him stop. The anticipation grew into desire, and her mind tried vainly to stop the feeling of pleasure that bloomed in her chest. His hand moved up her side until his fingertips brushed bare skin at the top of her shorts, and she sighed. The heat radiated in the space between their bodies, and she was afraid to look at him again, afraid she might be swept away. Then his other hand moved against her cheek, and her eyes flew open in shock. He was there, so close to her, hovering an inch away. They breathed the same air, and Ashley couldn't resist the slight pull of his fingers as he lifted her chin, lifted her lips to meet his. His lips brushed over hers, softly, and her mind whirled. Why was he doing this? Why was she letting him? For a moment, she was lost in the wonder, and she leaned into him, opening her mouth to accept him. In a flash, he changed, ignited by the spark of her willingness, and the soft kiss turned passionate, hungry. His arm wrapped around her, pulling her body hard against his, and Ashley's head spun in the euphoria of the moment. She struggled to form a thought, to make sense of this drastic change in her situation, but she was being overcome. Her hands moved to his chest, feeling the hard muscles under his smooth skin, and she fought for the strength to push him away. Her arms wouldn't comply, and she moaned softly against his hungry mouth. One of his hands slid into her hair and held her head firmly in place as his hot kisses burned her soft skin. He gently caressed her, trailing his lips down the column of her slender neck, branding her. She trembled in his arms, still fighting for sane thoughts while his hands moved across her body, caressing wherever they touched. A thumb brushed the tip of her breast through the thin fabric of her halter top, and a flash of reality shot through her. Her mind won out, and her knee came up hard and swift to connect with his groin. As she heard him gasp in shock, she tried to jerk away, but he didn't let her go. Instead, she pulled him off balance, and he dragged her to the ground with him. She landed hard, the breath knocked from her, and was unable to struggle as he rolled on top of her. "Damn you," she choked out at him, barely able to breathe, and his weight on top of her wasn't helping. "That's just what I was about to say." He grimaced and buried his face in her neck, suffering from the blow she had given him. She tried to push him away, but it was useless. The man was heavy. She growled in anger and frustration. "What the hell did you think you were doing? Get off me!" Slowly, he raised his head from her neck and stared down at her, and she could see her anger reflected in his eyes. "You still don't get it?" Confusion twisted her face as she stared back at him, but before she could reply, a light flooded over both of them. "This how you handle all your cases, Lance?" a husky voice said from behind the blinding light. Then it was angled away, and she could see the tubby undercover that she had kicked earlier. Then it hit her. He had called him Lance... Chapter 4 – Revelation Ashley gasped as she stared at the man pinning her down. The anger that had flared in his eyes was gone, but now they were unreadable. Suddenly, he grimaced again, pushing his face into her neck, but this time her skin tingled as his warm breath washed over her. "Trust me. I'll get us out of this," he whispered before pulling away and roughly jerking her to a sitting position. She glared at him. Trust him? Not likely. She recoiled from him, but he quickly grabbed her arm. "Got any cuffs on you, Hal?" The big man grunted, and as one hand rooted around the bulk at his middle, the other began to rub his jaw where she had kicked him. "She's a hell cat, ain't she." Hal laughed as he tossed a bit of silver through the air, and it landed with an ominous jingle next to her. Lance snatched the handcuffs and turned back to her before she could flinch away. He stayed in front of her, straddling her legs and pulling her hands behind her back while she got a close up view of his impressive chest. Again, she'd never been handcuffed before, but she was pretty sure this was not how it worked. Her jaw dropped in shock before she snapped it closed and glared up at him. As he pulled her hands together behind her back, his eyes strayed to the swell of her breast, and he looked back to her eyes and winked. "You jackass!" she snapped, trying to jerk away from him, but his arms wrapped around her like a vice, subduing all her movements. In his efforts to hold her, it put his face close to her ear again, and he whispered in a rush, "You have to trust me!" It took a moment, but Ashley finally realized he had goaded her into action so he could give her another warning. She scoffed, but what choice did she have? Dread knotted in her stomach but she obediently let him pull her hands together behind her back. Then he surprised her. He snapped the cuffs around her fingers, and they almost slipped to the ground before she caught them. She had to close her eyes tight, as if in a grimace to hide her shock. Ashley stared at the ground as Lance moved to help her to her feet. Her fingers gripping the rough steal so tight it hurt. She glanced at the undercover Lance had called Hal and found the copious man staring at her with a smile of satisfaction on his pasty white face. "She's the one you've been lookin' for, eh." A leer replaced the smile, and his eyes roved over her body. She cringed in disgust, but forced herself to stay silent. Subconsciously, she backed toward Lance. "Now that ya got 'er, was she worth it?" "More than you'll ever know." There was a heat in Lance's voice, and Ashley realized he had noticed Hal's leer also. She blinked in surprise as Lance moved between them, obstructing her view of the loathsome man. Suddenly, she gained a new respect for him, and a deep realization that this was Lance was slowly dawning on her. He was more than just text in an email and a voice on the phone. He was no stranger. He was flesh and blood, and he was standing in front of her. "Alright, boy. I gotta get back to the scanner," Hal grumbled, and Ashley allowed herself a small smile. Lance turned to her, and she quickly wiped all emotion from her face, staring at him blankly. He frowned, his eyebrows drawing together, and even in the dim lighting, he looked gorgeous. He took her arm gently, and Ashley pretended not to notice the flutter in her stomach as he guided her along. "So, what's Nikki got you up to, Hellion? Rob any liqueur stores lately?" Hal asked, making Ashley gasp. She stumbled for a response, but Lance snapped back before she could find her voice. "She's not a part of Nikki's gang, Halbert. I've already told you that." There was a definite undertone of anger in his voice, but she ignored it. She didn't like this cop. "Halbert? What the hell kinda name is that, pig?" she laughed, taunting the fat man. He turned swiftly for all his bulk, and Ashley's eyebrows shot up in surprise. He took the bait so easily! "You listen here, you little twat." He stormed the few paces to her, but Lance reacted quickly, stepping between them. Ashley saw a meaty arm swing for her, but she danced backwards out of his reach. Then her eyes flew open as she watched the smooth muscles ripple across Lance's back. In one powerful display of force, Lance pressed the big man against the wall, leaving his toes to barely reach the ground. "Don't even think about it. She's not a perp. You won't lay a hand on her," Lance growled, causing odd shivers to run through Ashley. Ox had stood up for her before, but it had never made her feel like this. The anger frightened her, but she was awed by his power and emotions. Again, her respect grew another notch. Then she noticed something else. A burn in Hal's eyes that looked strangely familiar. It was the same look her father got before he hit her. She inched backwards, pressing herself against the wall while holding the cuffs tightly in her small hands. Her pulse sped up as Lance relaxed, and she shook her head but couldn't find the words of warning she needed. Her breath caught in her throat as the feeling of unease grew within her. Something was about to happen. "Lea!" the hoarse shout came from the other direction. Ox! Her heart skipped a beat as Lance began to move toward her, to protect her, but Hal moved first. Lance was knocked violently forward, and Ashley leaped out of the way. She landed in the middle of the path as Lance sprawled behind her. The fat man grinned at her with a sadistic gleam in his eye that made her shudder, but now she had room to fight. She let her instincts take over and dropped into position, one hand releasing the cuff so the steel dangling free behind her. "Lea!" "Ashley!" One shout came from behind her, the other from beyond Hal. Then the terrible clicking sound as two guns cocked simultaneously. Her heart thundered in her chest, but Hal noticed none of it. She let the void surround her, forced to deal with the threat directly in front of her. Now she was a part of every brick, every leaf, every breath. It was the way Ox taught her, to block out the world with all of her senses burning. Concentrate! Hal lumbered toward her, and she moved to meet him, completing a spinning heel with a reverse knuckle punch, her foot catching him in the ribs as the cuffs slapped him across the face. She pulled back, regaining her bearings and saw Hal stagger backwards, blood welling under one eye. Before he could recover, she attacked again, afraid she would hear a gunshot echo through the ghost town. She felt the impact as her foot connected with his chin, a flawless Ap-Chagi, and she recoiled to watch him fall on his face, no longer part of the waking world. Thinking quickly, she dropped to his body and cuffed his hands behind him, his wallet slipping easily into her quick fingers as she did so. She stood, intending to go to Lance, but Ox's strong arms pulled her away. "Ashley," Lance called, panic radiating in his voice. "No!" She gasped. Sweat trickled down her neck, and her head swam with dread. She had to stop him! Begging, she grabbed the thick arm that held the gun, unable to move him, but she refused to let go. "Please, Craig. This is Lance." The big man froze. No one called him Craig. Ashley wasn't even sure anyone else knew Ox's real name, but he had confided in her. She used it without thinking, but suddenly hoped it conveyed how desperate the situation had become for her. His dark eyes stared down at her, and she begged again, "Please." "Ashley? Not Lea?" he whispered, a look of hurt flickering in his eyes. It hit her profoundly that she had never trusted her given name to him, even though he had trusted her. She tried to shrug it away. "Lea is my middle name," she lied to soften the blow. The hurt didn't fade from Craig's eyes. Lance cleared his throat. She turned to see him standing a few paces away, the gun hanging loosely in his hand. When her eyes found Craig's again, he was no longer looking at her. "Take his gun, Ashley," he said. The use of her given name sounded like an accusation, and she winced. She stepped toward Lance, and he handed the gun to her without protest, though the worry was plain on his face. She held the heavy steel in her hands for a long moment, guilt welling inside her until she looked at Lance again. Really looked at him. His strong jaw, bright green eyes and tousled hair. Somehow, she kept her eyes on his face instead of trailing down to his impressive bare chest. Ashley's eyes drifted closed, and she summoned the buried memories, the soft croon of the man on the other end of the phone who promised love and safety. A better life. She compared it to the voice she had heard earlier, to the stranger. He trusted her. The gun she held in her hands proved that, but she couldn't reconcile her memory with the man that had so passionately kissed her on a few moments ago. Remembering that kiss brought heat to her cheeks, and her eyes popped open. She spun to hand the gun to Craig. The big man took it, tucking it into his plaid swim trunks, and motioned them to follow. "Come on. We're leaving the lake. Nikki's satisfied for now," Craig mumbled, and the mixed emotions continued to swirl inside Ashley. She was pained she hurt Craig, but was also hopeful now that Lance walked beside her. His hand brushed against hers, and then gently, hesitantly, his fingers laced through hers. A small smile broke onto her face as she turned to look at him, enthralled momentarily by his eyes sparkling in the dim light. No one even glanced at the unconscious cop lying on the ground behind them. Chapter 5 – Highway "I assume you're tagging along," Craig said roughly as the three exited the tourist ghost town. "It took me two years to find her. I'm not letting her out of my sight," Lance snapped back, his voice as hard as Craig's. That prompted Craig to stop and spin on the couple, towering over them both as he glared down at Lance. Ashley saw his jaw tick as his teeth clenched, and she squeezed Lance's hand tightly as the tension grew. Craig's eyes traveled down Lance's body, sizing him up, and stopped when he saw their clasped hands. He sighed deeply and gave Ashley another wounded look before saying, "You have personals you need to collect from that camp?" "I do," Lance nodded curtly. "Just one bag." "How important is it to you?" "Nothing in it's important," Lance scoffed. "But if you want to keep a missing persons report out of Nikki's hair, I suggest we make a brief pit stop." That gave Craig pause, and he gave Lance a rueful grin. "I don't trust you..." "Do you have a choice?" "But I trust her," Craig finished as if Lance had never interrupted him. He stepped forward and leaned over him threateningly. Lance tensed but didn't back down. Craig growled, "Don't fuck this up." Craig spun without another word, and after a quick look shared between them, Ashley and Lance followed. Ashley was lost in the dense woods, but Craig knew right where they were going, surprising Ashley when he stopped them in front of the darkened camp. Lance leaned close to her ear and whispered, "Don't worry, Ash. I'll be right back." He quickly disappeared into the darkness, but Ashley didn't notice as her heart stuttered and stole her breath. He called her Ash. Finally, the piece of recognition she needed clicked inside her. How many times had he called her that before? "I'm sticking my neck out for you, kid," Craig said, scattering her thoughts. Ashley smiled nervously and replied, "He'll be back." Craig snorted, but less than two minutes later, Lance materialized from the shadows. He was trying to button up his shirt with one hand while he carried a heavy duffel bag with the other. The look of surprise on Craig's face showed how little faith he had in the other man. He eyed Lance carefully before grumbling, "The shirt's an improvement. Now, how am I going to explain you to Nikki?" Craig continued to mutter as he led them back to his motor home, escorting the two of them inside right away. Ashley knew he didn't want to give any of the others a chance to start asking questions. "Stay," he said firmly to both of them before slipping outside. "He's... pleasant," Lance said after the door slammed behind Craig. "He's risking a lot," Ashley answered, suddenly feeling shy. She swallowed hard as she sat down on the built-in couch. Lance dropped his duffel bag on the table and sat down on the bench seat. He frowned as he glanced around the small motor home and asked, "What now?" "Now we're on holiday." Ashley rolled her eyes. "That means we split up for a while. Nikki will call us back in later." Lance stared at her, and Ashley found it hard to meet his gaze. His eyes were so intense, so penetrating. She caught her bottom lip in her teeth and looked away. Lance finally asked, "And what does this mean for you? For me? How did you even end up here?" She should have been ashamed, but Ashley grinned instead. "Ox found me. Well, caught me actually. I was trying to lift his wallet. Instead of breaking my arm, he offered me a hot meal and a place to sleep." "Are you two..." Lance started and visibly swallowed before continuing, "Are you two a thing?" Ashley burst into laughter. "Oh, God, no!" She got her words out between giggles, and even in her laughing fit, she noticed Lance relax some. The door flew open, interrupting whatever Lance was going to say next, and cut off Ashley's laughter. One of the twins entered, eyed the two of them and gave Ashley a lecherous grin before moving to the passenger seat. Scott followed, snorted when he spotted Lance at the table, and continued past them to flop down on the bed in the back. Craig was the last to enter. He nodded to Ashley before taking the driver's seat, and soon after, the RV rumbled to life. As the big vehicle started down the road, Ashley drifting between sweet memories and gnawing uncertainty. Lance sat stiffly in the booth, obviously not comfortable in the presence of thieves, and they rode in silence for a long while. They were on the road for over an hour when Lance moved to sit beside her. Her heart immediately took up an excited drumbeat as butterflies swarmed in her belly. He leaned in close, and her skin tingled. “Will you go with me? Will you let me take you out of this?" He was sitting so close to her. She could feel each breath he took, feel the steam form on her skin as he exhaled, feel his chest press against the back of her arm as he inhaled. She didn't dare look at him, afraid of what might happen to her willpower if she were caught in those beautiful eyes. Instead, she stared down at her hands, wanting so bad to say yes, yet a part of her remained unsure of him. A small part. Mostly, she wanted more than anything to lie in his arms and forget this crazy life she had stumbled into. He shifted, pressing her down into the cushions as he reached out to gently run his fingers over the bare skin of her arm. His soft touch sent a searing pleasure through her, and her heart skipped a beat. She leaned her head against the wall, her eyes drifting closed as she struggled with her rising passions. She couldn’t lose control. A long, deep breath battled to still the wild hunger he had set off inside her, and she almost won. Then he lowered his head to her neck, burying his face against her, and all her walls crumbled. Chills ran through her, and she shivered with anticipation. "Ash," he sighed, his voice caressing her name. It carried with it a desperate plea, and she trembled. It was too much, too soon, and even though he tugged at her, she fled. Slipping quickly from the couch, she fell into the bench seat he had left, her heart still thudding a steady rhythm in her chest. Too soon, she wanted to say, but when her eyes met his, the look of hurt and anger in the green depths froze her in place. The passion in her stomach twisted into knots of tension, and she winced. The ache of longing did not dissipate, though, but she couldn't bring herself to go back to him. Not yet. She needed a more time. The trip dragged on, becoming uncomfortable as Ashley avoided meeting his eyes. The quiet was broken by Scott's snores from the back, and occasionally Ashley caught Craig shooting quick glances at her in the review mirror, but the trip was uneventful. They finally came to a stop at a small roadside hotel, and Ashley and the others waited while Craig left to make the room arrangements. Ashley was tired, her mind and body drained from the excitement of the day, but she knew she wouldn't be able to sleep. Craig returned with four different room keys, and she followed behind the procession in a vague daze, unable to keep her mind off the rampaging feelings coursing through her. Lance was standing beside her, and she was hyper-aware of his every move. She imagined she could feel the heat radiating off of him, and it was drawing her in, but she still couldn't meet his eyes. He followed her into their room, and the door shut behind him. That was when she realized what Craig had done. She was alone with Lance. Chapter 6 – Motel Ashley's head immediately snapped to him, trepidation and excitement mixing inside her belly. She trusted him, but that didn't stop her from being afraid. He wouldn't hurt her, she was sure of that, but she was nearly shaking with uncertainty. She felt like she was on the edge of a cliff, about to step off. Then, as soon as their eyes met, he turned from her and disappeared into the small bathroom. The faucet was turned on, and she heard the sound of running water. Ashley heaved a sigh, not sure what she should be feeling. Relief? Disappointment? Ashley slumped down on the bed and fell back exhausted. Her body craved him, but she tried to ignore it. It had been so long since a man touched her, held her, made love to her. Craig would have killed anyone who had hurt her, and he would never have tried anything without her wanting it. Oh, it had been so long. The time she spent waiting was unbearable. What was he thinking right now? Was he angry? Upset that he was swept up in Nikki's affairs? The unanswered questions tortured her. The water turned off, and Lance emerged, minus his shirt once again. Ashley sat up, forcing herself to stare into those penetrating green eyes. She was determined not to back down. He moved to her, standing so close that she had to crane her neck back to meet his eyes. He was so near her entire vision was filled with his broad frame, and the flames of passion leapt up ferociously inside her. He fingered a strand of her wavy, black hair, and continued to her neck, caressing her skin softly with his fingertips, yet he looked angry. His voice was rough as he whispered to her, "Are you going to keep running from me, Ash?" Ashley gasped, and began to pull away, intending to explain... Not you. I was never running from you. But the words died in her throat as Lance moved faster, bending to slip his other arm around her waist and pull her to her feet. Suddenly, she was crushed against his hard body. She didn't struggle. She couldn't struggle. Her strength could never match his, but she couldn't deny this was exactly where she longed to be. She just had to remember to breathe. Any fear that remained was washed away by the fire that raged through her body. Timidly, she raised her face to meet his eyes. Those stormy green pools could capture her soul. He lowered his face, gently brushing his lips across the top of hers. Her mouth opened beneath his, waiting for a kiss she wanted so badly, but he didn't give her the satisfaction. Instead, he pulled away to stare down at her once more. "I won't let you get away from me again." His voice was husky, evidence of the passion that raged inside him. Ashley gave way to her body's demands, and she pressed against him, euphoria and anticipation flooding through her. Her hands ran over his smooth back as she embraced him, and her lips brushed his tanned chest as she inhaled him. His eyes drifted shut, and his lips parted; his face a mask of rapture. Ashley needed more. She rose on tiptoe to press her hips against his, finding the hardened source of his passion, and his stillness broke. She felt more than heard his intake of his breath, and his hand that was trapped in her hair pulled her head to face him. His lips came crashing down on hers, almost hurting in their urgency. His tongue forced her lips apart, and she moaned into his mouth. He pulled away to move his kisses down the slender column of her throat, burning wherever they touched. She clung to him as shivers ran through her from head to toe, and her knees grew weak. His hands moved down her sides, to her hips and thighs, and she writhed against them, forcing every bit of pleasure she could from them. One hand cupped her breast and she arched herself into him, opening herself to him as his kisses steadily moved down her chest. A moan escaped her as she buried her hands in his hair, pulling his head against her. Her body jolted as she felt his teeth bite down through the cloth of her halter top, roughly teasing the hard peak of her breast. Her moan drew him to his full height again, beckoning his lips back to hers for more hungry kisses. The desire flooding her was a force that amazed her. She could feel the blood rushing through her body, carrying waves of intoxicated passion that made her dizzy. She didn't know how she remained standing! She could see him, smell him, feel him, and he was there with her, holding her. He offered her a new life, a way to start over. How could she refuse him? Suddenly, a banging on the door pulled her back to reality, and she jerked herself away from him, shaking uncontrollably from their bodies breaking apart. She quivered from the shock and turned an anxious look toward him to see the wild, smoky heat of passion that lingered in his eyes. Her skin burned everywhere he had touched her, branded her. She was trembling as she made her way to the door, tossing a wary look at Lance to see him buttoning the shirt that he hastily threw back on. Pulling the door open revealed Craig standing there with a piece of rope in his hands. She jumped out of his way as the big man barged heedlessly into the room, leaving her to shut the door on the cool night air. "I don't trust him, Lea...." Craig started before pausing to look at her, his expression wounded. "I mean, Ashley." Her skin flushed in a different way, burning with embarrassment now. It was short lived, quickly replaced by worry as she registered the rope in Craig’s hands. "What are you going to do?" she gasped, suddenly frightened for Lance, but Craig looked down on her with that same hurt look. For a long moment, they stood that way until Craig finally reached out to gently cup her face in one of his big hands. "For my sake, kid. Either let me do this for tonight or I'm sleeping in here with you." Ashley saw the genuine care in his eyes and it touched her. Slowly, she turned away and nodded at Lance. "Let him decide. I'll do whichever." Her voice was soft. She would leave this decision to Lance since he was the one to be bound. The two men looked hard at one another until Lance finally turned, offering his hands together behind his back. Craig sighed and gestured to the end of the bed. "Over there and on the floor. I don't want you going anywhere." Ashley turned away as Lance complied. She huffed as she waited out the agonizing seconds as Craig bound Lance to the foot of the bed. Ashley felt Craig rise and approach her, and the massive form of him towering at her back made her feel small and frail. His big hand reached out to touch her arm and she pulled away, still feeling the fiery brand Lance had left on her. She turned to face Craig, meeting his wounded gaze. "Please, Ashley. Promise me you'll be careful with him. I'm in the room down from you. Scream if you need to. Just... Be careful." His voice was a whisper, meant for her ears alone. She stared up at him for a moment longer and nodded. The last thing she wanted to do was let him down again. "I promise..." Chapter 7 – Alone Ashley flinched as the door slammed behind Craig, and she stared after him for a moment as the new situation sank in. The pounding of her heart slowly settled, and she moved to the end of the bed to look down at Lance. He gazed up at her, his expression blank. He was helpless, sitting on the floor while tied to the foot of the bed. Her smile was genuine, a contrast to the sarcastic smile he returned as he cocked an eyebrow at her. "At least we're together." His tone was bitter, but Ashley busted out laughing. Her body still tingled, but the heat of the earlier moment had been doused, and she felt the need for a little revenge after what he had put her through. This seemed harmless and fitting. "I think it serves you right. You knew who I was at the general store. You didn't have to put me... us, through that." As she spoke, she straddled his legs and sat down on him, yet the hard bulge that had been there before had withdrawn. Her eyes couldn't look away from his perfect lips, and she watched a small smile grow. "I was in a bit of a shock running into you like that. I'd searched half the states for you, and then you literally fall into my arms out of nowhere. All I had to go by were a couple of faded old pictures, and those don't do you justice. I was stunned." Ashley turned her face away, trying to hide a blush. She was not accustomed to hearing complements. Lance smiled again, and her eyes drifted back to his. "The next time I saw you, you were with that big beast of a man. I figured I could find a better time to talk to you, although I never dreamed it would turn out the way it did. I'd say I was sorry, but I enjoyed watching that bastard cop get kicked in the face." "Speaking of, I have a souvenir. I'm sure he won't miss it... much." She pulled the pilfered wallet from her back pocket and opened it. Both of their heads swiveled down as she riffled through it, pulling out a faded picture of a blonde, overweight woman, a social security card, two credit cards, twenty dollars in cash, and a small key that was hidden behind his driver's license. Lance's eyes looked back into hers. "I think he might miss that," he said thoughtfully, his brow furrowed. Ashley shrugged and tossed it on the bed, no longer caring about her find. She watched him smile again, intrigued by his lips. The memory of how they felt on hers was enticing. She wanted to relive the moment. Touch them, feel them, taste them. The need to do so was almost overwhelming, and the next time she met his eyes, the smoldering passion was there again. Anticipation shot through her, filling her stomach with butterflies. She had to force herself to speak, but she needed to know now, before the pounding of her heart sent her over the edge. "Why did you do it?" Her voice was soft, yet probing. Why would he have done it? Why would he sacrifice a good part of his life for her without ever knowing her? They had shared hundreds of emails and talked over the phone late at night, - oh, how those late night phone calls had been such a comfort - but this was crazy. He had been a fantasy, the perfect fantasy and a promise of a life she could never have. Her eyes trailed over his handsome face, and she found herself falling into those beautiful, green eyes. Her fantasy stared back at her. A fantasy, yet he was flesh and blood. He was real, and he had found her. Ashley waited for his answer, but the question faded from her mind as the fervor began to build inside her. She watched his eyes rove over her; her lips, the smooth skin of her neck, the tanned swell of her breast. Self-consciously, she caught her bottom lip in her teeth as she watched the longing creep into his eyes. It was so powerful it was almost tangible. The air turned to molasses, and her chest heaved as she remembered to breath. Chills ran over her body as the desire cascaded through her. Her question that seemed so important a second ago vanished as she watched Lance's head fall back against the bed. He swallowed hard. "Kiss me, Ash." It was a command. It was a plea. She couldn't deny him any more than she could stop breathing. Her hands gripped the fabric of his shirt as she moved to him. Her lips brushed his, soft at first until her teeth pulled at his bottom lip and he reacted, savagely taking what control he could. His kiss was hungry and desperate. She moved her hips against him, finding his passion once again inflamed. Breathlessly, her head fell back, and she moaned softly, and his mouth was instantly against her neck, nibbling and sucking softly. Her fingers traced his chest, feeling the hard muscles flexed underneath, and she moved her head to his shoulder to taste his skin. Suddenly, his body jolted and the bed jerked. "Dammit!" His outburst startled her, and she pulled back to stare at the angry expression on his face. As her chest heaved, she felt a small satisfaction in seeing that he was breathing hard too. "You're not going to untie me, are you?" A coy smile played over her lips as her hands moved to untie her halter top, and her words were practically a purr. "I think I like you like this." Lance didn't respond. His eyes were glued to her fingers, and a flush rose over her body as she slowly removed the halter top to reveal a small, lacy bra. He was mesmerized as he watched her fingers probe the middle of her bra, and she produced a small sheath that contained a razor blade. She smiled as his eyes widen in surprise. "It's not really a weapon, but a girl's gotta be prepared." Ashley reached around him and dropped the sheath into the palm of his hand. He gave her a half grin. "Is this supposed to help?" "I think you would have done well enough without it." She smiled back and stood. It ached to leave him, but she wanted to wash the sweat and dirt from her body while she had the chance. She wanted to be clean when she gave herself to him. His eyes drank her in, trailing over her before finally looking up to meet her gaze. "I'm going to take a shower," she said, turning away quickly before his pull dragged her back to him. Before she shut the bathroom door, she heard him say, "I'll be here when you get out." Chapter 8 – Night The hot water poured over Ashley, and she struggled to control the lusty emotions that pulsed through her. She didn't want to waste time lingering in the shower, so she rushed herself, making sure the water quickly washed all the suds away. When she stepped out, the towel barely touched her skin except to wrap around her, and she opened the door soaking wet, eager to get back to Lance. She found him with a look of concentration on his face, but his expression went slack when he saw her. His eyes met hers, and she couldn't stop the smile that curved the corners of her lips. "That was fast," he said simply, apparently not having time to cut through the ropes just yet. "I couldn't keep you waiting, now could I?" Ashley smirked as she moved to turn the lamp off, his eyes following her towel clad body the whole way. When she flipped the switch, the room plunged into darkness, but it only took a second for her eyes to adjust as the security light outside filled the room with a soft blue glow. She moved to stand over Lance, watching his eyes take in her bare legs, knowing full well that there was light enough in the room for him to see her clearly. Before the butterflies in her stomach got the best of her, she straddled his legs to sit down in his lap again. His eyebrow rose as he looked her over, the droplets of water still drying on her skin made her sparkle. "You’re wet," he said with a chuckle. She caught the double entendre. Glad the darkness hid her blush, she whispered, "If you only knew." "Let me find out." His voice was husky, the mirth gone instantly. His eyes smoldered in the dim light. "Maybe," she whispered coyly as she moved her hand along the collar of his shirt. "If you're a good boy." Her finger hooked the top of his shirt and pulled gently, causing the top button to pop free. He glanced down at her hands. "Oh, I can be good..." "Shhh. I think I like you like this." She was growing bolder. "All wrapped up like a nice little present for me." Her fingers popped the second button on his shirt. That's when she noticed his hands were still moving, working to free himself from his bonds. She was going to enjoy him being tied up for as long as she could. Her fingers popped the third button. "Kiss me," he demanded, just as he had earlier, but she had other plans. She moved one hand to his face and caressed his bottom lip with her thumb. He responded with a small sigh, his lips parting as she touched him. He moved his mouth over the tip of her thumb, sucking and teasing with his lips. She sucked in a quick, startled breath as she experienced the sensation. When his teeth bit down gently on her skin, her other hand popped the fourth and final button. She pulled her hand away from his mouth so she could open his shirt and expose his broad chest. She wanted to explore every inch of him. Her fingertips traced over the heart-shaped patch of hair in the middle of his chest before trailing down to his hard stomach and ending at the thin trail of hair that disappeared into his pants. His smooth, tanned skin was flawless. His body perfect. He was watching her the whole time she was examining him. One hand went back to his face while the other continued to caress his torso. "Tell me why..." "Why?" His eyebrow rose. "Isn't it obvious?" "Maybe. Maybe not." She shrugged as she smiled. She continued to caress his face as she waited for an answer. "I love you, Ash." The sincerity in his voice lifted the ton of worry and guilt from her. She closed her eyes, leaning her head forward to rest against his, forehead to forehead. His words stole her breath. "I've loved you for a very long time." "I know," she murmured, overcome. Tilting her chin forward, her lips brushed against his. A soft sigh escaped her. "I love you, too," she breathed so softly she was surprised he heard her. But she knew he had, and he responded by kissing her gently, his lips pressing against hers so sweetly, so differently than before. It was a kiss filled with love, and she returned it just the same... for a moment. Then passion rose again. Her tongue slipped between her lips to explore his. He responded with his teeth gently pulling on her bottom lip before he kissed her more forcefully. She gasped as she slid her hands inside his shirt and across his back, feeling his hard muscles flex beneath her palms. Suddenly, there was a 'POP' and he was free. Ashley squealed with laughter as his arms wrapped around her and pulled her body against him. Her towel began to fall free, and she clutched it to her, suddenly shy. "I don't think you'll need that anymore." He smirked, and a tug of war with the towel started. She giggled as she nimbly escaped his grasp, fleeing from his reaching arms, but he was quick. As soon as she was on her feet, he was standing beside her and pulling her against him. She couldn't stifle her excited laughter. He leaned his head into the bend of her neck and kissed her, sending shivers through her body, and the game was over. She couldn’t resist him any longer. Leaning into him, she let him pull her to the bed and gently lay her down. She still gripped the edges of the towel as she rolled onto her stomach, but it barely covered her at all. "Why so modest?" he said as his shirt flew to the floor. His pants quickly followed, and she looked over her shoulder at him in awe of his perfect form. He leaned over her, his hands gently moving up her legs, her thighs, her hips. He caught the towel, and she let him pull it away. He kissed her, first on the small of her back, and then moved his way up her body. They were soft, slow kisses that almost tickled, but were driving her wild. She was breathing heavily as he rose to his knees, grabbed her hip and flipped her to her back. Completely exposed to each other, she trembled underneath his gaze. His eyes took in everything as his fingertips traced her body, exploring everything he touched. She reached for him, longing to touch him, and ran a hand over his muscled arms. He leaned forward to kiss her stomach softly, sensually. Her hands immediately went to his head, her fingers tangling in his dark hair, and she gripped tightly as his mouth covered the hard peak of her breast. She moaned as his tongue teased the sensitive skin, and she arched her back against him. His kisses continued to sear her flesh as he moved up her chest, her neck, and finally her lips. She kissed him back fiercely, her body wanting so much from him. The smell of him, the weight of him, intoxicated her. Ashley's arms and legs wrapped around him, clasping him to her, and he lowered his body against hers. "Do you want this?" he whispered against her lips. "Do you want me?" "Yes," she moaned, her body aching for him. His hips hovered over her, tantalizing her with the promise of him, but not moving. She begged, "Please, yes! I want you!" Lance's hips pressed forward, and he slid easily into her waiting body, both moaning as the tension was finally broken. The burning desire filled with a pleasure so deep it was almost pain, but it was euphoric. She moaned, her fingers once again tangling in his hair as she pulled his mouth to hers. The heat of his body scalded her, and she clung to him as he gently began to rock her back and forth. Her hips matched his rhythm, demanding the bliss he offered. Waves of passion rose and fell inside her, building as they grew stronger and stronger until the dam broke. A tidal-wave crashed through her, and her legs squeezed his body tightly as she writhed under him. She threw her head back and was once again arching her body against him, biting her lip in an attempt to stifle the moans. Within moments, she felt him stiffen against her, insider her. A soft growl escaped his lips as he pressed hard into her and shivered. She kissed him, passionately at first, but it faded to tenderness as the waves within them receded. He buried his face in her neck, and they clung to each other as they regained their breath. Almost reluctantly, Lance rolled off her, but pulled her body with him, and they ended with him on his back and her head resting comfortably on his chest. "Like I said, you didn't need this." His voice was still husky as he landed on the towel, and he jerked it out from under him to toss it on the floor. Then he gently kissed her forehead. "I love you, Ash." "I love you, too." Ashley giggled as she threw a leg over him and snuggled deeply against him. She was so content, and her body so spent that she didn't realize she was drifting to sleep. The morning light woke her, and she raised her head to smile at Lance as he blinked the sleep out of his eyes. She was elated that it hadn't been a dream. Ashley’s ultimate fantasy was real, and perfect, and cradling her in his arms. Part Two The Take Chapter 9 – Free Ashley stretched, the morning light illuminating her as she worked the stiffness out of her muscles. Basking in the glorious way her body felt, she opened her eyes to see Lance propped on one elbow watching her. He reached out to rub his fingertips along her taut belly to the curve of her hip. He started to pull her to him, but she rolled away giggling and came off the bed to toss a mischievous grin his way. "I think I need another shower." "Is that right?" he chuckled in reply, sounding only slightly disappointed as he watched her bounce to the bathroom. After a few moments, she poked her head back out. "I think I need someone to wash my back." She smirked, and Lance needed no more prodding. He was beside her within moments. The luxurious warmth of the never ending stream of water sustained them for well over an hour. Ashley stumbled out of the bathroom to fall on the bed exhausted, her body still dripping wet. Lance followed her out, toweling himself dry before moving to wipe the water droplets off her body. That turned into a massage that felt absolutely exquisite when his fingers gently kneaded her sore muscles. "Oh god, what time is it?" she mumbled into the covers. "Just a little past eleven," he replied, and Ashley stared at him dumbly as something close to panic rose inside her. "Craig would never let us sleep this late." She shot up, grabbing her bag to pull out a small t-shirt and panties. "We should have been on the road already. Something must be wrong." "Well, what's this?" Lance pointed to the door. Neither had noticed before, but there were four bulky envelopes that looked to have been pushed under the door during the night... or early morning as it was. Ashley stopped her panicked rush to get dressed, and dropped to her knees in front of the door. She already had an idea of what it might be, and her heart was doing somersaults in her chest as her stomach sunk with sadness. Blood pumped loudly in her ears with both worry and exhilaration. Reaching for the envelopes with trembling hands, she was sure of what was inside from the shape and weight. Her nervous fingers could barely pull the flap open to confirm her suspicions. Cash. As much cash that could be stuffed in an envelope and fit under the door. She grabbed the second, the third, the fourth; all stuffed with cash. The last envelope had a letter with a key wrapped inside it. She could hear Lance getting dressed, and with a quick glance over her shoulder, she saw him fishing for something behind the bed. She sighed as her fingertips traced the folds of the paper before she opened it to read the letter, her eyes welling with tears. Lea, It's been quite a ride, hasn't it, kid? I think it best you get out while you can. I'll take care of Nikki. Just disappear for a while, and she'll stop looking for you eventually. Here's your cut and mine, and a little something extra. I wouldn't keep the Sentra too long. Ditch it the first chance you get. Just stay clean and take care of yourself. This was never the life for you. Never forget you, kid. ~C She half sighed, half sobbed as she crumpled the letter in her lap, tilting her head back as tears fell from her eyes. Lance was beside her in an instant, brushing her tears away as she held her breath. She needed a few moments to silently say goodbye to her dear friend. Then she threw her arms around Lance as she whispered against him, "I'm free." "What?" He rocked back as he caught her against him. Then she leaped to her feet to spin around as the elation finally set in. She yelled, "I'm free!" and danced around Lance as he stared at the envelopes. He glanced at her, one eyebrow raised, before taking them to the bed and dumping out the contents. "What?" he said again confused. Ashley smiled at him as she thumbed through the cash. "They're gone. Craig cut me loose." "What?" A third time, and Ashley busted out laughing. Both hands on his shoulders, she turned him to face her. She was beaming. "I am free! They must have left early this morning like they always do." "And you trust me?" Lance looked at her, his eyebrow raised again as he held up a wad of cash. "I could mug you, and leave you here destitute." "But you wouldn't do that. You're Lance Walker, knight in shining armor, and my savior." As she was fingering through the cash, she sighed, the elation briefly dipping into melancholy. "Craig knew that too." Then she began to count. Lance chuckled a bit and started to count his own stack until it was broken up in neat little piles. Ashley said, "I've got twenty-five hundred. How much do you have?" "Over 4k," he replied, shaking his head in disbelief. "We nearly have 7k to get us to Baltimore. This is your take I'm assuming?" His green eyes bore into hers, bordering disapproval. She responded with a shrug. "Had to make a living. Wasn't just my take, though. Craig's too, and if I'm not mistaken, all of Bobby's. He disappeared in Jacksonville." His expression softened some, and she sighed sadly. "Craig wasn't all bad. He always made sure I was taken care of. Wait... Baltimore? What?" "Thief," he said simply in response before grabbing her and pulling her against him, smothering her in a deep kiss that muddled her mind. "One more heist. What do ya say?" he whispered to her when he let her up for air. "What?" she muttered, trying to breath. She was still suffering from heady head rushes being so close to him and felt like she would fall if his strong arms weren't holding her up. She shook off the effects of his unexpected kiss, her body too sore to engage in anything more passionate right now. "This." He held up a small key, the same key she had pulled out of Hal's wallet last night. "Baltimore." She took it from his hand, examining it carefully. It was just a small key with B110L engraved on one side. She gave him a quizzical look as she handed it back to him. "Hal called it his retirement plan," Lance scoffed. "He was always talking about his great ‘Five by Five’ retirement plan. That shit was getting old." He huffed at that before continuing. "One night, I got enough Mad Dog in him to come clean. Found out the key's to a storage room in Baltimore." He tossed the key in the air and caught it, then slid it into his own wallet. "And did he tell you what's in this retirement plan of his?" She folded her arms across her chest as she cocked an eyebrow at him. "Not directly." He winked at her. "But he was dumb enough to drop enough hints. He was skimming from the narcotic evidence room as far as I could tell, probably for at least seven years. You ready to beat him back to Baltimore?" "That fat ass probably hasn't woken up yet." She giggled, and started throwing the cash in her purse. She pulled on her pants quickly and turned back to him. "Let's go. I got a ride to get us part of the way. The last gift from Craig." "Good man, that Craig. Good man," he quipped, and Ashley grinned as he followed her out of the hotel room. Chapter 10 – Storage The drive began, and Ashley felt like she was in a dream. She would catch glances of Lance out of the corner of her eye, and all she could think about was how her knight had rescued her. It was ridiculous, she knew it, but the thought made her feel euphoric. They ditched Craig's old Sentra in Charleston and picked up a nice rental. Despite Ashley's nervousness about that process, Lance was an upstanding citizen of the law so the process was quick and painless. She did make him swing by an outlet store along the beach so she could pick up a change of clothes. Everything important to her was in her purse, but her wardrobe had gone with Craig. They listened to the radio, talked about their childhood, although Ashley avoided conversation about her family, and took turns driving as the miles flew by. They ended up stopping for the night outside of Richmond so they could hit the road early the next morning. Neither one of them had the energy left for much extra-curricular activity that night and she quickly fell asleep in his arms and woke up with him still holding the next morning. His eyes sparkled as he looked into hers, spawning butterflies in her stomach. She sighed contentedly, "Will it always be this way?" "Every day." He leaned over and kissed her forehead, and she burrowed her face against him. With her emotions still scattered across the spectrum, she was hiding tears she hoped he didn't see. Ashley was overwhelmed with this new, incredible turn in her life, but there was a deep fear inside her that it would be stripped away, just like every other happy moment she could remember. She swallowed the fear, convincing herself this would be different, this was different. His lips found hers as the dawn seeped through the window shades, and his soft caresses washed away her trepidation. She clung to him, reveling in their love and letting it drown her anxiety and confusion. Within the hour, they were on the road and would make Baltimore by mid-morning after a short stop at a road-side diner for breakfast. Ashley marveled that even the food seemed to taste better with Lance by her side. "So do you know which storage place we need to go too?" "Yeah, that key is to A-1 Privacy Storage," he replied. "There's only one location inside the city, so we'll try there first. I just hope I can crack the gate code." "Gate code?" she asked through a mouthful of pancakes, and Lance smirked at her, causing her cheeks to flush with embarrassment. "Yes. Would be a shame to have that stop us." "Never stopped me before," she said as she turned back to her pancakes. Lance laughed out loud before responding, "What have I gotten myself into." He shook his head briefly, teasing her before smiling, showing off his gleaming white teeth. "Hal was a pretty simple guy, so it might not come down to that." "You think he's simple enough to report the theft?" "Possibly, and I'm sure they've got surveillance cameras up. Maybe not covering the whole lot though." He frowned, obviously in thought. "You should let me go in just in case." "No," he responded quickly, nearly cutting her off, but she shook her head at him. "You can't argue this with me," Ashley said sternly. "My record's not so clean, but yours is. I can't let you risk that. This is just a grab and go in a deserted storage building." He stared into her eyes for a few seconds before sighing in resignation, "Guess it wouldn't be your first time then, eh?" "No, not my first time," she whispered, feeling ashamed about her life up to this point, but Lance was nodding. She pushed past her feelings and continued, "Do you know what I'll be looking for?" Lance shrugged at that. "No, Hal was never that in depth about what he actually took. You sure you want to do this?" "Positive," she said without hesitation. Lance nodded again and smiled at her. "Last time, right?" It was her turn to laugh now. "Absolutely." They finished their breakfast and walked to the car, hand in hand. The closer they got to Baltimore, the quieter the drive became as nervous tension filled the air. Ashley may have been confident in the diner, but she had never really been deeply involved in the jobs. Mostly she had served as look-out, and Craig never actually allowed her to do anything more than that. She was positive she knew what to do after hearing so many stories, though. She drove as Lance navigated. They were following a map he had picked up at a gas station, and as the sign for A-1 popped up, her heart started thudding in her chest. The black steel security fence seemed intimidating as they pulled into the parking lot. "Well, time to test my theory," Lance sighed, opening Hal's wallet as she pulled up to the gate's keypad. After reading the posted instruction sign she muttered, "It's just four digits." "Okay, give this a go first." Lance read of a sequence of four numbers from Hal’s driver’s license, and she punched them in, turning back to Lance to shake her head when the device beeped angrily at her. He smirked, "That would have just been too easy, wouldn't it?" He gave her four more numbers to try, and again, she received an angry beep. Lance sighed. "Maybe we hoped for too much. How about…" She tried the last set of numbers he gave her but got another blaring beep. She bit her lip as Lance pulled out Hal's social security card, and she decided to try something else. Hal might not have been the sharpest tool in the shed, but someone who rented space here had to be the dullest. She pressed 1 2 3 4. The tone that answered her was a higher pitched, much happier note, and a whirring sound followed as the mechanism slowly opened the gate for them. Lance gave her a dumbfounded look, and she shrugged. She pulled in slowly, seeing rows upon rows of garages and had to look to Lance for direction again. He pointed towards a bigger building in the back and said, "I think the five by five Hal talked about was the indoor storage. Let's head over there." Her heart was beating faster, and the palms of her hands were starting to sweat as she pulled into a parking spot in front of the building. There was only one other car in the parking lot that she could see, and Ashley assumed it belonged to an employee. As she parked, she took a deep breath and hoped her courage wouldn’t fail her now. "Are you still sure?" Lance asked, raising an eyebrow at her. "Absolutely," she said, not sounding absolute at all. "Let me have his wallet in case I run into another keypad." He handed it to her with the key pressed on top, trapped under his thumb. She slipped both into her pant pocket as she reached for the door, and Lance surprised her by grabbing her forearm, pulling her in for a quick kiss. "If anything seems off, or if you're unsure, you back out right away. Okay?" he whispered, his eyes pleading. She nodded and kissed him on the nose. "Of course," she said with a smile, and hopped out of the car before her nerves could stop her. She inhaled deeply as she reached the glass doors and felt a blast of the cold air hit her in the face as she pulled one open. Once inside she was relieved to see that the employee counter was empty. There was a door ajar, and she could hear a TV or radio playing from beyond it, but no one was there to greet her. Her eyes quickly scanned the entry room and found where the surveillance camera was most likely hidden. There was one door with a keypad lock, and another door with the universal picture of stairs on it and a "B" below the picture. "That can't be wrong," she muttered under her breath and took the door to the stairwell before anyone could greet her. She wiped the sweat from her palms, feeling more confident now that she had conquered the first obstacle. Her eyes continued to scan for surveillance cameras, but the stairwell was clear. She took her time with the steps, not wanting to raise her heart rate any more than it already was. She was so far from calm but needed to keep her cool in case she did run into someone. When she reached the top of the stairs, there was only one door and one keypad. She cocked an eyebrow at it and uttered dramatically, "So we meet again!" Despite the situation, Ashley actually smirked at herself. She began to press in her trusty combination, 1 2 3 4, and smirked again when she heard the locking mechanism release in the door. "Brilliant." She stifled a laugh as she entered into the storage facility proper and looked down hallways full of rows and rows of storage rooms. The first thing she noticed was a keypad for every locked door. She sighed deeply and chewed on her bottom lip as she started off in search of room 110, keeping a wary eye out for surveillance cameras. It seemed easy to get her bearings. Everything was labeled alphabetically so she picked one of the hallways to turn down. She walked in search of aisle B, but only the lower letters of the alphabet were on this side of the building. When she reached the far wall, she took a left down the long corridor and watched the storage room numbers rise as she walked past. 91. 92. 93. When she reached 100, she was in the center of the building where a hallway divided the storage rooms into two sections. She kept going in the same direction and stopped when she saw hallway U, storage room 191. She huffed in frustration. “Who designed this place?” Ashley turned around to walk down the central corridor, passing more rows until she finally found isle B. She started down the aisles and didn’t stop until she was on the opposite end of the building from where she started. "Figures," she muttered, rolling her eyes to herself, but she had finally found storage room 110. She took a deep breath, not out of nervousness this time but anticipation, and frowned at the keypad. There was an extra padlock on the door as well. "Now, how do you work?" She slipped the key in and turned the lock. The padlock released, but the keypad lock held the door secure. She shrugged, pressed 1 2 3 4, and got an angry beep. A red L.E.D light glared at her. She pulled out Hal's wallet, took a quick glance at his social security card, and pushed in the last four digits. When the light flashed green and she heard the keypad release, she scoffed, "Dumb-ass." Dumbfounded by the stupidity, she couldn’t help but shake her head as she slowly opened the door to peer into the small room. There was an old writing desk with two drawers and a chair pushed neatly underneath. Four large, cardboard boxes sat to the side of the desk, stacked neatly against the wall. That was it. There was nothing else in the room. Ashley went to the desk first, immediately going for the drawers but found only notepads and pencils in one, and the second one empty. She reached for the top box, pulling it to the desk so she could look inside. Luckily, it wasn't heavy. She opened the top to peer in and saw only clothes. She moved the top layers around, revealing more clothes beneath. Frowning, she moved on to the second box, and then the third. Clothes, clothes, and more clothes. She huffed as she bent to the fourth box and was pulling at the flaps when a hand grabbed the side of her head, slamming her hard against the desk. Ashley reeled, slumping to the floor as stars flashed behind her eyelids. Her thoughts whirled. Dimly, she realized she was being attacked, and a large shadow fell over her before she had a chance to scream. Chapter 11 – Accomplice Hands grabbed her shirt, jerking her roughly, but Ashley's instinct kicked in. She got her feet underneath her and pushed back against her attacker. By stroke of luck, the back of her head collided with his chin, catching him off guard. It was enough for her to break away from his grasping hands. She spun, still dizzy from the blow to her head, but managed to center herself enough to regain her focus. Her attacker was tall and lean, had dusty blond hair, and wasted no time coming at her again. She had nowhere to go. The room was too small. She dropped to her knees as he reached for her, and his hands clasped only air above her head. She punched out hard, straight to his groin. The man huffed as he collapsed on top of her, neither one of them in the proper position to attack, but he still had the advantage. He could hold on to her while she struggled to get away, and there was no chance for her to overpower him. Panic raced through her body as she fought to gain some type of control over a situation that was quickly becoming dire. Ashley braced her legs under her and pushed up, using her small body as a weapon. She threw him off balance, and his head smacked against the desk. It wasn't a hard hit, but his grip loosened as he tried for a better hold. She wouldn't be subdued so easily. She was panicked but growing angry. Continuing to use her body as a battering ram, she kicked off from the floor and drove herself into him. His head slammed against the wall and rebounded against the desk. His grip on her was gone, and she went careening into the wall as she sprang away from him. Within seconds, he was reaching for her again to stop her flight, but thoughts of flight were gone. She was pissed. She kicked him square in the face. Hard. Her heel connected with his upper lip, scoring a solid hit and sending his head into the desk one more time. "Jesus!" He spat blood and reached for the gun tucked into his belt harness. She hadn't noticed that before. Ashley was about to be in real trouble and frantically kicked at his hands. She wasn't willing to give up yet, and she already figured this guy wasn't exactly on the straight and narrow. "Goddammit!" he yelled, giving up on his gun and grabbed at her kicking leg instead. He kicked out, sweeping the foot she was balanced on out from under her, and she fell back, landing hard on her ass. Scrambling backwards into the hallway, she stared up at the gun that had made it to his hands. The option of flight was gone. There was nowhere to hide from a bullet in these straight hallways, and she didn't know if she wanted to chance this guy actually pulling the trigger. "Fuck," she said simply, staring up at him. "Yeah, why don't you calm down and get back inside here, eh?" he sneered and leaned to the side to spit out a mouthful of blood. "Hal wasn't lying about you." "Oh, we're good friends," she snapped as she complied with his instructions, slowly inching her way into the storage room. Of course, he knew Hal. That was no surprise. Her head was throbbing from where he'd slammed her against the desk, but the adrenaline pumping through her helped to clear her mind. She had to get the gun away from him. "So, I take it you're the muscle in this operation?" she sniffed, sizing him up. He was taller than Hal and definitely more fit than the tubby pig. His blue eyes were cold as they glared at her from a rounded face, framed with chubby cheeks that drooped with age. She pegged him early forties and smirked as she noticed his upper lip was already starting to swell. "Shut up," he growled. "I have to figure out what to do with you now." Ashley could see him thinking through his problems, his facial expression contorting from anger to confusion and back again. Could he be thinking about killing her? No, certainly not. That was much too drastic for the crime here. It didn't fit. More likely he was thinking about kidnapping her and dumping her somewhere later, but how to get her out of here without notice? The employees were scarce, but there were still the surveillance cameras. What about Lance? She swallowed hard, thinking about Lance sitting in the car waiting for her. How long would he wait? She had only been in here ten minutes at most, but what would he do when twenty minutes had gone by? Thirty? She knew he would come looking for her, and she was sure that wouldn't be a good thing. "Going through an awful lot just to protect some clothes." She cocked an eyebrow at him, digging for more information as she tried to stall him. He glanced at the boxes and a sly grin crept across his face. The cold glare he turned back to her didn't reveal much. "They're special clothes," he said snidely, and that revealed everything. He was done messing around with her and threw a badly telegraphed punch. Even though she saw it coming, the room was small and she wasn't able to dodge it completely. His fist grazed her cheek, landing a glancing blow, but it wasn't nearly enough to stop her. Her arm swept up in a block, catching his opposite forearm and deflecting the gun to the side. She balled up a small fist and delivered three quick punches to his ribs, receiving a grunt from him with each jab. Her left hand had a tight grip on his wrist, and she locked her arm straight, fighting against his superior strength to hold the gun away from her. It was a position she couldn’t hold, so she quickly reversed momentum, freeing him to jam the gun and his arm into the wall. It was enough to cause him to stumble forward, but the gun remained in his hand. Ashley didn't wait for him to regain his footing. She clenched her teeth, grabbed his shoulders for balance and pushed off towards the opposite wall. Her sneakered feet hit the wall a foot off the ground and found traction on the sheet rock. Pushing herself even higher as she kicked off, she aimed towards the staggering man. Her body was a living missile as her knee crashed into his back. He crumpled to the floor with Ashley coming down hard on top of him. The move was desperate, risky, but Craig would have been proud. Her landing was not graceful, and she barely stopped herself from ramming head first into the desk, but he was in a manageable position now. She jumped to her feet and began to deliver one swift kick after another to his forearm. She had to get the gun away from him, and it finally clattered to the ground. The man was quick despite all the punishment Ashley was giving him, and he made a grab for his gun. She kicked him in the face to knock him back, but not before his grasping hand accidentally pushed the gun toward her. Ashley barked a short laugh, but instead of going straight for the gun, she attacked again, resulting in an off balance, sloppy Ap Chagi that didn't quite connect the way she intended. He dodged backward, her foot barely grazing his already battered mouth and nailed his collarbone instead. Ashley dove for the gun then, hoping that would end this, but it was a mistake. The room was too small. She saw his booted foot flying toward her head too late. To her credit, she got her arm up to block, but it was futile against the power behind his kick, and his foot slammed into her, throwing her back. Her head collided with something hard and unyielding, and she crumpled to the floor as darkness swept in on her. Chapter 12 – Thief The blonde reclined in her car, bored. She had been there for at least an hour when a white Ford Taurus pulled up. Ashley and her little boy toy. She wasn't surprised but still impressed they had made it so quickly. She had honestly expected to be gone before they showed up. Rolling her eyes, she watched the little twat leave the car and enter the building. "Why did you have to be so much trouble?" she muttered. Glancing back to the Taurus, she saw that Lance had moved to the driver's side, and she smirked. "You're still an accomplice, Lover-boy." She pulled down the visor, checked her platinum blonde bangs to make sure all was in place, and winked at the sparkling baby blues staring back at her. She even went so far as to toss herself a flirtatious smile. That smile dropped as quickly as it came as she turned her attention back to Lance. "Let's get this over with." She stepped out of the car and stretched her muscles. Reaching high over her head, she clasped her hands together and brought them down behind her head. Her huge breasts stretched the fabric taut across her chest and created quite the display. Unfortunately, no one was around to gawk. Her efforts were wasted, but practice made perfect! She shrugged, running her fingers through the platinum strands that flowed to the middle of her back and tossed it out to add some life to it. Her black leather boots clacked against the cement as she strode purposefully to the Taurus. As she approached, Lance didn't even notice her. He was staring so intently at the entrance that she thought he might be trying to pull Ashley out of the building by strength of will alone. She rolled her eyes before assuming a pleasant smile and rapping two knuckles on his window. Lance jumped and turned a glare on her. A finely trimmed eyebrow rose appreciatively as she saw his sparkling green eyes for the first time, and she thought to herself, Not bad, little one. Not bad. She stepped away from the door, waiting expectantly for him to either roll down the window or exit the car. After she harrumphed loudly, he opted for the window. She smirked to herself, knowing he was probably so nervous he could piss his pants. "Lance Walker, I presume." "Uh..." he faltered, and she chuckled to herself. "Colline?" he finally got out. She nodded her assent. "I got your message. Barely made it here on time it seems." "I never expected you to come out here," he stammered, clearly unprepared for this. She was eating up every moment of it. "I was just giving you an update." "Thank you, Lance. I appreciate your thoughtfulness," she purred politely. He never gave her any indication that he was bringing Ashley to Baltimore, but she didn't get to where she was without being resourceful. She was more than ready to get this thorn out of her side. The silence grew as she waited. She was curious to see what Lance was going to do without her prompting. Folding her arms under her breasts, they bunched together and bulged against the button that was holding her shirt closed. Her cleavage was absolutely stunning, and she never ceased to use it to her advantage whenever possible. This was not one of those times, though. Lance completely ignored her display as he finally stepped out of the car. "Why are you here?" he demanded, straightening to his full height. He was a good few inches taller than her even in her heeled boots. Her lips curved into a wicked smile as her eyes roved over his delicious body. All tan and firm, and oh, so young and tempting... She shook her head slightly as if shaking out the distracting thoughts. "Promises, promises," she muttered to herself as she started to the door. "Follow me, Lover-boy." She didn't even look back, positive he would follow. "I'd wager your damsel is in distress by now. That car over there," she motioned to a black impala while casually tossing her hair over her shoulder to see that Lance had, in fact, followed her quite closely. "That belongs to Hal's partner. Just thought you'd like to know." "What?" It was a choked whisper, as if he was short of breath. She smirked to herself again as she opened the door to let him pass her. He rushed into the building and halted abruptly when it occurred to him he had no idea which way to go. "I hope you didn't lose that key," she said as he spun on her. She turned to the stairwell, never pausing, and he fell in line behind her again. "That would just make things more... difficult." Once again she held the door open for him after pressing in a key code and he pushed past her. She frowned at his back. "I've already lost more time on this than I ever intended." He took the steps two at a time as she walked behind him at a leisurely pace, enjoying his athletic display. When he saw that there was a key code on the next door, he huffed and started pressing buttons. "I wouldn't advise that, sweetheart," she called up. He turned a frustrated look down on her, his strong jaw clenched and twitching, and she smiled sweetly. "You're going to want me to go in first. Trust me on this." "Why are you here, Colline?" he snapped, and she bit back a laugh. The man was ridiculous! Yummy, but too high-strung. She raised a finger to her lips in response, motioning for him to be quiet. Not that quiet was needed, really. She just wasn't in the mood to answer questions. He waited impatiently, pacing back and forth like a caged cat as she took her time coming up the steps. She flashed her blue eyes at him a couple times, but he remained unmoved. She had known it was a lost cause to flirt with him after their many business calls, but she couldn't resist the attempt. He was hopeless, though. "Stay behind me," she commanded as she brushed past him and pressed in her entry code. The door opened, and she cocked an eyebrow at him, waiting for his concession before moving forward. His eyes narrowed briefly before he nodded. This time, she led through the door and immediately started down the row nearest her. She wasn't fazed by the layout. She knew where she was going. When she rounded the corner of aisle B, the first thing noticeable was a few boxes stacked outside an open storage room. Then a tall man was being thrown out of the open door to collide with the wall on the other side. He growled, not noticing them and rushed back into the room. As soon as she saw the man fly backwards, she knew Lance wasn't going to be held back. She slid a beautiful, booted leg out to the side, tripping him. She dropped on top of him and pressed a knee into his spine so he couldn't rise. "Wait," she bit the word off angrily and severely. "I've got this. You keep that cute ass right here." And with that, she was up and running down the hall. She winced as she heard Ashley scream. Chapter 13 – Foiled Ashley was in a world of wavering, red smoke. It weaved back and forth between intricate and nonsensical patterns, giving her a massive headache. Somewhere in the distance, in another world even, the tiniest pinprick of light formed. She watched through dancing fumes, and her mind's eye squinted to see it better. It was growing. Slowly at first, then faster and bigger until she could see... floor tile? It came back then. The world opened up to her as consciousness seeped into her hazy dream. She lay still, waiting for it all to come back and ticking off the memories in her head like a grocery list. Lance. The storage building. The take. The jackass that had kicked her in the head. That last thought had her moaning, but she stilled again quickly. She was conscious enough to realize she didn't want him to know she was awake. Footsteps shuffled around. Shadows flickered past her eyelids. Her other senses were telling her enough to know what was going on. As the shadow receded, she chanced to open her eyes. She was still in the storage room. The jackass was still with her. She closed her eyes again, processing what she had observed in that brief moment. The shuffling was him moving the boxes to the corridor, although he wasn't finished yet. She must have only been out for a minute, maybe two. He was coming back to grab another box, and she remained motionless. The probability of him leaving her there after he took the boxes was high, but what if Lance saw him? Besides, she had come this far. She wasn't ready to lose this... Her head still woozy and throbbing, she found the determination for one last stand. As he left the room, she stood quickly and steadied herself against the desk. Thankfully she was able to stay quiet, but the room continued to spin even after she was upright. She only had seconds to right her brain, so she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and envisioned completing a beautiful Twio Chagi. She heard him turn, move back into the room, and she opened her eyes. Her focus wavered in front of her, and she forced herself to concentrate on the void. Surprise widened his features, but she didn't have the time to savor it. She stepped with her right foot, pulled her left leg up to swing it back down again, building her body's momentum. She leaped. Her foot kicked out and her body was airborne, just like she had envisioned in her mind. The heel of her foot plowed into his chest, and Ashley heard the whoosh as the air was expelled from his lungs. He never had a chance to brace for impact and was thrown backwards, stumbling all the way to the outside wall. Ashley almost smiled, but the dizziness raged through her head again, her body unhappy with her drastic movements. She crumpled to a heap on the floor. The jackass only staggered for a moment, glaring at her as he regained his feet. He growled as he charged. God, he looks pissed, she thought as she shuffled backwards to the desk. He was on her the next instant, and her feeble attempts to punch him were easily turned away. Her offense was used up in one attack, and the dizziness continued to overwhelm her. A hand grabbed a handful of her hair and hauled her to her feet. Ashley screamed in outrage at being so easily manhandled, but there was little she could do against him at the moment. She resorted to the only tool she had left and brutally clawed at his face. "You fucking bitch!" he roared and pulled his arm back for a blow that would finish her. A blow that never came. A hand tipped with perfectly manicured, blood-red nails materialize out of nowhere, clasping the attacker's arm. The hand in Ashley's hair loosened as his body contorted oddly, his chest puffing out as his head snapped back. Then she was free. He'd let her go so he could face this new menace, and Ashley collapsed against the desk, dread flooding through her. Ashley saw her rescuer. The platinum blond hair, black leggings, and trademark, knee-high boots. Her mouth was suddenly bone dry, and she was in worse trouble being rescued than she was when the buffoon was about to beat her to a pulp. Nikki! Ashley tried to swallow as she watched the woman elegantly disable the man. It was effortless. He turned into an attack, the heel of Nikki's hand ramming his chin to slam his jaw shut while her other arm fluidly snapped her elbow into his collar bone. He staggered under the blow, unable to defend against her. Nikki's next attack was almost comical but disastrous for the jackass. She simultaneously slapped the palms of her hands against each of his ears. He howled, oh how he howled, but Nikki was merciless. Stepping back, Nikki extended her leg so elegantly between them that she could have been executing a dance move instead of the fatal Nerio Chagi that sent him to the ground. Nikki quickly pulled his gun from his holster and slipped it into the back of her pants, and Ashley stared, dumbfounded and defenseless. She didn't even notice Lance appear in the doorway she was so entranced by the blonde amazon in front of her. Nikki stood to her full height, dwarfing Ashley, and glared down at her slumped against the desk. Those deadly blue eyes roved over her, over everything, including the man crumpled and moaning on the floor. "You didn't do so bad, I guess," her voice exuding distaste, as if she was lowering herself just to be there. God, why was she here? "Grab that box, we need to move," she commanded. "How?" Ashley started to stammer before her brain could turn her mouth off. She knew it was a mistake. One step and Nikki was nose to nose with her, her fingers tightly grasping her chin so she couldn't look away. "I said, grab that box. We need to move." Ashley swallowed hard. Lance was there then, wedging himself between them, and pulled Ashley to her feet. "Are you okay? Can you move?" Ashley nodded, wanting to collapse against him, but she didn't dare show weakness in front of her. The thundering of blood in her ears and heart pounding in her chest made it difficult, but she straightened and stepped away from Lance. She grabbed the last box sitting in the corner and immediately wished she hadn't as her vision spun again. She leaned against the wall, glad Nikki didn't witness her stumble. It was harder to wave Lance off this time, so she stepped past him to the hallway, forcing him to follow. Nikki was already leaving, toting one box down the corridor. Ashley panicked, motioning for Lance to grab the last two boxes as she scurried after Nikki. She glanced over her shoulder to see his brow furrowed in confusion, and she gave him an apologetic shrug. He sighed, finally grabbing the boxes and followed. They took the elevator down using Nikki's code, and Ashley gathered what courage she could. Eventually, she was able to stammer out one word. "How?" Nikki looked at her with cold blue eyes, and her red lips curved into a sly smile. The silence lingered after the question, and Ashley shifted on nervous feet. The elevator dinged as it hit the first floor, but before the doors opened Nikki responded, "I made a promise." Not another word was said as Ashley and Lance followed Nikki to their rental car. They loaded the four boxes inside, two in the trunk and the other two in the backseat. Ashley wondered what was in them before Nikki interrupted her scattered thoughts. "Did you see that little diner on 5th Street?" She was asking Lance, who's brow was furrowed in confusion. He merely nodded his reply. "You want answers, and I need to give them to you. Meet me there, and don't even think about standing me up or I will find you." Ashley didn't doubt her. Nikki turned on Ashley then, her tall, lithe body towering over Ashley's shorter frame. The amazon was intimidating, and Ashley clasped her hands behind her back so Nikki wouldn't see them shaking. She could smell Nikki's sweet vanilla musk as she stared up into those beautiful, icy eyes. Long fingers gently brushed Ashley's cheek in a deadly caress that turned her bare skin to gooseflesh. "Let's make sure you never waste any more of my time again," Nikki purred sweetly, but Ashley heard the threat underneath it loud and clear. Nikki spun on the sharp heel of her boot and casually walked to a car that neither Lance nor Ashley had noticed. It was parked behind one of the adjacent storage garages. Ashley's dark eyes sought Lance's to see him staring down at her. She shook her head slightly and slipped around the car to crawl into the passenger seat, feeling like her head was going to explode. As soon as Lance joined her in the car, his voice was gruff as he asked, "How do you know Colline?" Ashley’s following laughter was nervous, threatening to collapse into sobs at any moment. "Is that what she told you? Her name is not Colline." She sobered as she meet his questioning gaze. "That is the great Nikki Sinclair." Lance slumped in the seat as he stared unseeing at the steering wheel. He uttered one word. "Fuck." "How do you know her?" Ashley asked. As he looked at her, his expression was a mask of utter confusion, and his answer left her speechless. "I knew her as Colline Fitzgerald. She's the P.I. that helped me find you." Chapter 14 – Diner Ashley was stunned, unable to piece it together. She might as well be grasping at wisps of smoke. None of it made sense. Lance wasn't fairing any better. He sat just as silent, not bothering to turn the car on. The silence and confusion lingered as neither one of them could sort it out. Finally, Lance turned the ignition and drove slowly through the parking lot. It felt as if the car itself was dragging, not wanting to move the short distance to the diner. Ashley checked for Nikki's car as they drove past, but it was nowhere to be seen. She was so bewildered by it all that she didn't hear Lance when he first started speaking. "... when she contacted me. Said she saw the ad." He sounded like he was talking to himself. "She gave me credentials, and I never questioned her. When we left the lake with Craig, I sent her one last message to let her know that I found you, and all was good." He glanced over at her quickly, and then looked back to the road while shaking his head. "Nothing about this makes sense," Ashley said. Lance reached over for her hand and she clasped it. Nikki was not someone you wanted on your bad side, or wanted to be indebted to. "Whoever she made that promise to, it wasn't to me." "Craig maybe?" Lance questioned. "I can't imagine it would have been Craig. He was always trying to protect me from Nikki, not throw us in her path." Ashley sighed heavily. "Besides, he never had enough influence over her to make her do anything. And how would he have known we were going to Baltimore?" Lance shook his head again but remained silent. She squeezed his hand, and he returned the gesture, but the rest of the ride was spent in troubled silence. Both of them were trying to put the pieces together and failing miserably. As they parked, Ashley spotted Nikki's car and quickly took note it was empty. When Lance killed the ignition, he gently pulled her hand his mouth and kissed the back of her fingers. "We'll be okay." He tried to reassure her. "If she had wanted to do something malicious to us, she would have stranded us there." Ashley nodded but had no comment. She knew Nikki, and Lance couldn't be further from the truth. Nikki liked to play with her food, so to speak. Ashley pulled away and stepped out of the car, swallowing hard. In a few moments, Lance joined her as she stared at the ominous diner where Nikki waited inside. He reached down and took her hand again, pulling her along with him. Entering the diner, Ashley immediately spotted Nikki sitting in a booth in open view of the front door. She knew exactly where to look for her. That was the same place Ashley would have chosen herself. It was Craig who had trained her to always watch the front door, and sit by an exit if possible. He was a paranoid son of a bitch, but the advice was sound even if she never had to utilize it. This time it was her who pulled Lance along as they dodged the hostess, and Ashley slid into the booth opposite Nikki, giving Lance room to slide in beside her. "Hello, Love." Nikki smiled sweetly, flashing her sparkling white teeth at her. She looked softer than she had earlier in the storage shed, but Ashley knew it was a mirage. The woman was as deadly as any viper. "Hello Nikki," Ashley replied, and Lance was right behind her. "Hello Colline." This drew a deep, intoxicating laugh from Nikki as her eyes sparkled, looking back and forth between them. "Was that rehearsed?" Ashley shook her head, but Lance's brow furrowed again, and Ashley reached under the table to clasp his hand. She preferred it if he kept silent as she had no idea how he would react to the vixen sitting across from them, nor how Nikki would handle his reactions. "Well is it Nikki or Colline?" Lance didn't take the hint, but thankfully, Nikki ignored his gruff manner. "Both and neither," she replied with a smirk, obviously enjoying the exchange. When Lance refused to be baited, she made a show of settling in comfortably before speaking again. "Well, where should we start?" Nikki smiled slyly, and it was Lance who spoke again. "How did you even know to contact me?" he said gruffly. Nikki's focus turned directly on him, but he didn't budge. Ashley swallowed, knowing that if Lance knew half the stuff this woman was capable of, he would have at least softened his glare. "In my line of work, you have to take care of your own before someone else does. If someone else gets there before you do, then you have a problem on your hands," Nikki started. "I make it a habit to peruse the missing and wanted person ads in every form of media I can find. It's much easier to nip a problem in the bud before it can escalate to..." her voice trailed off as she turned her gaze to Ashley, "To what we have here." "So that initial phone call..." Lance interjected again. "Yes. I found one of your ads and decided to feel you out. I will admit I was shocked that anyone would be hunting our little Lea here, but as soon as you said your name, everything clicked," Nikki responded coolly, and Lance started to question her again when the waitress swept up to the table and set a black coffee in front of Nikki. "What can I get you?" the waitress questioned Lance and Ashley, and they both mumbled coffee. The waitress sniffed and left them alone again, not seeing a great tip in her future. "What about the promise?" Ashley blurted out before anyone else could say anything. Nikki glared at her for a second, her eyes briefly turning to shards of ice, but then something changed in her facial expression. Something undefined softened in her eyes, and Ashley blinked in surprise. She had never seen Nikki like this. Nikki actually started to fiddle with her coffee cup, pushing at the bottom of the mug with her beautiful, red nails. She sighed one word, "Bobby." "Bobby?" Ashley questioned, completely baffled. She had liked Bobby. He was an older man who had always stood up for her where Nikki was concerned. Another protector, just as Craig was. "Didn't we lose him in Jacksonville?" "You shut your mouth, you little twat," Nikki snapped, the venom back full force. Ashley fell back against her seat, and Lance leaned forward, a scowl of indignation on his face. Ashley reacted quickly enough, squeezing his hand to rein him in before he could get a word out. Nikki glared at her as the moments passed, and Ashley shifted uncomfortably. Somewhere, she found the courage to beg, "Please..." "I don't like you. I never did." Nikki cut her off. This wasn't news to Ashley. "I never saw it in you - the hardness you need to keep up with our lifestyle - and that made you a liability." Nikki rolled her eyes at that before exhaling softly, signifying yet another demeanor change that Ashley was not familiar with. Did she look defeated? Ashley mentally shook her head at that impossibility, but there it was in front of her. "I never liked you, but others did. That big buffoon Craig for one... And Bobby." She turned her gaze out the window, no longer meeting their eyes. "Bobby saw the innocence in you and wanted me to cut you loose before you lost it. Guess it reminded him of simpler times before we chose our paths." A wry smile twisted her lips, and it seemed she was looking out the window into memories long past. The waitress was coming with their coffee and Nikki halted her speech. Ashley took the opportunity to study Nikki while she was unguarded. Those cold blue eyes were soft now. Kind eyes. Bobby's eyes. She sucked in a breath, berating herself that she had never seen it before. The waitress addressed them, but only Lance responded to send her away, and Nikki continued as soon as the waitress was out of earshot. "Yes, I lost Bobby in Jacksonville, but not before he made me promise to get Lance down here and get you away from us." Ashley blinked at that. "Bobby knew about Lance?" Nikki glared at her, and that perfect eyebrow rose in accusation. "Every one of us knew about Lance, you moon-eyed cow." "Alright," Lance snapped before Ashley could stop him this time, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment. She was well accustomed to the badgering from Nikki, but it didn't seem Lance was adjusting to it well. "Enough of the insults. Let's get this over with. I don't think any of us really want to be here." "Truer words were never spoken," Nikki conceded, letting his interruption slide, and she took a sip of her coffee before continuing. "It was Bobby that had me call Lance to the lake. He was supposed to rescue you there, and when Craig left you two in that little motel room, that should have been the end of it." She paused then to straighten her back and smirked at Ashley. "But what did you do?" Ashley was at a loss as to what she meant. Lance looked down at her, but she just shrugged and turned back to Nikki. "Hal?" "Very good. Halbert Sutton. Do you know what kind of things happen when you put a cop in the hospital?" Nikki admonished, and Ashley couldn't meet her gaze. "But, lucky for you, Sutton was a bad cop. A little talk with Hal made sure we were squared up, and I finally got the intel we needed for his stash up here in Baltimore. Then I found the pig couldn't keep his mouth shut, and Lance knew about it, too. The icing on the cake was Conner, and that was something Lance didn't know about." Nikki paused to look Ashley over and teased, "You do remember Conner, don't you? The one that beat the shit out of you and was ready to lock you away in that storage room?" Ashley nodded, blushing, and had to jerk on Lance's hand again to still him. "So I drove." She grumbled. "It was only supposed to be Conner. You two were supposed to show up later to find an empty storage room." She locked eyes with Ashley. "But you beat Conner, and you beat me. You won. By right, whatever loot those dirty cops managed to hide in those boxes are yours." Nikki gave Ashley a hard stare, and Ashley could only nod. Nikki's code. Honor among thieves. Between that and her promise, Ashley knew whatever was in those boxes indeed belonged to her, whether it was clothes, diamonds, or cockroaches. Nikki had conceded. "And now it ends. All of it. Am I clear?" Nikki eyed them both, and this time both Lance and Ashley responded with a nod. "Did Craig...?" Ashley started, but Nikki cut her off. "No. As far as he's concerned, it was his idea to drop you off in that little motel room. I'm sure he left you your take. His too?" Ashley nodded. She actually saw Nikki swallow before she continued. "And Bobby's?" Ashley nodded again. An unreadable expression crossed Nikki's face as she looked down into her coffee. Abruptly Nikki stated, "We're done." With that, she gracefully slid out of the bench and sauntered towards the door as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Maybe for Nikki, nothing out of the ordinary had happened, but Ashley was astounded. Lance apparently felt the same way as he just watched her go before turning his deep green eyes back to hers. "I'm so confused." Ashley shook her head, reached into her pocket to drop a twenty on the table and motioned for Lance to get up. "Let's just get out of here." He didn't disagree. Chapter 15 – Forever Lance was driving again, and they both decided the best course of action was to ditch the current car to pick up another rental. Although neither one of them thought Conner had seen the car, it was still the safer course. They found a little roadside motel on the other side of town, and after a brief argument, Ashley convinced Lance to leave her there with the boxes while he turned in the rental. When he left, Ashley paced the room, staring from one box to another. She was so eager to find out what Hal had stashed away, but also wanted to wait for Lance before she dove in. After all, it was Lance who led them there. She knew she should wait… But she couldn't wait. Ashley opened one of the boxes, dumping the clothes on the bed. As she started to shuffle through them, she heard an odd crinkling sound that she hadn't heard before in the storage shed. Grabbing one of the shirts, she shook it violently. Some cash bundles fell to the ground with a thump, and other loose bills fluttered down slowly. "That was probably the smartest thing you've ever done," she said regarding Hal, and grabbed the next garment on top of the pile to give it a shake. Again, there were thumps of bundles hitting the ground and more fluttering twenties scattered in the air. She laughed, overjoyed at seeing the cash fall from the clothes to pile on the floor. She grabbed garments and shook them wildly over her head. Money flew everywhere. One bundle flew from a pair of pants so hard it thumped into the wall, and loose bills rained down on her. She collapsed to the ground near the biggest collection and started pulling it to her, her laugher continuing. There were fives, tens, twenties! She even thumbed through a few stacks of one-hundred dollar bills. She wasn't even half way through the first box, and this was more money than she'd ever seen in her lifetime. She lay on top of it, rolled in it, completely indulging herself in a dream come true. That was the moment Lance returned. Bright sunlight flooded her vision as he opened the door. He shut it quickly when he saw the mess, and she stared at him, realizing he was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen. Likewise, he couldn't take his eyes off her, but she figured that was for different reasons. The bewildered look on his face was priceless. She launched herself from the floor to throw her arms around him. He held her tightly for a few moments as he surveyed the mess of a room. Clothes and cash were littered everywhere. "What the hell?" he managed to get out, and Ashley threw her head back in laughter. "Please let it all be over now." She buried her face in his neck, snuggling against him. "Let's run away forever. Find someplace we can be normal." Her ecstatic laughter had died away quickly. "I just want to be normal." He kissed her forehead and cradled her against him. "You know I want that too, Ash. More than anything, that's what I want." She pulled back to look at him and kissed his wonderful, beautiful lips, and suddenly, she was giggling again. Her nerves frayed, she wasn't able to get a grip on her wild emotions. "Look what I found." "Do tell." he replied, moving to the pile of money in the center of the floor. "Was all this in the boxes?" "No," she smirked at him as he looked at her in surprise, and she clarified. "That's what I found in one box, and that box isn't empty yet!" He was incredulous, thumbing through a stack of one-hundreds. "I think we need to get the hell out of here as soon as possible." Ashley agreed wholeheartedly, and immediately began gathering up the scattered cash so they could organize it. Lance worked with her, and only a few minutes passed before they were going through the boxes, folding clothes and stacking bills. "Do you think Hal will try to find us?" she asked while they worked. Lance was silent for a moment. He didn't know Hal well enough to judge what he would do, but there was so much here Ashley couldn't imagine giving it up without a fight. "He might. Conner might. We need to get very far away from here very quickly." His green eyes flashed as he glanced at her. "What about Nikki?" "She's gone," Ashley replied. "If she had wanted any of this, she would have taken it back there. Of course, she probably didn't know how much was here or she would never have let us walk away with it." He nodded, watching her intently. "Who was Bobby?" Ashley stilled, the name calming her instantly. She met his eyes as sadness crept into her mood. "I think he was Nikki's brother, and I'm pretty sure he died in Jacksonville." "Oh," was Lance's reply. Ashley continued, "I knew there was something different about their relationship. Nikki never did anything for anyone she didn't want to, but Bobby could always persuade her. I never noticed it until today, but I'm positive they had to have been related," she ended with a shrug and went back to searching clothes. "I hope you're right. This needs to be over," Lance nodded somberly. "I'm sorry about the friends you lost." Ashley didn't reply for a while as she continued to sort through the clothes. When her piles were done, she moved to Lance and intrusively sat down in his lap. He caught her, pulling her close, and they stared into each other’s eyes as the moments slipped by. Ashley reached up to run her fingers down his strong jawline and admired his perfect face. "I love you," she whispered to him, and he answered her with a passionate kiss, his lips claiming hers softly, completely He broke away. "Forever," he whispered against her. "Forever." "How much do you think is here?" Ashley shrugged and smiled. "I don't know. I wasn't actually counting. I'm guessing close to two hundred thousand from just the two boxes I went through. What are we going to do?" she asked as she traced the outline of his lips with a soft fingertip. He laughed, a rich baritone laugh that sent sparks surging through her. "Whatever we want to." "Well, where do we want to go?" He looked at the ceiling in thought for a moment before meeting her eyes again, and his green eyes sparkled like dark emeralds. "Have you ever seen Paris?" She laughed in response, "Of course I've never seen Paris." "Neither have I, and Paris is very far away from here." He looked at her expectantly. The realization swept over her like a wave of euphoria. The option was suddenly very real for them. They had so many options. She glanced at the money stacked on the bed and back to those sparkling eyes. She could see her whole life in those beautiful eyes, and she felt her heart was about to burst. Ashley smiled and nodded at him, tears of joy spilling down her cheeks. "Paris it is then."

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