Acknowledgements and disclaimers:
To my mom, as always, who’s believed in me all the way. To dad and Shell… to the ‘zoo’ and James and most of all to my love… tigrr.
Yes… some graphic violence and more of that nasty "F" word. Also an attempted rape, though that has been kept at a PG-13 level.
All quotes were taken from the web, my collection of music or movies.
I should add that this is not just a love story, but a fight against prejudice and discrimination that still exists today.
The message is clear; believe in love, trust in love and it will overcome all.
Table of Contents
Chapter One - Sorrow
Chapter Two - Friendship
Chapter Three - Beginnings
Chapter Four - History Lessons
Chapter Five - Soulmates
Chapter Six - Laughter
Chapter Seven - Memories
Chapter Eight - Writing
Chapter Nine - Remorse
Chapter Ten - The Unknown
Chapter Eleven - The Night
Chapter Twelve - Prejudice
Chapter Thirteen - Whispers
Chapter Fourteen - Unfinished Business
Chapter Fifteen - Promises
Chapter Sixteen - Seeds of Hate
Chapter Seventeen - Suspicion
Chapter Eighteen - Intimate Danger
Chapter Nineteen - Got To Go On
Chapter Twenty - Epilogue
"Trouble never leaves us where it finds us; sorrow will change our tomorrow." - Robert Schuller
She held her in the darkness, one arm tight against the supple skin of her lover's back, the other hand tangled in light hair.
Absently she threaded her fingers in and out, tangling in feather smoothness.
Lightning flashed, illuminating a gentle brow, a sleepy smile, a thigh tangled with her own.
Then the dream is gone, replaced with emptiness.
Another time, long ago, filled with laughter and love. An aching need filled her soul. I miss you, my love. These days are long, empty and meaningless without you here to share it with.
The sunset brings more then the darkness of night... darkness of the soul... she is helpless against it.
The soft, bluish glow of the computer screen gazed back at her as she sat, eyes glazed.
Damn writer’s block! This one, so far, was the worst. For three days Alex had been trying to finish her latest book.
Fuck it, she thought, this is getting me no where. I might as well go settle Jack and Jo for the night.
Alex slipped out of her study, leaving the computer on. At the door she grabbed her parka, pulled it on, and stepped into the chilly night air. The first frost of winter made the grass crunch under her boot soles. A few brisk jogging steps brought her to the stable door. It's gentle creaking had become a familiar friend to her over the past two years.
Had it really been two years now? She sighed and gazed fondly at her horses. Jo was a pure bred Arabian averaging fifteen hands in height, rust red and copper in color. She was sassy and proud. Jack was a powerful Thoroughbred, eighteen hands high, with sleek muscles, and a mane and tail a mix between Chestnut and gold. He snorted in agitation as she approached.
"I know, I know," she patted his soft white muzzle, "I shoulda come out earlier to check on you," she tapped her head ruefully, "too many things on my mind."
Jack nodded his head, as if understanding, and gently nudged her shoulder, glancing at his Arabian companion. Jo knickered softly, waddling over to the gate. She lifted her fiery head, sniffing gently.
Alex lifted the latch, her fingers already trembling from the cold. As Alex entered the stall Jo enthusiastically butted her in the chest. She stifled a groan, chuckling as she scratched behind Jo's ears.
"Better?" Alex grinned.
Jo snorted, nipping at Jack as he too sought attention.
"Now, now children," Alex chided, "play nice." She ran her hand down the Arabian's thick winter coat, to the large bulge at her belly.
Jack snorted and tossed his head in warning.
"Jack, sweetheart, you know I'm just as worried as you are," Alex reprimanded gently. "Almost time, isn't it, Jojo? Worried?"
Jo turned a questioning stare on her mistress as human hands felt the kicking and stirring of her unborn foal.
There wasn't a vet within an hours drive from the ranch and as the birthing time drew near Alex's anxiety increased. Not knowing the health, origin, or breed of the father didn't set well with her. But she'd come across Jo a year after her move here. She'd seen the spirited horse under the cruel whip of her owner and had immediately jumped to her defense. Giving up a month's worth of necessities had been worth it though.
An hour after brushing the horses down, shoveling and laying clean sawdust she was ready for a steaming cup of cocoa and a few dozen blankets.
The temperature had dropped dramatically within the hour.
She left out a bucket of oats as she exited the barn. It was too cold to water the horses now. She'd have to wait till the pipes and troughs unthawed with the morning sun.
Snow flurries drifted to the ground and cluttered on every available surface, including her eyelashes.
With a glance at the power lines overhead she quickened her pace to the safety and warmth of the old farmhouse.
Twenty minutes later a fire was crackling in the fire place and there was no need for extra blankets, but still she snuggled under their warmth, wishing sadly it were human warmth arms against her.
The computer had been shut down, candles, flashlights and storm supplies gathered for the coming storm. The weather channel predicted at least a foot of snow and if the snow gathering on the windowsills, railing and power lines were any indication the power would be out in a few hours. Maybe sooner.
Doors to unused rooms had been shut weeks ago, as the chill of winter had begun to set in, cloth stuck around the cracks to keep the cold from slipping out and precious heat from sneaking in.
Alex's first year here had taught her a dozen survival tips, that had she not learned, would have sent her packing to an early country grave. Not to mention the electric bill when she'd tried to keep the entire ancient farmhouse heated that first winter.
She chuckled ruefully over her stupidity or naiveté back then and snuggled further into the blankets, enjoying the dry heat of the fire against her cheeks.
And you thought this would be simple? Who were you kidding? Boiling water, hardly what you'd call indoor plumbing, freezing rooms, even in summer, no one to talk to except Jack and Jo, no one to warm the bed with, no one to love... Shut up!
Alex scrambled from under the covers in an almost desperate attempt to scatter her thoughts, in the process spilling hot cocoa across her chest and arms.
"Owww, hot, hot, hot!" Good one Alster, she quipped as she carried the empty mug back to the kitchen, extremely disappointed after loosing nearly a full cup of cocoa.
An eerie chill followed her to the study, one of three rooms she kept open in winter. It also held a fireplace, but lacked the antique furniture the rest of the house held. Here was her private domain. Comfortable, safe... hers.
Against the far wall, tucked into the corner were her computer and other writing tools. Waist-high recessed bookcases encircled the entire room, except for the wall with the grand bay window. Under the bay was a futon, now set up as a bed and stored under it were cardboard boxes stuffed with clothes.
Alex had used plastic when she first arrived but quickly learned how easy it was to shatter frozen plastic in anger. She'd give anything to find an old oak or cedar chest, but in her search of the house she'd only come across an old steamer in the attic, locked and rusted solidly shut. It was too big to carry downstairs anyway.
She hummed a little as she changed into an old Penn State sweatshirt and added an extra pair of thick wool socks.
After two years it no longer bothered her to change in front of the large bay window. No one was out there, no one ever would be, and after a trip to town and Randy's Hardware Emporium the extra panels of glass and foam insulation cut out the harsh winds almost completely.
The small lamp beside the computer suddenly flickered and died. The house sputtered into silent darkness.
"And so it begins..." She groaned. If she wanted cocoa now the water would have to heat in the fireplace. With a gentle sigh she extracted the zippo from her pocket, shrugged over to the fireplace and rearranged the wood and kindling, proceeding to light a roaring fire. Start it now or freeze the temperature sensitive hardware in her computer.
There was no way to tell how long the storm would last. Two more hours or two weeks... always unpredictable.
The safest thing now was to prepare for the long haul before the pipes froze and she was snowed in. No matter how much those warm soft blankets began to call to her she clambered around filling buckets, pots and pans with water, checking windows and closing shutters that could be reached from inside, checking kerosene lamps and her supply of matches and candles.
Reluctantly she shrugged on snow boots, gloves and her thick winter jacket. Thought we'd have at least another week before the snow started, she grumbled as she trudged back into the half moon night. She closed the rest of the shutters and made half a dozen trips back and forth to the woodpile.
Beyond exhausted and extremely tired of slogging through snow already up to her ankles, she debated checking on the horses one last time.
Alex was halfway to the barn when the frantic neighing cut through the whistling wind. Immediately she broke into a run, dashing to the barn door as if the hounds of hell themselves were on her tail. She crashed into a pile of something or other that she'd meant to clean up yesterday and sailed face first into the cement floor.
"Goddamnmotherfuckingsonofa-" she cursed into the darkness, fishing the rarely used flashlight out of her coat pocket.
Jack snorted impatiently as she approached the gate. Alex bit back a flash of pain from her chin and knees, fumbling with the latch. The thoroughbred stomped and neighed fearfully.
Jo was down, covered in sweat and breathing harshly. Alex cooed and rambled nonsense to the panicked horse as she lit a lantern, hung it on a nail and knelt beside the Arabian.
Her hand traveled from the sweat soaked neck to the bulging side, and felt nothing... oh God... not good.
It was over in a few short hours that seemed to last an eternity. Two lives lost, one before even entering the world, the other in a mess of blood and pain.
Blood covered every inch of Alex's arms and chest. Tears ran freely down icy cheeks.
"I lost them, Jack," she sobbed. Jack nodded his head, as if understanding, gently nudging Alex's shoulder and glancing at his Arabian companion with intelligent, watery eyes.
On shaky limbs she stood, exiting the stall, not bothering to shut the gate behind her. What now? Alex's glassy eyes came to rest on the pile she'd tripped over earlier. For a full minute she stood and stared.
"Alright," she acknowledged the idea quietly, "let's get this over with."
Half an hour later a pile of discarded timber and various other things were gathered into a pyre. Jack was hitched and tethered to Jo, and both Alex and Jack worked carefully to pile her and the still born onto the pyre.
Alex used a small dose of precious kerosene to light the fire, stepping back as the wild winter wind chased in into the heavens.
"May you find peace where you are, and know that you will be missed." Alex bowed her head, and Jack snorted, pawing the snow-covered ground.
The sun was rising as she staggered back into the house. In a daze she rekindled the fireplaces, hung two pots of water to warm, and shrugged out of the bloody clothes and into a flannel robe.
When one of the pots was at comfortable warmth she placed it in the bathroom, and set to work scrubbing blood from her body.
That finished she dressed in long johns, gray sweats, thick wool socks and a ratty flannel shirt. Emotionally drained and physically exhausted she curled back under the blankets on the couch and slipped into a restless sleep.
"The lives of all the people we meet and know are woven into our destiny, together with the lives of many we shall never know on earth. But certain ones, very few, are our close friends... they are inseparable from our own destiny..." -Thomas Merton
The house was bathed in the weak winter sun and an eerie quiet had settled into the electricless farmhouse as Alex woke. Not even a chickadee chirped outside the kitchen windows as she fixed oatmeal and coffee from a pot of hot water from the fireplace.
I need to forget about last night. I should go to the store and get that part for the tractor. There's only a foot of snow; the truck can handle it. And I could get a decent lunch in town, maybe take in a movie, and relax... get away from here.
That decided she changed into a pair of slightly more presentable overalls, boots, gloves, hat and coat.
Let's go see if the truck'll start.
Not surprisingly it took the truck a good ten minutes to turn over and another ten minutes down the road before the heater kicked in.
The interior was just at a comfortable warmth when she arrived at Randy's Hardware Emporium, and she bit back a sigh as she hopped out into the cold.
Alex's boots crunched over frozen pavement, freshly littered with salt as she made her way to the door. Once inside she headed to the tractor parts section.
Up and down the aisle she went. Nope, not the right size for the John Deer... I could improvise... nope, Randy don't got that either... damn, have ta ask him to order it.
Alex walked to the antique counter, hands shoved dejectedly into her pockets. A group of excited voices registered the unwelcome presence of the men she condescendingly referred to as 'The Boys.'
"Hear what happened at the hotel last night?"
"I heard there was a fire..."
They were gathered at the counter, leaning into each other in a secretive little circle.
"Nah, heard it was set on purpose, by that bitch new in town."
"You're close," Randy smirked with the privileged information. "The new lady had some new fangled contraption that blew out the wiring in John and Martha's hotel. Everyone was forced to e-vac-u-ate."
Alex went unnoticed as she stood impatiently behind them.
"Snow contained the fire to the inside," Randy continued, "Most of the residents been relocated early this morning. Seems nobody was willing to take in the troublemaker though. They say she really did it on purpose."
Ok, this is getting tiresome. Alex cleared her throat, drawing four pairs of startled eyes in her direction.
"Afternoon Randy, Mark, Bob, George..." Nodding her head in turn at each, watching as their cheeks pinkened at her improper use of their first names.
"Afternoon to you too, Ms. Casings. What may I do for you today?" Randy, the owner of the Emporium, asked.
"Well, you don't seem to have the part I need for the tractor." She handed him a slightly crumpled piece of paper. "Can you order it for me?" Alex had learned it was just easier to write it down then have to spell it out a dozen times.
"Why don'cha just have old Carl go on over to your farm an fix it?"
We've been over this a thousand times. "Can you order me the part or not, Randy?"
"Yeah, don't see what ya need it for. Women t'ain't suppose to be fixin' tractors."
1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9... "What's this I hear about a fire?" Alex turned to Mark, the youngest in the group, easily in his late forties and fixed him with a fake smile. And even though she'd heard all about it bare minutes prior she listened attentively again. "So, where is this woman suppose to be staying? Is she moving on?" Alex asked when the tale was finished.
"Don't know, don't care," was Randy's instant response.
"Reckon she'll be moving on, she ain't welcome here anyway." George piped in his two bits.
"Why not?" Alex asked curiously.
"What's it to you, Ms. Casings? Planning to rent her a room in that big ol' house of yours?" Randy asked as he filed her order for the new part.
"Power's out up at my place." She answered reasonably, though part of her was entertaining the idea, and had been for some time now. "Anyway, just curious. Thanks Randy, gimme a ring when my part comes in."
"Will do, Ms. Casings. Have a pleasant afternoon."
She exited the Emporium with a yawn. Bunch of bigoted, mindless, fools... Home now? A movie? Lunch? Drive off a cliff?
Alex climbed into the frozen truck. It turned over after two tries and she was on her way. She'd decided to just go home when the truck sputtered and died. It coasted half a block, coming to rest in front of Dixie's diner.
"Dammit." Alex rested her head on the steering wheel in frustration. Damn, damn, damn, damndamndamndamn....
A loud rapping on the window woke her abruptly. Her heart rushed into her throat and she bit back a panicked scream. She looked into the most amazing blue eyes she'd ever seen.
"Hey! Are you alright?" The low voice on the other side of the window demanded.
Alex tore her gaze from depths of blue, and with numb fingers unlocked the door, tumbling out onto the sidewalk.
Strong arms were there to catch her.
"Shit, your freezing. Let's get you inside Dixie's."
Alex's chattering jaw couldn't form words of protest as she was literally dragged inside. The tall, dark stranger with the cold blue eyes gently pushed her into a booth.
Instead of waiting for the busy, frazzled waitress the stranger casually retrieved two mugs from behind the counter, poured some coffee, and came back to sit across from Alex. Without so much as an introduction she removed Alex's gloves, placed the mug between frozen fingers, commanding her to slowly sip the hot liquid.
Awkward minutes later Alex had stopped shaking. She glanced dejectedly into the half empty mug, feeling incredibly stupid.
"So, do you often sleep in your truck when it's freezing outside?"
The deep voice startled Alex. With a shrug she studied the woman seated across from her. Tanned skin peeked out from a dark sweatshirt, long, dark hair, pulled into a loose ponytail, gorgeous eyes, broad shoulders, long arms, tapered fingers. Suddenly she realized she was staring. "Name's Alex, and no, I don't usually fall asleep in my truck, but I had a long night." The cracked tabletop was suddenly very interesting.
"Dusty." The stranger introduced herself with a small smile. "What kept you up all night? A hot date?"
"Excuse me?" Alex glanced up, locking eyes with the woman.
"You said you had a long night?" Dusty prompted.
"Oh," Alex murmured.
"I don't owe you any explanations." Alex's eyes flashed a darker, angry green.
"True," Dusty drawled, "but I did just save your life."
"So?" Alex countered.
"No need to be hostile. I was just asking, and I won't ask again." The dark stranger withdrew her wallet, laid some money down and stood to leave.
Wait! "I... I... my horse had a difficult delivery." Unconsciously Alex rose to block Dusty's hasty retreat. "I'm sorry if I was rude. Please sit back down."
"Did she have a boy or a girl?"
"Filly," Alex answered, "but it died and so did it's mother."
"I'm sorry." Dusty said softly, sincerely.
"I'll get over it, but I'm not sure Jack will."
"Jack? Your husband?" Dusty was suddenly, inanely jealous.
Alex laughed, and sat back down. Dusty glanced at the door, then sat down as well.
"What's so funny?" Dusty asked.
"Jack's a thoroughbred." Alex grinned. It lit up her face like a thousand-watt light bulb.
Cute, definitely cute, Dusty decided as she grinned back. There was a sudden awkward silence.
"So, are you the new woman in town I've heard so much about?" Oops. Alex watched as Dusty's grin faded quickly.
"Depends on what you've heard, I guess."
"The men in this town are pigs, Dusty. I don't put any stock in what they say, definitely not in what they think."
One raised eyebrow in response.
"More coffee, ladies?" The waitress interrupted.
"Please." Alex pushed her mug forward as Dusty raised hers. "Thank you."
"Anything else I can get for you today?"
Alex considered a moment. "Apple pie, warm, please. Anything for you, Dusty?"
"Be back in a minute then." The waitress ambled wearily into the kitchen, deposited the order next to Rick's elbow and went outside for a moment of peace and a much needed cigarette.
More silence descended at the women's table. Dusty twirled her spoon absently in her cup and Alex stared at a patch of skin on her right hand.
"The newest rumor is that I burned down John and Martha's place." Dusty glanced up for Alex's reaction.
"'Bout time somebody did." Alex deadpanned.
Dusty let out a deep laugh that was contagious.
"What's so funny, Alex?" A deep groveling voice startled them, rushing into the suddenly comfortable companionship.
Inwardly Alex groaned, outwardly she pasted on a big, fake smile as Howard sat down next to her. "Nothing, Howard, just an inside joke." She winked at Dusty, much to both their surprise. "Oh, I'm being rude. Howard, this is Dusty. Dusty, this is Howard Crane."
"We've met." Howard stated in mild anger, not even glancing at Dusty. His tone softened considerably as he fastened his sites on Alex. "What are you doing in town today?"
Alex met Dusty's hooded glance, trying to apologize for Howard's behavior. The dark woman just shrugged as if to say 'been there, done that, and got the T-shirt.'
"Well, I came in to get that part for the tractor I told you about." Alex sighed, knowing what would be next. Sure enough...
"I told you last week I'd fix that for you."
Let you touch my tractor? I don't think so. "And I told you I'd take care of it." She bit her lip and stomped down her frustration with obvious effort.
Dusty cleared her throat. "Sorry to interrupt, but it looks like that pie isn't gonna come, and it's getting late. I really should be going."
Shit, shit shit... don't leave me with Howard, shit. "Is that offer of a ride still good?" Alex asked casually, heart racing as she telegraphed a panicked look to Dusty. She received a slightly raised eyebrow look in return.
"Oh," Howard butted in, " is something wrong with your truck? I'll take you home." He offered.
"I'm going out that way," whatever way that happens to be, "so I'll take her home." Dusty's icy eyes bore into Howard's weasly gray ones, and wisely he backed off.
They all rose from the table.
"I'll call you tonight." Howard informed them all, in way of parting. With jaunty steps he exited the diner.
"Damn, he might as well lift his leg and mark his territory... bastard." Alex mumbled under her breath, heading for the door.
"Did you say something?" Dusty held open the door. A blast of cold air surged into the building.
Alex sighed as she looked into pale blue eyes. "I- I'm sorry for putting you on the spot like that. You don't have to take me home."
"Well, I have no where to stay here, so I was headed out of town anyway." Dusty shrugged as she made her way down the sidewalk, tugging up the collar of her coat against the chill wind.
"Ok," Don’t wanna trudge some 60 miles back through the snow, now do I? "thanks."
"This one's mine." Dusty waved toward a dark blue sports utility vehicle.
"Nice." Alex looked back at her own rusted out '76 Chevy.
The Jeep purred to life and they headed down the almost empty streets.
"So, how did you meet Howard?" Alex asked, cautiously.
"Long story." The dark woman glanced at her passenger with a lazy grin. "I suppose we have plenty of time, right?"
"Right." Alex agreed cheerfully. "So spit it out."
"Well, apparently women aren't allowed in Night N Day, or so I found out my first night here."
"Night N Day?" Alex asked incredulously. It was the local farmer's, carpenter's etc., all men's bar and had been for generations. A local taboo for women. A small town's version of the ancient Gentlemen's Clubs.
"Yeah." A small rueful chuckle. "I walked in and ordered a beer. I suppose it should have dawned on me sooner... but I was quickly, and rudely, told to leave."
"Damn, bet heads were spinning." Alex smiled, wishing she'd been there.
"Especially Howard's after I... um... knocked him on his ass for trying to forcibly remove me. He's not your boyfriend or something, is he?"
Alex dissolved into a fit of laughter. "Oh... God... no... he's... not..." The laughter slowly died and she wiped a tear from her eye. "I wish I'd seen that."
"No, you don't." That was a little harsher then Dusty had intended. "I mean, it got kinda ugly in there. I'd been driving for a long time, I was tired, cranky and all I wanted was a damn beer. I ended up giving one of the guys a black eye and six stitches."
Alex sat still, careful with her words. "That explains why Howard and the rest of them hate you anyway."
"Yeah, I guess it does. So, what happened to your truck?"
"Turn here." Alex pointed to a side road. "Oh nothing. It's just about as old as I am, with a lot more wear and tear... and apparently it just gave up on me."
Dusty fishtailed around the corner, muttering an apology and straightened back out.
Alex wagged her finger in the direction of the next turn.
"Middle of nowhere, huh?" Dusty raised an eyebrow.
"I like it out here," Alex shrugged. "It's quiet. No one bothers me. You should see it in the summer with the trees lining the road, shading it from the sun, and the lilacs, honeysuckle and hyacinths in full bloom."
I'd like that, Dusty realized. They topped a small rise and there was the ranch, splendid in it's new white washed glory.
"Here we are." As the Jeep pulled to a stop beside the railing that led up the walk Alex debated with her demons. "Want a tour? Power's still out... but I could... show you around? If you want, that is?" She finally blurted out.
I should really get going. I'd rather not drive on icy roads in the dark. "Sure." Dusty said instead.
"Well, that's the nickel tour." Alex grinned.
They'd ended up in the barn, Dusty letting Jack nibble a carrot from her hand.
Alex noted that Dusty's cheeks were pink with the cold. She looked healthy and.... beautiful. "How about some hot cocoa to warm up? Or do you have to go already?"
"Hot cocoa would be nice." Dusty absently plucked at a button on her coat as they crunched through the snow back to the farmhouse.
Thankfully the power had returned and in short time they were seated by the living room fireplace, warm cups of cocoa in hand.
"This place is great. Kind of big for one person though."
Was that a question or just an observation, Alex wondered. Nevermind. "I inherited it from my aunt."
"Oh, I'm sorry. About your aunt I mean." Dusty closed her eyes to the fire, eyelids bathing in a red glow, body relaxing, mind drifting sleepily.
"It's ok. She passed away, oh, eight years ago I think?" Lost some years in there, didn't I? Alex cringed.
"You've been here that long?"
"No, I moved here two years ago." Alex tried to skirt the issue.
"Where did you move from?" Dusty asked curiously as she slowly sipped her cocoa.
There's that... that mood again, Dusty realized. I think I'm treading a thin line here and I'm relaxed enough to push the envelope. "How far?"
"NY." Alex admitted wearily.
"I've never been there, what's it like?" Dusty's question was innocent enough.
"Not much for small talk are you, Alex?"
"Not really." Alex rose smoothly from the couch. "It's too late and icy to travel tonight. Couch is comfy, if you want to stay?"
"It'd be the safe thing to do." Dusty unfolded her long legs and rose beside Alex.
"Blankets are behind that panel." Alex pointed to an empty spot on the wall with a small smile.
"Oh! A secret panel. I'm lovin' this place more and more."
"This place is full of secrets. Goodnight, Dusty." Reluctantly the young woman made her way down the hall and to her room.
Chapter Three -
"All people smile in the same language" - Wings of Silver
Alex woke before the sun, buried deep in a pile of blankets. With a groan and a body length stretch she popped her head out into the chill of the room.
Why do I get up so damn early? With another groan she pushed back the blankets and set her feet on the cold hardwood floor. She pulled on jeans over her long johns, picked up her flannel shirt from yesterday and padded in thick wool socks to the kitchen. With brisk, practiced ease she set up the coffee machine. With a small grin she made the coffee for two.
Then she bundled up to go check on Jack.
On her way out the door she stopped to gaze upon the sleeping form on the couch. Dusty's head was uncovered, except for the protective arms wrapped around her head.
Jack stretched his powerful stride at his rider's request, exhilarating in the early morning run.
The sun was up in the crisp blue sky as they walked back to the barn. It had been a long ride this morning, far from the past, the present, and anything else Alex just couldn't handle. The wind and the trees took it all in a whirlwind of colors and song.
Dusty was up as well and going through the kitchen cupboard when Alex returned. "Hope you don't mind. I'm starving."
"No problem. Help yourself. I got eggs, sausage... um, bacon in the fridge I think." Alex ambled over to the refrigerator, grabbing various breakfast items.
Soon the kitchen was filled with the rich aroma of fresh coffee, sizzling bacon, sausage and eggs. Over bites of breakfast the conversation focused on small chitchat.
"What do you do for a living, Dusty?"
"I've done many things," she replied cryptically, "but right now I'm kinda retired."
"You're too young to retire."
Dusty grinned. "So everyone tells me."
"Then what are you doing in Bluerock? It's not exactly retirement heaven."
There was silence as Dusty contemplated her answer. Ah, what the hell, she's a nice kid, and it's not like I'll ever see her after today anyway. "I sold everything I could, packed up the rest and started to drive. No plans, nothing, just went. Got away from it all."
Alex watched the play of emotions across Dusty's face over words said so stoically. Sadness, anger... was that fear? "What are you running from?" Alex asked softly, then bit her lip.
"I- uh- just trouble." Dusty didn't look up from her eggs.
"Well then, I'm afraid you haven't run far enough." Alex grinned at the confused look and raised eyebrows. "My family always said my middle name was 'trouble.'"
They ate in silence for a few moments, the only sounds that of the chickadees in the snow.
Well I could... I mean I've got all this room going to waste... "Um, Dusty?"
"Yeah?" She lowered her coffee cup and glanced into suddenly serious eyes.
"You said you didn't have any plans- I mean- you were leaving town and... um, I've been thinking about renting out some rooms..." Ah shit. Alex's voice trailed off as she met Dusty's eyes expectantly. She looked like she needed convincing. "If you wanted to stay on a bit I could fix up a room? It's quiet here, no one comes out this way."
Dusty contemplated a dust mote drifting by the sunlit kitchen window. It was nice, quiet, out of the way...
"Couple of days, whatever." Alex continued. "I know you aren't too popular in town right now, but I thought-" Shitfuckingshit, what was I thinking? Alex mentally smacked herself in the head.
"I don't know." Dusty was surprised by the suddenly crestfallen look on Alex's face. "I heard there was trouble here."
"Oh, well of course there's trouble here. I'm here." Alex smiled.
And I'm so glad you are. "How 'bout $400 for the week?" Dusty was ready to pay anything to stay just a little bit longer.
Alex's jaw dropped slightly.
"No enough?" Dusty was ready to offer more.
"No! I mean yes, er I mean that's more then enough. A week?" God, I'm not making sense. Alex gave herself another mental slap. Gonna get a headache if I keep this up.
"I can catch up on some sleep." Dusty rationalized more to herself then anyone else.
"Settled then. I'll fix up a room after breakfast." I'm grinning from ear to ear like a schoolgirl asked to her first dance. Alex hastily finished her breakfast, mumbling something about sheets and curtains, and excused herself.
Dusty let her own ear to ear grin surface as Alex left.
"The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone."- Harriet Beecher Stowe
Hmmm, Alex trailed up and down the hallway one more time. Which room? Yick... ok, none of the upstairs rooms, it's a freezer up there... this one? No, I still have to fix that damn... wait, she'll like this one.
It was almost empty, but it was just down the hall from Alex's study. She wondered if there was an ulterior motive, and not just that it was one of the few rooms with a working fireplace.
The window on the back wall looked out into the snow covered fields, shining brilliant back into the room. A faded rose pattern, stereotypical of old farmhouses, covered the walls.
"This is nice." Dusty surprised her from the doorway.
She jumped a little. "Yeah. Wanna help me get one of the beds from upstairs?"
"I'd suggest wearing a coat up there," Alex said as Dusty turned towards the door, "it's like an ice box."
"Ok, meet you at the stairs." And Dusty was gone, silent as a panther stalking it's prey.
Alex shivered and shrugged into her own coat, grabbed the heavy rubber mallet from the pantry shelf and met Dusty on the stairs.
"This one's good." Alex pointed into a large, yellow-papered room with a shrug. "It's still intact, at least."
"Alright, let's get to work."
After an hour-long struggle with the mallet, frame, stairs and mattress they finally had it downstairs in Dusty's temporary new room. Granted, it was all still in pieces, but it was all finally there.
Alex groaned and flattened herself out the on the floor, opening her jacket and fanning the inside with it. They'd worked up a considerable sweat going up and down and cursing the heavy mattress.
Dusty joined her on the floor, shedding her own coat and using it as a pillow. "Damn, if I knew it was gonna be this much work I'd have volunteered to sleep on the floor."
"Sure," Alex drawled, smiling up at the ceiling, "and wake up with your butt frozen to the floor? I don't think so." She chuckled and Dusty joined in.
Alex sat up and surveyed the nearly empty room. An antique lamp rested on the floor and an old rocker and now the bed were it's only other occupants.
"In the room across the hall is a mass of furniture and stuff. Go ahead and help yourself. I think I can handle putting this monster back together."
Dusty stood and sauntered lazily to the door. "Ok, gimme a holler if you need help."
"Will do." Alex was already rearranging the frame for easier reconstruction.
Dusty eagerly opened the door to the quasi storage room. She'd only gotten a brief glimpse on the room on the tour yesterday and had been instantly intrigued by the mess inside.
Curiosity killed the cat, she grinned wickedly as she stepped around some crates to what promised to be the most promising pile.
After an extensive and dirty search of the room she'd found a wooden bench approximately the same width as the bed, with a faded cushion that might have, at one time, been considered a rose color. There was also the twin of the other lamp, yet to be seen if it worked, a solid oak table stained a rich red brown, maybe a foot and half in width and long enough to sit under the window. She'd pushed these items over to a spot she'd cleared earlier and continued her search.
She was searching with Alex's earlier statement in mind. When she'd commented about renting the rooms out. Fix this one up now and Alex wouldn't have to do it later. Something for over the fireplace maybe?
Strange, not a single set of dressers in this room, and I don't remember seeing any upstairs. I'll have to ask Alex about that.
By the time Alex poked her head into the room Dusty had acquired a clock for the mantle, a fireplace grate, two silver candle sticks, a high backed, mahogany lounge and was unearthing the last item.
"'Bout ready for lunch?" Alex found Dusty's long frame contorted around a crate and half behind a shattered mirror.
"Jus sec mmm foun' somethin'..." Dusty struggled back, carefully pulling out a large painting. She held it up triumphantly. "What do you think? Right over the fireplace?"
"Cool, it'll look great. Find everything you need?"
"And them some, except for a chest of drawers. Actually I don't remember seeing any anywhere. Are there some upstairs?"
"Nope. Not one."
"Seems rather strange, doesn't it?" Dusty inquired as she placed the painting with the rest of the pile.
"Not when you know the story and the reason why." Alex lead the way back to the kitchen, Dusty tagging along brushing off the dust in billowing clouds.
"Are you going to tell me, or do I have to guess?" She smiled at Alex with eager curiosity as they began fixing soup and sandwiches for lunch.
"My aunt told me the story when I was a child. It scared me for years afterward, but I don't believe it anymore."
"Why not?" Dusty interrupted.
"I'll tell the story and you tell me if you believe it when I'm done, ok?"
They sat with soup and sandwiches in the quiet kitchen. The house seemed to settle down and listen as well, adding eeriness to Alex's opening words.
"In 1752 Samuel Jacobson touched his plow to this cursed ground for the first time. He scoured the land of every rock, and cut down nearly every tree to build the foundation and house, later known as Raven's End.
"Ten hired men built and plowed for two years before he sent for his wife and three children. Four of those men died here and were buried in the woods half a mile from the house. In those days a large farmhouse was not unheard of, but a three story, fifty room semi mansion was.
"No one, to this day, knows where his money came from or how he could afford to ship thousands of books to his personal library, order the best furniture in the colonies, raise twenty of the best horses, and obtain the finest silks and perfumes for his wife.
"The eldest boy, then seven, had the fastest horse in the county and three counties beyond. His middle child, a girl, had tiny parasols from France, and her own servant. The youngest son, by far the favorite, at the tender age of three, had canvasses and paints from the finest places in Paris. The painting you found was his."
"No shit?" Dusty blinked.
"No shit, he was a child prodigy, a genius if you will with paints."
"None of this explains the 'no dresser policy'." Dusty wondered out loud.
"I'm getting to that," Alex grinned, caught up in the story telling mode. "Anyway, they'd lived in the house no more then a year. Alexandria was with child and three more workers were dead. Bringing the death toll up to seven.
"Samuel had hitched the horses and traveled into town with one of the three remaining hired men, to pick up his latest shipment of books, silks, perfumes and goodies. The trip would take at least a week.
"Don't get me wrong now, there were hardships like on any farm back then. Cattle disease, a harsh winter, a ruined crop... the usual. It wasn't all glamorous, especially for the fragile Alexandria.
"She was having a much more difficult pregnancy this time. Only four months into the pregnancy and she was bedridden. Samuel hated to leave her but he didn't trust the help to acquire the new shipment. So with great protest he left his young, sickly wife and spoiled children with the last two hired men.
"A couple days after Samuel left Alexandria had started to bleed. Joshua, the youngest hired man, was quickly sent to town to fetch the midwife." Alex paused with a slight shiver at her own memories of a stillborn, blood and death.
"Alexandria was hemorrhaging and the young maid couldn't stop it. The baby was born dead and it's mother took her last breath. If only the midwife had arrived, but Joshua had never made it to town. A stranger had found him on the road, caught and killed him for the sheer pleasure of it. Stripped him naked, beat him and left him for dead, after Joshua had begged for a ride to the midwives.
"The stranger got more then he bargained for when he found that women and children were less then a mile away, unguarded except for one man.
"He took to his dark stallion, riding through the twilight, the smell of death still on his cloths." Alex raised her eyes to Dusty's face, rapt with attention, food forgotten.
"Good heavens," Dusty said softly. "He's going to kill them all, isn't he?"
"No." Alex focused her attention away from those piercing blue eyes and began the tale again. "The stranger rode to the farmhouse, pleading illness and fatigue. He requested a safe haven for the night and it was granted. He was given the privilege of a guestroom right in the farmhouse. He congratulated himself for wearing fine clothes and speaking as a proper gentleman. No sneaking into the house for him.
"Though distressed to find the wife had died in childbirth it's said he helped to bury her and lay her soul to rest.
"He took a day, being as the next was Sunday, to console the family and their hearts to him. Even crueler for the insane rage that was to follow the day after.
"The first he disposed of was the last hired man. He did the same to him as he had to Joshua, but hung him from the barn rafters, taking perverse pleasure in carving a raven on his bare chest. Thus ensuring the name Raven's End for generations to come." Alex's own lunch was long forgotten.
"The eldest boy, Trevor, entered then, intent on finding the stranger and showing off his riding skills. Needless to say he never got that chance.
"Caught in that moment of bloodlust, power and rage the boy was helpless to escape. Many years later some people would try to believe that the murderer had never meant to kill the child. That if the boy had only arrived later he would have been spared the rage and encountered that calm aura that comes after a kill. I don't think so anyway, the stranger had no soul, no conscience that would ensure peace.
"He snapped the boy's small neck and carried him like a treasured nephew to the screaming arms of the maids. Said he'd been riding and was thrown from his horse. The maids called for Isaac, but of course he was dead. They wrapped the boy’s body for burial.
"The stranger was restless for more blood, for the release into a warm, screaming body beneath him.
"Samuel was due back in two days, no more waiting. Alicia and Browning were napping in their room, unawakened by the screams. The stranger cornered the older maid as she went to the barn for the shovels.
"He raped and mutilated her body while her horror filled eyes could not be torn from Isaac. They would have been married in the spring.
"After slitting her throat he went to the house for the other maid, far younger and prettier. He would take her with him for a night of pleasure. But as he was tying her up Alicia, the middle child, with the soft downy hair and sea-green eyes, stumbled into the room, awakened from sleep by a nightmare. Poor children, they have quite the reputation for interrupting at the worst possible time."
"I'll say." Dusty breathed, entranced and horrified. "But the dresser-"
"I'm getting to that." She waved her hand in the air, shushing Dusty. "He stabbed her and stuck her in the dresser drawer-"
"Shhh. I'm not finished yet."
"S'ok. He stuffed Alicia in the dresser, and was dragging the maid out when he heard the crunch of wagon wheels on gravel. Samuel had returned early, worried about his young wife-"
"Hope he caught and killed the son of a bitch." Dusty interrupted again.
"No, he didn't and he never would. James, the last hired man, almost caught him but got his ear sliced off for his trouble. Samuel searched the house and found the maid, bound, in shock, and traumatized into silence.
"No one is entirely sure what happened next. The maid and the hired man were sent to town to get the sheriff.
"Some say Samuel saw the tiny curls sticking out of the dresser, some say it was the corner of her dress. His scream of outrage woke poor little Browning, and not to be outdone by his older brother and sister, he entered the room, startling his father.
"When the sheriff found them the little boy's head had been snapped clean off by the corner of a dresser drawer striking him in the forehead. Samuel was found, consumed by grief, rocking the boy in his arms. 'I didn't know. I didn't know,' where the last words he said."
"My god, he killed his son. He thought the killer had come back?" Dusty's eyes had paled to an icy blue.
"Apparently. After that he burned every dresser and even the barn. He would have burned the house down but the doctor was sent for and he was taken away."
"Ok, now at the beginning of the story you said you didn't believe it. Why not?"
"Oh, I believe every bit of the story, because it was all written in the maids diary and in the files of the town's history, complete with newspaper clippings." Alex nodded to herself, memories of reading it when she was a child when she had visited her aunt, coming back to haunt her.
"Then, what? I missed something?" Dusty's eyebrows knit together as she went back over the story in her mind.
"What I don't believe is the myths, rumors, whatever that came later. Tales of ghosts haunting the place and stuff. Restless spirits. No one's been able to live here long without dying, or leaving in a big hurry. They've seen terrible things here that have happened throughout the centuries. Some have even claimed to hear the children crying late at night."
"Have- have you heard them?"
"Nothing but the wailing of the wind and the settling of the house." Alex shrugged.
Dusty finally leaned back in her chair, stretching the stiffness out of her back. "Wouldn't other families bring dressers though?" She asked reasonably.
"Many have tried and failed. My own aunt's sister, the oldest one, not my mother, suffered severe brain damage when a dresser mysteriously fell over and pinned her beneath it." Her mother and sister had probably been horsing around and knocked it over themselves and had been terrified enough to blame it on non-existent ghosts "No dressers were allowed in the house after that."
"Wow, pretty scary."
"The place has a history. That I can feel." Alex admitted with another shrug of her shoulders. They finished their sandwiches, bypassing the now cold soup. "I'm gonna take Jack for another run. Do you want any help with the furniture before I go?"
"I can handle it, thanks for the offer."
"Be back in a few hours. There are clean sheets in the hall closet." Alex called over her shoulder as she set her dishes in the sink on her way out. She wandered out to the barn, her thoughts on crying children, blood and death. So much had gone wrong... for so many people here. What if there was a curse? And what if it now involved Dusty? She shut the past and the memories out of her mind, and saddled Jack for a long, exhausting ride.
To the query, "What is a friend?" his reply was "A single soul dwelling in two bodies."-
Aristotle, Greek philosopher
"Hey Jack, baby, how ya doin'?" Alex scratched behind his ears while he affectionately lipped at her fingers resting on the wooden rail. After a moment of silent communing with her horse she opened the gate to the small corral attached to the side of the barn.
With practiced ease she swung up on the stallion's back, without so much as a stirrup or fence rail. The horse had no bridle, not even a halter to string a lead from, yet he stood perfectly still.
"Where to this afternoon, boy?" The horse flicked his ears around, and turned an intelligent eye to his mistress, then flicked his ears towards the woods and the hills beyond.
"Are you sure?"
The horse snorted and pawed at the ground. Coiled muscles gathered under her thighs, and with one command they would race across the fields.
The creaking of cold metal startled both rider and horse. Alex swiveled her head to see Dusty unloading bags from the jeep.
Across the driveway, snow and ice, two sets of eyes met and held. In that second something changed, subtle as it was, and both realized their futures would never be the same.
The realization passed too quickly to process, but with a whoop of joy Alex urged Jack into a full out gallop across the field, over the low stone fence and beyond to the woods and the mountain.
Dusty stopped staring long enough to grab her bags and head up onto the porch. With one last glance at Alex she entered the house and set about moving furniture and unpacking her bags.
"Howard called while you were out."
They were bundled in blankets, bathed in candlelight, on the floor of the living room, enjoying a crackling fire.
"What did he want?" Alex asked, not really caring.
"Dunno. He refused to talk to me. " Something's wrong. What do I say to her?
What do you even care, a little voice piped up.
Fuck off, another voice chimed in.
"He's an ass, Dusty. I'm sorry you had to talk to him." Alex stared into the fire with little emotion, her words dull and lifeless.
"I've dealt with worse." Dusty replied.
"Dusty?" Alex began, a forlorn note creeping into her voice.
"Do you believe- believe that um..." Alex turned startled green eyes on Dusty, shocked at what she'd started. She wanted to continue but was suddenly unable.
"Believe what?" Dusty prompted gently, resisting the sudden urge to wrap the young woman in a fierce bear hug.
Alex tried a different approach. "My great, great... well, too many greats, um, grandmother believed that long, long ago people were born with four arms and legs, two heads and one heart and soul. The gods grew jealous and split the people so that they then had two legs, two arms, and one head. And ever since the split each half yearns to be reunited with the other half of it's soul. Some souls searching for generations..." Alex’s voice trailed off painfully, and Dusty found she had to strain to hear the next whispered words. "I'd thought I'd found my other half."
"What happened?" Dusty asked with gentle hesitation. Don't push her, a voice warned.
"He... he was a police officer." Alex shuddered, choking on the next words. "He answered a domestic violence call, and never came home." Silent tears traveled down her pale cheeks.
"I'm sorry." Dusty enclosed a chilly hand in her own.
"I-I- I was pregnant at the time, but I miscarried." Alex's shoulders shook with memories she'd tried to block out for two years. "My husband and our son died the same night." She was unable to stop the tears and the pain and her whole body shook with sobs.
Terrified of the emotions brought to the surface Dusty gently wiped the tears away and held out her arms if Alex needed them. She did, and fell into strong arms. Dusty wrapped them both in one blanket and murmured in her friend's ear. "Shhh, it's the past. We all have a past, but we go on."
"I still hurt inside."
"I know... I know." Dusty rocked her gently, surprised how well the smaller woman fit against her body.
This is familiar, safe, Alex's subconscious recognized. I could stay like this forever. No... With a ragged breath Alex pulled away from Dusty's strength. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to unload on you like that."
A painful silence descended. They both wished the embrace didn't have to end.
"Best to get some sleep now." Alex sighed as she folded the blanket and placed it on the sofa. "I need to get back to town in the morning and see about fixing the truck. Howard will be more then willing to rub it in my face when I call him back." She sniffed and rubbed her eyes.
"Don't give him the satisfaction. I'll drive you into town tomorrow." Dusty gave her a crooked grin.
"Thanks. Sleep well then."
Alex left Dusty staring into the fire's flames.
A dark haired woman rode through the fields, cries of battle escaping her smiling lips as she took out the enemies with precise swings of an ancient sword.
Though the enemy was brave no more dared approach and she leapt from the horse with a terrifying wry cry, landing in the midst of five men. In the space of a heartbeat they lay about her, dead. Battle lust coursed through her veins and she ran into the next fray without hesitation or fear.
"Kill them all." The mantra echoed. And she did.
In the aftermath of blood she scoured the battlefield with little emotion for the fallen. Any enemy left breathing she dispatched to the other side. Her own men picked up their fallen and wounded.
Huge pyres were erected and the fires and wind sent their ashes on the journey to the sky. The dark warrior stood on the hilltop, a gentle breeze carrying blood and death to her sensitive nose. Something tugged at her.
Something forgotten, something unfinished. The forgotten ached in her heart, and tore at her dead soul. What was it? Who was it?
Her pale blue eyes searched the battlefield. The enemy was dead, her homeland protected, nothing left unfinished there.
Dark, ominous clouds began to sweep in from the northern mountains, bringing brilliant flashes of light and thunder that rumbled the ground beneath her feet. Great gales of water began to shower down, obliterating the sky, battlefield and pyres. The world around her was lost in torrents of dark rain.
Furiously she blinked against the rain, holding up her arms to protect herself from the biting wind that carried it.
And just as suddenly as the storm started it was over. The warrior lowered her arms to look once again into the valley, but the valley was gone. In it's place was a dry, barren desert, earth scorched and cracked from heat and lack of rain. The sun's brilliance upon the sand was blinding and she shielded her eyes with one arm as she stepped forward.
Heat rolled off the earth in great dry clouds, choking her. The woman walked because she had no choice, she knew what she was looking for was here. She would die searching if it came to that.
The sun was high in the sky when she sank to her knees.
"Help..." Tongue swollen, lips bloodied and parched, words were useless. Water, oh God, I can't stop now, so close... I know I will find you. If not this lifetime, then the next... my love...
Dusty's eyes flew open as the first rays of the winter sun warmed her pillow. With a shuddering breath she stretched against the twisted blankets and searched the unfamiliar surroundings.
Somehow I thought, her feet touched the icy floor, that I'd wake up much warmer then this. A rueful smile touched her lips when she realized how thirsty she was; turning to a grimace when she realized her bottom lip was split and bloody. What the hell?
After slipping into her robe and a thick pair of socks she made her way to the bathroom, noticing on her way that Alex's bed was empty and there was no trace of the young woman in the house.
Hope she didn't decide to walk to town. The thought spurred Dusty into a flurry of activity. She showered and dressed in record time.
With a small breakfast of a bagel and coffee filling her stomach she put on boots and coat and wandered onto the front porch, slightly worried. Her worries were put to rest however when she finally spotted Alex trotting Jack across the field to the barn.
Where does she go? The question played idly in Dusty's mind as she crunched over the snow to meet the horse and his rider at the barn door. "Good morning, Alex."
"Morning." Alex smiled over Jack's shoulder after dismounting, meeting deep blue eyes. "Sleep well?" A nod from Dusty. "What? No ghosts waking you?"
Something flickered in Dusty's eyes and Alex wasn't sure why, but it sent her heart racing. With an embarrassed cough she led Jack into his stall.
"Just dreams." Dusty answered after a brief silence.
Good one's I hope, but Alex didn't speak out loud.
"Ready to get your truck?" Dusty interrupted Alex's thoughts as they stepped outside and back into the snow's blinding glare.
"Sure, let's go."
The ride into town was silent, filled only with left over remnants of dreams and emotional high's and lows. It was a companionable silence, each seeming to sense the other's need for solitude.
They pulled up to Dixie's Diner, Dusty parking the Jeep hood to hood with the truck, should the truck simply need a jump-start.
As Alex suspected the truck had finally died. Scrounging around under the hood, white breath billowing, fingertips freezing, proved only frustration. The sidewalks were now busy with lunch patrons and Alex waved off each good intentioned, curious offer of help.
Dusty leaned one booted foot on the fender of her Jeep, waiting patiently as Alex tinkered uselessly and bouted several streams of curses.
"Guess I'll have ta tow it." The young woman popped her head up from the monstrous beast with a snarl of disgust. There was a line of grease from her ear to her jawbone. "Piece of junk anyway. Kinda hoped it'd last me through the winter though."
Just as Alex stood on the rusted fender to reach the high hood Dusty's arm shot up and snatched it down for her. A brief snarl twisted Alex's face, but one look at those sincere blue eyes and Dusty's concern and she shook it off. "How 'bout lunch?"
"Mmm, sounds good." Dusty reached without thought to wipe the grease off Alex's cheek.
"Ok, we've got three choices." A playful little grin spread across her face as she gently pulled away from Dusty's touch. "Dixie's, Dixie's or... Dixie's." She ticked off on her numb fingers.
"Well if those are my only choices," Dusty swatted Alex's shoulder playfully, "I guess I'll choose.... um..." she knitted her eyebrows in mock concentration. "Dixie's?"
"I knew you'd see it my way." Alex chuckled as she made a gallant bow and ushered Dusty into the warm interior of the diner.
"Laughter mends the soul."- Source Unknown
Dusty burped appreciatively as she settled sideways in the booth.
"Pig." Alex admonished with a grin, as she let out her own burp, louder and longer.
"Nice." Dusty drawled, raising one dark, sarcastic eyebrow.
"Thank you." An easy, relaxed grin and the two women felt a soothing peace that was able to endure over dishes clattering, harried waitresses and squalling babies.
"What now?" Dusty asked absently, content for the moment to enjoy her full belly, the warm diner and the pleasant company.
"Guess I'll give Joe a ring. He'll be happy to pick up the truck.. He's been telling me for two years he'd take it off my hands for parts." Alex opened one lazy eye to glance, unseen, at Dusty's profile. "Then I thought, if you want to, we could catch the movie playing-"
"Good morning, Alex."
Ah, shit. "Morning, Howard." Alex returned evenly, glancing at Dusty and seeing the same epithet briefly before the dark woman masked her face. Alex had to stifle the sudden urge to giggle.
"Randy sent me over to pick up some lunch." Randy, owner of the Emporium, was his oldest brother. "You never called me back yesterday, Alex. Didn't you get my message?" He cast an accusing eye at Dusty.
She refused to show any emotion.
Cold-hearted bitch, he seethed, probably one of those big city dykes. I'd better keep an eye on Alex, protect her innocence. At least from her, his grin turned outwardly and now he focused it on Alex. "Would you care to go to the movies with me this evening?"
"Oh, Howard, I'm sorry. There are just so many things to do at the Ranch today." She batted long, sandy lashes at him. "I've decided to fix the place up and take on some tenants."
"How nice. Would you like a ride home?" Howard's eyes traveled over Alex's body.
Both women noticed, one ignoring it instantly, the other willing him to do something more obvious so that a broken arm would be warranted.
"No, thank you." Just take a hint and leave, Alex thought, unkindly.
"How will you get home?" He asked.
"Well, Howard, I came to town in Dusty's Jeep, I'm expecting I'll leave in it." Alex watched his face pale and eyes widen. Maybe I shouldn't have said that.
Howard's cheeks turned a bright red. "I don't want you in that woman's car."
"Don't tell me what I can and cannot do." Alex replied through gritted teeth, hands clenching into angry fists under the table.
"I don't want you hanging around this- this- queer!"
If he's trying to shock me, he's not. If he's trying to anger me, then I'm way past angry. Alex burst from the booth, surprising both Dusty and Howard.
"Listen closely, you bastard." Anger dripped from every word. Dusty silently stood as well. "I left NY to get away from bigoted idiots like you. I will not tolerate you calling my friend a queer. If she is a lesbian or not then it's none of your goddamned business. Is that understood?"
Howard stood slack jawed, starring at this little woman he'd thought easy to bed. Right now she was a fiery little bitch that was making a nasty little scene.
"Is? That? Understood?"
"Yeah." Agree now, take care of this later, Howard promised.
"Good. Now apologize."
"Apologize?" He sputtered.
"That's not necessary, Alex." Dusty said gently as she carefully searched Alex's face. So much anger there, what have you been through? "Alex?"
Hesitantly a wild set of sea green eyes met Dusty's calm ice blue's. The wild eyes grabbed onto the strength of the calm blue. "I'm sorry, Howard." That was as calm as she was willing to get and she walked out of the diner without a backward glance, cursing out small town prejudices and stupid farm 'boys.'
"Alex? Alex!" Dusty jogged to catch up, reaching out automatically to grab Alex's coat sleeve. Alex spun angrily, her face instantly softening when she saw it was Dusty.
"Been better." Was all Alex said, not trusting her voice.
"Why don't we just head back to the Ranch?" Dusty's hand lingered on Alex's coat. "We can work out our frustrations cleaning the house."
Embarrassed by her actions Alex pulled away from Dusty and headed back to the Jeep.
It wasn't until the Jeep was out of town that Alex finally spoke. "I always dreamed of having a bed and breakfast. Mark, my husband, and I were going to get away from it all. Aunt Julie left me the ranch eight years ago and Mark decided about three years ago he'd had enough. We were planning to come out here, tried to save up some money, because the place needs a new roof..." She trailed off when she finally realized she was rambling. "Anyway, I need to make some money and I'd considered renting out a few rooms." She paused again. "And I'd like your help, if you're still offering it."
"I'll help. Maybe stay on a few more weeks. Ya know, help get it up and running?" I can't believe I just said that. I like her and it's been a long time since I've had someone to call a friend. But I thought you were moving on, a little voice reminded her. "I'll still pay for the room, of course."
Alex nodded and silently regarded the woman sitting next to her. Dusty's eyes, emotional and bright, spoke against her stoic face. Her eyes said everything Dusty's body could or would not say.
And she wants to stay? Alex couldn't form the words to say thanks. They stuck in her throat, curled around her tongue and she was speechless.
"What the hell is this?" Dusty poised the question. They were rummaging through the downstairs storage room after getting a review of what was in the upstairs rooms. Dusty was holding up a dust-covered object.
"Damned if I know," Alex replied, "Aunt Julie kept everything, as did my ancestors apparently." She sneezed through the dust, wiping her nose on her sleeve, and bent back to the box she was rummaging through.
The whole house needed new paint, but they'd decided to wait till tomorrow to tackle that issue and were intent on simply exploring the contents of the rooms.
For a moment Alex sat dumbfounded, staring at the object in her hands. What the hell? With a gasp she dropped it back in the box, breaking something.
"Are you alright? Dusty raced over, alarmed.
"It's a-a..." Alex pointed to the offensive object in question. With two fingers Dusty picked it up and held it at arm's length as if it had fangs.
"It is." Dusty suddenly let out a low chuckle. It was an old fashioned vibrator, a little broken maybe, but still in one piece.
"God, I hope that monstrosity wasn't my aunt's." Alex laughed.
"Actually, it's more your grandmother's generation."
That brought out fresh peels of laughter from Alex, and suddenly she was laughing so hard she snorted. Which started Dusty laughing as well, and soon they were rolling on the floor, hysterical tears of laughter running down Alex's cheeks.
"Oh... damn... this... hurts. Stop laughing, Dusty."
"Why? It's funny. You're funny, making that snorting pig like noise."
"I do not sound like a pig!"
"Yes, you do."
"Do not." Suddenly Alex pounced on the heap of a dirty, tired body on the floor. She straddled the dark woman's chest and pinned her arms to the floor. "Take it back."
"Nope. You sound like a pig." Dusty grinned and squirmed, settling Alex into a position where she wouldn't be crushed.
Alex struggled briefly to hold down Dusty's powerful arms, all the while grinning like an idiot. This is too easy, she realized suddenly. Oops.
Dusty raised her arms and sent Alex flying backward onto the floor.
"Owww." Alex complained cheerfully, scurrying back to avoid the other woman's advance. But she backed into a crate and her destiny was sealed. Suddenly she was flung to the floor and before she could blink her arms were pinned to the cold hardwood.
"Give up yet?" Dusty leered down at her unsuspecting victim.
"Never." Alex struggled vainly, then lay still, exhausted. "Grrr, alright, get off me." She huffed.
"Nope. Not until you admit you snort like a pig."
"I do not." Alex glowered into smoky blue eyes.
"Do too." Dusty secured Alex's arms above her head with one hand and reached down to lightly tickle Alex's ribs.
"Stop!" Alex gasped through the laughter, and promptly snorted.
"Aha! Pig!" Dusty proclaimed in triumph.
Alex happily squealed like a pig as she struggled under Dusty, who began to laugh as well. Then Dusty snorted.
"Pig!" Alex cried.
"Am not." Dusty pouted, sounding hurt, then began to laugh all over again. They collapsed side by side on the floor, laughter finally spent.
"Ah, that felt good." Alex admitted, a little breathless. "What's the saying? 'Laughter mends the heart?'"
"Something like that."
For a long time they lay on the floor, oblivious to the cold and growing dark, arms and thighs touching lightly.
"I should go feed Jack."
"Yeah, I could go make something for dinner."
Neither moved. Another few minutes passed and Dusty sat up with a groan. She stretched and stood, reaching down a hand for Alex.
"Come on, pig." She pulled Alex to her feet.
"I'm not a pig." Alex's jaunty reply followed Dusty down the hall.
"In the secret recesses of the heart, beyond the teachings of this world calls a still, small voice singing a song unchanged from the foundation of the world. Speak to me in sunsets and starlight. Speak to me in the eyes of a child, you who call me from a smile, my cosmic beloved. Tell me who I am, and who I will always be. Help me to remember."- Joan Borysenko
Jack taken care of, dinner eaten, sorting junk put on hold till tomorrow, the two friends were once again in front of the crackling fire, Dusty inquiring as to why there were no TV's.
"Hmmm, no TV?" Alex stepped casually over to the far wall and ran her hand lightly over one spot. There was a tiny, almost inaudible click and the panel slid away to reveal a 27" color TV, VCR, and shelves full of tapes.
"My aunt's one indulgence. Couldn't live without those soaps when her little black-n-white died." Alex pulled out the remote and flipped on the TV. "What do you wanna watch? TV? Or a movie?"
"Whatever's on TV is fine with me." Dusty replied sleepily. She was comfortable on the couch, slightly surprised she was having so much trouble keeping her eyes open.
There were no battlefields or deserts this time. Tall, gangly trees surrounded her. The air was rich with moisture and the scent of pine and the earth.
"Mi ionuin? Where are you?" The raven-haired woman stepped through the tree's shadows, deeper into the heart of the forest.
"Ionuin?" She called again.
"Dorcha aon." A gentle voice called to her. "Put down the claiomh, and come to me."
"Ionuin, where are you?"
"Laoch, you reek of death. Blood stains your soul."
Why the hell are we speaking in two languages? And how do I understand Gaelic? It's just a dream, like all the others. The dark woman continued her search through the forest.
"Then why do they feel like memories, loach?"
"Whoever you are, I am not a warrior." She stood, and turned to survey the trees. Where is she?
"Then what of the claiomh?"
The woman, Dusty, looked down upon her hands for the first time. Clasped tightly in her right hand was a thick broadsword, a claiomh, dripping with blood. More blood was splattered along her arms and chest. "I don't understand." She whispered, clearly shaken.
"Tu gabh gan goil. Tu anam is docha."
A rolling mist circled Dusty's ankles and crawled slowly up her body.
"Ionuin!" Dusty cried. "I can't live without you."
The mist rose around her shoulders.
"Tu anam will aise`irigh, laoch." There was the unmistakable sound of a bow string begin released... a gasp... and the mist engulfed Dusty, but not before she caught a glimpse of startled, terrified green eyes.
Enough of this shit. Dusty ran across the frozen landscape, barren of all but craggy white mountains in the distance. Suddenly there she was. A small figure, strapped to a cross, short bangs whipping in the harsh wind.
"Alex?" Dusty stopped. It was her, but it wasn't.
The young woman didn't answer, just lifted sorrowful eyes, mouthing words that Dusty could not hear as the wind blew across the landscape and obliterated everything in a blinding swirl of snow.
"Wait! Who are you?" Dusty ran across the snow, sinking up to her knees and finally her waist. Still she pushed forward. Her body was numb, lungs aching, heart beating wildly. "Don't leave me!"
She could go no further now. The snow encased her body. Her heart ached. "Don't leave me." The last whispered breath of a dying woman.
The snow swirled and parted, revealing herself on a cross, next to the blond woman who resembled Alex so closely. This time she heard the words... "I love you.."
Dusty knew that voice. Knew she had to survive. "Even in death... I will never leave you!" And she knew it to be true. She had never left, never really died. The love in her heart had seen lifetimes. And each time...
She woke to face the woman beside her. One small hand was tucked under her chin, and soft snores passed her parted lips.
"Ionuin." Dusty jumped at the sound of her own voice, calling for her beloved. I dreamed... there was a forest, a voice, then snow, and I was searching again. It's not just my guilty conscience, right? The dream faded almost completely as she searched for the TV remote.
Alex struggled with dreams of her own. Someone was calling to her, in a language long since dead.
"Ionuin?" The voice was familiar, and desperate, as if she too had been searching a long time. She? Yes, a rich, deep voice that reached into her heart and set her body on fire.
"I am here!" Alex cried, desperate to be reunited with the other half of her soul. But it was not to be. In one second she was gazing into the pale blue eyes of her destiny, the next the whoosh of an arrow as it flew from a hidden quiver. Then darkness.
Alex woke with a gasp, clutching at her heart, sure to find an arrow piercing her skin. Nothing. Nothing but a deep ache. She shifted and stretched with a groan, realizing that she was still on the couch, and that she wasn't alone.
"You alright, Alex?" A deep voice asked and momentarily Alex was transported back to the dream. Pale blue eyes, a desperate voice seeking her beloved....
"Just a bad dream." Alex said.
"Tell me about it." Dusty replied sarcastically.
"Yeah." Dusty sighed, still flipping through channels. "I woke up about an hour ago and there's not a damn thing on TV."
Alex clenched and unclenched a square of blanket. What had her dream meant? They had never been this... vivid... this frightening before. Too weird. Maybe talking about it would help. "In my dream I was in a forest. The trees were tall and thin. It was a young forest but it felt old. I can't explain it." She paused, considering, and missed the stiffening of Dusty's jaw. "I was searching for something, or rather someone. Just before I woke up I got a glimpse of the person's eyes. Then suddenly I was dying-"
Dusty's gasp was uncontrollable. "You..." and she turned to stare into green eyes she'd seen filled with terror. The same person she had hung on a cross next to. The same... "How- how did you die, in the dream?"
Alex couldn't tear her eyes from seas of blue. Deep pools she could forever drown in. "There was this noise, like... whoosh..." She demonstrated with a slice of her hand through the air. " and when I looked down-"
"An arrow was sticking out of my chest." Alex blinked rapidly. "How did you know?"
"I have many skills." Dusty informed her dryly.
"I don't understand." Alex murmured on a shaky breath.
The dark haired woman inclined her head to the side, eyebrows furrowed in thought. "Neither do I. I had vaguely the same dream."
Alex looked up in surprise. "Tell me about it?" It was a soft, hesitant question as if Alex was afraid to know; yet something deep inside her demanded an answer. Demanded to know why her heart ached when Dusty was asleep in the other room. Why her heart pounded when those blue eyes were intent on her.
At first Dusty couldn't form the words to pass her trembling lips. "I've had other dreams, similar to it, in the fact that I'm always searching for something. I didn't realize until last night that what I was searching for wasn't something, but someone." Never before had she told these strange dreams to someone, let alone someone she'd only known for a few short days. Though somehow it felt a lot longer. "The dreams are so real, almost like..."
"Memories?" Alex supplied.
"Yeah, like memories. Of far away places, long ago... some not so long ago. Once I dreamed I was a wild west desperado, a business woman selling illegal liquor during the prohibition, and a soldier..." Her voice trailed off as she looked questionably at her blond companion.
"I always used my dreams for fiction. Some were about ancient gods, warlords, and kings. That was a juicy piece of writing, let me tell. The words just flew onto the computer as if they'd already been written."
Dusty looked at Alex, startled. "Damn. Alex- Alex Casings. THE Alex Casings? Author of 'Dark Warrior?' I can't believe I didn't realize it before now." Quite frankly she looked stunned. "It hit the NY Times Best Seller List, but there was no picture, only a little biography..."
Alex's smile was self-deprecating. "I don't photograph well."
Hardly. You're beautiful. "Nonsense." She replied with a growing sense of alarm. Something was happening she was powerless to stop. Maybe I don't want to stop it. That made alarms bells start ringing clearly.
"Well, whatever. Maybe the house is finally getting to me after two years of being alone." Alex considered.
"You know I couldn't put that book down." Dusty's expression took on a far away look. "It was like- like I was there... that I was the warrior whose dark heart broke and her bloody soul was healed when she met her companion. In a way it gave me the courage to leave Marie-" She gave a startled gulp when she realized what she'd said, but Alex seemed neither surprised or repulsed, and since Howard had already let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, she continued. "We were partners in the PI business. It was small, but successful, or so I thought. I also thought I loved her and could trust her."
"What happened?" Alex gently laid her hand over Dusty's.
"We had a client... " Dusty's hand was alive with feeling where Alex touched her. "Anyway, I found out she was sleeping with him. And to add salt to the wound I also found out she was stealing from me. Marie took the company right out from under me." She shrugged finally, as if it was all water under the bridge, even though clearly it wasn't.
"I'm sorry." Was the only thing Alex could say that wouldn't sound pathetically cliched and stupid. "Is that when you packed up and left?"
Dusty gave a weary chuckle. "No. I well, I decided to get even first."
"Even? How?" Alex held her breath. Had she stepped too far? Was it really any of her business? Why was Dusty opening up now? I can handle this. I can? Yeah.
"It's a long story, Alex, and I'm tired." Dusty removed her hand from Alex's, still feeling her warmth there. It left her feeling unsettled.
Hands off then. Alex was surprisingly disappointed. "Ok. I'll see you in the morning."
Dusty was off the couch and around the coffee table before the hurt in Alex's voice cut through her own and made her turn back around. She rested on her knees and placed her hands on Alex's hands, resting on her thighs.
The simple contact sent a shiver up both their spines.
"I'll tell you while we're painting tomorrow, ok?"
Alex shrugged, trying to ignore the rising heat in her face and other parts of her anatomy. "Ok."
"Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good."- Samuel Johnson
Fingers tapped incessantly at a computer keyboard as a creative mind worked furiously. Alex's fingers couldn't keep up with the flow of her thoughts. The sun had risen when she'd finally crawled, blurry eyes into bed, fully clothed.
Dusty listened to the tap of the keys while she tossed and turned on the bed. She hadn't meant to cause that hurt sound in Alex's words and she'd regretted it instantly.
Her thoughts strayed to Marie again and noted with surprise the striking similarities between her ex and Alex. The same golden hair, intelligent eyes in that baby soft face... Both were artistic and smart, but where Marie was shallow, Alex was compassionate and caring. Marie had been a wild cat in bed and Dusty couldn't help but wonder what Alex would feel like below... or above her. Alex was a fiery spirit. Would her body burn and writhe, or was she quiet and gentle? Dusty suspected she was both, and so much more. Soft skin... hungry lips... the curve of her... goddamn, I need a cold shower.
The gunslinger hooked her thumbs into the loop of her belt and sauntered casually behind, waiting to see if she'd be noticed.
The tale of the wild west wrote itself as the others had, taken from dreams... memories of a past lifetime? Didn't matter.
Dusty had interrupted Alex for breakfast but was waved away. Then later for lunch and got the same response. Alex was one with the muse and couldn't be bothered with such trivial things as food and a shower.
Slowly she turned and studied the early morning crowd as the townsfolk went about their morning business and chores. A glimpse of a black Stetson, the metal gleam of two shiny Colts... it is her.
A tray clanked down on the tabletop and Alex looked up, startled.
"Sorry, didn't mean to scare you." Dusty apologized. "I brought you something to eat."
"Thanks." As her stomach growled Alex picked up the sandwich with a wry smile. She bit into it hungrily and chewed furiously. Thoughts were still chaotic in her mind and she had to get back to work quickly or loose the finicky muse.
"What are you working on?"
"Huh? Oh, this. Um, well..." She gestured at the screen, helplessly embarrassed. "Guess you inspired me last night."
The look on Dusty's face was priceless. Alex grinned sheepishly. "Really. You know, about the dreams you had? The wild west desperado?"
"You're writing that? Now?"
"No. It seems to be writing itself. I can't stop."
"Can I read it?"
Alex hesitated. And curse it? Alex lived on the solid belief that if a story was read while still being written it would never, in her lifetime, be finished. But well... one look at those puppy dog eyes... "Maybe when I get this chapter done?" She relented. "And then you can tell me if it's any good."
Of course it'll be good. "Sure. Hey, do you want me to go pick up some paint while you write then?"
Alex blinked. She'd completely forgotten. "Um, I forgot about it really... there... ah... the checkbook's around here somewhere. Do you want me to go with you?" Alex searched through the desk for the checkbook.
Before Dusty could reply Alex flashed the thin book triumphantly. "We never decided on what colors, did we? How about some basics and we can mix whatever for whatever?"
She's asking my opinion? "Sounds good to me."
Alex wrote out the check, signed it and left the amount slot blank. She didn't hesitate to hand it over to Dusty. Her fingers itched to return to the keyboard.
Dusty looked at the check resting in her hand, a startled eyebrow rushing to hide under dark bangs. "Um, ok... anything specific in mind?"
"Not really. Pick whatever you want, I trust you."
Trust? I don't trust myself and you trust me with this? Then- then I won't betray that trust. "Well, I'll be back in a few hours. Enjoy your writing." Dusty almost, almost leaned down to give Alex a good-bye kiss on the cheek.
"I will." Alex replied absently, hands already poised over the keyboard, thoughts colliding back to the past where a violent desperado was about to get the shock of her life.
An hour later Alex stretched and groaned, that chapter done. Time to take a serious break. She stood and stretched on her tiptoes, cracking her back, wiggling her shoulders and grimacing in pain. A moment later she jogging to the barn to check on Jack.
He was only slightly miffed at being ignored for so long, but quickly came around with carrots and a thorough grooming.
"My back's killing me, Jack." Alex admitted to the horse as he tried to follow her out of the stall. "We'll take a ride later, ok?" She promised as she shut the gate.
The wind pushed her roughly all the way across the drive and onto the porch. It howled through the trees and over the ancient wooden planks.
"I'm going. I'm going," she complained. But she stood a moment longer, hand poised over the doorknob, eyes turning to the woods. She shrugged at the sudden uneasy feeling, turned away and pushed open the door. It was captured by the wind and slammed shut behind her.
It was quiet in the house. Too quiet, save for the eerie howls and cries of the angry wind. Her shoulders ached and begged for activity. After she'd shedded her coat and placed in on the coat rack she trudged wearily into the kitchen.
Not hungry... she decided after browsing through the pantry, cupboards and refrigerator.
The silence was beginning to unnerve to her.
I wish Dusty were here. I should have remembered the paints sooner. We could be in on of the rooms right now, getting all messy and complaining about the cold.
The phone was ringing. I hope that's not Howard.
It was Randy, almost as bad.
"Yes. What's up Randy?"
"There's a Ms. Sheller here. She has one of your checks, ma'am."
Sheller? Oh yeah, Dusty. Geez. "So, what's the problem?"
"She says you gave her the check."
What a fucking moron. Of course I gave her the friggin' check. "I was very busy this morning, Randy, so I asked Ms. Sheller if she would run an errand and pick up some paint for the house. She was kind enough to go into town for me."
"Ms. Casings," his voice lowered to a whisper, "it's not wise to give out your checks to... strangers."
"I trust Ms. Sheller completely Randy, and I ask that you respect the check and give her the paints."
"Very well. Have a nice day."
Yeah, you too, idiot. She hung up the phone, envisioning Dusty at the counter, her eyes glaring, giving what Alex could only refer to as 'the look.' There was no other way to describe it, but intense.
And Dusty was doing just that. Giving Randy 'the look.' Of course she had anticipated the problem, but, what the hell, right? She wanted to do this for Alex. No cracking heads, she reminded herself as Randy took the check like it was covered in filth.
I'm going to break my teeth if I don't stop this. Need to relax. Marie and all that shit are far behind me now. I'm starting over.
"Ms. Sheller?" Randy repeated disdainfully. "Your receipt?" He waved the thin strip of paper in her face.
She snatched at it savagely and without another word left the Emporium.
Shoot 'em all, was the mantra as she got back in the Jeep. Shoot 'em all.
But it's a fact that wherever trouble goes, more trouble follows.
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