Twilight

by

Kim Pritekel

Prologue

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

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

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

Grabbing onto it, she steadied herself, looking over it, down into the murky depths of the river, which river? Hell, she couldnít remember. All she knew was it was some river in the podung town sheíd found herself in.

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

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

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

She felt a sting behind her eyes, and shook her head to try and get rid of it. She was also trying to shake the memories that were beginning to flood back in, her high wearing off, the numbness wearing off. She was starting to be able to think, and she didnít want to think, feel, remember.

The crowd, huge and loud, demanding, wanting every part of her that they could get, or could take. The band behind her, playing, exchanging glances with each other as Christine had stood there, microphone between her hands, forehead resting against the silver head. She had missed her cue twice over, and she didnít care. She couldnít remember the words, her mind and focus stolen from the good hit sheíd taken in her dressing room.

"What the fuck is the problem?" the lead guitarist, Joey, had asked, after heíd made a stroll up to the lead singer, playing the entire time.

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

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

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

(((

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

"Yeah, sing it, Christina!" Willow sang out, painted green eyes closing for just a moment before opening up again, only to squint with her raucous laughter. She wasnít exceptionally keen on Christina Aguilarís attitudes or public persona, but the girl could sing.

She loved the high she got after doing her gigs on the side. All the energy from the little rascals at the birthday party seemed to flow into her, giving her a natural high like nothing else. Even her job as a nurse on the childrenís ward couldnít affect her the way the parties did.

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

Life was good for Willow Bowman as she headed out of the small town of Williamsburg, Oklahoma, which wasnít terribly far from Oklahoma City, and headed further out toward her small ranch just outside.

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

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

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

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

Movement caught Willowís eye, and she looked to the rail of the bridge.

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

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

(((

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

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

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

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

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

Floating, floating, blackness, sinking, sinking, Ö.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Just lie there. Can you breathe?" the woman asked, and Christine nodded, taking several deep breaths just to make sure. "Okay. Stay here." The clown jumped up and ran, though the brunette couldnít figure out how she was running with massive, red shoes on. As a strange thought, she figured they must have made great flippers to swim in.

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

"Okay. Thanks, John. Weíll be here." Willow flipped her phone shut and knelt down next to her companion again. The woman laid there, staring up at the sky, then closed her eyes, bringing an arm up to rest across them. Sighing, Willow couldnít stop the questions from parading across her mind. Why had this woman done this? Was it suicide or an accident? Who was she? From the womanís dress, black tank top with black leather pants and heavy boots, she doubted she was from the area. Also the car had a Hertz sticker on the back window.

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

"Do you have a name, honey?" she asked quietly, reaching out to brush some of the hair from the womanís face.

"It doesnít matter." The arm came down, and blue eyes looked into Willowís briefly before turning away. Finally the woman sighed. "Christine," she said quietly.

"Nice to meet you, Christine, though Iím sorry it has to be under these kind of circumstances." Christine could see worry in the other womanís eyes, and that surprised her. They were total strangers, why should she care? Shit, those in Christineís life who knew her better than anyone on the planet didnít care about her, or show the kind of concern this woman did.

"Yeah. And you, Bozo?"

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

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

(((

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

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

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

"Just to make sure everything checks out okay," Willow said, holding the womanís hand.

"I donít need to be here," she muttered, then began to cough violently, more water coming up. Sheíd had similar fits the entire way in the ambulance. As doctors and ER nurses emerged on the scene, Willow knew it was her cue to back off; it was no longer her patient.

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

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

"Hey," she smiled, then sighed, "Guess I decided to go fishing at," she looked at her watch, noting the hands werenít moving, and a very menacing bubble was floating around the face. "Shoot," she turned to her friend. "some late hour." She leaned against the wall behind her, exhaustion finally taking root.

"What? What happened?" The nurse sat in the chair next to the blondeís, hands clasped between her spread knees.

"Oh, you wouldnít believe it." Willow opened her mouth to speak, then noticed two men walking through the automatic doors of the lobby. One wore a black suit, a large, black leather satchel in his hand. The other was also dressed in finery, though more understated- a white button up shirt, sleeves rolled to the mid-forearm, the shirt tucked into expensive looking gray slacks.

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

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

"Whoís that?" Rachel asked, standing.

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

"Iím Willow Bowman," the blonde said, also standing. The man looked at her, doubt evident in his eyes. "Itís a long story," she said softly. "What can I do for you, mister,"

"Robert Knowles." He extended a hand, which she took, after removing her ruined white glove. "I need to speak with you concerning tonightís events. I assume itís why you look like a drowned rat?" His smile was tight-lipped, and she wasnít so sure she liked this guy.

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

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

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

"Miss Bowman will join us once sheís cleaned up a bit." Knowles said. Yeah, Willow didnít like him.

(((

She splashed water all along the white sink, rinsing off the last vestiges of makeup, then looked at herself in the mirror. Her face was freshly cleaned, though there wasnít much she could do about her attire. She had unbuttoned the coverall-type clown suit, letting the top hang down, arms flapping around her legs. She was glad sheíd worn a tank top underneath it.

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

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

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

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

"No. Listen, Mr. Knowles,"

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

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

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

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

"No. Jack is simply Miss Grayís attorney. What youíll be doing will be for her, me, and Miss Grayís reputation."

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

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

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

"What is this?"

"Itís your promise that youíll keep what happened tonight to yourself," Robert said simply. She picked it up and began to scan over it.

"So," Willow drawled, eyes still scanning over the document, "Youíre saying I get the money if I keep my trap shut?"

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

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

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

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

"Iíll sign your contract here, Mr. Knowles, but I donít want your money."

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

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

Willow nodded, sighing warily. "Yes."

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

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

)))

The day outside was gray, the rain only stopped falling an hour ago. Blue eyes gazed out, noting that the sky didnít look quite as pregnant as it had earlier.

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

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

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

She flinched slightly at the sound of the key in the door to her room, but didnít turn around. Her gaze was still fixed on the gray world outside her window, little metal criss-cross bars embedded into the glass.

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

"Hello, Christine."

"Bob,"

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

"Quite a mess youíve gotten yourself into here," he said, his voice quiet, tired.

"So it would seem." She didnít look at him, in truth, not wanting to see the disappointment she knew sheíd find there.

"Everythingís been taken care of- hospital staff, doctors, ambulance drivers, the police, and the crazy little clown that fished you out." He snickered. ĎApparently sheís a nurse of some sort here."

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

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

"Whyíd you do it?" he finally asked, breaking the silence with the effect of a sledgehammer through glass.

"I donít want to talk about it with you, Bob." Christineís voice was low, silently suggesting a change of topic. He didnít bite.

"Christine, Iím your friend."

"Friend?" She turned on him then, blue eyes blazing brilliantly, expensive white teeth bared. "No, I donít think so. Iím no friend to you. Iím your meal ticket. Always have been,"

"Christine,"

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

"But the album,"

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

"Youíd be nothing without me and you know it," he spat. She looked at him over her shoulder.

"Maybe not. But Iíd still have me." Turning back to the window, shoulders falling. "Do something useful, Bob. Get me the fuck out of here."

 

Part 1

Willow turned up the volume on her stereo, continuing to fold laundry as she listened to the impassioned lyrics of ĎSwan Song,í the latest release by Christine Gray. The song was much slower than most of Grayís strong, alternative style. This one was just a piano, a cello in the background, and Christineís strong, but velvety voice.

Pair of unfolded socks still in hand, the blonde sat on the edge of the couch, closing her eyes as she listened to the words. Such sadness, emptiness. The song was filled with a longing for love and acceptance. It talked about how the world expected the singerís very soul, yet gave nothing return, as money, after all, canít buy happiness.

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

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

That was why she had stayed with her to the end, as long as she was allowed, She wanted Christine to know that she wasnít alone, she had someone there who cared and would hold her hand through her pain.

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

Shivering and soul tired, thatís what the nurses called it at the hospital when one of them had been so drastically affected by something at work, she had headed to the female employee locker room. Glad to find a pair of scrubs in the her locker that werenít too smelly, sheíd hurried into the shower room, stripping out of her pasted on clothing and had stepped under the warm, calming spray.

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

She couldnít reconcile in her own mind the face of the woman sheíd seen that night with the woman sheíd seen on television and on CD and magazine covers. What had caused someone like that, the world at her feet, money and fame in abundance, to do something so drastic?

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

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

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

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

"How is she, Brad?"

The large man looked down at the nurse, seeing the worry in her beautiful green eyes. If only she werenít married. He closed the chart, tucking it into a plastic chart box mounted to the wall above the nurses station.

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

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

"Sure. Sheís in three resting."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The face.

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

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

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

(((

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

Rachel said nothing, turning away to give her friend some privacy. She knew how compassionate Willow was, all too often taking the pain and fear of her patients onto her own shoulders. It always worried the ER nurse. Willow was one of the best nurses at Mercy, and she didnít want to see the young blonde burn out, especially with how stressful their job could be.

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

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

"You should go home, Willow. Itís late and Kevinís going to be worried."

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

"I will. No get to bed."

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

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

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

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

"Everything okay?" Willowís husband sounded a bit more awake, though his eyes were still closed.

"Mm hmm. Talk tomorrow," the blonde slurred, already asleep. It had been a long day.

ContinuedÖ

Part 2

Knowing fingers moved across the keys, blue eyes closed, body swaying with the music she was creating.

Christine had written more music in the past two months than she had in two years. Brows drawing as the emotion passed through her, filling her with a peace that only music could give her, the creation and execution of it, giving her a sense of control that she didnít have anywhere else in her life.

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

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

Therein lies the problem; she didnít want to face the ghosts.

Christine stroked the ivories with a loverís caress. Music was the only thing sheíd ever had that hadnít betrayed or demanded from her. Music gave itself willingly to her, allowing her to bring forth into the world freely and willingly, never asking questions or wanting answers. It just was. Through music Christine could tell a story, share a part of herself without the vulnerability that a similar conversation would have.

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

Thatís basically where her creative freedom had stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"All up here." The singer smiled.

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

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

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

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

"Tell me about that alley, Christine,"

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Well, thatís all up to you. Whatís on your mind?" I grinned, cocking an eyebrow. God he made my skin crawl.

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

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

"Christine!"

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

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

"What the fuck are you doing?" I hissed.

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

"Fine." Turning back to the guy who had to be blue balliní by now, I grinned sexily. "Sorry, but thereís been a change in plans."

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

"Iím so sorry, Chris, but I just had a really bad feeling about that guy," Adam said, his hand resting on my shoulder. Shrugging it off, I turned and started walking away. "Chris! Come on," I heard him running up behind me, but being the stubborn ass that I am, I didnít stop. All I could think about was I was going to use the money to add to my savings for my guitar.

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

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

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

"Dream on, Christine."

"Iím dreaming, sugar." Leaning down to his window, I lift my sunglasses and put them on my head. "Whatís up?"

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

"Nah, havenít seen Ďim," Iím about to hand the picture back when I look at it again. "Shit," I whistle between my teeth. The left side of his face is all scarred up, just like that actor guy.

"Whatís up, Christine? Youíve seen him, havenít you?" I nod, suddenly feeling sick to my stomach. My eyes meet the detectiveís.

"He killed Chantal, didnít he?"

"Who says he killed anybody?" The detectivesí blue eyes look into mine, like heís looking through me.

"Come on, Mike. Youíre homicide." I wave the picture around. He smiles, nodding as he taps the steering wheel with his thumb.

"You know I canít tell you anything, kid. You seen him or not?"

"Yeah, I seen Ďim. Just a few nights ago."

"You telling me the truth, Christine? This is serious shit. Donít play with me." He leans his arm out the car, letting it dangle over the edge, hand lightly tapping the driverís side door.

"Donít worry, Mikey," I hand the picture back with a smirk. "Youíre too cheap for me to play with." He threw his head back and laughed, waggling his finger at me.

"Careful, kid, or Iíll send vice after you."

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

He chuckled. "Alright, alright. Whatícha got for me?"

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

"Why donít you come downtown and tell me this, Christine?" he offers, hitching his thumb at the backseat of his car. I shake my head.

"Not happening, Mike. I got things to do today."

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

"What? What more you want?"

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

"Whoa, dude. I didnít blow him right there, ya know. I never got into his car." For some reason I feel the need to tell him I didnít go through with it. Mike Harmon was the only guy with a good job I knew who didnít treat me like the trash I am.

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

"I donít know what kind of car, but it was a sedan, a small one. It was a dark color, blue or black, I think."

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

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

"Okay, good, good. Why didnít you go with him?" he was eyeing me and I shrugged.

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

"He probably saved your life, kid."

"Maybe." I shrug, not figuring thatís a huge save.

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

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

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

 

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

"Yes, they are." The singer sighed, running her hands through her hair, leaving it in disarray. The counselor was quiet for a moment, studying her patient, who hadnít looked at her during the entire telling of her story.

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

"I donít know that I would have cared. There wasnít much to save, you know?" Christine leaned back into the soft cushions, hands tucked behind her head and her eyes on the older woman.

"Did they catch him?"

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

"Did you know the girls?"

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

"And what about your friend? Adam, was it?"

The singer couldnít keep the smile off her face. "Heís fine."

"Present tense? You keep in contact with him, then?"

"Oh, yeah," she turned that brilliant smile to Margaret. "Heís my boy, my kind of people."

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

Christine smiled, looking down at her lap. "Iíd rather not talk about that,"

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

"Yes, well itís hard to keep the weight on when four lines of coke is dinner for three days and nights at a time."

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

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

"What was that?"

"Huh?" Realizing sheíd been asked a question, the singer turned from the doors and walked back to the couch. "I feel okay, I guess. Very worn out."

"What are your plans once you leave here? Youíre to be released in what, three weeks?"

"So they tell me."

"Do you feel youíre ready?"

The singer studied the older woman, taking in her caring features, concerned eyes and motherly bulk, and felt something she hadnít felt in many, many years- she wanted a hug.

Shaking that thought out of her mind, she shrugged. "To be honest, Margaret, I donít know a damn thing anymore. Iím void of all thought and understanding of myself."

"What does that make you want to do? How do you want to deal with that?" Margaretís soft voice made the singer smile. She knew what she was getting at.

"Donít worry, Margaret," she said quietly, smiling at the counselor. "I think Iíve learned my lesson."

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

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

"The nurse?"

"The nurse." Christine dropped her head, shame filling her.

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

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

)))

"You about done with my air compressor, there, Kevin?"

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

"Hey there, Dick. Yeah, sorry about that. Come on into the garage. Iíll get it for you." The sandy-haired man said, patting the old manís back.

The blonde smiled as she turned back to her work. She had been telling Kevin for months to get the thing back to Dick, but it wasnít as if he listened. Stubborn male. She had no idea what heíd even been using the thing for in the first place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Have you seen the attachments to the air compressor?"

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

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

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

"Here it is!"

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

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

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

"Heís a cool old guy," her husband said, near bouncing into the house, tugging his Gatorade out of the fridge and drinking straight from the plastic jug.

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

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

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

"What can I say, I like my fruit punch Gatorade."

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

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

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

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

Willow couldnít keep the smile from her face, resting her chin on her palm. She had thought about the singer often, wondering what had happened to her, where sheíd ended up. Obviously the news was no help, nor E! or Entertainment Tonight.

Robert Knowels had done his best to keep things under raps at the hospital, let alone the rest of the world, she figured, She couldnít help but wonder how much that silence and privacy had cost Christine.

"Whoísí that? Sheís pretty," Kevin said, resting his chin on his wifeís shoulder.

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

"Who?" His sandy brows drew in confusion.

"Sheís not country, honey, you wouldnít know her." The blonde grinned, gently patting her husbandís stubbled cheek.

"Hey, Iíll have you know I once shook the hand of George Jones!" he said, looking at her with narrowed brows. She loved it when he looked at her like that. In that moment she knew exactly what he had looked like as a young boy. Though she was filled with love, she wasnít through torturing him just yet.

"Who?"

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

)))

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By this time World War II was over, and the country was desperate to have their spirits raised as so many of their young men didnít come home. The carnival was a great success, and Myra traveled all around the United States and Canada with Dale, she working as a weight guesser and dancer in one of the carnivalís many shows.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

It was dizzying, her logic.

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

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

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

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

"She started to really stomp her feet when I was over there earlier. I donít know," I shrug. "I just feel it." Hopping from the stool, I put it where it goes, against the wall by the door to the kitchen, where grandpa always sat when he took his boots off. Grandma would fillet him for supper if he got mud in her immaculate house.

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

 

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

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

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

Helen had been hurt by the question, but the blonde hadnít the heart to tell her mother that it was because she felt she had no security with her own parents, and so sought what she craved with her grandparents.

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

 

"Wow, look at that," I breathed, eyes huge with what I was seeing. The new mother and her colt lay together in the hay, the baby trying her very best to stand, though it just wasnít working. Her thin, bony legs werenít cooperating.

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

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

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

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

Blue eyes twinkle and grandma nods. "Star it is."

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

)))

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

Belching loudly, she put her hand to her stomach, feeling full and content. She walked over to the French doors, knowing sheíd miss the view when she left. It was amazing how colorful and beautiful things were to her again. Through the haze of the past ten years, the world around her had started to lose its color, flavor and beauty. How had she allowed herself to become numb to the sounds of life? Werenít they music of a sort?

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hey, gorgeous," he said, deep voice resonating through her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam closed his eyes, Adamís apple bobbing as he swallowed, trying to keep his emotions at bay. He couldnít keep the image out of his mind of a pale, bloated Christine from his tortured mind.

"Why didnít you call me?" he whispered. "I would have been there in a heartbeat."

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

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

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

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

"How?"

"It was all over the news, in the papers. They said it was because you had worn yourself to exhaustion, but I knew something was wrong. Iím only sorry I couldnít get here sooner."

Christine closed her eyes, taking several deep breaths, her stomach in knots. Now she wasnít so sure she should have eaten as much as she had for breakfast.

"Iím just glad youíre here," she finally said.

"And donít worry, Chris. Thereís no way you could ruin your career. They love you. Donít you know that?"

"I donít know, Adam. I just donít know anymore."

"How did you get out of the river?"

Christine grinned, feeling foolish. "A clown saved me."

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

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

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

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

Christine shrugged. "I have no idea. But I do know she saved my life. In a lot of ways," she blew out a breath.

ContinuedÖ.

Part 3

"Hey, girl!" Rachel jogged across the parking lot to her friend, and one time college companion.

"Hey." Willow smiled, stopping her path to the building. Rachel grinned, out of breath from her short run. "Whatís up?" The blonde nurse shifted her bag from one shoulder to the other, already in her scrubs for the nightís shift.

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

"Iím so glad sheís doing better," she said quietly, glancing up at her friend, also nodding.

"I know. Did you tell Kevin about it?"

"No." Willow sighed. "I know he wonít say anything, but, I donít know," she shrugged, a sheepish grin tugging at her lips. "He didnít even really know who she was when I pointed it out to him yesterday. I think the specialness of it would be lost on him, you know?"

"Yeah."

"Did you tell Connor?"

"Yeah. And donít worry, he wonít say anything, either." Rachel said, taking the paper back, stuffing it back into the bag. "Sometimes it still amazes me that she was here," the red head indicated the building they were both walking toward.

"I know." The blonde was silent for a moment. She and her friend hadnít talked about it since it had happened, both afraid to. What if someone else heard them? Was it breaking the rules of the contracts they had signed? "It was so scary that night, Rache. I couldnít believe my eyes when I saw someone plunge off the bridge."

"Youíre brave, Wills. I donít know that I would have jumped in after them."

"Sure you would have. Youíre a nurse, itís instinct."

"Not to risk my life, it isnít." She smiled, Willow chuckling lightly. "I give total props to you, my friend. That was really an incredible thing."

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

"Iíll be so glad to get rid of these damn nights." Rachel sighed. "Itís just a good thing that Connor works from home and can work any olí crazy schedule. How is it working with you and Kevin?"

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

"Thanks," the redhead said.

"Itís okay, I guess. We manage. Donít have much choice. To be honest, the hardest thing is taking care of the animals almost by myself."

"Kevin doesnít help?"

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

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

"He does, but Iím the one there during the day. I mean, shoot, he doesnít even get home until after dark half the time." Willow leaned back against the stainless steel walls of the large car, hands tucked behind her butt, palms against the cool steel.

"Well, if theyíd hire someone else down at the lumber yard, I doubt heíd have to work so damn much."

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

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

"Uh, I think so." Willow turned the dial on her lock, the numbers whizzing by until it clicked and the lock slid down, allowing her to remove it. Every time she released the lock she couldnít help but think of high school, fumbling with the lock the first day of classes until you learned the unique intricacies of the new padlock.

"I canít wait! And Connor! My God, youíd think the world had come to an end,"

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

"Whatís that?" Rachel asked, noticing her friendís preoccupation.

"I donít know," Willow said absently, turning the envelope around in her fingers. Written across the front was her name and the hospitalís address. There was only a P.O. Box for a return address.

"Maybe itís anthrax," Willow met grinning blue eyes. "Iím just kidding, Wills, jeez."

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

"Oh, jeez, come on. Just open the damn thing."

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

Dear Miss Bowman,

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

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

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

Yours,

Christine Gray

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

"What is it?" Rachel breathed, trying to read over her friendís shoulder.

"Itís from Christine Gray," the blonde breathed, handing the letter to the other nurse, her hand trembling. Blue eyes read over the letter, eyes getting wider and wider with each passing line.

"Oh my god," she said, a smile spreading across full lips. "Thatís incredible."

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

"What?"

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

)))

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

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

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

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

"Yeah. Iíll be okay." She laughed nervously, feeling foolish. "You know, after all the years Iíve been doing this, youíd think Iíd get used to losing them." She looked up at the doctor with pleading eyes. "Does it ever stop, Maureen?"

The twenty-year veteran sighed, shaking her head. "No, honey. Youíre always affected by Godís special babies, but you learn how to deal with it. You have to, Willow."

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

"Here, honey."

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

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

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

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

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

But this time, Ö

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

 

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

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

"I know, honey." I smile at her and caress the back of her hand with my thumb. I canít help but feel my heart swell at the sight of this lovely twelve year old girl. Her hair had long been gone- chemo. Her doctors and all us nurses were doing everything possible to save her from the leukemia that ravaged her body.

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

Still, I held strong.

"Can I get you anything, sweetie?" I ask, glancing up as someone walks into the room. I smile at Melissaís mom, Ellen, then turn back to the girl.

"No," she says, looking over at her mom. "Hi, mom."

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

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

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

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

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

It took several minutes for her to calm, but finally she does, but I donít break physical contact with her. My arm around her shoulders, I lead her toward a small area down the hall where a couple of sofas are set up, as well as vending machines.

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

"Sheís going to leave us soon, isnít she?" Ellen asks, her voice trembling as badly as her hands. I sigh, not sure how to answer that. I had yet to lie to the family, and sure didnít want to start now, but at the same time, I didnít want to cause her anymore pain than she was already in.

"Sheís put up such a good fight, Ellen," I say quietly. Ellen turns to look at me, dark eyes pleading.

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

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

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

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

"What?" she asks, "Youíre scaring me, Willow,"

"Sheís asking for us, Ellen."

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

Comforted with the knowledge that they are close, we hurry into Melissaís room.

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

Melissa blinks, though itís almost as if in slow motion. In the past few days sheís gotten so weak.

"I love you, mamma," she says suddenly, looking at her mother, whoís eyes are filled with tears.

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

"Hi, sweetheart," I whisper, smiling down at her.

"Youíre so cool," she says, the softest smile on her lips. My smile widens, my vision becoming even more blurry.

"I think youíre pretty cool, too, Melissa."

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

"Mamma," she says, almost like sheís caressing the endearment with her lips. "Donít cry, mamma," Melissa reaches up with slow deliberation, the tip of her finger touching a tear that slides gracefully down Ellenís cheek. "Iím not scared,"

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

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

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

 

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

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

After awhile Ellen had found Willow and had clung to her, thanking the nurse over and over again for everything sheíd done for Melissa and the family. Willow took her thanks, but felt she wasnít deserving. No, she wasnít a doctor nor a miracle worker, but felt she should have been able to do more, just a little extra.

She felt like sheíd failed the girl, and it ate at her.

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

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

)))

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her body swayed with her emotions, rising and falling, cresting only to slam down again upon the rocky shores of melancholy. Though the music was sad, Christine couldnít be happier.

)))

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

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

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

"For who?" she muttered, eyes reaching the ceiling. Bob looked at her, clicker ready to do the voodoo it did far too well in Christineís opinion.

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

"What is this? I donít own a top like that, nor have I worn one. Hell, itís not a top, Bob, but a frigginí bra!"

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

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

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

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

"Careful, Christine," Bob warned, his own voice lowered.

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

"By the way, Iím doing much better. Thanks for asking."

"I know you are." He tossed the clicker across the smooth, wood table. "Iíve spoken with your doctors."

"And?"

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

"Forget it." She shoved out of the chair, heading toward the door to the conference room in Bobís office building.

"Christine,"

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

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

She stared him down, neither of their gazes wavering. He was pushing her more and more, and she wasnít sure how much longer she could take it. His threats were beginning to ware thin, her priorities shifting.

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

"Fittings are set up for Wednesday!"

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

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

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

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

"Christine! Over here! Look this way, Gray!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sure. Whatís your name, hon?" The singer smiled up at the older woman who stood behind the girl, and handed Christine a deposit slip sheíd torn from her check book and a pen.

"Juanita," the shy girl said.

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

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

"Here you go, hon."

"Thank you."

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

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

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

"Alright, boys. Whoís first?"

)))

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

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

"I have to, man."

"No you donít. Chris, weíll find another way. You can stay with us again for a few days. You know mom wonít mind-"

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

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

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

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

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

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

This time he doesnít stop me, and I make my way into the dark, smoky bar. The stage is tiny and behind a screen of chain-link. The Diamond Back is known for its fights and rowdy patrons, so Iím glad itís there.

It was my first appearance here, though Iíve played at any number of other cheesy joints. It was a quick buck, usually in the neighborhood of about seventy-five to a hundred bucks. It was free money to line my pockets, and it meant I didnít have to swing a trick for a couple weeks. I was thrilled.

Grabbing my guitar, I step on stage. Thereís no house band tonight, and I certainly donít have a band of my own, so itís just me, myself and I. Oh, and Pluck, my guitar.

I had on the best pair of jeans I owned, only a couple holes instead of connect the dots holes. Topped by a black t-shirt, I was styliní.

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

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

"Hey, honey, ainít I seen you somewhere?" someone yelled out, and I felt the hair on the back of my neck stiffen. Fuck, that was all I needed was to run into a client. Thinking fast, unable to see the guyís face as the lights were in mine, I quirked a grin.

"I donít know- you been to Hefís mansion lately?" To my surprise and relief this got a round of laugher, and before anymore questions or comments could be shot my way, I lowered the guitar strap over my shoulder, and placed my fingers on the guitarís neck. "Here we go, boys."

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

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

"Okay, this next song is called ĎClutchí, written by yours truly."

Damn, I was having fun! I donít remember ever having such a responsive audience before. Iíll definitely be coming back to this place.

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

"Are you even old enough to drink that?"

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

"My name is Robert Knowels and Iím wondering if youíre old enough to drink that." He indicates the cold one dangling by the neck from my fingers.

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

"How old are you, kid?"

"Old enough to know where the sun donít shine, and to stick my bottle there." I glare at him over my shoulder, and he laughs.

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

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

"No, but perhaps youíll have an old guy as a manager."

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

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

I take the card, looking at it. In silver, textured letters reads ROBERT T. KNOWELS, MUSIC ENTERPRISES LTD. Looking back up to him I see heís already getting off his stool. Tucking the wallet away, he looks around once more, then without so much as another glance at me, he leaves.

 

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

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

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

"Okay. Letís roll Ďem!" he calls out, waving his arm high in the air for the other drivers to see. All the buses go from idle to roaring to life as the large man climbs the stairs of the first bus. The doors closed behind him with the whoosh of air brakes being released, and theyíre moving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This thought startled her, making her feel guilt course through her. Margaret had warned that could and probably would happen. "You canít expect a habit of over a decade to just fade and go away over night," the counselor had warned.

That wasnít good enough for Christine. She was stubborn and impatient, and wanted it to happen now. She had worked so hard to give up the want and need for the numbing medicine that drugs had become for her. Life was so much easier when you didnít have to feel.

)))

"Check, check, check. Check one, check one, check one."

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

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

"Okay," she breathed, "maybe this wonít be so bad."

)))

"Why didnít you tell me, Willow? Damn it, Iím your husband. I know how attached you were-"

"Iím fine, Kevin." The blonde looked at her husbandís reflection through the mirror, telling him with her eyes that she didnít want to talk about it. He didnít take the bait.

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

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

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

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

"Do you trust me, Will?" he finally asked, watching as she brushed something across her cheeks and forehead. He didnít understand all that makeup stuff, and since she didnít wear it much, had no idea what was what. She stopped what she was doing and looked at him.

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

"I donít know. It doesnít matter." He stood, kissing the back of her neck. "I hope you guys have fun at the concert. That was really nice of Rachel to get you guys tickets like that." He appraised the beautiful woman in the mirror, wrapping his arms around her waist.

"Yeah, it was," Willow couldnít meet his eyes. She felt guilty as hell lying to him about where the tickets came from, but if she told the truth, sheíd have to tell him about that night in February.

"Iíll see you when you get home." One final kiss to her cheek, he left her alone in the bathroom.

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

 

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

"What?"

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

I sigh, realizing he was ready to rumble now. "I wasnít aware that I had to keep you updated on everything at work." Tossing the folded socks from the dresser to the bed, I open the sock drawer and begin to move things around, making room for the freshly washed items.

"Oh come on, Willow. Itís not about that and you know it. Iím not your keeper, but Jesus, you really cared for that kid, and from what Rachel said at dinner, you were pretty devastated when she died."

"Look, Kevin, itís my job, okay? I took on the responsibility of becoming a nurse, so now I have to deal with it. And I certainly donít need you to babysit me, alright?"

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

"No. No worries. Youíll deal. Fine." Kevin rushes by me, heading out of the bathroom. I donít follow, knowing how he is when heís upset, Iíll leave him be.

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

 

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

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

"Iím sorry, honey," she said into his neck.

"Itís okay," he said quietly, turning his head to give her a solid kiss on the lips. "You two have a great time, okay?" Willow nodded.

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

)))

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

"I guess thatís what happens when youíre a lesbian icon." Willow muttered back, eyeing all the excited women around them.

"Youíre kidding? What, is she like Melissa Etheridge or something?"

"Of the alternative music world, yes."

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

"I read about it," Willow whispered, smiling at the look of confusion on her friendís face.

"Huh. Guess I didnít know you were such a fan." Rachel whispered back. The lights began to lower.

"Iím not."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Thatís right. Letís get a little light on the subject," was breathed over the audience. The blonde was surprised to feel a little shiver down her spine, her excitement building with everyone elseís.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh my god!" Rachel yelled above the music, tugging excitedly at her friendís hand. Willow grinned.

ContinuedÖ

Part 4

Willow and Rachel stood in a dimly lit hallway, lined with large, black cases that would hold the bandís equipment.

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

"I havenít a clue," the blonde said, resting against the cool, cinderblock wall. The security guard had told them to wait there, so thatís what they were doing, and had been for about five minutes.

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

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

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

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

Willow felt uncertain, in a strange world that she didnít understand. She had no idea where they were supposed to go or what they were supposed to do. She felt like an encroacher.

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

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

"Yes. Willow Bowman," she said, holding out her hand.

"Hey. Nice to finally meet you. Iím Joey Manning." He grinned at both women, charm oozing from him. "Come on, Iíll take you to Chris." He turned to head back down the hall, Willow and Rachel following. The redheadís eyes were fixed firmly to his leather-clad butt, fanning herself.

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

"These colors donít work for you," he muttered, opening a tube of lipstick, grimacing at the color.

"Be glad I wear the shit at all, Bob," she growled. She hadnít expected him anywhere on the tour. He usually stayed back in California making more deals on her behalf.

"And what the hell is this shit?" he walked over to her, leaving his mess on the vanity counter and floor. He snapped the white tank top sheíd changed into mid-show. "This isnít what you were fitted for." He looked into her eyes, on level with his, dark and dangerous.

"Itís called a shirt, Bob," Christine stared back with just as much intensity. "And I told you back in L.A. that I wasnít going to dress like a whore."

He moved in closer, nose to nose with her. "And I told you to wear it." It was a battle of the wills as they stared each other down. Robert Knowles could tell his ingénue wasnít going to back down. Seems sheíd turned into a downright diva.

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

"Donít fuck with me, Christine," he murmured, looking her face over. "What would the world say if they knew their hero was a two-bit whore with a drug problem?"

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

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

"Chris, youíve got some visitors," the guitarist said quietly, moving aside to reveal Willow and Rachel.

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

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

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

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

Christine took several deep breaths, knowing she had to calm herself. She really wanted to meet and speak with Willow Bowman, but didnít want to be completely keyed up when she did.

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

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

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

"Iíll leave you three be now." Joey grinned once more at Willow and Rachel, winking at the redhead, making her swoon.

The singer looked at the woman who had saved her life, really able to see her for the first time. She was a small woman, petit yet didnít look frail in the least. After all, sheíd been able to drag her sorry ass out of the water. Her green gaze was strong and steady, though from the flushed skin of her face, Christine could tell the nurse was nervous. She wore jeans that hugged narrow hips, and showed off muscular thighs. A fitted baby doll tee set off the outfit.

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

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

"Itís really nice to see you, Miss Gray, to know that youíre alright." Willow said softly, meaning every word.

"Please call me Christine." Blue eyes turned to the redhead. "I donít think weíve met. Hi, Iím Christine Gray, midnight scuba diver."

Rachel was surprised at the way the singer poked fun at herself. She smiled, taking the hand extended to her. "Rachel Dodge. Iím a nurse in the Mercy ER."

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

"You were wonderful," Willow said with reverence. "Iíve never been to such an amazing show,"

"It was fantastic," Rachel agreed, all smiles.

"Iím so pleased," Christine was surprised to feel the heat of embarrassment ride up her neck, and the need to say, "Aw, garsh, thanks." Instead, she turned to Willow and said, "I hope you donít mind, but thereís something Iíve been wanting to do for six months."

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

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

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

"Thank you, Willow. Those words seem so puny for the depth of my gratitude, but I canít quite think of anything else to say."

Willow was stunned yet again. The singer didnít have to say a thing- she could see it in those bright, clear blue eyes. She nodded, hoping that Christine could see her acceptance of the gratitude.

"Iíd do it again in a heartbeat," she finally managed.

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

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

"Well, come on. Iíll introduce you to the rest of the boys."

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

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

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

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

"I donít know. I guess itís just an amazing thing for me to be able to see her, you know? After that night, I donít know," she shivered at the memory.

"That really got to you, didnít it?" the nurse whispered, eyeing the singer to make sure she couldnít hear them. The blonde nodded.

"Yeah."

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

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

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

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

"Hello," Willow said shyly with a small wave.

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

If only she werenít with Connor. She sighed at the lost opportunity. Sheíd certainly love to be a groupie for Joey Dillon. His long, blonde hair, bright blue eyes Ö

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

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

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

"Oh, we canít," Rachel said, true regret coloring her words. "I have to work tonight and get this one back home." She put her arm around Willowís waist.

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

"No," the blonde said slowly, noting the smile that spread across the singerís face.

"Then how about this, Rachel you go on to work, and Iíll personally make sure Willow gets home before curfew." The brunette grinned.

)))

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

"You have no idea." She met the smiling green eyes. "Thanks for coming to dinner with us. I hope we didnít scare you too badly."

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

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

"When did he join?"

"Three years ago," Christine said quietly. Willow studied the singerís profile, feeling the sadness that roiled off her. Then it hit her.

"After the accident."

Christine nodded. "Yeah."

"Iím sorry." Willow remembered reading about it when sheíd done research on Christine Gray. Three years ago original band member Frances Ray, or Frankie, had been killed in a horrible motorcycle accident.

They were both silent, the long car turning onto the private road that led to Willowís ranch, driving under the wrought iron arches. Glad for the reprieve, Christine leaned toward the window, watching the dark scenery pass by. Unfortunately she wasnít able to see much, but she had the feeling the ranch was something to see come daylight.

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

"Yeah." Willow couldnít take the pride from her voice. "My grandparents made this place special."

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

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

At the question, Christine was poised to happily accept, but then realized just what a time crunch she was in. Smiling apologetically at the nurse she said, "I really would love to, Willow, but I canít. We need to get moving."

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

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

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

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

"Christine."

"Christine." Willow smiled sheepishly.

"Good. Here," Willow found something placed in her hand, and realized it was a small slip of paper. "If you ever need anything, please donít hesitate to call." At the stunned look, Christine suddenly knew she could trust this woman with the personal information sheíd just given her. It wasnít just anyone she gave a path of contact to.

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

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

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

"I promise."

With that she was gone.

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

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

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

"Hey," she answered, voice in a daze. Kevinís brow drew, leaning back in the couch, trying to get a glimpse of his wife. "Did you have fun?"

"Amazing."

"Long concert,"

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

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

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

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

"I canít believe she gave me her number," she muttered, tucking the paper into her jewelry box for safe keeping.

)))

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What are you doing in here?" she sighed, headed toward her bedroom. Sheíd changed clothes after the show, but was craving a hot shower.

"I told you we werenít finished with our conversation." He downed the rest of his drink, setting the tumbler on the glass and wrought iron table next to him.


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

"Plenty."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Are you threatening me?" she asked, anger building.

"Iím simply telling you how it is. Iíve not steered you wrong in almost twenty years, and Iím not about to start now." Bob leaned against the dresser behind him.

"Iím a big girl now, Bob. Iím not some naïve kid off the streets," she pointed out.

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

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

"Donít kid yourself, Bob," she growled. "My problems are my own, but know that youíre at the root of many of them. Youíre only going to push me so far and then thatíll be it. Got me?"

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

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

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

)))

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

"Youíve got it, Bobby," the doctor said, slapping the manager on the shoulder. The door to the large office opened, almost knocking me on my ass. I growl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Youíre at Mr. Bobís house, and this will be your room while youíre here." The door opens to a large room with a bed, two dressers and two huge windows. A closed door off to the left is what I assume is a bathroom.

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

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

"So this is California." Before this joker showed up I never even flew before. Donít like it. Thereís just something unnatural about being thirty-five thousand feet in the air when God didnít give us wings.

Sleep came quick. It wasnít anything new for me to sleep in a strange place, but this time it was nice for it to actually be clean. Man, some of those motels got nasty!

I donít remember the last time Iíd had sheets that felt or smelled so good. I stretched my body out, luxuriating in the feel against my naked skin. Maybe this wouldnít be such a bad deal after all.

)))

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

The horse took the treat, the hairs on her nose tickling Willowís palm. She smiled, running her hand down the mareís nose, fingering the white star pattern.

"Hey, babe?" Kevin called out from the garage.

"Yeah?"

"Have you seen my fishing gear?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The paper was cool between her fingers.

)))

Eyes closed, her fingers raced over the keys, Beethovenís "Moonlight" Sonata filling the large room and her soul. The smooth feel of the ivory, slickness of the black keys.

Eyes closed, head swaying, she found peace.

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

Christineís head turned at the soft knock on her music room door.

"Yeah, Millie?"

"Youíve got a call, Christine." The older woman walked into the room, cell phone in hand.

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

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

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

"Um, hi." The blonde sounded so nervous.

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

"Iím fine, Christine. I just, I donít know, just wanted to say hi, I guess." Willow leaned back against the headboard, tucking the phone beneath her cheek and shoulder. She felt nervous chills race up and down her spine, palms sweating, voice almost quivering.

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

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

"Yeah, I was pleased with the tour. Glad itís over for now, though," Christine smiled, finger tracing one of the piano keys. "No, Iím taking a break right now, writing some new songs. Oh, and Iím fine."

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

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

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

"Yes." Christine said, not even thinking. She surprised herself with such a spontaneous reaction, but didnít regret it.

Willow shot up. "Yes?"

"Yes. Iíll come."

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

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

"Well, uh, whenever itís feasible for you."

"Well, letís see," the singer glanced over at the wall clock. "Itís ten-thirty a.m. here, about a four hour flight, give or take, how about I get there around three?"

Blink, blink. "Yeah, okay!"

"Great!" Christine grinned. "See you then."

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

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

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

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

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

The jeep pulled to a stop in front of the small yard, the woman behind the wheel wind-blown and wild looking. She glanced over at the nurse, smiling with a wave. Willow waved back.

ContinuedÖ.

Part 5

Willow glanced over her shoulder again, stunned all over again to see Christine Gray following her up the squeaky case, overnight bag slung over the singerís shoulder. Blue eyes grinned knowingly up at her, making the blonde almost trip over the top step as she reached the second floor landing.

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

"Is this okay? I know itís not much. Probably not what youíre used to." The nurse smiled, leaning against the wall by the open door.

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

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

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

"Well over a hundred years."

"Show me." At the blondeís look of confusion, Christine grabbed her hand, pulling her out of the room. "You promised me a tour, so come on."

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

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

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

"They wonít hurt you. I have six. That big guy there eyeing you is Jack. Heís seven and as gentle as a bear, arenít you, big guy?" Snorting again and tossing his head, Jack walked over to Willowís outstretched hand, sniffing it.

"Wellll, theyíre a bit too tall for my taste."

The blonde eyed the tall singer, a brow raised. Christine smiled sheepishly, looking down. "Yes, well, the secretís out. Iím a big olí wuss."

"I wonít tell." Willow glanced at her companion, chewing on her lip for a moment, thinking. "Want to see the rest of the property?"

Blue eyes left the horse, looking at the nurse. "Yeah," she said, a bit of challenge in her voice.

"Follow me."

)))

"Okay, pull in the clutch here and give her gas at the same time. Easy, easy, now," Willow grinned, holding the brunette back as she almost gunned the engine, sending her flying off god knew where. "Your break is here," she squeezed the break on the left side of the handle bar.

"Okay. I think I got it," Christine looked down at the red bike, which Willow had called a 1994 Yamaha WR 250. The blonde sat astride a matching yellow one.

"Ready?"

The singer nodded, revving her engine, which the blonde was doing as well. With that, they were off in a spray of dust and gravel.

It was strange getting used to the feel of the heavy bike between her legs, and balancing it. Sheíd never been on a motorcycle before, not even a small dirt bike like this one.

Willow led them through pastures, down dirt trails, and through the small cherry orchard that took up the southern corner of the property.

"Oh, you have got to be kidding!" Christine exclaimed, pulling her bike to an unsteady stop. Seeing her companion still back in the orchard, Willow turned her own bike around, idling next to the red Yamaha. "I love cherries!" The singer grinned at the blonde, then turned back to the trees before her. Rich, dark red and purple cherries covered the branches, making them hang tantalizingly close to her reach. "May I?"

"Please. Help yourself." Willow sat back on the tell tale blue seat, Yamaha stenciled in large, white letters along the side. She was amused and charmed, watching her new friend jump up to snag a handful of the fruit, humming as sweet juices filled her mouth.

"This place is amazing, Willow." Christine, hand filled with cherries, walked back to her bike, sitting sideways on the seat. She looked out over the acreage, the trees, sun, flatlands, beautiful, clear stream. All of it.

"Thank you. I love it here," the blonde said quietly, a smile of pride and love on her lips. "Itís very special to me."

"I can see why. You know, if this were my place, Iíd grab my guitar and sit right out here," she hitched her thumb back at the tree where sheíd just picked her snack.

"You know," Willow looked at Christine, her head slightly tilted shyly, "Kevinís guitar is in the attic,"

"He plays?" Christine perked up.

"He used to. Thatís how he got me to go out with him," Willow chuckled.

"Oh yeah?" All cherries gone, the singer crossed her arms over her chest, a small smirk spreading.

"Yeah. He made up this horrible song, and wouldnít stop playing it until I said yes."

"And so you said yes,"

"And so I said yes."

"How long have you been together?"

"Seven years." Willow killed the engine on her bike, dismounting and plopping down in the shade of the huge trees. It felt good, just a lazy, late Saturday afternoon. She was amazed at how comfortable she felt with the singer. Willow realized that Christine Gray was just a woman. A wonderfully talented and famous one, but a woman all the same. Human, flesh and bone.

"What are you thinking about?" Christine asked, her voice quiet, not wanting to break the peace that filled her.

"Hmm? Oh," Willow looked away, hiding her smile. "I was just thinking that Iím surprised about you."

Brows drawn. "Why? In what way?" She stood from the bike and sat next to Willow.

"I donít know," the blonde shrugged. "Iíve never met a celebrity before, and I guess I thought-"

"Okay, hold that thought," Christine held up a hand, a gentle smile pulling at her lips. "This weekend, here on your beautiful ranch, what say you weíre just Willow and Christine. Please?" Green eyes stared into blue for long minutes, when finally Willow nodded.

"Okay."

"Thank you."

"Well," Willow put her hands on her knees, ready to push up and stand. "You hungry?"

"Starved," Christine grinned.

"Come on. Letís get you fed." The blonde stood, holding her hand out, which was taken in a larger, calloused one.

)))

I was sleeping soundly, my body able to stretch out and relax for far too long when I bolted awake, nearly pissing myself as the door to the room Iíd been drug to the night before flung open.

"Time to get up, Christine," a womanís voice rang out, managing to cut through my muddled haze. She walks across the room with purpose, grabbing the closed curtains and pulling them open, sunlight spraying into my eyes.

"Jesus Christ, lady!" Bringing my hands up, I cover my face. "Who the hell are you?"

"My name is Sandra and Iíll be your stylist." She walks back to the door from whence sheíd so rudely come, hand on the door frame. I finally get a look at her. Blonde hair piled on top of her head in some pompous do, pristine suit in a vomitous color of greenish brown. Dangly gold earrings and very high heels, making the muscles in her bare calves stand at attention. "You have three minutes." With that, sheís gone.

"Fuck me." Scrubbing at my face, I pull the covers back, and I groan. This is crap. All I want is a good nightís sleep and to be left alone! That thought is no sooner out into my head when the door opens again. "What the fuck!" Snatching a pillow, I try to hide my naked ass.

"I need you to shower as quickly as possible," the woman says. Sheís a creepy looking chick, very dark hair, like bottle black, cut into a page-boy, eyebrows plucked to near nothing and extremely long lashes that have got to be fake.

"What happened to three minutes?" I growl, not happy in the least.

"Deal. Besides, that was Sandraís rule, not mine." She goes out into the hall, returning moments later with a large, pink case. She sets it on the dresser top, opening it to reveal row upon row of various make-ups in every shade you can imagine, and even some you canít.

Stopping, she looks at me through the mirror. "Is there a problem?" she asks, her voice decidedly nasal. Glaring, I shake my head and pad into the bathroom.

I stand in the shower, letting the hot water run over my chilled skin. I donít know how long Iím there before I even touch a single bottle of soap. Iím confused, yes even scared, and feel utterly helpless. About to grab a bottle of shampoo, I nearly jump out of my skin when someone bangs on the shower doors.

"Scrub your face really well with this," a pale hand reaches inside the damn shower stall! I canít believe this. I snag the little jar from those clawed fingers, looking at it. Itís clear glass, the goop inside looking sandy and rather disgusting.

"Ack!" I scream out. That shit burns! Scrubbing my face as quickly as I can, I jerk the knob to cold, the cool water easing my burning skin.

Wrapping in a robe, I head back into the bedroom, my face still burning, the skin red and angry. There is quiet murmuring as I enter, Sandra and the goth bitch are talking amongst themselves, a very queer looking man mixing various chemicals, holding up his results to look at in the bright sunlight.

"Oh good. You gave her the crème." My head jerks when I hear Sandraís voice. She and goth chick, which in my mind I refer to as GC, are looking at me. Sandra walks over to me, walking around me in a slow circle. At first I try to follow her progress, but with an irritated sigh, she puts a stern hand on my shoulder to stay me, and continues her journey.

"See anything you like?" I ask, feeling beyond exposed as the robe is opened.

"Hmm, not yet." Sandra grabs a small tape recorder from the dresser, speaking closely into the mic. "Gray is too thin, call George this afternoon. Hold off on true fit until gain." Clicking it off, she looks at me, head slightly tilted to the side.

I am so completely out of my league here, and I have no idea what to do or what to say. I donít think Iíd ever felt totally scared until that moment.

Within moments, I stand naked, three pairs of eyes on me and a cloth measuring tape on my skin. Standing straight, arms held out. Itís Chris on a cross.

As measurements are being called out, I close my eyes, trying to pretend this isnít happening. Suddenly I find Iím alone, the three heads bent over the page my measurements were written on.

"Howís it going ladies?" Robert Knowles says, clapping his hands together as he stands in the doorway to the room. My eyes bulge, and I grab the robe to cover myself. "Donít worry, honey. Nothing I havenít seen before," he actually winks at me!

"Her body is awful, Robert. I donít know what you were thinking," Sandra laments.

"So fix it! What the hell am I paying you for?" Bob glances over at me, taking in an eyeful, then turning back to the swarm of stylists. And why the fuck didnít the hair guy, no matter how queer he is, bitch slap him for calling him a woman?

"Does God make enough duct tape?" Sandra muttered, turning back to her notes.

"So how are you this morning? Did you sleep well?" Knowles asks, absently twisting his gold, pinky ring around the hairy-knuckled finger.

"It was okay," I shrug, trying to come off as nonchalant as possible, standing here with a terry cloth robe held in front of my naked body. Man, he was giving me the chills.

"Here," large hands rest on my shoulders, and I find myself being turned around, my bare ass open for his gaze. Two arms reach around me, almost in some creepy fatherly hug, the robe taken from my trembling hands, then spread over my shoulders. Quickly my arms find the sleeves, and I wrap that puppy around me quicker than you can bat an eye.

"Robert, we need to talk," says GC.

"Alright. See you later, okay?" is said in my ear, making me shiver. I nod, turning to face him, back away a step or two, just glad to get away from him. "Enjoy your day, ladies," and with that, heís gone.

)))

It had been an amazing day. Willow stripped down, a cool summer breeze blowing in to cool heated skin. Sometimes she wished she had a summer home in Montana- escape the oppressive heat.

Pulling back the cool, cotton sheets on the king-sized bed, she slid inside, sighing softly. She had very sensitive skin, and the feel of something sliding against it was often pure bliss. Tactile bliss.

A blonde head met the softness of the pillow, and green eyes closed. Only to open a few seconds later.

Willowís mind was abuzz with the events of the day, so unexpected and extremely fun. Christine Gray, beautiful, talented, famous, and at her ranch!

After finally getting back to the house, Willow had dug out Kevinís guitar in the attic, as promised, embarrassed at the layer of dust and spider webs that clung to the hard, black case. Cleaned off, sheíd handed it over to the singer who gladly took it.

Willow insisted Christine relax as she made them dinner- a wonderful pasta salad with vegetables grown in her own garden.

Christine sat on one of the stools at the breakfast bar, tuning the acoustic.

"Is that your favorite instrument?" the blonde asked, chopping veggies.

"No," Christine smiled, strumming a simple tune. "I love the guitar and itís pretty easy to lug around, but it can never match the beauty of the piano."

"Ah, the piano." Willow wiped her hands on a dish towel, indicating that Christine should follow with the flick of her head. The singer gently set the guitar on the bar before her and followed.

She was led into a small room off the main hall where a fireplace was tucked into a diagonal corner, a couch ran in front of it, and an upright against the opposite wall.

"Ohh," the singer breathed, taking in the beautiful, and very old instrument. "Wow. This must be your pride and joy." Wide blue eyes took in the dark cherry wood and two curvy front legs, which held the heavy instrument up. She brushed long, experienced fingers over the smooth, curved cover, which she knew hid the key to the angelic sound.

"Well, to be honest, my grandparents have had it all my life. Itís one of the few furniture pieces that Iíve kept in the house."

"Well, theyíve had this piano all their lives, too. Iíd say," she knelt down, looking under the keyboard, bringing a finger up to trace an inscription in the wood. "What I thought," getting to her feet, she told Willow of her find. "This, dear Willow, is a Pleyel, Iíd guess from sometime around the mid-nineteenth century." She lovingly caressed the wood. "Youíre sitting on a small gold mine with this baby."

"Youíre kidding?" the blonde looked at the piano sheíd seen almost everyday of her life, stunned. "Whatís a Pleyel?"

"French piano maker. May I?" Christine tapped the rounded cover.

"Please."

Willow quietly stepped up to the side of the instrument, leaning against the high top, watching those same long fingers ran across the aged keys, testing its tune. Within moments, the notes began to make sense and come together to form a wonderful song that Willow had never heard.

Not wanting to interrupt the singer, she slowly made her way back to the kitchen, humming softly to herself as she finished dinner.

Willow turned over to her side, watching the tree branch sway in front of the window, the moonlight peaking through the leaves, creating strange shapes of shadow on the bedroom walls.

She thought about the way Christine had wolfed her food down, little moans of appreciation slipping out now and then, making the blonde smile.

Willow had never seen someone eat so much, but she was glad to able to offer what she had. She encouraged a slightly shy-to-ask Christine to take as many helpings as she wished.

The highlight of the night, however, had been when theyíd gathered into the piano room, the blonde taking a seat on the couch, bare feet curled under her, and a glass of iced tea in her hands. Christine had taken her place on the piano bench, back straight, form perfect. The music sheíd produced had brought tears to Willowís eyes. So fluid and heartfelt, bringing a round of solo applause when the song was done.

Christine had taken the gratitude with a shy smile, bowing at her audience of one, then moving on to one of her own pieces.

"That was amazing," Willow whispered, having made her way over to the piano during the song.

"Thank you."

"What is it called? Who composed it?"

"Well," Christine said, sipping quickly from her own glass of tea, resting on a TV tray next to the instrument, "Itís called ĎTwilightí, and I wrote it."

"You wrote that?" Willow pointed at the piano, incredulous. The singer nodding with a chuckle. "Wow. Why that name? Is your group named after it, or is the song named after your band?"

"Yes." Christine grinned. "I love twilight, and think itís one of the most important times of the day. Well, next to dawn, that is. But I think twilight is more important." She turned on the bench to face her friend. "See, for me twilight is kind of like the path for a new beginning. Everything that happened that day, good, bad or anywhere between, is gone, but not forgotten. Almost as if the next day you can try again, new slate, but with the memories of the past. You know?" She grinned at the memories. "Back home I used to climb up on my friend Adamís building and watch the sun go down before I, well."

Before you what, Christine? Went out to be a whore?

"I seen you on that stage, kid, just like I seen you on them streets with the rest of us. I seen them guys in the audience watching you, one hand around their girl, the other on their crotch, waitiní for their chance to fuck the entertainer." Bitter laughter and a puff of smoke exhaled. "Get over it. You is a whore, always been a whore, and always be a whore."

Shaking her head to clear the memory, she looked down at her hands, still resting on the keyboard.

Willow stared at the singer for a moment, the softly spoken words fully entering into her brain. Finally she nodded. "Yes. I understand perfectly. The amazing thing is I got that from your song. The way the song, and please forgive me. Iíll probably butcher all of it as I know nothing about music or its terminology. Anyway, the way the song just kind of went along on its merry way, some high notes, some low and melancholy. But," the blonde paused, chewing on her bottom lip as she tried to find the right words. "but the entire time, there is this kind of underlying build, like its all leading to something, and something big, making my heart beat just a little faster, and my body fill with anticipation. Then all the sudden," she clapped her hands loudly. "It all comes together like the crest of a huge wave, falling over you in a sensation that I still feel as a shiver down my spine,"

Christine looked at the smaller womanís face as she expressed her thoughts. How bright her eyes got, the excitement flushing her features. She noted the whiteness of the teeth seen briefly pulling the full, lower lip inside her mouth.

The singer was truly touched by Willowís words, no matter how simple. She was beyond pleased that the music had filled her so completely, and that the blonde had been moved and touched. Realizing Willow was no longer speaking, but was simply looking at her, she cleared her thoughts and smiled.

"Thank you, Willow. You explained it beautifully."

"Oh, I donít know about that," Willow nervously ran her fingers across the top of the upright, feeling suddenly very stupid for her little monologue.

"No, really. I understand perfectly what you mean, and how it made you feel. That means a lot to me that you were touched so deeply."

"I was," Willow said softly. "Why donít you play more of this sort of thing? Like that song you played during your last encore. Just you and that beautiful grand piano. It was wonderful."

"Well," Christine cleared her throat, wanting to change the subject. "That was a rarity, and it probably wonít happen again. Unfortunately it doesnít fit too well with Twilightís style."

Willow could tell there was more to it than that, but decided not to push or ask.

)))

Christine pulled her t-shirt on, lifting her hair to free it from the cotton confines. T-shirt, shorts and bare feet, she slowly opened her door, trying to stay quiet. Not hearing anything, and figuring the small blonde was probably sound asleep, so she continued on.

Creeping down the stairs, wincing with the squeak that punctuated every step. Finally making the ground floor, she took it slow, not knowing the house well enough in the day sheíd been there to not run right into something and lose a toe.

Heading down the hall that led to the kitchen, she fumbled around until she found the glasses, then ever grateful to the little light on the fridge ice maker. Sticking the glass under the cubed ice slot, she winced again as the ice clinked into the glass, and the makerís engine groaned at the activity. Finally filling the glass with water, the ice popped to life as the little air bubbles were broken by the water.

Listening, she heard nothing. Coast clear, she brought the glass to her lips.

"Christine?"

"Shit!"

Both women jumped and yelped as the glass slipped through the singerís fingers, falling to the floor with a crash, Christine gasping as the cold water and ice covered her bare feet and splashed up onto her legs.

"Oh my god, Iím so sorry!" Willow exclaimed, muffled through her fingers. "Are you okay?" Flicking on the light above the stove, she gasped. "Oh, Christine, Iím so sorry," falling to her knees, she picked at the pieces of broken glass that littered the singerís feet, sucking in a breath as she saw a small sliver sticking out of the top of Christineís right foot.

"Itís okay. Iím sorry," the singer said, trying her best to not react to the intense sting flowing from her foot, coloring Willowís fingers red.

"No, no, hang on," the blonde stood, hurrying across the kitchen, careful to avoid the incredibly sharp little glass daggers spread all across the tiled floor. Quickly grabbing the First Aid kit from the downstairs bathroom, she ran back to find Christine on her knees, gathering pieces of glass into the palm of her hand. "No, no. Donít you dare clean that up."

Christine looked up, watching as the frantic blonde got the First Aid kit set up on the counter by the sink. "Iím okay, Willow," she said quietly.

"No, youíre cut." Willow grabbed the singerís hand, pulling her to her feet. "Can you walk? Or do you need to lean on me?"

Christine couldnít keep the wince off her face as she tried to put weight on it. Before she knew it, a strong arm was around her waist, and she was being led the short distance to the counter by the sink.

"Hop up," the two women got the singer situated on the counter, her foot in the sink, and warm water running over it. "I know it stings. Iím really sorry," Willow gently ran her fingers over the soft skin of the top of Christineís foot, making sure there was no glass remaining on her skin.

"Oh, I donít know," the singer grinned. "Iím thinking itís your very own personal burglar alarm. You scare them so badly that they hurt themselves by dropping their weapons. You know, maybe theyíd shoot off their own foot or something,"

"Oh, stop," Willow glared playfully up at her patient who was smirking at her.

Carefully drying the skin around the rather deep cut, Willow looked at it carefully, trying to determine if it needed stitches or not.

"I think butterfly stitches will do." Meeting blue eyes, Willow saw the slight nod, and turned back to the wound. Realizing Christine had in fact not been asleep, but awake, a worry line creased between her eyes. "Are you okay, Christine? Was the bed uncomfortable?"

"No, itís great. Iím fine, just couldnít sleep," the singer explained softly. "My mind just doesnít always shut off, you know?"

"Yeah. I understand." Willow unwrapped the sterile butterfly strip.

"What about you? Why are you up? Did I wake you?" Christine leaned back on her hands, watching the blondeís gentle, yet very skillful fingers work on her foot.

"No." Willow smiled, placing a piece of gauze over the wound, and taping it into place. "I was craving Oreos." She risked a glance up into amused blue eyes. "And I couldnít sleep."

Christine looked down at the neat dressing and gave the blonde a lopsided grin. "Will I walk again, doc?"

"In time." Willow patted the foot, then began to clean up.

"Oh, good. You know, it just wonít do to have to run around stage with a walker or crutches."

"No, but if youíre not careful, youíll be rolling around the stage in a wheelchair." Willow raised a brow at her empty threat, smiling with the other woman threw her head back and laughed.

"Come on, doc. Bring out the Oreos."

)))

Strong, tanned fingers held the small, brown cookie, another set of fingers twisting, brining two halves apart, slowly and deliberately. Finally, in one solid piece, the white cream was revealed.

Christine forgot about her own cookie as she watched a tongue snake out, the pointed tip caught the edge where the cream met the cookie, lifting it just enough to slide the tongue further under the thick layer, slowly lifting it further and further, a dry residue powdering the dark lower cookie layer.

She couldnít help but wonder how the little blonde made such an innocent, child-like activity so erotic.

Turning back to her own cookie, she popped it into her mouth and sipped from her glass of cold milk.

Willow swallowed thoughtfully, totally unaware of the scrutiny from the singer moments before.

"So," she took a small sip of milk. "Youíre originally from New York, right?"

Christine glanced at her, taking another bite from the Oreo held gingerly between her fingers. She chewed slowly, mind churning. She dreaded having to deny the blonde, but she had no desire to answer questions she knew were coming. Wiping the milk mustache away, she nodded.

"Yes. Born in Queens."

"Are your parents still there? They must be so proud of you." Willow smiled big, grabbing another cookie from the blue, white and black package.

Christine smiled back, though it was very sad. She contemplated for all of three seconds, knowing how easily she could lie and say yep, theyíre so proud and they tell me all the time. But somehow she couldnít lie to the woman sitting across from her. It amazed the singer just how much she felt she could trust Willow. She decided to tell the truth about her family for the first time in more than twenty years.

"I donít know," she said quietly, looking into confused green eyes.

"You donít know?" Willow cocked her head to the side slightly.

"I havenít seen my parents since I was nine years old."

Willow looked at her friendís face, seeing the pain in the blue eyes. The voice was so soft, not a whisper, but almost as though Christine couldnít quite get the words out. She said nothing, waiting for the singer to say more. She had the strangest feeling that Christine wanted to get some things out.

"My father was a thug basically. Always in and out of trouble." She played with her milk glass, unable to meet the steady gaze from across the table. "My mother was a drug addict, also in and out of jail." She sighed. "One day they just didnít come home."

"Did they-"

"No." Christine shook her head, sitting back in her chair. "I think Gary got caught up in something over his head, and she got involved, too."

"Gary is your father?" Willow asked quietly.

"Yes. His common-law wife, Caren, gave birth to me. And, in the long run, I think they packed up all their shit and were gone."

"They left you!" Willowís voice squeaked with the outraged surprise. Christine smiled softly. Sheíd had twenty-two years for it to sink in.

"It all turned out okay, Willow," she said softly, that same smile on her lips. Willow stared at her for a long moment, letting everything sheíd been told absorb, as well as adding little details of her own fiction. Sensing the discussion now closed, she lowered her eyes and nodded.

"Iíll just say one thing," she glanced up through her bangs. Christine looked at her expectantly. "Iím very sorry."

"Thank you."

"And," swallowing the sorrow that filled her for her friend, Willow smiled large and bright, then yawned. "I donít know about you, but I think Iíll be able to sleep now. Oh, excuse me." She covered her mouth as her yawn got bigger.

"Me, too." Christine lied, knowing that she was probably done with sleep for the night. She stood, closing up the cookie package, and stowing it in the cabinet sheíd seen Willow take it from. The blonde rinsed out their glasses and turned to her friend. Squeezing the taller womanís shoulder, she wished her a good night, then headed upstairs.

Christine watched her go, then sighed and ran a hand through her hair. Trying to decide what to do, she saw the guitar standing in the corner of the room.

)))

The apartment was empty, and I just see half-drank carton of orange juice sitting on the dust-covered floor. I go over to it, dropping my pink backpack on the floor as I go. The juice isnít cold no more.

I got a bad feeling.

Going to the only other room I see the bed is gone. Thereís not even that big olí crucifix that was above it.

I jumped as the front door is opened, the many locks banging against the wall behind it. Voices, and they donít belong to Gary or Caren.

"We gotta get this shit cleaned up. Got another tenant," a manís voice said, deep and gruff.

"Iíll get right on it." Somebody leaves, but the heavy footfalls across the wood floors. I look at the doorway, waiting for whoever. I feel sweat start to break out under my hair. I donít have to wait long.

The manís gut appeared before he did. He looks like heís pregnant, and I have to stop myself from giggling at the thought. Heís in one of those shirts Gary calls a wife beater, and dirty black pants that hang down under his gut.

"What are you doing here, kid? This ainít no goddamn playground! Get outta here!" He lunges at me, but Iím faster. Running around him, I donít even grab my backpack, and suddenly Iím out of the smelly old building and out on the streets, traffic whizzing all around me, and people on the sidewalks pushing past me.

Itís hot and Iím scared. Wandering down the street, looking at every person who passes, desperate for a friendly face.

I make it the three blocks down to the almost non-existent park thatís not far from my school. I hear laughter, kid laughter. Lacing my fingers in the chain link that surrounds the small, grassed area with a bench and a basketball hoop, I watch the kids play. Thereís about six or seven of them, and they all look a little older than me, like around eleven or twelve. Boys.

Thereís one boy, smaller than the others. Heís being teased, and pushed.

"Come on you little half-breed. Come get the ball!" one boy yells out, holding the basketball high up. The kid with the glasses is trying to grab it from him. Iím impressed that heís not giving up.

"Give it to me, Victor," he growls, taking a running jump, but the tall boy called Victor shoots the ball over to one of his pals.

Then I get real mad. The kid with the ball throws it at the little guy, hitting him right in the face and knocking his glasses off. I hear them crack as they hit the small, cement court.

Fists clenched, I make my way over to the partially opened gate and run up to the boys, pushing the one who threw the ball.

"What the-"

"Youíre an asshole!" I yell out, pushing him again. I feel the anger of finding Gary and Caren gone again rising in me, lava under my skin boiling to the surface. These jerks picked the wrong day to mess with someone.

We hit the ground with double grunts and I start to wail on him. His eyes squeezed shut, his head flailing back and forth to try and avoid my blows from my fists.

"Get her off me! Get her the fuck off me!" the kid cries. I growl as hands are anchored under my arms and Iím pulled off, kicking and flailing.

Landing hard on my shoulder, I jump up, really mad now, thrashing out at anyone close to me.

"Jesus! You crazy, bitch!" Victor says, jumping back away from me. I glare at him, chest heaving with unvented anger and frustration. "Letís get the fuck outta here," he says, turning and walks away.

The other boys look at me as they pass, one by one, including the kid I just beat the shit out of. He swipes the back of his hand across his bloodied nose, broken lip trembling. It satisfies me to see how shook up he is. I smirk at him, just as I seen Gary do to Caren after he beat her real good.

Once they all left, I turn and see the kid with the broken glasses sitting on the cement, head hanging.

I see the glasses all twisted and messed up, lying near the bench.

"Here." The kid looks up at me, a tear-streaked face, and takes the glasses from my fingers.

"Thanks," he says quietly. Plopping down next to him, I bring my knees up and wrap my arms around them. "Whatís your name?" he asks, turning the broken glasses this way and that, his dark, curly hair flopping in his face.

"Christine."

"Iím Adam." He looks at me, a small smile on his face. "You really kicked some butt."

I grin, looking down at the stained cement under us.

"You like basketball?" Adam asks. I glance at him.

"Yeah. I like basketball."

Christine wiped the wetness from her cheek, stared up at the stars. She hadnít seen such complete darkness before, no lights from the city to obscure the heavens.

She set the guitar aside and scooted down, her head resting at the bottom of the tree, a hand behind her head.

It had been a long time since sheíd thought about Gary and Caren. It seemed like a lifetime ago, and in many ways it was. Things she didnít like to think about. Unfortunately her conversation with Willow over Oreos hours before had brought it all back. Now she was being haunted. Old specters she had thought long dead, or at least forgotten.

The sun would be rising soon, and the singer felt chilled. The emotions of the night making her cold inside, the kind of cold that a blanket or cup of coffee just canít warm up. Sheíd yet to find anything that could warm her up.

Scrubbing at her eyes, she sat up, then with a groan stood, grabbing the neck of the guitar and headed toward the house.

)))

"Thank you, Willow. This has been one of the most wonderful weekends Iíve had in a very long time."

Willow smiled into the hug, squeezing a bit before being let go.

"Even with your battle scar?" she asked with a raised brow, nodding toward Christineís foot. The singer chuckled.

"Yes. Even with my battle scar." She heaved her bag into the back of the Jeep.

"Youíre welcome here any time, Christine. If you need a break from all the glitz and glamour and adoring fans." They both laughed, but then Willow sobered. "Or if you just need a break," she finished softly.

"Thank you. And if you ever need a little glitz and glamour that the horses just canít provide," the singer winked, making Willow grin.

"Will do. Have a safe flight." Willow watched as the singer climbed into the Jeep and drove away in a cloud of dust.

ContinuedÖ

Part 6

 

Kevin grunted one more time, then slowly lowered his body, sweat making his skin stick to his wifeís. Willow wrapped her arms around his neck, kissing the side of his head as her heart rate began to slow, her body relaxing.

"I love you," he whispered, laying a gentle kiss on Willowís lips. She smiled.

"I love you, too." Giving him a squeeze, he moved off her and rolled over. Within moments, he was asleep.

Feeling warm and content, but also rather sticky, and not completely satisfied, Willow made her way to the bathroom to clean up. Looking at herself in the mirror, she wet her fingers, trying to flatten her wild hair.

Using the toilet, she headed back to bed, climbing in to find herself curled up in strong arms, and warm breath on her neck. She fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.

)))

"Here you go, honey," Willow handed the little birthday girl a big, red balloon.

"Can I squeak your nose?" another gap-toothed kid asked. Willow bent over, and small fingers squeaked the red, bulbous prop. The kid gasped when the blonde made a loud horn noise between closed lips. Big, brown eyes looked up at the nose, and small fingers reached up again. But before they could touch the spongy nose, Willow reached out and tickled the little oneís sides, making him giggle.

"Okay, kids! Cake time!" little Amandaís mom called out from the back porch. A dozen screaming, laughing five and six year olds ran to where the large cake with Care Bears on it, was being settled.

Willow eased her way out of the peripheral of the kidsí attention, and headed inside the house where Amandaís dad was waiting to pay her.

"Hey," he whispered, so as not to grab the attention of the kids, he opened his wallet. "great job."

"Thanks, Ted." The blonde grinned, stuffing the payment into the pocket of her baggy costume. "See you at work."

"Have a good one, Willow."

The clown turned to leave when she spotted the leftover burgers and hotdogs from the kidsí lunch.

"Oh, jeez," making a very hasty retreat, Willow leaned against her car, hand to her stomach and eyes closed. She willed her stomach to settle, taking deep breaths of fresh air, letting it fill her lungs and settle her body.

Feeling the nausea beginning to pass, she fumbled with her keys, hands shaky. Inserting the silver key into the lock, she slid behind the wheel, tearing the frizzy red wig from her head. It was almost as just the slightest bit of extra clothing made her blood boil, and body heat rise.

She heard her motherís words echo in her head:

"Youíre fine, Willow. Now get up off the floor and finish vacuuming."

"But mom, I donít feel good," I cry, wiping the back of my hand over my mouth, grimacing at the taste of fresh vomit.

"I said youíre fine," mom looms over me, hands on her hips. "Everyone gets sick. Youíve gotten it out of your system, now donít be a baby. Youíre fine." With that, she leaves me alone on the bathroom floor.

I try not to cry, knowing sheís right and that Iím making a big deal out of nothing. I mean, everyone throws up. Why should I be any different? Special?

"Iím fine," she whispered, taking several more deep breaths.

)))

"So you had to assure him heíd like it, huh?" Rachel grinned, closing the oven door and removing the oven mitt.

"Yeah. I promised him there would be no, oh what does he call them? Right, weird vegetables." She chuckled, struggling to pop the cork on the wine bottle.

"What the hell are weird vegetables?" Rachel asked, stacking freshly baked rolls into a basket, then covering them with a towel to keep in their heat and freshness.

"Broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, or shrooms, as he calls them."

"Oh my god. So are there normal veggies?"

"Yes, there are, actually. They consist of peas, corn, carrots and beats. Itís a bitch to cook for him."

"No doubt!"

"Is Connor that difficult?" Willow glanced over at her friend, pouring four glasses of wine.

"Not hardly. The guy will eat anything." She caught the blondeís eye. "And I do mean anything."

"Ew, gross! Far too much information, Rachel."

"Yes, well, thatís easy for someone to say who has never had that done." Turning off the oven, she got the salad together, tossing it with a set of tongs.

"I donít know. Itís only fair, Rach. If Iím not going to go down on him, why should he have to on me?" Gagging once when an ex-boyfriend had roughly shoved himself down her throat, she was done with that nonsense. She had thought it one of the most disgusting things anyway. Luckily Kevin didnít seem to care much.

"I donít get it."

"Apparently you do." They both laughed.

"So have you heard from Christine again? I cannot believe you didnít call me when she was there,"

"I know, and Iím sorry. No, I havenít."

"But itís been what, a month or so? Here, take this."

"Yeah, about that." The blonde took the salad in its large, wooden bowl, and hugged the various bottles of dressing to her body.

"Are you going to call her?" Rachel carefully removed the casserole from the confines of the cooling oven, setting it on the stovetop.

"Why would I do that?" Willow pressed her back to the swinging door of the kitchen.

"Donít want to seem like some silly, obsessed fan, huh?" Rachel grinned, making the blonde roll her eyes.

"Itís not like that, Rachel. I donít know," she sighed as she thought of what she was trying to say. "Sheís not like that. Sheís fun, has a great sense of humor." She shrugged. "Sheís a normal person."

"And I guess one who isnít into suing for damages," Rachelís eyes twinkled with mischief. Willow blushed, looking down.

"Yeah. That was extremely embarrassing." With that, she butted the door open, and dinner was served.

"You guys are going to really like this," Connor informed his dinner guests, forkful halfway to his mouth. Kevin looked doubtful, but was willing to try it, at least for his wifeís sake. Heíd never been a huge fan of Rachel, seeing her as a gossip and a somewhat overpowering personality. Theyíd always clashed, but had kept it to themselves, both loving Willow too much to hurt her.

"Thanks, honey. Itís just a little something I threw together once," Rachel said as she buttered a roll.

Willow smiled at the exchange, looking down at her own meal. The casserole looked good and even smelled better. At first.

She felt a bubbling in her stomach. Turning her head, she pushed her plate away.

"Honey?" Kevin said quietly, noticing his wifeís color had suddenly become very pale.

"Iím sorry. I donít feel so hot," Willow almost knocked her chair over in an attempt to get away from the smells and sights that were making her want to lose her non-existent dinner.

Closing the bathroom door behind her, green eyes squeezed shut as she tried to get herself under control.

"Iím okay, Iím okay," she whispered over and over again. "Iím not going to throw up, not going to throw up. Shit, gonna throw up-" Rushing over to the toilet, she flung the lid open and anything sheíd eaten that day came back for an encore, including the wine sheíd had that night, which burned her throat. The taste alone made her gag all over again.

There was a soft tapping on the bathroom door as Willow rinsed her mouth out.

"Honey? Willow, are you okay?"

"Yeah," she opened the door, a very concerned Kevin standing on the other side.

"Are you sick?"

"I donít know." Clicking off the light, she stepped out into the hall, her husband resting his hand on her back. "Guess I have a touch of the stomach flu."

"Or maybe you got the plate Rachel intended for me," he whispered, nipping at her earlobe with his teeth. The blonde giggled, playfully pushing him away.

"Stop. You two are like children, I swear." She gave him a one-armed hug before heading toward the dining room. "Besides, I havenít eaten a thing, yet."

"You okay, sweetie?" Rachel asked, meeting the couple in the hall. Her blue eyes were narrowed in concern, glancing at Kevin for answers. He shrugged, and her gaze turned back to her friend.

"Iíll live," Willow muttered, not wanting to talk to anyone. She felt self-conscious of what her breath must smell like.

"Come on, Wills. Letís see what Iíve got for your tummy," Rachel said, grabbing her friendís hand.

"Rachel, Iím not four," the blonde grumbled, feeling less than playful.

"Okay, hmm," the redhead put her fingers to her lips, looking through the medicine cabinet. Willow sat heavily on the closed toilet lid.

"I feel like a truck just rolled over me."

"Well, try this." Rachel handed the pale woman a bottle of Milk of Magnesia.

"Thanks," she unscrewed the cap and filled the little cup she was handed. Downing the thick liquid with a grimace, she handed it all back to her friend. "Yuck!"

"Give it a minute. It should help settle-" Rachel winced, looking away. "Or not." Rubbing small circles on her friendís back, Rachel was very concerned. "Honey, are you Ö"

"Pregnant!?" Willowís eyes were huge as she looked at the stick in her hand, a plus in the little window. "This canít be," She looked at it again. She was on the pill.

"It happens, Willow. In fact, itís not as uncommon as you might think." Dr. Adele Stride removed her latex gloves, tossing them into the waste basket. "I bet Kevinís excited, huh?" the doctor, and long time friend smiled.

"He doesnít know yet." Willow stood, smoothing her gown in place. She sighed. "I wanted to make absolute sure, first."

Adele studied the blonde for a moment. She saw a line appear between the green eyes, but chose to say nothing.

Willow sat in her car, keys dangling from the ignition, unturned. Staring out the windshield, the small, one-story building squat before her.

Without warning, she was sobbing, face buried in her hands. The uncontrollable upset racked her entire body; tears of joy, tears of sorrow, and tears of fear.

Looking up through water-blurred vision, she saw a woman, probably not much older than herself, if not younger, carrying a toddler dressed in pants and little white tennis shoes. The childís thumb was in her mouth, black hair running down her back in a shiny wave.

Willowís tears stopped, her complete focus on mother and child. The woman balanced the girl on her hip, holding her steady with an arm while the other hand unlocked the back passenger side door of the Jeep Cherokee. She said something to the child, making her nod with a smile, dark eyes glimmering with the innocent happiness of youth.

The child was placed in a black and gray car seat, buckled into safety, then with a small kiss to the childís cheek, the door was closed, and the mother moved to her place behind the wheel. As she got herself settled, Willowís gaze turned back to the little girl who looked back at her through the window, dark eyes squinting against the harsh glare through the glass.

Willow smiled, the child smiling back, raising her colorful cup to the blonde in unrealized salute. The Cherokee was started up, and pulled out of the space, and out of Willowís sight.

She took another deep breath, running her hands through her hair, her eyes slowly following a path down her own body, hands falling to her flat belly.

"A baby," she whispered, sudden giddiness making her laugh almost manically.

The drive home was in a daze. She knew Kevin wouldnít be home when she got there, and that nagged at her. She wanted so badly to tell him. Seeing the turnoff that would lead her toward the ranch, she had a sudden burst of inspiration and flipped a bitch, headed the other direction, back toward town, then through it, into the neighboring town of Gail.

She smiled when she saw the orange diamond-shaped signs- MEN AT WORK. Driving past them, she pulled off onto the dirt shoulder, spotting Kevinís truck and pulling in behind it.

Checking herself in the rearview mirror, she spit on a Kleenex and rubbing the tear streaks from her cheeks and from under her eyes. They were still red, but what the hell.

Slamming the car door shut, she was mindful of random stacks of wood and plywood, as well as a wheelbarrow, dried remnants of cement crusting the edges.

"Excuse me, maíam. Can I help you?" the first man she came to asked, his bare chest darkly tanned, white t-shirt tucked into a belt loop.

"Yeah, Iím looking for Kevin Bowman."

The man turned to the group who was pounding away on four-by-fours that would ultimately be part of the roof of the house.

"Hey, Johnny! You seen Kevin?" he yelled up, one of the men glancing over at him, hitching his thumb back toward the other side of the house.

"Heís talking to Norman."

"Thanks. Follow me," the man led Willow around the rubble, reminding her to watch her step until they reached a huge, green dumpster, a small group of men standing in its shadow talking. Kevin was one of them.

He glanced over, sensing someone watching, a huge grin spreading across his handsome face at the sight of his wife.

"Hang on a sec, Norman," he said to the plumber, then walked over to his wife, pushing his sunglasses to the top of his head. "Hey, you," kissing her quickly, he looked down at her. "Whatís up?" His expression was a mixture of happiness at the unexpected visit by Willow, but also slight concern. She generally didnít come to a site unless there was good reason.

"I went to the doctor today," Willow began, her voice quiet, own eyes hidden by her sunglasses, though she studied those of her husband closely.

"Right. The stomach thing. Are you okay?" he tucked his thumbs in the back pockets of his jeans.

"Well, yes. And no." She smiled, but felt her heart began to hammer against her ribcage.

"What? I donít get it." He watched as his wife shifted her weight from one leg to the other, white teeth peeking out as a bottom lip was sucked in for a moment. Suddenly he felt a pang of unease wash through him.

"Honey, Kevin, weíre going to have a baby." There, sheíd said it.

Kevin stared at her, face barren of expression. "What?"

"Iím pregnant!" she said, her voice filled with joy.

"I donít understand,"

"Oh, come on, Kevin. I know for fact you know about the birds and the bees," Willow joked, though she felt her joy beginning to leak out her ear.

"But youíre on the pill," he said. Yeah, her happy balloon was definitely starting to deflate.

"Yes, I am on the pill, Kevin, which tells me that this baby is supposed to be here."

"So youíre going to have it?" The words were out of his mouth before he could even think, and knew immediately that had been the very last thing he should have said.

Willow stared at him for a brief moment, feeling her heart break, and her eyes fill with tears. Without another word, she turned and began to storm off. She heard her name called, and heavy footfalls behind her, which only made her move even faster, then into an all out run.

"Willow! Wait!"

She kept going, reaching her car, trembling hands dropping the keys before she finally got the large key in the lock. A hand rested on her shoulder, but she pulled away from it, opening the door and hearing Kevinís grunt as it smacked him in the mid-section.

"Damn it, Willow, wait."

"Go to hell, Kevin." She slammed the door, barely missing her husbandís fingers. She locked the doors when she saw him reach for the handle, revving the engine to life.

She put the car into reverse, not daring to look at him, knowing full well that sheíd stop and listen to what he had to say. She didnít want to hear him, didnít want to see him. She just waned to be angry.

Nearly running over that MEN AT WORK sign, she headed away with the squeal of tires and a rubber trail on the street.

"Fuck!" Kevin yelled, hating himself for what heíd just done and praying to God Willow could forgive him.

The blonde wiped angrily at the newest wash of upset that blurred her vision and made her cheeks feel tight and sticky.

She drove around for a long time, not sure where to go. She didnít want to go home as she knew Kevin was probably calling every few minutes. She knew he hadnít meant it that way, but still Ö.

Driving through the gated community, she drove through the winding streets, strangely shaped properties filled with beautiful townhouses. Fancy town cars were parked in many of the driveways, young kids in shorts and t-shirts working in the yards, watering, mowing and pruning.

Finding 216, Willow pulled up to the curb, the Lincoln in the drive, and cut the engine. Wiping her eyes and nose, the blonde sniffled once then headed out into the hot day.

The lawn was immaculate, of course, as were the flowers that lined the driveway, drying patches where the lawn had recently been watered.

The white sandstone townhouse seemed to glow from the afternoon sun, soft music coming from inside, the screened door doing nothing for sound insulation.

Willow rang the bell, waiting as she heard movement inside, then the music being cutoff.

"Willow!" the older woman hurried to the door, pushing the door open with her hip and pulling her granddaughter in with her arms. The blonde smiled, almost pulled off her feet as she was roughly hugged. The old woman still had some serious strength.

"Hey, grandma." She closed her eyes, reveling in the warm security of the older womanís embrace. Grandma could always make her feel like everything would be okay.

Pulling away, Myra studied her favorite person in the world, a barrage of wrinkles forming around her mouth and eyes. Something was terribly wrong.

"Come in, my love, and Iíll make some tea." Willow followed her through the townhouse, open and airy, to the kitchen at the back of the place.

Within moments the two women were seated at the table, tall glasses of iced tea in hand. Narrowed, concerned eyes studied the downcast green.

"You know, Willow, I could begin by telling you a bunch of gossip that you wonít care about anyway, or we can just get to it." She squeezed a bit of lemon into her glass, watching her granddaughter as she lazily stirred the juice into the drink.

Willow studied a bead of condensation that slid its way down the smooth glass, trying to get her thought and emotions in order.

"Iím going to have a baby, grandma," she said quietly.

"Oh, honey! Thatís wonderful news!" Myra Wahl reached across the table, taking the blondeís hand in her own. She was overjoyed.

"I just got back from Kevinís construction site." She took a deep breath, fighting the tears that were trying to break through again. "Heís not thrilled."

"What? And heíll make such a wonderful father, too."

"I know." Willow sniffled back the threatening tears. "I donít know. Weíve talked about it, about kids, and we decided to wait." The tears began to fall. "I didnít do this on purpose, grandma," she looked up at the older woman with pain-filled eyes.

"I know that, love. Kevin knows that, too."

"He actually asked me if I planned to keep it," she buried her face in her hands. "It! As if this baby is some sort of growth inside me instead of a human life that he helped to create."

"Oh, my love." Myra sighed, glancing out at all the lovely birds that bathed and drank from the stone bird bath set up in the small backyard. She watched them flap their wings to rid of the excess water and then preen. She so loved birds. "Heís young, honey. You both are, and heís afraid. Your grandpa was the exact same way."

"Really?" Willow looked at her grandma, desperation in her eyes. "I love him, but I love this baby, too. Itís crazy- itís no more than a tiny blob right now, but I love it as if it were sitting right here," she patted the table and Myra nodded.

"Of course you do, love. Itís a part of you, created of your own flesh and blood. This is a time of rejoicing, Willow, not tears," the older woman reached over and gathered some of the blondeís tears on a fingertip.

"I canít seem to stop," the blonde laughed.

"Get used to it, my love. Your hormones are going to be out of whack for some time." She stood, pulling her granddaughter to her feet, and pulling her into a gentle hug. The taller woman went willingly, resting her head on the sturdy shoulder. "Give him time, honey. This is all new to him. Women are far stronger creatures than our male counterparts, Iím afraid." She smiled when she heard Willow laugh softly.

"Isnít that the truth,"

They parted and sat again. "Have you told your father?"

"No. Only you and Kevin know." She blew her nose, then sipped her tea.

"Well, I think you should stay here with me for a bit and make him sweat," Myra winked, making her granddaughter smile. That was truly one of the most beautiful pictures in the older womanís mind. Her granddaughter was an unusually beautiful girl with an equally beautiful inside. Kevin had no idea just what he had.

)))

"Well, itís about time you show,"

"Iím sorry, Sandra. I had a photo shoot this morning." Christine tossed her coat on the arm of one of the many plush couches the desinger had scattered around her studio. "What have you got for me today?" she asked, eyeing the blonde, who was impeccable as usual. Her hair, as usual, was pinned up into some intricate style on top of her head, her clothing, wrinkle free and fitted like she was born with it on.

"Well," she said from behind her drawing board. "You could have at least called," glancing up at the singer, there was teasing her in her blue eyes. "Now," finishing a few lines on her newest design, she tossed the pencil down and walked over to her favorite client. "Robert has sent over some rather," she paused, looking for the right word, "interesting Ö ideas."

"God. What now?" the singer sighed, running a hand through her wind-blown hair.

"Well, sometimes I think it would be easier, and far cheaper for you, if you just went out naked."

Blue eyes pinned the desinger to the spot. "What did he do," was almost growled through clenched teeth.

"Come," Sandra led the way back to her drawing board, flipping back a few pages in the giant sketch pad. Basically strips of cloth, arranged in fortunate patterns to hide Christineís more personal spots, but otherwise, all was revealed.

"No fucking way," she said. They looked at each other, then Sandra smirked, flipping to another page. "Jesus! Iíd look like Cher!" Storming away, she stood before a floor to ceiling window, looking out over L.A. "This is getting out of control," she murmured.

"Christine, come back here. Itís no secret how Robert is. Everyone in the business knows that. Especially with you."

Christine looked over at her long-time desinger, and reluctant friend. With a sigh, she walked back over to her.

"I already told him no. I told him I wasnít about to turn my creations into something youíd find on the Strip at two a.m. Here," flipping to one last page, she showed the singer what she intended to create instead. "You have a wonderful body, Christine, thatís also no secret, and I think Robertís smart in showing that off. You have an army of lesbian fans whoíd love nothing more than to see some great skin. The men, too, obviously."

She took in the designs, most of which were stunning.

"I figure this dress could be worn for the MTV Awards later on, and this one for the Grammyís."

"Grammyís? Sandra, I havenít even been nominated-"

"Yet. You and I both know you will be. Now, mouth shut, eyes open."

Soon enough Christine stood in the center of the room in a thong and matching bra, arms stretched out as Sandra took her measurements.

Christine had learned to disappear into her own little world while this was going on. She wasnít a fan, and still, after all this time, felt like it was an invasion of her personal space.

"When are you going to get rid of that man, anyway?" Sandra asked around the pencil she held between her teeth.

Christine snorted. "God only knows."

"You know, youíre big enough now that you could easily drop him like a bad habit, and be fine." The desinger looked up into those beautiful eyes, then turned back to the little, ever present pad of paper, scribbling down notes for herself.

"I know, Sandra," the singer sighed. "I know."

It had been a long day and Christine was sick of everything and everyone. She wanted to go home and rest, chill out, write some music and be alone. Not to be.

After Sandra was finished with her, she would be headed to the valley for some interviews and then off to LAX to catch a plane to promote the new album.

Whoever came up with no rest for the wicked certainly had her in mind.

"Are we finished here, Sandra?" the singer asked, getting antsy and anxious. The desinger, who had been working on some measurements of Christineís hips, glanced up at irritated blue eyes.

"That time of the month is it?" she quirked a perfectly plucked brow.

"No. That time of year. New album."

"Ah. Say no more, and yes. Weíre finished." Standing, Sandra put the material tape around her neck and tossed her notebook to a table. She looked at the singer. "You have changed since you came to us, Christine," she said quietly, looking deeply into a pair of the most beautiful eyes sheíd ever seen. And in her business, with her clientele, that was saying a lot. She was around the most beautiful people in the world, with the most beautiful bodies created. Christine Gray, though. Ah, Christine Gray. She stood above the best of the best, her beauty not from a knife and nip tuck, but from the grace of DNA. She was a lucky one.

The singer stared back, not sure where this was going.

"You were so timid and sad." Sandra smiled, though it was troubled. "Youíre still sad. Arenít you?" She reached out, uncharacteristically touching the tall brunette. She brushed her fingers over a soft, tanned cheek. "Break free, Christine." She whispered. "Before itís too late."

Christine stared at her, this woman whom sheíd known for seventeen years, and had a love/hate relationship with, though she did respect her talent and vision. The unusual caring and personal touch almost brought a tightness to the singerís throat that she didnít dare let break free.

"I need to go," she stepped away from the older womanís fingers, grabbing her bag and heading toward the door. "Give me a call when youíre reading for the fittings." And she was gone.

Sandra sighed, shaking her head. She worried that one day Christine Gray would just disappear.

)))

"Christine! Over here, please! Look this way, Miss Gray!"

Christine kept the smirk on her face, her trademark and professional disinterested look. Sheíd done it at fifteen just because she had felt unbelievably uncomfortable with a swarm of photographers snapping the new girl, and that discomfort had shown itself in a cocky smirk. It had stuck and was expected.

What the paparazzi wanted, the paparazzi got. God forbid she actually be herself.

She hooked her thumbs in the pockets of her tight-fitting jeans, holes in all the right places, and turned this way and that, nearly blinded by a veritable sea of flash bulbs. She recognized all the regulars- reporters from ET, E!, People and US Weekly, local news stations and of course the piranha of that sea, the free-lance photog. They were the most dangerous and most bold, as they were certainly the most hard up.

"Hey, thereís Lindsay Lohan!" someone yelled, making Christine ever so grateful that the heat was off her. Keeping the façade in place until she was tucked safely into the back of the limousine, she sighed, grabbing herself an ice cold bottled water from the small fridge.

Snagging her cell phone from the console, she saw she had six missed messages. Rolling her eyes, she tossed the phone down again, having no interest in dealing with Bob.

)))

With a small sigh, Willow tucked her cell back into her purse then studied herself in the rearview mirror again. She looked like hell, and felt about as grand.

Sniffling once more, she gathered up all her stuff and locked up the car, juggling her key ring to find the house key. Kevinís truck wasnít in the drive yet, so sheíd have a few minutes to get herself together.

Patting her face dry with the wash cloth, Willow stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. She definitely looked like hell, and felt tired, her eyes burning from all the crying. As she stared at herself, she couldnít help but wonder if sheíd overreacted where Kevin was concerned.

She looked down at herself, seeing absolutely no physical difference, but she felt different. It was all psychological, but there was a human being growing inside of her body, feeding off the nourishment she was providing without knowledge. That little human would form into a child, which was up to her and the babyís daddy to raise, mold and teach.

Willow burst into tears again, plopping down hard on the closed toilet lid. What if she were a horrible mother? What if she was unsuitable and the kid turned into a raving lunatic serial killer?

In her misery she failed to hear the front door open then close, a pause, and heavy footfalls on the stairs, two at a time.

"Baby? Honey," Kevin set the bouquet of roses on the bathroom counter and knelt down next to his wife who was crying hysterically.

Willow looked up, seeing the hazy image of her very concerned husband through her tears. She tried to pull away from him as he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her into him.

"Shh," he cooed, mentally kicking himself over and over again for doing this to her. He was stunned by the words that met his ears.

"Iím going to be a horrible mother!"

"What?" For a brief moment Kevin was relieved that maybe he hadnít caused such intense upset after all. That quickly ended when the little blonde pushed him away, swiping at her continuously leaking eyes.

"Why am I telling you that. You donít care." She stood, blowing her nose then angrily throwing the spent tissue to the bathroom trash.

"Hey, thatís not true, or fair." Kevin also stood, trying to keep his temper down and be understanding. Thatís what his mother had told him to do- be understanding and caring. He went over to her and hugged her from behind. She was stiff, but didnít pull away. "Iím sorry about earlier, Willow," he said in her ear, "it was a knee-jerk reaction, though I admit not a very good one. I was surprised."

"Itís your baby, too, Kevin," she turned in her arms, looking up at him with beseeching eyes.

"I know," he said, his head lowering in shame. "I thought we were going to discuss when to have children." He looked at her shyly.

"We did talk about this, Kevin," she moved out of his arms, glancing at the roses, but making herself not react to her favorite flower and gift. "Do you really think I planned this behind your back? I said, okay, tonightís the night, God, knock me up?" Her anger was returning.

"Come on, Willow. Donít be ridiculous. I know itís not your fault-"

"Why does it have to be a fault at all, Kevin?" she whirled on him. "This is our child," she clutched her non-existent stomach. "and I refuse to see this miracle as a mistake. So with you or without you, Iím having this baby."

He looked at her, stunned and struck dumb. Blinking several times, he let out a breath.

"Are you threatening me?" he asked, his voice soft, anger draining out with the shock and blow of her words and the meaning behind them. She said nothing, just looked him square in the eye, jaw as firm as her resolve.

)))

The hotel suite was like any other Christine had been in- beautiful, opulent and disgustingly expensive. This time, however, the bill was on the promoters, so it was all clear and free.

She went to the huge bedroom, her bags already unloaded and waiting for her to unpack. There was also a vase on the dresser filled with beautiful flowers of varying colors, shapes and types.

Snatching the card with two fingers, she took it out of the small envelope:

Welcome, and I look forward to sharing stage space with you. I expect you at dinner tonight, too.

Love,

Melissa & Tammy Lynn

Smiling, she tossed the card to the dresser and leaned down to take a deep whiff of the flowers, humming contentedly at the overwhelming fragrance.

She was glad to be in Colorado to do the benefit concert at Red Rocks. She loved performing there; the city lights behind the stage, cool night air enveloping the performers and audience, bringing them together in a sort of outside bond.

Sliding the light leather Jacket she wore off her shoulders, she tossed it to the king-sized bed and walked over to the French doors, which led to the balcony that overlooked Denver proper. She didnít come this way often, but always enjoyed her time in the Mile High city when she was there. Though how on earth these people lived at such an altitude eluded her to no end.

Turning back to the suite, she got herself a bottle of water to clear her throat so she could start her singing exorcises. She always had to do more of them when in Colorado to get her lungs ready to work harder.

She cleared her mind, taking deep breaths to cleanse her from the inside out, almost putting herself in a momentary meditative state, releasing the breaths in slow, measured movements, eyes closed, body relaxed. She was about to open her mouth when her cell phone rang.

Growling as her concentration was shot, she walked over to the bed, fishing her phone out of her Jacket. Looking at the digital display, she rolled her eyes.

"Yes?"

"Jesus, Christine! Where have you been? Iíve been trying to get hold of you since you left Sandraís yesterday."

"Iíve been a little busy, Bob. Maybe if you wouldnít jam pack my days so full Iíd have the time and sanity to answer your calls."

"Well, either way, howís it going? Are you there, yet?"

"Yes," the singer sighed, sitting on the end of the bed. "I was about to start my breathing exorcises, so make this quick. I have to be downstairs in two hours." She ran a hand through her hair, feeling the exhaustion already seeping in.

"Alright. Well listen to the messages I left you, they have more information. But a quick rundown is youíre not going to Philly anymore, but instead are hitting Baltimore. Also, the Kodak people want you in New York by Monday night."

"Jesus, Bob! Iím not seventeen anymore, trying to get me noticed. Why am I doing all this shit?" She stood, pinning a hand to her forehead.

"To make up for your fuck up earlier this year," he said, his voice dangerously low. "If it gets out youíre ruined. The public has to think youíre still with it and capable and willing."

"You make me sound like a cripple, Bob. Any particular reason?" her voice was dangerously calm, belying her bodily fluids which were now on boil.

"In some ways you are, Christine," he answered, his own calmness coming across the line. "You let yourself go and let yourself be taken over by that poison. I have to look out for you more than ever now."

"I have to go," she sighed, knowing that if she didnít hang up, sheíd scream.

"Have a good show and give my love to Sting." The wall of silence made her grit her teeth as she snapped the phone shut. Holding it in her hand, she squeezed the small bundle, all too tempted to throw it against the wall.

Instead she set it down on the bedside table, hooking it up to its charger, then returning to her bottle of water and vocal exorcises.

)))

Willow stared up at the dying day, the twilight upon the land. The trees began to look like giant, black monsters against the purple sky, their arms reaching up for their salvation of another day ending and night encroaching.

She ran a hand over Starís neck, the coarse hair of the mareís mane tickling her palm.

"Not sure how much longer Iíll be able to do this, girl," she said quietly, the horse snorting in response.

The evening breeze blew warm air over her, displacing her short hair. She inhaled the smells you only found on a ranch- animals, earth, feed and nature. She loved it, bringing her security and peace. It always amused her how the smells she loved so much made new-comers wrinkle their nose up in distaste.

Eh, what do they know?

Urging Star into a light trot, they headed back toward the stables.

)))

In a Colorado hotel room a cell phone rang before being picked up by voice mail. When finished, the lit up green display proudly blinked MISSED CALL.

ContinuedÖ

Part 7

"What? Stop that," Willow swatted Rachelís hand away from her stomach. "Move on. Thereís nothing to see here." She quickly pulled her scrubs shirt over her head.

"I just canít believe thereís a baby in there!" the redhead gushed, giving her friend a hug for the umpteenth time.

"Me, either." Willow grinned.

"Have things gotten any better with daddy dumbass?" Rachel slammed her locker shut, clipping her name badge to her shirt.

"Yeah. Heís trying. I donít know." She closed her own locker. "I think itíll just take time for him to get used to the idea. He only found out a week ago."

"Are you guys talking yet?"

"We never really stopped. Things are just, I donít know," the blonde plopped down on the bench that lined the aisle between the rows of lockers. "I just feel very distant from him right now. Iím sure Iíll get over it, and heíll grow up, and everything will be fine."

"Hmm," Rachel didnít sound so convinced. She opened her mouth about to say something when she stopped at the knock on the frosted glass window of the door. It squeaked open and Lindsey Huff stuck her head in.

"Um, sorry to bother you guys, but Willow, you have a visitor," the young volunteer said, her cheeks flushed.

"Thanks, Lindsey. Iíll be there in a-" the blonde stopped, seeing her visitor standing in the doorway of the locker room, where the volunteer had been.

"Holy shit," Rachel muttered.

"Hi," Willow walked over to the taller woman, a smile instantly lighting up her face. Christine smiled in return.

"I was in the neighborhood." She held up two big brown teddy bears, one with a pink bow around its neck, the other blue. "You never know."

"Oh," instantly the emotion welled up in Willowís chest, and she flung her arms around the singerís neck, overwhelmed by just how sweet a gesture it was. God only knew how busy the singer was, and the fact that sheíd actually listened to her message, and had come from god only knew where, just for her!

"Whoa!" Christine had to balance herself against the doorframe in order to not be totally bowled over by the crying blonde.

Mid-hug, Willow realized how obnoxious she was being, and feeling very self-conscious, she stepped back from the woman who grinned down at her.

"Sorry." She stepped back to a polite distance.

"Itís okay. Iím happy to see you, too." Christine gave the little blonde the most winning smile she had, wanting the nurse to know her exuberance was very okay. "Here." She held out the bears again, and the blonde hugged them to her.

"This is so sweet, Christine, thank you."

"Well, itís a very special occasion. Congratulations." She leaned down a bit, studying the blonde with concerned eyes. "Are you okay, Willow?" The message had been harried and the blonde had sounded very upset, causing Christine to immediately cancel her last shoot, and catch a flight down to Oklahoma.

"Oh," Willow looked away, realizing suddenly that two very interested pairs of ears were with them. She looked around, seeing Rachel sitting on the bench, and Lindsey hanging out in the hall. "Want to get some coffee? I have about thirty minutes before my shift starts."

"Absolutely."

Teddy bears in arms, Willow led them toward the cafeteria. "Will this be okay?" she asked quietly, seeing people already beginning to stare. She had no doubt that Lindsey was telling as many people as possible who was in their hospital.

"We should be fine. And, if things start to get too bad you can beat them off with Anne and Andy there," she tugged on the ear of one of the bears. Willow glared, earning her a smile.

They found a seat at a table toward the back of the cafeteria. Willow wanted to make as little deal of this as she could, and bring as little attention as possible. But the first person who bugged them, she was dragging Christine out of there.

"What are you doing here?" Willow asked, her voice hushed as she removed the lid from her hot cider, blowing across the surface of the amber liquid.

"I got your message. Iím so sorry I couldnít be there for you." Christine looked so genuine Willow wanted to cry again. "I just, well, Iíve been so busy and everything has been beyond crazy, I kind of went on ignore mode." She smiled sheepishly. "I was trying to avoid Bob."

"Bob?"

"Knowles. My manager."

"Oh. Canít say I blame you," the blonde muttered, then looked up at her friend shyly. "Sorry."

"Itís okay. So anyway, whatís going on?" Christine wrapped her hands around her cup of coffee, which sheíd already noticed Willow had given a coveting look to twice.

"Oh gosh, youíre so busy and yet youíre here? Iím so sorry. Please, Christine, donít mess up your schedule or make it worse on my account, please-"

"Willow," Christine gently interrupted. "Iím here because I want to be. Okay?" The blonde nodded. "Okay."

"Well, whatís happening? Why is your schedule so busy? You must be exhausted."

"Yes, however," the singer placed a warm hand over Willowís "Weíre not here to talk about me. I came here to talk about this wonderful news. Donít change the subject."

"Iím fine, Christine. Really," the sadness in those expressive green eyes told a very different story. Christine decided to try a different tactic.

"Willow," she said, lowering her voice. "you live your life to help other people. You have one of the kindest hearts Iíve ever seen in another human being. Hell, your life and your job is spent helping." She paused, looking into those green eyes, making sure that her words were sinking in. "Please let me be there for you. Let me help. Okay?"

Willow studied the beautiful singer, finally looking away, unable to meet that intense gaze.

"I found out about this the day I called you. I was five weeks pregnant, and very thrilled about the baby, Ö"

"But?"

"But," she sighed. "Kevin, Ö"

"Isnít."

"No. Heís not." Willow looked down, staring into her cup, wishing to god she could see her future in it. She felt the hot sting of unshed tears.

"Iím sorry," Christine squeezed the hand that her own still covered. Willow shrugged, taking several deep breaths.

"He just needs some time to get used to the idea." She smiled though it was completely forced, and very obviously so. "I have no doubt that Iíll be so busy getting ready for the baby and throwing up that I wonít even notice."

Christine studied the blonde for a moment, then smiled gently. "Iím sure you will."

"Well, I need to start my shift, so,"

"Of course." The singer pushed her chair back, taking a step sideways so she was standing next to the table. Willow did the same, smiling shyly up at her friend.

"It means a lot to me that you came. Thank you."

"Any time." Christine took the smaller woman into a warm hug, tight but brief. "Take care of you and little you." She glanced down at what would soon be a little basketball.

"I will," Willow chuckled. "Take care of you, too. Okay?"

"I will. See you later, Willow."

"Bye, Christine." The blonde watched as the singer tugged on a baseball cap, pulling her ponytail through the back. She headed toward the sliding glass doors of the hospital entrance, swallowed up by the night beyond.

)))

The flick of the crisp paper filled the breakfast nook as pages were turned and straightened, then coffee sipped as a new morning dawned.

"Hmm. That big car show is coming back this year," Kevin murmured, absently sipping from his big mug, handmade by a local potter.

"You and Joe going to go?" Willow asked, finger running down the page as she scanned for her horoscope.

"We might." More paper ruffling, then the screech of Kevinís chair on the Mexican tile. "Wait," he said, brows furrowed. Willow ignored him, figuring if it was that big a deal heíd tell her about it. "Isnít this that singer you like?"

Willow glanced over at her husband, who was holding the paper up, his finger tapping a short story in the entertainment section.

GRAY VISITS HOMETOWN HOSPITAL

Green eyes flicked up to her husband. "Holy shit!" Willow grimaced, knowing what was coming next. "She talked to you? It says here you guys were chatting at a table in the cafeteria." There was no accusation in his voice, just wonder and confusion.

"Yes, we were."

"Why didnít you tell me? What was she doing here?" He looked at her with narrowed brows.

The blonde sighed, deciding to tell Kevin about Christine and their past. She just hoped heíd be understanding.

"Christine and I kind of know each other, honey."

Brows shot up. "How?"

"I saved her life." She looked at him, seeing the slow grin of disbelief spreading across his features. The seriousness of her own gaze stopped the grin in its tracks.

"Youíre serious,"

"Yes. She has come here before. She stayed in our house."

The paper hit the table with a crisp slap. "What? Why didnít you say anything? How long ago did this happen? Where the hell was I?"

"Which?" she was beginning to feel the first strains of panicked guilt.

"Any of it. All of it," he looked at her with hard eyes, unconsciously leaning forward in his seat.

"I saved her last winter," Willow sighed, looking down. "The concert Rachel and I went to was a thank you from her. She took us backstage after the show, then took me to dinner."

"Christine Gray took you to dinner?" there was doubt in his voice.

"Yes. I went to dinner with her and her band, and before I came in the house she gave me her phone number. I called her out of curiosity, and invited her out here."

"Where the hell was I?"

"Fishing with your brothers."

"I see." He sighed, glancing out the window. "This would be the weekend your friend, Marion came to stay, right?" he glanced at here again, blue eyes blazing. "Marion who is in the middle of a divorce with her husband and needed to get away. That Marion?" Willow opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by the screech of his chair. It was nearly knocked over backwards as Kevin pushed away from it and stormed out of the house.

The blonde ran a hand through her hair, then stood, pushing both her and Kevinís chair under the table.

It wasnít hard to find the man who had retreated to his cave and play land- the garage. She could hear him sawing away at something, and wondered just how good an idea it was to talk to him when he was not only angry at her, but also had a weapon in his hand. Deciding to take the risk, she entered into his domain.

"Kevin," she said quietly as she took in the mass of materials spread out over the concrete floor of his workshop- wood, metal scraps, tools and buckets of various types and sizes of screws and nails. He did not answer, nor did his sawing slow. "Iím sorry."

"Why did you lie to me?" he asked, his voice breaking her heart. He sounded like a little boy.

"When everything happened that night with Christine, her manger and lawyer made me sign a contract that I wouldnít tell anyone-"

"Iím your husband, Willow!" he looked at her, face red from the exertion of his sawing mixed with his anger. "You should have trusted me."

"Youíre right."

"And the rest of it. I mean, this woman was at the house! It doesnít get anymore personal than that." He sighed again, giving up on the sawing. He set the blade on the counter of his workstation, one hand on his hip, the other fingering some wood shavings. He did not look at his wife. "Youíve always been a private person, and Iíve really tried to do my best to understand that, to try and respect that." He looked at her.

"Yes, you have," Willow said quietly.

"Why do you keep stuff from me?" his voice was pleading now. "Respecting your privacy and you keeping stuff from me are two very different things. This isnít the first time, either, Willow. Why was Rachel good enough to go to the concert?"

"She was there that night, Kevin. She was working the ER."

"What happened? Why was Christine Gray, first off, here, and secondly, why was she in the hospital?"

"Itís personal to her, I canít-"

"Jesus!" He stormed past her, yanking the door open on his truck and climbing behind the wheel. Glaring at her through the windshield, the truck roared to life, and he backed out of the large garage with a squeal of tires.

"Crap," Willow plopped down on his stool, head cradled in her hands. She knew she was wrong, should have told Kevin about all this long ago. She should have trusted him with this, knowing damn well he wouldnít go yell it out on the rooftops. Truth be told he would have said something akin to, "Neat." All this, Christine, meant far more to her than Ďneatí. Somehow she wanted to keep it her own little secret, to be able to take out late at night and look at. Like a little kid with a flashlight and book under the covers.

Standing, she brushed the butt of her shorts off, dirt and dust everywhere in Kevinís shop. She walked out into the early morning sun, letting it warm the cold that filled her. She was tired of fighting, and it had been happening a lot. And over the stupidest things.

Ever since she had told him about the baby, theyíd both been edgy, and Kevin seemed constantly on the defense. She thought back to a few nights ago.

I crawl up his body, kissing a trail as I go. I feel hands in my hair, caressing my scalp, sometimes tugging on the strands. I wince but say nothing. He still tastes like sweat.

"Mm," I moan as I reach Kevinís neck, the little hairs of his days worth of growth tickling my skin. "You know whatís a good thing?" I breathe into his ear.

"That youíre going to let me finally rest and recuperate?" he grinned. I chuckle against his temple.

"No, the fact that I can do this all the way to the end, just before I give birth," I purr. He stiffens, and not in the good way. Feeling the change in him, I sit up from my place, straddling his body, just in front of his erect penis. I look down at him, brows drawn. His face is turned to the side, a hand resting behind his head. "What is it?"

"Guess Iím just really tired," he says, a cold smile covering his lips.

"Bull." Anger is beginning to fill me. "Did mention of our baby make you go soft?" I smirk at my little joke, noting that was exactly what was happening.

"Can we just have some time for us, Willow?" he is looking at me, eyes blazing. "Can we just have some fucking peace before this kid comes? Jesus! I donít give a shit! I just want to fuck, okay?"

Iím stunned, and frozen with disgust. It only took me a moment to gain myself, and push away from him. Sitting on the bed, looking at him, I pull my legs up, knees against my naked breasts. He stays where he is.

"What?" he asks, voice defensive.

"Where did you learn to be so cold?" I whisper. He sighs, then sits up, turning so his feet on the floor and back is to me. He says nothing, making me that much angrier. "Kevin?" He sighs again.

"Donít you like our life as it is?" he asks, standing and facing me.

"Yes, of course I do," I say, unsure where this is leading.

"Then why change it, Willow? Why bring a stress in that we donít need? Or want." He looks at me, eyes boring into mine, demanding an answer.

I stare at him, trying to keep my tempter under control, as well as try to understand why this baby bothered him so much. I find my voice, though itís low and dangerously calm.

"Why do you hate your baby so much, Kevin?"

"I donít, but I donít feel we need it. We have such a good life, honey, and we can go wherever we want at will, we are finally doing really great financially," his voice trails off, seeing the look of disgust I have no doubt on my face. Itís certainly what Iím feeling.

"You selfish bastard." He blinks in surprise, but says nothing. "Weíre both almost thirty, and itís time to be grown-ups. Weíve had seven wonderful years together, and now Iím ready for a family. No, it may not have been planned in your perfect little world, but it happened, and Iím ready for this."

His jaw and lips tighten. "Well Iím not."

Willow felt something tickling her neck, and she raised her tear-streaked face from her arms, which rested on the top rail of the fence. Star snorted, nudging her with her nose again.

"Hey, baby," the blonde whispered, kissing the mareís nose. "What are we going to do, girl? Huh?" Snorting again, the horse bobbed her head, making her owner smile. "Yeah, I know weíre screwed."

)))

"Jesus!"

"What?!" Sandra ran into the room, hot espresso sloshing onto her hand. "Fuck," she muttered, setting the tiny cup down.

"Oklahoma! She was in fucking Oklahoma!" Bob Knowles cried out, backhanding the newspaper in his hand.

"I ran in here for that?" Sandra untied the belt of her silk robe, letting the garment slide to the floor, and took her place back in bed, a hazelnut breve in hand. "And here I thought it was something important," she muttered.

"Did she tell you she was going to Oklahoma?" Bob asked, turning to the desinger, dark brows drawn to form a perfectly arched line above his dark eyes.

"By she I assume you mean Christine, and no, I wasnít on guard duty that day." She looked at the manager who sat next to her, as naked as she.

"Donít be smart, Sandra. This could be disastrous." He studied the story once again, scanning it for any minute detail he might have missed.

"For whom, love?" she sipped the rich drink, closing her eyes in satisfaction.

"What if someone finds out," he murmured, to no one in particular. "My career would be over."

"Robert, you are absolutely obsessed. What say you loosen the reigns a bit, hmm?" Bobís dark eyes met the desingerís blue. "Me thinks the natives are getting restless," she finished quietly.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, Christine is not the stupid, naïve fourteen year old girl you brought here almost two decades ago. She has learned well from you, Robert, and I fear she may very well turn those lessons back onto an unwavering master."

"I have never steered her wrong, Sandra. Anything I have ever told her to do was for her best interest." He said, voice low and defensive.

"Hmm. Iím sure. But you must know she is biting at the bit?" sip "Sheís a grown woman now, and no longer needs daddy to guide her every move and shadow her every step only to question her. Robert, youíve done everything you can do for her, so now just sit back and reap the rewards of twenty years of hard work."

Bob turned in the bed, his mood darkening significantly. "What are you saying? What has she told you?"

"Nothing. Nothing at all." Sandra smiled sweetly as she sipped her breve, eyes never leaving her lover of more than ten years. She may fuck him, but she would never understand him. Hell, she didnít even like him half the time.

Knowles studied her, eyes narrowing as he watched ever muscle in her face, every nuance of her eyes. He was good at reading people, and Sandra was no different.

"Thereís something youíre not telling me," he said quietly.

"Whatís to be told?" Sandra grabbed the entertainment section from the paper that lay in a neat pile on Robertís lap. He snatched the page from her hands, tossing it aside.

"Tell me," he demanded, leaning forward, face mere inches from the desingerís. She met the challenge, loathing to be made to feel intimidated.

"Look into her eyes, Robert. Sheís miserable, and I donít blame her."

"Is that so?" His eyes narrowed even more, mere slits. "If you dislike the way I handle my business so much then why donít you go? Remember, Sandra, I made you and I can unmake you."

Oh, no. He did not just make a threat! "As I recall, Bob, Christine made me. And she made you, too."

With that, she threw the sheets aside and stormed into the huge, adjoining bathroom. In furious haste, she threw her clothing on from the night before. Finger-combing her hair, she looked at the man who still sat in the massive bed.

Stopping at the door, she turned to him. "Donít forget, Christine is the one with the power now. In fifty years who are people going to remember? Christine Gray or Robert Knowles?" With that she was gone.

)))

Willow chewed lightly on the arm of her reading glasses, looking down at her most recent work. The words and letters stretched out across the page, in the slightly crooked angle that she could never straighten on the unlined paper. The last line caught her and made her already burning eyes feel like they were on fire-

My heart bleeds.

Indeed it did. It made the blonde sad that she was writing again after so many years; she only wrote when in the deepest pain, or confusion. She was now in both.

Setting the glasses down, she sighed and closed the notebook, holding it against her chest as she stared out the living roomís bay window, watching as the sun began to settle over the landscape. The tips of the trees were golden, beautiful. Off toward the main road leading to the ranch, she saw a pair of headlights, bouncing on the uneven dirt road.

Willow sat back in the large rocking chair her grandfather had built from scratch more than thirty years ago. She waited, a touch of nervousness gnawing at her spine as Kevinís truck pulled around to stop in front of the walk that led to the front porch, where the blonde sat and watched.

He rolled the window down, arm leaning out. "Get in," he called out. He continued when his wife didnít move. "Come on, honey, get in. Letís get some dinner."

Willow stared at him, undecided for a moment, then decided to try and salvage what was left of her day off.

Pushing out of the chair, Willow trotted down the few stairs to the path, then around the truck and slid in next to her husband. She wondered what was going through his head.

"Where did you go?" she asked quietly, snapping seatbelt into place.

"Joeís."

"Iím sure he hates me, huh?" she was only half kidding.

"No more than Rachel hates me." He pulled the truck around to the dirt read, pushing the gas before slowing once he hit the gate. Flicking the turn signal, they both looked both ways, then Kevin turned onto the main road that led toward town.

)))

Christine laughed as she watched the boy attempting to play an old Hendrix tune. His concentration was so complete as to make him forget he was supposed to be tough, his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth.

"Are you going to stop the agony?" Adam whispered so that only the singer could hear. She smirked and elbowed him in the ribs. "Thank you so much for doing this, Chris. It was amazing, and I love to hear you sing. I donít get to much anymore."

"Youíre very welcome, bud." She smiled at her oldest friend, elbowing him again, but this time out of affection.

"They really loved you. I wasnít sure how it would go over, I mean, youíre not 50 Cent or even Usher."

"Hey, I can rap with the best of Ďem, word," Christine flashed a rapper sign at her friend, making him chuckle. "Iím glad they enjoyed themselves. And if you think those guys would be well received, Ö" she let her thought drift off into his imagination. He paused for a moment, thinking, then turned to her.

"No way. You could get those people to do something like this," he held his hand out to include the small, shabby building where his Ďboysí met every week, or just hung out, keeping out of trouble.

"Sure, why not? I know people." Adam laughed, making Michael look up from his attempts on Christineís guitar.

"Iím sure you do. Come on." He led his old friend to the small office, which he shared with the little fireball coming through the front doors.

"Maikaíi!"

Christine turned at the familiar nickname. "Alice!" She grabbed the tiny woman in a massive hug, almost lifting her off the ground. Once parted, the small Hawaiian woman looked up at the best friend of her long-time partner. "You get more and more beautiful every time I see you," she said, beautiful dark eyes twinkling.

"Well, I think youíre full of shit, but as long as you donít call me pupuka, Iíll believe you." She grinned while Alice let out a full-bodied laugh, which shook her entire four foot eleven, ninety-seven pound frame.

"Come on, you crazy gal. I have dinner ready."

Adam handed the reigns of the club over to one of the employees, and the three headed upstairs to their apartment.

"That was wonderful, Alice, thank you." Christine sat back in her chair, chewing the last bit of the lasagna, hand covering her stomach.

"Youíre very welcome, Maikaíi." the beautiful woman smiled. Christine had always thought that Alice was one of the most beautiful women sheíd ever seen. Though she was physically attractive, most of it came from within. The womanís dark eyes told volumes about how she was feeling, and glowed with a life the singer had never seen before.

"Come on, Christine. Letís go have a smoke." Adam stood, tossing his napkin onto his empty plate. He walked over to the small kitchen and opened a cabinet, pulling out two cigars. Wiggling his brows at his old friend, he headed out to the window that led to the fire escape.

"Do you want any help, Alice?" Christine asked as the smaller woman began to clear the table. She looked up at the singer, her eyes amazingly dark and filled with unshed tears.

"No, Christine. Go spend time with him." She smiled, though it was weak. Christine got the distinct feeling she wasnít to ask questions, but just to obey. Trying to shake a feeling of foreboding that was creeping around her heart, Christine followed Adam out to the rickety old landing.

"Itís a beautiful night out," he said, clicking his Zippo against the brick of the building.

"Sure is." Christine sat with her legs dangling off the landing, arms resting along the rail. "Itís funny, I have no desire to live here again, but whenever I am here, I miss it, you know?"

Adam nodded, handing his friend a cigar. "I do know. Place gets into your blood. Youíll never lose that, bud." He looked at her, dark eyes shining in the darkness of the night, though reflecting some of the light from the tenements around them.

"I wish I could convince you and Alice to come west. You wouldnít believe the space out there. I mean, yeah, L.A. is like this," she spread her hand out, indicating the humanity packed into such tight quarters. "But there are other places in California that arenít like that."

He covered the stogie with his hand as he lit it, puffing to get the cigar to light properly, then held the flame out to Christine. She ducked her head, puffing her own Cuban, then sat back, sighing as she exhaled the sweet smoke, closing her eyes in contentment.

"Honey, Maikaíi, you want some coffee?" Alice asked, kneeling in front of the floor to ceiling window, hands resting on her knees.

"No, thanks, sweetie." Adam smiled, then leaned over and gently kissed the small woman on the cheek. Christine watched the pair, loving to see them together, but ever envious of the obvious love and devotion to each other.

"Thank you, no, Alice. Iím still stuffed."

"Your loss," was muttered as the woman disappeared back into the tiny apartment.

"Crazy woman," the singer murmured, then took a long, satisfying drag.

"Sheís right. You are beautiful," Adam said, a soft smile curling his lips. Christine gave him a side glance.

"Alright, what do you want."

He laughed. "Nothing. Just agreeing with Alice."

"Yeah, well you look like shit, my man," she looked him up and down, his stick-thin body, clothing hanging off him.

"Yes, well, Iíve discovered the ultimate diet," he said, his voice somewhat bitter. The singer was surprised.

"Whatís that?"

"How are things going, Chris?" Adam asked, tipping some ash over the side of the fire escape landing. Again, she was surprised by the sudden change in topic, but went with it.

Christine sighed, knowing damn well what he was referring to. She ran a hand down the length of her long hair, feeling the cool strands run across her skin.

"Iím taking it day by day, Adam. Trying not to make demands of myself that I know I canít fulfill, you know? Like this," she held up the cigar, "this is basically a no-no for what Iím trying to do, so Iím seeing it as a reward for what Iíve done."

"Makes sense," he puffed, eyes squinting as the smoke filled his immediate space. "This will be the last one I have."

"No way," Christine laughed, tapping the thick, brown stogie, ash glowing all the way down to the pavement four stories below before it scattered as it hit the sidewalk. "You quitting the stogies? Not likely."

"No, I mean it." She glanced over at her friend, hearing how serious he really was. "I have to."

"Why?" She was serious now, too, beginning to get a little worried. Adam had started smoking his motherís boyfriendís Camels at the age of eight.

"I need to tell you something, Chris," he said, his voice very quiet. He was not looking at her, instead his gaze on the stogie in his hand. "This has been the only bad habit I kept, and that was to help me feel somewhat normal, somewhat like I had a bit of control left, you know?" he glanced over at her, seeing her shake her head.

"No. Explain it to me." She drew her legs in, crossing them and turning to face him. "Whatís going on, Adam?" she asked, her voice soft and encouraging.

He sighed. "Eight years ago I went to donate at a local blood drive."

"Okay,"

Adam met her eyes finally. "Chris, I tested positive for HIV then."

Christine felt the breath sucked from her lungs, a wave of dread so fierce smashed through her body that she felt like sheíd throw up.

"Why didnít you tell me this eight years ago, Adam?" her voice was shaky and low.

"Because you had your own shit to deal with and I didnít want to worry you-"

"Didnít want to worry me?!" she flared, pinning him with an electric gaze. He stared helplessly back. "So why are you telling me this now?" She was sure whether she was feeling profound sadness or was absolutely pissed off. Probably a volatile mixture of both.

"Iím telling you now because Iím in full blown AIDS." It was his turn to pin her with his gaze. She froze, words of recrimination forever lost on her lips. There was no point now.

"When?"

"I found out last week."

)))

The silence was only broken by the quiet humming of the radio, some country tune that Willow would rather not hear anyway. She looked out her window, temple resting against the cool glass.

"I figure maybe next weekend we can go shopping for furniture or something," Kevin said quietly, glancing at the blonde.

She looked at him, brows furrowed. "Furniture for what?"

"Well, for baby stuff. Cribs and stuff." He smiled, though it was forced, and they both knew it. Willow realized that he was trying to make up in some way, but it was all so contrived that it left her cold. He was only saying what he thought she wanted to hear.

"Forget it," she muttered, looking back out the window.

"What? Forget what?" He looked at her for a long moment, then remembered the road ahead of him, so his eyes tore away from Willowís sullen form.

"I know you donít give a crap, Kevin, so donít try and pretend that you do. The last thing on earth you want to do is go shopping for baby anything, and we both know it."

"Honey, you know I donít like to shop-"

"Save it, Kevin," she growled, feeling her stomach beginning to churn. Another one was on its way, and there was no way to stop it.

"Save what?" he yelled, voice loud and booming in the truckís cab. "Jesus, Willow! Iím trying to be what you want me to be, and youíre shooting me down!" he looked at her, face contorted as the anger filled him.

"Youíre not my pet, youíre my husband and this babyís father!" she laid her hand on her belly, feeling very protective of what lay inside. "Donít do what you think I want you to do. My god! What the hell kind of logic is that?" Her own voice was rising as her frustration level did. Why couldnít he just understand?!

"What kind of logic, what the, goddamn! I canít win with you!"

"Watch the road, Kevin!" Willow yelled, noting that he was beginning to weave in his lane as his attention was drifting further away from his driving. He straightened the wheel, though there was still fire in him.

"I react in a way that was natural for me, thatís not right. I tell you what I think and feel, which you tell me all the goddamn time to do, so I do it, and itís not right, either!" He slammed the heel of his hand against the wheel, making the truck jerk slightly. "What do you want from me?" He glared at her, an intensity in his eyes that was scary.

"I want you to be happy that youíve helped to create something, and I want you to be a part of it, but because you want to be and not because you feel forced."

"Iíve tried-"

"You have not tried. I know you, Kevin, and know how you work. The first idea that pops into your head is what you stick with. This is no different."

Kevin was quiet for a moment, though the vein in his neck was sticking out dangerously, and the muscle in his jaw was working like mad. Willow was expecting him to explode any minute.

"You want me to be honest? You want me to tell you how Iím feeling and all that psycho babble shit? Alright, fine," his voice was so calm, it sent a chill down Willowís spine. "Iíll tell you." His breathing was unsteady, heavy and jagged. He looked at her, eyes ablaze. "I donít want this fucking kid, I never did. I donít want it disrupting our life. I do not want to be a father!" This last was yelled, almost making Willow crawl into the corner of the cab.

She tore her eyes from him, turning to the road, just in time to see a pair of bright red break lights, not six feet away.

"Kevin!" she screeched.

)))

 

Stuffing her hands into the pockets of her jeans, Christine walked the streets, the city alive and well all around her. Truly the city that never sleeps. Cap pulled low, the singer blended in well. She didnít want to be bothered tonight. No, not tonight.

Adam and Alice had been asleep when sheíd snuck out of the apartment, locking the many locks with the set of keys sheíd been given years ago. More than once sheíd been able to duck out of the publicís eye within the safety of those walls.

Tonight it felt anything but safe; it felt like a prison and she its prisoner to have to wallow in her sorrow of the death sentence given to her best friend.

She found a bench and sat, watching the trickle of humanity flow by, some glancing her way, most walking by as though she were part of the scenery.

Feeling the uncomfortable bulge at her hip, she placed her hand over the cell phone clipped there, fingers running over the smooth surface. Plucking it from her belt loop, she placed it in her lap, looking down at it. Running her thumb over the display window, over and over again, she felt just how heavy her soul was. It felt as though her shoulders were being pushed together by this great burden and cross, slowly pushing her down to a slouch on the bench. Her thumb continued to caress the little window.

Absently her fingers flipped the phone open, the blue light of the display screen and keypad caught her eye. She glanced down at it, seeing that it was after one in the morning New York time. She saw the little symbol at the top right hand corner for her address book, and, of its own accord, her thumb hit the button that would illuminate that, and the numbers marched down the screen, curser blinking on the first name.

Scanning down the list, she saw the names, Melissa, Sandra, Robert, Julia, Meg, Elton, Mick, Heff. Nothing that would do her any good, none of those people could help her. None would understand or listen the way she needed to be listened to.

Willow. The name was like a beacon, a guiding light to her emotional salvation.

Hitting the send button, Willowís number appeared on the blue screen, and it began to ring.

)))

Time slowed, the taillights getting closer and closer until she could no longer see them, only the truckís headlightsí beam illuminating the entire interior of the car and itís two occupants as they plowed into them.

The seatbelt dug into Willowís middle, making her cry out in pain as it felt as though her insides were being squeezed in a steel vice. She heard a terrible crash and realized it was the windshield shattering as the frame of the carís back window fractured and crashed through the window.

Shards of glass showered upon her and Kevin, sticking in their hair and the skin of their face and arms.

It was all over within seconds, though for Willow it felt like hours. As she heard sirens in the background, and somewhere heard Kevinís voice, though what he said made no sense to her. She had one thing on her mind.

"My baby!"

)))

"Hey. Uh, well, I know itís late and Iím really sorry. Um, I guess I just needed to talk. Iím really sorry if I bothered you or woke you up or anything. Um, Iím fine, so donít worry. I guess just give me a buzz whenever. I uh, Iíll talk to you later."

Phone snapped shut, Christine stood from her bench, turning in a slow circle, seeing a café not far down the sidewalk. Eddieís. Sheíd give Eddie a try. Coffee. Coffee would be good.

Pushing through the glass and metal door, the bell above it ringing loudly in the quiet din of the small shop. Blue eyes looked around, seeing a few customers sitting at scattered tables, a man behind the counter, white apron with the Eddieís logo proudly splayed across it in large red letters. She noted that the bright lights directly above him put strange shadows on his worn face and made him look unnaturally pale. He looked at her with old, droopy eyes, wrinkled before their time.

Archie Bunker. He reminded her of Archie Bunker before Carroll OíConnor went totally white.

This realization made her giggle just a bit, a slight burp in emotion. She stared at Archie/Eddie, her eyes locking with his for just a moment, just the barest connection to another human being.

"You alright, miss?"

Thatís all it took. One single act of kindness, one single moment of a complete strangerís concern. She felt her face fall, hands come up to hide her pain, even though it seeped out through her fingers.

Gentle hands were on her arm and shoulder, and blindly she was led to a chair, where she sat hard on the plastic seat. She couldnít hold it in any longer, and the flood gates were blown out of the way as a wave of tears filled the void, a concerned hand lying warmly on her back.

ContinuedÖ

Part 8

"That son of a bitch," Rachel muttered, pushing through the ER doors that would eventually put her right smack in the middle of the ER waiting room. Thatís where she found her target.

He sat in one of the hard plastic chairs, head back against the wall, a Band-Aid covering the lone boo boo he got on his forehead. Though Rachel had to smirk knowing the headache he must have from hitting the steering wheel with his worthless noggin.

"Well, I donít really think you give a damn, but youíre wife is going to live, and so is her baby. At least as of this moment."

Kevin looked up at the terse tone, seeing the redheaded nurse with hands on hips, looking to do battle.

For a moment, albeit a very short moment, Rachel almost felt bad at the utterly pitiful look on his face. Luckily it passed quickly.

"Can I see her?" he asked, getting ready to stand. He oomphed as a hand pushed him back into his chair.

"Not on your life, pal. She doesnít want to see you. Besides, sheís sleeping. We had to give her a sedative because she was so worried that her baby was dead." The nurse looked at the man with hard, accusing eyes. "And just so you know, that nice officer over there would like to have a word with you."

Rachel turned and headed back into the ER. Perhaps she was getting a little too much satisfaction from this, but she couldnít help it. From what sheíd gathered from her friend, theyíd been fighting over Kevinís immaturity in taking responsibility for the child he helped to create. Ungrateful bastard. He had one of the finest women God had ever deemed worthy to create, and he was letting her get away. Dumbass.

She headed down the hall, hearing the chaos of a new arrival in progress. Seeing they had it under control, she headed to the cubical where Willow slept.

She felt her anger grow as she thought back to just how hysterical Willow had been, terrified that her baby hadnít made it, had been killed by the impact of the seatbelt against her mid-section.

"Bastard," she muttered, pushing the curtain aside.

Kevin watched the nurse leave, dread and fear creeping up his spine to fill him with a sense of loss. He was stunned to find out his wife didnít want to see him, and suddenly felt panicked, like a little boy who wasnít allowed to join in.

"Shit," he muttered. Heíd really fucked up this time.

"Kevin Bowman?" the officer asked, pad of paper in hand.

Blue eyes turned to the tall, black cop. His sense of dread intensified.

)))

Willow moaned slightly, head turning to the side, hand automatically resting on her stomach. Green eyes popped open.

"My baby," she whispered.

"Is fine. Honey, you and your baby are okay."

Willow turned to see Rachel sitting at her bedside, and realized the redhead held her hand. She squeezed the cool fingers around her own, then settled back onto the scratchy pillow.

"Are you sure, Rach?" she asked, voice just as scratchy.

"Yeah. Weíre sure, honey. How are you feeling?" Rachel brought her other hand up, checking the temp of the blondeís skin, as she was still deathly pale.

"Well, as you said, Iíll live. Is he still here?"

"No. He left once the cops were through with him. Some big, burly guy came and got him."

"His brother Joe," Willow readjusted her aching body, sighing heavily. "Did he say anything?"

"Not much. He asked to see you. That was about it."

"Can I crash at your place for a little while?" Willow asked, her voice very quiet.

"Of course you can, honey. I was going to insist on it, actually." The redhead flashed a brilliant smile at her friend, who weakly returned it.

"Thanks, Rachel."

"Anytime, sweetie. I have to get back to work. You relax and allow yourself to sleep, okay? Everything will be fine, sweetie. I promise." Rachel stood, then leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on her friendís forehead.

Once left alone, Willow stared at the light above her, dimmed, making the cubical near dark. Rachel wanted her to sleep and relax. How on earth was she supposed to do that? Kevinís words echoed through her head:

"I donít want this fucking kid, I never did Ö I do not want to be a father!"

The sting of fresh tears made her squeeze her eyes shut once more, tired of crying. Her eyes hurt and the skin of her face was stiff and tight, trails of salt still able to be felt.

She had some serious decisions to make.

)))

"Is there anything else you need, sweetie?" Rachel asked, about to stand from sitting on the edge of the bed. Willow looked just like a little girl, all tucked in, covers up to her chin. Rachel thought it was adorable.

"Yeah, for you to let me give you your bed back," the blonde grumbled.

"Nonsense." The redhead stood, patting Willowís foot. "I want you to be as comfortable as possible, got me? TVís right there, remote is on the table next to you, glass of ice cold iced tea next to it. Um, I think thatís it. You just rest. You need it, honey."

After awhile Willow was left alone to toss and turn, trying to sleep. It just wasnít happening. Her mind was everywhere at once, like a million voices all talking at the same time.

Finally giving up, she sat herself up, wincing at the sore muscles and bruised mid-section. Glancing at the illuminated red numbers on the alarm clock across the room, Willow saw that it was just after three in the afternoon. The blondeís OBGYN had insisted that Willow stay overnight in the hospital for observation, just to make sure nothing unexpected came up with the pregnancy. Everything okay, she was released the following morning.

She hadnít realized sheíd even slept that long, as sheíd finally closed her eyes around eleven. Sipping from the now room temperature iced tea on the bedside table, her fingers bumped against the remote for the mounted television, so she grabbed it.

"Who cares who the father of your kid is," she muttered bitterly as she passed the Maury Povich show. "Even when you do, it doesnít matter." Having no desire to see a pride of lionessí stalk and kill an antelope, she bypassed Animal Planet.

"She was real upset. Donít know what it was all about, but she stayed for like two hours, bought everyone in the place my award winning cinnamon roles," said some guy in an apron, that when Willow squinted, kind of reminded her of that guy who was in that show her dad used to watch all the time, something night, heat, Heat of the Night, that was it.

About to move on, she stopped, an image of Christine in earlier footage greeting a crowd, then onstage.

"She was in a hospital for fatigue earlier in the year, wasnít she?" one anchor asked the other on the entertainment program.

"Maybe sheís pulling a Mariah Carey." They both laughed, then the man turned back to the camera. "In Wacko Jacko news-"

"Christine," with a grunt, Willow pushed the heavy layer of covers off, a chill hitting her bare legs from the ice-age temp Rachel kept her house at the end of summer.

Finding her clothes neatly hung up in the closet, Rachelís own clothes shoved aside, she tugged on a pair of jeans, leaving the tank she slept in on, and headed out further into the house, looking for her purse and phone.

"Willow! What are you doing up? I donít recall giving you permission to only sleep for," the redhead checked the stovetop clock, "four hours." She set her cup of coffee down on the kitchen table, where sheíd been working on bills.

"Yeah, and I donít recall giving you permission to freeze me out of your house."

"Eh, stop whining. A colder environment is better for you, and you get used to it." Rachel smiled, though it faltered when she heard Willowís muttered comment about polar bears. Noting that her friend was obviously on a mission, looking under couch pillows, in the pantry and even glancing out the window. "Uh, honey, what are you looking for?"

"My purse," the blonde murmured as she opened the slatted door once more.

"Yeah, cause I always keep mine in the pantry," Rachel chuckled as she got up and walked into the small office off the living room. Coming back, she handed the small, brown bag to her friend. "Whatís up? Are you okay?"

"Yeah." Willow took the bag then began to look through the leather compartments frantically. "Got it!" Raising the phone in victory, she flipped it open.

"Whoa, no. You are not calling him," Rachel was over there in a second, trying to grab the phone from the blonde, who yanked it away.

"Kevin? Are you out of your mind? No, Iím calling Christine." She turned her attention back to the phone, seeing she had a missed message.

"Gray!?"

"The one and only." Willow put the phone to her ear, listening to her message. Rachel watched in fascination as her friendís facial expression went from surprise to brow-furrowed worry, to outright collapse in upset. "Oh, Christine," she whispered, searching through the phoneís address book until she came up with the singerís number, then quickly hit send.

"Whatís going on?" Rachel asked, all humor gone.

"I donít know. I think somethingís happened. I saw on TV that, hey!" she was interrupted as the call was picked up.

Realizing that their conversation was over, the redhead left Willow to it.

)))

Eyes closed, Christine spread her hands out, the smooth, polished surface under her palms as she leaned her weight on the grand. Shoulder hunched, she hung her head.

"Fuck," she whispered. "What was I thinking. Stupid, stupid, stupid."

"Indeed."

Christine whirled, eyes teared up, face red with a mixture of upset and rage at the invasion of her privacy.

"Not now, Bob. If you know whatís good for you, youíll leave me the fuck alone," she growled, body tense, pounce-mode. The manager stopped where he stood, frozen mid-step, but it passed. He continued on, though didnít step up as close as he intended.

"I donít think it would be wise for you to threaten me right now, Christine," he said, his voice a low purr.

"What are you going to do?" she asked, taking a step toward him, satisfied as he took a step back. She needed to see that flicker of fear in his hard, cold eyes. She needed to feel there was some control for her, that she affected him in some way, other than as a living bank.

"What were you thinking, Christine?" he asked, backing up another step in their little tango of power. "Itís all over the news and the papers. The public is starting to think youíre losing your mind. Iím wondering if theyíre not right." A light smirk touched his lips when the singer faltered, but only for a step.

"What do you know, Bob? Youíre nothing but a heartless bastard," she hissed.

"What had you so upset?" he asked, struggling to gain the upper hand back in this conversation. "Forget to take your anti-depressants again, did you?"

"Go to hell, you son of a bitch. How about I tell you that your friend, shit you donít have any, okay, your accountant was dying of AIDS, then weíll talk." She gave him one last glare then started past him.

"That little faggot got the gay cancer, huh?"

Christineís blood froze for just one moment, then she turned to him and without another thought, her fist went flying through the air. The sickening smack that followed was punctuated with first a grunt if impact, then a yelp of pain.

"Christine!"

Fist in mid-air again, the singer stopped, turning to see Sandra run into the room, her heels clacking noisily against the hardwood.

"No!" she put herself between Robert, who was holding his nose, blood squirting between his fingers, and one enraged ex-street fighter. "No," she repeated, putting a hand on Christineís arm. "This isnít the way to go about this. Please, stop," two sets of blue eyes met, one pleading, the other filled with a fiery hatred. "Please," Sandra whispered, praying to god she could get through to the singer. She knew Robert would ruin her in any way he could to make up for his humiliation.

Blinking several times, Christine came back into herself, shaking visibly, she hurried out of the room.

"That fucking bitch," Bob husked through his fingers. "Fucking bitch."

"You deserved it, Robert." Sandra helped him to his feet. "Jesus," she grimaced at the sight of his ruined nose, lower half of his face covered in blood. "I hope you didnít pay a lot for that nose job, or at the very least have full coverage on that thing," the desinger smirked.

"Get the fuck away from me," Robert growled, pushing past the suited woman, heading toward the wet bar at the far end of the room. "Do something useful and call Dr. Rae for me. Here," he tossed her his cell phone. "Heís on speed dial 1."

"Good to know where I rank in the scheme of things," Sandra muttered as she did as asked. Robert grabbed a white bar towel, running it under cold water, then put it to his nose. The coppery taste of blood in his mouth was making him nauseous, as well as the pain.

He looked up, seeing his reflection in the mirror above the small, stainless steel sink. The white Prada shirt he wore was ruined, the pressed, yet Ďcasuallyí open collar was stained pink from the diluted blood and water. A reddish brown stain was on the side of his neck, sticky, making his skin feel tight.

"Fucking cunt."

He straightened, keeping the rag to his nose as he heard the soft murmurings of Sandra on the phone with his plastic surgeon, or more accurately, with his secretary. The phone was snapped shut.

"If you can get there in fifteen minutes he can see you." Sandra walked over to him, tucking his phone into his hip pocket. "Robert, you really should go to the-"

"No! There will be no fucking photographers to see that my fucking client broke my fucking nose."

Rolling her eyes, she grabbed him by the arm, only to have him snatch it away. "Stop being such a baby." She grabbed it again, this time digging her perfectly manicured nails in for good measure, and led him out to the car.

)))

"Hello?" Christine nearly barked into the phone once she flipped it open.

"Hey! Are you okay?"

Christineís mood immediately improved at the soft words of her friend.

"Hey," she replied, though the intensity was still there, her hand aching badly; she figured sheíd probably broken it.

"Whatís going on? I saw this thing on TV, and then got your message," Willow took a breath. "Are you okay?" she was truly worried, hearing something in the singerís voice that was unsettling.

"Can you take some time off?" Christine asked, though she had no idea why. Spontaneity was a shortfall for her sometimes.

"Oh, uh," Willow was struck by the question, not expecting it at all, nor the very straightforward, almost hard, tone it was asked in. "Yes, I can. Well, have already, actually."

"Good. Pack for a few days, a little bit of everything, shorts, pants, but keep it casual. A car will be around to pick you up in about," Christine studied the clock in the hall, "four hours."

"Oh, um, alright. Oh, wait, I wonít be at home. Youíll have to come to Rachelís house."

The singer faltered for a moment, finally computing that Willow didnít sound so great herself . "Are you okay? Iím sorry, Iím so preoccupied right now, I should have-"

"Iím fine. Iíll be okay." Willow smiled into the mouthpiece, though didnít feel a word of it. Neither did Christine.

"Well, tell me where Rachel lives."

)))

"Have you lost your mind, Willow?" Rachel asked, following the frantic little blonde around her house. "You need to rest, not go globe trotting with this singer!" Rachel grabbed her friendís shoulder, turning her so the blonde was forced to look at her. "Honey, what are you doing?" she asked, her voice filled with quiet concern.

"I need to get out of here for a little while, Rachel. Honey, you have been so good to me, but I need a change of scenery." Willow sat heavily on the bed behind her. "Iíve been so stressed for the past few weeks since I found out I was pregnant."

"And you trust this woman?" Rachel sat next to her.

Willow sighed, looking into the pretty brown eyes of her friend, then nodded. "Yeah, I do. I canít explain why, but I trust her implicitly. And," she chuckled lightly. "It seems like she needs to get away as much as I do."

"Where are you going? How long?"

"I donít know, and a few days."

The conversation was cut off by the sound of a car outside, pulling to a stop out front. Both women stood and headed to the window to look out.

"Holy shit," Rachel whispered, her friend looking just as wide-eyed at the tiny, red convertible sports car. "Looks like a Porsche of some kind."

The driverís door opened, and a tall figure pulled herself out. Willow chuckled, wondering why on earth Christine would get such a tiny car.

"Well, I guess this is it. You all packed?" Rachel asked, turning back to her friend, who was grinning at her.

"Yes, mom. Ow," she held her arm where the redhead smacked her.

"Be nice. And I hope my stuff isnít too big on you."

Willow found herself pulled into a warm embrace, her eyes closing at the contentedness that filled her. They parted at the sound of the doorbell.

The blonde was nervous as she tugged the strap of her bag onto her shoulder, following Rachel down the stairs.

"Hi, Christine," Rachel opened the door wide, silently inviting the singer inside. Christine pulled her sunglasses off, smiling at the nurse.

"Hello. Nice to see you again." She stopped into the small foyer, hands clasped before her, looking for the world like she was there to collect her date. Rachel laughed internally at the thought. Willow stood behind her, stepping around her friend, but was caught up in a quick, tight hug first.

"You two crazy gals have fun."

"We will," Willow laughed, rolling her eyes at her friendís antics.

Once outside, Christine took the bag from Willowís shoulder. At the odd look she received, she grinned a little sheepish.

"Hey, now, canít have the mommy-to-be doing hard labor." Christine opened the itty bitty trunk, which still freaked Willow out, as it was at the front of the car, gently setting the duffel inside, then slamming it shut. Chuckling, Willow stepped into the car, sinking into the black leather, almost afraid to breathe.

"This is one heck of a car," she whispered, reverence in her voice. Christine smiled as she tucked herself behind the wheel.

"Well, I decided to pick you up in style. I mean, itís not like I could really bring mine along." She turned the ignition, the powerful engine roaring to life.

"Uh, you have one of these?" Willow quickly strapped herself in as the car sped off down the street.

"I do. This baby is a 2005 Porsche 911 Carrera S Coupe. This baby will do zero to sixty-two in five point two." She grinned with pride, glancing over at her passenger, who looked just a little frightened.

"So, did you rent this?" Willow asked, brows drawn as she looked around the inside of the tiny car, taking in all the instruments and plush settings.

"Nah. Borrowed it from a friend. Itís just to get us to the airport. Do you like to fly?" Christine pulled the red blur up to a stop light, glancing over at the blonde once she was stopped.

"I do."

"Excellent. I hope you like sun, sand and surf." The Porsche was put into gear, and buzzed through the green light, turning off toward the highway where Christine would show Willow what the little car could really do.

"Where are we going? And that sounds wonderful!"

"Good!" the singer yelled above the howl of the wind. "Weíre going to my summer house."

"Really? Where is it?" Willow was more than thankful she had short hair as she watched Christineís long, dark hair dancing around like black flames. She could imagine the tangled mass sheíd have once they were stopped.

"Youíll see." Christine grinned, though a bit devilish.

"I canít believe you have a second house! Shoot, Iím just pleased as punch to have one house!"

Christine grinned, eyes planted firmly on the road. "Does it bother you?"

"What, that youíve got more money than god? No. As long as it doesnít bother you that I donít." The singer pulled up to another red light, glancing over at her friend, looking at her over the tops of her Ray Bans. "What?" Willow asked at the near glare she was receiving.

"Of course it doesnít bother me." Christine got the car going again.

"So, why do you need a summer house? I mean, you live in California, right? Itís not like you need to escape the snow." The blonde asked.

"No, but I do need to escape my life sometimes. Where weíre going itís quiet and peaceful. Somehow I get the feeling you and I could both use a bit of peace and quiet right now." The singerís voice was quiet, almost sad. Willow had to put the scattered words together to even understand what was said, the wind stealing most of Christineís voice.

"I think youíre right," she said finally. "I saw something on the news about you. Iíve been worried about you, Christine." She looked at her friendís profile, the sleek, classic lines and perfect features. How was it possible for someone to be so completely beautiful and amazingly talented? And Willowís inexperienced eye could tell that Christine Grayís beauty had nothing to do with makeup or money, but purely by the graceful hand of genetics. Some girls had all the luck.

Christine sighed, then turned to the beautiful blonde tucked into the leather seat next to her. "Willow, please donít be offended, but can we perhaps have that conversation another day? Today I just want to enjoy a bit of freedom and your company. Okay?" Their gazes met, mirrored in two sets of mirrored sunglasses. Willow nodded with a smile.

"Youíve got it."

Christine smiled big and bright. With that, she floored it, and the tiny car sped off like a shot, a screeching Willow white knuckled.

)))

Willow looked around, green eyes wide as she took in everything. The long flight in a plush, private jet landed them on a tiny island that looked from the air like she could skip from one side to the other. Once the jet had touched down, theyíd been swarmed by a small army of assistants and crew for the small hangar.

Now tucked into the front seat of a black Jeep Wrangler, Christine navigated them over the rough terrain and dirt paths that led deep into what could only be described as a jungle. Willow held onto the roll bar next to her head for dear life- the ultimate "oh shit" bar.

Christine glanced over at her, grinning. "You alright there?"

"Oh yeah, just fine." Willow was doing her best to not lean her head out of the open door and puke along the path. Since sheíd gotten pregnant, her once iron stomach had turned to fine porcelain.

"I can tell by the fine pea-green color youíre sporting." Christine laughed loudly at the glare she got in response to that fine observation. She was in a wonderful mood, which wasnít hard to obtain when she was on Quenby Island, just off the coast of Belize.

"So now can you tell me where we are?" As if reading the singerís mind, Willow began to try and figure out where their very long flight had ended up.

"We are on a private island called Quenby, or Ďwomanlyí, as it were. Weíre not far from Belize, which is in the Caribbean."

"Oh my god," Willow really began to look around now, though she couldnít see anything but trees. The sun was also setting. Christine was trying to get them to the house before that happened so the blonde could see the sun set over the water.

"Just wait until we clear all this and get to my property."

"Do you own this island?" Willow asked, holding on tighter as the Jeep plowed over a huge set of ruts in the primitive trail.

"Well, letís just say I own my own little part of paradise."

They were quiet as the rough terrain made talking difficult, but finally they made it through the jungle, the big tires of the Jeep finding purchase on the flagstone drive that led up to an amazing house on the cliffs, all stone and glass.

Willow leaned forward in her seat, eyes once again popping open as she took in the sight before her.

The house was a two-story, facing out to sea. The long drive curved around to the side to a set of unusually tall French doors, painted white to match the trim. There was no planned yard to speak of, all natural and all very tropical. Palm trees and huge, colorful flowers littered everything.

"God, thatís gorgeous," Willow whispered, antsy for Christine to stop the Jeep so she could explore.

"Iím glad you like."

"Whatís not to like?" The moment the brakes were applied, the blonde was fumbling with her seatbelt, then out running. Christine pulled the break then got out herself, leaning against the side of the Jeep, the engine ticking as it cooled. She watched the child-like antics of her friend.

Willow ran to the edge of the cliff, stopping short as she looked down at the thirty foot drop, the sea roaring against the rocks.

"Wow," she whispered, eyes scanning the horizon, seeing the sun melting into molten waves. The breeze rolling in from the ocean felt wonderful, and the blonde lifted her face to the heavens, letting it run through her hair and wash over her face.

Sheíd been there for exactly five minutes and felt like she could stay forever.

Finally turning away when she heard footsteps behind her, she smiled up at the singer.

"This is amazing, Christine. No wonder you like to escape here. How often do you come?"

"Not near as often as Iíd like," Christine sighed, squinting into the dying sun. "A handful of times a year, I guess. Since Iíve had the place, anyway. Bought it four years ago." She ran a hand through her hair, which was terribly tangled. "Come on. Iíll show you around inside."

Willow followed Christine up the flagstone path that reached the base of a long staircase that ended at a massive deck jutting out of the back of the house, and wrapped around to the other side.

"Does anyone else live here? On the island?" Willow asked, waiting as Christine unlocked the second set of French doors, then pushed it open, gesturing that the blonde should enter.

Again, Willowís mouth was hanging open as she saw the twenty foot ceilings, glass from floor to ceiling, white everywhere, tile, paint and marble.

"I hope you never have children in here," she grinned.

"Hey, it gets hot here. You have to do what you can. Come on."

Willow was led through the downstairs, which wasnít huge, but was beautiful. Kitchen, living room, bathroom and a game room made up the main floor. Upstairs was comprised of four bedrooms and three bathrooms.

"And, if all looks okay to you, I figure you can stay in here." Christine walked into the second largest bedroom, and the other one that had its own bathroom. The room was easily larger than Willow and Kevinís master bedroom back at the ranch.

"Yeah, I think I can hack it. I mean, it is only for a few nights," she dramatized, running a finger disapprovingly across the spotless, shiny surface of the dresser. Christine rolled her eyes.

"Oh, thank you ever so much," bowing deeply, she jumped back, laughing as she avoided a feisty little blonde attack.

"Feed me, will ya?"

)))

"That was fantastic," Willow sat back in the metal, but surprisingly comfortable, chair that belonged with the very contemporary set on the deck. It almost matched the mammoth stainless steel grill that Christine barbequed their chicken on. Her belly was full, and she felt utterly satisfied.

"Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it." The singer sipped her iced tea, looking out over the water that sparkled in the moonlight. Like a million little stars in the waves.

Willow sighed again, utterly content and happy, and thrilled to no end she was able to keep her dinner down thus far.

"Why here?" the blonde asked, looking out into the darkness that lay over the cliff, the sound of the ocean far below. "Other than the fact thatís itís so beautiful itíll make you cry, that is."

"That is true. It certainly did me the first time I saw it. But," Christine raised a single finger to show the importance of her coming point. "for me the biggest reason I bought the place is for the privacy. The airport is owned by local islanders who understand, personally, the importance of privacy for us here. They turn planes away all the time."

"So they protect you guys?"

"Yep. The owners arenít here all the time, but the crew does not want to mess with Keller Davies." Christine grinned.

"Tough?"

"Oh, yeah. She doesnít take any shit." The singer sighed and pushed away from the table. "Iím sorry, Willow, but Iím exhausted." She began to clear away the dishes on the metal and glass table.

"Oh, of course," Willow automatically stood, taking the plates from her friend, who looked quite baffled at the gesture. "Let me do something to repay your kindness."

Christine snorted. "No need, but if you feel the overwhelming need to do dishes, donít let me stop you," she raised her hands in supplication. "I hate dishes." They laughed. "Look, the house is yours, Willow. You know the whole me casa, su casa, or whatever the hell it is. Iíve got tons of books in the recreation room, food galore, whatever you want."

"Thanks." Willow tucked the dishes in her arms, a gentle smile gracing her features that made Christine melt.

"If you need anything, anything at all, please donít hesitate to wake me up, okay? I mean, like, I really want you to come get me. I get the distinct feeling that youíre a strong chick who can do it herself," Christine grinned at the blush that made the blonde even more adorable. "Not here. Got me?"

Willow nodded. "Got you."

"Good. Goodnight, Willow." She turned to go, then stopped, back still to the blonde. "Weíll talk tomorrow." Then she was gone. Willow stood, dishes still in hand, looking around the large deck, lit with small Tiki lights that were festooned to the top of the deckís railing. They had flared to life all by themselves, so Willow assumed they must be gas lit.

Sighing with renewed contentment, she stacked everything, remembering with not much fondness, doing just that very task during her college days. Sheíd been a waitress at various restaurants the entire time. Stacking plates and other dishes up her arms, just as she did in the old days, she got everything inside and stacked in the dishwasher.

Inside, can and track lighting gave everything a golden hue, scattered lamps helped with brighter, or more direct lighting. She looked around, trying to decide what to do. She was tired, no doubt, but her mind was still reeling in a million different directions. She knew sleep would be a joke.

Wandering around the main level of the beautiful house, getting ideas for what she might like to do with the ranch, she trailed her fingertips over the white, leather sofa, the smooth, yet textured material making her sensitive fingertips tingle. She couldnít believe where she was, and had the instinct to call Kevin and tell him all about it.

The sting of unshed tears made her nose itch, and she quickly tried to blink them away, shaking her head free of thoughts of him. She couldnít afford to think about him right now, didnít want to think of him.

Still the tears came.

Christine had said if she needed anything Ö did that mean a shoulder, too?

"Iím fine," she whispered, pressing at her moist eyes with the heels of her hands. "Iím fine."

She found her way into the recreation room, pool tableís antique, carved wooden legs catching the gleam from the other roomís light. Finding the wall switch, suddenly the room was bathed in soft light. The pool table with a funky pink top, which made Willow smile, stood century in the center of the large room. Around the edges of two walls were various arcade-type games, Pac Man, Frogger, a few fighting games, then Willowís personal favorite, pinball.

Her fingers itched to hit those paddles, and slide that ball back only to shoot it like a canon. But, alas, she walked past it, not wanting to wake her host. The final two walls were lined top to bottom with inlaid shelving filled with books.

Not a huge reader, Willow did have her favorites, and as she trailed her fingers across the spines, lined up like soldiers, she found a few of those.

"Oh," she sighed with pleasure, finding the newest novel, Carmen, by Parker Davies- Dubois. Turning the book over, she read the back of the hardback, then opened the back cover to look at the authorís picture and bio, a habit sheíd always had. There Parker Davies-Dubois was, her signature curly blonde hair around a very attractive face, blue eyes twinkling with the brilliance of her smile.

Green eyes trailed down to the bio, which explained that Parker and her son lived in the Boston area.

Decision made, Willow tucked the book to her chest, and turning out lights as she went, made her way up the stairs to her bedroom.

)))

It was a brilliant day! Christine couldnít keep the grin off her face as she made her way back toward the house, her breathing coming in quick gasps now as her run came to an end.

What could be better? Paradise all around her, her body alive and ready to fly from the wonders of motion and exertion and just all that the human body could do.

Jogging in place, she looked out over the ocean, thinking of when sheíd been on the beach below just moments before. Finally turning, she jogged up the two levels of stairs that took her to the deck, the sun just now starting to blaze down after itís slow rise.

Running a hand through her sticky hair, grimacing at the feel, she made her way to the kitchen and opened the fridge, moaning in pleasure as the cold air hit her overheated skin. Grabbing a bottle of grape flavored Fruit 2 O, she twisted off the cap, guzzling half the drink in one go, then headed upstairs, taking it two at a time. Shower, she needed one, and she needed one badly.

Freshly showered and dressed, long, wet hair soaking through the thin material of her tank top, which felt wonderful to cool her off from the morning heat, she padded back to the kitchen and started on breakfast. She was glad that Donna had restocked the house with fresh fruit and groceries. Sheíd have to give the caretaker a raise.

Cutting up cantaloupe, kiwi, mandarin oranges and apple, she arranged it all on a platter with a cup of plain yogurt in the center. Freshly squeezed and poured orange juice in a big glass, napkin neatly folded, it was time.

Christine balanced the tray on one hand as she used the other to knock lightly on Willowís bedroom door. After a moment she heard a sound from the other side, then a soft "Come in." Turning the knob, the singer pushed the door open with her hip as she took the tray in both hands again.

"Hey, sleepyhead," she smiled, entering the room, still dark as the heavy blinds were closed.

"Morning," Willow said, her voice heavy and thick with sleep. She blinked sleepy eyes several times, unknowingly charming the hell out of her friend with her sleep-tussled hair and the t-shirt she wore twisted around her small frame.

"Come on, up, up." Christine set the tray on the side table, noting her friendís choice of reading material as she pushed the book aside to make room. Helping the blonde pile fluffy pillows behind her. "Settled?" At Willowís nod, the singer placed the tray on her lap.

"Oh, breakfast in bed!" Willow exclaimed, suddenly very awake and very hungry. "Thank you, Christine."

"My pleasure." Standing at the side of the bed, hands on hips, the singer looked around, seeing if there was anything else she could do. "Well, then you enjoy." She turned to leave, but was stopped by a warm hand on her arm.

"Youíre going?"

She looked down at the blonde, whoís brows were drawn to almost make her look petulant. Too cute.

"Well, I was going to let you eat in peace-"

"Unh uh, no. You sit your butt down right here and join me." Willow scooted a bit, patting the bed next to her. "Thereís plenty here."

Happily accepting the invitation that secretly she hoped would be extended to her, Christine got herself situated against the headboard and smiled as the tray was scooted over so it rested across both their thighs.

"So I see you like Parker Davies-Dubois," the singer said, eyeing her friend as she popped a bit of kiwi into her mouth. Willow, who was chewing contentedly on a bit of cantaloupe, the tiniest bit of yogurt leaking out the corner of her mouth, nodded.

"Love her work," she finally managed.

"Hmm, I do, too." She licked some yogurt off her own lip as she thought for a moment. "How long have you read her?"

"Since her first book, ĎControlí. Loved that one. So I donít know, five years?"

"Welllll," Christine watched as she drug an apple piece through the creamy yogurt, leaving a trail in the goo. "How about we have her over for dinner tonight?" Eyeing her friend, she saw those brows drop again.

"Come again?"

"Yeah. Sheís my neighbor. She stays here all summer while her son is with his dad back in Boston."

"Youíre kidding me, right?" Willow could feel her excitement level rising, though unsure.

"Not at all. Iím quite serious." Blue eyes met green, steady and true.

"Holy cow," Willow whispered, realizing that her leg wasnít being pulled.

"So, what, around six? Seven?" Christine was having to stop herself from out and out laughing her ass off. "Close your mouth, Willow. Youíre going to catch flies."

"You got anymore surprises up those sleeves of yours?" Willow asked, taking a long drawl of her juice.

"Guess youíll have to wait and see, wonít you?" She nudged the blonde with her shoulder.

"So whatís the special occasion?" Willow indicated the tray on her lap. "What did I do to deserve breakfast in bed."

Christine shrugged, feeling a bit sheepish. She wished Willow would have just accepted it quietly.

"Guess I just wanted to. That alright with you?"

"Very. Just wondered." She handed the brunette the last piece of fruit, which Christine took gratefully.

"Come on. Letís go outside. I want to show you the beach." Christine took the tray from Willow, making her way off the bed. Willow followed, quickly pulling up all the covers and tucking them in. Christine watched, shaking her head as she headed out to take care of their breakfast dishes.

Willow headed into the bathroom attached to the bedroom. Pushing the glass door aside, she turned on the water for the shower, the smile unshakable on her lips. She couldnít wait to explore this amazing place Christine had brought her to, as well as she was excited to spend time with the singer.

As the water turned warmer, then finally hot, she turned the knob that sent the roar of the powerful shower to fill the large bathroom. Tugging her t-shirt over her head and stepping out of her panties, kicked them aside.

"Oh, yeah," she sighed, stepping under the spray, feeling millions of little fingers massage her skin. Closing her eyes, she tilted her head back, letting the water smooth her hair back from her face, slicking it down to her scalp. Running her hands over the slick helmet of hair, they made their way down, over her neck, down over enlarged, sensitive breasts, and finally to a flat tummy.

Willow knew her baby was not even quite an inch in length yet, only eight weeks along, but she was still there. Yes, she. Willow couldnít shake the thought that she was having a daughter

The smile that spread across her face was made of utter beauty, the type that can only be created from the gentleness of maternal instincts and pride. Her baby. Her daughter.

Would Kevin ever come around? Would he ever accept that fact that he had fathered a child?

The accident.

Willowís eyes squeezed shut, her face slowly collapsing unto itself as the tears fell, a loud, painful sob pulled from her throat. Her logical side told her it had been just that, an accident. But her emotions told her differently, that he had done it on purpose, that in his mind it was the quickest, easiest way to not have to deal with a tough situation. Had he tried to kill her baby?

No. That was purely the nonsense musings of a woman who was scared and had her world shaken to the core. The blonde knew that, but it was still hard to swallow.

Finally feeling clean and able to face the day, Willow turned the water off, automatically wiping down the inside of the spotless little cubicle.

Towel wrapped around her head, she padded naked across the bedroom, hefting her bag up to the bed, unzipping it and digging around. Figuring theyíd be in California at Christineís place, sheíd brought her bathing suit. She slipped the panties of the two-piece up her legs and over her hips, snapping it into place, then spread the top out on the bed.

Slipping the halter over her neck, she reached around to tie the ties at mid-back. Brows narrowed as she tugged the top into place, the ties shorter than she remembered. True, she hadnít put the top on in more than a year, but still Ö

Finally getting the thing tied into place, she walked over to the mirror, making sure she wouldnít offend anyoneís sensibilities with showing so much skin and possibly cellulite.

Turning this way and that, her eyes bulged at the cleavage threatening to spill out of her top. Cupping her enlarged breasts, Willow squeezed them just a bit, feeling their heft. Turning to the side, she looked at her profile, tucking a finger into her cleavage, giggling at the way it disappeared.

Feeling a bit self-conscious, she grabbed a light button-up shirt, tying it around her waist, and headed out.

Christine stood out on the deck, leaning against the railing, can of ice cold Coke dangling from her fingers. She heard the whir of the air conditioning for a brief moment as the door behind her was opened then closed.

Turning, she was so glad she had sunglasses on, and her expression could be somewhat hidden. Her eyes traveled up and down the strong, compact body of Willow. The blondeís physique well sculpted from hours of hard work on the ranch and work with those mammoth animals called horses.

"What," the blonde looked down at herself, smoothing her hand down her bare midriff, worried she looked far more horrible than she thought.

"Oh, nothing." Christine smiled, mentally slapping herself. Yes, the dark lenses may have hid her expression, but she was still caught staring. "Ready?"

"Yeah. Iím really excited!" Willow followed her friend down the stairs to where the Jeep was parked.

"Want to walk or drive?" Christine asked, placing her hand on the front left fender. Glancing toward the cliffs, hearing the sea beyond, Willow chewed her bottom lip for a moments thought, then turned to the brunette.

"Letís walk."

They walked along the flagstone path that led to a narrow, railed stairway, ten stairs to a level, three levels down with small, cement landings to separate them.

Sliding her hand along the smooth metal of the tube railing, Willow watched her step, Christine leading the way once more. As they made their way down, she watched her friend, dressed in a black tankini, her skin evenly tanned, legs long and muscled, beautiful. She watched as the pronounced muscles in Christineís back worked with each move she made, long, graceful fingers trailing along the rail with each step. Green eyes traveled down that same strong back, noting the slender hips which led into one of the most shapeliest behinds she had ever seen. Normally not one for ass-gazing of either gender, Christine certainly had one that was quite worthy of attention. The singerís calves flexed with each step, muscle standing in stark relief, never fully disappearing, even as the calve came into disuse.

Perfect body. Perfect face. Perfect talent. All this made Willow feel perfectly inferior.

Flipping the two towels she carried over her shoulder, Christine downed the rest of her drink, crushing the can in her hand then tossing it into the metal trash can that sat at the base of the stairs.

The beach was of course empty, as that particular stretch was the singerís own private playground. She led her friend to the white sandy beach, away from where it became rockier, eventually dissolving into the base of the cliffs.

Willow felt the hot sand give underneath her sandaled steps, so perfectly white it was almost blinding.

"God, too amazing for words," she murmured, lifting her glasses to the top of her head to take in everything in its natural, untinted color.

"Yeah, it really is." Christine smiled, pleased to see that the view touched Willow as deeply as herself.

Finding a good place, Christine spread out their huge, over-sized towels. Meanwhile, Willow dug into the bag sheíd brought down with her, pulling out a very squished hat with a big, floppy brim, followed by a tube of sun block.

Feeling eyes on her, she saw a dark brow raised in her direction.

"What?" she asked, banging the hat against her thigh so it would fall into its regular shape, then plopped it on her head. "Iím fair skinned." To emphasize her point, she grabbed the tube of lotion, popping the top. "You try being a blonde sometime."

"I have," Christine said dryly, finding a comfy spot on her towel, lying on her back, arms out at her sides. She smirked at the surprised chuckle that produced. What she wasnít telling the feisty blonde was that sheíd already lathered up with SPF 40 back at the house. But she would never, ever be caught dead in such a hat.

Both settled, Christine rolled to her side, bracing her head up with her palm. Again feeling eyes on her, Willow met her gaze. Christine couldnít keep the slight smile from her lips at the ridiculous picture that bloody hat made.

"Donít even say it," Willow warned, her voice low. "I hate a burned scalp."

"Whatever you say, farmer Joe."

Willow tipped her sunglasses down, glaring over their rims. Putting glasses back in place, she turned her face back up to the sun, a fresh coat of sunscreen giving her face a slight ghostly pallor.

"So what happened? Somehow I get the feeling you werenít just at your friendís house for a how do you do."

Willow met her friendís gaze again, then sighed, also turning to her side. She looked down at some sand that had managed to make its way onto her towel. Picking at the individual granules, she shook her head.

"No. It wasnít just a visit." Flicking some sand off, she watched it land to join its fellow grains. "When you called I was being admitted into the Emergency Room of the very hospital that took care of you."

"What?! Why? What happened?" Christine jumped up, sitting now, leaning toward her friend, face a vision of panic. Willow paused for a moment, temporarily surprised by the concern she heard in the singerís voice, but deep down pleased beyond words, eating it up. Though sheíd never admit that to anyone- not even herself.

"We were in a car accident, Kevin and I." Flashes of that night raced through her mindís eye, the terror and panic sheíd felt then accosting her once more, making her stomach flop and a wave of nausea wash over her. Swallowing it all down, she continued. "We were fighting, about the baby, of course. And Kevin was yelling at me, and the next thing I know, weíre wearing a sedan for a hood ornament." Her voice broke ever so slightly at the reveal, but she cleared her throat, trying to cover her emotional tracks. Too late, as Christine had picked up on it.

Reaching out, she took the blondeís hand in her own, stroking the soft, but calloused fingers with her thumb.

"Are you and the baby okay?" she asked, her voice quiet. She was relieved at the nod she received.

"Yeah," to her horror, a sob managed to make its way out of Willowís throat. She did her damndest to swallow it down, but it didnít work. "Just this," she indicated the deep bruising that stretched across her bare abdomen.

"Come here," pulling the smaller woman to her, she cradled her, resting her chin atop the ridiculous hat, which was nearly cutting off her breathing, but she said nothing.

"He doesnít want his own child, Christine," Willow cried, the tears falling now in a way that she hadnít allowed them to that point. "How could you not want your own blood!"

"I donít know, sweetie," Christine whispered, understanding that sentiment all too well. "I just donít know." She rocked the blonde until the smaller woman got herself under control a bit, moving so her body was curled up sideways between Christineís long legs, finally tugging the hat off and tossing it to her own towel. Grateful, the singer began to gently run her fingers through the soft, golden locks.

Willow got herself calmed and decided to just enjoy the safety of Christineís caring, and let herself talk.

"You know," she began, her voice soft but thick from the tears, "I used to fantasize about what it would be like to have a child, you know?"

"Mm hmm," Christine looked out over the ocean as she listened.

"When I was a little girl it was hard. My mom was so wrapped in herself, my dad or whichever boyfriend she found after they divorced. Even besides that, she had it rough as a kid, and I donít think she fully knew how to love, you know?" Willow sniffled once, then continued. "I think she did the best she could, but just wasnít emotionally available."

"Right. I know what you mean."

"Yeah. I think you do. So I decided young that if I ever had kids, Iíd give them everything I didnít have. All the love inside me. And then with Kevin," here her voice gave out just a bit, spearing through Christineís heart. "I thought, damn, Willow, you got lucky. Heís so great, so sensitive and kind, man what a great father,"

Christine felt her jaw tighten as anger bubbled inside her. What an absolute fool he was. The singer held on tighter as Willow began to shed new tears, her voice giving way to her grief and profound disappointment.

"He Ö he doesnít want Ö his own baby," Willow cried, clutching almost painfully to Christineís arm that was so protectively wrapped around her.

"Iím so sorry, honey. So sorry." All her anger slowly drained away, replaced by a protective compassion sheíd only ever experienced with Adam. This wasnít about Kevin- fuck him. This was about a wonderful, precious woman that was currently nestled in the singerís arms.

Again, Willow began to calm, Christineís heartbeat against her ear pure magic. Closing her eyes, she allowed herself to absorb that magic, adjusting her body so she was even closer, the entire length of her side cuddled up against her friendís front.

"What are you going to do?" was whispered into her hair. Willow sighed, smiling faintly at the tender pressure atop her head that she recognized as a kiss.

"Have my baby. Raise he or she, though I think itíll be a she, to the best of my ability."

"Youíre going to make a wonderful mother, Willow. This child is a very lucky one."

"Thank you."

Together they watched the tide rolling in then swiftly out, painting the white sand dark as it was swept away once more in the magical forces that were nature.

"What happened, Christine? Why were you so sad?" Willow finally asked, running her thumb along the smooth, warm skin of the arm she found.

Christine sighed, rubbing her cheek against the soft hair for a moment before she spoke. Pulling away just a bit, she looked into the questioning eyes, those beautiful green eyes, that every so often would sparkle with a bluish gray tint, such as right now- grabbing the color from the sea.

Willow felt a bit of nerves creep up on her at the intense scrutiny. Finally, it seemed as if Christine had made a decision of some sort, and pulled the blonde back into her.

Knowing that she could trust the nurse completely, Christine began her tale.

"I told you about my parents when I was nine," she felt a nod. "Well, though I was able to stay with Adam and his mother from time to time, things donít always work out, and I still needed money, and being the stupid young thing I was, I decided why not add a bit of adventure into my money making." She smirked at the ridiculousness of the idea.

"Come on, Adam. Itíll be fun!" I begged, tugging on his arm. He looked skeptical at best, chewing on his lip, looking at me over the tops of his taped glasses. "Think about it- lots of money, free sex."

"I donít know, Chris. Sounds kind of dangerous," he hedges.

"Oh come on, Adam. Be a man! I live for danger."

"But Iím just a kid."

Shaking herself from the past, Christine continued. "At first we started selling anything we could get our hands on, little things weíd steal around the neighborhood, you know? Clothes off clotheslines, fruit, whatever. We almost got caught, so I decided on another angle of attack."

Willow squeezed her eyes shut, her gut instinctively roiling against whatever she might hear next. Her heart broke for the young, lost girl Christine Gray must have been.

"We had one thing left to sell, and that was ourselves." She sighed, resting her chin on Willowís head. "I talked Adam into joining me on the streets, Willow. We sold ourselves to the highest bidder at first. Then when we realized we had way too much competition to be picky, we just plain out went with whoever had the cash."

"Oh, Christine," Willow hugged her friend, wrapping her arms around her waist and burying her face in her neck.

"See, thereís a certain group of men out there who love the company of a young boy," she whispered, feeling a shiver wash through her friend. "Adam is a handsome man, and made a very handsome boy. He was quite popular," her voice cracked. "And now, because of me, heís paying with his life for that popularity."

Willow was blown away by Christineís quiet words and their implications. She gently pulled away, looking up into the tortured face of the beautiful woman sitting behind her. There was an almost audible crack as things began to really sink in, and Willowís heart split in two.

"Heís sick?" she asked, though it was more a statement than a question. She winced at the nod she received.

"Full blown AIDS. He was diagnosed with HIV eight years ago. He just didnít bother telling me." Her head fell, hair falling forward to create a protective curtain. Willow scrambled out from between the singerís legs, pushing herself up to her own knees and taking the silently crying woman into her arms.

"Iím so sorry, honey," she whispered, gently rocking her and stroking her hair. Suddenly, and slightly startling the blonde, long, strong arms encircled her waist, and Willow was nearly crushed by the intensity of Christineís hug. They clung to each other, Willowís own tears now joining those of her friend, feeling her pain as well as her own.

The sun continued to shine, the waves to pound the surf. The world lives on, and so does the heart.

)))

Willow was extremely surprised at Christineís extensive cooking talents. Together they prepared a wonderful meal for their dinner guest, due to arrive in just under two hours.

The day had been perfect, a dream and welcome addition to an already amazing place. She felt a connection and bond with the beautiful singer that she had never known before, and it was wonderful, and sorely needed right now, for them both, she suspected.

"Stop," Christine slapped Willowís hands away. "The table looks perfect already. Leave it be." Willow blew raspberries at her, but dropped the napkin she was refolding. "Scoot. Go get ready."

"Alright, alright. Jeesh." Rolling her eyes playfully, Willow scurried upstairs. She was nervous with a capital N. Parker Davies-Dubois, tonight, sitting at dinner with her.

"Oh my gosh," she muttered, hurrying into the bedroom she was using, digging through her clothing. She had nothing even remotely nice, even though Christine tried to tell her again and again that it was just a casual dinner between friends.

Finally settling on a pair of fitted khaki shorts and light green cap-sleeve shirt, she jumped into the shower, taking her time, washing and shaving. She felt like a fool trying to impress some woman who probably didnít give a damn anyway. Laughing at herself and her own childish giddiness, she finished dressing and looked herself over in the mirror. She was pleased with the sun she got, turning her skin a nice, golden brown. It helped the bruises from the crash not stand out quite so much.

Taking a deep breath, she was surprised to find that Parker would be there in twenty minutes.

"I wondered if youíd fallen in or something," Christine joked, bringing out the last finishing touches of dinner. She looked comfortable in a pair of cut-offs and a white tank top.

"Hey now, be nice. Iím nervous."

"Willow, just relax. Parker is a very sweet woman, very down to earth, and trust me, fanfare makes her uncomfortable." She set down a basket of fresh baked rolls. "Just be you."

"Okay," she blew out. "I can do that." Even still, when the door chime sounded, the blonde jumped and felt her palms grow sweaty. Wiping them on the thighs of her shorts, she took several deep breaths.

Christine answered the door, a wave of salt-scented air rushing inside with their guest.

"Hey, girl! Itís been so long," the last muffled into Christineís shoulder as the two women hugged.

"Man, you look great," the singer said, looking the tall woman over. "I tell you, hotter and hotter,"

"Oh, stop," Parker laughed, playfully smacking the singer on the arm.

"Come in, Iíd like you to meet a very good friend of mine." Christine and Parker Davies-Dubois entered the dining area, where Willow waited with bated breath. "Parker, this is Willow Bowman. Willow, Parker Davies-Dubois."

The author was presented to the blonde, hand held out.

"Hi, Willow. What a beautiful name." Parker smiled, her big, blue eyes twinkling with unending merriment. She had her long, blonde curls bound in a thick ponytail, random escapees curling around her face.

"Oh, uh, thank you," Willow smiled shyly, taking the proffered hand, finding hers engulfed in a gentle, but firm handshake.

"Okay, letís get it out in the open," Christine interjected, standing between the two woman. "Parker, Willow is a huge fan of yours and is nervous as hell to meet you." She turned to the blushing blonde, who was looking at the singer with murder in her green eyes. "Willow," Christine continued, ignoring the look of profound embarrassment, "Parker is a woman like you or I, and is a hoot to hang out with. She just happens to have a successful hobby."

"Oh, god," Willow squeaked, burying her face in her hands. The author laughed heartily.

"Donít you just love the gall of this woman?" she said, grabbing Willowís hand and taking it away from her face. Once garnering her attention, "I thank you, Willow, and Iím pleased that you enjoy my work. Please donít be nervous." Her smile was utterly disarming. "Tonight I just want to have a good time and get to know the new friend that Iíve heard so much about." She snagged Willowís hand, tugging her toward the table behind her. "I want you to tell me all about you, where you come from, what you do, donít leave anything out."

Once the nurse looked into that innocent, most genuine face, she felt her nerves begin to leak out her ears, and a slow smile began to form.

"Okay."

)))

Willow wiped her eyes once more, recovering from the last little ditty that the author had told them. Who kneew sheíd be so funny?

"Oh, stop," she begged, using her napkin to dab at her eyes, making the other two laugh even harder.

"Oh, ladies, itís been a wonderful evening, and Christine, as usual, Iím stuffed to the gills. Iíll have to bring Keller and Garrison by next time. Keller will definitely appreciate your choice in wine." She grinned, then tossed her napkin to the table.

"Youíre coming to the Montreal concert still, right?" Christine asked, downing the last of her water. She had declined the wine, not wanting to tempt herself.

"Shit yeah!" Parker looked at her as though sheíd lost her mind, then pushed back from the table. Christine did the same, and they met for a deep hug. "Donít stay away so long next time," she said quietly into the singerís ear.

"Okay. I promise."

"Good. And you," Parker turned to Willow who looked on with wide eyes. "Up, up," Willow stood, then yelped slightly as she was pulled into an equally tight hug. "It was delightful to meet you," Parker said, smiling from ear to ear.

"You, too." Willow grinned like a fool.

"Youíre a cool chick," the author poked her playfully in the chest, then let her go and turned to leave.

"Come on. Letís go out," Christine said, a playful gleam in her eye. Willow quickly drained the rest of her wine, knowing that one glass wouldlnít hurt the baby, then joined the singer at the door.

"What about the dishes?"

"Eh," they were waved off. "Iíll get it in the morning."

The night was gorgeous, the moon a sliver. Carefully making their way down the long staircase, Christine and Willow walked in step along the beach, the sea beyond turned a glowing blue by the reflective light.

"Amazing," Willow whispered, looking up to see a billion stars. "I canít even see this many stars from the ranch."

"Definitely canít from my place in L.A." They stopped walking, both looking up, pointing at a falling star. "Make a wish," Christine whispered. Willow closed her eyes, wishing with all her might that everything would be okay and that her heart would find peace. "May your wish come true,"

Opening her eyes, she saw her friend smiling down at her, an she returned it fully. "Yours, too."

Christine looked down at the beautiful woman, eyes turned a dark gray in the near moonless night, the barest beginnings of tiny lines at their corners. The softest smile curved full lips. Blue eyes studied those lips, the soft lines of chin and jaw, leading down to a smooth neck, snow white in this light.

Her eyes flickered back up to Willowís, then back to those lips. As if in a dream, the distance closed, though she has no idea how, but suddenly she felt those lips against hers, as soft as they looked, unyielding.

The dream continued as Christine brought a hand up, brushing the backs of her fingers against the cool cheek, smooth and tender.

The mouth under hers moved with her, the lips brushing her own. Just as suddenly they were gone.

Coming to her senses, hand left to caress the cool night air, Christineís eyes popped open. Willow was backing away from her, fingers on her own lips, eyes first confused, then angry.

"What are you doing?" Willow finally asked, getting her bearings. Her lips still tingled from the kiss, and it frightened her. "What do you think? Do you think I came here for that!" The fear turned into anger, which meant she was going to lash out.

"God, Iím sorry, Willow, I didnít mean-"

"Damn it, Christine! Donít I have enough shit to worry about? I donít need this, too!" With that, she turned and almost blindly made her way back to the stairs, her quiet sobs floating over the breeze to Christineís ears.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck!" the singer beat herself in the thigh with her fist. "What have I done," sinking to the sand, she hung her head, the tears making twin dark spots that she didnít see.

)))

"Are you sure, Chris? This may be a huge mistake, hon-"

"No, I already made my mistake." Christine ran a hand through her hair, then across her nose and eyes, gathering moisture as they went. "God, I fucked up," she whispered, then sniffled noisily, getting her upset under control. For now.

"What happened?" Parker asked, concern written all over her face, hand resting on her friendís leg.

"I donít want to talk about it. Just please, do this for me?" Pleading blue eyes met Parkerís own. Searching that gaze, the author finally agreed.

"Okay."

"Thank you." Gathering the author in a painful hug, she hurriedly left the bungalow.

ContinuedÖ

Part 9

Green eyes opened, looked around the room. The space was dim, all blinds and curtains pulled as tightly closed as possible, shutting out the world and Willowís own fears.

She turned over in the bed, looking out over the mess sheíd made. Her clothing lay scattered as sheíd pulled it off, may it land wherever. The bedside clock readout said it was almost eight-thirty, which surprised the blonde. Sheíd been up most the night, either sitting in the chair in the corner thinking, or tossing and turning, her mind unable or unwilling to shut off.

Sitting up, eyes instantly closing at the pounding at her temples. Taking slow, deep breaths, she tried to get the pounding under control, feeling the pulse in her neck beating time with it, making her entire neck hurt. She knew she would have to get rid of this herself, medicine not really an option right now.

"Okay," she moaned, slowly pushing the covers back and tossing her legs over the side of the tall bed, bare feet making contact with the fuzzy rug placed over the tile under her bed. Making slow progress to the bathroom, she rinsed a washcloth under ice cold water, placing it around her neck. She grimaced at the new shout of pain at the cold sensation, but it quickly ceased, giving way to slight relief.

Finding some clothing that would resemble an outfit, she gathered her courage and strength, tugging them on like a shield, and headed out to face a new day, and her host.

Willow had a lot of time to think about things the night before. Her stomach was filled with nausea and undecided emotions. Yes, she had been angry at Christine for doing that, the unexpected kiss, the unexpected tingle of the loss of it.

Why had Christine done that? To what end had she hoped for? Willow went over the events just prior to in her head again and again until it had led to the migraine she had at waking. The perfect night, the fun theyíd had, the comfort theyíd felt. The beach, the romance of the ocean. Had it just been something that happened, or had the singer lured her to the island in hopes of just such a thing? Had it all been orchestrated? Is that why a famous, beautiful, rich woman like Christine Gray, who got anything she wanted, and it had been rumored for years about her preference, had taken interest in a faceless nurse in Oklahoma? Far from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.

"Uh, stop," Willow groaned, leaning against a wall in the hallway, holding her head in her hands. The march of thoughts through her head again was making her want to throw up.

Making her way down the stairs, she heard nothing but the tick of the huge, round clock that graced the wall by the kitchen. Coffee had been made, the little green light glowing in invitation. Luckily Christine only drank decaf, so it all worked out.

Glancing around, Willow realized that everything from the night before had been cleaned up and put away. Impressed, she moved on.

Pouring herself a mug, the blonde headed out to the deck, figuring thatís where sheíd find the singer. They needed to talk, and they needed to talk badly. She didnít want to lose their friendship, and only understanding the previous night could stop that from happening.

One side of the French doors was open a crack, allowing the sounds of the morning ocean in just a bit, the closer the blonde got to the doors.

Willowís heart began to beat double time as she got closer, making her head pound worse. She stopped for a moment, closing her eyes to allow herself a calming moment so her blood would slow down and not all try and push through the constricted arteries all at once, making the migraine worse.

"Okay," she breathed, feeling everything settle again, and she began to move forward once more.

The morning was gorgeous, and for just a moment Willow was able to forget everything, and get lost in what her grandmother would call Godís perfection.

"Beautiful out here, isnít it?"

Willow turned at the voice, the strange, not Christineís voice, voice. Parker Davies-Dubois sat in one of the metal chairs, feet up and crossed on the table, cup of coffee cradled against her stomach. She was smiling up at Willow, blue eyes squinting against the morning sun.

"Oh, uh, yeah. It really is." Willow managed to smile through her surprise, setting her cup on the deck railing. "Is Christine out running?" she glanced out over the beach far below, looking for the little jogging speck.

Parker chuckled inwardly. Out running. Nice choice of words. "No, sheís not."

Willow turned to her, brows drawn. Something was wrong. "Where is she?" The blonde had remembered seeing the door at the end of the hall open, which meant the singer wasnít in it.

"Please sit down," Parker said, her sandaled feet hitting the deck, and setting her cup atop the glass. Wary, Willow pulled out a chair diagonally to the authorís left. She sat, also setting her cup on the table top.

"Whatís going on, Parker?" the smaller blonde asked, her voice quiet and grave.

"Christine left-"

"What!?"

"Hold on," the author raised a hand. "Let me finish. Okay?" Grudgingly Willow nodded, her head pounding even more. "She came to me early this morning, pretty upset. I donít know what happened, she didnít want to talk about it, but she felt awfully bad."

"So bad she couldnít stick around to talk to me about it?" Willow asked bitterly.

"Honey," Parker sat forward in her chair, concern written on her face. "Iíve known Christine for about four years now, and I know what a good person she is, but she, like everyone, has flaws and faults. One of her most grievous faults is she tends to run when she feels cornered or bad about something."

Willow looked down at her hands, feeling bad about her comment. She readjusted the warming rag on her neck, knowing sheíd have to re-cool it soon.

"She asked me to be here when you got up to take you to the airport, or let you know that youíre welcome to stay here as long as you want. Or, and this is from me, if you want to talk, Iím certainly willing to listen."

Willow met the other womanís eyes, seeing nothing but genuine compassion and concern there. She gave it a serious moments thought, then shook her head.

"If you donít mind, Parker, I think I want to be alone for a bit." She smiled apologetically, and found her hand wrapped in two warm ones.

"I understand. Listen, before I go I want you to know something,"

"Alright,"

"Christine cares about you, and I know sheíd never do anything to intentionally hurt you. She considers you a real friend, and sadly for her, real friends are far and few between, so I know sheíd never do anything to jeopardize that." That said and a kind smile, Parker stood, grabbing her coffee cup and headed inside, only to return a few moments later to take her leave via the stairs. At the bottom, she looked up at the nurse who hadnít moved.

"When and if you do need something Willow, I wrote my number on the dry erase board in the kitchen." And she was gone.

Willow sat where she was, absently sipping her coffee, wondering what she should do. She also was battling with her emotions internally. Should she be angrier at Christine for the kiss or for abandoning her in paradise?

"Crap," she muttered, then stood to head inside. Sure enough, there was a number written in large, balloon numbers, and a happy face that made the blonde smile. She dumped out the rest of her coffee in the sink, loading the mug into the dish washer, which she realize belatedly was filled with clean dishes. When had Christine done all this? Cleaned the kitchen, washed all pans, put food away, and ran the dish washer.

Maybe she, too, was up all night. When had she left? Willow couldnít help but feel betrayed by finding Christine gone. Why couldnít she have stuck around so they could talk it out? Yeah, Willow had heard Parkerís explanation, and she understood it quite well, a little too well, perhaps. After all, she was on Quenby Island, wasnít she? But still.

Rinsing her washcloth out, all the water in the material grown room temperature from Willowís body heat warming it. Almost drooling at the cold water that ran over her hands as she rinsed out the rag, she reapplied it, then headed upstairs. Maybe a nice, cool shower or warm, relaxing bath would help.

)))

The journey into wakefulness was quick and startling. Willow looked around, unsure of where the hell she was for a moment, and what had wakened her. She realized she was on one of the white leather couches in the large living room, a string of drool leading from her lips to the pillow beneath her head.

"Crap," she cleaned it off with her hand, which she drew across her mouth. Blinking in rapid succession, she also realized someone was at the door.

Making her way over there, she saw a man standing there, dressed in white from head to toe, a bundle at his feet, and a smile on his handsome face.

Curious, she opened the French door, looking up at him. "Um, can I help you?"

"If youíre Willow Bowman, you certainly can." His smile was radiant, bright as his clothing, which almost glowed in the intense, noon sun.

"I am,"

"Fabulous!" Grabbing his bundle, he pushed past her, talking all the while as he unpacked his equipment. "Iím Freddie Sanchez, and I hear youíve got quite the noggin ache, so Iím here to make your day lovely again." He smiled again, dark eyes twinkling, and little peak that rose from his Caesar hairdo bobbing with the motion of him violently shaking out a white sheet, which he spread over the blue, padded table heíd set up.

"What?" Utterly baffled, Willow took a step back. Was he insane?"

"Come on, honey. Letís get you out of those clothes and onto my table," he said, pulling out numerous glass bottles with cork stoppers from the bag heíd had hung over his shoulder. He lined them up in no order the blonde could discern, on a folding table that had been packed with the folding padded table.

"You want me to undress? I donít under-"

"Honey, I am not going put my hands on your sweet skin through cotton, Iím sorry," he looked at her with accusing eyes, hand on hip. Understanding dawning, Willow sighed relief.

"Uh, who called you?"

"Parker, of course. Isnít she a doll? I just love her. And her son is going to be a heartbreaker just like his daddy, someday." Freddie had begun to uncork a few of the bottles, pouring some sort of fragrant, thick green liquid on his palms, then rubbed them vigorously together. "Come on, snap, snap," he ordered, turning his back to her to afford her a bit of privacy.

Looking down at herself, Willow, still stunned by the handsome whirlwind, decided what the hell. Quickly, and shyly, shrugging out of her clothes, she snagged the white sheet that Freddie had hooked on his thumb over his shoulder. Wrapping it around herself, she walked over to him and the table.

He turned around, looking her up and down. Oddly, Willow didnít feel uncomfortable with his attention.

"Mm, mm. Fabulous." He grinned, big and disarming. Stepping toward her, he raised strong, manicured hand, rubbing a few strands of blonde between thumb and forefinger. "Who does your hair, sweetling?" he asked, running his hand through the thick strands.

"Uh, Cost Cutters, usually," Willow muttered, brows drawn as she wondered what the hell he was doing now. She wasnít used to such focused attention, and wasnít entirely sure what to do with it.

"No," he blew out, bending down to look her in the eye. "You let those oafs touch this gorgeous golden fleece?!" She laughed, nodding. "Oh, honey. Now that is pure evil sin right there." Dropping his hand, he shocked her by smacking her on the ass. "Okay, girl friend, jump up on that table for me, please."

Doing as asked, Willow climbed up, laying on her back.

"Turn over, sweetling," he instructed softly, adjusting the sheet for her, keeping her privacy as long as possible.

As Freddie began to work his hands into her tender flesh, yammering on and on about who his hands had been on, why he wouldnít touch if his life depended on it, and who heíd do anything to get his mitts on, Willow allowed her mind to wander.

She thought about Kevin, wondering where he was today, what he was doing, and thinking. What was she going to do once she got home? When was she going home? Where was Christine? Why had she left? She knew what Parker had told her, and she understood that, but why couldnít they just work it out amongst themselves? Why had Christine drug Parker into this, then leave the poor woman in the dark about what had happened?

Her eyes drifted shut, a soft purr growing from her throat as Freddie began to find her most tense areas.

"Thatís right, sweetie," he murmured. "Let Freddie fix everything,"

"Hmm," she responded, eyes growing heavier and heavier, mind wandering further and further out into space. Her shoulders relaxed, fingers uncurled at her sides, and her breathing evened out. Peace.

The sound of the ocean hitting the surf is wonderful, crashing into my ears, the salty air fills my nose. All I can do is sigh in satisfied contentment

The sand seeps in between my toes, a feeling I hadnít realized I like so much until I got to paradise.

The palm trees sway, wild flowers make the air fragrant. Down the beach I see someone, and I smile, recognizing the nature of movement.

"Kevin!" I yell out, hurrying my barefoot steps in his direction, though heís still just a shimmer in the heat. I begin to run, curious as to why he hasnít gotten closer, and Iím impatient to tell him about my big news. I donít know what my big news is, but I know itís big, and I know he needs to know about it.

He raises his hand in greeting, a big arch of a wave. Even though Iím running, Iím not getting any closer to him, and I feel frustration bearing down on me.

"Bear down, Willow! Push!" he screams, but Iím having trouble with it. My body is too relaxed, I canít move, I canít push. Looking between my spread legs, I see blue eyes looking back up at me from the apex.

"Christine," I plead, breathless fear clenching my gut as Kevin paces restlessly behind her, his eyes never leaving the main attraction between my legs. "Save my baby,"

Like a lion ready to pounce, Kevin paces closer to me, covering shorter distance, fingers flexing and re-flexing, knuckles popping.

"I need you to relax, sweetling," Christine says, though itís not her voice. "Sweetling,"

Willowís eyes popped open, and she was immediately met with very concerned dark brown.

"Are you okay, honey?" Freddie asked, his hand gently combing back locks of hair that were stuck to the blondeís tear-streaked face.

She sniffled once, trying to stop the flow of emotion, though was only half-successful at it.

"Iím sorry," she tried to sit up, Freddie helped her, keeping her sheet in place for her. Running hands through her hair, Willow tried to smile away her embarrassment. The masseuse saw right through it.

"Want to talk about it, doll?"

"I donít know," she sniffled, then laughed nervously again. "I bet Iím the first to cry on your table, huh?"

"Well, actually no. Itís not horribly uncommon, but itís usually tears of release, not," he gently swiped a falling tear with his fingertip. "tears of pain or distress. I didnít hurt you, did I?"

"No. In fact, I think itís because you had me so relaxed and it felt so good I couldnít push."

"Say what?" his brows shot up. She chuckled.

"Iím pregnant, my husband doesnít want it, so I dreamt Christine was trying to deliver my baby and kept telling me to push but I was too relaxed." Her eyes began to leak again at the memory of seeing Kevinís face, so vicious, ready to take her baby away from her.

"Oh, honey," he sat next to her, shoulder almost brushing hers. "Iím so sorry." The look of compassion she saw on this strangers face was her undoing. The dam fell again, and she dissolved into a pool of self pity. The feel of his strong, yet gentle arms around her felt good.

Getting herself together, she sniffled, wiping her hand across her nose before smiling shyly. "I bet you donít deal with this kind of thing often, huh?"

"Are you kidding?" he waved her off. "Honey, Iím like a bartender- when I work Iím a captive audience, so who better to tell your woes to?" He smiled with a wink, and she smiled back.

"Thank you."

"No worries, beautiful. Letís say I finish up, huh?" He nudged her with his shoulder, and she nudged him back, nodding.

)))

Willow sat on the deck, curled up in a padded lounge tucked against the rail, cup of decaf cuddled against her chest. The sun had set hours ago, and she was basking in the ocean breeze, which cooled off over-heated skin. Sheíd frolicked on the beach for most of the day after Freddie had left. It had been nice, but she was lonelier than she could ever recall.

The massage and relaxing day had helped to clear her mind a bit, and get her ready for the return trip, and for getting back into her daily life of the hospital.

She also had to meet with Kevin so they could come up with a plan of action. She felt strongly that they needed a separation until either he could get whatever was up his ass out, or she could garner the courage to make a final decision on the fate of her marriage.

In some ways to Willow it seemed so sudden, abrupt, to be thinking along those lines. But a force so powerful within her was rising, a force that she knew was her maternal instincts kicking in hardcore. She knew sheíd do anything for this baby, and staying with a man she wasnít sure could love the child wasnít an option. This was an all or nothing for Kevin. Either he tried, really tried, or it was over.

Willow needed to respect whom she loved, and at one time she did respect Kevin. A great deal, in fact. But heíd shown her a side of him over the past weeks that made her all but lose her respect.

Sighing, she grabbed the cordless off the chairís thick arm and dialed the number sheíd just memorized from the dry erase board in the kitchen.

)))

"Thanks, doc."

As the door to the small room closed, Robert Knowles examined his face, turning from one side to the other.

"Your plastic surgeon has a nice ass," Sandra said, re-crossing her legs and adjusting her pants to drape over the top of her boot just so.

Bob glared at her through the mirror, then turned back to his own reflection. "This better fucking heal right or I swear Iíll take her for everything she has," he muttered, as if to himself. Standing, he put on the light-weight dress Jacket that hugged his broad shoulders just right. It helped to fuck a clothing desinger.

"Letís go," he said, hating that the bandage on his nose was so stark against his tan, making it all the more apparent. Sandra stood, pulling the thin straps of her purse onto her shoulder and digging out her car keys.

"How does it feel?" she asked, stepping through the examination room door that Robert held open for her.

"Itís fine. It feels just fucking peachy." He grumbled, following her down the hall that would lead to the private exit of Dr. Raeís office, for important clients like himself, who didnít want it splashed all over the fucking newspaper the next day that theyíd had a bit of medicinal help.

"Well, perhaps you can learn to keep tactless comments to yourself," Sandra suggested, hitting the button on the private elevator, glancing over her shoulder at the smoldering man at her side. He glared at her, dark eyes full of fire.

"Donít start, Sandra." The warning was low, dangerous. The desinger laughed off the unspoken meaning, but she shut her mouth all the same.

After being dropped off at his downtown offices, Knowles caught the elevator, groaning internally as the sleek, polished elevator car stopped short of the twenty-first floor, and opened at seventeen. A man of short stature and big attitude stepped inside.

"Hey, Bob. How are you?" Dennis Weinz asked, bushy brows narrowing to form a furry caterpillar across the bridge of his nose. "What happened?"

"Tennis accident," Bob smiled, secretly despising the Fox exec.

"Ah," the shorter man drew out, obviously not believing a damn word, but knowing full well heíd come up with the same lame excuse if he were so inclined to go with the putty job. The doors dinged open on nineteen, and Weinz smiled. "Watch that serve, huh?" He disappeared with the sound of his own laughter.

"Prick," Bob muttered, punching the button unnecessarily for twenty-one again. Stepping into the offices heíd had professionally decorated by a wonderful desinger before heíd gone off to one of those horrific reality TV decorating shows. Heíd have to yell at Jeff Probst the next time he ran into him.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Knowles," Katrina, the newest cool, drink of water hired at Knowles Group, said, light brown eyes twinkling with a knowing glint. He wiggled his brows.

"Kat." He remembered how those long, nineteen year old legs had felt wrapped around him. She may not be able to carry a tune in a tin bucket, but was she ever a good fuck.

He collected the latest calls and messages from her flirtatious fingers, fighting the urge to take her right there on that desk she sat at, her tight pencil skirt hiked up around her hips Ö He shivered at the thought, forcing it away as he had work to do.

Unlocking the frosted glass door that led inside the frosted glass walled office, he sorted through the messages, tossing most into the trash. Everyone wanted something for nothing. The important ones were given a place of honor in the center of his blotter calendar. None from Christine.

"Bitch," he muttered. He had given her a week to contact him and apologize. She hadnít. Alright. She had her chance. Sitting in the expensive chair, liking the sound of the leather creaking under his weight, behind his even more expensive desk. Booting his computer, flat screen monitor perched at the corner of the desk, he grabbed his handheld from the briefcase heíd brought in. Using the stylus, he scrolled through his address book until he found what he was looking for.

Eyes still on the number, he grabbed the phone and quickly dialed.

"This is Brine," came the quipped answer.

"Mr. Brine," Bob leaned back in his chair, the spring bouncing his weight. "Robert Knowles with Knowles Group Agency here."

"Right, how are you, Mr. Knowles?"

"Fine, fine. Quite well, actually. How quickly can you meet me at my downtown office?"

"Well, if you can give me an hour to get past deadline-"

"Fine. Then Iíll see you at," Bob glanced at his Rolex. "two-thirty."

"Iíll be there."

"Wonderful. Come ready for a cover story." With a wicked grin Knowles gently laid the receiver in its cradle.

)))

The streets were quiet finally, many of the tourists gone home for the weekend, the locals at home. Aspen nights were chilly at the end of summer. All the same, Christine strolled, hands in the pockets of her loose chords, button up shirt untucked and unbuttoned three down.

She gazed at the closed shop fronts, seeing their displays and wares, knowing that most of it was highly overpriced with under quality. Mugs, art work, pottery and Ďlocal clothingí met her eye.

Moving on, Christine ran a hand through her hair, the thick, dark strands falling back into place with no frizz. The great thing of having her hair professionally treated once a week. She remembered the days when after a good rain she looked like a rose bush.

Smiling at the memory and image that conjured, she crossed the street, pausing for a Lexus to pass, then went into Sonnyís, a wonderful little bakery that stayed up late. They had the best mocha breves in the world- so rich and smooth. Her mouth watered just thinking about it.

White, nondescript bag of croissants in one hand, and a twenty ounce mocha breve with extra whipped cream in the other, Christine headed back to the street where sheíd left the rented yellow Hummer. Sliding into the huge vehicle, she set the bag on the console between the two front seats and sipped her drink, wincing as it stung her tongue.

"Damn it," she hissed, sucking in mouthfuls of cool night air to chill the inside of her mouth. "Well, there goes about a hundred taste buds," she muttered, sliding the large cup into one of the many cup holders in the big truck. Turning the ignition, she got the beast rumbling beneath her, and pulled away from the curb.

Flying directly into DIA in Denver, after sheíd randomly picked a state from a map, sheíd found the nearest car rental place that rented the big guys, and off she went, traveling around the state, killing time and thinking. Ending up in Aspen for a couple days, sheíd enjoyed the atmosphere. It had been awhile since sheíd been there, maybe three years since sheíd landed the slopes, not having a chance during her Red Rocks gig not long ago.

Traffic was light as it was after ten. Christine turned the CD player up to near deafening levels and sang along with whomever came up on her MP3, which had over one hundred songs on it by various artists and styles.

Fingers fumbling with the GPS, a map of the United States popped up, the camera zooming in to where she was, listing surrounding states as it did. Oklahoma popped across the screen for a partial second, then was gone.

A stabbing pain hit her heart, nearly making her choke up. Again. Sighing heavily, she grabbed her cell phone from one of the drink holders, flipped it open, not even glanced at it as she hit the number 7 key. Putting the phone to her ear, she listened to the pause as the long distance was covered, then finally a ring. Then two, followed by a third and a click.

"Hi, youíve reached out, but you canít quite touch me as Iím not available to take your call. Leave something at the beep. Bye." The long beep that followed her own voice.

Christine waited a heartbeat, then spoke. "Willow? Are you there? If you are, please pick up." She waited, one beat, two. Sighing, her shoulders slumped. "Guess I missed you." Clapping the phone shut, she tossed it to the seat next to her, not caring as it smashed into the bag of croissants. She thought about the thing that had haunted her every step of her journey over the past week. How had she managed to fuck things up so horribly? She knew better, and yet had let her emotions lead her anyway.

What got her the most though, was knowing that Willow thought sheíd done it on purpose. If only the little blonde knew how far from the truth that statement was. If only Willow knew that sheíd been the first person Christine had ever kissed because she really wanted to. If only Willow knew.

"Stupid," she hissed for the zillionth time. Willow was right- all the shit the blonde was going through and all Christine could do was make it worse. How could she have kissed her!? She knew Willow wasnít into that, and even if she were, sheís married!

Christine raised a hand, swiping at the tear that tickled the skin of her left cheek. She worried that sheíd ruined what she knew intuitively would have been a wonderful, life-long friendship, the kind sheíd never thought sheíd find again. When sheíd met Adam sheíd had the innocence of youth and desperation to act as the glue for them. As an adult, friendships like that were next to impossible. Adults learned to not trust already, and donít let someone in to that emotional level.

Willow was different. The singer knew that she could trust Willow with anything, tell her anything, unburden herself of a past that still dogged her steps. A past she had to lie about in just about every article when she was asked where she came from, questions about her parents, siblings.

Willow knew the truth now, and still hadnít turned her back. No, instead Christine betrayed that mutual trust and stepped over a line that should never have even been drawn, let alone crossed.

It was better this way, Christine told herself, sniffling back the rest of the tears that threatened. Willow could go back to her life in Oklahoma, work things out with Kevin, or move on in her life and not have such a troublesome burden tagging along. With friends like thatÖ.

Christine turned the music up to a level that almost hurt her head, the sound pushing her thoughts out.

)))

"Kevin, I mean it." Rachel looked up at the man who had shown up over the past three nights, her hand pushing firmly against his chest. "Sheís trying to work and youíre going to get her in trouble if you keep hanging out here, hoping for a glimpse."

"She wonít return my calls, Rachel," he said, brows drawn. "Damn it, how are we supposed to work on this if she wonít talk to me?" he threw his arms out in exasperation. Rachel felt bad for what she was about to say, but it needed to be said.

"Maybe she doesnít want to work it out, Kevin." Her voice was quiet, almost gentle. His face crumbled, but he took a deep breath, keeping it together.

"I see." He stood straighter, backing away from the redhead, her hand falling to her scrub-clad side. "I canít believe she wonít give us another chance. She really wants to throw it all away? Just like that?" he snapped his fingers. When Rachel didnít respond, he nodded. "Well, she needs to get hold of me. She and I need to talk, regardless."

Rachel nodded. "Iíll talk to her."

"You do that." With that, he turned and strode out the main entrance, leaving Rachel to watch him go. She sighed, hating that she was put in this position. It wasnít fair to her, or to Kevin, for that matter. She went off in search of her cowardly friend.

"Stay out of it, Rachel," Willow muttered, looking at a chart for a ten year old who had just been brought in with seizures that they couldnít get to stop, her epilepsy medication all out of whack. What the hell was her neurologist thinking putting her on Tegretol, Dilantin and Diezepam all at the same time!

"I canít stay out of it, because you wonít talk to your damn husband!"

"Would you lower your voice?" Willow hissed, looking around the bustling hall of pediatrics. Clearing her throat apologetically, Rachel continued.

"Look, Willow, I donít agree with what heís been doing and what he did, but the guy deserves an answer or at the very least a decision. No matter what that is, you both need to be able to move on from this."

The blonde sighed, shaking her head. She had no idea what she wanted to do.

"Whatís going on with you lately? Youíve been so secretive and indecisive. Itís not like you at all, Wills. How can I help you if you wonít let me in? Ever since you got back from your trip three weeks ago youíve been like a zombie. You came back upset, you donít want to talk about it. Fine. Kevin comes in nightly you wonít talk to him. Fine. But now you wonít even talk to me. Not fine." She studied her friendís profile, waiting for Willow to look at her, but she never did. Sighing in frustration, she threw her hands up. "Fine. Whatever, Willow. Iíll see you later."

Willow watched the redhead huff down the hall. If she hadnít been the cause she would have found it amusing. As it was, she indeed felt like a zombie, unsure of which way to turn, and doubting her anger at Christine more and more each day. No, the singer shouldnít have done that, but in retrospect, Willow believed it was just a heat of the moment thing, and that nothing had been expected, nor planned. She also had to come to grips with the simple fact that Christine had been a handy outlet for a lot of pent up anger and hurt with Kevin.

"Great," she muttered, turning back to the chart. "Pissing everyone off."

Her day was long, but finally came to an end. She found Rachel and they headed home together. Sitting in Willowís truck, they were both quiet, the redhead staring out the window, watching the dawn of a new day. Willow glanced over at her a few times, trying to decide what to say. She knew she had to say something.

Sighing, she began. "Okay. Youíre right, you do deserve an explanation." Rachel looked at her, eyes blank. Willow chewed on her lip for a moment, staring out the windshield, trying to decide where to start.

"Alright," Rachel said, her voice very quiet, though stale in the confines of the truck cab.

"What Iím going to tell you cannot leave this truck, Rachel." At a red traffic light, the blonde looked at her friend, expression absolutely serious, demanding acceptance of these terms.

"Okay. I promise." She would stand by that promise, but the gossip in her was now standing at full alert, curiosity gnawing at her.

"Okay. Here goes. Christine took me to an island off the coast of Belize, a private island that she and a few other very rich folks bought for privacy."

"Oh, wow," Rachel breathed. "Where the hell is Belize?"

"In the Caribbean."

"She took you to a goddamn tropical island!?"

Willow laughed, nodding. "Yes, now shut up. Anyway, so it was wonderful, amazingly beautiful, and I want her house there. I mean, she is so generous. She offered me anything in the house, use of anything, just amazing."

"Wow."

"Yeah, and she brought me breakfast in bed! Fresh fruit, it was fantastic." Willow smiled at the memory, a wave of sadness washing over her. "God, she is such a sweet woman," she nearly whispered. Rachel glanced over at her, surprised by the vehemence in that simple statement. "She introduced me to a friend and neighbor." She smiled. "This may not mean much to you as I know youíre not much of a reader. But do you know who Parker Davies-Dubois is?"

Auburn brows drew. "Author, right? I saw her on Oprah one day."

"Yeah, and one of my favorites to boot. Anyway, so we had dinner with her, had a great time, then when she left Christine suggested we go walk on the beach, so we did."

Here she paused, mind wandering back to that night, how beautiful and magical it had been, the moon just right, ocean churning with life and mystery. She sighed.

"It was perfect, Rachel," her friend had to really listen, Willowís voice almost a whisper. "Romantic in another life." She sighed again, glancing at the redhead. "She kissed me."

"Hmm," Rachel said absently, then it penetrated. Her head snapped around. "What?!"

"Yeah. I said some bad things, Rach. Some things I regret now."

"Like what? Why did she do that? Is she after you?"

Willow shook her head, bangs falling into her eyes. She brushed them away. "I donít think so. I did at first, like when it happened, you know? I accused her of that very thing, in fact."

"What did she say?" Rachelís voice was also quiet, sensing that this was a huge hump in the burgeoning friendship.

"Not much, really. But I could see it in her eyes, Rach." She risked another glance at her friend. "She was just as stunned at her actions as I was."

"Then why did you get upset? Why do you think she did it?"

"I got upset because that was my knee-jerk reaction. I think I let everything that had been boiling over the last weeks spill over onto her. She didnít deserve that. And as for why, like I said, it was a beautiful, romantic night; I think she got caught up in it."

"Oh boy." They were quiet for a moment, each in their own head, thinking the situation through. "Have you apologized?" Rachel asked finally. Willow shook her head, again the hair falling back into her eyes. She was amazed at how fast her hair grew now, all those wonderful hormones.

"What would I say? She hasnít gotten hold of me, either, so my guess is sheís done with me. I was a bitch, and accused her of something that was really messed up. How can I take that back?" Willow clicked on the turning signal, waited for a couple cars to go by, then turned onto Rachelís street.

"Well, you canít. But you can try and make things right-"

"No, I canít. It is as it is, and now I get to live with it." Turning into the driveway, the blonde pulled the parking break and cut the engine. She turned to find her friendís gaze on her. "What?"

"Nothing." Shaking her head, Rachel got out of the truck, tugging her massive, everything but the kitchen sink bag with her.

"No, whatís on your mind?" the blonde asked, following her, closing the newly unlocked front door behind them. "Come on, Rachel, out with it."

"Alright, fine." The nurse set her bag on the sofa then turned to her friend, hand on hip. "I think Christine was turning out to be a great friend to you, intuitively I think she would have been a big part of your life. I think youíre throwing it away, and all for stubbornness."

"I am not being stubborn,"

"Arenít you?"

"No, I donít feel that I am." Willow held her ground, but it was shifting under her feet.

"Willow! What are you always telling me? You wonít know unless you try, right? I mean, shit, take your own advice. If she slams the phone in your face, at least youíll know, and you wonít be throwing a friendship away unnecessarily. Right?" Willow muttered something under her breath. "What?" Rachel flipped her ear slightly forward, making a show of making her friend repeat the heard comment.

"I said I know youíre right."

"Good. Iím glad we finally agree." Rachel smiled wide and satisfied, making her friend roll her eyes. "Now, what do you want for breakfast?"

Willow muttered something else under her breath as she followed the pesky redhead to the kitchen, though this time she didnít repeat it.

)))

The man in the cheap gray suit, black and green tie loose under the unbuttoned collar, notebook in hand, stuck out like a green thumb.

Residence of the neighborhood sat in the cool shadow of tenement archways and falling porches, smirking at the shoes the yahoo was wearing, way not practical for the streets of Queens. Dumb shit.

The conspicuous white bread walked up to a woman standing on the corner, her long, thin black hair piled unskillfully on her head, a smattering of love marks mingling with scars on her neck and bare shoulders.

Hearing him stumble his way up to her, the woman known on the street as Molly Tamale, turning and looked white boy up and down- cheap suit hanging from thin shoulders like a shirt hung badly on a wire hanger. His hair, strawberry blonde, combed back to look slick and sophisticated, instead making him look like Rick Astley mated with the mob.

She turned away. No way she sleep with that.

"Excuse me," he said, his voice soft and filled with California sun. She graced him with another dark-eyed appraisal. "Hello," he extended a thin fingered, very pale and freckly hand. "Iím Kenneth Brine, and Iíd like to ask you some questions if I might."

She studied his offered hand, trying to figure out what his game was. No way he was a cop, or if he was, he wouldnít be lasting long.

"So what," she said, ignoring the hand and turning her attention back to the street before her.

"Uh, well, uh, Miss Tamale, is it? I can compensate you for your time,"

A flash of green caught Mollyís eye. He had her full attention now. Sighing in relief, Kenneth continued.

"Do you know her?" he pulled out a five by seven glossy. Dark eyes moved over the features, so familiar to everyone in the neighborhood for one reason or another.

"Who donít?" she asked, flipping the wisps of hair over her brown shoulder.

"Uh, true. Um, how well do you know her?"

Molly met his desperate blue eyes and smirked.

"How well you want me to know her?"

Kenneth Brine grinned. "If youíll step into my office?" and he led her toward his rented car.

)))

Willow ran her fingers through her hair, stomach in knots, lunch ready to make an encore appearance. Lifting her face to the light streaming through the skylights in the kitchen, she sniffled, tears glistening in the late afternoon sun.

Mackenzie Deatonís card, of Century 21, lay on the table next to her hand. She looked at the glossy card through liquid eyes. How could this have happened?

Wiping her face down, she pushed back, the chair gliding easily over the wood floor on its coasters. She remembered Macís message on her voice mail. An offer had been made, and it looked very promising. Heíd be by later in that afternoon with the prospective buyer to finalize details and stipulations.

Walking over to the window above the sink, she looked out toward the stables, seeing the lone horse, head bent, munching on hay.

"Iím sorry, girl," she whispered, swiping yet again at her wet cheeks.

"Thank you for coming," Kevin says, standing from the recliner by the fireplace. He looks good, though tired.

"Itís my house, Kevin." I say, my voice probably more harsh than I intend, certainly my comment. I can tell it stung as he gets quiet, jaw muscles working.

"Well," he says finally. "thanks for agreeing to talk." Sitting again, he rests his hands on his knees, almost as though heís ready to bolt at any moment. I figure he probably is. I can tell heís nervous. We havenít spoken since the night of the accident nearly a month ago.

Deciding to reign in my anger, bitterness and profound disappointment, I sit on the couch. I would have laughed at my posture were this a different situation- legs pressed firmly together, back ram-rod straight and arms almost wrapped around myself. Guess Iím nervous, too, and need reassurance from the only other person in the room.

"How have you been?" Kevin asks, crashing through my amused thoughts.

"Iím alive," I hedge. "And yourself?" He shrugs, glancing out the window, then down at his hands, which work nervously on his knees.

"Iím okay. Itís been tough, trying to keep up with work and this place," he indicates the house around us.

"Yes, it is hard work. The house hasnít burned down, so I guess youíve kept it up."

He doesnít find my little joke funny. "Are you coming home? I donít see any bags with you," he says instead, eyes pinning me to my seat. As I look back at him it occurs to me that he hasnít asked a single question about the baby- is it okay, howís the pregnancy going, can I be a daddy?

"Do you still mean it?" I counter, looking at him just as intensely. His brow wrinkles in confusion.

"Do I still mean what?"

"What you said about the baby, that you donít want it, donít want to be a father."

He sighs, running a hand through his newly cut hair, the short strands spiking in its wake. He sighed, Adamís apple bobbing as he swallowed hard. "I can try-"

"No try, Kevin. It either is or it isnít." Feeling my confidence and resolution coming in full force, I raised my chin just a tad, just enough to exert control over the situation. He looks up, eyes filled with Ö tears?

"So thatís it? Just like that," he snaps his fingers, "you can put ultimatums on this? Either I be the perfect Hallmark card father in two point three seconds or weíre finished?"

"Try three months, Kevin," I say, my voice raising just a bit. "Youíve known about this child for three months and yet you couldnít bring yourself to even care, let alone become father of the year."

"I do care!" he exclaims, pounding his fist on the arm of the chair where he sits. I shake my head.

"No, you donít."

"Damnit, I love you, Willow. I was at the fucking hospital every day to see if you were okay, or if I could talk to you." His eyes are a vibrant blue as his anger rises.

"Kevin, itís not just about me anymore," I wonder if I sound as hopeless as I feel. "What about this child?" I rest my hand on my belly, still mostly flat. "Weíre a package deal now."

He says nothing, resting his chin on his knuckles and looks out the window again. I study his profile, strong, rugged features. He truly is a handsome man. God, I thought weíd be together forever. The seconds tick on, the crack in my heart growing wider and wider.

"Then I think we need to separate," his head snaps around at my words, but I hold up a hand to stop anything he has to say. "You make far more than I do, so I think itís only fair you find another place to live."

"Donít do this to us," he says, his voice trembling. For a moment Iím ashamed at how calm I feel, how right this decision is. What I said is true- itís not just about me anymore.

"I didnít do this to us." I say nothing more, letting my words penetrate and hit their mark. I donít want to hurt him, itís not my intention to be a cruel, uncaring woman. I just need for him to understand the breadth of what heís done, and profound betrayal.

It had started slow, the money trickling thin. First Buster had been sold for a stud horse, which had helped. Next it was shaving off small pieces of the land, then bigger pieces, and another horse. Next Willow had to make the most difficult decision of her life- sell the ranch.

Various folks had tromped through her sanctuary, cheapening it somehow. Refinancing the paid off ranch had seemed like such a good idea four years ago. All the repairs that had needed to be made could be made, a new truck for Kevin, and that trip to Greece.

"Damn it!" she exclaimed, pounding her fist on the table, startling the quiet in the house. The prospective owner wanted Star in the deal, and how was Willowís desperation to say no? Besides, it wasnít as if she could really take the mare to an apartment complex, or house in the city.

She heard gravel under a pair of carsí tires. Hurrying over to the kitchen sink, she wet a dishtowel and scrubbed at her face, trying to hide her utter devastation. Clearing her throat, she ran her hand through her shaggy hair a few times, then after a deep breath, headed toward the front door where her unwanted guests would be ringing.

Sure enough, within moments the muffled voices got louder, Macís very easy to pick out, loud, boisterous and deep.

"I agree, it is lovely," he said, followed by several sharp knocks. The door opened, and Mackenzie Deaton burst into the house filled with vigor and looking fresh, cheeks tinted rosy red from the bright, Oklahoma sun. "Hello, hello, hello!" he bellowed, spying his current client and quickly making his way over to her. "How are you? You look beautiful today," he gushed. Willow smiled shyly, always overwhelmed by his radiant personality.

"Thank you, Mac."

The realtor leaned in conspiratorially. "You are going to die when you see who is interested in your spread," he winked, then stood at his full height. "Willow Bowman, may I introduce to you the new owner of this magnificent home."

A tall figure stepped inside the entryway, casual in faded, comfortable jeans and boots, and a fitted spring yellow tee. Dark hair tossed back over her shoulders, Christine smiled shyly.

ContinuedÖ

Part 10

Willow blinked a few times, staring dumbstruck at the woman who was now walking toward her, a cautious smile upon the singerís face.

"Hello, Mrs. Bowman," Christine said quietly.

"Miss Gray, oh to hell with it," she turned to the realtor who looked most surprised by her outburst. "Mac, we need a few moments."

"Oh, uh," Mackenzie looked from one to the other, then back to Willow. "Certainly." He made himself busy in the living room. Willow grabbed Christineís hand and drug her to the privacy of the kitchen. Whirling on her, hands on hips.

"What are you doing?" the blonde demanded. Christine leaned against the counter, arms casually crossed over her chest.

"Seems Iím buying a ranch."

"But why? How could you!" It angered Willow more than she could bear, knowing that she was losing her home, her sanctuary, to a friend!

"Because Iím not about to let you lose your home!" Christine fired back. Willowís mouth was open to spit something back, but the words got caught in her throat.

"What?" She would have stumbled back if she hadnít been already leaning against the island. Recovering, "Christine, you canít buy me."

Stung, the singerís shoulders slumped. "I would never do that, Willow," she said quietly. "I never have."

Looking as regretful as she felt, Willow nodded. "Iím sorry."

"Think of it this way," Christine said, pushing herself past the hurtful comment, and brightening the room with her smile. "think of it as a gift for the baby, the ultimate crib." She grinned, eyes twinkling. Willow caught the spark and grinned back. "All repayable, of course. Ten dollars, paid in full, check made out to me, please."

"Christine, I canít-"

"Too high, huh? Hmm," she made a show of rubbing her chin. "I know of a lender I can direct you to, fair fees and low interest."

Willow looked up at her, smile fading into genuine curiosity. "Why are you doing this?" Christineís own smile faded into a look of affection.

"Because I canít stand to think of you losing something that I know means so much to you," she said gently.

"How did you know?"

"I came by here a couple weeks ago, planning to visit when I saw the for sale sign. I did some investigating and found out what was happening, so," she shrugged. "here we are."

Overwhelmed by emotion and gratitude, Willow threw herself at the singer, finding herself engulfed in strong arms.

"Thank you," she whispered.

"Youíre welcome." Christine whispered back, eyes closing at the relief of the days events. "Iím so sorry, Willow."

"No, Iím sorry." Pulling back a bit, misted green eyes looked up into concerned blue. "I was cruel, Iím so sorry-"

"No," Christine held up a hand. "My actions were completely inappropriate, and Iím forever sorry."

Smiling through her tears, "Letís just agree that it was not a good thing all around and move on, okay?"

The singer smiled, nodding. "Agreed." One final hug, and she pulled totally away. "Come on, letís go finish this deal."

The paperwork was signed, and a most confused, but happy, Mackenzie Deaton left the two ladies alone.

"Iím sorry I couldnít get here before you sold the other horses," Christine said quietly, leaning against the rail fence next to the blonde, who watched her Star frolicking. "If you know where they are," Christineís voice trailed off. Willow sighed, slowly shaking her head, eyes never leaving her lone remaining horse.

"Nah. Some things just have to change."

)))

Turning to the left, then to the right, dark eyes never leaving the large, round handheld mirror in manicured hands.

"I have to tell you, Joel, you are a master artist." He grinned at the good-looking doctor who stood back, Armaniíd arms crossed over a well developed chest.

"It looks fabulous, Bob," the plastic surgeon said, his slight Brazilian accent smoothing his words. "Better than before."

"Hmm," Knowles toned absently, still checking out the new look and new nose.

"When am I going to get my scalpel on the gorgeous Christine Gray?" the doctor asked, wiggling dark brows.

Bob chuckled, re-slicking a piece of hair that had flopped over his forehead. "Youíre a married man, Joel."

"Eh, just a simple procedure, Bob."

"Well, I wouldnít count on that, my friend," he tugged on his suit Jacket, adjusting the lapels in the same small handheld, now laying on the counter in the examination room. "You donít have the right equipment to get her on your operating table."

"So the rumor are true, eh?"

"Well, you know what they say, thereís a kernel of truth in all rumors."

"Really?" intrigued, Joel Rae leaned forward on the stool he was perched upon. "Perhaps something could be worked out Ö?" an elegant brow rose in question.

Again, that bitter chuckle. "To my knowledge, Mizz Gray hasnít been with a man since Ö well," feigning protective silence, "thatís not for me to tell."

"Hmm," disbelieving. "How about a drink between old friends, eh?" Dr. Rae questioned.

"Sounds wonderful. I know of a great place on the strip."

"Lead the way."

)))

Trista Metzger ran as fast as her short legs would allow, long dark hair trailing behind her. She nearly twisted an ankle as she turned the sharp corner, her boot sliding on the burbur carpeting, hand hitting the plastered wall with a solid smack to steady herself, then sprinted down the final hall, headed for the jarred door at the end.

Bursting through the heavy oaken door, she slapped the magazine down on the large desk, holding up a finger as she tried to catch her breath, lungs burning from the exertion. She really did need to stop smoking.

"Whereís the fire, Trista?" Christine asked, a half smile on her face as she recognized the look of horror on her assistantís face. Gazing down at the copy of the Enquirer that had almost slid into her lap, her own eyes widened with horror. "No," she breathed.

"Mary brought that in to me just now," Trista managed, plopping down in one of the leather chairs in front of the singerís desk. Christine liked to keep an office downtown so business didnít have to be done at her house or rented conference room.

"What have they done?" she read the headline: ROCKER CHICK BY THE HOUR? There was a fuzzy, and obviously doctored, picture of a much younger Christine Gray standing on a street corner in a tiny dress, hand on hip, leaning slightly forward as she talked to someone in a car.

Frantically opening the shit rag, she saw the article right away, filled with various pictures of her in concert, press release photos, as well as candid shots that had been taken of her over the years. Some she didnít recognize, and wondered if the Enquirer had been keeping them for later use.

"Theyíve really gone too far this time, Chris. You should sue their asses for slander," Trista was saying, her words only a murmur in a mind filled with fear and disgust.

Christine read a Ďfirst-hand accountí from some woman named Molly Tamale who remembered the singer as a young girl working the streets, going with Johns when she was as young as seven.

"Jesus," she moaned. "Who wrote this piece of shit?" she flipped to the first page of the article, seeing Kenneth Brineís by-line. "Get me this bastard on the phone," she growled, tossing the magazine back across her desk, turning in her chair to look out the window. She felt sick, the bile rising with each panicked thought.

"You got it, boss."

Once alone again, Christine stood, running her hands through her hair, shaking out the long strands. "Fuck, fuck, fuck." This could ruin her. The story was crap, and most probably wouldnít believe it, but fuck! It was very, very close to the truth. Who could have found out about this? Where did it come from?

"Chris?" the tinny voice in her intercom said.

"Yeah, Trista?" She had to force her voice to be calm.

"Myron Reyes on line one. Heís the editor in chief. They wonít let me talk to Brine."

"Fine. Patch the line." Christine sat heavily back in her chair, face turning to stone.

"Miss Gray, what an honest to god pleasure," a deep voice intoned. The singer ignored his pleasantries. Sheíd had smut published about her before, hell, who hasnít in this business? But this was an outrage.

"What is this shit in your magazine, Mr. Reyes? A term I use lightly."

"I stand by the article, Miss Gray." His voice and demeanor had changed in the blink of an eye- all business and hard and as unmovable as stone. "We have reliable and reputable sources, I assure you."

"What, like Molly Tamale!" Christine stood, the rage seeping up through her pores. "And that I was allegedly on the streets at seven!? Mr. Reyes, I was living in an apartment with my goddamn parents at seven. And as for this Tamale character, I have never even met this woman, let alone her knowing a damn thing about where I was in grammar school!"

Myron Reyes was silent, a sliver of panic shooting through his veins before he recovered.

"We stand by every word that Mr. Brine wrote. He did his research and found the dirt. Iím sorry if it was dirt youíd hoped would not be uncovered. Guess our tactics are better than yours, eh?" he chuckled softly, only infuriating the singer more.

"Who sent you on this wild goose chase?" Christine growled, picking up the receiver so sheíd have something to wrap her fingers around and squeeze.

"Goose chase, Miss Gr-"

"Who?!" She was finished with his fucking games. She had a cold feeling in her gut that the Enquirer had been set up.

"We protect our sources, Miss Gray."

"I will take everything youíve got for this, Reyes. Bet your ass on it," her voice was like a razor. The echo of the ringing from the slamming of the receiver filled the space. Blue eyes were electrified with rage and hurt. Who could have done this to her? So few knew her past. Yes, it was true the Enquirer could have found out, but it was so deeply buried, no one knew-

Her line of thought stopped short, almost screeching in her mind. Besides her, three people, who were still alive, knew of her past. One was Adam, and he would never betray her like that, nor Willow. The third was-

"You canít go in there!" Kat hurried after the tall whirlwind that had just pushed past her desk. "Heís in a meeting," the young secretaryís cries were cut short as the frosted glass office door was slammed open, the crack from the force filling the office like a clap of thunder.

"Itís alright, Katrina. Iíll take it from here," Bob Knowles said, phone still held in his hands. His dark eyes never left the beast before him, murmuring his goodbyes, then gently laying the receiver in its cradle.

Katrina was nearly trembling in the stilettos Robert loved so much, as she returned to her desk.

Bob got up, again eyes never leaving Christine Gray as he made his way around her, closing the ruined door for some sort of privacy. He had never seen her like this, and in truth, he was frightened of the oozing hatred pouring from her.

"How could you," she growled as he made his way behind his desk again, feeling better with something strong and sturdy between them. His biggest client stood before him, eyes sexy as hell in all their rage, hands splayed out as she leaned over his desk, taking some of that safe space away from him.

He swallowed, though did so as quietly and with as little show as possible. He didnít want her to know how frightened he really was.

"What are you talking about?" he said, quite impressed with how calm his voice was.

"Do not attempt to lie to me, Bob. I know you did it. I want to know why."

He stared back at her, dark eyes cool and calm, though Christine knew he was a coward at heart and he was quaking in his perfectly shined Gucciís. He said nothing, and she knew heíd never admit to it. In this case, his silence said everything.

"Youíll not get away with this," she hissed, standing up straight again. "Mark my words, Bob." She was slowly backing out of the office. "The ruin youíve just visited upon me is one in the same for yourself. Youíre fired." With that, she turned and stalked down the hall.

)))

Her world was almost quiet as the empty road spread out before her, trees whipping by the open window, the only sound to interrupt almost perfect silence of isolation. The sky was getting darker and darker, prematurely, clouds heavy and pregnant.

She brought a hand up, swiping at a new strain of tears, the ultimate betrayal ripping at her insides. She felt lost, everyone who had been safe yesterday was now an angry, greedy monster at her door, seeking more, more, more. Her music, her face and body, her voice, her name had not been enough. Now they wanted her soul. There seemed only one safe place in this dark night, and the turn was coming up.

 

The rain was coming down in earnest now. Willow was just thrilled that sheíd taken care of Star earlier, and the mare was tucked safely and dryly in her stable.

She headed back toward the stairs, retying her doo-rag to keep paint from getting in her hair. Hand on the banister, she heard something, and glanced out the beveled glass that lined either side of the front door, locked tight. Headlights shone across her face for a moment as a car pulled into the circular drive.

Turning away from the stairs, Willow peered out of the window, images in prism of someone opening a car door, slamming it shut, then the figure walking toward the porch stairs.

Willow unlocked and opened the door, light spilling out into the storm-dark night. The tall figure stepped into the hall-lit porch.

Pushing open the wooden screen door, Willow stepped out. There stood Christine, hair plastered to her head, clothing like a second skin, just from her walk to the porch from her rental. The look on the singerís face was what really got the blonde moving- absolute anguish, and Willow knew why.

A sob ripped through the night, and Christine found herself engulfed in those safe arms, resting her head on a sturdy shoulder.

"Come inside," Willow said into her ear. "Come inside, Christine."

)))

Sheíd been driving straight through for a day and a half, and was sleeping soundlessly in the guestroom. Willow checked on her often, wishing so badly that there was something, anything she could do. She thought about earlier that day:

"Wolf man eats his wife," Rachel smirks as she shoves the smut mag back into its rack at the register of the Safeway she and I are waiting in line at.

"Shouldnít it be wolf woman eats her husband?" I say, we both chuckle. Iím fingering a tin bubble gum container, the little pieces of gum inside are shaped like dolphins. Iím intrigued, just like a child.

"Oh, no," Rachel says, her voice filled with foreboding.

"What?" I ask, checking the calorie count on the little fishy gum.

"Look, Wills," Rachel shoves the magazine in front of my face, and my eyes immediately settle on what looks to be a very young Christine Gray: ROCKER CHICK BY THE HOUR? I feel my blood go cold.

"Oh god," I gasp, taking the mag from my friendís hand. "God, I hope she hasnít seen this."

"Who could do such a thing?" Willow whispered, gently brushing locks of dark hair from a pale forehead, feather light touches, not wanting to wake the troubled woman. With a sad sigh, she stood, heading downstairs where Rachel was making coffee for them.

"God, how can you drink this stuff?" the redhead asked, handing Willow a steaming mug. Green eyes rolled.

"It doesnít taste any different, you pain in the ass."

"Yeah, but where do you get your little extra oomph from?" the women sat at the breakfast nook, Rachelís painted nails clicking lightly against the ceramic mug.

"Oomph? Youíre kidding, right? Shoot, my energy is being sucked down into my gut," she grinned.

"How is she?" Rachel asked, sobering. Willow sighed and shrugged.

"Sheís still asleep. God, Rachel, you should have seen her." Willow shook her head, looking out at the muddy morning. "Drenched to the bone, but I swear it was like the sky was crying for her. She was devastated."

"The sky was crying for her, huh?" Rachel grinned. "Me thinks youíve been hanging out with the songstress a little too much."

"Oh, hush," the blonde playfully smacked the giggling redhead. "I know that was corny, but itís true. I just wanted to protect her from the world, you know?"

"Thatís probably why she came here, Wills. Iím sure she feels safe here, with you."

"I hope so. If I can keep her out of the public eye for even just a few days, you know?" Willow stirred in a bag of Splenda.

"Yeah. What is she going to do?"

"I have no idea. She crashed within twenty minutes of showing up. All I know is that she drove here from L.A." Willow stood, and walked to the fridge, pulling out a couple containers of yogurt.

"Thanks," Rachel opened the container put before her, then grabbed the spoon set next to it. "You still craving this stuff?" she chuckled, stirring the fruit up to the top.

Willow rolled her eyes. "God, itís been weird. At least I know I wonít be having any yeast infections."

"Monostat 7, ladies. Works wonders."

Both nurses turned to see Christine grinning from the doorway. Willow thought she looked adorable, hair disheveled in every which way, t-shirt slightly askew, and one leg of her shorts longer than the other from moving in her sleep.

"Hey, you." Willow smiled, standing. "Are you hungry? Thirsty? Can I get you anything?" She was stopped with a hand to her arm and a gentle smile.

"I can get it. Take a load off, kay?" Christine squeezed the blondeís arm affectionately until she got a nod.

"Help yourself to anything, okay?" Willow said quietly, getting her own nod.

Rachel was surprised to find a sting of jealousy rushing quickly through her veins, then dissipating just as quickly. Watching the interaction between her friend and the singer was most interesting to watch. There was an easy trust between them, a comfort level that was quite surprising considering first off, how they met, and secondly, Christine Gray was one of the topmost female recording artists in the world.

Willow took her seat across from her old friend again, hearing the rustle and clinking in the kitchen of pans being pulled, fridge being opened, items removed and arranged on the counter.

"You ladies like omelets?" Christine asked, glancing at the two nurses.

"You any good at making them?" Rachel teased. "Iím pretty damn picky when it comes to my eggs."

"Well, lucky you; so am I." The singer winked, then began to crack some shells.

An hour and eight eggs later, the three sat scattered in the living room, each nursing a cup of hot decaf.

"I need you both to understand that now this story has broke, theyíll stop at nothing to find more, which will ultimately lead here," she pointed down, "to your hospital, and to the events that happened last February."

"We wonít say anything," Rachel said, indicating her and the blonde.

"Say what you will, Rachel. Thatís what these bastards to for a living- find the dirt. Mark my words," she sipped her brew. "the hospital is going to be bombarded by questions." She sighed, that sadness clouding her features again. "Iím really sorry to put you guys through this."

Willow and Rachel shared a quick look, then the blonde went to her, sitting next to the singer.

"Please donít apologize, Christine," she said quietly, taking the large, calloused hand in her own. "You donít deserve this. I really hope you donít think that you do."

Christine raised sad eyes to meet those of the beautiful nurse. "I did all this, Willow. What theyíre accusing me of, I did."

"I know that. But look what youíve done with your life since? Look how many people youíve touched out there all over the world. With your music and your talent youíve reached inside millions and made them smile, made them forget their problems for just a short while." She smiled. "I speak from personal experience here, okay?"

Christine studied those eyes, seeing nothing but truth. Rachel nodded in agreement, though the singer never saw it. Finally she conceded.

Rachel waited a heartbeat, not wanting to interrupt the silent conversation happening across the coffee table on the sofa, but then she downed the rest of her coffee, gently setting the mug on the end table next to the loveseat where she sat.

Standing, two sets of eyes alighted on her. "I have to get going, girls. Connorís waiting."

Shaking herself out of her almost trance-like state, Willow stood and walked over to her friend. "Thanks for coming," she said quietly, taking the redhead in a tight hug.

"Anytime, sweetie." Rachel turned to look at Christine, surprised to see the singer had made her way over to them. Squeaking quietly as she found herself engulfed in warm arms, she grinned up at the taller woman. "Youíve got a hell of a hug machine there, Gray."

The singer grinned. "Why thank you. Never had any complaints before."

"Hmm, bet not," Rachel muttered, then headed out.

)))

Taking the brush between her teeth, Christine readjusted the doo-rag covering her dark hair, then took the handle between nimble fingers and began to work the delicate blue paint into the wall.

"This is all going to be so cute," the singer gushed, unable to keep the grin from her face, which her painting partner shared.

"Thank you. Iím glad you like it."

"Iím surprised youíre starting this so soon," Christine glanced down at Willow, working around the floorboards while she took around the ceiling, not wanting the blonde to climb the ladder.

"Well," Willow shrugged. "I figure I might as well just get this stuff started now, the stuff I wonít really be able to do later, you know?" Glancing up, she saw Christineís nod. "And now that Kevin wonít be helping me," she shrugged again. "Itís all me," this last part was more muttered to herself than meant to add to the conversation at hand.

"Not if I have anything to do about it," Willow met her gaze again, brows drawn in question.

"Oh?"

"Thatís right," Christine said with determination, dipping the small brush into the plastic pan balanced on the flat at the top of the ladder, filled with paint. "Iím going to make sure you get all the help you need, my friend. Donít you worry about a thing."

"Oh, well thank you very much," Willow wiggled her brows at the singer, making her chuckle.

They worked in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Willow wanted to get to the heart of her thoughts, but wasnít sure if she should broach the painful subject.

As if reading her thoughts, Christine asked quietly, "What are you thinking about down there?í

Willow sighed, brushing a stray lock behind her ear with her pinky, one of the last fingers still paintless. "Who did this to you?" For a moment Willow wasnít sure the singer understood the question, her silence stretching on, but finally she spoke.

"Bob Knowles."

"That son of a-"

"I know," Christine smiled at the vehemence in the blondeís voice.

"Why would he do that to you?" Willow stood, stretching out her aching back, tossing her brush into the pan not far from where sheíd just finished up.

"Because heís a bastard who was angry that I laid him out," Christine said, leaning in close as she painted a tight spot, making sure she didnít paint the ceiling, which, like the woodwork, would stay white. "He was unfortunate enough to be born with little to no tact and made a very stupid and thoughtless comment."

"Iím sorry,"

"So was he," Christine gave the blonde a shit-eating grin, then turned back to her task at hand.

"So what are you going to do?"

"That is the question, isnít it?" dip, dip "I donít really know. Disappear off the face of the earth, maybe? Pretend it never happened? Lie? I donít know."

"Why not call him on his own methods?"

"What do you mean?" She stopped painting, leaning on the ladder, brush-holding hand dangling off the second rung from the top.

"Well," Willow drawled, crossing her arms over her growing chest. "Play his game, Christine. You have tons of high powered friends out there. Make them work for you. Tell your story. The true story." She stared up at her, letting her words sink in. "The truth shall set you free." She grinned, green eyes twinkling in the streaming sunlight.

)))

"He is as smug as a bug in a rug, Chris," Trista said, flopping herself down in one of the chairs in front of the singerís desk.

"Hmm," Christine hummed, staring down at the bustling city below. "Iím not surprised. Is everything arranged?"

"Yeah. Oh my god, yeah! Her people were nearly peeing in their pants with excitement to get such an exclusive." She rolled her eyes, "You should hear what Katrina says about him. The guyís going way over the top with this. That son of a bitch is talking to anyone whoís willing to listen to his garbage." She crossed a bare knee over the other, lazily swinging her high-heeled foot.

"No, Iím not surprised in the least. He wants the spotlight- always has." With a sigh, Christine turned to her assistant, hands tucked into the pockets of her jeans. "When are we on?"

"Wednesday night, your place."

The singer nodded. "Good."

)))

"Iím nervous," Willow gushed, laughing with nervous energy.

"I know. Me, too." Rachel patted her on the knee, then began to tuck into the freshly popped bag of Orville Redenbacher with extra butter.

The sitcom theyíd been watching ended, and an advertisement came on for the Barbara Walters Special, an exclusive with Christine Gray.

 

The singer was surprised at how warm the legendary journalist was. Sheíd heard a whole variation on the same cry of diva, but she found no such thing.

Happily showing the older woman around her house in the hills overlooking L.A., the grounds perfectly kept, beautiful and elegant, the small camera crew constantly filming, though she knew from specials she had seen, much of it would be edited out, only a few scenes for visual effect during Barbaraís narrative.

Sitting stiff and compliant in one of the extremely comfortable wingbacks brought to the music room from the formal living room, Christine waited for the makeup girl to finish, listening to the murmured orders and requests from the crew. They were slowly turning her sanctuary into a theatrical production, meant to look like a sanctuary, filled with intimate conversation.

"And in five," the producer, headset in place, counted backward to three, then fell silent, fingers counting down the rest of the way.

"There has been much said of late about your past, Christine," Barbara said, an almost motherly accusing tone to her voice, a soft smile on her lightly painted lips.

"Tell me about it!" Christine said, rolling her eyes, followed by a playful smile, earning a small chuckle from the journalist.

 

"Turn that up, please Raymond. Thank you." Robert adjusted his head against the padded rest, face gooey and stiff from the mud masque, eyes closed from the slices of cucumber resting upon his lids.

His masseuse did as bade, the televisionís sound and light filling the small, darkened room. He had heard from some of his friends, and even a couple clients, that Christine would be doing that well-preserved journalistís special.

"Special, my ass," he murmured, hearing Raymond leaving him to Ďsoakí. "You want special you shouldíve come to me, Walters,"

 

"How did the story in the tabloid make you feel?" Barbara asked, hands resting peacefully on the yellow legal pad of notes on her skirted lap.

Christine sighed, thinking of the best way to answer that. "Truth of the matter is, Barbara, the story is true," the singer noted the slight widening of the journalistís eyes, but nothing more. "It was a very painful time for me, and certainly one I wanted to forget." She shrugged, a sad little smile tugging at her lips. "It wasnít to be so."

"Do you want to tell your story? Here and now? Your side of things?"

"Yes. What that tabloid printed was based on truth, yes, but it made a mockery of human pain. That pain was mine, so now Iím here to set it straight."

 

Alice held Adamís hand tightly in her own, her other hand strumming through the dark hair that rested in her lap.

"Sheís so brave," he said, mesmerized by the strongest woman he knew, who dominated his twenty-seven inch screen.

"Yes, she is," Alice said quietly, leaning down to gently kiss his temple, slightly damp from sweat. "How are you feeling, my love?"

"Iím fine," Adam said absently, still waiting almost breathlessly for Christine to speak.

 

The front door opened, Rachelís finger automatically going to her lips, Connor looking at her like sheíd lost her mind.

"Come sit," she whispered, patting the couch next to her. The man entered the room, glancing at the light from the tube, heart falling in disappointment.

"But Rach, the first game of the season is on," he whined,

"Then go watch it upstairs," she hissed, noting her friendís eyes were pinned to the screen.

"But this has the surround sound-"

"Then go to your own damn place to watch it!" she snapped, irritated that he wouldnít watch this with her, something that was very important. Far more so than stupid football.

Knowing a losing battle when he saw one, he clicked his tongue like a pouting child, and stomped upstairs.

"God, such little boys," Rachel muttered, shoveling anther handful of popcorn into her mouth. Willow didnít answer.

 

"So tell us, in your own words, what is the true story of Christine Gray."

"Oh, where to begin," Christine breathed, raising a hand to run through her hair before she remembered it was plastered with product and theyíd have to shut down, allow time for her hair to be fixed, then start up again. Sheíd have to find a new nervous habit for this journey.

She began her tale, beginning with her parents and their abandonment, and her fortuitous meeting with Adam.

"I canít, Adam," I hiss, being pulled along by my wrist, the third flight of stairs before us.

"Come on, Christine. Donít worry."

"Will she get mad?" I ask, looking around, waiting for my friendís mom to pop out of the walls somewhere.

"Why would she? She probably ainít even there. God, you worry all the time."

We continue on in silence. The picture of what Iíve heard about Toni "machete" Mischetti is not pleasant, and she scares me. Word on the street is she was with Derrick Zolna, a real tough guy, and he disappeared after they got into a fight, never to be seen again.

Our feet slamming onto the landing for the third floor of the old brick tenement, we head down the hallway, carpet almost totally worn through in places.

Adam stops at his door, struggling with the knob that likes to stick, then finally kicks the door open, a million old shoe prints at the bottom of the stained, wood door.

The apartment is tiny, as was ours, stuffy, stale cigarette smoke and vomit lingers in the air.

Fighting the urge to hold my nose, I follow him inside, looking around. The furniture is old, holes eaten through to the stuffing, either by the huge mice problem in New York, or from some evil pet. My guess is the first one.

"Rosco, honey, that you?" a woman calls out from the one bedroom. My spine stiffens for just a moment, then I look at him.

"Rosco?"

"Shut it," he hisses. I stifle a giggle. The woman comes into the living area, which doubles as a kitchen. Flopping down on the couch, she runs heavily ringed fingers through a mane of wild black hair, brushing it back from her face. Sheís not what Iíd call pretty, but I wouldnít call her butt ugly, either. She looks older than her twenty-four years, face lined from years of hard drinking and smoking. Her eyes are a dark gray, that would probably be pretty cool if they werenít so red-rimmed and bloodshot. Twin patches of acne riddle her temples. My mom would say it was from all that hair.

"Where you been, son? Whoís this?" she asks, snagging a pack of Camels off the badly scarred blonde wood coffee table. Shaking one loose, she grabs it with dry, cracked lips, then quickly lit it with a red plastic lighter. A cloud of smelly smoke billows out around her head. She eyes us both through that haze. It always amazes me how relieved smokers look once they get that cigarette lit and between stained fingers.

"Ma, this is Christine, that girl I told you about." Adam says, standing next to me. His mom eyes me, inhaling another drag, squinting her eyes as she does.

"Nice to meet you, Christine," she exhales. "I got company tonight, Rosco. Be a good boy and you and your little friend go play, huh?"

"Yeah, okay. Can she stay with us for a little while?" he asks, young voice raising in hope.

"Adam," I hiss, he shoves me with his shoulder, eyes never leaving his mother.

Inhale, exhale. "Sure, why not. You two be quiet and use the backdoor. James will be here soon."

"Ah, mom, I canít stand James," Adam whines.

"You watch your mouth, son," Toni says, pointing at him with her cigarette fingers. "He been nothing but nice to you."

"Yeah, till he gets mad," he mutters, tugging me by the sleeve back out the door.

And so it went. Toni still scares me. Sheís a nice enough lady, but donít get her mad! Whoa, boy. Bad idea. I came to the apartment more than once to listen to a screaming match between Adam and his mom.


He never did tell me what was up with the Rosco bit. I think it has something to do with some dead relative.

My eleventh birthday is when things changed for me forever.

See, since I grow up to be about a million feet tall, I was tall for my age then. Me and Adam are sitting on the living room floor, fighting over who gets to play Nintendo next. They only had one controller. Very frustrating.

"You are so full of shit!" Adam yells, shoving me. I shove him back.

"Hey," Bernie, Toniís latest squeeze, smacks the boy upside the head. "Shut that hole of yours." We both look up at him, surprised. Heís looking down at me, winks. I shiver in disgust.

Bernie has been watching me all week, and itís giving me the creeps. Iíd say something, but see the problem is that Toniís been watching me, too. Two totally different kinds of watching. One is filled with that lust I saw in those movies Toni and James used to watch all the time. Toni, however, looks at me like Iím some damn rival or something!

Well, all hell breaks loose one day when Toni comes home to find me and Bernie in a most compromising position. I was sitting on the couch, minding my own damn business when the guy jumps on me! He starts kissing me, his big hand, greasy from a day working at the shop, covers my breast and squeezes. Hard.

"What the fuck!" Before I know whatís happening, other than I want this idiot off me, Iím grabbed by my ear and yanked off the couch. I canít believe my ear isnít yanked off!

Toni starts yelling at me, calling me little bitch and whore, meanwhile Iím yelling back, trying to explain that it was her buffoon of a boyfriend, not me. Sheís not listening, and finally screams,

"Get out! Get out of my fucking house right now!" She marches toward me, but I slink away, not letting her grab my damn ear again. My back hits the door, the many locks jamming into my shoulder. "I took you in, you little slut, and look how you repay me," she hisses, her breath reeking of the rum and grape juice she likes to much.

I fumble with the locks behind me, trying desperately to get away from those bloodshot eyes, veins popping out all over the place. Finally the door opens, and I literally fall out into the hall, that floor hurting my ass.

I scramble up, wiping myself off, trying to keep any dignity I had left, which isnít much. Storming down the hall, I run headlong into Adam, coming back with a paper bag filled with a few grocery staples in his arms.

"Whoa, fuck, Chris!" He yelled, picking his own ass off the floor.

"Sorry," I grumble, jumping back to my feet and run down the hall, bypassing the ancient elevator, and hitting the stairs.

"Hey! Wait!" I hear yelled after me. I keep going, not wanting him to see the tears that are falling freely now. "Damn it, wait up, Chris!" The door at the top of the stairs is banged open, footfalls echoing a flight and a half up.

I push through the door that leads to the main hall, using my long legs to my advantage. Adam is almost running after me now, finally catching up, out of breath, four doors down.

"What happened?" he gasps, hand on his knees, trying to catch his breath.

"She kicked me out," I say, bitterly swiping at the tears that still run down my cheeks.

"What?!" He stands straight again, looking at me with narrowed eyes. "Why?"

"That asshole boyfriend of hers fucking attacked me, and she took his side!"

"No way!"

"Way." I start walking again, wiping away the last of the tears. Fuck this shit. I can make it on my own just fine. I donít need her. Yeah. I donít need her.

)))

Televisions across America watched in rapt silence as one of the greatest musicians of her time told a story of innocence gone bad. Nielson would later report that as many people watched the special as did the previous Super Bowl.

)))

A blonde in Oklahoma sat with her legs drawn up, arms wrapped around her shins, eyes wide, unrealized tears gently streaking the smooth skin of her cheeks.

)))

A man sits on a padded table, face like wood with a mud masque completely dried, forgotten about, two pink circles around his eyes where two slices of cucumber had once been. He watched as old, faded snapshots were paraded across the screen, overlapping Christineís story of a childhood gone terribly wrong. He was transfixed.

)))

A young couple cuddles on an olive green couch, a light breeze rolling in through the window that is open to their fire escape, or very own Ďback doorí. One gently combs her fingers through soft, thick hair while the other feels his stomach roil at what he knows is to come.

)))

Christine sat in her chair, silent for a moment, all the memories attacking her at once.

"Do you need a break?" Barbara asked, reaching across the distance between them to gently cover a pale, trembling hand.

"No," she smiled weakly, then sipped the goblet of water that was placed on the small, oval table next to the chair. Taking several deep breaths, she continued.

Well, I got myself into this mess, I had to go through with it. If for no other reason than I didnít want Adam to think I was a dork or a loser.

"Come on, honey. I donít have all night," he calls from the main room of the cheesy motel. Closing my eyes, my fingers try and undo my top button again. Fingers are still trembling, damn it.

"Come on," I try and encourage myself. He seems like a nice enough guy. God heís old.

Finally the button is successfully pulled through the sliver of a hole, followed by the next. The white of my very first bra comes into view. It had belonged to Toni, but she said she outgrew it, so gave it to me. I think it might be a little big, but figure Iíll grow into it. Iím careful to throw the stuffing out before old guys sees it. The white satin makes my skin look darker, like I got a tan or something.

My mind flashes to the guy in the other room, unable really to remember what he looks like. Does he have light hair or dark? I donít know. The only thing I remember seeing clearly was the massive gold belt buckle with a gaudy J written in rhinestones.

I jump at the knock on the other side of the door. "Look, honey, are we gonna do this or not?"

"Yes," I whisper, looking at my eyes, my face, trying to make it look more grown up, make me more grown up. Taking several deep breaths, clenching and unclenching my hands, I unbutton the rest of my shirt, letting the material slide from my shoulders, leaving it there, hoping it looked sexy. "Here we go,"

)))

The interview ended, credits rolling, heart sinking.

"Fuck," Robert Knowles muttered.

ContinuedÖ

Part 11

Jack Renovich looked at his client, and basically boss, mouth opened, jaw slack and eyes glazed.

"What?" he wasnít sure if heíd heard him correctly.

Dark eyes turned to glare at the slight man over Armani-padded shoulders. "What part of call Foster donít you understand?" Robert Knowles turned to face the attorney in the expensive suit, that he basically paid for with the exorbitant fees Renovich charged.

"Bob, this is crazy," Jack tried to reason with the man, and was having a hard time keeping his eyes off Bobís new nose. It changed his entire face. Heíd heard a very watered down version of the story behind it, but wasnít entirely clear on the actual circumstances. Clearing his throat, he cleared his mind, a little technique heíd picked up at Harvard law. "Youíre risking career suicide-"

"Goddamn it, Jack, just fucking do it!" Knowles thundered, slamming a well manicured hand down on the expansive mahogany desk, the thud echoing in the spacious office. The two men locked gazes, a cock fight of wills.

Finally with a heavy sigh, Renovich nodded, looking down at his hands that were tucked into his roomy front pants pockets. "Alright, Bob. However," he raised his eyes and a finger of warning. "any backlash is yours, and yours alone."

"Nonsense," the manager gave his trademark dimpled smile, filled with charm and confidence. "thatís what I pay you for, Jack. You can handle the heat." He grabbed his Ray Bans off the desk, sliding them into his Jacket pocket. "We still have an eight oíclock tee time?"

"Uh, yeah, we sure do." Jack tried to smile and not look at the man standing in front of his desk like he was the bastard he really was. It was getting harder and harder to continue working for Bob Knowles. Even the money heíd made off the successful music manager almost wasnít enough anymore. Almost.

)))

Long, knowing fingers worked their way across the smooth, white keys, intermittently hitting the flat and sharps, bringing an emotional jolt to the music as its creator swayed with it, eyes closed to block out her world, which felt as though it were tumbling around her feet.

The swell of the piece made her chest swell in sympathy, throat tighten and breathing hitch, then all fell in a peaceful, satisfying climax.

Music such as this had always reminded Christine of what making love must be like. The caress of fingers brought the body of the music alive, starting slow and sweet, working toward a more chaotic level of excitement that only the release of the intensity could bring about, sending a lava flow of emotion and sensation through everyone lucky enough to be an auditory participant.

The last few notes died away, and blue eyes slowly opened, staring off into the spacious room, high ceiling, the special sound proofing built into the walls by a previous owner.

Christine Gray sighed, hands falling limp to her lap. Her body felt like Jell-O, though not just from the emotional release from the music, but also that of the interview a scant three days prior; not enough time to get the true reading of the fall-out that would ensue, be it in her favor or not.

Running those same long fingers through waves of tumbling dark hair, Christine stood, making her way over to the bar that ran along the back wall of the music room. This was her third visit in as many hours, and her eyes wandered to the same mirrored back wall, reflecting glass shelves of where various bottles of liquor once stood. Her tongue snaked out, the craving for a tequila sunrise making her jowls water. It would take nothing to send Bradley, her gardener outside, out for a little shopping trip.

For a third time, she shook off the want, instead grabbing a bottle of raspberry Fruit 2 O.

Walking over to the French doors that opened up to the grounds of her estate, the singer twisted off the white cap, taking a long swig of the flavored water, smiling at the flavor, and the pride she felt for once again denying the demons she knew would snap at her heels for life. There was a time, not too long ago, when she would have been proud for having a tequila sunrise instead of straight tequila or vodka.

Baby steps.

She did, however, allow herself one small concession. Pulling out a pack of Camels from the breast pocket of her button up shirt, she shook out a long, white cigarette, tucking the gold tip between her lips. She could feel the slight weight of the silver Zippo in her hip pocket, but left the lighter where it was tucked. Tonguing the smoke, making the cigarette dance, she looked out over the beautifully kept grounds. Bradley did a wonderful job, but someday sheíd like to do that work herself, making her very own green thumb masterpiece.

She thought back to the tearful phone conversation sheíd had with Adam earlier that day. He and Alice had watched the Barbara Waltersí special, of course, and it had been hard for him. Though Christine had left out most names and any particulars involving him, he knew, and he remembered, breaking his heart all over again. To her great relief, he hadnít been angry with her, but had instead stood behind her one hundred percent, as she knew he would.

Somehow, someday sheíd be able to repay him for everything heíd done for her, all the sacrifices heíd made to ensure her anonymity as sheíd begun her career. Not to mention everything heíd gone through when they were children on her behalf, including entering the dark world of the streets so she wouldnít have to be alone.

"Oh, Adam," she whispered, removing the Camel from her mouth. She held it between her fingers, turning it this way and that, thinking about the fact that Adam, once a heavy smoker, had given up the habit in order to give himself what precious little life he had left.

She tossed the snapped pieces of the cigarette onto the table top where she sat. Sighing, she brought her booted feet up to the table, snaking her hands behind her head and looking out into the dying sunlight of the day. Sheíd stick around California for a few more days, make sure she wasnít needed anywhere, or wouldnít have to fix anymore messes, then maybe sheíd take a trip toward the south east.

She was scheduled to be back in the studio in three weeks to record the last album she was contractually bound to, and for the first time in her career, she dreaded it. She felt stifled in her creativity, her audience and fan base having expected a certain formulaic sound from her, which she had happily provided for nearly two decades, only slight variations of the same theme. Christine had the distinct feeling that her fans werenít being given enough credit, and would probably happily follow her along in a creative journey. Sure, youíd have the select few who were staunchly opposed to change, but Christine was at a point in her life where that didnít matter.

As she sipped her water, she realized that sheíd stuffed herself in the bottle, and now that genie wanted out. She had stopped performing or creating for herself, but instead was writing and playing for the fans, and what they would want, or what they would buy. Yes, Bob Knowles had a lot to do with that, but now he was no longer in her professional picture, so what did it matter? And what was stopping her from following her own advice?

She sighed in disconcerted confusion. Something had to be done before her muse left her for good. The adoration and money were fantastic, for sure, but now all that was for Christine Gray the image, not Christine the person.

"A change is definitely in order," she muttered, bottle to her lips.

)))

The night seemed to drag on, an emergency involving an eight year old boy, pulled out of his dead fatherís truck by the firemen with the help of Jaws of Life, but only after he had sat in that tin can of a truck for more than an hour, staring at his fatherís lifeless eyes. To say the boy was going to need some counseling after he healed up was a serious understatement.

Willow sighed, tugging her mint green scrub top off, wadded it up and tossed it into the small wicker basket sheíd brought with her to gather up all her dirty scrubs. Sheíd be doing laundry for days with the amount she had, but that was alright. It wasnít like she had anything else of importance to do on the eve of her three days off.

Rachel and Connor had hit the slopes to mountain bike down in Colorado for a few days, so it was up to her to try and occupy her time. Willow smiled when she thought of last Wednesday when sheíd dropped by Rachelís place. Sheíd intended to only stay for a short time, but then just stayed on. Finally Thursday afternoon, the redhead had turned to her.

"Okay, hon, you know I love you, but are you going to leave at some point or should Connor and I go have sex at your place?"

How pathetic. When sheíd been a kid, as an only child, sheíd had to figure out how to keep herself entertained, and sheíd done a fine job of it, loving the solitude and alone time. Heck, even when sheíd been in college and she and Kevin had first gotten together, they used to fight because she wanted that alone time still, and he wanted to spend all his time with her.

Willow sighed. When had all that changed? Maybe it was because with Kevin she knew she had the option of having company if sheíd wanted it, and had taken that option for granted. Now it was just her, and her alone. You could only talk to an unborn baby so much before the one-sided conversation got boring.

Gathering up her belongings, stuffing it all in the wicker basket, she headed out to her truck.

The ranch was quiet, Star whinnying and snorting quietly in the late summer morning, the sun just beginning to wake over the horizon. Willow pulled the truck up to the garage, parking before the closed door, starkly pale in the weak light.

Willow had been contemplating trying for another shift at work, see if she could get the day shift, or at least the mid. She didnít think it would be too wonderful coming home at six in the morning cold of winter, big pregnant.

The house seemed even more quiet and dark today, Willow flicking on lights as she went, even ones that werenít necessary for her to move around in. She flicked on the television in the kitchen then the one upstairs in her bedroom as she gathered the rest of her laundry from her home laundry basket. She had no idea what was on, just that she needed to feel like there was someone else in the house with her, someone else knew she was there, knew she was alive and cared enough to spend time with her.

She tried to clear her head and her emotions. That was one thing she was looking forward to losing after having the baby. She hated feeling like she was PMSing all the time, emotions and feelings every which way, hitting every end of the spectrum and back again. During her periods PMS hadnít been bad, but if anything at all had been bothering her, or if she were excited about something, watch out world! Being pregnant made that ten times worse.

Angrily shoving everything into the wicker basket, she whimpered in frustration once she realized that she had just buried her badge, keys, and sunglasses, as sheíd set them atop her scrubs to get them into the house. Throwing all the new clothing out, she tossed the items onto the comforter, then re-stuffed the wicker basket, and headed downstairs to the washer and dryer. On autopilot, she grabbed the cordless phone, clipping it to her pocket on the way down to the unfinished basement, whoís main purpose was to house the pipes, washer and dryer, and the bugs.

The bare bulb came to life with a tug on the chain, illuminating the cool gray of the cement. Willow hated going down there, the bareness reminding her of a terrifying moment in her childhood. Her parents, when they were still together, had moved into a ranch-style house in Denver, the basement unfinished, but the walls had already been framed, turning the dungeon into a spider web maze of two by fours. A four year old Willow had been instructed to go downstairs and grab a piece of luggage that was kept with its mates in the angular alcove created beneath the bare, wooden stairs.

The smell of naked wood and moldy cement meet my nose, making me wrinkle it all up, screwing my whole face up. My saddle shoes make little hollow sounds on each step, my weight too slight to really make them creak. I follow the wall, mostly smooth until the rough seams scrape my palm, the first one makes me jump in surprise. Gathering my strength with a deep breath, I continue down into the abyss.

I asked my mom for a light or something so I can see going down, as the light switch at the top of the stairs doesnít work. She said I was fine, and to get on down there, and not to be such a baby. I swallow my tears back, my eyes stinging with fear, but I do as she asks, wanting to be a big girl.

I finally reach the bottom of the stairs, and start to feel around for the naked wall switch mom told me was there. I donít feel it, my panic beginning to grow as the purest darkness Iíve ever known engulfs me, swallowing me whole

My breathing echoes in my own ears, rising with each blind second, the skin of my palms and fingers being eaten up by more rough seams, and then a splinter from part of the framing. I cry out, which turns into a whimper as I swear I hear a monster in the pitch black, come to gobble me up.

"Mommy!" I cry, frantic now to find that light switch. I can hear her music upstairs, and know she canít hear my cries, and would never know that monster had killed me. "Mommy!" I cry again, louder, crying out as I back into something, swirling, hands in front of me, hands latching not onto a slimy, scaly hand, but framing. Relieved for a heartbeat, I hear something deeper into the room, making me swirl again, desperately trying to see through the sea of ink.

My heart is about to beat out of my chest, shivers constantly passing through me in waves, my eyes as wide and dilated as possible, almost painfully so.

I begin to plow my way through, my fear driving me forward, trying to find that light, that precious little light that peeks down from the open basement door. I hear constant whimpers and cries, and itís not until later I realize theyíre mine. Right now all theyíre doing is propelling me to get out, those sounds catching up to me, getting closer, the monster getting closer.

I trip over something, hitting my chin, which clicks my teeth painfully together. Something wet and gooey is on my face, but I donít care. I realize Iíve found the stairs again, and scramble up them into the world of light.

"Mommy!" I cry, spotting her in the dining room, wiping smudge marks from the glass front of the china cabinet.

"What?" she says, turning. Her eyes get as big as mine were as I fling myself into her arms, my heart only now able to calm. Itís also then that I feel the pain in my jaw. "What happened? What did you do? Where is the bag I asked you to get?"

Willow brought a finger up, tracing the tiny, almost unperceivable scar at the very roundest part of her chin.

The whole things was laughable now, twenty-four years later, but it had been terrifying at the time, and had scarred more than her chin.

Shaking the memory away, not wanting the oppressive grayness to close in on her now, she began to sort the clothing in the basket, which sheíd set on the folding table next to the dryer, creating little piles on the cement floor.

Kevin had promised two years ago to finish the basement for her, but had never gotten around to it. Her grandparents hadnít done it years before as Willowís grandmother used it as a root cellar. She smiled at the shelving that lined every wall in the large basement, some still holding large, sealed Mason jars of god only knew what.

Her smile grew even wider, remembering those summers spent out there at the ranch, helping her can all the peaches and plumbs, then tomatoes and pickles. Her grandmother would pull out her massive pressure cooker pan, the stainless steel polished to a shine.

For the first couple years after Willow and Kevin had taken the ranch over, she had canned tomatoes and peaches to make her grandmotherís famous peach jelly, but after awhile, she hadnít had the time anymore. Maybe it was time to take it up again.

Willow poured in the measured cup of Tide, then tossed the cup in with the whites, the lid slamming shut as she turned the dial to the correct setting, and pulled it out, the machine roaring to life as it filled with warm water.

Glad to be finished, Willow hurried up the stairs, the hair standing on the back of her neck as it always did when she nearly ran up those wooden stairs, a shiver of relief passing through her as she stepped out of the basement door, ending up in the kitchen. She always felt foolish afterward, but it happened nonetheless.

Well, Ö Willow looked around the well-lit room, even as the sun was beginning to break the horizon, hands on hips, what now? Deciding breakfast might be a good place to start, she headed over to the fridge, checking to see what she had, and out of that list, what actually sounded good.

Eggs, waffles, leftover spaghetti. With a sigh, the nurse grabbed a peach, and slammed the door home with her hip. Rinsing the piece of fruit off in the sink, she glanced out the window, watching as the new day spread its light over the miles and miles of empty space surrounding her. It was such a lonely time to own a ranch.

)))

Christine paced, waiting, hands tucked into the pockets of her cords. She looked at the same blocks of soundproofing, same kit of drums, red, banded in chrome.

The dark room was becoming monotonous as the minutes bled into a half an hour, and finally after three of those, the inner doors of the studio opened, preceded by the laughing and hooting of her band mates. The great thing about power was that Christine was able to get her own band mates on the album with her; California wasnít often fond of this practice, and usually insisted on hired musicians for studio sessions.

"Hey, girl," Joey gushed, grabbing the singer up in a massive bear hug that left her ribs aching. After similar greetings by all the boys, Christine decided it was time to get down to business.

"Okay, guys, settle down. I need to talk to you." She leaned against the wall, arms crossed over her chest, watching as her beloved friends got settled.

"Whatís up?" Eli asked, lightly tapping his sticks on a denim clad thigh.

"Well," Christine sighed. "Iíve got good news and Iíve got bad news. This time around Iíll give you the good news first. Youíll notice behind me, gentleman, that there is someone missing from the engineerís booth," she hiked a thumb toward the huge glass window behind and to the right of her. On the other side two men sat talking, their mouthsí movement the only indication that they were even chatting, as all microphones were turned off at Christineís request. She needed some privacy for this. "Only Ronny and Evan," she grinned, which slowly turned to a smirk as realization dawned on her boys.

"Fucking A, did you get rid of that mother fucker?" Davies asked.

"Robert Knowles was fired, yes."

"Woohoo!" Joey yelled, pumping his fist in the air. "About time."

"Yes, yes, I know. Okay, now for the bad news." Christine made eye contact with each of the men, making sure she had their full and undivided attention. "As you guys know, this album is the last one we need to complete to fulfill our contract," she paused again, once again scanning her band mates. "After we finish recording this today, then do all the touring shit, Iím retiring."

Christine wasnít surprised at the uproar that ensued after that revelation. She stayed quiet, letting the worst of the storm pass. She eyed Joey as he stood from his perch on a stool, walked over to her. He said nothing at first, leaning his shoulder against the wall, looking down at the floor, chewing on his bottom lip in thought. Finally he cleared his throat and looked at her profile.

"Why are you doing this, Chris?" his question was soft, though the hurt was evident. She met his gaze, blonde brows drawn in concern and confusion.

"You know, Joey, there comes a point when your heart just isnít in it anymore. Yeah, Iíve had a great go, broken attendance records, been on Leno, Letterman, all of that. Won the awards and accolades, but when it all boils down to it, I made music for me, not for them," she waved her hand to indicate unseen fans. "My heart isnít in this anymore, Joe."

He stared at her, reading her, trying to understand. Finally he nodded with a sigh. "I think Iíve seen this coming." He began to pick at a thumbnail. "Shit, the events of Oklahoma City almost a year ago should have been the first clue, huh?" he smiled, though it was weak.

"Yeah. I think so, too." She returned his smile, but it faded quickly. "Iím sorry, Jo-Jo. Iíd never do anything to hurt you, but ultimately my apathy would have hurt the band, anyway. I donít want us to turn into a joke or a has-been."

"Yeah. I know. Itís just hard to hear. An era coming to an end," he shook his head. "Just real hard to swallow."

"I know, Joey. I know." She took the guitarist in a quick, but tight hug.

)))

Eli and Davies refused to speak to Christine once the session was complete, the album cut, instruments put away and loaded into Eliís van.

Christine was saddened by this, but mainly she was overtaken by the myriad of feelings and emotions washing through her as she sat in L.A.ís crazy traffic. She felt a combination of elation and profound sadness. Everything she had worked so hard for, dedicating almost twenty of her thirty-two years on, gone, finished, with the snap of her decisive fingers.

She had no doubt it was the right decision, and had no regrets, but was just astonished that the time had gone so quickly. It seemed just yesterday sheíd been a kid on the streets back in Queens, just praying to find a fiver on the street to get some breakfast. Now her only limits were her own boredom and discontentment.

Christine knew that once the press got wind of her retirement, theyíd tie it to the recent scandal started by Knowles. So sheíd look like she was running. It just didnít matter anymore. She was tired of living her life in the public eye, doing what worked best for them, and not what she herself needed to do.

"Fuck Ďem," she muttered.

)))

Sighing in frustration, Willow bared her teeth as she growled, tugging on the ends of the shirt, trying to bring them together to button the darn thing.

"You fit two weeks ago," she hissed, finally giving up as she heard the strain being put on the seams. "Dang it," she looked down at herself, the burgundy shirt hanging limp, exposing her very exaggerated breasts held up in the white, satin bra, her beginning pooch making her pants slightly uncomfortable. "Have to go to the dang fat store," she pouted, not liking this at all. Stalking over to the closet, she shed the button up, re-hanging it and grabbing a loose-fitting long-sleeve cotton tee.

Walking back over to the mirror, Willow turned this way and that, studying her profile as well as full on, and her posterior, shocked.

"My god," she murmured. Her misery was cut short by the ringing of the phone.

"Hey, you coming or not?" Rachel said on the other end, irritation marking her voice.

"Yes, Iím sorry. I canít find a darn thing to wear!"

"What! In the two closets you have, filled to the brim? Youíre only coming over here, Wills. Itís not like you need to dress for a friggní cocktail party."

"No, itís not that," Willow plopped down on the end of the bed. "I look like a damn Barbie doll. Everything is extremely out of proportion."

"Oh, you mean cause your breasts are huge now?" the redhead chuckled at the moan that got. "Come on, Willow. Itís all part of it. You look beautiful."

"I look like a hooker!" The blonde threw herself backward, hand covering her face, other one holding the cordless to her ear. She grimaced at the laugh on the other end of the line.

"Hey, most women would kill for breasts like yours, even before you were preggars. Enjoy it while it lasts. From what I hear, itís all down hill from here." She winced at the loud cry that filled her head. Oops. Getting serious, Rachel softened her voice. "Willow, Iím sorry, honey. I was only teasing. You are a beautiful woman, and having that baby inside you has made you even more so."

"Really?" Willow said hopefully, uncovering her eyes.

"Yes, really. I wouldnít lie to you about this. You have nothing to worry about. Youíre one of those damn women I hate who look good no matter what theyíre wearing, or what theyíre going through. You have to believe that."

"I donít, Rachel. I feel like the ugliest, dumpiest woman to walk the earth." Willow sat up, running a hand across her ever seeping eyes.

"I know, and I could kill Kevin for doing this to you. But you know I think youíre gorgeous, and always have. Heck, even Connor has mentioned it."

"Youíre so full of crap."

"No, really. Honestly. I had to smack him for staring at your breasts."

"Well, thatís not surprising since theyíre the size of basketballs." Willow stood, tucking the phone into her neck as she fastened her watch and slid on the couple rings she wore. She smiled at the chuckle she got.

"No, you liar. Come on. Connor is going to be putting steaks on in a few minutes."

"Okay. Why are you guys barbequing in the middle of October?"

"Because my honey is a dork."

"Ah, okay. See you soon." Willow ended the call and lightly misted on her perfume before grabbing her keys and heavy Jacket. It had been cold and windy all day, and she knew by time she got home that night, it would be even worse.

The drive was slow, the wind even blowing Willowís two ton all over the road. She grasped the wheel with both hands, fingers tightly wrapped around the leather-wrapped steering wheel. Easing onto the main road that would get her to Rachelís, she braked, looking over her shoulder, creeping forward as a big rig rushed by, whipping the truck even more into a rocking frenzy. Following in its wake, she merged.

As another car roared by, a chirping filled the cab of the truck. Glancing at her cell phone, which rested in a drink holder in the console, she tried to see who the caller was. Probably Rachel, yet again, wondering where the heck she was. Shocked to see the California area code, she almost roamed into the car in the other lane as she grabbed for the phone.

"Sorry!" she hollered out as the car blared its horn. Straightening her wheel, she used her chin to open the flip phone. "Hi!" Willow grinned from ear to ear at the chuckle that received.

"Hi, yourself. How are you?"

"Iím doing fine. But you know, thereís this friend I have, sheís kind of been AWOL. Think you can help me find her?"

"I know, I know. Iím sorry. Iíve only had time to write those few emails. Forgive me?"

"Hmm, well," Willow pretended to think, drawing out the angst, "okay." She grinned at her own silliness. "How has the touring circuit been? Had anymore bras thrown at you?"

"Oh god," Willow just knew those amazing eyes were rolling. "Crazy people, I tell you."

"Oh yes, Iím sure itís horrible to be so loved and adored. Please, please, what can I do to help."

Christine laughed at the sarcasm in her friendís voice. "Yes, I know. Itís a hard life, but alas, Iíve decided to end it."

"What!" Willow pulled off the side of the road to avoid crashing into the sign post ahead.

"The tour life, Willow. Just the tour life," Christineís voice was soft, understanding. Willow put a trembling hand to her head, sighing deeply. "I didnít mean to scare you." The singer knew how easy it was to upset the pregnant blonde, and often times felt like she were walking on eggshells. She tried to be as understanding as possible. It wasnít always easy.

"God, I donít know, guess I just had a flashback or something." Taking several shaky breaths, she laughed at herself. "That was pretty silly. Iím sorry."

"Donít be. That was a scary night. I should have worded it differently."

"Wait a second," Willowís mind finally began to catch up to the news. "Youíre not going to tour anymore?" She rested her elbow on the window ledge, brows drawn in concern.

"Yeah. We made our final album as Twilight, Willow." Christine looked out the window of her hotel room, seeing the city lights of Miami below her. "Iíve had it. Iím retiring."

"Oh, Christine," Willow reached up, brushing her fingers across the smooth surface of the tiny phone, almost in surrogate to caressing her friendís hand. "I donít doubt your wisdom in this, as only you know whatís best. But I do hope it works out how you want it to."

"Thank you, Willow." Christine walked over to the bed, laying herself down, curled up on her side, curled around Willowís voice. "Can you get a few days off around the weekend of November tenth through the twelfth?"

"I imagine so. Why?"

"Well," Christine groaned as she turned onto her back, stretching out her long legs, free hand playing with the material of her thin, ribbed sweater. "weíre going to be in your neck of the woods, Houston. Iíd like you to come."

"See you in concert?" Willow maneuvered the truck back onto the road, already seeing a mental picture of Rachel glaring at her with tapping toe.

"Well, kind of. I was thinking actually that you could tour around Texas with us. Weíll only be in the Lone star State for the weekend, so," her voice trailed off, hoping the blonde would say yes.

"Yes."

"Fantastic!" Grinning from ear to ear, Christine gave Willow a sketchy itinerary, promising more solid details as they became available.

"Iím so excited!" Willow gushed, also grinning from ear to ear. Sometimes she worried her grin would one day become irreversible.

"So how are you doing? Howís little you?" Christine asked, trying to imagine if her friend would be showing yet or not.

"Oh god," Willow blew out in exasperation. "My boobs are the size of a damn house."

"Wow. That must make life interesting," the singer smirked.

"You have no idea. It sucks."

"Well, I canít wait to see you." Christine paused, deciding if she should say the next part. "I miss you, Willow."

The blonde noted the way the singerís voice had softened, and it put a warm place in her heart, and broad smile on her face. "I miss you, too, Christine. And I canít wait to see you, either."

Christine blew out a relieved breath. "Well, I should go. Gotta get up early tomorrow for sound checks, and a tour of Miami. Weíve not hit this venue before. We usually skitter around Orlando, Daytona, that kind of thing."

"Well, happy dreams to you, and I hope you enjoy your tour. Pick me up something cool, will you? Iíve never been to Florida at all."

"You got it. Goodnight, Willow. Keep you and little you safe, okay?"

"Will do. Goodnight." With a sigh, mixed with content happiness and sadness to say goodbye, Willow replaced the phone into the drink holder, and hummed the rest of the way to Rachelís house.

)))

Christine paced, hands clasped behind her back. She felt ridiculous, but she was anxious. She only wished sheíd had time to fly out and pick Willow up herself. Rush, rush, rush. That was life on a tour. Very little time to herself, save for the middle of the night, when she was so keyed up from the show; thoughts rattled around her brain- had she sounded good? Had she looked good? Was she entertaining enough?

It never ended until the day she stepped through her own door in Beverly Hills.

They had played at the Astro Dome the night before, and it had been amazing. Christine had watched countless football games played there. Never did she think sheíd be playing there, too.

Keyed up from the show, from lack of sleep and food. But mostly she was keyed up with excitement.

"Yo, Iíve been calling you for five goddamn minutes!" Taylor Hammond yelled out.

"What? Iím sorry. What, Taylor?" Snapped out of her reverie, Christine turned toward her red-faced road manager.

"I asked if you wanted to put that last song in tonight or not."

"Oh, sorry. Uh, yeah. I do." She was momentarily angry at herself for her indecisiveness. It had only been in the past year that sheíd begun to question Bobís plans for the tours, and even less time since sheíd actually taken the plunge and played what she wanted to. Now, with Bob gone, it was a hard habit to break, deciding for herself, expecting Knowles to come screaming at her from the wings at what a stupid idea she had. She craved the creative freedom, but had as yet to get used to it.

"Good. It was a huge hit at the Dome." The short, balding man turned, cupping the side of his mouth with his hand. "Cue up the lights for that number, Roger!" he yelled up at the lighting engineer, who was in the very back of the large auditorium. A light flickered briefly to let Taylor know his order had been heard and followed.

Christine soon grew bored with the light show that sheíd been part of every night for the past three months. Instead she resumed her pacing.

"Iím wondering how many more steps itíll take before you fall right through, and onto your head."

Pacing stopping abruptly, booted toe skidding over the time-slicked wood of the apron of the stage. Christine brought a hand up to try and see into the darkened house, stage lights blinding.

Out of the darkness came a small, smiling blonde, overnight bag held in one hand, the other holding a Mason jar.

Wide-eyed like a little kid, Christine hopped down from the apron, running past the few rows of folding, padded chairs until she reached her friend, grabbing her in a crushing embrace. Willow almost dropped her grandmotherís prized peach jam in the exuberant show of affection, but she didnít mind.

"You look wonderful!" Christine gushed, finally holding the blonde at armsí length. "How was your flight? Did little you do okay?" her gaze flickered to the slightest pooch in Willowís shirt, then she met amused green eyes again. "What?"

"Nothing." Willow felt warm, not only by the stage lights, but also by the caring and genuine concern from the remarkable woman who still looked at her with suspicious eyes. "The flight was fine. I mean, how bad can it be on a private jet?" she raised a brow accusingly. Christine looked down sheepishly.

 

"Yeah, well, if you think Iím going to let you fly here coach, youíre out of your tree."

"Iím already out of my tree. But, nonetheless, little me, as you insist on calling her, is doing just fine. And here," she raised the hand that held the Mason jar. "my grandmother says hello."

Christine took the jam, chuckling at the thoughtfulness of a woman sheíd never met. "This better be as good as you say," she warned, replete with waggling finger.

"Oh, you have no idea what youíre in for. Iím going to make you French toast, grandmaís recipe, and then you," said with a poke to Christineís chest, "are going to absolutely smother it with this, and then youíll know what Heaven on earth is."

"What?" The singer looked at her like sheíd lost her mind. "What the hell does peach jam and French toast have in common? A match made in Heaven, this is not."

"Donít knock it until youíve tried it, woman."

Christine knew better than to argue with the little blonde, so she nodded like the good little girl, and hugged her friend with one arm, then led her toward the stage.

"So this is where youíll perform tonight?" Willow asked, taking in the giant screen being installed behind where the drum kit platform had been constructed. Two men shouted instructions back and forth across itís impressive breadth, tweaking here and there, making sure the screen was secure and operable.

"Sure is." Christine also took in her surroundings, seeing it through the new eyes of Willow. It really was quite impressive. She turned to see the blonde grinning up at her. "What?"

"Iím so excited to see the show," Willow said, her chest about to burst with pride.

"Glad to hear it. So, ready to get settled? Iím going to be stuck here for awhile, so how about you head to the hotel, get comfortable, and Iíll see you later?"

"Sounds great."

 

Chuck Maggio glanced into his rearview mirror for the third time in as many traffic lights. His passenger, an entire car-length back, was a hottie to be sure. She had the best set of tits heíd seen in awhile, and curves to match. He could imagine gathering a handful of that blonde hair as he took her from behind.

Dark eyes focusing on the road again, not wanting to wreck the limo again. Frank would kick his ass. Besides, he was working for Christine Gray this weekend, and wanted a good tip. Who was this little piece of hair pie to the singer, anyway? Chuck had heard all the rumors, hell, who hadnít? Maybe this chick was her lover or something.

He glanced at his passenger again. Shaking his head, he focused on the street again. What a waste.

"Miss," Chuck extended his hand to help the little blonde out of the back of the limo. All professionalism in place, he couldnít help letting his eyes wander behind the dark lenses of his sunglasses.

"Thank you," Willow smiled, getting out of the long car.

"May I take that for you, maíam?" the driver indicated the bag she held.

"No, Iím fine, thanks." Willow was amazed at how kind and polite the driver was.

"Enjoy your night, maíam," tipping his hat, Chuck turned to head back to the driverís side of the car, watching the blondeís ass in the side mirror as she headed toward the posh Hilton.

Willow hoisted her bag onto her shoulder, smiling at the doorman who opened the heavy, glass door for her.

"Excuse me,"

Chuck Maggio hesitated, hand on the polished door handle. He looked over his shoulder to see a man hurrying over to him.

"What do you want, buddy? I got a schedule to keep." Chuck leaned against the car, suited arms crossing over his chest. The man, breathless from the exertion, finally reached the chauffeur.

"Yaíll the driver for Mizz Christine Gray?" the man asked, southern Texas accent riding Maggioís nerves.

"Yeah. What of it?"

"Well, my name is David Sumter. Ya see, sir, my employah wants a story on Mizz Gray, in this fine city of ours."

"And who would your employer be, Mr. Sumter?" Chuck asked, already having an inkling of what he was dealing with.

"Well, let us say my employah is willing to pay for good information for our readers."

"Oh yeah?" Chuck was listening now.

"Oh, yeah."

The driver pushed off the side of the car, opening the door at the back of the stretch. "Get in. Weíll talk."

"Yes, sir!"

)))

Willow was stunned, mouth hanging open as she stood in the main room, which the bell boy informed her was the living area, of the hotel suite sheíd be sharing with Christine.

The living area was almost as large as the entire first floor of Willowís house back in Oklahoma. The decorating was beautiful, though not gaudy or ostentatious, though the sheer size handled that one all on its own.

There were three bathrooms on the main floor, as well as a kitchen replete with stocked pantry, and large, beautifully appointed dining room. Upstairs were two bedrooms, both the size of large apartments. It was easy to figure out which one was to be Willowís.

She sat on the bed, huge bouquet of flowers in her lap. Plucking the card from the clear plastic pitchfork, she tugged it out of its tiny envelope.

Willow-

Welcome, and I hope you like the rooms. Please feel free to use the entire suite, and donít hesitate to ask for anything.

Iím glad you came.

Me

Touched by the gesture, Willow stood, setting the fragrant gift onto a nearby table, where sheíd be able to see and smell it everyday.

Quickly getting settled in, Willow explored the beautiful hotel.

)))

The night was filled with the intense beat and rhythm of Twilight, in unbeknownst to the audience, their final concert tour, and third to last performance.

Willow sat in the wings, Christine giving her the option of sitting in the front row with the raving fans, or having her very own personal seat, basically on stage.

Blonde hair flew into her eyes over and over again as she jammed with the other thousands of people filling the auditorium. She had heard the music hundreds of times before, and still, the words and tunes filled her with a joy that no other artist had ever been able to insight in her.

Willow opened her eyes and peeked out into the darkened house. Hundreds of lighters began to flick on as the stage lights went down, and Christine was reduced to smoke backed by purple light.

Twilight.

The music started, slow and sure, getting the listener ready, making them crave the unbelievable voice of their hero, object of lust or simply a new experience. Christine fed that lust, her voice, smooth and sure as silk, filling the microphone.

Willow watched, leaning forward in the most comfortable arm chair sheíd ever had the privilege of planting her butt in, taken directly from Christineís dressing room.

Finally giving in, she sat back, closing her eyes, head leaning back against the cushioned back, allowing that voice to fill her, reaching in and touching her deepest, most vulnerable places. It wasnít long before she felt the tickling wetness at the corner of her eyes, emotion threatening to escape; all she needed do was blink or open her green eyes.

Amazing. How can one person, one human being, mortal as anyone else, reach inside so many and take control of something so personal as emotion and feeling? But even without seeing it with her own eyes, Willow knew that everyone in that auditorium was experiencing the same things, the music traveling into the same places, causing he same effect. Yes, everyone handled things differently, and more than likely not everyone was sitting there crying as Willow was, but they felt it.

The blonde opened her eyes, her lashes kicking those errant tears down her cheeks, but she didnít care. She looked at the cause of that precious emotion, seeing Christine at center stage, sitting on a stool, one booted foot on the stage itself, while the heel of the other boot was hooked onto the bottom rung of the stool. She held the microphone, free from its stand, in her left hand, her right resting casually on her leather-clad thigh.

At that moment, those beautiful blue eyes were closed, fingers of her right hand tapping softly to the beat.

Willow studied the singerís profile, the perfect lines, the way the purple light caught the flyaway hairs that the static from the microphone and electronic equipment caused, giving Christine a halo, the light from above bringing her radiance through.

The response from the audience, and from herself, the knowledge that Christine had touched every person in that room, that theyíd go home talking about the amazing concert theyíd just attended or that theyíd make their friends go out and buy a Christine Gray CD just because of how much their friend had gushed, and now their own curiosity was piqued. The way that, no matter how small, everyone had been changed from this moment, a memory formed of thousands of fans united for a single moment, everyone in the same place, thinking and feeling the same things.

Willow had never felt prouder to know anyone in her entire life. A series of chills spread through her body, bringing a smile to her lips and peace to her heart. She was grateful to have such an amazing person in her life, and would do everything in her power to make sure she stayed that way.

)))

"Hey, you. Wakey, wakey,"

Willow blinked, trying to figure out where she was, and who was rubbing her arm. Looking up, she was almost blinded by the stage lights, all up now, and very bright.

Blinking rapidly again, she looked away. "Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty." Christine smiled, kneeling down to her haunches next to the chair Willow had herself sprawled out in. The blonde would die if she knew just how unlady like she looked in that moment.

"God, I had no idea Iíd fallen asleep," Willow mumbled, pulling herself up into a sitting position. "That was an amazing concert, Christine."

"Hmm, I must say Iím not entirely convinced you saw it," the singer teased, standing as her friend tried to stand, only to fall back into the cloud-like cushion of her chair. Green eyes glared up at her. "Come on. Weíre done here with taking everything down, and the boys are loading the trucks and buses." Making sure the blonde was steady, she let her go. "I think thereís a bed with your name on it back at the hotel."

"Mm, that sounds wonderful."

The two women headed down the main aisle of the theater, through the double doors, and out into the late Houston night. Cars everywhere, thousands of people trying to get out at the same time, though the majority of the crowd was gone, and it was now safe for Christine and her band to leave.

The limo was waiting, and Willow recognized the man from earlier waiting for them, door open, the darkness of the car inviting. The driver smiled and nodded at them, both smiling in return.

"So, you really liked it?" Christine asked, once theyíd gotten settled. Willow glanced at her, surprised, to see a twinge of uncertainty in her blue eyes.

"Yes. It was the best concert Iíve ever been to. Really. Truly amazing. And I loved that new stuff you threw in at the end."

"Thank you," the singer smiled with pride as she looked out her window, the city lights passing in record time. She looked at the cars around them, next to them, passing them. As a kid she used to see limos pass through the city all the time, and always wondered who sat behind those dark windows, which celebrity or person of power. Now, from the looks she got, she knew others were thinking the same thing, and it made her smile.

"Iíve been working on that new stuff for awhile, wanting to bring it into the act, but Bob would never let me," she explained.

"Well, I think he was a fool. Itís wonderful."

"Thank you, Willow," Christine said, her voice soft as she looked at her friend, who looked so tired. She reached over, gently brushing a strand of blonde hair away from Willowís cheek, tucking it behind her ear. "Your hair has really grown.," she said absently. She was never aware of the pair of eyes watching the gesture from the rearview mirror.

"Yeah," Willow said, nodding, then laying her head back against the leather headrest. "I canít keep it under control," she smiled drowsily. "My doctor warned me of that, which sucks, you see, as my hair grows ridiculously fast, anyway. All those out of control hormones, plus the vitamins Iíve been scarfing down."

"No doubt. Thanks for coming."

"Youíre most welcome. Thanks for inviting me."

"Youíre most welcome."

)))

Willow started again, turning over with a heavy sigh, then turned back to her other side, attempting to roll on her back, when her eyes flew open. What the hell was that?

Sitting up, she listened. Not hearing anything, she was about to flop back into the mattress, but stopped, a wisp of noise rising to her, like smoke through a crack.

Feet firmly hitting the thick carpet, she shrugged into a sweatshirt and mesh shorts, then padded out to the sitting room of her suite within a suite, pressing her ear to the door. Sure enough- music.

Lights blazed downstairs, along with conversation, laughing and the smell of smoke, and it wasnít all cigarette.

Eyes wide, Willow took in Christineís band members in various states of undress, girls everywhere, crushed beer cans scattered across any surface that would stay still, as well as bottles, some empty, some full, most in some level of being drank, in most hands, on the floor, bar, and on the floor.

What got the blonde the most was the glass table at the center of activity, a mirror, maybe two feet by one foot on one corner, and the remnants of lines on its reflective surface, as well as a razor.

Willow felt sick, her stomach revolting at the scene before her. Especially when she saw Joey in the corner, pinching his nose and sniffing several times, a gorgeous, half-naked blonde on her knees before him, happily licking away at the head of his penis.

"Whereís Christine?" Willow asked, to no one in particular. Someone answered, the singer was last seen on the balcony. An absent thank you, and the blonde headed in that direction, numb, feeling as though she were walking through gauze in a dream world.

Seeing that the doors were partially open, she stumbled her way over to them, feeling the cool, early morning breeze coming in.

Christine stood at the railing, brown glass bottle held by the neck between her thumb and forefinger. She was leaning on her elbows, overlooking downtown.

Willow felt her nausea return as she saw that bottle, a small lineup of empty bottles just like it on the railing next to her, like soldiers marching off to war.

"I canít believe youíre doing this," she whispered, her shock steeling her voice. The singer slowly turned her head, looking at her guest over her shoulder.

"Doing what? Why are you up?" Whole body turning, Christine leaned her back where her elbows had just been, bottle dangling next to her thigh.

"Because of that!" the blonde hissed, pointing back toward the party. "I canít believe you," she shook her head, accusation written all over her features.

"What have I done?" Christine asked, taking a tentative step toward her friend. "Iím sorry the boys woke-"

"Yeah, I bet youíre sorry they woke me," Willowís anger built with every word. She snatched the bottle out of the singerís hand. "How can you go back to this stuff?" She walked over to the large potted tree standing at attention next to the balcony doors. She watched as the liquid fizzed as it was poured into the rich, dark soil, then tossed the bottle off the balcony.

Christine watched with a mixture of annoyance and amusement. "You just poured out my A&W," she hurried over to the railing, watching as the glass bottle exploded in the courtyard dozens of stories below.

"What?" Thrown by the pronouncement, Willow walked over to the railing, grabbing one of the empty bottles.

"My goddamn root beer," Christine said, the annoyance starting to gain an edge over the amusement. Turning the bottle in her fingers, Willow saw that it was, in fact, A&W root beer. She looked up into narrowed blue eyes.

"I-" Willow cut herself off, feeling ridiculous, but then remembered what sheíd seen in the suite. She couldnít shake the image of the cocaine spread out on that mirror on the table. Bringing the bottle to her nose, she took a deep whiff.

"I see," Christine said, her voice dry as she turned toward the balcony doors.

"What am I supposed to think?" Willow asked, relieved to just smell the sweetness of the soda. "What the hell do you think youíre doing, Christine?" she hissed, "letting those guys do that, well, that shit in your hotel room!"

The singer whirled on her friend, eyes blazing. "No, I donít do that shit anymore, Willow. No, I donít like it, and no, theyíre not children. I canít control what they do, but at least theyíre not out there being stupid in a dangerous environment where they could get hurt, arrested, or recognized," her voice was a low, dangerous purr. "I didnít bring you along as a chaperone, Willow. Youíd be wise to remember that." And with that, Christine was gone.

Willow stood there, alone on the balcony, frozen to the spot. The anger and hurt had been so painfully obvious in Christineís voice, her eyes like lasers, burning into the blondeís soul.

Sighing heavily, Willow made her way back into the suite. Christine was nowhere to be seen, and the blonde decided it was best to not look for her. Sheíd done enough for one night, so instead headed back up to her rooms.

)))

Christine nodded at the doorman, shivering as she came out of the November chill. It may be Texas, but winter hits there, too.

Hitting the button that would take her to her floor, she waited for the elevator doors to slide open, staring at her reflection in the highly polished stainless steel of the outer doors. She had escaped her suite in what sheíd had on- jeans and a long-sleeve t-shirt. Her hair was less than perfect, the tennis shoe on her right foot untied.

As she knelt down to tie it, she thought of what had driven her from her own rooms to begin with.

When the knock had come on her suite door, Christine knew who it was, and what they wanted. The boys didnít have a suite, each only having a room, which were nothing to sneeze at in their own right. But it wasnít good enough to party in. Theyíd brought their booze, drugs and women to her door, wanting her to join in the fun, but sheíd refused. Joey, figuring this would be the case, raised a six pack of her favorite, and asked to come in.

It had been at that point that Christine had hidden out on the balcony, knowing full well she wouldnít be able to sleep upstairs, knowing what was going on downstairs. Popping the top of her first A&W, sheíd taken a satisfying swig, and then had taken a seat on the wrought iron balcony furniture, putting her feet up on the railing and taken in the sights of the city around her.

Sheíd let her mind wander, not really thinking of anything in particular. Replaying the performance, things she would have done differently, things that had gone better than sheíd hoped or thought. Sheíd also thought of her friend, and how cute sheíd looked, asleep in that big chair, mouth slightly hanging open.

Never had she thought the blonde would awaken to the debauchery that was their hotel suite. Never did she think Willow would even know. She didnít want her to see it, or know that the boys even did that sort of thing. But alas, wasnít to be.

Christine knew that Willow was right in her accusations and anger. If their suite were to be raided, theyíd all go to jail, and it would be a disaster. But at the same time, Willowís opinion meant the world to Christine, especially after the way theyíd met, and the condition the nurse had seen her in, on the worse night of the singerís life. To hear what Willow thought, to see the disappointment in her eyes and hear it in her voice Ö It had been more than Christine could bear. The kicker, though, had been when Willow hadnít believed the innocence of Christineís beverage of choice, and had smelled for traces of alcohol.

The elevator dinged, then the doors slid open, revealing an empty car, save for the elevator operator. He smiled at her, then pushed the right buttons for her floor.

Christine had worked so hard to beat her addictions and stay clean in a world where it was everywhere, offered by everyone. In the entertainment business, you were more likely to be offered a nose full of blow than a glass of water. She had declined, she had managed to stay strong and not give in to a habit sheíd had most of her life.

The singer sighed heavily, glad when they hit her floor, and she was allowed to escape the presence of the unobtrusive elevator operator. Sometimes she hated that in the nicer hotels. Her short few moments in an elevator were often her only minutes alone.

Making her way down the hall, she pulled out her keycard, glad to hear the silence on the other side of the door to her suite.

All the lights were still on, but the music was off, and the drugs, and any trace of such, were gone. But by the looks of everything else, there would be another interesting story about Christine Grayís partying habits.

Making her way up the stairs, Christine rubbed her eyes, the rising sun outside making her realize just how long sheíd been up, and just how exhausted she really was.

Heading down the hall that would take her to her own rooms, she stopped, seeing the closed door of Willowís. Glancing down at the polished doorknob, the reflection of her hand distorted as she reached for it.

The room was dark and quiet, the door leading to the actual bedroom open, light just barely making its way in through the sheer curtains.

Willow was laying on her side, back to the room, curled up around the second pillow on the king-sized bed. Her eyes were closed, breathing even and calm. The brunette stared down at her, a soft smile forming without her even realizing it.

Debating for a couple minutes, finally Christine sat on the edge of the bed, trying to take up as little space as possible. She watched her friend for a couple more minutes, then reached out, brushing ever errant strands of hair from Willowís beautiful face.

"Willow?" she whispered, petting the blondeís thick hair. "Wake up,"

Being slowly pulled from the land of sleep, Willowís eyes fluttered open, then closed again with a soft sigh as she reveled in the touch. She turned to her back, looking at her friend, perched on the edge of her bed.

"You okay?" she murmured. Christine nodded.

"Yeah. Well, no."

Blonde brows narrowed. "Whatís wrong?" She was about to sit up, but felt a gentle hand on her shoulder, keeping her down.

"Shh, everythingís okay. I just wanted to tell you Iím sorry."

"Sorry? For what?"

"For going off on you like that. For making you witness all that. I really didnít want you to see that," Christine said, feeling like an ass even as she said it.

"No," Willow shook her head, turning to her other side to face the singer. She caught the hand that had been in her hair, hugging it to her, tucked under her chin. "Iím not your mother, youíre right. I had no right to say any of those things, or treat you that way. You and the guys-"

"It wasnít me. Hell, I just wanted to go to bed," she smiled ruefully, looking down at her other hand that rested on her leg. "I shouldnít have allowed that to go on here. I put us both at risk. Iím sorry."

"Itís okay," Willow whispered, tugging on the arm that was attached to the hand she cradled. Christine looked at her, brows drawn. "Lay down with me. You look so tired."

Not needing another invitation, Christine laid herself down, back to the blonde. She smiled as she felt a warm body curl up against hers, the covers being brought up over both their bodies. She closed her eyes.

"Christine?"

"Hmm?"

"Iím proud of you."

"For what?"

"For drinking root beer."

With a smile on her lips, Christine fell asleep.

ContinuedÖ

Part 12

Bob Knowles absently raised the tumbler to his lips, only glancing into the glass when the ice clinked against the crystal, but nothing else happened. Forgetting heíd drank the last of the scotch ten minutes before, he set the heavy glass on the top of the desk in his home office in San Francisco.

He looked out over the bay, the fog moving in, muffling the traffic and the horn of a lonely fishing vessel.

Tearing his attention away from the window, he looked down at his desk, the newspaper sitting next to his abandoned glass, headline bold, mocking: MUSIC HEAVY HITTER STRIKES OUT

The phone call heíd had with Jack earlier in the day weighed heavily on his shoulders, too, causing them to slump, wrapped in the crisp, starched button up from Prada, designed with his form and tastes in mind. A shirt even named after him.

So they were all bugging out. Didnít trust him. Worried heíd do to them what heíd done to Christine Gray. Worried heíd betray them and fillet their closets open to let their skeletons dance around like a live chicken in a frying pan.

Knowles walked around his desk, taking the tumbler with him. He filled it to the rim from the nearly empty bottle, which he set back on the marble bar-top. Downing half the glass in one swig, he nearly choked as another thing Jack had said came back to him. Those pricks at Mercy Hospital wonít say a fucking word. They were protecting that little bleached blonde nurse, who, according to the rags, was fucking the star singer.

"Bitches," he breathed into the glass, taking the rest of the liquid fire down, ice sliding against his perfect, capped teeth. "Fuck you all." He slammed the tumbler down on the bar with finality.

)))

A green eye cracked open, nearby whispering tugging her from the warm web of peaceful sleep. Willow couldnít make out what was being whispered, or who was whispering, but the words Ďcuteí and Ďhotí did catch in her brain.

As the haze of sleep wore off a bit more, she realized that she was still cuddled up with Christine, the blondeís head resting against a steadily rising and falling chest, her arm tucked up close to her face, fingers spread out over a somewhat pronounced ribcage.

"What the hell are you guys doing?" Christine muttered, her voice rumbling through Willowís entire body, making both green eyes flutter open. There, at the foot of the bed, stood Eli, Davies and Joey. Eli held a harmonica in his hand.

"Eli," Joey said, causing the drummer to blow a perfect middle C on the instrument, thus throwing the boys into an a cappella version of Brenda Leeís ĎIím Sorryí, which got both women giggling.

"Get out of here!" Christine laughed, throwing one of the shoes sheíd taken off sometime during the night, at the retreating musicians. "I swear," she muttered, re-settling, and wrapping her arm around the blonde.

"Goofy bunch," Willow murmured, basking in the warmth and comfort of her human pillow.

"Iíll say."

"That was really sweet of them, though," Willow raised her head to see a small smile play across Christineís lips, her eyes closed. She nodded.

"Yeah."

Willow lowered her head again, snuggling in. Heaven. Pure heaven. All the months sheíd been missing human contact, all forgotten. She felt so safe, so cared for. Dare she say, happy?

"So whatís the plan today?" she asked, eyes opening to get a very up close view of Christineís t-shirt. She looked at the cotton fibers at an almost microscopic level, seeing the tiny fibers criss-crossing, and the occasional piece of lint, which she picked off.

"Mm," the singer groaned. "The fun starts. We pack up and head out." She took a deep breath, letting it out slow and steady, raising Willowís head along with it. "How are you doing this morning?" she asked, bringing her hand up to play with a few fly away strands of the blondeís hair.

"Iím good." Willow raised her head, holding it up on her hand, and smiling down at her friend. "You make a great pillow, you know."

Christine snorted. "Iíve been called a lot of things in my time, but pillow isnít one of them."

"Well, now you have, so deal. And Iím fine. You?" The smiles were gone, the seriousness of the night before flooding back. Christine looked deeply into Willowís eyes, trying to read her, see if she truly was fine. Seeing nothing but truth, her smile returned, albeit at half-watt.

"Iím okay."

"Come on. Feed me." Willow climbed off Christine, then the bed, running her hand through a very interesting do. "One thing Iíve always hated about short hair," she grumbled.

"I think itís adorable." The singer walked over to her, grabbing some of the strands that were trying to stand on their on, and helped them walk all over the little blondeís head.

"Stop it!" Willow smacked at Christineís hands, backed away with a glare. She was further enraged by the laughter from Christineís handy work, that filled the room. "Pain in the butt. Go to your room," she pointed out the door.

"Oh, the little mother in you emerges."

"Out!" Willowís lips twitched as she tried to keep the glare in place, but as she continued to look at the singer, she was losing the battle. Finally a smile burst into full bloom. "Unless you want to see a fat woman shower, go away."

"In that case," Christine headed back toward her friend before giggling as she started to run, a growling Willow chasing her.

"Some peopleís kids," Willow muttered as she turned back toward her bedroom.

"Youíre not fat,"

Willow swung around to see Christine leaning against the doorframe. With a yelp, the singer disappeared.

)))

Samantha Cox pushed her dark framed glasses a bit further onto her nose, sighing as she re-read her copy for the next days paper. The story was shit, and she knew it. The editor was a chauvinistic ass, and every woman in the building knew that. She should have taken that job as a stringer for the Times.

Finally giving up, deciding the story on the runaway pet potbelly pig was as good as it got, she clicked the mouse, sending the story to the editorís que, and pushing away from her desk.

"Stacy, you want anything from Starbucks?" she asked as she slid into her light suit jacket.

"Yeah. Get me a mocha breve with extra chocolate and whipped cream. Grande!" the photographer called out to the retreating back of the young reporter.

"How the hell does she get any coffee with all that chocolate?" Samantha muttered as she made her way through the maze that was the small, Bay Area paper she worked for. Climbing into her Honda Accord, Samantha gave it some gas, and sputtered out of the parking lot.

One of the only good things about the job was the view. The Golden Gate Bridge was just off to the left, and it was amazing. Samantha had only moved to the area a few months ago, having grown up further south in San Diego. She certainly loved the area, even if it did cost her an arm and a leg to live there. She lived in a tiny, cracker jack apartment and paid triple what she paid back home.

Singing to herself, as the radio was being stubborn again, she headed down the lane, the big Starbucks sign in view. Glancing again toward the bridge, she noticed a bunch of emergency vehicles there, lights flashing.

Slowing to turn into the coffee house parking lot, she quickly changed her mind, cutting off a Ford Taurus as she gunned the engine, heading toward the bridge. Her reporter instincts were telling her to investigate. As she saw a bundle being pulled out of the water, two hundred and twenty feet below the landmark, she gave her little car even more gas.

"Shit, a jumper," she murmured, driving like a lunatic to get there as quickly as possible. "Yes!"

)))

"You are so full of shit!" Christine accused, throwing the guitar pick she had been using at Eli. The group laughed, including Eli who chased the pick down. "Give me my damn pick back."

"No way. You threw it at me, so obviously you donít want it anymore," he grinned, waggling the little piece of plastic tauntingly at her.

"Jerk,"

Joey jumped up, his cell phone ringing toward the back of the bus. As he hurried down the main aisle, he snagged the pick out of Eliís hand.

"Hey!" the drummer yelped in surprise. Joey grinned, tossing the pick to Christine, then disappearing into one of the back rooms.

"Brown nose!" Eli yelled after Joeyís retreating back.

Willow sat curled up on one of the numerous comfy sofas that lined the outer walls of the bus. She watched the play between Christine and her band mates, and kept a constant smile on her lips, amused and touched by how close they were. A part of her felt sad for the boys, losing their lead woman, and wondered what they would all end up doing. Including Christine. The blonde couldnít help but wonder if someday the singer would regret her decision.

"Uh, Chris," Joey said, his face pale as he took his cell phone away from his ear. "You need to hear this." He handed her the small, silver flip phone, which she took. Her eyes remained on his face, worry furrowing her forehead.

"Hello?"

"Christine, this is Trista," the woman on the other end of the line said, her voice low and slightly thick.

"Hey, Trista. Whatís up?"

All conversation had stopped, the boys and Willow watching and listening intently, trying to figure out what was going on, and Joey wasnít saying a word. Instead, he took Christineís guitar from her, quietly began to strum a mindless tune on it.

"I tried to call your cell, but it wasnít on,"

"Oh, shit, sorry. I was charging it and forgot to turn it back on."

"Itís okay. Listen, boss, this morning Bob Knowlesí body was drug out of the bay,"

"What?" Christine stood, shock sending a wave of energy through her body.

"He jumped." She clarified.

"Ah, Jesus," Christine sank to the couch next to Willow, free hand going to her forehead. "Is he," she couldnít bring herself to say it.

"Very much so." The assistant sighed. "I canít believe he did that,"

"Yeah," Christine felt a very uncomfortable numbness begin to envelop her. "Thanks for letting me know." With that, she slapped the phone shut, tossing it back to Joey, and headed toward her sleeping quarters at the back of the bus.

Willow looked around, confused.

"What happened?" Davies finally asked the question that is on everyoneís brain.

"Knowles committed suicide off the Golden Gate this morning," Joey said quietly, watching his fingers uselessly adjust the pegs of the perfectly tuned guitar.

"Serves the fucker right," Eli said, grinning at everyone, but only being met with disapproving glares from his band mates.

"Dude, thatís not cool," Joey said, voice low.

"What? The guy was an asshole from the word go. Good riddance," refusing to feel bad, or take back his comment, Eli stood, walking over to the bar. "Hey, whereís the rum?" looking over his shoulder, looking for answers, which he doesnít get. "You guys take off with the booze?" he tried again.

"Chris threw it all out," Davies finally answers.

"Fuck. Goddamn puritanical-"

"Iím going to make sure sheís okay," Willow said softly, cutting off Eliís muttered remarks. She couldnít stand hearing him talk badly about the singer who was only trying to live better. She didnít feel it was her place to lecture Christineís friend, so she said nothing.

Fighting her nausea as the bus jerked her from side to side, Willow finally made her way down the aisle, to Christineís closed bedroom door. She walked up to the dark paneling, fingers running lightly over the smooth wood. For a moment she thought about walking away, leaving the singer alone, but then had a change of heart. She needed to be there for her. If Christine sent her away, she sent her away. But she had to try.

Knocking lightly, she called out Christineís name. Not hearing anything, she decided to take a chance. Turning the knob, she was glad to find it unlocked, and pushed the door open.

"Christine," she whispered, pushing her way into the small space. The singer sat on the edge of her bed, legs curled under her, hands resting in her lap. She didnít answer. Walking over to her, Willow stood before her friend, seeing the faraway look in her blue eyes. "Christine," she whispered again, tentatively touching her shoulder. The blonde yelped in surprise when she was suddenly gathered in needing arms, pulled to the edge of the bed.

Getting her balance, Willow wrapped her arms around Christine, cradling her head against her chest, running her fingers through long, dark hair. She felt Christineís hands clasp at her lower back.

No words were spoken. None had to be. Willow could feel the sorrow radiating off Christine in waves. She hoped the singer would want to talk about it, knowing she needed to, but wasnít about to push the issue.

As they stood there, Willow couldnít keep the image out of her mind of a cold, February night, and the Dittman Bridge. She remembered how blue Christineís face had been, how lifeless her body. She held her friend a little closer, her protective instincts kicking in like mad. But today this isnít about Willow, and itís not about what Christine had attempted to do. Itís about the singerís obvious pain over what her long-time manager did, no matter what an ass he may have been. They still had a history, for better or for worse.

The blonde rested her cheek atop the wonderful smelling dark hair, the tiny wisps tickling her skin.

They stayed like for so long that Willowís legs were beginning to ache, her feet tingle. Finally Christine spoke.

"Willow?" she said quietly, her head leaning against the blondeís chest, listening to the steady heartbeat.

"Yeah?" Willow said softly, finger-combing Christineís hair.

"Do you think that my firing Bob had anything to do with his, Ö with what he did?" She pulled away from Willow, looking up at her with the saddest expression on her face. The blondeís heart broke at the sight. She smiled sweetly, shaking her head.

"No, honey, I donít. I think he did it to himself," Willow said, her voice soft, no malice in her words. She contemplated whether she should tell her friend what sheíd heard at the hospital, and decided it might be best. Christine deserved to know the whole truth. "Honey, he was trying to ruin you,"

"Perhaps, but I got him back-"

"No," Willow pulled slightly away, enough to be able to look into confused blue eyes. "He was trying to find someone at Mercy to speak against you, Christine," she gently caressed the singerís shoulder, trying to take the sting out of her words.

"What? What do you mean? When?"

"A couple weeks ago. He wanted to expose what happened last winter."

"God," Christine looked down at her lap, stunned. "Why hadnít I heard anything about this?"

"Because no one would talk." Christine looked up again, meeting Willowís gaze. The blonde smiled. "We werenít going to turn on our hometown hero,"

Christine chuckled, then hugged the blonde to her again, quick and tight, then released her.

"I need to make some calls," she said, pulling away, then standing and running trembling hands through her hair.

"Okay. If you need anything, donít hesitate, okay?" Willow said, halfway to the door. The singer nodded, then smiled. Willow heard the cell phone come to life as she clicked the door gently closed.

)))

They stood at the foot of the stairs that led to the small jet. Christine pushed her hair back, the wind immediately blowing it back into her face.

"Thank you so much for coming," she said, lightly rubbing Willowís jacket-covered arm.

"Thank you so much for inviting me. It was," Willow chewed on her lower lip for a moment, looking out over the tarmac as she tried to think of the words. "a trip of a lifetime," she finally said, looking up at her friend.

"Well, I donít know about that,"

"No, really," she hugged Christine close. "It was truly amazing. Thank you," pulling away, she smiled.

"Iím going to miss you," Christine said, holding the blondeís hand.

"Iíll miss you, too. When will I see you again?"

"Iíll come visit for a bit. How would you like that?" Christine glanced at the plane as the engine roared to life. "You better get going."

"Yeah," Willow stepped up onto the first stair, bringing her to Christineís eye level. "And Iíd love that. You better keep your promise," she poked the singer, who grinned and nodded.

"I promise. I need to take care of some stuff back home, then Iíll be out."

"Okay." About to head up to the next stair, Willow quickly threw herself into Christineís arms, hugging her tight. The singer squeezed her eyes shut as she allowed herself to be enveloped in Willowís warmth.

"If you need anything," the blonde whispered into her ear. "Iíve got two good shoulders, and a great set of ears, okay?" Looking deeply into her friendís eyes to make sure Christine was listening, she smiled, and with a quick peck on Christineís cheek, she was up the stairs and in the plane.

Christine stepped back from the jet, which was getting ready to taxi out to the runway. She saw her friend getting settled through the small, oval windows. She waved with a smile when the blonde spotted her. She didnít feel the smile, however. It was purely for Willowís benefit. She missed her friend on a level she couldnít believe. Just being around her made Christine feel better, feel grounded.

Even Adam didnít have that effect on her.


Shaking those lonely thoughts away, she waved one last time, then turned and headed back to the limo to catch her own flight.

Willow watched as her friend walked away, ducking into the back of the limo. The plane began to pull away, and she twisted her head to watch as far as she could until the car was out of sight.

Turning back around in her seat, she sighed and settled in for the short flight back home.

)))

Rachel pushed the buggy down the cereal aisle, glancing up from her magazine from time to time to make sure she wasnít running into anything or anyone. Looking back down at the article she was reading, she turned the page, the buggy coming to a screeching halt against a display of chocolate Lucky Charms. Not even realizing what sheíd done, she stared at the magazine in her hands, mouth catching flies.

Breaking her freeze, she grappled with her purse until she found her cell phone.

"Of course you can come over. You know better than that," Willow rolled her eyes, wiping her hands off on her thighs as she finished brushing Star down. Shutting the phone, she stuffed it back into her pocket, sweet talked her horse for a few more minutes, then headed back inside. It wasnít long before she heard Rachelís SUV pull into the yard.

The front door opened, and Rachel was whooshed in with the wind and snow.

"Close the door! Itís freezing out there," she muttered as she brought a cup of coffee to a frozen Rachel.

"Thank you," the redhead mumbled, lips half frozen. She took a long, hot drink and began to unthaw. Remembering why she was there, she quickly put the cup down on the kitchen counter, and tugged her huge purse from her shoulder.

"You are not going to believe this," she said, digging until she found what she was looking for. Tugging the magazine free, she frantically flipped through it until she found the page, then shoved it in front of Willowís face.

"What is this?" the blonde took the magazine, brows furrowed as she stared down at her own face. "Oh my god," she breathed when she read the headlines. "They think," she looked up at her friend, who looked just as concerned. "they think Christine and I are, Ö lovers?"

"Why would they say such a thing?" Rachel whispered, picking up her coffee again, holding it between her still chilled hands.

"I donít know," Willow said absently, reading the story. The pictures were taken in Houston, and a few that Willow thought had been taken in Dallas. "I canít believe this," she was horrified to see a picture of Christine and her on the streets of Houston together, the singerís arms around her, their foreheads together. It was the main picture, certainly the largest. The caption underneath read: Christine Gray and this unidentified woman strolled the streets of Houston together, laughing and cuddling.

Willow looked up at Rachel, eyes wide and distraught. "How could they do this? Itís not true," she smacked the smooth pages of the rag. "Itís not true."

)))

Christine closed the door after sending Millie home for a bit. There was no reason for the house keeper to stay in an empty house. Sheíd only be coming twice a week to make sure things were okay, and to watch the dates on food.

Jogging up the stairs, she went into a dead run when she heard the phone ringing. Grabbing the first phone she came to, she answered, out of breath.

"Are you a lesbian?" asked a solemn voice on the other end.

"What?" About to slam the phone down, she stopped.

"Are you? I need to know, Christine,"

"Willow?" the singer lowered herself to a chair, a chill gripping her heart. "Why, where did this come from?"

"Please answer the question. I mean, Iím not stupid, Iíve heard all the rumors, but I, Ö"

Christine twirled her fingers in the phone cord, hearing the pain in Willowís thick voice. What was going on?

"Willow I donít, well, I donít really stick myself in any categories," she blew out a breath of exasperation, feeling sweat begin to pool between her breasts. "Willow, where is this coming from?" she asked again, her voice soft.

"Screen Magazine," Willow said, her voice low and, well, and something Christine couldnít quite make out.

"Yeah," the singer said, not following, but dread filling her all the same.

"According to Screen Magazine I, the unidentified woman, and you are lovers. The latest in a long line-"

"That isnít true, Willow," Christine said, the anger beginning to replace the dread.

"So what is true? Why would they say something like this?" Willow ran a hand through her hair, feeling the long, should-length strands falling through her fingers. She leaned against the counter.

"Iím so sorry, Willow. God, Iím sorry. I never wanted you to be drug into my mess. They do this because I donít give them anything to play with. You understand?" Christine gripped the phone tighter, praying that she could say the right things to fix this.

"No. What do you mean?"

"I mean that I donít give them details of my life. They donít see me at award shows with god only knows who, and I donít flaunt it." She stood, pacing nervously. "I canít apologize enough, Willow. I never meant for anything like this to happen."

"I know," Willow whispered. "I know."

"Do you still want me to come up next week?" Christine held her breath, praying she hadnít ruined one of the most important friendships of her life. Willow stared down at the magazine, looking at her friendís face, smiling, happy.

"Yes." She finally said, tossing the magazine into the trash under the sink.

Christine smiled and let out a silent breath. "Good."

Willow smiled. "Iíll see you soon."

"See you soon."

)))

Walking through the halls of Mercy was an interesting experience to say the least. No one really said anything, but the looks Willow got said enough. She didnít try and defend herself, figuring that if she were to bring it up, it would make things worse. If someone actually got the balls to ask her, then sheíd set them straight. No pun intended. Right now she was just trying to concentrate on getting things ready for Christineís visit.

She was thrilled as the singer said she planned to stay for a couple weeks. She even thought about looking into hiring security for her ranch, but then decided that was ridiculous. If that sort of thing was needed, Christine would know, and probably knew what to do about it, too.

Willow ran a hand through her hair. Part of her hated Bob Knowles for what heíd done to Christine, in so many ways. Heíd brought the hounds of the media down on her, scrapping through every aspect of the illusive singerís life, even going so far as to make something out of nothing. She shivered, thinking about that article again. She also hated him for being such a coward, and leaving that sort of self-blame and guilt on someone so sensitive as Christine.

"Selfish prick," she muttered, headed toward the locker room to get changed and go home.

Everything was perfect, clean, linens changed, perfect. Willow went to every room, touching up where there was no need to touch up.

Why was she so nervous? After being on tour with Christine for those few days, seeing how people literally threw themselves at her feet, seeing all the things Christine could afford and bought, and all that the singer was used to, Willow couldnít help but wonder if maybe her modest house was a shack comparatively. Shoot, even the suite theyíd stayed in was bigger than the entire house, just about!

Deep down, Willow didnít think Christine was that way, but the worry still lingered. The sound of the front door opening broke her from her reverie.

Brows drawn, and a slight panic in her heart, she edged into the upstairs hall, making her way toward the staircase, peeking around the wall. Partly relieved, and partly annoyed, she marched down the stairs, bare feet padding a tune of irritation.

"What the hell are you doing here? And what do you think youíre doing by just letting yourself in? Give me your key, Kevin,"

"Sure," the blonde man said, blue eyes blazing, "as soon as you explain this shit," he tossed the magazine at her, which flopped to the floor before her feet. "What is this shit, Willow? Is that why you left me? For that fucking dyke?" There was venom in his voice.

Willow glanced down at the magazine, knowing full well which one it was, though it had landed with an advertisement for Grey Goose showing. Green eyes lazily made their way back up to his, her arms crossed over her now voluptuous breasts, which made him stop for a moment, catching his eye. Quickly his anger returned, however.

"How dare you accuse me of that, Kevin, when you know damn well why this marriage failed." Willow was stunned at just how calm she felt. She was proud of herself for not blowing up, which was her usual tactic. She had been trying to work on her temper, knowing it wasnít good for her or the baby.

Kevin stared at her for a moment, at a loss for what to say. He knew she was right, but there was no way he was going to give it to her. "Is it true?" he nodded toward the rag heíd thrown on the floor, arms crossed in his own defensive posture.

"What business is it-"

"Is it true!" his face was red now, all pretense of a civil discussion gone. The vein raged in the center of his forehead, pounding in time with his heart.

"No," the blonde said simply.

"Then explain those pictures, Willow. The two of you cuddling, heads together," he was trembling now.

"Iíll answer your questions, Kevin, though the Lord knows why, but Iím going to warn you," she pointed a finger at him. "If you blow up, if you lose your temper, youíre out of here. Got it? Itís not good for me or my baby to get upset."

"It took two to create that kid," he growled.

"Really? Well, I seem to be the only one taking responsibility for her, so sheís mine. Deal. Now get the information you came here to get, Kevin, cause thatís all youíre going to get."

He took a calming breath, then started to walk past her, toward the kitchen.

"Where do you think youíre going?" she said, stunned.

"To get coffee. Itís six-thirty in the damn morning, and Iím tired," he explained, stopping to look at where her hand rested, none-to-gently, on his arm.

"No. This isnít a social call, Kevin, and I donít recall inviting you into my house. Right back to where you were, mister," she snapped her fingers, pointing back to the spot in front of the door. He looked at her for a moment, incredulous.

"Youíre kidding, right?"

"Do I look like Iím kidding?" she asked with a raised brow. Blowing out a breath, he muttered as he followed her orders.

"Feel like a goddamn child,"

"Thatís what happens when you act like one. See? Practicing on being a mother already." Willow smiled sweetly at him. He only glared.

"Are you fucking that bitch or what?" he asked, getting back to the main purpose for his visit. The other part may or may not come later, considering how his wife was acting. Hell, she wasnít even his ex yet. The divorce wasnít going to be final until December. He held his cards close to his chest, though he knew heíd better start behaving if he even planned to get to the next part, and not thrown out on his ear. Again.

"No, weíre just friends. She invited me to go on tour with her in Texas, where those shots were taken," she indicated the magazine between them. "Christineís former manager has been trying to make trouble for her, and this got the news machine purring back to life. They must have tailed us, taking any sort of shot that looked like it could be anything. Thatís it, end of story, now get out."

"Hold on a minute," he held up a hand, trying to supplicate her, his eyes softening. For just a moment, only a small moment, Willow saw the man sheíd fallen in love with so many years ago. She swallowed that moment down, bringing her current reality back into sharp focus. "Honey,"

"My name is Willow."

"Willow," he sighed sadly, "donít do this to us." He took a step toward her. She didnít step back, and he took that as a good sign. "We really loved each other once, you and me," he smiled, again, the man sheíd married shining through. "I still love you. The divorce isnít final yet, ho-, Willow," he swallowed. "We can turn back the clock, get back what we lost." He stood right in front of her now. She looked up at him, her own eyes softening. "What do you say?"

"Turn back the clock," she murmured, eyes looking up into his, searching them.

"Yes. Turn back the clock," he leaned in close, inhaling the smell he knew so well. The smell of her hair, which he was glad to see she was letting grow out. Sheíd had long hair when theyíd gotten together, and he loved running his fingers through it. "find what we used to have," he continued.

"Tell me something, Kevin," Willow asked, her voice soft, gentle. Her heart was racing.

"Anything,"

"Do you remember that night when we made love in front of the fire, down here in the living room?" her voice got even softer.

"Yeah, I do," he could almost get hard thinking about that night. He had been the one to suggest the whole fire thing, knowing how much she got into that Harlequin, romantic nonsense.

"Do you remember how hard you came?" softer yet, Kevin almost having to bend closer to hear her.

"Of course. Youíre so beautiful, Willow, so sexy, how could I not?" he brought a hand up, running the backs of his fingers down the sides of her breasts, just a ghost of a touch. "You still are. God, youíre sexy,"

"Well, if you want to turn back the clock," she said, her voice gaining strength. She caught his hand where it brushed against her, her fingers like cold steel, "then I suggest you go back in time and shoot your load in a condom, because thatís the night you got me pregnant."

He froze, blood like ice as he looked into her eyes, surprised to see the arctic coldness there. She shoved his hand away from her, turning her back on him and heading up the stairs.

"Take that filth with you," she said over her shoulder, glancing down at the magazine, still on the floor, though with a nice, big boot print on it from Kevin. "And leave your key!" she shouted, out of sight.

Kevin stood there, stunned, for a good five minutes, then finally got his bearings. Grabbing the magazine, he looked down at it, then quietly, sadly, he left the key on the balustrade, and left.

)))

Christine knocked softly, waiting for the big door to be opened. Finally, after a few agonizing moments, which she knew were on purpose, the door opened, and Sandra stood in its place. They stared at each other for a moment, then the desinger turned and walked back into her studio, leaving the door open for the singer to follow.

Sandra looked as she always did, calm, cool, impeccably dressed with her hair piled on her head just so. But knowing the woman for a eighteen years, Christine knew it was a farce.

Sandra walked over to her work table, where she had a smattering of drawings, some finished, most in parts, and picked up her pencil. Not looking at her uninvited guest, she spoke:

"What can I do for you, Christine?"

The singer looked around, enjoying the look and feel of the huge space- floor to ceiling windows, the entire room painted white, including the molding that lined the ceiling and floor. The old, hardwood floors. It almost looked more like a dancers studio in New York than a Beverly Hills clothing desinger.

"How are you doing?" Christine finally asked, settling herself on one of the few pieces of furniture. The majority of used space was taken up with material, tables for cutting, and racks upon racks of clothing in various stages of pinning or sewing. A few life-sized mannequins decorated the corners.

"Iím fine. How are you?" the desinger asked, still not bothering to look up from her sketch.

Christine sighed. Sandra was being difficult. "How was it?" This got the blondeís attention. Her sharp eyes snapped up, grabbing Christine in a brutal gaze.

"Youíd know if youíd bothered to go, now wouldnít you? You wouldnít have to rely on second-hand descriptions." Her voice was as cold as her eyes.

"I didnít feel it was appropriate for me to go."

"No?" Sandra threw her pencil down, coming around her table, long, flowing material fluttering around her thin body. "And why not?" she stopped just before the singer, glaring down at her, thin, graceful hands on hips. "He was your manager for eighteen years, Christine. He made you-"

"Stop!" Christine held up a hand, her own anger beginning to build. "Stop right there, Sandra. You and I had this very conversation not six months ago." She met the womanís steely gaze, dagger for dagger. Finally Sandraís eyes dropped, and she turned to one of the many windows.

"When did he turn into such a cowardice ass?" she said absently, watching the traffic down on Ventura Boulevard.

"He always was, Sandra. He just hit an all time low," the singer said, just as quietly, standing.

"No pun intended, Iím sure," Sandra muttered. Christine smiled, but it vanished quickly as she made her way over to the designer, leaning against the cold, painted brick wall.

"You donít need to lay any sort of guilt trip on me, Sandra. Trust me, Iím doing that enough on my own."

The designerís eyes met hers again, studying her, almost to the point of making Christine uncomfortable.

"He loved you, you know," she glanced over her shoulder, taking in the beautiful woman standing close by. Christine just looked at her, revealing nothing. Sandra turned back to the window. "Donít feel guilty, Christine. You have absolutely no reason to. Robert did this to himself. He tried to ruin you out of spite, and in so doing, he ruined himself."

"What happened?" Christine asked, her voice quiet, almost afraid to hear the answer.

"He lost every client he had. Every last one," she laughed bitterly. "They were all afraid heíd send them off to the same fate heíd created for you." She sighed heavily. "I guess he figured since heíd already committed career suicide, he might as well finish it off. Just like him," her voice cracked slightly. "If youíre going to do it, do it right and irreversible, he used to say."

"Iím so sorry, Sandra," Christine whispered, laying a gentle hand on the normally untouchable womanís shoulder. To her surprise, the designer turned and threw herself into the singerís arms. Christine held her, rubbing her back, staring out at the street below. "I didnít go," she quietly explained, "because I knew Iíd be expected to say something that I didnít mean."

Christine was shaken from her rambling thoughts by the feel of soft lips on her neck. Her heart stopped for a moment, then started back up again, double time, as those lips continued, softly, slowly, up toward her ear.

"Sandra," she half said, half moaned.

"He used to talk about you," Sandra said, bringing her tongue into play as she licked a fiery trail down the singerís throat. "when we were in bed. He used to talk about bringing you in to join us,"

Christine was torn between two worlds. Torn between what she wanted and knew was so very wrong, and what her body was pleading for. She didnít mean for her eyes to close, or for the long sigh to escape as she felt ringed fingers brush across her breast, her long-neglected nipple instantly flaring to attention.

"You are so beautiful, Christine," Sandra whispered against her skin, kissing along the chiseled jaw line, then finding Christineís mouth. She kissed her, lightly, almost chaste, whetting their appetites. "Let me do this, Christine," Sandra begged, her hand squeezing the breast, getting a feel for the size and shape. "Let me fulfill his wish-"

Christineís eyes flew open, and she shoved away from the designer, her body screaming at her, but her mind screaming at her for an entirely different reason.

"Donít," she said, stopping Sandra in her tracks, looking confused and slightly peeved. "donít use him like that, and donít use me as a replacement for Bob."

Sandra swallowed, trying to push her embarrassment and pride down. "Itís that little blonde from Texas, isnít it?" she finally managed. Her emotions and body were caught in a whirlwind, and she did not like it at all.

"Donít do that," Christine whispered, pained. "Donít bring that innocent woman into this. You know me better than that."

"Youíre right. I do." Sandra brought her hands up, touching her hair to make sure it still looked fabulous, then she straightened her dress unnecessarily. She looked as beautiful and statuesque as ever. "Iím sorry, Christine." She looked away. For the first time in a very long time, she did feel sorry. Christine Gray was one of the few people on the planet who had managed to garner her respect and true admiration. "Perhaps you should go."

"Yes, I think I should." Christine walked back over to the couch sheíd been sitting in, gathered up her coat. Hand on the knob, she stopped as Sandraís voice called out to her. She didnít look at the designer as she spoke.

"She really is lovely, Christine."

With that, Christine made her exit.

ContinuedÖ

Part 13

Willow was almost giddy as she saw the Jeep Wrangler make its way across the winter wonderland that was her ranch. She ran out onto the porch, breath instantly freezing in the cold evening, but she didnít care.

Christine waved from behind her canvas and plastic cocoon as she pulled to a stop. She barely had the door open when an excited blonde was in her arms.

"I missed you!" Willow exclaimed, nearly squeezing the breath out of the taller woman, who laughed and squeezed her back.

"I missed you, too." They pulled apart, and immediately Christineís gaze scanned down to a sweater-clad tummy. She placed a calloused hand over it, chewing on her lip as she concentrated on what she was feeling. Willow grinned.

"What are you doing, you goof?"

"Well, I figure since youíre starting to show, I want to see if the little imp is doing somersaults yet."

"Ha ha, very funny. This little imp is going to freeze to death if I donít get her into the house. Youíre welcome to stay out here if you like, Ö" Willowís voice trailed off as she turned toward the house.

"Hey! You going to help me carry in my stuff or what?"

Willow gave her a sly look over her shoulder. "Sorry. Iím already carrying a bundle," cupping her stomach to emphasize her point, she sashayed up the stairs, and into the house. Christine watched after her, mouth hanging open incredulously.

"Is she kidding?" she muttered, words freezing in the cold day.

"Of course Iím kidding, you nut!" Willow ran back down the steps, playfully slapping her friendís arm. Together they lugged in Christineís bags, all four of them, two to be wheeled up the stairs. Once settled in her room, the singer was left to unpack as Willow hurried to make some hot chocolate for the poor, frozen woman.

Christine looked around the small room, tastefully decorated in simple, yet very warm colors and themes. The four poster bed, naked oak, with what looked to be a handmade quilt covering the queen-sized surface. Pictures were scattered, looking to Christine to be mainly family. She looked at a few of them closely, recognizing a young Willow at various ages- blowing out candles; sitting atop her horse, Star; arm in arm with a man that looked to be her husband.

Funny that sheíd never really paid much attention to the pictures before. Were they there last time sheíd stayed in the room?

"Ah. I see youíve discovered my newest hobby." Willow said softly from the door, two steaming mugs in her hands. "Itís not good for me to spend too much time alone- I start getting creative." She smiled, walking into the room and handing Christine one of the mugs. "Marshmallows, just the way you like it."

"Thanks," sipping, the singer closed her eyes in pleasure at the taste of the rich chocolate. "I miss this." She raised the mug, "No need for it in California." She walked over to one of the pictures. "This is you?"

Willow nodded. "Yep. Me and my best friend from elementary school and junior high, Scarlet."

"Do you and Scarlet still talk?" Christine asked, taking in all the details of the two young girls, looking to be around eight or nine, dressed in white dresses with funny looking white, paper hats on their blonde heads. They both had their mouths open, and Scarlet was looking at the photographer.

"No. She moved away during our eighth grade year. We were in a play in that picture." Willow chuckled softly at the memory. "It was one of those ridiculous things where no one really has a role, per se. We were all supposed to be bakers. Thatís what those things are supposed to be," she tapped the glass over the funny white hats. "Bakerís hats."

"Ah. I was just going to guess that," Christine grinned, then winked at the rolling green eyes.

"Do you have any pictures of you? When you were younger?" Willow sat on the edge of the bed, hands wrapped around her mug, warming them. Christine snorted, looking at a picture of the blonde with her grandparents, during her high school graduation.

"The first picture taken of me was a mug shot when I was eleven years old," she said absently.

"Oh." Willow looked down into her chocolate, watching a marshmallow begin to melt. "Iím sorry."

"Donít be." Christine smiled, sitting next to her friend. "Iíve had enough pictures taken of me to last a life time."

"Yeah, guess you have, huh? Well," the blonde said, grinning from ear to ear. "when this baby is born, sheís going to have a camera in her face all the time. Iíll fill tons of albums with pictures of her." She stared off into space, imagining it.

"Youíre pretty sure itís a girl, arenít you?" Christine glanced down at the little protrusion in Willowís tummy, tempted to reach out and touch it again, but decided against it. Once in a day was enough.

Green eyes met hers, and Willow nodded. "Yeah. Itís funny. Itís like I just know Iíll have a daughter."

"And if it happens to be a boy?"

"Then Iíll love him just as much. Iíll just have to find a new name for him." They both laughed. "And donít ask," Willow wagged a warning finger at her friend. "I donít want to jinx it by saying her name out loud."

"Fair enough. I wonít ask."

"Come on," Willow gently slapped Christineís knee. "let me show you the other stuff Iíve done to the house."

)))

"Mm, thatís good," Christine sighed, bringing the mug back down to rest in her lap.

"Rub it in,"

"Hey, I told you to make the decaf," the singer said, glancing across the sofa to her friend, dutifully sipping her mug of decaf hot tea.

"Kevin was here," she looked at her friend, "about a week ago."

"What did he want?" She sipped the rich mocha, closing her eyes in pleasure.

Willow chuckled. "To see if I was a lesbian."

"Ah, the ĎLí word. Not just a show," Christine muttered. "I guess he saw that wonderful work of literature?"

Willow nodded, playing with her tea bag, dipping it a few times, before removing it and placing it on the saucer resting on the coffee table.

"He also tried to get me to not divorce him." The blondeís voice was bitter, making Christine sad.

"What did you say?" she asked quietly.

"In not so many words, I told him Hell would freeze over first. He made his bed; let him lie in it." Without even realizing it, she brought her hand down, resting it on her stomach, protective instincts on high alert.

"Are you okay with his visit?" Christine set her mug down, turning a bit so she could face her friend, give her full attention to her. Willow didnít say anything for a moment, the fire reflecting in her green eyes as she studied the dancing flames. Finally she looked at Christine.

"Yes and no. It hurt, but I guess in some weird way it was good to see heís okay. You know? God, does that make any sense?" she ran a hand through her hair, turning back to the fire.

"Willow, you loved him, and you guys were together for a long time. It would be crazy for anyone to expect you to just forget about all that. Loving someone becomes almost like a habit."

"It can be hard to break," Willow agreed with a nod.

"No doubt."

"Have you ever been in love?" the blonde asked after a slight pause of thought. Christine shook her head, no thought required. "Never?"

"Never." Christine sighed, thinking that perhaps this might be the perfect segue into the conversation she knew they needed to have. Sheíd been there for three days, and it hadnít come up. It was time that it did. "Willow, I really want to clear the air with something." Willow said nothing, waiting for the singer to continue. "That article in the magazine,"

Willow nodded, sipping a bit nervously from her cup. "Thereís really nothing to clear, Christine. Itís not like you did anything wrong,"

"No, I didnít. But that still affected you, no doubt, your life, friends, family."

Willow chuckled quietly, staring down into her cup. "I got a few questioning stares, to say the least."

"I bet." Christine sighed, locking her courage into place. "You asked me a question, and I didnít really answer you. Itís been bothering me." Their gazes met for a brief moment, a thread of understanding briefly shared.

Setting her tea cup and saucer onto the coffee table, Willow turned into the arm of the sofa, curling her legs under her. She looked at her friend expectantly.

Christine sighed before beginning. "You know, this world loves labels. Humans feel the need to label any and everything, I guess to relate, Iím not sure. Our culture and language is interesting that way, I suppose," she rambled absently. "Anyway," shaking her head, she focused on the topic at hand. "Since I came onto the music scene when I was fifteen, the world has wanted to put me somewhere, and I didnít really fit, you know? I wasnít exactly a pop princess, or a diva, whatever you want to say. So, when they couldnít put me in a category of music, they wanted to categorize me personally."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I had the gay community trying to tuck me under their wing as the next Melissa Etheridge, even though we emerged around the same time," she chuckled lightly. "but you also had the straight community pegging me with Sheryl Crow or Alannah Myles, or whoever else you can think of. Trust me, Iíve heard them all."

"Why do they do that?" Willow was fascinated, never even giving it a second thought, what she heard about the everyday celebrity. Not like she knew any.

"Because everyone needs to stake their claim. Like Bob, for instance. He made me, he discovered me, never mind it was my talent that got us there."

"So, everyone wants a piece of you," Willow said, a statement. Christine nodded.

"Yes. I have never been photographed with a man who couldnít be identified as belonging with someone else, or gay, or whatever. Okay, so they move on to women. Same problem, but since I have such a large lesbian following, that must be it."

"Why didnít you set the record straight, then? If youíre not gay."

Christineís lips curled into a delicious smile. "What, and ruin the mystery? This may sound cold, Willow, but mystery sells."

"I thought sex sells?"

"Oh, it does. And what better story then a singer whoís career has been built on mystery, pure sexuality, but yet remains sexless. Stumps Ďem every time, so then they canít get enough. Sadly," she sighed, grabbing her cup again, and sipping. "it backfired. Every strange woman I was seen with automatically became my newest conquest." The bitterness was unmistakable. "Including you."

"Christine?" Willow said softly, hand resting on the singerís ankle. "You still havenít answered the question."

Christine thought about what to say, how to word it as she took another sip, then held the mug between her hands, back in her lap. She stared down at the dark liquid, itís restless surface capturing the orange firelight.

"Both lesbians and straights alike gauge your sexuality by who youíre having sex with, agreed?" she glanced at her friend, who nodded.

"Yeah, for the most part, I guess."

"Sure, you have your sticklers out there who claim itís far more than that, but when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of it, itís all about whether youíre enjoying a penis or a vagina."

"Okay," dark blonde brows were knit, trying to follow where this was going. Christine looked at her, dead in the eye.

"How can I be labeled if Iím not having sex with either?" They stared at each other for a moment, Christineís blue eyes unflinching. She saw shock and uncertainty flow through Willowís.

"Wait, what?" The blonde sat forward, crossing her legs Indian style, elbows resting on her knees. "I donít understand-"

"Willow, to me, sex is a dirty word. Itís something I peddled on the street, something thatís killing my best friend." She explained, her voice soft.

"Honey, it doesnít have to be that way," Willow said, saddened the her friend, who deserved all that was good in life and love, denied herself because of a past, riddled with imperfections.

"It does for me. I know that what I did isnít all that sex is. Trust me, Iíve heard this argument before, but Iíve never, ever made love. Itís always been something naughty, up against a wall in some dark, dirty alley, or in some smelly, pay-by-the-hour motel room."

"Okay, so let me get this," Willow readjusted her body again, getting more comfortable for what she figured would be a long, in-depth conversation. "you have not had sex with anyone since your days on the streets? Youíve never made love to someone? Never been made love to?" her brows raising on that last question. Christine shook her head, eyes lowered, feeling shame flush her features.

"Since I started all this, Iíve had people throw themselves at me, you know? All wanting a piece of the pie, so to speak." She sighed heavily, then looked up at her friend with tortured eyes. "Not one of them wanted me for me." She tapped herself in the chest. "It was all about the image, and what I could do for them."

"Oh, Christine," Willow whispered, taking the singerís hand. "Iím sorry." Christine shrugged.

"You canít miss what you never had. Itís just not anything I really waste my time on. Iíve kept up my part of the bargain, once again selling myself to the masses."

"Do you really feel that way?" Willow asked, her voice hoarse, almost feeling guilty of being part of those masses. Sad blue eyes met hers, and Christine nodded.

"I didnít used to. Itís only been within the past five or so years. Iím just so tired, you know?"

"I canít stand in your shoes, but I can see the wear on you, in your eyes," she squeezed Christineís hand. "I hope this little trip here will give you a bit of peace. I mean, youíll certainly find quiet here." They both laughed. It hadnít escaped Willowís attention that Christine hadnít really answered her question, but she decided to leave it alone. For tonight.

"Well," Christine said, scooting her legs around so her socked feet hit the floor. She drained her coffee, then wiped the back of her mouth. "Iím exhausted." She leaned over and gave Willow a goodnight hug.

"Sleep well," the blonde murmured into it, then smiled up at her friend as they parted, and Christine stood.

"You, too. Iíll see you in the morning."

Willow watched as her friend grabbed her mug, and Willowís near-empty cup, padded into the kitchen, then headed up the stairs, taking the steps slowly, hand on the banister, almost like she was tugging herself up.

That night, Willow went to sleep with a smile on her face.

)))

"Connor. Stop it." Rachel gave Christine a clenched teeth smile, then whacked her boyfriend in the leg again.

"Sorry," he lowered his eyes, looking back at his hand of cards, though it took only moments for his eyes to flick back up to the woman sitting across the table from him.

For her part, the singer basically ignored his stares, but it wasnít easy. Especially when it was the manís turn to draw a card, and either Rachel or Willow had to smack him to get him back in the game.

"Uno," Christine said, wiggling the card left in her hand. The other two women growled, while the man in the bunch grinned like a fool.

"Youíre an embarrassment," Rachel whispered to him. "canít take you anywhere."

"Okay, you suck." Willow said, ignoring the other nurse. Christine stuck her tongue out at the blonde, holding her one card close to her chest, keeping it away from very curious green eyes. "Weíve got to keep her in the game, guys," she said, looking at her hand. Grinning evilly, tongue caught between her teeth, the blonde laid down their one chance of keeping Christine in the game.

"Hey!" Connor yelled, seeing the Draw Four card that had just been laid down for him.

"Sorry, buddy boy," Willow laughed. "Thatís what you get for sitting there with your tongue hanging out all night." He glared at her as he stubbornly drew his cards.

"What color, Wills? Chose wisely." Rachel warned.

"I know," the blonde chewed on her lip, glancing over at the black, white and red card that Christine had practically made part of her shirt, as though she were trying to see through it. Christine gazed back at her, brow raised in challenge. "Green. No, red. Wait, I think blue-"

"Come on, Willow. Pick one,"

"Green. Yeah. Iíll go with green."

"Should have gone with yellow," Rachel hissed. "I had a Draw Two card in yellow." She tossed down a green two. All eyes turned to the singer, who looked forlorn as she took in two pairs of expectant eyes, and a pair of puppy dog eyes that made her want to roll her eyes. She resisted, for Willowís sake. Finally she sighed.

"Yep, you should have gone with yellow." Christine gave each of them another look, then turned to Willow, mouth curving up into a lopsided smirk. Without breaking her gaze, she tossed down her card.

"Willow!" Rachel exclaimed, gawking at the red two that topped the pile of cards.

"Iím out," Christine said softly. Willow glared at her, emerald daggers. With that, Christine threw her hands up in the air, pumping a victorious fist.

"Beginnerís luck," the blonde mumbled.

"I still canít believe youíve never played Uno before." Rachel shook her head as she tossed her own hand to the table. "Connor, stop it."

"That was fun," Christine said, glasses clinking together as she gathered them up between her fingers, heading toward the kitchen.

"Yeah, it really was," Willow called back from within. She was busy unloading the last few clean dishes so the dirty ones from the evening could be stowed. "Iím really sorry about Connor. Heís usually not that obnoxious."

The brunette chuckled. "Itís okay. Iíve met his type before."

"Well, somehow I donít think heís met your type before, though." Willow took the glasses from Christine, mounting the glassware on the upper wrack of the washer.

"It happens." She took the dishrag from where it had been left to dry, straddling the two sinks, and headed back out to the dining room, wiping down the table.

"Quite the card shark, arenít you?" Willow asked, leaning against the archway between the dining room and the hall. Christine grinned.

"Like you said," she glanced up at the smaller woman. "beginnerís luck."

"Uh huh."

"Look, uh, I think Iím going to head back to L.A. this weekend," Christine twisted the rag around her hand, feeling suddenly nervous. Willow fought to keep the deep disappointment from her face, though she wasnít sure how successful she was.

"Oh. Uh, okay." She turned to the china cabinet, opening one of the glass-paneled doors, rearranging a few silver pieces, just to keep her hands occupied.

"Well, Iíve been here almost two weeks now," Christine explained softly. "Iíve run out of clothes. I only packed enough for the two weeks." She looked at her friend, saw her looking down at her hands, which was filled with a silver butter dish. Willow was softly clicking the top into the bottom, then removing it again, only to do it all over again.

"Okay. I understand." Willow glanced at her friend, smiling weakly. She was stunned at how her heart dropped at the sudden news. She felt lost already, and it was only Thursday.

"I figure I could go back, get some more clothes," Christineís voice trailed off, seeing the light return to Willowís eyes. Without a word, the blonde marched up the stairs, bursting into the room Christine was using. She looked around, seeing the black trash bag sitting in a corner, stuffed full of dirty clothes. Grabbing it, she heaved it over her shoulder, Santa Claus, as she headed down the stairs, past a stunned Christine, and down the second flight of stairs, that would take her into the dungeon.

Finally getting her bearings, Christine hurried down the stairs, boots clopping on the wood. Catching up to the crazy little blonde, she asked,

"What are you doing?"

"Iím saving you a plane ticket." Willow said, tossing her friendís clothes onto the cement floor of the washroom, separating them into piles of darks, whites, reds and delicates.

"Willow, honey, you donít have to wash my clothes," Christine tried to grab the blondeís hand, but her hand was slapped away.

"Mine."

Christine knew better than to try and change the stubborn womanís mind, so she leaned back against the ironing board, watched her work. The washing machine whooshed to life as the blonde set the dial, and then poured in Tide with bleach, and then a Downy ball.

Wiping her hands together, she turned proudly to the stunned woman.

"Okay. Iíll stay."

Willow grinned, walking past her friend, and taking her hand in passing. "Come on, mega star. You owe me a rematch of Uno."

)))

Leaves gone, winter transformation complete. The days were shorter, quieter, life, and sound muffled by the blankets of snow, while light was amplified to a blinding brilliance. The notorious Oklahoma winds blew the snow in sheets, flowing across the land in layers, almost like a sand storm across the desert.

Christine turned from the window, dashing off in a dead run when she saw Willow carrying a box from upstairs, tell tale garland hanging out the side.

"Willow!" she hollered, scaring the little blonde to death, almost making her drop the heavy box. She was saved when the singer snatched it from her arms.

"What are you doing? Are you crazy?" she tried to grab the box back, but Christine was already halfway down the stairs.

"Damn it, Willow. You know what your doctor said," the singer set the box down at the foot of the stairs. She walked back up the few stairs to the pouting blonde. "Honey, donít do anything that could hurt you or the baby," she said softly, placing a protective hand on Willowís substantial basketball.

Willow sighed, sitting on the stair she stood on. "I hate this," she mumbled, hand automatically going to support her internal bundle.

"I know. But itís temporary." Christine sat next to her. "Use me for this kind of stuff," she pointed to the box. "thatís what Iím here for." Meeting green eyes. "Okay?" Willow sighed.

"Okay. I know youíre right."

"Only two months to go. Youíre almost there."

"Mind if I hand the baton off to you, and you can finish the race for me?" Willow asked with a hopeful raised brow. Christine grinned.

"I would if I could. Now," she stood, pulling the blonde to her feet. "Tell me where you want that stuff, and then you can rifle through it while I get the rest of it."

"I guess." It was a thoughtful compromise, Willow knew, but she still hated feeling useless. Truth be told, she was so grateful that Christine had been there over the past month. Sheíd gotten bigger overnight, her belly seeming to have exploded, and she was beginning to find the simplest of things difficult and trying at best.

True to her word, within twenty minutes, all of the holiday stuff had been pulled from the attic, and both women were sorting through them, seeing what was broken, and what would be put where.

"A little to the left. No, more right. Up. No, down-"

"Woman, make up your mind!" Christine glared down at the blonde, porcelain and lace angel in hand, as she teetered over the fake tree, angel perched on the top branch.

"Iím trying to get it perfect," Willow explained, tilting her head to the side to try and get a better mental image of what she was looking for.

"Well, while youíre trying to do that, Iím going to fall on the tree and knock the entire thing down, then it wonít matter where it goes."

"Alright, fine. Put it where you had it a few moments ago."

Christine rolled her eyes, having absolutely no clue which of the dozens of positions it had been in a few moments ago. "Could you be just a smidge more specific?"

"Right," Willow reached up, on her tippy toes, nudging the singerís hand just a centimeter to the left. "there." Smiling proudly at their creation, she took a step back, looking at it. "Come down here! Youíve got to see this!"

Muttering to herself as she climbed down from the step ladder, Christine stepped back to stand just behind the blonde, looking at the finished product of an afternoonís work. Irritation immediately forgotten, she smiled.

"Wow."

"Beautiful, isnít it?" Willow agreed softly.

"Oh, wait," Christine hurried over to the tree, dropping to her knees, then to her side, and doing a warped, side Army crawl around the back of the thing, and with a grunt, plugged in the lights. She smiled at the gasp she heard from her friend, then the room went dark, the tiny bulbs encircling the tree the only light.

Scooting herself out from behind the tree as quickly, but carefully as she could, she joined her friend again.

"You want to know something?" Christine said, her voice soft, as she pulled the blonde back against her.

"Hmm?" Willow asked, folding her arms over those that encircled just above her stomach and below her breasts.

"Iíve never really enjoyed Christmas all that much," the singer said softly. "Usually the guys were off with their families and stuff, and, I donít know," she shrugged. "I always felt bad interrupting Adam and Alice."

"So what did you do?" Willow said, her voice dreamy as she studied the twinkling lights, letting them almost lull her to sleep.

"Typically just stayed home, wrote. Millie is a Jehovahís Witness, so she and her husband and sons donít celebrate it. She and I would chat, maybe bake something." She shrugged again. "Thatís about it."

"But you celebrate Christmas, right?" Willow asked, head lightly leaning back against the taller womanís shoulder.

"I suppose I do," Christine said quietly. "We used to when I was a kid, anyway," she smiled at the memory. "a really young kid. Before they got into anything really bad. Well, thatís not true. They were even before I was born. I guess I should say, before they allowed it to really fuck with, wait, sorry. Iím trying to watch my language," she cleared her throat as Willow giggled. "Before they allowed it to really mess with the family. You can take the girl out of the gutter, but you canít take the gutter out of the girl."

"Sounds like the title of a country song," Willow laughed, pulled away from the singer and planting herself firmly dead center of the couch. "Come here and keep me warm."

Not having to be asked twice, Christine sat next to her friend, wrapping her up in warm arms, and tugging the throw from the back of the couch, she tucked it in around Willowís feet, knowing how swollen and cold they got.

"Can I ask you something?" Willow asked after awhile.

"Of course."

"Are you bored here?"

It took a moment for the wordsí meaning to sink in, then dark brows drew. "Wait, what?"

"Well, itís not Los Angeles or New York. We donít have the bright lights and big city to keep you occupied. You know?" she glanced up at the singer, noting how the brilliance of the Christmas tree lights reflected beautifully in her already beautiful eyes.

Christine smiled down at the blonde, shaking her head. "How can you possibly get bored on such a huge piece of land that requires so much work? And your horse!" she rolled her eyes. "My god, and I thought children were demanding." She winked at Willowís laugh.

"Iím being serious, you goof."

All humor gone, Christine hugged her close. "So am I," she said softly into the blonde hair. "No, Iím not bored. I love it here. It gives me such peace, itís amazing. Really an amazing place. I can understand why you came here as a child. It must have provided some pretty cool places for an active, precocious child, that you no doubt were, to hide and play."

"Hmm," Willow smiled, feeling so safe and content. "My divorce is final tomorrow," she said so softly that Christine almost didnít hear it.

"Are you okay with that?" she asked, suddenly feeling a cold hand finger walk its way up her spine.

"Yes. Very." Willow sighed deeply. "Itíll finally be over, all over, and I can move on."

"Do you think heíll try and fight you for custody?" Christine had to smile to herself, as her hand had absently wandered to cover Willowís extended belly. She felt so protective of what lay beneath. The warmth that met her hand filled her heart.

"I donít know."

"Guess weíll just have to cross that bridge when we get to it, huh?" Christine said softly, feeling Willowís nod. She stopped cold, realizing what sheíd said. Feeling the fool, she squeezed her eyes shut, but said nothing. Fixing it would only bring light to her mistake, as Willow didnít seem to notice. How dare she add herself to an equation that was a simple one plus one equals two- Willow and Kevin.

"Christine?"

"Yeah?"

"I have to start Lamaze soon." She pulled away, though it took a bit of effort, her belly not allowing her to move near as smoothly as she once did. After the grunting, she turned and looked up at her friend. "Would you be my coach?"

"Iíd love to." Christineís suddenly dark world was filled with light again. God, Kevin was a fool.

)))

"What? Would you stop? Youíre making me self-conscious." Christine growled, flipping the turn signal to turn on to Brandy, which would lead to the clinic.

"Iím sorry, I just canít get over how different you look. Itís mind blowing."

"Yeah, but will it be convincing?" the singer looked over at her companion, wiggling her brows.

"Okay, mommies and coaches, find yourselves a comfortable spot, and lets get to work," Heather Yaklich called out, clapping her hands. As her class murmured amongst themselves, she turned to the few late arrivals, getting them signed in, and the appropriate brochures and paperwork to take home.

Two lovely blonde women entered, the shorter blonde obviously the reason for them to be here, and her taller blonde partner, with large, lovely brown eyes, the womanís partner.

"Hi. Willow Bowman and Casey," Willow smiled at the instructor.

"Nice to meet you both." Heather shook both their hands, and had Casey sign them in. "Okay, ladies, if youíd like to find yourself a spot, weíll get started."

"Youíll do fine," Willow whispered, sensing Christineís nervousness.

"I hope so," the singer whispered back.

"Now, mommies, soon you will be responsible for taking care of your little one, guiding him or her, and nurturing that child to grow into the good, helpful, productive adult you are." Heather smiled at her class, looking at each couple individually. She didnít miss the green coloring to Willow Bowmanís face. Must be her first.

)))

Blinking several times, Christine looked at her red-rimmed eyes in the mirror, bringing her hands up to rub them with her fingers. Blinking several times again, she grabbed the bottle of Visine, dropping about a dozen cold little droplets in her hair before she finally made it into her eyes.

What she couldnít figure out was how people wore those evil things day in and day out. On purpose!

Snapping the contact case shut, she turned off the bathroom light, running her fingers over the blonde wig that was mounted on its Styrofoam head, as she passed. Thank god for having connections. She was able to get her disguise FedExíd overnight. No shrieks of surprise or delight had met them, no murmurs of recognition. Christine figures it must have been a success.

Besides, whoíd be expecting to see Christine Gray in Oklahoma, and in a Lamaze class?

About to turn down the hall toward the stairs, she stopped, hand still on the doorframe of her own room. She stopped, listening.

Long legs eating up the distance quickly, Christine found herself pushing past Willowís partially closed bedroom door, and at the side of her bed.

Willow was laying on her side, curled up as small as was possible, the beach ball under her shirt stopping the full effect. Her face was buried in the pillow, hands tucked under her chin, and she was crying.

In the five weeks Christine had been there, sheíd seen the crying fits often, but it was usually like a childís cry- you could always tell what it was, simple or complex, hormones or something real. This was one of those real times.

"Hey, you," Christine said, her voice as soft as her touch, as she slipped onto the bed, curling her body around the smaller womanís. Willow didnít respond, just cried harder.

Deciding to let the blonde get the brunt of it out, she held her, one arm tucked up under her pillow, hand peeking out beneath Willowís, and taking one of the blondeís in her own. Her other hand snaked around to wrap around, pulling Willow back into her, her arm resting between Willowís breasts and the baby bump.

Willow allowed the body heat behind her to consume her, filling her with peace. The tears began to subside, small sniffles taking their place.

"Why are you crying, Willow?" Christine whispered in the blondeís ear, once she knew her friend was somewhat under control again.

"Itís stupid," Willow sniffled.

"I doubt that. Try me."

"Itís what that woman, Heather, said tonight. About us having to raise these babies, taking all that responsibility on our own heads. God, Christine, how am I going to do this?" her eyes began to leak again, and she angrily swiped at them. "I donít think I can do it on my own."

"Youíre not on your own, honey," Christine tried to reason with her. "Youíve got so many people here who love you, and who want to help you. Just last week Rachel told you she was more than willing to kidnap the baby for a few days at a time to give you a break." She squeezed the blonde playfully. "Her only ransom request was that you make your double chocolate fudge brownies."

Willow smiled through her tears, but it was short lived. "I guess once I decided I wanted to have kids, I had this picture in my head, a home, parents, dog, all of it. I wanted to be able to give my child everything my parents didnít, wouldnít, or couldnít give to me. I blew it," she began to cry again.

"Oh, honey. No you didnít,"

"Iím alone! A pregnant divorced woman!"

"Oh, sweetie," they rode out a fresh wave of grief and fear, Christine holding her, whispering words of encouragement and comfort into her ear, wishing so bad that she could just climb inside the smaller woman, take her pain.

After awhile, the sobs quieted again, and Christine decided to try a new tactic.

"You know, honey, there are all sorts of families out there. Sometimes when your blood turns their back on you, you have to make a new one. Youíve got that. No one is going to let you do this alone, and Willow, everything is temporary in life. You remember that. It wonít be like this forever, I promise you that. Youíre a young, gorgeous woman with so much to offer. I know for fact that someone is going to come down and swipe you up,"

Sniffle, sniffle. "Do you really believe that?"

"With everything in me. And Willow, youíre going to give this baby what your mother couldnít give you, and that was unconditional love and support. Your mother is a selfish woman who concentrated on herself and her own needs. You wonít do that."

"How do you know? Maybe Iíll turn out the exact same way," Willow glanced at Christine over her shoulder, eyes wide with hope. The singer smiled at her, gently running a fingertip down Willowís cheek.

"Because itís not in you. You donít know what it means to be selfish like that. You give everything youíve got to whatever you do."

They shared a moment, each searching the other for answers. Finally Willow smiled, laying her head back on the pillow, and scooting her body further back into Christineís.

"Youíre not alone," Christine whispered again. "You have me, too."

"Thank you," Willow whispered back. "Youíre the best friend Iíve ever had."

"Come on. Letís go make some of those double chocolate fudge brownies, huh?"

Sniffle. "Okay."

Christine kissed the side of the blondeís head, then pulled herself up off the bed, running her hands through her hair. She was surprised when she heard another sob coming from Willow. Turning back to the bed, she leaned over the blonde.

"Honey, what is it?" panicked, she was about to slid in behind her again.

"I canít get up," Willow whined.

ContinuedÖ

Part 14

"Just how much a beached whale do they think I am?" Willow cursed, plastic Hefty bag in hand. "Oh, I need to sit down." She lowered herself to the couch, feeling like an eighty year old man. "I mean, she used half the darn roll of toilet paper!" she continued her tirade, the three remaining women hiding their smiles.

"Whale or wale?" Rachel muttered.

"I heard that!" Willow yelled to her friend, who was throwing away the paper plates and cups from the party.

"Alright, alright, no picking on the pregnant woman," Christine said, all the while grinning at the redhead and nodding.

"What am I going to do with all this stuff?" Willow sighed, looking around at the piles of boxes and bundles, all wrapped in pink and blue.

"Thank your lucky stars, my love," Myra said, sitting next to her granddaughter, patting her thigh. "When I had your father, they didnít have all this fancy schmancy stuff," she waved her hand at the room. "Youíre going to do just fine, my love."

"Thanks, grandma. And thanks for coming." She leaned her head against the older womanís shoulder, so happy to see her.

"Oh, honey, this is my very first great-grand child," Myra said softly, running arthritic fingers through the thick, blonde hair that she used to love to comb for a young Willow, so many years ago. Long ago, when the girl had her hair down to her waist, she used to call it spun gold, which it was. It nearly broke her heart when all that gold was cut off in favor of the new, shorter styles of today. What were these young women thinking, making themselves look like boys?

"So, what do you think?" Rachel whispered, pouring soup into the little dish in the dish washer. Slamming the door shut, she turned the dial to the correct setting, and sent the machine whirring to life.

"I think now is a good time," Christine whispered back, tying the black Hefty back shut, and setting it by the kitchen door to be taken out later. The redhead grinned, matching Christineís own mischievous look.

"Iím so excited!" the nurse hissed, rubbing her hands together. Giggling like school girls, they headed into the other room.

Clearing her throat, Christine spoke. "Willow, the three of us would like to give you our gifts, now," she indicated Rachel, Myra and herself. Willow lifted her head from her grandmotherís shoulder, looking confused.

"But you guys already gave me a gift,"

"Purely a smoke screen, my love," Myra said, continuing the secret smiles and winks of the other two.

"Oh, okay," she was wary, but stood, with Rachelís help.

The four of them made a slow trek up the stairs, Rachel helping Willow and Christine holding Myra by the elbow

"Iím so grateful my granddaughter has you to help her," Myra said softly, tucking her arm into Christineís.

"Thank you, Mrs. Wahl," the singer said, a soft smile gracing her features.

"Oh, nonsense! Youíre family. You call me grandma, or you donít expect me to answer, you understand?" Blue eyes bore into Christineís, and in that moment, the younger woman knew just exactly where Willow had gotten her spunk. She nodded.

"You got it, grandma."

"Good girl,"

Though on the outside Christine was the picture of calm, but inside she was bouncing with delight, like a child on Christmas morning. She had never uttered the title, let alone bestow it upon someone. The warmth that spread through her made her limbs tingle. That tingle spread to her heart when she saw Willow smile back at her from two steps above. The little blonde had obviously heard, and approved. Christine smiled back.

"You know," Rachel said, once weíd stopped before the closed third bedroom door upstairs. "thank god youíve been too exhausted to get nosey," she smiled at her friend, squeezing her hand as she turned the knob, slowly pushing the door open.

Willowís retort was cut off as the smell of fresh paint and stained wood met her nose. Turning to the three grinning women around her, she pushed through the door, gasping, hands flying to her mouth.

"I hope you still wanted Care Bears," Christine said softly, placing a gentle hand on the blondeís shoulder. Her fingers were quickly grasped in a tight grip, bringing the singerís arm further down, and finally wrapped around the blonde, her own little nook, between her breasts and the baby bump.

"Oh, Christine," Willow whispered, "itís beautiful." She took in the painted walls, little Care Bears bouncing all over the place, on clouds, sliding down rainbows, and dancing on green grass. Misted green eyes took in the white crib set up in the corner, next to a matching changing table. Nestled in the other corner was a large, padded rocking chair, a spit up towel already hung over the tall back. A tall dresser stood next to the closet, knobs painted a different color of the rainbow, matching the long dresser across the room.

"I figure as the baby gets older, those can be stained or painted to whatever color she wants," Christine explained.

A small sob escaped Willowís throat, and she turned into the taller woman, burying her face in her neck. Wrapping her up in her arms, Christine rested her cheek against the top of the blonde head.

Rachel stood near the door, shoulder resting against the Care Bear light switch, and watched to two. Her face showed a mixture of reactions. A small part of her was jealous, as she had been the one Willow was close to, and would hug. But somehow that jealousy was canceled out as she had the gut feeling that their bond went far beyond any Willow had shared with the redhead. She couldnít quite put her finger on it, but it was heartwarming to see that Willow had such a strong pillar to lean against.

"How did you do all this?" Willow asked, swiping at her tears, looking around again.

"It wasnít just me. We all have been working on it for awhile," Christine explained. "Itís a good thing you donít like to go down into the basement," she grinned. The blonde laughed, squeezing the singerís arm.

Pulling slightly away from Christine, Willow turned to Rachel and her grandmother. "Thank you guys so much. Itís so beautiful," overcome by fresh tears, the blonde found herself the center of a group hug.

)))

"Concentrate on Mickey, honey, breathe with me," Christine said softly, holding Willowís hand. Green eyes squeezed tightly shut, then opened, focusing on the figurine that stood on the tray over Willowís bed.

"Sing," she panted, "sing to me,"

Christine was surprised at the request, but happily complied, her mind spinning for a moment as she tried to think. Nothing came to mind, so she began to hum, her voice soft and soothing, visibly calming the blonde.

Willow cried out as her insides were twisted once again, another contraction seizing her, leaving her breathless. Christine checked her watch- four minutes apart. She stopped humming, softly encouraging her friend to breathe through the pain, to stay focused.

 

Rachel ran up the stairs, not even bothering with the elevator, heaving in exertion and excitement. Bursting through the stairwell door to the fifth floor, she looked around, seeing Cameron Dawes, a day nurse she used to work with before she moved to maternity.

"Cameron," she exclaimed, startling the poor woman. She hurried over to her, out of breath. "Whatís Willowís status?"

The darker womanís eyes immediately lit up, excitement flushing her cheeks. "Sheís just been wheeled in. Sheís dilated to eight and a half, so sheís just about ready." Her grin was contagious, Rachel taking the womanís hands, both giggling like little girls for their co-worker and good friend.

"God, I canít wait to see the baby," Rachel exclaimed.

"I know." She sobered. "Howís security?"

"Itís pretty tight. Nobodyís getting into this ward without us knowing about it," Cameron said proudly, personally taking it upon herself to make sure everything was in place. Rachel looked around the ward, seeing uniformed officers everywhere, doing their best to keep the press out. "How the hell did that little fireball get a famous singer as her Lamaze coach?"

Rachel chuckled, patting the darker womanís arm. "Itís a long story."

"Hmm. Do you see her often? I mean, is she all snobby and high and mighty?"

"No, not at all." Rachel and Cameron moved around to the nurseís lounge, grabbing a cup of coffee. "They come over all the time. Sheís a really great person, and a wonderful friend to Willow."

Cameron shook her head, stirring in some creamer. "Crazy, and right here in Oklahoma City."

"I know. Itís a crazy world," Rachel grinned, squeezing the womanís arm again, then heading toward the unitís waiting room, to wait with Myra and Willowís mother.

 

Willowís head slammed back against the gurney, eyes closing, face pale and clammy. She felt light headed after that last push.

"Youíre almost there, baby," Christine whispered, smoothing back the hair that was sweat-soaked, and sticking to the blondeís face.

"I canít," Willow panted, "I canít,"

"Yes you can." Christine leaned over, laying a soft kiss on her forehead. "One more, Willow. One more,"

"Come on, Willow, give us one more good push," the doctor said from between the blondeís legs. "The head has crested, so just one more good one, and I can do the rest," she encouraged.

"You can do this, Willow. I have faith in you. Come on, baby,"

The blonde opened her eyes, looking into the blue ones, so close to her own, the blue almost matching the scrubs that Christine wore. Looking into those eyes, focusing on their color and brilliance, focusing on how calm they made her, she was able to block out the pain. She could do it. Sheíd do it for Christine.

Scrunching her entire face, eyes squeezing shut again, she used every last little bit of energy she had, yelling out as she pushed, teeth bared, mouth slowly opening into a scream as she felt a sudden release, a numbing pain, followed by the screech of a very unhappy baby.

Her scream turned into a laugh of relief, feeling Christineís tears on her face as her head was cradled close.

"You did it! Oh, baby, oh, Willow, you did it!" was breathed into her ear.

"You have a healthy baby girl!" the doctor proclaimed, holding out a very long, skinny pair of scissors. "Christine, would you like the honors?" she asked, eyes smiling behind her mask.

A wave of pride swept through the singer as she took the tool in trembling hands, having to be guided to the chord by the doctor a couple times.

"Itís okay," the doctor murmured. "you wonít hurt her,"

A simple snip, and the chord was cut. Christine quickly handed the scissors back to the doc, then turned her attention back to Willow, who was half unconscious, pure exhaustion winning over her need to see her daughter.

"Christine," the nurse said softly, walking over to the singer, a newly cleaned and swathed baby in her arms.

"Oh," she breathed, looking down into the tiny, wrinkled face that looked back up at her, as the newborn was placed in her arms. "My god," she breathed, unable to keep the smile from her face, "sheís so tiny," looking up to meet the nurseís understanding brown eyes, she looked back into the babyís face, squinty blue eyes blinking rapidly, face beginning to contort as short bursts of upset erupted from the tiniest mouth Christine had ever seen.

The nurse smiled, never tiring of seeing a parent fall in love with their child for the first time. This was no different.

"Oh, listen to you," the brunette cooed, suddenly forgetting anyone else in the entire world existed, save for the itty bitty life she held in her arms. "You are beautiful, just like your mommy, yes," tiny arms waved uselessly, trapped in the blanket. The little bursts stopped for a moment, as if the baby were uncertain of what she was supposed to do. Eyes opened again, big for just a moment, then squinting again as a full out cry escaped.

Christine moved over to Willow, her heart feeling as though it would burst, love oozing from every pore she possessed.

"Thank you, Willow," she whispered to the sleeping woman. "Thank you for sharing this with me."

)))

"Itís a girl!" Christine exclaimed, exploding into the waiting room, still in her scrubs. A dozen faces turned to her, but only a handful stood, three stood and hurried over to her. She found herself wrapped up in a sea of questions and emotional hugs. She answered the questions as best she could- seven pounds, fourteen ounces, twenty inches; blue; dark; fine, but asleep; no, I didnít faint.

Christine felt exhausted, as sheíd been up with Willow during her entire thirty-seven hour labor, and she was drained. Sitting in a chair next to Willowís bed, the noise of excitement all around her faded, blissful darkness easing in around the edges of her consciousness, head lulling back against the wall, arms dangling over those of the chair, lids getting heavier and heavier, closing.

Everyone finally cleared out, and Willow, braced against pillows, held her daughter to her breast, listening to the quiet suckling sounds. Head turning, she spied Christine, whoíd been out for well over an hour, and a soft smile brushed her lips.

Giving birth had certainly been a trying experience, and there was some of it she couldnít recall, but she remembered the singer there with her, never leaving her side, even leaving the bathroom door open in Willowís room, to make sure she could hear if the blonde needed anything while she was in labor.

Her heart, already so filled with love for the bundle she held, but somehow those walls expanded to the breaking point as she felt a strong love for Christine join that for her daughter. She couldnít help but think of how incomplete the day would have been without her.

She remembered the look in Christineís eyes as she encouraged her in the delivery room, the way sheíd kissed her forehead, and had done her best to keep Willowís hair and sweat out of her eyes during the difficult delivery.

How was she going to be able to handle it when one day Christine decided to leave, to return to her life? The blonde knew it was a matter of time, seeing Christine standing before the piano more than once, fingers absently hitting a key or two, caressing the ivory, a look so wistful crossing her beautiful face that it broke Willowís heart.

There was no way she could compete with that.

As she watched, blue eyes slowly blinking open, Christine groaning as she unfolded her long body from the uncomfortable chair. She looked around, getting her bearings. When she saw the two in the hospital bed, an instant smile spread across her lips.

"Hey," she said, her voice rough from sleep.

"Hi," Willow said, her own smile in place. She felt so bad as she saw how red Christineís eyes were, knowing that the woman had to be utterly exhausted.

"Where is everyone?" she stood, stretching with a groan, arms raised over her head before she walked over to the bed.

"They all went home. Itís late."

Looking down at the two, Christine reached her hand out, gently brushing a few brown strands that were littered across the babyís tiny head. "I canít believe how little she is," she whispered in awe.

"I know," Willow looked down at her daughter, absently reaching for Christineís hand. She winced slightly as she scooted her body over, making room for the singer to climb up onto the narrow bed beside her. "Come join us," she whispered, never taking her eyes off the baby, who had fallen asleep against her motherís breast.

Carefully climbing onto the bed, Christine stretched her legs out, wrapping an arm around Willow and the baby, watching her sleep.

"Iíd like you to meet Emma Christine Bowman," Willow said softly, meeting her friendís eyes. Christine felt the sting of emotion behind her eyes, and blinked it away. "Donít look so surprised," Willow smiled. "Without you, very little of this would have been possible today,"

"Well," she said through her amazement, "I think Kevin deserves that credit more than I do,"

Willow chuckled softly, leaning forward and resting her lips softly to Christineís cheek. Heads together, the women eventually fell asleep.

)))

A month quickly bled into two, life filled with the blind leading the blind, trying to raise a newborn baby.

Christine had no idea something so little could be so smelly. Holding her breath as she dumped yet another tiny diaper into the Diaper Genie, she headed back upstairs, Willow still calling for her to bring the new tube of Desitin from the diaper bag.

"Coming," she called up, taking the stairs two at a time, finally slapping the tube into the waiting motherís hand.

"Howís my messy girl?" Christine cooed, making a gaggle of crazy faces at Emma, the little oneís eyes, which had steadily started to turn green, shone, and the little dimples appeared that made the brunetteís heart melt. "Willow, itís official," Christine said, looking at the blonde seriously.

"Whatís that?" Willow asked, handing her a fresh diaper to put on Emma.

"Iíve lost my heart to a female."

"Oh you have, have you?"

"Yes." She looked down at the baby, waggling her tongue at her as she crossed her eyes.

"Hmm. Well, itís about time you made a decision between the sexes."

"I agree. Guess you can call me a baby dyke," Christine burst into laughter, Willow looking at her like she was nuts. "I thought it was funny," she muttered to Emma, who blew raspberries in response.

Willow put all of Emmaís diaper stuff back on the shelf above the changing table, chuckling to herself. She loved to watch Christine with the baby. She tried to imagine how it would be as Emma got older; sheíd have two kids on her hands.

The phone rang, and she walked across the hall to her bedroom, grabbing the cordless off its base.

"Christine?"

"Yeah?" the singer asked, tucking Emma into the bend of her arm.

"Phone, hon," Willow exchanged the baby for the phone. "Iíll give her back when youíre done," the blonde said to the protesting brunette. Christine growled, but headed out into the hall as she put the phone to her ear, steps creaking under her booted steps.

Willow hummed softly, gently dancing with little Emma. The baby had been fed and changed, and her eyes were getting heavier and heavier. Her voice got softer, lulling her to sleep. When finally Emma let out a final, and adorable, little sigh, the blonde placed her in her crib, making sure she was safe and warm. Kissing her softly on her head, Willow left the room, closing the door to a crack.

She jumped, heart pounding, when she heard a loud bang, then another, another, a crack, then more pounding.

Racing down the stairs, she ran to the kitchen where she saw pieces of something flying, then realized it was the phone, Christine pounding it against the counter in a frenzy, leaving it obliterated.

"Christine!" she called out, trying to get the ferocious woman under control. She stepped toward the singer, reaching a tentative hand out to touch her arm, only to have Christine jump away from her, eyes ablaze.

Dropping what was left of the cordless onto the counter, Christine turned away, hiding her face.

"Sorry about the phone," she whispered, voice thick. Willow reached out toward her again. "Donít touch me," Christine sobbed, hurrying out of the room, the front door slamming behind her.

Willow was left standing there, shaken to her core. Her frayed nerves started again when she realized Emma was crying upstairs.

Taking several deep, shaky breaths, she ran a trembling hand through her hair and hurried back to her daughterís room, almost glad for the distraction of having to calm Emma.

 

Christine pushed her way out into the late April afternoon, a sob caught in her throat. She tried to swallow it down, but it wasnít going anywhere. All she could hope for was to get far enough away, away from the house, from Willow and Emma, away.

Hands bunched into fists, her vision was beginning to blur, images and colors bleeding together, causing her to stumble over the new growth that was spreading across the flat land like wildfire. Catching her balance, she hurried on, only to stumble again, but this time she fell to one knee.

Doctor Weitz, calling on behalf of Alice Ö

She let her other knee fall, hands touching the earth, fingers digging into the soft soil.

Ö emergency appendectomy Ö complications Ö

Droplets fell, making little round spots of mud, more, little spots joining, making bigger ones.

Ö infection Ö immune system too weak Ö

Christine threw herself back to her haunches, eyes squeezed shut, mouth falling open as a scream ripped from her throat.

Ö so sorry Ö

"No!"

 

Willow started, holding Emma close, eyes wide and frightened. "Itís okay, my love," she whispered into the babyís ear. "Itís okay,"

)))

Willow glanced over her reading glasses, hearing soft footsteps in the hall. She put her novel down, listened. Emmaís door creaked open slightly, more soft footsteps, whispered words, then the door creaked again. The footsteps stopped in front of Willowís door, the floor creaking under the weight, then the footsteps moved on, down the hall, where a door clicked softly into place.

Pushing the covers aside, Willow got out of bed, putting both the novel and her reading glasses on the bedside table, and hurried to the door. She flicked her light off before opening it, then tip toed out into the hall, listening again.

There was a light under Christineís door, but as she watched, the crack under the door became dark.

Chewing on her lip, the blonde tried to decide what to do. Remembering the look of absolute anguish that had taken over Christineís features earlier that day, she decided to check on her.

Standing in front of her door, she paused again, then finally raised her hand, knocking softly. She barely heard the invitation, slowly pushing the door open. The room was dark, Christine stood at the window, her form a silhouette against the moon lit night beyond.

Willow stepped inside, closing the door behind her so as not to wake Emma. She said nothing as she made her away across the room, stepping up beside her friend.

"Iím sorry," Christine whispered, eyes staring out, unblinking. Willow took in her profile, her finger reaching out to catch the glistening tear that slowly rolled down her cheek.

"Oh, honey," she said, "whatís going on?" Her heart broke as another tear made a lazy trail after the first, followed by another.

Christine turned, face crumpling as she grabbed Willow, releasing a soft sob into the blondeís hair. Willow held her tight, eyes squeezed tightly shut as she felt the pain and sorrow radiating off the taller woman.

"Just hold me, Willow. Please, just hold me."

"Of course. Anything." Willowís hand reached up, fingers petting the thick dark hair, pulling Christine even closer, trying to give her every bit of strength and comfort she had.

"Willow?" Christine said, her voice thick, raising her head from the blondeís shoulder. Willow said nothing, just looked up into that tortured face, bringing a hand up, brushing the continuous stream of tears away with her thumb. "Stay with me tonight? Please, please, be with me tonight?" her whisper almost filled with panic.

"Anything you need," Willow whispered back, her last word almost cut off by Christineís lips on her own. Her eyes popped open, stunned, feeling the persistence of the kiss, still feeling the wetness of Christineís tears against her own skin. She found her eyes fluttering closed, a tentative hand resting on the brunetteís shoulder, Christineís arms wrapping around her, pulling her closer.

All thought was gone, only bare, naked need, as Christineís kiss became insistent, her breathing quickening with her heartbeat. Moving on bare instinct, she walked Willow backward until the blonde hit the bed, falling back onto it, the singer falling with her, on top of her.

Willowís mind was blown wide open, all thoughts flying out. She kissed Christine back, her hands in the thick dark hair, pulling the brunetteís mouth further into hers, hearing Christineís desperate whimpers as their lips opened, the kiss deepening as Willow brought Christineís tongue into her mouth, her body relaxing under the comforting weight of Christineís body.

"Donít leave me," Christine begged, finding Willowís neck, licking and nipping, her hand moving up under Willowís t-shirt, fingers brushing against a bare breast, Willow gasping at the contact. "Stay with me,"

"Yes, Christine, yes," Willow whimpered, her hands reaching down Christineís back, finding the hem of her shirt, tugging at it, feeling her frustration grow until Christine sat up on her knees for a split second, just long enough to whip the shirt off, and throw it into the darkness, falling back to find Willowís mouth again. Her hands desperately tried to remove Willowís own shirt, tugging it over the blondeís head, her hands immediately going to her breasts, filling her hands with them, hearing Willowís hiss as the blondeís nipples became rigid, tickling Christineís palms.

Willow arched her back, mind exploding once again at the incredible sensations racing through her body. Not enough. Reaching down, she tore at Christineís jeans, the button flyís giving way, shoving them as far down the brunetteís hips as she could reach. Again, Christine was off her, this time standing, throwing her clothes off, a boot hitting the wall. She grabbed the ends of Willowís shorts, roughly tugging. Willow barely had a chance to lift her hips as the material almost ripped off her. She shoved her own panties down, kicking them off, then grabbing Christine around the back of her neck, cruelly tugging her back onto the bed, back onto her.

Christine didnít feel any pain, just need. She ravaged Willowís mouth, right hand sliding down the blondeís body until she found the wet warmth between her thighs. She entered her, two fingers sliding right in, Willow gasping and crying out, legs parting.

"I need you," Christine moaned, her mouth everywhere, kissing, licking, sucking. Willow couldnít keep up, having no idea where the brunette was going next. She decided just to go with it, her hips bucking in time with Christineís thrusts, her body on fire, and climax not far away.

Grabbing Christineís arm with claw-like fingers, Willow bit her lip, trying not to scream, as she so badly wanted to do. Christine realized what was happening, and quickly found the blondeís mouth, intercepting her cry.

Fingers still inside Willow, they lay there, panting into each others mouth, bodies covered with sweat and desire.

Willow shuddered as Christine slowly, carefully, removed her fingers, bringing her arms up, wrapping the blonde in a cocoon of warmth, holding her close, burying her face in Willowís hair.

After a few moments, their bodies cooling, a chill settled over both, Christine helping Willow to climb beneath the covers, then pulled her near, not daring to let go.

Willow laid there, shutting her mind off, raising herself when she felt Christineís body shaking anew with silent tears.

"Let me hold you, baby," she whispered, pulling the taller woman to her, Christine resting her head on Willowís chest, wetting the skin with her profound sorrow. Willow still had no idea what had happened, but figured it would come in time.

)))

The morning sun was harsh. Willow tried to squint against it, but it awoke her, and there was no going back to sleep.

Slowly opening her eyes, she blinked a few times, looking around, seeing Christineís room. The night came back to her, and she realized she was alone in the bed, but not in the room.

Christine sat in the chair in the corner, fully dressed, Emma asleep in her arms. Blue eyes were heavy, lids at half mast.

"Hi," Willow said softly, bringing the sheet up to cover her naked breasts.

"Hey." Christineís eyes opened a bit more, her hand absently caressing Emmaís tiny arm.

"How is she?"

"Good. Sheís changed and fed. Happy."

"Guess that breast pump came in handy, huh?" Willow said, feeling self-conscious in the light of day. Her eyes scanned the room, trying discreetly look her clothes. She blushed when she saw they were folded neatly, and placed at the end of the bed. Reaching for them, she put her shirt on, then leaned back against the pillows. She was at a loss for words, not sure what to say to Christine when she had no idea what to say to herself.

"Iím going to have to go to New York for a few days, take care of some things," Christine said softly, breaking through Willowís muddled thoughts.

"New York?" Willowís brow drew.

"Alice is a mess, and she needs me right now." Christine looked down at the baby, leaning down to lay a gentle kiss on the top of her head.

Willowís mind somersaulted over the information- New York, Alice, she gasped, hand going to her mouth. "Adam,"

Christineís eyes closed as she pressed her forehead to her tiny bundle. "Gonna miss you, little one," she whispered.

"Oh, Christine," understanding flooded Willow, her eyes filling for her friendís deep loss. Throwing the blankets off her, she blushed deeply again, realizing she was naked there, too. Tugging her shorts on, her feet hit the floor with a thud, and she hurried over to Christineís chair. Falling to her knees beside it, she caught the sad blue eyes.

"I donít know what to say," she said lamely. Christine smiled, weak and heavy.

"Thereís nothing left to say."

"Iím sorry,"

"Me, too."

"When are you leaving?"

"I have a flight this afternoon."

"How long will you be gone?" Willow turned her attention to her daughter. Looking into Christineís eyes was breaking her heart all over again.

"A few days. Maybe a week."

Willow took in the information, her voice small when she spoke next. "Do you want me to come with you?" she met the blue eyes sheíd grown to adore. It hurt to see them so far away. Christine shook her head.

"No. It would be too difficult to travel with Emma," again she looked down at the baby, brushing the silky soft hair atop the babyís head.

"Okay," she was silent, chewing on her lip, a question bouncing around in her head, refusing to go away. Without looking at the other woman, her voice small, "Are you coming back?" Christineís silence made her look up, immediately caught in an intense gaze.

"Do you want me to come back?" Christine asked, voice hard.

"Yes," Willow whispered.

)))

"Please be safe," Willow murmured into Christineís ear as she hugged her tight, eyes squeezed shut. She wouldnít allow her mind to think about how that body felt against hers the night before, naked, needing. She had plenty of time to think over the next few days.

Christine held her, laying a kiss on the blonde head. "I will," she promised. Pulling gently away, she looked into concerned green eyes, giving Willow the most reassuring smile she could, though she didnít feel it. She didnít feel anything. Numb. That was the only way she could describe it. "See you soon."

With that, Christine climbed into her Jeep, and turned the engine. A final wave, she pulled out of the yard in a cloud of dust.

Willow watched, her heart in her throat. Finally, just the echo of the Jeepís engine in the still day, she closed the front door, leaning against it. She had a feeling of dread pulsing through her, and she hated it.

She walked through the rest of that day in a daze, doing what needed to be done around the house, only really coming alive when she had to attend to Emma, who was cranky. It was almost like she could sense something was amiss. Willow wished so badly that Christine were there to sing the baby into calm.

Later that night, Emma fed and changed, and asleep, Willow sat in the huge, Roman tub in the main bathroom upstairs. Body reclined, eyes barely open, she stared up into the ceiling, the steam making her feel as though she were looking through gauze.

A bit of a dance was happening in her mind- memories from the night before, a look on Christineís face, the feel of her hand, her mouth, would enter into Willowís mind, and sheíd push it away, only for another memory to take its place.

What had happened? What force had taken them both over? Willow never would have done something like that on her own, and she trusted that Christine wouldnít, either. Christine had needed her, that much was clear. Why had Willow willingly given all she had to give?

True, sheíd do anything for the singer, give her anything she asked for. But not that.

"God, what did I do?" she asked the empty room, burying her face in her hands. Part of her wished she and Christine had talked about it, had cleared the air. How did Christine feel about it?

Willow knew it wasnít a gay/straight issue, nor did she see it as one. Never did. But why had she let the situation cross the boundaries of friendship, regardless of how close and deep that friendship was. What had possessed Willow to let it happen?

She sighed, closing her eyes. She knew she could turn it every which way in her mind all night. What it boiled down to was it happened, and though she couldnít say she regretted it, she worried that they wouldnít be able to move past it. She worried it would become a hang up, something between them.

Though all this surfed through her mind, somewhere inside Willow felt honored. She knew that what happened had been something that Christine wouldnít have shared with just anyone. She had trusted Willow enough to allow her inside. Even if the singer wouldnít talk to her, wouldnít let her inside her head, sheíd let her inside her heart, and the blonde cherished that realization.

When Christine came back they would talk about it, perhaps. But no matter what, Willow wouldnít allow it to effect what they had built. Christine was part of Willowís family, part of her daily life, and she already felt lost and alone, just nine hours after the singer had driven away.

As Willow allowed herself to relax fully, the bubbles in the water easing sore muscles, she forgot to also remind herself how amazingly wonderful it had felt to have Christineís hands on her, mouth on her, body on hers. She also forgot to remind herself that though it had been a brief encounter, her body still burned from it, and never, in all her sexually active years, had she been made to feel so much like a woman.

Kevin often said she didnít like to deal with things.

)))

"Yesss," Willow moaned, feeling fingers glide down between her breasts, over her abdomen, making the muscles there twitch, and finally lower. She gasped, back arching as those fingers slipped between the saturated folds of her sex, the wet heat gathering, overflowing. "Oh yes, baby," she moaned again, hips moving to find even more purchase to ease the ache.

Suddenly she was filled, head arching back, feeling hot lips on her skin, licking a trail up her throat as the pressure continued between her legs, a dull ache that was beginning explode almost painfully into constant need.

"Kiss me," she begged, opening her eyes to see intense blue looking down at her.

Willowís eyes flew open with a gasp, the cool, night air grazing her half naked body, breasts exposed to the room, one covered by her own hand. The other hand was nestled between her own legs.

Groaning, she slammed her eyes closed again, bringing her hands up to cover her face. Groaning again when she smelled herself on her fingers.

"This is insane," she whispered, her body still making its demand known, sex throbbing with every beat of her heart.

 

The water rained down over her skin, Willowís eyes closed as she raised her face to the spray, the last of the soap vanishing into the drain at her feet.

Slicking her hair back from her face, she blinked her eyes open, then turned the knobs. Sliding the frosted doors open, she stepped out onto the bathmat, reaching for her towel.

She was looking forward to the day. Rachel would be over soon, and they planned to get out of the house. Willow was in the last couple weeks of her maternity leave, and she hadnít been out much, enjoying her time with Christine and the baby. Christine was gone, so now it was time to introduce Emma to the outside world.

Wrapping the towel around herself, she padded into the dark bedroom, the heavy curtains only allowing thin slivers of golden light from around the edges. Grabbing the bottom of the shade, she tugged until the shade snapped up, a bright flash startling a gasp out of the blonde.

Looking into the tree not far from the window, she screamed when she saw a man clinging to a branch with one arm, a camera in his other, the lens held up to his eye as he snapped off several more shots.

Getting her bearings, she quickly pulled the shade, running over to the side table to grab the cordless. Seeing an empty base, she remembered the phone had been destroyed, so ran down the stairs, frantically digging through her purse until she found her cell phone.

Closing every shade she came to, she was freaked out of her mind, the surprise of seeing him there, taking her picture, bringing to mind someone breaking into the house. Somewhere inside she knew that was ridiculous, but thinking clearly was not on her agenda at the moment.

Struggling with the cell phone in one hand, the other holding her towel to her body, she managed to speed dial Christineís phone.

After two rings, she picked up.

"Theyíre outside the house!" Willow exclaimed, hurrying from room to room, peeking out the window. She gasped when she saw someone running from the house, jumping into a dark blue mini van, which sped away.

"What? Wait, what are you talking about?" instant concern was in Christineís voice.

"The guy! He was in the tree, I got out of the shower, and he took my picture!"

"Fuck," the singer growled. "Those son of a bitches."

"Who was that?" Willow hurried up the stairs, into Emmaís room to make sure the baby was okay. She was sound asleep in her crib.

"They found out Iím there," Christine said absently.

"What? Who?"

"The press. Listen, lay low, keep the shades drawn, and Iíll handle it, alright? Theyíre trespassing on private property. Are you okay?"

"God, Christine, I was half naked," Willow cried, shame filling her, making her feel nauseous.

"Iím sorry. God, Iím sorry," Christine whispered. "I promise Iíll take care of it right now. Okay?"

"Okay," she took a deep, calming breath.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah. He just really took me by surprise. Iím sorry to bother you-"

"No! Donít you dare apologize. Itís my fault that bastard was there. Listen, Iíll be home tomorrow, okay?"

"Christine, donít cut your trip short. I know you have things to do-"

"No. You need me there. Iíll be home as soon as I can, okay?"

"Okay," Willow said, her voice quiet, relief flowing through her. God, she missed her. "How are you doing?"

Christine sighed heavily. "Iím okay. We went through Adamís papers last night, and today Iím settling some things for him. Alice isnít doing well."

"But how are you?" Willow gripped the phone tighter, wishing she could be there for Christine.

"It hurts. It hurts bad," the singer said, her voice soft. "I never thought I could hurt so much, and yet not be bleeding somewhere," her chuckle was humorless.

"You are bleeding, honey," Willow slid down one of the walls in the nursery, pulling her knees to her chest. "in your heart."

"Yeah. Guess so. Look, Willow, about the night before I left-"

"No, donít think about that now, Christine. You have too much else on your plate right now. Weíll deal with that when we deal with it."

"Are you sure? I," she sighed. Willow could almost imagine her running a nervous hand through her dark hair. "I feel like such an asshole."

"Donít. Please donít," Willowís voice had grown even softer. "Iím just," she swallowed, "Iím just glad I was able to be there for you." She waited. "Christine? Are you there?"

"Yeah. Iím here. Are you going to be home for a bit?"

Willow could tell the subject had been effectively changed. "I was planning to go out with Rachel, but now I donít know," she shivered, the memory and surprise still fresh.

"Please stay in today. For me? Iíd feel so much better knowing you and Emma were safe inside the house. Not that youíre not safe, but I donít know if those idiots will try and follow you or something. I donít want to put you through that. We donít need another Princess Diana situation."

"Okay. Weíll stay here."

"Good. How is she? Emma?"

An instant smile lit Willowís features. "Sheís fine. Sheís been cranky. I think she misses you." Her heart softened at the soft chuckle she heard on the other end of the line.

"I miss her, too. I need to get going, so you take care of yourself, and give her a great big hug and kiss for me, okay?"

"Will do."

"Okay. Talk to you soon."

"Christine?" Willow gripped the tiny phone with both hands.

"Yeah?"

"I Ö I miss you."

"I miss you, too, Willow. Be home soon."

The phone went dead, silence complete. Slowly flipping the phone shut, Willow rested her head against the wall behind her, a deep sigh leaving her lungs.

ContinuedÖ

Part 15

 

"So, Iím thinking weíre going to enjoy our day with Aunt Rachel, not talk about anything but you, and just have a good time. What do you think?" Emma blew raspberries as Willow carried her down the stairs, making the young mother laugh. "Well said, little one."

The blonde carried the baby to the kitchen, fixing her a bottle. She knew she had to wean Emma from her breast, if she was still given breast milk, for when Emma had to go to the, gulp, babysitter.

Emma whined a bit, not sure about this whole bottle thing, but eventually her hunger outweighed the pout, and she began to suckle.

Sitting on the couch, Willow watched her daughter, who looked up at her, eyes the very same color as her own. Her heart warmed as Emma blindly grabbed Willowís pinky, all five fingers wrapping around it.

The doorbell chimed, and Willow carefully readjusted Emma in her arms so as not to disturb her eating, but would be able to unlock and open the door.

"I wonít bring it up, wonít bring it up. No reason to bring it up," she mumbled to herself, then pulled the door open. Rachel grinned from ear to ear, giving Willow a quick one-armed hug, then taking Emma from her arms. "Uh," the blonde said, stunned, "nice to see you, too."

Closing the door behind them, and locking it, she followed the redhead into the kitchen.

"Whatís with the locks? Am I a captive here, or what?" Sitting at the kitchen table, Rachel grinned down at the baby, running a single finger over impossibly soft skin, tiny fingers, little button nose, while holding the bottle with her other hand. Willow watched from the doorway, leaning in the arch, smiling.

"No, I just donít want some stupid reporter to do something, Ö well, Ö stupid," she explained softly.

"That really spooked you, huh?" Rachel asked, sparing a quick glance to her friend, who was walking over to the table, sat opposite her.

"I know itís silly, but yeah he did."

"Itís not silly. Shoot, look at Princess Di. Those idiots have been known to do some crazy things. What is Christine going to do?"

Willow shrugged. "No idea. Iím sure she knows what to do. I mean, sheís dealt with this crap for almost twenty years."

"I wonder what thatís like," Rachel said absently, brushing her fingers over the silky soft hair. "Looks like her hair is going to be darker than both her mommy and daddy,"

"Yeah. But then my dad has real dark hair,"

"Hmm,"

"So are you driving Connor nuts yet?"

"What, for a baby?" Rachel smiled. "No. Itís not the right time and I know that. Yeah, Iíd love to have one, but for now Iíll just have to steal yours."

Willow laughed. "I donít know who youíd have a harder time getting past- me or Christine,"

"Quite the little daddy, is she?" Rachel smirked.

"Nice. Hardly."

"No?"

Willow thought about it for a moment, and could see where Rachel would get that. Daddy figure. She looked away, feeling a steady flush rise up her neck and cheeks. Ever the eagle-eyed friend, Rachel raised a brow.

"Are you blushing, Willow?"

"No."

"Liar." Rachelís humor died when she sensed just how serious the blonde had become. Remaining silent, she didnít want to scare Willow away if she needed to talk.

Pretend itís nothing. It is nothing. Youíre fine, Christineís fine, the whole damn world is fine.

Inner turmoil came to a head when Willow felt a slight sting behind her eyes. Oh, no. She was not going to do that. Swallowing it down, she decided that sheíd have to get it out one way or the other, via crying it out or talking it out. If she cried she knew sheíd have to explain it anyway, so she prepared to speak.

"That night, the night Adam died, Christine was so devastated," she began softly, seeing the anguish in those beautiful blue eyes all over again.

"No doubt," Rachel agreed softly.

"She destroyed the phone, then went outside. She was out there a long time. Eventually I put Emma to bed, and went there myself, reading, trying to get my mind off things, worrying, all that."

Willow stood, grabbing the bag of coffee from the cabinet, full strength, no more of the puny stuff. Filling the basket and carafe, she stood at the counter, needing some space between she and Rachel as she told her story. She could feel blue eyes on her, and she ignored them.

"It got later, darker. I figured sheíd gone somewhere, but her keys were still hanging by the door. I had no idea where sheíd gone, but knew I shouldnít follow. You have no idea how hard that was for me," she chuckled, stealing a glance at her friend.

"I can imagine," Rachel laughed, rocking Emma to sleep, the baby having her fill of lunch.

"Anyway, so eventually she did come in. I listened. She checked on Emma, checked on me, then went to her own room. I followed."

Pushing off the counter, she sat, deciding that she needed to be as honest and open with Rachel as possible, and by keeping her distance, would seem like she had something to hide, or was perhaps ashamed.

"She was so upset," Willow whispered, seeing Christine standing by the window, looking like such a lost child. "It was hard to see. Sheís normally so stoic about things concerning herself. You know, sheíll be so incredibly supportive of me, or I know she would be of Emma, so perceptive to what you need that itís almost like itís her own pain," she looked off into space for a moment, thinking back over the months sheíd spent with the singer.

"Sheís an incredible lady," Rachel said softly, eyeing her friend. She had a feeling that something huge was about to be revealed, but had no idea what.

"Yes, she is." Willowís eyes met Rachelís for the first time since she had started the conversation. "She stood there, heartsick, though at that point I still had no idea what had happened." She stood again, hearing the coffee maker coming to life. She knew it would be a matter of moments before it was done.

Walking to the cabinet, she pulled out two mugs, got out the cream, sugar, anything to slow down time. Anything to stall what she had to say.

Rachel was feeling impatient, but remained silent all the same. She was sitting on pins and needles. It was almost like reading a book as someone wrote it, having to wait for that next chapter to be completed.

"Coffee?"

"Please."

Sighing heavily, Willow filled two mugs, brought them and all the stuff they needed to the table. Getting settled once again, she continued, her voice quiet, dreamy.

"She needed me that night. She begged me not to leave her," she watched almost hypnotically as she stirred in French Vanilla cream, the thick liquid swirling around the cup. "Sh," Willow swallowed, "she needed someone to be there for her, to make her know it was okay, there was still life out there, I guess," gently laying the spoon aside, she cupped her mug, lazily blowing across the hot surface of the liquid.

Rachel prepared her own cup with one hand, the other holding a sleeping Emma securely in her lap.

"I think she needed to reach out in the only way she could, only way she knew how at that moment of utter devastation to her universe," she searched Rachelís eyes, looking for understanding. The concerned blue eyes that looked back showed no judgment, no disgust, just content listening. "I think she needed to speak with her heart that night, unable to talk to me, to tell me where it hurt,"

Confused, Rachel studied her friend. Where was this leading?

"She needed me to show her love. She needed me to love her," she finally said, her voice just barely above a whisper.

The lights flickered on, but Rachel did her best to not react. Looking her friend dead in the eye, she had to make sure they were on the same page. "You made love?" she asked softly.

Willow blinked at her, making Rachel wonder if sheíd read it wrong, when finally the blonde nodded. "I guess you could say that, yes. Then I held her, and let her cry herself to sleep."

"Wow," the redhead breathed.

"She left not long after I woke up," Willow finished, sipping her coffee. Rachel couldnít take her eyes off her friend, her mind somersaulting over what sheíd just been told. She had no idea what her reaction was, her mind a scramble of thoughts and emotions at the news. Later it would shock her that her first instinct hadnít been that of a teenager, wanting to know how it was. It never even occurred to her in that moment. "Say something," Willow whispered, terrified of what her friend was thinking.

"Iím not sure what to say,"

Willow swallowed a sob, about to stand. Rachelís hand flew across the table, holding her friend in place.

"Donít you go running off. Iím not," she paused, thinking of what exactly she was trying to say. "Willow, I donít think this is a gay issue, or anything that base. You and Christine love each other. A blind man could see that. You gave the ultimate sacrifice for that love, and should be commended for it." She watched as her friend sat back down, eyes wary. "I mean, Iíll be honest, and say Iím not entirely sure how I feel, but thatís not a bad thing. Consider, Iím used to seeing you with Kevin, hugging, kissing, all that jazz. I mean, shit, you have a child by him."

Willow nodded, sipping her coffee, mainly to keep her hands busy.

"Do you regret it?"

Willow thought about this question for a moment, rolling it around on her mindís tongue. No, that didnít taste right. She shook her head. "No."

"What do you think will happen once she gets back?"

"I have no idea. She once told me sheís never made love, looks at sex as a bad word, basically. So, that said, I have no clue how she feels. Maybe she regrets it. She flew out of here fast enough," she couldnít keep the bitterness out of her voice, even knowing it was selfish.

"Hey," Rachel lightly scolded. "I donít think her actions that day are indicative of anything about Christine. Try and put yourself in the place she was. And if she said she feels that way about sex, then imagine what kind of trust that must have taken for her to ask that of you."

"You think so?"

"Absolutely! Considering the last time something like that happened, when she kissed you? You freaked out. Her coming to you was an act of desperation, Willow. No doubt she was trying to stay above water, clinging to you."

Willow studied her friend, stunned at what had just come out of the redheadís mouth.

"What?" Rachel asked, cup halfway to her mouth.

"When the hell did you get so insightful?"

Rachel chuckled into her mug. "I was a prophet in my past life," setting the mug down. "How are you feeling about all this?

Willow shrugged. "Alright, I guess. I havenít really allowed myself to think about it much,"

"Why not? Youíre just as entitled to your thoughts and feelings as Christine is. Yes, you made the ultimate sacrifice, but sacrifices arenít made without consequences, my friend."

"I guess Iíve been afraid to think about it, to let myself."

"Why? You think youíre gay or something?"

Green eyes flickered to her friend, studying her, but said nothing.

"I told you, Willow- this isnít a gay issue."

"Then what is it? I mean, who the hell, after a sexual life that spans a decade, with men, suddenly has the most amazingly passionate sexual experience of her life, and itís with a woman, no less, doesnít question that?" Willow looked incredulous.

"Willow," Rachel said very quietly, "Iím not trying to force anything on you, or put you in a certain camp by any means. But I am saying that this isnít about gay, straight or whatever. This was about love. Plain and simple. I mean, Iím no expert on the doings of lesbians, no more than you. But I know love when I see it, and I see it every single time I look at the two of you." She paused, waiting for the words to absorb. "You two are raising a child together!" she indicated the very child, asleep in her arms.

Willow could only look at her, having absolutely no idea how to respond to that. She hadnít given a second thought to what she and Christine were doing. They were just happy; that was all she knew.

"Bottom line," Rachel said at last, "I care about you, and I want to see you happy. If Christine is that happiness, who the hell cares?"

"Itís not that easy, Rachel," Willow said, her insides in a tempest, not sure where to go, or where was safe.

"No, itís not. Youíre facing some pretty big decisions, my friend. The past year has been filled with huge changes for you, beginning on a cold night last February."

Willow grinned, looking up at her friend. "Do you realize Emma was born one year to the day, of the night I pulled the great Christine Gray out of Dittman River?"

Rachel sat back in her chair, mouth hanging open. "Youíre kidding?" As her friend shook her blonde head, Rachel shook hers in disbelief. "See? Itís fate."

Willow rolled her eyes, getting up to refill her cup. Topping off Rachelís raised mug, she sat again.

"I donít know. Yes, Christine is a major, important part of my life, and I want her in it. I just donít honestly know what part I want her to play in it, what I can handle. I donít know that what happened the other night is a reason to get into that kind of relationship with her."

"Well, something tells me it wonít be a decisive action," she stirred in some cream. "I think itíll just happen, Wills."

"Hmm," Willow sipped her brew, staring absently into space. "Maybe. I really donít know."

)))

Not long after Rachel had left, the doorbell rang again. Wiping her hands on a dishrag, Willow unlocked the door, and carefully pulled it open, peeking around it, not expecting anyone.

"Hello, maíam. Iím Troy Leonard, head of Leonard Security."

Willow looked up at the small mountain that stood on her porch, his body almost blocking out any sunlight. A hand the size of a football was stretched out, waiting for her to take it. Her much, much smaller one gently enfolded, he produced a card from his inside pocket.

"Miss Gray has filled me in on the situation miss, so with your permission, my team will set up," he moved aside to reveal a black van sitting in front of the house, the back doors already open, a man pulling equipment out, laying it in the dirt behind the vehicle.

"Oh, uh, okay," stepping back and feeling like she was in a dream, Willow admitted the half-back-sized man, dressed in a black suit, hair slicked back to perfection. Two of his team members followed him inside, both the man and the woman nodding politely at the blonde. The three murmured amongst themselves as they traveled through the house, Willow heading back into the kitchen where her macaroni and cheese was about to burn.

 

Three hours, five cameras, and a brand new electric gate, later, Willow was once again left alone in her house. She was assured none of the footage came from inside the house itself, all lenses angled to various locations around the property, the monitors housed in the van. A monitor was also set up in Willowís bedroom, where she could easily flip through the channels, seeing full color, live images at any time.

She figured this must be costing Christine a small fortune, and felt bad that it had become a must.

She sat on the floor, legs crossed, and watched the monitor image change as she switched through the channels, seeing various parts of the ranch flicker into view. Her brow knit as she looked on, seeing the black van parked at a discrete distance, monitoring what she herself was watching.

Willow pushed the button, once again changing the view. This time she was able to see the electric gate, a NO TRESPASSING: PRIVATE PROPERTY sign attached to its face. A butterfly was instantly battering at her ribs when she noticed a very familiar Jeep pulling up to it. The driver unzipped her window, the plastic falling inside as Troy stepped up to the vehicle.

She watched as Christine and Troy talked, the huge man articulating with his arms various things around the property, pointing at this and that.

Willow used the zoom feature, getting in close to see Christine nodding her head, her lips moving as she spoke. Finally, a bright smile spread across the singerís face, and her hand reached through the window, taking Troyís in a hearty handshake. The moving house stepped aside, allowing the Jeep to continue on.

Heart pounding, Willow stood from the floor, taking a deep breath. She was so nervous, and hated that feeling. Quickly running her fingers through her hair, she made her way down the stairs.

Feeling like a stupid teenager, she tried to decide what to do. Look cool, act normal, sit down and start reading a magazine. Maybe turn the TV on, like sheíd been sitting there the entire time. What?

Standing in the middle of the entryway, trying to decide where to go, she realized it was too late when she heard the engine cut off just outside the door. Heart seizing, she heard a door slam, footfalls on the wooden steps, then finally the porch.

Stepping back toward the stairs, Willow raised herself to the first step, so at least she didnít look like sheíd been standing there waiting for Christine to arrive. She already felt like an idiot.

Grabbing the balustrade in her sweating hand, she watched as the door slowly swung open, an overnight bag entering first, being set on the floor just inside the door. Christine materialized, hair windblown and wild, eyes tired and red.

Christine closed the door behind her, then turned to see Willow slowly stepping onto the main floor. The singer was about to say hello, but was so overwhelmed with relief when Willow was waiting there for her, walking toward her.

Without a word, she grabbed the small blonde in a hug, eyes closing. She was home.

Willow wrapped her arms around Christineís waist, resting her head against sagging shoulders. They held each other for a long time, each surprised at how much sheíd missed the other woman, though it had only been a couple days.

"Youíre home early," Willow finally said, stepping slightly back so she could look into the brunetteís somnolent features.

"Yeah. I came home tonight cause Iíll be leaving again in a few days." Christine led the way into the living room where she flopped down on the couch.

"What? Why?" Willow sat next to her, tucking her legs in under her.

"I need to go to L.A., talk to my publicist. I need her to do some damage control now before things start to get out of hand," she explained quietly. Willow nodded sagely.

"I understand," though she didnít like it. "How was it?"

"Long. Tiring. Iíve decided that was the longest two days of my life."

"Iím so sorry." Willow wanted so badly to reach out and take Christineís hand, but something stopped her, something in Christineís mannerism. Her arms were crossed over her chest, closing herself off. Willow gave the singer her space. As if on cue, short bursts of wining wafted down from upstairs, echoing in the baby monitor, which doubled as a walkie talkie, placed on the table next to Christine. Willow smiled. "Sheís calling you,"

Christine grinned, ear to ear, and was out of her seat like a shot. Willow stayed where she was, uncertainty filling her. Sheíd never felt so unsure around the taller woman; not even when they first met. She sighed deeply, down to her soul.

"Shoot." She smiled through her sadness, listening as Christine talked quietly to Emma, gibberish, as well as real speak. Emma made her cute little noises, which always melted both their hearts. It wasnít long before there were creaking footsteps on the stairs, and Christine appeared around the corner, babe in arms. She reclaimed her seat on the couch, tucking Emma in the crook of her arm.

She glanced over at the blonde. "I think sheís grown."

"No doubt. Sheís growing like a weed." Willow reached out to gently tug down Emmaís sleeve, which had gotten pushed up during the babyís transport downstairs.

"Yes she is," she said absently, resting her head against the back of the couch. "Willow," she said, opening her eyes and glancing at the blonde.

"Hmm?"

"I really am sorry."

Willow studied her for a moment, chewing on her lip. "Youíre sorry it happened, or youíre sorry you initiated it?"

Christineís head flew off the back of the sofa, eyes wide in shock. Willow almost wanted to laugh at the way her mouth hung open.

"Careful, Christine," she said softly, "youíll catch flies."

Christine looked straight ahead, trying to get her thoughts and emotions under control. Interesting question, indeed.

"Listen," Willow continued, reaching out this time, despite what the singerís body language said. "it wasnít some night on a dark beach, getting caught up in the moment, Christine. You needed me, and I was there for you. I," she took a deep breath, "I donít regret it, and neither should you."

Looking back at her friend, Christine tried to rummage through everything sheíd just been told, find some meaning and sense in it.

"Willow, no it wasnít a dark beach, but you made your feelings quite clear on that dark beach. I shouldnít have-"

"Honey, what happened the other night wasnít about sex." Green eyes searched blue, trying to find some understanding. "It wasnít about that. I know that. Believe me, Iíve thought a lot about this over the past couple days, trying to decide if I should just let it go, never to bring it up again, or what." She shook her head. "I care too much about you to sweep it under the rug like that. Iíd say you do, too since you brought it up."

Christine nodded. "I do." Willow grabbed her hand, wrapping both her warm ones around it.

"Please donít let this come between us. Please. Iím not scared, and I love you just as much now as I did then." She knew she was jumping the gun on things that hadnít even happened, an may not have, but she had to get it all out, make Christine aware of just how she felt, and what her fears were.

"Wow," the brunette said quietly, looking down at Emma. "Okay,"

Willow smiled, scooting closer to Christine and laying her head on the singerís shoulder, both looking down at her daughter. She heard the small chuckle as she released the sigh that just wouldnít stay in. She met amused blue eyes.

"What?"

Christine shook her head. "Nothing." Kissing Emma on her cheek, she stood. "Iím exhausted." Holding her hand out to the blonde, she took the smaller hand. "Come on. Letís put her to bed."

The baby sighed sleepily, eyes never opening as she was put back into her crib, blanket lovingly tucked under her chin. They both stood, looking down at her, watching her sleep.

"You know, part of me looks at her and thinks just how lucky she is, her entire life ahead of her, new things to see and do. All the potential she has, you know?" Christine sighed then continued. "The other part of me feels sorry for her. All the things sheíll have to do, all the things sheíll have to live through- heartbreaks, disappointments."

"Yeah. I think about that a lot. I canít help but wonder what sheíll be, who sheíll be. Did I give birth to the first female President? Or did I give birth to the best second grade teacher who ever lived?"

"Either way, sheíll be very loved." Christine said softly, hands resting on the top rail of the white crib.

"Yes, she will," Willow looked up at her friend. "by both of us." Christine smiled, big and bright. "You know, I can totally see you being the one sheíll go to when her first boyfriend dumps her, or she gets her first B on a test."

Christine laughed. "Why me?"

"Because you give such great hugs." Willow nudged her in the side, making the taller woman laugh again.

"Well, you two can do all that shopping nonsense. And girl talk." She wrinkled her nose.

"Oh, and we will," Willow assured, leading the way out of the nursery, shutting the light off as she went, leaving the room dimly lit by the Care Bear nightlight. She closed the door to a crack.

Standing out in the hall, between Emma and Willowís doors, Christine gave the blonde a quick hug.

"Good night."

"Night, Christine. Iím so glad youíre home, even if it is for a couple days."

Christine smiled. "Me, too."

With that, they both went their separate ways.

)))

"Is it hard being famous?"

"What?"

"Is it hard being famous?" Willow asked again, laying her magazine face down in her lap, readjusting the pillows behind her, and glancing over at her friend who sat with her back against the opposite arm of the couch, their socked feet fighting now and then.

Christine looked over her laptop, raising a brow.

"Itís a simple question. Yes or no."

"Itís a bizarre question."

"Perhaps, but I still want to know the answer to this."

Gently setting her laptop aside, having a feeling that this was not going to be a quick question/answer session.

"What brought this on?" she asked.

"I was just reading about the Brad, Jennifer, Angelina saga, and it made me wonder what they were feeling, having all the worldís attention on their lives," Willow said, tossing the magazine to the coffee table.

"Ah, I see. Well," Christine blew out. "Itís not always easy. Your privacy is thrown out the window, thatís for sure. Everyone wants to know every single little itty bitty detail about your life," she scrunched up her face, bringing her thumb and forefinger together to emphasize her point.

"Have you ever gotten fan mail?"

"Of course. I have a lady who lives in this tiny little town in Oregon who goes through it all, sorting it, reading it, that sort of thing. She picks the letters she thinks I would like to read, and sends them on to me."

"And the others?"

"She sends them a formatted letter that has my signature on the bottom, and mails it to them," Christine shrugged, wiggling her toes.

"Youíre kidding? All those carnivorous fans out there, so excited that they got a response back from the great Christine Gray, are actually getting nothing but a form letter from some creepy mail lady?"

Christine laughed. "Donít make it sound so harsh. I donít have the time to go through all that mail myself. It would be impossible. I used to," she held up a finger, "I actually used to go through and read each and every one, personally answered most."

"Why did you stop?"

"Well, that was back in the very early days. Heck, I was so stunned that someone had taken the time to write me that I was overjoyed to respond, you know? But then as I got busier, my schedule crazier, and the fans a bit nuttier and larger in numbers, it just wasnít possible anymore, and I hired Lindy."

"Do you miss it?"

"Miss what?"

"Having a bit of a more personal connection to your fans."

"Sometimes," Christine shrugged. "The sad part is, no matter how many letters I get, how many I answer or read, Iím still so far removed from them, you know? I feel like I canít be among them anymore. You see, my fans have put me up on such a ridiculously high pedestal over the years that thereís no way I can live up to their expectations if they knew the real me. Iíd fall short."

"Oh, I doubt that," Willow said, chuckling softly.

"No, I would." Christine looked sad for a moment. "I read whatís said about me, how Iím viewed. Iím expected to either be somebodyís wet dream, or sexual kitten come to life, or their role model. Iím none of the above. When it boils down to it, Iím just me. Not too interesting in the end. And far too human."

"Well, thatís all in who you talk to." Willow raised a challenging brow. Christine rolled her eyes.

"Well, if you live out in the middle of nowhere with a horse named Star to talk to, yeah, Iím sure Iím all that and a bag of gem doughnuts."

Willow laughed, swatting the singer. "Youíre such a shoot."

"A shoot? What on earth is a shoot?"

"You know what I mean!" Willow growled, swatting Christine again.

"You know, you keep hitting me like that and Iím going to have to file for domestic violence," Christine raised a brow and Willow blushed.

"Well, canít say Iím worried. After all, there are some requirements that have to be met in order to be called Ďdomestic violenceí," Willow pointed out, proudly shooting down the brunetteís comment. However, it backfired against her, as she blushed even deeper at Christineís rakish look. But, just as soon as the look hit her face, it was gone, replaced by a look that Willow could only think of as, Ö empty.

"Well," Christine said, subject closed. "did I answer all your questions?" When her eyes met Willowís they were the eyes of a stranger, remote and withdrawn.

"Uh, yeah. I suppose so." Willow was confused, and slightly hurt. They had been playing, fun banter, and just like that, she had snapped it off at the bone. With a sad sigh, she grabbed up her magazine again, and pretended to read.

)))

"Everything alright, maíam?" Troy asked, his curiosity getting the better of him, watching the cute blonde standing in front of the garage, rubbing her chin for the past twenty three and a half minutes.

"Mm, fine," she said absently. He nodded and turned to head back to his post. "Troy?"

"Yes, Miss Bowman?" he asked, turning toward her again.

"How much do you think it would cost to convert this into a studio?" She finally glanced at him, still rubbing her chin.

"A studio, maíam?"

"Yeah. You know, like a music studio, somewhere where Christine could hide."

"Oh," surprised, he looked at the two and a half car garage, running costs through his mind. "several thousand dollars, maíam. Iíd say upwards of a couple hundred."

"Oh," Willow said, heart sinking.

"But thatís with all the equipment, too, maíam. I assume youíd want recording equipment?" he said quickly, not wanting to burst her bubble of thought.

"Well, yeah. Okay, so what about without all that? Maybe just sound-proofing, that kind of thing." She looked at him, really hoping heíd have better news for her. He sighed, looking back at the building.

"Well, saying that nothing structural had to be done, that it was sound, that is," he shrugged. "Fifteen, twenty thousand maybe."

 

 

The drawer was tugged open, two hands instantly inside, rummaging through the gobs of unorganized papers.

Willow murmured the names of each as she unfolded, uncrumpled, reattached.

"Bank receipt, receipt from Target, credit card statement," on and on, brows knit in panicked concentration. She was a horrible bookkeeper, and it was times just such as that when she realized just how horrible. Tax season was murder.

Throwing out the last bit of paper, Willow sighed heavily, running a hand through her shaggy hair. Looking around the small home office, she searched her mind, trying to remember where sheíd put it.

Light dawning on marble head, she raced out of the house on the slim chance that it was still there. Quickly opening the passenger-side door of the truck, she pulled herself up onto the seat, then flung open the glove compartment. Again looking through the contents- maps, insurance papers, napkins from Baskin-Robins, and one last something, folded up in the back.

Hoping against hope, Willow grabbed it, quickly unfolding it in shaking fingers.

"Yes!"

)))

Christine hadnít bothered to call Millie in. She was only planning to be at the Beverly Hills house for a couple, three days. She walked its long, empty halls, seeing all the beautiful, expensive things that filled its walls and rooms, and realized how meaningless it all really was.

She didnít want to be there. She knew where she longed to be, but it scared her half to death. She couldnít understand why Willow was taking things so well, considering how much sheíd freaked out over a simple kiss so many months ago. It seemed like a lifetime ago since that had happened.

Despite everything the blonde had said, which she wanted to believe, she was having a hard time with it. The thought had occurred to her more than once that perhaps Willow was just brushing it all under the rug out of pity for what a mess Christine had been that night. What if inside Willow really hates her? What if sheís just waiting for the singer to get over Adamís death, then her true feelings will come out?

Christine laughed at herself, not truly believing a word of her own paranoia.

A thought occurred to her that stopped her cold, however, looking out the floor to ceiling French doors in her music room, hands tucked into the pockets of her jeans.

What if she were pulling away because she didnít want this closeness? What if she didnít want to open herself up so much to Willow, and in many ways, to Emma? What if she felt claustrophobic, or smothered?

She sighed, running a hand through her hair. That wasnít it, either, and she knew she owed Willow more than that. She couldnít use that as an excuse, or use it to justify her own fear.

Fear of what?

Christine turned from the doors, looking over the room, following the little squares of light, the sunís rays making a map across the wood floor, leading up to the grand piano. She followed the path, brushing her fingers across the smooth wooden surface, her beloved.

That was something she was having a hard time with. Her music. No, she didnít miss the crowds and the craziness, even if it had followed her into a quiet life; but she did miss the music. Oh, she missed the music.

She pulled the bench out from underneath the keyboard, the sun kissing the dark wood. Lovingly lifting the lid, revealing the black and whites, she took her place, eyes automatically closing. Vision wasnít needed for the soul.

Limbering her fingers and hands, she ran her scales, up and down, around, flat, sharp, back again. Flexing her knuckles and listening to them crack, she began to play for real.

Sighing deeply, she knew she was home.

)))

"This is the mess youíve gotten us into." The Enquirer skidded across the desk, stopping short of falling off the edge and into Christineís lap. LOVE ON THE RANCH?

"Bastards," she muttered, seeing a half-naked picture of a very surprised Willow. "And what do you mean Iíve gotten us into?"

"Why not you? You havenít given the children anything to play with. You know how they are- they get bored!" Roxanne paced behind her desk, hands clasped behind her back. Flipping her long, curly black hair over her shoulder, she stopped, looking down at her long-time client. "You know how to play this game, Christine. Come on, I shouldnít have to lecture you on this shit,"

"Donít start, Roxanne,"

"Donít start what? Donít start this?" she poked her finger into the rag. "Donít start with staying single for so fucking long that the world was wondering if youíre a real live human? Is that what I shouldnít start?"

"Iím not going to lie and say Iím with someone that Iím not." Christine could feel her anger building. Roxanne Mills stopped, dark laser eyes parked on the singerís.

"Your whole life is a fucking lie!" she barked, sitting hard in the leather chair across the desk. "Jesus, you know this shit better than I do! You only pay me to keep your ass out of trouble- you have to live this circus. What the hell were you thinking not giving them any dirt? Jesus, you know theyíll just keep digging, and this time by god, they hit fucking pay dirt!"

"How did they find out? I was so careful to keep Willow out of this."

"Careful? You were careful?" she leaned forward, tapping a clawed finger on the shiny mahogany. "So careful that this woman has been in the news twice, both times linked to you. So careful that you had that fucking hospital locked down like Fort Knox while she gave birth to the kid, you at her side," she pointed that claw at Christine as she spoke. "Yeah, thatís how goddamn careful youíve been." She sat back in her chair, getting her composure back with another flick of her hair. "No doubt some hospital staff or another puppy pusher spilled the beans for a nice chunk of change. Bastards probably paid their kidís college tuition," she muttered absently.

"Fine. So I messed up. Now what? Can you fix this?" Christine looked so deeply into those seemingly impenetrable black eyes of her publicist that she made the woman squirm.

"I just donít know," Roxanne finally said. She crossed a leg over her knee, carefully tugging at her skirt, the picture of fashion perfection. She was so grateful Christine had introduced her to Sandra all those years ago. "Personally I think you should marry the girl and bring it all out into the open."

"Itís not like that, Roxanne-"

"So make it like that, Christine!" the publicist almost yelled, sitting forward again. "You canít go back. Once the Ďtheyíre fuckingí theory has gone behind a story, there is no way to remove it. You two are playing house down there in Bumbfuck, Oklahoma. Do you really think people are going to believe itís platonic? The two of you have separate bedrooms, donít burp or fart around each other? Bullshit. I donít believe it," she planted her clawed hand on her chest, "and they sure as hell donít believe it."

Christine sighed, knowing full well that Roxanne was right. The publicistís voice softened.

"The way I see it is this- if you and the cute blonde canít make nice in domesticity, then youíll just have to let the hubbub die down. It will eventually, once some new asshole comes up in the spotlight, who will actually talk to them, and do something stupid, like turning into white trash after getting married to some loser with greasy hair and big shoes." She rolled dark eyes. "Public nightmare."

"What if I moved back to L.A.?"

"So sorry to hear about your breakup. May we get a statement?" Roxanne said dryly, leaning on her hand.

"Shit."

"Stay with her, Christine. At least that way you can stop them from hounding her until all this blows over."

 

Christine felt a sense of dread fall over her as she played that night. Eyes closed, head swaying with her hands as they raced across the keys. She felt so horrible for dragging such innocent people into this- Willow, Emma, hell, even the people of Lamont, the tiny little town by Willowís ranch. No doubt the bastards were staying there, drilling the unsuspecting people about both she and the blonde.

Images of that little blonde began to float before Christineís closed eyes. Her eyes, her smile, her body. The way it looked as the moonlight caressed it through the large window that night. The way Willowís skin had felt, warm and smooth, so responsive. The little noises she made, the rapture in her eyes as sheíd discovered ultimate pleasure.

Christineís fingers moved faster and faster, along with her heartbeat, feeling every sigh, every kiss, every whispered encouragement, all over again.

Was that what it was like with someone you loved? Was that what it was like to feel loved? Is that how it felt to be in love?

Shaking that last thought off as quickly as humanly possible, Christineís fingers stilled, eyes opening to see the darkness beyond the glass panes of the large doors. No, no. Canít go there. Can never go there.

)))

Willow paced, restless, hands fidgeting nonstop, hand running through her hair. Glancing out the window again, she saw the truck still parked directly in front, the muffled voices of the movers shouting out orders. She stopped, hand on the doorknob, but then saw Howard looking in at her.


Smiling at the member of Troyís team, assigned to keep her in the house and out of the way, by her own orders, she began to pace again.

It was close, so terribly close. Sneaking a peak at the Grandfather clock in the corner, she hissed in worry.

A knock on the front door sent her running toward it, pulling it open so fast she startled the head mover guy. What did he say his name was?

"Itís all done, maíam," he said proudly. "Gotta say, that was one helluva tight space."

"Is it okay? How does it look?" she asked, trying to see around him, as if that would do any good.

"Well, in my opinion, it looks real good." He beamed, face ruddy from the exertion.

"Thank you so much." Reaching into her back pocket, she pulled out the bank envelope, then glanced at him with a raised brow.

"Oh, ah," looking at his order, he pulled a small calculator out of the breast pocket of his work shirt, and began to punch numbers in with a pudgy finger. He gave her a number, and she happily dug the amount out of the envelope, plus a hefty tip. That was just about the last of it, but she didnít care. It was all worth it.

"Thank you, maíam," he tipped his sweaty hat, handed her the hand-written receipt, and turned away, gathering all his men into the truck, and headed out.

Willow hurried up the stairs, bolting into the bedroom at top speed, shucking clothing as she went. A fastest shower in female history later, she was dressed, and taking care of Emma, getting the baby ready.

Exactly thirteen minutes after the movers had left, the front door opened, and Christine walked in, carry-on in her hand. She was surprised to see Willow waiting for her, beaming like the Cheshire cat.

"Welcome back!" the blonde gushed, hurrying over to the singer. For a moment, Christineís heart soared, happiness almost overwhelming. But as Willow got closer, she began to freak, thinking back to the vow sheíd made to herself in L.A.

"Hey, uh," she breezed past the blonde. "hands are full. Let me get rid of this stuff," smiling sheepishly, Christine hurried up the stairs. Willow watched her go, shock and hurt in her eyes.

ContinuedÖ

Part 16

"Wow. Okay. Bad flight, I guess," Willow mumbled, unsure what to do. Should she follow and ask? Leave her alone? The decision was made for her, as within minutes, Christine was on her way back down the stairs, Emma in tow. The singer was kissing the baby and making crazy faces and voices at her.

"I think she gained another five pounds since Iíve been gone," she said absently to the blonde as she hit the landing, "havenít you, you big goober?" Emma squealed and gurgled.

Though touched by the scene before her, it was hard for Willow to get into it, or even respond, the hurt still stinging. When she got o response, Christine looked at her friend, smiling.

"How has your week been?" she passed the blonde, heading into the kitchen.

"Uh," Willow said, shaking herself out of her shock of absolutely being avoided. "fine. It was fine. Good, I guess."

"Good." Christine handed Emma off with a kiss to the babyís forehead, then began to dig through the fridge, famished from a long day of traveling.

"And how was your trip? Anything productive happen? Anything you can do?" Willow sat on a barstool, baby in hand, as she watched her friend getting ingredients out for a sandwich.

"No," Christine sighed, spinning the lid off the jar of Miracle Whip. She licked her thumb as some of the tangy spread smeared on it. "looks like Iím stuck. Weíll just have to weather the storm." She finally looked at the blonde for the first time since sheíd arrived, all whirlwind of baby banter and mindless questions. Willow was looking down and away, focused on some tile or other. As she watched, the blonde nodded numbly.

"Sorry to hear that."

"Yeah. Me, too." Turning back to her dinner, she angrily flopped a couple pieces of turkey onto the Miracle Whip, mustard slathered bread. She was angry, all right, but angry at herself. She could tell Willow was hurt. The blonde wasnít dumb, and Christine had been stupid to think this would work. Sheíd been home for less than twenty minutes, and already she felt like a schmuck. There was no way and hell she could keep her distance from Willow; it wasnít possible. The little blonde had a way of finding the tiniest cracks in the strongest of armor, and wheedling her way inside.

Damn it!

Slopping the two pieces of bread together, she shoved the plate aside, beginning to pick up her mess.

"Christine?" was spoken so softly, filled with such uncertainty. "Are you okay? Did something happen?"

Sighing, Christine leaned against the counter for a moment, head hanging. Finally she pushed off, turning to her confused friend. She shook her head.

"No." Walking over to where Willow sat with Emma, she carefully gathered the two in a warm, all encompassing hug, feeling a relieved sigh escape the blonde. "No," she repeated, inhaling the smells- Herbal Essence, Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo and powder.

Pulling away, she smiled down at Willow, who looked overwhelmingly happy. Christine couldnít help but smile in return. Yeah, how could she ever have thought she could push this one out?

 

Willow listened quietly as Christine explained what Roxanne had said, all the while the singer stuffed her face, getting up to make herself a second sandwich, with a second handful of Doritos.

"Iíve screwed myself, basically," she said, around a bite of sandwich. Swallowing quickly, she continued, "itís not going to stop, Willow. Iím so sorry, and I hope you understand that I never wanted this to happen."

"I know that," Willow said softly, though a wrinkle had formed between her eyes, deep in thought.

"What are you thinking about?"

"Nothing, really." The blonde sighed, glancing over at Emma, who lay on a blanket on the floor. "It is hard, Christine. I wonít lie to you. Sometimes, when I open my front door, see the van, or see Troy or Howard out there talking, walking the perimeter of the place, I feel like Iím a prisoner in my own house."

Christine listened, nodding her understanding. "I know. Iím so sorry," she wanted to reach across the table and take the blondeís hand, but she resisted. No, she may not be able to push the little blonde out, but she wasnít going to torture herself, either. "The only other thing I can do is to leave," she studied green eyes, looking for any sort of silent answer.

"No." Willow was stern, one word.

"Or not," Christine grinned, secretly relieved.

"Weíll face these a-holes together," Willow continued, her jaw set, body tense.

"Okay. So be it."

"Well, in the meantime," Willow stood, walking over to a sleeping Emma, and gathering her into her arms. "Let me put her down, and I have something I want to show you."

Christine shivered at the mischievous grin that laced the blondeís words, then mentally slapped herself.

 

"Uh, Willow, you do realize weíre outside, right?" Christine said, her words dripping with sarcasm.

"Very good." Willow replied, patting the taller womanís arm, un-phased. She led them over to the garage, her heart pounding. Bringing the key out to the brand new, extremely sturdy, lock, she carefully slid it into the hole, turning until the tumblers hit home. Knob in hand, she turned to look at a very confused Christine. "I hope you wonít be mad at me," she said quietly before pushing the door open with her hip.

Wondering what on earth the blonde could have done to make her mad, Christine followed. It smelled different. Gone were the smells of gasoline, cut grass and oil. Now there was the smell of polish and paint.

The lights flicked on, can lights, sunken in the brand new ceiling, shining down on polished wood flooring, reflecting the white walls, covered in soundproofing material, and reflecting the greatest gift of all- a grand piano.

She sucked in a breath, taking it all in, stunned, touched deeply, and wanting to cry.

"You did all this?" she breathed, stepping further into the transformed garage. She ran her hand over a very familiar piano lid, tossing a quizzical glance Willowís way.

"There was just no way for me to afford a new one, or even a used one, for that matter, so uh," Willow explained quickly, trying to get the words out before Christine could get mad. "Joey helped me to get yours shipped here."

"How did you? I was there, I played it until the night I left,Ö" Christineís words were cut off by the amazement of it all.

"I know," Willow rolled her eyes. "It was a nightmare. Joeyís girlfriend was spying on you, letting us know when you came and went," she grinned, proud that theyíd pulled it off. "Please tell me youíre not mad,"

Turning her focus on the blonde, Christine slowly shook her head. "I canít believe you did all this," she murmured absently, then remembered there was an unspoken question on the table. "No, no, Iím not mad."

She grabbed Willow in a hug so tight, so profound, Willow almost couldnít breath from relief and happiness.

"I canít believe you did this," Christine whispered to the top of her head. She gently pulled back, brows drawn. "How did you do this? This isnít cheap. How did you pay for it? Please tell me you didnít hurt yourself-"

"Shh," Willow gently covered Christineís lips with her fingers. "In all honesty, you kind of paid for it all."

"Me?" She was totally baffled now.

"Well," Willow blushed, "letís just say I got super lucky at the bank, considering that check was more than a year old."

Throwing her head back, a deep, full-bodied laugh left Christineís throat as she pulled the blonde in for another hug. Willow chuckled along with her, finally her uncertainty, from the room and earlier, melting away.

"I canít believe you did this," Christine said again. Stepping out of the hug, she walked around the large room, trailing her fingers across everything, in awe that Willow had managed to pull all this together in a few days. "I almost feel like Iím in an episode of ĎWhile You Were Out,í" she joked, tapping a few keys before moving on.

"It basically was that crazy and chaotic, too. The movers with your piano left literally less than fifteen minutes before you got here." Willow leaned against the wall, arms crossed over her chest, a constant soft smile on her lips, happy that Christine was happy, and also pretty damn proud of herself.

"That would explain why your hair was still sort of wet," the singer chuckled, making a full circuit around the room, coming to stand next to her friend.

"Play something for me. That is, if youíre not too tired after a long day of traveling."

"Too tired to play?" Christine asked, brow raised. "Never." Smug grin in place, she sauntered over to the piano, easing herself down on the newly polished bench, her mind reeling through the huge list of titles she knew, and the ones she, herself, had written.

Willow walked over to her, leaning against the incredibly beautiful instrument. Sheíd never seen a grand piano in real life before. When the guys had first gotten it off the truck, she had been struck almost breathless from its beauty and grace. Much like its maestro.

The music began slow, a few keys at a time higher up the scale. Soon the momentum built, and Christineís voice joined, soft and sweet.

Willow slowly made her way toward the bench, lowering herself next to the singer, drawn, almost hypnotized, by the music and soft, soothing voice. In that moment she knew sheíd done the right thing. To keep this beautiful, talented creature from her music was a crime.

The song slowly came to an end, Willow sighing along with it. "Itís been settled," she said, voice dreamy. "you can never leave this room."

"Oh yeah?" Christine chuckled, playing randomly, her heart filling with joy, knowing that this was hers, that any time she wanted, she could come out here, play, compose, be alone, create. For her, a day without creating was a day not worth living. Somehow Willow had known that. What an amazing gift.

Deciding to give back, her fingers began to find the right keys, the notes filling Willowís ears, followed again by Christineís voice. The blonde listened to the words, and suddenly she let out a small gasp.

Her eyes filled as she looked over at Christine, who was already looking at her, singing about a little girl, so filled with life and joy, a joy that made her feel whole. A little girl who had come into her life, giving her a whole new reason to live and love.

"You wrote a song about Emma?" Willow whispered. Christine nodded, continuing the song. Tears freely running down her cheeks, the blonde continued to listen, hearing just exactly what the baby meant to the singer.

Christine was worried at first, unsure whether Willow would think she was nuts for writing the song, or would be angry for some reason. Seeing the expression on her beautiful face and the tears in her green eyes, she felt her heart swell. Again. What she didnít tell the blonde was that the song was for Emma and Willow.

)))

"There she is! Oh, give me some sugar," Mary Washington took Emma gently away from a grinning Willow, rushing the baby down the hall to show to every single staff member on the floor.

"You know you will never see Emma again, donít you?" Doctor Benjamin Keele laughed.

"Eh, I know where Mary works," Willow grinned at the diminutive doc.

"How are you feeling? Ready to come back Monday?" he asked, leaning against the nurseís station counter.

"Yes, actually. I am. I mean, donít get me wrong, Iím going to miss my daughter like crazy, but Iíll be glad to get back into the swing of things, you know?" She watched as a group of nurses and orderlies oohed and awwwed further down the hall, Mary in the middle of it all, holding on to the three month old for dear life. "I was glad to get the extended leave, though."

"My wife would have loved to have a sixteen week leave with Brian, our first. By the second and third, she was ready to go back to work by the next day." They both laughed, Willow only now understanding the truth behind those words. She absolutely loved staying home with Emma, and Christine for that matter, but she was starting to feel unproductive, like she wasnít bringing anything into the household, and that bothered her.

"How old are your kids now, Ben?"

"Oh, letís see," he stared up at the ceiling, mentally calculating. "Brian will be twenty-two this year, Kathryn fifteen, and Kelsey will be twelve."

"Twenty-two," she whispered absently, watching as her baby was passed into another set of arms, more staff gathering. "Wow. I canít imagine that."

"It goes fast. Trust me." Ben looked down at his pager, which was vibrating against his hip. "Got to run. It was great seeing the baby again, Willow. See you Monday."

"Bye, Ben."

 

"Did she like it?" Rachel asked, stuffing her mouth with salad drown in Italian dressing.

"She loved it," Willow grinned, eyes sparkling. "You should have seen her. A kid in a candy store. So adorable. And, oh! I havenít even told you the best part yet."

"Whatís that?" the redhead popped a crouton into her mouth, crunching it loudly.

"She wrote a song for Emma."

"No!"

"Yes. Itís so beautiful. Itís called ĎMy Angelí. I started to cry. I donít know," she put a hand to her chest, trying to find the words. "nothing has ever touched me like that. She really loves my baby, and that makes me so happy, and so relieved, you know? Like if something ever happened to me, I know Christine would take care of Emma."

"Wow," Rachel whistled. "Thatís a whole ton of trust.

"I know, and from someone who doesnít trust easily." Willow sipped her water, smiling at a nurse who passed by their table in the hospitalís cafeteria.

"What about the other stuff?"

"What other stuff?"

"You know, the night-before-she-left-for-New York-other-stuff."

"Oh," Willow put her bottle down, swallowing before she answered that loaded question. "Weíve talked about it. I flat told her that I was just being a friend for her, that there was no worries, or reason to be afraid. I didnít hate her, didnít judge her. I told her it was beautiful and letís leave it at that."

"What did she say?"

Willow shrugged. "Not much." Leaning her chin on her hand, she watched as Rachel mixed her salad around some more, then stabbed a forkful, putting it all into her mouth. "I sense somethingís off, still. I donít know. I canít really put my finger on it." Her face scrunched up as she thought about it.

"Like what?"

"Well, sheís been back from California for a few weeks, and things are great. I mean, we get along as wonderfully as we always did, and she adores Emma, plays with her, offers to feed her, change her, you name it. She plays a lot, out in her little music room. Sheís so cute," her smile returned. Rachel watched her carefully. Something was missing from the blonde, and she couldnít quite figure out what it was.

"Trouble in paradise, huh?" she put her fork down, wiping her mouth with the cheap paper napkin sheíd gotten out of the chrome dispenser.

"I donít know." Willow looked down, glancing over to see Mary and another nurse holding Emma, chatting quietly. It had taken a great deal of coercion for her to allow the two other women to keep hold of her daughter.

"Sure you do. Out with it."

"Sheís so distant," Willow said, almost a rushed whisper, falling out of her mouth before she even had time to think about it.

"What do you mean, Ďdistantí?" Rachel pushed the plastic bowl her salad was in away, pulling the wrapped cookie front and center.

"Well, physically. Christine is actually a very affectionate person, very physical. Hugs, playful nudges, a quick squeeze in passing. Things like that, you know?"

"But not so much lately?"

"Not so much, no. It seems that even if I look like I want a hug, or am getting too physically close to her, she either steps away, or magically has something already in her arms. Often times itís Emma," she nodded toward the table two doors down.

"Interesting. And this started when she got back from New York?"

"No, more when she got back from Los Angeles. I donít know. That first night was really bad. I mean, I wanted to cry, but it was almost like something clicked in her head, and she was basically normal. I figured maybe sheíd had a bad visit with her publicist, I mean the news wasnít good,"

"Right,"

"She was so wonderful when I showed her the music room, full of hugs," she smiled at the memory. "God, that woman can hug."

"Among other things," Rachel snickered, earning herself a glare.

"But, after that night, again, like something flickered inside her, flickered off this time, she keeps her distance now. Hugs are far and few in between. Sheíll sit on the couch with me, but curled up against the opposite arm."

"When she does that, do you curl up against her?"

"I did once, and she let me, didnít move away, dangled her arm over my shoulder. But I donít do that anymore."

"Why not?" Rachel offered the blonde a piece of her gooey cookie, which was taken. Green eyes studied the treat, finger poking at a particularly large chocolate chip.

"Because Iím not about to force her. If she needs her space, wants her space, whatever, who am I to take it?"

"Hmm," Rachel sighed, staring at her own cookie for a moment, thinking. "Wills, I donít want to hurt you with this question, but I have to ask it."

"Okay," Willow felt her heart stop.

"Do you think maybe she doesnít want to be there? Maybe she wants to leave but doesnít know how to tell you?"

"No, I donít. Iíve thought about that, too. A lot. But I watch her, see how she is with the baby, with the ranch, Star. Heck, even with me. I honestly donít think thatís it. I just donít know. Itís like it deals with me specifically."

"Ah hah."

"Do you think itís me? Did I do something wrong?"

"Well," Rachel thought about it for a moment, turning everything around in her mind that she possibly could, going over any and all information she had about Christine, and any and all events that had happened between them.

Willow turned her attention back to her chunk of cookie, unable to look at Rachel, afraid of she might see there.

"I think she wants you."

"What?!" Willow choked on the bite sheíd taken, spitting it out into the palm of her hand. Rachel grimaced.

"Yuck."

"Youíre nuts."

"No. I really think thatís it. I think she wants you, and it scares her to death."

"I just donít know, Rach,"

"Whatís to know? Think about it, Wills. I want you to watch her; catch her looking at you. Watch as she watches you walk away, stares at your breasts. Whatever."

"I donít think thatís it," Willow insisted. The redhead shrugged.

"Then Iím at a loss for you. Weíll just have to agree to disagree on this, cause I know Iím right." Rachel began to gather all of her trash, tossing it all on the orange, plastic tray. "You done?" she asked, tapping Willowís water bottle. At the nod she got, she tossed it on top of the heap. "I have to get back to work. Man, getting used to these days is kicking my butt."

Standing with her friend, Willow nodded absently, only partially hearing what Rachel said. Her mind was focused primarily on Rachelís words, and Christineís actions.

"Huh?" she said, realizing sheíd missed something.

"I said, how do you feel? What do you want for this happy, albeit strange, little family youíve got going?"

"I donít know," Willow said miserably, walking next to her friend, headed back to the ER. "To be perfectly honest, Iím very confused." She pulled them to the side, ducking inside a cavernous doorway. "Itís like I think about that night sometimes, Rachel. I know it was under extremely painful and stressful circumstances for her, but I have never felt so loved during sex in all my life. It was like, yes, my body was loved, it felt good, all that stuff. But," she paused, again trying to find the words that so easily eluded her where Christine was concerned. "it was all of me, like she reached inside my chest, grabbed my heart and squeezed as hard as she could until it almost hurt. Somehow I donít think my heart has ever been the same."

Rachel studied Willow for a long time, looking deeply into her eyes, almost as if into her soul, Willow thought.

"Willow, I want you to think about this, and I want you to think about it long and hard. In my personal, professional, medical opinion, your heart hurts because youíre in love with her, and afraid, unwilling or unable to tell her how you feel. I donít even know if you fully understand it. Also in my personal, professional and medical opinion, I think you two belong together." She paused, waiting for the blondeís reaction, mentally trying to remember how many bandages and bottle of aspirin she had at her station were she to need it. When the blonde said nothing, nor did any body parts start to fly, she continued. "I think if anything is to come of this, if anything is to happen, itís going to have to be because you start it. I donít know what that it is, thatís for you to figure out and decide. But sheís afraid, and I donít think sheíll ever fully admit what you mean to her."

"Youíre serious, arenít you?"

"Completely."

Willow sighed, nodding. "I heard you, everything you said. I just donít know. Itís nothing I can think about or decide right now."

"I know," Rachel grabbed her friend, giving her a quick hug in support. "I know whatever you do itíll be the right thing for you both. Now," she stepped back into the hallway. "I have to get going. Go find your baby." With a quick smile, she was gone.

Willow used the few minutes she had alone to think, walking down the halls, hands stuffed into her pockets.

Rachelís words rattled around her brain, and she tried to catch one now and then, like a Venus fly trap snapping for a morsel of truth. She thought about Christineís behavior, and trying to be as objective and unemotionally connected as possible, wondered if just maybe Rachel was right.

Christine seemed to walk on egg shells around her, though didnít treat her any differently in any other way. They still joked, talked endlessly. She still felt that bond and connection with the singer, but also felt Christine very obviously limiting physical contact between them. She honestly didnít think it was Christineís fear anymore of having hurt Willow, or overstepped her bounds that night. She felt they had discussed that as open and honestly as possible, and felt good about it.

And how did she feel about Christine? She loved her, of course. That was easy enough. Could she imagine herself and Christine living the way they were now? Basically as best friends who happened to be roommates? And who just happened to be raising a baby together? Somehow Willow couldnít see Christine moving out at any time soon, if at all. The singer was happy, that much she knew.

Okay, so they got the cohabitation thing down. They got along completely, rarely disagreed, and if they did, they always managed to find some way to get around or through it.

That left physicality.

Willow by nature was an extremely affectionate person. She couldnít live without it, and knew that much. Okay, so say Christine starts acting her old self the next day, and the blonde got her daily dose of hugs, squeezes and pats. Was that enough to sustain her?

This was a niggling question. No, it wasnít, but at the same time, she absolutely could not see herself going out and finding some random guy to full around with and get her rocks off. Did that have to do with Kevin? Perhaps she wasnít totally over him?

Willow grimaced with a small growl.

Okay, moving on. Making love with Christine. Willow smiled, arms crossing her chest, almost as if she were hugging herself. She didnít feel ashamed at the thought or memory, but curiously excited, curious, anticipatory. Willowís immediate instinct told her to shake that thought off in revolt or as just plain lunacy, desperation and loneliness.

Somehow that didnít seem right. In fact, it seemed dead wrong. She cleared her throat, which helped to clear her mind.

Okay. Can you imagine yourself having sex with Christine again?

Willow waited for the answer to come to her.

No. What I can see is my making love to her. Bringing her the peace that I did last time.

She was surprisingly calm at this revelation. She also now realized that it had slowly been coming for some time now. Everything that she had taken for one thing, had been something entirely different in actuality. What sheíd taken for her nerves at this famous woman visiting was actually nerves for Christine visiting. When her heart rate increased and her mouth went dry, hands fidgeting, which happened so often, it wasnít the flu, or a cold, or heat flashes, or any other craziness sheís managed to come up with. It was because Christine was near, was next to her, or was coming. It was all about Christine.

Okay, so the physical was taken care of. What about the rest of it? Was it something she could handle? What people thought of her? She was no dummy, and knew how cruel people were, could be. Yes, she was afraid of what people might think of her. Sheíd worked long and hard to be a liked, respected member of the community and hospital. Would that change?

Looking around as she walked, passing fellow staff, some she knew, most she didnít, she couldnít help but wonder. She had been very pleasantly surprised when after the article had broke about her in Texas with Christine, as well as seeing Willowís half-naked body on the cover of the newest smut, most who asked did so out of genuine curiosity. She had not been judged or whispered about. Well, not that she knew of, anyway.

Was it worth it?

Willow sighed, her head hurting from so much thought. She gathered up her daughter, and was on her way, escaping into the mid-May afternoon. It was beautiful out, and she wished Christine were with her, and they could take Emma to the park.

She contemplated calling the house, but didnít want to bring that much attention to them after the recent mess the press had caused. Instead, she went home.

)))

Christine rested her hands on her thighs, head hanging in defeat. The music wasnít coming to her tonight. No, not just that; the music was tormenting her, coming to just within reach of her creative fingers and then laughing evilly as it fell back into the darkness.

She growled, the bench screeching as she shoved it back, getting to her feet.

"Damn it!" she yelled out to the empty room, throwing her pencil, watching it hit a wall and tink to the floor.

Christine ran her hands through her hair, pacing like a wild animal. Glancing out the window, she saw that night had fallen. Sheíd been at it all day, every day, for the past week. It wasnít coming to her, and it was really pissing her off.

She was also hiding. She didnít like to admit that part to herself. She was scared. How could one little blonde, all one hundred and twenty pounds of her, scare her so bad? But she did.

Christine was finding that she was getting short tempered, fidgety, and her mind was less than cooperative when it came to concentrating on her music. It was almost like her muse had gone on vacation, and she was frustrated, damn it!

"Okay," she breathed, sitting at the keyboard once more. "I can do this."

 

Willow looked down at her bundled daughter, tucked into the baby seat in the back of Rachelís car.

"You know, we can do this another time," the redhead reassured.

"No," taking a deep breath, the blonde took a step back, the cool night air caressing her face. "I can do this."

"Sheíll be fine,"

"Of course sheíll be fine." Willow smiled, though she didnít believe it for a moment. "You have all the bottles? Prepared? Remember, test them on your wrist, donít make it too hot-"

"Willow!" Rachel took her friend by the shoulders, shaking her lightly. "Sheíll be fine, okay? I do have nieces and nephews, you know. I know what Iím doing."

"Okay." Willow nervously ran her hands through her hair. "I can do this, and Emma will be fine." Rachel smiled, taking her friend into a hug. Willow clung to her for a moment, shivering. Rachel wasnít sure if it was from the chill night air, or other.

"I support you," she said into the blondeís ear before giving her a soft kiss on the cheek.

"Thank you." Willow gave her a genuine smile for the first time. "Now go before I change my mind."

"You got it." Rachel closed the back passenger door, then walked around the car to the driverís side, Willow waving at her sleeping daughter through the window. Slipping behind the wheel, Rachel called quietly out to her friend. Willow looked at her. "I want a full report!" she hissed. Willow rolled her eyes and waved her friend off.

 

Left hand resting on the keys, Christine reached up and made a couple marks on the score, flipping the pencil around to erase a couple mistakes, then flipped it back around to make more marks.

Clenching the number two between her teeth, she brought her right hand down to join its twin, played everything she had written all in one shot. Stopping about mid-way, she brought eraser to paper once more.

As she rubbed out a really bad choice, she heard the baby monitor that rested next to her sheet music, crackle to life.

"Christine?" The singer pushed the button for hands free walkie mode.

"Yeah?" she asked, drawing a quarter note.

"Could you come upstairs for a minute? Iím having a wee bit of trouble in the main bathroom."

"Kay. Be there in a minute," she muttered, slightly irritated as the song was starting to come together. Finally with a sigh, she headed out. It was late, and she figured she was probably finished for the night, so she flicked the switch, shrouding the music room into darkness.

The night was surprisingly chilly for May, and Christine felt Goosebumps erupt across her arms. Mounting the stairs, her shoes made hollow thuds, echoing in the quiet night.

"Willow?" she called out, closing and locking the front door behind her.

"Iím up here," the blonde called down.

"Who was here earlier?"

"Rachel stopped by for a couple minutes."

Nodding in acknowledgement of the comment, Christine made her way up the creaky stairs. She wondered if there was some way to fix that without rebuilding half the house. But then again, it would come in handy as Emma got older.

"Whatís up?" she asked, pushing the bathroom door, which had been half closed, fully open. The question died on her lips when she saw the flicker of candle light. The room was filled with candles, all aflame, the only light in the room. She also realized she smelled roses, which brought her attention to the Roman tub. It was filled with steaming water, rose petals floating across its glossy surface.

The door softly clicked closed behind her. Turning, she saw Willow, who held very fluffy white towels in her arms, and a smile on her face.

"Alright, you," she said, laying the towels on the toilet lid, and walking over to the stunned singer. "I want you to get in that tub, close your eyes and relax." She took the pencil out of Christineís limp hand, gently laying it on the counter next to the sink. "Come on," she encouraged when Christine didnít move. She gently nudged the singer to the edge of the tub, pushing on her shoulders. Christine sat, looking up at the blonde like she was nuts.

Willow knelt down, untying both of her shoes, and tossing them to the floor, followed by her socks. Standing, she pulled Christine to her feet.

"I donít want to see you for at least an hour. You understand me?"

Christine nodded dumbly, watching as Willow made a silent exit from the room, closing the door behind her. Feeling like sheíd just been hit over the head, Christine turned back toward the room, seeing all that Willow had done. She smiled when she saw the disc player in the corner, next to the tub, a stack of the singerís favorite CDís on top. Next to that was a small stack of magazines, and the novel she was reading.

A long, slow sigh escaped from between Christineís lips as her body slipped into the water, just this side of too hot. Her entire body in, water reaching to the tops of her breasts, she knotted her hair back, and rested her head against the inflatable pillow Willow had suctioned to the porcelain.

The music of Delirium filled the room. ĎLamentationí began itís more than eight minute run, sinking into her bones. The sensuous tones bringing chills to her flesh, making her ever grateful for the hot water.

The tension between Christineís shoulders began to slowly untie, her shoulders relaxing, hands floating limply atop the water, toes curling and uncurling as pleasure rippled through her. She smiled as a rose petal tickled her breast as it lazily floated by.

As the music began to build, itís incredibly sexy beat took Christine with it. She closed her eyes, sighing deeply as she imagined Willow before her closed lids, body moving sensuously in time with it, hands slowly running down her own body, and her eyes locked onto the singer, beckoning her, daring her, wanting her.

Christineís body was on fire, just the mere thought of the gorgeous blonde nearly wiping her out. The images were so real, so raw, that if she hadnít known any better, she would have thought Willow was in the room with her, sliding her hands down over Christineís wet skin, dragging her nails back up.

The singer shivered, whimpering quietly as the frustration she had begun to lose slowly began to build once more, right dead center between her legs. She had been fighting the attraction to Willow for, well, in all reality, for months now, but consciously, for weeks. Sheíd always felt a connection to Willow, a bond, but sheíd always been more than fine with the physical aspects. Yes, Willow was a very beautiful woman, but other than that one indiscretion on the beach, Christine had been fine with it.

Until that night. After that night, everything changed. Everything. Now she couldnít get Willow out of her mind. She was terrified of the little blonde, and had no idea what to do about any of this. These feelings were new to her, and she was trying to run from them.

But god, the way Willowís body had felt against her.

Shaking herself out of her lustful daze, she reached down, grabbing her novel, doing her best to distract herself, and ignore her bodyís pleading for some release. She was in there to relax, not get more keyed up.

 

One hour and seventeen minutes later, Christine wrapped herself in one of the huge, soft towels Willow had left for her, wet hair slicked down her back. She blew out the candles, the small room filling with smoke, and opened the bathroom door. Feeling something soft and cool under her bare foot, she looked down, seeing more rose petals. After a moment, she realized they were put together in the shape of an arrow, and it was pointing toward the blondeís bedroom.

Brow raised, she followed it, seeing the door slightly ajar. More flickering inside.

"Come on in," Willow said, her voice soft on the other side of the door. Swallowing hard, and fighting the very strong urge to run, Christine pushed the door open the rest of the way.

At first Willow was nowhere to be seen, so the brunette concentrated on the scattered candles, the bed, turned down to the fitted sheet, and a tray resting near the pillows, various bottles atop it.

"Come on, donít be shy," the blonde said, suddenly appearing from around the door. Christineís eyes widened, taking in the silky gown she wore, reaching to not quite mid-thigh. The spaghetti straps showed off strong shoulders, candle light licking across their definition. She tried not to stare as blue eyes landed on full breasts, hugged by the satin.

"Uh, whatís going on?" Christine finally asked, meeting Willowís eyes.

"Come on," the blonde said, taking Christineís hand, ignoring her question. She was pulled to the bed where she was instructed to lie down on her stomach. Doing as asked, she felt the soft sheets beneath her overheated skin. Glancing at the tray of bottles not far from her head, she saw that they were all various types of massage oil. "Relax," was cooed to her, a hand on the back of her head, gently pushing it toward the pillow.

Christine tried to do just that, but it was proving quiet difficult. She felt the mattress give under Willowís weight as she kneeled next to her.

"Lift just a bit,"

Christine did, panicking for a moment as she felt the towel that was wrapped around her very naked body being pulled out from under her. She was able to relax a wee bit when she remained covered, Willow just bringing the terry cloth down a bit to reveal her back.

Strong hands gently pulled her hair out from around the singerís neck, making her shiver again. Hair all tucked to the side, she closed her eyes, trying to Ďseeí with her ears. The silky material of Willowís gown whispering against her naked back as the blonde reached over her to grab one of the bottles. There was a squirting sound, and then the palms of Willowís hands being rubbed together to warm the oil.

Christineís mind wanted to scream for her to stop this, to run far, hide and not have to face this, but she couldnít move. She was paralyzed to do anything but lie there, feeling those warm hands lie on her back, then move over the expanse, smoothing the slick oil into the skin.

"Youíve been so tense lately," Willow said softly, belying the strength in her hands as they rubbed and pressed, even coaxing a small moan out of the singer.

"Hmm," Christine said in response, making the blonde smile. "Youíre good at this."

"Well, lucky for you one of my instructors in nursing school was a strong believer in us getting certified in massage therapy. It helps with the patients who are either bed-ridden, or are just too sick to get up and walk around. You see," she explained, rubbing more oil into Christineís skin, "by keeping the blood flowing, it helps them keep muscle tone, as well as the use of limbs. Things donít cramp up."

"Mmm," Christine purred as Willow hit a particularly tense spot. "Smart move," she groaned.

Willow looked down at the gorgeous skin beneath her hands, the muscles that littered Christineís upper back, her hands wandering over them, feeling them, caressing them. Her eyes and her hands wandered a bit lower, concentrating on the singerís lower back, nudging the towel to just above her wonderfully beautiful backside.

"God, that feels good," Christine whispered into the pillow, her fingers relaxing from the fists theyíd been clenched in at her sides.

"Iím glad," Willow whispered, her hands moving back up Christineís sides, fingertips barely grazing the skin, finding the brunetteís arms, and gently pushing them up and out, Christineís length almost claiming the width of the bed. Her eyes roamed unabashed down her spine, then they found her own hands, which had moved up to Christineís shoulders again. "Relax," she breathed, words blowing across Christineís skin, making her shiver.

Willowís hands, which had been kneading the skin of Christineís shoulders and upper arms, traveled down, over the upper back, nails dragging down the spine, then slowly working their way back up to the shoulders and across. She smiled when she heard another soft moan breathed out, the brunetteís hips adjusting themselves a bit.

Taking this as a good sign, her nails turned to fingers, gliding over the slick skin, daring to dip down, brushing ever so lightly against the rounded curve of the outside of Christineís breasts, making the singer gasp quietly.

Willow moved down the bed, fingers massaging their way down, gliding over Christineís covered backside, down to the backs of her thighs, hands finally coming to contact with naked skin again at the backs of the singerís knees. Rubbing more oil into her hands, Willow brought them to the calves, muscles flexing under the skin as Christineís body tensed and released, tensed and released.

"Relax. Iím not going to hurt you," she whispered, smoothing the tension out of the calves with a stroke of her hands. Moving off the bed completely, Willow concentrated her effort to Christineís feet, lifting one off the bed, watching the singerís hamstring flex with the movement. She rubbed her thumbs into the balls of Christineís feet, making her groan louder, foot flinching slightly at the bit of tickle she felt.

Willow looked up the length of Christineís body, amazed once again at what a truly beautiful woman she really was. A perfect specimen.

"You are such a beautiful woman, Christine," she said softly, moving to the other foot, her movements slowly, turning into more caressing than massaging.

"Thank you," the singer whispered, her eyes never opening.

"I remember that first concert of yours I went to, the one that Rachel went with me," her hands slid up the right calf, fingers pressing here and there, thumb caressing in their wake. "Looking up at you on that stage, seeing how crazy all the women went, wow," she breathed. "amazing. I understood why they screamed hysterically." Willow smiled slightly, nails tracing the backs of Christineís knees. The singer whimpered softly, eyes opening just a it. "So beautiful. So sexy,"

Willowís hands found the backs of the singerís thighs, feeling their strength mixed with softness, running further up, brushing under the towel, the rise of a beautiful backside meeting her exploring fingers. Finally they were filled with the flesh, Willow watching the movement under the terry cloth, squeezing, kneading, cupping.

Christine let out a long breath, doing her best to not open her thighs. She suddenly realized that the towel was gone, the cool air in the room hitting the entirety of the naked backside of her body.

Willow climbed back onto the bed, slowly, deliberately, one thigh stretching across Christineís. She slowly lowered herself until she was sitting astride Christineís backside.

Christine groaned as she realized the blonde wasnít wearing panties, her naked wetness grazing her own skin.

"So lovely," Willow whispered, hands caressing the skin of the singerís hips, trailing back up her sides, fingernails blazing a trail across the sides of her breasts again. She leaned down, satin covered breasts grazing Christineís back, nipples hardening at the contact. "Turn over, baby," she whispered into the singerís ear before laying a gentle kiss on the back of her neck.

Willow lifted herself slightly as she felt the body beneath hers turn. Lying on her back now, Christine looked up at the goddess that was Willow, straddling her, breasts heaving with every excited breath she took.

Her gaze traveled down that satin-covered body, seeing bare thighs, which she rested warm hands upon.

"Youíre the beautiful one," she whispered, knowing now that she had lost the battle, the war, everything. There was nothing she could refuse Willow, and she was tired of trying.

The blonde smiled at that, her hands resting on Christineís stomach, feeling the muscles flinch under her touch. Those hands moved up, green eyes following their progress. Willow was once again awed by the beauty of Christine. Her skin soft, supple, beautiful. Breasts, full with rigid nipples, which her fingers found.

Christine hissed, eyes closing as Willow palmed her. Willow was fascinated by the other womanís reactions to her, responses. She watched as Christine arched up into her hands, then a small whimper escaped as Willow held the nipples between forefinger and thumb, squeezing, twisting, testing.

Strong hands began to slowly glide up Willowís thighs, under her negligee, up to her hips, which had started a very slow movement, matching that below her. She closed her eyes, feeling her sex come alive as it slowly rocked against Christine.

Those hands didnít stay on her hips long. Soon they were once again on the move, gliding up her stomach, then up over her own breasts. Willowís head fell back, her nipples so sensitive. Lips were suddenly on her exposed throat, and Willow wasnít going to miss a chance.

Bringing her head down, she caught Christineís mouth, wanting to devour it, but stopping herself. She wanted this to be special, something theyíd both remember for as long as they lived, no matter what happened tomorrow.

She held her forehead against Christineís, their lips a hairís width apart.

"I love you, Christine," she said, her hands moving up into the singerís hair. "Iím in love with you,"

"Oh, Willow," Christine breathed, hands caressing the skin of the side of Willowís face. "Iíve tried to fight it, to push you away, but I canít anymore,"

"Donít,"

"No. I love you, too."

Willow smiled against her lips, feeling the gesture returned, then gently brushed her lips across Christineís, feeling them respond, moving against her own, moving together. Slow open sweeps of their mouths, breasts touching, Christine pulling Willowís hips further into her own, making the blonde gasp, their hips beginning to rock slightly.

"Iím scared," Christine whispered, flicking her tongue against Willowís upper lip.

"Oh," the blonde sighed, "I am, too. But youíre worth it." She deepened the kiss, sighing into Christineís mouth as she felt the brunetteís tongue meet her own. She was lost, heart, body and soul.

The cool night air kissed her skin as her negligee was lifted up and over her arms, naked breasts pressed against Christineís. She still couldnít get over how soft the singer was- her breasts, her skin, her lips. Everything a man wasnít. It was intoxicating.

Christine fell back onto the bed, taking the blonde with her, the kiss never breaking. Rolling them over, she was lying between Willowís legs, which wrapped around her.

Bringing a hand up, Christine cupped one of the blondeís breasts, making Willow moan into her mouth. Moving her hips a bit, Willow moaned again. Christine reached down, gently nudging the blondeís legs far apart, then she reached between their bodies, gently stroking Willowís sex with her fingers, which were instantly covered. She opened herself up, moving until her own swollen clit moved against Willowís.

Willow gasped, clutching Christine to her. She had never felt anything like it, the pleasure ripping through her, intense and wet.

Christine brought her hand back up, and painted Willowís nipple with that that covered her fingers. Hips moving slowly, she bend down, snaking her tongue out, swiping across the pebbled flesh, making Willow cry out. She was careful not to suckle, as Willow was still nursing, but she licked away every drop of the blondeís desire.

Willowís back arched, her body on overload from sensation.

Hips moving faster, Christine returned to Willowís mouth, the kiss deep and passionate, both panting as their pleasure grew, so close to the breaking point.

Eyes opening and pulling back a bit, Christine looked down at Willow, seeing her face flushed, lips glistening, mouth open. Green eyes slowly slid open, and looked so deeply into Christineís that the singer felt it to her core.

Willowís breath came in short bursts as she felt her body becoming engulfed in pleasure, then explode. She cried out, clinging to the singer, unable to catch her breath. Christine buried her face in Willowís neck as she, too, was lost.

Her hips stopped, and Willow wrapped her arms and legs around Christine, raining tiny kisses along the side of her head and face, her body still pulsing.

Finally finding her way back to the land of the living, Christine lifted herself, laying a gentle kiss on Willowís lips, then she began to kiss a trail down the blondeís neck, licking the hollow of her throat.

Willowís eyes closed, losing herself in sensation as she felt Christineís hands and mouth everywhere. She was amazed she could still go on. Typically one orgasm wiped her out, but she couldnít stop the singer if she wanted to. She just wanted to lose herself in Christine.

Green eyes popped open as she felt her legs being gently placed over strong shoulders. She looked down the length of her body, saw Christineís head, and felt soft kisses on the insides of her thighs.

She waited in nervous anticipation as she felt those lips nearing her sex, still overheated from a few moments ago. Gasping loudly, Willowís head fell back into the pillows as a tongue glided its way through her wetness, ending up at her clit, which was sucked into a hot mouth.

"Oh my god," she moaned, hands finding their way into the brunetteís hair. She was lost, her body feeling things sheíd never known were possible to feel. It was so intense, almost painfully so. She cried out as Christineís fingers entered her, tongue still working through her wetness.

Christine murmured happily as she lavished Willow with as much pleasure as possible. She was starting to have a tough time keeping the blonde under her control, her hips bucking, body moving. Willow was getting close, so Christine decided to let her have it.

Concentrating completely on the blondeís clit, she used both hands to hold her down, hold her to her mouth.

"Christine, oh god, baby," Willow felt as though she were becoming separated from her body, her mind drifting, useless, as her entire being began to pulse, building, building, until she cried out, thrusting her head back as she exploded once again.

Christine held on for dear life, milking Willowís body for all it was worth, making the blonde convulse a second time, then a third. Only when she was begged to stop did she, climbing up the blondeís body, and taking her into her arms.

Willow buried her face in the singerís chest, her breathing still erratic and gaspy. She calmed, hearing the soft words Christine spoke to her, telling her beautiful she was, how amazing and wonderful.

She pulled back slightly, looking into Christineís face, so beautiful and peaceful. Caressing the singerís cheek, she smiled.

"Thank you," she said, laying a soft kiss on the singerís lips, tasting herself there.

"For what?" Christine asked, laying a kiss of her own on Willowís forehead.

"For not running away again." Willow looked deeply into Christineís eyes, wanting her to know that there was no reason to run, no reason to hide. Christine smiled, shaking her head.

"No more. Iím terrified, and I hope youíll be patient with me, but I donít want to run anymore." She moved to her side, holding her head up on her hand, her other hand tracing lazy patterns on Willowís stomach.

"What do you want?" Willow asked, teasing a few tendrils of Christineís dark hair.

"I want to be with you and Emma," she said simply.

"What about the life youíve known? The fans, adoration, big city? Wonít you miss your normal life?"

"Sweetie, this, being here with you, has been the most normal life Iíve ever had, and you give me such peace. Iíd be a fool to give that up," she whispered, kissing the blonde, who kissed her back, hand lazily running through Christineís hair.

Christine was slowly pushed onto her back, the blonde following suit, situating herself atop her. The kiss continued, slow and languorous. The singer sighed into it, pulling Willow closer.

As they kissed, Willowís hand began to explore. Her fingers ran down until they were once again cupping one of Christineís breasts.

"You have such beautiful breasts," she whispered into Christineís mouth. "So soft,"

Christineís eyes closed, a soft moan escaping as Willow left her mouth, lips and tongue tasting her throat, tongue leaving a fiery trail down between her breasts.

Willow looked at those breasts, marveling at their texture and feel. She weighed their heft in her hands, then slowly brought her head down, eyes slipping shut as she sampled the nipple with her tongue. She was encouraged by the soft sigh released above her, and tongued the nipple again. She loved Christineís response to her touch, and took the entire thing into her mouth.

"Oh, Willow," Christine sighed, hand gently running through the shaggy blonde strands. Pleasure coursed through her body, ending smack dab between her legs. Willow sucked the nipple into her mouth, running her tongue over it. She gasped in surprise as she felt a hand trail itís way between her legs, fingers brushing the hair they found there.

Willow was in tactile heaven as she felt Christineís body- the textures, nuances, differences and similarities to her own. She groaned in appreciation when she felt the hot wetness meet her fingers. Running them down the entire length of Christineís seam, she felt her opening, finger shyly tucking inside.

"Yes, baby. Go inside, please," the singer breathed, almost holding her breath as she waited to see what the blonde would do next.

Willow moaned again as her finger was almost sucked inside, surrounded by tight warmth, so hot.

Lifting her head from Christineís breast, she looked down at her hand, mouth open in wonder as she watched her finger slide out, then back in again, slicing through the wetness.

"Incredible," she whispered, slowly pushing back in, adding a second finger. Christine gasped again, hips bucking as she was filled more, her hand reaching down to caress any part of Willow she could find.

Spurred on, her own heart beginning to race, Willow returned to Christineís breast, experimenting, seeing how she could pleasure this woman she loved so deeply, wanting to end all her pain.

Christine felt like she was flying, her body no longer attached to her brain, her hips bucking, begging Willow to move faster, back arched offering herself up to the blonde, giving her everything she had to give.

When she couldnít take anymore, her world collided with that of Willow, and both were blown apart, Christineís cry heralding the blast. Her mind, body and spirit flew apart, coming back together as a stronger, more whole person.

She lay there, hand across her eyes as she tried to get herself back together. She felt Willow climb up beside her and hold her. Small kisses on her face, lips, neck, back to lips, Christine was in safe warmth.

Willow held her, rocking her slowly, for a moment afraid when she felt wetness against her own neck, where Christineís face was buried. She worried sheíd hurt her somehow, but somewhere inside she knew that wasnít it. She held her in silent understanding, vowing to never let her go again. Ever.

ContinuedÖ

Part 17

"The sunís coming up," Christine said, glancing out the window. She ran her hand absently through Willowís hair. The blonde lay between her legs, head resting on the singerís stomach.

"Mm," Willow responded with a contented sigh. "Are you tired?" She turned her head, chin now resting on the flat stomach. Christine looked down at her, other hand tucked behind her head. She shook her head.

"Interestingly enough, no."

"Me, either."

Christine groaned and growled as she stretched, taking the blonde with her as her body arched.

"How do you feel?" Willow asked, getting herself settled again.

"Hmm," Christine sighed, thinking, hand still playing. "happy, content, satisfied. Sore." Willow chuckled at that last one, totally able to sympathize.

"Who know?" she whispered, climbing up to lay beside the brunette, blonde head resting on her shoulder. "I feel like I could run out to the streets right now and tell the world how much I love you." She raised her head, smiling down at the beautiful woman smiling up at her.

"I know what you mean. Not entirely sure how wise that would be, but I do understand. Come Ďere," she pulled the blonde even closer, wrapping her arms around her, slowly pulling Willowís body atop hers, blonde head tucked under her chin. Christine smiled, unable to stop it. She felt like a different person, reborn. She felt like writing all those corny love songs people love to listen to, finally able to understand the lyrics behind them.

"What are you smiling about?"

Christine looked to see Willow looking at her, a smirk curling up one side of her mouth. The singer shook her head, embarrassed.

"No. Itís nothing."

"Bull honkey. After everything weíve been doing all night, I see no reason why youíd be suddenly shy." Just to prove her point, she playfully nipped one of the singerís nipples, making Christine yelp in surprise.

"Alright. I was just thinking that finally all those stupid songs make sense. And all those Meg Ryan movies I hated to watch. Now I feel like popping ĎWhen Harry Met Sallyí into the DVD player."

Willow chuckled, completely charmed. "God, I love you."

"I love you, too."

"We are saps, arenít we?"

"íFraid so."

"Ah, well," Willow laid her head back down, sighing in utter happiness. "The world will just have to get used to us."

They were quiet, both lost in her own head, mainly replaying the incredible turn of events over the past twelve hours.

Willow kept seeing pivotal moments in the night- a sigh, a kiss, or a look of rapture on Christineís face. Her body was too sore to relive any of it, but it still burned at the thought. Nothing could have prepared her for what it was actually like to make love to the woman beneath her.

Yes, their first night together after Adamís death, had been amazing. But it paled so vastly to the night and morning theyíd shared. She had never experienced anything like it. Not even with Kevin.

"When is Rachel bringing Emma back?" Christine asked, inadvertently breaking Willowís train of thought. The blonde smiled.

"How did you know she was with Rachel?"

"A simple matter of deduction. You wouldnít trust her with anyone else, plus you mentioned Rachel had stopped by for a few." Christineís chuckle reverberated through the blondeís body.

"Yes, well, I couldnít very well say, Rachel came by to pick Emma so we could be alone as I seduced you, now could I?"

"Might have been fun," Christine pulled the blonde to her, her gentle kiss quickly deepening, so passionate. However, though the spirit was certainly willing, the flesh was sore and chafed.

Pulling away after some minutes, Willow smiled. "What do you want for breakfast?"

)))

"What?" Willow finally asked, holding the charts sheíd just grabbed to her chest. She eyed the doctor, brows knit suspiciously.

"Well, Iím just trying to figure out who put some Tinkerbell dust in your Wheaties, because honey, youíve been practically floating for the past week." Maureen Halston said with a wide smile.

"Oh," the blonde grinned.

"See? There it is again." The doctor leaned against the nurseís station counter, genuinely curious and happy for the sweet nurse with the even sweeter baby girl.

"Well, itís. Itís just that Iím happy, I guess," Willow said, beaming.

"Thatís obvious. I think you could power all of Oklahoma City with that mega watt smile youíve got going. Come on, tell me your secret."

Willow looked around, making sure no one was listening, then turned back to the older woman who had helped her through so many things, both personally and professionally.

"Okay, but you canít tell anyone, Maureen, okay? Itís still kind of under wraps."

"Alright," face becoming serious, the pediatrician waited.

"Iím in love," the blonde beamed.

"Oh, honey! Thatís wonderful!" she gathered the younger woman in a quick hug. "Who? Kevin isnít back in the picture is he?"

"Oh, no," Willow waved that idea off. "That ship has sailed. No, itís with someone who is the most wonderful, kind, generous person Iíve ever met," she couldnít keep the smile from her lips. Just the mere thought of Christine made her all warm and fuzzy inside.

"Thatís hard to find."

"Certainly all in one person. Plus, she loves Emma. Heck, I think she almost spends more time with my daughter than I do!"

The smile froze on the older doctorís face. "She?"

"Yeah," Willow gushed, "remember Christine Gray, that friend of mine who was here when Emma was born?"

"The singer,"

"Right,"

Maureen nodded her understanding. "Well, uh, Willow, I must say Iím happy for you." She gave the blonde another quick hug, then hurried away as her beeper vibrated against her leg.

"Thanks," Willow grinned, almost skipping as she headed to the little seven year old boyís room, Alex, that sheíd been looking after for the past few days. Even seeing the little man, so tiny in a big bed, couldnít dampen her spirits. Nope, sheíd found not the fountain of youth, but the fountain of eternal happiness, and oh didnít that constant stream taste good.

She giggled silently at her own naughtiness.

)))

"I canít believe youíre doing this, Christine," Rachel said, holding up a ratty old t-shirt. Scrunching her nose, she tossed it to the trash pile.

"Why? Itís just a bunch of old shirts and pictures," the singer said, rifling through her file cabinet.

"Well, that may be true to you, but to some fan out there, not so much."

Christine shrugged, about to reply when Willow chuckled, grabbing Christine and Rachelís attention.

"Honey, tell me why when I look at this I see Tiffany singing ĎI Think Weíre Alone Nowí in a mall somewhere?" the blonde asked, holding up the old denim Jacket, a few holes ripping their way through.

Christine laughed, turning back to the folders of pictures- publicity shots or stills, and old music. "Thatís probably because you did."

"What?" Rachel asked, walking over to her friend and taking the Jacket from her hands, examining it. "Tell me you didnít know Tiffany," she said dryly.

"When youíre in the business for a long time," Christine let the sentence die off, a grin on her face. The blonde rolled her eyes.

"Donít tell me you knew NKOTB, too?"

"Who?" Willow asked with wrinkled brow.

"Nice group of boys, actually," the singer said, nodding. It was Rachelís turn to roll her eyes in exasperation.

"Who the heck is NKOTB?" Willow asked, hands on hips as she looked from one woman to the other.

"New Kids," Christine said absently, lugging a particularly thick stack of pictures onto her lap, sorting through them.

"Oh."

"I had the biggest crush on Jordan Knight," Rachel said, her voice wistful as she hugged the Jacket to her chest.

"Who didnít?" Christine mumbled.

"And you actually will admit that, Rach?" Willow grinned.

"Oh, I wouldnít talk, blondie. Which one were you more into- Gunner or Matthew?" the redhead asked, fiery brow raised.

"I donít know what youíre talking about," Willow said, quickly turning away. Christine snickered.

"So do you plan to sign everything?" Rachel asked, turning the conversation back. She started to toss the Jacket into the donation pile when Willow tugged the Jacket out of her hands, tossing the Jacket to the trash pile.

"Wait! Hold the phone!" Christine snatched it out, holding it protectively against her, glaring. "This is not leaving this house," she fairly growled.

"Christine," Willow said, hand back on hip. "the thing is disgusting. Itís worn, halfway ripped to shreds, and you are not wearing it in public."

Rachel watched, utterly amused, her head bouncing back and forth between the two women.

"Yeah huh. It stays with me. I have a lot of memories in this Jacket." She caressed it lovingly.

"What, of bubble gum angst? Honey, that thing is ancient."

"Then so am I," Christine said, eyes boring into the blondeís, daring her to try and take it from her again. Willow sighed, throwing her hands up.

"Fine. Keep it. Whatever."

"Thank you," and just to tick the little blonde off a bit more, Christine put it on. Green eyes rolled, but turned to the pile of clothing she had been going through.

"Itís funny," the singer said, moving back to her pile of pictures. "you donít realize how much shit, I mean crap, you have until you have it all shipped to you." She chuckled, looking at all the boxes that were scattered around the music room, clothing draped over her piano, boxes stacked against the wall.

"Well, thatís what happens when youíve got a castle to fill," Rachel grumbled, breaking down the box sheíd just emptied, and tugging her box cutter out of her back pocket to start on another one.

"Castle," Christine snorted.

"Well, I still think itís wonderful that youíre willing to donate all this stuff to the hospitalís auction, honey." Willow walked over to the brunette, moving the pile off her lap, and sitting in their place. Christine wrapped her arms around her.

"Thanks, babe," she said against the blondeís lips before taking them in a soft kiss. Rachel rolled her eyes.

"You know, at first it was cute, but now you two just piss me off," she said, opening the flaps of her new box. Christine and Willow looked over at her.

"Why?" the blonde asked, absently fingering the neckline of Christineís shirt.

"Because Connor isnít that way with me! Do you really think he and I make out all the time? Hell, even when we were first together we didnít do it as often as the two of you do."

Christine eyed Willow, finding a very curious blush sweeping the blondeís features. The trio grew quiet when they heard a car pull up just outside the building. Willow jumped from the singerís lap after a quick kiss, walked over to the window.

"Who is it?" Christine asked, grabbing her pile of pictures for a third time.

"Not sure. Iíll be right back." The blonde made her way outside, knowing that Troy and his agents wouldnít have let this guy in the Cadillac through if he were important.

"Good afternoon," he said, slamming the heavy car door closed, shielding his eyes from the bright, June sun.

"Hi there. What can I do for you?"

"You know these guys, too?" Rachel whined, holding up a snapshot of Christine with the Rolling Stones. The brunette chuckled, shaking her head.

"No, not really. I just happened to bump into them while in London doing a show about ten years ago."

"Wow," Rachel breathed, looking at the pic, her mouth watering as she looked at Mick Jagger, smiling hugely next to the beautiful singer. "Can I have this?" Christine chuckled again.

"Sure."

"Oh, thank you!" About to run over to the singer and give her a big wet one, the redhead stopped in her tracks, the door the music room flinging open, and a very angry little blonde flying in.

"That bastard!" she yelled, voice muffled by the soundproofing. She threw something onto the floor, face red, tears of anger beginning to leak.

"What is it? Sweetie, whatís wrong?" Christine was immediately on her feet, rushing over to the upset blonde, taking her in her arms.

"I hate him," Willow cried, clutching the taller woman.

"Oh, Wills," Rachel sighed, brows draw as she read over the papers sheíd picked up. "I canít believe heís doing this,"

"Whoís doing what?" Christine asked, looking at Rachel over Willowís head. Blue eyes looked up to meet her own.

"Kevinís going to try and take Emma."

"What?!" Christineís eyes flared, making even Rachel shudder.

"How can he do this?" Willow cried, taking the papers from the redheadís hands, re-reading them.

"Heís not. We will fight this," the singer said, making sure the blonde saw her determination.

"I canít believe this," Willow whispered, tears brimming in her eyes. "Heís sighting me as an unfit mother on moral grounds,"

"What?" Rachel flew over to her friend, reading over her shoulder. "Thatís crazy."

"I donít understand," the blonde said, shaking her head, bringing pleading eyes up to Christineís very somber ones.

"I have some calls to make," the singer said, her voice cold, sharp. With that, she walked over to one of the boxes, quickly dug through it, bringing out a small, black book, then was gone.

Willow turned to her friend. "How can he do this to me, Rachel? He didnít even want this baby,"

"I know, honey. Iím stunned. Truly, I am. I never figured Kevin to sink this low. And moral grounds," Rachelís brows drew, confusion filling her eyes. "I donít get it."

"I honestly donít, either." She set the papers on the piano bench, not wanting to look at them another moment. "Come on," she said, taking a deep breath. "letís get all this cleaned up."

)))

Willow felt her palms sweating and wiped them on the thighs of her jeans. She swallowed, glancing at her watch. It was eleven thirteen, and the plane was due in at a quarter after. Soon.

She walked around the area for the flightís baggage claim, trying not to pace, but failing. Finally, at twenty after, as agreed upon, she raised the sign sheíd marked the night before.

Looking nervously through the increasing crowd, people gathering around the claim, voices getting louder with greetings and concerns.

"Hello." Curt, to the point. Willowís head jerked around until she saw a beautiful woman standing before her. Her dark hair was long, naturally curly, swept over her shoulders. Her large, brown eyes were capped by finely arched brows, a no nonsense expression upon her face. Her white, open collared button up was partially hidden underneath a light-weight, dark gray blazer, form fitting.

Christine got me Bette Porter for a lawyer.

"Hello. Iím Willow Bowman," the blonde held her hand out, which was quickly taken in a cool, well manicured one.

"Jennifer Barnes."

Willow hid her smirk, tossing the sign with the womanís name on it in a nearby trash can. The brunette looked her up and down, seeming to be sizing her up.

"A perfectly innocent angel. This could work," she said, her voice hard edged, very confident. With that, she walked over to the carousel, grabbed her rolling suitcase, and breezed past Willow, head held high, her perfume wafting in the air behind her.

"Okay," Willow breathed, hurrying to catch up.

 

"Hereís the deal, ladies," Jennifer said, leaning over the table where a myriad of papers were scattered. She stared into the eyes of all three in turn. "Yes, Nicole will be the Ďofficialí counsel, as I have no license to practice in this god forsaken state, but it will be me that you all listen to," large brown eyes pinned Nicole Martinez to the spot. The other lawyer had already been briefed on this, and after some reasoning, she agreed to be the mouthpiece.

"Agreed," she said, leaning back in her chair, running a hand over her short, black hair.

"Good. Kevin sounds like a real prince, and I think heís going to take the lesbian angle on this, use that to try and take Emma. But," she help up a manicured finger, a grin spreading across her features. "he wasnít counting on me,"

Willow looked at Christine, worried, but received a calming squeeze of the hand in return.

Jennifer turned those doe eyes, belying her hard as nails interior, at the blonde. "I want you to tell me everything about this guy. And I mean everything. I want to know what he was like in the sack. I want to know how many times a day he takes a shit on average. Arguments you had, and their running themes. I want his background, family ties, all of it."

"Okay," Willow agreed, blowing out a breath.

"Good. Nicole talked to his attorney this afternoon, and it looks like theyíre wanting to hit court by the end of the month. That gives us three weeks to prepare for the fate and future of your daughter, ladies." Jennifer stood, tossing her hair out of her face. A very slow, sly smile crept across her lips. "One other thing, ladies-" she looked at both Willow and Christine, making sure she had their full attention. "I need to know everything little skeleton you have in your closets. No surprises from this asshole, got me?"

 

"What are you thinking?" Christine asked, after driving for fifteen minutes in complete silence. She glanced across the Jeep at the blonde before returning her eyes to the road.

Willow sighed, looking out the passenger window, watching the hot, June day pass by. She shook her head, chewing on her lower lip.

"I donít know. I just donít know."

"Sheís good, I promise you that. Only the best, Willow."

"I know," the blonde blew out, glancing at the singer. "Why does it have to be this way? How is it that I now hate someone I used to love so much?" It wasnít really a question so much as a thought out loud. She felt so sad, her heart so heavy. And angry.

"I donít know, baby. I really donít. Itís selfishness on Kevinís part. Perhaps even a way of getting back at you." Christine shrugged, reaching over to take the blondeís hand, cool fingers quickly, and tightly wrapping around her own. "Iím so sorry heís doing this to you."

"Me, too. What if he wins? Then what? He knows nothing of babies." She laughed bitterly. "Emma is now almost four months old, will be on the twenty-second of this month, and heís never even seen her! His damn mother sent me a congratulations card, but do you think he could? No, that would have been too much goddamn trouble!" her words got louder with each thought that paraded through her troubled mind. "He doesnít want to be Emmaís father, he wants to control me! Well fuck him!"

It was a moment before Willow even noticed they werenít moving anymore, and that Christine had pulled off the side of the road.

"Hey, hey," the singer said, pulling Willow into her arms. As soon as the blonde realized she was in Christineís embrace, she broke. The tears fell hard and heavy, her entire body shaking almost out of control. She was so devastated and scared. "Shh, baby, I know." Christine squeezed her eyes shut, her own fears rearing their ugly head. She knew deep down that Kevin wouldnít stand a chance of taking the baby completely, though Ö what if?

She couldnít think of that now. She had to be there for Willow, and stay strong. She caressed the soft blonde hair, waiting for the tears to abate.

"I swear to you, Willow, I will not let him take her from you. Iíll do anything in my power, anything at all." She pulled back slightly from the blonde, wiping at her tears with her thumbs, ducking a bit so green eyes were looking into blue. "Anything. I donít care how much it costs, what it takes, you understand? I love her, too," she whispered, laying a soft, gentle kiss on tear-streaked lips. She could taste Willowís salty pain. "Anything."

Willow stared at the singer, her heart swelling with love and gratitude. Finally she nodded. "Okay."

"I love you."

"I love you, too." Willow hugged her close, taking all the strength that was offered her, holding it close to her heart. "I canít lose her, Christine. I canít."

"I know. I know."

)))

Jennifer looked from the blonde to the brunette and back again.

"Is there a problem?" she asked, hand on hip, other hand resting on Nicoleís desk.

"I canít do that," Willow said, her voice quiet. "Kevinís fatherís drinking hurt him badly. I canít throw that in his face, Jennifer," she shook her head. "I canít."

Brown eyes studied her for along moments, beginning to make Willow feel like she was a lab rat, waiting for either the cheese or the shock.

"I see," the attorney said, her eyes never leaving the blonde as she slowly made her way around the desk, noticing she was beginning to fidget nervously. "You donít feel right about dragging Kevinís family through the mud, and bringing up painful memories for him, is this correct?"

"Well, yeah," Willow said, though she felt like sheíd given the wrong answer to a test. She really was not fond of Jennifer Barnes.

"Hmm, well, let me tell you something," the brunette stood before her, inches apart. "While youíre conscience is eating at you for bringing up a bit of dirty laundry about your ex husbandís father, your ex husband is trying to ruin your name, question your character and life style. Yes, Mrs. Bowman, thatís what his case is based on," she said, seeing the shock in her clientís eyes. "Somehow heís heard of your relationship with Christine, and heís pissed. Heís pissed because thatís a crime against his manhood, and now he wants revenge. Did I mention heís pissed?" she raised a brow. "How pissed?" she leaned in close. "Pissed enough to take your daughter from you."

Willow gasped, stomach roiling with revulsion, though she wasnít sure who it was aimed at more- Kevin, or Jennifer Barnes.

"Heís pissed enough to not give a damn about your feelings. Heís not thinking about what this will do to you, Mrs. Bowman. No, heís thinking with that thing between his legs, and his perceived zing." She paused, letting her words seep in. She knew Willow didnít like her, and that was fine. But when it came down to it, she was going to win the case, and keep that baby where she belonged.

"I need some fresh air," Willow said, her voice thick with nausea. She made her way out of the small office, sucking in lungfulls of fresh air, the sun almost blinding her.

"Honey, whatís wrong? What happened in there?" Christine said, hot on the blondeís heels. "Whatís the matter?"

"I donít like her, Christine," Willow almost yelled, turning on the singer. "Sheís so, so, Ö mean." It sounded childish, but it was the only word that came to mind.

"But sheís right, Willow," Christine said softly, resting her hand on the blondeís shoulder, which Willow shrugged off.

"No, no, my morals might be called even more into question," she seethed. Christine was stung, looking as though sheíd just been slapped.

"What did I do?" she asked, hurt.

"Itís because of those goddamn magazine articles!" Willow hissed, leaning toward the brunette. "He saw those. He confronted me on the one about Texas, and then no doubt he saw the one of me half naked!"

Christine was stunned, taking a step back from the blonde, unsure what to do or say. "That wasnít my fault," she murmured, in a daze.

"Wasnít it?" Their eyes locked in a battle of wills until finally Christine slowly shook her head, heartsick.

"And you say Jennifer is mean." With that, she turned and walked away, headed toward the parking lot, digging her keys out as she went. Willow was frozen in a spell of anger, fear and self-loathing. She couldnít speak the words she badly needed to say, nor could she move to stop Christine from leaving.

So she sat, right there on the stone planter outside Nicoleís office building. She saw the Jeep roar out of the parking lot, still unable to move.

She wasnít sure how long sheíd been there when she felt rather than heard, someone sit next to her.

"Loverís quarrel?" Jennifer asked, voice dry. Willow whirled on the attorney, green eyes ablaze.

"Havenít you said enough for one day?" she seethed, feeling her blood boil by the unaffected expression on the other womanís face. Brown eyes lazily met hers.

"We need to talk, Willow," she said finally, her voice quiet.

"I have nothing to say to you, Miss Barnes. Youíre here to do a job, and I know that. Beyond that, I have nothing to say." She stood, stunned when a hand reached out and tugged her back to the planter.

"Sit down and shut the hell up for a minute."

She was too stunned to do anything else. Once the attorney saw she had the small blondeís full attention, she continued.

"Listen, you donít care for me, I get it. But what you have to understand is that your best interests are my priority, and if that means playing dirty, I will. Kevin isnít going to hold back, Willow." She looked into the blondeís eyes, realizing what a lovely color they were. "Heís going to pull out every trick up his sleeve to win." She turned slightly on the planter so she was facing the other woman more. "For him itís about winning; itís not about Emma. Understand?"

Willow glanced out over the parking lot, sighing. She nodded. "I understand."

"Iím not trying to make you angry, either, Willow. I just need for you to understand the severity of this."

Willow met her eyes, nodded her understanding. "Is he going to take her from me, Jennifer?" the question was very soft, filled with fear of the answer. Jennifer smiled, white and brilliant, turning her face from beautiful to stunning.

"No," she said simply, but with the utmost conviction.

"God, I hope youíre right," Willow blew out, standing from the planter.

"You and Christine really need to stay strong in this. Itís going to be hard. Iíve seen it tons of times."

"Yeah, we will." The blonde looked down at her shoes, scuffing at the sidewalk. Jennifer of course didnít miss this.

"Ride skip out on you?" she asked, voice back to its usual dry cadence.

"Something like that." Willow sighed.

"Well, I donít know her, only met her a time or two at various parties and such. Come on." Jennifer picked up her briefcase and headed toward the parking lot, not even bothering to see if the blonde was following. Unlocking her rental car, she spotted Willow slowly ambling up to the Taurus. Their gaze met over the top of the car. "Stay strong," the attorney said, then dipped her head inside.

 

The Jeep led clouds of dust down the side streets of the outskirts of town. She passed field after field, crops whizzing by the open top, her hair flying, whipping her in the face. She plowed over those roads, Jeep shimmying over the large rocks embedded in them, her hands gripping the wheel with fists of iron.

She had shut her mind down, acting on pure instinct, which told her to drive like a mad woman, taking turns at dangerous speeds, two of the Jeepís wheels trying to leave the ground at one point. That one had gotten the brunetteís attention, and sheíd taken the next turn slightly slower, but only slightly.

It wasnít working. No matter how hard she pushed the memory out, the harder it pushed back in. The look on Willowís face, her eyes so angry and cruel.

Was it just her fear talking for her? Even so, it had ripped into Christine like nothing else. She had no idea what to think. She was doing everything in her power to be there for the blonde, hire the best attorney possible, and help Willow through this. All for what? To have her entire life thrown back in her face?

Christine bared her teeth, swinging around another curve, the Jeep screeching in protest.

Yes, Willow was angry and frightened, she thought again, but yes, there may been some damage done.

"She didnít even stop me from leaving," Christine growled, jerking the wheel again, the Jeep shuddering in the new direction. It hadnít been an act of manipulation to leave, but if only Willow had done something, anything. Surely she didnít really blame the singer for this?

It was well after dark when the Jeep pulled up in front of the lit farmhouse. Christine cut the engine, then just sat behind the wheel, thumb tapping a tuneless beat, chewing on her lower lip. She glanced up at the house, wondering if Emma was asleep yet. Probably. Then she wondered what Willow was doing.

Guilt flooded her as she remembered driving away from Nicole Martinezís office, stranding the blonde. Sheíd obviously gotten home okay, but still.

With a tired sigh, she hopped down from the Jeepís open cab, taking a step toward the house, then stopping, glancing over at her music room. Needing more time, she headed in that direction instead. Unlocking the door, she pushed through, clicking on the light as she did, closing the door softly behind her.

Willow leaned her head against the window seat upstairs, pulling her knees closer into her body. She watched as the woman she loved stepped away from the Jeep, then disappeared into her music room.

The blonde wasnít terribly surprised, but it still hurt, though mainly because she knew she was responsible for it.

No clue what to do, go to her, leave her alone, go to bed. No, that wasnít an option. Green eyes darted over to the large bed that she knew would be horribly empty that night. Sighing again, she unfolded herself, standing and heading out of the bedroom door. She heard quiet noises coming from Emmaís room, so pushed the bedroom door open further, widening the sliver of on the opposite wall.

"Hey, sweetie," she cooed, looking down at her very alert daughter, laying on her tummy, holding her head and shoulders off the mattress, trying her best to hold herself up on her arms. "Look at you!" Willow gushed, awed and inspired all over again, for about the billionth time that day. "Mommaís strong girl."

Chuckling, Willow swiped at the string of drool that ran from Emmaís mouth to the bed. Wiping the babyís mouth with the sleeve of her shirt, she headed out of the room, toward her own bedroom. She needed Emma close as loneliness closed in around her.

 

The last notes fading into the darkness beyond, Christine gently closed the lid over the keys, running a hand across its polished surface, then standing. The singerís back creaked as she stretched, making her gasp as a sharp pain settled between her shoulder blades from hours sitting, playing.

She walked over to the door, dousing the light as she opened it, then quickly closed and locked it behind her. It was a beautiful night, stars glittering like diamonds on black velvet. A loverís night.

Sighing heavily, she opened the front door, closing and locking it as well, then made the slow trek up the stairs.

She had managed to achieve what sheíd strived for- play until she was too exhausted to think or see straight. Her body wavered, threatening to fall over on the staircase she climbed, hand on the sturdy banister. The house was quiet, as it was past three in the morning. No doubt Willow had gone to bed hours ago, and now Emma was sleeping through the night.

Thinking of the baby, whom she hadnít seen all day, she eagerly tip toed over to the bedroom, surprised to see her bedroom door fully open, and her crib empty. Not hard to figure out where the baby was, Christine leaned against the door frame that led to the bedroom she shared with the blonde.

Willow lay on her back, head to the side, chest rising and falling in even, peaceful breaths. Lying upon that chest was Emma, lying on her stomach, mouth open. A single arm was wrapped protectively around the baby, and Christine felt her heart melt. It was so beautiful to see, so endearing, charming, and painful.

Willow looked so sweet, the woman sheíd fallen in love with, but her harsh words came back to her all over again.

Shaking her head, Christine took a deep breath, one last look at the two most important people in her life, then she slowly turned, heading toward the guest bedroom.

ContinuedÖ

Part 18

Groggy green eyes opened, squinting at the moonlight that came in full force. Feeling a warm body curled up within her own, Willow looked, seeing Emma sleeping peacefully, cute little baby breaths steady and even.

Looking around, she realized they were the only two in the large bed, and felt panicked for a moment. Then she remembered.

"Oh, Christine," she whispered, flopping her head back on the pillow and squeezing her eyes shut for a moment.

Creeping down the hall, Willow gently laid the still sleeping baby in her crib, tucking the blanket around Emma, and kissing her lightly on the forehead.

"Sleep well, my little one," she whispered, caressing the thickening brown hair. Pulling the door closed to an inch, Willow made her way further down the hall, the guest roomís door closed.

A scene was brought back to her of the night she stood in this very spot, wondering, as she was now, if she should go inside. Knowing she had to, she quietly pushed the door open, clicking it shut behind her.

Christine lay on her stomach, facing away from the door, her breathing even, obviously asleep. The blonde wondered how long sheíd been there. Padding silently over to the bed, she pushed the covers aside just enough to allow her body to slide under them. She scooted over to the sleeping brunette, the welcome body heat surrounding Willow.

She lay on her side, looking at the mass of dark hair splayed out over the pillow. Within moments, Christine took a deep breath, releasing it noisily as she turned over, facing Willow. As if in instinct, she scooted closer to the blonde, taking her smaller body into warm arms.

Willow closed her eyes, allowing Christineís nearness to envelope her. She snuggled in, head tucked under the singerís chin.

"Howís Emma?" Christine asked quietly, startling Willow, who hadnít realized she was awake.

"Sheís fine." Willow snuggled in closer, her hand caressing Christineís t-shirt-clad back. "Iím so sorry," she whispered. "Itís not an excuse, but Iím so afraid, and I lashed out at you. I hope so badly that you can forgive me for what I said, what I implied."

Christine was quiet for long moments, making the blonde think sheíd fallen asleep again.

"You really hurt me," she finally said, fingers playing in thick, blonde hair.

"I know. God, I know, and I hate myself for it." She pulled back, just enough to be able to look into Christineís face, brows drawn. "I was so worried when you werenít here after Jennifer dropped me off. I even ran up here to see if your clothes were still here."

Christine smiled softly, shaking her head. "No. Still here. I thought about going, to be honest," she brought a hand up to still Willowís words, seeing tears begin to fill her green eyes, turned gray in the darkness. "not because I want to. I thought that maybe all this would be easier if I werenít here, and, well," she sighed. "it is because of me that heís doing this. Maybe Iím bad for you and Emma." It broke the singerís heart to say all that, but deep down she knew it was true.

"Donít you ever say that again," Willow said, her voice growing in strength, her heart beginning to beat again, after stopping cold at what she thought Christine was going to say. "Youíre the best thing thatís ever happened to me, and donít you ever forget that. Okay? Okay?" she said again, louder, when the singer didnít respond.

"Okay."

Willow brought a hand up, gently tracing Christineís features. "You truly are the most beautiful woman Iíve ever seen." She leaned in, placing a soft kiss on those full lips she loved so much. "I love you, and I really am sorry," she said against them, feeling Christineís nod.

"Okay. And thank you," She rolled to her back, pulling the blonde with her. She looked up into the face of the woman whoíd saved her life and then her heart. "You know," she said, seriousness creeping into her tone. "we need to work together on this, Willow. We have to stay strong to get through this."

Willow snorted ruefully. "Jennifer said the same thing."

"Sheís just trying to help, babe. Sheís not the enemy-"

"I know," Willow cut her off, running a finger lazily down Christineís jaw. "She and I had a talk today, in the car. We came to an understanding of sorts. No matter what I may think of her, ultimately she and I are after the same goal, so I wonít stand in the way again."

"Good. Iím glad to hear it."

"So was she," they both grinned, sharing another small kiss. Willow pulled away slowly, only to lean back in for another. Christine met her, bringing a hand up to the back of the blondeís head, holding her in place as the kiss deepened.

"Willow?" Christine whispered into the blondeís mouth.

"Hmm?"

"Make me forget this ever happened today. I need to know weíre really okay,"

The pleading in the singerís voice broke Willowís heart, knowing that she had put that doubt there. They had only been together for a few short weeks, certainly not long enough to cement the kind of bond that could easily withstand such an argument. Willowís actions had scared them both to the quick, and the blonde was eager to feel that security again.

Without a word, she moved the hand that had been on Christineís face, burrowing it into the dark hair, deepening the kiss all the more. Christine whimpered softly into the kiss, her body beginning to ignite.

"Weíre very much okay," Willow whispered, mouth moving down Christineís jaw, finding her neck. "Very, very okay."

"I love you,"

"I love you, too." Willow gently nudged the singerís shirt collar aside, kissing and licking the skin she found there. "Iím going to show you how much,"

Christineís eyes fell closed as she felt her shirt being lifted, hands running over the heated skin of her stomach, then her breasts, making her hiss. She helped by lifting her upper body, the shirt flying off into the darkness. Immediately a hot mouth was on her breast, her hands finding Willowís head, holding it to her, needing to feel the connection between the two of them.

It had been utter torture, feeling so alone and lonely. Most of her life had been spent alone, though she had constantly been surrounded by people.

Christine helped again, lifting her hips as her panties were pushed down her legs, then joined her shirt. She raised her legs, feeling Willow nestle herself there.

Christineís heart had been so heavy, her mood dark. It was the worst kind of torture to have been given such happiness, then suddenly it had been taken away with a few cruel words.

"Baby," she breathed as she felt herself being opened up by seeking fingers and tongue. "Yes,"

She knew it would not be easy for Willow to love her. Trust was such a huge issue in relationships, and Christine had very little of that to go around, and she bulked and ran at the slightest tarnishing of that, though somewhere deep inside she knew it would happen again, as it was human nature.

Christine moaned, feeling Willow move inside her, a slow, steady rhythm that made her boil.

Sometimes she couldnít help but wonder if maybe she was indeed bad for Willow. How fair was it to expect the blonde to walk on egg shells so often, Christine not trusting her, and waiting to be hurt.

"Did I hurt you?" Willow asked, concern lacing her words as she made her way up the singerís body. "Baby, whatís wrong?" She petted Christineís hair, looking into her face, seeing the wet trails that were slowly sliding down into the dark hair, and Christineís ears, making her shiver.

Christine was shocked, having no idea what was making her emotions rise to the surface, seeping from her eyes.

"Iím so sorry," Willow wasnít sure what sheíd done, but having a bad feeling that Christineís emotions stemmed from what had happened earlier in the day. She cradled her head, kissing her face, and trying to figure out some way to make it all better.

Christine allowed herself to be held, feeling the dam of her emotions break, and she began to cry, really cry.

Yes, part of it was her hurt showing itself, the hurt she hadnít dealt with, and hadnít realized, but part of it was also her own fears she hadnít let herself entertain. She was offering herself to be a partner and co-parent, and she was terrified! Yes, she loved Willow and Emma more than anything sheíd ever loved before, but it was such a huge responsibility. What if she failed? What, and this is what tore her up, if she failed either of them? Let Emma down, or hurt Willow.

The tears continued to come with a vengeance, concerning Willow more and more with each passing minute. She had no idea what to do, or what she had done. She didnít know what was happening.

Feeling like an idiot, Christine finally got herself under control, sniffing like a child, and smiling shyly, embarrassed to all heck.

"Sorry," she said, wiping her eyes with the sheet.

"What happened? Whatís wrong, baby?" Willow asked, so afraid of the answer.

"I donít know. Guess I just got overwhelmed with things in my mind." She tried to pull away a bit, but Willow wouldnít let her.


"Uh uh. Youíre not going anywhere until you tell me whatís going on." Willow looked into her eyes, beseeching. "Please talk to me, Christine."

The singer took several deep breaths, then nodded. Both woman moved to their sides, facing each other. "What if Iím no good at any of this, Willow? Iím so afraid. Iím so afraid that I wonít be good for you and Emma. What if Iím no better than my own mother was, and no better than my father was to his wife?"

Willow could hear the fear in the brunetteís voice, and it made her so sad. How could she take that kind of fear away?

"Oh, baby," she said, caressing Christineís cheek. She was relieved when the brunette leaned into the touch. "Youíre nothing like them. Youíre so loving toward us both, and youíre parents were the way they were because they were selfish and weak. Youíre nothing like that. Iíve never seen someone so strong, making it through all that you have with flying colors." She smiled with wonder. "You amaze me." She chuckled. "I see the doubt in your eyes, and you can doubt all you want, but when it comes down to it, youíre the most amazing person Iíve ever known. Iíve learned so much from you."

"From me?"

"Yep. And I think youíll have some pretty profound lessons for Emma, too. Youíve been there, done that, and youíre so wise for it." She cupped Christineís face. "Iím in this for the long haul, baby, but if youíre not sure," Willow had to swallow several times in order to keep her own emotions down, "youíre not a prisoner here. You can, well, you can go at any time. I wonít stop you."

"Youíd let me go? Just like that?" Christine was amazed, and part of her wanted to pout like a child.

"Iíd have to, Christine. If you were going to be happier away from us, then Iíd have to say goodbye."

"Wow," the singer said quietly, stunned. "I think you have us mixed up, because I gotta tell you, I donít know if I could be that generous."

"Well, you know that old, cheesy saying? If you love something, set it free, if it comes back, it was meant to be, or something like that. Youíre the rhymie one, not me."

"I love you," Christine said, leaning in, "and Iím in this for the long haul, too. I just get scared sometimes."

"So do I. Just please talk to me, baby. Donít let it build, please." Willow felt the singerís head nod, their foreheads touching.

"Can we try again?" Christine whispered.

"Try what again?"

"This,"

Willow felt her world settle in its axis at the extremely passionate kiss that she found herself caught up in. It didnít take long for her to find where sheíd left off.

)))

Willow tapped the steering wheel impatiently as she glanced at the dash clock again.

"Crap," she murmured, having three minutes to complete a twelve minute drive. For the first time in six years, she was going to be late for work. The smile swept across her features, mischievous as she remembered the cause for it.

How on earth was she supposed to resist Christineís gorgeous body, laying there on the bed, spread out like an offering. The blonde had gotten out of the shower, towel wrapped around her body, and couldnít resist. The towel had hit the floor with a flop, and she basically attacked the singer.

Sighing with happiness, Willow flicked her turn signal, passing the slow dump truck, and then speeding past him. She glanced over at the passenger seat of her truck, her cell phone sitting with a stack of CDs. She contemplated calling ahead, but decided against it.

Glad sheíd followed Christineís advice and dressed in her scrubs before she left, she was able to pull into the staff parking, and run toward the building, straight up to her ward.

Willow breezed into the nurseís lounge, jug of water in her hand.

"Linda! Vicki, morning, ladies," she gushed, bending over to shove some things aside, making room for the gallon jug. When she heard no response, she glanced over her shoulder, see her fellow nurses looking anywhere but at her. Standing with drawn brows, she looked around the small room. Two of the four round tables for four were being used. Orderlies Richard and Terrance sat in the back corner, both glancing at her, a grin on Richardís face. Terrance leaned over, saying something, his voice very quiet, Richardís grin growing. His eyes never left the blonde.

Green eyes scanned over to the two women, noting that Linda was looking at her, but Vicki seemed engrossed in the news program that murmured on the ceiling-anchored television.

Something was wrong here. Glancing back at the boys again, she saw both their heads dropping, quiet laughter filling the small space.

"Okay," she breathed, a feeling of dread swirling in her gut. She turned back to the counter mounted next to the fridge, grabbing her backpack that sheíd set there.

Willow walked down the hall in a daze. Sheíd been working at Mercy for six years. Sheíd been awarded for excellence every year but one, and was a highly respected colleague. Never had she had any trouble making friends, or getting along with her co-workers.

The blonde was taken back to her childhood, her parents moving around every six months to a year, tearing her out of one school to the next. It had been difficult, even painful at times, never able to make good friends before they were a thing of the past. Willow had often felt the outcast, always the Ďnew girlí. That was a feeling she hated, and was loathe to relive as she had in the break room.

If only sheíd realized then that her day was going to get worse, whispered words, left him for a woman Ö theyíre living in sin! Ö that poor baby Ö

Willow was hurt more than she could say. She had worked with all those people for so long, and they knew her, and she thought they were all friends.

Wanting to cry, the blonde hid in the bathroom for a few moments before lunch. She looked at her reflection and saw the stress on her face. Her mind raced, trying to figure out where the information had come from, and why were they being so vicious.

"Maureen," she said to her reflection, disappointment gripping her insides. "No,"

)))

"Iím sorry," Christine murmured, holding the blonde tighter. "God, Iím sorry." She felt like she was to blame for this. If she hadnít been there, Willow wouldnít have to face the ostracism and whispers.

"I thought they were my friends," Willow cried, feeling like a child as she clung to the singer, being rocked gently in Christineís lap.

"One thing Iíve learned, baby is that you canít rely on people. Theyíre cruel and petty. And," she continued, kissing the top of Willowís head, "theyíll do anything for a good story."

"I feel so stupid." The blonde pulled away, sniffling as she swiped her hand across her nose. She laughed bitterly. "I was so excited to tell someone about us, about how happy I am, and I really thought I could count on Maureen to be happy for me. So stupid," she shook her head in utter dismay.

"I know. There are some people in the world who will judge you no matter what, Willow," Christine gently brushed some hair away from the blondeís tear-streaked face before caressing her cheek. She knew how sensitive Willow was, and knew it had to be eating the smaller woman alive. All she wanted to do was march down to that hospital and beat the shit out of the childrenís ward. Bastards. How could they be so cruel to one of the kindest souls in the world? They werenít deserving of the nurse.

"It was so awful, Christine. I felt like wherever I went I was being watched, laughed at. I mean, granted not everyone was involved. But enough were." She felt the tears sting again, laying her head against the singerís shoulder. "I feel betrayed. I know itís stupid, but I really do."

"Itís not stupid, baby. Itís not. But you have to know that this will make you stronger. You canít let them win. I know you," she smiled, "youíre stronger than that." Christine watched as Willow pulled away again, looking into her eyes. "When it comes to stuff like this, it may be crude and pessimistic, but you just gotta say fuck Ďem."

"Fuck Ďem," Willow repeated, nodding. "Youíre right." She swiped at her eyes, then took the Kleenex that was offered and blew her nose. Tossing the balled up tissue to the coffee table to join all the others, she nodded again, feeling her resolve strengthen. "Fuck Ďem."

"It wonít be easy, but in the end, itís worth it. If you let these kind of people get to you, itíll drive you insane."

Willow studied the singer, looking into her eyes and seeing truth there, as well as deep understanding.

"Youíre so strong," she whispered, cupping Christineís face. The singer smiled ruefully.

"Nah. Just a survivor."

"Same difference," Willow kissed her lightly. "I love you for it."

Christine grinned, holding Willow tighter to her, grateful to have her. The bliss was interrupted by the chirping of her cell phone. One last kiss and Willow pushed off the singerís lap, heading into the kitchen.

"Hello?" she asked, flipping the phone open.

"So, the domestic diva answers her own phone now, I see," a deep baritone said dryly.

"Who is this?" she sat up from her place on the couch, brows drawn in alarm.

"Come on, Gray, tell me you havenít forgotten me already!"

Blue eyes widened in pleasurable surprise. "Larry?"

"How you doing, kid?" he said, smile shining through in his voice.

"Iím great! My god, itís been forever." She stood, a flood of memories boosting her energy.

"Try twelve years."

"Wow. Has it been that long?" She paced around the room, glancing out of a random window before turning and walking the circuit all over again.

"Ainít seen hide nor hair from you since you worked for me. So whatís all this I hear about you playing daddy with a cute little blonde in hick country?" the producer asked. Christine smiled, almost able to see Larry Tippen lounging back in his oversized leather office chair. His feet would be propped up on the massive desk, silver tips catching the Tiffany lamp light. Thought it was after eight oíclock his time, his dark glasses would be on, and a turtleneck, gray or black, would be tucked into his Levis.

"Iím happy, Larry," she said simply.

"Glad to hear it, Gray. Thatís not so easy to do in this business. Speaking, whatís this bs I hear about you retiring?" Anger laced his words now.

"I had enough, man. I couldnít do it anymore. I gave all I had to give, did my time, finished." Christine said, waiting for the tirade that would surely follow her simple explanation.

"Hmm. Well, I have to admit Iím glad to see you get away from that rock and roll shit you used to do. It wasnít you, never was. Why, after what you composed for me and my short, I never understood why you didnít go where it was obvious your heart was. Hell, you helped me win at Sundance, for Christís sake."

"I know, Larry. I know." She smiled at the memory, seeing her friendís face as he took home the prestigious honor.

"Listen, kid, Iím calling because I want you for a project Iím working on."

"Oh, Larry, I donít know," Christine shook her head, running a hand through her hair.

"Sure you do. You can work from your little love nest there, and actually create something with some meaning."

"Larry, Iím retire-"

"Bullshit, Christine!"

The singer was taken aback by the vehemence in his voice. She stood there, stunned.

"You are too goddamn talented to let it die. You got tired of what you were doing, who wouldnít? Now let your real creative genius come out. I wanted you to work for me for years, but that prick Knowles never would allow it. Heís dead, so now Iím asking. Compose for me, Christine. Please. Iíve got a large budget to work with here, and some major players in this project. I want you, and only you, and I wonít take no for an answer," he paused, allowing his anger, which surprised him as well, subside. Finally Christine spoke.

"Can I think about it?"

"Donít take too long. Iíve got the green light on this, and I need to move. Call me and weíll discuss contracts."

Christine pulled the phone away from her ear, flipping it closed. Sheíd always hated that Larry never said goodbye. When he was finished talking, the conversation was over.

Tossing the tiny phone to the couch, she sighed, staring out into the night. She had a big decision to make, and already knew what her heart wanted the answer to be. She would think about it, give herself a few days to think. This would be good for her, she knew, but also it meant putting herself out there in a new way. She felt vulnerable just thinking about it.

"Damn, it, Larry," she whispered. "Do you have any idea what youíre asking?"

)))

Willow almost felt sick as she sat at the long, polished table. Nicole sat to her right, acting attorney, and Jennifer to her left, assistant. She could feel her palms sweating, rubbing them against her skirt-clad thighs. The blonde absently brushed a shaggy strand aside, the clasped her hands on the table before her.

"Are you ready?" Jennifer whispered, leaning into her. Willow nodded, swallowing nervously. "Good. Kevin and his attorney is coming in now."

Willow fought the urge to shoot visual daggers at her ex husband as he made his way down the aisle of the near-empty courtroom. Christine sat in the gallery, one row behind the wooden partition, next to Myra. She glanced at him, finding that she was being stared down by very angry blue eyes. Christine didnít flinch, giving as well as she gave.

Knowing Willow would be a mess, the singer leaned forward, placing a hand on the blondeís shoulder. Her hand was covered by a smaller, sweaty one, and squeezed in acknowledgement. Sitting back, Christine crossed one leg over the other and settled in.

Glancing quickly over to the other table, identical to that the blonde sat at, Willow saw Kevin sit, smoothing his tie as he did so. He looked across his own attorney, meeting her gaze. She was surprised by the raw hatred she saw burning in eyes that once looked at her in nothing but love.

She was, however, proud of herself as she held his gaze, Kevin looking away first. Everything in life is a small victory.

"All rise, the honorable Judge Malcolm Howard presiding," the bailiff said dryly. The seven people in the court room stood as a heavy-set man, robed in black, stepped up behind his desk, motioning for everyone to sit as he, himself did just that.

Willow swallowed again as she sat, wincing as her chair scraped noisily against the polished wood flooring beneath her feet. She felt a hand on her arm. Glancing over, she met brown eyes, silently communicating that everything would be okay. She nodded, wishing she could have Jenniferís confidence.

"Alright, letís see what weíve got here," the judge said, using one hand to tug half-shelled glasses onto his bulbous nose, while the other flipped open the case file before him. "Kevin Bowman versus Willow Bowman for the custody of Emma Christine Bowman, aged four and a half months." He glanced up. "Are both parties currently in attendance?"

"Yes, your honor," Nicole said, rising just long enough o speak.

"We are, your honor," Kevinís attorney echoed, smoothing her skirt before she sat, clearing her throat, which sounded like a firecracker in the quiet room.

"Good, good. Lets proceed," the judge said, removing the glasses. "Mrs. Jamison, why donít you start," he said, indicating Kevinís attorney with a flick of his wrist.

"Yes, your honor." The older woman with the gray-streaked hair stood, glancing down at the laptop that was open on the table before her. "Your honor, my client is asking for full custody of his daughter, Emma Bowman. He feels he is a much more stable parent, and can provide a nurturing, loving, moral, environment for the child."

Willow again felt the hand on her arm as she felt her blood begin to boil. How could he?

"Continue," the judge encouraged. There was a dramatic pause, the only sound the court reporter finishing her last few clicks before hands rested mere millimeters above her keyboard.

"It has come to my clientís attention that his ex-wife, Willow Bowman, has been sharing her residence with a woman who has had a drug habit, lived on the streets, and prostituted her own body when she was barely out of childhood, herself." Carol Jamison waited for this information to sink in before continuing. "Kevin Bowman feels it is in the best interest of his child to remove her from such an environment."

"Thank you, Mrs. Jamison. Miss, Martinez?" The judgeís eyes moved to Willowís table, looking expectantly at her Ďlead counselí.

"Thank you, your honor." Nicole stood, looking sophisticated and confident in a charcoal gray pant-suit, with an open collard silk blouse. "Your honor, my client, Willow Bowman, has been a loving mother to little Emma since the day of conception. The baby weighed in at a healthy seven pounds, fourteen ounces, proving that Willow was diligent during her pregnancy, eating healthy and living a healthy lifestyle, leading to the uneventful birth of her first child. I might add, your honor, that the pregnancy was a solo event, since Kevin Bowman refused to be present, or even lay claim to, his unborn child."

Willow felt herself trembling, fear, anger and hurt coursing through her veins, turning her blood cold. She reached up, clutching the gold, heart-shaped locket Christine had given her the night before, Emmaís picture tucked inside.

"Yes, your honor, it is public record for this court that Christine Gray, loving and contributing member of the Bowman household, has had problems in her past. It should also be public knowledge that Miss Gray brought herself from a destructive life on the streets to become a world renowned recording artist, who is not only emotionally capable and willing to help parent baby Emma, but is also financially available, also."

"Itís wrong!" Kevin exclaimed, trying to stand, but his attorney stopped him with a warning hand on his hand.

"Youíve had your chance to speak, Mr. Bowman," Judge Howard warned, his voice booming in the large space.

"As I was saying your honor," Nicole said dryly, sparing a fleeting glance over at Kevinís attorney. "Even without the emotional or financial support of Miss Gray, Willow is capable and responsible in her duties as Emmaís mother. She holds a career in the medical field, as well as owns her own home." Nicole paused, looking the judge in the eyes. "She kept this child, despite Mr. Bowmanís encouragement for abortion. She has raised Emma to the best of her ability, and will continue to do so. Willow has always wanted this child, your honor, and chose to walk away from her marriage rather than forfeit the life of her child."

As Nicole sat down, Willow breathed a small sigh of relief, feeling for perhaps the first time that maybe she had a chance. Heck, Nicole had convinced her.

Judge Malcolm Howard looked to Kevin. "Mr. Bowman, would you like to add anything on your behalf, sir?"

"Yes, your honor, I would." Kevin buttoned the bottom two buttons of his suit Jacket as he stood, clearing his throat. "I made mistakes in the past, your honor, acting childish when I found out about Willowís pregnancy. I admit that, and I can never take it back, no matter what I might say. I know that. But your honor," his voice softened, filled with wistful words. "Since that March morning when my daughter was born," he took a deep breath, shaking his head. "Iíve thought of nothing since, but holding her in my arms and being the father that I was too stupid to realize I wanted to be." He looked at the judge with big, puppy-dog eyes. "Please, your honor. I want my daughter raised right, with a father, a mother, as Iím getting married in a couple months, and a good, Christian home. Thank you, sir."

Willow just about flew out of her seat at the pitiful excuse of a plea from Kevin. It took both Jennifer and Nicoleís hands on her thighs to keep her in her seat.

"Miss Bowman? You may speak, now."

"Thank you, your honor." Willow took several deep breaths, trying to keep her calm. "Itís pretty simple what I have to say, sir. I love my daughter more than I can tell you. Iím sure youíre a father, sir, so you know what itís like, waking up each day to see the miracle." She smiled, lost in thoughts of Emma, her smile, the cute little noises she made as she tried to stick her toes in her mouth. "I even gave up coffee for my daughter, you honor. Trust me," she grinned, "thatís quite a sacrifice. All kidding aside, sir, I wanted Emma from the very beginning, and yes, Miss Gray may have had some problems in her past, sir, but she has been there for me every step of the way. She helped me to save my house when I was about to lose everything after the divorce. She has been a constant in both my, and Emmaís lives."

Willow swallowed, feeling the weight of the situation on her shoulders. It was hard to stand up straight, let alone hold her head high as she pleaded for the court to not take her daughter away from her.

"Your honor," she continued, voice soft. "Iíve been there since the moment that beautiful little girl was born. I was there for her first cry, her first breath, her first smile. Iíve stayed up with her when she was sick, and changed every single poopy diaper. Please donít take her from me for no good reason, sir. That would be a crime. Thank you."

As the blonde sat, Jennifer stood. "Your honor, if I may add, Emma was born on the afternoon of February 22."

 

It was the longest waiting time of her life, each second that ticked away on the clock was another lost day of her time on earth.

Willow paced, heels clicking on the highly polished linoleum of the outer chamber. The large, double doors opened, and the bailiff appeared.

"Please come back inside," he said, disappearing back into the courtroom. It was almost a race between Kevin and Willow to get through those doors first. He had stayed near the elevators with his camp, avoiding any eye contact with the blonde at all.

Taking her seat again, hearing the others take theirs, Willow clutched her locket again, heart pounding in time with the throb in her head. Breathlessly, she waited for the judge to take his seat again.

"I have come to a decision involving the care and custody of Emma Christine Bowman," he said, voice somber as he looked over his glasses at both parties. "You both having given truly moving testimony today, and both have valid claims to this child. However," he tossed the glasses aside, bushy brows drawing in seriousness. "a decision has to be made, and someone will walk out of this courtroom today happy."

The court waited, holding its breath, as the judge paused, smacking his lips noisily as he brought the words to mind.

"Mr. Bowman," he turned his attention to Kevin. Willow felt Christineís presence behind her as she waited to hear what the judge had to say. "You bring up some valid points here today, however, this court has had an opportunity to look over the records and claims you have presented here. Though I personally may not agree with the lifestyle in which Miss Bowman and Miss Gray have chosen to pursue, it is not in the eyes of this court to judge on that. Therefore, this court finds no moral wrongdoing in the raising of Emma. In fact, upon inspecting records from Emmaís physician, a doctor Brenda McHale, itís shown that Emma is in remarkable health, and has been very well taken care of. The child is happy and healthy."

Willow felt her breath stop with her heart, afraid to hope that the judge was saying what she thought he was saying.

"However, you are the legal father of this child, and as such have a legal right to spend time with your daughter." The judge picked up his gavel, Willow about to break into pieces. "This court awards full custody of Emma Christine Bowman, aged four and a half months, to Willow Bowman, the childís legal mother and guardian, whilst Kevin Bowman, said childís father, will have visiting rights every weekend. Willow Bowman is also entitled to child support payments, an amount of which is to be determined at a later date."

Willow cried out with the sound of the gavel cracking in finality. She was stunned, tears stinging behind her eyes in utter joy and gratitude.

"And just a word of advice, Mr. Bowman," the judge continued, "for Godís sake, man, learn the birth date of your daughter. Court adjourned."

Willow was in a daze as she was gathered into a tight embrace, her head coming to rest against the shoulder she knew belonged to Christine.

"You did it, baby," was whispered into her ear, soft lips brushing against her forehead.

"Oh, god," Willow breathed, realizing dawning. Her arms wrapped around the singerís waist, pulling her tight against her. The stress and fear of the past month finally oozing out of Willow, to be replaced by hope and a sharp excitement for the future.

"Nice job, ladies," Jennifer said, pride evident in her voice. Willow pulled away from Christine, turning to the attorney.

"I canít thank you enough, Jennifer," she said, taking Jenniferís hands in her own. The attorney smirked.

"You donít have to. Just wait until you get my bill." She winked, squeezed Willowís hands, and pulled away, gathering her briefcase. "Back to civilization I go." She turned to Christine. "Tell Sandra hello for me, wonít you?"

"You got it." Christine watched her go, then turned back to the blonde, who was hugging and thanking Nicole. For the first time in her life, Christine felt complete. All her fears and worries, and feelings of inadequacy just seemed to have flowed out with the stress and worry of what the judge would say. She felt, at that moment, that no matter what the world had to throw at her and Willow, theyíd be able to handle it. She had a family, a real, honest to god family, and there was no way in hell she was going to let it go.

She had something to fight for again.

 

Epilogue:

"Christine! Over here! Christine, who are you wearing? This way, please!"

Christine squinted slightly, the flashbulbs of so many cameras going off at once almost a welcome sight. At least this time they were supposed to be there, and it was nice to know she was still wanted.

"You okay?" she asked quietly, glancing down at her date.

"Oh, yeah," Willow breathed, "peachy,"

Christine smiled, again taking in the absolute beauty that was on her arm. The Vera Wang creation, created especially for Willow, hugged the blondeís incredible body perfectly, classic lines, and just the hint of cleavage to make it sexy. The green velvet brought out her eyes to perfection.

"Well, you said you wanted us to come out with a bang," Christine smirked.

"Yeah, but at the Oscars?!" Willow hissed in response. The singer chuckled, seeing the reporter from Entertainment Tonight in their path. They were led toward the woman, having to start the rounds of all the major networks and shows covering the event outside the Kodak.

"Christine! You look absolutely gorgeous, tonight!" Melissa Haggerty gushed, holding her microphone up to the singer for comment.

"Thank you, Melissa. You look beautiful, yourself." Christine said, turning on the charm of her persona.

"Oh, thank you!" Getting down to business, "So this must be a bit surreal for you. From the Grammyís to being nominated for an Oscar for best score in a film. How do you feel about all this?" the reporter waved her arm toward the screaming fans, and other celebrities making their way down the red carpet.

"Well, you know, just another day in the office," Christine said with a grin. Melissa chuckled.

"Indeed. Good luck tonight."

"Thank you."

Willow watched in awe as Christine handled the press and fans with grace and aplomb. Not to mention, she was breathtaking in her black, halter dress, fitted floor-length. When the singer had stepped into that dress, asking the blonde to zip it for her in their hotel suite, Willowís mouth had gone dry. She had never been truly speechless before that moment.

Now, walking hand in hand with her, Willow was overcome with pride and love.

 

The inside of the theater was beautiful, and huge! Willow wanted so badly to look around, her mouth hanging open in awe, but decided that may not look so good, especially with Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones sitting next to her.

Never in all her life had the phrase Ďout of your leagueí hit home as it did that night for the blonde. She felt like a hick from the sticks, while Christine put on the charm, and talked to people, the likes of which Willow had seen on screen her entire life.

Swallowing hard, she sat still, watching Billy Crystal in his hilarious opening.

 

Not since her first win at the Grammyís, more than a decade ago, had Christine felt nervous at award ceremonies. For the most part, she thought they were pompous and ostentatious. But tonight, well, for some reason she was filled with a nervous energy and nausea. She wasnít sure why that was. It wasnít as though she so much wanted to win, as perhaps wanted Willow to be proud of her.

She glanced over at the blonde sitting next to her, looking beautiful, and utterly enthralled in the performance on stage. Christine smiled, feeling silly, but smiling all the same. Willow felt blue eyes on her, and turned to look into the singerís gaze. She smiled back, squeezing Christineís hand as the presenters began to read the nominees.

"Here we go," Willow whispered, feeling nervous enough for both of them. Christine nodded, turning back to the stage. She heard her name called, and a round of applause deafened the house, the cameras on her. She saw her own smiling face on the huge screen off to the side of the stage, her name and the name of the film under.

"And the winner is," the presenter said, his co-presenter fumbling with the envelope. They both looked at the results, and together read, "Christine Gray, ĎTwilightí!"

The crowd was on its feet, Willow openly crying. Christine looked at the blonde, her world slowing down, noise muffled. She felt herself rising from the chair, those around her smiling and cheering their agreement and congratulations. She was sure she nodded, or smiled, or acknowledged them in some way.

She felt the pressure of Willowís hand in hers, squeezing, as she passed, headed to the aisle. Faces blurred, her heart pounding in her ears as she made her way up the aisle, a journey which seemed to take forever.

Time didnít fully return to normal until she felt the weight of the golden statue in her hand, and then all of her senses returned, full blast. The brilliance of colored lights gleaming in the golden surface, the roar of the applause, the softness of a congratulatory kiss on her cheek from the presenters, and then the sound of her own voice.

"Wow," she breathed quietly, though it erupted from the microphone before her, filling the theater. Polite chuckles followed. "Um, I know that everyone usually gets up here with a list as long as my arm of people to thank," this got more chuckles. "I donít have that, Iím afraid. The people I have to thank already know Iím grateful, because theyíre still alive during this whole process," she leaned in close to the microphone, "Larry."

Larry Tippen laughed loudly, his smile about to split his face wide open.

"Itís been an interesting road, my life, and Iím grateful to have traveled it." She looked at the statue again, thinking how much she wanted to give it to Emma when the baby was a woman. "The music I made was out of a deep love for my art, and a deep belief in my passion- music. Even so, I dedicate this to Willow."

Willow watched through a warped picture, her tears impossible to see through. She felt Christineís eyes on her though, and she brought her fingers to her lips, kissing them, then throwing that kiss to the singer. Christine smiled at the gesture, nodding acceptance of the blondeís love and support.

"Willow Bowman and our daughter Emma, thatís what life is all about. Theyíve given me a reason to love music again." She lifted the Oscar in victory. "Thank you."

 

The End.


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