Summary: Him and her and this.
Sequel to Renaissance in the Integrity-verse. Ashleigh/Brad.
She makes that noise in the back of her throat. It is an interrupted sigh, a puling that she identifies and clamps down before he can recognize it for what it is and tries to pull another response out of her that is exactly like it.
He is successful, and she is smothering her laughter, pushing at his hands and pulling at him all at the same time, forever caught between wanting and knowing and sometimes being unable to distinguish between the two.
Ashleigh stands in the saddling paddock, Christina a splash of color by her side. Her little hand, chubby and sticky with sweat, rests trustingly in her own while Ashleigh smoothes her free hand over her daughter's wispy blond hair. She fixes Christina's barrette, pink plastic ponies clipping back the silky smooth strands.
Behind them there is a horse, a mammoth gray that is eager for something. Ashleigh identifies with him, wants badly to see this to go well ever since Brad opened the racing form in front of her that morning to show her the entry, the dark ink spelling out her name.
Ashleigh Griffen, trainer of Townsend Acres. She still doesn't know what to think of this title, and part of her is wondering why she's not feeling the trepidation she's seen in the faces of everyone she's told about it. Certainly there should be a catch, but she knows that there isn't one. She's already handed over all her cards, and Brad only wants to win. It is an old game by now, she thinks.
The gray bounces on his toes, and yanks at his groom's arm with an impatience that is bordering on insistence. She spots him walking toward her out of the corner of her eye. Christina's fingers clench and wriggle in her palm, pulling away as he approaches, releasing herself so she's free for him to pick up, all smiles as her little fingers grasp at his tie.
It is such a façade, she thinks.
But this is how it starts.
They don't exactly talk. She doesn't want to try, and he can't get through a sentence before she cuts him off with her mouth and teeth. Just shut up, she thinks. He does, applying himself to other tasks with a focus that she should find disconcerting if she was able to focus at all.
The gray is only a beginning. There are other horses, a whole fleet, and she commands it all from a little white farmhouse in which she grew up. Her life is divided into seasons, into campaigns, into moving from one race to the next until the days spin and blur. The farm, the horses, take over so easily it's not shocking to her when she discovers that she's stopped thinking of everything else.
Of course, he's not satisfied with that.
"This isn't Whitebrook, you know," he tells her one day, after she's obsessively looked after a filly with a slight sprain. Ashleigh can't stop checking in on the filly, can't stop inspecting her, when she's not totally occupied running the rest of the ship.
"What is that supposed to mean?" she asks, letting herself out of the stall and stopping in the aisle, where he's standing with his armed crossed and this look on his face, like he can't decide if he's perturbed or sympathetic.
"It means," he says, gesturing to the filly, "that I don't expect you to be down here constantly working like there's no one else around. No one does."
"It's my job," she answers, and knows how he's going to roll his eyes. He doesn't. He just looks at her, point blank.
"And Christina's doing what while you're down here doing everyone else's work?"
She rounds on him suddenly, because of all the things he can say this is the one she really wants to shove back in his face. "No," she tells him. "You do not get to talk to me about my daughter. You aren't—"
Her voice cracks and she shakes her head, stares so far past him because she doesn't want to watch him look at her like that. The soft noises of the barn creep around them when silence would be so much better, because she can't collect her thoughts anymore around him, not when he keeps his eyes on her like he's waiting for something.
"I realize this isn't Whitebrook," she says after swallowing thickly, her throat constricting. "This is your farm, and that's all we need to talk about."
Here is where she lets herself glance back at him, sees that his expression has not changed. It's this tiny fact that makes her think that whatever comes out of his mouth next will be a lie.
He nods. "Fine," he says. "Understood."
And this is how she knows that everything between them is wrong.
His lips are soft and warm on her skin. His fingers are not, but this is what she likes. The work roughened fingertips trail and dip, sweat gathers and cools. Her hair is tangled. His is a disaster. She digs herself in deeper, entangles him between her legs, pushes her heels into muscle, and makes that noise again.
She hates that he can just look at her and know, and then she doubly hates that he doesn't say anything. Not anymore, not after she's told him explicitly not to. She realizes this doesn't make any sense, but that is just what happens when something she's become used to taking for granted suddenly disappears. It's happened to her before, and Ashleigh thinks she should be used to it by now.
It's fall, and the trees are almost done. It's ugly now, bright leaves dull on the ground and the weather turning from tangy to bitter, perfect for her mood. It's damp and cold and she sits on the front porch and feels chilled down to the bone. It is not the best day for Mike to be late dropping off Christina. It is never the best day.
She's not proud of herself, but Ashleigh freaks out. The clock strikes thirty minutes past four, and she's on the phone, listening to it ring with a rising panic that she can't argue with or control, and when he picks up she is not even attempting to rein in the tirade that spills over and right at him.
He's speechless at first, and then he's angry, and then she hears her little girl crying in the background and this is what makes her break. The shouts die in her throat, and she hears him, grimly satisfied and horrified all at once.
"Are you happy now?" he asks, and she shudders, feels it run all the way down her back and hit her knees like a sledgehammer. She grips the edge of the countertop, stares at the old yellow Formica, and squeezes the tears from her eyes. Her eyelashes are wet, sticking together.
"No," she says so quietly she's not sure he hears her. If he does, he ignores her entirely, and she hears the crunch of gravel outside. It takes forever to calm Christina down, long minutes that drag through when they should be eating dinner and catching up on homework. After a while, Christina sleeps and Ashleigh stands in the doorway to her daughter's room, flushed and raw and so eager to just run.
She makes it to the front steps. She doesn't know how long she sits there, unfocused and blank, just concentrating on breathing and trying to hold herself together when the pieces just want to fall apart. So she sits and presses her forehead against her knees, hugs her shins, keeps herself curled so tightly she can't possibly notice him until he's right there, muddy paddock boots appearing on the ground in front of her.
"Do you even sleep anymore?" he asks, and she sneers a little into the cotton of her jeans, wants to lift her head to show him how unfazed she is, except she can't quite find the will. Her fingers clench around her ankles and she makes the tiniest noise in the back of her throat, the forerunner, she thinks, of the sobs she's shoving down as her last effort at normalcy. She's kidding herself. Normalcy went out the window months ago.
"Okay," she hears him say, and he sits next to her. There's his hand on her back, pressing up her spine and resting on the back of her head. He doesn't say anything more, and she keeps breathing. In and out, in and out, until she's calm.
There is tender, and then there isn't. She doesn't know which she really wants, and Ashleigh supposes she can chalk this up as another thing she's undecided on. He picks for her. Presses her down under gentle weight, keeps soothing the harshness of teeth, eases into her and bruises her all at once. And she doesn't mind.
She doesn't mind at all.
When she lifts her head from her knees, he tells her to go to bed. Pushes a clump of her hair out of her face and stands. She can't help watching him as he does this, and she can't help that she doesn't know what to say to him. There is telling him to mind his own business, to stop checking on her, but she realizes he's not even trying anymore. There is thanking him, but he really didn't do anything at all. She can still feel the warmth of his hand on her, and there's a whole other chill that is replacing its absence.
It's a cold night, and she pulls the sweater closer. She watches him go, walking back the way he came. Sleep, despite it all, doesn't come easy, and in the morning it's as if it all never was.
In the morning, with the autumn fog enveloping her horses and clinging all around her, she just stands next to him at the rail and waits for him to say something. When he doesn't, and they get through a whole session, three strings of working horses, a discussion on the upcoming Breeders' Cup, the gray they will be sending to the Juvy like it's the simplest of talks, she finally just blurts it out.
"Why what?" He gives her that confused look, as if he really doesn't know. She coils inward, annoyed that he's making her say the rest.
"You know," she tells him. "Last night."
"I happened by," he shrugs, like this explains it all. She doesn't buy this.
"You never happen by," she says to him. "You never come by at all. I've been here the better part of a year and you've happened by exactly once before."
"Wait. What are we talking about?" He looks at her hard, and it's her turn to retreat, but he's reaching for her before she can, and anchors her to the spot. She should be pissed off, at his hand on her wrist and his eyes searching for hers, but she keeps looking away, like something convenient will rescue her from this line of questioning.
"Last night," she says, going back to the beginning. "That's what I'm talking about."
He drops her wrist, and scrubs his hand through his hair. "I saw you," he says. "On my way back from the barn."
"You did," she says, like this is a story he's spinning for her. But she remembers that he doesn't know, that he couldn't know, that her panic is all for her and her family, however fractured.
"I hate to break this to you, Ash," he says, "but you're a little inconveniently located right next to most of the activity on the farm. You take things onto your front lawn, and people will know about it."
Her mouth drops open, just a little bit. Now she's pissed off, and he knows it.
"Don't," he says to her, stopping her tirade in its tracks. "Don't tell me not to bother, or whatever it is you're thinking, because not bothering with you would be like ignoring a natural disaster focused on my farm, and I'm not going to do that."
"I don't need it," she argues, offended and surprised and insistent on her own way.
"And I don't care," he says, like this is final for him.
"How can you stand there and tell me I don't have a say in this?"
"You have plenty of say," he says. "You'll just have to learn that not all of us are going to give you all the space you desire. Not anymore."
"This is your fantastic idea of support?" she asks, laughing harshly.
"Sorry," he tells her, shrugging. It is infuriating. "I guess giving you housing and a job just isn't enough for me."
"That's low, Brad," she says. "Even for you."
"You're used to it," he replies lightly, and leaves her there. She glares at his back, with nothing to say and nothing to feel except the tension that pours through every nerve and vein, drowning out her fear.
She shuts her eyes somewhere in the middle of it all. Her lips are parted and her toes are curling, but there is something completely impossible about this that she doesn't want to see. Like the physical proof of his body under her hands will be canceled out if she just doesn't see it. She's too late, she knows.
When he says her name against her hair, she twists and moves into him, presses her face against his neck. He shifts and she arches, lets her head fall back. When he tells her to open her eyes, she really doesn't think about it.
He doesn't talk about himself, and it feels like she should have noticed this before. Instead it comes to her now, after he's told her so explicitly that he's not going to leave her alone. It is not the right time to bring this up to him, because she knows she'd be using this observation as a weapon, as retribution, but then a part of her is just curious. She wants to know.
It's late. The lights are on in the administration offices, where he is, staring at something that she can't make out from her position in the doorway. He knows she's there, but he doesn't ask her want she wants. Doesn't tell her to come in, or go away. He just lets her hang there in front of him, in limbo between rooms.
"Do you ever see Lavinia anymore?" she asks. She says it like it's an offhanded question, and he looks up at her from the paperwork. His eyes are tired, and it's late, and she suddenly feels awful for asking because he just gives her the most puzzled expression that changes slowly as he leans back into his chair. It creaks underneath him, the noise scraping through the room.
"No," he tells her. "Not really."
"Really," she says, not knowing where to go now that she has this vague lump of information to play with.
"Really," he says. "What's with the curiosity?"
No, she tells herself. You aren't falling for that. She stays on the offensive, prodding blindly and caring too much about which marks she hits.
"What about Parker?" she asks. "I never see him here."
"That's because he's in England," he says. "With his mother."
"Lavinia is in England?" she asks, surprised enough to keep the questioning going without realizing it.
"She goes where she wants. She always has."
"Oh," Ashleigh says. The doorjamb is digging into her back, and her muscles are starting to ache. She tenses, and thinks that she must suck so hard at this. She's out of her depth if his simple answers are affecting her more than they are him, and if his staring at her as if she's crazy is any indication, she is in over her head.
But then he shoves himself back from the desk and stalks around it, and she thinks she's underestimating herself. Now she wants to run, and she almost does, but there's that curiosity again. It's nipping at her, pushing for more. So she stands her ground in the doorway and raises her eyes to his.
"What's the point then?" she asks, and everything in him flinches. She's bypassed everything she could have asked, and gone for the throat. The victory she feels is fleeting, and this is how she knows she's no good at this.
"Not everything is so simple," he tells her.
"No?" she asks.
"No," he says. "You should know that pretty well by now, shouldn't you?"
And perhaps, she thinks, taking the easy way has been her biggest mistake.
It's all wrong. The way they move, the way they touch, in every kiss and word. Wrong. When she comes apart in his hands, she knows. Wrong. The way he bends to her, taking the last few moments. Wrong. The way they still and stare and breathe in, out. Wrong.
They both know it, and it doesn't stop either of them.
She had so many options, but she chose this one. When she thinks about it, she doesn't regret it. When she looks at Christina on her pony, and Wonder's full, round belly, and Dawn leading her little herd of yearlings, it feels so natural that she almost doesn't consider where she is and how she got there. It just is, and this is probably why she should have chosen something else.
The next weekend, Mike picks Christina up at the house and Ashleigh walks her daughter down the front steps. Mike's waiting there, smiles covering his wariness when he picks Christina up and secures her in the waiting truck. Christina's eyes are bright, her hair already falling out of her barrette, legs bouncing in excitement.
Mike shuts the truck door, turns to move around to the other side, when Ashleigh catches his arm and he nearly jumps, stunned. She backs up, drops her hands to her sides, feeling foolish.
"I'm sorry," she says, and it's easy. The words fall right out of her mouth.
"It's okay," Mike says, accepts it for what it is.
"I," Ashleigh starts, and shrugs. "I was out of line."
"No," he says, always the nice guy. She remembers how she used to like that, and it feels so long ago now. "You were just being a mother."
"A crazy one," she says, and he nods.
"Maybe," he says. "But you don't need to apologize."
"I'll see you Monday," she says, in lieu of a goodbye.
"I won't be late," he tells her, and she smiles. Just a little.
The thing about him is that he doesn't really want to stop touching her. The thing about her is that she really can't admit to herself that she doesn't want him to stop. Between the two of them they are hopeless, and they tell themselves that it is just this night, that it is just a crack in the tension.
It was a certain kind of inevitable.
During the weekend, she doesn't see him. The gray races, installs himself as an early favorite for the Derby, and she still doesn't see him. She doesn't like how she's looking for him, but not as much as she doesn't like his absence. It has been like this since she made her point, however garbled, so many days ago, and now she just wants to hunt him down so she can explain herself, for whatever reason.
She gets to the farm in the evening, settles the colt in his stall, and goes home. The house is quiet without Christina, without the sounds of family, and she stands alone in the kitchen with leftovers looking unappetizing before her. She takes a bite and makes a face, scraping the rest into the trash.
When she looks up, she sees lights on at the main house. Just a few, here and there. Impulsively, she walks out of the kitchen and out the front door, trots down the steps and up the hill to the mansion. Before she can stop herself, she's ringing the bell, and she sucks in a breath when he answers it.
"Hi," she says, all awkward. She forces herself to keep her hands in her pockets, for fear she might do something utterly embarrassing, like wave at him from her spot on the front stoop.
"Ashleigh," he says, tilting his head to look at her, studying her like he can't decide why she's there.
"I'm sorry," she says, and when he doesn't immediately respond she continues haphazardly. "I seem to be on an apologizing spree lately, and I wasn't exactly kind to you the other day. I don't want to appear ungrateful, I don't. It's just been a lot, and I know I've been standoffish—prickly, even—and I've been…"
"Kind of a bitch," he says, filling the void.
"That's not what I was going to say," she says.
"I know," he tells her. "I was just supplying my own words for you to use."
"I'm not going to say that."
"That's fine," he says, shrugging and still standing there, like he's completely at ease with letting her stand in the doorway.
"Are you going to move out of the way?" she asks, and he raises an eyebrow.
"Did you want inside?"
"You know what?" Ashleigh asks, shaking her head. "Forget it. I'm sorry I even tried this. Obviously I'm wasting my time."
"Hey," he catches her hand, and she stiffens, although she lets him draw her inside all the same. The door closes with a thunk behind her, and the cavernous house sits silently all around them. She stands too close to him, and she can't help staring at him, at parts of him, because she is too close and all she really winds up looking at is the pulse flickering in his throat.
"Apology accepted," he says, letting go of her hand.
"Good," she says, suddenly lacking words. "Good."
"Anything else?" he asks, and it's such a loaded question she could laugh if the silent house wasn't pressing down on her, amplifying every little thing. Every noise, every restless shift between them.
"I," she stops, laughs nervously. "This is stupid."
"What's stupid?" he asks, and the thing of it is she can't begin to answer him. She just stands there, too close, everything in her quickening when he reaches out, his fingers brushing her wrist. It's illogical, completely wrong, but for some reason it doesn't shock her that her blood is rushing so hard she can barely hear him when he touches her.
"Ashleigh?" he asks, and she looks up at him, quickly, like she's looking at him for the first time. Her eyes drift to his mouth, and down his neck, and she forces them away to something that will not hold her interest and she can't quite do it so she steps backward.
He lets go again, looking at her like he's at a loss. She can feel herself flaming red, and she spins for the door.
"I've got to go," she says, but she doesn't, and they both know this. She grips the doorknob and lets herself out so quickly she doesn't dare look back.
When she gets home, she knows that she is in so much trouble.
She didn't want to avoid it. If pressed, she may have even admitted she was searching for it, eager, even though she couldn't begin to comprehend just what it was she wanted, especially from him.
He was always so good at figuring her out. That was the thing. She never had to say anything at all.
The next day she rushes through everything, makes mistakes everywhere, is so flustered she can't think straight. He notices. This makes it worse, and by the time she is out of his sight and out of his contact, it is dusk and she nearly wants to cry in sheer joy when she walks inside her house.
But the knock on her door, that brings everything to a painful stop.
She thinks briefly of not opening the door, but she can't exactly do that. She's an adult, after all. Certainly they've seen their fair share of juvenile arguments, but she can't exactly pretend like he's not there.
She opens the door.
He steps up into the doorway and she doesn't get out of the way, which doesn't seem to faze him in the least because he just puts his hands on her waist and pushes her into the house. She doesn't even think to protest—not yet, in any case—because he moves one hand to her neck and then to her jaw and he kisses her.
At first she can do nothing but respond, instinctually, allowing him everything as her hands come up to grip his arms, his shoulders, trying to not stumble before her back meets the wall by the stairs and he pulls away for only a moment. It is enough.
"What?" she asks, like there is an answer for this.
"I think you mean why," he says, but she shakes her head.
"No, I mean what," she says. "What are we doing?"
"Doing the stupid thing, for once," is what he says, putting one hand against the wall by her head, leans against it and kisses her again. She kisses him back, pushing against him and winding a hand into his hair, pulling him down. When he moves away again he presses her into the wall and says, "That and you've been driving me crazy all day. I figure this is the appropriate way to respond."
"How the hell did you figure that?" Ashleigh asks, and he starts to smirk. She can only cut off whatever he's going to say by kissing him again, grabbing the front of his shirt in her fist and bringing him to her.
It's funny how she doesn't think about anything other than him, and her, and this.
This is a moment she wants to keep for herself, of them and this, before they can destroy it all together. He is asleep in her sheets. She is curled up nearby, a breath away, watching. Everything in the room is still, quiet, close. It feels like an impossibility come to life.
She reaches out and brushes her fingers over his forehead, smiles when he doesn't wake up. She lifts her hand away, sinks into this feeling, this thing, this.
But this, she knows, is not how it will end.