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Ash rolled over in bed and reached instinctively for the warm body she knew would be at her side, only to frown in confusion when her hand met with cool sheets instead of the warm skin she'd expected. Her eyes struggled to open as she fought against the bone weary lassitude that had resulted from the previous night's highly pleasurable activity. Thoughts of those activities, and the woman with whom she'd shared them, once more brought a look of confusion to her face as she looked around her bedroom for the missing body that should, by rights, have been half comatose at her side.
"Scribbs?" Her voice cracked, and with it, the urge to sleep once more assailed her, the lure of the warm sheets were almost impossible to resist, but she struggled against the temptation, her efforts fortified by the knowledge that she was due at work in little over an hour. "Emma?"
"Morning, Sunshine!" Scribbs popped her head around the bedroom door, a smile of monumental proportions on her face as she eased the door further open and shuffled inside, a heavily laden tray in her hands. "Happy Anniversary!"
Sleep had befuddled Ash's mind and saved her from giving voice to her initial thoughts, which ran along the lines of 'what?' and 'huh?' and were guaranteed to annoy and, more importantly, keep her from experiencing the kind of night they'd shared hours before, for a very long time. "Scribbs?"
"I bet you thought I'd forget." Scribbs smiled as she deposited the tray onto the bedside table before jumping onto the mattress and retaking her usual place beside Ash. "Here." She passed Ash a sloshing cup of tea and large plate filled with the kind of traditional English breakfast guaranteed to harden arteries and keep weight loss programs in business for years. "I thought you might need to refuel after last night's bit of fun."
The reminder brought a smile to Ash's lips, and she momentarily forgot her confusion and, instead, concentrated on filling her empty stomach. "This is good," she moaned.
"Didn't know I could cook, did you?"
"No." Ash chewed thoughtfully on a piece of toast. "In the four years we've known each other, this is the first time you've ever cooked for me." She frowned. "You lazy sod."
"Hey! I grilled those sausages," Scribbs defended herself, "and I'm always making you crumpets or toast to go with your tea."
"You put the bread or crumpets in the toaster," Ash disagreed. "That is not cooking."
"Of course it ... Do you really want to get into an argument, today of all days?"
Ash shrugged, having no idea what Scribbs was talking about. "It's a lovely breakfast. Thank you."
Scribbs smiled triumphantly before reaching into her pocket and pulling out a brightly wrapped gift. "Happy Six-months-aversary!" she crooned.
Ash choked on her tea. "Wh-at?"
"I hope you like it." Scribbs seemed oblivious to her partner's confusion as she waited impatiently to see the reaction to her gift. "Hurry up," she urged, too excited to wait for Ash to perform her usual examination and critique of Scribbs' wrapping technique.
A sense of foreboding descended on Ash as she mentally tallied the days, weeks and months since she and Scribbs had renegotiated the terms of their relationship. Six months. Twenty-six weeks. One hundred and ... she frowned, her mental tally stumbling and then falling flat on its face at the inclusion of the extra day in February that signalled the latest Leap Year ... eighty something days. "Scribbs?"
Unable to resist the naked excitement in Scribbs' voice, Ash began to unwrap the small box, the bright paper soon giving way to reveal a dark blue jeweller's box. The design was familiar, the gold embossed logo proudly proclaiming that the contents had been purchased from the finest jewellery shop in all of Middleford. With slightly trembling fingers, Ash opened the box, the gift within drawing a gasp of surprise. "Scribbs? This is ... This is beautiful."
Ash pulled the necklace free. "How did you know?"
The smile on Scribbs' face only grew as she watched the rapt fascination with which Ash stared at the platinum necklace, her eyes alight with the kind of joy she usually reserved for solved murder cases and the heat of passion. "I'm a detective, remember, I have my ways."
It had been months since Ash first spotted the necklace in the jeweller's window and stopped to gape at the utter perfection of the cut; the design was simple, compared to the gaudy offerings to its left and right, but that was what had instantly attracted Ash to the piece. Simple and utterly beautiful. "Emma, I can't believe... This is so beautiful."
Scribbs squealed before launching herself at Ash and tackling her lover to the mattress. "Thank you for the most amazing six months," she giggled, depositing tiny kisses onto Ash's face with each word spoken. "I love you."
"I love you, too." Ash's words were heartfelt, but that didn't stop her from feeling any less guilty at their utterance.
"I know." Scribbs cuddled in closer, her lips tracing gentle lines against Ash's skin as she smiled into the warmth and comfort that she loved. "Now, come on, lazybones, we've got to get ready for work." She sat up and tugged on Ash's hand. "I need to stop by my place and pick up a change of clothes." There was a slight pause before she added, "Is there anything special I need to bring for tonight?"
"Tonight?" Ash had given up on being anything other than befuddled, but she had a perverse need to know as many details as possible about her confusion. "What?"
"I know, I know, I shouldn't have listened in, but I couldn't help it." Scribbs' pout was guaranteed to melt the heart of anyone within a ten mile radius. "I didn't hear any details, but I know you're planning something." She jumped off the bed, her smile dazzling. "And I can't wait!"
Ash watched with mounting horror as Scribbs fairly skipped from the room. "Oh ... my ... God!"
Panic, in all its sweaty palmed misery, was a new experience for Ash. She'd been scared once or twice in her career; there had been a particularly nasty moment when she'd had to face down a drug-crazed murderer brandishing a knife, but that was nothing compared to the latest horror to upset her orderly life.
"What can I do?" she demanded, pacing back and forth in front of Sullivan's desk, the man himself totally ignored as he tried to soothe her panicked state. "She thinks I've arranged something special, but I didn't even know..."
"Wait," he interrupted. "What about your reservations at The Waterfront?"
"What reservations?" She wouldn't have been seen dead in that over-trendy excuse for an eatery. "I've never set foot in the place."
"But I thought..." His voice trailed off as a look of guilt coloured his normally serene features. "Ah."
"Ah?" Ash did not look pleased. "What does 'ah' mean?"
His smile was feeble, even though his contrition was real. "I may have given Scribbs the impression that you'd made reservations." He coughed. "I could have sworn..."
"You told her what!" If he'd been a mere inspector, she would have clouted him for that little bit of insanity. "What made you think...?"
"I heard you, on the phone, talking to the maitre'd." Ash stared at him as if he'd grown a second head. "At least I thought..." He gulped. "Perhaps it's not too late for you to book a table?"
Ash had no intention of letting him off the hook that easily, but she wasn't about to ignore his suggestions, when it just might get her out of the hole he had so magnificently dug beneath her relationship with Scribbs. "Find me the number," she ordered, his faux pas giving her carte blanche to treat him as her personal slave for the day. She dialled. "Hello, yes, I'd like to book a table for two ... Tonight ... What do you mean? ... I don't care if ... I see." She hung up with such care and attention, making neither a sound nor wave on the air, that Sullivan knew his days on this Earth were numbered. "They're fully booked."
"Ah?" The tops of her ears turned pink, and she was seconds away from a full-throated meltdown. "What do you mean, 'ah'!"
The walls vibrated and several officers in the hallway ducked for cover.
"Inspector Ashurst," Sullivan boomed, the timely reminder of her rank managing to keep Ash from crawling across the desk and strangling the life out of him. "I'm sure Scribbs will understand."
"Understand?" She rethought her decision not to strange him. "She bought me jewellery," Ash hissed. "Good jewellery."
"And she made me breakfast in bed." Ash resumed her pacing. "She grilled the sausages and everything."
Sullivan looked a little unsure of the significance, but wasn't about to argue over the romantic merits of grilled meat products. "Perhaps you could get in somewhere else?"
"Somewhere else?" It was an obvious suggestion, but one that had never even occurred to the upset woman. "Get me the phone book," she instructed, as a plan began to form.
Scribbs was bored. The day had started almost too well, but within the space of an hour, she'd been abandoned by her partner and left to sort through a mountain of smudged till receipts in the vain hope of finding proof of collusion in the Graves case. It was the kind of assignment she hated, but usually she managed to squeeze some measure of enjoyment out of even the most mundane of tasks, at least when Ash was sitting across the desk from her, and she could wile away a few hours with X-rated daydreams.
She flicked a paper-clip in the direction of DC Collins, but the missile lost power halfway to its target and fell harmlessly to the floor.
She jerked out of her chair and nearly toppled the pile of neatly discarded till receipts. "Ash?" The look of determination on her partner's face gave Scribbs a tiny thrill of excitement. "Have we got a new case?"
Ash's step faltered. "No."
"Oh." The smile on Scribbs' face turned decidedly lecherous. "Did you need my help to go through old case files?"
Ash's face turned pink as she recognised a phrase she'd once used to lure Scribbs into the basement for a bit of impromptu canoodling; it was a totally out of character bit of madness, but after spending four hours locked in a room with the top brass, the sight of Scribbs bending over her desk had been too much. "No," she hastened to add, before the look in Scribbs' eyes could change her mind and totally derail her plans. "I need to go out for a little while."
"Oh?" Scribbs waited, but it soon became apparent that Ash wasn't about to expand on the comment. "Where are you going?"
"It's nothing, I shouldn't be long."
Avoidance was guaranteed to pique Scribbs' interest, a fact Ash would have realised if she weren't so caught up with her plans. "Do you need me to drive?"
"No, that's okay." She held out her hand for the keys. "I still remember what all the pedals are for."
"It's no trouble." Scribbs grinned, causing Ash's knees to weaken, even as her resolve hardened. "We could stop off for a little something to eat on the way back."
Ash's face suffused with red for the third time that day. "I'll bring you back a sandwich," she croaked, snatching the keys from where they were dangling from Scribbs' hand. "I won't be long."
Scribbs watched in confusion as Ash fairly ran from the room, and she wondered, briefly, if all the sex of late had somehow rattled her friend's mind.
Ash was fast approaching a nervous breakdown. She had phoned every single restaurant of quality in the area, and each and every one of them had been fully booked for that evening, a fact she would have thought statistically impossible, but nevertheless appeared to be true. Abandoning the telephone approach, she had taken to the streets, with the sole intention of browbeating some poor restaurateur into submission and guaranteeing herself the perfect venue for a romantic meal for two. Three restaurants later, she was considering the very real possibility that the Mafia had entered Middleford and gone into the food and wine industry, if the calibre and muscle of the local restaurateurs was anything to go by.
Stopping outside Scribbs' favourite fish and chips place, Ash was half tempted to go in and see if she could bribe them into redecorating and glitzing the place up for the evening, but she refrained. Taking out the crumpled sheet from the yellow pages she'd snatched from Sullivan, Ash quickly searched through the list, praying she'd missed something and she hadn't already run out of options.
With her chances of booking a romantic meal somewhere close to zero, Ash decided to call in the cavalry. It was a tricky move and guaranteed to bring her untold aggravation in the future, but she was desperate. Reaching for her phone, she prayed that she was doing the right thing.
The phone picked up on the second ring, and clearing her throat nervously, Ash asked, "Is that Mrs. Scribbins?"
"Kate?" Scribbs' mother sounded both surprised and pleased at receiving the call, which only deepened Ash's trepidation. "How are you, love? Is my Emma still keeping you on your toes?"
"Very much so." The tight smile relaxed a fraction as Ash remembered that the overly friendly matriarch of the Scribbins' clan couldn't actually see her. "Actually, that's why I'm phoning."
"Oh? Is it about your anniversary?" Mrs. Scribbins' voice grew conspiratorial. "Emma was so worried you wouldn't like your gift. The silly mare, I told her you'd like a bath-plug on a chain if it came from her, but you know how she can be."
Ash made no comment about the bath-plug, but she was exceedingly grateful that Scribbs appeared to have inherited her father's way with gifts. "The thing is, Mrs. Scribbins, there's a problem with the reservations I made for tonight's meal," she lied. "It seems that the restaurant's having staffing problems, and they've been forced to close down temporarily."
"Oh, no, those poor people, you should tell them to contact Emma's cousin Sheryl, she's been trying to get into catering college for years, and I'm sure her arson conviction has been vacated by now. I mean she was only a nipper."
Ash made a mental note to run a check on cousin Sheryl the next time she was in the office. "I'll keep that in mind. But the thing is, I've tried to make other arrangements, but it seems that everywhere is fully booked." She crossed her fingers. "I don't suppose you've any ideas? Somewhere that Emma would really like?"
There was a long pause before Mrs. Scribbs said, "It's funny you should mention that, I know just the thing..."
Scribbs was seriously contemplating having a word with the custody sergeant and seeing if they couldn't issue a missing person's alert on her partner. She knew they weren't technically joined at the hip, but Ash had never before disappeared for three hours, without at least letting her know where she was going. On the whole, considering their case load of late, she wasn't too worried that Ash had been accosted by some deranged killer out for revenge, but that didn't mean she hadn't fallen prey to a flat tire or traffic jam. Scribbs eyed her phone for the fourth time in succession and was just about to pick it up and make the call when Sullivan passed by her desk.
"Boss?" He kept walking, but even his long stride wasn't enough to outpace the timbre of one of Scribbs' more impressive yells. "Boss!"
He turned to look at her cautiously, his regard mirrored by practically everybody within earshot. "Scribbs?"
"Can I have a word?" He looked hesitant. "It won't take a minute."
Smiling uncertainly, he followed her out into the corridor, his trepidation mounting at her furtive look. "Is there a problem, Scribbs, only I'm meant to be in a meeting with the Deputy Chief Constable in..." He looked at his watch and tried to work out a suitable time-frame for his lie, "thirty minutes and I'm running a bit behind as it is."
"It's Ash," said Scribbs, "she's been acting weird all morning and now she's not answering her mobile, and she still hasn't come back from her little trip."
"Her trip?" His attempt to look blasé was not entirely successful. "She's not here?"
"No." Scribbs looked at him oddly for a second before elaborating, "She popped out about three hours ago, and I haven't heard a thing since."
"I wouldn't worry," he said. "She's probably just stuck in traffic."
There was a time, exactly six months and one day in the past, when Scribbs would have interpreted his inability to make eye contact and obvious discomfort as a sign that he and Ash were shagging. Now, she wasn't quite sure what to make of it, other than the fact she didn't believe a word he was saying.
"Boss, I don't mean to be rude, but what the hell are you playing at?" She hadn't seen him look this uncomfortable since Ash barged into his office and informed him that she and Scribbs were an item. "Is something wrong with Kate?"
Sullivan was about to reprimand Scribbs for her tone, but the use of Ash's first name brought him up short; outside of their personal time, about which he really didn't want to speculate, he'd only ever heard Scribbs call her partner by name once, and somehow he didn't think that was a good sign. "Scribbs, I can assure you that Kate's fine." The crinkle that appeared between Scribbs' eyes let him know that his use of Ash's first name was not appreciated. "Really, you've nothing to worry about."
He gave her his most confident smile. "I'm positive."
Scribbs made a mental note to keep an eye on him in future, but otherwise banished her concerns for the moment. She knew Ash was up to something and that Sullivan knew exactly what that something might be, but she was fairly sure it was nothing dangerous or disturbing, like perhaps the two of them eloping to Fiji to start a new life together.
"Okay, Boss, sorry I held you up."
Sullivan's smile dropped as he realised he'd have to find an excuse to be away from the office for a couple of hours until his supposed meeting with the Deputy Chief would have ended, but at least that would mean he'd be far enough away from Ash if she came back empty handed and looking for someone to blame.
Ash had arrived back at the station twenty minutes later, but before Scribbs could even begin her cross-examination, they'd been called out to a crime scene, and the rest of the afternoon had been spent interviewing witnesses and speaking to SOCO. If she hadn't seen the CCTV pictures of the two youths leaving the scene of the crime, Scribbs would have almost suspected Ash of perpetrating the robbery herself, the timing had been that perfect.
"I wish all crimes were that cut and dried," Ash said as they exited the interview room, where both young men had readily confessed. "We'd get to go home on time every night."
"Hmmm." Scribbs didn't know whether to bring up Ash's suspicious behaviour now or wait until after their anniversary dinner. The sensible side of her knew it would be prudent to clear the air first, but her more abundant fun-loving side said to hell with the mystery, bring on the oysters and Champagne. "So, tonight? Do I need to wear something special?" she pried.
"No." Ash looked down at her partner's boots and jeans. "What you've got on will be fine."
"It will?" Scribbs doubted that any restaurant Ash chose would allow its patrons within ten feet of the entrance if they were wearing denim. "Are you sure?"
Ash smiled. "Absolutely."
To Be Continued
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