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For Love & Country

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October 2014

“Colonel Menninger, do you have a minute?” Ashlyn asks.

“Of course. Come in and sit down,” he says, gesturing to the seat across from him. “In fact, I was going to send for you in a little while.”

Ashlyn sits down. “You were?”

“Yes. But what did you need?”

“Well, normally I wouldn’t ask so far out, especially since it’s not a done deal yet and I’m kind of superstitious about these kind of things but Ali really wanted me to ask so I thought I should do it so she doesn’t have to worry about it.”

Menninger grins. “Um, okay. Worry about what?”

Ashlyn takes a deep breath. “She really wants me to ask for a month’s leave to attend the World Cup next summer. I figure the whole month is a no-go but can I at least have 2 weeks that would end after the Championship? I am damn sure they will make it to the tourney and win it so I’d like to be there when they do, sir,” Ashlyn finishes, studying the man’s face. She notices the grin fall as he glances down at his desk. “Or, um, maybe just a week off?” Ashlyn asks nervously.

Menninger reaches over to his files and slides out a folder. He stares at it a moment before laying it in front of himself.

“Lieutenant Harris, you have been impressing people from the day you entered boot camp. You’ve gotten letters of commendation and medals for your actions in the field, not to mention the commendation for the donations we received from Nike and Adidas. It’s no secret you are on the fast track to captain next summer.”

“Thank you for saying that, sir,” Ashlyn says, her hopes of attending the World Cup dwindling since it coincides with her promotion schedule.

“That said, one thing missing from your files is a deployment,” Menninger says. Ashlyn’s blood turns to ice. “I’ve tried to point out the many times you’ve responded with the Fast Response Team as being worse than a deployment because so much is unknown when you report and things can be just as dicey with the locals. You deserve to make captain, Harris. And I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t do everything possible to make sure that happens. That said, the word I got yesterday still pains me. I was hoping to talk to you after you got back from Qualifiers.”

Ashlyn swallows hard as he studies the folder silently. “Sir...where am I going and when?” she asks softly.

He sighs and hands her the folder. “Iraq. December 1. It’s a 1 year tour.”

Ashlyn shivers. One whole year away. She’d miss the World Cup. She’d miss so much. So fucking much. But what makes her better than any other soldier in the Army? Why should her personal life and her wife’s potential accomplishments mean more than anyone else’s? She opens the folder and studies the official notice. She slowly looks up and forces a smile to her face.

“Guess this means Canada is out, right sir?”

“I’m afraid so, Lieutenant.”

Ashlyn sighs. “Damn. I’m glad Ali’s already left with the team. Will give me a couple days to figure out how to conceal my emotions.” She looks up at her colonel. “Thank you for telling me, sir. And I appreciate you trying to keep me from going. But I’m no better than anyone else and I need to take my tour like others have and will. I’m honoured to be an officer in the US Army and willing to do my duty no matter where it takes me.”

Menninger smiles and stands. Ashlyn stands, too. He offers her his hand. “Well said, Lieutenant. And I daresay by the time you get back to me, you’ll be a captain. Keep making me look good out there, Harris.”

Ashlyn smiles at the man she has the utmost respect for. “I will, sir. Count on it.”

Ashlyn slowly walks back to her desk to read the full details of her deployment. She sees she will actually get to handpick the squad leaders she takes with her. They will be tasked with the rebuilding of several towns, making them nicer than when the war started. It was part of the “feel good” policies the administration was pushing to show that the U.S. is more than just a war machine storming through the Middle East and actually an asset to helping the countries grow and prosper. It actually sounds like a lot of fun and very fulfilling.

“Well, except that local insurgents will be trying to kill us. Other than that, no big deal,” she mutters as she sets the folder aside to concentrate on the work she has to get done that day.


 

That night Ashlyn stares at her suitcase as she packs to spend the next few days in Philly for the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers. Her Ali Krieger jersey is on top of the pile and it brings a tear to her eyes. She turns around and sits down on the bed. Her mind runs through the litany of things she will miss while gone.

Next Thanksgiving

Their Anniversary

Christmas this year

Start of 2015 NWSL season

The World Cup

Ali’s Birthday

The Celebrations for winning the World Cup (for there is no other outcome in her mind).

Birthdays of other friends and relatives.

Valentine’s Day

“ASHLYN!”

Ashlyn jumps as she notices Ken standing at the door to her and Ali’s room. He looks at her with concern. He walks over and stands in front of her.

“I called you 4 times. What’s going on in your head, Ash? You’ve been a little out of it the last couple of days. And now I find you in here, half-packed, crying and staring into space. I’m worried about you,” he says.

Ashlyn sighs and looks down at her feet. “I’ve been...dealing with some work stuff. That’s all. Sorry. I, uh, am almost done packing.” She stands to grab a few more things.

Ken gently takes her arm. “You can’t lie to me any better than you can lie to your wife. Talk to me, Ashlyn.”

She stares at the wall, her lip quivering as she fights her emotions. She finally looks at her father-in-law.

“You have to swear you won’t tell her until after the tournament.” He nods, seeing how important this is to her. Ash takes a deep breath. “On December 1 I leave for a year in Iraq.”

Ken’s mouth drops open. This was the last thing he expected. I mean, sure, deployment was always a possibility but it seemed so slight considering Ashlyn’s job in the Army. He leans against the dresser.

“Damn, honey. I can see why you didn’t tell Alex. Did you tell anyone else?” Ashlyn shakes her head. “Ashlyn, you don’t need to fight these fears alone. I dare say you’d be crazy not to be scared about being over there but- -”

“It’s not just that, Ken. If something happens to me...will she...I know her well enough to know she won’t play the World Cup. She won’t. And she deserves to do it. I can’t get that out of my head,” Ashlyn admits.

Ken slowly nods. “I understand that. But I also think you’re masking your own fears of mortality by thinking about Alex.”

Ashlyn thinks about that a moment. “Maybe a little. But I don’t want her to know until after Qualifiers.” She manages a small smile. “I’m still trying to figure out a way to hide it until after the World Cup.”

Ken grins and squeezes her arm. “Not sure you could pull that one off. Alex is a pretty sharp cookie.”

Ashlyn nods. “Don’t I know it.” She takes a deep breath. “I’ll tell her after the tournament. I promise.”

Ken nods, “I know you will. Until then it’s our secret.”

“Thanks, Dad,” she says appreciatively.

“Now hurry up and finish packing. I want to be on the road in 20 minutes.”

Ashlyn nods and finishes getting her clothes together. She runs down everything she’s packed in her mind, hoping she hasn’t forgotten anything since she was so distracted.


 

The first game of the 2014 CONCACAF Women’s World Cup Qualifying tournament is a surprisingly hard-fought win over a feisty Trinidad & Tobago team. Ali had played the full 90 and showed the coaches she was back up to form after the concussion incident. Her presence in the backline was felt just about every time their opponents made a play towards goal.

The second game was a 5-0 blowout, making it a much better game for those in the stands. Ali gets the start but is subbed out in the second half to give her time to rest; and give Jill Ellis a chance to evaluate other line-ups. Ashlyn is thrilled that Whitney not only starts, but actually scores one of the goals.

“YES, WHITNEY!” she screams for her best friend, giving the Engen’s a hug as they celebrate their daughter’s goal. “She’s amazing!” Ash gushes.

“Yes, she is,” Mrs. Engen agrees, so very proud of her daughter.

The group stage concludes with a 6-0 rout of Haiti. Ali sat the whole game to rest her up for the expected showdown against Mexico in the Semifinals. It was the game that had been predicted as the championship game until Costa Rica upset the Mexican team and won their group.

“This game is going to be a nail-biter,” Ashlyn predicts.

“I agree,” Ken says.

They are currently watching the team warm up. Ashlyn, as she often does, studies the warm-ups of the opposing keeper. She frowns a bit.

“Hmm, maybe not. I mean, she’s okay but I think our forwards can take her,” she notes.

“What makes you say that?” Deb, who had flown in for the elimination rounds, asks.

Ashlyn shrugs. “Just...instinct. She’s not as sure when she leaves her line and she’s hesitant in the air. If they’ve studied game tapes and seen the same thing Syd, Carli and Press will make confetti out of the net.”

“Good to know,” Deb says.

When the game begins it doesn’t take long for the US to strike...almost.

“Damn that crossbar!” Ashlyn notes as a shot rattles off of it.

But it only takes 6 minutes for Carli Lloyd to strike the eventual game winner. Add in a PK at the 30 mark and things are looking good for the US.

There is one moment when Ashlyn nearly launches herself onto the field. A bad tackle from behind and Ali goes down hard, laying on the ground for a second. The soldier is out of her seat and down the stairs to the railing before anyone can grab her. She stares at her wife, whispering words of prayer.

“Come on, baby, get up. Please get up. Please...please, God, don’t take the World Cup from her. Please.”

She loosens her white-knuckle grip on the railing when Ali finally does get to her feet and take a couple of steps before jogging back into position.

“Oh, thank God,” Ashlyn murmurs.

“So now that she’s up, can you return to your seat, ma’am?”

Ashlyn looks at the security guard. “Oh. Uh, sorry.”

“No problem. Just glad you didn’t jump that rail and make me tackle you,” he says with a wink.

Ashlyn manages a smile. “Right. Sorry again.”

Ashlyn climbs the steps and slips back into her seat. She looks at Ken and Deb who are staring at her in amusement. Ashlyn shrugs, blushing.

“Well...I had to make sure...”

Deb frames her face with her hands and gives her a kiss on the cheek. “You are so cute.”

Ashlyn blushes more, as other parents chuckle at the interaction. She turns back to the game, hoping action on the field will take attention from her.

The U.S. easily advances to the final against Costa Rica. That game is another walloping as the US wins 6-0 thanks to goals from 3 players, paced by an insane 4 GOALS from Abby. Beyond that amazing showing, all in the stands are excited to see Syd finally find the back of the net after so many near misses during the rest of the tournament. Though the game is well in hand by the time she scores, they know it does a lot for her confidence to get that goal.

As the fans are filing out, Ashlyn finds herself walking with Deb. Her mother-in-law hooks her arm through Ashlyn’s and gives her a bit of a bump.

“When are you going to tell her?”

Ashlyn freezes and turns to look at her. “Tell who what?”

“Tell Alex you’re going to Iraq,” she explains.

Ashlyn turns to glare at Ken. He shrugs. “I needed to talk to someone who’d understand my fear. We both love you, Ash, and we’re both scared about this but are behind you 100%.”

Ashlyn sighs and turns back to Deb. “I figure no sooner than tomorrow. She deserves to party and have fun and celebrate tonight. I can ruin the rest of 2014 for her after all that.”

Deb pulls Ashlyn along, getting her walking again. “When will you have your address so I can get a care package ready for you? I want to make sure you have it in time for Christmas.”

Ashlyn shakes her head. “Deb, you don’t have to- -”

“Don’t even finish that sentence, Ashlyn. It’s not about ‘have to’ it’s about ‘want to’. I want to make sure my girl has something nice at Christmas.”

Ashlyn’s eyes tear up, as they do anytime she is reminded about just how much she means to Ali’s parents. She takes a couple seconds to answer.

“I’ll have it in November. That’s when the official orders will come down.”

“Official? Does that mean it could change?” Deb asks hopefully.

“No, it’s just a military thing. It’s happening. In fact, my promotion to captain is tied into it so there’s no pulling out no matter what.”

“Rats. Well, a mother can hope, I guess,” she replies. “All I ask is that you do me one favor.”

“Okay.”

“Tell her before November 30.”

Ashlyn grins. “I plan to. My plan is to take her to a nice dinner when we get back to DC and tell her when we get home. The dinner will be to celebrate this win. Then I can bust her bubble with my news. Am I a jerk or what?”

“You’re not a jerk. There’s really no easy way to do this. She’ll be hurt and scared no matter what. But she’ll be mad the longer you wait,” Ken cautions.

“I know. I swear, I just want her to enjoy this victory a few more days.”


 

Later that night, Ashlyn stares down at the beauty in her arms. She traces her hands over strong, sweaty skin glowing in the aftermath of making love. She massages a strong thigh, as always amazed by the princess beauty hiding a warrior of steel. A hand reaches up and caresses Ash’s cheek.

“Talk to me, baby,” Ali says softly.

Ashlyn looks up from her wandering and makes eye contact with concerned eyes. “What?”

“Something has been bothering you since you got to Philly. I’m not going to accept the ‘just work stuff’ excuse any longer. I could tell you needed me to buy that so I did. Now I’m not. Tell me what’s going on, Ashlyn.”

Ashlyn sighs and brings her forehead down to her wife’s. “I don’t know why I ever think I can hide things from you.”

“Me neither. So...when do you leave and for how long?”

“You...you know it’s a deployment? Like a real one?”

Ali nods. “It’s the only thing I can imagine that would make you this upset; this...scared.”

Ashlyn rolls off her wife and stares at the ceiling, trying to will the tears forming in her eyes to go away. “I was going to tell you when we got back to DC. I swear I was.”

Ali rolls, cuddling into her wife’s side as she studies the strong features of the blonde. “Tell me now.”

Ashlyn stares at the ceiling. For a minute, Ali thinks she will not be getting an answer. Then Ashlyn takes a deep breath.

“I leave on December 1st for a yearlong tour in Iraq helping with the rebuilding projects around the country,” she says, her voice choked with emotion.

Ali fights back her own tears. “Oh. Fuck. That’s...really soon for really long.” Ashlyn just nods. Ali combs her mind to find something positive to say. “So, uh, I guess you’ll be watching the World Cup on Armed Forces Network.”

Ashlyn slowly turns and looks at her. “You’re...not mad? At me?”

Ali tilts her head to the side. “Baby, how can I be mad at you?” She moves so she straddles her wife, looking down at her. “I’ve told you before: I know what I signed up for when I married an Army officer. I didn’t just marry you because you look so fucking hot in uniform, which you really do,” she adds and Ash gives a small smile. “I married you because I love you. And I love your heart. And I love that you will be over there making life better for people. Will I be scared? Hell yeah. But that doesn’t mean I stop loving you. It means I love you more.”

Ashlyn stares into honest eyes a second then pulls her down into a deep kiss. When it ends, Ashlyn runs her hands up and down her wife’s sides. “I love you. I swear I will do everything I can to stay safe and get home to you in one piece next fall.”

Ali smiles. “I’m holding you to that, my soldier.”

The two start to make love again, both putting all their thoughts and emotions into it. When Ali finally screams out her wife’s name, she collapses down onto the taller woman. It is seconds later that Ashlyn feels the tears on her shoulder. She wraps Ali in her arms.

“Please, Alex, don’t cry. Please don’t cry, Princess,” she begs.

“I can’t help it. My heart is going away for a year.”

Ashlyn just pulls her in closer. What the heck could she say to that?


 

Ashlyn stares at their closest friends, who all look a bit stricken. She pulls off her snapback and runs a hand through her hair.

“Guys...talk to me here. I’m not dead. I’m just...doing my job.”

“In Iraq. You’ll be doing your job in Iraq. For a year,” Whitney stresses.

Ashlyn reaches for her hand. “I’ll be in safe zones. It’s going to be so cool. I’ll be building schools and meeting halls and- -”

Whitney pulls her hand away and stands. “IN IRAQ! You’re not going to be in fucking Kansas doing that shit! You’re not going to be in Carolina! You’ll be in FUCKING IRAQ!”

Tobin stands and tries to calm Ashlyn’s best friend. Whitney just steps away and goes to stare out the window. Ashlyn sighs and looks at the others in the room. Sarah Huffman, who had come to cheer on Abby, leans into her tall wife, her face worried. Abby’s face looks more angry than sad. Tobin’s face is impassive. HAO has a single tear running down her cheek. And Pinoe looks like she is desperately trying to figure out something amusing to say to ease the tension.

But nothing about this conversation is helping her find an amusing anecdote.

Ashlyn stands up and walks over to Whitney. She wraps her arms around her best friend from behind, resting her chin on her shoulder. They just stand there a few minutes, until Whit finally turns around and buries her face in Ashlyn’s neck.

“I’ll kick your ass if you get hurt over there. And I’ll never speak to you again if you get killed,” Whitney mumbles.

Ashlyn smiles. “I love you, too, Whit.”

After a few minutes, Whit pulls away, wiping her face. Ashlyn turns back to the others. “So, anyone else need to have a breakdown?”

Abby shrugs. “Not a breakdown. But...just...we meet military personnel all the time. Hell, we know some of the shit you’ve gotten into. But this is just...just...”

“More permanent,” HAO supplies. “You’ll just be there. For a year.”

Ashlyn looks like she doesn’t know how to respond. Ali sits forward in her chair. “Guys, I’m not saying it’s not scary. We all know things are unstable over there. But Ashlyn needs us to ignore the fucking fear and just support her. I know this is hitting us closer to home than normal but we need your support right now. I’ll be a basket case. I can admit that. But there will be times I need to lean on you and times you’ll need to lean on me. And Ash is going to need us sending her crazy letters, cards, emails, anything to help her stay positive over there and get back to us next December. Can we count on you to be our support structure during this year?”

Pinoe stands and moves to Ali’s side. She pulls her in close. “Of course you can, Kriegs.” She kisses Ali’s temple. “I think we are just all in a bit of shock. We’re probably not handling this as well as we could be.”

“To say the least,” Ashlyn says with a smile. “Look guys, think of it this way: with all that sand it will be like I’m on a yearlong surfing vacation. Minus the ocean. And the surfboards. And the hot chicks in bikinis.”

Everyone gives a chuckle.

“Oh, right. Almost the same damn thing now that you put it that way,” Sarah jokes. She stands and gives Ashlyn a hug. “I’ve got your back, Ash. And anytime Ali needs anything I’m just a phone call away,” she says, turning to smile at Ali.

“That’s right. We’re all here for both of you,” Abby confirms.

Ashlyn finally turns to the last person in the room. The one who had sat a little away from the others as if knowing she was not going to like what was being said. Her blue eyes are wide, her mouth drawn into a tight line. Ashlyn releases Whitney and walks over to kneel in front of the young forward.

“Baby Horse? You with us?”

Alex slowly looks up. Her blue eyes are magnified by a well of tears. She throws her arms around Ashlyn’s shoulders.

“I’m scared.”

“Me, too,” Ashlyn admits. “But I’ve had training, I’ve had experience, I’m ready for this. I promise you I will be careful and come back to you as safely as I can.”

Alex finally leans back and kisses her cheek. “I’ll miss you at my wedding.”

Ashlyn smiles. “I hate missing it but I expect a lot of pictures. And maybe even a slice of wedding cake mailed to me.”

Alex chuckles and wipes her eyes. “I’ll try to save a slice just for you.”

They hug once more then Ashlyn stands and looks at her wife. “There, that wasn’t so bad, right?”

Ali rolls her eyes. “Right.”

“Now we just have to tell Niki, Lori, Kyle and my family. Not hard at all, right?”

“Keep telling yourself that, kid,” Abby jokes.

Soon everyone has left, leaving Ali and Ashlyn alone. Ashlyn sighs.

“Whit about broke me,” she admits.

“Me, too,” Ali replies. “But I’ll keep an eye on her as she’ll keep an eye on me. You just worry about you. Those of us back here will just worry about ourselves, okay?”

Ashlyn gives her a kiss. “Okay.”

The two gather up Ashlyn’s bags and then go get Ali’s. Ali will ride back to Virginia with her wife and father. She just needed to be close to Ashlyn right now and Jill, who had been told of the deployment, completely understands.


 

Ashlyn stares at the TV screen. They had hooked up the laptop and camera to it so she could pace if needed while talking to her family. She sees faces ranging from stunned to scared to disbelief. She takes a deep breath.

“Come on, guys, talk to me. Let me know you heard what I said,” she begs.

“We heard. Just fucking hate it, Ash,” Chris says, his voice angry.

Ashlyn stands and lifts her hands pleadingly. “Look, you all knew this was probably going to happen with me in the Army. Don’t be mad at me. Please.”

“Mad? Fuck, Ash, I’m furious! I don’t want my sister in a fucking WAR ZONE!” Chris yells then walks out of the room.

“Bubba! CHRIS! CHRISTOPHER!” Ashlyn yells but he doesn’t return. “Son of a...”

Ali steps out of the room to call Chris. As close as she is to Kyle she can imagine how Chris is doing since he is just as close with Ash. Ashlyn looks to her mother then her grandmother.

“Mom? Grandma? Please...talk to me,” she pleads.

Her grandmother stiffens her back. “I’m so proud of you, Ashlyn Michelle. This is perhaps the scariest news I’ve ever gotten but I will love and support you no matter what.”

“Thank you,” Ashlyn says with relief.

Tammye squeezes her hands together. “I guess...I need to get one of those Blue Star pennants to hang in my window. I want the world to know my daughter is bravely fighting for our freedoms.”

Ashlyn smiles. “I’ll get you one, Mom. Promise.”

“I’ll need one for my house, too,” her father chimes in.

“You got it, Pop. And one for you, too, Grandma.”

“Get one for Chris,” Ali says as she walks back into the room.

Ashlyn had looked over her shoulder to her wife. When she turns back, her brother is on the screen, his eyes red from crying.

“You’ve always been my hero and best friend, Ash. Sorry I let fear become anger. I’m here for you and Ali no matter what,” he says.

Ashlyn’s eyes tear up. “Thanks, Bubba.”

The Skype lasts about another 20 minutes, interspersed with questions about Iraq to teasing Ashlyn about things she did as a kid that could reflect on her job performance. By the time it ends, Ashlyn’s grandma states that Thanksgiving will be in Satty Beach so Ashlyn can surf as much as she can before leaving and that all Kriegers are required to attend.

“I’ll make sure to send out the notices, Grandma,” Ali promises.

“You girls take care. Ashlyn, if you need anything let us know,” Tammye says.

“I will, Mom. Thanks. I love you guys.”

“Love you, too, Sis.”

“Love you, little one,” her grandfather says.

When the call is disconnected, Ashlyn drops down onto the couch. “So that’s everyone except Kyle.”

“Yeah. I still can’t reach him.”

Ashlyn thinks a second. “Molly about broke me with those silent tears.”

Ali smiles and cuddles up to her wife. “Me, too.”

Earlier that day they’d had Niki and Molly over for brunch. Molly had just silently cried, unable to speak. Niki and Ashlyn had gone out back to talk. Ali had not asked about what but she had a feeling it had to do with Niki watching over Ali should the worst happen. The two women had hugged so hard and so long at the end of their talk she hopes it also means Ashlyn was honest about the fears she had been hiding. Ali strokes her fingers through her wife’s blonde locks.

“I’ll be okay, you know. I mean...it will suck on so many levels but I will be okay. I have an amazing support system around me to help me when I’m down. I’ll be okay, Ashlyn.”

Ash turns and studies her wife. “I know you will be. You’re Ali Frickin’ Krieger. You always come out on top.”

Ali leans forward, cupping Ash’s chin. “Get it right, woman. I am Ali Frickin’ Krieger-HARRIS.”

Ashlyn smiles as Ali seals that statement with a kiss.

“How did I ever forget?” Ashlyn asks as the kiss ends.

Ali moves to sit on her wife’s lap and the two start to make out, knowing they have a couple hours before Ken gets home from his date. Just when it seems it may go farther someone is pounding on the front door. The women stand. Ashlyn automatically puts Ali behind her as she approaches the door warily. The pounding starts again and Ali gets her phone ready to call 9-1-1. Ashlyn eases to the door and looks out the spy lens.

“Oh for fuck’s sake!”

She opens the door and Kyle Krieger blows in like the Wicked Witch of the West.

“I cannot BELIEVE you did not tell me you were going to Iraq! I mean, what’s a guy to do when his favorite sister-in-law withholds VITAL information!” He then turns on Ali. “And what about you, missy? Couldn’t pick up a phone? Couldn’t be bothered to drop a text? What’s up with this?!”

He ends with his hands on his hips, one hip cocked out to the side. He is the poster boy for the stereotypical pissed gay man. Ashlyn and Ali exchange a look...then burst out laughing. He lifts a hand and snaps at them.

“Oh, no you are NOT laughing at me!”

Ashlyn walks over and pulls the stiff man into a hug. “You were our next call, Kyle. Promise.”

“Oh, so I’m supposed to be happy that I’m last? That the whoooooole family found out first?”

“And the team,” Ali adds, with a grin.

“Oh, I KNOOOOOOOOOW they found out first! Alex visited to get her hair cut and asked how I was feeling about things! ALEX MORGAN had to tell me my little sister was going to war!” he screeches.

Ashlyn leans back and stares into his eyes. “You were the hardest one to tell,” she says honestly. “I’ll need you so much while I’m gone to take care of Ali and...and I just...I didn’t want to...”

He suddenly relaxes as he sees the truth in her eyes. “You’re scared if...the worst happens I’ll fall off the wagon.”

“Yeah,” she croaks out.

Ali straightens up. Ashlyn had never told her about this fear. And yet, she should have seen it all along.

“I don’t want to be the reason you lose your sobriety and all you hold dear,” Ashlyn explains.

He pulls her close. “Oh, sweet Ashlyn, I won’t. If...something happens to you, I’d be tempted, that’s no lie. But I have the right people around me that won’t let it happen, starting with that gorgeous princess you’re married to. I promise: I’ll be here for her totally sober and totally strong to help her through anything,” he vows.

“Thank you,” Ashlyn croaks out. “And you’ll also make sure my hair looks awesome for my funeral?”

He manages a laugh. “You’re fucking sick but yes, I will.”

As the hug ends, Ashlyn runs her hands up and down his arms. “I can’t believe you flew all the way out here because you’re pissed at me.”

“Well, that and I have a hairstylist’s conference in D.C. This weekend. Surprise! I’m here to crash at Hotel Daddy for a couple of days.”

Ashlyn laughs and hugs him again. “Well, then welcome and enjoy your stay. Don’t expect turn down service and a mint on your pillow.”

He pretends to pout. “Well, fine. Cheap ass hotel if you ask me,” he gripes as he pushes past her to Ali. “Soooo, I guess I forgive you, too.”

“You better. Or you’ll get ‘spider in the bed’ service,” she threatens.

He gives a full body shiver at the thought and pulls his sister into a hug. The three make their way to the living room to talk about anything other than the quickly approaching deployment of Ashlyn.