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Thriller Drama CLOSED The Guilty

Discussion in 'Role Playing Forum' started by HanSolo29 , Apr 19, 2022.

  1. HanSolo29

    HanSolo29 Manager Emeritus + Official Star Wars Artist star 7 VIP - Former Mod/RSA VIP - Game Winner

    Registered:
    Apr 13, 2001
    [​IMG]

    * * *

    Still reeling from the trauma of a previous case a year ago, Harry and Belle, now both retired, travel together to Preston, Colorado for a recuperative getaway in the mountains. They are unprepared for what awaits them in the quaint mining town steeped in tradition and superstition.

    [​IMG]
    Preston, Colorado


    Dramatis Personae
    • Harry Ambrose (retired police detective of 40 years)
    • Isobel "Belle" Barlowe (former Criminal Behavioral Analyst, now retired)
    • Alex Mitchell (Belle's daughter; serves as a Colorado State Trooper)
    • Mia Crawford (a beleaguered mother and waitress at the local ski resort/casino)
      • Justin Crawford (eldest son)
      • Lindsay Crawford (middle daughter)
      • Sadie Crawford (youngest daughter)
    • Sonny Kingston (a local politician who is full of charisma and well-loved by the community)
    • Blake Kingston (Sonny's brother; manager of the local mining company run by the Kingston Family)
    • Esther Finch (Sonny's cousin; owns and operates a local tourist trap that specializes in the occult)
    • Gabe Finch (Esther's son; a local playboy who spends most of his time on the slopes)
    • The Police Chief
    • The Mayor (Sonny's wife)
    • The Medical Examiner/Doctor

    * * *

    Prologue


    IC: Belle Barlowe and Harry Ambrose
    In-Transit to Colorado

    Belle Barlowe wasn’t fond of flying, she never had been, but sometimes it was necessary. She wasn’t even aware she’d been gripping the seat arm until her friend, Harry Ambrose, gently pried her fingers loose and massaged her hand. Belle studied how small and pale her hand was in both of Harry’s large hands. Her cheeks flushed as she gave him a look that said thanks.

    In truth, it was an unforeseen circumstance that had caught him off-guard. The moment had simply… happened, his hand intertwining with hers without preconceived thought or reason. Perhaps it was an instinctive need to provide her comfort, or maybe it was a coping mechanism to counter his own restive tendencies.

    Either way, as Harry canted his head and regarded her with a sideways glance, he suddenly felt self-conscious. There was a sudden urge to withdraw and return to the familiar place where he felt comfortable and safe—to hide within himself.

    His hand jerked for the briefest of moments… but ultimately, he held firm.

    The last three months had been hell for Harry and Belle. Their paths had first crossed after they had both become targets of a psychopathic killer known as Jamie Burns. The name still conjured nightmares from the deepest depths of his soul, haunting every waking thought and action; sleep had deserted him long ago.

    It was always the same scenario that replayed inside his mind on an endless loop:

    Jamie’s twisted visage looming in the shadows as he approached with a lumbering gait…

    The taunting words… the lies…

    …or was it the truth?

    A twitch of a muscle and the telltale ‘pop’ of a firearm being discharged…

    Smoke and haze filled the room except for the muzzle flash…

    And then—

    Harry visibly winced and recoiled from the memory, his hand unwittingly tightening against Belle’s slender touch. After the incident, several of his colleagues had advised him to retire—he had earned it after forty years of service to the precinct; it would help him to relax and expedite his recovery; it would allow him the freedom to pursue his hobbies and travel. Nevermind the paperwork, the witness statements, the prescribed doctor visits, and therapy sessions…

    Despite the hassle, he had followed their guidance, turned in his badge, and left his career as a police detective behind. At the time, he had believed that it had been the right decision—but now, he wasn’t so sure.

    He felt restless and lost.

    This trip was supposed to serve as a celebration of sorts; the start of a new beginning…

    But all he could think about was the guilt. He had yet to absolve himself of that burden, and it was slowly eating him alive.

    Belle had also recently retired, to a peaceful cottage on 60 secluded acres, from her job with the FBI. She’d worked her entire career at Quantico as a criminal behavioral analyst before she opted to retire early. Her job had been rewarding, but stressful. She had assisted in understanding the minds of killers and that meant studying police reports and the occasional in-person interviews that took place in prisons around the country.

    Only her peaceful retirement had been disrupted when Nick Haas and Jamie Burns crashed their car in her driveway. Nick’s life ended that night, but the nightmare for Belle and Harry had just begun.

    The two friends recently decided that a trip to the mountains out west would be a relaxing escape as they both worked through the demons leftover from their ordeal with Jamie Burns. Belle took a deep breath and reclaimed her hand with the excuse of pulling a dog-eared paperback from her tote. Harry had been a lifesaver, literally and emotionally. Belle had been unable to stay at her house alone, or even sleep, after the last encounters with Jamie. Harry had all but moved into her guest room, but the two usually fell asleep talking or watching movies in the living room. He had only left her when he had work, and then she spent time with a friend, or with Jamie’s wife who they had become close to recently since she was left alone with a newborn.

    "I picked up this guide a couple of years ago when I visited Alex. I thought it might be useful for us to check out places to explore. It’s geared more to locals rather than tourists, and I found some beautiful areas to hike last time," she opened to a marked chapter that covered Preston, Colorado and surrounding areas. "I believe the cabin Alex secured for us is right here," she pointed out a marked location on a map of a mountain overlooking the town of Preston. "Alex said it’s got a long winding driveway that’s off the main highway that leads into the town," she shrugged and added, "I guess if you call a two-lane highway a main thoroughfare."

    Belle had been a city dweller until her retirement and was still getting used to a more laid-back lifestyle. She had been outside of her comfort zone the first time she’d visited her daughter, Alex, in the mountains of Colorado. Even though the area was only around 2 hours outside of the bustling city of Denver, it was like stepping back in time. They didn’t have the crowded train platforms of rush hour or the crush for a seat on the bus. The people there live at a much more relaxed pace. Some towns didn’t have more than one traffic signal, if that.

    "You were planning this for a while, weren’t you… longer than I thought," Harry murmured with a slight scoff, his eyes lifting marginally to meet her gaze. He posed it more as a statement, an observation that he had derived from the worn and tattered pages—perhaps it could even be construed as a mild accusation, though his tone remained light. In the end, he admired her passion.

    While they had both agreed to this mountain getaway, he had not fully realized the extent of her preparation and involvement. Belle had clearly undertaken a lot of work to bring this trip to fruition, and that notion brought a thin smile to his lips.

    Of course, he still had his doubts, particularly when the area itself was most notable for its lavish ski resorts. That wasn’t something that he was remotely interested in, and those sentiments reflected on his countenance as he leaned sideways on the armrest to peruse the book’s contents. "There’s a lot of winter sports and ski activities… but you alluded to hiking trails and—wait, uh—what about this?"

    Reaching over to secure the current page, Harry adjusted the guidebook in her lap so that he could get a better look. "'Green Mountain Trail and Belmar Park'," he recited the caption aloud, quickly scanning the corresponding text. "It specifically mentions scenic views and a nature reserve, including bird watching and wildflowers."

    He angled his chin and grinned, his expression sobering. "I wouldn’t mind that."

    Belle shook her head and playfully elbowed Harry in the side, "you were set on being miserable," she laughed, "then you see something about flora and fauna, it’s like a switch flipped on."

    For a moment she considered explaining how enchanting the scenery would be, but it was going to be much more fun to watch his reactions when he sees everything for himself. Alex had mentioned the cabin had several bird feeders around it, she said that the landscape was set up so anyone sitting at the dining table could enjoy the view of one feeder.

    Belle’s previous visit had certainly opened her eyes as to why Alex wanted to live in the wilderness of Colorado, but after one week, Belle missed the traffic jams, packed sidewalks, and the files of work that waited on her back in the office. Alex rolled her eyes at her mother, preferring a big city life.

    Belle flipped a couple of pages forward and pointed out a different map, "this is a spot I’d like to see, I ran out of time when I visited before. It’s a cherry orchard and they have a shop where they sell all sorts of cherry products that are made locally." There was a list of preserves, juices, and pastries. "Do you like cherries, Harry?"

    A slight frown crossed his countenance as he leaned forward to study the brochure, more engaged in the discussion than he was moments before. While he wouldn’t openly admit it, she had been right in her assessment; a simple subject change, especially as it pertained to botany, had a profound influence on his mood.

    "I-I don’t mind them," Harry admitted with some hesitation, one brow lifting curiously as he continued to scan the article. "But the harvest typically occurs in the summer months. Wouldn’t they be out of season? I wonder how they keep their store freshly stocked… unless they’re stretching the truth about all of their items being locally produced."

    He gave her a knowing look before leaning back in his seat. "I’d be curious to see their setup, though. That sort of thing should be easy to spot, all you have to do is inspect the way—" he trailed off with a scoff when he realized that he was rambling on about mundane details. "Uhh… anyway, let’s hope they don’t follow the same practices for the wild game in the area."

    Talking and making plans had helped distract Belle from flying, and she was more relaxed as they laughed together. "Please tell me you won’t expect me to be 'sporty' and fish," Belle made a face, "I’m happy to cook any you catch after you clean them."

    "I, uh… I don’t know how that’ll turn out," Harry confessed with a light chuckle. "It’s been a while, but I’d still like to try. The last time I went on a fishing trip, my grandson turned his nose up at the idea, and I ended up doing all the work myself. I could use a good partner this time around."

    The plane had started to veer slightly and it changed the view outside the window beside Harry, "oh, look!" Belle exclaimed and leaned partially across him to take in the view, "that’s the Front Range," she turned her head to look at Harry as she spoke, but stopped suddenly as her face was centimeters from his. Her eyes had shifted down to his lips and she quickly leaned back into her seat and pretended interest in the book again.

    Harry disregarded the view of the rugged mountains drifting lazily below as he averted his gaze from the window, his heart pounding explosively against his ribcage in a moment of nervous tension. The weight of Belle’s body upon his lap had kindled a spark that sent a jolt of adrenaline coursing through his veins, compelling him to seek her face. Her chestnut eyes, combined with the scent of her perfume, evoked a flurry of intense emotions that he had thought long dead and buried. He found himself unable to catch his breath; he wasn’t sure how to respond, and so he did the only thing that felt natural in such an awkward situation.

    He withdrew and closed himself off from the moment.

    "I… I’m just going to head to the bathroom," he mumbled under his breath, attempting to push past her as quickly as possible. "I'll be right back."

    However, a soft chime impeded his progress when the intercom crackled to life, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we have begun our descent into Denver. Please turn off all portable electronic devices and stow them until we have arrived at the gate. In preparation for landing in Denver, be certain your seat is straight up and your seat belt is fastened. Please secure your carry-on items—"

    The announcement continued on, but Harry had heard enough. He unleashed a disgruntled sigh as he settled down in his seat, the back of his head pressed purposely against the headrest to avoid Belle’s gaze. Closing his eyes once, he ran a hand through his hair and down over his face before parting his lips with exasperation.

    "I guess I have bad timing."

    TAG: @Lady Belligerent
     
  2. Lady_Belligerent

    Lady_Belligerent Previously Lady Belligerent, now RPF Queen star 8 Staff Member Moderator

    Registered:
    Jan 29, 2008
    [​IMG]


    IC: Isobele Barlowe
    Denver International Airport

    Belle couldn’t help but smile ruefully over Harry’s remark about bad timing as they filed off the plane and up the jetway. Harry was behind her, so he missed the tear that slid down her cheek, and she was able to quickly brush it away.

    The truth was that his timing was excellent when it really mattered. He had rushed to her house and saved her life when Jamie had broken in to kill her.

    She’d hesitated to press the panic alarm that morning when she’d heard glass breaking. In fact, she’d been frozen with her fingers over the button trying to remember if she’d set a glass somewhere precarious and maybe it had fallen. Then she’d heard footsteps, and she had quickly hit the alarm and quietly crept into the guest room.

    The door was cracked enough that she could see Jamie, his back was to her as he went to her bedroom. Once he’d thrown her door open and burst in, Belle dashed out of her hiding place. If Harry and his officers hadn’t arrived quickly…

    “Oh!” Belle looked around and realized she was at the baggage claim and Harry wasn’t with her. He had probably run into the mens room, which gave Belle a moment to compose herself. She didn’t want Harry or Alex to see how easily rattled she was by memories of what had happened.

    She sat her carry-on down on the floor and applied some lip gloss using a small mirror from her handbag while she waited. The luggage carousel was just starting up when she heard a familiar voice call out, “mom!”

    Belle turned towards the doors and saw Alex hurrying over. She smiled at the sight of her daughter, and was already deciding if she had been eating healthy, and if she’d been faithful with her sunscreen.

    “Alex,” Belle said as she embraced her only child, “you look wonderful, and you didn’t have to go to so much trouble. We could have rented a car.”

    “Mom, it’s no trouble and I wanted to see you as soon as you arrived,” Alex stepped back and inspected her mom closely, “are you sure you’re okay? I’ve been so worried about you, and where is your boyfriend?” Alex asked a little too loud as she looked around for her mother’s companion.

    “Shh! He’s my friend, Alex,” Belle admonished her daughter, “so please refrain from those sort of outbursts.” She sighed and glanced around to make sure Harry had not walked up and heard Alex. “I’m fine, I’m just looking forward to some peace and relaxation in the mountains.”

    She remembered the luggage and used that as an excuse to redirect Alex, “you grab mine since you know them, and I’ll grab Harry’s.”

    The two women collected Belle’s three bags, and Harry’s one checked bag. “Still overpacking I see,” Alex quipped as she set the last bag down, “did you bring your entire wardrobe?” Belle rolled her eyes at her daughter, who could travel the world with one small tote bag.

    “There’s Harry,” Belle was relieved to spot him. She waved him over and made introductions, “Harry, this is my daughter, Alex. Alex, this is Harry Ambrose.”

    “Pleased to meet you,” Alex said warmly and reached out to shake his hand. “You didn’t tell me he was so handsome,” Alex said to Belle in a stage whisper. Belle’s eyes rounded in panic, “Alex! Behave.” Belle picked up some of her luggage and started for the door, “don’t mind her, Harry. She lives to torture me.” Belle was desperate to explain Alex’s horrible attempt to embarrass her mother, which had clearly worked.

    Tag: @HanSolo29
     
    Last edited: Apr 19, 2022
    Sinrebirth and HanSolo29 like this.
  3. HanSolo29

    HanSolo29 Manager Emeritus + Official Star Wars Artist star 7 VIP - Former Mod/RSA VIP - Game Winner

    Registered:
    Apr 13, 2001
    OOC: The following is a combo with the always amazing Lady B – thank you so much!! It's always a pleasure to write with you! [:D]


    IC: Isobelle "Belle" Barlowe, Alex Mitchell, and Harry Ambrose
    Denver, Colorado

    "Alex,"
    Belle said stiffly, "take this." She shoved her carry-on and roller bag at Alex. "Harry and I will be right there, I’m going to get a bottle of water from the machines," Belle pointed out the nearby vending machines.

    Alex bowed and replied, "yes ma’am," then she took the bags and went to the curb to start loading up.

    "My daughter," Belle rolled her eyes, "she thinks she’s so funny.

    "Harry, I’m so sorry," Belle told him as she turned her back on the direction the young woman had taken, "Alex always is after me to see someone, and I’ve stressed to her that we’re—" Belle suddenly froze mid-sentence. Her lips trembled as she tried to speak, Belle’s voice was hoarse and she sounded like she’d had the wind knocked out of her. "J—Jamie," she said when she was able to get a sound out.

    She was hyperventilating. In her mind, she heard her own internal monologue clinically listing what happens to someone in a panic attack before hyperventilating.

    Breathe dammit! she told herself when her vision dimmed around the edges. What an idiot she was. She leaned over and took a deep breath in through her nose, then slowly breathed out her mouth.

    "There," Belle nodded to a man across the terminal, his back to them as he read the departure board. He wore a neatly pressed plaid shirt that was tucked into khakis and had the same soft brown curls as Jamie Burns.

    The situation quickly turned awkward when Belle’s daughter boldly proclaimed her thoughts about their perceived relationship. It was nothing serious; they were simply friends… but that didn’t stop the young woman from probing for information. She was a little too eager about the prospect of her mother finding a companion, which was enough to fuel Harry’s insecurities.

    Suddenly, he wished that he would’ve stalled a little bit longer at the restroom; or perhaps he could’ve passed through the food court on his way back to put some distance between them. Not that he wasn't thrilled to meet Alex, he just needed more time to mentally prepare himself for such a candid encounter.

    And so, when Belle began to panic and insist that Jamie Burns had followed them to their refuge in Denver, he welcomed the distraction.

    Almost.

    This revelation had far-reaching implications that conjured his inner demons, giving rise to his anxiety and causing his pulse to quicken. He could hear it pounding in his ears as he turned to regard Belle, his brow furrowed with consternation.

    "He’s gone, Belle," Harry replied softly, reaching out to grip her hand and giving it a firm squeeze. "Jamie’s gone."

    However, his voice wasn’t wholly convincing; it began to waver as he sharply drew breath. It was clear that he was trying to assure himself of that fact, and as a result, he abruptly turned away to hide his vulnerabilities from her. That’s when he found himself following her gaze toward the man in question.

    Harry froze.

    It was like staring at a ghost.

    Before he realized what he was doing, he started to approach the man at an even gait, his hand instinctively reaching for his belt where the Glock 22 used to reside as a permanent fixture at his side. It was a force of habit, and he inwardly cursed when he discovered its absence. Nevertheless, it did not deter him from proceeding forward, one step at a time…

    He needed to know the truth. Jamie Burns had fallen by his hand, an unfortunate outcome that had resulted from an impulsive decision—spurred by an emotional response. The consequences of Harry’s actions continued to haunt every waking moment, and it felt impossible to crawl out from under the burden of his guilt. It was like drowning…

    But what if he had been mistaken?

    While it was true that he had stayed by Jamie’s side and had watched as the light faded from his eyes, was it possible that he had capitulated too soon? Had Jamie somehow survived his ordeal?

    Or was he starting to lose his mind?

    Harry’s expression hardened as he brushed that thought aside, not wanting to consider the likelihood of that option becoming a reality. It was imperative that he focus on the task at hand, especially now that he was within reach of their suspect. But as he tentatively extended his arm to grasp his shoulder, the man turned to reveal a stranger with a more angular face, a wide nose, and thin-rimmed glasses.

    The two men exchanged a glance before Ambrose backed away stiffly, an apologetic smile evident on his features. This man was not Jamie Burns, and Harry was clearly embarrassed by the error. However, that did not prevent him from breathing a sigh of relief. Despite his earlier suspicions, he was not hallucinating about specters from his past. It afforded him some peace of mind… but only for a moment.

    What Belle had experienced was very real, and he feared for her wellbeing.

    "It’s alright; he can’t hurt you anymore," Harry stated when he returned to her side, angling his chin to carefully scrutinize her appearance. The distress he saw reflecting in her eyes prompted him to gently touch her arm. "Hey… are you okay?"

    Belle nodded her head in a jerking motion, "yeah," she answered quietly. "I’m so sorry, Harry… I don’t know what’s wrong with me that I can’t let this go." She was angry at herself for reacting so foolishly. "I’ve always been strong, but this…" Her voice trailed off as she saw Alex outside watching them, "we should go, Alex is waiting."

    She took one of their bags and walked through the exit, then smiled at her daughter, "here," she sat down the bag, "you and Harry can load up. I’m clearly the shortest, so I’ll take the back seat," she said cheerfully.

    A moment passed before Harry shouldered his travel bag and followed Belle out of the terminal. He wasn’t entirely convinced of her explanation; her posture and expression conveyed her inner turmoil, but he knew that he couldn’t bring himself to confront her directly in front of her daughter. Despite his concern, it was still a very delicate—and awkward—subject to navigate, and in some ways, he was grateful that she had terminated the conversation.

    With a sigh, Ambrose watched with a wary eye as Belle slipped into the back of the Jeep. He did not stop her; that was her prerogative and he would not intervene. Instead, he popped the hatch and dutifully got to work on loading their luggage into the back.

    As he positioned one of Belle’s larger bags into place, he could feel Alex watching with a crucial eye. The young woman had not moved from her spot along the curb, her gaze constantly shifting between him and her mother. His intuition told him that she would not remain silent. The situation had understandably frightened her, and it would only be a matter of time before she pressed for a more thorough explanation.

    Sure enough, as Harry finished his task and closed the hatch, Alex came around to poke her head into the backseat. "Mom, really… you’re just going to crawl back there and not say another word?"

    "Uhh," Harry uttered under his breath, gathering the courage to intercede between the two before matters could escalate. "Alex, I… maybe it’s best to give your mom some space."

    The young woman glanced up, backing away from the open door and resting her arm casually along its frame. Her eyes narrowed perceptibly to analyze him, embracing her instincts as a law enforcement officer. She almost seemed offended that he should interpose himself into a familial situation.

    Sensing the tension, Harry expelled a breath and shook his head with a wan smile. "Come on," he angled his chin toward the Jeep and slipped into the passenger seat. "I know we, uh… didn’t exactly get off on the right foot back there, but I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to work on that." He raised his brow expectantly, indicating for her to join him. "How long did you say the drive was again?"

    Alex’s lips twitched slightly before spreading into a genuine smile. "I didn’t," she replied in a playful tone, her expression sobering as she dissolved into her previously cheery disposition. "It’s about an hour and a half on the main roads, but if we take the scenic route…well, let’s just say the mountains are very beautiful this time of year."

    He nodded and offered a lazy wave. "I’m all for that."

    "Great, you won’t regret it," Alex exclaimed as she settled in behind the wheel and turned the ignition. Harry noted how she paused briefly to check on Belle in the rearview mirror before pulling away from the curb.

    Soon enough, they were on their way.

    Alex glanced over at her mother’s friend and asked, "Is this your first visit to Colorado, Harry?" She wasn’t completely convinced that her mother would travel with a male companion as merely a friend, but then she realized she’d never known her mother to have a date… or a lover. Just bringing up the subject of dating seemed to stress her mom out, so Alex had to resort to teasing just to get her opinions heard.

    Harry inwardly winced, bracing himself for the inevitable interrogation that was to follow. Alex started out pretty straightforward, but he knew the questions would only get harder and more personal. Once family members got involved, that’s how things usually progressed. There was nothing he could do but grin and bear it.

    "Uh, yeah," he finally murmured, keeping his eyes focused ahead on the passing scenery. It was a pleasant distraction. "I just—it was her idea, actually." He craned his neck to glance at Belle over his shoulder. "Things got pretty intense at home… with the retirement… and, uh, she thought it would be… therapeutic to come out here and see some of the sights. She talked about it a lot, so we figured…"

    He trailed off and issued a scoff, lifting his hands to signify his resignation. "Well, we’re here."

    Belle cringed, she wasn’t going to help Harry out, he’d get used to Alex soon. For now, Belle pretended to be checking her phone messages so they’d leave her out of the conversation.

    It was maddening that she’d mistaken a stranger for a dead psychopath. Harry had to think she was losing her grip, it was both embarrassing and frustrating.

    Alex had smirked at Harry’s reply, he seemed nice enough and she saw no red flags, yet.

    Her next question was straightforward. "Mom said you were a detective?"

    Canting his head slightly, Harry regarded her with a sidelong glance. It was a sign that she had piqued his interest.

    "Yeah, I was," he stated evenly, shifting his position to prop his elbow on the center console. His voice turned wistful, almost as if he yearned for the livelihood he left behind. "I served for, umm… 40 years, back home in upstate New York. That’s where I came across your mom. She worked for the feds as, uh… a criminal behavior analyst? It’s one of those fancy titles I can never remember."

    He gestured with his hand to dismiss the matter, his eyes lifting toward the rearview mirror to seek Belle’s gaze. "But she did good work." A small smile tugged at his lips, hoping his compliment would pull her into the conversation.

    "In fact," Harry shrugged awkwardly, "I hear that law enforcement runs in the family? Is that right?"

    Alex nodded and glanced over at Harry, "indeed you are," she answered. "I’m state police, and I’m usually assigned as detective when we have criminal investigations. My area is usually pretty quiet except for the occasional domestic violence, or missing persons. Murders are pretty rare…"

    Ambrose exhaled softly, nodding his head as he followed along with her commentary. "Ah, so there’s proof that the Staties deal with the mundane stuff too. I knew there was something to that."

    He flashed a wry grin and settled back against the seat. His levity was a testament to his growing confidence; he was beginning to open up to Alex and her outgoing personality.

    She pointed to the passenger side window and said, "when we get around that next curve, look up the side of the rocky slope, there’s a herd of bighorn sheep that come down to the river to drink."

    Belle looked up from her phone and commented, "they’re so beautiful, I hope we can see them."

    Harry leaned over toward the window, squinting up into the sun as he tried to identify the wildlife Alex had mentioned. It was a relief to see Belle respond positively to her daughter’s enthusiasm—but before he could comment on the change, he noticed something halfway up the slope that caught his attention.

    "Lodgepole pines," he noted with a jerk of his thumb. "We don’t have them back east; the climate’s not conducive to their development. There’s a real contrast between their rounded crown and flattened top. That’s how you tell them apart. It’s actually very unique. And along with the egg-shaped growth buds—"

    Slowly, his words dissolved into a quiet scoff as his rambling became apparent. "I, uh… sorry. I know you were interested in the sheep…"

    He trailed off with a timid grin and diverted his gaze.

    Alex wanted to get back to quizzing Harry, but she was warming to him and didn’t want to be completely obnoxious. "You probably get way more exciting cases in New York than what we get out here," she commented. Sometimes Alex wished for a busier assignment, but that would mean city life, and she didn’t want that.

    "So, Harry, have you been married before?"

    Silence reigned for several moments, Harry’s jaw working wordlessly as he struggled to push back the lump that had formed in his throat. In that one question, he instantly lost any sense of ease or comfort he had developed during their brief time together. He knew her probing would eventually lead them down this path—especially with her obsession with their relationship—but it still stung. He wasn’t fully prepared to confront it.

    "No, uhh…" he rattled off too quickly, his thoughts spilling forth with no clear direction. It resulted in a perceptible wince that he tried to hide with a short chuckle. Nothing was making sense, and he found himself drowning under the pressure.

    For a fleeting moment, he found his eyes straying back toward the rearview mirror, silently pleading with Belle for assistance. However, he noted that she was still preoccupied with her phone.

    He was on his own.

    "I mean… not anymore," Harry quickly corrected himself, but his voice sounded strained to his own ears. "Divorced. Five years now."

    He didn’t care to elaborate on the details and offered a curt nod to end it, a tight smile evident on his face. Ambrose then turned his attention back to the window and ran a hand over his jaw in consternation. In the stillness that followed, it was easy to hear his fingers rasping against his beard.

    Alex had clearly struck a nerve and decided to back off, she really didn’t want to scare him off. Besides, her intentions were good and she had to be sure he was good enough for her mother.

    Speaking of Belle, she was waiting for Alex to glance into the rearview mirror. Her eyes conveyed all the information Alex needed, Belle was furious at Alex.

    "Oh! Mom, I meant to tell you a wonderful new shop opened where they process and dye some of the best wool I’ve seen. Did you bring needles? I’d love to have some new socks for winter."

    Belle rolled her eyes since Harry was clearly deep into his tree gazing and wouldn’t notice. "Sure, I’ll do that," she answered her daughter. "Do they card and spin in their shop? I’d be very interested in seeing that."

    The women spent the remainder of the drive chatting about the shops Belle wanted to visit, and what had changed since her last trip. Time passed quickly without Alex badgering Harry, Belle felt like she owed him that since the question about past relationships.

    As they slowed to turn into the driveway to their cabin, Belle saw a small sign hung on the fence, it read:

    [​IMG]

    She gasped and reached up to physically turn Harry’s head in the opposite direction and exclaimed over the trees. "Look at that—uh, tree? What is it?"

    She was going to kill her daughter, who was doing her best not to laugh.

    Under normal circumstances, Harry would've felt uncomfortable with the women conversing amongst themselves—he would’ve been the third wheel, but in this case, he was thankful for the reprieve. It afforded him time to think and recover from the unfortunate incident with Alex. He knew she meant well and cared deeply for her mother, but her questions still managed to trigger his anxiety. In truth, he felt embarrassed by his behavior; it wasn’t the first impression he had hoped to convey.

    He was only just coming to terms with what happened and gathering the courage to join in on their conversation… when Belle unexpectedly placed her hands on either side of his head and directed his gaze toward the driver’s side window.

    "What are you—Belle, I don’t—" he stammered, wincing slightly as he frantically searched the area for what had piqued her interest. "All I see are a bunch of blue spruce, but we have those at home. They’re not unique to this area like some—oww!"

    Her ring caught his ear and dug into the cartilage, causing him to jerk back from her touch. As he adjusted his posture and reached up to rub the offending ear, he finally noticed the amused expression on Alex’s face. Her lips were taut, almost as if she was trying desperately to suppress her laughter.

    Harry narrowed his eyes and twisted around to glance at Belle, who also wore a similar expression. That was enough for him to deduce that something was up. He was hardly an expert on women, so he was naturally suspicious of their motives.

    "What?" he asked innocently, his gaze shifting back and forth between mother and daughter. "I feel like I missed something. What are you two up to…?"

    TAG: @Lady Belligerent
     
    Last edited: Jul 24, 2022