All disclaimers may be found in Chapter 1

California Gold

Chapter 4

Alex and Samantha had closed the Center from the twenty-fourth through the twenty-ninth of November, giving everyone an extended weekend with pay. Business had prospered far beyond original expectations, and Alex could see no reason not to share the good fortune with their employees. Things were always quieter around the holidays anyway, so there was no real reason not to give everyone a break. They would all come back refreshed, and she was sure attitudes would be elevated.

Samantha hated leaving Rainbow behind, but Alex assured her that Angel had promised to check in on her. She further contended that the small ball of fluff would be much more comfortable in her own home for the short amount of time they would be gone.

The weather had begun to cool, and the days seemed to gallop toward the beginning of the holiday season. Thanksgiving would be just the start of many parties and dinners the two women had already been invited to attend.

Neither Samantha nor Alex could remember a happier time. They had been slightly dismayed when Sonny and Ray bowed out of joining them for the holiday, but Sonny assured them they would all get together, if not before the end of the year then for Alex's birthday.

The only blot on Samantha's merriment was when she allowed thoughts about her parents' situation to creep into her mind. She tried not to make the divorce a topic she dwelled upon, but she was well aware that because of Alex's intervention, her father's business dealings had been on the decline, causing his status in ZZ Medi-aide to dissipate, and that his actions at home were becoming volatile.

Two days after her conversation with Sally, Samantha had received a phone call from her mother. A tearful discourse ensued where the small blonde had to reiterate the entire tale of that fateful November evening. She had listened intently to her mother's quick intakes of breath, which only made the tale more difficult to tell. In her heart Samantha had known that her mother would want to hear all the details firsthand, but that realization had not untied the knot in her stomach that remained throughout the entire conversation.

Now Thanksgiving was upon them, and Samantha was doing her best to keep the spirit of thankfulness close to her heart. Lucky for her, just looking at Alex made that an easy task.

Sheila and Sally had both accepted the invitation to a weekend stay at the Dorians' in La Jolla, and Samantha was looking forward with a bittersweet feeling to seeing her mother and sister again. It would be the first time since her marriage that Sheila Riley would be without Don on such a special occasion. Samantha was no fool; she was aware that this was going to be an intermittently marvelous and difficult visit.

********************

Alex's lawyers had been in touch with Sheila the day following her phone call to Samantha, and the actual filing of divorce papers had taken place on the twenty-second of the month. Now it was Wednesday evening, the twenty-fourth of November, and Sheila and Sally were on their way from Washington to California.

Don was still living at the house, conspicuously spending less and less time there. Even though their relationship was more over than not, he had no idea that Sheila was not going to be home for Thanksgiving.

Avoiding eye contact most of the morning, Sheila had made herself scarce around the house and watched from the upstairs bedroom window as Don's car left the driveway and he headed for work. She then retrieved her suitcase from the attic and quickly packed. Luggage at her side, she was waiting on the front porch when Sally arrived less than an hour later to drive them to the airport.

Don would find the note she had left on the mantle when he arrived home. The only information she had given was that she would be spending both the holiday and the weekend with friends. Even if he did figure out that she was with Samantha, Sheila was confident there was no way for him to get in touch with her. All the phones at the Dorian residence were unlisted, and she had made sure to bring the only copy she had of the address and phone number with her.

********************

Alex and Samantha arrived at the villa in La Jolla before noon so they could settle in and be ready to meet Sheila and Sally's plane in San Diego later in the evening. The house was already bustling with excitement.

Before Alex had a chance to open the front door, the housekeeper did it for her and greeted them with a smile. "Your mom said you would be arriving early today, Miss Alex. Welcome home."

"Thanks, Esmerelda, it's good to be here. Are Mom and Kelley around?"

"Si. They're in the kitchen talking to the new cook Miss Aurora hired to prepare tomorrow's feast." Samantha's look of shock elicited a wink and a smile from the housekeeper. "She's going all out this year, Miss Samantha, what with you and your people joining the family."

Alex shook her head and grinned. "She'll never change, Esmerelda; we all know that."

"I don't think we would want her to," the older woman stated while ushering Alex and Samantha into the house. "Hurry in and let your moms know you've arrived. I'll get one of the new crew to bring in your luggage."

"New crew?"

"Yes, we have a full staff for the occasion. I suppose Miss Aurora wanted to relax and enjoy her guests this year, especially since you're home."

After agreeing with the housekeeper, Alex gave her an affectionate hug. Samantha followed suit before they quickly disappeared into the house.

Kelley greeted her daughters briefly, the reunion being interrupted with a summons from the kitchen by an impatient Aurora who, in the next breath, chanted a hello to the girls.

Kelley left the room and returned in less than a minute with two Brandy Alexanders.

"Your mother couldn't conceive of a holiday not starting off with one of her favorite drinks." The tall woman smiled as she handed Alex and Samantha each a glass brimming with the sweet tan-colored liquid. "I told her you could only have one before driving to the airport. We all know how well you handle traffic tickets." Kelley winked as she retreated to the kitchen for a drink of her own.

"What did she mean by that?" Samantha asked.

"Thanks a lot, Kelley," Alex yelled at the older woman's back, trying to avoid the question.

"Well?" Samantha insisted.

"It's just her way of getting me riled."

"No, no. You're not getting out of this that easily." Samantha sat down with a quizzical look on her face.

"All right, she's referring to the fact that I got a lot of DUIs in my rebellious days. She called in a multitude of favors to keep me from losing my license. Blame it on youth."

"More like blame it on being a spoiled only child," Samantha giggled.

Laughter came from the vicinity of the kitchen, and ice blue daggers darted in that direction. "You two are not at all amusing," Alex called out.

"Oh, don't be so stuffy," Aurora chided as she walked into the living room, drink in hand, followed by a still beaming Kelley. "Samantha has to learn about your weaknesses as well as your strong points."

"Not necessarily, Mom," Alex disagreed, "especially if they no longer exist."

Lifting an eyebrow, the smaller woman looked at her daughter and shook her head. "Am I to believe that all of your faults have miraculously disappeared since meeting Sam?"

"No," Alex protested sarcastically, "but you could at least let her find my faults on her own. And . . . to your surprise, I just may not have as many as I used to."

"Okay, you two," Kelley interjected. "I didn't mean to start a family feud. I was only kidding." She looked at Samantha, who was taking in the family dynamics. "I'm sure our girl has changed; we all do when we grow up. But I do believe you might want to get a hint every now and again of who Alex used to be. She was quite a handful at times, and I think payback's only fair." She looked at her daughter with a twinkle in her eyes.

"How about we call a truce and agree not to mention my imperfections while Sheila and Sally are here. If you do that for me, I promise to let you fill Samantha in on all the gory details of my misspent youth a little at a time."

"Sounds like a plan," Samantha chimed in, lifting her glass.

Everyone followed suit and in unison mumbled "Here, here." Thus, the first holiday toast of the season was achieved.

********************

The remainder of the morning seemed to fly by, and soon it was time to pick up the Riley women at the airport. Aurora suggested the girls take her car; after all, there was no room in the Boxster to fit all four women, let alone the luggage.

Most of the ride from the airport consisted of Samantha asking questions and Sheila trying her best to keep a positive attitude while answering. Alex attempted to change the subject a few times, receiving an appreciative smile from the woman in the back seat. Unfortunately, Samantha wasn't getting the hint, and every time Alex managed to get the topic changed, she would eventually turn it back to what had been happening in Washington for the past month or so.

Occasionally, when she couldn't stand the level of stress that was building in the car, Sally would interject from out of the blue that California weather was absolutely beautiful. But she mostly just sat quietly and listened to her mother and sister discussing family problems.

Soon they were approaching the villa. After Samantha's birthday, Sally had given her mother a full account of what to expect when they reached Cielo en Tierra, but Sheila's first glimpse of the estate and surrounding panorama took her breath away. "How lucky you were to have grown up in such a beautiful atmosphere, Alex," she exclaimed as they passed the entrance gate and began their ascent up the driveway.›

Samantha smiled as she watched a slight rose color creep into her lover's cheeks. She knew that a comment about the lifestyle into which the dark-haired beauty was born was akin to an Achilles heel. Sometimes it seemed to Samantha that Alex was ashamed of her affluence, as though it was a curse instead of a luxury. Of course that was the Alex she knew; she found it difficult to relate her Alex with the one of years gone by.

Introductions were informal and comfortable. Within minutes Aurora was whisking Sheila off to give her the grand tour. Samantha could see relief in Alex's body language when she realized the job of hostess would not be hers. She smiled when Sheila's appreciative exclamations drifted off into the distance as the two older women wandered from room to room.

The remainder of the afternoon was filled with cloistered conversations.

Sheila and Aurora had become fast friends and spent hours sharing stories of Alex and Samantha's childhoods.

Samantha cornered Sally on the veranda to get the rest of the news involving her mom and dad, sans the sugar coating Sheila could not seem to resist.

Finally, seeing a way out for both her and Alex, Kelley challenged her daughter to a game of chess.

Conversation continued through an elegant dinner, held in a small, private room at one of the local restaurants. When everyone was eating and conversation was at a lull, Sheila commented on the sound of the ocean permeating into the room. "It sounds as if we are right on the beach instead of high on a cliff looking down."

"That's the idea," Kelley chuckled. "They have the ocean wired for sound." She pointed to the overhead speakers strategically placed in the corners of the room. "It's surround sound," she continued. "There's a microphone somewhere out on one of the porches and somehow the only sounds it picks up are those along the shoreline."

"Wow," was Sally's response. "How ingenious."

The small group had dined early enough to take a short walking tour of LaJolla before they headed back to the villa for nightcaps and bed. It had been decided that Kelley would orchestrate breakfast, with Alex and Sally as her kitchen crew. Aurora, Samantha, and Sheila were thrilled at the chance to sleep until the meal was prepared.

Sheila and Sally had said their goodnights and retired to their room to unpack. Kelley and Alex were still out by the pool in deep discussion. Samantha took the opportunity to try to convince Aurora that it wasn't necessary to have a cook prepare Thanksgiving dinner. "Everyone pitching in to make dinner would be a lot of fun," the vivacious blonde wheedled. "It's our first Thanksgiving with all of us together."

A knowing smile crossed Aurora's lips. "That, my dear Samantha, is precisely why we should have a catered affair. All of us get to do nothing but relax and visit."

"Besides, Samantha," she continued, "I think your mother would rather spend some quality time with you, out of the kitchen, dontcha think?"

"When you put it that way, how could I say no?" Samantha smiled.

"Also, I seem to recall Alex informing me that cleanup is not one of your favorite chores." Aurora chuckled as she gave Samantha a hug. "I think everyone will have a better time this way, honey." Shaking her finger at the blonde she added, "There's no sense in wasting your breath trying to convince me otherwise, young lady."

"And I think Sam knows you well enough not to push the subject, Mom," Alex interjected as she approached her two favorite women and placed a loving arm around her mate. "I might also add that I absolutely agree with Mom. Thanksgiving should be a relaxing day for all of us." As an afterthought she appended, "That way we can really be thankful."

"As if we aren't already, Alex," the small blonde giggled, teasingly inserting an elbow into her lover's ribs.

Alex feigned pain, but the twinkle in her eyes was unmistakably gleeful.

Aurora informed her daughters that supervising the meal could be just as taxing as cooking it. "I think it's time I call it an evening. I just want you to know that I'm thrilled you're all here." She kissed each of the girls and left them standing in the kitchen.

The day had been a long one for everyone. Tomorrow would be the beginning of a four-day vacation. There would be plenty of time to fill with conversation and visiting.

Before crawling into bed next to Alex, Samantha had checked on her mom and sister to say goodnight a second time and to make sure they were settled in. She was elated that they were here and had accepted the invitation to spend the weekend. She smiled and snuggled closer to her lover. In her mind's eye she relived all the excitement of seeing her family again. She gave Alex a hug, silently thanking the tall beauty for coming into her life. As an unbidden tear slipped from her eye and trickled down her cheek, a small sigh escaped her lips. It did not go unnoticed by the brunette who had been lost in her own thoughts of thanksgiving. When she felt the warm moisture on her bare chest, Alex was quickly brought back into the present. Bewildered, she gently lifted the smaller woman's chin, and aided by the lunar light streaming through the windows she gazed at the glistening cheek.

"Tears?"

"Of joy, Alex," Samantha sniffled and grinned up at the face she loved. "Thank you for inviting them here."

"Don't go there, Samantha," Alex answered, kissing her lover's damp face. "I'm as thrilled as you are that they're here, and you know my mom is definitely in her element with two novices to show around the villa and the town." She glanced at the clock on the nightstand just as the hand twitched to midnight. "Ah . . . and so it begins, our day of Thanksgiving."

"I'll start it off saying that I'm thankful I slipped on the climbing wall and into the arms of my Champion," Samantha whispered.

Alex shook her head and sighed. "Now I know it's time for you to get some sleep. Sweet dreams, my Destiny." She added softly, "I'm glad I was there to catch you."

The smaller woman nuzzled closer and kissed Alex softly on the neck. "Sweet dreams to you, too. See you in the morning."

********************

As usual, Kelley and Alex both awoke with the first rays of dawn. Their bonding time in the kitchen was pleasantly interrupted when Sheila joined them. She joked as she entered the room that she wished she had taken breadcrumbs to bed with her so it would have been easier to find her way back.

Before the coffee finished perking and the tea properly steeped, the outside entrance door to the kitchen opened and Esmerelda walked in, followed by a rigid looking older woman dressed in a starched white pants suit.

"Miss Kelley, Miss Alex, and Miss Samantha's mom, this is Jeanette, the cook Miss Aurora hired to prepare dinner."

Introductions were nearly complete when two young women filed into the kitchen carrying armloads of utensils.

"You can never be too prepared." The gray-haired woman smiled, extending her hand first to Kelley, then Alex, and finally to Sheila. She motioned for the girls to put their cumbersome loads on the counter.

"These are my girls, Autumn and Dawn. I might have to be away from home for the holiday, but when they come to help me, it doesn't seem so much like work." Her smile was sincere and her handshake firm.

"Welcome to Cielo en Tierra, Jeanette," Kelley announced, offering her hand to the cook. "We promise not to be too demanding and to stay out of your way as much as possible." Her gray eyes twinkled with the final statement, putting the new employee and her daughters at ease.

The morning disappeared, and as dinnertime approached, delicious odors drifted from the kitchen into all areas of the villa.

Once the entire meal was prepared and laid out on the table and the kitchen mess partially cleaned, Kelley graciously dismissed Esmerelda, Jeanette, and her entourage. "We have more than enough people here to take care of cleaning up after ourselves. Go home and spend some time with your families before the day is over. Esmerelda, Jorge is out in the garage; please tell him on your way out that it's time he went home for dinner."

Esmerelda began to protest that she could serve before leaving but was gently ushered out the kitchen door behind the other women. žHappy Thanksgiving to you all," Kelley voiced to their backs.

The extended family was soon seated around the dining room table. A small golden-brown turkey resided next to a tofu beast, surrounded by all the vegetables and salads that ceremoniously accompanied a traditional Thanksgiving feast.

Glasses were filled and raised, and Kelley stood to toast the day with gratitude for being able to have her family and friends at her side. žMay this be the beginning of a Dorian/Riley tradition. Days such as this are twice blessed for both the occasion and the company . . . Let's eat!"

There was no need for more encouragement. Bowls were passed around and plates were filled. The conversation varied and drifted until everyone was so engrossed in eating that the only sounds were those of silverware touching china.

Samantha giggled as she realized that no one had murmured a word in at least two minutes. žI can see I'm not the only one with a healthy appetite today."

žAbsolutely not," her sister agreed.

Samantha looked at Alex, and then her eyes swept over the entire table, encompassing all the people in her world who were precious to her. Her heart was filled with a joyous expectation that life would continue to be good, but there was still that small dark place that ached for the way things used to be with her own family. Earlier in the day her mother had finally discussed what had been happening at home and filled Samantha in on how her father had become more and more forlorn with every passing day. She had described his paranoid, dark moods and told her daughter that they seemed to be getting more and more frequent. She said that his position in the firm was being challenged and the harder he fought, the worse things seemed to get. His input had been crucial in the formation of the company, and now that it had become one of the largest medical equipment firms in the country, he was becoming an unnecessary burden. He was losing grip on more than just his business; he was losing touch with reality. Sheila told Samantha that she was scared to be alone with him. To make matters worse, his outbursts were no longer merely verbal; he was becoming physically violent when contradicted in even the smallest of ways.

Aurora had sensitively intruded on the mother/daughter discussion at precisely the right moment, excusing herself and then reminding Sheila of a discussion they had shared on the phone a few days earlier.

Samantha recalled the glint in Aurora's eyes as she relayed the promise she and Sheila had made to each other. žI told your mother that we would have a show-and-tell session. She promised to bring some of your childhood photographs with her, and I promised to share some of Alex's in return."

The two mothers had shut themselves up in the den for hours, and only the announcement that dinner was served had pried them away from their precious memories.

Samantha was brought out of her reflective mood when she felt a familiar hand clasp her own under the table.

žOur families were meant to be as one, my Destiny," Alex whispered into her lover's ear. žHappy Thanksgiving."

Samantha turned to receive quick kiss on the lips. žHappy Thanksgiving, back at ya, my Princess Charming," she purred.

Kelley was about to make a taunting comment about public displays of affection when the doorbell rang. She cursed silently for not having made sure the outer gates were locked after the help had left. Before she had a chance to push away from the table, Samantha was on her feet and exiting the dining area.

žI'm closest, I think I can manage to answer the door." With a twinkle in her eyes, she added, žYa think maybe Sonny and Ray decided to join us after all?"

Alex yelled, žDreamer!" as the blonde disappeared down the corridor.

The door rang one more time, and Alex could hear Samantha telling the person on the outside of the building that she was on her way. The brunette cocked her head, trying to listen to the conversation but was distracted when someone asked her to pass the potatoes.

Samantha increased her pace when the bell chimed again. She mentally chastised the visitor for an obvious lack of patience, but called out in a pleasant voice that she was on her way. Without a thought of looking through the peephole, she opened the door wide.

žWell, if it isn't Number One Daughter," an insidious voice spat through clenched teeth before rough arms reached out and grabbed Samantha, pulling her close. žNot one word, little sweetheart, or it might just be your last."

Her heart fell to the pit of her stomach and she felt like she was going to lose the dinner she had just begun to enjoy. žDaddy," Samantha whispered.

žDon't call me that, you Jezebel," he hissed, drawing her closer to him and allowing her to feel the pressure of cold metal against her side.

By the gods, he's holding a gun on me. Terror struck and her knees began to give way as he pushed her in the direction she had just come from.

She tried to slow to a halt, but his strength moved them both along at a quickened pace.

žTake me to them," he ordered in a dangerously quiet voice.

žNo," Samantha pleaded.

žTell me no again and it might just be the last word you utter. I know your mother and sister are here. I'm not the fool that bitch thinks I am." Her pushed her forward. žI can find them on my own if I have to, you know."

He was right and she knew it. If she was in the same room with Alex, at least she might stand a chance of survival. She had seen her lover in action before and had confidence that she would find some way to turn this situation around.

žOkay, Daddy," Samantha breathed.

His grip tightened again, causing the small blonde to wince in pain. žI told you not to call me that!"

ž'K," Samantha gulped.

Cheerful sounds of conversation floated toward them as they neared the dining room. Don Riley's clutch remained firm around his daughter's waist as she guided them toward the unsuspecting little group.

Sheila was facing the door and let out a scream of anguish when her daughter and husband appeared in the archway.

Sally grabbed her mother's arm.

Alex and Kelley began to rise from their chairs, only to be stopped as a pistol appeared from near Samantha's ribs, the barrel now resting on the blonde's temple.

žNot a move from either of you deviates," the intruder spat, waving the gun to indicate they should not rise. žI have some family topics to discuss. Remain seated, unless I tell you differently. I'm in charge here, Alexis Dorian; this is not a bartering table."

Bloodshot eyes darted from one face to another along the table, pausing only long enough to chill each diner to the bone.

One of Alex's strong points was negotiation. Her mind was spinning as she tried her damnedest to formulate a way out of this crisis. It was obvious Don had been drinking and equally obvious he was not in his right mind. Just as she was about to open her mouth, he pushed Samantha closer to the table, toward her mother.

žWhy did you feel it necessary to try to hide where you were going from me?" Tight eyes bore down on his wife and darted between her and his younger daughter. žAnd you, I thought better of you," he fumed at Sally.

žHow . . ." Sheila began.

An evil laugh erupted. žDid you say how?" He laughed again. žI have my ways, bitch. But you made it easy; you were stupid enough to leave the tablet you wrote the phone number and address on by the telephone. A child's game, you know, retrieving the residue indentation on a writing pad. Just a little penciling and violaāgotcha!"

His demeanor changed slightly, and Alex could have sworn she saw the glitter of a tear in the manic man's eyes.

He's gone completely bonkers, she thought to herself as she watched the scene before her. It was imperative to formulate a plan to get Samantha out of harm's way.

žDon . . ." Sheila begged.

žShut up," he countered.

žBut you askedā"

žNot now," he continued. žI don't really want to know. I just want to get Sally and take her home. You can stay in Satan's den with the rest of these transgressors, but my little girl doesn't belong here."

Sally couldn't believe what was happening. She jumped to her feet. žDaddyā"

žDon't move," he ordered, holding the gun closer to Samantha's head.

žButā"

žNo, I can't trust any of you! I can see that now," he screamed.

Kelley's soft, calming voice broke through the hysteria. žWhy don't you sit down and discuss the situation with your wife and daughter, Mr. Riley?"

žHuh?" Confusion replaced anger on Don's face.

žLet Samantha go andā"

žNo!" He held his elder daughter tighter.

As she tried to stifle a sob, tears uncontrollably streamed down Samantha's face.

Alex's heart was breaking. She tried to will Samantha to listen to her thoughts. Come on, Samantha, you can hear me; I know you can. She thought harder as she began to stand.

žSit down, you," Don ordered.

žI need to use the ladies room," Alex countered in a banal tone.

žYou're the farthest thing from a lady I've ever seen," the man spat.

She raised an eyebrow and sapphire eyes focused intently on the man before her. She had hoped he would respond in that fashion so that she could continue a conversation and perhaps get somewhat closer to Samantha. Nodding, she continued in the same quiet voice, žAt any rate, I would like permission to relieve myself; you can follow if you want to make sure that's where I'm going." Samantha, listen to me!

žDo you think I'm crazy? I follow you and the rest of these people call the police. Sit down."

She was now within arm's length of her lover and sitting down was not an option. Samantha, we've been here before, do your thing!

žI get faint when my bladder gets stressed," she pleaded, looking at Don and then glancing quickly in Samantha's direction, hoping the blonde would take the hint.

Comprehension dawned in the smaller woman's eyes as she observed the interaction between her father and her lover. The corners of her mouth turned up in a slight smile, and she winked at Alex to let her know her thoughts had been received.

Seconds later Don was fumbling with Samantha's limp body as she collapsed into a dead weight on his arm. Although he tried his best, he lost his balance, unable to keep his daughter from falling to the floor. In that split second, Alex used the chance to knock the gun from his hand.›

Samantha crumpled to the floor as the tall brunette grabbed Don's flailing arm and twisted it behind his back. žSorry, Samantha," she apologized, looking down, žI can only grab one person at a time; I figured he was more important to have under control."

Rubbing her buttocks, Samantha grinned broadly while accepting Kelley's outstretched hand. žApology accepted."

Ear piercing threats rang through the room. žLet me go, you dyke bitch! You ruined me! You ruined my life! I'm gonna ruin you!" Don was howling, his body twisting and turning, trying to release himself from Alex's grip.

žShut up, or I'll shut you up," the lanky brunette threatened, tightening the pressure of her hold on him.

He screamed again, and Kelley made a move to assist her daughter in holding the flailing man still.

žDon't make me mad, Don!" Alex threatened. žYou won't like me when I'm mad."

One look into ice blue eyes and the beaten man crumpled to the floor.

žShould we call the police?" Sally asked. The young woman now stood behind her sobbing mother, her hands on Sheila's shoulders.

žGoddess, no!" Aurora answered. žThe last thing we need is for the police to be involved."

žShe's right," Kelley agreed. žHe doesn't need to be jailed, and we don't need the sensationalism."

žKelley, would you get me something to . . ." Alex began.

žYeah, rope, be right back." Kelley nodded and raced from the room.

Aurora continued the conversation her lover had started. žWe have a good friend who operates a mental clinic not far from here. It's a private clinic; admissions are handled in a hush-hush manner. I think getting your husband to a psychiatrist is of the utmost importance."

žI agree," Sheila stated, wiping tears from her face. žThank you, Aurora."

žNo thanking needed, that's what family is all about." Aurora enveloped the distraught woman into a comforting embrace.

Don's face animated again at the mention of a mental hospital. Tears streamed down his cheeks. Sobbing uncontrollably, he pleaded with his wife not to institutionalize him. žHow could you even think of doing that to me, Sheila?" he wept. žHaven't I been a good husband . . . a good father? I've taken care of you and the girls the best I knew how . . ."

žI'm sorry, Don . . ."

In the space of a breath, his mannerisms changed. žSorry? You just try to get me committed! You go ahead and try. Do you think anyone will listen to you, and the residents of this house of abominations?" He laughed hysterically. žNot on your life. No one will listen to you! You'll learn what being sorry is all about, you no-good c-u-n . . ."

žI really hate that word, Don," Alex snarled at him as he tried to get up off the floor. žI've had about all of your mouth I can stand, and if I'm not mistaken, I told you to be quiet." She bopped him on the back of the head. žIf you don't start behaving, I'll have to gag you."

Like a limp rag doll, the desperate man collapsed back into a heap at Alex's feet. He remained in the same position until the ambulance arrived some thirty minutes later. Within minutes of its arrival, Don was sedated and was soon in a drug-induced sleep.

A tearful Sheila felt obligated to ride in the back of the ambulance, and Sally felt compelled to accompany her. The rest of the group followed in Kelley's van.

Dr. Yonderson met them at the sanitarium and informed the family that Don would not be evaluated until sometime in the morning when the medications wore off. In the meantime, there were papers to be completed, and the doctor had a short session with Sheila, Samantha, and Sally to get some idea what might have caused Don Riley's psychotic break.

Her final advice of the evening to the three bewildered women was for them to stop worrying, go home, and try to get some rest. Anxiety was a useless emotion, she explained, and Don would be fine until morning. They needed to tend to themselves.

The ride back to the villa was a quiet one. Everyone seemed lost in thought.

Finally, Sheila broke the silence. žI can't leave him now," she mumbled.

žWhat?" Samantha queried.

žYour father, SammieāI can't leave him now."

žBut Momā"

žNo buts. It wouldn't be right to abandon him when he is in such dire need of support." She turned to her daughters. žYour father is a very sick man. Heaven only knows how long he has been ill. I can't desert him now." She put her face in her hands and began to weep.

žIt's okay, Mom," Samantha consoled. žYou don't have to make any major decisions just yet."

žYeah," Sally agreed. žWe need to wait and see what the doctor has to say after her evaluation in the morning."

Aurora turned around to face the back of the vehicle. žYou and Sally are welcome to stay at the villa for as long as you need."

žAbsolutely," Kelley seconded.

Samantha gave her in-laws a thankful look as her mother continued to quietly sob into her hands.

********************

The six women stepped back into the dining room where just hours ago they had been laughing and celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday. A group sigh was audible, and all six of the participants grinned when they realized what they had done. Looking at the mess they had come back to made Aurora wish she hadn't sent the hired help home. She looked at the expressions on the faces of her family and began laughing. Everyone looked at her like they might have to take another trip to the mental facility.

žWell, this mess should take our minds off just about anything!" she exclaimed. žDid you ever see such a clutter?"

žSure," Kelley answered, žafter any party you throw, my Sweet. The only difference is that you always have someone else around to clean it up. Tonight you get to help with the chore."

Now it was everyone else's turn to giggle. Kelley raised an eyebrow and pointed at the table. In response, a multitude of hands quickly grabbed and stacked dirty dishes to be taken into the kitchen.

A semblance of order in the ranks didn't take long to emerge. Alex and Kelley carted stuff from the dining room to the kitchen. Aurora and Sally put perishables up in containers to store in the refrigerator, and Sheila and Samantha scraped, rinsed, and loaded the dishes into the dishwasher. Before long the entire job was concluded.

žHow about a nightcap?" Kelley proposed. žI think we could all use one."

The offer was gratefully accepted, and everyone decided to bring the evening to an end out in the late night air, sitting around the pool.

žIt's hard to believe that a day that began so beautifully could end like this," Sally moaned.

žI don't know," Samantha replied. žIt could have been worse. He could have hurt one of us."

žOr himself," Sheila added.

žAt least now he'll get the medical attention it's obvious he desperately needs." Samantha concluded.

žYes, he will," Aurora agreed. žNow, before there are more people in this family in need of medical attention, I suggest we all call it a night and be thankful for the end of this Thanksgiving."

Before the women separated and proceeded to their rooms, there were hugs all around.

Alex and Samantha walked with Sheila and Sally to their room and bid them goodnight. Sheila thanked Alex for being so quick to recover the pistol Don had held on Samantha.

žIt was instinct, Sheila. I wasn't going to let Samantha get hurt," Alex assured the older woman.

žNo, she's definitely my Champion, Mom," Samantha interjected with a slight grin. She kissed her mother goodnight and told her to try to get some rest.

žShe will," Sally said. žWe both will. You two do the same."

žAbsolutely," Alex countered, putting her arm around Samantha and leading her back toward their bedroom. žWe'll see you in the morning. I'm sure everything will work out fine."

********************

Snuggled in her lover's warm embrace, Samantha let out a deep sigh.

žWhat was that for?" Alex asked.

žI guess it's the first relaxed breath I've taken since opening the front door and seeing Dad standing there. Everything had been going beautifully before then."

žAnd everything will return to normal before you know it, Samantha. At least now your father will get some help."

She reached down and tilted the smaller woman's chin to enable her to look into misty green eyes. žCome on, Samantha, there's been enough of that tonight."

žI know," the blonde sobbed quietly as unbidden tears escaped and trickled down her cheek. žI just have the feeling that I was the cause of this mess with Dad."

A hint of ice crept into the Alex's voice. žThat is the most ridiculous statement I think I've heard come out of your mouth. When you say something like that, you're saying that all your problems began the day you met me! If it wasn't for my interference your father would still have a viable position at his firm andā"

žWhoa! Alex." Samantha sat upright and faced her lover. žIf you want to call a statement ridiculous, I think maybe you had best listen to yourself. That's not what I meant at all." Green eyes became daggers shooting in the direction of Alex. žI guess I meant if I had taken it a little slower, eased him into my new lifeā"

žNothing you could have done would have made any difference, Samantha. Don't you know that?" Alex's anger eased and she took the smaller woman into her arms.

žListen, Samantha, you need to look at this logically. Your father's been in trouble emotionally for a long time. Maybe your coming out and my getting involved helped to bring his condition to the foreground, but it would have gotten there with or without this present situation. Something else would have been the catalyst, and perhaps that would have taken a load of guilt off your mind, but blaming yourself for what happened tonight is ludicrous."

The blonde let Alex hold her and allowed the comfort of her partner's words and embrace to gently push aside the blame she had been convincing herself all evening she somehow deserved.

žI hate to say this when he's so vulnerable, Samantha," Alex added in a hushed tone, žbut blaming yourself is just what your father would have wanted in his sickened state. It was his intention to make victims of all the women in your family. Maybe he'll come out of this crisis a better person. Just maybe he'll start appreciating the marvelous people he's had the privilege of calling family for so many years."

Samantha could find no words to contradict what had just been spoken; instead, she snuggled back down into her sleeping position, resting her head on Alex's shoulder. She felt safe and loved in Alex's arms, and the hairs all along her neck and back stood at attention when long, thin fingers ran through her hair.

Considering everything she had experienced, this was still a day of thanksgiving. Before saying a prayer for her parents, Samantha closed her eyes and thanked the powers that be for allowing Alex to come into her life.

žI still think this is a day to be thankful, Alex," Samantha murmured into Alex's chest. žI have been blessed with many things in my lifeůespecially for the twist of fate that led me to you." She squeezed Alex around the waist and kissed her gently.

žAny day that ends up with me holding you in my arms is a day of thanksgiving. Now it's really time to be getting some rest. Tomorrow is going to be a unique experience, something I've come to learn to love about being with you."

The smaller woman easily found the spot where Alex could not help but giggle and let her fingers do her speaking.

žOkay, I give up," Alex said, still giggling. žLet's call it a truce and get some shut-eye, okay?"

žOkay, Alex," Samantha agreed. žOnce again, sweet dreams."

žSweet dreams, Samantha. May the challenge that tomorrow brings be pleasant, and if not pleasant, then at least tolerable. As long as we have each other, we can overcome even the most traumatic situation; I have faith in that." She lovingly kissed Samantha's head and gave her a slight squeeze.

Within minutes their cadenced breathing was all that could be heard in the room, aside from the muffled ticking of the alarm clock on the nightstand.

The End of Chapter 4

Chapter 5

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