By Kennedy Northcutt
"Oh-five-niner, come in," a tinny voice crackled over a battered radio. "Oh-five-niner, respond! You still with us Delancy? Come in!" Kevin Johnson's voice turned frantic, but fell on dead ears, literally.
The Black Hawk was a jumbled mess of twisted and smoking wreckage. Delancy's lifeless body lay slumped and bleeding against the instrument panel. His co-pilot's face was no longer recognizable, having smashed against the windshield during impact. Neither had survived the initial impact.
A lone truck drove toward the site of the downed aircraft and stopped next to it. Sunlight glared off the surface of the dull-gray truck.
Several insurgents in nondescript clothing jumped from the truck and trained their weapons on what was left of the American chopper. They exchanged a few words and checked the wreckage for survivors.
"Oh-five-niner, come..." Machine gunfire erupted and instantly silenced the radio.
Several of the insurgents discharged their weapons into the already-dead American bodies, as well as the air above them. They cheered and danced in triumph before jumping back into their truck. The truck took off and disappeared into the desert, leaving the still-smoking wreckage in silence.
"We need to send another rescue chopper out there to find them, sir," Kevin anxiously confronted his CO.
Farrell paced his office and chewed on the stub of an unlit cigar. Although he'd vowed to quit smoking, the taste of the tobacco was something he was craving intensely at that moment. "We sent two and both are MIA."
"There are survivors," Kevin emphasized. "I know it, sir. Delancy saw something before they chased that other truck into the desert."
"It may just have been a reflection on the desert floor," Farrell waved the cigar impatiently. "There's no way to know if any of them survived, and I'm not wasting another chopper on a futile rescue attempt."
"But, sir!" Kevin slammed both hands on the Colonel's desk. "We don't know that they're all dead!"
"As you were, Major!" Farrell barked. "I know you were close to Captain Stephens..." he held up a staying hand when he saw that Kevin was about to protest. "Don't think that I don't know what happens in my own camp, Major. I'm not a complete idiot."
The look on Kevin's face said it all. "She's my friend, sir, nothing more." He girded himself for his next words. "She's also one hell of a surgeon and a damned good leader."
"Whatever your relationship is or otherwise, Major," Farrell continued. "I understand how you feel. However, the simple fact of the matter is we just can't spare another chopper at the moment. Not to mention, we don't have another pilot and crew to spare. I'm sorry, but that's how it is."
Kevin paced to the window and stared out at the desert beyond. He was dressed in the same clothes he had been wearing the day before, but didn't care. When he'd learned that Lacey's chopper had been shot down during a search and rescue mission, he'd volunteered to man the base communications radio and hadn't left once during the entire night. He knew Lacey and Mac were out there somewhere and felt he owed it to his friends to advocate for their safe return.
"They're alive, sir," he said quietly. "I know it with all my heart. I also know we need to find them and bring them back. Even if they aren't alive, we owe it to their families to retrieve their bodies and send them Stateside. We can't leave them out there for the damned insurgents to mutilate. You know what that will do for morale."
Farrell stepped up next to the man and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "All right," he said, gazing out at the brightening day. "I'll send one more chopper out there." He slapped Kevin's shoulder as he turned back to his desk. "I'm authorizing the use of the new Chinook that was delivered a few days ago. It hasn't been field-tested, yet, but I'm sure Tiny has it all fueled up and ready to go. It also has a full complement of medical supplies and equipment on board, just in case you find them alive but injured."
Kevin could only turn and stare in astonishment. When he'd barged into his CO's office to argue his case he hadn't expected to succeed. This was more than he'd hoped for and he could only beam at the man in dumbfounded silence.
"Cat got your damned tongue, Major?" Farrell finally broke the silence.
"N-no, sir," he said. "Thank you, sir,"
"Don't thank me yet, Major," Farrell shot back. "I'm sending you out there personally to retrieve any survivors or bodies and bring them home."
Kevin's eyebrows shot into his hairline. He hadn't had a great deal of flight time since taking the promotion to Major and wasn't quite prepared for this new development. He had, however, maintained his dual-engine rating and was thankful for small wonders.
"No buts, Major," Farrell continued. "I don't have another pilot available. Besides, you have that dual-engine rating that no one else here has. Report to the flight line at 0700, and I'll have a crew there to fly with you."
Kevin snapped to attention. "Yes, sir!" He turned on his heel and was about to march out of the office.
"Sir?" Kevin stopped with his hand on the door knob.
"Do not get your ass blown off out there. I want that aircraft back here in one piece. Is that clear?" Farrell said with a smirk.
"Yes, sir!" Kevin left the office.
"You sure you're up to this, Major?" Tiny yelled to be heard above the whir of the Chinook's dual propellers. The thing looked like a droopy puppy-a droopy, tan puppy with spinning ears above its head.
"Just like ridin' a bike, Tiny!" Kevin replied with a toothy grin.
"Take care of her then, sir," Tiny shouted, as he patted the side of the aircraft then stepped away and wiped his dirty hands on the equally dirty rag he always carried. "And bring them back safe, sir!"
Kevin didn't answer. He merely saluted as the Chinook lifted off the helipad and soared into the clear blue sky.
"Safe flying, Major," Tiny murmured, frowning as he walked back toward the maintenance hangar.
Losing two choppers in two days was weighing heavily on him. Losing two of his closest friends - Captain Stephens and Mac - was something he just couldn't think about. The big man wasn't one to dwell on mishaps, but this one just spelled disaster. He lifted a silent prayer to the heavens in the hopes that someone up there was listening.
"Take care of 'em, will ya?" Tiny asked quietly, before he made his way back to the shade and relatively cool hangar.
Mac was barely conscious when she felt someone move next to her. She opened her eyes to see Peters watching her intently with a frown of concern on his tanned and dirty features.
"What?" Her voice cracked on the single word. Her throat was dry and her vision swam. She knew the blood loss from her shoulder wound had depleted what little reserves she'd had after the crash.
A relieved sigh escaped the sergeant's lips and he smiled at her. "I didn't think you were ever gonna wake up, ma'am."
"I'm awake," Mac groused in that gravelly half-whisper. "I feel like shit, but I'm still hangin' in here. Wha's up?"
"We got us some more company, ma'am," his expression reflected his worry.
"Dare I ask?" She eyed him warily.
"Far as I can tell," he answered staring up at the cloudless sky. "There's at least a half dozen trucks this time. I think word's spread that we put up a fight and there's another downed aircraft nearby."
Mac shot him a worried frown. "The other chopper was shot down, Sergeant? God, have I been out of it that long? How did you find out?"
"I found the wreckage earlier, ma'am," he answered, wiping the sweat from his brow with a bare arm that sported an eagle and American flag tatoo.
"Survivors?" She asked hopefully, but girded herself for the worst.
"None, ma'am," he answered before turning away so she wouldn't see the pain in his eyes.
Mac knew there was something he wasn't telling her. "Spill it, Sergeant," she said simply.
"The fuckers got there before I could, ma'am," he answered. "They mutilated the bodies. There's nothing left of 'em."
His anger rose as he replayed the scene he had come upon. The insurgents were still shooting when he'd crawled closer for a better look. By the dim light of the truck, he could see what they were doing and it had infuriated him to see his fellow Americans treated in such an undignified manner. He wanted nothing more than to do something about it, but there was nothing he could do, short of getting himself killed. His ammunition supply was low and he had no backup to rely on. It irked him that all he could do was watch the scene play out until the insurgents were done with their sport.
Mac sighed heavily. She could only imagine what the sergeant had seen out there. She was starting to realize that war was a whole lot more horrid than what she'd seen from her cockpit. There was a human factor involved she'd never had to consider before. It was one thing to fly around and have her crew shoot at targets on the ground. But it was quite another to be right in the thick of things.
"I'm sorry, Sergeant," she said quietly, trying to comfort the man. After all, he was a friend now, despite the fact they had only known each other for a short time. "I didn't know."
Peters' shoulders suddenly squared and his back straightened. "We'll get 'em, ma'am. They'll pay for what they did to our guys. I promise."
He started to get up, but Mac grabbed his arm. "Don't go off half-cocked, Sergeant," she said when his eyes met hers. "We still need you." She nodded to the unconscious woman in her arms. "Don't go doing anything stupid that will get you injured…or worse. Got it?"
He considered her words for a moment and then nodded once. "Got it."
Mac breathed a sigh of relief at his admission. She hadn't thought he would go out and do anything stupid, but his admission told her differently. He'd apparently been contemplating just that.
"So what do we do about our current situation?" Mac asked finally. "Any ideas?"
"Fight," came a barely audible and gravelly reply that made them both look at the woman in Mac's arms.
"Lacey?" Mac said hopefully. The doctor had been unconscious for so long that Mac was worried she might have slipped into a coma.
"Don't. Give. Up." Lacey croaked through dry, cracked lips.
Mac and Peters exchanged brief smiles.
"Don't worry. We won't, ma'am," Peters said. He touched one of her swollen hands and saw her eyes flutter open briefly, then close again. "You hang in there, too, ma'am."
"Yeah, Lac," Mac continued. "If we can't give up, neither can you."
"T-tryin'," Lacey murmured.
"Promise," Mac said.
Lacey was quiet for several long minutes. "Promise."
Just then, the sounds of trucks approaching drew their attention. The sergeant sprang to his feet and grabbed the M-16 he had placed against the side of the hole. He jumped out and positioned himself to face the approaching threat. He didn't expect any help and all he knew was he had to protect his comrades.
"Seven-zero-echo to Base," Kevin spoke calmly into his mic. "We're approaching last known coordinates."
"Roger that zero-echo," Farrell's voice came back. "Approach with caution and advise when you have visual."
"Roger, Base," Kevin answered. "Seven-zero-echo out."
He slowly banked left then pushed forward on the stick until they were flying less than a hundred feet off the ground. With one eye on his GPS, he kept the other trained on the terrain in front of him. If there were any insurgents close-by, he wanted to be sure to surprise the assholes and not the other way around.
"They're…comin'…" Lacey's voice was so weak that Mac had to strain to hear her.
"Yes," Mac nodded. She was worried about Peters and even more worried about the woman in her arms. Lacey was nothing more than deadweight in her lap. She'd tried to keep the doctor conscious by talking to her, but hadn't been very successful. "Can't say I'm surprised, though. We've been fairly lucky up to this point. Luck was destined to run out sometime."
"'Sall…right…now," Lacey murmured softly.
"Stay with me, Lacey Stephens," Mac ordered in her most superior tone, hoping to get the woman to finally listen to her. "Don't you leave me, Captain." Her tone softened on the last.
"Tired…s-so…tired," Lacey mumbled.
Mac could hear the trucks getting closer and knew it was only a matter of minutes before they were completely outnumbered. She also knew the sergeant would do his best to take as many of the enemy out before anything got too close. She sent a silent prayer to the heavens that someone or something would get them out of their present dilemma. But she knew the odds were stacked against them and had been since the beginning of this goddamned mission.
"Should'a stayed in Afghanistan," she mumbled to herself. "None of this would'a happened." She felt the head against her chest move slightly and looked down into glazed green eyes.
Lacey mustered every last ounce of strength she had left to look at the woman who meant the world to her. "Wouldn'ta… traded this… for…anything," she smiled weakly and felt her lips crack with the effort.
Mac smiled, despite everything that had happened, and dropped a brief kiss on her companion's forehead. "Me either, Doc."
Lacey's head dropped back down against the pilot's chest and her eyes fluttered closed. She wanted to snuggle deeper into the woman's arms, but was content just to lie there. By that time, they could definitely hear the approaching vehicles and both women wondered why there hadn't yet been any gunfire.
"Seven-zero-echo to Base," Kevin smiled, despite his misgivings. He was watching a scene play itself out before him as he landed the huge twin-propped aircraft a hundred yards from a convoy of parked vehicles.
"Go ahead, zero-echo," Farrell's voice crackled over the radio.
"Looks like we have survivors, sir," Kevin said as he cut power to the engines. "I repeat, we have survivors."
"Come again, zero-echo?" Farrell's skeptical voice crackled in Kevin's headset.
"We found them, sir," Kevin said, anxious to disembark the aircraft with the rest of the skeleton crew he had with him. "I'll fill you in just as soon as I have more intel, sir. Seven-zero-echo out." He pulled his helmet off and climbed from the cockpit.
Mac heard the vehicles stop close-by, but there was no gunfire. She frowned and wondered what Peters was up to. Then she realized she hadn't heard a single shot above her.
"Sergeant?" She shouted.
Several minutes passed before his head peeked down into the hole from above and he looked at her with a huge grin on his weathered face. "Hot damn, Chief!" He exclaimed with more excitement than she'd ever seen out of him.
"What is it, Sergeant?" Mac asked seriously, trying to gauge his real mood.
"We're rescued, ma'am," he answered with a cracked-lip grin. He handed a canteen down to her by the strap and waited until she took it from his hand.
"Rescued?" Mac asked skeptically. "What do you mean, Sergeant?"
"Aussies, ma'am," he continued to beam. "They've set up a perimeter and are bringing their medics in. They're also discussing how we're going to move this truck." He looked up at the vehicle in question and Mac noticed all the tires were flat. She also noticed how much closer the truck was to them, as if it had sunk down into the sand. "We tried pushing it, but couldn't get it to budge. Damned thing's stuck tight."
Mac drank deeply from the canteen, letting the cool liquid quench the raging thirst she'd been experiencing since sun-up. When she'd had her fill and dribbled much of the water down her chin, she tried to roust her companion.
"Lacey," Mac gently prodded the woman in her arms. "Come on, Lac, wake up." She pushed a little less gently against the woman, but to no avail. Her worried eyes met the sergeant's and he quickly scrambled out from beneath the truck.
"Lieutenant!" Mac heard him shout. "We gotta get those two out from under there. A-SAP!"
The young lieutenant turned from his conversation with one of his men to face the American soldier. "I quite understand, Sergeant. We're working on a plan to push the vehicle with one of our own."
"Can we get a move on, Lieutenant?" Peters insisted, his previous happiness now marred by the fact the doctor was probably in much more serious shape than anyone realized. "Our doc's in a real bad way and she's not gonna last much longer if we don't get her outta there, quick-like."
Just then, they all turned to see a Chinook approach and touch down a hundred yards from their position. Several Americans emerged from the aircraft and raced toward them.
"Who's in charge?" A young woman in beige BDUs asked as she approached the group near the disabled truck. She had a medical bag slung over one shoulder with a red cross on it. The Aussie eyed her with speculation.
"Apparently, that would be me, Corporal," the Lieutenant answered, noticing the stripe on her sleeve and returning her salute. "Lieutenant Harlan Davis of the Royal Australian Army, at your service." He eyed the Chinook, as the engines whined and the props slowed.
"Lieutenant," Simmons noticed Peters standing there, as well, and acknowledged him with a nod. She looked around at the rest of the group, but didn't recognize any other American uniforms in the bunch. "Are you the only survivor, Sergeant?"
"No, Corporal," Peters answered, motioning toward the truck with his head. "Chief Papadopoulos and Captain Stephens are in a pit under that truck."
"Under the truck?" She glanced toward the vehicle and then met his gaze. "Are they all right?"
"No, Corporal," he answered in all seriousness. "They were both injured in the crash. The Chief's also been shot."
"Shot?" Simmons looked at him incredulously. She started toward the truck, but was stopped by a hand on her arm.
"We got a problem getting to them right now, Corporal," Peters said to the young woman.
Just then, a truck moved to the bumper of the disabled Iraqi vehicle. Several Australian soldiers gathered around the disabled vehicle and one young soldier climbed into the driver's seat. The driver of the Aussie truck hit the gas, but the disabled Iraqi vehicle didn't budge. The flat tires were, indeed, embedded in the sand.
Kevin approached the gathered soldiers just as the Australian driver cut the engine and waved everyone off. The others watched his approach and saluted when he stopped in front of them.
"Major," Lieutenant Davis stepped forward and nodded at the American.
"Lieutenant, Sergeant, Corporal," he merely nodded at them, then focused his attention on Peters. "Status?"
Peters straightened a little more as he faced the officer. "The Lieutenant and his men are trying to move this truck, sir. Two of ours are trapped in a hole beneath the vehicle, sir."
Kevin frowned, "Who's down there, Sergeant?"
"Chief Papadopoulos and Captain Stephens, sir," he answered, catching the relief in the officer's expression just before the man covered it with a professional frown of concern. "We were the only three to survive the crash, sir."
"And the other chopper?" Kevin felt the weight of command weigh heavily on his shoulders.
"No survivors, sir," the sergeant answered brusquely. He knew now was not the time to tell the major about the desecration of the bodies that he had witnessed. Time enough for that during his debriefing.
Another Australian truck was positioned in front of the disabled Iraqi vehicle and a chain was attached from one vehicle to the other. When the Australians had the two vehicles chained together, the front vehicle pulled, while the one behind pushed until the Iraqi truck slowly moved away from the hole.
Mac knew there was stuff going on above her, but couldn't tell what it was until the truck overhead slowly started moving. She could hear two trucks and the sounds of metal grinding and scraping. Then the vehicle was gone, replaced by another that quickly backed out of the way. She looked up and shaded her eyes with one hand, as several faces suddenly appeared above her and sunlight poured down into the hole.
"Chief?" She recognized Peters' voice, even though she couldn't really make out his features in the bright sunlight.
"Yep," she answered in a hoarse voice between cracked lips. "'Bout time you guys got us outta here." Suddenly Simmons was down in the hole with them. "Simmons?" Mac was a little surprised to see the young woman and gave her a weary smile. "How'd you get here? And when did you get that stripe on your sleeve?"
Simmons looked at the two women and a frown of concern creased her young brow. "I could ask you the same question, Chief," she said with a wry smile. "You all scared the shit out of us. Colonel's about fit to be tied, ma'am."
Just then, Kevin peered down into the hole. "How're they doing, Corporal?" He asked. "Can we get them out of there and get back to base before we have RPGs raining down on us?"
Simmons was busy checking over Lacey, who was still unconscious. "We need a couple backboards here, STAT, sir," she called out, meeting Mac's weary eyes. "How're you doing, Mac?" She asked in a normal voice for the pilot's ears only.
"Not so good, Jesse," Mac answered. She looked down at the woman in her arms. "The doc's in worse shape than I am, though. Take good care of her, will ya?"
Simmons rested a comforting hand on the one Mac was resting on the doctor's arm. "I'm gonna take care of both of you," she smiled. "Don't you worry about a thing, Mac." She examined the doctor further, then looked at Mac again. "Are both her arms…"
"One's dislocated and I think her other elbow is broken," Mac replied. "She also has some internal injuries. I'm sure you can figure out the rest."
Simmons nodded, then took out an IV bag and hooked both women up to the life-saving fluids. She took out a long instrument and stuck it into a spot in the wall above her head, then hung both IV bags from it.
"You're a lot more confident than you used to be," Mac commented to the self-assured corporal.
"Dr. Stephens is a great teacher," Simmons said, not looking up from the IV she was inserting into the pilot's hand.
"How's Jimenez?" Mac tried not to look down at the needle stuck in her hand.
"He's fine, ma'am," Simmons answered more professionally, as they were joined by an Australian soldier who jumped down and grabbed the backboard that was lowered into the pit.
"Ma'am, Corporal," the young man said with a heavy accent, nodding to the two women. "A bit tight down here."
"It served its purpose, Private," Mac replied. She could feel the cool liquid entering her arm and wanted nothing more than to close her eyes and relish the feeling. But something was niggling in the back of her mind.
Simmons finished securing a brace around the doctor's neck and Mac thought wryly that it was a bit late to take those precautions. After having been dragged halfway across the desert and bounced around in the back of a truck for hours, the pilot didn't know if the doctor's injuries would have justified a neck brace.
"It's just a precaution, ma'am," Simmons said, noting the wry look of wry confusion in Mac's eyes.
"I was just thinking how ironic it is to put that thing on her now, Simmons," Mac rolled her eyes.
"I understand, Mac," Simmons answered with a curt nod. "Has she been conscious at all? Is there anything else I should know before we move her?"
"Her side," Mac answered, without thinking. Then she added, "She was complaining of pain in her right side sometime before dawn." She frowned. "I applied a pressure point to it and that seemed to help the pain subside a bit, but...." She shrugged and regretted the move instantly.
Simmons merely nodded, then gave some muttered instructions to the Australian soldier next to her. He nodded and scrambled back out of the hole.
"Where's he going?" Mac asked. When she didn't receive an immediate answer, she put a hand on Simmons arm. "What's going on Jesse?" She glanced down at Lacey and back up to the corporal.
Simmons met the pilot's piercing gaze as she took the stethoscope from her ears and wrapped it around her neck. There was a frown marring Simmons' brow that made her look years older.
"Her pressure's really low and her pulse is weak and thready, Mac," Simmons sighed. "It's imperative we transport her immediately. She's been unresponsive for how long?"
Mac looked down at the blond head lying limply against her chest. "She was conscious about an hour ago, but didn't say much."
"I'll give it to you straight, Mac," Simmons continued with a grim expression. "I don't know how much longer she has." She paused to wipe the sweat from her helmeted brow. "We'll get her hooked up to life support once we're onboard the aircraft, but there's no guarantee she'll pull through." Her expression sobered. "I'm sorry."
The truth of Simmons' statement hit Mac like a blast of cold air and sent an unconscious shiver down her spine. She looked down at the blond head and then blinked back the tears that threatened. She was an officer in the United States Army, she silently chided herself over and over. Then realized none of it mattered if she lost the one person she cared about most in the world.
Simmons could see the emotions warring on the pilot's face and gave her a moment to collect herself. She could hear the activity above, as the two armies prepared to evacuate the area. They were all still within enemy territory and it was imperative they moved out, A-SAP.
"We need to move now!" Simmons called up to those above. "Let's do it!"
Mac merely nodded for fear her voice would give away all the emotions she was feeling. She knew this had to play itself out to the very end, no matter what the outcome.
"Hang in there, Lacey," Mac whispered to the unconscious woman in her arms.
"Let's get some help down here!" Simmons shouted. Two young Aussie medics jumped down into the cramped pit, one near Mac's head and the other at her feet. "Carefully get the Captain onto the backboard, boys, and let's get this show on the road."
Simmons took the opportunity to climb gingerly out of the pit, with a hand up from Kevin. He looked at her with deep concern.
"Status, Corporal?" He was careful to keep things on a professional level.
"The Captain's in pretty bad shape, sir," Simmons answered, knowing what he was really asking. She knew the friendship that existed between the major and the doctor. He cared deeply for the woman, no doubt about it. "I think a ruptured spleen is the least of her injuries. We need to get them both back to the hospital, A-SAP, sir."
Kevin nodded his understanding. "No problem, Corporal." He turned on his heel and headed for the Chinook, so he could ready it for an immediate departure.
Simmons watched as Captain Stephens was lifted out of the pit by several of the Aussies who were standing by. The young Corporal grabbed the doctor's IV bag and laid it between the woman's legs, then turned to the American crew chief standing by. Sergeant Smith was as green as Simmons was only a few months earlier. He'd been ordered to tag along for the ride, despite the fact he was fresh off the transport.
"Get her stowed, Sergeant," Simmons ordered. "Alert Captain Sheets that she needs life support, STAT."
Another backboard was lowered into the pit and Mac was brought up, as well. Simmons took the IV bag from one of the Aussies and laid it on the pilot's chest.
"Captain Stephens?" Mac asked Simmons as two men carried her toward the Chinook.
"She's already onboard, Mac," Simmons answered, then felt her hand grabbed in a strong grip.
"Please don't let her die, Simmons," Mac said when the young woman looked her in the eye.
Simmons could see the deep concern in the pilot's eyes, but there was something else there that only someone who knew the woman would see. She clasped Mac's hand tightly in her own and smiled reassuringly down at the woman who had been her mentor in Afghanistan.
"We'll take real good care of her, Mac," she answered, squeezing the hand in hers. She looked at the men around her. "Let's go, boys."
They were only a few minutes into the flight when several alarm bells and sirens went off in the forward cabin. Simmons had let Mac know that Lacey was in a special compartment in the aircraft where she was hooked up to life support and various monitors. Mac knew the sounds were coming from that compartment and a moment of shear panic hit her.
Sheets and Simmons scrambled to the in-flight ICU and Mac could see they were working frantically on their patient. Unfortunately, she couldn't see exactly what was going on. She glanced to her left and saw young Sergeant Smith watching her with a mixture of trepidation and panic.
"Can you see what they're doing to the captain?" Mac asked the young man who was strapped into a jump seat just behind the partition that separated the main compartment from the smaller ICU.
Smith unhooked his safety harness, gingerly stood up and poked his head around the partition.
"Get the hell outta here, Smith!" Simmons barked.
The young man returned to his seat and quickly strapped himself back in. "Uh, one of the monitors that was beeping is now ringing, instead." He glanced at Mac, who was anxiously waiting for his report. He glanced to the side again and Mac could see he was listening intently to the conversation behind him. "I think her heart stopped."
Mac froze. A cold sweat broke out on her forehead as the full impact of those ominous words hit her. Lacey's heart was not beating.
"Wait," Smith continued, his head still cocked toward the compartment. "They've given her a shot of something and are…" his baby face contorted in confusion. "They just zapped her?"
Mac sucked in a breath and held it, as she waited for the young man to continue his monotonous narration.
"Okay," Smith sighed. "Her heart's beating again."
Mac was really not happy with the blow-by-blow the young sergeant was giving her. But she was also grateful to him for letting her know what was going on. She let out the breath she'd been holding and tried to relax again. She watched Simmons and Sheets continue their ministrations, but still could not really see or hear what they were doing. Mac wanted nothing more than to hop up off the stretcher she was lying on and charge into the compartment to demand a report. Unfortunately, that wasn't an option. She was strapped down tight to keep her from being thrown around the aircraft. She was also still hooked up to an IV bag that dripped down into the plastic tube that ran into a vein in her hand.
So she waited until Simmons finally finished whatever it was she was doing and returned to her jump seat across from Mac. The young medic sighed heavily and tucked a few stray wisps of hair back behind her ear. Mac noticed she looked a little older than she had the last time they'd seen each other.
"How is she?" Mac watched Simmons fidget with her hands as she leaned forward over her knees.
"Her heart stopped and she went into respiratory arrest," Simmons answered. "Captain Sheets had to shoot her with epinephrine to get her heart started again. She's barely holding her own." She looked up and met Mac's expectant gaze. "We have her on the onboard respirator, Mac, but..." She sighed and leaned back against the bulkhead. "I just don't know."
Mac tried desperately to keep the tears from falling, but finally gave in. "She…died?"
Simmons nodded. "For a good three minutes. She didn't respond to the defibrillations until Sheets gave her the injection. We're still twenty minutes out from the hospital and he's not sure she won't crash again."
Mac grabbed one of Simmons' hands and held it. Their eyes met and Mac saw tears swimming in Simmons' blue-gray ones.
"She's a fighter, Jesse," Mac squeezed the young woman's hand. "She'll pull through this. She made it this far."
Simmons gave Mac a wan half-smile and a brief nod. "I hope you're right, Mac." She sniffed and swiped a tear from the corner of her eye. "She's as much a part of our team as the rest of the guys." Another tear escaped. "Did O'Leary…"
Just then the alarms and sirens went off again. Simmons bolted for the ICU. Mac was again in the dark as to what was happening. She waited patiently and eyed Smith when he didn't seem to be paying attention.
"Oh," he shifted uncomfortably. "I…I don't…" He met Mac's gaze and shook his head.
"What?" Mac shifted and wanted nothing more than to sit up at that moment. "Damned fucking contraption!"
"Settle down, Chief," Peters grumbled from his seat behind Mac's head. He put a hand on her shoulder. "Don't aggravate those injuries."
"Lacey-I mean, Captain Stephens…" Mac tried to shrug off his hand, but it was on her injured shoulder and shrugging was out of the question.
"Easy, Chief," Peters continued. "The captain's made it this far. She ain't gonna stop fightin' now that we're almost home."
Mac collapsed back onto the stretcher and looked up at the man who was leaning over her head with a reassuring half-smile. She closed her eyes against the wave of dizziness that her exertions caused and nodded.
"You're right, Sergeant," Mac breathed out a frustrated breath.
She didn't want to concede the point, but had no choice. She knew Lacey had managed to stay conscious that last time by sheer willpower alone. Mac also knew Lacey hadn't been completely honest with her about her condition. The doctor's condition had progressively gotten worse and Mac could only wonder what Lacey had suffered through during the initial crash that was causing her health to spiral downward so quickly.
"She's still with us," Simmons was suddenly standing over Mac, holding onto a bar above her head to steady herself. "We lost her again, but Sheets brought her back. He thinks she had an allergic reaction to the epinephrine and went into tachycardia arrhythmia." She saw the blank stares and decided on a different explanation. "Her heart started beating too fast and her blood pressure bottomed out until her heart stopped again. Sheets said it's uncommon for a patient to have a reaction like that. Captain Stephens is one of the rare few."
"Leave it to Lacey-er, Captain Stephens-to be one of a handful," Mac sighed.
"She gonna make it?" Peters piped in before Mac could say more.
Simmons sighed as she sat down in her jump seat. "Don't know," she answered with a shrug. "She needs surgery and we can't do that here." She rubbed a kink in her neck. "Sheets stabilized her vitals for the moment, but she's still in extremely critical condition. She's also slipped into a coma."
Mac's eyes darted to Simmons. "She's in a coma?"
"Yes," Simmons answered with a nod. "It happens sometimes…when there's major trauma…"
Mac raised her good arm and pressed her hand to the bridge of her nose in an attempt to quell the sudden flow of tears. It was just too much to accept at the moment. Lacey was in a coma. Mac's thoughts raced with the implication of this latest development. It suddenly hit Mac that Simmons was right, Lacey was dying.
"Flight crew, prepare for landing," came Kevin Johnson's tinny voice over the overhead speakers.
The aircraft, which had been flying fairly straight and level up to that point, suddenly shook and the nose tilted upwards. The engines rumbled loudly and Mac knew they were almost on the ground. She waited for the shudder that would indicate a safe touchdown. When it didn't come she arched a brow, impressed that the major was so capable a pilot that he could land so gently in such a huge bird.
The side door flew open and sunlight nearly blinded Mac, as medical personnel poured in with practiced ease. Mac's stretcher was lifted by two young orderlies. She didn't have a chance to ask about Lacey as she was whisked away into a waiting ambulance. Mac caught a glimpse of another stretcher behind her just before the doors to the ambulance closed.
Moments later, the ambulance doors flew open again and her stretcher was moved onto a waiting gurney. The gurney was wheeled inside the air-conditioned hospital and Mac nearly fainted with relief. One of Lacey's colleagues-a Captain Richardson, by his nametag-stepped up next to her and put his stethoscope to her chest. He listened for a moment, then nodded to the nurse on the other side of the gurney. Then he opened her overshirt and lifted the bandage to examine the bullet wound beneath.
"Glad to see you in one piece, Chief," Richardson said, as he shined a light into her eyes and checked her vitals. "You ready to get that bullet out of your chest?"
"Do I get to keep it as a souvenir?" Mac shot back with a wry grin.
"We'll get you patched up, good as new," he said with a warm smile and patted her arm.
Mac could see that he was about to walk away. "Hey, Doc?"
"Yes?" He said, turning back to her.
He was tall, so Mac had to strain to look him in the eye.
"How's Captain Stephens?" She asked hopefully.
He placed a comforting hand on the ones Mac had folded on her stomach. "She's being well taken care of, Chief. Don't worry about Captain Stephens. You just concentrate on getting better and leave her in our hands."
His patronizing tone was definitely not what Mac wanted to hear at that point. She glared at him with cold eyes that suddenly turned ice-blue, but he turned away and left her to stew over his asinine tone.
It seemed like hours before anyone returned to check on her. In those "hours," she counted every tile in the ceiling and every hole in every tile, too. She tried to close her eyes and rest, but images of the last two days kept playing in her mind and wouldn't leave her alone.
Finally, when it seemed she would go crazy from extreme worry and boredom, she heard voices outside the partitioned room she was in. Then the partition was pulled aside, revealing Colonel Farrell flanked by Major Kevin Johnson.
"Hey there, Mac, how're ya doing?" The colonel asked with a reassuring smile, as he stepped up to the side of her bed. "You hangin' in there?"
Farrell pulled a chair up next to the bed and sat down. He stuck an unlit cigar between his teeth and chewed on it as his gaze met hers.
"Yeah," Mac answered after clearing her throat a bit. "Other than being bored to tears and having no one to talk to, I'm good." She glanced at Kevin. "Hello, Major. My compliments to you on your perfect landing. It was also a very smooth ride back there."
"I had reason to make it so, Chief," Kevin answered formally. There was a sadness in his eyes that Mac could plainly see. "I'm just glad I could get you all back here safely."
"Yeah," Mac's gaze turned thoughtful. "Any word on Captain Stephens?"
Both men exchanged a brief look.
"She's still in surgery," Farrell answered. "We'll know more when she comes out."
Mac's gaze shot to Kevin, who immediately looked away.
"Major?" Her gaze returned to the colonel. "What aren't you two telling me?"
Kevin blinked away unshed tears as Mac crossed his arms over his chest. "The colonel's right, Chief," he finally said. "We'll know more when she's out of surgery."
Mac took a deep breath and let it out slowly in an attempt to quell the sudden frustration and irritation. She wanted to scream at them to tell her what was really going on with the love of her life, but knew that wouldn't go over well with her commanding officer. The man could forgive many things, but that just might not be one of them. The silence between them stretched on for several long moments, until Farrell finally sighed heavily and broke it.
"You three did a fine job, Chief," he patted her arm. "Not many people around here would have been able to do what you did." He paused briefly before leaning closer to her. "I'll be submitting commendations immediately and recommending promotions for all three of you."
"With all due respect, sir," Mac said. She'd been giving the matter a lot of thought lately and had reached a decision. "I think it's time I retired from the Army. I've put in more than ten years and this latest mission…Well, let's just say it put things in perspective for me. I don't think I can ever look at combat the same again, sir."
His brows rose in surprise at her words. Her former CO had said Mac was a career lifer who wanted to serve until she could no longer fly. From what the doctor had just told him about her condition, the man thought she would be back to active duty in a matter of months.
"Are you sure, Chief?" He finally asked. "Richardson says that after they remove the bullet from your shoulder and repair the damage to your knee you'll be back on your feet in no time. He also thinks you'll be able to return to the cockpit fairly soon. He's only sending you back to the States for a follow up and some physical therapy, but there's no reason…"
"I've made up my mind, sir," Mac interrupted. "It's time for me to go home for a while and get my life in order. I've served my country and now I need to move on to other…things."
"I understand," Farrell slapped his hands against his knees in resignation. "All right then, if that's your final decision, then I'll get the paperwork started on this end and have it sent to the Brass for approval." He stood and was about to leave. "Just for the record, Chief," he said turning back to face her. "You're one hell of a pilot and you will be sorely missed."
He offered a hand to her, which she took gratefully. "Thank you, sir," she answered. "It was an honor serving under your command, no matter how brief that service was." She awkwardly saluted him and he returned the salute and left.
Mac's gaze met Kevin's as he took the vacant seat next to her bed. She saw something in his eyes that gave her pause.
"Talk to me, Kevin," Mac quietly said.
"Not much I can say, at this point, Mac," he answered with the same sad expression. "I don't want to see you go, but…" He nodded and the tears fell unheeded down his cheeks. "I completely understand."
"She's my life now," Mac's words were uttered barely above a whisper. "I want to be there for her, to take care of her. I love her, Kev."
"And if she doesn't…" Kevin couldn't finish the thought. Putting it into words would just make it too real and final.
Mac took one of his hands in hers. She felt the rough texture of his skin against hers as she gently squeezed. She looked him in the eye and smiled reassuringly.
"We both know she won't give up without a fight, Kev. You probably know that more than anyone. You've been around her far longer than I have. She told me you went through OCS together."
Kevin nodded and squeezed the hand in his. "She'll fight as long as she knows you'll wait for her and be there when she comes around." He smiled reassuringly as he swiped the tears from his cheeks. "Besides, she owes me money, so she has to come through this."
Mac smiled. "How much does she owe you?"
"Fifty bucks," Kevin chuckled at the look Mac gave him. "Hey, it may not be much, but it's the principal of the thing."
"Did she lose a bet against you or something?" Mac smirked.
"It was when we were in OCS," Kevin's expression turned wistful. "I wasn't so good at the obstacle course, but I was damned fast as a sprinter. She bet me that she could beat me in a foot race. Needless to say, I won." His expression turned triumphant. "Then she wanted double-or-nothing that she could take me on the climbing wall. She lost that one, too."
"Stamina and short legs and arms," Kevin shot back with a smirk. "She may have a good center of gravity when it comes to maneuvering through those tires and shit, but it took her two or three tries before she could hold onto that rope and haul herself up the wall."
Mac chuckled. "She's really that competitive?"
"Shit yeah. Ya think?" Kevin shot back with a wry smirk. "You ever watched her play cards? She's relentless."
Mac gave him a wry look. "I'll do you one better. I played against her. If it hadn't been for my gunner, Lacey would have taken us all to the cleaners. As it was, she came in a close second."
"Probably didn't want to show you up in front of the guys," Kevin's expression turned solemn. "I hope you get the chance to give her a rematch. You'll lose your shirt, but you'll have fun doing it."
Mac glanced down at the garment in question, which was no longer there. A nurse had removed both her overshirt and the t-shirt underneath. Now her chest was covered in a large compression bandage and a sheet while she waited for them to perform the surgery to remove the bullet. She glanced over at the x-rays still hanging in the light machine. The light was out, but Mac knew what the x-rays contained. She'd seen the bullet that was lodged just below her collar bone. It made her shudder to realize how close the small projectile had come to puncturing her lung.
"You okay, Mac?" Noticing her sudden grayish pallor, Kevin couldn't help but comment.
"Fine," Mac answered absently. "Never better."
He squeezed her hand again. "It's gonna be all right, you know."
Mac met his gaze and hers softened. "I hope you're right, Kev. I certainly hope you're right."
An orderly appeared from behind the partition and smiled at the two. "Time for surgery, Chief," he said in an overly cheery tone.
Mac glanced at the embroidered nametag on his chest. "Can you give us another minute, Corporal Buckley?"
"Sure, ma'am," he said and ducked back out.
Kevin regarded Mac, who locked gazes with him. "Promise me that if I don't make it…"
"Now just a minute, Mac…"
"No, I'm serious, Kevin," Mac forestalled his interruption. "If something happens and I don't make it, please tell Lacey how much I love her and how much I want her to be happy, even if it means finding someone else." She squeezed his hand. "Tell her she has a home with my family in Wyoming if she wants it. They'll take care of her like she's one of the family. I already wrote to my brother and told him about her. Sent the letter off a few days ago, so it should get there in a day or two."
Kevin wiped his free hand down his face in agitation. "Tell her yourself, Mac. Don't you dare chicken out and die on her. She needs you more than ever right now. You have no idea what she's going through in there."
Mac swallowed with difficulty. "Please, just promise me you'll tell her."
Kevin regarded Mac's request for several moments, until Corporal Buckley pushed the partition aside again.
"We really need to get going, Chief, Major," the young man said. "Doc's waitin' for you in the OR."
Mac's eyes didn't leave Kevin's. There was open pleading in their pale blue depths that pulled at his heartstrings. "Okay," he conceded. "I'll tell her, if it will put your mind at ease and get you through this surgery."
"Thanks, Major," Mac returned to the formal address. She squeezed his hand one last time and then reluctantly let go.
She smiled as Buckley took the head of the gurney and wheeled her toward a pair of double doors. When she glanced back at Kevin one last time, he caught the thumbs up she gave him and smiled wistfully.
Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington DC- September 2005
Mac walked down the ramp towards her brother with a slight limp. As she stepped out into the bright sunshine, she put on a pair of aviator glasses and smiled. She was wearing a light blue polo shirt, jeans and Nike tennis shoes. Her auburn hair was pulled back into a pony tail and her arm was still in a sling.
"Hey, bro," she said with a smirk as she gave the taller man a one-armed hug.
"Hey, sis," Ben Papadopoulos returned the hug and pulled back a bit to look closely at her. She was still a head shorter than he was, but had a presence that made her appear taller than any other woman he had ever met. He noticed the creases in her brow and the wrinkles around her eyes that hadn't been there when she joined the military, ten-plus years prior. He also noticed the slight limp and the sling that held her arm close to her body.
Mac welcomed the arm around her shoulder, as her brother towered over her. "So, how long before our plane leaves?" She asked hopefully.
"I've got us booked on the evening flight out of DC," he answered, squeezing her slightly and catching a flinch out of the corner of his eye. "Sorry about that. Does the shoulder still bother you that much?"
"No, it's fine," she pulled away slightly so she could rub the area in question. "It just aches a little now and then. I have to be careful not to move it around too much. The muscles are still healing."
They walked over to a nearby bench and sat down. Mac stretched her bad leg out in front of her, as she basked in the sunlight of another beautiful late-summer day. Green trees and freshly-mowed grass cut a stark contrast to the tans and browns she was used to. There were also birds singing somewhere nearby, something she rarely heard in the desert.
"So, how are Carrie and the boys?" She asked after a few minutes of silence had stretched between them.
"They're good," he answered with a fond smile. "Carrie just finished competing in the State Fair and won first prize for her raspberry-blueberry-apple cobbler. The boys will all be old enough to help out with the next roundup in the spring and are looking forward to having their Auntie Mac there to give them a run for their money. They hope you'll be able to get in there with the rest of the hands and do your part."
"God, they're growing up so fast," Mac pushed a stray wisp of hair from her brow. "Man, I've missed so much."
"How are you doin', sis?" Ben's tone turned serious and he patted her thigh in a brotherly show of affection. "I barely noticed the limp when you walked over here."
"Better," she said, removing her glasses to look him in the eye-ice blue to ice blue. "The knee's coming along. The doctor says it probably won't ever be one hundred percent again, but that's just how things go." She unconsciously rubbed her shoulder. "I already told you the shoulder still aches and the doc says I'll need another surgery to finish the repair they couldn't complete in Iraq."
"Yeah," Mac's expression turned thoughtful as she gazed up at the cloudless sky. "SFAC told you I died on the table that day, right?" He merely nodded, unable to say how much it hurt to hear that his sister almost died in combat, just like their little brother had. "Well, they were repairing the artery that was nicked by the bullet and couldn't remove the damned thing. Kevin-er, Major Johnson-said they had to restart my heart and had to stop the surgery. I'd lost too much blood and they couldn't risk having me on the table any longer. So, they made a note in my medical record and sent it on ahead with me."
"Can they do the surgery in Wyoming, then? Or do they have to do it here at Walter Reed?" He watched her expression closely.
Mac shook her head. "Actually, I had someone check into it. I'm scheduled at the VA Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, in October."
"Texas?" His expression mirrored his confusion. "Why the hell would you want to have surgery in Texas?"
"That's where Lacey is," Mac answered simply. "I have to find her-find out what happened to her and see how she's doing."
He rested his arms on his thighs and folded his hands in front of him. "You still love her after all this time?"
Mac looked away and glanced around at the hospital and the buildings that surrounded it. They'd had phone conversations about her feelings for Lacey Stephens. They had also talked about Mac's state of mind when she learned Lacey was no longer at Walter Reed. Mac talked about how disconnected she felt and the nightmares that plagued her when she tried to sleep. She was seeing a therapist twice a week there at the hospital, in addition to the physical therapy she'd undergone to get her knee back in shape.
Sighing heavily, she leaned back against the bench and absently adjusted the sling. "I'm still a little…you know," she shrugged. "I don't think I'll ever forget what happened over there. And I know I'll never forget her. The therapist says I have PTSD, which explains the nightmares. Then again, she also says my 'lesbian tendencies' probably have something to do with the stress of combat and my experiences during the war." She snorted. "The woman's a quack, if you ask me."
"She's military, Mac, she has to justify your feelings for another woman," Ben said, his gaze wandering over the various uniformed personnel who passed in front of them. "Don't listen to the shrinks. They don't always have all the answers."
They had talked extensively about the special relationship the two women shared and how much Mac missed Lacey. Having already told him about her sexual orientation when she was still a teen, Ben wasn't surprised by his sister's feelings for the doctor. He had been nothing but supportive and understanding during their long conversations. And even her sister-in-law rallied behind her in that arena.
"All I know is Lacey was moved to a hospital in Houston after her parents checked her out of WRAMC," she shrugged again and looked down at the folded hands in her lap. "No one would tell me which hospital they took her to. I haven't been able to get a straight answer out of anyone. I think her father is keeping a tight rein on her information. All I have is a phone number that a nurse slipped me when no one was looking."
He saw the defeat in her posture. "Have you tried to call the number?"
Mac lifted her head and looked everywhere but at him. "No."
"Why not, sis?" He gently prodded, putting a comforting hand on her thigh again. "You know her father's name. You could at least see if it's the same number. Just call as her friend and find out how she's doing."
Mac breathed in deeply of the fresh air and let it out in a heavy sigh. "What if they hang up? What if her father answers…" Her words trailed off as she turned her head completely away from his. "God knows I'm not just her friend."
"Hey," he gently turned her face back toward his, so he could look her in the eye. "God may know that you love her, but her father doesn't have to. It's okay to find out how she's doing. You two went through hell together. Her father should understand and respect that. The entire military is based on comrades being more like brothers and sisters than just friends. Her father should realize that your training and hers would make you both want to know how the other is doing. He can't be that dense or callous about what the two of you went through, either." He paused and narrowed his gaze at her. "Besides, maybe she still harbors the same feelings you do and told her parents about the two of you."
Mac snorted. "Yeah, right." She shrugged and looked away. "Even if she did, her family won't stand by and let her 'ruin her life' by getting involved with someone like me."
Her last words had his nape hairs bristling. "And what's that supposed to mean? You're a war hero, sis-a decorated veteran, at that. She'd be lucky to have someone like you, as you so bluntly put it. Damned if there aren't a hundred or more women out there who would jump at the chance to be with you. You're quite the catch, sis."
She patted his leg and squeezed. "Thanks, bro," she said with a tentative smile. "I needed a good pep talk."
They sat there in companionable silence for a few more minutes. "So," he finally said. "Is your stuff all packed and ready to go? I didn't come all this way here to our nation's esteemed capital just to listen to you whine about your girlfriend. Besides, those boys of mine are looking forward to having their auntie home for a few weeks."
Mac snorted. "Oh, they are, are they?"
"They certainly are," he answered. "I came here to bring my sister, the war hero, home to her family."
She looked over at him and watched the pride shine in his blue eyes. "Ready when you are, bro." She leaned her head against his shoulder and smiled fondly. "Let's go home."
Harbor Care and Rehabilitative Center - Houston, TX - October 2005
Lacey sat patiently in a wheelchair in the sparsely-furnished room she was more than happy to leave behind forever. Two packed bags sat on the hospital bed, while her other belongings were already loaded in the limo that waited out front. She held a metal cane between her legs, as she stared out the window at the grounds beyond.
Three months. Actually, she'd been there for six but could only remember the last three. She'd remained in a coma, even after her parents insisted she be transported from Walter Reed, in Washington DC, to a hospital in Houston. She didn't remember the trip to Houston, nor did she remember the hospital where she'd spent the better part of a month hooked up to life support. They'd finally taken her off the machines when she was able to breathe on her own. But she hadn't awakened from the coma, even then.
She still couldn't remember what had brought her to this particular place. It didn't look like a rehab facility from the outside. Actually, it looked more like a country club, minus the golf course. Lush manicured lawns spanned the grounds and were surrounded by elm and pecan trees. Numerous small gardens were intersected by concrete walkways wide enough for two wheelchairs to be pushed side-by-side. It was the perfect place to recover.
Even when one stepped into the main reception area, there was an air of wealth and status that hung over the place. Salmon colored walls and hunter green furniture made up the interior throughout the facility and gave it a homey feel. There were several small gathering areas throughout the facility and the nurses' station looked more like the check-in counter at a posh hotel.
Despite its plush appearance, however, Lacey knew the inner workings of her own private hell. She'd spent the better part of three months in the extensive gymnasium-style exercise and physical therapy rooms, as well as the Olympic sized pool. Therapists in white cambric polo shirts and khaki slacks-all of them sporting healthy tans and tolerant smiles-put their patients through the daily exercises designed to strengthen muscles and heal injuries. Lacey had been one of them. And the exercises had been grueling.
Nothing was as grueling, though, as her psychological therapy sessions. She sat in the office of Dr. Karen Gilchrist twice a week and talked about everything from her childhood to her life before the Army. They went over every detail of her life-sometimes she cried and sometimes she remained stoically unemotional-and not once had she been able to recall her time in Iraq.
She knew she was a doctor-no, a surgeon, she mentally corrected. She'd been told she was serving in Iraq when the chopper she was assigned to as a flight surgeon was shot down. She'd even had a visit from a Colonel Farrell and a Sergeant, who praised her heroism in front of her father. She'd smirked when she caught the frown wrinkling her father's brow, as the colonel went on and on about her exploits in Iraq. But, try as she might, she could not make any sense of the fuzzy jumble of obscure images that haunted her nightmares and remained elusively out of reach during her waking hours.
When she had first awakened from the coma, the room she was in had been decorated with a few of her things, including some stuffed animals from her teens. They were items from a childhood she vaguely remembered and that didn't seem to fit her adult life, even if she couldn't remember most of it. Flowers had been strategically placed throughout the room, courtesy of her mother and sister. The fragrant blooms had given the place an almost homey feel, while she recovered from her extensive injuries and went through the daily grind. But no matter how exhausted she was at the end of the day, she never looked forward to returning to her room. It wasn't her home.
Since she had only awakened from the coma a few days earlier, Lacey's memories were nothing more than obscure images and feelings. She lay there in her bed while Dr. Gilchrist patiently waited for her to speak. It was her first therapy session.
She hadn't yet been put through any of the rigorous physical therapy sessions that would push her beyond the limits of her physical endurance. She searched her mind and came up with an image that had plagued her since she had awakened from the dark recesses of the coma.
"I sometimes see a woman with the most distinctive blue eyes," Lacey finally said. She absently adjusted the sling that held her right arm and looked over at the doctor who was seated in a hunter green wingback chair. The woman scribbled something in the leather-bound notebook balanced on the leg crossed over the other.
"Do you know the woman?" The doctor finally looked up and adjusted the reading glasses on her aquiline nose. "What's her name? Where do you know her from?"
Lacey wracked her brain for an answer to at least one of those questions, but only came up blank. The doctor finally moved on and prodded her to recall something that they could use as a starting point for her memories. Lacey answered that she remembered graduating from medical school and doing her residency at a military facility in Florida. As soon as they tried to push her memories any further, however, she hit a brick wall and Lacey's memories completely shut down.
Even in subsequent sessions, as her body began the long road to recovery and she became physically stronger, she still couldn't put any coherent order to anything beyond her residency, especially the images related to Iraq. She saw the dark-haired woman with blue eyes, but try as she might Lacey couldn't place her.
"Are you ready to go, Lacey dear?" Her mother's nasally voice pulled Lacey from her distant musings.
"Yeah," Lacey nodded, putting her hand on the one her mother rested on her shoulder. "I'm ready, Mom."
"Are you okay, dear?" The woman gently prodded, after catching the sadness in her oldest child's misty-green eyes.
"I'm fine," Lacey sighed. "Just a little tired, I guess. I'll feel better when we're at the house. It's been a long time…" she suddenly looked to her mother for confirmation. "Hasn't it?"
Her mother nodded and gently squeezed Lacey's shoulder, mindful of the injuries her daughter was still recovering from. The shoulder she was squeezing hadn't been injured in the helicopter crash that had taken her daughter's life in so many ways. However, Lacey had suffered through so much that her recovery was frustratingly slow and painful.
"You can rest once we're home, Lacey dear," her mother leaned down to place a kiss on the top of her sun-streaked blond, shoulder length hair.
"Is Dad at the house?" Lacey asked. Her mother had already told her he hadn't come to pick her up.
Her relationship with her father was strained, at best. He hadn't been around all that much during her long recovery, only visiting once or twice a month and never speaking more than a few words to her directly. She wanted to ask what the problem was, but also knew it probably had something to do with her decision to join the Army.
"He's out of town for the rest of the week," her mother answered with just a bit too much enthusiasm. "He sends his love and told me to tell you he'll see you when he returns." She watched her daughter's shoulders slump slightly. "Your sister will be there to greet us when we get there. And Paul said he'll stop by later this evening. He wanted me to let you know how sorry he is for not having come by sooner, but work has been very busy for him lately. He was assigned to a very important case that is taking up all his time at the office."
Lacey's spirits sank even further, but she tried not to let her disappointment show. Plastic Paul was not someone she wanted to deal with just yet. Unfortunately, her parents were determined to force him on her. Why the man hadn't married was a mystery that Lacey didn't really wish to ponder. She'd never had more than a passing friendship with the man and knew there just wasn't anything between them to work with. Besides, even if her parents didn't yet know it, Lacey knew in her heart she was a lesbian and would never marry the man.
"I don't know, Mom," Lacey sighed dramatically. "I'm really tired and I don't think it would be fair to Paul if he came to see me now. I just don't think I'm up to receiving visitors."
Her mother frowned at this. "Oh…well, dear," she began in a tone that oozed insincere concern. "He wants so much to see how you're doing. Don't you think you could visit with him, even if it's only for a little while?"
"Mom," Lacey groused, dropping her chin to her chest in a pout reminiscent of her childhood. "I don't want to right now. Can't you understand? This has been really hard and I'm still so confused about-well, about everything. I don't want to see Paul right now. Please."
The topic was becoming a bone of contention between them and one her mother just didn't seem to want to give in on. For her part, Lacey didn't quite know what she wanted. The only thing she knew for certain was that she didn't want Paul. She liked him as a friend, but that was as far as her feelings went for the man. He just wasn't the person she wanted to share the rest of her life with.
A pair of smiling blue eyes flashed in her mind's eye for an instant, then she shook her head to rid it of the familiar-seeming image.
"Okay, honey," her mother fidgeted with the blanket that was wrapped around Lacey's legs. "I'll call him when we get home and tell him to stop by another day, when you're up to it."
Lacey's expression softened. "Thanks, Mom. I really appreciate that."
Six weeks later, Lacey sat in the sunroom of her parents' spacious mansion, staring out the window at the gray sky and freshly-manicured lawn. She'd been home for a little over a month and was already bored to tears. Her mother had finally convinced her to allow Paul to stop by for a visit. It was a disaster of epic proportions that she didn't want to repeat anytime soon. When he got down on one knee and presented her with a ring, she couldn't help the hysterical laughter that erupted, much to the embarrassment of everyone present. He just knelt there at her feet with a confused expression and asked, "Well?"
Glancing up to find her mother standing by expectantly, Lacey caught the woman's eye and saw the pleased smile her mother wore. Then she saw her father's reaction and the red-hot anger burning in his sea-green eyes.
"No, Paul," Lacey answered with an emphatic shake of her head. "I'm afraid I can't marry you. I don't love you and I never will."
"But, dear," her mother protested vehemently, trying to keep Paul from fleeing as she faced off against her eldest daughter. "You can't…you…"
"Now you see here, young lady," her father stepped forward at that moment.
"I'm no longer a young lady, Father," Lacey shot back defiantly. "I'm an officer in the United States Army, a doctor and a decorated veteran. You can't dictate what I will or will not do anymore." She turned her heated gaze on her mother. "It's never going to happen, Mother, I'm sorry," Lacey said, then rose from the chair and leaned heavily on her cane as she left the room.
She actually made it to the drawing room and was almost able to close the door, before both her parents burst through it and nearly sent her sprawling. She just managed to grab onto the back of a wingback chair to keep her balance.
"You can't be serious, Lacey Justine Stephens!" Meredith Beauregard Stephens suddenly rounded on her with more anger than Lacey had ever seen out of the woman. "That young man has been waiting patiently for you to come to your senses and now…now you just throw his proposal back in his face, like so much dirty bathwater? What has gotten into you?"
"I will not have you treat Paul with such open disrespect, Lacey Justine," her father growled. "He has waited for you to return from that…that godforsaken place, so he can marry you and give you the life you deserve." He shot her a heated scowl. "You are acting like a petulant child and I will not have that behavior under my roof!"
"The life I deserve?" Lacey scoffed as she slowly turned to confront her parents. "And what life would that be? The one you laid out for me, Father? I don't think so! I'm not a child anymore and I won't be told what to do or who to marry. I have a life, such that it is, and I intend to live my life my way."
Lacey was still not able to stand for long periods and just managed to sit in one of the wingback chairs, before she collapsed in an embarrassing heap at her parents' feet. In the three months that she had been in a coma, her muscles had atrophied to the point that it was taking longer than anticipated for her to fully recover.
"Now, Lacey dear," her mother's voice took on a condescending tone that made Lacey cringe. "Your father and I are just looking out for your best interests. Paul is a wonderful man and will provide you with everything you could possibly want or need, including beautiful children and a grand home. You can't seriously tell me you won't even take a little time to consider his proposal. He's waited so long for you to come back to us."
"I am totally serious, Mother," Lacey shot back when she finally caught her breath. "I will never marry Paul and you know it. Why do you think I was so quick to join the Army after I finished medical school?" She saw her father's face turn blotchy with suppressed rage. "And don't even start with me, Father. I don't want to hear that outburst that I can see brewing behind your stoic facade."
"Now you listen here…" her father started towards her again and was held back by her mother.
"James, please," Meredith stood her ground as James Andrew Stephens gave her an angry scowl. "She's been through enough. Please just let her think this through. Give her time to accept what Paul is offering and how much he cares."
"Don't, Mother," Lacey shot her mother an angry scowl that matched her father's. "I don't need time to think and I'm not marrying Paul. I will never marry the man, even if he were the last person left on the earth. That's final."
"Lacey, now be reasonable," Meredith pleaded.
"There's no reasoning with her, Meredith," James growled. "Ever since we gave in and allowed her to attend the college of her choosing she's been completely unreasonable. And when she went and joined the Army…Well, that is not the child I raised. No offspring of mine would deign to lower herself to serving in the Armed Forces when she has so much more to offer."
"James, please," Meredith pleaded again.
"No, Mother, Father's right," Lacey stood up with difficulty, leaned heavily on her cane and walked over to stand toe-to-toe with her father. "I am not going to be controlled by you or anyone else in this family ever again." She glared daggers at the man who was only a few inches taller than she was. "I served my country and have the scars to prove it, right down to the one on my chest where they had to open me up and bring me back to life. And I'm going to live this life that's been handed to me. I've also amassed a small fortune of my own, even without the trust fund you created for me. I don't need you and I don't need your damned money! I'm leaving and I will not return until you find it in your soulless heart to see me as more than just a pawn in your pitiful little universe. I put a down payment on a place of my own. And you're not welcome there until you come to your damned senses, old man!"
"What?!?" Both parents exclaimed in unison.
"Now, listen here, young lady…"
"No, you listen to me for once, Father," Lacey shot back with a defiant gleam. "I am done listening to you. I am through relying on you. I don't give a shit about what you think anymore. I'm finished with the two of you and your constant meddling in my life." She stiffly maneuvered around both parents and headed toward the drawing room door, then stopped as she reached the doorway. "Lily knows where to find me, but I've given her strict orders not to tell either of you where I'll be. And I don't want to see Paul ever again." She looked pointedly at her father. "I'd ask you to respect my wishes, but I don't hold out any hope that you'll ever respect anything I say or do. Goodbye." She was about to walk through the door, but hesitated and turned back to glare at them. "And just so we're clear on this, I am a lesbian." She took pleasure in the twin gasps of shock from both parents. "Yes, that's right. I'm gay. I figured it out in college and, although I don't remember anything about my military career, I at least know that one fact with certainty. I had several girlfriends in college. That I do remember. And there isn't a damned thing either of you can do about it."
With that said, Lacey walked through the doorway and nearly collided with her taller sister, who was hovering close by. Lily grabbed her sister's shoulders and smiled warmly. Lacey was too preoccupied to notice how fashionably her sister was dressed, in a cream silk blouse, matching silk pants and a pair of Gucchi sandals.
"Lily," Lacey braced herself against her sister's outstretched arm. "What are you doing here?" She glanced behind her sister to the empty room beyond. "Where's Paul? Did he leave?"
"Paul left with his tail tucked between his gangly legs and Father's ring tucked away in his pocket," Lily beamed. "The little weasel was close to tears, but was muttering under his breath that he wouldn't stand idly by and wait for you to come to your senses. Now I completely understand why you would never marry him."
The two sisters made their way up the winding staircase to Lacey's room above. Lacey knew she needed a nap after all the excitement. But once they reached her room, her sister turned on her like a cat on a mouse.
"A lesbian, Lacey?" Lily helped the smaller woman to the edge of the bed. "Why the hell didn't you ever tell me?"
Lacey shrugged. "Truthfully? It's not something I really gave much thought to after I joined the Army, Lil."
"So you really don't like…men?" Lily gave her sister a skeptical look, as she sat down next to her.
"No," Lacey shrugged. "I don't." Then she reconsidered her word. "I mean, I like men all right. I just don't…" she shrugged. "I'd rather find…um…" She swallowed the lump in her throat. "It's complicated."
"You'd rather have sex with a woman. Is that it?" Lily shot back.
Lacey nearly choked on her sister's words. "O-okay, that's a blunt way of putting it, I guess."
Lily smiled and gave her sister a hug. "I can't believe you finally figured it out for yourself. Jeez, it took you long enough."
"Oh, come on, Lac," Lily gave her sister a conspiratorial nudge on the shoulder. "You can't tell me you and Melissa Delgado were merely friends. She was always giving you those puppy dog eyes when she thought no one was looking."
"Melissa Delgado? What the hell does she have to do with…" A sudden dawning came over her expression. "You knew about me and Melissa?"
"Knew?" Lily scoffed. "I saw you two kissing behind the old oak tree one summer. I think you were probably twelve or thirteen at the time. I thought it was kinda cute, because you were the same height."
Lacey swallowed audibly. "I didn't think anyone…uh…"
"Little sisters are pretty good at spying on their older sibs, Lac," Lily shot Lacey a 'duh' look. "Besides," Lily shrugged. "I can't really blame you. Even I had a little crush on Melissa. She was really quite beautiful with those huge brown eyes and long lashes."
Lacey blushed to her roots. "Yeah," she admitted and kept her eyes on the hands in her lap. "I can't believe she let me kiss her like that. We…um…she was a really good kisser."
Lily giggled. "I think she wanted to kiss you as much as you wanted to kiss her. You two were so funny, though-all gangly and clumsy. I even remember you butting foreheads once. It was all I could do not to burst into a fit of giggles and give away my hiding place in the bushes."
Lacey shot her sister a dour frown. "Why didn't you speak up before now, Lil?" She set her cane aside and crossed her arms over her chest. "Woulda saved me a boatload of trouble in high school."
"You had to learn on your own," Lily shrugged. "Wasn't my place to tell you that you were probably better suited for the girls than boys. Besides, you wouldn't listen to your little sister, back then, would you?"
"I suppose not," Lacey conceded. "It sure would have made dating a lot easier, though. I still shudder when I think of nearly giving away my virginity to Brad Summers. The guy was always trying to get me alone in his car, his sister's car, under the bleachers during football games…Ugh!"
"Yeah, but he was kinda cute," Lily snorted. "Wasn't until you went out with Tommy your senior year that I had second thoughts about your sexuality. Then again-"
"Then again, he did end up moving to San Francisco and setting up house with his boyfriend," Lacey finished with a smirk. "Didn't really see that one coming. I guess I should have known, though."
"He was a great dancer," Lacey wiggled her brows at her sister and they both chuckled. "It was nice to go to all the dances with someone, even if he and I were only friends."
They sat in companionable silence for a moment, each lost in her thoughts. Then Lily stood up and faced her sister.
"Are you finally moving out today? Or are you going to wait until the condo is painted?" Lily said with her hands on her hips.
"I don't know," Lacey said on a heavy sigh. "I'm tired of fighting with them." She looked around her childhood room. "I mean, they even left my room exactly the same as it was when I used to live here." She sighed again. "But I need to get back out there on my own. I need to figure out what I'm going to do with my life from here on out." She lifted the metal cane in her hands and stared at it. "I can't go back to whatever it was I did in the Army, but I can't just sit here and wait for something to drop into my lap, either." She dropped the cane at her side. "I just wish I could remember-"
Lily gently rubbed her sister's back. "You'll find your path, sis. I know you will. You just need time and space, both of which you can get by being out of this damned house." She smiled when Lacey gave her a skeptical frown. "I'm serious. You just need to get back out there and figure out what makes you happy. I know there's got to be something out there you can sink your teeth into." She rubbed her sister's arm. "You're still a doctor, so maybe you can figure out some way to make use of that."
Lacey snorted. "I'm a doctor who can't remember what kind of medicine I was practicing after I graduated medical school. Like that really helps."
"You never know," Lily smirked. "Maybe it will all come back to you."
"Maybe," Lacey shrugged. "Sometimes I think there is something really special that I'm missing, but I don't know what it is." She glanced at her sister. "Didn't I ever mention what I did in the Army?"
Lily shrugged. "Father didn't exactly let anything get by him. If you sent me anything, I didn't receive it."
"Jackass," Lacey grumbled. "Isn't it a Federal offense to tamper with the U.S. Mail?"
Lily snickered. "You sound just like him sometimes."
"No, really, Lacey," Lily grinned. "You two are more alike than you realize. Stubborn. Headstrong. Unwilling to waver in the face of insurmountable odds."
"I'm not a bastard who manipulates his children in order to use them for his own selfish ends," Lacey shot back. "You do know what he used to do to me when he wasn't pleased with some of the things I did, don't you?"
"He took his belt to you behind his closed study door," Lily sobered. "I know."
"My tiny ass saw more welts than a damned Berber carpet," Lacey silently shifted positions, as the memories of her childhood surfaced.
"I'm sorry about that, Lac," Lily put a comforting arm around the smaller woman's shoulders and squeezed. "I knew what he was doing, but I didn't know how to stop him. He was our father, after all. "
"You want to know the worst part?" Lacey watched Lily nod. "Mother knew he did it and never raised a finger to stop him."
Lily swallowed audibly. "Why didn't she at least try?"
Lacey shrugged. "She probably figured I deserved it for the way I acted sometimes. Who knows? It wasn't like I was the son they wanted."
"No, but that didn't give them the right to treat you that way," Lily leaned her head against her sister's. "You weren't a bad kid. You just knew what you wanted and you weren't afraid to speak your mind." She smirked. "It was a good thing they didn't know about Melissa Delgado."
"Yeah," Lacey smirked. "If they'd known the half of it I wouldn't have an ass left to sit on."
Lily eyed her sister. "The half of it?"
One of Lacey's brows quirked. "So you weren't spying on us the night we did it in the pool house?"
Lily slapped a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. "You two had sex in the pool house?"
Lacey nodded. "It was…" She considered her words carefully. "Let's just say we weren't all gangly limbs by then."
They shared a companionable chuckle until Lily finally sat up.
"Well, I guess I should go." She stood up and walked over to Lacey's doorway. "Bill is home tonight, for once. He wants to eat in and get to work on some projects that are coming up for vote in a few weeks."
"You two still sleeping in separate rooms?" Lacey gave her sister a meaningful look.
"He doesn't want children," Lily shrugged. "Besides, I have…um…ways of satisfying that little itch."
Lacey's brow quirked again. "Oh?"
Lily winked. "You're not the only one with little skeletons in your closet, sis."
And with that said, she was gone, leaving Lacey to wonder what her sister was doing and with whom. Her mind pondered the limitless possibilities, as she lay down on her bed and fell fast asleep in her clothes.
Mac was stiff and sore from a hard day of riding and herding cattle. She winced when she moved her arm in a circle and tried to work the kink out of her shoulder that had plagued her all day. She was seated on Argo, her blond Palomino, as she watched the cattle meander past her.
They were moving the herd from the west pasture to one of the north pastures and she'd spent all day in the saddle.
"Hey, sis," Ben rode up next to her on one of his bay geldings, Dasher. The horse tossed his head and snorted, eliciting a whinny from Argo.
"Hey," Mac stared out at the plume of dust kicked up by the herd.
"You doing okay?"
"A little sore today," Mac replied. "Shoulder's been bothering me all day."
"You know you're free to head back to the house, any time," Ben crossed his arms over his saddle horn. "You shouldn't overdo it with that bullet still in there. The doctor said you'd be feeling it if you did. Besides, we got enough help out here. Jimmy's riding flank with Lou and Charley. They've been doing a great job making sure the stragglers don't get too far behind."
Mac glared at him. "You tryin' to get rid of me?"
"No," he returned with a chuckle, tipping his cowboy hat up. "I am most certainly not trying to get rid of you. You've been a really big help, sis. I just don't want you waking up in the morning without the use of your arm again. Remember last week when you chased down that calf and had to rope it? You wore your sling for three days afterward."
Mac sighed. "I remember all too well." She removed her own battered cowboy hat and wiped her rolled up sleeve across her brow. She replaced the hat on her head and sighed.
It was late afternoon and the sun was finally descending. Unfortunately, the heat wasn't dissipating in the least. She didn't know what the temperature was, but thought it was still in the 90s. It had been unseasonably cool that morning, so Mac had decided to wear a flannel long-sleeve shirt over a t-shirt. Big mistake. It wasn't a dry heat, like in the desert. This was the heat of a humid sauna. She knew her undershirt was soaked through and didn't want to remove it in the company of all the cowhands. So she was stuck wearing a shirt better suited to late autumn weather and temperatures.
"Go on back to the house and get cleaned up, sis," her brother ordered, as he noticed the sweat running down her face. "You can let Carrie know that Jimmy and I will be along shortly. We almost have the bulk of the herd where I want them for the night. We'll just help get them situated then turn them over to the hands for the night."
"You really don't need me?" Mac glanced at him and saw him shrug. "Okay, then. I'll let Carrie know you'll be home in a few hours."
"Thanks, sis," Ben gave her a wide grin. "And save some hot water for me, will ya? Don't let my boys use it all before I get there."
Mac took up the reins and turned Argo in the direction of the house. It would take her the better part of an hour to return, but she was looking forward to the ride ahead.
"Can't make any promises there, bro," Mac gave him a wink as she kicked the Palomino into a fast trot.
Once she was far enough away from the herd to no longer smell the distinct scents of manure and leather, Mac slowed her mount to a walk and let Argo pick her way along the well-worn trail. They crossed the wide swath of ground where the herd had tamped the tall grass down and churned it into dust. The dust was dry as a bone.
Mac glanced up at the Grand Teton Mountains that towered majestically over the 6,000 acre ranch. The huge mountains were rimmed with puffy white clouds that clung to them like cotton. She knew the reason her brother had decided to move the herd north was because the grass and water in the west pasture hadn't lasted as long as he'd hoped it would. The drought they'd been experiencing during the summer was making it difficult to keep the large herd from starving or dying of thirst. They'd already had to cull the herd, sending a thousand head of the weaker stock to the slaughter house for far less than her brother knew they were worth. It hadn't been an easy decision for Ben to make and Mac didn't envy him in the least.
As Argo picked her way along the well-worn cowhand path that was used by the dozen men who kept track of the 10,000 head of cattle, Mac turned her thoughts to her current situation. She knew she was biding her time until she flew down to Texas to have surgery on her shoulder. The bullet still lodged in there was a constant reminder of her life in the Army. She wondered what Lacey was doing at that moment. Did she enjoy being back with her family? Or was she chomping at the bit to be free of her parents, especially her father?
Mac patted Argo's sleek neck.
"I hope one day you'll get to meet her, girl," Mac said to the golden horse. The mare merely tossed her head and shook her blond mane. "I think you'd really like her." The mare shook her head, as if to say 'no'. "And why not? You've never even met Lacey Stephens. How can you make a snap judgment of someone when you know nothing about them?" The mare whinnied and tossed her head again. "Thanks, pal. See if you get any honeyed oats when we reach the barn. I have a good mind to…"
Just then she heard a loud whistle ahead of her and looked up to see someone waving her over. She couldn't tell who the person was, but decided to investigate. Mac kicked Argo into a canter and headed toward the waving man.
"Rusty?" Mac pulled Argo up next to the shorter cowhand. "What the hell are you doing way over here? I thought you were…"
Mac stopped dead when she saw a site that made her stomach turn. Rusty was standing over the decomposing carcass of a small steer. The brown and white coat of the steer was matted with blood and the stomach and throat were gaping maws of torn flesh and visceral.
"Thought ya might be your brother, Mac," Rusty's voice was gravelly from smoking too many cigarettes. He was a cowboy in every sense and even dressed the part. He wore a denim shirt and jeans over dingy white long johns. He also wore a red bandana tied around his neck and his boots were well worn from years of hard work.
"Wolves?" Mac watched him kneel next to the carcass and examine the ground around it.
"Probably," Rusty nodded. "Been a while since we've had 'em 'round these parts."
Mac's gaze took in the surrounding area. "They're getting bolder now that the drought has taken hold. Probably not the last carcass we'll see in the next few weeks." She glanced up at the cloudless blue sky. "Wish it would rain."
"Won't matter to the wolves," Rusty said as he got to his feet and moved back toward his mount. "They'll still go after the weaker stock."
Mac eyed the dead steer. "That one doesn't look like it was very weak."
Rusty leaned over and grabbed a bloody hoof. "It was lame before the pack took it down." He dropped the hoof and swatted a fly.
"Let my brother know," Mac said. "He's picketing the herd near the old stream bed tonight. He'll want to know what we're up against. How many in the pack, do you think?"
"'Bout eight, far as I can tell," Rusty nodded. "Happened just this morning, too. Probably one of the first stragglers to break away from the herd after we started out."
"I wonder why JT didn't notice," Mac added. "Tell Ben we need to keep a better eye on the herd or we're gonna lose more than just a few stragglers. Those wolves get any bolder and we're gonna have a stampede on our hands."
Rusty nodded as he mounted his roan gelding. "You headed back to the house, Mac?"
Mac absently rubbed her shoulder. "Yeah. It's been a long day and I need a good long soak in a hot tub."
Rusty tipped his hat. "Don't take any chances on the way. No telling what those wolves'll do now that they've had a taste of fresh meat and easy pickin's."
"Don't worry about me, Rusty," Mac assured him with an easy smile. "I know this area like the back of my hand. Those mangy curs won't get the jump on me and Argo." She affectionately patted the mare's neck. "Will they, girl?" Argo whinnied. "Good girl."
Rusty nodded and kicked his roan into a gallop, leaving Mac and her horse with the carcass. Mac eyed the gruesome scene for another moment. The flies were swarming and the stench was already nearly unbearable.
"Let's go, girl," Mac said as she nudged Argo into a lazy trot. "Don't think I want to stick around here and find out what else might be prowling these parts."
She made it to the outskirts of the main ranch property and followed the fence line toward the house. It was a habit of hers to skirt the property and check the fences whenever possible. She inhaled the fresh mountain air and thought about her life, as her eyes lazily scanned the fence line.
"Smells like we could actually get some rain tonight, girl," Mac commented to the lazily trotting Palomino. "I just hope Mother Nature doesn't tease us with a three-second shower." Mac rolled her shoulder and winced. "Damned shoulder."
Her thoughts turned to the reason the bullet was in her shoulder in the first place. She wasn't prepared for the flashback that hit her unexpectedly. Suddenly she saw herself lying on the sandy ground, staring into the crazed eyes of an enemy insurgent. Her heart jumped into her throat at the look of rage in the man's eyes. When she finally blinked, the image disappeared as quickly as it came on.
Mac choked out the breath she'd been holding when the flashback hit her. The memory was so incredibly vivid that the man's stench still lingered in her nostrils and she could still feel his hot breath on her skin.
"God dammit!" She leaned over her saddle horn and let her cheek rest against Argo's neck. "What the hell was that?"
It was by far one of the worst flashbacks she'd experienced since returning from Iraq. She looked around at the rolling hills and towering mountains. There was nothing that could have triggered such a violent reaction. And then her therapist's words hit her, "Most flashbacks are triggered by stress, while others may just come on with no apparent reason."
Mac tried valiantly to shake off images as she reined in her mount. "Whoa, girl." She dismounted and wrapped the reins loosely around the fence.
Breathing deeply of the humid air, Mac leaned back against the fence to gaze out at the incredible view stretched out before her. She was perched at the top of a rise with rolling hills and valleys spread out below. Everything was green or gold, despite the drought. The grass was a lighter shade of brownish-green than the clumps of trees that spotted her brother's land. She could also just make out a faint plume of smoke where her brother would have picketed the herd.
"Pull it together, Mac," she continued and tried taking slow, deep breaths her therapist had told her would help. In through her mouth-slowly, deeply-and out through the nose.
She let her eyes flutter closed and willed a picture of crystal clear water from a tumbling brook to fill her mind. She continued to build on the image until she could actually hear the trickling of the water over moss-covered rocks. Her heart finally slowed and the panic subsided.
"There," she breathed out a long cleansing breath and opened her eyes again.
Everything came into focus around her, including the mare still munching quietly next to her. The mare's ears were cocked back alertly as she munched contentedly. "How're you doing, girl?" Mac rubbed the mare's soft neck and took comfort in the warmth of the animal. "Wasn't quite ready for that one. Kinda took me by surprise."
Mac gave Argo one final pat before grabbing the reins and remounting. She turned the mare toward home again and kicked her into a lazy canter.
"Damned war," Mac hissed between clenched teeth as she tipped her hat back on her head and reveled in the feel of the wind in her face.
She saw a tan blur to her left and turned her head in time to see a small mountain lion spring from a nearby rock. Luckily Argo was at a full gallop at that point or Mac would have a full set of claws buried in her shoulder. Argo shied sideways, but not enough to take her off stride. Mac just ducked low over the mare's neck and gave the Palomino her head.
"Yiaaaah, girl!" Mac held on for dear life as the big cat hit the ground behind them and gave chase. She shot a quick glance over her shoulder and saw that Argo was rapidly outdistancing the small cat. "Good girl!" Mac patted her mare's neck.
She knew they only had to make it over the next ridge and the cat would break off its chase. Mac felt sweat running down her back as the mare continued to outpace the mountain lion. And then they made it over the last rise and the ranch house came into view before them. Just as she had predicted, the mountain lion pulled up short once it saw all the activity that surrounded the ranch and its multiple outbuildings. Deciding not to take a chance of having the cat follow her any further, Mac kept Argo at the same gallop until they were even with the first outbuilding. Only then did she rein in her mare and walk her the rest of the way. She patted the mare's neck again.
"Good girl," Mac gave the mare a firm scratch between her ears. "Definitely an extra scoop of oats and honey for you tonight, girl."
Mac pulled Argo up in front of the corral next to the large thirty-horse stables. She waited for the dust to settle before dismounting and tying the reins to a hitching post.
"Hey there, Li'l Bit," a gruff voice said behind her.
Mac turned to greet the grizzled man in worn denim. "Hey, Blackie," Mac gave the older cowhand-turned-stable hand a tired half-smile. "How're things here at the ranch?"
"Swell," the man answered sarcastically, then shot a gob of dark-brown spit into the dust at their feet. "Got a whole passel of them damned city folk over ta ranch house. Showed up just after lunch and are swarming around here like a pack of yellow jackets on steroids."
"Oh yeah?" Mac glanced across the yard to where several picnic tables were set up in the shade of two large oak trees. "A new group to torture, eh?"
"Damned straight," Blackie answered as he removed his sweat-stained, straw cowboy hat and wiped a dark sleeve across his sweaty brow. Mac noticed that his thinning, greasy salt-and-pepper hair was sticking up in all directions before he shoved the well-worn hat back in place. "This lot's greener than the last, I tell ya. I'll be steering clear of 'em when Butch and Pepper take 'em on their excursion tomorrow." He glanced up at the mountains. "That is, if it don't rain come mornin'. Ya'll get the herd settled in the north pasture, yet?"
"Ben's picketing them up near the old stream bed for the night," Mac answered as she watched the group of tourists in their urban cowboy garb.
They were a curious group-six adults and an equal number of teens and kids-that milled around the large two-story clapboard ranch house. The adults wore brand new cowboy hats, boots and red bandanas, courtesy of the Flying BC Ranch's small gift shop. The three men also wore short-sleeved polo shirts and brand-new denim jeans, while the women were dressed in a variety of western blouses. The kids just wore t-shirts and jeans. Mac noticed one teen in a faded red Aeropostle t-shirt who stood out from the rest. The girl had strawberry-blond hair pulled back in a French braid that reminded Mac of another strawberry blond. A flash of green eyes played in Mac's mind's eye, then just as quickly disappeared.
The girl turned toward Mac and Blackie and glared at the pair with open hostility in eyes the color of a winter storm. She crossed her arms over her blossoming chest and looked away. The girl was obviously not happy to be spending the remainder of her summer vacation there on the ranch. Mac wondered briefly which couple were the kid's parents, then noticed a blond woman and a red-headed man watching the teen with open disappointment. The couple said a few words to each other, before the mother called to her daughter.
The teen glanced at Mac one last time, before she stomped over to where her parents were seated at one of the picnic tables. Mac couldn't hear the exchange between the three, but knew the teen was voicing her objections to being there. Mac continued to watch as a younger boy ran up to the family and waved his arms animatedly. He was obviously having a great time. Mac glanced at the girl again and her breath caught when those stormy gray eyes stared back at her in open challenge.
"That kid's not happy to be here," Blackie commented as he spit another stream of tobacco juice onto the dusty ground.
"Doesn't look like it, does it?" Mac put her hands on her hips and looked away.
"She's gonna be a handful when they head out tomorrow," Blackie grunted. "Kid looks ready to bolt."
Mac nodded. "She reminds me of someone."
Mac shrugged. "A woman I served with in the desert."
Blackie considered Mac with a raised brow. She rarely mentioned her time in the Army, much less her experiences in Afghanistan or Iraq. As a veteran himself, Blackie knew just why Mac was so tight-lipped about that time in her life. It wasn't something that one could just share openly with those who'd never served before. Not something others could easily understand. Besides, some memories were best locked away where they couldn't haunt you.
He turned his gaze back to the group of tourists. "You ever get in touch with her?" He ventured. "Ben mentioned you'd tried unsuccessfully a few times."
Mac shrugged again and crossed her arms over her chest. "Never been able to get through to anyone who'd let me talk to her." She sighed and rotated her shoulder. "Damned shoulder," she hissed under her breath. "Damned mountain lion, too."
"Mountain lion?" Blackie's interest perked up instantly. "Where?"
"Just over the ridge there," Mac pointed. "It tried to catch Argo and me as we were coming down along the fence line."
"That ain't a good sign," Blackie patted the now-sweating mare. "Argo did a great job of outrunning the cat, then."
"That she did," Mac said and gave the mare another affectionate pat. "You better post an armed watch on the perimeter tonight, just in case. Have two of the hands keep an eye on the ridge and make sure they don't shoot any of our guests. I don't want any heroics and we don't need a lawsuit."
"No problem, Mac," Blackie nodded.
Just then, thunder rumbled in the distance. Mac and Blackie turned their attentions to the distant mountains and watched the clouds swirling in a mass of ominous dark-gray at their peaks.
"Rain's comin'," Mac commented. "Gonna be an interesting day tomorrow. The townies won't like being caught in a downpour, out there. I should probably also let Carrie know about the mountain lion, so she can warn the townies not to go hiking in the dark."
"Good idea. 'Bout damned time we got some damned rain," Blackie grunted as he took Argo's reins and led the horse toward the stables. "Hope your brother gets back here 'fore the weather turns. Then again, we've heard rumbles like that over the last few weeks that didn't amount to much." He sniffed the air. "Probably a good idea to also let Carrie know she should prepare for Plan B, just in case."
"She probably already has Hank standing by to shuttle the group into Jackson tomorrow," Mac patted his shoulder.
"Damned greenhorns," Blackie grunted, as he grabbed up Argo's reins and led her through the stable door.
"Give her an extra scoop of oats and honey for me, will ya, Blackie?" Mac slapped the mare's rump affectionately and just managed to dodge a swat from the blond tail. "I promised."
Glad that Blackie was there to take care of her mare, Mac turned her attention to the ranch house and the dozen or so people milling about in the yard. She sighed heavily knowing that her sister-in-law would be too busy with the new arrivals to take time out for a quick chat. Mac needed someone to talk to about the unexpected flashback, but now was not the time.
So, she straightened her shoulders and started toward the back door of the house. She glanced over to find that same kid watching her curiously. Then two boys flew from the house in a flurry of whoops and hollers, angling straight for her.
"Auntie Mac!!" The younger boy shouted at the top of his lungs as he launched himself into her arms.
Mac barely caught him and winced at the strain on her shoulder. The six-year-old grinned at her with his toothless smile and gave her a quick hug before she set him on his feet.
"Dillon Jeremiah!" A woman's voice called from the back door. "I outta tan your little hide for that!"
A Hispanic woman stepped out the back door and stood with her hands on her slender hips. Mac gave the six-year-old a raised-brow look. He merely grinned up at her with open affection.
"Sorry, Auntie Mac," DJ apologized with a pout. "Di'nt mean ta hurt yer shoulder."
Mac ruffled his blond hair. "That's all right, Digger," she grinned down at him, as the Hispanic woman, Maria, stood sentinel at the back door and eyed Mac with interest. "Hello, Maria," Mac gave the woman a quick wave that was greeted with a curt nod. Tanner chose that moment to greet his aunt with a reserved smile. "Hey, Tanner. You behaving yourself?" She ruffled his light-brown hair just before he ducked out of her reach.
"I always behave myself, Auntie Mac," he said as he ran his fingers through his hair. "Mom's busy with the new arrivals, so Maria's watching us until Daddy gets home."
Mac glanced up and saw the Hispanic woman giving her the once-over, before returning to the house. Maria Sandoval was the sitter for the two younger boys while everyone else was busy running the ranch. She was single and in her mid-thirties, with shoulder-length, dark-brown hair that she kept pulled back from her round face. At five-foot-six, she barely reached Mac's shoulders. Mac always felt slightly uncomfortable in the woman's presence, but couldn't put a finger on exactly why.
Mac knew Maria was great with the boys and kept them in line with her strict Catholic discipline. She always seemed to be lurking around corners when Mac made an appearance in or near the house. The woman's strange antics hadn't yet become untoward, but Mac was sure there would eventually be a confrontation. Mac had caught Maria watching her with more than friendly interest on more than one occasion, even though the woman had a steady boyfriend who picked her up whenever she was done watching the boys.
Mac returned her attention to the two boys waiting patiently in front of her. "You boys want to sit on the porch a spell and learn some more rope tying?" Mac suggested.
DJ's face lit up with excitement. "Can you teach us to tie a hangman's noose?"
Tanner gave her an equally expectant look at his brother's suggestion. "Yeah, Auntie Mac. You promised to teach us that one last week."
Mac gave her nephews a skeptical look. "I don't know what your mama will say when she catches you practicing that particular knot."
"She won't mind. Honest!" DJ piped up. "She likes us to learn that stuff."
Mac ruffled his hair again. "You are so full of it, Digger. You know what your mama said that time we used Edgar for lasso practice."
"Yeah, even Daddy got hot under the collar about that one," Tanner added with all seriousness. "He said we had to stop using the poor dog like that or Edgar would drop dead from fright."
DJ burst into a fit of giggles.
"Come on, boys," Mac herded them toward the front of the house and the covered porch. "I'll teach you some other knots that'll be useful."
"Hey, Auntie Mac?" DJ bounced around her legs as her easy strides took them around the side of the house.
"What's on your mind, Digger?" Mac removed her hat and tossed it over the porch rail and onto a peg near the front door.
"When's Daddy gonna let Tanner'n me ride with ya'll?" He launched himself onto the wooden porch and beat his brother to the two-person swing. "Ha! Beatcha!" He stuck his tongue out at Tanner, who merely shrugged and sat in one of the knotty pine rocking chairs.
Mac took a seat in the other rocking chair and was grateful to be off her feet. She was more tired than she was willing to admit, but wouldn't let it show in front of her nephews. They expected her to pay attention to them, even if only for a few minutes. Mac didn't mind in the least, even if her shoulder ached like all get out.
"Fetch me the ropes, Tanner," Mac pointed to the three coils of rope hanging on pegs near the door.
Tanner grabbed all three well-worn ropes and handed them to her. "Here ya go, Auntie Mac."
Mac took two of the ropes and uncoiled one end each, then set about slowly tying the two ropes together.
"Your Uncle Derek and I learned the Double-Fisherman's knot one summer when we went to camp down in Louisiana," Mac said as she slowly pulled the two ropes together with the double-knots. "They had sail boats on the lake and we got to learn how to tie a whole bunch of different sailor's knots."
"That's so cool!" DJ watched in utter fascination as Mac untied and retied the knots several times.
Mac looked up at the older of the two boys, who was watching her hands closely. "You think you can do it, Tanner?"
It was a game they played. Mac would demonstrate a knot for them and they would have to reproduce the knot without being told how she'd done it. Tanner, who had recently celebrated his tenth birthday, was very good at the game. His small hands could easily loop and work the rope into the exact knot that Mac demonstrated. DJ, who was only six, was learning quickly, but still couldn't quite get it on the first try.
Tanner's fingers worked expertly to create the twin knots, while his brother made a simple slip knot out of one end of one of the ropes his brother held.
"There!" DJ held his finished knot up for his aunt's inspection. "I did it!" He grinned proudly.
"Great job, Digger," Mac praised the boy and ruffled his hair playfully. She watched Tanner finish the final knot and pull the two ends fast. "And I thought I was going to have to show you two how to do that one more than once." She winked at Tanner. "Good job, Tanner. I guess you earned a quick demonstration of the Hangman's knot."
In record time Mac had a perfect Hangman knot tied from the third rope. She held it up for the boys to see. They ogled the coiled and looped rope with open admiration.
"Wow!!" Both boys exclaimed in unison.
"No fair," Tanner pouted. "You did it too fast for me to see what you were doing."
"No fair, huh?" Mac tossed the rope at him. "Maybe you can deconstruct it and reproduce the knot." She watched him stare at the rope for a moment before a wide grin broke out on his face. "I thought you might figure it out, sport." She ruffled his hair and this time he didn't bother to back away.
"Anything exciting happen out there today, Auntie Mac?" Tanner moved to the porch swing and plopped down on it with his prize.
"Hm," Mac sat back in her chair and lazily rocked back and forth. "We had a few stragglers that had to be rounded up and taken back to the main herd." She watched as Tanner concentrated on the rope in his hands.
"Didja hafta lasso any of 'em?" DJ asked as he climbed up onto the porch rail and straddled it like it was a horse.
"No," Mac shook her head. "I gave Lou and Charlie the honors." She considered her next words carefully, not wanting to scare her nephews with all the details. "On my way back here I also ran into Rusty and a mountain lion."
"A mountain lion!" Both boys perked up in unison.
"What happened?" Tanner looked her over with concern. "Are you all right, Auntie Mac? Did the mountain lion hurt you?"
"Is Argo okay?" DJ added.
"I'm fine and so is Argo," Mac smiled to reassure them. "Argo was a trooper and managed to outrun the cat on the way back here." She pointed in the general direction where the cat chased them. "It caught us by the fence line over there."
"Wow!" DJ looked at her with renewed respect. "That musta been awful scary, Auntie Mac."
Mac smirked. "Not as scary as being jumped by a man with a knife, but it was pretty scary."
"You got jumped by a man with a knife?" Tanner's hazel eyes went wide with interest.
"Yeah," Mac nodded. "Bad things happen sometimes when you're a soldier, Tanner." She ruffled his hair as he sat on the arm of the chair next to her. "Remember that when you graduate high school and are deciding what you want to do with your life."
"Cha," Tanner gave her a skeptical look that reminded Mac of her dead brother, Derek. "Jeez, Auntie Mac, I haven't even finished elementary school and been to middle school, yet. I got time to figure out what I want to be when I grow up." Then he grinned from ear-to-ear. "I may just decide to follow in Daddy's footsteps and become a veterinarian."
Mac just patted his shoulder this time, earning a smirk as he ducked away to join his brother at the porch rail. "You do that, sport. I think you would be a really good vet."
"Yeah, 'cept when the dogs bite his fingers," DJ chimed in with a giggle that earned him a chuck on the shoulder from his brother. "Ouch, that hurt, Tanner!" He rubbed the arm in question.
"Dogs love me," Tanner shot DJ that same frown of disapproval he always gave Mac when she ruffled his hair.
"You boys bein' good for your aunt?" Ben stepped out onto the porch with a tall, lanky young man close on his heels.
"Yessir," both boys answered in unison.
Benjamin Papadopoulos was just a head taller than his oldest son, Jimmy, but the two were similar enough in looks that they were often mistaken for brothers. They both had dark-brown hair they kept cut short under their wide-brimmed Stetsons. And their eyes were exactly the same color blue as Mac's. The only noticeable difference between the two was in their body builds. Ben was nearly six foot five and carried what the family called his "spare tire" around his middle, just above his waistline. While Jimmy wasn't quite as tall as his father, but was as slender as a rail.
"We were just practicing rope tying," Mac added.
Ben glanced at the hangman's noose draped over the rail and shot his sister a disapproving scowl that nearly made her laugh. Mac just managed to keep a stern expression on her features as Ben lifted the noose off the rail.
"This your idea of rope tying, li'l bit?" He dangled the noose in front of her. "Teaching my boys to tie a noose?"
"Tanner earned it after I showed him the Double Fisherman and he got it on the first try," Mac crossed her arms over her chest and returned his stern expression.
Ben's brow rose as he turned his gaze on his younger son. "You tied a Double Fisherman on the first try?"
"Yep," Tanner nodded proudly. "Auntie Mac then tied the noose really fast." He frowned. "Too fast for me to see how she did it," he added with a frown.
Ben tossed the noose to Tanner, who caught it and grinned. "Don't let me see you hanging anything from that noose, son." He gave the ten-year-old a stern look. "And don't let your mother see you with that thing."
"Yessir," Tanner answered in all seriousness.
"Now get inside and wash up for supper, both of you," Ben ordered, watching as the two younger boys scrambled quickly into the house. "You joinin' us for supper, li'l bit?" He addressed his sister.
"Where else would I bum a meal?" Mac smirked.
"Oh, I almost forgot," Ben said as he stopped at the door and held it open for his oldest son. "Maria said to tell you Blackie is looking for you over at the stables."
"Did she say why?" Mac stood up and worked the kinks out of her knee and shoulder.
"No," Ben answered. "She just asked me to relay the message."
"Okay," Mac said as she stepped off the porch. "You guys go ahead and eat. I'll find out what Blackie wants, make sure everything's okay and then I'll be in for supper. If it takes too long, just go ahead and put my plate in the oven to keep warm."
"Will do, li'l bit," Ben nodded.
"Would you please stop calling me that around the boys?" Mac growled. "Jimmy's gonna get the idea it's okay to call me by my nickname all the time. You've already got most of the hands saying it and I can't get 'em to stop."
Ben chuckled. "No problem…li'l bit." His laughter echoed inside the house.
Mac stood there shaking her head for a moment as she heard her brother's laughter recede. "I'll never live that stupid nickname down at this rate," she said as she made her way toward the family stables.
There were six outbuildings in the general vicinity of the main house. One of those buildings housed the family's horses, including Mac's two mares and four geldings. There was also a horse for each of Mac's nephews, who were all experienced equestrians. Even six-year-old DJ had his own gelding that he competed in the local rodeo circuit with.
Chance was a full-blooded roan Quarter Horse and stood fourteen hands high. The gelding wasn't tall by most standards, but that was just fine for young DJ. The two were great together, though. It seemed that the horse's lower center of gravity allowed them both to navigate the barrels and demonstrate roping techniques fairly easily. They had even won several events in their six-to-ten-year-old class.
Mac entered the dim interior of the stables and smelled the fresh scent of horses, hay and leather.
"Hey, Blackie!" She called out as she walked down the center aisle and noticed only the horses in their stalls. The tack room was at the other end of the building, so Mac continued toward it. She glanced above her head as some alfalfa dropped down in front of her, but couldn't see anything in the loft above. "Blackie? You in here?"
"He's not here, Mac," Maria's quiet voice sent a chill of apprehension down Mac's spine, as she stopped and turned to face the smaller woman. Maria was leaning casually against the door frame, her hair glinting in the moonlight. "But I am," she continued as she moved away from the door.
Mac watched as Maria sidled up to her and stopped within reach. The smaller Hispanic woman had her dark hair down around her shoulders and her blouse-which was usually only unbuttoned enough to reveal the dip at her throat-was now showing a generous amount of tan cleavage.
"You told my brother Blackie is looking for me," Mac took a step back as Maria reached for her. "Hey, Maria, what the…"
"Oh, come on, Mackenzie," Maria's soft Spanish accent made the words roll off her tongue in a sultry tone. "Don't play hard-to-get with me, chica."
Mac backed up another few steps until the backs of her knees bumped up against an alfalfa bale sitting against one of the stalls. She could feel the sexuality rolling off the smaller woman in waves, as Maria continued to stalk her like a hungry panther. All the warning bells and whistles in Mac's head suddenly went off.
"Maria, don't," Mac warned, as she made a grab for the smaller woman's outstretched hands and was thwarted by Maria's smaller stature. "What about your boyfriend?"
"Jose is a great guy," Maria answered with a shrug as she quickly closed the distance between them. "But he doesn't hold a candle to you, chica. I've wanted to do this for a very long time."
Mac tried to side-step Maria's advance, but ended up losing her balance and sitting down hard on the bale behind her. That was all it took for Maria to pounce, which is exactly what she did. Soft, warm lips were suddenly pressed against Mac's and a firm tongue was prodding for entry, as Maria's hands found the front of Mac's flannel shirt and started unbuttoning.
"Mm, you're so…" Maria's words trailed off in a breathless exhale as she pressed further into the taller woman.
"Maria…" Mac managed between clenched lips, but only succeeded in allowing the smaller woman's tongue to breach the barrier.
The kiss awakened a spark of desire in Mac that had been dormant for far too long. Maria's tongue expertly danced with hers and the kiss deepened. Mac felt her overshirt drop from her shoulders as her own hands moved beneath Maria's blouse and the tank top underneath. Mac reveled in the feel of soft, smooth skin beneath her fingers. Her hands reached Maria's satin bra and deft fingers quickly undid the clasp. She was suddenly lost in a sea of overwhelming sensations as her mind shut out everything but the feel of the woman pressed against her.
"God, you are so hot," Maria breathed against Mac's swollen lips. "How could I deny this-deny us-for so long?." Maria's lips blazed a trail along Mac's jaw line and down to the pulse point at her throat.
As soon as Maria's lips were on her neck, Mac felt her libido kick into overdrive. Waves of desire she hadn't experienced in months suddenly overwhelmed her and sent her senses spiraling out of control. Her eyes closed and she felt herself falling. But Maria wasn't-
"No-" Mac pushed the woman away from her. "Stop, Maria.
"I want you, amante," Maria wasn't to be deterred. She moved right back in and delved lower until her lips were trailing hot kisses along Mac's collar bone. "I have never wanted anyone as much as I want to taste every part of you, Mackenzie."
Just then, a sound from above made both women pull up short and glare up at the loft above them. Small trickles of alfalfa fell between the spaces in the loft's floor.
"Did you hear something?" Mac panted breathlessly, as she tried to extricate herself from the smaller woman's grip on her clothing.
"It was nothing, mi amor," Maria returned to her ministrations.
As her undershirt was lifted by deft hands, Mac felt a slight chill from the night air that hit her heated skin. The noise above and the night air on her skin worked like ice water to instantly cool her overheated libido.
"Maria, please stop," Mac grabbed the woman's arms and thrust her more forcefully away. "We can't do this. There's someone up there."
Maria was still not to be deterred. "There is an empty stall." Maria was on her feet and reaching for Mac before the taller woman could protest. "Come. It is only mice in the loft, chica. Nothing to worry about."
More alfalfa drifted down from the loft onto Mac's head. "What the-?" She looked up and saw nothing amiss in the fading light of the setting sun coming through the doors at either end of the stables. "Is there someone up there? If there is, come down here, this instant." Mac was glaring up at the loft and ignoring the woman in front of her.
Maria was insistently tugging on one of Mac's hands, but the taller woman was not having any of it at that point. Mac stood her ground and continued to ignore the smaller woman pulling at her insistently.
"Mackenzie, please," Maria pleaded. "The empty stall, Mackenzie."
"Hello?" Mac called up again. "I know you're up there. Come down or I'll sick one of the dogs on you."
Maria gave Mac's arm a hard tug that got no response out of the taller woman. "Do you know how long I have waited to make love to you, Mackenzie?" Maria petulantly stomped her foot and then stopped at the sound of a car horn honking in the distance. "And now you think that a bunch of mice in the loft is more interesting than me? Well, go to hell! I have Jose to give me what I need. So there!"
Mac was only mildly surprised when Maria suddenly stormed out of the stables without another word. The tall former pilot put her hands on her hips and just shook her head. Then another trickle of alfalfa rained down on her and she swiped at the green stuff sticking in her hair.
"I'm not kidding about the dog," Mac said with a long sigh.
Mac watched as the loft boards shifted under someone's weight and then a pair of slender legs dangled over the edge. In seconds a young girl appeared. Mac immediately realized it was the same girl who had watched her earlier. The kid dropped to the floor and stood directly in front of her.
"Hey, sorry to crash your…um…Well, you know," the girl shrugged.
"What's your name, kid," Mac crossed her arms over her chest and glared at the girl. "And why the hell are you up in our loft spying on people?"
"Missy," the girl answered defiantly. She still wore the same outfit that most kids wore, but up close she really did remind Mac of a certain spunky doctor. "Missy Applegate. I'm…I'm from Des Moines, Iowa. I mean…um…my family is from Des Moines. I came with them on this stupid trip. Wasn't my idea. My parents wouldn't let me stay home by myself. Said I'm not old enough for that yet." She fidgeted with a piece of alfalfa in her teeth. "And I wasn't really spying. I just wanted to get away-be alone-for a while. Do some thinking without having my little brother all over me. He's a pest, like, ya know? I didn't know you and that other woman were going to get it on in here."
Mac couldn't help but feel a tug of sympathy for the kid who was trying valiantly not to look her in the eye. She thought maybe the kid would be forever traumatized by catching two women almost having sex right below where she was hiding. Then Mac saw the girl's eyes shyly track up to meet hers. There was something in that look that made Mac even more uncomfortable than when Maria first made her move.
"Um, aren't your parents going to worry when you're not there for dinner?" Mac put some distance between herself and the girl by stepping to the empty stall and leaning against the open door. "I can take you back over to the cook house where…"
"No," the girl quickly interrupted. "I…I, um, don't really want to eat with them. They know I like to hang out by myself, anyway."
Mac's brow lifted. "You're not by yourself, kid."
"No," Missy answered with a shrug as she sat down on the alfalfa bale. "They don't really care much what I do, as long as I don't burn anything down or get caught stealing."
"Oh, I don't believe that one for a minute," Mac eyed the kid. "Parents always care what their kids are doing, even if the kids don't think so. If I had kids of my own, which I don't, I would certainly care what they're up to. I know my brother cares about what his boys are doing, even when he's not with them."
"Mine don't," Missy lifted a knee up and wrapped her arms around her leg. "They made the decision to come on this stupid trip. They never asked me what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go."
Mac nodded sagely. "How old are you, anyway?"
Missy lifted her chin defiantly. "Sixteen, almost seventeen." She shrugged. "I'll be seventeen in December. My birthday's close to Christmas. Got my driver's license at the beginning of summer." She pulled out a leather wallet attached to a silver chain that hooked to a belt loop on her pants. Flipping the wallet open, she held it so Mac could see it in the fading light. "See?"
"And you didn't want to spend one of the last vacations with your in the great outdoors?" Mac gave the girl a skeptical look. "I know this ain't the Ritz, kid, but we have a lot of amenities that most places like this don't." She shot the kid a teasing grin. "We even have actual working toilets and indoor plumbing."
"I wanted to go with my friend and her family to their condo in the Bahamas," Missy shrugged. "Julie and me, we're best friends. Her parents are cool with our relationship. They know we love each other."
Mac caught the emphasis on the word 'best'. "So you two are-" she waved a hand.
"We've already had sex, if that's what you're trying not to say," Missy blurted with a sly grin. "We love each other. At least, that's what we say to each other all the time."
"Whoa, kid," Mac put both hands in front of her, as if to ward off any further discussion. "That wasn't what I was saying at all. I don't talk about my sex life with anyone, especially not a complete stranger."
Missy stood up and took a step closer to the dark-haired woman who towered over her. "I can see what the Hispanic sees in you. You're gorgeous." She took another step closer to Mac. "So, why didn't you let her continue what the two of you started?" Missy cocked a brow up at Mac. "She really wanted to jump you in that stall. And it didn't look like you were really against the idea when she had your shirt up around those gorgeous breasts of yours, either."
Mac put a staying hand in front of her, as the girl advanced a step closer and stopped to survey her from head to toe. Mac knew she was only wearing the long-sleeve undershirt and nothing else. She also knew her jeans were unbuttoned-how that had happened, Mac couldn't remember. Apparently, the kid also knew how underdressed Mac was, as her gaze fixed on Mac's breasts beneath her shirt.
"Look, kid," Mac swallowed down the lump in her throat and took a deep breath. "You're probably really nice and all. I'm sure Julie is a very lucky girl, but-"
"What Julie and I have is…" she shrugged. "We've known each other a really long time and we go to school together. Our first time was a little awkward and clumsy, but we managed to get through it with minimal psychological damage. You know how it goes…"
Mac didn't, but wasn't about to say so. She knew her recent liaison with Maria was still making her body throb with unfulfilled need and this kid wasn't making helping. Mac could barely look into the girl's eyes, as it was. They reminded her too much of a certain Army flight surgeon's that Mac had been pining for ever since her return from Iraq.
"You know, as much as I've enjoyed this little discussion," Mac said, as she skirted around the girl and grabbed up her discarded flannel shirt. "I really have to get going. I hope you enjoy your time here…"
Her words were cut short as a pair of arms wrapped themselves around her waist from behind and a warm body pressed against her backside.
"Don't leave," Missy kissed Mac's back through her shirt. "Please."
Mac groaned and squeezed her eyes shut tight. "You're just a kid," she ground out between clenched teeth and was disappointed when the arms around her didn't loosen. Mac grabbed the girl's hands and pushed herself out the embrace. "Look, Missy. This can't happen," she turned to look the girl in the eye. "I'm more than twice your age." She chuckled to lighten the mood. "Actually, I'm old enough to be your mother-if I'd been into guys at your age. It just isn't gonna happen between us and that's final. You're too young and I'm too old for this shit."
Missy smirked and tried to press closer. "I don't care." She shrugged. "I saw how reluctant you were with that other woman, but she still got you going. Doesn't take a blind man to see how you responded to her kisses and her touch. I just want the chance to finish what she started. It's not like it means anything. We'll never see each other again after I leave." Missy managed to pull herself against Mac's body and hold her tight, as her lips found Mac's collar bone. "Mm, you smell good. Kinda like this place, all leather and fresh air…"
Mac lurched away from the girl. "You're a minor, for Christ's sake, kid!"
"I'm almost eighteen," Missy took another step forward, until they were both standing inside the empty stall. "Besides, everybody says I'm more mature for my age than anyone else at my school."
"What the hell is it with me tonight?" Mac suddenly lost it. "Two of you in one friggin' night? Did I suddenly acquire a tattoo on my forehead that says 'Fuck the lesbian!'? Shit!" Mac stormed past the stunned young woman until she was standing on the other side of aisle next to Argo's stall.
"Jeez, I'm sorry. What the hell…" Missy was stunned by the woman's outburst. "I didn't mean to get you all mad or anything. I just wanted to have some fun." She shrugged and crossed her arms over her chest. "I shoulda just stayed up there and let the Mexican woman fuck your brains out while I watched. I had a really good view from that loft. I just thought…"
"You're a damned kid!" Mac shot back. "Go back to your parents! Goddamnit! Go back to your seventeen-year-old girlfriend and let her get your rocks off. Just leave me the hell alone, kid!"
Missy spared Mac one last glare before she stormed off in the opposite direction that Maria took only moments before. Mac threw Argo's stall door open, hooked the chain across the opening, and leaned her forehead against the mare's neck. The Palomino blew out a breath, but otherwise remained standing there for her mistress.
"Son of a bitch, girl!" Mac blew out a frustrated breath against the mare's neck. "What the fuck? What did I do to deserve this shit tonight?" She straightened up and scratched the mare's ears. "I wish I could say it was flattering to have two-well, I can't say one of them was actually a woman-all over me, but it was just…" she sighed heavily as her felt her shoulder throb painfully. "Damn! A bath sounds so good right now." She gave the mare's face a quick rub, unhooked the chain and closed the stall door. "I think I'll head back to the house, eat my supper and treat myself to a really long soak." The mare snorted and stuck her nose through the bars in her door. "Thanks for being there for me, girl," Mac said as she gave the nose a parting scratch.
Mac made sure there was no else one around to ambush her, as she darted from the stables. She hurriedly made her way to the house by the light of the large overhead light above the stables. It never ceased to amaze her how quickly night came on once the sun dropped behind the mountains. The thought occurred to her that it didn't get dark quite so quickly when she was in Iraq. Then again, there weren't many mountains for the sun to disappear behind out in the desert.
Mac slammed into the house through the back door, while thoughts of Iraq quickly brought to mind a certain blond flight surgeon with sea-green eyes. She stomped into the kitchen and removed her dinner from the oven-baked chicken with wild rice and carrots. She frowned at the healthy meal and was still frowning when her sister-in-law breezed into the kitchen.
"You going to eat that or stare at it all night, li'l bit?" Carrie asked as she rummaged through one of the cupboards for something.
"Do you have Ben on a diet again?" Mac petulantly took the plate to the kitchen table and sat down to eat. "Looks like he ate half my dinner."
Carrie fixed herself a cup of tea and popped it in the microwave, then sighed heavily. "The boys ate more than their share tonight. I'll talk to them about it tomorrow and make sure they don't do it again, li'l bit." She turned to face Mac and leaned against the counter, crossing her arms over her chest. "Then again, if you showed up on time for supper it wouldn't happen at all."
Mac frowned as she chewed a bite of the slightly-overdone chicken. "I was waylaid."
"Waylaid?" Carrie's brow rose inquisitively. "I was busy feeding a group of boarders, but I still made it in time to eat supper with the family."
"I…" Mac began, then ran a frustrated hand through her hair. "There was…" She swallowed past the sudden uncomfortable lump in her throat. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Try me," Carrie took her tea from the microwave and sat down at the table. "I have three rambunctious boys and I run a B&B out of my house. There's really nothing I haven't heard before."
"Maria got me alone in the stables and tried to…um…" Mac shrugged, got up from the table and went to the refrigerator to pour herself a large glass of milk. When she was seated at the table again, her eyes met Carrie's. "She didn't succeed because one of your boarders was in the loft and managed to interrupt us before things got out of hand."
Carrie's expression mirrored her confusion. "Maria has a boyfriend. Why in the world would she try something with you?" She sighed heavily and Mac could see the visible tension in Carrie's posture. "Oh, Lord. I guess this changes everything. I'll tell her tomorrow that her services-and I do mean all her services-are no longer needed here."
"No," Mac shook her head. "She's really good with the boys, Carrie. Please don't think you have to fire her just because she came onto me. Nothing happened."
"Was that all it was?" Carrie watched Mac closely any reaction. "She just came onto you?"
"Well…" Mac looked away from the close scrutiny. "She kissed me and…"
"That's it!" Carrie set her cup down harder than she'd intended and tea splashed onto the table. "All of our employees know that kind of behavior is unacceptable around here. Ben doesn't tolerate any misconduct from the hands and I won't tolerate it from those on my payroll, either. Maria may be good with the boys, but she's not irreplaceable."
"Don't Carrie me, li'l bit," Carrie cut her off. "We both know what happened before you left to join the Army. You weren't exactly the most celibate person around here. And when you and Cynthia hooked up right under my nose, well…"
"I slept with more than my share of girls and women," Mac added with a wry smirk. "I was also reckless, arrogant and stupid. Cynthia was just very willing to show me the ropes, so to speak. She gave me…um…a leg up in the world and I'm really glad she did. I'd hate to think what I would have done if I'd been a bumbling teenager with raging hormones."
"Cynthia was twice your age and whored herself all over this ranch. She wasn't just in the sack with you, li'l bit. She was sleeping with every hand within a five-mile radius of this place," Carrie sipped her tea. "It didn't help that her cooking was very lacking, either."
"Well, what she lacked in the culinary department…" Mac couldn't help but smirk.
"Oh, don't you even get me started, Mackenzie Bridget," Carrie huffed.
"Yes, but you also know I wasn't exactly the easiest person to get along with back then," Mac continued. "At least I've changed enough to be more discerning in my choice of bedmates. I'm not that same stupid kid I was all those years ago."
Carrie placed a hand over Mac's on the table. "I know that, li'l bit…"
"Please, will you stop calling me that?" Mac blew out an irritated breath. "I really hate that everyone around here still looks at me like I'm that seventeen-year-old kid with the sense that God gave a rock. I'm a grown woman, for cryin' out loud. I went to college, served my country and have the scars to prove it."
"You're right, Mackenzie," Carrie corrected. "I'm sorry. It's just hard to see you as a grown woman, sometimes, when I still see you in those tight jeans and even tighter t-shirts. I still remember when you walked out that door-actually, stormed was more like it. You were hell bent on either killing yourself or killing someone else. And that motorcycle…Ugh! That damned Harley was your ticket to an early grave, if I ever saw one."
"Like I said, I was young and stupid," Mac said. "But I cleaned up my life and my act. I've also found someone who makes me feel really good about who I am now."
Carrie met Mac's gaze. "Lacey Stephens?"
Mac smirked. "Lacey Stephens," she nodded. "She's a flight surgeon and a captain in the Army and so much more. She's bright, funny and makes me feel like a million bucks by just being with her."
"So, when are you going to go find her and bring her back to meet your family?" Carrie gave Mac a sincere hand squeeze. "Ben told me her family took her to Houston."
Mac's expression became melancholy. "I don't know. I haven't been able to get in touch with her or her family."
Mac nodded. "The last time I called no one answered." She swallowed down the bile that rose in her throat every time she thought about Lacey's family and what they might be doing to her. "I think her father's wise to our relationship and is keeping her from me."
"Hey, it's okay, Mackenzie," Carrie took Mac's hand in hers and gently rubbed the pilot's suddenly cold skin.
Tears sprang to Mac's eyes as emotions that she was just barely able to control suddenly rose to the surface. "I just want to know how she's doing. We were so close in Iraq. She was…" She slammed a fist on the tabletop. "I love her, goddamnit! I want to see her. Is that too much to ask? We were so banged up after the crash and…Lacey slipped into unconsciousness during our rescue…I just…I don't know if she ever recovered or even if she remembers our time together." She put her head in her hands. "I want answers. I want to know if she feels the same way about me that I feel about her."
"Oh, honey," Carrie scooted her chair around the corner of the table and took Mac into her arms, as the taller woman suddenly broke down in a fit of tears. "I'm so sorry. Shhhh. It's all right, now. Just let it all out, li'l…um, I mean, Mackenzie."
"Lacey and I survived that god-awful crash, but…" Mac sniffed loudly and sat up straight again. "We lost some really good men that day," she continued as Carrie handed her a wad of tissues. "I don't even know if the bodies of our guys were ever recovered. I tried calling around and no one will give me a fucking straight answer. It's just so damned frustrating!" she slammed a fist on the table again, rattling her plate and silverware.
Mac swiped impatiently at the tears on her cheeks, then blew her nose into the tissues.
"I have a friend in Salt Lake City who might be able to help," Carrie chuckled wryly at the almost child-like antics of her husband's sister. "You know how my father was when your brother asked him for my hand in marriage. Jeez, I've never seen so many sparks fly as I did that night. I thought Daddy was going to have an apoplectic seizure right there on the spot. As it was, he just paced and ranted that no daughter of his was ever going to marry a hired hand, much less a cowboy with no prospects and no future."
Mac chuckled. "Yeah, he about busted a gut and kicked my brother out on his ear. Ben told me he was even secretly afraid for his life. He said your father had a gun cabinet underneath the stairs and kept the key handy in case of emergencies."
"Yeah, it wasn't until my mother suggested Daddy send Ben to school to earn a degree that the man finally stopped ranting long enough to actually consider the idea," Carrie smiled fondly. "And the rest, as they say, is history."
"So, you're saying I should do what? Go back to school?" Mac gave her sister-in-law an incredulous look. "I already have an AAS in aviation and a Bachelor's in Equine Science from Wyoming State. What more could her family want from me?"
"Well," Carrie shrugged. "Didn't you say she's a doctor? Maybe you should use some of that GI Bill to go back and get your vet's license."
"No offense, sis, but I don't really want to follow in my big brother's footsteps," Mac scowled. "Besides, I don't know if furthering my education is really the answer. Lacey and I fell for each other without really knowing much about our educational backgrounds."
"So, she doesn't know that you have an AAS, as well as a Bachelor's degree?"
"Nope," Mac smirked. "And frankly I don't think she would care if I was a beggar on the streets." She shrugged. "I was a Chief Warrant Officer in the Army and she a captain, neither of which made a difference in the least. We were just…" she shrugged again. "We just fit and had some really good times together."
"Then there's your answer, li'l bit," Carrie gave Mac a teasing wink. "Life isn't always as complicated as we try to make it out to be, Mackenzie. You just have to know what you want and how to get it, then shove your fears down into the recesses of your mind while you go after it."
Mac considered her sister-in-law's words, as she finished her dinner. Carrie was right. Things really weren't all that complicated. Mac just needed to do what she needed to do. It was as simple as that.
"You look like you're ready to head up to bed," Carrie said. "Why don't you go on up, take a nice hot bath, while I take care of the cleanup down here?"
Carrie didn't wait for Mac to reply and grabbed up the empty plate. Mac didn't hesitate as she left Carrie to clean up after her.
As soon as she had the tub filled and was settled in for a long soak, Mac thought back to her conversation with her sister-in-law. Carrie really had a way with words and a way of weaseling her way into someone's thoughts, until she could figure out what was bothering a person. Mac smirked as she realized it had been easy to explain everything to the woman. That's why she always sought Carrie out when she needed someone to talk to. The woman just seemed to know things and also had the most sensible answers to Mac's questions.
Mac reclined in the tub and relaxed away the numerous aches and pains of the day, especially the constant throbbing in her shoulder. She rubbed the tight muscles around the wound and winced at the pain there. Only a few more weeks more before she flew to Dallas for the surgery that would rid her of the bullet that she'd been carrying around for the better part of half a year. She sighed as the hot water finally penetrated her sore muscles and relaxed them.
A pair of green eyes danced in her mind's eye, as she closed her own eyes and let herself finally relax completely.
Lacey sat in the living room of her newly-refurbished, spacious four-bedroom, three-bath condo. She was alone at the moment, but her sister would soon be there to pick her up for a therapy session with her shrink.
The large wall-mounted television screen was blank, but the soft strains of Il Divo came from her new stereo system and through the Bose speakers scattered strategically throughout the place. She sat on an off-white sofa and stared unseeingly out the enormous bay window in front of her. Across the expanse of green lawn a man-made greenish-blue lake shimmered in the mid-afternoon sunlight. There were several children playing near the water's edge, while two adults navigated the middle of the lake in a small sail boat.
She didn't care. She wasn't really watching the scene outside her window, but was lost in her own thoughts. The morning had been a long one for Lacey, who wasn't yet used to a great deal of physical activity. It had taken the furniture delivery driver and his assistant most of the morning to cart all of her brand new furniture into the condo, while Lacey directed the men where to put everything. Three nights spent sleeping on a mattress on the floor of the empty condo had been more than enough for her. She was still fighting the stiffness in her joints at the self-imposed abuse.
Of course, she could have simply stayed with her sister in the twelve-bedroom mansion Lily shared with her husband and housekeeper. But Lacey couldn't imagine herself in the enormous and lonely place while the painters and decorators finished her place. So, she'd stayed with her parents for the duration and managed to avoid both of them as much as possible. It wasn't hard to do when she was constantly being carted to one doctor's and therapy appointment after another.
Unfortunately, it took her far too long to find just the right furniture and housewares to fill the spacious condo than she'd originally hoped. She decided to turn one of the bedrooms into a workout space, filling it with exercise equipment that her therapist had recommended for her home physical therapy sessions. A state-of-the-art treadmill graced one wall, while the rest of the space was taken up by a free-weight bench, a stair climber, an upper-body workout bench and a small open area with an aerobics mat. She'd also hired a personal trainer to be there three days a week and help her with the grueling workouts her physical therapist assigned her to.
Lacey had turned one of the other bedrooms into an office that was fully equipped with the latest technology. A Macintosh computer with a 30-inch, flat-screened monitor sat on a mahogany corner desk. The computer had the latest Apple software and included a high-speed laser printer hidden in one of the cabinets of the desk. A smaller wall-mounted flat-screen graced one wall and a set of French doors took up the other. The French doors led to a small patio on the twelfth green of a well-groomed eighteen-hole golf course that she also had access to, but knew she would never use. She was a doctor who didn't have the slightest urge to take up the game of golf.
The master bedroom was decorated in cream, burgundy and hunter green. It included a huge master bath equipped with a handicap-accessible step-down whirlpool tub and a large glass shower with eight strategically placed shower jets. The bathroom was wired with state-of-the-art computer technology, as well. All she had to do was program either the tub or the shower to the temperature she wanted and the system would do the rest. The control panel was hidden behind what appeared to be a small medicine cabinet. The rest of the bedroom included a large walk-in closet with built-in shelves and a four-poster bed with a burgundy canopy that hung from the ceiling and draped over the posts.
Lacey had yet to use the shower or tub and hadn't even walked into her state-of-the-art kitchen. She'd purchased all the latest appliances in fashionable stainless steel, including a fridge, a flat-top stove with confection oven, a dishwasher, and a microwave. The cabinets were done in white pine and several had glass doors that showed off her brand new sixteen-place dinnerware set. There was a center island with a small vegetable sink and a covered indoor grill-her sister's suggestion. The exhaust hood above had hooks around it to hold the stainless steel and copper cookery she'd purchased from one of the high-end culinary shops in downtown Houston. Actually, those had been her sister's idea, too, even though Lacey had no desire to cook for herself and had had trouble boiling water.
The doorbell rang bringing Lacey out of her reverie.
"Come in!" She called.
"Hey, sis," Lily breezed into the place like a breath of fresh air. She stood in the entryway for a moment, allowing her eyes to adjust to the change. "Wow, looks much better than it did the other day. I love the furniture. It really gives the place some class. Very chique."
"It really doesn't fit my personality," Lacey frowned at the off-white sofa, couch and chair in her living room.
A glass coffee table was set in the center of the space and topped with a strange sculpture that Lacey couldn't really identify. There were also several pieces of artwork on the walls-canvas paintings of horses and what was supposed to pass for tropical beaches. The artwork was bright and cheery, adding a bit of color in the otherwise colorless space.
"No," Lily frowned, "but it gives the place an elegant flare."
"Yeah, that's what I was shooting for," Lacey scoffed sarcastically. "This room looks more like an art gallery than a living room. I swear I should learn not to let you talk me into things."
"Oh, you…" Lily moved to the center island and set her purse on the countertop. "Are you ready to go?" she eyed her sister's gray sweats and navy-blue sweatshirt. "You don't look like you're dressed to go out."
Lacey sighed heavily, as she grabbed her cane and struggled to her feet. "I don't feel like going out, to tell you the truth, Lil." She maneuvered around the couch and limped over to the center island. "It's been a really long morning, already, and I'm beat."
Lily studied her sister and could see the dark circles under Lacey's eyes. She reached out and pushed a stray lock of strawberry-blond hair behind Lacey's ear.
"What's up, Lac?" Lily pressed. "You look like something the cat dragged in."
"I'm just tired," Lacey leaned heavily against the counter. "I didn't sleep well last night."
Lacey nodded. "A whopper." She cringed at the memory of all that fire and smoke and the feeling of panic she felt at being trapped beneath something heavy and unyielding. "Scared the shit out me."
Lily nodded. "All the more reason to keep your appointment with Dr. Gilchrist, sis."
Lacey ran a hand through her shoulder-length hair. "I'm really tired of rehashing the same stuff over and over with her. We just don't seem to be getting anywhere, and I still can't put the pieces together enough to actually remember the last ten years of my life. It's so…so fucking frustrating." She didn't even realize she'd let the expletive slip, as a tear spilled from her eye and she impatiently swiped it away.
"Don't give up, Lacey," Lily put a comforting arm around her shorter sister's shoulders. "Dr. Gilchrist told you it might take a while to delve through all those scattered images until something clicks and you remember. She said it would be frustrating and that you might want to just give up. But she also said you have to hang in there."
"I'm sick of hanging in there," Lacey ground out between clenched teeth. "I'm sick of waiting for it all to come back to me. And I'm really sick of feeling like something incredibly terrible happened to bring this all about." She looked up into her sister's compassionate gray eyes. "Lily, I'm really scared that I'll remember it all and it won't be…good. Gilchrist says my subconscious has suppressed the memories in order to protect itself from the impact of those memories. And last night…"
"You remembered something?" Lily turned Lacey until they were facing each other. She lifted her sister's chin until Lacey was looking at her and saw tears swimming in the sea-green depths. "You did remember something."
Lacey shut her eyes tightly and ignored the tears that slipped down her cheeks. "I was trapped underneath something and there was smoke and fire and…" She shook her head against the panic that bubbled up inside her and pressed on the middle of her chest like a heavy weight. "I don't know if I want to remember, if that's what is going to come out of all this."
"You can't miss your appointment." Lily held her sister's shoulders firmly. "Dr. Gilchrist needs to know about the dream, Lacey. She's the only one who can help get you past this roadblock." She eyed her sister's attire. "Now, are you going like that? Or shall we get you dressed in something a little more appropriate?"
Lacey sighed. "I don't want to change clothes just to go to my shrink."
Lily gave her an appraising glare. "Are you sure? Karen Gilchrist is quite attractive and I know for a fact…"
"Just stop right there, Lily," Lacey held up a staying hand. "I am not about to get into a relationship with my therapist. That goes against every ethical rule in psychiatry, not to mention I'm not ready for any kind of relationship at the moment. Doctor/patient relationships are strictly forbidden and I'm not about to cross that line."
"Okay, okay," Lily ceded the point. "Just as long as you don't mind going out in public dressed like a vagabond. I don't mind being seen with you dressed like that. I'll just tell people I'm doing the charitable thing and taking in a stray off the street."
"Oh, for cryin' out loud, Lily," Lacey blew out a frustrated breath. "All right, already. I'll go change into something more appropriate, so you won't have to been seen in public with a cripple who has no sense of fashion. Jeez!" She stalked off toward the master bedroom and disappeared, only to reappear a little while later dressed in a button-down white blouse tucked into a pair of denim jeans and tan loafers. "There, is that better?"
"Much," Lily eyed her from top to bottom and nodded her approval. "Now add that nice suede jacket to the ensemble and we'll be all set to go."
Lacey rolled her eyes and merely grabbed the garment and put it on.
The drive across town to the office of Dr. Karen Gilchrist was fairly uneventful and soon they were pulling into the parking lot in Lily's white BMW. Lacey waited patiently for her sister to find just the right parking spot and then practically jumped from the vehicle when it was parked.
"Looks like someone got her second wind," Lily commented as she slid from the driver's side.
"I just want to get this over and done with," Lacey leaned heavily on her cane and made her way to the two-story stucco building.
They took the elevator to the second floor and emerged in the silent-as-a-tomb receptionist's lobby. Lacey hobbled up to the reception desk and waited for the dark-haired woman behind the glass window to wait on her.
"Yes?" The woman slid the window aside. "May I help you ladies?"
"I'm here for my 2 o'clock with Dr. Gilchrist," Lacey gave the woman a brief smile that didn't reach her eyes.
"Lacey Stephens," Lacey replied.
"Ah, yes. Please be seated and the doctor will be with you shortly, Ms. Stephens," the woman flashed her a closed-lipped half-smile.
"Thank you," Lacey walked over to one of the padded chairs and took a seat. Lily sat down next to her and together they waited in the silent room.
"You want me to come in there with you this time?" Lily broke the silence, as she shook out her golden-blond hair and shifted her designer sunglasses to the top of her head.
Lacey considered the offer for a moment. "No, I'll be fine," she said and gave her sister a reassuring smile. "Thanks, though."
"Anytime, Lac," Lily returned the smile. "You know I'm always here for you."
"Yeah," Lacey nodded. "I know."
"Oh, did I mention Bill will be headed to Washington D.C. at the end of the month?" Lily commented. "Congress reconvenes in a few weeks, so he has to make an appearance. I'll be joining him, this time." She looked almost giddy with excitement. "I can't wait to be introduced to the President of the United States at the annual Congressional gala. I've already chosen a new gown for the occasion. It's an Armani."
Lacey was only half listening to her sister go on and on about all the things she would be doing once she and her husband arrived in the nation's capital. Her thoughts turned to the nightmare she'd had the night before. She hadn't told her sister all the details, including the fact that she remembered hearing a voice calling out to her. The voice belonged to a woman, but for the life of her Lacey couldn't remember whose voice it was.
"Lacey Stephens?" A woman dressed in an elegant business suit waited expectantly in the doorway that led to the back.
Dr. Karen Gilchrist was of medium height with wavy auburn hair that she wore pulled back in a chignon. Her designer glasses sported tiny diamonds on either side of the lenses, while gold and diamonds graced her fingers and ears. She was the epitome of elegance and style.
Lacey rose from her chair and used her cane to walk toward the woman, who greeted her with a warm smile.
"Good to see you again, Lacey," the woman's rich voice matched her elegant bearing.
"I really wish I could say the same, Dr. Gilchrist," Lacey commented as she passed the woman and headed toward the room where her session would take place.
As Lacey took a seat in one of the comfortable leather chairs in the middle of the small room, Karen Gilchrist closed the door and took a seat across from her.
"So, tell me what prompted your response to my greeting," Karen set a yellow legal pad on her knees and leaned her arms on the pad. "You're usually at least pleasant when you arrive."
Lacey sighed. "I just…" She swallowed with difficulty. "I didn't really want to come today."
"Oh? Why's that?" Karen's warm brown eyes watched Lacey intently behind the designer frames.
"I don't know," Lacey shrugged, as she absently fiddled with her cane.
"Lacey, why don't you put the cane aside and tell me what's bothering you," Karen clasped her hands together in front of her, after glancing at her notes. "You were pretty frustrated during last week's session, because you didn't feel we were making any noticeable progress. Do you still feel that way?"
Lacey sat back in the chair and didn't meet the woman's gaze. "I'm…I…" She sighed again. "I just don't think we're getting anywhere with all this…" She waved a hand impatiently.
"So," Karen sat back and crossed her legs. "You want things to move forward and are impatient with what little progress we've made so far."
"What progress?" Lacey snapped. "We haven't made any progress. I still don't know what happened to me after I graduated college and after medical school. All I know is I joined the Army and ended up in Iraq-and even that much I had to learn from my sister." She leaned an elbow on the chair arm and rested her head in her hand. "I just don't see how any of this is helping me remember."
"Well, let's go back to what you do know, then," Karen glanced at her notes. "You remember your youth and growing up in your parents' house, here in Houston. You remember graduating high school and going off to college at-"
"Harvard," Lacey supplied when it appeared Karen wasn't going to continue. "I completed my undergrads and was accepted to medical school, right away. My father said he pulled a few strings."
"Yes, Harvard," Karen made a few notes on the sheet. "Then you joined the Army."
Lacey faltered. "I joined the Army, yes. Everything after that is either fuzzy or non-existent."
"But you've had dreams."
"Dreams, nightmares, what's the difference?"
"Don't you know?" Karen's brow lifted, as she met Lacey's gaze.
"I know the nightmares usually scare the crap out of me and leave me feeling like I want to throw up," Lacey answered flatly. "I really hate that."
"I can well imagine," Karen made several more notes on the pad then turned the page. "Have you had any in the week since we last met?"
Lacey shifted uncomfortably. She wanted to pull her legs up into the chair and wrap her arms around them, but her bad leg prevented her from doing that. She knew it was a childish wish, but that didn't stop her from wanting to do it anyway.
Lacey's gaze finally met the woman's. "I had one last night," she answered barely above a whisper.
Karen made another note. "Tell me about it. Do you remember what it was about?"
"I-I was trapped," Lacey swallowed down the panic that seized her. "There was smoke and fire and…I couldn't move."
Karen watched her patient closely. "Do you know where you were?"
"I…I'm not sure," Lacey answered. "I think I was…" Her eyes narrowed as she tried to remember the exact details of that terrifyingly elusive moment. A shudder ran through her at the overwhelming panic that continued to simmer and eat at her resolve. Her breathing quickened and it was all she could do not to throw up. "I don't…I can't…" She clamped her lips tightly shut and tried to breathe through her nose, instead.
"It's all right, Lacey," Karen soothed, as she recognized the signs that her patient was in the grip of a panic attack. "You're safe here, Lacey. Whatever was in the dream can't hurt you here."
"It was so real," Lacey lifted tear-filled eyes to the doctor's. "I was there and the heat was…and I couldn't move and…I tried to take a deep breath, but…Everything hurt so much…" She wrapped her arms around herself and winced at a painful twinge in her elbow. The twinge seemed to bring her back to the present and ground her. "I was on the ground," she continued after a shaky breath. "I was underneath something really heavy and I couldn't move my arms…" She nodded to herself as the images from her nightmare played out. "And there was someone there with me…"
"Do you know who it was?"
Lacey closed her eyes and concentrated on the voice. "It was a…a woman." Her eyes fluttered open and her shoulders slumped. "I don't know who she is or why she was there."
"Did you see her in the dream? Or did you only hear her voice?" Karen made a few more notes, then checked back over her notes made in previous sessions. "You mentioned a woman with blue eyes…"
"Yeah," Lacey's expression turned thoughtful. "Dark hair and amazing blue eyes."
Karen nodded. "Is it the same woman?"
Lacey closed her eyes again and tried to concentrate on the images from her dream while keeping the panic at bay. "I don't know," she shook her head. "Ugh! Why can't I remember?"
Karen got up and moved her chair around until it was right next to Lacey's. "I want to try something, now that we've had this small breakthrough."
Lacey closed her eyes and concentrated on her breathing until it slowed enough for her to speak. "What?"
Karen set the notepad down on a nearby table and took a seat in the chair. "I want to try hypnosis on you to help you relax and to guide you through what little you've been able to remember."
Lacey breathed out an exasperated breath. "Is that it? You want to hypnotize me so I'll remember?"
Karen nodded. "It's a fairly simple process, but you have to be open to it or it won't work."
Lacey leaned forward and rested her arms on her thighs. She considered the doctor's request and combed the recesses of her mind for the medical ramifications. Hypnosis wasn't exactly an uncommon technique for delving into the deeper recesses of the mind. But there were things that could go wrong, and she just wasn't sure she wanted to be blindsided by something she couldn't handle.
"And what if I remember too much?" Lacey lifted her eyes to meet the doctor's. "What if, once you get the ball rolling-or the flood gates to open, so to speak-it doesn't stop?"
"You're a doctor, Lacey," Karen answered. "You know there is always a certain amount of risk involved in any treatment. You know that your mind may have closed itself off in order to protect you from the trauma you suffered while in Iraq. I also know from your service record that there are things you may not ever want to remember."
"You have my service record?" Lacey shot the woman a surprised look.
"I put in a requisition for a copy of it shortly after you were referred to me," Karen nodded. "I needed a little background information on the time you spent in the Army. It has proved very helpful, though rather vague on details."
"Can I see it?" Lacey asked hopefully.
Karen shook her head. "I don't think that's a good idea, Lacey. Like I said, there are things in there that may be rather traumatic for you right now. Seeing the contents of your service record without actually allowing your mind to remember the actual events may just put a bigger roadblock up that we won't ever be able to breach."
Lacey groaned. "Or it could give me a clue as to who the mystery woman is."
Karen nodded. "It could, yes. But don't you want to actually remember who she is without reading it in some sterile military file? I can tell you that you worked with a number of women during your military career, so you may not be able to put a name to the impressions you have of the woman."
Lacey considered the doctor's words. "Okay, fine," she conceded. "We'll do it your way, doc. But I have to warn you, I may not be able to go under easily. You and I both know how hard it is for most doctors to simply allow their minds to be manipulated. We're always the ones doing the manipulating."
Karen smirked. "At least you remember that much about being a doctor." She sobered. "Shall we give it a try anyway?" Lacey nodded curtly. "Okay, then, just sit back and relax."
"Wait," Lacey sat forward again. "What if things get too…um…what if you need to bring me out of it right away?"
"A valid concern," Karen said. "As I guide you through this I'll give you a failsafe, a word that will bring you out of the hypnotic trance in an instant. That way, if anything happens, I can bring you back quickly and safely. Will that work for you?"
Lacey reluctantly nodded and sat back in the chair again. "Okay, I'm ready."
"I'm going to take you through several steps of progressive relaxation until you're relaxed enough for me to guide you through what we've talked about," Karen said. "Now, I want you to close your eyes and listen to the sound of my voice. Imagine you are floating…"
Lacey let Karen's words take her down into a place where she actually felt quite safe and very relaxed. She let her mind wander until Karen asked her to imagine she was in the desert. Lacey was standing in the middle of the desert with hard-packed sand all around her. The hot sun beat down on her and she actually felt it burning her skin.
"Are you in the desert, Lacey?"
"Good. Now, I want you to slowly walk to that place where you were trapped."
Lacey imagined that she was walking toward something burning in the distance. As she drew closer to the site of the smoke billowing into the air, she could see that there were large pieces of metal scattered on the ground. Her heart rate increased and her breathing became shallow at the site that greeted her.
"What do you see, Lacey?"
"What kind of wreckage?"
"M-metal," Lacey answered and never noticed when tears rolled down her cheeks. "I…I think…"
Lacey walked closer to the wreckage and saw two propeller blades sticking up at odd angles. She realized in that moment she was looking at a military chopper. Part of the fuselage was buried in the sand and the rest was smoldering, as thick, black smoke continued billowing up into the clear blue sky.
"Lacey, listen to me," Karen gently put a hand on the hands that had a death-grip on the chair arms. "It's all right, Lacey. You're all right. The crash happened months ago and you survived. You made it home. Do you understand?" Lacey slowly nodded. "Okay, then. I want you to walk right up to the wreckage and tell me what you see, Lacey. Can you do that?" Lacey nodded again.
She took several tentative steps closer to the burning wreckage, until she was just on the outskirts of it. She could see several bodies littering the ground around the area.
"I see them."
"Who do you see, Lacey?"
"The bodies of the men who died-O'Leary and Montgomery. Montgomery wasn't our regular crew chief. Jimenez wasn't there because of his leg. He'd been shot during another mission. Simmons wasn't there, either. She wasn't allowed to go and it pissed her off. But we just didn't have room for her with that gun they mounted to our undercarriage." She took a shuddering breath and let it out slowly in an attempt to calm her racing heart.
"Okay, what else do you see, Lacey? Do you see anyone else?"
Lacey stood there as the wreckage continued to burn. The heat was so intense that she could barely stand it. The acrid smoke was so thick that it billowed around her and burned her eyes. And then she heard a small voice.
"I hear someone," she said out loud.
"Do you know who it is?"
"I…I don't…" Lacey shook her head, as she moved closer until she was standing in front of a large metal door. She listened carefully and heard someone cough. "Is anyone there?Hello? Anyone?" Lacey's breath caught when she realized whose voice she was hearing. "It's…it's me."
"Are you sure, Lacey?"
"Y-yes," Lacey nodded. "I was trapped under one of the doors. I can see myself lying there. My arms…" She choked back a sob. "I can't…I can't get out and it's so h-hot. The fire." She shook her head against the overwhelming memory of that moment.
"Lacey, listen to me," Karen increased the pressure on the hands she was holding. "You're not there anymore, Lacey. You're here in my office. Leave the wreckage behind and return to the office now."
Lacey shook her head as tears streamed down her face. "They're all dead. They're dead and there's no one left to help me."
"Lacey, it's not real anymore. Do you understand what I'm saying?" Karen put a hand on her patient's shoulder and gently squeezed. "You're here in my office, Lacey." She could see that Lacey wasn't responding to her guidance any longer. "Wildflowers! Lacey, wildflowers!"
Lacey gasped, as the word penetrated the terrifying scene playing out in her mind's eye. "What the…!"
"It's all right, Lacey. You're in my office," Karen got up from her chair, quickly moved to the sideboard and poured a glass of water that she carried back to the panting and shaking woman. "Here, drink this."
Lacey grabbed the glass and downed half its contents, as the psychiatrist sat back down across from her. Karen grabbed a box of tissues and handed several to the still-crying woman. Lacey took the tissues and wiped her face.
"Oh, shit! Oh shit oh shit, oh shit!" Lacey exclaimed as her hands shook to the point that she could barely wipe her face. "Oh, shit! Oh, shit!" She was still gasping from the overwhelming panic that had crashed over her when she realized who was beneath the detached door. "I remember."
Karen rubbed a hand up and down her patient's arm, as Lacey tried to pull herself together. "Yes, you do."
Lacey clenched her eyes shut and tried to breathe more evenly. "I…I saw them. They were dead."
"Not all of them died in the crash, Lacey," Karen reassured. "As you told me, Corporal Simmons and Sergeant Jimenez weren't onboard the helicopter when it went down."
"Mac!" Lacey turned surprised eyes to the psychiatrist. "Mac survived!" A smile suddenly split her features and just as suddenly turned into a frown.
"What is it, Lacey?" Karen saw the confusion in the woman's expression.
"What happened to Mac?" Lacey looked down at her hands that were fidgeting with the crumpled ball of tissues. "We were there, but…"
"Lacey," Karen put her own hands on Lacey's and gently squeezed. "Lacey, that's enough for today. You did a wonderful job remembering the helicopter crash. But I think you need to take a break to give your mind time to come to terms with all of it. We'll take this a step further during next week's session."
"Okay," Lacey's voice cracked, as she nodded.
"For now, I don't want you to dwell on what you don't remember," Karen continued. "Now that we've had this breakthrough, those memories will eventually surface on their own. You may not even be thinking about Iraq or the war or even the people you left behind when a memory surfaces. Then again, you may feel very strongly about a particular person who was in Iraq with you and just seeing them may bring it all back." She straightened in the chair and removed her hands from Lacey's. She waited for Lacey to finish wiping her face, then looked her in the eye. "I want to caution you about trying to push yourself to remember too much too quickly, Lacey. We've made some wonderful progress today, and I don't want you to jeopardize that by forcing yourself to remember things you're just not ready for, yet. Do you understand?" Lacey nodded and sniffed. "Good. Then I'll see you at out next session, same time next week."
Lacey merely nodded, unwilling to trust her voice enough to speak. She stood up and grabbed her cane, then hobbled toward the door. As she pulled the door open, she stopped.
"And if I have another nightmare?" Lacey asked.
Karen got up and went to the desk tucked in one corner of the room. She removed a card and quickly wrote something on the back of it. Then she walked back over to Lacey and handed her the card.
"Those are my private numbers," Karen indicated the two numbers on the back of the card. "One is my home phone and the other is my cell. Call me if you experience another nightmare or if something else happens to jar your memory. If I'm unavailable, just leave me a message and I'll call you back. Okay?"
Lacey glanced at the card before shoving into the back pocket of her jeans with a curt nod. She made her way back to the waiting room and over to her sister.
"All done?" Lily looked up from the magazine she was reading and noticed her sister's puffy, red-rimmed eyes. She decided not to comment Lacey's appearance until they were outside the office. "How did it go in there?" She asked as they approached the white BMW and she unlocked it with the keyless remote.
Lacey breathed out a heavy sigh, as she maneuvered around the car door and took a seat on the passenger's side. Her right leg hadn't improved enough for her to drive a car yet, so she relied heavily on her sister to be her personal chauffeur. Lacey didn't like having to rely on someone else for anything, but didn't see any sense in complaining about it, either. She knew Lily enjoyed the opportunity to get out of the enormous mansion she lived in. Lily's husband, Bill, rarely stayed home during the day and when he was at home he always closed himself away in his office to take care of business.
And since there was an extensive staff to take care of the daily cleaning and manicuring of the enormous estate, Lily had a great deal of time on her hands. When she wasn't hosting or attending a tea or garden party for Houston's social elite, she was shopping for clothes or shoes or jewelry that would enhance her looks and her status as a Senator's wife.
She divided her time as a member of the Rotary Club, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Propeller Club of the United States: Port of Houston, the Garden Club of Houston and the River Oaks Garden Club. She also sat on the boards of several non-profit centers, including the Star of Hope Mission, the DePelchin Children's Center, and Neighborhood Centers, Inc. But none of those were as fulfilling and satisfying as playing chauffeur to her older sister. Lily was grateful to have her only sibling back in Houston after such a long time away, even if Lacey lived by herself.
"Do you really want to know?" Lacey slumped in the seat and rested her head in her hand with her elbow on the door. She felt drained beyond belief at that moment and wanted nothing more than to go home and sleep for days.
"Yes, I want to know. Why else would I ask?" Lily shot her sister an annoyed scowl.
"Sorry," Lacey ran a tired hand through her hair. "It's been a really long day, Lil. All I want to do is go home and crawl in bed."
Lily's expression softened. "Bad session?"
Lacey considered the words. "Not bad, so much as…difficult."
Lily started the car. "I had Pamela go to the grocery store and pick up the staples for your kitchen, including a few gallons of ice cream."
"I told her to get an assortment," Lily shrugged as she backed out of the stall, maneuvered out of the parking lot into traffic and drove toward Lacey's new condo. "I also told her to stock your liquor cabinet." She glanced over to find her sister watching her from beneath hooded eyes. "Hey, I thought you might need something to settle your nerves."
"Speaking from experience, sis?" Lacey shot the woman a wry smirk.
"I lived with Mother and Daddy longer than you did, Lacey," Lily returned her attention to the street ahead. "At least you had the grades to get into college and find out what life is like outside in the real world."
Lacey shifted uncomfortably. "If only I could remember half of what I experienced," she muttered.
Lily put a hand on her sister's shoulder and squeezed. "You'll remember, Lacey. Just give it some time."
The rest of the drive back to the condo was completed in silence, until Lily pulled up to the gate of the spacious condominium grounds and was waved through by the uniformed guard.
"Home sweet home," Lacey grumbled, as her sister maneuvered through the narrow streets of elegant two-story condominiums.
Lily pulled up in front of a tan and white triplex and cut the engine. "You don't sound very happy to be home."
Lacey, who was just about to open the car door, stopped with her hand on the door handle. "Please just ignore my sarcasm, Lil. I'm not in a very good mood right now." She shoved the door open, grabbed her cane and used it to lever herself out of the vehicle.
"Then it's a good thing I had Pamela stock your liquor cabinet, isn't it?" Lily repeated, as she alighted from the vehicle and skirted around it to join her sister.
"I don't need help," Lacey groused, when Lily proceeded to hold her free arm and guide her toward the front door to the condo.
In actuality, though, Lacey wasn't sure she could actually make it the entire distance without her leg giving out. How embarrassing would it be to land in a heap at her sister's feet? She reluctantly allowed Lily to guide her to the door, while leaning heavily on her cane for support.
"Just a little farther, sis," Lily encouraged, as she unlocked and opened the door and helped her sister inside. "That's it."
Lacey made it to the puffy white armchair in time for her leg to actually give out on her. She dropped into the chair with an exhausted sigh and merely sat there catching her breath.
"Here," a glass of water appeared in front of her and she took it with a grateful smile. "And here are your pain pills and a muscle relaxer." Lacey took the three tablets and downed them in silence.
Her leg was throbbing painfully in time with her heartbeat and her elbow was also giving her fits. The injuries to her extremities that she had sustained in the helicopter crash still bothered her more than she was willing to admit. The doctors had explained to her that her leg would probably never be one hundred percent again, even after they did their best to repair the broken bone and torn ligaments and tendons. They were, however, optimistic that her elbow and collarbone would eventually heal to the point that they would not give her problems.
Lacey wasn't so sure about the elbow, anymore. Months of physical therapy had only eased the ache that still plagued her when the weather turned or when she kept it bent for too long. She'd seen the ortho doc, who had told her she would probably experience some arthritis in the join over time. At her age, she wasn't really looking forward to getting any older, if this is what she would have to deal with.
"Feeling better?" Lily's concern brought Lacey out of her short reverie.
Lacey could feel the medication dulling the pain to a more manageable level. "I think so," she said and watched as her sister removed her loafers and set them aside. "You don't have to do that, Lil."
Lily just smiled. "Ready for some ice cream?" She asked as she stepped over to the open kitchen and rummaged inside the freezer portion of the refrigerator.
"What kinds did your assistant put in there?" Lacey asked.
"Let's see…" Lily set several pint-sized containers on the center island. "There's raspberry sorbet, chocolate peanut butter…mmm, butter pecan, my personal favorite. Strawberry cheesecake and…" She stuck her head back in the freezer and emerged with one last container. "Belgian dark chocolate."
"Dibs on the Belgian dark chocolate," Lacey suddenly brightened. "How the hell did she know that was my personal favorite?"
Lily grabbed two spoons from a side drawer and carried the ice cream containers to the living room. She handed one container and spoon to her sister and took a seat on the sofa across from her. As they delved into their ice cream and savored the first bites, Lily kicked off her own sandals and tucked her legs underneath her.
"Now, talk," she said as she licked her spoon. "Tell me what happened at Dr. Gilchrist's that had you so upset."
Lacey took another bite of her ice cream and savored the rich flavor of the smooth dark chocolate on her tongue. It was a heavenly sensation that she somehow knew she hadn't been able to experience very often over the missing years of her life. She let the cold seep into her and reveled in the explosion of flavor on her tongue as she considered the question.
"I told you I had that nightmare last night," she began, as she kept her eyes on the container in her hands.
"Mmhmm," Lily responded with a mouthful of butter pecan.
"So, I told Karen about the dream," Lacey continued and felt her stomach tighten unexpectedly.
When her sister didn't immediately say more, Lily glanced up to find Lacey staring out the picture window unseeingly. "And?"
Lacey seemed to come back to herself. "And she used hypnosis to help me remember…" Lacey answered absently as she set the half-eaten pint on the glass coffee table.
Lily eyed, first her sister, and then the unfinished container on the table. "Something wrong with the ice cream?"
Lacey shook her head. "No, I just…" She blew out a frustrated sigh and tilted her head back to stare up at the ceiling. "It's just really hard is all."
Lily had set her own ice cream on the table and was off the couch and sitting on one of the puffy arms of the chair in an instant. She pulled her sister against her side and wrapped comforting arms around the smaller woman.
"Shhh, it's okay, Lacey," Lily stroked her sister's hair.
Lacey couldn't stop the tears as they spilled down her cheeks. "It's just so…so hard…" She felt the onrush of emotion hit her for the second time that day and couldn't stop it this time. Great sobs tore from deep within and shook her entire body, as she cried over the loss of people she barely knew. "I can…I can still see their faces."
"The guys-O'Leary and Montgomery-" The sobs finally subsided into a gentle trickle of steady tears. "They were in the helicopter when it crashed. We'd just been playing cards and…" More tears coursed down her cheeks. "What the fuck happened?"
"Lacey, hon, you're not making any sense," Lily said and left her sister's side long enough to grab a box of tissues from the bathroom. She returned a moment later with a tissue held out to her sister and resumed her seat on the arm of the chair. She set the tissue box on the table next to her forgotten ice cream.
Lacey sniffed loudly and used the tissue to wipe the tears from her cheeks. She grabbed another tissue from the box and blew her nose.
"Sorry," she shook her head.
"Nothing to be sorry about, honey," Lily gently pushed the hair back from her sister's face. "Now just tell me what this is all about. I'm sure it'll be good to get it off your chest."
"I…I don't…" Lacey shook her head again and grabbed a handful of tissues. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Last night I dreamed that I was trapped beneath a piece of wreckage from the helicopter crash, but I couldn't remember any of the details. So Karen used hypnosis…to take me back to what happened." She glanced up and saw that Lily was following along. "Through the guided hypnosis I walked up to the scene of the crash." Her voice caught and she swallowed down the painful lump that formed in her throat. "It was terrible. I saw the bodies of two of our men…and the smoke was so thick that I could barely breathe…and it was hot…" She felt her hands shaking, but her sister's comforting presence worked to ground her. "I heard myself cry for help, as I walked closer to the scene."
"Are you sure it was you?"
"Yes," she answered with a nod. "I was trapped underneath one of the doors and couldn't move." She let herself go back to that moment, but this time there was no overwhelming sense of panic. She raised her hand and immediately her sister took it in hers. That helped. "I couldn't even see the other guys and the fuselage was behind me. It was partially blocking the sun. I could see and smell the smoke, but I didn't know where it was coming from. I tried to move, but I realized my arms were useless."
"This was the same crash that put you in the coma?" Lily clarified. "You regained consciousness after the crash?"
Lacey nodded. "Yeah, I did." She wiped a few more tears from her cheeks.
"So how did you see your men? How do you know they were dead?" Lily prodded.
Lacey searched through the vivid memory and played it back in her mind again. "Because I looked back and saw them lying there." Her own brow furrowed in confusion.
"But if you were trapped beneath the door and couldn't move, how did you look back and see them?"
"Because I was no longer trapped, at that point," Lacey answered and shook her head in confusion. "I was…" She ran the memory back again, but knew there was a piece missing. "Ugh! Why can't I fucking remember what the hell happened between the time I woke up under that goddamned door and the moment I saw the damned wreckage?" She slammed a fist down on the other arm of the chair in frustration. "Goddammit! This is so unbelievably fucking frustrating!"
Lily's brow shot up into her hairline at her sister's sudden outburst and the expletives interspersed throughout. She hadn't heard her sister use such crude language in all the time Lacey had been home from her ordeal. Needless to say, it took Lily by surprise.
"Well, I'm sure you didn't have that potty mouth before you left for college."
Lacey gave her sister a raised-brow look. "I didn't?"
"No," Lily shook her head. "Daddy would have slapped the cuss right out of you, if you'd said anything like that in his presence. And Mother would most certainly give you that pinched look and say 'Proper young ladies do not use vulgar language in polite conversation.'" She gave her sister a squeeze and then returned to her place on the couch. "I'm sure it will come to you when the time is right, Lacey. I'm just glad you remember something."
"Yeah," Lacey breathed out a sigh of relief and blew her nose one last time. "Karen said I shouldn't push it or try to remember more than I'm ready to remember. She said doing so could cause a setback."
Lily grabbed up her ice cream and dug in with renewed gusto. "She's right, you know."
Lacey grabbed her own half-eaten container and stared down into it for a moment. "I just…" she stabbed the melting glob in the container. "I know there's something important that I'm missing." She shook her head and lifted the spoon to her lips thoughtfully. "How the hell did I get out from under that door with a broken elbow and shattered collar bone. I couldn't move my arms in the dream. I know it."
Lily studied her sister for a moment, noting the intense confusion in the sea-green eyes. She knew Lacey was trying too hard to remember what was so obviously eluding her. And she knew it was time for a change of subject.
"What time is your appointment tomorrow?" Lily asked.
"What time is your appointment with the orthopedic surgeon tomorrow?" Lily rephrased. "You're going to need to call a cab to pick you up and take you to it. I have two board meetings in the morning and a garden party in the afternoon, so I won't be available to drive you."
"Oh," Lacey's face fell. "I think my appointment is at 10:30. It's not a big deal, just a routine checkup. Dr. Slader wants to make sure my knee is healing properly. He also wants to get me in to a few swimming therapy sessions with the physical therapist. He said it will do wonders on my other injuries, too."
Lily finished her ice cream and took the empty container to the kitchen. "Then I'll see you Friday morning." She stopped at the refrigerated and checked the freezer. "Oh, I also made sure Pamela picked up some frozen dinners for you to just pop into the microwave. I know how much you enjoy cooking…" She gave her sister a wry grin. "I also had her stock your fridge with easy stuff for you to make for breakfast and lunch-lunch meat, milk, eggs, that kind of thing. If you need anything before Friday, just call the store and have them deliver whatever you need. I already set up an account for you." She quickly rinsed her spoon in the sink and set it on the counter, then grabbed her purse.
"Leaving so soon?" Lacey shot her sister a tired smile.
Lily leaned down and gave her sister a peck on the cheek. "I have an appointment with my trainer, sis." She held two fingers against her ear and mouth. "Call me if you need anything else." And then she was gone.
Lacey sighed heavily and absently stirred the melted ice cream in its container. She glanced at the digital clock over the stove.
"Four o'clock," she said out loud and rolled her eyes. "Why does it feel like it's fucking midnight?"
She glanced out the window and saw that the sun was dipping toward the man-made lake. She didn't really feel like eating anything and walking around was pretty much out of the question. She was exhausted. The day's emotional turmoil and physical activity had taken their toll on her sorely depleted reserves.
Lacey just sat there staring out the window for a long time. It was quiet and peaceful in the empty condo, but she really didn't care. Her thoughts turned to the breakthrough she'd had in therapy.
"Some breakthrough," she scoffed. "The damned session left me with more questions than I had before all this."
She rubbed her head as a headache crept up behind her eyes. Lacey knew she should get up from the chair and head to her bedroom, maybe change out of her clothes into something more comfortable. But she just couldn't muster the energy to make it that far. She did, however, manage to move from the chair to the couch. Once situated, she grabbed the remote and clicked the wall-mounted flat-screen on. She ran through several channels until she found one she could tolerate. An old black and white movie played on the screen, as Lacey stretched out on the couch and pulled an afghan over her. She lay with her head propped on an off-white pillow and stared unseeingly at the screen across the room, until her eyes finally closed and she drifted off to sleep.
Mac sat up straighter in the saddle, as she surveyed the countryside below her. Argo was busy munching prairie grass as her tall mistress just sat there in silence. 6,000 acres of prime grazing land was spread out below them, and Mac breathed in the clean air. The smell of fresh rain and the coming winter touched her nose and calmed her.
The final preparations for the coming winter were complete and it was now time for her to leave. She'd done her best to avoid the numerous guests who streamed in and out of the ranch on a weekly basis. And she'd managed to avoid Maria for the better part of that time. That also meant that she'd spent very little time with her nephews, which she wasn't happy about.
At Mac's insistence, Carrie hadn't fired the Hispanic woman. But Carrie had issued very strict orders to Maria to leave Mac alone. Maria had only promised that she would do the job she was hired to do, which meant taking care of the younger Papadopoulos boys while their parents tended the ranch and B&B. The persistent woman never agreed to leave Mac alone.
After Maria tried one last-ditch attempt at seduction, Mac moved her belongings from the main house to one of the bunk houses located elsewhere on the vast property. There were six log cabins scattered throughout the property that allowed the ranch foreman or anyone else to take shelter while out on the range. Mac settled her things in one of the larger single cabins that hadn't been used all summer, which meant she'd had some cleaning to do before she was completely settled. She didn't mind, in the least, and even reveled in the solitude as she got down and dirty. The place was spotless by the time she was finished and sported fresh linens from the main house.
Now she sat atop her trusted steed. The thought brought a relaxed smile to her lips as she gazed out over the green fields of her brother's ranch. She breathed in deeply again and let the light breeze softly touch her skin. The breeze was like a warm caress that once again reminded her of a certain strawberry blond she was longing to hold. That thought made turned her smile into a frown. God, how she missed the woman.
Every day that passed made it more difficult for her to reconcile the loss of the woman she loved. But each day also brought her closer to the trip that would bring her closer to Lacey Stephens, at least geographically. Mac sighed and watched puffy white clouds dance in the distance.
The herd was counted and the annual bookwork was complete. The large animal veterinarian, Hank Shakley, had also spent three days vaccinating every head of cattle on the ranch. Hay and other feed had been gathered or purchased and was stored away in preparation for the snow that would eventually blanket the landscape. And the water troughs scattered throughout the property had been checked and repaired in anticipation of the freezing temperatures.
Mac had also submitted her name to the local ranger service and let them know she would be available in a few months to do search and rescue in one of their Huey choppers. The old birds were a challenge to fly, but she was confident she could adapt quickly to the archaic flight controls. She knew it wouldn't take long to renew her private pilot's license and then get certified to fly the chopper. She longed to climb into the sky and look down on the mountains, hills and valleys of her home.
Ranger Steve Billingsley had reassured Mac that she would be more than welcome to join their ranks once her shoulder healed and she passed her medical. He showed her around the station and gave her a guided tour of the hangar and the six Hueys parked on the tarmac. She'd left the ranger station with a satisfied grin and was looking forward to returning home after the surgery. Unfortunately, she didn't have a clue when that would be.
Mac turned Argo towards her cabin and kicked the mare into a steady gallop. She was tired after the long day out on the open range. She wanted nothing more than to curl up in front of a warm fire with the book she had borrowed from her brother's extensive library.
The sun was already dipping behind the mountains when Mac pulled Argo to a halt in front of the corral near the log cabin. The smell of smoke caught her attention. She glanced toward the cabin as she dismounted and noticed a pickup truck parked next to the small building. Her brow furrowed as she wracked her brain and tried to remember whose truck it belonged to. She led the mare into the corral and unbuckled the saddle and bridle. She then quickly removed both and carried them out of the corral, closing the gate and latching it securely before heading toward the house.
She dumped the saddle over the porch rail and hung the bridle on a hook next to the door. As she grabbed for the screen door, the inside door swung open and Maria stood there with a surprised look that quickly turned into a welcome smile.
"Maria, what are you doing here?" Mac just stood there with the screen door open.
"I brought you dinner," Maria beckoned Mac inside the dimly-lit interior of the place Mac had begun to think of as home. "Your sister-in-law thought you might be tired of beans and rice, so she sent you a basket of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and cooked carrots."
"Carrie sent you here?" Mac gave the shorter woman a skeptical look as she stepped inside the interior and noticed the blazing fire in the fireplace. Mac knew full well her sister-in-law wouldn't tolerate any shenanigans from the woman and wondered how Maria had weaseled her way into delivering the meal. "I really find that hard to believe, Maria. You know how Carrie feels about your feelings for me."
"Oh, she didn't send me," Maria took a step closer to Mac and made her intentions perfectly clear, as she played with a button on the front of Mac's shirt. "She sent Blackie, but I managed to convince him that he should stay at the ranch and watch over the horses."
Mac heard silent warning bells go off in her head, as Maria moved even closer until her body was within inches of Mac's.
"Maria," Mac tried to side-step the woman, but only managed to brush against her.
"What's the matter, chica?" Maria shifted until her body was pressed against the taller woman. She looked up into eyes the color of gray mist. "Tell me you don't feel something for me and I'll go."
The firelight was flickering on the woman's face and casting eerie shadows throughout the room, as Mac met Maria's intense gaze. The smaller woman wrapped possessive arms around her and pressed her body firmly against Mac's. It wasn't that Mac didn't think Maria wasn't attractive, but…
"Look, Maria," Mac grabbed the smaller woman's upper arms and moved back a step until they were at arm's length from each other. "You're a really attractive woman and all, but…"
"But?" Maria smiled seductively. "You know you want me, chica." She reached up and placed her hands on Mac's muscular arms, while taking a step closer. "Don't deny these feelings we both share, chica," she leaned slightly forward to allow Mac a good view of her amble bosom and exposed cleavage. Her breathing quickened, causing her breasts to heave enticingly.
Without waiting for a response from the taller woman, Maria launched herself at Mac and pulled her into a firm embrace. Mac wasn't quite prepared when a pair of soft, luscious lips met hers and Maria's tongue probed insistently. She opened her mouth to protest, only to have that tongue quickly invade and launch an attack on her senses.
A sudden rush of desire shot through Mac with such intensity that she was completely lost. Her eyes closed and she could only imagine that it was Lacey who was pressed against her. Maria's hands worked quickly to remove Mac's shirt and undershirt, then found her cotton bra and expertly divested the taller woman of it, as well.
Maria's gaze took in Mac's state of undress as the taller woman stood there in the dancing firelight. Brown eyes surveyed every curve, every inch of the beautiful site before her.
"What's that from?" Maria gently ran a finger over the small round scar beneath Mac's left collarbone. "It looks like a bullet hole."
Mac grabbed the hand and held it in a firm grip, the spell quickly broken. She gazed into Maria's features for a moment, then released the woman's hand. She reached down and grabbed her discarded clothing, quickly donning both garments until she was fully dressed again.
"Get out, Maria!" Mac's tone was cold and brooked no argument. Mac planted her hands on the back of one of the wooden chairs set around the small kitchen table she'd purchased only a few days before. She sighed heavily and let her head hang. "Get the hell out and don't ever come back here again."
Ice-blue eyes met brown in the dancing firelight and Maria cringed at the open hostility in the other woman's gaze.
"Y-you don't scare me," Maria said, as she took a step toward Mac and stopped at the quick shake of Mac's head. "Fine. I'll leave then." She stormed towards the door and stopped in the doorway. "Don't say that I didn't give you the chance to sample this," she ran a hand seductively down her body and up again.
"Out!!!" Mac shouted and swung a hand impatiently.
The door slammed shut as Maria stormed out without another word. Mac merely stood there for a few minutes while she regained her equilibrium and allowed her breathing to slow to a normal level. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, as she walked to the wall and switched on the lights. She glanced around the small kitchenette and noticed a paper bag sitting on the counter. She then checked the oven and found her dinner stowed inside.
"At least she didn't lie about dinner," she muttered as she took the meal out and set it on the table.
Mac grabbed a glass from one of the few cabinets and removed a gallon jug of milk. She poured into the glass and stood there staring at it for a moment, then shook herself out of her reverie. Once she was seated at the table, she dug into her meal with gusto. Mid-chew she realized she really didn't enjoy eating alone. In that moment she decided to do whatever it took to find Lacey Stephens and rekindle their relationship.
Mac sat on the front porch swing of the family ranch house and absently pushed herself back and forth. After a good night's sleep, she had awakened with even more conviction for the decision she had made the previous night. The encounter with Maria had prompted her to close up the small cabin for the winter. At first light, she stuffed her few meager belongings into a pair of saddlebags and said goodbye to the small hideaway.
When she reached the main house, she called the local travel agent and booked a flight to Dallas that was to leave the very next day. Mac was ready to find the woman who held her heart, one way or another. She needed closure on that chapter of her life before she could move on to the next-whatever the next chapter proved to be.
Just then, the screen door opened and her sister-in-law stepped out onto the porch. The woman was wearing a light sweater and sat next to Mac on the bench swing. Carrie's bobbed light-brown hair was tucked behind one ear and her gray-green eyes held a touch of gentle amusement in them.
"Hey, li'l bit," Carrie snickered at the dark scowl she received. "Don't give me that look, Mac. It may have intimidated your comrades in arms over in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it certainly doesn't work on me."
"Hey," Mac turned her gaze to the lush green landscape.
"Lunch is ready, if you're hungry," Carrie let her own eyes wander over the green fields beyond. "I can feel winter comin'. Snow will be here soon and it's gonna get downright cold. Time to pull the winter gear out and get it aired. I hear you decided to get a jump on your trip. Ben said you're leavin' tomorrow?"
"Yeah," Mac sniffed the air and shivered unconsciously, despite the heat still lingering in the fall air. "Won't be long before we'll be shoveling the porch, rather than sitting here enjoying the lazy sunshine."
"The rest of us will be shoveling," Carrie smirked. "I don't expect you'll be doing much this winter with your arm in a sling."
"No, probably not," Mac added with a wry grin. "I'm not really looking forward to surgery, but I am anxious to get this bullet out of my shoulder. I don't know how anyone could live with a piece of metal in 'em for any length of time." She rubbed her shoulder. "It's a real pain."
They sat there in silence for a little while, both women looking out at the beautiful scenery beyond.
"When you're ready to talk, I'll be here to listen," Carrie said out of the blue, causing a pair of startled blue eyes to meet hers. "I know you've been pouring yourself into every job that comes along here, Mac. I also know what Maria tried something again last night." Her eyes hardened. "I fired her this morning."
Carrie nodded. "I expect she'll be wantin' a reference or something. Don't think I can do that after I warned her away from you."
"No, I suppose not," Mac shook her head and smirked. "Wouldn't put it past her, though."
Carried chuckled. "Let her try. I'll have Blackie chase her off the property with one of the new riding crops. He's been itching to use one, ever since Ben bought them off that traveling tack shop during the last rodeo."
Mac chuckled, too, then sobered. "It's time," she said simply. "I need to go find her."
"The woman you knew in the Army?" Carrie prodded.
Mac nodded. "I leave in the morning for Texas. I have an appointment with the surgeon day after tomorrow."
"When's your surgery?" Carrie eyed her sister-in-law speculatively.
"A week from Thursday," Mac answered.
"Do you want someone there with you?" Carrie asked, genuinely concerned.
"No," Mac shook her head. "I'll be fine. Besides, you need to be here with the boys and make sure Ben doesn't overdo it. He isn't as young as he used to be."
"None of us are," Carrie patted Mac's knee. "We'll be praying for you every night, Mackenzie." Carrie smiled.
Mac returned the smile. "I appreciate that, sis." She put a hand over the one Carrie kept on her knee. "It's good to know I have family that cares about me. I want Lacey to know what that feels like. I'd like to…" She let the words hang there.
"You're always in our hearts," Carrie confirmed. "Even when you were far away in Afghanistan and Iraq, we always said a prayer at the table that you'd come home safe to us." She smirked. "Our prayers were answered, li'l bit."
Mac shook her head. "I just might decide to stay in Texas, if you and Ben don't stop using that damned nickname on me."
Carrie snickered. "You might just decide to stay there, anyway, when you find that doctor lady of yours."
Mac's expression turned thoughtful. "I hope she's okay."
"I'm sure she's fine," Carrie gave Mac a reassuring smile. "If what you told Ben about her father is true, he's probably just running interference for her while she recovers from her ordeal."
"I hope you're right, sis," Mac returned the smile with one that didn't quite reach her eyes. "I just can't help wondering why she hasn't at least tried to call me."
Carrie gave Mac's knee one final pat and stood up. "Well, I guess you'll find that out for yourself, soon enough. I know you won't let anything stand in your way when it comes to this small matter of the heart."
"Thanks, Carrie," Mac said. "I really appreciate it."
"Just don't be late to lunch," Carrie shot back as she opened the screen door. "Those nephews of yours are growing boys and are starting to eat us out of house and home. No tellin' if there'll be anything left once they dig in."
Mac sat pondering her sister-in-law's words for a few more minutes. She knew her brother was worried about her. She was still seeing a therapist once a week to talk through her experiences. At least this therapist-Dr. Chadley-wasn't interested in converting her back to the world of 'normal' heterosexuality.
Mac didn't know what she would do if she failed to find Lacey. Thoughts whirled around in her head as she pondered the possibilities. But then she shut them out. It wouldn't do to dwell on things that might or could be. All she could do was try her best to gain access into Lacey's life. She just hoped Lacey's father didn't fight her and try to keep her from her goal. Mac wasn't sure what would happen, knowing everything Lacey had told her about the man. She just hoped it didn't turn into a nightmare.
Speaking of nightmares, hers had subsided considerably when she'd returned home. She did, however, have the occasional whopper that woke her in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat and gasping for breath. On those rare occasions when a nightmare struck, it took the better part of the rest of the night for her to be rid of the vivid images that plagued her.
She'd had one of those nightmares just last night and hadn't been able to go back to sleep afterward. Images of the chopper crash had flashed back to her as clearly as if she were still there. Then Lacey was there, except that she hadn't survived the crash. Mac had felt an overwhelming panic as the images in her head of Lacey's twisted and broken body beneath the burning wreckage continued to flash in vivid detail. Then the doctor's voice called to her in a nightmarish whisper that the pilot just couldn't shake.
"Damn it!" Mac jumped to her feet and shook herself of her musings. She stomped her feet a few times to get the circulation going in her right leg, then trudged into the house. When she reached the kitchen, she hung her hat on a hook near the back door.
"So, what's for lunch, sis?" She asked, standing next to the kitchen table. Six settings sat on the table, as well as butter, salt and pepper. Mac took her customary place on one side of the table and watched as her brother stepped in the back door and shook himself like a wet dog.
"I reheated the fried chicken from last night," Carrie answered, pulling a covered dish from the oven and placing it on a pair of hot pads lying in the center of the table. She smiled at Mac. "Thought the boys finished it off, but they didn't." She went to the doorway and leaned her head out. "Lunch is ready!" She shouted into the interior of the house.
A rumble of stomping feet that sounded more like a herd of stampeding cattle sounded from above and the three boys rushed into the kitchen. Each boy took a seat at the table with a Cheshire grin.
"Hey, boys," Mac greeted her nephews with a warm smile, as they patiently waited for their father to finish washing his hands in the tiny bathroom off the kitchen.
"Mama says you're leaving for Texas tomorrow," Jimmy piped in, as he took a drink from his glass of milk. "She says you're gonna have surgery to remove the bullet from your shoulder."
"Yep," Mac nodded. "I have surgery scheduled for next week."
"So, why're ya headin' there tomorrow?" DJ asked. "Don'tcha wanna stay here with us no more?"
Mac reached over to the six-year-old sitting next to her and affectionately ruffled his hair. "I would love to do that, Digger, but I have to go in for a pre-surgery checkup, day after tomorrow."
"Where are you having the surgery, Auntie Mac?" Tanner asked. "Texas is a big place."
Mac nodded as she drank the milk in her glass. "It is a pretty big state, Tanner. I'll be having the surgery at the VA hospital in Dallas."
"Oh, where the Cowboys play?" Jimmy's otherwise serious expression brightened.
"Yeah, where the Cowboys play. Why?" Mac eyed the youth curiously.
"Can you bring me home a jersey, Auntie Mac? Please?" The youth begged in childlike glee. "I really like the Cowboys and always wanted a jersey to wear at school. Wyoming doesn't have a team, so they guys all wear jerseys from their favorite teams in other states."
Mac considered the request for a moment. "Well, I don't know."
"Oh, come on, Auntie Mac. Please, please, please…" the youth suddenly looked years younger.
"Yeah and can you bring me something back from The Dallas World Aquarium?" Tanner got just as excited. "I've always wanted to go there. They have a really cool rainforest exhibit called the Orinoco - Secrets of the River with a real waterfall and Antillean manatees. They also have some really rare fish."
It never ceased to amaze Mac how well-read ten-year-old Tanner was. The boy would spend dusk to dawn with his nose buried in a book if he could. He loved school and reveled in the opportunity to surf the internet whenever possible. He was an encyclopedia of valuable information, especially when it came to animals. If one of the boys was going to follow in his father's footsteps as a veterinarian, then Tanner fit the bill to a tee.
"You know, T-man," Mac considered his request thoughtfully. "I think I might be able to take a day or two to visit some of the sites in Dallas. I'll try to make the aquarium one of my stops." She glanced at Jimmy, who was sitting there with a hopeful grin. "And I'll see what they have at the Cowboys gift shop."
"What about me? What about me?" DJ piped in.
"Hm, I don't know, little man," Mac ruffled his hair again. "What would you like me to bring you from the Lone Star State?"
DJ scrunched his face in concentration. "What else do they have in Dallas besides fish and cowboys?"
Mac nearly choked on her milk, as the rest of the table erupted in giggles and snickers. "Hey, you two," she gave Tanner and Jimmy a warning glare and then turned her attention to the youngest of the three. "Well, Digger, I'll take a tour around the place and see what I come up with. It'll be a surprise, okay?" She then considered something. "Maybe I can bring you something from Houston."
"Houston?" Jimmy almost shot out of his chair with excitement. "The Texans play there!"
"James Benjamin," Carrie shot her oldest son a warning glare that put Mac's to shame. "Your aunt is not going to Texas on a vacation to pick up souvenirs for y'all. She's there to have surgery on her shoulder."
"Yes'm," Jimmy lowered his eyes to his plate. "Sorry, Auntie Mac."
"No problem, Jimmy," Mac shot him a wink that put the smile back on his face. "I'll see what I can fit in my luggage."
That got a rousing cheer from all three boys and a another warning glare from their mother. The mood quickly lightened, as their father breezed into the room.
"Mm, somethin' smells great," Ben commented as he gave Carrie a peck on the cheek and took the seat at the head of the table. "I'm starving."
When Carrie was seated at the other end of the table from her husband, they joined hands and Ben said a quick blessing. The serving dishes were passed around and everyone helped themselves to chicken, sweet corn cut fresh from the cob and mashed potatoes, while conversation around the table turned to the mundane topics of the ranch and the B&B.
"So, how are things in the west paddock, bro?" Mac asked, taking the bowl of corn and spooning herself a generous helping, before she spooned a helping onto DJ's plate and received a scowl and a mumbled "thank you" from the boy.
"We got the fences repaired and Jimmy, Hank and the boys will finish up the last vet checks on the herd this afternoon," he answered between bites. He washed his food down with a swallow of milk and set the glass back on the table. "Did you get everything squared away with the VA? They ready for your arrival?"
"Yeah," Mac answered. She ate a few more bites, then suddenly stopped chewing and looked up, only to have five sets of eyes staring at her. "What?"
"You don't sound very happy to be leaving," Ben prodded. "Are you nervous?" He set his elbows on the table and clasped his hands in front of him. "Did they get that mess with your benefits cleared up yet?"
"Yeah," Mac answered. "It's all taken care of. I am a fully-insured Iraqi War Veteran."
"And?" Her brother prodded further. "What about that other matter we were talking about the other day. Did you find out anything? Did you at least come up with an address?"
Mac folded her napkin and set it on the table. Her appetite was suddenly gone, despite the fact she'd only eaten half her lunch. She started to get up from the table, but a hand on her arm stopped her.
"Well?" Her brother insisted.
"I have an address, yeah," she finally answered. "I'll pick up the rental car when I get there and drive to Houston on Saturday. It shouldn't take me more than three hours to get there. I picked up a few maps at Triple A, so I have a pretty good idea where I'm headed." She glanced at one of her nephews with a smirk. "Tanner even helped me Google-map the exact address."
"That's good," Ben continued with a reassuring half-smile. "Will you call before you show up on her parents' doorstep?" He stabbed the mound of mashed potatoes on his plate. "What if she's not there?"
"Then I'll ask them where she is," Mac answered with a shrug, as she settled back down and resumed eating.
"And if her old man won't tell you?" Ben placed a hand on hers. "I just don't want you to give up, Mac. Not if she's that special to you."
Mac held his gaze for several seconds, then looked away and caught the same gleam in her sister-in-law's eyes. Their mutual concern warmed her heart, even if she knew it was in vain.
"He's right, Mac," Carrie encouraged. "If you care about her, you need to keep trying until you know for sure she's all right. From what I know about the situation, I think you two had something really special."
Mac knew Carrie was right. They were both right, of course. She couldn't give up trying to find out how Lacey was doing, just because the woman's father stood in the way.
"What I don't understand is why she hasn't tried to contact you," Ben added, voicing Mac's earlier concern. "She has to know you're still alive. You two talked about where we live, didn't you?"
"We did, yeah," Mac set her elbows on either side of her plate and rested her chin on her hands. "Could be her family again. Maybe they've managed to insulate her from the outside world. Or maybe…" She swallowed down the prospect that Lacey didn't want to see her.
"Her family would do that?" Carrie added. "I can't believe she doesn't have at least one ally she can turn to."
Mac shrugged. "Lacey made it sound like her father was a tyrant who ran his household with an iron fist. Maybe he managed to cut her off from the outside world once he got her back under his roof." Mac frowned. "Or maybe she just doesn't want anything to do with me," Mac gave her brother a dour look. "Maybe, once she got home, everything changed and she decided life wasn't quite as bad as she remembered it being before she left."
"You did say she had a privileged childhood," Carried added. "Maybe her father is using his financial influence to keep her in line."
"She also said she's wealthy in her own right," Mac added. "Even if her father was trying to force her to live under his roof by withholding her trust fund from her, I don't think Lacey would care. It was never about the money with her. That's why she didn't care when he cut her off after she joined the Army."
"Then there's something else going on and you have to find out what it is," Ben gave his sister a pointed look. "It's possible she didn't come through the ordeal as well as you did. Maybe she was paralyzed or lost her memory or something. Stranger things have happened to people after they go through that kind of traumatic experience. Maybe she didn't wake up from the coma she slipped into."
Mac considered her brother's words and cringed at his last comment. Was it possible Lacey wasn't able to move? The possibility that Lacey was still in a coma hit her like a brick and sent her stomach plummeting. It was just too much to consider that Lacey was in a vegetative state in some sterile hospital bed somewhere.
"I have to know what happened to her, one way or the other," Mac said with a determined gleam in her eye. She bolted from the table and raced from the kitchen toward the stairs. "I'm going to show up at the Stephens Family homestead and get some damned answers!"
"Are you sure you don't want one of us to go with you?" Ben called loud enough for her to hear him.
"No!" Mac called back. "I'll be fine!"
Ben and Carrie exchanged a confused glance before Ben turned his attention to his beaming boys.
"Guess Auntie Mac's gonna go rope herself a filly." A grin split his features as his boys giggled. "Finish your lunch, boys. It's time to get the rest of our chores taken care of before the winter snow sets in."
All three boys broke out in wide grins and a collective cheer went up around the Papadopoulos family table.
The next morning dawned clear and crisp, a perfect autumn morning. Mac woke up to find the sun just peeking over the eastern horizon and quickly readied herself for her impending trip. She was nervous about leaving the ranch, but not so much so that she was willing to give up the chance to finally find out what happened to Lacey Stephens. It was time. She'd finally come to terms with her decision and was actually looking forward to the trip. She glanced around the spacious room she occupied in the three-story house. It wasn't much, but it was hers.
Mac carried her pea-green Army rucksack down the stairs of the place she had finally come to think of as her home again. She glanced at the family photos that graced one wall and stopped in mid-step to look at the wedding photo of her parents. They were such a young and hopeful pair in their formalwear. Her mother wore a floor-length white satin dress edged in lace. Her father was tall and handsome in a western tuxedo and black cowboy boots. She noticed the happiness radiating from both her parents and knew that was what she wanted for herself. She also knew who she wanted to share her life with. Now she just had to find a way to breach the barrier that had been erected in her path.
"Ready to go, li'l bit?" Ben charged down the stairs behind her and grabbed her rucksack, as he passed by.
"Yeah," she absently answered in a tone that caused him to stop on the landing and glance up at her.
Ben saw the photo she was standing next to and smiled. "Daddy was so damned thrilled and happy to marry her," he said. "They loved each other so much that wild horses couldn't keep them apart."
"Death could," Mac sighed as she continued down the stairs.
Ben gave her a sad smile, as he held onto the newel post at the bottom of the stairs. "Not for very long, li'l bit." He hoisted her rucksack onto his shoulder and made his way toward the front door.
"The whole brood's coming with us?" Mac stepped out onto the porch and saw the boys in the back seat of the cab and Carrie in the passenger seat.
"Carrie wants to do some shopping in town and the boys deserve a chance to see their aunt off," Ben answered as he threw her rucksack into the bed of the truck.
Mac opened the driver's door and scooted to the middle of the bench seat. She glanced at her sister-in-law and couldn't help but return the woman's smile.
"You ready to give 'em hell down there in Tex-ass?" Carrie snickered softly.
Mac snorted. "If you say so, sis."
"Are you sure you don't want us to drive you all the way to Salt Lake City?" Ben asked as he climbed behind the wheel. "It's only a two and a half hour drive."
"No," Mac answered with a shake of her head. "Bernie Olson still owes me a favor for going to the spring dance with him, way back when we were in high school. Now that he owns his own Cessna, he offered to take me there in half the time."
"Aw, we wanted to see Salt Lake City!" DJ bounced in the seat behind theirs. "Can't…(bounce) we…(bounce) just…(bounce) drive…(bounce) her…(bounce) to…(bounce) Salt…(bounce) Lake?"
"DeeeeJaaaaay!" Both his brothers shouted as he jarred them with his antics.
"Settle down, boys," Ben shot over his shoulder as he started the pickup, shifted into Drive and drove down the long driveway toward the main road.
"Yeah, settle down or I won't bring anything back for you," Mac turned in her seat and managed to tickle all three nephews one-handed. The two younger boys giggled uncontrollably, while Jimmy merely gave her a raised-browed scowl that reminded her so much of her brother she nearly choked on her suppressed laughter. "Okay, then…."
Mac turned back around and faced forward with a satisfied smirk.
"Glad to see the sparkle back in those baby blues," Carrie commented with an amused grin.
Mac crossed her arms over her chest to keep them out of her brother's way and shot her sister-in-law a tolerant half-smile.
The rest of the trip was made in relative silence and, soon enough, they pulled into the small airport in Jackson. A big man in denim overalls and a green flannel shirt stood next to a blue and white Cessna 206. He spotted them and waved them through an opening in the small chain link fence. Ben steered the pickup through the gate and parked next to the four-seat airplane.
"Cool!" DJ said as he bounded from the cab of the pickup before anyone could stop him.
His brothers were more subdued as they emerged behind him. The adults also climbed from the pickup and walked over to greet the cheery pilot.
"Hey there, Bernie," Ben greeted the big man with a firm handshake. "Take care of my sister, will ya?"
"Yeah, sure, Ben," Bernie slapped the hand in his with his other beefy hand. "Mac," he nodded to the taller of the two women. "You haven't changed a bit in the last ten years. Still gorgeous, as ever."
"Still the charmer, Bernie," Mac grinned at the man, as he leaned toward Carrie and kissed her cheek.
"Miss Carrie," he smiled when she hugged him back. "I look forward to comin' out for a piece of that award-winnin' cobbler of yours."
"Any time, Bernie," Carrie said and gave him a quick pat on the back. "Why don't you stop over when you get back from takin' Mac to Salt Lake?"
Bernie's hazel eyes lit up. "You sure about that, Miss Carrie?"
"She's sure," Mac answered as she tossed her duffle in the cargo hold of the plane. "She's always looking for an excuse to feed someone and brag about her cobbler."
"Oh, for the love of Pete, that's not so," Carrie slapped the taller woman's arm.
"Ouch," Mac rubbed her arm in mock pain.
Ben stepped up to his sister and gave her a teary smile. "Hurry back home, sis," he said and gave her a big bear hug.
"Yeah," Mac groaned as her brother finally set her back on her feet. "I'll do that."
"Don't be a stranger," Carrie gave Mac a warm hug and stepped back to let the boys have a chance to say goodbye to their aunt.
"We'll miss you, Auntie Mac," Jimmy gave her a manly hug and a warm smile that lit his blue eyes.
"I'll miss you, too, Jimmy," Mac ruffled his hair just before he could duck away from her reach. "Come here, Digger." The youngest boy launched himself into her arms and hugged her tight. "You keep an eye on your mama and daddy for me, ya hear?" He nodded. "And don't let your brothers get into any trouble while I'm gone."
Tanner waited patiently for his turn and, when it came, he gave Mac a heartfelt hug. "I hope everything works out for you and your friend, Auntie Mac," he said covertly into her ear.
Mac gave him a kiss on the cheek and let him go. "I hope so, too, bud."
"We ready to go, then?" Bernie piped in, as he climbed into the left side of the airplane.
Mac climbed into the co-pilot's seat of the roomy 206 and grabbed the black headset hanging above her. She placed the headset over her ears and adjusted the small microphone tightly against her mouth. Then she glanced out the small side window and waved to her family with tears swimming in her eyes. She was really going to miss them.
"Let's get this show on the road," Bernie's tinny voice came through her headset, loud and clear. "I got me some tasty cobbler to return to."
Mac glanced at him and smirked, as he started the engine and steered the plane toward the small runway. She returned her attention to the small group still waving enthusiastically to her. She waved one last time before the 206 raced down the runway and climbed into the sky.
She settled back in her seat and resisted the urge to grab the controls in front of her. Instead, she looked out the window and marveled at the greenery below. Small lakes and rivers dotted the landscape and cut through the terrain near the mountains. The 206 climbed higher, until Bernie turned it towards the majestic peaks and cut a path through the sky along them.
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