By Kennedy Northcutt
For disclaimers, please see Part 1. For updates, visit my blog: http://kennedynorthcutt.wordpress.com.
Part 5 (Conclusion)
Two days, a hellacious trip and one pre-op exam later, Mac finally arrived in Houston. The weather had delayed her departure from Salt Lake City, which caused her to miss her connecting flight in Denver. When she finally stepped off the plane in Dallas, she immediately went to the rental car desk to pick up her car. It had already been rented to someone else. She’d cursed like a sailor, but then smiled broadly when the woman behind the counter offered her an upgrade to a bigger vehicle. She ended up with a bright-red Ford F150 pickup truck, instead.
She checked into an inexpensive hotel near the VA, dropped off her things and drove immediately to her appointment. They took her blood pressure, weighed her, and took some blood samples, then reminded her not to eat or drink anything for twelve hours prior to surgery. She knew the drill.
Then the nurse asked if she had anyone to drive her home after surgery. Mac merely gave her a blank look and shrugged, to which the woman scowled and told her she needed a ride. The nurse then advised her to have someone call a cab from the main lobby of the hospital, once she was ready to go home. Mac didn’t have the heart to tell the woman she didn’t live in Dallas. So, she just took the written instructions the woman handed her and left without a word.
That was yesterday.
Today, she had driven the three hours south on Interstate 45 to Houston. She marveled at how different the scenery was in Texas than in Wyoming. It was almost like being in Iraq again. It was that arid and barren, even if it wasn’t quite so hot. The only thing that made the drive interesting and tolerable was the myriad of small waypoints along the way. But Mac wasn’t interested in stopping to sightsee. She just kept on driving until the scenery changed again and she knew she was close to Houston.
She reached the city limits at about two in the afternoon and tried to follow the map she’d been given. Unfortunately, the city of Houston was huge, much larger than what she was used to. She decided to stop and ask directions, only to be told that she was in the wrong part of town to be driving such a boss truck. The young kid behind the counter of the Texaco finally shrugged when she merely gave him her best intimidating glare. He then gave her directions to West-Towne Estates, where he told her all the snobby rich people lived.
Mac didn’t know if Lacey would be at her parents’ place, but at least she hoped she would find out where the woman was. Questions about Lacey’s well-being and health had been racing through her mind for far too long. It was time to either settle things with the woman she still loved, and thought about all the time, or move on.
Mac passed the place the Houston Astros called home. She knew Jimmy wasn’t a fan of baseball, just football. So he wouldn’t be interested in a souvenir from the place. She paid very little attention to Minute Maid Stadium, as she passed it on I59. As she gave it a passing glance, however, she noticed the red brick exterior out front and the glass wall on one side. It looked more like a football stadium than a baseball park and she briefly wondered how the diamond was set up in the elongated building.
She then saw the stadium where the Houston Texans played their home games and made note of it. Jimmy wanted her to purchase a souvenir from the stadium, preferably a jersey. As she passed Reliant Park, she marveled at the huge place. But she just kept right on going.
As she reached the outskirts of the city and drove along a well-manicured, gated community street, she realized she was approaching her destination. She nearly lost her nerve as she saw huge mansions set behind tall security gates and walls hidden behind tall hedges.
Rounding a bend in the tree-lined neighborhood, the road ahead of her spread out into an open landscape that seemed miles away from the rest of the houses. At first she thought she was lost, but then she saw a huge gate towering in front of her. She pulled up to the gate and looked at the number on the box, but couldn’t see the house.
Mac rolled her window down as the pickup window came even with the small intercom box.
“May I help you?” A refined male voice inquired through the speaker. The man sounded English, which surprised her a little.
“My name is Mackenzie Papadopoulos,” Mac said into the box, noticing the camera aimed at the windshield. “I’m here to see Lacey Stephens. We were in the Army together.”
“One moment, please,” came the curt reply. Mac sat there for what seemed like hours. “I’m sorry,” the voice finally said. “Ms. Stephens isn’t receiving visitors, at this time.”
Frustrated, Mac slammed her hand against the steering wheel and hissed. “Can you just tell her I’m an old friend from the Army who wants to see her and make sure she’s all right? Come on, I came all the way from Wyoming just to see her.”
There was a long pause and Mac was just about ready to give up, when suddenly the gate started to slide open. When it was nearly completely open, another voice, this one younger and female, sounded from the box.
“Please drive around to the house and park at the front door. I’ll let my sister know you’re here.”
Mac didn’t hesitate, but drove through the gate before her good luck ran out. She wound around the well-manicured green lawn, passing topiary and several acres of pecan trees that looked about ready to burst. As she drove down the tree-lined lane, she reached a point where she could see a huge mansion looming ahead. It was constructed of sturdy stone and looked more like a castle than a house.
“Jeez, no wonder she was so dead-set against coming back here,” Mac mumbled to herself. “This place is huge. It’s a wonder she hasn’t gotten lost in there and can’t find her way out.”
She pulled the red pickup up in front of the main entrance and watched a young woman with mousey brown hair and dressed in white and tan silk approach. As Mac climbed from the truck and turned, the woman extended a bejeweled hand toward her with a welcome smile.
“Hello, Ms. Papadopoulos,” she said.
“Please, just call me Mac or Mackenzie.” She took the proffered hand. “Not even my buddies in the desert called me Ms. Papadopoulos. It was just Mac or Chief.”
“Mac, I’m Lacey’s sister, Lily.” They shook hands and Lily motioned for Mac to follow her. “I’m glad you came all the way out here, but I’m afraid you wasted the trip,” she said as they walked into a huge entryway with a staircase that rivaled the one from Gone With the Wind. “My sister no longer lives here.” She motioned for Mac, whose stomach had plummeted with the news, to precede her into the drawing room. “Please, make yourself comfortable.”
Before Mac could say a word, the woman sat down across from her with an expectant look. Mac surveyed the opulence around her. The walls were paneled in dark mahogany and the leather chairs were done in plush burgundy. Mac got up and moved to a large picture window, surveying the spacious grounds. There was a low hedge that ran around the house, but the grounds themselves extended far beyond. Neatly-trimmed topiary dotted the landscape, as well as a tall fountain that was spraying water high into the air.
“So, tell me about yourself,” Lily said expectantly. “How do you know my sister? I take it you met in the Army?”
Mac gave Lacey’s sister a confused look, but decided to play along. She didn’t know which side the sister was on in the family drama, but knew she would figure it out eventually. She returned to the chair and sat down.
“We were stationed in Iraq together,” Mac nodded, as Lily poured iced tea into a glass and set it on the table in front of Mac. “Thank you.”
“You say you served together?” Lily asked as she poured an iced tea for herself and added a cube of sugar. “Sugar?” She held up a cube for Mac, who merely shook her head.
“We were stationed at a medical evacuation command center near Baghdad,” Mac answered and sipped her tea. “She was the flight surgeon on my chopper.”
“Oh, you’re a pilot?” Lily prodded.
“Yes, didn’t she tell you?” Mac couldn’t believe her ears.
Sudden dawning alit in Lily’s eyes. “You were there. You survived the crash, too. They said there were others, but they wouldn’t say who the others were. You’re Lacey’s Mac.”
Mac wiped uncomfortably at her jeans. “Yes,” she answered. “I was there. Lacey could tell you this, as much as I can. I can’t believe she didn’t mention anything about me.”
“Please,” Lily continued. “Can you just indulge me and tell me what happened. I’m afraid my sister remembers very little about her time in the Army and especially her last tour in Iraq. She’s had a few flashbacks, but she can’t seem to put the pieces together. It must have been a horrible experience for you both.”
“We survived through some very tough situations,” Mac evaded. “Lacey doesn’t remember Iraq?”
“No,” Lily answered with a shake of her head. “She was in a coma for three months and came out of it with no memory of anything beyond medical school. She doesn’t remember serving her residency in a VA hospital in Virginia, nor does she remember the two tours of duty she served in Iraq.”
Mac considered the woman’s words. “So, she doesn’t remember the people she served with.” She felt tears spring to her eyes, but managed to push them back down. She could wallow later.
Lily watched the sadness appear and disappear from the other woman’s startlingly blue eyes. “Unfortunately, no. She hasn’t been able to remember anything for months. Like I said before, she has flashbacks and nightmares, but doesn’t really talk about them.” She stopped to consider what she had just said. “I take that back. She did mention being trapped beneath a piece of wreckage after the crash. She mentioned a few names, but I don’t remember them. She said they were men she served with who were killed in the crash. And she mentioned your name a few times.”
“O’Leary and Montgomery,” Mac nodded and swallowed down some iced tea.
Mac tried to reconcile the devastating news, as she kept a tight hold on her errant emotions. The very idea that Lacey could only remember her name made her heart ache almost physically. The ache became so strong, in fact, that she was having a hard time concentrating on Lily’s next words.
“Are you all right, Ms. Papadopoulos?” Lily asked with growing concern. “You’re very pale.”
Mac forced air into her lungs and let the breath out slowly. “I’m fine,” she finally answered and took another sip of her iced tea.
“May I ask you a personal question, Ms. Papadopoulos?” Lily waited long enough for the color to return to the taller woman’s features.
“It’s Mac,” Mac answered with a polite half-smile. “Please, just call me Mac.” She swallowed the rest of her tea and set the empty glass on the table in front of her. “I’m not a school teacher.”
“Mac,” Lily said as she kept a watchful eye on the woman. “Were you and my sister…um, close?”
Mac’s gaze shot up and locked with the eyes of her lover’s sister. “Why do you ask?”
Lily fidgeted with the fabric of her trousers. “Because…Well, my sister confided in me about…”
Mac couldn’t help the blush that suffused her tan cheeks. “She told you she’s gay?” Mac watched as Lily merely nodded. “Yes, we were close,” Mac answered. “I loved your sister.” She glanced wistfully away. “Still do.”
“Will you still love her if she can’t remember who you are and what you meant to each other?” Lily posed the question with sincerity. “The doctors say she may never recover those lost memories, although Dr. Gilchrist is more optimistic than most.”
Mac let a wistful smile touch her lips. “Yes,” she answered simply.
Lily rose from her seat, left the room and returned holding a small card in one hand that she held out to Mac. Mac took the card and glanced at the embossed address printed in small letters. She ran her finger over Lacey’s name and smiled.
“My sister lives near Westhaven Estates,” Lily said. “Her condo is in a very exclusive gated community west of the 610 Freeway. Just take 59 South to the 610 North. Get off at San Felipe and follow it to Willowick, turn left and continue until you see the main gate to Country Club Condo Estates. I’ll leave your name at the gate, so you won’t have any trouble getting in. The address is on the card. Her condo is in a triplex and is the one closest to the gate.”
Mac met Lily’s intense gaze. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you, Mackenzie,” Lily said with a warm smile. “I think my sister will be quite relieved to finally put some of the pieces of her missing life back together.”
Tears swam in Mac’s eyes at the woman’s words. “I take it you’re on her side, then? She mentioned some things, including how hard it was at home for her. Your father…”
“She’s my sister,” Lily shrugged. “I love her and will always be there to look out for her best interests. I just wish I’d been there when he was…” She swallowed audibly. “Did she tell you he hit her?”
“No,” Mac shook her head. “She just said things were tough and she didn’t want to go home after college. That’s why she joined the Army. She wanted more from life than to have him mapping everything out for her, including who she would marry.”
“Mother didn’t lift a hand to help her,” Lily added with a curt nod. “And I was too young to know what was going on. She defied him a number of times and paid the price. She never said a word about what happened when he took her into his office…until just recently.” Tears swam in her eyes. “I can’t believe he used a damned belt on her.”
Mac closed her eyes tight against the onslaught of painful images Lily’s words conjured. She loved Lacey more than life itself at that moment. The woman was a pillar of strength in a world gone wrong and never let anyone see the pain that she carried deep inside her.
Mac put a hand on Lily’s shoulder. “She’s lucky to have you for a sister, Lily.”
Lily smiled and nodded. “She’s lucky to have someone like you to care about and love her, Mackenzie Papadopoulos.”
“I guess, despite everything, Lacey is a lucky woman all the way around, then,” she said as she tapped the card against her open palm. “Now it’s time to see just how receptive she is to meeting a ghost from her past.” Mac started for the door and was stopped by a hand on her arm.
“Be careful, Mac,” Lily gazed up into the warm blue eyes of her sister’s lover. “The doctor warned her not to push too hard to remember. She also warned Lacey that a sudden rush of memories might overwhelm her and set her recovery back far enough that she might lose it all permanently.”
Mac patted the hand on her arm. “I’ll be careful with her, Lily. Please don’t worry that I’ll let anything happen that will harm her in any way. Especially not now that I know where she is.” She held the card up and grinned broadly.
It only took Mac twenty minutes to navigate the highways and streets of Houston to the Country Club Condo Estates. Lily’s directions were spot on. She passed rows of neatly-manicured lawns with large estate-like homes set back from the street. It was strange being among such wealth and privilege, when she knew Lacey didn’t really belong there. The woman she had come to know in Iraq was someone who was comfortable just being a doctor who healed people and slept in a tent. She was also a broken soul in need of love, plain and simple. Mac smirked as it occurred to her that most people in the world just wanted someone to love them, to make them feel like they were worth something.
She pulled up to the security gate and marveled at the small mosaic fountain and ferns that graced the entrance to the gated community. Gates and walls were meant to keep people out, to shut out the world. She chuckled when she compared this place to the 6,000 acre ranch home she was used to. The ranch had no walls. It was open and one could marvel at the mountains in all their glory.
“Hello there, young lady,” the heavyset security officer within the stucco guard shack greeted her with a welcoming smile. “What can I do for ya?”
“I’m here to see Lacey Stephens,” Mac handed over the business card Lily gave her for his inspection. “Her sister was to call ahead to let you know I’d be coming by.”
“Name?” He glanced down at a clipboard and then met her hopeful gaze again.
“Mackenzie Papadopoulos,” Mac answered.
“Ah, yes, Ms. Papadopoulos,” he gave her a wide grin and tipped his black cake hat back to reveal the silver hair beneath. “Does Ms. Stephens know you’re coming? I’m sure her sister called ahead to let her know.”
“It’s a surprise,” Mac answered with a wink. “We’re old Army buddies.”
The man’s face brightened and his gray mustache twitched, as one side lifted in a congenial grin. “I served in the Army myself,” he said and adjusted his pants at his expanded beltline.
“Oh, really? Which division?” Mac gave him a sincere smile. “We were in the 150th Medical in Iraq.”
“3rd Armored Division,” he answered proudly. “Served two tours in Vietnam. Was lucky to come back with all my digits,” he held up both hands and wiggled his fingers.
“I guess we’re both pretty lucky then,” Mac gave him a nod. “Rank?”
“Sergeant Major,” he answered. “You?”
“Chief Warrant Officer,” Mac answered.
“Well, then, ma’am,” he grinned from ear to ear. “You go on ahead and tell, uh…”
“Captain Stephens, Sergeant Major,” Mac answered for him.
“You tell Captain Stephens that Sergeant Major Timothy Evans is here for her anytime she needs a fellow soldier to lend a hand,” he said and gave her a quick salute. “It’s always a pleasure to meet a fellow soldier.”
“I will certainly do that, Sergeant Major,” Mac returned the salute with one of her own. “You take care of yourself, now.”
“Damned straight, ma’am,” he answered and punched a button on the console in front of him.
Mac waited long enough for the gate arm to lift all the way, before she pulled the pickup through and followed the street that Lacey lived on.
“I’m coming, sweetheart,” Mac muttered as she pulled up in front of the triplex and killed the engine.
She sat there for a moment and tried to slow her racing heart, as she gazed at the condo that belonged to Lacey Stephens. After six months of wondering and waiting and hoping, it was finally time to find all the answers to her pressing questions. Mac took a deep breath and let it out slowly, as she mustered her courage and climbed from the pickup.
“Okay, Mac,” she sighed, as she slowly walked the short distance to the front door. “Just play it cool. Don’t scare the shit out of her.”
She looked at the plain white door in front of her and lifted a hand to knock, when the door suddenly opened. The woman who stood there in the doorway bore a slight resemblance to the woman she’d known in Iraq.
“Oh, hello,” Lacey was startled to have a tall woman at her door.
“Hi.” Mac, who was just about to knock, lowered her arm to her side, as she gazed longingly at the woman who resembled her lover in so many ways.
Lacey wore her hair loose and straight around her shoulders. She was dressed in a pair of black jeans and a green cambric shirt over a white t-shirt. Small gold hoops hung from her ears, but it was her eyes that sent a shock of recognition through Mac. They were almost the same green as her shirt and so familiar that Mac nearly launched herself into Lacey’s arms.
“Come in,” Lacey moved back enough to let the slightly-bewildered woman enter. “I was hoping to look through the applications today and make my final decision, but when Lily called to say she was sending over someone else—” The words trailed off as Lacey limped away from the door.
Mac took a seat in the off-white chair that Lacey indicated and watched as the smaller woman leaned heavily on a metal cane, as she maneuvered over to the chair across from her. Lacey had yet to meet her eyes and Mac finally realized the smaller woman had said something.
“I’m sorry. What did you just say?” Confusion marred Mac’s brow.
“You’re here to interview for the position, aren’t you?” Lacey sat down with difficulty and raised her eyes to meet Mac’s. “Oh…” Her breath suddenly caught as she gazed into eyes the color of a clear blue sky.
Mac cocked her head to one side, as Lacey finally looked at her and the color drained from the woman’s face. “Something wrong?”
“Um…” Lacey couldn’t help but gape at the dark-haired woman with the familiar blue eyes for another moment, before shaking her head and finding her voice again. “I…um…You did send a resume to my sister, didn’t you?”
Mac rested her forearms on her knees and folded her hands in front of her. “You recognize me, don’t you?”
Lacey swallowed with difficulty. “I…You seem very familiar, but…”
“But?” Mac prodded when Lacey didn’t immediately finish the sentence.
Lacey shook her head and frowned. “I’m sorry,” she finally said. “I know you look familiar, but that’s been happening a lot lately. I’m afraid I had an accident several months ago. I lost my memory and have just recently been having flashes that don’t make a lot of sense.”
Mac’s brow quirked. “So, you really don’t remember who I am?”
“No, should I?” Lacey answered, shifting uncomfortably under the woman’s intense scrutiny.
Mac took a deep breath and let it out slowly, as she looked away to hide her disappointment. “We served in Iraq together, in the Army. We were stationed just north of Baghdad at a medical evac compound.”
“So you’re not here to interview for the position?” Lacey tried to clarify.
Mac shook her head. “No,” she said and watched Lacey’s expression turn thoughtful. “I’m here to visit with you, Lacey. It’s been more than six months since we…” She straightened and ran a hand through her shoulder-length hair, as she tried to come up with the best way to proceed. “Our chopper crashed during a mission. You were badly injured, but we didn’t know that right away. They said the symptoms of your internal injuries weren’t immediately recognizable, because of your other injuries. We were rescued a few days after the crash, but by then you’d slipped into a coma.”
Lacey had been listening with rapt attention, trying desperately to recall events that the woman was relating to her. “I remember being trapped under a door,” she finally said in a hoarse whisper.
Mac nodded. “That’s where I found you after I made it out of the cockpit.”
“You were the one, then?” Lacey tried to put the pieces together now that she had some idea what had happened. “You helped me get out from under that door?”
Mac’s expression was hopeful. “You remember that I lifted the door off and pulled you free?”
Lacey shook her head. “I don’t remember anything else, except…” she swallowed down the memory of the two men whose bloodied faces still haunted her nightmares.
She hadn’t had any new nightmares since her experience with Dr. Gilchrist the previous week. The session had left her so drained and exhausted that she had slept the entire night and most of the next day afterward.
The same nightmare brought her awake in the middle of the night two nights later. Sweat drenched and shaking uncontrollably, she had tried to rid herself of the vivid images that kept playing over and over in her mind. She never mentioned to Lily the recurrence of the nightmare or how it was starting to take on a life of its own.
After three straight nights of waking to variations of the nightmare that included watching the two men burn right before her eyes, Lacey finally called and cancelled her next appointment with the psychiatrist. She wanted nothing more to do with the woman and her hypnotherapy.
“Lacey?” Mac saw misery reflected in the eyes that met hers.
“I’m sorry,” Lacey got to her feet with some difficulty and leaned heavily on the cane as she made her way to the kitchen. She grabbed a glass from the cupboard and filled it with ice-cold water from the outside dispenser in the refrigerator door. “Would you like something to drink?” She turned and was surprised to have the dark-haired woman towering over her. “Oh, my…”
“Water’s fine,” Mac said as she easily grabbed a glass from the same cupboard Lacey had taken hers from. She put the glass under the dispenser and filled it before turning back to face her companion. “Are you okay? I didn’t mean to upset you. I know this is probably a lot for you to deal with right now. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable about this. If you want me to leave, I will.”
Lacey drank half the glass of water and smirked wryly. “It seems I’ve been nothing but upset since I came home from the rehab facility.”
Mac leaned against the center island and sipped her water. “Tell me how you’ve been?”
Lacey glanced up and saw the sincere concern in the woman’s gaze. “It’s been…I’ve been…” she shrugged. “What can I say? I don’t really know you.”
Mac’s face fell at the words. “I…” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then smiled. “No, you probably don’t know me, but I know you better than you think I do, at this moment. We became really good friends while we were serving together. Actually, we were more than just friends, but…” Mac stopped, not wanting to say more than Lacey could handle.
Feeling a bit uncomfortable with the taller woman towering over her in her own kitchen, Lacey returned to the living room and sat down on the sofa. She watched the tall woman return to the chair and noticed that the woman limped slightly and favored her right arm.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t remember your name,” Lacey continued after another sip of her water.
“Mac,” she answered. “Mackenzie Papadopoulos, but everyone just calls me Mac.”
Lacey nodded. “Nice to meet you, Mac.”
Mac snickered. “Nice to meet you, too.”
Lacey fiddled with the glass in her hands before meeting the woman’s gaze again. “You were injured in the crash, too, I take it?”
Mac nodded and slapped her knee. “The doctor’s say I may never lose the limp, but, hey, can’t be all flowers and springtime, now, can it.”
“And your arm?” Lacey asked.
Mac touched her shoulder. “Part of the reason I’m here in Texas,” she answered with a frown. “I’m scheduled for surgery next Thursday, in Dallas. They’re going to remove the bullet that’s still lodged in there.”
Lacey’s brow shot up. “You were shot?”
Mac nodded. “It’s a really long story.” She turned her gaze to the bank of windows that looked out over the small man-made lake and marveled at the view. “It’s not as gated as one might think,” she commented absently. “Nice view.”
Silence stretched between them as they both pondered their situation. Things certainly weren’t what Mac had expected, and Lacey couldn’t figure out who the woman was who sitting across from her.
Lacey pulled her good leg up and tucked it underneath her outstretched bad one. She then set her water glass on the table. She glanced at the clock in the kitchen and noted the time—it was just past two-thirty. Then she realized she really didn’t have anything pressing. She was merely going to pop a microwavable meal in and eat alone, again. She was finally getting the hang of “cooking” meals for herself, although she’d had a rough time of it in the beginning. Who knew one could turn enchiladas into black globs of inedible goo in such a short time?
“I can order some Chinese take-out and have it delivered, if you want to stay for dinner,” Lacey suggested and then frowned when she realized she hadn’t meant to invite the woman to dine with her.
Mac’s attention returned to the woman sitting across the glass table from her. “Do you want me to stay for dinner?”
“I do,” Lacey nodded. “Although, I do have an ulterior motive behind this.”
“Oh, really, and what’s that?” Mac’s brow lifted as she leaned forward and rested her arms on her knees again.
“Tell me how we met, how we got to know each other, what we are to each other,” Lacey answered. “I want to know what happened in Iraq, especially.”
Mac got up from the chair and moved to the couch. She removed her shoes and tucked her socked feet under her, as she settled into a more comfortable position. Once she was settled, she glanced over at Lacey still stretched out on the smaller sofa. She lifted her glass and finished off her water, then set the glass on the table.
“We met in Colonel Farrell’s office,” Mac began. “At the request of my former CO and Colonel Farrell, I was transferred from Afghanistan to Iraq as a medical evac Pilot-in-Command of a Black Hawk—that’s a helicopter.” Mac lifted an arm and rested her elbow on the back of the couch. She then set her head against her closed fist as the memories washed over her. “You were assigned as flight surgeon to my chopper and we hit it off right from the start.”
“Hit it off?” Lacey interjected. “How so?”
“We…” Mac’s gaze took on a faraway look, as she recalled those first moments with the woman she loved. “I think we were really comfortable together, even early on. We just seemed to—I don’t know—fit?” She shrugged.
“Okay, go on,” Lacey said with rapt attention.
“Well, we hung out together sometimes.” Mac’s expression turned thoughtful. “You weren’t exactly the easiest person to have a conversation with all the time. We had our moments.”
“Did we go on any missions together…um…before?” Lacey prodded.
Mac considered the question for a few minutes, as she tried to come up with the best way to explain what had happened, without traumatizing the woman too much. Lily’s warning that she not tell Lacey too much before she was ready to remember hung in the back of Mac’s mind. Then again, she didn’t want to renew their relationship with lies of omission between them, either.
“Our first mission together was more of a transport gig,” Mac answered evasively. “I took you and our medic to meet a convoy headed into Baghdad.”
“Wait a minute,” Lacey held up a hand. “Weren’t we stationed near Baghdad? Why would you need to fly us to Baghdad?”
“We were stationed ten miles north of Baghdad, actually,” Mac clarified. “It was just easier to take you there by air that day.” She watched Lacey nod and wait expectantly for her to continue. “So, anyway, our medic, Simmons, told me you two were assigned to a humanitarian mission on the far side of Baghdad. Apparently, you did some surgeries on civilians in a hospital that wasn’t really a hospital.”
Lacey frowned in confusion. “I performed surgery in a hospital that wasn’t really a hospital? How does one do that? Don’t they have real hospitals in Baghdad?”
“Not sure,” Mac shrugged. “That’s just what Simmons told me.”
“Simmons,” Lacey said thoughtfully. “She was the one who wasn’t on the mission when we crashed.”
Mac was a little surprised that Lacey knew that. “You remember Simmons?”
Lacey shook her head. “No, I just remember she wasn’t on our last…um…flight. Neither was Jimenez.”
Mac’s brow lifted again. “No, neither Simmons, nor Jimenez, was onboard when we went down. Simmons showed up later as part of the rescue party, led by Major Johnson.”
“Kevin Johnson?” Lacey perked up.
“Yeah,” Mac answered. “Do you remember him?”
“We went through OCS together,” Lacey answered matter-of-factly, then caught herself. “Wait, how do I know that?”
Mac smirked. “I think you’re starting to remember.”
Lacey looked pleased. “Yeah, I guess so.” She marveled at the fact that she could call forth a name from her past that she hadn’t remembered before. “Go on, please.”
“Okay,” Mac continued. “We picked you and Private Simmons up at a rendezvous point the next morning. Our orders were to meet up with another convoy. There was an injured soldier who needed medical attention.” Her expression darkened and she shook her head. “That mission was a little more challenging than we’d anticipated. We ended up with more casualties than originally planned.” Her expression turned thoughtful.
“What happened?” Lacey prodded when Mac didn’t immediately elaborate.
“We were ambushed,” Mac answered. “No one was killed, but that’s when Jimenez was shot in the leg. It’s also why he wasn’t onboard during out last mission.”
“Okay,” Lacey put her fingers to either side of her face, as if to steady the mass of confusing thoughts racing around inside her head. “Let me get this straight. Simmons and I performed humanitarian surgeries in Baghdad and then flew with you to meet a convoy. While we were on the second mission, we ended up in the middle of an ambush?” She glared at Mac. “What aren’t you telling me?” And then her expression showed sudden realization and her tone became accusing. “You talked to my sister, didn’t you? That’s why you’re being so evasive. Did she tell you that my shrink warned me not to push things?”
Mac sat up and scooted over until she was closer to Lacey. “She said the doctor warned you not to push yourself to remember too quickly. She also warned me not to say too much that might just confuse you more.”
“You’re confusing me by not telling me what really happened,” Lacey shot back with more vehemence than she’d intended. “Just tell me what happened and let me decide if it’s too much for me or not.” She ran a frustrated hand through her hair. “Jesus! Why is everyone always trying to protect me from the goddamned truth? I’m not a fucking idiot!”
Mac waited patiently for Lacey’s tirade to peter out and then smirked. “That sounds more like the Lacey Stephens I knew in the desert.”
Lacey’s mood lightened and she chuckled. “You should have heard me tell my parents off right before I moved out of their house.”
Mac joined in and chuckled herself. “I think I would have been proud to see that.”
Lacey stared down at the folded hands in her lap for a moment. “I’m sorry about that outburst. I just feel like… She looked up and met blue eyes watching her expectantly. “It’s hard not knowing what happened. I feel—” She finished with a firm shake of her head.
“You feel what?”
Lacey sighed heavily. “I feel like I’ve known you all my life, except that I can’t remember anything about you, other than your face. I’ve seen your face in my dreams, but I could never connect a name or anything to it. Wait, that’s not really true, either. I think I remembered your name but just couldn’t put the pieces together. It’s like a puzzle with missing pieces.” She shook her head and looked away. “It’s so confusing. I just want to remember everything that happened—my time in the Army, what I did, who I was—but I can’t. It’s like there’s this stupid wall there, separating everything that happened up to my enlistment from everything that’s happened since I woke up from that damned coma. There’s just a black hole where all those memories should come together.” She thought about that for a moment. “No, not a black hole. More like a miasma of swirling images that just don’t make any sense.” Her eyes met Mac’s. “That’s where I’ve seen your face and how I can remember Kevin Johnson’s name. Some of it is feelings and impressions, while the rest is just strange disconnected images and names that echo in my head.”
Mac lifted Lacey’s feet into her lap. “We became closer than mere friends, Lacey. I know it doesn’t make any sense right now, but it’s true.” She gazed deeply into sea-green eyes swimming with unshed tears and reached a hand out to cup Lacey’s cheek. “There are a lot of things I can tell you about our time together, but I think your sister and the doctor are right. You should let yourself remember in your own time, in your own way. Pushing those memories just confuses and frustrates you.”
Lacey leaned into the gentle caress, closed her eyes and reveled in the familiarity of the touch. “I hate not knowing.”
Mac watched Lacey’s eyelashes flutter open. “I know,” she sighed. “I also know they only want what’s best for you…and so do I.” She smiled warmly, as she rubbed a thumb against Lacey’s cheek and let her heart swell with love for the woman who no longer completely remembered her.
“So was this what it was like?” Lacey indicated their intimate position. “Were we always this close?”
“Um…” Mac considered the question. “Not exactly. We’re officers in the Army and there’s this policy…”
“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Lacey blurted, then pulled up short. “Damn!”
Mac’s brow lifted. “You can’t remember being in the Army, but you can remember the DADT?”
Lacey shrugged. “It’s a random thing, I guess.”
Mac chuckled. “Apparently.”
“So, you were saying?” Lacey prodded.
“I was saying we didn’t exactly have a free pass to make our relationship known,” Mac continued. “We had to be…um…discreet. No holding hands in public and certainly no…um…”
“Did we have sex?” Lacey watched the taller woman for a reaction and wasn’t disappointed when a blush suffused Mac’s cheeks.
Mac cleared her throat. “Um…” Her voice squeaked out an octave higher than usual. “We…um…”
Lacey chuckled as she watched the blush deepen on those tanned cheeks. She marveled at how beautiful Mackenzie Papadopoulos really was and not just on the outside—though she was certainly striking. That silky dark hair contrasted nicely with those strikingly blue eyes that changed color, depending on her mood. Right at that moment, they were a soft bluish-gray and filled with…Was that love in her eyes?
“You okay?” Mac’s voice broke through Lacey’s reverie.
“I’m…I’m fine,” Lacey answered after clearing her own throat.
“You looked like you were studying a ghost—half intrigued and half scared to death,” Mac continued with concern. “Is this,” she indicated their position, “making you uncomfortable?”
“No,” Lacey shook her head. “It’s just…” She shook her head again. “You’re very beautiful and I can see that you have strong feelings for me, but…”
“But you don’t remember,” Mac nodded sagely. “It’s okay, Lacey. I understand.”
“Yeah,” Mac patted the legs on top of hers. “It’s going to take some getting used to, but I intend to stick around for a while and get to know you again.” She took Lacey’s hands in hers. “I want to be here for you, even if it’s just as your friend.”
Lacey looked down at their joined hands. “Just friends,” she considered the idea and smiled. “I guess I can use a friend right about now.” She met Mac’s expectant gaze. “Especially one who knows what I went through over there.”
Mac caught the wistful expression on the smaller woman’s face before it disappeared. “There’s only one thing.”
“What’s that?” Lacey’s gaze met Mac’s.
“I can only stick around for the weekend before I have to go back to Dallas and have that surgery I mentioned earlier,” Mac said.
“Oh, that’s right,” Lacey looked thoughtful for a moment. “Is someone from your family going to be there with you?”
“No,” Mac shook her head. “My brother and his wife are busy running the ranch, so…”
“Wait, your brother runs a ranch?”
“Yeah, in Wyoming. That’s where I live when I’m not flying for the Army,” Mac said.
Lacey’s expression reflected her confusion. “So, why are you here in Texas to have surgery? Wasn’t there someplace closer where you could have it done?”
Mac blushed again. “I…I wanted to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.”
“Kill two…I don’t understand,” Lacey shook her head in confusion.
“I knew you were here in Houston, so I called the VA and asked if there was a hospital close by where I could have the surgery,” Mac answered matter-of-factly. “They referred me to the VA hospital in Dallas and gave me the name of an orthopedic surgeon who practices there.” She shrugged. “I gave the guy a call and he scheduled the surgery. End of story.”
“How did you know I was in Houston?” Lacey asked.
“You told me,” Mac answered. “You said you grew up here and your parents still lived here. One of the nurses at Walter Reed also told me your parents came and took you to Houston to a facility where you would be well taken care of.”
“I woke up at Harbor Care and Rehabilitative Center,” Lacey said.
“I didn’t know,” Mac continued. “I tried to call your parents several times, to find out how you were doing, but they weren’t very interested in talking to someone from the Army. I even told your mother once that I was a friend from college, but she didn’t believe me. Your sister answered the phone once, but your father must have entered the room at that moment, because she didn’t say very much. She kinda acted like I was a telemarketer and hung up.”
“Why wouldn’t they tell you anything?” Lacey’s eyes blazed with sudden anger. “It’s not like you came out and told them that you were my lover.” She looked at Mac. “Did you?”
“No,” Mac answered. “I just said I was a friend.”
“Damn him!” Lacey pounded a fist against her leg. “He had no right to do that!”
“Hey, settle down there, Doc,” Mac put a hand over Lacey’s fist. “It’s not worth it. I’m just really glad I finally came here to find out for myself.”
Just then the phone rang. Mac grabbed it and handed it to Lacey.
“Hello?” Lacey said into the receiver. “Oh, hey Lil. What’s up?” She listened for a moment. “Yeah, she’s still here.” She listened again and then glanced up at Mac. “Yeah, I suppose.” She lifted the receiver away from her ear and handed it to Mac. “She wants to talk to you.”
Me? Mac mouthed in confusion, as she took the phone and put it to her ear. “Hello?” She listened and shook her head. “No, she’s fine. We were just talking about…” She listened and frowned. “What? I thought you said they didn’t…”
Lacey’s expression turned to confusion at the strange, one-sided conversation. “What is it?” She asked quietly.
Mac put her hand to the phone and was just about to answer, when the doorbell suddenly rang. She winced and removed her hand from the phone. “Never mind, they’re here,” she said as she hung up. Mac then gently shifted Lacey’s legs from her own lap, as she climbed out from beneath her.
“I’ll get that,” Mac said as she quickly rushed to the door.
“Wha…Why are you answering…” Lacey didn’t have a chance to say more as Mac pulled the door open and stepped out of the line of fire. “Mother? Father? What the hell are you two doing here?” Lacey scowled at her parents, as they unceremoniously swept past Mac without a glance in the tall woman’s direction.
“Oh, Lacey dear,” Meredith charged toward the couch in her powder blue Yves St. Laurent silk pants suit, with matching handbag, and with her arms outstretched. A thick gold bracelet dangled from one wrist and an assortment of gold, diamonds and precious gems adorned her fingers and ears. “We’ve missed you so much,” she took a seat next to Lacey without waiting for an invitation to do so.
Lacey glanced from her mother to her father and noticed the angry scowl on the man’s face. She caught a glimpse of Mac standing at the door, just before the woman closed the door and stood discreetly in the entryway.
“How did you get past the guard at the front gate?” Lacey shot her father a glare that matched his own. “I gave them strict instructions.”
“Do not even presume to talk to me in that tone of voice, young lady,” James stood behind the chair at rigid attention. “Your sister finally came to her senses. That’s all you need to know…”
“We’ve been so worried about you, Lacey dear,” her mother interrupted. “You’ve no idea what it’s like…”
“I’m no longer a young lady,” Lacey stood up with difficulty and moved to stand behind the couch, sure she would do something everyone would regret if she didn’t put a barrier between herself and her parents. “Besides, Lily gave me her word she wouldn’t tell you where I live. She wouldn’t break her word, so you must have coerced her somehow. What did you do to her?” She glared daggers at her father. “You didn’t hit her, did you? Or maybe you hired a private investigator to tail her?”
“Now, you see here…”
“James!” Meredith turned an icy glare on her husband and then rounded on her daughter. “What in the world would make you say such a thing to your father, Lacey Justine?”
Lacey crossed her arms over her chest and glared at her father with a lifted brow. “He never told you, did he?”
Meredith glanced in confusion from James to Lacey and back again. “What is she talking about, James?”
“I have no idea,” James glared at Lacey.
“Oh, really?” Lacey shot back. “You have no idea how often you dragged me into your study and beat the shit out of me, just because I wouldn’t be the dutiful daughter and adhere to your outdated ideals? Or did it just slip your fucking mind, old man?”
James growled a warning deep in his throat that did not go unnoticed by the others present.
“James?” Meredith looked to him. “What in the world is she talking about? Is that true? Did you hurt her?”
“Bull-fucking shit!!” Lacey exclaimed and shot an accusatory finger in his direction. “You are such an incredible asshole and a fucking liar!!!”
James took a menacing step toward Lacey, but Meredith got up from the couch and stepped in front of him. Despite her usual poised demeanor, at that point she was seething with anger and a little embarrassment for her daughter’s language.
“Tell me you did not lay a hand on our daughter, James,” Meredith confronted him directly.
“I most certainly did not…”
“No, he laid his belt across my bare ass every chance he got!” Lacey seethed. “Didn’t you ever wonder what he did after he sent me to his office when I did something to displease him, Mother? Did you never ask yourself why I always ran from there in tears and disappeared into my room for hours afterward? Or why I could never sit at the table with the rest of the family for breakfast?”
This time her mother looked uncomfortable. “I…I never imagined…”
“No, you couldn’t possibly imagine that your husband could be so cruel as to take a belt to his oldest child until she could no longer sit down,” Lacey snapped. “You,” she glared at her father, “are an incredible bastard and I wouldn’t return to that house, even if it were the last goddamned place on earth!”
Mac watched the interplay between the three in amazement and with a touch of horror. She remained completely still as the scene played out before her. She wanted to see how Lacey handled herself with her parents, but was also poised to intervene if things got out of hand. She could see that Lacey’s father was trying desperately to control his volatile temper in front of his wife, but Lacey’s goading wasn’t helping matters.
“You’ve no idea what you’re saying,” James ground out between clenched teeth. “These are delusions brought on by the injuries you suffered in that godforsaken war. You aren’t in your right mind. You aren’t…”
“Fuck you!” Lacey shook her head, her bravado quickly ebbing with her waning strength. “I am no more delusional than you are truthful, you pompous son of a bitch.”
“Lacey! Really! Is such language really necessary?” Meredith was still looking from her husband to her daughter, as Mac watched the storm pass as quickly as it had started. The Stephens matron seemed to be trying to find some sense of order in the confusing interplay between father and daughter. “You are still a respectable young woman, and I won’t have that kind of language out of your mouth. Heaven only knows what you picked up over in that godforsaken place.”
“I learned to cuss like a damned sailor, Mother,” Lacey snorted and couldn’t help the weary chuckle that escaped her. “It happens when you serve with people who weren’t raised with silver spoons in their damned mouths.”
Mac wanted to say something about Lacey’s colorful language choices during their time together in Iraq, but she remained completely silent. She wanted to remain an observer at the moment and allow Lacey to finish what she started.
“You still haven’t answered my question,” Lacey said in a quiet voice, glancing from one parent to the other. “Why are you here?”
“We’re here to put a stop to this nonsense and bring you home with us,” her father’s expression dared her to argue. “I know some very good doctors who can help you, so don’t even think about arguing about our decision. You’re coming home and that’s final. Besides, Paul is anxiously awaiting your return. He knows how hard all this has been on you and he understands. He’s willing to give you a second chance and still wants to marry you. Although, only God knows why he would want to strap himself down with…”
“I’m not going anywhere, Father,” Lacey stood defiantly and mustered what little reserves she could. “This is my home, now, bought and paid for with my own damned money. I no longer answer to you, and I already told you why I won’t marry Paul. This ploy is a farce and you know it. I’m a grown woman and have been making my own decisions for a very long time. I don’t need you telling me what I can or cannot do. End of discussion.”
James’ temper flared again, but quickly abated as he decided on a different tact. “Your mother has been beside herself with worry, Lacey Justine. We had no idea where you’d gone or if you were all right. Please, just come home so we can look after you and make sure you’re getting the proper care you deserve. We just want what’s best for you.”
Lacey glanced at her mother who was giving her the sorrowful look she always used at moments like this one. “It’s not going to work this time, either of you. I’m staying here and that’s final.” She leaned heavily on the back of the couch and stood her ground. “I have all the help I need, right here, in my own home.”
It was at that point that Meredith glanced at Mac standing near the kitchen. “Are you her in-home caregiver, then?”
Mac’s brow lifted. “Hardly,” she snorted, finally able to express some measure of the amusement she’d been holding back during the entire exchange.
James turned to address the woman he hadn’t bothered to acknowledge up to that point. “Then who are you and why are you here? This is obviously a family matter and you are not welcome.”
“That’s none of your damned business!” Lacey piped in with less vehemence than she’d intended. She leaned heavily on the cane and couch, as she made her way over to where Mac stood. “She’s a dear friend of mine from Iraq.” She challenged him to argue, as she lifted her chin defiantly. “We served together in the Army. And since you both are unwelcome guests in my home, I’ll ask you not to treat her with the same disrespect you’ve shown me since birth. She’s a decorated officer and a damned good pilot.”
Her mother gasped.
“You remember?” Meredith’s gaze shot to her daughter.
Lacey shifted, leaning heavily on the cane for support. She could feel her remaining reserves quickly dissipating. The hours and hours of grueling physical therapy she’d endured over the last three months to help build up those muscles that had atrophied during her three-month long coma didn’t seem to be helping much. And to stand in front of her parents and confront them was more than she was prepared to endure.
“I remember more every day,” Lacey answered evasively. She glanced at Mac and saw a twinkle in the taller woman’s eyes and a small half-smirk. “We were on the same flight crew and survived the crash together.”
Mac kept a respectful distance from the woman standing next to her, even though the urge to pull the smaller woman against her and protect her was almost overwhelming. She could see how much effort it was taking Lacey to merely stand there next to her and it suddenly dawned on her how physically sapped the woman still was.
James suddenly broke the silence. “I don’t think you can call nearly dying in the godforsaken desert surviving.” His gaze locked on Mac’s. “And where were you when she was in a coma for three months and couldn’t lift her arms to feed herself once she woke up? Hm? Some friend you turned out to be.”
“I was recovering from my own injuries,” Mac shot back and then moved closer to Lacey. She threw caution to the wind and put a protective arm around the smaller woman’s shoulders. It warmed her to feel Lacey lean into her for support. “I tried to call you to find out how she was doing, but no one would take my calls. So, I took matters into my own hands and came to see her.” She gently squeezed Lacey’s shoulder.
“Well…” James harrumphed. Then his gaze narrowed at the two women standing before him and a sudden realization dawned in his eyes, as they turned suspicious. “Are you lovers?” His tone was full of unbridled derision.
“James!” Meredith gasped.
The question took Lacey totally by surprise. “I…uh…”
“Well? Are you?” James prodded, his glare taking in Lacey and then Mac.
“We were, yes,” Mac answered honestly.
Renewed rage crept into the man’s features, until he suddenly exploded. “Lacey Justine Stephens!!!!”
Mac didn’t even hesitate as she put herself between Lacey and the enraged man in front of her. Meredith grabbed for her husband and tried to hold him back.
“James!” Meredith pleaded. “Please…”
“Leave her alone,” Mac warned with an icy glare, as she put a staying hand in front of her to stop him. “I’m serious. Don’t you dare try to hurt her ever again, Mr. Stephens.”
James Stephens glared up at the tall woman towering over him, until his rage abated and his breathing returned to normal. He shook off his wife’s grip and pointed an accusatory finger toward the smaller woman behind Mac.
“This is not the last you’ve heard from me, young lady,” he waved the finger menacingly. “As your father, it is my duty to stop this and bring you to your senses. We are your family. Not this…this…” He watched Mac’s turn menacing. “No daughter of mine will behave like some…some…deviant!”
“Just leave, Father.” Lacey sighed heavily, as she stepped around her bodyguard and stood her ground. “I didn’t ask you to come here in the first place. Now I’m convinced more than ever that the guards at the gates need a good dressing down for letting you in here.”
The exasperation returned to her father’s expression, but one look at Mac’s warning glare kept him from opening his mouth. He marched to the front door and yanked it open, then turned back to glare at Lacey. “I will not tolerate deviant behavior from any offspring of mine.” He shot his wife a commanding glare. “Meredith!”
Meredith Stephens gave her daughter one last pleading look, before silently following her husband out the door. As soon as they were alone again, Lacey collapsed against the woman holding her.
“Whoa! Whoa! I gotcha,” Mac managed to catch Lacey in time to keep her from crumpling to the floor in a heap. She scooped the smaller woman up into her arms and carried her to the couch, ignoring the strain on her shoulder. “There,” she said as lowered the exhausted woman onto the cushions. “You okay?”
Lacey ran a tired hand through her hair. “Thanks,” she smiled up at her savior. “I’m fine. Just…just really tired.” She was panting in an effort to catch her breath. “It doesn’t take much to zap my strength these days. Just one of the perks of spending three months flat on my back in a damned coma.”
“Yeah, I can now see what you were talking about with your father,” Mac frowned. “He’s not exactly the most congenial person in the world. I’ve really never met anyone quite like him.”
“He’s a real pain in the…” Lacey caught herself and smirked wryly. “I guess we don’t really pick the family we’re born into.”
“No, but we certainly get to choose who we spend our lives with, once we reach adulthood,” Mac agreed. “Is there anything I can get you? A blanket, maybe? Another glass of water?”
Lacey shook her head. “No, I’ll be fine. I just need a few minutes to recharge.” She breathed deeply until the lethargy passed. “Pisses me off that I get tired so easily.” She chuckled. “Guess I won’t try to run any marathons anytime soon.”
Both women were silent for a time as they tried to process what had just happened.
“I thought you handled the situation fairly well,” Mac was the first to break the long silence as she took a seat on the sofa. “It was sure a far cry from what I thought would happen.”
Lacey glanced up at the woman who now sat on the other end of the sofa. “How so?”
Mac shrugged. “Frankly, I thought you would punch his lights out. Six months ago you probably would have—you were that angry with him for the way he treated you.”
“He tried to mold me into his idea of the perfect daughter,” Lacey’s attention returned to her hands in her lap. “I guess I’m tired of giving in to him, like my mother and my sister do. But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that violence isn’t the answer, either. I realize now that violence just begets more violence. Eventually someone has to break the cycle or it just continues to perpetuate, until eventually something terrible happens.” Lacey met Mac’s gaze. “My sister thinks I’m nuts, but she’s still very supportive, especially after I told her about the belt.”
“She didn’t know?”
“I think they knew on some level, but it wasn’t something they were willing to admit,” Lacey answered, tears swimming in her eyes. “He told me that whatever happened in his office stayed in his office. It was his Cardinal Rule—his way of staying in control. I was never to mention it to my mother or anyone else, for that matter. He said it would just worry her. And my sister was too young to understand. At least that was his excuse.”
“I guess I can’t understand how he could do that to you and get away with it,” Mac decided to move back to the couch. She lifted Lacey’s legs into her lap again and absently massaged the tight muscles until they loosened up. “I mean, I know parents abuse their kids, but…Well, he’s a doctor and lives in a mansion and all. Isn’t he supposed to heal people, not hurt them? It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Lacey shrugged. “I’ve given up trying to figure out why my father is the way he is. He never talks about his childhood, so I have nothing to base his behavior on. Maybe he was abused by his father. I just don’t know.”
“Maybe,” Mac continued to rub Lacey’s legs even after she felt them relax beneath her fingers. She didn’t really know if she was doing anything that might help the smaller woman, but she didn’t want to stop either. It was too nice to be close to Lacey after their long separation.
Lacey relaxed for the first time all day. “Mmm, that feels really good.”
“Some people say I have the hands of a sailor,” Mac snickered. “Can’t figure out where they get that from. I’m not a sailor. I’m a pilot.” Her expression turned thoughtful. “Then again, sailor or pilot, what’s the difference? Just don’t tell any squids I said that. Don’t want a bloody nose for crossing the invisible line.”
“I don’t think you have the hands of a sailor,” Lacey let her eyes drift shut. “Your hands are very gentle and strong. A sailor’s hands are calloused, hard.”
Mac continued with her gentle massage and reveled in the contact. “The lady I took horse riding lessons from said my hands were soft on a horse’s mouth. She was impressed that they were so large, yet so gentle.”
“She was right,” Lacey sighed, as she felt her body relax for the first time in…ages?
Lacey studied Mac behind half-closed lids, as the dark-haired woman concentrated on her legs. Lacey couldn’t help but marvel at how beautiful Mac was. Her soft features were lightly tanned from hours spent in the sun. Green eyes traced Mac’s well-defined jaw line and high cheekbones. She noticed a few red marks on Mac’s left cheek and wondered where they’d come from. Without even realizing she was doing it, she reached out and traced one of the small marks with a finger.
“Did you get those in the crash?” Lacey asked quietly.
Mac’s eyes met Lacey’s and she nodded. “Some glass from the windshield got embedded in my face. I think I turned to look at Donaldson right before we hit the ground.” Her eyes turned misty with unshed tears. “He died on impact.” She sniffed and wiped the tears from her eyes. “His family had to bury an empty casket.”
“They didn’t recover his body?”
“No,” Mac answered. “We…” she looked at Lacey. “We blew up the wreckage to keep the bastards from decimating the bodies. We also used it as a diversion.”
“We?” Lacey was confused.
“We,” Mac nodded, “as in you and me. There was an explosives expert onboard with us. He was carrying a bag of C-4, but he wasn’t with us immediately after the crash. Our mission was to find a downed aircraft, rescue the crew and blow up the wreckage. Anyway, after I got you out from under the door, we used the explosives to hide the fact that we survived the crash and escaped.”
“Did it work?”
Mac snorted. “Not exactly, no. We managed to get away from the wreckage, but there was a lot more that happened after that. Long story short, we were rescued two days later.”
Lacey searched her scattered memories to put faces to the names of the men who were lost. “I’m sorry,” she simply said.
“So am I,” Mac said, as she regained control of her emotions. “It wasn’t exactly the perfect ending I’d hoped for.”
“Me either, I guess,” Lacey clasped her hands in her lap and then glanced at the clock. “It’s almost five o’clock. I think I promised you dinner.”
A smile returned to Mac’s face. “Yeah, you did.” She considered for a moment. “You mentioned something about Chinese, I believe.”
Lacey nodded. “There’s a bunch of take-out menus in the drawer over on the other side of the center island. If you would please grab the one for Lee’s Kitchen and the phone, I’ll call in our order.”
Mac quickly grabbed the items and returned to the woman stretched out on the couch. “Here you go,” she said, handing over the requested items.
“Okay, your choices are quite extensive, so,” Lacey quirked a brow at her companion. “What’ll it be, Chief? Moo-shoo pork? General Tso’s chicken? Chow Mein? Chop Suey? They also have a number of shrimp, pork, chicken and beef dishes, including Mongolian beef, sweet and sour chicken, and shrimp fried rice. Or we could go for more exotic…”
“Surprise me,” Mac interrupted and received a smirk in return.
“Okay,” Lacey smirked. “I hope you like spicy.” She dialed the number for Lee’s and quickly placed the order. When she was done she looked at her companion and smiled, a feeling of warmth spreading through her at the woman’s gaze meeting her own. “Can I ask you something?”
“Shoot,” Mac answered easily.
“Do you believe in God?” Lacey considered the bluntness of the question. “I mean, do you believe that God exists?”
Mac’s eyes shot to Lacey’s and searched the smaller woman’s features for some hidden meaning behind the question. “Yes,” Mac finally answered. “I believe he exists in everything around us. I just don’t…” She shrugged. “I don’t really go in for all that religious crap. I think most of it is man-made and has nothing to do with what God really wants from us, including some of what’s in the Bible.”
“Do you think he’s with us, even when shit happens?” Lacey continued. “Is he there during times of war and when someone murders someone? Or is he just there when the good stuff happens?”
Mac thought about that a moment. “I suppose he’s there all the time.”
“Then why do bad things happen?” Lacey frowned. “I mean, why is it that bad shit has to happen at all? Why would he let us get hurt or killed by other people? Why did we crash and why did our guys have to die, when all we were trying to do was help people? What the fuck is up with that?”
“War, humanity…We’re always trying to maintain some measure of control, I guess,” Mac answered with a shrug. “Who knows what those guys were thinking when they saw our chopper out there in the middle of what they consider their territory. Maybe they thought we were another fighter there to take revenge on them for shooting down our guys. Maybe they just knew we were American—infidels who need to be obliterated from the face of the earth. Or maybe they were just ordered to shoot at anything that moved and we happened to come by at the right time. I don’t really have an answer for you. They shot at us and got lucky. Sometimes shit just happens.”
“Do you think God is on our side or on the side of insurgents?”
“Hmm,” Mac pondered that question thoughtfully for a moment. “I don’t think God takes sides, especially in war. We like to think he does, but I don’t believe he does at all.” Her expression turned thoughtful. “I think he’s just there with all of us, waiting for someone to ask for help or turn to him for whatever reason. Sometimes He helps those who ask and other times…” she shrugged. “Other times He’s just there to pick up the pieces afterwards.”
“I think I have to believe He was there with us,” Lacey said with assurance. “I think He made sure we—you and me—that we survived.”
Mac’s brow rose. “Why do you say that?”
Lacey shrugged and met Mac’s steady gaze. “We still have unfinished business to take care of together.”
That brought an unexpected smile to Mac’s lips that quickly spread across her entire face and lit her eyes for the first time in a very long time. It lifted the weight from her shoulders and sent a tingle that soon spread throughout her entire body. For the first time in months, she actually felt like things were looking up.
“You mean that?”
Lacey nodded. “I do.” She paused to consider. “I also think looking forward is a lot better than looking back. Don’t you?”
Mac considered. “I think we can learn a lot from the past, but we also need to move forward and enjoy each and every day that comes along. I know I will, as long as I have you there to share it with. Maybe that’s what God wants from us.”
“Really?” Lacey gave the woman an expectant half-smile. “Do you think we’ll go to Hell for being…you know,” she shrugged. “The Bible says…”
“The Bible was written by a bunch of celibate guys who lived during some very trying times,” Mac interrupted. “Social norms change, people change, times change. Slavery ended, for the most part. And it’s not like all the rulers of the world are men now. Women aren’t considered merely chattel in most countries, anymore. We’ve evolved. We’ve grown as human beings—some of us more than others.”
“Yeah, but we still wage war for the sake of holding onto what little power we can grab onto,” Lacey shot back. “War sucks.”
“Yeah, it does,” Mac agreed. “It sucks in more ways than one, especially since there really isn’t any good reason to wage a war. I mean, why don’t we just flush a boatload of money down the toilet and watch it drift out to sea? That would probably cost less than waging a war half-way around the world. The savings on medical bills and burial costs, alone, would be well worth it.”
They both chuckled at Mac’s seemingly simple answer to the world’s ills.
“So, do you think God will send us to Hell for being together?” Lacey shifted slightly. “I mean, we’re two women who have been in a relationship together. There are a lot of right-wing-nuts out there who would condemn us to the fiery depths for that alone.”
“I’ve already been to Hell,” Mac answered. “Hell for me was being separated from you.” Her gaze met Lacey’s and in it she expressed all the love she was feeling for the woman. She took Lacey’s hands in hers. “I know you don’t remember all the stuff we went through or all we meant to each other, but I want us to be together from this day forward. I love you, Lacey Stephens. And I will spend the rest of my life showing you just how much I want to be with you, even if you never remember what we experienced in the desert.”
Lacey glanced down at her smaller hands in Mac’s larger ones and felt a moment of exhilaration at the intimacy of the contact. “I think I’m open to just about any possibility right now, Mackenzie Papadopoulos.” She smiled up into blue eyes filled with love.
“That makes two of us.”
“So, now what?” Mac lay back against the couch arm and sighed in contentment, as she gently stroked the strawberry-blond locks of the head lying on her chest.
Lacey lifted her chin enough to look into content blue eyes. “I have ice cream in the fridge,” she replied.
“Ugh,” Mac groaned. “I don’t think I can eat another bite, right now.”
Lacey chuckled softly. “That’s what you get for eating the entire carton of broccoli chicken over white rice by yourself, you pig.”
“Don’t forget the three crab rangoons you tossed onto my plate,” Mac growled playfully.
“I didn’t force you to eat those,” Lacey shifted off her human pillow and managed to get to her feet. “You want to watch some TV?” She glanced out the window and noticed the sun had set, as she grabbed the remote from where she had tossed it the night before. It briefly occurred to her that things had definitely changed for the better since the previous night. Was it only yesterday that she was feeling so completely alone? “What time is it anyway?”
Mac glanced at her watch. “Eighteen hundred hours, I think.”
“Hmm,” Lacey flipped on the TV and lowered the volume until it was just background noise. “I really don’t know what’s on.” She surfed the channels, as Mac sat up to make room for her on the couch. “I don’t usually watch TV, especially not on a week night.”
“What do you usually do, then?”
Lacey resituated herself and relaxed into the cushions. “Oh, crap!” She suddenly sat forward and slapped a hand to her forehead. “I was supposed to be at physical therapy at sixteen this afternoon.”
“Oops,” Mac said. “Sorry about that.”
“Why are you sorry?” Lacey shot Mac an incredulous look. “You’re not the one who made me miss my appointment.” She thoughtfully considered for a moment. “Actually, I could blame my parents for the lapse, but what would be the point? Truth be told, I simply forgot.” She shrugged. “I guess I’ll just have to take my butt chewing on Tuesday, when I go in for my hour-long session. Ugh. I hate the long sessions when I miss a shorter one.”
“I take it this isn’t the first time you’ve forgotten an appointment?”
“Um…no,” Lacey had the grace to blush. “My sister usually reminds me, because I can’t seem to remember a lot of things these days.”
“Is it a side effect of the coma?” Mac asked. “I mean, you didn’t seem to have problems remembering before…except on those occasions when you woke up with a hangover.”
Lacey shrugged. “I don’t know. I got through college and my residency just fine, so I must have remembered all the stuff that I studied during test time. Either that or I wouldn’t be a doctor.” She sank back into the cushions again. “The neurologist says I could have suffered some brain damage associated with the crash or the two times my heart stopped when we were en route to the medivac or maybe the coma.”
“You remember your heart stopping?” Mac looked intently at her companion. “I didn’t think you were awake when they rescued us.”
“I wasn’t,” Lacey answered. “I don’t remember any of it. I just know what I was told.” Her eyes met Mac’s and she saw the sadness there. “Oh my God, you were there.” Not a question, but a statement of fact that earned her a quick nod. “I’m sorry I put you through that. No one deserves to see someone they care about die in front of them.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Mac said and couldn’t help it when her hand unconsciously brushed a lock of hair back from Lacey’s face. “I’m just glad we’re here together, now. I thought…I didn’t think…um…”
Lacey glanced at Mac. “Are we? Here, together, I mean.”
Mac let her hand rest on the back of the sofa. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to presume…”
“No, please don’t be sorry, Mac,” Lacey amended. “I know you feel things for me that I can’t yet fully understand or comprehend. I can see it in your eyes.” She watched Mac blush. “I may not remember what we were to each other, but I can’t help feeling this…mm, connection? I feel comfortable sitting here with you, just being with you. Is that weird?”
“No, not at all,” Mac quickly answered. “No more weird than my need to be close to you. I know you can’t remember all that time we spent together, but I’m hoping we can build on what we have right now—maybe even start over and get to know each other in a whole new way.”
Lacey shifted closer to the taller woman. “I’d like that.” She smiled as she let her head rest on Mac’s shoulder. “Is this okay?”
Mac closed her eyes and reveled in the warmth coursing through her at the contact. “Perfect,” she fairly purred her contentment.
“What channel is this, anyway?” Lacey finally spoke after a long silence. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this show before.”
Mac glanced at the TV and smirked. “A ten-plus-year-old adventure show about two friends who travel around Greece together,” she said. “Some critics called it campy. Others just plain dismissed it as being incredibly lame and not worth the hour time slot it took up.”
“Is it any good?” Lacey watched the screen for a moment, as the two main characters danced a jig together using a long prop stick. “Oh, that’s…um…interesting, I guess.” She shook her head when the taller of the two flipped over her companion’s head and landed on her feet.”
Mac shrugged. “The show has a long following, even though it ended almost a decade ago.”
“Who are the actors? Are they still around?” Lacey watched as the show wound down and went into slow-motion with the two main characters hugging and laughing, before the credits suddenly started running at high speed. “Man, the tall one sure looks a lot like you,” her gaze met Mac’s. “Except you’re a lot more beautiful. Same eye color, hair color, but your features are more…um…angular, maybe? Your jaw is square and your nose is smaller, more refined. But the two of you could be distant cousins.”
“Thanks,” Mac blushed to her roots at the compliment. “The taller one is a woman from New Zealand. That’s also not her natural hair color,” she flipped her own hair for emphasis. “Mine is one hundred percent eau natural.”
“And your tan?” Lacey couldn’t help but touch the skin of Mac’s cheek. “Is it natural, too?”
“Yep,” Mac nodded and had to restrain herself from turning just the slightest bit until she could take Lacey’s finger between her lips. Take it slow, Mac. Remember, she doesn’t yet know what we had together. “I spend a lot of time out in the sun. Part of being a rancher.”
“What about the other one?”
“Other one?” Mac was mesmerized by the woman staring so intently at her.
“The short, cute blond?” Lacey added with a smirk.
“Um,” Mac glanced away and broke eye contact. “Uh, sorry. I don’t think the blond is natural, either. She was a strawberry blond in the beginning of the show and the hair just got lighter as time went on. And she’s from Texas. Imagine that.”
Lacey perked up. “Oh? Do tell.”
“Not much to tell, actually,” Mac straightened a bit, as she warmed to her topic. She’d spent some time on her nephew’s computer, Googling stuff that she’d missed during her time in the Army. She’d even found a website dedicated solely to the show they’d just finished watching. “She was born in Katy and now lives near L.A. I think she actually lives in Hermosa Beach or somewhere close to that.”
“Katy’s about ten miles west of downtown,” Lacey added with a nod.
“Okay, good to know,” Mac continued. “She went to school here in Houston and her mom and stepdad own a well-known restaurant in Austin.”
“Austin’s about a hundred miles northwest of here on 290,” Lacey added with a wry smirk. Her expression turned thoughtful. “Wait, you’re not talking about Threadgill’s, are you? I’ve been there.”
“Yeah,” Lacey nodded. “My father knows the owner—or maybe he’s the former owner now. Anyway, his name is Eddie Wilson. They went to school together. And the chicken fried steak is really a-ma-zing,” she licked her lips at the thought. “Father used to take us to the north location when we were kids.” Her expression turned somber. “I haven’t been there in ages. I think the last time I was there was just before I graduated high school. I took a carload of friends up there on a road trip and got the tanning of my life when I got home and my father found out where I’d been. Lily tattled on me.” She absently rubbed her backside. “It was worth it, though.”
“You don’t look a thing like her, you know,” Mac absently commented.
“Like who?” Lacey looked at her in confusion.
Mac pointed at the TV and smirked. “The blond.”
“Oh,” Lacey answered. “I don’t?”
“Nah,” Mac shook her head. “You’re a lot more beautiful and you have a very cute dimple in your right cheek when you smile.”
Lacey smirked. “I’ll bet you say that to all the girls.”
“Nope, I sure don’t,” Mac continued with a knowing smile. “I have very discerning tastes.” Then she added with a smirk, “And I know your hair color is natural.”
“Oh?” Lacey shot her a raised-brow look.
Mac lifted a lock of Lacey’s hair and absently wrapped it around her finger. “There wasn’t time for you to dye your hair in the desert, Doc, not with the hours you kept at the hospital and the OC. You barely had time to catch a quick shower most days, much less bleach your hair.”
“Oh,” Lacey answered. “I guess that makes sense.”
Mac let go of Lacey’s hair and turned to glance at the television. Her expression perked up as the last commercial ended.
“Oh, I love the movie that’s coming up next,” Mac said. “Do you mind if I stay to watch it? I’m not really a fan of watching TV alone, and I don’t really do hotel rooms very well.”
“You’re more than welcome to stay,” Lacey rose from the couch and flipped on several lights. “If you want, I can pop some microwave popcorn and grab us a couple sodas or maybe something stronger, if you want.” She moved to the refrigerator a peeked inside. “I think I have some beer in here, somewhere.”
Mac relaxed against the back of the couch. “That would be great.”
Lacey grabbed two bottles of beer and took a box of microwave popcorn from a cupboard. She quickly scanned the instructions, then popped a bag into the microwave. She opened several drawers and finally found what she was searching for.
“Aha!” Lacey held the bottle opener up in triumph and made quick work of the two caps. “So, did you watch that show a lot?”
“No,” Mac answered next to her.
Lacey straightened with a start. “Oh!”
“Sorry,” Mac blushed, as she grabbed the two bottles from Lacey’s hands. “Didn’t mean to scare you. Better check the popcorn before it burns.”
Lacey stood there for a moment and waited for her racing heart to slow. Being that close to the taller woman made her feel…What? Something familiar? Memories of the two of them flashed into her mind. They were making love in a tent-like place that was vaguely familiar. The images passed as quickly as they hit her, leaving her warm and tingly.
“Are you okay?”
“What?” Lacey shook herself free of the sudden onslaught of memories. “Oh, sorry about that. I should check the popcorn before it burns,” she finished absently.
“You zoned out on me for a minute,” Mac said. “Did you remember something?”
“I…” Lacey pulled open the door on the microwave and gingerly removed the bag. She shook the bag and opened it, letting the steam waft up into the air and fill the kitchen with the delicious aroma of buttered popcorn. “Yeah.”
“Anything special?” Mac prodded as she set the beer down on the center island and turned to lean against the granite surface.
“I…” Lacey looked down at the bag in her hands in an attempt to hide the blush that she knew was suffusing her cheeks. She took a deep breath and met Mac’s gaze. “It was about us…you and me. We were…um…in a tent…together.”
Mac smiled. “Oh.” She quickly grabbed the bottles and carried them over to the couch.
Lacey’s brow lifted at her companion’s unexpected blush, as she took down a large glass bowl and poured the popcorn into it. “So, how many times did we…um…actually…”
Mac cleared her throat as she sipped from one of the bottles. She shrugged, “It’s not like we were a couple of weasels rolling around out there for all to see,” she said. “We had to be careful that no one caught us. The Army isn’t too keen on having gays in the ranks, as you well know.”
Lacey took a seat next to Mac and offered her some popcorn, which Mac took without hesitation. “Yeah,” Lacey agreed. “I mean, I don’t remember exactly what the circumstances were that we were in, but I can imagine that there were a few people who would take umbrage to our…er…relationship.”
“Actually,” Mac sat back again and lifted her arm to the back of the couch in open invitation for Lacey to lean against her. Lacey immediately accepted the silent invitation and scooted against Mac’s side. “We had a few allies on our side.”
“Really?” Lacey set the bowl between them and grabbed a handful. She tossed the popcorn into her mouth, one kernel at a time.
“Yeah,” Mac nodded through a mouthful that she quickly chewed and swallowed, then followed with more beer. “Kevin Johnson—he’s that friend of yours from OCS. He was on our side and even got in a fight to defend your honor. Crazy guy was still head-over-heels in love with you, even though he knew he didn’t have a chance with you.”
“OCS?” Lacey frowned at the unfamiliar acronym.
“Officer Candidate School,” Mac clarified.
“Anyway, he’s a major and actually put his career on the line to make sure our CO didn’t have any reason to believe we were having a relationship,” Mac continued. “Oh, CO means commanding officer, in case that one didn’t register, either.”
Lacey considered Mac’s words for a moment. “Wait, why would he need to defend us? Was there something else going on? Were we under investigation or something?”
“Hit the nail on the head with that one,” Mac muttered with an eye roll, as she realized she’d said more than she intended. She breathed a heavy sigh and pulled her arm from the back of the couch so she could lean forward. As she collected her thoughts, she grabbed the bowl of popcorn and set it on the coffee table. “Okay, here’s the deal.” She turned her gaze on Lacey, who watched her intently. “Things weren’t exactly…um…great in the desert.”
“Ooookay,” Lacey drew out the word expectantly. “So we had some problems with people who don’t like gays?”
“Yeah, you could say that,” Mac answered. “You could also say…”
Lacey shifted and clasped her hands in front of her. “Wait, wait, wait…Let me get this straight. You’re not telling me we were discovered, are you?”
Mac swiped a hand down her face. “You’re not going to like what I’m about to tell you…”
She didn’t have the chance to finish what she was going to say, because at that moment the doorbell rang. Both women looked at the door then at each other. Mac rolled her eyes and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Saved by the bell,” she muttered.
“Wait, don’t you even think this lets you off the hook, Chief,” Lacey said as she got up and crossed the room.
Mac noticed that Lacey wasn’t using her cane to get around and briefly wondered about that. The woman still limped noticeably, but didn’t seem as fatigued as she’d been when her parents were there. Lacey pulled the door open and was only slightly surprised to see her sister standing in the doorway.
“Hey, Lil,” Lacey motioned for the well-dressed woman to enter. “What’s up?”
“Lacey,” Lily glanced at Mac and nodded. “Mackenzie.”
“Lily,” Mac acknowledged the woman with a frown and saluted her with her beer, wondering what mischief the woman was going to bring down on them.
“Am I interrupting something?” Lily glanced from Mac to the popcorn sitting on the table and back at her sister. “You two seem very cozy here.”
Lacey breathed out a deep sigh and limped across to sit back down on the couch. “We were just watching a movie. Wanna join us? We have popcorn.”
“And beer,” Mac interjected.
Lily stood there in the doorway for another moment and then took a seat in the chair. “Mother and Father called me,” she said with a stern look that took in how close the two women were sitting next to each other on the couch. “Mother was ranting about a scene and Father ordered me to come here and straighten you out.”
Lacey snorted. “Oh, he did, did he?”
A smile broke out on Lily’s face, but she quickly sobered. “What’s going on, Lacey?” She shot an accusing glance at Mac, who merely shrugged and remained silent.
“Do—not—even—presume…” Lacey started.
“Whoa, wait a minute there, sis,” Lily put up a staying hand and shook her head. “I’m not here to interfere in whatever it is the two of you have going on.” She shot another glare at Mac. “Unless Mac, here, has been filling your head with…nonsense.”
Lacey glanced at Mac and smiled reassuringly. “Mackenzie and I have just been getting reacquainted. That’s all,” she said to her sister.
Lily’s brow shot up and then her expression relaxed. “Reacquainted, huh?”
“Yes,” Lacey sat back against the cushions with a heavy sigh. “Why the hell would you come all the way out here…Uh, wait.” She gave her sister a suspicious glare. “You came here to make sure she’s not telling me what happened in the desert, didn’t you?”
“I came here because Mother about had an apoplectic fit when they got home and Father was ready to call the police and have one of you arrested. I don’t know which,” Lily shot back with a smirk. “Something about an assault on all that is decent and holy and righteous and....Well, you get the picture.”
Mac couldn’t help the snort that escaped unbidden. “Sorry,” she said and covered her mouth to hide her amusement.
“Don’t be,” Lily waved her off negligently. “This isn’t anything new. It’s happened too many times to count.” She glared at her sister. “Do you know how utterly exasperating it is to have your parents on speaker phone as they rant and rave about their immature elder child? No, you probably don’t, because you weren’t here when they listened to your message about joining the Army. Not to mention the time you announced that you weren’t going to do your residency here in Houston…Or…”
“Lily…” Lacey started and was cut short.
“Don’t Lily me, Lacey Justine,” Lily interrupted. “You don’t have the slightest idea what it’s been like here during these past years, with you gallivanting from one military base to the next and me stuck listening to…well, them.”
“Lily,” Lacey tried again. “I’m…”
“Do not tell me you’re sorry, Lacey,” Lily waved a finger at her sister. “You don’t get to apologize while I’m having a good rant. I need to get this off my chest, so I don’t have an apoplectic fit and take out my anger on some undeserving servant in my home.”
“Can I say something?” Mac put in.
“No!” Both sisters said in unison.
“Okay, it’s just,” Mac went on anyway. “I think you two are missing the point.”
“What point?” Lacey turned her attention on Mac. “Exactly what point is there to all this?”
“Yeah,” Lily agreed.
“I’m just saying that you two need to look at this like adults,” Mac continued and was mildly surprised when she wasn’t interrupted.
Twin sets of eyebrows shot up at her words.
“So, you’re saying we’re not acting like adults?” Lily said with considerably less bravado.
“I’m just saying,” Mac pointed an accusing finger at Lily, “you need to stop playing mouthpiece for your parents. They had their say while they were here, and it wasn’t exactly a treat to listen to your father’s tirades.” She paused only long enough to let the words sink in. “Your sister has been through a lot, and you need to understand that she isn’t the same person she was when she left here, all those years ago. She’s an adult—an adult who is perfectly capable of making her own decisions, might I add.” She turned her gaze on Lacey. “And you need to start acting like an adult. Make your own decisions and stop letting others dictate what you will or will not do.” She paused again to let the words sink in. “If you really want to know what happened while we were in Iraq, I’ll tell you everything—every last little gory detail. I’m going to give you the entire story, not just the candy-coated version.” She watched Lacey’s expression as she heard Lily’s gasp.
“But…” Lily tried to intervene.
“No,” Mac held a finger up to stop Lily’s protest. “She has the right to know what happened.” She returned her gaze to the woman next to her and placed a comforting hand over Lacey’s. “I’m not going to lie to you and tell you it was a wonderful adventure. There are things that happened that won’t be easy for you to hear.” She took Lacey’s hand in hers and held it. “But if you want to hear it, I’m willing to explain it the best I can.”
Lily prodded, “But the doctor said…”
“Mac’s right,” Lacey interrupted and glared at her sister. “It’s time I made my own decisions from here on out, even if those decisions aren’t in my best interests.” She gave the taller woman a warm smile. “I don’t care if the memories ever come back or not. I just want to know what happened, if for no other reason than to know what we had together.” She glanced down at the hand holding hers and reveled in the contact as she let her thumb gently caress the soft skin. “This,” she nodded to their joined hands, “is what the future holds for me.” She looked over at her sister and met Lily’s return glare with her own. “I found what I was looking for when I went to Iraq, Lil.” She looked back at Mac and let all the love reflected in her eyes course through her. “It probably wasn’t pretty. Hell, war sucks!” They both snickered at that. “I just know that I have a future with this woman, even if I don’t yet remember everything that happened to bring us to this point.” She turned her attention back to her sister. “You’re welcome to come here anytime you want to, as my sister, Lil. But I don’t want you to come here as the mouthpiece for Mother and Father anymore. Mac is right about that, too. So, are we clear on that?”
Lily sighed and leaned back in her chair, as if everything were just too much for her at that point. “I don’t know what else to do, Lac.”
“Just tell them you don’t want to hear it anymore,” Lacey shrugged. “Tell them you have your own life to live, which includes a husband and interests of your own. Hell, tell them you’re not me and you won’t put up with them running to you every time they have a problem with me. It’s just that simple.”
“Simple, huh?” Lily’s brow furrowed. “You make it sound like they’ll actually listen.”
“Don’t answer your phone when they call,” Mac added. “Maybe then they’ll get the hint.”
Lily considered that for a moment. “You want me to just throw all these years out the window and…”
“Start fresh?” Lacey nodded. “Why not? I did.”
Lily chuckled. “You lost your memory. That doesn’t really count.”
“Why not?” Lacey shrugged. “I’m willing to let Mac fill me in on all the gory details,” she smirked at her companion. “I think that should count for something.”
“You could just tell your parents that you had a breakdown and don’t remember anything,” Mac interjected with a wry smirk.
“They wouldn’t believe me,” Lily scowled. “But I could try not answering my phone for a week and see how that goes.”
“You’d better shut off the answering machine, then,” Lacey shot her sister a quick wink. “Otherwise you’ll be listening to the recorded rantings of James and Meredith Stephens. Hmm. Come to think of it, you could actually sell that on E-bay.” She got twin looks of consternation. “What?”
“E-bay?” Mac rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, she can remember E-bay, but she can’t remember where she’s been for the last ten years?” Lily agreed with a nod.
“Hey,” Lacey said. “I didn’t say I couldn’t remember. I just said what I do remember doesn’t make any sense. I know names and faces and other stuff. It’s putting it all together that I have trouble with.” She gave her sister a wry smirk. “You might have some unexpected visits from the daring duo if you’re not answering their calls.”
“Yeah,” Lily sighed. “Guess I’ll have to change the locks, too,” she added. “Hearing them rant in person is worse than listening to a recording. Hmm, maybe a trip is in order. I haven’t been to Venice in a really long time. And Bill is still in Washington DC. He’s been appointed to some god-awful committee or something. Damned if I know.”
All three women chuckled.
“So, what movie are you watching, anyway?” Lily turned to see what was on the wall-mounted flat screen. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Fried Green Tomatoes,” Mac acknowledged with a nod. “One of my favorites.”
“I love that movie,” Lily raised a fist. “To-wanda!!!”
“Towanda!!!!” Mac responded with a half-hearted raised fist of her own.
“Am I missing something?” Lacey shot both women a confused glare.
“Oh, tell me you remember the movie,” Lily sighed exasperatedly. “It came out…” She paused and thoughtfully considered. “Oh, maybe you don’t remember. I think it came out in the early nineties.”
“It was released in ninety-one, about the time you would have completed your residency,” Mac added. “Probably right before you entered OCS.”
“You are just a plethora of useless information, aren’t you?” Lacey shot her couch-mate a wry grin.
“I’ve learned to surf the Net, I’m afraid,” Mac deadpanned. “My nephew has a really nice computer that he lets me use from time-to-time. Google, Wikipedia and Ask.com are my friends. And I catch the occasional show on Hulu when I can. Been watching that Warrior Princess one lately.”
“Oh, not that show,” Lily shook her head in consternation.
“What?” Lacey looked from one woman to the other again.
“Seriously?” Lily grimaced and noticed Lacey’s questioning look. “Forget it, Lac. You certainly wouldn’t remember a TV show that hardly anyone ever watched. It came out when you were in the Army.”
“Does it star a certain tall brunette from New Zealand and a short blond from Katy, Texas?” Lacey grinned slyly.
“Wha…” Lily shot her sister a suspicious glare. “How the hell could you possibly remember that?”
Mac couldn’t help but snicker and tried to hide it by slapping a hand to her mouth. She ended up coughing, instead, and had to take a drink of beer to keep from bursting out in a fit of giggles.
“I also have many skills,” Lacey waggled an eyebrow, as she deadpanned the statement.
That comment nearly sent Mac over the edge. If she didn’t have a mouth full of beer, she would have certainly burst out laughing at Lacey’s teasing. As it was, she barely contained the outburst and nearly choked on the beer that nearly went up her nose the wrong way.
“You okay?” Lacey leaned in close and added in a conspiratorial whisper, “You look like the cat that swallowed the canary.”
“Bubbles,” Mac managed after a firm throat clearing. “Got caught in my throat.”
“Mm-hm,” Lacey shot her a wry smirk. “You’re not the only one with many skills, there, Chief.”
“Would you two like a moment alone?” Lily couldn’t help but comment, as she watched the familiar interplay between the two women. “I could leave and let you get back to your movie. I think you need some more time alone to get reacquainted.”
Lacey returned her attention to her sister. “That would certainly be a wonderful gesture on your part, Lil.”
“I am a wonderful person,” Lily smirked as she stood up and headed for the door. “Oh, by the way,” she turned back to the two women still sitting on the couch. “I got a phone call from your physical therapist this evening. You missed your appointment this afternoon.”
“I know,” Lacey said. “I’ll call Tad next week and apologize for not showing up.”
“Tad?” Mac interjected with a raised brow.
“My physical therapist,” Lacey added with a knowing smirk.
“Tad, as in Thaddeus,” Lily added. “He’s a gorgeous hunk with rippling muscles and a tan that goes on forever.” She raised a hand and playfully clawed the air. “Rar!”
Mac’s brow rose into her hairline. “Oh, really.” She glanced at Lacey.
“Don’t worry, Chief,” Lacey patted Mac’s shoulder. “He has nothing on you.”
Lily snickered. “To each her own, sister dear. Ciao!” And with that she left the condo with a resounding snick of the outside door.
“Your sister is a hoot,” Mac commented when they were alone again.
“My sister is something, that’s for sure,” Lacey snuggled closer to her companion. “Now, where were we before we were so rudely interrupted?”
Mac returned her attention to the TV, as she let her arm rest across Lacey’s shoulders. “Watching one of my favorite movies, I believe.” She grabbed the remote and turned up the volume.
Lacey snatched the remote from Mac’s outstretched hand and turned the volume back down, then stuffed the device under the seat cushion beneath her. She gave Mac an expectant look.
“Not what I was getting at,” Lacey said. “You made me a promise.”
“Yeah, you said you would tell me what happened in Iraq,” Lacey prodded. “You also promised you wouldn’t leave anything out, no matter how painful it might be for me to hear.”
Mac looked at the clock and noticed that it was nearly seven o’clock. The day had been a long one, what with the road trip down from Dallas, the search for Lacey’s house and the confrontation with Lacey’s parents. On top of which, she’d worked herself up in anticipation of her meeting with the woman now leaning snuggly against her.
“Yeah,” Mac agreed, but sat forward and yawned unconsciously. “Sorry. It’s been a long day and I still have to drive back to my hotel.”
“Oh,” Lacey’s face fell. She silently considered something for a moment. “You could…” she shrugged. “You could stay here tonight.”
Mac shot her a look at the unexpected offer. “Really?”
“Well, I do have an extra bedroom that I’m not using,” Lacey continued. “You could bunk there and we could continue this discussion in the morning. Tomorrow is Saturday.” She gave Mac a wry look. “I guess I could give you the nickel tour of Houston.”
Mac smiled. “I’d like that, actually.”
“Okay, then,” Lacey said as she settled back against the cushions. “It’s only seven o’clock, so…”
“One problem,” Mac said. “I don’t have my clothes and things with me.” She looked down at herself and then pointedly took in Lacey’s smaller frame. “It’s not like I can borrow an outfit from you.”
“No, I guess not,” Lacey acknowledged. “I could have Lil bring you something of hers.”
Mac snorted. “Does she ever wear t-shirts and jeans?”
“Um, no,” Lacey answered. “I don’t think she owns a pair of jeans. But she might have a pair of beige slacks and a white shirt you can borrow. I can always ask about the jeans.”
“Okay,” Mac smirked. “I guess we could swing by my hotel when we go out tomorrow and I could change then.”
“Sounds good,” Lacey said. “Oh, um, by the way, I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”
“Yeah?” Mac was leery of Lacey’s questions.
“Oh, it’s nothing bad,” Lacey quickly amended in response to the hesitant look she was receiving from her taller companion. “I just want to know if you might want someone there with you when you have your surgery.”
Mac’s expression softened. “Oh,” she said with a warm smile. “I guess that would be great. Who do you have in mind?”
Lacey slapped Mac’s shoulder. “Oh, you,” she chastised playfully. “I would love to come up to Dallas for a few days. I can get some shopping done and just be there if you need me.”
Mac gazed down at the woman lying against her. She felt so much love swell up inside her that she didn’t know if she would be able to contain it for long. She’d been a little depressed at the thought of having surgery so far from home, without her family there with her. Now, however, she was elated to have Lacey volunteer to go with her and be there for her.
“Are you sure?” Mac asked hesitantly, not wanting the woman to back out on her offer or change her mind, but also not wanting to impose. “I mean, I don’t want to put you out or anything. You aren’t going to miss any important appointments or anything, are you?”
“I can reschedule,” Lacey waved it off. “Besides, it’ll give us a chance to get to know each other…um…”
“Yeah,” Mac agreed with a nod. “I know what you mean.”
“So, a road trip?” Lacey looked up at Mac expectantly.
“A road trip it is,” Mac said with a curt nod.
“Great,” Lacey glanced at the TV. “Now that that’s settled, how about I show you where you’ll be sleeping tonight?”
“Okay,” Mac waited for Lacey to get up and then followed the woman down the hall.
“This is my office,” Lacey waved a dismissive hand toward an open door as she passed it. “And this,” she stopped in front of the next door, “is the guest room.” She flipped on the light and stepped inside the spacious room. “I know it’s not much, but…”
“No, it’s great,” Mac said as she stepped into a room that she could only describe as oceanic. “Very nice for a guest room.” She smirked. “Did you do the decorating yourself?”
“My sister had most of the decorating done in the condo,” Lacey said as she stepped to a set of glass doors and shut vertical blinds painted to look like ocean currents. “Lily likes to pretend she’s an interior decorator sometimes. She did this room after she spent a month in the Bahamas. I can’t believe she didn’t have tetras and angel fish painted on the walls.”
“Not bad,” Mac said, as she gazed around at a room that didn’t quite match the rest of the condo’s decor.
There was a small pine desk and chair in one corner and a small book shelf against one wall. A double bed graced the other wall and above it hung an ocean scene that was painted to show a view from both above and below the water. Sea gulls soared over the cerulean water, while a myriad of brightly colored fish swam below. There was even a reef at the bottom and sunlight streaming down into the depths.
“I like the painting,” Mac stepped closer to get a better look. “Is it…”
“It’s one of a kind,” Lacey finished. “The artist lives in Malibu, California, and comes to Houston once a year for the big art show downtown. “There’s a bathroom across the hall and Lily stocked it with a few extra toiletries.” She smirked, “I think she’s trying to get me to socialize and bring someone home with me. I’ve been invited to several parties and a few nightclubs, but…” she shrugged, “I don’t really go in for that kinda thing.”
“More of a homebody, now, eh?” Mac asked as she leaned against the wall and crossed her arms over her chest.
Lacey shrugged. “Not really into the whole party scene, I guess.” She smirked. “I like reading a good book and listening to music after a hard day of physical therapy.” She stopped to consider. “Was that how I was in Iraq?”
Mac’s expression turned thoughtful. “Not really, no. You spent a lot of time at the Officer’s Club, before the colonel closed the place down and sent our contraband alcohol back to wherever it came from.”
“What did I do there?”
“Um...” Mac shrugged, as she kept her hands in her back pockets to keep them from touching the smaller woman. “You mostly drank.”
“Alcohol?” Lacey gave the woman a raised-brow look. “I thought the Iraqis are Muslims.”
Mac snorted. “Another factoid that shows you can remember more than you’re willing to let on.”
Lacey shook her head. “I had a course in world religions in college. Had to learn about a number of them and Muslim—or are we calling it Islamic now? Anyway, that was one of them. I guess I remember the no-alcohol stipulation that was mentioned.”
“Go figure,” Mac snickered.
“So, did I really drink a lot while I was there?” Lacey frowned.
Mac nodded. “I think you were trying to drown your sorrows and forget.”
Lacey’s frown deepened. “Why?”
“Mm,” Mac considered her response for a moment. “You’d been in Iraq for a while before I got there, but I imagine you were pretty overwhelmed by all of the…um…work that you did over there.”
Lacey sat down on the bed. “Was it really that bad?”
Mac joined her. “It was…” she shrugged. “War sucks. It’s not exactly what the brochures and recruiters describe when they’re trying to get you to sign on the dotted line. There’s a lot of blood and death and…well, you get the picture.”
Lacey looked down at her hands and then turned her gaze on Mac. “Did I have to kill anyone?”
“You’re a doctor,” Mac said. “It wasn’t your job to kill people. You dedicated your life to saving people. And, from what I know, you did a kickass job of saving a lot of people—soldiers and civilians alike.”
Lacey sighed. “I just wish…”
Mac lifted Lacey’s chin and gazed into her sea-green eyes. “You will eventually remember, Lacey. I know it doesn’t seem possible right now. But it will happen in its own time and when you’re ready for it. Please don’t try to push it. Okay?”
Lacey shrugged. “It’s just really…um…weird.”
“What?” Mac asked when Lacey didn’t immediately elaborate.
Lacey motioned between the two of them. “I know this is gonna sound strange to you, but I feel like we were really close, like we…um…”
“Like we loved each other?” Mac supplied.
“Yeah, kinda,” Lacey shrugged and couldn’t stop the blush that suffused her cheeks.
Mac smirked. “Would it freak you out if I told you we were very close?” Her gaze met Lacey’s and she smiled warmly. “I know it seems really strange to you. But it feels perfectly natural to me to be like this, to be this close.” She placed her hand over Lacey’s and was gratified that the smaller woman didn’t pull away. “We weren’t public with our displays of affection, but there were a few of our close friends who knew there was something special between us. Rules and regs aside, we managed to find a place in each other’s hearts.”
“Did I…” The unfinished question blazed in Lacey’s eyes.
“Did you tell me you love me?” Mac shook her head. “Maybe, but it was probably after the crash and we were both pretty banged up. I think putting it into words was really hard for you, back then.” She watched disappointment shadow Lacey’s features. “Oh, we loved each other. Of that I have no doubt. But did you tell me you were in love with me? Probably not.”
“Then how do you know?” Lacey prodded. “I mean, if I didn’t tell you that I loved you or was in love with you, how could you possibly know?”
Mac considered the question and shrugged. “How did you know you were gay?”
Lacey gave her a confused stare. “Huh?”
“How did you know you liked being with women more than men?” Mac clarified.
“Because,” Lacey answered lamely. “I just knew.”
“Exactly,” Mac smirked. “I just knew you loved me. You may not have said the words, but that didn’t diminish the sentiment behind them.” She took Lacey’s hands in hers. “I keep saying this, but I know you don’t remember us. What I do know is that if you search deep down inside yourself you will figure out what this means,” she held their hands up between them. “You’ll realize that this is very real. We, the two of us, are an important part of who we are. Together we were able to survive the unspeakable. And together we will move forward and get through all of this.”
Lacey glanced at their joined hands and then up into the eyes of love. “I’m…I’m really scared.” The words came out on a shuddered whisper.
Mac smiled encouragingly. “I’m here with you, no matter what happens.”
Lacey nodded as Mac lowered their joined hands. She wasn’t sure if she was ready for a relationship with someone she could barely remember, but the thought of going through life completely alone was even more terrifying to her.
The few things she had been able to remember with clarity had only added to her fear that what she had experienced in Iraq went far beyond anything a sane person could tolerate. She wasn’t even sure that having Mac relate those experiences to her was such a good idea anymore. What if…
Lacey shook off her morose thoughts and merely allowed herself the opportunity to revel in the feel of the woman’s hands in hers. There was time enough later for what-ifs.
Morning was Lacey’s favorite time of the day. She sat at the center island in a pair of sweats and an oversized Army t-shirt, as she sipped coffee and watched the sunrise through her large picture window. It was another beautiful day in Houston and she was glad to be part of it. Her house guest was still asleep and she smiled to herself at the mere thought of having the tall woman share her home.
They hadn’t stayed up much later after their conversation in the guest bedroom. Mac’s yawns had become more frequent and Lacey finally let the woman off the hook. They said a quick goodnight and then Lacey headed to her room. Unfortunately, she hadn’t been able to fall asleep right away, not with all the day’s images running around in her head. So, she merely lay there in the darkness, reviewing all the day’s events.
The sound of the toilet flushing and the bathroom door opening brought Lacey’s attention back to the present. She watched in silent amusement as a rumpled Mac shuffled past her into the kitchen without a word.
“Morning,” Lacey smiled brightly, as Mac grabbed a cup of coffee and downed half of it before looking up. “How’d you sleep?”
“Pretty good,” Mac replied, as she groggily tried to focus bleary eyes on her companion. “Not bad coffee,” she held up her coffee cup.
“Coffee is one of the things I can do without a problem,” Lacey commented with a wry smirk. “I guess I still have enough of a hankering for it to make it passable.”
“Better than the stuff we used to tolerate in the desert,” Mac commented absently as she ran a hand through her disheveled hair. “Mm, I think I need a shower.”
“Help yourself,” Lacey glanced down at the morning paper in front of her and scanned it for anything interesting. “There are brand new towels in the cupboard beneath the sink and the shower is fully equipped for guests.”
“Compliments of your sister?” Mac teased with a smirk.
“Lily is thorough, I’ll give her that,” Lacey returned with a smirk of her own. “Did you find anything lacking last night?”
“Are you kidding?” Mac shot her a teasing look. “Have you seen what she put in there?”
“Not really, why?” Lacey frowned. “Don’t tell me she forgot to get toothpaste and toothbrushes. She’s usually fairly thorough.”
“I think you should see for yourself,” Mac motioned for Lacey to join her.
Lacey followed Mac into the bathroom and was a bit surprised when the woman opened the mirrored cabinet next to the sink. There were all kinds of toiletries in the cabinet, including at least six different brands of toothpaste, half a dozen combs and brushes in an assortment of styles and colors, numerous toothbrushes and three full bottles of mouthwash. Lacey also saw at least half a dozen brands of bar soap, a large refill bottle of antibacterial hand soap and another large refill bottle of body wash.
“Oh…my,” Lacey gaped at the choices.
“You had no idea, did you?” Mac leaned against the door jam and watched in amusement as the smaller woman took in the contents of her guest bathroom.
“I really had no idea,” Lacey said. She turned to her companion. “Did she happen to leave any clothing in here for you?”
Mac smirked and motioned toward the bedroom with her head. “Oh, I think I can find something to wear,” she said as she went to a drawer and pulled it open to reveal several pairs of jeans, t-shirts, and sweatshirts in various sizes and designs. “I’m a little curious to know why she thinks you would entertain such a diverse assortment of guests.”
Lacey nearly laughed out loud at the absurdity of her sister’s antics. “I think she wants to cover all the bases.”
Mac lifted a brow curiously. “She couldn’t possibly have known my exact size when she went shopping,” she said as she lifted out a pair of faded blue jeans and held them in front of her.
“You would be surprised what my sister knows,” Lacey responded as she took the jeans from Mac’s hands and folded them over her arm. “I guess I won’t be calling her to bring over an outfit for you to wear.”
“No, I don’t really think that’s necessary,” Mac answered. “I believe I have everything I need,” she went to the closet and opened it for Lacey’s inspection. “She even went so far as to put a few nice outfits in here, just in case.”
Lacey rolled her eyes. “Oh, good grief. I think she needs more therapy to address her obsessive shopping problem.”
Mac chuckled on her way to the bathroom. “I’ll be out as soon as I’m done with a nice hot shower.”
“You might need these,” Lacey said and launched the jeans at the taller woman.
Mac caught the pants easily and returned to the bedroom to grab a white cambric shirt from the closet. “I might need this, too.”
Lacey just shook her head, as she made her way back to the kitchen. “I think I need to call my sister and do some sleuthing of my own,” she muttered to herself as she grabbed for the wall-mounted cordless phone and punched in a speed-dial number.
She only waited two rings for an answer. “Hello?” Came a bleary voice on the other end.
“Hello, sister dearest,” Lacey said as she heard the water in the shower start up. “How’s your morning going?”
“Lacey?” Lily’s surprised voice sounded in Lacey’s ear. “What in the world are you doing calling me at…um…is it really six in the morning?”
“Yes, it is, Lil,” Lacey shot back. “What’s with all the toiletries and clothes?”
“The guest bathroom is fully stocked with supplies, Lil,” Lacey clarified. “And the closet in the guest bedroom looks more like the clothing department at Nordstrum’s than a closet.”
“Oooh,” Lily’s voice finally registered what her sister was talking about. “I just decided you should have some stuff, you know, in case you finally had a beau or.... Wait, how did you know about all that stuff? You don’t even go into either of those rooms.” There was a short pause. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me. You didn’t let that woman spend the night, did you?”
“That woman, Lil?” Lacey’s ire rose at the question. “She happens to be my friend.”
“You don’t even remember her, Lacey,” Lily shot back. “How can you let her stay the night in your home? She’s a complete stranger to you. How do you know she’s even who she says she is?”
“There you go acting like Mother and Father again,” Lacey accused with an eye roll. “It wasn’t your choice to make. It was mine.”
“Still,” Lily continued.
“Still, nothing, Lily,” Lacey sighed exasperatedly and shook her head. “I don’t need to have this conversation with you. I just called to find out why the guest bedroom was stocked with clothes that are Mac’s size.”
“It is?” Lily’s voice sounded surprised. “I mean, I didn’t exactly know what sizes to get, so I just had Neiman’s send over a few things in various sizes. I charged it all to Father’s private account, since I didn’t know which account you would have had me use.”
Lacey nearly chuckled at the irony. “Nice,” she said instead. “Well, thanks. Mac didn’t have her clothes or toiletries with her, so it was nice that she didn’t have to do a quick wash and rinse.”
“I didn’t think to have them send over any underwear,” Lily added as an afterthought. “Maybe I should call over there and have them…”
“It’s all right, Lil,” Lacey said. “I’m sure Mackenzie can get by until we stop by the hotel and collect her things.”
“She’s staying with you for the duration, then?” Her sister’s voice was suddenly interested.
“I haven’t asked her, yet, but I imagine she’d rather stay here than in a hotel,” Lacey answered, then her expression turned thoughtful. “I’m not exactly sure which hotel she’s staying at. This could be interesting.”
“Maybe it isn’t a hotel at all,” Lily interjected with sarcasm. “Maybe she’s staying at one of the small drive up motels. You know, they are much cheaper per night than a hotel. She probably can’t afford even one night in a hotel. Not with her Army pay and all.”
“Oh—my—God!” Lacey shot back angrily. “I…I won’t even dignify that asinine statement with a response.” And she immediately hit the end button.
Lacey stared at the phone in her hand for a moment before she shoved it back on the wall mount and returned to the center island. She took a sip of her coffee and winced.
“Ugh, cold,” she grimaced as she poured the brew into the sink and poured herself a fresh cup. She took a sip, “Better.”
Lacey ran a hand through her hair and grimaced. She wanted nothing more than to take a nice hot shower, but also wanted to respect her guest’s use of the hot water. The conversation with her sister still weighed on her and made her realize, to a certain degree, why she had decided to leave home and not return. She stood there at the counter, pondering the situation she’d found herself in. Lacey glanced around the room that her sister had decorated for her and realized just how much she’d let the woman dictate what would and would not be appropriate for her.
“I am such an idiot,” Lacey muttered as she took another sip of coffee.
“Not in my book, you aren’t,” Mac commented.
Lacey turned to find the woman fully clothed in a pair of snug blue jeans and a white t-shirt that seemed to fit her perfectly. Mac’s dark hair was still wet and she was absently toweling it dry, as she entered the kitchen and grabbed a fresh cup of coffee.
“I didn’t realize you were standing there,” Lacey said, as she tried to hide the instant blush that suffused her cheeks.
“Obviously,” Mac smirked as she leaned against the counter sipping her coffee and draping the towel around her shoulders. “You okay? You seem a little flustered.”
“I’m fine,” Lacey said and carried her coffee to the other side of the center island, where she took a seat in one of the high chairs. “I just had a wonderful conversation with my sister.”
“Oh?” Mac’s interest was piqued. “How’s she doing this morning? Did she spill the beans about the clothes and toiletries?”
“She’s the same as always,” Lacey commented with a shrug. “Still trying to run my life. What’s new? I swear she thinks I’m the younger sister, and she has to take care of me all the time.”
Mac regarded Lacey with a curious eye over the rim of her coffee cup. The woman she knew in Iraq wasn’t the same person sitting across from her now. This woman was far less confident about who she was and what she did, except when it came to confronting her parents. This Lacey Stephens also seemed to be more like a wet-behind-the-ears college graduate than a woman with years of hands-on experience in the medical field.
“So, get a job and move on,” Mac said. “There’s nothing that says you have to let your family dictate who and what you are. You’re a doctor with a whole career’s worth of practical experience under your belt. That has to count for something.”
“Yeah, except I can barely remember any of it,” Lacey snorted.
Mac set her cup on the counter and crossed her arms over her chest. “Skills like that can’t easily be forgotten, Lacey. It’s kinda like riding a bike—once you learn how, you don’t forget.”
“Oh really?” Lacey’s brow lifted in challenge. “Are you a doctor now? Eh?”
“No,” Mac shot back. “But I know how hard you worked out there in the desert and how good you were. That’s not something you can just forget.”
Lacey sighed as she gazed at her hands. “I haven’t practiced medicine once since…Well, you know. I don’t know if I can…” She finished by shaking her head.
Mac saw the tears swimming in Lacey’s eyes and felt a strong tug on her heartstrings. She went over to the other chair and sat down facing the smaller woman, taking Lacey’s hands in hers.
“I know you’re scared,” Mac said. “I know you’re scared, because so am I.”
“Yeah,” Mac continued. “I’m scared that when I have this surgery, I won’t wake up and see you again. I’m also scared that something will happen and I won’t be the same person I was before.”
Lacey shook her head. “You’ll be fine.”
Mac smirked. “And so will you.” She squeezed the hands in hers and was glad to feel Lacey’s hands squeeze back. “You just have to believe that this will all turn out okay. Believe that you can do anything you put your mind to and you’ll be unstoppable.”
Lacey regarded Mac for a moment. “How did you become so…”
“Smart?” Mac gave her a dazzling smile. “I learn only from the best, ma’am.”
Lacey returned the smile and let go of Mac’s hands, as she gingerly climbed from the chair. “I better take a shower if I’m going to be your tour guide around Houston today,” she said as she headed toward her room. “I’ll only be a few minutes. Just make yourself at home.”
Mac watched the woman disappear down the short hallway and into the master bedroom. She hoped she hadn’t been too forward with her encouragement. Mac just wanted the best for the woman she had grown to love. But she also knew she had to tread lightly and ease back into Lacey’s life without scaring her. The pilot was walking a fine line and knew that any misstep would land them back at square one.
Hours later, the two women were seated at a table-for-two outside the Home Plate Bar and Grill. The restaurant was situated across the street from Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros baseball team. They were enjoying lunch and some lighthearted conversation as they took in the sites.
“So, where to next?” Lacey said as she took a bite of her cobb salad. “Would you like to see the museum? Or maybe one of your other nephews expects you to bring back a souvenir from another stadium?”
Mac glanced down at the shopping bag full of souvenirs. An orange pennant stuck up conspicuously from the bag and Mac smirked. She knew there was an Astros jersey and a miniature bat buried at the bottom of the bag.
“I’m not much of fan of museums,” Mac replied, as she took a bite of her fully-loaded hamburger.
“There’s an aquarium over on Memorial,” Lacey said hopefully, as she sipped her sweet tea. “And the Hard Rock Café is over on that side of town, too.” She paused thoughtfully. “Didn’t you say you were staying at the Courtyard by Marriott?” Mac nodded. “We could swing by and pick up your stuff…um…That is, if you would rather stay at my place until you head back up to Dallas. It’s up to you.”
Mac smirked at the roundabout way Lacey slipped the invitation into the conversation. “Can I still sleep in the same room?” She teased. “After our visit to the aquarium, I might just need to be close to the fish for a while longer.”
“I think we can work something out,” Lacey gave her a wink. “Just don’t ask housekeeping to turn your bed down at night and leave a mint on your pillow.”
“You have a housekeeper?” Mac asked.
“Daniela only comes on Thursdays,” Lacey said. “Compliments of my loving sister and her constant interference. She thought I could use a helping hand around the house, since I’m still not allowed to lift one arm above my head or carry more than ten pounds or vacuum or…Well, you get the idea.”
Mac did get the idea. “Restrictions are a bitch,” she said as she rotated her shoulder slightly to emphasize her point. “After this surgery, I’ll be back to square one, again.”
Lacey considered Mac for a moment. “Are you still scared?”
Mac shrugged. “A little,” she answered as she finished her hamburger and wiped her mouth on the cloth napkin in her lap. “There’s not much I can do about it, though. So, worrying won’t solve anything.”
“No, it won’t,” Lacey agreed. “Sometimes you just have to trust that you’ll be in good hands.”
“Do you?” Mac regarded Lacey with a critical eye.
“I’m a doctor,” Lacey quipped. “I only trust myself. It’s that whole ‘doctors make terrible patients’ stigma.” She waved a negligent hand.
“Is that it?” Mac gave her a skeptical look with one lifted brow. “You don’t trust other doctors to do what only you can do?”
Lacey set her fork down and slowly lifted her napkin to her mouth, taking her time as she carefully considered her answer. “I have all the credentials and, according to you, I also have all the experience, but…” She sighed as she sipped her tea. “I don’t remember doing the actual work, so the answer is no. I don’t trust myself enough to believe that I am invincible. I almost died—twice. Do you know what that’s like?”
“Yes, actually,” Mac said as she set her napkin on the table and rested her chin on her folded hands. “I died during surgery.”
Mac nodded. “They say my heart stopped for less than three minutes, but that was enough to declare me legally dead. Fortunately, it wasn’t my time.” She grinned. “I had too much to live for then, just as I have even more to live for now.”
Lacey regarded her for a moment. “You say that with such conviction…I just don’t…know.”
Mac reached across the table and grasped Lacey’s hand in hers. “I know you’re scared of this,” she indicated their joined hands. “It’s not easy for me, either. You’re not exactly the same woman I knew in Iraq, you know. But I know the Lacey Stephens I fell in love with in the desert is somewhere inside there, just waiting for the right moment to make her reappearance.” She smiled encouragingly. “You just need to give yourself a chance to find the balance between the woman you were and the one you are now.”
“But I don’t know that other woman,” Lacey gently pulled her hand from Mac’s grasp and rested it in her lap. “I don’t know who she is or if she’s even worth resurrecting.” She frowned. “Maybe I don’t want to remember her. Maybe I’m better off without her.”
“She was smart, funny, assertive and confident,” Mac said. “I don’t think you’re that much different. Just a few minor adjustments and you could be twins.” She smirked wryly.
“Ha, funny,” Lacey said. “You might want to keep your day job. Comedy sure isn’t your schtick.”
A dark brow rose. “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”
“Do those lines really work for you?” Lacey challenged with a gleam in her eyes. “’Cause they seem really cheesy. You sure you’re not from Wisconsin?”
“Positive,” Mac replied. “Never even been there. But I have heard of the Green Bay Packers. They have a pretty good team, from what my nephew tells me.”
“Excellent quarterback,” Lacey acknowledged with a nod.
“Speaking of which,” Mac glanced down at her souvenir bag. “You wouldn’t mind taking a detour to the stadium where the Texans play, do you? I promised the nephew a Texans jersey. We can then head over to the aquarium and…”
“Let me guess, another nephew?” Lacey smirked. “How many do you have, anyway?”
“Just the three,” Mac replied with an easy smile. “Jimmy, Tanner and DJ, who I also call Digger.” She pulled the brand new wallet her family had given her as a going-away present from her back pocket and opened it. “This is Jimmy. He’s the oldest and looks a lot like my brother, Ben,” She flipped to the next picture. “Tanner is the middle boy and is the one teaching me to use the computer. I sometimes call him the Google King.”
“Aquarium boy?” Lacey smirked.
“Or that,” Mac nodded. “He loves trivia and facts, too. Just can’t seem to get enough, especially when it comes to animals.” She flipped to another photo. “This is Digger,” she smirked. “He’s six and tries to follow in his older brothers’ footsteps, as much as possible.”
Lacey smiled. “Cute kids. I bet they keep you on your toes when you’re there.”
Mac tucked the wallet back in her pocket. “I’ve been teaching them how to tie knots in our spare time. Tanner can watch me tie one and mimic the exact knot within a try or two. He’s really that good.”
“You tie knots?” Lacey frowned.
“Not just any knots,” Mac noted her companion’s skeptical look. “I’m teaching them all the knots that sailors use, as well as the ones I was taught when I went into the service. Believe it or not, there’s quite a few knots out there that get used on a regular basis. We even used one particular knot to tie down the tarps on the chopper when a sandstorm hit us on one of our missions.”
“We did?” Lacey’s brow rose.
“Yeah,” Mac nodded. “One of the tarps got away from us and…Well, let’s just say I was none too happy with you on that particular occasion.”
Lacey eyed Mac for a moment. “You promised, Mac.”
Mac met her intense gaze and sighed. “I’m gonna regret that promise, aren’t I?” Lacey merely nodded. “Okay, so one of the tarps got away from us and you tied a rope around your waist and took off after it—in a sandstorm.”
Lacey’s brow rose skeptically. “I did?”
“Yep,” Mac nodded. “When you dropped that rope, I about shit my pants. I was so scared, that I couldn’t think straight. And all I could do was stand there and wait…and wait. Then the rope went taut in O’Leary’s hands again and we all breathed a damned sigh of relief. Then we waited for you to return, which you did.”
“Then what happened?” Lacey looked at Mac expectantly.
“We had an argument,” Mac replied with a half-smirk. “I chewed you out for scaring the shit out of all of us and you told me it was your duty to go traipsing off after that damned tarp.”
Lacey sat back in her chair and cocked her chin thoughtfully, as she tried to remember the incident. “I seem to vaguely recall you yelling at me for something or other.”
Mac snorted. “Like I said, you scared…”
“I know,” Lacey interrupted. “I was the CO on the mission. It was my neck on the line and I only did what I had to do.”
Mac stared at Lacey in open awe. “You remember?”
“A little,” Lacey shrugged. “I seem to have a better grasp on the memories that involve you. Is that strange?”
Mac leaned forward and smiled. “No, I don’t think it’s strange, considering the way we feel about each other. You do feel something, don’t you?”
“Lacey? Lacey Stephens?”
Lacey was saved from answering when she heard her name shouted from somewhere close by. She turned in her chair and saw a woman cross the street on a beeline towards her and Mac. The woman was vaguely familiar, with her well-coiffed hair and expensive clothing.
“Tiffany?” Lacey greeted the newcomer with a socialite’s tolerant smile. “Tiffany Benson?”
“Lacey Stephens, as I live and breathe,” the woman stopped in front of her and bent down to give air kisses to both Lacey’s cheeks. “Is it really you? Why, I just couldn’t believe my eyes. You look stunning. When did you decide to return to the fold, darling? It’s been ages since we’ve seen you around. Are you living with your parents? Or did you finally marry that dashing young lawyer you had your claws in after medical school?”
“I’m still single,” Lacey caught a glimpse of Mac’s expression and saw the hurt in her eyes. “This is my good friend, Mackenzie Papadopoulos. Mac, I knew Tiffany in high school. Our parents were members of the same country club. Our fathers played golf together, from time to time.”
Mac reached a hand out to shake Tiffany’s hand. The woman gave her one of those limp girly handshakes that she always hated, then eyed her with interest. Mac could see that the woman’s face was hidden under a thick layer of makeup and her red lipstick was in striking contrast to her pale complexion.
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Benson,” Mac said.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Papadopoulos,” Tiffany smiled a smile that didn’t reach her hazel eyes. “So what brings you two together?” She turned dismissively away from Mac and returned her attention to Lacey. “Did you attend college together?”
“We served together,” Lacey knew her family hadn’t said much to anyone about her abrupt decision to join the Army. She watched the confusion register in Tiffany’s eyes with a touch of hidden satisfaction. “In the Army. Mac is a chopper pilot and we flew together in Iraq.”
Tiffany just stared at her ‘old school mate.’ “Wait, just a moment. Are you saying you’ve spent all these years serving in the Armed Forces?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Lacey acknowledged with a wry smirk.
Tiffany put a hand to her chest and looked about ready to blow, at least to Mac’s eyes. It was all she could do not to burst laughing at the shock that registered on the woman’s painted features.
“You don’t mean to tell me…”
“I just did,” Lacey gave her a curt nod. “I’m actually still a captain, as far as I know. I don’t think they’ve released me from service, yet. At least, I haven’t seen any paperwork telling me that I’m no longer an active member of the Army. I suppose they’ll wait until my next medical evaluation to make a final determination.” She glanced over at Mac again and received a nod of affirmation. Then she returned her attention to the woman towering over her in cloying Chanel and sleek Gucci.
“Oh, good lord, you’re serious?” Tiffany kept her hand on her chest, as if to ward off a heart attack. “Whatever possessed you to do such a thing, Lacey? Your family is one of the most affluent members of Houston society.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Tiffany,” Lacey waved a dismissive hand. “I think I just got tired of walking around with that silver spoon stuck in my mouth and the corn cob shoved up my ass, like the rest of y’all.”
A rather loud snicker from Mac’s general direction had a satisfied grin tugging at Lacey’s lips. Tiffany Benson, on the other hand, was not amused in the least. Her expression showed her complete disdain as she blew out a rather unladylike breath.
“Well, I never,” the woman looked just like those society debutants that Mac despised so much.
“And you never will, Tiff,” Lacey shot back with a satisfied grin. “It was so nice seeing you again. We’ll have to get together for burgers and beer.” She drawled. “My tastes in food have also changed over the years. Lobster on the half-shell just isn’t part of the menu anymore.”
“Well, I can’t say it’s been a pleasure, Lacey,” Tiffany said, as she marched away without a backward glance.
“Goodbye and good riddance,” Lacey growled under her breath, as she watched Tiffany’s retreating figure, before returning her attention to the woman across the table from her. “Sorry about that.”
Mac shrugged. “Don’t be sorry. It was fun watching you put the damned woman in her place before she even knew what hit her.” She chuckled. “I’m rather proud of you for doing it, too. I actually saw the Lacey Stephens I used to know come alive just now.”
Lacey smirked. “I was rather saucy, wasn’t I?”
“It was all I could do not to fall off my chair laughing,” Mac smiled.
“I’m really sorry about what I said before that, though,” Lacey continued. “I saw your expression when I mentioned I was single.”
“You were just telling the truth,” Mac shrugged the words off and stared at her empty glass. “You are single.”
It was Lacey’s turn to lean forward over the table. “I’m just getting used to the idea of there being an ‘us,’ Mac. Give me some time to let it sink in and for my mind to wrap itself around this whole relationship business. Okay?”
Mac lifted understanding eyes to meet Lacey’s. “Okay,” she smirked. “I guess I’m still trying to see things from your point of view, too. It’s hard being the one who remembers how things were between us in the desert.”
“It’s hard being the one who can’t remember a damned thing,” Lacey shot back with a knowing smile.
“Touché,” Mac conceded with a nod.
Lacey set an elbow on the table and let her chin rest on her hand. “I’m glad you’re here, Mackenzie Papadopoulos.”
“Me, too, Lacey Stephens,” Mac returned with a warm smile. “Shall we continued that tour or would you rather go back to your condo and rest? It’s entirely up to you.”
Lacey grabbed her cane and purse, tossed a few bills on the table, and stood up. She tried not to lean too heavily on the cane, as they made their way toward the lot where Mac’s rental was parked. But, truth be told, she was pretty drained from the day’s excursions. She just hoped she would be able to hold out for the duration and help Mac find the souvenirs she was still after.
The two women were curled up together in a tangle of arms and legs on Lacey’s sofa after the long day of sightseeing and souvenir scavenging. A cardboard pizza box and several empty and half-empty beer bottles sat on the glass table in front of them. But neither woman was ready to clean up the mess.
Mac’s treasures were tucked safely away in the closet of the guest room, as were some of her clothes. The rest were tucked away in the drawers of the dresser, while her toiletries now occupied the bathroom across the hall. She’d decided to keep using the toothbrush and toothpaste she’d used the night before. Didn’t want them to go to waste, despite Lacey’s arguments that there was plenty more where those came from.
“You asleep?” Lacey’s head rested in the crook of Mac’s arm.
“Nope,” Mac answered on an unexpected yawn and felt tingles run through her when the smaller woman inadvertently brushed a cheek against the side of her breast.. “You getting sleepy, yet? It was a long day for both of us.”
“Mm,” Lacey shifted slightly and wrapped an arm around the waist of her human pillow. “Don’t wanna move.”
Mac snickered. “Ever? Or just right at this moment?”
“Ever,” Lacey answered groggily, as her eyelashes fluttered closed. “Comfy and warm,” she shifted her face again and it was all Mac could do not to groan out loud at the intimate contact.
The pilot was dressed in only a thin t-shirt and a pair of athletic shorts, having discarded her bra as she readied for bed. Lacey was dressed in her stock t-shirt and sweats, both of which sported the Army logo on them. When Mac asked why Lacey didn’t wear shorts around the house, Lacey had ducked her head and lowered her gaze. After further prodding, Lacey finally admitted that she wasn’t quite ready for Mac to see the scars and disfiguration on her knee from the crash.
“I could carry you to bed,” Mac offered with a wry smirk.
“Too lonely,” Lacey’s voice was a quiet whisper, as she squeezed her human pillow a bit tighter.
“Um, Lacey?” Mac didn’t really want to complain about their rather interesting position, but wasn’t quite sure she could spend an entire night sleeping on the small sofa with her legs dangling off the edge.
“I really can’t sleep here on your sofa all night. It’s a little short,” Mac continued. A groan was her only reply. “No, really, Lac. Not that I’m not enjoying holding you like this. But could we, maybe, take this to one of the beds?”
Lacey head popped up from Mac’s shoulder and green eyes met blue. “You want to come to bed with me?”
Caught flat-footed, Mac stared at Lacey for a moment. “Buh…”
Lacey chuckled at the woman’s look, as she pushed up from the couch and put a hand out to help Mac up. “Come on, Chief. I’m not suggesting we roll around in there like a couple sex-crazed weasels,” Lacey teased. “We’ll both keep our clothes on.”
Mac’s jaw nearly dropped at the wink Lacey gave her as she pulled her to her feet. “Buh…”
Lacey merely chuckled, as she took Mac’s hand and practically dragged her down the hallway to the master bedroom. Mac paused in the doorway, causing Lacey to stop and turn to face her.
“Something wrong, Chief?” Lacey closed the distance and wrapped her arms around Mac’s waist, then cocked her chin as she gazed up at the taller woman. “You look a little…um…hesitant?”
Mac gazed around at the room where Lacey slept and then met her companion’s questioning gaze. “Nothing’s wrong,” Mac finally found her voice, as she put her hands on either side of Lacey’s face and just gazed down into sea-green eyes gone smoky in the dim light. “I just never imagined you and me like this.” Her thumb stroked a soft cheek. “You’re really beautiful when you’re not wearing gray and beige, you know that?”
Lacey waited for what she hoped was coming next. And she wasn’t a bit disappointed when Mac’s warm, soft lips descended onto hers. The kiss was slow and sensual, as they both reveled in the intimacy of the moment. Lacey didn’t hesitate when Mac’s tongue insistently begged entrance and the kiss deepened. Feeling a rush of warmth flow through her, Lacey pressed her body against Mac’s and reached up to slip her hands behind Mac’s neck. Unfortunately, she forgot about her restriction against lifting the one arm where her collar bone had been shattered.
“Oh, fuck!” She hissed, as a painful twinge shot across her shoulder and down her arm. “Goddammit!”
“What?” Mac immediately froze and looked at Lacey with startled eyes. “Did I hurt you?”
“No,” Lacey shook her head and slowly lowered her arm until it was resting at her side. She kept her other hand firmly gripped in the hair behind Mac’s head. “I don’t want to stop.”
Worried blue eyes searched Lacey’s. “Are you sure?”
“I forgot about my damned collar bone,” Lacey met Mac’s gaze. “My orthopedist warned me against lifting my arm any higher than a 90 degree angle until the bones are completely healed. It’s stupid. I just forgot.”
Mac slowly maneuvered them over to Lacey’s bed and gently pushed the smaller woman down until she was seated on the edge.
“We can take things slow,” Mac said, as she knelt at Lacey’s feet and removed the loafers the woman wore.
“You don’t have to do that,” Lacey said, as she stared at the dark head on a level with hers.
Mac looked up and smiled. “I like doing stuff for you.”
Lacey combed her fingers through the dark hair, unable to resist the urge. “I like that you like doing things for me. Just don’t make a habit of it.” She smiled warmly. “I might get the wrong idea and think you’re trying to weasel your way into my good graces.”
Mac snorted. “Not hardly, there, pretty lady.”
“Oo,” she leaned in close until they were breathing the same air. “You are definitely earning Brownie points with those silky smooth words, Ace.”
Mac’s eyes widened in surprise. “Did you just call me Ace?”
“Because you haven’t used that nickname since we were in the desert,” Mac cocked her chin and smirked. “I think those memories of yours are definitely coming back to you.”
Lacey rested both arms on the woman’s shoulders and clasped her hands behind Mac’s head. “I think there’s more than just the bad memories coming back, too.” She closed the distance and reveled in Mac’s lips against her own. “So soft,” she murmured and then deepened the kiss.
Tongues were soon vying for dominance, as the two women melded into each other. Mac gently pushed Lacey back on the bed and covered her with her body.
“We’re a little overdressed, don’t you think?” Mac breathlessly muttered, as they came up for air.
Lacey didn’t respond. Instead, she went to work removing her lover’s clothing. Mac’s t-shirt flew over the other side of the bed and Lacey immediately started on the loose-fitting shorts.
“You’re gonna have to help, Ace,” Lacey managed to get them over Mac’s hips, but was having trouble sliding them all the way down. “God, you’re gorgeous,” she exclaimed as Mac finished pushing her shorts down to the floor.
Mac hadn’t quite kicked the shorts aside when warm hands were suddenly on her exposed breasts. One foot caught in the shorts, Mac suddenly found herself completely off-balance. She did an unexpected nosedive into Lacey’s shoulder and immediately overcompensated the other direction, landing in a heap on the carpeted floor.
“Oof!” The dark-haired woman exclaimed. “Damn!”
A chuckle from her lover had her glaring up at the woman through her tosseled hair with a chagrined scowl. And then Lacey joined her on the floor—or, rather, tackled her until she was sprawled on her back on the plush carpet.
“Takin’ the initiative?” Mac commented, as Lacey straddled her.
“Taking command is more like it,” Lacey smirked and then took Mac’s mouth in a smoldering kiss that deepened until they were both gasping for air. “God, you drive me wild, woman.”
“Ditto?” Mac stared up into green eyes gone smoky with passion. “You sure your knee is up to this?”
Lacey put her hands on either side of Mac’s head and let the leg in question straighten a bit. “My physical therapist wants me to do more stretching. I guess a little physical…um…activity is in order?”
Mac worked the shirt over Lacey’s head and let her hands trace the contours of the smaller woman’s torso. She traced the bright-pink scar down the middle of Lacey’s chest and watched the skin jump beneath her fingertips. She looked up to make sure what she was doing didn’t bother her lover and received a small smile.
“You’re the first one to see that scar,” Lacey said. “My sister hasn’t even seen it yet.”
“I’m honored,” Mac ran her hands down Lacey’s bare back and then reached around to cup both breasts. “Damn! I think all this lazin’ around has you a cup size bigger, Lacey Stephens.”
That comment earned a glare from the smaller woman, who then decided to teach her lover a lesson. She took Mac’s lips in another smoldering kiss, then moved down her jaw line and latched onto an earlobe. She lightly nipped the tender flesh, then teased the sensitive skin just below, where Mac’s pulse beat a bit faster than normal. She then trailed heated kisses down the prone woman’s throat, along her collar bone and then across one mound and then the other, eliciting several low groans from the dark-haired woman.
When her lips finally found their mark and her tongue teased a rosy nipple, Mac was beside herself with need. Her hips bucked and she suddenly realized Lacey was still wearing her sweats. With quick and precise movements, she quickly slid the sweats down Lacey’s hips. The panties immediately followed. Mac then pulled Lacey down on top of her and groaned her pleasure.
Lacey kicked off her sweats and reveled in the skin-on-skin contact, as she renewed her assault on Mac’s breasts. She gave both mounds equal attention and soon moved even lower, only stopping briefly to delve her tongue into the woman’s belly button.
“God, you taste good,” Lacey groaned, as her lips continued to trail heated kisses lower.
“Oh. My. God!” Mac exclaimed, as Lacey’s mouth found its mark.
Lacey only barely heard the loud exclamation. She was so engrossed in bringing Mac the pleasure she felt she deserved that she couldn’t think of anything else. And Mac wasn’t the only one enjoying herself in that moment. Lacey let the sights, sounds and smells wash over her and feed her own desire, as she brought her lover to the brink and took her over the edge.
Mac’s cry of pleasure rang through the silent room, as her entire world burst wide open in a myriad of colors and sensations that took her breath away. Her entire body suddenly came alive for the first time in months, as wave after exquisite wave of pure pleasure crashed over her. Her body bucked and jumped all its own, as Lacey took her to a place she had never dreamed existed. And then her lover eased up enough to let her sink back to earth in a blissful haze.
Lacey trailed whisper-soft kisses up her lover’s body, until she was sprawled on top of the woman. She then pressed her lips against Mac’s and smiled when the woman opened her mouth to share in the moment.
When the kiss ended, Mac ran her fingers through Lacey’s hair and pushed it behind a pink ear. “You are one surprising woman, Lacey Stephens.”
A blond brow shot up into Lacey’s hairline. “Oh? How so, Mackenzie Papadopoulos?”
“You made my body sing like it’s never sung before,” Mac smirked, as she wrapped her arms around Lacey and then moved her hands lower until she was cupping two firm cheeks. “And I can’t help but feel the need to return the favor.”
And that’s exactly what Mac did, until she had Lacey panting with need and begging for release. When she knew the woman could stand it no longer, she had mercy on her enthusiastic lover and took Lacey to the same grand heights of ecstasy that she had experienced only a short time ago. She then held her tight and cushioned Lacey’s return to earth with practiced ease.
“Damn!” Lacey blew out a breath and collapsed onto Mac’s shoulder. “I do believe I know exactly where heaven is, now.”
“Right here in your arms?” Mac shot back with a teasing grin, as she wrapped her arms around Lacey’s bare shoulders. “I sure can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be. Heaven just can’t hold a candle to what we just shared together.”
“Amen, love,” Lacey chuckled. “Of course, we’ve already been to Hell, so…”
Mac kissed the top of Lacey’s head. “And survived to tell the tale. You do know we’re a couple of war heroes, right.”
“Yeah,” Lacey buried her cheek into Mac’s shoulder and sighed. “But I don’t suppose we can just forget all about the world outside these walls and just stay here like this for the rest of our lives, eh? No more thoughts of the Army. No more doctor’s and physical therapy appointments. No surgery to ruin what we have together?”
Mac shifted her right shoulder. “I really don’t want this bullet in here for the rest of my life, Lac. It shifts at the damnedest times and hurts like hell.”
“Mm,” Lacey snuggled against her human pillow and put a leg over Mac’s. “I thought we were gonna forget about Hell, for now.”
“Forgotten,” Mac sighed, as Lacey’s foot moved up and down her bare leg, sending shivers of desire through her. “You keep doing that, Doc, and I won’t be responsible for the repercussions.”
Lacey lifted her head and gave her lover a seductive wink. “Promises, promises, Ace.”
And then they were back at it again, but this time it was Mac’s turn to lead the charge on their way to a battlefield of pure bliss.
Lacey stood outside Mac’s hospital room and waited for the happy family reunion to wind down, before venturing inside. She’d received a call from Ben Papadopoulos earlier in the week, after leaving a message for him to call her. Mac had breezed through surgery with flying colors and was well on her way to a full recovery. But Lacey knew how much her lover missed having her family there with her during that difficult time.
So, Lacey placed a call to the only Papadopoulos family that lived within twenty miles of Jackson, Wyoming. And left a message for someone to call her back. Ben did.
Mac’s older brother was overjoyed to receive word that his sister was recovering nicely and that the surgery had gone well. He was also quite amazed that Mac’s Lacey, as he called her, would be so thoughtful as to call him personally. And then Lacey asked him if it was possible for him to bring his family down for a visit. She even offered to put them up in a hotel close to the hospital. Lacey cited the fact that Mac would never make the request herself, but was secretly missing her extended family and would be over the moon to have them there with her. Ben assured her he would get right on it.
Ten days later, Ben and his family showed up at the hospital with enthusiastic smiles and greetings for his sister’s girlfriend. Lacey was a little overwhelmed by the very public displays of affection from Mac’s brother and his wife, Carrie, who both hugged her tight and kissed her cheeks. It was the three boys, however, who greeted her with shy smiles and quick hugs, that actually won her over and made her feel like part of the family.
Jimmy, the oldest, gave her a hug and a warm smile, as he towered over her and shyly commented that she didn’t even reach his shoulder. That comment earned him a playful punch on the shoulder, as Lacey then told him to watch it or she would sick her Army buddies on him. Little did he know she still couldn’t really remember any of them by name.
Tanner then stepped forward with gentlemanly grace, bowed at the waist, took her hand and kissed it gallantly. He then ruined the moment by sticking his tongue out at his older brother. Everyone laughed as he then gave Lacey a hug and whispered in her ear that he would defend her honor, anytime. Lacey did her best to hide her mirth, not wanting to embarrass the young man in front of his family. But he didn’t seem to mind the good humor, as she stepped back to allow his younger brother his turn.
Toe-headed and freckled Dillon, otherwise known as DJ or Digger, then stepped forward and extended a hand toward her. She eyed the hand and then grabbed the boy in a hug. When she ruffled his hair, she watched his eyes roll, as he told her in his most exasperated tone that his aunt always did the same thing to him. Another round of chuckles followed, before Ben sobered and gave his sons some last-minute instructions on how to behave in Mac’s room. There was to be no loud noises, bickering or shenanigans, whatsoever.
Lacey watched the group silently enter the hospital room and smiled when Mac greeted her family enthusiastically. Glad to take a short break from her constant vigil at Mac’s bedside, Lacey made her way to the hospital cafeteria and grabbed a cup of coffee that was slightly more palatable than the sludge that passed for coffee in the desert.
Yes, she had recalled a few more memories during the few days they shared together before heading to Dallas. Most of her memories were of Mac and the good times they shared together. But she’d also had a few nightmares that brought her out a dead sleep in a cold sweat that left her utterly shaken. She was glad for Mac’s presence during those awful hours between wakefulness and sleep, when the nightmares seemed most vivid. The taller woman would gently hold her until the images passed and then pull her back down into a warm cocoon of love that seemed to chase the boogeymen away.
Lacey was so lost in her musings, as she stood there next to Mac’s room, that she was a bit surprised when a man stepped up in front of her and addressed her directly.
“Captain Stephens?” The man pulled a skull cap off his head and held it in a tight grip.
“Yes,” Lacey answered tentatively, as she tried desperately to put a name to the face she didn’t recognize. “I’m sorry, but do I know you?”
The man ducked his head shyly and seemed to fidget for a moment. “You probably don’t remember me, ma’am,” he continued. “You were the flight surgeon on duty when I…well, when me and my buddies got ambushed by snipers just outside Fallujah, ma’am. My battle buddy, Derek Papadopoulos, was killed that day and I was badly injured. They shot me in the leg, belly and shoulder. Nearly died from blood loss, but you just kept telling me to stay with you, ma’am. You saved my life that day. We were some of the first casualties of Desert Storm, ma’am.”
“Did you just say you knew Derek Papadopoulos?” Lacey couldn’t believe her ears.
“Yes, ma’am,” the thirty-something man said with a curt nod. “We went through Basic together and promised to always look out for each other. When we were shipped over to Iraq after the initial start of Desert Storm, Derek—I mean Corporal Papadopoulos—he just couldn’t stop talking about his family and the ranch his brother owned back in Wyoming. He also talked about his sister, who was going to be a search and rescue pilot for the local parks service. Wish I could find them and tell them what a great guy he was.” He looked away and swiped at his eyes. “Sorry, ma’am. It still gets to me, even after all these years. Anyway, I never got the chance to thank you for what you did for me over there.” He extended a hand to her. “Name’s Corporal John Shipley, ma’am. Corporal Shipley of the 128th Mechanized Infantry, D Company.”
Lacey shook his hand and glanced at the door behind her. “It’s a pleasure to meet you under better circumstances, Corporal.”
“Pleasure’s mine, Captain, or is it Major or Colonel, now, ma’am? Desert Storm was more than a decade ago,” he said with a shy smile.
“It’s still Captain, as far as I know, Corporal,” Lacey returned the smile. “I was promoted to major several years back, but had a little falling-out with the Brass and was bumped back down to captain. They wanted to kick me out for insubordination, but my CO argued that I was far too valuable a surgeon to lose.”
He smirked. “I can well imagine, Captain.” He then glanced down at the hat in his hands. “Are you here visiting someone? Or did those insurgent bastards finally get a bead on you, too?”
“I’m here for a friend,” she glanced again at the door behind her. “Actually, Corporal, you might be interested to know that you’re standing outside the door of one CWO4 Mackenzie Papadopoulos, sister to your buddy, Derek.”
“No shit, ma’am?” He suddenly perked up and smiled broadly. “You’re not pulling an old soldier’s gimpy leg, are you, ma’am?”
“Not a bit,” Lacey shook her head and smiled. “Mac and I served during Operation Enduring Freedom. Our chopper was shot down behind enemy lines and we managed to survive to tell our tale.”
“I’ll be damned, ma’am,” he took her hand in his and shook it energetically, as he finally glanced at the room behind her. “I…I don’t…Words can’t…um…”
“Stay here for a second, Corporal,” Lacey ordered. “I’ll be right back for you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, a huge grin still on his face.
Lacey ducked inside the room and caught the end of a tale young DJ was regaling his aunt with.
“…and just when that dumb cat came over the rise to take down one of Daddy’s little heifers, old Blackie got a bead on it and POW!” He finished by aiming an imaginary gun and shooting in Lacey’s direction. “Oh! Aunt Lacey! Did you hear about that mountain lion Blackie shot near the heard the other day?”
Lacey swallowed down the lump that his words elicited when he called her ‘aunt’. She then smiled broadly, as all eyes turned toward her. “I came in…”
Ben was suddenly at her side and ushering her toward the family gathered around Mac’s bedside. Lacey let herself be herded like a prized heifer and then took Mac’s hand in hers. She was a little surprised when the woman pulled her close and planted a kiss directly on her lips. A blush suffused her cheeks when the boys whooped behind her and Ben and Carrie chuckled.
“I am so going to get you back for that,” Lacey’s voice was so low that only Mac could hear her, as she straightened up and turned to meet the stares of the rest of the family.
Mac leaned over and blew in Lacey’s ear, eliciting another round of chuckles. “I look forward to having you all to myself again, Lacey Stephens,” she said in Lacey’s ear.
Lacey swallowed again and cleared her throat at the implicit meaning behind Mac’s words. She tried to stave off the butterflies that morphed into bats in her stomach, then realized it just wasn’t going to happen. Then she remembered why she had entered the room in the first place.
“I have a little surprise for y’all,” she said with a Cheshire grin, as she made her way back over to the door. She opened it and waved her guest into the room. All eyes turned her way, as Corporal Shipley hesitantly entered the room and stood behind her. “Corporal John Shipley, I would like you to meet the entire Papadopoulos clan—the ones I know about, at least.” She watched the faces in front of her for any sign of recognition and saw none. “Everyone, this is Corporal Shipley of the 128th Mechanized Infantry Division. He was stationed in Iraq during Desert Storm.”
Lacey saw Mac’s eyes widen at the information.
“Wait, Derek was in the 128th Mechanized during Desert Storm, wasn’t he?” Ben stepped forward and held a hand out to the shorter man. “Did you serve with my little brother?”
“Yes, sir,” the corporal shook the man’s hand and tried to hold the tears at bay. “We went through Basic together and were shipped out to Iraq as part of D Company, sir. I was there with him when…” He couldn’t finish, as he was suddenly overcome by emotion at meeting his best friend’s family for the first time.
“Oh, man,” Ben pulled the young man into his arms for a hug, as his emotions got the better of him, too.
Carrie moved over to Shipley and joined in the hug and tears, as the boys just stood by and looked on in confusion.
“How’d you…” Mac looked at Lacey with tears swimming in her eyes. “How could you…”
“He came up to me and thanked me for saving his life,” Lacey explained through her own tears. “I had no idea who he was, but he told me his best friend was Derek Papadopoulos and was killed during Desert Storm. I still have no memory of what happened, but I thought he should at least get the chance to meet the family of his best friend.”
Mac pulled Lacey close and planted a heated kiss on the woman’s mouth, as tears mingled between them. “Thank you, love,” she whispered, as she pulled back enough continue watching the scene play out in front of her. “You’ve made me incredibly happy today. First you get my family here, despite my protestations to the contrary. And now you’ve brought a piece of my brother—a link to him that we didn’t have before—back into our lives.”
Lacey watched as Ben and Carrie stepped up to the bed with Corporal Shipley sandwiched between them.
“Boys,” Ben beamed through his tears. “This gentleman is Corporal Shipley. He served with your Uncle Derek in Iraq.”
All three boys took turns shaking hands with the Desert Storm war veteran. And then it was Mac’s turn to greet the younger man.
“Corporal Shipley,” she held out her left hand to him and waited for him to take it. “It’s a real honor to be able to finally shake your hand, soldier.”
“Hoo-ah,” he greeted her with a teary smile and a firm handshake. “It’s an honor to meet you, too, ma’am. Derek talked at great length about his family. He was damned proud of y’all. But, it seems he was mistaken in your choice of careers, ma’am.” He glanced at Lacey and winked. “The captain, here, tells me you chose to serve your country, instead of joining the parks service as a search and rescue pilot.”
“Yeah,” Mac nodded. “When we learned Derek was killed in Iraq, I decided to give the Army a try, instead.”
“She was one of their best damned pilots, too,” Ben piped in proudly.
“Hoo-ah,” the corporal raised a fist into the air.
“Hoo-ah,” the others cheered with enthusiasm, especially the boys, who danced around the adults and took the opportunity to work off some pent-up energy.
“Okay, boys, settle down,” Ben finally stepped in. “What’d I tell you about no shenanigans in here?”
“Yes, sir,” they all stopped at once and moved back to stand quietly next to Mac’s bed.
“Well, ma’ams,” Corporal Shipley looked at Mac and Lacey, then turned to address Carrie. “I’ll leave you to it. It was great meeting you all and to finally put faces to the names Derek used to talk about all the time. He really was a great guy and I really miss him.” He moved close to Mac’s bed and reached into a pocket of his flannel shirt. “I kept this all these years,” he handed Mac a worn photograph. “Thought you might like to have it.”
Mac glanced down at the photo of her brother and a much younger Corporal Shipley. They were grinning widely at the camera in their beige camouflage BDUs with the desert a backdrop behind them.
“That picture was taken just a few days before the ambush at Fallujah,” Shipley said, as a tear slipped down his cheek. “We’d just finished beating some other guys in our unit at a pickup game of basketball. Another guy in our unit had a throw-away camera he’d gotten from home. He managed to track me down through the VA and send me a copy. He still has the negative, so I’ll just get another copy.”
Mac stared down at her brother’s youthful face and ran a thumb over the worn photo. “He was so damned young.”
“He was a good soldier, ma’am,” Shipley said. “He had a great sense of humor and was always playing practical jokes on our bunkmates. But, when it came time to do the job, Derek was a soldier, through and through. He never wavered, even when those assholes ambushed us and killed our sergeant. He plowed right in there and took out several of them before they took him down. He was a true hero, ma’am.”
Mac smiled through her tears, as she waved the photo at Shipley. “Thank you, Corporal,” she said. “We never really knew what happened over there or how Derek was killed. It’s nice to know he didn’t die in vain.”
“No, ma’am,” he gave her a warm smile. “He gave his life to save more than a few of ours. Like I said, Derek was a hero.” He then turned his smile on Lacey and took her hand in his. “As are you, ma’am. I will never forget what you did for us over there, and I’m damned proud to have served with you.”
Lacey couldn’t help the catch in her throat at his heartfelt words. “Thank you, Corporal Shipley. I certainly won’t ever forget you.” She squeezed his hand and then let him pull away. “Take care of yourself, Corporal.”
“I will, ma’am,” he said, as he moved toward the door with Ben close on his heels.
“Let me see you out,” Ben said as he held the door for the young man and followed him out into the hall.
A collective sigh escaped those still in the room.
“Well, li’l bit,” Carried turned to Mac. “We should go back to the hotel and leave you to rest for the night. We’ll be back in the morning to make sure you’re doing okay and to smuggle in something more than that stuff that’s supposed to pass for food around here.”
Mac accepted the kiss on the cheek her sister-in-law gave her, then waited for each of her nephews to follow suit. DJ was the last one to say goodnight to his aunt and climbed right up into bed with her to plant a wet kiss on her cheek.
“’Night, Auntie Mac,” he said and hugged her around the neck. “Get better, please.”
“Oh, I’ll certainly do my best, Digger,” Mac tousled his hair and watched him scamper down.
Lacey then found the six-year-old’s arms wrapped around her waist.
“’Night, Aunt Lacey,” he said and waited for her to bend down enough for him to place a wet kiss on her cheek. “Take care of Auntie Mac for us, ‘kay?”
Lacey returned the kiss on his cheek and ruffled his hair. “I’ll try my best, DJ.”
Carrie then ushered her herd out of the room and shut the door behind her.
Mac breathed a sigh of relief and utter contentment, as she patted the bed next to her. “Come here, you,” she shot the still-beaming Lacey a stern look. “I got a bone to pick with you.”
Lacey’s eyes widened at the tone. “What’d I do?” She asked, as she climbed up into the bed and snuggled into the crook of Mac’s good shoulder. She could feel the bandage wrapped around the woman’s chest beneath the loose hospital gown Mac wore. “I’m not hurting you, am I?”
“Never, love,” Mac kissed the strawberry blond head beneath her chin. “I’m just grateful to have you back in my life. You’ve made me the happiest woman in the world these last few weeks. I’m on cloud nine right now and they have yet to give me my pain meds for the night.”
“I thought they had you on self-medication,” Lacey shot the IV a quick glance and then noticed it wasn’t the same setup that had been there when Mac first came out of surgery. “Oh, I guess not.”
“The doc came by this morning, while you were sleeping in that crappy chair over there,” Mac explained. “He changed my meds after I said I didn’t want the morphine anymore. He has me on Vicodin, instead. Said it should help me be more aware and not make me so damned drowsy. I think it’s actually working.”
Lacey’s head popped up and she glared at her bedmate. “Why didn’t you tell me the morphine was having that effect on you? I would have talked to your doctor long before this.”
“Relax, honey,” Mac kissed Lacey’s furrowed brow. “It’s not like I’m going anywhere yet or like the sleep hasn’t been good for me. I just don’t want to leave the hospital tomorrow hopped up on morphine. Besides,” she glanced at the heavy padding on the shoulder. “It doesn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. I’m good with the Vicodin.”
“Well,” Lacey let her head return to her comfortable nook. “Don’t get too used to taking Vicodin. That stuff is addictive. Before you know it, you’re hooked and then you’re spending a few weeks in Betty Ford out in California.”
Mac snorted. “I’ve always wanted to visit California. I hear the people out there all have really nice tans and beautiful bodies.”
“And fake boobs,” Lacey snickered. “Not to mention they’re all hopped up on Vicodin after all the plastic surgery they go through to keep them looking years younger.”
They shared a companionable chuckle, until a quick knock on the door caught their attention. Ben’s head suddenly appeared in the door and then he stepped fully into the room.
“Well, I got Corporal Shipley’s address and phone number,” Ben beamed proudly. “Also invited him out to the ranch anytime he wants to come for a visit. He thought he might come on up for Christmas. His family usually does a subdued celebration, so he thought a trip up north might be in order.”
“That’s great,” Mac couldn’t help but smile at her older sibling’s enthusiasm. “The more the merrier.” She glanced down at Lacey. “You want to come to Wyoming for Christmas, Lac?”
“I have to wait until Christmas?” Lacey shot back with a frown.
“Um, no,” Mac shook her head.
“Not a chance, Lacey,” Ben piped in and earned a scowl from his sister. “My boys would love to have you there anytime you want to come. They’d love to teach you the ropes, so to speak. And you’d have your very own room. You wouldn’t have to share at all, if you don’t want to.”
“I think that sounds like a great idea,” Lacey stuck her tongue out at Mac. “See? Your brother and his family would welcome me with open arms.”
“And spoil you rotten,” Mac added with a sly smirk. She then pinned her brother with a glare. “I thought your family was waiting for you to take them over to the hotel. I hear there’s a huge indoor water park in the place you’re staying at.”
Ben wiggled his eyebrows. “Nothing gets past those boys of mine, I tell ya.” He then shot Lacey a conspiratorial wink. “You take care of my sister for me while we’re enjoying that water park, will ya?”
Lacey patted Mac’s stomach and smiled. “Oh, I think that can be arranged. I heard a little rumor about a sponge bath earlier this afternoon. Maybe I can convince the nurse to…”
She suddenly found her mouth covered by Mac’s free hand.
“Go take care of your family, big bro,” Mac said. “I’m not going anywhere until after the doctor checks me out tomorrow afternoon.”
Lacey stuck her tongue out and licked the palm covering her mouth, eliciting the desired reaction out of her companion. Mac pulled her hand away and wiped it on the covers in her lap.
“I’ll get you for that,” Mac mumbled into Lacey’s hair.
“Promises, promises,” Lacey smirked, then turned her attention to Ben, who was watching the interplay with amusement. “I reserved a room for Mac and me in the same hotel, so we’ll see you tomorrow after we spring her from this joint.”
“Cool,” Ben moved in and gave both women a hug at the same time, careful not to touch the padding on Mac’s shoulder. “Take care, you two, and we’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Count on it, bro,” Mac gingerly returned the hug, catching Lacey between them.
“Get some sleep, li’l bit,” he kissed her on the forehead and then dropped a kiss on Lacey’s head, too. “You, too, li’l sis.”
“Air!” Lacey gasped when another hug followed. “Jeez, you guys. You’re the most demonstrative family I’ve ever had the pleasure of being smothered by.”
Ben squeezed her arm one last time. “You get used to it after a while. Don’t worry, we still love you.” And then he left the room without a backward glance.
Lacey just stared after him in dumbfounded silence, until her bedmate shifted. “Did he just tell me your family loves me?”
“Yes, I do believe that was what he just said,” Mac said with a wry smirk. “And don’t think they don’t mean it, either. They never say anything they don’t mean.”
“Whoa,” Lacey sucked in a shuddering breath and let it out slowly.
Silence reigned in the room for several long moments.
“You okay?” Mac was concerned when Lacey didn’t say anything else.
“I’m…uh…a little overwhelmed,” Lacey stammered. “I’ve never met anyone like your family before. They’re so…um…openly affectionate…so, um, welcoming.”
“They love you ‘cause I love you. It’s that simple for them,” Mac squeezed Lacey’s shoulder. “And they can see how much you love me, too. Or maybe they can just sense it. It’s not like you tell me all that often.”
Lacey shifted until she was looking up into teasing blue eyes. “I do.”
“Love you, Mackenzie Papadopoulos,” Lacey replied. “I love you from the very depths of my soul to the farthest reaches of the universe. Don’t ask me why or how or even when—I have no idea, since I can’t really remember all that much. But I do know that you are the most important person in my life. I value what we have, as little as that might be right at the moment. I’ve treasured these moments we’ve shared together. And I love you more and more each day, if that’s at all possible. I…” A finger on her lips instantly stopped her babbling.
“I love you, too, Lacey Stephens,” Mac declared with a grin. “Have since the moment I met you in Colonel Farrell’s office. And I never stopped loving you, even when we were miles apart and I had no idea if you were alive or dead. I love you deeper than the oceans and higher than the mountains—” Her singsong declaration was interrupted by a soft chuckle. “What?”
“Maybe you should write a song,” Lacey teased.
“I think that one has already been written,” Mac shot back. “And it lives right here,” she placed both of their hands over her heart, “forever.”
“Forever. It has a nice ring to it,” Lacey added. “I think I could get used to sharing this with you—forever.”
“You sure about that, Doc?” Mac shot her a raised-brow look. “It’s a really long time.”
“Not long enough,” Lacey shot back and then eased up until their lips met in a tender kiss that held all the love and promise she was feeling in that moment. “But it’s a start.”
“And a very good one, at that,” Mac dipped her head and met Lacey’s lips in a smoldering kiss that held all the promise of a lifetime of forever.
The End (for now)
Yes, that concludes this chapter in the lives of Mac and Lacey. But stay tuned for the upcoming sequel to this riveting tale—Mountain Memories. Check my blog (kennedynorthcutt.wordpress.com) for periodic updates and thanks for sharing the ride!!!
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