By Kennedy Northcutt ©2011
The story you’ve all been waiting for is finally here. Mountain Memories is the much-anticipated next installment in the Mac & Lacey series that began with Desert Dreams and continued with The Journal of Lacey Stephens.
The Holidays are in full swing for everyone. It is a time of joy and celebration. It is also a time to spend with loving family and friends. But for Mackenzie Papadopoulos, Christmas isn’t turning out exactly as she hoped it would. After serving her country as a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army and surviving a crash in Iraq, she has returned to her family home in Wyoming to start a new chapter in her life. She wants to share this new chapter with the woman she served her final tour with and who was one of the only survivors of the crash that claimed the lives of several members of Mac’s crew. Unfortunately, things don’t always turn out the way we hope they will.
The adventures of CWO4 Mackenzie Papadopoulos and Captain Lacey Stephens continue in this riveting tale of love and loss, trust and betrayal, as they chase their dreams for a brighter future and explore their Mountain Memories.
Disclaimer 1: They may look like a familiar couple from one of our favorite television shows, but these characters are all mine. Similarities to those iconic characters are meant only as a compliment to the imaginings of those who worked so very hard to give us our weekly dose of XWP magic. All copyrights to Mac & Lacey and Mountain Memories are reserved and the stories belong to the author. Any reproduction is strictly prohibited without the express permission of the author.
Disclaimer 2: This story, as well as others I’ve written, explores a loving relationship between two consenting adult women. If this is illegal in the state, province or country in which you live or you are under 18 years of age, read no further. This story may also contain violence, mention of a rape committed in a previous story, or other graphic material unsuitable for certain people or children. Please be advised.
Disclaimer 3: This is a work of fiction. Any mistakes in military protocol or terminology are completely unintentional and are only present because the author never served in the Armed Forces. Apologies to those who find offense in my ignorance. It can’t always be helped. Reading is fundamental, but there’s only so much a person can get from the information provided. As they say, there’s no greater teacher than experience.
Feedback: Yes, please. I love to hear from you guys: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also get updates on my blog (http://kennedynorthcutt.wordpress.com) or friend request me on Facebook (as long as you’re not a crazy stalker, like Jack McFarland). Happy reading!!!
Flying BC Ranch near Jackson, Wyoming
Former Chief Warrant Officer Mackenzie Papadopoulos stood on the balcony of her recently-completed log cabin and inhaled deeply of the brisk mountain air and the scent of pine that wafted on the breeze. The majestic Grand Tetons provided a picturesque backdrop to a scene straight out of a picture postcard. Snow-covered pine trees reached up into the heavens and created a canopy of sorts for her small ranch house on the outskirts of her family’s vast properties. It was a breathtaking view.
Mac, as she was known to her close friends and family, sipped a cup of steaming black Columbian coffee. She squinted at the snow-capped peaks hidden in the cloud cover and tried to gauge when the latest storm would finally spill over into the valley below. Soon. Winter was definitely setting in and the new-fallen snow would eventually increase by several more inches or possibly a couple feet. Mac didn’t care. She wasn’t scheduled to be anywhere or do anything, at least not until Christmas Day. But that was three days away.
Her thoughts turned to a recent email she’d received from a certain blond-haired, green-eyed doctor she was pining for. Lacey Stephens. The woman was everything that Mac had been searching for and more. She was also living all the way down in Houston, Texas. It seemed like an entire world away.
They tried to keep in touch as much as possible, including the occasional chat session on the computer or a quick phone call later in the late evening. Mac was always busy during the day and often well into the night.
Not only did she help out around the family ranch, but she also flew occasional search and rescue missions for the local EMS service, took on the occasional delivery job in her trusty Cessna 206 and took passengers up for aerial tours of the rugged terrain around Jackson Hole. She also took care of her own horses and had recently acquired an Australian Shepherd puppy by the name of Mindy from one of the neighbors. Mindy followed her everywhere and was fast becoming her trusty sidekick.
When her chores were finished, Mac fed the dog, fed herself and often sat down to watch a few TV shows she enjoyed. That was when she would log onto her laptop, check email and sometimes pick up the phone to talk to Lacey.
Their last conversation was nearly a month ago. Lacey was so agitated by something that Mac could barely talk to her. The conversation was brief and Mac hung up feeling confused, not to mention a little annoyed. But then she received an email that said Lacey was excited to fly up from Houston to see Mac and spend Christmas with the Papadopoulos clan. She briefly mentioned doing something at Thanksgiving that she was relatively proud of and promised to share the details upon her arrival on December 20th.
That day had already come and gone.
It was December 22nd and Lacey still had yet to show up. Mac was beyond worried. Several phone calls to Lacey’s parents and her sister yielded absolutely nothing. Mac was tired of getting their answering services and the stock “I’m sorry, but we’re unavailable. Please leave a message and we’ll return your call as soon as we return from Monte Carlo and Rome.” The Stephens family had apparently packed up for the holidays and left without explanation. Mac had no idea if Lacey was with them or not. It was as if she simply disappeared without a trace.
Mac sighed deeply as she sipped the steaming brew in her insulated travel mug. She liked the mug because it had a lid that kept her coffee hot. Besides, Lacey had sent it to her with a note that said she was thinking of her every day and would show off her new journal when she arrived at Christmas. Mac still couldn’t picture Lacey sitting still long enough to write her thoughts down in a journal. Then again, the Lacey she’d met in Houston wasn’t exactly the same woman she’d known in Iraq, either.
Mac heard a small whine and glanced back through the sliding glass door to see Mindy curled up on the rug there and watching her expectantly. The dog licked her lips and then let her mottled gray-black-brown head drop down on her paws. Two ice-blue eyes stared up at Mac, but the dog didn’t move. It was her favorite place to be in the morning. The spot was close enough to the fireplace for her to stay warm, yet it was also right in front of the sliding glass door, so she could look outside and keep tabs on her favorite human. Mac smiled sadly. Lacey would really like Mindy, she thought.
The phone rang and Mac immediately stepped back inside the warm living room and lifted one of the receivers off the base on a side table.
“Hello?” She said, hoping beyond hope that it was finally Lacey, calling to tell her she was delayed but would be there soon.
“Oh, hey, Ben,” her tone instantly reflected her disappointment.
“Is this a bad time? I can call back later, if you’re in the shower or something.”
“No, I’m glad you called. I just thought…”
“You thought I was Lacey,” Ben finished for her.
“Yeah, I thought maybe she was calling to tell me she was delayed by the weather or something,” Mac confirmed.
“Any idea why she didn’t make it?” Ben added. “Did you reach her parents or her sister?”
“No,” Mac said. “I have no idea what the hell happened and I can’t get in touch with anyone down there. They’re all out of the country for the holidays and won’t be returning until well into next year. There’s no answer at the condo, either. I don’t know why, but I have a really bad feeling about this, Ben.”
“I’m sure she’s fine, li’l bit,” Ben tried to reassure her. “Maybe she had a setback and ended up in the hospital or something.”
“Don’t you think I considered that? But then I realized she would have called to let me know,” Mac countered. “At the very least, her sister should have called to let me know. Lacey is still on speaking terms with Lily, as far as I know. But they all took off to Monte Carlo without saying a word. Besides, Lacey sent me a really short email hinting that her father and her therapist were trying to have her committed for psychological evaluation. Can they do that? I didn’t think that was possible.”
“I suppose it’s possible if they can get the court to agree that she’s a danger to herself or to others,” Ben answered on the other end. “I’m not real familiar with the legalities or anything like that, especially not in Texas, sis.”
“It’s the only explanation I can come up with,” Mac sighed. “Do you think they would actually do that to her, though? I mean, her father is a real jerk, but would he go so far as to have his own daughter committed?”
“I don’t know the man, Mac, so I can’t really say,” Ben answered. “But I think you might be onto something there. From what little you’ve told Carrie and me, Lacey’s father seems like the kind of guy who would do most anything, including committing his daughter to a mental institution against her will. It might not be a bad idea to get in touch with someone down there and poke around a bit. Maybe there’s someone who knows something or can point you in the direction of someone else who does.”
“Yeah,” Mac could see the merit in her brother’s advice. “I’ll make a few more calls and see what I come up with. There’s got to be someone at the VA in Dallas who has connections in Houston. There were a few nurses who were fairly friendly while I was there. Maybe one of them can find out what happened to her or, at the very least, give me a contact who can dig something up. I just hope she didn’t decide to blow me off and go to Monte Carlo with her family. But, who knows? This is Lacey Stephens we’re talking about. She’s about as predictable as the weather.”
“I don’t think she would do that to you without telling you, Mac,” Ben said. “And if she did, then good riddance and may she never set foot in the great state of Wyoming. I don’t know what I’d do to her if she came here after doing something like that to you, li’l bit. And don’t get me started on what Carrie is capable of.”
“No, you’re right, Ben,” Mac said and ran a hand through her sleep-tousled hair. “I don’t think even Lacey would be that heartless. It’s just hard not knowing what happened to her and where she could possibly be, you know? I’m really worried that she might have had an accident or something. Did I tell you the note also said she finally got her driver’s license?”
“No, but that’s good news,” Ben tried to put some enthusiasm into his voice, for Mac’s sake. “She’s definitely going to be hell on wheels.”
“She says her sister refuses to ride with her,” Mac added with a wry grin. “I just hope she didn’t get in an accident. The roads in Texas can be treacherous in bad weather. What if she’s on a slab in a morgue somewhere and there’s no one around to claim her body?”
“Try not to think that way, Mac,” Ben advised. “You don’t know if that’s the case and speculating won’t get you anywhere but in a panic. For all we know, she might just be sunbathing on a beach in the Caribbean or rolling dice in Monte Carlo.”
“Yeah, fat chance of the first one, bro,” Mac said. “Lacey has a very strong aversion to sand.”
There was a long pause on both ends of the line.
“Well, Mac, I’m gonna let you go,” Ben said. “Let me know if there’s anything we can do to help. Will we still see you here on Christmas Eve? Carrie’s planning a light dinner—nothing fancy—and then we’re heading to church for the Christmas Eve service. You’re welcome to join us. But I completely understand if you don’t want to come. If not, then we’ll certainly say a prayer for Lacey and light a candle for her, too.”
“Thanks, Ben, but I think I’ll pass,” Mac answered into the phone. “I don’t really want to leave Mindy home alone just yet. She hates it when I have to lock her in the utility room and the last time I left her in the living room she chewed on the brand new sofa I just had delivered. But we’ll be at your place for Christmas Day, so I’ll see you, then.”
“Yep, see you then, sis,” Ben replied. “Bye, Mac.”
“Bye, bro,” Mac said and pushed the End button on her cordless phone.
She dropped the receiver onto the upright charger and then stood there leaning on the center island with her head hanging. The niggling worry that had plagued her for days was back again and all she wanted to do was catch the next plane to Houston. She needed to find out why Lacey hadn’t shown up when she said she would. It was that simple.
But things weren’t always as simple and easy as one might hope. Mac just shook her head, as she realized there was nothing for her to do except make a few phone calls to her friends at the VA in Dallas. Maybe someone there would be able to give her the answers she needed or at least direct her to someone who could.
Christmas Day dawned clear and sunny, but the temperature had dropped to well below zero. Mac stood in the living room of the family home and stared sightlessly at the pictures on the fireplace mantle. The room was as warm and inviting as it had been when her brother and Carrie first moved in. A fire blazed in the brick fireplace, cutting the chill and adding a touch of life to the otherwise subdued room.
Mac could hear the rest of the family in the den, opening presents with all the excitement and wonder that kids brought to the holidays. She usually loved Christmas. But, on this particular day, her heart just wasn’t into celebrating or opening presents or trying to muster some excitement over a new PSP game or a much-anticipated chemistry set.
She was dressed in a pair of worn blue jeans and a blue and red flannel shirt over a plain white t-shirt. The sleeves of the flannel over shirt were rolled up to her elbows, revealing well-toned muscles. Her dark hair was pulled back into a pony tail with a fringe of bangs brushing her brows. Eyes the color of a clear blue summer sky gazed sightlessly down into the flames. Her heart was heavy—heavier even than when she was serving in the Army and couldn’t get home for the Holidays.
Mac’s thoughts were on a certain green-eyed doctor who was still MIA from the festivities that she promised to be a part of. Mac still hadn’t heard anything from her contacts at the VA in Dallas, and Lacey’s family was still away. One of the nurses, Jody, had emailed her the phone number of a ritzy mental health facility she knew of in Houston, but nothing came of that, either.
After getting the runaround from practically the entire staff, Mac was beyond frustrated. The place was touted on the internet as “a private and exclusive residence, providing excellent care and treatment in a serene setting.” Mac didn’t buy it. She figured it was basically just another exclusive hospital for those who could afford to pay for treatment.
She blew out a frustrated breath and turned her gaze toward the large picture window. It was snowing. The storm that had been brewing for days had finally arrived. Mac figured the National Weather Service would be calling it a blizzard. She could already tell it was by the way the howling wind was blowing the flakes sideways against the trees. A few flakes landed on the window and tried valiantly to cling to it for dear life. Others just let themselves be blown away in the gale-force winds, landing who-knew-where and adding to the foot of snow that was already piled up outside the house.
“It’s beautiful,” Carrie’s calm voice intruded on Mac’s distant thoughts, as a steaming mug of coffee was thrust in front of her. “Almost looks peaceful and serene out there, until you try to open the door and that icy wind hits you.”
Mac tentatively blew on the coffee, before taking a sip. “Thanks,” she said with a wistful smile. “Thought you all would still be in the den, opening presents. The boys sounded excited a minute ago.”
Carrie put a comforting hand on her sister-in-law’s back and made gentle circles, like she always did when one of the boys was out of sorts. Mac nearly smiled at the motherly gesture. Nearly. Then she noticed that it was unmistakably quiet in the house, all of a sudden.
“The boys went to the barn with Ben and took your little canine shadow with them,” Carrie said with a frown. “She chewed on one of my good slippers before I knew what she was doing and could take it away from her. I’ll have to buy a new pair. You really need to get her another bone to gnaw on. I think she’s teething.” She took a sip of her coffee, then added, “Tanner wanted to set up his new telescope, in case the weather clears tonight and the stars make an appearance. The other two were just restless and wanted to put on their new winter coats, hats and gloves.” Carrie smiled. “I just wanted some peace and quiet, after all that mayhem.”
“Yeah,” Mac nodded. “Me, too.”
“I figured this holiday would be hard on you, li’l bit,” Carrie affectionately used the nickname Ben liked to tease her with. “I just didn’t realize how hard.”
At five-foot-three, Carrie wasn’t exactly on a level with the six-foot-plus woman towering next to her. And when Mac was in a playful mood, she would often rest her arm on top of Carrie’s head, just to give her grief about her height. But Mac wasn’t in the mood for any teasing remarks or playful gestures.
“You want to talk about it?” Carrie asked when the heavy silence stretched between them, as they stood there staring out at the raging storm and sipping their coffee. “You’ve been awfully quiet, lately. The boys think you’re upset with them for some reason, and Ben is ready to call out the National Guard to storm the gates of that ritzy place where Lacey lives.” She waited for a reaction and got the slightest hint of a smile for her efforts. “That’s what I was shootin’ for.”
Mac sighed again. “I miss her. I just really miss her. And not knowing why she isn’t here is killing me, Carrie.”
“I know,” Carrie watched tears spring to Mac’s eyes. She put an arm around Mac’s waist and rested her head against her arm to comfort her. “You aren’t alone, li’l bit. Your family is here for you. You just need to tell us what you want us to do.”
“Call out the National Guard?” Mac said and got the desired chuckle.
“Funny,” Carrie shot Mac a wry smirk. “Now, use that sense of humor to let your nephews know you’re not upset with them. That’s the real trick. This is our first Christmas together since you went off and joined the Army. Please don’t spoil it by being all gloomy-gussy around the boys. They really want their Auntie Mac to be there for them. And today is one of the most important days for that. It’s Christmas—your favorite holiday of the entire year.”
“I’m sorry,” Mac turned to face the woman who was more mother than sister to her. “I know I’m not very good company, right now. I know this is my first real Christmas with you, Ben and the boys. I know. But I also know where my heart is and it’s just not here. I love you guys more than words can ever say. I really do. But there’s a woman out there that I also love with all my heart, and who might just be in some trouble. I…” She stopped before revealing too much.
“Tell me,” Carrie reached out and ran her hand up and down Mac’s arm. She could see that Mac was holding something back. “Talk to me, Mackenzie.”
Mac set her mug on the mantle and ran her fingers through her bangs, as she collected her thoughts. “I have this…” She shook her head and glanced around the spacious living room, as she tried to find the words to explain what she’d been feeling ever since the day Lacey didn’t show up at the airport in Jackson, like she was supposed to. “I guess you could call it a feeling of dread, for a lack of anything better.” She pressed her hands against her stomach in an attempt to dispel the ache that hadn’t left her since that day. “I don’t know why, but I can’t shake this feeling that something is terribly wrong and she really needs my help.”
Mac let her chin dip towards her chest and stared down at the floor beneath her feet. She absently realized she really needed a new pair of cowboy boots. The ones she was wearing—had worn since she was in her late teens—looked about ready to fall apart. But she just couldn’t bring herself to replace them.
They were the boots her father had given her for her sixteenth birthday. That was the same year he succumbed to lung cancer and Ben took a job as a ranch hand in Jackson, Wyoming. They moved from the tiny, three-room swamp shack in backwater Louisiana to the wide-open space of her current home, and Mac had never looked back.
“Then why don’t you fly down to Houston and do a little sleuthing on your own?” Carrie suggested. “We’ll be fine while you’re gone. The boys would be thrilled to take good care of Mindy and the horses for you. And this place will still be here when you get back. I’ll have one of the hands check on your cabin. We can move the horses to the spare stalls in the barn. And Mindy can sleep in the laundry room where it’s nice and warm. No worries.” She took Mac’s hands in her own. “Go find her, Mackenzie. Find your heart and bring her home with you. We will welcome her with open arms and make her feel like part of the family.”
Mac pulled her sister-in-law to her and wrapped in a tight hug. “Thanks, sis,” she said with tears swimming in her eyes. “You’re the best.”
Carrie returned the hug with all the love she possessed for the woman who had become more than a mere sister-in-law to her over the years. In her eyes, Mackenzie was the younger sister she never had but always wanted when she was growing up as the only child of a career rancher. Mac was intelligent, brave and strong, choosing to serve her country when she really didn’t have to. Learning to fly and using what she learned to help others. It was what endeared her most to Carrie.
Mac was special and Carrie wanted only the very best for her. If that meant that Mac had to fly to Texas to find the woman she loved and bring her back to Jackson, then Carrie was all for it. She just hoped Mac would find the answers she was looking for, rather than suffer a broken heart in the bargain.
Carrie was the first to pull back from the hug. She looked sternly at Mac and gently wiped the tears from the taller woman’s cheeks.
“I’ll tell your brother and the boys where you’re going,” Carrie said. “Why don’t you run on up to our room and use Ben’s computer. He won’t mind. Find yourself a flight to Houston and book it right away. Maybe you can even catch a charter out of Jackson, yet, tonight. Bubba’s sure to have at least one commuter heading out this evening. If you catch a red-eye, you’ll be in Houston before the sun comes up tomorrow. You can find out if anyone knows anything and check out some of the hospitals. You might have to wait until Monday for the government offices to open back up. But if you go to the county courthouse, you should be able find out if there are any pending legal issues involving Lacey or her father. If a writ was filed to get her committed to a facility, they would have to go through the court system to do it. It’s public record, so you should be able to access it, as long as Lacey’s father didn’t find some judge to seal the record for him.”
“He can do that?” Mac asked.
“Well, honey,” Carrie wracked her brain to remember everything she’d learned during the three years she’d attended law school. “I don’t actually know, for sure. But, since Lacey is also still an active member of the Armed Forces, there should be a record of where she is. If all else fails, go to the VA and see if you can’t get someone in legal to access her file and give you her last known address.”
Mac nodded. It was a lot to remember, but she knew she had to do it for Lacey’s sake. She had to be strong if she was going to find out exactly what had happened. She just hoped it was worth it. If Lacey really had taken off on vacation with her parents, Mac didn’t know how she would react.
So, rather than dwell on that, she simply put the thought from her mind and concentrated on getting to Houston. She couldn’t conceive of the notion that Lacey didn’t care enough about her to let her know that she was leaving the country. It just didn’t make sense.
Mac hugged Carrie again. “I think I’ll go out to the barn myself and tell Ben and the boys that I’m leaving,” she said. “I’ve been acting like a real ass, lately, and I don’t want them thinking I don’t care that it’s Christmas. I can make flight plans tonight on my own computer and fly out first thing in the morning.” She stopped and glanced out the window at the snow still falling fairly heavily outside. “Then again, I may have to wait until the weather clears before I can doing anything. Might not be for another day or two, if this storm’s any indication.”
“Maybe Ben can drive you over to Idaho Falls,” Carrie added. “Weather report this morning said they weren’t getting as much snow there as we’re supposed to get here in Jackson. They probably have air service up and running on their normal schedule.”
“I’ll look into it,” Mac added. “I just hope I’m not embarking on a wild goose chase.”
Carrie smiled. “One way or another, li’l bit, you’ll find the answers you’re looking for on this trip.”
“Feels a bit like déjà vu, don’t you think?” Mac chuckled wryly. “Didn’t I just go through something like this not too long ago?”
“You know what?” Carrie set her hands on her hips and nodded curtly. “I do believe you’re right. But, this time when you find her, I suggest you hog tie her and bring her home. Then don’t ever let her out of your sight, again.”
“I won’t…I mean, I will,” Mac smiled and patted Carrie on the head. “You’ll just have to stuff her so full of your cooking that she becomes addicted to it and never wants to leave.”
“Oh, I think I can oblige you with that suggestion, li’l bit,” Carrie grinned. “There isn’t a soul for miles who can resist my cooking.”
“I hear that’s how you finally reeled in my big brother,” Mac grinned playfully. “The way he tells it, he was in love from the very first bite.”
“Oh, you…” Carrie slapped Mac playfully on the arm, before she grabbed both coffee mugs and strode purposely from the room.
Mac stood there for a moment longer. She said a quick prayer that things would work out between her and Lacey, as she stared out at the heavy snow falling beyond the window. She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered unconsciously, then shook off her misgivings and headed for the back door.
She passed silently through the kitchen, where Carrie was busy preparing the Christmas feast. Carrie glanced up from the vegetables she was chopping and gave Mac a quick wink, before returning her attention to her work without a word.
Mac grabbed her winter coat, scarf, and hat from the peg in the mud room. She quickly donned them and slipped her feet into her Sorrel winter boots. Once she was bundled up against the weather, she pulled the back door open and ducked her head against the frigid wind that hit her squarely in the face. Snow pelted her exposed skin and she had to squint to see through the flakes still blowing sideways in the gusty wind.
She spotted her brother and one of the ranch hands stringing rope between the buildings. Mac grabbed a hold of the rope from the house to the barn and held on to it, as she made her way in the driving wind. She used one hand to hang onto the rope and the other to lift and hold her scarf over her mouth and nose. She really didn’t need to use the rope in order to reach the barn, but it offered a certain amount of reassurance just the same.
Mac knew the ropes were only a precaution. Ben had finally installed motion-sensor flood lights on all the buildings, in anticipation of the harsh weather winter sometimes yielded. So there was really very little chance that anyone would accidently wander away during the night. Even if the blizzard-like conditions continued and the electricity went out, there were three backup generators to power the flood lights and provide enough electricity to last three days and nights. Ben had learned that lesson the hard way and wasn’t going to be caught flat-footed again.
As Mac reached the barn, she let go of the rope and quickly ducked through the smaller side door. The interior of the barn was much dimmer than the blinding whiteness outside. Mac stood there for a moment and let her eyes adjust to the muted lighting. She watched her own breath drift up from her mouth and knew the temps were dropping and the humidity in the barn was up.
“Hey! It’s Auntie Mac!” DJ shouted from the far side of the barn, as he raced toward her with a barking Mindy on his heels. When he reached her, he launched himself into her arms. “Woohooooo!!!”
“Whoa, there, Digger!” Mac caught the boy in midair and spun him around in her arms, as Mindy barked and jumped up on her legs.
She then set DJ back on his feet and proceeded to remove her coat, hat, scarf and gloves. Although the barn wasn’t heated, there were enough horses inside to keep the temperature near 50 degrees—well above freezing.
Once her coat was off, Mac knelt down to Mindy’s level and gave the anxious puppy a vigorous two-handed rub. Mindy licked her face in greeting and Mac let her. She knew it wasn’t sanitary, but didn’t care. Mindy was hers and she loved the puppy.
“Hey, there, Aunt Mackenzie,” Tanner formally addressed, despite the glare she shot him. It was a new phase he was going through, at least according to his parents. He hovered expectantly behind his little brother, placing his hands on DJ’s shoulders to keep him from jumping around like his britches were on fire, as Mac stood back up. “What are you doing out in this weather? It’s very nasty out there, right now.”
“I came to see how things are going in here,” she said, as she lifted DJ into her arms and held him over one shoulder, eliciting more excited barks from Mindy. “You boys stayin’ out of trouble while your dad’s out there stringing ropes around the place?” She glanced around for the third brother and didn’t see him. “By the way, was that Jimmy I spotted out there helping your dad?”
“He’s old enough to help with that stuff now,” DJ’s words were muffled against Mac’s back. “I’m glad I’m not old enough. That wind is brutal.”
Mac had to hold in a giggle at her youngest nephew’s comment.
“Yeah, you’d probably blow away if you were out there in it, Diggs,” Mac jumped up and down a few times, which elicited hysterical giggles from the young man still dangling over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes and caused her puppy to bark incessantly. She then tickled her nephew until he nearly kicked her in the face with his small cowboy boots. “Hey, watch it, Mr. Digger. I don’t want to have to explain to your mama how I ended up with a bloody nose or a black eye from those boots of yours.”
“Sorry, Auntie,” he apologized as she flipped him over and dropped him to the ground behind her. He landed feet-first and shook himself, before grabbing her by the leg and sitting down on her foot. Mindy then took the opportunity to lick his face until he was laughing hysterically. “Gotcha!” He exclaimed between giggles.
“Yeah,” Mac rolled her eyes in mock dismay. “I don’t think I’ll be any help with a big ol’ growth like this on my leg. I might have to drive into town to the doc’s and get it removed.” She walked a few steps and then realized it wasn’t such a good idea to put that much strain on the leg she’d injured in the helicopter crash in Iraq. “Oof!” She exclaimed and instantly felt the weight slide off her. “Sorry, Digger, but old Auntie Mac’s knee just can’t take that kind of abuse, anymore.”
She sat down heavily on a nearby bale of hay and absently rubbed her knee. Then Mindy’s head was there and she scratched behind the dog’s ears.
“Sorry, Auntie Mac,” DJ’s lower lip jutted out as he realized what he’d done.
“It’s okay, Digger,” Mac ruffled his hair and received a customary eye roll in return. She smiled and caught the look on Tanner’s face. “You okay, Tanner? Anything you want to talk about?”
“I could ask you the same, Aunt Mackenzie,” Tanner said, as she sat down next to her on the hay bale. “Did we do something to make you mad before?”
“Why do you ask, Tanner?” Mac leaned over and bumped him with her shoulder. “And please stop calling me that. I’ve always been your Auntie Mac. I’ll always be your Auntie Mac, no matter what. Aunt Mackenzie sounds too darned formal coming from your lips.”
“Because you’ve been really quiet lately,” he replied, as the hint of a smile touched his features. “I thought maybe we did something to upset you,” and then he added with a sly grin, “Aunt Mackenzie.”
“I could never be mad at you guys,” Mac gave him her best icy glare, as she pulled DJ into her lap and Mindy vied for her attention by resting her paws up on Mac’s leg. “I’m not mad at anyone, Tanner. I’m just a little sad that my friend, Lacey, couldn’t be here for Christmas. She was supposed to come on the 20th and never showed up.”
“I like Aunt Lacey,” DJ piped in with an innocent smile. “She’s really cool.”
“Yes, she is,” Mac agreed. “I really…um…I like her, too.”
“No you don’t,” Tanner countered in all seriousness.
“I don’t?” Mac couldn’t keep the surprise out of her tone.
“Nope,” Tanner adamantly shook his head. “You love her the same way Mama and Daddy love each other. You really should ask her to marry you, you know. Daddy says it’s the right thing to do when two people love each other. Married people are happy and make babies together. I think you and Lacey would have great kids. And then we’d have cousins to play with.”
Needless to say, Mac was speechless. It never ceased to amaze her how very observant and astute Tanner was. He was one of the most intelligent kids she’d ever known. But he was also very sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of those around him. He often picked up on things that some adults completely missed.
“Yeah, well, that’s not really a possibility for Lacey and me, right now, Tanner,” Mac replied.
“Why not?” He prodded. “Don’t you love her? Don’t you want to have kids with her?”
“Oh, I do, someday,” Mac quickly said. “But…” she shrugged as she tried to figure out a way to explain the situation to him. “Well, first I have to take a trip down to Houston and see if she feels the same way I do. I won’t ask her to marry me if she doesn’t love me, in return. You understand?”
“Yep,” Tanner nodded.
“You mean Aunt Lacey don’t love you the same as you love her?” DJ put in with a frown. “But I thought she did. She sure kissed you a lot when we was at that swimming place in Texas. Can we come to Texas with you and go back to that swimming place? Can we? Can we? I really liked that big slide. It was fun!”
“Settle down there, pardner,” Mac answered in her best Southern drawl. “First things first. I need to go down there and find out how Lacey’s doing, and see if she feels the same about me as I do about her. Make sure she’s not in trouble, and see if she misses all you guys as much we miss her.”
She didn’t want to have to explain that she had no idea where Lacey actually was or if she was even okay, much less if she actually did share the same feelings Mac had for her. And Mac was beginning to realize that she did have very strong feelings for Lacey. She was even willing to admit, if only to herself, that her love for Lacey went so deep that she really was willing to ask the woman to marry her, even if same-sex marriage was illegal in Wyoming and the military still enforced the DADT.
“Then can we come see you and go to the swimmin’ place that has the big slide?” DJ insisted with boyish enthusiasm.
“Quit it, DJ,” Tanner scolded. “Aunt Mackenzie has to go to Texas all by herself. Kinda like when Mama and Daddy lock themselves in their room, so we don’t disturb them. They need alone time together.” He turned his gaze on Mac. “Right?”
“Er, yeah,” Mac stumbled over her response. “Kinda like that. And I promised your mama I’d bring Lacey back with me—make her a part of our family.” She watched DJ’s expression fall. “But I’ll look into the water park idea. Maybe we can find one around here somewhere. We’ll see.”
“Okay,” DJ conceded with a nod. Then he wrapped his arms around her neck and kissed her on the cheek. “I love you, Auntie Mac, even if Aunt Lacey don’t.”
A tear sprang to Mac’s eye, as she returned the hug. “Love you, too, Digger. I’m gonna miss you boys, that’s for sure.”
“We’ll miss you, too,” Tanner cut in before his little brother could get the last word in. He wrapped his arms around her neck and hugged her tight. “I hope things work out with you and Lacey. She’s a real neat lady and I’d be proud to have another aunt around. Maybe she could teach me about medicine and show me a few things.”
Mac shrugged. “Anything’s possible, Tanner.”
Continued in Part 2